Dreams of Freedom
When discussing the differences between source materials mastered on film or from a digital/electronic formats, I find that the reasons given for preference of one over the other varies depending on who is participating in the discussion.
If you ask most producers, they will say, "It doesn't matter, since the average audience member can't tell the difference," referring to whether a movie, series, etc., is shot on film or some digital format. It's all in the story or the actors or the explosions or nowadays, the vampires or zombies.
Of course, our industry is based on budgets, and in every producing arena, the bottom line is cost. If there is a way to save money when it comes to creating a product, the choices matter.
From my own perspective, there are physical characteristics of how film reacts to light that has been brought to life through a chemical process that has been tested to the extremes of its potential, time and again. Even as amazing as its digital companions have become, and will become in the future, will they ever capture the visual "acoustic" quality of film itself? Once we received the film dailies from Cinefilm to compare to the RED footage we had been working with in post, everyone in the edit room could see the difference between the digital source and that of film negative.
Beyond the limits of what the casual observer can recognize, my subjective opinion is that the way that light reacts to an effectively exposed negative, without the myriad of post effects or colorized versions, has that organic nuance that might someday only exist in yarns they call "a cinematographer's memoirs." Let's hope not.
I was called in the early planning stages of "Storyville Live," to be the Director of Photography for "Flyboy," part of a multi-sensory production that would span the country from filming in Seattle, to the Oregon Coast, to editing in Orlando, and final color mastering in Atlanta.
Our production also spanned formats from 35mm film, RED, Canon 5D Mark II, Sony EX3, to the HD MC1 lipstick camera, all mastered to 2K. The imagery is stunning, but our goal was not simply entertainment. It is to raise awareness of the human slavery that still affects over 20 million people worldwide.
More on the cause later. Let's explore the concept.
The visual and musical ideas came from Jon Phelps, founder of Full Sail University, whom I had worked with on several occasions, as their location in Orlando is my home base. As he stood in front of his DC-3, the same one immortalized in the Full Sail logo, he explained to the production team that the storyline is somewhat autobiographical, with the character of "Flyboy" sharing Phelps's boyhood dreams of becoming a pilot.
People yearn to be free, and in one sense, flight embodies that physically. In a similar way, music can be an incredible expression of freedom to a person's spirit. Our concept was to combine those two expressions in the film and the series of concerts that it would be shown at. Jon not only directed the film sequences, he also composed the music for the 90 minute program.
Director Jon Phelps, center, stages the aerial footage with DP Stephen Campbell, right, using a model DC-3 on the tarmac outside Seattle.
It was my goal to capture Jon's nostalgic childhood mood of flight and life in the early 1960s, which I shot with 35mm film using the ARRIFLEX 435 camera system and Angenieux Optimo zoom lenses.
For the ground scenes with Flyboy himself, I lighted to create a "dated view-camera" look in 35mm. Film is still the standard for holding detail in contrast areas and archiving, achieving a "warmer" aesthetic equated with the "dramatic movie" look. This is one reason why it is still my preference to master on film whenever possible.
In the past, I've used filter packs to create the warm "tobacco- stained" look in the neg, but after testing scenes with my colorist, John Petersen, he was able to create that look with more control in post, so we kept the camera footage natural. The 35mm footage was shot at 24 fps, 40 fps, 60 fps and 120 fps depending on the action. We used the shutter (90 degrees and 45 degrees) whenever it seemed to add to image quality or enhance action.
We also used the RED ONE for the aerials, to avoid having to manage magazine loads, shooting mostly 24/23.98. We did shoot off speed 40 fps/ 60 fps, and then time lapse and increments of 3 fps every 15 seconds for clouds. There is also rushing water at 120 fps and 45 degree shutter.
Working with West Coast cameraman John Trapman, we spent a full day on aerial scenes, air-to-air, and air-to-ground, with incredible weather conditions and captured almost 3 hours of footage. The Canon 5D was our primary video support DSLR. We used this inside the DC3 while airborne to move down the aisle of the plane in close quarters.
Stephen Campbell setting up a slow-motion tracking shot. As the model leaves the boy's hand, a matched-frame shot transitions to the actual DC-3 in flight.
I had worked with Atlanta's Cinefilm on a feature in Florida earlier in the year, and knew they were up for something of this scale: drama, documentary, product shots, musical performances, and footage from film and HD sources. Managing all the media assets -- 20 hours of footage that would get cut down to 100 minutes -- and getting it all through the finishing process was going to be a real challenge.
The team wanted to have a high-quality master, so they decided on 2K, even though many of the elements would be played back to HD monitors on the road, and would also wind up on the web.
With the RED source material being in 4K, the producers wanted the 35mm film masters to be uncompressed 10 bit 4:2:2. Cinefilm handled the processing and transfers via the Spirit film scanner and DaVinci 2K in a 1920x1080 ProRes format, direct to portable drives for best light dailies.
I supervised a second transfer for the online, sending the selects in uncompressed 10 bit 4:2:2 HD direct to our SAN in an AJA Kona MOV wrapper. No tape was involved in any process. These 1080 MOV files were imported and up-rezzed in the Assimilate Scratch system to 2K to match with the RED media format.
All of the media, both digital and film, was mastered on the Scratch system in our DI projection suite as Colorist John Petersen worked with both me and Art Director Chip Simons. The conform of the FCP offline timeline via EDL to what Scratch calls a "construct" was very simple and efficient.
There were some eye candy elements created from the ProRes dailies and other digital sources by FCP editor Chris Harvey. They were used primarily as backgrounds and had multiple overlapping dissolves, so a selects pass was not used on those segments -- just an overall color correction to the QT final.
Color grading on this project was very important since I was not only combining film and RED, as well as 5D and Sony EX3, but there were some great shots with a Sony HXR-MC1 lipstick camera attached to Flyboy's bike, shooting 1080 to show extreme close ups of the tassels on his handle grips and baseball cards in his spokes -- talk about images of the 60s! Intercut with the concert footage are warm-toned interviews and Seattle harbor footage that we created with an antique, old- English print look.
All the final outputs of program elements were mastered in 2K, 16x9, in Pro- Res HQ to portable drives, and copied to HDCAM SR 4:2:2 for tape masters.
Much of this project I described to the colorist as a visual "tone poem" of various moods, so when we finished, John joked, "Well, I guess I made it all 'rhyme!'"
Jon Phelps direct the product shots on the Full Sail stage in Orlando as DP Stephen Campbell sets the RED camera crane shot.
In addition to the dramatic scenes and concert footage, there were some creative product shots on the stage in Orlando with the RED. I shot some stock footage of nature scenes, water falls, clouds, and coffee beans, which were projected on large rear-screens to use as animated reflections in the coffee products.
Where did "coffee products" come from, you ask? Well, Phelps also owns Storyville Coffee, a mail-order supplier in Seattle, which takes us back to the "cause." The ultimate goal in this production was to use "flight" as a symbol of freedom. Jon's goal in producing this multi-faceted, multi-sensory film and music experience was to raise awareness in viewers, and also funds from coffee sales and private donations, to combat the human slavery and sex-trafficking that still oppresses 27 million people in the world today.
All the focus of the entertainment and inspirational messages are to introduce people to the work of the International Justice Mission. IJM is a human rights agency that secures justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression around the world.
The short film "Fly Boy" will be shown in homes during fund-raising home concert performances.
According to initial plans, the media package will be part of live concerts by acoustic performers playing for 50-70 people in homes across the US -- spreading one by one across the country, like an internet message gone viral. During this live program, images on multiple HD flat screens will provide background visuals to performers.
Between numbers, the musicians will introduce the dramatic storyline of "Flyboy" and other documentary elements and testimonials from people working around the world to stop human trafficking. There will also be additional HD concert footage of performances by special artists who are not able to perform in person, but who want to lend their voice and music for this worthy cause.
It was a great creative challenge to work on this production, but also one that was very personally rewarding when we knew what impact this program could have as a humanitarian effort, and lead to real change in the world.