Finding the Heart of the ARRI D20 Digital Camera
COW Library : Cinematography : Thomas Burstyn : Finding the Heart of the ARRI D20 Digital Camera
Those of us at the COW obviously weren't the only ones watching Sci Fi's 6-hour miniseries "Tin Man" last December. This modern retelling of The Wizard of Oz brought the highest ratings in Sci Fi history, nearly 6.5 million people on the first night alone.
"Tin Man" was also nominated as the Best Made for Television Film by the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and Outstanding Visual Effects in a Broadcast Movie by the Visual Effects Society. Tin Man's Director of Photography was COW member Thomas Burstyn, whose wife Barbara Sumner Burstyn wrote about their documentary shoot in India for the COW Magazine's "Passion" issue (May-June 2007).
We asked the Emmy-nominated cinematographer ("The 4400") to tell us about his 65-day shoot, followed by his 7 weeks in post.
Given the richness of the visuals, we assumed it was shot on with film. "No, not film," he told us. "It was originated on HD 4:4:4, with everything coming from the mammoth and amazing Arriflex D-20 camera.
"In fact, I don't think I've shot a foot of film in 5 years. And I used to hate video! I looked down my nose at it. It was a news medium at best. It was vulgar. Now I can't remember what a piece of film smells like."
When we asked to hear more about the production, including shooting with the D-20, he didn't hesitate. "I'd love to talk to you about my Tin Man experience," he said. "It was amazing!" Here's what he had to say.
Tom and team prepare for a day's shooting in the woods of British Columbia, Canada.
FILM AND 4:4:4
As a motion picture cinematographer, the only adjustments open to you are color balance - warm, cold, magenta, green - and exposure - light, dark. Contrast is set during principle photography with lighting. Highlight and shadow relationships are done with lighting and exposure.
Working in HD, I've become more efficient by shooting with the knowledge that I have the power to finesse color, exposure and contrast in the color correction suite.
My methodology on "Tin Man" was to acquire information in camera, 4:4:4 RAW in LOG mode. That gave us as large a palette as possible, saved for working in the calm atmosphere of an air conditioned color correction suite, and not in a dripping forest.
At first I thought that's cheating, but then I realized it's not. This is how the HD world should be set up to take full advantage of its amazing potential.
It's a real change of pace and a workflow adjustment for me, but it seems more creative, efficient. It's the only way we could have done something this complex and rich with our schedule and budget.
When the time came to put it all together, we had a lot of visitors in the daVinci suite, producers and cameramen who wanted a peek at what we were doing. They hadn't seen the camera working at that depth, with this kind of fastidious attention to detail in post.
You get the feeling you're at the cutting edge of the technology, in a world where the rules are yet to be set. You get to figure it out as you go along.
When you shoot film, your look evolves through a marriage of camera, lenses, film stock, and development processes. In the HD world the camera you choose goes a long way towards setting that look. It's the equivalent of choosing the film stock.
I like to become intimate with a film stock, and learn about its quirks and qualities as I shoot in different situations. So with every new camera, I explore its signature.
A test with a stand-in and a color chart and a key, fill, backlight doesn't tell me anything. The first real test is the first real shoot. We tested the Arri 65 days, and then spent almost 7 weeks in the color suite. Now I feel like I know the camera.
There are a few signatures in the Arri D-20 that are very interesting. It has a wide gamma, a great subtly of color rendition and the fineness of the image due to its large sensor approaches 35mm quality. It's a beautiful camera.
But for me, the most compelling aspect of the D-20 sensor is the way it renders shadow areas. There's a lot of detail and contrast, but the deeper the shadow, the more the color sensitivity falls off, resulting in a bronze-y, desaturated darkness.
As an example, let's say you have a character strongly side-lit with no fill. On the lit side, the color is as expected. However on the shadow side, skin tone gives way to a silvery gray tone.
I'm pretty sure the Arri technicians see this as a flaw in the system, but for me it's a unique signature that makes for compelling look.
I haven't been able to test the Thomson Viper to the same extent. That is, while I have much more production experience with the Viper, I haven't had the big budget color correction experience as I did with the Arri, so any judgment would be unfair.
I will say that both cameras have a very good tonal range, both have good color gamut, but I feel the Arri beats out the Viper, in my opinion.
The other huge difference in the Viper vs. Arri debate is the sensor size. Viper feels like 16mm, has all the pluses and minuses of that format: lightweight, small envelope, easy setup.
The D-20 has the same heft as a 35mm camera, is as bulky and heavy as a 35mm camera, but has the enormous advantage of the 35mm perspective - and yet, we made an average of 55 setups a day with the D-20, so you can't say the Arri is slow.
55 SET-UPS A DAY
You know that saying? What do you want: fast, good or cheap? Pick any two. We chose fast and good. The way you make 55 setups a day is by not changing the lights between shots. Pre-visualization and pre-lighting are the cameraman's most important time and motion tools.
Example: Our intrepid quartet arrive at an ice palace, and they come into this blue room. DG, the Dorothy character played by Zooey Deschanel, is wondering why she remembers this place. She touches a mirror, and as her memories begin to flood back, we see her past take shape in the mirror's reflection.
DG and her friends are lit by the memory as they peer into her past. We then go into the mirror and play out several of her childhood scenes.
We had two days to do all those scenes on the both sides of the mirror, including both lighting setups. I keyed the scene with four maxi brutes, gelled with Lee Cold Blue #711 through a huge window whenever the window wasn't in frame.
When we shot against the window, most of those lights were turned off. Since the set was very tall, an appropriately gelled 18K Chimera replaced the window light.
We had to line up the angles on each side of the mirror to look right when matted together. As much as we possibly could, we figured out both setups before we began, then used a dimmer desk to make all the changes.
A small Chimera and/or KinoFlo came and went as required. But bottom line, all the big lighting changes were built into the original lighting pre-rig.
Tom Burstyn sets up a shot with Tin Man's Azkadellia played by Kathleen Robertson.
We also tried to do a number of effects in camera. "Tin Man's" director Nick Willing is a cameraman's director. He has a great visual style, and an understanding of visual processes.
He also came with a suitcase full of his weird glass collection, and he'd just hold this piece or that in front of the lens and wiggle it around. High tech meets rubber band tech.
For me one of the most beautiful examples of the marriage between camera and post was a number of scenes shot in the same place - a dense rain forest with hanging fronds, leading to a cave. We were only there for one day, and had to shoot dream, memory and present day sequences in that time. There was dappled sun in the morning for about 4 hours before it softened, then disappeared behind a mountain. The dappled sunlight made the forest look more forbidding, so that was used for the wicked witch's approach. The soft light was for DG and her friends in the present.
The rest of the day we used the remaining light to shoot memories and dreams, which were then severely altered in post.
The big challenge working with the Arri D-20 was its low ISO. This may be a moot point as the camera we used is now 2 generations old ,and the sensitivity has been upped significantly.
The first thing to point out is that evaluating lighting is different in HD than it is on film. Video curves are unlike film curves.
Since I use the zone system to finesse my lighting, I discovered that taking light readings in the conventional way misleading.
When I made my initial tests for the Viper I found that if I wanted to use my light meter I had to break down my readings as follows: Highlights placed at 125- 250 ISO, midtones at 320-400, and shadows came in at 500-640 ISO.
In the end I put my light meters away and devoted myself to the waveform monitor.
On "Tin Man," Clairmont Camera supplied us with a 4:4:4 card for the Leader waveform monitor which gave us accurate luminance readings.
We relied on accurate waveforms to tell us we had what we needed, and not monitors - because none of the monitors we tested could read the highlights and shadows the camera was capable of capturing.
So back to the low sensitivity of the D-20. Again the numbers may sound misleading. If I took my value from a 18% gray card reading, I would think that the camera (in LOG F mode) was 125 ISO. True for the midtones, but it had much more sensitivity in the shadows, and the highlights roll off pleasingly before clipping.
Still, the camera was not what you would call high speed. After the first week we sent all our inkies, peppers and tweenies back to the rental house. Our smallest lighting fixture was a baby. I used more fill than I usually do.
There was one scene played with 5 characters in a small room. The dressing room by the Mystic Man (the Wizard character, played by Richard Dreyfuss) was dark and moody.
Nick, the director asked if we could hold focus on more than one character at a time so I decided to light the set to a 5.6 stop. We ended up using 2 10Ks, 2 5Ks, and a KinoFlo Wall ‘o Lights to make the stop.
To the eye, the scene looked bright and flat, but the end result was pleasing. A whole new world is emerging from taking available light and tarting it up.
CLIPPING & OTHER LESSONS FROM HDV
The Arri is much less forgiving in the highlights, but very tolerant of shadows, much more than most film emulsion.
Maybe it depends on how you wield your light meter or where you place your middle gray.
The standard rule when you expose neg film is to expose for the shadows, develop for highlights. For video, even 4:4:4, you do the reverse, exposing for the highlights because once you're clipped, there's no information to recover at all.
So I set my exposure based on the brightest highlight that I can't control. If I'm shooting a day scene with a window, I'll control the window as much as I'm able, then base my exposure on having nothing in the window clipping, except maybe a bright cloud. Then I'll light the interior of the scene to that f-stop.
If I was shooting film, I wouldn't be so concerned with the window. Somehow the highlights roll off nicely.
Once I've lit the HD shot to my liking, I check my work with the only truly accurate gauge on set - the waveform monitor at the engineering station.
The waveform is a great thing, the best light meter: you can monitor overall luminance, or separate it out to RGB channels. It allows you to understand very accurately how any part of the picture is behaving. It's a fantastic tool.
But so is zebra, even in an inexpensive DV camera. You know what‘s clipping. That's technological, generated by the camera. But to really read a scene, you have to know from experience how your camera will react in the shadows.
The fact is that even though I work at the highest end of HD production (Arri cameras, daVinci color suites, lots of time), I also shoot our personal projects with a Sony HDV.
From HDV l've learned how to live within limits and work fast. Because even on the biggest budget HD features - and I think Tin Man falls into that category - you run into situations where you have 5 minutes left, and still need another scene.
I'd say I apply more of what I learn from the little camera to the big one, because the little one is harder to use. In my HDV world I'm a one man band, the entire crew.
In the Arri D-20 world I have truckloads of equipment, dozens of highly talented people to help me. It's easier to do a fine job with all that technology and time that you don't have when it's just you, a bag, a tripod and one light in the middle of India.
But In the world of the big camera, you can't just pick it up and shoot. You can't do anything faster than half an hour. You just can't. The bureaucracy is overwhelming.
Even if everything is set up, the time it takes to communicate to the engineer to roll the recorder, the discussion over whether it's a head or tail slate - everybody's trying to do their job the best they can, but the crew size takes the spontaneity out of it.
THE FINISHED PROJECT
This kind of filmmaking is the ultimate collaborative experience. Without a visionary director like Nick Willing to guide you and an expert crew to support you, the best cinematographer would be lost.
I also spent 7 weeks with Gary Shaw at Technicolor, a real artist. We watched the full six hours of "Tin Man" over and over again in color correction, but without sound. We never listen to sound during color grading. It's too distracting.
As I was about to get on the plane to go back to New Zealand, Gary called me back. Technicolor has this amazing 4:4:4 theater, and we sat back in big reclining chairs to watch the first hour of night three. Wow, that camera is beautiful. A big difference from 7 weeks in the daVinci suite, looking at a 24-inch screen, 6 feet away.
Working on "Tin Man" really was an amazing experience, but there's another aspect of the "Tin Man" experience that I've missed so far. Now that I'm back in New Zealand, I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing all six hours of it!
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