There is no denying the writing on the screen – the story chooses the camera
By Vinita Bhatia
cinematographer is known as the director’s eye; they bring to life the latter’s vision. Most of them have a proclivity for celluloid, having used it for the better part of their career. But over the years, they have moulded their craft to adapt to the era of digital filmmaking.
While most graduated to the digital medium because it was simpler and a faster process, others opted for it because of the strides the entertainment industry was making and the changing expectations of the audience.
A VIRTUAL BOON3
Digital cameras have been a boon to cinematographers across various genres as it allowed them to shoot in a better resolution, high frame rate and low light conditions, thereby facilitating a better view of the grand set designs and other minute details in filming. Another high point about the digital dawn is that cinematographers can now think about owning their own camera – something they could not have considered while working on film.
Cinematographer Manoj Paramahamsa recalled how till a few years back a cinematographer owning a camera was a far fetched dream because it was not only expensive, but they would also need to spend on film stocks and laboratories and plenty of man power.
“I own a digital cinema camera now, in order to be an indie filmmaker. Though I do mainstream movies, I also produce some good, independent films within pocket friendly budgets, because I have my own digital camera and much more portable support systems, so I can go out shoot a movie, whenever and whatever I want!” he exclaimed.
However, K Ramachandra Babu, ISC, cautioned that owning a tool does not a creator make, because today cameras are available to shoot film for any budget. Digital has democraticised filmmaking and with prices of smartphones with stunning cameras, DSLRs and camcorders going southwards, these are available to prosumer filmmakers at very cost effective rates.
“Now almost every other person has become a film maker. Quantitatively, there is a massive increase in the numbers, but unfortunately when it comes to quality only few meaningful films get made. Digital should be treated as a tool only, the person behind it is the real creator,” Babu claimed.
This is a point well made. Eddie Udagawa, VP, consumer imaging and information centre, Canon India, pointed out that film making needs a lot of research on the subject, as it involves a tremendous amount of studio and equipment cost apart from skill sets to utilise those resources. Furthermore, filming doesn’t end with the end of shooting, cinematographers need to be involved in grading/post production process. With digital cameras making inroads in filmmaking, filmmakers and production companies complete their shoot with less waste, keeping the entire project within the allotted budget and timelines.
MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE
Choosing the right camera makes all the difference when it comes to creating content, whether for the big screen or the smaller ones or even the digital formats. The availability of digital products that offer a lot more flexibility has definitely made filmmaking easier.
When it comes to selecting the apt camera, what cinematographers seek is a product that will help them capture and translate a scene into a high-quality footage in the best and most accurate way possible. However, capturing a visually compelling and technically superior video can be challenging and therefore requires a good understanding of different types of cameras and their settings, to be in absolute sync with the story.
According to Paramahamsa, who has worked on Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films, it is a cliché that the camera is the key tool for any cinematographer. Although it is definitely true that the choice of camera is a vital factor for a cinematographer, there are numerous other components to the decision. But the first step of prep work of any film starts by choosing the right camera based on the script and the project.
Fellow cinematographer Babu agreed with his opinion that the choice of the camera depends on the movie’s subject and budget for which it is being used. “Whether the images to be created are raw and realistic, or smooth and glowing depends on the kind of visual treatment given by the creators for the narration. The situation where the camera is to be used is also important. Small handy cameras are preferred for cramped locations and unobtrusive naturalistic style of shooting. The choice of lenses is also of prime importance as it influences the image creation to a large extent,” he added.
Babu prefers the ARRI Alexa cameras because of their ergonometric design and the film-like latitude. In his opinion, its image quality, both in terms of dynamic range and colour reproduction are excellent and he felt that the user-friendly menus and ease of operation makes it the top choice of cinematographers like him.
Director West Saharat underlined this with his experience while shooting his debut Thai feature film ‘Bug KookJe Go Inter’. To showcase the vast experiences of village folk, there were many outdoor shoots in rural Thailand. So, his team needed a versatile camera outfit that was light and powerful enough to capture high-quality images, and adaptable to different lighting situations and spaces. “We had a full Blackmagic Design camera set, consisting of an URSA Mini 4K camera, a Blackmagic Cinema Production Camera 4K and a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. In one scene, a buffalo got really agitated and charged towards us. The crew just grabbed the nearest gear and we legged it. Luckily everything was light enough for us to just grab and dash!” he recalled, while explaining the merits of a light camera-based on the storyline.
Udagawa said, “The phrase ‘4K video recording’ has become a buzzword and the relevance of 4K video is more in the professional segment. Our professional video cameras XC15, XC10 and recently introduced XF 405 has 4K video feature enabled in the camera.”
WHAT MATTERS MOST
Till a few years ago, cameras were merely a mechanical device used by cinematographers to transport the film in specific frames per second for normal 24 fps or a high-speed 150 fps. The choice of lens or film stock barely affected the camera’s performance because film stocks and film laboratories helped cinematographers achieve the look and feel they wanted.
With the advent of the digital era, the choice of camera combines everything in one shell – like the sensor which is equivalent to film emulsion and the processing capacity, which is equivalent to the film lab. Hence, Paramahamsa feels that the camera has to be chosen wisely. “The last few years have been very crucial because lots of companies kept on introducing new cameras and updating their sensor technologies to produce stunning images. New-age digital cameras offer plenty of choices for resolutions, conventional cinematography, visual effects-based cinematography and also for stereo vision-based cinematography. Even RED Digital Cameras have an option to swap their sensors for an monochromatic images with their interchangeable sensor technologies,” he pointed out.
Babu feels that cinematographers and content creators are more concerned about the technical features of cameras than the price and maintenance, which comes under the ambit of equipment rental companies. “Improvement in sensor quality, higher resolution, compact designs is the order of the day. Affordable cameras with many great features are coming out regularly. It is becoming increasingly difficult to make a choice,” he pointed out.
Udagawa added that there are number of things that are factored in when the cinematographers or professional content creators choose a camera. This included simplicity of handling of the camera as well as workflow of data files from production to post production/grading. The other important thing to keep in mind was skin tones, textures, colour sampling, resolution 4K Raw with 60 fps to 240 fps, 13-15 stops of dynamic range and even low light sensitivity depending on project to project needs.
“These are some of the key features which is important in today’s competitive world. It has also become predominant to have majority of the key features with a well-priced and cost effective cameras. Therefore, Canon has a wide range of cameras in the cinema cameras ranging from Rs 6 lakh to Rs 42 lakh,” he stated.
Adding to this, Darren Tan, creative director of Singapore-based Little Red Ants Creative Studio said that good ideas and great people create the best works. “Together with our clients, we constantly seek new ways to deliver top visual content. We rely on DaVinci Resolve as our go-to colour grading software because of the set of tools that allow us to add finesse with colour,” explained Tan. “I also like its flexibility when it comes to taking in various camera formats and codecs. Being able to edit, colour grade and master out makes it an indispensable tool in our workflow.”
Put the money where the tech is
Increasingly, production companies are investing in digital cameras because of shift of technology from analog to digital format. Workflows with digital have become cost effective and flexible, whether for the cinema, TV or online media.
Udagawa added that digital technology has got its own advantages in its features, where low light performance, high resolution and high frame rate have become key features to bring up the production value to higher standards.
There is a prevalent myth that digital cameras require very less light. While it is true that those high ISO rating can shoot well, even in low-light situations, “such scenes shot in actual moonlight looks flat and appears as if it was shot in day time. In creative cinematography light and shade is used in a controlled manner to express an emotion. So lighting units cannot be done away with”, said Babu.
Camera manufacturers are taking lots of initiatives to educate cinematographers about the latest tech developments. They conduct demo sessions, screen footage and offer comparison sessions. Paramahamsa added, “Manufacturer forums like reduser.net are useful in understanding various aspects like depth, because the various posts made by the senior cinematographers really help the beginners to understand the technology more precisely than the marketing manifestos.”
Babu, however, rued that the fact that most manufacturers hold demos in major filmmaking centres like Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Hyderabad, where only a handful of cinematographers and industry people can attend. “Due to their work schedules, most don’t get enough time to try out the new equipments. Hence, we have to do our own research about the trending equipments. Since the camera is rarely bought by the cinematographer, the marketing people too are not interested in contacting them. They go after the rental companies or studio owners,” he complained.
Cameras have specific features with a cost involved, hence purchasing them becomes difficult for filmmakers or production houses. This is where the rental companies play an important role. Manufacturers, therefore, have a tie-up with rental houses to provide them with cameras with the latest technologies and with specific requirements.
Explaining this, Udagawa said, “We work very closely with rental houses to introduce the latest technology testing at various outdoor and indoor shoots. We also take consistent feedbacks from them on the cameras and extend complete back-end support and technology trainings. We also take extended high priority after-sales services for all leading rental houses for their equipments.”
Any project is fraught with expectations and pressures, and a cinematographer has to ensure that despite these, the director’s concept is manifest picture-perfect. While they will leverage the best of technology, they will have to embed their creative stamp, and that will have to be left irrespective of the equipment used. Ultimately, the technique differentiates from the tech, and don’t we all know it!