Digital Cinematography – Can it still be topped?

Digital Cinematography

Tweet Filmmaker George Lucas on the set of ‘Star Wars’ ‘The secret to film is that it’s an illusion.‘ George Lucas Introduction: What is digital cinematography? Digital cinematography allows the capturing of motion pictures as digital data without the use of film, which mainly but not solely improves the workflow …

Filmmaker George Lucas on the set of ‘Star Wars’

The secret to film is that it’s an illusion.

George Lucas

Digital Cinematography

Introduction: What is digital cinematography?

Digital cinematography allows the capturing of motion pictures as digital data without the use of film, which mainly but not solely improves the workflow for applications of special effects to filmed material.

Digital Cinematography

Over the last decade, the bandwidth of possibilities for creating visual worlds released from the forces of gravity and the traditional practices of on-set pyrotechnics, stop-motion tricks, miniatures, matte paintings, projection effects, etc. has rapidly increased.

Nothing seems impossible anymore to imagine and visualize in motion.

1927: Robot Maria with moving rings of light in ‘Metropolis’ by Fritz Lang

Looking back to one of the first pioneers who established fantastic locations for fictional stories, director Fritz Lang already demonstrated that the human mind wants to extend its limits and explore the world beyond known horizons. The camera effects he created with his team by the means of superimposition and special set-ups are still astonishing today.

The efforts he undertook to actually reach this level of optical illusion in those days were indeed excessive. For example, in order to generate the top to bottom moving concentric rings of light that surround the robot Maria in ‘Metropolis’ several shots had to be created and then combined. For quite some time the making of the scene was kept secret. In fact, the light rings were a little ball of silver rotated rapidly in a circle and filmed on a background of black velvet – which means that quite a number of visual elements had to be merged to reveal a completely realistic looking scene in the movie.


Between then and now lies a long history of movies that evolved from implementing effects mechanically onto the original film, to gradually including separately mastered digital effects that were applied to film by means of special film-out-recording systems, which now serve the digital cinematography to deliver the needed film output for theater movie projectors that are still in use, but probably replaced by beamers in the near future.

Advance of Digital Production

Digital Cinematography

Video formats such as Digital Betacam, Betacam SP or MiniDV and other similar formats were relegated to the gathering of daily news for television and seen as being inferior to real film making. Hence the wish to magically enhance video productions to have a film-look by the means of post production was a never-ending and often very expensive venture.

By the end of the 20th century the till then not accepted digital format overturned itself with the development of a species that had more scan lines in the image than any other video format before: High Definition (HD) glamorously walked up the red carpets and finally won feature film Academy Awards for Best Cinematography.

2009: Academy Award for Best Cinematography for ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

What is HD?

High-definition video is a digital recording standard that produces images of higher resolution than any standard-definition video, such as Betacam or MiniDV recording systems. HD branches into formats like HDCAM, HDCAM-SR, HDD5, DVCPRO HD, HDV, and others, which serve 720 or 1080 horizontal lines,  varying with progressive or interlaced frame rates.

The most specific attribute is the very shiny, sharp and brilliantly clean look of HD.

Using tapes for recording reduces the uncompressed video signal to 25 Mbps or 19 Mbps depending on the chosen resolution via MPEG-2 compression format in 8-bit quality. Nevertheless, compression ratios exceeding 20:1 on a HDV tape create a great loss of data. Generally speaking, the weakness of tape recording on this standard is the high tendency of errors and drop-outs such as blocks, freeze frames, motion-induced artefacts in scenes of complex motion, audio losses, and difficulties in frame-accurate editing.

Among the different types of tapes, HDCAM SR quality has made a difference already: Using the MPEG-4 compression format on a 10-bit level and superior sampling ratios up to 4:4:4 instead of 4:2:0 promotes a ‘visually loss-less recording of full bandwidth images’ as the manufacturer indicates, which provides a compression rate of 2.7:1. But compression always includes reduction. Consequently, in order to achieve the maximum level of quality in recording, a superior system had to be found.

Digital video disk recorder systems allow uncompressed recording of HD and even 2K quality up to a length of 20 minutes. In 2002 a German camera team and Russian director Alexander Sokurov set a record with the 96 minute-long uncut feature film ‘Russian Ark’ shot on Steadicam with SONY HDW-F900, which was presented in the Cannes Film Festival.

2002: ‘Russian Ark’  –  A milestone of HD recording in an uncut 96 minute Steadicam sequence shot using a special RAID, i.e. multiple hard drive system, for uncompressed recording

The growing importance of the HD cinematography movement hit another level, when by the end of 2005 even ARRI, the largest supplier of motion picture film equipment, came up with Arriflex D-20, followed by the HDCAM SR compatible Arriflex D-21 HD in 2008, which exhibits the same depth of field as 35 mm film via a single supersized CMOS sensor and the use of 35 mm film lenses.

But there is another winner at the game: Among many others, recent movies like ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, ‘Antichrist’, ‘The Informant’, ‘District Nine’, ‘Gamer’, ‘Beyond A Reasonable Doubt’, ‘The Book Of Eli’, ‘Night At The Museum’, and ‘Angels And Demons’, each starring some of Hollywood’s most famous actors, have been shot on RED Digital Cinema Cameras that deliver up to 12 bit RAW 4K quality in 35 mm depth of field equivalent images.

Needless to say, the future is RED!

How does HD compare to film?

Whereas waiting for at least a day to view film rushes, material captured on HD can be viewed immediately on the set, which especially with multiple SFX set-ups eases the recording process significantly.

Standard High Definition video has a resolution of 1080 horizontal lines. We should mention at this point that it evolutes to ultra HD with 4520 lines already. Just to compare it to the determined 35 mm film resolution: The theatre average assessment is 750 lines and the release print assessment is 1000 lines set by official MTF industry standard parameters. So basically, the audience may not really be able to tell the difference at a screening.

Still, even though rumour has it that HD needs a lot less lighting than film, caution and constant monitoring is the best method to avoid unexpected colour shifts. The exposure latitude of only 7 stops in practice is clearly inferior to the almost 14 stops of film, which can easily lead to a ‘burn-out’ effect in highlight areas as well as the loss of details in the shades: More detailed lighting as well as a waveform monitor and a skilled video engineer are best friends here. Eventually, someone has to match, set up and adjust the complex, structured camera menus that are the soul of HD video recording systems.

The lack of motion blur, the need for slow motion, and camera pans combined with moving objects are all obstacles that may cause additional difficulties. Shooting on HD demands a certain expertise that differs from those of film. The extensive use of telephoto lenses and with it the distance between object and camera may influence the size and kind of location needed; necessary filters that smooth the image while dealing with the extension of the actual aperture at different frame rates are all important factors that have to be considered in order to attain a high quality film-like standard here.

Visionary George Lucas: “Cinema in the 21st century will be digital.

Together with visionary George Lucas, who poked SONY and PANAVISION in order to create a merge of film lenses with a 24p high definition video system to capture the second episode of the ‘Star Wars’ saga completely digital, the CineAlta Camera line was created and is constantly updated. George Lucas stepped towards a new generation of film making. With ‘Avatar’, James Cameron added a new direction to it.

What will be next? It is written, I am very sure.


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