Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

The Problem With Digital Cameras & My Secret Solutions

Thanks to many innovations in technology, digital cinema cameras are continuing to improve in quality by leaps and bounds. The mere fact that we can now shoot at an actual EI of 800 and have clean useable images with 13-14 stops of dynamic range was unthinkable just a couple of years ago. However, the pristine images that these cameras are delivering have introduced a new problem that we haven't had to think about until now: the images are getting too good. They are too clean. Read on for why I think this is a problem, and what to do about it.

One of the reasons why people, myself included, enjoy the aesethic of film is due to its "organic" nature. While people may be using this term to describe different qualities of film, I think a lot of the time, it is a highbrow way of saying "technical imperfection." Film by its very nature is an imprecise medium. It does not have a hard cut off point in the highlights- it gracefully rolls off. Digital, on the other hand, is a bunch of numbers and it is very precise. When it hits that clipping point in the highlights, all of the information is gone. Film is developed through the exposing and developing of silver crystals on a thin membrane. The formation of these crystals is never exactly the same. So even in a completely static shot, every individual frame is unique as the film grain does not align itself in exactly the same pattern. Whereas with digital, it is either a 1 or it is a 0; it is exact. This level of precision takes away a lot of the "organic-ness" that film brought with it. When you add amazingly clean and perfect modern glass to this digital "problem" it ends up creating a technically pristine, clinical image, free of character, and free of life. (In my opinion.)

One of the ways that camera manufacturers have addressed, or contributed to this "problem" is through their use of the OLPF. Having worked with the Alexa and the Epic quite a bit, I can say that the Alexa has a stronger OLPF than the Epic. While I haven't done side by side testing to prove this, (yet) I can say that the highlights from the Alexa roll off and bloom in a much more pleasant way than the Epic's less strong, and thus more precise, OLPF. From my research and conversations with people in the know at Red and elsewhere, it is the stronger OLPF in the Alexa that is contributing to part of the look of this camera. This brings up an interesting issue with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. From the reports I've heard, Blackmagic is either using a very weak, or no OLPF on the camera. This means a tack sharp pristine image.

So how do I add life, and a more organic nature to the digital imagery that I produce? Well, my recipe calls for a four part mixture of Lighting, Lensing, Filtration, and Grading that are all mixed together in combinations that support the story.

I would say that about 70-80% of the final look that I get in my work comes from my lighting. When I first began, I was much more concerned about technical precision in my lighting, and making sure that perfect exposure was maintained through the frame. But as I've grown in my profession, I've realized that great lighting is as much about the places in-between the light as it is about where the light exists. So I've moved away from worrying about always being technically precise at every point in the frame. What this has done for me is that it has allowed me to move toward a more natural and organic lighting style. (This should not be confused with sloppiness in lighting. I still meter my setups and make sure that I hit specific values within in my frame).

Another 10-20% of the look that I get in my images comes from my lens choices. I spend a lot of time researching, testing, and evaluating the characteristics that lenses bring to the final image. (Check out the Portland Lens Test for some examples). If it is appropriate for the project, one of my favorite combinations these days is to use old lenses on digital cinema cameras. The imprecision that these lenses have in their optics, and the degradation in the lens coatings can add life and personality back into an otherwise sterile image. There is a time and place for modern glass, but nothing can replace, or replicate the look that an older lens will bring to the footage. Often times, the softness that older lenses add to the look of digital cameras is just what is needed to help replicate that organic nature of the "film look." And other times, the unique flares produced can add a new dimension to the image. E-bay can be a great place to score deals on older lenses, but as more and more people catch on to this idea these affordable lenses have increased in price. If E-bay is not your thing, then one of my favorite dealers in old cinema glass is Kevin Cameras. (I know, I probably should have kept that secret to myself, instead of increasing the competition ...)
Shot on Epic with an old Angenieux 25mm-250mm. Vignetting in this shot was naturally produced by this lens. This frame is from a short I shot for AJ Brooks, "The Butcher & The Fox". 
The next 10-20% of my personal asethetic comes from the use of filtration. As with my testing of lenses, I'm always testing filtration to see what kinds of looks I can create in camera. With every piece of glass that is added in front of the lens comes an additional element that changes and mars the image in a unique way. I have also used filtration to match modern lenses with the look of older lenses. When I shot the example below, I only had one adapter and one set of Cooke S2/S3 lenses available to me, but we were shooting on two Red One's. (The second camera had a set of Red Pro Primes). During the preproduction testing, I found that a Schneider 1/8 Classic Soft and a 1/4 Coral matched the Cooke S2/S3's well. (The second BTS video from that production can be viewed here ). Watch the video and see if you can tell which shot was with the Cooke's and which was with the Red Pro Primes using filtration ...

(Funny Side Note: The green screen work I did on this was too good/clean. We actually had to go in and mess it up in post to achieve the lower quality effects/looks of the style that we were emulating)

The last 5-10%* of my style comes from the final grade. The look I get in my footage is mostly generated in camera. The final grade is then used to enhance what it already there. While a lot can be done in the grade to create various looks and styles, to date, none of the results that I have seen come close to replicating the organic nature (technical imprecision) that I can achieve by creating most of the look in camera first. So for me, the grade is about finessing and unifying the look, rather than creating it from scratch. One little trick I've had done on some of my projects lately has been to overlay actual film grain as the last step before outputting the final deliverable. This adds back in some additional texture to the video, enhancing that technical imprecision, err, I meant "organic-ness". ;) This should be done with a light touch, and it is best to use real film grain, from people like Grain 35 / Gorilla GrainRGrain. (The digital film grain plugin generators look fake, and just don't work in my opinion).

*Yes, I know my percentages can add up to more than 100%. That is not the point; rather it is to show where I derive most of my asethic and style from.

Wrap Up-
I realize that aesthetic taste is a highly subjective thing, and my approach may not be right for you. You may prefer the ultra pristine look that you can get from digital cameras- which is great! But if you are looking for a way to add some character and personality back into your footage, then add in some lighting, lensing, filtration, grading, and season to taste. Then you will be well on your way to creating nuanced imagery that will have the life pulsating through every frame.

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer
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