(Excerpted from the Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter, December 2015)
by James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society
Having recently viewed excellent examples of both film and digital large format acquisition at screenings of “The Hateful Eight” in 70mm film and “Revenant,” much of which was captured with the ARRI 65, I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to resolution. The bar for cinematic acquisition has definitely been raised by both these movies and ASC Cinematographers Robert Richardson and Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki will no doubt be battling it out once again for the Oscar and ASC Best Cinematography awards. However, the question remains: how much resolution is necessary for movie capture?
They say the first step in dealing with addiction is to admit that you have the condition, so I am now ready to identify as a Resolution Junkie. It sort of snuck up on me the last few years as I got evermore spoiled by higher and higher image quality, and now there is no turning back.
I am reminded of my days as a teenager, happily listening to music on the AM car or transistor radio. I wasn’t aware of anything better and blissfully enjoyed the crackling, static filled mono versions of my favorite songs. Then came the eight track, and the AM car radio was only good to hear news updates or traffic reports. In the home, the old mono turntable made way for higher and higher fidelity stereos playing vinyl LPs, then tape, then CD, then iPod, etc., etc.. Except for the possibility of perhaps going back to vinyl, (which may be more about nostalgia,) there is no retreat from the constant forward march of technology to achieve higher and higher quality.
It would be torture tantamount to fingernails on a chalk board for me to go back and listen to music on an AM radio today. Likewise, when I see low resolution images, it is a turn off. Maybe I’m more sensitive to these issues than the common consumer, but I figure that just as I have become accustomed to higher quality, so soon will everyone else.
What we perceived to be just dandy a couple of decades ago is now shockingly lacking. Take the VHS tape for example; if you can get a tape to play these days, you’re likely to be pretty disappointed in the quality. And remember how we used to marvel at the postage stamp size streaming media player when we were first able to watch content on the web? The point is that we get spoiled, or addicted, if you will, to higher quality.
I recently had the opportunity to review some fantastic new technology, the Nokia Ozo VR Production and Post system. It features eight 2K x 2K cameras for a near 360 field of view, that can be viewed and broadcast live. I hate to take anything away from such a brilliant feat, but in order to achieve that wide of coverage, they apparently needed to stretch those pixels to the point of starving the headset display resolution. Although I was very impressed with the technology in general, the low res was a distraction that brought me back to the early days of computers when screen resolution was less than NTSC.
Personally, I have come to believe in shooting in as high a resolution as the technology and budget allow. Of course there are other critical factors, such as dynamic range and color depth, which go into producing a great image, but the myriad benefits of capturing at higher resolution are compelling. Down-converting, much like pouring your pixels through a funnel, concentrates the picture elements to create a richer image. It also opens the possibilities of reframing and stabilization as necessary. And let’s not forget archival value; display technologies are only going to keep improving and it is better to be prepared with as high a quality image as you can.
The good news is that the same technology that pushes us to reach for higher and higher benchmarks of image quality, also makes it easier to achieve those goals. Storage and processing speeds used to be major hurdles to overcome, but true to Moore’s Law, storage capacity keeps growing and prices keep falling. Visually lossless compression algorithms and enhanced connectivity have made acquiring at higher resolutions all the more manageable.
Even the iPhone is now 4K, and higher end Ultra-Large Sensor Digital Cinema camera systems, such as the ARRI 65, are starting to become practical. While it is relatively easy to improve the quality of a Digital Cinema sensor by simply increasing its size, (as RED has been practicing,) this creates challenges in finding lenses capable of covering the expanded area. Medium format still camera lenses, such as Hasselblad have previously had to be adapted to cover the largest sensors, but choice of focal length was very limited.
A number of companies are now answering the call to service these large formats. Panavision has pulled their classic old 70mm lenses out of mothballs and many believe that pairing these older lenses, which are oozing with visual character, together with new digital sensors is a match made in heaven. Panavision has also developed a whole new line of Primo 70mm primes and zooms with the ability to cover these very large sensors, but with the equivalent size and weight of standard Primos.
Meanwhile, ARRI, together with Zeiss, is developing a range of their own lenses to cover their ARRI 65, and a new company, IBE, to be marketed by BandPro, is also coming out with a line of high end lenses with a large 44mm image circle.
I have to admit, that as an Owner with a significant investment in a collection of S35 cine lenses, I have been reluctant to embrace these larger sensors. Luckily, several companies, such as Angenieux, have seen this need coming and have developed Expanders which work to stretch the coverage area. They are easily added as a rear attachment to the lens, and except for a hit on the f-stop, (one full stop for a 1.4x converter,) they fit the bill pretty nicely to solve the coverage issue for most lenses.
So the solutions are out there and so is the appetite for higher quality images. The bar will keep getting raised and our perception of acceptable quality will keep getting more stringent. Since there are no treatment centers for Resolution Junkies like me, I guess I’ll just have to learn to live with my condition and deliver the best images that I am capable of…one day at a time.