By James Mathers, Cinematographer and President of DCS
“Keeping Up With the Technology Merry-Go-Round”
As a child on the playground, did you ever get stuck in the center of the merry-go-round, and when you finally came to a rest, you were dazed, confused, and maybe feeling a little sick? Well, that’s the way I sometimes feel on the merry-go-round of cinema technology. Things are changing so fast, it sometimes gets a little uncomfortable. It never gets boring, and that’s a good thing, but occasionally I find myself wishing things would slow down just a little. Sure, it’s fun to constantly have new “toys” to play with, but as a professional who depends on maintaining a working familiarity with the tools of my trade, and sometimes as an investor in that gear, I often just wish I could lightly apply the brakes.
One thing I really like about Cinematography is that one can never know it all, (although I’m sure there are some DPs who need to be reminded of that from time to time.) But egos aside, just refining your visual storytelling technique is a career-long endeavor that even the most talented Cinematographers can only strive to master. Learning the art of composition, lens selection, marrying camera and actor movement, not to mention how to make the best use of light and shadow are immense bodies of knowledge. Now add to that an effort to keep up with digital technology, which is innovating at a rate that seems to be getting exponentially faster, and it can be downright overwhelming.
Having started off in the business in an era before computers were widely employed, guys of my generation sometimes feel like they have to play catch up to fully master these new fangled systems. As the President of DCS, a group with the mission of helping filmmakers keep current with technology, I hate to admit it, but often times I’ll need help from my Kids to accomplish such tasks as programing the DVR. My cover excuse is that I have my head too full with details of the latest pro camera gear to have the bandwidth for such mundane applications. The truth, however, is that I also need help with these cameras. It seems like each job lately has me working with a different make and model, each with their own unique menu structures, function locations, and idiosyncrasies.
Although it is great to have so many choices in our tools of the trade, it does present its challenges. We are required to have a working familiarity with so many divergent technologies all doing the same basic thing; shooting movies. There is so much to know, and a camera you get comfortable with today, may be obsolete tomorrow. This, at the same time that Producers are getting all the more reluctant to allow for proper prep; so like it or not, we end up devoting a lot of our own time to just getting to know new gear. It does sometimes have me pining for the good old days with fewer choices; it was basically either Panavision or ARRI, Kodak or Fujifilm, and 16mm or 35mm.
It is not only Cinematographers who are challenged to keep up; Manufacturers also feel incredible pressure not to fall behind. Product development cycles have gotten so short with cameras that they are now often released while still in Beta form. If not, the manufacturer runs the risk that the product might be obsolete by the time it reaches the market. Firmware updates, which can sometimes drastically change the functionality of equipment, come at us so quickly that we can scarcely learn one set of features before they are completely replaced by the next. While this is a valuable way to ward off obsolescence, keeping up can be a daunting task. Firmware builds can vary so much from previous or future versions, that they sometimes make the same make and model of camera incompatible for multi-camera shooting; (and you can’t always go back to a prior build.)
In a very novel approach for a hardware manufacturer, Convergent Design has implemented a subscription model to handle all the various formats and codecs it is able to record. A customer buys the very affordable Odyssey 7Q, which includes an awesome SSD recorder for little more than the cost of the integrated OLED HD monitor which has everything from waveform, scopes, focus assist, and LUT capabilities. As a recorder, it has the ability to handle uncompressed DPX stacks as well as 4K and HD Apple ProRes right out of the box, but it also has the potential to record an ever growing list of RAW formats for various cameras by simply purchasing or renting separate licenses on-line.
From what I understand, these multi-format capabilities are built into the unit from the factory and are available for demo/testing of workflows. What is purchased and downloaded from the web are just the key codes to unlock these capabilities. This allows the owner of each unit to offer a multitude of recording options based on the cameras being used and the requirements of the job at hand. Various licenses can be purchased permanently, or rented on a daily basis and allowed to lapse once that assignment is complete. Moving forward, it also allows Convergent Design to accommodate future formats and codecs as they are developed. My guess is that we are going to see more companies adopt this kind of model.
In order to keep up with the ever-increasing rate of change in Postproduction software, vendors are moving to subscription, cloud based solutions so that updates can be circulated efficiently. It has the added benefit of reducing piracy, since the latest software version license has to be confirmed on-line every time it is opened. It does seem that just about every time I sign onto my Adobe Creative Cloud account, there is a software update to be downloaded and installed. However, I have to say that they have made this process pretty quick and seamless. I also give Adobe a lot of credit for making my transition from Apple’s FPC-7 fairly painless; I was even able to preserve the same keyboard shortcuts I had become accustomed to with Final Cut.
Some might say that it is a bit far afield for a Cinematographer to maintain a proficiency in non-linear editing, or for that matter being able to operate sophisticated color grading systems. However, that seems to be what is expected of us these days. The more there is to know, the more we need to know. But even as we master these new skills, we can never forget about the basics.
A few years back, I was asked to justify why a DCS member should renew his membership. In his opinion, the “digital transition,” and with it our mission, was complete. On the contrary, I think our efforts are needed more now than ever. Even as we fearlessly celebrate new technology, we need to avoid becoming a slave to it. Instead we must work to harness innovation in service of our art, and the Digital Cinema Society will be here to help sort through it all.
Even though I sometimes wish the technology merry-go-round could slow down a little and allow me to collect myself before I jump back on; I know it never will. It just keeps going around faster and once you get off, you may never be able to get back on. So, like it or not, we’ll all have to keep working to stay current, or perish like the dinosaurs. As we often quote Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.”