The Only Constant is Change — Celebrating 20 Years of DCS and the Technology Trends We Covered
by James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society
(Excerpted from the January 2023 Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter)
The Digital Cinema Society remains dedicated to informing the entertainment industry in regard to the integration of new technology. As we get ready to celebrate our 20th Anniversary this year at NAB, perhaps it is time to reflect on where we started, where we are now, and identify our goals for the future. It’s been an evolutionary couple of decades for the way motion pictures are captured, posted, and exhibited. We began our journey covering the transition from celluloid toward the increasing use of digital technology. We never sought to accelerate the process, but instead we have made it our mission to try to objectively track it along with the myriad of other motion picture technologies that have followed. I could write a book, and some have suggested I should, but please allow me to just offer some highlights of the twenty years in the history of Entertainment Industry technology and the role DCS has played in covering it.
In a time before Facebook, iPhones, HDSLR or RED cameras, our group was formed in 2003, not long after the inception of digital motion picture production. It was an outgrowth of a documentary entitled Digital Cinema Solutions, which featured interviews and clips from Filmmakers who were testing the digital waters at that time, as well as Tech experts from Production, Post, Exhibition and Distribution. Filmmakers included industry luminaries such as James Cameron, George Lucas, Stephen Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez, and Allen Daviau, ASC. At the turn of the 21st Century, George Lucas, with the cooperation of Sony and Panavision, had adapted a handheld ENG style HD television camera to shoot another installment of his Star Wars franchise; at that point, the most successful in the history of motion pictures. Lucas then introduced Robert Rodriguez to the technology, which he used on his own franchise, Spy Kids. Meanwhile, James Cameron had shot Titanic on 35mm film, but was using the same type of HD camera as his colleagues to shoot his documentaries, such as Ghost of the Abyss, even going so far as to then blow them up to IMAX film format for exhibition.
Exhibition was still almost entirely on film and the Digital Cinema Initiative, or “DCI,” was busy drafting standards for the widespread implementation of Digital Cinema. Stephen Soderbergh was experimenting using a standard definition Canon DV camera intercut with 35mm for his feature, Full Frontal. Notable ASC DPs were also starting to try DV; John Bailey, ASC shot the feature Celebration and my late friend Allen Daviau, ASC shot the beautiful short, Sweet, which we featured in our DCS documentary. He demonstrated that quality results were possible even with a Prosumer video camera if the proper care and filmmaking sensibilities were applied to the project. Our documentary also covered the very active Indie sector where these new methods were enabling an explosion of production. Although it was a rather small piece of the pie in the budget of a major motion picture, which may have included several million dollar paydays for the stars, the ability to avoid a large upfront investment in motion picture film stock, processing, and printing was very appealing to the Indie Producer. Of course the tens of thousands of dollars they saved would be eclipsed by the cost to make film distribution prints, if they ever got a theatrical release, but most Indie Filmmakers were satisfied to cross that bridge when they fell off of it. There was noble discussion of the democratization of movie making, but the truth is that the powers that be still controlled any significant means of distribution. So, although a lot of Indie projects were getting made, (and not always at the best quality levels,) not too many were getting widely seen; so much for democracy.
Although it wouldn’t be commercially available for several years, and never really gained widespread industry acceptance, a Canadian company called DALSA showed a prototype for a 35mm single sensor camera, the Origin, capable of shooting in a 4K uncompressed RAW format. It was sadly ahead of its time, and the ergonomics were never properly worked out before the plug got pulled on the project, but it was truly revolutionary. I very clearly remember the DALSA NAB launch party with a standing room only crowd of every notable technology and business leader in the burgeoning Digital Cinematography field. If some kind of disaster would have taken out the entire crowd, we would all still be shooting mostly on film today.
Meanwhile, Panavision was working on a high-end HD camera in an almost identical form factor of their Panaflex film camera. To be called the Genesis, with Sony electronics hidden beneath its film camera facade, it had a removable HDcam SR tape recording system built into a casing that looked like a film magazine. Their rationale was to create a unit that would physically fit into film camera architecture and support, but looking practically identical to a film camera, it also had the benefit of adding a certain comfort factor for the film professionals who were starting to contemplate shooting digitally. Within a few years it would become extremely popular and even help score a Best Picture Oscar Nomination for Apocalypto, as well as a Best Achievement in Cinematography nomination from the American Society of Cinematographers for DP, Dean Semler, ASC.
Although most theatrical productions continued to shoot on film, a few professionals started to realize some of the potential advantages of shooting digital, and there were some notable pictures for digital to brag about, such as when in the same year two digitally acquired productions were up for Best Picture and Best Cinematography Oscars, Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, with “Slumdog” taking both prizes. This whole transition was then greatly accelerated with the adoption of single 35mm size sensor cameras where Cinematographers could use the lenses they were accustomed to when shooting on film. Some of these cameras also shot in a RAW format that more closely resembled a film workflow, (not baking-in the look on the set and having enough latitude to do the color correction in post.)
The influence of the RED Digital Cinema Camera was undeniable in speeding up the transition. They came out with a camera that was inexpensive enough that burgeoning Filmmakers could afford to own their own camera, (even if they couldn’t always afford a very complete package of lenses and support gear.) At the same time, they wooed major Filmmakers to try their tools, including Peter Jackson, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Ridley Scott, and Baz Luhrmann.
Meanwhile, ARRI was making major headway in developing Digital Cameras; their D21, although still needing some ergonomic and workflow refinements, was creating beautiful results. Their ALEXA came out a tad later, and their stellar reputation with filmmaking professionals, built up over many decades of making extremely dependable film cameras, helped them to quickly pick up a loyal following. Filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, and the highly respected ASC Cinematographers, Robert Richardson and Roger Deakins were acquiring major features on digital. In fact, it was a real turning point when, after experiencing the ALEXA, Deakins said in a trade magazine article, “I am seriously beginning to doubt that I will shoot film again.” I was very proud to receive a personal handwritten note from Volker Bahnemann before he retired as the CEO and President of ARRI Inc. giving DCS credit for helping make the company aware of the quickly evolving transition to digital: “I always believed the change to digital would happen slowly at first, the way water freezes. First just a few crystals, then more, and once the critical mass has been reached, instant solid ice! James saw it coming and he helped us see it as well.”
Another impactful technology advancement was the ability to record video on a DSLR. Although this was originally developed by Canon to give news photographers the ability to shoot TV coverage along with their stills, it was quickly adopted by Indie Filmmakers eager to get away from a “video look” and emulate the shallow depth of field they saw in theatrical productions. For technical and business reasons, recording durations were limited to 11 minutes; (heat was one issue, but also longer duration recording would classify the units as video cameras, taxed at a higher rate in many countries than still cameras.) The form factor of the cameras, originally designed to shoot stills, was cumbersome, and another early issue was 30fps recording, rather than the 24p filmmakers preferred. However, with the help of third party accessories, and an evolution of the electronics, these cameras came to offer a viable means of production that spawned countless indie productions. The trend toward shooting with larger than S35mm sensors and the desire for shallow depth of field is still impacting digital cinema production with many of the latest cameras offering “Full Frame” and beyond.
A major turning point came when there was a threatened Actors strike, and seemingly overnight, almost all television drama started acquiring digitally. TV pilot Producers opted to shoot digital, which allowed them to sign with AFTRA, who had already settled on a contract, instead of SAG, who were still trying to negotiate, thus avoiding the threat of their actors walking out on strike. The two unions later merged, nulling this tactic, but the die was cast, and there was no turning back from the digital transition. The continuing improvement of Digital Cinema cameras and the blurring of the lines between television and theatrical production also caused more high-end features to acquire digitally.
And then there was 3D, which had a strong resurgence helped along by James Cameron’s incredibly successful first Avatar. The production of a 3D motion picture is much more viable to shoot digitally, not just because most systems require two cameras, which would double the film stock consumption, but mostly because the ability to preview the 3D effect with high resolution monitoring saves time and costly errors. Acquiring via digital also puts the project in the electronic realm from the get-go, making post production digital manipulation that much easier. The original Avatar became the highest grossing motion picture of all time and it will surely be eclipsed by its sequel Avatar: The Way of Water, which has just surpassed $2 Billion in box office receipts.
The transition to Digital Exhibition was also aided by 3D; movie attendance had been declining and Exhibitors were concerned that theaters needed to have the ability to give consumers something extra that they couldn’t easily get in their living rooms. 3D also gave Theater Owners a rationale to charge a premium, and the Studios were not about to release 3D on film, since they were already eager to get away from the expense of producing and shipping film prints. However, Theater Owners still needed prodding to scrap their trusty film projectors for more expensive digital units that were also more prone to obsolescence. It was the Distributors who traditionally paid for the prints, so there wasn’t much incentive for Exhibitors to make the leap, except that if they wanted to milk the 3D cash cow, they would have to convert to digital projection, and this was a strong nudge in that direction. A financial device known as a “Virtual Print Fee” was also created so the studios would pay their share of the upgrade costs by contributing the money they would have spent on making prints toward financing the new equipment.
Television drama is now almost completely shot digitally, and digital acquisition has also made significant inroads into the last bastion of film dominance, theatrical motion pictures. Of the last five Oscar Winners for both Best Picture and Best Cinematography, none were shot on film. Kodak has gone through bankruptcy and Fujifilm has stopped producing stock altogether while ARRI and Panavision have manufactured their last film cameras. Although the tide has turned, there remain, like myself, many fans of celluloid acquisition including very prominent filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, and Steven Spielberg, (his lastest, The Fabelmans, was shot on film mostly with the Panavision Millennium XL2, and has just been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.) Film still holds its own with respect to quality, is a viable choice for certain productions, and its archival capabilities cannot currently be matched. So, no, film is not dead.
The next transition we witnessed was away from tape, and again external influences played a large part. Prior to the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, recording on Sony HDcam SR tape had been the go-to format, especially for digital post production. However, the natural disaster wiped out the Sony plant that had been making all the tape, forcing the need to quickly find an alternative. Although there were already file based disc cameras and recorders, this really accelerated the changeover and the industry was forced to face its fear of file based production and post.
Today, we continue the evolution of file based workflows, but have added cloud technology into the mix. Our trade show coverage over the years is a good example of the technology timeline. We started out shooting Betacam in our early interviews from NAB, then transitioned to MiniDV and HDV, bringing the tapes back home to L.A. with us and getting them posted and streaming within about a week. We later started recording on cards, which we continued to do for many years, housing our Editor at a hotel across from the convention center and constantly running cards over to him to get the interviews up and streaming as soon as possible, usually within a day. However, in 2022, with the help of Frame.io and Adobe, we started shooting all of our NAB and Cine Gear Expo interviews utilizing Camera-2-Cloud technology with our Editor at home in his edit suite, able to generally get the coverage cut and streaming within the hour. This has been a game changer for us which we plan to continue this year and beyond. For the industry at large the technological transformation represented by cameras recording directly to the cloud is undoubtedly one of the most important currently taking place.
Resolution is another area of growth witnessed during the lifespan of DCS. In 2003, the industry was still getting used to HD, and that was an acceptable plateau for many years until 4K became commonplace, encouraged by streaming companies like Netflix who mandated it as a minimum. Home theaters with internet connected large screen TVs capable of displaying 4K raised the bar substantially for necessary streaming picture quality. Today, even higher resolutions are on the horizon, at least for acquisition, even though 8K broadcast and streaming are still pretty rare. The ability to have a little extra resolution available to reframe, stabilize, and downsample can be desirable. Shooting at the highest resolution you can muster can also help to future proof your digital negative since the trend toward ever higher K-counts doesn’t seem like it will end anytime soon.
Meanwhile, throughout this two decade period when digital cinema cameras have been advancing so rapidly, motion picture lighting technology has also significantly evolved, mostly due to the use of LEDs. Although the benefits in terms of reduced heat and low power consumption are undeniable, there were significant issues in the early days of LEDs with color fidelity in regard to gaps in the spectrum of light produced. However the ability to mix and map LEDs with different spectral response into a single source has overcome most of these issues and also improved output. The ability to match ambient light and other kinds of units has also solved a lot of problems and quickly made LED lighting the de facto standard for motion picture lighting, sometimes mixed with HMI in situations where the punch is needed. Wireless and DMX control down to the individual pixel has only improved LED’s usefulness, especially when used in conjunction with Virtual Production volumes, (my next topic of review.)
The adoption of Virtual Production technology is perhaps as significant as the introduction of sound, color, or the transition from celluloid to digital capture. Just as external forces such as union unrest helped to spur the digital acquisition, and a tsunami helped hasten the end of videotape, the worldwide pandemic greatly sped up the adoption of Virtual Production. As the industry searched for new safe methods for returning to production, including techniques that allowed for social distancing on set and avoiding large crews on location, the technology for virtual production was advancing at a break neck pace. Growing out of the gaming industry, which requires accelerated graphics processing to not only create, but to play games in real time, these tools were applied to motion picture production.
Graphics processing units, or GPUs and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have evolved to create new possibilities for real-time rendering to create virtual worlds for gamers or the “metaverse” for social interaction. Virtual Production harnesses these technologies to create background “volumes” that are displayed on a series of stitched high resolution video monitors driven by the computer gaming engine. Feeding the motion picture camera’s crucial real-time lens and geo-spacial metadata into the computer allows the backgrounds to interact with the taking camera so that the actors can seamlessly be integrated into the volume.
While the global pandemic helped open the door to Virtual Production, it has also had a hugely negative impact on theatrical exhibition. At the same time that the technical and content quality of streaming offerings was improving, audiences were sometimes on lockdown, and later shy about going out and possibly being exposed to the virus. Hyper competitive streaming services eager to attract new subscribers premiered theatrical grade content to the home and theater going audiences dwindled. The result was that many movie houses have shuttered, and sadly may never reopen.
While it has been an interesting couple of decades for motion picture technology, at the end of the day, it is all about telling good stories and the technology only serves to help us communicate those stories. Yet, to do our jobs we need to keep up with this ever-increasing pace of innovation. So, we at DCS have our work cut out for us. Technological change is inevitable, and the Digital Cinema Society will continue to cover it. Here’s to the next decade, because as Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.”
The contribution to our field that the Digital Cinema Society has made over the past two decades is substantial. Thanks to those who have made it possible, and continue to expand the horizon by generously sharing information and knowledge to the industry.