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Film schools exploring D-CINEMA

A CILECT Project by Joost Hunningher

CILECT is the association of the world's major film and television schools. Its goals are to provide a means for the exchange of ideas among member schools, and to help them understand the future of education for creative personnel in film, television, and related media. It is dedicated to the creation, development and maintenance of regional and international co-operation among its member schools, and to the encouragement of film and television training in the developing world.

The CILECT D-Cinema workshop was agreed at the Melbourne Congress to test the creative potential of an end-to-end Digital Future. Some 21 schools supported the project. The challenge was to explore the D-Cinema chain, to shoot on HD cameras, to edit on HD systems and to see the work projected on a D-Cinema projector in a cinema. We wanted to see if recent developments in digital camera and projector technology (in terms of colour, image sharpness, resolution, contrast and brightness) meant that Digital-Cinema is a serious alternative to 35mm.

The first step was to get support from the main manufacturers developing the technology that could shape our future. The National Film Theatre in London had received a grant from the Department of Trade and Industry for a Digital Test Bed. Richard Boyd from the NFT agreed that the first major event at the test bed should be the CILECT workshop. This wasn’t just a foot in the door. Manufacturers were encouraging and eager to participate in this creative educational exploration. Panasonic supported us from the start with its DVCProHD digital cinematography camera and a HD-D5 recorder; Panavision with a ‘Panavized’ Sony HDW-900 and two sets of top grip gear; Quantel with its powerful multi-format, high definition, 2K iQ post production platform, VFG with lights, Sony for HDcam decks, Optex for high definition lenses; Arri Media with seminars on the Viper Camera; Kodak with seminars on adapting to future standards and so on. BKSTS (The British Moving Image Society) joined us as a partner to help organise the seminars at the National Film Theatre, to attract industry experts and to sell tickets to support the cost of the workshop.

THE CILECT WORKSHOP

Some 25 Staff and students from 9 CILECT schools came together in London for the workshop from Friday June 27 – Friday July 4, 2003. To achieve our aims on such a short schedule, many preliminary decisions had already been made. The writer Tony .

Grisoni (screenplays: ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ and the recent Golden Bear Winner ‘In This World’) had written a short 5-minute script for us.

Poe Purloined is a short drama about Edgar Allan Poe six months after his wife died. He is dealing with his guilt because he has written a love letter to a young woman. It was a piece that would give us opportunities to test the dramatic expressive possibilities of D-Cinema. Since we had two studios and two high definition cameras and enough participants for two crews, we shot a 2nd production. Kat Wootli wrote a script about a silent filmmaker, Dr. Pepper, who uses all kinds of special effects to create illusions. It allowed the crew to explore a range of traditional film effects in front of an HD camera.

The Poe set was an elegant maze of visual possibilities. An 1880s room in a boarding house, a corridor and an alleyway. The actor Tim Treloar from the National Theatre played Poe. D.O.P. Brian Tufano (Billy Elliot and Trainspotting) was the cinematography mentor and his colleague Andrew Boulton from The National Film and Television School was the mentor for sound. Caterina D’Amico was mentor for script and acting. The crew included participants from SNC (Italy), Turku Poly (Finland), NFTA (The Netherlands), The London Film School, The National Film School and the University of Westminster (United Kingdom).

The Illusions’ set was more minimal but gave the opportunity to explore in-camera visual effects. The crew came from the Norweign Film School, Potsdam-Babelsberg (Germany), Dun Laoghaire (Ireland), SNC (Italy), Mexico (via the London Film School).

The idea to mix staff and students worked well. Many professors had not yet had production experience in a D-Cinema system, so they were cast in the crew together with the students. In one case, a Professor of Cinematography showed great humility by insisting on being the gaffer to one of his final-year students who was the director of photography (both did a great job!).

At the beginning and end of the workshop, we had two full day seminars at the National Film Theatre. This allowed us to engage with various theories of perception, see the latest developments and see some excellent examples of D-Cinema.

Dr. David W. Monk explained that ‘ the film look’ was determined by many factors, including perceived sharpness, resolution, contrast and brightness. He also showed us some optical illusions which demonstrated how misleading the perceived image can be. Were we seeing straight lines? Were these the same or different colours? He illustrated that a perception of sharpness is frequently linked to high-contrast mid frequency details. In other words, in assessing sharpness of the image, contrast may be much more important than the resolution. Later in the day, Peter Swinson showed three photographs of a face. One appeared to be sharper than the rest. It turned out that the photographs were identical and that the one that looked the sharpest had had fine grain-noise added to emphasise the texture and grain of the image. Seeing can be effectively deceiving! Mark Horton from Quantel made the point that although original camera negative holds much more information than any HD camera, once a film has gone through the traditional post-production process, the release prints in the local cinemas are frequently inferior to 1920x1080 resolution delivered from some HD cameras.

Brian Tufano showed a test reel he shot recently on a Panavision HDcam camera of a model walking around a studio. He used minimal lighting. It demonstrated fluidity, accuracy, contrast and brightness in both bright and dark images, which was impressive. Another D.O.P. Terry Flaxton showed some clips from a more expressionistic short he had recently shot on the Panasonic DVCPRO HD. Both examples illustrated a contrast of visual solutions...a naturalistic atmosphere as opposed to a highly stylised one. It emphasised that the D.O.P. had as much to do on high definition as on film. It prepared us for the rigours of our own shoot.

Walter Murch, the editor, talked about his editing methods at our 2nd seminar. He was editing Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain on Final Cut Pro. His ideas of structuring visual developments were relevant to the editing process we had just been through. Illusions was edited by two students and a member of staff on an iQ editing system at Quantel in Newbury. While. Poe Purloined was edited as an off-line on Avid Express and conformed to an AVID HD at the National Film School.


THE SCREENING
On the 2nd Friday, we screened our D-Cinema projects on a 28 foot screen at the NFT The Christie 2K DLP Cinema projector with its 2 million pixels resolution gave the films an outstanding clarity and definition. The quality of both films was impressive. Each crew reported back about their experiences in working within the D-Cinema chain. Like most film-makers, they wished they had had more time to realise the scripts...more time for planning, more time for rehearsals, more time for shooting, more time for editing, sound mixing and colour grading. Nonetheless, they had adapted to the new technology. Many of the skills learnt for shooting on film (such as creating atmosphere, lighting, focus pulling, etc.) were relevant to the definition and colour control available in D-Cinema. As Brian Tufano said, ‘ we tested it like a new film stock...pushed it to its limits and discovered many creative possibilities.’

There was a feeling that even if we had just scratched the surface of this developing technology, we were seeing the potential and its present limitations. The D-Cinema chain is meant to be lossless but this assumes the captured image data is not crushed or altered in any way while shooting or in post-production process. HD cameras have menus as deep as the ocean and the desire to ‘grade-on-set’ might be a great advantage or a danger which restricts your post-production processes. Likewise, the post-production process can be very complicated. It can enhance what you’ve captured or if you make a few mistake, you can descend into nightmare of mismatching technologies.

On the whole the audience was impressed with the quality of the images and the amount the workshop had been able to achieve in one week. It would have been difficult to achieve anything like this on 35mm. Of course there were a lot of references to 35mm. Film still captures a wider dynamic range (at least 11 stops as opposed to 8 stops on The Viper) and because of the size of the frame is much better at dealing with visual effects using differential focus. However, the technology is moving at a fierce rate and it is conceivable that these limitations will be overcome with larger CCD sensors and better data storage. The technical limitations to D-Cinema will be overcome, the most important issue is for Technical Specifications to be agreed so that D-Cinema products will be compatible around the world and be scalable for future developments.

The workshop revealed that the D-Cinema chain has enormous potential for the work of film schools - both in the making and distribution of world cinema and student films. CILECT should stay closely involved with the developments of this revolutionary technology.

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