Looking back at an amazing year of state of the art filmmaking - 09.05.2017
July 2nd, 2017 marked the one year anniversary of taking delivery of my RED Weapon Dragon 8K VV camera, shortly thereafter followed by adding the RED Weapon Helium 8K S35 into my filmmaking arsenal, for much of this article I'll focus on the VV and the unique experiences it provided along the way. In 2016 I decided to go all in with 8K for a variety of reasons. The past year of my filmmaking career has indeed been a busy one, but most importantly a special one. Much of that year was spent serving as an Aerial Cinematographer and Director, but the VV was put to great use on a few commercial and narrative projects as well. This summer I've had some time to reflect on this last year, look back at the motion pictures captured all over the world, and really digest every aspect of production workflow in 8K. Here's some thoughts and experiences I've had along the way.
I like to occasionally look back at how things happened, mostly not to forget, but also to examine the journey. Rewind to NAB April 2015 in Las Vegas. RED showed off their new DSMC2 Weapon camera bodies and they were mighty impressive over my current Epic Dragon 6K. They were smaller and more powerful with a host of new features. That was enough to get me curious about the new tech found in DSMC2 and upgrade my Epic Dragon 6K to Weapon Dragon 6K S35.
Some quick words about the Dragon sensor. Dragon for me was the most significant sensor technology that fully put my trust in RED. It's color performance and dynamic range truly seduced me and for the first time I didn't particularly miss motion picture film. I was fortunate to look at it early on back in July 2013 and was quickly impressed with how it performed over the previous Mysterium-X tech. It was night and day. By the time I got to do my first proper test shoot in October 2013, "It's Just Paint", I was in love with what Dragon could do. I saw the potential and the bar was raised in terms of image quality out of RED cameras. From there on out, everything I shot was on Dragon until Helium's eventual release and now I dance between the two regularly.
Frame grab from It's Just Paint, Schneider Cine-Xenar III Primes
Back to NAB 2015, I had a hunch that an 8K Dragon sensor was possible, I did the math on where it would land when considering the format size, but just who knew how likely it would be if RED would do it. And to my joy in a presentation case the RED Weapon Dragon 8K VV large format sensor made it's debut. I truly can't tell you how excited I was for this. I have a background in VistaVision 8-perf film, it was something we used occasionally as I was coming up in the industry for VFX plates and other shots. VistaVision as a format is truly exceptional to me. I strongly feel it's a great balance between a larger format look and where you can still find a large variety of quality lenses with faster apertures. Hell, the whole inception of VistaVision in the motion picture industry is sort of a beautiful story with it's mission to capture and present higher quality images in the 1950s. VistaVision also paved the way for even larger formats like IMAX 15-perf 70mm film.
Frame grab from Forged, Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4
Fast forward to January 2016. Jarred Land, the President of RED Digital Cinema, gave me the unique opportunity to test out the RED Weapon Dragon 8K VV prototype for myself. After a bit of discussion I told him an idea I had to film something called Forged with a bit of a nod to the forged carbon fiber camera body that RED was offering at the time. I wanted to shoot some "hard stuff". Lots of highlights, lots of deep shadows, lots of texture, and I wanted to shoot it between T1.5-2.8. There were reasons for all of this because I heard so much of "8K is going to be too sharp, you're going to need vaseline on your lens" and "VistaVision is going to be hell for focus pullers, good luck". This was all silly to me. People were filming on this approximate film format before digital ever existed and just how resolution "works" in RED cameras actually has more familiarity with a film workflow for me. So I knew from the get go, battling some of those weird myths would be fun. I reached out to famed blacksmith/bladesmith Tony Swatton and we produced Forged. Filmed over the course of 4 days, with 2 days of post, finished in 8K and 4K, with a crew of 2. This was back when this was bleeding edge new tech, and it was crazy how not-so-difficult it was if you were prepared. And for me it wasn't a shocking difference from my previous 6K workflow. And the brief summary there is I fell rather quickly in love with 8K and the VV format size.
Behind the Scenes from Forged
Fast forward to July 2nd, 2016 where I was honored to take delivery of the first RED Weapon Dragon 8K VV camera. It arrived just in time to start an amazing year of filming all over the globe. A year of filming where I was mostly tasked to produce the highest quality motion picture images ever captured from land and air with a bit of an IMAX-esque feel to them. This larger format sensor was perfect for this journey. It's worth noting that at this time Panavision announced the development on the Millennium DXL camera also featuring this sensor tech. Panavision was/is equally as impressed with the RED 8K VistaVision Dragon sensor and nearly everybody who has used it since has echoed the sentiment.
The Panavision Millennium DXL 8K VV Camera
During my time filming abroad RED also announced the RED Helium 8K S35 sensor technology for DSMC2 style cameras. I was keen to additionally jump on that as having 8K in the Super 35mm format size would provide some standard format familiarity for my aerial work when using the normal suspect lenses.
RED Weapon Helium 8K S35
That's what led to having two 8K solutions in both VistaVision and S35 format sizes both capable of capturing 8192x4320 resolution at up to 60 frames per second. Both capable of capturing high quality immersive visuals. I was excited to get cracking on various projects. However, there were a few questions.
Lenses?! What Lenses?
A very good question that many were asking about, particularly for the Dragon VV sensor. At the time Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 was the only production shooting on prototype 8K VV bodies and after a bit of testing they went with Panavision Primo 70 primes, which is a very good choice and pair nicely for this large format sensor.
The majority of my filming in 2016/2017 was done on Zeiss Otus Primes and Cinema Zooms
Glass was certainly something else that people interested in VistaVision were a bit scared of. A lot of "there's no proper cinema glass for that format' and the such. I knew more would come eventually, I knew there were a few things available that would work, and also I'm a bit of glass nut who is open to lots of options to find ways to "make things work". The most exciting thing particularly about the 8K VV along the way is nearly every shooting day I was doing something new and different for the first time. Great fun if you"re into creative problem solving and making the images you"re after come to life. For instance, the first 8K VV aerial shoot I found myself filming with 6 lenses on the whole project, 5 of which that haven"t been in the air before. The question for me so often was how to I maximize the visuals on this project with this large sensor and what glass can I use to bring it to life.
Kowloon, Zeiss CZ 28-80mm T2.9
Overall, I like to use a variety of glass as certain glass might lend itself to a specific look that I desire for a shoot. With my familiarity of VistaVision as a film format, I reached into what was common for me back then. Leica-R and Olympus OM in particular, which I already owned. And because I had a hunch about the 8K Dragon sensor I was able to work with Duclos Lenses early on to get solid PL mounts on them with their Cine-Mod on vintage Mamiya 645 lenses. Duclos has been my lens house for a long while and they indeed were one of my secret weapons this whole time as I was exploring unique ways to use things like the Zeiss Otus Primes in the Shotover F1, which was another world first.
Zeiss Otus 28mm f/1.4 with Duclos Lenses Cine-Mod Otus in a Shotover F1
Because so much of my work was spent up in the air, I needed the flexibility of quality zooms that cover the VV sensor. For a zoom solution I focused on the Zeiss Cinema Zooms, the 28-80 T2.9 in particular serves as a great mid range zoom considering the format size. It quickly was one of my hero lenses. With the trio of zooms covering 15-200mm they became very useful for my aerial work. I was already using these for Super 35mm productions, but their real strengths came into play on larger format filming.
Zeiss CZ 28-80mm quickly became one of my hero lenses with the 8K VV
Fast forward to a year later and present day, there's a host of proper cinema glass now out for VistaVision. Notably the Tokina Cinema Vista Primes were the first lenses designed for the 46.31mm image circle of the 8K Dragon sensor. These arrived mid-way through my production year and have been impressive. These new high speed primes quickly became my go to set for the second half of the year once they were released.
Tokina Cinema Vista 50mm T1.5, Wide Open
As of NAB 2017 lens manufactures have taken notice that VistaVision-ish sized sensors will be a long term trend. Recently the Cooke S7, Sigma Cine, Leica Thalia, and Zeiss CP.3 primes are all designed and playing nicely with the VV sensor. There are some new zooms coming shortly as well.
32mm T2 Cooke S7 Prime on RED Weapon Dragon 8K VV
It's a very exciting time as a motion picture professional who likes larger format image acquisition. The lens solutions are now here with more on the way at all levels of price points.
I think its outstanding for filmmakers to have access to this new breed of lenses these days. There's an amazing amount of visual options with their own unique flavor to them. As I've mentioned before, I'm a bit of a glass nut. And because of that optical curiosity that runs in my veins I've had to test all of these lenses to fully know what each can do.
The real question I get asked probably the most often is why 8K? The first answer is easy, image quality. And actually that's where it should stop, but let me explain my perspective a bit.
Capture Resolution is often misunderstood. "Isn't 8K too sharp?" No. Quite the opposite actually. Because we are dealing with a Bayer Pattern Sensor (a color filter array over each pixel - 50% green, 25% red, 25% blue) with both Helium and Dragon the image data must be de-mosiaced or debayered to become a full color image. Additionally to avoid edge and color aliasing we're using an opitcal low pass filter to fight those evils, which also hit the pure pixel resolution a bit.
Comparison of resolution between 1080p, 2160p, and 4320p for 16x9 Aspect Ratios
For me 8K is about captured detail and how you use it. I need to stress here, because somebody will get on me about it, no it's not all about resolution. A good sensor and digital cinema camera generally speaking comes down to the combined image quality performance of Dynamic Range, Color Rendition, Resolution, and Image Texture. Those are the main points with sub-topics that exist beneath each of them. A very simple thing that many need to understand about resolution is there are differences between sharpness, resolution, captured detail, and image texture. It is indeed their combined behavior that lends itself to the final image that we all see. For those that don't know me, I do a fair amount of technical and practical camera tests (I'm a dying breed) professionally and before projects. It's important to me to know what the tools can do rather deeply and intimately as they become a part of my life and creative efforts.
Dynamic Range Test of Dragon 8K VV 2017, one of a million tests
With that out of the way, RED's 8K tech can be used in a variety of ways. You can capture full resolution and downsample to your output resolution. You can frame within your capture resolution and extract whatever actual frame you desire from your total resolution. You can also of course finish out at 8K. Some of my shoots this last year were shot at 7.5K and 6.5K even. Also common is the post usage of this resolution for image stabilization, cropping, and digital zooms. An added bonus towards VFX worked is that extra resolution is very welcome when it comes to composites as well as extracting tracking data from a frame.
Even though this project was framed for widescreen, I still framed within the 8K FF format
Onto my focus with 8K. It's 2017 and I personally haven't worked in 1080p/2K since 2011. My focus is 4K, 8K, and beyond. Capturing more means you can finish out to whatever standards you'd like without upscaling. I have a whole theory about immersive visuals that I won't go deeply into here, but resolution is important when it comes down to it. The short story is I'm mostly finishing out to 4K and these days and occasionally 8K when it's needed. I was fortunate enough to begin my career in the late 1990s using the first 4K film scanner and quickly discovered all of the benefits of oversampling and some of the evils of upscaling. In fact, at that studio we eventually migrated to a 6K Super 35mm film scanner which resolved grain at larger than a pixel in size, which led to great looking downsampled footage. That film background and workflow has stuck with me and my intentions towards digital filmmaking.
With 8K and when resolution is "done right" you end up getting smoother detail and better quality images. Some quick examples that show exactly what I'm talking about.
Full 8K Frame, Scaled Down to 4K (full size opens in new window)
100% 4K Crop of 8K Frame (full size opens in new window)
4K Output, Scaling Down and Upscaling Examples (full size opens in new window)
For me that's where the clear and stark visual differences are. Some might say those are subtle differences, but to each creator's own, that's not what I see. I won't be forcing Christopher Nolan to work with Super 16mm film and I would hope the same rings true for me and my choice of capture medium.
Much of my production work from 2016 through 2017 was spent filming abroad. My life for about 6 months consisted of 2 cases of camera gear, 1 suitcase with clothing, and a very packed backpack with my notebook/mobile workstation.
My main two travel cases (Pelican Elite and Thinktank) for 2 cameras and 6 lenses.
When working in other countries my office is the hotel room. On a few of these shoots I had the luxury of wearing many hats of the Director, Cinematographer, and Colorist. My solution was to build a rather powerful custom MSI notebook computer. 2X Nvidia GPUs and a large internal 8TB SSD RAID volume allowed for extremely fast downloads and the ability to work natively with the 8K REDCODE RAW footage to create color passes and dailies to send to clients. Eventually once I was filming in Qatar I used this same notebook to push out 4K and 8K finals of about 14 hours of material right from the hotel room.
A few hotel room offices from around the globe.
Some things to note in the pictures above. Beyond the beefy notebook workstation you'll the 10TB drives from G-Tech, LaCie's 6big Thunderbolt 3 drives, some LaCie Rugged 4TB transport drives, 2X high capacity USB 3.1 Gen 2 RAIDs, and the USB 3.1 Gen 2 RED Mini-Mag Readers. I am early to adopt many things that can help give me an edge when it comes to speeding things up on set. So these new Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1 Gen 2 interfaces helped a great deal in terms of data offload and transfers. I'm handling usually between 3-8TB a day. These new faster interfaces made life a hell of a lot easier on the road. Because of the important nature of the work and just general good practice with data, everything I shot got triple redundancy. At any given time 3 copies of the footage existed. When involved with a post house back in LA, there were even more copies eventually. Something also to note there, is Mini-Mags. I keep enough media on set for full shooting day. I have seen what happens when there isn't enough media on set and if you are cycling media and there's a hang up, it could have disastrous consequences towards keeping your shooting day's schedule.
A few hotel room offices from around the globe.
When working back at home in Los Angeles I have a big workstation that makes life even easier. So much so, I only worked in native 8K REDCODE RAW throughout the year. Each job is different, but my personal workflow usually consists of Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Media Encoder with the occasional use of After Effects. Additionally, DaVinci Resolve and REDCINE-X Pro are used in other situations. Just depends on my clients needs. Whenever I'm shooting just plates or VFX work I render out full resolution TIF, EXR, or DPX.
Overall working in 8K didn't freak me or my clients out, though early on it was certainly a point of conversation. The data rates are very manageable due to REDCODE RAW being a flexible and compressed raw format. Also, due to modern developments particularly in GPU acceleration it's made working with higher resolution footage much easier.
Large Format Allure
I've had a fair bit of whimsical chatter with cinematographers about what attracts filmmakers to larger formats. Whether that is chasing higher quality visuals, a different perspective on lens usage, the way that specific format size combined with lenses draws the viewers eyes, or just how large format plays so nicely with larger screens. Whatever it is, there is a nagging whisper blowing around in their heads gently saying "go bigger". A curious creative mind will lead to such things. In general larger format cinematography "puts you there" in a slightly different way. For me it's a little bit of all of all of what I've mentioned, but also a lot of things that are just slightly intangible. For instance, the motion cadence as detail is drawn across the larger surface area of the sensor provides a different "feel" than say Super 35mm. Action moving through frame feels different because it's drawing differently and in some cases provides more of a three dimensional effect if used deliberately. If you've shot IMAX 15-perf 70mm, you likely know what I'm talking about here.
China, Zeiss CZ 28-80 T2.9
In the case of the RED Weapon Dragon 8K VV you get all of those things and a unique sense of being there with the format size. From a cinematography perspective you think of lenses differently and you use them differently to match your shot type due to the larger format. Where you might have been at 35mm as a normal lens with Super 35mm, you might fight you'll be reaching for a 55mm to get a similar feel on VistaVision just from a pure field of view perspective.
Rock Searcher, Otus 55mm f/1.4
The "vista" concept of VistaVision holds a lot of truth as well. The format lends itself to shooting vast wide angle frame with a sense of depth. Ultra wide angle options of 11, 12, 14, and 15mm produce an extremely wide field of view that provide a feeling that is difficult to match with smaller and larger formats. Even focal lengths in the 18-35mm range show something different. Something that feels a bit more grand.
Doha, Zeiss CZ 15-30 T2.9
Additionally closeups can be a bit more intimate and with the potential of shallower depth of field with the larger format, you'll find the subject separation is impressive even with objects relatively close by. And though it may not make sense at first, you might find yourself shooting longer than you'd expect. Whereas a typical Super 35mm prime set works out to 18, 25, 35, 50, 75, 100 with VistaVision that translates more into 25, 35, 50, 75, 100, and 135mm. So if you're one of those 85/100mm sort of DPs, you might just be feeling more like the 135mm range just to "get there". Overall though a fundamental set of primes for VV should be around 35, 50, and 85mm. That will cover you for most of the typical motion picture needs.
Bus Stop, Sigma Cine 85mm T1.5
One of the more powerful moments for me was shooting a warehouse scene on Dispatcher. I was about a year deep working with the 8K VV at that point. I found myself setting up a small dolly move with some objects raking by in the foreground. The combined effect of choosing a shallow depth of field on a 35mm prime and the slow push on the dolly move into the scene provided a nearly abyssal draw into the scene which truly attracts the viewer's focus. With that motivated camera movement and composition it visually was powerful and reflected the spooky-yet-tense mood I had in mind for the shot.
Dispatcher, Tokina 35mm T1.5
Those are a few things I've noticed along the way. There's a great deal more and I find discoveries often when shooting new projects. But my theories, thoughts, and attraction to the VistaVision format has been on point for what I'm doing with my work.
Our industry is changing rapidly as is the technology that we are capturing and displaying our motion pictures on. For a filmmaker who enjoy exploring new horizons, it is indeed a great time. For me is it's hard to go back once you've started filming in 8K. The visual and workflow benefits particularly when finishing to 4K or 8K are just too real to ignore. The crazy fact that I can extract any single frame and produce a 27 inch wide 300 DPI print still boggles my mind.
Frame grab from Dispatcher, Tokina Cinema Vista 50mm T1.5
My journey as a filmmaker has been to capture larger than life images for some time now. High resolution capture and large format digital have been a rewarding challenge in both the creative and technical fronts. I commend RED for pushing towards the future. For me it's all about visual storytelling and particular this VistaVision format has been groundbreaking in producing visuals the world has never seen before and in some cases filming in places where nobody has been before as well.
One of my recent long form aerials in Los Angeles, 35mm Tokina Cinema Vista Prime
To alleviate some concerns about large format "taking over the industry", I don't feel that way. I think overall Super 35mm is the backbone of the motion picture industry and will remain for some time to come. I hope it does. I feel we are mostly just getting to that place of format size freedom that film has provided for so long. Even now I'm shooting with both my VistaVision and Super 35mm RED Digital Cinema Cameras and use both for their unique format aesthetics. Sometimes I want to explore the awe inspiring larger format visuals, other times I want to rely on the tried and true S35 aesthetics. Mostly though the story and glass influence all of those decisions.
But here's a thing I can say for certain. 8K is here to stay and you'll be seeing other manufacturers getting there shortly. Also larger formats have inspired much interest, and alarmingly soon you'll be seeing other camera companies providing options on that front.
Some of my favorite moments of a recent shoot in Qatar, Zeiss Cinema Zooms and Tokina Primes
For me personally and professionally, this past year has been the adventure of a lifetime. My work is extremely important to me whether I'm shooting a commercial for mayonnaise or working for the largest clients you can work with. With that I've put the focus on the image first and 8K has empowered the execution of all of these projects to a level that exceeded so many expectations.
Greenland, Zeiss 28-80mm T2.9
So some really, really last words. I truly must thank everybody at RED, Jarred Land, Brent Carter, and nearly every lens manufacturer I can think of during this last year. And a big thank you to Duclos Lenses for not thinking all of my ideas were totally crazy. A huge thank you to my clients, studios, and producers that also always put up with my weirdness and passion for creating pretty pictures. Around every corner this past year I had an idea and I'm thankful that so many of them were not shut down. At the moment I'm cranking on developing some feature length/episodic content and spending some time on a few personal projects. I'm grateful for being truly busy this past year and creating the beautiful moving pictures as well as the memories made during these adventures are something I'll never forget.