But as imperfect as these images might have been when compared to the quality of raw files from the same sensors, changing the image 24 times each second can hide a lot of sin. And of course there were some really significant virtues.
First and foremost, these cameras are really cheap. If you consider that all the development costs of the hugely successful Panavision Genesis camera were initially amortized over just 100 cameras, and that the RED ONE, arguably the motion picture marketing coup of our time, is rumored to have sold around 7,000 cameras, then the significance of selling 100,000 professional quality cameras in around a year becomes clear. This, in turn allows fantastic research and development costs to be amortized over so many cameras that they can be sold at a fraction of the cost of purpose-built professional movie gear.
Second, the cameras are small and inconspicuous. As one example, the wedding scene in Up in the Air was shot with DSLRs. Camera operators wearing tuxedos passed for guests shooting still pictures and could be seen working right in the middle of scenes without distracting viewers.
Third, they offer 35mm class selective focus. Sometimes better! This selective focus is achieved by having a limited depth of field which in turn is achieved by having a large diameter lens opening. For a given lighting condition, the lens diameter is directly proportional to the size of the image sensor. Therefore, it is much easier to achieve effective selective focus with a large sensor. DSLRs generally provide a large sensor in a relatively small camera, and there you have it: selective focus from a cheap, tiny camera. Brilliant!
Finally, despite their imperfect compression, modern high end DSLRs still have extraordinary sensitivity to low light levels. ISOs of 3200 and more are commonplace. We saw even greater ISOs in tests described in this article. This is astounding and allows cinematography in previously unthinkable venues.
ASC, PGA, CAS
Last year, the Producers Guild of America and the American Society of Cinematographers compared seven high quality digital cinema cameras to film, running a specific set of tests designed to reveal the characteristics of each camera. The cameras were the Sony F35 and F23 Cine Altas, a Panavision Genesis, an ARRI D21, a Panasonic 3700, a Grass Valley Viper, a RED ONE and a 35mm ARRI -- each of which had its own crew, generally including an ASC cinematographer. Eight challenging scenes were devised, each under the direction of another ASC cinematographer. By the time we were through we had a cast and crew of almost 400.
Dave Stump, ASC asked me to shoot a scene using a single bare light bulb on the Desperate Housewives set (Ed. Note: Be sure to check out our informative interview with Dave Stump in Creative COW Magazine's "Workflow 3.0" Issue, entitled "Metadata and the Future of Filmmaking.")
I started with a close-up of a clear 150 watt light bulb with the filament showing, silhouetted against a small window. We dimmed up the bulb and an actor entered, becoming significantly overexposed due to his proximity to the bulb. We dollied with the actor as he walked to a more normally exposed spot. Dark objects in the background were significantly underexposed due to their distance from the globe. The challenge was to attempt to capture both the under and over exposed areas without adjusting the camera.
Robert Primes and his 'famous' light bulb. All photos courtesy of Zacuto, except for the title image.
Although no formal judgments or conclusions were made, this body of camera assessments showed, in my personal opinion, that well-shot digital effectively rivals film.