C-Mon & Kypski Offers One Frame of Fame

In 1989 Madonna spent more than $5 000 000 to create a music video for the song Express Yourself (directed by David Fincher). Today, bands like OK Go record their videos on cheap DV cameras in their own backyard, while C-Mon & Kypski have their fans contribute in the latest internet phenomena called One Frame of Fame.

My classmate Jørgen first showed me this interesting music video/social media experiment/viral campaign for the (at least to me) unknown band C-Mon & Kypski which features 6843 (and counting) frames of fans mirroring dance moves on their webcams to create something that looks like a mix between stop motion animation and bullet time. Basically, you play back the video, and at certain points the video cuts from the performance of the band member to a short sequence of fanframes that continue the movement. You come back tomorrow, and the video will have evolved with even more fans joining in.

In the modern music video, concept is king.

Reminds me of an Icelandic short film I saw some years ago (Þröng sýn) where the filmmakers had been sitting in the streets asking random people to draw individual frames of the film on top of the images they had shot (16000 drawings by 1350 members of the public). Only with the added benefit of the internet.GPTVG49D4YA3


Evolution: HDSLR Cinematography

HDSLR is the one to the right (Image by NRKbeta.no)

HDSLR is the one to the right (Image by NRKbeta.no)

Apart from maybe the reintroduction of 3D and the final breakthrough of the RED digital cinema camera in the established business, one of the big technical news of 2009 seems to be HDSLR cinematography. What happened? Everyone was waiting for Sony, Panasonic, Arri and the other camera manufacturers to answer the challenge from RED, when suddenly Canon and Nikon flicked a switch on their prosumer and professional digital stills camera systems, and created a small revolution in itself that even made RED revise their next generation of digital cinema cameras.

It’s a young format, and clearly far away from widespread use in drama productions, but the technology and the ideas are exciting, and I think it’s a very interesting subject for discussion.

The Nikon D90 and the Canon 5D MKII became the first DSLR’s to offer video recording in respectively 720p and 1080p resolution when they came out in 2008. Overall reception was a bit sceptical, what would you actually want to use this for? Very few professional photographers could see themselves shooting video all of a sudden. But that was before a man named Vincent Laforet entered the field. He realised the huge potential of the format, and convinced Canon to lend him a pre-production model to shoot this sample video with:

Admittedly an early attempt, and maybe not a work of art in itself, but the video showcases some of the main strengths of the format, and why it has become so popular. There is an amazing amount of detail and colour saturation in these low light scenarios which were shot with almost no extra light at all, and the aesthetics of the image resemble 35mm film, mainly due to the shallow depth of field achieved by the camera’s full frame sensor (which is actually physically larger than the standard Super35mm gate).

The Good

The 5D can shoot up to ISO 6400 with surprisingly little noise. The highest ISO motion picture film available is 500 — in other words, doubling the amount of light more than three times to achieve proper exposure. With their next generation, Canon and Nikon are bumping the max up to 12800, with a ridiculous boosted ISO of 102400 (I think more than a few people thought this part of the spec sheet was a typo). Vincent Laforet tried the new camera in October, and was very excited (read here). These cameras see more than our eyes do, and somehow manage to make bright pictures of it. This is the video Vincent Laforet made with the pre-production 1D MKIV:

Some of the images were even shot on ISO 12800, because he left it on by accident and didn’t notice(!).

The Norwegian national broadcasting (NRK) also did a test (here and here) with cinematographer John Andreas Andersen where they compared the 5D with the RED, and pretty much confirmed that the 5D beat the crap out of RED in low light scenarios (but not much else).

Realistically you would probably not shoot ISO 12800 on a feature for quite some time, but the point is that when they bump the max to 12800, that means the 6400 is looking better than the last generation. Next time they might bump it to 25600, and all of a sudden 6400 is starting to look really attractive. Both Arri and RED are moving up to a “standard” ISO 800 in their next generation cameras, which I presume will still be virtually noisefree.

When it comes to the old film vs. digital battle, I think low light sensitivity will be one of the main differences between the formats a few years down the road (not saying I think film will go away, more on that later!).

The Bad

We’re talking about a camera system that in general costs less than 10% of it’s high end motion picture counterparts. It’s an unfair comparison.

First of all, the stated resolution of 1080p is not really a technical reality. The eminent Stu Maschwitz (“point it at a resolution chart, and you’re in for some hurt“) has highlighted this for some time (read here). The DSLR was not designed for shooting 25 frames or more per second. In order to achieve this, the camera does not use all the photosites available for each frame, and uses aliasing to recreate the details that are not actually there. This can be very bad.

Second of all the video is recorded in a highly compressed format (H.264) which leaves very little freedom when it comes to treating the images in a post production workflow, and highlight detail is somewhat suffering compared to the professional competition. There is much less data per frame, and no matter how intelligent the processing is, something is missing. Generally you want as much as possible (one of the main arguments for still shooting film).

There is also the issue of ergonomics and compatibility. A DSLR is designed for shooting stills, not for shooting movies, which means that practical implementation in an established workflow can be troublesome on a regular drama production. Whether it’s handheld, on a tripod, or from a crane or steadicam, you might need a lot of special equipment and adapters to be able to operate like you’re used to.

Also stills lenses are less than ideal in practical use, the focus markings are compressed and less accurate, and they breath a lot when focusing. You can get a PL-mount adapter for your DSLR (check out ASC-member Shane Hurlbut with a Primo on his 5D), but then you need special gear to utilise standard accessories like a mattebox and focus wheel. Definitely an option, though!

The final big issue in my opinion is the still unsolved rolling shutter issue caused by the CMOS sensor in these cameras (explained here). Also called the “jello-effect”, this is an attribute of how CMOS sensors capture an image that cause moving shots and handheld shots to wobble. This is actually a major gripe with the format so far, making a lot of footage shot on HDSLR’s feel a bit “liquified” (check out this video, and maybe this more humorous approach to the subject).

(There is also the issue of audio recording, but I’m assuming external recording of sound here.)

Conclusion

What makes the HDSLR bad in terms of ergonomics is also what makes it an excellent niche product. A small, inexpensive camera that deliver high quality images seems like a perfect companion for stunt work and small, cramped locations. When the cost of the camera is so low that you can break it on purpose, I see the possibility for lots of destroyed cameras with exciting footage inside. The unconventional size also allows for unconventional images.

Also, the promise of a low-cost alternative to 35mm film that deliver similar visual qualities is an exciting prospect for independent drama productions, and low-budget music videos and commercials. This is not just an assumption, even the venerable Lucasfilm have shown a clear interest in the technology, inviting cinematographer Philip Bloom to Skywalker Ranch to demonstrate (interesting read and video!). They had a closer look at the footage on a large screen, and was reportedly still impressed.

But the actual quality of the images is still nowhere close to 35mm or 16mm film, nor can it compete with the professional digital solutions available today. Except for low-light, which is an exciting evolution of digital image capture, and maybe what most obviously is starting to create an advantage to digital capture over film.

It feels like this is the direction where digital is going, and why you will decide to shoot your next drama on a digital format. But I still think film will stay king of ultimate image quality and information. And even when digital finally catches up, I think film will stay an attractive alternative because of the aesthetics that you might want for certain projects.

What do you think? How will HDSLR affect your reality? What are your pros and cons?

Additional Resources

If you’re interested in reading more about HDSLR and what it can do for your future film projects, I can recommend reading up on the following people and resources:

ProLost
Where the eminent Stu Maschwitz provides valuable insights and thoughts
Philip Bloom
Who travels the world and tests HDSLR on different projects for different purposes
Shane Hurlbut
Another cinematographer who explores the world of HDSLR
Creative COW
Now with a dedicated HDSLR-forum
Vincent Laforet
The grandfather of HDSLR video, but really a stills photographer
5DMk2 blog
News and links about HDSLR

Some equipment to help adapt the cameras for video capture:

Redrock DSLR Cinema Bundle reviewed by Creative Cow
Zacuto Z-Finder v2 reviewed by Philip Bloom

And finally a couple more examples of HDSLR video:


Séraphine and Colour Contrast

Cinematographers often express a great amount of respect for the art of painting, and many consider painters a vital source of inspiration for their work. And rightfully so, painters have spent centuries studying all that is essential to our profession, namely composition and how light interacts with and defines a scene. This makes for an interesting meet when cinematographers are given the task of depicting painters on film. Cinematographer Laurent Brunet and production designer Thierry François were put to the test on Séraphine which recently premiered in cinemas in Norway, and their extremely strict use of colour has made a fascinating study on the topic. The following is my personal interpretation of the usage and effect of these decisions, and may contain some spoilers.

Séraphine de Senlis was not one of the superstars of painting, but her rise and fall makes a very interesting story. With no formal education, she was working as a housemaid when a German critic (Wilhelm Uhde) discovered her art by accident and eventually made her work famous. The filmmakers have obviously taken a cue from Séraphine’s art, which is very closely thematically linked to nature and predominantly in earthly and natural colours.

The opening of the film is almost entirely restricted to desaturated hues of green and blue. Depicting her with such a limited colour palette as she completes laborious tasks for the rich upper class paints an image of a tedious life where something is missing.

The combination of blue and green is perceived as distanced, soothing and calm, but ultimately dull. With the introduction of Wilhelm Uhde comes other colours from her paintings, bringing life to the images as she is encouraged to develop her talent further, but still she often remains a dark blue character in a blue-green environment as she struggles to make a living.

This very low colour contrast between Séraphine and her surroundings can be seen as a representation of her close relation to nature, which plays a vital role, as well as a contrast to her colourful paintings which are revealed later in the film, suggesting a great gap between the exterior appearance of her character and the rich inner fantasies expressed through her art (in other words, looks can deceive). The cool feel of these scenes is also contrasting the warmly candlelit scenes where Séraphine is painting. It’s a clever design that works on many levels throughout the film.

Uhde on the other hand is an esteemed character with resources and a glamorous life compared to Séraphine. He introduces touches of reds and yellows (complementary contrasts to green and blue) to the image, and friends dressed in bright blue, purple and orange, but the colours are still quite subdued. Even so, they create a contrast to the cool opening, and convey a feeling of optimism.

Things take a turn for the worse when Germany suddenly invade France, Uhde escapes, and Séraphin is left behind in a world that crashes into almost monochrome darkness. The second act of the film is a gloomy test of character for the aspiring painter who is given the task of realising her potential in a world that is falling apart.

The artist, of course, prevails, and as we reach a later highpoint in the film, the widest gamut of colours are displayed as Séraphine shows her work to friends and neighbours. There are also a number of scenes with Uhde in his green office, constantly with his red vest on, and a scene with his boyfriend outside his office, painting a red portrait of his sister dressed in red in green surroundings. These and other examples of the introduction of complementary contrasts in the second act is to me a visual representation of the high point in her life.

But Séraphine has a troubled psyche that can not find the fulfilment it seeks in art, and as economic crisis hits Europe and Uhde, she goes mad, and ultimately withdraws to her true object of passion; nature. The film ends the way it started, with an image of Séraphine dressed in blue, sitting in a chair on the green grass under a green tree and the blue skies — fade to blue. A visual journey in colour is complete, and an amazing achievement in production design and cinematography.

The film exhibits a very subtle use of colour and an impressive amount of detailed set and costume design, but what’s most interesting is how effectively these ingredients have been used to add layers of information to the physical story as it is played out between the actors. This is maybe the most admirable aspect of the film from my point of view. As a cinematographer you always struggle to use the visual language to add to the story, but there’s a fine line between enhancing and getting in the way of the performance. The extra dimension added when the filmmakers succeed is in my opinion often the difference between a really good and a great movie.

/Film recently wrote an interesting story on the orange/blue contrast in movie posters, which they point out is a very common complementary colour contrast used in film. If you find this topic interesting, I recommend watching Séraphine, if only just as a further experiment on how colours can be used to define images, and what the effect is. As an interesting sidenote, Séraphine was shot on Fuji film and finished photochemically, no digital process involved. Will we ever see (or is there maybe already?) a film about a painter shot digitally?

Have you seen the film? What do you think? I’d love to hear some comments on how the cinematography and production design worked for you, and how you interpret the different elements.


Film Distribution 2.0 = Self Distribution?

I am not a producer, nor a distributor, so this is a bit of a strange topic for me to write about. It started after a series of talks with a like minded friend who wanted to build a portable cinema for short films, and hasn’t left me since. So I’m spilling my guts and hoping for a discussion, and maybe some thoughts from the real producers and distributors who might read this.

"Varde" by Hanne Larsen

"Varde" won Hanne Larsen the Norwegian Amanda in 2008. It is available on DVD from the Norwegian Film Institute.

The number of short films made each year in Norway must be in the hundreds, maybe thousands depending on where you set your standards. They are generally sponsored by different governmental talent programs or through the Norwegian Film Institute, sometimes in cooperation with private investors and enthusiastic film workers with a big heart, and they are the main arena for up and coming Norwegian directors to strut their stuff. The best of these films are amazing pieces of entertainment, but after a year or two of screenings at selected film festivals, they are generally left in a drawer somewhere, never to be seen again. That’s an utter shame, and a total waste of a potentially huge market.

I have an iPhone. You have an iPod, or maybe another media player or fancy mobile phone with a large touchscreen. I use mine to listen to podcasts or watch episodes of Family Guy while taking the train to Oslo, or flying home to Tromsø, or even on the bus in the morning. These devices are perfect for watching short films, but there is no way you can do that. Unless you want to call each and every director personally to persuade them to give you a digital copy. Why? Because there is no marketplace.

Amor won the Best European Short award at Ghent Film Festival 2009, and was thereby nominated to the European Academy Awards 2010. It is not yet available to the public.

"Amor" won Thomas Wangsmo the Best European Short award at Ghent Film Festival 2009, and was thereby nominated to the European Academy Awards 2010. It is not yet available to the public.

I am pretty certain that if someone would build an online store (no distribution costs, low expenses) where you could buy short films for a low price (10 kroner?), and get a digital copy that you could easily watch on your laptop and your mobile device, you would instantly gain a strong following of potential buyers and content providers. And there would be money in it. Just look at the number of totally ridiculous applications sold in the iPhone App Store in large quantities. Skip the distributors, let independent filmmakers sell films directly and give them a piece of the cake. In a best case scenario, this would also create an eco-system where independent filmmakers could gain some initial funding for new projects through the success of their old ones. Not to mention that the best of the best could even reach an audience abroad.

Apple could easily jump onto this market, by opening their Norwegian iTunes Store to film sales and independent filmmakers. Filmarkivet.no could have been such a marketplace, instead they are one of the saddest reminders of how far the computer industry and digital media has got since the 90s (don’t get me started on this one). In fact, just about anybody with the resources to make the website, maybe an iPhone app to go with it, and the contacts to get the first few good independent directors on board, could hijack this opportunity.

It seems to me that talented directors will have a huge market at their feet in the near future, and that all the quality film being made each year will finally see the audience it deserves. But who will be the first? And when?


Welcome

Welcome to my new home!

Who am I, and what am I doing here?

I used to write a (very) occasional blog about my life as a young filmmaker and all my ongoing projects. My viewpoint is the one of a cinematographer, cameraman, DoP, human tripod (or whatever you prefer to call it, most people say “Hey, you, there!”), and my musings generally relate to either the artistic or the technical aspects of this fine profession. I worked a number of years in Tromsø and Oslo shooting short films with amazingly talented young directors, lighting commercials and features with experienced and extremely knowledgable gaffers, and even managed to crown my efforts with a cinematic gaffer-credit of my own before this path lead me to the Norwegian Film School, where I spend my days listening, experimenting and learning.

This is also where I met fellow blogger Karsten, who convinced me to move my blog and become more active at it. I have to admit that this is partly a learning project and/or playground for myself where I post findings and thoughts from exciting experiments and projects I’m working on, but I’m hoping to bring some interesting insights as well, and through that make my contribution to a worldwide family of visual pioneers. After all, you can never completely learn this profession — it’s an ongoing journey.

Why do I write in English?

No big thing, really, I just like the worldwide aspect of the web, and this is my small contribution to it. And it gives me an excuse to keep practicing my written English. I hope none of my (presumably) mostly Norwegian readers take offence.