Available Light Comparison Tests Shed Light on Formats

Published on website: July 29, 2011
Categories: David Heuring , Film Capabilities , The StoryBoard Blog

A responsible director takes the question of production format very seriously. That decision has a major impact on how audiences will react to the story and characters. Other factors include cost concerns, story considerations, shooting style, and the emotions that filmmakers are hoping to evoke in the audience. Wise directors and producers depend on cinematographers to help wade through the hype and marketing claims to determine which format is best for a given story.

Brawley-Dennis film tests
Brawley-Dennis film tests

Recently, two Australian filmmakers wanted to see with their own eyes the differences between various formats, and to get a sense of how they performed under difficult conditions. They wanted to compare metrics like resolution and clarity, but more importantly, to see how the images differed in less empirical, more instinctive ways.

Director Kate Dennis and cinematographer John Brawley were working on the television series Offspring when they began discussing a feature film that Dennis was developing called Almost French, based on the novel by Sarah Turnbull.

“The script for Almost French involved a fair amount of night shooting in Paris, a city effectively lit by the mayor,” says Dennis. “Having worked in the camera department, I had always been a bit skeptical about digital formats. I’d seen a few tests online, but I had never seen film and DCP projection directly compared, using footage from a variety of digital and film cameras.”

Brawley says that the question came up during a shoot under similar conditions for Offspring.

Brawley-Dennis film tests
Brawley-Dennis film tests

“We’d been doing some scenes in very low light, urban environments just using the available street lighting,” he says. “Kate and I wondered if you could shoot scenes for a feature film using only minimal available light.”

Dennis’s directing credits include television productions The Secret Life Of Us, Rescue Me, Rush, Twisted Tales, MDA and telefilm The Alice. She is currently in pre-production on the ABC period drama Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

Brawley is a graduate of the Australian Film, Television & Radio School whose credits include the features The Perfect Host and Lake Mungo, and the television production Lowdown. He is currently shooting the series Tangle.

In order to answer their questions definitively, Dennis and Brawley devised a simple test. They wrote and staged a dramatic sequence consisting of 28 shots, and shot those 28 shots six times, each time with a different camera, in urban locations, using only existing lighting. They chose to use real actors, Jane Harber and Mike McLeish.

“We wanted to have the storytelling requirements inform our choices about how to shoot on the day,” says Brawley. “It would have been meaningless to go out and shoot landscapes of the city at night, so we realized we had to have actors in it.”

Dennis hoped to learn more about how a given format provokes an emotional response – the filmmaker’s stock-in-trade. “For me, the test was beyond test charts, dynamic range and resolution comparisons,” she says. “It became about an emotional connection to the format. I think John and I were ultimately both more interested in de-intellectualizing the test process, and revealing which format each of us had an instinctive preference for.”

Brawley-Dennis film tests
Brawley-Dennis film tests

There were two film cameras, one in 35 mm 1.85 format, and the other in Super 16. These were loaded with KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 (7219 in the case of the smaller gauge). They also shot the scenes with the Arri Alexa, RED MX, Canon EOS 1DMK4 and a prototype of the not-yet-released Sony PMW F3.

The duo insisted on seeing the image projected on cinema screens. Deluxe Labs in Melbourne agreed to handle postproduction and to create both the final DCP and a 35mm print. Colourist Stanley Lopuszanski from Deluxe spent hours trying to get the most out of each format. Brawley and Dennis wanted each format to have its own characteristics and play to its strengths.

A 35mm print was struck and six versions of the same short sequence of shots were screened, followed by some direct side-by-side shots from each camera. A 200% blow up was included to reveal how the resolution held up. There was also a graded and ungraded comparison so viewers could judge how much or little information there was in the originals. Extra information is important because it gives filmmakers more creative flexibility during postproduction.

Meanwhile, the word spread and interest in the experiment grew. Eventually more than 200 people turned up to watch the 35mm print and DCP in the highly regarded cinemas at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne.

At first, the audience was not told which images were from which camera. Only three of the 200 assembled were confident enough to say that they could identify all six cameras correctly.

“I was very surprised at how well film did in an available light situation, when compared with the digital options,” says Dennis. “I still prefer the colour and skin tones on film, and the stock saw into the blacks as well as the Red or Alexa.

“I still adore film – but you need to calculate your audience response,” she says. “The digital formats are so clean – the resolution so astounding – that the qualities film brings (that humanising softness and luminosity) can't help but accrue meaning. The choice to use film is becoming a very deliberate one. Whether, in the end, we associate it with nostalgia, or something more compelling like truth – only time will tell.”

Brawley has been invited to present the test for members of SMPTE (the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers) in Sydney later this year.

“This was an extremely brutal test in lots of ways,” he says. “As if we were shooting a dogme film, we were only allowing ourselves what already existed and tried to make the most of that. Film certainly held its own, and outdid my expectations. The audience by a small margin preferred the look of the 35mm over all the other formats.”

“I certainly think for many stories out there, it is still the best choice,” Dennis concludes. “I can't imagine Terence Malick shooting The Tree of Life on a digital medium.”

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