Blurring of Lines

This 16 mm spring-wound Bolex "H16" ...

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In the 121 years since the invention of the motion picture camera, the worlds of production and post production have operated as two connected, but completely discrete units.

The production side, an optical/chemical/mechanical process, essentially unchanged from the Victorian era until the widespread adoption of the portable video camera (until recently, almost all feature films still used Victorian technology, now only most of them do.) The portable video camera, although recording what came through the lens on videotape instead of film, was still a device that recorded images onto a spooling ribbon operated by a clockwork mechanism. The ultimate output of this stage of the process was a canister of film or a box of tape, often accompanied by a spool of audio tape which would be placed in a container with a page or so of handwritten notes and delivered by hand to a post-production facility (with a stop along the way at the film lab, if necessary).

Once this carefully wrapped package was entrusted to post-production, it’s chopped into ever smaller pieces, sorted and resorted, indexed, labelled, re-coloured, and then reassembled into a whole that may or may not resemble what was originally envisioned by the writer and director. In many cases, particularly in the days of film, the equipment used to do all this had very little in common with the equipment used to create the raw material or with the equipment used to present it to audiences. Things like flatbed Steenbecks and Moviolas. were used when film and tape had to be physically cut.

The move to the use of videotape in broadcasting simplified the process greatly, starting with linear video editing and moving to computer-based non-linear video editing. The material was played back on video monitors that, although very high quality and fine-tuned, were not so different than the sets sitting in a viewer’s front room.

Supporting all of this are the technologists: “beardy men in sandals” with screwdrivers, spanners, and soldering irons. Their role is to fix things when they break and attempt to keep them from breaking again.

This approach remained unchanged for so long for two reasons – firstly, it worked quite elegantly and reliably; secondly, production people could tap into a massive body of knowledge built up over the years. DPs and LDs knew just how much they could push specific film stock, set dressers knew just how things would look on screen, editors could find a specific frame with their eyes shut, dubbers could fix anything in the mix and directors could picture the finished product in their minds.

The new world of file-based production makes the journey from the lens and the microphone to the viewer’s screen more seamless and significantly blurs the boundaries between production, post-production and technology.

The current generation of digital cameras are essentially very powerful, purpose-built computers connected to high resolution image sensors. They allow operators to enter metadata, can be connected to GPS receivers so that shots are not only tagged with time and date, but longitude and latitude as well. There are a wealth of settings that can make a dramatic difference in the overall look of the image. In the case of the Red line of cameras, the images are captured in a format similar to the RAW format used in digital still cameras allowing for a wide latitude of image adjustment in the post-production stage.

Then there are the format decisions: SD or HD? Frame rate? 720 or 1080? Progressive or interlace? Stereo or surround? Live surround capture or ambisonics? Dolby Pro Logic or 5.1? Bit rate and codec? Container format? Tape or tapeless? Card, hard drive, or optical disk? Does the editing software support the camera’s codec? And on, and on, and on . . . .

To further complicate this, manufacturers seemingly release a new model of camera with a new flavour of an existing standard every fortnight.

We’ve reached an inflection point, not unlike the Enlightenment. It’s been said thatIsaac Newton was the last person who knew “everything” about the world. After Newton, the explosion of knowledge and information in the West made it impossible to know “everything” and led to the the creation of the specialist and the move away from the generalist.

Only a few years ago, a camera operator could know absolutely everything about a specific camera – how it functioned, how it responded to specific conditions, and how to repair it with chewing gum and paper clips. Things are different now. A camera operator is still the expert in how things should look: how to frame shots, track action, and find the best angles. However, that operator now needs to work closely with an acquisitions specialist from the world of technology who can advise on proper formats, the correct settings to get the desired look, new features, new accessories, new approaches to shooting and more.