Every year about this time, spring is ushered in by a gathering of the broadcast industry in Los Vegas, Nevada, otherwise known as NAB. This annual conference of the National Association of Broadcasters showcases new technologies in support of all aspects of the broadcast industry. I’ve attended the conference many times in the past and it is quite an impressive showing of all kinds of high tech equipment, hardware, software and especially new digital cameras. What strikes me always about all this stuff – probably because I’m a Kodak guy – is that the vast majority is dedicated to a single cause…trying to replace motion picture film!
For as many years as I can recall, the floor of NAB is jam-packed with an incredibly diverse number of offerings from various manufactures of digital technologies like motion capture devices and digital image manipulation technologies – all developed specifically with the goal of emulating the look and efficiencies derived from the eloquent and mature medium of motion picture film.
As with many technical conferences where manufactures display their wares, a walk through the cavernous venues of the Los Vegas convention hall that houses NAB is like a trip into another dimension. The number of exhibits alone is quite overwhelming and one is seemingly larger than the next. As I pass by booth after booth of all types of imaging technology I can’t help but be amused by the fact that after 30 or more years and billions dollars of research and development, film still reigns as the gold standard of motion imaging. In spite of improvements, electronic digital imaging has yet to match all the wonderful qualities that film delivers. 70 video formats later, the ‘film look’ remains the benchmark that all digital technology is trying to replicate. But despite the best efforts of large and small manufactures of digital camera equipment, the look, feel and range of film, is still difficult to match in every way. Some come close, but none without compromise. Film is still the king of dynamic range. And, random film grains resolve more naturally to the way our eye perceives the world compared to the unnatural geometric pattern of a digital chip.
As the debate continues within the motion picture and broadcast industries as to which of the current variations of digital imaging tools comes closest to matching the look achieved with film, one thing remains certain and unchanged…film continues as the bench mark for imaging excellence. There is little doubt or argument that film is considered the gold standard for motion imaging. When manufactures of electronic capture technology design their systems, and measure the quality of their results, the standards they measure against – and attempt to emulate – are the standards set by the 100-year-old technology of film. At the same time, when the industry experts conduct tests of equipment to confirm the manufactures’ claims, the standard used for comparing digital is…film!
If there is any doubt about film’s lofty position as the gold standard for motion image technology, we need only refer to recent tests conducted by the imaging experts….Cinematographers.
When the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) and the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) designed tests for digital cameras systems, film was the benchmark technology used to compare all the rest. In 2009 both the ASC Camera Assessment Series and the BSC Film and Digital Image Evaluation were conducted independently but in cooperation with vendors and manufactures. The tests were extensive and involved as many as 18 different camera systems. In both versions of the tests, cinematographers from around the world were invited to participate in the design and execution of these side-by-side comparisons. As typical with ‘shoot-outs’ the cameras were rigged to capture the same scene content simultaneously. The scenes’ content was lit to accommodate a film exposure, and digital results were made to match film in post production. But the tests were far from the typical shoot out, because both organizations took the time to examine the intangible aspects of production, like; ease of use of equipment and costs of production and postproduction time. Both employed similar parameters for shooting and posting images, and in both the desired requirement was raw data derived directly from the camera chip (with some cameras this isn’t possible, most notably Red). The data was then ‘messaged’ into common file formats and sent through a Digital Intermediate process for multiple format conversion.
At the outset, early screenings were projected digitally from a lossless compressed JPEG 2000 file format converted to DCP (Digital Cinema Package). But long-term, both organizations plan to record files out to 35mm interneg to create 35mm prints. The ASC tested 35mm film only while the BSC tests included 16mm. Menu settings of the various digital camera systems were left in the hands of the manufacturers and suppliers to ensure completely unbiased testing. The results and detailed published accounts of both tests are well documented and available on line. And the BSC has also made available a Blu Ray DVD of their evaluation. The ASC plans to do the same in the not too distant future.
I was fortunate enough to attend the very first screening of the ASC / CAS in June of last year, hosted by the Producers Guild of America, the organization who commissioned the assessment. Once again I was struck with that same feeling of astonishment as when I cruise the halls of NAB. To say the evening was a revelation about the future of digital movie making would be a bit of a stretch. As expected, there was some confusion that evening over certain aspects of how the production cost data was derived, and challenges to the technical parameters of the test. There also were discussions about how to make the next test better the next time – and some agreed that the next text should probably not include film. Why? Because one of the undeniable facts almost all of the industry experts in attendance agreed on is that it isn’t fair to force digital to try and match film. Film remains the gold standard.