Tentpole Cameras and Commodity Culture

This article first appeared in IF Magazine Australia, 2009

As filmmakers, we are living in an unprecedented time of change.

That’s how these articles always start out. The article that tells you that everything you knew about the business and artistry of making films has changed forever because a single new camera, a new device or a new way of working is sweeping all before it. The article might claim a new dawn of ‘democratised’ filmmaking, as though filmmaking had stood still for 80 years. But it’s never been about one particular camera, device, or editing platform, and like every overnight sensation, this ‘sudden’ change has been building for at least the last ten years.

There are two powerful forces, that together, are changing the ways films are made. On the one hand the economics of technology places enormous pressure on manufacturers to get specialist and costly technology commoditised and quickly into the hands of consumers (think advanced visual effects software and powerful computing). On the other mass-market consumer technologies are increasingly used by professional filmmakers to increase production flexibility, and to reduce cost (think Final Cut Pro, and small, light digital cameras).

The thing that’s happening now in filmmaking, and that is most relevant to Australian filmmakers, is that the processes and technologies that are used to make huge international blockbusters are becoming so cheap, that in a matter of six months to a year they become available to just about everyone. The rapid commoditisation of these advanced systems make it almost impossible for any facility to complete by simply providing access to the systems and technology alone anymore.

Take digital shooting- it was eight years between 2002’s Attack Of The Clones, shot on the now ubiquitous F900, and Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, shot on a pro-sumer Sony EX3 and widely released with all the production values that you’d expect on a much larger, more expensive film. Sony had taken eight years to put what they’d learned in developing a high-end, $USD100,000 camera, into a lower end, sub-$USD10,000 full 1080p camera. Sony had realised a while ago that the research they’d done would only pay off over time if it enabled them to sell even more moderately priced, mass produced cameras to a professional or enthusiast consumer market. So the commodification of the high end film technology enabled them to fund their high end R&D, shift more units, and for more people to have access to this technology to make their films. And with the now usual software and firmware updates, as well as kit being designed for retrofitted upgrades to optimise and improve the product in small increments over time, these cameras become a very solid investment for people to take their creativity into their own hands.

Another example: I was the post production supervisor on Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, for Walden Media in the later half of 2009. Walden had developed the workflow to take advantage of many of these bleeding edge technologies into a very powerful file-based workflow. Based on their workflow plans, I built a mini-facility on the lot from the ground up in an empty production office, with the help of a talented engineer, Chad Andrews from Sixteen19. The build specified five Avids, a full Nucoda digital colour grading suite, and a Codex digital recorder console that we would receive the hard disks from set into. Over an ethernet connection we could tap in to the Codex disc recorder onset, which was recording everything from the camera down to a removable disc, and the DP Dante Spinotti could walk across the car park and see the last shot of the day at full resolution in a grading suite if he wanted to check anything, some two minutes after he had left the sound stage. We were dropping graded dailies to Los Angeles within 5 hours of wrap- every day. With the dateline putting LA 10 hours behind the Gold Coast, the Executives for Walden and Fox would wake up in the morning and see that day’s dailies. As the Head Of Dailies for Fox said, it was like we were in ‘Some kind of crazy time machine!’.

Codex Onboard

But aside from geeking out, the real advantage to all of this was the speed with which the crew were able to respond to what was shooting that day. The editorial team, located in the post area, could be cutting directly behind the shoot, then send temp edits back to set to show what was working, what wasn’t, then do something about it on set on the same day. This speed gave the shoot a really responsive quality of constant feedback and monitoring that no one had really experienced before.

This is the most important and practical advantage, and one that is rarely discussed. Digital technology  provides the ability to really respond to what’s going on, on the ground, immediately. This technology supports the collaborative process, it gives the director maximum flexibility in telling their story, while allowing greatly enhanced communication with an often remote production office and editorial rooms.

“But that’s a $100mil+ film!”, I hear you yelling.

On Dawn Treader we used a bit of kit called the Codex Lab. It interfaces with almost any digital camera, records the camera raw files and can spit out a full range digital file format with full meta-data as well as do all the file format conversions necessary for editorial and VFX. This was an expensive and complex bit of kit- at the time a full investment would near $AUD100,000+.

But again the economics of technology are such that big profits are really only made by manufacturers when they can ‘design once, and sell many’. Technology is a volume business and manufacturers make profits only if they can reduce cost of components, and sell to a mass-market.  In a way it’s the profit pressure to get the technology into the hands of consumers that really drives innovation. And this is what has happened to the Codex Lab.  A year after shooting on Dawn Treader wrapped, the Codex Lab, which was encased in a full road case, has just been released in a much smaller hardware and software model called the Codex Transfer Station and can plug into and run on almost any Mac- for a fraction of the cost. It has most of the features of the larger version we used on the Narnia film, and would do everything that an Australian indie film needs for feature production but will fit into a Crumpler laptop bag. This brings the speed and efficiencies of a huge Hollywood film to bear on much smaller, tighter productions.

Combine this with the ability now to have these devices automate a lot of processes, so that as soon as you plug your camera drive into your desktop caddy, the device automatically pulls the data off the drive and makes your editorial and creative review files based on a pre-defined, automated workflow. It will start to build an archive of your filmed master material, can put it up on an online asset management system, the possibilities are endless, and the process actually becomes easier and easier to manage.

It means for indie filmmaking in particular, which is always done on a tightrope, that instead of getting into the edit weeks after shoot and realising that you have to do pickups or reshoots, for example, but don’t have the time, the sets, the money, the cast, or the nervous energy anymore to return to shoot, you would have been told as you were shooting that something is not going to work, and you could make plans to fix it then and there onset, when you’re there. This alone would obviously benefit the time-strapped indie director or producer immensely.

There will be some in the industry, with huge investments in legacy gear, that will feel threatened by these changes. These businesses will need to adapt and transition to the new environment if they are to remain viable. They will need to shift focus onto commodity computing and automated workflows on one hand, and talent retention on the other. It’ll be a fine line to tread, and the traditional Big Lab will increasingly be under pressure from a multitude of smaller operators with lower overheads working directly for productions.

Ultimately I believe that these changes will most benefit filmmakers themselves. It will give filmmakers more creative choice, faster turn-around, higher-quality outputs all at significantly reduced cost. And you don’t need to be Gareth Edwards, who admittedly did work in London as a VFX operator for years before making Monsters. You just need to do what filmmakers have always done- find and develop a relationship with the people with skills like Gareth Edwards. And there are hundreds of them in Australia alone, just waiting for their chance to shine. This makes it an interesting time as well for VFX and post production operators, those at the coalface, on the machines, who can leave dark rooms, blinking into the light, and join production teams as consultants with valuable skills now relevant directly to any production.

 But despite all this talk of technology, I won’t be the first or the last to say that filmmaking at it’s very heart is about trying to tell stories to an audience that wants to be moved, to be excited, to be titillated and challenged. Your audience want stories that are so relevant to them and their lives within a culture, that they’ll pay twelve bucks to go see them, to be able to re-tell the stories they’ve seen to their friends and work colleagues on a Monday morning. That hasn’t changed at all. The barriers to entry are lowering, the technology is available, but still the most important story is the one you’re going to tell your audience.

 Some references:

Ex3 Camera:

Codex Disc recorder:

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