Shooting for Computers Instead of Humans

Which one of these pictures looks better? Actually it’s kind of a trick question, if you’re a viewer, you think the one on the bottom. If you’re computer or a colorist you’s pick the one on the top. This footage was shot on an Arri Alexa, in LogC on the top, and corrected for Rec. 709 (HDTV) at the bottom.

While a casual viewing shows the top image (LogC) as much less contrasty, less saturated, and dull, a colorist would see the potential in that image, and how much he could manipulate it, which is exactly why Arri added this mode of recording.

I could correct the LogC shot, to look exactly like the one on the bottom. But if all I received from the cinematographer is the bottom shot, my options are much more limited.

Take for example the little girl in the lower right hand side of the frame. She’s in direct sunlight pouring through the window, and in the Rec 709 (bottom shot) the highlights around her are blown out. If there happened to be important information there, I could not recover any of that in post, because in video once it’s white, it’s gone.

The Log C footage on the top, still has that highlight information, that I could pull out in color correction and show to the viewer, say the texture of her shirt, and the white table she’s writing on.

You can see for yourself, download the Log C footage, and the Rec 709 footage (Apple Quicktime ProRes 4444), bring it into a color corrector of your choice, and try to correct for the highlights in both shots. The Log C is much more maleable, however it looks flat and washed out straight out of the camera. It doesn’t look good to the human eye, but it looks great to the computer.

Since the advent of the all digital workflow, and especially affordable color correction tools, like Apple’s Color, or DaVinci’s Resolve (now in the affordable category), it changes the way in which footage should be shot. There’s more room for manipulation, and colorists now have much more power over how the final shot looks than they used to. When you shoot for the computer, you gain much more control, but you cede the final decisions on the look of the film to the colorist.

Cinematographers hate this, as a large part of their craft is carefully manipulating lighting ratios and shadow intensity, which is especially tricky for the limited range of video. However digital cinema cameras can now record much more dynamic range (like Log C) than your TV can display. So there’s a school of thought that now says, just get the focus and composition right, light it flat, and we’ll make it “pop” in post, where there is more control, done faster, and less expensively.

While as a colorist, I certainly see the advantage of that, I do think that the all digital workflow is re-defining the role of the cinematographer. In the all digital world, the cinematographer is no longer just a on-set production position that hands over the footage at the end of the day.  He needs to be in post as well for the final image manipulation, and understand how far the image can be enhanced. As the person ultimately responsible for the film’s visuals, the digital cinematographer now needs to know how to shoot for the computer, as well as for the human eye.

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