Tips for Mixed Formats
- August 30, 2017
- Shane Hurlbut, ASC
What does it mean to utilize “mixed formats” in your work? Well, it could mean a lot of things visually and subconsciously. For you, what comes to mind when thinking of mixed formats? Do you see a clean digital image and having some Betamax tape cut into the sequence? Do you think of 4-perf 35mm and Super 8mm mixed? It’s always been a trend to utilize various capture mediums in more expressionistic pieces like music videos or art house films.
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Throughout my career, I have been interested in using and mastering different mediums to enhance the storytelling experience. Since the dawn of cinema, movies have been captured on celluloid. As time progressed, we introduced new acquisition formats and film gauges like 8mm, 16mm, Super 8mm, 65mm, video tape, and digital video capture. Each new format registers a certain mood/feel due to past experiences with the medium or how it’s been utilized in the history of the moving image. So, how can you utilize different formats to enhance a story?
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Let’s take it to the simplest form of “mixed formats.” In a lot of movies, we see 8mm film interjected when trying to show nostalgic moments like flashbacks, memories, dreams, and childhood throughlines. Even though a lot of us in the 21st Century don’t have 8mm home movies anymore, it’s baked into our minds to have those feelings evoked. It can be an odd thing to think about, but putting into practice simple methods like using this format to invoke nostalgia can not only enhance your piece visually — it also adds dimensionality to your film in terms of time and space.
That sounds like some serious science…
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Well, it is a science, and you need to break it down on a nuclear level to figure out how you are going to evoke the audience. When employing mixed formats, we next have to consider mixed aspect ratios. When you cut back and forth from digital capture, to 35mm, to 8mm…do you want the aspect ratio to stay the same? Do you want the aspect ratio to change? What does it mean if it changes?
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We have filmmakers like Christopher Nolan who utilizes various aspect ratios, but in different ways. For example, let’s breakdown his 2017 blockbuster hit Dunkirk. In this movie, he utilized all large format photography to capture the “scope” of the Battle of Dunkirk during World War II. He employed the IMAX MSM 9802 (15-Perf 65mm System) and the Panavision 65mm HR (5-Perf 65mm System) to tell the story. What’s interesting is that when you mix 15/70 and 5/70, you have to deal with a dramatic shift in aspect ratio. For Nolan, he wanted the audience to experience the full IMAX canvas. So let’s break it down even further… The IMAX aspect ratio is 1.43:1 and the Panavision 65mm aspect ratio is 2:20:1. You are going from IMAX aspect ratio, which is taller and more like a square, to an aspect ratio that is scope and more in line with traditional cinema.
So, how did this shift in aspect ratios work for Nolan’s story? He planned out strategically on when and where he wanted IMAX to be shot and where he wanted standard 65mm to be shot such as on claustrophobic locations like the boat crossing the English Channel or in line on the mole.
Christopher Nolan and Hoyte van Hoytema, ASC FSF NSF made this decision due to the standard 65mm feeling ultimately more intimate than the grand capture of IMAX 15/70. It became a clear distinction of what they were trying to do. The separation of the two creates a focus between the two parts of the film. You are separating those free-soaring dog fight sequences with the more vulnerable and uncertain land and sea sequences.
Ultimately, though, you want these two canvases to edit together well so you don’t call too much attention to each of them. If your audience sits there questioning the shift, then have you really done your job? They have been pulled out of the movie at this point and might never reach that submersive level you need them to be at.
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To me, this is a great example of not using mixed formats for style, but for immersion and capability.
I’ve always shot with a lot of cameras. Back when I was doing Crazy/Beautiful and Drumline, I had five or six cameras when everyone shot with one or two cameras. I always had an arsenal of cameras, and that’s how I created my speed. What I find is, when you are configuring a camera, it is time – it is time wasted. If we want to go from handheld, to Steadicam, to MoVI, to on the dolly, to a crane, and you have to take that one camera, or if you have two cameras, and you have to reconfigure them to each one of those scenarios, it takes 20 to 30 minutes. With cameras now having all those little cables and their accessories, and the Teradeks, and the onboard monitors, and the this and the that, it takes times to put together all those pieces and parts, to sync the Teradek, to do all these different things.
The more you can have a complete system built is what it’s all about. On Act of Valor, I mixed four different camera systems. I basically mixed 35mm Kodak film, the Sony F950 for all the helicopter work, the Canon 5D Mark II, and the Canon 70. Those were the four camera systems that I mixed on Act of Valor. I had never mixed formats like that before, other than shooting Super 8 and Super 16 and 35mm and mixing them all together. I had done that on so many music videos, so understanding the idea of mixing formats in those type of scenarios in music videos, it was meant to look different. With what I’m doing now, it’s meant to look like it’s the same emulsion.
I really started to find my stride on Act of Valor when I was able to kind of even the playing field. I took these four different camera platforms that were on Act of Valor and used a post-process called Cinnafilm, and you can get the plug-in for 200 bucks on Adobe Premiere. We used this plug-in basically to go in and eliminate all of the noise and the pixels and all the imperfections of the Canon 5D, the 7D, and the Sony F950. Once we eliminated that, we then layered grain on top of that matched the grain on our day exteriors, day interiors, night exteriors, and night interiors that we shot on film. We would match the grain structure to these video digital formats.
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That’s how I found to be able to seamlessly create this and even out the playing field, where you’re doing the same process with the film. You’re stripping all of that grain off of the film as well as all the digital noise and all the bad kind of quirky qualities of the Canon 5D and 7D. By doing that, you make them more equal to each other, and then they match beautifully.
What formats have you mixed together, how’d it help your story?