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Digital Cinematography vs Film: Tides are Turning

  • February 6, 2013
  • Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Digital Cinematography vs Film: Tides are Turning

As I embark on a long creative, exciting journey on Need for Speed with DreamWorks, I wanted to share some of my most recent findings from a five day camera test that pushed every camera to its breaking point. Our final choice was a three camera collaborative for the look and feel of this film.

“The Ultimate Camera Test”

The Director, Scotty Waugh, wanted to test all of the latest digital cameras that have come out recently as well as some that have been around for four years, which is rare. He wanted to find his emulsion. I am camera tested out, so we are going to take a break from tests for a while. Stay tuned for four upcoming posts that will start with the Blackmagic camera in a few weeks.

We tested:
Sony F65
Sony F5
Arri Alexa
Red Epic
Canon 1DC
Canon C500
GoPro Hero 3
35mm Film


camera tests on Need for Speed

camera tests on Need for Speed

camera tests on Need for Speed


“Color Correction”

What was immediately clear was that film was not the right choice for this project. We could not mold it and shape it into our vision. I sat blown away in the Technicolor DI suite with Mike Sowa, our colorist at the wheel. The digital file had more data, more information, more latitude, and more color depth. I am not sure if the film scanners are keeping up with the latest technology because of the impending demise of 35mm film. That is very sad. I have lensed 17 features through an eyepiece, not an electronic viewfinder. In those 17 features, my light meter, not a wave form, guided me through my quest.


“The Crossroads”

It was the name of one of my favorite bars when I went to Emerson, right down the street from my dorm at Fensgate. Crossroads was a place I visited to talk about film, the art of the medium, how organic it is, the structure, the gauze that it lays over the image, whether it be grain or just plain magic. It has fueled incredible Oscar performances and brought so many great films to life.

I sat looking at the image on the screen and I cannot get the look that I like with my go to tool for 20 years. So, I second guess myself, which is not a good thing to do. I must be pushing it to a place that I should not go. Yet, when I view the ultimate tool that we have chosen to be our A camera, it looks exactly how I want it to look. It took two turns to the right, one to the left and BAM!!!! Our vision screamed off the screen.

When I lensed Deadfall in the winter of 2010 after just finishing Act of Valor, I went back to film. We were shooting snow in the wintertime and I wanted the latitude of film to deal with all of the extreme conditions we would be under. The Alexa had just come out and was not really tested, so the Director Stefan Ruzowitzky and I decided to go with film. I have to say that the speed at which I was able to move was incredible. Light meter in hand, no cables, monitors, black tents, etc.


Shooting Deadfall

I trusted my instinct on film and its emulsion attributes. This is exactly what our digital cameras are, another film emulsion. You have to pick your emulsions, not singular, because specific cameras have their unique benefits, their unique emulsion. So trying to use their best aspects and not being locked to one emulsion to shoot your movie is paramount. I would never do that if I were shooting film. I would use daylight balanced film outside, then use faster daylight for dusk, dawn, and day interiors, as well as tungsten for night interior and exteriors.


“Becoming Fearless”

If there is one thing that I am, it is a risk taker. My wife, Lydia, always asks me, why do you have to always push the limits? I respond that it is in my DNA. My parents wondered the same thing. My son practices this every day. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. By the way, GOD has a sick sense of humor. I took many risks on my features and music videos. I remember on Crazy/Beautiful, the studio could not understand why I was rating a stock at 32 ISO when it read 320 ISO on the can. Technicolor had never pulled a film three stops before but that is what I did on Deadfall. I love trying new things and testing myself as an artist. Will this work? I really have no idea sometimes and that is the exciting part.

When Act of Valor came along and we decided to shoot 70% of the film on an untested still camera made by Canon, we never missed a beat because it was right for the movie, right for the SEALS, right for the emotions, and right for the budget. This is the fearless nature that I talk about. When you can see it on a monitor exactly how it will look, when you are in the DI suite on set, you can BE ABSOLUTELY FEARLESS!!!

As a cinematographer, many of you have been in this situation, whether you choose to talk about it or not. Standing there with your director and discussing the look of the scene is one of the most important conversations. Our creative collective agreed that our actor would be silhouette. I expose it that way, dailies come back and everyone is blown away on the day. They love it. It feels right, and the feedback is amazing.

Six months later, I am in the DI suite with the director and he asks me if we can bring some detail up in his face. Ouch! “I thought you were going to go semi-silhouette,” he said. I know in the back of my mind we said silhouette, which to me means absolutely no detail. I had a close up, but there was nothing there. We tried a power window here and there, but all of it felt mushy.

Smash cut to on set dailies, on set color and you are now seeing a very close representation of the image that will be in your DI suite in six months. Right then and there, you can talk about it. The director’s idea of silhouette might be a little different than yours. It might be a semi-silhouette feel. However, you can have the discussion and immediately plot a creative course. When the director wants it dark and moody, you can be really daring because what you see is what you get. So I light it where you have to squint to see them. The director immediately says, “But maybe not that dark, I want to see their faces, their emotions.” Ha! Ha!

The mystery is gone, the organic process removed. Is this a good thing? I have to say I was pretty fearless with film, but I do take things more to the edge with the digital medium because of this one fact.

Roger Deakins said that he felt very much the same way, that he is much more of a risk taker with digital and that he felt that the Alexa was taking his creativity to new heights because of it. This man is one of my most trusted mentors. I look at each frame that he creates in shock and awe. He has inspired me my whole career.


“What to make of all of this”

I have to say that with technology changing faster than most of us can keep up, I view it as believing in yourself. Trust your instincts and go for it; throw it out there. Make mistakes. That is how you grow as an artist. Push yourself to be uncomfortable. I hate comfort. I need to feel that I am on the edge of a cliff and the wrong exposure or the wrong execution will send me off, into the deep abyss, and then I do it to see what that deep abyss looks like.


Black Magic Cinema Camera
Blackmagic Cinema Camera
Blackmagic Cinema Camera with vintage Canon 8-64mm glass
Blackmagic Cinema Camera with vintage Canon 8-64mm glass
Marc Margulies with the Canon C500
Marc Margulies with the Canon C500
Canon EOS 1DC with Panavision Primo glass
Canon EOS 1DC with Panavision Primo glass
Sony F5
Sony F5
Arri 435
Arri 435
This is how we rolled out the GoPro Hero 3!
This is how we rolled out the GoPro Hero 3!


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