As part of CineGround’s ongoing explorations into the methods and madness of moving picture image creation, Andreas Mendritzki, one of our founding partners, interviews Cinematographers, Directors and other image-makers, bringing you their insight into the ever-evolving tools and techniques that are at our disposal.
Simran Dewan is a cinematographer based in Montréal, who has spent a lot of his career shooting with RED cameras. Having recently embraced the release of RED’s 8k Helium sensor (available in their Epic-W and Weapon camera bodies) we were interested to hear how he made out using this extreme-resolution camera on a reent documentary style shoot.
Andreas Mendritzki: So Simran, you just got back from a few weeks of documentary shooting in eastern Africa. Can you tell me a little bit about the project and what your mandate was?
Simran Dewan: Yeah so about a couple of months ago I was called to work on a documentary piece for the company Content & Brand that would take me around the US and Eastern Africa. We knew from the beginning that we wanted the film to look big and we were ready to take the necessary time to get the shots right, even if it meant repeating a given action 3 or 4 times.
AM: You wanted it to ‘look big’. Was that part of the reason why you chose to shoot on RED’s Hellium 8k sensor?
SD: That was part of the reason. The push for going 8K Helium was mostly from my end as it’s a sensor that I know very well and one that reacts amazingly well in any situation I could find myself in. Its large capture resolution gives a lot of flexibility in the kind of situations we found ourselves in for this shoot. I would find myself shooting an interview in 8K with a 35mm prime knowing that with this master coverage, we can grab 4K close ups. Or, I could be tracking a motorcycle driving down a bumpy village road with the camera on a gimbal at 120fps and still being able to keep a high enough resolution to pull two different shot values AND have a 15-20% padding to help with post-stabilization. It’s also nice that with the same camera, I could shoot with PL primes and the next day (or minute) be using some EF zoom lenses with a variable ND. All this in a package not much bigger than a high end DSLR…. The 8K Helium proved to be quite a powerful camera for this style of shooting.
AM:When you say, “grab a 4k close up” do you mean you crop in to the 8k image to extract your close up?
SD: Yeah, so pretty early on in the process we observed that switching angles or shot values during the interviews ended up distracting our subjects too much – and bringing two cameras with two operators was not possible for us. After a couple of tests, we discovered that cropping a 4K frame from the 8K master worked really well. The image held up surprisingly well and the grain structure was virtually invisible.
AM: I think that a lot of people would assume that the flip side of that would be that the amount of data that you’d end up with after shooting long interviews in 8k would be prohibitive. Was hard drive space an issue?
SD: We were capturing 8KHD 15:1 R3D files with simultaneous 2K ProRes LT proxies. All in all, minute-to-minute, we were recording at a data rate equivalent to 4K ProRes 422 HQ. I was actually surprised by the numbers and had to redo my tests to make sure I wasn’t mistaken. While on any other Red, I would have some uncertainties shooting at such a high compression, with an 8K format, the compression never became an issue. There’s a pretty good article about resolution vs compression and from what I understand, 8K 15:1 is actually equivalent to 6K 8:1, which is a completely acceptable compression ratio for the type of work we were doing. The idea is that 1 minute of 8k 15:1 uses the same amount of data as 1 minute of 6K 8:1, but yields a sharper, cleaner image. [See Offhollywood’s article here]…
AM: Right, and still allowed you to shoot RAW, which for doc work can be really great. It’s a weird irony I’ve found…. Usually its only bigger budget fiction that allows themselves to shoot RAW, but you usually have time and budget in those situations to make sure that your exposure is super controlled, and so you actually don’t “need” a RAW image (or, the advantages vs. a baked-in codec like Pro Res become less of a factor). In a doc world, you don’t always have time to make sure that you’re perfectly exposed, white balanced etc., and so RAW can really save you in Colour Correction.
SD: Exactly! The flexibility that a RAW workflow has to offer really helps. I also took the time to find a look that suited the subject matter for creating an on-set LUT to have on the monitors. Working the new IPP2 colour pipeline I could control my contrast curve and my highlight roll-off, over which I would apply an IPP2-focused 3D LUT. The LUTs were really nice to help preview a look, and by controlling the contrast/roll-off, I was able to dial in the perfect amount of contrast and highlight retention per location – and all this in a completely non-destructive manner. (The look for each clip is saved as a sidecar file that can be applied, modified or ignored in the grading process) It’s a really easy way to take advantage of the RED RAW colour pipe-line.
AM: Is it just the colour workflow that has changed with IPP2, or do you feel that you’re getting actual changes/improvements in colour rendition?
SD: I think we started seeing improvements when Red released the RedWideGamutRGB colour space (as part of the early IPP2 beta rollout). RWG was nice as it really helped control colour separation and really saved clipping saturation in out-of-gamut colours. What I’m witnessing now goes further than just better colour control, but really shows how the sensor is able to retain great amounts of detail in both the low end and the top end. I mean we’ve always been able to get info in the extremes before, but now with IPP2, Red is so conveniently letting us play with these parameters at the acquisition stage.
AM: Did it affect how you shoot?
SD: It did. Having tested the workflow and export settings for a final 2K deliverable, I quickly understood that it would be very difficult to get a “bad” shot. It sounds silly, but its true! With this trust in the image, the process became streamlined. I would simply set the camera, make sure I wasn’t clipping on either end and then really focus on the fun things like finding the perfect frame and fine-tuning my lighting. What you saw was what you got. I always carry my light meter everywhere I go and for the first time, I never took it out of my bag. At first it felt like I was cheating, but once I got over the nostalgia, I quickly embraced this new way of working.
Simran Dewan is a cinematographer based in Montréal, Quebec. Check out his work here.
CineGround is a boutique camera rental and post-production house.
Photo credits: Content & Brand