VFX Los Angeles

Digital 3D cameras revolutionize mainstream film production

Jackson’s “Epic” decision brings innovative technologies to the forefront

3D camera

Peter Jackson’s decision to buy thirty Red Epic digital cameras for filming The Hobbit confirms that conventional 35mm film and cameras may soon be obsolete.

Much has been said recently about the quality of 3D versions of films. Adding 3D effects or converting 2D to 3D is no longer an option when it comes to producing a quality cinematic experience, as the scrapped attempt to rush this process on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 (2010) demonstrated. Filmmakers wishing to tempt audiences out from in front of their home entertainment centres, in the age of Blu-ray and HD digital television, have to deliver a more unique and believable experience, as James Cameron’s Avatar attempted to do.

Like Cameron, Peter Jackson has been at the forefront of bringing innovative technologies in film production and filmmaking, yet neither managed to supersede the 35mm celluloid traditional camera, until now. The future of film production looks like a race between the tacked-on technologies of existing camera manufacturers such as Sony and Canon, or the unique custom build of Red Cinema products.

Sony Digital Fusion Camera System for Avatar 3D convergence

James Cameron, with Vince Pace, developed the multi-million dollar Fusion Camera System. Pace’s concept combined two Sony HDC-950 HD cameras (later upgraded with Sony HDC-F950 cameras) with lenses that could dynamically adjust the angle of their convergence to match the depth of objects within the Z field (a term that describes 3D space). This significantly improved the 3D viewing experience and increased flexibility for manipulation of image depth effect. The cameras were used for filming live action scenes in New Zealand.

“A key enhancement to our Fusion Camera System used on Avatar has been our ability to introduce a software algorithm that controls the convergence so we can extract the best stereo from a shot based on metadata such as focal length and distance to the subject,” Pace explained to Jay Ankeney during the post-production phase of Avatar (2009).

Now that Cameron has committed to making two sequels to Avatar, he told invited guests to the Avatar Immersive Extended Collector’s Edition DVD launch that first they had to improve and upgrade.

“In order to do that,” he said, “we have to refine our technical processes beyond the end of where we were finishing ‘Avatar 1′ a year ago because we need to future-proof ourselves five or six years to the end of the third film. We’re in that process right now.”

Future-Proof Canon Digital Stop Motion Animation Cameras at Aardman

Aardman Animations in Bristol, UK, home of successful features like Oscar-winning Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) are now using Canon EOS 1D digital cameras for their stop motion animation feature films, and have recently put their 40 Mitchell traditional cameras into storage.

The Canon offers a simple user interface, self-cleaning sensor and high-ISO images. Peripheral-illumination correction keeps brightness consistent across the entire image while the auto lighting optimiser boosts shadow detail. Its usefulness for stop motion animation lies in the full manual control over video that allows the filmmaker to micromanage every frame. Digital cameras speed up the filmmaking process over traditional celluloid reels.

The production phase of making a new film

Directors no longer have to wait for “rushes” to be developed and delivered back for viewing. At Aardman, for instance, each set could not be dismantled until after a motorbike messenger had brought back the day’s developed footage and it had been viewed. With digital, the monitor shows immediately whether the crew got their shot right, which they find “liberating,” James Silver reports. It saves time, and processing costs, too.

Aardman also filmed in stereo (3D) The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, a $60 million feature made in partnership with Sony Pictures Digital Productions.

Red Epic Digital Camera 3D Cinematography for The Hobbit

Peter Jackson’s take on the coming of digital is very positive, and he ordered 30 Red Epic cameras at a cost of approximately $58,000 each, for 3D filming of his 2011 production, The Hobbit. These cameras are small and light and can easily be mounted side-by-side for 3D image filming. Since they are battery driven, they have no cables. He believes that they offer the most filmic final image of any digital equipment.

Jackson is mainly interested in the artistic possibilities of digital cinematography. He suggests digital cameras as a more practical option than old-fashioned 35mm ones, pointing out that the usual 2k resolution of digital pictures has been superseded already by the 4k option. Four thousand pixel resolution gives brighter color and contains more visual information which offers clearer detail, particularly in shadowed areas. He also believes that tungsten light gives a more artistic effect and clearer skin tones.

Examples of movies shot with Red Digital technology include Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) and David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010). Jackson used a Red Criterion to establish certain artistic features for The Lovely Bones (2009). Directors are known to be particularly keen on digital, specifically Red filmmaking technology also include Steven Soderbergh, while Martin Scorsese, who shot The Invention of Hugo Cabret in London in 3D, reportedly remains obsessed with the “sound of the sprockets” and the “feel of 35mm.”