In With a Horse, Out with a House
Last night’s episode of Fox’s “House, MD” marked the conclusion of a long debate, “film vs. digital.” As a filmmaker, I have been a longstanding proponent of film. It has always been standard-bearer for moving image-makers. And HD, despite certain conveniences and an apparently lower price had yet to level its own playing field.
In the early days of HD, Brad Anderson’s 2001 offering “Session 9” (the first theatrically-released movie shot on a digital format) was an engrossing piece of filmmaking and a great horror movie, but it had a nasty video-ey look. In “Star Wars” episodes 2 and 3 (2002 and 2005, respectively), both of which were shot on Sony HD Cameras, there seemed to be more life and detail in the animated characters than the human beings which made sense as the sensors in the HD cameras were incapable of working at the resolution of ILM’s visual effects wizards. As time went on, the digital moviemaking “revolution” found ways to make visually-appealing films that worked HD’s strengths and versatility, like Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City” (2005) or Mario Van Peebles’ “Badassss” (2003), but HD wasn’t quite soup yet.
Time passed, new cameras like the Thompson/Grass Valley Viper, the Dalsa Origin, Silicon Imaging 2K, Vision Research’s Phantom high-speed camera, the Panasonic HPX3000 (which was used on my own feature, “Alien Raiders”), the Sony F23, the Arri D-20, and the much-balyhooed RED One came into the professional camera marketplace and each chipped off a little piece of film’s stranglehold on the marketplace.
Then in 2008, two movies shot digitally, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (shot on the Thompson/Grass Valley Viper camera) and “Slumdog Millionaire” (shot on the Silicon Imaging 2K Mini) were nominated for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards and one of them, “Slumdog Millionaire” won. So the “can digital compete with film” debate was over, but most professionals at that time still preferred to work with film. After all, Film has history. Film took us from Muybridge’s first accidental movie of a horse galloping all the way to 1999 with very little competition. Film is predictable, has a scalable workflow, works as well handheld as it does on a Technocrane, works well in low light, and has over a century’s worth of R&D in lenses that will give the operator guaranteed results.
So if digital cinematography won the friggin’ Oscar 2 years ago, why are we still having this argument? Well, big-budget features can afford to have huge crews and more lighting so as to act as a living laboratory for the newer cameras, but television and commercial production – which both run at higher speeds and rely on more predictability than features – were often stuck somewhere in the middle. Less look-intensive shows like “The Office” had adopted HD, but big network dramas like “24” had played with digital only to go back to shooting celluloid. But also two years ago marked the release of the Canon 5D Mark II, a middle-to-high-end Digital SLR camera that cost only $2,400 and shot in HD. Although late to the party, I blogged about it here. It was a matter of time before something uber-professional was shot on one of these cameras, and last night’s season finale of “House, MD” (shot by veteran DP Gale Tattersall) was the first one to lay that claim.
The episode entitled “Help Me,” from a visual standpoint, was everything “House” is known to be – a bit dark, a bit witty, and visually stunning. To most viewers of the show, they probably didn’t notice any difference, and that’s my point. These cameras still have a long way to go and a laundry list of issues users want solved. But finally they’re able to penetrate virtually every sector of filmmaking and give filmmakers high-quality results which are viewable immediately and require no chemical processing to be viewed. They are light, work well in low light, and increasingly can be built up in a modular fashion like film cameras. And frankly they’re only getting better. If you want to stay as current as possible on everything in the DSLR filmmaking movement, check out the Cinema 5D blog.
And in the ensuing months, look for Arri’s new “Alexa” camera, RED’s much-hyped “Epic,” Aaton’s “Penelope,” as well as other offerings from Sony, Panasonic, etc. And by the time filmmakers get those into their hands, there will be countless more offerings in the DSLR world, and more ways to integrate them into traditional production. And as these become increasingly viable options, I’m hard pressed to think of a single reason to shoot on film anymore.
Watch the full episode here.
Note: For more information, check out the Q&A with Tattersall, show director Greg Yaitanes, “House, MD’s” Post Producer Alllen Palmer, and DSLR luminaries Cali Lewis and Philip Bloom that was posted here. Good stuff.