Schwartzman’s Lament

John Schwartzman, ASC, works with Red Epic cameras and 3Ality stereo rigs during production on “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Photo by Jaimie Trueblood, SMPSP, courtesy of John Schwarztman, ASC.

These are exciting times for John Schwartzman, ASC. Heading out of a state-of-the-art digital 3D tentpole extravaganza, The Amazing Spider-Man, Schwartzman recently segued right into the modestly budgeted Disney feature, Saving Mr. Banks, currently in production. That film is, literally, an actual “film”—it’s being shot on film negative (Kodak Vision3 5213 and 5219 stock) directly in the wake of Schwartzman’s experience participating in as complex a file-based digital workflow as the industry has yet seen for Spider-Man.

In a recent conversation, a reflective Schwartzman was in a melancholy mood about the industry’s shift, despite his success straddling a traditional film world that seems to be phasing out of the mainstream in his industry and the new world of all-digital movie-making. In fact, he wondered how long cinematographers like him would even get opportunities to shoot film on major projects.

“I’m pretty much convinced that Saving Mr. Banks will be the last time that I ever use motion picture negative on a studio film,” Schwartzman told me. “I doubt it will happen after this one.”

Schwartzman and I suspect many of his colleagues are grappling with the nature of the transition they find themselves in the middle of. He certainly has mastered the new paradigm, has lots of good things to say about digital workflows and potential, accepts that the industry move away from film is inevitable, and recognizes digital tools and workflows will only improve over time. At the same time, he laments that the primary reason behind these changes has nothing to do with filmmaking, what looks best on the big screen, or creative preferences—rather, it’s the child of technological innovation bumping directly into today’s cold, hard economic realities, in his view.

Photo by Jaimie Trueblood, SMPSP, courtesy of John Schwarztman, ASC.

The Projection Dichotomy

His recent immersion inside the world of big-studio 3D illustrates this dichotomy.

As I documented in my article in the August issue of American Cinematographer, Schwarwtzman’s team captured that movie in native stereo using Red Epic cameras and 3Ality Technica’s TS-5 computerized rigs, among other digital technologies. One of the points of the article was to illustrate how pleased Schwartzman was with these new acquisition tools for shooting stereo in the field. Indeed, he emphasizes that the production proved “it is now possible to acquire 3D in a way that does not push the production schedule anymore. You can now do a 3D movie in the same time you do a 2D movie, and you can acquire it at a very high degree of resolution.”

That was the good news. When I chatted with Schwartzman as he was heading off to shoot Saving Mr. Banks, however, he pointed out that acquiring in native stereo and projecting it pristinely on a big screen are two very different things. Such movies, he says, can currently be captured at “a degree of resolution four times higher than it will be projected to the average viewer. That’s because 4k is four times the resolution of 2k—not double the resolution. It’s not arithmetic, it’s logarithmic.”

“Therefore, we now have the ability with Epic and [Sony’s] F65 to record in 5k or 8k, when, in reality, the projectors that will show those movies are only projecting in 2k,” he adds. “Even the best system we have today for projection in 3D, besides IMAX—the RealD system—is 2k interlaced and closer to 1k.”

Thus, Schwartzman laments, few people will get to see the current generation of native 3D films, like The Amazing Spider-Man, with the brightness, dynamic range, and black levels they can currently experience with 2D movies. In other words, in Schwartzman’s opinion, “the viewing experience for 3D is different, because you gain depth and stereo. But to get that at the Cineplex, you have to give up brightness and dynamic range and resolution 100 percent of the time. If you are comparing apples to apples [in terms of color and brightness], to use an analogy, 2D would be high-def, while 3D is still standard def.”

“True IMAX is better, of course,” he elaborates. “By IMAX, I mean a movie shot on 70mm, 15-perf film. It is hard to have a movie look better than the way that Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister [ASC] made The Dark Knight Rises look in IMAX. There, I saw a 70mm, 15-perf piece of film. But IMAX is the only venue whose entire business model is based on making and exhibiting beautiful images. There are about 600 of those theaters in the U.S., and that is a much different experience from seeing 3D in a typical multiplex.”

Schwartzman hastens to add that the 3D exhibition experience is not lagging, in his view, because the technology does not exist to improve it. He points to brightness jumps and other breakthroughs in laser systems currently being developed by manufacturers like Sony, Barco, Christie, Laser Light Engines, Red Digital, and others. Similarly, he points out that 4k projection systems already exist for an improved theatrical viewing experience, and are slowly easing into multiplexes. But few studios are routinely conforming motion pictures in 4k, he points out, so few audiences are getting to watch true 4k movies right now even if they are in a theater using a 4k projector.

Saving Mr. Banks is being shot on film in an anamorphic format, full Academy aperture, but with little or no visual effects,” he points out. “And yet, Disney isn’t going to finish the film in 4k. Ironically, it’s a perfect film to finish photochemically—Scope has more resolution than anything [digital] that exists today, and yet theatergoers will not see half of what the negative captures. Ten years ago, we didn’t even think this was an issue to worry about.

“Sony, God bless them, is trying to finish in 4k to be future proofed, but nobody is [routinely] doing 4k right now [for current theatrical viewing],” he says. “We will get there—there will be 4k flatscreen TV’s coming to homes pretty soon. But right now, the studios are not [routinely] finishing in 4k. I heard there is supposed to be something like 17,000 4k theaters in the United States by 2015, but how many of them will actually be projecting in 4k any time soon?”

Photo by Jaimie Trueblood, SMPSP, courtesy of John Schwarztman, ASC.

It’s a Business

Schwartzman understands and accepts why this is so, of course. “Is the theater owner going to say to himself, ‘am I going to spend $175-thousand dollars to buy a Sony or Barco or Christie 4k projector and the servers they need to run it?’ Right now, that’s a tough business model, and craftspeople like me understand that.”

Similarly, Schwartzman talks eloquently about the rapid proliferation of the digital intermediate being a business development, rather than a ubiquitous creative necessity across the board. And, he suggests film is being phased out of the larger studio theatrical movie paradigm for the same reason.

“It’s a complete business issue,” he says. “It’s all about distribution. It’s a lot cheaper to send a hard drive or beam from a satellite 3,000 versions of a DCP than it is to ship 180 lbs. of film. But 180 lbs. of film looks better—I don’t care what anyone says, I will argue that point. However, this is the world we are in, and so, we have to embrace it. The genie is not going back into the bottle.”

Thus, the truth, according to Schwartzman, is that “economic forces have basically put a governor on the engine of what we can show creatively [to the masses]. They have always done that, but the digital world changes much faster than the photochemical world ever did.”

In other words, the loving craftsmanship that cinematographers and their colleagues put into high-resolution imagery and stereo imagery will not be fully seen, absorbed, or appreciated by audiences for some time to come. And that is the heart of Schwartzman’s lament.

So what is a cinematographer to do? How should he or she respond in practical production environments, knowing their artistry will eventually enter a financially based distribution maze, where numbers on a spreadsheet will dictate, as much as their hard work, how exactly their images will be delivered to audiences? The answer, Schwartzman suggests, is that, for the cinematographer, nothing should really change creatively or philosophically on set.

“You still try to get the best looking release you can,” he says. “I never consider it in terms of how I shoot a movie. But in this case, it is the best-looking digital release. The truth is that everything will eventually be digitally projected, and therefore, it makes business sense to acquire digitally—for the studios, it just streamlines the pipeline. That is the world we are in now. For the craftsperson, that is difficult to swallow, but then again, [digital projection technology] will improve, and someday, people will be seeing better results in 3D and 4k. But, right now, it’s tough.”

Thus, Schwartzman’s only real complaint is the fact that no one knows when, or how, economic realities will shift enough to permit the best exhibition technically possible of high resolution and stereo imagery on a large scale. He is simply suggesting that only filmmakers “like James Cameron, with money and clout, have a hope of ramrodding changes” onto the business landscape that will allow laser, or other new exhibition technologies, to gain a foothold in the near future. More likely such a shift, like the original digital cinema shift before it, will take many years to match up to a business model suited to supporting it across the exhibition industry.

“I get to see [a pristine version] in 4k [while making a 3D movie], but I’m seeing it in 2D, not 3D, and when you see it on a big screen at 4k in 2D or IMAX in 3D, it can look great, but 3D in 2k, as compared to 2D in 4k, as a cinematographer, when I see it, I can’t help but be a little disappointed,” he sums up. “There is nothing worse than seeing something shot by an award-winning cinematographer who knows what he is doing, but the projection is inferior—so inferior you would rather watch it in 2D. In my opinion, for instance, as great as Hugo ended up looking in 3D, it still looks better in 2D in terms of color and dynamic range and darkness. I hope they find a way to step up and raise their game in terms of projection of these beautiful images we can now capture at more than 4k. I can’t wait for the day when the only difference between 3D and 2D on a big screen will be the depth, and not dynamic range or brightness.”

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