Interview with Mark Chiolis of Grass Valley on the Evolution of Digital Cinematography

Venom_with_Viper_gv_branded_smallIf you watch television or go to the movies, you have already seen Grass Valley™ brand products and their Emmy® award-winning technologies at work. Mark Chiolis is the Senior Marketing Manager of Thomson Grass Valley's Strategic Marketing and Business Development Group, based in Burbank, California.
Alexa O'Brien
How does the Viper FilmStream fit into the marketplace against digital cinematography cameras like to the Panavision Genesis and the Arriflex D-20
Mark Chiolis
Mark Chiolis B&W Photo_smallBoth the Genesis and the D-20 are using single CMOS based sensors that are capable of using legacy 35mm cine lenses. The benefit of a single sensor is that you eliminate the prism but there are trade-offs in having to split out the Red, Green and Blue signals from the single sensor. Our philosophy on the Viper is to utilize three high-quality patented Frame Transfer (FT-DPM) Digital Pixel Management CCDs that take advantage of today's latest design technologies in optics, providing a combination that yields what we at Grass Valley believe is the highest quality digital image available in a production camera today. The Viper also has four distinct modes of operation which makes it the most versatile of the digital cameras. Depending upon the project it is possible to shoot in the "raw" 4:4:4 FilmStream mode, a fully color corrected and processed 4:4:4 mode, a semi-processed 4:2:2 mode (which is perfect for cost conscious television work) and of course "regular" fully processed 4:2:2 HD mode. Additionally, because of our unique ability to reconfigure our sensors to different formats, the Viper is the only digital camera that is capable of shooting widescreen (2.37:1) aspect ratios that use the full vertical resolution of 1080 lines. Because other digital cameras are not capable of reconfiguring their sensors they are forced to "chop off" the top and bottom of the picture creating a faux widescreen image. This lowering of the vertical resolution can really display itself especially when going back to film for release.
Alexa O'Brien
Talk to me about the "storage issues" with digital media.
Mark Chiolis
What "storage issues?" Just kidding! To take advantage of all the Viper has to offer it is best to record to an uncompressed digital data format. Each digital frame of the Viper is about 8Mbytes and if you're shooting 24 frames per second that adds up to over 1/2 a Terabyte an hour. In addition to the size of the storage you have to also factor in the data rate. The Viper at 24 frames per second is moving data at the rate of about 2Gbit/second. To assure uninterrupted recording of this data you have to have the properly designed equipment that can handle both the data rate and the physical size. With today's recording technologies such as the S.two DFR (Digital Film Recorder), the on-set recording has advanced greatly over the four years since the introduction of the Viper. Each D.MAG (Digital Magazine) holds 36 minutes of Viper FilmStream material and when full they are quickly (10-15 seconds) and easily exchanged and the production continues. For archival of the production, S.two has created an interface to LTO data library tapes. It is possible to make two (or more if desired) exact copies of your digital master for archive using this technology at a cost that is much less than that of shooting, processing and scanning of film. The material resides on the LTO tapes as standard DPX frames and can be treated at the post house just as a scanned frame of film would be in the post production and color correction process. It is also possible to record the Viper FilmStream material to the HDSR compressed tape format and the workflow then becomes one that is intimately familiar to any high end post house that is capable of tape to tape color timing and post work.
Alexa O'Brien
Who are the main end users/clients of the Viper FilmStream Camera? Why do they choose the Viper?
Mark Chiolis
The Viper is generally a camera that is rented from a high-end rental service company much as you would a film camera, lenses and accessories. There are a number of cinematographers who have worked with the Viper and now prefer it because they feel that it gives them the ability to work faster because it doesn't need to have the color correction performed on set and it also provides them the highest digital quality available today. Director Michael Mann chose the Viper for Collateral because it gave him a unique look and allowed him to "see" the Los Angeles night as he envisioned it. He has also once again used it for his most recent feature, Miami Vice, again to provide a unique look, this time for both day and night use. Michael is unique in that he likes to use it as a "tool" mixing it with other digital technologies and film, using each to create a different mood and feel to move the storyline ahead. Cinematographers Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe were nominated by the ASC and CSC and won a BAFTA for best cinematography on Collateral. This was the first feature incorporating a majority of digital that was recognized by the ASC and the first digital feature to win a BAFTA in that category. Director David Fincher has been working with the technology for over two years now and has assisted the development of the Viper as well as the S.two and the entire on set digital workflow. David has used it on commercials for Xelibri, Nike, HP, Lexus, Motorola and Heineken, working with production studio Digital Domain to complete the high quality composites and finish on each of the commercials. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda worked together with David on many of the commercials and won a Clio for cinematography on Xelibri and an AICP for cinematography on Heineken. David has teamed once again (Seven, The Game) with Cinematographer Harris Savides, ASC to lens the feature Zodiac. This is the first major Hollywood feature to use digital cinematography recorded to uncompressed data drives using the S.two system. This is also the first digital feature for Harris Savides, ASC. As an introduction to the Viper and S.two workflow, Harris worked with David on the commercial for Motorola. For television work DP Tom Burstyn, CSC has used the Viper on the first season of The 4400 in which he was nominated for an Emmy for best cinematography. Tom also shot the mini-series Terminal City, the pilot of Sex, Lies and Secrets and a number of television features as well. DP Mark Doering-Powell is working with the Viper on the UPN hit TV series Everybody Hates Chris. DP David Stump chose the Viper (four of them actually) to shoot the independent feature What Love Is from writer/director Mars Callahan and starring Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. We've seen the Viper used for parts of a number of high-end features to capture a certain look at night reinforcing the "use the right tool for the job" mantra.
Alexa O'Brien
How will digital acquisition change the nature of production?
Mark Chiolis
We're seeing the "future" of digital acquisition being formed on David Fincher's Zodiac feature. Using the Viper and S.two recording system and the workflow that he has developed during his previous commercial work along with Hollywood rental facility The Camera House, Zodiac is incorporating new technologies such as electronic slates, metadata inserted into each frame, the ability to delete takes so that only "circle takes" are sent to editorial as well as the capability to "grab" full resolution frames of each shot and color correct or composite them on your laptop computer, instantly. While not every director will be comfortable working without physical clapboards and deleting takes I think we'll see that become more the norm as the next generation of director's move into higher budget features. Most of these future directors are fully comfortable with digital, computers and hard drive technology and having grown up on the latest generation of complex video games, they are perfectly suited to further drive this next generation of workflows that is now being designed by David Fincher and others on the forefront of the technology curve. Another feature project that is on the cutting edge of technology is the independent What Love Is project. Cinematographer David Stump, ASC working with Grass Valley sister company Technicolor and rental facility Plus 8 Digital, are using the Grass Valley LUTher system to provide on set Look Up Tables to remove the green/low contrast look of the Viper FilmStream signal so the monitors and dailies are automatically corrected while leaving the recorded FilmStream signal untouched. What Love Is also took advantage of the long (50 minute) record times available for digital as this project was shot like a stage play, having the actors really play off of each other in this intense dialogue driven production. Director Mars Callahan would routinely push the actors into longer and more intense takes, building the excitement and action, unlike a single camera production with 10 minute loads would be capable of.
Alexa O'Brien
What factors will influence when and to what extent acquisition becomes digital?
Mark Chiolis
As higher quality digital cameras and recording systems become more affordable and the ability to edit higher quality material on inexpensive software running on laptops you'll see the majority of lower budget projects fully move to digital. Higher end features and commercials will continue to use film for the majority of projects for the next three to five years but we will see a move to digital acquisition and an expected uptake of 30-50% from the less than 5% or so today. With the move to Digital Cinema there are arguments to shoot digital, post digital and display digital. With today's high end digital cinematography cameras (Viper, Genesis, D-20, Dalsa) processed and displayed fully digital with no compromises, the end result (what the theatre patron sees) can be a higher and more consistent quality than what is delivered today with the film print process. Today there are a number of thought provoking questions that are being asked: What happens when there is a true RGB 4k (there isn't one today) sensor that rivals, if not exceeds, that of today's film stock? One of the arguments for film is that people like the "look" which includes the grain and movement through the gate. What happens when the "game-boy" generation takes over? Having grown up with "video" is this the "look" they want to see? Will they have a different set of standards to compare to? If digital continues to develop at the rate it has been, we could realistically expect acquisition quality to reach a true 4K state within the next two to four years, providing a complete 4K digital chain from acquisition to post to distribution. Film has shown itself to be an excellent archive media and that is one key area digital has not been able to match up with so far. New technologies such as holographic disks are due to come into production in the next few years, claiming to have a lifespan up to 75 years and potentially providing acceptable archive solutions for digital acquisitions. ChroniclesViperOnSetAcquisitionWorkflow ChroniclesCloneArchiveWorkflow2 ChroniclesEditorialPostDailiesWorkflow3 WLIWorkflowAOnset WLIWorkflowBOffsetIngestAndEditorial
Alexa O'Brien Alexa O'Brien researches and writes about national security. Her work has been published in VICE News, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Guardian UK, Salon, The Daily Beast, and featured on the BBC, PBS Frontline, On The Media, Democracy Now!, and Public Radio International. In 2013, she was shortlisted for the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in the UK and listed in The Verge 50..