By William Kallay
EDITOR'S NOTE: When the following interview was
conducted in 2000, digital cinematography was in its infancy. As a
writer for Widescreen Review magazine from 1999-2004, I
attended a number of early digital cinema/cinematography presentations.
Digital cinematography technology, at first, was good. But it was not
on-par with traditional 35mm cinematography.
Within a short period of time, digital cinematography was refined to a point where director George Lucas embraced it for his two final "Star Wars" prequels.
Below is a fascinating interview that I conducted with Larry Thorpe, formely of Sony. This will give readers an idea of the early days of digital cinematography, as well as a look at how far the technology has come.
It may seem like ancient history now, but in 1999, director George Lucas threw out a volley to the film industry: he was going to shoot his next Star Wars movie digitally. (The film would ultimately be titled "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones" and would see release in 2002.) Instead of shooting on 35mm film, the standard of the movie industry, he chose to use the Sony HDW-F900 24p camera system, a 24 frames-per-second, progressive scan, high-definition video camera with Panavision lenses. This special version of the camera (affectionately called the “Panavised” F900)* was a collaborative effort between Sony Electronics, Panavision and Lucasfilm, Ltd. Sony provided the professional high-definition digital camcorders under its CineAlta brand name. Panavision supplied the new spherical lenses made specifically for them, and Lucasfilm broke them in during the production of "Clones." According to sources from Panavision, Lucas was pleased with the results of the camera system and not a single foot of 35mm footage was used during principal photography.
Lucas, a director who has broken conventional wisdom in almost every endeavor he’s taken on in his long career, forged ahead with his embracement of the format. Since production commenced in the summer of 2000, other filmmakers have decided to use the digital format for their films. James Cameron used modified versions of the cameras for his 3-D film, "Ghosts of the Abyss" (2003), and now swears he‘ll use the format on all of his future films. Robert Rodriguez also used the cameras on three of his films: "Spy Kids 2: The Island Of Lost Dreams" (2002), "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over" (2003) and "Once Upon A Time In Mexico" (2003).
The system has the convenience of a professional digital HD camera, but the imaging capability to emulate 24-frame, 35mm film. It’s not meant as a replacement of film, but as an optional tool for filmmakers to use. Though Lucas’ use of the camera and lenses has had a high profile in the media, other productions have been shot in the new format. The feature-length production of Nicolas and the short "BigLove" (shot for projection in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio) used the 24p system. Those productions, shot on low budgets, benefitted from the use of the camera as a cost saving format. Each was shot with professional cast and crews, full lighting and even used special effects in production and post-production. Director Peter A. Shaner ("Nicolas") was pleased with the fact he could do extended takes without saying “cut!” This was due, in part, to shooting in a high-definition video format.
The primary person behind Sony’s development of the new camera system was Mr. Larry Thorpe, Vice President, Acquisition Systems at Sony. Back in 2000, I traveled up to San Jose, California, to interview Thorpe. Since time has passed since conducting the interview and its posting here at FSTD, new updates and new high-definition cameras have been introduced to filmmakers. Lucas has used the latest generation Sony/Panavision 24p camera for "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith." Even though this interview was conducted four years ago, it is interesting to listen to Thorpe’s commentary about how the then-current cameras could be used in film production. And according to Michael Schwartz of the former Sony High Definition Center, the camera was Mr. Thorpe’s “baby.”
William Kallay, From Script To DVD: Can you please tell me a little bit about your position here at Sony?
Larry Thorpe: My title is Vice President, Acquisition Systems. That’s within the Broadcast and Professional Company, within the large umbrella of Sony Electronics. Acquisition Systems means basically that if it acquires a picture, I handle that product line. I have the business responsibility for pretty well all of the cameras and camcorders on the professional side of Sony: high-definition, Digital Betacam, Betacam SX and DVCAM.
FSTDVD: For how long have you been doing this?
Thorpe: Well, I’ve been with Sony 18 years. During those 18 years, I’ve been involved one way or another with cameras. That is my expertise. I used to design cameras in my former days at RCA. At Sony, I also inherited the mantle for high-definition television in the early days. I more or less carried that ball since 1983. One of the hot market development areas is cinematography. I’ve been involved with that and very involved with HD market development.
FSTDVD: What has been your involvement with this camera system?
Thorpe: Well, I’m the guy who started digital cinematography at Sony around 1994, with the arrival of Digital Betacam. I felt we had finally produced a product that really did come close to the imaging capabilities of motion picture film. From that springboard of Digital Betacam, we escalated it to high-definition television. And I’ve been involved in pioneering cinematography in that domain, working with folks like Lucasfilm and Panavision. I’ve been responsible for pulling all that together for Sony. And then most recently, in persuading Sony that the time had come to take the last big step. That was to make a 24-frame [per second] system. So we have the ultimate emulation of film, if you will, in terms of digital implementation.
FSTDVD: Can you describe a little bit about this camera system?
Thorpe: It is an acquistition family system in that we offer three variants of acquisition. We have a studio camera, and that’s called the HDC-900. That is a traditional studio camera. That is flanked by a portable camera; a production camera. That’s a small camera you can mount on your shoulder, hold in your hand, mount on a little tripod, and it cables back to the same camera control unit as the studio camera. It’s called the HDC-950. Then, there is the camcorder, the integrated one-piece camera and recorder. It’s the emulation of a film camera, in that it shoots and captures in one box. And that’s called the HDW-F900. That’s probably got the most notoriety at the moment. That’s the one that is very visible because of some of the big projects going on. It, like the other two camera systems, has several frame speeds. It can be 24-frame, 25-frame, 30-frame progressive, 50hz or 60hz interlace. It can thus be used worldwide. It also conforms to the new ITU 709 worldwide standard for HD Production.
FSTDVD: Did you design the camera in-house?
Thorpe: The cameras are designed in Japan. We have a very powerful engineering force over there. They are very skilled in professional camera design. They do all of our high-end cameras. And our job in the United States, in our Broadcast and Professional Company, is to find out what is needed in the marketplace of the United States. We then feed that to the folks in Japan and say this is what we need for you to develop for us. We said that the time has come to make a 24-frame progressive scan/high-definition system that is on the same platform as motion picture film. Working with folks like George Lucas and others, we get a lot of input from them. We feed that to the designers and they implement those requirements as best that they can.
FSTDVD: How did Sony get involved in developing this camera in the first place?
Thorpe: There were a few in Sony that had wanted to do this for over ten years. But, before we launch a major development program, there has to be market justification. We have the responsibility to justify to our factory that if they make the huge investment required, there will be a marketplace that will justify that investment. That wasn’t so easy to convince them ten years ago. We thought a 24-frame system at that time was a very good idea in high definition television.
FSTDVD: Why wasn’t the factory convinced?
Thorpe: Because film was just so hugely used and hugely loved. People thought it would be a hard sell to bring something like this in. But, as the years went by, we started to get very serious about developing cinematography at a lower level with Digital Betacam. We had some very interesting successes there. It was the selling of a Digital Betacam to Lucasfilm back in 1996 that started their experiments in digital shooting. And we worked very closely with them. And together, we did a lot of experiments all the way up to high-definition television. We were all so encouraged by the results. We were finally able to convince our factory that the time had come to take the plunge and develop this equipment. And they launched that program in ’97. We introduced it to the marketplace in 1999, actually delivering it to the marketplace in 2000.
FSTDVD: Did George Lucas contact you about using the camera, or was it the other way around?
Thorpe: I would say the initial contact was made by us to Lucasfilm. We had an on-going business with Lucasfilm and ILM. They’ve bought Sony equipment for many years. They’ve been playing in the television domain for a long time as well as film. So, there was that business relationship. And, when we brought the Digital Betacam out and showed it to them, we ignited a higher level of interest. They said, “Hey now, you seem to have something very serious here. We might be able to use it for filmmaking.” From that, the relationship developed. We began working with the many engineers at ILM and Lucasfilm. So I guess, it started with us. But it was really the drive of the man who encouraged us to do this. Mr. Lucas said, “You build it, I’ll use it.” We’re very grateful for that. It was very courageous of George Lucas to take that chance.
FSTDVD: There are many filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, who don’t want to shoot their films in digital cinematography. They’re sticking with shooting on 35mm film.
Thorpe: We’re in the early days of digital cinematography. It takes, like any new movement, a champion or a luminary who takes the first risk. And shooting something of the magnitude of a "Star Wars" movie is a big investment and it’s certainly a big statement. You could say it’s a vote of confidence in the new technology. But that’s the way Mr. Lucas is. He’s very independent and a guy who loves technology. He has put it to good use over the years. That’s why ILM is what it is today. So, others are watching, I think, closely. They’re watching this project, plus others that are now under way. I think as good word comes back, and we’re very confident it will, you’re going to find a lot of other people begin to experiment.
FSTDVD: You still have a lot of people who love film. Digital is not a consideration of theirs for movie production.
Thorpe: A lot of people still love film and would only use digital perhaps for special effects. And that’s one of the reasons we designed the 24-frame system, so that it can be used as an adjunct to film for certain scenes. Or, for certain scripts, it could be used as an alternative to film. That’s a creative call that’ll be made by the producers. At least now, there is a digital system that’s on the same platform as film. Going between the mediums, transferring film-to-video, digital-to-film, is now much, much easier. And we’re on the same performance level. So it’s a new creative flexibility.
FSTDVD: Do you believe this camera image rivals or surpasses 35mm image quality?
Thorpe: It depends how you evaluate it and that is very variable between different people. The way I evaluate it is that this digital 24-frame equals and, in some respects, surpasses the 35mm film print. I emphasize that because 35mm film negative has the capability to capture an enormous amount of information. It has a lot of resolution and other tremendous attributes like its exposure, its latitude, its color reproduction. But you can’t look at a negative. You can’t screen a negative. You have to convert that negative to a positive print.
FSTD: Why do you suppose 35mm prints often look poor on a theatre screen?
Thorpe: They don’t necessarily look poor in the cinema. However, it’s not generally understood how big of a toll is taken on picture quality when you go through the interpositive, the internegative, to the final first generation positive print that goes to the theatre. You lose a lot of resolution, and I mean a lot. There is also a toll taken on tonal reproduction. However, that doesn’t shortchange the final result. The resolution that’s left on the positive print is still pretty spectacular. But high definition television actually has more resolution, not a lot, but a little more resolution than your positive film print.
FSTDVD: What are some of high-definition’s visual advantages over film?
Thorpe: High-definition television has a big advantage in exposure latitude, in shadowed areas. In the highlight areas, film is still has got the edge. We’re still wrestling with how to process highlights in the digital domain. With contemporary DSP processing, we’re making great strides there. Some people think we’re there. I’m not quite satisfied myself yet. And we’re relying very much on cooperative work with people like Lucasfilm. They’re doing a lot of work with us to perfect that. But I think in another year or two, we’ll be there. Again, I think we’re absolutely on par in all respects to a 35mm film print. And when it’s put up on a big projector, and particularly a digital projector, it’s generally been conceded by the industry that whatever differences remain, they’re not worth arguing about.
FSTDVD: Have you done any studies see what a high-definition image will look like on a large movie screen?
Thorpe: We haven’t done too much study to date. All of our studies have been more modest in trying to bring high-definition on a par with 35mm film. However, during the last four or five months, since the advent of this new system, we have been doing some more daring experiments. Just practical, subjective visual experiments on how high-definition 24p would transfer, for example, to 15-perf 70mm IMAX-type film.** And the results have surprised a lot of people.
FSTDVD: Is high-definition-to-15-perf 70mm as good as the real thing?
Thorpe: It’s not in any way a claim that we are as good. We are not. But we’re surprisingly good. If it isn’t quite the quality of a 65mm negative, and it’s not, by the time you get to that 70mm print, it’s still going to be remarkably good. That’s exciting a lot of people. We have a small, mobile camera, that is so much cheaper and less bulky than an IMAX camera. At least now we have a new tool that might allow a lot more IMAX programming to be produced. That’s one of the problems, there’s not a lot of IMAX programming. It’s so expensive to produce and it’s so bulky. I like to pitch the 24p as a real friend, not a contender, not a replacement, but an additional tool that hopefully will augment IMAX large format film production. It allows the capture of certain imagery more easily than the larger and heavier 65mm large format cameras.
FSTDVD: Have other filmmakers approached Sony about using the camera?
Thorpe: We’ve been approached by a lot of people. Panavision probably has been approached by even more. Generally, the major filmmakers usually say, “Look, we want to look at this. We’re going to exploit this, but we don’t want you, Sony, trumpeting that we’re going for it.” So on that level, I generally don’t divulge the names until the filmmaker says so. Initially, that’s the way it was with Mr. Lucas. He wanted to be relatively quiet about it. Then, at one point, he said it didn’t matter. I have been very surprised at the number of major filmmakers that have come our way. Wim Wenders made a music video with U2 and we screened that at NAB in 2000. And he’s producing a movie in September in 24p. Internationally, there’s a lot going on. And there’s quite a few here in the States, at least very curious about it, very curious.
FSTDVD: Once "Star Wars II" is shot and edited, is it going to be distributed digitally like "The Phantom Menace?"
Thorpe: These are musings, if you will. I don’t think Mr. Lucas has yet defined everything. You know, we’re talking about three months of shooting and perhaps 18 months of post-production. We’re talking about something that’s going to be released in 2003, maybe 2002 or late 2002 . But, it will be certainly released as film. That’s the greatest release mechanism, but there will be more digital releases than the six that we used for "Phantom Menace." I think that a digital release would be as much paced by the desires of the Lucasfilm people, but also by what’s happening in the marketplace. If there were a hundred or a couple hundred digital cinemas, I’m sure "Star Wars II" will be put on all of those. And certainly Mr. Lucas, I would guess, will be encouraging the use of digital.
FSTDVD: Will the special effects be created in HD or on film that you’re aware of?
Thorpe: The special effects will be created by a variety of things. For example, in blue screen, high-definition works very well. It’s something you can do in real time. You can see the results in real time. That’s where HD brings something to the table in terms of time and cost and quality. There will be a great deal of computer generated imagery. All of the high-definition imagery, the live action stuff, will go straight into a computer. And they’ll be color corrected in the computer. They will be composited in the computer, and then be married with computer generated images. That’s the classic thing that ILM does so well.
FSTDVD: If the film is shown digitally, is it going to look like you’re watching video or film?
Thorpe: That depends on what the ILM folks and the film transfer people are going to do. They can make it look like film, because that’s just a question of adjustments in post. Things like the exposure latitude, the transfer characteristics and the color reproduction are things they can manipulate. Or, you can elect to give it a different look. Call it video or call it different. There are just all sorts of options open, but if they elect to seek a film look, they can pre-process the digital video, so that when it goes through the transfer to film, it’s gonna look like film. And, we’ve done those tests and we know we can do that. But I’m not quite sure what the creative call will be for Lucasfilm on that.
FSTDVD: I remember when Digital Betacam first came out, there were some articles and cinematographers talking about how it didn’t quite look like film, and it didn’t quite look like video.
Thorpe: That’s right. And I think that’s true of HD. In other words, you do have go to in and specifically manipulate that video if you want to closely approximate the film look. If you don’t, you get another look. High-definition is very pleasant. It’s very nice, particularily if it’s been shot well with a good DP and generally a film D.P. who’s done the right lighting. And a lot of people are quite enchanted by that different look. So it’s a different brush and it’s a new tool. I think it’ll be used in different ways by different producers.
FSTDVD: Is shooting in HD less expensive than shooting in 35mm?
Thorpe: Yes. Now, let me qualify it. How much less is the bigger question and that’s a variable. Clearly, at the outset you have a significant cost advantage because the tape is so much cheaper than film. Then, there is no processing cost. After that, it’s very dependent on the practices of the director and the director of photography. For example, if you’re looking at the real time picture while you shoot on a high-definition monitor, you do see what you’re going to get. You see it with the ultimate clarity. That may or may not reduce the number of takes. Sometimes, the number of takes is the function of the actor and the storytelling. But other times, it’s technical issues. So you can save time, and if you save time, you save money.
FSTDVD: Can shooting in 24p can change the way certain films are made?
Thorpe: Yes. With a thing like the digital camcorder, you can elect to use new shooting practices. You may have union problems, but in theory, you can elect to use it. Or you can elect to use the traditional film crews. You can have the electronic camera be a film camera, for all intents and purposes. Now, those sort of things are variable and very much determined by the DP and the director. There will be those who want to shoot as if it was film. Then, there are those who are going to say, “No, I’m gonna shoot differently. I’m gonna use less people. I’m gonna exploit this medium to reduce costs.” They will reduce costs, there’s no question. They will be able to do that. How it ultimately shakes out, I’m not going to make any predictions. It’s a very contentious subject and it’s ultimately very creative. It’s not something that Sony can preach and say this is what you should do. There are no “should’s” in this instance. Overall, you save money, no question.
FSTDVD: The first filmmakers to really use this new camera are going to give you feedback on whether or not this is a replacement for all types of film cameras?
Thorpe: We are going to be greatly defined by a lot of filmmaking people who are going to use this equipment. They’ll tell us all what’s right and wrong with it. And we will parlay that feedback into the next generation. We’re already on the drawing boards with the early design of the new generation. We will one day advance the resolution, possibly even raise the image format size, at some time, up towards something like 35mm. So, digital acquisition certainly won’t stand still. Of course, being electronic and being very much made with digital chips, it’s going to move quite rapidly. I would say within the next five-to-ten years, you’re going to see pretty stunning advances in digital acquisition. And, at some point in the not too distant future, it will be on a par, possibly be even better than large format film. At the same time, I don’t discount my colleagues at Kodak and other places who are not going to stand still on film. They, too, are also investing in digital imaging. Both media will advance. I would hazard that digital will advance at a more rapid pace, but I don’t think that necessarily means it’s going to eclipse film. Film’s loved by too many people.
Thanks to Larry Thorpe, John Galt, Lucasfilm Ltd., Liz Lattanzio, Ellen Pasternack, Lori Petrini, Michael Schwartz, Gayle Farrell, Dr. Robert Hopkins, Takuo Miyagishima, Panavision, Inc., Los Angeles Film School.
*The Sony/Panavision camera system is also referred to as “Digital 35mm” or “Panavision Digital"
**This has occured, for "Episode II" was blown-up to IMAX in the fall of 2002 for a special large format engagement through IMAX's DMR process.
Interview conducted in 2000 in San Jose at Sony
Originally posted here on September 27, 2004