At the Movies: The Photo Industry Goes Hollywood

At the Movies: The Photo Industry Goes Hollywood

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At first I thought photo industry camera and lens manufacturers had to venture beyond their comfort zones in order to make significant inroads into the realm of professional moviemaking.

Wrong. They’re pretty comfortable in the cine arena. Not only do they have the technology, expertise and imagination to supply the tools, but those tools can often do a better job in a number of situations.

First, some background. Pretty much everything you’re seeing on big and small screens these days is shot with digital cameras.

“Very few projects I get involved with are still shooting with film; it’s almost 99.9% digital at this point,” says Tim Smith, senior advisor for film and television production at Canon. “Off the top of my head, I think The Walking Dead still shoots on 16mm film. There are probably others, but there’s very little film in television. There’s a little bit of a resurgence in cinema, [but] it’s all digital for us.”

Digital cameras frequently offer economy, lighter weight, smaller size and great resolution. But Smith says the key to thinking about the film to digital switch is that film’s reached the limit while digital is just getting started. “Film will never look better than it does today,” he explains, “and digital will never look worse.”

Tim-Smith
Tim Smith

Smith rides shotgun for Canon on high-profile projects—“places where our cameras are going, maybe for the first time, or on a film or television show that would get a lot of attention.” He makes sure no one has the wrong experience, sees that they’re using the gear correctly and sometimes points out things they might be doing. “I have a lot of contact with cinematographers and TV production people, so when something like our ME20, an extremely high ISO camera, comes out, well, that’s the kind of thing that could be used on, say, NCIS. So I go, ‘Guess what we have,’ and I bring it by.”

Moviemakers pretty much started working with Canon cameras when the 5D Mark II—the full-frame DSLR that also shoots video—came out. “It was aimed at the press market,” Smith says, “for reporters who would now have to be cinematographers, too. The minute that camera came out, cinematographers were calling saying they had ideas.

“One of the first to use it was Matty Libatique on an Iron Man film. He wanted to place the cameras around an area where there were going to be explosions. We put them all over the place, and if the camera came back in pieces, as long as the card had the information on it, it was more than worth it on a budget like that. And the image was good enough to work into the film.”

Crossing the Threshold

With that camera, Smith says, Canon “kind of crossed the threshold to ‘look what else we can do; look where we can go to give you images and opportunities you couldn’t get with film.’”

Fans of Breaking Bad may remember striking point-of-view shots of Walter White digging into the sand and pouring chemicals into a vat. Canon EOS cameras got those. EOS footage was also reportedly good enough to make its way into Mad Max: Fury Road, where several cameras were sacrificed to get spectacular crash shots.

Need-for-Speed-Canon-C500
Twenty Canon Cinema C500 cameras were used on the Need for Speed.

“We used 20 Canon C500 cine cameras on the film Need for Speed, Smith adds. “They’re small, lightweight and can be suction-cupped to almost anything. They make you think about how you can get those seven or eight frames that just pull you in a lot closer to the action. We got most of them back.”

O.J.: Made in America, which won the 2017 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, was made with the Canon C300. The film’s cinematographer, Nick Higgins, cited its small size and ability to capture long takes without interruption as deciding factors.

If the look of film is wanted—which is the look of grain structure, really—postproduction work will get it. “Sensor quality has gotten better over the years,” Smith explains, “and now, once you’ve captured all the data, and the sensor has all the information, you can move it any way you want.”

The Looking Glass

Obviously, photo industry camera and lens manufacturers are seeing the slowdown—or drop-off, or whatever you want to call it—as smartphone photography continues to eat away at the market.

Film production, though, is a market that’s growing.

Yamaki_Kazuto
Kazuto Yamaki

In a conversation with DIR’s Jerry Grossman, Kazuto Yamaki, CEO of Sigma Corporation, talked about the company’s reasons for getting into the moviemaking business. First, Sigma felt the quality and economy of their lenses would be appreciated by moviemakers. Second, they saw the opportunity for growth.

“The photo market has been shrinking for four or five years,” Yamaki says, “but we see [the cine] segment growing. Although we [are] still growing in still photography, we thought we might be affected by the shrinking market, so we thought we could take advantage of the growing cine market.”

It’s a good fit by every measure. Sigma lenses have a solid reputation for quality; the company produces a lot of lenses, so their production costs are rather low compared to lenses exclusively for cine uses. And they can use their current technology and build on top if it.

The “build” came into play with the lens housings: the optics are the same as those for the still market, but the housings are all new. They’re designed to be more compact, lighter and tougher.

There are currently 10 lenses in their cine lineup, and all were made to support the high-resolution capability of still digital cameras. Which is a big advantage. “Some cine lenses are a very old design,” Yamaki explains, “[So] when it came to resolution, color [and] saturation, our lenses were much better. And because we produce such lenses at high volume, they are more affordable.”

Cine Pathway

Right now their lenses are used mostly by independent filmmakers, but Sigma doesn’t discount any section of the market, up to and including Hollywood and TV production. Yamaki points out that the Japanese national broadcasting station, NHK, uses their lenses for some drama and documentary productions. Sigma also does co-promotions with high-end video camera manufacturers like Red and Blackmagic.

Sigma-Cine-18-35mm-t2
Sigma Cine 18–35mm T2

Early on, Sigma made a bold decision about getting their cine lenses to market. They started with high-end pro cinema dealers, then, gradually, began to add more traditional photo retailers. They are now getting requests from traditional outlets and top filmmaking gear suppliers. It turned out to be a good strategy, as it established both their marketing goals and their confidence in the quality of their lenses.

Yamaki stresses that Sigma is committed for the long run in the moviemaking market. “It is an important part of Sigma’s story going forward. The market is growing, [and] it’s a great pleasure for us to work with these professionals.”

More and Better Movies

Glenn Gainor is head of physical production for Screen Gems, the film production/ distribution arm of Sony’s Motion Picture Group. He’s also an executive producer and unit production manager for about two films a year. He oversees films made for “targeted prices,” working with directors to bring films in on budget and make sure they look good.

“Movies are given a certain amount of money to achieve a certain story,” Gainor says. In the last few years he’s been using Sony a7 cameras.

Glenn-Gainor-2
Glenn Gainor

Among their advantages is low-light performance, which means moviemakers might not have to pour a lot of light on a scene. Gainor tells of reading the script for Friends with Benefits and coming to a scene of two people “having a lovely conversation at night in New York City.”

He realized it would cost $50,000 “to have two people just walk and talk because the crew would have to lay down cable five blocks to light the scene. And you’ve got to own the street the night before, the day of and the next night. I thought, hold on—New York City spent a billion dollars lighting the streets; why am I lighting what’s already lit? Looks pretty nice to me; I should be lighting only close-ups.”

He put the Sony cameras’ low-light capability to work. “Ultimately this attitude will result in more pictures being made if you consider the gambling nature of making movies. Save $50,000, get a great scene anyway.”

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Sony a7S: professional video functions

Coming out in summer is the horror thriller Cadaver. It’s the first film shot entirely with Sony’s flagship still/video mirrorless, interchangeable-lens camera, the a7S II.

“We hope to inspire people,” Gainor says of Sony products. “It’s the democratization of the process. More stories being told—that’s a great thing. I’m behind that.”

A Growing Market

There are other photo industry companies making products for the moviemaking and TV market. Fujifilm, Zeiss and Schneider, for example, offer cine lenses, and Panasonic makes cine cameras.

Yes, cine cameras and some lenses are pricey, and they represent a considerable inventory investment. But the need for original content for theatrical films, documentaries, network and cable TV shows and streaming services like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix is growing. There’s money to be made from all aspects of the business.

Kazuto Yamaki of Sigma alluded to this when he said that “innovative customers” will be trying out better and better equipment—“many customers change cameras quite frequently”—and the future will see a growing market for that gear.

The photo industry companies who are in this market now are dealing from their strengths. Their equipment not only satisfies filmmakers’ needs, but it also challenges artists to do more.

“They get excited to find things to do with [the gear],” says Tim Smith at Canon. “The wheels start to turn, and they want to create something different than the other shows and films, something different from what they’ve done before. We’re already very good, and we’ll only get better. We’re just getting started electronically.”

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