Camera Tests with Don McAlpine ACS ASC

A fascinating technological journey following camera tests with the great Don McAlpine ACS ASC, resulting in some thought-provoking results.

By Sasha Hadden.

It was 1992 when I disembarked at Portland International Jetport in Maine, wondering where I was supposed to catch my connecting flight, and I saw a guy holding up a sign with my name on it. He introduced himself as the pilot. We walked to a tiny plane parked on the airfield, discussing whether my bag was going to fit in the luggage compartment. I only just managed to squeeze it across the back seat. 

I’d been working as a camera-intern on Super Mario Bros. (1993) with its DOP Dean Semler ACS ASC in North Carolina and was invited to be a part of the camera crew on Mel Gibson’s The Man Without A Face (1993) alongside DOP Don McAlpine ACS ASC. 

I wasn’t interested in becoming a Cinematographer, but always felt connected with the fundamental aspects of filmmaking and found the camera department put me at the center of everything. We flew for about an hour before a large patch of dirt came into view. The pilot pointed at this and told me that was where we were landing. I could see two people waiting for me; they were the only two people there, Donald and Janet McAlpine. That was how we first met.

Jump forward to the present, I met Takahiro ‘Taka’ Mitsui at Panasonic’s VariCam35 launch in early 2015 and I was impressed with his camera’s dual native 800ISO and 5000ISO settings. Taka is the mastermind behind building the VariCam35 and another camera I’d almost purchased a couple of years earlier, the Panasonic AF100. I was therefore excited to meet him and amazed by what he’d come up with this time with the VariCam35. But there was something more. I felt a similarity in our separate journeys. I was trying to prove to the world that I was a great director and Taka trying to prove that he had created a great camera.

1. Behind the scenes on 'Ali's Wedding' - PHOTO Ben Timony
Don McAlpine ACS ASC behind the scenes on ‘Ali’s Wedding’ – PHOTO Ben Timony

After some success with a feature documentary (Vicky, 2014), I called McAlpine to say that we needed to make a film with minimal locations and no money. He joked about his age and said that I’d better hurry up and write the script. So I proceeded to work on a comedy about sexuality, but found myself struggling to find much emotion in it. 

By June I found myself in China, visiting my partner’s home country and to visit my friend Craig Wood, who was editing Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall (2016). While there, we watched Yimou’s earlier piece Coming Home (2014)  – which was released in 4K – and the movie reminded me of another story I wanted to tell. So when I returned home, I scrapped the comedy and began writing Liebe. 

Soon after I meet Rob Myers from Panasonic at the SMPTE Exhibition in Sydney and I told him about my project. Even though I made it clear that I didn’t have a script, Myers seemed to believe in what I planned to do and suggested we use the VariCam35 (exactly what I had my eye on) and he offered to support the project. 

Now, I live next door to Macquarie University and Panasonic’s headquarters is on the other side of the campus. My connection with Macquarie is strong, because it’s where I edited some of my award-winning high school films along with my first 16mm film on a clunky old Steinbeck. It’s the former location of AFTRS where I worked for several years. 

I dragged McAlpine out to Panasonic’s headquarters, telling him how important a smooth post-production was for me. The last thing we wanted was to be confronted with complications at the end of the financial line. 

As well as having an amazing 5000ISO setting, I felt sure that the colour space and workflow would be great with the Panasonic’s AVC-Intra codec. I could feel myself being driven by emotion though. Not always a good thing. McAlpine was much more objective and explained that while 5000ISO might seem impressive, cinematography is about controlling light, not seeing everything. We spent about forty-five minutes with Myers who showed us the camera and McAlpine was impressed enough to agree taking it away for testing. 

Cinematography is about controlling light, not seeing everything. ” – DON MCALPINE ACS ASC

McAlpine had used Red on Mental (2012), Ender’s Game (2013) and The Dressmaker (2015). It was simple and practical and produced good images. Velinda Wardell ACS brought her Red Epic to McAlpine’s house so we could compare the VariCam35 against it. He stated, right from the start, that he’d need a pretty good reason to use something else.

The VariCam35 looked both bare and complicated in comparison. We were also using the control panel as the VariCam35’s monitor, which didn’t compare to the hi-res monitor attached to the Red. The Red shot 5k raw, while the VariCam35 shot Panasonic’s AVCIntra444. We shot late afternoon among trees, sunset/dusk on the beach, and finished up shooting candles in McAlpine’s house at night. 

At first we used a small lamp as a fill for the candles, but we soon realised that the fill wasn’t necessary. We finally had the camera plugged into a 4k display and McAlpine was very excited. The VariCam35 was able to read candlelight like human eyes do, with a very smooth drop off. Never in his career had he ever been able to capture what we were looking at. 

As we continued to light the exterior of the scene, with small lights to match, Wardell remarked you have to rethink the entire way you’d otherwise light the scene. Man’s relationship with a naked flame is a primordial human experience and, I believe, the ‘holy grail’ of sensor engineering is to accurately capture that experience. Here we had it.

I was in primary school when, much to my father’s dismay, my mother borrowed money to buy me a Panasonic portable VCR that was compatible with an old camera we had. Her sacrifice allowed me to shoot films at home and to connect the machines together so I could edit them. My friends and I continued to use Panasonic equipment through high school and the brand became a symbol of quality and excellence to me, but only in the video world. My eyes were always focused on 35mm film and so I never expected I’d ever see Panasonic making cinema cameras. It only now made perfect sense. 

1. Shootout tests - PHOTO Phil Erbacher
Don McAlpine ACS ASC talking to Director Sasha Hadden during camera tests for ‘Liebe’ PHOTO Phil Erbacher

VariCam came onto the scene a number of years ago, and then disappeared. Mathew Alexander from Panasonic explained that they didn’t want to be producing another version of something already available and wanted to wait until they could offer a genuine alternative. 

Freelance Colourist, Fergus Hally, was keen to grade our tests and planned to do so at his home in Melbourne. He was grading at Soundfirm and mentioned what we were doing to Jonathan Burton, who was the Digital Imaging Supervisor there. We were interested in producing a 4k workflow to 4k DCP and Burton immediately jumped onboard. It wasn’t something anyone would usually ask for and he was excited by the challenge. 

Anthony Kiernan at Event Cinemas let us view the tests on one of their large VMAX screens. We thought we were lucky to find a single 4k cinema, but about 40% of all Event Cinema screens across Australia also have 4k projectors installed. We were all quite surprised by the numbers. “It was exciting to create an opportunity for Cinematographers to test new formats and equipment on the big screen and allow those technicians to determine new and exciting ways to make Australian film,” says Keirnan. 

Judging by what we ended up looking at there, the VariCam35 seemed better to me than just about everything shot on Red and we were able to capture usable images much later into dusk, using VariCam35’s 5000ISO setting. The candle shot looked amazing with the VariCam35, but we saw a lot more shot-noise in the dark areas than we were expecting to see. 

Shot-noise, as I understand it, is what you see when you close your eyes at night. It’s the physical occurrences of light photons hitting your retina or camera sensor. You can see photons when it’s dark because there’s not many of them. Because shot-noise is naturally different in every frame, noise reduction software can be effective at removing it. We also had room to overexpose the candle scene at 5000ISO, so in theory, we could crush the blacks enough to get rid of it.

I told Nic Godoy at Panavision that McAlpine and myself wanted to test the top three cinema cameras against the VariCam35. He sent me an equipment list so long; we could have shot four films simultaneously, and asked me if I needed anything else.

McAlpine and I agreed that seeing one camera after the other was confusing, so we decided to do a 4x 4K split-screen shootout between the cameras, so we could look at all the results on the same screen at the same time. We were comparing the Sony F55, the Red D-K Epic Dragon, an Arri Alexa XT Plus and the Panasonic VariCam35.

We set up an array of elements in Panavision’s testing studio that included an actress to represent a lead character in the film. We filmed each camera wide in order only to use the middle 25% of the images to make up the 100% 4x split-screen at a 1:1 pixel ratio, with no subsampling. Three of the cameras were shot raw, except for the VariCam35 that used Panasonic’s AVC-Intra444 codec because we didn’t have a V-Raw recorder. We shot various exposures at 800ISO (or closest iso equivalent) and candle tests at both 800ISO and 5000ISO (or closest iso equivalents).

2. Behind the scenes on 'Ali's Wedding' - PHOTO Ben Timony
Don McAlpine ACS ASC behind the scenes on ‘Ali’s Wedding’ – PHOTO Ben Timony

We were also testing the post-production pathways of all cameras and ease of grading with Hally and the team at Soundfirm. Burton was particularly excited by the new challenge of setting up a 4x 4K simultaneous colour grade with a 4x combined render and pathway to a single 4K DCP.

Soon after shooting our tests McAlpine flew to Melbourne to start pre-production on Matchbox Pictures’ yet-to-be-released Ali’s Wedding (2016). He asked me to send him some of the candle footage from the VariCam35. 

Cinematographer and Digital Imaging Technician, Aleksei Vanamois, came to my home and I handed him all the VariCam35 footage. A post-path was quickly approved for the camera to be used in production on Ali’s Wedding. That’s how the VariCam35 got its first gig on an Australian feature film. 

We had full trust in our team and the extensive tests that had taken place with the VariCam35, so it was exciting to be the first production in Australia to use the camera,” says Sheila Jayadev, a Producer on Ali’s Wedding. “The challenges of low budget filmmaking are well-known; the demands of delivering international cinema with limited resources and time. Working with a camera that made such a difference to our days and schedule but also captured great pictures was a real blessing.”

Martin Thorne, Longform Producer at Frame Set Match (FSM) explains the post-process further, “Importing rushes into Baselight at FSM was straight forward and the image has very little noise and good depth. The only challenge initially was the lack of control on file naming that I’m used to on more ‘film friendly’ cameras. Thorn continues, “Ali’s Wedding is a 2K finish so the camera department know shots can push in if they have to, with no loss. It allows for more freedom on the shoot and in the edit.”

The production had some big scenes with many extras in a fairly unventilated interior location. To shoot with conventional lighting would have turned the place into a boiling test of will, hampering creativity. But with VariCam35’s 5000iso, McAlpine dramatically reduced the amount of lights he needed; dramatically reducing heat. 5000iso also enabled him to extend exterior shooting much further into dusk, but suddenly he used the setting in a way that he hadn’t expected. 

There was a scene with three characters walking down a street towards the camera, a nightmare for Focus Puller Cameron Dunn, and time was critical. McAlpine told Camera Operator Matt Kearney to switch to 5000ISO and close the iris, which instantly increased his depth of field. Suddenly Dunn was able to keep the two main characters in focus along with the third character behind them. The shot looked better. Takes were then based on performance, not focus. 

3. Behind the scenes on 'Ali's Wedding' - PHOTO Ben Timony
Don McAlpine ACS ASC and crew on location filming ‘Ali’s Wedding’ – PHOTO Ben Timony

When I started working with the 4K VariCam35 I was expecting an experience similar to that I’ve had with other new high end Hi Definition cameras coming on the market. That I would be doing a lot of the research and development for a camera that had many unresolved software bugs and build faults”, says Dunn, Focus Puller. “To my surprise the camera only gave me one error message during the six weeks of photography. I can’t say it is perfect, but it is a very good first step. In a nutshell, the camera did everything I asked of it and it made my DOP very happy.”

Soundfirm organized the 4x 4K live grade session in a DaVinci Resolve 2K projection suite early into production of Ali’s Wedding. Peter Lorz from Panavision, who’d been our technical advisor for our tests, flew down from Sydney to join us. It was incredible to see all four major cinema cameras on the same screen at the same time. 

The 4x 4K camera test was certainly an interesting exercise both in terms of technical capability and of the comparative results between the four cameras,” Soundfirm’s Jonathan Burton explains.

McAlpine and Hally agreed that you could probably shoot with all cameras and intercut them without picking the difference. However looking at strengths and weaknesses, based on what was presented to us, the real contest was between the VariCam35 and the Alexa XT. For me the Alexa Raw looked marginally better at 800ISO than VariCam35’s codec, but the VariCam35 dominated in low light. 

“While having such a huge volume of media in various formats running simultaneously does not lend itself to 100% real-time playback during the grade, the implementation of high-performance local storage meant that our Colourist, Fergus Hally, could work effectively through the camera test and review grades in real-time”, Burton continues. “While the DI suites at Soundfirm have always been setup with the retention of full resolution camera raw media, it was certainly gratifying to see this was used and proved in quadruple, compounded by the fact that each camera was a different codec and format.

At the end of the timeline, we looked at McAlpine’s 5000/800ISO intercut test from Ali’s Wedding and found that Don’s assumption was correct. While there was slight noise around the darker mid-tone area at 5000ISO (not seen at 800ISO), the noise was easily eliminated with grain reduction and the shots matched perfectly. So Don continued mixing 5000ISO shots within 800ISO scenes with confidence.

Hally, speaking from a Coulourists point of view said, “All cameras performed amazingly in our tests if we are to compare them. However we’re looking forward here, and the Arri and the Panasonic are showing us the road ahead. I feel excited by what I’m seeing.”

‘Taka’ from Panasonic sent one of his top engineers from Japan, Ryohei Yamato, to spend time with us and try to figure out how they could make the camera better.

We had dinner with Myers and I encouraged Yamato to ask McAlpine questions while he had the chance. During the conversation, he assured Yamato that he had no loyalty to camera manufacturers and that if anyone came up with a better camera, he’d switch to that camera. Before the night ended I asked Yamato again, “Do you have any more questions?” “Yes I have one.” Ryohei pulled out a Blu-ray copy of Moulin Rouge! and handed it to McAlpine, “Can you sign this for me?

Ryohei pulled out a blu-ray copy of Moulin Rouge! and handed it to McAlpine, “Can you sign this for me?

In the meantime Soundfirm created a 4K DCP of the split-screen shootout that we viewed back at Event Cinemas. Oddly, we didn’t learn anything more than we did at the grade in Melbourne. The most interesting moment was looking at a ten-second clip of our actress, both in 2K and 4K.

We expected to see a difference, but I was standing four meters away from the enormous VMAX screen and couldn’t pick it at all. Now you could save yourself a headache and come to a conclusion here, but the test was inconclusive to me, for more than the obvious reasons. 

Firstly, do you ever wonder why television manufacturers aren’t making 2K screens but jumping from 1080p up to 4K? That’s because 1080p is 2K, only using the horizontal measurement, plus 6% wider, rather than the vertical. Using vertical measurement, to keep things in perspective, 4K is 2160p. Furthermore, 2K widescreen 2.40:1 is only 858p.

Now I can see a big difference between DVD (480p) and Blu-ray (1080p) on my TV at home, but am told that it’s beyond my eyes perception to see any difference between 1080p and 2160p (4K) when you blow the image up to the size of a house. You don’t see people at the aquarium trying to stand as far away from the glass as possible, but the front area of a cinema is still usually empty. I understand that there’s more to an image than spatial resolution, but it’s still significant. 

You have to consider, the brain doesn’t always look at the screen as a whole, but zooms in on elements and can magnify flaws in an image. It’s like when the moon rises up between buildings and looks massive. The Dressmaker looked beautiful at 858p, there’s no doubt about that, but could it have been more spectacular on the big screen at 1716p? 

It’s good to be aware, big budget films save dollars not producing 4K VFX so it’s unlikely they’ll jump up and down to say that 4K is better. Furthermore, 2K projector cinemas (the majority) don’t want you to think you’ll be missing out by watching a film with them. 

The complexities surrounding the topic are complicated and may seem politically loaded. So you might feel like an idiot if you talk about it with anyone. People just want to move on, because the subject’s too hard and 2K still looks good. A small film with no VFX has the potential to deliver a superior cinematic experience that big budget films can afford, and there’s growing demand for 4K content beyond the cinema window.

I walked into JB HiFi recently to check out OLED technology and the latest 4K screens and asked the sales rep if there was anything I could actually watch in 4K. The rep suggested my iPhone or GoPro, but admitted that there wasn’t a lot of commercial content out there. 

My friend Craig Wood edited Tomorrowland (2015) and that was a 4K production. It looked amazing. Wood agreed with my idea of shooting 4K and said that if I don’t have any VFX, why not. I don’t really see any reason not to shoot 4K if cost and data storage is not a factor. But then the cost has become much less of a factor now that you can even shoot 4K on your iPhone! Storage too, has become cheaper. Handling 4K can be an issue because of the sheer amount of data, and add cost to VFX. But that still doesn’t mean you shouldn’t shoot 4K as it can be down-rezzed just for the VFX and you still have the extra resolution if you need it,” Wood says.

Scott Seddon, President of the Independent Cinema Association of Australia, said all first-generation 2K projectors have been retrofitted to play 4K DCPs. Indeed, Madman Entertainment, the distributer for Ali’s Wedding, requires either a 2K or 4K DCP, but not both. 

Richard Dumbrell is a Projectionist at the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace. He says 2K projectors will happily play 4K content, “It is certainly noticeable when a 4K title is running on the 4K projector, the quality is superior and the image is sharp and clear. I am tempted to say a 4K looks better on a 2K projector too, but that is just personal opinion.

The most amazing film I’ve seen digitally projected was Samsara (2011). Shot 70mm and scanned 8K red, 8K green 8K blue, and subsampled down to 4K. The experience of seeing the digital projection tells me that I can still squeeze more out of the current technology. I just have to figure out how to do it.

Simon Alberry set up a grade session for our Raw/Non-Raw tests with Jamie Hediger on a Baselight grade suite at DDP Studios. I couldn’t quite understand whether Raw or Non-Raw of any camera was more or less malleable, but McAlpine seemed impressed and the general feeling was that raw was a lot more flexible and better to use if we can afford it. 

VariCam35’s 4K sensor was set at 17 x 9 (4096 x 2160) and the Arri’s 2.8K sensor at 16 x 9 (2880 x 1620). VariCam35’s codec looked better to me than Arri’s codec and the VariCam35 V-Raw looked outstanding compared with everything else. V-Raw was noticeably better at 5000iso and substantially better than everything else at the 800iso level, and confusingly so. V-Raw punched out in a way you’d expect 4K to punch out above 2K. 

10. Shootout tests - PHOTO Phil Erbacher
Don McAlpine ACS ASC signs his name on the wall of production offices – PHOTO Phil Erbacher

The VariCam35 sensor consists of 4K green, 2K red and 2K blue. It’s logical in my mind to get a true 4K image from this, because every green sensor has a blue and red sensor beside it. So you could build 4K images based on the interpretation from the green sensors. 

From my understanding, as every sensor is physically in a different position, there is a fine level of diffusion to help bleed and mix the colours. I believe this helps with edges to create a more accurate image. So the VariCam35 sensor had two mysteries in my mind; one regarding the dual base ISO setting and the second in the ability for V-Raw to be so sharp. 

So based on my circumstances and in light of the story that I wanted to tell, I know how to get the best image all the way to my grader, but it’s still unclear how we can bring it to the screen, and which of 2K or 4K was going to be the best option for me. Clearly we need to do more testing. 

I’ll take raw any day of the week”, says Jamie Hediger, a freelance Colourist, “but to be honest, unless you’re going for an extreme look that’s going to require the image to be really be pushed, and you’re planning on projecting it, codec is fine. I’ve graded features shot anamorphic ProRes and they look great. If your budget is limited you’ll be fine with codec. Having said that, there was a noticeable difference with the Panasonic between the two.” Hediger continues,For me an image exposed correctly and lit accordingly is critical. 

At the end of Ali’s Wedding Don McAlpine approached his 2nd AC, Romilly Spiers, handed her an envelope and said “Read this and go and put it in the truck.” It was a glowing reference complimenting Spiers on her consistent performance, doing an amazing job when people were watching and when they were not as well. She didn’t ask for the reference, but he was nurturing her as an asset for our industry. Likewise, I believe our engineers are assets too.

Panavison Australia’s Peter Lorz says,The new V-RAW holds up to most other competitors RAW footage and in some cases, it can perform better, depending on situation of shot. The 4K 12bit AVC-Intra handles quite well against other common codecs and is great for low budget or TV series. Also because of the switchable default ASA5000 with VariCam V35 4K, gives camera operators new opportunity to shoot in very low light or infinite depth of field, and it cuts quite well within ASA 800. Now you can have more than one focal point and the noise floor level is quite low. We can see this camera becoming quite popular with our customers once they use these new features.”

I wrote to Taka and asked him what drove his team. He told me that it was simple, the ‘voice of the customer’. In other word, customer satisfaction and putting smiles on people’s faces. He ended the sentence with a smiley face. ☺

So there I was, standing inside JB HiFi looking at all these amazing 4K screens and wondered if it wasn’t us who were the ones being the snobs in the status quo. Personally, I don’t believe we’re not there until I can’t tell the difference between looking out my window and looking at a cinema screen. But right now I intend to honor the engineers, by pushing their technology as far as it can go.

We’re not saving whales or stopping wars. Or are we? We’re telling stories and that’s important too. And maybe we can be telling them even better. In a few days, I’ll be looking at the new 2x 4K laser projector system at IMAX in Melbourne and I’m really excited. It’s good that we’ve moved on from film because, as Don McAlpine says, “it’s an environmental disaster. And with lasers on the horizon I think the future looks bright …with true blacks!”

Sasha Hadden attended AFTRS in Sydney and has been actively involving in the filmmaking industry since childhood and has worked alongside many internationally-renowned Cinematographers.

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