David Mullen: Anamorphic & Resolving Latitude

A Written Response to a Question Regarding A Quote by John Schwartzman, ASC on Anamorphic Negative Size and Shadow Detail Latitude (May 2009)

The Question (written by Ryan Patrick O'Hara):

Hello, David Mullen.

We've met briefly on a few occasions, such as the ASC open house and etc. I always try to save my questions for the good ones, and today I think I've found a good one for ya.

I was recently reading the July 1998 issue of American Cinematographer, and I came upon the article for the best film ever, Armageddon... haha! Despite the film, the article by David E. Williams was quite good and a wonderful read! In the article, Micheal Bay and DP John Schwartzman, ASC discussed using Super 35 on The Rock, and how they were not happy with the process, liking true anamorphic widescreen better. This made me very happy as I am in love with true anamorphic origination.

However, in their brief dissertation on the anamorphic medium, Schwartzman made a comment regarding an advantage of anamorphic which I was unaware. According to Schwartzman, the larger negative improves latitude in the shadow detail. I am a very young cinematographer, so I apologize if this is a well known fact, but for me, I was completely unaware, and confused on how this happens.

Besides the differences in lens characteristics, I thought shooting the same cut of film stock whether it be in 8mm, 16mm or 35mm had the same characteristics such as latitude, speed ASA/ISO, color rendition, grain structure, etc. The only major difference being, when projected

the resolution and apparent size of the grain structure is obviously lacking, the smaller the negative.

To make a long winded thought process come to an end, does a larger negative size increase latitude of a film stock? The only thing I can think of is that Anamorphic is known to have monster flares... perhaps it is the bouncing and refracting of light inside anamorphic lenses which cause a slight "flash" effect (around 10%?), raising the latitude in shadow detail?

Here is the quote:
From American Cinematographer, When Worlds Collide by David E. Williams (July 1998)

Though Schwartzman and Bay expressed enthusiasm for the Super 35 process while shooting The Rock, the theatrical prints were a bit of a letdown for both men.

"The drag about Super 35 is the grain and its 'optical' feeling. We did about 30 ENR-treated prints on The Rock to keep some of the contrast. Those were shown in major cities, but the other prints lost a lot of snap. The film looked good for Super 35, but we were still working with this tiny negative."

- Micheal Bay

"What became very apparent to me was that Super 35 is not just an optical process that makes the grain more apparent; the grain is also bigger because it's enlarged so much during projection. You're getting boned on both ends. The beauty of anamorphic is that there is no intermediate optical process. If you like your dailies, you're going to love your release print. The larger negative also gives you greater shadow detail and greater latitude, so even though I was shooting deeper stops in 'Scope, I felt I was using [relatively] less light to get more image.

On Conspiracy Theory, I was doing very large night exteriors in New York City, and I needed to be working at least a T4 or 4.5 for them to look good. But that didn't mean I had to light everything to that exposure. If I could get the lenses to that range, I found that the level of shadow detail I could get in the darker areas was quite extraordinary. One of the things I explained to Michael on Armageddon was that for shuttle interior scenes, I was going to be shooting at a T4.5. I might only have a T2.8 on the actors' faces, but he'd be able to read them beautifully even though they would be underexposed by a stop-and-a-half. The faces wouldn't be muddy, just dark. I was able to do that simply because of the resolving power you get with anamorphic's big negative."

- John Schwartzman, ASC
So can shooting 5219 on anamorphic yield greater shadow latitude then shooting the same scene with the same stats (shutter, lighting, T-stop, etc) on Spherical lenses? Does shooting 5219 yield greater shadow latitude then shooting 7219?

Thanks for your time!

- Ryan

The Answer by David Mullen, ASC:

"Depends on how you define "latitude" -- larger negatives capture more fine detail with less grain, so you have more flexibility in making corrections before grain kicks in, and in softer muddier light, the larger negative still resolves detail. Plus a larger negative will differentiate between an area made up of tiny bits of color, like a field of flowers or even fleshtones -- smaller negatives, because they capture less information, tend to reduce fine gradations of color into a single color. I remember seeing a 70mm print of "Far and Away" (shot in 65mm) and there were subtle shades of pinks and golds in warm colors, colors I hadn't quite seen before in 35mm.

But in terms of actual dynamic range and contrast, technically the size of the negative doesn't matter, but again, by dint of capturing more fine detail and subtle variations, you preserve information with a larger negative that may drop away or blur in a smaller negative, giving the impression of more depth to the shadows. Plus if you shot in Super-16 or Super-35 and did the conversion to a 35mm sound format using an optical printer, as was done until recently, you did have contrast build-up from duping, which did lose dynamic range.

So it's sort of a yes and no answer -- if your recording format has more resolution, it picks up more texture and variation in detail, contrast, and color, then dark and bright areas near going black or white will appear to have more "life" to them and thus give the impression of containing more dynamic range.

Plus you have to factor in that both film and digital pick up shadow information in the bottom end, the noise floor or murky grainy level, and if that noise/grain is reduced because you used a larger negative (or a sensor with less noise) then more of that low-end information is usable in the final color-correction. So less noise/grain can give the impression of creating more dynamic range because more of the range is actually usable."

- David Mullen, ASC

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