When I wrote about the Light L16 camera, we had some fun thinking about a world where one small camera could become just about any camera you could imagine, from a large-sensor DSLR with a fast 50 to a razor-sharp telephoto beast. Where make-or-break factors such as critical focus could be adjusted in post, and where creative decisions like depth of focus could be tweaked in post.
Of course, I mentioned Lytro then. Pioneers in light-field imaging with two curious but ultimately unpopular consumer offerings, Lytro has now “gone pro,” first with a promised VR capture device, and now with Lytro Cinema.
Lytro Cinema is a high-end light-field camera for capturing moving images. It’s (apparently) a massive 6-foot-long behemoth with an imaging plane half a meter wide. It is said to capture 755 raw megapixels (for 4K output) at up to 300 fps, and promises 16 stops of dynamic range.
Lytro is good at getting lots of breathless press coverage of their impressive announcements, but the only real coverage I‘ve seen so far is from fxguide. John Montgomery interviews Lytro’s Jon Karafin on the fxpodcast, and you really should give it an attentive listen.
With the L16, I allowed myself to get excited about what a compact light-field camera could mean for stills. For some reason, I’m more reserved in my reaction to Lytro Cinema. Maybe it’s partially in response to Lytro’s announcement of the Immerge VR capture device, where they presented renderings of a camera but no photos, and faked demonstrations without any disclaimers. I publicly grumbled at the press’s willingness to go along with Lytro’s claims of being “first” at something they had not yet actually shown themselves doing.
But even if we take Lytro at their word that the Lytro Cinema actually exists — and I think we can, as they’ll be showing a film shot with it next week at NAB — I still see reasons to pause for some thoughts about the filmmaking process.
Lytro Cinema promises that most of the decisions that are made at the time of capture, from f-stop and depth of field to shutter angle and frame rate to even the actual position of the camera, would become matters of post-production flexibility. The potentially problematic implications range from obvious to terrifying. A studio could decide well into post that a film should be released in 48 fps 3D, when the filmmakers thought they were making a 24 fps 2D film. The editor could not only zoom and reframe a shot, but even choose to dolly a bit left or right, and add in a rack-focus from one actor to another.
To their credit, Lytro is aware of this possible minefield, and addresses these issues in their interview with fxguide.
Lytro Cinema is not just about postponing or refining creative decisions. Any director would love to save a great take lost due to blown focus, but the post-production superpowers only begin there. As with the L16, scenes shot with the Lytro Cinema camera could have post production flexibility we currently only dream of, from relighting, to object replacement, to perfect mattes without greenscreens, to blending of multiple takes in 3D space. It makes live action filmmaking nearly as fluid and re-editable as a Pixar animation.
As Lytro’s Jon Karafin says in the fxguide interview, “With great power...”
I can’t help but think about the filmmaking process, and what it means to me. My old colleague Alex Lindsay put it very well in a tweet:
“Film a scene, or capture all of it.”
To some, the latter seems like nothing but win. But here’s the thing.
I like filming the scene.
I like making decisions and sticking with them.
I like a set where decisions matter.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of VFX shoots, and one thing I’ve tried to do is avoid greenscreen whenever possible. The reason? When a crew sees a a greenscreen, they could think, at least a little, that their creative work might all be superseded later. It’s a gigantic area of the set over which their creative contribution holds no sway. Any manager will tell you that if you want someone’s best work, you have to empower them, but greenscreens disempower film crews.
We celebrate cinematographers as singular artists, even when their work is a massive collaboration. Can we simultaneously celebrate a device that disempowers their on-set decisions?
The great Vittorio Storaro was recently interviewed (PDF) about his transition to digital cinematography. This passage stood out to me:
Don’t be stuck in just gathering information through this instrument. There is a moment when, as the cinematographer, you have to follow the emotion of the story and go beyond the system.
The analogy that comes to my mind is in recording music. Most modern music is recorded in pieces, with each voice and instrument in isolation. The producer builds the track out of these components, and is, in many ways, the final author of the song. Compare that to a live performance where everyone plays together, at the same time, and riffs off each other.
When we start to think of the camera as an information gatherer rather than a creative tool — an instrument to be remixed with infinite flexibility in an antiseptic room far from the set rather than played in concert with those around you, I wonder what we risk losing in exchange for all that flexibility.
Maybe it will be great, but it’s worth thinking about.
I believe that great films come from great process, and it’s not just OK to choose to make films using the processes you enjoy — it may actually be the only way to make something good.