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From Star Wars to Palme d’Or: Sony supports filmmakers for more than three decades

Sony has been helping creative professionals realise and share their own personal vision for decades. Today, we support a huge range of leading and independent cinematographers and directors – giving them the tools to bring stories to life and capture emotion in every frame. Here Richard Lewis, Chief Engineer at Sony Europe, explores the evolution of digital cinematography, from earliest experiments to its central role in modern film-making.

From Star Wars to Palme d’Or: Sony supports filmmakers for more than three decades

As early as the 1980s, professional filmmakers were taking their first exploratory steps recording moving images electronically as an alternative to film. In the UK, the BBC Television Film Services Department was notable as an early adopter of Digital Betacam. Introduced in 1993 by Sony as a drop-in replacement for the then ubiquitous Betacam, DigiBeta transformed the economics of programme production compared with more costly 16mm film, then the de facto standard for mainstream drama and documentaries.

‘Dheepan’ shot on CineAlta F55 wins the
Palme d’Or at the 68th Cannes Film Festival

The film industry, in comparison, was far less inclined to throw out its 35mm inventory and replace it with standard-definition video tape overnight. But around the turn of the millennium, the first clues appeared that Hollywood’s own future could look quite different. For the major studios, celluloid would of course remain the default choice for years to come. For an emerging generation of younger movie makers on tight budgets, however, capturing electronically offered a compelling entry point into the industry. Here, Sony helped lead the way with a new generation of compact, low cost, easy to use analogue (and then digital) video cameras.

The first credible alternative to 16mm

For the first time, directors were offered a credible alternative to 16mm. Cinema’s traditional on-set production hierarchy – director, director of photography, cameraman, grip – was joined by an additional tier of ‘point-and-shoot’ film-makers armed only with a video camera and a compelling idea. Break-out movies like The Blair Witch Project (1999, shot on Sony Hi-8) grossed $140 million domestically, proving there was an international audience for movies made on low cost, accessible video technology.

Video continued to become an increasingly popular choice through the decade (2000-2010), with a steady string of low-budget features and documentaries produced on formats like DigiBeta and DVCAM. Its immediacy and low running costs saw digital appealing to a new generation of film-makers. Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 movement flourished thanks in no small part to digital, while other respected auteurs like Wim Wenders, Mike Figgis, Spike Lee, Hal Hartley and Peter Greenaway embraced the technology in earnest.

CineAlta arrives

Shot with the Sony’s HDW-F900 CineAlta

2002 was a landmark year in digital cinematography, when George Lucas and DP David Tattersall shot Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones (2002) entirely in HD 24p using Sony’s HDW-F900 CineAlta camera. This was one of the first and most significant theatrical productions where digital effectively replaced 35mm analogue film in a conventional cinematic feature film workflow. Teaming a Sony camera with optics by Panavison, the F900 marked the first introduction of CineAlta – Sony’s brand-mark that distinguished high-end cine products from our mainstream broadcast and portable cameras.

At the time of its release, Lucas tried to persuade movie theatres to switch to digital projection – itself a brand new medium at the time. But unfortunately this vision was a little ahead of its time. Few cinemas were equipped to project in digital, so the vast majority of audiences saw the results of the HDCAM masters transferred back to conventional 35mm celluloid. Nonetheless, Lucas was giving a very clear signal where cinematographic workflow would be heading a decade later. Subsequently, Lucas used the more advanced Sony HDC-F950 for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) recorded on the new HDCAM SR format. The next CineAlta iteration, this acclaimed camera offered higher resolution and better colour reproduction than its predecessor. And as the decade progressed, a growing number of other mainstream titles shot entirely or in part on digital showed that directors and cinematographers were increasingly prepared to embrace this radical step-change in a craft that had remained essentially unchanged for almost a century.

With its own distinctive visual signature, digital cinematography has long aroused strong opinions in the creative community. As a medium, it certainly offers plenty of advantages over celluloid. There’s no need to worry about expensive film stock or short running times per reel. Instant playback on set saves DP and director the agony of waiting overnight to view rushes.

The picture quality debate

Shot with Sony HDC-F950 cameras

But these operational attractions have been – and still are – balanced with a healthy debate about picture quality. Many directors resisted the first wave of digital, pointing out that HD video was no real match for 35mm film in terms of detail, colour gamut, exposure latitude and noise levels. And of course film grain – a physical consequence of the medium itself – has provided story-tellers with a powerful evocative tool in its own right. Equally, some film-makers have opted for digital as a conscious aesthetic choice. Shooting Tron: Legacy (2010) on the Sony F35 gave director Joseph Kosinski and DP Claudio Miranda a distinct on-screen look, suiting both the narrative and the computer-generated scenes that dominate much of the movie.

While heated industry debate continued, the 90’s saw the release of another landmark movie that would effectively silence any criticism of digital’s commercial viability. Photographed entirely in 3D by DP Vince Pace, James Cameron’s US$ 2.8 billion grossing Avatar (2009) employed the Fusion system. This pioneering set-up employed two Sony HDC-F950 cameras, capturing stereoscopic images with the aid of a half-silvered mirror.

Digital’s influence among film-makers gradually increased, but another technology step-change was to come just a few years later. The next step in the evolution of CineAlta came in 2011 with the launch of Sony’s first 8K camera, the F65. With a 20 megapixel sensor the same size as a Super 35mm 3-perforation film frame, the F65 represented a huge leap forward in image quality. With over four times the resolution of Full HD, 4K finally delivered pictures that made a credible match for celluloid. The numbers were impressive, with detail, colour gamut and latitude earning the acknowledgement that digital had earned its place on the movie lot.

4K CineAlta today

‘Winter Sleep’ shot on CineAlta F65 wins
the Palme d’Or at the 67th Cannes Film Festival

Today, 4K CineAlta is increasingly the go-to choice for Hollywood big names and independent film-makers. In May this year, French director Jacques Audiard won the Palme d'Or at the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival ceremony for Dheepan, shot on the F55 by DP Eponine Momenceau. This follows on from Nuri Bilge Ceylan being awarded the Palme d'Or in 2014 for Winter Sleep, shot using the F65 by Gökhan Tiryaki.

Alongside the flagship F65, lower-cost cameras like the F55 and F5 make true CineAlta quality accessible on limited budgets. And as 4K becomes the norm for digital movie-making, our industry is now turning its attention to other aspects of picture quality. In the quest for ever-more immersive story-telling, directors are looking to higher frame rates, High Dynamic Range (HDR) and a wider colour space that’s closer to the human eye as an adjunct to the increased resolution of 4K. Creativity never stands still: not least in the world of cinematography, where technological progress is an enabler – and a consequence – of every director’s restless drive to interpret the world as they see it. As artistry evolves, Sony is right there with the tools and the know-how to help film-makers realise their vision – just as we’ve done for decades.

A trusted partner

More than any other electronics company, Sony sees itself as a part of this community. From making our own movies (as Sony Pictures, Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Television) to cinematography, digital projection, consumer TVs and tablets – we understand what makes a great-looking picture. Today, film-makers are invited to visit our Digital Motion Picture Centres in Hollywood and Pinewood, where they can try the latest products at first-hand and experience 4K workflow in action while mingling with other creative professionals.

The ultimate reason 4K exists, of course, is for the benefit of its audience. Today, over 18,000 Sony 4K digital projectors are installed in cinemas worldwide, bringing detail-packed images to cinemagoers in large multiplexes and small boutique screens alike. And in viewers’ homes, our BRAVIA television line-up includes a growing choice of Ultra-High Definition models – all ready for the impending wave of 4K content that’s heading our way.

With a ‘scene-to-screen’ understanding that threads right through our DNA, we’re genuinely proud to support the film-makers of today and tomorrow. And it’s by continually listening to the needs of this community that Sony continues to refine the tools and technology we offer to help film-makers realise their personal vision.

About the author

After originally training with the BBC, Richard Lewis has been with Sony for many years, where he’s been instrumental in every significant development in professional cameras and recording. In recent years he has been involved in the introduction of Sony’s 4K Cinema Projector and the F65 8K Digital Cinema camera. A widely respected industry figure, Richard is acknowledged as Sony’s leading expert in camera technology. He also assists DP’s with camera and shooting decisions, and he has worked as cinematography consultant on a range of commercials and feature films.

See the range of courses for cinematographers at Sony’s Digital Motion Picture Centre Europe (DMPCE) at Pinewood Studios