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February 1, 2013

Digital Cinema Tech @ Sundance Film Festival 2013

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I have been intrigued by the power and flexibility of using Windows PCs for digital cinema post-production. You can read about investigations I have done in my lab here, here, and here. So when an opportunity came up to attend the Sundance Film Festival with the co-founder of RED, I leaped at it!

Empowering Emerging Artists

The Sundance Film Festival is all about the celebration of motion pictures. It’s an exciting environment where emerging and experienced filmmakers come to give audiences a first look at their latest independent films. Many filmmakers enter the festival as unknowns and emerge from the event with contracts, opportunities, and notoriety they could only have dreamed of beforehand.

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Main Street in Park City Utah – the heart of the Sundance Film Festival

Same Craft, Different Tools

While the spirit of the Sundance film festival hasn’t changed a whole lot in the 28 years that it’s been in existence (it was known as the “US Film Festival” prior to 1984), the “filmmakers game” has changed drastically since it started. Just five years ago, the majority of these independent films were shot using the same basic tools that Hollywood films have relied on since the early 1900’s – using good old film. Of the 5 films that I saw at the festival, 4 were shot using 4K or 5K RED Digital Cinema cameras, and just one with Panavision film cameras. Shooting in digital can save a large quantity of money, allow the director and crew to screen footage same-day, decrease weight and bulk, and also enable films to be edited on-location. With digital there’s no developing and scanning of film stock, footage is just data saved to media and is ready for use instantly. Some digital cinema cameras enable shots in tight quarters and spaces that just aren’t possible with bulky film cameras. This new digital age of movie making is very different, and much faster paced than the film age was.

While at the festival, I was able to spend time with Ted Schilowitz, RED Digital Cinema co-founder and “employee number one” at RED. In addition to watching movies together, I got a valuable perspective from Ted on the drastic changes that are going on in the film industry.


Me (left) with Ted Schilowitz (right) in front of the Egyptian Theatre at the Sundance Film Festival

To put these sweeping film industry changes in context, pretend you’re a talented film student in college (if you aren’t one). Now think about the economics of shooting an independent film with the combination of your miniscule savings, a loan from your parents, and some charitable sponsors. Let’s compare the options and costs for film-vs-digital. If you’ve been wondering about the equipment used to shoot motion pictures, this should be interesting!

For each camera on set, there are some fixed costs: (2-6 cameras would be typical)

Arriflex 435 xtreme 35mm film camera:

  • ~$100,000, +accessories, +lenses (~$120,000 total per camera)

RED SCARLET-X 4K Digital cinema camera:

  • ~$8000, +accessories, + lenses (~$12,000 total per camera)

To consider the economics for storage and consumables, let’s start by calculating how many minutes you’ll need to shoot total:

  • Feature length: 90 minutes
  • Shooting ratio: 50:1 (total minutes shot : total feature length)
  • Total shooting time: 4500 minutes

With this metric, let’s calculate the total consumable and storage costs associated with getting your feature film into post-production: (ballpark numbers here)

Shooting 35mm film:

  • Film stock: $500 per 10 minutes = $225,000
  • Developing and scanning: $1000 per hour shot = $75,000
  • Total film costs: ~$300,000

Shooting digital: (RED Digital Cinema cameras)

  • Cameras: 4
  • REDMAG SSDs per camera: 10 @ $725: $7250
  • 30TB Local file copy storage (primary + backup): $3000
  • Total digital storage: ~$32,000

To really put this in perspective, here’s visual comparison of this cost comparison:

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Following the shoot, the deliverables for post-production are the same when shooting film (which is typically digitized) or digital (captured as digital). For post-production, both methods of shooting produce giant digital video files that are color graded and edited to produce the final digital movie file. What’s amazing is how drastically camera and consumable costs can be cut when shooting digital (about 90% less than shooting film in the above example). WOW.

While these camera-related costs are only a part of the fixed-cost-equation for independent filmmakers, it’s clear to see that shooting digital significantly lowers the financial bar for filmmakers. The result is more of an even playing field for talented artists- and that’s a good thing!

In addition to the cost savings, shooting digital also gives you cleaner and higher quality images. If you compare the footage from film cinema cameras and digital cinema cameras you’ll notice significantly less grain/noise in the digital footage as opposed to the analog film footage. Sound too good to be true? It’s not: this is the new reality of the film industry.

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The top of the line 5K RED EPIC brain – same as used to film The Hobbit – ~$19,000

Putting it All Together

Post-production is a major part of creating any film. The new wave of 4K and 5K digital cinema cameras create beautiful footage, but working with this data requires computers that have tremendous computational horsepower, memory, and storage. One of the cool things that attendees saw at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival was a showcase of the latest hardware and software tools for movie making.

For this festival, HP put together an awesome technology showcase called the “Sundance House”. The Sundance House hosted live music events, technology demonstrations, and other digital highlights.

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The “Sundance House” interactive exhibit

At the heart of the upstairs display in the Sundance House was a really cool 6-display setup used to show 4K footage and demonstrate software products like Adobe SpeedGrade CS6 and Adobe Premiere Pro CS6.

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The giant 3×2 6-display setup used to show content and apps in 4K resolution

Powering this setup was an HP Z820 workstation utilizing a single ATI FirePro v9800 graphics card which drove all 6 displays. Thomas Pappalardo (who built this setup) gave me a quick look at how this demo was put together. The displays used here are HP LD4730G Micro-Bezel 47” displays featuring Gorilla Glass. Thomas used the ATI Eyefinity display group feature to tie all of these displays together as one virtual display surface in Windows. This setup is similar to the 3-display Eyefinity display group I blogged about using the AMD 7970 graphics card.

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Thomas with ATI FirePro v9800 graphics card

What’s neat about this multi-display setup is the ability to physically take it apart so that it can be easily shipped from one venue to another. If you can imagine carting around an 80-inch-class TV to these kinds of events, it’s easy to see how this kind of setup would be a good choice. This ~120” multi-display setup does a great job of presenting widescreen 4K footage, the new standard for digital cinema productions.

Another Sundance House highlight for filmmakers was the HP Workstation showcase area where visitors could see and try out video post-production tasks on a variety of PC hardware. To round things out, visitors could also see and touch a RED EPIC camera that was on display. How often to you get to touch the same camera that Peter Jackson uses?

Powerful Seamless Tools

The hardware and software post-production tools used to edit 4K footage are getting better and better all the time. In the Sundance House, RED Digital Cinema, HP, and Adobe worked together to demonstrate various aspects of post-production using the latest workstation hardware from HP running Windows software from RED and Adobe. Some of the PCs shown included mobile editing solutions (like the HP 8770w), compact desktop solutions (like the HP Z1 all-in-one), and tower-based systems (like the HP Z820 and HP Z820 RED Edition which is sold by ProMax and Tekserve).

It’s hard to believe how far digital cinema post-production has come in the last 5 years. I covered some of these advancements here on the Extreme Windows Blog showing the 4K video editing experience on Windows 8 with RED footage on HP workstations running Adobe CS6. These kinds of capabilities are evidence of the close collaboration between RED, Adobe, and HP. You can literally drop RED files (.R3D) right into your Premiere Pro project and start working with them with no special plugins and no transcoding, it just works! Furthermore, you can even edit footage directly from the REDMAG SSD it was recorded onto, you don’t even have to copy files locally if you don’t want to.

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An HP Z1 all-in-one Zeon-powered workstation running REDCINE-X Pro editing 4K REDCODE RAW footage

The transformation in cinema technology that’s going on right now is exciting to see and be a part of. Moviegoers will be amazed by the films released with these new cameras, and movie makers are constantly adopting and adapting to new technology. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

I had an amazing time at Sundance. Seeing the work of innovative and creative artists, feeling the energy of the attendees, and getting up close to all of the hardware was inspiring to me. It makes me want to grab a camera to go out and shoot some footage!

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