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Ken Burns-The National Parks

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John Cummings
Ken Burns-The National Parks
on Sep 28, 2009 at 3:19:32 am

I know some think Ken Burns is God, but why in heaven does he still shoot 16mm film?

The eagerly anticipated National Parks series landed on my Plasma display tonight, and it looked like hell. Bad (and weird) colors, image weave, gigantic grain, compression artifacts...and it all looked generally soft to me....sort of a bad film look like something from the 1960's.

Burns knows how to tell a great story, and good thing...because it distracted me (for awhile) from the bad images. But the closer I got to the screen, the more garbage I saw. I know things get stepped on a few times between PBS master control and what I see at home, but for some reason, this series looks particularly bad on the air.

I can tell his cameraman Buddy Squires and the rest of his crew did a great job of shooting, but I think their choice of using super 16 was a bad idea...it just doesn't hold up in the long broadcast chain. He's gotten away with it in the past, with shows like "Baseball" and "Jazz", but that was mostly archival pictures and talking heads. The complexity of the landscapes in "National Parks" with the shades of light and color pallette just made the film fall apart.

I suspect the Blu Ray version might be much more watchable.

Other opinions?


J Cummings
Cameralogic/Chicago
cameralogic.tv
HDX-900/HDW-730S/DXC-D50


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Todd Terry
Re: Ken Burns-The National Parks
on Sep 28, 2009 at 3:37:25 am

Didn't see it yet... but as you know film in general has a great deal more contrast lattitude and dynamic color range than does HD... and specifically s16mm has technically a great deal more resolution than HD. So, it should look phenominal. I'm not doubting you, it probably didn't... but it should.

It would seem that the problem lies somewhere in the production workflow rather than at the acquisition point. The problem is, that it could be almost anywhere that the wheels came off the bus... from the first telecine to your particular TV set, and a few dozen other places in between.

s16mm can look good or bad, it just depends on what you do with it... a look at the present and past s16mm network television shows will show you a huge range... from the terrible looking ("Walker Texas Ranger"), to more recent s16mm fare that really looked great ("My Name is Earl," "Scrubs"). In fact the first time I saw "Scrubs" on NBC's HD network feed on a 50" 1080 monitor I said "Wow... that's 16mm??" Which it was, and was not only beautifully saturated and with incredible lattitude, but razor sharp as a tack.

I think Mr. Burns' problems lies someplace other than with the sprocket holes.


T2

__________________________________
Todd Terry
Creative Director
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.
fantasticplastic.com






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Mark Suszko
Re: Ken Burns-The National Parks
on Sep 28, 2009 at 6:17:12 pm

Some blurb in a recent Millimeter" magazine said the networks all hate super-16 now and refuse to haev anything made in it anymore. It was part of an article claiming there's no diff between 2-perf and 3-perf, and that 2-perf is as cheap to use as say an HD Sony Viper.

My hands-on film experience begins and ends with super-8 silent, so I don't think I'm competent to have an opinion. Except to say, if the film still winds up transferred to a DI, isn't that missing the point and adding that extra bit of expense over a pure digital image chain?


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Todd Terry
Re: Ken Burns-The National Parks
on Sep 28, 2009 at 6:58:42 pm

[Mark Suszko] "the networks all hate super-16 now and refuse to haev anything made in it anymore."

Wow, really. I guess the networks could take that position, but it sure would be surprising.

I'm not sure what current broadcast or cable network shows are shooting s16mm, but those in recent past have included Gilmore Girls, One Tree Hill, Malcolm in the Middle, Tru Calling, The OC, Monk, Dead Zone, Scrubs, My Name is Earl, and the first few seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to name a few.

Oh, and I do believe the COW's own Todd McMullen shoots NBC's "Friday Night Lights" on s16mm.

[Mark Suszko] "if the film still winds up transferred to a DI, isn't that missing the point and adding that extra bit of expense over a pure digital image chain?"

It might seem that way, but not really. The extra lattitude and gamma/chroma info is preserved on the DI, info that would simply not have been there had the image been originally acquired via a digital camera rather than on film. It's at the acquisition (camera) point where film really shines... down the rest of the chain the workflow is (or can be) identical whether shooting film or video. That, plus most theatrical (and some broadcast) DIs are made at either 2K or 4K resolution... which is of course much higher resolution than had it been shot as video. That might not make much difference if the end viewing is 1080 max on television rather than theatrical... except the higher-res DI would be of great benefit for compositing, matting, and SFX work.

Just like with video, there is a great deal of difference to be had with which film camera you are shooting with. They both may hold the same Kodak stock in the magazines, but you're going to see a quality difference if you are shooting with someone's old beat-up Eclair NPR or Canon Scoopic, as opposed to a million-dollar Panavision Elaine s16mm camera. Same goes for lenses.

s16mm can look really great in the right hands. Case in point... due to all the fashion, glamor, and all that hubbub, the producers of "Sex and the City" were meticulous about the look of the show. Which was shot in s16mm for its entire broadcast run.


T2

__________________________________
Todd Terry
Creative Director
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.
fantasticplastic.com






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Steven Bradford
Re: Ken Burns-The National Parks
on Sep 29, 2009 at 5:26:33 pm

That's right Terry. If this series doesn't look good on someone's large screen HD set, I don't think it's because of the decision to shoot 16mm. Something else is in the mix. Here's the most up to date list of shows I have seen:

16mm Film:
Burn Notice - USA-
Chuck - NBC-
Crash - Kodak -
Degrassi: The Next Generation -
Eastbound and Down - HBO-
Eastwick - ABC -
Friday Night Lights - NBC-
Greek - ABC-
Heartland - CBC-
In Plain Sight - USA-
Lincoln Heights - ABC-
Men of a Certain Age - TNT-
The Middle - ABC-
Monk - USA-
One Tree Hill - CW-
Psych - USA-
Saving Grace - TNT-
Scrubs - ABC-

And if you don't like how the show looks, you should absolutely complain to your station! They want to know this.

Steven Bradford
http://www.3dstereomedia.com 3D company I've worked with since 1990
http://www.seanet.com/~bradford/ my personal home page, find my greenscreen page there.
http://www.seattlefilminstitute.com the school I teach at.


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Tim Kolb
Re: Ken Burns-The National Parks
on Sep 30, 2009 at 1:13:59 am

I know Mr. Burns is a bit of a purist... He's made some derogatory remarks over the years about editing electronically in general that makes me believe he probably still uses a razor on a table...or at least that's what he wants us to believe.

Film post (without DI), with the various inter-negs and inter-positives that are the backbone of the process is not as kind to the image as some would have you believe.

John Galt from Panavision states very clearly in Panavision's excellent videos on MTF, that what Panavision considers very good performance through a traditional film post chain and on the final release print is about 20 or 21 cycles per millimeter...about 1000 lines across on 35mm. As has been said, film's dynamic range is the clear advantage, the resolution really isn't the differentiating factor that many believe it to be, and in fact with HD being nearly 2,000 lines across...

Digital post is one of the best things that has happened to film acquisition. It actually maintains the image quality.

...but perhaps Mr. Burns feels that pollutes his art.

I'd be curious to know what his post methods were this time out. I watched the program and did like the story, but aesthetically, I also thought it looked a little like 60 Minutes from 1979...

OK...I know I'm going to hear about this one.






TimK,
Director, Consultant
Kolb Productions,


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Tim Kolb
Re: Ken Burns-The National Parks
on Sep 30, 2009 at 2:36:59 pm

[Tim Kolb] "what Panavision considers very good performance through a traditional film post chain and on the final release print is about 20 or 21 cycles per millimeter...about 1000 lines across on 35mm."

Hmmm...I typed that pretty fast.

First of all...it applies to Super 35 without a soundtrack of course (24mm). Also, it applies to where the optimal "sharpness" measurement is taken from. Sharpness is contrast plus resolution...the expression of which is modulation transfer function (MTF).

So...the point is still that film takes a hit through traditional post.





TimK,
Director, Consultant
Kolb Productions,


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John Cummings
Re: Ken Burns-The National Parks
on Sep 30, 2009 at 3:56:02 pm

Hey Tim,

I'm glad you cleared that up for us less-technical types..;-)

Slide rules aside, my point is that it didn't look as good as it should have. I'll put 80% of the problem down to transmission issues...which is something, as a program supplier, is completely out of our hands. That signal degradation in the broadcast chain (for lack of a better term) is something we should all have to consider during the post phase, I'm just not sure what can be done to make it any less horrible.

Here's a tidbit from an article in documentary.org that might be food for thought:

"The images were composed in a 16:9 aspect ratio. The processed negative was scanned at 3K resolution and sub-sampled down to a 2K 10-bit digital log file at Goldcrest Postproduction, in New York. Final editing was done by Paul Barnes, who has worked on Florentine Films since The Statue of Liberty in 1985.

John Dowdell, at Goldcrest, was the colorist. He has served in that role on all Florentine Films from the beginning. Final timing was done in a theater environment with the images projected on a big screen. "Today's technology allows us to isolate elements of frames, so Ken and Buddy could add painterly touches to the look," Dowdell explains."

My theory: Perhaps portions of the show were a little too "painterly" for the type of compression and datarate of the final distribution...? Could it be that what looks good projected doesn't necessarily hold up well after it gets bounced around a few times before it hits the home screen?




J Cummings
Cameralogic/Chicago
cameralogic.tv
HDX-900/HDW-730S/DXC-D50


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Todd Terry
Re: Ken Burns-The National Parks
on Sep 30, 2009 at 4:03:56 pm

[John Cummings] "Could it be that what looks good projected doesn't necessarily hold up well after it gets bounced around a few times before it hits the home screen?"

Often often true. Both the acquisition format, personnel, and workflow seem to be of pretty darn high pedigree. Too bad all that work didn't wind up looking good on the boob tube. Will be interesting to see how much better the Blu-ray is.


T2

__________________________________
Todd Terry
Creative Director
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.
fantasticplastic.com






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Tim Kolb
Re: Ken Burns-The National Parks
on Sep 30, 2009 at 10:01:56 pm

[John Cummings] ""The images were composed in a 16:9 aspect ratio. The processed negative was scanned at 3K resolution and sub-sampled down to a 2K 10-bit digital log file at Goldcrest Post"

So it was edited as a DI...

Transmission is a huge issue to be sure...but log curves aren't exactly a global standard either. I'd like to know what constitutes "painterly"...lots of color saturation combined with generous amounts of 16mm grain structure could make some interesting things happen in compression.

Whatever the case...as has been said, the guy tells one hell of a story. I have to think about imagery specifically after I watch it (on a hotel TV this week unfortunately) as I'm usually watching it as an interested viewer quite frankly.






TimK,
Director, Consultant
Kolb Productions,


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Preston Smith
Re: Ken Burns-The National Parks
on Oct 1, 2009 at 2:47:11 am

Tim, I understand what you are saying about transmission, but the archival images look fine. I know PBS is meticulous about network origination standards


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Tim Kolb
Re: Ken Burns-The National Parks
on Oct 1, 2009 at 12:28:38 pm

[Preston Smith] "Tim, I understand what you are saying about transmission, but the archival images look fine. I know PBS is meticulous about network origination standards"

"Meticulous" may be the nicest way I've heard it expressed in some time...I certainly agree.

During the times I've been watching I've been in a hotel in the western suburbs of Chicago viewing a rather aged 25" CRT (SD). I assume I'm watching an HD air signal, received and downconverted and retransmitted over cable, so it's a transmission system that has additional steps after PBS...

As far as archive images go...I'm not sure I've seen any yet that were high fidelity images when they were originals, so I'm not sure how I'd tell whether or not they were handled well.





TimK,
Director, Consultant
Kolb Productions,


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Preston Smith
Re: Ken Burns-The National Parks
on Sep 30, 2009 at 3:35:23 am

The contrast and tonal range of the historic images in this series is very good, but the new footage looks nothing short of bizarre.

The contrast is so hyped that there is no shadow detail. Color has also been hyped. I can understand this on the occasional sunset shot, but some of the beauty shots of the Grand Canyon, only half of the image is visible. The rest is just a dark blob.

I'm wondering if the exagerated grain in sky shots is made worse by the excessive color bump they've used.

BTW, I think that they always use Aaton cameras on the Burns series.


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