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Why Shoot in 24P?

by Laurence J. Thorpe of Sony Electronics for TV Technology

Also related: Why Shoot in in Film?

"Once more into the breach, dear friends..." Mario continues to fulminate on contemporary HD topics as evidenced by his latest discourse on 24P. Mario bases his arguments on premises exclusively created by Mario and not by the marketplace that requested and is using 24P. Nor by the manufacturer he has once again singled out - Sony. The tongue-in-cheek methodology used by Mario cannot entirely disguise the fact that he is offering a view on 24P that is patently false. At a time when there are many who are just beginning to discover the creative attributes of 24P production, it would be a shame if the perpetration of erroneous opinions were to discourage their doing so. It's also hard to imagine his motivation to attack a technology advance that so many have found useful and valuable. Accordingly, we must set straight a record we deem to be important to the creative community.

WHY 24P?

Mario voiced the opinion that Sony's motivation to develop 24P was: "They were just providing something to see what the market would do with it..."

Too glib - and quite incorrect. 24P was created as a consequence of a recognition - finally - by video equipment manufacturers that there was something very useful to be gained by recognizing that the 24-frame picture capture rate was both hugely entrenched all over the world, and, that it was widely loved by creative folk in moviemaking and in television production. These facts are utterly divorced from any technical considerations surrounding recording and transmission capacity. They are also totally divorced from the subjective imaging issues surrounding the sub-sampled nature of 24-pictures per second versus 60 or 50 pictures per second.

By creating a digital production system that operates on precisely the same picture capture-rate platform as the de facto established 24-frame film platform, an entirely new series of creative flexibilities have been added to the program production arsenal of moviemakers and television producers. And, a very key point - distinctly absent from Mario's commentary - is that 24-frame digital was urged by a broad representation from the global program-making community. Its arrival was marketplace-driven - and decidedly not manufacturer-driven.

First, in late 1996, Sony was approached by Lucasfilm and was asked by George Lucas to consider development of a digital 24-frame production system for moviemaking. As clearly stipulated at that time by Mr. Lucas, his intent was to continue his unceasing quest for new tools to facilitate the visual telling of his stories. Total workflow was the central issue here, on the basis that a great deal of the imagery shot by Lucasfilm for the Star Wars series end up in a computer workstations for special effects additions and further image manipulation. Bypassing the need to transfer large amounts of film to digital would greatly expedite his workflow.

Second, many within the post-production community had long argued that a 24P digital post-production system would greatly enhance their work on film-originated material (and film still constitutes, by far, the majority of the input to the top post houses in the U.S.). This request acquired a whole new importance with the advent of the U.S. DTV broadcasting agenda, when the post industry was suddenly confronted with the specter of having to create multiple digital video distribution formats.

Laser Pacific boldly stepped forward in 1998 and brought to Sony (and a dozen other manufacturers) a specific proposal based upon a very detailed outline of a multi-format post-production system that accepted 24-frame film input and transferred and mastered in 24P, with final digital derivation from that master all of the required HD and SD formats for the disparate broadcast DTV operations. Sony closely collaborated with Laser Pacific in developing this 24P system, as did many other manufacturers who brought important pieces to the total technical puzzle. And, as a consequence of this collaboration, our customer, Laser Pacific, very rightly shared in the recent prestigious Emmy award for 24P technology.

Mario completely missed (or ignored) these marketplace dynamics. So much for the raison d'etre for the arrival of 24P.


The 24P production system conforms to the international standard - the ITU Recommendation 709-3. As, such, the cameras that originate digital 24P video have been designed to conform to the specified transfer characteristic and colorimetry very precisely stipulated by this now well-established standard. These specifications produce an HD "look" that has no direct basis on any "look" of motion picture film.

Thus, 24P was not specifically designed with the avowed aim of attempting a precise emulation of 24-frame motion picture film - as intimated by Mario. What the marketplace has subsequently elected to do with 24P is quite another issue.

The digital 24P camera is endowed with many digital processing controls that facilitate powerful real-time manipulation of the four primary imaging characteristics of the picture (these are common to all imaging media, including film). Picture Sharpness can be readily altered, Tonal Reproduction can be digitally manipulated over a broad range, Color Reproduction also can be aesthetically exercised (deviating from the "detent" ITU standard), and finally, the Exposure Latitude of the camera can be digitally adjusted.

The combination of all of these controls can allow a director or cinematographer to create an endless range of "looks" in that HD imagery. The experiences in the first two years of 24P production have clearly shown that these controls have indeed been exercised and many creative looks have been synthesized. It is critical to stress that the success of many directors and cinematographers in achieving a specific 24P "look" has been enormously assisted by this digital empowerment - overlaid upon the continuing and crucial utilization of their innate craftsmanship in lighting, lensing, filtration etc.


We will now turn to the specific point being made by Mario. The first question that might be asked is: "which film stock?" In the case of television production that is originated on film, there is the attendant query on the substantial imaging intervention of a colorist (no two having the same aesthetic criteria).

Based on a quite broad 24P experience globally gained with moviemakers and television producers alike, there is now a quite visible shaping of the future of 24P. And, indeed, two categories of producer have emerged. First, there are those who are today utilizing digital 24P and do specifically seek the look of film in the end product - be this theatrical release film or television (either NTSC, PAL, digital SD or digital HD broadcasting), or packaged media such as the popular DVD.

There are others who seek a distinct alternative to the long-established look of film.

From Sony's point of view, both are perfectly valid. We have worked extensively with both in further refining the capabilities of 24P to meet their separate imaging aspirations, and we will continue to do so.

The fact that these digital camera controls exist does allow the "look" of any given film stock to be reproduced with remarkable accuracy. To avoid any ambiguity in this claim, let us immediately clarify that this "look" reflects that of a specific film stock from the viewpoint of the four primary imaging characteristics described above. Coupled with the unique temporal footprint of 24-frame image capture - the final imagery can become uncannily akin to that of 24fps motion picture film. There are, however, other secondary attributes indigenous to the film medium - most notably, film grain - that are not in any way emulated by the 24P system. Image weave, and even film scratches, have also been cited by some as part of the uniquely "organic" look of film. Sony certainly has no intention of emulating any of these secondary attributes. Those who seek such should indeed continue to shoot on film.

During this first year and a half of 24P marketplace experience, a number of producers have worked closely with Sony in refining the digital tools to facilitate a closer emulation of film imagery. In some cases this has been driven by the need to intercut film transferred from 24P into a movie that has other segments shot on film (the movie "Ali" being a case in point). Dennis Cooper and his team at ESC are presently doing similar investigations for their use of 24P special effect scenes that will be intercut into film-originated scenes in the new "Matrix" movie presently being shot in Australia. Similarly, Fred Meyers of ILM has done impressive investigation of transfer characteristics with the goal to produce both digital and transferred film releases that meet the aesthetic goals of George Lucas and his producer, Rick McCallum.

The decision of the creative community to emulate the "look" of film in 24P origination is a totally creative choice. If they seek it - they can have it.

Mario snorts at the premise that 24P might be used to realize cost savings. Specifically he stated: "Yes, dear, we've always had the classic triangle: economy, quality and speed. Pick any two. There ain't anything that 24P does to affect that triangle..."

Yet, that is precisely why some producers (of both theatrical movies and television primetime programming) have elected to switch from film. How much that triangle has been affected can vary significantly between producers and directors. But Mario needs to pay close attention to their explanation of enhanced management of cash flow (for example, the large upfront outlay for 35mm film stock, shipping, and processing is substantially alleviated with 24P digital acquisition). While this might be in the few percent range on "A hundred million pistoolahs?" movie, that can still leave it significantly in excess of a million dollars. On a $2 million production, the media-related savings have been cited as very significant. On a television production one must further factor in the elimination of Telecine transfer costs and the simplification of color correction - not a trivial cost today.


Mario's protest notwithstanding, speed has indeed been cited by other producers as contributing to some degree of cost control: they are into off-line editing much sooner; they can do more setups per day because of the many advantages of long record times (50-minute "loads"); the use of the HD monitor on-set has expedited some productions by allowing sets to be struck that same day (total confidence in what was captured). Time is money in high-end production.

"But, Mario, what about the director being able to see stuff as it's being shot?" Mario's retort here: " Hello? How many dozens of years have there been video viewfinder taps on film cameras?" totally misses the key point made by most directors that the large high definition monitor on the set empowers them to make crucial aesthetic and image quality judgments in real-time. Such crucial judgments could never be made on a traditional film camera's video tap.

On the issue of camera costs, Mario might be very surprised to make a cost comparison (list price) between the most expensive 24P camera and both a 35mm film camera and a Super 16mm film camera. The numbers speak for themselves - suffice to say that the differences are impressive.

Finally, Mario's thoughtless insistence that: "If you believe 24P will be cheaper, then you will make sure 24P is cheaper, and I do mean cheaper, not just less expensive..." is, in fact, a hugely careless statement that ignores the 24P production record to date. It certainly belittles the aspirations of serious producers, directors, and cinematographers who have completed those 24P productions. We have carefully debriefed many of these and we never heard such a verdict. I'm afraid that Mario's comment on this score smacks more than a little of "methinks he doth protest too much..."