Revealing Ride: Revenge of the Great Camera Shootout
Last week we finally arrived at the conclusion of Zacuto’s Revenge of the Great Camera Shootout. If the italics convey exasperation, then they have done their job. The company really knows how to draw out the suspense, releasing the three entries in the trilogy on the 15th of every month this summer.
The eagerly-awaited followup to its Emmy-winning Great Camera Shootout 2011, ROTGCS had a lot to live up to. The accessory maker wowed the filmmaking world last year with its lavishly produced and precisely executed battery of tests pitting cameras running the gamut from humble DSLRs to digital cinema behemoths like the ARRI Alexa and RED ONE MX and the then-default for cinema work, film.
The series shook up the entire filmmaking world with the subsequent revelations. It proved that in many measures, DSLRs could compete with the big boys. It also arguably put to rest the controversial question of whether digital could ever be a serious competitor to film (yes).
This time around, Zacuto slowed down, jettisoning the quick-moving cyberpunk aesthetic, laced with throbbing techno music, for a Ken Burns-esque weightiness. For substantial sections, somber orchestral music thickly wafted through solemn interviews with singularly lit DPs musing on the overwhelming burden of doing justice to a great story on film. If I had passed it on TV, I would have assumed I’d stumbled upon an Iowa Jima doc. Between these slightly over-indulgent interviews (we’re not curing cancer here, people) was the meat of the show, the test itself. And this is where Zacuto wisely shook things up.
Rather than an updated 2012 rehash with the latest crop of newer, shinier cameras, Zacuto took the genius approach of borrowing the blind taste test model of the wine world.
The crop of cameras was less thorough than last year, but again aimed to represent the breadth of viable shooting options out there. Zacuto even included, strangely enough, the iPhone 4S. The Canon 5D Mark II, heretofore the go-to camera for small productions, was curiously absent, and I’m assuming the 5D III, D800, D4 or 1D X were not available in time for testing, so no full-frame options were on display.
The series structure was a bit byzantine, but ingeniously stoked endless discussion on the web, and painful blockbuster-like anticipation from the small cadre among us who actually care about this stuff.
In Episode One, it was revealed how this all would go down. Teams of camera departments, each familiar with maximizing their particular camera’s potential, had been tasked with lighting a complex, DP-hell scenario. A scene was conceived to push any camera to its theoretical limit, with a full range of shadows and highlights, textures, colors and skin tones. From the base lighting established by the test coordinator, the crews were allowed to add their own lighting to enhance the scene according to each camera’s perceived needs.
In the culmination of the episode, the resulting shots were displayed in succession, with the name tantalizingly absent. Forums and blogs lit up with discussion of which camera was which, and behind it all, a secret yearning that one’s biases would be validated. With this cliffhanger, we were left to metaphorically rip our hair out until the grand reveal of the second entry, one month later.
The Grand Reveal: It Gets Interesting
If this had been a wine tasting, Episode Two would turn out to be the Judgement of Paris of wine tastings. This was the historic occasion when leading wine connoisseurs shocked the world (and themselves), declaring in a blind taste test that California wines had in various categories unseated the supposedly insurmountable French varieties.
The wine upsetter in question was the hacked Panasonic GH2, besides the iPhone far and away the lowliest camera of the bunch on paper. The two year old Micro Four Thirds camera sells at bargain basement prices by now, and in the hands feels plasticky and insignificant, at least after handling the industrial, machined cameras at the higher end. Yet, according to the privileged invitees of special 2K screenings arranged by Zacuto across the world, the GH2 was the most-cited winner among audience members and the online community, competing head to head with the likes of ARRI’s ALEXA, the RED EPIC and even Sony’s F65. Francis Ford Coppola himself declared it his favorite. Straight from the horse’s mouth!
The howling that ensued was fun to watch, as longtime fans of the little wonder triumphed in told-you-so revery, budget conscious filmmakers praised the heavens at the good news, and the cult-like RED faithful explained why, in every conceivable way, the test was flawed. RED found Jim Jannard had already brushed off the test, maintaining that only a 4K presentation would fairly display the EPIC’s dominance. (News flash: universal 4K projection is a long-way off outside of million dollar NAB wundertheaters, and miles from any living room. Maybe in 2015 this will be a valid complaint).
The naysayers did have a point. What the Episode really implied was how much good lighting could level the playing field. EOSHD’s Andrew Reid, long a GH2 evangelist, but also a realist notwithstanding, probably most accurately parsed the results. He’s long maintained that a hacked GH2 could be pushed to incredible heights for its class, perhaps even rivaling cameras in the low five digit price points in many ways, and certainly handing DSLRs their lunch, with a tack sharp image and pleasing grain at high ISOs. But let’s face it, it’s no ARRI Alexa or EPIC. The test proved, he said, that the most technically proficient lighting was not necessarily the most pleasing. Many teams had attempted to show off the full dynamic range of each camera, but in the end produced a less enjoyable, duller image than others. The GH2 team lit for a pleasing image for the eye, not the brain.
Back to Reality
Episode Three brought things back down to earth. Each camera, using the foundational base lighting alone, was empirically presented as is. The footage was color graded by test administrator Bruce Logan to the same standard for each, using the maximum dynamic range available in the file. Here, the camera image lined up much more closely to the price point. The F65, Alexa and EPIC were outstanding at lifting shadow detail seemingly long-gone, while the iPhone 4S, GH2, 7D, FS100 and C300 had more trouble with banding and lost shadows.
Still, the test, especially Episodes One and Two, was a fascinating interrogation of the notion of a “best camera.” Rather than a rehash of last year, with the latest crop of cameras measured technically in a variety of strenuous tests evaluating moiré, rolling shutter, skin tones and the like, this year’s test was more an interrogation of the concept that a camera alone could make the film, and vindicated the DP as the key agent of a beautiful image.
The series provoked profound questions for the audience and camera makers alike. Should all cameras open up their firmware? Without the vibrant hacker community surrounding the GH2, unlocking the native firmware’s bitrate limits and other features, the camera would not have produced as impressive an image. Panasonic has wisely gone with the flow and let the community go wild. Could other camera’s benefit from such an open model, borrowed from the computing world of Linux and Android. And by the way, why wasn’t the 7D, which had a disappointing showing all around, only besting the iPhone to my eye, allowed to use the Magic Lantern hack?
Zacuto may have opened a hornet’s nest in its exposé approach. The explicit takeaway was essentially that the gear was subservient to the creativity of a skillful DP, laboring to conquer the camera’s shortcomings. However, I doubt they would like users to follow the implicit logic and forego a pricey Zacuto rig for a Chinese knockoff or DIY solution.
Suggestions for 2013
I understand why Zacuto would limit the Episodes to its site for the first month of release. After all, they are not spending boatloads of money on this fantastic series solely as a public service. This is branding, and in the end, will presumably drive sales and rentals. Driving potential customers to the homepage is no-doubt a prudent business decision. But without the original download file, which is only available via the Vimeo page directly, we are dealing with streaming, web-compressed video quality, which makes honest comparison difficult. Please Zacuto, share the files from the get-go so we can honestly appraise the footage.
I loved the new direction Zacuto took this round of the series. It made an important and enlightening point in distinguishing gear fetishism from actual nuts and bolts lighting know-how. Now, the point successfully made, I suggest it returns next year to stringent feature-for-feature tests of the larger swath of latest cameras along the lines of the 2011 season.