“La Bella Vita” – Italian for “the Beautiful Life”
Imagine a film crew turned loose to film one of the world’s most beautiful cities — using a brand-new model of digital cinema camera. That’s a dream come true. By nature, we’re always curious, looking for emerging technology that hopefully will enhance our craft. Recently we took Sony’s new, groundbreaking Venice camera to its namesake city of Venice to film some dynamic giant-screen sequences. Many linguists feel that the name Venice is derived from an old Indo-European word meaning lovable. The city is definitely lovable. But did we find the new Venice camera lives up to the meaning of the name?
Golden Gate 3D
Golden Gate 3D (GG3D) films giant-screen documentaries all around the world. Recent giant-screen films we’ve contributed to include Jerusalem (2014), National Parks Adventure (2016), and several others. For three years now, we’ve been in production on a giant-screen film titled Cuba, which will be released this autumn. We regularly use the finest digital cinema camera systems on the planet, from a wide array of manufacturers. Since our work almost always requires small, mobile documentary crews, we naturally use camera systems that are lightweight, modular, and versatile without sacrificing resolution, dynamic range, and cinematic image quality. One of our current giant-screen films is already being filmed in Europe, so it was an easy choice for us to take this new Sony Venice camera system for a test drive in the incredibly beautiful city of Venice. The city is renown for its striking architecture, myriad canals and bridges, stylish gondolas, dozens of small islands, spectacular cuisine, lavish festivals, Renaissance art, and thus a plethora of amazing locales and people to film. It’s truly la bella vita.
Crew, Camera Specs, and Our Gear
Our mobile crew featured Peter Chang of GG3D as the director, producer and cinematographer, Pedro Guimaraes, SOC, as the camera and Ronin operator, Michael “Mick” Pacifici as the first AC and DIT, David Batistella, producer, and Violet Angell, producer. That’s it — just a small, mobile, highly experienced crew for some run-and-gun giant-screen documentary cinematography!
The specs for the Sony Venice camera are impressive. In short, it features a 6K full-frame 24 x 36mm sensor with 15 stops of dynamic range, and it supports full-frame 6K 3:2, Super 35 4K 4:3 (at full 18mm sensor height), and an array of other anamorphic and spherical formats. It sports a beefed-up E mount with a bolt-on PL mount (thus it can take a huge variety of lenses), streamlined menus, an eight-step, eight-stop internal ND wheel, and native ISO 500 (or higher). It is capable of recording a variety of formats both in-camera and to an external drive, is modular, and has an OLED EVF. The camera weighs just 8 lb, 10 oz bare, audio is LPCM 4 ch 24 bit 48-khz, connectors include SDI out, HDMI out, and others. The inclusion of the internal ND filter wheel, timecode, and genlock are clear indications that, beyond the obvious cine-style use, the camera was intended to be used for EFP/ENG style productions, naturally depending upon the accessory and lens packages used. It’s a very versatile hybrid camera that morphs into what you need it to be for each day’s filming. It is the best of both worlds.
The beefed up solid E-mount has a breech lock. It contains 10 standard Sony metadata and power contacts, plus 14 pass-through lens metadata and power contacts. The PL mount attaches via six screws right onto the E-mount, and has industry standard metadata contacts.
For glass we chose Cooke S7/i primes, Leica Thalia primes, Sigma FF Cine 14mm T2 and 20mm T1.5 primes and a Focus Optics Ruby 14–24 zoom (re-housed Nikon 14-24). The Sony E-Mount wasn’t yet functional or we would have also brought along the Sony 12–24mm f/4 G, 16–35mm f/2.8 GM, and 24–70mm f/2.8 GM zooms to test out. Giant-screen films really call for using a lot of wide-angle lenses. For stabilization, we opted for a DJI Ronin 2 outfitted with CineMilled accessories. For power, we brought IDX Endura 95 V-mount bricks. We used a Sony AXS-R7 external recorder.
The Challenges – and Our Solutions
Though it is amazingly beautiful and there are potential shots everywhere, it’s actually very challenging to film in the city of Venice. A myriad of canals and bridges is laced throughout the city. Buildings line the canals on both sides, so at water level it tends to be dark, but medium light on the building sides, then blasting light from the sky above. That’s a tall order for any sensor to handle. Because almost all transportation is via small boats (gondolas) through the canals, camera stabilization is critical. Crew mobility is also needed in order to catch the right lighting, get the shots, and then move on. There are so many potentially excellent framings and shots everywhere that a crew has the pleasant dilemma of deciding what great shot to get next. The Venice camera sensor, with its 15 stops of dynamic range, was well suited to the challenging light conditions. It captured lots of detail in the dark areas but still kept very good texture detail in the highlights. The Ronin 2 did a great job of smoothing out all the shots from boats. With the crew and equipment being small, our mobility was really increased, so likewise we were able to get quickly from one shot sequence to the next each day. The camera, our equipment choices, and having a small crew were definitely the right mix to allow us to get the images we wanted.
Nuances of Giant-Screen Cinematography
Filming for the giant screen is in many ways very different than features or television work. As mentioned, since the screen is so large it naturally calls for an extremely wide field of view to be generated by lenses, and thus requires a sensor that can handle that. The giant screen is incredibly immersive for the audience, so it’s critical to have very good detail apparent throughout the entire screen presentation, so deep focus is the norm. That’s not to say that medium and shallow focus are never used, but that’s just the occasional exception. Camera moves are slower and framing is absolutely critical. Fast camera moves can disorient the audience, and with so much real estate on the screen, it’s super-important to have textures of interest throughout the frame.
What We Filmed
It was hard to settle on shot choices because there were so many available! Basically, all of our transportation was via boats, and the canals lined with buildings are the core visuals of the city. With the Ronin 2 stabilizing the camera, we drifted slowly through a maze of canals, under bridges, and past fantastic architecture. The city’s skyline as seen from outside in the open water is spectacular, especially when backlit at sunset. We timed our filming with the huge Carnival celebration, which unfolds every year in the weeks leading up to Shrove Tuesday, which in turn leads, after a week, into the 40 days of Lent. Carnival is a spectacular experience — elaborate costumes, ornate masks, up to three million visitors, mask-makers vending their wares of porcelain, leather, and the world famous Murano glass. Everywhere there was a panorama of color, texture, and the aroma of delicious foods. With all that subject matter available, we had great fun doing true run-and-gun giant-screen cinematography!
Performance and Results
In short, the camera performed really well under very challenging conditions — a wide array of lighting situations, freezing temperatures, a damp environment, occasional rain, high-contrast subjects, darkness beneath bridges, etc. A key feature of the camera is the internal eight-ND turret, featuring eight stops in eight steps, which offers basically the same utility as a cine-style DP has in a matte box/filters workflow. It can’t be overestimated how cool the internal, servo-controlled, optical ND wheel is for highly mobile production. It enabled us to shoot without a matte box and filter kit, thus speeding up our scenario of shooting a shot, changing the ND quickly for lighter or darker subjects (or a different depth of field), then moving on to the next shot. Peter Chang embraces lens flares in his camerawork, so he favors working without a matte box and filters. The internal ND filter wheel perfectly suited his preferences. Internal ND filter wheels are fairly new in digital cinema cameras, but in reality it’s actually a decades-old EFP/ENG camera feature pioneered by Sony in their Betacam series of cameras. It was included in the Betacams for the same reason — to quickly adjust for changing light, depth-of-field needs, and to avoid using a heavy and bulky matte box in fast-paced shooting scenarios. The inclusion of an internal ND wheel in Venice is a vestige of the best camera features from the cine industry and the EFP/ENG industry. Hybrid cinematography is now widespread in various branches of the motion media industry, and hybrid features have enabled it in camera systems.
The build of the camera is strong and the fan is silent. The menus are intuitive and quite easy to navigate. It’s great for cine-style filming that menus and buttons are available on both sides of the camera, making work easier for both the operator and the AC. The DVF-EL200 OLED EVF is crisp and clear. It has separate functions for brightness, contrast, and peaking.
The Imax aspect ratio is 1.43:1, which is close to the camera’s native aspect ratio of 1.5:1. For Imax, it’s a tall aspect ratio that has the advantage of losing less resolution for the format. Cropping is done in post using Adobe Premiere, Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve, or other software.
Each of the lenses worked well on the camera. The Cooke S7/i primes are smooth, with nice flaring. The Leica Thalia primes are very sharp in a pleasing way, with very aesthetic bokeh. The Sigma primes are well-built and generate crisp images with pleasing bokeh. The Ruby zoom is crisp to the edges and also presents pleasing bokeh.
The DJI Ronin 2, with its CineMilled accessories, was absolutely critical not just for all the shots from boats, but also for the land-based Carnival sequences. The Ronin 2 is a very solid and capable piece of kit, providing super-smooth tracking, and is really indispensable for mobile productions like this. When needed, we used the compact and dependable IDX Endura 95 bricks. The Sony AXS-R7 recorder never missed a beat and helped with counterbalancing the front weight of the lens.
Pushing the Ones and Zeros Around
Recording, transferring, and editing data is the critical heart of the digital cinema workflow. The Venice camera has essentially the same workflow as the Sony F65, but faster. On-camera we recorded X-OCN ST using Sony’s AXS-R7 recorder placed on the back of the camera body. X-OCN is Sony’s visually lossless format that produces much smaller file sizes than camera raw. That, in turn, makes for longer recording times and faster file transfer but still retains the quality of the 16-bit encoding. Dailies were transcoded from the original X-OCN to ProRes 422 1080 using Resolve 14 (which plays X-OCN files).
In a very challenging run-and-gun scenario the camera performed exceptionally. We found it to be really well engineered, loaded with versatile fieldwork features, and ideal for mobile production — but it should also be great for stationary studio production. Beyond all the useful features, the bottom line is that the images it produced with the top quality lenses we used are remarkably good. The sensor, lenses, format, 16-bit color bit depth, color options, internal ND, and scores of other camera features combined with the talent and experience of our crew, the Ronin 2, and the stunning beauty of the city to make our Venice filming experience super enjoyable, and the end result is drives chock full of incredible shot sequences that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but can easily and cleanly be upsampled for our giant-screen and Imax productions. We definitely look forward to including the Venice camera as a core tool for our future slate of giant-screen films, feature films, commercials, and television series. As previously mentioned, the name Venice is thought to mean loveable. We’re not sure that lovable is an appropriate descriptive term for a camera, but we definitely feel that the phrases “versatile hybrid,” “modular utility,” “feature-filled,” and “excellent tool” describe the camera accurately.
Steve Gibby is a multiple Emmy Award recipient as a producer, director, DP, and cinematographer, and an annual national Emmy Awards judge. He is profiled on the Golden Gate 3D web site and on his Instagram page. View the short film that GG3D created from their Venice filming here. View the Behind the Scenes film GG3D created of the crew filming in Venice here.
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