SPOON and the SI-1920HDVR – By Francois Huysamen

 HD technology is starting to make a bigger and bigger impact on the film industry throughout the world. At the moment in South Africa there is a new HDV camera, still unavailable anywhere in the world, that is being used by Inspired Minority Pictures and Atomic Visual Effects to film a full length feature film.

Almost two years ago Simon Hansen and Sharlto Copley, both who are co-directing and producing the film, wrote the script and approached Anant Singh at Videovision Entertainment. He liked the script and about a year later the project was in production. Simon and Sharlto, directors of Atomic Visual Effects, have made various short films, commercials, and music videos, for which they have won numerous awards, but their vision has always been the use of digital technology, innovation and creativity to deliver high production values on a low budget. Now they are finally making their much awaited move to feature film, Spoon

Spoon tracks the life of a man with an unusual medical condition that causes him to black out during moments of extreme stress. The condition leads him to make a remarkable discovery about himself that sets in motion events that changes his life. The filming progress itself is also grueling. The film’s budget would normally provide for three weeks of shooting but is having to accommodate a 10-week, six days a week, schedule. Furthermore, the shoot involves night exteriors, rain, action, stunts, weapons and mass crowd scenes.

According to Copley, this has necessitated innovation around many parts of the production and pre-production process. "There is a huge cast – 78 speaking parts and over 400 extras. In addition to all the technical development, we developed our own database management system so that all our HODs were doing their pre-production work on computer off a central server and everybody was accessing the same information from what is essentially an information library.

 "We use computers heavily throughout the process which seems to be somewhat unusual for seasoned production staff but our young team has really taken to the system. There is a small team of very talented people working against huge odds to complete a grueling schedule but it has been extremely rewarding and we are very proud of the results we have achieved so far."

Initially they intended to use a JVC HD 100 camera for the shoot, but early in 2006 had some setbacks in the schedule. This forced them to delay the shoot for about four months and gave Simon time to think about the work flow and technology. As technology is ALWAYS improving you have to get to a point where you decide to stop waiting for the next best thing and start working. They were planning on shooting directly to the wafians from a JVC HD100, which would give a nice 1/3” chip image. Now with the extra time Simon started to research 2/3” chips, but none of the systems he found available were anywhere near ready. So after the long, fruitless search he mailed CineForm, with whom he was working with their CineForm RAW codec, asking if they knew of any 2/3” camera’s that might suit the needs for Spoon. They replied by saying that they were already working with the guys at Silicon Imaging on just such a system. A week or two later he ordered the boxed SI-1920HDVR for testing. Then near the end of April Simon and Grant Appleton (DOP on Spoon) flew to Las Vegas and went to NAB 2006 to pick up the first prototype of the SI-1920DHVR to started testing, then went to production…

Basically the camera is assembled from off-the-shelf components which consists of two primary elements: first the optical block, a 2/3” CMOS sensor where the image is captured and then streamed out as a GigE signal to the second element, a Windows XP box or power laptop.

The CMOS imager is capable of capturing in either 1920X1080p for 24 frames per second (fps), or 1280X720p for slow-motion scenes at 48 or 72fps. Onto the sensor is attached a film camera lens mounted on either a PL, B4, C or F mount. This gives the camera image a unique look, as it is using a HD sensor with a film lens. The resulting image being crystal clear from the sensor, but still nice and soft from the lens. The film lens also allows for a bigger depth of field, up to about 1.34 meters.

 The Windows XP box, or camera body, is an Intel Core Duo single processor computer running windows XP, it receives the GigE signal from the camera head and then encodes it into the CineForm RAW codec. CineForm RAW is a wavelet-based compression technique that was developed as a collaboration between Silicon Imaging and CineForm as a way of accomplishing a system where recording could take place directly to a single 2.5” drive rather than a RAID device. The CineForm RAW codec also gives advantages in work-flow. The disadvantage of many less compressed or uncompressed camera systems is that you have to transcode the files into a format that a Non-Linear Editing system can edit, and this take a lot of time. As CineForm RAW is a wave-let based compression algorithm it has certain advantages. In laymans terms the codec basically creates a ¼ resolution thumbnail of each frame as well as a description of the edge detail required to up-res the image back to it’s original quality. This means you can edit using the ¼ res thumbnail. When comparing the CineForm RAW files to uncompressed dpx files there was found to be difference.

So how does the footage look in the end? Incredible. As Simon says: "The camera has the best latitude I have ever seen of any video format, +/- 10 stops. The 10Bit file has very wide dynamic range and the files are relatively tiny. For the first time a digital film camera feels like a film camera. The look the camera produces is unique, falling in between film and video. It is soft yet clear video without the video edging we all hate. There is nothing to beat this camera in good light."

And using the camera is also very easy. As the camera itself is actually just a lens with a CMOS sensor attached and which is then connected to the Wafian boxes with a GigE cable, all the camera operator has to do is compose the shot, move, and pull focus. All the other settings you normally have on a camera are controlled at the VT station with the computer. The interface is quite simple, so with the click of a button you can set white balance, change frame rate, switch between SDR and WDR, start and end recording, etc. You also have the choice of operating from the camera using an LCD touch screen. But if you are using a VT you may as well centralize recording and use ‘touchscreen’ mode only when roaming (on cars, bikes, planes, etc.).

Spoon finishes shooting middle of July, followed by about six months of post-production and should hopefully be starting distribution around February 2007.