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The Digital Eye: Genesis. And In the Beginning…

In this months Digital Eye, Peter Plantec delves into the new Genesis digital imaging camera and how it will help vfx artists around the world.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

For years, Ive been wondering why Panavision was taking so long to come up with a serious Panaflex-type purely digital imaging camera. It turns out to have been complicated. And, of course, died-in-the-wool cinematographers might not cotton to the idea. At Panavision, they were undoubtedly concerned about creating a true SMPTE standard cinema camera that would work well with their stable of fine 35mm lenses. The idea for Genesis was born more than five years ago when Panavision and Sony teamed up for a joint development project. Up until recently, we havent had digital cameras that worked like professional film cameras. The typical pro HD camera uses tiny 2/3" CCDs that screw up the depth of field and require special lenses. Although Panavisions HD-900 is a pro HD camera with Panavision lenses, and it has been used for sequences shot for major films, its not a breakthrough; what was needed was a true 35mm 1.78:1 CCD that could be used in place of film, maintaining depth of field standards that cinematographers are used to.

Well, finally they did it and the Genesis digital imaging camera is here. Its currently being used in production on at least five major movies and some commercials. Bryan Singers Superman Returns is the first and perhaps most significant. As Bob Beitcher, president/ceo, Panavision, proudly boasts, The use of Genesis on Superman Returns represents a defining moment in moviemaking. It sounds like hype, but I think Bob may well be right.

The Superman crew has 11 Genesis cameras on hand, both in Australia and LA. From what I hear, theyre all pretty enthusiastic about working with them. In fact, dp, Newton Thomas Sigel, describes the images as: Great. The color and tonality of the pictures Im getting seem very much like film, and yet to see it so sharp and grainless is wonderful. In some weird way, its like shooting 65mm.

I couldnt get hold of Singer, but Sigel affirms: He seems very positive. If I give him a good-looking film, hell be happy.

If you visit Singers really fine Blog site, youll see that hes more than very positive. In fact, at Comic-Con, he described the look of Superman Returns as Rebecca in color.

Panavision designed the Genesis by marrying a propriatary, full frame 35mm 1.78:1 (wide) aspect 12.4-megapixel RGB CCD with a camera system that emulates the Panaflex style and function with the same lenses, accessories and remote controls. This allows Panavisions existing library of spherical 35mm lenses to plug right in, yielding the same depth of field as a standard Panaflex. One difference is that the Genesis uses a digital monitor instead of their optical finder system a slightly controversial decision. It also has a true HD output that can be plugged into a full resolution wide screen HD monitor.

Allen Daviau, ASC told me he prefers the more traditional optical finder system, as I believe most cinematographers might. However, Sigel has his own personal take: The biggest thing Ive changed is how I operate the camera. I tend to operate more off the remote and off the (big) monitor. Hes talking about using the Panavision RDC with his robotic camera control setup, complete with a rather large, full resolution, 1.78:1 HD monitor, which hes placed smack in front of him. To me, it looks like hes sitting in a kind of video arcade game, having fun. With his impressive remote servo setup, Sigel could almost shoot from L.A. with the camera in Aussiland. I cant say that what you see is what you get, but there is not a film video tap in the world that compares to the clarity of a direct HD feed.

Genesis also employs a unique new recording technology that allows a souped up Sony SRW-1 HD, to lay down full scan 10-bit log data for each RGB channel. The VTR attaches directly to the Genesis body echoing the fimiliar look, balance and handling of a standard Panaflex. You get 25 minutes of higest quality recording with instant playback of full resolution color. It can currently shoot at speeds up to 50fps. With the dockable Sony SRW-1 VTR, the entire system weighs about 25 pounds and operates without cables a god send for cinematographers everywhere. The VTR can also be rear mounted for all you Steadicam buffs.

When you figure the typical film load runs 22 minutes, theyve done a nice job of matching here too. This is an excellent setup in the field, as Sigel continues: Being able to treat the recorder like you would a film magazine is infinitely superior to some of the other tethered systems. And, of course, working without cables is a hardship most cinematographers can endure.

The Genesis camera.

Impact on the VFX World

OK, so now you know a little bit about the Genesis components, but what about the impact on the the VFX industry?

Scott E. Anderson, the acclaimed visual effects supervisor and president of Digital Sandbox, the new company providing image management and visual effects services to film, music video and commercial production houses, worked closely with Panavision on the roll-out of Genesis to its first major feature production, Superman Returns.

Technically, the Genesis puts the 10-bit log information into a 4:4:4 RGB digital signal, Anderson explains. Typically, we get the data from tapes recorded onboard with a SRW-1 HD-SR deck. The HD-SR format is much cleaner than the old HD-CAM so that all the little annoyances that used pop up during keying and rotoscoping heavily compressed 4:2:2 digital video are greatly reduced. Weve been successful pulling mattes with numerous software products and seen some interesting demos using the HD Ultimatte Hardware.

So what we get is not really a DI, but a DO or Digital Original. Lets look at the differences. The DI is a digitized version of a film and an expensive process. Its created by scanning the negative from traditional cinematography on a high resolution scanner. The resulting 2K digital file(s) can be manipulated in many ways and very effectively. Its basically what the digital VFX industry has been based on. The DI is, in the end, blown up to 4K and used to create film negatives for release prints and a digital cinema master. So what you see at the theater is really a film version of a digital video file of a film version. Note the number of conversions. Clearly a lot of time and money and noise could be saved if we could start working with DOs instead of DIs. That is exactly what Genesis provides.

There is a Difference

Think about the difference between a scaned color photograph and an original high resolution two stop HDR digital photographsay one from a Cannon EOS 5D with its full frame 35mm CCD and with its clean low noise file with wider than usual dynamic range. The latter would be nicer to work with, no? The difference between scanned film and Genesis output is a little like that.

In the film industry every conversion is costly and involves noise. So, lets say we want to play with a still image in Photoshop. Think about the differences in what we have to work with. The scanned image, which has its colors and image resolution determined mostly by the film and paper processing, is then scanned to digital. I dont care how many bits of color resolution you employ, youre stuck with what was printed on the paper. And I always get a few cat hairs and dust as well from the scanning plate. With the image from the EOS 5D, you have enormous amounts of relatively clean information you just dont get in the scan. Now imagine that your high res digital image comes from the Genesis 35mm 1.78:1 ultra high-end 12.5 megapixel CCD with near equal sensitivity in all three channels and very low color cross-talk and virtually no noise and with extraordinary resistance to white clipping, providing nice sky detail. What you end up with and your ability to manipulate that image are vastly improved.

Anderson adds: Working with Genesis has been an exciting experience. While Ive worked with HD successfully on a few occasions, I always felt its limitations. With Genesis, I really think about the experience in the same way I do with film.

But what about the rumored expanded dynamic range of the Genesis?

I look at Genesis as a digital cinema camera not a video camera, Anderson suggests. The dynamic range of the Genesis camera is far beyond that of any previous video-based camera and much closer to camera negative. It has an interesting response to light, in that it maintains contrast through the full working range of light to dark. Weve found it has the ability to record great amounts of detail in the highlights and can see more useable detail in shadows than film can, and with far less noise than typical high speed film.

As far as working in this digital realm with vfx in mind, he adds: I see Genesis as an excellent instrument for recording the light in a scene. While film interprets a scene, Genesis records a more neutral view of the world, leaving the look to our interpretation in DI or vfx.

Mike Kanfer, an Adobes digital production evangelist, is one of the few other people with actual hands on experience with the Genesis direct to digital output. I was working with Digital Sandbox as a consultant on a major motion picture to determine if the Genesis was workable for the project in mind. This involved looking at the output of Genesis in a microscopic way. I found the original material is so clean to begin with, that it can handle a good deal of image processing upon film-out, if it is decided that sharpening is needed. In fact, John Galt [svp, Advanced Digital Imaging at Panavision] and I feel there would be no problem going all the way out to 65mm. Properly shot, scenes have the potential to have the look and feel of film and they can even look sharper if that is what you want.

But what about vfx processing of the files: In image processing, noise is the big nemesis, Kanfer notes. Because the Genesis files are so low in noise, if necessary, you can do a lot of digital processing without the image falling apart.

The typical output from the Genesis is at 1920x1080 resolution 10-bit log per channel RGB. If youre going to see loss, it will be at the typical film-out stage with the bump up to 4K. From what I hear, the originals are so clean that film-out deliverables have been stunning, and pumping it all the way up to 65mm could feed a lot of hungry IMAX screens.


These drawings show a comparason of spectral response. The hatched areas at the bottom are where two or more colors generate a response at a given wavelength. Note the much cleaner spectral response of the Genesis compared to Kodak EK5218 film commonly used in shooting feature films using DI. Source: Galt, Kiga, Kiriyama, Mikama; SMPTE presentation: Genesis: The First Complete 35mm Digital Cinematography System, Oct. 20, 2004, with additional interpretation by Plantec.

Little Bits About Film

Film has several inherent difficulties. For years, Kodak has been employing chemical enhancers with their films that improve many things but tend to cause some loss of resolution, particularly around the edges. In addition, film is not very linear in its light response. For example its only half as sensitive to cyan as it is to red. Plus there is crosstalk between colors. That is, the various emultions are sensitive to light in their neighbors region as shown in the graphs below, where you can see that the Genesis produces less muddled color.

That is, the crosstalk, where two or more colors are responding to a given wavelength of light, is cleaner and considerably reduced. Note also that at 550nm, almost pure green is being registered with Genesis while with film you get a sub-peak with all three colors responding. Note also the very pure reds that are achieved with Genesis. What does all this mean?

According to Galt, There are three major things about the Genesis output thatwill be a boon to vfx people. First, the image sensor is not Bayer pattern; it is RGB with equal resolution in each color. With most film negatives, there is half as much fine detail in the cyan (red sensitive) layer as there is in the yellow (blue sensitive) layer. Second, there is no image enhancement done in Genesis eliminating edge artifacts, particularly in composites. Film has been using chemical enhancement for years, which can cause edge artifacts in composites. Third, is that our A to D converter works at 14 bits linear per color, which we convert internally to 10-bit log. [This] bit log is a more efficient way of coding the gray scale. (This gives us more samples where we need them, i.e. more in the shadows and fewer in the bright light.) The 10-bit log can be converted back to linear, which will make it easier for vfx people to composite linear computer-generated image elements with Genesis images.

BTW, a Bayer pattern is the filter pattern used for the matrix on most CCD sensor chips. In the Bayer, more pixels are assigned to green than to red or blue, because our eyes are more sensitive to green. For vfx work, its better to have the pure un-fooled-around-with RGB that John talks about.

So is Genesis comparable to film yet? No, says Daviau, but its impressive and its coming along rapidly. Considering how much of a film guy Allen is, thats impressive. He still wants to see how Genesis holds up in the field.

There is no denying that Genesis has already pushed movie making over the screaming edge of change, and its sliding rapidly into an exciting new era. Digital is not going away and producers are clamoring to give it a try. From what Ive seen and learned, I believe audiences will be evolving too. In three years we will no longer be trying to emulate film look. The new and excitingly clean, pure and intense grainless look of digital will become what people want and expect. Its as if a veil is being liftedan acquired taste, maybe, but it will be acquired rapidly. As one who loves film, I have mixed emotions watching the end of a romantic era approaching so rapidly. But like vinyl records, and tube amplifiers, film will never completely go away I hope.

Peter Plantec is a best-selling author, animator and virtual human designer. He wrote The Caligari trueSpace2 Bible, the first 3D animation book specifically written for artists. He lives in the high country near Aspen, Colorado. Peters latest book, personal website.