Guest Post: Kurt Lancaster

Kurt Lancaster with the D16 and a Zacuto EVF

Kurt Lancaster is the author of DSLR Cinema and he has just completed a new book, Cinema Raw: Shooting and Color Grading with the Ikonoskop, Digital Bolex, and Blackmagic Cinema Cameras, coming out from Focal Press in Spring 2014. He teaches filmmaking and multimedia journalism at Northern Arizona University.

When I first saw DSLR footage on Vimeo just about four years ago, I got really, really excited about the possibilities. Looking at Philip Bloom’s Skywalker Ranch and Vincent Laforet’s Reverie—I wasn’t getting shots like those on my Panasonic DVX100 nor on prosumer HD video cameras. I remember being on set of Po Chan’s The Last 3 Minutes and looking on with amazement as Shane Hurlbut, ASC took that little camera and worked cinematic magic with it.

Excitement pulsed through my veins—I wanted one. Indeed, I wanted to share that excitement with my film and multimedia journalism students at Northern Arizona University.

I even wrote a book about the revolution, DSLR Cinema for Focal Press, which came out in October 2010. The 5D Mark II, and later the 7D and Rebel T2i/550D, promised many film students and low budget independent filmmakers that they, too, wouldn’t have to settle with video crud, but could potentially shoot cinematic quality films.

So I bought gear, and I shot with a 5D. I remember shooting one particular scene, the subject looking great through Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens—the glass wanted to make that image so beautiful, and through the live view LCD screen, it did. I didn’t know it at the time, but the onscreen image was uncompressed. Of course it was. The 5D shoots beautiful raw stills and the live view mode gives you that sense of raw beauty.

But when I put the clip on the computer, it didn’t look so hot. In the back of my mind I wondered where the magic went. Something just felt off. When I shot on Arriflex 16mm film in my NYU days in the mid to late 1990s, I would look through the glass, get the film developed and that beauty, that magic shone through the film.

And when I shot with the 5D I felt that same sense of filmic excitement—until the scene was “developed.” At the time I didn’t know much about 8-bit compression. I didn’t know how the image was being compromised, thinned out to save space. But I lived with it, because if you got that image to look close on-camera, you were going to get a good image on the computer. I’ve always wanted to make movies and before I knew any better my brothers and I would shoot on VHS in the 1980s and early 1990s, then we shot some projects on Hi8mm—these were the things we could afford. We didn’t know much about cinematography. All that I do know is that nothing I’ve ever shot with looked like the 16mm film I shot in Greenwich Village.

Until I shot with the Digital Bolex. The D16 is personal. It’s magical. I can’t wait to film a work of fiction on it.

How do I know this? I shot images at noon on a sunny day at Venice Beach.

Kurt and the D16 shooting street performers

I would fail students for attempting take such actions with a DSLR. I not only shot at noon, but I shot a dark skinned street performer against a blue sky. I did everything you should never do with an 8-bit DSLR or video camera or any compressed image making system. I stopped down the vintage lens to its smallest aperture just to get exposure (I didn’t have an ND filter so I did not get to test out shallow depth of field.)

I shot the ocean with sailboats in the distance, and I was able to hold the sky. I shot skateboarders in their rink, moving a fast pan left with no rolling shutter issues.

Kurt and the D16 getting sail boat shots

In post, I imported the clips into my MacBook Pro and opened them up in Adobe Camera Raw. What I saw was, finally, what I shot—it was dense. I could manipulate the image like I was in a dark room mixing chemicals—but now I was mixing temperature balance, tint, contrast, exposure, and film curves.

I pulled the exposure out for that dark skinned street performer and was able to get details while keeping the sky colors intact. I was able to hold light skinned performers without blowing them out, as well.

The interview

The magic’s beneath the hood, where we find skin tones. Roll off of light and shadow. Details and color popping out through digital pixels. But it wasn’t film. What kind of magic has the Digital Bolex team wrought?

And this is what some people may not understand with these raw CinemaDNG cameras—the magic isn’t in the sharpness of the image (although that’s one side effect of 12-bit raw). It’s not about 4K vs 2K or HD.

It’s about color depth, baby.

Some might look at this short film and say that the images you see at Venice Beach are just the result of some post-production effect, a trick—show me what the camera can do, already! Anyone can layer effects and make an image look like film, right? How sharp is it, really?

But when I’ve applied Magic Bullet to my 5D footage—and those effects do look like a plastic Halloween mask. This is something different. I can almost touch it, feel it, manipulate it into the magic of what filmmaking on film can do—shimmer dreams on the edge of your senses and document real life in a magical way. The footage is organic and those who color grade with this footage will feel the difference in the density of the image.

Don’t let the marketing hucksters at the big camera companies tell you otherwise. They’re selling to the masses with their sleight of hand sharp images, fooling everyone into a sales formula: fi = uhr2 (filmic image equals ultra high resolution squared).

Maybe those who live in the era of high pixel count and sharpness think that ultra high definition is what cinema cameras should be. Remember that many of them have never shot on film. So don’t get angry at them. They don’t know any better. Pity them. Teach them. Guide them to the bit depth of the D16. But if they don’t listen to you, move on and make your films.

They could have made a camera like everyone else. But why should they make something somebody else already made? So let’s rejoice that there are companies on this planet that don’t want to be the next Canon or Sony. Rejoice that there are those who dare to dream and make their dreams a reality, for that’s exactly what the Digital Bolex team has done, here, with their cinema camera.

(The below video was shot a couple weeks ago on the pre-calibrated sensor.)

It’s like they made the camera for me, for those like me, for you—the ones who really care about shooting on film, but never had the chance. This may be as close as you get.

Joe and Elle—as well as Mike, Joe, and Stelio at Ienso in Toronto—you did it. You’ve made me proud to be an independent filmmaker again.

Kurt and the D16, Venice Beach

Kurt Lancaster

66 thoughts on “Guest Post: Kurt Lancaster

  1. Pingback: First Footage from the Digital Bolex D16 After Final Sensor Calibration « No Film School

  2. Pingback: Digital Bolex D16 review with a Celebration of Clay’s Life

  3. Hello from Montreal:
    If Mr. Lancaster was shooting in bright sun, using (from what I see in the pictures) a Switar lens stopped down to f16 of f22, small aperture difraction will cause a softer image.

  4. Yeah but the canon dslr even with raw will still do not compare to the d16. I have the 5d3 with raw and i can tell you that even that does not hold up to the solid non rolling shutter image from the d16. The d16 is looking so much more dense and organic. I would take a smaller better ccd sensor over the sometimes plastic look of a cmos or what ever dslr sensors are. Sorry but its true. Very nice video though.

  5. This footage looks great. Like real film! Now I want one even more. But there is one thing I wonder. Have you used the D16 in cold outdoor conditions and does it work in those conditions? I live far up north and must be able to film in the winter time. Right now I use Canon DSLRs for that because the weather sealing is great. The black magic isn’t even an option because of the touch screen.

  6. loss of some resolution is result of installed olpf…
    i like that crisp look in first tests (One Small Step) more and i’m not afraid of some moire …
    is there option to remove it ..

  7. This is just phantastic…it looks stunning..its a good feeling to watch this footage ..
    thanks for all the update and footage…this D16 rock’s…

    wish you all at the Bolex team all the best and i can’t wait to have this cam in my hand..

  8. Does the smiley imply something? I really wonder if that fluid foot has any advantage over using a head, like panning with your left hand (rotating the monopod column), while still using the other hand for operating the cam!?

    • Smiley doesn’t imply anything, I just use them too often. Kurt’s Monopod I tried had a like 3 toe claw thing, but nothing fluid about it, but it also had a small but nice Bogen fluid head on it.

  9. Positively brilliant images! Many thanks to Kurt for sharing.

    Bravo D16 team, you seriously nailed the 16mm look. The way the camera handles the brighter areas just brings a smile to my face. Can’t wait to shoot NYC on this baby!

  10. The Manfrotto monopod (covered by Stillmotion) is my favorite field tool. It handles the D16 well. You’ll want an articulating arm with the EVF when you’re shooting with full extension. I’ve shot with the 5D Mark II with this monopod and gotten good results (slow, little movements)–but no fast movements.

  11. Thank you! The book covers Ikonoskop, Blackmagic, and Digital Bolex. It includes some background history, behind the scenes at Digital Bolex, field shooting with each camera, and color grading process of each (Ikonoskop and Blackmagic with Resolve and D16 with ClipHouse and Adobe Camera Raw).

    I love the ergonomics of the Ikonoskop, but it’s too expensive and has gone out of production (for the time being). I was pleasantly surprised by the visual performance of the BMCC, but it has a lot of quirks. The D16 turned out to be my favorite when shooting. Easy to handle and fun.

  12. Stare stare stare 😉 Allright, yet another very different grading; with lovely skin tones (to me at least). I found the monopod approach quite interesting. It introduces a lot of small movements into the image succession, and still (of course) no movement artifacts. I wonder what a h.264 camera would deliver with this set-up. Any experiences?

    • Kurt usually shoots with a Canon DSLR, don’t remember which one, but I think he doesn’t move it as much 🙂
      And yes! I convinced Kurt he needs a SmallHD and he convinced me I need a monopod!

  13. Mr. Lancaster, It’s is a genuine honor to receive a post from a Focal Press published author.

    Beyond that the camera works well, it is almost a greater accomplishment to even have Focal Press look at the camera!

    For those who don’t know, Focal Press is the end all be all for film production publishing, and are who I rely on to make professional production decisions.

    And…It’s just amazing!

    Thank you again for your time!

  14. Nailed it! And, this is pre-calibrated too! Even now, I love how the shots look. All that dynamic range. Gorgeous skin tones. It appears there is a lot of flexibility in the image. Dark skin tones under a harsh LA sun at Noon, without blown out skies… Astounding results! Gimmee Gimmee Gimmee! 🙂

    Keep up the great work Team D16!

  15. Totally worth the wait, this camera will be wonderful. In the meantime, I loaded Magic Lantern’s 7D raw video ‘upgrade’ on to my Canon 7D. The color and dynamic range Kurt captures with the d16 is also captured by the 7D. See test footage at Of course, you still need to contend with the shallow depth of field from the 7D’s super 35 sized sensor. The d16’s super 16 size should more than help get shots in focus.

  16. Man, it really does have this dream like quality to it. I love RED, but this does have a very subtle organic look to it. I can’t exactly put my finger on it. But it looks beautiful, even dream like.

    I think that this will sell cameras.

    One thing that I would really like to see though is a really tightly produced scene on this camera. Something in the vain of Fincher. So far everything is very run and gun. If you need grips or any help I volunteer!

  17. Is there an option in the firmware to allow for running 2 separate tracks/levels on the same input source? I’d imagine that the onboard audio will be used for sync, but for primary run&gun sourcing, the protection of 2 separate leveled tracks would be great.

  18. Thanks for that! I was assuming since you guys posted about the freshly calibrated units the other day that this would be utilizing such a setup. Good to know it’s otherwise. I’m a goober, so perhaps it’s not necessary, but might be worth mentioning as a note on the article that these are the pre-calibrated sensors.

    • It’s good! They have a unit in Canada that has working sound, but the finalized sound boards just came in last week so I haven’t gotten a unit with working sound yet, but hopefully very soon 🙂

  19. I get this is a beta model, and perhaps the grade is all his choosing. I noticed some magenta highlights throughout, from skin reflection to clouds. Reminded me of 90s video a bit…Cool aesthetic that we don’t really see anymore, so not necessarily a bad thing. In regards to the comments he made about sharpness, I’m wondering if either the lenses he was using, or perhaps his ability to pull focus from a non-louped evf in the middle of the day created the softer look? I wouldn’t mind a little more sharpness, but I am not sure it would help from doing it in post w/ unsharpening. While I haven’t shot motion film, some of the sharpest shots I’ve ever gotten were not DSLR, but rather film.

    • Hi Mike,
      Thanks for your comment. If you take a look at our last blog post you will see we just last week got the calibration dialed in. So the magenta you are seeing is because this piece was shot on a pre-calibration unit. It is raw so you can push and pull it all you like, but when the sensor is uncalibrated it causes some funny things. For instance to balance the very green footage Kurt got he was pushing sometimes up to 80 points of magenta into the image in order to get the skin tones balanced. As you might imagine the magenta ends up in places you don’t intend it to.
      We will be shooting footage with the newly calibrated sensor very soon and posting it. This footage should not have any magenta or green hues to it.
      And sharpening like many other things is a part of the transcoding process, so I believe Kurt could have chosen a shaper image if that was what he was going for.

    • The downloaded footage doesn’t look super sharp either, but the original upload file was H.264 compressed with a total file size of 252.5 MB for a 2min 40 sec video. That’s ONLY 70 bits per sec, which is very low, just something to be aware of. But overall the footage looks great to me, very filmic despite being a pre-calibrated model. Also I felt the skin tones, even with the slightly harsh(ish) highlights, looked fantastic! 🙂

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