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Millennium Digital XL camera: development to delivery

By Lance Holte and Daniel Restuccio

Panavision’s Millennium DXL 8K may be one of today’s best digital cinema cameras, but it might also be one of the most misunderstood. Conceived and crafted to the exacting tradition of the company whose cameras captured such films as Lawrence of Arabia and Inception, the Millennium DXL challenges expectations. We recently sat down with Panavision to examine the history, workflow, some new features and how that all fits into a 2017 moviemaking ecosystem.

Announced at Cine Gear 2016, and released for rent through Panavision in January 2017, the Millennium DXL stepped into the digital large format field as, at first impression, a competitor to the Arri Alexa 65. The DXL was the collaborative result of a partnership of three companies: Panavision developed the optics, accessories and some of the electronics; Red Digital Cinema designed the 8K VV (VistaVision) sensor; and Light Iron provided the features, color science and general workflow for the camera system.

The collaboration for the camera first began when Light Iron was acquired by Panavision in 2015. According to Michael Cioni, Light Iron president/Millennium DXL product manager, the increase in 4K and HDR television and theatrical formats like Dolby Vision and Barco Escape created the perfect environment for the three-company partnership. “When Panavision bought Light Iron, our idea was to create a way for Panavision to integrate a production ecosystem into the post world. The DXL rests atop Red’s best tenets, Panavision’s best tenets and Light Iron’s best tenets. We’re partners in this — information can flow freely between post, workflow, color, electronics and data management into cameras, color science, ergonomics, accessories and lenses.”

HDR OLED viewfinder

Now, one year after the first announcement, with projects like the Lionsgate feature adventure Robin Hood, the Fox Searchlight drama Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the CBS crime drama S.W.A.T. and a Samsung campaign shot by Oscar-winner Linus Sandgren under the DXL’s belt, the camera sports an array of new upgrades, features and advanced tools. They include an HDR OLED viewfinder (which they say is the first), wireless control software for iOS, and a new series of lenses. According to Panavision, the new DXL offers “unprecedented development in full production-to-post workflow.”

Preproduction Considerations
With so many high-resolution cameras on the market, why pick the DXL? According to Cioni, cinematographers and their camera crew are no longer the only people that directly interact with cameras. Panavision examined the impact a camera had on each production department — camera assistants, operators, data managers, DITs, editors, and visual effects supervisors. In response to this feedback, they designed DXL to offer custom toolsets for every department. In addition, Panavision wanted to leverage the benefits of their heritage lenses and enable the same glass that photographed ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to be available for a wider range of today’s filmmakers on DXL.

When Arri first debuted the Alexa 65 in 2014, there were questions about whether such a high-resolution, data-heavy image was necessary or beneficial. But cinematographers jumped on it and have leaned on large format sensors and glass-to-lens pictures — ranging from Doctor Strange to Rogue One — to deliver greater immersiveness, detail and range. It seems that the large format trend is only accelerating, particularly among filmmakers who are interested in the optical magnification, depth of field and field-of-view characteristics that only large format photography offers.

Kramer Morgenthau

“I think large format is the future of cinematography for the big screen,” says cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, who shot with the DXL in 2016. “[Large format cinematography] gives more of a feeling of the way human vision is. And so, it’s more cinematic. Same thing with anamorphic glass — anamorphic does a similar thing, and that’s one of the reasons why people love it. The most important thing is the glass, and then the support, and then the user-friendliness of the camera to move quickly. But these are all important.”

The DXL comes to market offering a myriad of creative choice for filmmakers. Among the large format cameras, the Millennium DXL aims to be the crème de la crème — it’s built around an 46mm 8192×4320 Red VV sensor, custom Panavision large format spherical and anamorphic lenses, wrapped in camera department-friendly electronics, using proprietary color science — all of which complements a mixed camera environment.

“The beauty of digital, and this camera in particular, is that DXL actually stands for ‘digital extra light.’ With a core body weight of only 10 pounds, and with its small form factor, I’ve seen DXL used in the back seat of a car as well as to capture the most incredible helicopter scenes,” Cioni notes.

With the help of Light Iron, Panavision developed a tool to match DXL footage to Panavised Red Weapon cameras. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 used Red Weapon 8K VV Cameras with Panavision Primo 70 lenses. “There are shows like Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why [Season Two] that combined this special matching of the DXL and the Red Helium sensor based on the workflow of the show,” Cioni notes. “They’re shooting [the second season] with two DXLs as their primary camera, and they have two 8K Red cameras with Helium sensors, and they match each other.”

If you are thinking the Millennium DXL will bust your budget, think again. Like many Panavision cameras, the DXL is exclusively leasable through Panavision, but Cioni says they’re happy to help filmmakers to build the right package and workflow. “A lot of budgetary expense can be avoided with a more efficient workflow. Once customers learn how DXL streamlines the entire imaging chain, a DXL package might not be out of reach. We always work with customers to build the right package at a competitive price,” he says.

Using the DXL in Production
The DXL could be perceived as a classic dolly Panavision camera, especially with the large format moniker. “Not true,” says Morgenthau, who shot test footage with the camera slung over his shoulder in the back seat of a car.

He continues, “I sat in the back of a car and handheld it — in the back of a convertible. It’s very ergonomic and user-friendly. I think what’s exciting about the Millennium: its size and integration with technology, and the choice of lenses that you get with the Panavision lens family.”

Panavision’s fleet of large format lenses, many of which date back to the 1950s, made the company uniquely equipped to begin development on the new series of large format optics. To be available by the end of 2017, the Primo Artiste lenses are a full series of T/1.8 Primes — the fastest optics available for large format cinematography — with a completely internalized motor and included metadata capture. Additionally, the Primo Artiste lenses can be outfitted with an anamorphic glass attachment that retains the spherical nature of the base lens, yet induces anamorphic artifacts like directional flares and distorted bokeh.

Another new addition to the DXL is the earlier mentioned Panavision’s HDR OLED Primo viewfinder. Offering 600-nit brightness, image smoothing and optics to limit eye fatigue, the viewfinder also boasts a theoretical contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1. Like other elements on the camera, the Primo viewfinder was the result of extensive polling and camera operator feedback. “Spearheaded by Panavision’s Haluki Sadahiro and Dominick Aiello, we went to operators and asked them everything we could about what makes a good viewfinder,” notes Cioni. “Guiding an industry game-changing product meant we went through multiple iterations. We showed the first Primo HDR prototype version in November 2016, and after six months of field testing, the final version is both better and simpler, and it’s all thanks to user feedback.”

Michael Cioni

In response to the growing popularity of HDR delivery, Light Iron also provides a powerful on-set HDR viewing solution. The HDR Village cart is built with a 4K HDR Sony monitor with numerous video inputs. The system can simultaneously display A and B camera feeds in high dynamic range and standard dynamic range on four different split quadrants. This enables cinematographers to evaluate their images and better prepare for multi-format color grading in post, given that most HDR projects are also required to deliver in SDR.

Post Production
The camera captures R3D files, the same as any other Red camera, but does have metadata that is unique to the DXL, ranging from color science to lens information. It also uses Light Iron’s set of color matrices designed specifically for the DXL: Light Iron Color.

Designed by Light Iron supervising colorist Ian Vertovec, Light Iron Color deviates from traditional digital color matrices by following in the footsteps of film stock philosophy instead of direct replication of how colors look in nature. Cioni likens Light Iron Color to Kodak’s approach to film. “Kodak tried to make different film stocks for different intentions. Since one film stock cannot satisfy every creative intention, DXL is designed to allow look transforms that users can choose, export and integrate into the post process. They come in the form of cube lookup tables and are all non-destructive.”

Light Iron Color can be adjusted and tweaked by the user or by Light Iron, which Cioni says has been done on many shows. The ability to adjust Light Iron Color to fit a particular project is also useful on shows that shoot with multiple camera types. Though Light Iron Color was designed specifically for the Millennium DXL, Light Iron has used it on other cameras — including the Sony A7, and Reds with Helium and Dragon sensors — to ensure that all the footage matches as closely as possible.

While it’s possible to cut with high-resolution media online with a blazing fast workstation and storage solution, it’s a lot trickier to edit online with 8K media in a post production environment that often requires multiple editors, assistants, VFX editors, post PAs and more. The good news is that the DXL records onboard low-bitrate proxy media (ProRes or DNx) for offline editorial while simultaneously recording R3Ds without requiring the use of an external recorder.

Cioni’s optimal camera recording setup for editorial is 5:1 compression for the R3Ds alongside 2K ProRes LT files. He explains, “My rule of thumb is to record super high and super low. And if I have high-res and low-res and I need to make something else, I can generate that somewhere in the middle from the R3Ds. But as long as I have the bottom and the top, I’m good.”

Storage is also a major post consideration. An hour of 8192×4320 R3Ds at 23.976fps runs in the 1TB/hour range — that number may vary, depending on the R3D compression, but when compared to an hour of 6560×3100 Arriraw footage, which lands at 2.6TB an hour, the Millennium DXL’s lighter R3D workflow can be very attractive.

Conform and Delivery
One significant aspect of the Millennium DXL workflow is that even though the camera’s sensor, body, glass and other pipeline tools are all recently developed, R3D conform and delivery workflows remain tried and true. The onboard proxy media exactly matches the R3Ds by name and timecode, and since Light Iron Color is non-destructive, the conform and color-prep process is simple and adjustable, whether the conform is done with Adobe, Blackmagic, Avid or other software.

Additionally, since Red media can be imported into almost all major visual effects applications, it’s possible to work with the raw R3Ds as VFX plates. This retains the lens and camera metadata for better camera tracking and optical effects, as well as providing the flexibility of working with Light Iron Color turned on or off, and the 8K R3Ds are still lighter than working with 4K (as is the VFX trend) DPX or EXR plates. The resolution also affords enormous space for opticals and stabilization in a 4K master.

4K is the increasingly common delivery resolution among studios, networks and over-the-top content distributors, but in a world of constant remastering and an exponential increase in television and display resolutions, the benefit in future-proofing a picture is easily apparent. Baselight, Resolve, Rio and other grading and finishing applications can handle 8K resolutions, and even if the final project is only rendered at 4K now, conforming and grading in 8K ensures the picture will be future-proofed for some time. It’s a simple task to re-export a 6K or 8K master when those resolutions become the standard years down the line.

After having played with DXL footage provided by Light Iron, it was surprising how straightforward the workflow seems. For a very small production, the trickiest part is the requirement of a powerful workstation — or sets of workstations — to conform and play 8K Red media, with a mix of (likely) 4K VFX shots, graphics and overlays. Michael Cioni notes, “[Everyone] already knows a RedCode workflow. They don’t have to learn it, I could show the DXL to anyone who has a Red Raven and in 30 seconds they’ll confidently say, ‘I got this.’”

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