‘The Creator’ Case Study: A Look at Atomos

One small footprint, one giant leap…

Published on in Miscellaneous

Images courtesy of 20th Century Studios

For all the talk about technology “democratizing” filmmaking, it has also led to another revolution: introducing new degrees of creative freedom. Ideas and entirely new ways to make films that would have been impossible (or impossibly expensive) are now achievable, and they’re changing the face of filmmaking at every level.

The Creator is perhaps the best example of this new-found freedom so far. With what in Hollywood circles is considered to be a small budget, the film has blown viewers away with its novel approach, its ambition and its spectacular quality.

Behind the scenes, there’s an intriguing and surprising story, even more so when you realize that you can watch The Creator in the ultra-critical viewing environment of IMAX theaters - traditionally thought of as the highest-quality format for cinemas. IMAX inevitably makes you think of “traditional” Hollywood-type cameras, expensive lenses, massive crews and powerful, energy-sapping lighting rigs. It also makes you think “big budget”. The Creator dared to change all of that.

The film is unconventional in many ways. Largely made on location in Thailand, there was neither the finance nor the logistics to shoot conventionally. What made it all possible was the combination of an inexpensive Sony cinema camera and an Atomos Ninja. The nimble combination meant that the Co-Cinematographers on the project, Oren Soffer and Greig Fraser, could get right in amongst the action without the encumbrance of a traditional camera rig. They could take in the feel and sensibility of being on location without the strictures normally imposed by a conventional set-up.

The creative team chose the Sony FX3 cinema camera. It’s likely there’s never been a more modest-looking camera packing such a huge performance. The $4,000 off-the-shelf device inherits some of the sublime color characteristics of its distant but direct relative, the lauded Sony Venice camera, and has an extraordinary low-light capability. At approximately 1/14th of the cost of a Venice, you’d expect the FX3 to have some differences, and there are. But where it matters most - the image quality - the diminutive Sony shooter doesn’t disappoint. The very fact that it was considered as the primary camera for many of the scenes is remarkable.

On its own, the FX3’s imaging is very good, but for recording internally, its performance is determined by its internal codecs. Sony’s codec technology in smaller cameras is focused on maximizing quality for smaller file sizes. It’s second to none, but while most would find that it is visually lossless, for highly critical work, you need something that’s more robust and captures virtually all of the nuanced information coming off the camera’s sensor, thanks to a higher bitrate and milder compression. Something like Apple ProRes RAW, for example. There is a huge amount of VFX and color processing in The Creator. The Apple format, captured by the Ninja V, proved to be extremely capable, giving post-production and VFX the space and flexibility they needed to work comfortably.

Atomos was the first company to design and produce a monitor-recorder to capture ProRes RAW, a codec as easy to edit as “conventional” ProRes, but with the flexibility in post of RAW video. For The Creator, this was the perfect marriage because it meant that the production could capture the full quality of the FX3’s sensor without the usual losses associated with conventional compression.

Camera comparisons are often subjective, but Oren Soffer, the creator’s Joint Cinematographer, nailed the difference:

“We tested the internal format in the FX3 and determined it wasn’t robust enough in terms of color and dynamic range for what we were looking for, considering the film was going to go through a lot of VFX work, and, amazing though the FX3 is, you have to remember it’s a $4000 camera and it comes with certain limitations that we have to work around. Thankfully, the camera does output 4K ProRes RAW, and it was that format that unlocked the camera for us. That’s what made us realize the imagery and the color depth and the information and the dynamic range that this camera is capable of capturing. Once you tap into RAW and record onto the Ninja, it puts it onto the level where you realize you can intercut it with footage from an Alexa and not notice the difference”.

A lot has changed since Atomos started a little over ten years ago. With the introduction of ProRes RAW, an affordable Atomos Ninja or Shogun can stretch the performance of an already good camera to unheard-of levels for the price. As Soffer summed up:

“The Ninja was really instrumental in getting that recording quality that we needed to do all the color and VFX that we needed in the film”.

The film is now available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD. And let readers know they can see the great visual effects when watching the film on 4K blu-ray.

Special thanks to Mark Naidoo, CMO at Creamsource, and to Georges Cameras for organizing the interview with Orun Soffer.

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