Accurately describing Scott Billups‘ role in the motion picture industry is a difficult task. He has most recently been extremely busy as a DP (director of photography) on several theatrical motion pictures shot using digital high definition video as an alternative to 35mm film. These assignments were a logical spin-off of his work as a producer of high-end shows for leading cable networks, where he combined his long experience in computer-based digital visual effects with years of behind-the-camera expertise first learned during the 1970‘s as an assistant to the great American cinematographer James Wong Howe. Billups is, however, probably best known for living on what he calls the “bleeding edge” of digital imaging technology for the past two decades.
During that time, Billups was usually the first person that major effects-software developers or computer manufacturers would call to evaluate their latest code revision or hardware upgrade. He‘d then put that image-making advance to the test by using it in service of A-list Hollywood filmmakers, Fortune 500 companies, or the Defense Department. Sometimes the results would be nothing less than revolutionary. At other times he‘d be left with a crashed computer and real-world proof that a new animation package or digitizing board wasn‘t up to the demands of the client‘s storyboard, hence his use of the term bleeding--instead of leading--edge. The author and/or subject of countless articles and books on digital filmmaking and visual effects, Billups is a frequent lecturer at motion-imaging conferences and has branded himself first and foremost as an inveterate “pixelmonger.”
Given his history in pushing the proverbial envelope of what imaging technology is capable of accomplishing, Billups is determined to propel the high resolution, user convenience, and affordability of today‘s high-definition digital video technologies into a new paradigm of production power and economy. Motion picture budgets simply can‘t be allowed to rise indefinitely, he argues, at a time when increasingly affordable tools exist that enable any truly creative talent to render onscreen whatever their minds can conceive. First, however, one must discover what these affordable new tools are capable of. “I recently did a film-out test of images captured using Canon‘s XL H1 HDV camcorder,” Billups revealed, “and what it can do is absolutely mind-boggling.”
The beauty of motion-picture film is in the range of picture detail and subtlety that it is capable of capturing and presenting. Digital alternatives need to match or exceed that capability if they are to be serious contenders as alternatives for the capture of theatrical motion picture imagery, which is the highest form of moving-image production in terms of visual quality and dynamic range. The key to achieving such performance for digital camera/recording systems is the amount of data that they are capable of capturing and playing back. This performance--measured in megabits per second, or Mbps--is most dramatically evidenced when digitally captured imagery is printed to motion-picture film and displayed in a conventional movie theater environment to the “golden eyes” of Hollywood‘s engineering talent. Scott Billups recently participated in just such a test that included the Canon XL H1 as well as far more expensive digital cinematography camera/recording systems.
“In the first test we shot using the Canon XL H1 with its supplied HD lens attached,” Billups explained. “Then we shot the same test using a couple of other lenses and then printed it to film. The supplied Canon HD lens on the XL H1 blew the other lenses away. We than shot a second test with the Canon XL H1 side-by-side against a much more expensive digital cinematography camera.”
Asked to supply an official statement of the results of these tests, Billups stated the following:
“In a recent print-to-film comparison test projected at a major Hollywood facility, several high-end digital HD cinematography cameras were used to shoot video charts, a green screen composite, and a street scene. I found that the Canon XL H1--recording to the Wafian HR-1 Direct-to-Disk Recorder using 10-bit CineForm Intermediate files--noticeably outperformed tape shot on a far more expensive HD camera in terms of visual image, projected image, and chroma key. The XL H1‘s true 25Mbps segmented-frame signal packs 50 Mbps into each frame on tape while the SDI signal is a whopping 1.2Gbps. With its densely packed, true 1080 16:9 chip set, real genlock input and timecode, it‘s now the camera everyone in town wants to see.”
A New-World Camera
“There was a room full of people--some heavily vested in other, far more expensive camera systems--and they were shocked; they couldn‘t believe it,” Billups confided of the XL H1 test. “The test was screened for a packed house that included people from major motion-picture industry standards groups. It was just amazing.”
Billups said that the XL H1‘s “real genlock-in feature and HD-SDI output also blew everybody away.” He added that he has a “substantial” motion-picture cinematography assignment coming up for which he is seriously considering using the XL H1 “for pick-ups, second cameras, and location stuff. Until you really shoot with the XL H1, play with it, and print it to film, you really can‘t tell until it‘s up on the screen. The XL H1 is ready to go,” he affirmed.
Billups had special praise for the 24 F feature of the XL H1 as well. “Canon's 24F system produces an output that looks and feels like 24-frame movie film,” he says. “While the technology is a closely guarded Canon secret, the proof is in the image. When digitally projected or printed to film, the image from the XLH1 compares more closely to those of ultra-high-end HD cameras than it does to the growing assortment of consumer HDV camcorders.
“The pixel block on the XL H1 is state-of-the-art,” Billups added. “The ‘cups‘ (the microscopic portions of the XL H1‘s three 1440 by 1080 CCD imaging chips that takes the incoming light and turns it into electrical signals) are more tightly packed than those on more expensive digital cinematography cameras.
Reiterating his earlier comments, Billups feels that the XL H1‘s digital compression capabilities are what truly makes it ready for serious moviemaking. “The XL H1 also has a very far-advanced chip set,” he observed. “The future of all HD recording is based on good, new compression algorithms. The best production package for the next generation of digital movies will be based on the best compression. Compression is basically the management of data. The cleaner the signal, the better it compresses, the nicer the images it makes. That‘s what the Canon XL H1 does; it‘s a new-world camera.”