Rob Hardy BSC, ASC puts VENICE 2 to the test

December 15, 2021

This is the first time I’ve used that larger sensor, the 8.6K, …the results are quite astonishing.

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We’re chasing the final shots on a two-day shoot at the UK’s historic Knebworth House.

Rob Hardy (ASC, BSC) is helming a period production that plays with time and place as he pushes a new camera to its limits. Known for his DP work on Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Ex Machina, Annihilation, and Devs, today Hardy is bridging the roles of cinematographer and director. He’s spent every minute of the two days pushing to find unexpected moments that add to the story he’s telling.

“The best surprises come from things that are completely unplanned,” Hardy tells us. “Creatively, I like to plan as much as I can, but then remain flexible in the moment. I love it when something is offered, or presents itself, that can help me to tell the story. I like those unexpected offerings on any and every level. Those moments are what make the hard work worth it.”

Building on the success of the original, VENICE 2 is a significantly refined machine. A host of changes, from simple repositioning Lemo 12V and Ethernet connectors to somehow adding internal 16-bit X-OCN or 4K ProRes recording, mean filmmakers can move even faster. VENICE 2 also offers a choice of the original 6K sensor, with all its many imager modes, and the newly developed 8K sensor which offers sensational latitude and colour rendition so DoPs can push their creative ideas further.

Advances for on-set practicality and highest image quality reflect feedback from DoPs, camera operators, grips, directors, colourists and more. The goal is a camera improved in the ways that matter most to film crews.

 

Extraordinary latitude

For this final, candlelit scene in Knebworth House’s gallery, the staggering low light performance of the camera’s sensor is really on show. And it’s the dual-base ISO values that make the difference here. For those using the 6K sensor, the base values are ISO 500 and ISO 2500, while shooters who opt for the 8K sensor (8.6K, to be precise) have base values of ISO 800 and ISO 3200. Today, on this shoot, we’re pushing the 8K sensor as far as it can go.

“This is the first time I’ve used that larger sensor,” Rob Hardy says. “The 8.6K, and we were lucky enough to get some anamorphic lenses, for the cinematic effect, that really utilize that whole sensor. The results, I think, are quite astonishing.”

We were expecting images with very little noise. At ISO 3200, the 8K sensor has 16 stops of latitude, but even with this knowledge beforehand, the images we’re seeing are surprising. The Cooke anamorphic lenses are highly sought after for good reason, giving subtle light artefacts that add to the mood.

Earlier in the day, Hardy had challenged VENICE 2 by shooting in a bedroom flooded with daylight, exploring extreme contrasts between light and shadow.

DIT Adam Shell was initially apprehensive; “I always get a shudder down my spine whenever I see those kinds of shots, knowing that I’ve got to grade them. That [scene], once we’d balanced it a little bit and just brought up the blacks, all of sudden it just started singing. And you’re just like, ‘That’s unusual’. I haven’t seen that before from a camera and a codec, and that really did bring a smile to my face. That was lovely to see.”

Flying high

A very different challenge came when Flying Pictures rigged VENICE 2 on their drone. They needed to shoot the film’s establishing shots while they still had the prized morning light.

Thankfully, set-up was even quicker than expected. Because VENICE 2 can record 16-bit X-OCN or 4K Apple ProRes internally, the team didn’t need to accommodate a large camera package or balance an external memory recorder. And because the camera set-up was lighter and more compact, flying the drone was easier and safer too.

Watching on the nearby monitors, the images looked particularly beautiful, thanks to the camera’s improved LUT processing. For DoPs who want to see on-set images that are closer to the final look of their project, VENICE 2 can actually apply 4K LUTs to its monitor output.

The rich images and colour gradation stood out even in HD, but the real examination began once we could see the footage on 4K HDR Trimaster monitor.

“We’ve got incredibly bright skies, dark shadow detail…a huge amount of foliage on the trees,” DIT Adam Shell observes. “You would normally expect to see codecs breaking at that point, because there’s so much high frequency detail in the scene, as well as a huge amount of dynamic range. And the camera just coped with it beautifully. It rendered all the details in a very pleasing way, it rendered all the colours in a very pleasing way.”

The 8K sensor had shown its potential from the first shots of the project. Watching the film now, you can see a smooth highlight roll-off in the morning sky, then look down to see the details of shaded trees rustling their leaves. You’ll notice that the colours of the sky, the trees and the old stone walls of Knebworth House look beautifully natural as well. And that’s due to the powerful combination of the VENICE 2 sensor and Sony’s X-OCN recording format.

 

Natural colours and vivid details

The ability to internally record in highest quality really is a standout feature of VENICE 2. Now that the AXS-R7 recorder isn’t required, rigging the camera is simpler and quicker, making life easier for Steadicam operators, grips and camera assistants. Meanwhile, DoPs and directors have that bit more time to get the exact shot they’re looking for.

Both the 6K and 8K VENICE 2 sensors offer a colour range that’s wider than DCI-P3 and BT.2020. When combined with S-Log3 encoding, and the S-Gamut3 ultra-wide colour space, the final, unified result from these elements is quite staggering. Put simply, it’s possible to reproduce the true colours of the scene in front of the lens—and that aligns nicely with Rob Hardy’s way of working.

 

My personal approach is never to reinvent something in the grade. It’s always to try and get it as close as possible to what I want it to be on set. And that’s what this is enabling me to do.

Rob Hardy, Cinematographer

Making a colourist’s life easier

X-OCN is perfect for VENICE 2. With 16-bit linear tonal gradation, it allows moviemakers to retain the full dynamic range that the sensor gives them, and handle the remarkable colours it captures.

One of the major benefits of X-OCN is its ability to significantly reduce file sizes, so all of this rich colour information and dynamic range doesn’t slow down on-set and post-production workflows. Plus, with the AXS-AR3 Memory card reader, DITs can offload footage from a VENICE 2 AXS card at up to 9.6 Gbps (1200MB/s). From Adam Shell’s point of view, X-OCN is a boon for DITs and colourists.

“X-OCN I think has been a really smart decision for Sony to implement,” says Shell. “It’s taken a lot of the hassles of shooting RAW, shooting high resolution, shooting high bit depth – because the codec is so efficient… It is gorgeous to work with. You get access to every single piece of data that the camera captures. And, as a colourist, it makes your life a whole heap easier.”

 

A compact, creative tool

“What we’re doing is putting it through its paces on a set, using actors with a piece of drama, with all of the issues and problems that may come with that,” Hardy explains. “In other words time pressures, having to move quite quickly in terms of lighting, those things. I really wanted to see how the camera would perform in that context, because that’s essentially how I would use it.”

With a limited shooting window and a wide variety of set-ups, VENICE 2’s more practical features and considerations came into their own. First and foremost amongst these: the ND filters.

If you stood at the edge of the monitor village, you might have overheard people saying that having these ND filters internally is a ‘game-changer’. The servo-controlled, eight step ND filter mechanism made its debut in the original VENICE and offers a massive neutral density range of 0.3 (1/2 = 1 stop) to 2.4 (1/256 = 8 stops). DPs can quickly check the image they see and adapt accordingly. No more time spent de-rigging and swapping out if the ND isn’t right first time, or if the light changes during set-up. The 1st AC can just stand back and adjust, remotely.

Creative flow

As shooting wraps, the final AXS memory card is rushed to the barn where Adam Shell has been backing up and grading footage. As he offloads the last shots, he shares his overall thoughts on what he thinks VENICE 2 could mean for cinematography:

“It’s making my dailies grading much quicker, because there’s less I have to do. And that’s a good thing because you’re then allowing the cinematographer’s intent to come through without somebody else applying an additional filter to it.

I think, with the improvements that we’ve in the sensor, and in the ergonomics of the camera, it will facilitate cinematographers’ visions much, much more accurately. And we’ll see a really nice flow through from what’s in the cinematographer’s head onto screen, without as much pushing and pulling as we might normally expect to have to do.”

It really helps me sort of move fast, make decisions, and know that I’m going to get the details that I need.

Rob Hardy, Cinematographer

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