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Trendspotting-Stargate Films


As a long-time Arri development partner, Pasadena-based visual effects company Stargate Digital has something of a favored-nation status with the German camera manufacturer.
Over the years, the company has helped test and develop software for the Arricam, Arriflex 535 and 435, and also got one of the first Arrilaser printers on this side of the Atlantic. Now, Stargate is relying on Arri D-20s for all of its greenscreen and bluescreen effects shots.
The Arriflex D-20 is Arri’s first foray into digital cinematography – a film-style digital camera featuring a Super 35mm-size CMOS image sensor, which enables users to use the same lenses that they use for film. The camera also features an optical viewfinder, which is popular among cinematographers.
“We’ve helped them develop and design a lot of their camera systems, and that’s why we’re very involved in the D-20,” said Stargate Digital founder and CEO Sam Nicholson. “It’s kind of a development deal. Since we push gear pretty hard and we also write a lot of code from a visual-effects standpoint, we demand more out of our hardware than most people do. And they’ve found, over the years, that it’s a good relationship to have.”
Stargate Digital typically handles effects work for some 20 TV series at a time, including such popular shows as Heroes, Grey’s Anatomy, Saving Grace, Desperate Housewives and Las Vegas. The company has offices in L.A., Vancouver and London, employing more than 150 artists, supervisors and producers covering all areas of digital production and visual effects.
“This coming season, we’re shooing all of our visual effects for our shows using the D-20s, so we’re replacing the film cameras – the A and B first-unit cameras with D-20s,” said Nicholson. “If you’re shooting blue- or greenscreen, it’s the only way to go, and it intercuts with film beautifully.”
“When your artists are saying, ‘Please shoot this digitally’ and you see the results, and you do the color separations and look at the grain structure – you say, ‘Of course, I want to give you guys the best possible quality in principal photography,’” he said.
He explained that the company is also heavily involved with the Fraunhofer Institute, which developed a lot of the underlying technology in the D-20. “We’re testing their new Megacine recorder, which allows you to truly roll from 1-60 fps with the D-20 with discreet frames. So you’re not going to tape like an SRW1; you’re going direct to disk drives with variable frame rates,” he says. “It’s experimental, but we use it on productions. We don’t mind experimental gear.”
The D-20 can capture HD video or uncompressed data, but for greenscreen work, data is the best option. Nicholson explained that the company has developed its own proprietary algorithms to deal with the RAW data coming out of the camera.
“We’re taking RAW data out of the D-20 and debayering it ourselves, so it’s like shooting RAW in a digital still camera. It’s a much better way to do it but you have to have the processing horsepower to debayer it and denoise it,” he said. “We’ve found that the D-20 is the quietest signal that we’ve been able to get on the market so far, but it’s slow. But then again if you take the Genesis down to where it gets quiet, or an F23, they’re all pretty slow. The chips are slow chips. When they really get quiet enough to do phenomenal blue-screen work, you’re sitting in the ASA 150 or 160 range, which is where all these cameras get quiet. But properly shot, with enough light for that chip, the D-20 is the quietest camera out there. But if you’re going to say, ‘Can we shoot at ASA 1600?’ Well, no you can’t.”
Another key benefit of the D-20 is that it has the same lensing characteristics as Arri’s film cameras, which enables filmmakers to intercut film and digital sequences seamlessly.
“It’s very critical to our clients that when you cut to a digital scene that it is absolutely imperceptible from the 35mm footage,” he said.
“The beauty of the D-20 is that you can basically loosen up the bayonet on an Arricam or a 435, slide the film body off, and slide the D-20 body on,” said Nicholson. “All of your accessories are exactly the same – the lens mounts, everything. So you can go in with a digital body to an Arri show, and they don’t have to have a complete separate lens package, follow focus, and everything else for the ACs and the camera operators. If you’re shooting mixed film and video, it’s much better to have a compatible system so you don’t double up on lenses.”

Written by Scott Lehane

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