David Stump, ASC Talks New Technology
BYLINE: By Debra Kaufman
From Toronto where he’s overseeing visual effects cinematography on American Gods, David Stump, ASC shared his experiences working with the Lytro camera. “I’ve engaged with technologies and techniques for ten years, heading towards the goal of deriving depth on a pixel-by-pixel basis,” he says. “I’ve been telling anyone who will listen – and some who won’t – that I know it’s do-able. When that camera is invented, it’ll become ubiquitous and invaluable.” Stump bought one of Lytro’s Illum cameras online. “Anything interesting photographically is my wheelhouse,” he says. “I had to have one.”
When Lytro began developing its cinema camera, company executives approached the American Society of Cinematographers to talk to the Technology Committee, where Stump heads up the camera subcommittee. Lytro also went to VRC (The Virtual Reality Company), a division of Third Floor, to talk to director Rob Stromberg and Stump about shooting a demo film for the camera, to be shown at NAB. “I shot this short, Life, as a representative of both entities,” he says. At NAB, people saw the five-minute short, a visual poem on different paths that people follow in life, which was shot with both ARRI and Alexa cameras, with Lytro cinema camera footage intercut.
Life was a surprise hit at NAB 2016, putting Lytro on the radar screen for many in the production and post industries. For Stump, the experience of shooting it clarified the strengths of the Lytro camera system. “The most obvious capability that everyone associates with the Lytro is the ability to refocus in post and synthetically vary depth of field,” he says. “But I was as interested – or even more interested – in its ability to capture depth on a pixel-by-pixel basis. When you capture depth, you can do things you never could do before with a camera.”
Specifically, Stump points to a scene in Life when a couple in wedding attire are on a dais with a preacher reading their vows. “Besides the path leading to the couple, everything else was lamps and C-stands and grips walking behind them,” says Stump. Without green- or blue-screen, Lytro created a depth map that enabled them to place the couple in a matte painting. Even better, in the foreground, they shot mountains of Mylar confetti being thrown. “Then we were able to map the reflective Mylar confetti in the scene and get another take for the actors in the background and combine those two things, just using depth information,” says Stump. “It was awesome.”
Because Stump works quite a bit with visual effects, he notes that the possibilities of using a depth map to discriminate images are bountiful. “There are some visual effects in American Gods that are total head-scratchers – really difficult to pull off,” he says. “If I could use that camera to do them, it’ll be 20 times easier. Computer artists will have endless flexibility with what they can do with the data in vastly less time. As this technology evolves and matures, it will vastly simplify the work of doing virtual reality, will enable very accurate 3D acquisition and will radically enable VFX production. With no downside I can see.”
He also addresses the common perception that a light-field camera such as Lytro will put focus pullers out of work. “That’s not true at all,” he says. “What it’s going to do is just change the job of pulling focus, by adding a different set of parameters. You won’t just pull focus but you will also control depth of field capabilities. The job requires more education, as it does with any of the technologies we’ve had to learn in the last 15 years.” Other cinematographers are exploring the use of Lytro, but not all of them are ready to come forward with their experiences.
Stump, who is also following virtual reality and multi-cam capture, notes that, as new technologies emerge, they should be embraced. “If we don’t embrace them, we risk being run over by them,” he says. “You’re either driving the bus or you are under its wheels.” And lest anyone should think he’s a shill for Lytro, Stump reminds everyone he continues to watch the progress of depth capture technologies. “I like that we’ve succeeded with Lytro already,” he says. “But I don’t work for anyone. It’s a foot race. Whoever gets there first wins.”