Slumdog Millionaire and the SI-2K

Slumdog Millionaire and the SI-2K

I just saw Danny Boyle’s amazing new film, Slumdog Millionaire, one of the first widely released films to be shot with the SI-2k Mini Digital Cinema Camera. Generally the picture’s digital images looked quite good – great resolution and decent latitude but the sensor noise in many shots was just unbearable. It was most notable on night exteriors and while some shots were actually pretty clean, others were so degraded you could barely tell what you were looking at. In addition, the film's key interior sequence – the game show – was very noisy.  I thought at first that they had purposefully degraded the image to make it look like a broadcast but that wasn’t the case. I’ll make an educated guess as to what went wrong and I think that the “expose to the right” theory wasn’t always adhered to or wasn’t always practical. While the exposure technique of keeping the majority of luminance information to the right side of the histogram will work to prevent image noise, it isn’t something that can be universally applied to all digital imaging. Some camera systems are more noise prone than others so exposure becomes far more critical. Unfortunately in the case of Slumdog, some of the film’s most important scenes just weren’t properly exposed to get out of the SI-2k’s noise floor.

From the Silicon Imaging website:

“The Silicon Imaging SI-2K MINI combines a digital cinema class 2048x1152 resolution camera head and together with SiliconDVR recording software, IRIDAS color-management technology, and the power of CineForm RAW™, delivers a direct-to-disk raw recording platform with unprecedented image quality and shooting flexibility. With it's low-noise, high-dynamic range sensor, over 10 f-stops of dynamic range are freely manipulatable with user generated Iridas look files, and IT-friendly connectivity through open PC platforms, battery-powered operation, and up to 4-hours of continuous shooting on a 160GB notebook hard drive round out an impressive array of digital cinema firsts in the industry.”

After seeing what the camera can do projected in 35mm I just can’t agree with the company’s statement. While the footage does blow up very nicely I simply do not agree with their claim of a low noise 10 stops of dynamic range.

Another thing that I’m a little unclear on was the decision to go with this camera in the first place.. I’ve read that Boyle was attracted to the size of it; it’s basically a tiny box with a lens on it. But after adding all the necessary accoutrements – viewfinder, battery, etc. it quickly becomes unwieldy. In addition, there is no way to operate without being tethered. This film was shot run and gun in the slums of Mumbai and when I think of being tethered to a laptop or hard drive, that doesn’t exactly seem “run and gun” to me. ADDENDUM 11/25/08: After hearing from several SI-2k owner/operators, I've been assured that the with the drives and computer in a backpack, the camera is very easily operated covertly, looking more like an SLR than a motion picture camera. I'll buy that. Having never actually operated one myself, all I can do is look at the hardware and speculate. Thanks for the feedback.

At any rate, Danny Boyle, DoP Anthony Dod Mantle, and co. have made a thoroughly enjoyable and very beautiful film. Technical issues aside, filmmaking should be about the storytelling more than anything else and I don’t think a few noisy shots are going to ruin this one for most folks.

Also of interest – Darren Aronofsky's very cool trailer for “The Wrestler” is before Slumdog which provides an excellent reference point for comparing image quality. The Wrestler was shot on Super 16 - Kodak 5218, composed for 2.35:1 and blown up to 35. The SI-2k, for all intents and purposes is a digital Super 16 camera. It employs a "Super 16ish" size sensor and accepts 16 PL glass as well as B4 video glass. The difference in Celluloid Super 16 and Digital Super 16 becomes most evident when blown up to theatrical 35mm. The Wrestler has a very soft, very grainy quality to it. It feels much more like an old documentary. Granted this was a look that was devised by the filmmakers but the fact is that when 16 is blown up to 35, it definitely softens up and doesn’t hold onto a lot of its resolution. Slumdog Millionaire on the other hand, looked noticeably sharper to me. It really seemed to take the blowup nicely despite the noise issues. The day exteriors were particularly beautiful – great color saturation and tight resolution that could have easily originated on 35. ADDENDUM 02/24/09: Many of the day exteriors looked like they originated on film because they did. There still isn't a better medium for full blown daylight than good old 35.