“I used to embrace the romantic idea of a dramatic underexposure and very thin negative and I have gone the other way.”
Filmmaker Magazine: With the early Red cameras—back in the Epic days—I remember people talking about how you needed to expose to the right on the histogram because if you underexposed you were in trouble. As Reds have evolved, do you not have to worry as much about the low end of the curve anymore?
Erik Messerschmidt: No, I just protect the highlights. I feel like the camera has detail for days in the shadows. I do subscribe generally to the “expose to the right” approach, though. I didn’t use to, but I’ve turned around on that just because I feel like the color fidelity is superior if you put a little bit more light onto the sensor. I have that same opinion for every digital camera, not just Red.
Source: Filmmaker Magazine
Eric Weidt: Erik made the choice early on to monitor in HDR right on set and I thought it was interesting, your reasons for that, what you thought you gained from that, in terms of being able to stay a bit more open, because you were visually assured by looking at an HDR monitor, that for example, the windows in the background weren’t clipped, even though you can see the histogram. You were telling me that it’s more of a psychological thing that if you see it, if you see that detail there, you’re going to want to protect for it less and you’re going to resist a little bit that urge to stop down in those situations.
Erik Messerschmidt: Exactly, and I found that as a result, I was using a lot less fill light. I could really comfortably expose far to the right and what I found when I was monitoring in SDR [is that] I was closing down early in the exposure curve, I was over-protecting the highlights and I was using more fill on the set and then we would get into the HDR grade and Eric would have to sort of re-equalize the curve and it turned out I didn’t need the fill and I didn’t need to protect the highlights, so it really created a situation where I felt like I really understood the camera and I could really comfortably expose it and I also think to some degree, because I was effectively overexposing the camera without getting an overexposed image, that we would have more color fidelity in the grade and then the digital negative was thicker so to speak and Eric would have more density to work with and there was no real sacrifice. So it completely changed the way I work. And the movie I’m doing now, I’m monitoring in HDR and it’s a theatrical release in P3, it’s not even destined for an HDR release. I mean, I’m sure we’ll do a grade, but I’m monitoring in HDR anyway, just because I feel like my exposures are better.
Tom Graham: That’s what I remember you saying, that in our Mindhunter talk, you said it was freeing to you to have the HDR monitor on set and that you had more confidence, and even if you were doing an SDR only movie you’d still want to monitor that way.
Erik Messerschmidt: Yeah, I’ve done it ever since.
Tom Graham: In terms of a DP learning to make the shift from the world of SDR into working in HDR or planning and prepping for it and then executing, are there practical lighting tips, especially practical effects or on-set lights that change your way of thinking or shooting?
Erik Messerschmidt: No, I just think it simplifies it. I mean, I think finishing in HDR and monitoring in SDR is like shooting film and exposing it off the video tap – you’re looking at a very narrow band, a much different dynamic range than what the sensor is actually capturing, so your lighting, your balance and for me, it’s all about balance, it’s not even really about exposure, it’s about the distribution of exposures in the frame so you know the brightness of the practicals versus the amount of fill you use, etc., so for me, the most profound part of it has been learning that I actually can do less, that I need less. And if we need to add contrast, it’s better done with Eric. He can do it with much more nuance than I can on the set – you know, I end up bringing in black fabric all over the place or I end up adding a bunch of fill light that we get rid of later. For me, it’s completely simplified my entire process and maybe it’s just because I’m a little bit neurotic and I have to see it, but it’s definitely changed things and it’s made me appreciate giving the sensor more light and the value of that. I used to think much differently about it. I used to embrace the romantic idea of a dramatic underexposure and very thin negative and I have gone the other way, feeling it’s much better to expose to the right so to speak and fill the sensor up and get as much color fidelity and saturation in there as we can have so that we can make those nuanced choices later when we’re not stressed about whether or not we need to go to lunch.
And you don’t need to spend $30,000 to monitor HDR on-set. There are very good HDR displays under $5000 that will do nicely.