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Interview with Michael CIONI: First Time in Japan

Michael CIONI is someone who has been leading the latest digital cinema workflow, such as being among the first to use the RAW data of RED ONE/EPIC to export the 4K cinemascope from 5K and applying an innovative daily system with iTunes (Podcast) for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” directed by David FINCHER in 2011. We interviewed Michael in Fall 2018 when he visited Japan for the first time. What will the future of digital cinema look like according to him?
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In the world of color grading and DI workflow, you are well known. What’s your main job now?

Right now, I’m a Senior Vice President of Innovation at Panavision and LIGHT IRON. LIGHT IRON is a company that I founded with my brother, Peter, in 2009 and we perform color correction and post production creative services. At Panavision, my job is to identify market trends and research what those trends will have on the industry. Myself and the Innovation team examine who is going to be a new player, and how we can help cinematographers, producers, directors, and editors make movies better. My passion is workflow. In fact, what I just said is a long way of saying; my job is improving workflow for everyone.

How do you define “workflow”?

The world is so complicated. Making a movie is so complex since there are so many parts. So, my job is to make those parts work together. Here is how I define workflow. Workflow is connection. For example, we as humans all have bones. They are rigid and don’t really move very much. But ligaments connect the bones together so the these rigid bones become flexible. The bones of the film industry are the people who produce the structure: people like producers, directors, and cinematographers, but it’s the ligaments that act as the workflow and connect the structure together. However, a mistake is to make one workflow that rules over all and live by, “This is the workflow.” That’s not ideal because that’s forcing everyone to be the same. To goal is to identify how everyone can still be individual because the act of designing your own workflow means you make sure your work actually flows. That’s the key.

It’s your first time in Japan, so how do you feel?

I’ve always been a fan of Japan. But I was never able to visit until now. I’ve been lucky because so many Japanese friends come to visit me in Los Angeles and at NAB in Las Vegas. I have a feeling like I know so many Japanese people for 15 years because so many of them are coming to America. So it was time for me to visit and this is very good. I think Tokyo is a gorgeous city. It reminds me a lot of New York. I used to live in New York. Tokyo is very similar to New York but it’s clean. That’s the biggest different (laughs).

What comes up into your mind when hearing about the Japanese movies?

So much of technology begins in Japan and they get adapted all over the world. This is interesting. A lot of people might not realize that the type of technology you have is put in many different cultures. The other cultures have been investing Japanese technology for many years. So people buy Sony, Panasonic, TOSHIBA.

The problem is when certain cultural things that work here don’t work somewhere else. For example, the Japanese way of menu systems like Canon, FUJIFILM, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic is all very similar. But in the west, we have menus differently. At first, we learned how to do menus from Japan, but didn’t realize it was a Japanese culture, perhaps an Asian cultural way of understanding menu systems or the layout of rules. It never really fit well with Americans and we struggled with using the menus and used to joke about how difficult it was to setup a VCR. Eventually, California started building technology companies in the form of computers, and they changed how the menu structure was designed. If you think about Apple, the way of doing menu control is totally different from Japan. Apple showed a new type of menu and people started to really like the Apple world. It’s the dock at the bottom of the screen. The dock is the very different way to access things. That became a new wave. I found it’s interesting that now specifically Sony and Panasonic have changed menu systems to resemble Apple-like menus a bit more. That’s a small thing but it actually is a big change.

Sometimes when you do something for a long time and assume it’s perfect, you wonder, “how can your menu matter?” But the truth is it does matter. Every detail matters. Everything can get better. You have to have an open mind, which is driven by the competition. When the competition from other countries/companies comes out, you have the opportunity to innovate. That’s how great innovation happens. We all usually win. It’s interesting to notice how culturally menu is driven by how the people think. “This is the Japanese people think.” But it turns out the rest of world thinks a little different.

Some people believe “we don’t need 4K.” Many people believe “we don’t need 8K at all.” Sometimes they will say, “I can’t do 4K or 8K because it’s too hard or too expensive.” But, there is no reason you can’t do 4K even 8K. Because people like you and me are innovating to make 4K/8K easy or easier than HD. My 8K world is way easier than HD. In HD, I would have a video recorder, VTR, cables and so forth, but now I have an iMac. I do 8K everyday on my iMac. It’s simple. So, the reason why people think they can’t afford 4K/8K is because the workflow isn’t fully finished. We have to lay out more ligaments to make people feel the workflow flows, and have to educate them. Education is a big job now of the manufacturer. It’s tough because education is hard to monetize. No one wants to pay to be trained. So you have to find the way to do it without charging for that.

It’s been 3 years that Light Iron got together with Panavision. What does that mean to you?

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In 2015, Panavision bought LIGHT IRON in the reason of providing its customers with “the best service” that Panavision has been trying for 66 years. Up until recently, the best service was hardware such as cameras, lenses, and accessories. Panavision owned lighting and crane companies. That was the stuff camera crew needed. But what productions need now is a better workflow. It’s no longer just cameras or lenses. You can get great lenses and cameras everywhere. So Panavision needed to improve workflow for its costumers and the way to achieve that is by buying the best workflow company. LIGHT IRON is known for color correction, but beneath our creative services is really a great workflow company.

Good colorists are all over the place. But what makes a good colorist a great colorist is all parts, surrounding them. The colorists at the Light Irion are greater because of the team that supports them and the workflow feeds them. They can do a better and faster job because it’s not just about color but about the whole workflow. So Panavision needed to add that to their business. That was really helping our costumers to have a better workflow, which makes everything is better. If you can have a better workflow on set and post, you could start to make a better movie.

Could you tell me technology or equipment that you’re interested in now?

Everybody is talking about AI. A lot of people are starting to understand how AI will work for consumers. There are so many great AI applications, but how do we use AI in production? How will we use AI in cameras? I have some ideas, but understanding how to control and use AI for production could be very powerful. I’m a kind of focusing on that. The way I look at it is how are people going to make movies in the year of 2022. 4 years from now. That could be very different now because improved network connections and wireless without Wi-Fi. This is really going to change some potential because we will be able to move images anywhere in the world. We won’t need to rely on satellites or FedEx.

In 2006 at EFILM, William Feightner says, “Only one person should decide the color of a movie.” How do you think of his words?

Bill is a very good friend of mine and he is way smarter than me! But Bill’s words in 2006 don’t apply to 2020 because everything is different and changing. What we used to have to do is a theatrical version, a TV version and an airplane version. The difference among them isn’t that different. Today, on the contrary, we have dozens of different versions such as phone, TV, HD, 4K, HDR, theatrical and so forth. Color will have to be different because display technology is changing. So we have to help cinematographers to understand that there is no longer one master anymore. That’s how used to be. Everyone wants to say there is a master and everything flows from it. But, it doesn’t work anymore.

Any favorite movies or contents?

I don’t watch much. I don’t watch HBO or Netflix. I watch documentaries. I think because most of my job is in fiction, I prefer to watch non-fiction. I really like real stories. My favorite shows are documentaries or reality shows about digging for gold, fishing or solving crimes. It’s not the highest quality and doesn’t look that good, but it’s real people. That’s the things I like.

How do you think of the cinema cameras such as Panasonic’s VARICAM, Sony’s VENICE, Canon’s C700 and ARRI’s ALEXA LF?

The VARICAM is really important because it brought 4K with a triple recording, and it was head of its time. It’s the first time you could shoot 4K, 2K and 1K all the same time. It means you can make a hero file (top quality file), an edit file and a web file. I know that most people didn’t run to get the VARICAM but Panasonic was able to start new technique and trend. Now everyone is realizing that we need to have more recording formats. Also, transcode files are one of the most common things. The camera now does that for you with the Wi-Fi and 5G, so you can take the 1K file in just streaming to your phone. Thus, the VARICAM is the first one to break the door down. And because of the configuration of the VARICAM, you could do quadruple recording at once. It’s not common but is possible to shoot RAW, RGB 4K, 2K and 1K at the same time.

Also, the VARICAM was the first camera to have the super low light sensitivity. If you want to compress time, you should spend less time to set up lighting. I’m not saying less lighting. In order to make an image good, you always have to light it. But you don’t have to get the ambient levels of lighting bright enough. You can work at lower light levels, which sometimes is easier to control and faster. 5000 ISO becomes a way not to reduce the needs for lighting but to reduce the people for lighting. I expect to see lower lights a trend.

All cameras today shoot the same great pictures. Although people tell you “Our camera makes the best pictures. It’s better than the others,” it’s not really true because there is only a few sensor manufactures in the world. All cameras basically use the same sensor technology and the same dynamic range. In a way, all digital cameras are black and white and the unique characteristics of color are managed separately. Sometimes you hear people say, “Oh, the ALEXA is way easier to color correct.” But at Light Iron, my team and I don’t understand that myth. It doesn’t make sense. That’s like saying Nissan is way easier to drive than Toyota. It’s wrong. They’re the same, and not that different. I’m always confused people think one camera is way better or easier. So, when the sensors, the colors and the dynamic range are the same, what is different? The difference is optical. The lenses are what starts to change the characteristics. That and the talent of your colorist make a difference.

In the progress of high resolution, would people think of “it’s too much” someday?

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We have to think like what we call “YouTube generation.” Some people make pictures for adults today, but some people are going to make pictures for adults tomorrow. People born after 2000 think differently, work differently, direct differently, and shoot differently. For the cinematographer of 2030, smartphone would be normal. Every generation looks at the pictures a little bit differently. Listening to the music is a little bit differently. They dress a little differently and like different things. I think young kids are already telling us something…but we probably are not ready to hear it.

Do you have any interesting plans?

I have a bunch of things like developing and working on. Workflow is always a part of it. We have to anticipate where the things are going to be. Unfortunately, asking today’s people what they want is already too late. We have to guess what they want tomorrow. It’s much harder, more expensive and has a bigger risk. But that’s what always makes me excited.

Movement to 4K, which was the last 10 years, is a prelude to 11K and beyond. 5, 6, 7, and 8K is a transition. As we are going to get a large format, and super high resolution, an image is going to be a smother and so magnified. It’s just going to look like coming off screen as we have today in stills. Some people are saying “that’s going to make a focus pulling very hard,” and that’s true. But we have technology and that’s an opportunity to invent and advantage for focus. So I’m really excited that 11K and full frame sensors are the next big move. Sony’s VENICE, Canon’s C700, ARRI’s ALEXA LF, and RED’s MONSTRO 8K VV are getting us to the next step.

Camera: Naoko YASUMOTO