My last four features I've shot had various formats, all of them dependent on the post-production budget, final deliverable, and expected exhibition. I'll do a quick breakdown:
- Mandao of the Dead - 4K ProRes 422 - The producers are expecting the film to mainly be seen via streaming, so we agreed that we only need at least 10bit for wiggle room in the color grade and for a quality master "print". We're hoping to have a limited theatrical or festival run, so the bit depth will come in handy there. In terms of post-production, there isn't much happening in VFX. They haven't reached picture lock yet, but I'm expecting the color grade to go smoothly; we shot the film knowing we will have a limited color grade budget.
- Noise and Color - R3D RAW at various compression ratios - The producers are expecting the film to have a good festival run and a limited theatrical run, with a final DVD/Blu-Ray release and streaming option. We agreed that the master "print" will need to be 4K 10 bit, but the film will have quite a few VFX shots as well as heavy color grading. I chose compression ratios based on scenes/shots that would either have a lot of work in the color grade (such as our Mad Max style day-for-night shots) or little to no work at all (like a simple interrogation scene). I chose higher compression ratios to save space on our limited hard drive budget.
- Jesus, Bro! - 2K ProRes 422, XAVC - The producer was going to directly release to streaming, on Vimeo, released on DVD, and with no plan for theatrical release. We agreed that ProRes will work best with the work flow, saving the high speed shots for XAVC. We shot the film on the FS7 with the extension unit which allowed us to record ProRes internal at 2K. We shot some green screen shots in 4K XAVC for the added resolution, but 95% of the film was ProRes internal. The color grade was short and sweet, because we shot the film knowing we have a limited color grade budget.
- The Watchman's Canoe - ARRI RAW and ProRes 4444 XQ - Because of a bold artistic decision by the director and myself, we needed as much information in the files as possible to handle the extreme look we were attempting. I intentionally underexposed the entire film by 3 stops and then fixed the exposure in the color grade. The idea was to have the camera behave even more like film with an incredible amount of highlight detail and almost no shadow detail (a lot of inspiration from Savides and Lipes). After doing tests, we agreed that ProRes 4x4 and RAW could handle the workload. We intended to have a 2K master "print"; the film has had a festival run and is now currently streaming.
A lot of format choice, in my experience, is dependent on what you're going to do with it and, most importantly, what the producers will want to do with it. In prep, for indie features, I ask the producers where the film will make most of its money/views. DVD/Blu-ray? Streaming? Probably don't need 12 bit, 4K, or RAW. Theatrical run? Now I'll start looking at higher bit depths and less compressed codecs before even talking about RAW.
The obvious post-production questions also determine what format I'll need to use. Heavy green screen work? Highest bit-depth possible, at least 4K resolution.
As I work backwards from exhibition to post-production, I eventually start to think of how the format will behave on set. If I'm shooting on a location where I don't have the time to balance the color temperature of all the natural light sources (IE doc style shooting), then shooting RAW will allow me to correct that more easily in post. Do I only have a limited amount of cards or time on set to download footage? Then maybe a more compressed codec will help.
Of course, artistic decisions in prep will also have to be taken into account, such as my Canoe example.
There's really no definitive format for all productions; some only need 8-bit H.264, others need uncompressed RAW. I think DP's should look at productions and, instead of thinking "What's the best codec?", should ask "What codec does the production need?"