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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 03:24 AM

I've been thinking about diffusion filters lately. Unlike in television, where diffusion comes and goes all the time in style, for theatrical features, it seems that there have only been a few periods where diffusion has been really popular. One was the late 1920's through late 1930's. The other time was the 1970's, then briefly in the late 1980's, and that was limited.

I saw a movie at the Bridge Cinema Delux (the 3D IMAX movie "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon") and then snuck in to see a few minutes of some other films. One was this movie called "G" which appeared to have been shot in Super-35 using Cooke S4 lenses (just a guess). It was a pretty good blow-up to scope; I could see some telltale Cooke S4 artifacts (a little red fringing) but it looked sharp in general and not too grainy, but not grainless either. The other was "History of Violence" (1.85), which looked a bit softer and grainier.

I was thinking about how my knee-jerk reaction is to judge the cinematography by how sharp it looks, which is odd because I also love diffusion in movies if done well. But it's so hard to get away with diffusion these days because it's not trendy really. It's not like the 1970's when a movie did not look "right" unless it had some sort of filtration to soften it up.

I just saw "Barry Lyndon" again at the Aero Theater in a pretty decent print, a bit dirty but fairly new (had digital soundtracks). Loved the use of Low Con filters throughout, particularly when windows had a blue-ish glow around people's heads. The movie had a softness but it was not too soft (except for a few shots which were softer for various reasons, some technical.)

Part of the problem is that modern high-speed stocks don't take diffusion as well as the old slow-speed stocks did. Diffusion tends to bring out the grain more, plus modern stocks are already a little on the low-con side. Diffusion tends to work better when combined with contrastier, finer-grained stocks.

But it's also simply that we live in a time where people are fairly conservative when it comes to the sharpness of the image. It's funny because we now have more diffusion filters on the market than ever, yet most theatrical movies are shot clean (the filters are more used in commercials and some TV shows.)

Just looking for the right project that will give more licence to use diffusion filters...
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#2 Mike Williamson

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 04:53 AM

I've always had trouble with diffusion, maybe because there wasn't much being used when I started to get interested in filmmaking (late 90's). The point about grain seems very much to the point, 500 ASA seems to be the current workhorse speed these days.

Part of my problem is that diffusion always seems to be another layer in between me and the image, I feel like I have to try and see through it to get to the actual image behind it. I'm reminded of the great Gordon Willis quote dating to the early 80's where he talks about taking a hammer to every diffusion filter in town which I'm very much in sympathy with. Diffusion often feels immediately sentimental to me, which I try to avoid.

Maybe the challenge is to make the filtration less obvious and more integrated into the image, and avoid the diffusion cliches. I'd like to learn to work with diffusion better myself, find something that doesn't feel obvious. I'd like to look at the new Glimmerglass filters at some point, see if I might like them better than the other things I've tried before.

The historical aspect of this is interesting too, can't say I understand why the 30's and 70's embraced diffusion and other eras haven't. You can understand how it worked in the heyday of the studio system with the old Hollywood stars, but the 70's are a mystery to me, not sure what made diffusion attractive for that style or those stories.
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#3 fstop

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 07:10 AM

As David hinted, it seems it was more of a way to soften those contrasty Kodak 5254s.

The diffusion argument I thought would be moot in this era when everything video has a Promist on it. Then again, video is still taboo to many (like it or not). Everyone is too obsessed with maximum clarity for my tastes.

I love diffusion, and just find that everything looks stylised and unnatural without it. Whenever I see a hotspot/highlight in real life it has a slight hazey halo to it; it bleeds. Something just looks so distractingly phoney in my eyes when the highlights are all clean without any bleed. I can't relate to it. I don't think any filmstock or video is made not to have diffusion. It seems so harsh, unfinished and inhuman without it, kind of like eating Weetabix dry without any milk on it. Even if this just means the opticians are going to give me some bad news, lens diffused images are just beautiful in my eyes.

I'm still in love with what Bill Butler did/does using "diffusion grads"/smearing vaseline on the lens. I'm in awe of that very creative in-camera approach that upsets those with their overly thought out ideals of technical credibility. Then again, I love visible grain and murky underexposure, which I guess works hand in hand with my favourite periods of art: impressionism and post-impressionism.

Ironically, Janusz Kaminski seems to be the biggest name using lens diffusion these days, and his work does nothing for me (never seen the appeal). Just as bizarre that so many of today's up and coming DPs salute him yet they can't stand diffusion.
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#4 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 11:34 AM

In some ways, many visual artists are either inherently realists or impressionists. Photography is naturally biased towards realism, so it takes more work to push it towards something more abstract and non-representational. I think of Kaminski and Richardson as DP's who instinctly try and push an image towards being more impressionistic, either through lens choice, diffusion, focus, etc. Someone like Deakins I see as a realist even though his work can be very beautiful and painterly. He's more in that Gordon Willis mode.

Storaro, although never fond of diffusion or grain, is clearly also not a realist -- if anything, his work is like opera as well as being like a baroque painter like Caravaggio (who was also considered a realist yet his scenes were highly theatrical.)

It's funny you mention Gordon Willis wanting to take a hammer to everyone's fog filter back in the 1970's -- it wasn't so much that he despised lens diffusion (he used Low Cons for all the period scenes in "Godfather II"), he just hated people applying a style without any intellectual justification. And he didn't like modern lenses either, preferring old Baltars or Pancros. Combine that with his underexposure and you clearly have a DP who was not a sharpness freak.

The 1970's trend towards diffusion was, oddly enough, a reaction against the slick, hard look of Hollywood studio films -- a move towards realism, if that's a contradiction. The softer colors, lower contrast, flaring, was all seen as being more natural looking than the Technicolor crispness of studio films. Of course, it went way beyond realism and people like Unsworth admitted to be more of an impressionist.

For me, 500 ASA stocks are still borderline too grainy, by the way, which is why I overexpose them. I think the high-speed stocks of the 1980's was the first deathknell for diffusion because the two interacted terribly, especially with the pre-ProMist generation of glass diffusion like Fogs. Personally, my favorite diffused images tend to be fairly fine-grained -- clean yet diffused. The only time I like grainy & diffused is when I want a pointillistic autochrome effect.
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#5 Chris Fernando

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 11:58 AM

For me, 500 ASA stocks are still borderline too grainy, by the way, which is why I overexpose them.


David,
Just curious if you do this across the board or do you let story/lighting set-up/time of day etc., etc., influence your decision and how much do you overexpose, when you do?
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#6 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 12:10 PM

Just depends on the story, but I've only done a few where graininess was motivated.

I didn't overexpose the Fuji stocks on "Northfork" (well, 1/3 of a stop overexposure doesn't really count) because the skip-bleach process to the prints was going to give me the blacks I wanted, and too much overexposing and printing down would have counteracted the flashing I was doing and added more contrast, which would then make the skip-bleach process look too heavy.

There is also the practical matter of whether you're better off stopping down the lens more or overexposing the negative more, which would be more beneficial in that circumstance.

I've rated 500 ASA stocks all over the map over the years, but I used to avoid them for the most part, preferring 200-250 ASA stocks for interiors. It's only the latest generation of 500 ASA stocks that I find close enough to the quality of the old 200 ASA stocks. But I always seem to fall back on rating the 500 ASA stocks at 320 ASA, except for night exteriors maybe. It just prints better that way, which is another point -- I'm always exposing for printing. I don't shoot much material that is just for telecine transfer. Bill Bennet, ASC said it best the other day, after he found that even the newest Vision-2 stocks looked better overexposed and printed down: "all good things come with overexposing negative". It's hard for me to get around that. But then, again, this goes back to diffusion -- I find the "snap" from overexposing and printing down, combined with contrasty prime lenses, allows me to get away with using diffusion filters so I can get the halation I love.

Also, I tend to underexpose scenes a lot for dramatic effect, like have a low-key interior be about a stop underexposed. So it helps if my base rating is two-thirds of a stop overexposed, so that I am not in fact ending up with a thin negative, so in case I make a mistake in exposure, I'm still within a healthy printer light range. Another DP may get the same results by rating the stocks normally but always printing them down for mood. Just use whatever technique works for you.

"Northfork" remains my most heavily diffused movie -- often a #1/2 ProMist, sometimes a #1 ProMist, combined with flashing & smoke -- but when the skip-bleach process was added to the prints, it did a lot to "sharpen up" the image.

Edited by David Mullen, 07 November 2005 - 12:16 PM.

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#7 Matt Pacini

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 01:01 PM

Since I haven't shot in 35mm (yet!), I'm deathly afraid to use diffusion in 16mm, since I don't want to kill the sharpness & definition of the image.

Do they even make a suitable filter that would equal what a 1/2 Promist would be?
16mm is approximately 25% of the negative real estate of 35mm, so it would be a 1/8 Promist, right? Does anyone make such light diffusion?

David, I really like the look of smoke for diffusion (for it's 3 dimensional quality).
Do you use that much?

MP
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#8 Chris Keth

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 01:24 PM

Since I haven't shot in 35mm (yet!), I'm deathly afraid to use diffusion in 16mm, since I don't want to kill the sharpness & definition of the image.

Do they even make a suitable filter that would equal what a 1/2 Promist would be?
16mm is approximately 25% of the negative real estate of 35mm, so it would be a 1/8 Promist, right? Does anyone make such light diffusion?

David, I really like the look of smoke for diffusion (for it's 3 dimensional quality).
Do you use that much?

MP



Yeah, there are 1/8 grades of quite a few diffusion filters. I did some looking around at a few manufacturers' websites:

Tiffin makes 1/8 grades of most of their diffusion filters, all of the promist variations, at least (I didn't read their 35 pages of products to find out :P)

Schneider offers 1/8 grades of all diffusion filters except their soft-centric line, but those are advertised as being subtle anyway so perhaps a 1/4 is as light as 1/8 in another line.

Harrison is all over, with some lines bottoming out at 1/2 or 1/4. Some end at 1/8, and one freakish line is listed in strengths of "Micro Diffusions 1/64, 1/32, 1/16 &1/8 (X) 1/4."


I'm sure that after all that, I've told you nothing useful because I'm sure one manufacturer's 1/8 is equivalent to another's 1/4, etc. Like everything, testing is pretty key, I suppose.


EDIT- I just thought of something I've neeb thinking about. Does anyone have some still from tests or anythin that exhibit vaseline or KY Jelly smeared on a filter in front of the lens? I've been wanting to try it out but haven't had the time lately.

Edited by Christopher D. Keth, 07 November 2005 - 01:26 PM.

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#9 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 02:02 PM

Tiffen starts out with a #1 being their lightest grade -- the fractions come later when people complain that the #1 is too heavy. But they made the #1 GlimmerGlass to be about as strong as the #1/8 ProMist.

Strengths between filters are hard to make evenly spaced since the nature of the diffusing material is inherently random. For example, there really should be something between a #1 and #2 Soft-FX (the #1/2 is the lightest in that series.)

It's hard to get away with diffusion in 16mm; I usually only use it in heavy backlighting (providing a sharp edge plus something to cause halation) on slower-speed stock. For example, I did a Super-16 film where I used a #1/8 ProMist on 7245 but nothing on the higher speed stocks, except for two odd interior scenes where I used very hot backlighting (NSP PAR's), a #1/4 ProMist, and 7248 (100T) for a particular effect. But the rest was 200T mainly, rarely filtered (sometimes I could sneak in a 1/8 ProMist if the lighting was very contrasty with strong backlighting.)

Contrast and backlight tend to create the illusion of greater sharpness, hence why you can get away with a little diffusion without ending up with a mushy picture. Diffusion also tends to bring out the grain, hence why it works better with slower-speed stocks (or digital).

This is one reason why "JFK" is such a gorgeous movie -- most of the interior scenes were shot on 100T in anamorphic 35mm, which combined well with the ProMist filters used. He had used ProMist with 500T stock on the previous "The Doors" and found it got too grainy looking. 200T wasn't available yet, but once it was, he shot a string of movies on that stock (like "Heaven and Earth".) I'd like to find a project where I could get away with using slow film indoors in anamorphic 35mm and then use heavier diffusion.

I tried the vaseline trick once for a dream sequence -- you'd be surprised at how LITTLE you can use. The slightest amount really blurs the image; you need to apply a little and then wipe most of it off, and keep the center clear. Same with using hairspray on glass as a diffusion -- it tends to throw the image out of focus easily.

Edited by David Mullen, 07 November 2005 - 02:09 PM.

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#10 Mitch Gross

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 02:57 PM

One favorite trick for instant and infinitely variable diffusion is to spray hairspray in the air and then pass a clear filter through the mist. You can lay a bit of paper on the filter beforehand to keep that part clean. The slow you pass it through the denser the filtration effect. Note that the quality of the diffusion will alter as the mist dries on the surface.
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#11 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 03:20 PM

EDIT- I just thought of something I've neeb thinking about. Does anyone have some still from tests or anythin that exhibit vaseline or KY Jelly smeared on a filter in front of the lens? I've been wanting to try it out but haven't had the time lately.


---See 'The Saddest Music in the World'.
It' shot in S16, 16R & S8. Mostly B/W with 30s lighting and fistfulls of vaseline.

It's alot like the Firesign Theatre without the puns.

---LV
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#12 Max Jacoby

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 03:27 PM

I personally don't like diffusion, I hate it when the picture is soft and your eye does not know where to go. That said on my last film we used a 1/4 BPM throughout, but that was just to get halation around bright lights (the Hawks don't really flare), and it being anamorphic the picture did not really get softer.
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#13 Robert Edge

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 03:53 PM

A couple of questions...

What will diffusion do for you that an older, soft lens won't?

Did anyone ever make a cine lens that was the equivalent of a still camera soft focus portrait lens, such as the current Cooke PS945 (http://www.cookeopti...secondary/ps945) or the older 1950s lenses, such as the Wollensak Veritar?

Recently, I shot a 4x5 portrait of a friend, using the latest Schneider and a 50's Veritar. One lens wasn't better than the other, they just gave different looks. I liked the the results from the Veritar a lot, and I'd love to try Cooke's reissue of its old lens.
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#14 Max Jacoby

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 04:01 PM

Cooke also have a Soft Focus attachment for the 65mm which is based on the design of the lens that you mention.

Panavision also have some portrtait lenses in their catalogue, and Cooke S2 and S3 lenses would qualify as well I suppose.
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#15 Robert Edge

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Posted 07 November 2005 - 04:17 PM

Cooke also have a Soft Focus attachment for the 65mm which is based on the design of the lens that you mention.

Panavision also have some portrtait lenses in their catalogue, and Cooke S2 and S3 lenses would qualify as well I suppose.


Thanks, I just had a look at Cooke's site and I see their comment that the attachment for the 65mm is based on the PS945. I've seen several prints (not .jpegs on the net, but actual prints) made from negatives shot with the PS945, and they have a very distinctive look to them. The 65mm with the attachment might be an interesting combination - not something that that would be appropriate for an entire film, but perhaps effective if used selectively.

If anyone is interested, Cooke talks about what it considers the difference to be between a soft focus lens and filter diffusion on its product page for the PS945.
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#16 Chris Keth

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Posted 20 November 2005 - 12:21 AM

---See 'The Saddest Music in the World'.
It' shot in S16, 16R & S8. Mostly B/W with 30s lighting and fistfulls of vaseline.

It's alot like the Firesign Theatre without the puns.

---LV



It's really funny you should mention that film. The American Cinematographer article about Luc Montpellier where they talk quite a bit about that movie is exactly why I asked that question. I'll have to see it. The synopsis in AC was almost too funny to believe, just because of the phrases, "beer-filled glass legs" and, "amputated her legs in a drunked rage." :D
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#17 Oli Soravia

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Posted 21 November 2005 - 07:13 PM

For me there are - most of the times - too few reasons to use diffusion on the lens. What I don`t like is, the uniform look - I try (as one example only) to soften faces with bounced light which is then double diffused through another frame with frost or something else. In the same framing, there can be other sources which are probably really hard (if justified) to other faces - in order to get a non uniform looking style - same thing with colors, light and shadows, using smoke etc. It`s because of these personal preferences that I try to avoid filters in general, apart from NDs, also several SEs which can be combined in different angles to break the frame (and some extremly color filters also). So most of the time (if I use diffusions) I use them in telecine, when I go for big screen without DI, the old printer way, I `never diffuse. I do this because of quality reasons regarding cheap prints which are printed after the answer print has been finished (at least here in germany). Finally I`d say that uniformity is what I misslike in diff-filters, I see the filters effect everywhere, although if it`s not visible anymore I still do have the impression to see it.
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