Ready for Primetime?

A week ago I wrote a post about how Canon HDSLRs are the greatest prosumer cameras on the market but not necessarily suited to motion picture and television production.  My intention was to show that there is a worthwhile distinction to be made between the kind of equipment needed for corporate video and the kind of equipment needed for bigger budgeted, more professional shoots.  Also, I continue to be interested in how pros are choosing to equip these Canons with some extremely expensive gear, gear that often costs ten times the price of the cameras themselves.  It’s a phenomenon that fascinates me.

That was so last week!  Things move quickly in this nutty 21st century of ours, and all we can do is try to keep up.

With the recent confirmation by Philip Bloom that the season finale of House was shot entirely on a 5DmkII, it may be a good time to ask whether Canon HDSLRs are “good enough” for motion picture and television production work.  The House episode in question will air on May 17th, and I’m sure a lot of DPs and producers will be watching carefully.

A friend of mine has a new script that he’s trying to put together as a feature this year, and he recently asked for my opinion about shooting on the 5DmkII.  I told him what I honestly feel — that it’s affordable enough to allow him to cover each scene with two cameras, with money left over to buy high quality zoom or prime lenses that can be fitted with dependable follow focus gear.  Maybe that answer is a cop out, maybe it isn’t.  Over the past year, I’ve just assumed that these HDSLRs are terrific prosumer cameras but not necessarily the best choices for higher budgeted projects.

Was I wrong?  Honestly, I don’t know anymore.  I’ve shot with the RED ONE only once, and it was a fairly straightforward green screen shoot — nothing complicated, stationary camera, Angenieux zoom lens.  What I took away from the experience was that shooting in RAW format is a little trickier from a color standpoint, but that the footage itself was only marginally better than what I had been seeing from the Canons.  But I mostly kept those opinions to myself.  It just seemed logical to assume that big budget features and TV shows wouldn’t be going through the trouble and expense of shooting on RED cameras if it wasn’t worth the effort.  So I ask again, is there a huge difference in quality?

I don’t know.  Frankly, I’m a little hesitant to even engage in that conversation, partly because I don’t feel that I have an adequate technical background to answer the question, but also because a bigger part of me just doesn’t care.  In the end, it doesn’t really matter to me whether a 5DmkII or 7D shoots footage comparable to a RED. As far as I’m concerned, all I want to know is whether or not the footage you get from these HDSLRs is good enough for professional productions (I’m already sold on their use in corporate video and low budget projects).

The House episode will go a long way in answering that question.  But let’s not forget that there are still problems with the 5DmkII, regardless of how good the House episode may look.  Sometimes, given the limitations inherent in HDSLR technology, I’m a little confused as to why so many professional DPs — the ones who have spent their entire careers shooting on 35mm film — have gone so wild over the 5DmkII and 7D.  I know why I love the 7D — it’s relatively cheap, it takes the best footage I’ve ever shot, and my clients are thrilled with the results — but my criteria are not the same as a Hollywood film studio’s or a TV production company’s.  I figured a person came to use an HDSLR because he couldn’t afford something better, not because he actually preferred it to more expensive equipment.  Just as someone might buy a Hyundai because it’s a fantastic car for the price, not because it’s better than a Beemer.

But I guess everything is up in the air these days, and that may not necessarily be such a bad thing.  Maybe what we’re coming to understand is that the footage we thought was “prosumer” is actually better than we thought…

Here would be my list of what I perceive to be the top five drawbacks to shooting a feature on a 5DmkII:  First and foremost, I would say the rolling shutter would be my primary concern.

Here’s an example of rolling shutter on the 7D posted by Rafal “MoVeR” Machelski:

Most HDSLR users on the Web seem to agree that the rolling shutter effect is even more pronounced on a 5DmkII than on a 7D.  Keep in mind, by the way, that RED cameras, including the upcoming EPIC (and even the Scarlet, if it ever comes to market) suffer from some variation of rolling shutter due to their CMOS sensors.

Second, I would say the inability for the camera operator to look through the viewfinder while filming is a big problem, and that, in addition to that, the inability to view a mirrored image on the LCD and an HDMI monitor at the same time is a major drawback.  You could split the HDMI signal on set, but the operator would be looking at a monitor and never through a magnified LCD viewfinder.

Third would be the H.264 codec and 8-bit color space.  These are non issues if you’re exporting to DVD or the Web, but would definitely come into play if your footage were being projected on a big screen.

Fourth would be the audio limitations.  There are workarounds — recording to a separate device being the favored approach — but each clip would then need to be synced in post by an editor.

Finally, I would have to mention the extreme shallow depth of field introduced by the 5DmkII.  My understanding is that the 5DmkII is two stops more sensitive to depth of field than the 7D, due to its larger sensor.  I shot my first 7D project at f2.8, because I was so excited by the prospect of shallow depth of field, but switched to f4 in subsequent projects once I realized how much soft focus I was introducing to the image.  Generally, I feel that introducing too much soft focus can be a bit of a distraction.  Forget about all the focusing problems it creates on set.  I’m talking about the actual finished result.  When too much of the frame is out of focus, it takes me out of the story.

According to Shane Hurlbut, who has an interesting post on this topic, in order to get the same amount of depth of field on both cameras, the 5DmkII would have to close down two additional stops in comparison to the 7D.  So if you wanted to shoot a feature that had the look of a 7D at f4 or f5.6, on a 5DmkII you’d actually have to be shooting at f8 and f11!

Those would be my top five concerns.  But I don’t think any of these issues are true deal breakers, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that my friend shoot his feature on the 5DmkII — as long as he knew what he was up against.

One thing is certain: cost will always be a factor, and there’s no question that HDSLRs represent the low end of the HD budget scale and that, for the time being, the RED ONE represents the high end.  Arri’s forthcoming Alexa, starting at around $60,000 per body, is definitely trying to position itself as a RED killer, and if I were making a film tomorrow, and had the budget to shoot on RED, I would certainly want to see footage tests from the Alexa.

And Ikonoskop’s A-cam dII, which should finally see the light of day this summer, will fall closer to an HDSLR than a RED ONE on the price spectrum.

The A-cam dII hails from a small motion picture camera company in Swedish that most people have never heard of.  But check out these specs: PL mount, variable frame rate 1080P, 12 bit color, two XLR inputs, shoots in RAW format, with simultaneous viewfinder and HDMI-out mirroring.  And it shoots on a CCD sensor, not a CMOS sensor.  No rolling shutter!

Each A-cam dII body is priced at €6.950, which, on the day I’m writing this post, would run you about $9,260.  For film and TV work, you’d need at least two, so that’s $18,520, and you’d need some terrific PL lenses.  Which PL lenses?  How about these?  As Vincent Laforet writes: “A set of 6 [Compact Prime 2 Cine Lenses from Zeiss] will retail for less than $20,000.”

You can even convert these lenses to Canon mounts if you so choose (as a matter of fact, you could also configure your A-cam to accept Leica M, IMS, and C-mount lenses).

Here we have an actual camera that will presumably be available this summer and will do what pros need.  It will shoot on film lenses.  It will allow for a live HDMI feed.  It will shoot RAW, in 12 bit, at variable frame rates.  By ditching the CMOS sensor, it will allow for much more distortion-free motion.  I have no idea how it will perform in low light, but that’s something I’ll be eager to learn more about.  Here, by the way, is a link to some actual A-cam footage from Ikonoskop’s site, shot at night, compressed to H.264. And here is another link to a camera test they did indoors, also compressed to H.264. And, finally, here is a link to a much larger file encoded in the Animation codec.

So, for less than a $40,000 investment in cameras and lenses, you could shoot with two cameras and an amazing set of film quality prime lenses.  My hunch is that this $10,000 price point for a body and $20,000 price point for lenses will be the price to beat for years to come on many Hollywood productions.

It still remains unresolved, at least for the time being, whether or not the footage captured with the A-cam will look any better than what you can already get with an HDSLR.  But what is clear is that we’re going to have to start figuring out a new way to describe the footage that an HDSLR is capable of capturing.  Is it inferior because it’s cheaper?  Is it in fact better because it’s cheaper?  Or is it simply great, regardless of cost?

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