Keeping Things in Perspective

If you’re using an HDSLR professionally for video these days, chances are you fall into one of two camps: the serious pro camp, and the low budget camp.  On the pro side, you’ve been lusting over a new set of Zeiss prime lenses, a perfect compliment to the new PL mount adaptor from HotRod.  You’ve watched episode 1 of “The Great Camera Shootout 2010,” and you’ve come to believe that an HDSLR could be a worthy successor to a film camera or a RED ONE, as long as it were outfitted properly.  You’ll need expensive gear, and plenty of it: an HDMI monitor, though it’s disappointing that you can’t look through the viewfinder at the same time, a matte box (this one would sure be nice), follow focus (people seem to love this one), and a shoulder rig (definitely this one), on top of that phenomenal set of PL mount prime lenses.

You’re also more than a bit annoyed by your HDSLR’s deficiencies.  If you use the 5DmkII, you’re relieved that it can finally shoot in 24P, and you love your full-sized sensor, but the H.264 codec is bothersome, you hate the rolling shutter on whip pans, you wish the image could be cleaner at higher ISOs, and you’re not sure how to approach picture styles (it goes without saying that you’re praying for a RAW format to become available one day).  In general, you’re satisfied with the results you’re getting, but acutely aware that you haven’t found a replacement for film or the RED just yet.

If you own a 7D (or perhaps even its new cousin, the T2i), and you’re in the pro camp, you generally feel the same way about your camera as 5DmkII users do, except on top of all that other stuff you believe the image is too contrasty, the sensor too small, the camera performs even less effectively at higher ISOs, and the auto gain feature in the microphone input — recently addressed in the current 5DmkII firmware update — is a disaster.  You love your camera, and are committed to sticking with it for the foreseeable future, but its shortcomings are really starting to add up.

Okay, that’s the pro side.  I apologize if that description sounds a bit snarky, but so much of what is written about these cameras tends to focus on the negative, and I’m getting a little fed up. I’m sure all of the above concerns are justified — I just don’t happen to belong to that big budget, top-of-the-line, pro camp.

Here’s the thing: no one told professional DPs to start using the 5DmkII or the 7D.  No one told them that they would have to stop using their existing HD cameras, such as the RED ONE, the Panavision Genesis, or another similar model.  Slumdog Millionaire, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2008, was shot on the Silicon Imaging 2K, and the results were stunning.  Michael Mann used a Viper on several features before trying the Sony F23 CineAlta on Public Enemies.  None of those cameras is going away.  The Zacuto Shootout itself seems to presume that DPs are breathlessly, actively searching out a replacement for film as well as high-end HD and 4K acquisition, as if that’s the direction the whole industry is going in.  And it’s not.  I mean, maybe it will one day, as HDSLRs continue to improve and new models begin to incorporate many of the requisite features that DPs are clamoring for, but right now that’s simply not the case.

So all of this begs the question: why are professionals trying to turn the 5DmkII (and, to a lessor degree, the 7D) into the equivalent of the RED?  Is it the cost savings in comparison to more expensive systems?  I mean, it might be — I certainly don’t want to discount that — but I truly believe there is something else going on here.

The first time I heard of HotRod Cameras, for instance, it was when Phillip Bloom put a PL mount adaptor on a Panasonic GH-1 and shot footage with Zeiss prime lenses at Joshua Tree National Park.  A GH-1 with a PL mount.  Wow.  Think about that one for a minute.  These days, you can send your 7D to HotRod and for a few thousand bucks have them permanently attach a PL mount to it, so that the world of Zeiss and Angenieux can be open to you forever.  The latest “affordable” Zeiss set will cost you more than $27,000, and one piece of glass from the Angenieux Optimo line starts at around $20,000, but surely that’s a small price to pay for such stunning image acquisition.

My gut instinct is that a lot of DPs are simply uncomfortable with the idea that anyone with a few thousand bucks can order a 7D and a decent Canon zoom lens and start shooting gorgeous footage.  I may be wrong, but that’s pretty much how I’m viewing the current situation.  Because the 5DmkII  and 7D were never meant to be big budget motion picture cameras.  In the case of the 7D, no PL mount, follow focus, matte box, or other variation of pro gear will do anything to change the size of the camera’s sensor, improve the quality of its codec, or widen its available color space.  That’s just a fact.  And yet, at the same time, the 7D may just be the greatest prosumer camcorder ever invented.

Feature films will be shot on these cameras, and they will look brilliant — but they won’t be starring Angelina Jolie.  Numerous commercials are now being shot with the 5DmkII, and the results are quite impressive, but the biggest spots will still shoot on film.  Title sequences will be shot on these cameras, but the programs themselves won’t be.  Maybe television content will be shot on a 5DmkII one day, but it won’t be Entourage, Nurse Jackie, NCIS, or any of the other programs that now look absolutely breathtaking on the widescreen HD set in your living room.

On the other hand, documentaries will be shot on these cameras, and they will look spectacular.  Low budget features that play at film festivals will be shot on these cameras, and will continue to win awards.  And, believe me, I’m not being dismissive about these developments in the least.  On the contrary, these cameras are the greatest tool to ever fall into the hands of low budget filmmakers and people like me who work in corporate video.

Just for fun, let’s take a trip in a time machine.  Let’s go back, oh, I don’t know, a year?  Eighteen months?

I was still working as a producer at PJA Advertising and Marketing, an ad agency in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  We had two types of clients, the type who could afford sets, green screens, special effects, actors, dollies, and all the rest of it, and the type who couldn’t.  Sometimes, the clients who could afford those things would wonder why all that money was being spent to create a beautiful image that, in the end, was only being seen in a 640×360 box on their website, but that’s a conversation for another day.

There was no such thing as an HDSLR camera that shot video.  The low-budget camera of choice was Panasonic’s HVX200, which shot on P2 cards and gave you the option to capture footage at 24 frames per second (albeit at 720P).  It was a great camera — in its day — but if you wanted that elusive “film look” you had to attach a 35mm lens adapter to it, which, believe me, created all sorts of back focus problems on set.  A day of shooting with an HVX200, film lenses, lighting gear, and all the required crew that went along with it was still not cheap by any means, but, for around $5,000 in out-of-pocket expenses, you could give your clients something really first rate that they would be proud to post online.  In the end, the result was perfectly adequate, but producers always knew that something better would come along one day.

And what did every producer and crew person I ever spoke to in those days dream about?  Oh, I don’t know…Interchangeable lenses?  Ability to shoot in low light?  1080P?  Relatively cheap compact flash storage (vs. outrageously expensive P2 cards)?  Shallow depth of field without a lens adaptor?  All of the above?

Over that same period of time, we were all teased by the prospect of the RED Scarlet, which was going to have many of those aforementioned features at a quarter of the price of the RED ONE.  But it always seemed to be another few months away from becoming a reality (and still is).

Okay, time travel over.  Back to the future.  Once the 5dmkII appeared, and then the 7D, the tone of the conversation seemed to change.  Gone was the excitement of actually being able to afford equipment that would offer clients high quality HD footage at 1080P, to be replaced by the usual negativity and nitpicking we associate with internet chat rooms.  The footage is “noisy,” don’t you know (it isn’t).  The dynamic range needs to be completely flattened in order to be properly color graded in post (it doesn’t).  The H.264 codec isn’t sufficient for high quality acquisition (it is).

So what is going on?  Are these cameras the greatest thing since sliced bread or not?

My guess is no matter the new technology, people will always find reasons to complain.  Sometimes I wonder if no one will be happy with any camera unless every shot out of it looks like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia.

If you are an independent filmmaker, and you’ve got $50,000 to make your first feature, I can understand some of this concern.  Your images will potentially be projected on giant screens, and all possible imperfections will be magnified.  And if you are using these cameras to shoot national or even regional spots that will be broadcast in HD, then clearly every penny spent on creating a perfect image is justified (as long as you can live with the cameras’ limitations). But what about everyone else?  What about the guy shooting a client interview, or B-roll, or an inexpensive Web banner?  I can tell you for what it’s worth that the 7D shoots the best HD footage I’ve ever worked with.  And I’ve worked with all kinds of HD footage — P2, Genesis, EX-1 — and the stuff I’m getting now is hands-down my favorite.  It’s not necessarily the sharpest, or the most film-like, or even the cleanest, but it’s still my favorite.  The stuff I’m shooting now has a distinct personality that I’ve grown to love.

But what about all the expensive gear we’re supposed to buy?

Well, if you’re able to charge clients the amount of money that enables you to purchase top-of-the-line equipment, then, first of all, congratulations.  But for the rest of us, do we really need to spend all that money?  There are actually some very inexpensive alternatives to the pro gear we all lust after.  It’s out there.  I use a bunch of it, and will write about some of my favorites in future posts.  I’m always looking to balance costs with results.  As far as I’m concerned, everything in my kit should make sense both from the standpoint of functionality as well as cost.  There’s no point in spending all your earnings on newer and better equipment every few months when you can be certain that whatever equipment you are looking at today will be improved upon in six months.  And anyway, what about leaving some money in the bank?  Shouldn’t that be a viable option as well?  If the camera works, and the lenses work, and the cards work, and the tripod works, and the clients are thrilled with the results, well, I say keep using what you’re using.  Clients are simply not paying what they were once willing to pay for corporate video, so every dollar we earn as producers is that much harder to come by.

Buy the gear you need, not the gear you want.  If you’re shooting a feature or documentary, invest in a few other goodies.  But for your B-roll, interviews, title sequences, bumpers, music videos, and training films, there has simply never been a better camera on the market.  And just because you didn’t need to sell your car in order to be able to afford it, that doesn’t mean the images you’ve captured are any less professional.

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4 responses to “Keeping Things in Perspective

  1. Hi Jerry !

    I love your article. Shooting with a DSLR is a big game changer in the video world.

    And I agree with you on this:

    “a lot of DPs are simply uncomfortable with the idea that anyone with a few thousand bucks can order a 7D and a decent Canon zoom lens and start shooting gorgeous footage”

    But who wants to be “everybody else” or “the rest of us” ?

    I alwais thought about that desease of buying the newest technology with the best performances ( even when your eye can’t tell anymore…), and i’ve been infected so I can talk about it. I just said to my wife last time , I thing for a period of time I was buying a lot of equipment, different cameras to respond to a certain frustration in my work, my creativity or in the content of the video I was producing… I was trying to “own” things I wasn’t producing at that time by buying different machins…

    Anyway thanks for your blog, and for the joke i just ordered a T2i 😉

    Talk soon

    Cedric

  2. Great article, Jerry. Amazed by the images trail-blazers like yourself are capturing with this new technology. The toys are fun to debate and lust over, but it will always be the image that counts.

    One note, however –the FXphd.com podcast recently reported that House M.D. (Fox) will be shooting their season finale with the Canon 5DMkII; possibly considering a full time switch to that camera for next season.

    • That is a really big deal. House is one of those HD shows that really relies heavily on its visuals, so they’ve obviously done their homework before coming to that decision. I’ll be sure to check out the finale. Thanks!

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