And Now We Know

Okay, it’s November 3rd plus one, meaning it’s the day after two camera companies made announcements that Changed Everything.

As the camera carousel continues to spin ’round and ’round, we have two new contenders: Canon’s C300

and the long awaited RED Scarlet, now dubbed Scarlet X.

With these announcements came the expected sniping and backstabbing that is commonplace in so many blog posts and comment sections on the Web.  This is really unfortunate, and infuriating.  For starters, we should be supporting all the filmmakers, DPs, and independent producers who have become the leading voices of a vibrant and growing HDSLR community.  But, beyond that, cameras are inanimate objects, and reveal absolutely nothing about the people who use them.  Preferring the Alexa over the Epic, for example, speaks only to the needs of a particular project, and has absolutely nothing to do with the user’s personality traits!  Is a chef who prefers Kitchen Aid mixers better than one who prefers Cuisinart?  We are all prone to knee-jerk reactions and subjective opinions — and the internet has become the perfect vehicle for that form of communication — but we should always keep in mind that our own opinions are not always correct.  Opinions are great — and you’ll see in this post that I have my share of them — but not when they are used to disparage other filmmakers who may hold opposing views.

Depending on whose Twitter feeds you’re reading, or whose sites you’re visiting, the Canon C300 is either a gorgeous piece of state-of-the-art technology or an overpriced load of crap, while the Scarlet is either a Canon C300 killer or a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with independent cinema today.

The new Canon, priced at approximately $20,000, and the Scarlet X, at around $16,000 (once you factor in necessary gear), continue the trend of rising HDSLR prices that began at the end of 2010, when Panasonic introduced the $5,000 AF100 and Sony introduced the $13,000 PMW-F3.  I wrote a post at that time called Price Creep, lamenting that future HDSLRs were only going to get more expensive, but I don’t think there’s a person on the planet who could have predicted a $20,000 video-dedicated DSLR from Canon!  The C300 aims to compete with the Epic (and now the Scarlet X) and the Arri Alexa — cameras that, in my opinion, indie filmmakers should probably try to avoid.

Here in Boston, if a filmmaker manages to scrape together $20,000, and either writes a script him or herself or partners with a screenwriter, he or she can rent an Alexa from Rule Boston Camera for $1,200 a day.

If you negotiate a discount of 5% or 10%, and a weekly rate equal to three days, you should be able to snag that camera for around $3,300 a week, or $10,000 for a three week shoot.  Then you can partner with a DP who owns all his own lenses and lighting gear, a sound guy who owns his own recording equipment, and you’re in business.  Sounds great, right?

No, not really.  It doesn’t make financial sense to me.  Half your shooting budget for the chance to use an Arri Alexa?  Sure, it beats spending around $65,000 to own one, which would be impossible for most people anyhow, but allocating 50% of a minuscule budget to a high-end HD camera is not the best way to get your low budget movie made.

The C300 will also rent for big bucks, as will the Scarlet X.  In my view, indie filmmakers on shoestring budgets should probably not plan to shoot with either of these cameras.  The numbers just don’t add up.

Understand, these are beautiful cameras.  When I worked in advertising, I would have killed to shoot for a day or two on the C300.  Remember when the only choices for broadcast HD were the tape-based Sony CineAltas or Panasonic Varicams?  Seems like a million years ago, but we’re talking about 2008.  These days, there are countless HD cameras to choose from, and when you’ve got a $25,000 production budget to shoot for a single day, what’s a measly $1,200 bucks?

Canon’s 5DmkII was the true game changer, the camera that finally got folks realizing they’d been shooting video on 2/3 inch chips (or smaller), when digital still photographers were already using cameras with much larger sensors.  The 5D and then 7D have been hugely popular for agency work, where much of what gets delivered to clients is viewed online.  But as much as we’d all like to think that indie filmmakers went out en masse and made festival-quality movies on the 5D, the truth is much more complicated.

Making an indie movie is damn hard.  Whether you raise ten grand or a hundred grand, it’s never enough money.  There are a million moving parts, and most of them aren’t free.  Filmmakers spend their days blocking out shots on paper, but once they get on a set, and are faced with actors who don’t know their lines, locations that are too cramped, and schedules that are impossible to meet, the storyboard goes out the window.  Do you want the perfect shot, or do you want to finish?  For most indie filmmakers, there is no knight in shining armor waiting in the wings to bail them out if the production goes over budget.

That’s why I think these new, pricey cameras exacerbate a potentially dangerous trend.  If filmmakers were already having a hell of a time getting their films made with $2,000 DSLRs, how the heck are they going to make one with a camera costing ten times as much?

Listen, if documentary or indie filmmakers want to buy these new cameras, and can afford them, then more power to them.  But my advice would be to find a DP who owns an F3, an Epic, or an Alexa, or plans on buying a Scarlet or a C300.  Every city has its share of successful, talented DPs who make their living shooting TV spots and corporate videos, and many of these guys own one of these cameras.  When you hire them, for whatever price you manage to negotiate, you’re getting their equipment as well.

I don’t know…I’m torn.  I want to be excited, but I’m not feeling it.  Conversely, I don’t want to be negative.  The thing is, we’re not really talking about revolutionary advances anymore.  The 5D was revolutionary.  The C300 is only an incremental improvement.  Essentially, the C300 is one of around five or six expensive, pro cameras that production companies can now choose from if they have a well funded project.  That’s a good thing, for sure.  Not that long ago, the only choices for renting a large sensor broadcast camera with interchangeable cine lenses for shallow depth of field were the RED ONE and…what?  Genesis?  Today’s professional DP now has many more cameras to choose from, from all the models featured in Zacuto’s wonderful Great Camera Shootout, to the two new cameras announced yesterday.

But, for the average indie filmmaker, yesterday’s dueling announcements may feel somewhat bittersweet.  Indie folks will lust after yet another piece of equipment they can’t afford.  Meanwhile, the GH2 is available for under a grand, works incredibly well with Nikon primes, and can be easily hacked to achieve high bitrates.

Intergalactic Planetary from inhousegoods on Vimeo.

Filmmakers on a tight budget, with insane time constraints, would be better off shooting with two cameras anyway, and, at $900 a pop, the GH2 offers just such an option.  I bought a GH2 myself a few months ago, and hacked it to record at 60Mbps.  The results are crazy good, even at 1250 ISO.  I’m hoping to write more about this camera in the coming weeks if I get the time.

Yes, Vincent Laforet’s short film Mobius looks gorgeous.

Mobius from Vincent Laforet on Vimeo.

But it’s got Hollywood production values, so it’s kind of hard to judge what the C300 did on that shoot that actually outperforms what a similarly priced camera could have accomplished with the same production values.  Come to think of it, I wish Canon would send a C300 to someone (maybe Philip Bloom?) who could stick a standard EF lens on it and shoot some footage on the fly.  Let’s see just how nicely this camera handles low light, rolling shutter, and all the rest.  If it’s as good as advertised, then I say we should all rejoice.  Same goes for the Scarlet.  The footage captured with large sensor cameras for the TV programs, Hollywood movies, and 30 second spots we all watch will just get more and more beautiful.

But that’s not the same thing as owning one of these babies.  I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll never have a $20,000 camera, or even a $10,000 camera, sitting around on my equipment shelf.

[Update: Interesting behind the scenes video for another movie shot with the C300.]

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