The one thing that you can predict with students is that, if there is a cheaper way of getting to an end product (and that way involves a cool new toy) then they will be all over it. At USC, a recent trend has been away from the Red camera (which was all the rage for the last 18 months) and moving towards HD-DSLR cameras, still cameras which have been tricked out to shoot video. Because they have the large image sensor of still cameras, the HD quality they can deliver is amazing, though there are still issues with production and (particularly) post production.
I have no doubt that companies like Adobe, Apple and Avid will eventually work out the post production issues, so it’s important that we all get familiar with the issues involved in HD-DSLR production. But there are much deeper issues here than, simply, the technology. Issues of aesthetics and storytelling aside, shooting with a DSLR camera isn’t the same as either a no-budget or a high-budget shoot and it pays to think about why and how.
Here is an article by Rodney Charters (best known for his work on the show 24 and followable on Twitter with the handle @rodneykiwi) about the shooting of an Indian gangster (post-Sopranos) short. You can get to the article on digitalphotopro.com.
What is often left behind on these sorts of low budget shorts, and the article gets into, is how misleading the camera is, in terms of prep. And that is exacerbated on an DSLR shoot. Because it looks like the point and shoot digital still cameras that we’re used to taking out and capturing family picnics with, there is a tendency among many new filmmakers to treat their own projects a bit too informally. Crews aren’t bothering to do camera tests before shooting, and very little concern is given to issues like how lenses affect focus, and how handheld shots on a small camera are differently executed than on a larger one. This leads to beautifully detailed HD images which are slightly out of focus or too bouncy to use (remind me someday to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of the Stabilize effect in our NLEs).
But there’s a mention in the article of some of the prep work that Charters did for this short, directed by Snehal Patel,
Working handheld or on a tripod, getting proper focus is a major obstacle for many filmmakers working with the 5D Mark II’s full-frame image sensor, which is closer to the size of 65mm motion-picture film. Because Patel and Charters were predominantly using Panavision zoom and prime lenses rather than DSLR lenses, it made the job of focus pulling a little easier. With cinema lenses, the extra-large lens barrel spins nearly 360 degrees, which makes it possible for a focus puller to hit critical marks within inches rather than feet. Similar to a film shoot, they also employed a first and second AC on each camera like a professional movie production.
Earlier in the piece, it mentions that Charters had one day of testing for a two day shoot. In other words, 1/3 of their production time was spent in testing. I’m not saying that Charters didn’t already know that he was going to using those Panasonic zoom and prime lenses, but I don’t doubt that what he learned in that one day helped the project move more smoothly, build the language with the director, and help the project to look better.
[As a side note, I should also mention that Charters, being the Hollywood DP that he is, had Panasonic build him a special PL lens mount so he could use a 10:1 zoom. Just try that if you're Mr. or Ms. Indie Cinematographer.]
The piece also mentions that they had a DIT on set, and that they ended up backing up their footage to three locations. That’s professional industry practice on file-based cameras, but there are all too many occasions where crews shooting with HD-DSLR cameras forget that they still need to think professionally. They aren’t operating on a home movie shoot. Unless you can afford to lose your shoot like a home picnic, then you can’t treat it like one.