DSLRs, “Democratic Technology” and The Cost of Bokeh: Part 2

June 24th, 2010

This is the second of two posts considering the rewards and challenges of using DSLRs for cinema work. If you’ve not read the first post, start there.

At the end of the last post we had assembled a Canon 7D camera, a Canon 17-55 f/2.8 lens with Image Stabilizer, a Zoom H4N audio recorder, and PluralEyes software to help us sync the picture and sound in Final Cut Pro. The cost: $3230. I hesitate to call this a “bare bones” package since it doesn’t even include a tripod or microphones. It does, however, get you picture and sound.

But you get picture and sound with a pixelvision camera. My intention with these posts is to compare DSLRs to a more traditional prosumer camcorder. And we still have a ways to go before it’s a fair comparison. So let’s continue…

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DSLRs, Democratic Technology and The Cost of Bokeh: Part 1

June 22nd, 2010

DSLR filmmaking has been much ballyhooed in the last year or so. Cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 7D have been hailed as the lastest in a long line of “democratizing” motion picture technology — inexpensive cameras that produce cinematic, shallow depth of field images that seem to rival the look produced by cameras costing many times more.

There were two reasons I was didn’t jump on the DSLR filmmaking bandwagon from the start. For one thing, in the last year I have been working on a lot of other projects, none of which involved needing to worry about how to use a new camera (finishing up a documentary and two DVD releases, raising money for a feature, and writing a script). Another reason was, frankly, I was skeptical. I saw photos of filmmakers dressing the cameras like this:

Going "indie" with a DSLR.

Going "indie" with a DSLR.

If that’s what you had to do to get it to work, I wasn’t interested.

As I mentioned in my previous post, though, I did recently decide to experiment with these cameras. And my uninformed skepticism has developed into experience-grounded ambivalence.

After a few months of wrestling with the cameras (especially the Canon 7D), I find them as frustrating as they are inspiring. Yes, I love the way they handle light. I love the lens interchangeability. I love their form factor, (at least initially).

But, as has been well documented elsewhere, these cameras have serious issues. Focus can be a challenge with their small LCDs. They’re prone to the “jello” effect. They shoot on a codec that is a challenge to edit and even more challenging to color grade. And, most frustratingly, they have major issues with aliasing, particularly moire, which is often not even observable while shooting.

Sure, I’ve had busted takes with other cameras — under-exposed shots on film that didn’t come out, shots that were a little soft in HD, or whatever. But DSLRs are built (or not built) for movie-making in such a way that you can very conceivably shoot for a significant period of time only to later discover that all of your footage is unusable. Not “disappointing” — unusable. Or perhaps you find something like this acceptable. (Note: I did not shoot this.)

To put it bluntly, these cameras have more red flags than a month’s worth of World Cup games. They carry a lot of risk for any serious project.

Because there are some undeniably awesome uses for these cameras, though, I have educated myself — by reading, by watching, by shooting — to find ways of working around their many, many problems. And I’ve learned to produce some nice footage.

But many of the techniques I’ve used to mitigate the problems involve spending more money, making the cameras bigger, and so on.

Fixing the problems often means taking away the very properties that make these DSLR cameras so seductive for filmmaking in the first place.

So in this post and the next I want to deal honestly with the basic costs of DSLR filmmaking and to consider whether these costs are worth the benefits.

It’s possible some DSLR acolytes will disagree with, or even have their feathers ruffled, by my writings about this technology.

That’s fine. These are my opinions alone and no camera is right for every person, at every time, for every project. But I think that by now this blog has established my credentials as a champion of smaller, less expensive, and simpler technology for movie-making. If I’m being critical, it’s probably for good reason.

So, today’s post will begin to consider the “cost of bokeh”, since their shallow depth of field is often touted as the leading reason for using these cameras.

My next post will finish pricing out the camera and accessories. I’ll also offer some thoughts on the notion of this technology as a “democratizing” force.

But enough prelude. What do we need to shoot motion pictures effectively with a DSLR?

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My Two Favorite Resources on DSLR Filmmaking

June 18th, 2010

My absence for the past few months has been due to the fact that I’ve been woodshedding, as folks in the Jazz world would say.

One of the things I’ve been doing is writing. When I’m writing, I find this blog takes a back seat. Sorry, dear readers. That’s the way it goes. As for what I’ve been writing, well, maybe one day you’ll see…

In my spare time, though, I’ve spent a lot of time playing with these newfangled DSLR cameras. Though I’ve bought one (a Canon 7D), I’m not sold on them. I know I’m late to the party in discussing them, but better late than never. I’ll post my thoughts in a few days.

In the meantime, there have been several resources for DSLR filmmaking that, time and time again, I’ve consulted as I’ve been experimenting with these cameras. I want to give a special shout out to two of them:

The first is Ryan Koo’s fantastic DSLR Cinematography Guide. I always enjoyed Ryan’s writings on the now-defunct DVGuru blog, and this reminded me of that. Ryan has done the legwork for novices, compiling information from all over the ‘net. If you are new to DSLR filmmaking and have time to read only one thing, read this. It’s free, but if you send him a donation you’ll get a PDF of the whole thing. I did.

The second resource is Shane Hurlbut, ASC’s invaluable blog. I knew Hurlbut was a champion of the Canon DSLR cameras since at least last summer. What I didn’t know until recently, though, was how generous of blogger this guy is. How does a guy in the ASC have time to write as much as he does while I’m making my first post in, what, three months?

Both Ryan’s and Shane’s willingness to share their knowledge and mistakes so freely (as in “openly” and as in “without compensation”) has rekindled my love of internet.

But for now, it’s back to the writing room.

By the way, for more on woodshedding, check this out.


Film Festivals, Energy Drinks and Playing the Odds

March 26th, 2010

Attending a film festival is exhausting. You race around town to screenings and stand in lines throughout the day. Then at night you run around town to parties, sometimes several of them.

I’m not about to complain. Leading a life in film is an immense privilege and I try to remind myself of it all the time. But there’s no question that festival-going can take its toll on your body. On more than one occasion at SXSW, I thought that there should be festival volunteers on 6th Street handing off Gatorade to badge holders. Kinda like a marathon, only minus the running.

Instead, in reality, the sponsors of film festivals are always trying to ply you with massive amounts of incredibly unhealthy stuff. Among the free “refreshments” offered at SXSW this year were cigarettes, fried fish, inordinate amounts of beer, whiskey and tequila, and an “energy” drink with so much caffeine that its container cautions to “limit intake to maximum one bottle per 4 hours.”

I’m not saying I didn’t partake of some of this stuff. I’m just… well, I’m the son of a nutritionist. I think about these things.

I also think about the health of film festivals and the filmmakers that they host. Seeing the long lines and sitting in (or being shut out of) the many sell-out screenings in Austin certainly confirmed that SXSW has a healthy prognosis.

For filmmakers, though, I’m less certain.

As the barriers to making a film continue to be lowered, I fully expect submissions to SXSW to double within three or four years. Assuming the number of films being programmed remains the same, the acceptance rate will drop to something like .5% or even lower. That’s not a typo. That’s half of one percent. SXSW is not alone in this; other, similarly prestigious festivals will have roughly the same odds of acceptance.

I grant you, the odds of getting your film into SXSW (1% this year) are better than, say, the odds of winning the Powerball Jackpot (1 in 195,249,054). But, then again, the cost to play is higher for festivals. I’m not just talking about festival entry fees. First you’ve got to make your film.

Similarly, the payout ratio for the Powerball ($1 for a chance at +/- $350,000,000) is far better than that of making a movie. Most filmmakers and their investors would love to just double their money. As we all know, many films don’t make their money back at all.

This isn’t an argument for quitting film and instead playing Powerball. Most people making films at this level aren’t solely in it for the money — they’re in it because they have stories to tell. At least, that’s why I’m in it.

But considering financial sustainability has to be part of the equation too. If it’s not, well… it’s not sustainable.

And part of that means that filmmakers these days need to ask tough questions both of themselves and of film festivals:

    When you consider the costs of festival entry fees, festival travel and lodging (if not provided), food, and promotion (posters, etc), how much are you paying, per head, for each audience member that saw your film?

    How much are you paying for each review or blog post that fest screenings generate about your film?

    If your film sells out a screening, where does that money go? Will you see a penny of it?

    Are you comfortable paying for people to pay others to see your film?

    In the final cost-benefit analysis, are festivals worth it?

    What do you get out of the deal?

I mean, of course, in addition to the free cigarettes, beer, and energy drinks.

We’ve known this for a while, of course, but it bears repeating: For the independent filmmaker, festivals used to be the answer. Now they’re the question.


SXSW Observations, Pt 1

March 20th, 2010

The Year SXSW Got Big. While I don’t agree with David Lowery that it’s (yet) in danger of becoming Sundance, attendance swelled this year. The growing pains were sometimes apparent, especially with sell-outs and long lines.

From my perspective, I think sell out screenings are good, both for the fest and for the filmmakers. But more than a few noteworthy films were only programmed once during the main festival (Fri – Tues) and others were booked at venues that were far too small for the demand. In previous years, these issues wouldn’t have been a problem. This year, though, even with a Gold Badge, if one hoped to attend a screening it meant standing in line for more than an hour. Needless to say, all that time spent in line cut down on the films one could see. I took it in stride, in part because my badge was complimentary for moderating the Cinematography for Improv panel. It wasn’t hard, however, to hear the grumbling of others standing in line. As long as I’ve been attending, SXSW has been well-run, so I’m hoping that this is just a hiccup and I’m optimistic that festival organizers are looking for solutions for next year.

Two Highlights. Of the films I did get to see, the highlights were Justin Molotnikov’s Crying With Laughter and Jukka Karkkainen’s The Living Room of the Nation, both of which stand a good chance of making my Top 20 list at year’s end. The former is a Scottish thriller set against the backdrop of stand-up comedy. The centerpiece of the film is a tour-de-force performance by Stephen McCole. Living Room, on the other hand, is a deadpan chronicle of the lives of ordinary Finnish citizens in their homes. Shot with an almost entirely static camera, the film has a mix of comedy and desperation that is hard to shake.

A Few Disappointments. When I come to SXSW I especially seek out the regionally-produced independent narrative films. In the past this has been, for me at least, one of SXSW’s most distinctive areas. This year the handful I caught were somewhat disappointing. My policy on this blog is not to write negative reviews — particularly for small movies that need all the help they can get just to be noticed by audiences — so I won’t name names. That said, I was surprised that the low points of the festival were all centered in this area. Perhaps it was just an off year, or maybe I just saw the wrong films?

Did I mention I missed a lot of films? With a fest this big, it’s easy to miss movies you really want to see and this year I missed more movies than I saw. I missed some, as previously mentioned, because of sell-outs. Others I missed because of time conflicts with other movies, or conflicts with my panel. Regardless of the reason, here are some films I’ll be eager to see in the coming year: Audrey the Trainwreck,Cold Weather, And Everything is Going Fine, Myth of the American Sleepover, Lovers of Hate, Tiny Furniture, and World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements. That’s a lot to look forward to.