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.
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?