Archive for the ‘Production’ Category

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

Tuesday, 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

Friday, 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 seeā€¦

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.

Cinematography for Improvisation: Post-Panel Links

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

The Cinematography for Improvisation panel that I moderated was a blast — and, while I felt like it was a success, the one hour we had to dig in flew by. I personally could have listened to Andrew Reed, Allison Bohl, and Justin Molotnikov talk shop for another couple of hours. There were easily 100 people in the crowd on a Monday afternoon and the feedback after the panel was very positive.

Here are the links, as promised:

Justin Molotnikov

 

Crying With Laughter — Justin showed clips from this film, which had its North American Premiere at SXSW.

Synchronicity Films is Claire Mundell and Justin Molotnikov’s production company. For those of you that attended the panel, Claire sat near the front of the room and shared some thoughts from the audience.

Finally, the improv film webisodes from the Wickerman Music festival that Justin briefly mentioned can be found at www.wickerman.tv.

Allison Bohl

“Blessed Be, Honey Bee” — This is the music video that we saw behind-the-scenes stills for, but which we didn’t have a chance to screen during the panel. Allison directed and shot this video.

Allison’s reel is also on Vimeo. The reel features, among other things, selected shots/scenes from “People of Earth” the feature that Allison showed a clip from on the panel.

I Always Do My Collars First – website for Allison’s first documentary

Andrew Reed

Quiet City — Andrew showed a clip from this film, which had its World Premiere at SXSW in 2007.

Cold Weather is the new film by Aaron Katz, shot by Andrew Reed. The trailer can be found here.

Paul Harrill (moderator)

Obviously, if you are here, you have found my blog. Information about my own work as a filmmaker can be found here.

Cinematography for Improvisation – SXSW 2010 Panel

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010


If you’ve not heard already, I’m happy to announce that the panel that I proposed for South by Southwest 2010, Cinematography for Improvisation — Lighting the Unknown, was selected. Thanks to everyone who voted in support of the idea via SXSW’s PanelPicker!

Though this will be my third SXSW as a panelist/moderator, this was the first time that I’ve ever proposed a panel. Selecting the panelists was a collaboration between me and the SXSW organizers, especially Jarod Neece. I’m very excited about the people we’ve got on board to tackle the subject. If you’re at SXSW, check out the panel on Monday, March 15 @ 2pm.

Panelists/bios:

Allison Bohl
Allison Bohl makes movies with a natural look and creative touch. With experience in documentaries, experimental films, and features, she has become known for capturing beautiful images with minimal equipment. She is based in South Louisiana, but has worked internationally.

Andrew Reed
Andrew Reed is the cinematographer of the feature films Cold Water (SXSW ’10) and Quiet City (SXSW ’07), both written and directed by Aaron Katz.

Justin Molotnikov
Justin Molotnikov is the writer/director of the feature film Crying With Laughter (SXSW ’10).

Here are some clips of their work:

Tape is dead! Long live tape!

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

It struck me today that For Memories’ Sake will probably be the last movie I’m involved with that uses videotape. Ashley began shooting the documentary with the venerable DVX-100 in 2006 and, for consistency’s sake, we stuck with that camera through production. All the new projects that I have on the horizon will be shot with a tapeless cinema camera, whether it’s made by Panasonic, Sony, or Red. So tape is dead to me.

Or is it?

One of the issues, of course, about shooting tapeless formats is what you do with the data. While editing with tapeless footage, of course, I keep lots of backups on drives in different locations. But after the project is completed, using hard drives to archive the footage is not a reliable solution. Of course, I’ll confess that this is what I’ve done in the past. But as my hard drives age, and as I amass more footage that I’ll want to hang onto, I know I need to find another solution. Most pros will tell you that solution is (wait for it)…. tape. Specifically, LTO or “Linear Tape Open.”

Luckily, for us Mac users out there, Helmut Kobler recently did us all a service by summarizing how to get started with LTO4 tape archiving on a Mac. Kobler estimates the low-end price tag for a Mac-compatible LTO system as $3300.

That figure may seem like a lot to independent filmmakers. (I wonder how many fewer Panasonic HVX200s or Sony EX-1s would have been sold if this cost was factored into the purchase price?)

In the end, whether to spend this kind of money amounts to questions about risk and value: How much do you value your data? And how much risk are you willing to take that your data might be lost forever?

For me, that $3300 is starting to look like a decent value. Long live tape!