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

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?

Let's start by going with a Canon 7D since it sits in the middle of Canon's DSLR line, with the T2i at the bottom and the 5D Mark II and 1D Mark IV at the top. The 7D averages around $1700. That sounds like a bargain when you put it next to a traditional prosumer camcorder like the Sony EX-1R ($6300) or the Panasonic HPX170 ($3995).

(By the way, if you want to consider the costs with a 5D Mark II, which has an even larger sensor, add about $800 to our totals.)

Then you need a lens. If you want to want to get that shallow DoF then you need a lens that opens wide. And since many people have had good experiences using Canon's Image Stabilized lenses, which seem to reduce some of the jello effect, we'll go with Canon’s 17-55 IS f/2.8 lens. It's been well reviewed and costs about $1100.

Since we're trying to do this inexpensively, we're only going to use one lens. If you want to take advantage of the Canon's interchangeability (with, say, a cool Tokina 11-16MM), those are additional costs.

Some DIY filmmakers looking to get by on the cheap blanch at paying $1100 for a lens, but that's nothing compared to a cine lens. In fact, just because you spent $1100 on that 17-55 f/2.8 doesn't mean it'll necessarily look sharp on the big screen. Shane Hurlbut, ASC argues that the only lenses Canon makes that are sharp enough for big screen work are their L-series primes. (Expect to pay $1300 or so for each prime and only the longer range lenses have Image Stabilization.) But we're going to trust others' reviews of the 17-55, which say it's one of the sharpest lenses Canon makes.

(As a side note, you could go with Nikon AI-series still lenses. They're both cheaper and are said to be sharper. But in my experience, you'll need to buy a good Fotodiox Pro adapter [$70 each] to use them effectively. Plus, when you want to use your Canon DSLR as a stills camera, you'll have no autofocus or auto exposure control, so I'm leaving them out of the conversation for now.)

We're doing good so far, but sound, as they say, is half the picture.

While, technically speaking, one may record sound with the Canon, its sound capabilities are far from what you'd get with a prosumer camcorder (e.g., no XLR inputs, no level control, etc.). There is lots of work on Vimeo featuring beautiful shallow-focus images of flowers and so on, much of it set to cool music. But if you want to make movies, you know, where people talk and stuff, you've got to upgrade your sound.

I'm not going to count the cost of XLR cables, microphones, etc. since you would need that stuff with a traditional camcorder. Instead, we'll just look at adding an adequate sound recording device. A lot of people using the Canon for DSLR cinema use the Zoom H4n recorder. It's about $280. (If I were buying, I'd spend the extra $250 and get the Marantz PMD661 because it's easier to use. But that's just me.) An alternative is to use something like a Beachtek or JuicedLink adapter, but I don't like the idea of all my location sound hinging on a single mini plug going into something that was primarily designed as a stills camera.

With the Zoom recorder (or similar) remember, you're shooting double system. As such, you'll need to slate your shots and spend lots of time in post syncing up your slates. (Or, if you don't, reading peoples' lips.) A time-saving solution is PluralEyes, which syncs your double system footage for you. Your time is worth something; PluralEyes has valued it at $150.

What's the tally so far? $3230.

Oh. But we're ready to make movies, right?

Yes and no. We may have picture and sound, but it may not be useable yet. But we'll save that discussion for the next post.