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DSLR Revolution – Shooting DSLR on Big-budget Productions

The evolution of hand-held digital SLR cameras has been crucial to low-budget filmmaking, but now the industry at large is catching on to this technology. Cinematographer Philip Bloom, examines the practicalities of shooting with DSLR on big-budget productions.

Many people are hailing the use of the new breed of Canon DSLRs to shoot beautiful ‘filmic’ looking video as something akin to the second coming, due to their incredibly large sensors, amazing low-light sensitivity and affordability. But what does it mean in the grand scheme of things?

This affordability is key to this revolution, as that is exactly what it is; a revolution. We now have cameras from Canon on the market that shoot full HD 24p and 25p video, with one as cheap as sub£1,000 to the most being around £5,000-although the key players (the 7D and the 5D MKII) are available for less than £2,000.

Of course good lenses are a necessity, as are accessories, which essentially turn the terrible ergonomics of the stills camera body into something totally usable. These do add to the cost, but we are talking under £10,000 for a very capable filmmaking package using 35mm optics and depth of field similar-and in a couple of the cameras even shallower-to what 35mm digital and film cameras can currently offer. The price revolution has given budget filmmakers, event videographers and weekend warriors tools which can, with the necessary skill, let you create images more cinematic than we could dream of.

Philip Bloom

But now these cameras are finding their way onto big-budget TV shows and even movies. True, they are being used for B, C or even D cameras. Not the main cameras, which are still generally 35mm, F35, RED etc, but now the ability to get that extra angle without the high cost of renting a whole camera is available. And, sometimes, it’s hard to tell in an edit which camera was used for which shot.

Many shows have experimented with the cameras for the odd shot. Fox’s 24 used the 5D MKII for all its plates this season and, in one game-changing move, the director of the season finale of Fox’s House, Greg Yaitanes, chose to shoot the entire episode using three 5D MKIIs and Canon lenses. It was not a budget issue, but a practical and aesthetic choice. They had very cramped sets for this storyline and Greg, along with DoP Gale Tattersall, wanted the intimate look these cameras gave them. They had technical issues, many of which I will go into in this feature, but Greg told me he was absolutely blown away with the results.

From my own personal experience, I have been working with Lucasfilm since December 2009 on using the Canon DSLRs for the pick-ups of their new movie Red Tails. We researched camera and lens options and all the other things we would need. The idea was not to have the Canon as the A or B camera, but to use it either for extra angles or, in many cases, side by side with Camera A (Sony’s F35), to see how well they work together. Obviously being a Lucasfilm movie much green-screen work was needed, and with the low bit rate and colour space issues among the camera’s drawbacks, it was just as much a real world test as it was for getting those extra angles. What myself, producer Rick McCallum and head of post Mike Blanchard needed to see was, apart from the known limitations of these cameras, what exactly was needed for them to fit into a large budget production, both shooting and post.

After using the 5D MKII, the modified for PL mount lenses 7D from Hot Rod Cameras and the 1D MKIV, both Rick and myself preferred the look of the 5D MKII, as there is something so aesthetically unique about this camera, which thrills us. But what we also needed to do was make sure that what we shot didn’t look so wildly different from the F35s that we could not cut the shots into the movie.

The other major issue we had with the 5D MKII was monitoring. These cameras are stills cameras first and foremost and that causes many issues; one of the biggest is they all use mini-HDMI as the primary video out, which also causes the LCD to shut off. We experimented with using powered HDMI splitters to feed both the Marshall monitors for my focus puller and myself, but also for video village. This was not very successful at all. So we ended up using a Blackmagic HDMI to HD-SDI convertor. This required different monitors as our Marshalls were HDMI only, but it did mean it slipped into the video village feed so much easier than before. In fact, I have to say that this is essential in any serious production. Dump the HDMI and go HD-SDI; HDMI is a not a pro-connection system and suffers because of it.

The other issue we had with the 5D MKII (the 7D and 1D MKIV were unaffected) was that when you hit record, the image drops from 1080i to 480p. This made using the monitor for focus a major issue, and also caused a seven-second black image for the director in video village as the Blackmagic box switched formats. Not great, and the new firmware for the 5D MKII has not rectified this issue.

We also used the Hot Rod Cameras PL 7D a fair bit. Visit my website [www.philipbloom.net) and search for A Day at the Races, and you will see a short that I made with this camera and Cooke S4 primes. We also used a variety of PL lenses for the 7D on Red Tails, and we were lucky enough to have the new Zeiss CP.2 EF mount primes which we could use on all the cameras.

In the end, the camera we used most was the 1D MKIV, due to the monitor out staying HD, and also as it gave us the most flexibility with what lenses we wanted to use. I wanted to use the Canon L series, as I had some nice long lenses which we did not have in any other form. Pulling focus on these lenses was not much fun for my focus puller as they have no hard stops but, knowing these limitations, we were able to cope. We also rarely shot anything close to wide open as the F35s were often at around F11, so we closed down a lot to try and match their depth of field look; a shame, as both myself and Rick love the shallow depth of field, but we could not make our stuff too different from the main cameras.

We are doing more shooting in Prague in May (2010), most likely using the 1D MKIV again. This time, however, we are having a feed of our image go into the DIT tent, just so we can match up as closely as possible to those F35 beasts! We will also have a number of different lens options, and for some of the shots in the cramped locations, the Canon may even become camera A.

Just know this; when Red Tails is out, many of the scenes you’ll see were shot using a camera that I bought for less than £2,000. I find that incredible. ♦

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 17 (May/June 2010)
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One Response to DSLR Revolution – Shooting DSLR on Big-budget Productions

  1. Pingback: Sony launches PROduction Awards in search of undiscovered filmmaking talent - movieScope

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