When it Comes to DSLR Technology Canon’s 5D Continues to Rule!
With the cost of cameras continuing to come down and more filmmakers going the DSLR route, it was no surprise that the Small Profile, Big Results? The Advantages & Challenges of DSLR Cinematograhy Panel was one of the most popular ones at the NAB show. Just like last year’s session which featured commentary from DPs Rodney Charters (“24”) and Gale Tattersall (“House”), the conversation stayed focused on various aspects of using the Canon 5D. Moderated by Jon Witmer from American Cinematographer, speakers on this year’s panel were Cinematographers Russell Carpenter (“Titanic”), Svetlana Cvetko (“Inside Job,” “Miss Representation”) and John Guleserian (“Like Crazy,” “ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction”).
Starting off the discussion with the reasons for using Digital DSLR cameras, Carpenter said, “My confession is that I’m not a technical person. I can visualize using these cameras on set.” He became interested in digital photography because of the still work he was doing and was introduced to the 5D Mark II in November of 2008 when he went to Canon with Bill Bennett. “We thought that this was going to revolutionize the way that images could be captured,” he remembered. Referring to it as a way to level the playing field he continued, “The quality was going to be available to anybody who wanted to make images.” The drawback at the time was the post production houses couldn’t figure out the best way to work with the new equipment. However, a year later that changed and there was a whole industry built around this camera.
Svetlana comes from a digital photography background and the first project she used the Canon for was a little project she worked on over a year ago with her boyfriend that they didn’t have much money for. It came out beautifully and she realized the huge capabilities the camera has. As a documentary filmmaker, Svetlana stated that all her projects have a cost factor, especially since she shoots with multiple cameras. After her first experience with the 5D she thought the results looked so great, that it’s been her camera of choice since.
The only project John has shot with the Canon 5D has been “Like Crazy”. Originally he wanted to use it as a B camera and was planning to shoot primarily with the Red, but then the producer of the film suggested that maybe they should shoot the whole movie with the Canon. Apprehensive at first John and Director Drake Doremus began exploring ideas as to how the profile of the camera could effect the performances by being so low key and letting the actors forget about the camera. Still, John was cautious noting, “I think the Hot Rod version that we used was actually labeled 001, so it was a bit scary.” Still, they encouraged each other to take risks. For example, John showed a clip from “Like Crazy” in which the two main characters are having a long distance phone call, with one of them being in LA and the other in London. For this set up, they took four shots that were only lit with a video projector.
At this point Witmer asked the panel which projects they thought were best suited to DSLR: commercials, features, documentaries or scripted materials.
John responded that all of “Like Crazy” was shot handheld and that he was just holding the camera and the lens. One of the benefits of filming this way was that they could shoot anywhere and the footage looked natural. He talked about doing a scene on an airplane. “We waited for everyone to go to sleep on the plane and then just shot the actors. We liked that look so much. We had permits at Heathrow, we had permits at LAX, but we always said make it look like it’s stolen,” he shared.
Complimenting the camera’s ability to shoot with low light capabilities, it was noted that the Canons react to ambient lights, especially in urban areas and that they react differently than film does. Svetlana cranked it to 6400 ISO and said “This camera can adapt to whatever situation you’re in and allows you to customize your white balance. I can adjust it to whatever light situation I need.”
Currently Russell is using the Canon on a project now. “I think in the future we’re going to have a lot more color space to work in,” he commented. He is hoping that in the future they will have raw imagery instead of having to choose compression rates. “I think that’s going to change everything,” he added particularly in terms of editing.
Svetlana considers it a huge advantage that directors and producers can look at the footage right away. On a small scale she believes this can make a huge difference, on a large scale she hopes that the color corrections will hopefully catch up soon and concluded that a good colorist is needed during post production at this point.
Agreeing with his colleague, John believes that with any workflow filmmakers need to be on the same page with the colorist even before the shoot because there are so many ways you can choose to film, so he advises finding someone you can actually communicate with. He was shocked at what they could do once they got in and started playing with the footage. “That was pretty amazing. I sort of prepared myself for the for the worst and thought we would have no room to play with anything,” That turned out to be far from the case as John shared, “Drake and I each had our own hard drives and we would watch them over the phone and play them at the same time. Instantaneous.”
Working with the new cameras has affected workflow and crew requirements. Svetlana commented, “I miss my first AC. I wish I had my ACs with me. Now, I have to do it myself.” She went on to say that she has run into different situations depending on the project. For a Disney spot she shot with a 5D and Mark IV and they got the whole system, plus the crew was like she’d had on any other type of shoot.
“It’s a challenge for sure,” John agreed. “I find when you put them in those situations you have to be understanding. This becomes part of the style when you put them in those kind of crazy situations. When it’s in a controlled environment it’s like anything else,” he concluded adding “You have the same size crew, break off a smaller crew for pick ups or smaller scenes.”
“Everything’s been retrofitted to make these cameras work,” Carpenter contributed. He believes that camera manufacuters are listening to people who want to use them and want to see some hard mare built in making it easier to use. Also union crews are responsive to new technology and more people are being trained and getting up to speed on it. Using cameras will be more free flow with more opportunities for catching pick up shots and they will change how everyone from college students to people in high end productions express themselves.
When questioned by Witmer as to whether using the 5D as a primary camera different in shooting Carpenter responded by talking about filming a low budget indie called “A Little Bit of Heaven” in New Orleans starring Kate Hudson. They couldn’t get permission to shoot her riding her bike to work on Bourbon Street, so they put the camera on the bike. “We got footage that we could fit into the picture. That’s exciting to me too,” he said. From the year or two before when he was first introduced to the cameras and was more reluctant to them in with other footage he is now more comfortable. “You can mix them. The color space is going to be more fluid,” he admitted.
”It’s exciting to me to think about carrying one of these along,” John contributed adding that most of the look is in the lenses and that he appreciates the freedom and ability to use a smaller crew and have the flexibility to do whatever you want.
When asked their approaches regarding lighting Svetlana said that she used a meter in the beginning because it was hard for her to judge and that made her feel safe. She also warned filmmakers to be wary of monitors. “It’s really just a reference. Check your exposure,” she advised adding that it’s best to see the footage on the back of the camera.
Russell shared, “I power rated it and experimented with color balances. A location gives me a gift and I like the location.” He tries to bring contrast into a scene and approaches it the same way as when using traditional media like film. He further believes in backing up his readings. Carpenter said that he views himself as the guardian of the director’s intent for the screenplay, so care must be taken to protect that vision.
“I always work in footcandles and just figure out my rations with that. I still meter everything,” John contributed. He tries to get in the ballpark explaining, “You feel it out as you go.”
Finishing up all three panelists agree that DSLR technology has created beautiful cameras like the 5D, which definitely have a place on their shoots. Summing up Svetlana concluded, “As long as it stays that way I’m not going to let go of mine.”