Okay, let’s talk narrative filmmaking with these new DSLR cameras. You may be hearing a lot about the great video capabilities of DSLR video cameras like the Canon 5D, 7D and T2i (aka 550D in the Rebel line), as well as such cameras from Nikon and Panasonic. But how do these cameras really perform when it comes to the careful art of cinematography?
In January, I directed a short documentary project produced by Bryan Felty (Good Bones Productions). Felty and I both agreed we that we wanted a definitively cinematic look for the project. Four factors played into our camera selection: HD, 24p, Depth of Field, and cost. And so we landed on the Canon 7D. I hired a couple of shooters I’ve worked with before, David Kruta and Jeff Melanson. We used two Canon 7Ds for duel camera coverage for the interview and b-roll. I was extremely impressed with the 7D, and it wasn’t long before I was on the prowl for my own HD video capable DSLR.
I have not worked with the Nikon or Panasonic cameras yet. I have heard good things about the Panasonic models. But Nikon ... I’m sorry, Nikon. I loved shooting still with Nikons. But when it comes to HD video, Nikon is at least two years behind Canon, which clearly is leading the way in this particular technology. The main shortcomings: Max resolution of 720p at 24 fps, no manual control over exposure in video mode, and serious complaints of rolling shutter issues. I was actually considering a Nikon DSLR to use for video until I heard of these three factors. I have to admit, I didn’t even have to think for a split second. I immediately ran in the opposite direction (Canon)!
I jumped on the Canon Rebel T2i and got my pre-order in right away. I have now been the cinematographer for two narrative short films in the past couple of months. On both projects, I ended up using both my T2i and a 7D. So how do these cameras stack up when it comes to actual work of shooting narrative films?
In terms of image quality, the 7D and the T2i are virtually identical. They are basically the same brains inside the camera, and they use the same EF mounted lenses. The 7D does provide more flexibility on the low ISO. Where the T2i offers 100, 200, and 400 ISO as the lowest three ISOs, the 7D does provide all of those in addition to 120, 250, 320, and 360. So, the 7D has a little more precision and flexibility in that way, though I will say I haven’t felt I needed that level of flexibility too often. There’s also some other nice features the 7D has that the T2i does not. But, frankly, they don’t really affect video shooting too much.
The most notable difference is the two camera bodies. The 7D is metal and hardier. It gives you a little more to hold onto. The T2i is plastic. It’s lighter, not as weather resistant, and not quite as large of a camera to wrap your hands around. But, keep in mind that no DSLR is actually designed for hand-held video shooting. So, again, I don’t feel much of a loss here with the T2i.
For a nice comparison of the 7D and T2i go to: http://stembridgemill.com/2010/03/09/7d-t2i-compared/
Where these cameras really shine when it comes to video is that they can capture 1080p (full 1920x1080) HD video at 30 fps and 23.98 fps (aka 24p). The Depth of Field is fantastic, allowing for a much more traditionally cinematic look than any 1/3-inch, 2/3-inch, or even 1/2-inch chip video camera can allow for. So, coupled with good lenses, the quality and clarity of the HD video these cameras can shoot is quite fantastic.
They do have their shortcomings. The FAT file format the cameras use to store data to Compact Flash or SD cards allows only up to 4 GB files, which comes out to about 12 minutes of 1080p video. So, a single uninterrupted take cannot be any longer than 12 minutes. But, when you’re dealing with narrative filmmaking, an industry used to dealing with film reels that often don’t last more than 11 minutes ... the frank answer is ... big deal.
And, as I mentioned before, these cameras are not ergonomically designed for smooth hand-held video shooting. You just can’t hold it steady enough. Micro-jitters come through. I either shoot on sticks, with a counter-balance system that adds weight and smoothness to the camera’s movement, or a shoulder mount rig.
The colors and contrast these cameras are capable of achieving is pretty remarkable. The more important thing is to get all the vital information, though, and then do your color correcting in post. The Canon cameras generate QuickTime files using the H.264 codec. Yes, these fils are compressed. However, when compared to most other compressed HD codecs out there being used in much more expensive cameras, the results stand up quite well. If you happen to be like me and used to shooting highly compressed video in the form of HDV (or as I like to call it, “bastardized HD” due to it’s 1440x1080 resolution and extreme amount of compression), than the H.264 footage these Canon DSLRs are able to generate is quite an upgrade. Granted, it’s not like shooting R3D files with the Red One where you can literally change your ISO in post. But then again, my T2i cost a fraction-of-a-fraction of the cost for a Red One kit--and still has the same size chip as the Red One.
The Art of DSLR Cinematography
As I mentioned above, in the past couple of of months I’ve had the privilege of being hired as the director of photography for two narrative short films that were I shot with both the Canon 7D and T2i. I’d like to discuss what I’ve learned so far when it comes to not just understanding this technology, but actually bending it to your artistic will. After all, as much of a nerd as I might be about cameras and workflows, I got into all of this because of the art, because of the beautiful images and magnificent stories that can be created and told through the medium of motion picture.
The first of these short films was a student film written and directed by Trevor Duke as a senior project for Easter Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts. Duke attended the Los Angeles Film Studies Center recently, the same semester abroad program I attended while in college in Indiana. Coming back from that experience, he wanted to create a high quality senior project and had gained a definite appreciation for the need to work with a good crew even for a small project in order to achieve a high production value. Through a mutual friend, he contacted me about being the cinematographer for his project.
I won’t lie, for reasons I won’t get into here, it takes a lot for the average indie film project to really hook me. However, when Trevor Duke contacted me and told me who he was and what he was up to, I liked the sound of it right away. Once we met, I was sold on the project. Duke has talent and vision, and it is very exciting to work with someone like that, who may be new to filmmaking but is actively trying to take the right steps to make professional level films even as a student. His film, “Torn,” is a character driven drama about a son and mother reunited after a long separation.
When he brought me on, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to shoot with a DSLR camera. My T2i was on pre-order and wasn’t supposed to ship until two days after we wrapped shooting. But I knew I was tired of shooting narrative film projects on my HDV camera. The look wouldn’t be cinematic enough for the emotional depth of Duke’s script. Ultimately, we were able to bring Rajah Samaroo, a filmmaker out of Rhode Island I’ve worked with several times. Samaroo came on board as my Assistant Cameraman and brought to the project his Canon 7D. Then, much to our surprise, Canon decided to ship out the T2i about a week early. It arrived in time for it to be at my disposal for "Torn."
We crafted a moody atmosphere for “Torn.” Duke chose to shoot the film for 2.35:1 aspect ration and we shot everything in 1080p24, mostly with prime lenses at low f-stops for great shallow depth of field. Because of wanting to shoot with the lenses nearly wide open, we shot almost everything around 100 ISO. We started out using the camera grid markers on the LCD screen to frame up our 2.35:1 frame (which is wider than the native 16:9 the camera shoots). However, as soon as the camera starts recording, the grid vanishes. And since we shot nearly everything with a very hand-held "in the moment" feel (either on a hand-held rig or rocking on sticks), it got hard to keep track of where exactly the top of the 2.35:1 frame was going to be once it was cropped in post. So, I made the choice to frame my shots for the top of the 16:9 frame, leaving extra at the bottom to be cropped out in post once the 2.35 matte was applied. This made the shooting much easier.
We shot 75% of the film with the Canon 7D. At times we would break out my T2i and shoot with two cameras. At other times, the lighter T2i became the primary camera for specific scenes. I didn't have my additional batteries yet, so we couldn't shoot with the T2i all day like we did with the 7D. We always checked our settings to make sure we would match ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop, as well as white balance. We shot everything on the “Faithful” mode on the 7D and T2i. There’s no sharpness boost in this mode, creating a very clean image. While we definitely wanted to have a very film-like contrast to the film, especially given its emotional weight and mood, we were careful to shoot with fairly even footage with plenty of information from the blacks to the highlights so that Duke would have the maximum flexibility in post when color correcting.
The cameras performed beautifully. The footage looks fantastic. We used All Canon lenses: 20mm, 35mm, 50mm, 18-55mm, and 28-135mm. We made sure to always use the camera on sticks or with some means to add mass to the camera for hand-held work. We lit “Torn” mostly with soft lighting sources like Chinese lanterns. I generally will drop in a 200 or 300 watt lamp into a 26-inch lantern or bigger. We also used 200 watt pars for back light, and a SourceFour 750 watt par as a strong hard light coming from outside when the door to the apartment was opened. Most of the lighting was slightly warm and allowed me to pick up good skin tones with the camera, aside from one scene I purposefully lit with a fluorescent light to give the scene a green and sickly tone. Most of the colors on set were warm and somewhat muted. The result fits the mood well for the film.
One the important things to keep in mind, especially if you are used to shooting actual film stock, is that HD video seems to work in the opposite way of film when it comes to ideal exposure. When shooting film, many DPs tend to overexpose the film stock just bit, resulting in better looking raw footage to manipulate in post. HD video tends to hit the ceiling much quicker than film, when it comes to highlights. Overexpose the brightest parts of your HD video frame, and you quickly start loosing detail in those highlights. It just becomes an even white (this is called clipping).
In the blacks, though, these DLSRs in particular maintain a good amount of detail. Thus, I’ve begun regularly underexposing my footage by up to 1 stop (though generally between 1/3 to 1/2 stop under “ideal” exposure according to the camera’s light meter). This provides great contrast and saturation with a lot of details from the black to the highlights without any clipping (unless you’re shooting a backlit subject against the sun lit sky). This was the exact exposure philosophy of my next venture as a cinematographer.
Shooting "Pork Chop Night.”
Fellow filmmaker and friend, Raz Cunningham, had written a short script that picked up an award from a Sundance screenwriting workshop. As he embarked on the journey of producing and directing this script, he expressed interest in having me DP the film. I jumped on board right away, having worked with Cunningham before.
“Pork Chop Night,” Cunningham’s short film, is significantly different in style and tone. It’s a comedy about the role reversal of parents and children. We shot it with the Canon 7D and T2i like “Torn.” However, this time, the T2i was A-Camera from the start, with the 7D technically labelled as B-Camera. The truth is, we shot almost 90% of the film with two cameras simultaneously.
We shot the film in 1080p24 for 16:9, in the “Faithful” mode again, using a variety of lenses, mostly primes. We had two Canon 50mm lenses which were the most used lenses. I find I shoot at least thr3ee quarters of all my footage with my Canon 50mm 1.8f prime. I do have the Canon 18-55mm zoom and the Sigma 70-300mm zoom (which I mostly use for still photography or extra macro close-up work). Bryant Naro, my 2nd Camera Operator and AC brought on board his 7D along with his lenses: Canon 50mm 1.4f prime and Tokina 11-16mm 2.0f zoom, (which was just amazing).
Brandon Meadows was our Gaffer, and he utilized my lighting kit quite well. This was our second project together in these exact roles. Again, we tended to use Chinese lanterns quite a bit, with carefully bounced lights for fill or back light. The house we shot in was mostly white walls, aside from the dinning room, which had blue walls. Despite the director’s dislike of the blue walls in real life, he is in love with how they look on camera. The tone of this film is much lighter, so we definitively didn’t want to go with as moody a look as I had gone for with “Torn.”
Naro, the 2nd Camera Op, and I consistently matched camera settings, making sure to shoot always on the same ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop as much as possible. We only varied when the use of particular lenses didn’t allow for an exact match in settings. We also consistently underexposed our shots by about a full stop. As I review the footage (I am also the editor for “Pork Chop Night”), I have come across a few shots that I feel are slightly darker than I want them to ultimately be. We mostly underexposed by 1 stop, and looking back, I think I prefer to stick to the 1/3 to 1/2 stop under in the future.
I also tend to use a Minolta incident light meter. The readings can be slightly different at times from the camera’s built-in light meter. But they are quite close. The light meter is definitely helpful with measuring the contrast ratio between key light and fill, or key light and shadow. You can look all you want at the camera's LCD, but some times just doing the math is best.
Speaking of the LCD screen, I do appreciate the 7D and T2i’s built in display of luma and RGB levels for stills and video. I often would snap a quick still shot of a lighting set-up with characters in place, and then check the luma and RGB levels for that shot.
One particular challenge at times was the lack of a good field monitor. We did use my MacBook Pro with the Canon software. We could attach the T2i to my MacBook Pro via USB (I used an long extension) and get a live feed from the camera on screen, and even control the camera, which was useful for a few shots where the camera had to be in a corner or closet and I couldn’t manipulate it easily. The problem is that once you hit record on the camera, the camera’s processor is so focused on recording and saving the HD file that the playback on the MacBook Pro is extremely jumpy. For a stationary shot, we made due with this as a monitor. However, you cannot use the playback on the MacBook Pro to pull focus!
For one particular scene, I was shooting with a counter balance rig so we could be hand-held and move about, following the movement of the actors. I was using the T2i’s LCD screen and having a bit of a hard time telling if I was hitting my focus dead on or not. I tended to shoot about 1 stop closed up from wide open. Lenses tend to be sharpest around there. I began to wonder if I should close up more, and give myself a wider depth of field. I tried this, but I still didn’t feel right. As Naro and I talked through what to do, Naro suggested I go the opposite direction and shoot wide open with the shallowest depth of field possible. I did just that and found that, in fact, it worked very well. I was either in focus or clearly out of focus. There was no question about it. I found that I had to search much less.
The two camera set-ups were at times quite frustrating for the grips, since lighting for two cameras is not the same as lighting for one. Such set-ups took longer to accomplish for sure. However, looking at it from the perspective of a fellow director, allowing the two actors to shoot their individual close-up shots simultaneously meant they could each give it their best effort and know it was being filmed. Especially using child actors, this was a great advantage to us.
Considering the cost of these DLSRs, someone undertaking an ambitious short film should definitely consider buying two T2i cameras for the price of buying one 7D, and be able to shoot a lot of two camera setups. We made great use of the two cameras on “Pork Chop Night.” At times I would take the wide master shot and let Naro go hand-held with a 50mm, letting him get mediums and close-up shots of the action. We got more coverage that way with fewer takes. As I’ve started the editing process, I can already tell that this film will not look at all like it was shot in two (relatively speaking) short production days.
We also did utilize a dolly and jib for certain shots. I own both, and brought them to set. The jib is pretty light weight, designed ideally for prosumer HD cameras. I’ve used it before with the Panasonic HVX200 and a lens adapter system. That’s about the maximum weight I would ever want to put on that thing. The nice thing about going down to a light camera like a DSLR is that we put no strain at all on the jib and got very smooth movement.
These DSLRs are definitely great tools. They do have their limitations. I know that for some editors not used to dealing with the new tapeless workflows, dealing with footage from these cameras can seem a little problematic at times. However, I have found the process of transcoding from the H.264 original footage to Apple ProRes for editing and color grading to be a very painless step in the process, and it ultimately beats the socks off of real-time tape capturing (which then has to be transcoded again anyway to get the footage to be true 24p since shooting to tape can only be in 29.97 fps).
Shooting narrative projects like this, I have yet to run into any takes that need to be longer than 12 minutes. In fact, most takes are in the range of one to two minutes. Only in interviews do I concern myself with that particular limitation. These cameras are small, and do require some accessorizing to be more ideally suited for video shooting. However, the benefit of shooting with a chip the size of a frame of super 35mm film and getting to use prime lenses far outweighs such limitations.
And if that’s not enough to convince you, than maybe you should tune into the final episode of House this season, which was all shot on the Canon 5D Mark II (the big brother to the 7D and T2i, but still a DSLR). In fact, I have read that they shot with Canon lenses, despite the available PL mounts for these DSLRs that allow you to use pro cinema lenses.
Ultimately, a tool is a tool. How you use the tools available to you define greatly your artistic abilities.