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How HD DSLRs Have Changed Hollywood

Digital SLRs Get the Red Carpet Treatment

January 31, 2012 By Greg Scoblete
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Much like an indie film that unexpectedly explodes into a lucrative blockbuster, digital SLRs with high-definition video recording capability have gone from technological curiosity to a sought-after filmmaking tool by professional cinematographers. Only in this version of the Hollywood fairytale, the sequels actually get better, not worse.

When camera manufacturers began touting the benefits of HD DSLRs, they were mainly featured in music videos and the occasional short film. But today, the list of credits being notched by HD DSLRs is impressive. It includes everything from big studio projects like Secretariat, Red Tails and Captain America to the introduction to Saturday Night Live and a season finale of House, to say nothing of a number of documentaries, commercials, music videos, short films and multimedia photo journalism. They’ve even come in for their share of awards. At the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, two films shot on DSLRs (Like Crazy and Hell and Back Again) won awards.

And all of it happened, at least initially, somewhat by accident.

“No one really understood at the time the potential of digital SLRs,” recalled Steven Poster, president of the American Society of Cinematographers. Least of all, he said, the manufacturers.

The warm embrace of HD-capable DSLRs by Hollywood cinematographers certainly took Canon by surprise, admitted Chuck Westfall, technical advisor at Canon USA. “When we were adding HD video to the 5D Mark II, it was with the wire services in mind. They had been asking us for this capability so we were engineering it for them.”

Yet the response from the professional video community was positive. Shortly after Canon introduced the 5D Mark II, filmmaker Vincent Laforet used it to create a short film dubbed Reverie. It served as a “proof of concept,” demonstrating that DSLRs were legitimate filmmaking tools. According to Westfall, Canon went back and issued firmware upgrades to the 5D to deliver functionality that its new audience—cinematographers—was asking for (things like adjustable frame rates down to 24p and manual exposure control).

Size Matters
The adoption of digital SLRs by professional filmmakers was mirrored by the migration of professional filmmaking into the digital world. In the consumer world, film cameras have largely vanished, but they’ve had more endurance in the world of professional filmmaking. In fact, it was only within the last two years that the motion picture film camera makers, such as Panavision, ARRI and Aaton, stopped manufacturing film cameras in favor of digital models. That doesn’t mean film is dead—these cameras can last for years—but it’s certainly on its way out. Digital SLRs, in other words, hit the industry as it was fully transitioning toward digital formats.

For creative professionals, the attraction of an HD DSLR can be boiled down into one factor: it’s all about size.

First, the large image sensor. Full-frame digital SLRs typically have larger sized image sensors than pro camcorders costing three times as much. While these sensors don’t measure up to the monster-size imagers found in the film industry’s darling (and hugely expensive) Red camera system, they do deliver better low-light performance than pricier competitors.

Second, the small cost of a DSLR. Relative to other suitable alternatives, the price of an HD-capable DSLR is, in the words of Steve Heiner, senior technical manager at Nikon, “an amazing value proposition.” HD DSLRs from Canon and Nikon or mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras from Panasonic and Olympus cost in the hundreds to low thousands and have a huge portfolio of lens options that won’t shatter a professional budget (that’s what the actors are for). While it’s not as simple as “walking into a Best Buy and walking out with a movie,” Poster said, it’s considerably less expensive to put together a credible film than it used to be. (Of course, DSLRs out of the box are not enough. They require a host of third-party accessories, mounts, stabilizers, etc., to adapt them to the rigors of professional filmmaking.)

Third, the small size of an HD DSLR. Next to a traditional cinema camera, HD DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are positively trim. In a shoot, they can be almost invisible. That means they can go where other cameras can’t. When director Greg Yaitanes used a Canon 5D Mark II in the season finale of House, he praised its ability to get into tight corners and up close to the actors, where bulkier cameras couldn’t fit (he also hailed DSLRs as the “future,” which no doubt sent hearts aflutter). When working on the movie Secretariat, director of photography Kris Krosskove strapped an Olympus Pen camera to the underside of a horse (brave man) to capture footage of galloping horses bearing down on them. He also created a special glove to mount a Pen on a jockey’s wrist to capture a rein’s-eye-view of the action.

And their low cost also means they can go where pricier cinema cameras fear to tread. Canon’s 5D Mark II was called into action for Captain America. The DSLR was used for several action sequences where a larger video camera not only wouldn’t fit, but also wouldn’t dare be risked. The 5D would capture these difficult angles while remaining invisible from the “master” shot being captured by the conventional cinematography camera. For one scene, the 5D Mark II was placed inside a cab to capture point-of-view footage as it crashed.

“It’s one thing to risk $1,700 to get a shot, but you wouldn’t do that with a $17,000 or a $170,000 camera,” Poster said. And risk them they do: DSLRs are put in careening cabs, exploding buildings and other death-defying stunts to capture footage their more expensive companions won’t touch.

Beyond Hollywood
Hollywood has not been the only beneficiary of lower cost HD DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. They have also opened the doors for “independent, low-budget and no-budget” filmmakers to tell their stories, Poster said. The barriers to entry are far lower and with online outlets available, there’s greater visibility for the would-be Spielbergs of the world.

One creative payoff is the ability to create true multimedia works that blend photos and videos together. Many nonprofits, advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations have used these clips to drive awareness of issues. This “hybrid” approach that blends video and photography has enabled photographers to tell richer stories that switch between stunning visuals and engaging videos. With the web and mobile applications a growing part of the media mix, the ability to quickly add video to a project is increasingly valued, observed photographer and director Bill Frakes. In this case, the assignment photographer has to be ready to wear two hats, capturing video and stills for their client, he said. An HD DSLR is a perfect match.

Sneak Preview
Despite the impressive advance of DSLRs into professional filmmaking, there’s still work to be done if they’re going to make even further inroads. “We have seen that some of the same features that made HD DSLR video popular can be pain points, such as the smaller size and lighter weight creates the need for a support rig,” Steve Heiner said.

Audio recording on DSLRs is also at a very basic and unsophisticated level, Chuck Westfall observed. Future HD DSLRs will have to add XLR inputs and audio monitoring to make them more useful to filmmakers. Other issues include the image sensor, which can get hot after an hour or two of continuous use, resulting in an increase in digital noise. “I know one cinematographer who believes that cameras should be changed every half hour to be safe,” he said. Lenses, too, will need to be geared to the rigors of motion pictures, with smooth, continuous and super-accurate autofocus, Poster said. Several manufacturers are developing lenses with the cinematographer in mind.

At the end of the day, a DSLR is still geared for still photography and not for the rigors of professional movie filming, Poster added. That’s why, if you see a DSLR in a professional filmsetting, it’s almost unrecognizable after it’s loaded up with vital accessories.

And just as DSLRs have begun showing up in Hollywood credits, they might have unexpected company: some filmmakers have started to integrate the Contour rugged HD camcorder into their shots. This $400 camcorder beloved by skateboarders and outdoor adventurers is very durable, Poster said, and since it’s even cheaper than a DSLR, it can be risked in even more dangerous shoots.

When motion pictures are using smartphones, you know we’ve entered a brave, new digital world.

 

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