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Slugline. Simple, elegant screenwriting.

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Needables
  • Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
    Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
    Sony
  • Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic
  • TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM
  • The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    by Stu Maschwitz
Saturday
Nov082008

Pictures and Clarity


No milk in the fridge this morning, forcing me to make an Americano rather than my usual cappuccino. In that spirit, here’s an undiluted rant on cameras, DV Rebel priorities, and what we might hope to hear from RED next week.

What are you looking for in a camera? A big sensor? 2K? 4K? Raw? Uncompressed output?

What you should be looking for is a machine that transmits your creative energy into the images it makes.

The least friction between you and your images.

The fastest route to the emotional truth.


I shoot a lot of stills with a 50mm at f/1.4. The shallow depth of field helps me portray what I consider to be the emotional truth of a situation. But this practice is only feasible thanks to a hundred little details about the camera’s ergonomics and electronics. If any of those failed, I’d shallow-DOF myself right into a collection of unusable photos. My Canon 5D is more than just a box with a big sensor and fast glass. It’s a machine designed to create opportunities and then, when they arrive, to make sure I don’t miss them.

Many videographers find their first experience with a 35mm lens adapter to be quite a cold splash of water. The images from these rigs can look amazing—but it just became a whole lot more work to make them even acceptable. Your system got a whole lot less agile, your solution more brittle. The ways to mess up a shot grew in proportion to the potential for greatness.

  • As soon as you have manual focus, you need a follow-focus, which means you need a rail system.
  • As soon as you have a fast lens, you need a variety of ND filters, which means a matte box.
  • As soon as you taste the glory of fast primes, you need more of them. You’ll never have enough. Time to go Pelican Case shopping.
  • As soon as you have shallow depth of field, you need a big, sharp monitor and mad focusing skills (possibly provided by a second person). You will blow takes due to bad focus.
  • As soon as you have a small camera, you need support gear for something as simple as prolonged handheld work.
  • As soon as you have manual control, you need quick, intuitive access to that control.

Video cameras have long had solutions for all these things. Good autofocus and fingertip manual focus with LCD focus assist. Built-in ND filter wheels and well-placed toggle switches for common functions. Zebra overlays, histograms, waveform monitors, professional audio inputs and monitoring. And built-in lenses that zoom like crazy and focus from a millimeter to infinity.

The video camera manufactures aren’t winning any ergonomic battles these days. After the gloriously balanced DVX100, Panasonic gave us the unwieldy HVX200. Not to be outdone, Sony provided the wrist-wrenching EX1. Nevertheless, the video cameras of today are mature, evolved machines not just for making images, but for ensuring that you make exactly the image you want, with a minimum of fuss.

And yet not a single video camera under RED One’s price has a sensor bigger than your fingernail.

Along come these video-shooting DSLRs, with enourmous sensors, the wrong form-factor for video, and none of the features that turn an DVX100 into a battle-ready companion. They make awesome images, but they do so at the expense of the operator. When you only see the images, these cameras seem like they must be the best thing going. But the images are the result of a process, and that process is painful. It’s up to you to decide if sexy DOF is worth giving up control. As you make that decision, here are some things to bear in mind.

  • It’s better for a film to have good audio than shallow depth of field.
  • It’s better to have control over your camera than to shoot in HD.
  • It’s better to have good lighting than raw 4K.
  • It’s better to put time into color correction than visual effects.
  • It’s not HD if it’s not in focus.
  • There’s no such thing as a rough cut with no sound.
  • Your story is told using the images you create, not the ones you intended to create.
  • You’re not done editing until you’ve watched your film with an audience of people who don’t care about your feelings.
  • Your film is still too long.
  • Your next film will be better. How’s it coming?

(That last one is more for me than for you.)

The D90 and the 5D MarkII can make compelling moving images. But they are not yet cameras that will support your creative development as a filmmaker, growing with you as your skills develop. Did Vincent Laforet want Reverie to feel like a masterfully-lit soap opera? Did Matthew Bennettt want Subway to feel like the wobbly video from a jailbroken iPhone? We are at times seduced by aspects of these demo reels that are perennially absent in our video viewfinders, but we are not seeing the work of a cinematographer in full control of their craft. We’re seeing accidents—some happy, some not. Images borne of a battle with an uncooperative piece of kit. Mario Andretti doing his best with front-wheel drive and an automatic transmission.

This Thursday, when RED reveals their new cameras, I’ll be looking at features and specs along with everyone else. But I’ll also be evaluating whether these cameras seem to be filmmaking companions that allow me to craft an image intuitively and effortlessly. The camera should disappear, leaving only me and the images that, for better or worse, I created.

Reader Comments (28)

Wow Stu - way to cut to the point. I think you've hit on the core of the forbearance for the VSLR's we've been seeing over at Rebel Cafe.

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterChris Durham

Great post Stu. So many nails hit squarely on their head

And yes Red needs to reverse a lot of their 'Form before function' Mindset.

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJas Wingrove

Great Post Stu!

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTate Dominguez

Ditto those above. Great thoughts on filmmaking with technology in general.

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commentereditblog

I have nothing to say, nothing to add, nothing to argue with. I think Tate said it best:

"Great Post Stu!"

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Thanks Brian. A mutual friend of ours on the Rebel Café forums helped me write it.

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStu

I hope Jim Jannard is reading this post and smiling to himself because he knows Scarlet will deliver and not fretting because he realizes they need to re-think the Scarlet yet again.

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBenji

Keep drinking Americano. You're an inspiration.

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterross

Clear, concise... and gets right to the heart of the issues many of us are facing with the "hot new gear". Thanks, Stu, for providing a lens that helps focus MY thinking.

Oh, and as an aside, Matthew Bennett has written that Subway was a quickly done test, trying to push the D90 to see where the limits were. For me, he accomplished exactly that, and I'm glad he chose to share his findings in a way we can all appreciate. - Jamie

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commentercrashandannie

I agree with most everything in this post except the implication about sound. Now coming from a sound professional's standpoint -- for a dramatic feature film the sound quality on-board the camera just won't be adequate to handle a full dialog edit and mix no matter what. For a documentary, or for news the camera is fine, but for a feature I contend it won't work.
Right now Panasonic makes the best sounding cameras, but they're out of sync by a few frames and the signal-to-noise ratio is still going to bite you in the butt at least once in post on a feature-length picture.
Since you gotta get a microphone within about 3 feet (1 meter) of the people talking, I'd just abandon camera sound and record directly with an external, dedicated, audio recorder and sync to camera with a clapper.
Just my humble opinion! ;-)

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Bellware

ive had great experiences with my REDUno but i agree with wingrove above.

very interested to see if they nail it thurs with what im positive will be a modular collection of options. regardless, exploring the possibilities of form over or under function is also equally important even if sometimes they fail.

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjdiamond

Andrew, I should clarify—I mean that good sound is more important to a film, not to a camera. Although it would be nice if we didn't *have* to resort to dual system.

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStu

Hi Stu- I'm a frequent reader but never posted.

I have a couple nit-picky things to add. Your point about "good control" vs. "shooting HD" ignores the obvious point that anyone shooting a feature NEEDS to be shooting in some decent flavour of HD. No one is buying MiniDV features. I know the spirit of your post was to point out that people are taking on massive compromises in search of 'the holy grail' of 35mm DOF, but some people will read what they wanna hear into this, i.e., that "story trumps image", "it's just going to be SD on DVD anyway", etc., when the reality is that NO ONE should be spending huge amounts of time and money on an SD feature in 08/09.

Regarding Control- as you of course know, high-end goes to massive lengths to move around large and unwieldy equipment... Often a decent 720p camera on the end of a jimmy jib would tell the story just as well as the 35mm rig on the end of a full-sized crane, but professionalism/ pride/ perfection often goes right up into the law of diminising returns... Because they have the time, equipment, and crew to make it worthwhile.

I know you know all this, but I'm just saying-- everyone should be striving for the highest standards that they can realistically achieve.

p.s. Please do keep up the sanity-checking, we all need it occasionally (regularly?).

Kris R. Bird
Producer/ DP, Edinburgh.

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKris R. Bird

Hi Stu -- yes, you're right, sound is more important overall (well, dialog is more important for an English-language feature, but only in North America, Australia, and the UK -- almost everywhere else will just dub the dialog in the local language. But I've actually had a feature REJECTED by a TV network where they cited the depth-of-field as the reason (we shot on a DVX100 without an adapter, and yes we vowed never to do that again.)
Personally, I've given up on hoping we could do without double-system. For the camera to be adequate for recording sound, lots of money, time, and weight, will be needed to be added by the manufacturer for decent microphone preamps, A/D converters, and metering on the camera. But if you were to move those components off to an external mixer, then you may as well put a recorder on the external mixer (like the Sound Devices 702) and then you don't need to run a big heavy cable to the camera for sound! ;-)

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Bellware

Your post and the comments above this one of me say everything there´s to say (even that has already been said).

But "Your film is still too long." just seems to be the wisest line of all, because it will still be true if every other rule has properly been followed...always and again and again....

November 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJonas Blane

"The camera should disappear, leaving only me and the images that, for better or worse, I created." - This quote to date is my favorite in this field... It expresses the reason why I chose to hold certain equipment in my hand at the end of the day!

Awesome!

November 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Kris, I can name a dozen successful feature films that were shot standard def (28 Days Layer and Blair Witch leap to mind), but none that have poor production sound, and none where the cinematographer didn't know exactly what his or her shutter speed was (OK, Blair Witch might be on the edge there). It's true that most people shooting a feature should be looking at HD, but not at the expense of any of the things I list as more important.

November 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStu

I so hope Jim is sitting and reading this and smiling wisely...

November 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGPSchnyder

Stu, you are the best. Magnifico post.

November 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterManolo

Bravo, Stu!!!

As always, you've cut right to the heart of the matter.

There's a lot of gear lust in the indie/no-budget filmmaker world (I speak as a former Red One reservation holder, myself), as if better tools will somehow automatically make us better filmmakers (they won't).

All due respect to the earlier post, it ALL BOILS DOWN TO STORY. No film (no matter what it was shot on) was ever rejected because its story was 'too good.' Indeed, given the nature of their stories, some stories may be better suited to SD (take a look at "Celebration" for a great example of this), and the best ones transcend their medium anyway.

In fact, I'd argue that good stories matter now more than anything else. For better or worse, indie filmmakers currently churn out thousands of new films each year. (Whether or not you agree with his "Chicken Little" speech, take a listen to Mark Gill's interview on KCRW's "The Business" http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/tb/tb081027mini-majors_endanger for a sobering reminder of this.) Good production value and slick images will never save a mediocre story.

The most important 'tool' in our kit is our vision, the ability to tell a good story well in the unique way that we can tell it (and if you think that is about using a particular camera or other piece of gear, then you're looking through the wrong viewfinder.)

Thanks for helping us keep our eyes on the prize, Stu.

November 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJan

Bravo Jan! Great follow up.

November 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Nailed it, Stu.

A few months ago I worked on a personal project with a D.P. friend of mine - he was donating his time and equipment and I couldn't have been happier about that. We were shooting on an HVX with a lens adapter and some nice Canon primes. The only problem was that when I actually wanted to get the camera off the sticks it was a no-go - we were on a tight schedule and it was just too much of a hassle to extract the camera (or go handheld) from the monstrous rig he had assembled. So while I got the depth of field I wanted on some shots, I had to sacrifice the movement (not to mention the zooms) I wanted for others. While the final footage looked great, it wasn't really mine anymore. I know filmmaking is always a series of compromises, but for this particular project I might have gotten a little closer to my original vision with the $400 Sony DV cam I bought off eBay years ago.

It's a thin line between immediacy and polish. And it brings up an unfortunate fact: you can often buy (or rent) polish. But you'll never see a RED product sheet featuring "4K immediacy."

November 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commentergeoff gresh

What a well-written post. Stu, I think you need to write "Zen, or the Art of Motion Images" as your next book. You are truly someone who gets it.

November 10, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterstephen v2

In reply to tedvandell about follow focus and a mattebox.

You are so wrong it hurts me to read your words. I can only guess that you aren't very experienced. Even a very small nudge of the camera can ruin a take.

I recently had to focus on the barrel for two days as 1st AC. We lost a lot of takes due to the fact that the operator was moving the camera while I was trying to pull to a moving subject from a moving camera platform. Basically when I pulled I impeded the operators movement. If I watched the operator closely to better predict camera movement- well then I wasn't watching the scene and we lost takes due to focus.

It worked both ways of course. On occasion the camera would move as I adjusted focus and focus would be thrown wildly off. This occurred most when the camera moved counter to the focus wheel rotation.

Fast forward to the arrival of a Red Rock FF from a crew member with a set of whips. The number of takes lost reduced radically. To be clear it was less the follow focus itself and more the whip, which absorbed small motions imparted by me to the camera.

We still lost takes due to equipment. The Red Rock has a lot of backlash, often called "play", in its gears. With still photography lenses (Nikon mount Zeiss lenses) a lot of focus changes were lost in the backlash. PL mount lenses and re-geared still lenses (like those that P+S Technik sell) typically have larger motion, and while focus won't be perfectly accurate, it falls into DoF more often.

When we finally got our Chrosziel, it came with the wrong gears. (video pitch not film pitch.) This is a pity, because one of the things you pay for in a Chrosziel is greatly reduced backlash

So, I simply devised a system of marking the Red Rock focus marks based not just on lens position, but also on the direction I was rotating the wheel. So, the 5' mark might be marked in green for clockwise rotation and, at a slightly different position, red for counterclockwise rotation. Of course that got messy pretty quickly and led to a lot of confusion.

In the final analysis production goes faster with the right gear and the right people. We went from shooting 2-3 pages per day without a follow focus, to 4-6 pages with the RedRock. If we had the Chrosziel I think we might have been able to save enough takes to give us another page, possibly a page and a half per day.

These are average numbers, and imply a lot of camera motion. There was one day we did nothing but cross OTS's all on sticks. We must have burned 9 pages that day, and we could have done that focusing on the barrel- but that's a rare day in cinema.

The mattebox is less crucial than it was five years ago. Due to the advent of extensive color and DI, there are fewer filters I would choose to place before the lens. That is to say, a mattebox is used far less for its named function.

For me a mattebox used almost entirely as a lens shade.To that end we could use a flag on a C-Stand or clamped to the camera support. In my experience though these solutions are slower to implement, plus they impede the view of the assistant, operator and even the dolly grip. The mattebox is faster and easier. I've never known one to get in the way.

This isn't to say that you never use filters. Split diopters and graduated filters still work only on camera. Some filters must be used on a camera, like a hot mirror to correct IR pollution. Some things are vastly easier to deal with in camera, like softening skin "artifacts." There is a reason that both Tiffen and Schneider have shifted their advertising in AC mag to products like these in the last few years.

November 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Wow, thanks for that war story Alex!

I'll add to that my take on ND and matte boxes—I recently directed a RED One shoot where we wanted to be wide-open on the lens. We set up and waited for a very specific sliver of sunlight to peek between buildings as our tech scout had shown it would. But there was a bit of morning fog still burning off, giving us wildly fluctuating exposure readings. The AC was pulling ND and replacing it every few minutes so that when the sun was just right we'd have our perfect shot.

Sure you can collect a hundred fussy little threaded filters for every one of your lens diameters, but you'll be slow and miss stuff.

If you're leaving gain (ISO) alone, using a consistent shutter speed, and trying to shoot wide-open, then ND is your only exposure tool. You'll want it to be an easy one to adjust.

November 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStu

so well put that my head exploded

November 11, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermarkymark

nice rant Stu. I think you should chuck all that digital nonsense and go back to Super-8 Nizos! Now there is control.

November 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

You can't have it both ways, Stu. The 5KMKII is another fantastic tool for the DV Rebel. As you prophetically said in "The DV Rebels Guide" ... "What ake DV Rebel filmmaking possible is the accessiblity of consumer tools that can, if wielded properly, produce professional-looking results". (page xxxii)

Let's put more emphasis on the great lenses that Canon offers and not on the current 30p implementation. After all, this is a first generation camera of sorts.

November 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRoland
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