Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Tool Called A Camera

I'm not a camera guy, but because I make films, people are always asking me about what kind of cameras to use/rent/buy. If you're reading this, please don't ask me that anymore. When I do get asked, I always immediately suggest a 35mm Panaflex Millenium, but that just pisses off everybody. It does make beautiful images, though.

Of course I know when people ask me about cameras, they are almost always asking about HD video cameras or HD SLRs. But I'm not a D.P. I don't know the details of cameras - their functionalities, range of abilities, bells, whistles, etc. All I know is that I almost always want the greatest flexibility in image creation. Or, conversely, I need it to be able to capture the images in specific accordance with the visual plan I have for the film. So, in terms of selecting a specific camera, that's pretty much all I communicate to a D.P. I then leave it to her or him to consider what camera is appropriate given the material we're working with and the visual plan for it. They, and others, know best how to take into account such things as image quality, camera weight, functionality, light sensitivity, interchangeable lenses, assist systems, post compatibility and whatever else she/he needs to consider.

What I do know, based on talking to filmmakers and seeing lots of films, is that there are a lot of great HD video cameras out there. But so far, I've used only one on a film - the Canon 5d Mark II. And I loved the image quality it created for my short film. But it is not without issues according to my D.P., Marc Levy - especially since he is used to the functionality and control that comes with "professional" motion picture cameras (film or video). Also, the camera is not so great for rapid-movement type shooting. That is, rapidly moving objects in the frame or a rapidly moving shooter. There are, of course, workarounds for most of those issues. So, I can openly profess my love for the camera. But, nonetheless, the 5D may not be right for everyone.

Before anyone can suggest a camera to you, you need to know what kind of camera you need. What kind of project are you doing? A painterly, narrative feature or a reality show or a spec commercial or a sports doc or a nature segment or instructional videos or anything else. Each will demand different things from a camera. Or you may answer that you will be doing potentially any and all of that stuff. Fair enough. But once you know what you want out of a camera, then you can begin to compare/contrast the specs of each camera to make sure it has the capabilities that you need.

Budget may also be a consideration. You may want a camera that does it all at the highest levels of quality, but you only have a few bucks to spend. Well, then you have to begin considering what are the key features you need and can they be found in a camera at that price. The good news is, great cameras are so affordable that SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE has one. So, even if you can't buy one, or even rent one, you can probably borrow one for your project from any number of people.

But I stray from my point - which is simply that cameras are a tool. A very important filmmaking tool, but still a tool. Cameras don't make great films, filmmakers do. I know that sounds suspiciously similar to a popular NRA jingle, but it is more applicable to cameras and filmmaking - where you can't accidentally turn on the camera and cause a death....or make a movie - good or bad.

Not to toot my own horn, but my first feature (so far, the only one I've directed) "The Dogwalker" still looks great to me after 10 years. Naturally, there's lots of things I'd do differently if I were to make the film today, but the actual image quality has held up. And it was shot on one of the early miniDV cameras - the old Sony VX1000. That's because the D.P., Marco Fargnoli is a genius (and one of the nicest guys I know). As is Post God and film simulation specialist Andy Somers. It certainly had little to do with the camera.

When I go to tech expos, I see all of this amazing equipment in booth after booth and the little kid in me wishes I could snatch all the toys in the shed and play with them forever - or until the next, improved version comes out. But I look at the stuff on the multitude of screens, created by all of this amazing technology, and I'm quickly reminded how little a camera can do to enhance a squalid imagination.

Again, that's not to say that cameras aren't important. Of course they're important. Painters don't just need brushes, they need the appropriate brushes. Sculptors need the right clay or marble or whatever is appropriate for their vision. But they are, nonetheless, tools. Tools in service of imagination. A means to an end. Not having the "right" camera should NEVER stop you from making a wildly imaginative film. In fact, I know many filmmakers that, if they could only make a film on a Pixelvision camera, might possibly conjure up something far more visually interesting than they'd make with a Panaflex Millenium.

So, stop asking me about cameras. Just grab one, figure out what it can do and then stretch it to its limits with your imagination. MAKE YOUR FILM!!

All that being said, here's a few of the cameras I've heard the most about. If I'm forgetting one or two or 20, please remember, I'M NOT A CAMERA GUY!!

And here's a nice HDSLR comparison.

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