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Filmmakers disclose how they are shooting movies with still cameras.



Digital wonders show no sign of ceasing or even slowing anytime soon. The trajectory of video over the last 10 or 15 years is a continuation of the 100-year quest that film cameras and emulsions have traveled to become smaller, sharper and more and more sensitive to light. But during its short life, the technology of film remained essentially the same. A Panaflex is really just a quieter, smaller Mitchell Camera and a Mitchell performs a similar function to that of a hand-cranked silent-movie camera, only automatically. What the Lumière brothers were unspooling at the turn of the last century is not so different from what Ethan and Joel load into their cameras today, except for color and the amount of light needed to get the shot.

In this century, progress is still towards less light, higher definition, less weight and lower cost. The board game is the same, but the pieces keep changing. And they do so with greater and greater frequency and efficiency. Some resourceful and well-informed filmmakers among us are making full-length fiction and non-fiction movies using single-lens reflex digital cameras (DSLRs). We’re talking still cameras. As in Nikon. As in Canon.

These are not avant-garde filmmakers experimenting with fuzzy pixilated images destined for exhibition in side street art galleries. Audiences will be viewing a 12 mega-pixel, 720p image with depth of field as shallow as anything shot by Roger Deakins or Bob Richardson. In plain English: high-definition video that looks like it was shot with film-camera lenses, but on a D90 Nikon you can hold in the palm of one hand while you write out a check for $1,300 with the other. And that same check will get you a zoom lens as well. It makes the $17,000 body-only Red Camera seem like a Hummer. And if Nikon doesn’t drive camera rental houses crazy or out of business, what about a 21 mega-pixel 1080p high-def image from Canon for $2,700? Even with the additional cost of a lens, this is still within the range of a graduation gift certificate to B&H or Samy’s Camera. And you can rent cameras and lenses at places like this for less than what it costs to gas up the Yugo you’ll be able to use as an equipment vehicle. In Allentown, Penn., for instance, a Nikon and zoom lens rents for $80 a week.


Lance Weiler, of the Workbook Project, is producing Radar, a series which will be screening on that focuses on the creative process. Tom Quinn, writer-director of The New Year Parade, was the d.p., and he says each episode focuses on “a totally unique art community ranging from comic collectives to improv musical groups.” It is, he says, “the kind of series that really inspires you to create, both for the audience and for those of us making it.”

Quinn adds the Nikon D90 was chosen for its unique look and because “it shoots in five-minute bursts and holds about 50 minutes per 8gb card. Used Nikon still lenses made it a very affordable way to get an HD camera with interchangeable lenses.” The production settled on a 28mm, a 50mm, and two zoom lenses.

Nikon and Canon’s incredible image quality is the result of their large image sensors. Typical compact cameras might have an image sensor measuring about 5mm by 7mm. The sensor on the Nikon D90 uses a 16mm by 24mm sensor. That is 11 times the area of a compact camera’s imaging chip. On the Canon EOS 5D Mark II the sensor is the same size as a standard film camera frame: 24mm by 36mm. That’s more than 24 times larger than a standard sensor.


It is the size of the CMOS chip and use of primes that results in a very shallow depth of field creating for Radar a cinematic image despite the Web format. Quinn feels this was used to their advantage often resulting in “expressionistic, soft-focus compositions.” Standard compact video cameras have very short focal-length lenses to match their small sensors. The laws of optics dictate that the small sensors on regular video cameras and their lenses will have a very broad depth of field.

And DSLR sensors permit each pixel to be larger, reducing the amount of noise in the image and increasing the amount of light each pixel is able to capture. The result: sharper images and the ability to shoot in lower light.

Andrew Disney is shooting a feature called Searching for Sonny in Fort Worth, Tex. with a Canon 5D. Anyone who has shot far from the big established film centers has experienced some difficulty in obtaining big lights and a variety of grip equipment, not to mention crew. But Disney says that “the size of the camera made our crew smaller, and we had nothing too big to lug around. The camera’s battery pack lasted all day. It felt easier and we weren’t as tired. Moving the camera and using the dolly was just so easy.


“But the big plus about the camera is the light sensitivity and the size of the image sensor. We were able to shoot in low light… That was the pain with the HVX and a 35mm adapter. You’d lose so much light and the blacks turned out so grainy.”

So what are the downsides to DSLR technology? For the D90, one is that the camera body will overheat after about 40 minutes of continuous shooting and then needs about 10 minutes to cool down. But the overriding thing that the filmmakers interviewed for this article all commented on was the lack of any image stabilization feature.

Disney: “I was very afraid about the sensitivity of the camera to movement. I’d read a lot about how the rolling shutter in the Canon 5D can sometimes give a jelly effect. If you look at the focus push at the second mark, (26 seconds into the trailer at you’ll see what a lot of people are having problems with. We stayed away from handheld shots, more as a stylistic choice. We did a test before the shoot with handheld, some parts were a little too shaky. I think it’ll be a new camera technique to master.

“On the dolly, we used sandbags to weigh down the tripod. But even with a nice dolly with good track, we had to rehearse the shot over and over again. Every little bump could be seen on camera.”

Tom Quinn had similar concerns. “These cameras are really meant to be operated on a tripod — the handheld has a few issues. For one, there is no optical image stabilizer for the video, so the small vibrations that a video camera would neutralize are present. Also the CMOS sensor creates a slight waver to the image on fast horizontal movement when shooting telephoto. For these two reasons we’ve been using a mix of monopods and tripods.”


But Zak Forsman, producer and director of the D90 feature Eloquent Graffiti and its prelude Model/Photographer (which won Third Place at DVX Fest this year), thinks it is possible to get around this problem. “The D90 is very comfortable for handheld shooting given its DSLR form factor,” he says. “I hold it securely with my right hand while cradling it and pulling focus with my left. The camera’s sensor does have a slow read/reset, which results in skewing of the image when panning left and right. But this effect is minimized in much the same way you soften handheld camerawork — with wide lenses and stabilization. I won’t shoot with anything longer than my 28mm without a tripod. Even so, it takes a good amount of familiarity with the D90 to work within its technical limitations.” I have seen Forsman’s work at and it is very accomplished. The look is amazing, as is his production value in general.

None of these filmmakers use internal sound recording with their DSLRs. Forsman feels that “the D90’s built-in mic is nearly worthless. The 11khz mono track is good only for a scratch track to sync up a double-system recording. There is no auxiliary input for sound so we use a variety of double-system solutions. For ambience a Zoom H2 provides a four-channel surround recording for building a 5.1 mix. For dialogue we stick with a Sennheiser 416 to a Sound Devices 702 compact flash recorder. When necessary, we use a wireless kit.”

Forsman’s goal for post is to get the captured media into a form where the image quality is protected from subsequent renders and the format meets broadcast specifications. “This means two things: transcoding to Apple ProRes and retiming the frame rate from 24 fps to 23.98 fps. I have created a droplet in Compressor that does both. As with any double-system shoot, dailies need to be synced in post. There is no time code here to automate the process so my editor, Jamie Cobb, uses the slate or an alternate means of a sync mark such as clapping hands.”

Wow. Just like the good old days.


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