One of the greatest things that filmmakers of all ilk search for is the ability to make films that look more and more beautiful. For the low-budget filmmaker, the true look of film is an illusive one that connotes polish and money far beyond our means. Because it's become the holy grail for many of us, and because most sub-$10K cameras are designed for event shooters as opposed to filmmakers, numerous companies have put a lot of effort into helping us achieve this look through a variety of non-camera means: from 35mm adapters, to special plugins, to expensive boutique image treatment processes, to actually laying digital footage onto film and then re-recording it.
With RED's brash owner and founder Jim Jannard rising to the fore in 2006 with a sub $50K pro-rig featuring a Super 35mm size digital sensor called the REDOne, he quickly became the one to watch when the cameras started shipping and becoming a part of the Indiewood and Hollywood landscape. As such, in 2008, we were all salivating when he announced the fact that he would be creating a digital camera with a 16mm size sensor that could do up to 150 fps at 3K RAW at the jaw-dropping price of only $3K. (Long time readers of the magazine, undoubtedly read my fan boy lustings after the camera after seeing the mockup and stats at that year's NAB.) While it wasn't quite the 35mm size sensor we'd all love, here was a man who was going to bring amazing digital cinema quality to the masses! However, when RED tried to double up their production schedule with the proposed simultaneous release a much higher priced Epic (which was clearly targeted at a Hollywood that wanted a camera that can't be readily afforded by the unwashed masses), the production problems of both cameras suddenly stonewalled the release, even as it began to boost the projected street price of both cameras. Originally slated for a Q2 2009 release, if the first betas of either camera sees the light of day before Q2 2011, I will personally be shocked. (And, with the gradual price growth, if the Scarlet is priced less than $10K by the time it's actually released, I will be surprised.)
With a microbudget filmmaking public now believing that a camera with native film-like recording was possible yet an inability from RED to deliver to that demographic, Canon stumbled into a happy accident. As a last minute decision, they chose to equip a $5K full frame digital SLR camera with the ability to shoot 1080P HD video. The film-like depth of field this 5D Mark II camera was able to capture due to its full 35mm sensor immediately made it a runaway success with low-budget filmmakers. When Canon's sales of the camera blew past their wildest expectations, they began to really tweak things to make it even more attractive to filmmakers, like adding true 24P mode to the camera. While they didn't augment the firmware for the 5D Mark II to allow it to shoot at variable frame rates beside 24P and 30P, they did release the later 7D and Rebel T2i, each of which had the ability to shoot 720P at 60 fps, in addition to 1080P at 24 fps. (Both of these feature a smaller sensor than the 5D Mark II, although it's still approximately the same size as a true 16mm sensor.) Because of the amazing quality these cameras were capable of, filmmakers like micro-budget maestro Mike Flanagan shot his entire Absentia film with this. (We'll be critiquing Absentia in an upcoming issue of MFM.)
Additionally, the light sensitivity of these cameras was amazing when compared with normal digital video cameras, so that less additional light was required to accurately expose the frame. For the upcoming Depleted film and the ARG components, Jeremy White used his Rebel T2i to record some impressive footage with no additional lighting at all, the unobtrusive camera allowing us to shoot completely guerrilla style. (This was especially amazing since some of our fully-exposed footage was recorded in a night shrouded parking lot illuminated only by street lamps with very little noise. Incidentally, White will be doing an official review of the T2i in an upcoming issue of MFM.) Because of the speed this can enable, Kat Carney, the star of Depleted: Day 419 and the upcoming Depleted feature, recently starred in a feature film that was shot in only one day using precise planning and 3 5D Mark II's. Due to the quality, light sensitivity, and the speed options in the 7D/T2i options, we're currently planning to shoot Depleted with a 5D Mark II and two 7Ds. (Which is especially interesting because most of my visual team are made up of long time Nikon users. However, Canon has stepped up to the task of offering superior video options which Nikon has neglected, so, if they don't correct this oversight, we'll be getting lens adapters to use our Nikon glass on these Canon cameras. )
Interestingly, in addition to changing the footage that low-budget filmmakers are now able to capture, the limitations these cameras have (which is similar to actual film cameras) is forcing filmmakers to start to change their shooting practices in a positive way. Sometimes, low-budget filmmakers have been tempted to use the mic on their camcorders to record audio, or mount a shotgun mic to their camera and leave it there. Because the mics are so limited on the DSLR cameras (as are their mic inputs), this temptation is destroyed, forcing filmmakers to record on a separate device. This means that filmmakers are more likely to record good sound and, by keeping the audio separate, they will have much more flexibility with moving their cameras around. (Of course, this also forces other best practices from the film industry like using an audible clackboard for sync purposes.) Fortunately, at nearly the same time that video DSLRs started to become readily available, companies like Zoom released lower priced audio recording options, like the H4n that has dual XLR jacks, phantom power, and video calibrated audio for only $300.
Almost as fascinating as watching low-budget filmmakers react to these capabilities has been watching other areas of the industry react. Redrock Micro, who built a cult following with affordable 35mm lens adapters for traditional digital video cameras, didn't even miss a beat transitioning many of their support rigs to make video DSLR cameras more ergonomic for video shooting. Of course the fact that they had a lot of things that could work with any camera rig, like follow-focuses, matte boxes, and the like, made it even easier for them to ride this wave successfully. (However, they're working on some unique inventions for DSLR rigs, like a special HDMI jacked super Electronic View Finder that shows higher quality versions of what the camera is recording than the rear display is capable of showing.) Amusingly, the very event shooters that traditional semi-pro video cameras have aimed for (to the exclusion of filmmakers) have been switching to the less obtrusive video DSLRs in droves, as well.
And, in a full circle, Hollywood and television shooting teams have been directly adopting this gear for themselves. Numerous film crews are using 5D Mark II's as B-cameras or C-cameras for REDOnes and successfully intercutting the shots. (One of our writers even reported successfully intercutting 7D footage with REDOne footage!) Perhaps most telling, a recent television advertisement campaign for Chevy showed the crew actually recording the commercials amd, despite the fact that all the cameras were rigged out with matteboxes and follow focuses, it was clear to see that they were all video DSLRs.
While the video DSLR may not be the perfect filmmaking tool, it is perhaps the one that is best suited to help low-budget filmmakers advance their agenda of unobtrusive technology yielding superior quality at a reasonable price. All told, quite the fortuitous accident that Canon stumbled upon! (Now if they would just "accidentally" equip a full frame camera with the ability to shoot 150 fps 1080P, we'd be all set!)