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Game-changing: HD DSLR film-making

25 February 2014

Luke White looks at the origins of the rapidly growing HD DSLR film-making trend and explains why you should get on board in the first in his ongoing series of columns of film-making for The Photographer’s Mail
It all changed in September 2008. That was when photographer Vincent Laforet managed to get hold of a pre-production Canon 5D Mark II. The camera had been announced a week earlier, and Laforet was intrigued by the idea of a DSLR with video recording capabilities. It wasn’t easy to talk Canon into lending him an unreleased camera for a weekend but, fortunately for Canon, Laforet is a very persuasive man. Reverie was shot in less than 72 hours; the short film was watched more than two million times within a fortnight of its release, and the rest is history.

Reverie by Vincent Laforet, shot with Canon 5D Mark II

Suddenly here was a completely new tool in the hands of photographers across the world and it was free, built right into their camera.

Film-makers quickly found lots of uses for this small and affordable camera that, by Hollywood standards, was virtually disposable. Soon 5D Mark IIs found themselves wedged into crevices in 127 Hours, rigged onto cars in Drive, strapped to Iron Man’s chest and stuffed into cockpits in Red Tails. The 2012 action film Act of Valor was shot entirely on 5D Mark IIs and Canon 7Ds; it has car chases, explosions, sky diving, scuba and was shot for US$11 million. So that hardly puts it in the budget category but, when compared to Avatar’s $425 million production budget, it looks relatively affordable. Of course, it isn’t just action — this revolutionary camera really came into its own with dramas such as Like Crazy ($250,000) and documentaries like Bully ($1.1m), which would probably not have been possible before the 5D Mark II.

Trailer for Acts of Volor, shot on Canon 5D Mark IIs and 7Ds

But people didn’t start using this camera for video just because it was cheap and small. The picture quality was really something special, especially when used with pin-sharp Canon prime glass. HD footage can have a plasticky quality to it, but there is something about the DSLR video compression that gives footage a more filmic feel. The large sensor combined with fast lenses also gave the option of the shallow depth of field that is so popular for drama.

A lot has happened in a very short time and DSLR film-making is no longer in its infancy. The 5D Mark III has superseded the Mark II. The Canon C300 digital cinema camera quickly became a favourite for broadcast, having extra features such as C-Log mode, built-in vectorscope and wave-form monitor, great high-ISO sensitivity, and the ability to eliminate problems such as rolling shutter and moiré. The Black Magic cameras are on their second generation, and GoPros are outputting useable footage. We are just beginning to see what is possible with the first 4k resolution DSLR camera, the Canon 1D C and Magic Lantern announced new hacks for the 5D Mark III that bring 24p RAW CineDNG capabilities to the camera.

Sword by Félix Alcalá and Larry Carroll, shot for Canon’s C300 launch

We really need to pause for a moment to look at why the magazine is choosing to run a regular article on film-making. ‘Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ is an old maxim but a valid one. For all the similarities between creating still and moving images, there are many more differences. The joy of looking at a photograph is that one can appreciate it for what it is — subject matter, composition, lighting. A moment frozen in time. With film, the experience is quite different; the viewer is constantly thinking about what will happen next. Even the most beautifully photographed films such as A Serious Man (director of photography, Roger Deakins) or There Will Be Blood (director of photography, Robert Elswit) would be hardly watchable were it not for a gripping story. The career transition from photographer to feature film-maker has been made by such esteemed visionaries as Stanley Kubrick, Larry Clarke, and Anton Corbijn, and is something that we will certainly see more of with the help of modern technology.

The invention of the printing press did not create poets, historians and novelists, it simply enabled those who were to more effectively share their stories. HD DSLR video is the same. It has never been easier to make a great-looking film and equally, it has never been easier to make an awful film. The medium is changing and developing constantly, but these technological advances are useless without people who have a knowledge of the craft of storytelling, who can create mood and atmosphere from nowhere with lighting and composition. For documentary photographers, these are very exciting times and we are seeing more fantastic multimedia presentations which utilize video, stills, sound, and more on websites such as Media Storm and Magnum in Motion.

Burma – Land of Shadows by Chien-Chi Chang for Magnum in Motion

Kingsize Studios launched as a photographic rental studio and equipment hire facility but quickly evolved to also service film-makers and, most significantly, the hybrid photography-motion work that has developed as a result of the new technology. It is now common for stills and video to be shot on the same job; this is driven mainly by clients who recognise the power of the combined mediums, and those photographers who are willing to take the risk and learn the new techniques.

These articles will mainly discuss Canon cameras. I have heard great things about the Nikon D800 for video and I’m sure Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, and other manufacturers produce DSLRs that shoot quality video. Canon simply stole the march on the other companies (being the first one to offer high-definition video on a full-frame chip camera) and hence became the ubiquitous, industry-standard choice for HD DSLR film-making. Of course, all the principles we will cover are relevant whichever brand of camera you use — it is just a tool, after all.

I look forward to bringing you a variety of articles on film-making: there will be tutorials and tips as well as interviews with photographers who are incorporating video into their commercial practice.

Kingsize Studio’s instructional video on DSLR settings for video

In the meantime, take a look at the Kingsize YouTube channel on which you can see the first in a series of DSLR filmmaking tutorial videos we are making for photographers shooting video for the first time. The short videos on settings (above) and DSLR rigs will be enough to get you shooting video in no time.