Independent Review: D-I-Y Options: Are They a Real Alternative?

Above, you’re looking at the Canon 7D.  It is one of many cameras that has recently revolutionized the industry of filmmaking, and taken low budget filmmaking by storm.  In doing so, it has returned true independence to filmmakers that are actually making their movie by themselves.  Before we go headlong into new technologies, however, let’s examine how things have changed on the Do-It-Yourself filmmaking market over the years, shall we?

With the advent of video, many homegrown independent filmmakers were first able to produce a movie on their own.  This was a beginning trend in the 1980’s, where many filmmakers such as Chester N. Turner, and David A. Prior used VHS to make such schlock classics as Black Devil Doll From Hell and Sledgehammer before 1985.  While these films are just today being rediscovered as lost gems, a whole subgenre has existed on video shot feature films. 

Canon has taken it upon themselves to be at the forefront of this “prosumer” market, with customer friendly prices that come with professional quality.  Their first major victory in this department was the Canon XL1, a revolutionary 3 CCD chip camera released in 1997 that led to an explosion in home-made content, initially providing the first YouTuber’s with a camera to do Webisodes with.  In 2004, they again took the reigns of the market when they released the Canon XL2, which came with a then-revolutionary setting that allowed filmmakers to shoot in 24p, down from the typical 29.97 frame rate that so typified the look as “that video look”. 

As with any new revolution, Hollywood is slow to realize the benefit of such a system, and quick to condemn it.  “Real” filmmakers spoke out against the new cameras, typifying them as looking “cheap” and “video”.  Enterprising young filmmakers, never the type to take a criticism as a reason to stop, took that as a call to arms.  The XL2 was behind more student shoots in 2004-2006 at my film school than any other camera.

Many criticized George Lucas when he announced he would be working with HD video cameras for the Star Wars prequels, but he shook them aside.  Not only were the cameras easier to manipulate and maintain than bulky, costly film cameras, they also quickly sped up the workflow process for  LucasFilm’s many digital compositors, weening out the costly digitization of film for compositing purposes.

And then, well, then things stepped up a lot.  In 2007, a new company, the Red Digital Cinema Camera Company came out with a product that would forever leave its mark on filmmaking.  The Red One was much talked about after its announcement in 2006, and finally straggled to market in 2007, where it was quickly embraced for its many enhanced qualities.  Not only does it record in 4K resolution on its revolutionary chipset (the first camera to do so), it also had the option to record straight to hard drive or other card media, doing away with the limiting compression ratios of the HDV tape format and easier manipulation of files in post-production.  It also comes with a standard PL mount, allowing video-based filmmakers to achieve the depth of field they long complained that they lost with other digital video cameras.

Since the release of the Red One competitors have been hustling to keep up with, and even outdo, Red Digital Cinema Company, whose most recent camera the Red Epic has been used for many big budget Hollywood films.  The bonus to the Red’s fantastic quality is its great price.  The Red One released at a price point of $18,000, without lenses, which typically double the price to about $35,000 for everything out the door.  While this is no small amount of money for anyone, in comparison with $500-1,000 a day rental rates on film cameras, it’s a steal for sure.

While it first remained the best, most expensive option in the world of low budget filmmaking, it was still a large leap in cost reduction, where at the time, a $3 million film was again considered low budget.  Taking the theories behind such film-shot movies as Clerks and El Mariachi, young filmmakers started to use the Red One to make their own feature films, and Hollywood took notice.  Filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Neil Blomkamp, and Kevin Smith have used the Red One on films such as Che, The Informant!, The Social Network, District 9, and Red State.

Director Jason Eisner was one of the first directors to use the Red Epic on his debut feature, Hobo With a Shotgun, which has gotten compliments on its rich colors and zany camerawork.  Canon came out with their own stepped-up HDV camera, the Canon XL-H1, which got compliments for its BNC-out port, which allows for uncompressed recording straight to a hard drive, which isn’t provided, leaving filmmakers to come up with their own workflows.  While the XL-H1 never gained a strong foothold in the industry because it lacked the simple workflow of the Red Digital cameras, it still provided an even lower budget option for those looking to shoot native 1080, meaning the lines of resolution are never compressed throughout the process.

Deciding they couldn’t compete directly with Red’s quick workflow, high quality, and low price, they stepped into the DSLR market, or Digital Single-Lens Reflex cameras, which use a mechanical mirror system to quickly capture high quality images.  While used primarly by still photographers at first, filmmakers quickly realized the potential of DSLR’s in filmmaking, as the Canon 5D, Rebel T2I, and Canon 7D all have modes to record video, providing low budget filmmakers many new options in the area of interchangable lenses and accurate viewfinder depiction of depth of field, two of the biggest complaints amongst HDV camera consumers.  Weighing less than 10 lbs, these cameras are all very portable, with the ability to hook onto professional rigs and jibs.  The camera body, and basic prime lenses will run less than $5,000, which is an entirely different bracket than the people buying Red Digital’s cameras.

So what does this mean for a truly independent filmmaker?  Many things.  First, quality can be had for a price that is more in line with the budgets of films less than $100,000, where producers can pay less than a percent of their entire budget for a good quality camera that will be with them for the whole shoot.  Second, it offers mobility for guerilla style filmmaking, often with minescule budgets, filmmakers are unable to afford permits for shooting locations, and thus, have to shoot where they can, when they can.  A bulky camera with a lot of attachments can lead to longer set up times and the inability to move quickly if the situation calls for it. 

The third aspect of the DSLR camera can be either a help or a hindrance, depending on your situation.  Many DSLR’s record to P2 cards, which are relatively cheap at less than $20 per GB, but the cards are limited in their recording time to the space available on the card.  Many filmmakers overcome this aspect of P2 cards by simply buying multiple ones, so they don’t have to wait for the dump to the computer during intense shooting.  However, P2 cards compress video in order to store them, and the compression ratios can squash the images quite a bit, making things a bit tougher during compositing than in situations where the post-production workers have uncompressed images.

However, the depth of field afforded by DSLR’s adds a level of production value that was missing in past HDV cameras, the “video look” that people so readily equate to home movies, Cops, and The Real World, leaving them unable to separate the visual style of a narrative movie from these staples of American life, leaving many media consumers with the impression of p0or quality, not only in the look, but in the movie overall.

I recently saw former child star and current camera operator Ty Mitchell (Halloween, The Fog) speak on a panel about filmmaking.  After appearing in the films of horror legend John Carpenter, Mitchell claims the same success that Carpenter has found can never be mimicked because of the kind of cameras that are being used.  That sparked a discussion:  Could that be true?  Could the style of camera used limit a filmmaker’s overall success?  For now, I’m afraid Mitchell may be right. 

As long as that bias against video holds up, anything shot on less than a Panavision camera will be unacceptable to many, although people like David Fincher have already proven him wrong with his multiple uses of the Red One in his Academy Award-winning films.  However, that wasn’t his point:  A young filmmaker just starting out can never gain the admiration and success of Carpenter, all because of the cameras being used.  Is this true?

Short answer:  No way.  In a constantly changing field like filmmaking, every company is trying to outdo the other, and DSLR’s are here to stay.  As these cameras are more often used by budding filmmakers, the quality of their output will continue to shine through, the problem is so many people now have access to these cameras, that often untalented individuals, or people looking to crank out cheap films, can now make movies much more easily.

In effect, from the large number of movies produced each year, less of them are coming from talented individuals trying to express their creativity, and more are coming from- looking to turn a quick profit.  While this is indeed a problem, I believe, like any other industry, that the quality movies of those produced with DSLR’s will shine through, and the crap will get flushed like usual.  While the general landscape may look unpromising (as it was during the 80’s), the industry follows what works, and when movies shot on DSLR’s don’t work, they aren’t any better because of the camera being used.

Vice versa, the quality of a movie is no longer hindered by the lack of an expensive camera, it can only help the excellent storytelling and acting going on in the movie.  Can the next John Carpenter exist in a world of DSLR movies?  I believe he or she already is, just below the radar, waiting to make their strike to bigger, better films, just as Carpenter did after his first film Dark Star, which he made in film school.  With the minor success of that film, he was able to get bigger, better equipment.  Hell, on Halloween he and his camera operator revolutionized the way the world used the Stedi-Cam rig in ways that are still being mimicked today.  It’s just a matter of time before a filmmaker armed with a DSLR camera gets their big break and scores a decent budget to move up the camera ranks, which in this day and age means up to the Red Digital camera line.  A camera doesn’t make the filmmaker.  The techniques used, and the story told make the filmmaker, and DSLR’s are just another in a long line of inventions that will help them achieve their goals if they have the drive and the talent to do so.

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