Cameras a Gogo

A column about camera profusion...


Profusion

Johannes Louis, a young German cinematographer, recently sent me a facebook message saying that he was shooting his thesis film. I wrote back asking more or less this question:


What are you shooting with?

  • 35mm anamorphic?
  • 3-Perf?
  • 2-Perf?
  • Alexa?
  • Red MX?
  • Sony F23?
  • Super 16?
  • SI-2K?
  • Panasonic Varicam?
  • Sony EX-3?
  • Canon 5D?
  • Canon 1D?
  • Canon 550?
  • HDV?
  • Mini-DV?
  • iPhone?

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Complexity

And I wasn't even asking him if he was shooting film, video or data, outputting Raw or HD-SDI, 10-bit or 8-bit, and what codec he was using, at what bit rate, or whether he was using disks or flash memory.

Nor was I asking whether he was going for a 2D or 3D finish, and if 3D was he going to shoot with a stereo rig or do the Titans and Titanic thing: convert from 2D to 3D in post?

To be comprehensive I should have also asked him if he was going real or virtual, or more commonly, was he going to mix the two: shoot real actors in front of a green screen and combine them with virtual settings? Or maybe create flesh-eating fish, or other virtual beings, and attach them to real actors? Or just mix it all up?

And don't even get me started on the dozens of possible workflows that each of these choices entail, with variations on HD, 2K, 4K, 6K DIs with or without proxies, color space conversions, and simultaneous outputs to tape, negatives, IP/IN, prints and DCPs, not forgetting of course LTO back-ups, or -- let's go ahead and splurge -- monochrome separation masters...

Yes! This is indeed the world of cinema today, this wonderful ever-changing, dizzying profusion of formats and working methods. 21st century cinema technology is complex and chaotic! Our cup runneth over... and spilleth all over the place.

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The Canon 1D

This is the age of camera comparison tests. I've always felt that the best way to evaluate a cinematography tool is to watch a movie made with it (or better yet make your own short movie), because the act of filmmaking best reveals its own technology. But today's cinematographer must constantly shoot tests, just to keep up with the flow of new camera tools.

I recently met with Carlo Varini, a French cinematographer, who invited me to see footage from two 90-minute TV episodes that he lit, entirely shot with the Canon 1D. To be honest it looked quite good, and Amazing Digital, the Parisian post house, was very good at hiding the occasional imperfections inherent in the line-skipping and H264 compression, (notably moiré and aliasing which created shimmering rainbow patterns in fine detail).

Carlo Varini, AFC, shooting with Canon 1D on Nicolas Le Floch
(click on image for closer view)

The first season of Carlo's TV series was shot in 16mm, they then switched to 35mm 2-Perf, and then switched again to the Canon 1D because of drastic cutbacks in the shooting budget. But again, it looked pretty good and I asked Carlo whether he would shoot with the 1D in the future. He paused, and said, "You know with the rate of change of camera tools today, I can't say what I'll be shooting with next! All I know is that we will have to make tests with the latest tools available 4 or 5 weeks before the shoot, and decide then what to shoot with."

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Something old, something new

A decisive moment
(click to search for Cartier-Bresson's photos)

Frequently changing cameras changes the act of filmmaking. Total familiarity with your tool allows for a mastery and freedom that one doesn't have the first time out.

The great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was known for always using the same Leica camera, most often with a 50mm lens and 1/125 second shutter. He might have taken different photographs if he had been forced to switch cameras every few months. Similarly some cinematographers may use the same lenses, camera, and film stock time and again.

Of course, the decision to start using a new tool can also be the occasion for experimenting, for renewing one's work and finding new images.

It is clear that the Impressionist painters owe a lot to the new technology of the tube of paint, which made it easier for them to work outside their studios, setting their easels up on sidewalks and country roads. Just as the new Cameflex camera helped the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers to go shoot outside the sound stages, in small hotel rooms and on city streets.

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The dance

For today's filmmaker, who must dance from the familiar camera to the new camera, to the even newer camera, I would like to conclude by quoting the blind protagonist's description of the tango in Scent of a Woman

No mistakes in the tango, Donna, not like life.

That’s what makes the tango so great.

It’s simple: if you make a mistake, if you get all tangled up,

you just tango on.

Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade (played by Al Pacino)

Al Pacino & Gabrielle Anwar in Scent of a Woman
directed by Martin Brest, cinematography by Donald Thorin, ASC

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The comparison

It is in this spirit that I must add one more item to the bottom of the camera list I sent to my German freund, right below the ipod: the Barbiecam.

click to see video

Canon 7D vs. Barbie Video Girl

The video comparison linked above between the Canon 7D and the Barbie Video Girl was forwarded to me by Hugh Whittaker of Panavision London, (no doubt concerned that dolls would soon start showing up on his camera floor). Somehow, this hilarious comparison directed by Brandon Bloch perfectly sums up our era of never-ending testing of new camera tools...
So let's tango on!

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