I’m not sure that I’m able to offer any hard and fast rules, or clearly define which equipment should be used for which particular projects. I’m hoping, however, that this article might help to outline some of the considerations necessary when choosing the right kit for the job.
We don’t like to talk too much about equipment in Hungry Eye. However, even though the technology should never define the art, it can have a huge influence on current trends. I know, more ‘dirty words’; but even the cost of hard drives can have an impact. Unfortunately, as much as I’m going to try and avoid it, I’m going to have to use a small amount of ‘geek speak’, as some of the constraints on your choice of camera and other equipment may be technical.
A few years ago, choosing the right camera for the job was fairly straightforward: 35mm film for cinema, ENG for general broadcast and 16mm film for lower-budget films and shorts (as well as projects with wildlife, or possibly natural history, content). Okay, so this is a very abbreviated list, but you get the idea. Then HDSLRs came along and started to confuse matters with their cinematic good looks in budget-friendly packages. Add to this the large-sensor digital cine cameras – costing anything from as little as around £4,000 to the price of an average house – and the number of choices increased even further.
When considering your equipment options, rather than basing your decision purely on the camera’s aesthetic value, it is important to think about how a film will be shown or distributed. Sometimes certain formats are better than others, depending on the method of delivery; although the look of a certain camera and lens combination may well be the only aspect needed to influence your decision.
An obvious example of technology influencing filmmaking is the sheer number of visual pieces we see cut to music these days. This is, I’m sure, down to the lack of good audio recording on HDSLRs; a problem that can easily be overcome when the need to record dialogue arises. Nevertheless, these visual pieces, often without any obvious narrative, have become a valid film style; yet hint at filmmakers working within their equipment’s limitations. The silent film has returned to mainstream cinema in the form of The Artist. Okay, I’m not saying this is silent for the same reasons, but it’s silent nevertheless.
The lack of professional audio connections on an HDSLR is viewed by many as a deal breaker, as this means an external audio recorder must be used. However, I think personally that the techniques used when shooting with an HDSLR are similar to those used when shooting to film. So for me, a sound recordist with external recorder seems a reasonable choice and can add a certain amount of flexibility and control in comparison to recording audio to camera. The down side is having to synchronise the audio clips to the video in the edit. There are ways of doing this automatically, but syncing by hand is actually not too hard with practise, as long as you slate the takes. For convenience though, and when you don’t have a soundie, a large sensor video camera with all the right connections may be the best option.
It is also worth thinking about how a camera needs to handle for a particular type of shoot. If all projects were static shots, gentle tripod moves or slider/track moves, we could shoot with pretty much any camera. But if you need to shoot handheld, for example, then some cameras are better than others. It’s true, HDSLRs and large sensor video cameras can be attached to rigs to improve handling. But if you need fast setup and a quick response to things going on then they may not be your best choice. Coupled with the lack of adequate sound recording on the HDSLR, it should be ruled out as a run and gun camera. On the other hand, there are people who shoot news and more active documentary films with HDSLRs, and do it well, so it is possible and the results can be fantastic with careful handling.
If you are considering a project aimed at broadcast television there are certain technical standards to consider. Maybe then, it is a good idea to look at how technically appropriate the different types of camera are. For various reasons, broadcasters have a detailed set of requirements and limitations. These are readily available to view online or download; not the most riveting read, but certainly detailed and worth understanding before undertaking a major project. Unfortunately, at the time of going to press, most – if not all – HDSLRs fail to comply with the minimum bit rate [50mbps] required for total acquisition. By this, I mean broadcast companies will accept a project with some HDSLR footage if it is justified as part of the project. That is not to say that if the content is strong enough that it won’t be acceptable, and there are plenty of examples where HDSLRs have been used; but they are the exception rather than the rule. A recent example is Leo Maguire’s directorial debut, Gypsy Blood, made for Channel 4. This has been widely reported as being made entirely on a Sony NEX-FS100, but I know there was plenty of Canon EOS 5D MkII; it’s unmistakable!
Not all large sensor video cameras, including the NEX-FS100 and Panasonic AG-AF100 (101), are able to comply either. In order to natively comply with broadcast specs they need a little help, as their maximum bit rate is too low. They do however output a clean signal without any of the viewfinder information via the HDMI port, giving you the option to record to an external recorder at a higher bit rate. For this you will need to connect the camera to one of an increasing range of data recorders from Blackmagic Design, Atomos, nanoFlash, Cinedeck, Convergent Design, AJA Video Systems, etc. The list goes on! These cameras are fully-fledged, dedicated video cameras, so you also get pro audio connections, headphone monitoring and other display tools to help with exposure and focus, that once used is difficult to work without.
Okay, so what is broadcast spec out of the box? Well, there are cameras made specifically for this. I mentioned ENG cameras earlier. Although this stands for ‘electronic news gathering’, it is now used to describe a huge range of cameras, covering as vast a price range. Sounds like a promising choice for broadcast facing acquisition. Without external recorders, most offer at least minimum spec for TV. So where’s the catch? Well, unfortunately the sensors are generally between one-third and two-thirds of an inch, so you don’t get the shallow depth of field you’ve come to love. You do, as with the large sensor video cameras, get professional sound connections in the form of XLRs, however. The big plus, though, has to be the ergonomics. These cameras are designed to handle naturally without rigs. They don’t suffer from moiré anti-aliasing or jelly effect, and offer professional tools like zebras and peaking.
The lack of shallow depth of field may put many off the idea, but these cameras have been used for general release feature films. For example, Monsters, written and directed by Gareth Edwards, was shot on a Sony PMW-EX3. He could well have shot it on a RED, but chose to shoot it on the Sony because he thought that by the time he had fully rigged the RED, the unit would have felt too big for the kind of guerrilla-style camera work he was after.
It is worth touching on a few other pieces of equipment that are essential to filmmaking; maybe not as sexy as cameras, but every bit as relevant. The best thing about most ancillary equipment is that if it is of good quality and well looked after, it will give many reliable years of service.
Generally, the first and most essential piece of grip equipment is the tripod. Video tripods differ from stills tripods, in that their legs are usually double braced and their heads have a fluid action; thus adding smooth resistance while panning or tilting. As with some stills tripods, they usually have a spreader; either in the middle of the legs or at floor level. This braces the tripod, allowing it to take more weight. The head is fixed to the legs using a ball and bowl to enable levelling. Probably the most important (and obvious) factor to consider is that the tripod is heavy-duty enough to comfortably take the weight of your fully-rigged camera. Another thing you must ensure is that the legs can take enough tension from the head at the end of a pan without recoiling. This will make the camera notch back, thus spoiling a nice decelerating pan. Another consideration might be the overall weight of the tripod; carbon fibre legs are nice and light, but at a cost.
Investment in a microphone is also a must. It is possible to buy a camera mic that sits on the camera shoe, but this is very limited and will record handling noise; plus, it’s usually going to be situated too far from your subject. So it’s worth budgeting for a reasonable shotgun mic. A high-end mic can cost thousands of pounds. You don’t have to invest that much, but I would recommend spending at least a couple of hundred pounds if you can, as a mic will last for years. Essential equipment for your mic includes a boom pole (the lighter the better) and some wind protection. The thoughts of having to fork out for these additional extras may seem like a prohibitive expense, but these bits of kit can save a shoot; wind noise will render all sound unusable. In my opinion, a great first kit would be the Rycote Universal Camera Kit. At around £100 it includes a suspension mount as well as hot shoe brackets, windshield and other useful mounting hardware.
If you are shooting with an HDSLR you will need an external audio recorder; the onboard mic and preamps on your camera may be good enough for home movies, but they will not stand up to any serious projects. Make sure you buy a recorder with XLR inputs and that the inputs can supply phantom power to connected mics.
The list could go on, but I think that as far as the accessories are concerned, that covers the essentials.
I realise this information contains some contradictions and generally nothing absolutely definitive. Sometimes the choices we make are artistic; sometimes they are technical; sometimes we might even find our films being screened in a way we weren’t expecting. The truth is, that with all of the variables involved in filmmaking – from the script to the delivery method or format – there will always be decisions to make and stand by. The choice of camera is just another one of those choices.