March 9, 2010

Gear Talk: Testing the Canon 7D and 5D for Vérité Shooting

This morning, I held the future of documentary filmmaking in my hands.  

Miguel Goodbar, manager of new business development at Adorama Camera Rental in New York City, invited us up to their studio to test both a Canon 7D and Canon 5D, rigged for video. Each came with a high-quality Zacuto viewfinder, a Beachtek audio adaptor with a Sennheiser EW 100 radio mic and a Rode video shotgun mic. They were all set up on Red Rock grip mount support systems with focus wheel. It looked like the same setup you'd find on a pro 16mm film camera. 

However, this whole kit was priced under $6,000 dollars (and would rent for $275 per day or $600 for a week) and instead of 400-foot film canisters, it stores data on 8gig Extreme Flash Cards that can shoot up to 12 minutes of 1080i High Def Video at a time. Through our test we wanted to find out if was at all possible to use these new cameras in a robust doc environment--for run and gun shooting. It turns out the answer is, yes and no.

 

Background

For documentary filmmakers, relatively inexpensive video cameras and mics have made the one-person crew a viable shooting option. Prosumer cameras designed for simplicity and ease of use have allowed less tech-savvy individuals to capture usable, broadcast- quality picture and sound. In many cases these filmmakers have traded technical prowess for a focus on story. Sony, Panasonic and Canon DV and HDV cameras have captured thousands of hours of reality TV programs and documentaries over the past few years. It wasn't always so easy to make broadcast-quality media.

When I met my future wife in the early '90s, I talked her into dropping out of film school to make a narrative film with me. At that point in time, it didn't seem feasible to shoot a movie on video. Instead, we shot on 16mm. It was an awesome experience to use sharp prime lenses and a heavy sturdy camera. Even though we had no budget, we still needed a bunch of people to pull off the lighting, sound and camera-assisting. When you can't pay people, it's pretty hard to get them to pay attention to what needs to happen to get the film made. 

A few years, and another difficult 16mm narrative feature shoot later, we bought a first-generation Canon XL1 miniDV camera. Owning a decent camera that didn't require a crew to operate was a dream come true. I was happy to give up the quality of film for the ease of use and adaptability of video. Over the past decade I've shot well over a thousand hours with my XL1, making four documentary features for broadcast and countless shorts and industrials. With a radio mic on a subject and a directional mic on the camera, I almost always got "good enough" sound to go along with a "good enough" picture. As I was mostly shooting vérité-style doc films, I was much more concerned with storytelling than I was with how the images looked.

For many years, while I shot on digital video for my documentaries, I continued to use a film camera to take still photos because I didn't believe that digital pics held up to film. I eventually got a point-and-shoot digital to follow my kids around. The quality wasn't so hot, but it allowed me to shoot a lot in a mobile way. In the last year, I've shot most of my pics with my iPhone, even though the quality is lacking. Last month, I finally looked into buying a Digital SLR to take photos, and I discovered that a lot of people have been using the newest models to capture high-quality HD video.

However, most of what I read made it clear that they worked best under fairly controlled shooting environments--the kind you're more likely to find on a narrative film set. We went to Adorama to see if using these tools could make it possible to use these cameras for run-and-gun, vérité-style documentary shooting.

 

About the Gear

When we arrived at Adorama to try out some options, we found that Miguel had set up several rigs, which were really more designed for narrative filmmaking. The Adorama rental department primarily serves the photo industry, renting out cameras and lights for photo shoots. 

As director of business development for Adorama, Miguel first acquired the 7D and the 5D as still photography tools. However, the constant inquiries into the video capabilities compelled him to start setting them up and renting them out for video shoots.

 

Testing out the Canon 5D.

 

 

Because the ergonomics of the camera was designed for taking a picture without moving, the picture can get very shaky while shooting handheld. A lot of companies are making after-market stabilizers, steadycams, monitors and sound tools that can turn the DSLR into a  more stable and adaptable video rig.

In order to use the camera in a handheld setting, some kind of stabilization device as well as a view finder are imperative. In addition, in order to get professional sound, the setup needs a sound adaptor like a beechteck with xlr inputs allowing the use of professional mics. There's currently no easy way to override the automatic gain control on the camera, so some people use an external sound recorder and slate each shot, synching it in post.  For my purposes, the lack of override is workable. I currently use the auto gain when I shoot with my XL1; I find it nearly impossible to try to control sound while shooting as a single-person crew. I have found that the auto gain works out fine in the vast majority of situations.

Even with a fairly mobile setup, there is no getting around the fact that the DSLRs can only shoot 12 minutes at a time due to the extreme amount of processing needed to capture and store the frame image data created by the large CMOS sensors. After shooting 12 minutes, you would have to stop and restart the shooting. However, several users have pointed out that the cameras have a tendency to overheat and shut down if used for long periods of time. This could prove disastrous on a long shoot. 

 

The Test

With an assistant camera person to pull focus and watch the cameraperson's back, one could do a lot worse than this setup with a 5D. The images, captured through ultra-sharp lenses with wide open apertures, are stunning and have that low depth-of-field look that we have come to expect from film. The large amount of data collected by the sensors increases the sharpness of the images and allows for more robust processing in post. 

We put together a kit using Red Rock grip mount arms, a Zacuto viewfinder and a focus ring. The two-hand grips and shoulder mount with a weight for stability made it possible to make smooth moves.

Miguel hadn't thought through the sound situation as extensively. He had a radio mic hooked onto the flash shoe and plugged directly into the camera's mini-jack. I thought it would make more sense to set it up with a radio mic and a directional, as we currently have our DV and HDV cameras set up. We affixed a Beachteck adapter to the stabilizing bars, added in a directional mic, and we were off. 

I've always preferred my XL1 with my eye directly to the viewfinder because I find it much easier to focus and hold steady than most barrel-type cameras with LCD viewfinder screens. The Zacuto viewfinder on the DSLR was revelatory. The image was so much crisper and detailed than I'm used to. In addition, the viewfinder helped not only with focusing, but also stability. However, with my short experiment, I felt that I would likely need an assistant with the camera to watch my back and guide me as I moved because I had a much lower sense of spatial perception due to the required connection to the camera for stability and focus. I've gotten so comfortable with my XL1 that I'm fine on a shoot by myself. Perhaps some practice might fix this problem with the DSLR, but for my limited test, I felt a little less sure. In addition, this rig calls attention to itself, so for the kind of shooting where one hopes to fade into the background, it might pose a bit of a problem.

For our test I shot my partner David talking to the camera then walking away as I followed. He then turned and walked back past the camera. We tried out a couple of fixed focal-length lenses. It was clear that the situation would work best with a slightly wide angle lens because the exactness of focus required was less of an issue. I'm quite sure that one would get used to the focus issues fairly quickly.   

I regret not trying out a zoom lens as well because I have come to rely on zooming in vérité docs for a number of reasons. Zooming in and out allows me to change my frame without moving. I know that I need the different frames for editing, and I find that when I move I draw attention to myself. I'm sure that it can work, but it will take some practice to smooth out the kinks. 

I also tried the same shot with my XH A1 to compare the look of HDV with standard lenses vs. DSLR. The look of the DSLR image seemed exponentially richer. In addition, I felt a greater sense of control over the image as I shot. However, that level of control might make it more difficult for me, as the storyteller, to save enough of my mental focus for the story that unfolds in front of me. We've posted some clips on www.rumur.com. To link to them directly, here's a clip from the Canon 7D test. For the Canon 5D test, click here. For the Canon XH A1 test, click here.

 

 

Results

 

Comparison shopping for cameras.

 

 

Currently, the only way to get the kind of sharp, film-like images with a prosumer video camera like the Sony ex-1 or the Canon XL-H1 is to use an expensive adaptor like the Letus in order to use high-quality glass lenses. In addition to the cost, the adaptor cuts down on the amount of light reaching the sensor. The adaptors cost over $1,000, so they can be prohibitively expensive to the low-budget doc-maker. In terms of cost, the DSLRs can deliver the same or better picture quality for half the cost. However, the ease of use, media storage and simplicity factors are going to be a big impediment to the one-person doc crew for the near future.

With all of that said, these cameras signal a huge lowering of the bar to entry for filmmaking, where control over setting is possible.

There are still a number of hoops to jump through before the ergonomics and ease of use match those of  prosumer HD video cameras. However, if the camera and video arms at Canon decide to collaborate instead of compete, a whole new class of cameras will soon be hitting the market, and they will change the way independent documentaries look. 

 

With the ability to shoot higher-quality images, but less of an ability to shoot endlessly, I like the idea that it might force filmmakers to re-think their process and ultimately create better films.

 

Michael Galinsky is a filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York.

 

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