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DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility

COW Library : DSLR Video : Dave Stump, ASC : DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
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DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility

Dave Stump, ASC, has spent over 20 years as a director of photography, a visual effects supervisor and VFX DP. Along the way, he won an Academy Award® for Scientific and Technical Achievement. Add his position as Chair of the Camera Subcommittee of the American Society of Cinematographers Technical Committee to the mix, and you have a unique combination: a rigorous, scientific mind with direct responsibility for evaluating new cameras and technologies for his peers in the ASC, and a guy who is used to doing whatever it takes to get the shot -- the scholarly and the practical.

In his role as Rigorous Scientific Guy, Dave has been part of the Camera Assessment Series (CAS), jointly produced by the ASC, the Producer's Guild of America, and Revelations Entertainment, which is the production company founded by Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary. The goal is simple: to shoot demanding scenes with the industry's highest-end cameras, side-by-side, to illustrate their strengths and weaknesses.

[Ed. note: Robert Primes, ASC, described the CAS in Creative COW Magazine's "Blue Ribbon Awards" issue, and how DSLRs stack up, in an article called DSLRs: A Time Exposure.]

We knew that Dave has heard reports from his peers in the ASC that are using DSLRs and has been taking a closer look at them for his own work. We asked him how well these new cameras hold up for digital cinema, both technically and in practice. This article contains some of the observations he made during a recent conversation.


We brought a Canon 5D Mark II along on some of the Camera Assessment Series setups, but it was never intended to be part of the actual primary testing, because the CAS had strict criteria that excluded it. Among the rules: the participating cameras have to be commercially available, have to have shot commercial motion picture work, and have to have 4:4:4 capability. But we did actually sneak one in alongside a couple of setups, just so that we could see what there is to the craze.

Unofficially, it was an interesting experience to see them included in side-by-side testing of the material. There is obviously some pretty interesting stuff being shot with DSLRs in those commercial motion picture and television work -- but I find that the backend workflow for the screen leaves a lot to be desired. The codecs for handling material from DSLRs are pretty low in color bit depth, and fairly high in compression, and there are not many options to derive higher quality for large screen use of the images.

There are also limitations for using DSLRs on set. For example, there is not much in terms of video tap output for monitoring while shooting.

They are also difficult to keep in focus unless you put cine lenses on them. And when you put a cine lens on, if you don't connect the camera to some kind of fairly rigid platform, focusing with a cine-style focuser actually deflects the camera. You get a snap-jerk to the image -- just by virtue of the camera's light weight, and of the torque of the focus puller's arm -- focusing the darn thing. Unless you get the camera connected to something, focusing will actually point the camera down and away or up and away. It's as if the light weight works against you in some scenarios.

For the shooting itself, DSLRs are yielding good latitude -- not as great as the highest-end digital cinema cameras, of course, and certainly not as good as film. But there's some very powerful image processing going on inside those cameras. They have done a lot of dark subtraction work to quiet those sensors down, and can make them very quiet in the blacks.

But for now, you can really only output HD for motion imaging from DSLRs. You can't get the full benefit of the resolution of the sensor to do motion picture RAW work with any of them. I don't know if anybody has hacked that yet, but it really would be a lot more valuable to be able to derive for motion pictures the same resolution in RAW format that you can for still images from those same cameras.

And truthfully, while the images generally look really good, the right image criteria is going to stress the sensor -- or at least stress the QuickTime output wrapper -- and you will get some color aliasing.

So it's just an absolute mystery why manufacturers haven't purposely designed these DSLRs as digital cinema cameras, based on the technology that's already in them. I think that companies like Canon have an enormous potential for building awesome digital cinema cameras, but they don't seem inclined to go that way... or at least I haven't seen them, or anyone else, SEEM to be inclined to lean that way yet.


EVALUATION

The thing that I always keep in mind when I evaluate the trend towards using DSLRs is the same thing I keep in mind when evaluating any new camera: I don't have a judgment about it one way or the other. It's just another tool in the toolbox for certain kinds of shots.

What it really is, is an indicator -- a barometer of what cinematographers want. They want a camera that is smaller, lighter and easier to use, and that produces better looking pictures. The Canon 5D Mark II is the size that people wish the Sony F35 could be. If you could get that kind of performance in such a small package, then the result becomes the cinematographer's dream camera.

That has always been true. In the 40s and 50s, we shot movies and TV on big, heavy Mitchell BNCR's. And then along came ARRIFLEX (For image and more information please view Gary Adcock's article, "Digital Cinema Comes of Age.") with this amazing but noisy little thing called the 2C, which was sort of a byproduct World War 2. Everybody jumped in and had to have one, because it was so much smaller and lighter, and yeah, who cares about the racket it makes? Now we can handhold the camera!

That was a revolution -- but it's a revolution that a lot of people have forgotten about. It really is the same revolution that the Canon 5D Mark II has created. In that respect, it is already a big success.


NOT JUST "POTENTIAL" VALUE

We don't need to limit our conversation about DSLRs in digital cinema to their future potential. I think that DSLRs have a lot of value right now.

For example, I do a lot of visual effects work. I can use these cameras to get a shot that nobody has ever seen before. Say I was going to put a camera out on some train tracks to get run over by a train: I wouldn't put an ALEXA out there. I wouldn't put a RED out there, but I can go to a producer in good conscience and say, "I can get the plate that we need by putting a Canon 5D Mark II out on the railroad tracks, and running over it with a train."


There are also times when it helps to have stealth in your toolbox. You can get a shot that, if you were there with a film camera or with an F35, you might have problems. If you are doing a wide shot in a public place, people might shy away from it, or they might just stare into it. You might even attract the ire of the local authorities, whereas if you are just standing there with a still camera on a tripod, you can gather an establishing shot of traffic going by for a movie or a TV show, fairly efficiently, without interference, and without attracting too much attention. To me, that's extremely useful.

There are numerous television shows that have been employing them to great effect. That is what has led to things like an entire episode of "House, MD" being shot with DSLRs [by Gale Tattersal, ASC], and episodes of "24" [by Rodney Charters, ASC].

I personally am not inclined to try and shoot a whole television show with a DSLR. But there are guys who want to be out there, on the hairy edge. This is sort of what they're doing to stay in the avant-garde. They're shooting entire TV shows, and even moving into features with the Canon 5D Mark II. I think it has that kind of value. I personally might never do that, but I honor those who would.


THE CINEMATOGRAPHER'S RESPONSIBILITY

I have done some of my own testing with the Canon 5D Mark II, and I really enjoy shooting with it. As with any new camera, I enjoy finding its unique characteristics.

To me, one of the responsibilities of a cinematographer is to know how to use all the tools available, so that you can let the script and the story and the circumstances tell you which camera to use, rather than just picking a camera that you have a comfort level with.

It obeys a really old axiom, that when the only tool you own is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you know only one kind of camera, then every job you do looks like a job for that camera. But ultimately, what we learned from CAS is that every camera has its strengths and weaknesses. If you let the job tell you which camera to use, rather than just your knowledge of only one camera, then you are ultimately doing the greatest service to your producer.

The thing that I think about most is my responsibility to the projects that I do. Sometimes part of the job description entails that you're here to save them from themselves. In the same respect that it's possible to spend too much money on a project, it's also possible to spend too little. Making the right choice palatable and desirable is a delicate dance.

Ultimately, a question that you must ask your producer and your director, as a responsible cinematographer is, "What is your expectation of the shelf life of this product that we are creating? How hard do you want me to work to make this product future-proof?"

By knowing and educating myself on a lot of different camera systems, I can make a choice. There's an important distinction to be made here. If I only know one camera system, I can't make a choice. I can only decide to use the tool that I know.

I can't choose some of the others that might work better, if I don't know what they are.

 


 

Dave Stump, ASC has worked as a DP, effects cinematographer and VFX supervisor on dozens of films including Quantum of Solace, X-men and X-men 2, The Bourne Identity, Army of Darkness, Star Trek: First Contact, Batman Forever and many more. He chairs the American Society of Cinemtagraphers subcommittees on Cameras, and Metadata.

In 2000, Dave was part of a team that received a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences® for hand-development of advanced camera data capture systems, which he describes in his first article for Creative COW Magazine, Metadata and The Future of Filmmaking. There, Dave describes a possible future for filmmaking -- faster, less expensive, and more creative -- as cameras and metadata come together.

 





Comments

Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by charles wren
Saw a demo at NAB 2010. Guy showed an open from SNL which was time-lapse footage of NYC. He said he mounted the rig on top of a taxi, "using a thirty dollar suction cup..." footage looked excellent. The director fr 24 was there too.
So if you go to NAB 2011 definitely check things out Canon's booth.
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by Richard Crook
I'm am totally with you on this Richard! I DID use that ex3 and hvx with lens adapters and switched to dslrs about the same time you did and haven't looked back. Though it's important to learn all options of cameras, for me dslrs have kept me impressing the client and getting me work while keeping costs down, in the corporate or agency world, this is huge. Sure there are hassles but there are so many workarounds available, the hassle only goes as far as one's desire to overcome the obstacles. Once I got comfortable with the workarounds, I am able to easily provide the things needed to make the workflow and backend processes just as drama free as when I used traditional video cams.
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by tina Kleuker
As a college student, DSLR cameras have been lifesavers. Not only can I use them for my photography class, but then I can switch over and create some video projects with a film-like look without busting the bank when taking film classes. I cannot afford three or four cameras and choose the one that's "right for the job." It's financially unfeasible. So I have to make do with what I got.

I understand DSLR limitations (moire and anti-lasing to name a few), but I thought movie making wasn't so much about the equipment, but the storyline as well as how you light, direct and frame your subjects and let's not forget audio. If you say you can't make it work because you don't have equipment x,y and Z, you will never make things happen.

Here is a Film Noir style-project that we shot in color on a T2i with $99 "Nifty-Fifty" and a Canon kit 18-55. I also built a DIY dolly slider and used a Za-Za slider which I got off of Ebay for $75. The only one light was used and that was one of those clamp lights you get at the hardware store. "special effects" were done in After Effects. Black and white conversion was done in Final Cut.

I'm a novice to the whole movie-making genre, so you will see some flaws, but all-in-all I was pleased aesthetically how this came out.





Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by Wilmark Johnatty
I think this is a great article from a pure cinema pro's pov. However the channels are full of all kinds of gizmos and workarounds to address most of the issues raised by Dave. For example for the video tap issue you can hook up a wireless HDMI network like Asus WiCast ($150) which can hang off the camera and can work with AA bat. THis can I think the problem is the limited bitrate these cameras are artificially tied down to. (Magic Lantern is currently trying to create a hack this with the 5D, although the 7d's dual processors might be a better candidate to improve the bit rate). I dont think its an "absolute mystery" that manufacturers have not fill all the gaps. I think these gaps are there intentionally. This is still uncharted territory for DSLRs. Its like questioning why early PCs (like 12 yrs ago) did not have all the capability of a Spark or Irix workstation, buy even the least informed knew that their obituaries were already written. Canon knows they have a very healthy lead over everyone else. And they too are in the traditional video business. We will have to wait and see over the next few years what Canon and to a lesser extent other companies do with this. The industry is also changing. We are seeing alot of work moving away from big studios and big budgets, and this new ecosystem is going to play a bigger role in how this industry evolves over the next few years - we have seen it in all the technology related industries that have been affected by this revolution, and i look forward to it.
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by Philip Imbrenda
There have been numerous tests and comparisons done with this camera, Depending on the type of lens and accessories used will determine its end result, The Video can look like film and when edited properly using the correct filters or treatments it can stand next to 35MM film, that has been proven many times, for shooting Tv spots and music videos its an Ideal choice, the problem is when a client sees a professional production company shooting their big budget production with a 35mm SLR there is a lot of explaining to be done. If you won't to do it right, then use the right Camera for the job.

Tv One Productions
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by Michael Brown
Having just AD'd on a short shot with 2 Mark IIs, I'd especially like to thank you for your comment on how to choose cameras and what shelf-life to expect of your product. That goes for the whole line of issues, even still including SD vs. HD and picture format. You've put into valuable words what many consider obvious (like myself) but what is not said aloud often enough.

Michael Brown
@ Mike Cohen
by Rick Meredith
In response to Mike's comments about "very high end lenses" for the House episode - its been documented in AC and HD Video that the only lenses used were standard Canon primes and zooms.

Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by Jerry Andrews
A useful article from Dave, who I greatly respect. I'm also a VFX DoP, but not with his credit list! But WHY does everyone seem to be making these comparisons with the 5D? The sensor is significantly larger than a 35mm cine film gate, so most cine lenses don't fit the body, or cause vignetting. Why, also, is there no discussion about the fact that the 5D in HD mode is shooting the same H264 compressed HD that the 7D and even the Rebel T2i can shoot? I currently have a T2i with an Arri PL mount, and I'm using it to shoot timelapse using cine prime lenses. I've adapted it to fit an Arri baseplate, and with the matte bar support it forms a very stable unit, without the problems of camera flex during manual focussing, theat Dave Stump rightly mentions. All my cine prime lenses fit the T2i, with perfect flange depth and no vignetting.
I agree with all of Dave's comments, but having done my own tests on VFX shots with H264 HD, I'd like to have seen him put the 5D up alongside the Alexa or Red, and any 35mm film camera in a scene involving compositing and colour correction - and critically compare the results.
Of course, when I shoot timelapse, I'm able to use the RAW files - I'm not using HD at all - so the rebel (or the 7D) are more than good enough to extract a 4K image for use in digital VFX work.
Jerry Andrews, Kinetic Camera, Toronto

"I only agreed to shoot a commercial for American Express, in order to pay off my American Express card" Peter Ustinov
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by todd mcmullen
A very well explained and insightful article. I have shot with a dslr for a tv show and we used it for special scenes and shots and it works very well. Especially inside moving car scenes.
But, it is true you have to understand the intent and the target of your final product.
I have yet to see what these dslr images look like projected on a large screen in a theater.I believe there are examples out there but I am sure the workflow doubles just to get an image that doesn't crumble to pieces.

I feel dslr video will grow into it's own just like everything else.I hope it is soon so these manufacturers can move on to making smaller, lighter zoom lenses that have a good focal range.

Todd McMullen
Flip Flop Films
Austin
http://www.toddmcmullen.com
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by Rafael Amador
From the point of view of a video maker, I think that the best about the DSLRs-explossion, is that they have made video cameras manufacturers look in the right direction and start to design the video cameras that the market demands.

For any experienced filmmaker, it shouldn't be too hard to understand the technical and operational pros and cons of such kind of cameras (size, focus, compression issues, no quality signal out, post-workflow) and conclude that is a great complementary tool, that makes sense on certain situations and that needs high skills to make it profitable.

Problem may be having those that, under the effects of the DOF-rush, are jumping to film making without previous experience.
Making a bunch of gorgeous shoot is science; making a movie is a different one.
Cheers,
rafael
PS: BTW people tends to forget that DOF is an effect and should be used as such.

http://www.nagavideo.com
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by Beau Tardy
Good article- especially the part about running these cameras over with a train! :)

One thing that is not really addressed (albeit a mention is made to the codec problems) is the huge headaches footage obtained from these cameras create for editors like myself. Plugins do allow for logging and capturing now -after the editorial community started going ballistic- but the codec issue, absence of timecode and lack of synced audio are really serious problems. Color correcting is limited as is pulling keys when you're dealing with the same codec that they essentially use in iPods...

An in depth technical article on editing DSLR footage would be most welcome.

ps: I can write it if you want... ;)

Beau Tardy /
Award winning Editor & Director
Apple Certified Instructor
http://www.beautardy.com
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by alberto moreira
Thank you for the insight regarding this camera. I've seen footage shot from this device which I was impressed with as well as the price being attractive compared to other prosumer video cameras in the market. "If you let the job tell you which camera to use, rather than just your knowledge of only one camera, then you are ultimately doing the greatest service to your producer".

That point of view from a seasoned cinematographer was really important for me to understand and to learn from.
Thank you.
Alberto Moreira
Creative Moments Media
http://creativemomentsvideoprod.com/
http://www.youtube.com/cmvprod
http://reel-exchange.com/members/b26ed6f0/profile

alberto moreira
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by Craig Kelly
Great article - Although it would be a laugh to call myself a cinematographer (not sure if I even spelled it right) I did spend years as a national network, Free-lance TV cameraman, video DP and now I am a TV Director that also writes an article for new TV camera operators -

I just want to say that I have been researching this DSLR thing for a long time now and I think you have put it all in perspective as well as anyone that I have seen. I especially admire your quote "To me, one of the responsibilities of a cinematographer is to know how to use all the tools available, so that you can let the script and the story and the circumstances tell you which camera to use, rather than just picking a camera that you have a comfort level with" I would love to reprint this article if you give me permission - with full credit of course. I think that it's good for new folks to see this too.

Thanks..........ck

Craig Kelly
http://www.craigjkelly.com
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by Larry Ray Causey II
As a somewhat young Shooter and Editor i am once again humbled by the words of the more experienced, such as Dave and the many commenters. I need to really get to know as many cameras as i can. Getting comfortable with one and really understanding it's potential is great but it's so easy to get stuck there. Thanks Dave for the advice to not simply use a Hammer on every project.

Larry Ray Causey II
3933 County Rd. 317
Mckinney Tx
75069

817-800-4101
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by Bob Dix
I know this is all about cinema, but, the stlls from this camera are also exceptional. medium format is no longer unobtainable from 35mm sensor.

Freelance Imaging & Video
AUSTRALIA
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by Bob Dix
After 18 months using the Canon 5D Mark II we knew most of that, but, it is interesting reading, the camera and video still amazes in what it can do.

Thanks

Freelance Imaging & Video
AUSTRALIA
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by Tim Wilson
By and large, I think we're well past using DSLRs as an experiment for their own sake. I've also seen a number of motion picture rigs that were little more than a camera and a steadicam, sometimes just the camera. That said, Richard, the limitations of DSLRs you mention -- no sound and difficulty focusing -- aren't limitations for motion picture production at all. Dual-system sound and focus pullers have been a fact of life on film sets for a very long time. So, ironically, DSLRs as currently configured are a better fit for film than video!

Dave was also talking about a lot more than crash cams. The point he makes, as does Robert Primes, ASC in an article for us called DSLRs: A Time Exposure, is that these cameras have a rich look of their own that is very much worth having in one's bag of tricks.

Here's what I see as the crux of it for Dave:

I have done some of my own testing with the Canon 5D Mark II, and I really enjoy shooting with it. As with any new camera, I enjoy finding its unique characteristics.

To me, one of the responsibilities of a cinematographer is to know how to use all the tools available, so that you can let the script and the story and the circumstances tell you which camera to use, rather than just picking a camera that you have a comfort level with.

That's what makes this story so interesting to me. Film isn't going anywhere soon, and true digital cinema cameras from Sony, Panasonic, ARRI and many others have overwhelming advantages -- but it's time to speak more about the aesthetics and appropriate usages of DSLRs than their novelty.
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by Mike Cohen
We have a 7d and I am finding many uses for it including...stills!

Saying that House, MD shot an episode on the 5d is good marketing for Canon, but they likely outfitted the camera with very high end lenses and other peripheral gear, making the ultimate cost of the camera rig likely many times more than that of your average shooter. In other words, I think they did it to prove that it can be done, and because they were shooting in cramped quarters of their building collapse set in which they would have traditionally used a 16mm camera or whatever.

There is a picture on the web of Robert Rodriguez shooting with a 5d or a 7d - but you can barely see the camera body given all the accessories it is attached to. You might as well shoot with an actual video camera of the same size, weight and lens capability - unless the benefit of the DSLR is greater than a similarly sized film or HD configuration - perhaps that is what Rodriguez is figuring out. He has certainly become well known for maximizing budgets in filmmaking, and for creating some memorable images.

Mike Cohen

Medical Education / Multimedia Producer
@Mike Cohen
by Jonas Bendsen
What's the difference between outfitting a 5D with all kinds of accessories and outfitting a RED ONE with all kinds of accessories (which is obviously extremely necessary to get anything done)? I'm not sure I understand your point. Most cameras require all kinds of "extras" and better lenses to get the job done.
Re: DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
by Richard van den Boogaard
From a cinematographer's perspective I totally understand the idea of using the DLSRs as crash-cams. When you come from a world where tools cost the same as half a house, then risking a couple of thousand bucks to get a action/transitioning shot is indeed an attractive alternative. However, it also sounds a bit condescending to how many DSLR shooters use them.

For one, I only recently made a career-switch to camerawork/editing ENG/documentary style and made a very conscious decision to go DSLR instead of buying a Sony EX-3 and upgrade that with a 35mm adapter in order to make it work more like a film camera (shallow DoF).

Working with these cameras now since last December, I know that working with DSLRs can be a pain (sound, maintaining focus). However, I also have extremely happy clients and a very busy schedule. I still have a lot to learn, but thanks to the DSLRs and the whole ecosystem (Zacuto, Red Rock, Kessler Crane, etc.) around it, things can only get better.

Let's not forget an important use of these stills cameras - timelapsing. Basically, you get two cameras for the price of one. Timelapses are the type of transitioning shots that give some of my productions the pizzazz that clients love.

So, aside from their (potential) use in feature films, online video is hot and DSLR cameras (if properly operated) provide a production value unparralleled to any other video camera.

Richard van den Boogaard
cameraman / editor / video marketing consultant

Branded Channels
W: http://www.brandedchannels.com


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