Great News for Filmmakers, Bad News for Film

When I Promised to Kill You Last… I Lied

So I started this blog by promising to avoid too much techspeak. Now’s when I break that promise. A little.

About two years ago, Canon released a new DSLR high-end digital camera, the 5D Mark II, a revision on its very popular middle-to-high-end camera used by professional photographers the world over. Unbeknownst to Canon, however, their mostly-modest revision included a little tweak, hardly worth any hooplah… A very specialized little add-on done as a favor to Reuters and AP, who asked the camera and lens manufacturer if it might be possible to allow their field news photographers to be able to shoot a little video because the kids on the web were bored looking at “pictures that don’t move around like real life.”

Canon obliged, and added a 1080P video recording mode right off of their chip, (supposedly) not expecting that anyone outside the hard-news and paparazzi world would give a toss.

Then something happened that nobody (except everybody) would have expected. A filmmaker, in this case photographer/videographer Vincent Laforet got ahold of a pre-release 5D Mark II body and shot a little film, in this case called “Reverie,” on the $2,400 camera.

To call what followed a “revolution” is to overstate it, but in the two years that have followed a number of DSLR cameras have come out and been used for everything from shooting weddings to indie films to this season’s opening titles of “Saturday Night Live” and if the rumors are true, the final episode of this season of “House.”

Why do these cameras (which cost between $800 and $5,000) attract serious attention? Well, a few things. The big one – the images look more like film than anything we’ve seen at this price point before. This is due to the 1-2 punch of the larger, 35mm-or-larger sensor of DSLR cameras and the wide range of lenses available for them. Also, unlike their made-for-video brethren, they aren’t covered with stupid confounding buttons and their menu settings are modest. They bring filmmaking back to a simpler time, when all the cameraman needed to worry about (aside from framing and focus) was exposure, shutter speed, and… Well… Focus.  Also, they’re far lighter than any video camera ever made, with the possible exception of the Silicon Imaging Mini, used to shoot “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Personally, I have used two DSLR cameras, the Canon 5D Mark II and the Panasonic GH1 – and I’ve been quite happy with the results of both. There are disadvantages (monitoring can be tricky, no XLR audio in, rolling shutter artifacts and Moiré patterns are a hazard, MP4 or AVCHD compression schemes are less than optimal), but as my first film professor once said, “the image is everything.” So, no matter how many hoops we have to jump through to get the images out of DSLRs, and some of them are rather annoying, if the resulting image is awesome and it didn’t cost much to make it happen, it’s worth a few gray hairs.

But it’s high time that somebody serious picked up a few of these glorified toys and created an objective, apples-to-apples test where we could all see how these little movie-machines compared to each other AND to film. And that’s just what happened.

DSLR We There Yet?

So the folks at Zacuto (a company that specializes in cameras and camera support with an eye toward the indie) just conducted a somewhat exhaustive shootout between 35mm film (Kodak and Fuji) and the leading digital SLR’s including

  • Canon 5D Mark II
  • Canon 7D
  • Canon 1D Mark IV
  • Nikon D3s
  • Panasonic GH1

And in a few cases (though none in this, part 1)

  • Canon Rebel T2i

Now they’re smart enough not to let people embed this awesome test onto their blogs (or maybe I’m just stupid about how to do that…), but I CAN give you the URL where you can watch it for yourself.

Be warned, they jawflap A LOT at the top of this test. Like 10 minutes, and 4 of those minutes are them talking about themselves and how awesome they are. They even do some (gag!) acting. But this is some quality information for anyone planning on making a low-budget film. Veteran DP Robert Primes conducted all of the tests, with a who’s-who array of veterans backing him up.

Click HERE to see the final product.

And here’s a project I shot on the 5D Mark II, which I can embed, for your viewing pleasure:


6 comments on “Great News for Filmmakers, Bad News for Film

  1. Thanks for this awesome overview. I can’t wait to test one out myself!

  2. I was a doubter at first, but I don’t think that calling it a revolution is overstating it at all. The 5D/7D forced Red to revamp their new line of cameras, especially the Scarlet. It’s all pretty awesome.

  3. It’s about gosh durn time we had cameras like this. I watched the Zacuto tests and it proves that we are more than in a state of revolution. The time is NOW to be boasting our butts off that we can now shoot footage that the everyday joe-viewer will simply not be able to tell between film and video. And for a bad-ass price point as well. So it’s DONE. We’re freakin THERE. And if RED doesnt get their act together with Scarlet, they’ll be DONE as well. They gottta stop teasing and put out. They better make Scarlet a sultry hottie or else Im simply not gonna wanna spend much for dinner with her. So no more belly-aching from no one because we now have real cuties that like to party. We are now officially close enough to film to say “Im shooting film. So THERE.” Good bye PS Teknik, because you need to lose weight. Goodbye Redrock, you’re too clunky. Good bye EX1 and ur sister EX3, ur good enough to make-out with but not much more. Peace out HVX200, nice having sex with you but I’ve found someone so much better who gets me where I’ve been trying to go for so long. And for so much less money. Im looking forward to my own harem of DSLR’s.

  4. […] to” shoot jaw-dropping video. Canon didn’t intend to tackle the filmmaker market at all. They wanted to give news reporters the chance to capture some clips of what they are photographing, in order to allow their news agency to probably put them up their website in addition to the still […]

  5. […] SLR camera that cost only $2,400 and shot in HD. Although late to the party, I blogged about it here. It was a matter of time before something uber-professional was shot on one of these cameras, and […]

  6. […] to” shoot jaw-dropping video. Canon didn’t intend to tackle the filmmaker market at all. They wanted to give news reporters the chance to capture some clips of what they are photographing, in order to allow their news agency to probably put them up their website in addition to the still […]

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