My Quest to Make Some Things Be Less in Focus than Other Things
I was a student at UCF‘s film program in the early 1990’s when I first heard about the 1976 Elaine May-directed feature “Mikey and Nicky,” starring Peter Falk and “Godfather of Mumblecore” John Cassavetes. To capture a docu-like realism for her dramady, May ran three cameras all the time, letting them run in between takes, etc. And she shot this on 35mm film, no less. According to the folk rumors circling around the Steenbecks and the edge-coding machine at the college, it was the most celluloid ever exposed on a single feature.
To a kid in film school, this sounded decadent, depraved. Back then, we would obsess over our “shooting ratio,” or the percentage of film that went through the camera vs. how much ended up in the final product. Try as I might, it was hard for me to shoot anything at less than a 7:1 ratio, which meant that in a 2-person scene I was able to shoot two takes of a master, two takes of each closeup, some inserts, and maybe one extra take’s worth in there somewhere. Often I would decide before the shoot where I knew I would want a given shot and only shoot those segments of the scene – it was using my head to edit before wasting everyone’s time. But frankly, screw their time. I was saving film. Light-sensitive-emulusion-coated-plastic, only 16mm, which for a student or low-budget filmmaker was the biggest expense of them all. It was economy. It was discipline.
And it was bullshit.
Since the advent of digital cinema, which came to full bloom over the last 15 years or so, the “old-timer” argument has surfaced that shooting on film taught us discipline. That we had to sacrifice (financially) for our work. Sentences found in this rant often began with the phrase, “Kids today…” Shake fist to taste.
I have felt differently since the dawn of less-expensive filmmaking. Let’s compare it to drawing: If I told a fledgling illustrator that his pencils would only be one inch long and cost $200 apiece, how many drawings would that illustrator create?
And even though filmmakers aren’t illustrators, the biggest challenge for filmmakers has been and always will be that thing that separates us from illustrators. For $20, an illustrator can buy a a sketchbook and hone their skill until all the graphite mines in the world close. In short, they can make mistakes, erase them, tear them out, wad them up, throw them away and start over. But filmmakers… Just to try to do what we do costs thousands of dollars. No backsies.
And back then, even those of us who shot on video (YUCK!) had an uphill climb. Forget about buying the cameras – BetaSP or 3/4″ cameras were expensive just to rent, required specialists to operate, and the end results were still video-looking. Since so much of the cost of making a film was in sets, props, actors, and post, even indie films had to conclude that it almost made more sense to shoot film. After all, why go through all that hassle just to have it look like, well, video? That would only be worth it if it were really cheap to do.
Enter the “Prosumer”
I will spare you every step that Digital Video has made since Sony released the VX1000 camcorder in 1995 with a $3,500 price tag, except to say that in introduced the idea of a content creator called a “prosumer.” This is a someone who wants to own, not rent most of their gear. Production and postproduction. They expect professional results with an off-the-shelf family of products. They produce everything from industrial videos and commercials to television to indie features. And the quest for many of us has been to make that gear give us results on par with the pro stuff at a fraction of the cost.
And to me, when I talked about what I wanted from future cameras, that meant three things – higher resolution (HD or better) a film-like frame rate (24 frames per second), and a sensor roughly the size of a film camera which would allow for selective focus – also known as “shallow depth of field.” In 2002, Panasonic broke through the frame-rate barrier with the DVX100 which offered the video version of film’s frame rate, 24 frame-per-second progressive scan imaging. For many people, that alone was the killer app. Instantly, indie films and music videos began to look more film-like. But resolution and depth-of-field still eluded us. For the former, we all had to wait until 2005 when Panasonic brought us the HVX200 camera which was basically a DVX100 that shot HD on memory cards – and Sony, JVC, and Canon rolled out their “HDV” cameras which shot extremely compressed HD on DV tape. But depth-of-field was still the holy grail.
Incidentally, depth-of-field is determined by four things – shutter speed (which is generally 1/48 of a second when shooting 24 frames per second, and to increase it is to increase sharp focus on everything in the frame), the lens (the longer or more “telephoto” your lens, the less is in focus), the iris or aperture (the more open the iris, the less the depth), and the size of the imaging sensor (the larger the sensor, the more shallowness is increased). The following chart might give you an idea of the variety of sensor sizes, and how much of a leap it was to go from the DV 1/3″ chip size (the innermost, crappy yellow box) to 35mm (the green box – the “full frame” would apply more to the Canon 5D Mark II or “VistaVision” sized frames):
Adapt or Die
For me the search for more film-like depth-of-field – where I could actually control what was in focus instead of having everything sharp in a flat composition – led me to the P+S Technik adaptor. In 2003, cinematographer Frazer Bradshaw went with me down a celluloid-free rabbit-hole, shooting the narrative short “Conversations” on the then-new Panasonic SDX900, a 2/3″ sensor camera (twice the size, and therefore less depth-of-field than the 1/3″ cameras everyone was using at the time) with a $27,000 accessory made by German firm P+S Technik.
The spendy doodad allowed us to put real, movie lenses onto the camera and therefore get the shallow depth-of-field that one would have shooting 35mm. It did this through a method that would make Rube Goldberg proud, focusing the image from the lens onto a spinning glass disk, that the cameras sensor actually photographed. That, plus the 24P recording, made our short look a lot like film and both Frazer and I were happy.
I remember telling a scoffing filmmaker friend, “I only want one atom to be in focus!” But that was simply a reaction to having lived in the DV world for several years, where the small sensor size dictated that almost everything would be in sharp, flat, blando focus unless we opened the iris all the way up, zoomed the lens all the way in, and moved as far away from the subject as possible.
Of course the trick wasn’t to use it in a fetishistic manner, making shallow depth-of-field porn (as some have), it was to make a movie the way we percieved all films were made – using professional-grade lenses and lens accessories to achieve professional results. Moving from a 1/3″ sensor to (effectively) a 35mm sensor would render a softer background even with a wide-angle lens. And it was prettier.
Shallow for the Masses
So today, the preciousness of shallow depth-of-field has become moot. With cameras like the RED ONE, upcoming RED EPIC, and the current DSLR craze, camera manufacturers have given anyone from indie filmmakers to big-budget television access to gear which will yield results far better than we were able to do on “Conversations” in 2003, and with smaller, lighter cameras that can be more easily adapted to accept the high-end glass. Has the industry delivered a virtually-free way to make movies that can compete with Hollywood’s multi-million-dollar extravaganzas? Not yet – most of these cameras are still not quite as good as 35mm film in a multitude of ways. But now, at long last, indies and prosumers and low-budgets alike can easily get their hands on as many cameras as they want (three seems kind of tame actually), and achieve a look closer to film where it counts.
In your face, Elaine May.