Masters of our Domains
I’m happy to admit it – Filmmakers today should all feel like a bunch of spoiled carping jerks. Some three and a half years ago, Canon (not a company previously renowned for their professional-level HD cameras) blew the lid off the world of filmmaking with the Canon 5D Mark II and several DSLR’s to follow which took breathtaking HD video. I won’t over-explain here what many already know and everyone else can easily find explained by the likes of superstars Vincent Laforet, Stu Maschwitz, and Phillip Bloom, but I’ll summarize:
- With DSLR video, the cost to enter the professional-ish HD market dropped from the $70K range to the sub-$3K range.
- The form factor of the camera became so small, you could carry it in your backpack or even one hand (while booming, pointing at stuff, or even just wildly gesturing with the other).
- An ecosystem of smaller and more affordable accessories blossomed – monitors, follow foci, handheld rigs, sliders, etc.
And with it all, a new breed of filmmaker was born. The one-man band hand never been one-mannier. We could throw all our gear into a backpack, hike to the top of a mountain, and get amazing cinematic shots the likes of which we’d never have been able to do before. The last three years has been an orgy of creativity among the newbies and veterans, the young and old, the jaded and the ignorant. We all get to create. Even the people who’ve learned to bore the world with their amazing time-lapse videos get a voice.
But three and a half years ago, how could Canon have known that they’d be creating a revolution in image-making? What would be the fallout of putting the power of cinema into the hands of anyone with a few grand to invest? If Canon HAD known, would they have raised the premium on their own camera?
The answer, I assume, is OF COURSE. It wasn’t that long ago when we were shooting everything on a weird plastic strip called “film.” The first casualties of the digital revolution were the still photography cameras which, at the dawn of digital, skyrocket in price. “But,” the friendly salesman at the camera store actually told me in 2000, “you’ll save thousands in the long run, because you’ll never have to buy film for this thing!” And he was right, and using the power of his correctness he managed to separate me from $900 in exchange for a Nikon Coolpix 990, a 3.4 megapixel dazzler whose power is currently dwarfed by most cell phones. And I doubt I’ve purchased a single roll of still photography film since then. And as film-specific companies like Eastman/Kodak or Fuji or Polaroid have struggled to keep up with the developments of camera manufacturers, cameras themselves have been crammed with more and more features every year until suddenly, three years ago, still cameras found themselves being used to make major motion pictures and TV shows.
And now it’s time for those manufacturers to unveil their next-gen accidentally-great-movie machines and we have… A collective yawn at the release of the Canon 5D Mark III. Three years in the making, fifteen minutes in the spotlight, forever… adequate.
The 5D Mark III. It’s doubtlessly better than the 5D Mark II – it’s got a higher ISO (meaning it needs less light), it’s got a better processor, it can do slow-motion in three flavors… Basically it’s the two-year-old Canon 7D with improved ISO and a larger sensor. And (so Canon tells us) many of our gripes about the 5D Mark II like the moiré patters and rolling shutter artifacts of old will be reduced.
That’s a load off. And the price? $3,400. More than a thousand dollars more than its predecessor. Go ahead, 5D Mark II owners, replace the camera you already love with that and at that price tag.
But I can only imagine life in the corporate halls of Canon, where they’ve been concocting the next breed of DSLR. First, they came out with the Canon C300 – doubtlessly a great camera for filmmakers, but now they’re charging camera prices for it. Like $15,000. Now I don’t want to mount it to my bicycle and drive really fast into a tree to get that perfect shot anymore. Now I need to protect the precious, fragile, expensive gear.
Buy the Hype, Rent the Gear
Back in the dark ages (approximately six years ago), only the most hardcore among us would endeavor to own the state-of-the-art camera which could be used to make the best pictures. That would have meant owning a FILM camera, somewhere in the neighborhood of $150K or more plus the cost of film stock, processing, telecine transfers, maintenance on mags (so your film didn’t scratch), a beefy follow focus and tripods and all the headaches that might entail. So what did we do when we wanted to make a movie back then?
What everyone does with expensive gear of any kind – be it a backhoe, a U-Haul truck, or a posh hotel room. We rented it and spent our money on creating the images for our films rather than owning the means of shooting and upgrading every time Arri or Aaton or whoever chose to roll out a new product line.
Filmmakers who are newer to the craft have been granted a great boon since 2009. They have never needed to make films in a renter’s economy where messy things like insurance and deductibles and L&D need to be factored into the practice of their craft. Now there are at least a dozen eminently affordable cameras, microphones, editing systems, you-name-it that can be packed into your passenger seat today, make a Sundance Film tomorrow. And why not? but the manufacturers seem to be catching on slowly and realizing that there’s more money to be made out of these little cameras, and they’re pushing filmmakers to feel the burn.
On the flip side, for between $220-$450 per day, you can rent a camera like the Canon C300 or the RED Scarlet and achieve a higher quality of image without having to invest thousands of dollars into the gear. Rather (as we did in the old-timey days of film), the money can be invested in the shenanigans in front of the camera. Things like sets, lighting, actors, props – basically the content of the actual film.
The counter-argument, of course, is that if as filmmakers we own our own gear we can just throw it in the car, drive to the location, and film away. And obviously (as a proud 5D Mark II owner), I agree with that one-hundred per cent. But there’s a point for all of us when the disadvantages of the gear’s pricing outweigh the advantages of accessibility – or wen end up turning into a community of filmmakers where everyone has the same gear that nobody needs every day.
No Pain, No Gain
So at $3,400, is the 5D Mark III really “priced to rent?” That’s for everyone to decide for themselves. For me, my pain threshold is usually around $5K – anything over that is a rental. But in this instance it’s hard to argue that the 5D Mark III is SUCH an improvement over the Mark II that it’s really worth buying if you already have a Mark II. The aforementioned Stu Maschwitz blogs to the contrary here, albeit in the form of an explanation. When the 5D Mark II came out, we didn’t need to explain to anyone who’d held one in their hands why we – as filmmakers – NEEDED that piece of gear. It was obvious. I’m sure Stu will be happy with his purchase and will make great films on his new 5D Mark III – but the subtext of his blog is that it might not be the right move for everyone.
For the people new to the DSLR field and excited about large-sensor photography, the 5D Mark III might perfectly scratch the itch and maybe I’ll end up with one myself eventually. But for those of us who’ve been using the Mark II for years and happily, I don’t see a reason to jump ship just yet.