Write up of ‘Life after the Canon 5/7D’ May 2013 OzDox Session

“I want a camera that doesn’t get in the way of getting all the shots I can see” (By Erika Addis)

I recently convened the OzDox panel LIFE AFTER THE CANON 5/7 D! which explored some “post 5D / 7D” cameras and recent shooting experiences of three documentary practitioners. Despite Baz putting on a lavish big bash next door to launch his latest epic, and Sydney turning on a stormy night to rival any Melbourne weather event, eighty hardy souls turned out to learn more about what these cameras are and what they can do. We had five cameras in the room ranging in price from $30,000 to $999 including the new lightweight Blackmagic Pocket Camera that is taking the world filmmaking community by storm.

As we know, the RED One digital camera really broke the hold of celluloid on large format professional filmmaking, because it was breathtakingly accessible in comparison to 35mm cameras – under $20,000 compared to upwards of $200,000. Then the DSLR r/evolution delivered us even greater access to shooting cinematic images on large sensor cameras under $5,000. We owe a lot to the Canon 5D, it revolutionized the pictures everyone can make.

The impacts of these shifts were seismic and felt in all sectors of the film making community and industry. The picture quality we see on virtually every production now is astonishingly good. And budgets across the board have altered – downwards. Cinematographers now frequently shoot with DSLR cameras despite the multitude of problems with them, because they’re so cheap they’re ubiquitous. Documentary directors to do more and more of their own shooting, sometimes because they want to, often because they have to because the budget doesn’t allow for a cinematographer. And where a TVC would once be shot in two or three days, now it’s often expected to shoot three in one day – “the camera’s so fast you don’t need lighting do you?”

In mid 2012 Madeleine Hetherton – ”I’m not a cinematographer, I’m a director who shoots” – bought a Canon C300 for her latest project, Surgery Ship, filmed on location over several months on the west coast of Africa. She chose it because her company owned a collection of Canon L Series lenses from their 7D and 5D camera kits, and it made economic sense to go with a camera that could take these lenses. Also it’s compact, very good in low light, light weight and she found it very flexible to shoot with.

Madeleine went on to say that you need a rig to work with these cameras. The rig she has is a work in progress, the Ikon she bought from Amazon, plus a Zacuto grip. It’s a triangular style shoulder mount rig that braces against the torso and she attached the remote controls for on/off, zoom / focus / iris onto the right hand side grip. This meant the camera was always supported, easily manually operated and she could use her left hand for any other purpose – moving things, holding a cup of coffee – no that was a joke! She used a little hood on the viewfinder and could still make eye contact and speak to people. The whole thing makes her look a bit like Frankenstein, and nothing like a tourist! “I enjoy using it and will continue working with it” she said.

I provided a useful camera comparison sheet for everyone to take for future reference, which lists a lot of data for fifteen large sensor cameras – from Blackmagicdesign 4K Production camera to Sony FS700 to Nikon D800. The chart includes price, sensor size, resolution, codecs, bit depth, frame rates, data rates and audio inputs. All of this information gives a quick way to check the specifics of a given camera, such as – will it do 50fps? Yes, but at a lower resolution, 720, not 1080; does it do 4K? yes, but requires an external recorder, etc. (See ozdox.org for details)

However none of that information indicates how easy the camera is to operate, and both Nicola Daley and Piet de Vries talked about the difficulties they had, as experienced cinematographers, adapting to working with the 5D and 7D – e.g. not having an orient-able screen or viewfinder means not being able to see the frame if you’re framing up a high shot, or having to get down and put your face on the ground to see a ground level shot. And by the time you’ve gotten down there the action has changed anyway. Working as an observational cinematographer, you need to be able to move quickly. Producers and directors are demanding the cinema look with shallow depth of field, good sound, accurate focus pulling.

Nicola has recently been shooting a documentary for cinema release on location in North Korea and in Sydney. She used the C300 for all the observational material, with a Nano flash external recorder to expand the highlight range and colour nuances through the greater bit depth and MBit data rate. She used a counterbalance arrangement with the Nano flash and batteries to get the weight centred on her shoulder which was very stable. Also the C300 LCD screen has good focus assistance, C-log and built in ND filters – amazing! It really is a great doco camera. Recently she worked with an XDCam 800 for History channel, and commented that it was not fun going back and working with a 10 kilogram camera again!

Pieter de Vries has just been working in Europe for a month, also shooting with a C300 and observed that the C300 is starting to dominate the documentary field. He wanted a camera that he wasn’t fighting with, to be able to be in the moment and capture the action in an instant – “You want it to be observational AND cinematic” he said. Piet did point out that, as a package it’s quite small, and it does look a lot like a stills camera. However, if you want to lower the profile even further you have to remove the handle, which has the viewfinder AND the XLR inputs built into it, which is a problem and there’s no way around that.

Madeleine screened an ungraded unmixed excerpt from Surgery Ship – a terrific sequence, beautifully operated, all the cutaways work, some shots done in very dark areas and others in full sunlight – it was a great demonstration of how well the camera could be used to capture the action as it unfolded and also how skilled she has become.

Pieter has been road testing the new Sony F55, which is truly modular in the same way as the RED EPIC camera. The F5 and F55 are designed with documentaries in mind, modular, small and with a good viewfinder. From a documentary point of view it’s a very viable option. The F55 a true 4K camera which means you can crop in and enlarge frames, if needed. It records 4K internally and can record 4K and HD simultaneously – the HD can effectively become the proxy file and gives the producer so many options. The F55 has a global electronic shutter (unlike the rolling shutter of the 5D). At $19K and $28K, The F5 and F55 are top end cameras, and whilst they are costly compared to a DSLR, compared to film cameras and digital ENG cameras of previous decades, they are excellent value for money.

The tiny new Blackmagicdesign Cine Pocket camera was discussed by John Brawley, via a pre-recorded interview (shot on a 5D, naturally!) – it shoots in Prores now and will also record Raw with a software upgrade later this year. It has an active m4/3 lens mount and as manufacturers are starting to make some pretty interesting m4/3 lenses with Image Stabilisation, there are lots of very compact and lightweight lens options.

And then there’s the Blackmagicdesign 2.5K Cine Camera with an EF mount. John showed one kitted up with an aftermarket viewfinder, rods and a Vlock battery to supplement the internal battery, plus an external box for 3 XLR inputs and level control and mic powering.  John has found the image quality and colour space is almost as good as the Alexa, it looks very natural, and you can do a lot in the grade – unlike the very limited possibilities in what you can do with material from a 5D. And if you record directly in ProRes or DNX it makes for a very fast workflow!

The lenses you select and work with are as important as the camera you choose. In this rapidly changing hybrid era, there are far more options available now than ever before. There are significant problems working with stills lenses which were never designed for video work – e.g. they don’t hold focus throughout the zoom range, there’s a lack of accurate distance markings on the focus ring, the internal focusing mechanism is lightweight, because it’s made for auto focus (redundant in video mode), can’t execute a useable zoom because it’s doesn’t travel smoothly, the iris can’t be controlled manually.

And of course those who have grown up using DSLR cameras and lenses for video work would like the precision and engineering of the significantly more expensive cine lenses to be available on “refurbished” DSLR lenses and cost much the same as DSLR lenses… but that is not a sustainable business model.

Randall Wood pointed out he’s been shooting recently with a Panasonic P2 format HPX250 camera recording with AVC intra codec, at about $4k, and although it’s a small chip, so it doesn’t yield the shallow depth of field, the picture quality is outstanding and he’s been very happy with the results.

And Gillian Leahy made the point that it will just take one or two outstanding films that react against the current trend of shallow depth of field and “chocolate box” cinematography to create another twist in the tale of what we look for and value in the visuals of our stories.

Bottom line, as Madeleine strongly emphasized, is whatever camera you choose, really get to know it, work with it a lot and really get used to it, so you know how to get the best out of it.

Lemac Sydney generously supported the event providing a Blackmagicdesign 2.5K and Pocket Cine cameras, Canon C300, and a Sony F5 which were all supported by Miller tripods. Thanks to everyone who helped deliver and set-up the cameras.

OzDox session LIFE AFTER THE CANON 5/7 D! was chaired by producer & director Frank Shields, panelists were director Madeleine Hetherton,  cinematographers Nicola Daley and Pieter de Vries and the panel was convened by cinematographer and lecturer Erika Addis.

Erika Addis, Cinematography Lecturer AFTRS, has worked in the film and television industry for over 35 years. Her work as Director of Photography includes documentaries, feature films and television series. Her consistent delivery of high standard work has resulted in a raft of award wins including AFIs, awards from the Sydney Film Festival, an ACS Golden Tripod and a Kodak award from the St Kilda Film Festival.