EDITORS NOTE: Please excuse the lateness of this article, Oren’s been under a tough deadline at school. You can hear the result at the end of this week’s article
These past few years, digital cinema has been undergoing a true revolution. Until recently, the digital revolution was firmly split between two worlds: the DIY consumer/prosumer-level digital cinema shot on DV tapes, and the higher end digital media shot on more complex, high-quality formats including the Viper, Sony CineAlta and the RED One. No-budget digital cinema was characterized by a very distinct look: the fixed lenses of prosumer grade cameras lent a very distinct, deep depth of field look in which everything was in focus. In addition, the interlaced digital video format created a very particular look to motion within the frame. The higher-end cameras, on the other hand, provided cinematographers with a much broader range of options, including, most importantly, 35mm sensors and interchangeable lenses. These lenses and sensors lend the digital cameras the distinct, shallow-depth-of-field look associated with film cameras, and strictly solidified the major gap between high definition, high-end digital cinematography that studios began to embrace in the mid-2000’s, and the consumer/prosumer-level home cameras that aspiring filmmakers began to utilize in order to create DIY no-budget films.
However, all of that changed around 2008 when Canon first started releasing DSLR cameras with full HD video option. It’s almost funny to look back on this now, seeing as this decision was almost made as a lark by the camera company. Canon had seen great success with the video option on their point-and-shoot pocket cameras, and decided to add the feature to their higher-end DSLRs. The video option was meant to be an accessory to what was otherwise a high-end still photograph camera; a quick way for a photographer to capture a short video if he or she saw something tantalizing that could not be captured in photo mode. However, what Canon, Nikon and the other companies did not expect was for these cameras to catch on in the independent film world. Full HD 1080p video, great sensors and interchangeable lenses for infinitely less money than the far more expensive RED or Viper cams? It was irresistible. A new RED One camera costs about $25,000. A new Canon T2i with video option costs $700. To be able to produce such high-quality images with film-like shallow depth of field at such a low price was just too good to be true. Canon soon had a phenomenon on their hands: their new DSLRs were selling better than ever before, being bought out by aspiring filmmakers eager to give their DIY films a sleeker, more glossy, film-like look. Soon, the actual film industry began noticing these cameras and their potential, and nowadays, everything from commercials to music videos to webseries to television shows to independent feature films are actually shot on DSLR cameras. What nobody seemed to realize was that this was absolutely and utterly preposterous.
Actually, one group of people did: cinematographers. Although the extreme low costs of DSLR cameras may seem lucrative to producers, for cinematographers, these cameras are a living nightmare. I have not yet met a single cinematographer who was actually happy or preferred to work with DSLRs. The reasons are simple: first and foremost, the Canon 5D, 7D, Nikon D90, and all the other cameras are, at the end of the day, still photograph cameras. They are designed and built to be stills cameras, and not at all designed to accommodate motion picture filming whatsoever. Battery life is limited as is storage space, the sensors are designed for taking still photographs and not high-quality video, and most importantly, DSLR lenses are designed for still photography, and so not built for easy focus pulling during shots, something that one does not need to do while taking still photographs because focus is determined before the shot is taken. While filming, though, minor adjustments need to be made, which are extremely difficult to control. Of course, companies almost immediately began coming up with a line of products designed to make DSLRs more accommodating for film use: follow focuses, shoulder mounts, higher-resolution monitors, and other gadgets, all of which are supposed to help turn this stills camera into a movie camera. Which it just isn’t. The result is a very particular look almost as distinct as the look of interlaced DV tape video: DSLR footage often looks murky, with the focus going all over the place but never nearly as precise as it would be on actual motion picture-oriented cameras.
Sure, DSLR footage looks amazing considering the very low price you are paying for it – and don’t get me wrong, for DIY no-budget filmmaking, it is a huge advancement and a very welcome change from Mini-DV or other such formats. I myself am the owner of a T2i and enjoy utilizing its video option, although I primarily use it as a stills camera. It’s really cool that I can just decide to shoot a fun little movie in the woods with my friends and make it look more like an actual movie than a soap opera, with shallow depth of field and in full HD. However, I would never even consider using these cameras in a professional environment, and I honestly cannot even begin to understand why they even are used in such a context.
However, salvation seems to be on the way. Recently, Panasonic released a new camera to the market, the AF-100. This camera is essentially a stepping stone between DSLR and high-end digital video cameras. Priced at around $6,000-$7,000 dollars, it is essentially a professional HD camcorder of the likes that Sony and Panasonic had been making for years, except instead of the usual fixed lens at the front, it has an interchangeable lens socket. Essentially, it takes all of the perks of a mid-range video camera – specifically built and designed for capturing video – but also incorporates the interchangeable lenses and shallow depth of field that made DSLRs so lucrative. Working with the camera, I got to know it very well, see what it is capable of and view the footage it produces, and it looks extremely good: Sharp, controlled, and very high quality. It doesn’t quite match the RED or the new Arri Alexa in terms of quality, but it’s close, and is definitely a major step up from DSLR footage. My only hope is that indie filmmakers will come to their senses and see that it is the AF-100 and its contemporaries, and not DSLRs, that are the future of digital cinema.