So everyone and their dogs are getting Canon DSLRs and are shooting everthing from our home videos to blockbusters on them apparently But ,what is the reality of going down this route and what do you need to be aware of and what advantages can be gained from using them?
First off I am a small set guy, I like small teams…I am very hands on. That’s the way I work and the way I like it. I hate not operating. I love a collaborative team and the way we all work together, I just am more used to nice small teams. This was VERY different!
Well, following on from my DSLR consulting with Lucasfilm back in December I went back there to work on some pick ups on their “Red Tails” movie for them using the same DSLRs, more for a test than anything else. We really wanted to see how well they performed and it was a really useful experience for learning what was needed and what needed to be improved by Canon. Also, how they fitted into big projects like this, not just physically but workflow wise and also which camera/ lens/ accessories really were essential.
“Red Tails” is George Lucas’ long time pet project. Based on the real life Tuskeegee airmen, the only African American fighter squadron in the US military. This is a fictional story with a nice old fashioned war film feel to it. This isn’t Saving Private Ryan! It has a great cast….Cuba Gooding Jr, Terrance Howard, Method Man, Tristan Wilds from “The Wire” (who owns a 5d!), David Oyelowo, Nate Parker, Ne-Yo and many more.
Before I flew out there I liaised closely with Lucasfilm’s Rick McCallum. We had to make sure we had everything we needed. We researched all camera and lens options. Would we shoot Canon L series? PL? 1DmkiV? 5DmkII etc… accessories, monitors. You name it…we talked about it.
Some behind the scenes from my stint filming DSLR pick ups for Red Tails.
Thanks SO much to Rob Wynn at Lucasfilm for this!
Now I need to make this clear, the idea was not having the Canon as the A or B camera but to be used for extra angles (as we could sneak in almost anywhere) but also mainly side with Camera A (Sony’s F35) to see how well they compare. Obviously being a Lucasfilm movie much green screen work was needed and with the low bit rate and colour space issues amongst it’s other drawbacks it was as much as a real world test as it was for being used to get those extra angles.
What myself, Producer Rick McCallum and head of post Mike Blanchard needed to see was what apart from the known limitations of these camera, what exactly was needed for them to fit into a large budget production, both shooting and post.
The cameras we used were the 5DmkII, the modified for PL mount lenses 7D from Hot Rod Cameras and the 1DmkIV.
Both Rick and myself preferred the look of the 5DmkII over the other two cameras, there is something so unique aesthetically about this camera but what we also needed to do was make sure what we shot didn’t look so wildly different from the F35s that we could not cut the shots into the movie. There was no point in offering a different angle if it completely looked differently aesthetically to the other cameras, it just wouldn’t be used no matter how good it looked. Cameras need to match each other for intercutting otherwise they jar!
So we started two weeks of picks ups and learnt a lot during that time…
The major issue we had with the Canons was the monitoring issue. These cameras are still cameras first and foremost and that causes many issues, one of the biggest is they all use a mini HDMI as it primary video out, which also causes the camera LCD to shut off. We experimented with using powered HDMI splitters to feed both the Marshall monitors for my focus puller and myself but also for video village. This was not very successful at all for our purposes. For a small crew using the excellent Jag35 splitter we used would have been fine but we had to go a different more pro route. So what we ended up doing was using a Blackmagic HDMI to HD-SDI convertor. This required different monitors as our Marshalls were HDMI only but it did mean it slipped into the video village feed so much easier than before. This I have to say is essential in any serious production. Dump the HDMI and go HD-SDI, HDMI is a not a pro connection systems and suffers because of it. It just is not robust enough. The big issue we had with the 5DmkII (the 7D and 1DmkiV were unaffected) was that when you hit record then the image drops from 1080i to 480p making using the monitor for focus a major issue and also caused about a 7 second black image for the director in video village. Not great. The new firmware for the 5DmkII has not rectified this issue.
We used a variety of PL lenses for the 7D on Red Tails, we also were lucky enough to have then new Zeiss CP.2 EF mount primes which we could use on all the cameras. The camera we used the most in the end was the 1DmkiV, mainly as it gave us the most flexibility with what lenses we wanted to use as I wanted to use Canon L series a lot as I had some nice long lenses which we did not have in any other form. Now, pulling focus on these lenses is not much fun for my focus puller as they have no hard stops. But with a good focus puller and knowing these limitations we were able to cope. We also rarely shot anything close to wide open as the F35 was often at around F11 so we closed down a lot to try and match their depth of field, a shame as both myself and Rick love the shallow depth of field look but we just could not make our stuff too different from the main cameras as I said earlier. Although every now and then we shot a wide open shot for the hell of it to which cause Rick to cry out “Bokeh baby!”
Getting spot on exposure was a problem; I lost the HDMI only Marshall monitor which had false colour, to switch to the Ikan VX9 (an ok monitor which has HDMI and SDI, but has a terrible viewing angle and odd colours, I understand the VX7 will be much better) as it had SDI in. False colour is very useful for getting exposure. Metering with these cameras was very unreliable, especially when we used the PL camera. Also a light meter was pointless as we used the Vari NDs which although were essential for us to drop the light coming in, meant we had no idea how much ND was being used so we were not able to get an accurate light meter reading. So it came down to a combination of in camera metering, looking at the monitor and then checking it back on the laptop. When we do more shooting in Prague, this time we are having a feed of our image go into the DIT tent so we can get accurate exposure each and every time and so we can match up as closely as possible to those F35 beasts!
Working on the set was an absolute joy. My 1st AC, Phil Bowen was straight off of the cancelled “Trauma” and is one of the best in the business and about as pro as you can get. It’s a sad fact that not everyone in this business has a great attitude like his. These days there is a lot of “we can’t because…” rather than “we can make this work”. You see that is the biggest issues with the Canons. We are asking a lot of them, they were not designed for this! The guy who made the chip for the 5DmkII saw video for the first time from the camera at Skywalker Ranch’s Stag Theatre when he was invited over from Japan by Lucasfilm. Apparently he cried when he saw it. What we are doing is pushing them as far as we possibly can. We know there are lots of issues so what do we do? Do we say no to them or do we make them work? We make them work of course because the end result is so bloody gorgeous we WANT to make them work. Also the small form factor is so revolutionary, even though we do need to pimp up like I do with my Zacuto gear, to make them easier to use they are still small! I can carry around my 5DmkII, my 50mm F1.2 and my Z-Finder in my man bag (not murse please) everywhere I go. It’s incredible.
Anyway back to Phil Bowen. I said to Phil, “Phil mate, we are using these L series lenses, they have no hard stops and the rotation is tiny. Is that ok?”. His answer was “No problem boss”. He THRIVED on the challenge, sure shooting on L series without hard stops is tough for a focus puller, and I only once made him pull focus at F1.4. I was pretty easy on him mostly although I did make him pull focus on a 600mm F4L lens though from the barrel on a really key shot of Tristan coming towards us on a jeep from a long distance away. He nailed it 4 out of 6 takes. Impressive stuff!
Having a great focus puller is essential. Doesn’t need to be someone as experienced as Phil. Just someone with skills and the right attitude.
I also had an excellent 2nd A.C. in my Intern Garrett O’Brien. Still in film school but without too much of the film school mentatility. He paid to make his own way there and paid for his accommodation but I know he learnt heaps and he was a real asset to us. Thanks mate.
We acted very much like a small independent unit on the shoot and working as a team is essential. I relied on Phil; he relied on Garret and Garret he er…had to do everything! It worked very well. We were fast and got the shots.
We had a mattebox for the 7D and PL lenses but not for the Canon ones. I have just received my new Petroff one and will be using that, but for this we simply had our grips flag for us. Worked a treat!
The whole crew were truly wonderful. You could easily imagine a crew as experienced as this lot (most have credits longer than your arm) being a bit snotty to someone like me coming it with my dinky little camera and sneaking in and grabbing shots, but they were fascinated by it. Also many of them, operators, ACs, grips, extras and even some of the stars have the same cameras. It was a talking point for many and everyone who walked past couldn’t help but take a peak.
A wonderful experience with an amazing crew/ cast and I cannot wait to see my footage in the movie! Because you know what? We set out to do tests but it looks like we could have about 150 shorts in the final cut. Now onto Prague!
With Prague, as I still only have HDMI Marhsall monitors, I will be using Panasonic SDI monitors and also the View Factor cage as well as my Zacuto follow focus and other accessories. I need a cage so we can easily mount monitors and other bits on and keep it as solid as possible. This is where the View Factor cage is coming in. It’s the best on the market. I have the one for the 5D and Curt is working hard to get me the 1DmkIV version to Prague in time. I will also have two excellent “interns”, both talented filmmakers in their own rights. The great Nino Leitner and Sebastian Wiegärtner. I will get them rotating between data wrangling and 2nd AC. We needed a data wrangler on the the first batch of pick ups. This time we have oner.
Tripods we used were the Miller Solo 3 stage with Compass 20 head. Sachtler Video 18, Zacuto flippable follow focus, Marshall 7″ and 6.5″ monitors, Ikan VX9 monitor, 35mm Canon F2.8L F1.4, 50mm F1.2L Canon, Canon 70-200mm F2.8L (we used this the most) IS, Jag35 HDMI splitter, Blackmagic HDMI-SDI convertor box, Zacuto Z-Finder