Hot Button Discussion
The HDSLR Option
Probably no tool in the motion picture world better illustrates the modern trend toward the lightning quick adoption and innovative use of a still nascent technology originally developed for entirely different applications than the headlong advance of digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) into the movie and TV production paradigm. Such cameras, from several manufacturers in various flavors, were developed to revolutionize the still photography industry and, indeed, have done just that. Along the way, however, they have also become "a standard equipment requirement on many movies and TV shows," according to Rodney Charters, ASC, a well-known broadcast and feature film cinematographer (TV's "24," among others).
DSLR technology has been fundamentally changing still photography since the early 1990s, and in the past decade, has pretty much taken over that industry thanks to improvements in digital CMOS sensors and engineering that permits accurate previewing of frames up to the exact moment of exposure. Subsequently, manufacturers figured out how to make such cameras shoot true (1920 x 1080) high definition video at 29.97 frames/sec, and now at 23.976 frames/sec. This has made what are now called HDSLR cameras attractive for certain types of motion picture and broadcast work as cinematographers can use them to mimic the 35mm film format, utilize a wide range of cine-style lenses, and yet, work in a more mobile and efficient manner within a digital workflow. In fact, entire TV episodes and motion pictures, as well as segments of many others, are now being shot utilizing HDSLR cameras, and that trend is only expected to increase.
In 2010, the Fox drama "House," for instance, gained headlines when its season finale was shot entirely using the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Cinematographer Dean Semler, ASC, incorporated HDSLR technology (the Olympus E-P1 system) into the making of the Disney feature, Secretariat, in order to capture innovative horse-racing visuals; Anthony Dod Mantle used Canon 5D's prominently for chunks of his Academy Award-winning work on Slumdog Millionaire and also on 127 Hours; and this year, several prominent movies that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival were shot with such technology, including Grand Jury prize winner Like Crazy (using the Canon 7D system) and Hell and Back Again, shot with the 5D camera, which won two awards at the Festival, including one for cinematography. All of this is merely the tip of a rapidly growing iceberg.
"I can't speak for all shows, but many (TV shows) that I know about carry a body along the lines of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon 7D, and the flip-screen Canon 60D, often with both the 5D and 7D equipped with after-market PL mounts, and they are making them essential tools," Charters adds. "For motion picture work, it allows us to be faster and more efficient, and to put the camera in places where it is hard or impossible to place a larger camera. They have therefore opened up new ways of seeing and telling a story. These cameras are small, the images are great, and the post workflow can fit into the Red or (Arri) Alexa (high-resolution video camera) workflows. We have never had cameras that cheap and versatile in 35mm production before with this kind of quality, and so, that is why they are showing up on many TV shows and feature films."
Photographer/videographer/editor/journalist Michael Guncheon, a SMPTE member, recently gave a presentation on the rise of HDSLR's in the production world at the Hollywood Post Alliance's 2011 Tech Retreat. He points out that one of the remarkable things about the technology's infiltration into the moving picture world is the fact that it has done so at such a rapid clip, with improvements possible routinely, thanks to the software revolution.
"With the (Canon 5D), what has surprised those of us who bought the cameras early on is the fact that they have been able to upgrade the firmware like they have in terms of significant things," says Guncheon. "In the past, they were doing updates to fix bugs, but not to add new features. Then, the Mark II came out, and it originally did 30 frames/sec, and everyone wanted 24 frames/sec, so they put out an upgrade to the firmware, and now it does 24 frames/sec. Shooters wanted manual exposure, and they added it. That, to me, is an amazing development."
DSLR's for consumers and for professional still photographers are, of course, available from several manufacturers. In the motion picture world, however, Canon's EOS 5D Mark II, 7D, and 60D are the most widely incorporated HDSLR's today, although major development work on such cameras is happening right now at a wide range of companies.
That very development process, however, is part of a dichotomy that prevents HDSLR's from being uniformly absorbed into the motion picture ethos. That dichotomy is the fact that, at their foundation, these are still cameras, and the people making them have huge businesses producing and selling them to consumers and professional photographers as such. Therefore, culturally and ergonomically, the development process remains geared away from what the niche world of moving pictures would ideally prefer.
"Still photography and motion pictures are probably as synergistic as a sculptor and a painter would be," Guncheon suggests. "They are different art forms, even if there are some people who do both. If you think about it, an SLR camera is designed to capture a single moment, not to wait for you to linger in the viewfinder for 12 minutes to capture a take or series of takes. It's designed to go up there, frame the shot, wait briefly for the moment to happen, and then take the picture. The ergonomics of taking a still picture and shooting video are still different things, and therefore, there are drawbacks to using (HDSLR) cameras for moving pictures. Ideally, if it were up to me, I would try to take these sensors and processors and mounts and put them into bodies that were designed more specifically for shooting motion."
Indeed, Charters calls HDSLR's "challenging beasts to use in production. In particular, the challenge of focusing the image and working with the relatively unprofessional H.264 codec on a final color pass intercut with Red or Alexa footage, since both of those shoot a raw image. Red or Alexa footage can be easily pulled up or down in exposure density and color control, but the Canon file still needs to be very accurately exposed, so there is not much room for maneuvering."
These limitations mean that image data captured this way needs to be transferred or re-formatted to a different codec for editing or other post-production functions as it travels through a project's pipeline. Additionally, sensors in DSLR's have more pixels than HD requires, so images sometimes need to be scaled down—a process that can introduce aliasing artifacts. These factors sometimes force filmmakers to debate whether, and in what circumstances, an HDSLR is a better choice than larger, more expensive professional video cameras like the aforementioned Red or Alexa cameras, or lower priced HD camcorders being targeted to compete with Canon's HDSLR technology, like Sony's new PMW-F3 camera and Panasonic's AG-AF100 series.
"Fortunately for Canon, the codec used in the PMW-F3 (long GOP MPEG at 35mps) is also not true HD," Charters adds. "The color and resolution in large-format HDSLR cameras outperforms the final, captured file. What we cinematographers are dreaming of is a raw version of the codec. With their full-size chips and excellent color rendition, that would make these cameras as good or better than most (HD video cameras) because they do not have a video look. But without better codecs, right now, no one can record the raw signal, or do justice to the raw chip size—we can't get the best image quality (out of the camera) in the way the manufacturers have chosen to have us capture the files right now."
And there are other challenges, as well, according to Guncheon.
"Recording time is limited by maximum file size, and cameras are sometimes susceptible to overheating," he says. "Monitoring on set is also somewhat difficult. A (Canon 5D) will, for example, output HD before you shoot, but when you hit record, it jumps into standard definition from the HDMI spigot, and when you plug into that spigot, then the LCD monitor on the back of the camera is no longer available. So then you need to deal with splitters and all that stuff. Right now, there are a lot of work-arounds we still have to use."
The cinematographers also point to issues such as auto focus, remote control limitations, lack of timecode and genlock, lack of 4k capabilities, rolling shutter challenges, and so on, as things that are "not quite there yet" with such cameras in terms of ideal motion-picture use. Still, that said, they admit these problems will no doubt be addressed and mitigated, just not at an ideal pace for the motion picture industry, because of the fact that the engineering for such technology is focused mainly on the still photography world's needs.