If there is one thing that an independent filmmaker has more control of while on set during production these days than at any time in the past, it is camera selection and subsequently how the finished film will look. While artists have always been able to find a way to get a camera into their hands, the rise of digital—and especially now that digital is getting closer to mimicking the depth of field and texture of real film—has substantially reduced at least one headache for an entire generation of auteurs.
Up until the past decade or so, there were two choices for the indie filmmaker: either go with video, and risk making a movie that looked like a 1980s NBC sitcom, or somehow get your hands on a real film camera, while also getting your hands on real film stock. If you were a film student, it wasn’t necessarily tricky to get your hands on an old Bolex camera or reprocessed film stock, but the end results weren’t always stellar.
Getting 8mm or 16mm film could be expected; 35mm might be a bit harder to come by. Then there was actually getting the film processed; you either sent it away or drove to the lab, and hoped that when the film came back and you edited the movie, that there actually was a movie on your film. It’s not that it couldn’t be done. It was just a more involved process than shooting with digital.
There was always the option of renting or buying a camera, which could take a bite out of your already modest budget. You also had to take into account how much film the magazine on the camera held, being mindful how many takes you could do or how long a particular sequence lasted before you had to reload.
When the digital revolution started to hit its stride in the 1990s, it took a while for all the kinks to be worked out. As always, there were format wars and holdouts; some stalwarts swore they would never shoot on digital because it didn’t look like film. Digital video (mostly for TV news and sports) was accepted far more readily than digital film, but with good reason. We wanted our movies to still look like movies.
The indie filmmaker embraced digital film because that’s what indie filmmakers do. Anything that is reasonably cheaper and will make their lives and careers easier will be adopted by those who are looking to work their way up the food chain.
Now, there are more camera choices, at much cheaper prices, than ever before. Most, if not all, shoot HD. For the high end indie filmmaker (Isn’t that an oxymoron?) the RED has established itself as one of the cameras of choice. But for the low end, grab and go crowd, there are several choices. A camera like the Panasonic HVX 200 is still a workhorse, but now indie filmmakers (once again, depending on budget and what look you are trying to achieve with your film) are even using DSLR cameras like the Canon 5D.
Something that has come into play in the last 10 to 15 years is using a camera to achieve a certain look. Whereas once upon a time all film looked like film, the lower end HD cameras that filmmakers now have access to can instantly establish a mood and a style that the audience can instantly recognize. Think about how “The Blair Witch Project” spawned an entire genre of found footage films.
The Vicious Brothers, whose movie “Grave Encounters” played on the festival circuit earlier this year and is now being shown through VOD, is riding the second wave of the found footage movement, by using a “Ghost Hunters” type reality show, and the look of those shows that audiences have come to know, as the basis for their film.
“We shot on several HVX 200s,” said Colin Minihan, who along with Stuart Ortiz makes up the writing and directing team. “I think ‘Cloverfield’ used them (the HVX 200) for the very first scene in that movie, and Stu and I watched that movie and we were like, ‘they should have shot the whole f—king thing like that, because it feels way more real.”
And of course most reality shows mix in camcorder footage when they are trying for an even more immediate feel, so Minihan and Ortiz switched to less expensive cameras for shots where actors would need to be more involved in the shots.
“And then we shot on a few of the (Panasonic) HDV little crappy handi-cams that you would use for the night vision stuff that we would just give the actors themselves, just to recreate the aesthetic as close as possible to the actual ghost hunting television shows.”
Using a smaller camera than a Panasonic HVX 200 gives a filmmaker even more options to shoot in tighter spaces, while adding a gritty hand held look to the shoot. Director John Irwin used a Canon 5D on his recently completed short “Sold.” And while it was a one camera shoot, he noted that there were several of the cameras on set being used for multiple purposes.
“Actually, it’s funny,” he said. “It was a one camera shoot, we shot on the Canon 5D, and it was like everyone on the crew had one of those cameras so there was probably like three cameras on set, although we used just one. And there was one that somebody was using to take production stills, and there was another one that somebody was using for behind the scenes stuff.”
Budget notwithstanding, the RED may work on a lot of sets, but for Irwin, it was a question of flexibility. Many indies are shot on non-traditional sets; it may come down to having a lightweight camera and avoiding re-setting the camera. And now that the technology has evolved to the point where even DSLR cameras can achieve the look of film, filmmakers don’t have to feel like they are shortchanging their vision.
“Yeah, those cameras are great, but the thing I don’t like about the RED, and cameras of that size, you’ve kind of transformed your production into a film set, as opposed to when you’re using one of the Canons, you’re just given a lot more flexibility as far as just grabbing a camera, and going guerilla style,” Irwin said. “It just seems to speed up things. I think the Canons, the DSLR cameras especially, once they came out, it sort of opened the door for that golden depth of field look that no one really had before.”
As with most things in the indie world, it comes down to the constraints of a budget and what you can accomplish that will accommodate your finished film.
“I think depending on what you do…I guess it all just comes down to budget and what’s needed for each shoot,” Irwin said. “But man, I love those Canon cameras. They look great, and the cost associated with them is just crazy cheap.”
Of course, the old saying, “garbage in, garbage out,” will always apply in most filmmaking applications. The cheaper cameras have leveled the playing field even more, but it still takes a skilled cinematographer and a director with a vision to make an engaging film. It’s just that now you don’t have to mortgage your house for the opportunity.