27 Dec 2017

The evolution of the documentary camera has gone very wrong

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The Aaton XTR PROD - still available to hire The Aaton XTR PROD - still available to hire Aaton


Roland Denning on where it’s all gone wrong for the modern documentary camera and some suggestions on how to put its evolution back on track.

It may be a controversial view on this site, but image quality is not necessarily the most important aspect of a camera when it comes to documentary use. Let me elaborate on that: modern digital cameras can produce fantastic pictures, but what distinguishes great documentaries is seldom to do with picture quality, it’s to do with what you are actually able to record. Of course, we aim for the best quality images we can get, but there’s a lot more to a camera than getting the most beautiful pictures. And from this perspective, frankly, the evolution of the documentary camera has gone astray.

I started working in documentaries in the era of film when quality of image was largely dependent on lenses and filmstocks. This meant camera manufacturers competed on making cameras lighter, quieter and ergonomically refined. From the almost-impossible-to-handhold ARRI BL through the Eclair NPR and CP16 to the ARRISR and Aaton, 16mm cameras evolved radically from the 1960s onwards to meet the demands of documentary filmmakers.

And here’s the crucial thing - the development of the lightweight 16mm camera, crystal sync sound, fast zooms and fast filmstocks was not so much about getting better quality pictures as making films that previously just couldn’t be made. For the pioneering cinema verité filmmakers of the 1960s, this meant you could put a camera in a rucksack, jump on a plane and go shoot a film - this simply hadn’t been possible before. A parallel breakthrough occurred almost four decades later with the advent of the DV camera which created a whole genre of low-budget personal documentary and more recently with the advent of the GoPro. But there have been steps backwards too.

The unfortunate rise of the DSLR

The irresistible rise of the DLSR has changed the way films are made and not necessarily in a good way, particularly for young filmmakers who seize on DSLRs as their way into the business. DSLRs can create beautiful pictures for very little money but have real limitations as documentary cameras. In fact, the move to DSLRs has imposed its own particular constraints on documentary form; shallow depth of field is great for interviews but if you are following real life around spontaneously shallow depth of field is a menace (I have seen far too many TV docs where only the tip of the nose is in focus).

There is an undeniable visual appeal in shallow depth of field - it evokes cinema, of course - but it also aestheticises and separates; in a documentary you generally want to see as much as if going on in the frame as possible, to allow the viewers to observe and make their own connections (there are some political implications here which I won’t go into now). In 1940s cinema, large depth of field was called ‘deep focus’ and hailed as a breakthrough for these very reasons. Since DSLR cameras were never designed to shoot movies, a whole industry has developed creating complex and generally clumsy rigs. Getting decent sound usually involves a separate recorder — not necessarily the end of the world, but a retrograde step in video terms. And not being able go from a wide to a tight shot without changing lenses is a huge restriction. This has evolved a particular style of documentary photography - more studied and set-up, a camera that does not move much (and if it does, it is probably sideways on a slider). Rather than capturing, spontaneously, events as they happen there is a tendency to set events up for the camera.

There are great documentaries made in this way — think of the work of Errol Morris — but for the observational documentary the technology is inappropriate (and also for certain styles of improvised drama, a movie form now almost lost). When technology is determining how we make films rather than the other way round, something has gone wrong.

The Aaton XTR was, to my mind, the peak of 16mm camera evolution; a camera that balanced so well on the shoulder it felt part of you and the hand-carved walnut handgrip that was cool in the summer and warm in the winter was some sort of immaculate conception. I should emphasise here despite my love of film technology and the discipline around it (and I’ve owned both an Aaton XTR and an ARRI SR), I am in no way nostalgic for the days of film; the advantages of modern digital technology, certainly for documentary work, far outweigh the benefits, real or imagined, of film.

The problem, as I see it, is that video cameras have evolved along trajectories that don’t seem to really coincide with the needs of documentary filmmakers. The ergonomics of the shoulder-mounted broadcast video camera have changed little since the introduction of Betacam 30 years ago. Other professional video cameras have evolved from stills cameras (or often, in fact, are stills cameras) or are developments of domestic video cameras. And some seem to have been developed for an alien species like the Black Magic Cinema Camera, impressive in so many ways, but exactly what sort of human being is it designed to fit? In this respect, camera design seems to have regressed 50 years.

There are of course, some great digital cameras available today. The ARRI Amira is a beautiful camera which can create fantastic images, and it is designed to sit on the shoulder, but the large sensor means you can’t have a lightweight, fast long zoom lens and the sort of depth of field needed for documentary (Yes, I know you can put on a B4 adapter on the Amira but this is i) clumsy ii) you lose a lot of light). It’s also bigger and heavier than I want a modern documentary camera to be. And of course it’s expensive.

At the other end of the scale, take a look at the new Sony PXWX70: compact, cheap, 1in chip, upgradeable to 4K - what could be wrong? Well, the zoom ring is also the focus ring (there’s a switch on the side to control the function) and iris is controlled by a thumb wheel. For me, that’s absurd, an ergonomic deal-breaker. It feels like a camera that has built on a merger of broadcast and domestic camera technologies rather than being designed for a specific purpose.

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Roland Denning

Roland Denning is an independent filmmaker and writer based in London. He was a lighting cameraman/ documentary cameraman for two decades, shooting everything from feature drama to rock promos. He still shoots when he can't afford to employ anyone else. His satirical novel, The Beach Beneath The Pavement was published in 2011.

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