I want to make an "arty" documentary film. I can choose any camera. But which one?

Written by David Shapton

David ShaptonHow do I choose a camera?

RedShark Replay: How do you make the right choice from the plethora of good cameras available today? Especially if you want to make a film on your own.

I want to make a documentary film, and I need to choose a camera and all the rest of the kit. Right now, I don't know what to choose, and so I'm going talk you though my initial thought processes, and, finally, ask for suggestions from RedShark readers.

I don't want to just shoot and edit the film. I want to write the music for it as well. I've always been a composer but have had very little time to do this over the last few, well, decades. For a year or so I made a living from composing and I even wrote a ballet score! For me, it's time to get back to work and get those creative juices flowing again.

First, let's talk about the film I want to shoot.

It's a documentary about the UK city of Bradford. I have being going there for at least twenty five years and lived there for several. I still have a house in the city (in Shipley, just on the outskirts), but don't live in it now. It’s a fascinating place with a colourful heritage. It has had some issues but I love it and want to be able to capture a flavour of it. It’s not meant to be a hard-hitting investigation but more of a “tone poem” where images and impressions are mixed with sounds and music. Sort of half documentary and half art film.

Bradford is almost uniquely photogenic, with its fine old buildings and surrounding hilly landscape. Wherever you go, and wherever you look, there's a great view. 

Bradford even has the distinction of being the worlds first UNESCO City of Film. It's also the home of the National Media Museum, part of the UK's Science Museum Group.

Crucially, it will just be me making this film. I know what I want to achieve, and I know how this stuff works, but I spend most of my time writing, not making films. So my priorities are different to those of someone who makes films all the time. I will have some assistance but let’s assume that it has to work with just one person operating it - and that includes the sound.

I do have a gut feeling for how I want to do it but I also know that others may be able to suggest a better way.

So, imagine I could have any camera I wanted...

First, let’s talk about big, expensive cameras. Sony F65s and ARRI Alexas. Well, I love both of them. The F65 has an awesomely high resolution and a very, very clean image - so much so that it is detailed enough to capture every nuance of a characterful lens.

If I had a crew, I may well chose the F65, but the fact is that I don’t have a DIT (Digital Imaging Technician), nor the time to deal with a relatively complex and demanding workflow. What’s more, it’s a big, heavy camera - which you'd expect -needing a strong, sturdy support. It may well be suitable for a one-person operation, but not this person, much as I would love to use it.

The Alexa? Well, this is the camera that has taught us that saturation, contrast, and the overall “look” of a camera are more important, perhaps, than the ultimate resolution. And I would love to use one of these, with a suitable set of Cooke Primes, for a jaw-dropping look and feel. But, again, I don’t think I could do justice to this combination without a lot of help.

Panasonic’s new Varicam seems promising, but I don’t have enough personal experience of that, and the same applies to JVC’s nice-looking 4K large sensor camera. I am open to persuasion with these.

So, what about the other extreme? What about DSLRs? Well, it seems that the best DSLRs at the moment aren’t actually DSLRs, because they don’t have a mirror. I would be very tempted by Sony’s A7S, which I would want to have with me even if I was using a different main camera. If I could take only one camera it would probably be this one. Traditionally, cameras in this form factor have been criticised because they’re not ergonomic enough, but I don’t think this would matter so much in my case, because I was brought up as a still photographer before I moved on to video, so holding a small still camera still feels natural to me, although I agree it’s not an ideal long-term solution. In any case, it would be on a tripod most of the time.

But the A7S can do stuff that other cameras can’t. Nothing can compete with its low light performance and its general ability to get the shot when other cameras would have fallen short. There’s no 4K internal recording; you’d have to use an Atomos Shogun for that - but that’s a perfectly valid option, especially as it gives you a full HD monitor to judge the production with.

So, yes, I would take an A7S whatever else I took. It really is that good. If I were really on a tight budget, either an A7S or a Panasonic GH4 would certainly be in the running, but I would have to look carefully at how to handle audio. 

By the time I have to make a choice, it's likely that the intriguing Sony A7R II will be shipping. I'm very keen to try this. 

I’m tempted by the Blackmagic URSA. I do have some limited experience with it and while, yes, it is heavy, I won’t be using any cameras on my shoulder so the weight of it isn’t really that much of a factor. I’ll have my car with me at all times, so it’s not like I have to take it on the train or a bicycle. With the new 4.6K sensor I’m pretty sure the pictures will be very good indeed. I rather like the giant pull out screen and all the facilities and controls being so easy to get to.

I like the URSA Mini too. It looks and feels right. But of course, I haven’t seen any footage from either URSA yet, apart from the clip on the Blackmagic site.

And then there’s the CION. It’s had mixed reviews but I must say that I like it very much. What I like in particular are the saturated, satisfying pictures you get from it. My understanding is that you have to take care with lighting when using it but I don’t see that as too much of an issue as most of my film will be shot in daylight.

I also need to think about the Sony FS7, which seems to be getting a lot of praise. I would certainly have to consider it as the main camera. It seems to have so many of the qualities of the bigger F5 and F55 - either of which would be viable choices too. They all use Sony's XAVC codec, which is shaping up to be a very good choice for 4K.

RED? Possibly, but of all these cameras, I've had least practical experience with RED. I would consider one, of course, but would be more likely to use one if I was working alongside an experienced user. 

I must admit to a bias in choosing a camera. I want a simple workflow that’s not too punishing on storage. I always like working with ProRes. It’s a high quality codec (relatively simple technically but it does its job very well). It doesn’t take up too much space, it’s pretty pliable in grading (but not, of course, as much as raw) and it works in just about any NLE. What’s more, it’s very processor-friendly. It’s an intra-frame codec that's very easy to work with. That’s what I want. If I’m ever going to finish this film, I need to accept some compromises. I don’t have an infinite amount of time to work on this - I’m too busy on other stuff - and since I don’t have any financial budget for this, I can’t expect others to offer their services for nothing for my personal “vanity” project. So I really do have to do most of it myself, and I feel that, if I had to grade every shot, or at least “rescue” it from its raw state, then I’m going to run out of time and, probably, inclination.

This will probably raise a few eyebrows, but it shouldn’t, because, in a sense, this is how it should work. There’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t expect our images to look good direct out of the camera.

If I had the budget for a full crew, I would do it differently: shoot in raw and, yes, absolutely grade each scene, but that’s not going to happen this time, and I’m OK with it.

Going back to cameras: The Digital Bolex D16 is intriguing and I love the footage I’ve seen from it. In some ways it’s ideal. It’s unobtrusive, very portable, and unintimidating. It has great audio too. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out at this stage.

I’m tempted, at least as a second camera, to take a Canon EOS 1D C, because it’s a fantastic still camera (I will be taking lots of stills at the same time as the film, in case I decide to write a book as well) and takes lovely looking footage; again, ready to use in MJPEG format. This camera is a great example of how just because technology moves on, it doesn’t stop older cameras working just as well as they always did. It was pricey when it first came out - especially because it didn’t seem to be any different from the 1D X, apart from firmware, but it’s had a major price reduction which means that either new, or second hand, it now makes a lot more sense financially. Of course the Canon EOS Cinema cameras are very good, and I should consider those as well.

So, that’s it for video. I need audio kit as well. I’ve thought in very general terms about this. I’m planning on a few interviews, and for these I’d need either a good shotgun mic or maybe some small concealed Lavaliers. Radio mics would be most flexible and I’ve had experience of the Sony UWP series, which work very well. I definitely don’t want to spend any time syncing up audio so I want to record to the camera. I always like to capture audio “atmospheres” and I’ve been using a Sony PCM-D100, which is an all-in-one combination of a crossed pair of stereo mics and a recorder, with up to 192 khz recording and even DSD for a true audiophile performance (if not necessarily the easiest format to handle). I would probably choose 96hhz recording at 24 bit, which would give me an awesome dynamic range with plenty of headroom for peaks.

Post production? I want to keep this to an absolute minimum. As little grading as possible, and simple “cuts only” editing. I would make an exception to this for certain “beauty” shots, where I might want to turn the contrast up and maybe make subtle chances to saturation. As far as editing is concerned, I really have no preferences. Absolutely any of the NLEs out there will be able to handle the task. I’ve used them all (but not all recently) and I will probably use whichever one I have installed on my computer at the time. That’s not to say they’re all the same, nor that some aren’t better than others for certain specific tasks and styles of editing; but if I were talking about word processors instead of NLEs, you could do what I want to do in an ASCII text editor.

What about 4K? Well, I like 4K and I think it’s a worthwhile improvement over HD, but merely switching your camera to 4K doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to look any better. If you’re half a pixel out of focus, your 4K is going to look like HD anyway, and with a shallow depth of field, you really need a focus puller. So while I would choose 4K if the workflow still came within my constraints for equipment, speed and ease of use, then I would use it. But I think it’s more important to make sure I get good shots, with good colour and contrast, with good lenses as well. I kind-of feel that if you shoot good HD and watch it on a 4K screen, it will look as good as, if not better than, badly shot 4K. It’s tempting to think that if you shoot in 4K and downconvert to HD you’ll be able to reframe your shots in post, but, honestly, how often is that going to happen?

Lenses? Well, this is wide open. If you’re filming a city you need everything from telephoto to wide angle. I’m tempted, though, to shoot with a minimum set of lenses. I do think it is the case that the best way to zoom is with your legs and the idea of shooting with a set-up that’s the equivalent of a fixed lens rangefinder still camera is tempting, if, perhaps, a bit idealistic.

So that’s it. I’ve probably left some important cameras out, but this is just early thinking off the top of my head.

What do you think? I’d really like to hear your suggestions. And if anyone has a specific film in mind that they’re going to make, or have recently made - why not tell us what choices you made and why?


Tags: Production


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