26 Jul 2019

Low cost cameras are not used for big feature films. Why is that?

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The Ursa Mini Pro G2 is capable of incredible high resolution and dynamic range. Yet you won't find it on the set of the latest Spielberg film. Why is that? The Ursa Mini Pro G2 is capable of incredible high resolution and dynamic range. Yet you won't find it on the set of the latest Spielberg film. Why is that? Blackmagic Design

Current 'affordable' cameras can produce incredibly high quality images that not only hold up on a big screen, but can excel at it to the point where highly reputable and experience DPs have been known not to be able to tell them apart from the high end options. We ask what the real reasons are for not using lower cost cameras on big features. The answers may not be as straightforward as you were expecting.

Let me start with what I'm not here to talk about. I'm not here to talk about the fact that modern cameras are better than older cameras. I can cover that in two statements: is an Ursa Mini a better camera than an F900? Was the F900 used to shoot big movies?

Of course, that’s very dependent on a definition of the word “better” that prioritises specification above all else. There are all kinds of reasons people aren’t generally using any of the tidal wave of hugely affordable, hugely capable cameras on the biggest movies. They do get used as crash cams for covering risky stunt work, and where something very compact is needed or for other reasons. Still, if anyone’s heard of, say, an FS7 being used as the A-camera on a nine-figure blockbuster, please let us know in the comments.

Sony A7s. Staggering amounts of high dynamic range, 4K loveliness in something small enough to lose down the back of the sofa

To be completely fair, are there any good technical reasons why that couldn’t happen? Frankly, no, not really. The A7S is limited to 8-bit, but there are only slightly pricier things that aren’t. Some cameras have less (or no) anti-aliasing filters. Others may have poorer rolling-shutter performance than higher-end ones, and particularly the less expensive options tend to trade off colour sensitivity for absolute light sensitivity. That can affect the look of the results in a detectable way, making similar colours indistinguishable and introducing noise if we try to recover that separation in the grade. It’s subtle, though; for at least some films, it might be easy to overlook. To go out on a limb, rather, if it was that big a deal, the lower-end cameras wouldn’t do it.

And these problems are not often mentioned in the context of why these cameras aren’t making it onto the biggest of the big screens. Footage with very noticeable rolling shutter problems has made it into the trailers for major studio releases. The objections aren’t technical, because, frankly, there aren’t many technical objections to make.

Panasonic EVA-1. With the pictured Atomos recorder, a powerhouse

Is it because of reliability?

Instead, people talk most about reliability and that is a legitimate concern when large amounts of money are at stake. Is a less reliable than an Alexa? Probably, for several reasons. The Alexa is almost self-consciously overbuilt and therefore heavy in a way that’s only really acceptable to single-camera drama crews. The Amira is supposed to be more portable but is still a chunk of a camera. It’s not quite clear whether the fear is that less-expensive cameras are easier to break, more likely to succumb to dust or moisture or less resistant to variation in temperature.

The high end - Canon C700 FF

What is clear is that someone buying, say, a Canon C300 could, in fact, buy three of them for the same price as even the cheapest of the higher-end cameras and still save more than enough money to noticeably improve production design. A production ham-fisted or unlucky enough to break three camera bodies might attract the attention of a flinty-eyed insurance loss adjuster. More expensive cameras are, we’re told, built with greater care, though that’s probably a self-fulfilling prophecy. Smaller production numbers of big-spender cameras mean less is gained by automating assembly, so, the more expensive something is, the smaller the market is and the more likely it is to be hand-assembled even if that does not materially affect reliability.

Even overlooking that, no matter how exquisite the care taken in building something, there is a maximum achievable level of reliability. Everything breaks in the end. On a particularly crucial shoot in a particularly inaccessible place – let’s say a trip to the international space station – anyone taking just one Venice body on the basis that they’re very reliable is playing a particularly dangerous game of dice. Given the likely causes of trouble, are three cheap cameras more reliable than one expensive camera? It’d take a forensic statistician to work it out, but it instinctively feels better to have three of something than one, no matter how good the one is.

. Compared to an F900, it's capable of higher resolution, sensitivity, dynamic range and frame rate with lower noise and weight

Force of habit?

It’s easy to get the feeling that some of this comes down to habituation, and it’s at this point that a very experienced film crew might start getting a little red-faced, because some of the realities here are not particularly flattering to some people with long and impressive IMDb credit histories. To put it as nicely as possible, some of the most experienced film and TV people on the planet sometimes have a shockingly narrow field of experience as regards to equipment. To some extent, that’s understandable, since people working at the highest levels are under considerable pressure to produce the highest level results; this provokes a sort of conservatism that’s probably pretty reasonable.

Suggesting people in that situation start using equipment they’re less familiar with implies risk to the production, not because the less expensive equipment is particularly worse, but because it’s different. That’s possibly a risk that producers are willing to pay to offset. Maybe.

The rather button-heavy design of some cameras that are not often used for cinema is not a plus, but the imaging capability is all there

It’s just as possible that some producers aren’t really aware of the conservatism of crew, their unfamiliarity with anything but the mainstream, and that they don’t know that this is possibly not much more than a training problem that could save six-figure sums. Possibly on the very largest shows, they don’t much care. Those nine-figure productions I was discussing earlier are judged on success or failure in multiples of ten million dollars. But at almost any other level than that, particularly at the mid-to-low end of feature filmmaking and TV, those thousands and thousands of potential savings become more meaningful and it’s a surprise they aren’t being pursued.

Inevitably, expressing this sort of opinion will provoke hot-faced shouting in the comments that the entire idea is blasphemy and that no high-end, or even mid-range production would ever consider using anything but the best. And that’s completely reasonable, assuming we fully understand why we’re making that decision, and what the technical, organisational and human factors are.

But it’s really hard to dismiss that idea of keeping two spares on the truck and still saving money. Filmmaking is a team sport and most directors of photography will tacitly admit how reliant they are on other departments. With that in mind, let’s finish with a simple question: if there’s any question at all about money (and there always, always is), would we rather have a £100k camera system and a £1000 set or a £1000 camera system and a £100k set?

Given the standard of £1000 cameras in 2019, that should not be a hard question to answer.


Phil Rhodes

Phil Rhodes is a Cinematographer, Technologist, Writer and above all Communicator. Never afraid to speak his mind, and always worth listening to, he's a frequent contributor to RedShark.

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