Saturday, December 26, 2009

All teched out.

I run into people all the time who want to talk gear. Most often I am loath to talk to people about gear because really there are SO many viable approaches to shooting and recording, it almost doesn't matter how it gets done, as long as it gets done right. Also, everyone works differently and has different methods of shooting and treating footage in post, so it almost doesn't even matter which camera you're using as long as it's a reasonable choice and a camera made in the last 3 to 5 years or so.

That said, I'd like to lay out some thoughts about gear and shooting and recording on a budget.

Recording sound

Some folks still believe that you need to shoot double system sound - recording audio to a separate deck using a slate or a smart slate and syncing your footage in post. There ARE advantages to recording audio this way, the main advantage being the ability to record more than 2 isolated channels of audio as opposed to the only 2 channels most cameras allow.

Seeing as how even prosumer cameras allow for capture of better than "CD quality sound" (16 bit at 48 kHz) with 2 separate channels of audio, I see little advantage to recording to a separate deck that probably offers the same sound quality (depending upon mic preamp circuitry), UNLESS more separate channels of audio are required.

I have managed to shoot multiple feature length films recording audio with the camera and have yet to see any major issues that don't have to do with 2 channels vs. 4 or more channels. And even then, with a little finesse and forethought, it's possible to get by with only 2 channels of audio depending upon your needs. Obviously, if you have a group of characters with dialog in the same scene, you very well might have a very real need to have and use 4 channels of audio.

Barring poor mic choices, and poor technique, it IS very possible to achieve very, very good audio by plugging microphones directly into a camera and in any case, you certainly should use the best mics possible and try (and I mean REALLY try) to record the cleanest location audio you can manage (trust me, you'll understand why this is SO important when faced with the prospect of ADR, foley, and sound sweetening).

Recording picture

With regard to digital formats, at this point there's very little point to shooting on any format other than HD. I haven't shot much in the past 2 years that didn't originate as HD. It's almost just as easy to shoot and post in HD as it is in any standard definition format, so why bother?

I'd say every pro and prosumer camera made by major camera manufacturers are ALL capable of providing footage suitable for just about any end use. People will always have their own preferences, just as they do for cars, food, women/men, beer, etc. The old adage - "It ain't what you got that counts. It's how you use it," is worth noting here because of course when it comes to gear, how you use something very much should have some bearing on what you use.

There are generally preferred prosumer camera models for use in various things depending upon which manufacturer has a successful, proven design on the market at any given point in time. The Canon XL1 and Sony VX2000 were essentially the camera of choice for a number of years until the Sony PD150 was released and then Panasonic released the DVX100.

Panasonic had a very significant hold on the prosumer market with the HVX200 sometime after Sony sold many FX1 and Z1 models, and then Canon responded with the XH series, using the same imaging chips as the Canon XLH1, all while JVC continued to develop and improve their HD series.

I've used all of these prosumer camera models and I can tell you, there are no significant differences between them in regard to the quality of footage they make.

In the pro camera category, it's the same deal - apples and oranges. None are awful and none are significantly better than any other. And despite what the prevailing tech-mania of an era dictates (hello, Red cult!), I have yet to hear an audience watch a film in a theater or on DVD and remark - "That would have been SO much better if it had been shot on _______ camera."

It really just depends on how you use it and what you do with it...

... and what you are going to do with the footage.

When thinking about what camera to use, I'd start with thinking about what you want to end up with and work backwards. Are you shooting a short film that will only live on DVD? Are you shooting a low budget commercial that will be broadcast or will only live online? Is there ANY chance (greater than somewhat likely) that you will need to project the work in a theater?

Owning a camera is great because you can act on any whim, you can avoid the time (you don't get paid for) having to pickup and drop off a rented package, and you can rent it out when it's not in use. How many people ran out and bought the Red camera because it was SO cheap. It's gotten to the point now where everyone and his brother owns a Red package so it's essentially more attractive to rent a Red package now than to buy one (as tempting as it may be to just buy it).

But then, is it really worth the expense when you're shooting for a small screen? When you can approximate the look of Red, Panasonic or Sony 2/3" chip cameras with less than $10K of camera, IS it worth it to rent or buy the pro cameras? Especially when it's such a long shot that a narrative film will ever need to live on the big screen.

I've shot narrative films on the HVX200A that have been and will be projected on screens in theaters and I can tell you, from what I have seen, the stuff looks really good. And I'm about as picky as a person can get when it comes to the quality of the footage. In fact, I watched a feature length film I shot on Super 16 film that was scanned and finished digitally, projected from a standard definition DVD (in a state of the art theater) and it looked nowhere near as good as a short I shot on the HVX200A projected (also) from a standard definition DVD.

Yes, it's nice to have 2/3" imaging chips and not have to deal with a lens adapter, and yes there IS a noticeable difference in footage made on the full raster chips of an HDX900 which looks WAY better than footage made on a pixel-shifting HVX200A with 1/3" imaging chips.

But -

Will anyone (besides other tech-savvy people) really notice?

Will your clients notice? (They'll only notice the camera, but just throw a big mattebox on the thing and go!)

How is the footage being handled in post?

How adept is the DP with lighting and camera work?

Can you rent exactly what you need for each job anyway?

Are people in your market into "tech-fashion" trends?

Are you only shooting for broadcast or web?

©2009 Chris Santucci

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