Producer/director Charles Kelly emailed me recently about how frustrated he was by DSLRs being hyped up to the point where no one has a bad word to say about them. He asked if he could air his views on using the Canon 5D/7D and here’s what he has to say. It makes interesting reading.
Kelly works for CSK Integrated Solutions (www.cskis.com), a production company working across all media platforms. A much shorter version of Kelly’s opinion is published in the November issue of Televisual (p.21).
"Every time I pick up a magazine someone seems to have ‘fallen in love’ with a Canon 5 or 7D. The footage can look impressive and the price offers great value, but is true love really blind? How do these cameras actually hold up in a real-world scenario?
We used a 5D Mk2 on a project for a major financial institution, which involved a good mix of interiors and exteriors across multiple locations in the UK and India. Overall, I was impressed, but, strange as this may sound to its army of lovers, it’s certainly not perfect.
It very quickly became apparent that the majority of reviews I’d read in advance had either been penned by those from a photography background or by some over enthusiastic video-bods who’d simply taken a unit for a quick spin round the block. The 5D delivers a filmic look with a shallow depth-of-field – and that’s where most of the reviews end. In reality, the camera slightly frustrates various elements of the production process by having a plethora of operational idiosyncrasies.
I’m sure these issues are not limited to Canon models, so my experience may be of interest to anyone thinking of using one of the DSLR cameras currently on the market. So, what should a DSLR virgin be aware of?
Unless you’re simply capturing a few scenic shots it will probably be best to hire one of the bespoke mounting rigs now available. This will support the camera and allow accessories such as a monitor, matte box and follow-focus to be added with relative ease.
The sound quality derived from on-board recording is not broadcast standard and works on automatic gain circuitry – fine as a guide or a reference but not suitable for a final programme. An external sound recoding unit is required, preferably along with some method of adding its time-code to one of the audio channels on the Canon to assist the syncing process in post production.
The twelve minute clip record duration doesn’t sound like a big issue when you’re sitting in the comfort of your production office but you can more or less guarantee the best flurry of action, or the most important sound bite, will begin at exactly eleven minutes fifty five seconds – on a fairly regular basis!
The 5D operates on a rolling-shutter principle and this can cause some strange motion artefacts, so keep a close eye for any such aberrations as you could be able to correct many of these while filming. You also need to take care to ensure any camera pans are fairly slow and smooth; not a big deal, just be aware of it.
The lightness of a DSLR unit can make it more prone to vibration when used with standard TV grip gear. There are lightweight jibs and arms that will give short, smooth moves so take time to investigate these options. If you’re planning a mix of track, dolly and jib moves on location make sure you’ve got plenty of time to set the whole thing up and rehearse – and have a good supply of sandbags for extra ballast.
Hand-held work offers up new challenges; the LCD monitor on the rear of the camera is far from ideal – unless you happen to be working down a mine. Add this to the rolling-shutter and the unfamiliar / uncomfortable operating position and you have a recipe that lends itself to (very) short hand-held sequences.
The video monitoring would make a certain Mr Heath Robinson very proud. As previously mentioned; the LCD screen on the rear of the camera is not particularly useful for daylight operation but there is the option of a viewfinder eye-piece extension – worth buying or checking to ensure it is part of your hire package. But remember, if you connect an external monitor the feed to the camera LCD is disabled
For many set-ups you may want to use two monitors; one fitted to the camera rig for the operator and another screen for the director, producer and clients. The snag is the 5D only has one HDMI output. No worries I hear you cry – use a splitter. The second snag is the camera gets confused when it senses a splitter in the cable chain; it will allow you to view both screens in preview mode but as soon as you hit record you will lose the feed to the second monitor. If you’re thinking about utilising the analogue output, be prepared for some pretty abysmal picture quality.
In certain monitoring set-ups the 5D also has the annoying habit of changing the aspect ratio; going from a 16/9 in preview (live-view) mode to a 4/3 format in record. Very disconcerting, but this has apparently been fixed on the 7D.
Financial savings are often cited as a great advantage of going down the DSLR route and you probably will save money on camera hire. However, you’ll need additional lenses, probably a set of four primes plus a zoom or the cheaper / faster option of two quality zooms. You will also require the external sound recording device; obviously, this will all add cost back in to the budget.
For those who have little or no experience of working on film, or high-end HD, you need to be aware that shallow depth-of-field work brings its own fairly literal challenge of maintaining sharp focus. This is much more difficult, and time consuming, than when working with an old trusty DigiBeta and standard zoom lens. It makes a lot of sense to have a focus puller, or decent camera assistant; more money on crew, but well worth it in the long run.
Although not the biggest of issues, you should also be aware the 5D only records at a standard 25fps, with the 7D offering the option of filming at 50fps, which is an improvement but still not ideal. For slightly arty scenes I often like to film just off reality, something like 30fps which isn’t as ponderous and obvious as half speed but does take the edge of straight reality. This isn’t an option with either of these cameras.
Anti-aliasing can also be an issue with some shot content, and the BBC technical department has flagged this up as a concern over the use of this camera for broadcast HD TV projects.
When you move in to post production, ingesting the large media files is slower than some other formats and you need to allow time to import the separate sound files and sync them up to the visuals.
The Canon’s file format is H246 – great for viewing, but not so great for editing. If using FCP, you will probably want to convert your footage to Pro Res files. In Avid your optimum workflow plan will be dependant on the version of media composer you’re using.
You also have to consider how you’re delivering the end product. In the corporate world, standard DVD is still very much the norm in meeting, training and boardrooms across the country; you may have hours of lovely HD footage but you could be delivering a standard definition programme.
Whether you create an HD master for subsequent down-conversion, or convert your rushes at the onset of editing, will probably be dictated by a number of issues; the time and money you have available for post production, whether you’re incorporating a large amount of SD material into the programme, the specification of edit suite you’re using and the current and future needs of your client.
But, either way, if not delivering in HD, take some time to investigate the HD to SD conversion process. The different software and hardware options for doing this can deliver quite a variation in end results. Image quality can also vary between Avid and FCP systems as they process and handle the media files in different ways.
Updates and software ‘fixes’ are available for some of these operational issues but if you’re hiring the camera these aren’t going to be an option you can explore. If you’re planning to be a camera owner you can investigate further but these downloads are invariably supplied by third parties and will invalidate your original warranty. Magic Lantern specialise in this area but their homepage clearly states, “…this Magic Lantern release comes with no warranty for any use; you use it at your own risk.”
There’s no doubt, working with a DSLR requires a bit of thought and preparation; supporters would claim some of the comments above could apply to any film camera. There’s an element of truth in that but I’m highlighting these operational idiosyncrasies because these cameras are invariably being used by people from a video background, some of whom have never even seen a film camera let alone used one.
Plan ahead, carry out some pre-shoot tests, be aware of the challenges and all should go well. We’ll use the Canon again; for the right project, and in the right circumstances, it’s a very good option. I particularly enjoyed the discipline of using prime lenses, working with shallow depth-of-field and having access to a film-style ISO control. But I can’t help wondering; will the lover’s affections start to wander when a proper broadcast equivalent comes on the market?"
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