Zacuto-revenge-shootout-2012A tremendous amount of time is spent perfecting the Zacuto shootouts, and if you haven't seen what went into the Revenge of the Great Camera Shooutout 2012, you should watch the behind-the-scenes immediately. The documentary is going to be split into three parts, with part one being released tomorrow, June 15th. I didn't have a chance to see the RGCSO (as Zacuto calls it in acronym form) at NAB because the showings were cancelled, but thankfully they've been showing them around the country and I was finally able to attend.

The following post is more of an opinion/editorial, and it certainly doesn't necessarily reflect the opinions of any other writers on No Film School. Hopefully you can take something more out of it than just opinion.

Philip Bloom has posted his thoughts about seeing the RGCSO along with a video which I cannot embed here. Philip, as always, is ever the level-headed reviewer and critic, and you should head on over to his site, as he makes some great points about the test and about cameras in general, as well as which camera he personally liked the most (RED Epic). Here's a quote from that post:

If you asked me “Philip, happy birthday… you can have any camera you want on me. Which one will you have?”. My answer would be “Can I sell it or do I have to use it?” as if it’s the former then I’d pick the Phantom Flex as it’s very expensive – I would sell it to buy lots of other cameras. And if it’s the latter then probably an Epic, as I love the image and size of it and I already own a C300 which is my number one documentary camera. But hey, I have my Canon XA10 with me right now…why? It makes my life damn easy for what I am going to film here in Korea.

So really what I hope that you will get from the final documentary is that the camera is important naturally. But it’s what you do with the camera. Yes a better camera will make your life easier but as we always say,  the important thing is YOU!

That's certainly the opinion of many of those who spoke at the RGCSO screening that I attended. They were impressed by many of the cameras, not in the empirical test where the lighting was constant, but in the creative test where the DPs were able to change things around to compensate for the flaws in each camera. While I don't necessarily think you can make any camera look great, you can definitely make any camera look a lot better by lighting properly and by knowing the limits of the system you're working with. If you haven't seen the list of cameras used, here they are:

  • Apple iPhone 4S
  • Panasonic GH2 (Hacked)
  • Canon 7D
  • Canon C300
  • Sony FS100
  • Sony F3
  • Sony F65
  • RED Epic
  • Arri Alexa

Many asked why the 7D was chosen, and not the 5D or a camera that could be hacked like the T2i or 60d. Here is an answer from our comment section from Scott Lynch of Zacuto:

The choice of 7D was a bit last minute. Originally we were trying to get a 1DX which at the last minute was unavailable as it was still unreleased and we were unable to get one in from Japan in time for the test. Michael Negrin, ASC was lined up to shoot the Canon DSLR and was comfortable using the 7D, as that was what he had worked with before. Because these things are so scrutinized by the public, at the time we did not give him a new camera with “hacked” firmware that he had no experience with. So at that point it became a practical decision as to why we used the 7D, it was what he was comfortable with and it had a super35mm sensor. I think though, having the 7D in there gives you a good reference as to where the technology was just over a year ago and it can be used as a sort of benchmark.

There is a theory that I have about movie watchers in general and I believe they are separated into three groups: pixel peepers (many DPs and shooters), people who see a lot of movies, but may not be as technically savvy when it comes to filmmaking (but they certainly like the picture to look nice), and the general audience who just wants to be entertained, and couldn't care less as long as they like the story and can see what's going on. Now, there are grey areas within those three categories, and there are many people who straddle the lines between all three at times (depending on the material they are watching). I personally cannot watch a film if it is in the wrong aspect ratio or it is highly compressed. I either have to find a better source or fix the aspect ratio. I can tell when something is wrong, and it immediately takes me out of the film.

Unfortunately, the general population, who are the majority of moviegoers, may not always be so discerning. HDTVs make this situation that much worse because aspect ratios in the television industry are all over the place, with 16:9 sources inside 4:3 frames, which then get stretched out when viewed on an HDTV -- unless the TV is set correctly to 4:3 with bars on the side. I've heard different reasons from different people about why they'll watch a film in this way: they don't care, they don't want to see black bars, or they don't understand how to change the settings to get it to look correct (if they can recognize what the right aspect ratio would actually be in the first place). I usually present an analogy in these situations, and even though it's not perfect, I think it applies. To me, watching a film in that way is like going to a museum to see paintings from the most famous painters, but instead of the originals, they've been copied and squished into odd forms, or cropped off in weird places. Can you really appreciate the work of  Vincent van Gogh or Leonardo da Vinci if you aren't seeing them in their original form? I understand this analogy may make people scream in their heads a little, and I'm certainly not comparing the great painters to the great filmmakers (it's apples to oranges after all). The point, however, is that if you respect the people that make the work, you'll try your best to view their work in the least compressed way and in the correct aspect ratio.

This doesn't always happen, and all of us are guilty of watching movies or television in highly compressed versions on tiny screens -- most of the time it's a matter of convenience. If I have to go buy or rent a film on Blu-Ray, I may watch it in a more highly compressed form on Netflix because it's more convenient. There is something lost (however major or minor) when a work isn't viewed in the most uncompressed way possible with a screen that can accurately represent its true colors. You could say "only in a theater" - but the theater experience, at times, is not necessarily better than watching a Blu-Ray at home on a calibrated TV with good surround sound.

That may seem like a tangent, but it is absolutely related. Not only do we have many different types of viewers watching our work, but they are also watching it in ways that may not be the best representation of what we are trying to achieve. I'm not complaining about this -- there's nothing that can be done about it -- but it's a fact of being a filmmaker. This also brings everything back to the original topic at hand. You have to know where your work is going -- whether that be theatrical, TV, or the web. All of those different mediums will benefit differently from certain camera systems, and the most expensive cameras will shine a little brighter than something you can buy from WalMart. The camera matters for the medium through which it is being watched, and often that is on the internet.

The Zacuto test was certainly subjective, and I thought it did a great job proving that you can make almost any camera look better -- even the lowly iPhone -- it just depends who is lighting and operating the camera. The differences between the cameras may be even less apparent when the shootout is released on the web, and that's one of the bigger points that I will come back to.

While we weren't given much time to look at each camera, they were shown in a completely random order unlabeled -- to try to remove as much bias as possible. We were given a sheet where to select our five favorite cameras. Before going in, my goal was to try to watch the clips with the mindset that there are certain aspects about cameras that remain more or less constant regardless of compression -- with the two biggest being motion rendering (or motion blur), and dynamic range. To a certain extent, color reproduction and skin tones will also make it through heavy compression. Depth of field, obviously, is up there, but since this was a controlled test there wouldn't be much difference between them. I tried to watch with those aspects in mind first, but I quickly realized that sharpness was going to play a huge role because this was being shown on a big screen -- even though our distance from that screen probably lessened the extent to which the sharpness and clarity played a role.

So if you're still reading, here were my choices, and my thoughts on the ones I didn't pick:

  1. FS100
  2. RED Epic
  3. F3
  4. Arri Alexa
  5. F65

My top three were a complete toss-up, so I was willing to put any of them as first. After watching it a second time, I may have moved the Epic slightly farther down the list (due to a bit of yellow in the highlights), but I thought that would defeat the purpose of watching them blindly in the first place. Really, all five of those cameras performed beautifully in my eyes, and they checked off the list of the things I was looking for going in -- unfortunately, sharpness played a bigger role than I would have liked. Keep in mind that these were my opinion, based on a theater screen, and that others in the audience had very different answers.

The iPhone, regardless of the excellent lighting in the scene, looked miserable in its motion rendering, and to me, was the worst of the bunch. The other two that I thought just didn't hold up: the GH2 and the Canon 7D. The GH2 (which is the best camera under $1,000 depending on where you read), felt very digital, and it seemed over-sharpened. It's color rendition was much poorer than the others, even though I think that scene probably had the best lighting of any of them -- because the DPs knew what they were up against with the limited dynamic range, and were able to compensate. The colorist also was able to pull a lot out of the shadows, much more than I had expected. Even through all of that, I personally didn't like the image in any way. The 7D, as was expected, suffered a bit from it's limited 8-bit codec, and was also one of the softer cameras of the bunch. It just wasn't in the same league as even a camera like the FS100 in this test. Lastly, the C300 was my number 6 camera -- probably because of subjective choices. I just didn't like the image as much as the others. Many also had left the C300 off their list, though there were enough that had the GH2 and the iPhone on their list to show that subjectivity played a certain role in the choices people made.

It was very telling for me, personally, that I left all of the DSLRs off the list. To bring it all back around, what do I think this means? It means that you need to know your camera's limits, and you have to know where the work is going. Yes, you can make any of them look "good." I've seen plenty of beautiful work from every single camera that was tested, so you shouldn't be disappointed just because I personally didn't pick any DSLRs. The screen size and final compression play a huge role. The digital cinema cameras shine the brightest when you push them the hardest -- on a big screen where resolution matters. Sharpness and resolution are less important on the web, and to a lesser extent television. By the time people actually watch material on either one, it's been compressed a great deal. Can you see a difference on the web if you compared an F65 to a Canon 7D? I think so, but the differences can be so minimal that you have to then start considering cost. That's where it really starts to matter - you can buy a 7D for the cost of a one-day F65 rental. If your work is going on the web, and to a lesser extent TV, that money can be better spent elsewhere.

There are so many things we have to consider, and that's really the lesson that you should take away from the Zacuto shootout. Often our audience is far more forgiving of poor visuals than we would like to believe, and it's actually bad sound that they won't be able to look past. The number one consideration you should have is the delivery medium -- where your work is going. After that, consider cost, then usability (physical usability and also workflows and codecs), then worry about the image quality. A RED Scarlet might be miles ahead of a Canon 7D in image quality, but if your work is only going on the web, it might not make the most financial sense to use a Scarlet when the RAW workflow actually has other financial implications -- like storage costs.

Bottom line: Shoot with the camera you have or the camera you can easily afford, and only move up when it makes financial sense (when you're actually making money off your work), or you need something that fits into your workflow better (like needing a camera with ND filters). Don't invest a lot of money into a camera system that will probably be surpassed in 2-4 years unless it's going to pay for itself in less than a year. Investing in lenses is a much smarter decision -- because those will pay off ten-fold in the long run, way after your Canon 7D or T2i bites the dust. Just go out and shoot with the camera that doesn't kill your wallet, because the money can be better spent on other things (like good actors). All of the camera systems are good enough to get great results, more specifically on the web where differences can be minimal. Lastly, don't forget that much of your audience doesn't care what camera you shot with -- make sure your audio is good and craft a story that keeps them interested.

On a side note - it's a little baffling that many people insist on saying that certain cameras cost less money than they actually do. I understand that you can get many camera systems for less money used, but I think it's doing a disservice to compare cameras at used prices -- when often those prices can fluctuate wildly. From B&H, the Sony FS100 is $5,000, and the GH2 is $750 (body only for both). Just because you can buy a Canon 5D Mark II for $1,500 used on eBay doesn't mean it's a $1,500 camera. There are certain risks that come with buying a used camera, and in the end that $1,500 purchase might end up costing more money than if you bought it new. You can get great deals on used cameras, there's no question, but you have to also understand the risks. I've had a lot of good luck with used cameras, but the main thing is that you have to buy carefully and consider the overall cost. Does saving $100 on a used camera really make sense when you can buy a brand new one with a warranty? Either way, you have to do what makes sense for your financial situation, and in some cases, you might be able to move up to a better camera if you choose to buy it used. That's certainly a valid consideration, and it's something to think about if you're in the market for a new camera.

There may be more dates for the shootout, and you can check at the link below and sign up if they happen to be coming to your area. If you want, you can also download from the link below the technical paper that explains the testing procedures and all of the stats from each camera.


DISCLOSURE: Zacuto is a No Film School advertiser.