Joyce Tsang of Stillmotion Discusses Choosing the Best Camera to Tell Your Story
When many of us first picked up a camera, it was whatever we had lying around. Maybe it was dad's old Super 8 at home or the Handycam in your high school yearbook class. It was available, affordable, and convenient, so the choice was already made whether you knew it or not. Today, however, there are a lot of cameras out there so naturally beginning filmmakers will ask themselves, "How do I choose a camera?"
This is a guest post by Joyce Tsang of Stillmotion.
If you look at the spectrum of what is out there, we have everything from the iPhone to the Phantom. We've heard sayings like "the best camera is the one you always have with you," or that the one with the largest sensor is good, or that film cameras will always be the way to go. With so many opinions and so many options, what's a filmmaker to do?
For us, we choose the camera that best fits the story we want to tell.
Wait, what the heck does that mean? Sounds a little fluffy, so we’re going to break it down into some key factors to consider:
- Documentary vs. Commercial: Is this a live event situation where things happen quickly (and can't be re-done), and you're working with everyday real people? Or is this a produced, scripted shoot where you're working with actors and have more control over the situation?
- Environment: Are you shooting outdoors in an area with a lot of contrast, somewhere with both a lot of sun and a good bit of shade? Are you shooting in unpredictable weather conditions with no cover, where it could be sunny one minute and pouring rain another? Or are you shooting in an indoor set where you can control most of the conditions?
- Frame rate: Is there a scene where you'd want to emphasize a movement, add suspense, or stay in the moment longer through slow motion? Or would you like the viewer to see it as our eyes naturally do and experience it in real-time?
- Resources: Are you working solo where you have to manage camera, light, audio and support all on your own? Heck, you're practically Director, DP, Gaffer, Audio and PA all-in-one. Or do you have a team of people so there is a dedicated person on most roles?
- Personal preference: Now, be careful, don’t read this as, "Ohhh I love that new Blackmagic camera." What we mean is, we all have a natural tendency to be drawn to the features of a camera in a different way. It’s always worth asking what types of features and experience you enjoy the most. A big, built-out RED with many options, or a stripped down handheld DSLR?￼
￼These certainly aren't the only factors to consider, but they are often the ones we consider first and put the most weight on. And notice how things like resolution, codec, and budget are not in there. It's not that these aren't important, they certainly need to be brought into the equation, but we'll likely not choose a camera solely because it does 4K, or because it records in RAW, or because it's the only camera we have in our gear cabinet. We are looking for a camera with features that best fit the four criteria above.
How does this all apply? Here are three examples we came across last year:
We used this for a commercial piece we filmed for the Strangling Brothers Haunted Circus, because it was a fully scripted project with a ton of dramatic lighting and a full crew on set. This meant that we could take our time to get the perfect shot, and it's okay that the RED is a bit slower than 5D MKIII. And while it isn't a large camera, the EPIC is quite heavy when kitted-up with cinema lenses, follow focus, and a matte box, but again that isn't an issue when we don't have to move fast.
Additionally, since we had plenty of lighting and the majority of the piece was in the dark, we needed a camera with great dynamic range so we aren't losing detail in the blacks -- with 18 stops on the EPIC, we had plenty of dynamic range. And we were working with a full crew: a dedicated audio recordist who could handle the challenges on that end, an AC who was familiar with all the features and got the camera all built up and ready to go. We also had a gaffer and director, both of whom needed to see the picture on external monitors -- something very easily done with the EPIC.
Is it the best camera? Perhaps for some projects, but there's also challenges, like having a lot of media to manage, especially if you don't have a DIT or time to handle it in post. It's expensive and relatively slow. However the EPIC was definitely the right fit for this project.
Just last month we filmed some football games and we used a DSLR body, primarily because of the environment we were shooting in. We were very excited for one of the games because it was a snow game. While the imagery there was beautiful the shooting conditions were not. It was 22 degrees with snow coming in what felt like every which way, and being that it was a single camera shoot, there simply were no extra resources to have someone hold a cover over the camera.
Within the first quarter the camera was wet and I could barely feel my hands. At some point I remember looking over to another shooter on the sidelines with the EPIC thinking how awesome it would be to be filming the snow coming down at 5K in 120fps, but three minutes after I said that the snow turned into heavy rain and he had to leave. And while I was only shooting at 1080p at 60fps I was able to stay out there and tell the story. We went with the 1DC for this because its weather sealed to protect against the elements, there's a slow motion option which is great to emphasize the movement and emotion that often comes with sports and it had basic audio, and nat sounds were all we needed so working without XLR ports or timecode wasn't a problem at all.
We just wrapped up our first feature documentary film, #standwithme, where we spent 8 months following a handful of characters to tell the story all across the world. This meant that we would need to follow an unpredictable 9-year-old girl at home and at school, travel to Ghana and Nepal to see slavery first hand, and to Namibia to set up the story of the photographer who sparked the journey.
At first, we tried the EPIC and the C300 but we quickly realized that we needed something small and quick, so we weren't intimidating to real people who weren't actors. We also needed a camera that was compact enough for us to move at ninja speed to chase after kids. Part of that is the size and weight of the camera, but it was also the features of the C100 that allowed us to be as fast as we needed to be -- the built-in ND filters meant we weren't fumbling around with drop-ins and things like peaking, and waveform assured us that we were nailing focus and exposure without the need of an AC to pull focus or check exposure. At the same time, we also needed something that would travel well in the harsh conditions of the Kalahari desert with nothing but hot sun and sand.
We needed a camera that would give us the right audio options. During our sit down interviews we'd run a boom, or in many of our scenes we'd mic our characters up with a wireless while in school or in the field, both of which were plugged directly into camera via the XLR ports (so there's no need to sync). But there were situations when it was just a solo shooter, and we had to be quick and discreet, so the Rode Video Mic Pro is all we needed. Of course this camera isn't without its flaws; the viewfinder isn't the best, and it doesn't have a slow motion option, but those weren't a factor for this film. For us, the C100 was the perfect camera for telling the #standwithme story.
The one big takeaway from all of this: no one camera will do it all. But hey, you knew that. You’ve heard it before and you’ll definitely hear it again. When we stop searching for that perfect camera and instead look for the one that fits the stories we want to tell, we can get much closer to perfect.
Filmmaking is all about making decisions that serve the story first, and camera choice is a big one. Don't limit yourself to what you always use or what's in your gear bag. Just because a story calls for you to use a 5D Mark III this week, when you had a fully kitted-up EPIC last week, doesn't mean one story is going to be better than another. Consider what factors are most important to telling your story, and make your camera choice based on that and you’ll find other ways to overcome the challenges that come along throughout your journey.
If you’ve enjoyed the ideas and approach behind this you’ll enjoy a day with us at the Storytelling With Heart Tour where we go through key approaches on how to bring the remarkable stories you want to tell to life.
Joyce Tsang stumbled into the filmmaking world about 5 years ago with no film experience, and is not only one of the lead creatives at Stillmotion, but also DP'd their first feature-length documentary called #standwithme. Stillmotion is a small collection of curious, loud, trouble-making souls who believe that powerful stories can change the world. As a film studio, they work together every day, grow together, love each other, and know each other’s weaknesses. Still motion is a made up of cinematographers, producers, directors, writers, editors, and dreamers.