Sure, we're all a bunch of gear junkies, but in some ways we know, a camera is a camera is a camera. It's just as important for every production to have a good (or at least decent) concept, and therefore, a good reason to use one camera over the other! From scrapping a 3D production to saving up for six years to buy a RED EPIC, the excerpts below from a handful of different, but very talented, SXSW filmmakers are centered around one question: what did you shoot on and why?
One of the coolest things about covering SXSW 2014 for No Film School was getting to meet an array of talented, eccentric, and altogether fascinating filmmakers, and share with you what they had to say about independent filmmaking. Check out this diverse sampling of filmmakers who screened at SXSW, and hopefully they'll stoke your imagination into how to achieve your vision by looking at their strategies -- and cameras! (Click the titles for a link to the cameras.)
The directors of this futuristic doc on how they chucked their 3D camera a third of the way through production:
NFS: You guys started filming in 3D, then switched to DSLR?
David Alvarado: Absolutely.
NFS: Please explain!
David Alvarado: The Panasonic AG-3D had just come out, and it was a prosumer level 3D. In our minds at the time, we thought the medium would match the message. Like, these guys are talking about the future, sci-fi concepts, so the idea was to show them in 3D interviews and animate in 3D what they were talking about. But it turned out that the restrictions of 3D weren’t really working with documentary. We knew this at the time, but after a while the technical limitations became so severe, we thought, maybe the world they live in isn’t 3D.
Jason Sussberg: About a third of the way through we switched to DSLR. All of our principal interviews were shot in 3D. I always see them come up, and say, “That one’s 3D.”
David Alvarado: Me too. In the end, we just used the left eye of the 3D camera. We sold the camera, made our money back. It might work better for a sports documentary.
NFS: What did you switch to?
David Alvarado: First was a Canon 7D, 80% of the film was on that, then a 5D, and then our pickups were with a C100.
NFS: And how did it compare?
David Alvarado: The 7D was so much better!
Jason Sussberg: Our film is really focused on the personal lives of the scientists -- so we wanted to get intimate, and the 7D just allowed for a completely different production style that allowed for that intimacy.
Canon 5D Mark III
The epitome of guerrilla filmmaker, director Joel Potrykus needed a camera that could be concealed in a backpack when filming at McDonalds and the Greyhound station with nobody the wiser:
All my short films were Super 8, but then I wanted to do a feature. I like the look of film and everything, and I don’t like what video looks like, but the first time I saw footage from like, a Canon 7D or something, I was fooled. I thought it was 16mm, and I was like, "Ok I’m in." Shooting on film, sync sound is a problem, with Super 8 sound it’s a nightmare. Once I saw DSLR, I was in. We shot Ape on a Canon 60D, we shot Buzzard on Canon 5D Mark III with a little Tascam audio recorder. Then I just sold it on eBay -- the next version is just gonna be cheaper and better!
Another Canon 5D proponent, director John Jeffcoat on how he came to see the Mark III as a low-light capable, cost-effective option for shooting:
I had come off doing these little documentaries for MTV where I was shooting, directing and editing, just one man band kind of thing, and that was the first time I ever used a Canon 5D. I was just really excited about the low light capabilities, so I could just work with the available light. I thought it would be really fun to take that into a narrative world and use it for a feature -- How small can we go without it affecting production value to the point where I'm not happy with the way it looks? So that was the challenge we set up for ourselves.
Director Kat Candler on how she managed to convey the intimate world of rebellious kids in an east Texas refinery town using the flexibility of the ARRI ALEXA:
We shot handheld, which was twofold in having that energy and intimacy with the characters. But also, we were on such a tight schedule and we were shooting with 5 kids, who you only get to work with so many hours day. Shooting on the ALEXA allowed us to not have to set up a million lights. So, it allowed us to move quickly, but also keep the energy of the film -- Brett Pollock, who shot Short Term 12, came on board, and he’s great on handheld. He has this sweet kind of dance with actors, allowing them space in the room to do their best work, and feel like the camera is not there.
Director Matt Rabinowitz on borrowing the camera that would give him the closest look to shooting on film:
Matt Rabinowitz: We shot on a Sony F3 that was really graciously donated by Ben Johnson of Upstream Media, who does a lot of video work and has worked with Neil Young since the 1960s. He was nice enough to let us borrow it for a month. Without that, I don’t know if we could have afforded a good camera!
NFS: So you had a good experience, you’d shoot on the Sony F3 again?
Matt Rabinowitz: Absolutely! It doesn’t look like film, but in terms of digital photography, it’s about as good as you can do for the price.
With a background in still photography, the directors of documentary DamNation saved money for years and years in order to shoot (and edit in) beautifully composed RED 4K:
Ben Knight: At the filmmaker lunch, we talked to other doc filmmakers, and they looked at me pretty weird when I said we shot on the RED EPIC. It’s not exactly a run-and-gun system -- but the film is not shot that way. Everything’s locked off. I honestly tried to shoot the film like a still photo. Slow things down, give a lot of thought to composition. My hope was that would be just as strong as a dolly shot or a crane move.
Travis Rummel: I think it was back to total classic, all primes, no zooms; we shot everything raw in 4K or 5K.
A narrative feature that used the EPIC, the director (Carlos) and DP (Dagmar) talk about collaborating on the style of Long Distance (10,000km) and intentionally avoiding too many lens changes on the RED:
Dagmar Weaver-Madsen: The thing I like about working with you is that sometimes you push me out of my comfort zone. Like I don't want to do that, and I do it. Later I'm like, "I'm so glad we did that. It was such the right thing to do!" And that's what's so cool, to collaborate with someone who respects you, but also wants to try to go further. You end up growing as an artist.
Carlos Marques-Marcet: She does that to me, too, because, for example, I hate using too many lenses. Dagmar would have to narrow it down to two lenses. This time, we used three lenses, and I was like, "Oh wow." [Furrowing brow.] I don't like to change lenses often, because it feels too arbitrary -- it takes away form the feeling that we want to create. To me, changing lenses too often drags your attention to the image instead of letting it flow.
NFS: What were the lenses you narrowed it down to, and what did you shoot on?
Dagmar Weaver-Madsen: The 35mm & the 50mm are probably always going to get used by us. The 35mm is your favorite and 50mm is my favorite. We shot on the EPIC with the 5K. We shot 5K for some scenes, but not for the others. So, it actually sort of looks like a different lens, but nope but it's still the same lens.
Director Catherine Gund on filming at the London Olympics with her cinematographers, including legendary Albert Maysles, operating anything from a GoPro to the Sony PMW-EX1R:
Al Maysles said he wanted to go to London and film that, and see that, and be there. He came, and that shoot -- 15 minutes of the film -- was done in one day. The two of them [Albert Maysles and DP Kirsten Johnson] were like a Vulcan mind-meld. We had five cameras and a dancer who had a GoPro on his head -- so six cameras. It was a long day, but that’s why we finished this film so fast. We filmed in one day what you’d normally film in a course of 12 months! And it was fabulous to work with Al. I’ve been guided by him my whole career, and on this whole film I kept hearing his patience in my ears -- "Just don’t stop the camera.”
ARRI SR3 (Super 16)
Director Leah Meyerhoff on choosing Super 16 to create a colorful, fantastical, analog world:
Nobody shoots [Super 16] anymore. Fuji donated a bunch of film to us. We shot on Fuji and Kodak -- but mostly Fuji -- right before they basically stopped making 16mm film. For principal photography we shot mostly on the ARRI SR3. We also had an Aaton as well -- we had the Bolex, we had the Canon Super8 -- so we had multiple cameras at all times. And we had an intervalometer that we used for the Super 16 camera which allowed us to do time-lapse photography as well as the stop-motion animation.
Director Doris Dörrie on developing a Buddhist sensibility in regards to filming:
Doris Dörrie: I always use one small camera. I try to keep it very small. I shoot my feature films this way too.
NFS: The images look great, what’s the one small camera you used?
Doris Dörrie: We shot on the Canon C100. As far as deciding what to shoot, I consistently whisper into the cameraman's ear, and I drive him nuts. I’m on their shoulders, whispering "Go there," "go there," this and that. I come across very patient guys to do this for six weeks straight!
Thanks to all the filmmakers! I genuinely can't wait for all the full interviews to be rolled out, as everyone had tons more interesting notes and explanations to give about the process of making their films.
Who has used any of the cameras mentioned above for any similar reasons as these directors and cinematographers? How did it work out?
[Header image: Ben Knight on the set of DamNation]