There is no such thing as the perfect camera.
Though a select few are popular among indie makers, like the ARRI Alexa and the Canon C300, cameras are chosen based on the unique needs (and budgets) of individual projects. We caught up with a handful of SXSW filmmakers and asked them about the cameras they chose to shoot their festival films.
(Click on the titles of each film to check out our full SXSW interviews with their directors.)
Director Josh Locy and DP Jon Aguirresarobe went with the ARRI Amira (a little was filmed on 16mm, too) to capture Hunter Gatherer, a story about a man who struggles to go back to his normal life after being imprisoned for three years. Locy describes the choice to shoot some of the film on...film:
95% of the film is shot an Alexa Amira, and all the interstitials and the last shot of the movie is shot on 16mm. We did all the double exposure stuff in camera. They're imperfect. I think that communicates something. If they felt digital, I don't think they would work. All the bumps and bruises and scrapes are what make it feel like an organic part of the film.
Director Mike Birbiglia and DP Joe Anderson decided to go with one of the most popular digital cameras out there, the ARRI Alexa, for Don't Think Twice, a film about how a NYC-based comedy troupe copes when one of the members becomes a breakout star. Bribiglia tells us how they approached shooting improv, while avoiding the potentially static nature of a stage performance:
If the camera becomes one of the improvisers, then that'll feel like something more emotional, and it will feel more intimate. You know, how could we do that? We do it like Steadicam, the way David O. Russell shoots like a fight scene or a dancing scene.
RED Epic/Sony F55
For Slash, the film about a high school erotic fan fiction writer, Director Clay Liford and DP Ellie Ann Fenton went with the Red EPIC, as well as the Sony F55, with Anamorphic Cooke lenses. Liford shared how his crew prepared for shooting their characters within a real-world setting:
When the actors came in, the very first thing we shot was at Wizard World. We timed the shoot around it, took them there with a skeleton crew and had permission to be there, but we didn't let the people know what we were doing. We took our huge film camera with all the junk on it, the matte box, took everything off, and pared it down to its bare elements. This looked as much like a regular camera as possible and hopefully people thought we were just doing some weird YouTube video and ignored us. They generally did.
Canon C300, iPhone, HandyCam
For the intimate documentation in Gleason, which centers around former NFL defensive back who was diagnosed with ALS, most of the footage was shot by Steve Gleason himself as part of a series of video diaries created for his then-unborn son. That means that much of the 1,300 hours of footage that was eventually whittled down into a feature-length film was shot on iPhones, HandyCams, GoPros and pretty much "everything imaginable."
Sony FS7, Sony A7S
The Sony FS7 and A7S were the cameras of choice for director Kris Avedisian and DPs Sam Fleischner and Trevor Holden on Donald Cried, a story about two neighbors/childhood friends who set out to find a wallet.
Sony F5, Canon 5D
In this docu-fiction hybrid, Director Kaweh Modiri "plays with the idea of the unknown intruder looking for a fresh start, aiming for a fair chance." Modiri and DP Daan Nieuwenhuis chose to go with the Sony F5 for the lion's share of the film. However, some of the footage that Modiri shot with the Canon 5D during the film's "research phase" two years before production also made it into the final product.
Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru
Director Joe Berlinger is an experienced documentary filmmaker, with 12 feature docs under his belt. He and his DP Robert Richman decided to shoot Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru with the ARRI Amira, a camera for which he has a particular fondness:
I’ve been using the Amira for my last two projects, which I love, with a 17-120mm Canon lens. That’s my camera of choice these days. A lot of people are obsessed with using prime lenses again. For me, that’s “look” over content, and I love being able to zoom in at the right moments.
Panasonic AF100, GoPro
Director Jake Oelman and DP Tom Lembcke took extra special care selecting cameras with particular macro capabilities to shoot Learning to See, a documentary film about photographer Robert Oelman who left his career in psychology to travel the world photographing undiscovered insects. The Panasonic AF100 and the GoPro gave the team the telephoto and wide angle view they needed for this unique project. Oelman describes the steps he took to shoot as a one-man-band in the Colombian jungle:
I think GoPros are actually really great when you're traveling because you're going through customs and you can't afford to have all your heavy gear out ready to shoot. I had the GoPro for that kind of stuff, and then I had my Panasonic AF 100, and I shoot everything on prime lenses so I didn't have any zooms at all. Which is kind of a difficult choice, but I like the way primes look versus zooms; it kind of forces you into certain perspectives. I shot some things on a little digital still camera and I would switch it over to video mode, really just trying to get as many things as I could. You're only there for a certain amount of time, and you don't know when you're going to go back, you don't know what you're going to see, so you're just trying to capture everything. That was my shooting style.
Director Laura Dunn explains why she and DP Lee Daniel went with the ARRI Alexa to shoot The Seer, a documentary that won the Special Jury Prize for Best Visual Design at SXSW:
[Lee Daniel] and I decided on an ARRI Alexa for the first several shoots. Then they came up with the Amira, which is slightly smaller, and we used the Amira for the last shoot, I believe. That's not a run-and-gun camera. It's a lot of setup and it's hard to try to move around so much with such a big camera, but that camera captures natural light better than anything we knew. I didn't want to have to only be shooting at magic hour. We needed to shoot in the heat of day sometimes. That camera really seems to capture the bright light in the sun — This footage is like a painting to me. The colors in the Alexa are so painterly that it lends itself to an impressionistic portrait.
Claire in Motion is a film about a woman who uncovers some of her husband's "troubling secrets" after his mysterious disappearance, and directors Annie J Howell and Lisa Robinson wanted to take a less conventional approach to capturing scenes. Here, Annie explains why she, Robinson, and DP Andreas Burgess decided to go with the RED Scarlet and Cooke lenses:
It was fun to design a more non-classical approach to covering a scene. We had spent some time looking at films that didn't cover things traditionally. Sometimes to get safety [in editing], we covered something additionally in a way we could cut it a little more traditionally. But we would utilize slightly more unusual strategies with supporting characters, just to emphasize that we're really with her. Our DP wanted to use these lenses that gave the film sort of a '60s muted look; we just thought that was a great idea right away.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pilih0pbB4
Director Bobby Miller explains why he and DP chose the ARRI Alexa for their darkly comic tale "about a man impregnating a shower:"
I always thought it offered up the best “out of the box” footage. Very film-like. I find other cameras need time in color to get [the footage] right and I knew we wouldn’t have the budget or time for that.
No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom.