What's the Best Gear for Making Your Documentary?
Experts and self-proclaimed "gearheads" talk cameras, lenses, and the great 4K debate.
A film may start with a story, but production can only begin when you have your gear. However, choosing the right equipment for your film can seem overwhelming. Cost, quality, and artistic intent are all considerations. At this year's DOC NYC, a panel of gear experts discussed these considerations, and broke down—in depth—the benefits and drawbacks of the industry's most popular documentary equipment. Panelists were Geoff Smith, Camera Technology Specialist at AbelCine; Juan Martinez, Senior Product Manager at Sony; and Sam Cullman, documentary director and cinematographer (Art and Craft, The House I Live In, If A Tree Falls). Jeremy Workman, Creative Director of Wheelhouse Creative, moderated.
"This is the golden age of gear."
"This is the golden age of gear." Workman launched the panel with a recognition of the exciting and myriad options currently accessible to documentary filmmakers. With industry standard equipment finally available at consumer price points, it's true that almost anyone can make a documentary these days.
The philosophy of gear
The conversation started vague, with an attention to the broader question of: "what are my filmmaking needs?"
"As a filmmaker, the question is, what is the application? What are you here to accomplish with the given tool in your hand?" Cullman came at this, and all questions, from the perspective of a filmmaker first and cinematographer second.
"Are you making a longitudinal kind of film that might take place over the course of two to five years? In that case, you have to really think about "futureproofing" the kind of shooting you're doing." He was referring to 4K (and higher), which they discussed in depth later on.
"You might also be making a vérité film, in which case you'll be shooting an incredible amount of material and your ratio will be fatter. You'll need to think about compression schemes—the way that your film will be brought into the edit world." And, Cullman added, his final major consideration would be the grab-and-go capability of the camera, especially when you're shooting in time-pressured situations. It took him ten years to find a camera that he liked, but, he says, he's got one now.
"What are you here to accomplish with the given tool in your hand?"
"I'd be curious right now to hear what's in your bag," Workman encouraged.
Cullman began by listing his previous cameras. "I started off shooting with a Sony PD150. And then the Panasonic DVX100 came out. For me that replaced what Sony was up to." Now he owns the Sony FS5.
"It's a small body camera and what I love about it is that I can get really whatever shot I want. I love the FS7 too, but I can't tell you how many times I've been in documentary situations where there's a shot that I want, and I just can't get it, and to me that's a deal breaker."
How the Sony FS7 and FS5 differ
With the resident expert right there, Workman asked Juan Martinez to explain the differences between the FS5 and FS7.
"These cameras have been very carefully considered," Martinez began. "The FS5 is more accessible, less expensive. Because it's a lower priced camera, as a system, it has to have a lower operating cost. The FS7 uses more expensive media which lets you crank at 180fps in HD, in 4K up to 60fps. In the case of the FS5, you're recording to SD cards because that is a less expensive operating cost. The camera has a smaller body, but it still has the same sensor as an FS7, it has the same Sony E-Mount." He concluded, "so, the difference really is in the portability and affordability."
"Just to give a little bit more of an overview," Workman added. "I would guess of all the DOC NYC movies playing this week, the most represented cameras are the Sony FS5 and FS7, and the Canon C100 and C300."
What's exciting, Workman said, is that all of these cameras have price points below $10,000. Aside from affordability, Smith weighed in on what he finds filmmakers are most concerned with when renting from AbelCine.
Ergonomics and moving freely in the field
"The most important thing from my point of view is the ergonomics," Smith insisted. "That the camera falls to hand and is useable, especially in situations where you might not have such a friendly environment—where you might be trying to be on the stealthy side. The FS5 is suited to that type of shooting. In its most stripped down configuration it would appear to a security guard or someone like that as a consumer camera."
"It's not all about large sensor cameras," Martinez added. The size of the camera is always directly related to the situation in which you're shooting. "There's a lot of stuff that's shot with tiny little cameras, with sensors one inch or smaller." It may allow for a less intimidating interview, he said. "Someone like Jon Alpert likes to tear the camera down and hold it in his lap, because then he can just engage the person he's interviewing on a personal level."
""It's not all about large sensor cameras."
"I'm always very sensitive," Cullman agreed. "I think regular human beings don't react well to being filmed, it changes the mix. We can all pretend as though we're flies on the wall making vérité films, but at the end of the day, our presence and the presence of our camera does effect what we're recording.
"Ideally you minimize as much as possible," Cullman continued, "and for me minimizing is as much about how you conduct yourself, how much crew you bring in, as it is to the actual camera that you choose to grab. You might reach for a (Sony Alpha) A7S [in a really discrete situation]. There's no reason why an iPhone couldn't necessarily be a good choice. I don't generally get handed the iPhone to shoot scenes but I've seen people use them in films and it's incredibly effective."
Operating as a storyteller first
Martinez couldn't have agreed more. "Being able to get the story is the most important thing."
"At the end of the day we are storytellers." Cullman added. "This is being said from somebody who cares a lot about aesthetics. But aesthetics only go so far."
"Being able to get the story is the most important thing."
To reinforce this concept, Martinez told a story about meeting a young documentarian who was planning to follow her subject up Mt. Everest. Sony sponsored her ascent. The FS5 is 1.5lbs at its bare minimum, and that's what she brought. "She tore down the camera to nothing because every ounce counts at that altitude.
Efficient lens work
A question from the audience turned the conversation to lenses. Frequently, in documentary situations, a shooter doesn't have time to switch lenses. The panelists strongly recommended zooms to alleviate this problem.
"There's a very inexpensive Sony 18-105mm lens, a kit lens for the FS5, that lens works on the FS7 very nicely," Martinez volunteered. "It's a constant F4, and it is very affordable."
Workman described his own preference, a 15-85mm Canon lens.
An important factor in choosing the FS5, for Cullman, was that it works with light in such a way that he rarely has to switch lenses.
"I made the decision that, for what I'm doing now and what I use the camera for, HD is where I'm at. And what that meant is that I could now take advantage of the 4K sensor to double the length of my lens."
Cullman's set up is a Metabones Speed Booster with a 24-105mm Canon lens.
On the occasion that he wants a wider shot, he said, he'll carry a wider lens in his pocket. "If I have to change it, it's not because I've made a mistake in a scene, it's because I've made a decision to now get the wide shot. It doesn't interrupt my flow. But if I need the telephoto shot to get the cutaway of somebody wiping their eyes or whatever it is, I don't have to change a lens."
Cullman went on to describe how to use the Sony FS5 to maximize focal length. "There's two ways to do it, one is that I can stop recording and I press a user assignable center scan button to then double the extension of the lens, but the FS5 also has this remarkable thing called Clear Image Zoom which functionally allows me to keep recording in the middle of a tighter shot at the full 105 extension of my lens. I can use the rocker on the lens to then punch in and that takes advantage of the 4K sensor." He deferred to Martinez for the full details on how this works.
"What it does for you is, on the FS5, you can put a prime lens, and you can push in up to two times in HD, and up to one and a half times in 4K." With no image quality loss, Martinez explained. "Abel did an amazing test where they put this enormous ENG lens on, and they pushed in with the optics of the lens, and then they pushed in with the Clear Image Zoom, and then they threw in the two times extender."
"It was the equivalent, I believe, of a 1500mm lens on a 17mm ENG zoom," Smith offered.
"You could see the texture on the wall," Martinez enthused.
"From maybe 50, 60 yards away," agreed Smith.
HD vs. 4K
There is a great debate in the industry over the relative pros and cons of HD, 4K, and beyond. Since the topic had been breached, Workman asked the panelists to weigh in.
"Sony makes cameras with a much larger number of pixels, you can have 8K, but the nice thing about having a camera that has a 4K sensor is you can shoot HD that has been subsampled from the 4K." Martinez said. "In the case of 4K, you can reframe, you can push into it digitally, you can do a zoom in post production, you can do all kinds of stuff with it, or, just shoot in 4K for 4K distribution."
"In the case of 4K, you can reframe, you can push into it digitally, you can do a zoom in post production... or, just shoot in 4K for 4K distribution."
"As a counter argument," Workman interjected, "there are no 4K films being played at DOC NYC. 4K looks nice on DCP but people don't have 4K televisions at home."
Smith added, "And most DCPs are not 4K."
"So is 4K even essential these days?" Workman asked. "Sam, when you're working with a director, are you shooting everything 4K?"
"I'm not, but it is definitely an issue." Cullman responded, "I think most of the time when I get calls about 4K, it's people want to have the flexibility to do what Juan was saying in post."
In defense of 4K, Martinez mentioned that we're in a transitional time. "If you think your project will have a lot of interest in the future, you may want to shoot 4K so it can be exhibited in that resolution later." This is the concept of "futureproofing" that Cullman mentioned at the top of the panel.
"It's more important to have the intimacy with the subject, to be able to get the shot, and to stay with HD because it's still gorgeous enough."
An audience member raised his hand, and cited that the number one selling televisions in America right now are 4K. (NFS looked this up: It seems to be true according to LCDTV Buying Guide, Costco, and PC Mag, though Amazon's top two best sellers are still HD.) He concluded with the statement: "If you're not shooting 4K, you're not shooting for the future."
"I think that that's true," Cullman responded. "At the same time, I remember when everybody said that all documentaries and all films were going to be 3D, and that didn't materialize. It doesn't mean that we have to be shooting 4K to make the best films. Unfortunately what it will mean, not yet but at some point soon, is there will be distributors who say, 'we're not distributing your movie unless it's 4K.'"
Netflix has just recently decided to release exclusively 4K films under their "Netflix Original" umbrella.
Smith commented that Netflix has just recently decided to release exclusively 4K films under their "Netflix Original" umbrella. "But for other kinds of content, it's exactly that, about the content, not the camera. It's about the subject matter and the filmmakers."
"As long as nobody's demanding 4K," Cullman concluded, "my decision as an artist has been that it's more important to have the intimacy with the subject, to be able to get the shot, and to stay with HD because it's still gorgeous enough."
He encouraged the audience to think of recent documentaries shot in HD and even on DSLRs, like Cartel Land and Hell and Back Again. "There's beautiful stuff to be made in HD, I don't think we have to abandon that format just yet. Maybe the distributors are going there but I don't think we have to."
A note on audio
When an audience member asked about audio equipment, Workman responded, "I'd say that 90% of every doc filmmaker I know has Sennheiser lavs and a Sennheiser shotgun."
"I agree, but I would put my foot down to say you should really get a Lectrosonics wireless system." Cullman said. "While Sennheiser is great because they're more affordable, I've owned these systems for 12 years and they are rugged, and they have power, and as a documentary filmmaker one of the most important things is to let your subject walk away."
"Lots of times you are a one-person band," Cullman continued, "you're operating alone and you want to give people the distance to be themselves. So having that range really matters."
For another wireless solution, Workman added that "Sennheiser G3 lavs are classic workhorses of the documentary world."
With respect to audio recorders, Cullman says he doesn't use one. Though if you have the luxury of a multi-person crew, No Film School recommends that you do.
"I definitely do not usually plug into a recorder, but I do own a Zoom. They're useful tools. The camera that I have has only two channels of input, which is mostly what I need but there are times when I need more, and that's where a Zoom would be handy. The problem is the Zoom is somewhere else and you're holding the camera and you can't really be riding levels while you're shooting." For a one person crew, the panel agreed that recording directly to the camera is best.