Sometimes it's not what it's about but how good it looks doing it.
With SXSW 2019 currently in progress, we asked several of this year's participating filmmakers what cameras and lenses they to shoot their films. Each had a practical (and often economic) reason for their choices and we asked for complete honesty when surveying the results.
The answers run the gamut from inspiring to grueling, and below are their individual responses that go into greater detail.
SXSW 2019 runs through Sunday, March 17th.
Barbara Vekaric (Director of Aleksi): Arri ALEXA - Zeiss Prime Lenses because it was the best set within our budget!
Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak (Directors of The Wall of Mexico): Arri ALEXA.
Jesse James Miller (Director of I Am Pryor): RED/Cooke.
Josh Silfen (DP of Go Back to China): We shot with the Sony F55 and FS7 cameras and Zeiss Ultraprime lenses. A lot of the film takes place in a toy factory in China. We shot in a working factory and were limited in what we could do with lighting the location, so we wanted a camera that had both excellent low-light sensitivity and a lot of dynamic range. The Sony cameras are great for both of those. We also shot almost entirely hand-held, and the Sony cameras are relatively light and well-balanced for hand-held shooting so they allowed us to move around the factory and other locations very quickly.
Layton Blaylock (Director, DP, and Producer of Community First, A Home for the Homeless): Sony FS-7. Lenses: Red 17-50mm & Zeiss CP2 85mm (because that is what I own).
Dan Berk and Robert Olsen (Directors and Writers of Villians): We shot on an Arri ALEXA Mini with Cinevision CZ Anamorphics. The format was a perfect tool for creating a distinctly cinematic image and for framing for our ensemble cast. The unique optical abberations and low-contrast look that these particular lenses produce helped match our characters’ psychological and emotional states in a visual way, and created a warped reality through which they could view the real world.
Bob Byington (Director of Frances Ferguson): Canon c-300 w/ Zeiss primes — we'd used this rig before and it's the easiest for when you have got to stay moving. Carmen Hilbert, our DP, was able to get a look we really like!
Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson (Directors of The Peanutbutter Falcon): Arri ALEXA & Arri ALEXA Mini.
Sam Probst (Co-Director, DP, and Editor of Pig Hag): Sony A7Sii and Rokinon Cine DS lenses.
Kestrin Pantera (Director of Mother's Little Helpers): Fujinon Cabrio 19-90mm, Arri/Fujinon Alura 30-80mm. As the performances by the ensemble cast in Mother's Little Helpers were completely improvised, we decided to cross shoot each scene with two Amiras on medium zooms so we could get the most out of every take. At some point, we started to shoot our close up shots first, as the actors found their blocking for the scene, and would finish with the wide shot once the scene's arch had been fully realized, usually after two or three takes. We shot mostly handheld, and operators were on their own, so the Amira was a great choice for single operator setup. The zooms were necessary for finding shots in each moment, reframing as performances shifted from one actor to another. It became a sort of dance between the camera and actors, where they lead and we followed.
Travis Stevens (Director, Writer, and Producer of Girl on the Third Floor): We shot on the ALEXA because I wanted to ground the fantastic elements of the story in a warm, naturally lit world.
Stephen Cedars and Benji Kleiman (Directors and Writers of Snatchers): We shot on the Arri ALEXA XT and the ALEXA Mini. We used Panavision E, G, and Primo Anamorphic lenses; they're just bowed and imperfect enough to give the image some real character. We didn’t want a modern, flawless lens because we didn’t want our frames to look too manufactured; a lot of our framing is very classically balanced, but we wanted our final shots to end up looking cinematic, not too pristine like a commercial. Especially with digital filmmaking, we felt like adding some character was key. We also do a lot of snap-zooming into dutch angles to punctuate moments of horror/comedy. We used a Panavision 19-90 mm spherical zoom lens on a tango head (a camera mount that allows for dutch angles) and having the vertical repositioning room came in extra handy for those shots!
Kerry Warkia (Producer of Vai): We used an ALEXA Mini. It was lightweight and robust with good image capture.
Alex Horwitz (Director of Autonomy): Our main camera was the Sony FS7 with a Canon 17-120mm Cine Zoom lens. For field documentary work, I needed the flexibility of a lens with that range most often. But I always tried to have a 14 or 15mm prime in our back pocket. Sometimes, we were shooting in cramped cars and needed a little more space in the frame. On a couple of occasions, we had a Scarlet Dragon to shoot some beautiful high-speed stuff of cars in motion.
Tom Cullen (Director of Pink Wall): We shot on a ALEXA Mini with Canon k35. The look of pink wall was unique in that we wanted to convey the six different time periods through adjusting the aspect ratio of the camera. The Mini was great in that it allowed us to shoot full frame 4:3 all the way through to 2.39 widescreen. We chose to shoot on older lenses that have some unique characteristics, softer in quality and with messed up flares and visual aberrations, which complemented the look of each different year in the film.
We accentuated this in the grade, which was done at Fotokem, by pushing the color space towards an older Fuji film print stock, which was augmented in each year of the story through adding film grain and halation to differing degrees. The film is comprised of six sections, each section being a year of the protagonists relationship and told in a non-linear structure. I needed to delineate each section with a unique look and feel.
For example, in Year 1, I wanted the section to emulate the the rush of falling in love. To achieve this, I shot Year 1 in 4:3 and held the characters in the centre of the frame so that the frame was concentrated with the characters, I used handheld to give energy to complement the non-linear/distracted edit and we pushed the colours using a Fuji film stock and added a strong halation to emulate the feelings of first attraction. Whereas, in contrast, Year 6 is the end of the protagonists relationship, communication has broken down and their relationship is stilted. I shot 2:39, kept the actors at the edge of frame, keeping the camera on sticks and reduced the palette to give a stilted and colder feel. Each year has its own unique vocabulary to aid the storytelling and differentiate each section.
Chelsea Hernandez (Director, Producer, and Editor of Building the American Dream): A bunch!!! CAMERAS: Sony FS5 & FS7, Canon 70D, C100, Panasonic GH4, G7, and GoPro. LENSES: art lens sigma 18-35, Canon 17-55, Canon 70-300 and Sony 18-105, Sony 50mm.
Adam Randall (Director of I See You): ALEXA Mini & Leica Summilux Primes. There were specific challenges in the shooting of this film: much of it set in a house, a condensed shoot, being able to shoot fast, and lots of low light. So we needed lenses that worked well with little light and still picked up detail. It’s my first feature that uses primes not anamorphic lenses. This was in part for speed, but also due to the amount of shooting in constrained spaces and needing to use wide angle lenses without much warping. They are beautiful lenses, and they provided a clarity and sharpness that suits the film. I’ve shot all my films so far with the ALEXA. The Mini gives us 4K, speed, and beautiful images.
David Mackie (DP of Tales From the Lodge): The camera we used was an Arri ALEXA Mini. The ALEXA is usually my camera of choice and Mini gave us the added flexibility of being able to make the camera small, compact, and light weight to get into those hard to reach corners! For the main narrative thread in the film, we used Cooke S4 Lenses as well as Angenieux zoom lenses for a couple for a couple of specific scenes/shots. The S4's are lovely lenses with a nice contast, holding up well in low light and night shooting which was important in our film.
Our story also has a number of flashbacks/tales with the tales so for these I opted to shoot with the older Cooke S2/S3's. They are lower in contrast to the S4s, and the focus drop off is slightly softer, so they provided a nice alternative look to these scenes that we could then push a little further in the grade.
Ninian Doff (Director of Boyz in the Wood): ALEXA Mini with Cooke Anamorphic/i Lenses. The 2.39:1 ratio was perfect for these big landscape scenes often with four boys in the same frame - overall bringing the more epic isolated feel to their surroundings. We had a simple shooting rule for the film; when the boys were being hunted the camera was handheld and energetic to help enhance their fear and lack of control but when they became the hunters the camera was either on a head or on a dolly. This signified that they were back in control. The ALEXA Mini was a perfect camera choice to achieve these two shooting formats.
Jennifer Trainer (Director, Producer, and Writer of Museum Town): Several different ones (KJ Johnson, Dan Gold, and Wolfgang Held were the DPs).
Martin Samper (Producer of Seven Reasons to Run Away From Society): Camera: Red Epic W Helium. Lenses: Anamorphic Hawk-V.
Alex Thompson (Director of Saint Frances): We shot on the Arri ALEXA Classic. We weren’t interested in high resolution, and with our sharper lenses (Cooke S4s), further resolution would have been a disservice to the story. It was a work horse that did everything we needed, and it was affordable. That camera has been kicking it for years (since 2010) so it wasn’t hard to get our hands on one. We knew we were going to live on one lens for most of the film, so we committed to the 40mm and 65mm, and supplemented that with the Angenieux 24-290 zoom.
Limiting our “look” and our toolkit ultimately led to more creative decision making; the 40mm just has a perfect distance from the subject, and it allows foreground, mid and background to all contribute to the story of the composition. The zoom grounds it. Haskell Wexler’s shooting in the hospital location of Coming Home opened our eyes to the possibilities of that zoom, beyond the nostalgia it inspires. We weren’t intending to have a vintage look, but the films we looked to certainly came from a similar era.
Annabelle Attanasio (Director and Writer of Mickey and the Bear) and Conor Murphy (DP): We used an Arri ALEXA Plus 4:3 for our camera, and Panavision Ultraspeed Primes + Cooke PV Zooms as our lenses. We knew we needed a wide array of focal lengths, primes as well as zooms, to capture the charged and fluctuating perspective of our young protagonist, and we wanted the organic quality of older glass. Panavision was able to provide us with an ALEXA Plus package and a full range of primes and zooms from the 1970s. Annabelle Attanasio (W/D): Anaconda, Montana, the central location of the film, feels like a time capsule of the Americana of the 1970s and 80s. Our lens choices helped us amplify that bygone quality inherent to the town. We shot a lot of the movie in close quarters (within a two-bedroom mobile home) and the compact size of the ALEXA Plus helped us to shoot through hallways and in closet-sized rooms, when a larger body would prevent us from having that intimacy.
Hilary Brougher (Director and Writer of South Mountain): Sony A7S to Pixe5 recorder, Rokinon Cine primes. This was a small footprint production (small crew and small space) working with mostly natural light.
Thom Zimny (Director of The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash): We used a RED Epic camera with 18mm K-35, 24mm K-35, 35mm K-35, 55mm K-35, 85mm K-35, Arri 100mm Macro Prime T3, Leica 135mm Macro Van Diemen Redhoused Prime. Why these lenses? I thought, why not make character out of space? Why not find those details that carry spirit rather than known facts? The details are what make the man, and the light that’s captured by the lenses evoke the emotional tones.
Jeremy Teicher (Director, Co-Writer, and Producer ofOlympic Dreams): I shot on the Panasonic EVA 1 with three EF-mount zoom lenses: a Tokina f2.8 11-16mm, a Sigma f1.8 50-100mm, and a Sigma f1.8 18-25mm. I carried the lenses, spare batteries, ND filter set, and some small LED lights in a backpack, along with a monopod, shoulder rig, and of course the sound equipment (I ran an on-camera shotgun plus three lavs through a jam-synced Sound Devices recorder, which was lassoed to my backpack).
I was a one-man-band so I knew my gear package needed to be light and adaptable. Typically, one-person-band operations are more common in the doc world, at least, I've never heard of a filmmaker one-person-banding a scripted narrative, and in narrative film I think there's less leeway for audiovisual errors than in docs. So each piece of gear was a balance between quality and mobility. Luckily, with gear being so advanced these days, the balance was (kinda) easy to find.
Grace Glowicki (Director of Tito): We shot on the Arri Amira, using Zeiss Mk II Super Speeds. A big part of the appeal for this system was its agility! We shot the film on a super speedy schedule—seven days—and the dynamic, nimble qualities of the Amira & super speeds allowed us to execute quickly and adapt to what was available to us. Mobility was king!