While ARRI dominates narrative productions once again, Sony makes a big splash at Sundance 2022. But what does this shift mean for creatives big and small?
It’s that time of year again, and No Film School is excited to welcome our readers to the 2022 Sundance Film Festival! While there was a plan to overwhelm Park City with the creative energy of a hundred filmmakers, this year’s festival was unfortunately moved completely online.
However, that won’t stop the gear heads, cinema lovers, and tech-savvy critics from taking part in one of the biggest festivals in North America.
We start Sundance 2022 by reaching out to all filmmakers and creators to ask what their tools were. Now we're digging into the responses to learn about the cameras and lenses used across the many indie projects selected. Cameras will range from high-end production cameras from ARRI and Panavision, all the way to iPhones and… a security camera from Amazon?
Understanding the different tools of blockbusters and festival darlings is an important step in breaking down how filmmakers craft their vision. Without the tools of our trade, films would never get made.
Let’s see what the creatives of Sundance 2022 used to make their visions a reality.
ARRI led the way, with the Alexa Mini being the most popular camera choice. Close behind was Sony, with VENICE being the go-to for some filmmakers.
As far as glass, we learned filmmakers turned most commonly to Panavision. What's more interesting is that Canon followed closely behind with several zoom lenses.
Let's get more into these choices and let the filmmakers tell us why they made them.
The Films of Sundance 2022 and Their Tools
Every filmmaker will have their reasons for choosing the camera and lenses they used on their projects. Some will focus on workflow, while others will make color science the focal point of their decision. Others still will want the largest resolution they can possibly get.
Every decision is personal and based on the demands of your film.
Director and DP James P. Gannon of Deerwoods Deathtrap made the bold decision to shoot the entire film on a Canon 814 XL-S using Kodak Super8 50D.
"I love the look of [Super 8]," Gannon wrote to No Film School. "It brings something special and nostalgic to the film that digital can't. It's like looking through old photos from the '70s and feeling like you have been transported back in time. It was really fitting for the story, since it's about memory and the past. But to be honest, I'd shoot Super 8 for a futuristic movie about robots if I had a chance to. I think it has more utility than it gets credit for.”
Gannon acknowledged the challenge of the format.
"You only have three minutes of footage per roll, so you're always up against the clock," Gannon said, "especially when it's a documentary and you don't know what your subjects are going to do."
Cooper Raiff, writer/director/producer for Cha Cha Real Smooth, chose an Alexa Mini with Cooke S4s and an old Angeneiux HR 25-250 zoom from the 90s.
"We landed on the Cooke S4s because of their ability to hold contrast and detail," Raiff told No Film School. "Since we were shooting in such a wide variety of locations and had a colorful lighting palette, the DP Cristina Dunlap and I wanted to make sure we had a pretty true-to-life rendering from the lenses. For large portions of the movie, I told Cristina that I wanted to think about the camera as drunk/focused/loving eyes. We used an old Angenieux HR 25-250 usually at the long end to capture the emotion of seeing someone across a crowded room and feeling like they're the only thing in focus. There are also lots of moments throughout the film of watching and being watched—we wanted to translate visually how that feels."
On the other end of the spectrum, the movie God's Country directed by Julian Higgins was shot entirely on the Panavision DXL2 with Panavision Panaspeed and H Series lenses.
Unlike the Canon 814 XL-S, this isn’t a camera you can pick up at a pawn shop. But Higgins and director of photography Andrew Wheeler wanted to “achieve a big-screen, epic feeling while retaining a sense of intimacy with the main character.”
They initially wanted to shoot on film but decided that if they couldn't, "It needed to be a large format," they told us.
For them, Panavision was a perfect fit for their needs. Wheeler had shot many commercials on the DXL2 and was very comfortable with the camera setup. The decision to stick with something familiar helped them to achieve their vision efficiently.
This is important because on any production, no matter how big or small, efficiency and usability are the foundation of a well-run set.
For the project We Need to Talk About Cosby, DP Hans Charles opted for the RED Digital Camera system.
"We used the Dragon and Komodo models," Charles told us. "For lenses, we used the Angenieux 24-290 and the EZ Zoom Lites. I like to combine the sharpness of the RED sensor with the softness of the Angenieux. For zooms, Angenieuxs are relatively fast. That gives me some flexibility in terms of lighting, and they have great shallow depth of field for zoom lenses."
For Charles, tools like the Angenieux lenses not only helped create the necessary aesthetic on a digital sensor but also allowed to crew to adapt when the need arose. There is no need to switch focal lengths with a zoom, unlike primes, and Angenieux makes some amazing zooms.
Watcher director Chloe Okuno used the Alexa Mini LF, and Vantage One4 lenses.
"I discussed how the movie should look and feel at length with the DP Benjamin Kirk, DFF," Okuno told us. "We had a number of references, including Rosemary's Baby, Se7en, Prisoners, Lost in Translation, American Psycho, and Three Colors: Blue. We wanted a look that was moody and beautiful and felt both contemporary and of another era. We wanted to show a sense of isolation and distance from the surroundings, in our main character Julia. The large-format sensor of the Alexa Mini LF gave us a more narrow depth of field, which helped us in isolating Julia from the background. It was also important to us that the story unfolded with Julia, and that the way the camera portrays her was closely linked to her state of mind. Without the distortion of a wider lens. The large-format sensor and the very close focus abilities of the lenses helped us in creating a much more intimate connection between Julia and the camera."
But If Gear Doesn’t Matter, Then Why Does It Matter?
There are instances where a film and its creative team will adapt to new discoveries and situations during production. Sometimes you need a special effect on your footage. Maybe a unique angle.
For the movie Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul., the decision was made to shoot on two Red Gemini DSMC2 cameras that were provided by Panavision. But certain moments in the film required archival style footage.
Producer Adanne Ebo told No Film School, “We used the in-house Sony Beta-Cam that the church uses for their actual sermon footage. The church provided us with shots of the crowds filling the church, something we would not have been able to shoot ourselves due to COVID-19 restrictions and budget constraints."
Achieving this type of look is possible in post-production, but sometimes the best thing is to do it in-camera. By using a camera that was phased out around 2006, the Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. team saved money on post-production.
Remember when we mentioned the security camera?
Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, co-directors of Something in the Dirt, shot their entire film on a RED Monstro VistaVision with a Zeiss CP2 lens kit that was provided by their DP. While it was their workhorse camera, the team used some interesting tech when crafting some mixed-media documentary-style elements. They used some iPhones, a knock-off GoPro they called a “FauxPro” and “a $25 security camera from Amazon called a Wyzecam.”
Rigging a RED Monster to a get security camera angle is no small feat and would eat up an extraordinary amount of time on set. Sometimes, gear really does matter.
For Midnight feature Babysitter, DP Josée Deshaies also had to get creative with VFX in play.
"After trying a tea glass cup as a diffuser in front of the camera the first day of shooting, we started investigating about prisms and kaleidoscopes," Deshaies wrote.
The film's gaffer built "pink-tinted mirrors for flares, and used her own hands to create moving shadows and subtle effects." They did use some classic filters, including Pro Mist, Mitchell, and low contrast, but they "were not always enough for what we needed to achieve. Every shot had to have a little something. A glare, a flare, a touch of light here and there."
One project that stands out the most when talking about cameras and lenses is I Didn't See You There, a documentary by director Reid Davenport. The film gives viewers a looking into how Davenport sees the world from his wheelchair.
To allow himself the ability to shoot whenever the need arose, Davenport chose the DJI Osmo, a tiny handheld gimbal with a small but powerful built-in camera. This was attached to his wheelchair and provided pan and tilt movements, as well as the smooth stabilization provided by gimbals. In this instance, any other camera would not have sufficed.
How Cameras and Lenses Have Changed at Sundance
In 2020, we saw an interesting mix of lenses and cameras used on Sundance projects. To no one’s surprise, ARRI dominated the landscape in both the camera and lens categories. Canon was just a fraction of that.
But this year is different, if only a little. As we can see from the graph, Sony has made great strides in getting its camera into filmmakers' hands. While some Sony cameras were used on a single project, a whopping 14 out of 60 cameras were from Sony. That’s almost double the percentage from Sundance 2020.
Yes, ARRI is still ahead, but Sony seems to be catching up.
If we take a look at lenses, ARRI also dominated at Sundance 2020. But this year? Of the filmmakers we surveyed, only four sets out of 35 were ARRI glass.
This year, Canon and Panavision came out strong. Between Canon’s strong zoom, cinema, and EF lens options, we can see filmmakers shifting away from the entertainment industry titan.
So what does this mean?
Well, there could be a chance that ARRI may not be king of the hill for long. While its cameras have set a standard that other camera manufacturers have slowly been meeting, creatives can get 80% to 90% of ARRI’s image quality at a fraction of the cost. When that’s the case, filmmakers may start to make different decisions when choosing their gear.
The different versions of the ARRI Alexa are also excruciatingly expensive. For the price of the cheapest ARRI camera, you can buy a Sony, Canon, or Blackmagic camera that shoots just as well. Then you can also fund your film and have enough money to feed your crew.
Yes, the future is never set in stone. But if our survey from Sundance 2022 is anything to go by? As Bob Dylan once sang, the times, they are a-changing.