The HDSLR narrative

For our second semester, the main project is the Adaptation – a seven-minute narrative film. The assigned camera for the Adaptation was the quite excellent Panasonic DVX-100, a standard def camera. But this year is also the year of the HDSLR. They are affordable, they are easy to use and students are willing to experiment and take risks. Voilà, the perfect storm.

Out of the class of 36, 18 of us shot on an HDSLR1. Most on a Canon and one person on a Nikon. That’s an incredible number of people to use a school unsupported format and figure out everything ourselves (especially all the gnarly post-production issues).

I shot on the Canon 5D, the magnificent full-frame camera in the Canon lineup. Fortunately Canon released the 24p upgrade for the 5D two weeks before my shoot so we were able to shoot the film on 24p instead of 30p. I also wanted as much latitude as possible in post for color correcting and so we shot with a custom gamma curve to flatten the image.

First up was figuring out the lenses needed and I decided that in addition to my delightful 50m F1.4 Canon lens, I would rent the F2 Zeiss Primes in 35, 50 and 100 focal length. I also rented the Canon F2 L 200m lens – a giant lens that delivered incredibly well. We ended up using only the Canon 50m for the outdoor night shots as it was the only one that would open up enough and it is amazing that we shot at night with only available light on the 5D – a huge positive of the full frame sensor. The rest of the lenses, we used for the internal locations. We ended up being barely able to squeeze the 200m into the apartment since the minimum focal length was 8 feet, but it delivered an exceptional closeup, single shot of the actors that we were looking for with an really, really shallow DOF.

I was incredibly lucky that my buddy Mitch agreed to gaff this film2. He flew in from LA a few days early and while the rest of the crew was busy with the previous production (we shoot in rotation), he and I did some tests to figure out where to shoot the night shots. We also examined all the equipment (but overlooked some rig testing that came back to bite us in the rear later).

In terms of equipment, I rented an external monitor. A downside with the 5D (that the 7D and 550D don’t seem to have) is that when you hit record on the 5D, the monitor drops to 480p which makes it difficult to focus. Annoying, but once you adjust to this problem, it is still worth having the monitor.

I also rented a Redrock rig, but it failed us at a key moment when we needed to follow focus because the ring wasn’t the right size and the screw got in the way. My bad for not enough testing ahead of time. The AC did a great job of pulling focus manually though and the shot was still usable.

This is one of the big downsides of the camera – it is basically a still camera and we are making it work as a film camera. Pulling focus is tough because the lenses are small and still lenses go around past infinity. That means, when you mark your focus marks, if you go past infinity, all of them are useless for the next take. This is especially true of Canon lenses. The Zeiss lenses have the added benefit of not rotating past infinity and therefore being better for film. A lot of shots, especially as you pull focus with a moving object could be out of focus in parts. If you watched the House season finale, you will see that even they had this problem (although they did a lot of excellent editing to get around some of the out of focus shots).

Lighting was contained both because of the style of the film and also because of the camera. A large chunk of shots were around a table and we used a china ball for that with an inky adding edge and a practical in the background for aesthetics and lighting. There were definitely shots that were complicated with windows all around the DP and Gaffer did their thing figuring out where to hide things and people so as to get the shot. As I mentioned before, for the nighttime exteriors, we were able to just go with available lighting.

In terms of Audio, the sound on all versions of the HDSLRs are crappy. You have to do dual system – we used the FP-33 mixer going into the 702T recorder. We also recorded camera sound. Recording camera sound is really important for two reasons. One, you can get going with a basic edit with the horrendous sound as a scratch track. Two, much more importantly, if you have it, you can use Plural Eyes to sync up your sound. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty close.

One of the problems I encountered while editing is that in clips that were longer than seven minutes or so (ah, the joy of video where we could keep rolling), the sound started to fall out of sync. What you need to do is adjust the speed of the clip to be 100.06 in FCP and then it settles down and comes back into sync.

Staying in the post-production world, there’s one other consideration that’s a biggie and that’s how to convert the files and into what format3. Post options abound but I went with a converter called NeoScene because it gave me the extra color correction latitude I wanted. Then I had to figure out which codec to use – the choice for me was between Prores and CineForm, the NeoScene codec and I chose Prores because CF would constrain me to use the NeoScene post processing tools versus Color which is part of the Final Cut Studio package. The difference between Prores Standard and HQ doesn’t seem significant in any real way except space consumed on the hard drive, so Standard it was. All of this took some figuring out. Conversion takes a while, but all in all, I’d rather several hours of computer processing time than logging and capturing tape any day!

I ended up color correcting since I shot flat and bringing back the richness that I’d flattened out. It took a few hours in Color with an expert who knew what he was doing to make sure the skin tones looked right and the colors all looked like I wanted them. The flexibility in post is incredible if you flatten out the image a bit while you shoot.

While a lot of things change with the HDSLRs, some things don’t. The primary thing is that you still need a great crew (and a full crew) to make the shoot happen. My DP, Eunice, owns the 5D and had shot her documentary on it. She was super-familiar with it and that was really critical. Omar, the AC, is one of the most dedicated people to have on a set. He did all the focus pulling manually, noted down all lenses and distances for each shot so that if we had to replicate it or check anything, it was all right there. He was also responsible for the downloading and transferring of the footage which he was extremely diligent about. It’s a ton of work to do and he did it exceptionally. Mitch was the gaffer and, having DPed on the 5D and gaffed a ton of films, he was indispensable. The audio was run by Bella and despite the difficult conditions of a street-facing Brooklyn apartment near the park, she did a wonderful job of getting great dialog and being particular about the crew paying heed to the sound needs4. Ed and Alexis both boom op-ed during the shoot (sometimes lying down to get out of the way) and Alexis played the extra role of being a wonderful production designer and a script supervisor who made a complicated card scene flow easily. And my producer/AD Ryan was awesome in allowing me the time I needed but also making me cut shots when required. Ryan ran the set very smoothly and ensured I didn’t have to think about anything else when I was directing. Ravi was the PA and he had contacted me through this blog – he came to NYC on his own and paid for his own stay and worked his ass off on set. He earned the respect of the crew and learned a ton in the process. Donald was our makeup artiste and Ruoyi was the still photographer and they both had a great attitude and were exceptional at what they did.

All of the great work the crew does is to showcase the actors – and the actors were all top-notch – not only in their craft but also in terms of their attitude on set and being flexible and accommodating.

I am so grateful to the cast and crew – the hours were really long and the shoot was tiring and every single person did more than pull their weight. I also had two sets of wonderful friends who were my executive producers. They let me shoot in their homes and were gracious and welcoming – true patrons of the art! Without each person involved, the shoot would not have come together.

I thought shooting with the HDSLR would make things easier. And it did in certain regards, but the basics of film making stay the same, the director’s role stays the same. In another post, I will talk about what I learned in this shoot – especially around shooting dialog with multiple actors, eye-line and all those other wonderful things.

That covers most of my experience of shooting and post on the HDSLRs. Feel free to ask any questions – I’ll try to answer them and Mitch, who lurks around here, will also answer your questions5.

If you are thinking of buying one or shooting with one, but don’t know how they all stack up, this post by Philip Bloom is an excellent review of all the viable models out there. Enjoy.

  1. The rest shot on a combination of the DVX and the EX-1 

  2. Not only did Mitch gaff this film, he also helped me check out equipment, came with me to equipment rental houses, moved stuff and basically helped me in every way during the shoot. 

  3. Our class banded together to help each other through post. The first person who shot on the 7D, Zach, did a ton of research (and found Plural Eyes!) and shared it with the class. As people discovered things, they shared it and the whole group used the information 

  4. something that is often overlooked on small, indie productions 

  5. all he wants in exchange is some Sauvignon Blanc 🙂  

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  • Shripriya's team was so highly motivated they could have easily been mistaken for Obama's election campaign team. Those 3 days in NYC gave me super insights into film making and film equipments. If not for my classes back in school i would have stayed for post-production. Learnt a great deal talking to the crew and asking them questions. With this experience my respect for film makers and artists rose to a new level. I consider that NYC trip as my Film Making 101.

  • Ravi, you were awesome. You are a model for how to learn about film. I have a post on you coming up – get ready!! 🙂

  • Eispy30

    Wow Shri – sounds like an amazing 3 days of creativity. Will you be sharing the storyline of the movie?

  • Ram

    Great read! Thanks for sharing.
    CS5 would solve all your codec/rendering issues… its so zippy to edit HDSLR footage in CS5, no intermediate rendering! live real-time editing, even minor effects didn't need rendering. We used 2x 5Ds for a 48hr film short 3 weeks back… so yeah, logging & capturing is a thing of past…. good riddance… Which custom curve did you use? I found out the hard way that we didn't have much latitude to CC (anyway with the 48hr film timeline, it would have been a luxury :). You should try Zoom H4N much more compact for HDSLR audio needs… pristine quality for the size/cost.

    Would love to see your short! Is it in Vimeo?

  • It was great, Ei, but it was also incredibly stressful. I was like a rag after that shoot. When I talk about my directing experience will definitely share the storyline. Thanks for continuing to read 🙂

  • So CS5 both renders and edits? Interesting. I hope Apple improves FCP instead of making it more for newbies given how CS5 is catching up.

    The reason I used NeoScene to convert is that there is a setting you can check to get the extra latitude for CC in post. I don't think you get that if you do a regular conversion. It's takes a long time so it might not work for a 48 hour project unless you start converting as soon as you download – i.e. have a DIT dedicated to just download and convert.

    We set up our own curve. Mitch can talk more about that and how he set it up. Will tell him to come in here.

    I've heard of Zoom H4N – just last week actually. In addition to juicedLink. How does the Zoom work? Does it plug into the DSLR? or is it a standalone device that you use the slate to sync with? I presume you can plug wireless lavs and a boom into it as well since it's four channels?

    Still tweaking sound and a few cuts on the film after the screening, but yeah, will have it up on Vimeo soon. Is your's up and watchable – would love to see it… Thanks for the comment!

  • Ram

    Yeah…CS5 edits natively, so drag drop edit away… a sea of difference from CS4, which used to choke on scrubbing the timeline.
    We used Zoom H4N as a external recorder, didn't connect directly to 5D. Didn't want to record audio into the Camera anyway (due to logistics, freedom of camera movement, & didn't have a Juicelink anyway). Our Asst.Editor had to painfully sync it thro the night (plural eyes just came with a CS5 beta version). iPhone Clapper & spoken audio-file name helped a lot.
    H4N has built in mics & supplies Phantom power via XLR (x2), so we used it to power the boom mic's and recorded directly into the H4N's SD Card. Its a tidy little package, so the Boom operator just wore it on his belt.

    looking forward to seeing ur short!

  • This is great! We shot “In Montauk” on the Canon 7D and although we found the camera much more versatile than traditional film or video cameras, as you said, we still required a full crew. We stinted on camera crew – my DP, Brian Dilg and Gaffer, Tom Perry played the roles DP, AC, Grip & Electric and we could have used one more, if not two more people on Camera crew. The focus was a real problem. It's to their credit that the movie still looks amazing despite our limitations and incredibly tight schedule.

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