By John Virata
During the mid 1990s Sony Electronics unleashed a miniDV video camera that brought moviemaking capabilities to those aspiring filmmakers with the dream to make it happen. The Sony DCR-VX1000 was a camera that offered a lot of capability for an inexpensive price, and changed the way aspiring moviemakers practiced their craft. The capabilities of this camera combined with relatively powerful desktop editing systems with Hollywood-style effects, enabled an entire generation of digital storytellers to hone their craft.
The tools were there and many of those who took advantage of those tools continue their craft in Hollywood, Bollywood, and other locales around the globe.
Today, the passion for movie making, short films, Webisodes, and episodic cable television on shoestring and limited budgets has been ignited in the last few years by a new tool, the Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera. These cameras shoot video in high definition, capture that video to easily accessed Secure Digital and Compact Flash cards, and are relatively inexpensive, with many priced at under $1,000. Not since the VX1000 have imaginations and story ideas been sparked and acted on, and the DSLR shooting in HD has rekindled that fire to a whole new generation of storytellers. Add a variety of hardware solutions to make it easier to shoot video with a DSLR, even cheaper yet still powerful non-linear editing systems, and super inexpensive storage solutions, and the door to digital filmmaking has been busted wide open. Digital story tellers are taking full advantage of what the DSLR has to offer in terms of getting the shots to tell the story.
One such storyteller is Casey Faris, executive producer of Graveyard Carz (described as a blend between American Chopper and American Pickers, and the first reality show shot completely with DSLR cameras) which is shot using Canon’s 5D Mark II and Canon 7D DSLRs. Graveyard Carz was initially shot on Canon’s XL2, which was then replaced with Panasonic’s HVX 100 because of that camera’s high definition capabilities, and then, for the pilot, three Canon Vixia HD consumer camcorders were added to the mix because they wanted to go multicam in HD. It was the DSLRs that they ended up going with for their show.
“After hearing about the 5D MK II and the 7D, and seeing demos on the web, we fell in love,” Faris said. “We loved that they can use just about any lens (with adapters) and that they use CF cards, which is a lot easier than logging a tape, waiting for it to ingest, and then finally going through and being able to edit. It’s as easy as drag and drop, and we like that. Another huge plus to the DSLRs is their low light performance. We can shoot in near darkness with very little noise. We are often walking through a field looking at prospective cars, and then go into a shed with no lights. What used to take us half an hour to set up lighting, now takes a simple change in ISO settings. And the shallow depth of field looks awesome.”
Faris looked at several DSLRs from all the manufacturers before deciding on the 7D, in part due to its specifications that were lacking at the time in other video capable DLSRs.
“At the time we got the 7D it was about $1600 for a camera that shoots full HD 24P out of the box. It also does 1280×720 60P and lower resolution movies. It also does amazing stills. It’s hard to find a camera that will do all of those things for the price. Most of the others didn’t do 1080, or they could only do 60i, or some other major drawback. The 7D was an obvious choice.”
Graveyard Carz is shot in 1920 x 1080 resolution at 24P. The slow motion shots are in 720p at 60 frames per second, and the timelapse footage is comprised of high resolution still sequences rendered as a movie at 2K resolution. Most footage is captured using the Nifty Fifty, the diminutive but highly regarded Canon 50mm 1.8 lens.
“We use a variety of lenses, however we have found the little Canon 50mm 1.8 lens to be great for what we need,” Faris said. “It’s fast, looks sharp, and is cheap enough that we’re not afraid to get into the action a bit. We’re also looking into getting some nice wide angles as well as some variable focal length lenses.” Because a DSLR is not really amenable to movie making, Faris’ crew has improvised to give the cameras a bit of heft to help steady the camera when shooting. They also use the Steadytracker, a video camera stabilizer designed to help steady the shots.
“We learned early on with the Vixias that shooting handheld, regardless of how steady it is, just plain looks weird when you have a little camera. We will often use shoulder mounts with weights to make the cameras feel a little bigger.” Faris said. “For most shots, especially walking shots, we use a Steadytracker (http://www.steadytracker.com), which is basic version of a Steadycam. The Steadytracker is great for just about any type of shooting where we have enough space. We’re still trying to figure out a really good solution for car/travel shots, so right now those are handheld, usually pressed against the seat to stabilize a bit. With our 5D, we use a shoulder mounted rail system (Redrock Micro) and a follow-focus.”
Graveyard Carz is assembled in Final Cut Studio 3 with each episode averaging 30 hours of footage with some averaging twice that. All that footage and the crew are very pleased with the output of the Canon DSLRs. “We have never experienced anything but amazing footage while shooting on the 7D,” Faris said. “The only downside to the camera is the audio. We can’t turn off Auto Gain Control, making things sound really bad; however, we usually record high quality dialogue into a recorder or a computer interface that is later synced to the video, so it’s not much of an issue.”
For more information, visit http://www.graveyardcarz.com