Mike and I were discussing tonight that we need more content up on the site about our experiences in film/video making. So, here is my first installment. I’ll use this as a chance to talk about something we all know but sometimes lose sight of as well as introducing myself. There will be some foul language in the course of these discussions; blame my father.
One more note: All of this assumes that you, the reader, are much like us. We are not professionals, we are making independent film in any manner that we can because it is a passion for us. If you have a seriously professional schedule, often times choice of equipment and workflow is dictated by someone other than yourself and you clearly don’t need this kind of advice.
Buying a Camera
I would imagine all independent film makers eventually buy a camera. We’ve all heard the arguments that higher quality could be achieved for the same price if one rented, but being visionaries, sometimes one must reinvent the wheel. So let’s assume that you are in fact going to buy a camera. We did (a JVC HD100). Which one? It doesn’t matter. Here’s why.1
Pick a price point. I’m betting if you’re like us, its $3k-6k. That’s it. It’d be nice if you could get a tripod and a bag included. I’m also going to bet that you are going to spend 3+ months researching your purchase. At this point, you will most likely defend your choice to whoever will listen to you or read your post in an online forum. The research is good; don’t turn it into a religion.
If you’re looking in the neighborhood of $3k, you’ve probably got your eye on a Panasonic DVX-100B, a Sony PDX-170, or a Canon XL2. All great cameras. All have advantages and weaknesses. Two do 24p, one has a removable lens, one is best in low light, one is native widescreen, etc. It seems indies who do narrative rave about the DVX-100; they love 24p and film gamma. Wedding videographers love the Sony. It only matters what you like; not one of those cameras is perfect for all. Did you really think Panasonic packed in an extra $2000 worth of features into their $3500 camera? No. They cut certain things out just like everybody else did to meet their price point.
On to the low end HD arena (bear with me). You’ve got the Panasonic HVX-100, the JVC HD-100, the Sony FX1, and the Canon XLH1. The Canon is a bit more expensive, but two new models are coming to market that are in line with the prices of the other cameras. All the cameras but the Panasonic shoot HDV.
Here’s my gripe: If I hear one more person say, “Only the Panasonic shoots real HD, the others shoot HDV,” or something similar, I’m going to snap. If you really, really need the extra color information that the Panasonic provides, say for keying out a green screen, then maybe you should rent a real production camera for the day and do it up right. If you’re like us and do an occasional green screen, spend the money, buy Shake (insert your favorite compositor), and build up a real key. The first night I got Shake, I pulled a perfectly acceptable key on a green screen we shot on HDV in front of a poorly lit homemade green screen. I’m not saying it was perfect or that a 4:2:2 color space wouldn’t have helped, but I am saying this: Spending $200 on a real green screen and then lighting it properly would have helped a whole lot more. Also, IN OUR CASE, buying and working with P2 would have gotten in the way.
I’m not picking on the Panasonic. I think it’s a great camera and would love to have one. The point is this. You did your research, I did mine. Pick your camera that suits your needs and realize that your $5k camera probably does some things better than my $5k camera, and vice versa. You get what you pay for and ultimately, we both paid roughly the same amount. You don’t like HDV compression? I like tape. You don’t like tape? I like a fully manual lens. You don’t like a shoulder mount camera, but I do.
Who gives a shit what some pirate show in Las Vegas looks like on camera while you shake it? The HDV compression can’t keep up if you show a freeze frame? Who in god’s name actually finds that stimulating? I want to see a good story, and if it’s done on PixelCam, then so be it. And if you are into filming pirate shows while shaking the camera, then maybe you should factor that into your selection. Only you know, but in the end, you get what you pay for (and $3k+ is probably enough). I personally am of the firm opinion that if you spent more than $3k on your camera and your film has problems, it’s not the camera’s fault.
Time for an Analogy
Here’s where I talk a little about myself and put things in perspective. Who am I and why should you be listening to me? You probably shouldn’t as I have no formal training in film, video, sound, or art in general. I do have formal training in thinking though, and equally important, I’m not affiliated with any company. So, I think I am fully qualified to form my own opinion and to tell you that you should form your own as well.
I’m a graduate student at a well known university. I’m in my final year of a Ph.D. program in plasma physics (fusion energy). I work on a small project, just my two advisors and I. Our budget is only about $1,000,000 a year; like I said, small. Here’s some tech to put things in perspective: when we run an experiment, it lasts 25 milliseconds, which is 1/400th of a second. Quick, right? We must have fancy, schmancy equipment to take data, right?
The equipment we use to take data is for the most part older than I am and I’m 27. That’s right, most of the digitizers I use were bought in the late 1970’s. Our fastest digitizers are 12 bit and operate at 100 kHz. My sound recorder operates at 24 bits and 192 kHz. Things have advanced a bit in 30 years. Anybody who know about digital audio can appreciate the fact that the noise floor on 12 bit gear isn’t all that great.
Oh well at least our computers are bangin’, right? No. We finally got rid of the computers we ran our whole experiment on: A Sun UltraSparc 5. I think they stopped making this model in 1995. I bet you don’t have any 11 year old computers around the house, and I certainly bet that you don’t use them for anything important.
Do I wish we had better equipment? Yes. Can I still do good science with this equipment? Yes. Shit, all of the amplifiers I use date from the 1950’s and have vacuum tubes in them, and not for esoteric reasons why my guitar amp has tubes. But it works. Get past the equipment and do good work. Get past the camera and make some movies.
The camera isn’t holding you back, so don’t turn it into a religion. You researched and found something that works for you; leave it at that.
Don’t fucking say you can’t compare two cameras, or anything else for that matter, because “it’s apples and oranges.” You’re damn straight it’s apples and oranges, that’s why I’m comparing them. If they were the same damn thing, what’s left to compare. Let someone compare all they want a $3k DV camera to a $6k DVCProHD camera or a Mini Cooper to a Nissan 350Z — They have differences, that’s the point.
That’s what I think about cameras. I’ve done the research and can give you specific pointers if you want about each camera if you want, but in the end, think about how you want to interact with the camera and not how much better it’s image is than others and you will probably make the right choice.
I’ll probably be talking about some sound issues next, though I will also be working up two features on Shake (pulling a key on HDV and set extension). I personally have seen and heard a lot of misinformation about color spaces, 24p and 3:2 pulldown, progressive verses interlaced, so if anybody wants a little technical briefing on those, let me know. Actually, there’s a lot on this stuff out there on the ‘net, but I can take a go at it anyway. If there is anything else you want me to look into as well, let me know. Anything that takes me away from data analysis is a happy diversion.
1 I’m going to date this article and talk about specific models that are on the market, but I have no doubt that the same will apply in the future.