Bright Lights, Big Sensors: DSLRs Are Making Their Mark in the World...

Bright Lights, Big Sensors: DSLRs Are Making Their Mark in the World of Filmmaking


“In Hollywood,” the screenwriter William Goldman once observed, “no one knows anything.”

Perhaps he was being a bit uncharitable, because there is one thing that Hollywood certainly does know: cameras. And these days, cinematographers are increasingly immersing themselves in digital SLRs to augment, or occasionally even replace, traditional cinema cameras on movie sets.

From serving as secondary cameras to achieve close-ups, or unique angles that bulkier cinema cameras can’t obtain, to being placed in harm’s way where more expensive alternatives fear to tread, video-capable DSLRs are making their mark at the movies, to say nothing of their increasingly common appearance on the sets of music videos, TV shows, documentaries and online productions.

The Hits Just Keep On Coming
Even a quick survey of some recent DSLR film credits shows the remarkable surge of interest among professional filmmakers. The Navy Seals-inspired action flick Act of Valor was shot predominantly on Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II. The short documentary The Tsuanmi and the Cherry Blossom, chronicling the devastating Japanese tsunami in April 2011, was filmed using Canon’s EOS 7D and was nominated for an Academy Award. Canon’s 5D DSLRs were also pressed into service for Lucasfilm’s big budget World War II film Red Tails. In that film, the 5D was used for capturing unique angles and also as a kind of a test for Lucasfilm to see how well DSLRs could cope with the demands of shooting a special-effects-laden feature film, as Philip Bloom, who handled the DSLR filming on Red Tails, explained in his personal blog.

Nikon also notched some achievements on its belt: its D4 DSLR was certified by the European Broadcasting Union, passing what is known as the “BBC Test” for use in filming—the only DSLR (as of this writing) to do so. The same camera was tapped by the Warner Music Group to film its “Live Room” YouTube series. Nikon’s new D800 DSLR was roped into duty for the TV series Wilfred, which is (as of this writing) currently the only major network series filmed exclusively using a DSLR. The D800 was also tapped for camera work on Showtime’s hit series Dexter.

While the high-definition recording capability of DSLRs is what’s typically sought after on set, several major stop-motion movies have snapped them up for the stills as well. The Oscar award-winning British animation firm Aardman shot this summer’s The Pirates using Canon’s EOS-1D Mark III (Aardman’s technical director noted in an interview with TechRadar that the company actually rebuilt the focusing mechanisms on some of Canon’s EOS lenses to mimic the behavior of cinema lenses). Ditto for ParaNorman, which used EOS 5D Mark II cameras to capture over 400,000 still frames for this 3D stop-motion feature.

Why have DSLRs made inroads among professional videographers? If there’s one major virtue that digital SLRs have brought to the filmmaking world, it’s greater creative flexibility. Director Sam Jones—who when not filming award-winning music videos for the Foo Fighters and John Mayer is a still photographer with covers on GQ and Vanity Fair under his belt—relayed how the 5D Mark II allowed him to hop between a photo shoot and filming what became a quirky short film dubbed Thirteen Shady Characters. “That’s what’s so great about these cameras, is the flexibility,” Jones said.

“I’m friends with photographers and when the first HD DSLRs came out, we knew it was a big deal,” recalled director John Lavall. That’s because it delivered the ability to change lenses and achieve a really shallow depth of field that had previously been restricted to much more expensive cinema, physically larger cameras, he said. Today, they are go-to tools for a growing number of video professionals, he added.

What’s more, bringing HD video into a DSLR has opened the door for still photographers to slide into the director’s chair. While it was not unheard of for still photographers to jump back and forth from the motion directing world, the mainstreaming of HD DSLRs has lowered the learning curve—at least a bit—so that photographers can broaden their portfolios to include multimedia projects, documentaries, commercials and music videos.

“I come from a photojournalist background, and what’s been great about video DSLRs is that I’m not carrying a massive camera into the field to shoot,” noted Rick Gershon, a documentarian and producer at MediaStorm. “Even after you rig it up, you can still be a fly on the wall.”

Tech Marches On
While digital SLRs don’t turn over at the frenetic pace of their compact brethren, several technological trends are evident. Specifically, camera makers have been steadily incorporating the feedback they’ve received from the professional video crowd into their next-generation, high-end SLRs (even consumer-friendly DSLRs are getting some of the video goodies).

Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II, which has been widely credited with kick-starting the HD DSLR filmmaking wave, was followed up with the Mark III. The EOS 5D Mark III is replete with videographer-friendly upgrades, including support for 24p recording, H.264 codec recording and intraframe compression. The audio recording was enhanced too, with manual audio level controls adjustable both before and during recording. (Canon opted to forgo XLR inputs for professional external mics, so some jury-rigging with mixers and external digital recorders is still required to get professional-grade sound.) An additional video tweak came in the fall, with a firmware upgrade that enables the Mark III to support uncompressed HDMI output so videographers can record uncompressed video data and send it to an external storage medium via the HDMI output.

Canon’s heavyweight DSLR, the $13,000 EOS-1D C (Cinema) brings something new to the video mix: 4K recording (that’s two times the resolution of high definition, for those doing the math at home). Sporting an 18.1 megapixel full-frame (24mm x 36mm) CMOS sensor, the 1D C is capable of recording 8-bit 4:2:2 Motion JPEG 4K video at 24 frames per second (fps) or 1,920×1,080 Full HD video at selectable frame rates from 24 fps to 60 fps. There’s also a built-in headphone jack for real-time audio monitoring and the ability to view the camera’s LCD even when the HDMI port is connected to an external monitor.

Nikon also threw its hat into the ring with 2012’s D800, which packs the company’s highest resolution sensor to date, a 36.3 megapixel full-frame (or FX-format) CMOS chip capable of recording 1080p Full HD at a variety of frame rates, including 30, 25 and 24 fps. Videographers enjoy full manual control over exposure and can adjust the D800’s power aperture setting in live view mode, so they can accurately preview depth of field. The D800 can also stream an uncompressed HD signal via HDMI to external recorders and monitors. Footage can be viewed simultaneously on the D800’s own display and an external monitor while using the HDMI output option.

Alongside the surge in DSLR filmmaking has come a wave of new accessories. It’s a dirty secret of DSLR filmmaking that the camera itself winds up looking “like a Rube Goldberg” device before it’s actually ready to use, said photographer Dave Anderson. Abandon your dreams of an out-of-the-box Oscar. Instead, a universe of handheld and over-the-shoulder stabilizing rigs, focusing wheels, microphones, external audio recorders, mixers and larger monitors have joined the production.

Cinema Cameras
So does the surge of video features mean the DSLR is fundamentally changing— morphing into a true “hybrid” product? Not fully. While HD DSLRs continue to win converts and notch more feature credits, there’s still a limit to how far they can go. Canon’s introduction of its EOS Cinema series as a distinct product line, geared to compete with the Red and Alexa systems currently dominating Hollywood, indicates that there’s a limit to just how far this convergence has gone—and could go. Indeed, according to even DSLR enthusiasts, there’s still a considerable gulf when it comes to the capabilities of an HD DSLR and a full-blown cinema camera.

“When it comes to things like Steadicam shots or rapid lighting changes, a DSLR can’t really handle it,” noted Jones. It’s also evident in the dynamic range capabilities. While digital SLRs have made dramatic improvements in their low-light capabilities—with flash-free shooting at high ISOs—they still can’t deliver the dynamic range of high-end cinema cameras, noted director of photography Peter Trilling.

“The 5D is a great camera and if you have a low budget and want to make something beautiful, it’s perfect for that, but you wouldn’t compare it to an Alexa,” or other cinema camera when it comes to the image quality, variable frame rates and sound recording, Jones said.

Still, he added, there’s no question that DSLRs are making their mark. Expect to see more DSLR footage coming soon, to a theater near you.