Film Fades to Digital

Filmmakers talk DSLRs and the future of TV production

When Spike Lee journeyed to New Orleans to produce his
award-winning 2006 HBO documentary, When
the Levies Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
, the preferred media was film,
with some additional digital video. But much had changed by the time he
returned to New Orleans this year for a follow-up, both for the Big Easy and TV
production. This time around his preferred media was digital high-def video,
with film playing a supporting role.

"The combination of immediate gratification that digital
gives you plus the affordability and the fact that the quality of digital
cameras has really been improving by leaps and bounds has really been adding
the nails to the film coffin," says Cliff Charles, the director of photography
for Lee's If God Is Willing and Da Creek
Don't Rise
, which debuted in August on HBO.

Today, as filmmakers grapple with the transition from film
to digital HD in many productions, another death-knell note might be sounding
from an unlikely source-high-end digital single lens reflex cameras, which were
used extensively by Charles and Lee for If
God Is Willing
.

And they aren't alone. "There is no question that digital
keeps coming on and keeps getting more important as companies keep improving the
sensors and processors," says Chuck Westfall, technical adviser for education
in the Consumer Imaging Group, Professional Products Marketing at Canon USA.
"Primetime is still very clearly a film dominated business but the use of the
Canon EOS 5D Mark II on the season finale of House [in May, 2010] and on series like 24 [during the 2009-2010 season] show that they are making their
mark in primetime."

One big reason for the growing popularity of DSLRs is the fact
that they offer very large imaging sensors in a relatively small camera.

House, for
example, is generally produced in film but much of the action in the season
finale took place inside a collapsed building. "They were shooting in a very,
very tight space where they didn't have much room to put a large rig and they
decided to use the 5D Mark II [DSLR] because it's possible to get the shots
they needed with the quality you need for primetime," says Westfall.

Those big sensors also provide outstanding performance in
low light, a strength that has led to their extensive use in a number of
popular TV shows and high-end commercials.

"As a cinematographer, the DSLR creates a whole new
landscape," says Shane Hurlbut, who has used DSLRs on a number of projects.
"You can walk out at night and take that camera to 1600 ISO, which is probably
the equivalent of 8000 ISO on film and all of a sudden the dark night is alive
and vibrant."

In shooting new Marine Corp commercials called "For Us All"
that will begin airing in November, Hurlbut traveled around the U.S. and to
Prague, Czech Republic and into Afghanistan carrying eight to 10 cameras in his
carry-on and checked luggage.

"It was a small package that allows you to do much more for
less," he says. "The job was bid at $1.3 million for an eight day shoot. I did
it [with the DSLRs] for $420,000 and shot for five weeks."

The camera's small size and low light capabilities also
played an important role in the separate decisions to use it for both Saturday Night Live and the opening
credits for The Tonight Show with Jay
Leno
.

Vasco Nunes, director of photography for the opening credits
for The Tonight Show says that they
settled on using the Canon EOS 7D DSLR because "there was a need for a small,
low profile shooting strategy. It has really amazing low light capabilities and
it allowed us to go in and out of places without too much of a hassle and
without scaring away people or hurting the ambiance we were trying to capture."

Perhaps even more importantly on bigger budget productions,
the large sensor produces a shallow depth of field that creates a more
cinematic look than many digital HD camcorders.

"The image quality is truly amazing," says Charles. "It has
a shallow depth of field which really gives you the illusion of film. To get
that in a unit so small is definitely revolutionary."

Charles and others stress, however, that DSLRs have a number
of drawbacks that limit their use. "You can't say anything bad about their
image quality but there are things that are not as easy to do on a DSLR as they
are on a video camera," Charles says.

These drawbacks include the camera's shallow depth of field
which makes it necessary to carefully track focus, limited recording times,
ergonomics that were designed for still photography instead of video
production, relatively poor in-camera audio systems and difficulties in making
adjustments on the fly to the camera's settings.

As a result, producers considering whether to use DSLRs need
to carefully weigh its strengths and weaknesses, several filmmakers stressed.

At first glance, one obvious advantage would be cost.
Canon's most expensive DSLR camera body, the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III retails for
around $6,999, while the EOS Mark 5D II costs $2,499 and the EOS 7D is priced
at $1,699. With most of the Canon's top L-Series lenses costing under $5,000,
and many lenses selling for less than $1,000, it is possible for an independent
filmmaker to produce very high-end HD images for under $12,000 in equipment.

But those cost advantages aren't likely to influence too
many primetime producers. Equipment accounts for only a small part of the
millions of dollars being spent on a big-budget network drama or theatrical
film, with much of the cost going to talent and special effects.

Several DSLR users state that cost wasn't necessarily top of
mind in making their choice. "Frankly, outfitting a DSLR properly can be
expensive," says Charles, who used several digital and film formats to create
different looks while shooting If God Is
Willing
. "Once you go out and get some accessories you can end up spending
more than a low cost camcorder. It is really less about the cost than what it
is that you need to capture."

Compared to DSLRs, lower cost professional camcorders have
smaller sensors. But for many uses-such as newsgathering, documentaries and
reality shows-this can actually be an advantage.

"The DSLRs are not a replacement for a lot of equipment that
is out there," such as Canon's newer XF305 and XF300 lower cost camcorders
priced at under $8,000, according to Westfall.

These newer, less expensive professional camcorders "have a
much more extended depth of field, which is much more forgiving in terms of
doing documentary, news and interview type of footage where you need to be able
to run and gun and keep everything sharp without having to constantly watch
your focus."

Many of the lower cost camcorders also have better built-in
audio and a number of capabilities that are very important in a broadcast
station environment. "Other cameras are going to be a better fit to handling
things like local broadcast news," Westfall says.

Whether that will change over time is open to question. The
growing popularity of DSLRs is likely to produce changes in the way camera
manufacturers produce both still and digital video cameras.

Canon has already worked to upgrade the firmware so that its
EOS line is more easily integrated into professional editing and workflow
systems, and filmmakers hope to see further design changes in the future.

"Canon and the other [still] camera manufacturers are going
to need to decide how far they want to get into the video business [with their
still cameras]," says Nunes. "If they are going to do that, they are going to
need to change it over" to something better designed for HD production.