How Good Does It Really Have to Be?
Black Magic has posted RAW files online for anyone to download and practice their color grading skills. But even before that we’ve seen a flood of comments talking about how wonderful the camera is, even though it has a fairly small chip by today’s standards. No problem—it shoots RAW!
“I can make a grossly overexposed shot look great!”
Fine, I say, but why not shoot it right in the first place?
I’m not intending to pick on the Black Magic. For a 2/3” (or thereabouts) size sensor, it might be the best thing since the 2/3” chip Red for the same price that was announced and announced and announced but never materialized. My point is: Do you really need RAW? Why? Will it make you more money? Will it cause a distributor to pick up your film? Do you know of anyone who shot a film in HD and the distributor said, “Sorry, it’s not 4K, you didn’t shoot it RAW, no dice. Come back when you get a better camera.”
It seems to me that the minute somebody buys a new camera, he or she starts wanting a better one almost immediately. Why? Why do people who will most likely never see anything they shoot end up on broadcast TV want 4K? Especially when all of broadcast TV is HD. And how about those who talk about “uprezzing to 2K” as if that’s a big deal. Do you know the difference between HDV and 2K? Look it up.
Then there are the codec bashers. Even as the network TV show “House” was intermixing 5DII footage with 35mm film, long before they shot an entire episode with nothing but the 5DII, people were bashing the H.264 codec. “It falls apart during color grading…you can’t push it…” OK, fine. It won’t take too much color grading. How come “House” looked so good? How come Shane Hurlbut’s multi-million dollar Navy seal PR feature film “Act of Valor” looked so good?
And speaking of Hurlbut, how come he routinely intercuts the 5DII, the Canon C300 and the Arri Alexa in the same production? The answer to that one is easy: he’s a professional and he knows how to use each tool he has, and he uses the best tool for the shot. I am not bashing the Black Magic and I am not pushing the 5DII. Each one is a tool that has its place. When I got my 5DII the images I began to produce were much better than what I had done for years with broadcast cameras, HDV cameras, or even 16mm film. The quality was more than good enough for my day job, more than good enough for my personal documentary and narrative work that gets played at festivals but will most likely never make a penny. I don’t need a better camera.
Here’s my take on this insane lust for a new, better, more perfect camera: You are playing right into the hands of your corporate marketing masters. Instead of thinking you must have the Next New Toy, try reading Rushkoff.
Rushkoff says what needs to be said. Buy the book. It will change your life more than a 4K camera.
My point in this rant is that any professional HD camera, whether a DSLR or a “real” video camera made today is capable of producing images that are good enough for broadcast television, good enough for indie filmmaking, and good enough to get meaningful distribution if your storyline and production values are solid enough to get meaningful distribution. Let me qualify that just a bit. By any professional camera, I mean cameras like the Canon 5DII, the Nikon D800, the Sony FS100, the FS700 for sure, the F3, the Black Magic, and since we’re dropping the chip size here I’ll include the Panasonic GH2 and AF100 in that mix.
And I’ll really go out on a limb and say that if you’re good enough, you can even sell a film shot with the old HVX200. Remember the HVX200? I can include that because a film titled “My Stepdad’s a Freakin’ Vampire” now has distribution. It’s an amusing, wacky vampire/zombie film that is really pretty good. Better than most of what you see on the channel formerly known as the Science Fiction Channel, even though it’s got a low IMDB rating. It’s true to the genre and should be compared to other films of its ilk. If you do that, it comes out very nicely. And it looks good. It has high production values. It was shot with the lowly, “obsolete” HVX200.
Would “My Stepdad’s a Freakin’ Vampire” have made more money for the filmmaker if it had been shot 4K with a Red or a Black Magic? Nope. It looks good. The audience doesn’t have a clue what it was shot with and the distributor didn’t care.
I think what brought on this rant was the Sony announcement about the new EA50. It’s a VG20 in a professional case with XLR inputs, a real lens with a real servo zoom, and all the knobs and switches of a “real” camera. For about the price of the FS100, which costs more by the time you get it equipped for a shoot but which has a better processor and chip. Same size chip. But so what if the FS100 is better? Is the EA50 good enough? It might actually be better if you want a camera with one lens that’ll go from 18mm to 200mm and has a servo zoom, and a camera that has a built-in shoulder mount…a camera you can take out of the box, charge the battery and shoot without making a trip to Zacuto’s web site and ordering lenses from B&H. Because of its ergonomics, it might be better for a documentary than the much more expensive FS700 or C300. Those two are better, will produce better images. But as I said, all the big chip cameras can produce good images.
No matter what camera you shoot with, there will be a better one out there. If not today, a few months from today. They all look good. They will all do the job. Some require more work than others—like, you have to deal with double system sound, you have to be aware of moire issues, you have to buy a rig, you have to know how to avoid rolling shutter, etc. They all have limitations. Some have much better latitude than others, but any big chip camera has better latitude and better low light capability than the best quality broadcast cameras of only a few years ago.
The holy grail of looking “just like film” has been achieved. A person with a 5DII can make his shot look “just like film.” A person with an FS100 can make his shot look “just like film.” A person with a GH2 can make his shot look “just like film.” But if you have an Arri Alexa, you may or may not be able to make your shot look “just like film.” You have to know what you’re doing. You have to know how to light.
Cameras, as I said years ago parodying the NRA, don’t shoot people. People with cameras shoot people. Give me the choice of my 5DII or maybe an $800 GH2 with a truckload of HMI lights… or an Arri Alexa and no lights, guess which package I’m going to take. You can have your Alexa. I’ll take the $75K worth of lights and the $800 camera, thank you very much.
Bill Pryor is a full time video professional, film festival judge and DVFreelancer contributor who has been shaking up conventional wisdom in filmmaking for decades. Bill hosts the DVFreelancer camera forum and has been a regular contributor as long as the site has been going.