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13 July, 2011

Flip Flop Gorilla

The last few years have been really interesting for me, at least as far as equipment goes.  Regarding DSLR video, I went from they're nice but not video-friendly enough, to basically swearing by them for certain styles of production...

I now am of the camp that HDSLR (Canon, particularly) cameras are among the best options for guerilla and low-profile filmmaking - as long as you know how to focus and expose manually (those out there who are used auto focus, exposure and other auto features as a crutch should stay away).  Here's why:
  • In "guerilla" or run and gun filmmaking we often don't have time or permission to light.  The DSLR cams have the ability to shoot at a very high ISO (sensitivity).  And they're so good that the digital noise typically associated with doing this (raising your gain on a conventional video camera) is often hardly noticeable, and rarely distracting.
  • Shallow depth of field.  Now this is where I really sound like I'm flip-flopping.  I used to be of the opinion that the shallow DoF was a pain for doc shooting... don't get me wrong, it does make things difficult for those out there who are used to letting the auto focus work.  However, I discovered on a recent shoot that the shallow DoF actually made things easier for a run 'n gun shoot I was on.  I was shooting footage on a nighttime police ride-along (awesome, yes, I know) and much of the interview was done while the officer was on duty, patrolling in the squad-car.  I used the shallow DoF (especially shallow because I needed to be wide open for exposure) to let the world outside of the vehicle get milky.  It let lights and signs blend together for this beautifully milky wash of moving, breathing color in the background.  It really made for a beautiful shot in a pinch.
  • They're SMALL.  DSLR cameras are tiny and they look like still cameras.  Ok, fine, they are still cameras.  In the first bullet point, I mentioned lack of permission regarding lighting.  While most of my projects, big and small, are on the up and up as far as permits and permissions go, there's a good 10% that are done on the DL.  On those few projects, there are always any number of valid reasons for going that way, but we're not here to discuss those sorts of things.  Whether you're not supposed to be filming or you've been asked to be inconspicuous, the small form factor of DSLR cameras lets you be just that.  It's not a whole lot more than you just standing there.  In addition to avoiding attention, it also lets you shoot differently than you would with a larger camera.  You can essentially shoot anywhere your body fits - while a large-format camera ads considerable depth to your figure, so you're limited.
Below are some grabs from a recent run 'n gun shoot on a police ride-along - this shoot was the motivation for writing this post.  I basically encountered all of the above advantages over the course of that night.  This was footage for a segment in a PBS-bound documentary, "Small Matters," directed by Matt Wechsler.  It's a film about a young man with Tourette's Syndrome who's become an advocate for TS awareness with this segment showing some "success stories" of people who grew up with TS and made something of themselves in spite of the hardships and setbacks.  The producer wanted a very intimate feel, with the interview segment being shot inside the car with Brian (the officer).  Also, since I was working with Brian while he was on-duty, it was a huge advantage for me to be able to maintain a low profile.  Add to that shooting at night (LOW LIGHT) in an active police car and having absolutely ZERO control over anything... Thank heavens for the DSLR...

As I've said in previous posts, I'm not an advocate of any do-all camera or format, but the current crop of DSLR cameras, in particular, are certainly establishing a solid footing in professional video production.