Friday, March 26, 2010

Video with still cameras

Video with still cameras -- Interview with Andrew Reid

Andrew Reid has gotten praise for his experimental videos, such as Shadowplay
which was filmed in the dark city with fast lenses and with one of the new generation digital still cameras which also do video very well.

Andrew also runs the site, which is about just those things. I wanted to interview him, since for over ten years now, I've been writing about the amazing "democratization" of new media, since in many, many media, distribution and promotion has become vastly more powerful and cheaper, and in some of them, the same is true for production. This allows Hot Young Talent to do things they could never afford to do before, and get an audience for it.

Andrew, What are your ambitions as a film maker? Do you want to do feature films? And do you think these days the length of a film is as important as it once was? Or does the Internet mean that perhaps there is now a market for, say, 40-minute films which never see release in traditional cinemas?

Andrew Reid:
I think the internet is opening up new genres of cinema and art but I think feature length films are still important. Shorts have always existed but feature length films have always been more popular, I think they fit well with the way the human mind experiences emotion, and memories.

People tend to absorb more information and quicker whilst surfing the net so I think it's asking a lot from someone to commit to a feature length film on Vimeo or Youtube by a new young artist, for example. So much else is competing for their attention at any one time.

So in this particular situation a short video is the best way to get somebody's attention if you are new and relatively unknown. It needs a hook - this is often as a technical demonstration of the camera but it won't always be that way in the future as the technology matures, it won't be so new and exciting any more and it'll come down purely to how creative the artist is - which is an exciting thing of course!

There is a future in the internet for delivery of feature length films but only as a means to an end, due to a shift in technology. I do love doing music videos and short artistic videos but I'd still prefer to end up doing feature length films which are shown in cinemas. I hope cinemas never die. I think cinemas concentrate the viewer's attention only on the film whilst the internet just distracts them constantly!
[I would add here that by "internet delivery" I did not think of a film sitting on a web page, but more of any kind of electronic delivery of a feature film, which can then be seen at leisure on your preferred screen or TV. - Eolake]

As for democratisation - I think the internet enables this to a point, allows everyone to have their say - but along with greater democratisation comes greater competition and it becomes harder to get noticed when so many others are doing similar things, and ideas are exhausted more easily.

You see a similar thing with Google rankings... the big popular sites are often always at the top.

What do you think right now is the minimum investment, and in what camera gear, for somebody to make a film which will seem convincingly professional? (Granted talent and so on.)

Andrew Reid:
This is the great thing about HDSLRs. Previously it would cost over £20,000 to produce professional and cinematic looking digital video, and the camera might have a fixed lens. But now the quality is even more cinematic yet the cost is a fraction compared to just 2 years ago.

The Panasonic GH1 for example can often be found on eBay 2nd hand as a body only with no lens for £500 and then you can invest between £200 and £500 in lenses which are very important to give you a 'film-like' look. These lenses can be an absolute bargain, for example some of the best SLR lenses are very old. Their cost is sure to rise so it helps to get in there early and (for example) find a Contax Zeiss 85mm F1.4 at £300 (the new Zeiss lens for Canon DSLRs cost £800), or a Canon 35mm FD F2 for £150. So I'd say between £700 and £1000 will deliver just about as professional looking and as cinematic looking as it will ever be possible in the digital 2D era of indie filmmaking. A lens is a great investment as it will work on future cameras too.

There is always something better available round the corner, but it's going to be relatively smaller steps from here on. To have something like DSLRs with video come along and be a 'game changer' is very rare and doesn't happen very often. It's a big step up from what we had before especially at this price point.

And for editing such a film? Final Cut Pro? And pretty much any new Macintosh? Or...?

Andrew Reid:
I use Final Cut Pro but Adobe Premiere is also a good option, especially on a PC. Mac's are quite expensive and you need a very fast processor, lots of memory and hard disk space. But I'm a Mac person and I'm happy to spend the extra for a more reliable operating system.

Video editing was the reason I went from PC to Mac a few years ago anyway when I started editing HD video, my PC didn't handle it very well and Final Cut Pro was ahead of the game. But things have improved software wise on the PC since then, so it's a good value option to go with an affordable Windows machine.

Some people say that cameras like Canon 5DII and Panasonic GH1 make good video but lack some handling features to work well as video cameras, like a good viewfinder and a handle... What do you think?

Andrew Reid:
Yes that's currently true out of the box. There is speculation that in a few years we'll all be back to using larger video cameras but with the same technology as introduced by HDSLRs. But I quite like the way cameras like the 5D Mk II and especially GH1 handle. They're very small. They're quite stealthy - people react differently if they think they're being filmed. With an HDSLR they just think you're taking a few idle snaps. So it's useful for real-life videos shot in public places, or narrative films which involve people in the background. You get less unwanted attention!

The issue of a viewfinder is solved somewhat by the Zacuto Z-Finder which is a magnifying loupe that attaches to the LCD screen of your camera, giving you a 3 inch electronic view finder in your eye. It also helps steady the camera against your head for handheld work. You can also buy a huge range of HDSLR rigs which improve the handling and give you much more to grip, for example a pistol grip with an arm that steadies the camera against your shoulder and a 'follow focus' wheel for adjusting focus without touching the lens. You can also put the camera on a steadicam device for handheld movement which really flows as smooth as butter. The options are huge from the various 3rd party manufacturers.

The camera manufacturers themselves see HDSLRs still mainly as still cameras, and indeed that is how the majority of buyers think of them as well - so they're just responding to market demand. For the future Canon and Panasonic are probably thinking more about traditional forms of video camera rather than these 'hybrids' and just improving the technology, which is fine - but it will come with a hefty price mark up when it appears in "real" video cameras.

I am not sure (especially as HDSLR keep improving) that people will sacrifice their investment in lenses, accessories, rigs and pay extra to get a larger camera which gives them the same image quality just with a few improvements in handling built into the main body. So the HDSLR video market is going to be strong for some time yet regardless of what the manufacturer's pro divisions come up with.

Would you prefer to use one of these cameras, or a low-end professional video camera? The latter has surely also fallen in price a lot?

Andrew Reid:
I'd prefer to use one of these cameras over even a high end professional video camera.

As an example - RED are somewhat in trouble from the advent of HDSLRs. Canon and Panasonic are able to invest a lot more in sensor technology than RED are.

RED are to release a small camera with interchangeable lens and large sensor, called Scarlet but it has been beset by delays and will be very expensive. The image quality might not be as good as a HDSLR costing a fraction of the price, and it's only advantage will be better built-in handling in terms of the body design and functionality - the stuff you can add from 3rd parties like Zacuto on a HDSLR (and still have a cheaper camera afterwards!)

There are indeed improvements needed for some aspects of HDSLR image quality - especially the recording format - but the main HDSLR advantage is the large sensor - almost unique in the video world - and their interchangeable lenses - throwing open over 60 years worth of lens options - all the classics from the likes of Leica and Carl Zeiss.

I believe a 35mm large sensor RED camera with a Zeiss cinema lens would cost approx. 20x that of a GH1 with a Zeiss SLR photographic lens on it via an adapter and the difference in quality wouldn't matter to the film's audience even if you blew up the picture for cinema projection.

Recently British cinematographer/director Philip Bloom showed his HDSLR shorts at the Stag theatre at Lucasfilm's ranch in the presence of Quentin Tarantino and Rick McCallum, the Starwars producer. In fact in some ways the footage looked better than 35mm motion picture film. It's even possible that the HDSLR will be used to film the planned Starwars TV series. Lucasfilm clearly have a strong interest in the technology.

Compared to small 3CCD chip professional camcorders of 2008, the difference is similar as the one between a compact point & shoot and a DSLR.

There are more parallels with 35mm SLR photography... Digital video's ultimate benchmark has always been the Hollywood 35mm motion picture look (film). The look of HDSLRs and Hollywood is now similar to the difference between full frame DSLRs and 35mm photographic film. Film is still a bit better - it has more latitude, but in the near future, digital will be better than film in every respect and a lot cheaper.

Do you think there will ever really be a commercial market for "art" films without a traditional story and such?

Andrew Reid:
I hope so. But I think story is still an important part of film making, and it's easy to forget that when the HDSLR footage looks so beautiful and artistic. At the moment it's exciting to see what new forms of film these cameras will give rise to, and if they open up new markets that's a great opportunity.

But in terms of creativity they are just tools, and what will determine the commercial market is probably more to do with how people use the tools. I think there will be some breakthrough hits filmed with HDSLRs but these films will probably resemble the classic motion pictures styles and stories that really move people and connect with them, the same as in the past. It's just that they might be filmed by a group of friends in Europe rather than a major motion picture studio in Hollywood.

Do you think it's time yet for independant film makers to bypass the cinemas entirely, and perhaps even DVDs/Blu-ray, and focus entirely on Internet sales and distribution?

Andrew Reid:
Yes. Near future, I think physical distribution of video will be dead within 10 years in the developed world (where internet use is widespread and fast).

I don't so much mind the passing of large bricks & mortar DVD retailers but I hope the concept of a bricks & mortar cinema will survive for a while yet. Nobody can fit 100 movie fans and a IMAX sized screen in their house.

However I think cinema too will be consigned to the dustbin as as home theatre kit gets more and more snazzy. Home cinema can offer a lot - the social aspect, the popcorn, the image quality and sound as well. But at the moment, there is demand for traditional cinema, even with such widespread use of DVD, Blu-ray and internet video.

In the distant future, I can see technology becoming so advanced that it will work on a more electro - psychological level than a audio/visual one, and then it may be an historic first point of entry for humankind to 'post-humanism', a state of experiencing things entirely unhindered by the physical human body. I think all the scary sci-fi plots will come true basically.

Andrew sent a couple of stills from his videos. He wrote:
"The 2nd one in the street alley is from the next Shadowplay shot with the GH1. The first is shot with the 5D Mark II in Manchester. Both are shot in very low light, with a very fast lens the cameras sees more at ISO 1600 than the human eye is capable of making out."


Ian said...

Interesting opinions from an insider.

Pascal [P-04referent] said...

Don't you think that Microcosmos would very well qualify as a pure "art" film with no story?

hauteur said...

...but you already saw that article. It doesn't really count, because it's popkulture TV, but certainly Artyfarty Film Studios must be looking at the budget to street cred ratio.

skistome said...