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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Our DP, Iskra, on the RED ONE vs. DSLR's for LIS

When we asked our Lost In Sunshine DP, Iskra, a camera question, this was her response (below). Thank you, Iskra, for allowing me to share it! While I wanted to break it down and simply 'quote' Iskra, I realized there's no better way for you to understand this information, other than reading it yourself!! Besides, it's a complicated world out there for us writers and new directors (less technical folk) who need all the explanation we can get!

I want to preface this by saying that I interviewed many DPs for LIS. Some were great, but not available. Some were very talented, but I didn't feel the connection. And then there was Iskra - who stuck out with her gentle smile, warm vibe, ability to listen and interpret, mad technical/creative skills, and connection to the story. After Lorie and I met her together, we knew... this is special... this is the person for us... why wait any longer!?

I share with you this information for two reasons. First, I want to express to you the importance of having a great (not good) DP on set. Unless this is a very unique, rare project, it matters. And second, because I want to stress the importance of having a great DP on set. ;) ... find one that cares about your project and feels a connection. A great DP, like Iskra, that will give you thoughtful & thought-provoking feedback is - priceless. I would sum it up by saying if you find this person, hang on to them for dear life and let them know how appreciative you are.

This ain't no disco. But hey, it is Austin.

Happy learning! Jentri

Iskra's response for considering the RED ONE and DSLR's for LIS:

I actually started thinking about DSLR's for LIS, too, after hearing about the camera budget cut initially.

I have shot a couple short films on both the 5D and 7D and have discovered that yes, the DSLR is indeed a revolutionary tool allowing no budget filmmakers to shoot their projects in 1080 resolution with beautiful Canon lenses; also commercial and music video shooters whose product is intended for the web. The low profile of the camera is also attractive - you can get some shots that you wouldn't be able with other formats because of its tiny size. It's a quick and cheap way to get cool looking images.

The camera does have a lot of issues though and here are the ones which concern me the most when it comes to theatrical feature shooting:

- The image is extremely compressed (H264 codec which is the one used for web streaming). This means we have no room for color correction in post. We get what we get in the camera. This is a concerns since we have so many uncontrolled lighting situations (exteriors, car scenes etc.), and will probably be doing a lot of running and gunning since we don't have a huge lighting crew or budget. In contrast, the Red shoots in 4K in Raw (uncompressed format) so we get waaaay more resolution and color and contrast range. There is no comparison between the 2 images really.

- Focus is a big limitation. First of all, because you shoot with still lenses as opposed to film lenses. The marks on a still lens are very close together since they aren't meant for pulling focus in the shot. 3ft to infinity are literally next to each other as opposed to being on opposite sides of the barrel. In addition, you can't set focus marks because digital Canon lenses simply roll through (every time you make a complete turn of the barrel, you lose your marks). Focus pullers hate these still cameras because they make their job impossible; especially if the subject or camera are moving. If the subject AND camera are in motion, forget about sharp focus...

In my experience, a lot of times it's easiest for the operator to pull focus and you just have to live with the fact that you do more takes until you get lucky (there is no consistency whatsoever). It can be very frustrating, especially in a dramatic setting where you have to get your actors a certain place, and don't want to do a whole lot of takes.

In contrast, the Red uses cine style lenses, so we can use the traditional workflow of setting marks, rehearsing, and shooting and then having the image consistently in focus (provided we have a professional doing that).

When they use DSLR's on big budget films, they usually will modify the lens mount (Panavise it or make it into a PL mount) so that cine style lenses can be attached and then that makes it into a completely different tool. They can also afford remote follow focus controls.

- Monitoring is still in a very rudimentary stage. You can only get one HDMI video out, and if you use it (for director and scripty and lighting and everyone else), the operator's monitor is lost! So shooting with this camera will work provided we are ok with only the operator having access to the monitor consistently. We can switch to the director's monitor occasionally for checking framing but it would be impractical to lose the operator's monitor unless the shot is a lock off.

I would definitely recommend renting an LCD screen because the one from the back of the camera does not flip out like a camcorder, it's fixed, so you can only operate properly with it at head level. The Red has no such issues. You can have the eyepiece for the operator, the LCD screen for the focus puller, and a director's monitor all on at the same time.

- Overheating.
I've noticed that if a take is longer than 8-9 minutes, the little thermometer icon comes up and then at about 10 mins, the camera will shut off due to overheating. This happens even sooner if you shoot high speed. And this is during winter season in Austin at 75F. This is because there are no fans installed in the camera. The body is so small that there is virtually no space to attach ice packs.
The Red has a similar issue but it will only happen at 110F after several hours of operation when the fans cannot keep up with the ambient temperature. The Red's body is large enough to lay an ice pack on top, and then overheating is not an issue.

- Dropped frames.
Sometimes, the camera will "hiccup" and drop a frame, and sometimes you can't tell this happened until your review the footage later in post. This happens when it is close to overheating but unfortunately there is no warning and impossible to prevent.

- Sound.
The only issue is that we can't jam sync time code. It will be like shooting double system, but we can still get reference sound which makes it easier to sync in post.
With the Red you can jam.

- Post.
At this point, as far as I know, you can't edit H264 so you would have to render all the quicktimes before cutting.

You can still preview them in Quicktime, just can't edit right away in Final Cut.
There is a Final Cut plugin now that allows you to import Red footage straight into the timeline.

To know what you are really getting out of it, the image would have to be projected. The trick with these cameras is that you usually look at the footage on youtube but it's a different story when you project it in HD on the big screen. Lenses also will make a big difference. I've seen some really cheap plastic Canon lenses out there, so testing those will be very different from quality glass.

While the 7D is a cool toy to play with and experiment on projects with low stakes and low pressure, I think at the present moment, the Red is a lot more appropriate for shooting a theatrical feature where you need a reliable and consistent tool every day to get the movie in the can. DSLR's will probably be closer to its quality several generations later. We live at such an exciting time for digital filmmakers!

Hell, if we wait until September, we might be shooting on the Scarlet which would be practical to purchase for a production. And the Red camera series will be upgraded to the MX sensor which has no noise whatsoever at 2000 ASA. Now that is revolutionary, isn't it.



  1. Man, I am FLOORED by Iskra's response. I can see why she was THE ONE just from reading that. Detailed, thorough, filled-to-the-brim with real world experience, yet so easy to understand and follow her logic, even though this is completely outside my area of expertise. I'm so excited to be involved in a project Iskra's involved in, and I haven't even met her yet. ;-)

  2. I know what you mean, Ari! We are, indeed, so blessed and grateful to have her on board our project. I too, can't wait for you to one day meet her! :) Jentri