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From The Lens: Choosing A Camera for Filmmaking

On a frosty winter day in Central Park, I reached into my backpack, to pull out a little silver camera-- the Canon AutoZoom 814. It’s a consumer super 8mm film camera, designed to capture home movies in the late 60’s. Of course this wasn’t the 60’s, nor was it a home movie. This was just a test.

The Canon AutoZoom 814, rolling on a cityscape for Wavelength, the film.

The Canon AutoZoom 814, rolling on a cityscape for Wavelength, the film.

As I listened to the purr of rolling film, it brought back nostalgic memories of my film classes years ago.

Oh, how I miss film.

I had purchased this camera several years ago when I was in college, and it has sadly collected dust, so I was happy to hear it running smoothly after years of neglect.

Film Director, Robert Gregson, and I had discussed using super 8 for a short script he was writing. Despite having access to a Red One, a Nikon D800, and Canon 60D, we wanted to test the waters with Kodak 7219 (500T) super 8mm film stock for reasons motivated by Robert’s unique script.

Without giving away too many secrets, the film is meant to be a parody of 60's period instructional films. Based on our former experience with super 8, and footage samples we've seen, we wanted to give my little Canon AutoZoom a shot. Our style references were a distinct combination of heavy film grain, muted colors, and optical aberrations such as vignetting and low sharpness. The lo-fi nature of Super 8 seemed appropriate for that cheesy, “old school” style that we loved.

After my preliminary test confirmed that the camera still worked, we needed to run it through the course of an actual production. Instead of doing a conventional screen test with a model and a color chart, Robert decided to write a 1-minute film titled Wavelength as a “test,” which actually turned into a great stand-alone piece!

Camera choice is a topic that has been talked about a lot recently amongst the filmmaking community. There are now so many great choices in filmmaking mediums, that it may be more appropriate to consider each one of these options as different “brush strokes” for your work. I’m a believer that the screenplay is a major factor in this decision.

For example, I recently had a phone discussion with a producer who told me how he loved using the Sony F3 for his web series. He explained that its ability to capture very muted and subtle tones fits the characters he’s working with, who live rather bland lifestyles. Being that they are socially reserved, the boldness of any type of color saturation would not fit their personalities.

Of course, filters, lenses, or picture styles can be used alter the camera’s look in many ways, but choosing the proper camera for your script is an important stylistic consideration.

When choosing camera recommendations, there are two major factors that I keep in mind: Aesthetics, and logistics.

Some cameras are known to work better with specific colors or specific lighting conditions. The uniqueness of a camera or film stock is most often determined by their gamma curve, which basically represents the camera’s sensitivity to all colors, ranging from total darkness to overexposed brightness.

Other factors such as grain structure, or crop factor play a large part in aesthetics as well.

Frame grab from Wavelength: Adam is awoken by a blinding light.

Frame grab from Wavelength: Adam is awoken by a blinding light.

Super 8mm attracted Robert and I for aesthetic reasons. The grain on 8mm film is larger than 16mm and 35mm film, so it’s more prominent, which we felt would help to establish the antiquated style.

The particular film stock we tested was more of a logistical decision, since it is more accessible. The gamma curves of other rare film stocks would be interesting to explore, while on the other hand, risky to invest in. We knew that we wanted Wavelength to be black and white, yet we wanted to test the colors of Kodak’s 7219 film stock, so we opted to shoot on the color stock, and then turn it black and white in post production.

Usually with smaller budget productions, the central question is: Can we afford it? Sometimes the only choice is to consider cameras that are available for low, or no budget. This is where compromise must sadly come into play.

Months ago, I was approached with a script for a commercial ad campaign, which involved super slow-motion to highlight split-second moments of a woman’s life. Fortunately we were able to rent the Phantom Miro for our production, allowing us recoding speeds of up to 1500fps. Without the budget that made this rental possible, script changes would have been necessary.

Other logistics which can determine your ideal camera include shooting in extreme conditions where weight, size, or durability are major factors.

Frame grab from Wavelength: Adam Levinthal rises into dramatic silhouette.

Frame grab from Wavelength: Adam Levinthal rises into dramatic silhouette.

Robert and I chose to test the Canon AutoZoom for logistical reasons. While there are many professional Super 8 cameras available for rental in New York, we knew that we were working with a limited budget, so we wanted to test a camera we had direct access to.

Shooting a test script helped us discover a few logistical nightmares associated with our camera choice.

We’d like to deny it, but truth be told, we’ve simply been spoiled by modern digital technology, where monitoring a shot gives us a real time, accurate view of colors and exposure. To show Robert a shot, I had to pass off the camera to him and do my best to explain what I was seeing. At a certain point, it relied on a lot of trust between us, which we had fortunately already developed.

Real problems arose when trying to troubleshoot very precise framing, without accurate frame guides, and without the ability to collaborate on a frame through a monitor display.

Robert Gregson and Adam Levinthal work through a scene with intense beams of light.

Robert Gregson and Adam Levinthal work through a scene with intense beams of light.

With the viewfinder, it was nearly impossible to be confident about the accuracy of my focus unless we used a tape measurer.

Additionally, the exposure is controlled by a tiny dial on the side of the camera, which shifts a small needle inside the viewfinder, pointing to the current aperture. This needle was impossible to see unless it was back-lit with something bright in frame. During most of the production, I could be seen clumsily trying to shine a flash light into the lens to check the aperture.

To make matters worse, the viewfinder fogged up many times, especially due to what turned into a very cold and rainy exterior scene.

“What do I have framed up? I can’t tell. I’m shivering, wet, and all I see is fog.”

Topping it all off: The camera began to jam as we were finishing the film. I attributed this to severe cold and humid weather conditions. We were finally able to jostle the film in a way where the camera continued to roll.

To our relief, we finished the production, and we sent the film off for development.

A couple weeks later, upon reviewing the footage transfer, we were excited to see our work looked excellent! However, we seemed to be missing about a roll and a half.

When we asked what happened, we were sad to hear that the last two rolls were mostly unexposed, and one of them was completely unspooled in camera!

Test results: We broke the camera.

All technical malfunctions aside, it was pretty evident that the camera we were testing was never meant for professional use. Putting it in a film production environment as we did really helped us make an accurate assessment of whether we wanted to use it or not.

Since Wavelength was about 80% complete, and Robert had spent a lot of money on film stock and development, we decided to finish off this test film with a digital camera. We used Robert’s Canon 60D since its sensor size was closer to the size of a Super 8mm frame, when compared to the full-frame 35mm sensor on my Nikon D800.

We experimented with compositing Super 8mm film grain and color correction to the digital footage to match the look as closely as possible, and I am very surprised how close we managed to get it! This is by no means my attempt to fake a “film look”. I’ve never been into that approach. But to finish the project gave us some closure, and a fun piece to look back at.

Despite our battles we had fun with it, and we learned a lot from our tests. We are still discussing Robert’s “instructional film” script, and the best way to approach that aesthetic. Robert is finishing up sound design for Wavelength and is planning for release in 2014.

Have you experimented with odd cameras or formats before? I would love to hear about it. Please share!

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