An interview with Bold Contents Cinematographer Matt Camlin about the corporate video production process from a cinematographers’ standpoint.
Let’s start by looking briefly at the progression of filming techniques, how has is changed over the past 10 to 15 years?
Back in the day, we always used to shoot on film, and it was great, because you have amazing texture in your images, film is fantastic to work with, its delicate but the result is beautiful.
Unfortunately, if there is a problem with the film for example there is a hair trapped in the gate for example, it’s unusable. It becomes ruined when exposed to light etc. Also it’s quite hefty to work with because you have the film on the back of the camera, it takes more manpower.
Video is a sequence of 24 or 25 or 30 (or more) photos per second or frames per second and they move so quick that when you watch it, they create the illusion of motion because of course your eye can not track 25 separate frames per second. You’ve probably seen the horse in the carousel photography by Eadweard Muybridge.
Since the development of the newer digital technologies we have been working much more as an industry with a camera called a DSLR, which is a stills camera, which about 10-12 years ago was developed by Canon and Nikon to record video.
Recently a lot of people and companies seem to be using DSLRs, why do you think they have become so popular?
DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex (camera) and they have become very popular in the last 10 to 12 years. They have been used on shows like House, which a little while back shot the entire series finale on the Canon 5d Mark ii. Sherlock, BBCs revolutionary TV-show was also shot on a lot of DSLRs and you find them a lot in news coverage as well now because you they are easy to sneak into your bag if you are a journalist sneaking into somewhere. They are super mobile and super small. DSLRs require less battery power and they are a lot easier to move around with. By working with smaller cameras that produce high quality images it gives you a lot more versatility and it allows you to have more control over what you are doing.
There are some fantastic positives on having a DSLR, they have interchangeable lenses so you can shoot on a wide-angle lens or a telephoto lens, zoom lens, you can shoot with a tilt shift lens and so on, they are fantastic in low light and they are competitively priced. You can pick one up for £200, and with the right knowledge you can get nice cinema quality images.
Since the revolution of the DSLRs people have been making things like rigging that works with DSLRs, you can get a follow focus, a matte box, a microphone attachment or a tripod that is all scaled and works with DSLRs.
The whole industry of DSLRs is a little microcosm because of the independent film making market, as well as the corporate film making market and documentary making of course.
You are a cinematographer, what is your role and what do you think about filming on DSLRs?
The basics of cinematography is all about creating layers. Although we all watch films on 2D screens, we want to make them look and feel as 3D as possible. You want to take it away from the fact that it is only a 2 dimensional medium the audience is watching and try to drop the audience into a setting or an environment that is feels more “real”.
You can create those layers with movement, with light and shade, with contrast, with colours, with movement, with focus and so on. That is the playground that we work in.
DSLRs can be great because they produce a very thin depth of field with which you can create very cinematic looks. The classic cinematic look is composed with a depth of field where someone is in focus in the foreground and something is out of focus in the background or vice versa.
Looking at the footage we shot this summer for the Coca-Cola sustainability initiatives, we have great shots of a farmer walking and talking in the foreground, and you have the sun rising in the background. You can see all the layers and it is lovely, we created something that is called the parallax, when you move around someone and you create these parallel dimensions of movement.
What are disadvantages of using a DSLR?
Unfortunately one of the disadvantages of DSLRs is that they are not really built for filming, it is ultimately is a stills camera. Although Canon, Nikon, Panasonic and Sony have all derived filmmaking DSLRs from the stills mechanic to create video. A disadvantage is, its like you are using a hammer to chainsaw a three down, it will work but ultimately it is not the correct tool for the job.
How does this disadvantage translate to the screen?
For that we have to look at the camera’s video codec. Every digital camera produces a camera codec and video codec. Depending on the strength of the video codec you will introduce something called digital noise. Now, digital noise is something that keeps me up at night, its the devil for filmmakers.
What is digital noise exactly?
If you are shooting at a poor video codec like that of DSLRs you’ll introduce more noise into the darker parts of your individual pixels. This happens because the pixels don’t know what colour to display because they don’t have enough information coming to them.
So when you get your footage into post and you need to do any colour correcting (which you will because you want to be perfecting your colours) then you find the image will fall apart a lot quicker. Meaning, if the pixels don’t have a colour, you can’t change them, and more noise will be introduced into the blacks of your video.
How would you refer to other types of video cameras?
In contrast we also shoot a lot on actual video cameras. However, video camera is a big term, its can cover you from your little flip camera or a dv-tape camera, to cinema quality IMAX camera, its a big pool of camera terms.
So to be more specific, we shoot a lot on Sony. The Fs700 because of the nice slow motion it gives us. When we shoot on that we often record to an external recorder like the Atamos Ninja 2.
Like I said earlier every camera has a video codec and by recording to an external recorder, which literally just takes the feed like a sky box to record something off the telly, we are increasing the quality of what we are recording.
The Ninja 2 records in a 4:2:2 video codec whereas the DSLR records in 420 video codec; if you shoot on an Alexa you can record on a 444 video codec. These numbers are all relative to the information that the pixels are getting.
Depending on where you pitch yourself within the pool of video cameras you’ll find they have different strengths and weaknesses in comparison to DSLR cameras. Strengths are they often have on board microphones and internal recording microphones, which is super useful because you don’t have to carry an external recorder when you shoot.
You can have internal controls which camera operators like me love, things like zebra, peeking and histograms. All of these are giving you information about what the camera is recording. Like what is in focus and if there is anything that is blowing out in the highlights.
Highlights are luminosities are measured on a scale of 0 to 110. If something goes lower than 0 or higher than 110 it is ether underexposed, at less than 0 so its less than black and that’s when you start to get your digital noise. Or overexposed, if it’s higher than 110 it’s overexposed, clipping is the term.
If you record something that is clipping, on anything other than a very highbrow camera, when you get that video into postproduction, the data is lost of that particular area. The same with something that is underexposed you can’t grade it you can’t bring it up or down, the data is lost.
If you shoot on a very high value camera like an Arri Alexa or a Red Dragon which we shoot on sometimes then you can pull that information back in the grading process.
Can you briefly explain what grading is?
Grading is when you tweak the colours, the blacks and the whites to create a visual feeling or tone. You may find that an war film like Saving Private Ryan might have a dirtier, earthy colour palette and that will be controlled through the grading process.
Traditionally film was hand painted frame by frame. Now you just do it on an iMac and its so much easier and faster. It takes only a day to grade a five-minute film so we’ve come a long way.
Do you have any tips for using DSLR, how to get the most out of it?
DSLRs are a great place to start as a filmmaker. My advice would be to really get to know your camera, even if you are only using it for video. Be sure to get a good handle on basic skills like focus and exposure first off.
If you can then make sure you have a good variety of lenses. So you can always get the shots you want no matter your special restrictions.
Composition is critical, in my experience, most of my favourite shots to date are great because the camera is positioned in just the right place, or it moves just right, or see’s just what you want it to see.
Watch films you love, lots of them. Think about how that film’s shots were composed, and think about why you enjoyed them. What kind of stories were explored in the shots you liked, and how can you tell similar stories with your shot choices.