Friday, 28 May 2010

Tip #33: A 'cinematic' camera

By Dan Parkes (Director)

A “cinematic camera” might conjure up the large expensive cameras seen in Hollywood productions. But the truth with film production has and always will be that it is a case of not what you’ve got but what you do with it. In recent times, large budget feature films are being shot with relatively smaller and less expensive cameras, the reason being that the “cinematic” look is now achievable on even “domestic” cameras. The explosion in low budget DSLR video production is the result of that.

But what is the “cinematic” look and how did we achieve it? Well, for us, “cinematic” firstly meant a wide aspect ratio. We filmed everything in 16:9 (widescreen) but then cropped it to 2:35:1 (cinema widescreen) in post. Secondly it meant the use of 35mm lenses to achieve a shallow depth of field (DOF). DOF has long been used as a tool to control what an audience focuses on in a frame. Especially on a large cinema screen, if everything was in sharp focus eyes may rest on some irrelevant background action instead of what is happening in the foreground or vice versa. The answer is to have a very narrow plane of focus, where the main object is in focus, and the background or foreground is out-of-focus. This is called a “shallow depth of field”. There are two ways of achieving this: 1. To use 35mm lenses, especially longer lenses. 2. If 35mm lenses are not available to use the longer end of the lens –ie to zoom in. This has a similar effect, but the problem being that the camera may have to be quite a distance from the subject!

We shot Ambleton Delight with the JVC GYHD201 camera, with a SGPro 35mm adapter that allowed the use of 35mm lenses. We had already tested the workflow on two smaller productions and so felt ready to shoot a feature, and the end result was fantastic.

Here are some vital ingredients to think about when attaching 35mm lenses to a video camera:

  1. You will need a selection of prime and zoom lenses: for example wide (28mm) medium (50mm) long (85mm+) and a zoom if possible.
  2. You will need more light as the 35mm adapter can lose a stop or so of light
  3. Prime/zoom lenses result in an inverted image (upside down) –our camera has the option to invert the image so it was not a problem, but otherwise you might have to put your monitor upside down!
  4. Always use a HD monitor if possible. The viewfinder and LCDs are not enough to ensure precise focus.
  5. You will need a focus-puller –someone completely in charge of the focusing.
  6. Always measure, check and mark focus points on the floor (actors marks) and also on the white ring on the focus dial.
  7. With the 35mm lenses and adapter the camera becomes a lot heavier.
  8. Prime lenses are better, as they are often faster (i.e. you can let more light in) –but they are fixed focus, so get the camera in the right position first.
  9. Zoom lenses are more flexible for framing, but they are often slower (you lose light).
  10. Factor in more time to set the camera up as you will have to select lenses and also mark your focus points
  11. Make sure the actors hit their marks!

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