Analog to Digital

So much has changed since I first shot moving picture footage. Back then it was with a borrowed Arriflex 16mm camera. That Arri-S was built like a tank and a pleasure to use. It made me feel I could do anything.

When the chance came to shoot an actual feature film the best that we could do was Super 8 and I borrowed a Beaulieu 4008 for the duration. The camera I would have really loved to shoot it with was a Bolex H-16 like the one owned by the American father of a friend in the little coastal town I grew up in.

Our Steenbeck film editing set up was likewise borrowed thanks to a kindly TAFE teacher who kicked in some welcome funding for film stock and special effects done at an eastern states post-production facility.

All the challenges of independent filmmaking in a place far from the heart of the industry meant our movie took much longer to make than it should have and it was a relief when it finally screened to acclaim in a local film festival. That led to an invitation to crew on some productions by a German novelist-turned-telemovie director, my first chance to see professional filmmakers at work.

The leap from untutored amateur to working within a professional production environment felt as huge as the current one from analog to digital in filmmaking and stills photography. I appreciate the qualities of analog film but I don’t pine for those days – the industry was one for the well-to-do as I learned from making my own feature film then watching how the pros did it.

Now things are a little different as the means of high end production are falling within reach of more people than only the well-heeled. A cluster of indirectly-related developments such as Magic Lantern, the BlackMagic cameras, the raw file format and the crossover between digital stills and video are very promising indeed. The catch, as always, is to make the right choices and in buying in after new systems have proven themselves.

In hardware as in software, avoid version 1.0 if you can although that is a rule I have been forced to break a couple of times in recent years. For example, with the FujiFilm Finepix X100 and X10 cameras I needed for documentary stills work as I could not wait for the X100S and X-Pro1 cameras that were to appear much later.

Right now the same dilemma applies to digital video – which horse is the one to bet on?

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Mirrorless versus DSLR?

During the analog photography era I much preferred non-SLR cameras to SLR (single lens reflex) cameras for many of the reasons listed in the article at the PhotographyLife website linked below.

My favourite stills cameras were mirrorless or non-SLR – Leica M-Series rangefinders, Rolleiflex twin lens reflexes and Linhof sheet film cameras (often with roll film adapters). I was also rather fond of what I called Texas Leicas – 120 roll film format rangefinder cameras such as the Mamiya 7. 

Now mirrorless digital cameras are making their presence felt.

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We Live In Interesting Times

We do live in interesting times, especially for one-woman band documentary filmmakers with limited budgets but who aspire to high production quality to ensure the possibility of the widest possible viewing audience.

Until now the best possible advice would have been to buy into fairly self-contained, almost feature-complete video systems like the Canon Cinema EOS cameras which include the C100, C300 and C500. In earlier times the choice between buy and rent came down on the side of renting for duration of the production so long, that is, as you had funding. Grant funding terms and conditions usually dictated renting gear rather than buying it and that was supported by the extremely high cost of professional video production equipment then.

Now, with the winding down of the traditional film commission and broadcaster commitment and funding system, it makes more sense to buy instead of rent so long as the gear you need is within your means. Buying into Canon’s excellent but pricey camera and lens system demands large wads of cash, larger than one-woman crews and the ability to lug heavy cases of gear on your back and around the world.

I like the results that the Canon Cinema EOS C300 delivers and as Vince Laforet’s film Mobius amply demonstrates. But the cost of high-end Canon cameras, lenses and the rigs needed to make them truly portable is beyond my budget so I have been looking at other options.

One must also bear in mind the inevitable march of technological progress and demands for higher and higher quality from broadcasters and viewers and as my partner who works in high tech research and development constantly reminds me, the future arrives sooner than you think.

And the future appears to be raw, 4K and micro four thirds according to recent developments. Oh, and affordable for independent filmmakers and especially documentarians. For the moment Canon seems to be out of the race having positioned itself at the high end size and price wise so for the moment Panasonic seems poised to take up the reins.

But that’s not all, folks. The Digital Bolex is a camera worth watching although its developers are taking a slightly different course to Panasonic.

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