Equipment

Q&A PRE-2004 UNTIL LISTED

Hi! I'm a film student at Central Washington University and I'm
looking for information that leads to what is the best movie/film camera out
on the market today?  I searched a few sites but none of them gave me any
hints. Could you possibly help? If you don't know exactly which one or
brand.  Is it possible for you to let me know what kind of Camera did any of
the big blockbuster movies use??  Thanks so much! Cedric from CWU Film

Cameras are mostly either 16mm or 35mm for professional use but I'll stick
to 35mm as you seem interested in blockbusters.  These kinds of movies are
usually shot with Panavision cameras, which are rented from Panavision which
is the largest rental house for movie equipment in the world. You can't own
these cameras as they are not for sale: but you can buy Arriflex and
Moviecam cameras which also can be rented from other companies (and also
from Panavision - just to confuse the issue!) As for which one is best -
you'll get as many answers as there are cameras.  The best camera is the one
most appropriate for the job: and that differs with the job.

What precautions do you have to take with equipment when you're shooting in a really hot place? I'm going to Mexico this summer with some friends (from film school) to shoot a short film, but I'm worried about the technical hassles we might encounter because of the heat.

Darren Swane

Youíll probably have more trouble with your stomach than with the film! I assume youíre shooting on film (?), and youíll have no problems provided that:
1. Put a cloth or reflective material on the camera magazine. Try and keep the whole camera in the shade as much as possible, but donít panic if you canít!
2. Never leave the cans in the sun, and seek out the coolest spot (but not the fridge), to store the film.
3. Do not, under any circumstances, let the film go through X ray at customs, no matter what they say about ďfilm safeĒ etc.  If you have to take the film through, allow plently of time and take a changing bag with you: if customs insist, they can open the cans in the bag and feel the rolls of film. You can avoid this by purchasing and processing the stock there, as once the film is in negative or print form (developed) it canít be harmed by X ray.
One of the really amazing things about film, sometimes hard to remember through the haze of Digispeak, is that it is very very resilient to both cold, hot, rain, sun, steam, the tropics the spiders and everything else we can throw at it.  Try that with a 24p!

I'm always hearing about new cameras and new technology, but I don't really understand how you get to try equipment out before sinking a ton of money into it. As an established professional, do companies send you new models to try? And how do you try out new "toys"?
--Anthony

Most equipment is rented so thatís how you get to try it out.  You just hire what you want for a shoot, the production company pays for it, and if you donít like it or want to try something else, just exchange it.  As far as buying equipment is concerned, you donít want to do this unless youíre very clear about what you are doing, and can be confident that you will be working when you want to work. (No freebies from companies Iím afraid!).

 Have you ever owned any camera equipment in your career...or is
this primarily a thing that applies to commercial shooters? thank
you...Steve
I would drag my Mum to a halt if we passed a photo shop when I
was a child. Iíd pull myself up with my little fingers on the windowsill and
look wistfully at the cameras.  In currently own er.. a lot of camera
equipment.. so, no, owning cameras does not just apply to commercial shooters.

I work with a single partner doing small movies. We have our main emphasis on intricate plot that is believable but slightly surreal and humorous. We do not have the means to make intricate riggings and we don't have a stable cart for a camera. Do you think that we should been stingy on using moving shots or should we make an attempt at moving shots even if it means that we have slightly "shaky" shots? Is there any inexpensive way to minimize "shake"? ??--Brian

Learning Tai Chi is an inexpensive way of minimizing "shake". Hand held camera work does not have to shaky at all when it is executed by an expert. On the other hand, moving the camera has no virtue in itself: there are many wonderful movies made with virtually no camera movement involved. If you have access to a wheelchair (maybe borrow one?) then sitting in it with the camera on your shoulder will yield reasonably steady tracking shots, depending on the nature of the ground/floor. If you need to get higher, put a plank across the arm rests and sit on that. On smooth floors, low angle shots can be made very well by lying on a blanket or carpet and being pulled along, resting the camera on a piece of foam or some such thing.

Silly camera rigs have their place even in expensive films, so the more you can improvise, the better.
 

Hi my name is Sam Pfeffer. I'm a DoP. I have an old ARRI - II b with a set of old Arriflex cine xenon lenses and I?m interested in an experience with LOMO ANAMORPHIC adapter for my lenses or any other solution for my upcoming project. ??--Sam

Hello Sam. You seem like a pretty experienced guy judging from your website: you might want to update your camera though! I have one too and get some strange looks if I ever get it out. Unfortunately I can't tell you anything about Lomo adapters but I reckon that lens combination with result in some pretty soft and flarey images. If this is what you want, go for it.

I'm in the process of finishing my screenplay and am looking to film and edit it myself. I have quite a few resources with a limited budget. I have roughly $4000-$5000 to spend on a camera, and plan on editing it on a new Mac. What kind of camera do you recommend that I buy? P.S. If possible please be specific about model and brand ??--Mathew

If you are serious about making a film and not about buying equipment, I would recommend you spend your spare cash on making a better film and hiring or borrowing a camera to shoot it with. If, on the other hand, you really really need to buy a camera which will be out of date in about 3 months time, go to a video website to see discussion on the merits of various cameras.

I am just starting to make movies with a regular camcorder. For my latest movie, I'm using tape-to-tape editing. I find it extremely difficult, but it's the only option for my camera. Do you have any tips for me, or are there any other options? Thanks!??--AEP

Yes. You really need to "digitize" your work, buy a Mac or PC and a LaCie hard drive and edit your work on Final Cut Pro or Imovie or similar. Tape-to-tape is really a thing of the past and a very painful way to do things. You don't need a digi camera (i.e. with a firewire out) as you can get converters to digitize from Hi-8 and older formats. There's a few thousand dollars to get this stuff, but if you look around carefully in the second hand market it is surprising what you can find. And once you have your "rushes" on the computer it really is great to do the editing and make changes, without all that tape grind and yecky transferring with increasingly bad quality.

2005

For most scenes in a film, on average, how many cameras do you have at hand being used simultaneously?

Mostly 1 for a normal dialogue scene in a room; 2 for daylight scenes involving some complication ie children, animals, weather etc. Then 3 upwards for action scenes or any scene where doing it again is a problem ? like blowing up a house etc. The main problem with using more than one camera is that it is hard to make the lighting look good from more than one angle, although if the 2nd camera is used carefully then it can provide very useful additional footage.

I am a true film guy, I want to shoot film. Last year I bought an Arri 16bl Camera, (crystal sync, video Tap), the works. The problem is that I afraid of shooting any film that matters, because I feel I have no idea what I'm doing. I have bought book telling me how to do it if you have a large budget, and lots of lights. I have neither. I do have a Lowel DP light kit, 2 575 HMI, 1 2500 HMI Par. That's my lights. I have shot 2 400' rolls one on was some swim suit models on the beach, and the other was of the singer George Clinton in his studio I had to shoot it inside Nat lighting, but they were florescent lights. The beach stuff looked really good and the inside roll was just ok. I guess the question is, am I making shooting film harder then it really is (over thinking it)? ?-Jay

I guess your story is not uncommon these days, although it would mostly be from someone who bought video equipment. Most DP's don't own any equipment, because it changes all the time and it doesn't make a lot of sense economically to own gear: at least at the beginning of your career. I admire your honesty: "I feel I have no idea what I am doing"...that's a good start. It might be better to put your gear away for awhile and go and work on some student or professional projects where you can assist a cinematographer until you feel a bit more confident. Whilst a great deal about the chemistry of film can be learned out of books with the aid of a stills camera, there is nothing equivalent to set experience to build confidence. I wouldn't use your own money for stock and processing: it's just way too expensive. Get some experience and then hopefully someone will employ you to shoot something. It's not hard to shoot film - just expensive!

I remember reading somewhere that back projection was invented in the early 1930's by an individual who, in order to increase the visual luminosity synched 2 Mitchell cameras and split the beam using a prism (though I'm not sure all of the above is accurate). Could you let your readers know who was responsible for perfecting back projection in the 1930's and discuss in some detail as to how this was achieved (set up)? PS - I love the look of the desert in back projection from The Big Sleep where Bogart and Bacall are driving, just before they kiss. My guess is that the 'nighttime' desert was filmed during the day using a filter, and/or film was 'push/pull' processed.??-Mike

You may be referring to the Vistavision triple head projector developed by Paramount to use for back projection. Mitchell did indeed make a projector for back projection but the book I am looking at (by Raymond Fielding) does not mention Mitchell developing a "split beam" system (but it might be in another book!). The general problems of film back projection were:

1. Picture steadiness. Unlike a normal movie projector, the film projector had to be as steady as a movie camera ie pin registered, otherwise the background would "jiggle" in relation to the foreground.
2. Luminosity. The image needed to be very bright which is why the "triple" projector was invented. This ran 3 prints in register at the same time: you can imagine the kind of accuracy needed to make that work, apart from the perf tolerance of the print stock! The photo in Fielding's book shows a piece of machinery that definitely wasn?t taken on location!
3. Sync. The shutter of the camera had to be open at the same time that the projected image was "open" otherwise you could get veiling or flicker in the image. This was achieved by "slaving" the motors together.
4. Colour. This introduced a whole other set of problems that meant that the BG plate had to be carefully graded and projected to match the foreground.
In the example you mention, day for night is a good way to shoot something like a desert as lighting it is not very practical! These days it is a lot easier to manipulate the image as the sky can be treated separately which makes it a lot easier to make it darker.

Video back projection is now becoming a reality for feature films, as the quality of the image improves. I first used it for the driving sequences in Kansas City (dir: Robert Altman 1996) as we were working in Kansas City and could not afford to fly in all the back projection equipment. Some quite cheap systems can be used successfully for night work, but you still need to spend some money to make it work for day as the demands on tonality and resolution are much higher.

2006

I was wondering how important is the existence of the 'distance markings' on the lens barrel of a camera? James Tocher, in a camera review in Moviemaker magazine (No. 58), says it's essential in order to keep your image focused if you are recording something that moves. However, the majority of prosumer camcorders come with a good fixed lens, that doesn't have any distance markings, although it can be focused manually. What do you think? Are there any focus problems with an image of such a camera when projected on a big screen?
?Stelios

Yes, oh YES there are BIG problems because what looks in focus on a small monitor, or even a fancy $40K Big Monitor, does not always look in focus when you make in 30ft wide. It is surprising to me how many "professionals" think that just because an image looks good when it is small, why shouldn?t it look good when it is big?

You might have noticed that a prosumer camcorder costs around $1000 or less. One lens for a 35mm movie camera (not even a zoom!) costs around $20,000. That isn't just because it is a specialized market (although that's a good chunk of it) but it is because the sharpness and engineering of the lens is of a quite different order to that of a camcorder. Autofocus does a remarkable job on a camcorder, a job that is good enough for your home movies showing on the telly. Blow this up to cinema size however and something that looked sharp before may or may not look terrible. When someone makes a "DV" movie and shows it in the cinema, it might have been made on all sorts of different equipment, some of which is professional complete with manual focus and distance markings, and some of which might be shot on Prosumer cameras with autofocus. When one of these cameras has a "manual" function it's not much use to a serious filmmaker as it is very hard to calibrate some of these manual focus functions to be really useable. It's one of the complaints I often see in reviews of quite serious and expensive HD cameras: great for docs but not so good for drama. If you want to make a DV drama, go for a camera with interchangeable lenses so that you can put a lens on it with distance markings and get a focus puller to keep the image sharp!

I'm an amateur filmmaker and I'm getting ready to purchase a Steadicam & dolly system. The question is when is it best to use one or the other? Clearly, some shots such as climbing stairs or lots of turns are possible only with a Steadicam, but what about the shots that could be accomplished with both? While the dolly is guaranteed to be smooth it's also so much more work to set up when a good Steadicam operator could just get the shot. What's your opinion?
Shawn

It's a matter of "feel" - what kind of rhythm do you want any particular shot to have? It takes a very very good steadicam operator to make it seem like a dolly shot, so it you want a shot to be really steady then use a dolly.

Decisions in film making are not made based on whether something is "a lot of work": they are made on what is the right way to do the shot for the story you are trying to tell. A simplification would to be to say that a steadicam shot is more "point of view like" than a Dolly shot: the audience senses the presence of the camera operator more than in the more "neutral" Dolly shot.

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