Saturday, January 29, 2011

Shooting HD Video with the EOS 5D MkII

I have been lucky to shoot a short film written by a good friend of mine. He managed to get a EOS 5D MkII, for which I already have a few lenses, so things started pretty good. So I took my film and TV experience, a trunk full of equipment and we went to work.
We went into a few hours of test shooting a week before the actual filming. The experiences I made led to important equipment decisions which I would like to share with you.

Yeah, laugh at me. Without my trusted dark cloth, I would not have seen anything in the light of day on that monitor. Especially not critical focus!

First thing I noticed (and was really scared of):
It really is! Maybe you have heard about the fact, that depth of field (DOF) decreases with the size of the sensor / film you use. When you shoot with your cell phone, which has a tiny sensor, everything will always be in focus. Opposite for, say, large format film, where you will even shoot at f/45 for a portrait with decently small depth of field. I will not explain that in detail, but you see, same goes for video. Shoot with one of these hand-held camcorders, which have usually a 1/3-inch-sensor (about the size of a cell phone button), everything´s in focus. Shoot 35 millimeter film and you get very shallow DOF - in fact so shallow that there must be someone taking care of focus. A full-frame DSLR sensor is even bigger and DOF shrinks to a practical minimum. For example, with a 100mm lens at f/5.6, subject distance 55cm (like in a close-up of a face), DOF is 1mm wide!  You see, in a movie, things move. So do the actors, so does the camera. You guess: things get even more complicated. IMAX and Cinemascope might of course be more delicate, but in the world of affordable filmmaking, this is as hard as it gets.

The camera cannot autofocus when filming. Anyway - it wouldn´t help you. It´s hard enough to autofocus on-the-spot in still photography and remember - in a movie, things move! Plus, if you look at your normal printing size for photos, remember that HD video is meant to be watched on a big screen (TVs are relatively big these days, too). Focus is much more critical than on a 10x15cm print.

Note the nice sturdy tripod. The flimsy one we had before didn´t even extend to a man´s eye level

Canon, of course, offers nice lenses that make beautiful sharp pictures and videos. But the focusing ring on most lenses only is a quarter turn from close to infinity. Movie and television lenses offer at least three quarters of a turn for their focusing range. In the close range, they are marked every couple centimeters. Google for "Zeiss Primes" or "Cooke Primes" to see some. Plus, before every shooting, the focusing devices (called studio rig or follow focus) are being calibrated to every lens. With these extremely shallow DOFs, even finding the right focus for a still shot is hard, hard and hard again. You cannot work with the camera´s display if you don´t have a loupe (and the display´s resolution is not high enough anyway). You need at last a 7" HD monitor with a sunshade attached to the camera. Still, it´s damn hard and I didn´t focus perfectly on many, many shots. Then, the damn HDMI cables are so stiff that they break either plug or socket at the camera. We sure had blue screen on that monitor 40% of the time, trying to nudge that f*ing connector into position. HDMI is far from being a tough connection.

So we have

Actress Andrea Schmitt poses for a final check of light, focus and makeup before shooting a macro of her eye as the opening sequence (between two blue screens from the dang HDMI cable). Note the focusing rig in my left hand, matte box, 7" monitor and tripod. No way to do this shot without any of these. Promise! Okay, except the matte box.  (Makeup Artist: Caroline Six - all credit for making perfect HD macro makeup!!)

Okay, so there´s a system that doesn´t really offer you a way to handle it in a "professional" way (professional means withstanding heavy abuse while working perfectly smooth before and afterwards). It doesn´t have handles, angles and interfaces to allow you to do what you must do during filming. It is super awkward holding it like you hold a DSLR during normal live-view photography. You cannot make beautiful movements and you cannot hold it still enough. Put it on a tripod? Yeah. But which one?

We ended up renting a 35-mm-tripod from Sachtler with a head large enough to hold and move 30 Kilos of camera. Those cost about 30,000 Euros or more, if you want to buy them. But for our project, this was necessary. The small Sony consumer photo tripod that came with the camera was so flimsy that the camera could not be panned or tilted in smooth ways. Full-frame DSLR HD Video (phew. let´s call it FFDSLRHDV from now on) is very, very demanding about movement, because the picture is so delicate and the focus is so fragile. You will see what I mean if you try it. Well, actually you will see what I mean if you replay scenes you thought were sharp on your HD television! The Sachtler head is so brilliant that it does almost all the work for you while you only give it the coarse direction on where to go. I operated it on second lowest friction (1) with no counterweight.

For shoulder camera, there was a Vocas shoulder rig, supporting the Chrosziel matte box, the follow focus, the camera and the monitor. Shoulder pad and handles can be quickly removed to go for tripod action. No way to make good handheld shots without it! You can find some similar items on ebay, they make them in india for a fraction of the price. Of course, you can also use the sunshades that came with your lenses instead of the matte box. But then you lose the capability to use 4x5.6 filters that you can rent along and need to go for filters that fit the lenses.

The Vocas shoulder rig in action!

You seem to be able to crank ISO up as needed without getting too much annoying noise. Our test shooting revealed that I could go up to ISO 1250 without having any visible noise. I checked it on a HD CRT television and on a huge plasma screen. Noise in video is pretty self-concealing. We are used to seeing film grain in a movie, so it´s no big deal.

The thin DOF in FFDSLRHDV makes beautiful portraits and the Canon lenses (use high-class primes, if you can) are sharp and give a great look.

You can use your favourite white balance. I shot the whole film in cloudy WB to give it some warmth right out of the camera.

The camera´s controls do the same for video as they do for photography.

EOS cameras and lenses are way cheaper to rent than any other video camera. And they are only fractions of the retail price of a video camera that can capture images of similar elegance.

I´m not going to talk about light or sound here. You need at least a sunbounce to add some light to taste. If you go shoot, get yourself someone to do the lighting and someone to do the sound. Don´t use the camera mic or the hotshoe mic if you have dialogue. It´ll sound like from a point-and-shoot-digicam Youtube vid. Plus: if you don´t use USM lenses, the rattle of the focusing motor will register on the sound track REAL loud, even rendering your ambient sound useless.

thanks for reading. comments and questions welcome!

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