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Budget Documentary/ENG Style Rig


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#1 Buster Blakeney

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Posted 20 May 2011 - 07:56 PM

Hey Everybody,

New to the forums, though I don't know why. I've been involved in film in some capacity since I was twelve, now I'm making the transition into professional AC/Writing/Directing work. But this place seems great so far, and I'm happy to have joined a community where there seems to be a large quotient of serious know-how.

The reason I'm writing is because I need to figure out what the best type of rig will be to shoot an upcoming project. It's feature length, Cinéma vérité-style (note: I mean realistic, not shaky), and we plan on running two cameras. It's a fictionalized combat doc where the protagonist is doing the brunt of the filming, so he should have a practical, flexible, and lightweight setup. Cheap would be good too. I'm not saying sub-2k, but keep in mind, we're trying to keep the TOTAL production cost around (preferably below) 50k.

My first thought initially ran to a DSLR ENG Rig, but there will be a lot of movement as necessitated by the plot and action, and shutter roll seems unappealing. Also, the fact that you can just shoot as much tape as you can carry without having to import until post is appealing. We want the production to be as agile as possible, because it'll be by the seat of our pants. The production will be supplemented by weapon- and helmet-mounted GoPro Hero Cameras.

I'd love to see what the consensus is for the ideal set-ups. The alternate camera rig will likely be appearing on-camera frequently, so we want it to be operable by actors if there are certain shots that mandate them being in there with a live camera. The DP will, of course, set up aperture/stock/lens settings, but if we need to put it in an actor's hands we want to be able to say "GO SHOOT!" They will be briefed on cinematography and opping in pre-production.

As far as the rigs go, we're looking for flexibility over beauty, but banding, shutter roll, etc. isn't going to be acceptable.

So there we go. All comments, input, and suggestions welcome and appreciated.

Thank you all very much in advance.

Respectfully,

--Buster Blakeney
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#2 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 20 May 2011 - 08:28 PM

I'd rent something like a VariCam or an F900 as opposed to buying anything, honestly....
If I was to buy maybe something like an EX3, as you can get goot run-times on those cards.
Another option, though costlier, would be the AF101 and or F3 (rental there, of vourse), but I don't particularly find those cameras too handhold.
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#3 Buster Blakeney

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Posted 20 May 2011 - 08:47 PM

Thanks for the pointers, Adrian. Those definitely seem like viable options.
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#4 Vincent Sweeney

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 01:38 AM

Id stay away from the 35mm sensors if you want more of an ENG set-up. You will have headaches with focus that will drive you crazy when you blow up those shots in editing. I agree on the EX3 or 1, great smaller camera with real audio support, unlike a DSLR.
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#5 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 02:13 AM

Another alternative is the Canon XF 300, it's 1/3" but accepted by the BBC for HD productions and they're buying them to replace their Z1 cameras. Of course, you mightn't like the small sensor look.
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#6 Buster Blakeney

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 11:10 AM

Thanks for the response, Vincent. All the options are appealing, with VariCam/F900 rentals being about 2000/wk that puts us in at 12k for our production's two cameras. The downside is they're limitingly big, and don't quite allow for the same run-and-gun flexibility we'd be ideally looking for. So EX3 may be the way to go.

Brian, checked out the XF300 - looks good but when I saw a comparison of the EX1 and the XF the Canon looked much, much flatter and not quite as punchy. Thoughts?

Thanks for the replies, guys. Appreciated.
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#7 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 11:13 AM

While they may seem bigger, I can guarantee you after a day of running 'round with it on your shoulder, v another camera in your arms, you'll be less tired ;).
I really like the EX series of cameras, a lot, and tethered to something like a KiPro or the like you can get respectable quality off of the HD-SDI. I never really liked the way Panasonics or Canons handled things, image wise. That's just me.
Go with what you think will get you closest to the look the production needs. Try not to buy anything, unless you can re-sell it quickly later on, and remember, a camera is only ever as good as the people behind it.

Another thing to look into for the comfort of the shooters, regardless of camera, is the easy rig. Very nice piece of kit.
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#8 Buster Blakeney

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 11:28 AM

Adrian,

I suppose I am overestimating the importance of compactness. I keep forgetting we're not ACTUALLY shooting a combat documentary. We could always just use some burned-out HVX and put it in the actor's hands for his "set-up". But yeah, I guess it wouldn't make sense to buy for the production given that the new standard is already upon us. Maybe a pair of Scarlets. With the rails and grips that RED integrates it might actually make a lot of sense.

And yes, I agree, I got to try out an EasyRig with a fully-loaded RED while I was in Serbia last year, and it made it SO much more manageable. It couldn't work enough magic to make me a steady shooter, though - my tests were all over the place. :)

What are your thoughts on the Scarlet? I know it's not out yet, but from what can be inferred does it seem like a good solution? Or would DOF be unmanageable for real visceral stuff with that fat sensor? I guess anything can be done with a capable cinematographer, but Scarlets seem like they would be a sound investment and lightweight and manageable enough to let us flex our action muscles.
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#9 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 11:36 AM

Brian, checked out the XF300 - looks good but when I saw a comparison of the EX1 and the XF the Canon looked much, much flatter and not quite as punchy. Thoughts?


Cameras can vary quite a bit depending on how you set them up inside the menu. I've not used the XF300 in anger, but from one production I've seen, it might need some tweaking to get the best settings.

I wouldn't make near term plans based on the Scarlet, it doesn't look like it'll be available until late this year and I suspect you might have to wait for delivery with all the demand for it.
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#10 Buster Blakeney

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 11:38 AM

I suppose when released they'll be available for rental... For 1500 a day.
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#11 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 12:04 PM

Can't speak to a scarlet as it doesn't yet exist.. who knows what it'll be, aside from expensive. I'd also say you'd want something for HD with a zoom, from the sounds of what you're after hence my suggestions of just going full ENG rigs.
As for what the scarlet might do; well I'm not RED person by any means, but could be nice. I'd probably rather opt for an Alexa if I'm venturing into the D-Cinema realm, unless i really needed resolution, then I'd go Epic.
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#12 Buster Blakeney

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 12:18 PM

Adrian, what do you think of the AF100? Here's specs. Any hands-on with it? Looks light and flexible (only 3.5 lbs). Price is great, too. I don't have any experience with 4/3 though.
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#13 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 12:26 PM

I havn't used it myself, but I wandered into a shoot on it here in Phila. It looked nice and the price is good. My concern is the AVCHD codec, for one, and lenses for two. Focus breaths on the stock lenses, but with an adapter to PL mount could be quite useful. I'm not sure on the SDI output off hand, I want to say it's only 8 bit, which is a limitation if you want to break it out into something recording a better signal/for green screen, but you should get hands on with it, if you can. I'm sure they'll be some owners out in Bay area and rental houses/sellers who'd let you play around.
I have also heard that out of the box, the images are kinda lack-luster, like the HVX was until you dial in your scene settings. I had the same trouble with my EX1, in fact when I first got it, so make sure you play with some settings.
I'm also glad the thing came out so we can get over this DSLR hump.

As for 4/3 I like the idea that I can choose any lenses I want. I like that It's a DoF between S16mm or 2/3" (about the same) and 35mm 3 Perf. I feel it'll be enough to throw things out of focus easily to hide/direct the eye, but not too much that WFO you're killing your 1AC.
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#14 Buster Blakeney

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 12:45 PM

It is 8-Bit, but forgive me, I'm still a bit new - where in the pipeline does the SDI output come into play? There will be very little, if any, greenscreen work but it's an eventuality I'd like to be prepared for. I agree about the DSLR "Revolution", though. I bought one, and I want my fixed lens tapedeck back. Great for misty valleys and stark deserts, but trying to pull textures out of the antialiased mess you get is like trying to pull teeth out of a toothless man.

But that's an excellent point as to the flexibility of the format. The kind of documentary feel we want to give doesn't lend itself to shallow focus, but it is a narrative film so it sounds like a perfect compromise. Why were the codec/lenses a problem? Perhaps firmware will be able to fix the former?

Thanks for all your pointers, man. Really appreciate everybody's comments so far.

EDIT: Panasonic's AVCHD's HE mode is 24 Mbps; PMW F3's codec is 35Mbps. I take it that's a pretty significant difference.

Edited by Buster Blakeney, 21 May 2011 - 12:50 PM.

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#15 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 12:53 PM

Well the SDI output is for more than just green screen. Lets say you have a high detail scene (leaves, for example) which can notiriously well break a codec, in such cases you can output the HD-SDI to ProRes boxes, like the KiPro, record in a higher quality format. Also by recording to pro-res directly you save the log and transfer set later on in Final Cut pro.
I have issues with any long GOP format, like AVCHD where it'll break apart. It's the nature of the beast, you know. That said the current implimenttions, like that in the Af101 and the XDCam series is pretty good and offers a lot of stability. Now, also sometimes you'll want more information from the sensor, if you need to color correct later on. ONce you go to the internal codec, you're limited in your color correction, there's only so much information there. By going out through the SDI you get more information from the sensor. Ideally you'd get 10bit (1024 values) instead of 8 bit (256) but just by being able to record more information from the camera, aside from throwing it away with the codec, you're well on your way to more post flexibility.
Another instance, as mentioned, is green screen, or anything where you'll be putting in some CGI.

\For lenses, the stock lens has issues with speed and breathing. I haven't had hands on to see witness marks, but I'd bet they aren't too much good for shooting. Another issue will be interfacing it with a follow focus unit. Again, I can't recall exactly how the lens was built off hand right now; but a few moments with it in front of you and you'll see.
Now, since ithe lens is removable, this isn't too big of an issue. With adapters and rentals, you can get pretty much any lens you want on there.
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#16 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 01:29 PM

I suppose when released they'll be available for rental... For 1500 a day.


The Scarlet is a fixed zoom 2/3" camera costing a few thousand dollars, so it should be in the EX3 rental price range.
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#17 Buster Blakeney

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 01:57 PM

The Scarlet is a fixed zoom 2/3" camera costing a few thousand dollars, so it should be in the EX3 rental price range.


If it DOES come out by the time we start shooting, what would be the advantages of an EX3 or an AF100 when it hits the scene? Just read it's something like a 1400Mb/s bitrate at 3K with shooting modes of up to 120 FPS. Seems pretty killer. Wonder if the lens on it is going to be a detriment or an advantage.

--B
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#18 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 04:16 PM

If it DOES come out by the time we start shooting, what would be the advantages of an EX3 or an AF100 when it hits the scene? Just read it's something like a 1400Mb/s bitrate at 3K with shooting modes of up to 120 FPS. Seems pretty killer. Wonder if the lens on it is going to be a detriment or an advantage.

--B


It depends on what you want to do and how good the lens is re breathing etc. For documentary work it'll cover most of the work, especially with wide angle and tele converters.

On paper, it should handle highlights better, on the other hand the RAW workflow may cause problem for some types of productions needing a fast turn around.
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#19 Buster Blakeney

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 07:19 PM

It depends on what you want to do and how good the lens is re breathing etc. For documentary work it'll cover most of the work, especially with wide angle and tele converters.

On paper, it should handle highlights better, on the other hand the RAW workflow may cause problem for some types of productions needing a fast turn around.


Good deal. Well, I'm not holding my breath for the Scarlet, but the RAW part doesn't bother me. I've shot on RED before and had no problems with the DI workflow, and post deadlines aren't too rigid. But after watching Philip Bloom's excellent comparison of a few of the cameras mentioned above, I keep going back to the AF100. Just seems solid all around. It doesn't perform quite as well as the PMW F3, but it holds up against the FS100 pretty well and the price point is tough to beat. Perhaps rental will end up being the way to go, but I like the idea of the agility of having two AF100s for the cost of one F3.

Thanks.
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#20 Jaron Berman

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 09:14 PM

No offense to RED, but the idea that you must own gear is ridiculous. The current trend of "buy everything" was one of their great innovations in the motion picture world. Sure their products offer a lot of bang for the buck, but step back and look at your initial statement - you want to write and direct - and go from there. If your business isn't camera rental, and you don't have a busy production company always shooting on the exact same format, it probably doesn't make sense to own a camera. The big issue is delivery - there doesn't exist one camera that works in every situation... and the overall price of a "camera" in shootable form is exponentially higher than the pricetag you see on RED or any other manufacturer's website. So buying cameras that work for this project but don't fit your next project... not the best investment. Needless to say - at that total budget with those specific requirements, I'd steer as far away from anything RED as possible. To make the most of that footage, you'll be spending a mint on post and storage, which alone could eat half your budget. Not to mention lenses, accessories, etc...


Ok, some key words I pulled out from the initial post:
realistic, not shaky, two cameras. practical, flexible, and lightweight setup. Cheap would be good too. a lot of movement, without having to import until post, agile as possible, by the seat of our pants. flexibility over beauty, banding, shutter roll, etc. isn't going to be acceptable.

Firstly, a DSLR is about the worst possible choice. It fails essentially every one of your requirements. Scarlet may or may not exist at the time you shoot, and by the time you make it "shootable," it'll likely cost a lot more to buy or rent than a better and more completely configured system.

You have described, to the letter, an ENG camera. Those letters conjure up ugly and awful things in a lot of peoples' minds when it comes to "film-style" production, but truthfully the picture from GOOD eng cameras can easily rival most footage shot on "superior" cams like RED. By definition, ENG cameras must be very high quality, FAST, comfortable, stable, flexible, and usable in harsh environments.

Realism - thats your own opinion, means many things to many people... Not shaky - a proper shoulder-mount camera will be infinitely more stable than a jerry-rigged mini camera, and the ergonomics make it SO much more comfortable to shoot all day. It's not uncommon on reality shows to go through 7-8 discs (43min) in a day, ALL handheld. Two cameras - ENG cams are built to be jam-sync'd timecode from one to another - makes post a LOT easier to group clips and base your script notes on time of day. Each camera also records 4 channels of audio - with 2 cams you can "poor man multitrack" your sound if necessary - and the audio circuits of most ENG cams are light-years better than any DSLR or RED. I.e. they can be used for dialog recording.

As for look - you should get your white balance correct on set, but if that's done you actually do have quite a bit of flexibility with your image in post. Most current ENG cams record 4:2:2 color space, and if the built-in codec isn't good enough you can strap a better recorder on...but you may be pretty surprised at how incredible the image can look onboard. A lot of it is glass too - modern HD glass for 2/3" cams can be stunning - I prefer the Canon ENG-style lenses over the Fujinon for this type of stuff, but there are plenty of options. I LOVE the canon 21x7.5 and 22x7.6. They offer focal length flexibility you can't dream of on "large" sensor cams. (HDx35 aside). 2/3" lenses give you insane flexibility and speed. 22x!

Make sure to get a CCD cam if skew bothers you - EX3 will show the same kind of skew as RED, less than 5D but still noticeable. Sony F900, F800, or Panasonic Varicam will not skew. Overall, my favorite cam right now in that type of environment is the Sony PDW-F800. It's XDCAM disc based - you get the advantages of tapeless but also the archivable nature of tape (and no careful ingest every day). The cam automatically writes proxy video to the disc or to a USB stick, so you can edit your dailies immediately without risking your footage. You alluded to it, but there is a LOT to be said about finishing the day's shoot and going home. No downloading, archiving, backing up, etc. XDCAM discs are incredibly durable. And the F800 shoots true full raster 1080p 4:2:2 at a higher bitrate than the EX cams.

Before dismissing the ENG option based on "book rates" online, call around to as many rental houses as you can, especially those in large markets like LA. You may be surprised to find out that they'll work with you on price and make a very complete package that fits your budget. F800 is MY favorite, but Coppola still shoots his films on F900... say what you will about the films themselves, but they are VERY well shot, on "outdated" equipment. Many many rental houses have F900's sitting on shelves collecting dust - your rental could be low but better than the cam sitting there.
The big gotcha of buying - all the little things. Matteboxes, filters, sticks, cables, brackets, rods, LENSES - all these things are sometimes "thrown in" from rental houses but cost tens of thousands of dollars to buy when you add them up. Good ENG lenses can cost $40,000 +, but you'll pay a proportionally tiny amount in rental if you rent the whole package. And also don't forget service - if a camera goes down or something breaks on equipment you've bought - you're out of luck. But rental houses exist for service - most will bend over backwards to keep your production on schedule, even if it means subrenting to swap out a piece of gear that's not working for you.

Anyways, before ruling out 2/3" cams, go demo some or watch some well-shot footage (youth without youth, slumdog). You may be shocked at how great they look, and how well they fit your specifications.
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