Thursday, July 07, 2011

DSLR Advice for Filmmakers

Since purchasing and using our new DSLR package (Canon EOS 60D), we have learned a lot about using these cameras for filmmaking.  Here are ten tips for shooting your first movie using a DSLR (HDSLR) camera:

1.  Know your workflow.  What editing program will you be using?  Will you need color correction in post (most likely)?  Are you shooting separate sound (also most likely)?  Knowing what post-production programs you will be using will dictate the settings for the camera and what additional equipment you will need while shooting--like external audio recorder, filters, boom or lavalier mic, etc.  This also includes your workflow on the set.  Will you be dumping the video files off your camera's memory card as you shoot, or will you purchase a lot of cards to avoid this on the set?

2.  Experiment with lenses.  Just because somebody slams a particular lens on, it doesn't mean that it's bad.  Conversely, if somebody raves about one...well, you get the picture.  Most reviewers of lenses use them for still photography, so they have extremely high standards.  They have to:  high-end DSLR's shoot 18 megapixel (and higher) photos.  But HD video clocks in just under 2 megapixels.  So a lens that might be mediocre for stills can actually excel at video.  So try them (rent them for a day if necessary) before you decide whether they are good/bad and if they will work for your shoot.  Concentrate on getting quality prime lenses instead of zoom lenses, too.

3.  Do camera tests.  This goes hand-in-hand with experimenting with lenses.  Actually shoot sample video with each lens you try--under different conditions (night, sunset, day, indoor, etc.).  You can really determine the best lenses for your movie after doing camera tests.  Here is a sample test of the Canon EF 28mm f/2.8 lens that we use:

4.  Take advantage of advanced picture styles.  There are a lot of different automated styles you can add to your camera to create a desired 'look' for your footage (just Google it).  These make great starting points for you.  Technicolor even offers a free downloadable picture style that is awesome.  If you're going to tinker with your color, etc. a lot in post, though, you will want to start with a 'flat' look.  Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut (Terminator Salvation) suggests setting your camera to:  Sharpness/Contrast all the way down (-4) and Saturation -2.

5.  Prepare for shooting external/sync sound.  This means purchasing a great audio recorder and mic.  There are several great but inexpensive recorders (such as the Zoom H2/H4) that DSLR filmmakers use and can be easily purchased online.  I also suggest using a clapper/slate before every scene; this gives you an audio point you can use to sync up the good sound from your audio recorder to the bad sound from the camera (so audio matches the video).  When you get to post, check out the program Pluraleyes--it makes syncing your audio to your video a snap.

6.  Get a quality tripod and/or shoulder rig.  The advantage of a small camera is that it can go a lot of places and shoot from a lot of angles that a big camera cannot.  The disadvantage is that it's harder to hold steady!  Using a great tripod is a necessity for most shots.  Also remember to pan side-to-side slowly when shooting so you do not get crazy artifacts in your video image.

7. Know your camera.  Get used to using manual settings and playing with the ISO, exposure, etc.  This includes mastering basic cinematographer skills.  There are numerous books, websites, etc. in this regard--and the more you know about your specific camera and how to use it, the better your cinematography in your movie.  You will also learn how to deal with aliasing, moire, and rolling shutter...

8.  Don't forget about the extras.  This includes lights, additional mics, extra memory cards and batteries, filters, better audio adapter, etc.  These can add up to cost even more than your camera so allow for this in your film budget.

9.  Time is still money.  Though you aren't paying for film, you will probably still be paying for everything else.  So staying on a reasonable shooting ratio (amount of takes per shot) is still a priority for shooting.

10.  Take advantage of pre-production.  Lock down your script, learn how to use your gear, and know the logistics of every shooting day prior to getting on the set.  It will save you numerous headaches, make your cast and crew love you, and enable you to create a quality product.

Hope these tips help!  Happy shooting!