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15 Apr My Trip to NAB 2014

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I had the privilege of attending the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Show in Las Vegas last week. It was my first experience at this particular trade show and I was blown away by the sheer size of it. The convention center has over 3,000,000 square feet of space, and you could spend multiple days in just one of the halls and not get to everything. So I moved quickly while doing my best to take in as much as possible within one day– no easy feat.

The central hall held most of the acquisition and production booths, i.e. hundreds of companies and organizations touting thousands of new products aimed at audio/video production, recording, and display. I barely made it through all of the central hall, caught one glimpse of the north hall, and then saved only about an hour for the south hall at the end of the day.

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First Impressions:

Usually, people want to hear about the best new thing at NAB, but I don’t think there’s a single product that I would award as the most exciting or original. To me it seemed that it was a year of expanding and competition. For example, I couldn’t keep track of the number of different 3-axis gimbals I saw, akin to the Movi Freefly, or new quadcopter designs for that matter, a la the DJI Phantom. Both technologies are a year or two established, but now several other companies are seeing the demand and jumping on the bandwagon. Sure there are cheap knockoffs, but the overall quality I saw kept me encouraged that this competition is great for the independent filmmaker. There may not have been as many unique ideas this year at NAB, but the useful ones are continuing to be improved upon and made more affordable.

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Besides the various camera rigs, the other winners in sheer quantity were LED lighting and hard plastic equipment cases. Running a rental business means that I’m far more interested in proper equipment storage and transport than most, so I had to check out every case solution I could. And to be honest, though each company claims that their unique plastic blend is more durable or their latches more user friendly, it’s hard to pick out many differences. The one that caught my eye was a little booth called Jason Cases. Jason makes custom pelican-style cases+inserts for different equipment packages like a Red Epic (seen below), Canon C300, or Movi Freefly. They are extremely functional, sleek, and a rentals manager’s dream.

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Cinema Cameras:

Most of the buzz at NAB this year was directed towards the new cinema cameras. It seems like every other company is jumping in the ring to compete with their own take on 4k (BlackMagic, AJA, JVC, Sony, Panasonic, among others). And although many looked sharp, it’s so hard to say which will succeed and which will fail to find their niche. Many weren’t fully operational at NAB, others sat in glass cases rather than out on the floor for demonstrations, and the rest you still can’t accurately judge without taking the footage home with you to test the workflow and compare on a big screen.

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BlackMagic impressed with a new 4k and new studio camera (seen below) with 10″ iPad-like screens.

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The Arri Amira (below) was one of the more promising new cinema cameras, despite the lack of 4k resolution. I’ve been hearing about this one but finally got a chance to put it on my shoulder and give it a whirl. With the Arri pedigree, Alexa sensor, ProRes recording, and a smaller run-and-gun body, I think the Amira will do pretty well. It was a little heavier than I expected, partly due to the Fujinon lens, but it felt nice on my shoulder and the Arri shoulder mount and top handle are widely customizable. The interface is designed for simplicity with quick toggles and easy to reach programmable buttons, and I was thoroughly impressed with the 1280×1024 viewfinder with separate flip-out screen. The only drawbacks, like I’ve said before, seem to be the high price and perhaps the 2k resolution.

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On the other end of the spectrum, the new AJA Cion (above) left me underwhelmed. Perhaps the jump from creating digital recorders to 4k cinema cameras is nothing to take lightly. This camera seemed to be rushed through production, with an ugly, oversimplified design and half-baked features. The left side of the camera (below) is woefully half-blank, with audio levels stuck randomly in the middle of the empty panel where there would be room for far more controls. It also wasn’t even ready for NAB, as I learned when I went to correct the white balance. Half the menu didn’t even work, and the tech told me that they were still working on that functionality before the release date. Unfortunately they’ll have to make major improvements before then to change my mind on the Cion.

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Products I Liked:

Among the other products that impressed me were the EZ Slider Dolly (below) from EZFX. It’s like a Dana Dolly but extremely customizable and with vertical sliding options (video here).

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PAGlink batteries, for their stackable form factor:

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Newtek (above) put on a pretty good show demonstrating their Tricaster video switchers, and they had to because Livestream’s (below) new switcher, similar to the Tricaster 460, impressed me as well.

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4k LED backdrops (above) and little mini-arc motorized sliders (below).

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Sony all-in-one field reporter bundle (above) and the new Kino Flo Celeb 400q (rear controls seen below).

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More Photos from the Floor:

At the GoPro booth (above). If only they gave away this car with their camera-a-day giveaways…

DP Philip Bloom (below) uses tripods for everything, even laptop stands. I need to work on that 4-buttons-undone look.

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Blackmagic (above) had a popular booth and a ton of buzz going around the show about their new cameras. I didn’t get a chance to try out the new 4k model, though it looks promising.

In a break from the show floor, I attended a session covering Feature Filmmaking in the Age of YouTube (below).

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Giant green cyclorama (above), and the smoothest (and goofiest-looking) steadicam rig out there, built into a segway (below).

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Atomos (above) was definitely one of the more popular booths, partly due to their newest digital recorders (not pictured): the Shogun 4k and Ninja Star.

Most companies selling cameras had little scenes set up to test out their cameras, fully lit with actors and everything. Sony (below) and Canon especially went all out, with the two largest exhibits in the hall and multiple scenes to test with their wide selections of cinema, broadcast, and prosumer cameras.

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Overall, it was a whirlwind of a day. I grabbed more pamphlets and business cards than I know what to do with, only because there was no way I was going to remember all of the great products and people I met. It definitely lived up to the hype as the event for filmmakers around the world, and I’d recommend everyone check out NAB one year if you get a chance. Just try to give yourself more than one day to take in everything, and then hey, if it’s not all that you hoped, there’s far worse places to be stuck than Las Vegas.

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01 Apr Blackmagic Production Camera 4k vs Red Epic

Motionctrl.de recently posted a comparison video between the Blackmagic Production Camera 4k and the Red Epic, shot it in Frankfurt, Germany. It’s not quite a fair comparison, as we’re looking at a $3k camera body vs a $40k body, but it’s nice to see them side by side to get a glimpse at the capabilities of each camera. Check out the video below.

It’s always hard to compare cameras from a few short clips via web-compressed video, but I think it’s clear that the Epic footage looks noticeably better than the BMPC 4k. There’s a distinct gap in the dynamic range, and the Epic comes much closer to the cinema look that everyone’s striving for with their digital footage these days. There’s also the problem of highlight clipping on the Blackmagic, seen at 1:10 (the little purple dot over the sun). This is something that Blackmagic can hopefully fix with a firmware update soon, though it hasn’t happened yet.

Nevertheless, I would say that the BMPC 4k still holds its own against a much more expensive camera body. It’s not an equal comparison to begin with, and the filmmakers note this in the description: “This test is by no means scientific or should prove which camera is better or whatever! The intention was to check, if these cameras will work together as an A and B-Cam setup.” Unfortunately for comparison’s sake, it appears that the filmmakers used different lenses on each camera (noticeable in the lens flaring), and this isn’t even RAW footage from the BMPC- only ProRes. Despite the shortcomings of the comparison, however, the footage from the BMPC 4k still looks great for the price, and could definitely work as a b-cam under tighter budgets.

For the best image quality, renting a camera package like the Red Epic is still the way to go. But while the Epic remains one of the high standards for digital cinema, it’s exciting as an independent filmmaker to see better and better images from increasingly cheaper cameras.

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12 Mar Professional Video right from your pocket!

We utilize a lot of big guns over here at the Studio for our productions. The F5, Epic and C300 are our workhorses and they serve us well but what about the little phones in our pockets?

Like many of you (I hope), I’m a fan of the practical and cost-effective. While I still catch myself sometimes thinking about making purchases that I have practically no need for,  I never forget that I’ve got such incredible tools at my disposal already. More than enough to tell a story: something heartfelt, a piece that other people can relate to.

Exponential improvements in tech is making film making readily accesible to the average consumer/ film maker. Like the recent “1.24.14” video by Apple shot completely on iphones.

http://youtu.be/vslQm7IYME4

The 5s with its slow motion capabilities  as well as its built in video stabilization add a lot of production value in such a small form factor that it can’t be ignored.

Check out this stabilization test I ran with a 5D Mkiii + 50mm 1.2 and my Iphone 5S mounted together on a Manfrotto Rig:

http://youtu.be/jAX-t-CABVc

You can see the results speak for themselves: As suspected, the 5D’s image quality and color range far surpasses that of the Iphone but the small phone camera makes up for it immensely in a way more viewer friendly fashion. (By that I mean less motion sickness and more down with the sickness) Jokes aside, this may not seem like a lot but if you break it down by cost, the MKiii stands at a price point unreachable for many as it goes for around 3.3k right now. Body only. That means you’re missing a lens, memory card, assorted other accouterments that you need to start shooting.

The iphone 5s on the other hand comes in at around 700$ without a contract and is able to shoot video right out of the box @ 1080p and has a slew of apps to edit and “insta” filter it to oblivion . As one anonymous vimeo commenter stated: “theoretically you could take a video from shooting to editing all on your phone”. Not to mention the 5S’ most discerning feature: the abilty to shoot @ 120 fps in 720p.

You can see with a bit of color grading and maybe a little bit more planning before shooting, one can achieve quite cinematic results. Now the average Joe can shoot all the action sports, b-roll, behind the scenes he wants, the possible uses are endless. As mentioned earlier, the slew of apps and now even the release of an anamorphic lens for the iphone, continue to solidify the pocket phone as a viable tool in the film maker’s arsenal.

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28 Feb Certified Tricaster Operator in the House

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Our Rentals Manager Dan Williams just became a Certified Operator for the Tricaster Professional Line this week. He joins just three others in the SF Bay Area on Newtek’s list of certified operators, and is the only one currently certified in the Pro Line (models 410/460/860/8000v2). Dan is available to hire with our Tricaster 460 rental for your next live multi-cam recording or webcast.

The benefits of hiring Certified Operators include:
  • Certified Operators have the competencies you need to get the job done
  • Certified Operators take an exam created by NewTek that is specifically designed to test operational knowledge
  • Produce live events with confidence, knowing you’ve got a quality production team at your disposal

Call the Studio B Rentals department today (510-848-6026) to rent the Tricaster 460, book a certified operator, and lock down all the crew and gear you might need for your next shoot.

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04 Feb Arri Amira Camera Price Announced

Arri Amira

The specs and design of the new Arri Amira camera have intrigued us since its announcement last year, but the lingering question on the back of everyone’s mind has been what the starting price will be. Last week Arri announced the base price point for the Alexa’s ENG-Style little sister, which will ship at different tiers of pricing for your choice of configurations.

The most basic version of the Amira camera body with a viewfinder will be $40,000. This features Rec709 ProRes 422 HD recording up to 100fps. Above that, the middle level configuration will include LogC, ProRes 422 HQ to 200fps, in-camera grading, and a few more extra features. Lastly the high-end version features 2k resolution at ProRes 4444 and custom 3D LUT controls. The lens mount, battery plate, and shoulder pad will be customizable for each option.

The mid-level camera is priced at $45,000 and the highest option is set for $51,500. And perhaps needless to say, these price points only cover the basic essentials, so expect to pay more for other necessary accessories like media, lenses, audio, and camera rigs.

When the Amira was first announced, many questioned the lack of 4k recording capabilities. While 4k would help future-proof the camera, the argument against it was that the Amira has a niche purpose as a run-and-gun ENG-style camera, for documentary or news video rather than for cinema. This and its touted 14+ stops of dynamic range, low-light capabilities, and the pedigree that comes from the Alexa’s success helped to change most critic’s minds. The hope, then, was that the Amira would be a bit cheaper and more affordable to independent videographers.

It’s too early to know if the $40-50k price range is too high or not, but I think it’s safe to say it is well out of most people’s budgets. Most of the popular digital cinema cameras being used today come in well below that, price-wise, but then again Arri has proved with its previous digital camera models that studios will pay the high price for quality. A breakdown of which cameras were shot on in Oscar-nominated films this year proves that the Alexa is quite popular in Hollywood, though that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Expected shipping date for the Arri Amira will be after March 2014. It remains to be seen if it will be a popular camera purchase, but there’s no doubt it will be a hot rental item later this year.

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18 Jan CES 2014: Larger Resolution, Smaller Packages

If there’s one thing to gather from the video products announced at the Consumer Electronics Show last week, it’s that “4k” is more than just a passing fad. All of the major electronics companies seem to be jumping on the bandwagon, with 4k televisions, projectors, and cameras.

For example, among several other companies’ 4k TV announcements, Samsung unveiled 105″ and 85″ bendable 4k TVs, while Sony showed off their new 4k Ultra Short Throw Projector.

Samsung Bendable 4k TV Sony 4k Ultra Short Throw Projector

Both look like really sleek solutions to one of the main problems with 4k footage: the inability to view it at full-rez on your current TV or computer screen. Now, finally, the monitoring options are catching up to 4k cameras like the Red Epic or Sony F5, (though with 8k cameras already in production, it looks like the resolution arms race won’t stop there).

And while camera resolution keeps getting bigger, the size of the cameras themselves keeps shrinking. One of Sony’s big announcements at CES was the FDR-AX100, a handheld consumer 4k camcorder.

Sony FDR-AX100

Although this seems like it could be more of a gimmick to sell cameras based on the “4k” buzzword, the technology is there to where we can get very high quality images from such a small package.

The wild popularity of the GoPro line of cameras speaks to this. With such a small form factor and a high quality image (4k even, at low framerates), the GoPros allow for completely unique perspectives in filmmaking– such as affordable aerial cinematography with the DJI Phantom quadcopter.

DJI Phantom Quadcopter

This year at CES we saw new GoPro accessories like the robotic camera operator Jigabot AIMe and the Steadicam Curve, proving that the range of applications for these tiny cameras is getting wider every day.

 Steadicam Curve

If these trends continue we’ll have cinema-quality 20k footage coming from a pinhole camera within a couple years, but for the time being we’ll gladly stick with 4k, as the sheer volume of recorded data is putting enough stress already on the Studio B servers.

Get with the trends and rent a 4k digital cinema camera or GoPro today!

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14 Jan The Possibilities of Portrait Lighting – guest post by the Perez Brothers

Cinematography is infinite in its possibilities… much more so than music or language. – Conrad Hall

The above quote by Hall (cinematographer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty, etc.) helps to illustrate the collaborative decisions a cinematographer and gaffer must make when it comes to lighting an actor. Whether you are filming a commercial in Silicon Valley or narrative feature, it is essential to have firm grasp of how lighting can affect the audience’s perception of your subject. The following clip from a music video produced for Heia Sun & Stellar Kinematics demonstrates how a single light source can dramatically change one’s perception of the human face:

As seen from the hypnotizing example above, light placement is everything. Placing a light below an actor’s eye-line for example, can offer an ominous or menacing look (imagine a film noir or a horror film). Conversely, placing a light above an actor’s eye-line provides a more natural and potentially beautiful aesthetic (imagine a high-key comedy or commercial). Whatever the cinematographer’s creative preference might be, as a gaffer, I am often asked to light actors in a portrait setting.

While every actor’s face is unique and every project requires a different approach, I have found myself continually returning to one streamlined lighting plan for my portraits.  Several years ago I had the pleasure of working with the McCoubrey Brothers on a series of NFL spots for their Thursday Night Football campaign. With limited production gear available, we devised an effective portrait lighting set up for the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers.  The following is a simplified sketch of the lighting setup we used for the shoot (created by Devon Perez):

Lighitng Plan

Pretty easy right? All that you need for the above lighting plan is three lamps: a key light (one 1K Arri with a Chimera), and two soft backlights (two 2×4 Kino Flos with tungsten bulbs). At the time of the production, I could not quite put my finger on why the setup made the players look so fierce. In retrospect, I realized that the intensity of the portraits came from the way the softback lights accentuated the jawlines of the athletes.

Jawlines are extremely important for both male and female subjects. Accentuating a jawline with lighting can help actors appear to have model-esque cheekbones, while simultaneously make an action hero look twice as sculpted. The following still shot was taken from an upcoming short film that I directed with my brother Devon, entitled The Weigh In (2014):

Weigh In Image

As you can see from the example above (which uses the same lighting setup illustrated in the diagram), the jawline is accentuated and there is a lot of contrast on the face, which provides “tough” looking portrait of our boxing character. Conversely, the portrait lighting plan can be modified to achieve a more natural looking aesthetic for your film. The following still was taken from an internal video for Google that I shot and lit with my brother:

Screen Shot for Google

As you can see from the example above (using the same lighting setup), we were able to achieve a totally different look, yet maintain a strong jawline on our subject. As mentioned previously, the portrait lighting plan can be modified to taste by adding an additional hard backlight or a fill light. For corporate shoots, I will often bring the key light directly over camera (which provides a nice even spread on the face) and compliment the key with an additional fill light or a piece of reflective beadboard.

In conclusion, there is no magic potion or simple formula for lighting every subject. Some portraits are lit with a single source, while others are lit with countless lamps, as Hall said, “the possibilities are infinite.”  However, my hope is that the above article and visual examples can help provide a jumping off point for making portrait decisions on your next project. As I my brother and I continue to make films, we have found it crucial to never stop learning and to continually find ways to push yourself both technically and creativity.  Informed lighting can lead to fantastic projects, never settle for less.

The Perez Brothers are award winning filmmakers and lighting technicians from the San Francisco Bay Area. They are best known for their work as co-directors on music video and narrative shorts.  As they continue their search for representation, their style has often been described as comedic, surreal, and always creative. @PerezBros

Perez Bros Promo

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09 Jan Sony F5 Firmware v3.0 Released

Sony recently pushed out the newest major firmware update for their Sony F5 and F55 cameras. This update includes a few major changes but mostly numerous minor additions to the ever-expanding functionality of the CineAlta line. Both cameras are finally living up to and surpassing the promises Sony teased us with when they were first announced, and proving to be great options for both studio and on-the-go filmmaking.

After updating our F5, the new features we’re most excited about are the additional S&Q (slow and quick) framerates for both 2k and 4k recording, the center scan mode for use with 16mm lenses, the activation of the AES/EBU digital audio inputs, and the ability to playback RAW 4k footage from our AXS-R5 recorder on set. Check out the Sony infographic here for a changelog of features throughout the past year.

Sony F5 Firmware Update

Other notable updates not mentioned in the graphic are additions to the Wi-Fi remote controls, new S-Log color grading space selections and white balance adjustments, and improved user LUT controls. A full list of changes, including both cameras and recorder firmware download links can be found on the Sony forums here.

The two features expected in this update that didn’t make the cut are cache recording and interval (timelapse) modes, which have been pushed back to March (firmware v4.0). Besides those, Sony has given us everything promised and more, and the Studio B production team is excited to continue shooting with the improved functionality of the CineAlta cameras. Call or email today to rent our Sony F5 package, fully up-to-date with the new features of firmware v3.0.

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02 Jan XQD Cards for Sony F5 & F55 – guest post by DP Dennis Hingsberg

XQD Cards

For those looking at alternative options to Sony’s SXS Pro Plus cards (recommended for best performance on the F5/F55), fortunately as of the October version 2.0 firmware release Sony added support for the Sony XQD memory card format. Not only do the XQD cards outperform traditional Compact Flash cards for image capture, but with read/write speeds of up to 180MB/s they support stable workflows at XAVC 4k Intra 4:2:2 (4096×2160/60p, 600Mbps) and mean super speedy transfer rates to your computer via PCIe interface.

To make things slightly confusing there are three series of Sony XQD cards; S-Series, H-Series, and N-Series. The S-Series comes in two speeds (168MB/s and 180MB/s) and the new N-Series is 125MB/s. The H-Series is now discontinued (was 125MB/s). According to Sony; “the S-Series features a Wear Leveling Function, Error Correction Code, Data Refresh Function and other new features to enable secure and stable recording of 4K content, helping to meet the rigorous demands faced by professionals. The N-Series gives consumers an affordable entry-level option that supports consumer 4K shooting.”

A Sony 64GB SXS Pro Plus card will set you back around $850 USD while a 64GB S-Series XQD card costs around $319 for the 180MB/s card and slightly less for the 168MB/s. For the F5 and F55 Sony has indicated that the XQD cards support all codecs: XAVC 4K, XAVC 2K, XAVC HD, HDCAM SR file, MPEG. An SxS to XQD card adapter ($33 USD) is needed to use the XQD card media in the cameras, and an optional USB3.0/2.0 XQD card reader can be purchased for around $38 USD.

TESTING:

I tested both the 168MB/s and 180MB/s XQD S-series on the Sony F55 using a resolution, codec and frame rate that would produce the absolute highest maximum data rate which is 600Mbps when recording 4096×2160/60p in XAVC. A quick look at the Sony F5/F55 data chart shows there is no other combination of resolution, codec and frame rate on the F5 or F55 that exceeds 600Mbps. So it would stand to reason that if the S-Series XQD cards can handle 4096×2160/60p that all other combinations of settings should also work flawlessly.

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If there is still any doubt that these cards have adequate performance to work in various camera shooting modes I suggest that you ignore the codec, frame rate, and resolution, and strictly look at the bitrates you will be working with. For example 4k/60p and 180fps HD in HFR mode have the exact same bit-rate of 600Mbps, which is the highest data rate possible on the cameras. Remember the SR codec maxes out at 440Mbps in 30p mode, and MPEG even lower.

When you look at just how fast these cards are in Mbps equivalence, the XQD cards are up and around near 1440Mbps and 1340 for the 180MB/s and 168MB/s respectively, and although the data rates of the cameras don’t come anywhere close to the max rates of the cards, where you will find the benefit in speed is later during transfer of footage when off loading your footage to your computer or storage network device.

Unfortunately at the time I performed my tests the N-Series were not available yet so I did not have an opportunity to test them. They should definitely be fine for MPEG on the F5/F55 but from what I read they are more geared for consumer use on the newer generation of Sony 4k cameras. During my testing I also did not have a chance to test 4k XAVC and HD MPEG proxy simultaneous recording on the F55.

All and all I think the XQD cards can be a great alternative for the Sony F5 and F55 cameras for personal projects or the budget conscious.

Guest blog post by director/cinematographer Dennis Hingsberg.

Check out his website at: starcentral.ca

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09 Dec Documentary Filmmaker Equipment Survey

PBS’s POV, which focuses on documentary films, has put together a survey of documentary filmmakers and their favorite gear to use when directing and editing. Although the sample size is relatively small, their answers appear to correlate pretty well with the equipment that documentary filmmakers are most often renting from us here at Studio B. As opposed to studio filmmaking, the documentary approach has always favored the lighter, smaller, and cheaper options for their portability and adaptability within the vérité style. We see this in the survey as Canon comes out on top of the favorite camera brands, due mainly to their line of DSLRs and lenses. Sony, Panasonic, and then Other rounded out the list in that order, and while the Sony EX1 is extremely popular, the Canon C300 took the top spot as most popular camera for doc filmmakers.

Canon also took the top brand spot in the lenses category, due partly to the popularity of Canon cameras, and partly to their affordability and versatility. Many other branded cameras are now shipping with EF mount options, or with the ability to adapt to one using a third party mount. The Canon L series zooms provide such a flexible and inexpensive solution to shooting nearly anything, that it is no wonder they are popular with on-the-go filmmakers. Sennheiser and Zoom were the brands at the top of the audio section, which is no surprise due to the industry standard Sennheiser MKH 416 shotgun mic and the Zoom H4n and H6 recorders.

Whether you are a documentarian or you prefer a different style, it’s definitely worth considering what kind of gear others in the industry are using in order to better your own filmmaking. It’s also worth checking out what gear they most often bought vs. rented. The doc style generally allows for cheaper gear and therefore more incentive to buy and keep it with you on-the-go, but we find it noteworthy that they still rent a large portion of their equipment. Check out the survey here, laid out in a useful infographic (click to enlarge):

POV Documentary Equipment Survey

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