I get into this great debate with my writing and directing partner Craig DiFolco all the time. When initially conceiving of authentically independent films, Craig crafts them for a truly independent feel, and therefore they can conceivably be shot on any type of camera – literally we shot a couple of episodes of a pilot web-series that we never aired, called “Imaginary Friend Request” that we shot on the iPhone when the HD 1080i feature first came out. The concept was based in the web world, and therefore the iPhone seemed well suited.
There’s something incredible about shooting a feature on-the-cheap with the Canon 5D Mark iii, with the beautiful lenses that are part of the kit. The images are beautiful, and the great lenses allow such beautiful photography. The super-intriguing feature “Green” perfectly captures the 5D – authentic, hip, almost doc, beautiful rack-focuses, powerful closeups and great static mediums (to me, the power of the 5D). I feel like the 5D images always evoke the visions of “memories.” You always have to find the right camera to suit the story, the vibe, and the overall trajectory for the film. Like this trailer for the 2011 film by Sophie Takal, Green.
As we’re writing and conceiving of all of the possibilities of things to shoot, from small to large, Craig and I often have a healthy debate about just how small to go – and the conversation always revolves (in the indie world) around choosing the right camera for the job. There are so many benefits to each, but you have to find the right one that’s suitable to your film (and budget).
When approaching your upcoming film, you always have to ask yourself what kind of film am I trying to make, and then chose your production and camera accordingly. If you want to shoot something like Tiny Furniture or Green or For Lovers Only with an indie feel, idiosyncratic design, a great DSLR could do very nicely. Or a step up, a C100 or C300 (This one can often match the RED when cut in). The camera and cinematographer you chose will inherently bring the images to life with a particular style. Your DP will probably want to rig it out a bit more, and add filters, matte box etc. to bring up the quality of the image you will see in your film. Here’s the thing ( I would say): if you’re going to all the trouble to make the film, spending the money, gathering actors, creative energies, a great crew…wouldn’t you want to shoot on the best camera available? If all you can afford is the 5D or another camera, shoot it – it will look great, and doing is always better than not doing.
But if you can, I always say upgrade. The better the camera, the more options you have – better ISO (you can shoot in lower light), higher image quality (5K and it keeps going up), and more theatrical potential. But only do this as long as the camera doesn’t cripple you technically or your budgetary means. Ultimately, the value of your film is what you see on screen forever-and-ever when you watch it. However, and to Craig’s point, sometimes you don’t need all of the high-res and rigging, because you just want to shoot. You want to shoot in a bar with your friends undetected and have a scene that could be gorgeous and no one would know you were shooting there (point taken, Craig!). There is such pleasure in that freedom, and if you know what you’re doing, you can capture scenes and moments that would otherwise be un-capturable (with a larger camera). Gorilla, you could call it, but it would sometimes take millions of dollars to replicate that level of “authenticity” that you could capture with your 5D hidden in some corner with some lavs.
But, if you are going to shoot announced, and with all of the proper teams in place, if you can rent a RED ONE/EPIC/SCARLET, do it. If you can hire a DP that has a RED package as part of working with them, and that person is the right person for the job, hire them! Cameras are always advancing and changing, and your great DP should know what to do and which camera to select – but also it’s good to know what cameras are used for what, and what they look like, and therefore what your film will look like. A good DP will know how to use each camera to its strong suit and create a beautiful film. Doing this raises your chances of actual and legitimate distribution, as your film will be pro and look beautiful. Ben Wolf used nothing but natural light for our feature The Last Day of August and he’s an expert at using natural light to tell that kind of internal and personal story – a lovely balance of natural camera and story.
Working with the 5D takes time (no auto-focus as of yet, though they just came out with one that has auto), working with the RED takes more time, and shooting a big budget film on 35mm takes even more time. Filmmaking is always about trying to keep everything in balance. You have to keep things within budget, in time, while never sacrificing quality. Easy, right?!
On the other side of the balance scale, if you have the time to shoot a scene again and again using all of the latest gadgetry, do it until it’s perfect! I was incredibly lucky to work on Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street as an actor (a broker who joins Jordan Belfort’s – aka Leonardo DiCaprio’s – company, Stratton Oakmont). I’m the guy that Leo grabbed by the neck and referred to as his “killer.” Good times! We shot all of the office scenes in a leased 1990s-era office building in Mamaroneck, New York over the course of two months. Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Crash, 8 Mile), are obviously artists of the highest degree, legendary filmmakers, and have every tool in their arsenal. They made that office take on so many emotions by they way they shot it.
The famous “Scorsese shot” made infamous by the Ray Liotta’s entrance into the club in Goodfellas (you remember it, they entered through the back way, steadicam-ing through the kitchen, meeting the crew along the way) was also in Wolf of Wall Street. There’s a hand off shot of elaborate choreography where DiCaprio and Jon Favreau are having a walk and talk, and the steadycam peels off to follow my back as I enter into an office where the SEC is working, and freezing in the air conditioning. There’s an exchange, the camera follows me out through the doors to a handoff where we find Matthew Rauch and Jonny Tchaikovsky (brokers, too) on the phone, and finally reveal the whole office of over 200 extras, culminating in the discovery of DiCaprio once again, now in the middle of the crowd, where he delivers a great speech directly to camera. Not an easy shot to achieve. It took two days, with probably more than twenty takes. But an incredible use of the camera (steadycam) used to its fullest capacity – a choreography of over 200 cast and crew, led by the incredible Adam Somner (AD), to achieve a balletic dance of brokers and camera, leaving the viewer with the feeling of being seduced by the uber slick office and Belfort.
We don’t have behind the scenes shots of the filming of the long-take specifically, but here’s some fun behind the scenes footage of Wolf, with the steadycam, the scorpio crane, etc.
For you, it might be a long shot to try something like Scorcese’s long shot. (See what I did there?) (Sorry.) But, if we’re being honest, a lot of what we do is a long shot, so this is the fun part. Instead of looking at your parameters as limitations, look at them as the perfect playground to fully invest in- if what you have is a pro-bono cast of two, a 5D and a house in the woods, use the “limitations” as a gift to make something wonderful, and if you have a cast of 200 and Leonardo DiCaprio…well, make Wolf! Limitations are challenges within which you can succeed. You may not have 200 actors and a four 35mm cameras. But you’ve chosen the right camera, the right lighting, and the right actors for your job- so you can make something amazing.