With rumors of the impending discontinuation of Canon’s venerable 5D Mark II, I felt this would be a good time to look back at the amazing changes that this camera—and those like it—brought to the cinema world. It’s also a good time to talk about some of the other great cameras available to filmmakers today, all of which may not exist were it not for the success of the 5D Mark II.
I went to school to be a filmmaker. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew I would find what I was looking for through the lens of a camera. However, what I found was not the beautiful, soft quality of film, but the harsh reality of digital video. As a still photographer, I was frustrated by my inability to make my video look more like my photos. I didn’t understand enough of the technical side to know how sensor size affected image quality, and how camcorders are vastly different form motion picture film cameras. All I knew was that it wasn’t right. For students and independent filmmakers, achieving the elusive “film look” used to be nearly impossible without a big studio budget. Like myself, most people resigned to shooting their projects on camcorders, cameras designed for news gathering and television, not cinema. While camcorders quickly adapted to filmmaker demands for a 24 frames-per-second mode, they still failed to offer the other aesthetics of traditional film, like control of depth of field and good performance in lower light. Accessory makers began producing 35mm adapters for camcorders to solve the depth of field issue, but this actually decreased the light gathering ability of a camcorder. These adapters were also quite expensive and cumbersome. There simply was no solution to achieving cinema quality video on a modest budget.
Then, acclaimed photographer Vincent Laforet released Reverie, a short film shot entirely on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II—one of the first DSLRs to offer a video mode. This short chalked up over two million views in one week, impressing general viewers and filmmakers alike with its filmic quality. It is widely regarded as the piece that spearheaded the rise of DSLRs as capable movie cameras. Despite the rather large list of limitations on the Mark II’s video mode, the camera went on to sell very well to both still photographers and filmmakers, the latter group being particularly impressed with the depth of field control afforded by the large full-frame sensor. Finally, we small-budget filmmakers had the tool to match our creativity. But the independent market wasn’t the only one impressed with this new camera: the Mark II went on to be used in television and even wide-release feature films, such as 2012’s Act of Valor. Canon took note, and has improved greatly on the 5D with the new Mark III model, offering significant advancements to the video mode. Obviously, other camera manufacturers were not blind to the success of the Mark II, either. Today, every DSLR made shoots high definition video (hence the term HDSLR), and a booming accessory industry has grown up around these cameras.
Interestingly, it was actually Nikon—a company that had never made a dedicated video camera—who introduced the world to the first video-capable DSLR, the D90. The D90’s video was simply too limited to be useful in a professional setting, and despite the camera’s success among still photographers, it never caught the attention of filmmakers. Now, Nikon has jumped into the video game in a big way with the D4 and D800, both of which feature headphone monitoring and a clean HDMI output suitable for uncompressed recording to an external recorder. Nikon also heavily marketed the video side of these new cameras, producing two short films by professional photographers to showcase their capabilities. Nikon may not be a video camera company, but they appear to be in the game for the long haul: I stopped by their booth at the National Association of Broadcasters Show last year, the annual trade show for everything video. It was the first time they had exhibited at the show, and they were definitely planning on coming back.
A couple of years after the arrival of Canon’s 5D Mark II, Panasonic released the DMC-GH2, the flagship model in its nascent but growing Micro Four Thirds camera line. This camera became a sleeper hit among filmmakers, especially those on a tight budget. Thanks to a firmware hack, users were able to boost the bit rate of the video well beyond the limitations of its stock AVCHD codec. Combined with Panasonic’s excellent processing that produced greater detail than anything else in the HDSLR class, the GH2 became the $1000 cinema camera it was never intended to be. I got lucky and picked up a used one for a steal. My favorite feature of the camera is simply the ability to use virtually any other manufacturer’s lens on it, including Leica M lenses (via an adapter). After the success of the GH2, Panasonic retooled its marketing for the new GH3, commissioning filmmaker Philip Bloom to produce a short film, Genesis, designed to display the latest video-oriented features of their new camera, and perhaps garner the same kind of attention as Laforet’s Reverie did for Canon and the 5D Mark II. The GH3 includes several new video-specific features (including a stock high bit rate mode) as a direct result of feedback from GH2 users. It’s safe to say that it’s as much a video camera as a still camera, despite this not being Panasonic’s original goal with the Micro Four Thirds system.
If there’s anything to take away from the above videos, it’s this: they all look good. There are pros and cons to every camera, but learning to work within your limitations—and how to push your gear to its limits—is part of the creative process. Case in point: Vincent Laforet may have wished the 5D Mark II had a 24p mode when he shot Reverie (something Canon added later via firmware update), but that didn’t stop him from making the movie and gaining a huge following because of it.
Shooting video on such “still” cameras has already become the new normal, but the market continues to evolve. As competition increases, cameras continue to get better and technology trickles down to the lower price points. In college, I shot video on my school’s $3000 camcorders and I thought those were expensive—an actual cinema camera can cost ten times that. Now, for not even half that, I can get closer to the “film look” that eluded me for so long. To be sure, HDSLRs are not perfect, but as they improve, the line that separates them from true cinema cameras begins to blur. When you pair these new low cost production tools with the low cost distribution provided by the Internet, it’s easy to see why this is such an exciting time for independent filmmakers. Bringing your creativity to life and sharing it with an audience has never been more in reach. That doesn’t mean it won’t require a great deal of work. Leveling the technical playing field means there are more and more people producing video on the same or similar tools. Simply shooting with a shallow depth of field is no longer enough to get you noticed; everyone can do that now. It also means there are no more excuses, no more saying, “If only I could afford a camera like that.” If you start with a solid vision, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to achieve it with the tools available to you today.