“Hey Eric, I’m buying a 7D. What other equipment should I get? What lenses? What’s the best tripod? How do I record audio?”
That’s a pretty regular set of questions I get. It’s the main reason I started the Current Recommendations page. I then counter with “Why are you buying a 7D?” and I get a blank stare.
“Isn’t that what you have? Aren’t they the best?”
I don’t know if things have changed, but it seems like people in production are always buying or about to buy something. Spending a lot of money on digital equipment can be difficult for some because the technology changes so fast. When I bought my 7D, my first thought was, am I going to shoot this enough before the next Canon comes out?
When I first started making videos when I was young, all I had was a crappy VHS-C camcorder and my imagination. I built tripods, booms and jibs (hell, my first crane was me holding the camera and walking up and down a ladder to simulate the effect). But this post isn’t about DIY, it’s about try vs. buy. The current crop of digital filmmakers has forgotten that the motion picture industry is built on a rental system.
Panavision, one of the most recognized names in the industry, is 100% rental-based. You can’t buy a Panavision camera or lens. No studio owns their own Panavisions. You have to rent the equipment from them directly. Cinematographer Matt Herriger was down in LA for a little while last year. He called me and was amazed, “No one owns their own equipment down here. Everyone rents!” Matt was blown away because he’s always owned his own stuff, but was now seeing the other side. There are 3 advantages to the rental system Panavision has:
1. You always get access to the latest technology. If you rented a camera a few months ago for a shoot and you’re now back to rent the same camera for your current shoot, Panavision may have a new and improved model. You get to rent the new one, probably for the same price as the old model.
2. They are always in top notch shape because of Panavision’s in-house maintenance and design. How much regular maintenance do you do on your equipment?
3. You can try new things like lenses for different effects and only pay for a day or so.
This last one is the point of this post. You can TRY different things for cheap. You don’t have to buy something to try it. I believe this is a product of filmmaking costs dropping over the years. Whether it’s the move from Avid to Final Cut Pro, or film to HDSLRs. People want to own everything. I also think it’s from general consumers and photographers entering the motion picture space. They are accustomed to owning everything and don’t really know that renting is an option. I speak with digital filmmakers that many times buy equipment that they’ve never tried before. They go by what online reviews say. That’s tough. I’ve only done that a few times, mostly because I live in an area with no real rental option. But I do try to borrow equipment from friends and colleagues as much as I can, just to see for myself if the equipment is a good fit.
I don’t have tripods listed on my Current Recommendations page, so I get a lot of questions about them. There are a few reasons. One is that there are so many different pods and so many different applications, I wouldn’t be able to cover them all. But the main reason is that I’ve learned that tripods and especially tripod heads are very personal. They’re one of the main contacts the cameraman has with the camera. So there’s a lot of feel involved. So you shouldn’t just buy a tripod, you should try a bunch of different ones on different shoots to find the one that fits best. Then buy it. Don’t be afraid of spending a lot of money. It’s an investment and through renting you’ve found your best match. The great thing about a good tripod head is that it can last damn near a lifetime.
My last point on renting is about 2 specific cameras, the original Panasonic Varicam and the Sony F900. These 2 cameras started the digital cinema revolution. Both have shot countless motion pictures. An F900 with Panavision lenses was first used for Star Wars Episode 2. Many movies are still shot on these cameras because they are so durable and their images are proven. The F900 proved that 1920×1080 HD has plenty of resolution for the big screen (Jim Jannard will claim otherwise but some of the largest grossing movies of all time – Star Wars Ep 2 and 3, and Avatar, where shot at “only” 1920×1080). The original Varicam, at only 720p, proved that film-like colors and gamma, are more important than pure resolution. Because they’ve been around for awhile, they can now be rented for relatively cheap. And since they’re not in high demand anymore, you can also get the rental companies to bend on their rental rates. One friend of mine told me he couldn’t sell his Varicam because it’s 720p and tape-based, and everyone wants 4k and files. He said if he didn’t sell it soon, he was going to have to start shooting his kid’s soccer games with it. What does this mean for you? It means you can get world class cameras for your shoot for dirt. With the Varicam and F900, get an external recorder like the KiPro Mini to bypass the tape recorder, and you have one of the best HD setups ever made (here’s a post on Abel Cine Tech’s blog about using the Panasonic HDX900 with a NanoFlash). If you’re thinking about buying a camera specifically for a shoot (especially if it’s a cheap one), think again. For the same amount of money (or less) you can rent high-end equipment and get a much better result on screen. In the end, the only thing that matters is what’s on screen. People can see the difference between a high-end HD camera and AVCHD. They couldn’t care less whether you rented it or own it.
Eric’s camera suggestions for cinematographers:
– Own a camera (and lenses) that will allow you to practice and hone your craft. For me, this is the 7D. Yes, I could use the 7D on a commercial shoot, but I wouldn’t try to use it for everything just because I have it.
– Retain a working knowledge of other cameras and rent them if your project requires it. If I was hired to shoot out of a helicopter or plane, would I take my 7D? Doubtful. I would get on the phone and try to secure an Arri SR2 with 10-150 lens, or a Sony F900 or Panasonic 3700 Varicam. I would probably skip something like the RED because the necessary lens would be too heavy. This allows me to tailor specifically to the project.
– If you want to rent a camera or other piece of equipment you don’t understand, rent an operator too. You will learn tons from this person. If the shoot is important enough to need a high-end camera, it’s important enough to need someone who knows how to use it.
– Only buy things that you believe you’ll get plenty of work with, and you’ll make the investment back many times over. So buy that camera if a lot of your upcoming work will require that camera. Buy that tripod because you know it and feel good using it. If you can’t see beyond the next project or 2, don’t buy that expensive piece of equipment.
– Keep trying new equipment. The motion picture industry is changing faster than ever, and you need to stay on top of it. Try as many different pieces of equipment and technology as you can. Borrow and rent to make this happen.
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The LIVE ACTION parts of Avatar were filmed using 2×1080 cameras. Only a few seconds of Avatar were purely 100% live action and at the end of the day it was 2k
Thanks for commenting.
I should have clarified this a bit in my post. I borrowed from Stu Maschwitz’s ProLost blog post “Seven Fetishists and Why They Should Relax” and I should have linked it in the article:
“(Avatar) was shot in HD and then cropped for projection on screens the size of football fields. If you see a ‘scope movie that was shot in HD, you’re looking at an image only 800 pixels tall.”
Your point is certainly valid and the same could be said for Star Wars Ep 2 and 3 which also relied heavily on composite work. I don’t know what resolution Ep 2 or 3 were mastered in (or Avatar for that matter). But I will say that if Avatar was mastered in 2k at 2.35:1, that would be about 2048×872. HD res at 2.35:1 crop would be 1920×817. That’s pretty darn close. Anyone would be hard pressed to see the difference between the 2 on the big screen.
BTW, here’s a clip of James Cameron on Attack of The Show! talking about the Fusion 3D camera system. He says the cameras mounted in the rig are not the ones used on the movie. They look like Sony 1500 cameras, which are 2/3″ 1920×1080 HD. I can only assume that the actual cameras used on Avatar were similar.