Going into production on my second feature film “Splitting Bethany”, I had a tough time deciding which camera to use. Unlike my previous feature “Footsteps” which was shot on RED MX, on this film I did not have a dedicated cinematographer and I decided to DP the film myself. This was an amazing experience as it allowed me to work with the actors and the scene in a way that was very organic and uninterrupted. But still, going into production there was definitely some stress as to how to pull off the role as a DP while also directing. Ultimately, I felt that the answer to finding the right balance between Directing and Cinematography would be found in the right camera choice.
While in development for the film, I had initially decided on using the Blackmagic camera to shoot it on. It made the most sense as the image quality from it is astonishing, the price was right and the size and usability of it seemed perfect for a bare bones setup. As the months went on and my BMCC never arrived, I had to start thinking of other options. I still hadn’t made a decision on the camera until about a week or two before our first shoot day.Â At the time of pre-production and into production, I had a colleagues RED MX package sitting in my closet. In fact it was the same camera I shot my first feature with. An amazing camera, but massive and difficult to operate without both a first and second AC. I was extremely tempted to just use the RED MX and deal with all of the headaches in production that would be associated with trying to use that camera with a minimal camera crew. As tempting as it was though, I quickly realized that even if I could pull if off, the end result of the film would suffer. Sure, I would have a feature shot in 4.5K, but it would mean missing a lot of shots, longer days, less takes and a longer post process.
So I was back to square one, with no camera in mind still. After a lot of back and forth – considering rental options or purchasing other cameras (such as an FS100), I ended up realizing the answer was in front of me the whole time. The GH2. I had used it on so many really low budget projects, films, commercials, etc., that I didn’t even think about it initially. I almost had a stigma attached to the camera and believed I should only use it for quick turnaround, small jobs. But a lightbulb went off at some point and I said to myself that I had to commit to shooting on this camera. It would mean more money for other aspects of production that were more important than added lines of resolution, and it also meant a simplified post workflow.
In the end, it was the right choice. I managed to move ahead with the GH2, attempting to pull out every last bit of detail from the sensor as possible. I knew it’s limitations and it’s strong points going into the shoot and that really helped as I planned many shots around the camera, making sure I didn’t push it too hard in low light or create too many intricate pans/slides.
While shooting, I primarily was on sticks and used a Sachtler ACE tripod. I would estimate about 70% of the film is on the tripod. This is a really great tripod and fluid head for the price. The legs aren’t amazing, but I could live with that – it just meant adding some weight to the bottom on certain shots. But the fluid head worked wonders for me. It really helped to get some beautiful camera moves relatively easily. On the last day of production, one of the legs of the tripod just fell off (apparently there is some type of glue on there that didn’t hold up well in the cold weather). But it was repaired for me the next day and has been working beautifully ever since.
For the shots that weren’t on the tripod, I would either use a small shoulder rig (from jag35), or have it on my Cinevate Slider. Both of these products worked perfectly for the shoot. The jag35 shoulder rig is actually quite well built considering the price/size, but I had wished that I purchased the extra counterweight for the rig as it was often quite front heavy, especially with a big lens on there. I would typically have the rig attached to the tripod directly so I was able to easily pop it off to use on my shoulder when needed. The Cinevate slider was amazing. I’ve written about it in previous blog posts, but it really was a workhorse and possibly the best piece of gear I used on the shoot. I didn’t do any steadicam or dolly shots as I knew going into the production that our budget/crew could not accomodate for it and as such I blocked out the scenes in a way to avoid needing that type of support.
My girlfriend with the camera:
While shooting, I used a pretty large mix of lenses. I have my own kit (which is very eclectic to begin with), but also rented some Zeiss EF mount lenses throughout the shoot that were used for about half of the scenes. I found the GH2 to work beautifully with almost any lens I threw on it. Although they of course all have their own unique properties, the GH2 does a great job of making everything feel very uniform. Right now I am in the DI/Color Grading stage of post and I’m finding it a breeze to match shots from scenes, even when I used three completely different lenses.
When selecting lenses to rent or use from my own kit, the most important element was that they were really fast. I think the slowest lens I used may have been a 2.8, but almost everything was a 1.4, 1.2 or 1.8. This was because I wanted to move quickly and minimize the need for lots of lighting. I shot the entire film with a small lowell lighting kit. The kit consists of 4 lights ranging from 250w to 750w. I did use a china ball on a few shots as well (which worked beautifully), but for the most part I aimed to use mostly natural lighting and just use the minimal amount of lights necessary to emphasize the existing lighting conditions. By doing this, it allowed us to stay light on our feet which was one of my primarily goals going into production. I literally was able to fit all of our production gear into the trunk of my car, and I’ve got a 2 door.
So after a few weeks of shooting continuously with the camera in all sorts of conditions – interiors, exteriors, low light, freezing cold, underwater, etc. I was really able to understand just how capable this camera really is. All in all, one of the biggest pro’s to using this camera were the fact that I was able to be extremely spontaneous when shooting. That was really important to me going into production as I wanted to do lots of montages and we shot at many locations guerilla style without permits, so having the ability to move quickly was essential. The cost of it was another huge benefit as it is practically free to shoot on this camera as the camera itself is so low cost and the memory cards it shoots on are very inexpensive as well. Another huge plus was that our DMT had it really easy. The entire film fits onto a small two terabyte drive that sits on my desk right now, and that is a pleasure after working off of multiple externals from my last film shot on RED.
There were a few negatives to shooting with this camera as you would imagine. Possibly the biggest negative was unfortunately the perception of the camera by cast and crew. Although no one questioned the camera at any point and in fact everyone seemed impressed with the footage, there was a noticeable difference in the feeling on set between this and my last feature. And I attribute a lot of that to the camera. When you have a skeleton crew and small cast with little or no experience with the camera, it can look to them like a very amateur tool. This really shouldn’t matter and it doesn’t matter to me, but the reality is that when people see a 30lb RED camera in front of them, all of a sudden they feel like their on a film set, where as when theres an SLR smaller than the one their parents probably own, it is a cause for concern for some cast/crew. Again this is a point that shouldn’t matter, but sadly those that don’t have an understanding of cameras are often unaware of what is possible with any camera if you know how to work it. The only other main downside to the camera is the fact that there isn’t much room to grade the footage in post. The GH3 in this respect, I find to be quite superior to the GH2. The GH2 makes a great image that looks phenomenal out of the camera, and while you can tweak the colors a certain amount in post – you really can’t push it that far or it starts to fall apart. Had I not been spoiled by shooting/grading lots of RED and Alexa footage this past year, I would have been more careful about my white balance as there are some scenes that were shot warm that are now a little tricky to cool down and get looking the way I want them to. So in that one respect, the GH2 can actually increase your time on set and in post as on set you may want to take more time setting the look and in post you’ll need to work extra hard to correct it.
Here are a couple of stills from the film:
No camera is perfect and every camera has its positives and negatives, but if I had to go back, I would have chosen the GH2 all over again. Most people that have seen both of my films notice no quality difference to their eye between this and my last film shot on RED. The trained eye can of course spot the differences, but the audience is concerned with story over resolution. Tt really goes to show that it isn’t the camera, it is what is in front and behind of it. And sometimes working with a camera like the GH2 is a great excercise because it forces you to make important, detailed conscious choices about what you’re doing. And when you move onto a RED or Blackmagic for another shoot, all of a sudden it seems unnaturally easy to get the look you want – especially in post.
Here is the teaser trailer that was released last month:
UPDATE: If you’re in the market for DSLR options for you film, check out my recent post on my top 5 DSLRs for video.Â And if you’re torn between the GH2 and GH3, here is my recent comparison between the GH2 and GH3.