DSLR Filmmaking: High-Quality Moviemaking on a Budget

dslr filmmakingDigital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras have roots going back to the 1960’s when digital cameras were first invented. They have evolved over the decades and as of early 2008 have gained the ability to record video, with newer versions even featuring touch screens. They were and are used primarily for still photography, but their ability to capture high quality moving images in a relatively cheap, convenient and compact fashion have made them popular with both Hollywood and independent movie makers.

DSLR cameras are ideal for making short independent films as well as major Hollywood fare. Big-budget films that were shot with DSLR technology include 127 HoursIron Man 2, and Black Swan among others. One benefit that the camera gives filmmakers is its relatively low cost, which means if it gets ruined while shooting a scene, it’s not that big of a financial loss, and its small size allows it to fit into awkward spaces and is effective in filming POV scenes. Most of these and other films use Canon DSLR cameras, but Nikon, Olympus and Sony are other major electronics companies that produce them as well.

How Does it Work?

The three characteristics that combine to make this camera special are the “Digital” and “Single-Lens” and “Reflex” aspects. “Digital”, as opposed to “photographic”, refers to the fact that the camera encodes video images digitally on a memory card for later reproduction as opposed to film cameras which use focused light to capture moving images on strips of film made from plastic called celluloid. The “reflex” and “single lens” parts refer to the technology that utilizes a mirror and prism to reflect light (“reflex”) that then travels through the “single lens” to an LCD image sensor, which accurately depicts the image that will be filmed. With old cameras, the image being filmed would differ slightly between actuality and depiction.

Benefits and Disadvantages

There are many positive features that make the DSLR camera desirable, but like anything else, there are drawbacks. Here is a list of the pros and the cons of the camera.

Pros

  • The small size of the camera allows it to be lightweight and mobile. A few years ago, before this camera come on to the market, a clumsy lens adapter had to be attached to a camcorder in order to get high-quality film. This setup was heavy, cumbersome and required a dedicated car or van to get a shot.
  • The convenience of having interchangeable lenses is a boon for filmmakers, especially those on a small budget. The lenses and the types shots those lenses got used to be available only to the big studios and are now available to the filmmaker down the street.
  • The ability to get the “film” look is achieved with the DSLR’s feature of recording at 24 frames a second. This is the speed the older more classic cameras film at and give a movie that “film” look, characterized by a subtle motion blur.
  • The relative cheapness of the camera is perhaps the biggest advantage of all. Not only does it become possible for the local aspiring filmmaker to start making that movie he’s been talking about, but it lets bigger-budget films use them for potentially dangerous shooting conditions that were cost-prohibitive or physically impossible before.
  • The fact that the DSLR can shoot at night with low light is also attractive to filmmakers. The light sensors on these cameras are much larger than the older ones, allowing the capturing of vivid nighttime footage.
  • Shallow depth-of-field is another aspect that renders a more “film”-like product. This allows for softer focus as well as the ability to clearly see objects or people in the background, foreground and anywhere in between.
  • Live preview is also convenient. It’s the big LCD screen on the back of the camera that allows you to see exactly what is being filmed. Its beneficial when the person being filmed can’t see where the view finder is, but the filmmaker can adjust the camera to get them into frame.

Cons

  • While the video on these cameras is top notch, the default audio mechanism is sub par. It may be necessary to spend extra money on an extra mic and boom in order for the audio to catch up to the video.
  • Shorter recording times may be problematic when filming an event live and the filmmaker is unable to stop the camera, but with narrative filmmaking, this is not an issue, as the camera will only need to film for a few minutes at a time, then stop to set up for another shot. Maximum recording time for these cameras can be between 20-40 minutes, depending on the type of memory card being used.
  • Overheating may occur as these cameras were made for still photography and filming footage may overload the camera. If you’re filming constantly, it may become a problem, but if you’re starting and stopping regularly, giving the camera a break, this will not be a issue.
  • Ergonomics is another minor issue. Sometimes the LCD screen is in the sun or in some awkward position while filming, making it difficult if not impossible to see.

The introduction of the cost-effective, high-quality DSLR camera to both low-budget independent cinema as well as the Hollywood movie-making machine has created a minor revolution in how films are being made. It is giving the first-time filmmaker without a lot of money or experience the ability to make an affordable yet professional-looking movie, while at the same time giving high-profile movie makers the opportunity to break free from the cumbersome film cameras of the recent past. It allows them physical mobility as well as financial wiggle room, and has commendable benefits. While there are some minor issues with these cameras, overall they are quite remarkable in their affordability and ability to mimic the classic “film” look with digital technology.