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Affordable HD: High Quality, Low Cost

By Christine Bunish

Shooting HD has never been more affordable. Cost-effective, high-performance HD cameras from Canon, GoPro and Panasonic have provided solutions to budget-challenged projects from California to Uganda.

Collage
[ Left to Right ]
• Chris Leavell used a GoPro HD HERO to capture Lucas Euser on his favorite ride in
Napa, California for CyclingNews.com.
• Equipping the camera crew with Canon EOS 5D Mark II HDSLRs ensured a highenergy
production for Gary Allan: Live at The House of Blues.
• Matt Katsolis (bottom) and Austin Blasingame (top) in Danita, Uganda with the children of the women
who make jewelry for Light Gives Heat, the organization featured in Moving On.
Photo by: www.lightgivesheat.org
• Director Frank Matson used GoPro HD HERO cameras during the production of the mountain-biking feature, Race Across The Sky.

Canon 5D Goes Up Close with Gary Allan at the House of Blues
“I think Canon introduced the affordable HD camera category!” declares LA-based DP Rhet Bear (www.rhetbear.com). “The Canon EOS 5D Mark II HDSLR was the first camera I know to have a full-frame sensor that recorded HD video for under $3,000. Many people already had Canon lenses so, for a small investment, you instantly had an HD camera package.”

Looking up at guitar player
Extreme flexibility of movement with Canon
EOS 5D Mark II HDSLRs allowed Rhet Bear and
his camera crew to shoot moments like this
during Gary Allan: Live at The House of Blues.

He reports that “everyone from directors to PAs has a Canon camera on the set now, even on film shoots or shoots with more expensive [video] cameras. I always have my 5D or [Canon] 7D with me.”

Bear's first major project with the 5D was a documentary on an international music festival in China. He and the director each toted their 5D camera and after 10 days of “constant shooting” Bear conquered the learning curve and determined “how to make shooting comfortable” with the HDSLR.

Recently Bear was DP on Gary Allan: Live at the House of Blues, a concert special on the Great American Country cablenet, where Canon HDSLRs were the primary cameras. “Director Stephen Shepherd, from Nashville's Tailight production company, had the cameras in mind” for the concert in Chicago, he says. “He didn't want to do a traditional-style live show. He didn't want to be tethered to a truck with broadcast cameras. He wanted something that had a lot more energy and a lot more frenetic action to it.”

Shepherd decided to field five camera operators each with a 5D plus an additional 7D which had just been introduced. “The operators were able to get into places where no tethered camera could — hiding behind the drummer, getting up next to the keyboards or down in the pit,” notes Bear. “All of them had shot with the 5D before, which was important. They understood that they alone were in charge of focus and exposure. Each operator was on his or her own, and there wasn't anyone giving us a traditional line cut.”

All the lenses used on the 5Ds were Canon L-series models, including EF 24mm and 28mm fixed-focal length wide-angle primes, an EF 24-70mm standard zoom, 70-200mm telephoto zoom and a 16-35mm ultra-wide zoom. The 7D was outfitted with a Canon EF-S 10-22mm ultra-wide zoom.

“In the lead up to the show we did a lot of interviews in the back corridors of the House of Blues,” says Bear. “With the 5D's low-light capabilities we were able to follow Gary as he had a tattoo put on his neck then went out on stage, all in one shot. He went from the dark hallway onto the lit stage with his neck still bleeding.”

Bear says “what's fun about the 5D is that you can strip it down to the body and lens and shoot amazing things or throw all kinds of accessories on it: matte boxes, handheld rigs, a 32-foot jib arm, sticks. It's pretty versatile in terms of what you can do with it.”

The introduction of the 7D brought “some improvements to live HD monitoring while you're recording, which is a great feature,” he reports. But there's still room for further upgrades. “Now that Canon has created this professional tool for us, I'd like to see professional connectors: HDMI is usually the weakest link on the set,” he reports. “I think people would be willing to pay for real professional-grade connectors if they were offered as an option.”

GoPro Captures POVs on the Move
Chris Leavell, supervising producer at Indigo Films in San Rafael, California (www.indigofilms.com), which is now in its third season producing I (Almost) Got Away With It for Investigations Discovery, started using smaller cameras about two years ago on a side project.


Judd Van Sickle, Lucas Euser’s coach, joined
the Napa ride documented by Chris Leavell with
a GoPro HD HERO camera for CyclingNews.com.

“I dabbled with Flip cams [video camcorders] but there was too much waviness any time there was movement in a shot. Often there was a lot of movement where I wanted to put the camera, so that defeated the purpose,” he recalls.

“The first time I used GoPro's HD HERO was for brief cutaways for a special. It gave us angles we couldn't get otherwise because of its size and flexibility. HD is getting cheaper and cheaper, but GoPro takes it to the next level.”

Billed as a sportscam or wearable HD camera company, GoPro offers the HD HERO line of wearable and gear-mountable cameras and accessories. The compact size and amazing utility of HD HERO have made it a popular choice for all types of applications, including riding on the rescue capsule to capture the journey of the Chilean miners to the surface.

“You get a spectacular image for the size and price,” says Leavell. “The lack of full HD that you have in other cameras is forgiven for the shots you get. We can buy six GoPros for a shoot and have a car roll over one of them; as long as we can recover the chip we've got that moment of impact — a shot we'd never be able to get otherwise because of too much risk.”

Director Frank Matson
Citizen Pictures’ director Frank
Matson at work on Race Across
The Sky.

A former semi-pro cyclist, Leavell does a series of short films for CyclingNews.com featuring pro cyclists showcasing their favorite rides. “They're very much beauty travelogues,” he explains. “My 'A' camera for the films is a Sony HDV camera, but the GoPros are great for perspective: I put them on a helmet, looking back at the handlebars, on a stick in a car riding alongside the cyclist. The ability to get a good quality image and give the cyclist's exact perspective make GoPro a very powerful tool. As a producer and director, it's what I've always dreamed about. GoPro delivers a really wonderful, visceral feel that's eerily like being there.”

Leavell notes that “the beauty in how simple and small GoPro is” also accounts for the sole drawback he can point to. “There's no display on the camera to show you what you're looking at. So you have to unplug it from its mount, plug it into a computer cable, work out how to position the camera, frame the shot, unplug the camera, remount it and start recording.” Alternatively, “you can just blow up the image to frame it the way you want — the resolution is high enough that you can do it,” he reports.

When it came time for Denver-based Citizen Pictures (www.citizenpictures.com) to produce its second consecutive Race Across The Sky feature (www.raceacrossthesky.com) for theater chain National Cinemedia, the 25-year-old production company wanted to improve upon its coverage of the annual Leadville, Colorado mountain biking < competition that starts at about 10,200 feet and summits at about 13,000.

“Lance Armstrong chose to ride last year and helped us put this little race on the map and get [our feature] into theaters,” says director Frank Matson. “The strong mountain biking audience was ready for a sequel so for the 2010 race we put Sony F900 and Panasonic HDX900 HD cameras in the helicopter, motocross and throughout the course and added 10 GoPros at various angles and on competitors and their bikes.”

Matson, who's been shooting HD for the last decade, was “blown away” by the discovery that “a camera with GoPro's price point had the resolution and obvious flexibility in size” that he sought to give a unique perspective to the sequel. “And it's not the end of the world if the camera gets totaled,” he notes. “You can bury it in the ground and have a bike run over it, stick it up in a tree or dangle it from a boom pole out in front of the riders.”

Mountain Biker
The mountain-biking competition
Race Across The Sky climbs
almost 3,000 feet to summit
near 13,000 feet.

For Race Across The Sky 2010 the director also gave several Flip UltraHD video camcorders to bikers to document their own diaries of the race. “It's amazing to see the quality of their self-portraits,” he reports. “The Flip cams and GoPros look great in the context of the rest of the HD footage we shot.”

Matson mounted GoPro HD HERO cameras behind bike saddles pointing at bikers trailing the rider, on handlebars looking up at the rider, on the wheels, fork and at the top of the tube between riders' legs looking forward. “We tried to capture every unique view we could think of,” he says. “The cameras come with plastic housings that can be used in a few feet of water so we even used them in water crossings; the camera can rise out of the water like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

“It doesn't freak everybody out to put the camera in dangerous situations,” he adds. “That allows us to take more chances and be more creative.”

Matson believes the GoPro HD HERO could use a threaded tripod mount and thinks the menus for getting different resolutions on the camera “isn't as user-friendly as it could be.” He'd also like to be able to see what he's capturing on the fly in playback. Still, he's dazzled by the resolution offered by the camera and doesn't want to jeopardize “the benefit of keeping it so small” by adding on features.

Panasonic Goes the Distance for Non-Profit Documentary
Florida filmmaker Matt Katsolis, who heads Jacksonville Beach's Interpret Studios (www.interpretstudios.com), was named grand-prize winner in Panasonic's “Shoot It. Share It” video contest in November for his documentary, Moving On: Love is Winning, which was shot with a pair of Panasonic AG-HVX200A P2 HD handheld camcorders (www.movingonmovie.com)

Children in Danita, Uganda
Curious children in Danita, Uganda surround
Matt Katsolis as he executes a jib shot
for Moving On with his Panasonic HVX200A.
Photo by: www.lightgivesheat.org

Katsolis directed the doc for Light Gives Heat, a non-profit founded by Dave and Morgan Hansow, a young American couple who, after almost losing a child at birth, quit their jobs and moved to Uganda in what became a transformative experience.

“It was a story that had to be told — moving to Uganda with a dream and making a difference — but they had a limited non-profit budget, and we didn't want to compromise picture quality or the integrity of the film,” he explains.

Katsolis assembled a crew of three close friends: Jesse Schluntz, assistant director and editor; Austin Blasingame, creative director; and Nic McLean, DP, with whom Katsolis shared shooting duties. “Everyone worked the equivalent of five jobs,” he says. “I knew a lot of production would be in remote areas without power sources. We needed an HD camera that could withstand brutal heat and rain and could be used discreetly, without a shoulder mount, in market areas.”

He selected the HVX200A which had become his “go-to camera” for previous international projects. “I wanted to honor the Hansow's story with really beautiful imagery that's normally reserved for high-end films. The HVX200A could do that,” he states. “It records uncompressed HD to solid state so it could take a beating, and it had held up under demanding conditions in the past, so I wasn't worried about Uganda. And it offered high production value in a discreet package.”

Matt Katsolis
Matt Katsolis shooting establishing
shots for Moving On with the
Panasonic HVX200A at
Independence Monument, Grand
Junction, Colorado.
Photo by: www.lightgivesheat.org

A Cinemek G35 lens adapter enabled Katsolis and McLean to put Nikon primes on their cameras to achieve shallow depth of field. “We were able to achieve very cinematic shots with minimal lighting, and the HVX was compatible with all our grip gear, including the jib and dolly tracks that were crucial to pull off the big shots.”

A pair of 64-gig P2 cards gave him and McLean 180 minutes of recording time per camera — “almost a full-day's recording,” he notes. Every night, footage was downloaded to external hard drives and backed up; although data management was done on location, no editing was done on site. The doc is now in post at Interpret Studios.

As far as Katsolis is concerned the HVX200A once again proved itself in challenging circumstances. “It's such a workhorse: It held up amazingly under grueling conditions. And the benefits of reusable P2 media are many. You only get one shot in a documentary to capture the moment. And I know that when it comes to capturing the moment the HVX200A has always performed for us.”