Steven Poster, ASC and PL-mount 7D’s on Flypaper

Cinematographer Steven Poster, ASC, known for features like Donnie Darko, Cats and Dogs, Southland Tales and The Box, recently wrapped the independent crime/comedy Flypaper produced by and starring Patrick Dempsey, directed by Rob Minkoff. Poster’s approach to shooting has always been out of the mainstream. If there is an interesting new cinematic tool available, he will find a way to put it to good use on his films.

For Flypaper, which was shot entirely on location in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Poster chose to test the limits of today’s newest form of capture, DSLR cameras. With the help of Band Pro, he put together a package of two FGV-Schmidle modified Canon 7D cameras with PL lens mounts, along with Chrosziel Follow Focus and Matteboxes, Anton/Bauer Power Taps, Marshall 7” Monitors, Element Technica Mantis Handheld Rigs, Pelican Cases, and more.

As the film moved into the post-production process, Poster sat down to assess his choice of capture. Following is the account detailing his unbiased approach to turning what is essentially a still photography camera, into a high-quality filmmaking tool.

Reprinted with the permission of Steven Poster, ASC.


Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras Used To Capture High Def Video

First hand experience with any new technology is the only way to get an understanding of how that technology impacts the workplace. And if you have new technology that is a hybrid (not belonging to any genre, but a combination of two or more) making that technology (say the Canon DSLR cameras) into something that it isn’t, is an even more complex (and costly) set of set of circumstances.

Let me say now that I am a fan of those cameras and have used a series of Canon 7D DSLR’s on the movie I am just finishing, Flypaper starring Patrick Dempsey and Ashley Judd. So I do have the first hand experience I was talking about.

But, let’s face it; you get what you pay for. Yes, you can go into a Best Buy and walk out with a camera that is capable of shooting HD Video images. But that doesn’t get you very far into having a reliable production tool that you can rely on day after day to deliver the right kind of images you need.

The Canon cameras (there are several models that will work) are still photography cameras with motion video capability. Canon cameras are built as robust and reliable tools for still photography. Our demands, whether for a commercial or for a movie, are much more demanding. For instance there are functions that are indispensable to make coherent images. Focusing the lens is the first that comes to mind. The still lenses that come with the camera are not built for the continuous, smooth focus pulling, or to the 1/16” accuracy that movie lenses require. And no, you can’t use auto focus available on these cameras. Please remember they are built to capture still photographs. So, elaborate Follow Focus devices are needed for an assistant to adjust the focus. A competent, trained First Assistant is necessary to do this because it is very difficult to operate the camera and focus that accurately at the same time. In fact, because of the size and low weight of the camera, it is even better to have a small remote focus device so that the Assistant doesn’t put any pressure on the camera while the operator is trying to hold the camera steady.

Canon 7D-PL used of Steven Poster, ASC's film Flypaper

The lenses that come with the camera are not suitable for making motion images for several other reasons other then the focus. There is a difference between shooting for a magazine ad and shooting for a commercial or narrative movie. The importance of consistency between lenses can’t be stressed enough. So it has been found that the best lenses to use are regular cinematography lenses attached to the Canon’s body. Most available lenses are physically unable to connect without modification of the camera to install what is called the PL Mount. Also, because of the optical design of typical movie lenses, the camera’s mirror and shutter have to be removed for the movie lenses to fit inside of the camera. And usually a full complement of fixed focal length lenses as well as one, or two movie zoom lenses are carried on any production so that the desired shots can be used to tell the story. Caring for those lenses and helping attach them to the camera and calibrating those lenses for the focus device is the usual job of the Second Assistant Cameraperson. That crew member will also have an important roll in maintenance of the cameras. They are not made to take the kind of rough service we put any motion picture camera through, whether digital or film.

Along with these cine lenses there will be a need for various support brackets and matteboxes to shade the lens and provide a mounting system for camera filters which are most often used in cinema-style shooting for technical and artistic reasons. Again, more parts for the Camera Assistants to keep track of and know how to fit all of the configurations.

This brings us to another inherent condition of these cameras. There is another built-in problem with these DSLR cameras; if they are used for more then an hour or two the image-gathering chip heats up and the image response changes. These changes often come in the form of increased sensitivity, unevenly across the field of the chip, and sometimes an increase of digital noise (which can look ugly in the image). So, when we notice this happening the cameras are changed so that they can cool down. I know one Cinematographer who believes that the cameras should be changed every ½ hour to be safe. We are carrying four bodies on this show. I know shows that have carried up to seven bodies. It is also the job of the Camera Assistants to make sure the bodies are changed properly and are set up consistently with the ones used earlier in the scene. Even a small detail setting buried deep in the cameras menu may cause a shot to become unusable or very expensive to fix.  Such details may not be visible on set.

One of the ways we can tell that the chip is changing and needs to cool down, as well as the way we can guarantee the consistent look of the image, is through the work of the Digital Imaging Technician, and the use of tools like a Waveform Monitor and Color Management System. For commercials with the kinds of deadlines of production and the demands of the advertising agency for high quality of work these kinds of tools and the skills to operate them can be a big money saver.

Canon 7D-PL used of Steven Poster, ASC's film Flypaper

The final element of any production is the safe and efficient downloading, inspection and transcoding for the editorial system. This is the essential crew member who can help avoid catastrophic data loss and insure proper use of the recording media as well as transferring Metadata for post production. This is a position that must be filled with a trained technician, a Digital Downloader. Would you trust your day’s work to a production assistant with a computer who wouldn’t know anything about proper protocols for this important work?  Local 600 has not only designed these protocols, we have trained over 300 members on how to follow them. With the Canon cameras or with any DSLR systems it makes a lot of sense to do this continuously throughout the day to insure that each shot is properly recorded, protected and stored before finishing the day’s work.

One of the advantages of using this style of cameras is that they can be configured in many different ways to adapt to the shooting circumstances. This allows for some very creative choices for getting the images you need to tell the story. But each configuration takes a number of accessories connected either mechanically, electronically or digitally to make the cameras work properly. The cameras can be mounted for tripod or dolly use, or even on a jib arm or camera crane. They can be handheld or mounted on a Steadicam. They can even be easily mounted on automobiles or motorcycles. We even attached the cameras to a machine gun for a POV shot. Any position you can imagine the camera in can be accomplished with the right accessories and tools. Viewing the image takes a small High Definition monitor mounted with the camera and configured for the Camera Operator to see properly. These accessories are being developed and manufactured at a very accelerated pace. Every week we see some new attachment announced to the industry.  You can see the complexity of fitting together all of these parts in the photos we have provided. We researched what was available just before our show started two months ago. Even in that short time there have been new developments in accessories available for these cameras.

I am very excited about these camera systems as I said in the beginning of this note. I am realistic, however, about the quality of the files these cameras produce and the limitations of the equipment as well as the image quality and inherent characteristics of these types of imaging chips. It is a scary thought when seemingly simple equipment like this is put in unskilled hands. As I said at the beginning, you get what you pay for.

Steven Poster, ASC

President ICG, Local 600 of the I.A.T.S.E.

Canon 7D-PL kit used of Steven Poster, ASC's film Flypaper