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Douglas Sonders describes how he went from photographer to music videographer
I remember when Canon announced that they would be releasing the new 5D Mark II a couple of years back, an affordable full-frame 35mm DSLR that shot 1080p high definition video. It seemed like all Canon shooters collectively shifted their lustful eyes from the nearly $8k Canon 1Ds Mark III, which shared the same 21 megapixel sensor but had no video function, to the new 5D at neck-breaking speeds. With the introduction of these new HD-capable DSLR?s into the market that could be used for print photography and video, suddenly many photographers began to consider jumping into the filmmaking business.
Aside from being a full-time commercial photographer, I had actually started a separate film company with my associate and childhood friend, Nicholas Cambata, a couple of years before the DSLR video craze would start. I saw many of my editorial clients cutting back on print content and shifting focus back onto their web presence, thus opening a door for more jobs with motion content. Thankfully, Nicholas had previous TV production and filming experience was able to teach me a lot about telling a story at 24 frames a second—which isn?t as easy as one would suspect—while I taught him my knowledge on lighting and creating unique visuals.
A lot of our early professional work was documentary, editorial, advertising. However, we craved doing more creative work and thought shooting some music videos would give us that opportunity to expand our portfolio.
Watch Douglas's Award-Winning Music Video, “Ready or Not”
Mining existing clients for video jobs
As a photographer, I have had the pleasure of working with a lot of talented musicians including a decent amount that have spent some time in the top 10 charts. I began to reach out to my pre-existing musician client list to see who would let us shoot a music video for them that would have some sort of budget and would have the chance to be seen by a lot of eyes. We soon got an enthusiastic response from our friend and client, Cedric Gervais, who is an award-winning international DJ. He sent us a energetic new dance song called “Ready Or Not” and asked us to share possible storyline concepts, expense lists, and schedule.
I remember Cedric specifically asked us to shoot it on the Red One camera system, but we convinced him that we would not need the Red to shoot his video. It was hard to explain to someone that was unfamiliar with DSLR technology that this little camera could create a dynamic-looking music video for a fraction of the budget of renting a Red and the associate grip and technician to run the camera. Mind you, this was in the days when shooting videos with a DSLR was very new, so Cedric was understandably apprehensive, but thankfully he trusted us. In addition, this would also be our first professional job using entirely DSLR video. Normally we would use Sony EX1?s or rent a Red One.
I remember we rented one of the first Canon 1D Mark IV bodies to hit the US for the video. I had a couple of Canon 5D Mark II?s, but we had read that the 1D Mark IV was exceptional in low light and wanted to try it out since we would be shooting all of the video at night in Miami—all low light situations. Also, the Mark IV was capable of filming at 24 frames per second rather than 30 frames per second, while the 5D Mark II was not (a feature that has since been added by firmware updates from Canon). On top of that, Nick and I decided that we wanted to do the video using Miami?s natural ambient light and not a lot of extra lighting. We only used two very small LED brick litepanels for a little bit of fill light in tight quarters, such as when we were in the helicopter or back of a car.
“So...uh...guys... that?s it?”
Right away we fell in love with the look of the DSLR video. It had rich color and beautiful depth, especially using the 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 80mm Canon L-Series primes. I still laugh the first time Cedric walked on set and saw the little camera (in comparison to the Red One he is accustomed to) and said something to the effect of: “So...uh...guys... that?s it?”
We quickly learned one of the truly biggest challenges with shooting DSLR video: stabilization. These camera bodies were originally designed to made to for 1-3 frames a second, not 24 frames a second of steady shooting. You try and hold your breath or handhold these while filming and you will get the notorious micro-shake. These days, Nick and I will cringe when we catch the “shake” on DSLR videos we see online.
I implore that you try to beat the “shake” by following some of these tips:
Use a sturdy tripod. Although, if you want to actually walk around with the camera, a stability-helping device like a RedRock Micro Shoulder Mount Kit or something that incorporates an option for roll focus devices like the RedRock Captain Stubing Kit is great.
If you have Final Cut Pro, you must use their free plug-in “SmoothCam,” which will analyze and smooth out your footage for you. There are plenty of other third-party plug-ins that will smooth your shaky footage, but we like this one.
Prime lenses are great. The more you try and “zoom,” the more your camera will shake. Besides, in most cases “zooming” became extinct with the Kung Fu movies of the 70?s. Besides, a prime is sharper than any zoom lens any day.
Try out dollys and jibs. There are many affordable options available today that enable you to do great panning or tracking shots.
Use a larger high-quality external monitor when filming so you can properly see what is going on during the filming/review process.
One other issue worth mentioning is sensor overheating. Again, these cameras had video function added as an afterthought. They are not made to run in video mode for a long amount of time or they will overheat. What does that mean? Image degradation. You will start noticing excessive noise and hot spots on your footage, so be good to your cameras and let them cool off every once in a while!
Here are some other things to keep in mind when shooting a project with a video DSLR:
- Getting proper exposure is very important with these cameras. DSLR?s have a very narrow dynamic range, so you must expose for the highlights so as not to lose detail in the scene.
- DSLRs do not have built in neutral density filters like most budget video cameras do (ex-1, hvx, etc) and so you should pick up an ND filter kit to help expose for the highlights while shooting outdoors. ND filters are also helpful if you want to shoot with a very shallow depth of field. I could write an entire article on why I love ND filters.
- Handling the video files from your camera in the post production process can be tricky. Ingest the files wrong and you will be dealing with excess conversion and rending times. Make sure to read up on the best way to import your camera system?s video files into your particular editing software.
We also decided to try our hand at time-lapse for portions of the video. I picked up a programmable cable release and set the 1D Mark IV to capture different parts of Miami at night at 1 frame a second using the actual “photo” function and put it all together in Final Cut during the editing process. The results were stunning.
Check out this behind-the-scenes video: The making of “Ready or Not”
If you look at the final video and the behind-the-scenes footage, it is pretty crazy to think we completed that music video with very little grip equipment and lighting. In fact, our entire budget with travel, renting a van, renting the camera and lenses and brick light, paying for PA?s and makeup artist, and renting the helicopter cost only about $4k. Now, mind you, we called in a lot of favors, we doubled up on hotel rooms, and didn?t sleep for four days, but we wanted to make the video shine.
We have learned a lot since this video project and pretty happy how it turned out, especially with the low budget and very little equipment used. “Ready Or Not” ended up being AOL?s music video of the day, and has been viewed well over 1 million times all over the web and was even listed as one of youtube?s top 10 most viewed music videos on the day of its release.
We still shoot a lot of our music videos using DSLR due to their ease of use and maneuverability, their low cost to run, and their rich color and depth, but with every project, we certainly learn a lot more about how to best handle these beautiful, but tricky camera systems.