On the 17th September 2008, Canon announced the release of the EOS 5D Mark ii. As an afterthought, they had added HD video recording to this impressive full frame stills photography camera, and within days a revolution was born. With interchangeable fast lenses, the holy grail of cinematography – shallow depth of field – previously only possible using mind-blowingly expensive pro kit, was now available to anyone with a half decent DSLR camera, and a few fast lenses. Suddenly cinematic filmmaking was taken out of the hands of the few, and an explosion of creativity ensued.
Launched in 2007, Vimeo (a play on ‘video’ and ‘me’, and an anagram of ‘movie’) was there at the right place and time, as a dedicated video streaming platform for this new generation of DSLR filmmakers. It soon had become awash with vividly coloured bokeh shots, and people could seemingly never tire of the super shallow depth of field rack focus. Inspired by viral Vimeo hits such as Thomas Nostner’s ‘The beat of New York’, I rushed out to Jessops and bought a 5D mkii, and that’s how I entered the world of filmmaking.
My Canon served me well, and for a while, the 5D Mkii and 5D Mk iii reigned supreme to the budget filmmaker. Even Hollywood embraced them, used in films such as Marvel’s The Avengers for stunt shots, and big TV series such as the resurrected Hawaii Five-0 were shot entirely on the 5D. Soon however, people started to want more from their cameras.
Since 2007, digital cinema pioneers RED, headed up by Jim Jannard (the founder of Oakley), were changing people’s expectations of the moving image. Their first offering was the game-changing RED One, with a feature film quality digital image on a par with 35mm film. OK, it may have weighed a ton, and you could have a cup of tea while waiting for it to fire up (and another every time you changed a lens), but it shot at a previously unheard of 4K resolution, and the footage was breathtaking. The RED One however – and to some extent the superior RED Epic that followed – was expensive, and along with digital cinema cameras such as the Arri Alexa, was more for the likes of Peter Jackson than for your average indie filmmaker. Peter Jackson was so impressed by the RED Epic, that he used 48 of them to film The Hobbit series. He commissioned complex dual Epic rigs using mirrors to achieve stereoscopic 5K 48fps recording, and bizarrely oversaturated sets / costume design to compensate for the Epic’s natural image desaturation.
For myself and many other digital filmmakers, getting your hands on a RED would often mean sacrificing a payed production’s profit with hire costs, in order to capture the best footage possible – and then using downtime (before you had to return the camera to VMI) to shoot your own 4K productions. I dreamed about it a lot, but in the cold light of day, I was never really going to buy one. A RED Epic brain alone could equate to someone’s annual salary, the closed ecosystem required loads of expensive RED add-ons, frequent sensor updates could cost £10k alone, and RED’s evangelical fanboy following was quite unsettling.
Even though most people couldn’t afford one, RED’s big advances in technology did however inspire DSLR users to crave better features such as higher resolutions, slow motion, RAW capabilities and HDR flat (LOG) profiles so that footage would stand up to grading in post. As a result, people began to hack their cameras to try and improve them, and free products such as Magic Lantern sprung up, offering alternative camera operating systems with loads of great filmmaking features that manufacturers were failing to provide. Magic Lantern was never endorsed by Canon, and I remember nervously installing it on my 5D mkii, swallowing hard amid stories of people bricking their camera with it, whilst voiding the warranty.
This is where Canon dropped the mantel. When technology is being hacked by users to try to make it better, there’s an opportunity for other companies to step in and actually give people what they want straight out of the box. In May 2014, Panasonic released the mirrorless GH4. It was a world first, giving you 4k recording, 96fps slow motion, a ‘cinelike’ colour profile and loads of filmmaking features, all for around a grand. Proactive companies like Sony (A7S) and Blackmagic (Production Camera 4K) were close on the heels in what was a 4K mirrorless goldrush. With a smaller micro four thirds sensor (M4/3), the GH4 didn’t quite have the luscious super shallow depth of field of a 5D, but that fashion was long gone, and there were ways around this anyway. Products like the Metabones Speedbooster allowed you to stick your fast Canon EF lenses on the front of a M4/3 camera whilst giving each lens a wider field of vision (closer to that of a full frame sensor), and a glorious extra f-stop of light. You could also record 10-bit RAW 4K to external recorders such as the Atomos Ninja Assassin, for proper cinema quality footage.
This giant leap in low budget technology, was enough for some DSLR owners to jump ship straight away. Others waited to see what Canon would do next. Their answer was the much anticipated, but seriously disappointing Canon 5DS. It offered amazing resolutions for stills photographers, but completely neglected the budget filmmaking community – no 4K recording, poor sound, and no higher frame rates for HD slow motion; Canon were reputedly trying to push consumers towards their much more expensive cinema range. For those DSLR videographers who hadn’t jumped, now was the time to do so. By the time a 4K 5D finally came to market at the end of 2016 (the 5D mk IV, with a price tag of over £3.5k), the horse had well and truly bolted.
At the same time as the advancements in small form factor mirrorless cameras, the race was on in the dedicated cinema camera market for cheaper 4K production. Again, Canon were slow on the uptake, and relatively inexpensive cameras such as Sony’s FS7 (followed by the smaller and cheaper FS5), were giving RED a run for their money, and cornering the market among documentary makers. Blackmagic, primarily known for their industry dominating Davinci Resolve colour grading software, were also entering this field with their cumbersome, but cheaply priced 4K Ursa. RED reacted with the lower priced RED Raven, and finally Canon with the 4K C300 mkii – released at the end of 2015 and offering superb features and image quality, but still lacking 4K slow motion.
While this march for better, cheaper, smaller video technology among filmmakers was going on, at the same time, the whole world were becoming content producers in their own right with the advancement in smartphones and the rise of social media. In November 2014, Sony announced their new ‘stacked’ sensor, which made its way into the world’s first 4K smartphone – 2015’s Sony Xperia Z5 Premium. Apple soon followed, adopting Sony’s sensor for the iPhone 6S, and paving the way for 4K, HDR, image stabilisation and autofocus in everyone’s back pocket.
Since 2012, smartphone footage had began to creep into feature films. Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man was mostly shot on expensive Super 8 film, but when director Malik Bendjelloul ran out of money, he turned to the $1.99 8mm Vintage Camera app on his iPhone. More recently the critically acclaimed feature Tangerine was filmed entirely on 3 iPhones and in September 2015, RYOT’s 4K documentary The Painter of Jalouzi was shot on the iPhone 6S plus.
And so the possibilities of this new format of filmmaking continues to expand. Even if it’s just a backup camera, the smartphone has started to become a filmmaking contender. Third parties have created a huge range of clip-on lenses to change the field of vision of your phone’s existing lens, and with products like Sony’s QX1 (albeit fairly flawed for video production), you can bolt on a sensor with E-mount attachment for interchangeable pro lenses – it’s essentially a lens-shaped camera that uses your smartphone as its user interface and LCD screen.
This brings us back round to RED’s new smartphone. It seems that in the same way that Apple once opened up their market from creative professional, to everyday consumer with the release of the iPhone, RED are due to venture into this wider market themselves. In July, they opened up pre-ordering for their forthcoming £1000 Hydrogen One. At the moment, there’s not a great deal of information about it out there, although it is advertised as “The world’s first holographic media machine”; This early prototype review is as good as it gets. It goes without saying however that this will double as an awesome digital cinema recorder; It has a 44 metal pinned dock on the back for snap on accessories such as a sensor with lens mount. It remains to be seen whether this will follow in RED’s tradition of creating truly disruptive technology, but it’s certainly getting people excited, with RED’s server being so swamped at the official announcement that they had to “go dark”.
So does the democratisation of digital cinema products herald the death knell of filmmaking? Well actually no. To my mind, it can only be a good thing. As this article probably proves, I’m a sucker for camera technology, but it’s important to remember that the camera is only a tool by which to realise your creative vision. In the 90s, long before the DSLR revolution, The Dogme 95 collective were making brilliant budget films (such as Thomas Vinterberg’s fantastic Dogme #1 The Celebration) under a manifesto that celebrated the values of story, acting and theme, banning the use of special effects and technology. They aimed to take back power from the big film studio, to the director as artist – kind of what the 5D did in terms of cinematography a decade later. These films alongside productions such as The Blair Witch Project and Kevin smith’s Clerks proved that on the whole, great creative storytelling is infinitely more important than the tech that is capturing it, and the same is true today. Professionals might lose out in some areas – low end corporate talking heads or wedding videos for example – but on the flipside, affordable technology is widening the pool of talent and opening up fresh perspectives and techniques, at the heart of which, the fundamentals of great filmmaking still remain a constant.