As you may know, my latest article for Mastering Film was a very general article on what to keep in mind when buying a camera. Mark Stolaroff, founder of No Budget Film Club, recently wrote an article for Film Radar that has some great specific info on what cameras low-budget indies have been using successfully at the current moment.
Based on today’s technology and what’s readily available, I recommend an HD camera that shoots 24p to tapeless media, and that has XLR inputs for your professional mics. If shallow depth of field is important to your look, then I recommend the kind of large sensor found on a host of cameras, including the popular Canon DSRLs (5D, 7D, 60D, T3i) and the new full-featured video cameras by Panasonic (the AF-100) and Sony (the FS-100).
There is plenty of information on the internet to help you decide among these different choices, but just remember, they will all do a terrific job. They all produce incredible images if used properly. Some offer enhancements that might be better suited for your particular project and some are ultimately a little easier to control and work with.
But I can assure you that if all you had to work with was a free Canon 7D that a friend lent you, you’d be able to find a way to make a good-looking film with it. (See Tiny Furniture, which was shot on the 7D with very little money and a tiny crew and was ultimately nominated for Best Cinematography at the 2011 Spirit Awards against much bigger films.)
I spoke with Mark via email about some additional thoughts he’d had about the state of cameras for indies…
The real point of the article is not to endorse a particular camera, but rather to make people realize that this decision, in the grand scheme of things, with regard to no-budget features, is just not that important.
The advice I give in my class with regard to picking cameras is to pick the best quality camera you can find without infringing on your resources or production capacity. At a certain budget, the camera choice becomes 100% creative, because the cost of that camera and the manpower to use it and manage its workflow become a smaller and smaller percentage of the overall budget as budgets go up.
At low budgets, you’re often trading time for money. The camera decision is one that often can’t be solved by trading time. I think that’s one of the factors that makes choosing a camera such a cognitive burden for filmmakers. On a big-budget one-month feature shoot, you rent the top-of-the-line camera, because camera rental is such a tiny line item compared to the labor of the crew, the actors, etc.
On a no-budget shoot that stretches across many months, rental becomes a budget burden. Which means filmmakers are forced to buy a camera, and can only afford less expensive ones. Then they are faced with a whole new set of trade-offs.
At the tiny budgets that my students will be working with, you have to consider other factors: cost, (either to rent or purchase); ease of use; workflow; etc. It’s important to note, too, that when considering this decision with your expert in these matters–your DP–that they will often base most of their decision on creative factors. So it is up to the producer to understand all these other considerations and how they will affect the project. The good news is that there are a whole bunch of suitable cameras out there now that will make your film look great, and then more importantly, for these kinds of projects, how “good” they look is not nearly as important as one thinks. And how good something looks is only partially related to the camera/format decision. Interesting locations, production design, and good sound are more important. If it sounds bad, people will think it looks like crap!
Huge agree on that! Too many indie films don’t give production value enough thought and audiences often blame picture quality when sound is poor.
Mark also elaborated on the choices facing someone with a budget of $10,000:
If I had $10,000 to make my film and I had the choice between a free Sony EX1 and a RED that was going to cost me $2,000 to rent (which is very cheap for a RED), I would take the Sony.
First, I can use that EX1 to barter for another EX1 if I needed two cameras. I could also barter for all the SxS media cards I’d need and also batteries and chargers. And then I’d know that the workflow would be a snap, that it wouldn’t require a special paid person to manage the media on the set or afterwards and that my plain old laptop would be able to handle the camera original footage all the way out to the color correction phase (where I’d probably convert it to Pro Res before grading).
Easy, done. And I still have the $10k to do everything else I need doing. Now I can worry about the things that are really important, like story and performances.
There is a saying, “The hardest decisions to make matter the least.” (And there is some research on decision-making that backs this up.) I think picking a camera is one of those decisions. The most important decision is to make the movie in the first place.
Mark and several successful low-budget filmmakers will be running their annual No Budget Film School in L.A. on August 20th and 21st and he has generously offered a 20% discount to readers of Making the Movie. Use the code MTM on the sign-up page. I am getting no payment or anything to endorse this. I know some of the people involved and have heard good things about the seminar.
REMEMBER: You can always find my most up-to-date recommendations on specific cameras on the HD Cameras Comparison page here on the site.