By Michael Svitak, Elite Team Cinematographer
Shooting HD on a DSLR has been a revolutionary tool in the history of cinema. Having gone to film school, where we actually shot film, and working as a union camera assistant, where the tangibility of 35mm negative was the norm, my transition into the digital realm of shooting has had to be a total embracement of the art form.
The Canon 5D Mark II opened the floodgates to new and creative filmmaking three years ago and is still going strong today. Where 35mm stood as a pillar for generations, digital is evolving at breakneck speeds. The next generation camera system comes to the forefront virtually every two years. Nevertheless, we should be able to hang on to the Canon DSLR cameras for some time yet. They remain a reliable workhorse for many cinematic options, particularly micro-budget, multi-camera shoots.
This July, I had the opportunity to work as Cinematographer on two music videos, both shot extensively with Canon DSLR cameras. The shooting schedule was extremely limited in both circumstances. I’m sure we could not have achieved all that we did without being able to use multiple cameras quickly.
“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” – The White Buffalo
The first was a music video for The White Buffalo for a song called “How the West was Won,” directed by Pete Macomber. His concept was to shoot the band playing live in a Fourth of July parade in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Revolution Cinema Rentals outfitted us with five Canon 5D Mark II’s and Canon L Series lenses for the shoot. The plan was to fly into Colorado, scout the float on which the band would be playing, find our best camera positions and shoot the next morning. Producer Scott Ballew, Pete and I took a hot lap down the parade route and conjured our best guess on how long it would take from start to finish to see how many times the band could play the song. The magic number would be four.
The other factor we had to take into consideration was that the float would be in constant motion and full of people dancing, so getting clean camera angles on a small float had to be pre-planned. On parade day, we were able to get ample coverage due to the amount of cameras we had in tow. Our camera crew of four did a remarkable job in the twenty minutes we had to get the job done. Since we finished with the band by 10:30 am, there was still plenty of time to grab the remaining B-roll footage at the local rodeo and fair. Pete stayed on for a couple of extra days of shooting using a Sony F3 with S-Log for some stunning shots around town.
“BUSMAN’S HOLIDAY” – The Allah-Las
The next project was another extremely fun, multi-camera music video for a song called “Busman’s Holiday” by a group called the Allah-Las. At the helm would be accomplished commercial director Sinuhe Xavier. Sinuhe and I had recently worked together on a Callaway Golf commercial. I thought his concept of a road trip and camping in Joshua Tree National Park sounded like a brilliant idea for the laid-back-surfer-vibe music of the Allah-Las. Capturing dusk and dawn natural light was at the forefront of his vision. Therefore, we would be venturing out into the desert for two days of sunrise/sunset photography. This proved to be the only way to accomplish our shots due to the temperatures skyrocketing to over 120 degrees during the middle of the day. The only thing to do at that time was find shade and stay hydrated!
Since we had a finite amount of time to complete key shots, I chose to have two separate cameras built, one 5D Mk III with the Canon 50mm Cinema Prime and one 5D Mk II with a Canon 24-105mm IS zoom. I stayed with the 50mm prime for the bulk of that footage, but employed the zoom for some tight inserts when necessary. After seeing some of the footage that I was getting with the 50mm Cinema Prime, I decided to keep that configuration at the ready for the duration of the shoot. The beautiful falloff and focus roll is comparable to any cinema lens out there, plus the flares we were getting were addictive. I was grateful to have Elite Team member Bodie Orman along as an additional camera operator because he was able to grab some gorgeous exteriors of the van (dubbed “The Avocado”) driving while I was inside shooting.
Once it finally cooled down enough to start shooting in the evening, we began to set up for the campfire and night time-lapses. When we discussed shooting a campfire, I was a little concerned about not having enough light. I considered lighting the campfire, but nothing photographs like real fire and we wanted to stick to our theme of natural light. Plus, I brought along some beveled glass for an in-camera double exposure effect and I didn’t want to catch any lights in frame.
For the finishing touch, Sinuhe had a recipe for time-lapse that he perfected while shooting supplemental footage for the movie 127 Hours. His technique paid off with some dazzling nighttime desert footage.