In the Spring of 2011 I was knee deep in a writing a novel and was itching to flex some cinematic muscles. I wanted to direct my first short and I wanted to have some fun doing it.
I dreamt up the character of a reluctant zombie, a family man just trying to get his life back (largely inspired by my own zombie-like behaviour in the first year of my child’s near-sleepless life), and figured I’d shoot in my house and around my neighbourhood on my iPhone. I shared the script with a friend who urged me to “at least shoot it on 5D.” At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about and simply assumed there were two more dimensions beyond 3D that I just hadn’t heard of yet. As I started to research, I opened my eyes to a revolution in independent filmmaking: the digital SLR camera.
The one aesthetic that has eluded the ultra-low-budget filmmaking scene until recently is controllable depth of field. Audiences have hard-wired and long ingrained expectations of motion pictures and a shallow depth of field is an expected convention of cinema, a signal of quality. Now it is available to filmmakers through affordable consumer and prosumer digital SLR cameras.
I researched the benefits and limitations of digital SLR filmmaking and settled on shooting on the Canon 5D Mark II, the workhorse camera of independent, digital filmmakers. I felt liberated by this technology—no longer constrained by the cheap and cheerful, everything-in-focus, look of video, but able to capture a variable depth of field of cinematic storytelling. Now, my little film is far from epic, it’s an intimate account of a down on his luck zombie struggling with his unfortunate afterlife, but I wanted it to feel more like film than video. The digital SLR combines the cost and flexibility of video with the depth of field aesthetic of film.
Of course, it’s not perfect. The 5D wasn’t designed for filmmaking, and we had to find workarounds to gauge focus while recording (i.e. when the SRL mirror is retracted), and replace the on-board microphone with a professional grade recording system. But the exciting thing is now that this technology has inspired filmmakers, the manufacturers are in turn inspired to upgrade these cameras to give more filmmaker friendly functionality to make them more fit for their new cinematic purpose.
This tech is ushering in a new era in high quality, digital video. Vimeo abounds with gorgeous footage and when I talk to fellow filmmakers, the DSLR is the weapon of choice in the war for great shots. I’ve since been fortunate enough to shoot on RED and the Arri Alexa, and while those cameras play in a different league, today’s DSLRs put quality filmmaking tools in the hands of more people—allowing for more shooting and more experimentation, which is good for the state of the art.