What is a professional camera?

With the recent release of the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera, the line that constitutes what a professional video camera is continues to be redefined. For me, I have started to move away from categorizing altogether. Just about any modern camera can be utilized in a professional environment. Is a GoPro a professional camera? The marketing would lead you to believe the camera is aimed at consumers such as surfers, bikers, hang gliders, etc. However these cameras have shown up on a lot of projects I have worked on, projects that are clearly professional. One of the easiest examples to point to is the original Canon 5D, a professional stills camera with an HD video mode that actually looked decent enough for journalists, war photographers, etc to grab quick video clips. Soon it was in the hands of independent filmmakers and eventually made its way onto professional sets. I have worked on six figure commercials where the 5D is the primary camera.

So, what is a professional video camera? My definition is very simple. It's a camera that can achieve the visual goals of a project. I no longer categorize a camera based on whether it is consumer, prosumer, professonal, or cinema. Instead, I look at what a project needs (I'd like to think all of the projects I work on are professional) and use what I think will get the desired results. I might have a project that requires a high resolution, cinematic look which perhaps I choose a Red or an Alexa. There may be some hi speed shots which I choose a Phantom for, some POV action shots which I may go for a GoPro, and some slcie of life shots which I grab something like a GH2. I don't think whether these are professional cameras or not, I assess whether they can achieve the desired look I need for certain shots.

I see a lot of people get caught up in trying to define what is professional, what is cinematic, etc. I think the filmmaker's pallette has expanded considerablly. I don't think anything should be off the table. If we treat cameras as tools or brushes/paint if you want an art analogy as opposed to having to label them "professional" or not I think that's a more productive approach. What actually decribes a person as professional is a conversation for another day, but my short take on the subject is that I find it is usually more defined by attitude rather than credits or the amount of money you make. I have met many people who bring a professonal attitude to their work despit not having tons of experience or making money yet while I have also met some very experienced pros who don't bring a professional attitude to set. Like I said, a conversation for another day but as far as the tools go, a camera like the Blackmagic Pocket Cam might have a consumer price tag and is arguably missing some "pro" features but if it's used appropriately can be as effective as any camera in your toolbox for the task it is assigned. Removing labels or negative connotations brings a lot of freedom for the filmmaker.


Are we getting lazy with our production methods?

The fact that Plural Eyes has become an accepted form of production methodology makes me scratch my head. Singular Software makes a great product that does what it's advertised to do but the point is, why are we going in this direction? Professional cameras with professional audio features have been around for a long time. Timecode has been around for a long time. These work really well, and create less work in post. When I hear people say "don't worry about sync we'll fix it all in post with Plural Eyes" it makes me wonder if this race to the bottom is truly here. And this type of thing is not just happening on ultra low budget corporate shoots, this is happening on major commercials. So, I'm just not sure what we're doing. Yes, a Canon 5D is a small camera with a large chip and gets some nice looking footage. I get that part. But everything else about it screams workaround. That's what I'm struggling with. To me, the better approach is to continue to get the cameras smaller but only to the point where they can still have professional interfaces. The C300, Scarlet, and Epic are all examples of this, although I need to continue to test the C300's timecode functionality because it seems to have some issues.

Anyway, hopefully we'll all demand more from our tools and make sure to adhere to standards that help take the work out of workflow.


Wakeup call to makers of post production tools

There are amazing tools on the market, from NLEs (non linear editors) to advanced compositing/animation programs. No doubt they have come a long way. My first real job in the industry was working in a machine room at a production company that specialized in documentary and museum interactive video. I got introduced to the world of 1", 3/4", betaSP, digibeta, etc. I began there in 1995, and it wasn't long before I became interested in the edit rooms which housed some fairly new technology at the time, Avid Media Composer editing systems. It didn't take long before I got a chance to try them out, and moved my way out of the machine room and into the role of an assistant editor, digitizing footage into the Avids. A lot has changed since those early days of Avid, but in some ways I sometimes feel we're still stuck in the 1990s. Let me explain.

In an industry that prides itself on innovation, it's hard to deny that media production and post production has taken giant leaps over the past twenty years. Editing has never been easier (the physical joining of two shots that is. Editing itself is an art.), the VFX tools have become incredibly advanced, and sound processing technology has taken digital audio to a whole new level. So, what do I have to complain about?

We've entered an era which I'm referring to as BetaWorld. Companies are being forced to innovate at rapid pace, packing new features in to hold off the competition and selling what sometimes equates to a beta version of a product. There are bugs, workarounds, disabled features, etc. Although Avids in the 1990s weren't perfect, they were generally stable. New versions didn't come out every week. They were developed over time, tested, and released when they were production ready. I worry that we've moved into an era where the emphasis is on new whiz bang features that keep the marketing teams at these companies happy, but leave the users feeling like lab rats. In my opinion, the number one thing as an enduser is stability and an easy to navigate UI(user interface). In an ideal world, the tools should become invisible as much as possible so that our focus is on creating. Yes, some of what we do is technical, but it's creating that is at the heart of why we got into this.

So, why in the year 2011 are we still dealing with the following.

  • Gamma shifts
  • Color inconsistency when moving files around
  • Excessive amounts of rendering
  • Misinterpretation of files
  • Lack of standards across the various tools
  • I/O monitoring issues
  • Bit depth issues such as banding
  • General bugs in software

The list goes on and on. If I could ask one thing from the people that make these tools. Take a careful look at what the enduser's needs are. Look at their challenges. Understand how people work, what other tools they use,what kind of hardware they run, and find ways to put a huge emphasis on stability and production ready releases. Random bugs do nothing but slow down the creative process. Tools that handle a standard different than is intended with that standard do nothing but frustrate the end user. I understand the challenges to making this happen. I understand there are agendas that collide. I understand that the world is cutthroat and that sometimes making a deadline is more important than making the product 100% right. But in the end it doesn't change what I have to accomplish at the end of the day. I need tools that work for me, not against me. Anything that introduces a workaround, works against me. All I ask is that all of you work towards making tools that work for us, that help us achievve our goals without worrying whether something we do will be affacted by some random bug, a piece of code that can make the diffrence between a job getting done or not getting done on time. Maybe I'm asking for the impossible. I'm asking for the refrigerator that you buy knowing that you can store it with food, it will keep it cold, it will do it's job. Yes, it's a machine, and it could eventually have a problem, but for the most part does exactly what it says it does. That's what I'm getting at.


Films I've enjoyed recently


Beware the Hype Machine

We are living in amazing time for filmmakers. Just look around at all the tools you have access to and how much more affordable they have become. On November 3rd, RED and Canon will be making big announcements that could impact independent filmmakers and production companies dramatically. 

Having said that, as customers we should always remember that these are companies selling us a product. They will say and do things in an attempt to make you want this product. Nothing new there, that's how this stuff works. But I suspect in the coming months, there will be a lot of hype, myths, rumors, bashing, etc going on between various camera companies. I'm already starting to hear it. Sony F65 makes the RED Epic look like a toy, Alexa M will solve the form factor issue and make Epic irrelavant, comparing Epic to a GH2 is the silliest thing you could ever do, etc. I've used many cameras, and I feel confident in saying that there's not one camera for every job. 

I highly encourage everyone to take a step back and don't get caught up in hype. No problem being loyal to a company, but make sure the tools are doing what YOU need not what they are telling you need. This is very important. It would be easy to think that RED One MX is useless now that Epic is becoming readily available. That couldn't be further from the truth. A RED One still shoots insanely good imagery. It's only when you come across a situation that it can no longer achieve what you need it to achieve that it's perhaps time to consider looking at another tool. We are constantly being bombarded with marketing, whether it's on the web, in print, email, etc. I can't help but feel like I'm involved in a mind control expirement. An email comes through announcing the latest and greatest piece of gear, and my first instinct is to reach for my wallet without really thinking through whether I need it. 

Another recent example is the Final Cut Pro debacle. Apple announces FCP X, which is not received well by the professional editing community, and everyone freaks out as if their FCP 7 licenses had been inactivated. I was guilty of that too. In fact, I committed to moving onto Premiere and Avid partly based on all the hoopla. I didn't do that completely blindly though. I did some homework and testing to come to that conclusion.With Davinci Resolve here now at an amazing price, people look at Apple Color as a piece of junk. Why would you want to do color grading in Color when you can get a whole lot more features in Resolve? Indeed, you do get more features but you also have a bunch of caveats that you have to consider, including some substantial hardware purchases. And will you use those features? These are the kinds of things that have to be looked at carefully. Buying the latest and greatest may be a good thing, but it could also be the wrong thing to do for YOU.

I don't disparage the marketing these companies do as I realize it's necessary for them to survive, especially in this type of economic setting. We just have to be smart filmmakers and not get sucked into buying things we don't need. Do as much testing, demoing, borrowing as you can to see if a tool is right for you and your business. Always take other's reviews and advice with a grain of salt as you can never be sure that their perspective will match yours. And sometimes, there are other motives in place, so you have to be very careful with what may appear to be fact, but in reality may have been spun a little bit to make it more appealing. 

So, November 3rd is one of those days to watch your wallet carefully, make sure you understand everything that is involved with the technology that is announced, and if you are on the fence about whether it's right for you, maybe take a step back and do as much homework as you can. There will always be another camera, another editing system, another computer right around the corner and most likely it wil be better than what you're about to purchase today. If you play the hype game, your wallet will become a lot lighter and you may forever be chasing your tail. 

I'm hoping I can follow my own advice.