Cinema had been an expensive adventure. Long back, people grumbled that the art of letter writing waned as the cost of writing decreased coupled with the expanse of telegraph. We have moved far from that reality and realize that the art of story-telling never got cheap – it moved from papyrus to iPad. That’s just the medium which got shifted. The content emanating from the creator’s mind sustains enigma in similar fashion. Coming back to cinema, the first democratic attempt toward freedom of voice (or rather voice and picture!) came with the popularity of the handycam. These video cameras fulfilled the middle-class dream of capturing the birthday celebrations or the occasional outings in wilderness. The devices are user-friendly and like all, you will want it to be shared with friends and families. Lenses or editing is not priority, its more important that your brother in Los Angeles relishes the ‘mukhe-bhaat’ of your son in Kolkata on youtube. It bridges the gap, it mends minds, it more importantly, connects.

But there are many, like me, who also want to shoot their own film. The biggest hindrance for us is BUDGET. Now, you can always ask friends to act in your film at minimal cost but what you can’t reduce is the cost towards equipments – camera, editing equipment etc. To address this, the leading camera makers – Canon and Nikon have come up with HD video recording features in their professional DSLRs. Yes, and more importantly, the results are promising. The recent released Stanley Ka Dabba and the subway scenes in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan are glorious exponents of feature films fully shot in HD professional DSLRs. Unless you are a practitioner, its difficult to make out that this film is not the conventional 35mm one. So who cares?

Digital SLRs will and have already cut down the cost of production by factors in the order of 5 atleast. That is, whereas a RED camera per shift rent is around 15-16 thousand in Kolkata, a Canon 7D is expected to be around 3 thousand maximum. The proportion almost balances the same for the cost of these new devices. This gain without significant loss in the output should actually push film-makers to venture new and potentially parallel modes of distribution wherein an initial investment may lead to make the cinema making experience even more inexpensive. So much so, that Hindi films and quite a handful of regional cinema viz Tamil, Telegu and Bengali has started reaping the advantages. The controversial Bengali film Gandu is shot in Canon 7D and the director Kausik Mukherjee found the black-white texture rendered by the interchangeable lens talk what he wants to say. While it is difficult for an Indian audience to view Gandu (due to censorship), the effects of Amol Gupte’s Stanley ka Dabba are electrifying. The camera successfully cloned as one of the students and mixed with the others effortlessly. The size of a DSLR helps actually in becoming an identity of its own. The flip side is to keep it steady unless the jerk is intended. Even popular film makers like Ramgopal Verma is using Canon 5D to shoot his latest Tamil film.

Shallow depth of field is a common filmic technique which many urban-centric films try to achieve. In soft saturation frames or in city settings this blur effect creates a dramatic impact. Just like during the transition from Black-white to colour cinema, the pan and track came into fore, with the advent of DSLRs blur is set to have a new meaning. The major reason for the embossed effect is the large sensor which is intrinsic to DSLRs for their primary role of capturing static images.

All these DSLRs give you video in full high definition, that is 1920×1080. They come with variable frame rates which allows for even more interesting outcomes. A traditional film is shot in 24p i.e 24 frames per second. However, using one of these DSLRs you can shoot a narrative in 60p and then track it in a 24p timeline on the editing floor to generate stunning slow-motion effect. Though this is not a feature of the DSLRs alone, what is important again is the cost – the rent cost is so reduced that you can actually shoot the same piece with multiple settings and then try out in the edit machine for the final that suits you best.

Most of these DSLRs produce good results in natural lights – Stanley.. was shot in natural lights and it produces natural cinematic effect on screen. However, what needs to be kept in mind is to colour correct the film in post production appropriately to give it a 35mm effect instead of a digital one. There are three basic guidelines (there are many which one may find on the internet) that can be of help for a DSLR beginner though the radiant truth is to experiment and explore:

  • Shooting Mode – This is a cinema that you are shooting. So it has to be Manual always. Now, controlling the focus is a challenge that you have to take, gleefully.
  • ISO range – Best result is with ISO 100. In low light conditions the result can be exponentially drastic at the cost of making the image brighter.
  • Shutter Speed – By default, set to double the frame rate, so in case you are shooting at 24fps, then your shutter speed should be at 50 or 60 (you probably won’t get a 48). In some cameras it will be referred as 1/50 instead of 50!

Coming to the limitations of shooting videos in a DSLR – actually there are more than a few. But to list the major ones, here are they:

  • Duration of a clip is always a challenge with maximum of 10-12 minutes footage per clip on an average
  • Overheating of the cameras – however funny it may sound, it can actually ruin your schedule if you tend to overlook it.
  • The fixed LCD monitor in most DSLRs can defeat its advantage of being lightweight and marked for effortless maneuvering
  • Sound – most of these DSLRs are poor to capture live sound. So you need to back up for mixing audio during your editorial process.
  • The most prevalent and accepted editing software across the globe is Apple iMac’s Final Cut Pro (fondly referred as FCP). FCP has serious issues with the Codec H.264 that these DSLRs use. This might catch anyone by surprise on edit desk. But there are few work around available if you Google.

The purpose of these is to make a new DSLR video practitioner aware of the tool at her hand. She should know its limitations well to tame it to her will.

Amongst the camera manufacturers, there is no doubt that Canon started this buzz around DSLRs. As a result you will find the Canon 1Ds, 7Ds and 5Ds all over the internet with their specifications and success stories. Whereas it’s true that Canon literally revolutionized the scene, it is also worth remembering that Nikon, Sony, Panasonic or the other giants are not far behind. Nikon’s D7000 for instance has reproducible good output. Within Canon stack as well, Canon 550D is a low-cost optimum camera which can turn an amateur into a professional practitioner. Priced almost half than the bigger and heavier Canon 7D, the video output measures up leaving consumers rushing for it to add in the kit.  

All these will prove that DSLR is the future for semi-professional film making – feature or otherwise. It doesn’t dilute the art of cinema, it rather bolsters the science behind it by making it inexpensive for many. It’s you to decide if you want to take it up in your hand and experiment. The latent creative persona within you may just erupt. The camera manufacturers should strive to create a competitive platform where the consumer comes out winner. That will ensure that cinema as an entertaining art also triumphs. And as the manufacturers fight it out, let us sit down and work on our own scripts. 

<<This is edited from a couple of short articles in The Statesman in 2011 on the subject of DSLRs>>