You MIGHT Be Watching an HD DSLR Film If

Robert Rodriguez shooting with a Canon 7D and Zacuto rig. Image copyright D2Visions.

There’s no doubt that the HD DSLR craze is more than just a “phase.” Everyone from mom and pop wedding videographers to major Hollywood studios have embraced HD DSLRs in their productions. The reason is obvious. The imagery you get from these cameras is freaking gorgeous. The other factor is the cost. The amount of money you had to spend just a few years ago to get equivalent looking video was many times now what you need to spend. (Canon’s T2i/550D list for just $799 at B&H).

But I must admit, it’s gotten to a point where you can peg a DSLR film in the first few moments (as opposed to one shot on a Red or other popular format, like, oh, film). That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just interesting.

So, if you’re new to DSLR filmmaking, here are some clues to help you know if you’re watching an HD DSLR film  (a la Jeff Foxworthy)…

  • You MIGHT be watching an HD DSLR film if…every medium shot is completely out of focus except just the eyes, noses and mouths.
  • You MIGHT be watching an HD DSLR film if…every other long shot is shot with a tilt-shift lens.
  • You MIGHT be watching an HD DSLR film if…the whole thing is cinema verite style with focus going in and out like the focus pullers were drunk or something.
  • You MIGHT be watching an HD DSLR film if…there’s a timelaspe thrown in the middle of the film for absolutely no apparent reason.
  • You MIGHT be watching an HD DSLR film if…it’s color graded to look like it was shot on 70’s vintage film.
  • And, you MIGHT be watching an HD DSLR film if…the full title of the film is The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Shot on My Canon 7D with a Zeiss 35mm T1.4 PL Mount Lens and the Zacuto Mission Impossible ZX DSLR Cage* on the Cinevate Titan 2000*. (whew!)

Come on. You know it’s true. And I confess I’ve been guilty of going a tad too far sometimes with exploring the possibilities of these cameras. We’re like kids in a candy store: all this incredible shallow DoF, high dynamic range, lens choice, etc. Sometimes you can’t help yourself.

But let us not forget that these are all tools to help us tell stories. If a particular lens choice or use of DoF doesn’t help propel the story in some way, but is just thrown in there because you can, then you risk the chance of drawing attention to the shot, instead of the story. Ergo, the DSLR film “look.”

Good Looks

Again, there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself I suppose. But I think one can have their work become less unique if it starts getting that distinct DSLR look. Now, I know what you’re thinking “Every great director develops a certain look.” Yes, you’re right. Guillermo del Toro, the Cohen Bros., P.T. Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock; I could go on and on. But these are all directors who created signature looks that were/are characterized by a combination of factors: stock choice, cinematography, set design, and not the least of which, the script itself. A Cohen brothers film is a Cohen brothers film because of everything they put into it. And more importantly, no other film LOOKS like a Cohen brothers film; and if one does, people will say, “Oh, that looks like a Cohen brothers film.”

The DSLR “look” I’m talking about is a generic, across the board look that is unique to no one. Everybody’s doing it. And that is where it can become problematic.

So, as you venture forth into the world of DSLR filmmaking, start thinking about what will set your work apart from the thousands of other DSLR filmmakers out there. Take a stand to be unique. Go against the grain (pun intended). Dare to be different. Go “Citizen Kane” and use a bunch of DEEP focus shots. Mix it up a little.

What do you think?

(*There is no such thing as a Zacuto Mission Impossible ZX DSLR Cage or a Cinevate Titan 2000.)

19 thoughts on “You MIGHT Be Watching an HD DSLR Film If

  1. Ha! awesome. I laughed out loud at this. Painfully true. Also, I hope we reach a time when we can post our films without the first questions being “what cam?” “what lenses?”, etc.

  2. Glad you liked it Adam. I doubt we'll ever get to a point where we asfilmmakers aren't at time more intrigued with the “how” vs. the “why.”But I know what you're getting at. I would like to see a balance.Where there are as many comments, questions and discussion about thestory as about the toys used.And I don't want to come off as some holier than thou filmmaker. I'mjust as guilty of asking what cameras, lenses, etc was used. That'snatural as we all want to learn. I'd just like to see some balance.

  3. You are right, I've caught myself watching something and thinking, that was shot with a DSLR! It's usually pretty obvious, unless the piece actually tells a good written story, then you might not even have time to think about what gear they used. Oh and also, Where do I buy my Zacuto Mission Impossible ZX DSLR Cage! Lol!

  4. Misa, That's exactly what prompted this blog post. I was watching avideo and the very first thought I had was “you can tell that was shoton a dslr.” when I watch a new Nooma film for example, nothingparticular about the look screams what kind of camera was used.As far as the new Mission Impossible ZX rig, Im sure Zacuto_Sue willtweet about any day now. 😉

  5. Great post, Ron. I think you're right on all counts. You're also right to point out that certain filmmakers have a definitive style – the Coen Bros, Del Toro, etc. Every filmmaker needs to ask himself/herself: “What is my role as a filmmaker in telling this story?” “Who am I speaking for?” I for one appreciate filmmakers who step aside and speak for their characters/subjects, rather than themselves; whose style is dictated by story and genre, not the other way around. A great film should immerse & engage you to the point where form is not a factor. So for me, 'style' done wrong puts the focus squarely on form rather than content. And as you point out, any obvious signs of an unmotivated camera move, choice of lens, etc, take us right out of the piece emotionally and into an analytical space where our journey with the characters ends, and a peek into the ego of the filmmaker begins.

  6. Love this post! I think some videographers are relying WAY too heavily on just how the actual footage looks vs what they are actually capturing and editing. Many can't hold the camera even the slightest bit steady and shot framing has gone out the window. It seems like core production values have disappeared all because the footage looks pretty (and it does!) Sure there are plenty of videographers who excel with DSLRs but you are absolutely right on how much stuff looks identical…shaky, color graded video, simply edited with audio snippets to a generally slowish acoustic song…I love the way DSLRs look (who doesn't) but people need to definitely start coming into their own before we have thousands of video companies all producing identical looking stuff. I haven't made a full fledged move to DSLRs yet for multiple reasons – the main ones being I want a DSLR style VIDEO camera…one I can hold comfortably and not rely on add on braces and mounts, one that can shoot more footage safely, etc…and I want to come up with my own style – I don't want to just bite off of Still Motion or other top videographers out there. Sorry for the rant…but the post got me going!

  7. I think that the Panny will be the true start of a new game…I mean the real start is from the DSLR movement, but we all know those are really still cameras first and foremost and they just happen to have amazing video functionality…but now with this camera where video is its life…definitely a game changer…although since its the first of its kind you know sony and canon will have follow ups that will hopefully be better. If I could I would gut one of my A1's and stuff a 7d into it…then I would be happy! One thing when I shoot DSLR that I really REALLY miss is the flip out LCD…its so hard to get high and low angle shots that are framed well or even hitting the subject with a DSLR…sure you can add on an external monitor to certain DSLRs but enough with the add ons…I want all my money to go to lenses – not z-finders (sorry Zacuto…I really do love my zfinder but think it will be obsolete soon) or shoulder mounts, etc. I want a camera that is perfect for handheld shooting right out of the box and I think thats what the AF100 will do. I would hope that its image quality will be comparable to current DSLRs. But my true feeling is Canon will be the winner in this game. They are always the last to release things, but they have the guts (of the stills) to make something phenomenal…and with this BOOM of DSLR movie making, I would not be the least bit surprise to see Nikon join in on the fun with their own DSLR style video cam. But to get back to your original question (wow I go on tangents way too easily!) I think the Panasonic will be an amazing camera and will do well if it's designed well and priced right – Panasonic is definitely a company that knows what they are doing (DVX, HVX anyone?). I probably will wait it out for a Canon type since I am a loyalist – but that doesn't mean I wont head to B&H to play with this cam or even rent it for a weekend!

  8. Love this article, Ron. I have been guilty of some of this, as we all have. But I will go on record as saying all the out of focus stuff being posted on a regular basis due to these cameras is getting old. Yuck.

  9. I agree. You need to look past the gear and create your films based on content/story. You can definitely pick out the look of a DSLR film but I think some people are doing it right and you can't tell what they used.I get tired of seeing all this shaky CMOS footage and over done DOF shots, use your tools to tell a story! If you can't shoot properly with a DSLR don't use it. Shooting on DSLR's takes a lot more work, you can't shoot handheld, you can't capture proper audio and you can't do auto focus. A trade off for pretty footage but badly composed, shaky, unmotivated pretty footage is not going to help you.I try to base each of my films on the client's personalities and the story from their day but at the same time use my own style to create a unique film. I love the DSLR's because they enable me to create a much more movie like films. They are a pain to use, but for me they best cameras available right now to bring my films to life.

  10. I think you're right on Joe about not being able to tell what was used whena film is shot right. The season finale of “House” didn't look like a “dslrfilm.” Your work speaks for itself too. Learn to use these tools right,learn how to tell good stories, and don't don't go “bokey bonkers.” 🙂

  11. Excellent post Ron! I have to admit that I fell victim to the HDSLR-esque, unmotivated shots too. What helped 'reel it in' for me was going back to my (brief) film school days. Simply by asking why the director or dp chose the shot, how it moved the story forward and what, if any, subtext are they conveying. A book I recently read that brings me back to that frame of mind is 'Cinematic Storytelling' by Jennifer Van Sijll. There's a bunch other books out there too. To me an artist goal is to convey a message and if they don't but manage to make it look pretty, then its art for arts sake.

  12. Great post man. I enjoy reading these types of articles because as a 7D shooter it pushes me to do more with the camera and more importantly, something different.

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