Friday, March 8, 2013

Digital Feature Filmmaking With The HV20 Part1

Digital Feature Filmmaking With The HV20 Part1.

I hope that this will end up being a three part series on a feature film shot with the Canon HV20. If you are a regular reader of this blog they you know that I have my favorites and of all the consumer camcorders ever made my favorite is the HV20. This camcorder along with its big brothers the Canon HV30 and HV40 were well on their way to becoming a staple of micro budget film making and then the Dslr revolution hit. People quickly jumped ship and this camera sort of got lost in the shuffle.

I am here to remind the film maker that is just starting out that there are advantages to using a camcorder to shoot your first digital feature film.

The first and most important advantage is that it is designed to shoot video.

The Dslr cameras even with their hacks are at heart stills cameras. That is what they were designed to do. They do a great job at it and can shoot awesome video, but you have to work hard to do this.

Second there is the price. Camcorders like the HV series cost less. And can recorder for a much longer time. You can have your camera and be ready to shoot for less than three hundred dollars. And I am including extra batteries and dv tapes in that three hundred dollars.

Three and this is an important third, they are better at recording in camera sound. You can add a good mic and a sound mixer and get great sound that you will not have to sync later.
Let’s look at the production of a HV feature that was shot in Australia. This is the first part of an interview that I am conducting with the film maker.

Here is a look at the trailer for the Canon HV20 digital feature ThrowBack.

Here is the beginning of what I hope to be a three part interview with the talented film maker.

How did you pull it off and were you ever tempted to go with the crowd running head long of the Dslr cliff?

Using the HV20 for Throwback was mainly a question of economics. I had an extremely limited budget and it just made more sense to shoot with a camera and accessories that I already owned than spend thousands of dollars on a new camera, new lenses and all the add-on bits and pieces that I would've had to buy to go the DSLR route. I didn't want to hire a DSLR to shoot my film on because I believe an indie filmmaker should own their own gear. If you accidentally destroy or damage it, you only have yourself to answer to, but even beyond that, it's so incredibly helpful to have a camera with you 24 hours a day and know that if you need to go out and do reshoots or whatever, the camera's there, not rented out to someone else and unavailable. And I didn't know anyone in Cairns to borrow a DSLR from, because I was only fairly new in town, so it just made sense to shoot the movie on the camera that I'd already owned since 2007. I knew the HV20 was capable of stellar results so I wanted to push it to its absolute limits and get some amazing shots out of it, and I think we've achieved that. There are shots in the movie that aren't in the trailers which are just going to blow people away.

I kept an eye on the DSLR revolution and followed its progress, and it all looked very interesting to me, but there were other factors, besides the cost, that kind of put me off shooting on a DSLR initially. Throwback started production back in 2010, and back then, DSLRs were still plagued with problems like moire, line-skipping, poor dynamic range and rolling shutter artifacts like wobble and skew, which I hate. The HV20, on the other hand, wasn't a still camera that was being used to shoot video, it was a VIDEO camera that was designed for videographers, so it had a lot of features that you couldn't get (and still can't) on DSLRs, like zebras, a low-contrast cine mode, 3.5mm headphone and mic jacks, continuous autofocus (which I didn't use often but it was very handy for moving subjects as it's very hard to pull focus on an HV20), manual audio level controls and many others. Plus, in 2010, I kept reading horror stories about how DSLRs would overheat and break down, and because we were going to be filming in hot jungles, I knew I couldn't work with a camera like that because it would be too unreliable. And in fact, we actually shot a couple of night-time scenes on a Canon 5D MkII by firelight, because we needed the larger sensor, and all those horror stories came true because the camera kept overheating and shutting down all the time. But when I used the HV20, however, it very rarely gave me any hassles. It just made sense to use a camera that I'd already invested money in, in terms of not only the camera itself but also filters, lenses, accessories like a Hoodman LCD and so on.

Now, of course, the GH3 is here, which is probably the first stills camera designed specifically for videography, instead of a stills camera where video is an afterthought. It would've been cool to shoot on a hacked GH2, but as I mentioned, money was a big factor, and I decided that rather than spend more cash on camera gear, I should save that money and put it into something else instead, like props, costumes, road trips to cool locations and things like that. And I'm glad I did.

People look down on the HV20 now that the 7D and GH3 and so on are all dominating the indie filmmaking market, but they forget that the HV20 is still a great HD camera with excellent manual controls and, if you use a quality mic, great audio. It's basically just a cut-down XHA1, which was a great camera from Canon towards the end of the last decade. Obviously you can't achieve the same ultra-shallow depth of field on the HV20 that you can with a DSLR, but you can come close to it. On Throwback, I used numerous tricks to get my DOF as shallow as possible, including shooting wide open with a neutral density filter in daylight, and quite often zooming in slightly. As a result, you'll see shots in the movie which you would swear were shot with a DSLR, but no, they were done on the HV20 shooting a max aperture with an ND filter and a slight zoom factor. Exposure-wise, it was just a matter of letting the camera set the exposure and then dialling down the gain until I saw a pleasing image on the LCD screen. I just exposed everything by eye, and of course the zebras came in mighty handy too. I just tried not to let the highlights blow out and everything was hunky-dory. Prosumer cameras are always factory set to overexpose everything so you have to compensate for that in each shot, which is why the trailers for Throwback look like an actual movie and not home video. We also tried to avoid shooting in high-contrast situations wherever possible. Most of our filming days started at about 6am when the sun was still low in the sky and the light was soft. Magic hour. It works for Terrence Malick and it sure worked for us, too.

That is it for part one of this question and answer. Just remember we are talking about being digital feature film makers. The word digital being important. You do not need an expensive camera to shoot your micro budget film. You can do it with video camera and the price point for many of them are becoming more and more appealing. If you want to become a digital film maker go out and start shooting footage. Get use to using what ever camera you select and keep shooting. It is better to have a two hundred dollar camera or camcorder that you are familiar with rather than a two thousand dollar camera that you are afraid to touch. Digital Film making is about having fun, if you are not enjoying yourself then you are doing something wrong. You can do it with an iphone, a Sanyo, a 8mm camera, a Vixia Camcorder, a Dslr or a Red one.
Good luck guys. Please take a moment to share this post with a friend.

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