Canon EOS 5G Mark II D-SLR still camera

One of the surprise hits of this year's NAB was a video camera that isn't a video camera at all "” namely, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, a $3000 digital still camera that shoots beautiful 30p video. Stu Maschwitz, co-founder of the late VFX firm The Orphanage and proprietor of the awesome ProLost blog, proved the point by showing "After the Subway," his Mark II-shot short film with a highly choreographed fight sequence, at a Monday-morning "super session" on low-budget filmmaking.

The image quality is remarkable, with the broad dynamic range characteristic of a D-SLR and the shallow, cinematic depth of field enabled by 35mm optics. But what was even more noteworthy is that professional cinematographers and videographers at the show were keenly aware of a camera that was never designed with them in mind. Someone at the panel — co-panelist Rodney Charters, I think, but I didn't get it in my notes — said that Mark IIs had been banned from NFL games because pro videographers had complained that the still photographers on the other end of the field might be capturing some video footage on the sly. (Other panelists were Brian Valente of Red Rock Micro and DP/camera operator Charles Papert, co-founder of 48-hour filmmaking festival Instant Films.)

Charters has always been interested in all stripes of digital camera, but that curiosity has grown more urgent since his network bosses ordered him to migrate production away from 35mm on 24, which is set to enter its final season next year. "I may have loaded my last magazine of film," Charters said with some obvious regret. Then he quipped, "These are troubling times for Kodak shareholders." (Charters shared his experiences as an early guinea pig for the Genesis camera with Film & Video back in 2005; check it out.)

Charters showed the audience images from the set of the show, where he was testing with three Red cameras and five Mark IIs alongside his trusty film cameras. He even held up an example of a rig designed by Red Rock Micro expressly for the Mark II. I tracked down Valente later at the Red Rock booth and got him to demonstrate this flexible gadget on camera.

In A/B comparisons of filmed and digital images, 35mm seemed to have a clear edge in latitude, but Charters acknowledged that other considerations trump pure image quality. "Once directors see high-definition at the video village, they don't want to go back" to SD video taps, he said. But he did note that figuring out new workflows for handling different types of digital footage in post-production create their own dilemmas in post production. "Many of the up-front costs for film have shifted to post," he said.

It's important to test cameras in practical situations before making any firm decisions. For example, Charters said that he had an unbalanced opinion of Sony's XDCAM EX3 after using it for an episode of Dollhouse he worked on, describing it as an unusually fine camera hobbled by its native codec. "It's fantastically sharp until things move," he said, "and then you're a victim of long-GOP MPEG." Maschwitz opined that next-generation D-SLRs like the Mark II are "revolutionary" technology, but also noted that when the Mark II dropped a few frames during a shot he had to use After Effects to reconstruct them based on the surrounding footage. Charters recommended using the fastest Compact Flash card available (UDMA) to avoid such problems.

Near the top of a cinematographer's wish list for cameras like the Mark II would be the ability to acquire footage at 24p, rather than just 30p. Maschwitz cautioned that he hopes camera makers don't waste R&D dollars by continuing to play the megapixel game. "Folks in the stills world know that adding megapixels decreases light sensitivity," he said. "Adding resolution to these cameras is the wrong way to go."

Charters chuckled about that, relating a brief conversation he had with an actress who approached him on a show and asked if he would be shooting film or digital. "I said, 'Digital,' Charters recalled. "She used the F-word three times."