Is this the age of the small camera? Part 1.

As Sony’s new Burano camera starts to ship – a relatively small camera that  could comfortably be used to shoot a blockbuster movie we have to look at how over the last few years the size of the cameras used for film production has reduced.

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Which was shot with an 8K Venice 2 and which was shot with a 4K FX3?

 

Only last year we saw the use of the Sony FX3 as the principle camera for the movie the Creator. What is particularly interesting about the Creator is that the FX3 was chosen by the director Gareth Edwards for a mix of both creative and financial reasons.

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To save money or to add flexibility?

To save money, rather than building a lot of expensive sets Edwards chose to shoot on location using a wide and varied range of locations (80 different locations)  all over Asia. To make this possible he used a smaller than usual crew.  Part of the reasoning that was given was that it was cheaper to fly a small crew to all these different locations than to try to build a different set for each part of the film. The film cost $80 million to make and took $104 million in the box office, a pretty decent profit at a time when many movies take years to break even.

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FX3 on gimbal during the filming of The Creator



The FX3 was typically mounted on a gimbal and this allowed them to shoot quickly and in a very fluid manner, making use of natural light where possible.  A 2x anamorphic lens was used and the final delivery aspect ratio was a very wide 2.76:1. The film was edited first and then when the edit was locked down the VFX elements were added to the film. Modern tracking and rotoscoping techniques make it much easier to add VFX into sequences without needing to use green or blue screen techniques and this is one of those areas where AI will become a very useful and powerful tool.

You don’t NEED a big camera, but you might want one.

So, what is clear is that you don’t NEED a big camera to make a feature film and The Creator demonstrates that an FX3 (recording to an Atomos Ninja) offers sufficient image quality to stand up to big screen presentation. I don’t think this is really anything new, but we have now reached the stage where the difference in image quality between a cheap $1500 camera like the FX30 and a high end “cinema” camera like the $70K  Venice 2  is genuinely so small that an audience probably won’t notice.

There may be reasons why you might prefer to have a bigger camera body – it does make mounting accessories easier and will often have much better monitoring and viewfinder options. And you may argue that a camera like Venice can offer greater image quality (as you will see in part 2 – it technically does have a higher quality image than the FX3), but would the audience actually be able to see the difference and even if they can would they actually care? And what about post production – surely a better quality image is a big help with post – again come back for part 2 where I explore this in more depth.

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Which is the Arri LF and which is the Sony A1?


And small cameras will continue to improve. If what we have now is already good enough things can only get better.

8K Benefits??

Since the launch of Burano I’ve become more and more convinced of the benefits of an 8K sensor – even if you only ever intend to deliver in 4K, the extra chroma resolution from actually having 4K of R and B pixels makes a very real difference. Venice 2 really made me much more aware of this and Burano confirms it. Because of this I’ve been shooting a lot more with the Sony A1 (which possibly shares the same sensor as Burano). There is something I really like about the textural quality in the images from the A1, Burano and Venice 2 (having said that after spending hours looking at my side by side test samples from both 4K and 8K cameras while the difference is real, I’m not sure it will always be seen in the final deliverable). In addition when using a very compressed codec such as the XAVC-HS in the A1 recording at 8K leads to smaller artefacts which then tend to be less visible in a 4K deliverable. This allows you to grade the material harder than perhaps you can with similarly compressed 4K footage. The net result is the 10 bit 8K looks fantastic in a 4K production.

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Sony A1 cropped and zoomed in 6x.


I have to wonder if The Creator wouldn’t have been better off being shot with an A1 rather than an FX3. You can’t get 8K raw out of an A1, but the extra resolution makes up for this and it may have been a better fit for the 2x anamorphic lens that they used.

So many choices….

And that’s the thing – we have lots of choices now. There are many really great small cameras, all capable of producing truly excellent images. A small camera allows you to be nimble. The grip and support equipment becomes smaller. This allows you to be more creative. A lot of small cameras are being used for the Formula 1 movie, small cameras are often mixed with larger cameras and these days the audience isn’t going to notice. 

Plus we are seeing a change in attitudes. A few years ago most cinematographers wouldn’t have entertained the idea of using a DSLR or pocket sized camera as the primary camera for a feature. Now it is different, a far greater number of DP’s are looking at what a small camera might allow them to do, not just as a B camera but as the A camera. When the image quality stops being an issue, then small might allow you to do more.

This doesn’t mean big cameras like Venice will go away, there will always be a place for them. But I expect we will see more and more really great theatrical releases shot with cameras like the FX3 or A1 and that makes it a really interesting time to be a cinematographer. Again, look at The Creator – this was a relatively small budget for a science fiction film packed with CGI and other effects. And it looked great. Of course there is also that middle ground, a smaller camera but with the image quality of a big one – Burano perhaps?

In Part 2……

In part 2 I’m going to take some sample clips that I grabbed at a recent workshop from a Venice 2, Burano, A1 and FX3 and show you just how close the footage from these cameras is. I’ll also throw in some footage from an Arri LF and then I’ll “break” the footage in post production to give you an idea of where the differences are and whether they are actually significant enough to worry about.

 

3 thoughts on “Is this the age of the small camera? Part 1.”

  1. I whole heartedly agree. I’ve been using the A1 for the past year and been saying very similar things. Much better than the fx3. Also, it’s what got me excited about the Burano. Great article

  2. The FX3 only has a 4k sensor (for video), and no anamorphic mode, so using anamorphic lenses and then scaling/cropping in post means the effective resolution is a quite a lot lower than 4k, right?
    It’s something I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere, but which you hint at when you say the A1 might have been a better choice.

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