The DSLR wars continues with the new Panasonic Lumix GH2, which adds 3D to the toolkit.
According to Gizmodo,
Panasonic’s pulling out all the stops for the GH2, which they’re deeming their “most professional-level Digital Single Lens Micro camera yet.” What that means is serious photo and video quality, starting with a new 16MP LIVE MOS sensor and a new Venus Engine image processor, allowing you to snap 14MP shots while recording video, as well as shoot full resolution shots at 5fps.
Video, which allows for touch autofocus and variable frame rate—80 through 300%—is similarly impressive. There’s a 1080/60i video mode, though it can also record at 1080/24p at 24Mbps. Backing all of this up is a 3-inch, 460,000-dot swiveling LCD touchscreen, which allows for touch autofocus, menu selection, and all the rest.
The 3D option is,
$250 LUMIX G 12.5mm / F12, the world’s first interchangeable 3D lens.
It packs two optical systems in the lens itself, snapping two shots simultaneously and combining them with a 3D image processor. Panasonic says the 3D photos will look particularly crispy on your Viera 3DTV, natch.
Patrick Goldstein has a think piece in the Los Angeles Times that speaks compellingly of how the co-opting of the word “reality” is creating greater challenges for audiences, and by that greater challenges to those of us who are doing documentaries.
He says that now that “I’m Not Here” has been exposed as an utter fake” (I wonder if it is, or simply the work of two guys who have lost touch with what reality actually is), it bears discussion about what we see, and what is supposedly real.
TV is overrun with reality TV shows, which might be the least accurate genre moniker of all time, since virtually all reality TV shows are shaped, scripted and full of storylines that are just as complex and convoluted (and often just as preposterous) as any soap opera or telenovela series. At the multiplexes this weekend, “I’m Still Here” was joined by “Catfish,” a fascinatingly ambiguous documentary by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman about a wide-eyed young New York photographer–actually one of the director’s brothers–who engages in an online romance with a mysterious young woman who turns out to be entirely different from whom she appears to be.
Reality shows, of course, are made by people (and usually “star” people) who carry in them the worst kind of cynicism. Goldstein notes that be it television, YouTube or documentary, you have to spend a lot of time thinking about what you should accept as being real. A more existential argument is that the “Catfish” filmmakers are simply products of an era in which nothing is objectively real and anyone under, say, 30, is raised on the posturing “microcelebrity” imperative of creating a “profile” instead of presenting as a person, and having “friends” you’ve never met. Maybe “Catfish” is reality as these filmmakers know it.
Our level of disbelief has so thoroughly colored our interaction with art that when “Catfish” was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it immediately inspired a wave of skeptical catcalls. In the lead was Movieline’s Kyle Buchanan, who put up a post debunking the film, saying ”I think the filmmakers knew from the start what they had on their hands, and they baited a mentally unwell woman for almost a year until their film needed a climax…. You’re telling me that a pair of young filmmakers documenting said story would never think to Google their mysterious subjects over a span of several months?”
For so-called “live action” documentaries, it’s never the case that you get true reality, as much as an ethical filmmaker may try. Scientists call it the “observer effect,” and the Polish biologist Ludwig Fleck noted “people observe what they expect to observe until compellingly shown otherwise.” PBS’s “An American Family” was a groundbreaking documentary when aired in 1973, not just because of the Loud family’s internal drama, but also because people wondered whether their behavior (Lance coming out of the closet, Pat demanding a divorce from Bill) was a result of being emboldened by the presence of camera crews and the knowledge their behavior would be put before audiences. The minute you turn a camera on, nothing is truly real.
But the upshot of all these films and shows that abuse the term “reality” is that nothing then is truly as compelling. To see what is real can be an ennervating and sometimes exhilarating experience; when people keep it in the back of their head that all may not be as it seems, the potential for a documentary to rise to its best is undercut, and both filmmakers and audiences pay a price for that.
In every filmmaker’s dreams, the film they make is transcendent. It is greeted with stunning acclaim, is snapped up by a distributor, and before you know it, the film is playing in every theater in the country and Number One on the Netflix list.
An example of a documentary that may do that is “March of the Penguins.” Other than that, there are few examples.
Even the most successful documentary stays firmly in a space that is probably bigger than what might be called “niche,” and smaller than what might be called “wide.” But that often represents a no-man’s land for distributors, especially in that theatrical release so often still involves 35mm prints for exhibition, a costly process.
But as theaters move to digital, that lessens.
In Part I of this series, I made the case that your most efficient and generally profitable route is to first cultivate the audience that has high levels of interest in the topic the film addresses. These audiences are even more accessible now because of the web, and social media. They can be found at lower cost of promotion and marketing, and the groups I called the “Insanely Interested” and “Rising Passion” cohorts will more actively seek out the work.
But as represented in the pyramid, you begin to move through moderately interested audiences and then on to the truly general audience – those with no built-in connection to your topic. That generally interested audience, of course, is mathematically far larger than the topic-interested group. They’re out there, in theory.
I remember working 25 years ago for a newspaper in which at an editorial meeting the publisher spoke of trying to raise the circulation by 25,000 copies a day. After months of promotions, discounts and other active efforts to get that boost, the publisher concluded that the money it took to artificially raise the circulation was more than the potential advertising revenue we’d see because of higher numbers. We were, simply, losing money by trying to have a relatively small percentage more readers in a market we had pretty much saturated.
In film, it can be a similar expenditure of money, effort and time with marginal results. To have your film go “general” but with small numbers means you’re shotgunning, and that costs money. General, more often than not, is not wide. It means giving up your strong core audience in hopes of your work getting much larger numbers.
Trying to get to a break-out level with your film is going to sometimes also involve giving up the core audience that otherwise might be there. And, beyond that, film is still a cost/revenue proposition. A bigger budget on your film requires more audience just for you not to lose money.
Having attended many a film festival and been a judge on a few, I’ve seen many documentaries that seem stuck between the two audiences. Often, it seems to me, trying to capture both audiences is at cross purposes. Some considerations:
- Core audiences want detail, but general audiences find those details boring. Lose details, your core audience sees the film as giving them something they already know.
- Core audiences want to advance their knowledge; general audiences more often seek escape and entertainment.
- Core audiences relate the topic to their lives; general audiences may never engage in this topic again.
General audiences also look for something core audiences don’t always: A plot. Be it “March of the Penguins,” “Grizzly Man” or “Supersize Me,” the most generally successful documentaries generally have a story line.
Those successful documentaries that don’t have a strong plot – and I consider “Bowling for Columbine” to be one of those – work on the basis of comedy. A punch-line every three to four minutes is what it took for Michael Moore to succeed. If there’s a “plot” at all, it’s the journey of one man to get an answer to a question that’s really impossible to answer. “Columbine,” keeps you watching through a mix of comedy and pathos.
On the other hand, Ken Burns’ films are much less plot-driven, and there’s a reason they’re on PBS instead of HBO, and not in theaters. Burns has story line, but not plot in the classic sense, which goes toward these competing needs. “The Civil War” has hundreds of stories of men at war, but a fiction film like “Cold Mountain” funnels it down to the experiences of one representative.
Plots tend to have a need to focus down to a single character or protagonist, or at least a small group. The current fashion in documentary (spurred more than filmmakers will admit by the rise of the reality television show) seems to be to have live-action documentaries in which we follow one person or a small group of people through a complication. Plot also implies a big climax, which seems to be why a rising number of docs seem to lead to our protagonists ending up in some contest or competition – grocery bagging, mother of the year, singing competition, the big game, etc. The “showdown,” with its clear winners and losers, makes a very easy plot device.
Plot is about focus, and focus is about shedding complexity. It’s hard to go wide with detail and narrow with narrative movement. “Man on Wire,” with its story of one man’s tightrope walk, is a different film than one about all the different people who do such stunts. It was able to go wide because it adds plot – not whether Petit will fall from the wire (he’s interviewed years later, clearly alive) but whether he’ll succeed (which the poster shows him doing) and/or be caught. “March of the Penguins” succeeds by doing something no self-respecting scientist would do – it treats the penguins as humans, assigning emotion and motivation so they become proxies of ourselves in our own struggles with life’s journeys.
General audiences also seek, consciously or unconsciously, some level of what might be called “literary quality” That means that your protagonist goes through some significant personal change, as in a good dramatic film or in a novel. Audiences who might not care a whit about the topic care intrinsically about people in such struggles. Ironically, few documentaries have such “literary” movement. But those who do can truly move audiences.
One film that doesn’t, “The Cove,” has a lot of plot devices that make it akin to an escapist summer thriller like “The Bourne Conspiracy” or “Mission Impossible.” But for all its success, it lacks the character change that makes for true movement. In the end, none of the parties change as people. The audiences can now be vaguely aware of the dolphin problem, and see a minute of disturbing climactic footage, but that’s really less the point than the excitement of the chase.
On the other hand, “The Way We Get By” is all about the action of the film leading our main characters, elderly troop greeters, to explore the meaning of their lives.
The most important thing for a filmmaker to remember about a plot-driven film is that they carry an element of risk that cannot be planned out. What if the “Cove” guys hadn’t succeeded on their mission? Risk is lessened by either telling a story retroactively (“Grizzly Man”) or having a can’t-miss climax (such as The Big Contest). The other notion is that In the end, even “general” documentary audiences aren’t really general. They are often older; they most often have a higher level of education, and they often mix the desire for the educational and entertaining. That means getting to them in a meaningful way will be harder. More on that in the final part of this series.
Videography.com has an interview with the Cliff Charles, cinematographer for Spike lee’s HBO documentary “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.” and notes Canon’s EOS 7D and EOS 1D Mk IV got heavy use.
“We captured as much of the Gulf Coast area and New Orleans as we could because the city itself is a ‘character’ in the film,” he said. “Ricardo Sarmiento, one of our main camera operators, did a lot of the landscape shooting with the 1D Mark IV in particular.”
“The relatively small size of the Canon digital SLRs enables one person to carry multiple cameras, which was another advantage,” Charles added. “These cameras were used for different shots, because of their different weights and sensor sizes.”
The article indicates these cameras were used to augment more traditional (and costly) HD cameras, but does not specify what those might have been. But an earlier piece on the film’s color correction in Digital Producer says this:
All told, seven different formats including HDCAM SR, DVCPro HD, HDV, 35mm, 16mm, Super 8 and DSLR footage were incorporated into the film. Both Lee and Charles wanted each source to have its own rich look.
The camcorder in the photo here is a Sony SRW-9000, which shoots HDCam format. For a filmmaker as well-funded as Lee, it would seem too risky to go all-DSLR; he used some pretty heavy-duty formats to give HBO the video specs it wants. But if in the film it’s hard to tell the difference between footage from the $100,000 camcorder and the $1,600 DSLR, that will certainly advance the legitimacy of the format.
The Videography piece also says,
Another benefit, Charles cited, to shooting with an SLR-style camera is that many people know how to use them. Even if they are completely camera-illiterate, the learning curve is far simpler than that for a broadcast-grade HD camcorder or film camera. This enabled Charles to give Canon 1D Mark IV and 7D cameras to other members of the crew and obtain a greater variety of coverage at little-to-no cost. This additional-cameraman method is becoming a popular DSLR technique employed by cinematographers to quickly and simply capture an additional angle or perspective on an established shot.
“This is a great advantage in situations where you need to acquire a lot of footage very quickly,” he said. “Everyone got an opportunity to work with the cameras, including Spike, who shot some footage with the 7D. He would not have been able to shoot and direct if he was using anything larger than a DSLR camera.”
Casey Affleck, hammered by reviews that say “I’m Not Here” would be better if it weren’t a real documentary, says it’s not a real documentary.
From the New York Times:
“It’s a terrific performance, it’s the performance of his career,” Mr. Affleck said. He was speaking of Mr. Phoenix’s two-year portrayal of himself — on screen and off — as a bearded, drug-addled aspiring rap star, who, as Mr. Affleck tells it, put his professional life on the line to star in a bit of “gonzo filmmaking” modeled on the reality-bending journalism of Hunter S. Thompson.
To quote Rusty from “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Sure, Dad, I believe you. But do you think Mom will buy it?”
Documentaries keep trying to look like fiction films, and fiction films keep trying look like documentaries – at least fiction filmmakers’ view of what documentaries should look like.
In a review of “Catfish,” the not-really-a-documentary, the Huffington Post’s Marshall Fine notes certain low-quality qualities:
Most of those have to do with the low-rez imagery, produced by grab-what’s-at-hand equipment used to shoot this funny, spooky documentary. Filmed on the fly with everything from high-priced digital equipment to Flip cameras (or the equivalent), Catfish has an in-the-moment feel, like a story whose tellers weren’t sure where it was going or what they had while they were shooting it. You get the sense that they didn’t necessarily know they were making a movie, so much as simply recording bits of their daily life.
In other words, shot like a cheap documentary. The kind most documentary makers would never get caught dead shooting. But films like “Catfish” and “Exit Through The Gift Shop” lower audience expectations of what a documentary should look like.
Faux-documentary documentaries usually consciously play up the elements that say “real,” by saying “cheap,” including such old saws as the interviewers voice coming from beyond the frame (usually tinny and distant, as if no one thought to mike the interviewer), boom mikes “accidentally” dropping into view, exposed wires, bad lighting, grainy low-light shots buzzing with noise, and low-grade video quality, as if shot on Hi-8. That creates the “raw” feel the filmmakers believe create the documentary look. Editing is usually choppy, sloppy and amateurish, again in the name of authenticity.
For actual documentary makers, that might be a good or bad thing. One view is that beautifully shot docs will surprise and please the audience; the other is that the faux-look allows less-funded documentarians to be in the game.
But the Flip camera thing is something any self-respecting documentary filmmaker would go to great lengths to avoid; handheld, jarring shots complete the look.
If it looks “real,” that’s how you know it’s not real.
The film already has provoked controversy over just how truthful the film itself is. Some have lumped it together with Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop and Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here, as examples of films that appear to be documentaries but which, in fact, may be something else altogether.
SpringBoardMedia’s Brian Newman has a long post on the idea of sponsorship, something he has mixed feelings about.
The first potential downside is that there’s probably no upside. It is highly unlikely that you will get any major brand to sponsor your film. Yes, there are examples and I can show them too, but “sponsorship” is the new elusive lottery prize for filmmakers that was once getting into Sundance or scoring a distribution deal – it’s always been the lucky few and this will hold true with sponsorship. As a friend of mine who is very high up in the marketing department of a major company told me – “if a filmmaker asks me for sponsorship, I would say they should pay me instead because they are gaining much more from my logo than I am gaining from them.”
But Newman seems to be talking mostly about fictional films – would your company take a plunge on that, with the inherent risks? His post, to me, paints a bleak picture for that, but I certainly think documentaries have far more potential for sponsorship.
Sponsorship, of course, is a fixture on television. Not the selling of ad space per se, but rather the sponsorship that’s common on public television. Most of Ken Burns’ films were sponsored by General Motors; no one I’ve heard of accuses Burns of being a shill for the car company. But sponsorship does presume a certain quid pro quo: Burns does “All-American” docs that are always interesting and never edgy. Baseball. Jazz. The Civil War. National Parks. Sort of an extended paean to American industry and resourcefulness, the very thing all those GM ads extend.
Corporations have foundations, and those foundations very often fund the arts: Usually orchestras, theaters and the like. And they go for low-risk productions that communicate their interest in culture without engaging what the arts should do best – challenge our perceptions. They usually don’t sponsor films because of the traditional difficulties in getting through the festival/distribution bottleneck. How do you explain to your foundation’s board that you poured money in a film that never saw the light of day? With self-distribution using the web and social media, that risk has become much less pronounced in the last five years.
Sponsorship may or may not be like getting a grant. Grants are a corporation’s foundation’s legal requirement to disburse money in support of chosen endeavors (in lieu of paying corporate taxes, usually). If the grants are for the arts, the foundation cannot simply decide in a given year to withhold.
Sponsorship, in a stricter definition, would be when a corporation uses its advertising/public relations/marketing budget to put money behind a project because they think it will make them more money or build them better brand awareness. One example I think is fascinating was for Mary Mazzio’s documentary on entrepreneurship, “Lemonade Stories,” which was sponsored by Babson College, an institution that is primarily a business school and focuses especially on entrepreneurship. Babson got up-front credit, as “Babson presents…”
It seems in many discussions out there people use the word “sponsorship” when they mean “grant.” But either way, the question for documentary filmmakers is how closely aligned you want to be with your funder. If Toyota had sponsored “Who Killed The Electric Car?” or Starkist (which since 1990 has had a “dolphin-safe” policy) had sponsored “The Cove,” would we think less of the filmmaker or the sponsor? That’s a judgment call.
Why would a corporation want to sponsor a documentary? Because it makes them look good. Period. It’s not about your film being wonderful, it’s about them getting perceived benefit, usually in the way of image and public perception. That’s the cost of doing business with a sponsor. PBS’s biggest sponsors include ExxonMobil, Coca Cola, Wal-Mart and Chevron. Do we feel better about them because they keep public broadcasting afoot? They believe so.
Newman is concerned about the taint of money, even apparently grants:
In my opinion, all money is tainted in some way. You can’t take money from the government or foundations and truly keep a clear conscience. We’ve had support for the arts from patrons, the church, foundations, government and now from corporations. None of the earlier models have been all that great, so we might as well try this system. At the end of the day, however, I find it a bit distressing that I continually appear at conferences that have plenty of panels about sponsorship and advertising models, but there’s never a panel about the bigger issues – neither the very realistic possibility that these won’t be a saviour to many, nor any discussion about the potential ethical dilemmas.
A couple of years ago I was the recipient of a Literary Fellowship form the National Endowment for the Arts. The grant, $25,000, was sent in one check, did not require me to report how I spent it, and did not demand any specific outcome (In some contrast, in 2009 I got a filmmaking grant from the Rhode Island State Council of the Arts; they were far more specific about their requirements, mainly that I could not use it to buy equipment). Certainly there was no demand from the NEA that the work I’m doing should fit some aesthetic. It allowed me to reduce my teaching schedule in 2009 and begin a new book (which I’m still working on). Similar writers’ grants are available from the Guggenheim, Whiting, and Ford Foundations. While everyone remembers the “Piss Christ” controversy, I can report no troubles about the grant. If I were required to put a corporate logo on my book, that would be different. But truthfully, I don’t feel tainted; indeed I felt it was an honor.
So “sponsorship” can take on many shadings. Having a wind-turbine company sponsor your wind-turbine documentary does look like corporate video; having a large corporation fund a film unrelated to their products that advances the public good while burnishing the company’s image may seem more acceptable. But Newman is certainly correct in this basic thought: Any money you use on your film other than your own probably comes at some price.
The $1,995 AJA Ki-Pro Mini is a device that records directly from the camcorder to Compact Flash cards, through either the SDI or HDMI port of the camera, and captures footage directly into Apple’s ProRes422 codec. You can then import to hard drive and get editing.
The key to devices such as this – and others such as Ki-Pro and the NanoFlash – is that you can get a stream of video far less compressed than the camera itself captures. Whereas a Sony EX1 captures at 35mbps, the nanoFlash can capture at a bitrate of 50 or 100mbps, which brings it up to broadcast standards for networks such as the BBC.
The Mini’s specs don’t speak of bitrates, but a thread at DVinfo.net suggests that when recording at ProRes422(HQ), that capture rate can be as high as 220mbps.
The key feature is that the camcorder captures 10-bit, 4:2:2 footage, which means a more robust file able to take on the demands of color correction and other manipulation.
Are devices such as these worth the money? It really is a matter of nuance, as Alister at XDCAM-User showed in his tests on the NanoFlash. It’s a matter of subtlety. Tight budgets don’t really need this, and big budgets may make for a slight but useful improvement.