A lot of you who read this site make movies. Some are big and some are small. I make small movies, and I’ve found in my short time as a Los Angeles filmmaker that you can get a long way with the right equipment and a little bit of resourcefulness. I tend to use the kind of gear that’s accessible to folks without a running tab at Panavision or ARRI. To put it simply, I have a running tab at Ace Hardware. So here’s the inaugural entry of CHUDindie – a column for the independent filmmakers who frequent CHUD.


If you’re thinking about shooting your first big short film or feature but can’t afford film or RED yet, don’t sweat it. Sony has officially blurred the line between prosumer and professional HD cameras.

 

“This isn’t a prosumer camera,” my cinematographer friend Randy corrects me as we begin setting up our loaner Sony PMW-EX3 camcorder for the next shot. It’s Sunday night in downtown Los Angeles, and we’re on lower Grand and Kosciuszko Way, just below the Disney Hall. You might recognize the area from car chases in movies like The Terminator or Repo Man. It’s not a tunnel; it’s more like an underground alley, harshly lit by tendrils of fluorescent tubing that stretch along the length of the entire street.

 

I check the shot. It looks good. In fact, it looks better than anything I’ve seen coming from an $8,000 camera. The blacks are crisp, the midtones even, and the highlights are easy to control. We’re still shooting video here, but with ten stops latitude and a signal to noise ratio of 56db, the image holds even with the gain cranked up to +12 or +18db.

 

The EX3 isn’t so much a step up from its predecessor, the EX1, which came out less than a year ago. Both are virtually indistinguishable from an image quality and operability standpoint. In fact, the spec sheet for the EX line lists only a few cosmetic variation between the two cameras. Both use a single 1/2″ CMOS sensor capable of high-quality 1080/720p/1080i imaging at framerates of 59.94i, 50i, 59.94P, 50P, 29.97P, 25P and native 23.98P. Both cameras employ the CineAlta gamma settings found in top-tier Sony cameras like the F-950 and the F-23. The only noteworthy difference here is the EX3’s interchangeable lens.

 

For the discerning cinematographer, having lens options when it comes to shooting HD video can can make or break your image, particularly when in pursuit of the elusive “film look.” There are a lot of factors involved – frame rate, dynamic range, depth of field* – but a key factor in achieving that filmic quality has to do with the kind of glass you put in front of the camera. The 1/2” EX mount lens is light and durable and doesn’t give you an overly sharp image like the Canon switchable lenses tend to do. Like the fixed lens on the EX1, the focus ring has hard stops (unlike the Panasonic HVX-200), manual and servo zoom control (5.8 to 81.2 mm; equivalent to 31.4 to 439 mm on 35 mm lens) and an f-stop range of f1.9 to f16. The EX3 however, allows the use of a 1/2” or 2/3” broadcast lens adapter if you want an upgrade.


The EX cameras record to SxX PRO solid state capture cards using a kind of MPEG-2 compression format (max 35mbit/sec). On the postproduction end, the XDCAM codec is easily manipulated by the latest version of Final Cut, Avid, Premiere CS, and Vegas. Because it’s HDV, the color sampling is still a thin 4:2:0, so you can expect the image to break a little if you try to stretch it too far in color correction. Blue and greenscreen keys pretty well in FCP, but I haven’t tried it in any other suites.


But what about practical applications? Well, you’d think that living in Los Angeles would make it easier to make your own films, right? Ehhh, not always. Renting equipment can get expensive, and even then it’s hard to find a good, experienced crew that will work for peanuts – even when it’s slow. Then there’s the fact that you need a permit to shoot pretty much anywhere on public property. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been chased off a location by an angry cop, park ranger or merry-go-round owner. In these tough sitations, it’s good to have a camera with a low profile and is light and easy to operate without a tripod. Because the EX cameras’ sensor is so sensitive to light, night shooting no longer becomes a matter of having enough luminence to register an exposure. 



Look ma, no lights! Shooting f1.9 @ 18db. 

You can see some noise in the sky at full rez.




Again, with only available light. Shooting f1.9 @ 12db



I used to be a
Panasonic man. I had the DVX100A and I had the HVX-200. For the money,
you really can’t beat the richness and warmth those cameras give you.
Still, the HVX is kind of a clumsy camera (with horrible low-light responsiveness) and I gave it up for the JVC GY-HD100U, a
shoulder-mounted camera in the same class. I’ve never liked Canon’s
line – even the XLs – and Sony really didn’t rate until the EX1 hit the
market. Now I’m a convert. I still love the HD100U and I use it all the time, but if I had the scratch I’d plunk it down on either of the EX cameras in a heartbeat.

 

For more information and the complete spec sheet on the Sony XDCAM EX line, CLICK HERE (PDF).


Finally, here’s some EX1 footage we grabbed for a test in January. All night stuff. Dig those lens flares!





*Hint: For a more shallow depth of field, shoot at the long end of the lens.