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Are HD Video-Capable DSLRs Taking on the Film Industry?
By Terence Ang - on 17 Aug 2010, 10:55am

Just a few months ago, a group of professionals in the film-making industry -- colorists, directors of photography (DPs), cinematographers, film producers, filmmakers and so on -- were invited to the Skywalker Ranch (yes, the one belonging to George Lucas & co) to preview a possible future where high-end DSLR and hybrid cameras might overtake 35mm film as the instrument of choice to shoot movies.

The idea may seem preposterous at first (seriously, how can anything beat the wonderful grain and color quality of 2K or 4K film stock used by Fuji and Kodak film cameras) but when the pros saw the comparisons, their mindsets changed. While today, it is possible for independent film-makers to go solo (or in a guerilla team of 2-3) and shoot a HD film solely on a DSLR (check out the trailer to Pacific Pictures/Kevin Shahinian's City of Lakes, shot entirely on a Canon 5D MkII and 7D here, or if you prefer, I've embedded it below), the pros predict that at least for now, it is possible to marry the use of a DSLR/hybrid with professional camcorders (eg. using the DSLR as a pick-up-and-go device for unplanned or alternative angled shots alongside the professional camcorders).

"CITY OF LAKES" The Official Trailer from PACIFIC PICTURES on Vimeo.

Anyway, going back to the Skywalker Ranch viewing, U.S.-based camera accessories outfit Zacuto brought together a group of test experts to run different experiments among a select set of high-end DSLRs. These included the Canon 1D MkIV, 5D MkII, 7D, 550D (T2i Rebel in US), Nikon D3s and Panasonic GH1. The experts tested the results side-by-side (24p, 30p, 720p, 1080p) against video shot on 35mm film stock from both a Fuji and Kodak film camera, and then converted to 2K and 4K digital film resolution.

Tests included latitude, resolution, low-light sensitivity, ultra high-speed (104,000 ISO anyone?), skin tone, green screen chroma keying, motion, noise, RAW color manipulation, gradient and many more. Zacuto went on to disclaim any direct involvement in influencing the tests, leaving the process entirely to the neutral party of experts. They also invited the major camera vendors to drop by and observe how the tests were conducted. They tested all DSLRs with Zeiss glass-made lenses (instead of manufacturer own branded lenses) to ensure a level of fairness across. With every result being shown, the experts then got feedback from the professional audience within the auditorium, to gauge whether they do see an evolution in the instruments of film-making in the future.

Based on the results, the experts agreed that the 35mm film still rule in the resolution arena, especially when it comes to manipulating raw data and color range, but DSLRs like the Nikon D3s marveled everyone with its ultra low-light sensitivity capabilities (with Noise Reduction on). Some of the camera brands showed remarkable depth and control in color, gradient and green screen but most failed in resolution against the film cameras.

One of the experts in the team, Philip Bloom, has been shooting his short films using a variety of DSLRs for some time now. Check him out here

Of course, I'm not going to end this blog without directing you to the test experiment that the professional audience enjoyed and experienced. Called the Great Camera Shootout, the three-part 35-minute-per-Webisode is hosted on Zacuto's site here. Do watch it in sequence and be amazed by the results.

Of course, purists will tell you that using DSLRs to film HD video over long periods of time can cause overheating on the chip or even ruin the CMOS sensor over time (often depicted by dead pixels). DSLRs are primarily meant for taking still photos but their lower price range (relative to high-end professional HD camcorders), makes them ideal candidates for shooting film-quality HD video on the cheap. 

In time, it is hoped that this will give greater access to independent filmmakers to realize their dreams, and perhaps enable their messages to be heard online, on HDTVs and eventually, on the big screen.

Terence Ang

Terence Ang / Former Supervising Editor for HWM, HardwareZone.com & GameAxis

Terence Ang used to be the Supervising Editor for the New Media division in Singapore, where he worked with the editorial teams behind HardwareZone.com and HWM the magazine. In that role, he looked at ways the teams in Singapore can collaborate with the Editors in Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. Terence is currently the Product Manager but contributes to the blog section whenever he can (or finds something interesting to talk about).