March 28, 2010

Graeme Beck: HD DSLRs and hybrid cameras

Graeme Beck is an Australian cinematographer, and inventor of the Hyper 35 – a mash-up of an old Sony Betacam camcorder and a Canon 5D Mark II, which makes the Canon easier to use and a lot more ergonomic (as it can act as a shoulder-mounted camcorder). The 5D can also be taken out of the Hyper 35 and used on its own.

I interviewed Beck for an article on HD DSLRs for TVB Europe magazine, but was only able to use a little of what he told me in that. However, he had a lot of interesting stuff to say, so here it is, in full:

"The Canon 5DMKII with its large capture area is a breakthrough in cinematography. Its large capture area is similar to Panavision's 35mm Anamorphic system and a little under 70mm, but by being able to use spherical lenses that are over a stop faster, it is capable of producing shallow focus pictures that have not been seen in motion pictures before," he said.

The Hyper 35

"The Hyper 35 rig is a hybrid of the 5D and a Sony Betacam and it brings the speed and accuracy of ENG style shooting to 35mm. The rig supports the Canon 5D and taps off a video feed to the rig's viewfinder and monitors. Audio can be recorded by the camera directly or fed into the Canon 5D where the leads are protected by a light aluminium frame that surrounds the camera.

"The electronic viewfinder is essential for the critical focus required for HD and especially the shallow focus of full frame 35mm. It is the peaking circuits that help you snap focus quickly and accurately during a shot.  Having a rotating viewfinder is also essential for everyday shooting.

"The Hyper 35 rig is about half the weight of a Betacam and balances nicely on your shoulder with Canon's zooms and prime lenses or clicks straight back onto the tripod. The 400mm [lens] needs the support of the rails.

"The Canon 5D is attached to the rig via a Sachtler 'touch and go' plate for quick release of the 5D body. The 5D can be 'click' attached onto a Merlin Steadicam, either the handheld or arm version, or clicked straight onto a tripod.  Other 'touch and go' systems could be easily adapted to the 5D and Hyper 35 rig.

"The Hyper 35 rig doesn't leave the client bewildered as the Canon 5D on its own invariably does. I also use the 5D on its own with or without a loupe [magnifying viewfinder attachment] on the back and it is excellent for gorilla shooting. "

For more information on the Hyper 35 go to - It is also possible to purchase the Hyper 35 (for $4,850 - less if you already have a Betacam SP camera). 

- What sort of projects have you shot using the DSLR (hybrid or otherwise)?

"I have been shooting a lot of Corporate and Industrial videos with the 5D and have a film to shoot next month. If the 24p upgrade had been around last year I would have been able to shoot a feature then. I did some tests on the big screen and was blown away the results. We projected it alongside the RED and I couldn't see any difference. Although the RED is cleaner in noise while comparing the pictures on a monitor, the 5D has more 'life' similar to the random grain of film. At times I also operate the camera for other DPs."

- Why did you chose to use a DSLR instead of (or alongside) a conventional video camera?

"The full frame 35mm produces images that have a more three dimensional quality to them when compared to smaller format cameras like 1.85 and other 35mm digital cameras. By looking at any picture now I can tell what format it was shot on. Even 3D movies would benefit by using a larger capture area which increases the three dimensional depth.

"The first time I saw images from this camera that was it for me. I find going back to smaller format cameras annoying, as they are just too flat. Its low light capabilities leave any camera for dead. It is a clear three stops faster than any camera I've used. As a cameraman for the last 30 years I've just about used every camera made and this camera literally sees in the dark. "

The following two photos show the difference between a Sony XDCAM wide open and at 9db of gain compared to the Canon 35mm sensor at 6400 ISO – click on photos to enlarge.

- What problems did you face that you wouldn’t normally face using a video camera, and how did you overcome them?

"The main problem with DLSRs is that they are difficult to use for general shooting. A loupe on the back of the camera helps, but as focus is a lot more critical on HD and 35mm, without peaking circuits it is not good enough. Although the 5x and 10x blowup [magnifying display on the Canon's LCD] with the touch of a button is handy for setting focus, it is difficult to adjust critical focus during a shot. Also a non-rotating viewfinder makes operating difficult with varying camera heights. The Hyper 35 rig with its electronic viewfinder overcomes this problem.

"The Canon 5D also has electronic iris control that is lumpy in 1/3 of a stop increments. When needed, I use two high transmission polarizing filters with one reversed or set the ASA  [ISO] setting to automatic to overcome this problem." If you don't have a mattebox, you could fit a Light Craft Workshop Fader ND adjustable ND filter, which does the same thing, but is a lot smaller. We have one and it seems to work well.

- How do you set up the camera (in terms of menu settings, 24/25/30p or 50/60p, highlight tone priority, etc.)?

"Apart from using the extended highlight range, which gives you an extra stop in the highlights at the expense of 1 stop in ASA [ISO] rating, I leave all the other settings pre-set. I also find recording in 1/30th second fine on motion when shooting in 30fps or when using reverse pull down to 25fps. In projected tests in the cinema it actually helped a little in motion blur, but it goes against convention for progressive shooting. Maybe it is not true 1/30th of a second, must find out what is going on there."

- Did you have problems with aliasing or moiré patterning?

"With Adobe Media for editing and transfers I don't have any aliasing or moiré problems and find it is similar to any other video camera I've used. "

- How do you use the camera (lens choice, rig, follow focus, viewfinder, Steadicam, etc.)?

"I have a set of Canon's zooms for general shooting and a set of Canon's super speed prime lenses, which really separate the subject from the background when used wide open. I also have the 400mm and a wide-angle shift and tilt, which is great for bringing low angle wide shots into better perspective. Also you can do some creative effects with it. The 5X macro brings up an Ant into full frame for that occasional macro shot.  I also have three camera bodies, extension tubes, doublers and extensive filter sets. 

"Having the lightweight Merlin hand held Steadicam in a small box brings great production value and I will be equipping this with wireless focus control in the future. I can also attach the Merlin to its vest, which looks a bit more impressive and takes the weight off your arm. Both systems produce much better results than hand holding the camera. I have never used follow focus much with video cameras as you are generally shooting with a lot less light and the focus marks cannot be drawn fine enough at times.

"The peaking circuits in the [Hyper 35's] electronic viewfinders are accurate and easy to use. At other times I have had two assistants working the focus, one calling out the marks as the other concentrates on the lens. This system has been more accurate than a single focus puller."

- What were the advantages of using a DSLR?

"Shooting with the Canon 5D full frame sensor brings the look of 35mm Anamorphic to the small or big screen at no cost. The images are outstanding and jump off the screen."

- What other features would you like to see added that would make shooting video easier?

"I would like to see the camera shooting in 10-bit. Panasonic 3000 series, HDCAM SR and Digital Betacam are the only other cameras shooting in 10-bit. All the rest including XDCAM, HDCAM, P2 and Blu-ray are 8-bit. That extra bit depth in acquisition helps a little in the final 8-bit release."

- What was your post-production workflow? How did it differ from normal, and were there any choices you made on the camera that proved particularly successful or unsuccessful in post?

"When the camera first came out in was shooting in 30p only, which is a great speed for the web (and an ideal speed for the cinema). I extensively tested a variation of the 2:3 pull down as used in converting 24p to the NTSC system. A variation of this process produces a nice compromise between the fast look of 50i (25i) and the staccato look of 25p as two progressive frames are followed by three interlaced frames. Sound is perfect and frame accurate over an hour's shooting next to a DVCAM. It is time consuming in post so the new 24/25p upgrade will be used more often here. On some projects I will still be shooting in 30p as it is great for the web, and universal for NTSC and PAL without any pitch changes. 

- How successful were the results?

"Even my wife can see the difference in the pictures you get from this camera."

By David Fox

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