New Kit on the Block

What Turns a Camera into an Icon ☛

Recently the new Sony F-3 delivered to camera houses throughout London – the next big thing is with us. Forget the Red, and fire your Canon 5D mk2: the next iconic camera is here!

Steven Soderburgh with his beloved Red

It all started back in 2007 when a camera came along that was going to change the world of independent filmmaking forever – the Red One. It was a labour of love anticipated for many years and brought to us by Jim Jannard of Oakley shades. It gave you four times more image resolution than HD cameras and the cinematic shallow depth of field of 35mm at one tenth of the cost. It seemed too good to be true but Steven Soderbergh thought it was a great idea and soon we all wanted one. It was so cool it knocked Jannard’s sunglasses into the shade. However, despite the camera body costing so little, it still hired for only slightly less than the traditional professional cameras. It was heavy and had a tendency to overheat. The shine began to wear off.

James Mason's stunned response to the 5D mk.2 (as captured in VistaVision)

2008 and behold the Canon 5D mk.2! Canon had noticed that they could record the live feed from the screen on the back of one of their high-end stills cameras. Why not make that a little feature, y’know for home movies or something? Some canny filmmaker noticed that the images produced by this function were really rather fine and a legend was born. For less than £2000 you could produce images that would stand up on a big screen. Plus the depth of field was even sexier than the Red or even 35mm film – you had to go back to 1950s VistaVision to get that kind of look. It flew off the shelves, Canon didn’t know what had hit them. People were coming up with film ideas films just to get their hands on a 5D mk2 (you always have to include “mk.2” it’s like Intel’s ‘da du-duh dum!’). It was the nearest the world of movie cameras comes to Beetle-mania. Sure a few cameramen complained that these cameras weren’t actually that easy to use, after all they’d been designed for photo-journalists not filmmakers, broadcasters took a little time to be convinced that the images were quite good enough and the cameras tended to over-heat, but generally we were happily standing at the dawn of a new age (again).

Now two cameras are positioning themselves to be the third new dawn: from Panasonic the AF-101 and from Sony the F-3. Unlike either Red or Canon both companies have been making professional movie camera for a time, for them it’s a full-time job. They’ve taken the key advantages of the DSLR revolution – shallow depth of field and affordability – and made cameras that cameramen will actually want to use, producing images that broadcaster will want to show. Sure, neither is as cheap as the Canon but nor are they more expensive than the Red. Both Sony and Panasonic are taking a gamble, there’s a danger that these cameras could decimate demand for their high-end professional kit, but I guess with budgets dropping they’d rather be down with the kids than nowhere. And success is guaranteed, isn’t it? Bring on the Beetle-mania. Or maybe not…

Eclair: The sexiest camera in movie history?

While both the Red and the 5D mk.2 are great cameras in their way, their technical excellence was only a part of their success. The Red was a masterpiece of marketing. The Canon however speaks to the essence of cinema. Back in the late 1950s the French New Wave directors realized that they could shoot with handheld Éclair 16mm cameras instead of big old 35mm beasts. Not only could they shoot cheaper they could shoot much faster, and time is money. But what made the Éclair really sexy was the fact that it wasn’t really designed to shoot movies – it was a newsreel camera. Truffaut and Godard were breaking the mould and thumbing their noses at the establishment in every way, right down to their choice of equipment.

The spirit of independant filmmaking

Similarly the 5D mk.2 was a runaway success precisely because it wasn’t designed to shoot movies, not despite that fact. Repurposing is what filmmakers love doing best. Give us an empty restaurant as a location for the weekend and we’ll take away the furniture and turn one corner into a lawyer’s office and the other corner into someone’s bedroom. Show me a dented hubcab and I’ll show you a crashed UFO. We’re in the business of alchemy: turning base metals into gold… or at least a cardboard cutout that looks like gold from one angle if you put a light there and as long as the wind doesn’t pick up. Particularly in the impoverished British film industry this spirit of ingenuity is a necessity that we learn to embrace as a virtue. We are the prisoners in The Great Escape using boot polish to turn uniforms into civilian clothes in the hope of rowing through the night and reaching Switzerland before anyone knows we’re out.

To be fair the new Sony and Panasonic cameras will probably do well, they look like being good solid bits of kit and great value, who knows maybe they won’t even have overheating problems. However I can’t see them inspiring the same love and excitement of either the 5D mk.2 or the Red. If jerry just gave us civvies and a bus ticket to Geneva we’d take them, but where would be the fun?

Copyright Guy Ducker © 2011

2 Responses to “New Kit on the Block”
  1. Hello, I stumbled on this site from stumbleupon. It is not blog post I would normally read, but I liked your spin on it. Thanks for creating something worth reading!

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  1. […] may be possible for a mass-market company to serve filmmakers well. Canon, after their almost accidental foray into the world of filmmaking with the 5D mk.2, have had the good sense to consult with filmmakers, […]

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