Together with Travis Gilmour, Slavik Boyechko is co-owner of Video Dads and the website Gear Dads.
The basics of documentary storytelling don’t change all that much, but the tools for creating films are evolving at light speed these days, and sometimes they even come back around full circle. So, what’s changed and what hasn’t?
A quick background: my partner and I are freelance documentary video producers who come from the PBS station world. To stay ahead in the freelance circles, we like to try out new gear on real world shoots, and we write about our experiences at our Gear Dads site. About three years ago we had a short list of video gear recommendations on this POV blog. Today, that post seems like ancient history – has gear really evolved all that much in three years?
Cameras Then and Now
Believe it or not, cameras haven’t changed all that much since 2013. Specs such as resolution and color science have improved – “4K 10-bit 4:2:2” is the new catchphrase – but for the most part, many cutting edge producers are still using DSLRs and cinema cameras that look much like they did a few years ago.
Whereas just about every camera today includes pro video features such as peaking, waveform monitors, and incredibly low-light sensitive sensors, there are still new cameras coming out today that lack basic audio tools. For example, Canon’s first major foray into mirrorless cameras, the EOS M5, was released in December and doesn’t have a headphone jack. Really? Maybe in three years we’ll only carry Bluetooth headphones in our kits (thanks, Apple).
Ironically, the old camera hallmarks that were shunned by the DSLR revolution are making their way back into popularity again. Today, autofocus is once again a big deal today, but with much better technology than ever before. The original Canon C100 and C300 have won over many serious documentary producers particularly for their powerful Dual Pixel autofocus technology.
And while the race for marketing technical specs can keep gear heads talking for ages, the good news is photo and video camera manufacturers such as Sony, Canon, and Panasonic really are investing energy into improving the heart of a camera: its image quality. What’s more, many prosumer cameras can now record a LOG picture profile that is incredibly neutral and flat, and the LOG profiles between the manufacturers are starting to look very similar. This means today you can shoot with a wide mix of cameras, without agonizing over matching the footage in post-production.
LOG profiles make it easier to mix a Sony FS5 and Canon C100 on a shoot. Photo Credit: Slavik Boyechko
The old adage that glass is a lifelong investment continues to be true. Most documentary video producers are still using the same lenses they did in 2013, and most likely long before that. The major achievement, however, is a few lens adapter manufacturers such as Metabones, who have made it possible to use many brands of lenses on many brands of cameras and their proprietary lens mounts. You no longer need to stick to Canon cameras if you have a closet full of Canon lenses. Sometimes, an adapter can even make that Canon lens perform better on a Sony camera, for example. And when you combine these adapters with the LOG picture profiles mentioned in the previous paragraph, you start to realize that the camera choice has become a lot less crucial for documentary video producers.
Just like the return of autofocus, servo zoom lenses are coming back in full force. They may be bigger, more expensive and feature highly advanced technology, but they provide the same function as they did long ago: steady, electronic zoom. Two of the most regarded lenses today are the Fuji Cabrio 19-90mm, and the Canon Cine-Servo 17-120mm, both of which cost about as much as a luxury SUV, which has made these lenses out of reach for smaller crews and low-budget producers. (They’re also quite large and need to be rigged up.) But starting this month, Canon is shipping a new electronic servo lens, the Compact-Servo 18-80mm, which is relatively small, lightweight, and is priced closer to a used Honda.
There are many reasons why servo-zoom is perceived as a “look” that some filmmakers want to avoid, but the reality is, it’s quite useful on documentary shoots. When you combine an autofocus toggle button and new 18-80mm on a Canon C300 mark II, for example, you have focus, exposure, and zoom control all on your right hand. For the first time in years, your left hand can be free of the focus and zoom wheel. I’m sure in the next couple years, we’ll start to see all sorts of hot new gear intended for your free hand, like a super innovative stick mic you can hold to interview people. Or maybe that’s not so new after all. Speaking of audio…
Nothing worthwhile has changed in audio gear for video production. Keep your old mics and carry on.
Probably the biggest change in video gear has come from the camera movement and support department. Camera stabilizers such as gimbals have ushered in an entirely new era for documentary filmmakers. Where only a few years ago you would have to hire a professional Steadicam owner/operator to give you professional results, now anyone can achieve cinematic camera moves with any camera, without any advanced skills or sophisticated equipment.
We have toured the country with a specific gimbal called the Letus Helix Jr., which is about the size of two laptops when folded up and is light enough to use for hours at a time. Recently, we even figured out an easy modification to place all the camera controls in your hands while operating the gimbal. In all our conversations with staff at PBS stations, this little piece of technology is the one thing that excites everyone, from station managers to producers to talent.
Shooting with the Letus Helix Jr brushless gimbal. Photo Credit: Slavik Boyechko.
Finally, you can ignore everything else in this article, because drones have changed the world of video production more than everything else combined. The DJI Mavic Pro, released just last month, is currently the world’s most advanced consumer drone, and it’s not much bigger than a banana. More importantly, the FAA has finally allowed commercial drone operation for individuals and broadcast stations that are using them for more than hobby. All you need to do is take the Part 107 test. Having passed it recently, I recommend a solid three to four days of studying – the test itself is a lot more difficult than flying a drone.
The new DJI Mavic Pro drone is so advanced we can fly precariously through a tree. Photo Credit: Slavik Boyechko.
It’s an exciting time to be shooting documentaries, with an overwhelming amount of tools at our disposal. But as always, if a piece of gear distracts from your ability to tell an impactful story, then it’s not worth it.