Interviews | Technology

Three Filmmakers, Three Cameras

1 Sep , 2008  

Written by Jared M. Gordon | Posted by:

From tiny and low-tech to the bleeding edge RED camera, three New England filmmakers explain what they’re shooting on and why. By Jared M. Gordon

Between SD, HD, HDV, cassettes, film, and hard drives, there are a myriad of creative options to be explored with today’s cameras.  Whether shooting for television on a Panasonic DVX100, teaching the finer points of Internet and community journalism with the Flip Mino, or grappling with the challenges of working with the RED camera, documentary producer George Kachadorian, Cambridge Community Television’s Colin Rhinesmith, and feature filmmaker Lorre Fritchy discuss the cameras they’ve put to the test. 

Jared M. Gordon: Tell me a little about who you are and how you see yourself in the industry. 

George Kachadorian: I’m an independent documentary filmmaker.  I do a lot of work with the television industry, including documentary work in the TV world.  I’ve freelanced on some home makeover shows, but I’ve focused lately on work for ABC News and independent documentaries.  I produce, shoot, edit, and direct my own projects.   

Colin Rhinesmith: I just got my master’s from Emerson in media studies so I’m more of a theory person than production, but I do have experience in digital media and online media.  I came to CCTV from working at Harvard Law, where I had been at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.  While there, I produced podcasts for the center, so, while I started in audio, I turned to video and recorded the luncheon series that we had there.  Right now, I teach Blogging 101 and video at CCTV.  Moving from Harvard to CCTV has allowed me to work more with the community, and it’s been great. 

Lorre Fritchy: I am a writer, filmmaker, and a producer — definitely a Jacqueline of all trades.  Many of my independent colleagues would understand that we have to do a lot of different things: nonprofit work, corporate videos, and working on other people’s films in every way you can to see what it takes to make a story come to life. 

JMG: What projects are you currently putting together? 

Kachadorian: I’ve made a film about my parents in which I investigated my mother’s purported paranormal abilities.  I went up with my camera to solve the debate once and for all.  That one’s called, Divining Mom [former interview here].  My new documentary features my wife, who had started a photography project for people with cerebral palsy.  She had volunteered at this day program where we sent disabled people out with specially designed cameras to keep them busy and engaged.  She was a fashion photographer, but she began making adaptive cameras so that they would be more accessible for people in these communities.  With this piece, we’re shooting for Sundance.  That’s our deadline.  For Frontline, I also just completed a 12-minute piece about my father’s trip back to historic Armenia, modern day Turkey, in search of the house that his grandparents fled during the genocide around 1915.  He came back with footage, and I thought it would be a great story.  I also teach and do random freelance work. 

Rhinesmith: During this year I’ve been the project manager of what we call Bridging the Digital Divide.  We’re putting computers and Internet access into the hands of people who need it the most in Cambridge.  Another project, the Neighbor Media Program, is a citizen journalism program ( in which ordinary community folks are reporting on local news.  A lot of what will be involved segues into the Flip Mino…  

Fritchy: [My feature film] Millies is rather time consuming at the moment.  There was a book about mill girls in New England and the signing was taking place in a restored mill building in Lawrence.  Being inside of the mill blew my mind, I had the idea for Millies, and I started writing it out.  I wanted to do something atypical, something bigger than a typical indie film.  The business and creative sides meshed really well on this project.   

JMG: Tell me about your experience with your current camera of choice.  What sort of work have you done with it? 

Kachadorian: I’ve done a lot of work with Panasonic’s DVX100 series, and well before the HD thing got hot.  I shot for Frontline on it, and I’ve even used it extensively in my latest documentary, Shooting Beauty.  I’ve also shot with it for Sundance Dailies on the Sundance Channel.  I used it on various home makeover shows and used it in a lot of different scenarios for cable television. 

Rhinesmith uses the low-tech, low-cost Flip Mino to help bridge the digital divide at CCTV. 

Rhinesmith:  We’ll be distributing [Flip Minos] to neighbor media journalists on a monthly basis.  They’ll take them out, hopefully use it to cover stories, and we provide support, training, and all kinds of production skills that can help augment their stories.  Some journalists weren’t ready for the advanced cameras and they wanted an easier way to start involving themselves in media production.  We bought the Flips for that purpose, then realized that we could use them for our summer institute (youth program).  

I have spent enough time to get to know some of its quirks, what it’s good for and what it’s not good for.  For the money and for what it is, it’s absolutely worth it.  It’s a cool little camera. 

Fritchy: We’ve tried out the RED camera.  We don’t do anything small.  We had it on rooftops, under bridges, did floor-to-ceiling shooting with the camera and really put it to the test.  It’s a weird little device, like carrying a block that looks like battery pack, and definitely an adjustment to get used to it.  It was more like running a computer to capture images than running a camera.  It takes long time to boot, and has many menus.   

The real issue with the camera isn’t capturing but rather manipulating the footage afterward.  You can capture twice the quality of HD, and we did, but getting that data into a workable edit suite or offline equivalent is a real challenge.  The files are so huge that they would kill mere mortal computers.  You need superman computers to work with this footage.   

We shot only exteriors with no actors, and only ran it a few seconds per shot.  That way, we could manipulate the footage easily.  The camera also generates proxy files to preview footage before opening up the files themselves.  That allowed us to manipulate and analyze what we had at a lesser quality that is still better than many other cameras today.  We were privileged to use it and sink our teeth in to it.   We captured what we could while we had the camera.  The images are beautiful, and though we were dealing with some harsh sunlight, it still picked out very nice nuances and more depth than I was expecting.  It was a very happy thing to see.

JMG: What drew you to this camera in the first place? 

Kachadorian: When the Panasonic first came out, it was heralded as the 24p camera, and it was exciting to think that you could do something film-like with it.  I’ve rarely used the 24p feature, but I like the way that the buttons are designed, the XLR inputs, and the audio interface design.  They really did their homework before putting the camera together.   

Its optics are great.  It has a good weight to it, especially when you put a precision optic lens onto it.  It’s comfortable, and a happy medium.  For a documentary guy like me, I need to be able to shoot 5-6 hours in a day, and that’s expensive with a P2 card.  I prefer tapes to the cards, because I want to be able to archive and file a hard copy.  Hard drives aren’t always a reliable storage medium.  DV tapes are so indestructible, they’ve proven themselves to be stable and I love the format.  Having the audio levels onscreen is another handy feature.  They’re super easy to adjust, and other key features aren’t buried in the menus, which is nice. 

Rhinesmith: One of the things that’s great is that the Flip Mino stores an hour’s worth of media that you never have to touch.  You just plug in with the USB attachment and it transfers the video.  They’re really easy to work with.  I love the ability to just pick up and go with it, and I especially like the stereo figure-eight microphone, which gives you a microphone on the front and on the back.  That makes it really great for interviews. 

Fritchy test drove RED for her feature film, Millies
[Click to enlarge]

Fritchy: Everyone in the world is drooling over the RED right now, although we did look at other cameras.  Renting it was comparable or less of a financial consideration than other cameras.  The hard part comes when you have the data and have to manipulate it.  We thought, “Let’s give this a test drive.”  There hasn’t been a feature film shot fully on RED, to my understanding.  I wanted to see what it could do this early in the game.  In a year it’ll change so much and improve, and the people who will be making those improvements are listening to the people who are test driving it now.  Its cost and quality were workable for a one-day shoot.  It was enough to get the sense of it, get the experience, and the marketability.  We knew regardless of the camera’s results that we’d be able to put it out to whatever format we wanted and it would still look fantastic.  How we use this footage, will look great no matter the format translated to. 

JMG: Have you discovered any particular drawbacks while using this camera? 

Kachadorian: The DVX100 is standard definition.  As with a lot of cameras, the focus can be tricky.  It’s hard to tell sometimes when you’re exactly in focus, but that’s a problem on numerous cameras.  You have a little more latitude in SD than HD.  HD focus issues are obvious.  The 100, with a wide-angle lens, has some tricky focusing issues.  Other drawbacks include the LCD pullout screen.  It does what it’s supposed to do, but people tend to rely on those screens for exposure control, and if you tilt it one way or the other, it can be really hard to tell what you’re getting.  You can tell framing, but you really need to isolate everything else and look through the viewfinder.  I also had to tape down my buttons, because it’s easy to bump against something and not realize that you’ve changed a setting. 

Rhinesmith: I really don’t like two things about the Flip Minos: one is a sort of jitter effect from left to right, so if something goes really quickly in frame, it’ll sort of warp a little bit which is a bummer.  It’s better for steadier images, such as one-on-one interviews.  You also obtain better audio that way.  The second drawback is that the zoom is terrible.  There also aren’t any FireWire connections. 

Fritchy: The RED’s a little awkward at this point.  There aren’t enough viewfinders for the demand.  You’re dependent on LCDs and monitors and that’s very strange.  Any DP is going to balk a little at that.  You feel like you’re not seeing what you’re shooting because you simply can’t get your eyeball in there.   

My DP and I agreed that this is not a documentary filmmaking camera.  When there’s an event occurring, sometimes you have to just go, and you can’t just go with a RED camera.  It takes a long time to boot up, which definitely makes it a camera for a planned shoot.  If time is of essence, then this is not the camera for you.  It also affects the workflow on the set.  If you don’t have an extra drive and you fill the primary then you’re going to run out of room and it takes a while to offload the data to a FireWire drive or other storage device.  It can cause some serious downtime if you don’t plan ahead and have no backup.  It seems cheap, but when you start adding up the time and effort required to work with the captured data, you’re back to being limited as you were with film, but it takes a lot longer to switch it out to shoot again unless you have spare drives.  It’s a big downside. 

JMG: What other cameras have you used? 

Kachadorian: Aside from the DVX100, I’ve been using the Sony V1U on recent projects.  I’ve also been playing around with these little “lipstick” cameras.  They’re not quite hidden cameras, but they’re small and you can stick them in all sorts of weird places.  I used a bunch of consumer, bang-around-the-house cameras and Palmcorder jobs, which work well as a second camera during an interview.  I’ve played around with a bunch of others.  Canon’s doing some good stuff.   

I used the V1U while shooting for ABC.  We had to get 12 to 14 camerapeople out in the field, and we wanted something that we could cut in with the VariCam HD footage that we were using.  We didn’t have the budget to use VariCams or hire a VariCam crew, so we ended up working with the V1U package.  It was relatively inexpensive and delivered a really high quality image.  When compared to the VariCam footage it worked nearly seamlessly and I was impressed with how well it matched up.  The V1U doesn’t do well in low light, but its incredible for what it delivers for the value.  It also comes with a hard-wired hard drive, which can be handy. 

Rhinesmith: We have the new Panasonic HD DVX100b, which I’m looking forward to trying. 

Fritchy: At this point, I’ve used prosumer, three-chip models like the Canon X-L1, the Sony VX-100, really the ones that I think everyone’s familiar with.  On my own projects I haven’t gone into HD, although I have on other people’s gigs.  For me it’s pretty much what most of Massachusetts’s independent filmmakers are used to using. 

JMG: What’s next for you?   Will you be using this camera again? 

Kachadorian: The DVX100 and I have had a great relationship, but it’s becoming a bit dated.  An HD-capable, 16:9 ready camera is knocking at my door, and my next project probably won’t be with the DVX100.  There’s a lot of good stuff out there.  I’d consider Sony or Panasonic.  The RED camera’s getting a lot of hype, but it’s not really viable for a documentary.  To even see what you’ve captured at full resolution, you have to buy a $100,000 display system.  If I’m on a deadline, then I don’t want to have to invent my own post workflow.  It’s an experimental, cool thing, but it’s not a battle-tested M16 yet. 

Rhinesmith: People are shooting with the Flip Minos and distributing their work on the web and on the channel.  We’re looking at different distribution methods in getting the content out and different ways of using the camera.  I think I’m excited about that.  Right now, I’m using it to teach Video Blogging Production. 

Fritchy: I’d definitely consider using the RED camera again.  Of course, I’d have to consider the cost for a 30- to 40-day shoot versus a one-day gig, and we’re still manipulating data from the June shoot and experimenting with processes to translate the data.  We won’t be shooting on film.  It will be between RED and other HD cameras when it comes down to it.  As for my next project?  I don’t know that I’m thinking that far out yet, as there are many mini-projects in Millies that will keep me busy for a while longer, but I’m loving it. 

For more information: George Kachadorian,  Cambridge Community Television, and Millies

Related Images: Fritchy test drove RED for her feature film, "Millies."
Rhinesmith uses the low-tech, low-cost Flip Mino to help bridge the digital divide at CCTV.