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Old October 16th, 2003, 03:41 PM   #1
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camera advice for clubbing documentary and narrative filmmaking

hi guys, i've been spending way too much time trying to figure this out on my own and decided to finally post a message and ask for help from those with far greater wisdom than myself. i've got some fairly specific requirements that i hope will narrow down the possible field. here is my situation.

i'm an amateur screenwriter and looking to start into the production end of things. i'm currently beginning to work on a documentary on the local club scene, and would like to try some narrative filmmaking after this current project, once i become more comfortable with camera operation, editing, etc.

i've already done one night of filming for the club doc, using a few different cameras. i operated a borrowed canon zr30 and a rented panasonic ag-ez1, and a friend brought along a sony vx2000. the room we shot in was REALLY dark - a few candles, a couple indirect gelled lights, a string of christmas lights. fortunately a guy was video mixing and running a projector, or we would have been screwed. still, that was probably the darkest place i'll shoot in for this project.

that being said, the footage from the ez1 was basically worthless. the zr30's low light mode worked well - it was pretty grainy and kinda stuttery, but you could certainly see what was happening. and the vx2k's footage was beautiful, so long as there was some kind of light on the screen. unlike the zr30,
where there was no light the people and objects were essentially hidden. i don't the vx2k ever ran at slower than normal shutter speed, unfortunately - i would have liked to see that result with that camera.

footage for this doc (the stuff that i'll personally shoot, anyway) will be primarily talking head interviews and club scenes of people dancing and DJs in action. because it's a club, i don't mind some grain, and i've seen some stuff shot on a XL1s at a 1/15 shutter speed and thought it looked really cool - i dug the strobe effect.

SO. after all my lack of terseness, i now come to the advice-seeking bit. i'm shopping for cameras, and would like to save as much money as possible (this will be my first camcorder), but i'd also rather get something good the first time as opposed to buying something cheaper and running into big limitations right off the bat. here are my thoughts:

- i need the ability to shoot in *very* low light conditions, like the club i mentioned. i can't bring in any extra lights as it'd kill the vibe. however, when i get around to the narrative stuff the not having extra lights issue won't be a concern. i hope.

- a lot of the club footage will be shot handheld. again, having a tripod will be possibly too intrusive. thus, some sort of image stabilization is a must, and optical is probably the better choice.

- a slow shutter speed. documentary club footage can look like club footage, unlike narrative nighttime filmmaking. a manual shutter slower than 1/60 would be nice.

- good 16:9 capabilities would be nice, but it's not a deal breaker. i've been trying to research that issue a bit but my eyes tend to glaze over when the technical details are discussed. i'm a big fan of the widescreen look, but it sounds like things can be done in post to approximate the feel.

- i could give a crap about still photo capabilities.

- better audio capabilities are probably a wise decision. i haven't shot any actual interviews yet, but did a test last night with the zr30 and canon's shotgun mic (that attaches right to the shoe) and it sounded pretty thin. maybe i should have turned off my computer so its fan noise wouldn't get picked up. either way, i'm going to have to reevaluate my audio options, and maybe look into lav mics, of which i'm visually not a fan.

SO. after more lack of terseness, i'm wondering if i should be looking the prosumer route, and if so, which camera(s)? i've primarily researched the vx2000 and panasonic dvx100. (24p does sound sexy, especially for the post-doc narrative projects.) i've also looked a bit at sony's pdx10.

if i went the cheaper route, i want to think the canon optura 20 could get the job done for the moment, although i can't really back up that statement. the optura XI or the panny dv953 are other potentials, but i haven't researched them too much. i am reticent to spend $3-4000 for a camera and accessories, fearing i may lose my taste for production and decide to stick with just the writing end.

besides, the fact that i've become so obsessed with all this camera nonsense means that i'm forgetting one important aspect of screenwriting, which is that by crafting a compelling story, the format (or in this case, the difference between DV cameras) shouldn't be of concern to the audience. but i'm also too much of a gadget freak to let that bother me. :)


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Old October 16th, 2003, 03:51 PM   #2
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almost forgot

i should also mention that a manual focus ring is of the utmost importance, even if it is one of those continual spin kinds (whatever they're called), where you can't "pull focus", or whatever. trying to focus with the volume control on the zr30 was a joke.

also, i'm not afraid of manual settings - it seems that lots of low light comparisons are done with everything on auto or at the default. however, the dvx100 does seem to almost overwhelm in that department... :)

the only thing i'm inclined to leave alone is auto white balance. for some reason i suck at white balancing.
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Old October 16th, 2003, 04:08 PM   #3
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Posts: 4,750 has a review of the panasonic DVX-100. Adam Wilt writes that it is a bit more sensitive than the PD150 (same optics as VX2000) but has more chroma noise when you turn the gain up. For low light performance these cameras are your best bets. This japanese site ( has image captures from various cameras (excluding the DVX100). The VX2000/PD150 clearly stands out in terms of low light performance.

Audio. For "studio" recordings (i.e. not field) a vocal mic will be better than a lav mic. The Shure SM58 is a very popular mic and about $100 from B&H. It's very durable. It adds a bit of warmth to voices which you may or may not like.

There are some much more expensive mics that are better because of the character they give to people's voices. You are reaching the point of diminishing returns with those. Mics the same price as the SM58 will give a different sound which you may prefer.

For recording voice-over I suggest you get a mixer and a long XLR cable so you can record away from your computer in a room with nice acoustics. A mixer has built-in amps to bring your mic to the right level, VU meters, and headphone output so you can hear yourself while you speak.
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Old October 16th, 2003, 05:38 PM   #4
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>> having a tripod will be possibly too intrusive

Get a good monopod, it will give you stability when it's fully extended and also can be used as a psuedo hand-held stabilizer when it's compacted.

You can also use it as a camera crane/boom for overhead shots.
"Ultimately, the most extraordinary thing, in a frame, is a human being." - Martin Scorsese
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Old October 16th, 2003, 05:52 PM   #5
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Rik Sanchez does that very thing, David. Hopefully, he'll chime in here...or you might want to give him a shout.

He has an XL1s and uses a wireless video transmitter to feed to the big displays in the club while also taping.
John Locke
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Old October 17th, 2003, 12:14 AM   #6
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thanks for the replies, kids.

after looking through a ton more posts tonight (i need to implement a pre-midnight bedtime, methinks) i've learned quite a bit more about the dvx100, and it sounds pretty schweet. originally i was under the impression that it was not a good camera for low light conditions - people initially seemed to be freaking out about the lack of gain in progressive mode. however, now it sounds like it pretty well matches, if not beats, the vx2k in low light situations when the dvx100 is shooting 60i. very interesting. although, after looking at the following clips,

i'm realizing that all the 3CCD cameras are going to look like this (that you can only see what's happening in lighted areas), and if i want to shoot in a club and be able to see people dance, i'll probably need a 1CCD camera with a grainy night mode.

i was surprised to find the dvx100 doesn't have shutter speeds slower than 1/60, 1/30, or 1/24 (depending on mode), but it sounds not difficult to get that strobe effect in post.

my current thought is that for my first production project, this club documentary, i'll pick up a canon optura 20 (~$550) and put up with the more consumer-oriented limitations. (it's my first project, it should probably look like crap, right?) ;) when the time (and money) comes to shoot narrative, i'll reevaluate, leaning heavily toward a dvx100. i plan to get vegas 4 for editing, and this can do 24p straight through.

i'll take some of the money i save now and put it into other things, primarily upgraded audio capture. glenn, thanks for the tips there. i am a dj and do have a pioneer mixer with xlr inputs that i'm planning to use to record any voiceover - the shure sm58 is first on my list. i think i'll also look into a decent shotgun that i can somehow attach to a mic stand for use in interviews. i'll get an xlr-miniplug converter and probably record into an mp3 recorder at 160kbs, and be able to mix that with the optura onboard or small shotgun there for ambient noise and/or my questions. later on i'll be able to go xlr direct into the dvx100.

michael, thanks for the heads up on the monopod. i'd never heard of those before, but i can see how useful they must be. thanks!

i can rent an optura 20 from IFP here in mpls for twenty bucks a day, i'll do that shortly and run some tests. unless i absolutely can't stand the footage, that'll be the way to go.

now all i gotta do is start researching microphones. here we go again... :)
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Old October 17th, 2003, 11:18 AM   #7
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A saw one guy filming at the Gothic events using a DVX-100, he was shooting for a tv show and his footage came out okay. I haven't filmed with that camera but someone I know had one and I play around with it for a bit, I'm so used to my XL-1 that the panny seemed too small was hard to hand hold and keep steady, the focus and zooming was not as easy as the XL-1, I forget, I think it had a small foucs ring and was the zoom only controled by the zoom rocker (DVX-100)?. That was my first impression. I borrowed a friend's GL-1 and the same thing, I'm sure that if I really practiced with those cameras I would get used to them.

I don't think taking a monopod into a club is a good idea, if a lot of people are there, it will just get in the way. But then it depends on how you want to shoot, the way I shoot I go right into the middle of everyone and if I had a monopod, it would just get in the way, I can get very steady shots with my XL-1, at least for club stuff hand held is the way I always go. I've shot all my footage in dark clubs using the slow shutter speed, 1/15 or 1/8 of a second, with the strobe and other lights, the footage comes out good and the gain on the Xl-1 gives very little noise.

I'm pretty biased to the XL-1(s), all the camera's mentioned, the 3 ccd cameras are all great cameras, play with all of them and see which one feel comfortable in your hands.

Don't worry if it will look like crap, do the best job you can and and learn from any mistakes you might make. The more you shoot the better you will get. I aways find the lighting staff and ask them to turn up the lights a little, or at least fire off the strobes and other cool lights, do whatever it takes to get enough light for your video, I've even set up a bunch of candles to add extra light.

Who are you doing the video for? Is it your own project? If it's being done for the club or someone else, what I do is I find the person whose event it is and if they have hired me to shoot, I tell them that if they want a decent looking video, the camera has to be able to see the people and the event. A dark club might look cool to the people there but if the event producers want a good video, then they will work with you on the lighting.

Good luck on your shoot. let us know how it goes.

Thanks for the mention John, BTW, Blake was trying to call you, got a call from him tonight, I was seeing TV last night and saw him on a Tuka cell phone commercial.
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Barrio Tamatsukuri, Osaka, JAPAN
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Old October 17th, 2003, 09:40 PM   #8
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The VX2000 should have nightshot like Sony consumer cameras. You will have to check the website on this on whether it's super nightshot or just nightshot. The camera is old so I'm guessing it has just nightshot.

The first clip on the sit is backlit so that's why you only see the bright stuff. I didn't notice any grain in that footage. If you control exposure manually you can compensate for backlit situations. If you shoot with certain angles there will not be any bright lights in the background. Stage lights usually tend to be very bright and don't qualify as a low light situation.

The Shure Sm58 would probably be very useful as an interview mic in a club situation since it is designed not to pick up much bass. You get a lot of bass in clubs and you also get more bass when the speaker moves closer to the mic. You want to have the mic really close to the person because club music is LOUD... Other mics that don't pick up much bass would also be good. A lot of shotgun mics have a bass roll-off switch- you probably want to use this in a club. From this review ( has some info on shotgun mics, how to mount them on a camera, and how aggressive their bass roll-offs are. Bass roll-off is a nice convenience but you could also do it in post.
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Old October 20th, 2003, 01:52 AM   #9
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i have a friend that's currently down in the bahamas shooting with the dvx100 - rough life, huh? he gets back in a couple days and i'm sure will be an invaluable source of info on that camera. i doubt he'll be doing much low light/night stuff, but still.

after more research on that cam, i've discovered that the shutter can be set to 1/24 in 24p mode, which might help in terms of low light...but i hear 24p is pretty dark anyway. regardless, there's really no way to tell what that translates to in terms of club footage. hopefully my friend will still have that dvx100 for a bit upon his return and i can run a test or two.

the other camera i've been looking into since i started this thread is canon's gl2. it seems that it might be a happy middle ground between all my needs - wide range of shutter speeds (slowest is 1/8), optical image stabilization, supposedly good low light performance, and the 16:9 guides intrigue me. i know another guy that has one of these - i'll probably try to borrow and see what i think.

one of the major selling points there is that these are currently in the $1700s after canon's $250 rebate - almost 1/2 the cost of the dvx100. the 30p-esque frame mode of the gl2 also sounds somewhat appealing as it cuts down on the harsh video look, although it sounds like it's then nearly impossible to do a digital film transfer - a problem the dvx100 definitely does not have. not that i'm ANYWHERE near worrying about 35mm transfers yet...but i can always dream. :)

rik, to answer your question, this is my own project. being a dj myself i'm a big fan of the scene and friends with most of my future interviewees. my desire is to hype them and hone my production skills along the way.

glenn, thanks for the info on backlighting and exposure control. i'm just now figuring out some things about aperture settings and depth of field results and whatnot. also, i'll look into that mics link, thanks! i don't think i'll be doing any in-club interviews, but that could always change.

thanks for your help, guys. once i make up my mind on a camera and get rolling on this project, i'm sure i'll be much more active on these boards...
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