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Techniques for Independent Production
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Old July 7th, 2006, 05:52 PM   #1
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Small Budget Full-Feature Format Options


I know this is going to be a vague question, and I expect very subjective answers...but here is the deal:

In a few months, I (and a small crew) will be shooting a full-feature independent picture, and we cannot seem to agree on what format to use. Our production budget is in the 25,000 to 50,000 USD range. We can either go with 16mm, rent a Cinealta/Varicam, purchase an affordable HD cam, or use a combination of already owned SD gear, including an XL2 and a GL2. This being our first full feature project, I was wondering if anyone had any advice or anecdotal experience to share.

The screenplay is quite good (obviously i am biased here...) and we will be using professional actors.

If not using 16mm, we hope to eventually transfer the footage to a Varicam really needed for this to look decent? I imagine one of the affordable hdcams would look good...for that matter, haven't a number of full feature films been shot in SD and later transferred?


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Old July 7th, 2006, 06:47 PM   #2
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how many days are you shooting ?
are you paying actors or crew ?
are you buying any insurance ? ie: workmans comp, liability , 3rd party liability etc ??

is this the 1st feature for all the main persons behind it ? or does somebody have some production experience ?
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Old July 7th, 2006, 09:14 PM   #3
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I've seen some beautiful footage taken with AG-HVX200 + 35mm adapter.

I think that sort of combination would be good, giving you a look close to film's, but also giving you the flexibility of an HD camcorder.
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Old July 7th, 2006, 09:47 PM   #4
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With -+ 40.000 forget about 16mm or cinealta (unless you have it for free)
Get HVX, or Sony with some good adapter (you can always sale it).

Good luck
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Old July 7th, 2006, 11:01 PM   #5
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I think this depends on the look you want, and the experience of the camera operator.

If you want a grainy film look - and have somebody who knows what they're doing - go for the real deal. 16mm won't have a 35mm DOF, but it'll certainly have grain. But if you lack expereince, avoid it. You won't know you blew the shot until it's too late.

If you have an operator who knows the Varicam or Cinealta like the back of their hand, and you have an efficient shooting plan, rent it. The 2/3" chip will give you a good noise threshold and a moderate DOF. You can quickly review your work and be confident that you've captured a good result.

On the other hand, if you don't have any true experts, buy a 1/3" chip HD camera. Take your time. Play with it. Experiment with lighting and settings. Learn the tool before you hire the actors. You'll likely get a better result with this approach than trying to operate a higher-end camera cold.

I wouldn't go down to SD though. The HD cameras just aren't that much more expensive. And, like Albert said, you can always sell it...

You will also want a monitor. Many of the sub-$10k cameras don't give you enough information to really nail the focus. It's especially critical if you add a 35mm lens adapter.

Be aware that with a lens adapter you get less light on the imager, and that means more noise - or a lot more watts worth of lights. If you really want a shallow depth of field, great, but it can complicate things.

It really comes down to the look that you're going for and the expertise of your crew.

Best of luck!
Jon Fairhurst
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Old July 8th, 2006, 12:05 AM   #6
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thanks for all the input guys....

Don, in response to your questions:

how many days are you shooting ?

2 weeks

are you paying actors or crew ?

Small crew, mainly friends, so not an issue. As for actors, well, you meet a lot of them living in southern california, and the less successful ones work for free, the more successful ones work for free (if you get them in and out, and they happen to be your friends) so not an issue there either.

are you buying any insurance ? ie: workmans comp, liability , 3rd party liability etc ??

We haven't scouted locations yet, but will be shot mainly indoors in friends of friends apartments and houses, so probably not.

is this the 1st feature for all the main persons behind it ? or does somebody have some production experience ?

We all have varying levels of experience. I am mainly experienced in sound and videography for broadcast purposes (2/3 inch standard def ccd sony cams), but have done documentary work with my xl2 and gl2. we have photographers skilled at lighting and framing a good director and dp with 16mm experience, etc...None of us have much HD experience.

varicam may be out of the question due to the high cost of actually contracting an operator. (are those cams really that complicated!!!?)

it is more of a 'talkie' movie, so shallow dof isn't critical. In fact, i tend to prefer wider shots with less camera movement, think more woody allen than 'constant gardner.' We just want a good picture that, if needed, can be transferred to 35mm. Which is why I am asking advice...we could go sd for cheap (we have the gear) but when i look at hd footage next to sd...i just cant see how 720 lines by 480 could withstand being projected like that....

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Old July 8th, 2006, 01:56 AM   #7
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Well I think whatever you do, you likely won't succeed on the strength of your production values. If you are aiming at theatres, you're going up against multi-million dollar films. The best you can do is to have a good story (which some Hollywood movies lack) and to be resourceful.

Perhaps someone to look at would be Robert Rodriguez... on Sin City, he made the most of video (albiet really expensive cameras) by shooting everything greenscreen + using a stylized look. The result is (IMO) better than 35mm and at a lower cost. While doing extensive VFX work is probably not for your production, it's thinking outside the box that can make more out of what you have.

Or if you look at El Miriachi, he got his break without having to spend as much as you're planning. Had digital video existed then, I suspect he would've spent less than his $7000 "budget". **The actual budget ended up much higher since the audio was poor, music needs clearance, and because promoting a film takes big bucks.

2- You could shoot DV/SD. Technically-inferior product has been released in theatres (i.e. Blair Witch Project). And considering that whatever you do is a longshot, it may be better to have money for subsequent films. The most talented filmmakers (i.e. any director you can think of) don't make a masterpiece every film.

If you want to have a quantity of quality stories, then you could get another XL2 (i.e. find someone who owns one). By shooting multi-camera, you can speed up your production and potentially save money. You could use the GL2 to shoot behind-the-scenes, and detail shots (i.e. an actor shifting his hands uneasily).

3- It may be more profitable to have your film released on DVD than in theatres. Even some fairly big movies (i.e. the Jay-Z movie) goes straight to video, because the home video market has much bigger margins than theatres.

4- If you want good cinematographer, your DP's talent will be a much bigger factor than what camera you go with. Since you have a XL2, get some cheap lights together and start learning how to help tell your story with lighting. Or try to get the quality other people are getting with similar equipment (i.e. see Albert's work, Broken and other films in the Show Your Work forum, etc.)

5- At the end of the day, it's your story/ideas that will matter. The camera you go with is probably not a big deal.
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Old July 8th, 2006, 11:49 AM   #8
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thanks for your input!

I am not the producer of the movie, but I imagine dvd will be the first format we go to. I just want to keep our options open, in case a certain festival the movie is entered in requires a 35mm print. We are mainly looking for a "pretend the camera isn't there" feel, so I agree, lighting and a dp's framing skills will be much more important than what format is used.

However, I just wanted feedback from other videographers that have done features on a similar budget...whether or not they were happy with going the HD route or what....

Many thanks for all your comments!

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Old July 16th, 2006, 11:37 AM   #9
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go for it :)

1st, I have no experience with "film" or "filmmaking". Just a guy who makes home movies. I have used some pretty cheep equipment that in most cases, made my movies look kinda crappy/cheep. For an upcoming short I'm making this year I bought the JVC GY-HD 100. I would recommend this camera to anyone based upon it's picture quality and price point. So far, I would have no reservations using this camera for a feature length movie. It has nice dof, pretty easy to use. It will shoot at 24p so what you see digitally is what you will see on film.
Please take this with a grain of salt as I am not a pro filmmaker. But this camera kicks butt :)
Have fun!
(1/2 size, white diffusion in post)

my other home movies;
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