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Best Cameras For The Independent Moviemaker

Best Cameras For The Independent Moviemaker

Articles - Directing

Moviemaking is the most collaborative of arts, and
it brings together a spectacular array of talented people who share
one common goal—to create the best motion picture they are
capable of making. Regardless of their talent, veterans of the
process are the first to tell you that success or failure depends
to a large degree on choosing the right equipment for the job and
getting the best performance from that equipment.

There is little debate that the single most important
element of movie- making equipment is the motion picture camera.
Not all cameras are created equal, though, at least as far as the
independent moviemaker is concerned. Why do directors of photography
and their assistants inevitably favor one camera system over another?
Their reasons are almost always based on hands-on experience, and
of course what their budgets have allowed.

The following survey could not include every camera
available on the market, but the consensus clearly shows that
certain cameras and models are preferred by working indie professionals.
It isn’t a surprise to find that Arriflex and Panavision
still reign supreme, but this article gets a bit more personal,
with several working Los Angeles-based D.P.’s, operators,
and assistants reflecting on why they are loyal to their favorite
equipment. Not every aspect of the camera systems mentioned is
discussed. We prefer that readers form their own conclusions
and contact the various camera companies, as listed at the end
of this article, to request literature on the cameras they believe
best fits their needs.

Director of Photography Michael Hofstein (above)
has many years of experience as an independent moviemaker. His
travels have taken him around the world, and his list of U.S. and
European credits is impressive. His revered article, “Preparation
of Motion Picture Cameras,” has appeared in the American Society
of Cinematographers manual (bible) since 1980. Even with his busy
schedule, Michael finds time to teach at the International Film
and TV Workshop in Rockport, Maine, each summer.

“What it comes down to is that I will use the
best camera for the job, although I prefer Arriflex and Panavision.
For 16mm it’s always the latest Arri SRIII. The camera itself
is compact, easy to use, easy to set up and maneuver. The viewing
system is bright, so you can see clearly. It works in all conditions,
whether you’re in a desert or a jungle. I also prefer to use
Zeiss high-speed lenses, because to me there’s nothing better.
For a non-sync camera, and even though they stopped making them
in the ’70s, it’s the Arri SB for me. It’s still
a wonderful camera. It’s great for shooting high-speed and
for Second Unit. I bought it because it’s so versatile. The
Arriflex 535 is a good camera and I personally prefer the “B” model.
It’s easy to use and has just enough features to get the job
done with relative ease. As far as my favorite camera, it would
probably be the Arri BL4S which is no longer made, although it’s
still available. The 535 took its place. But the original BL4S
was so easy to use. It was easy to change the magazines from 1,000
foot to 400 foot for hand held. It was always dependable. The cameras
would work well and adapt well to all situations. To sum it up,
the 535 comes down to one thing – ease of operation.

“I think that the Panavision Platinum 35mm is
a great camera which also has a great viewing system. The camera
itself is very quiet. It’s a hearty camera which can be used
in all sorts of situations. Primo lenses, which were developed
by Panavision, are the best with Panavision equipment because they’re
crisp and clear. The Platinum has an excellent film system. The
film will go through the camera easily and land solidly in the
gate each time. Panavision makes a superb 16mm product which I
feel is equal to Arriflex. I’ve worked in places all over
the world. In Germany I’m more apt to use Arriflex because
that’s where they’re manufactured. In my professional
opinion, though, the quality of Arriflex and Panavision is so excellent
it’s difficult to choose one over the other.”

Ariel Benarroch (pictured below right) is
a young man from France who spent eight hectic years as an assistant
before recently achieving the status of Director of Photography.
Ariel’s credits include music videos, commercials and features,
and working on Titanic as a Second Unit AC. Now based on the West
Coast, his latest feature as DP is The Deviant.

“There is really no such thing as one ideal
camera. Different systems have different elements which lend themselves
to different situations. I’ve shot with just about every camera
on the market, and have had good experiences with all of them. For
versatility the Moviecam Compact is my camera of choice. It’s
lightweight and simple to operate, and that means a lot.

“Even though I favor the Moviecam Compact, I
believe that a camera is a camera. If you’re shooting a movie,
you can always get a basic image. Often it’s who’s behind
the camera that really matters. Personally, I enjoy the Moviecam
Compact with Zeiss PL mounts because it will easily switch to Panavision
mounts. It feels great in a hand-held mode and it’s very,
very quiet. It may be a little more assistant-friendly because
the movement is simple, compared to an Arriflex 535. I also find
the Moviecam Compact’s viewing system excellent. It goes from
standard to Steadicam mode in a simple, straightforward way which
makes it easy to operate. It’s a sturdy, lightweight, camera,
and simple for the assistant. Of course different camera systems
will be more appropriate for different situations. Depending on
yours, you’ll lean more toward one camera or another. If you
need more tricks or in-camera effects, such as speed changes, shutter
angle changes, and so on, or if you are operating from a precarious
position, the Arriflex 535 with swing-over viewfinder will make
it fairly easy to operate the camera no matter what position you’re

“Arriflex makes an excellent product, as everyone
knows. I also think the Aaton 35 is a dependable camera. It is
extremely lightweight and good for mostly hand-held exteriors.
It can sometimes be a bit too loud for stage work, so keep that
in mind. Also, it will only take 400-foot magazine loads, which
can be limiting. For 16mm, I like the Aaton XTR Prod. It has the
quietest movement on the market and there is virtually no magazine
noise. It has a beautiful viewing system, and it’s less likely
you’ll have hairs stuck in the gate because of the way it’s
milled. It will also switch from basic 16 mode to Super 16 quick
and easy. If you are using a time code, the XTR Prod is clearly
the best because the code is imprinted from the camera and not
the magazine. The video assist system on the XTR Prod is very sturdy
and tends to give you brighter issues/29/images.

“The bottom line is the eye looking through
the camera, and not the camera that is being looked through. You
can make a masterpiece with a Mitchell Standard and you can make
crap with a Millennium. The vision of the cinematographer and the
director and their ability to put that vision on film to tell a
story will always be more important than the camera itself.”

David Zera (pictured below), better known
as “Z,” is also a young man on the move. Originally from
New Jersey, Z now resides in Los Angeles, where he has found employment
as a First Assistant, predominately in commercials and features.
Some of his credits include Second A/C for the TV series “Relativity” and “Jag;” First
A/C in the features Evasive Action, Land Of The Free, and Life Among
The Cannibals. His commercial work boasts corporate clients Honda,
Disney and Mattel.

“The camera I still enjoy the most is the Arriflex
BL4 and 435. In my experience there is nothing better about Arriflex
equipment than Panavision’s. I have worked with Arriflex so
much, it’s what I was trained on, it’s what I started
with, and it’s what I’m comfortable with. The Arri III
is an excellent camera. It’s a workhorse! There are rarely
any problems with this camera. I’ve used it the most and it’s
my personal favorite. It’s stood the test of time and has
no drawbacks, as far as I’m concerned. The Arriflex 435 has
all the best aspects of the Arri III but it’s newer and improved,
of course. The Arri BL4 is a great camera, too. This is a personal
preference. I just love Arriflex. As far as 16mm is concerned,
the Arri SRII and SRIII are pretty similar to each other. I favor
the SRIII over the SRII because it’s a newer camera and more
sophisticated. It has the same basic movement, same basic weight,
and a tried and true design. The electronics and the optics are
the big improvement with the SRIII. I’ve been using Arriflex
for quite a few years now and it does everything I need it to.”

For 21 years Tom “Frisby” Fraser (pictured
at right) has built a career as a D.P. and Camera Operator. Tom’s
many credits include TV shows (“A Family Torn Apart,” “Ally
McBeal,” “Silk Stalkings,”), features (Armageddon,
Top Dog, Midnight Confessions) and music videos (Tears For Fears,
Billy Joel, Guns and Roses).

“My favorite camera system – and cameras
come in systems – is Panavision, any Panavision camera, because everything
they manufacture is by Panavision. It all fits together like a glove.
A lot of the support equipment for other camera systems is manufactured
by other companies, but Panavision manufactures a complete package,
usually. The Panavision head, tripod, and filters, everything is
designed to fit together well. The Platinum is a terrific camera.
It has a terrific viewfinder, and that means a lot to me personally.
It’s bright and sharp and the image is clean. The Panahead is
an excellent gearhead. On the other hand, Arriflex’s gearhead
has a tilt wheel and it can swing away if you’re in a tight
situation, so that’s a plus. But getting back to Panavision,
the 17.5-to-75mm zoom is a superb lens. The Primo series is sharp
as a tack! Panavision cameras have a time-tested movement. And the
adjustable-shutter angle makes it much more accessible. It’s
very well-balanced; they balance well with 1,000-foot magazines for
your hand-held work. Panavision makes a superb product.”

Tom Denove is a Director of Photography who
shot his first feature at age 19. His credits are extensive; he’s
shot over 40 features through the years, the likes of Midnight
Witness, The Crystal Eye, and Puppet Masters II. He has done scores
of commercials and TV shows, and as Second Unit and F/X for “Star
Trek: The Next Generation.” When he’s not working, Tom
is teaching cinematography at UCLA several times a year. For his
invention of the Cinemeter Light Meter he was honored with a technical
Academy Award.

“I’ve been in the position where money
was not a consideration and I’ve been on the other side of
the fence when money was definitely a consideration. For me, it’s
the Arri SRII, the most dependable camera around. Overall, that’s
my main consideration – dependability. Years ago, being on shoots
when the equipment didn’t work, or would suddenly break down,
was a nightmare. But the SRII is like a tank; it’s a workhorse.
The Aaton is a good camera, too; it has a lot of neat features.
You can take a camera that is 50 years old and put some good glass
on it and no one will see the difference on the screen.

“With cameras, the main objective is to have
a steady image and a clean picture, and the camera will give you
the steady image. Sometimes if you go for a newer camera with all
the bells and whistles, the electronics can be complicated. The
automatic speed of the aperture control, etc., could be one more
thing that is problematic because you are adding to the complexity
of the camera. You have to look at the bottom line – which is more
important, a better camera or better lenses? I like more weight
in the lenses. An Arri BLIII or a 535…what’s the difference?
Maybe a little more noise level and some bells and whistles.

“I think that Panavision also makes a good camera,
but the big difference between Panavision and Arriflex is often
the rental house and how the equipment is maintained. I’ve
used Moviecam, I’ve used Panavision and I’ve shot with
Ultracam, but my workhorse is still the Arriflex BL4 or the Evolution,
which is a step above the BL4. I’ve shot 43 features. I’m
able to improvise, take what I’m given and make it work to
the point where the audience likes what it sees on the screen and
doesn’t feel compromised. You don’t always get your first
choice when dealing with budgetary problems and independent filmmakers.
There may be newer cameras that are more user-friendly, but to
me it’s the BL4. I’m more concerned with what I do than
with the equipment.

“Some people feel that they need the best of
the best to make a great movie. I disagree. Again, I’d rather
put the money into the lenses. My philosophy is always to get the
best camera you can, but there is usually a trade-off, and to me
it’s all up to the rental house and how the equipment is maintained.
The best camera package consists of the tools, and lenses are what
make the package. For me, pound for pound and dollar for dollar
I’ve always found Arriflex to be the best. Just give me a
set of Zeiss lenses and I’m a happy camper!”

Director of Photography, Glenn Evans (pictured
right) is originally from Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of
Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, and
specializes in underwater cinematography, although he also shoots
on land. His many credits include an underwater commercial for
Nike, and he shot the band Aerosmith underwater for the 1997 Billboard
Awards Show. He’s shot numerous television shows, and features
such as The Loch and Bloods. When asked about cameras, in particular
the Star Cam, that might be right for the budget-conscious moviemaker
in need of a practical, easy-to-operate camera at a savings over
other popular cameras which dominate the market, this is what Glenn
had to say:

“I’ve used the Star Cam and I think
it’s an excellent camera. A lot of thought was put into the
design. The thing I like the most is that it is very light and for
hand held it’s simple and easy. It’s a really stable design.
You just place the camera in a plate which allows you to put the
camera on your shoulder and it makes it easy to move around and have
access to the lens. The eyepiece has various different formats that
light up. You can change the color, depending on what you are shooting.
If you shoot at night, and it’s dark, I can still see where
my frame line is because the box is glowing in the viewfinder. If
you’re shooting against a background that’s the same color
as the glowing format frame in the eyepiece, you just change the
color so you can see it. In the viewfinder you can change from 1.85
to Super 35 to 166 to TV safe. It’s such a good feature because
it makes the D.P. comfortable; you can see at all times what you’re
framing and filming. The magazines load easily and are simple to
thread. It’s compatible with all different lenses available.
For a 35mm sound camera, the Star Cam is an awesome camera to take
on location. For underwater filming I prefer the Arri III. It has
the most versatility. It’s easy to work with and it’s extremely

The Star Cam is a relatively new camera system which
is available in 16, 35 and 65mm formats. Although still at prototype
stage, it has been received with a great deal of enthusiasm by
many DP’s who have used it. It is lighter than the Arri BL,
and almost equal to the weight of a Moviecam Compact. The Star
Cam 65mm MOS format is the lightest 65mm camera in the world, which
makes it ideal for hand-held and Steadicam work. The 35mm Star
Cam can be used in any format, i.e. Super 35 or anamorphic, etc.,
and the Star Cam 16 can go from standard 16 to Super 16 format
as well. It has a four-color glow system (red, yellow, green and
white), and six different ground glass formats which you can change
manually. Set-up time is about 10 seconds when you switch from
tripod to hand held and back to tripod.

First AC Kevin O’Connor moved from Arizona
to attend the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara.
After graduation, he soon found work within the motion picture
industry working as a First or Second AC on features including
Burn, which won the Slamdance Award for Best Picture, Dream with
the Fishes, and Steel Sharks. He also has numerous music videos
and commercials to his credit. Kevin spoke to MM about a new 35mm “crash
camera” called the Crash Cam.

“I enjoy work- ing with Arriflex. I find them
simple to put together, simple to load, simple to operate. They
serve my purpose and give me a quality image. They’re also
easy to maintain and their design application works wel in the
studio and on location. If you’re filming stunts or working
with explosives, I like the new Crash Cam, which has a super-strong
housing that contains a 35mm Reflex camera (also available in Super
16, Super 35, anamorphic, with standard PL and Panavision mounts).
It comes with an eye-piece videotap and a personal four-inch attachable/detachable
LCD mini-monitor on back of the housing which makes framing shots
easy. The housing is 1/4 ti 1/2-inch steel, and the whole unit
weighs approximately 50 pounds, which is great. For me, there’s
a lot of punch for this product. It makes other crash cameras look
like toys. MM

Both the Star Cam and the Crash Cam are available
only at Hollywood Camera, Inc. in Burbank, California. Call for
information on their monthly hands-on seminars. For further info
and literature on the cameras mentioned in this article:

600 North Victory Blvd.
Burbank, CA 91502
(818) 841-7070

c/o Abel Cine Tech, Inc.
4110 Magnolia Blvd.
Burbank, CA 91505
(818) 972-9078

6219 DeSoto Avenue
Woodland Hills, CA 91367
(818) 316-1000

c/o Hill Production Service
6902 West Sunset Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90028
(213) 463-1182

Star Cam and Crash Cam
c/o Hollywood Camera, Inc.
3100 Damon Way
Burbank, CA 91505
(818) 972-5000

Justin Clayton’s writings have been published
in various entertainment magazines. His credits include profiles
on celebrities such James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and other film-related
subjects, as well as an expose on the making of the 1933 classic,
King Kong.

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