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From Russia with Lens

From Russia with Lens

Articles - Cinematography

Making quality movies is usually an

expensive proposition. But thanks to a formerly socialist government

which now chooses to compete in something other than an arms race,

the U.S. is seeing an insurgence o• "techno-goods" from


Several months ago I read a one-inch blurb in a video

magazine about a Russian-built 16mm spring-wound camera. I can’t

find the article now, but I remember making a mental note of the

less than $400 dollar price tag.

After testing one recently, I can say that the Russians

have made a friend for life out of this tightwad producer. I live

by the age-old rule of "putting the bucks on the screen."

We all know that camera rentals can be costly. Often would-be filmmakers

lose the urge after they read the rate card at the camera rental

company. But there is now a viable alternative – that can capture

beautiful issues/08/images at a bargain-basement price. A camera company named

Zenit, located about 20 miles northwest of what most maps refer

to as Moscow, in the town of Krasnogorsk, manufactures no-nonsense,

built-like-refrigerator movie cameras. Zenit has crafted quality

movie cameras for a number of years. As can be imagined, the factory

artisans who construct these cameras are not the highest paid in

the world. They do, however, make an incredibly inexpensive camera

named after the city from which it originates. The "Krasnogorsk-3,"

or simply "K-3" could be the best buy in filmmaking today.

A company named Mentor USA, Inc. started importing

the K-3’s in December of 1992. The original K-3’s were surplus inventory

which had sat on factory shelves for a few years after production

of the model had ceased. "Quality control had not been monitored,"

states Dohn Thornton, President of Mentor USA, Inc. He says the

first batches of cameras had bubbles in the lenses and poor polishing

on the aperture plates. Owners of these cameras were given replacements

when the defect was discovered.

Since May, 1993, the K-3 has been back in production.

Support documents and camera labels are now in English and the quality

control is at a level acceptable to discerning filmmakers. Mentor

initially imported several 16mm models and a 35mm movie camera.

Because of the popularity of the K-3 and problems with the other

16mm and 35mm cameras, the K-3 camera is now the only one they stock.

Mr. Thorton sent me a sample K-3 (which had just cleared the customs

house) for evaluation. To my surprise, this is not a cheap plastic

toy, but a real honest-to-goodness made-of-metal camera. It tips

the scales at approximately 13 pounds with its included accessories.

On-the-shoulder weight is just over 10 pounds with a 100-foot spool

of 16mm film stock.

The K-3 comes packaged in an ominous looking blue

box labeled "CINE CAMERA – KRASNO-GORSK-3". It’s styling

is what I refer to as "Early MIG." Like the Russian MIG

fighters, the K-3 is heavy but very functional. The camera body

has a black colored crinkle finish, with a vinyl-like covering on

the sides.

On the right side of the camera body you’ll find a

large key which can be lifted and wound like a huge wind-up alarm

clock. To wind you turn it counter clockwise (which is opposite

to most wind-up devices). The wind-up is tight-feeling, giving the

impression of a really substantial main spring.

Adjacent to the wind-up key are two small knobs. The

one closest to the top of the camera is used to match frame speed

to the exposure index (E.I.) or ASA rating of the film. This setting

must be made to get an accurate indication from the built-in light

meter, and to expose film correctly. The scale has ASA numbers up

to 200 and a tick mark past that which I assume is about 250 ASA?

The small knob on the bottom right side selects frame

rates. You simply turn the knob in either direction until a red

dot adjacent to the frame rate on the inner scale aligns with a

red dot on an outer fixed scale.

The eye piece on the upper right rear of the camera

is oriented in a straight-ahead position. It can be focused by screwing

the eye piece in or out. Tightening an adjacent set screw with your

fingers fixes eyepiece focus. This is a true reflex viewfinder with

a polished metal shutter, providing the eye with a dimmer image

than a glass shutter found in more expensive cameras.

On the left side of the camera is a single lift-and-turn

tab which allows access to the film compartment. Opening the film

compartment requires a clockwise quarter turn. The K-3’s interior

is simple but effective. The upper reel feeds the lower take-up

reel. Loading requires feeding the film between a sprocketed drum-and-roller

assembly. Pushing the power trigger threads film through to the

take-up reel. It’s not quite that simple, though, as IT explain


A 17-69mm f1.9 screw-on zoom lens is standard on the

camera, which incorporates a nifty lever-actuated zoom. Mentor also

stocks additional Russian-made lenses at very reasonable prices.

A company in New York called ICBM is selling lens adapters that

will allow the use of Arriflex BL mount lenses. They also sell a

matte box, video tap, etc. designed exclusively for the camera.

The power trigger is a push-to-activate and release-to-stop button

located on the front lower right side of the camera. Some people

may complain about its weight, but the added mass felt good in a

hand-held position and should equate to steady hand-held or great

vertical pans.

I spoke with several people who had used the camera

in a production environment. Gary Spradling (Scarlet Red Pictures,

Redmond, Washington) used the camera to film the trailer for a picture

he shot last summer called Flak Jacket. (Note: Gary shot

a documentary on an award-winning music video I recently produced.

He’s an incredible talent whose opinion I value highly). He had

nothing but praise for the camera, but at first was admittedly apprehensive

about the quality of picture that would materialize from the K-3.

After the first roll of film was processed and viewed in post he

was ecstatic at the on-screen quality. He had used Kodak 7291, exposing

it at 100 ASA, and said only slight color corrections were made.

His most tedious task was the winding of film stock from larger

reels to the 100- footers that fit the K-3. (Note: Most popular

film stock is available on daylight load 100′ spools).

Loading the camera with the small reels was initially

awkward, so he cut off a few feet of film stock and practiced in

the daylight. Gary said this is a good idea for anyone, even experienced

loaders. He also had to make a screw adapter for the mounting plate

he uses. (Note: Mentor’s K-3 now comes with a mount adapter).

The accompanying photo shows you the $375 dollar package

(including shipping) provided by Mentor USA, Inc. Here is a list

of what’s included:

(1) 16mm spring-wound tine camera body with built

in light meter and frame selectable rates of 8, 12, 16, 24, 32 or

48 fps.

(5) 100 foot reels

(1) Screw on hand grip.

(1)Thread adapter to allow use of base/mounting

plates common in the U.S.

(4) Light filters with M77 X 0.75 thread mounts.

(1) 17-69 mm f1.9 zoom lens and mount.

(1) 1734 mm supplemental close-up lens (screws

to zoom lens).

(1) eyecup.

(1) Cable release for use in single frame photography.

(1) Battery for the internal light meter. (Mentor

has a huge supply of these unique power cells for $5.00each if you

want extras, otherwise use your ownhand held light meter).

(2) Lens caps.

(1) Sun shade.

(1) Extended activation leverfor the zoom.

(1) Screw on shoulder brace.

(1) Wrist strap.

(1) Felt-lined leather case with shoulder strap.

The spring-wind on the K-3 takes about 20-22 winds

before a stop is felt, Gary reported. This provided him 20 seconds

of run time, certainly adequate for most projects. If you want longer

takes you’ll have to acquire a motor drive. The K-3 can be fitted

with a crystal sync motor for roughly $900 dollars. Dohn Thornton

told me that Zenit is also developing a retro-fit motor drive, but

has not released an availability date. Tobin Cinema Systems in Seattle

can do the job for about the same price.

For those requiring 6-minute takes, a 400-foot housing

is due out in the near future. You can send your camera back to

Mentor for this modification. This should eliminate some of the

loading difficulties, particularly the winding of the 100-foot reels.

Although this camera was designed for MOS filmmaking,

it }s perfect for documentaries or commercials which utilize V/O

and even music videos which have the talent acting out roles to

their music backing track. The prestigious USC School of Cinema

and Television has fifteen of the K-3’s. Mr. Dick Martin, Director

of Operations and Facilities Management at the school, provided

me with a telephone commentary on USC’s use of the K-3’s. His comments

were both positive and negative. On the plus side he stated the

camera was an excellent buy for the price; the filters included

in the accessory kit were good for black and white photography,

and their K-3’s provided a very stable picture.

His down-side comments were that the camera is heavy,

not well-balanced with the standard zoom lens, and was difficult

for some students to load. (Note: Northwestern University uses the

K-3 in its film school, and has a staff person to load the camera

because of the student loading difficulties they encountered). Martin

also noted that despite the K-3’s minor annoyances, several USC

students liked the camera well enough to purchase one for themselves.

At present USC is using the Arri-S as their main student

camera, and have relegated the K-3s to backup status.

As a veteran owner of lots of cameras I have to agree

with the purchasing departments of these film schools. This camera

is a steal at twice the money.

Jack Watson is President of The Olympic Production

Company in Gig Harbor, Washington, He is an award-winning producer,

director and camera operator. In his spare time he can be found

in the cockpit of a Boeing 747 which he flies for Northwest Airlines.

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