As much as every filmmaker wants to get their hands on a 4K capture system made by Red, Canon or Arri, the costs of these systems, though a bargain today compared to decades ago, remain out of reach for many independent filmmakers.
A couple of years ago, things began to change when Blackmagic Design introduced its 4K URSA camera. About a year later, AJA Video Systems announced its 4K CION digital cinema camera. Both were priced relatively similarly at just under $6,000. These announcements arrived to as much hope as they did skepticism about a new low-priced digital cinema camera that captured 4K.
Blackmagic Design’s URSA—an appropriate name for a bear of a camera built like a tank—continues to make inroads with filmmakers, including myself. We used the URSA to shoot our feature Game For Motel Room in 2015. Still, when AJA Video Systems asked me to try shooting my next feature with the CION, I was excited to do so. I was game to use a pro-level digital cinema camera that was light enough and simple enough to operate without an assistant focus puller.
Run-and-gun shooting is generally not my thing, so the CION’s light weight is more about ease of movement and the freedom to make complex movements with the unit mounted on the shoulder. My visual sensibility leans more toward the lyrical—I am a director-cinematographer of unapologetically arty films, which it turns out, is one of the reasons they wanted to put the CION in my hands. AJA possibly felt that the DIY ethic of an art filmmaker would be a good match for their camera.
Lots of testing came to pass, some of which I posted on my Vimeo page. After about a year, we were ready to try to shoot a feature. We shot one day’s worth of scenes… and then the project ran out of steam. It also was going to cost more than I had planned, which didn’t help, so I pulled the plug and set it aside.
Later in 2015 we finally found a project I knew we could shoot on a mini-micro-budget that would also challenge the CION. The project we came up with was The Nude, a long-form narrative about a professional figure art model working for the first time with a photographer. I wrote a treatment for a story and found a talented young actress excited to play the role.
Then, for reasons as much to do with budgetary concerns as with taking a locavore approach to the production, I contacted a local figure art model Natalia Carbullido, and pitched her the story instead. Natalia had been working as a studio art model for a decade and was a favorite of local artists here in New England. She was intrigued by my proposal. After a few meetings and tests, we agreed to work together, using an essay she wrote about modeling as the backbone for a new, stripped-down scenario built within the scheduling limitations we had: seven days spread over five weeks, with a filming window of about three hours each time.
These limitations were unavoidable considering the schedules of the crew and actors as well as the unique variables of each location, such as Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where we had less than two hours to cover three galleries. These parameters were also something I had looked forward to, something we had experimented with for some time. We wanted to find a way to adapt a story to temporal and physical limits—like turning Star Wars into a stage play, the core of the idea is what matters. That, along with the performance, lifts the whole thing into a state of suspension of disbelief.
The CION also has its limits. It has a fairly narrow dynamic range as compared to other cameras on the market, its gamma settings are simple, and its on-board monitor is not great. While this seems at odds with trends in camera building, I found it refreshing; more of an “honest” package for a cinema camera. The narrow dynamic range forces you to think about where your light source is and how much you need. The limited gamma settings make decision-making more creative. In addition, the small on-board monitor, while not designed to substitute for a viewfinder, allows the operator to work with the distance markers on the lens if keeping a low profile, as was the case for us on The Nude. In other words, it requires you to think about photography, which is the foundation of cinema.
Like its title implies, The Nude features a female nude model working in a completely exposed state for much of the film. This state of affairs made both the image quality and the size of the production critical issues. We kept our set team to a maximum of four in scenes where Natalia was actively posing. We were also sensitive to how light fell on her body. Even for a someone as toned as an athlete (Natalia practices Aikido), hard light can express distracting details or imperfections on human skin that take away from the image’s power. Thankfully, Natalia has an apparently flawless skin quality which made things much easier for us.
The CION’s imager is one of the best I’ve tested in how it captures color with its inherent “softness” as compared to other systems. I think the closest I’ve come across in terms of archiving this attractive feel for color are the Panasonic cameras. There is an organic quality in the color capture that I like, and I’ve concluded this through testing various lenses—both vintage and contemporary. Natalia’s skin had to be captured honestly, i.e. without makeup. We were rightly impressed by how her skin was rendered under both controlled and natural light conditions with this camera.
The limits mentioned above combined with working without professionally trained actors meant that shooting had to be fast and unobtrusive. My camera tech/electrician/grip/production designer David Marks (who in his regular life is my boss) set up the CION on a second-hand Manfrotto 416 tripod with a modified Bogen three-wheeled dolly system. This allowed us to make simple dolly movements without laying tracks and kept the camera’s profile to that of a coat rack. It all helped to ease the anxiety for the performers, including our principle Natalia. We added no extraneous lighting in order to minimize distractions in the actors field of view. Instead, we used available light almost the entire time, including practicals that helped keep luminescence within the CION’s ISO sweet spot of 500-800 ISO. The one exception was the scenes within the photographer’s studio, where we used the ambient studio lights as our source. It forced us to think about light in a more traditional way—not solely to light the subject, but to light the scene to convey the story and themes. This is old-school technique and I was grateful for the CION’s limitations in forcing me to work as if I was shooting 16mm film, or even still photography.
Echoing the late great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, once you decide to make a work of cinema, rather than filmed theater, you find yourself with a lot more freedom and significantly less pressure to make something for “the marketplace.” Instead you get into the flow of what moviemaking is capable of. Unhitched from the tyranny of plot and character arcs required of most television shows, art cinema opens filmmaking to those wonderful moments of discovery and awe.
This project, like a painting, began to take on its own life, and we just had to respect it. The Nude may have started with a more traditional plan and narrative scheme, but the movie itself guided us and surprised us along the way. As a result, we achieved more than we had planned to. We proved that time constraints, a four-figure budget, and a team of six do not limit the quality of a work. The only limit is how much you care about making honest and personal motion pictures rather than struggling to make films beyond your means. MM
All images courtesy of Square Medium Picture Co., 2017.