Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Best Movie Camera For $3k

So, let's say you have three thousand dollars, burning a hole
in your pocket. It could happen. A relative leaves you some,
you have a refund coming, you sell some stock. You know you'd
just squander it on food and rent, but you're a filmmaker, dammit.
That money must go to make your movie. If you don't spend it,
and right away, you'll never move forward.

You post on filmmaking discussion boards, you call a friend,
and ask, "What's the best camera I can buy?" He asks,
"How much do you have?" You tell him, and rather than
laughing in your face, he asks an odd question.

"Where do you want your movie to show?" A little
soul-searching turns up a factoid: What you really
want is for your movie to play in a theatre.

On tv, sure. On cable and DVD, yep. Maybe a festival,
but it's gotta start in a theatre full of people, watching
your story, sitting in the dark.

Your friend's expression turns serious, because he knows that
you are. "$3k won't make a dent in an HD camera," he says.
"They're $100-200k or so, for a CineAlta, Varicam, or Viper.
Jeff Kreines's 'Kinetta,' which is my favorite, even
though it's not even shipping yet, is $60k."

"16mm is okay, but when it's done, you won't have anything
to show in a theatre. Whether you shoot regular or Super-16mm,
you still need to make a blowup, and that's just as expensive
as shooting 35mm to begin with."

"Video? It's called "digital" now, but it's really just video.
Even HD is really just video. Yes, I've seen the new Sony HDV
camera. To fit HD into such a little camera, they have to
compress the HD, to fit the DV."

"That compression means even a tiny dropout will lose you the
whole compressed data block, that's one-half second screen time.
Ever see a dropout? Sure you have. Take that chance? Not me."

"If you've got $3k, the Panasonic DVX-100A is a great choice.
Leica lens, wonderful award-winning design, easy to use, well-balanced.
Great audio section, for really good sound. You can get them new
for about $3k, or on eBay for less."

"DVX-100A footage blows up to 35mm really well. Make sure to shoot
with the '24p Advance' setting, it makes a better filmout. This is
the best digital video camera, in my opinion. It's a good tradeoff,
and the camera's response curves have been tweaked, so it really looks
like film. A great audio setup, to make a pristine digital recording
of your noisy location. Only problem is the cost of the blowup."
Then he gives you the look.

"If you're a real die-hard, and you decide to really go all the way
with this, you're going to want 35mm.
Real 35mm costs $80/minute to shoot, and it plays on any theatre
projector in the world. It's easier to load, easier to edit,
it's bigger, and you can see the images."

"Maybe you just have a part-time income. Can you shoot 35mm?
Yes you can. It may take a year or more, but the year will go
by anyway. Just buy a Bell & Howell Eyemo on eBay (around
$500-1000), and feed it 100ft daylight spools. The Eyemo is
great, spring-wound so you don't need batteries. All you need
is a light meter, and you're set."

"The next step up is a reflexed camera, for that you want a
Russian-made Konvas camera. That'll set you back about $2500
on eBay. $200 for shipping, $300 for film, and you're go.

You load the 200-ft quick-change magazines in your darkroom, for
twice the Eyemo's shooting length, about 2.2 minutes, just like
your Super 8mm camera when you were a kid. You can even get
scope lenses for it. Loud camera, but you'll be dubbing your
sound, anyway, to make sure you get a great post-sync track."

With that, your friend withdraws. You know he's right,
and he's answered your question.


  1. Anonymous9:11 AM

    Sam, nice article. Filmed a movie for 2 festivals a few years ago, never went big time, oh well, lol. My son lost my pd150 last year, so, looking to buy again. Yes, he's still alive and going to film school. i have heard the 100A is very good. Iv'e read HD is a good idea though, along with 24p and 16.9. Which of these are very important? Will be filming 2 movie this summer. A short, and another 90 minute.
    firefighter tim andrew, connecticut

    please respond to: pilotfire@sbcglobal.net
    go to my youtube: timandrew1

  2. What is truly amazing is how easy it is to get real 1920 x 1080p HD now, from a variety of great little cameras.

    Nikon, Canon, Panasonic all make DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras, which produce 1080p HD, and take standard lenses and batteries and memory cards.

    They and Sony make good-quality HD camcorders, too. Here's a good one to start.