Shooting ‘mirrorless’ on an observational documentary
There are obviously key advantages and some pitfalls shooting video with a mirrorless camera on an observational documentary. The challenge was well worth it especially because it was my first documentary production opportunity for SBS, the Australian broadcaster. The film, entitled “Caged” and produced by In Films, will transmit in early 2016. It follows the life of six martial arts fighters as it attempts to open a lid into this subversive world.
I was in charge of the cinematography, covering a sequence in Jakarta, Indonesia. It focussed on Sydney West’s Martin Nguyen’s attempt to reach global stardom in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) at the expense of current interim world champion Marat Gafurov. The preparation, trials and tribulations of this particular event will be revealed in the documentary.
Capturing the content proved exciting and challenging: The Sony A7S cameras have revolutionised some of the broadcasting standards, as video equipment has become more compact year on year. Removing the mirror optical reflex viewfinder has made this camera less bulky and super lightweight. The shift to smaller cameras definitely started with the likes of Canon DSLRs, the GoPro, and the Blackmagic camera systems a few years ago. However, as opposed to the cameras mentioned, the Sony A7S offers the advantages of full-frame cinematography, with slow motion capacity and an incredible low-light sensor – all of this packed in a lightweight compact body.
Also, it is compatible with a wide range of professional lenses, whilst offering the possibility of picture profiles that match his bigger Sony broadcast cameras. The incredible dynamic range, and the possibility of easily matching the ‘visual look’ with more accustomed Sony broadcast cameras were an obvious choice on this production, as the bulk of the production was shot on Sony FS7s.
On the face of it, these are perfect features for inconspicuous and not “in your face” documentary filming. Some aspects were difficult to handle though. The manual focusing when using zoom lenses is one obvious challenge. The lenses are definitely heavier than the camera, and at times, it becomes slightly unstable to operate the camera smoothly and some camera movement is sometimes inevitable when pulling focus manually.
To keep the camera as streamlined as possible, we decided to just go with a small cage rig. This enabled us for better operation and to accommodate for sound. We also used a Metabones adapter to accommodate a selection of Canon EF lenses. However, no follow focus system or external monitor was added into the mix. The camera’s LCD screen has the aptitude for focus peaking assistance, but it is definitely not the best peaking system around. You need to take your time to make sure your subject is in focus, which is challenging when shooting documentaries on the fly.
In conclusion, the quality coming out of this camera is simply remarkable considering its price point. You can turn up your sensitivity or ISOs with very little noise visible, and therefore shoot at your desired aperture. Controlling your depth of field has never been easier. Provided you are using image stabilised lenses, you can get away with some tricky handheld operation. Finally, even though its color depth is only 8-bit, the results are pleasing and the footage grades well. It’s been great to work with this new camera, and I hope others will enjoy the benefits of a super lightweight camera system when shooting films.