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Shoot a movie on dSLR? This Australian film shows how it's done

"Love Is Now" is an Australian feature film shot entirely on dSLRs. The director of photography describes the process and offers tips for would-be filmmakers.

DOP Anthony Jennings on the set of "Love Is Now". David Oliver

Big-budget Hollywood blockbusters have been doing it for years. Small indie productions know about it, too. DSLR video has opened up a whole new world to film makers and its star continues to rise.

The very first dSLR capable of shooting video was the Nikon D90, released in 2008. Although it was only filming in 720p, other camera makers quickly followed suit and opened up full HD video capabilities.

Filmmakers are attracted to these consumer cameras because they are smaller and generally have a more accessible price-point than traditional movie cameras.

Plenty of big-name films like "Black Swan", "Rush" and "Drive" have used dSLRs for a part of the production, but a small handful of movies have been shot entirely on these cameras.

"Love Is Now" is an Australian film shot on the same Nikon D810 dSLRs and lenses available to everyday photographers. Anthony Jennings, the director of photography on the film, is a cinematographer with extensive experience using dSLRs on both short films and full-blown features.

The decision to use these cameras on Love Is Now was easy. "We did talk about using maybe an Alexa or a Red camera, but it kind of made sense [to use dSLRs] because we were going to be having to move quickly and going to a lot of locations," he said.

David Oliver

Over five weeks, Jennings and the production team filmed in locations across Sydney and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. Moving around so much required kits that would suit multiple purposes so the team had two handheld rigs.

"One would fit on the dolly and that was fairly heavy, a little bit cumbersome so we actually got rid of that rig fairly early in the shoot and went to a very light handheld rig that was made of half my gear and half the gear that we'd hired," Jennings said, "as I do a lot of dSLR shooting I just had my rig because I was used to it."

"We had a focus puller who had his own follow focus, so it made it very easy for me to operate because I didn't have to worry about focus, which is generally what you're doing most of the time when shooting on dSLRs. I had an Alphatron eyepiece so that I could see the images without having to look at the back of the screen. We had HDMI out into and out of the Alphatron to a monitor, so then Jim [Lounsbury, director] could watch the monitor and I could just stick to the Alphatron."

David Oliver

With uncompressed HDMI out delivering 1080/25p footage to an external recording device and 1080/50p recorded direct to camera, there was plenty of scope for achieving different looks in post-production, on top of the obvious advantage of having lots more material to work with.

For the glass component, the production team had two kits to use. The first consisted of newer Nikon servo-operated lenses such as the AF-S 35mm f/1.4G, 85mm f/1.4 and 70-200 f/2.8 but there was also an older set of Nikkor lenses converted for use with 80mm filters.

Anyone who has played around with shooting video on a dSLR knows that the image straight out of camera can be quite contrasty, thanks to the default picture profiles. "With the D810, it has a very flat picture profile so it let us shoot a lot of things in a lot of variance of light," said Jennings.

"We could shoot a lot more contrast without losing our highlights and our shadows. I didn't tweak [the picture profile] because we had a very short pre-production, so I didn't get too many chances to do testing. We got the D810 that was released a week before we started filming, so we were under the gun to get hold of one."

Jennings said that the configuration he chose was almost emulating the effect from an older movie camera. "Partly because the dynamic range on this camera is very good, but with film they kept upgrading film all the time so you could see more and more and more."

"A lot of cinematographers, especially me, preferred the older stocks because you would see less. So you could define what people were looking at, you could let the shadows drop out. With the D810, it was almost giving me like the old Kodak 200 ASA stock, it had that really beautiful drop-off and an interesting grain that I haven't seen before on dSLRs."

David Oliver

Although Jennings didn't run into too many issues with the dSLR set up, he does have a wishlist item for future productions.

"It would be a much stronger HDMI connector! The HDMI is always precarious, it gets knocked out, you lose the image on the monitors, then you try the cable and the cable's broken. It would be nicer to have a stronger connection there, that would probably be my biggest frustration there."

Jennings was also able to make use of the intervalometer feature in the camera, which is often used by stills photographers rather than filmmakers. Timelapses of stars, sunsets and clouds ended up being used in the final film. "We would race off with just a D810 body and lens, stick it on a tripod in a field and shoot timelapses. There's no extra pieces we have to stick on or batteries we have to worry about. You run out, put it down, hit a button and off you go ... If you had to do it on a more traditional film camera it's just a huge rigmarole of settings things up, plugging them in. It's a lot harder."

Jasin Boland

For budding cinematographers and those who want to get started shooting video with their own dSLR, Jennings suggests investing in a core kit of three fast lenses because you want to capitalise on depth of field.

"You don't need too many; a fast 50mm is great for a lot of things, shooting faces and if you have the distance, wide frames as well. Then you need a wider lens like a 16mm or 16-35mm, something in that range. Then all you need is a longer lens, like a 70-200mm. That's basically my workhorse set, those three lenses," he said.

In terms of grading and playing around with the image in post-processing, it all depends on the time you have. For those who want to experiment with grading, use a flat picture profile -- either one provided in-camera if applicable, or a third-party alternative like Technicolor's CineStyle.

"If you don't have time to grade, you can use some of the standard, neutral or portrait picture profiles and have a play. A lot of people complain that dSLR footage is too crushed and contrasty, but again I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. If that's the look you're going for then you already have those tools in the camera."