The making of my promo for Jealous, Don’t You Know? by The Heartbreaks

I though it’d be nice to talk a bit about this project, since it’s not only a video I’m very happy with but one that made me realise what DSLRs have really done for film makers. This is my first music video since DSLRs broke the mould. It was completed for broadcast on traditional television networks, with NME TV play-listing confirmed and hopefully more to follow. I shot it with a single Canon 550D.

It’s also entirely my own product, from a creative point of view: I wrote a treatment, made some storyboards, drew up my equipment list, transported my own camera gear to location, sparked, gripped and lit the scene, directed the band, operated the single camera, and later edited and post produced the piece too, all in a two week time-frame with a two-day shoot. Phew! I’m tired just writing that! I had an excellent producer in the band’s manager Nian Brindle, who handled securing of the venue (the breathtakingly beautiful Morecambe Winter Gardens), equipment hire, locating a dancer and other such logistics, leaving me free to wear a whole heap of hats! I also had a pair of production assistants to help with purchases, manual labour and the like. The creative “team”, however, was just myself.

The breathtaking stage of the Morecambe Winter Gardens.

Working in such a manner requires an excess of stamina and discipline, and inevitably involves making some compromises, but what I find amazing is that it’s now possible due to DSLR. I’m aware that people have always made work on skeleton crews with low budgets. They’ve used 8mm film, Hi8 video, DV and now DSLRs, but it’s only with this latest generation that we have access to a high-budget feel, with such a large sensor and high-quality prime lenses. Shooters on a budget are no longer forced to use the old “documentary style” of Hi8 or DV, making the low quality of the footage itself part of the narrative or feel. Nor do they have to deal with bulky 35mm adaptors to achieve a shallow depth of field. The file-based workflow and software advancements like the Mercury engine in Adobe CS5 are Godsends too, allowing high-quality output to be turned around on extremely tight deadlines without any transcoding or long-winded ingestion. These great features, coupled with the tiny form-factor of the camera, make creating slick-looking promos with minimal crew a (just about) practical reality.

As nice as the footage and workflow are, there are some issues with the 550D. None of us like Moiré, but your average viewer rarely cares. Unless you happen to capture a particularly hideous example that dominates a large portion of the frame, the problem is usually ignored. Double frame-rates are only captured at 720p, but then if you look at the footage close up, the EOS version of 1080p doesn’t look much sharper! There are also some oft-mentioned camcorder creature-comforts that I miss from my days of using the Sony Z1 and EX1, and for certain wide-angle shots, landscapes, and perhaps running about like a wild animal I’d still consider packing one of the two, along with a friend to carry it! But camera technology is moving very quickly, and hopefully these issues will be gone in the next few EOS updates.

Since completing this project I found myself asking: if I could have hired a Red, a separate DP, a lighting guy and some more hands on deck, would the resulting video would have been ‘better’ overall? Perhaps. Or perhaps it would just be of higher-resolution. Perhaps it’d lack some idiosyncratic charm, perhaps it’d be a little less ‘me’. I can’t really be sure, but as high-quality solo work becomes a reality, I think it’s food for thought. Is high-end gear and as large a crew as possible really always ‘right’ for the project? Homogenisation is a real danger…

I should make it clear that I don’t recommend working as a lone-gunman at all times, or on all endeavours! If the option (and/or budget) is available to have knowledgeable hands on set, and you feel the production warrants more crew, then you should probably hire them. But if not, a combination of low-cost technology and the helpfulness (I try to do my fair share) of a broad community of enthusiasts, hobbyists and career creatives, allows many film-makers to get going with smaller teams.

On stage with The Heartbreaks and a 550D. Note the huge counter-weight on the shoulder rig!

DSLRs have removed some of the financial and practical obstacles that can stand between the mind’s eye – the endless scope of internal vision – and crafting an on-screen reality. These odd, hybrid cameras bring ever greater creative freedom to many more users with each new hardware generation, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. Sure, we’ll all have to put up with many derivative works as more users learn in public, and there’ll always be a Vimeo full of “test” files (hint: add -test -tests to your search to help preserve your remaining sanity ;) ). But on the plus side there will be plenty of talented people coming to the fore who, until now, may have found film making to be prohibitively expensive.

Here I’m operating a simple dolly, while one of my production assistants stands by.

There’s been a lot of debate recently about what constitutes ‘professional’ equipment, and whether the latest camcorders – with which manufacturers have sought to blend the best of both worlds at a price – are ‘worth it’ or not. The debates go round in circles, and as far as I can see, it’s because what’s ‘right’ is what fits your abilities and needs on a given budget or project, whether that’s an iPhone 4 or an Arri Alexa. A friend of mine recently used a £100 Harinezumi on a high-profile promo shoot because it was right for the project, while he used a Red for the shoot before. I’m not about to argue with him or his fee. Equally, some of those I know who work in large-scale broadcast have strict limits placed on acquisition codecs, colour-sampling and resolution that may not affect others, while others work shooting sports, and could never use DSLRs for their work. I have no desire to argue with them either. I think there’s a lot I can learn from everyone.

The one thing that does annoy me is obsession with more expensive SLRs. A 7D is not as good as a 550D for video. Full stop. There is no rational argument that can support any other conclusion: it has no Magic Lantern firmware, it has precisely the same sensor and capabilities but a much lower resolution screen, weighs a ton. Unless you’re shooting in the rain with an L lens, save your money! Same goes for 5D MKii in my opinion. I’ve used them all, they all look good, but no different to the 550D in the end, plus they’re a pig to control and have an atrocious screen. Don’t think with your wallet. The 600D with Magic Lantern is now the king of EOS video, if you think otherwise, you’re reading the price tag.

For me, the most important thing is to become absorbed not just in technology, but in the overall (and sometimes overlooked) craft of film making: pre-production planning, casting, lighting, motion, composition, appropriate treatment and direction of talent, editing and pacing, balancing my own desire with the needs of the audience and the client, anaesthetising my ego for the sake of the piece, the list goes on and on. One fun way I find to do this is, just sometimes, to do it all myself! But whether working solo or in a team, I find that as I develop the ability to use more of these elements in balance, the box on the back of the glass starts to matter far less than my own imagination.


  • Ernesto

    Loved the video. The look and feel are great, and it does indeed look very professional.
    I feel the same way about filmmaking, and having studied for 4 years and shot “stuff” for the last 11 years in many contexts, I still find being a one man crew (with assistance in production and some gear, but like you mentioned, a one man “creative” team) is when I’m most comfortable, even if it’s quite demanding and stressing. I can’t help but to take a hold of the whole creative process, from scripting, storyboarding, directing and shooting, editing and doing the visual post production. Even sound is something I enjoy and I consider myself a little bit of a musician. And that’s not to inflate my ego, but to say that it’s hard for me to delegate tasks when they involve a change in my creative vision, even though I fully believe that cinema is a collective work, and an addition of every crew’s own vision. The result can very rarely meet your original imagined movie, as it transforms in every decision made by you or your crew. But there’s definitely not one only right way to make films. DSLRs have changed that in their way, but it has long been proven that when there’s talent and will you can do beautiful works. And they don’t have to be achieved through a Hollywood production team layout. Or something.
    Anyways, I felt close to your experience, but the final result wasn’t as gorgeous.

    I made this music video, my very first ever, with my newly arrived GH2 (that found its way to my hands just 3 days before). I bought it after discovering it a couple of days before depositing the money for a T3i, and I’m so happy to have taken the plunge.

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