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6Sight Future of Imaging Summit: The DSLR Video Revolution
by Jim Keenan -  6/28/2011

Last week's 6Sight conference keynote address was delivered by Vincent Laforet, a Pulitzer prize-winning still photographer/photojournalist formerly of the NY Times. Laforet's work was notable for the use of aerial perspectives - hanging out of helicopters, tall buildings and other lofty locations to shoot angles never seen by folks inclined to keep their feet on solid ground.

He also made use of tilt shift lenses to selectively blur large portions of images while achieving tack sharp focus on a single small area in the field of view. In the strictly regulated world of photojournalism (posing or setting up a subject rather than simply recording events as they happen is grounds for termination at the NY Times and many other papers), Laforet had risen to the heights of his profession.

But Laforet has always had a thing for movies (his biological father was a movie director) and he's added video to commercial still photography as his work mediums. He continues to shoot stills for fun, owns a Leica M9 and a bucket of lenses, and freely admits 80% of his personal shooting is via iPhone. If the idea of a Pulitzer guy shooting most of his personal work on a smartphone raises your eyebrows a bit, Laforet's choice of video camera may surprise you even more. He's a big fan of the HD DSLR for video work - and shared a story of his first encounter with Canon's 5D Mark II.

Move over, Steven Spielberg
Three years ago Laforet was at Canon to meet with an executive, and was waiting in the office on a Friday afternoon. Also waiting in the office were three boxed versions of the prototype 5D Mk. II which were going to three photographers for testing. Laforet examined the cameras and became enamored of the video component, but while he was not among the photographers selected to wring out the cameras, he discovered that one guy wouldn't be in to pick up his camera for another five days. After a lot of arm twisting, Laforet was allowed to take one of the cameras for the weekend, with Canon's concerns ringing in his ears: "It's not designed for video, you're not a video photographer, this is not a good idea, this is not helping us."

Laforet put together a shooting team composed of himself, three friends and two models to produce a short video titled "Reverie," shot in the New York City area over the course of the weekend. The video was simple and straightforward (except perhaps for the scene with the male model sitting in the open door of the helicopter as it cruised the night sky over Manhattan), and featured only existing light. Posted on Canon's website, the video went viral, getting a couple million hits in the first two days - enough to shut down Canon's servers for a time.

This was the first 1080p video shot and released from a still camera. Since then, at least one episode of the TV show "House" was shot entirely with a 5D II, which produces video Laforet classifies as viable for a variety of applications up to and including TV production. Just recently Nikon has begun running an ad for the D5100 DSLR that was captured entirely by the D5100 itself. At one point, 70% of commercial videos being shot by the four largest Los Angeles ad agencies were being done with an HD DSLR. The ad campaign spawned by this video has been one of Canon's most successful, and Laforet has gone from still photographer to full blown video pro in three years.

Keep in mind that Laforet had zero experience shooting video when he walked out the door that Friday. He didn't even have a user's manual for the camera; it was a learn-by-doing thing all the way. Of course, being a talented still shooter with a long background in photojournalism didn't hurt, but the point remains that Laforet was the newest of newcomers to the video genre when he set off on his weekend adventure.

The HD DSLR has dramatically changed production of commercial videos - where once a crew of twenty souls might be needed to handle all the equipment, setup and talent for a major commercial venture, much of the same work can be done with a crew of three. Fifteen cases of equipment can handle an HD DSLR shoot -two hundred cases might be needed for more traditional equipment for a full-length major motion picture. Shooting dramatic action scenes that might expose a $50,000 to $250,000 camera to harm can be done with a $2,700 camera and $2,000 lens. The bottom line is that the emergence of the HD DSLR as a viable commercial video platform (at a fraction of the cost of more traditional or specialized equipment) has the potential to allow folks with less than the deepest of pockets to get into the video game in a serious way.

Laforet also spoke about the RED Epic and Phantom video cameras, arguably the present state of the art in digital video capture. The RED Epic features capture rates up to 120 frames per second at full 14 megapixel resolution. EPIC is engineered to be a DSMC (Digital Still & Motion Camera) by design, with a native dynamic range of over 13 stops and resolution that exceeds 35mm motion picture film. You can set the camera for video, or single captures, and RED's website offers a hand-built RED Epic, lens and support equipment for $58,000. The RED Epic can also accept Canon or Nikon lenses.

Phantom offers cameras capable of shooting over 1000 frames per second at full resolution, and with frame rates over 10,000 fps at reduced resolution. A fully-optioned Phantom for a major motion picture can run about $600,000.

And while Laforet can shoot with anything he wants now, clearly there's still a soft spot in his heart for the HD DSLR that set him on his path to video. He admits the specialized cameras offer a bit better image quality, but that for most clients, TV, and Internet the HD DSLR image quality falloff is barely noticeable.

The HD video revolution will be televised
Laforet is very frank about the HD DSLR's impact on video at the professional level - which he describes as nothing less than the "....democratization of filmmaking and photography with these new tools. It's really exciting for the average person - it freaks out all the professionals in the world because now they have to compete with 20 times and 100 times the number of competition and the barrier of entry is being lowered, if not destroyed."

Laforet started his video career with an HD DSLR, saying that "this thing propelled me like a catapult towards Hollywood and filmmaking. Here I was being invited to DreamWorks, and to Industrial Light and Magic to show 500 people Reverie, to meet the likes of Lucas...." He's since been invited to Disney, met Spielberg and others in the Hollywood hierarchy and carved out a niche as a director. Commercial still work remains on his plate, but the story of his swift transition to video thanks to a relatively cost-effective DSLR bodes well for the next Spielberg, Hitchcock or DeMille out there waiting to be discovered.