Shooting Raw with the Digital Bolex at Venice Beach

When I first saw DSLR footage on Vimeo just about four years ago, I got really, really excited about the possibilities. Looking at Philip Bloom’s Skywalker Ranch and Vincent Laforet’s Reverie—I wasn’t getting shots like those on my Panasonic DVX100 nor on prosumer HD video cameras. I remember being on set of Po Chan’s The Last 3 Minutes and looking on with amazement as Shane Hurlbut, ASC took that little camera and worked cinematic magic with it.

Photo by Elle Schneider, courtesy of Digital Bolex

Excitement pulsed through my veins—I wanted one. Indeed, I wanted to share that excitement with my film and multimedia journalism students at Northern Arizona University.

I even wrote a book about the revolution, DSLR Cinema for Focal Press, which came out in October 2010. The 5D Mark II, and later the 7D and Rebel T2i/550D, promised many film students and low budget independent filmmakers that they, too, wouldn’t have to settle with video crud, but could potentially shoot cinematic quality films.

So I bought gear, and I shot with a 5D. I remember shooting one particular scene, the subject looking great through Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens—the glass wanted to make that image so beautiful, and through the live view LCD screen, it did. I didn’t know it at the time, but the onscreen image was uncompressed. Of course it was. The 5D shoots beautiful raw stills and the live view mode gives you that sense of raw beauty.

But when I put the clip on the computer, it didn’t look so hot. In the back of my mind I wondered where the magic went. Something just felt off. When I shot on Arriflex 16mm film in my NYU days in the mid to late 1990s, I would look through the glass, get the film developed and that beauty, that magic shone through the film.

And when I shot with the 5D I felt that same sense of filmic excitement—until the scene was “developed.” At the time I didn’t know much about 8-bit compression. I didn’t know how the image was being compromised, thinned out to save space. But I lived with it, because if you got that image to look close on-camera, you were going to get a good image on the computer. I’ve always wanted to make movies and before I knew any better my brothers and I would shoot on VHS in the 1980s and early 1990s, then we shot some projects on Hi8mm—these were the things we could afford. We didn’t know much about cinematography. All that I do know is that nothing I’ve ever shot with looked like the 16mm film I shot in Greenwich Village.

Until I shot with the Digital Bolex. The D16 is personal. It’s magical. I can’t wait to film a work of fiction on it.

How do I know this? I shot images at noon on a sunny day at Venice Beach.

I would fail students for attempting to take such actions with a DSLR. I not only shot at noon, but I shot a dark skinned street performer against a blue sky. I did everything you should never do with an 8-bit DSLR or video camera or any compressed image making system. I stopped down the vintage lens to its smallest aperture just to get exposure (I didn’t have an ND filter so I did not get to test out shallow depth of field.)

I shot the ocean with sailboats in the distance, and I was able to hold the sky. I shot skateboarders in their rink, moving a fast pan left with no rolling shutter issues.

Photo by Elle Schneider, courtesy of Digital Bolex

In post, I imported the clips into my MacBook Pro and opened them up in Adobe Camera Raw. What I saw was, finally, what I shot—it was dense. I could manipulate the image like I was in a dark room mixing chemicals—but now I was mixing temperature balance, tint, contrast, exposure, and film curves.

Photo by Elle Schneider, courtesy of Digital Bolex

I pulled the exposure out for that dark skinned street performer and was able to get details while keeping the sky colors intact. I was able to hold light skinned performers without blowing them out, as well.

Photo by Elle Schneider, courtesy of Digital Bolex

The magic’s beneath the hood, where we find skin tones.

Roll off of light and shadow. Details and color popping out through digital pixels. But it wasn’t film. What kind of magic has the Digital Bolex team wrought?

And this is what some people may not understand with these raw CinemaDNG cameras—the magic isn’t in the sharpness of the image (although that’s one side effect of 12-bit raw). It’s not about 4K vs 2K or HD.

It’s about color depth, baby.

Some might look at this short film and say that the images you see at Venice Beach are just the result of some post-production effect, a trick—show me what the camera can do, already! Anyone can layer effects and make an image look like film, right? How sharp is it, really?

But when I’ve applied Magic Bullet to my 5D footage—and those effects do look like a plastic Halloween mask. This is something different. I can almost touch it, feel it, manipulate it into the magic of what filmmaking on film can do—shimmer dreams on the edge of your senses and document real life in a magical way. The footage is organic and those who color grade with this footage will feel the difference in the density of the image.

Don’t let the marketing hucksters at the big camera companies tell you otherwise. They’re selling to the masses with their sleight of hand sharp images, fooling everyone into a sales formula: fi = uhr2 (filmic image equals ultra high resolution squared).

Maybe those who live in the era of high pixel count and sharpness think that ultra high definition is what cinema cameras should be. Remember that many of them have never shot on film. So don’t get angry at them. They don’t know any better. Pity them. Teach them. Guide them to the bit depth of the D16. But if they don’t listen to you, move on and make your films.

They could have made a camera like everyone else. But why should they make something somebody else already made? So let’s rejoice that there are companies on this planet that don’t want to be the next Canon or Sony. Rejoice that there are those who dare to dream and make their dreams a reality, for that’s exactly what the Digital Bolex team has done, here, with their cinema camera.

It’s like they made the camera for me, for those like me, for you—the ones who really care about shooting on film, but never had the chance. This may be as close as you get.

Joe and Elle—as well as Mike, Joe, and Stelio at Ienso in Toronto—you did it. You’ve made me proud to be an independent filmmaker again.

Photo by Elle Schneider, courtesy of Digital Bolex

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