Frankenstein Cameras


It was one of the Video Whisperer blog followers who either coined the term ‘Frankenstein cameras” or passed it onto me.

I liked it.

I’ve used some pretty audacious frankenstein rigs in the movie business, but that was back in the film days. Nowadays they’re producing ‘films’ with hi end video cameras. And that’s a pretty exacting art form.

In the context of run and gun videography, however,  it’s an oxymoron.

I’m writing this hopefully for the benefit of those who are relatively new to the field so they don’t think they need to run off and buy all that stuff to shoot professional video–be it corporate work or weddings, documentaries, short films or whatever.

These days the technology they can pack into small cameras boggles the mind. My first contact with big technology in a small camera was with the Sony HXR NX30—and that’s a really small camera. I was so enthusiastic that I did my first ever video review on that camera. Within 5 months it was the top review on Google—and my review came out more than a year after the camera was released. It remains the number one search result for reviews on the NX30 to this day.

The next camera I reviewed with similar verve for similar reasons was the Sony PXW X70. This time my review came out 3 months after the first reviews, but within 2 months it was number one and also remains so to this day.

By the way, this is not to say that there aren’t other cameras that have comparable—or perhaps even better—characteristics, but I just happen to own these two and they suited me to a ’t’.  I had enough of big cameras, tripods, matte boxes, zoom controllers, follow focus rigs and all the rest of it.

Why did I like these two cameras so much?

I was looking for a camera that was small, smart, light and could do all I wanted it to with very little effort or attention on my part.  I wanted to keep my own attention outward. I also didn’t want to have to lug a bunch of stuff  around. Been there, done that. Those two Sony cameras gave me what I wanted in spades. Their intelligent auto systems were the best I had ever used. Their state of the art stabilization systems were cherries on top.

I do understand the Frankenstein allure however. You can add matte boxes, auxiliary controllers and external LED monitors, Flash storage devices and gawd knows what all to a small camera, then stick it onto a glide rail, Steadicam, dolly or crane and suddenly look like you’re top dog behind a Panavision camera, replete with multiple assistant cameramen to help you set up and operate it all. It’s very Hollywood.

To be fair, it depends on your own use. If you know you’re going to be in a fixed position for a wedding, you’ll want to be on a tripod and you’ll want a good zoom controller on your panning handle. Those would be good and needful accessories (tripod and zoom controller) if that’s what you’re going to be doing with that camera. In my case, even when I was commissioned for a wedding, I’d put another cameraman on that main camera fixed position and cross my fingers. I’d be the one running around hand-held during the live event getting all the other interesting angles and reverse shots so that in end, I’d be able to produce a more memorable edit that looked more like a 6 camera shoot even if there were only 3 cameras.

My approach—in any production situation—is to get as much usable footage from as many different viewpoints, angles and image sizes as possible in the least amount of time—especially since I’m usually alone. That makes editing easy. And for that you need a camera that’s small, light and smart.

If a camera (such as these two mentioned) can take in 96GB without a sweat either by using internal memory or cards, who needs an external recorder? If you can hand-hold it so steady that nobody would know that you’re not on a tripod, who needs a tripod? If it’s got a good quality flip out, rotatable LED screen, who needs an external monitor? If it’s got fast and smart auto focus systems, facial recognition or ‘tap-the-screen-to-keep-this-thing-in-focus’, who needs follow focus controllers? If its stabilization system is so good you can do follow shots are hand-held pans practically as good as a Steadicam, who needs stabilisers and glide rails? And given the time it takes to set all those things up, how many shots could you have shot in the meantime with a camera that can do practically all of those things in your own bare hands?

So that’s why I like them.

Yes, you have know how to handle a camera and you’ve got to practice to get the best results out of a camera like that. I’d much rather pay that price  Granted, you’re going to make mistakes. Sometimes the camera will let you down and focus on the wrong thing when you didn’t realise it in the rush of it all. But if that’s a tiny percentage of a massive accumulation of shots that you were able to get because the camera is not slowing you down, be happy. That’s why god invented editing and you’ll be in pretty good shape with multiple solutions for any problem you may have created or been given in the process. And it’s a lot better and a lot more fun than to having to drag along all that other stuff which doesn’t guarantee a professional result anyway if you’re a lone shooter.

Leave all that to the professional film production companies. They’ve got the time and the money. As a lone shooter, you don’t. You’ve got to get done what those 12 other guys do in a fraction of the time. Time is money. Spend it wisely.

True story: One of the first solo productions I did back in 2008 with a Canon XHA1 tape camera was for a helicopter logging company that had been featured for 3 seasons on the History Channel’s ‘Axmen’ series in the US. They had big film crews out there every day for the better part of 3 years. Once I finished my little documentary for them, in response to a request for a testimonial they said that I had managed to get more done in one day than those Hollywood producers, assistants, cameramen, grips and service people would get done in an entire week.  Who knows, maybe they were exaggerating a tiny bit…but probably not much.

If you’ve got a smart camera, let it be smart and give you more time so you can make more money.

3 responses

  1. Excellent post, as always, Joe! I guess the fashion/trend to build spectacukarly cumbersome rigs recently was propelled by the enormous amount of DSLR users using their video-capable still image cameras for videography, and with the myriads of gizmos they/we try to mitigate the severe limitations of still image cameras for video work. Here is an example: I have a Sony A5100, which has terrific (shallow DoF) image quality and brilliant low-light capability; but, it is limited to only 29:59-minute video at a time. I bought an Atomos Ninja 2 external recorder to be able to record concerts, longish interviews, theater performances. I’d never use a Ninja with an AX100, X70, NX30 or AXP33.
    Fortunately, though, unlike nearly all DSLRs, the Sony A5100 has excellently snappy (touch to) autofocus, even continuous AF, capability in video/movie mode.
    The other major problem with still-image cameras is that they have quite poor audio. I use a Tascam DR 60D (having two XLR inputs), and connect the line out from the Tascam into the Ninja2 (external recorder).


  2. some guys just really over kill it with all this extra stuff on there cameras. I recall seeing a guy shooting on the spot interviews at the Film Festival. His rig was so big he was blocking the flow of foot traffic which is the total opposite of what shooting events is all about .you want a camera close to you if you’re out in the crowd and not blocking people. little and unless is best in my view.

    Liked by 1 person

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