A Conversation with Philip Bloom
You can’t talk about the video DSLR revolution without mentioning Philip Bloom. A British director and director of photography , Bloom launched his blog www.philipbloom.co.uk almost 3 years ago. Designed to get the attention of potential clients, the site has evolved into one of the leading forums for DSLR video discussion and education. On a recent trip to New York, Philip Bloom sat down with David Flores to discuss education, work, and the latest equipment.
David Flores: Welcome to New York!
Philip Bloom: Thanks very much! Good to finally come.
DF: You identify as a director of photography and filmmaker, but you’re also one of the first sites that people went to for advice when the Letus adapters came out. How are you enjoying the education role?
PB: I’m really enjoying the educational role. It’s really part of what the blog was about -- sharing my experiences with people so they wouldn’t have to go through the problems I had. I’ve done some speaking engagements, and I did my first workshop in summer of last year. I’d like to do more and more of those. I’m really enjoying meeting people and sharing the knowledge.
All you need to do is look at my phone to see the number of unread emails -- those are the people asking questions and me doing my best to get back to them and answer as best as I can. What I’m trying to do with the web site is make it so they don’t have to email me. Hopefully there’s enough information there already.
DF: When you put up the original site, wasn’t it done with iWeb?
PB: Yes! I used Apple iWeb for the first site and the initial blog. I embedded my own QuickTime videos, which obviously was fine to start with -- for the 3 visitors I had a day. Then my monthly bandwidth got used up in one day and the site closed down. I moved off of .mac and a guy got me set up with a WordPress site and it went from there.
The site was originally a showcase for me to get work. If you look at my site from 3 years ago, it was simply just some clips of my work, contact details, and list of credits. It evolved much more into a resource for people to learn from. It still gets me work obviously, because that’s the most important thing. If it didn’t get me work, then we’d have a real problem. It’s weird in a way that people come to learn, and they want to hire me. Which works pretty well.
DF: You were one of the first to push the possibilities of the video-enabled DSLR. From your “People” series to the landscape work you’ve done at Sky Walker and in Prague, people are really seeing the potential of the 7D and other cameras. Are you interested in developing these shorts into long form projects?
PB: Generally, what you see on my site is my personal projects. The majority of what I shoot I can’t put on my site. I don’t have the permissions or the rights. There’s DSLR shorts and loads of documentaries that I’ve shot for Discovery that I can’t host on my site. You have to go and find them.
I’m currently working with Lucas Film on a new movie. We’re shooting DSLR on Red Tails. It’s evolving as its own thing.
To be honest, a lot of stuff I do is just to pay the bills. It’s like that with everybody. Anyone that thinks that you can just go out there and earn money at what you love -- I wish there was that possibility. But you do what you have to do to make money. You use that money to pay your bills, but also to give you time to do what you want to do -- which makes you no money.
(lots of laughter)
That’ll be the case with big famous movie directors and actors who’ll take the big budget Jerry Bruckheimer movie –- take the big bucks and nothing from it creatively and then use the money to write a film, direct a film, star in a film that pays them next to nothing. On a much lesser scale, that’s me. Most of the work I do bores the tears out of me. It would bore people to death…corporate films, things like that.
DF: But it’s important. It’s work.
PB: It’s very important. I always tell people, no matter how boring you think the job is -- even if you think it’s beneath you -- take it and do the best that you can. The biggest thrill you can get is making something that’s really bland and boring sing. Make it look great. Light it beautifully. Shoot it with a DSLR. Make it look sexy. You’ll get a thrill from making that boring boardroom look good. They’ll be like, “Wow we never had anything look as good as this!” And you’re getting paid AND creatively challenged. That’s the biggest challenge: making something boring look great! And getting paid money to do it.
DF: Video DSLRs are obviously amazing, but you come from an ENG background. SkyOne, Discovery, Canon, and your other corporate clients are sometimes better served with ENG cameras. DSLRs aren’t always appropriate.
PB: No! They’re not appropriate! If you go from ENG camera to ENG camera, there’s differences and you can more or less cope with them. But DSLR is a completely different way of doing things. I would never shoot on a camera that I hadn’t tested.
It’s a steep learning curve. If you go out there on a job and you’ve never shot with the 5D before and you’re used to using ENG cameras, you’re going to create something absolutely atrocious because you don’t know how to use it. That’s your own fault.
It’s become a bit of a contentious issue. I’ve gotten some angry comments from people thinking that I’m fooling people into thinking DSLRs can create these magical images. I don’t think I’m fooling anybody into anything. I’m just showing what I’ve done with it.
Going back to your question, are DSLRs appropriate for all sorts of applications? No. Can you make them work across many applications? Yeah you can. They’re flexible enough and versatile enough. I’m now doing jobs that a year ago I would never have considered using them for. But I’ve become so comfortable in using them that the issues that I initially had are gone.
When I go back to an ENG camera and shoot with a nice ENG lens, am I happy? Yeah! Because it’s so easy.
PB: I’ve shot a number of documentaries where I did all the main stuff with the EX cameras and used the DSLRs for more intimate, more stylized shots.
I hate to say this. I sold my EX1 last year. I still have an EX3. I didn’t need both. I like the EX3 -- the shape, the shade, it’s a great camera. I will use the EX3 on a job this year. I’ve got NanoFlash for it. I’m going to be able to output some really high quality images.
But I’ve shot other documentaries purely with the 7D. I was always scared of using the 7D or the 5D for interviews because of the 12-minute time limit. With the 5D before then it was the issue of 30p (not originally 29.97fps) which is now gone. That was the biggest stumbling block for me on most projects. The 7D came along and fixed that. The 5D got new firmware and fixed that.
We still have the issues of the 12-minute thing. It hasn’t been a big issue for me. An example: I just did a big documentary in Dubai for the Dubai Royal Family. I honestly didn’t think I was going to shoot interviews with the DSLRs. I knew that I was shooting in really boring locations. I knew that it would be a struggle with the EX cameras to get shallow depth of field. I didn’t want to use 35mm adapters, because then I’d have to light it more intensely. It was a tossup.
As a documentary filmmaker, the last thing you want to do is when it comes up to that 12 minutes is say “Hang on there! Gonna do another take!” Get your clapper board out…you completely ruin the whole thing! You don’t want that. The joy of the software I’ve got (Plural Eyes for Final Cut Pro) is that we simply left the Zoom recording. The director was asking the questions (his voice was not used) and when we got to around 10 minutes and he was asking a question, I simply stopped recording and started again.
Back at the hotel, I off-loaded the rushes. Threw it onto the timeline. Had a really long audio clip of an hour and a half long. Plural Eyes just plunked all the video into the right position and exported a file. The client didn’t have to worry about syncing anything! They had synced rushes and it was really simple for me.
DF: Would you use a video DSLR for news?
PB: For me, news would be the hardest thing to shoot with a DSLR. You have a fast turn around. You have to convert your rushes. You have to sync dual system sound. I’ve done 17 years in news. I know how fast it has to be. I can’t imagine doing it. I would never do it with a DSLR. For a news feature, something like a 60 Minutes, I’d do it. It’s not great for running around handheld, chasing after people, fly-on-the-wall stuff, it’s very difficult to shoot with DSLRs.
A friend of mine Dan Chung who runs dslrnewsshooter.com is based in Beijing and works for the Guardian. He does news segments with DSLR all one-man-band. That’s big.
PB: The new Canons offer very good bit rate and 4:2:2 color space, but they don’t have the larger sensors for low-light sensitivity. I think a lot of people were disappointed that Canon didn’t throw their APS-C chip into these nice bodies. I don’t think people realize just what it would take to do that. It isn’t just a case of taking the chip and slapping it into the camera -- it comes back to the lenses. You’d require a video lens with a Servo.
People are already complaining about buying a Z-finder for their Rebel T2i. At $400 it’s half the cost of the camera. If you build a lens to cover an APS-C sensor you’re going to have a price point that is way beyond what started this revolution.
Canon makes the most amazing ENG lenses. A decent lens can cost $10,000. Imagine what it would cost to build a lens to cover an even larger sensor. At NAB Panasonic announced their new camera…
DF: The Micro Four Thirds for video.
PB: Yeah. But they’re not attempting to make an ENG-style lens for it. They’ve got the video optimized lenses for the GH1 and they’re pretty good and they are cheap. But they’re not trying to go down the ENG lens route. Sony’s prototyping some things. Bigger sensors are going into these cameras, but if people think that prices are going to stay the same…
It would be lovely if we could have a $2000 or $3000 camera that has the form factor of an EX1 and the low light sensitivity of a 7D, but we are many, many years off from that.
DF: Let’s talk about the new Zacuto Finders. They attach to the cameras differently now.
DF: Yeah, me to. They WORK.
PB: YES! The base plate system is very nice, though. The way you can have it mounted on your rig and take it off and put it back on works well. I think that over time, we’re going to find that they’ve gone down a better route. It’s very secure. And there’s a lot of people that don’t like sticking stuff on their cameras. I’ve taken the old frames off many times, but I can understand that some people don’t like that.
DF: I just did a short with Jamie Buckner in a bowling alley. We got the worst fog in the original Z-Finder.
PB: The new finders are MUCH better. The anti fog is beautiful. Anyone that uses viewfinders or wears glasses is aware of fogging. You’re not going to get any fog up in the new ones.
DF: A few years ago, the industry was all a-buzz about the RED and the possiblities of shooting features on HD video. There were so many workflow issues and conforming problems initially. There hasn’t been that kind of flare up with the DSLR revolution. House just did their season finally on the 5DII. Are we at a point now where the workflow is good enough?
PB: Once you convert the files, the workflow issues are gone. That’s the ONLY workflow issue. The recording in camera is fine. As long as you’re using some nice fast cards, a fast reader like the Lexar FireWire 800, you can get the files straight off fast. Leave it to convert and then there’s no workflow issues. You’re in ProRes or whatever it is that you’re editing in and there’s no problems whatsoever.
DF: Are you using Canon’s E1 plug-in for Final Cut Pro?
PB: E1 in Final Cut is nice. But slow. It makes things integrated and simple. But I still prefer my workflow with MPEG Stream clip. There’s some new software coming out from Red Giant called Magic Bullet Grinder -- this is very fast conversion software.
I’m actually going to be talking to the post guys from House, because they’re not using Final Cut. For Lucas Film we are still trying to find the very best way to convert from h.264 to AVID files.
DF: Lucas is all AVID?
PB: They are all AVID. They’re using Unity. That place is decked out. They’re not going to change it just for the 5D. We’re finding ways to make it work.
DF: What an exciting time to be a filmmaker…
PB: I would say it’s the most exciting time to be a filmmaker in the past 20 years. Suddenly the door has been opened. It wasn’t that long ago that you could buy an EX1 and a Letus for something like $10,000.
DF: And that was cheap.
PB: It felt cheap at the time, didn’t it? Now you can do all of this for under $1000.
David Flores is a photographer and filmmaker based in New York City.
Philip Bloom is a DP, Director, and Filmmaker. He blogs at www.philipbloom.co.uk.