Recently I was contacted by good friend, amazing actor and talented Director Ben Mcnamara about shooting a commercial for VISA..."HELL YEAH!!" was my initial reaction, as I've always wanted to work with Ben on the same side of the camera. Anyway, after reading the brief, studying the mood board and watching the reference clips my "HELL YEAH!!" turned into a subtle "OH SHIT!". Even though VISA are a massive company, there are always budget constraints to consider. In this case we were time poor and restricted to a very small crew...oh....and NO lights.
When discussing what camera we should use, my initial suggestion was to shoot RED, not because I'm a fanboy (seriously, I'm the opposite), but because it's a camera I know very well and work quickly with. Confidently assuring your employer that you can deliver what you say you can deliver is part of the job, but ACTUALLY delivering is far more important. With the Scarlet, I'm well aware of its strengths and weaknesses and I know where it can be pushed...which brings me to why we decided against it.
Let's go back to "NO LIGHTS" for a second. Now, before we get into the whole "low light" camera debate, this really is a situation where the RED would suffer. Don't get me wrong, I've had great success with my Scarlet in low light (Low Light Ignite!) but that was planned, refined and in a controlled environment. This shoot for VISA was the complete opposite - and then some. The sheer amount of shots that were scheduled for the time we had, was crazy, and although the locations were awesome, they varied from full direct sunlight to dark bowling alleys and under-lit cafes...and to top it off, I had to shoot at 50p so my light was cut in half!
What camera's are available today that can reliably capture quality 1080/50p (no moire or aliasing), record to cheap internal media, support almost any lens type, allow for 1080p out via HDMI whilst recording internally, have the ability to shoot "flat", have a codec that can (although only 8-bit) be pushed around in post, weigh as much as a V-Lock battery, can be mounted on a bike with ease and is light enough to shoot all day without breaking your shoulder....ANNNNND.....shoot in virtually NO light without an issue? Let's not forget the full frame sensor either :) There aren't many. In fact, I could only think of one (Jan 2015).
THE SONY A7S!!!
So after reading that, you might see why I considered this camera over the RED, but my decision had to be backed by confidence which meant testing the thing in person :) Was all the hype true? You bet....but hype aside, there are honest reviews out there that help make decisions like this much easier. Guys like Dave Dugdale are massively helping the community we work in, and I for one really appreciate the time and effort he puts into his reviews, thanks mate!! :) After watching this (Dave's Sony A7S review), I pretty much knew what to expect from the camera, but even then I had to test it for myself before the shoot. A day of Recce with Ben and the camera was enough to seal the deal...this camera is SICK!!
The A7s isn't perfect though...certainly not a RED Scarlet replacement. The codec, although pretty darn good is only 8-bit and if for example you shoot with an incorrect white balance, it falls apart pretty quickly when correcting that in post. For this job though, it was all hand held, supposed to look a little raw (not THAT raw ;) and the grade was being handled by the client who had asked for a flat picture style. I had been given references as to what the final grade would look like and was confident delivering footage like what you see above. I shot the entire thing s-LOG2 (Sony's FLAT picture style) which has a base ISO of 3200.
That's right, 3,200 ISO as a BASE. Of all the advantages I could have ask for on a shoot like this, I think that one alone was the deciding factor for me. Just to put things into perspective, a RED Scarlet's "base" ISO (which is still being debated about almost 4 years after it's conception) is either 320, OR 800, depending on which forum god (www.reduser.net) you try and interact with. Regardless, I think you'll see my point that when it comes to sensitivity and image quality, the Sony A7S smashes the RED out of the park when shooting above 800 ISO....how about 12,800 ISO? See below :)
Did I mention that even though the brief said, NO LIGHTS, I through in 2 of my 1000 LED panels anyway ;)
Sure, there's no RAW, and the highlights clip quicker, but the above shot would not have been possible to shoot as nicely with a RED, considering the light levels. Even with the two LED's I brought with me (hehe) I had to shoot this at a crazy high ISO to get decent exposure, but how clean is it?!?!?! Unbelievably clean for 12,800 ISO :) Lighting wise I bounced a tungsten LED off a white board on the ground, and another 5600K LED camera left, off of the red curtains. Then it was time to head outside....full sun....
With a shit-tonne of ND and shutter of 1/100th (for the 50p), we were set to shoot in any location! The rig we had was built from a few bits and pieces, crafted by my awesome AC, Kate Tartsus :) Wireless HD video for the client was up 100% of the time and worked flawlessly. With the super packed schedule we had, I don't think it would have been possible (regardless of how awesome this camera performed) without the help of an amazing crew. A big thanks to Kate Tartsus, Kate Murphy, Ben, Bobby, Natalie, Tomas and 1st AD Sean Tu for creating an awesome experience on set!
Check out the finished clip below...I had nothing to do with post on this one, but I think it come up pretty nice all things considered. It's such a luxury to be able to see your own work so quickly after shoot day - I think the guys at Hub Productions (Marco especially!) had a rough edit done the day after!! All time-laps was done by Ben Mcnamara (nice work mate!)
*** This clip has been compressed 3 times, so not much use for pixel peeping sorry, I don't have the original but was lucky enough to be able to share this :) ***
You might have noticed that not one of those shots was actually played back at 50% speed, so turns out I could have shot at 1/50th 25p which would have looked much nicer, but hey, it's good to have the option and that's what the client asked for :)
So, is the Sony A7s the ultimate full frame camera? Maybe right now it is.....when it comes to low light performance, it can't be overlooked. The biggest gripes I had with the thing were battery life (can be solved) and lack of RAW, but for $2K....you can't really complain. Full frame, usable 12,800 ISO, LOG modes, over-cranking without compromise, 1.6x crop mode (awesome feature!), support for almost any lens, decent latitude even though 8-bit, surprisingly good built-in viewfinder, full res HDMI out, recordable 4K output via HDMI, decent after-market cages and rigs, cheap media, small enough to go almost anywhere. For certain jobs, considering the price, it's perfect :) Again, it's not a RED replacement, no way, but it does have a place on my camera shelf.