Experienced DoP Andrew Mickelburgh on the latest camera equipment

Mickelburgh discusses the latest camera equipment, shooting logistics and dealing with directors

Q&A with experienced DoP, Andrew Mickelburgh, talking about the latest camera equipment, shooting logistics and dealing with different directors....

What are the best cameras to use for commercials and why?

Arri ALEXA Mini and ALEXA LF

These are the two main high-end digital cinematography cameras used in commercials. If you walked onto 90% of productions, they’d be using the Arri ALEXA..

The LF is really expensive and so is mostly owned by companies that would rent them out to movie productions or high-end TV shows. They come with so much stuff. The Mini and LF have the same sensors, but the bodies are different for different uses. For commercials they would tend to use Arri Minis, which have smaller bodies, for flexibility.

Spec?

Sensors - these are the best created for cinematography cameras, which is why leading DoPs, like Roger Deakins, will only use Arri cameras.

All-terrain - The Mini has a carbon fibre body, so even if it fell off a cliff, you’d be able to pick it up and still use it. They are very robust and can work in extremely low and high temperatures. The body is completely sealed as well, so if you were shooting in somewhere like the desert, there would be nowhere for the sand to get in.

The codec – this is the software that compresses your video so it can be stored and played back on a device. Effectively it processes the usable data once the light hits the sensor and turns it into a video file. The quality of this codec is great. It processes the files into something called ProRes (a high-end video codec) that is really easy to use once you take it from the camera to editing suites. It’s flawless, works on every platform, and doesn’t need to be re-encoded. It also has different compression levels, so you can set it to different ratios. The codec on the top-end Arri would probably do 3:1, which is a really low compression ratio, so the images are high quality with lots of data within the files. This means when you come to the post production process, you’ve got a lot more info to work with than a video file that’s been compressed more.

Raw – The Arris can process internal raw recordings, something not all cameras can do, which is why they’re expensive. Being able to shoot raw means you can do anything with it (shadows, whites, highs, lows, colour etc), but the files are really big. So the post production process is hefty, but that’s ok because productions have probably got the budget.

Red cameras

The red cameras are also used in commercials, but not as much these days. They were the first to produce serious digital cinematography cameras, and they still offer a variety of options, but at the high-end they’re very expensive. Much like the Arri cameras, they do pretty low compression levels and they shoot raw, but they can become temperamental and problematic.

They are still the popular choice of some film and TV directors, with recent projects to use them including The Two Popes, The Aeronauts, and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Some commercial production companies also use them for particular looks on client campaigns (eg Audemars Piguet, Cisco and Audi).  

 Arri vs Red?

It is hard to tell the difference between the Red and Arri cameras at the top level. On big productions with amazing lights, sensors and sets, you can’t tell the difference. Some shots I’d be able to say that’s definitely Arri, but it’s hard.

If you shoot a movie on Red or Arri raw, you can take it anywhere in the grade, so by the time it’s done it’s impossible to tell.

Ultimately, it’s down to the vision of the director and DOP or determined by the post-production work due to cost.

Sony Venice digital cinema camera

This is Sony’s version of the Arri to compete in the same high-end digital cinematographic camera market, at the same sort of price (£40K to £50k). It is proving quite popular for commercials. Sony has given it a new sensor and codec, so it’s very good.

Sensor - This has got a 6K sensor, compared to 4K for the Arri, which means more information and resolution. It has a very different look to the Arri in terms of the image it creates.

Raw - It will process raw, but not as easily as the Arri. You need a separate compartment at the back of the camera.

Operation side of camera – one of the cool features of this camera is it has an operator’s side to it (opposite to the DoP’s side). This means that on big shoots with large camera departments, everyone can fiddle with it without getting in the DoP’s way.

No Mini version though

Important raw note…

With Arri you have to buy a licence to record Arri raw. The license unlocks the software to use it. Mine cost £8K. There’s also a license for the anamorphic lens, but that’s included in the £8K. So with Arri the capabilities are already there, but you need to buy a license, whereas with the Sony you’ve got to buy a physical extra bit of kit to do raw (about £5K).

What other cameras are there, especially for television?

Sony F5

This has become one of the standard cameras and is related to the Venice.

It has a 4K sensor, but doesn’t do internal raw processing. However, it shoots in a format called log, which has a flat gamma curve, so you can pull around the image in grading, which is a good feature. The Crown was shot on a F5 with beautiful vintage Cook lenses. The big block at the back of the camera that clips on will allow for raw (similar to the Venice).

Sony F55

This is the bigger brother with similar features. Lots of Netflix stuff has been done these cameras. They have a list of broadcast cameras they use to ensure it’s true 4K. The F55s are cost effective (around £15,000) and can be rigged up to anything.

Reds are experimenting with 8K. It’s better quality, but it’s a lot of resolution. Plus, there are very few 8K TVs available at the moment, so you can’t even watch the 8K rushes, unless you have an 8K monitor, but they are very expensive.

The Arris can cost £50,000, so If you’re doing a shoot with lots of cameras that can add up. It would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds with big expensive camera rigs.

What are some of the key things to think about when using the cameras on location?

Usability - Once you’ve decided which camera and sensor you want to work with, then you’d make your rig decision based on location, environment, size of budget and production as well.

 If you’re going to be shooting a car commercial in the desert, you wouldn’t take an Alexa LF. When it’s rigged up, it’s a beast. The Mini is tiny and can be stripped back to a body and lens and can be rigged to a car.

On a big commercial, you might have low loaders, i.e. a car on a flatbed truck and rig everything to that so it looks like the car is driving. You can then rig anything you like to that. If it’s a smaller budget, the rigging would be attached to the car while it’s driving, which is much more stripped back, so you can’t do as much.

Planning – for a DOP that would be getting as much info as possible, such as location, budget, time constraints, crew size etc. What can I get on the production to achieve desired results? The less you have the harder it is and more mistakes will be made. If you don’t have a lighting team, you can’t expect the lighting to be great because you (the DoP) have got to do so much more yourself. If you’ve got five guys working for you it’s easier, can give them instructions about what you want and they know what they’re doing, so it’s going to be perfect.

It’s important to think about where you could trip yourself up in terms of time and budget. It’s also good to pass as much of the logistics off to the production team, so you (the DoP) can just focus on the shots.

What are your conversations like with the directors?

It depends on the characters of the two people. Some directors are very actor focused and not very technical. Others are technical too. If a director isn’t necessarily technically focused, the DoP will be a lot more involved in the look and structure of the film. Some directors have a clear vision of what they want down to the lenses and cameras. They want to own it, which is an interesting dynamic.

Most directors are in the middle ground, in that they’ll have an idea of what they want and the discussion will be down to how the DoP can realise the image and look (i.e. put forward lens choices, lighting styles etc).

 Andrew's bio

Andrew has a background in broadcast television filming science, history and travel documentaries for National Geographic, History Channel, ITV & the BBC.

He has a diverse client base that includes high profile music promos for Abbey Road Studios and Universal Music Group. As well as experience in commercials and branded content for global brands and video content distributors including HSBC, Renault, Barclays, Yahoo!, DHL, Premier League, Moet, Jack Daniels, Citroen, Victoria's Secret, Burberry and Samsung.

Experienced DoP Andrew Mickelburgh on the latest camera equipment
Andrew Mickelburgh. Mind's Eye TV
Experienced DoP Andrew Mickelburgh on the latest camera equipment
Andrew Mickelburgh. Mind's Eye TV

Q&A with experienced DoP, Andrew Mickelburgh, talking about the latest camera equipment, shooting logistics and dealing with different directors....

What are the best cameras to use for commercials and why?

Arri ALEXA Mini and ALEXA LF

These are the two main high-end digital cinematography cameras used in commercials. If you walked onto 90% of productions, they’d be using the Arri ALEXA..

The LF is really expensive and so is mostly owned by companies that would rent them out to movie productions or high-end TV shows. They come with so much stuff. The Mini and LF have the same sensors, but the bodies are different for different uses. For commercials they would tend to use Arri Minis, which have smaller bodies, for flexibility.

Spec?

Sensors - these are the best created for cinematography cameras, which is why leading DoPs, like Roger Deakins, will only use Arri cameras.

All-terrain - The Mini has a carbon fibre body, so even if it fell off a cliff, you’d be able to pick it up and still use it. They are very robust and can work in extremely low and high temperatures. The body is completely sealed as well, so if you were shooting in somewhere like the desert, there would be nowhere for the sand to get in.

The codec – this is the software that compresses your video so it can be stored and played back on a device. Effectively it processes the usable data once the light hits the sensor and turns it into a video file. The quality of this codec is great. It processes the files into something called ProRes (a high-end video codec) that is really easy to use once you take it from the camera to editing suites. It’s flawless, works on every platform, and doesn’t need to be re-encoded. It also has different compression levels, so you can set it to different ratios. The codec on the top-end Arri would probably do 3:1, which is a really low compression ratio, so the images are high quality with lots of data within the files. This means when you come to the post production process, you’ve got a lot more info to work with than a video file that’s been compressed more.

Raw – The Arris can process internal raw recordings, something not all cameras can do, which is why they’re expensive. Being able to shoot raw means you can do anything with it (shadows, whites, highs, lows, colour etc), but the files are really big. So the post production process is hefty, but that’s ok because productions have probably got the budget.

Red cameras

The red cameras are also used in commercials, but not as much these days. They were the first to produce serious digital cinematography cameras, and they still offer a variety of options, but at the high-end they’re very expensive. Much like the Arri cameras, they do pretty low compression levels and they shoot raw, but they can become temperamental and problematic.

They are still the popular choice of some film and TV directors, with recent projects to use them including The Two Popes, The Aeronauts, and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Some commercial production companies also use them for particular looks on client campaigns (eg Audemars Piguet, Cisco and Audi).  

 Arri vs Red?

It is hard to tell the difference between the Red and Arri cameras at the top level. On big productions with amazing lights, sensors and sets, you can’t tell the difference. Some shots I’d be able to say that’s definitely Arri, but it’s hard.

If you shoot a movie on Red or Arri raw, you can take it anywhere in the grade, so by the time it’s done it’s impossible to tell.

Ultimately, it’s down to the vision of the director and DOP or determined by the post-production work due to cost.

Sony Venice digital cinema camera

This is Sony’s version of the Arri to compete in the same high-end digital cinematographic camera market, at the same sort of price (£40K to £50k). It is proving quite popular for commercials. Sony has given it a new sensor and codec, so it’s very good.

Sensor - This has got a 6K sensor, compared to 4K for the Arri, which means more information and resolution. It has a very different look to the Arri in terms of the image it creates.

Raw - It will process raw, but not as easily as the Arri. You need a separate compartment at the back of the camera.

Operation side of camera – one of the cool features of this camera is it has an operator’s side to it (opposite to the DoP’s side). This means that on big shoots with large camera departments, everyone can fiddle with it without getting in the DoP’s way.

No Mini version though

Important raw note…

With Arri you have to buy a licence to record Arri raw. The license unlocks the software to use it. Mine cost £8K. There’s also a license for the anamorphic lens, but that’s included in the £8K. So with Arri the capabilities are already there, but you need to buy a license, whereas with the Sony you’ve got to buy a physical extra bit of kit to do raw (about £5K).

What other cameras are there, especially for television?

Sony F5

This has become one of the standard cameras and is related to the Venice.

It has a 4K sensor, but doesn’t do internal raw processing. However, it shoots in a format called log, which has a flat gamma curve, so you can pull around the image in grading, which is a good feature. The Crown was shot on a F5 with beautiful vintage Cook lenses. The big block at the back of the camera that clips on will allow for raw (similar to the Venice).

Sony F55

This is the bigger brother with similar features. Lots of Netflix stuff has been done these cameras. They have a list of broadcast cameras they use to ensure it’s true 4K. The F55s are cost effective (around £15,000) and can be rigged up to anything.

Reds are experimenting with 8K. It’s better quality, but it’s a lot of resolution. Plus, there are very few 8K TVs available at the moment, so you can’t even watch the 8K rushes, unless you have an 8K monitor, but they are very expensive.

The Arris can cost £50,000, so If you’re doing a shoot with lots of cameras that can add up. It would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds with big expensive camera rigs.

What are some of the key things to think about when using the cameras on location?

Usability - Once you’ve decided which camera and sensor you want to work with, then you’d make your rig decision based on location, environment, size of budget and production as well.

 If you’re going to be shooting a car commercial in the desert, you wouldn’t take an Alexa LF. When it’s rigged up, it’s a beast. The Mini is tiny and can be stripped back to a body and lens and can be rigged to a car.

On a big commercial, you might have low loaders, i.e. a car on a flatbed truck and rig everything to that so it looks like the car is driving. You can then rig anything you like to that. If it’s a smaller budget, the rigging would be attached to the car while it’s driving, which is much more stripped back, so you can’t do as much.

Planning – for a DOP that would be getting as much info as possible, such as location, budget, time constraints, crew size etc. What can I get on the production to achieve desired results? The less you have the harder it is and more mistakes will be made. If you don’t have a lighting team, you can’t expect the lighting to be great because you (the DoP) have got to do so much more yourself. If you’ve got five guys working for you it’s easier, can give them instructions about what you want and they know what they’re doing, so it’s going to be perfect.

It’s important to think about where you could trip yourself up in terms of time and budget. It’s also good to pass as much of the logistics off to the production team, so you (the DoP) can just focus on the shots.

What are your conversations like with the directors?

It depends on the characters of the two people. Some directors are very actor focused and not very technical. Others are technical too. If a director isn’t necessarily technically focused, the DoP will be a lot more involved in the look and structure of the film. Some directors have a clear vision of what they want down to the lenses and cameras. They want to own it, which is an interesting dynamic.

Most directors are in the middle ground, in that they’ll have an idea of what they want and the discussion will be down to how the DoP can realise the image and look (i.e. put forward lens choices, lighting styles etc).

 Andrew's bio

Andrew has a background in broadcast television filming science, history and travel documentaries for National Geographic, History Channel, ITV & the BBC.

He has a diverse client base that includes high profile music promos for Abbey Road Studios and Universal Music Group. As well as experience in commercials and branded content for global brands and video content distributors including HSBC, Renault, Barclays, Yahoo!, DHL, Premier League, Moet, Jack Daniels, Citroen, Victoria's Secret, Burberry and Samsung.

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