Low budget "film"making is undergoing an interesting transformation. The means of production have recently changed in a way no one really anticipated. With the emergence of Digital SLRs (1,2,3) capable of recording high-definition, 24-frame-per-second video, the most adept videographers can create images that come closer to the much sought after "veiled look" of 35mm motion-picture film with significantly less overhead on prosumer-level equipment.
So now, essentially out of no where, we have light, compact cameras capable of taking both stunning digital photographs and more than merely passable video, both worlds in the same housing for under 2,000 dollars. Aside from media journalism and indie film, DSLRs have been embraced by many commercial and music video productions, as well as fully absorbed into the productions of several TV shows, including "24." Not to say that the DSLR video revolution doesn't come with a number of often debilitating limitations. Oddly enough these limitations don't even exist in some of the cheapest single-chip consumer-level video cameras. At the end of the day, though, for most projects the Pros outweigh the Cons. Here's a taste of that list.
Just as a caveat: I'm a filmmaker with a preference for 16mm motion picture. This article is primarily written for those filmmakers accustomed to shoe-string motion-picture productions and unfamiliar (as I was and still am) with digital still photography, as well as those somewhat unaware of the imminent (for better or for worse) DSLR video revolution.
Beside a competitive price-range, one of the primary benefits of DSLR video is the option to interchanging lenses, which is a feature few prosumer-level HD cameras provide without the need for creative or pricey modifications. On top of that, you're working with 35mm still photography lenses, the optics of which can be superior to even the best fixed video zoom lenses. When it comes to making video look as "filmic" as possible, optics are high on the list along with image resolution and exposure latitude. While we're on the topic, it's worth mentioning that some videographers have managed to attach 35mm motion-picture lenses to these DSLR bodies (i.e. a prime Cooke lens on a modified Canon 7D [video sample]) without too much hassle. With a little bit of post-production work, results have fooled even the most seasoned viewers.
Next is resolution and speed. The better DSLRs are capable of recording up to 1080p at 24 frames, and 720p at 24 and 60. This is up to par with most prosumer-level video cameras. ISO,or film speed, which is often fixed for video at roughly 320, can be set at a number of different speeds on DSLR cameras, including those familiar film speeds: 100, 200, 250, 400, 500, and 800. The Canon 7D can reach up to 6400 ISO (not that you would, but you could), for documenting action in even the darkest of places (with significant and compromising grain). Shutter speed options are just as numerous, with film-like shutters ranging from 1/24-1/125. For me, the magic number is 1/50 (closest to 1/48, the "default" shutter speed of motion-picture film). Best of all, videographers can adjust white balance, exposure, shutter speed and ISO while recording on certain DSLRs such as the Canon 7D.
Video is notorious for "giving itself away" in both under- and over-exposed regions of the image. Unlike film, the exposure latitude of video is much smaller, so over-exposed areas blow out and lose detail completely after just a few stops above the set exposure. Plus, highlights in a video image are significantly less flattering than those on film. Underexposure on film yields pure black tones, as opposed to a sort of flat dark-blue on video, coated in digital noise. In many ways the same can be said about DSLRs, but some of these cameras allow users modify the picture style and increase the dynamic range and by doing so improve latitude, resulting in a stock that behaves more similarly to negative film. Basically you'll get more detail in those over- and under-exposed regions of your image. Additionally, using these film-like picture styles, the raw footage coming out of the camera is ideal for post-production grading.
That said there are quite a few drawbacks worth noting, and for the more fundamentalist cinematographers the cons list might make it a deal breaker. The main problem is nearly unavoidable, and it's called rolling shutter (causes). At mostly longer focal lengths, camera movement such as pans, either by hand or on a fluid-head tripod, creates a warped distortion most noticeable with vertical lines such as window and door frames. When forms don't maintain their true structural integrity the image is arguably compromised. The more drastic the movement, and the longer the focal length, the greater the degree of distortion. Moreover, videographers have to be constantly vigilant of potential moiré distortion. Any time the DSLR captures fixed patterns -- like striped shirts, window blinds, roof shingles, and sometimes even brick -- at wide angles, an interference pattern is created that is pretty much beyond repair. These limitations, both rolling shutter and moiré distortion, will ultimately affect what videographers choose to capture and how they choose to capture it.
Another issue is weight. I still cannot really comprehend how such a small device delivers full HD video, but the fact is that a DSLR's light weight poses a problem when it comes to stabilization with anything other than a tripod. The aforementioned rolling shutter effect is most apparent when holding the camera in-hand, without counterweights of any kind. It's so light that any minute hand jerk caused by repositioning results in a sudden and disagreeable warp in the image. Tacking on accessories, such as viewfinders, follow focuses, matte boxes, playback monitors and audio recording devices adds much-needed weight. At the end of the day, however, the camera should not be operated without the use of a tripod, a monopod, or some sort of counterweight or body mount. Otherwise the distortion is just unacceptable.
Some DSLR lenses are specifically tailored for HD video, silencing focus and zoom rings and providing an image stabilization option. For certain scenarios the image stabilization feature is ideal, but be warned: a kind of digital ghosting effect results that may be too much for some, especially with longer focal lengths and more dramatic camera tilts and pans. The silenced lens rings are a definite plus (if you're stuck having to use the on-board camera microphone) but I don't recommend making lens adjustment directly on the lens themselves, as it can often compromise image stability and give the pull-focus "illusion" away. Investing in a basic follow focus system, or making one yourself, is essentially an imperative. Too many hands by the controls will only over-clutter an already small device.
Then there's overheating to consider. In my experience with the Canon 7D, I've found the fact that it systematically shuts down due to overheating the most debilitating problem to deal with. It's a factory-set feature that happens when the LCD viewfinder on the camera body has been on for too long. Worst of all is that the camera does not make an exception when it's recording; it will simply shut off in mid take. So while actors benefit from the technically limitless data storage (more opportunities to land a take without stressing over how much footage one can allot to any given setup, so long as you have the time), many great takes are completely compromised if the camera suddenly decides to turn itself off. It's my guess that this can be avoided either by periodically turning the screen off or using an external playback screen for monitoring instead. But the cheap/perfectionist videographer always needs reference and doesn't always have the budget for a screen.
There's no doubt that video is taking over the entire industry. In fact, with Arriflex's recent release of a new line of professional "35mm" digital cameras, the blogosphere has officially recognized 2010 as the year motion-picture film will die. Whether that's the case or not, the video changeover is changing the way movies are made in both the independent and studio spheres. Time will tell if it's a change for the better, but by democratizing the tools of production and making them easier to use, you risk losing the discipline developed by having to respect materials and finite resources. For filmmakers such as myself, it always boils down to price, and DSLR video is too affordable to simply overlook. My experience with the 7D has been overwhelmingly positive and with a few workarounds the issues I've thus far faced can eventually be dealt with effectively. I intend to shoot my next project on DSLR video, and at this point it's really tough to say if I'll ever go back to analog.