Real Production Is Still Big And Heavy!

Real Production Is Still Big And Heavy!

The 3.4-pound Panasonic EVA 1 rides on a Fisher 10 Dolly.

I recently shot on a few days for a feature documentary. I was not the DP for the production; I was merely a camera operator. It was a fun and interesting shoot with an iconic musician performing with their band for the production’s cameras. The crew was top notch; the gear was exactly what was needed to accomplish the shots that the director wanted to capture of the performance. There was no audience; the performance was staged especially for the cameras.

What struck me about this project was that even though it’s 2019 and we’re all shooting with smaller, lighter and more capable, fully featured camera and sound equipment than we ever have had access to before, some things stay the same in real production. What I mean by real production is that this shoot was for a feature documentary film by an established director whose last film had a theatrical run in over 300 theaters nationwide. For a feature narrative film, that’s not that impressive but for a documentary, a 300 theater run across America is impressive. My point being, that unlike my own micro-budgeted documentaries, this production had a pretty healthy budget for a documentary. Here was what I encountered on set when I arrived:

  1. A camera was a Panasonic EVA 1 on a Fisher 10 dolly.
  2. B camera was a Panasonic EVA 1 on a 25’ Jimmy Jib.
  3. C camera was a Fujifilm X-T3 in a gimbal.
Real Production Is Still Big And Heavy!
The Panasonic EVA 1 is being used in high-end production.

So far, that’s a nice complement of capable professional cameras on a large, heavy dolly and a fairly massive jib arm for an indoor shoot in a club, But as a seasoned DP and camera operator, what made the production exciting were two other factors. The first was a fully loaded ten-ton grip and lighting truck parked behind the club. The second was the call sheet. Keep in mind I work largely on documentaries and BTS as well as corporate shoots. When I look at the call sheet and see a best boy, key, grips, gaffers, sound mixer and assistant, hair and makeup departments, a slew of production assistants that, to me, defines a real production. Having the crew necessary to pull a shoot like this off with the right resources, in a reasonable amount of time is a luxury on documentaries, but common on music videos, commercials and Hollywood TV and features.

I was struck that we had enough crew to move out all of the club’s tables that were near the stage quickly and efficiently. The Jib was assembled in a quick amount of time, the dolly track for the Fisher was laid out quickly as well. That’s when it struck me, the disconnect from the prosumer/hobbyist/YouTuber world and how it relates to production gear versus the way professional crews relate to gear on what I will refer to as “real” production. In the Vlogger/YouTube/Hobbyist world, a piece of gear often gets dinged or complained about if it is “too large” or “too heavy”. In the context of shooting as a one-man band, hauling gear in a backpack, I get that. But even though we live in the era of the small and lightweight, yet incredibly capable cameras, smaller and lighter LED lighting, in the real world of production, the size and weight often cease to be as much of a factor.

Real Production Is Still Big And Heavy!
The Fisher 10 Dolly is an industry-standard tool.

Case in point, the Fisher 10 Dolly is probably the most commonly used dolly in Hollywood and for domestic TV and film production. If you’ve never unloaded, loaded or pushed a Fisher 10 dolly, they are an amazing tool. They are heavy, smooth, have an amazing steering mechanism and most importantly, they just work. They work just as well with a 3- to 4-pound Panasonic EVA 1 on them as a 60-pound Panavision Millennium DXL package. A Fisher 10 is a joy to shoot with, it just works so well for what it was designed for. The Fisher 10 dolly weighs 420 pounds. It can hold a camera, ancillary gear and multiple riders (usually camera op and one or two ACs) up to 1,200 pounds. Sure we have gimbals and Steadicams and Steadicam-like devices. But they really cannot do what a Fisher 10 can do and vice versa. Keep in mind that the Fisher needs to ride on heavy steel track that sometimes and sometimes doesn’t collapse for transport, depending on which track the DP ordered. Steel dolly track is heavy and long and bulky. But it just works.

Real Production Is Still Big And Heavy!
The Jimmy Jib 25’ is a capable and professional level jib arm.

The other main tool the production was using was a 25’ Jimmy Jib. If you aren’t familiar with the Jimmy Jib, it’s a very capable, heavy duty and smooth jib arm that can also support rather large and heavy camera systems but can also work fine with a small and lightweight camera package like the EVA 1 we were mounting in it. Full remote head control with motorized focus, zoom and iris control of the Canon Cine-Servo 17-120mm T2.95 lens we had mounted on the EVA 1. I personally helped the jib operator bring in all of the cases holding the Jimmy Jib. There were eight of them, all with built-in casters and then we hauled in approximately 200 pounds of lead counterweights. Once again, I was struck that even in the era of drones and gimbals, tools like the Jimmy Jib are still popular because they can do things that the smaller, lighter and cheaper tools cannot.

Let’s extrapolate this to grip and lighting. What’s the most common piece of grip gear on any set? Sure, it’s the common C-stand. Made of steel and or aluminum, the most common configuration is the 40” tall version with a 40” arm. They are relatively heavy compared to small aluminum kit stands and are definitely bulky. But nothing is better for holding flags, rags and other assorted grip tools at exactly the right angle and height. What about the light sources used on this shoot?

Real Production Is Still Big And Heavy!
The Arri Skypanel S-60C at work.

The production utilized a variety of light sources but the most used were the Arri Skypanel S-60C LED Light Panels. Arri Skypanels are not the smallest or lightest LEDs out there but punched through a softbox with an egg crate, then through a 6×6 grid cloth, they provided a beautiful, soft key source for an interview we shot with three musicians at once. They have very substantial output and are constructed with Arriflex reliability and construction quality.

Real Production Is Still Big And Heavy!
A 6×6 grid cloth for lighting a three-person interview.
Real Production Is Still Big And Heavy!
Two cameras, a jib, a dolly and lots of soft light.

My takeaway from this shoot was that even though we are pushing and moving toward smaller, lighter and less expensive but still capable tools, it’s easy to become lulled into a false sense that real production uses the same small, light and affordable tools that may use. Director Steven Soderbergh recently shot a Netflix feature film called, “High Flying Bird” on the iPhone 8. If you haven’t seen the trailer for the film, I suggest you check it out here. The film looks pretty impressive for having been shot on a phone, right? Seeing this will lead many to believe that if Soderbergh can shoot a feature film on an iPhone, they too should be able to do the same thing. Not counting Soderbergh’s immense talent as a director, his probably sizeable budget to hire a great camera, grip and lighting department, let’s look at the amount of crew that he had to shoot this film. According to IMDB, High Flying Bird had a crew of approximately 55 crew on set, which by Hollywood standards is VERY small. I am fairly sure he probably also had at least 3-4 ten ton grip and lighting trucks as well because no matter which camera you are using, it takes all of this gear to light decently sized scenes.

Some things will not change for a very long time. The cameras and lenses will continue to become smaller, lighter and less expensive for better quality. But for the foreseeable future, it will still take crew and the big heavy tools needed to set the stage for these small and light cameras to capture amazing images.