Small Camera, Big Picture

What more is there to say about the season finale of FOX TV’s House M.D., which is the episode shot entirely on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II HD DSLR? A lot, actually.

Oh, not so much on the facts of the production itself. Unless you’ve been shooting in Mammoth Cave for the last four months, you probably know a fair amount about how the episode entitled “Help Me” came to be, and since the show aired on May 17, the commercial and critical reaction to it. We’ll talk more about the show and the shoot in a moment.

The bigger story is what it all means. For an industry used to stunt programming, the idea of a major network series using a still camera with video “smarts” to shoot a network TV episode has brought out equal levels of awe and cynicism—as well as downright hostility as evidenced by some industry blogs. Slamming HD DSLR rolling-shutter artifacts that distort horizontal pans, inadequate on-board audio support and low recording bit rates that complicate visual effects in post are popular topics.

But like Avatar, which raised the bar on 3D production to a new level, the House episode has opened the door to HD DSLR cameras being used as principal cameras in broadcast/cable television, feature films and commercials. The possibilities include brilliant video with amazing shallow depth of field from a very small camera, a fearsome reduction in crews, staff, equipment and rolling stock, and the ability to shoot in very tight spaces in extreme low-lighting conditions.

According to the hands-on production team on House, the key factors for using the 5D on the “Help Me” season finale were twofold: its small size and its astonishingly large sensor, which is a full-frame (24x36mm), 12.8-megapixel sensor, delivering essentially an 8-perf 35mm image matched by few other cameras—film or video.

“[The size is] VistaVision format, which used to be used for big spectaculars back in the ’50s,” notes House DP Gale Tattersall (Ghost Ship, Pushing Tin). “It’s enormous—four times the real estate of a 16:9, 3-perf frame. It’s like moving up to a 4×5 or an 8×10. The thing about the 5D that’s totally unachievable on any movie camera—and I don’t care what it is—is that you can achieve a shallow depth of field that’s unmatched.”

Tattersall also found he could control the lighting by adjusting the ISO on the fly. “You can’t change the exposure by changing the shutter speed; that’s fixed at 24p at a 50th [shutter speed] if you want it to look cinematic. But you can control your light by dialing the ISO up and down. It’s like having 50 different film stocks in your back pocket. We went regularly from 100 ISO to 1600, depending on the circumstances.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. According to Tattersall, there were some problem areas shooting with the 5D, including rolling-shutter issues during fast panning movements and racking focus backward and forward.