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Adventures in DSLR Filmmaking: Using 4 Different Cameras to Shoot 'Off Label'

By Mike Palmieri | Indiewire April 18, 2012 at 12:19PM

At a recent preview screening of Donal Mosher and Mike Palmieri's "Off Label" (which makes its world premiere this week at the Tribeca Film Festival), Palmieri was lurking through the audience taking close-up footage of people's hands with his DSLR camera (digital single-lens reflex, cameras which, crudely put, are digital adaptations of 35mm cameras). When you hear about "Off Label," you're not expecting the images to be captivating: it's a film about people who, for various reasons, take copious amounts of prescription drugs. Some have been prescribed to a panoply of anti-psychotics; others test drugs for money. While most assume it's an issue film, it, like their last film "October Country," is actually much more. While contemporary DSLR cameras have been called out for democratizing high definition filmmaking, "Off Label" has stylistic flourishes that distinguish it from the pack. After seeing the team's images, Indiewire asked Palmieri, who is the primary cinematographer of the team, to talk about his experience with DSLR filmmaking. -- Bryce J. Renninger

DSLRs re-honed my skills shooting with prime lenses, or lenses of narrower zoom lengths. By the time I was using the AF100, I had stopped relying on the zoom lens as much to cover my tracks. Perhaps this is because I felt more comfortable with the subjects and could take more risks with them. I had certainly found new ways of moving around the room without disrupting them, which was partially a function of the camera, and partially a function of fellowship that developed between us and our subjects. The best visual example of this kind of trust is seen in anything I shot with Andy Duffy, an army medic who was stationed at Abu Ghraib prison only to return home with PTSD. His face was so visually arresting -- youthful in one glance, aged and worn down in another, that the more I limited my shooting style to a prime lens and stayed close to him, the more I felt the material we were getting from him conveyed his mood.

Andrew Duffy getting a tattoo. Panasonic AF-100 and Voigtlander 25mm f/0.9 prime
Mike Palmieri Andrew Duffy getting a tattoo. Panasonic AF-100 and Voigtlander 25mm f/0.9 prime

In the end I think “Off Label” was an incredibly demanding project to shoot. And I think the film is demanding on the viewer in that it asks them to follow eight people whose stories intersect on only a conceptual level. These are tales of people connected together by virtue of living their lives on the margins of an increasingly overmedicated society. In a way it makes sense that so many cameras were used during this project, as each story had to have its own feel to it. But in the end all of it had to fit together and feel like one uniform piece. For me, the multiple format approach never gets in the way. On the contrary, I feel that it enriches the experience of the movie on a subliminal level because of all of the shifts in tone and mood and place. The trailer to the film is probably the best example of how all these cameras merge together on a visual level, though:

Off Label Trailer from Michael Palmieri on Vimeo.

One might ask if I’d ever use any of these cameras again on another project. I think each one has its strengths, but I much prefer the camera I’m using today: the Canon C300. I’d even go so far to say that I’ve finally found the documentary camera of my dreams, and that I’ll never look for or use another one. But don’t bet on it.

Michael Palmieri with the Canon C-300 and the Lomo 25-80 t/3 Russian zoom.
Donal Mosher Michael Palmieri with the Canon C-300 and the Lomo 25-80 t/3 Russian zoom.

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