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

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

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

I never set out to make “Off Label” on four camera systems, but the technology was changing so rapidly that I ended up trying a lot of things out over the course of shooting it. It was shot on a Panasonic HVX-200, a Canon 5D and 7D, and the Panasonic AF-100. I always ask myself the same questions when faced with a new camera. What unique kind of image does it produce that I can best exploit, and how easily can I disappear into the room with it?

A camera really alters my physical and psychological relationship to the world when I’m using it. It makes me behave and interact with subjects differently, yielding different results, so choosing the right tool is especially important for me not just for visual reasons, but for psychological considerations as well with respect to the subject. I have a strong cinematic visual style that probably transfers across any video or film camera I use, and I would say it’s the same for my filmmaking partner, Donal Mosher, who is first and foremost a still photographer. His sensibility is a continuous source of inspiration – he always sees the world so differently than I do! – regardless of what camera he’s shooting his photographs on.

Our last film collaboration, “October Country” was shot on the HVX200, a small-sensor HD camera. There was something about that camera that allowed me to transfer the feeling of Donal’s photographic work; the film moved onto a more cinematic realm that remained both true to his work and to my own sensibility. The camera could shoot slow motion, which I like to use stylistically, and it had a zoom lens with an incredible range on it. Using the zoom was actually less stylistic than practical: it gave me the widest range of options later when I was editing the film. A zoom lens was an especially important tool when I was following around a precocious 12-year-old girl who wasn’t going to do something for me twice. It was also critical in allowing me to be close to family members at an especially intense emotional moment without being right in their face.

It would have been much harder to shoot “October Country” on a DSLR camera because of my reliance on the zoom lens for that project. This is actually a function of optics and the physics of design: the smaller the sensor your camera has, the bigger the range the zoom lens you can put on it. As much as I loved using that camera for that reason, I had a hunch that a lot of the characters in our new film could benefit from the richer, more pictorially still images that a larger-sensor camera produces. I was getting the feeling that my approach had to be calmer and more intimate. So I chose the Canon 5D on our first trip to Austin, TX, where we began filming with Paul Clough.

The interesting and lucky thing about Paul is he didn’t move around a lot, which made my filming him with the 5D easier as I was still learning the ins and outs of how to shoot with it. But I was also able to film him roaming the streets late at night without much trouble, and without drawing any attention to my own presence. This was extremely important, as I wanted to convey the extent to which people were quietly ignoring him. Capturing a mood like that is different from filming a war or a boxing match, where the images are inherently dramatic and in-your-face. The quietness of these scenes were for me best rendered by the Canon 5D.

The 5D and occasionally the 7D for slow motion turned out to be the right tool for Paula Yarr, a woman on severe disability living in a tiny room in the back of a Bigfoot museum in Santa Cruz. We were attempting to link her bipolar schizophrenic mind to the insanity of her surroundings and it required some real intimacy with her to make it work, so we stuck with the DSLRs through most of her scenes. This camera choice also proved critical for Mary Weiss, who wanted to tell her story in a more traditional, sit-down way. The DSLR lacked the intimidation of a larger camera and I think this definitely contributed to Mary giving us the tragic details of her son’s death that she had never divulged to anyone before in an interview. It was a harrowing moment to capture, as Mary’s agony so clearly registers through the small gestures she makes, communicating a deep sorrow at the loss of her son. An important story is always more important than the tool used to capture it, but I’m certainly glad Mary’s story was honored by my use of that particular camera.

Using the 5D or 7D was frustrating when working with the former drug sales rep turned medical anthropologist Michael Oldani, who talked a million miles a minute and was very physically active in his environment, or with the historian Robert Helms, who was often on a lot of Adderall, a go-fast drug. They took us on whirlwind tours of zoos, doctor’s clinics, libraries and graveyards. This more often than not required the trusty HVX-200 and a big zoom lens again. I could accurately capture their natural mania visually without encroaching on their physical space too much:

About halfway through shooting “Off Label” Panasonic released the AG-AF100, a micro 4/3 camera system that to me represented the best compromise between the three cameras I was currently using. The AF100 was light and unobtrusive, it begged to be used handheld, it had a decent tonal range, and it had XLR inputs on it so I could stop worrying about sound as a separate item as you have to consider when shooting with a DSLR. I fell in love with this camera, and the latter half of the film was shot almost exclusively on it. It was particularly adept at rendering what I like to call the “ethereal” scenes that crop up towards the latter half of the film. I was trying to get at a sense of the spiritual and translucent through the imagery as the film at this stage is trying to draw a parallel between faith in pharmaceuticals and religious faith.

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.

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.

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