“The chupacabra is the most terrifying monster in the history of horror movies,” pontificated Cole, raising an index finger in the air as if to sample the wind.
“Our film is called Blood of the Chupacabra,” added Sean.
The chupacabra wagged its tail and licked its side.
“Did you smear jelly all over this dog?” I asked.
“This is, indirectly, why we called you,” said Sean, “Waffles keeps eating the makeup and we have to have this whole horror movie done by Monday. And none of our gear seems to work with the other gear.” He forlornly held up a bucket of random film and video equipment.
“Well,” I said. “Let’s hose off the dog and go out to the equipment rental place and check out the tech specs on everything.”
Reading and understanding the technical specifications of your equipment is vital to being sure everything works well together.
Camera specifications are just an agreed upon set of standards that describe things from the diameter of filters which will fit over the lens to the voltage requirements necessary to power the camera, to the size and makeup of the sensor. Cameras have all sorts of specs, mixing and matching these is one way that manufacturers come out with different models from consumer to professional.
Some specifications are very important to pay attention to (like if your camera has an XLR input) and others (like does it have a digital zoom) less so, but the more types of specialty videography you do – like low light or slow motion – the more important others can become.
Not so very long ago, most videographers didn't have to worry about lens mounts because camcorders typically came with a built-in zoom lens. But with the advent of video capability being added to a number of DSLR cameras, a wide availability of really great lenses has opened up. But not all lenses can be used on all cameras. This typically has to do with how far behind the lens mount the image focuses on the sensor. This distance varies from camera manufacture to camera manufacture. You can add space by way of a spacing tube, but you can't subtract space. This means you can mount a Nikon lens on a micro four thirds camera, but you can't mount a micro four thirds lens on a Nikon camera.
Camera manufacturers add a lot of electronic capabilities to their lenses, like autofocus and auto aperture. Typically, when you mount a lens made by one company on a body made by another you lose all of these and you're left with a manual focus, manual aperture lens. If you don't have to change focus quickly, this isn't a deal breaker. In fact, there are manual focus lenses being made now specifically for video making, like those from SLR Magic.
The two most important specifications that a camera lens has are its maximum aperture and its focal length. The maximum aperture is the maximum amount of light it will let in and the focal length tells you how tight or wide your angle of view will be when using it.
Focal length can be a bit confusing, so if you're not 100% sure what it is and how it works, this article explains it. One thing that makes focal length a little more complicated is that because sensor sizes aren't all uniform, the focal length of a lens can actually give you very different angles of view on different camera bodies. A lens that's wide on a full frame Nikon body, is moderately telephoto on a Panasonic micro four thirds body, for this reason you'll often hear talk of a lenses “effective focal length,” which is what the focal length would be on a lens mounted on a full frame 35mm camera that gave you the same field of view. What's a bit confusing there is that the focal length of a lens is always the same, but the “effective” focal length can change depending on the size of the sensor your camera has. You may also be interested in this article about aperture and the out of focus areas of your video (which is more important than you may think).
The image sensor is where it all happens – it’s where the lens focuses the light and it gets converted to electronic values and turned into a digital picture. While it's easy to find a 30-year-old lens that's really awesome, the tech specs of sensor technology is changing rapidly as scientists figure out how to pack more into less space. Typically, the bigger the sensor you have the better it is. Sensor size affects not just resolution, but the effective focal length of lenses and low-light performance.
Sensor types are either CMOS or CCD, which are two competing technologies that, like everything else, each have benefits and detriments. Also, different sensors will use either what's called a “global shutter” or “rolling shutter” each of which has advantages and disadvantages.
Horror movies have been shot on all sorts of equipment, from 35mm film to iPhones. For more on image sensors, types and sizes, check out this article.
Sometimes a really high-end camera is useful in ways that you might not have expected. If, for example, you're shooting a film in 1080p why would you need a 4k camera?
“People do have all the technology they could ever need to make a polished film on the cheap,” said Justin Benson, Director of the Tribeca Film Festival, award-winning horror movie Resolution, and the upcoming films Spring and V/H/S Viral. “It is preferable to shoot 4k specifically in the low budget world because the ability to punch in and crop can save you when you don't have the money/time for a ton of coverage. I pull that trick quite a bit because our singles are usually pretty dirty, with the opposite actor very much in the foreground. Without the ability to punch in and crop we'd often be in trouble simply due to continuity issues.”
Touch screens allow you to have a lot of features and customize your camera easily, but a touch screen is rarely as convenient as a control ring that you can turn to select aperture or shutter speed or ISO. If your camera has them, you may be able to re-assign them to do other tasks. The more dedicated control rings the better. Because adding things like rings is expensive, manufacturers sometimes use one ring and a toggle switch that makes it do different things. Less expensive, but not as convenient, pay attention to those tech specs.
Lots of horror movies actually rely on shaky cameras. Remember that shaky footage of bigfoot Patterson and Gimlin got in 1967? The guy jumps off the horse and swings his camera all over the place and you maybe see bigfoot shambling through the trees but bouncing all over the place like crazy? Well, that wouldn't happen today, most likely because of image stabilizing technology. Many video cameras have it built in, the big difference is whether it's in the camera body or in the lens, that'll be in the tech specs. If you have a bunch of non IS (Image Stabilization) lenses, and you can fit them on a body with IS, that could save you some money.
We could write a whole article on the tech specs of various video file formats (oh, wait, we already did). Two that your camera is likely to have are AVCHD and mp4. To oversimplify, some editing software is designed to optimize AVCHD, while mp4 has an easier file structure to work with, but may be more compressed.
In addition to file formats, most video cameras will let you select between a number of frame rates from 24, which transfers much more easily to film if you're looking to distribute that way, and also has more of a film “look,” to various high frame rates like 60 fps or higher that will allow you create frame accurate slow motion.
However great your camera is, the on-camera microphone that came with it isn't what you want to be using if you have the option. Professional sound engineers will insist on a quality recording and your editor will probably like you more if your sound is synced with the video. Pro and prosumer level cameras will have an option for adding a microphone with an XLR (the initials don't stand for anything particularly useful, everybody just says XLR) or 1/8” mini-plug. Of the two, the XLR will give you better audio since it's balanced (less susceptible to outside interference) but the connector is about 10 times as big. You'll want to be sure you’ve got the proper audio equipment and connectors to get great sound into your camera. For more info on how external microphones can help, check out this Viewfinder article.
Just like there was VHS and Beta, 35mm and Polaroid, there are different recording mediums for various digital video cameras. It's great if all your cameras use the same media and you don't have to keep track of which goes with what. Popular recording media are SD (Secure Digital) and CF (Compact Flash). SD has a number of sub specifications like miniSD and microSD and variants such as SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity) and SDXC (Secure Digital eXtended Capacity) which are not all interchangeable. Check the specs to be sure that you have the right media for the right cameras.
ISO increases your camera’s sensitivity to light – typically iso values range from 100 (low) to 1600 (high) some cameras might have lower values and some may go higher. A high iso allows you to shoot in darker locations and a lower iso allows you to use wide aperture lenses to get shallow depth of field. Boosting the iso comes with the trade off of noise in your footage. At some point, the trade off isn't worth it as the noise begins to take over your image. When a camera boasts an enormous iso range, be sure to check reviews to see what the highest useable iso is.
Your camera may have outputs that let you playback directly to a television screen, or separate audio and video outputs or no outputs at all. Common ones would be an SDI (Serial Digital Interface) or HDMI (High Definition Multi-Media Interface). Whatever camera you get, if you want to playback on your TV screen or Field Monitor, you'll need to make sure the outputs and inputs are compatible.
Whatever you shoot, you want to be able to see. Some cameras have LCD displays built into the back, others have displays that you add as extras, and some have ELF's or “Eye Level Finders” meaning you compose with your eye up to the camera rather than by looking at the back of the screen. With some sophisticated video setups its convenient for a number of people to watch what's being shot at once. If you plan on watching from a tent while your director of photography handles the camera, be sure your camera supports an external display. If you're going to be shooting in bright sunlight, an EVF is easier to see than an LCD on the camera's back.
The weight of your camera matters not just when carrying it, but when buying accessories such as tripods and camera stabilizer mounts which are rated for a certain weight. You don't want to get everything in the field and then discover that your camera plus your fancy telephoto lens is too heavy for your tripod to hold still.
The “best” equipment isn't always the best equipment for your project. Comparing camera specs in the store or online will help you find the cameras, lenses and gear that work best with each other and your horror movies.
“The most important thing an upcoming filmmaker can learn,” said Justin Benson. “Is when to scale back the attempted visual spectacle and let the story do the heavy lifting. The best example of this in horror is that if you don't have much money for practical FX or VFX, to augment them, your film will be more effective relying on conceptually frightening ideas. Sometimes even if you have the money, it's better to scale back and let those concepts simmer on your audiences brain.”
So go ahead, get the dog, get the jelly, get your camera, but spend most of your thoughts on how to tell a really good story.
Kyle Cassidy lives with his wife, Trillian, three cats and a lot of memory cards. He writes frequently about technology and has famously worked for free on occasion.