Documentary Filmmaking 101: What gear do I use? Pt. 1: The Sony FS700.
Every filmmaker has their go-to equipment. For some folks, it changes up every project. Some argue against owning anything but expendables. A good Director of Photography might own their own lenses. When you have to pick up your gear at a moment's notice or if you're producing content on a continual basis, it's good to have a decent setup of your own. Or if you do work in-house, it's worth the investment to have equipment ready to go.
Having the right gear for the job is important. But it's more important that you are familiar with the gear you use. I travel with a lot of equipment from cameras to sliders to underwater housings. Keeping it all straight with a small team is a challenge! (Photo: Kate Thompson)
People ask me all of the time: What are you shooting on?
If you've been working in the industry as a DP/cameraperson for any amount of time you've been asked this question. New comers are eager to find out what gear they should be looking for. Seasoned professionals are looking to compare notes. Whatever the spark behind the conversation, everybody has a slightly different answer and throughout your career you'll likely hear and have many answers to this question. In general, people use what they are familiar with, what's given them consistent results. In documentary filmmaking, you want gear you can set up with your eyes closed because you need to be ready to go at a moment's notice. The following is an account of the gear I use currently. What I like about it and what I don't.
SONY FS700 - My workhorse and go-to all-around camera.
When I first laid eyes on her I was working for Sony at NAB in 2014. She was configured in several ways; Sony was unveiling several updates to the FS700 platform (link to Sony's technical specs for the camera) that allowed it to use the full range of its 4K sensor, something that was intended from the beginning, but only available now. I was working their ENG camera rigs, but got to spend a lot of time that week talking to the pros from Sony about the FS700 and listening to the stories from passersby about how great a camera it was already. Everyone was excited about this latest evolution.
Sony had hooked up with Convergent Design to streamline and develop the connectivity and reliability of mating the FS700 with the Odyssey 7Q recorder. They still had some things to work out at the time of NAB before it hit the streets, but they were close. But the platform had a lot of promise and offered a hell of a lot of bang for the buck. When it did finally get packaged and hit the streets, you could get a basic FS700/Odyssey 7Q setup for around $13,000 and be shooting 4K RAW. That was incredible considering other units were starting at around $20,000 and up. (and up and up).
When I was hired by NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to be the in-house videographer my boss asked me what gear I wanted. Without hesitation I knew I would pick the FS700. The office already had a Canon 5D with a number of Canon lenses, so the fact that the Sony could accept basically any lens with the right adapter (we got the Metabones Sony>Canon adapter) made this an easy sell to my boss. (Since getting all new glass can be more expensive than the camera itself).
Why do I love the Sony FS700/Odyssey 7Q setup? Lots of reasons!
Reason 1: Image quality:
The Sony RAW format in combination with FREE Davinci Resolve color grading software will make any footage look incredible. With the Canon glass, the images are super sharp. They also communicate with the camera body, so I have full control of the f-stop on-camera.
Setting up the Sony FS700 with the Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q for a shoot in California. Since the summer of 2014, I've been shooting on the Sony FS700 with Canon lenses. I use the Odyssey 7Q Monitor/Recorder to capture 4K RAW. This setup has been my workhorse both above and below the water. (Photo: Matt McIntosh)
Reason 2: Workflow:
I work a little differently than a lot of folks (I think). At the end of the day, I offload all of the SSD cards that captured the footage through the Odyssey 7Q and put them on a G-Technology RAID drive.
I then use Convergent Design's Clip Merger application to combine any clips that were shot at high speed. (The Odyssey uses a RAID system, recording to two cards at once for high-speed shooting (60 fps - 240 fps).
I import all of the clips into Davinci Resolve and do a basic color correction on all of my clips. You can do this as a batch, which makes it really easy with only minor adjustments to individual clips that were shot in the same lighting conditions.
I offload all of my clips at 4K PRORES after I've graded them. This allows me still plenty of latitude and leeway to grade these clips further for the project I'll be using them in, but takes up a fraction of the storage space RAW files require. I'll still hang on to RAW files for most of the underwater footage I shoot as I'm always developing new techniques to grade these shots more effectively in RAW.
* I hang on to the audio (.wav) file from the source material and keep the same name of the clip (something like CLIP0000100) so that the new PRORES file will match up with the audio file from the RAW clip. I then (usually) delete the RAW file because we are limited in how much space we have. (If you have the space to continually warehouse RAW files, power to you!)
* When you shoot RAW you have a series of DNG files (the individual frames) and the .wav file. These are captured in a folder together. Unless it's changed, I've never been able to marry the audio wav files to the video in Resolve. SO, when I offload the graded RAW files to PRORES I select the option to "KEEP SOURCE FILE NAME". Then, before I trash the RAW I extract all of the .wav files from their parent folders and put them where I'm offloading the PRORES to. That way the file structure stays organized. For example I might start out with a Parent Folder of all my clips (Odyssey_____); within that are the clip folders CLIP000001, etc; within them are the CLIP000001_01, CLIP0000001_02, etc, plus a metadata file plus a .wav file. I keep the .wav (CLIP000001.wav) and trash the RAW and then put that .wav file in with the NEW CLIP000001.MOV file
I use the Sony FS700 and Odyssey 7Q both above and below the surface of the ocean. Here I am in the Florida Keys with my Sony in a Subal Underwater Housing. (Photo: Matt McIntosh)
Reason 3: High Frame Rates (HFR):
The Sony FS700 with the Odyssey 7Q will allow you to film 60 fps up to 240 fps in 2K RAW and up to 120 fps in 4K RAW bursts. This is incredible and also why the FS700 has been aptly nicknamed "the poor man's Phantom".
The FS700 can shoot 240 frames per second in 2K RAW and 120 frames per second in 4K RAW.
I love shooting in HFR. I use it on land and in the sea. HFR is a powerful (but can be overused) tool for telling a story. Because I am frequently filming waves, surfers, marine mammals, birds, etc. this option allows me to either keep the footage at the rate I shot it, or I can speed it up to real-time motion. Having that ability gives me options. I like options. And the results always impress me.
When I shoot underwater, it's really easy to want to shoot everything I see. (Because everything is cool underwater). Shooting in 4K @120 fps with an end trigger prevents me from filling up the cards too quickly while keeping individual shots neatly packaged as 18-second clips. The way that works is: you keep the camera pointed at the subject until you are satisfied with what you've captured. At that time, you hit the start/stop/record button and it buffers the last few seconds into what amounts to an 18-second, 120 fps clip. This is especially great when filming marine life or when there are strong currents and holding a shot for extended periods of time is exceedingly difficult. This way, I get the shot and can move on.
The Sony FS700 and Odyssey 7Q have been a reliable workhorse for me for over two years. (Photo: Matt McIntosh)
Reason 4: Reliability:
In the two and a half years I've been using the FS700 I haven't had a single issue with the camera body. I now know the camera like the back of my hand; it's menus and controls are second nature to me. I have had the Odyssey 7Q serviced once. My touch screen quit working. Convergent Design replaced it under warranty quickly. I did encounter some issues with the cards. A 1TB card would shut down mid shot reliably. Convergent Design tested the card and they sent it back to me saying it had no defects. They replaced a 512 GB card that quit working all together. Obviously these are frustrating circumstances for a filmmaker, but they are going to happen regardless of your equipment. Given the amount of time I use the gear compared to the amount of times it's let me down... well, it's been more reliable than most cars I've ever owned, so I give it a solid 4 and a half stars out of 5.
Have you used the FS700 in combination with the CD Odyssey 7Q? What are your thoughts on the combo? Please share your experiences in the comment section, below.
See examples of the work I've done for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries with the Sony FS700 HERE.
Here's a list of the gear I discuss in this article on Amazon Associates.
Please subscribe to my blog and I'll send you the latest articles where I'll be reviewing gear and talking about my experiences in the field. If you have questions, I can be reached at email@example.com.
David J. Ruck is a documentary filmmaker, educator and explorer who currently works as in-house video producer and underwater camera operator for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. His work takes him from coast-to-coast, telling the stories within America's underwater parks. He is the first filmmaker to premiere a film in space on the International Space Station. He can be reached through his website www.davidjruck.com where you can see examples of his work and find articles and resources for documentary storytellers.