The Southwest encompasses some of the most striking landscape in the world — and it hosts many Native American tribes. Northern Arizona is no exception.
Students at Northern Arizona University led by photojournalism instructor, Josh Biggs, and freelance journalist, Shelley Smithson, and myself (teaching documentary filmmaking), have been documenting contemporary life on the Res this semester, specifically how some of the Navajo in the New Lands settlement carry on with their traditions after having been forcibly removed from their homes in the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974.
(For those interested in getting an undergraduate journalism degree in photojournalism & documentary studies or the only MA in documentary in the Southwest, check out NAU — you’ll be gaining experience in production and storytelling. NAU is one of the few programs that shoot with DSLRs, Canon C100s, and the D16 Digital Bolex — which is the closest you can get to shooting on film. It offers a “thick” 16mm film look. By the fall, we’ll have 5-6 Bolex cameras.)
In this short documentary, I shot and edited a cattle roundup at the Pedras Mesa Demonstration Ranch in eastern Arizona using my D16 Digital Bolex, handheld with the pistol grip. I was able to run through fields, chasing after cattle and cowboys, getting on my knees to setup the shot (after panting). I was also able to get intimate shots of the cowboys as they tagged the cattle.
Some might think that they would rather shoot in 4K (such as with the Blackmagic Production camera or the Panasonic Lumix GH4), but filmmaking has never really been about getting a sharp image — 4K is not be default a film look, but a HD video look. It has it’s advantages in a 2K world, especially the ability to crop images and maintain its integrity. If that’s what you want or need, go for it.
But I like the look and feel of film — something that I haven’t been able to shoot with since my 16mm film class at NYU in the mid 1990s. There’s a tactile feel to film that is very difficult for the digital world to replicate, especially in the 16mm world.
I feel that’s changed with the Digital Bolex.
The Digital Bolex provides a strong 16mm film look that I have not seen since shooting and viewing 16mm film — this is due to its analog sensor and its 12-bit dense data that allows you to manipulate the image in post.
When the Maysles brothers and DA Pennebaker, among others in the 1960s, or Ross McElwee in the 1980s, were shooting on 16mm film with sync sound, they helped revolutionized the handheld documentary film movement. The Bolex has brought that feeling back to me, as can be seen here:
My right hand is holding the pistol grip, which has an on-off trigger (hidden in this shot), but as can be seen, I’m looking through the viewfinder of a SmallHD monitor (DP-4), resting it against my left forearm as I keep focus with my left hand (using an 8mm Rokinon, borrowed from my student, Eric Tajc; they also make a cine version). The Sennheiser dialogue mic with the D16’s 24 bit audio worked great.
Many really good documentaries have been shot on video cameras and HD cameras (I’ve shot several with them) — and DSLRs, when using external audio, provides strong filmic images when you get the image in-camera right, make for good doc cameras. Canon C100 and C300 make for great doc cameras, well.
I could have shot this project on my 5D Mark II and it would have looked good and even somewhat cinematic in some of the shots. But the 5D, the C100, and other 8-bit HD video cameras do not engage in the “thickness” of 12-bit raw images that just magically feels like I’m working with 16mm color film when I’m shooting with the Digital Bolex.
Kurt Lancaster is the author of DSLR Cinema and Cinema Raw: Shooting and Color Grading with the Ikonoskop, Digital Bolex, and Blackmagic Cinema Cameras. He teaches digital filmmaking and documentary at Northern Arizona University. Kurt received his PhD from NYU.