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Al Jazeera Shoots 'Fault Lines' With DSLRs

The producers of the third season of
Al Jazeera English's investigative news magazine, Fault Lines, are once
again shooting the entire series in HD with digital single lens reflex cameras
(DSLRs), making the show perhaps the only example of a long-running TV series
on a major channel being shot entirely with DSLRs.

"Some shows have used DSLRs for some
scenes but as far as I know Fault Lines is the only series where everything is
shot with the 5D," Canon DSLR, notes Josh Rushing, the host and reporter of the
show, which will start its current season June 13. "There are
definitely some workflow issues but the color, contrast and quality of images
is so much better than normal news TV cameras."

DSLRs, which were originally
designed for still photography but in recent years have added stunning HD video
capabilities, have attracted a growing amount of attention in the movie and TV
production community because their large digital sensors and their ability to
work with a variety of high quality lenses offer a relatively low-cost means of
achieving very high production values.

These DSLRs, which can also be used
with a wide variety of still photo lenses, also offer a more cinematic look,
with the kind of shallow depth of field that can traditionally only be achieved
with pricey film cameras or very high end video equipment.

But because the cameras were
designed for still photography, they also have a number of drawbacks in terms
of audio, ease of focusing, shooting times, workflow and editing that have
discouraged even their supporters from using them as the sole camera.

Spike Lee for example, used DSLRs in
conjunction with both video and film cameras for his HBO documentaries about
New Orleans.

Thierry Humeau, Fault Line's
director of photography, notes that the show's executive producer Mat Skene was
so impressed by some of the footage shot on DSLRs that he'd seen coming out of
Afghanistan from the New York Times that they began using them and during have
been using the DSLRs exclusively to shot the show for over a year.

"You would need a big expensive film
camera that would cost you $100,000 and isn't designed for newsgathering to get
the kind of shallow depth of field you get in movies or photography that is [so
important] in creating drama and the look and feel of a scene," Humeau notes.
"It has really dramatically changed the look of the show."

The cameras have also been very
important in the kind of investigative work they do.

"We film in a lot of difficult
environments," notes Rushing, including shots for the June 13
premiere, which covers the violence in Juarez Mexico, where around 3,950 people
have been murdered in the last year. "Because it looks like a still camera, you
can capture things more naturally than you would if you went in with a big
camera and a light right in their face."

During their filming for one episode
last year on elderly inmates in U.S. prisons, for example, they were able to
set up the DSLR on a tripod and shoot inmates with a 200mm lens that make their
presence much less intrusive, Rushing notes.

The shallow depth of field also can
improve the look of interviews in places that would normally have little visual
appeal. "You can shoot someone in a dingy cubical and make it look great,"
notes Humeau. 

Cost wasn't a major factor in the
decision and Humeau notes that even though a camera body might only cost
$2,500, a full rig and selection of good lenses can push the price tag well
over $20,000.

Along with the large sensors of the
DSLR cameras, come, however some notable drawbacks in terms of audio, focusing,
workflow and editing, Humeau admits.

"I have a love hate relationship
with this camera," he says. "I really love the images and it is almost like
going back to my roots as a still photographer but using it for TV can be tough
and audio can be tricky."

Some of those problems are being
addressed by newer cameras issued by Panasonic and Sony that have large 35mm
sensors but have more traditional video camera inputs and functions and are
much more easily to use for TV. "You're bringing DSLR quality to video without
the hassle," Humeau notes.

Despite some of the drawbacks,
Humeau stresses the importance of the improved quality that DSLRs can bring to
non-fiction programming.

"The use of DSLRs really brings back
the importance of the cameraman," he says. "When you send someone out with a
small ¼ inch [camcorder] they can bring back pictures and everything will be in
focus. But if you put someone on a DSLR who is not good at taking pictures,
they will do a terribly job. So it really brings back the importance of the
photographer's skill and that I think is a good thing."