How the Panasonic GH3 Democratizes Filmmaking

ORDER GH3 HERE (now shipping!): AmazonAdoramaBH Photo

When I interviewed NoFilmSchool founder Ryan Koo in episode 033, we discussed how the $3500 Canon 5D Mark II and other DSLR cameras like it were democratizing filmmaking, by putting true cinematic tools in the hands of the people, at prices the average Joe could afford. Feature films are now being shot entirely on a camera you can buy at a big box store — even the recent ParaNorman was shot entirely on Canon 5D cameras.

This is a stark difference to the landscape of 20 years ago, when I attended film school. Then, the main reason you spent $60,000 or more to attend such a program was that it was the only way you could access the expensive equipment to make broadcast quality television or cinematic quality films. This remained true until about 4 years ago, when an almost accidental addition of HD video to the full frame Canon 5D Mark II created a revolution.

Since the advent of the groundbreaking Canon 5D Mark II, there has been an onslaught of video-capable DSLR cameras. However, as more and more wannabe filmmakers and existing productions have put these cameras to the test, we have discovered shortcomings of the DSLR as a true production tool.

On many cameras, there is no way to control audio levels. And how can you monitor the audio, when there is no headphone output? Most of Canon’s offerings (including the 5D) had heat problems, and limited to 12 minutes of continuous recording before they would overheat. There are issues of moire on certain types of objects (like bricks), rolling shutter creates wobbly effects when the camera is moved quickly or an object (like a subway train) moves quickly in the field of view, limited data rates in the codecs, low resolution HDMI output not suitable for monitoring or recording externally, poor ergonomics, lack of time code, and other issues. Many of these shortcomings have even created an industry of support gear, trying to bridge the gap between the DSLR and tried and tested pro camcorders and film cameras.

The 5D Mark III came out… and has not been impressing. It is certainly improved over the Mark II, but like all Canons the video is soft, more like a 720p image that is blown up to 1080p than true 1080p. The Nikon D800 has impressive video quality, but can not record externally at full resolution while also recording internally. Neither of these can record true 1080/60p slow motion. The Blackmagic Cinema Camera offers great promise, but has had production delays, and very few people have actually used one.

Also, at $3000-3500 for body alone, these tools may be great for the professional filmmaker, but are not true democratization, as they are not priced within the range of the consumer, or even most prosumers (especially when you factor in another $2,000-$5,000 for lenses and support gear).

The little engine that could, the small Panasonic GH2, shocked the world when it was chosen in Zacuto’s blind camera shootout by the majority of those polled, including esteemed filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. This $700 camera beat the $60,000 RED and $90,000 Alexa cameras, because of its ability to be hacked to provide a better codec and higher bit rates.

However, hacking the GH2 is not an ideal solution for most people, particularly because it can disable certain functions, and can even cause the camera to “lock up” (like a computer crash) at random times, forcing you to remove the battery and re-insert it even to turn the camera off.

Enter the Panasonic GH3, just announced at Photokina in September…

ORDER GH3 HERE (now shipping!): AmazonAdoramaBH Photo

Why am I so excited about this camera?

As the title of this post indicates, why do I feel this camera democratizes filmmaking?

At $1,299, the GH3 is less than half of the cost of a Canon 5D Mark III, Nikon D800, or Blackmagic Cinema Camera. It has all the advantages of a hacked GH2, but without the hacking. It has a better-than-broadcast quality codec and bit rate, true SMPTE time code, true 1080/60p slow motion, headphone output, uncompressed full resolution HDMI output, WiFi and Bluetooth built in (for remote viewing and remote control of the camera by any iOS or Android device), new more robust weather-sealed body, and much more. It has a built-in intervalometer, which means you can shoot time-lapse videos even higher than 4K resolution with no extra gear! Even set up these time-lapses wirelessly, which is incredibly handy for awkward locations, like a wilderness blind or construction time-lapse.

Did I mention less than half the cost? Because broadcast TV specs mandate a minimum data rate of 50 Mbits (higher than all AVCHD cameras and most Canons), the GH3 is actually the cheapest truly broadcast quality camera on the market! (Note: in Europe, broadcast standards are actually 100 Mbit minimum, but you could overcome this easily by using an external recorder like the Blackmagic Hyperdeck Shuttle or Atomos Ninja).

Another HUGE way this camera can save you time & money in a professional environment — no time-consuming import stage! The GH3 can record to standard editable Quicktime files, which gives it a leg up over most DSLR cameras. Don’t spend hours waiting for your computer to convert the files to an editable format, and don’t incur costly labor charges (plus workstation rental) for an assistant to do this for you! This is not a small deal — over the course of a TV season, this would not only pay back the whole cost of the camera and lenses, but save/make you extra money besides! [UPDATED Oct. 17, 2012]

As a mirrorless micro four thirds camera, lenses from almost any manufacturer can be used on the GH3 via inexpensive adapters, making it a truly universal camera. Though it is not full frame, very “fast” (wide aperture) lenses are available which give it the desired filmic shallow depth of field. It has the advantage of focus pulling over WiFi, incredible low light performance, fast focus tracking while shooting video, in-camera timelapse control, and much more.

Philip Bloom worked with TRON director Bruce Logan, ASC do to a remarkable GH3 launch film called “Genesis,” much of which was shot with available light only, even at night! If possible, download the original 1080p file from Vimeo and view in full screen to get a true handle of what this camera is capable of.

Panasonic GH3 launch film: Genesis from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.

Also watch the Behind The Scenes video (shot on a non-hacked GH2), for their impressions after working with the prototype GH3 camera:

Panasonic GH3: Behind the scenes from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.

Shooting webisodes? Indie short films? Stop motion animation? Feature films? Commercials? YouTube videos? Podcasts? School projects? No matter the application, this hybrid camera is bound to truly democratize filmmaking, in a way that many other cameras have tried and failed.

They are selling like hotcakes, so be sure to order now! A portion of your order will help to support the podcast, and feel free to ask me any questions in the comments below, as I already have one in my possession.

ORDER GH3 HERE (now shipping!): AmazonAdoramaBH Photo


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Gray Jones

Graham “Gray” Jones is a reality/lifestyle TV editor/writer located in Los Angeles. Originally from Canada, he has an honors Screenwriting BFA from York University, where he graduated with distinction in 1994. He currently produces and hosts the "TV Writer Podcast" in partnership with Script Magazine. Formerly, he produced one of the world’s leading TV-themed podcasts, "Chuck vs. the Podcast," about NBC’s Chuck.

8 thoughts on “How the Panasonic GH3 Democratizes Filmmaking”

  1. An interesting take – a couple of points though these might be specific to European gear or practice:
    – The D800 can monitor via HDMI and record internally, but not record externally at full res when recording internally (the output drops to 720p if you hook up a monitor;
    – The BBC and EBU requirement for intra-frame is 100Mbps, so whilst better than earlier cameras, the GH3 (and the 5Dmk3) still fall short for long-form programming (it’s acceptable for news though)
    – The price of the GH3 in Europe is way higher than in the US ($2500 at today’s exchange rate), so it’s priced above the 7D and close to the D600. Shame as I have a GH2 and it’s a great little camera!

  2. Thanks Stephen! Good to know.

    You could always use a recorder such as the Hyperdeck or Atomos Ninja to get over the 100 Mbit limit — we currently do this in Canada to use Sony pro camcorders that don’t shoot high enough bit rate. I’ll be doing some testing in November to confirm, but I believe the GH3’s output will be much better than other cameras in this range for this type of HDMI recording.

    I’m hoping that the UK price differential will even out by the time the GH3 actually ships — at the moment, none of the pricing is considered “official.”

  3. Actually the GH3 will have a retail price of 1200 euros(Netherlands) so thats 1560 dollar(US)

    I think the 2500 dollar version is including one of the new “X” lenses…

  4. Well written, Gray. Balanced, and concise. Also, the whole Film School thing, is so true. I guess, ridiculous commercialization is so rampant, that, companies (and institutions and organizations) just wanna shot change everyone.

  5. I’ll have serious issues with the word ‘democratizing’ as it is one of the most meaningless words around, meaning…..nothing. And, although not used in this article would be ‘game changing’ – as stupid as.

    More to the content though: it is about time to get rid of tech spec obsession. It so doesn’t matter if this or that camera is 4k, 5k, 2,3k or whatever k. It also does not matter if you can use a camera and shoot with available light only – which point always seems to be to save on ‘lighting’?

    I’d much prefer a project shot on an iPhone but using good lighting than ‘available’ – in other words ‘I wouldn’t know anyway how to light a scene’ light shot with the latest RED skippy-doo thingy-wingy.

    And, just mentioning because that too seems to be forgotten quite often, all these ‘democratized’ films show, if at all, up on Youtube and are watched, if at all, via an iPhone: do we really need 4K… I miss something here 😉

  6. Hi Tim,

    thanks so much for expressing your opinion! I too feel “game changer” is overused… 😉 However, in this context, the word “democratizing” is the perfect word for what I was trying to express.

    By definition, a democracy places power in the hands of the common person, not a privileged class. From the time I started film school in 1990, cinematic filmmaking (or even broadcast quality television) has only been possible with a large budget, which puts it clearly in the hands of such a privileged class.

    One could quite fairly argue that the Canon 5D Mark II created the real revolution, when a $3500 camera made true cinematic filmmaking possible. And it has been a revolution – since I started researching this industry 27 years ago, there have only been a few such events. The DV format, HDTV, and non-linear editing are the only three events of similar scope that come to mind.

    And it’s not about pixel peeping, or a tech obsession — it is about budget. Could an iPhone with a trained crew and full professional lights look great? Sure! But that professional crew would not be shooting on an iPhone. They would rent a RED or Alexa. And the average Joe doesn’t have that professional crew & lighting — so what you are talking about is not a democracy.

    What the GH3 makes possible is shallow depth of field, interchangeable lenses, broadcast and/or cinematic quality on a much smaller budget. You can use full lighting, but you can also use available or minimal light and still produce cinematic results. I’m a successful TV editor, but I can’t afford a system based on a $3,500 Canon 5D. I CAN afford a GH3.

    20 years ago, a 10 minute film cost me $10,000 to make, even when I had free access to equipment and facilities at my film school. So yes, I find it incredibly liberating and exciting that I can now shoot & edit feature films or a TV pilot on a camera which costs me 1/6 of that. I could even add lenses, lights, and sound gear, and it would cost less than that 10 minute film did 20 years ago.

    There have indeed been multi-million dollar sales of films shot on DSLR, and films shot on GH series cameras are beating RED cameras in film festivals. And yes, there are music videos and films shot on iPhones and cheaper DSLRs like the Canon T2i. You’re going to see a lot more… because the tools are now in the hands of the people. That’s my point!

    You’re going to see a lot of badly shot videos — that’s what happens when every Joe has access to the tools. But you’re also going to see amazing new films, by people who wouldn’t have had the tools 5 years ago.

    No, I don’t care about 2.7K, 4K, or any other K. In a movie theater or on a Blu-Ray disc, 1080p will screen just fine. Just like we’re still using CDs for our music, despite being a 30 year old format, I don’t see consumers flocking to 4K. 1080p is good enough for most people’s vision, just like CD-quality audio is good enough for most people’s ears.

    So that’s where I’m coming from… 😉


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