How I Ended Up Using 11 Nikon Z9 Cameras to Film a TV Pilot

How I Ended Up Using 11 Nikon Z9 Cameras to Film a TV Pilot

Today, we will eschew all the glitz, glamour, and pixel-peeping and get down to brass tacks on why I chose to use a specific camera for a specific use case.

I’ve written a full review of the Nikon Z9 before. A few times, actually. I’ve compared it to other cameras in my arsenal. I’ve never written a pure spec write up because I think such things have all the relevance of an umbrella during a drought when it comes to actual photography and filmmaking. But, needless to say, I’ve covered the Z9 and several other cameras in depth here in multiple ways in the past. So, today’s article will be none of those things.

Instead, as a professional filmmaker and photographer, I am most interested in the practical application of specific tools. Different obstacles call for different ladders to overcome them. So, I don’t find it particularly useful or accurate to try to declare one camera model or one brand the be all, end all for everything image related. As the cliché goes, the best camera is the one that is right for your particular job. So, in lieu of yet another review, I thought it might be useful to take you through the specific thought process that led me to arrive at using the Nikon Z9 last week to shoot a pilot for a TV show — 11 Z9s, to be exact.

A bit of background. As the pilot is still in post-production and yet to be released, I will keep the details under wraps. What I can tell you is that this particular shoot was for a nonprofit with an incredibly positive mission surrounding gender equality. It was going to consist of individual interviews as well as a roundtable discussion of luminaries in a particular field. The interview and roundtable discussion were both going to be relatively free-form, meaning a single take might last five minutes or an hour, depending on how the day progressed. So, I needed to be ready for everything.

I was going to be both director and cinematographer on the project. As this shoot was part pilot and part proof of concept, we would be working with a limited budget and a tight schedule. In short, we needed to do a lot in a short amount of time with less tools and less funds than would really be necessary to do the job.

As usual, the job began with extensive discussions between myself and the client. A lot of back and forth trying to balance creative ambition with fiscal reality. I’m no stranger to independent low budget filmmaking, so this was hardly new for me. There’s always a certain amount of risk when you try to make a one-dollar budget look like a million-dollar budget. But, if you plan well and know what you’re doing, it’s not impossible to get amazing production value without breaking the bank.

Of course, there were certain elements that I knew I wasn’t going to have. There was no way I was going to have money to rent larger camera systems like Arri Alexas or Sony Venices, which I might use on other projects. Even smaller cinema cameras from Sony and Canon were going to be a bit beyond our budget range. Even more so because the multiple subjects that needed to be covered simultaneously, with the number of cameras far outweighing the number of camera operators, meant that we would need a large number of identical cameras. Cameras with the ability to essentially run themselves occasionally. So the price per camera was going to be important. This took us out of the cinema camera range and into the mirrorless camera range so that we could keep those costs to a minimum.

The Nikon Z9 was always my first choice for the project. No doubt, this urge was influenced by the fact that I personally own two Z9s. This meant that I was intimately familiar with how the system worked. But, it also meant that of the 11 cameras we ended up having on the day, we would only have to rent nine additional bodies. This helped trim a bit of costs on the production. But, more importantly, if you’ve ever tried to secure 11 of the same kind of camera from a single rental house, you’ll know that it can take some doing. As luck would have it, my local rental house, Samys, did have enough Z9s. True, they had to ship some in from different locations, meaning that I literally had every Z9 rental unit available from every one of their stores in the state. But that meant I could source all the cameras from the same vendor, along with the glass to match.

I could have opted for other mirrorless options. I considered the Canon R5 and R5C. I considered the Sony FX3 and a7S III. As I mentioned, I looked at many dedicated cinema cameras, but the price was going to be prohibitive there.  

Having previously owned a Canon R5, I quickly ruled it out due to my experience with that camera overheating in certain circumstances. Several of these cameras were going to need to run for well over an hour and a half without cutting. In the case of certain angles, the cameras would be completely unmonitored. So, I couldn’t take the chance that one of them would shut off due to overheating and I wouldn’t know about it until the end of the shoot.

This led me to think about the R5C. The issue there was battery life. Canon R5C users may correct me in the comments. But, when I asked the rental house about battery life in the R5C, the message they gave me was that it was similar to the R5. Not bad, necessarily. But batteries would need to be changed frequently throughout the day. Or, I would need to rig up each camera to external power solutions. The same shorter battery life would also apply to the Sony mirrorless cameras in our budget range. This posed two problems. One, I didn't have access to the location prior to shooting. So, I wasn’t 100% sure of power availability options prior to arrival. And two, because we had 11 cameras, that would also then require 11 different external battery solutions, which would add to the cost. Having shot multiple films with the Z9 now, I can confidently say that their internal batteries can go for hours without skipping a beat. This was important for my use case because I knew we would be shooting the long roundtable discussion, which was likely to last a couple hours by itself. Unsure of external power options, I needed an internal battery that could run for at least several hours without needing to be changed.

The file formats available in the Z9 also came into place. I’ve gotten used to using the N-Raw format for a number of shoots in the past. It’s easy to work with in DaVinci Resolve and gives me a bit of flexibility to cover for mistakes. Not that I was planning to make mistakes. But when you are trying to thread a needle on a low budget shoot and know that some cameras will need to be shot unmanned, I wanted a format that would allow me to compensate for any settings that might have been missed in all the chaos. As it turned out, only one of the cameras required any real adjustments in post. But, being able to do so was a major help given the circumstance.

So too was the ability to shoot 4K N-Raw instead of 8K N-Raw. These were talking heads for the most part, so shooting 8K wasn’t really going to do anything but fill up a hard drive. I wanted 4K (as opposed to 1080) to give a bit of wiggle room to recompose when necessary. But that would be plenty of resolution. Some cinema cameras I’ve owned in the past require you to shoot at max resolution if you want to use the raw video format. So, being able to still shoot N-Raw, but do so at a lower than max 8K file size really came in handy. This allowed us to save storage space. And this was vital when shooting long extended takes to internal cards. We could scale down and get longer takes.

Speaking of which, the lack of a recording limit on the Z9 meant that I didn’t have to concern myself with any arbitrary 30-minute cut-off times. I could start all the remote cameras and just let them run without needing to worry about them turning off.  

Also, because the Z9 has terrific face detection, I could trust the cameras to maintain accurate focus throughout the shoot. For the cameras that I was operating personally, I used the camera’s autofocus most of the time while using the camera’s touch screen to rack focus between speakers on occasions when there were multiple people in the frame.

Because of the Z9’s reliability, I had no qualms about trusting it to do its job. And I’m proud to say that it didn’t let me down. This is not some broad declaration that the Z9 is the best camera in the world and everyone who doesn’t own one is a fool. I realize that’s what you are supposed to say on the internet to get clicks. But that’s not the message I am trying to send. Rather, I wanted to give you this story as an example of a use case where the Z9 was a perfect tool for the assignment. Long battery life. Flexible files sizes and image formats. Top-notch autofocus. The right cost value for the production budget. No overheating issues. And overall dependability. It simply got the job done.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Cool! So how many and which cards do you use for this. For 11 cams it's also a factor. And I'm always astonished how long the batteries last on both my Z9.

The correct terminology is brass tacks, not brass tax.

Carry on.

This is why we need copy editors.

But let's also acknowledge that "brass tax" is a fun play on words, if not at all intentional.

thank you

Were they hooked up to monitors, or was it set 'em up and let 'em run?

The "key" angles were monitors. Some of the more remote ones were let 'em run (after significant precautions and planning of course :-)

Great article. And great info on the ability to shoot N-Raw @ 4K. Curious to find out what lensing you chose (I found that the native Z using face detection is superb with my Z6's)? Lastly, the photo of the setup (with the slider in shot) shows a prompter (?) on a matte box? Curious as to what that is.