Hell and Back Again is Oscars 2011 listed for Best Documentary Feature


I have always believed a film shot on a DSLR would one day win an Oscar.

Shot in Afghanistan on the 5D Mark II by Danfung Dennis – Hell and Back Again – seems to be going all the way. It is one of just 15 documentaries which will advance to the final shortlist vote for the Oscars 2011. The feature length documentary has long been known by us in the DSLR community, and gives an incredibly immersive and intimate view of war never before captured.

You can view the full ‘long list’ of all 15 documentary features at the Oscars website here. Notable absences include Senna, I really expected that would be in but it is incredible to see a film shot on a DSLR being more successful than a mainstream hit like that.

The small size and weight of the DSLR used to shoot it meant rigging could be personal and light enough to carry into around a war zone. The film is yet more proof for the doubters that DSLRs are suitable for feature length filmmaking at the highest level. If this wins an Oscar it will be a massive boost to the creditability of DSLRs as serious filmmaking tools. Of course – we – the enlightened ones, knew that all along.

At the now sadly defunct Converge Festival earlier this year I was lucky enough to see a preview segment which was incredible. The footage was projected on a theatre screen and even that large it held up brilliantly. With all the moire, aliasing, 8bit banding, rolling shutter and lack of resolution that the old 5D Mark II has in some shots – it looked superb anyway. It is an absolute fact that DSLR footage looks a lot better on the big screen than you can reasonably expect. The GH2 would have looked even better.

Read The Guardian’s 4-star review of Hell and Back Again here

About Author

British filmmaker and editor of EOSHD, Andrew works in Berlin on his own self funded filmmaking and video projects.


  1. While I agree it’s great to see dslr’s getting into the big spotlight, I think there is still a great task for dslr’s to prove themselves outside of the documentary-field.

    I by no means feel that documentaries are visually less challenging or potentially not as beautiful as fiction-productions (the films of Werner Herzog to me are some of the most beautiful films I’ve seen this past decade), I do think that ‘lesser’ camera’s are already kinda accepted in the film-industry.

    Like those other war-documenatries like Armadillo or Restrepo which I believe are partially shot on even the old Sony A1 HDV-camera (a visually significantly inferior camera to about every dslr out there today). I believe both of them also got major awards recognition.

    Point being, when people hear about dslr’s being used in award-winning documentaries it’s great PR, but I think most people will also think ‘Yeah, well, but when you direct a real fictional film, with big sets, and sci-fi environments, than surely a dslr has no place on the set?!’

    Which of course in theory is crap, because I’ve seen, partly through your films, Andrew, that the GH2, with the proper lens attached to it, is capable of creating stunning cinematic images which could easily be projected in cinemas.

    So… great to see a dslr coming into the spotlight, but I secretly wish someone will DP a movie in the near future that get’s nominated for ‘best cinematography’. That would really shake up the industry I think!

  2. Hell and Back Again won best cinematography at Cannes don’t forget. It is a beautiful looking film that doesn’t feel like a documentary. It is cinematic, and that’s the general point.

    I think it is wrong to equate big sets and big cameras with quality. It doesn’t quite work like that. If only more people in the movie industry understood this.

  3. I’ve been shooting documentaries and other “serious” stuff with DSLRs for a while. One of the problems with these cameras is since they are affordable there are many uploaded videos on the web that do not really show what they are really capable of when used in the right way. On the other hands there are a few award winning films that end-up looking suspicious to many mainly because although shot with DSLRs they use a very professional workflow and budget. The middle ground does exist.

    Here is a documentary shot with the GH2 for a famous hotel : http://filmhaiti.com/featured/magic-oloffson-magique-oloffson-majik-oloffson/

    Here is a short film shot with the same camera : http://filmhaiti.com/featured/the-simple-future-le-futur-simple-fiti-senp/

    These are just examples. There is not much production money involved. Equipment is basic. Although there is no award to be won there, it is a level higher than the average Youtube DSLR video.

  4. wow. There’s some great looking shots in there, hard to believe it’s all dslr. Cool to see those cameras in that kind of use.

  5. I’d rather see a doc about the talibans oppression and horrific abuse of women being nominated, but i guess broken american soldiers are bit easier to sell…

    regarding projection, it never will nor should it be compared to what is seen on displays. people think “would it hold up on the big screen”, when the only reality is actually right before them on their monitors. Hell, even SD looks good projected, i saw a fantastic film shot in SD 4:3 in cinema this fall and while i went like “shit those are some big pixels” but quicky dropped that shit. The revenge of content, is underway.

  6. Martin, your comment that broken American soldiers are easier to sell brings up an important point
    The convergence of total defeat in Vietnam along with the 1960s cultural revolution brought with it a culture of defeatism that remains to this day. The image of a broken soldier is emblematic of that.

    We’ve just been preoccupied with being preoccupied/doubting any military use of the United States.
    One clear sign of this is the lack of focus on the evils of the enemy (Taliban being just one) and the over focus/screwtinizing of the soldier.

    The image of a broken soldier is becoming a cliche like a broken hearted singer in a pop music video.

    That being said, it’s easier to cover an American soldier than a Taliban, but your point remains intact.

  7. Reinout, I know what you mean about the use of a DSLR in a fiction film versus a documentary.
    DSLR’s have been relegated to being A Cameras in Non-Fiction and B-Cameras in Fiction
    Andrew is also right, it does look beautiful and won the Cannes award (so it says on some of the adverts) for cinematography.

    In fact the opening battle scene of Hell and Back Again looks like it’s staged because of the smoothness and the artfullness of the camera movements which take place in front of the charging/advancing US Marines.

    Danfung came to a viewing and I asked him (during the Q&A session) how that opening scene and the other battle scenes were shot so cinematically. The Glidecam and his customization of it has a lot to do with it, but that too is attached to the form factor of the camera. Of course the action being covered (the acting to use a fiction term) is of course the biggest factor in making the cinematography great.

    The form factor of these cameras makes them of great use for running shots and tight quarters (that’s what Greg Tattersall said when filming House with a 5D, right). And such shots exist in fiction.

    But for documentaries, especially ones in warzones, there is also the benefit of portability and stealth which are make or break in many situations (battleground being one of them). So DSLRs will continue to have their most dramatic effect in non-fiction works.

    Of course, there could be an incredible running scene, first person parquefor for example, that could be only pulled off with a DSLR.

    Indie films, for sure could be done on them, but an OSCAR for the best cinematography. It’s possible, because it’s what you have in front of the camera that counts most (like those Marines close up and personal in the middle of battle…one being killed sadly). Given a basic technical threshold, you can point a camera at a certain scene and get beauty no matter what.

    That being said it’s usually that best cinematography comes in productions with a lot of gear that makes the DSLR’s form factor unnecessary. Or in staged situations where a DSLR could just as easily be swapped by a more powerful camera. Like you could film the Godfather scenes with a DSLR, but you could do it better with an Alexa.

    Finding a place where a DSLR is invaluable, where only a DSLR could go, or where a DSLR is best suited to go, is the quest.

    That’s just my opinion.

  8. We shouldn’t forget “Iraq in fragments” that was shot on a Panasonic DVX-100 and is a superb documentary that won numerous prestigious prizes including Best Documentary Cinematography at Sundance and an Oscar nomination..
    Content is king and Canon DSLRs and GH2 are more than adequate for a big screen documentary, period.


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