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Forget pricey pro cams, this YouTube star filmed a viral hit on a midrange DSLR

Scott Winn, known as ScottDW on YouTube, knows a thing or two about making viral videos. The filmmaker and songwriter puts out some of the most popular, shareable, and just plain fun dance videos on the internet, including High School Dance Battle – Geeks VS Cool Kids (55 million views), Fruit Ninja in Real Life (30 million views), and Stormtrooper Twerk (8.5 million views). But even with all his experience, Winn is still learning new things about the best way to work, especially after taking on the challenge of producing his newest video on a consumer-grade camera.

Winn’s work may be lighthearted in nature, but the equipment he normally uses is serious: a 5K Red Epic cinema camera (starting at $24,000) with Zeiss compact primes (starting at $4,000). His videos have the polish of Hollywood productions, which make them stand out all the more on a platform like YouTube. But when Canon approached him with an idea for shooting a follow-up dance battle video, Gym Class Disaster, Winn’s high-end gear would be left in the bag. The entire production would be shot on the Canon EOS 80D ($1,199), an enthusiast-level DSLR limited to 1080p video.

“I was like, ‘Ah, I don’t know if this is going to hold up,’”

“I was like, ‘Ah, I don’t know if this is going to hold up.’ It ended up being a really powerful tool.” Winn told Digital Trends over the phone. He was familiar with the 80D – he has used it extensively for behind-the-scenes and blog content – but he wasn’t sure that it could handle the job of an A-camera on a main production. “I certainly had some hesitations,” he said. “I shoot mostly on cinema-grade cameras, and try to push the boundaries, quality-wise.”

Winn isn’t one to back away from a challenge, however. He had previously shot Old Man Parkour (2.5 million views) on the Canon XC10, a hybrid camera that shoots 4K video but uses a small, 1-inch-type sensor.

Related: EOS 80D posts highest image-quality scores of any APS-C Canon

Unlike that video, however, Gym Class Disaster had a precedent. Geeks VS Cool Kids had set a very high bar for image quality, and there was no way the sequel wouldn’t be compared to the original. Realistically, Winn knew the 80D wasn’t a match for the Red Epic he used on the first production. This meant he would have to push the 80D as far as it could, while playing to its strengths of size, weight, and ease-of-use. Even if it wouldn’t produce quite the same image quality, he could still focus on capturing the spirit of the first video that had made it so successful.

While the 80D lacks 4K resolution and the extreme dynamic range of a high-end cinema camera, it does have some advantages. For one, Winn used Canon’s new EF-S 18-135mm lens and optional PZ-E1 Power Zoom Adapter that allows for camcorder-style zoom control on a DSLR. “Honestly, that little combo surprised me a lot,” Winn said. “I love to shoot snap zooms. It ended up being a really powerful tool.”

Another big advantage of the 80D was the Dual Pixel autofocus system, which provides fast and accurate autofocus during live view shooting. “It is spot-on,” Winn said. “It does such a great job of grabbing faces.”

Cinema cameras do many things very well, but where they fall behind is in ease-of-use. They are difficult to operate without at least two people and are large and heavy, limiting their mobility. A DSLR, by comparison, is nimble. It allowed Winn to shoot the video with a smaller crew and in less time.

Related: ‘Noatak: Return to the Arctic’ is a touching film shot with a Canon DSLR

Winn remembered being shocked when production wrapped on Gym Class Disaster. “We shot the whole video in six or seven hours,” he said. This was quite a difference from his usual productions, which easily take up to 12 hours. Perhaps more importantly, he was also pleasantly surprised by the image quality of the 80D. “I remember looking through the footage on lunch and was truly blown away.”

When asked what the biggest disadvantage was with the 80D, Winn said it’s all about the video resolution. “It’s hard, because Canon is trying to appeal to so many different audiences. But for me, it’s 4K. I remember thinking, ‘How cool would it be if this camera was 4K?’ Add that, and you’re done.”

The trained eye will have no trouble spotting the differences in quality between the two High School Dance Battle videos, but the average viewer likely won’t notice – especially without a 4K monitor. But the important part – the content, the spirit – is all there. Despite the technical challenges, Winn’s latest experiment seems to have been a success. At the time of writing, Gym Class Disaster has been live for under two weeks and has already amassed over 1.5 million views.

The experience has also given Winn new perspective into how he works, and how he may change things up in the future. “A lot of what I do is to scale to crew size,” he said. “I love walking onto a set and having a lot of people collaborating on a project. But at times, there’s something so nice and stress relieving about shooting with a small setup, and this project reminded me of how special that can be. We had minimal lighting, minimal crew. It’s calming, it’s good for me.”

Related: Canon EOS 80D review

Winn doesn’t intend to throw out his cinema cameras, but he’s keen on finding future uses for the 80D in his primary channel content. He also doesn’t hesitate to recommend the DSLR to aspiring filmmakers who reach out to him for advice. “Obviously, you can’t tell a 14-year-old kid to go buy a Red Dragon,” he said, laughing.

But even the best camera in the world will fail without a solid concept. Winn’s most important lesson from his experience is that what you get out is equal to what you put in, regardless of the quality of your gear. “If you actually sit down and focus on your camera settings and lighting, you’re going to blown away.”