Velvet LED’s

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One thing I always try to think about when shooting in other countries is my shooting footprint size and energy needs – cars/trucks are smaller, power is different, doorways are narrower, and things are built more often vertically (stairs) than horizontally.  For our gear, I contacted the people at “SeeYouRent”.  This is a very cool little boutique rental house in Berlin with everything you could need for Camera, G&E, Audio, and more.  One of the things I like about about getting equipment at rental houses outside of the US is that you get to see some different gear used in different ways.  Not everyone has access to Arri Maxes and AirStar Balloons on demand.  Our project was basically just doing interviews for a documentary, only we had to shoot multiple interviewees a day in multiple locations, so we needed as little gear as possible that was multi-use.  When I spoke with the people at the rental house about my needs, I learned that they carried a few unique LED systems that would be perfect for us, specifically the VELVET Light 2’s and the VELVET Light 1’s.  I was skeptical at first about relying 100% on just three LED soft lights but I’m happy to say it worked out great.  THE LIGHT link.
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LED panel technology has come a long way over the years and the number of vendors making them now is numerous.  Of course, some are better than others and you “get what you pay for.”  Of note, there are 3 things about the VELVET heads that grabbed my attention right away:
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1. Amount of light produced.
The VELVET 2 easily puts out almost 2x more lumens than a 4×4 Kino Flo, and in addition it has a more even throw and consistent shadow shape.
 
2. Bi-color shading control.
Consistent shading from 2700-6500ºk with no noticeable green-shift.
 
3. Weather proof design.
This is not a very common quality to find in a panel.  The Velvet housing is designed to withstand rain and dust without issue.
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What I needed these LED soft lights for was very simple (basic interview lighting in mixed locations) and as such, didn’t have the time to be too creative; but for what I was doing with them, I was impressed.  In some scenes, I was directly competing against direct sunlight with zero problems; and in other scenes, I was competing with very odd color temperatures that were easy to match with the built-in color temp meter.
 
Another good thing about these lights are the accessories offered for these units.  The panel’s diffusion surfaces is already very well even (no spotting), but if you were looking to add additional layers of diffusion they offer a set of doors as well as a very easy LCG spangled system that pops onto the head easily to contain the beam very well.
 
Below are a few images for the Berlin shoot.
 
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The Buckingham

I’ve had an idea percolating for awhile: to make my own vintage filter. Actually, I had a vintage window and it needed to be replaced; so I thought, “Hey! I bet that old, wavy, leaded glass might make an interesting look!”  Our house is a 1924 “Spanish Colonial Craftsman” in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.  When my wife and I bought the house, one of the very obvious things wrong was a hole in the main room bay window.  The hole was covered up (for who knows how long) by an old plastic plate – which obviously doesn’t make for the best curb appeal.  The window was original to the house and had beautiful weeping ripples with little black beads all over it.  Obviously, we wanted to replace the glass but we still really wanted to retain the old look.  Long story short:  we got the sheet replaced with a similar vintage piece and then – finally! – I had a few pieces of glass from the original window that I could make into my 1924 California window filter.  I called it: THE BUCKINGHAM!

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Below is a VERY short test I shot in the backyard.  I used my panasonic GH4 shooting in 4K @24p through a Tamron 18-55mm IS photo zoom.  Both shots were shot at about 45-50mm.  The stop was t2.8 with a Tiffen Variable ND in front to control the light.   I looked at both front lit and back lit lighting lighting situations.  Here’s the test.

 

• The first things I saw is it absolutely took away the sharp edge of the image and lowered the contrast by a fair amount.

• The second thing I noticed was a color shift toward green. I only really noticed it when light was hitting the filter directly so it could have just be a diffusion flare.

• The last things was distortion.  You can see a little bit of image warping from the weeping glass in the filter.  You can especially see it in deep and short focus parts of the fame.

I think it’s a fun little filter.

 

 

Canon 1D C

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I’ve been getting my hands on some interesting DSLR camera systems lately, all of them with their own cool features and price points.  But today I am talking specifically about the Canon 1DC.  This isn’t the newest body out, so there are a lot of info opinions and info online about it and its image qualities – but I’m adding mine anyway.

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The only reason I got my hands on one was because I was brought it out to shoot a docu-series for a company that already had a complete two-camera package (vary complete and ready to travel).  I figured why not,  let’s see what it can do.  It shoots 4K Photo-Jpeg so that’s what gets the camera all its attention, although it does have the ability to shoot in other formats including 1080p (24/30/60p).

All that punch wrapped up in a little handheld camera does come at a price.  The drawback of the 1DC is the actual price itself closing in at a staggering $10,000.  The second negative is the that the 4K and even its 1080p recordings are capped at 8bit recording quality.  Lastly, its a DSLR, so your still into all your adapters and accessories. Once you get over all that and get to shooting you see  it show off.

The 4K Photo-Jpeg file format is interesting, similar to Apple Prores – only in 8bit.  This codec, mixed with the ability to shoot Log-C option, gives you a very impressive image quality, miles beyond what we‘ve previously had with any DSLR video option. They even include the Canon “View Assist” option for monitoring when you shoot in Log-C.  When you shoot in documentary situations and you don’t get to control the lighting much, having the assurance that you have the Log-C negative under the REC709-ish “View Assist” helps you feel better.

We shot in and around Chicago for two weeks spread out over a month, and during each week we did “Run-and-Gun” handheld night footage at 3200 ISO, controlled interviews shot off dollies at 200 ISO, and everything in between.  We also shot many different formats on the camera, including a few different 1080p codecs (Super 35/ – check this, is the slash intentional?) and formats (24/60p).  I think they all played well together on screen. It worked well for us – better than I thought it would, initially.  The design of the body is tough and sturdy – the extra weight of the pro battery system actually helped with stability when we shot handheld.  And unlike with other DSLRs, this camera has no problem rolling for an hour without cutting and that was a big plus for our interview sections (not that you should practice rolling that long without cutting, but you can if you had too).  Below are a couple of trailers from the series.

If I was going to pick on anything for field use with this camera, it would be that it’s not as “video friendly” as it could be.  The menu system is enormous and primarily designed for photographers, which I understand but it’s marketed as a video camera with photo options and not vice versa.  One other thing would be the size of the 4K files, they too are enormous (500mb per second) and this can be a big problem if you’re shooting a lot in between times you can dump footage.  All-in-all, a surprisingly good looking DSLR for video, but still overpriced.

Hands on the Arriflex AMIRA

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I finally got my hands on the new Arriflex “Amira” camera system. Actually, I got my hands on it for two projects in a row, which was great because each could not have been more opposite in camera needs.  The one thing I noticed right away was that it’s half the weight and size of the “Alexa”.  The balance and ergonomics of it rival that of the classic Sony F900r, only with much better everything.
Basically, you get to have all the best things we are used to with the Arri SR3 on location, but without the lab!  In this tight little digital box, you get a great shoulder fit with very simple and straightforward options.  If you want to add an ND filter, you merely flick a switch, change the shutter, roll a knob, change the ISO, flick a different switch, change white balance- you get the picture.
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As far as what you get for shooting formats, it’s all we have come to love from the Alexa minus ARRIRAW.  You still get 422HQ and 4444 ProRes options in 1080p up to 200fps (better then Alexa’s 120fps), as well as the option to shoot in 2k ProRes (a personal favorite).  You still get your thick 14 stops of dynamic range and the very durable Log C base.  The body is only made in a 16×9 censor, so anamorphic stuff may be a miss, but to make up for it they have offered every lens mount option out there (PL / EF / B4 and now a 3rd party PV mount).  The last cool thing in the ARRI bag of tricks is the new UHD option now available on the system.  I haven’t had need to utilize this yet, but I am interested to test it!
As I mentioned above, I recently utilized the camera on two different shoots. My first use was on a stage commercial spot, in a very controlled environment.  The Amira package was from a great little camera house out of Burbank, CA called HD Optics (HDoptics.com). They were basically out of Alexas and since we were only doing 1080p, they set us up with an Amira.  I had been looking for a reason to play with one so of course I ran with it.
We were completely studio-style on this one, shooting with an Angenieux 12x Optimo (with teleprompter) on a dolly all day.  The system can absolutely handle all the monitoring and power/aks needs of all the studio-style stuff with ease, but when it comes to balancing the small lightweight frame, it sort of becomes a pain. We had to slide all the plates back to the end, add an onboard battery and a counter weight.  In retrospect, I should have ordered an Arrihead to put it all on.  Regardless, it was a great opportunity to study the image that the camera can do without it being on my shoulder.  
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The second job a few days later was a single camera TV pilot that was all on location and all handheld.  I knew for a fact that I didn’t want to have to shoulder a loaded Alexa with a short zoom on my body all day (if I could help it) so this time I got my good friends at Keslow (keslowcamera.com) to package us up with a great two-camera setup with all the lightweight wireless gizmos.  The system really shines in these conditions.  The new eyepiece/display combo made it easy to get shots in almost any tight area and the robust C Log negative gave us the latitude to move quickly in tough lighting situations.  
I was a big fan of the Amira after testing it and I can definitely see using it a lot this year.  I think it’s a great move for Arri and will be a great tool for shooters in all areas of production.

Clairmont Anamophic CCI Prime Set

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I just wrapped on my first digital feature film, shooting anamorphically for the first time – and boy, did I learn a lot.  As those who read me regularly know, my default camera digital system is always the Arriflex “Alexa” and that is indeed the camera I used on this shoot.  However, the film’s camera budget was beyond lean, especially for anamorphic.  I knew right away that if we were ever going to make it work, it was not going to be with the hot/new/shiny lenses on the market – it was definitely going to take some research and downscaling.  Eventually, we were able to able get an amazing deal from Clairmont Camera (life savers!) and we didn’t even have to “settle” on anything.
 
The director John Swetnam and I knew very early on that we wanted the film to maintain a handheld and agile feel throughout, but in anamorphic that’s not always that easy.  Size and weight are always a factor, and lenses tend to get very long and front heavy the wider and tighter you get.  In addition,  every different lens maker has different lens traits and image rendering profiles as well as mechanical limits.  Some lens sets have wide apertures but very aggressive soft focus or heavy vignetting, and some are big in size but have exigent sharpness and color.  Basically, there are a lot of options out there.  The lenses we ultimately went with were the Clairmont CCI primes (32, 40, 50, 75, 100) for our main glass, and Angenieux Optimo zooms (more talk about those in the next post) for any specialty shots.  The CCI lenses are built off the architecture of the original Kowa prime set, only with a more cinema-ready barrel and better focus marks.  In my opinion, the lenses have a very natural contrast especially for shooting in digital formats, similar to the way Kodak 5217 film looks.  As for color, everything seemed to want to come up slightly warmer (some lenses more than others), but overall the color had a very natural tonality and hue.  The sharpness was, however, on the lower side – which I am acctualy a fan of.  The hardest part is always asking the 1st if it was a good take because in the EVF, everything seems “buzzed”.
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These are true “old school” anamorphic lenses – you need to shoot them at a decent stop (f5.6+) to get the best out of them.  They are light and well-balanced for today’s digital systems.  I recommend them for anyone looking to shoot an anamorphic film that feels like an anamorphic film.

Blackmagic 4K RAW

780987356554686868_536875219I recently got the chance to play with the newly updated Blackmagic 4K Cinema Camera in its long-awaited “RAW” mode and was impressed with what I saw.  Let’s start at the beginning, with the camera itself.  It’s important to remember that this camera is only $3,000.

PROS:

  • Shoots 4K in a few options (RAW, ProRes 422 HQ) and in 1080p (ProRes 422 HQ)
  • Available in EF and PL mounts
  • Utilizes standard 2.5″ removable SSD drives for media
  • Has a true SDI video out
  • Simple menu display

CONS:

  • Odd form-factor/weight
  • Unusable LCD display (for shooting)
  • 800 ISO max
  • Sharp highlight roll-off
  • Pattern noise (this has been minimized with the new update)

CONCLUSION:  It’s a good little camera that you will need to buy accessories for to make any quality shooting possible.  The image quality is very good, and the price is even better.

One of the things I like about the system is what many say they dislike, its very simple.  Arriflex makes a great camera but not only because of its image quality, but in my opinion it has a lot to do with the body design and simple menu interface, it seems that Blakmagic took some notes from their success.  Again, you have to remember that this camera cost less than a Canon 5D and it allows you to shoot 24p 4k .DNG RAW- and thats pretty impressive.

I was shooting an internet ad for a fantasy football mobile app, and as with most internet projects, the budget was small and the turnaround time was even smaller.  Here is how the Blackmagic worked out for us:

The new software update to the camera allowed for more options than before but all I was really concerned with was the RAW recording option.  After a few hours of tests, we came up with two very simple rules: shoot at 400 iso; and handle highlights as best we can.  What I noticed right away was that the camera didn’t have the best natural roll-off of exposure in the high-end (monitoring in REC709).  It would start to break apart a little after 2+ stops.  And as for the low end, the camera tended to only get noisy in warmer shadow areas.  Those are not unworkable problems, especially when shooting in RAW.  I always chose to base exposure off a monitor in REC 709 color space out straight out of the camera.  Usually, this allows you to see a higher contrast image, so if the camera is holding everything the way you want it to, you have 20% more room on the top-end and bottom-end of exposure in RAW.

The last tool they threw in the box is a complete copy of DaVinci Resolve that bought separately would cost you $1000.  This is a high-end color grading system with a legacy of innovation in its field.  Since Blackmagic’s acquisition, the program has seen many new overhauls, including: handling many different video and RAW formats with full metadata control, format conversion, and transcending options.  It now (in version 11) full online editorial options.

Here is a .DNG frame of a their contrast scene:

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BLACK SATIN FILTERS: By Tiffen

I recently did a project with a tremendous amount of creature effects as well as one very extensive makeup and prosthetics.  The first concern for the teams is always “How can we make it look more organic?”.  Knowing that we didn’t have the option to shoot film, I opted for the Arri “Alexa”  for a number of reasons but ultimately due to the fact that its image structure and natural falloff is the most “film-like” of all the digital systems I have seen.  However, even with this system it is still limited by the fact that it is an electronic image, everything is sharp and uniform (you dealing with 1’s & 0’s and not randomized organic film grains).  In order to help take the digital “edge” off of HD cameras, cinematographers have done a number of things over the years- the first of which was filtration, but in beginning (2002) the only options available were the classics (Classic soft, Glamour glass, Fog, Soft FX, White/Black Pro-mist, and Netting the back of lenses with pantyhose…).  Another action taken was to shoot with very old lenses- basically the ones you didn’t want to shoot film with because they had lost their sharpness and maybe had an unusually shallow focus.  The last option was to downgrade the image in post (adding “grain”, lowering the sharpness, or adding a layer of diffusion), but we all remember how good the post filter world was back then right?…not the best.

Focusing on filter specifically, we have come a long way.  The glass I mentioned above always seemed to either do way too much or nothing at all, until now.  I got the chance to finally test the new Tiffen Black Satin® filters and was very happy with the results.  The major differences between the these and the former Pro-mist Tiffen line are:

  • The amount of blooming of highlights
  • The absence of mixed contrast fogging
  • The naturalized fine detail smoothing

This is an example I found (I can’t upload any of my film yet, sorry) that shows an example of with and without filtration.  The LEFT frame is filterless and the RIGHT is with a Black Satin 1.

Original-Black-Satin-3What I liked about the filters is their ability to lower the contrast of skin texture without loosing detail in major areas like eyes and hair.  This did very good things for our makeup FX.  Prosthetics and skin blended more harmoniously as did creature FX and puppets.  There is still a little work to be done in the DI to help match everything perfect, but this certainly helped us get very close.  What I would like to do (and hope to do on the next one) is to have these filters fit into rear mount kits for the Alexa system.  So basically an easier, more contemporary version of netting lenses.  I will keep you in the loop on that.

Below is a video example that shows the filters on two different skin pigments as well as with a raw light source.

 

Lens Choice

I came across this test/example someone did to show lens compression and distortion.  I am constantly asked why certain lenses are used for shots and this chart helps to show visually why.  Also, look at the color differences. e4315eb25d608da3dcf848172e4f2928

Phantom FLEX

Every once and in a while I get the chance to shoot some very high-speed footage.  I have worked with the Phantom systems a few times and found that I am a fan of the FLEX mode; however, there are a few things you should know before shooting it.  Some of the things are normal concerns you may already know:

  • Don’t use HMI’s.
  • Don’t shoot wide open.
  • Don’t think little things won’t be noticed.

On my last few jobs, the frame rate we were interested in was between 1000 and 1800 fps.  What I have learned recently is a bit more specific:

  • Don’t use any lamp head under 2,000w.
  • Don’t shoot any wider open than f5.6.
  • Don’t overexpose anything.
  • Don’t shoot any higher frame rate than you need to.
  • Don’t underestimate drive space or time needed to download and check media.

“Don’t use any lamp head under 2,000w.” Normally, quartz or tungsten heads are the go-to for these shoots – but getting the right amount of light you need for bigger shots sometimes requires more than 12k or 24k heads. If you are emulating sunlight fill with quartz lamps outside, its a hard battle to win.  A natural solution would be to go with a multi-head unit like a DINO to get you to a 36k head, maybe even two of them side-by-side to get you to 72k, and from there you could color and shape it.  However, any lamp head that is burning a filament less then 2,000w in size will begin to pulse; and depending on you lamp cycle and luck, your image may see a flicker.  It is more apparent in high-speed digital work than film, but it’s there.  Recently, I have been told about the new Hive plasma lights and that they have been very friendly to high-speed work.

“Don’t shoot any wider open than 5.6.”  This sounds like a rule to live by, but it’s not – its more of a personal preference that will help you stay friends with your camera assistant.  At this high a frame rate, any microsecond of soft focus feels like an eternity.  Most of the time when your shooting 1600fps, the subject you are shooting is doing a quick action or very precise reaction and you would hate to miss any details.  I am always a fan of giving the focus room to breath, e.g. if the action needs 1′ of focus, give it 3′ – maybe the perimeter of the shot will be the most interesting?

“Don’t overexpose anything.” This seems like a no-brainer in the digital realm.  However, you may find yourself in a situation where you simply don’t have the light you need to expose your shot right (some damn shots need a lot of light).  The point I am trying to make here is that the Phantom FLEX camera system actually shoots quite a thick negative on the low-end.  Coming from a film background, this way of thinking is hard to reverse engineer – but it’s true.

“Don’t shoot any higher frame rate than you need to.”  This is more about saving time than anything.  The higher you shoot, the more time and space is needed.  For me, it’s annoying to have to wait longer between takes than I absolutely have to.  Also, the look of footage not shown at its original speed (pushed or pulled) is different.  I know the “Rule of Thumb” is to over-crank shots rather then under-crank, with the thought being that you can always flag frames in order to speed up footage.  However, you will still see post effects of this process (than if it was actually shot at the desired speed).

“Don’t underestimate drive space or time needed to download and check media.”  This is something for  which you need to plan well.  For example, shooting in full resolution @ 720fps for 3.5 seconds (of real time) will create a 32gb clip that will take up to 20 min to be transferred over ethernet to a drive.  Even if you are shooting with Cine-Mags, your storage is extremely limited and slow moving.  I would suggest using the CineMag system, as well as the CineStation mag docking station utilizing a 10GB ethernet connection.  A good thing to plan for is the time you will need to download, save and check footage.  I go into each job telling producers it will take about 8min per second of shot footage (real time) – that usually seem to work out right.

Handling the footage:

The very last thing you will need to be aware of is converting your footage.  You will need software that can handle the camera’s file format of “.cineRAW”.  There are many tools out there that help with the file format conversion, the best known of them being GlueTools for $399 at the pricey end; however, it does have full control of the camera’s original footage (2.5k -720p/color/contrast/ matrix…) Or you could just use the free version of Da Vinci Resolve.  The catch with the free Resolve software is you are limited to a 1080p workflow.  Here is more information on how to do that:

Here are links to projects I have shot on the Phantom FLEX system:

 

Lo-Fi Video

A few weeks ago, I was asked to shoot a project with the idea of looking like it was shot years ago with old public access equipment.  The trick was to find a way to shoot with authentic camera gear but still be able to have footage that would digitize easily.  Randomly, we were presented with seven Panasonic GS320 MiniDV camcorders (circa 2006) from a friend of the director.  This made for a great starting off point.

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The cameras were tiny – I had forgotten just how small MiniDV camcorders were!  This was our formula:

  • Shoot to MiniDV tapes on camera (16:9 / 60i)
  • Shoot in full auto mode (shutter / iris / gain / focus)
  • Set white balance to camera presets: DAY (sun),  INTERIOR (light bulb)

The last pice of the puzzle was to physically shoot like you didn’t know what you were doing (always a funny thing to be asked to do).  The director wanted all the camera actions you would see from a “soccer dad” or or a 90’s skate video (unreasonable zooms / whip pans / shaking / out of focus shots…).  At the end of the day, I think we embraced the “bad” just right.

The last step was to downgrade the footage (even more).  Technically, all the footage was still “Digital” (even in SD) in the timeline, and in order to get some of those fun analogue attributes (bleeding colors / over-under exposure / noise / detail loss…) we had to convert everything.  In my opinion, the only way to get that look right is to dump it off to analogue tape and in our case it was VHS.

We set it up just like a wedding videographer circa 2003:

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  • Final Cut Pro (via Print to Tape)
  • Firewire 800 out of the MacBook, with an 800 to 400 Firewire cable
  • Into a Canopus ADV110 converter (DV)
  • Out of Canopus converter via analogue connection (Yellow / Red / White)
  • Into a home VCR and onto a VHS tape (SP mode)

Once we laid back to VHS, we simply reversed the pipeline back into the computer, and this is what we got: