Sony FS5 Quick Setup Guide

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If you’re starting out with the Sony FS5, and going for a cinematic look, ypere’s a setup guide that will have you up and rolling fast.

Codec: Select REC SET from in/out menu, and choose:

File Format: XAVC HD
REC FORMAT: 1080/24p 50Mbps

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XAVC HD will give you the best quality image this camera is capable of, in gorgeous 10-bit, which can withstand a lot of color grading without getting noisy. The default XAVC QFHD option gives you 4K, but only in 8 bit. So unless you need the higher resolution, stick with HD. And avoid using QFHD in low light.

Monitor

Enable the Gamma Display Assist. This increases contrast when shooting SLOG, making it easier to focus. When not shooting SLOG, it is automatically disabled.

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VF/LCD Panel: I set to LCD Panel. Choosing Auto (the default) means your LCD will turn itself off and on whenever you inadvertently block the eyepiece of the viewfinder. You can then enable the viewfinder when needed by sliding the switch on the top of the LCD screen to OFF.

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Hand grip buttons

I recommend setting Button 6 to Center Crop. This will give you a fast way to reframe the shot by punching in to it for a quick closer angle. But be careful: this technique isn’t great in low light, because noise in the image is magnified.

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Picture Profiles

For well lit scenes in general, where you need to hold all the dynamic range possible, shoot SLOG 3. That’s PP 8 for daylight, and PP 9 for tungsten environments. For some reason Sony made the color temperature part of the picture profile in SLOG 3, which is weird, but whatever. Choose the 5500K or 3200K option as appropriate.

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If you’re in a mixed light environment and want to split the difference, open either picture profile and dig into the menu, and select the 4300K option.

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For lower light situations, choose a Cinegamma rather than SLOG. I recommend Cine3 or Cine4: they will require a little grading, but not much – just some contrast adjustments to make them look less flat by crushing the blacks a little. I’ve set my camera up with Cine3 on PP6 on my camera, like so:

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Gain

From the Camera menu, set up the L-M-H gain switch on the left side as follows:

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I recommend staying at or below ISO 1600 with this camera when shooting with the hypergammas. The image quality starts to degrade significantly above 3200. For best results in very low light, try PP3 (Rec 709/Pro).

When shooting in SLOG, avoid exceeding the base 3200 ISO. If you need to push beyond that, switch to a hypergamma (I recommend PP6).

Audio settings

For general run and gun shooting with a shotgun mic, I set channel 2 for the shotgun mic, and set it to level 5 manual. Channel 1 I set to the internal mic, on AUTO. Adjust the manual level as needed depending on your environment. The auto channel is a backup, that should catch any prolonged loud spikes such as if your subject starts yelling, giving you something to cut to in the edit should you need it.

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For recording interviews or woking with a boom op, leave the shotgun mic as-is on channel 2 (so you can quickly untether and shoot b-roll without having to touch the menus again) and plug in your external source via XLR cable to Input 1, being sure to set the input on the XLR jack to phantom power (for most shotgun mics) or line level (from mixer output) as necessary. Then, set CH1 Input to INPUT1. That’s it in a nutshell.

Engage the AUDIO LIMIT to help prevent clipping from sudden brief loud noises such as coughing in an interview. I leave this off when working with a  sound recordist, as limiting is better handled by the mixer.

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Tip: How to expose SLOG vs. Hypergammas

Exposing SLOG (PP 7, 8 or 9) at the Sony-recommended levels results in noisy shadows. Fixing that is easy: Overexpose your footage by 1 stop (also referred to as a one-stop pull). You will still have plenty of headroom to avoid clipping, and your shadows will be less noisy. You can even go as much as a 2-stop pull, but the image on the LCD and viewfinder will appear blown out, so you’ll need an external monitor that supports LUTs to accurately gauge your exposure.

When shooting in any of the other picture profiles, slight underexposure, by a half stop, will produce the best results, especially with skin tones.

SLOG2 or SLOG3? 

For most situations, I recommend SLOG3. SLOG2 is more difficult to grade than SLOG3. Both will give you 14 stops of dynamic range, but the response curve is different. As a result, if you’re shooting 4K in SLOG, you’ll get the most information possible in the limited 8-bits available by choosing SLOG2. If you’d like to understand why this is, along with a lot of other excellent info about shooting SLOG with this camera, check out this talk by Alister Chapman.

A quick way to start your grade with SLOG3 footage is to use a LUT. I’ve found two very good LUTs for this purpose. The first is Sony’s Alexa emulation LUT. It comes in two flavors, one- and two-stop exposure pulls. The second is a higher contrast version of the same LUT, with a one-stop pull, called AA709A, that was developed by Art Adams. I’ve packed up all three and tweaked them so they’ll work with the magnificent SmallHD 502, a monitor that preserves the form factor of the FS5 while giving you the ability to gauge SLOG exposure correctly through use of a LUT. You can download these FS5 LUTs here.

Shooting tips

It’s very useful with this camera to toggle the WHT BAL on and off when shooting in hypergamma picture profiles. This turns auto white balance on and off, and I’ve found the auto white balance feature to be very useful with the FS5. With most other cameras, I wouldn’t be caught dead using auto white balance. But Sony seems to have implemented this well, and I find it quite useful in difficult mixed lighting situations.

Use Button 5 on the hand grip for fast access to ISO, shutter speed and manual white balance.

To get a quick shot you you’d otherwise miss, just toggle on FULL AUTO on the top of the camera. The camera will take over EVERYTHING – white balance, shutter speed, ISO (and aperture if using a Sony lens). You won’t want to use these settings for long, but it’s a lifesaver in some challenging situations, such as following someone through a doorway and into a house.

Toggling any of the three ISO/GAIN, WHT BAL or SHUTTER buttons along the left bottom side of the camera enables auto for each, as well as allowing you to manually set the shutter. For manually adjusting them,  I find it’s faster to access them via Button 5 on the hand grip.

ndsetting

Set the ND FILTER to VARIABLE and ND/IRIS to ND. This allows you to steplessly control exposure with the wheel on the left side of the camera. It’s really the best way to control exposure, and the most innovative feature of this camera. Use it!

Armed with this camera and these settings, your footage is going to look amazing. Get out there and shoot something awesome.

So this is how I configure my FS5. How do you set up your yours?

How does Sony FS5 compare with Canon C100mkii?

Sony FS5: Best documentary camera ever?

Is the Sony FS5 the best documentary camera ever?

Over the past couple of years, I’ve migrated away from DSLR shooting to pretty much using the EOS c-series cameras, in particular the C100mkii, for most of the documentary-style shooting I specialize in. But a few weeks ago when the Sony FS5 began shipping, I opted to become an early adopter. The specs were just too tempting.

Last week I wrapped production on my first commercial project with the FS5. And while I have a long way to go in exploring this camera fully, I’d like to share some of what I have – and haven’t – observed so far.

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First up: I haven’t seen anything nasty in the footage, as others have reported. The only unacceptable quality I’ve seen so far is when shooting in center crop mode in low light, with the gain jacked up to 3200 ISO or higher. That produces nasty pebble-sized grain. But as long as I hang at 0db (ISO 1000 in hypergammas or ISO 3200 in slog) I find the results are spectacular. Razor sharp, crisp detail, plenty of color information to play with in 10-bit HD.

The FS5 gets noisy when pushed past 3200. In fact, I would say it’s best not to push it past 1600 ISO. And in SLOG, don’t pus it at all. It really wants a lot of light. Like one to two stops more than base ISO. So to my way of thinking, this is an ISO 1000 camera, whether you’re shooting SLOG or standard gammas. Set it in your head and forget it. And ISO 1000 is a pretty decent base ISO, isn’t it? The C100mkii’s base is 850. So we’re in the same ballpark with both cameras here. But the C100mkii can be pushed well over 3200 with great results. So Canon retains the edge for low-light shooting.

Canon color science is also more cinematic with less effort. All you have to do to get great looking footage when shooting C-log is drop on a LUT in post. The FS5, in SLOG, also requires dropping on a LUT (more about which ones in a moment). But then you have to do more work. Sometimes much more.

The good news is that the 10-bit HD footage loves to be graded! And it’s actually a lot of fun to push it around and you can do that to quite an extreme without the image falling apart. It’s definitely a different look, the Sony. I read somewhere that because Sony has a long tradition of news cameras, their look is more video than cinema. Canon, with it’s EOS C-series, is gunning squarely for cinematic results. And I have to say I prefer the Canon look. Skin tones look more alive. But it’s a subtle thing. I like the image coming out of the FS5 a lot, it’s just different from the C100mkii.

The first project I shot with the camera didn’t lend itself to shooting SLOG (as Allister Chapman has eloquently argued, SLOG isn’t good in low light) so I shot in PP6, which is Hypergamma 3/cine. No LUT required, off we go. Here’s how a few of the interview frames looked without too much grading – I just added a little Film Convert using FS7 settings:

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You can see that the last guy’s skin tones are unfortunately rather lifeless, but that’s not the camera’s fault:  I didn’t do a good enough job flagging him off from ghastly artificial light in the warehouse location where the interviews were shot, so you get a lot of that light showing up under the key.

Regarding 4K, I haven’t shot with it enough to comment. And I don’t plan to use much 4K anyway. That’s not why I bought this camera. It’s a pain in the ass to edit 4k (at least on my circa 2011 iMac) and none of my clients are asking for it. The only reason I can imagine using it regularly would be for getting two shots out of an interview, but in most cases I’d rather have the 10-bit than the 4K. Still, it’s very nice to have the option, something the C100mkii doesn’t.

Above: properly (over)exposed SLOG looks blown out on FS5’s LCD. SmallHD 502 with LUT applied fixes that.

Above: properly (over)exposed SLOG looks blown out on FS5’s LCD. SmallHD 502 with LUT applied fixes that.

In my SLOG shooting tests, I definitely find that this camera needs to be overexposed by at least one stop to keep noise down in the shadows. This makes monitoring a challenge. With the FS5, you’re stuck with just a single LCD mode that boosts the contrast to help with focus – but does nothing to reduce the overexposure. Not good enough! You really do need to shoot with a LUT when shooting SLOG.

LUTs are not supported by the FS5, however, so to use them you need a third-party monitor that supports them. I rented the SmallHD 502 on the advice of Seattle DP Gabriel Miller, and liked it so much that I bought one after using it for a single day. I wouldn’t dream of shooting without it now. It’s screen is almost as big as my DP6, but it’s tiny. A photographer friend asked me if it was my iPhone when he first saw it! And ultra lightweight. It lives on the top handle of my FS5, without compromising the compact form factor of the camera. Unlike the Atomos Ninja, which I also rented. Way too big and makes the whole thing top-heavy. No good.

So, which LUTs to use for monitoring (and post)? I’ve found two very good LUTs for this purpose. The first is the Sony Alexa emulation LUT. It comes in two flavors, one- and two-stop pushes. The second is a higher contrast version of the same LUT, with a one-stop push, called AA709A, that was developed by Art Adams. I’ve packed up all three and tweaked them so they’ll work with the SmallHD 502. You can download the FS5 LUTs here.

Next up, I’d like to talk about my favorite thing about the FS5: it’s body.

The ergonomics of the FS5 are SUPERB. It’s the first camera I’ve used in years that makes me want to shoot handheld. And I’m doing it all the time now. I’d basically forgotten that shooting handheld was even an option for me, ever since trading in my JVC HM100 for a 5dmkii. Even with the C100mkii, I find it wants to live on a monopod. But not this camera. It begs to be held in your hand, and it’s so easy to get great results with it, because it’s so light and so easy to MOVE with it. It’s changing how I think about shooting b-roll.

With both the FS5 and the C100mkii, the beauty is you can arrive on location and pull your camera out of the bag and begin shooting without building anything. But I give the FS5 the edge here, because even with my SmallHD 502 monitor attached and rotated horizontal, it measures just 10” high. That’s enabled me to turn my unused Steadicam Merlin travel bag into the perfect grag-and-go camera case for the FS5. It’s the perfect size bag to fit camera with my Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 zoom lens, with Metabones IV adapter, a shotgun mic, and 502 monitor attached. The only thing I have to do to begin shooting is rotate the monitor to the right shooting angle, and press record.

I find myself picking up the FS5 with my right hand, by reaching into the grip, squeezing it, and lifting it, one-handed. It’s so light you can do that. It just balances in your right hand like an extension of your body, freeing your left hand to focus, operate the menus, and to cradle the camera for stability. That right handle is perfectly balanced. Really, the design team at Sony deserves an award for the FS5.

lens-mount

I haven’t used the FS5 with any Sony lenses. I am using it with my Canon EF glass, using the Metabones adapter and speed booster. Unfortunately my Contax Zeiss set won’t work with speed booster, because there are elements on the lenses that protrude too far.  I haven’t been able to try out the autofocus features of the camera with Sony glass.

The nice thing about the Metabones adapters, at least the version IV one that I have, is that the firmware issues others have reported seem to be resolved. Changing the iris behaves as expected, with the aperture dial on the camera. Also, image stabilization works perfectly on Canon glass with the adapter. My go-to lens on the C100mkii has been the the Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8, and it works flawlessly on the FS5 with the Metabones adapter.

It’s also very nice to be able to punch in to center crop mode and get even more reach from the lens.  But I do find that center crop works best in plenty of light. The Clear Image Zoom feature is also handy, but in the situations I’ve tried it, I definitely noticed a drop in image quality. Not as bad as most digital zooms, but enough that I won’t plan on using it regularly. Apparently the feature works better in some situations than others, because it uses a database of images to determine what image processing to apply. This will require more testing before I determine its strengths and weaknesses.

To compare with the C100, the Sony FS5 is definitely a manual focus camera. I LOVE the autofocus on the C100mkii, and I will continue to rent the C100mkii when I have projects that need snappy autofocus such as sports shooting or other situations where I don’t have time or mental bandwidth to chase focus. However, paired with the 502, manual focusing with the FS5 is a joy.

Touching the joystick enlarges the image 4x or 8x

Touching the joystick enlarges the image 4x or 8x

Using the 502, I’m able to gauge focus on the FS5 very precisely. A quick flick of the joystick zooms me into the image to check focus while rolling, and the way SmallHD has implemented peaking on the monitor is superb. So I really don’t find I miss the C100 autofocus so far.

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I have rigged up my FS5 with a Manfrotto quick release plate, which allows me to go instantly from rails and follow focus on a tripod, to handheld configuration. The camera is so lightweight that I have to rig it up and raise the center of gravity in order for it to balance on my Vinten AS5 fluid head. But the quick release gives me the best of both worlds: super stable, controlled tripod shooting one minute, and nimble handheld the next.

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With a C100mkii, I use an external monitor mounted to an arm coming off a rail block. But with the FS5, I’m finding it most convenient to put the lightweight, compact 502 monitor right on top of the handle using a Manfrotto LCD ball head. This is a heavy ball head! It weighs as much as the monitor itself. But it’s buttery smooth in its operation, almost effortless to adjust, unlike the cheaper, lightweight ball heads. These have to be cranked down so hard it hurts your thumb, and they work loose and sometimes fall off. So it’s worth every penny and every ounce to get the Manfrotto. It’s the right tool for the job.

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I find myself shooting with both the LCD and the 502, keeping the menu display active on the LCD, and the 502 clear of menus so I can focus and frame without any distraction. With the latest firmware, you now have the option to send the menu display to the external monitor, should you wish, as you can on the C100mkii. But the C100mkii’s monitor is in a much more awkward place than the FS5, which is completely configurable however you like it, and depending on your shooting situation. But the EVF on the C100mkii is superior to the FS5s, which feels just adequate.

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It makes sense to have everything as light as possible with this camera, and to that end, I purchased a very thin, very flexible thin gauge 24” SDI cable that SmallHD makes. It works amazing. This little guy is what you want for monitoring. HDMI cables don’t cut it! I’m SO very glad that FS5 includes an SDI out, something the Canon C100mkii does not. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cursed the C100mkii when the signal drops out momentarily to my external monitor because I simply touched the HDMI cable. So yay for no more HDMI cables. And with the SmallHD SDI cable, you get the same thin flexibility as a thin HDMI cable. Yay!

 

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Another neat trick with the FS5 is to get Swit S-8U63 batteries that include a d-tap. I picked up 3 of these, which aren’t cheap at $180 apiece. But three batteries is enough for me to shoot all day. I get about 2.5 hours shooting time per battery while also powering the SmallHD 502. Also great news is that with the Sony FS5 charger, these batteries go from empty to fully charged in less than an hour. *UPDATE:  A reader commented that these batteries occasionally reset the camera clock on the FS5. This is something I’ve observed, but didn’t know it was the fault of the battery. So if you rely on accurate timecode for your projects, you should avoid Swit batteries for now, and choose Sony’s OEM batteries instead.

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The ND wheel that allows you to smoothly and steplessly adjust the ND to control exposure is the killer feature of this camera. I can’t overstate how epic this is. Finally, a tool to control exposure without stepping the iris and changing depth of field! It’s the best thing ever for documentary style shooters. Goodbye, matte box. I don’t know if I can shoot anything else again after using this. And apparently Sony is going to release a firmware update that allows this to be set to an auto mode, which will automatically set the correct exposure using only this ND. How cool is that?

The slow motion features are fantastic, but I haven’t had a chance to use them much yet, so I won’t comment on that other than to say it gives me great pleasure to know that 240fps in full 10-bit HD is  just a button push away when I want it.

To sum up, I love this camera for it’s body. Does that make me shallow? I don’t think so. This camera has taught me that form IS function.  I’ll continue to admire the C100mkii for its look, for its autofocus and low light capabilities.  But for now I’m going steady with the FS5.

Why do I love Zeiss prime lenses so much?

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Why do I love my Contax Zeiss primes so much? I prefer them over Canon zooms just about any day. At least, any day I have time to change lenses between setups. Consider the following two frame grabs of my coffee mug…

Contax Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 @ f/2

Contax Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 @ f/2

Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 2.8

Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 2.8

Besides being faster (enabling me to shoot the first frame at ISO 1000 and requiring the second one to be shot at ISO 1600), the Zeiss has a dreaminess to it. And that bokeh with it’s hooked aperture blades? Pure magic. The Canon has a little higher contrast both in color and luma. But I would call that “clinical sharpness.”

Nevertheless, if you see me rolling handheld you’ll probably see me rocking a Canon zoom, for one reason: the ability to keep shooting without having to change lenses all the time is priceless for documentary work. Not to mention that you can do with a single zoom what you’d need a whole Pelican case full of fixed lens glass to do.

But if I’ve got the time, don’t get between me and my primes!

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How has 6 years changed cameras?

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Six years ago this month, my journey into documentary filmmaking began with the purchase of my first video camera, a JVC HM100. I loved that camera: it fit perfectly in my hand, used inexpensive SD cards, had built-in ND filters, and great audio capabilities. But its 1/4″ CCD sensor left me wanting more.

I used a rented Red One to shoot part of my first film. Since then I’ve used many cameras. I shot a feature length doc with a pair of Canon 60Ds, captured slo-mo with the FS700, and fell in love with the Canon 5dmkiii for its full frame, shallow focus look. Recently I’ve come to prefer the super 35 Canon C100mkii for it’s ergonomics, autofocus and color rendering. But none of them fit as nicely into my hand as that first camera.

This December, I am putting my end-of-year money on the Sony FS5. I’ll have plenty to say about this camera shortly. But as I await delivery today, I’m reflecting on how far cameras have come in six years.

In terms of image specs, the FS5 isn’t THAT big of a leap. Six years ago, there was a super 35 digital camera that could shoot video in 4K, at slow frame rates (albeit only 120fps). It was called the Red One. It boasted 11 stops of dynamic range, weighed a ton, and cost $17,500 (body only).

Six years ago, Red was roiling the market with big promises of “4K for $4K.” That never happened. Six years later, 4K is really an option. We have many cameras, most notably DSLRs from Sony, that can do 4K for considerably less than $4K. But I’ve learned over the years that a DSLR is an awkward choice for filmmakers. We need ND filters, audio options, and much more that has to be bolted on to DSLRs. Nevertheless, after 6 years of waiting and jerry rigging, we finally have a camera equal or superior to the Red One (including raw output coming in a future upgrade), that fits in your hand, for less than $6K. Amazing.

First observation: Good cameras still ain’t cheap. Six grand (the cost of the FS5 with an extra battery and EF lens adapter) is a lot less than $17,500, but it’s still a serious chunk of change. It’s almost twice the price I was willing to pay 6 years ago for my  JVC-HM100. And given the ease of renting through sites like lensrentals.com, $6K is on the outside of what I would consider spending to own any camera.

Camera sensors are currently evolving at the pace of Moore’s Law, so it’s a sure bet that, two years from now there will be another, better camera. However, I can sell my FS5 in two years for at least half of what I bought it for today. And in the mean time, I’ll be making money with it. So it definitely makes sense for me to own it at this price.

Apart from price, the biggest change is that today, small can be good. This is a really big deal. It’s not just a question of convenience. For me, it’s the difference between doing and dreaming. I can rig up my 5dmkiii into a very capable camera capable of shooting amazing, 12-stops dynamic range raw HD video (with Magic Lantern). That’s the combination I used to shoot Pearl, which won best foreign short at Milan this fall. But shooting with a DSLR is a pain in the ass. After making that film, I gravitated toward the C100, which doesn’t have to be rigged up: you just turn the camera on and start shooting.

So why am I not purchasing a C100mkii this year? The two things I most love about this camera – autofocus and color – are awesome. I have no doubt I’m going to miss them on the FS5, which requires a lot of work in post to get good results from the SLOG footage, and has mediocre autofocus. Even the fact that the C100 is 8-bit, and the FS5 is 10-bit in HD, doesn’t make that much difference. In my experience, 8-bit color from a C100 looks every bit as good as 10-bit from a Sony. For me the big thing is dynamic range.

Compared with 6 years ago, camera dynamic range is much improved today. The FS5 has seduced me by promising to give me almost everything I want in terms of image quality and features, in a camera I can fit into my hand, that has 14 stops of dynamic range. Fourteen stops! A documentary filmmaker can never have too much dynamic range.

I’m also seduced by the ability to shoot 4K, even though I doubt I’ll use it much because it slows down my edit. But there are situations, for example shooting an interview, where 4K will allow resizing the shot in post in to pull a closeup from a medium shot, effectively giving me a two-camera shoot from a single camera. I want in on that.

SD cards are still king. When I bought my first camera six years ago, a big selling point was that I could use small, affordable SD cards rather than being forced to buy something expensive and proprietary like P2 cards or red min-mags. While the competition seems to be moving toward expensive CFast cards, Sony releases a fully-speced camera that uses cheap, widely available media. I love that.

I’m looking forward to hand holding again. The C100 is ergonomically great, but it wants to be on a monopod. The soul of shooting for me is handheld. And I look forward to finding that soul with the FS5.

 

Lumu Power turns your iPhone into a color meter for $200

This is exciting: a $200 device that turns your iPhone into a color-temperature meter. The closest thing to this is the Sekonic SpectroMaster C‑700R, but that will set you back $1,700.

I’m not the only person who was excited about it: their Kickstarter campaign was funded in just 3 hours today.

The Lumu Power will be very useful in matching a fill light to ambient lighting conditions, for example. Or matching two LED lights, or just for figuring out what color temp the light is under any situation.

Behind the scenes with Megan’s Story

Megan’s Story, a narrative-style doc about a young woman’s recovery from traumatic brain injury, is a fundraising film I recently completed for the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington. Choosing to use narrative techniques to tell a documentary story changed the way I approached the filmmaking. Here’s what was happening behind the scenes.

For a typical documentary, my approach is interview and shoot b-roll (often on same day) then assemble the edit. My process in making Megan’s Story was slightly different:

  1. Interview first.
  2. Make story cut (no b-roll).
  3. Decide what scenes needed to be shot, and write shot list.
  4. Schedule and shoot them.
  5. Assemble the edit.

The nice thing about using this approach is that if the interview goes poorly, or doesn’t lead to lots of scene possibilities, you have an easy out. You haven’t invested a ton of time shooting yet. In this way, you can use the interview as a proof of concept.  If it goes well, it forms the spine of your story and you move to the next step of production.

Gear used:

Use of color
I set the white balance on the camera to tungsten and below (down to 2000K) to get the blue-green cast. I chose this color to represent her internal state after the accident.

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Shot with Lensbaby

Lenses
Inspired by The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I wanted to use distorted glass on this project to represent how it felt to be Megan. The Lensbaby Composer really does a wonderful job of throwing most everything in the frame out of focus, but preserves your ability to focus attention on one part of the frame. While I could have achieved something similar in post (and in fact the shot of Megan driving was tweaked this way) I like the control it gives you on the fly. And there’s something wonderful about committing to a shot in the moment.

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Macro shot with Canon L 100mm f/2.8 IS lens

I also used two other lenses on the film: a Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 zoom, and Canon 100mm macro f/2.8.

Primary Camera
The C100mkii continues to be my go-to camera for so many reasons: It’s ergonomically awesome, great in low light, color grading is easy, and autofocus just works.

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Osmo makes traveling shots easy

Introducing the DJI OSMO
This was my first opportunity to use the DJI Osmo. I’m really excited about this camera! Don’t let it’s cuteness fool you: it’s much more than a toy. It’s tiny, sets up fast, and slashes the distance between imagining a shot and getting it. And the fully manual options and rectilinear lens blow doors off GoPro. At present it’s got a major issue, though: the horizon drifts away from level.  DJI provides a gimbal setting that allows you to manually level the horizon, but it requires constant fiddling. My solution was to shoot 4K and frame loose, and straighten the horizon in post. I hope this problem is fixable with a firmware update.

Another bummer about the Osmo is that the X3 lens is way too wide for shooting people up close. The traveling shot in which Megan flashes a smile as she approaches her desk is marred by the fact that her face is distorted by the wide angle (the equivalent of 20mm lens in full frame terms). The forthcoming X5 camera for Osmo will solve all of this, allowing the use of M43 lenses.

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Rhino slider shot

Slider
I recently retired my dented Glidetrack Pro and picked up a Rhino EVO Carbon slider, after playing with the display model at Glazers Camera in Seattle. Moves are buttery smooth with the flywheel, an essential accessory. I have the 24″ model and am very impressed with it’s portability and consistently glacial moves. I’ll post a full review one of these days, but suffice to say I’m delighted with it.

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Backligting courtesy of LiteGear’s LiteMat2

Lighting
Most of this film was shot with available light. I wanted a gritty feel so that was an intentional choice. In fact, I used only one light in just two scenes: the interview was keyed with my LiteMat2, and the shot in which Megan cries while contemplating suicide (above) is naturally backlit, with some help from LiteMat2.

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Eye contact maintained using EyeDirect

EyeDirect
The EyeDirect device makes it easy to maintain eye contact with your subject during the interview.  Your subject sees an image of you reflected in a mirror over the lens. This increases the intimacy of the interview. I rented mine from Victory Studios here in Seattle.

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Improvised dolly shot using Multicart

Multicart as dolly
My Multicart is indispensable. It does the hard work of transporting equipment, and, it doubles as a dolly. In the grocery store shot above, I’m perched on a couple of pelican cases stacked on the cart, camera in my lap on a bean bag, while my assistant Sean McGrath pulls the cart down the aisle. I could have shot this with the Osmo, but it wouldn’t have had the Lensbaby look. So I reserved all the Osmo shots for the last part of the film, where the crisp 4K image and deep depth of field was a good match for her emotional state.

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Music: All of the tracks for this story were licensed through Audionetwork.com. They have a great deal – unlimited use of tracks in any one video for $395. I used 5 different tracks in this video.

One last thing worth mentioning: the opening shot was something I got a few years ago. I was on a flight and noticed the rare shadow outside my window seat as we decended to land, so I grabbed my point-and-shoot Sony and rolled on it. Even though the resolution isn’t very good, it’s still an amazing visual. And as Werner Herzog once said, “Good footage always cuts.”

10 tips for shooting a documentary film using fiction filmmaking techniques

“If you want to make a documentary you should automatically go to the fiction, and if you want to nourish your fiction you have to come back to reality.” ―Jean-Luc Godard

Too often, we documentary filmmakers confuse patience with preparation.  After a long day of shooting, it’s easy to excuse unrewarding results by saying “that’s just what happened.” But for many documentaries, especially paid commercial work, patience is not a virtue. And if you’re tackling a film about a story that happened yesterday, you may have very little to work with today.

This is the dilemma I faced recently when the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington asked if I could make a short doc to help them raise more money at their annual fundraiser. I said yes – if we could find a good story. But all of the stories they suggested had already happened. From a documentary perspective, they were weak (the strongest docs, in my opinion, tell stories that are in progress, with uncertain outcomes that will be unfold during the filmmaking). By shifting our approach to include fictional techniques, a world of possibility opened up (see the results, above).

Tackling a documentary story with narrative filmmaking techniques requires a different mindset. In a sentence, it means being less reactive, and more proactive. Here are 10 tips that will help shift your thinking.

Story is king but casting is queen. If you’re doing recreations, your character must be able to act. The good news is you’re asking them to play someone they know very well – themselves! But don’t make any assumptions about their abilities. Make picking the right character an integral part of picking the right story: and don’t choose one without the other. Sometimes just interviewing the talent (your story’s character) is enough for you to get a sense of it. Other times you’ll want to ask them to relive a scene for you in advance. If your gut tells you they aren’t up to it, get used to politely saying no. Otherwise, story will suffer. And you never want to disappoint the king!

Make shot lists. I do this for documentary shoots too, but it’s even more important when going narrative. Just a simple Google docs shotlist template works fine. The stress of getting everything you need during a narrative style production makes it very easy to forget something if you don’t have it on paper. On every shoot, I reach a point where I can’t think any more. So I  reach for my shot list and keep going until everything is crossed out.

Scout the location. Seeing a location will give you a lot of ideas. And, it’ll help you plan what equipment you’ll need on the day. Think about the light – where is it coming from? Will it be the same or different? Take advantage of natural light in the same way you would on a documentary shoot: use windows, skylights, and practical lights to the fullest. Think as much about where should take light away as where you should add it.

Ask for permission. In documentary, we have a saying: it’s better to ask for forgiveness than  for permission. But when you’re upping your game to narrative-style production, even small-scale stuff, a little permission can go a long way. In this film, we probably could have grabbed the grocery store scene with Megan without permission. But I wanted to dolly down the isle, so that she seemed to be getting smaller in the shot, with the shelves closing in on her. So guerrilla tactics were out. Getting a yes from a large grocery would be tough, but I figured asking an independently owned neighborhood grocery would be much easier. It was. My neighborhood grocery, Markettime, let us shoot at 6pm even though it was a busy time for them. We told them we’d be in and out in 15 minutes, and we were.

Previsualize your shots. Story boards aren’t my thing. But I definitely spend the time to have  every shot loaded into my head BEFORE I get on set. On the day, everyone around you will have an opinion about what you’re doing. The only way you’ll know whether those opinions are valuable or distracting is if you already have a clear idea of what you want to achieve. In practice, I almost always end up doing something different than I imagined. But under the narrative pressures of time, talent and location, if a shot doesn’t start in your head, you’re dead.

Keep it simple. If you’re coming from a documentary background, narrative filmmaking can get overwhelming very fast. Don’t let it. Keep your crew small, and your gear minimal. Not sure whether you’ll need a jib? Skip it. I used a crew of just two people for many of the scenes in this film – one assistant and myself. I direct, and operate the camera, while my assistant carries gear, pushes a makeshift dolly, and even acts as an extra when needed. But there’s one thing you should never scrimp on…

Dedicate to sound. On scenes with audio, bring a sound recordist. Your on-camera mic may squeak by in the documentary world, but it won’t cut it for narrative. You don’t necessarily need a professional sound recordist (though I recommend it). But you do need someone whose sole job is getting the mic close to your talent as possible, and monitoring the results. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when it comes time for the painstaking ADR (auto dialog replacement).

Bring clothing changes. As documentarians we’re used to shooting people wearing just about anything (or nothing). But with narrative, if you’re staging more than once scene, your talent will almost certainly need more than one set of clothing. It’s easy to overlook this one, as you fuss over shot lists, lighting, etc. But remember that a fresh set of clothes is as essential as a fresh SD card when you’re shooting narrative.

Be thoughtful. If it’s raining, would you want to lay down on the hood of a car for that shot you’ve been planning? Your talent probably doesn’t want to, either. Also, for difficult shots, trust that you got the shot on the first take (but don’t move on until you do). Be respectful. Don’t work them too hard. Take time for lunch. Better yet, buy them lunch.

Be clear. Clarity builds trust. Tell your talent specifically what you want them to do, to the best of your ability. If they don’t succeed after a few takes, suggest something else, rather than repeating something that’s not working over and over again. For the scene in which Megan is contemplating suicide, I asked her to relive that moment, and asked her to cry.  It was so dark filming that scene that I couldn’t see whether she had shed any tears until I saw them in the edit. But I could feel the emotion. So we only shot it once. See item #1.

Overlap the action. If you’re wondering whether two shots will cut together, direct your talent to perform an action: sitting down, for example. Near the end of this film, for example, Megan walks to her desk and sits. Notice how I cut on her sitting. That’s the trick to believable edits: cut on the action. Film until the action is complete, and then pick up the shot with the next angle just before the action, allowing it to play out and continue.

Watch your talent’s eyeline. Where your talent is looking gets very important in narrative cutting. So, pay close attention to which direction your talent is looking in shot A, and direct them to look the same direction in shot B, in order for it to cut. In the grocery store scene, notice how Megan is looking camera-right in her shot A closeup, and the same direction in the shot B wide that follows it. Bonus: direct your talent to change where they are looking in both shot A and shot B, and overlap the shots. The moment your talent changes her look becomes your cut point.

When in doubt, shorten. If your talent sounds like she’s reading her lines, try breaking them apart. Break paragraphs into sentences. Break sentences into smaller sentences. This works especially well for voiceover. Megan’s first line in this film was broken down this way.

 

Lighting and shooting Baked, a cannabis cooking show

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I like to cook. But shooting a cooking show? It’s never been on my must-do list. However, when Pearl producer Heather Olson emailed me a few weeks ago asking if I were interested in DPing a web series about cooking with cannabis, I was intrigued. Legal marijuana is, after all, the fastest-growing industry in the country.  When I learned the proposed show would be hosted by an 84-year-old grandmother, I was in.

The challenge: small space, white walls. The location was an AirBNB rental, a garage that had been converted into a two-story house. It was cramped. And white walls are a terrible color because the brightest object in any frame gets our attention. And usually you want that to be the actors, not the background.

LOCATION SCOUTING PHOTOS
kitchen overview a-cam

The second photo makes the space look MUCH larger than it really is. But it also reveals the challenge: no way to get lights on the camera-right side of the kitchen. I decided to go with a big, soft source on camera left, an active fill next to camera on left side, and just let the white walls take care of the rest.

Working with gaffer Vince Klimek was a treat. He didn’t talk much, and didn’t have any help. He just backed his 3-ton grip truck as close as he could to the location, and started slinging stands, cables and lights. I wish I could work with a gaffer like him more often.

I told him the vibe I was going for – big soft side light, filled on the same side, using the white walls of the space as natural bounce to do the rest of the job. He bounced an Arri M8 hmi into the camera-left wall, further diffusing it through an 8×8 light grid cloth. Then he put a Kino 2×4 close to camera, high on left side, to wrap the key light. There wasn’t any room to place back lights, so we skipped that.

To illuminate the window, he used an Arrisun hmi to brighten the greenery outside the window, and to spill a sliver of sunlight into the background window frame. He spotted a Joleko hmi into the wall behind my camera-left side, to bring up general ambience. Finally, Vince came up with the idea of putting a little light into the alcove under the microwave,  using Light Gear LiteRibbon. And with that, we were ready to shoot.

The fully lit set from A-camera

The fully lit set 

Camera department

We went with a pair of Sony FS7 cameras for this gig, primarily because our second shooter, Chris McElroy, owned one and we wanted the cameras to match. Certainly, the FS7 is a very capable 4K camera, especially when paired, as we did, with the Odyssey7Q+ recorder/monitor. Shooting 4K gave us the option to get two shots from the A-camera: a wide shot establishing the kitchen, and a medium shot for cut-in to the talent.

We used Canon-L glass for the shoot, with Metabones adapters. For A-cam we shot with my Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 EF-S zoom, which was a perfect range. Chris mostly shot with a Canon L-series 24-70 f/2.8 zoom, which equated to 36mm – 105mm in full frame terms, perfect for grabbing detail shots off his shoulder-mounted camera, which was positioned at a 3/4 angle near the edge of the counter on camera left.

The Odyssey has an excellent set of LUTs for the FS7, including two that provide exposure compensation. I chose to rate the cameras at ISO 1000, a stop below the camera’s base ISO of 2000. This pull reduces noise in the image overall, particularly in shadows. So I selected the SONY_EE_SL3C_L709A-1.cube LUT, which mimics the low-contrast look of the Alexa, and provides a stop of exposure compensation. Rating the cameras at ISO 1000 gave me f/4 with our lighting setup, which provided enough depth of field to make nailing focus easy, while giving us a little separation from the background.

To get the LUT into the viewfinder required loading it via the SD card slot, and importing it via the file menu as an MLUT. With that step complete, the viewfinder image exactly matched the LUT’ed image on the Odyssey. Here’s a great LUT tutorial for the FS7 that taught me everything I need to know about shooting in Cine EI mode.

I rented a couple of XDCA units so that we could get a raw feed over SDI for the Odysseys. In my testing, this worked great. But we hit a major snag on the day, when it turned out that Chris hadn’t purchased the raw option, which costs an extra $1000, for his Odyssey. So we had to  remove the XDCA and send a 4K signal from his HDMI into his Odyssey’s HDMI-in. Simple, right? But there was just one problem: The monitor LUT stopped working, which was kind of a big deal, because he would be shooting off his shoulder most of the day, making it tough for him to focus and judge exposure, with everything a stop overexposed.

I later learned that sending a 4K stream out of the FS7’s HDMI disables viewfinder MLUTs. Always something with cameras.

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Chris with his FS7 rigged to send 4K over HDMI to Odyssey, which was located in video village.

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Our small video village setup allowed director to monitor the shots

Our small video village setup allowed director to monitor the shots

A much more serious problem with sending HDMI to the Odyssey is that HDMI cables tend to work their way loose from the camera accidentally, and this can cause all kinds of problems when you’re recording the signal downstream. So we had to closely monitor that. To make a long story short, next time we’ll definitely be paying the $99 daily rental fee to get raw over SDI into the Odyssey.

Patsy gets ready to roll

Patsy gets ready to roll on set of Baked

The plan with this show is to use the pilot to attract sponsors from local cannabis shops. Interested in supporting the show? Here’s your chance.

With funding in place, the plan is to rent a location for a week and shoot as many episodes as possible. I’m looking forward to taking everything to the next level when that happens, and helping to introduce the joys of cooking with cannabis to a mainstream audience.

Portabrace Pro Spotlight features Dan McComb and my favorite tripod bag

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Well isn’t this nice. Thank you Portabrace.

They really do make exceptionally high quality bags, and no, they didn’t pay me to say that. I searched for a long time to find a tripod bag that was light enough to sling over my shoulder on location, big enough to hold a light stand or two, and heavy-duty enough for checked luggage at the airport.

When I found the TLQB-39XT Quick Tripod Case, my search was over. It’s carried my Vinten and Miller tripods with me on every assignment for the past two years, and it’s proven it’s worth time and time again. A good tripod is the foundation of any cinematographer’s arsenal, and a good tripod deserves a good bag.

If you look closely in the photo you’ll notice that there’s actually two bags. The second one is my LPB-LED2 Carrying Case for Multiple Lite Panels 1X1 which I use to pack my LED panels with me on location. It’s small enough to take as carry-on during a flight, with plenty of room for everything you need: light stand, power cord, v-mount battery, etc.

Life is a Concussion Sport

Here’s a new piece I made for UW Medicine that helped this outstanding program raise $2 million at their fundraiser on Saturday night. Thanks to their efforts, the world is a little bit safer place for young athletes who play contact sports.