Behind the scenes on “a lifeline to mental health”

I just finished another film using my never shoot interviews approach.

You’ll notice there are no talking heads in this story. There IS an interview, of course, but it was recorded with a microphone, not a camera. This allowed me to break production into two parts – story development, and video production. 

I interviewed the subject first, using just a microphone. This keeps production costs low, and allows the interview to double as casting, to be sure that the subject is the right one to pull off the story. In this case, she nailed it, so we moved on to the next step, the radio edit.

In this step, I cut a story, complete with music, with the goal of making something that could air on the radio, complete with music and pacing. We haven’t even shot video yet. I submit this to client for approval.

By eliminating video, the client is forced to focus exclusively on the story, not how somebody’s hair looks. Changes they make at this stage are very easy to make, because there’s no video to screw up – you haven’t shot any yet.

Once you get approval, you schedule the shoot. At this point, you have the story in your head, and you know exactly what you need to shoot. This makes your shoot go much smoother and more quickly than if you are covering your butt because you don’t know what the story is going to be.

When you’ve wrapped, you move to rough cut. And now, the rough cut comes together really quickly. You’re already more than half done when you start, with the spine of your story already in your timeline.

If your client is an organization that has a lot of brass in the approval chain, this two-stage approach to story development has major benefits. By introducing the stakeholders to your story gently, first with the radio edit and then with the video, it removes the shock that clients always have when a rough cut lands on their desk. Because they’ve already approved the radio edit, when they see the rough cut, it’s like seeing an old friend wearing a different outfit. They will have some comments about the pants or the shirt, but they like what’s underneath it.

This approach paves the way for an easy approval process, makes the job easier every step of the way, and ultimately, makes clients happier.

Metabones Cine adapters bring iron grip to EF glass

Metabones Cine Adapter

Metabones Cine Adapter on Sony FS5

When I heard about the new Metabones cine adapters, I got a little excited. I bought the original Metabones adapters for the same reasons many cinematographers do: they allow me to use Canon EF lenses on a Sony video camera. And they have worked well, except for one thing: they are wiggly. I’m too poor to shoot regularly with PL glass, so until now I’ve had to just deal with this limitation. So when I heard about the new Metabones cine adapters, I was eager to find out whether the new adapter was a PL mount for the rest of us.

But first, let’s understand the problem. The original Metabones adapters always added some play between the Sony lens mount and the EF lens. So when you grab the lens to focus or zoom it, this causes a bit of movement caused by rotation of the lens in the adapter, and potentially, from the adapter itself rotating on the other end, in the Sony mount.

This may not seem like a big deal, but it means that the beginning of each focus pull or zoom isn’t solid in the frame. If you’re trying to focus while shooting – a common scenario – this means a few frames at the beginning of the focus pull aren’t usable, because of this unwanted lens movement. Image stabilization helps, but doesn’t completely eliminate the problem.

Medium shot of metabones cine adapter

PL-mount style lens support

Enter the Metabones Canon EF/EF-S Lens to Sony E Mount T CINE Smart Adapter (Fifth Generation).  This is a much beefier device that holds your still lenses in the same iron grip as a PL mount adapter holds a cine lens. And after using them for a few weeks, I can cut to the chase and say, without reservation, that they are amazing. They truly represent a massive improvement. But they take a little getting used to. 

Lenses are mounted by rotating the ring around the lens, without rotating the lens

Lenses are mounted by rotating the ring around the lens, without rotating the lens

Lens changes are different with Metabones Cine adapters

Cine Speedbooster

Cine-style Speedbooster

Instead of twisting the the lens into place, you simply place the lens into the collar, check to be sure it’s seated properly, and then rotate the ring of the adapter to lock it into place. This is a little strange at first, because twisting a lens into it’s mount is basically muscle memory for most camera people who come from a still photography background, like me.

You also have to be a little careful how far you rotate the collar. On newer Canon glass, I’ve found you can rotate all the way, just twist until it stops, and you’re good. But with older lenses such as my Zeiss CY glass with Leitax adapters, it’s important to just rotate until it feels secure, and stop before it’s too tight. Otherwise you can over tighten them and could possibly damage the electronic contacts on the cine adapter.

Metabones also makes a Speedbooster version of the cine adapter, the Canon EF Lens to Sony E Mount T CINE Speed Booster ULTRA 0.71x (Fifth Generation). After renting it on one shoot, I plan to sell my existing Speedbooster and upgrade to the Cine version.

The rod support eliminates all wiggle between the adapter and the camera mount for longer lenses

The Metabones rod support eliminates all wiggle between the adapter and the camera mount for longer lenses

Metabones rod support for longer lenses

If you’re pulling focus with anything longer than 100mm, the weak link in terms of lens wiggle becomes the Sony mount itself. To solve for this, Metabones has developed a clever solution, the 15mm Rod Lens Adapter Support. This thing is amazing. It is designed specifically to grip the bottom of Metabones adapters, and will work with both Cine and older adapter versions. It locks shit down, completely eliminating any lens movement between the camera and the adapter. Further, you can swap adapters relatively quickly, using several knobs. 

There are two minor downsides to using the Metabones adapter support.  First, it’s quite heavy. This is great for dampening vibration and for grip, but not so great if you want to have a light run-n-gun rig. Although personally, I’ll trade the bit of extra weight for the extra support in a heartbeat. Secondly, clamping the support to the rods squeezes the rods apart a little, making it tougher to fit another rod-mounted accessory, in my case a follow focus unit, to the same rods. You can do it, but you have to muscle it.

Size comparison of Metabones adapter and support cases

Size comparison of Metabones adapter and support cases

Larger adapters = larger cases

Metabones adapters come with nice plastic cases. The Cine adapters are substantially larger than the previous versions, and come with larger cases as a result. The adapter support comes with an even bigger plastic case, too big to transport easily in my camera case. But the adapter support is made out of solid metal, so I don’t find it needs to be transported in a case anyway. 

Now that I’ve gotten used to the Metabones Cine adapters, I can’t imagine using Canon EF lenses on my Sony FS5 without them. The Metabones Cine-style adapters bring all of the advantages of PL mount lenses to EF lens owners. For that, they’ve earned a permanent place on the front of my Sony camera. And I’m glad to see that both Canon and Sony appear to be moving toward making cameras with positive locking mounts built in, like the Sony FS5 mkII. Until all cameras are built that way, the Metabones Cine adapters are a brilliant solution.

Lumu Power: simple, elegant, shipping

Lumu Power light meter

Lumu Power light meter

When Lumu Power launched their Kickstarter campaign for a light meter of the future in late 2015, the idea of a hardware-based iPhone color meter was pretty revolutionary. Sure, there are plenty of “ballpark” software based meters for iPhone, but a serious light meter that accurately measure color temperature? For that you need hardware that’s a little beyond of my pay grade. And even if I could afford it, do I really need one more gadget?

But the promise of a fully loaded color meter in a tiny hemisphere, for a couple hundred bucks, felt like a breakthrough. A total of 1,705 backers pledged $318,877 to make it happen, and I was one of them. A year and a half later, the Lumu Power is a reality. That’s a long wait, for sure. Was it worth it?

open screenTurn it on

To turn on the Lumi Power, plug it into your iPhone. A second later, a screen automatically comes up announcing that it’s connected. Swipe right on that, and the app opens. Rotate the phone so that the Lumu Power is on top, and you’re good to go.

The interface is simple as can be – a list of text options that give you just about everything you could want to know about the light you are working with.

  1. lumu power menuIlluminance. How bright is the light hitting the flat side of the hemisphere? Options are foot candles or Lux. You can also optionally display how far under or over the result is from the correct EV.
  2. Photo Ambient. Traditional ambient light meter mode. Using hemisphere side, displays aperture, shutter and ISO values. You can enter aperture and ISO values. You can also change the default 1/3 stop increments to 1/2 or 1 EV values, change the max. lens aperture, and the ISO values.
  3. Photo Spot Metering. Using the iPhone’s camera, you can set a spot point in the image from which the reflectance exposure is metered. Results are displayed below the frame in real time.
  4. Cine/Video. Using the dome side, the Cine mode allows you to set FPS or shutter angle, and exposure in whatever increments you desire (1/48th or 1/50th of a second, for example).
  5. Photo/Flash. Using the dome side, you can measure flash just as you would with a traditional flash meter. Press the Start button to arm, and Stop to disarm. Once armed, you trigger the strobe to take a reading.
  6. Color Temperature. The flat side of the dome measures color temperature in degrees Kelvin, and also displays any green or magenta shift present.
  7. Chromacity: The flat side gives you a CIE1931 color space map, with the location of your reading on the map, as well as Due, CCT and Lux values.

Lumu color mode

Raise your lighting IQ

I don’t know about you, but I’m always location scouting. I collect scenes in my head. If I’m in a restaurant, for example, I wonder how bright it is, what the color temp is, and what it might be like to shoot there. But until now, this work was entirely mental, and subjective. I could snap a photo of a scene, but I could only guess at how bright it was or the color temperature. With the Lumu Power, it becomes possible to do both. And Lumu Power has a killer tool to keep track of your settings, called Notes.

Notes screen

If you are connected to the net, you have the ability to store a lat-long location, which can be displayed as a map.

Notes save your readings

There is a pencil icon in the lower right corner of the screen in all modes. Click it to unlock one of the most powerful features of the Lumu Power: the ability to store meter readings along with a still photo. For location scouting, this is incredibly useful. Now, along with location snaps, you can save color-accurate meter readings. This is huge.

Notes saves your readings

chromacity

Annoyances

The Lumu Power occasionally appears to forget what mode it’s in. Instead of the full option menu appearing, only the mode you are currently in will appear. To get the menu back requires unplugging the Lumi Power.

Also, it’s a good idea to set your phone to not go to sleep as frequently as usual when using the Lumu Power. Otherwise, you’ll constantly have to dismiss the open screen.

These are minor annoyances if you’re only using the Lumu Power for occasional readings, but if you’re a light meter power user, you may find them frustrating enough to send you back to your traditional meter.

Carrying tip

Zak low-profile keychainIncluded with your purchase is a small leather case for carrying the Lumu Power. However, the slots are too small to accommodate a typical belt. They are, however, a perfect fit for a Zak Tools Low Profile Key Ring Holder which costs less than $6. This makes it easy to adapt the case to any belt up to 2.5″ wide. I typically wear an AC pouch when I’m shooting, and the Zak holder clips perfectly into my AC pouch, putting Lumu Power within easy reach whenever I need it on a shoot.

What could be improved

There’s currently no way to calculate CRI or TLCI, which is something I would love to have for appraising the quality of LED lighting. Is that something that could be added with a software update to the iPhone app? That’s an update I’d be willing to pay for.

Ergonomically, I find it awkward to hold the phone straight up and down to take readings. So the ability to tilt the Lumu Power up to 45 degrees on it’s lightning connector would be sweet. Further, I find myself frequently having to unplug and rotate the Lumu to switch between Cine and Color Temp mode. If the hemisphere could rotate, it would be a real timesaver.  However, adding that might mess up the elegant simplicity of the design. And I’d hate to see that happen.

Conclusion

The essence of Lumu Power is its ability to instantly become the color meter you always have with you. It’s like having a tiny bionic eye for your iPhone. And it’s a great tool to open your own eyes to see and understand the light falling all around you, every day.

Sound Devices MixPre-3 first impressions

MixPre-3 sound bag

MixPre-3 at home in my sound bag

When the Sound Devices MixPre-3 announcement dropped at NAB 2017, I got excited. For years I’ve been dreaming about a device as small as my original MixPre, but with built-in recorders. Could this be it? I hit the pre-order button but didn’t expect to actually hold one in my hands until summer, despite Sound Devices promising delivery before the end of the month. So when this box from B&H arrived with a couple of days to spare, I was thrilled:

MixPre-3 in box

MixPre-3 in box

First impression: Sound Devices delivers on time.

Next impression: This recorder is tiny. About the size of a sandwich:

The MixPre-3 is tiny.

The MixPre-3 is tiny.

Included is a Y cable that allows you to use the MixPre-3 as an audio interface while also powering the unit when attached to two USB-A ports. You also get two stickers – one “Sound Devices” logo and one that says “Video Devices.”

battery warningPowering the MixPre-3

I had previously ordered a USB-C to USB-A cable for powering the device, so I plugged that into my Energizer XP1800A and turned on the MixPre-3. I was greeted with this screen (see right):

Huh? The battery was fully charged. My first thought was that there was some sort of incompatibility with the current supplied by the Energizer. But it had worked just fine with my first-gen MixPre, so I figured something else must be going on. I pressed the Yes button, thinking that meant it would try to use the external battery. Instead it switched to the internal batteries. So I restarted, and this time when the screen came up I hit “No.” The result was that the screen slightly dimmed, but everything seemed to work fine.

MixPre-3 powered by USB-C to USB-A

MixPre-3 powered by USB-C to USB-A

I later learned (by reading the MixPre-3 user guide) that a single USB-C to USB-A connection isn’t capable of supplying the full power requirements of the MixPre-3. When it’s powered in this way, it enters a power-conservation mode that allows it to function at the expense of a few features. It turns off the USB-A port, dims the LCD, and won’t supply phantom power to on track 3, to name a few. Otherwise, it works perfectly fine. You can tell it’s in this mode because the USB cable icon in the upper left of the screen turns orange. The icon is green when fully powered.

To fully power the unit via USB-C, you need a USB-C to USB-C cable, and a power supply that supplies 7.5 watts to the MixPre. There aren’t a ton of these on the market right now, but I’m sure there will be soon. I went with the Anker Power Core+ 20100mAh charger, which comes with the required usb-c to usb-c cable. It’s a good value at $65. However, it takes forever to charge unless you also purchase a Anker Quick Charger.

Sound Devices has posted an exhaustive list of all the MixPre powering options.

Battery life?

Don’t even think about running the MixPre-3 off the standard 4 AA batteries. If you’re using phantom power, you’ll get like 20 minutes of record time before it sucks the life out of them. You definitely will want a robust battery option like the one I’ve described above.

How does it sound?

I performed a little changing-of-the-guard ceremony in my sound bag, pulling out my venerable MixPre and my Tascam DR-70D to make room for the new sheriff in town. Then I grabbed a Rode Stereo Videomic X  and headed to the beach, where as luck had it, a thunderstorm was brewing. Here’s what it sounded like on the MixPre-3 (with no tweaks other than normalizing levels in post):

I look forward to trying this mic out with dialog in a very quiet recording environment to see if the Kashmir preamps live up to their billing. But I sure like what I hear so far.

Touchscreen size

touchscreen

MixPre-3 touchscreen is small, but you get used to it quickly

The touch screen at first seems way too small to be functional. But after a little getting used to it, I found it worked just fine. However, I wouldn’t want to spend any time entering metadata this way. So it’s nice that you can do that via the Wingman app, OR by attaching a USB keyboard to the USB-A port.

Setting recording levels

It takes a little getting used to setting levels on the MixPre-3. Out of the box, they seemed much lower than on the original MixPre, on which most of my mics run hot. To get the levels up to where I expected them, I had to crank up the gain on the inputs to 41db (out of a possible 76db). On the screen this shows as middle-gain (see green Gain icon below):

Gain controls

Gain controls

Then I realized that the MixPre-3 is actually using an entirely different approach to the interface than the old MixPre. The old one was entirely analog – the new one is a mix of analog and digital. On the old mixer, you turned up the gain knobs until you found your levels. Done. On the new one, you set the base recording gain level digitally, then use the fader knobs to make minor adjustments during recording.

After working with the MixPre-3 for awhile, and looking at the files it creates, it became clear how to set the levels correctly. The steps are:

  1. Set fader knob to 0 (with silver dot at top).
  2. Plug in mic.
  3. Use gain screen to set levels a little lower than you would typically set them.
  4. Use fader knob to make minor adjustments.
  5. Record.

It’s very important to note that the adjustments you make with the fader will ONLY be applied to the mix tracks, and not the iso tracks. The iso tracks are recorded PRE fader. It’s a little confusing, because on your screen, your ISOs are labeled tracks 1, 2 and 3. When you open your files in post, the first two tracks, 1 and 2, are your mix tracks. Tracks 3, 4 and 5 are the ISOs.

For me, this whole idea of a mix track takes some getting used to. I prefer to cut with iso tracks. With my Tascam DR70D, I’m used to recording each stereo pair (or dual mono pair) to it’s own two-track file, and there’s no such thing as pre- or post fader. And, I WANT to control the levels on the iso tracks. So I suspect they way I’m going to actually use the MixPre-3 for most dialog recording is to set up the lav on the left, the shotgun on the right, and then pan them so they are isolated from each other on their own track anyway.

Nice touches

tools included

Tools included

It’s abundantly clear that the engineers at Sound Devices put a lot of love into this project. As an example, check out the flexible options for attaching the recorder to a video camera. They’ve included a centering pin and a hex key required to turn the 1/4 20 screw.

But wait, there’s more! See that little round metal dot? It’s a very powerful magnet, which holds both the pin and the hex key in place, making it less likely you’ll lose them. I love that sort of attention to detail.

Wingman app

The Wingman app connects automatically to any MixPre-3 in the vicinity right out of the box. You can add a password to the MixPre if you want to secure it. The app gives you everything you need to enter basic file names and add notes, even while a clip is still recording.

It also reveals which tracks are armed (that is, which are actually being recorded) and gives you the ability to arm and disarm tracks by tapping on the left side of them (turning them red when armed and black when disarmed).

However, the UI is a little lacking. For example, the timecode displays on the screen in HUGE numbers, while the elapsed time is shown in tiny little numbers that are hard to see. I wish I could toggle between these, because I want my producer to take notes based on elapsed time of each clip. If you turn the timecode off on the MixPre-3, the big numbers just turn in to dashes, and the elapsed time remains so small that it’s hard to see by anyone over 50.

Nevertheless, the ability to see the elapsed time at all is a big step up for us. Our previous system involved my producer starting a stop watch at the same time as the sound recordist started rolling.

Working with the files in post

The MixPre creates polyphonic files. Thats a fancy way of saying that your files contain multiple tracks, and your NLE may have some issues with this. When I tried to drop the files into iZotope RX 6, for example, I get this error (see right):

FCPX interpretation of polyphonic files

FCPX interpretation of polyphonic files

Also, when I drop stereo files that I recorded with MixPre-3 into FinalCut Pro X, it interprets them as 4 mono files. It’s easy to fix this – you simply change the file type to stereo, and disable the redundant tracks.

But what if you want it clean from the start?

There are several ways to resolve this. First, you can simply disable any tracks you don’t want before recording, using Wingman, or directly by pressing the fader for that track and disarming it. If you want to control the mix levels, you want to disable tracks 1 & 2, which is a little counter intuitive, since that appears to be disabling the track you are trying to record. But that’s not the case – you will find your MIX recorded on tracks 1 and 2 when you open the file in post.

There are advantages to letting MixPre-3 do it’s default thing, however, which is to record your mix AND lay down numbered iso tracks (which are recorded PRE fader, as we discussed earlier). That way, it’s like you have a backup recorded at a slightly lower level in case things get loud. But you still need to split those tracks up before importing them. How?

Sound Devices has foreseen this dilemma, and they created a free tool called WaveAgent. It lets you split out and export just the tracks you want, all nice and tidy. It also gives you a great interface for appending metadata to your audio files, should you wish to.

You can tell at a glance how many channels your file contains, the bit depth it was recorded at, etc.

To export tracks 1 and 2 into a single (stereo) file, for example, you click under File1 in Trk1 and Trk2. Then you select the file format you wish to export, select a location to save it, and export.

Presets are awesome

It used to be that when you got your mixer all set up correctly, you didn’t want anyone to touch anything. They could easily mess it up.

With the MixPre-3, those days are over. You just set up your mixer however you like – arm some channels, disable others, set levels, pan, etc.- then store that setting as a preset.

When you’re ready to use that configuration, you simply navigate to the present menu, dial down to your setup, and load it. Done!

I’ve set mine up with two presets – one for recording sound effects and ambiences with my Rode Stereo Videomic X, and another configured with the lav for interviews. On the left channel I’ve got a lav without phantom power, on the right a shotgun mic with it.  If you label the preset by it’s function, it makes it very fast to set up your recorder to match the situation you’re working in.

A new benchmark for documentary sound?

I will be using the MixPre-3 heavily in production in the coming weeks, and I’ll post a more thorough review when I’ve had more time with it. But if initial impressions bear out, the MixPre-3 could easily become the new benchmark in documentary film audio. If you’re a stickler for sound, but you want to spend more time thinking about your story than you do about your tools, the MixPre-3 was made for you.

LiteMat SnapGrid ads new level of light spill control

I prefer LiteGear LiteMat’s over just about any other light for documentary location lighting. Why? Because they are so easy to control. With most lights, you need to deploy flags or bulky soft boxes keep the light from spilling everywhere. The LiteMat kits contain everything you need to control the light without requiring anything else – the poly skirt, the diffusion, and a poly grid. So when I heard about the LiteMat SnapGrid which promises even finer control, I investigated.

The SnapGrid is made by a company called The Rag Place (at their Georgia facility). For $200, they will custom-sew a 40-degree SnapGrid for the LiteMat1. That’s a lot of money for what you’re getting, really, but hey, it’s the film industry. I pulled the trigger on it and received email notification that my custom-sewn SnapGrid was finished and shipped within 3 days. That’s snappy!

Solidly built

The SnapGrid arrives in a nice compact hand-sewn bag that’s made out of durable, water-shedding poly material. The grid itself, as it’s name implies, snaps open with what feels like blinds used as stiffeners under the black fabric.

It’s made of material that seems well suited to day-in, day-out use. The unit velcros easily onto the poly skirt of the LiteMat 1, making a super-compact and highly controlled light source. You can also attach it directly onto the LiteMat without diffusion or the poly skirt if you want maximum light intensity.

With the grid in place, the light is very well controlled. With the light on a stand at 5 feet above the ground, you don’t see any light hitting the ground in front of it until you get to about 5.5 feet. By comparison, even with the poly grid that ships standard with the LiteMat kits, you get some spill at less than one foot.

Minimal light loss

The thing with thick black grids, however, is that they are lossy. You lose some of the light intensity. The larger the grid, the more it sucks up the photons of light. And this is a pretty thick grid, about 3 1/4″ deep. So just how much light do you lose? I set my light meter to ISO 1000 at 24p, and did a little test:

LiteMat1 S2 with 1/4 diffusion at 10′: f/2.0.4; with poly grid: f/2.0. with SnapGrid: f/2.0.1. 

So we’re looking about about a 1/3 stop light loss. Amazingly, the SnapGrid suffers slightly less light loss than the poly grid, at least in the center of the focus area. However, the focus area is much tighter, and the light intensity falls off quicker as you move away from the center.

Compact

As a bonus, the SnapGrid is small enough that you can fold it into one of the main compartments in the LiteMat1’s carrying case. And that’s great, because I am going to want to have it with me everywhere I go.  The SnapGrid really allows this light to reach its true potential as a location lighting power tool.

 

How we made beer beautiful for Sierra Nevada

Sierra Nevada today published a project that I worked on with director Mark Bashore. I was one of two DPs on the project, spending a day at the company’s beautiful brewery in Chico, where I shot the opening push-in shot on their bar. Then Mark and I returned to Seattle where he turned his living room into a studio for three evenings in a row, and we got down to the business of making beer beautiful. Here’s a few insights I learned in the process.

Probe the ingredients

To get inside the hops, we used a probe lens, which is designed for tabletop photography and special-effects shots. A probe lens was used for many of the special effects, which used models, in the original Star Wars. For our shoot, I rented one from Innovision Optics, an LA based company that helped pioneer the development of probe lenses in the 80s. They sent us their Probe II + package, which covers Super 35mm sensor cameras and comes in PL mount.

I rigged my Sony FS5 camera and probe lens on an Rhino EVO motion control sider, which allowed us to move the camera smoothly and repeatably into the bundle of dried hops which we suspended above and around the lens. To achieve the effect of sunlight shining through the hops, we used an Arri 650 fresnel, which Mark moved by hand outside the hop bundle. Our challenge was to get a bright enough light outside to simulate sunlight, but not so bright that it blew out our shot, or revealed how dried the hops really were. We shot many takes and the one we used seemed to strike the right balance.

Fill the Fish Tank

We filled a small fish tank with beer, and spent an entire evening placing the camera under it, beside it, and over it. We used a couple of Arri 650s directly without diffusion in some cases, and also bounced off foam core, to illuminate the beer. In many cases I shot at 120 and 240 frames per second to add a dreamy quality to the pouring. Basically it came down to repeated pouring and shooting from many different angles. We repeated that with the light in many different positions until Mark felt like he had enough stuff to take into the edit.

A forest of light stands

On this shoot I discovered that the smaller your subject, the more c-stands you’ll need. To properly illuminate the beer, and kill unnecessary glare, required a stand for everything: the lights, the flags, and the gobos we occasionally had to use to defeat glare or unwanted lens flares. We had two or three boom stands as well, and those were invaluable to get the lights into play where we needed them despite the room already being filled with other stands.

The perfect drop

The last shot, featuring the drop of beer that rises out of the water, is my favorite. I was shooting with a 100mm Canon macro f/2.8 lens, which doesn’t have much depth of field. So we had to really blast the Arri 650 pretty much directly from above. Mark’s wife Katrina just poured a LOT of beer until it happened. I set up the slow motion to capture with a rear trigger. This way, when we saw something that looked interesting I would press the record button. Then we’d have to wait 45 seconds or so, until the file could be written to disk from the buffer. The nice thing about using the rear trigger was that we only captured clips that had potential. Thus we avoided having to capture long sequences of slow mo that would have to be reviewed during editing. But the long write times definitely slowed us down during the shoot.

The slow-motion footage on the Sony FS5 can be pretty grainy, even when the Slog is properly overexposed. So I had to denoise the clips using Neat Video plugin. It’s pretty incredible how good the clips looked after that.

 

5 ways ditching your camera leads to more cinematic storytelling

5 ways ditching your camera leads to more cinematic storytelling

Turn on your TV. What’s the first thing you see? Somebody talking to the camera. Blah blah blah.  Open a film on Netflix. What’s the first thing you see? Action. The essence of cinematic storytelling is showing, not telling. So, if you aspire to cinematic storytelling with your documentary filmmaking, why film talking heads in the first place? Why not commit to showing instead of telling?

I’m a little hesitant to share this insight, because it’s valuable to me. Big medical organizations hire me to to tell their most important stories, and it’s a financially rewarding gig. Why give away my secret? But ideas are cheap – it’s execution that matters. So here’s a cheap idea that, when applied, has proven invaluable to me and my clients.

Stop shooting interviews with a camera.

Wait, what? How can you say that – aren’t you a camera guy? Yes, I am. But my first commitment is to story. And I’ve observed that:

  1. Being on camera feels like a performance to most people; being on mic feels more like a conversation. Talking heads are boring; mic’d conversations are more authentic.
  2. Cameras need lights, grip and crew. Sound needs only a mic, a recorder, and a quiet place, so audio costs less.
  3. If the audio interview doesn’t move you, you move on. It’s easy to do that because you’re less invested when you use a mic.
  4. Not having any interview footage forces you (and your client) to choose a visually interesting character who provides cinematic b-roll opportunities.
  5. Recording interviews audio-only adds a “radio edit” step to your editing workflow, building client buy-in early in the process. This translates into fewer client changes at the rough cut stage, faster delivery, and a happier client.

Let’s unpack this.

Talking heads are boring

Most people aren’t actors. So, they are uncomfortable when a camera is pointed at them. There are ways of minimizing this, but the simplest, most effective way is to simply nix the camera. Instead, bring only a microphone. That way, you can be sure they’re never thinking “how do I look?” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Great interviews are genuine, human conversations. And when cameras are not in the mix, everything gets easier. Not only for the subject, but also for me.  No part of my brain is thinking about the lighting, or the frame rate, or the ISO. I’m just thinking about the person I’m talking to. I’m fully present. And THAT is the foundation of an extraordinary interview.

Camera interviews are expensive

In the large-nonprofit productions I do, a typical interview involves a crew of 3-4 people and a station wagon full of equipment. If we split the equipment up between picture and sound, about three-quarters of the “stuff” we bring belongs in the picture category. By going audio-only with your interviews, you eliminate three-quarters of your stuff. This also allows you to cut your crew in half. You see where I’m going with this: Cameras are expensive; talk is cheap.

Documentaries need casting, too

Great documentary films are built from great stories. Great stories emerge from great interviews. And great interviews come from great characters. To find great characters, you have to do casting.

When you use a mic for your interviews, you turn your interviews into casting sessions. If the interview is weak, it’s easy to move on to another story candidate without incurring the high costs of camera production. It allows you to cut your losses quickly.

On the other hand, if it’s an extraordinary interview, it’s easy to get your client to buy in to the story, with a radio edit. And the only thing left to do is the b-roll. More on that below.

It forces you (and your client) to choose wisely

Too often, clients settle. They settle for a boring character and an uninspiring story that has few b-roll options. They do this because you let them. And you let them by shooting interviews.

When you shoot an interview, you can always cover your lack of good b-roll by cutting to the talking head, like they do on TV. But no matter how well you’ve lit the interview, it’s still a talking head.

When you have no talking head, you force both yourself and your client to pick a strong character, who will provide you with action to film. That is, you force yourself to show instead of tell. That’s sometimes an uncomfortable place to be. But trust me, it’s a good place to be.

The radio edit advantage

We’ve all been there. You work really hard on an edit, you present it to your client, and you hold your breath. Will they like it? How many changes will they make? What if they don’t like it?

I have discovered that if you take the time to introduce your client to a story with a “radio edit,”  you (and your client) will be able to breathe a lot easier when it comes time to deliver your rough cut.

A radio edit is an audio-only version of your film that would totally work if it were aired on the radio, including music and pacing. The first time I did this, the client came back to me with a surprising comment: “Wow. This sound like a This American Life piece. We can’t wait to see what it looks like with video!”

By giving them a polished radio edit first, you introducing them to your story gently. You invite them to buy in to the story, and to your approach. I find that clients have a few changes at this stage. But these few are much easier and less expensive for you to make than they would be after you’ve added b-roll.

Here’s how it works

On this project, my client needed help launching a $2 billion fundraising campaign. They wanted to find a story that would inspire their audience to believe that heart disease was beatable, and that their donations could have a direct impact. Because of the big numbers at stake, the approval chain included a lot of brass, including the CEO. Red flag!

The first person we interviewed (mic only) didn’t move us. Neither did the second person. So we kept looking. Then we found Jim. Here’s his radio edit:

The client liked the radio edit, and suggested some minor changes. Here’s the final film:

When they saw the rough cut (for this and another film we made concurrently using the same approach), they sent me this email:

Dan. I don’t think we have ever given this little feedback on videos. They’re universally loved, and we think they’re going to work really well.

Werner Herzog once said “Good footage always cuts.” The visuals don’t have to literally match the dialog (as long as you have great story as a foundation). Somehow by choosing a character who inhabits an interesting environment, who does interesting things, the footage will always cut.

So. Next time you’re faced with a high stakes interview-based project, consider how ditching your camera can help you do more with less.

 

Why I’m buying a Sound Devices MixPre 3

Meet the new MixPre 3 and MixPre 6

Meet the new MixPre 3 and MixPre 6

For years I’ve been wondering why Sound Devices didn’t make something like my MixPre – which is an amazing little mixer – but with recorder built right in. Maybe to protect their high-end recorder mixers? Maybe too hard to fit everything into such a small package? But as more and more companies like Zoom began offering affordable versions of such a device, it became apparent that Sound Devices was leaving a LOT of small filmmaker dollars on the table that other manufacturers were only too happy to grab.

The dream comes true

So this year at NAB, Sound Devices finally turned my fantasy into reality by announcing two mixer/recorder devices: the MixPre-3 and MixPre-6. For about the cost of the original MixPre, you can now buy a full-fledged multi-track recorder that offers those incredibly pristine Sound Devices preamps. In fact, they’ve gone one better, and are shipping them with pre-amps that are even quieter than their professional 633 mixer/recorder! What’s more, both of these little miracles can be controlled and monitored from an iPhone app. Thank you Sound Devices!

The reason this is so huge for me is that it will allow me to throw away half of my sound bag, and consolidate to a single device, instead of two. This means less battery requirements, less bulk, fewer cables and fewer failure points. Additionally, I use a workflow in which my producer logs interviews, and for that, the iPhone app allowing her to see the audio timecode will be invaluable.

A new benchmark for small-production audio

The only physical difference between the two devices that I can see without getting my hands on one is that one has 4 individual XLR inputs and one has 3. So the MixPre 6 can record more individual tracks. There’s also one minor difference on the front – the MixPre 6 has an asterisk button that presumably allows super-easy annotation of the interview by pressing that button when you year a good sound byte. I use hand-written log notes, so that’s not a big thing for me. And I pretty much rarely do more than a two-person interview, so the ultra-compact 3-channel MixPre 3 is going to be PERFECT for my needs. And the price is so awesome: can you believe all of this from Sound Devices for $649?

The only thing missing from this mixer/recorder is XLR line outs. The only option to output to a camera is via a 3.5mm unbalanced jack, and that means I won’t be able to use it with my breakaway cable. So for shooting interviews, I’ll stick with my MixPre – Tascam DR-70D combo. But for audio-only interviews, which are the foundation of cinematic storytelling, the MixPre 3 is perfect.

This recorder/mixer is clearly on its way to becoming the new gold standard in audio recording for small documentary productions. Sound Devices is going to sell a ton of these, and I can’t wait to put mine to work.

Litepanels Hilio: an HMI alternative?

Ever since LEDs became a thing, I’ve been wishing for an LED that is bright enough to balance interiors with exteriors. Traditionally, you needed a HMI for this task. But HMIs are heavy, expensive, and hot. Nevertheless, gaffers love them for their ability to blast through diffusion and gel predictably. But for small productions like mine, generally just me, a sound recordist, and an assistant, having a light that packs the punch of an HMI but with the advantages of LEDs could be a real benefit. Enter the Hilio D12 Daylight Balanced LED Light from Litepanels.

Hilio D12 controls

Hilio D12 controls

The Design

The Hilio has an all-in-one design, with the ballast attached to the upper back side of the unit. At first I found this pretty awkward, because the weight on top like that means the light always wants to flop onto its back when you release the twin locking grips to aim it. But with a Snapbag in place (and you really do need diffusion on this light – more about that below) the unit feels pretty well balanced. I think LitePanels made a good choice to keep the ballast on the unit instead of separate, like some other manufactures. It makes it really compact, but at 25 pounds, this isn’t a small light. In fact, you need something like a Master Combo HD Stand (11′) with a junior receiver that accept this light’s 1 5/8″ spud. You can’t place this light on a standard C-stand.

My problem with the design of this light is a nitpick, really: the power cord. At just 6 feet long, it is a lot less useful than the power cord that comes standard on Arri 650s. I really wish it had at least a 12′ cable with a more robust, locking connection to the unit. The ballast has a nice locking connector, so why not the power cord? Be sure to pack extra stingers when you use this light, because you really can’t plug it in without one.

With HMIs diffusion is nice; with Hilio D12, it’s mandatory

The thing with LEDs is that, apart from chip on board designs, they tend to have many individual points of light. That’s not a bad thing, but it means that you definitely have to diffuse the light to avoid multiple shadows. This is especially true of the Hilio, which is essentially an oversized light panel.

Here’s a comparison that shows how much diffusion is necessary to achieve good results:

Raw beam

Raw beam through doorway

Raw beam through 4x4 of Hampshire frost light diffusion

Raw beam through 4×4 of Hampshire frost light diffusion (note lines are still visible)

Beam diffused with 1/4 grid lamp head bag

Beam diffused with 1/4 grid lamp head bag

The shots above make it pretty clear the Hilio D12 isn’t a great solution for throwing a hard beam of sunlight into a room, like you can with an HMI. LitePanels does offer a set of Nanoptic Lens Set For Hilio D12/T12 LED Lights which are advertised to help shape the light, but I’m not sure it would solve this multiple-shadow problem. The loaner I tested for this review did not include the filters.

Snapbag soft box

Snapbag soft box

Snapbag with 1/4 grad lamp head diffusion attached

Snapbag with 1/4 grid lamp head diffusion attached

Snapbag with full grid diffusion in place

Snapbag with full grid diffusion in place

The Oversized Softbox with Baffle for Hilio D12/T12 LED Light (Otherwise known as Snapbag) is very impressive. It folds right out of its bag without requiring any assembly or hardware, and attaches to the head of the light with two velcro straps in a few seconds. It’s not a big softbox, but I found it to be a nice working size – not too big to be unwieldy on location, but not too small to diffuse the light adequately.

Snapbag straps

Snapbag straps

However, I noticed that even with the 1/4 grid lamp head bag AND the full grid on the face of the Snapbag, the light emitted wasn’t particularly even. See photo above. I recently spent a week shooting on location with Kino Flo Celebs, and their perfectly even illumination surface made them a joy to work with.

Finally, using the quarter grid and full grid really cuts down the power of this light. You find yourself pretty quickly wanting to diffuse the hell out of this light, but not being able to, because you need more punch. But that’s a problem with HMIs too, right?

The window test

So, how much power do we really need, anyway? I’m not all that interested in foot candles or LUX; I prefer to talk about real-life scenarios. With artificial intelligence, you have the Turing test. With lighting, you have the window test. In my world, an LED is only a contender for the HMI equivalent prize if it’s bright enough to light a subject so that she looks good in front of a background that includes a window. So how does the Hilio do?

Hilio D12 as key in window

Hilio D12 as key with window in background

In the frame above, the Hilio was positioned, at full power, about 8′ from subject with the 1/4 grid lamp head bag to give it basic softening and spread. The light was further softened with a 4×4 of Hampshire frost (which costs just 1/3 stop of light). I used a sheet of black foam core to cut the light off the background and foreground. The light is slightly hard on her face (see the shadow cutting across the camera left side of her neck). But this light totally works for me.

RGB Parade

RGB Parade

Looking at the RGB parade for this exposure, you will notice that the right side of the window is actually blown out. Shooting SLOG3 with my Sony FS5 allows the highlights to roll off pretty smoothly, though, retaining some of the texture of the branches. So I would say this is acceptable. However, this wasn’t shot on a particularly bright day here in beautiful Seattle. Had their been bright sunlight hitting those trees, it would have blown them out with the light at 8′ from subject.

Moving in for a close up, I wanted to further soften the light. I got rid of the Hampshire, and velcroed on the full grid which ships with the Snapbag  (in addition to the 1/4 lamp head diffusion already in place). This gave us this result (which in hindsight is a little overlit for my taste -dialing the light intensity down half a stop would improve the shot):

Hilio D12 close up

Hilio D12 close up

In this frame, the sun has indeed come out for a minute, so I’ve had to close down a stop to hold detail in the window. The light can handle that because I’ve moved it in closer – here it’s about 4 feet from her, AND there’s only foliage visible in the window frame. Foliage is actually quite dark, absorbing a couple of stops more light than more reflective objects such as buildings.

In summary

The Hilio isn’t something to cart around with you just in case you need it. You’ll be needing some crew to deploy this light. It’s a big gun, and that means being proactive rather than reactive about your lighting setups. Too heavy to travel with easily, it’s your friend in  situations where you need to balance interior and exterior lighting. However, it doesn’t take gels the way tungsten or HMI lights do, so if you want to tweak the color you’ll need the 5-Piece CTO Gel Set with Bag for Hilio D12 LED Light which is tuned to match the light’s LED emitters. This makes the light a poor team player for work on sets with traditional lights. But if you work in small crew situations, like I do, it is a real workhorse.

LiteGear’s S2 LiteMat 1 is a small miracle

LiteMat 1 S2 handheld. Photo by Doug Plummer

LiteMat 1 S2 handheld. Photo by Doug Plummer

"Hollywooding" a LiteMat 1 S2. Photo by Doug Plummer

“Hollywooding” a LiteMat 1 S2. Photo by Doug Plummer

When you’re a documentary filmmaker, it’s easy to fall into the habit of shooting b-roll with available light all the time. The need for speed can eclipse all other considerations, especially with regard to lighting. But it doesn’t have to be that way. LiteGear’s S2 LiteMat 1 makes it possible for documentary cinematographers to bring a little Hollywood to their next production. You don’t need a big crew – just one assistant who stays glued to your side while you work. Your assistant (with your direction) solves the lighting challenges, while you and your camera stay focused on the story.

What is the difference between videography and cinematography?

Videography is about placing lights to accurately expose your subjects. Cinematography is about placing shadows to create the mood your story needs.

But remember, lighting is a subtle thing. If it looks lit, you’re probably overdoing it. The approach I’m sharing with you is really designed to complement the light you find, not overpower it. The LiteMat S2 unit is quite bright, but it’s never going to balance your subject with direct sunlight.

The good news is it doesn’t have to. All you need it to do is wrap light into places where it doesn’t quite reach, and reveal detail in shadows that would otherwise go black.

Take the frames below. In the first frame below, the man has leaned back so that our Hollywooded fill light is being blocked by another person sitting at the table. This reveals what this shot would look like with just available lighting. (Note that woman on right has correct fill on her in both frames.)

Without fill, available overhead light casts harsh shadows into eye sockets

Without fill on his face, available overhead light casts harsh shadows into his eye sockets

With fill, we can see clearly into the shadows, but they still feel like shadows.

With fill, we can see clearly into the shadows on his face, but they still feel like shadows.

The mood I was going for with this shoot was warm and happy family time, so opening up the shadows under his face (while at the same time keeping a natural vibe) was the appropriate way to handle this. The LiteMat and an assistant allowed me to achieve that.

Here’s another frame:

Hollywooding a light allows picking up this shot quickly without fuss

Hollywooding a light allows picking up this shot quickly without fuss

I wanted to include the dog in this piece (because audiences love dogs) but he was lying under the table. Which is to say, he was in extremely low light. Basically he would have been silhouetted without the light. But because I was working with an assistant and light, I was able to see the dog, call for the light, and grab the shot within a few seconds, without disrupting the flow of the action on the table which was my primary focus. Good thing we worked fast, too – the dog got up and moved out of the shot just moments after I was able to grab the shot. And it ended up in the final film, helping me create the story I wanted to tell.

Note: the S2 version of LiteMat is not only 40 percent brighter than the original LiteMat, but it has a wider color temperature. So now, you can go all the way down to 2600k (warm incandescent bulbs) and up to 6000K, which is a good starting point for matching north window light. In other words, it can instantly match just about any light you’re working with on a documentary production.

Here’s how the finished piece turned out:

 

“Hollywooding”

In film-speak, to “Hollywood” a light means to hold it by hand rather than placing it on a stand. It’s a common technique that is used on productions both large and small, most frequently when a subject is moving and the light needs to travel along with it.

The nice thing about the LiteMat 1 is that it’s large enough to give you a reasonably soft source, while small and lightweight enough to support easily for long periods of time. And with a few accessories, you can rig it up so that the battery and dimmer attach to a belt for completely untethered Hollywooding that puts dimmer and color temp controls at your assistant’s fingertips.

But be careful: the calibre of your documentary camera work will rise using this approach. Clients will start expecting it. Once you start Hollywooding, you can never go back!

What you need

  1. A battery pouch. We use the Lindcraft assistants tool pouch from Filmtools because it fits a v-lock battery almost perfectly. It also has velcro sewn on the front, which which makes it possible to attach the dimmer.
  2. A padded set belt (the one pictured below is no longer made, but you can find others like it at B&H or Filmtools).
  3. A high-capacity battery such as the HyperCore 98Wh 14.8V V-Mount Battery pictured here. It lasts 1.5 hours at full power; much longer when dimmed.
  4. An 8″ length of 1.5″ wide hook velcro strap for attaching the dimmer to the loop velcro on the pouch.
Battery belt for LiteMat 1

Improvised battery belt for Hollywooding the LiteGear S2 LiteMat 1

Tips

  • Holding the light close to camera at eye-level with your subjects is a great place to fill from. Hold the light slightly higher to eliminate shadows on walls behind your subject.
  • Unlike a c-stand, your assistant has feelings. Communicate with them clearly, be patient, give them breaks, and remember to thank them for a job well done.
  • Use the LiteMat’s skirt. With the skirt and grid cloth attached, you have some ability to direct the light. For even more focused throw, attach the egg crate that is included with all LiteMat kits. However, this adds significant weight.
  • Switch off the light when you’re not using it, to save battery.

Thanks to photographer Doug Plummer who took these photos while working on assignment for our mutual client on this project.