Taurus Jr. heavy duty 4ft camera crane reviewed

I just finished shooting a short film called Pearl, for Seattle director Amy Sedgwick. It’s a film about a woman who works at a small oyster cannery who dreams of a bigger future for herself. When the opportunity arrises, she seizes it.

When Pro Am gave me a chance to review their new Taurus Jr. heavy duty camera crane, I jumped on it. A jib shot would be the perfect way to establish the first location in the film, as the two women enter the cannery for the first time, by revealing something of the environment and at the same time advancing the story. And there’s nothing like using a piece of equipment on an actual production to discover its strengths and weaknesses.

Here’s the shot:

As you can see from this clip, there was a bit of wind that we had to contend with. And, we had a manual focus pull, too. The camera I shot the film with was a 5dmkiii (shooting Magic Lantern raw) fully rigged up with v-lock battery, etc. So it weighted about 10 pounds.

The Taurus Jr. enabled us to get this shot where many smaller, lighter weight jibs simply wouldn’t have cut it. I own an Aviator Traveler jib, and while it’s an amazing bit of gear, it would have never held steady for a focus pull, much less the wind.

After using this jib, I really appreciate the benefit of a heavy-duty jib for getting consistent, repeatable results on location, on deadline. You don’t get to control the weather. But you still have to shoot your film.

Weather aside, what is it that really keeps filmmakers awake at night? Money. There’s never enough of it. That’s where the Taurus Jr. really shines. At $399, it costs less than a third what comparable jibs do. I get excited whenever I can put more money into paying actors and crew, and the million and one other things that have to get paid for to bring a creative idea to life, rather than sinking it into equipment.

This jib doesn’t quite come with everything you need to get up and running. You’ll need to buy some weights for balancing it. Luckily these are inexpensive and I came home from my local Big 5 sporting goods with everything I needed to get going: a couple of 2.5lb weights, a couple 5lb, and a 10lb. That combination gave me plenty of options to keep various camera rig configurations flying in perfect balance.

At four feet, this isn’t exactly a long jib. Isn’t bigger better? Not for me, it isn’t. I am a real fan of subtle jib moves, rather than the big sweeping ones. A little move can go a very long way. And the ease of transporting and setting up a 4′ jib compared to an 8′ one is like night and day. The best tool is the one you will have with you when you need it.

To keep costs low, presumably, the Taurus Jr. designers cut one corner that I wish they hadn’t. The horizontal brake is really flimsy, and doesn’t precisely stop the jib from moving a little back and forth. If there’s one thing I’d change about this jib, it is this. And, there’s no easy way out of the box to mount a monitor – you need to purchase an accessory arm for that.

So let’s sum it up:

Pros:
Price – it’s just $399. Very affordable for a jib of it’s capabilities.
Solid, multiple-reinforced aluminum construction.
Holds up to 30 pounds of camera with all cinema accessories, no problem (matte box, battery, monitor, etc.)

Cons:
The only major flaw with this jib is the horizontal brake. It is flimsy, and doesn’t reliably work.

Wish it came with:
Monitor mounting point. A monitor arm is available as an accessory.
It’s awkward to transport easily – need to get the optional carrying case, really.

Bottom line:
This jib is a winner for budget productions that need a short jib that can produce consistent, repeatable moves in a variety of conditions. I like it so much I’m probably going to buy one next time I’m on a production that needs a jib. And when you start thinking about shots, it doesn’t take very long to dream up amazing shots that only a jib can bring to life. Thanks to Pro Am and the Taurus Jr., budget-conscious filmmakers can stop dreaming and start shooting.

Seattle DSLR cinematography workshop May 31

I’ve been invited to teach a private DSLR cinematography workshop, and I thought, why not add a few more spots and make a day of it? So if you’re looking to get cinematic with your DSLR, consider joining us on May 31!

DSLRs are incredibly powerful filmmaking tools – in the right hands. Why not your hands? Join award-winning Seattle filmmaker Dan McComb, a cinematography instructor at Art Institute of Seattle, for a day of hands-on instruction that will take your DSLR cinematography skills to the next level.

Dan will share techniques and equipment secrets that will empower you to tell stories that connect with your audience.  

You’ll get personalized, hands-on training using professional equipment that includes: 

  • Dana Dolly
  • Dual-system sound recording
  • Zeiss prime lenses

You’ll get answers to questions like:

  • How do I set up the camera for cinematic shooting?
  • Monitors and EVFs: which is right for me?
  • How does focus pulling work? 
  • How do I properly expose skin tones?
  • How do I get rid of camera shake and avoid jello shutter?

You’ll learn why shooting manual beats autoexposure, and which settings to pay attention to most. Why using neutral density filters is essential for shooting outdoors in daylight, and which ones are the best value (as well as which ones to avoid). Why shooting closeups is different than shooting medium and long shots, and what that means for lighting. 

Plus tips on:

  • Camera motion: when to use it, and how to do it
  • Choosing a camera rig or custom-building your own. 
  • Dynamic range: getting the most lattitude from your camera using picture profiles
  • Stabilzers: how to get rid of camera shake and jello shutter

We’ll take a look at aspect ratios, and how to shoot widescreen for that super cinematic look and feel. You’ll learn how to build an action-ready camera package from the ground up using matteboxes, baseplates, battery distribution systems, and much, much more, including answers to your questions. 

Workshop is limited to four participants. 

Learn more and sign up here.

5dmkiii Raw tip: install Magic Lantern on one SD card, then record to many CF cards

As I’ve moved more and more to a raw workflow with my 5dmkiii, I’ve now got 6 CF cards, all 64gig 1000x. Keeping the same version of Magic Lantern installed on all those cards has become a problem, especially since I like to keep all my cards current with the most recently nightly build. So I was thrilled to discover recently that it’s possible to install Magic Lantern on an SD card, which stays with the camera, and then you just use empty CF cards for recording. A simple tip, but it’s been a big time saver for me. Thanks to the fine folks at Lensrentals.com for sharing this tip.

Total Inclusion: UW's Experimental Education Unit

The Experimental Education Unit is a school, located on the north side of the Montlake Cut just inside the University of Washington campus, that does impossible things every day by putting special needs students into classrooms with their typically developing peers.

This video, which Lisa Cooper and I produced for the University of Washington, was shown at a fundraising auction this weekend. It features founding director Dr. Norris Haring reflecting on his dream for the program, which is today a reality.

This is the second video I’ve made for EEU (the first one you can see here). I wanted to get as close as possible to the amazing faces of the kids, so we shot with 100mm macro and 80-200mm zoom for much of the production. I also shot quite a bit of 60p, which at times I conformed to 24 for some lovely slow motion.

The Metalsmith to air on KCTS's Reel NW

The new season of Reel NW is about to kick off, with new host Warren Etheredge. And I’m delighted to announce that one of the shorts that Lisa Cooper and I made, The Metalsmith, will be among the many locally produced documentaries that will air on the show. Our film will screen four times, at:

4:50am on 4/15
8:50pm on 4/17
9:50pm on 4/17
12:50pm on 4/18

The new season begins April 11, and the lineup includes a slew of films I’m looking forward to seeing:

Saving Luna
Field Work: A Family Farm
Closure
You Make Me Feel So Young
Holy Rollers

I’m sure host Warren Etheredge will have many more great films up his sleeve. Warren is known for his weekly television series The High Bar, where he has interviewed the likes of Jodie Foster, Cornel West, Nora Ephron, and Salman Rushdie. On Reel NW, he’ll be bringing you the filmmakers behind the features and docs that air on Reel NW.

Sound for Film and Television, Volume II

I credit the guys from Wrightsville Beach Studios with teaching me almost everything I know about dialog recording, thanks to Sound for Film and Television. Now, they are seeking funding to produce a second volume. By backing their Kickstarter campaign today, you can save $25 off the final price. I can’t wait to get my hands on this.

Here’s the scoop:

At Wrightsville Beach Studios, we’ve spent the last 8 years making great, high-quality training videos teaching people how to make films. Oh, sure, everyone with a YouTube account does that, right? Not the way we do it — we do it with wit, humor, and sketch comedy, and we don’t just stage “setups” or give you “tips” and “tricks”; we go behind the cameras of real, cinematic scenes and short films made specifically for our lessons. We not only teach you how and why to do it, we’re teaching you WHILE we’re doing it — and the proof is right there on the screen.

But don’t let us tell you — here’s what our SOUND volume I viewers have had to say (see these reactions and more starting here):

“Absolutely amazing resource. Of everything I’ve read, seen, and heard from ‘experts’ regarding audio, this DVD blew them away.”

“This is a must-have for any independent filmmaker making their way into this business. Even if you know everything there is to know about sound, you’ll enjoy this DVD.”

“Lots of practical, hands-on information in a very entertaining package. It’s the only one I’ve found so far which really spends a decent time teaching technique.”

Now, we want to do it again! We want to bring the same kind of immersive, high-quality lessons combined with comedy, cinematic vignettes designed to teach you the skills, and we’ll even follow the production of a short film from start to finish, covering advanced sound recording topics on set and finishing with the professional sound mix in post.

Production topics to include:

PRE-PRODUCTION, where the most important planning takes place.

  • Dual-system recording
  • Slating
  • Timecode/Jam synch
  • Sound recorders
  • Wireless systems: UHF/VHF/Digital/Analog/Diversity/Non-diversity
  • Complex booming scenarios
  • Reality TV/news sound setup
  • Field/multi-channel mixing
  • Stereo recording

And then we’ll hand off the program to POST-PRODUCTION host David Jimerson, as he also checks in with Alex Markowski, post-production professional and professor of film studies at UNC-Wilmington. We’ll take the sound we recorded during production and follow the art, craft, and technique of turning it all into a finished professional sound mix.

Post-Production topics to include:

  • PRE-PRODUCTION, coordinating with production recording with post-production concerns in mind
  • Proper sound mixing studio setup
  • Synching via timecode, synching via waveform
  • Intros to Pro Tools, PluralEyes, other software
  • Pulldown/pullup
  • Asset management
  • Setting up audio tracks in editing for optimal export to sound post
  • Sound editing workflow
  • Working with EQ, compressors, limiters, and other sound filters and FX
  • Leaders and timecode burn-in
  • Exporting from edit/NLE to digital audio workstation — formats and workflow
  • Foley
  • ADR
  • 5.1/multi-channel/surround mixing

So, in all, we’ll have:

  • Great lessons from Barry and David
  • Great practical, hands-on expertise from Jeff and Alex
  • Sketch comedy, cinematic vignettes, and our trademark humor
  • A short film designed to get you behind the scenes, following production and post techniques
  • And even a dynamic reality-TV set!

Back this project on Kickstarter.

One ring to rule them all: seamless focus gears by mechanical engineer Sean McCurry

First you get a DSLR, then you get a follow focus unit. Then a bunch of stuff happens, and you end up with a pile of this on your living room floor:

Today I’m happy to report that such bandaids for dslr lenses are no longer necessary, thanks to a mechanical engineer named Sean McCurry, who is quietly revolutionizing the follow focus gear, one perfectly printed lens gear at a time. Wait, printed? But before we get into that…

I guess you could say that I’m a focus gear whore. I feel like I’ve tried just about everything on the market in hopes of finding one that worked seamlessly (so to speak) with my set of Zeiss/Contax primes. But every one I’ve tried has left me cold. To be specific:

Redrock Micro gears are nice because they give some autofocus lenses some much-needed extra throw. But with my Zeiss primes, I found the extra throw to be too much. And the ergonomics suck: too big to store in my lens case, they have to be assembled before every shoot. Major bummer. I want gears that I can buy and forget about,.

Zacuto Gears are basically thin bands of plastic that have a big awkward bump. They get the job done, but I’ve had them slip off my lenses more than once while running and gunning, because the bit that holds the two ends together gets caught on things. Oh, and they aren’t cheap.

If you want cheap, you want Jag35 zip-tie gears. But like the Zacuto, they catch on things, and they don’t add any throw diameter to your lens, either.

Genus gears are one-size-fits all, which makes them great for larger diameter lenses like my 300mm f/4 Nikon. It’s the only gear I could find to fit it. But not at all great for more standard size lenses, where the tightening screw gets right in the middle of your business. Plus, they tend to loosen up during use, and you have to remember to keep retightening them.

One thing I have never tried: Duclos cine-mod. This is the gold standard of lens gears. And by gold, I mean $105 a pop. But what’s prevented me from going Duclos is that you have to send your lens away for an unknown length of time to have the mod done. That more than anything has been the deal-breaker for me. I need my lenses.

Above: iPhone pano of my set of Zeiss primes, with Sean’s gears.

So. Is it too much to ask to have something as perfect as the Duclos mod, for a third of the price, that without any tools, I can install myself?

Enter a mechanical engineer named Sean McCurry. I accidentally discovered his brilliant work while surfing on Ebay a few weeks ago, when I was startled to see a listing for “Seamless follow focus gears” specifically made for Contax-Zeiss primes. I have a lens set that ranges in size from 25mm – 135mm, and Sean had each of my focal lengths covered. For $35, I took a chance and ordered one for my 50 f/1.7 prime. It arrived three or four days later, and with great curiosity I took it out of the box. Four pages of instructions on lens fitting were included, but were unnecessary: the gear fit PERFECTLY. I simply had to very carefully and slowly wiggle the gear on, until it seated firmly into the spot where I wanted it to stay on the focus barrel of the lens. The fit is so tight that it doesn’t slip at all, doesn’t require glue, and feels like it was made for my lens. Which, in fact, it was.

I’m not 100 percent sure how Sean is able to make such killer gears. But I’m confident it’s because he’s 3D printing them. A close examination of the gears reveals telltale patterns, strata in the plastic that are consistent with 3d printing (click image to enlarge):

One great thing about these gears is that I was able to place them at approximately the same position on 4 of my 5 lenses, so that when swapping lenses, I don’t have to adjust the focus puller position on the rails. Also, my previous gears would ride up and down the lens as they came in and out of their foam Pelican case, requiring constant readjustment, often in the middle of a shoot. These gears stay put.

Need more amazing? Beyond the great ergonomics, these gears producer smoother more predictable and repeatable pulls than I’m used to getting from my previous gears. Maybe it’s the extra gear depth, maybe it’s the precision of the printing, maybe it’s the Delrin they are made from. Whatever it is, these gears have taken my focus pulling to the next level.

Sean is currently making the gears for popular DSLR lenses that include the following:

Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8

Set for Contax Zeiss Lenses

Canon 100mm Macro lens

Nikon 105mm f1.8 AI-S Lens

Canon 24-70mm Lens L Series F2.8

Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L IS Lens

Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 IF DX II Lens

You can see the full list (currently 105 items) to see if your lenses are on it.

Don’t see your lens on the list? Sean welcomes custom orders. You can measure the circumference of your lens, and email your request to helicoptersean@gmail.com. Or contact him via his Ebay shop.

So here we are. Living in a world where the best stuff can come out of a printer. Welcome to the future.

SEEDArts Cinema Series "Made in Seattle" coming April 4 & 5

Seattle, WA – Bicycling nudists, Rwandan filmmakers and a Seattle family confronted by terrorism are the intriguing characters you’ll meet at the second annual SEED Arts Cinema Series SEEDArts Cinema Series, “Made in Seattle: Homegrown Documentaries”. The two-day series, April 4 & 5, is comprised of three dynamic, award-winning, locally made documentaries to be screened at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, 3515 S Alaska St, Seattle, WA 98118. The films are Finding Hillywood (4/4 at 7pm), Barzan (4/5 at 5pm), and Beyond Naked (4/5 at 7pm). Each film will be followed by a community conversation with the filmmakers and moderated by Rustin Thompson, The Restless Critic.

The Cinema Series opens on Friday, April 4 at 7pm with a screening of Finding Hillywood. Set amongst the hills of Rwanda, Finding Hillywood chronicles one man’s road to forgiveness, his effort to heal his country, and the realization that we all must one day face our past. A unique and endearing phenomenon film about the very beginning of Rwanda’s film industry and the pioneers who bring local films to rural communities. A real life example of the power of film to heal a man and a nation.

The Series continues on Saturday, April 5, with an evening double feature. At 5 pm, we present Barzan by directors Alex Stonehill & Bradley Hutchinson. Barzan is an intimate portrait of a suburban family ripped apart by a terrorism accusation. Shot both in Iraq and Seattle, this investigative documentary examines terrorism, immigration, and the sacrifices we make to protect the American dream.

The series concludes at 7pm with Beyond Naked, the “Best Documentary” of the Seattle True Independent Film Festival (2013). This film shows what happens when four first-timers accept a challenge to ride naked in Seattle’s legendary Solstice Parade. This feature-length documentary explores our deep-rooted fear and awkward fascination with nakedness through the lens of one of Seattle’s most popular traditions.

Admission to the Cinema Series is $5 per film. All films will be screened on the new digital projection system at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, 3515 S Alaska St, Seattle, WA 98118. Limited concessions will be available. For more information and updates, call 206.760.4285 or visit www.rainiervalleyculturalcenter.org/cinema.

Magic Lantern raw now supports audio recording with MLV format

Magic Lantern raw keeps getting better. It’s been awhile since I downloaded and tested the latest nightly builds. Turns out there’s a LOT of progress being made: the latest releases include the option for a new recording file format called MLV (for magic lantern video). This format allows for some really great stuff, most significantly for me, audio recording.

Post-production keeps getting better, too. There’s a new batch-conversion utility called MLV Mystic that allows Mac users to unpack the MLV files directly into cinema DNG files, which can then be opened directly into Davinci Resolve 10.

HDMI monitoring is also vastly improved. Gone is the bug that caused pink-frame tearing when recording 3x (which at the press of a button turns any lens into a macro). No more pink frame tearing! Also, the monitor display bugs that incorrectly drew the boundaries of the frame are fixed.

HDMI tip: I discovered this weekend while testing that it’s critical to plug in your hdmi monitor to your camera in the correct order. First, with your camera off, power on your HDMI monitor and plug it into the camera. Then, power up the camera. This way, it will correctly draw the HDMI screen. Otherwise, you get some misaligned black bands encroaching into the display from top and bottom.

Another sweet thing, and this is a big one: I discovered after much testing that Magic Lantern’s focus peaking is just killer. It works like magic to help you find focus, and you can select from three settings: one for darkly lit subjects, one for brightly lit subjects, and one that is a bit of both, for average scenes. This peaking is the first I’ve ever used that actually works without over sharpening to death or otherwise unacceptably screwing with my monitor. I’ll be using it by default from now on.

All I can say is: thank you Magic Lantern team. You guys are tireless in continuing to unlock the potential of this amazing image making tool called the Canon DSLR. The raw video image coming out of this camera is breathtaking.

Beyond Naked screens April 5 at Made in Seattle festival

I’m happy to announce that Beyond Naked, my first feature-length doc, completed last year, will have another Seattle screening on April 5 as part of the Made in Seattle: Hometown Documentary Series. The venue will be the beautiful Rainier Valley Cultural Center. Here’s the full festival lineup:

Finding Hillywood, Friday April 4th, 7pm.
Barzan, Saturday April 5th, 5pm
Beyond Naked, Saturday April 5th, 7pm

No word on tickets yet – will post here as soon as I have that info.