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

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

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

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

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 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.

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.


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


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.

LiteGear’s LiteMat is an impressively versatile location LED


For a long time I’ve been hunting for the perfect LED light. In the documentary-driven work I do, that means a light that packs down small, sets up quickly, controls spill, accurately reproduces color, is bright enough to fill strong window light, can dial from tungsten to daylight without gelling, is fully dimmable without flickering or color shifts, can run off a brick battery, and is a good value for the money. Is that too much to ask?


LiteGear came to my attention on a recent commercial shoot with Jeremy Mackie, a supremely talented Seattle gaffer. I noticed Jeremy using a home-made box light that he built out of wood and LiteGear’s LiteRibbon. It looked a little scary to me, but the quality of light it produced was absolutely wonderful. So I went to LiteGear’s website to see if they had something a little more approachable for us less DIY types.

LiteMat-Slider-2-1014x350It turns out my timing was perfect. After learning what gaffers like Jeremy were doing with LiteRibbon (used to light the set of Her, among other significant films), LA-based LiteGear decided to make a light for rest of us. The result is called the LiteMat, which had just begun shipping. After reading the impressive specs, I chose the LiteMat2 because at 21″x21″ it seemed big enough to be effective in a variety of situations, but small enough to transport readily.

The first thing I noticed taking the LiteMat2 out of the box is that it looks like a cousin of the KinoFlo. It has a Kino center mount built into the unit, and the backing on the light feels like it’s constructed of the same study plastic hollow-core material as many Kino lights. The kit ships with a Kino-flo branded twist-on mount with 5/8″ baby receiver. Good stuff.


The LiteMat2 hybrid unit is the width of my thumb! This puts it into a special category of softbox.  At 21×21 inches, it’s a slightly awkward size to pack around. But the travel bag that comes with the unit has a pocket for everything, and it packs down really slim.


The LiteMat2 hybrid kit comes with everything you need to get the most from the light in a variety of situations:

  • a velcro-lined skirt that allows you to control light spill and attach diffusion
  • a rugged travel bag with pockets for all accessories
  • 3 types of diffusion material (1/4 grid, 1/2 grid and full grid cloth)
  • flicker-free LED dimmer
  • extra-long power cable
  • AC adapter
  • mirrored egg crate that transmits 100 percent of the light (unlike the more common black crate that cuts output by up to a full stop).
  • Kino-flo twist-on mount with junior receiver.


The whole kit weighs 14 pounds when packed. Because it’s so flat, it’s pretty easy to find space for it. The case is reinforced with hard plastic, so you really won’t need a hard case for this light, unless you plan to ship it. I haven’t flown anywhere with mine yet. For taking this baby on the road, I’m thinking a medium-sized suitcase in checked luggage.

IMG_6244The only additional item you’ll need, if you want to power the light from a brick battery, which I definitely recommend, is a $26 d-tap battery adapter.

Value comparison
As far as I know, no other LED panel that I’m aware of comes complete with this many accessories. Lets do a little comparison with LitePanels Astra, shall we? The Astra bi-color unit is $1,300. If you want to use a battery with it, you have to pay more – a lot more. If you want a softbox with it, more again. If you want different levels of softening for the front of the softball, each costs $50. Here’s a comparison:

Astra: $1,350
Softbox: $234
Set of 3 cloth diffusers $76.50
LitePanels grid: $225
Battery plate: $148
PortaBrace Astra case: $210

Astra total: $2,243.50
LiteMat2 total: $1,526

LiteMat2 savings: $719


In addition to being a great value, the LiteMat2 is incredibly versatile. It’s light enough that you can tape it to the ceiling or a wall with painter’s tape, for example.

IMG_6470A velcro skirt attaches to the unit, turning it into a soft box.


Three grades of grid cloth are included: 1/4, 1/2 and full grid.

I can imagine making a simple skirt for this light, using black fabric and velcro, that would turn it into a space light.

I judge a light’s brightness by what f-stop I can set at ISO 800 at 6 feet. By that standard, this light is an f/4.0 cranked all the way up in normal (green) mode, 5600K, battery powered (see below for more on modes and battery operation). Which means it’s an f/2.8 at 12 feet, f/8 at 3 feet, etc.

That certainly makes it more than bright enough to use as a key light for an interior interview, and as fill for north window light. Controlling spill using the included egg crate is as simple as velcroing it on.


It’s a cinch to hang it off a medium-duty light stand, using a stand extender to get it out over the subject, for a no-fuss interview key. In the example below, I’m using a scrim bag to hold the battery and dimmer, and a Manfrotto 420B combi-boom stand. This is a lightweight, aluminum stand, but with its counterweight bag, it’s no problem to boom this light securely.


Battery operation
A surprising thing happens when the LiteMat is powered from a brick battery: it gets about 1/3 stop brighter than when plugged into AC power. I’m scratching my head over that one, but I love cutting the cord whenever I can, so I’m not complaining. Repositioning the light is as easy as grabbing the stand and moving it. Now that brick batteries are pushing beyond 250wh capacity, powering it with battery all the time becomes a real option.

How long does it last on a brick battery?  I tested it with a 90wh Switronix v-lock, and after 1 hour at full intensity (green mode, daylight), it had only lost 1/10th of a stop in brightness. Five minutes later, it was down 2/10ths of a stop. At 75 minutes, 1/3 stop brightness. By an hour and 20 minutes, it’s down a full stop, which is where I ended the test. Its slow decline in intensity probably says more about the battery than it does the light.


The dimmer can be easily programmed in three modes. To do so, press the recessed Prog button with a pen for about a second. The status light will begin blinking. Then, dial the Kelvin temp dial to select which mode you want. Depress the Prog button again to confirm setting.

Three are three modes (activated by pressing the Alt switch):

White: Overdrive (default). This provides 1/3 stop more light on the daylight (6000K) channel. It has no effect on the tungsten channel.

Blue: Low-power. This cuts the output by 75 percent (2 stops), allowing more precise dimming at low light levels.

Yellow: 2-channel. This allows you to control the brightness of the tungsten and daylight channels independently, which allows both channels to be powered at 100 percent at the same time. This allows you to get maximum brightness from the light, making it twice as bright as it would otherwise be at 4300 Kelvin.

Color accuracy
The numbers for this light are VERY good. Not only does it score well on the CRI standard, but it does well on the newer standard, TLCI. According to LiteGear, this light scores CRI 95 across the temperature range. But TLCI reveals it’s more accurate at the daylight end, scoring a 95 there, 92 in the middle at 4300K, and 89 on tungsten. Very impressive.

My own test is a simple one. I shoot a Kodak grey card, first at 3200k white balance on both the camera and light, and then at 5600k. I look at the vectorscope. There should just be a tight dot in the very middle of the crosshairs. However, that’s almost never the case.

With LiteMat2, the color range stated on the dimmer is 3000k – 6000k. However, I was able to place things closest to the crosshairs by setting 2800K on the warm end and 5600k on the cool end. Here’s what my test showed:



Looking at a scope like this from an LED makes me want to dance! Even though it’s not “perfect,” it’s really great. In fact, I’m guessing that my simple vectorscope measuring the temp is less accurate than LiteGear’s, but I wanted to see how it landed on my camera, since that’s what I’ve been using to measure all my other lights.

But enough about the numbers. How does the light actually look? I’ve been shooting with LiteMat2 on a few projects over the past couple weeks, and I’d like to share a few frames:

LiteMat2 used as key light in softbox mode with 1/4 grid cloth

skerittLiteMat2 used as key-side fill with window light as key with 1/4 grid cloth

nicerLiteMat2 as key, with 1/4 grid cloth

boyLiteMat2 used as key-side fill to wrap light around face from window with 1/4 grid cloth and crate

This is, without hesitation, the best light I’ve ever used for quick interview setups. I can’t stress how freeing it is to control brightness and color by dial rather than by gel. I just set this light up, dim and color balance to eye, and roll camera. Most of my interviews last about 40 minutes, easily within the range of a 90wh brick battery, which in my testing lasted more than an hour.

No light is perfect, of course, and I find myself wishing that the mirrored crate wasn’t so heavy. It’s not as heavy as the light itself, but damned near. Is that all I can find to say bad about this light? For now, at least! I’ll update this post as I spend more time with it.

So. To sum up in a single sentence: the LiteMat2 is a versatile weapon in the war against lame lighting. It’s a light that gets me excited about lighting, because it shortens the distance between what I see in my imagination and what I see on the monitor. And it’s a real bargain considering it comes with virtually every accessory you’ll need.

Some observations on the Sony A7rii for documentary filmmaking

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The A7rii is the first DSLR to firmly grip my imagination since the 5dmkii. I spent Labor Day weekend getting to know this beast a little better. And I have a few observations to share. I’ll avoid covering the same ground as others already have. Suffice it to say that this camera records 4K internally, has built-in image stabilization, super 35, full frame video, back-lit sensor with serious low light skills, etc. On paper, at least, it looks like a documentary filmmakers wet dream. So, is it?

Here’s a few things I would like to submit for your consideration.

1. This camera really does capture 14 stops of dynamic range. No, I didn’t do a lab test. I didn’t have to, because I’ve never seen footage like this before. This is potentially a beautiful thing. But…

2. Getting a great image off Slog-2 requires much patience. I spent the weekend playing with it in Resolve, and using a variety of Slog-2 LUTs. Grading Slog footage is far less intuitive than grading Canon C-log, in my experience. However, it’s also more rewarding. When you’re done, you have an image that a Cinema EOS like the C100 could only dream of  producing. But I’m not about to give up my C100 mkii just yet. More on why shortly.

3. It’s HARD to screw up your exposure. That is, you can overexpose by up to THREE STOPS and still not worry too much about clipping. If you underexpose, you’ll get a bunch of noise in the shadows, and have to de-noise in post. But you’ll still have a usable image. It’s a lot like shooting raw, in this way. Pretty amazing. NOTE: If you’re shooting slog2 (and you should be) you will want to generally overexpose everything by two stops, to avoid noise in the shadows.

steady4. The image stabilization is really good, but it’s not a silver bullet. I found that it was possible to handhold footage up to about 35mm, maybe 50mm (in full frame mode); beyond that, it’s Movi time. And forget trying to shoot handheld with Super 35 crop mode – the rolling shutter is just too noticeable. Still, it’s the first time I’ve been able to seriously consider using a DSLR to handhold anything other than hybrid stabilized lenses like my Canon 100mm 2.8 macro IS. So that’s really something.

Using the camera with a lens like the excellent Sony FE PZ 28-135mm f/4 G OSS Lens, which I tested it with, yields great results when shooting in full-frame mode.


5. Full-frame video look very, very good. While others have reported moire, and theoretically there should be some,  I didn’t observe it even in finely knit clothing like sweaters. So Sony seem to have really figured out a pixel-binning algorithm that works. Full frame video suffers much less from rolling shutter than it does in Super 35 mode (but Super 35 is much better in low light).

6. The batteries are pretty much useless. The tiny battery gave me under an hour of shooting time. But you can power it off a USB charger. So here we start down the path of building our rig…

7. No built-in NDs, of course. You absolutely have to use a matte box, and now we’re really getting rigged up. This is pretty much a deal-breaker for me, for documentary use. Thought: Wouldn’t it be interesting if Sony added built-in ND filters to video lenses like the FE PZ 28-135? Seriously, I want a heavy matte box on the front of my lenses like Rosie O’Donnell wants Trump to be the next president.

At the end of the day, this is an extremely well-speced hybrid camera – half stills, half video. I will definitely being using it for special situations, like when I need to have 4K, or when I want to get stabilization out of non-IS lenses. In fact, I have a shoot coming up in which I need to shoot handheld with a Lensbaby, and I think this camera will be perfect for that.

In order for this camera to displace the C100mkii as my documentary camera of choice, it would need a lot of ergonomic improvements like built-in NDs, longer lasting battery, and faster access to the menu items I need. My biggest daily battle is just getting the shot, so I need a camera that can support me 100 percent in that effort.

Rumor has it that Sony is going to make an announcement about a new video camera later this week. Things would be very interesting indeed if Sony were to transplant this camera’s heart-stopping, full-frame, 14-stop grabbing, lusciously backlit sensor into a real video camera body for, oh, about $5K. Here’s hoping!

5 steps to color perfect c100 footage using LUTs

Why is the C100mkii a ridiculously awesome camera? It’s not the fluid ergonomics, the built-in ND filters, or the camera’s snappy autofocus. Your audience can’t see how you got the footage; they just see that you did get the footage. And the footage is what’s epic. Canon’s color science is why we pay the medium bucks for the EOS Cinema series cameras. But to get the most from your footage requires a little work. By following these steps, you’ll get 12 beautiful stops of highlight-holding dynamic range, every time you press record. Here’s how.

Before shooting:

1. Set minimum ISO to 850. Unlike with a traditional DSLR, choosing a lower ISO will NOT result in a better image on this camera. Instead, it will rob you of dynamic range. So always always always set a minimum ISO of 850. In low light you can go higher – much higher, in fact, and get great results. But never go lower.

2. Shoot Canon Log (CP Cinema Locked). This is the only way to get the full 12 stops of dynamic range out of your camera. The footage will initially appear flat when you view it. But you have plenty of quick options for giving it snap, crackle and pop by applying LUTs. More about that momentarily.

3. Enable View Assist. The image on your LCD will appear flat, and to fix that and give you an approximation of the final image while shooting, you’ll need to turn on the view assist. It’s located in the LCD menu. TIP: I add this and several other settings to the custom menu, which makes finding them much quicker than hunting through the menus.

After shooting:

4. Use a LUT. A LUT (Look Up Table) is an automatic color correction designed specifically for your camera, which is applied to your footage in post. Which LUT to use? I recommend these free EOS Cinema LUTs from Able Cine. To apply them to your footage, you’ll need an inexpensive plugin like the $29 LUT Utility. These will work as a plugin to the NLE of your choice (i.e., Premiere, FCPX, etc).

5. Adjust LUT intensity to get desired look. Using LUT Utility, you can adjust the effect from zero to 100 percent. I often find that dialing in 60-80 percent of the effect is just about right.

Here’s an example, an interview shot in front of a window. The challenge is we’d like to make her skin look awesome, while at the same time retaining as much highlight information as possible in the background. So we shoot in CP Locked, and…

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 11.56.56 AM

Above: CP Locked footage looks flat prior to grading.

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LUT applied (no other color correction). As you can see above, this instantly does wonders for our footage. But it still needs a little work.

Getting the most from LUTS

To get the most dynamic range (that is, visible detail in your image from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights) choose the CxxxLog10toWideDR_Full option (the one applied above).

To get punchier results, and more life in the skin tones, try one of the other two (the ones beginning with ABNorm- and JR45-), continuing to choose the -WideDR_Full option for each.

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 12.23.27 PM


ABNorm_CxxxLog10toWideDR_Full appliedAdding this LUT makes our image appear too crushed, in my opinion, and slightly over-saturated. There are two ways to correct that while retaining the punchier color of the effect. You can lighten the image (in this case, by pushing up the midtones) or you can reduce the LUT intensity.

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 12.31.34 PM

Mid-tone brightness increased to compensate, above.

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 12.33.28 PMFinally, reducing the intensity of the ABNorm- or JR45- LUTs, which tend to overly saturate and crush the image, allow you to dial in just the right amount of correction.

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The final results. Notice how lifelike the skin tones are, and how the important detail in the background is preserved. Besides applying the LUT, the only color correction I’ve applied to this frame is a slight boost in the midtones.

Conclusion: Using a LUT, we can very quickly get everything out of our c100 footage that the camera is capable of giving us. Vibrant skin tones, crisp blacks, and 12 stops of dynamic range that allows us to hold detail in brightly lit areas of our frame, such as the background used in this example.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend my time thinking about the content of my films than how to color grade them. Using a C100 and a LUT, you can have both.

The Mystery of the Flint River

“I hate editing. But I’m good at it.”

That’s what I said to director Michael Hanson when he asked me if I would cut a film from a short trip that he took down the Flint River with his camera and microphone for American Rivers. Since 1973, American Rivers has protected and restored more than 150,000 miles of rivers through their advocacy efforts. And, Michael is an extraordinary talented photographer who shoots for, among others, National Geographic. So I said yes.

With some consulting help from Mark Bashore, and of course, lots of input from Michael, here is the result.

The music for this piece is so important. It sets the mysterious mood. I discovered it on The Music Bed, two tracks by Steven Gutheinz, “The Sun” and “A Message.”

I had to learn Premiere Pro to cut this film.  I found the experience tolerable and the tool adequate. I’m glad I cut this in Premiere, actually, because it gave me a whole new appreciation for Final Cut Pro X, which remains my NLE of choice. It’s not that Premiere sucks, it’s just that FCPX is so fluid, so quiet, so undemanding. FCPX flows like a river, and Premiere is like driving from Fremont to West Seattle at 4:30pm on a Friday. But in the end, it takes you there.  Just like that river.



Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence looks for help to tackle the toughest AI challenges

My latest commercial piece is a recruiting video designed to attract talent to the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which has it’s offices tucked along the north shore of Lake Union here in Seattle.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the best gaffer in Seattle, Jeremy Mackie, on this project. But I got more than just his top-notch lighting skills. After many years lighting films like Eden and Fat Kid Rules the World, Jeremy is looking to step behind the camera and work as a DP. I was thrilled to give him the opportunity on this project, and I think the results speak for themselves. Having a DP who knows lighting inside out, backwards and forwards the way Jeremy does is just epic.

Rounding out the crew on this one were Mike Astle, grip; Justin Dolkiewicz-Kotsenas, AC, and Nickolas Abercrombie, sound. I did the drone work myself with a Phantom 3.

Ryan Schwalm was my camera assistant/grip on the pickup shots.

A couple things worth mentioning technically: As you can see in the photos above, we used a Dana Dolly for most of the b-roll. It really brought some life the office scenes, which would have otherwise been pretty static. I had the dolly mounted on low-boy combo stands with rollers, which made it quick and easy for Jeremy to pick up the b-roll we needed while the rest of the crew was packing up at the end of the day.

And take a look at that hand-made LED light, hey? It’s a real piece of work, something Jeremy cobbled together from parts supplied by Lite Gear. It was a great fill source: portable and color-temperature controllable with very high CRI. I want to make one!

Finally, we used a pair of powerful HMI lights on this shoot, an M18 and 800-watt Joker, to bring up the interview subjects to match the window light in the background. But in one case, this approach backfired. When the CEO saw the rough cut, the CEO felt he was squinting too much as a result of all that light. So we had to reshoot him, using mostly natural window light with a single Kino Tegra for fill. It’s great to play with the big guns, but keeping it simple is sometimes best when it comes to working with non actors.