Look what Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney has been up to! I’m thrilled to have contributed quite a few clips from my Covid Nurse story to this film. Many clips appear near the end of the film, and 4 were also used in the trailer and in promotional materials.
As usual, Gibney’s timing was impeccable with this project, landing as it did just before the US presidential election. And given the result, who knows, maybe my footage played a small part in bringing science back to the White House. I’d sure like to think so.
The nurse pushed open the door and stepped into the patient’s room, waiting for me to follow. Beyond her lay an unconscious man, sedated, tied down, and fighting for his life.
When a COVID victim’s oxygen levels are falling, and nothing else works, their blood can be pumped out, oxygenated, and returned to their body in a medical procedure called ECMO. It is a complicated ballet involving specialists, doctors, and most of all, nurses.
I hit the record button on my camera, took a breath of hood-filtered air, and stepped into the room. This is what I saw (see video below).
Since COVID-19 arrived in the US, I’ve been mostly idle, doing my part to flatten the curve by staying home. But as a documentary filmmaker, I’ve been profoundly curious about what’s happening on the front lines. Would anyone get a chance to record it up close?
I’ve been making films for UW Medicine for 5 years. So I figured if anyone could get a chance, it might be me. When the COVID wave hit Seattle in early March, I sent an email to everyone inside the organization I could think of, begging them to help me get in.
The result: crickets. No one replied. They were, without a doubt, beyond busy.
Then on April 8, it happened. I got an email from the chief nursing officer at Harborview Medical Center. I’d never met him before, and he wasn’t one of the people I’d contacted. Turns out he’d seen a Harborview montage video I made for a fundraising event last fall, and…
“I am reaching out to you to see and possibly get a quote for a project I have in mind for nurses week. I’d like to work on a video that we can highlight the Harborview nurse, especially in this COVID-19 situation, and what it means to be a nurse an HMC.”
The initial ask
After speaking with him, it became clear he was asking for another montage video featuring nurses at work, which would be b-roll for a thank-you message he planned to deliver for Nurse’s Week.
I’ve observed that sometimes, what clients ask for, and what they actually want, can be different. And you have to step carefully to lead them from their initial idea to something bigger. I felt very strongly that the opportunity to film in the Covid ICU could lead to a powerful story, one that would resonate with a general audience.
The initial idea was to focus on three nurses. The client wanted all of them in the video. I find stories are typically strongest when they are told from a singular perspective. So how to find the best story? And how best to tell it?
Light and shadow are among the most powerful tools we filmmakers have to evoke drama. And when I think of COVID 19, I think shadows. So I just knew we had to shoot this at night. I put together a quick mood board based on images I pulled from Google searches. The client took a look and agreed.
Audio-only interview as casting
A few days later I sat down with each of the three nurses for a one-hour audio-only recorded conversation. I intentionally skipped filming these interviews, and I’ll explain why shortly. All were interesting in different ways. One of them worked in the emergency department. Another had actually contracted COVID-19 herself, and brought it home to her son and parents. Luckily for them, they all had mild cases, and she was back to work three weeks later.
But the nurse who really caught my attention was named Breazy. She is a Covid ICU nurse, and a natural storyteller. When this all began, she had to send her son away to keep him safe, so she could emotionally focus on her job. She explained that family members sometimes have to say good-bye to their loved ones via iPad, because they can no longer visit them in the hospital. And how when she loses a patient, she takes a bunch of flowers to a beach near her home and floats it into the sea, to say good-bye. When I heard that, I knew exactly how the film was going to end.
But to get to the beginning and middle parts, I had to sell my client on this story idea.
Selling the story with a radio edit
To do that, I created a “radio edit.” Without having shot a frame of video, I brought Breazy’s interview audio into Final Cut Pro X, after cleaning it up in Adobe Audition and iZotope RX. My first stringout was 17 minutes long. I kept cutting until it felt right, adding breathing room for pacing, and finally, music sourced from MusicBed. My goal was to make something that would be right at home on This American Life.
Here’s what that sounded like:
The client replied: “I like it.” But, what about that thank-you message, he asked. Could we fit that in somewhere? Definitely, I replied. And… maybe the perfect place for it would be in a separate video? One that I’d be willing to do for no extra charge if we could capture his message in a single take? Sold.
I’ve developed this no-camera approach to interviews over the last 5 years of working with large medical clients. A litany of good things happens when your first deliverable to a client makes them close their eyes and IMAGINE what they are going to be seeing, rather than what they ARE seeing. It invites them into the story creation process. It’s like dating before getting married. And the result is almost always the same: they like it, and they can’t wait to see what it looks like with video. Usually there are few changes. And the changes are very simple to make – the only thing that requires retiming is the music.
Planning the shoot
A night shift for nurses begins at 7pm and ends at 7:30am. Not only did I want to shoot the entire shift, but because I wanted to shoot Breazy on the beach afterward, it would mean a 14-hour day.
What is the right filmmaking equipment to take into a Covid ICU? I learned that going in and out of the negative-pressure rooms was a time-consuming process. A person called a “dofficer” observes and assists you donning and doffing the personal protective equipment required. Every item has to be wiped down with a cloth dripping with alcohol when it exits the room. So I would definitely need a weather sealed camera.
What’s more, I would be shooting while wearing a papr hood, double layers of latex gloves, and a plastic pancho that doesn’t breathe. That made me nervous about focus. I like to think my 54-year-old photojournalist’s eye is pretty good. But I’d never had to nail focus in conditions quite like that before.
I realized that I was going to have whatever I could carry in one hand, and that’s it. No tripod, no extra lenses, just commit to handheld and go for it.
Choosing the Canon C500mkii
Back in January, after a lot of research, I’d purchased a Canon C500mkii. My previous camera, a Sony FS5, was a real workhorse. But when the new crop of full frame cameras came out, I knew it was time to go back to the big-sensor look that was my first love. The 5dmkii is what lured me into video from still photography in the first place. For years I wondered if Canon would ever make a camera that gave us everything the 5dmkii had, in a body designed for video. This felt like that camera to me.
Apart from it’s full frame sensor and monster 5.9k raw recording capabilities, I chose this camera over the Sony FX9 because it does something very special with autofocus. First of all, it works with a lot of lenses that I already own. Secondly, instead of snapping into focus, it can be configured, with the right EF lenses, to gently arrive in focus, to breathe into focus.
This organic focusing is controlled via a menu that gives you control over the speed from +2 to -7. It works great with the newer Mkii lenses, but does not work with older EF glass such as the original EF 35mm f/1.4. I set the autofocus speed to -1 and sometimes to -2, for this film.
For this project, because I would have just one lens, I chose the Canon EF 24-70 f/2.8 mkii. This lens is great optically, and pretty fast for a zoom. But one thing has kept me from using it much for handheld in the past: it lacks image stabilization. And the fact is, when I’m handheld, I need IS.
C500mkii image stabilization: on
The C500mkii is the first professional digital cinema camera that Canon has made that features IS built right into the camera body. In testing, I found it works very well when you are trying to keep the camera still, but it’s less effective when you’re intentionally moving the camera. It does a great job smoothing out footage you want to keep steady, but a poor job of smoothing out footage you want to keep in motion.
For the Covid story, I chose XF-AVC DCI 4k. Shooting raw would have been nice, but I’d fill a half-terrabyte cf express card in 30 minutes of shooting. Additionally, the built-in image stabilization is disabled in RAW.
I enabled the pre-roll feature on the camera, and boy, I am glad I did! There are at least half a dozen shots in the final film that I would have missed without it.
Custom menu settings
A killer feature on the C500mkii is the option to make a custom menu, which you can load with your frequently accessed settings. I mapped mine to button 12. Pressing that lets me access all the menus I need to without digging.
I also remapped several of the buttons for more ergonomic response. For example, the one-shot autofocus button is located on the front of the camera in a place that difficult to reach. I like to keep three points of contact while I’m shooting and focusing, so I mapped it to the #1 button under my thumb on the right handgrip. Squeeze and shoot.
I also remapped the iris wheel to go in the opposite direction from default. I like to roll it DOWN to darken the image (stop down), and UP to lighten it (open up).
The sensor size is something I also like to change on the fly, switching between full frame and super35 to turn the 24-70 into an effective 36-105mm field of view. It is very handy for a little extra reach, and switching the sensor while in XF-AVC 4k leaves your format settings untouched. You get beautiful 4K both ways.
Two person crew
I never work a paid gig without a sound recordist. Sound is way too important to take into my own hands when those hands are holding a camera. Phil Gorman, whom I’ve been training for the past several years, is one of those rare sound recordists who has no problem wearing more than one hat during a shoot.
And for this one, I asked him to to use lavs, and put a light on the end of his boom pole, instead of a shotgun mic. So whenever I needed it, he could fly the light in for some fill or a little scratch light. That gave me the ability to pick up shots like this one:
The nice thing about doing a shoot after you’ve done a radio edit is that you know exactly what you need to shoot. It’s almost like having a script.
I had imagined opening this film with a blue-hour drone shot of Harborview Medical Center. So I planned to return a few days later to pick that up after sunset. So I started this night rolling camera at roll call.
DJI no-fly zones
As an aside, when I returned to the hospital for that drone shot, my rented DJI Phantom 4 v2 would not take off. Even though I had received permissions from 3 different hospital department heads to fly it, because the area contains a helipad and is a designated first-responder area, the DJI geofence see is as a no-fly zone. I tried following their protocol to get an override from DJI, but no one responded to my repeated emails for 24 hours. Grounded, I had to settle for exterior views of the hospital in blue hour. And with the strangely deserted streets due to Coronavirus, it worked out great to open the film. And that sunrise drone shot three-quarters of the way through? I pulled it from another shoot I’d done at the same hospital 6 months previously, before DJI geofenced it.
Virtually the whole night was handheld. I think there was just one shot on sticks inside the hospital that made it into the film. My biceps were burnt by the end of the night, but holding the camera tucked into my waist like a football was a winning strategy. It meant I was able to give the nurses a heroic camera angle, while being immersed in the action.
Autofocus just works
The C500mkii’s AF touch screen works with latex gloves, a big surprise to me. Pulling focus was as simple as supporting the camera on my waist, touching the screen, and punching the focus button under my right thumb.
It was a very long night.
The next morning, after her shift ended, Breazy met me in West Seattle with a wreath of red and yellow tulips. Both of us were bone tired. I knew I wasn’t going to get multiple takes of anything. So I again relied on autofocus to track her walking across the beach (this on sticks with a 70-200 zoom). Then back to handheld as she waded into the waves and tossed the flowers, then back onto sticks as she exited camera left. I let the camera roll for a long time to accommodate credits. And I forgot to get the insert shot that I needed of the flowers floating to cover her last lines. I came back to the same beach two days later with my own flowers to pick that up.
When I sat down with the footage, the question on my mind was, did I get the shot? There’s always some percentage of shots that for one reason or another, are unusable. Usually it’s I because I missed the focus, or because the shot is too shaky. But I had to look very, very deeply into the C500mkii footage to find shots that were unusable. Virtually all of the shots I really wanted to be sharp, were sharp. The ones I needed to be stable, were stable.
Reviewing the footage reminded of my days as a newspaper photojournalist in the mid 90s, when we began making the transition from manual focus cameras. There came a day when it just became clear that AF could do a better job than you could. So we switched, slowly at first, and then all at once.
The edit came together in a couple of days. Having a radio edit to cut to makes it clear what footage you need, and where you need it, in the edit. Getting the rough cut approved by the client was easy. The hard part, it turned out, was getting it past the legal department. That took about two weeks. And by the time we were done, some pivotal audio was removed and every inch of patient skin had to be blurred out. That made me sad. A nurse’s story needs patients as supporting characters, and the film loses some of its humanity without them. But the law is the law. And at the end of the day, it’s still a powerful story. It has received well over 100k views last time I checked, making it the most viewed film I’ve ever made.
The Canon C500mkii is the first digital cinema camera I’ve used that can focus better and faster than I can. It’s like having a super power. This project, and this camera, has changed how I approach documentary cinematography. Instead of fretting about focus, I’m now free to think more about what I’m shooting than how I’m shooting it. Attention moves from the mechanics, to the moment. It’s made me a better storyteller. And that’s all I can ask for from a camera.
I’m thrilled to share this short video, which I made in collaboration with the amazing story team at UW Medicine Advancement. I’m truly honored to work with people so profoundly dedicated to healing.
NOV. 22, 2019 UPDATE: This video is the Bronze winner in the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) awards 2020, in the short video category.
The story reveals how Mary Larson, a nurse for 23 years at UW Medicine’s Pioneer Square Clinic, has found a very special way to truly see her homeless patients.
For this project, we set 3 GoPros running over a 2-month period to capture Mary’s artwork taking shape. Everything else was shot on a Sony FS5. Nothing fancy, just SLOG0-2 8-bit 4K internal, graded with Alister Chapman’s lovely Venice Look LUT pack.
This is another in a long line of projects that uses my never shoot interviews methodology (for the primary story subject, at least). For the rest, we had an exceptional fine space to film our interviews in – the empty top floor of the Pioneer Square Clinic.
Here’s a sample frame from that interview. Looks almost naturally lit, doesn’t it?
But no! Any time you have a large window in the background of a frame, you know you need to bring a big gun to bring up your subject to match those background levels. Here’s the setup:
This technique is called “carrying the light,” which results in a very natural, almost imperceptibly lit look. We used a single Aputure 300d bounced into a 4×4 foam core, over which we draped a 1/4 grid cloth 8×8 fabric. We had to flag it off aggressively to keep the light off the background with a piece of black foam core that you can see tight against the side of the diffusion. But that’s it – one big light for one beautiful result.
It’s also another example of a framing technique I teach my students: For a pleasing frame, it’s often a good idea to frame your subject in a corner. Not literally – best to give them plenty of distance from the corner – but by lining up the corner behind them in the frame. This adds depth and dimension to the composition. And when you have a window, it’s frame naturally cuts the light off the wall, giving a pleasing light fall-off.
Big, naturally lit locations help make food pop in Nordstrom restaurant recruiting video
Nordstrom has released a restaurant recruiting video that I had the pleasure of shooting for director Kent Worthington a few months back in Seattle and LA.
For this project we shot documentary style, moving quickly. Almost all of the shots used available lighting, which in our LA locations was absolutely beautiful, north-facing window light. Whoever designed the two LA restaurants was obviously thinking about light, and it shows in the clips.
I used a Sony FS5 with Atomos Inferno to shoot in SLOG-2 at 4K DCI.
Lenses were vintage Zeiss primes, with the 100mm Planar Makro seeing a lot of action.
“Lighting is a subtle craft,” I told my students yesterday. Then we headed to a baseball field to see what that looks like. Our assignment: To shape natural light into something cinematic for an outdoor interview using only two pieces of grip. A 4×4 foam core bounce, and a Scrim Jim Cine Frame (8 x 8′).
Our first challenge was to choose a background. We placed our subject on the edge of the field, and slowly walked in a circle around him to observe how the light fell on him in relationship to the background.
People rarely look good in direct sunlight. It makes them squint. So we placed our subject with the sun behind him, as you can see from the shadows below.
By doing this, we penciled him out from the background with natural rim light. This works best when you can find a background that is at least a stop darker than your subject. In this case, we could do that very easily, because there were lots of trees. Trees absorb light. So here’s our starting frame:
This first frame shows the importance of considering how nearby objects will impact your subject. If he had been standing in the middle of the field, his face would have been evenly illuminated. But because there is a line of trees behind us and camera left, the light is wrapping in from camera right which is exposed to open field.
Our goal here is to make the most of the tools we have to create a naturally lit interview that feels organic and makes our subject look great. So let’s start playing with our toys and see what each does for our shot.
Our first setup is to bounce light on the same side as the sun, 3/4 angle camera left. This evens out the light on his face, eliminating the dark areas created by the trees in front of him. But it’s pretty flat. Let’s move the bounce a little farther to the right…
Placing the bounce directly under the lens is a pretty common sight on film sets. It’s a great way to get a nearly invisible fill up into the eye sockets of your talent. But in this case, it still feels pretty flat.
Placing the bounce on the camera right side gives us a nice dimensionality, but it doesn’t look organic, because the sun is coming from behind and to camera left. So it looks lit. No good. Let’s put down our bounce for a minute and see how the negative fill affects our shot.
The neg by itself does a nice job of evening out the light on his face, but he’s now too dark overall. If we raise our exposure to compensate, the background will get too hot, and we want to leave it alone at a stop under. So let’s bring back our bounce, on the same side as the sun (called “same-side fill”) and see what happens.
Wow! This looks pretty good. Adding the bounce wraps the light of the sun around his face very naturally, and the neg on the other side gives us the 3-dimensionality that we’re always striving for in cinematic shooting.
If anything, I’d say we could have raised the 4×4 bounce a little higher to do something about the shadow that’s forming a triangle between his camera right cheek and eye.
What techniques do you use to shape available light for cinematic outdoor interviews?
One of my students at Seattle Film Institute asked me a question the other day: “How do you choose hard drives for 4K video?”
Most beginning filmmakers are on tight budgets. So my short answer was: “Buy the cheapest drives you can afford to store your media, and the most expensive drive you can afford to edit it.”
Let’s unpack what that means in today’s technology landscape.
When I get a new 4K project, I buy two hard drives big enough to hold all project media. In my case, that’s generally 1 to 2 terabyte drives. At the end of each day of production, I’ll lay off the files to both simultaneously. I use Hedge which enables me to have two backups of the media from the get-go.
Drives I recommend
The drive I have most frequently chosen for this is the 2TB Backup Plus Slim Portable External USB 3.0 Hard Drive. It currently costs $65. Black Magic Speed Test clocks it at 75 MB/s. That’s way too slow to edit 4K video on, of course, but we only need it for storage. The nice thing about USB3 is that it’s compatible with just about any computer out there, both Windows and Mac. So if your client wants the files at any point, you can simply hand them the drive.
If you have a computer with USB-C, however, I recommend the aPrime ineo rugged waterproof IP-66 certified drives. For $95, you’re getting a drive you can drop in the water, with rubber bumpers to break its fall, and a built-in USB-C cable. These drives clock for me at around 110 MB/s read and write speeds. So for a little more money, you get drives that are a LOT more rugged and a little bit faster.
Both the above drives are about the size of a typical iPhone. And that matters to me – they will (hopefully) live out their lives in a drawer. I like that they won’t take up much space.
Small is the new big
So now let’s talk about the fun stuff – speedy editing drives. I used to rely on toaster-sized RAID drives to get the speed and reliability I needed for editing. But with SSD, that’s no longer the case. With solid state media, I have found speed, reliability AND the benefit of being able to take entire projects with me wherever I go. With this freedom, I find the only time I’m cutting at a desk is when I’m doing audio passes with studio monitors. I’ll connect my laptop to a larger monitor at various stages of the project. But even then, I tend to park myself all over the house. For example, the kitchen table, or on the coffee table in the living room.
My tried-and-true favorite 4K editing drive is currently the 1TB T5 Portable Solid-State Drive (Black). I get read-write tests to about 300 MB/s which is more than fast enough to edit 4K video. This drive is the size of a business card (and only a little thicker). It is now available in a 2TB size for under $500, which seems like a bargain to me. But the landscape is changing.
Here comes Thunderbolt 3
Most new Macs now support Thunderbolt 3. If you are one of the fortunate people who has one, I invite you to behold the 2TB X5 Portable SSD.
I hesitate to call it affordable at $1,400, but it gives wings to your 4K projects. I recently retired my late 2013 MacBook Pro and made the leap to a late 2018 MacBook Pro, so I finally have a computer than can keep up with such a beast.
I’ve been putting the X5 through its paces by editing multiple streams of ProRes RAW 4K DCI on a project that weighs in at 1.7 TB. With everything loaded on the drive, here’s how the X5 performs:
It’s interesting to note that even though this drive is lightning quick, it’s still not nearly as fast the internal drive of the 2018 MacBook Pro:
Putting it all together
What these numbers tell me is that to get the absolute best performance from Final Cut Pro X, you want to keep your FCPX Library file on your local hard drive. Then, store all of your media on the X5. Beyond speed, this has the added benefit of allowing automatic backups of your FCPX project files. To get near real-time backups, use an automatic cloud-based backup service like BackBlaze. Because it runs in the background, BackBlaze won’t slow you down at all and you won’t have to remember to back up your project. Note, however, that BackBlaze is not an efficient way to back up your media drives. But you’ve already got yourself covered there with those cheap backup drives.
For longer 4K projects like feature-length films, you’re of course still going to be living in the land of RAID when choosing hard drives for 4K video. But for the small projects, I find this 3-drive system, in which you back up your media on 2 cheap drives, and edit it on a single fast one, is a winning formula.
I saw some interesting clouds forming around sunset the other day, and thought it might be interesting to shoot a quickie timelapse. But then I considered the post-production slog required to deal with the raw files from my Canon 5dmkiii. Um, no. My Sony FS5 can shoot timelapses, but what’s the point of shooting a timelapse without raw? Then I thought, wait a minute, you haven’t yet tried shooting a timelapse with ProRes RAW.
So I popped on my Atomos Shogun Inferno, opened the timelapse menu, selected 1 frame every second, hit record, and opened a beer.
After the sun went down, I opened the 4k file on my MacBook Pro. It played back without dropping a frame as I skimmed through the file and assembled an edit. To grade it, I simply applied the excellent Venice-look LUT made by Alister Chapman. Then I made a couple of saturation and hue tweaks in the killer new FCPX hue/saturation curves. Fifteen minutes of work later, I was posting the results to Instagram.
An aside: Alister’s Venice LUT is the perfect LUT for shoot ProRes RAW with Sony FS5 and Shogun. That’s because it’s got multiple versions perfectly matched across both SLOG2 and SLOG3. Having both is essential for shooting with Sony FS5 (which monitors as SLOG2) and editing in FCPX (which opens as SLOG3). Using the appropriate LUT means you’re seeing the same thing in both places. You can download his LUT pack free, but please do tip him – for the price of a beer you can acknowledge the years of experience that Alister has put into creating those precision LUTs.
ProRes Raw is the real deal. Not just because it looks great (it does), but because it’s so easy to work with in post. If you had told me 6 months ago that I’d be editing 4K RAW files in real time on a 5-year-old MacBook Pro, I wouldn’t have believed you.
ProRes RAW is the reason why acquiring in 4K suddenly makes a whole lot of sense to me.
A side benefit: I typically would need to deflicker when shooting a timelapse on a DSLR. But there’s absolutely no deflickering needed when shooting with the Shogun’s timelapse mode.
Well, that sure was simple. Turns out the solution to fixing the infinity focus issue on vintage Contax-Zeiss with Metabones Speedbooster doesn’t involve using a Dremel tool. And no, you don’t have to recalibrate the lenses, either.
You just have to loosen a tiny set screw on the Metabones Speedbooster, and rotate its lens element (in my case, counter clockwise). Boom! Everything comes into focus.
Each of my vintage CY Zeiss lenses has a slightly different infinity focus point, however, so that means setting the infinity focus to the lens that is the farthest off. This means the rest of the lenses now focus beyond infinity, which isn’t really a problem. All of my modern AF Canon lenses do that by design. But it does mean the witness marks are off to varying degrees.
There’s one other issue with this fix that affects my Sony FS5: rotating out the rear element on the Speedbooster causes it to protrude further (see image below). As a result, when the Speedbooster is screwed into the FS5, it makes contact around the edges of the ND filter mechanism. That’s not ideal, but it’s a slight contact, and the ND filter functions normally. So I’m going to chase the shallow look to infinity and beyond.
I love the vintage look of these lenses so much that, before I discovered this solution, I’ve been shooting pretty much every interview I do with them. That hasn’t been an issue, because interviews never happen at infinity. But now that I have the full range of focus, I’m a heck of a lot more likely to shoot my b-roll with this glass now, too.
Want to see for yourself how amazing this vintage look is? You can rent my infinitely focusable 5-lens set of Contax-Zeiss cine-mod lenses on ShareGrid Seattle for $60/day. Set includes modified Speedbooster for use with Sony E-mount cameras.
UW just published a piece I shot last summer in Montana. It’s about a young woman who grew up on a ranch in a remote part of the state, who is well on her way to becoming a doctor, thanks to a UW Medicine program that helps train rural doctors.
If you’re working quickly, without much crew, there really is no substitute for image stabilized lenses. When I sat down to edit this piece, I had to reject way too many clips because they had uncontrollable jitters. I had to post-stabilize a ton of the rest, with less than perfect results in a couple of cases. Nevertheless, I’m proud of how this story came together in the edit.
For those jobs where you have the time to work from a tripod or other stabilization, I’d highly recommend the Fujinons. They make tracking and holding focus easy, even when subjects are walking directly toward camera.