Monthly Archives: March 2010

Czesky Sen (Czech Dream) | documentary 41 of 100

I found this great list of 18 cult documentaries you must see, which is how I discovered this deceptively simple Czech film.

Synopsis: Two Czech film students convince an ad agency to help them pull a huge hoax: opening a fake “hypermarket.” Not only do they successfully fool the public into believing that a huge new “hypermarket” is about to open, causing hundreds of people to wait in line on the “opening” day – they also managed to fool me into expecting more of a dramatic climax than actually happened (by faking footage used in the trailer). As a viewer, you end up feeling a little bit betrayed, like the people who attended the grand opening must have felt. And aren’t films supposed to be about making you feel things? It’s infuriatingly brilliant on more than one level.

Story and Structure: Straightforward chronology. I’m envious of filmmakers who choose to make films with this obvious of a structure – it makes their job so simple. It’s a film about an event – and the obvious thing to do is begin with the idea, and how the idea is developed, building up to the event itself – the climax – and tie up a couple loose ends before rolling credits. Done.

One thing worth noting: They did NOT opt to begin the film at the obvious place: the end. I might have opened with the crowd rushing toward the fake building and then flash back to how the plan was hatched.

Cinematography: There are more glidecam shots in this film than any doc I’ve ever seen. The camera is fairly flying – in and out of crowds, circling around people multiple times, enough to make you dizzy in the hands of a less skilled operator, but this guy was ON IT. The technique called attention to itself, but that was part of the story – the idea that slick production values can sell anything. The quality of the cinematography certainly rose above that of what I’d expect from a couple of film school students. You see the one kid filmming everything with a handheld camcorder, but I didn’t see any footage in the film that looked like it had been filmed on a crappy handheld camera, so that apparently was just a prop.

Editing: The story manages to move along, despite taking a long time with arguments among members of the team who developed the marketing campaign, lots of time spent with focus group participants, etc. It appeared there must have been a ton of footage, because we get many many camera angles during the event day. They must have had a dozen camera people operating to get the coverage they got.

Sound and Music: The most memorable music was the crowd singing prior to the opening of the fake store – that was precious. Otherwise, audio was good – lots of boom poles visible in the film as they filmmakers made no effort to hide the fact that this was a film being made.

Heading to Vancouver for Larry Jordan Final Cut workshop

I’m heading to Vancouver next week on March 9 for a Final Cut editing workshop presented by Larry Jordan. The seminar cost is $99. Any Seattle filmmaker want to carpool with me? I’ll be leaving at about 6am and plan to return to Seattle the same evening by around 8pm.

I pretty much learned how to edit from this guy’s video tutorials, both those posted on his own site and via the outstanding resource.

This particular workshop is sponsored by Red Giant, makers of outstanding Final Cut plugins, and I’m looking forward to learning in more detail how to use their stuff in my own projects. Also a big reason for attending: Jordan will be showing tips on how to use Sonicfire, a scoring app. I’ve used it on one project and loved it, so I’m looking forward to learning more about how to integrate it with my Final Cut workflow.

Missing shutter control on your cinema DSLR? Try The Fader

The hardest thing for me to let go of in making the leap from still photography to cinematography has been the shutter speed. Losing the ability to dial that in is like losing a limb. On the one hand, you have aperture size. On the other, you have shutter speed. When you open the aperture, you increase the shutter speed. Everybody’s happy.

With cinematography, you basically get one shutter speed. Ever. Period. That’s the speed that is half your frame rate-assuming you’re going for a film look. This means that if you’re shooting at 24 frames a second, your shutter speed is always going to be set at 48th of a second (or the closest DSLR equivalent, which in the case of my Canon T2i, is 50th of a second). Yeah, I know that you CAN go all Saving Private Ryan and shoot at a faster shutter, but it’s a special effect. You can’t reach for it very often unless you’re James Longly.

So, how CAN you control light? How can you use a nice shallow depth of field in bright lighting situations when you’re stuck with what, to still photographers, is a ridiculously slow shutter speed? You COULD adjust your ISO. But that bottoms out pretty fast. On my T2i, the slowest ISO I can set is 200. If you’re in any kind of sunlight, you’ll be bumping against the slowest ISO you can set, and begging for more.

Cinematographers have solved this problem a long time ago by using something I never once used in all my years a professional photojournalist: neutral density filters. When the sun comes out, the big fat matte box appears on the front of your lens, and starts getting loaded with darkened pieces of glass. They don’t affect anything about the light except intensity – that is, they do essentially what using a faster shutter speed used to do for you (without the motion-stopping side effects).

That’s all great, except for one thing. Using ND, as it’s called, is a pain in the ass. They generally come in 4″x4″ sheets, and require a matte box that costs more than your camera to work. Then you gotta carry around a bunch of them. Then when the light changes you have to swap them out and so on.

Before I continue, I want to raise a second former-photographer gripe about DSLR cinematography. My old Nikon glass is awesome, and works great on my Canon with a $10 adapter I bought on ebay. It’s manual focus, perfect since autofocus essentially doesn’t work on DSLRs when shooting video. But when I dial the aperture, each stop clicks audibly into place. And even if sound weren’t an issue, the sudden full-stop clicks make it impossible to smoothly dial in an aperture, like you can on professional video cameras, which have a continuous smooth iris ring. So we’ve got two serious problems that suck pretty bad. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could regain some of the control you gave up with the shutter dial AND fix the aperture click issue by adding one small piece of gear to your kit?

Enter “The Fader.” After using it for just one day of shooting, I call it something else: The Holy Grail. It’s a filter that looks a lot like a polarizer, with two rotating panes of glass. Only when you rotate it, it gets darker. A LOT darker. In cineamatography terms, it goes from ND 2 to ND 400. Wow. That’s hardly anything to almost complete darkness. And it does it smooooooothly as you can rotate it. See why this is so cool? Because it allows you to set an aperture, say 2.8, and when the sun comes out, you just twist the dial, like you would twist the aperture ring on a video camera, to chill down the exposure to something perfect.

In practice, it’s best to do this between takes. But the fact is, I actually was able to dial in the exposure while rolling using this instantly indispensable tool. It’s got nice grooved edges that make it easy to smoothly twist, and it’s MUCH easier to adjust on the fly than cranking on the clanking aperture ring of my Nikons.

I already feel naked without one of these on the front of my lens. I like these so much, I’m buying one for each of my primes (20mm, 35mm and 50mm). I plan to leave it permanently on the front of each lens (except when I absolutely need every stop out of the lenses when shooting in low light).

Thanks to Ryan Bilsborough-Koo for turning me onto this crazy-sexy device on his outstanding DSLR Cinematography Guide.

Editing project: SAM event promo shot on Flipcam

My entrepreneurial friends Piper Salooga and Sara Eizen, who both run their own interior design firms (Natural Balance Home and Office and Nest), teamed up with the Seattle Art Museum to host an event on March 11 at the museum gift shop. Full of can-do, they grabbed a Flipcam and decided to shoot their own video to promote the event. Then they called me and said, “Hey, we’ve got all this video…but we’re not sure what to do with it.” Here’s the result of my first editing project using someone else’s totally novice, handheld video. Not bad, huh?

Color grading (the dreamy tilt-shift in the intro and filmic-color throughout) was applied with Magic Bullet Quick Looks, an awesome plugin for Final Cut. For the music I used Sonicfire, a killer music-for-video service that lets you choose from a huge rage of beat-matched tracks. The killer part is that you download the track, then select exactly how long you want it to be, and it automatically outputs the precise length you want – with exactly the instrumentation you want (ie, you can lose the vocals, kill the drums, etc – all the the instruments are on their own layer). For $19 bucks a pop. Killer.

I used two special effects transitions – a whip-pan effect from Digital Heaven, and a flash filter that you can learn how to do in this video tutorial.

The Mystery of Picasso | documentary 40 of 100

Where does art come from? It’s a mystery, for sure. But one that can be recorded on film. French director Henri-Georges Clouzot captures Picasso’s process with what at the time may have been innovative techniques of time lapse, but that today seem a tad simplistic. But if you’re a Picasso fan, it’s enchanting.

Synopsis: Using a process that involves colors bleeding through paper to reveal pen strokes as they happen, the filmmakers join Picasso in his studio to observe how he puts ink and paint on canvas.

Story and Structure: The film is simply a visit to Picasso’s studio, in which he performs a series of paintings specifically for the camera, from beginning to end. A handful of brief interludes in which the director converses with Picasso add much-needed breaks from the tedium of watching paintings slowly emerge. It concludes with Picasso signing his name on a big canvas, and walking away.

Cinematography: The technique of ink bleeding through paper is interesting and a mystery for the first part of the film until it’s revealed when the director of the film inserts himself and his crew into the production in a conversation with Picasso. There’s a scene in the film, apparently inserted to add dramatic effect, in which the camera is about to run out of film, and we see the feet running out. But it seems fairly contrived. Lots of time lapse, which is kind of tired by the end.

Editing: The edit emphasizes the art, to the exclusion of Picasso himself.

Music: The music is frenetic, and all over the place. I’d have rather heard Picasso musing about his work in voiceover, instead of all that music and very little spoken words in the film. But the music does match the painting pretty well perfectly, complete with flourishes at end. A little too perfectly.

The director in this film seems a little high on himself. He dominates the conversation with Picasso, and smokes a pipe in Picasso’s studio. I was a little embarrassed for him.