Monthly Archives: April 2017

Why I’m buying a Sound Devices MixPre 3

Meet the new MixPre 3 and MixPre 6

Meet the new MixPre 3 and MixPre 6

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

The dream comes true

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

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

A new benchmark for small-production audio

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

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

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

Litepanels Hilio: an HMI alternative?

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

Hilio D12 controls

Hilio D12 controls

The Design

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

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

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

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

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

Raw beam

Raw beam through doorway

Raw beam through 4x4 of Hampshire frost light diffusion

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

Beam diffused with 1/4 grid lamp head bag

Beam diffused with 1/4 grid lamp head bag

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

Snapbag soft box

Snapbag soft box

Snapbag with 1/4 grad lamp head diffusion attached

Snapbag with 1/4 grid lamp head diffusion attached

Snapbag with full grid diffusion in place

Snapbag with full grid diffusion in place

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

Snapbag straps

Snapbag straps

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

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

The window test

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

Hilio D12 as key in window

Hilio D12 as key with window in background

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

RGB Parade

RGB Parade

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

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

Hilio D12 close up

Hilio D12 close up

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

In summary

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

LiteGear’s S2 LiteMat 1 is a small miracle

LiteMat 1 S2 handheld. Photo by Doug Plummer

LiteMat 1 S2 handheld. Photo by Doug Plummer

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

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

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

What is the difference between videography and cinematography?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another frame:

Hollywooding a light allows picking up this shot quickly without fuss

Hollywooding a light allows picking up this shot quickly without fuss

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

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

“Hollywooding”

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

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

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

What you need

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

Improvised battery belt for Hollywooding the LiteGear S2 LiteMat 1

Tips

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

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