Category Archives: Tips

5 ways ditching your camera leads to more cinematic storytelling

5 ways ditching your camera leads to more cinematic storytelling

Turn on your TV. What’s the first thing you see? Somebody talking to the camera. Blah blah blah.  Open a film on Netflix. What’s the first thing you see? Action. The essence of cinematic storytelling is showing, not telling. So, if you aspire to cinematic storytelling with your documentary filmmaking, why film talking heads in the first place? Why not commit to showing instead of telling?

I’m a little hesitant to share this insight, because it’s valuable to me. Big medical organizations hire me to to tell their most important stories, and it’s a financially rewarding gig. Why give away my secret? But ideas are cheap – it’s execution that matters. So here’s a cheap idea that, when applied, has proven invaluable to me and my clients.

Stop shooting interviews with a camera.

Wait, what? How can you say that – aren’t you a camera guy? Yes, I am. But my first commitment is to story. And I’ve observed that:

  1. Being on camera feels like a performance to most people; being on mic feels more like a conversation. Talking heads are boring; mic’d conversations are more authentic.
  2. Cameras need lights, grip and crew. Sound needs only a mic, a recorder, and a quiet place, so audio costs less.
  3. If the audio interview doesn’t move you, you move on. It’s easy to do that because you’re less invested when you use a mic.
  4. Not having any interview footage forces you (and your client) to choose a visually interesting character who provides cinematic b-roll opportunities.
  5. Recording interviews audio-only adds a “radio edit” step to your editing workflow, building client buy-in early in the process. This translates into fewer client changes at the rough cut stage, faster delivery, and a happier client.

Let’s unpack this.

Talking heads are boring

Most people aren’t actors. So, they are uncomfortable when a camera is pointed at them. There are ways of minimizing this, but the simplest, most effective way is to simply nix the camera. Instead, bring only a microphone. That way, you can be sure they’re never thinking “how do I look?” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Great interviews are genuine, human conversations. And when cameras are not in the mix, everything gets easier. Not only for the subject, but also for me.  No part of my brain is thinking about the lighting, or the frame rate, or the ISO. I’m just thinking about the person I’m talking to. I’m fully present. And THAT is the foundation of an extraordinary interview.

Camera interviews are expensive

In the large-nonprofit productions I do, a typical interview involves a crew of 3-4 people and a station wagon full of equipment. If we split the equipment up between picture and sound, about three-quarters of the “stuff” we bring belongs in the picture category. By going audio-only with your interviews, you eliminate three-quarters of your stuff. This also allows you to cut your crew in half. You see where I’m going with this: Cameras are expensive; talk is cheap.

Documentaries need casting, too

Great documentary films are built from great stories. Great stories emerge from great interviews. And great interviews come from great characters. To find great characters, you have to do casting.

When you use a mic for your interviews, you turn your interviews into casting sessions. If the interview is weak, it’s easy to move on to another story candidate without incurring the high costs of camera production. It allows you to cut your losses quickly.

On the other hand, if it’s an extraordinary interview, it’s easy to get your client to buy in to the story, with a radio edit. And the only thing left to do is the b-roll. More on that below.

It forces you (and your client) to choose wisely

Too often, clients settle. They settle for a boring character and an uninspiring story that has few b-roll options. They do this because you let them. And you let them by shooting interviews.

When you shoot an interview, you can always cover your lack of good b-roll by cutting to the talking head, like they do on TV. But no matter how well you’ve lit the interview, it’s still a talking head.

When you have no talking head, you force both yourself and your client to pick a strong character, who will provide you with action to film. That is, you force yourself to show instead of tell. That’s sometimes an uncomfortable place to be. But trust me, it’s a good place to be.

The radio edit advantage

We’ve all been there. You work really hard on an edit, you present it to your client, and you hold your breath. Will they like it? How many changes will they make? What if they don’t like it?

I have discovered that if you take the time to introduce your client to a story with a “radio edit,”  you (and your client) will be able to breathe a lot easier when it comes time to deliver your rough cut.

A radio edit is an audio-only version of your film that would totally work if it were aired on the radio, including music and pacing. The first time I did this, the client came back to me with a surprising comment: “Wow. This sound like a This American Life piece. We can’t wait to see what it looks like with video!”

By giving them a polished radio edit first, you introducing them to your story gently. You invite them to buy in to the story, and to your approach. I find that clients have a few changes at this stage. But these few are much easier and less expensive for you to make than they would be after you’ve added b-roll.

Here’s how it works

On this project, my client needed help launching a $2 billion fundraising campaign. They wanted to find a story that would inspire their audience to believe that heart disease was beatable, and that their donations could have a direct impact. Because of the big numbers at stake, the approval chain included a lot of brass, including the CEO. Red flag!

The first person we interviewed (mic only) didn’t move us. Neither did the second person. So we kept looking. Then we found Jim. Here’s his radio edit:

The client liked the radio edit, and suggested some minor changes. Here’s the final film:

When they saw the rough cut (for this and another film we made concurrently using the same approach), they sent me this email:

Dan. I don’t think we have ever given this little feedback on videos. They’re universally loved, and we think they’re going to work really well.

Werner Herzog once said “Good footage always cuts.” The visuals don’t have to literally match the dialog (as long as you have great story as a foundation). Somehow by choosing a character who inhabits an interesting environment, who does interesting things, the footage will always cut.

So. Next time you’re faced with a high stakes interview-based project, consider how ditching your camera can help you do more with less.

 

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.

Here’s how the finished piece turned out:

 

“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.

Travel lighting: 2-person interviews with Kino Flo Celebs

I just returned from a week on the road, shooting 2-person, 2-camera interviews for a documentary film that we hope will shine a light on an unsolved murder. Although I can’t talk about the content yet, I can talk about our lighting package. I chose Kino Flo Celebs, and I have some insights to share about these industry workhorses.

Kino Flo Celeb 401 kit

Kino Flo Celeb 401 kit

Kino Flo 201 Celeb kit

Kino Flo Celeb 201 kit

For this documentary production, we needed to light both the interviewer and the interviewee. So the job required something a little bigger than my usual kit. The shoot location was in a major US city that I would be flying to. And with extra baggage fees, it became clear that it would be more cost effective to rent locally than it would be to travel with my own lights.

Kino Flo Celebs rental package

Rent it or pack it?

On American Airlines, your first piece of checked luggage is $25. The second is $35. Each additional bag jumps to $125 each. I already needed two checked bags for my camera and tripod. Therefore, to bring my own lighting kit would have required two additional checked bags, totaling $600 round trip. With fees like that, it makes more sense to rent locally – and skip the hassle of traveling with all those cases.

Here’s what I specified in our package, which came to $942 for a 5-day rental:

  • 2 Kino Flo 201 Celebs
  • 1 Kino Flo 401 Celeb
  • 4 c-stands (2 for 201s, 1 for my Dedo DLED 7 which I packed, and 1 for sound guy)
  • 1 combo stand (for 401, which requires a Junior receiver)
  • 1 25′ stinger (with power strip for distribution)
  • 4 15lb sand bags (for c-stands)
  • 1 25lb sand bag (for combo stand)
  • 6 A-clamps
  • 2 furniture pads (for blocking light if needed)

To drive all this around, we rented a Yukon SUV.  It was big enough to fit our 4-person filmmaking team and the entire lighting package and camera gear in the back.  Note that we also hired local sound recordists, who drove their own vehicles. We also had a local PA for a couple of shoot days, but we traveled light enough to not require a PA.

What I packed:

Why Celebs rock

When you’re both the gaffer and the DP, you really don’t have the time or the mental bandwidth to fuck with the lighting for very long. You have to put your camera hat on pretty quickly. I chose the Celebs because they offer controlled, soft light right out of the case. A light that requires setting cutters or flags or diffusing isn’t going to cut it. I need a light that I can set and forget.

The Kino Flo Celeb is perfect for these situations. Not only are Celebs soft without additional diffusion, they also include a honeycomb grid that focuses the soft light and aims it just where you want it. It’s hard to overstate how well this honeycomb works. One of the best things about the Celeb is its ability to minimize light spill.

To set up a Celeb,  you just pull it out of its case, yolk-mount it on a c-stand (in the case of the 201s) or on a junior stand (in the case of the 401). The 401 really does need the Junior stand – it weighs 26 pounds. That’s a lot of light.

Celebs are built like a tank. They are designed to withstand the wear and tear of day-in, day-out production. A set of convenient metal handles allows you to easily lift the lights in and out of their road cases. The only cord you have to hook up is the power cord – the ballast is built into the back of the unit. And as color-selectable LED sources, the lights can be dialed from 2700K – 6500K. You can also dim them to about 2 percent, invaluable when you want just a hint of fill.

The lighting setups

The basic setup for our 2-person, 2-camera interviews was to place the 401 as fill for both subjects on the camera side. Then we placed the 201s on the opposite side to key each person individually. We could then adjust the fill level down to get the dark, brooding vibe the director wanted, while still holding enough detail to reveal expressions.

kino-flo-celebs-basic-setup

Basic 2-person, 2-camera interview lighting setup

The above setup worked great in conference rooms without windows. But we also often shot in rooms that had a daylight window on one or more sides. In those cases, sometimes I would use the window as fill, and the 401 as key for both subjects, with a 201 to wrap the light a little further around onto the fill side of their face if needed.

Daylight window lighting setup

Daylight window lighting setup

Sometimes we filmed a 2-shot with one of the cameras, placing the 401 as fill by raising it above the 2-shot camera. This setup required placing both 201s on c-stand arms and raising them until their stands are out of the shot:

2-shot interview lighting setup

2-shot interview lighting setup (note both 201 lights are raised on arms to avoid seeing their stands in background of 2-shot camera)

In one case, we had to light three people: two interview subjects sitting next to each other,  with the interviewer opposite them:

3-person lighting setup

3-person interview lighting setup (note 401 is raised and on c-stand arm to keep it out of both camera shots, which requires counterweighting the arm. Dicey!)

Sketchy to boom

We had to shoot the above 3-person setup at night. So I chose to use the 401 as key for the 2 subjects so they could be lit evenly. However, to keep the stands out of frame, I had to boom the light out over the camera and aim it down on the subjects at a 45. I was able to make this work by clamping the yolk in a c-stand grip head, and placing a 25’lb bag on the other end of the arm as a counterweight. But this was a pretty shaky setup, and I probably should have used a 201 for each of the subjects and the 401 for the interviewer. This is where having something like a LiteGear LiteMat2L (which weighs just 3 pounds) would have been really nice.

Nitpicks

The Celebs are not bright enough to match open window light in the background of a shot. You’d need HMIs for that. But they are bright enough to match windows that are controlled with shears, curtains or blinds. And on overcast days when you have foliage in the background of a window (which reduces the light level a couple of stops) the Celebs can match it. If the sun comes out, though, you’re cooked.

I also wish the locking power cord, which is only about 8′ long, was at least twice that length, the way Arri lights are. Because manufacturers really should include a usable length of cord with their units.

Kino Flo Celebs are clearly built to withstand the rigors of daily use in production. However, I feel they are actually overbuilt. Why couldn’t these lights be both lighter weight and durable? Competitors like Aladdin and LiteGear are making lights that are almost the same size but weigh a tiny fraction of these beasts. So I look forward to reviewing some of the lighter Celeb alternatives soon.

Lesson’s learned

  • Pack a small light stand. Many rental houses don’t have them, and standard C-stands don’t let you place small backlights like the Dedo DLED7 as low as you may want to.
  • A Baby Pin is a much better way to mount 201 Celebs to a C-stand. This allows you to mount them on the grip-head end of the stand’s gobo arm, and angle the light more precisely.
  • For really soft light, or room ambience, bounce the 401 into a wall or ceiling (or foam core, but we didn’t have any of that with us).
  • 1 stinger with power strip wasn’t always enough. I should have asked for 2 25′ stingers in my G&L package.

Bottom Line

With the Kino Flo Celebs and a small crew, I was able to handle a wide variety of documentary lighting challenges. The honeycomb grids allowed me to effortlessly control light spill by simply angling the light, rather than placing flags or cutters (which require more stands).  Due to it’s design, you’ll never see a single LED. Celebs produce a light that is soft enough to require no further diffusion, and they pack up very quickly. That allowed us to schedule more shoots in a day. Because of this all-in-one design, I noticed that it took more time to break down our c-stands than it did to break down and pack up our lights.

It’s no wonder NAB awarded Kino Flo Celebs “best new light” in 2014.

As for that unsolved murder? It’s a long-standing mystery, one that our team believes deserves a new hearing in the court of public opinion. So stay tuned.

DPA d:screet 4061 hides easily and sounds good under clothing

DPA 4061 lavalier mic with DAK4060 Accessory Kit

DPA 4061 lavalier mic with DAK4060 Accessory Kit and adapters

For my documentary film work, I’ve been pretty satisfied with my Tram TR50s over the past few years. But when the mic capsule came loose for the second time on one of them, I was in the mood to try something new. After reading some reviews, I picked the DPA D:screet 4061 lav mic.

Why I chose DPA

  1. It’s modular, using micro-dot connector adapters that allow the mic to work with virtually any professional audio device (i.e., XLR, Sennheiser, Lectrosonics, etc).
  2. DPA makes a whole line of well designed accessories designed to make it easy to hide the mic.
  3. It sounds great under clothing using the included capsule for boosting high frequencies. It also comes with a capsule that boosts the mid frequencies for use when outside of clothing.
  4. The built quality is excellent, and it’s designed to withstand hours of sweaty performance.

The biggest surprise with the 4061 is how great it sounds under clothing when hidden. And how easy it is to hide using the DMM0012 Miniature Concealer. DPA makes some special two-sided round tape (ADH0002 Double-Sided Tape for Miniature Concealer), which is amazing stuff. You place the mic in the concealer, apply a piece of tape, then stick the mic anywhere inside your subject’s clothing, or on their chest directly. Using this setup, the mic us MUCH quieter under clothing than my TR50s ever were. I’m not sure why, exactly, but I can tell you that it just works. Something about the capsule of the TR50 makes it especially sensitive to clothing rustle.

One note: The DPA Microphones DPADH0004 double-sided tape costs $14 for 10 strips. When it arrived, I discovered it’s actually just Top-stick 1″x3″ toupe tape repackaged by DPA. You can buy 100 strips for the same price on Amazon.

DPA has made a video with some tips on how to hide their mics (or any others, really) under clothing:

I’ve taken the time to decipher some of the materials described in this video.

DPA lav vs Rode lav

I’ve also had a Rode lav for a few years, and it’s another decent sounding mic for dialog that uses micro-dot connectors. However, Rode’s implementation of the connectors is much less robust than those found on the DPA mics. The DPA mic has a locking connector, which is thicker, while the Rode connectors do not lock, and feel pretty flimsy. But they have held solid so far.

Rode vs. DPA micro dot connectors

Rode vs. DPA micro dot connectors

The Rode lav is also easy to hide under clothing using their Invisilav silicon mic concealers. But in my experience the double-sided tape on these tends to come off very easily, and is very fiddly to apply. The double-sided taping system that DPA makes for their concealer is definitely superior.

Quality has a price

If you’re looking to save money, the 4061 probably won’t be your first choice. The 4061 with microdot termination is $449. You’ll need to add at least one connector, and locking connector for Sennheiser Evolution wireless systems is $100; for an XLR connector it’s $115. The accessory kit padded case, pictured above, adds another $134 and includes a magnetic connector. The mic alone comes in a smaller clear, hard-plastic case. The concealer and it’s yellow double-sided tape stickers is sold separately.

The good news is that high-quality sound equipment evolves slowly (unlike cameras, which get upgrades every few months, it seems). It’s very likely that this mic will still be on the job 10 years from now. If you look at it that way, it’s a bargain!

Hive Lighting’s new WASP 100-C LED looks killer

It’s as bright as an Arri 650. It’s an LED. It’s rated at 98 cri. But wait, there’s more. It can output any color in the spectrum. And it’s just $799? Wow, if this thing is for real, lighting junkies like me have a lot to look forward to.  This beautiful piece of engineering from Hive Lighting is scheduled to begin shipping in March.

Hive Lighting makes high-quality fixtures used in Hollywood productions, and they have earned a great reputation for innovation with their plasma lights. The WASP 100-C is their first foray into the fast-changing world of film LED lighting.

The WASP 100-C will work with a wide range of accessories, including a mini source four attachment that should allow you to throw a narrow slice of light all the way across the room, no flagging required.

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The lights will sell for $1,200 normally, so this is a screaming good deal while the WASP 100-C ickstarter campaign is still going.

Lydia’s Story

Who knew that getting cancer could be a way into Carnegie Hall?

When Lydia Miner discovered a lump in her throat, she faced a blistering regime of radiation therapy in order to save her life. But the side effects would have left her unable to speak, or even eat, for a long time. Then she heard about a new form of treatment, robotic surgery, pioneered by a doctor at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

I made this film for Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, a tireless organization that works to bring patients new tools in the fight against cancer.

This piece was shot on Sony FS5 (SLOG3), and I cut it on Final Cut Pro X. Thanks to producer Sara Finklestein and crew members Alexandra Watkins (summer intern) and AC Kollin O’Dannel.

Teradek Bolt Pro 300: 5 tips

Teradek 300 HDMI wireless video transmitter

Teradek 300 HDMI wireless video transmitter

I had a project a few days ago where I wanted to provide a client monitor. I rented a Teradek Bolt Pro HDMI wireless transmitter, and learned a few things that I’d like to share about wireless monitoring.

  1. HDMI cables suck. I couldn’t get a signal and spent a lot of time trying to figure out why the transmitter wasn’t working. Turns out the HDMI cable was bad.
  2. The Bolt Pro 300 receiver runs very hot. If it gets too hot, the signal will cut out unexpectedly. I found that placing it on a table was where it overheated – it was happiest with good airflow around the unit.
  3. The SmallHD 502 and 702 monitors both offer loop through from SDI to HDMI, so it was possible to output to the client monitor via HDMI while at the same time receiving a rock solid SDI signal from camera to monitor.
  4. Test everything thoroughly the day before your shoot.  The power requirements, the calibration of the monitor you’ll be using, and how you’ll be mounting everything. The details will kill you if you don’t get them right ahead of time.
  5. Did I mention HDMI cables suck? Next time I will pony up the extra cash to rent an SDI transmitter, because the HDMI cables really aren’t worth the headache in a production environment.

I was pleasantly surprised with how little latency the wireless video signal had. It was no problem to use the wireless signal to pull focus with. I can definitely see incorporating the SDI version of this system into my future production environments.

Use FilmConvert Pro to nail your skin tones

When I started filmmaking with a DSLR about 7 years ago, I discovered that the most difficult thing to get right in post production was skin tones. No matter what I tried, they just didn’t look right. A lot of the time, I couldn’t even put my finger on why.

Then I discovered FilmConvert Pro. With my Canon DSLRs, all I had to do was drop FilmConvert on a clip, and something magical happened. The skin tones suddenly looked human and alive. That made such an impression on me that I used FilmConvert to grade my first feature-length documentary, which was shot on a pair of Canon 60Ds.

In the years since I’ve moved into shooting more and more commercial work on higher quality cameras. Along the way I taught myself how to use DaVinci Resolve and began relying on it to generate dailies. So when I decided to try FilmConvert again recently on a commercial project, I was surprised with a new discovery: the skin tones I was getting in Resolve didn’t look as good as the ones that FilmConvert could give me!

The good news, however, is that FilmConvert works inside Resolve, so I don’t have to give up the power and precision of Resolve. I can still create complex masks, track motion, etc., while using FilmConvert. I’ll explain how to do that below as I create a nursing recruitment video. But first, I should mention that it’s possible to use the standalone version of FilmConvert  if you don’t have Resolve, or any other editor, for that matter. But it has some limitations.

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FilmConvert Standalone version

The first thing I noticed about the standalone version of FilmConvert is that It feels a little raw. Some of the basic Mac OS conventions don’t work. For example, in the Clip Browser, if you want to use the arrow key to advance to the next clip, you can’t.  So you are forced to use your mouse to select clips, which slows me down. It also takes more than two seconds after clicking on a clip for the thumbnail to appear, which doesn’t seem like a big deal until you start scrolling through a list of a hundred clips. There’s also no way to play a clip in the browser – you just get a static thumbnail or list view.

These days I’m shooting a lot of my projects on a Sony FS5, so I was disappointed to discover that MXF files are not supported in the standalone version of FilmConvert. You can, however,  import an XML file from an application like Final Cut or an EDL from Resolve. But that adds another step to your workflow.

On the plus side, however, once you get your clips into the app, the Film Settings panel makes it very easy to preview clips and audition different settings. Hitting the space bar plays clips as expected, but JKL keys are not supported for shuttling through footage. Once you’ve found a look that works for your project, you can save it as a preset.

The app also provides a menu called Viewing Target, that allows you to change the gamma to match that used in the three most common finishing platforms – Premiere Pro, FCPX/Quicktime or FCP/Resolve. Very helpful.

DaVinci Resolve

DaVinci Resolve and I have a love/hate relationship. I love the power that Resolve gives me to control color, but with great power comes great responsibility. I hate the amount of work it takes to tweak things before they look just right, especially with SLOG footage. Also, SLOG 2 footage requires slightly different tweaking than SLOG 3. But I’m never sure exactly which tweaks.

With FilmConvert’s OFX plugin version, you can get 90 percent of the way to your grade simply by dragging and dropping. It’s a real timesaver for me to load FilmConvert, which knows all about the differences between picture profiles, as my first step. From there, the remaining tweaks are usually simple.

Before we jump into Resolve and see how this works, I should mention that the footage for this project was shot on my Sony FS5 using SLOG-3/Cine overexposed one stop to kill noise. When I open Resolve and place the clips into a timeline, here’s what one of the ungraded SLOG clips looks like:

uncorrected slog-3 clip

Uncorrected SLOG-3 clip looks very flat

Note that you can do everything I’m demonstrating here with the free version of Resolve.  Then, download the OFX version of FilmConvert Pro, and follow the directions to install it in Resolve. The first time I installed FilmConvert this way, I made the mistake of trying to apply it to my clips in the Edit tab, which contains a OpenFX tab under the Effects Library menu. Ignore that, and instead apply FilmConvert on Resolve’s Color page. Here are the steps.

  1. Import your clips into Resolve and add into Media Pool.
  2. Create a new timeline with your clips.
  3. Open the Color tab. For my workflow, I want to convert all the clips simultaneously, so instead of applying FilmConvert to each clip, I start out by switching from Clip mode into Timeline mode. This allows us to simultaneously apply FilmConvert to all clips in the timeline. Select "Timeline" instead of "Clip."
  4. Create timeline node. You’ll notice that there are no nodes in the node tree when you switch into Timeline mode. You will need to add one before you can apply FilmConvert. From the Nodes menu, select Add Serial Node (or press option-s).
    addserialnode
  5. Apply FilmConvert. Click on the OpenFX menu to reveal the OFX Library, and scroll down until you see FilmConvert. Drag it onto the timeline node to apply it (below):
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  6. Default profile is applied. You’ll immediately notice the clip gets grainy. FilmConvert applies a standard profile by default, and adds a lot of film grain. We’ll fix that in a minute.
  7. Add a serial node. In order to make global color corrections later, I add a second serial node in front of the one I’ve applied FilmConvert to (shift-s). FilmConvert should always be applied to the last node in the node tree. Then double click on the 02 node so that it’s active.
  8. Select Camera. Next, in the FilmConvert menu in the Settings sidebar, we want to select our camera profile:Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 12.13.46 PM
  9. Select picture profile. Also choose the picture profile you used when shooting. FilmConvert gives you options for +1 and +2 overexposure options:
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    Select picture profile

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    Image with default profile, which is too grainy for my taste

  10. reduce grainAdjust grain. OK so now you should see your image starting to look better. But the first thing I notice is that it looks very grainy. I’m not a fan of film grain for most commercial videos (the whole point of having high quality camera sensors is to get rid of grain, isn’t it?So the first thing I do is reduce the grain slider to 0. I DO sometimes like the grain for more creative pieces, however, and in fact, the grain can be very helpful in disguising thinner 8-bit codec adjustments. In those cases, I find that setting the grain slider between 30 and 50 is about right. But for this piece, we’ll keep it clean.

    Exposure adjustments made

    With a few exposure adjustments, our image begins to pop

  11. Exposure changesAdjust the exposure. The next thing I’m noticing is that my clip is a little dark. FilmConvert provides contrast adjustment tools within the  plugin. You can make global exposure and color temperature adjustments in the plugin’s Camera Settings menu. Or scroll down to make more detailed adjustments to lift (shadows), gamma (midtowns) and gain (highlights). However, we’re already working within one of the most powerful tools for contrast and color adjustment – DaVinci Resolve – so I tend to make my global changes in that node we added previously. But if Resolve’s controls are intimidating to you, don’t worry! Just grab the Exposure slider and move it until your image looks properly exposed.
  12. Choose a film stock. OK, so with a few contrast adjustments made, our image is looking pretty good. Now for the fun part: choosing our film stock. This is the palette you get to play with, the place where subtle differences can be hard to see, but have a huge impact on your final look. I recommend using one of Resolve’s comparison tools, Grab Still, to help you see the difference between stocks side by side.  With the default Film Setting selected (KD 5207 Vis3), click on the viewer and select “grab still.”grab still
  13. Grab a still for each stock. Select the next film stock on the list, KD 5213 Vis3. Grab another still. Repeat for each of the stocks you want to compare (FJ Neo through KD TrX400 are black and white, so I’ve skipped those). Now click on Gallery at the top left of Resolve’s window. You will see a thumbnail of each still displayed in the left column. You can click on each still and give it a name that matches the film stock. still gallery
  14. Expand the gallery. In the menu at the top of the stills, you’ll notice a slider that controls the size of the thumbnails. To the right of that is a search icon and a four-arrowed icon. Click the arrowed icon to expand the gallery.

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    With gallery expanded, you can easily compare the subtle differences between film stocks.

  15. adjust controlsSelect film stock. Choose the film stock you like best. You can make further refinements to the look in the FilmConvert plugin controls. Film Color and Curve are two controls that help you dial in the exact look you want. I find that FilmConvert’s Curve tends to be quite contrasty when applied at the default 100 percent.  You may want to back it off slightly. And Film Color is like the opacity sliders in Photoshop that allow you to back off on the intensity of the entire plugin (dialing this down to 0 returns you to completely flat SLOG3).
  16. Make individual adjustments. Check the other clips in your timeline. They will likely need individual adjustments, and you can do those on the Clip node, rather than the timeline node.
  17. Export dailies. When you are happy with how each clip looks, switch to Resolve’s Deliver window, and export your files in the editing-friendly codec of your choice. I export to ProRes for editing in Final Cut Pro X.

Before we leave Resolve, I want to point out one more very cool feature of FilmConvert. It’s the ability to export a LUT based on your film look. I use this a lot, because I most often am shooting SLOG on a Sony FS5 using a SmallHD 502 or 702 monitor. These monitors support LUTs, so by loading this LUT into the monitor, I can see what the video will look like AFTER FilmConvert is applied using my settings. It’s a great way to previsualize on set. If you have a client looking over your shoulder while shooting, this is invaluable. Here’s how to generate the LUT:

Click "Export 3d LUT"

Click “Export 3d LUT”

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The default name isn’t very helpful

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Give the LUT a name that accurately describes the look being applied

The resulting .cube file can be then loaded onto the monitor.

OK back to cutting our video. The next step in my workflow is to cut my footage in FCPX. So I import the dailies we’ve generated in Resolve into FCPX, and start cutting. For this particular video, I will use some additional media (animated stills) that doesn’t have FilmConvert applied to it. That’s OK! FilmConvert works with FCPX too (provided you have the FCPX-specific plugin, which can be downloaded from the FilmConvert site.

The stills I’m working with were shot with an unknown camera. So to match them to my footage in FCPX, I drag and drop the FilmConvert plugin onto the still, and using the on-screen controls, select the Default profile.

Match footage

In FCPX, we can match unknown camera types using the default settings and onscreen controls

This shot is too warm – I want to cool it off. So I drag the puck in the middle of the color wheels in the direction of my desired color shift.

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Before applying FilmConvert

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After applying FilmConvert

To apply the same change to all of the additional stills, simply copy and paste the effect.

Here’s the finished video:

Getting a consistent film look is quickly achievable using FilmConvert, without having to delve into the complexities of color correction. And even if you do know those complexities, grading from scratch takes a lot of time. And that’s why I like FilmConvert Pro: it frees me to focus on the story, and empowers me to ship faster. What’s not to love about a tool that can do that?

 

 

Chasing the perfect timelapse with the Rhino Camera crew

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Just after sunrise, the 365-degree view from the top of Sourdough Mountain Lookout is breathtaking. Shot with Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art series lens.

For this post, I’m going to let the pictures do most of the talking. How did I find myself in a place to take these photos? Well, Kyle Hart of Rhino Camera Gear sent out an invitation to Rhino customers a couple weeks ago, inviting us to join him and one of his team members on a backpacking trip into the North Cascades. That’s what I call customer relationship management!  I still can’t believe I was the only person who said yes.

Kyle’s goal for this trip was to find an epic spot to shoot a timelapse of The Milky Way. Well, we found that spot. It’s called Sourdough Mountain Lookout, and I’ve never seen a view like the one we saw as we woke up in the morning. The fog spread below us in all directions, like a glacier from the ice age. It was an unforgettable moment.

I hadn’t had my coffee when I headed out for this trip at 6 in the morning, and forgot the motor for my slider in my living room. (Tip: never leave the house without having coffee first). So for this trip, I left the timelapse shooting to the Rhino guys, and focused on shooting stills with my 5dmkiii.

As a result of this trip, Rhino Camera will soon have some fresh content on their website featuring tips on how to pack Rhino sliders for backpacking, and how to shoot a great Milky Way timelapse. I’ll put up a link to that here as soon as it’s up.