Big League Cine Summit is Dec. 10-12

Online learning has become a big deal in the era of CreativeLive. But until now, there hasn’t been a multi-day online seminar specifically dedicated to cinematography. Well, that’s about to change. The Big League Cine Summit will bring 11 presenters to your small screen next week for live workshops designed to take your cinematography to the next level. Best of all, it’s free! Check it out:

Day 1: Dec. 10

BRUCE LOGAN:
Lighting with the Sun

ART ADAMS:
Getting The Best Image On Set Using Waveforms

RON DAWSON:
Defining Your Cinematic Style

VON WARE:
Filming Fast Action Sports

Day 2: Dec 11

CAMILLE MAROTTE:
Using After Effects For The Film Look

RYAN E. WALTERS:
Product Lighting: How to light Reflective and Clear Objects

MICHELE BRANDSTETTER:
From Pre to Post Production on a low-budget Slow Motion Shoot

Day 3: Dec 12

DARON KEET:
Mastering the art of lighting actors

LUKE NEUMAN:
Lessons From An Indie Film

TOM ANTOS:
High-End Camera Moves On A Budget

CALEB PIKE:
The Total DSLR Budget Package

It’s clear that this type of workshop is changing the way creatives in niche professions can learn from and be inspired by one another. So I’m looking forward to attending online and learning something new.

5 location lighting problems solved with Switronix TorchLED Bolt

Last summer I DP’d a short film written by Persephone Vandegrift. I’m in the basement preparing to shoot the scene we’ve been saving to the very end, in which Telisa Steen’s character destroys a dollhouse in a fit of grieving for her lost daughter. I’m a little nervous for three reasons. One, there would be no retakes, because the prop would be destroyed. Two, the home owners want us gone in an hour. And three, the ceiling in this bedroom is so low that I can reach up and touch it. So hiding a light is going to be a bitch. And I need something, fast, to separate Telisa from the background. What am I gonna do?

I reached for my “Peacemaker,” the sun gun that’s always within reach: a Switronix TorchLED Bolt. I’ll explain what I did with it in a moment. But first, I’d like to state that this post covers the TorchLED 200. I just learned that Switronix has announced an updated version, the TorchLED Bolt 220, that is 10 percent brighter, $120 more expensive (although B&H has steeply discounted it to $279 through dec. 4), and claims to fix a color mixing issue I discuss below.

The Switronix Bolt LED is hands down the most versatile video light I’ve ever used. In the 9 months since I got my hands on one, I’ve used it like a monkey wrench to fix all kinds of lighting problems. Here’s why:

  • It’s powerful for its size.
  • It’s tiny. So it’s easy take with you.
  • It’s controllable. It throws a tightly focused beam a long way without interfering with other lights.
  • It’s color adjustable. Two knobs allow you to select between 3200k tungsten and 5600k daylight.
  • It’s strong battery powered. L-mount Sony batteries keep you going for more than two hours at full blast, or more than twice that when dialed down a bit. Connect them to a Switronix V-lock battery using the included adapter cable, and you can run all day.
  • It’s inexpensive. About $250 including battery and cables.
Distance TorchLED LitePanels MicroPro
3 ft. f/11 f/2.8
6 ft. f/5.6 f/1.4
12 ft. f/2.8

Just how powerful is it? Take a look at the numbers to the right. I broke out my light meter and compared it to a venerable LitePanels Micro Pro, and got these light meter readings at 50th/shutter at ISO 640.

I recently bought a second one and they go everywhere with me in my camera case. Maybe that’s why they get used so much – they are always handy when I need them. And because they are battery powered, with batteries that last for hours, I don’t have to think about running extension cords when I want to deploy a light. Sometimes that’s the difference between adding a light and getting by without it.

OK, so let’s go back to that low-ceilinged room and see what we can do with it.

Problem 1: Low ceiling – no room for placing backlight without getting it into the shot.

Solution: Hang a Bolt from an autopole.

With the clock ticking, my camera assistant David Fareti was able to attach a Bolt to an autopole with a Matthelini clamp. The only other light with us that might have worked was a Lowell ProLight, but it would be so close to the ceiling that it might have caught the place on fire. And there’s the time it would have taken to hide the power cable. So it simply wasn’t an option. In the end, our shot come up looking like this frame from the film:

Problem 2: Talent shows up for interview wearing wide-brim hat. No time to re-light.

Solution: Place Bolt on stand close to camera lens, at eye level with talent, and dial it to provide -2 stops fill.

We’re filming a series of interviews with legendary graphic designers for the Seattle Design Lecture Series. Our first interview was with April Greiman, who arrived an hour late for the interview wearing this huge hat. We had to roll almost immediately because she was due to deliver her speech in about an hour. Gulp. I knew her eyes would go black under that hat, but I didn’t just want to lower the key and blast light up in there – the only thing worse than under lighting is over lighting. I have learned to keep a spare Switronix pre-mounted on a light stand for just kind of situation. I simply placed it just to my camera left at lens height, and dialed in about -2 stops of light. Like so:

Instantly, her eyes come to life with the catch light in them, and her expression emerges from beneath the brim. Yet, a sense of mystery is preserved. Despite the fact that the Bolt is a small hard light, you can get away with using it undiffused as fill. Oh, and that’s my other Swit sketching her hat and shoulders with rim light.

Problem 3: Strong sunlight on subject needs a quick fill.

Solution: Put Bolt on camera and crank it all the way up.

OK, so I wouldn’t normally light an interview like this. I’m showing you this to prove a point: for ENG-style interviews, the Bolt IS bright enough to fill direct sunlight…if you keep the subject within about 3.5 feet of the camera. For this selfie shot on my 5dmkiii, the Bolt was set to full power at 5600k, the aperture was at f/4.5 with a .9 ND filter (-3 stops) on 50mm lens, at ISO 160. Take that, sunshine!

Problem 4: Need a hair light but must avoid window reflections.

Solution: Clamp Swit Bolt to ceiling-mounted light track.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing New York graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister for the Design Lecture Series put together by Civilization. I used quite a few tungsten lights gelled at 1/2 ctb, to get good color contrast with the blue window light that surrounded him. I couldn’t do what I normally do – place a light on a Manfrotto 420B boom arm for a backlight, because it would have been visible reflected in the glass windows behind him.

Luckily, there was some track lighting in the ceiling behind him, which wasn’t very sturdy. But it was strong enough for me to clamp a Bolt to it with a gaffer’s clamp. Lighting accomplished.

Problem 5: Need a quick kicker to add a little zest to otherwise good looking frame.

Solution: Swit on stand behind and beside talent.

Here’s a shot that already looked pretty good with key light from a softbox, and background light pouring through a doorway window illuminating the books. But this UW professor wasn’t separating enough from her background. The solution was, you guessed it, two Bolt LEDs. The first I hung on a Manfrotto 420B arm which gave her a nice hair light, also illuminating her camera-right shoulder. Then I put a second Bolt on a light stand behind and beside her to camera left. This provided a kicker that also filled in the shadow side of her face a bit, and penciled out her shoulder. Roll camera.

A Phottix FTX2 Flash Bar allows placing two of these lights on a stand (this flash bar, which articulates at base, also allows mounting these lights inside an Apollo soft box). Conveniently, there’s a couple of slots for attaching a shoot-though umbrella. Pairing two lights through an umbrella, at 50th shutter and ISO 640, I get f/5.6 at 3 feet, f/2.8 at 6 feet, and f/1.4 at 12 feet. In practice, though, I rarely use them doubled up – that’s what my other lights (Arri 650, etc) are for, and these little problem solvers are better suited for use as kickers, rim and fill.

The Swit ships with a flimsy shoe-mount adapter, but for use on a light stand, you’ll need a stand adapter that has a ball head, like one of these. The one on the right is a flash swivel tilt bracket that you can pick up for about $12. And the other is a beefier 3/8″ stand adapter paired with a Manfrotto ball micro head that will run you $12 and $99 respectively.

One more small accessory that’s worth having with this light: to soften the light, check out the Airbox.

In practice I tend to use the Swit without diffusion, because I appreciate the beam that it throws. Putting any kind of softener on this light really cuts its output. But, there are times when I just want some soft fill up close, and this has come in handy.

I have found that I need to tuck a sheet of 1/2 white diffusion gel into the sleeve on the front of the box, to get good diffusion. The clear vinyl alone doesn’t quite do it.

So, is everything amazing about this light? Almost. But there are a few things that I’m hoping will be improved with the next version of this light.

Drawbacks:

The batteries don’t exactly lock into place. You have to be very carefully placing these lights, or the batteries can fall out. I wish it had a positive locking mechanism.
Color mixing isn’t exact. The twin color-temperature dials on the back aren’t spot on with regard to color temp. I’ve noticed that I need to dial up about 1/3rd tungsten to 100 percent 5600 to get good daylight results – otherwise it’s too blue. The 5600k dial should be labeled the 6000k dial.
The diffuser card falls out. As with the batteries, there’s no way to lock the diffuser into place. Both of mine went missing very quickly. The same person at Swit seems to have designed this as and the battery plate. Seems like a small design change could fix both. My email to Switronix asking how to purchase a replacement has gone unanswered.

Bottom line:

Owning this light won’t make you a better filmmaker. Or will it? It’s made me a better one, because now it’s so easy to do the right thing – add that rim light, dial in that fill, tweak that color temp – that I’m actually doing it, instead of thinking about it. Having a Bolt in your bag arms you with a powerful light that delivers on the promise that LED lighting has been whispering for years: cool light when you need it, where you need it, no cords attached.

10 most common audio mistakes in documentary filmmaking

1. Not getting mic close enough. If you audio isn’t good enough, it’s probably because the mic isn’t close enough. Are you trying to get by with an on-camera mic? Get the mic off the camera. Really. At a minimum that will mean using a radio lavaliere. And preferably a shotgun mic operated on a boom pole. Use the hand trick to find the ideal mic position, as follows:

Place your thumb in front of your mouth. Fully spread your fingers at a 45 degree angle. The tip of your little finger is where the boom mic should ideally be, about 6-8 inches away. Of course, it varies with the subject, and with the shot. Sometimes you just can’t get that close without risking getting the mic in the shot. You can get away with 1′ away, maybe even 16″ away. But if you’re regularly 2-3 feet away, background noise is going to color your audio big time. And you can’t remove that in post.

2. Hiding lav on subject produces distracting clothing rustle. I’ve worked with professional sound recordists who tell me hiding lavs is the most challenging part of their job. And it’s true: once you put a lav under clothing, you’re going to have issues. It takes a lot of trial and testing to get it dialed correctly. Sometimes, it’s just impossible. I generally use lav audio as backup, preferring the cleaner sound that comes from a boom mic. But for those times when you’re counting on a hidden lav to pay your bills, here’s how to hide a lavaliere mic.

3. Handling noise caused by changing hand position on boom or mic. OK, you’ve committed to using a boom pole. Your sound is so much better already! But watch out – a low rumble will be introduced to your recordings every time you reposition your hands on the pole. So once you roll sound, settle quickly into a position you can hold for the entire take. It doesn’t have to be like lifting weights. Follow these boom mic recording tips and your audience will thank you.

4. Distracting noise in background. The most common offenders here are refrigerators and HVAC systems. Remember that shotgun mics are directional – so point the mic away from the direction of the noise. Better yet, eliminate it entirely by turning the heat down or tripping the fridge circuit breaker (put your keys in the fridge so that you don’t accidentally leave without restoring power). That’s why getting the mic overhead on a boom pole works so well – because sound rarely comes from below. But even shifting the mic 45 degrees can make a huge difference. Listen carefully before the take begins to find the best mic angle. The more background noise, the closer the mic will need to be.

5. Room is echoey (too “bright”). Small rooms are usually worse than large rooms, and any uncarpeted room with bare walls spells trouble. Basically, you want a room that is “homey”: carpeted, drapes on the windows, plush furniture, bookshelves lining the walls–anything that will break up sound waves. If you have a slight echo, however, it is now possible for you to fix it in post. Check out the Unveil plugin by Zynaptiq. It does magic to dampen slight reverb.

6. Forgetting to record room tone. When your take is finished, the last step is to record what silence sounds like in that particular environment. If you forget, as I still sometimes do, it makes it difficult to edit the dialog. So make it a ritual, like the chant I breath to myself every time I leave the house: keys, phone, wallet. Every time you say “that’s a wrap,” first say “30 seconds of room tone, please.”

7. Audio levels become clipped because of sudden loud noise. You’re recording some dialog and your subject starts laughing. Or cheering. Or shouting. If you have a good mixer, the limiter can automatically catch brief outbursts like this. But if you’re using inexpensive recorders and can’t turn the recording level down fast enough, you’ll get clipped audio. But once the damage is done, is there any way to fix this in post? Yes, believe it or not, there is. Some of the cheering crowd scenes in my documentary Beyond Naked would have been unusable if not for iZotope RX, an incredible suite of repair tools. The iZotope Declipper can rescue even horribly distorted audio.

8. Forgetting to charge/replace the batteries. Yep, it still happens to me. On some inexpensive recorders such as the Zoom H4N, if the batteries die during a take, you will lose the entire recording. So as a way to prevent this from happening, as well as a way to stay more organized, I recommend rolling early and often. On a lengthy interview, for example, don’t just hit record and forget about it until it’s over. At strategic points such as between questions, stop and re-roll. Also, get into the habit of charging/changing the batteries immediately AFTER each shoot. That way, you’ll always be ready to go.

9. Radio interference from cell phones. Almost everyone is carrying a smart phone these days. They stay connected by sending radio bursts that can be audible by a sensitive mic. Before every recording session, pretend that you are the captain of a plane about to take off: ask everyone in the room to put their phones into airplane mode. Not only will this prevent radio interference, but it will prevent your take from being ruined the old fashioned way: when the ringer goes off.

10. Using cheap gear. The difference between a $200 mic and a $1,200 mic is pretty amazing. And since pretty much every video you make from here to eternity will have sound, it makes sense to invest in a quality mic and a recorder that has decent pre-amps. Thankfully, Moore’s Law doesn’t apply to sound gear the way it does to camera sensors. You could easily be using the same mic you buy today in 10 or 15 years. So don’t scrimp on sound.

All I want for Christmas is a Sound Devices 633

Today Sound Devices announced the newest member of their mixer family: the Sound Devices 633. This isn’t just a mixer, though. The reason it commands my documentary filmmaking attention is the 10-track audio recorder the comes built into this small, extremely well-made package. And because it’s Sound Devices, you can bet it sounds as sweet as it looks.


(Wow, somebody in the marketing department at SD has been watching Apple product introduction videos, hey?)

So many small details make this look like a winner: four ways of powering it! You can put to Sony-style L-series batteries on the bottom, and if they die, the AA batteries inside will automatically take over. No need to switch manually from external to internal power, as I currently have to do on my Sound Devices Mix Pre. And if all sources die, it has an internal battery that will gracefully power you down so that you don’t lose the take entirely. Brilliant.

It accepts both SD and CF cards, and you can record to both simultaneously so that you can hand one card to the client or to editor while keeping your own at end of shoot. How cool is that?

Granted, this one is no impulse buy. At $3,095, it’s safe to say that only serious audio pros, or at least sound sticklers like me, will be entertaining a purchase. But who knows what’s next for Sound Devices? Maybe a recorder/mixer in this vein with 2-4 inputs, a 6-channel recorder, in the form factor of MixPre? For about $1,500? That would sure be something.

Beauty lighting on the go with Hexapop Glow

When I was working as a professional photojournalist back in the mid 90s, I hated using on-camera flash. It produced harsh, flat light that I used only when I had no other choice to get the picture. But when it comes to photographing women, I’ve had to learn a new rule: flat light is flattering light.

The simplest way to get flat light is to get the light close to the lens. But then you need to soften the light. And there are plenty of fantastic studio tools for doing this, such as a beauty dish. But what if you’re working on the go? Wouldn’t it be great if there was an extremely portable, roundish light modifier that mimicked a beauty dish, that you could literally pop together in seconds?

Well, now there is. The Hexapop, part of the Glow series of light modifiers made by Adorama makes the old photojournalist in me happy. It hits the sweet spot between light quality and portable convenience.

Here’s a few photos I was able to make with a single speed light and a 20″ Hexapop (actually there was one additional LED light illuminating the background in the red photo-the rest were all just the Hexapop). I really love the hexagonal shaped catchlight that illuminates her eyes. You can tell I had the light very close to the model by the size of the catchlight (the light was within 4′ in all photos).


The Hexapop is right at home on a light stand, too. I like to use it with a Manfrotto 420 combo boom stand, because it’s light enough to hang out on the end of the arm. Used this way, I find it easy to stand just under the light, and then direct the subject to move slightly to one side or the other to get the lighting perfect.

Squeezing the release mechanism collapses all 8 spokes simultaneously, making it a breeze to pack away the Hexapop when you’re done shooting. All parts fit into the included travel bag.

I’m looking forward to using this light both on and off camera.

Findus: Rolf

Here’s a video that was shared by of IDEO’s Jen Panasik during her talk at the Seattle Interactive Conference on Friday.

I left thinking that it was an example of IDEO’s work, but a little research reveals it was actually produced in 2010 by a UK filmmaker named Ben Fogg of Asylum Films.

Part of a seven episode series filmed in 2010. All shot on location in Sweden. written, directed and edited by Ben Fogg. My idea was to reposition Findus as a more natural brand by focusing on each
part of their operation and the passionate people they had working for the company.

Regardless of where it came from, it’s flat-out brilliant storytelling that leaves me feeling inspired.

New work from Jesse Solomon Clark: Ghost in the Shell

I’ve been privileged to work with Jesse Solomon Clark, a talented film composer from San Francisco, on one of my previous projects, The Coffinmaker. Jesse has just released a personal project, and whenever someone like Jesse does that, I pay attention. It’s personal work that raises the bar, advances the craft, and ennobles the art of filmmaking. Just have a listen to this piece, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Thank you for working so hard to make what you do sound so effortless, Jesse. I can’t wait to work with you again.

Tame hot backgrounds with reflected light

Yesterday I shot some interviews in a modern office building that had tons of big beautiful window light. Having all that natural light makes for an excellent interview setup, but it comes with a few challenges, too. Here’s a tip I’ve learned to help you work with the light, rather than against it – using just the available light (and an optional small LED light).

I love the look of light emanating from behind a subject. It just adds so much life to a talking head. So I always try to place my subject with window light behind them. This works best when you are in a corner that has windows on two sides: the window light coming behind them makes the background come alive, and the window beside provides the key light. The challenge is that the background window is always going to blow out, because it’s much brighter than the light reflected on the subject (assuming we’re ruling out direct sunlight, which I generally avoid for interviews because it moves during the interview, making it impossible to cut without continuity problems).

The simplest solution to this challenge is simply to let the background blow out altogether. This can work very well in some cases. Yesterday, for example, I shot this executive in his corner office bathed in window light:

I think this approach can work extremely well. We don’t really need to see detail in that background, which might distract from the subject anyway. But what if you WANT to see detail in the background?

Applying ND to every inch of window is impractical (not to mention very expensive). You could pack a powerful light, probably at least a 1k, and use that to key the subject. But if you’re in a modern conference room that has glass walls on all sides, there is a simple way to solve this problem. Instead of positioning the subject with their back to the window, position them facing the window, so that you’re now shooting the light reflected in the glass wall behind them. This magically brings the light into near perfect balance, like so:

You have to have the subject pretty close to the window to get the light level high enough, though. This makes it awkward for you to fit yourself and your camera into the small space remaining. Putting the subject further back in the room means they are underexposed. What to do?

This is where a small, hard light like the amazing Torch Bolt LED from Switronix comes in for the win. In the frame grab below, I’m using the Bolt to just bring up and slightly warm her face (by dialing just a bit of tungsten light with the 5600k). Mixing this hard source with the natural window light adds a lovely effect, in my view, while keeping the light looking natural and soft.

Can you see the subtle difference in the skin color in the two women above? I didn’t use the light on the woman in blue, and she looks much cooler and isn’t separated as well, because she’s lit with blue light coming in the window. I will be using my Torch next time!

So there you have it. One last thing to keep in mind: you have to watch out for reflections in the glass behind the subject. This means shooting at an angle, and making sure the subject is not too close to the glass wall behind them, or you will see their shadow in it.

Camera: Canon 5dmkiii
Lens: Zeiss 50mm f/1.7