SEEDArts Cinema Series "Made in Seattle" coming April 4 & 5

Seattle, WA – Bicycling nudists, Rwandan filmmakers and a Seattle family confronted by terrorism are the intriguing characters you’ll meet at the second annual SEED Arts Cinema Series SEEDArts Cinema Series, “Made in Seattle: Homegrown Documentaries”. The two-day series, April 4 & 5, is comprised of three dynamic, award-winning, locally made documentaries to be screened at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, 3515 S Alaska St, Seattle, WA 98118. The films are Finding Hillywood (4/4 at 7pm), Barzan (4/5 at 5pm), and Beyond Naked (4/5 at 7pm). Each film will be followed by a community conversation with the filmmakers and moderated by Rustin Thompson, The Restless Critic.

The Cinema Series opens on Friday, April 4 at 7pm with a screening of Finding Hillywood. Set amongst the hills of Rwanda, Finding Hillywood chronicles one man’s road to forgiveness, his effort to heal his country, and the realization that we all must one day face our past. A unique and endearing phenomenon film about the very beginning of Rwanda’s film industry and the pioneers who bring local films to rural communities. A real life example of the power of film to heal a man and a nation.

The Series continues on Saturday, April 5, with an evening double feature. At 5 pm, we present Barzan by directors Alex Stonehill & Bradley Hutchinson. Barzan is an intimate portrait of a suburban family ripped apart by a terrorism accusation. Shot both in Iraq and Seattle, this investigative documentary examines terrorism, immigration, and the sacrifices we make to protect the American dream.

The series concludes at 7pm with Beyond Naked, the “Best Documentary” of the Seattle True Independent Film Festival (2013). This film shows what happens when four first-timers accept a challenge to ride naked in Seattle’s legendary Solstice Parade. This feature-length documentary explores our deep-rooted fear and awkward fascination with nakedness through the lens of one of Seattle’s most popular traditions.

Admission to the Cinema Series is $5 per film. All films will be screened on the new digital projection system at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, 3515 S Alaska St, Seattle, WA 98118. Limited concessions will be available. For more information and updates, call 206.760.4285 or visit www.rainiervalleyculturalcenter.org/cinema.

Magic Lantern raw now supports audio recording with MLV format

Magic Lantern raw keeps getting better. It’s been awhile since I downloaded and tested the latest nightly builds. Turns out there’s a LOT of progress being made: the latest releases include the option for a new recording file format called MLV (for magic lantern video). This format allows for some really great stuff, most significantly for me, audio recording.

Post-production keeps getting better, too. There’s a new batch-conversion utility called MLV Mystic that allows Mac users to unpack the MLV files directly into cinema DNG files, which can then be opened directly into Davinci Resolve 10.

HDMI monitoring is also vastly improved. Gone is the bug that caused pink-frame tearing when recording 3x (which at the press of a button turns any lens into a macro). No more pink frame tearing! Also, the monitor display bugs that incorrectly drew the boundaries of the frame are fixed.

HDMI tip: I discovered this weekend while testing that it’s critical to plug in your hdmi monitor to your camera in the correct order. First, with your camera off, power on your HDMI monitor and plug it into the camera. Then, power up the camera. This way, it will correctly draw the HDMI screen. Otherwise, you get some misaligned black bands encroaching into the display from top and bottom.

Another sweet thing, and this is a big one: I discovered after much testing that Magic Lantern’s focus peaking is just killer. It works like magic to help you find focus, and you can select from three settings: one for darkly lit subjects, one for brightly lit subjects, and one that is a bit of both, for average scenes. This peaking is the first I’ve ever used that actually works without over sharpening to death or otherwise unacceptably screwing with my monitor. I’ll be using it by default from now on.

All I can say is: thank you Magic Lantern team. You guys are tireless in continuing to unlock the potential of this amazing image making tool called the Canon DSLR. The raw video image coming out of this camera is breathtaking.

Beyond Naked screens April 5 at Made in Seattle festival

I’m happy to announce that Beyond Naked, my first feature-length doc, completed last year, will have another Seattle screening on April 5 as part of the Made in Seattle: Hometown Documentary Series. The venue will be the beautiful Rainier Valley Cultural Center. Here’s the full festival lineup:

Finding Hillywood, Friday April 4th, 7pm.
Barzan, Saturday April 5th, 5pm
Beyond Naked, Saturday April 5th, 7pm

No word on tickets yet – will post here as soon as I have that info.

Flashpoint 180 Monolight is a low-budget cord cutter

Speedlites are great for shooting on the go. And monolights and power packs are great for studio work. But what if you seek the flexibility of a monolight (i.e. you can use it with soft boxes or beauty dishes), with the portability of a battery powered flash, for half the cost of a Speedlite? Would that be too much to ask?

Consider the $250 Flashpoint 180 battery powered monolight. I’ve been using one for the past six weeks, thanks to a loaner from Adorama, and I’d like to share what’s great about this unit, along with a couple things that could stand improvement.

Cords suck. Even if you’re working in a location that has power, it’s often much faster, easier and safer to shoot from battery power. If nothing else, going cordless saves you from running extension cords, which people can trip over. And this unit gives you approximately 700 full-power flashes – more than enough for all but the most demanding assignments. I found that at full power, it took between 4 and 5 seconds to recycle. That’s long enough to seriously take you out of the moment if you’re shooting a portrait, though, so I recommend dialing it back to around 1/2 power, which gives you a much snappier recycle time of about 2 seconds. At 1/3 power, you get a 1-second recycle time.

One of the things that is brilliant about this unit is the choice of commonly available NP-F960 batteries for power. I already own a bunch of these for my Switronix Bolt LED lights, and they are quite affordable if you pick up the knock-off NP-F960s, which work fine for me and can be had for about $25.

It’s important to note that this unit does not come with an AC power option. So if you do run the batteries down, you will need to carry backup batteries.

This monolight is compatible with Bowens-style modifiers such as soft boxes, beauty dishes and such. It also has a friction-based receiver for an umbrella, which I wished could have gripped a little stronger. It was struggling to hold my 60″ umbrella securely, but just managed. It’s really designed for use with small to medium sized umbrellas, one of which is included with the kit. The included shoot-through umbrella is very compact, and features a telescoping core.

Seattle photographer John Cornicello recently pointed out that it’s more than just size – it’s what you put into light modifiers that counts. You CAN use a Speedlite with your 7′ umbrella, but you may not be getting the same light quality as you get with a studio head. This head certainly doesn’t come close to the power of the 2400-watt/second head that John was using in his test, but it IS a monolight. I found I was able to get fantastic results with up to a 60″ reflector.

However, I was a little disappointed when I tried it out with my 47-inch Grand Softbox. Not because the quality of the light suffered, but because the plastic stand clamp on the 180 Monolight isn’t strong enough to support the weight of the Grand. I had to considerably overcrank it to get it to hold the nose up even temporarily. I’m pretty sure it would break if I did that more than a few times. So I wouldn’t recommend this unit for large light modifiers. I wish this light used a stronger metal stand clamp. I’m sure the choice of plastic was dictated by price, but I’d be willing to pay a few more bucks for a clamp that would hold larger modifiers.

Another thing I found myself wishing for was a sync cable longer than the included 10′ one. I don’t know about you, but I need more than 10′ to work with. I have some longer ones, but they use standard phono plugs, and this unit uses a non-standard 1/8″ plug (see photo). So your longer cords won’t work.

Tip: Use a SCRIM BAG to hang the battery pack. This one, which fits the battery pack perfectly, is a Lindcraft SB2 scrim bag, available from Filmtools.com.

The DC power cable that runs from battery to the light head is also a very short 5 feet, which means you’ll need to devise a way to hang the battery pack from near the top of the light stand. My solution is to use a scrim bag (see sidebar).

The battery pack does have a belt clip, but it’s useless for attaching the battery pack to a light stand, which is where it needs to go. There’s a blue-handled attachment for handheld use of the strobe, but it doesn’t extend at all, limiting its usefulness.

You might think that because it’s battery powered, the modeling light would either be missing or would be a big power drain. The engineers have finessed this by including an small LED modeling light, which isn’t very bright, but gets the job done. It’s an elegant compromise.

On the top of this monolight, like a small rotating periscope, is the optical slave. Its so sensitive that I never needed to mess with it, but if necessary you can rotate the cover to point at your master strobe (or to hide it from some other strobe source that you don’t want as a trigger).

The power knob allows you to steplessly adjust between 1/16th and full power. There is of course no TTL control of this unit, so I did find myself wishing I could dial in even LESS power occasionally. I often want just a tiny bit of fill, something Speedlites are great at providing. I find myself shooting all the time at higher ISOs, to take advantage of natural light. I’d welcome the ability to dial down to 1/64 power.

The bottom line: For traveling light and shooting on location with small to medium Bowens modifiers, this monolight is a winner. It’s price, small size and power-cord-free operation put it within the reach of just about anyone looking to take their still photos up a notch from Speedlites.

Grimaldis IndieGoGo campaign launches

As crowd funding becomes a staple of more and more creative projects, I’ve been getting a lot of work helping artists find work! For this campaign, I shot a bunch of interviews for my friend Dane Ballard, the writer of an unconventional musical that he’s hoping to bring to Seattle after a successful run in San Francisco. Here’s the scoop:

The Story

For generations, the Grimaldi family has thrilled audiences the world over. From the opera houses of old Europe to America’s silver screen, they were the quintessential showbiz family. Now the last surviving member of the Grimaldis is dead and the auction house of Sutter and Son is liquidating their estate.

As our show begins, we meet Walter Sutter, a friendly and somewhat awkward young man who is the block clerk for the auction house, and the “son” in Sutter and Son. The auction business bores Walter and he dreams of a life in show business, a dream discouraged by his rather gruff and overly practical father Hiram Sutter.

When the ghosts of the Grimaldis start to haunt the auction house with their dazzling performances, Walter not only learns what it really means to be in show biz, but he also uncovers dark secrets about his own destiny.

The Grimaldis may be dead, but the show must go on.

The Show

“The Grimaldis” is a new story written by Dane Ballard and is directed by Kerry Christianson. The script celebrates the triumphs and tragedies of a life in show business from the eerie perspective of a family of performing ghosts.

Featuring original songs by John Woods, “The Grimaldis” is a mix of cabaret, circus, improv and musical theatre. The experience is immersive with the audience finding performances happening all around them. With the absence of the fourth wall, the characters interact directly with the guests, mingling with the audience throughout the show. Even the food and drink is presented as part of the story, a sort of “theatre amuse bouche” to pull the audience further into the experience.

The Goal

We need $30,400 to cover the cost of a TWO WEEK Off-Off-Broadway run of “The Grimaldis” (May 16th, 17th, 18th & May 23rd, 24th, 25th). Money needed includes theater rental; rehearsal space; the services of our creative team of artistic and musical directors, fourteen actors, and a four-person live band; costumes; props; lighting; sound; and set design.

An independent show this big can’t happen without the support of people who care about performance art.

"Add IndieFlix" campaign launches

Today our client IndieFlix, a Seattle movie streaming service, released a 30-second spot we produced for them, with some amazingly talented people.

IndieFlix CEO Scilla Andreen provided the location for the shoot: her living room, which we converted into a studio for a day. Her son Ian (home on winter break from college), and daughter Natalie both make brief appearances in the video, and worked as PAs on set.

Ruben Rodriguez is a young documentary filmmaker we have worked with in the past, and for this project we brought him on as PA. Ruben ended up on the other side of the lens too, playing a young filmmaker musing on how much he likes getting paid. Say it for all of us, Ruben!

Randall Dai, Telissa Steen and Victoria Kieburtz are in the picture, all of whom we met from short narratives we worked on last summer for the 48-hour film project and The Last Light. Jeff Hedgepeth, one of our main characters in Beyond Naked, pitched in, as did some of Lisa’s dance community friends including Susan Rubens, Leslie Rosen, and Dennis Richards.

Thank you to everyone for bringing your talents to the project and we look forward to working with you again soon.

SOLD: Like-new Redrock Micro Crossover Kit for sale used or trade for Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro

UPDATE: Item sale has been SOLD via Ebay. Thanks for bidding!

I’m doing something I hardly ever do: selling gear that I really like. I was fortunate enough to win my Redrock Micro Crossover Kit last summer in the American Photographic Artists short video contest. But I already own three matte boxes, and I find I’m just not using this one. And you know, this matte box deserves to have work doing what it was born to do: make movies.

Everything about this kit is pure mint – I’ve had it out of the original packaging just once to play with it. The lifetime warranty is included for you to register, #19830. This kit retails for $995 – I’ll sell it to you for $840, in the original packaging. Sorry, the cat is not included!

TRADE OPTION: I’m willing to trade for a 100mm Canon f/2.8 macro IS lens.

Drop me an email to dan@visualcontact.com or call me at 206.228.0780. I’ll make an update to this post when it’s sold – so if you are seeing this, that means it’s still available if you’re quick!

The Dollmaker, and 7 thoughts about Magic Lantern raw

I love my 5dmkiii. There’s still nothing like shooting video on a full-frame sensor. So when Magic Lantern released a firmware hack that allows shooting video in raw, I was eager to try it out. And it’s amazing: super vibrant 14-bit color, captured with 12.5 stops of dynamic range. That’s a whole ‘nother league beyond the 8 stops of DR and 8-bit color that comes out of the 5dmkiii natively. But it’s quirky to shoot with, and buggy enough that I haven’t been able to use to complete a project. Until today.

Today Lisa and I are thrilled to release our first project shot entirely in Magic Lantern raw, The Dollmaker. It’s part of our Makers series, which focuses on people who make things by hand. We love topics that are slightly dark, and when we saw Clarissa Callesen’s work, we knew we had to film her. She graciously allowed us to invade her studio for a day, and shoot this piece.

Most of the credit for this piece goes to my partner Lisa Cooper, who produced, directed and edIted the film. I stayed focused on cinematography on this one. And I have a few things to say about shooting raw on the 5dmkiii.

First, it’s a data hog. A 64 gigabyte CF card fills up in about 10 minutes. And the cards are expensive enough that I only own three of them. So it was necessary to lay off the cards as soon as they were shot, in order to always have a fresh one ready to go. This would work better if we had a DIT person on set, but of course, that’s a luxury we don’t have (or want, really) for these unpaid, self-assigned projects. It basically meant that we had to have a laptop with CF card reader and hard drive going all day on location. But when you consider that old film spools were about 9 minutes, hey, it’s not so bad.

Second, there is quite a bit of assembly required in post, before you get a video clip. I had to unpack the files using a utility called RawMagic, and then I had to convert the many individual DNG files (one for every frame of video, which each weigh about 4 megabytes) into ProRes for editing in Final Cut Pro X. I used Adobe After Effects for this, and it’s mind-numbingly slow. Davinci Resolve has since added support for the type of Cinema DNG file that Magic Lantern produces, and this speeds up the process tremendously. Best of all, the Lite version of Resolve is free, and nearly full-featured.

Third, once you get a ProRes daily generated, the colors, crispness and dynamic range of the image are freakishly awesome. We love the ProRes file so much that we just throw away the raw. It’s too expensive for us to store it, and the ProRes is so good, in comparison to what we’re used to with H264, that we are thrilled with it. But this does mean you have to be making some basic color grading decisions at the time you generate the daily. Not a big deal – because with a DSLR, you are making those decisions at the time you shoot anyway. Saving the raw files would allow you to defer those choices as long as you wanted.

Fourth, raw wants slight overexposure, unlike h264 on the 5d, which wants slight underexposure. I’m still getting used to this idea. But with Magic Lantern raw, underexposure = noise. Lots of noise. You can add denoising in post, and the 10-bit daily cleans up nicely, much nicer than the 8-bit I’m used to. But still, you’re so much better off to overexpose a little, and not have to deal with the noise at all. I’m finding about 1/2-stop of overexposure is about right. It’s kind of like shooting negative film – a little overexposure just gives you more detail to pull a print from.

Fifth, there is no sync sound in Magic Lantern raw. So that means clapping everything, which I kind of hate doing on docs. I prefer using PluralEyes to sync my footage. And you can’t do that with Magic Lantern raw. You’ll notice this video has no sync sound – we recorded the sound effects that you hear, but I had to play around with getting them to sound right, since they weren’t synced. Another big time drain. So I definitely would not recommend using Magic Lantern raw on any project that needed sync sound.

Sixth, color grading is harder, even though the file is better. It’s the paradox of choice: you can do so many things in the grade, that you can get lost in the weeds trying on options. Because I’m not a professional colorist, I like the predictability of dropping FilmConvert Pro onto my footage, which is pre-mapped to 5dmkiii with the picture style that I use. I get great results every time that way. But with these raw files, you have to really approach the grade like a pro, without presets. So it’s more work.

Seventh, you can turn any lens into a macro by using Magic Lantern’s crop-sensor shooting mode. But beware: if you have an hdmi monitor connected, it will result in pink-frame tearing. In fact, you’ll get a few random pink frames into your footage even if you disconnect the monitor. So it’s not a feature you can really depend on. But there’s something incredible about being able to be shooting with a 50mm lens, and just punch in the focus, and start rolling at 150mm equivalent, up close. Notice the shot of the brooch in the heart-shaped case at 1:22:20. You could pull the artist’s fingerprint off one of these frames! That’s with a 50mm, non-macro lens, in crop-sensor mode. It’s sick.

I’ll definitely be using Magic Lantern more in future projects. The image is just too good to be resisted! But the challenges associated with acquiring it and the workflow issues will probably keep me from using this extensively for now.

New work for IndieFlix

Our latest project is a short web promo for Seattle streaming video startup IndieFlix. Using footage from a few of the thousands of titles in their library, Lisa and I cut several versions of this teaser, which is aimed at helping IndieFlix do for independent cinefiles what NetFlix has done for mainstream moviegoers. Check it out:

We’re thrilled to be in production on another web promo for IndieFlix, that will be released in time for Sundance.

A grand improvement on the one-light portrait

It’s the bread and butter of location photography: the one-light portrait. There’s a million ways to get it right–and a million ways to get it wrong. I’ve discovered one way of pushing the odds heavily into your favor. It’s called the Glow 47″ Grand Softbox.

Small enough to take on location, yet big enough to flood a whole room with light, the Grand is an extremely forgiving and totally flattering way to make a portrait when you don’t have the bandwidth to deal with more than one light. Let me explain.

I’m currently working on a short doc called We Make Seattle. My primary role at this stage is to record sound only during the early interviews. Additionally, I’ve been tasked with getting a still of each participant. Should be easy to do both, right?

It’s possible, but it’s not easy. There’s a reason why you most often find a sound recordist and a still photographer occupying two different bodies. Even though you may be able to do a great job in either role, being asked to do both in rapid sequence is a potential disaster if you care about quality. You have to use very different gear, and approach each creative challenge with a different set of eyes (or, um, ears).

To do both well, I recommend cheating. And the way I’ve learned to cheat on the photo side is to pack a light modifier that does most of the thinking for me: the parabolic 47″ Grand Softbox.

What do all of the following portraits have in common? They were all made with just one light. The subject and the background and the fill side are all being illuminated by the same source.

Parabolas punch out a special quality of light that a soft box can’t quite match. It’s hard to describe it exactly, but I’ll take a stab at it.

The first thing that’s so great is that it’s big. So you don’t have to occupy your brain with whether the subject is in the sweet spot of the light. You can focus on getting a good performance out of your subject rather than niggling with the technical stuff. Light it, shoot it, and forget about it.

Another benefit of using this light is that it focuses and propels the light further than a soft box. A parabolic reflector puts out “collimated light,” which means will travel farther, and more evenly. Add to that the fact that the 47″ box is BIG, and you begin to see why you can do no wrong with this source. If you place it close to your subject, it both keys them and wraps around to fill them.

Finally, using a parabolic reflector produces a signature round catchlight. Notice the eyes:

In many portrait situations, I think this feels more organic than a box catchlight. Less artificial. Less square. It’s a small thing, but photographs are all about details, aren’t they?

The Grand includes a Bowens-type speedring. A large variety of other types of speed rings are available separately. I think supporting Bowen’s style light modifiers was a great choice, because they are ubiquitous at rental houses and among the most affordable professional monolights.

With 16 spokes, it’s a bit of a challenge the first time you fit the Grand on a speed ring. Here’s a tip: don’t insert one spoke after another. Instead, after seating the first spoke, grab one approximately 180 degrees on the opposite site, and fit it into place. Don’t worry if it’s in the right spot – just seat it temporarily to hold the shape as you work your way around sequentially.

A minor irritation about this light is the fitted external diffuser, which you have to stretch over the tips of the box to attach. It’s held in place with elastic fabric inside the stitching, not velcro, so it’s easy to ALMOST get the diffusion on, only to have it come tumbling off before you complete the stretch into place. I’d rather focus my creativity on making the picture, than on assembling the light diffuser. A little velcro on every other fit point would resolve this.

The build quality is excellent, as I would expect for a big soft box that will set you back nearly $250. It’s heavy enough that you need a medium- or heavy-duty monolight to support it. Lightweight monolights with plastic stand receivers, such as the Flashpoint 180 monolight which I tested it with, simply aren’t strong enough to support the weight of the 47″ Grand. But a 10-lb shot bag is enough to anchor your light stand in normal shooting conditions.