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

7 days, half a terabyte, 1 minute of video

Our most recent commercial gig just went live on Friday. It’s a 1-minute teaser for Nordstrom’s new pop-in shop, located on the main level of the flagship store in downtown Seattle.

The brief from the client was to create a timelapse of the shop from beginning of construction until it was ready for customers, for use on their social media channels. The installation would take place over a 7-day period, and we would need to have cameras running the whole time that work was happening.

At first we thought it would be pretty straightforward to set up a couple of cameras, set them running, and maybe visit them once a day to change batteries and sd cards. But it didn’t turn out that way. We picked a pair of GoPro Hero 3 cameras for the high overhead shots, and we learned that those diminutive cameras have a big appetite for batteries. Even when we added the optional battery backpack, they would die in under 3 hours of shooting time. Additionally, we wanted to capture snippets of live video for the edit, to add visual interest. So the result was we had to be on location the whole time. With all that time on our hands, I knew we would overshoot it, and we did.

We opted to shoot raw because the lighting in this retail location is very hot wherever pools of light fall from the tungsten spotlights that illuminate the store. Shooting raw gave us enough dynamic range to hold onto the highlights without losing the shadows. But wow, did that ever add a ton of processing time. Every timelapse had to be opened in Camera Raw, and saved out as a tiff. Then I opened the tiffs in Quicktime as an image sequence. Then I saved out the sequence as a ProRes file, and finally it was ready for edit. This turned out to be a massively time consuming way to go about it. Camera Raw is a dog. It processed each image in something quite a bit slower than real time, so if we had for example 3000 images in a sequence, it would take something like 6 or 7 thousand seconds to process the image into tiffs. That’s about two hours. So you can imagine: we have two dslrs often going simultaneously, producing all these tiles, and then we have to process them all. Not to mention the GoPro footage, which luckily was jpeg. So it was a real data management effort.

Unlike most shoots, we had lots of time to devote to data management, though, because the camera’s basically took care of themselves once we set them, and all we had to do was change batteries and cards.

Join us at Seattle Documentary Summit Oct. 24-25

Calling all Seattle documentary filmmakers: if you’ve ever wondered what this whole transmedia thing is about, this is the conference for you. On October 24-25, the Documentary Summit rolls into Seattle with a slew of great speakers and a focus on how storytelling is changing.

Lisa and I will be speaking on Friday afternoon. And we’re excited to learn more about transmedia. But most of all, the conference looks like a great place to connect with fellow filmmakers. Join us!

More about the conference, from their website:

All traditional forms of media and storytelling have been upended by the influences of digital technology, and the documentary storytelling experience is next.

And given that Seattle is a massive tech hub, we’re bringing in experts in transmedia to mix with traditional filmmaking pros to explore the opportunities and impacts of the always on, real time, participatory nature of the Internet on documentary storytelling.

This is an opportunity to build bridges between those who create the stories, and the foundations, non-profits and other groups that can use cause or purpose driven content in support of mission.

WHO SHOULD ATTEND:

  • Documentary producers & directors
  • Writers, editors, camera people and content creators
  • Non-profit communications professionals
  • Corporate social responsibilty professionals
  • Traditional Media Journalists
  • Transmedia professionals

Threaded throughout the panel discussions, presentations and case studies will be a strong emphasis on the interactive documentary’s potential to serve as an advocacy and public education platform for bringing about change.

http://www.documentarysummit.com/seattle-interactive-doc-summit/

Beware the 5-frame delay in Movie Slate

On most shoots, I rely on Pluraleyes to sync my audio automagically, precluding the need to slate anything. This works great when you can record a reference audio track. But ever since I began shooting with Magic Lantern raw, I’ve come face-to-face with the need to slate every single dialog take, because Magic Lantern raw has no reference track. So getting a perfect visual reference is key to avoiding nightmares in post.

Enter Movie Slate. The $49 iPad app is a great alternative to carrying around old fashioned sticks. You can enter all kinds of metadata and have it automatically increment with every take. But one thing I’ve had a hell of a time with is getting an accurate sync point.

So I did some testing today to figure out what’s going on. Here’s what I discovered: there is a 5-frame delay between when the sticks come together on the iPad and the slate begins to turn red, until the audible beep is emitted.

So that’s my tip for you today: just look for the first red frame, and nudge the audio clip spike 5 frames to the right. Link the audio and video clips, and you’re done.

4 Matteboxes compared: Redrock vs Genus vs Flashpoint vs Tilta

What’s the point of a mattebox, anyway? I never bothered with one for years and did just fine, thank you very much. Today I posses four of them. How’d that happen? If I’m primarily a dslr video shooter – why would I need one?

If you’re asking these questions, it’s probably because you haven’t discovered the magic of strong backlighting. See the still below:

Shots like this are why filmmakers love their matte boxes. A mattebox’s primary purpose is to give you godlike backlighting powers. A mattebox with a French flag (also called a top flag or an eyebrow) prevents lens flares and keeps your image at its sharpest contrast. Whenever a light aimed toward the camera hits the lens relatively directly, it refracts and causes a low-contrast effect that can be either annoying as hell OR totally pleasing, if you’re going for an ethereal look. As in:

There’s another reason (far less interesting to most dslr filmmakers) to use a matte box: it allows use of 4×4 or 4×6 glass and resin filters. If you’re like me, though, you may have already invested in 77mm screw-in filters like Tiffen water white ND. These work fine. However, if you’re working in fast-changing conditions, where you can have a case of filters on hand, it’s tough to beat tray-based filters for speedy filter change ups.

OK, so those are the two (and really only) qualitative reasons I can see to use a matte box. Yeah, I know – it also makes your camera look bigger, and some people equate that with looking professional. But I prefer my cameras small and unobtrusive. Luckily, matteboxes are not required to be big and heavy. More on that in a moment.

An aside: you see tray filters on narrative film sets more often than you do in documentary productions. But they CAN be extremely useful on docs. I have a small but growing set of Lee ND filters, which are made out of resin. The reason I love them is that they won’t break like glass can, so I can carry them in a big pocket and knock around with them, and always have an ND within reach when I need it quick.

Matteboxes are like lenses: they all have personalities. Let’s get acquainted with four of them:

I was fortunate enough acquire the Redrock Micro Mattebox earlier this year when I won the audience choice award for my short film The Coffinmaker in the American Photographic Artists Short Video Contest. And Adorama kindly sent me the Flaspoint box for this review. And I’m glad they did, because even though it’s by far the least expensive box of the bunch, in some ways outperforms the others.

Yep. Sometimes the least expensive stuff is the best for your purpose. But let’s see what each has to offer.

Redrock Micro Mattebox

$995
Weight: 3.9 lbs

This box is a beast. A fine beast, if you’re working on a narrative film set and you want a mattebox that will swallow your lens. Of all the boxes in this review, this one gives you maximum protection from backlight.

The swing-away arm makes for fast lens-changing.

It also gives you the option of using 4×5.6 filters, as well as 4×4. But the 4×4 label printed on the box is a little misleading. This box is really designed for use with 4×5.6 filters. To use 4×4 filters with the supplied trays, you have to insert a flimsy plastic mask, which is a serious pain, and feels like an afterthought by the designer.

The mask gets jammed and makes filter changes a chore.

The two filter stages of the Redrock Micro Mattebox are a dream to work with. They drop into place firmly, with great tactile feedback, and and rotate smoothly and securely.

The whole back of the unit rotates, which is incredibly cool. So if you have a need to use 4×5.6 filters, this box is a big winner.

Drawback: having nearly 4 pounds on the end of your rods is a LOT. Too much, in my view. Even though I like how deep this box is, I find I rarely can think of a reason to NOT use one of the lighter, simpler boxes that I’ll talk about next. I don’t like having all that weight to counter balance. Matteboxes don’t have to be that heavy. It’s also much, much bulkier than any of the others, and that means it limits where you can put the camera. If you’re on a proper film set, that’s probably not an issue. But if you’re working on location, rocking a doc, that can be a problem.

Also, for its heft and price, I don’t like the foam donuts on this box. They work well, though. Yet they seem like another design afterthought. I would expect something more elegant from Redrock Micro, like the nun’s knickers that come with the Tilta. Which we’ll see next.

Tilta 4×4 Carbon Fiber Mattebox

$799
Weight: 2 lbs

This is the first mattebox I ever purchased with my own money. The primary reason I bought this one was because it’s HALF the weight of the Redrock (which I’d previously rented). Like the Redrock, it’s got a swing-away arm that is extremely sold, made from milled aluminum. Tilta stuff is bomb proof. You could use this box on a set every day for a year and it would still be going strong. Except for one thing…

The filter trays are NOT great. Just flimsy plastic, which doesn’t match the rest of the box at all. They don’t slot into place convincingly (you have to hunt for where they are supposed to stop – there’s no audible or physical “click” into place when it’s seated). The rotating stage is also STICKY. I would avoid this box if you plan to use it primarily for filters. Otherwise, it’s light weight, solid build and great looks are winners. This is the second-most frequent box that I reach for.

My last gripe about the Tilta is that the mechanism to adjust box height is awkwardly designed, making it difficult to adjust without using a tool to pry the small arms loose. It sure is a beautiful blue, though. But this is a case of form beating function.

Genus Mattebox Lite

$219
Weight: 1 lb

I bought this mattebox because I needed an extremely lightweight box that did one thing: keeps backlight off my lens, mostly in outdoor shooting scenarios. I wanted a box that I could attach to a zoom lens and work with it all day without thinking about it. This one fills that bill perfectly.

No rods are required to use the Genus Lite, which makes it very flexible for run-and-gun shooting. I use it for shooting stills, too.

Best use: I’ve used this box to keep light off my lens in situations that otherwise would be impossible, like the establishing shot on the couch in Mr. Famous, which was made with an Aviator travel jib. The light jib simply isn’t capable of handling the weight of any of the other boxes compared here, which all require rods.

The way this box attaches to your lens is unusual: it requires a screw-on ring that allows the box to clamp on. This is a great if you’re going really light – ie, without rods. But I discovered one potential problem with this design while using this box on my 50mm Zeiss f1.7 prime. As I was shooting, I suddenly noticed that I couldn’t focus to infinity. WTF?

A few more attempts and I realized my lens had slipped it’s calibration and was out of tune. I took it to Ballard Cameratechs and they were able to retime it for about $60. It took two tries for them to get it right. They told me that most lenses would probably be OK, but that some don’t hold up well to having even small amounts of weight on them when the barrel is rotated. Result: I won’t use this box on any of my Zeiss primes. I have, however, used the Genus Lite with a rented Canon 24-70 f/4 zoom for three days with no problems whatsoever.

The Genus has just one tray, and it rotates! (a pleasant surprise on such a tiny mattebox). So you can use it with a polarizer such as this Lee resin pola.

Flashpoint Mattebox System II

$189.95
Weight: 1.2 lb

For me, this box is the most flexible of the lot. It is extremely lightweight. It has side flags, if you need them (rarely). And it attaches via rods and a clever slider that gives lots of height options. It’s really quick to slide up and down, too.

The primary tradeoff with this box is that it’s not as deep as the Tilta or Redrock. And it’s not as well made. But for me, it’s compact size, light weight, and flexibility means that it’s the box that goes on my camera if I’m running out to grab a shot that might be backlit.

This box somehow squeezes in two stages, and one of them is rotating.

They seat into place and rotate smoother than the much more expensive Tilta mattebox!

The aluminum flags are very thin, but I find this to be an advantage here. All the flag has to do is block light – so in my view, the thinner the better, because it makes them lighter. And the aluminum is plenty strong. One thing I have noticed is that these flags really show fingerprints!

The side flags have a clever method of attaching securely.

Drawback: It’s made of lightweight plastic and thin aluminum, so you have to be careful with it. But describe for me what camera gear you own that you are NOT careful with? So I don’t find the build quality to be a deal breaker. For the price, I am inclined to use the heck out of it until it breaks, then get a new one and call it the price of admission.

Video teaser for 2013 Seattle Interactive Conference is now live

Here’s the fruits of our labor for Seattle Interactive Conference this year: the official conference teaser is now live. I would like to send a big thank you to motion graphics designer Jael Topek, who did a bang-up job with the animations, and Michiko Swiggs, the graphic designer who created Timmy, the owl that is the official mascot of the event.

See you all at the conference in October.

The Last Light short film campaign launches

I am thrilled to be DPing a short film later this month called The Last Light. My partner LIsa Cooper is producing the film, which is directed by Jennifer Cummins, whom we met because of the 48 Hour Film Challenge earlier this year. The screenplay was written by Persephone Vandegrift, a talented Seattle writer. Here’s the synopsis:

Karen is a hard-working single mother of two girls, Hanna, 14, and Becca, 6. When the unthinkable happens and Becca’s young life is tragically cut short, Karen faces her fears and searches Becca’s room for the redemption and forgiveness she desperately needs. If we have a light to guide us, we can always find our way home.

THE LAST LIGHT is a story about finding light in the darkest of moments. Grief is a natural emotion, but sometimes it lasts too long. Forgiving oneself and accepting what life delivers is the biggest step toward managing grief. THE LAST LIGHT will inspire not only those who are currently in pain, but also those with loved ones who need help.

This is a film made by women, who fill all but one of the key positions, leaving me as the token male. That’s intentional, because the film is aimed at the Women in Film competition in Vancouver, BC, which requires it. I’m honored to be included. Here’s more about the crew.

Jennifer Cummins (Director) has directed and produced documentaries for Sunsports, ABC News, KelbyTv.com, and KelbyTraining.com. Jennifer has also worked with companies such as Turner Broadcasting, Carnival Cruiselines and Kelby Media Group. Most recently, Jennifer jumped feet first into Seattle’s 48 Hour Film Project where she directed, produced and edited MAN AND A VAN. She is also an avid portrait photographer and founder of www.blueedgephoto.com. Inspired by Gandhi’s quote: “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will,” Jennifer has a passion for telling stories of inner strength and overcoming hardships to inspire the soul.

Persephone Vandegrift (Writer) debuted her first mytho/supernatual play, TWO, back in 1996. Since then she’s written several plays that have been performed nationally. Her first feature, DEATH OF A MORTAL WOMAN, has won several screenwriting awards. Her award-winning short script turned film, ALL THINGS HIDDEN, is about to hit the festival circuit. Another feature, THE WATER KING, is currently in development. Check out Seph’s work: www.persephonevandegrift.webs.com.

Lisa Cooper (Producer) With a background in the visual arts, as well as her corporate experience at Amazon, Lisa has an uncompromising ability to deliver on budget and on time. She produced BEYOND NAKED, a recipient of the “Best Documentary” award at Seattle’s STIFF Festival 2013. She most recently wrote and directed a short film called MR FAMOUS, an Audience Choice award winner in the Seattle 48 Hour Film Project. She partners with Dan McComb at Visual Contact.

Dan McComb (Director of Photography) is an award-winning photojournalist, with publication credits including “Time” and “Newsweek.” This experience is the foundation of his current work as a documentary filmmaker. His first feature-length film, BEYOND NAKED, received the “Best Documentary” award at Seattle’s STIFF Festival in 2013. His short films THE COFFINMAKER and THE METALSMITH are recent Vimeo Staff Picks. He partners with Lisa Cooper at Visual Contact.

Catherine Grealish (Composer) is a composer for film, media and live performance who has experience in a wide range of music genres. A multi-instrumentalist, she is a classically and jazz trained singer, and also plays violin, piano, and guitar. Her piano piece Remember Me is featured in our video.

We’re raising money for this film with an IndieGoGo campaign, which launched yesterday. I can’t believe how fast this film has picked up support. It was 50 percent funded within a couple of hours of launch. I’ve never seen a campaign do that well right out of the gate. We still have a ways to go to get fully funded, of course, and for that we need your help. If you’ve ever been touched deeply by grief, please considering supporting this film.

Ken Simpson: My 720p beats your 4k

Here’s a rare and refreshing perspective: a director willing to call bullshit on the rush to 4k. You tell ‘em Ken! Story is still very much king. So how come all you hear about his the latest camera? I’m guilty of that too, certainly. And the reason has to have something to do with the fact that story is hard, and it means talking about individual projects, and, as is pointed out in Ken’s rant, there aren’t any large camera companies that have stories to promote – they have cameras to sell. The narrative of filmmaking tends to be dominated by companies with products to push. Happily, we have Ken’s reminder about what the real deal is: story.