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.


  • 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.

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

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

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

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

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,, and 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 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:

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.

We Make Seattle project kicks off

I’m officially on board with an exciting new film project. It’s a short called We Make Seattle, which I’m going to DP for Scott Berkun. Bryan Zug and Adam Baggett of Bootstrapper Studios are producing it. We need to raise $28k to make this film. Here’s the pitch:

I’m thrilled to be lensing this film because entrepreneurship is near and dear to my heart. My very first short, Shine, was all about small business people chasing their dreams. But perhaps most exciting for me is the opportunity to make a film with Scott Berkun. Scott is an incredible writer and all around bright guy, whose work I’ve been reading and following for five years or more. His latest book, The Year Without Pants, chronicles his adventures working as a remote employee for for one year.

Scott has made no secret about his desire to try his hand at filmmaking, and I’m deeply honored to have the opportunity to work with him on his first short. And, this is a film about my favorite city in the whole world. From the film’s website:

This short film is a celebration of what makes Seattle the best place in the world for entrepreneurs and creatives to live. It tells the story of the vibrant and supportive community we have for starting companies, betting on dreams, and chasing big ideas.

Despite being named the #1 tech city in America by The Atlantic, and consistent top rankings on the list of the world’s most livable city, we’re frequently overlooked as the place to go for people with big talents and ideas. This film will change that.

The film has three goals:

1. Celebrate the creative community. We have all personally benefited from the Seattle community, and the film will be a reflection back to the community itself on how many amazing companies, events, and projects are based here. In our daily lives we rarely step back to see the entire city, and We Make Seattle will inspire by telling the story of how many great things happen around us.

2. Help recruiters and entrepreneurs attract talent. NYC, LA and even Portland have produced short videos to help local companies tell the story of their city. Seattle has no such film, until now. The film will be the perfect one link to send to convince ambitious creatives, potential business partners, or top candidates from around the world to bring their passions to the northwest.

3. Have the community tell its own story. Everything about this project is built by the Seattle community itself, and led by well known leaders who have benefited from our creative city and want to give something back. We’ll be inviting people to contribute in various ways throughout the production of the film.

All funds beyond our budget will be used to promote the video, as PR and reaching a wide audience is as important as the video itself.

Just published: Inside the Bullitt Center

When Fast Company Magazine invited Lisa and I to pitch Seattle story ideas, we thought, what’s more heroic than the Bullitt Foundation’s brave new building in Capitol Hill? It’s undeniably the greenest office building in the world. But is it the future of architecture, or an expensive monument to sustainability? Watch the video and let us know what you think.

Technical info:

Camera: 5dmkiii, with Eos-adapted Zeiss prime lens set.
Aviator travel jib.
Graded with Film Convert Pro.

Seattle 48-Hour Film Project fun

Some photos from our foray into narrative filmmaking last weekend, taken by keen eyed Kollin O’Dannel. Lisa and I teamed up with Sean McGrath and his crew to create an entry in the Seattle 48-Hour Film Project, with the help of some amazing volunteers and cast, who worked their hearts out all weekend. It was a blast! Lisa has been hankering to direct for a long time, and she seized on this opportunity to build a crew and shoot something. The result of her first narrative short: audience appreciation award in Category D! Congratulations, Lisa, and thank you to everyone on “Team Naked.”

Want to see it and the other winners? Join us on Aug. 7 at SIFF Cinema at Uptown 7pm at the Best Of 48-Hour screening.