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

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.


  • 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.