Monthly Archives: May 2010

New work: commercial video shot on canon t2i

I shot this 1-minute commercial video with my Canon T2i on a Redrockmicro EyeSpy with follow focus. I also used a Glidetrack, and mostly Nikon glass used with Fotodiox adapters. I also directed and edited the piece, which I made for a Seattle startup.

My favorite clip is the lengthy slow-motion clip of the girls twirling around on the twisty playground ride. For that, I shot at 60p, which I conformed to 24 in Cinema Tools, before importing into Final Cut. I mounted the camera to the ride using a Manfrotto Magic Arm, which was rock solid.

I’m starting another commercial project for University of Washington on Tuesday, in which I’ll putting my T2i to work to show how special-needs kids are finding friendship and community with “typically developing” kids in one of the school of education’s programs.

How to really disable agc on Canon t2i

Earlier this week there was an excellent post from one of the clever guys at, explaining a technique that can be used to disable automatic gain control (AGC) on a Canon 7d or T2i:

Only problem is, I followed the steps, and it didn’t work for me and my t2i. So I started tinkering. After a bunch of trips to Radio Shack, I figured out how to make it work, and if you got what I got, it’ll work for you too.

So, here’s what I got: a Rode VideoMic and a T2i. I’ve found the VideoMic to be almost useless, because of Canon’s AGC. In fact, the tiny built-in mic on the camera sounds better than the VideoMic, which is ridiculous. Anyway, when I hooked up the VideoMic to the splitter as outlined in the above tip, I got nothing but a lot of static and hiss on the line.

It turns out the problem is because the VideoMic outputs a stereo signal (which doesn’t make very much sense, because it’s a mono mic, but it does). Plugging a stereo jack into a mono jack doesn’t cut it. You need a 1/8″ stereo plug to 1/8″ mono jack adapter (part number 274-882 at Radio Shack). Plug the VideoMic into that, then plug that into the Y described in the video. Bingo, you’ve got audio. Note: for playing the tone from your iPod, you’ll need either a mono 1/8th cable OR another one of the aforementioned stereo to mono adapters plus stereo cable. In the picture above, I’m using a mono cable to connect to the iphone, but these only come in 6′ length at Radio Shack, so I’m going to switch to using a 12″ stereo cable with an adapter to make it more manageable.

The volume slider on my iPhone is what you use to control the sensitivity of your mic (that is, the amount of reduction of the AGC). I find that setting it at 1/3 volume works best for recording someone speaking at a distance of 3-5 feet directly in front of the camera. Sliding the volume up increases the tone and thus reduces the gain, and vice versa. Pretty slick. Using this setup, my Rode VideoMic is finally useful to me.

Gotcha alert: This splitter is just slightly too big to fit in the T2i’s mic jack socket, and as a result, tends to work itself slightly disconnected with normal handling during a shoot. And, since you can’t monitor the sound going into the camera, there’s no way to tell for sure whether it’s come lose, except to physically grab the thing and push it in every so often during shooting. It’s always something with these DSLRs, hey? But in a year or two, when all of these problems are solved in a $2,000 ergonomically-correct, fat-sensor proper video camera body, I got a feeling we’ll remember these days fondly.

To generate the tone: Fire up Final Cut Pro and an empty timeline. Use the Generator > Bars and Tone to generate 20 minutes of something like NTSC bars and tone. Export it. Open it in Quicktime 7. Export again, only this time uncheck video, and choose to save the audio only as an AIF file. Drop that into iTunes. Create a playlist called “film utilities.” Drop it in there, and you’re all set.

New work: Unscripted commercial videos

I recently completed a pair of 1-minute unscripted commercial videos for a Seattle startup. The company makes colorful friendship bracelets designed for pre-teen girls, with a unique twist: the jewelry is magnetized and snaps into place with a distinct “click.” Have a look:

While this video was shot documentary-style without a script, it was very much driven by a concept. In developing the concept for this piece, I was inspired by the positive feedback I got from my first commercial project, I Am Becoming, which promoted a school by focusing on teachers’ stories paired with visuals shot entirely from a student’s perspective. I knew the videos would be successful if I could get the teachers to say something true about teaching.

Similarly, my goal in this case was to say something true about friendship. In essence, my goal was to create a 1-minute celebration of friendship. Making people FEEL something is much more likely to make a positive impression than trying to TELL them anything about the product, no matter how interesting.

When I presented this video to the client, one of their employees was crying by the end of the video, so I knew I’d hit close to where I was aiming. I’ll post the second video later this week.

The music was composed by Nick Torretta, who was a real pleasure to work with.

Technical details: I worked with a sound recordist to help me with audio; he operated a boom pole during the interviews, freeing me to participate fully in the interviews, which were led by my client. For the shooting part, I used a single Canon T2i. It’s the first project I’ve shot using a DSLR, and I’m thrilled with the results. The shallow depth of field really is perfectly suited for this type of work.

Lenses: I used mainly Nikon glass, with Fotodiox adapters. Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, Nikon E series 75-150 f/3.5, Canon 17-55 f/2.8 EFS. Support: Redrock Micro EyeSpy with follow focus (rented from Glaziers Camera Rentals here in Seattle). Audio: Recorded with Audio-Technica AT875, and Octava MK-012, using Zoom H4N recorder on a Rode boom pole. I used a Rode VideoMic on the T2i during filmming, but did not end up using any of the sync audio. (The birds twittering is a sound effect that I purchased from istockphoto because I couldn’t get a clean recording of birds myself in Seattle due to all the background noise caused by cars and airplanes).

I used a two-step approach in producing these videos: the first step was recording audio of the girls talking during a single session that lasted just over an hour. Then, I scheduled a second session for the filmming. When reviewing the audio, I selected the bits that made me feel something, that sounded most authentic, and dropped it in to Final Cut (with regular round-tripping to Soundtrack Pro for cleaning up files), added music, and then added video as the final step.

The sessions were entirely unscripted. The interviews were conducted by the founder of the company and I, asking the girls questions about the things they liked to do together, with the goal of teasing out why they click.

The best visual moment in this first video came as a total surprise. When I showed up for the audio interview, I noticed the girls sitting together in a swing in the back yard. Because the T2i is so small, I carry it with me everywhere. So I had it with me, even though I wasn’t planning to do any shooting that day. I pulled out the camera, dropped to my knee, steadying the camera with my elbow on my knee, and started rolling as the girls blew on a dandelion together. Again, totally unscripted, totally unprompted – it just happened. And I got it. (The lens was Nikkor 50mm at 1.4 with Fader ND).

I asked them to do it again afterward, but they couldn’t find any more dandelions, so that was it! For it to be usable, I had to stabilize the footage in post, and for this I used the amazing Lock and Load X plugin, which I’ve come to rely on heavily. It’s very, very fast – about 10 times faster than the stabilizing plugin that ships with Final Cut. Because of this plug in, I’m able to get away with shooting handheld in more and more situations than I ever thought possible. Which makes me very happy.

SIFF says no to Shine, yes to filmmaker pass

I learned recently that SHINE: The Entrepreneur’s Journey, the short documentary about entrepreneurship that I made with Ben Medina, didn’t make the cut to screen at SIFF this year. But SIFF came up with a great consolation prize: an invitation to purchase a heavily discounted Seattle filmmaker pass, which for 75 bucks provides local filmmakers access to all press screenings, as well as some other benefits like a full year of SIFF membership. I’m a big believer that watching as many great films as possible is the best foundation for making great films, so I’m thrilled to have this outstanding opportunity. I picked up my pass this morning, and will hit my first press screening tomorrow morning. I’ll be posting about my favorite films here. Thanks SIFF!

Zoom H4N tip: Record voiceovers directly into Soundtrack Pro

The more I use the Zoom H4N, the more I love it and discover new uses for it. My latest find: it can work as an audio interface. I’ve been doing a lot of voiceover work lately, and was on the verge of purchasing a USB audio interface such as the Fastrack so that I could use a quality mic like my Octava MK0-12, to record directly into Soundtrack Pro. The Zoom H4N is supposed to work as a USB audio interface – but it doesn’t. I did a ton of testing, and all the voiceovers I recorded via the USB connection to the Zoom were distorted – not only tonally, but they had weird random snapping and crackling and occasional skipped sections of sound. Very bad. But there’s a workaround…

As I was on the verge of placing an order for the Fastrack, it occurred to me: why not simply use a 3.5mm male-to-male cable (which I already own) and connect the Zoom from its line out to the Mac using the Mac’s 3.5mm input jack? I tried it out, and it works great! That’s about $120 saved, and one less piece of equipment to clutter up my editing table.

Configured like this, the Zoom does not have to itself be recording for this to work – I simply press the record button once (not twice, which would cause it to record onto the sd card), which puts it in standby mode, passing the signal through the line out and into the Mac, which handles the actual recording in Soundtrack.

Soundtrack’s right pane is set as follows (see graphic to right):

Input – set to Built-in Input and Mono selected for voiceover work.

It’s best to leave the monitor set to None, or else you’re likely to have feedback issues while recording.

Finally, arm the track you want to record to, press the record button and away you go.

mRelease for iPhone makes getting releases a snap

I hate dealing with releases. It’s a huge pain in the ass to carry around reams of paper and intimidating to people you’re otherwise trying to put at ease. So I was thrilled when my friends Basil Shadid and Matt Freedman turned me onto an iPhone app they jointly developed, called mRelease. I’ve had a chance to use it for a couple weeks, and it’s successfully changed how I feel about getting releases!

Everything you need for your next release is contained within the app, beginning with boilerplate legal text (which Matt assures me they hired a real lawyer to create and vet). The novelty of signing with your finger is actually kinda fun, and the app let’s you snap a picture of the subject to attach to the release, so that if you forget the person’s name, you can id them by their photo later. It then emails a copy to yourself and the person signing. Sweet.

Here’s a few screen shots:

This app works great if you don’t have huge numbers of releases to collect, but it doesn’t work so well as a way to organize your releases and keep track of them. For that, you’re best off to take the PDF copy of the release that is emailed to you, and fit it into your existing system (I store mine in a folder called “releases” contained within the project folder for the film I’m working on, organized by date).

Included within the app so far (it’s been updated once already) are: Appearance releases (the most common type that I use), Property releases, Location releases and Crew releases. You have the option of giving them an unlimited release, or a release limited to the project you are working on. There’s an option for guardians to give consent for children as well.

The app costs $2.99, a bargain considering the amount you save on printing supplies and paper if you commit to going paperless with your releases. I’ve done it, and won’t be looking back.

How to record iphone conversations using Zoom H4N

Recording conversations on an iphone is pretty simple once you know how, but I had to spend a couple days and repeated trips to Radio Shack to figure it out. If you need to make professional recordings of both sides of your conversations, such as for interviews, this approach is a winner.

So here’s what you’ll need:

1. iPhone (with earbuds that have inline mic).
2. Zoom H4N.
3. A professional microphone that uses XLR jack (I used my Octava MK-012).
4. An XLR cable.
5. A 3.5mm jack splitter (part number 42-2570 at Radio Shack).
6. A 3.5mm male to 3.5mm male audio cable (part number 42-2497 at Radio Shack).

The xlr mic is necessary to record your voice; the splitter running from the phone to the Zoom records the voice of the person you’re talking to. (You might think that your voice would be included on the splitter line, since you’re talking on a mic that transmits via that line – but it’s not.

To configure the Zoom, set the recording mode to “4 Channel,” which allows you to record input from the 3.5mm jack on the back AND from the XLR jacks simultaneously. It’s totally professional because your voice and the voice of the person you’re speaking with are recorded onto separate tracks, which is ideal for editing later in Soundtrack Pro and Final Cut. You can control the recording levels independently as well.

NOTE: At first I thought I could get this to work even more simply by using the Zoom H4N’s built-in mics to record my outgoing audio. But the built in stereo mic is disabled when you plug in the 3.5mm external mic jack. Hence, the need to use an XLR mic to pick up your side of the conversation.

In this 30-second test conversation with my wife, which I edited in a very simple Soundtrack Pro multitrack project (see graphic), if you listen very carefully beginning halfway through, you can hear my wife’s voice being picked up by the very sensitive Octava mic from sound bleeding through from the earbuds. I replaced my earbuds partway through with proper Sennheiser 280 Pro circumaural headphones to keep any sound from spilling out, and for that you’ll need a third-party external mic such as the Shure Music Phone adapter. You can hear Lara telling me initially that it sounds like I’m on speaker phone when I’m using the Apple earbuds, but as soon as I hooked up the Shure, she noted a major improvement in sound.  So here’s a snapshot of my final setup for professionally recording iphone interviews, below.

Herzog's Rogue Film School

I feel deeply honored to be among the 60 participants selected to attend Werner Herzog’s second annual Rogue Film School, which will be held just outside of New York in mid June. More than any other filmmaker, Werner Herzog embodies the spirit of independence and lifelong dedication to craft that inspires me to make films. Herzog has made more than 60 films during his career, films that cross the line between documentary and narrative and push the genre forward in pursuit of what Herzog calls “ecstatic truth.” If you asked me who my living heros are, I’d say Barak Obama, Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, and Werner Herzog. Roger Ebert once called Herzog “the most curious of men,” concluding:

You and your work are unique and invaluable, and you ennoble the cinema when so many debase it. You have the audacity to believe that if you make a film about anything that interests you, it will interest us as well. And you have proven it.

I've seen the future of workshops: it's called CreativeLive

I spent the better part of last weekend virtually attending the 3-day CreativeLive video dslr workshop hosted by Vince Laforet. This workshop was different from any other workshop of its kind that I’ve attended in two ways:

  1. I was able to participate live, from my couch, viewing the workshop happenings on my 6-foot projected screen and posting questions via chat.
  2. It was FREE.

I could add a third item: I actually learned something from the workshop. Stuff that will immediately begin making me money on my next commercial shoot, which begins Wednesday.

The folks at CreativeLive have such a great thing going, that I felt terrible about NOT paying, because I was worried about them not making a financial success of their endeavor. So I opted to pay the $79 class fee, not because I necessarily need access to the materials, but because I want them to succeed. I want to see a LOT more workshops of this kind on topics like Final Cut editing, film lighting, creativity workshops with masters, and many more.

If you’re someone with a photography background looking to get up to speed on filmmaking, save yourself months of hassle and just take this workshop right now. Because oh yeah, if you didn’t make the live event? No problem – you can still take video DSLR workshop the same as if it were live – only more tightly edited – for $129. Deal.