Monthly Archives: August 2010

Montessori School Video: A Guide on the Side

Today I’m happy to launch the second in a four-part series of videos I’ve been commissioned to make by Eton School. This one features pre-school students at the Bellevue, WA Montessori school paired with the voices of their parents.

The first video in this series featured teachers speaking, cut with upper level students. There was almost no nat sound in the 3-minute piece, just a few effects, and a breathtaking music track from VNV Nation (which we used with permission thanks to band cofounder Ronan Harris).

I approached making this video slightly differently. First off, it’s just one minute long. Instead of teachers, parents’ voices provide the spine of the piece. Also I have incorporated a fair bit of natural sound. The kids do get one speaking part – the word “oops!” For the music, happily I didn’t need to license anything this time either – I found this great track among the hundreds that Apple includes with Soundtrack Pro, which really is worth the purchase price just for the royalty-free sound effects and music tracks. It was too long so I sliced it in two in SoundTrack Pro and beat-matched the two segments, resulting in a piece of the perfect length right down to the frame. Bet you can’t spot the cut point!

Most of the footage was shot with my T2i; a little was shot on my JVC HM100. It’s color corrected with Final Cut’s Color Corrector 3-Way and heavily graded in Magic Bullet Looks, where I wanted to create a warm, fuzzy vibe. The heavy grading also made it easier to combine footage from the two cameras.

All the footage and interviews for the remaining videos on this project is in the can. I’m currently editing the next video in this series, which showcases the school’s lower level students. It should be up in about a week.

I’m also currently in post on another outstanding school video (the school is outstanding, at least, and I hope the video will be) for the University of Washington’s Experimental Education Unit. Look for that one sometime in September.

Oh, want a video like this for YOUR school? Drop me an email to dan at danmccomb dot com. I love this stuff and it’s how I support my documentary film habit.

Vincent Moon: I make films for the small screen

As Vincent Moon walks into the small theater at Northwest Film Forum, he looks nervous. About a dozen fans and local filmmakers have signed up for a 3-hour workshop with this frail-looking Frenchman, and I’m one of them. Between bagel bites and coffee sips, he begins rambling about his disdain for film school (even though he taught at one recently and even attended one for a few years himself). After he drops the third or fourth name of a director I’ve never heard of, I begin to wonder whether the class was worth my time.

Then he shows this film. It’s short, under 10 minutes. Much of it is blurry and out of focus, and the jittery handheld camera work screams “amateur.” But I begin to pay closer attention as I see that the film was made in a single take. Climbing into the back of a pickup truck with a group of musicians in Argentina, Moon had filmed handheld as they drove through the streets. That’s right, shooting handheld from a vehicle, zooming in for tight shots of faces, disdaining the most basic rules of photography (keep the camera steady; keep the subject in focus, etc). Crazy!

But his camera is definitely on an intelligent quest. It reacts to what it discovers spontaneously. When the camera catches a blur of a couple looking up as the truck passes, it follows them until they disappear, then lifts to peer up at the anonymous windows rushing by, before returning in an arc to the musicians. A parked police car slides by, sun glints off the singer’s dark glasses, and he zooms into them as they drive into a dark street. The scene fades naturally to black, and I realize I’m on the verge of tears. Huh? How did THAT happen? Who is this guy?

Apparently the coffee is working, because Moon is looking a lot more comfortable now, and smiling. “What you think of dat one?” he says, in his heavy French accent. “Zat OK?” A kid with a DSLR camera over his shoulder raises his hand and says, “I want to know everything: what kind of camera did you use, how exactly were you holding it, what your settings were on the camera, what software did you use for color correcting, everything.” Moon laughs politely and wiggles away from the question by pointing out that his work is really an effort to get away from the technical tyranny that pervades so much of filmmaking. In fact, it was the simplicity of still photography that at first lured him into making pictures.

If there’s one thing I’ve come to understand and resent about filmmaking, it’s that making almost anything worth making seems to require conceiving, funding, building, and commanding a small army. The biggest difference between making a film and making a photograph is that the the former is proactive, and the latter is reactive. Filmmakers are always planning and collaborating and organizing, while photographers dance with the moment. It’s a critical difference.

Moon set out to make films the way a photographer takes pictures: often in a single take, often with just himself, sans crew. “I never know what I’m going to do,” he says. “I can adapt myself because I don’t have a plan.” His method: travel to some exotic location for two weeks. Spend the first week hanging out in bars talking to locals and figuring out who the best local musicians are; spend the second week meeting them and filming them; and you’re done.

Well note quite done. The heaviest work for most indie filmmakers isn’t making the film – it’s finding an audience. But Moon shrugs that part off. “I don’t care about people watching. I care about people making [films].” The 20th Century, he explains, was characterized by a separation from artists and society that reached it’s peak in the massive success of bands like The Beatles. You were either in the band (cashing the checks), or in the audience (buying the records). But with the rise of Internet comes the rise of the amateur. Incredibly talented artists can increasingly be found everywhere, doing it for the love of doing it. And he sees his own work as part of that trend. “I make films for the small screen,” he says. But in a world with more than 40 million iPhones, does size matter in the same way it used to?

But most photographers and filmmakers I know apparently haven’t gotten the memo about the death of the audience. They still care passionately about building the largest audience possible on the biggest screen available. And they definitely want to get paid for their work. Moon, in stark contrast, posts most of his work to the internet under a Creative Commons license, which allows other artists to share, remix and reuse his work (provided they are not making money from it.)

So how does he make a living? Well, at least one major band, REM, has hired him to make a music video to the tune of $150,000. But Moon seems embarrassed to admit that, and says wasn’t his best work. In fact, Moon’s most steady form of income these days, he says, comes from speaking engagements like this one. Moon, it seems, is proceeding to make films from the sheer love of making films, following the same artistic impulse as his subjects, and believing the rest will work out somehow.

“I make films to remember,” he says.

Northwest Film Forum will be showing Vincent Moon’s films every evening at 8pm Saturday through Thursday.

iPhone 4 as audio recorder with external mic: a comparison

I’m a big believer in the best microphone being the one you have with you, and that getting it close to your subject is 80 percent of great audio. Since I always have my iPhone 4 with me, I always have a microphone. But can you really record great audio with it? Or even useable audio?

I decided to run a comparison. Beforehand, I ordered a great little device from, which allows you to use a self-powered external mic with iPhone 4. It’s called KM-IPHONE-MIC and it costs only 18 bucks.

I did the test in my office, which is a fairly small 13×24 space without much wallcovering, hardwood floors with a throw run, definitely the kind of less-than-ideal recording environment that I have to work in all the time. Perfect for this test.

I ran three tests, reading the first lines from Origin of Species (which I’m currently reading in preparation for a December trip to the Gallapagos Islands). I held the phone and mic about a foot away from my mouth (except for the iPhone earbud mic, which I let hang in its natural position when worn in the ear, which is about 3″ from my mouth. Listen to the results:

1. iPhone with internal mic: Play

2. iPhone with earbud mic: Play

3. iPhone with adapter and Rode VideoMic: Play

4. For a control, I recorded my Tram TR50 recorded to my Zoom H4N. Play

Conclusion: The iPhone with adapter and Rode VideoMic sounds decent! (But as I discovered during this testing and posted previously, the Rode VideoMic suffers from horrible handling issues and so is only useful when I can mount it to a stand while recording). Bottom line is: I could actually use the iPhone with adapter and powered mic for a documentary project if I have to. The external powered mic cuts down on the brightness that’s picked up in both of the iPhone’s native recording configurations. In a pinch I could even use the built-in iPhone mic. But I’ll skip the earbud mics – they sound really tinny to my ear.

Rode VideoMic design flaw

I picked up a Rode VideoMic a few months ago, and I tried using it on some shoots. However, I noticed a horrible amount of handling noise whenever I used it, which I attributed (mistakenly, it turns out) to the mic being very sensitive to my fingers on the camera controls. I even bought the expensive Rode VideoMic handle, to try it handheld, and that didn’t help. So I stopped using it, because I couldn’t get any clean audio whenever I used it. But today, I discovered that it’s NOT my ham-handed fingers: there’s a problem with the shock mount.

Here’s how I figured it out. Today I was testing my iPhone with a mic adapter, the KM-IPHONE-MIC from, which makes it possible to use external, self-powered mics with the iPhone. Just for grins I thought I’d test it out with my idle Rode VideoMic. Guess what I discovered? I got the same horrible handling noise as before, only this time, I had the mic in a controlled environment.

So where is all the handling noise coming from? From the shock mount. All those tiny rubber bands emit audible creaks. And it’s bad. Worse than useless, in my opinion: the Rode VideoMic introduces unwanted noise that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

Listen for yourself:

Am I the only person in the DSLR universe who has this problem? Is it possible that my unit is defective? Does the rubber on the feet age quickly and need to be replaced? How’s your Rode VideoMic working out?

**Update: I ordered a set of new silicon bands for the shock mount, and after replacing them, the mic is blessedly quiet. But I’m still not crazy about the fact that they had to be replaced inside of a year of very light use. That feels like a design flaw to me. The VideoMic should come with the following disclaimer: note that you will need to replace the bands frequently.

Two sunsets

Last week there were some spectacular sunsets around Puget Sound caused by smoke drifting south from forest fires in British Columbia. I seized the opportunity to try out some timelapse shots. I got out my Nikon 300mm f/4, put a 1.4 teleconverter, and with a fotodiox adapter, mounted it on my Canon T2i. Here’s the results from two subsequent days, following two different approaches:

The first shot was made at 1080p, 24p and speeded up 600 percent in Final Cut. The second was shot the following evening, when the smoke had mostly cleared (notice how much less red there is). For this one, I shot stills, at the rate of a frame every second, and later assembled them for editing with Quicktime following these instructions from Phillip Bloom, who is a real timelapse junkie.

The nice thing about the second approach is that the much higher resolution of the image allows you to crop in and increase the magnification without losing quality. Because there was a lot less filtration of the sun on the second day, the sun is much brighter, though, and that definitely detracts from the magic of the first day.

If you look very closely to the first shot, you can pick out two sunspots that are hardly larger than specks.

For doing timelapse with the Canon T2i, you need an electronic interval timer. The official Canon part for this is listed as “temporarily unavailable” at B&H, so I picked up a really inexpensive one on Ebay, the Aputure AP-TR1C, for about $40. It worked great, once I replaced the old hearing aid-type battery it ships with which died within 15 minutes of use.

Interesting to note: the photo was taken facing due west (of course), and if you look closely, you can see how far the sun is moving south in a single day. In the first photo, its trajectory takes it north of the big tree – in the second it’s path intersects the tree, setting enough further south that we lost we lost 3 minutes of daylight from the previous day.

Lock and Load X for $79 – this weekend only

This screamin’ deal I just learned about via Planet 5d: this weekend only you can purchase Lock and Load X for $79. That’s 47 percent off the $149 I paid for it. Next to Red Giant’s amazing suit of plugin’s, this one tops my list of most-useful plugins. I routinely apply this bad boy to get the jitters out of my handheld footage, and it works like magic most of the time. The controls are intuitive and it’s FAST. And speed is often the difference between using and not using a plugin.

Here’s an example of just how effective it can be:

Last weekend I was shooting a documentary about a band on tour, and they spent the night at an interstate hotel. We were returning to the hotel after eating fast food, so I wasn’t lugging my tripod – and I saw these great ambience shots. To film them, I just reached into my shoulder bag for my 35mm nikon 1.4 lens, and grabbed these available-light shots handheld on my Canon T2i (using Novoflex lens adapter to get the Nikon glass on the Canon). If I hadn’t known in advance just how well these shots would clean up because of Lock and Load X, I probably wouldn’t have even tried to shoot them handheld.

Notice the before and after difference. Especially note the lens flare on the hotel shot, which shows how jittery the shot really is. After Lock and Load X is applied, you still see the lens flare bouncing around – but the background is solid.

One limitation of Lock and Load X: it doesn’t work with footage in which you’ve changed the frame rate. So if you’ve shot something at 60p and used Cinema Tools to convert it into slow motion 24p, you’ll have to use Lock and Load (the non X version, which is included with your purchase) instead. It’s much slower than X, and has to be re-rendered whenever you make changes in the timeline, but it works great if you’re patient.

My first narrative filmmaking experience

One of my Biznik buddies, Art Torelli, sent me an introduction to Seattle filmmaker Michael Maniglia recently, which resulted in us having coffee. Turns out we live less than 5 blocks from each other, we both shoot regularly with the Canon T2i, and we both need help on our various projects. Mike’s primary focus is on narrative film, while mine is on documentary, but I’m keenly interested in getting some narrative experience because I want to make films that blur the line between the two. So when he offered me an opportunity to operate camera on a short film he’s making, I jumped on it.

The shoot took place in an elevator, in a Seattle office building after work hours. Luckily, we found one elevator out of four that didn’t complain when we stuck a sandback in the door, to lock it open, which allowed us to shoot. In the shot above, sound engineer Kelsey Wood places a small HD camera into the elevator for a shot that mimics a security camera in the scene.

My biggest take-away from this experience is just how VERY different narrative work is from documentary. Narrative is all about careful planning ahead of time, having a great script, and then deadline-driven production. Since nobody was getting paid on this project, it was even MORE deadline-driven: you have a limited amount of patience from everyone involved.

I picked up a few tricks from Kelsey on how to get great audio: use one of those hidden wallets that strap around your waist to hold the wireless lav transmitter to hide the mic on people who are wearing t-shirts.

And a lighting tip as well: we were using LED lights, and you have to really watch out for the obvious reflection signature they leave on anything glass or metalic. Once we covered the light’s face with paper to diffuse things, the reflections softened and the lights were usable.

It was my first experience using a really nice fluid head, as well, and the difference between the Vinten Vision 10 head we used and my Manfrotto 503 fluid head is unbelievable. Expensive fluid heads like the Vinten really are worth the money you have to plunk down for them: they make panning and tilting dreamy smooth.