Category Archives: Technology trends

The real end of film is here. It’s called the Ursa Mini


Ursa Mini


Arri Alexa

For very a long time (like, since 2010), Arri has been the only digital camera on the market (sorry, Red) that has truly rivaled film. With it’s implementation of digital sensor, which includes a neat  trick with how it reads data off the sensor twice, it managed to deliver the roughly 14 stops of dynamic range that film is capable of. As a result, it’s become the go-to camera of big-budget filmmakers. The only problem, for the rest of us, at least: an Arri Alexa costs about $75,000. Not to mention, it was too big and cumbersome for most documentary productions.

But if the news from NAB can be believed, 2015 is the year where everything changes. When Canon announced the C300 mkii would ship with 15 stops of dynamic range, it marked the first time when, for about $16,000, you could own a digital camera that has MORE dynamic range than film. And a couple days later, Black Magic blows the roof off with their Ursa Mini announcement. For $7,000, you can now get a fully kitted out, ergonomically correct camera that shoots 15 stops of dynamic range. It weighs 5 pounds.

This is the real end of film.


Canon C100 MkII autofocus is a game-changer for documentary

Canon-C100-Mark-II-Cinema-CameraWhen I was a young photojournalist in the early 90s, I remember the disdain that old-salt photographers had for autofocus. “Forget autofocus,” they told me. “It’s not for pros.” The technology was still in its infancy in those days, but today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a photojournalist who doesn’t routinely depend on it.

Motion picture is another story. Most cinematographers feel the same way about autofocus today as still photographers did 20 years ago. But change is coming, and it’s has a name:  Canon Dual Pixel CMOS AF. First introduced on Canon’s EOS 70D digital SLR camera in 2013, Canon has for the first time made autofocus a standard feature in their Cinema series cameras with the introduction of the C100 MkII. But does it really work?

I spent last weekend in Boston shooting a wedding that will be the climax of a forthcoming documentary film by Heather McHugh. I chose the Canon C100 MkII to shoot with because I wanted to put the camera in a situation where I could really push its autofocus capabilities to the limit, and see if it could perform as well or better than my manual focusing ability.

But first, a word about manual focus. When shooting video, it’s actually quite difficult to tell whether a shot is actually in focus. Especially when shooting wide or when stopped down, you can’t trust what you see on the screen. Tools like peaking that sharpens the image to better reveal focus, and peaking that places a color outline around in-focus areas, help. But nothing substitutes for actually SEEING that the image is sharp, and for me this means punching in, or digitally expanding the image to check focus. Canon DSLRs have a button that magnifies focus up to 5x for this purpose. But it only works prior to rolling – if the subject moves during the shot, you’re on your own. The C100 and other C-series Canon cameras have a 2x magnifier that works while rolling. This helps, but having to constantly punch in while rolling to check focus is distracting, and takes me out of the moment when following a subject.

When my C100 MkII arrived from, I spent a day getting comfortable with the menus and controls. And it became immediately clear that the autofocus button is in the wrong place – at the front of the camera in the same spot where the white-balance button is on many other video cameras. This makes grabbing focus a two-handed operation, no good. Luckily, Canon makes it possible to re-map the buttons to your heart’s content. I found that mapping the one-shot autofocus to the #7 button makes it an ergonomic dream to use.

Using this approach, I quickly fell into a one-handed shooting rhythm: Center the subject, press one-shot autofocus with my right thumb, and as soon as the green confirmation square lights up, roll camera with my right index finger.

What I have hated in the past about video autofocus is the dreaded “hunting and seeking” that happens unpredictably. With the C100, this is a thing of the past (except in very low light or on very low-contrast subjects, which I’ll address in a moment).

In fact, in my own manually focusing, I find myself hunting and seeking all the time: I focus, then punch in to check, then slightly overcorrect focus to see where the sharpest point is, then come back to it. Then punch out, and roll. So when I realized that Canon’s autofocus just goes to the sharpest point and locks there, I was very impressed. In that way, it focuses better (faster) than my human eye.

Canon provides two autofocus modes: one-shot and continuous. Unfortunately you can’t map the buttons to continuous – just to one-shot. This means if you want to switch between continuous and one-shot, you have to drill into the camera menu, a cumbersome process. I hope Canon makes continuous focus a mappable option in a future firmware update.

Continuous autofocus will attempt to keep whatever is in the center of the frame in focus. One-shot focuses to the point you’ve selected, and stays put regardless of where your subject moves after that. In practice I almost never used continuous focus. But it is very handy when a subject is coming toward you, such as a push-in shot. It’s also great for those times when you can’t touch the focus ring – such as when the camera is mounted in a Movi.

And here’s my first gripe: it’s only possible to focus in the dead center of the frame. In practice this isn’t so bad, because you can focus, reframe, and roll. But it would be very nice to be able to (as you already can with the Canon 70D) assign the autofocus area to another part of the screen. I found myself favoring the center of the screen for my compositions more than I normal would have done.

While shooting at the wedding, I loved the confidence that having autofocus gave me. It speeded up my work. Instead of squinting intently into the frame, I could center the subject, press one-shot, get focus confirmation, and roll without wondering whether my shot was focus. If the person moved, I could again press one-shot and get focus confirmation without interrupting my shot. Because there is so much to cover so quickly during a wedding, I found myself simply letting the camera roll, reframing a new shot, focusing, and repeat as needed.

The nagging feeling of “did I get that in focus?” that so often haunts me at the end of a good shot just melted away as I became more and more confident. Instead of concentrating on focus, I found myself concentrating on framing, on getting the right angle, on moving the camera to where it needed to be for the next shot. But of course, it wasn’t perfect.

I noticed that low-contrast or dimly lit subjects sometimes presented an autofocus challenge to this camera. In low light, I occasionally saw the hunting and seeking behavior that has plagued lesser video autofocus. But it doesn’t take long to figure out what situations I had to manually take over, and which I could trust the camera to handle. And, asserting focus is as simple as grabbing the focus ring. You don’t have to enable or disable autofocus first with Canon glass. You just leave autofocus enabled on the lens, and focus manually as needed. With one-shot, it won’t fight you.

On a few rare occasions, I noticed that the camera seemed to fasten onto a background object rather than focus into the foreground as I wanted it to. These were situations with a low-contrast object in foreground against a high-contrast object in background.

As the day went on, I wondered whether my near-constant use of autofocus would cause the battery to run out faster. It didn’t. I shot the entire event on a single Canon BP-955 battery. It had 25 percent of it’s life left at the end of the day. So the C100 does what it does without being a battery hog. Pretty incredible.

When I reviewed my footage afterward, I noticed something I haven’t seen in my footage before: shots that snapped into focus and stayed focused. Instead of my rocking back and forth to settle on focus, it just went straight to it with authority, meaning that I could react more quickly to a moment and nail it.

Before the C100, I could count on some percentage of my shots (maybe 10 percent?) being slightly soft. With the C100, virtually all of my shots are spot-on. Focus becomes a framing exercise, rather than a squinting exercise. And the result is renewed confidence. The C100’s autofocus isn’t perfect, but for covering events like a wedding, at least, it’s already better than my eyes. And that’s good enough for me.


One ring to rule them all: seamless focus gears by mechanical engineer Sean McCurry

First you get a DSLR, then you get a follow focus unit. Then a bunch of stuff happens, and you end up with a pile of this on your living room floor:

Today I’m happy to report that such bandaids for dslr lenses are no longer necessary, thanks to a mechanical engineer named Sean McCurry, who is quietly revolutionizing the follow focus gear, one perfectly printed lens gear at a time. Wait, printed? But before we get into that…

I guess you could say that I’m a focus gear whore. I feel like I’ve tried just about everything on the market in hopes of finding one that worked seamlessly (so to speak) with my set of Zeiss/Contax primes. But every one I’ve tried has left me cold. To be specific:

Redrock Micro gears are nice because they give some autofocus lenses some much-needed extra throw. But with my Zeiss primes, I found the extra throw to be too much. And the ergonomics suck: too big to store in my lens case, they have to be assembled before every shoot. Major bummer. I want gears that I can buy and forget about,.

Zacuto Gears are basically thin bands of plastic that have a big awkward bump. They get the job done, but I’ve had them slip off my lenses more than once while running and gunning, because the bit that holds the two ends together gets caught on things. Oh, and they aren’t cheap.

If you want cheap, you want Jag35 zip-tie gears. But like the Zacuto, they catch on things, and they don’t add any throw diameter to your lens, either.

Genus gears are one-size-fits all, which makes them great for larger diameter lenses like my 300mm f/4 Nikon. It’s the only gear I could find to fit it. But not at all great for more standard size lenses, where the tightening screw gets right in the middle of your business. Plus, they tend to loosen up during use, and you have to remember to keep retightening them.

One thing I have never tried: Duclos cine-mod. This is the gold standard of lens gears. And by gold, I mean $105 a pop. But what’s prevented me from going Duclos is that you have to send your lens away for an unknown length of time to have the mod done. That more than anything has been the deal-breaker for me. I need my lenses.

Above: iPhone pano of my set of Zeiss primes, with Sean’s gears.

So. Is it too much to ask to have something as perfect as the Duclos mod, for a third of the price, that without any tools, I can install myself?

Enter a mechanical engineer named Sean McCurry. I accidentally discovered his brilliant work while surfing on Ebay a few weeks ago, when I was startled to see a listing for “Seamless follow focus gears” specifically made for Contax-Zeiss primes. I have a lens set that ranges in size from 25mm – 135mm, and Sean had each of my focal lengths covered. For $35, I took a chance and ordered one for my 50 f/1.7 prime. It arrived three or four days later, and with great curiosity I took it out of the box. Four pages of instructions on lens fitting were included, but were unnecessary: the gear fit PERFECTLY. I simply had to very carefully and slowly wiggle the gear on, until it seated firmly into the spot where I wanted it to stay on the focus barrel of the lens. The fit is so tight that it doesn’t slip at all, doesn’t require glue, and feels like it was made for my lens. Which, in fact, it was.

I’m not 100 percent sure how Sean is able to make such killer gears. But I’m confident it’s because he’s 3D printing them. A close examination of the gears reveals telltale patterns, strata in the plastic that are consistent with 3d printing (click image to enlarge):

One great thing about these gears is that I was able to place them at approximately the same position on 4 of my 5 lenses, so that when swapping lenses, I don’t have to adjust the focus puller position on the rails. Also, my previous gears would ride up and down the lens as they came in and out of their foam Pelican case, requiring constant readjustment, often in the middle of a shoot. These gears stay put.

Need more amazing? Beyond the great ergonomics, these gears producer smoother more predictable and repeatable pulls than I’m used to getting from my previous gears. Maybe it’s the extra gear depth, maybe it’s the precision of the printing, maybe it’s the Delrin they are made from. Whatever it is, these gears have taken my focus pulling to the next level.

Sean is currently making the gears for popular DSLR lenses that include the following:

Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8

Set for Contax Zeiss Lenses

Canon 100mm Macro lens

Nikon 105mm f1.8 AI-S Lens

Canon 24-70mm Lens L Series F2.8

Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L IS Lens

Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 IF DX II Lens

You can see the full list (currently 105 items) to see if your lenses are on it.

Don’t see your lens on the list? Sean welcomes custom orders. You can measure the circumference of your lens, and email your request to Or contact him via his Ebay shop.

So here we are. Living in a world where the best stuff can come out of a printer. Welcome to the future.

Gearing up for Blackmagic Cinema Camera with SSD dock

One of the nice things about the Blackmagic Cinema Camera taking forever to ship is that it’s allowed me time to slowly acquire the additional tech that this beast requires to run. The big one, of course, is SSD drives. I picked up a SanDisk Extreme 480GB (SDSSDX-480G-G25
) drive on Black Friday for $285, a smokin’ deal for a card that retails for around $350.

Reports from those lucky enough to have the camera already reveal that in it’s current version, there’s no way to get footage to offload from the camera directly. Hopefully this will be addressed by a future firmware update. For now, at least, this means we’ll need to mount the card into an external case of some kind to offload footage. As far as I can find, no one yet makes anything as simple as a CF card reader for these devices. But I discovered one manufacturer who makes something pretty close: The Seagate GoFlex Thunderbolt adapter. It’s relatively cheap at a hundred bucks, and I can attest that it works fine with at least one of the drives on Blackmagic’s approved list, the aforementioned SanDisk Extreme SSD 480k. With a little work, I’ve discovered it can get the job done nicely.

There’s a slight problem with this drive combo: it doesn’t work when plugged directly into a 2011 MacBook Pro. Apparently the portable macs Thunderbolt port doesn’t supply enough power (it works fine with my 2011 iMac). The good news, though, is that it DOES work when plugged into the Thunderbolt port of our externally powered Lacie 2big Thunderbolt drive. And that is how we intend to use it in the field: to offload files directly to the Lacie. So we’re good. But it won’t work if you intend to lay off directly to your MacBook’s internal drive.

If you insert the disk bare, which is what you want to do when swapping cards in and out of the Blackmagic Camera, there is a gap under the card, which could be dangerous because it causes the connection to bend and it might ultimately break with use. To fix, I took a stack of business cards, and taped them down. You’ll have to use trial and error to pick the exact number to fill the space perfectly. Like so:

An elastic holds everything in place during transfers.

With this dock and drive setup, here’s the speed I’m clocking for transfers:

By way of comparison, here’s how my other drives rate. Promise Pegasus R4:

Lacie TwoBig 4TB with Thunderbolt:

Black Magic BMD Cinema: A camera worth getting excited about

There’s been a lot of development in cameras lately. But I’ve been sorely disappointed to see Canon stuff almost all the goodness into cameras they’ve chosen to price at $10 – $15k or more, while making barely credible improvements to the 5d mkiii and raising its price to $3,500. I was beginning to feel like the big guys were only making cameras for the big guys. But today, Black Magic changed all that. With this:

I can’t wait to get my hands on this insane piece of camera tech.

Between the video and the still lies this cool idea from Microsoft Research

I can’t remember the last time I saw something this cool come from Microsoft. Check it out:

What a nifty idea. But no need to wait for MS to ship something that likely won’t work on Mac anyway: this is a technique that anyone can do immediately by shooting on sticks, grabbing a still frame, putting it in the background, and using a mask to hide the part of the image that has the unwanted motion, while keeping the good bit. Can’t wait to try this one out.

My favorite filmmaking tool of 2011: Nissan Leaf

As a filmmaker, I get a kick from working with well-designed, cutting edge technology. I’ve had the opportunity to use some amazing stuff over the past year: Tab Firchau’s RC helicopter, gyro-stabilized camera mounts, and the incredible Sennheiser 8060 mic. But nothing has had a bigger impact on the way I make films than the Nissan Leaf that Lara and I purchased in August. I use it on EVERY shoot. It carries everything I need. It’s sexy. It’s fun. It’s silent. It uses ZERO gas.

But what’s even more amazing, is that it’s the first car I’ve ever owned that I actually enjoy driving. The visceral enjoyment comes from it’s quiet, push-you-into-your-seat acceleration. It’s a trip to be sitting at a stop light next to another car and when the light changes, to leap from a dead stop to 30 mph – silently. The intellectual enjoyment comes from knowing that the oil and gas industry gets ZERO of my dollars, and the environment gets ZERO emissions. And because I live in Seattle, where in excess of 90 percent of our power is generated from hydro, I’m driving a car that is almost literally powered by the rain.

Since August, we’ve seen an increase in our monthly electric bill that will equate to about $200/year. By comparison, we were paying $200/month to fuel our Jeep Cherokee, before we traded it in for the Leaf. The Leaf doesn’t have nearly the cargo capacity of the Jeep, but with careful packing, it’s proven big enough for my current productions. And so far at least, none of my projects has taken me beyond the 100 mile range of the Leaf. If it does, our Nissan dealer offers Leaf owners a deep discount on SUV rental. And it won’t be that much longer before the first SUV-sized EVs hit the market (such as the Toyota RAV-4 EV or the Tesla Model X, due to be announced in first quarter of 2012).

Red carpet treatment: Free EV chargers are starting to appear, and commercial ones too. Our local Fred Meyer has just installed two Blink EV charging stations, right next to handicapped parking. So now it’s like I’ve got my own parking spot reserved every time I go pick up groceries.

Wish list: One thing that filmmakers never have enough of is power. It’s easy to blow breakers by plugging too many tungsten lights onto a circuit. And on location outdoors, it’s sometimes necessary to carry a noisy generator to get the power necessary to run hot lights. But with a car like the Leaf, which is basically a giant battery on wheels, shouldn’t it be possible to get power flowing OUT of the car? Yes. But no one has come up with a hack to tap it, yet. Nissan has announced plans to sell a device that converts the Leaf into an emergency power supply for a home, but it’s the size of a small refrigerator. I’m sure contractors and others who use large amounts of power at remote locations would be very interested in a small, portable power tap for the Leaf. I’m hopeful somebody will give me a chance to buy one in 2012.

After 5 months with the Leaf, it’s clear to me that the future of filmmaking – and driving – belongs to electricity.

Crowdfunding, crowdsourcing and hybrid distribution

There’s an excellent conversation happening right now on D-Word, the online community for documentary filmmakers. Peter Broderick, host of the conversation, is an expert on the changing distribution models that every filmmaker needs to understand.

I learned about a couple of new services that I’d never heard of, in particular one called Distrify that allows you to embed your film as a free preview or instant paid viewing on social media sites, in same way you would a Vimeo player, only you get to charge money. Distrify takes a 30 percent cut. And, I got some great ideas for promoting and distributing the film I’m currently making.

Panasonic set to make first integrated 3d HD camcorder

I’m intrigued by how the rapid pace of technological change is affecting documentary filmmaking. One safe prediction: we’re going to see more 3d documentary filmmaking in the near future. The overwhelming success of 3d Avatar shows what can happen when you dazzle audiences with the pure visual magic that 3d can provide.

Now, thanks to a new 3D video camera from Panasonic, it looks like 3d filmmaking could become an option for documentary filmmakers. The specs on this camera are pretty impressive, right down to the fact that they record onto standard SDHC cards, which I’m a huge fan of (I HATE how most every major camera manufacturer has it’s own proprietary solid-state card type, and applaud the move that Panasonic seems to be making to support the inexpensive SDHC standard).

This camera is estimated to begin shipping this fall at a price of approximately $21,000. The price will put this camera outside the range of most documentary shooters, but within the reach of someone dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what technology makes possible. Projects that involve extraordinary visuals – imagine Winged Migration if it had been shot in 3d – would be a natural fit. But I’m intrigued by something else: what emotional impact would an interview shot Errol Morris-style looking straight into the lens(es), look like in 3d? Could be pretty powerful stuff.