Monday, July 27, 2009

Film vs Video...continued

In today's L.A, Times:

"[Panavision's] bright past has been overshadowed by heavy debt, CEO shake-ups and decreasing demand for its equipment as many filmmakers switch to digital technology....

Aside from a production slowdown, Panavision is grappling with a more fundamental shift: Its business was built around manufacturing and leasing costly, high-end film cameras. It was a model that worked well for decades, when its cameras and lenses became a fixture in Hollywood and had little competition.

But demand for film cameras has steadily declined in recent years. Although filmmakers still debate the merits of shooting on 35-millimeter film versus shooting digitally, the switch to digital equipment has been dramatic, especially in television, where studios have been pressuring producers to cut costs. Virtually all the TV pilots were shot digitally this year.

Panavision rents digital cameras, including its well-regarded Genesis, which it developed with Sony Electronics.

But that camera is older and generally costlier to rent than rival digital models such as the Red One, which was developed by Jim Jannard, founder of eyewear and apparel company Oakley Inc...."

Read the entire article at The Los Angeles Times

Sunday, July 26, 2009

DSLR Video and Sync Sound

One of the dilemmas associated with shooting DSLR video has to do with the discrepancy between optimum picture and optimum sound. Of the the three DSLRs on the market today that can produce video, two deliver 1080p HD, the Canon D5 Mark II and the Panasonic GH1. The Nikon D90 produces a very good quality HD image on a large chip as well (larger than the Panasonic's, smaller than the Canon's), but at 720p.

As far as an image that most closely approximates something shot with a film camera, all three cameras, because of the size of their chips, accomplish this extremely well, but not equally. The quality of their image, due to the size of their chips and quality of their lenses, I would rank like this, in descending order: Canon, Nikon, Panasonic.

So as picture quality goes, Canon is best, Panasonic is third (still a very good image). But of the three cameras, only one is rigged at the factory for adequate sound recording and that is the Panasonic (in stereo, no less). The sound recording capabilities of the Canon and Nikon are notoriously bad. So a filmmaker who desires to shoot sync sound with the Canon or Nikon would be wise to consider recording it on a separate system such as the Zoom H4n. Even someone shooting with the well-reviewed sound system built into the Panasonic might be concerned with space on the camera’s storage media card, and a separate recording device could also be a solution for that problem.

None of the articles I’ve written on DSLR video allowed space for discussion of recording sync sound, so I’d like to list some of the sites I found while researching these articles and one I just came across on Sunday:

Zacuto offers excellent tutorial videos on filmmaking in general. Here is an exceptional one on sound:

Singular Software has developed a product to sync sound from separate and multiple sources at their Web site here.

And finally, Phil Bloom’s generosity with what he learns on the job as a cinematographer is inexhaustible. Here is a step by step tutorial on how he uses Plural Eyes.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

3-D Movies Here to Stay?

"Walt Disney's Jerry Bruckheimer-produced family flick "G-Force" opened with a very fine $11.5 million at the box office for what should be anywhere from a $30-35 million weekend. Hollywood types were curious if the talking rodents picture could overtake "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" after soft industry tracking, but it appears the kiddies were looking to move on to something new and the mouse house has another solid hit this summer.'

Saw the long-awaited G-Force today (please don't ask). It just opened Friday and, according to HitFix, it's narrowly beating The Ugly Truth. When I stepped up to the box-office window for the 4:20 matinee, the clerk asked for ten dollars per ticket. That might seem ok to my sophisticated city friends, but out here in the Pennsylvania hinterlands, them's fightin' words.

So I said to the guy, "I thought this was a matinee."
"It's in 3-D," was his phlegmatic reply. Well, it wasn't as bad as the twenty-eight bucks I had shelled out for two Jonas Bros. in 3-D tickets a couple of months ago (alright, I have a young daughter that drags me to these things), but today I kept the promise I made to myself then, and I got the tickets for the 2-D gopher movie playing an hour later--for the matinee price of seven bucks a ticket. "We don't like wearing those clunky glasses anyway, right?" I asked my film-buddy. "Right," she said, emphatically. Oh, I've trained her well.

So is this where we are headed? Is 3-D going to last longer than the 30 months it lasted the last time the process attempted a beach-head landing back in the 'fifties? Perhaps I should have accepted the assignment to write an article on the promise of low budget 3-D processes being developed even as we speak. But it seemed boring and so trendy at the time, three months ago.

Last year's 3-D Journey to the Center of the Earth was made for 60 million and to date has cleared 240 million. Coraline, also made for 60 million, is on track to gross the same world wide. Regardless of its ridiculous 173 million dollar budget, Monsters Vs. Aliens has made $374 million worldwide in only four months. hmmmmm.

Granted, all these 3-D movies also play in 2-D, so it's hard to say whether or not they would have made the same amount without the gimmick, but the point is they seem to be doing better than their fifties counterparts and being produced more aggressively by more studios this time around. The competition in the past was television. Today it's blu-ray, video games and the internet that's lighting a fire under production companies to so boldly think outside the 2-D box. The truth of the matter is that 3-D this time around has already been around for much more than 30 months. It's been cropping up with increased frequency since the early nineties, but 2008-2009 must be setting some records that go beyond the sixties and eighties revivals discussed in Wikipedia

The main difference this time around seems to be that the process is being applied not just to loser titles that the studios are attempting to hedge bets on. Up opened the Cannes Film Festival, names like Spielberg and Burton are mixed up in ongoing 3-D projects, James Cameron's first movie since Titanic is Avatar. It's being hyped *because* it's in 3-D, not *just* that Cameron's doing it (for $235 million), and *all* future Disney/Pixar titles are set to be released in Disney Digital 3-D. So yeah, this time around, it does seem to be happening differently. But I think I'll wait until Woody Allen or the Coen Bros. announce their 3-D projects to write that article.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

DSLR/Video Interview with Andrew Disney

Andrew Disney is shooting his film, Searching For Sonny, in Fort Worth, Texas using a Canon D5 Mark II DSLR. He attended NYU film school and then returned to Fort Worth after the summer of 2007. "It's a great place to shoot, and I'm finding that there is money here. Everybody wants to make movies, and there's a ton of energy in Texas for filmmaking."

Disney describes his film like this "It's about three bumbling friends who go back to their high school reunion and get sucked into a small town murder mystery that seems eerily like a play from high school."

His plan after the film is completed is to begin seeking distribution via film festivals. If no distributors step forward, then self distribution is in his future. "Deep down I love the idea of self-distribution and would not be disappointed if it turns out that way. Our strategy now has been to film the trailer, create the buzz, get the fans. That way, once we shoot the film, we'll already know we have some sort of audience. And it definitely makes an investor happy to know that people want to see the film before money has even been put into the project. It makes filmmaking much more democratic and smart. Consumers get to choose."

RQD: What has shooting Searching for Sonny with a DSLR meant for the movie?

AD: With DSLR, there's going to be a great upheavel. Besides me, we had a DP, an AC, a producer, and one PA on the shoot. We used a kino flo package and an arri package. That's it, and we were able to make somthing that looks very very good [the trailer]. So if i can make a great looking movie for a modest budget, then I can just distribute to a niche audience. No need distribute to the masses. Just distribute to a certain audience, and use social networking and viral marketing to get there. In the last twelve hours, we've got 2,000 hits from China because the trailer was posted on a Chinese gadget blog -

RQD: I saw your trailer. Nice dolly move in front of the Starbucks. Did you find it difficult to get steady camera moves with the Canon? Any problems with handheld shots? How did you get around them if you had any?

AD: I was very afraid about the sensitivity of the camera to movement. I'd read alot about how the rolling shutter in the Canon 5d can sometimes give a jelly effect. If you look at the focus push at the second mark, you'll see what a lot of people are having problems with. We stayed away from handheld shots, more as a stylistic choice. We did a test before the shoot with handheld, some parts are a little too shaky. I think it'll be a new camera technique to master.

On the dolly, we used sandbags to weigh down the tripod. But even with a nice dolly with good track, we had to rehearse the shot over and over again. Every little bump could be seen on camera.

Here's a picture of what our setup looked like.

RQD: How did you record sound for the movie? Onto the camera card or separate system?

AD: We did a separte system. We've only shot the trailer. We're releasing the full trailer on April 15th. It'll have sound. We used our HVX200 to record the sound. Funny that the HVX used to be our dream camera. Now it's what we record sound on via miniDV.

RQD: Any examples/stories of how using such a small camera enhanced your project? Shots you couldn't have gotten otherwise?

AD: The size of the camera made our crew smaller. Nothing to big to lug around. A battery pack that lasted all day. It felt easier and we went tired. Moving the camera, using the dolly was just so easy. I think for a documentary filmmaker, DSLR is going to be a must.

The big plus about the camera is the light sensitivity and the size of the image sensor. We were able to shoot in low light. The starbucks shot is only lit by available parking lot lights and a kino on the side to give a hair light. (We could only use 3 bulbs because we use powering it from my car and the fuse would blow when we switched on four.) The camera can use low light so well, and the sensor grabs so much data because of its size. That was the pain with the HVX and a 35mm adapter. You'd lose so much light and the blacks turned out so grainy.

: Are there any limitations for what people will be able to watch/project your film on or with?

: That's a big question a ton of people have been asking. If it's projected on a movie screen... maybe. But then again the best projectors out there are only 2K. I'm waiting to see the RED Scarlet. Maybe that'll be the camera to shoot on. The only problem with that is the price will be more and it won't be fun to buy so much disk storage. Many people decry the compression on the 5d but I'm okay with it. It looks good to my eye and the people around me. Star Wars Episode 1 was shot on 1080p. And the film may not even play in theaters. If people watch it on Blu-Ray, DVD, iPhones, the internet, the Canon 5d is perfect.

: Anything else you'd like to add will be appreciated. I just need a couple of paragraphs to round out my article.

: I like all other DSLR filmmakers am waiting for the Panasonic GH1. The 5dm2 does a great job, but there are so many work arounds. You can't control the light sensitvity and we had to use nikon lenses on a nikon adaptor mount to control the aperature. No filmmaker want to shoot 30p either. Hopefully the GH1 will be the standard.

All I know is I'm not going back to 35mm adapters. I'm a DSLR filmmaker from now on.

Looking for Sonny Web site and trailers
Here are some links to good technical information on his use of the Canon D5:

Early tests




This interview was conducted for an article in the Spring 2009 issue of Filmmaker Magazine

Monday, July 20, 2009

Canon 5D Post Workflow

New from Phillip Bloom: Canon 5D MarkII 24/25p workflow presentation from London Final Cut Pro User Group Supermeet 2009.

The Perils of HD

A few years ago I had a job shooting self-help lectures on digital video for a sort of EST-like cult group. It was a pretty good gig. The pay was very good and the calls were fairly steady— one long weekend every month or so. The head of the organization was both the producer and the talking head I photographed for these video courses. After about a year of shooting these things, she wanted to know how we could improve on the production value of what we were doing. She had no problem with the sets or my lighting or anything like that. She liked how she looked in these things and that’s what kept her calling me back for more.

Anyway, in an effort to address her production value concerns, I suggested something that I actually knew very little about. I suggested that we shoot these sessions in HD. She’d seen HDTV at Circuit City and she liked the idea. The organization she had built up over the years was pretty well off now and they owned all of their studio equipment. I was dispatched to B and H the following Monday to buy two cameras and some monitors. Cash.

There were a few weeks left before the next shoot and I used the time to learn all I could about the cameras. When I got the call, I drove up north of Albany where the cult was based and once there proceeded to prepare the set, light her stand-in, and set the cameras up. Everything went smoothly, she stepped in, and as she started speaking off her cue cards the director and I turned to each other with horror in our eyes. Every pore and wrinkle we had never noticed was magnified in living HD color. The separation between each individual hair along the sharp edge of her forehead made it look as if she were balding. Between takes I was frantically looking in the manual for anything that would knock the damned cameras out of focus without them looking like they were out of focus, and finding these controls buried in the menus I set them all the way to 10. It hardly helped.

As was her customary way of working, she proceeded through the 30-minute session without looking at anything in playback. She trusted me and her director. As we approached the end of the first section, it began to dawn on me that this would be my last day at this job. When she saw herself in playback, the producer-owner-spokesperson was very mellow. She noticed what she looked like and the line of her polite questioning indicated to me that she did not like what she was looking at. We continued shooting. I was desperate. At one point, the black stockings I requested from a CVS arrived— stretched across the back end of the lenses, they didn’t help much either.

We finished up the day, struck the set and boxed up all the lights and cameras and I left for the long, depressing drive home. They never called again. When I ran into the director a few months later he told me that they figured they could do it all in-house now with the interns I hadn’t realized I’d been training, and that they’d gone back to shooting on regular DV.

In this month’s Esquire I ran across this quote in a Larry David interview: “You know, the show’s in high-definition now and I said to the producer, ‘Listen, this is crazy. I look like I’m 75 years old [he’s sixty-one]. Nobody wants to watch an old man being funny. That’s just a fact. No one wants to see this old man on TV.' ”

I’m sure it isn’t as bad as the age of talkies ending scores of careers for actors who had funny-sounding voices, but I wonder what the consequences of this heightened definition have been and what's going on in make-up rooms and soft-lit sets across the country?

Friday, July 17, 2009

DSLR/Video Interview with Zak Forsman

In the last four months, I have written three articles on digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) that can shoot high definition video. The first one was for a periodical published in both print and online formats, Filmmaker Magazine. I wrote the second piece for an online journal produced by Focus Features called Film in Focus. The third article I pitched to Filmmaker Magazine, and they deemed it different and interesting enough (and the first one popular enough) to have me do a follow-up.

That the first two articles were assigned to me although I am a freelancer is an indication of the amount of buzz this new technology has generated at least among the readers of these periodicals. The first article was about filmmakers actually making long form films with Nikon and Canon DSLRs. Scott Macaulay, the editor of Filmmaker, furnished me with email addresses and phone numbers of three filmmakers and away I went. The article about the new technology and how it was used by Andrew Disney, Tom Quinn, and Zak Forsman is called Shutterbugs.

The interviews with the filmmakers were conducted as background for the piece and for occasional quotes. I was sorry I couldn’t use more of each one in the finished article so I am publishing them here. Zak Forsman is directing and shooting a feature called Eloquent Graffiti with a Nikon D90.

RQD: You seem to be working on multiple projects right now. What are your plans regarding distribution for each film?

ZF: I'm currently using the D90 to shoot a feature titled Eloquent Graffiti, as well as a short prelude to the film called Model Photographer. The plan for this project is to create a work using available resources and a bare minimum budget so we can release the film online for free at the end of 2009. It will be part of a larger universe residing online called WANDERLUST and preceded by ancillary content such as in-character video diaries, internet radio shows, an online comic book, the short film and a faux social network -- an entire universe that our growing audience/community can navigate with our portal. Eloquent Graffiti will not be the only project that is part of the WANDERLUST network, but it will be the first.

The purpose of giving it away for free is to expand our audience/community while capturing their metadata and using that to leverage sponsorships and advertising opportunities to keep it free. Minimizing the budget to a nano-budget also minimizes the financial risk making this kind of experience with evolving models of distribution much easier to stomach.

RQD: Does shooting your films with a Nikon come up when you meet with a distributor? Does it help or hurt your chances of distribution?

ZF: As we are distributing this 100% ourselves, it hasn't come up.

RQD: What are your plans regarding future use of a still camera to shoot your projects? If you raised, say, $250,000 for a picture, would you still use the Nikon? What amount is the tipping point between a Nikon and something like a Red camera?

ZF: I use the camera by accepting its shortcomings and playing to its strengths. It doesn't look like a film or video camera so you can shoot incognito when needed. It has the visual characteristics of 35mm, it is extremely sensitive and excels in low-light situations to the degree that one can shoot under street lights. However, the reality is that the D90 is going to be improved on very soon, if it hasn't already. It won't be my "go to" camera for much longer. A recent photo of a stripped-down handheld Red Scarlet prototype shows it has the same advantages of a DSLR form factor, plus a sensor with 5K resolution and a fast read-reset to
eliminate image skewing. So while I'm not delaying ELOQUENT GRAFFITI for the Scarlet, I expect subsequent films by SABI PICTURES to be lensed on that line next year.

RQD: The footage I saw has a lot of hand-held camera work. Isn’t the D-90 awkward to hold for this kind of shooting?

ZF: The D90 is very comfortable for handheld shooting given its DSLR form factor. I hold it securely with my right hand while cradling it and pulling focus with my left. The camera's sensor has a slow read-reset which results in skewing of the image when panning left and right. This effect is minimized in much the same way you soften handheld camerawork -- with wide lenses and stabilization. I won't shoot with anything longer than my 28mm without a tripod. Even so, it takes a good amount of familiarity with the D90 to work within its technical limitations.

RQD: is your eye up to the eyepiece while you're shooting hand held like that? Or does the image appear on back of camera?

ZF: I compose the frame and pull focus simply by monitoring the LCD display on the back of the camera.

RQD: how do you record sound? Wireless?

ZF: The camera has a built-in mic that is nearly worthless. It records a mono track at 11khz resulting in audio that is good enough for a scratch track to sync your double-system recordings to. There is no auxiliary input for sound so we use a variety of double-system solutions. For ambience, a Zoom H2 provides a 4 channel surround recording for building a 5.1 mix. For dialogue we stick with a Sennheiser 416 to a Sound Devices 702 compact flash recorder. When necessary, we use a wireless kit.

RQD: What is the workflow from the last time you say "cut" to the end of post?

ZF: My goal for post is to get the captured media into a form where the image quality is protected from subsequent renders and the format meets broadcast specifications. This means two things, transcoding to Apple ProRes and retiming the framerate from 24fps to 23.98fps. I have created a droplet in Compressor that does both. As with any double system shoot, dailies need to be synced in post. There is no timecode here to automate the process so my editor, Jamie Cobb, uses the slate or an alternate means of a sync mark such as clapping hands.
Here is an article written by Zak Forsman titled My Nikon D90 Workflow
Zak’s web sites are:

This interview was conducted for "Shutterbugs", an article in the Spring 2009 issue of Filmmaker Magazine

Public Enemies

The careful consideration behind the decision to shoot Public Enemies on HD instead of film is discussed in this month's American Cinematographer. Some of the reasons listed are that the camera selected (F23) performed well in low light and there were many scenes planned for night ("in the end, the F23's rendering of night scenes sealed the deal"), the fast zoom lenses available for that camera, and the deep focus that results from shooting on such a small chip. Article is by Jay Holben.

Full Disclosure

I had to walk out of Public Enemies. It's either terrible cinematography or I'm not ready for bald-faced HD video for a 1930's period piece.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pimp Your DSLR

Summer issue of Filmmaker Magazine hits the newstands this week with my article "Pimp Your DSLR":

I will post unedited version next month.