Live performance recording with one take, one camera

Oswaldo Machado, a conductor graduate of Adelphi University and accomplished pianist performs an improvisational piece.

Filmed in one take with a Sony a7SII on an Easy Rig Minimax. I rented the Easy Rig for a week of shooting and this was my second day with it after only using it for an hour the day before. It was also the first time using it to record a long take or performance. I had never heard Oswaldo play before and I started out with the intent to film some cutaways for a longer video I was working on, but after a few moments of hearing him play I decided not to cut the camera during the performance and I'm glad I didn't! Oswaldo's playing is truly beautiful. I can see how practice with the Easy Rig makes a big difference and the next time I attempt something like this I'll be focusing on smoother, floating transitions between angles.

Sony a7S II and Zeiss Loxia 50/2 on Easy Rig Minimax. Audio recorded on a Zoom H1 laying directly on the piano.

A Short and A Feature Film: Process Breakdown, Part 1

In January I had the opportunity to DP an ambitious short film titled "I'm Sorry, I Love You" for director Jaime Gonzalez. The short is not yet released but will be soon and I'll be featuring it here next time when I start to break down the shots.
We were both working on the upcoming feature, "False Hopes", which I DP'd in February so we were able to get some equipment on loan that I had recommended purchasing for that project. In the next few blog posts I'll be walking through some things I learned in the process and breaking down some shots in regards to camera movement, lighting, working with daylight, lighting night interiors, and the biggest one: lighting daylight scenes that continue on into the night.

The short film was a perfect opportunity to test out all the new goodies a week before moving on to the feature. It is critically important to test all equipment including lights, stands and grip pieces to ensure it is functioning out of the box. Do you really want to show up on a shoot and put up your 8x8 silk just to find out the clamp doesn't tighten, letting it spin around in the wind? I arrived in LA a day early from Denver so I could do equipment checks and review angles in the house location we were using. It turned out that I had spent the first day and next morning right before the shoot troubleshooting and calling up tech support for various last minute catastrophes. Like I said, equipment tests are critical.

Recording raw on the Atomos Shogun Flame

We were shooting on the Sony FS700 with raw upgrade via SDI out to the Atomos Shogun Flame which does a very good job of transcoding the raw signal into Quicktime ProRes which provides are very gradeable codec. Highlights are recoverable, details are sharp and colors are rich. The Shogun was super easy to setup to receive the raw signal and it was up and running within minutes. 

Crisp details of FS700 Raw signal, recorded on Atomos Shogun Flame.

Crisp details of FS700 Raw signal, recorded on Atomos Shogun Flame.

The monitor is big, bulky and heavy when powered by a couple large Sony L series batteries so it's really important that you have an appropriate rig with proper length arms to support it. What I had intended to do was use the Atomos as the director's monitor on the dumb side of the camera, or elevated on top so the director could stand a couple of feet behind watching action on the bright, 7" monitor with beautiful HDR color grading. I wanted to mount my 5" SmallHD 501 fed by HDMI out from the Atomos which supports loop through so I could get close and pull focus. This turned out not to be possible. I couldn't get a clean signal feeding in to my SmallHD. Whatever I saw was garbled noise. I checked around and couldn't find an answer so I upgraded the firmware on the Shogun as it was handed to me with firmware several generations old, but still no luck. I got an answer via email from Atomos pretty quickly. In case anyone needs to know, if the Shogun is receiving a raw signal you can't loop out a non-raw signal. In any event, the Atomos is large enough for more than one person to view, but not at all times. Sometimes when there is dolly action or handheld work you just can't share the monitor. The Atomos/FS700 combo decision was made by the production company and so I was a bit surprised to find out certain things weren't possible. When it's not your gear you will be presented with surprises, which is why the DP needs to be prepared for any circumstance and keep on researching.

A Warning Regarding Dracast LED Fresnels

Dracast LED 500 fresnel cord spliced with extension cord to get up and running in a hurry.

Dracast LED 500 fresnel cord spliced with extension cord to get up and running in a hurry.

Dracast LED fresnel plug frayed after two days

Dracast LED fresnel plug frayed after two days

I purchased 4 of these for the feature film and was simultaneously disappointed and impressed. I had a very limited equipment budget to use for a 30 day shoot. We'd be in mostly household or small commercial locations and renting wasn't really an option. Not only would I not have the time to go pick and drop off more powerful lights as we needed them but I wouldn't be able to run generators for more powerful and cheaper tungsten heads. We decided on purchasing LED and one 565W HMI from CAME TV which turned out to be a fantastic unit and I wished I had gotten another one.

We bought 2 of the LED 500's and two of the 700's. The price point is great and the light output and color reproduction is fantastic. However, if they don't turn on then what good are they? Dracast support however was good and they answered the phones right away. The build quality is probably the biggest disapointment on these heads. One of the 500's arrived with a shorting control panel, a missing screw and none of the 4 would illuminate. Documentation? None in the box or on the website. Tech support explained I needed to change the mode on the side panel to the A1 option and then dial up the power. Why were they defaulted to DMX mode? Why is there nothing explaining what A1 or A2 is? Mysteries abound.
The next issue you need to know about is that the cords are the lowest quality I've ever seen. First, they annoyingly short. You'll need to go buy an additional extension cord for each unit because they won't even reach the wall once you put it up on a stand. Second, you must very gently remove the plug from the wall. I don't mean grip the housing and base of cord together in a firm grip, I mean only pull the plug housing by pinching with thumb and forefinger as any pressure on the cord itself will pull the cord right out (or at least begin fraying the connection). I had to replace the cord ends with new ones from Home Depot as they would never last on a month long shoot. Two of them broke on the first day and another began shorting two days later. The weak rubber cord is not crimped or reinforced by the plug housing and at the other end I saw the outer rubber coating begin to split at the housing of the head itself which is even worse. It's easy to replace a plug, but not easy to open the unit and access the power supply.

Final advice: I really wanted to like these lights. Even though the light output and quality is wonderful I would still suggest to move on to another, more expensive brand if you can afford it. The cuts in build quality are just not worth the savings if you're left stranded. I should also add that we bought two of their light panels and 4 smaller battery powered blender panels and they worked perfectly with no issues. There are lots of options for LED panels out there, but not many affordable ones for fresnels which is the dilemma when working with limited budgets.

Lou V

Here's some clips from a recent test shoot with Lou from Wilhelmina. He was passing through Denver and Wilhelmina asked if I wanted to do a last minute test with him on a cold morning. We met up at a nearby park and got some pretty cool stuff!

I shot with my Sony a7RII with Zeiss Batis 85mm f1.8. Since it was overcast and there was no direction to the light I used a Canon 580EXII speedlight on a lightstand to create the side light.

LouV_Wilhelmina_31217_223.jpg

New commercial for Axis Labs

I recently released a new 60s commercial I was hired to shoot for Axis Labs, a Denver based supplement company. The best part was that I got to work with fitness model, blogger and trainer Alysha White who was a blast to work with. She's exceptionally dynamic and provided the concept for the video which we worked together to refine and shotlist. She's a trainer, but also a mom and wants to continue being both and inspire others to give their best.

I shot entirely in 4k on Sony a7SII and a7RII in super 35 mode. I used the a7SII paired with a Rokinon cine DS 24mm on my new DJI Ronin-M gimbal which provided some great results for the orbiting shots and boxing footage.

This job was a challenge because we had about 4 hours of open time at the gym to shoot before it opened for classes so we needed to be efficient with our shot list and desired coverage. Second, we were going to be shooting with Alysha's one and half year old son who is pretty unpredictable and energetic. So even though I shot listed something, did not mean were going to get it. We got what we got and we made it work through creative editing and improvisation!

A New Year’s Flight In The Park

I just returned from a New Year's visit with friends in Utah. Thankfully, I remembered my Phantom 4 drone this time and we had a beautiful, but freezing cold day to take a walk and get some great footage of a snow covered park and a large flock of geese in flight. There's also a few cute kids =)

The Difference Between "Edit" and "Retouch"

Let's talk terms. No, not contracts, although that's important, too. I mean terminology. Language was developed so we could convey meaning and intent to one another and avoid confusion.

These are interesting times in the commercial art world. There has been a huge influx to all of the art industries in the past 15 years consisting of a broad mix of art school graduates and people moving on to a second career as graphic designers, art directors, photographers, etc. This is fine, all who have something to contribute are welcome, but this has really muddied the waters of standards. I have heard so many complaints from respected, old hands in the industry that young art directors, in particular, and clients in general just don't know what they are asking for. I heard one photographer tell a story of working with a young art director on a shoot who was trying to ask for a type of image but didn't know what to call it. He was asking for a "pan" which is when the camera swivels with a fast moving subject to keep the subject in focus while motion blurring the background. The art director called it "speed lines". If you're in the field it's not enough to describe something, you need to know the name.

Recently I was asked to send edited images. When I asked for clarification as to whether they meant retouched images I was informed that those words mean the same thing. Well, they don't. If that were true then someone should call the photo editor at the New York times and every other major publication and tell them that they are actually in charge of the retouching. Photo editors hire photographers and choose the images from the shoots that will appear in publication and send comments to the retouchers who work their magic.

This has a lot to do with the fact that clients don't know what we, as photographers, actually do. It's also further confused by the fact that in the modern industry so many people wear multiple hats. Professionals usually itemize their invoices to break down each step so the client knows where their money is going and how much time we are truly spending on the shoot. For every hour we spend on the shoot we generally spend two hours at the computer. Editing means to download your shoot, organize, catalog, "edit out" the rejects, rate your selects, make raw adjustments and output finals. Think of a copy editor who reads the piece and makes edits. They are removing the junk and refining the body of work. After the edit we retouch, which is an entirely different line item and billed at a different rate. It's not automatic that clients want to pay for retouching and it's not assumed to be included in the price of the job. Sometimes clients just want an unedited shoot which some people call a "shoot and burn", as in shoot the gig and burn raws to a DVD which the client would edit and retouch with their in-house staff. Now we just transfer everything online, so I guess we need a new name for that. "Shoot and send"?

Yes, many people do use the words "edit" and "retouch" interchangeably but that doesn't mean it's correct. Adobe Lightroom, Bridge and Capture One are photo editing software where we organize and make selects. Photoshop is an image manipulation program as it does a lot more than just retouch. Adobe is ecstatic that their program has become a verb, but let's avoid saying "can you photoshop out that power cord?". Photoshop will never appear as a line item on my invoice. Some people may think this is nit-picky and I'm just cranky. To which I say: "Guilty".

 I admit, I went to art school for a graphic design degree and doubled in fine-art photography. I did not learn the proper terms there except for dark room development and camera operation. I started working professionally as a photographer's assistant at the age of 15 and I now have 19(!!) years in the industry with many years of apprenticeship under experienced professionals. This is where I really learned the craft. If I had to do it again I would completely skip college as it was an utter waste of time in terms of learning my trade, but it did pump up all of our egos and gift us with an inflated sense of self worth which was quickly crushed upon entering the job market. As a side note, not only is college way overpriced but the utter lack of content has made it irrelevant in many professions. Let's get on that! I do sympathize with new entrants to the field. For various reasons they weren't taught how to be professionals, run a business and communicate with colleagues, crew and clients. So let's make a small correction and understand that we need to respect the established standards and hold those up because without them we're just talking in circles.

"Rivers, Paths and Bridges" an exploration of Bear Creek Park

After moving to Denver, CO from CT this year I was fortunate enough to have Bear Creek Park just down the street from my house in Lakewood. This is a little compilation of shots I did at the park over several weeks using my DJI Phantom 4 drone and some locked off shots with Sony a7SII.

Coming from the east coast I did not grow up with accessible parks and outdoors experiences so this is me paying respect to my new home and all the inspiration it gives me.
Sony a7SII with Sony 16-35f4 and Zeiss Loxia 50/2
DJI Phantom 4
Color graded with FilmConvert in FCP X

Don't Be a Diva

Artists of all types are well known to be prickly. Even though I am an artist, I am also in the service industry and my business thrives when people recommend me and I get repeat business from happy clients. Yes, of equal importance is being a master of my craft but a lot of the details that I as a filmmaker and photographer obsess over may never be noticed by the client. In reality, will anyone notice that the color temperature is slightly off? Or that stray bit of makeup that I retouched from my 42 megapixel image when displayed on a website? No, probably not. But those details are picked up in totality which separates the true professionals from the crowd.

What they do notice is that I show up prepared, on time and the way in which I deal with unexpected problems. All too often I show up to shoots to find out that the subject I was supposed to film was unable to make it due to a last minute conflict. Instead, I find out, we will be shooting something else entirely. Or, the location we had reserved has unexpected maintenance so now we need to shoot in a tiny windowless office because that's all that is available. Oh, and we need to be out by 2pm. Further, we still need the look we are going for so we will need to move some furniture and press up against the wall to get the angle we need.

Two camera shoot with lighting in a windowless office.

Two camera shoot with lighting in a windowless office.

Atomos Ninja Assassin, 4k recorder/monitor.

Atomos Ninja Assassin, 4k recorder/monitor.

Final graded result with moody, natural looking lighting.

Final graded result with moody, natural looking lighting.

A diva responds to these problems with indignation and is thrown off their game because things are not as expected. "I can't work in these conditions" would be the stereotypical response. In fact, I can and will work in these conditions and I will do the best job that is possible. Work is expected and work will be delivered. Yes, there are times when a job is quoted and then reality throws that quote out of the window, but as long as expectations are realigned and all costs are covered then there is no reason why we can't produce something despite the rain, jackhammers, or time crunch.

I can't tell you how many times a client has said how happy they were with how easy I was to work with, which to me is shocking. It is hard for me to imagine that someone would have a bad attitude on set or in any professional environment. Nevertheless, I'm ok with it, because it's just another way that I can outshine the competition without spending a dollar.

Travel light with big results

Like any filmmaker or photographer I want to bring the kitchen sink with me when I go to a job because I want all the flexibility possible. What if we want to do a walking shot, do I need a stabilizer? What if we shoot an interview outside? It's possible to paralyze myself by thinking about all the infinite possibilities, especially when traveling. When traveling we have case size and weight limitations, not to mention I can only handle so much when walking through the airport.

Small cameras are very disarming to many subjects who would otherwise be very shy in front of an intimidating DSLR and large lens.

Small cameras are very disarming to many subjects who would otherwise be very shy in front of an intimidating DSLR and large lens.

Planning, preparation and practice is key. At a certain point you have to call it. You need to just say, "enough is enough" and take what you can fit in your bag and just leave the office knowing that you've practiced with the equipment you have and know how to get the best results with what you have. However, I've made some conscious decisions in the past year to make my kit as travel friendly as possible while still giving me maximum flexibility and output.

First, I tackled my camera system and ditched the heavy and bulky Canon DSLRs for lightweight and thin Sony a7r mark II and a7s mark II. I still have my Canon c100 for when I need it. Additionally I got rid of my heavy f2.8 zoom lenses in favor of the lighter and smaller f4 versions. Yes, I am losing a stop of light but the incredibly clean high ISO performance of the camera bodies easily compensates for that. I can even power the Sony cameras through cheap and readily available USB cell phone chargers so I don't have to worry about the smaller battery capacity. Using the a7s II with internal stabilizer, coupled with Sony's outstanding stabilized lenses and continual auto focus I am able to attach a couple lightweight aluminum handles to my Varavon Zeus cage and with some practice I can deliver very stabilized shots which eliminates the need for a gimbal or steadicam in many situations.

Carrying a small package is valuable in third world countries where you often have long days of shooting and you need to keep your gear on you at all times. First, it's unpredictable and you need to be ready to get the shot. Second, there is no security.

Carrying a small package is valuable in third world countries where you often have long days of shooting and you need to keep your gear on you at all times. First, it's unpredictable and you need to be ready to get the shot. Second, there is no security.

Next I reevaluated my support system and rid myself of the heavy aluminum tripods and sliders and got a Really Right Stuff carbon fiber tripod and Rhino carbon fiber slider. The weight savings here is significant and means I can take my slider with me more often thereby allowing me a higher quality production value on those smaller shoots when I normally wouldn't have brought it with me.

A still frame from the first interview I lit with the Westcott flex panels. There's only two lights being used in this shot at 40% power.

A still frame from the first interview I lit with the Westcott flex panels. There's only two lights being used in this shot at 40% power.

Equally as important as camera or support was my lighting approach as sometimes you just don't have a good source of light on location. Years ago when I switched from tungsten hot lights to LED it was a big step and made shooting on battery power in remote locations a real possibility for filmmakers like me. But now I'm unloading my lightpanels for the next wave which is Westcott's amazing flex panels which way mere ounces and are a 1/4" thick. This lets me pack my lights in my camera case and bring my full studio production on the airplane and in to my client's office.

No, none of this stuff is cheap. In fact it's all very expensive, but that doesn't mean you have to buy it all at once. I am a believer in buying quality items over time to make it more affordable and obtainable and selling the things you don't use. High quality products will make your work better and in the end make you more successful as you continually bring up your production value and deliver better results to your clients.

I don't want to leave people with the impression that it's all about the equipment, because it's not. A great photographer or filmmaker will make something great no matter what they're given because they have the talent to make use of the tools. So the first thing that you need to do is just shoot and edit with a careful eye to study your mistakes. Then study the technology to perfect your craft to make the best of what you have. Then, when you do add something nice to your kit you'll excel even more.