Stirring & Stylish: Distinctively Dark Imagery

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Sony F3 / Cinedeck Extreme / Zeiss Compact Primes Review: Part 3 of 3

In Equipment and Technique on August 17, 2011 at 5:31 pm

In my previous posts I discussed the Sony F3 and Zeiss Compact Primes.  In this post I will be looking at the Cinedeck Extreme from an operational and fiscal point of view.

Before I begin to discuss the device, however, a short word about customer service.  Shortly after I posted my first in this series of reviews I received an email from Cinedeck saying how excited they were that I was doing a review, and offered assistance or information as I required.  They went so far as to put me in contact with the company’s CEO Alan Hoff.  We arranged a time to talk, and Alan and I spoke for about a half hour about my thoughts and experiences with the Cinedeck Extreme.  He answered all of my questions openly and frankly.  It was very kind of him to free up some time in his very busy schedule to speak with me, and I appreciate it.  Now, I know that many readers will say, “yeah, but it’s in his interest to make sure you write a favorable review.”  True, but I’ve never before been contacted by a company so concerned with their customer’s experience that the CEO wanted to chat.  Imagine if your phone or hydro or clothing or bicycle manufacturing company called up and said, “we’re wanting to make your experience better, and we want you to like us, so, when you have a moment, the CEO would like to talk to you about your experience with our product.”  Never happens.  Never.  Except this once.  So, the lesson is that this sort of care and concern for both a single customer’s experience and the perception of the product in the marketplace does matter to Cinedeck.  And, in return, my experience both with a particular product matters, but so does my relationship with the manufacturer.  This level of customer service really makes a difference, and speaks volumes about how the company responds to feedback and work to improve their product and customer experience.  Don’t shortchange the value of a customer’s experience.  A good one goes a long way; a bad one can go ever further.  Thanks again to Cinedeck and Alan.  You’ve made a fan out of me.

Now, the actual point of discussion:  The Cinedeck Extreme.  The Extreme is a very capable hard disc digital recorder used to encode the uncompressed signal coming out of the back of many of today’s pro digital cine cameras.  This type of device is used instead the cameras built-in recorder because it are capable of recording a much higher quality file.

I’d recommend a visit to the Cinedeck website to get all of the spec as they are too numerous to discuss here.  Note:  built-in scopes are great.  I love built-in scopes.  Thanks guys.

My experience with the Extreme was both positive and negative.  Right away when getting my hands on the Cinedeck Extreme a couple of things struck me: 1) Wow, this thing is big and heavy (5” x 8” x 3”) compared to onboard monitors or other hard disc recorders I’m used to, especially once attaching a battery, and 2) the touch screen sure it fun to play with.  PS. Get a large Noga arm.  You’ll need it.  One of the benefits of the large size of the Extreme is that you get a large screen (7”) – much larger than a typical monitor – which is great when you’re pulling focus or checking a critical frame.  It’s easy for forget that it’s doing double duty as both a recorder and a monitor, so while the size seems somewhat unwieldy as a monitor or recorder alone it’s easily understandable when one factors in the recording functionality.

The Extreme's 7" screen and menu layout. Note the buttons on the right of the screen. The red line around the outside of the screen indicates the unit is recording.

The touch screen is really fun to mess around with, and quite intuitive.  All of the various options are easily accessible and the playback function is responsive and quick, which is great when the Director is breathing down your neck.

Where the rubber hits the road is the Extreme’s recording capability.  The images it records are going up on screen, so they’d better be good.  That’s what it’s designed to do – and it does.  The user has options to choose amongst some of the finest codecs around.  Uncompressed 4:4:4 or 4:2:2, Cineform, Avid DNxHD (wrapped in MXF), and Pro Res 4:4:4:4.  These codecs will get you where you want to go, and that’s into your color timing session with great confidence in your footage.  No complaints here.

The build quality is very good.  The unit seems like it would stand up to the rigors of being on set day in and day out.  The cooling fan is programmable, so when you roll it powers down and the unit runs silently, or at a reduced speed for near silent operation.  The sound guy will love this feature.

All of these great things said, my experience wasn’t all roses.  I had four main complaints, and my discussion with Alan Hoff centered on these issues.  They were:

1) The unit froze occasionally during recording, and crashed a couple of times resulting in delays.

2) The battery consumption (though the rental house did say the batteries were on the older side) was high.  The unit tore through IPX batteries, which only lasted 30-40 min.  We ended up having to plug the adaptor into AC.

3) Difficulties protecting the touch screen while on set and the risk of damage to the unit, which I assume would be expensive to repair, concerned me.

4) There seemed to be a lag in the picture, meaning the image displayed on the screen wasn’t in real-time.  The 1st AC requested a separate monitor to pull focus from so he could see the image in real-time, so that resulted in us having both the Cinedeck Extreme and a separate monitor mounted on the camera.

The first, and most important concern in my opinion relates to the system’s stability.  The Extreme is based on a Windows platform.  When you start-up the unit you can navigate as though you were using a desktop PC.  The Cinedeck software is loaded onto the unit and started like as an application in Windows.  My feeling was that because the software runs on a Windows platform it isn’t as stable as a proprietary OS/software would be.  I wondered why Cinedeck hadn’t chosen to write a proprietary OS.  The reason, Alan explained, is due to Cinedeck’s commitment to flexibility and innovation for the future.

If Cinedeck had created a proprietary OS the Extreme would have been what is called an ASIC device architecture (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit – it is an integrated circuit (IC) customized for a particular use, rather than intended for general-purpose use. For example, a chip designed solely to run a cell phone is an ASIC [from wikipedia]).  What this means is that once the base coding and design is done, and the parameters of the device designed, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to make changes to the core functionality of the device.  Alan gave me the example of their recent inclusion of Pro Res 4:4:4:4 as a recording codec.  The Extreme was not originally designed with this codec in mind and it was not included in the original version of the software.  Where the unit based on an ASIC architecture it would be possible to add this or any other new codec not included in the original design of the unit, but because of the Extreme’s Windows base there is flexibility inherent in the design.  The Extreme is one of only two digital recorders capable of recording Pro Res 4:4:4:4 (the other being the Arri Alexa) because in order to create an ASIC Pro Res 4:4:4:4 recorder from scratch one would have to start back at the beginning and design the unit from the ground up.  The Extreme’s flexibility makes it possible to add this functionality with a software update.  Other digital recorders cannot be upgraded in this way, and are stuck with their originally programmed codecs and other design features in perpetuity.

The freezing and crashing, according to Alan, had nothing to do with Windows or the Cinedeck’s software specifically, but may have to do with an incompatibility between the rev of the two.  He explained that once the Extreme leaves their facility the customer is free to update the software, and that by doing so incompatibilities can occur that disrupt the smooth function of the device.  This seems like a big problem, especially when renting the unit because who knows what little bits of programming have been loaded, updated, deleted or otherwise messed with.  On set, things just need to work.  If a piece of equipment is failing to perform its function adequately there is little to no time to fiddle with it.  It is usually replaced or relegated to the deepest darkest storage bins on the truck.

Alan acknowledged my concerns, and Cinedeck is doing something about it by creating a universal installer/updater for both the Cinedeck software and the OS to eliminate the possibility of them being out of rev.  This is a big step in the right direction, and Alan let on that there might be a significant update that would increase the speed and capability of the unit in the near future.  Stay tuned!  In the mean time, test the unit thoroughly before heading to set.  Ask the rental house to clear the memory, or do a clean install of the software if you feel more comfortable this way.  Once it’s working, don’t mess with it.

The right side of the Extreme hosts the SSD drive, HDSDI, usb, esata, and other interface connections.

The Extreme draws 60-70 watts, and Cinedeck recommends Anton Bauer Dionic 90 batteries that should last between 60-80 minutes under optimal conditions.  With an older set of IPX batteries we lost power after about 40 minutes, so we were changing batteries every shot or two.  That’s a lot of battery swaps!  I wish there was a way around this, but the Extreme is thirsty!  Have a lot of batteries and a lot of chargers on hand, and keep a back-up battery on set at all times.  Luckily the start-up time for the Extreme is fairly short, so you won’t be waiting several minutes to get back to shooting.  Avoid having the battery run out and the unit lose power without shutting down properly.  We all know that computers don’t like loosing power, and the Extreme is no different.  After twice losing power, we had to reboot the unit, shut it down properly and reboot it again to get it back into ‘go’ mode.  We decided to hardwire the power in order to avoid any more delays, but of course running power from a wall plug can lead to it’s own annoyances.

I asked Alan about data loss during an unplanned shutdown, like when the battery dies.  He’s all over it.  There is a file recovery mechanism built-in.  As the Cinedeck writes each ‘chunk’ of data to disk it is journalled, so the maximum one could lose during a loss of power is one packet of data, which equates to a second or two.  This is a great safeguard, especially on longer takes that were supposed to be short takes but the director just keeps resetting and you know that you’re running out of juice and he just won’t say cut.  Why don’t they ever cut!

The left side is home to the power button, HDMI ports, sync port and sound ins amongst others.

My third concern, and this isn’t unique to the Extreme.  Any device with a screen is susceptible to damage.  This is especially true for touch screen devices.  Alan informed me that there are third-party screen protector is available, and I’d highly recommend them or something similar for a minimum of protection.  If you’re paranoid like me and don’t trust think film-like screen protectors and instead like to cover all screens with a sheet of lexan, you’re in luck.  There is a series of buttons running down the right hand side of the unit that one can use to navigate through the various menus and options instead of using the touch screen.  Word to the wise:  know your director.  If he/she loves to hang out at the camera and poke at the screen it might be better to go the lexan/button route rather than the touch screen route, even if you love the touch screen.  Often, directors aren’t as concerned for the health and welfare of the camera bits as the assistants or I are.  It’s not that they’re out do damage something intentionally, but they have a lot of their minds, and are under a lot of stress.  Watch out!

Finally, the lag in picture we experienced made the great big screen of the Extreme unusable as either a focus or operator’s monitor.  Alan acknowledges there is a three frame (by my calculations that’s .125 sec) delay in the picture.  He calls this a forgivable delay, and it is most of the time.  It may become a problem during an action scene where things are happening very quickly, but with a little practice one may be able to work around or get used to the delay in these situations.

The particular unit we were using seemed to have a longer delay, though we didn’t put a stopwatch on it.  Anything longer than a three frame delay indicates there is a problem with the device, so it may be that we had a malfunction in the system somewhere.

To be sure a recorder working at this level is not cheap.  The recorder is one of the three main components of the modern digital camera (the other two being the lens and the sensor chip).  If you care about the quality and sturdiness of the image it pays to record on the best platform available.  The Cinedeck Extreme will sell for approx. $8,500.  As a comparison the Convergent Design Gemini 4:4:4 recorder is priced in the $6,000 range, but is limited to a single recording file format (DPX).  Is the Gemini an ASIC design?  From what I can tell, yes, which means that it is unlikely one will ever be able to record any other format except DPX.  The Extreme is designed differently, to allow for flexibility in the future as new codecs become available, or other functionality is required.  Is this worth the additional money (the Extreme also has a larger screen, so that’s got to count for something as well)?  Where I to invest my money I would want it to be in a device that is useful both today, and in the future; a device that will be adaptable as the filmmaking landscape changes.  This adds value.

And, don’t forget the value in working with a company that is concerned about their client’s experience, and works actively to make that experience better.  Attitude is everything in life, and Cinedeck seems to be a company with a good attitude toward their customers.

Happy shooting.


Sony F3 / Cinedeck Extreme / Zeiss Compact Primes Review: Part 2 of 3

In Equipment and Technique on August 4, 2011 at 10:00 am

In my previous post I discussed the Sony F3.  In this post I will be looking at the Zeiss Compact Primes from an operational and fiscal point of view.The Zeiss sells the Compact Primes either individually or as a complete set.  The following focal lengths/max apertures are available:

  • 18mm/T3.6
  • 21mm/T2.9
  • 25mm/T2.9
  • 28mm/T2.1
  • 35mm/T2.1
  • 50mm/T2.1
  • 85mm/T2.1
  • 100mm/T2.1
  • 50mm/T2.1 Macro.

Angle of view comparison.

Each of these lenses is designed to cover a full frame 35mm film frame (24mm x 36mm) with the exception of the 18mm, which will cover only S35 frame.  This means that the 18mm won’t cover a full frame sensor such as the one on the Canon 5D Mark II, but will be acceptable on the Canon 7D, which has the smaller sensor chip.

Generally I enjoyed working with these lenses.  Are they up to the Master Prime quality level.  No, but then neither is the price.  Are they usable on a professional quality camera and a working set.  Absolutely.  The image quality and sharpness of these lenses is very good.  We use a 1/2 classic soft to reduce the sharpness because they were too darn sharp!  They seem to be contrasty, and don’t flare easily.  The build quality is high, which is what one would expect from Zeiss, and the focus and aperture movement is smooth and consistent.

One of the most exciting features of this set of lenses is the ability to change the lens mount.  You can choose between any of 5 mounts (PL, EF, F, E and MFT mount), so switching between a DSLR, Red camera, F3, or film camera is made easier/possible with these lenses.  Each mount is sold separately, and ships with a set of shims.

2 of the 5 interchangeable lens mounts

A lens technician will need to determine which shims to use to achieve proper back focus with a particular lens.  After that, anyone should be able to swap the mount and install it with the correct shims.  Therefore, each mount should be dedicated to a particular lens, and used only with that lens and with the appropriate shims as determined by the lens technician.

These lenses aren’t perfect; however, the drawbacks may be minor enough to live with.  Firstly, these lenses seem to be re-barreled still camera lenses, and as such where likely never designed for use in a motion picture environment.  As a result they do ‘breath’ (the image size changes as one rolls through the focus).  For the most part this isn’t a problem, but is apparent on large focus pulls, such as when you’re focused on an actor in the foreground, and pull quickly to another actor coming through a doorway in the background, etc.

Second, because of the compact size of the lenses, which is great most of the time, it is sometimes difficult to read the scribed focus and iris markings on the lens barrel.  This is especially true when the 1st AC uses a whip and standing back from the lens or the set is dark.  I’ve found a LED pen light with a flexible neck velcroed to the camera is a great little lens light in a pinch.

Zeiss Compact Prime 50mm T2.1

Thirdly, it can be difficult figure out which way is ‘up’ on the lenses when mounting them to the camera.  Knowing which way is ‘up’ is important because if the lens isn’t mounted correctly the focus and iris witness marks will be in the wrong position, and the lens will need to be removed and remounted.  There are small Zeiss emblems on either side of the lenses which help in this regard, but the best solution seems to be a bright spot of camera tape placed on the side of the barrel of each lens to indicate the proper position.  This is an easy and quick fix.

Fourthly, my final quibble is that the set of lenses doesn’t have a matched max. aperture.  Why is this important?  Imagine you are shooting a scene and the Director asks to shoot several tighter shots.  With the Compact Primes you have a consistent T2.1 with all of the longer lenses, so let’s say you light everything to expose properly at T2.8.  Great.  You can shoot with the 28mm through the 100mm no problem.  Now the Director says, “I’d like to shoot a super wide, the widest we’ve got.”  So, now you throw on the 18mm, but your max aperture is T3.6.  You can’t shoot at T2.8, even wide open.  So, you can either re-light, which costs you time and makes you look foolish, or you can crank up the gain/ISO on the camera, or change film stocks, which may be a compromise in quality and may not match the other footage you’ve already shot for the scene.  Luckily, the F3 is very sensitive, and we were able to keep a consistent aperture using ND filters, but this may not be possible in certain circumstances, especially a night exterior or when using available light.  There is no perfect way around this problem, though it may be one that many readers have grown accustomed to using DSLRs and still lenses over the past few years.  As camera’s sensitivity improve this will become less of a problem, but be aware that this may become an issue during a shoot and plan accordingly.

I find the Zeiss Compact Primes to be a decent value despite these drawbacks.  The price tag of approx. $25,000 is reasonable, and they will compete nicely with the Red Primes, Schneider Cine-Xenar primes, and other similarly priced lens sets.  They have the advantage of  interchangeable lens mounts (I’m sure they will be a favorite of rental houses because of this feature), but the drawback of mismatched max. apertures and breathing.  Though they are a decent value I would prefer to rent the lenses as needed rather than purchase a set for myself because I find the mismatched apertures too problematic to handle whatever unknown shoots and unknown conditions may crop up in the future.  Only if I knew the locations, had confidence in the shot list, and knew there would be plenty of light would I choose these lenses.

Next week:  The Cinedeck Extreme.

Compact Primes – the whole family.

Sony F3 / Cinedeck Extreme / Zeiss Compact Primes Review: Part 1 of 3

In Equipment and Technique on July 21, 2011 at 11:27 pm
Recently I had the good fortune to shoot on the new Sony F3 accessorized by the Cinedeck Extreme external recorder and a set of the Zeiss Compact Primes.  This post is a review of the F3 from an operational, ergonomic and economic point of view.  I will be reviewing the Cinedeck Extreme and Compact Primes in subsequent posts.
Thanks very much to the kind folks at Genesis Matrixfor their help and support in supplying the camera equipment for our shoot.On a general level I was happy shooting with the F3.  It is a good size, light, and seems quite stable and reliable.  It is small enough to fit into some tight corners, but not so small it is difficult to maneuver when operating.  The battery life was very good, and we didn’t experience any technical glitches with the camera.  Ergonomically it is acceptable.  The image quality is very good.  It doesn’t seem to suffer the same disastrous aliasing problems of the DSLRs and the rolling shutter effect is minimal.  My one quibble is with the eyepiece.  The built-in view screen that flips out of the left side of the camera, much as one might expect from any of the recent Sony cameras, is quite good.  It is bright, sharp and a good size, but the built-in viewfinder is not nearly as helpful.  It is mounted at the back of the camera also as one would expect on a video camera, which makes it tough to use when the camera is backed into a corner, low to the ground or high in the air.  It would be better to have a separate view finder on a telescoping arm that one could position in a variety of locations and positions.  If you, the reader, have a recommendation please let me know.

The camera is natively 800 ISO, and exhibits low noise at 1600 ISO.  There is some noise at the camera’s max 3200 ISO, but it is quite low and generally acceptable in a low light situation (though that would have to be a really low light situation!).  1080 is the camera’s max resolution, and above 30fps the resolution drops to 720P with the frame rate maxing out at 60FPS.

Existentially, the Sony F3 is an interesting animal.  Not entirely video camera, nor cine-style digital camera, it occupies a liminal position.  I think that Canon, with the release of the 5D Mark II and subsequent DSLR cameras, has forced other manufactures like Sony and Panasonic to respond with a series of cameras that compete in terms of sensor size, but that up the ante in their image quality and ease of use in a production environment.  This puts Sony in a somewhat awkward position because to produce a good quality camera with a larger sensor size like the F3 creates competition for both of Sony’s lines of pro-sumer smaller chipped cameras in the $5000 price range, and the F35 (though the F35 will soon be replaced by the F65, which is a different animal entirely), Sony’s professional level digital cine camera.  The main competition for this camera will come from the Red Epic or Scarlet (when or if they’re ever released) and any new DSLR cameras that come out in the near future.  This is where the pricing and functionality of the F3 comes into play.  The camera sells for about $14,000 (body only) last time I checked.  Where that the price of the complete package I’d say that it is a great deal, but Sony has effectively forced the filmmaker looking for professional quality into a compromised position of needing to upgrade the camera and record to an external recorder in order to achieve the highest image quality.

I’ll explain; the F3 comes with a similar set of gamma curves and colour matrix settings as one would find on the EX3.  Sony has also included the option to purchase an S-Log upgrade, Sony’s professional gamma curve designed to allow the camera to output the greatest dynamic range possible with the current sensor, as an add-on.  The stock settings built-in don’t get the job done for a camera of this type.  If you’re thinking of spending $14,000 on a camera with a large sensor you’re not looking to make family movies at the beach.  You may be looking to fold it into a wedding video business, but it is a little physically large for that endevour, I imagine.  Really, if you’re looking at this camera you’re likely looking at it for use in a narrative film production environment, on indie films or as a crash camera or back-up body on a show shooting with the F35.  In any of these cases, speaking as a DoP, one is looking to capture the best image possible, which requires the S-Log upgrade.  Now, the upgrade costs a whopping $3,300!  $3,300 for a minor firmware upgrade.  Sounds extreme, I know, but it is a necessary upgrade which extends the usefulness of the camera and increases the quality substantially.  So, keep that calculator close by:  $14,000 + $3,300 = $17,300.

Functionally, the camera is very much like using a beefy EX3.  Similar buttons arrangement and menu structure.  It is unlike any sort of film camera.  There is a tendency with video cameras to pack in as many features as possible.  I tend to dislike all of the options.  The more film-like and simple the camera the easier it is to operate and the lower the chance of making an error by either hitting a button (turning the shutter on/off or hitting the gain toggle switch is a common problem with all video cameras) or missing a menu setting.  When you’re shooting S-Log several of the regularly adjustable settings are greyed out, meaning the camera get’s simpler.  Simple = good.OK, so let’s say you actually want to record some footage with the camera.  Internally, the camera uses a long GOP XDCam codec at a max. of 35mb/sec, or thereabouts.  What this means is that the images you’re recording in camera are quite compressed, and generally unacceptable for VFX work (i.e. pulling a matte from a green screen shot is difficult due to artifacts, etc.), and the images won’t hold up as well in colour timing, especially if you are recording S-Log.  By not including a better quality native recording mechanism Sony has essentially forced the consumer to purchase an external recorder of some sort.  Why?  I’m sure cost is a big part of the reason.  To include a high quality recorder in the camera would increase the cost substantially, and this doesn’t seem like the direction Sony wants to go with this camera.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  There is a high quality 4:4:4 uncompressed image signal coming out of the back of the camera, and the consumer gets to decide how to record it.  These days there are various options; different recorders that are capable of recording in a myriad of codecs and compression settings.  The option to choose is great, and I think reflects how cameras will continue to evolve.  I imagine that as digital cinema matures, and the technology reaches such a high level of quality that improvements are in small steps instead of great leaps (which may be happening with the Alexa, Epic, and F65) the camera bodies will remain the same, and  we will swap components out individually.  Sensor chips will/are being designed to be swapped out, as will the camera’s processors.  We will record on some sort of external device or accessory that mounts on the camera.  I think it is useful to consider the interior of the camera like a desktop computer.  Open the side of the desktop tower and you have access to the interior components.  Want more memory, add some.  Need to import or export high quality video, upgrade the video card.  Cameras will be the same, sold in components rather than all-in-one packages.  This will allow for many configurations and for the consumer to customize and upgrade the components they feel necessary.  So, I certainly support Sony’s decision to not include a built-in high quality recording device, but the consumer must be aware that he/she will need to spend some additional money on such a recorder.  They can cost anywhere from $1000 and up.  The one we were using, the Cinedeck Extreme is about $9,000. $17,300 + $9,000 = $26,300.

So, in the end you’ve got a $20,000 – $26,000 capital expense if you want to capture the camera’s highest quality image.

My conclusions:  The camera is good, solid, and reasonably easy to use, especially if you’re familiar with Sony’s menu layout.  If you are looking to produce HD content at 1080P and don’t need slow motion or higher resolutions you may have found the perfect camera at a reasonable cost.  My concern is the price is too high for many consumers – too high to compete for the pro-sumer market, and too high (once  the consumer factors the S-Log and external recorder options in) to entice the consumer interested in an Epic camera, which has much better high speed and image resolution capabilities, to take a cut in features for a less expensive camera.  This is the ‘in between’ zone Sony’s trying to occupy, and I’m not convinced there is a large enough market there.  Would I buy one.  Not currently.  I can’t justify the $26,000 expense when there are other/better options available for in the same price ballpark.  Flexibility is too important.  Would I recommend it for rental on another show.  Absolutely.  I enjoyed shooting with it look forward to shooting with it again when the conditions warrant.

Questions and comments are more than welcome.

My next post will review the Cinedeck Extreme external recorder.

Summer 2011 Update

In Updates on July 14, 2011 at 12:45 am

I have just posted my Summer 2011 DoP Update.  Please take a moment to view it here.  Or, simply visit my website to see what’s new.

Color timing 5D Mark II footage – Part 2

In Equipment and Technique on June 22, 2011 at 4:37 am

Last week I began a discussion about colour timing footage shot on the 5D Mark II for the feature film ‘The House’.  Refer to Part 1 for initial details.  Enjoy!

4) Skin Tones – Flat lighting slightly over exposed = bad!  One of the problems with the camera is the way it reproduces skin tones.  They can look pastel or cartoon-like.  Flat lighting exacerbates the problem by creating a consistent wash of light across the actor’s face.  It may be a function of the compression that this particular colour tone looks so flat and textureless, or that the camera simply cannot handle the block of colour.  In either case, adding directional light is generally a good idea, and more attractive regardless of the camera you’re using.  Learn to use your light meter.  Test what sort of contrast you like on-screen, and what the corresponding readings are you can reproduce them from shot to shot or scene to scene.  Over exposure is a big problem for texture in skin tones, and using a light meter can help avoid this problem because judging exposure by the histogram or false colour alone can lead to a wide range of skin tone exposures due to the other tones in the frame.  For example, a low-key shot (where most of the tones are below 50% brightness) you may look at the histogram and say, “Oh, that scene looks underexposed,” and adjust your exposure to compensate.  This will result in opening up the shadows, but also increasing the exposure on the skin tones.  The opposite is true for a high key scene, which could result in an underexposed skin tone.  If you use your meter you would be able to peg your exposure on the skin tones and adjust your other lighting to work with that exposure.

Sometimes having an HD monitor on set and being able to look at the actual image the camera sees makes one lazy.  Shoot the camera like it’s a film camera.  Do the hard work to massage all you can out of it, and you will reap the benefits.

5) Picture Settings – Turn down the digital sharpening, and the contrast.  The sharpening can give the images an odd halo and harshness that looks odd, and very digital.  The contrast can make the dynamic range even smaller, and the lighting more difficult.  By turning down the contrast you may enhance the flattened skin tone problem somewhat, but the alternative is worse.

6) White Balance – If you can have this discussion with the colourist before you shoot, do it.  Every director has an idea of how their film should look.  This can include colour tone, contrast, tonality, etc.  It’s the DoP’s job to get that look on-screen.  The colour settings you use on set while shooting, especially with a camera that has a heavily compressed image, makes a great impact on what you can do in post.  Generally, it is a good idea to use a neutral colour balance if possible, and if you don’t know what the image will look like after colour timing.  If you’ve had the chance to meet with the colourist, and do some testing, you may want to force the white balance (white balance through a coloured gel or filter), or use a filter on the lens.  This way you’re getting closer to the look you’re going for while you’re shooting, which makes the colour timing a more efficient process and gives you the best results.  If you decide to use a forced white balance or filter make sure the director understands that once you shoot the image you’ll have difficulty, if not impossibility, in achieving a neutral colour balance should he/she want to in the future.  A director who is unsure of the look he/she is going for will have a look of fear in his/her eyes, but a director who is certain of the look will proceed.  It is important to know the difference, and respond accordingly.

Also, I noticed that with the cameras we were using that the neutral white balance wasn’t actually neutral.  When we put scopes on the image it was actually quite warm (yellow/red).  So, be careful simply trusting your camera’s presets or auto white balance.  Test it to make sure you’re accurate.

7) Pro Res – There is a new version of FCP coming out, and it may be able to edit the footage from the 5D natively, but for our purposes all of the camera original footage had to be converted to Pro Res for editing.  These Pro Res files are then taken into the colour correction suite.  There are several flavours of Pro Res.  Essentially, the better the Pro Res file, the more you can do in colour correction.  The trade off with having the more robust Pro Res files is that it can cause the computer to freeze up during playback and it takes more storage space to store all of those files, may of which won’t be used.  So, one approach that works well is to create a lower quality Pro Res file for the offline editing process, and then once the picture is locked, create another series of Pro Res 4444 files for the online colour correction.  Talk to the editor about this process, and make sure they know you want Pro Res 4444 for the colour correction.

Final Thoughts:  Overall I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the images the camera creates, and how well they held up to the colour timing process.  Though a camera that shoots a more robust format, and is designed for film production would be my preferred choice, it is tough to argue with the quality to cost ratio of the camera.  Testing and using a meter are key to getting consistent quality images that will look good on the big screen.

Color timing 5D Mark II footage – Part 1

In Equipment and Technique on June 9, 2011 at 7:19 pm

We’re finished off with colour timing ‘The House’, and the results are in.  We shot on the 5D Mark II, and timed on the Da Vinci Resolve system.  We test screened at the Pacific Cinemateque.

This entry is presented in two parts, so check back next week to get the second half of the results.

So, how did it go?  How did the footage hold up on the big screen?  All in all I’d say it held up pretty well.  The typical problems with this camera were certainly in evidence, but because of some good planning in pre-production we were able to avoid these problems in large part.  These problems, and their solutions are:

1) Aliasing – You may have seen magenta and cyan bands running through certain parts of the frame.  Aliasing occurs when a particular texture in front of the camera lines up with the pixel pattern on the camera’s chip to create a visual anomaly.  Often, aliasing occurs along straight lines, which can appear jagged.  If you have several sets of parallel lines, as can occur in floor tiles, fabrics, roofing, etc. the problem is enhanced to create a magenta/cyan moire-like pattern.  The best way to avoid the problem:  Don’t shoot anything that can cause the problem.  On ‘The House’ we tested every piece of wardrobe to make sure it didn’t cause a problem on camera (we tested it at several distances away from the camera as the size of the pattern can affect the aliasing problem), and avoided shooting problematic patterns.

It may not always be possible to avoid shooting a problematic pattern.  What to do then?  The best thing to do it check your monitors carefully.  The LCD on the back of the camera is too small.  You’ll need a larger screen, preferably a production monitor, to view and check for any aliasing.  If possible, throw the pattern out of focus to eliminate the sharp line pattern, or use a diffusion filter to soften the sharp edges of the pattern (make sure to test these diffusion filters in pre-production so you’re not on set guessing whether the filter will be too strong or not).

If you do end up with an aliasing problem in your footage hope and pray that you’re colourist can bail you out.  We had two instances where the aliasing problem showed up in the fabric on a couch and on the floor of a tiled pond.  Luckily, we were able to reduce the colour banding by creating masks and balancing out the colours, but this was a time-consuming and difficult process, and not a route I would recommend.  Attempt to eliminate this problem while you’re shooting and you’ll end up with better results.

2) Rolling Shutter – If you’ve used this camera then you’ve seen the jello-like quality that the image can have when the camera or subject moves quickly.  This effect is especially pronounced when the camera is hand-held.  There isn’t really too much you can do here, except for trying to keep the camera steady.  Also, if you have access to them it would be useful to put an image stabilizing lens on the camera, especially if you’re on a longer lens.

3) Dynamic Range – The 5D has a fairly small dynamic range – the range from shadow to highlight that the camera can reproduce – which makes shooting under high contrast conditions difficult.  Protect those highlights, use the built-in histogram to make sure you’re not losing info at either end of the spectrum, consult the false colour function of your onboard monitor, and get and use a light meter.  I’ve found that shooting a DSLR is more like shooting reversal film than negative film.  They are contrasty, and if you make an exposure mistake you have little recourse to make corrections later.  Use that meter!  Test before you shoot!

I look forward to sharing the second half of the results next week.

Color Timing 5D Mark II footage

In Equipment and Technique on May 13, 2011 at 5:12 pm

We’re in the midst of timing ‘The House’, a feature I shot in January.  We shot on the 5D Mark II, and are timing on the Da Vinci system.  So far, so good.  I’ve been impressed with how well the footage has held up, but the proof will truly be in the pudding.  On Saturday we have our final fixes session, and then a test screening on Monday.

After the test screening I will be writing to give some thoughts on the process and results.  Please check back.


Spring 2011 Update

In Updates on May 12, 2011 at 12:28 am

I have just posted my Spring 2011 DoP Update.  Please take a moment to view it here.  Or, simply visit my website to see what’s new.

HIKE reviewd

In Updates on March 8, 2011 at 7:48 pm

I just got a message from Jennifer, the Director of HIKE, that we received a very positive review from the Independent Critic.  We’re all very excited here in the HIKE camp.

Check out White Bowl Productions for more info on HIKE, and other upcoming projects.

Yoga Kills!

In Shoots on March 8, 2011 at 1:24 am

Possibly the best wardrobe ever!  Funny Stuff.  Ep. 3 is up.