Different Looks at Different Focal Lengths

A recent video on the Abel Cine Technica Blog testing two of the new Canon Compact Cine Zoom lenses in real-world situations not only shows how capable they are, but also does a very good job of illustrating the different look you get from different focal lengths.  The entire video is worth watching, but if you skip to 5:40 you’ll see the explanation and examples of the same framing using four different focal lengths.Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 9.09.30 AM

AVCHD quirks

I’ve had a few people come to me over the past months who are having problems importing AVCHD files into Final Cut Pro 7 and I did a simple test today to isolate the problem.  This test was done with a Canon Vixia HF S100, so I can’t say whether these results will apply to other cameras.

First, the problem:

Final Cut Pro won’t recognize certain types of AVCHD files under certain conditions.  A student will shoot with the Vixia and when she or he tries to import the footage using log and transfer in Final Cut Pro either nothing will happen (no files are added to the queue) or, if the “Private” folder was selected, the following message will appear:

“‘PRIVATE’ contains unsupported media or has an invalid directory structure.  Please choose a folder whose directory structure matches supported media.”

First, the solution:  Only use Class 6 SD cards on MXP recording quality with the Vixia HF S100.
Now, some details:
There are two potential problems I’ve identified:
1. Card speed.  The Vixia HF S100 works best with Class 6 cards.  Cards faster than Class 6 will not allow you to record with the two highest quality settings, MXP and FXP.  These settings are 1920×1080 resolution, while the lower-quality settings use the 1440×1080 standard.
2. Using SD cards with multiple types of cameras.  In this test I used the cards with a Canon DSLR and the Vixia without erasing the DSLR data.
I won’t bother detailing all the tests.  Here are the conclusions:
Class 6 cards:
If you use your SD card with a Canon DSLR camera, then attempt to use it to record on the Vixia in XP+ quality, it will be unreadable by Final Cut Pro.  It will even be unreadable if you erase the DCIM and MISC folders created by the Canon DSLR.  After using the SD card with a Canon DSLR, you have to re-format the card before using it to record on the Vixia in XP+ quality.
If you use your SD card in a Canon DSLR camera and then attempt to use it to record on the Vixia in MXP quality, it will work fine.
Class 10 cards:
If you record on the Vixia in XP+ quality, whether you’ve used the card previously with a DSLR or not, it will be unreadable by Final Cut Pro.
You cannot record in MXP quality on a Class 10 card, so unless you’re using another editing setup that you know will work with XP+ quality, use Class 6 SD cards.
Why does this happen?  I have a hunch that the problem has to do with the different resolution of the lower-quality recording formats.  XP+ and below record 1440×1080, whereas MXP and FXP record 1920×1080.  I could be wrong, but that’s the main difference between the higher and lower recording qualities.
The best way to avoid all these troubles with Final Cut Pro is to always use Class 6 cards in MXP quality.
EDIT (9/30/2013): I recently found out that Canon can do a firmware update on the HFS100 that makes it work with Class 10 cards.  Obviously, this is the ideal solution.  Unfortunately, you have to send it to Canon to have it updated (for free).  If you need to do this, contact Canon support.


Generators in Media Production

     The one general thing I can say about generators is that they introduce more complexity, so there are more possible problems.  These problems don’t usually happen, but there are things you can do to keep randomness down.
     If at all possible, rent a generator from a lighting rental company, not a construction equipment company or Home Depot.  That’s the simplest thing to do, as they will most likely only rent “inverter generators.”  Inverter generators have more stable power and are better for HMIs and Kino Flos.  That said, The Honda EM5000is and EU6500is are typical mid-size inverter generators (5000 and 6500 watts, respectively) and if you can find these elsewhere for cheaper, that should be okay.
     If you don’t need to power HMIs or Kino Flos (or computers, really) from your generator, you might be okay with a cheaper Home Depot / construction rental type generator.  With tungsten lights on this kind of generator, you may still get some noticeable flicker or inconsistent levels (Hey, weren’t we at f2.8 five minutes ago? The meter says f2 now!)
     Another thing to know is that unless you get a specially-modified generator that’s not available everywhere, your power is split between two circuits, so a 2000 watt generator won’t power a 2000 watt light—only two 1000 watt lights.  To get two separate 20 amp circuits, you need a 5000 watt or greater generator.
     Some rental companies will supply a grounding stake with a generator that is meant to be driven into the ground and attached to the chassis of the generator.  This generally shouldn’t be used if the generator is your sole source of power and is insulated from the ground (like with rubber or plastic wheels).  If you’re running power from a generator inside a building with its own electrical system, things get a bit more complicated in the grounding arena.  In that case, the generator has to be grounded to the building’s ground (Harry Box, Set Lighting Technician’s Handbook, 3rd Ed., 417-419).
     And then there’s noise.  Generators make a lot of noise.  The smaller the generator (unless it’s a full-size film production-specific tow-behind or truck-mounted generator) the quieter it is.  The farther from away, the quieter it is.  Ideally, you place the generator far away behind a building far away, but that means lots of extension cords and some amount of voltage drop.  If the generator has to be closer to the set, you can minimize the sound by placing the generator on soft ground (grass, not concrete) and by hanging sound blankets on C-stands or other things between the generator and the set.  The more the better.  At minimum, one right next to the generator (not touching it).  Other places to hang sound blankets are between the generator and anything sound might bounce off of, like a building, and as close to the microphone location as possible without getting in the way of the frame, lighting, or action.  Never put a sound blanket on top of the generator.
     There’s a really good discussion of most aspects of generator use in Set Lighting Technician’s Handbook, by Harry Box that is worth reading if you’re doing this regularly.  There’s also an excellent article online called Portable Generators in Motion Picture Production from Screen Light and Grip in Massachusetts that goes into a crazy amount of detail and also describes the above-mentioned specially-modified generators.

Shooting Day for Night

Someone asked me recently how to shoot day for night and I thought I’d post my response here:
1. What you’re looking for is contrast, so it’s really only possible to make it believable if it’s sunny.  Cloudy is more difficult.
2. If you must include the sky in a shot, use a polarizer to darken it.  The biggest giveaway is a sky that’s brighter than the subject and terrain (see any 50s or 60s widescreen epic).   
3. If at all possible, don’t include the sky in any shots or only include it in an establishing shot where only simple shapes are outlined in the sky (like the tops of buildings).  If you make this a static shot, it will be easy to darken the sky in post.
4. Shoot when the sun is at a low angle, if possible (early morning or late afternoon).  Keep the sun to the back of the subject(s) and off to the side a bit whenever possible and expose for the highlight, making the face underexposed, but retaining a bit of detail so you have some flexibility in post.  It’s easier to get rid of shadow detail than to bring it back.
5. Color – Some people say to white balance to tungsten so everything is blue.  I think it’s better to keep your white balance correct (daylight for daylight) and then play with color in post.   The main thing that distinguishes night in my mind is desaturation.  Then a slight shift towards green and blue.  But more important than that is that you match whatever night looks like in the rest of your film.  So if you’re showing night as blue, then do the same in your day for night shots.
While it would be great to have your day for night scene look exactly like a “real” night scene, if the action of the scene is important and involves the viewer, it won’t matter as much how perfect it looks.  There’s quite a bit of mediocre day for night footage in Pan’s Labyrinth, for instance, but it doesn’t really matter because it fits the style of the film and the viewer is invested in the action.
There are a lot of differing opinions on this subject, I’d encourage anyone who’d like to learn more to do some research.  cinematography.com is a good place to start.

Goodbye, RED One

I assembled our RED One two weeks ago for the last time:

Then I packed it up to send back to RED forever.

We’re taking advantage of RED’s Stage 3 trade-in deal to get the new RED Epic. It’s a pretty great deal and will keep us on the cutting edge of digital camera technology.
I heard last week that our camera is in perfect condition and that we’ll get the full trade-in value. That’s pretty amazing to me, considering that this camera has been out on student productions almost constantly for the past three years. Great job everybody!

Sony NEX FS700U

Sony announced their update to the popular FS100 a couple of months ago at around $10,000, but it recently became available for pre-order at $7,999.

The significant differences between this camera and the FS100 are:

  • Slow motion capability: 240 fps at full resolution—up to 960 fps at reduced resolution
  • Addition of ND Filters
  • Higher-resolution sensor enabling 4k output to an external recorder available in the future
  • Additional Gamma options that are similar to those available in the F3

Abel Cine in New York recently ran a series of tests on the camera: low-light performance (up to ISO 16000), dynamic range (about 11.5 stops, depending on the gamma), and slow motion (it appears that camera arrays for bullet time are a thing of the past, even for the low-budget production).
You can see this great set of tests here.

DSLR in Space

NASA recently released time lapse videos of the Earth from the International Space Station that apparently were shot with a Nikon D3S.  Here is a nice compilation put together by Michael Konig:

The best part about these videos, though, is that fact that NASA provides the full-resolution still photos that were used as the source for the videos.  You can get them all here.  I’m no lawyer, but as far as I can tell, the terms and conditions allow you to use them pretty much however you want and, since you can compile videos from the stills yourself you could keep the resolution and have up to 4k video or get closer shots in HD resolution.  Installation, anyone?  Composite material for a shot looking out the window in your science fiction movie?

You used to be able to turn stills into movies in Quicktime, but now that feature is only available in Quicktime Pro, which you have to pay for.  Luckily, there’s a free version available here.  And while you’re there, check out this guy’s other projects.  Especially exciting is the Arduino-based motion activated camera.

Sustainability in Media Production

From no-budget student productions to full-scale Hollywood movies, media production has often been a wasteful industry.  This is not the way things have to be.  Here are some resources to help make media production more environmentally-friendly:

The Center for Social Media published the Code of Best Practices for Sustainable Filmmaking.

The Producers Guild of America has a website, PGAgreen.org, dedicated to connecting filmmakers with sustainability resources and has published the PGA Green Unified Best Practices Guide.

The Environmental Media Association has a best practices guide for their Green Seal award.

Locally, check out the Philadelphia Film Office Greener Sets initiative and the SETS Resource Guide.

Sony F65

Sony Released more details yesterday on their new 4k camera.  The sensor is actually 8k, but the video it records is 4k derived from that sensor (20 megapixels in DSLR terms).  While it’s clearly a professional camera meant to work in place of 35mm film cameras, the price is pretty impressive.  This post at Cine Technica goes into more details.  Abel Cine is selling a package this fall that includes the F65RS (RS stands for rotary shutter – eliminates “jello” problems) with a color viewfinder, digital recorder 256GB SRMemory Card and data transfer unit for $85,000.  Quite a bit more than what a similar package for RED’s new Epic would cost, but quite a bit less than I would have guessed.

They also announced a new “consumer” 4k projector, price rumored to be under $20,000.  Not quite what I’d consider a consumer price, but still…

2:3 Pulldown Removal

2:3 Pulldown is a technique used to display video on an interlaced (60i) system that originates as 24 frames-per-second progressive.  This is most familiar in the context of film-to-video transfers, but it’s becoming relevant in a new way.  In this post I talked about some of the new external video recorders that are being made and many of them, like the Atomos Ninja, record whatever they’re given.  Since they’re using signals from cameras that are meant to be sent to a monitor (via HDMI or SDI), they typically end up recording 60i video.  So if you’re shooting 24p, 2:3 pulldown has been added and you’ll probably want to remove it to get the progressive video you intended.  This post by Andy Shipsides at the Abel Cine Technica blog explains 2:3 pulldown in greater detail and shows two ways you can remove it.