Thursday, March 25, 2010

Porange and Teal

If you have any interest in color correction, I recommend reading this funny post.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hard and Fast Practical Thoughts on the 7D

OK.  First thing, I am not an expert on VDSLR's.  Stu Maschwitz and Ben Cain are really amazing at providing all the technical analysis you'll need.  And you know where to go for your fix of camera test porn.

I realized last week that I needed to regroup a little and pull together what I needed to know to use them successfully.  So, instead of going out on a beautiful Sunday, I turned my apartment into this:

Don't worry, there will be no screen grabs of waveforms or vectorscopes.

What have I learned?

1.  DSLR's are really simple to use.  That's why people who buy them are like crack addicts with them.  They are pretty much a pick it up and shoot kind of deal.  Sure, you can get into superflat curves and whatever, but the real truth is that you can take the standard setting, knock the artificial sharpening down most of the way (lowers the amount of aliasing) and the contrast down some and you are good to go.  Just make sure you know how to white balance the camera correctly.  That is the one aspect that is a little confusing and the one area where I consistently see issues with the finished footage.

2. White balance- the instructions are more complicated than they should be.  Find a white object.  Focus and expose it correctly and then take a photo (you can do this in movie mode) of it.  The camera uses the rectangle in the middle for the white balance calculation, so the whole frame doesn't need to be white.  Then go to the menu, select the 2nd tab (a camera followed by a colon), scroll down to CUSTOM WHITE BALANCE and select it (the "set" button).  Select the image you just shot with either the QUICK CONTROL DIAL or the MAIN DIAL and hit "set" again.   Select OK.   Hit the MENU button again to exit the menus.  Use the WB button on the top of the camera to select CUSTOM WHITE BALANCE and you are good to go.

3.  Heat- if you shoot with the camera running all the time, it may overheat.  If it is your only camera, you are shooting documentary footage, and it is warm out, bring an ice pack and a wash rag to keep the camera cool.

4.  Data Corruption- I have pieced together the following procedures to help prevent data corruption.  Yes, it happens quite a bit.  I've personally seen it and it's all over the boards.
  1.  Format the cards only in the camera
  2.  Be careful putting the cards into readers/cameras.  Bent pins can cause corruption.
  3. Make sure that the camera is done writing and that the computer is done offloading before pulling the card out of the reader/camera.  Always unmount the card before removing it from a card reader.
  4. A remote, but real, possible cause of corruption are computer viruses.
  5. Buy only UDMA cards.  I think that the all the SanDisk Extreme Cards are UDMA. 
  6. Format the cards in the camera before leaving for each shoot to ensure that they are good.
  7. Don't use a super cheap CF card reader.  I use the SanDisk Extreme FW 800 Card Reader (they also make a USB 2.0 version).  The SanDisk Extreme cards seem to be the consensus card I see in production environments, so I bought the reader that they made to go with the cards.  Believe me, I didn't want to spend the extra $40.
5.  For most shooting situations, set your shutter at 1/60th.

6.  If you can afford it, get a lens with Image Stabilization.  Shaky footage seems to be a real hobgoblin with these cameras, particularly on a long lens.  They are hard to hold steady.  I've met one person who is an absolute genius at operating these cameras, keeping them really steady handheld and being able to "blend" the out of focus moments really nicely on the fly.  Most people just can't concentrate enough or practice enough to reach that level.  Or there's always the monopod.

7.  Focus- you wanted shallow depth of field, you've got it now.  Now you know why there's someone on narrative films whose sole job is to ensure that the image is in focus at all times.  Outside of sound issues, an image with "searching" focus is the most issue likely to draw your viewer out of the story you are working so hard to tell.  You don't have to have a follow-focus, fancy mounting gear, etc. But you do have to concentrate always and practice a lot beforehand.  It isn't easy.

8.  Sound- the sound is not very good on these cameras, everyone knows that.  Great sound is essential to any project.  Google "dual system sound DSLR" or something like that and you will get all kinds of solutions. 

I just tried the new Canon E-1 plugin for Final Cut. I'm sure it'll work fine, but I deleted the thumbnail files, and I think you need them to make it work.  My one complaint is that it's getting ridiculous trying to keep up with all the plugins necessary for all the codecs out there.  Somewhere along the line it's easy to lose track of upgrades.  I actually used MPEG Streamclip to batch convert the H.264 files to ProRes today.  It works, is free and is faster than Compressor.

The 7D is an amazing camera, it made a ridiculous, backlit shot of my dining room table look all sexy and romantic.  If I had shot it with my HPX 170, it would have looked like a backlit bunch of stuff on a table.  Just remember, that along with the good comes some annoying and sometimes ridiculous issues.  I promised myself that I wasn't going to post any footage, but it's short and it makes me laugh out loud.   Can someone please explain this?  I've seen lens breathing before but not like this.  Why is it that the white bar only moves?  The dynamic range of the camera explains itself.

Have fun, but for god's sake, don't make your dramatic climax a rack focus shot of a Kodak Super Gray Card.

UPDATE:  I got this explanation from Charles Haine, uber-technologically adept DP/Colorist:

     A lens will breath differently for different colors/wavelengths of
     light, since everything wavelength of light will bend differently.
     Since white light has all the wavelegnths of light in it, it'll spread
     much more, and in more directions.  I think that's why you see some
     color fringing on the white boxes.  Since the black boxes are the
     absence of light, they won't spread as much.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Horses for Courses

VDSLR's are amazing. More precisely, they are amazing still cameras that shoot acceptable video. Why only acceptable? Read Ben Cain's blog, there are about 10 posts with solid DSLR technical analysis, ranging from dynamic range to the benefits of lenses with image stabilization.

Acceptable video, but yes, sexy acceptable video. Like any camera, it's horses for courses. I was on a documentary interview shoot this week and the second camera, a 7D, kept overheating and needed to be shut down several times. It was pretty warm in the rooms but not really hot.  I can't point out enough that it's essential to know your camera and what its limitations are before you start shooting.  If the 7D had been the only camera, it would have been a disaster because these were people who did not have time to schedule a second interview, or wait for a camera to cool down.

Canon 5D Mark II - Over and Under Exposure Tests from Ben Cain / Negative Spaces on Vimeo.

National Day of Unplugging

March 19-20, sunset to sunset.  Read a book, think, stare out the window. I am currently reading "After the Deluge" by San Franciscan, Chris Carlsson.  I can't even begin to summarize all the amazing things he has helped birth in an attempt to make people at least think about how to make the world a better place.

Taking a little time for reflection improves your work, whatever it is, but particularly if you are a creative type.

Also, a great piece of viral documentary film marketing.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


I was talking about the last color grading work I did (see the post before this one) with someone and they said, "geego."  I said, "wha?"  He said "Garbage In Garbage Out."  I understood his point immediately.  Don't go into a shoot thinking that you can "fix" everything in post.  The truth is that you pay, either up front or later, but you always pay at some point if you want quality. It can be equipment, people's time, locations, planning, etc., but quality has a price.  For example, the footage that I graded for that documentary required a lot of  time to make it look good.  I put a bunch of extra time into it because: 1) it was for a friend, and 2) because of the topic matter.  But, realistically,  what it would have cost to pay market rate to do what I did would have been out of reach for many filmmakers.

Here is what I probably would recommend in a situation like this, a documentary film with a lot of difficult footage:  select a couple of good looking shots (post correction) which repeat themselves in the timeline to which the same corrections can be applied.  These really nice looking shots will serve as the visual baseline for your piece. You then spend less time (and money) correcting the rest of the shots.  As long as you have that baseline of good looking shots, your audience will be forgiving of the other shots interspersed between them especially if they are verite.  Again, I repeat that this is for documentary films, narrative film grading is a different beast.

CLARIFICATION:  For clarity's sake, when I am talking above about cost cutting, I am speaking generally which is probably not a good idea.  What is "expensive" will vary from production to production and mean different things to different individuals.  Paying $300-$400/hour for a grading session on a DaVinci with a highly skilled colorist is normal for some people while for others it is incomprehensibly expensive.  Having your editor grade your feature length documentary may be the perfect solution for you, while others may want someone who is an expert in color correction.  Sometimes having someone who is more expensive per hour is cheaper in the end because they do the project more efficiently or because they have better skills to help express your vision.  Or, sometimes they are just more expensive.  The real point is, if you want quality, plan ahead because quality costs skill, money, time, energy, etc, and it's best to know how you are going to allocate your precious resources to meet your goals.  Research your options and the people who are going to do your work.

Remember, the process of getting something into Color, or any color correction process, will also take time.  So, if you have a messy timeline that is more than mostly straight cuts, you will have to do a lot of prep work to get it into Color (this will be a future post). Either you will have to do it or you will have to pay the colorist to do it.  It's best if you plan from the beginning that the project will be color graded and keep your timeline REALLY ORGANIZED.  There are also times that I would recommend keeping the project in FCP and having it graded with Colorista.  This compromise limits what you can do quite a bit but makes it more feasible economically to have your piece graded.

I guess the point of this post is that if you want to have a really good looking film, you have to plan (and budget) from the very beginning.

Now I am going to play some more with my new, sweet tool:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Love Your Colorist

I just finished color grading a documentary.   I thought that I'd share a few before/after screen shots the editor sent to me.  This footage was particularly challenging: the film is about children with cancer. The children and their families were all given Flip Camcorders to shoot footage.  If you think an image from a $2500 DSLR is thin, imagine some of the images from a $150 camera shot by non-professionals solely in ambient light.  I should also say that there were also some very nice images, really remarkable given the cost of the camera.

There was a serious red skew with blotchy magenta spots on the flesh tones in this image.  The real challenge was not only in giving the flesh an overall naturalistic color but also disguising the darker magenta artifacts without making the thin image look overly worked.  When I say naturalistic, I mean making his flesh look as good as possible while still retaining the overall feeling that it was shot under fluorescent lighting as opposed to trying to make it look like it was lit on a Hollywood set.  Flattering but authentic. If you click on the images, a larger version will open in a new window.

This image also had a serious color skew.

This image had contrast and color issues.  The greens were a little too yellow in the background and the water color isn't right either for the time of day.  This is actually when it gets fun.  I closed my eyes and put myself in that place and that time (late dusk in summer) and visualized what it looked like.  That is the intangible part of being a colorist, can you see what the intention was in your mind and actualize it? It's late in the day, so there is a little yellow lingering but the shadows are turning blue, particularly a challenge to make look subtle in the greens.  It becomes a balancing act.

 I feel like my job is done well if, when people watch a film, they don't notice what I've done and stay absorbed in the world created by all those who pass before me in the process.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Rose Water and Pomegranates

I have been on a little bit of a Iranian cinema tear lately. I most recently watched Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami, also the director of Taste of CherryClose-Up is a hybrid documentary/narrative film (as well as a film about film), a structure near to my head and heart these days. It's been a sobering realization, watching these Iranian films, the latitude that many directors there seem to have in structure and storytelling compared to what we are fed, even through our "indie" film movement. The trial scene, actually a real trial filmed documentary style, is a narrative masterpiece, subtly revealing the story's "characters." I am jealous, Film Forum in NYC is showing a new 35mm print right now.   Don't get the wrong idea, these films are beautiful because of the people in them and their stories (the photo above is a still photo by Kiarostami, a noted photogher as well), not because of big budget cinematography.  They are filled with little gems, mostly conversations between everyday people, oftentimes while driving.

I hadn't fully realized until recently how poetic, artful and, well, trying at times mainstream Iranian cinema could be. It gives me hope that we will use the cinema to think and dream again.  Enough with the toys, explosions, robots, apocalypses and cross-marketing already.  Film, and culture, needs to be more than product marketing delivery devices.

Click on the mouse for a special treat. 

"Kiarostami’s films are extraordinary. Words can’t relate my feelings. See his movies and then you’ll see what I mean.” – Akira Kurosawa.