Over the past six or so months I've made some huge changes. Personal changes and professional ones too - I looked at my career as a cinematographer and tried to pinpoint what wasn't working, or how I could do it better, do it happier. So what wasn't I enjoying about my career in the first place? Well, fluctuating incomes, inconsistent work leading to financial issues etc, etc. On top of that, I began to feel the pressure of working on 'no-budget' films where time and money were less than limited and the expectations were super high and hopeful. The usual story of any freelancing film-maker who takes their job seriously and tries to break into the inner circles of the industry. I've been TRYING, professionally, for nearly 7 years now...so when will that hard work pay off? When will I get invited into the 'inner circles'? Sounds sad doesn't it. And frankly, it is kinda sad. Like everyone, I wanna work on the big films, with the big gear, the big lights and the big crews. I want to be paid my day rate, not a students day rate. I want finely detailed storyboards, weeks of pre-production, luxurious locations, 50KW of portable power, exotic and frequent craft service schedules and people who respect what I do. The sad part is, I think I've realised that that's never going to happen, not unless I change.
SO! There's the realization part out of the way. A painful part, but hey. That's the dramatic side of this blog post for you :) So now for the camera part.
What have I MASSIVELY missed since I purchased my RED Scarlet-X back in 2012? Mobility. Speed. The freedom to JUMP into action when inspiration hits. That's not to say that you can't "run and gun" (I hate the phrase) with a Scarlet, but let me assure you that even though it is relatively small, it's relatively fucking huge too - especially when you rig it for work. But here's the thing. I've spent that past several years focusing less and less on quick setups and available light, and more and more on lighting from scratch and working with a team. And to be honest, the Scarlet is perfect for that..and let's face it...that's how a movie SHOULD be made....right? Time, planning and collaboration - that and some wiggle room for accidental magic. The problem is, I'm rarely called upon to be part of a shindig like that. To cynically break it down, it usually goes like this:
"Dude, we love your work. We want you to shoot our film. We have no money and no time. We love your work. Come with us. Dude!".
So then I read the script and think...yeah....okay. I'll just have to eat less and skip some bills this month. At least I get to light a camp-fire scene (which I'm still DYING to do BTW). So then we have three days un-paid pre prod which often involves no production designer or location manager, and I'm going to stop there because this is just going to get depressing hehe ;)
The point is, I love shooting and lighting films and that's what I do, 110%, no matter what. The more paid films I work on the better, and even better than that, the more awesome people I work with and meet, the better again :) The problem I was facing outside of the above issues was that I felt like my camera, my awesome RED Scarlet-X (that has never let me down), was actually....letting me down. Was it the image quality? No way...I love that sensor. It was the bulk and weight of the thing. But let me explain a little more, before we get into that.
The only time I've ever grown as a cinematographer is when I've tried something new. Lit in a new way, or shot in a new situation. The problem was, I wasn't seeing enough new situations. I wasn't being presented with new challenges.....just the same old "make this shit location look awesome using the lights you've owned for years and do it fast". Sure, that challenge is a great one, but it's not exactly inspiring, well, not every time anyway. I'm lucky enough to have this kinda "flame" in me (I know right...next I'll be using the word 'journey'), in other words, I get SUPER inspired to try stuff. I'll see a shot in a movie and think "FUCK! That's looks SICK! I want to try something like that!". But then I'm faced with the internal dialogue "FUCK! I'm gonna need some help with this cam....and a permit for that location....and some big ass lights....and a crew to help me". Then, not long after, the inspiration fades and I get back to looking at Instagram feeds of successful DOPs closing down streets with balloon lights above, shooting RED Weapon 8K and Arri Master Primes rigged to a Movi following a Ferrari.
BEFORE I grew up and suffered like this, I used to grab my 5D Mark II and get out there. If I had an epic idea, I got epicly inspired and got the fuck up and SHOT shit. That's how I learned! That's how I became [MTS]Films! What the hell happened!?!? God damn it....hehe :)
Change was needed. I HAD to fix this shit, and now that I knew what the problem was, I decided to buy a small camera again. Sony A7S(II)? Nearly......GH4? Almost. 5D III hacked? Yeah...maybe....but it's too expensive for what it is and the workflow required. I don't have any money remember? So then I looked at the Black Magic Design family, and what a lovely family they are.
The BMPCC (Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera) was released a few years ago and I was impressed back then....but back then I was like "I got a Scarlet so I don't need a Pocket cam". That was true....back then, remembering that it was THE ONLY MOTION PICTURE CAMERA that shot RAW, and wasn't priced over $100K. Anyway, the pocket cam for me, is BASICALLY a pocket sized Scarlet. Once you pop on a focal reducer you can get the crop down to actually LESS...it shoots RAW and it's the size of two iPhones stacked on top of eachother (the only thing iPhones are good for is this comparison).
So now I'm mobile again let me tell you I'm fucking loving it! I'm back baby!! hehe :)
But what about the battery issues? The black sun spot issues, the IR contamination, the moire, the rolling shutter, the shitty monitor....etc, etc. Yeah, yeah, what about them? They're all manageable. And for the wonder's it has done to my life thus far, they're minor issues. My new 'life journey' haha....is underway.
Just quickly, let me adress the issues I faced with this cam and how I've solved them.
THE BATTERY ISSUE
The internal 800mAh battery that comes with the camera is good for 30 mins. So, not real good. The plus is, the camera can be powered externally which also charges the internal battery! So, I've purchased a couple of these super light, super cheap batteries from e-bay and they power the cam all day. The best part is, I basically use them to charge the tiny battery inside when I'm not recording. Once it's time to roll, I just un-plug and I'm wireless again for 30 mins. It's awesome!
It's pretty bad on this camera, especially when you're using ND. Basically what is happening when you place a Neutral Density Filter in front of the sensor, you cutting out light waves to make the image darker. The problem is, you're NOT cutting out the Infrared Rays so they sneak past and saturate the image. This makes your shadows and blacks all magenta and murky. YUK!
Thankfully it's not a problem if you add this filter to the mix. Check out the example below to see what I mean.
ND is an essential tool. There are cheap options out there, but this is one area I wouldn't skimp on. Tiffen makes excellent filters and this variable ND for 52mm thread lenses works very well, even at the heavy end.
MONITOR (or lack thereof)
The built in monitor on this cam is pathetic. Sure the resolution is okay, but the brightness, contrast and viewing angle is just shit. My whole point with this cam is to keep it light and free....so instead of purchasing a new external monitor, I've gone for the "view Finder" alternative - which basically gives you a glare free, magnified version of the monitor that is built into the cam. No batteries, no worries! It's not the best solution, but it's a cheap one, for now. I will eventually be purchasing an electronic viewfinder, but that's going to cost more than the camera itself!
It's not great. But neither is my RED Scarlet-X! Sure, if you're shooting fast cars and running with the thing, you'll notice it....but honestly, do you think this shot below suffers so much to be a deal breaker? I think it's fine!
Speaking of hand-held....shoulder rigs that actually work (I mean balanced rigs that you aren't fighting all day) can be super expensive....and super bulky. I'm not saying this is a perfect solution (focus isn't really sorted), but for $20...I mean really. It's mad! I shot the above with it, and it felt pretty good considering.
THE CROP FACTOR
The sensor on this camera is fricken tiny. It think it's equivalent to super 16mm, or there abouts. Point being that if you stick a 35mm Full Frame Stills Format lens on the front of this thing, you're looking at a 2.88x crop factor! In other words, a 50mm lens will cover a field of view similar to that of a 140mm lens!!! This WOULD be a deal breaker for me. I can handle and actually have grown to love the crop on my Scarlet-X (1.73x) but 2.88x? MAN! Thankfully, physics and engineers made it all okay. SEriously! Now there's a thing called a "Focal Reducer" which basically does what a magnifying glass does to the sun when you want to burn stuff with it...remember? Anyway, it's a piece of glass that sits between the sensor and the lens and it's job is to "reduce" the size of the circle of light that is coming through the lens. It does exactly that and projects it onto the tiny sensor and now because the image circle has been made smaller, the sensor can see more of what is being projected, hence reducing the crop factor...SO COOL! Not only that, but because the light is being concentrated into a smaller area, it's also brighter than it used to be and apparently 'sharper'. With this particular focal reducer (Roxsen), you gain a full stop of light and it reduces the crop factor from 2.88 to 2.25. Still pretty heavy, but I'm getting used to it. Don't forget this is the poor man's version of a "Speed Booster" which is the same thing, only 10x more expensive - the main difference being that a rich man's Metabones "Speed Booster" reduces the crop factor by .58 (end result being 1.67x crop - LARGER than a Scarlet-X!), gives you an extra 1 2/3 stops of light AND has electronics to control lenses. Probably worth the money, but hey. Not just yet. For now, my ROXSEN Focal Reducer is working wonders :)
This is a scary word that is scary because USUALLY if a camera has it, it's like herpes. The is no cure. BUT! Thanks to a company called 'Mosaic Engineering', you can no buy a little piece of masterfully engineered plastic that sits right on front of your sensor and eliminates it. It's about $400, but I think I will be getting it eventually. That being said, the moire on this camera is NO WHERE NEAR as bad as people make it out to be on forums and the internet. If you're used to the moire a 5D Mark II delivers, then you will be pleasantly surprised with this camera. I've only come across two situations where it was an issue so far...but hey. The camera costs USD$1000...just remember that :)
Is it a problem? Yes. Is it a deal breaker? No...and remember, it can be fixed!
So, issues aside, I'm super stoked that my full set of AiS Nikkors that don't get used anymore will actually be used again! I spent a good year collecting those and as much as I love them, like most low budget guys I ended up purchasing the full set of Samyang Cine lenses for reasons of gears and smooth iris control, and, they have been great. They are however considerably larger and heavier than my nikkors (because of speed mostly) and made of plastic. The nikkors on the other hand are tough, smooth and sexy. Part of the reason I love this little camera is again, because it's little. So, keeping my lenses small is also a plus.
Not only has this small camera ripped me off the couch and off of Instagram, it has also open up exciting ideas and possibilities of camera movement. That's another thing that the Scarlet-X often blocks. Moving that thing requires some serious gear and strength. Although I've flown plenty of steadicam with it and done a few jib shots...it's always been a big deal, and a somewhat painful process (remember, I have no money and neither do the filmmakers I work with).
With the rapid growth of Gimbal technology, things are seriously looking awesome for small camera owner operators! Dave Dugdale sheds some light on them here....(thanks Dave! Check out his website for lots of useful info HERE) I think I'm gonna get that CAME Single :) Imagine micro moves....push-ins, tiny jib movements and shooting in cars!?!? It's going to be awesome.
Meanwhile, I've been testing this camera for a couple of months in many different situations - one of which, of course, was in a controlled lighting environment. Once a month I run workshops where I teach film-makers how I light and think when I'm on set. They are awesome fun and attendees get a lot out of them. Usually the courses focus on using a RED camera and a fairly high end (low budget) lighting kit from our local rental house. This time however, I busted out the little pocket cam and tried to keep lighting super low budget using the lights I own. Check out the result below:
The focus here was ULTRA low budget. But let's not forget that good cinematography (just patting myself on the back here, don't mind me hehe) has little to do with the camera, and a LOT to do with lighting, composition, production design, colour palettes, acting and blocking. But you already knew that ;) The ULTRA low budget part came with using a location that was already dressed. Keeping the shot simple (no camera movement, no focus shifts), using cheap, relatively low powered lights and of course, having someone on screen who just looks and acts...cinematically awesome hehe :) (Reece Manning is a legend). The other thing we didn't' do was record audio on set (I did it all in post, recording my own sound effects).
Lighting wise I used my kit - specifically 1 x 650w and 1x 300w Tungsten Fresnels made by CAME-TV in china. They are branded "As Arri", meaning that they look almost identical to an Arri equivalent...and I can tell you from experience that they produce the SAME LIGHT as an Arri equivalent. The other light source was my trusty no-brand 1000 LED panel that I purchased off e-bay several years back. You can see exactly how we lit this scene below (and be sure to visit LIGHTING section HERE where I go into more detail).
You may have noticed that the highlights are clipping on Reece's shirt and some of the desk. This was actually deliberate. One thing I've learned over the years is to really look at your scopes and know exactly WHAT is clipping. If you search cinematography forums and browse YouTube videos, you might find that a general rule of thumb is to "protect your highlights". Sure, that's a fair GENERAL rule. But then again, if I were to protect that shirt (not modifying the light), I would have lost almost a full stop of exposure on his face. So, the idea is to keep focus where focus is needed, and expose for the most important part of the image. IF clipped highlights are going to ruin the shot, then sure, look at ways to fix that by modifying the light...don't just stop down your lens, look at your scopes and feel good that nothing is clipping. It can be scary the first few times hehe...but I assure you that you'll get cleaner, better looking images if you adapt this idea. Of course if the clipping was happening on Reece's face and skin, I would have done something about it. But, a white shirt being back-lit? I'm cool with that. What's also important is HOW a camera clips. I find that this little pocket cam handles over exposure very nicely.
For more detailed notes about how I lit this scene, check out the LIGHTING section here :)
Sure, we're not shooting 4K here....but who would have known that? If I told you I shot this on the RED Scarlet-X, you'd probably have believe me. Hell, I would have believed me. I'm still blown away by the image quality this camera delivers. High bit depth, excellent colour and nice highlight rolloff..these things are FAR more important than resolution, frames per second and global shutters. The 100mb/s 4K 8-bit 4:2:2 files you get from a Sony A7sII are just gross. Amazing detail? Yeah. Low light king? Sure! But fuck that. The SOUL of the image has already been extracted and is waiting for you on the F65 with a raw recorder.
Meanwhile, take a look at this shot for an example of the BEAUTIFUL detail this 1080p camera captures. It really is something. In fact, I'm finding it look sharper and has more detail (at 1080p) than footage I've shot with the Scarlet which has then been subsampled down to match.
It's probably a bit of a stretch to say that this camera captures better detail at 1080p than a Scaled down 4K image from the Scarlet, but hey....that's what my eyes are telling me without a side-by-side comparison. In any case, you won't be disappointed by the resolution this thing resolves, it's awesome :)
In the past few years, colour grading and colour correction have almost become necessary skills for any film-maker, especially since every camera now shoots "flat" or in some sort of LOG gamma mode, and every film-maker is a shooter, editor, colourist and sound designer ;) It's kind of true though - I'm a big believer that you should know the basics of all areas, whilst mastering one. Colour grading has been a part time profession for me over the past three years and I find it very rewarding - especially when I'm not shooting. Furthermore, I find that it makes me think more about my lighting because I know what to expect in post.
Coming from RED (and the whole reason I purchased RED), it was a delight to be able to play with 12-bit RAW files from the pocket cam. Sure, they're not 16-bit (a-la-RED at 3:1 compression) but I'm yet to 'feel' that loss. 12-bits is MORE than enough for most work, and probably just enough for the rest. The workflow is no problem either, since Davinci Resolve plays and edits the cDNG sequences like no tomorrow. I'm running an old HP Dual Xeon z600 with a Radeon R9 390X and I can grade the SHIT out of these cDNG's at full res, no sweat.
The issues I had with the my first images coming from the camera was this slightly muddy, over-all brown/magenta tinge. This just made grading a bitch because no matter what I did, none of the colours were neutral and although I was loving the RAW flexibility, AND could create a nice stylized look, I couldn't for the life of me balance for neutral colours. If you're having this problem too, it's 100% IR contamination (or you've mixed lighting, have the wrong white balance or your lenses are old as hell). Get yourself in IR cutter like the one I mentioned earlier and your little pocket cam will be recording beautiful, rich colours again :) Keep in mind that technically speaking, if you aren't using ND filters not ALL scenes will exhibit IR contamination, so really in that situation you shouldn't need one. The other thing to note is shooting with MEGA amounts of ND...like 10 stops. Up that end, your Hoya IR cutter can only do so much, so you'll still get IR pollution in that case.
So what about LUTS!!!! EVERYONE WANTS DEM LUTS!
I don't know....the whole LUT WAVE drives me a bit nuts. It's the idea that LUT will make your footage look good. A short cut...if you will. That's all well and good, but it frustrates me that people aren't prepared to learn how to grade without a LUT...Don't get me wrong! I love a good LUT, and often they provide a nice 'frame' to work in, but yeah. There's a lot more to lighting and understanding colour than using a LUT and posting it on Insta. Anyway, the shot of Reece at the desk was graded in Resolve, but I didn't use a lut. What I did do, is exactly this:
If you feel like having a play with this shot, feel free to download the entire sequence and follow along with the un-polished-non-rehearsed tutorial I whipped up this arvo. And if you've got time, please share with me your results! I'd love to see the different looks people come up with :)
ALL IN ALL.....
It's the same old stuff. It's not about your camera, or your lenses. We all know that by now right? Today's cameras are phenomenal..and in most cases, can capture MUCH better stuff than we're putting in front of them. My goal is strip back as much as I can and really focus on the craft. This tiny pocket camera was JUST what I needed lift me out of the jaded rut. It's so good to be back out there and pushing my limits again. Thanks for stopping by and reading my rant, I'll be sure to share more findings as they come.