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The Danger of the Shortcut Mentality

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In “Skill in the Age of Instagram”, I had opined about the lost value of skill sets, and how the modern approach to skills is to “approximate” them with shortcuts like Instagram, Autotune, and Photoshop.

Even though these tools offer the quickest and shortest “path” to the immediate goal, being your current project, they retard your potential growth by limiting your skills and knowledge about what you’re doing. If the pseudo-magic time-saving software is taken away (or encounters a limitation), how will you continue to be able to function without it?

In cinematography

Cinematography is rife with this kind of intellectual laziness, as all creative fields have a tendency to be. A few of the places I’ve seen this have been:

  • Cameras. If you haven’t met a single cinematographer who has lamented that s/he is being held back by his/her rig, you haven’t gotten out very much. I call crap on that argument, mainly because of fine work like Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color”. Learn to use what you’ve got, rather than pining for something better / different.

  • Color correction and grading. Virtually every amateur forum on color correction and grading is full of people asking where they can get a “one size fits all” LUT which will make their footage look “like Hollywood”. If there was such a thing, the entire industry of color grading specialists would just be wasting their time and skills. There’s even an “Instagram” of sorts for color grading – Magic Bullet Looks.

  • Focus. I’m still surprised at the number of people who complain that cameras do not do the focusing work for them. (It’s easier to remind them that, much like other electronics, more expensive things have fewer bells and whistles – and autofocus is a terrible, terrible idea.)

  • Lighting. As soon as low light cameras capable of cine work, like the A7s, came out, people came crawling out of the woodwork, happy that they no longer would have to worry about learning to light a scene. Putting aside the relative noisiness of the sensors, low light / no light still does not look like actual lit footage.

Falling into these thought pattern “traps” may seem easier at first, but following this “shortcut mentality” doesn’t may off in the long game.

Why?

I’m not sure. I have previously said that I believed intellectual laziness or possibly a culture obsessed with instant gratification could be blamed for attempting to take the easy way out. Upon further observation, I cannot isolate a single cause behind the widespread acceptance of these tools and shortcuts, but I’ll iterate through possible causes.

  • Illusory superiority. We aren’t very good at figuring out how good or bad we are at something (the concept of illusory superiority contends that we usually overestimate our skill level, and the Dunning-Kruger effect also stipulates that we will eventually under-estimate our skill level, once we’ve gotten past a certain point). It’s one of the reasons why 90% of drivers believe that they’re in the top 10% of the skill curve – and also could help explain why using some of the aforementioned tools has become so prevalent. If we believe we’re in the top percentiles of a skill set, we’ll also believe that whatever we do (as part of our “process”) is, and must be, inherently correct. This can be seen by the inability of many Instagram filter users to understand why their tool is an “easy way out”.

  • Instant gratification. Our culture, especially the now-pervasive “millenial generation”, which has come into cultural power with a shorter-than-ever attention span and a lack of any understanding of their own skill levels, thanks to a society hell-bent on issuing participation awards to everyone.

  • Intellectual laziness. Increasingly, people seem to be less interested in how something works, and simply interested that it works.

  • “Keeping up with the Joneses”. There is a look and feel “arms race”, which closely parallels the loudness war, in that photographers and cinematographers are pressed to try to replicate the look and feel of their Instagrammified and Photoshopped brethren.

  • The social disease. No, not “the herp”; the disease of social networking. A seemingly endless desire for likes, “+1”s, shares, and every other type of social networking accolades, has been a driving force in recent years; “self-status seeking” is one of the primary goals of those who engage in social networking. In efforts to garner the esteem of “friends” and “contacts” on these social networks, users are adopting the lowest common denominator, in many cases, to attempt to appeal to the greatest number of followers.

What’s the solution?

This is where I’m at a bit of a loss. I’d like to believe that, given time, those who possess the requisite skills of the trade will advance, simply by virtue of having learned to ply their skills more effectively, and those who use “skill approximation” software will drop off, or will continue to produce mediocre or cookie-cutter output.

That being said, it didn’t happen that way with pitch-correction software. Musical artists no longer have to be able to sing in tune (although, you could point at musicians like Bob Dylan to say “they never had to be able to”, but I digress) to be able to rise to the top of the pop music charts, and photographers don’t have to be able to take a clean picture to be able to produce a cover image for a magazine. The exact opposite, in fact, is expected from professional photographers – knowledge of manipulation tools is expected, and some photographers are becoming well known through their Instagram-filtered images.

(As an aside, even though I do have an Instagram account, I do tag my photos with #nofilter and #noprocessing to indicate that I do not manipulate them, apart from the forced square ratio imposed by Instagram.)

I can only recommend the long road – and I’m going to end this post with a quote that, while it may seem to be a bit cliché, is perfectly apropos:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference. - “The Road Not Taken”, Robert Frost

It is even more appropriate that the oft-misconstrued sentiment of Frost’s poem was to lament that he had chosen the more difficult route, not to celebrate that he had taken it.

So please, take the long road of learning and discovery, rather than looking for shortcuts ; you’ll be a better, more skilled person for having done so. Good luck!

The Importance of Failure

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Failing is a terrible thing, we are taught. As a result of inherent cognitive biases and our own illusory superiority (look up the Dunning-Kruger effect, if you’re curious about this), we believe that we are right the majority of times, that we are more skilled than those around us, and that we have nothing of import to learn from not succeeding.

I’m going to uncharacteristically detour into a quick anecdote. I was attending a film festival a little while ago, and had ended up talking to one of the festival’s organizers. She had asked me about how I got into film, and talked a little bit about some of her own projects. After a while, I mentioned how I learned more from my failures than I did from my successes. She stopped the line of conversion, and said that she didn’t, because she “always” succeeded.

There’s a lesson to be learned from her. If you never fail (or never allow yourself to be put in a situation when you fail, or never accept that you have failed), you aren’t going to be able to examine your process to figure out how you can improve. If we’re at the height of our skill set at the present moment, I view that assessment as a dismal failure; we should always expect that, given time and effort, we should continue to improve as time goes on.

I don’t necessarily hate everything I’ve done in past projects, but can instead view my previous work as evolutionary improvement. Every project I do should be the best work I’ve done so far, and if it isn’t, I should be taking steps to make sure that the next one is.

Understanding Failure and Criticism

We do not accept criticism well – especially not as artists. Most of our work is, to some degree, very personal. We then view attacks on our work as attacks on some part of ourselves, and become much more defensive than we should be.

Cognitive bias is a serious issue with us accepting criticism, or any differing points of view from our own. Without getting into too much detail about the mechanics of cognitive bias, it is important to emphasize the importance of recognizing that we all possess it, to one degree or another.

High expectations tends to result in a feeling of having failed at a much deeper level than the project at hand. A very insightful person had written (about film festival contests, in particular) that you had to be committed to making the best thing you could, not winning. It may not sound like a lot of inherent difference, but stripping your expectations for a project can allow you to be much more free in your ability to execute that project.

People who criticize or critique can help you. Every failure which is left without analysis is a missed opportunity. You cannot learn from your missteps and mistakes without looking at them with a critical eye. A third party with less vested interest in you and your project can give you the perspective you need to improve.

Post Mortem Analyses

I come from a pretty heavy information technology background, and one of the favorite “failure analysis” tools we tend to use after something breaks is something called a post mortem, which is short for “post mortem documentation”. It involves a rigorous process of analyzing key elements which were responsible for both successful and unsuccessful aspects of a project or event.

For example, I performed both a post mortem on our 2014 48 Hour Boston Festival project, which documented some of the things I learned about working with a new camera body, as well as working under tight time constraints, and a post mortem on our 2014 48 Hour Providence Horror Festival project, which took home a number of awards, including “Best Film”. Even the analysis of our successful project found issues which needed to be addressed before our next project.

Your Worst Critic

… is you (or at least, it should be). You need to be the harshest critic you have.

The rationale I give for this is that you cannot rely on those intrinsically involved in either your professional or personal life, who all have some sort of stake in how well you do something, to be critical enough of what you do. If you can’t expect complete, harsh honesty from those around you – then you are going to have to try to be as harsh as possible with what you’re putting out.

(Yes, I’m aware that the younger generation has been indoctrinated, to a certain point, with the notion that everything they do is the best, most awesome, most EPIC thing that any human being has ever done – but if you want to succeed artistically, you’ve got to overcome that.)

Avoid Negativity

Failure doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Any experience from which we learn a valuable lesson or draw potential improvement from should not be a negative experience. Much like the rest of life, this isn’t the end product of what you’re capable of. It isn’t the last, greatest thing you do – unless, of course, you become disheartened and stop producing things.

Stay positive, learn from your successes and your failures – and good luck!

Winning a 48 Hour Film Project

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My team, Shoot the Moon Films, won the 2014 Providence Horror Film Project’s “Best Picture” award, as well as scoring a “Best Actor” award for Nicholas Magrey, a “Best Writing” award for Natasha Darius and Nicholas Magrey, and a “Best Sound Design” award for Aaron Theodore Berton for our short film “The Carving” (IMDb).

I’m used to doing post-mortem analyses on failures, so this is a fairly unusual task ; why did “The Carving” win against other films – especially against some very strong contenders?

It’s all about the story.

As usual, we didn’t base our story off of any pre-existing concepts, scripts, etc. Although it is expressly forbidden in the rules of the 48 hour film projects, it is common knowledge that many teams engage in this practice, presumably because of the difficulty of producing a good screenplay in the alloted time.

I’m always proud of our writers, and this was no exception. When you’re writing a story which has to come out as a four to seven minute short, you can’t write an over-complicated concept, or take a half hour concept and cut it down to a few minutes of film. We had used a fairly complicated concept for our last 48 hour effort, Desire, and it did not fare very well.

It helps to have writers who know basic tenets of writing, and there are a ton of online courses, books, and general help to improve scripts. Without the screenwriters, we would not have won.

Sound is important, too.

We spend an inordinate amount of post production time on ADR-ing, Foley-ing, and otherwise enjoying the hard work of our sound engineer, which resulted in the best sounding audio track of any of the films in the festival. (Don’t take my word for it – it won an award specifically for that.)

Your boom operator has to be paying attention, and your audio setup has to be… something. Don’t rely on a single source of audio, either. We had an issue with a cable which resulted in having to use on-camera audio for a closeup shot. This wouldn’t have been possible without a backup.

(It’s worth noting that in editing, I ended up doing as much audio replacement as I could before handing off to our sound engineer, to cut down on the amount of time which he’d have to burn finding the nicest audio for a certain take.)

Take (footage of) only what you need to survive.

Overly fancy cinematography, while fun to execute (and great for winning Cinematography awards), is nothing if it doesn’t help propel your story forward. If you’re trying desperately to find a way to put a quadcopter shot into your film, you may have lost already.

I’m a huge fan of indulgent, long, complicated shots – but they have to fit your idiom. If you’re making a four to seven minute long short, you probably shouldn’t do things just for the sake of doing them. A quick example was that I had originally planned a jib/crane shot for a particular piece of exposition, but ended up going with a snorricam rigged shot instead. The snorricam doesn’t add as much “value” to the end product, but it told the story better.

On the other hand, think about your video quality a bit.

If you’re shooting on a handicam, why? Entry level DSLRs are cheap and easy to come by, and with the right set of eyes behind the camera, they can produce great footage.

If you’re not color correcting or grading your footage, why? The walls behind your characters shouldn’t be changing between shots unless you intend for them to be doing so. White balancing doesn’t cost any money.

If you’re not lighting your footage, why? A guy with a decent eye and a few clamp lights can add immeasurable depth and character to your shots. I know that “low light cinematography” is making the rounds as the new fad, but you’re not going to get the same type of picture. It doesn’t cost much (or anything if you already have the equipment at home), so what’s the harm?

If you can’t do something, find someone who can.

Unless you’re a one person shop, consider finding other people to handle tasks – especially if they’re better at something than you are. Get someone with a good eye to handle the cinematography, someone who can write well to pen your piece, and people who are good with audio to handle your post production.

Don’t try to win, try to put out the best film you can.

This is advice I had received right before the 48 started, and it’s some of the best I’ve had. Because we specifically tried to make the best film we could make in 48 hours (within the constraints outlined by the 48), we have a film for our own promotion and uses after the festival ended.

Good luck to you in all of your cinematographic adventures!

Another 48 Hours

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Almost six months after the Boston 48 Hour Film Festival, my team (Shoot the Moon Films) is entering the 2014 Providence 48 Hour Horror Festival. Along with seventeen other teams, we’re going to try to make a 4-7 minute horror film in 48 hours.

This is pretty far out of my wheelhouse, as I haven’t made a practice of making horror films, but my team and I are excited, and I’m going to keep track of both our successes and our missteps here.

Day One: Preproduction, Kickoff, and Writing

The one crazy moment I ended up having before everything got started was the realization that I didn’t have enough space on the primary editing workstation drive – and I ended up ameliorating that by purchasing another drive down the road. Crisis averted, no hair lost.

I don’t like the roads around Providence, which proved to be a pain both heading out to the kickoff event (horrific traffic and rubbernecking) as well as on the way back (incorrect signage sending me to take a nasty U-turn in Providence). As our producer couldn’t make the trip to the kickoff event, I ended up taking his place.

After a two or three story jaunt up a staircase in a pretty non-descript mill building in Pawtucket, I joined a group of mostly younger filmmakers, eager to pick a category and get moving. As this was a “horror” themed festival, we had a list of genres – and the writers had asked that I not request one of the contingency genres, as they were more difficult to pull off.

The guy standing behind me, after telling me how much he hated “Found Footage” as a genre (which, by the way, I also loathe), ended up pulling that genre. We ended up getting “Satanic/Demonic Possession”, and I messaged the information back to the writers, so that they could get started on the planning and writing process before I got back.

Both of the writers were coming from previous engagements, including one who was starring in a theater production of “Frankenstein”, the other who had costumed and was doing hair and prep work – but they still managed to crank out the final version of a script before midnight. Everyone, cast and crew, got sent copies.

From midnight until about 2:00 - 2:30 a.m., I wrote out a tentative shot list and printed a huge piles of copies of the script. I got to sleep a little before 3:00 a.m.

Day Two: Production / Shooting

At around 6:00 a.m., my wife and I got up, packed all of the equipment into the car, and met the rest of the cast and crew at our shooting location at 7:00 a.m. We ended up having to scramble around to get all of the set dressing components for the set, and got production underway around 10:30 - 11:00 a.m. Shooting with the BMPC4K camera made shooting, in most instances, much faster since we could shoot in 4K and simply “punch in” for close up shots without losing resolution. It was a neat trick which had been suggested to me about two years ago by the director of “Chez Upshaw”, which a project of mine had screened with at BIFF.

I got a chance to trot out a snorricam rig which hadn’t been used in almost two years. It couldn’t handle the weight of the production camera, so we were using a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera with a modified Computar 12.5mm f/1.3 lens stopped down to about f/4 to replace the GoPro Hero 2 we used to use. The footage is nicely inter-cuttable with the Production Camera footage, so I wouldn’t have to pull any rabbits out of hats in color grading.

We had a hard deadline for wrapping up principal photography of 5:30 p.m., since a number of actors and crew members had to make it back to the theater for another performance of “Frankenstein” – including two of our actors, our production designer and our makeup artist. We barely finished our last take of our last outside shot as it started to rain heavily outside. No equipment damaged, no shot missed.

We had to return props, and since my wife had taken the car, our producer loaded up half of the equipment and my friend Chris helped me with the rest of it, as well as helping me return some of our borrowed props. Another cup of coffee later, and we were transferring about 280+ GB of footage off of the two cameras and the boom rig.

One of the actors and the producer took turns sitting with me while I made the bulk of the edits. We finished the rough cut at a little past 11:50 p.m. The cast and crew members present watched the rough cut to confirm that there weren’t any glaring issues with the cut, then my wife and I went through all of the audio to catalogue shot numbers and takes for easy sound replacement referencing. I rendered out a reference copy for the musician doing the scoring, uploaded it, and went to sleep before I passed out on my keyboard.

Day Three: Post-production and Making the Deadline

After a brief hour and a half or so of sleep, I ended up having to get up to help my geriatric dog, who has periodic breathing issues. I got another hour or so of sleep before my wife tossed me out of bed, and I stumbled down the street to grab a cup of delicious Peruvian coffee to wake up. I’m pretty sure my eyes weren’t open until half way back to the house.

From 6:30 a.m. until 10:30 a.m., I did the bulk of the sound replacement and matching work as well as the coloring in Resolve. I dumped out an export for Audition to take with me for ADR, and headed off to get the few lines that we needed done.

Five actors met me over at our original shoot location, primarily so that my dogs wouldn’t scuttle any of the takes. We wrapped sound collection around 1:30 p.m., and headed back to recomposite everything. I sent out the audio to our audio engineer in Massachussetts, who recomposited everything together and cleaned up some of our slightly dirtier boom audio, as well as leveling out the speech. Final render time out of Premiere came right after that.

A last minute call to the hotline for the festival confirmed that we could present HD 24 fps footage, rather than being limited to 30 fps footage (as the website had indicated). A quick burn of a DVD and dropping footage on a flash drive which felt far too large for the content we were putting on it, and we were off to the races – so to speak.

We hauled the 45+ minute drive through Providence to the drop off point, and were the first team in our group (the “B” group) to hand in our materials 40 minutes before the 7:30 p.m. drop-off deadline. Yahtzee!

Lessons Learned

  • Have an on-site audio engineer to take care of ADR duties. It’s a serious pain to have to color and handle re-recording.

  • Get the cleanest boom audio possible. Make sure your boom operator is getting pristine audio, as close as possible to the source, and monitoring the levels.

  • Make sure your audio is being catalogued on set. It was a serious time waster to do this late at night, and put off coloring work until the next day.

  • Make sure someone is arranging rides. If someone needs to shuttle crew around, make sure it’s not one of your department heads.

  • Screen your graded footage a few times before finalizing. I’m really guilty of this one, as I noticed a few places where I needed to brighten the midtones a bit, or match the color of the grass in some exterior shots a bit better.

  • Make sure to let everyone know how important they are. In a 48 hour film festival, there are no “unimportant” people. Everyone is doing their job, and without them, things wouldn’t come together properly. Our 1st AD (who is, by trade, a stage manager) had never worked on a film set before – but you’d never know it, since she brought her “A” game with her.

Special Thanks

I’d like to thank:

  • Natasha Darius – My wife, co-writer, and general driving force behind everything I do. We wouldn’t have done the 48 if it wasn’t for her talented writing and creative spark, her tenacity in keeping everyone moving in the right direction, and her infectious optimism. She was costuming and doing actor prep for “Frankenstein” during this weekend, which made everything else she was able to do (including prop shopping, organization, writing, et cetera) that much more impressive.

  • Nick Magrey – Although he overbooks everything and wears far too many hats, nothing would get done without him. Co-writing, acting, production designing, wardrobe supervising… the list goes on and on. Not to mention that he did this during the closing weekend of his leading role in “Frankenstein” at the Bradley Playhouse.

  • Curtis Reid – I give him a lot of crap about everything, but he’s the other half of the organizational aspect of all of this, as well as running Shoot the Moon Films. I like to tell people “you need to get a Curtis” when they ask how I manage to get stuff done. I shouldn’t downplay his acting, either – I just usually focus on all of his producing duties.

  • Jon Demers – He kept me awake, gopher’d the crap out of everything, drove me everywhere, and found time to act. Give that man a gold star.

  • Hannah Viens – 1st AD extraordinaire. She made sure that we were getting everything done, and that’s no small task.

  • Chelle Wright – Even though she’s been doing MUA duties with us for a while, this was her acting debut. Thank you for not only putting in a great performance, but also for making everyone look so good!

  • The Entire Verrill ClanElizabeth was acting and doing sound work, Patricia was taking still photos, and they were nice enough to lend their lovely home and property to us to trash judiciously for filming.

  • Maureen Vlaco – You have one of the longest commutes to set, but you were cheery, helpful, and even drove back for audio re-recording right before a funeral. You brought that character to life – thank you!

  • Keith Murphy – I’ve never worked with a stunt/fight guy before, but he was fantastic, in addition to lending a double-popped-collar performance.

  • Paul Magrey – Booming, as well as helping with all sorts of other stuff on set. Awesome job!

  • Brandi Demers – You’re my right hand on set, and threw in a performance to boot, not to mention the time you put in prepping props!

  • Our post-production crewAaron and Garett, especially. You guys added so much production value with the precious little time we gave you to work, and your work completely speaks for itself.

Screening

The Carving is premiering on October 29th in Providence at 9:00 p.m..

Ways to Keep Your Work From Appearing Cheap

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Okay; so you’ve got a DSLR, a RED, a Blackmagic Cinema Camera, a GoPro – what’s next? The internet is littered with all sorts of tutorials aimed at trying to reproduce the “Hollywood look”, but where to begin?

Over my time as a cinematographer, I’ve learned quite a bit about putting together things that don’t look terrible. Unfortunately, I’ve learned most of these through the painful process of trial and error. If there’s an item listed in this article, I most likely ended up screwing up in that particular way at one time or another.

A slight disclaimer: I’m a bit of a purist. I tend not to deal with post-production effects except when absolutely necessary. I also hate camera shake, especially intentionally induced camera shake.

With that out of the way…

1) Audiophilia: don’t skimp on sound.

If your sound is terrible, your work is going to be perceived as terrible. It doesn’t matter how artistic your shots are, how talented your actors, or how legendary your vision. Audiences (and critics) can forgive almost anything, but they cannot forgive terrible sound.

Sound makes up half of your deliverable work, so logically you should be spending half your time working on it, but most of the indie productions I’ve seen tend to ignore it as much as possible. Don’t skimp on a sound engineer; if you manage to find a really good one, do not let them go.

Don’t let just anyone operate your boom mic. Make sure they are actually interested in doing it. They should preferably be listening to every take and making sure that you have good, usable audio.

If you really need to, get an ADR and Foley engineer. Or learn how to do it yourself – just make sure that you give sound a reasonable amount of attention.

2) Spastic squirrel syndrome: don’t cut movies like you’ve never seen a movie.

Editing is the “directorial discretion of last resort”. You can make all sorts of changes in editing, including changing the entire mood of your film.

Don’t cut it like you’ve never seen a movie before. I need to reiterate that. Don’t cut it like you’ve never seen a movie before.

Consider continuity. If one of your characters has a bag of chips in his hand one moment and doesn’t the next, it’s possible that your discontinuous method of cutting is making a statement about the transient nature of existence or the fragile mental state of your protagonist – but it’s far more likely that the person in charge of continuity fell asleep at the switch.

Don’t cut movies like music videos. A new trend has emerged where music video directors are being promoted to full length feature direction. Unfortunately, their attention-deficit style of cutting has become the norm for every type of film, even non-action ones. If you can’t keep your audience’s attention unless you cut every 1.5 seconds, you might need to work on your script or actors.

Respect the 180 degree and 15 degree rules. If you don’t know what they are, read a few articles on the basic rules of editing.

Respect the pacing … or at least consider the pacing. I’ve changed pacing in editing, but the resulting pace has to be considered before you finalize an edit.

Too many cooks spoil the soup. Or in this case, the film. Have one, maybe two people at most editing your film. Everyone is going to have a different idea of where it should go or how it should be cut together – do NOT allow a crowd of people to make editing decisions. Especially if they aren’t editors. (Actors can be the worst, as they tend to be concerned with how they look on film, rather than the overall aesthetic.)

3) Read the script. Make sure you really want to make this script.

Not every script should be made into a film. Some scripts barely have enough content or action to cover a 10 minute short, let alone a 120 minute feature film. Some scripts are just horribly written.

Think of the standard distribution curve; going by that, most scripts are mediocre, some are terrible, some are good. You’re going to need to reject the majority of material with which you are presented if you’re only going to make the best scripts into films.

Find an uninterested party (not your close friends, family, or actors who would be potentially involved in the production of it) and describe the plot. If it doesn’t interest them, there’s a very good chance that you may not have a wider audience appeal than your group of friends and family.

I should point out, at this part of this article, that not everyone makes films for mass audience appeal. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. Find someone who specializes in the niche you’re targeting, and ask them for their opinion. It could save you quite a few weeks/months/years on a real turkey of a project.

4) Good actors are not easy to come by. Make sure you find them.

Actors’ skill levels also follow the standard distribution curve. Be picky about working with them, if at all possible.

Actors have the very unique ability to completely ruin a scene if even one of them is out of character or “off their game”. Even non-speaking background roles can break the illusion that is your film, so try to be selective in choosing actors. Unless you need a character with a flat affect, don’t use an actor who can’t produce anything other than that affect.

Make sure your actors get a chance to run their lines together and “block” scenes before the day when their scenes are shot. Most actors tend to produce better group dynamics when they’ve had a chance to prepare their material (which is one of the reasons why the \ater actors prepare so far in advance and practice together).

Speaking of theater actors – they’re a great source for acting talent. Most communities have community theaters, and they are usually stocked with a wide variety of talented characters actors. There are some differences between film and theater work, but their “acting chops” are worth the extra work that needs to be put in.

5) Do not rely on inserts for the bulk of your movie.

There’s nothing wrong with insert shots; they tend to add a bit of spice and variety, as well as giving your editor something to cut away to if there’s some continuity issue between takes.

Do not rely on them for a majority of your film. They tend not to tell much of a story, and overuse not only gives a feeling of claustrophobia, but is one of the telltale signs of low-budget indie films.

Like many other suggestions I’ve made here, this isn’t an ironclad rule. There are many art films which make extensive use of insert shots to tell a story in a particular way.

6) There is a setting on your lenses other than “wide open”.

Ever since “bokeh” made its first appearance in the photographer/cinematographer lexicon, there has been a proliferation of extensively thin DOF shots. These can be used to great artistic effect, and can produce beautiful images – but, much like other tools in a cinematographer’s toolbox, it shouldn’t be the only tool you use. All of your characters should generally be in focus when they’re having a conversation in most circumstances. Constantly focus-pulling between two characters because you have a tissue-thin DOF tends to give off the impression that you have no lighting budget, or that you don’t know how to use your lenses.

On top of all of that, most lower-cost lenses tend to not be as sharp as higher grade lenses when they’re used wide-open. If you’re a fan of cheap Rokinon / Samyang glass, it performs quite well – but not necessarily across the entire frame wide open. Stopped down to f/4, it compares favorably with high-end Zeiss and Canon glass, so if you can stop it down a bit further, you’ll get a better quality image.

7) Time: There’s never enough of it. Corollary: The enemy of the good is the perfect.

There seems to be an inverse relationship between location availability and the time consuming nature of the shots in a scene. I have tended to find that when I spend more time setting up a shot, I will get better results than when I “run and gun” the shots in a scene. (Like every other concept, this has exceptions.)

Try to make sure you’ve metered and scouted your location properly before placing actors in front of the camera. You’ll avoid a lot of time-wasting adjustment and blown takes, which will translated into better looking shots and a better end product.

As far as “the enemy of the good is the perfect”: it is rarely going to be perfect. Deciding how much time to spend on that one insert may be the thing which keeps you from rushing through the rest of your limited time at a location. This is as much about time management as anything.

8) Prepare.

I’ve joked that my pre-production time on a film is longer than the actual filming time. For the most part, this is actually the case.

Walking onto a set with no idea of what you’re going to do or how you’re going to do it will lead to amateur errors, rushing, and a poor end product. Preparation, be it storyboarding, notes, location scouting, or anything else, is going to save you from some of the easy pitfalls which produce a cheap end product.

9) Listen.

You’re one person in (presumably) a fair sized crew of people. If you’re directing something, you’re the decision maker. You’re the one who has to decide how something is to be done and who is going to do it, or at least delegate that to someone else.

If you’re a cinematographer/DP, you’re responsible for the visual aspect of the film. You have to make the decisions as to how the cameras are set, or at least delegate that authority.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t listen to other people. Some of my favorite shots have come from suggestions I’ve gotten from other people. The ability to look past your own hubris and take suggestions under consideration from other people can open up your ability to shoot or direct better – and that shines through in the final product.

10) Do not assume you can “fix it in post”.

“Fix it in post” has been a joke amongst my crew, since I’m not a big fan of the filmmaking ethos centered around correcting everything in editing and post production.

(I’m shooting with a rig which requires a fair amount of post production to bring the footage to its final form, and to be clear, I don’t dislike or hate post production. I dislike the idea of relying on it for things which you could have done on set.)

Blood effects are a great example. Any monkey with a licensed (or unlicensed) copy of After Effects can make a blood spatter effect, but it’ll look like a low budget horror movie. If you’re going to do blood, do it with practical effects. Squibs aren’t difficult to design, even on virtually no budget. People have made them with such inventive materials as condoms and fishing line. Just because we’ve entered an age of digital cinematography doesn’t mean we have to throw out practical effects.

11) “One more for safety.”

My cast and crew have been so used to me saying this phrase that they gave me an etched mug with it on the side. No matter how well you think you’ve gotten a scene on film, there’s always a chance that you’re missing something. There is no worse feeling in editing than when you realize that you’re missing something in one of your takes and have no fall back.

Take the extra few minutes and get another take of that “perfect take”. You’d be surprised at how often you can avoid embarrassing cuts and amateur looking transitions.

12) Context: understand when you’re doing something just for the sake of doing it.

“Quadracopter” is a latin word which means “I need to wow my financial backers”. Well, not really, but it could be, judging from the way they’re used.

Just because you have a certain rig or piece of equipment does not mean that you should necessarily use it for everything you do. If you’re adding a shot specifically to impress people instead of telling a story, your film is going to suffer.

Sometimes you need a crane shot. Sometimes you need an overhead shot. Sometimes you need a snorricam shot. There are plenty of things you can do, but your job as a filmmaker is to be able to determine when you should.

Film is about emotional connection and content. If you have a hollow work with a lot of style, you’ll impress a certain crowd, but it’ll be devoid of any sort of deeper meaning. Stick with your artistic integrity for as long as you can – you can always make money, but once you’ve sold out your integrity, you don’t get it back.

13) Equipment hubris: never assume your equipment will save you or make you better.

The most important piece of equipment you have as a cinematographer is your eyes; everything else is much, much less important. I’ve seen films shot on RED EPIC bodies which look like a high-schooler shot them, and films shot on DSLRs which rival anything out of Hollywood.

Never assume that a new equipment purchase will make you a better cinematographer. The only thing that will do that is time.

“Equipment hubris”, as I call it, leads to bad and amateur shots. If you just received a new rig, make sure to log some hours using it before you bring it on set. Screwing up a basic setting on a camera is a very easy way to destroy an entire day’s worth of filming … or more.

14) The low-light disease, or why I learned to light and stopped hating my work.

With the rise of the Sony A7 series, with ISO sensitivities of 100k+, and other low-light and no-light cameras, we’ve also seen the rise of the no-lighting production.

Hollywood lights the hell out of their films. Despite certain films trying to portray a low-budget look, you can bet that they have a tractor-trailer full of lights and lighting modifiers making each shot look good.

Stop assuming that you need speed boosters, faster lenses, and tricks to shoot with less light. In all but a few cases, you need to add more light, not make your camera accept more light – and that’ll take away the “cheap” quality which comes from not using enough light. ETTR is the way to go – as long as you don’t blow your highlights, you can always decrease the amount of light in coloring/post-production, if you’ve taken that into account ahead of time.

15) Coloring / color grading.

Coloring / color grading used to be referred to as “color correction”, but now that so much more is done with it, “coloring” or “color grading” works as well as anything else.

Hollywood films go through a round of color grading with people who spend their professional lives doing it. You can’t just “apply a LUT” or “apply a curve” to something and have it magically look like a million dollars, any more than an Instagram filter can make a picture look better instead of just making it look like it was taken with a terrible camera from the 1970s.

Color grading / coloring is a time-consuming, iterative process. It’s awful to do, but it’s a necessary evil. It allows you to correct lighting problems (assuming that your base footage has enough latitude to withstand the corrections, of course), change color temperature, punch certain colors, and even correct moving objects or flaws in the camera. It also allows a final look and feel to be given to your project, which can help take away that indie low-budget feel to your film.

Color grading / coloring won’t save a terrible film, but it can take a good film and give it a look and feel which will keep it from being dismissed as looking amateur.

16) Framing: stop cutting off peoples’ heads.

One of the things that immediately jumps out at me about low-budget film projects, and cheap cinematography in general, is framing. If you’re not paying attention to the framing of your subject material, the edge of the frame becomes a knife which slices at your subjects and surroundings.

If you’re going to use a special aspect ratio / crop bars, make sure that you’re framing according to those bars. I had a project on which I had DP’d where the decision to adjust aspect ratio was made after principal photography had concluded. This left a bunch of shots where the actors looked decapitated. These are all things to consider before you choose your focal length, camera position, et cetera.

17) Don’t ask for money unless you really, really need it.

This is more of a personal pet-peeve. Pay your crew if that’s your arrangement. If you’re paying one actor, you pay them all. If you’re doing a senior thesis project, or a festival piece, or something else which isn’t slated for distribution, please do NOT go on kickstarter, gofundme, or any of the other funding/begging sites to ask for 10-50k$ of money. If you end up with a chunk of bad publicity and unhappy financial backers, it’s going to reflect poorly on your film.

(I’m aware that this isn’t a “look and feel” thing, but permit me my slight digression from the topic at hand; I feel that it is important enough to mention.)

Modifying Computar 12.5mm C-mount Lens for M4/3

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For whatever reason, there seems to be a serious dearth of information regarding lens modification on the C-mount Computar 12.5mm f/1.3 lens. I am going to share my experience modifying this lens, in the hope that it will prevent other people from having the same issues which I have encountered.

As a quick disclaimer, you really should not blame me if you break your lens, or if it eats your children or animals. This either will or will not work for you. You have been warned.

You will need:

  • File or dremel
  • Very small screwdriver (flathead)
  • C-mount to M4/3 adapter (I used the Fotoasy one)

1) File down the edges of the back mount a little. I do not think that I can stress “a little” enough. If you file this down too much, you will run into the same issue I ran into, and will break the back metal piece of your lens. I used a triangular file and edged it down to a nice smooth surface.

2) Unscrew the three screws at the base. This will remove the metal back of the lens.

3) Loosen the center column of the lens. You will see a small lens assembly protruding from the back of the rest of the lens. Loosen it a few turns. This is a trial-and-error thing, so be patient.

4) Reattach the backing with the screws. The lens assembly should be protruding further from the back of the C-mount to M4/3 adapter, when attached.

5) Attempt infinity focus. Attach to the camera, attempt focus.

If infinity focus is not attainable by step 5, repeat steps 2-5 until it is.

If you end up breaking or cracking the rear C-mount, you can permanently attach the lens to your C-mount to M4/3 adapter using some solder or hot-glue.

Good luck!

DIY $7 Film Slate

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I can’t claim credit for this one – my extremely talented and resourceful production designer got the idea to use an inexpensive slate “prop” and modify it slightly to allow the use of erasable whiteboard markers. These are usually a bit more than seven dollars, and we didn’t have the time to wait for one to arrive in the mail for the shoot in question.

There are only two pieces of “hardware” which are required to make this, along with a few pieces of duct tape, a sharpie, a ruler, and whatever whiteboard markers and erasers you are planning to use on the finished slate.

You will need to buy these two items from a Five Below discount shop:

Apologies for not giving a product link for the slate prop – I had trouble finding it on the Five Below site. I assure you, it does exist…

Assembly Instructions

  1. Break the frame of the whiteboard, and remove the cardboard backing and the broken frame. You should now have a piece of unencumbered whiteboard.

  2. Position the whiteboard over the slate prop’s useless slate writing. You can’t write on the slate with chalk, so it is pretty useless as-is. Center it as best you can, then use strips of duct or gaff tape to attach the whiteboard surface to the clapper.

  3. Use the ruler as a straight-edge to draw sharpie lines to denote the different markable areas on your slate. In the best penmanship you can muster, label them with the sharpie.

It is a pretty simple hack, but quite effective for giving your editor a bit of A/V sync assistance.

Boom!

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There are quite a few guides, tutorials, videos, and other resources on how to capture usable boom audio. Most of these have a few usable sections with a bunch of fluff or useless information accompanying them. This is my attempt to compile a “quick guide” to capturing usable boom audio, assuming you don’t have a competent audio engineer in your employ (which I highly recommend). Audio is half of your deliverable product, as a cinematographer, so you should make sure that you capture the highest quality audio possible.

Proximity, Reflections, and the Inverse Square Law

Much like light, sound decreases exponentially as you move away from the source of the sound. One of the first things which you will realize when starting to capture audio is that it sounds increasingly awful as you move further away – which can be attributed to two things:

  1. As you move further away, relative volume decreases. The background sounds (“noise floor”, for anyone trying to be technical), consisting of both the present background noises and any noises introduced in the recording process, increase when you increase the sensitivity of your recording equipment. As the source sound becomes quieter, bringing sound up in post production will also increase that noise. (If anyone says “just record some room tone”, ignore them; it won’t help you if your source recording is terrible, since that’s only a solution if you can gate and isolate the primary sounds in post.) This is one of the compelling reasons why boom operators are utilized; they allow a recording to be made from closer to the source.

  2. Reflections. Light bounces off of everything, as we are taught, and we have to be careful to deal with those reflections, in terms of color, brightness, et cetera. Sound does the same thing. It bounces off of surfaces, but because sound travels slower than light, we notice when it takes a few milliseconds longer for sound to arrive at our recording device. Even more insidious, those reflections (which take on different properties and sounds based on the materials on which they are reflecting) can sound louder than the original sound – which will make your recording sound terrible. The closer you are in proximity to the source, the softer the reflections will be, in comparison to the original sound.

Polar/Pickup Patterns

Not all microphones, or even microphone types are created equal. They all have different “polar patterns” which describe the areas of sensitivity which the microphones use to pick up sound. When attempting to capture dialog, for example, an omnidirectional microphone would be a poor choice, as it picks up sound equally from all directions, taking away the ability to create greater isolation for the primary sound source. The most popular boom microphone type is the “shotgun” microphone, which has a very directed polar pattern, allowing specific isolation of the sound in question.

Levels, Peaking, and Limiting

Getting the recording level just right is one of the more tricky parts of recording external boom audio. If the audio is too high, “peaking” will occur. Peaking is the phenomenon which can be heard when the top part of a sinusoidal wave (which naturally recorded sounds have) becomes squared when the top of the wave is clipped by hitting the top limit for recording signal. If the audio is too low, the signal-to-noise ratio will be too low, and bringing the signal up to a usable level will bring the sound floor up to an obscenely loud level – making gating nearly impossible to perform.

To properly deal with this, you need to adjust the signal level so that the loudest sound comes in under 0 dB, which is where most recorders “peak”. If certain sounds surpass 0 dB, some audio recorders have the ability to apply a “limiter” effect, which will push the sound level back down to a usable value as it is recorded. It’s not a desired effect, but it can save you from clipping.

As you’re adjusting audio levels, you’ll see a constantly fluctuating level of audio when no primary sound source is active. This is the “sound floor”, and should be as far away from the bulk of the primary sound levels as possible.

Portable Recording Devices

I recommend avoiding the Tascam DR-40 unit unless you’re positive that you are using a balanced microphone. It tends to have a weird firmware issue which produces a strange clicking sound (almost impossible to remove) every quarter of a second when presented with an unbalanced microphone. If you’re worried about this, go for the Zoom H4n. It’s a bit more expensive, but it seems to handle less expensive microphones in a more able fashion, as well as having signal limiting and a host of other interesting features.

Compression and Formats

Most digital recorder units will record, at a minimum MP3 and WAV formats. WAV is an uncompressed audio format, which means that it takes up more storage space than a compressed format, but retains all of the information captured (at the resolution captured). MP3 is a compressed format, using a psycho-acoustic model, which means that it drops pieces of information which it figures we aren’t going to be able to hear. MP3 files take up a smaller amount of space compared to the same resolution WAV files – but that comes at the cost of throwing some of the information out. MP3 @ 192kbps or above tends to have enough information for most uses.

Equipment

There’s no “correct” equipment which you need to purchase to be able to capture boom audio properly. There are, however, a few piece of equipment you’re probably going to need.

  • Extendable Boom Pole. It’s tempting to go with a converted painters’ pole, but trust me – it pays to go with a decent boom pole. This is mainly due to the additional noises which can be generated by swinging around a makeshift boom pole. I personally recommend the On Stage MBP7000 boom pole for budget operators. It doesn’t have an internal mic cable, but it works very well.
  • Microphone Cable (XLR). This is an easy place to skimp for some people, but you don’t want to pick up outside noise, so make sure you go with a shielded XLR cable which is a few feet longer than the maximum size of your boom pole, fully extended.
  • Clip / Shockmount / Zeppelin / Windscreen. You need something to isolate the microphone from the wind, vibration, and other distorting effects of the environment, which would distract from otherwise relatively clean audio. Shockmounts can be had for relatively little, as can windscreens. A zeppelin can cost a bundle, unless you make a DIY one – but they produce very clean-sounding results.
  • Wire clips / wraps. Either some electrical tape (a cinematographer’s best friend, after gaffe tape), or some inexpensive bobble hair ties (available at most dollar stores) will allow you to keep the XLR cable near the pole – otherwise you may find it dropping into frame at the most inopportune times.
  • Microphone. There is a great deal of conjecture over the “best” budget microphone to use. The most important things to consider are the polar pickup pattern, the signal-to-noise ratio, and the frequency response of any microphone you’re testing.
  • Portable digital recorder. Covered in the portable recorder section.
  • Headphones. A set of headphones, preferably full cup earphones, are essential to monitoring the sound for disturbances and/or interruptions. My favorite pair is the Sennheiser HD-280 PRO, as they’re relatively inexpensive (under 100 USD), and produce a fairly accurate reproduction of live audio.
  • Storage media. Make sure you don’t buy off-brand media cards. Try to stick with SanDisk and Lexar media, if you can. The trick is that these companies generally tend to QA their products a bit more rigorously than most off-brand manufacturers. This can make the difference between usable audio and a very upset director.

Technique and Directionality

Rather than iterate all of the techniques involved in actually operating a boom mic rig, and keeping in mind that pictures are worth a thousand words…

Conclusion

Audio is half of your deliverables – so make sure your boom operator knows how to deliver the best possible audio to your audio engineer for post production. Good luck!

BMPC4K Workflow With Premiere and Resolve

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There are a number of “accepted” workflows for going between Adobe Premiere (as an NLE) and Davinci Resolve (for color correction/grading) for BMPC4K footage. I am going to detail the workflow I have been using, which should be useful both for the BMPC4K camera, as well as the BMPCC and BMCC cameras.

  1. Preparation. Make sure your camera is producing footage at the 23.98 fps frame rate, rather than 24 fps. “True” 24 fps is not quite the same thing as the “24P” frame rate we are used to.

  2. Load your media onto your workstation.

  3. Create simple proxies. Using prores-proxies, create “cheap” lower quality proxies encoded using the H.264 codec in Quicktime files. I have been experimenting with using the “.mpg” extension to force Premiere to use its own internal Quicktime decoder, rather than the relatively dodgy external one, but the basic process is the same.

  4. Edit. Using the proxy files, edit your footage in Premiere. You do not have to bother with any fancy transitions or effects yet – just perform a basic edit.

  5. Export to Resolve. Export a “Final Cut Pro XML” file, using the File > Export menu option.

  6. Create a new Resolve Project. Open Resolve, and create a new project. Import the original files (not the proxies) into your media pool.

  7. Import the XML from Premiere. Import the “Final Cut Pro XML” export, with “Automatically import source clips into pool” deselected. This last part is very important, as it forces Resolve to use the clips you already have in the Media Pool.

  8. Color Grade. Perform your color grade in Resolve.

  9. Export. In the “Delivery” tab, select the whole timeline, choose “Easy Setup”,and select “Final Cut Pro XML Round-Trip”. Change any options here to your liking.

  10. Import Roundtrip XML in Premiere. Import the Round-Trip XML file in Premiere. This will bring in all of the graded footage.

  11. Perform the remainder of your edits. Tweak your footage, copy or create your title cards, etc.

This is a very basic overview of my current BMPC4K + Resolve + Premiere workflow right now, and it may change.

48 Hours With the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K

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This year, my team (Shoot the Moon Films), entered the 2014 Boston 48 Hour Film Festival for the first time. It’s an interesting experience, going from genre and parameters to fully formed script, to planning and preproduction, to shooting and execution, to editing, scoring, grading, and full post-production in a single weekend. I’ve learned a lot about working with the BMPC4K camera in that time. I am going to iterate over some of the more important things that I learned over the weekend.

Overheating

This simply did not happen. I had heard some horror stories about the camera body breaking or overheating after long periods of filming, but even in direct sunlight for significant periods of time, I did not find this to be the case. My EOS body used to overheat more than this one…

ND filters

My Tiffen 77VND was indispensible. If I didn’t have that single piece of equipment, every exterior shot would have been very, very different. I wanted a medium DOF and a standard shutter rate for my exterior shots – which meant that the sunlight had to be stopped down. The variable ND filter delivered perfectly.

EVF

The Cineroid was a life-saver. I do not think I would have done as well without its superior focus-peaking, crop indications, etc. The only feature sorely missing from the EVF4CSS is waveforms/scopes, which would have been a bit more useful than eyeballing the full extent of the dynamic range.

V-mount batteries

If you are not turning your camera off between takes, you are going to need more than one battery for a day-long shoot. Do NOT skimp on a V-mount battery charger. They take a very long time to trickle charge, so make sure you have a rapid charger. Also, spares. They may be expensive, but having to wait on a battery charging could blow a shoot.

Audio

This is less a “thing” with the BMPC4K body, and more of a general observation. You cannot skimp on sound. You just can’t. You can always rely entirely on tight OTS shots and other closeups and use on-camera mics, but it shuts off an entire avenue of creative wider shots. A boom operator is not just your buddy holding a mic on a pole – they need to know what they are doing, otherwise you could be pushing very substandard audio into post-production. Especially on a tight time limit, this can make the difference between making a deadline, or having truly horrendous sound.

Also, get a really competent audio engineer. Preferably a really anal-retentive one with an insane attention to detail. Even if you have perfect video, really crappy audio can break the illusion of your film. DO NOT SKIMP. SERIOUSLY.

That PA or AD – you need them more than you think

If someone is not taking copious shot notes, you are going to find yourself up at some ungodly hour, digging through footage for that shot that you know you got. Save yourself the trouble, and have someone taking care of all of that.

Proxy files

I used a new method of creating intermediate proxy files for editing, since Premiere was not very cooperative in directly loading the Prores files from the camera. I made my code public in a project called prores-proxies. This little trick made sure that, instead of having to render all of my footage out at the Davinci Resolve speed of 3-6 fps (on my non-Red-Rocket workstation), I was able to render it to proxies at about full speed (which was about 24fps). Without this, I wouldn’t have been able to edit the footage without several footage drops during the day – if at all – during the limited timeframe I had to do so.

Premiere Quicktime support on Windows is dog food

Something is wrong with it. I have no idea why, but the QT decoder decided to “give up the ghost” quite a few times during editing. There is supposedly a renaming hack, which allows the Premiere internal decoder to handle the files, but I was not privvy to this information during editing. I will update my documentation and/or author a post on this at some point in the near future, as it is VERY irritating.

Too many cooks

One person edits. Someone can assist them, but you need to have one editor, who makes the decisions as to what goes into your final product. If you try to “edit by committee”, you may end up with a very tired and frustrated primary editor, and the possibility of some very incomprehensible footage.

If your editor and director are not the same person, the director sits in with the editor to make decisions, where they need to be made. Ideally the script notes, etc, provide enough information to the editor to perform his job.

Also, do not get caught up in reviewing dailies if you are taking part in a time-sensitive competition. This is a recipe for disaster.

Coloring

Even shooting with 10-bit ProRes 422 HQ, the advantage over H.264 DSLR footage is immediately apparent. There is a lot of latitude for coloring and correction, which would simply not be possible with the same level of output quality with H.264.

I ended up performing a manual grading (as in, no LUTs or presets) for the project we did, and I am very satisfied with the end result.

Grain

I love the “film grain” that the sensor on this camera produces. I am sure that I have mentioned it in earlier posts, but it really does give that organic film look to your output.

Do not use services like Google Drive for your deliverables

They tend to like to really hurt you in upstream speeds – only when you are on serious deadline. A better alternative for large media files is to set up btsync on both sides, and transfer with far more efficiency. You will be glad that you did it.

Too many hats … sink ships?

There is serious temptation to wear more than one hat. Hell, we all wear more than one hat on most small sets. The issue comes when you end up wearing three or four (director, cinematographer, editor, colorist), and realize that you do not get to sleep until everything is “out the door”. Delegate. Find people who are good at this stuff, and let them do it. You do not have to be good at everything, just find people who are.

Conclusion

I had a good time – but I could have been less stressed out, if I had known some of this in advance.