Filming in the Middle East

Matt Davis:

Pete Burns runs a great blog full of info from the front line. I had to re-blog this as he nails the pitfalls of even getting to your Middle East Assignment. I’m not going to fly Gulf Air again, and the negation of a (costly) Carnet is great info. I’ve had that on a Moroccan assignment. As for filming Exteriors at lunchtime, yes – I was draping my kit in tin foil and hotel flannels when filming outdoors! Wish I’d followed the same precautions myself…

Originally posted on Pete Burns Lighting Cameraman:

I’m just back from a shoot in the Middle East where I filmed four countries in four days; Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Bahrain.

Not a lot of information was available with regards filming in these countries, what was available I must admit was fairly vague. So I’ve put together my experiences, which will give you an insight into filming in the Middle East.

UK HM Customs and Excise

This is the easy bit.
You’ll need ‘Pro-forma Equipment List’ also known as a Duplicate List. It’s a list of the equipment you are traveling with and should include the manufacturer, model number, serial number, the country of manufacture and the value of all of the kit. The list should be printed on a letterhead.

The only other form you will need is an HM Customs and Excise Returned Goods Relief Form C & E 1246. This form is a declaration…

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Chromakeyers – who’s the daddy?

UPDATE: Download the original footage (130 MB) and try in your keyer.

Shooting greenscreen is one thing. Editing it is another. A good key is balanced between the rushes and the keyer, and not all keyers are born equal.

I do like FCPX – it’s quick, efficient, fun and effective. I wanted to love Premiere Pro, but FCPX is a modern editor. However…

When it comes to chromakey, FCPX has a good built-in option. It’s so good, many FCP7 plug-in writers have shied off trying to compete with it. Yes, it’s very, very good. However, it has a ‘look’ all its own, and however much I raised my game from the ‘perfect DV chromakey storm’ – shooting well-lit interviews on DVCAM and using DVmatte Pro – I could not improve the quality I got from shooting HDV, using Zmatte, and shrinking the results to standard definition.

So I’ve been making do with FCPX’s internal keyer. It’s really ‘not bad’ but doesn’t seem to reward good lighting and and good chromakey backgrounds like I’ve been used to. I’ve kept quiet because I’m publically happy with the results, but underneath, I’ve been seething.

Enter Premiere Pro. I’ve had battles with it. I love it because it ‘gives good demo’ but in reality it’s been a right royal pain, it’s full of lethargy, it seems to operate at the lowest common denominator, so often it’s the wall – we hit a wall where Premiere needs to do something and there’s not enough resources, space or time to let it happen.

But whereas FCPX is about doing things quick and cheap and fast, like a little Fiat runabout, Premiere does actually shrug its shoulders when faced with a task, and then leans on it hard.

So here’s the beef:

Premiere Pro is significantly better at doing chromakey than FCPX. Totally. Utterly. Look – we fed it with the best we can do, 4:2:0 and 4:2:2. FCPX couldn’t really do much. In fact, it delivered a client visible ‘quality difference’ that made my high quality attempts disappear. Yay. Premiere has done a great job with the 4:2:0 material, and tried a little harder with the 4:2:2 material, and if the key had been tougher, it would have worked harder.

There are some gamma corrections to check, there is a spot of grit in the top left-hand corner. But it’s all about the edges, and on this point, Premiere Pro with its UltraKey wins hands down. Sorry FCPX, but you’ve been aiming at amateur stuff. We earn our wages by delivering professional results.

The Cameras of NAB 2014

If we think back to last year’s NAB, I remember seeing popup posters of the Black Magic 4K Production Camera and the Pocket Cine Camera the night before their launch. I remember thinking ‘this is a joke – a cunning deception to raise our hopes’ and today people are taking delivery of their 4K cameras.

So this year, I was excited to hear about AJA’s entry to the market – the CION.

UPDATE: AJA is PL only, posing a problem to owners of EF and Nikkor lenses. This is, for many of us, a bit of a show stopper. Happiness to AJA for choosing a standard, but they have effectively cut out their main audience – those of us who are upgrading from DSLR.

It looks great, their intro video is great, the price (considering…) is great. It looks like a really solid bit of kit. Well thought out, designed for professional use, a sort of pocket-money Alexa if you will, even though we haven’t seen the pictures.

I immediately started a little ‘savings’ pot – a stash of money where I’ll fund its purchase when I’m ready. I’ve already stated clearly that I will not buy another 8 bit camera (sorry Sony, with your cute Alpha 7S, and Atomos with your Shogun) and I really don’t want to buy a Panasonic GH4 and its own set of lenses. I’m happy that JVC are finally moving into the market of buyable cameras and acknowledge their choice of Micro Four Thirds, but I must move on.

So AJA’s Alexalookalike looks just the ticket. So excited!

Until, of course, those Aussies stroll up to the bar.

The Black Magic Ursa isn’t quite the Cion – it’s a giant (!) bear of a camera that has a 10″ flop-out screen. It has built in rail adaptors, it has a big handle, it has 3 big LCD screens, it screams ‘Production Department’ and all, and actually looks a little amateurish compared to the Cion. But it has something new and incredible:

The Ursa has swapable sensors.

That’s right, folks. You can buy the S35 EF mount edition. Later on, you can get a 2/3″ B4 sensor and mount. So in a few moments you’ve converted your big beefy Cinema camera into a big beefy ENG camera. You can have both a large S35 sensor mode with all your EOS lenses (or use Nikkors, or even opt for a PL mount S35 sensor – boggle!), and with a smallish investment and a little patience, have a 2/3″ B4 mount with your choice of ENG parfocal long range zooms.

Now, that’s worthy of investment!

Before we get all frothy at the mouth and loose at the wallet, we haven’t seen pictures (though both are promising 12 stops, ProRes 10 bit capture as well as raw, global shutter, et al), we haven’t got an actual shipping date (Black Magic are on the spot here), and it could all be show-stopping hype. But both AJA and Black Magic have effectively put the kybosh on many people’s purchasing decisions and both cameras offer – on paper at least – excellent value.

EDIT: More details came out about the camera. It’s 10 Kilograms with a lens and battery, so purchasers may want to think about their tripod heads and getting a good physiotherapist. Furthermore, it uses two C-Fast CF slots, which are quite expensive and don’t hold much footage when you’re shooting 10 bit 4K in an I-frame format like ProRes. A 128GB C-Fast card costs around $1,200 for 20 minutes of ProRes or 6 mins of raw. Come back, XQD cards, all is forgiven!

Right now, I’ll give the MDMA tip of the hat to AJA for the most desirable camera, but egad – the Ursa is so close behind and if they can deliver B4 they will win my vote. The GH4 was looking like the HVX200 of 2014 but may miss out to many users because of its Micro Four Thirds status.

Sony’s Alpha 7S was launched with great pizzazz, and is probably going to light fires under the 5D Mk3 market. But it’s a DSLR, and many of us have found that a DSLR just isn’t nice to use as a video camera if you’re being paid to deliver video. I think it’s excellent that Sony have included an S35 sensor crop and so your investment in S35/EF-S e-mount lenses is protected – you’re effectively getting a Canon 7D and 5D Mk3 in one body – and you have access to XLR audio through a special hot shoe with a £600 accessory. The body is tiny and it’s not hugely expensive. But it’s a DSLR style camera and I got on better with an AX100 than i did with an A7R when I had a chance to try lots of body styles.

So, welcome, AJA, to the camera market. You have a handsome product, but Black Magic is hot at your heals with interchangeable sensors. I trust AJA for its IO (which replaced a £35k Avid suite for me), and the Ki Pro (which replaced the Grass Valley things we were offered before). Your camera will always remind me of a pocket money Alexa and perhaps the comparison is deserved. But be aware of what Black Magic has done. The idea of swappable sensors is mind boggling.

Talk to the Badger

Badger SoftieHooray, Rycote have delivered my Badger wind-jammer! After a week that revolved around filming and editing talking heads and vox pops, it still struck home how aggressive and threatening a Sennheiser 416 can appear to interviewees when it’s hand held for interviews – like having a gun pointed at them.

This will break the ice, it’s cute and fun, and it’s REALLY good in the wind!

So we’re all on the same page, underneath that fake fur is a long microphone ‘pipe’ that’s sort of the ‘telephoto lens’ of the microphone world. If you use it outside, and the merest zephyr of wind plays across this long black thing, it creates a nasty rumble that drowns the interview with rumbles, bumps and that ghastly scratchy ‘audio overload’ interference that completely ruins your audio. So a wind jammer is Sine Qua Non outside, but can be redundant inside. In fact, it becomes more of an audio recorder’s codpiece. But in my previous post, I came to terms with why one should use a ‘fluffy’ or a ‘wind jammer’ indoors where it serves no purpose. But I digress.

Rycote will make you one to special order – no extra cost (thanks, guys!) but of course you’ll have to wait for it. Sure there’s skunks and zebras, but I like the badger – and especially considering that Rycote are in Gloucestershire, which was the epicentre of the Badger Cull Debacle – so, I feel this is in memoriam of the Badgers Who Fell.

To be clear, the badger effect only comes on strong at certain angles. This is not an anatomically correct badger. Don’t expect this to pass muster at a children’s puppetry party. But that’s the strength. It ‘hints’ at badgerness, but it’s still actually a proper pro-level bit of kit that will allow you to shoot outside with sensitive mics.

It’s not frivolous – just a little nod to those who get the joke. Of course, if I were shooting a drama or a difficult investigative journalism piece, this is not the thing to bring. But I shoot corporates. I shoot shiny, happy video full of shiny, happy people, and I’m looking forward to interviewing people with it. It? Him? Her? Should one name it? Or is that going too far?

Yes. It is. It’s just a socially acceptable iteration of the dead cat.

FCPX – partying with your Flaky Friend

Tart

UPDATE: Compound Clips, specifically splitting Compound Clips, and worst of all, splitting a compounded clip that’s been compounded, increases project complexity exponentially. Thus, your FCPX project quickly becomes a nasty, sticky, crumbly mess.

Which is a shame, because Compound Clips are the way we glue audio and video together, how we manage complexity with a magnetic timeline, and butt disparate sections together to use transitions. Kind of vital, really.

Watch these excellent demonstration videos from T. Payton who hangs out at fcp.co:

These refer to version 10.0.1, and at time of writing, were at 10.0.3, but I can assure you that we STILL have this problem (I don’t think it’s a bug, I think it’s the way FCPX does Compound Clips). We return you to your original programming…

Okay, report from the trenches: Final Cut Pro 10? Love it – with a long rider in the contract.

I’m a short-form editor – most of my gigs are 90 seconds to 10 minutes (record is 10 seconds and I’m proud of it). Turn up ‘Somewhere in Europe’, shoot interviews, General Views, B-Roll, get something good together either that night, or very soon afterwards, publish to the web, or to the big screen, or push out to mobiles and ipads…

This is where FCPX excels. As an editorial ‘current affairs’ segment editor, it’s truly a delight. I bet you slightly overshot? Got a 45 minute take on an interview that needs to be 45 seconds? Range based favourites are awesome, and skimming lets you find needles in a haystack. Need to edit with the content specialist at your side? The magnetic timeline is an absolute joy, and don’t get me started about auditioning.

It’s true: in cutting down interviews, in throwing together segments, and especially when arguing the toss over telling a given story, I’m at least twice as fast and so much more comfortable throwing ideas around inside FCPX.

But my new Editing Friend is a ‘Flaky Friend’.

She really should be the life and soul of the party, but somehow there’s a passive aggressive diva streak in her.

There are three things she doesn’t do, and it’s infuriating:

  • She doesn’t recognise through-edits – they can’t be removed, they are, to her, like cesarian scars, tribal tattoos (or so she claims), cuts of honour. We tell her we’re cutting soup at this stage, but no. ‘Cuts are forever’ she says, like the perfect NLE she thinks she is.
  • She doesn’t paste attributes selectively – it’s only all or nothing. ‘We must be egalitarian’ she croons. What is good for one is good for all, apparently. You can’t copy a perfect clip and only apply colour correction to the pasted clip – you must paste EVERYTHING, destroying your sound mix, needing extensive rework to your audio mix, and heaven help you if you change your mind.
  • She flatly refuses to accept that there is already a way we all do common things, and wants to do it her own kooky way. Making J and L cuts into a Tea Ceremony, blind assumption that a visual transition needs an audio transition, even if we’ve already done the groundwork on the audio… girl, the people who think you’re being cute by insisting this are rapidly diminishing to the point you can count them on your thumbs, and we do include you in that list.

So okay, she’s a good gal at heart. Meaning the best for you. But she needs to bail out and quit every so often, especially if you’re used to tabbing between email, browser, Photoshop, Motion et al. She’ll get all claustrophobic, and you’ll be waiting 20-40 seconds with the spinning beachball of death between application switches. It’s all a bit too much like hard work. ‘I can’t cope’, she sighs – and spins a beachball like she smokes a cigarette. We stand around, shuffling our feet as she determinedly smokes her tab down to the butt. ‘Right!’ she shouts at last. ‘Let’s get going!’

And yes, it’s great when things are going right.

But put her under pressure, with a couple of dozen projects at hand, some background rendering to do, it all gets very ‘I’m going to bed with a bottle of bolly’. I’m getting this an awful lot now, and I really resent being kept hanging around whilst she changes a 5 word caption in a compound clip that takes 5 FRICKIN’ MINUTES to change, I resent every minute of waiting for projects to open and close, and whilst it’s lovely to see her skip daintily through all that fun new footage, when it comes down to the hard work, she’s so not up to it…

I am twice as fast at editing in FCPX, but I am a quarter of the speed when doing the ‘maid of all work’ cleaning up and changes. It means that, actually, I am working twice as hard in X as I was in 7, just mopping up after this flakey friend who has a habit of throwing up in your bathtub and doing that shit-eating grin as they raid your fridge of RAM and CPU cycles.

Well, FCPX dear, my flaky friend, you’re… FIRED.

The Light Fantastic

Just back from a manic week, shooting in Beirut, Cairo, then to Cambridge and finally to Edinburgh. We were shooting documentary style, interviews and GVs (General Views) or B-Roll, and Cutaways. The schedules were fluid, the locations unseen, and everything needed to be shot at NTSC frame rates. Immediately, my favourite camera for this sort of job (Sony’s FS100) was out. Secondly, we needed a flexible lighting kit, but all kit needed to be portable, flexible and light.

Even in these days of extremely sensitive cameras, lighting is still an essential part of video work. Even if it’s a bit of addition with a reflector or subtraction with a black drape, you’re adapting the light to reveal shape and form and directing the viewer’s eye to what’s important to your story.

Of course, we can’t all travel with a couple of 7-Tonne lighting trucks full of HMI Brutes and Generators, or even a boxful of Blondes and Redheads. I’ve had a little interview kit of Dedos, Totas and a softbox with an egg-crate, but then these create a separate box of cables, dimmers, plugs, RCDs and stands, and whilst easy to throw in the boot of the car, it’s not exactly travel friendly.

I recently invested in a couple of 1×1 style LED panels, run off V-Lock batteries. These have been a revelation – the freedom to light ‘wirelessly’, and with enough brightness to do a dual-key two-up interview with three cameras has been great. I’ve got the entire kit into a Pelicase with stands, reflector, batteries and charger – but at a gnat’s under 30 Kg, it attracts ‘heavy’ surcharges when flown (and eye-rolls from check-in staff). Then add a tripod bag, then spare a thought for the sartorial and grooming needs of Yours Truly, and the prices go up, as do the chances of something going missing. Also, a stack of pelicases and flight cases lets everyone know that the Media Circus is in town. Such attention isn’t always welcome – especially from those in uniform.

So I’ve been shopping.

I’ve found some little LED lamps on eBay that clip together and run off the same batteries as my FS100. Add a couple of lightweight stands, and the Safari tripod, add a few yards of bubblewrap and a ‘Bag For Life’ full of clothing, all thrown into an Argos cheapie lightweight suitcase. I reckon the case is probably good for three, maybe four trips when reinforced with luggage straps, but getting three bags into one, and doing so under 20 Kg, is a very neat trick. No excess baggage charges, no additional overweight baggage charges, no trips to oversize baggage handling, no solo struggling with four bags…

Entire shoot kit including tripod and 3 head lighting.The six LED lamps and three stands allowed for basic 3 point lighting, and their native daylight balance meant that, for the best part, we were augmenting the available light in our locations. Even outdoors, 3 LED lamps bolted together, about 1.5 meters from the subject (and a foot or so above his eyeline) produced a beautiful result. Without the lamp, we’d have ‘just another voxpop’, but with the lamp, with the ability to bring his face up one f-stop from the background, we had a very slick shot. And because it’s all battery driven, we could do this outdoors, we could run around to different locations, and never have to worry about bashing cables – or even finding a power point that worked.

Now, there’s LED, and there’s LED. These were not Litepanels lamps, and there is a little bit of the ‘lime’ about the light. CRI was below 90, which isn’t very good. However, this was easy to cheer up using FCP-X’s colour board, and quite frankly most humans would not see the green tinge until I carefully point it out and do a ‘before/after’ – and even then, my clients weren’t in the slightest bit bothered – just thought I was being a bit of an ‘Artiste’.

We shot on my Canon 550D using the Canon 17-55 f2.8 IS zoom and a Sigma 50mm 1.4 in some of the smaller locations (to really throw the background out of focus). For GVs and B-Roll, the Image Stabilisation was essential for getting shots where we couldn’t take a tripod, or for working so fast a tripod would have been a liability. You’ll have to imagine standing at the edge of Cairo traffic, or wandering through back street markets – or filming buildings next to razor wire blockades guarded by soldiers…

So, the camera could be thrown in a backpack with three lenses, a Zoom recorder, a couple of mics, batteries, charger, a little LitePanels Micro ‘eye-light’ and of course the Zacuto Z-Finder. Everything else, including tripod, stands, lamps and chargers, plus clothing, go in the suitcase.

I really prefer the Pelicase, I love my 1x1s, I’m so glad to be back on the Sachtler head and using an FS100, but I’ve got my ‘low profile’ kit together now. And with the little panels using NP-F batteries (or 5x AAs), clipping together to make a key, or staying separate for background lighting, it’s a very flexible kit.

Two little quotes come to mind: at a MacVideo event a while back, Dedo Weigert (the DoP of Dedo lamp fame) asserted that lighting is not about quantity, but about quality. On a recent podcast, DoP Shane Hurlbut stated, in reaction to the sensitivity of cameras ‘not needing extra lighting’ that it was a DoPs duty to control light rather than to accept what’s already there. I’ve taken both of these to heart with portable LED lamps, as there’s no longer an excuse to shoot without.

PS: I’ll be doing some further tests with the lamps, and intend to make a video from the results.