A Stitch in Timelapse…

Timelapse, the process of apparently speeding up time, is something I seem to do a lot of. It can make the task of filming ‘watching grass grow’ subjects into something quite interesting. The EX1 has been great for this, especially its slow shutter tricks. But timelapse, by its very nature, takes time – and often one will want to be letting something happen in front of the camera whilst you can be covering other things. Getting another EX1 just for that seems a little, well, over the top. Ideally, we’d have another little camera with high quality imagery and long battery life to cover these situations.

I once had such a little camera – a Pentax Optio 720Z – which had a great party trick: it was a compact cam that could do timelapse. Stick it somewhere quiet, set it to take a photo every minute or so, and leave it. A while later, up to 99 high resolution images to import into QuickTime Player (File –> Open Image Sequence), select a good codec, and you have a four second 25fps movie you can import into Final Cut Pro, even pan and zoom around in true Ken Morse style.

Well, it got stolen (from the office, not on a timelapse job!). And there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth as I trawled shops both real and virtual trying to find a good replacement camera with a built in intervalometer (the thing that enables you to do time lapse). Sure you can buy separate boxes, but it all gets complicated and you have to remember to bring it and have enough power in it, and you’ll need the right model for your camera. Plus some way to attach it to your tripod or whatever. The little Pentax was so much simpler.

To cut a long story short, I’ve bought a second-hand Nikon D200 rather than a happy-go-lucky Nikon D40x – Rick will be shaking his head in distain as he’s Canon man. I’ve always liked Nikon, and the D200 came with a useful f2.8 17-55 lens, a separate battery pack and some other bits for about the same price. But imagine my joy of joys when perusing Ken Rockwell’s great site (http://www.KenRockwell.com) – turns out that the D200 has a built-in intervalometer!

Sadly, the interesting Nikon D90, which does 24fps HD albeit with exposure limitations, does NOT have an intervalometer, and neither does the Canon EOS 5D MkII – which would be of great interest to me if it did 25fps HD even though the price tag is somewhat scary. The price of a Canon EOS 5D with a couple of zooms isn’t far off the price of a 35mm adaptor with rails and some secondhand lenses, with the Canon producing a whole new look. I can imagine it being a brilliant talking-head and candid camera. But 30fps to 25fps conversion and audio recording issues are pretty tough to crack outside the indie film world. And lets be frank: the DSLR form factor isn’t really optimised for shooting video.

A stills camera that can shoot HD did seem an odd proposal for me, but I am warming up to the idea. Not as your main camera, not even as B-Roll, but in the same category as lipstick-cams, pole cams and the like: special purpose, ‘special sauce’ shots and sequences.

And I’d be sure to bring a decent stills camera to every shoot.

Thank goodness for a healthy dose of old-tech

I’ve recently finished a big project that, in its chosen field, will get a lot of exposure.

The client will deliver the programme at events, but there was a need to make it publicly available in a sort of social networking manner.

So, YouTube would seem a natural place to look. It’s recently revamped its quality and can handle HD (the project was shot at 720p).

Alas, many organisations block access to YouTube. Furthermore, it’s operating a strict 10 minutes or less policy, and our programme is longer.

Vimeo provides great quality, and has its own social networking side. More importantly, it has no duration issues. So long as you get the master file below a gigabyte, you’re on. Looks great, works great, but then we hit another snag.

Many of these hip new video services are using H.264 in Flash. ‘Well so they should!’ we say. Good modern format with a long life expectancy, scalable over different platforms and all that.

And totally reliant of Flash 9, in an age where most corporate PCs are clamped at Flash 8 with no option to upgrade. In response to phishing attacks, bogus websites installing spyware, unstable software updates and the rest, PCs used on corporate networks are returning to a locked down, non-upgradable, severely restricted state. And that has an impact on web video.

Bother. Where once I was all set for H.264, I’m retreating back to On2. Where once I was pushing 800kbps, I’m sinking back to < 512kbps. Despite the best intentions of many forward looking companies who are embracing FaceBook, YouTube and the social web milieu, B2B and ‘video watched at work’ isn’t marching forward quite as quickly as it did.

So if you need to find a public place to publish a video that people can watch at work because it’s Flash 8, check out Viddler.com. And if you know anyone in HR, http://is.gd/joRt

You got the look


The film look. That ellusive, ephemeral, desirable image we’re all after with our sub-$10,000 cameras trying to look like Panaflex or Arri with lenses that represent a years salary.

It’s highlights that don’t bloom, it’s shadows with detail. It’s the ‘not now’ 25p (24p) look rather than the hyper-reality of 50p or 50i. But more importantly, there’s a way that shadows record, highlights occur, the whole contrast isn’t some simple straight line. Shadows ramp up from black to visible. Highlights don’t burn out, they add little grace notes to the tone of the image.

For the last couple of years, we Z1 owners shot stuff to create this look in the edit. We under-exposed the footage to rescue the highlights. We engaged Black Stretch to ensure that the shadows didn’t disappear. We eschewed the CineGamma modes that the Z1 

I’ll have a go at a definition of the film look. It’s just ‘a’ definition, not ‘the’ definition, and hopefully it will stimulate some debate as there’s a lot of misunderstanding that the Film Look means 24p or CineGamma or other marketing check box.

So what makes the look IMHO? It’s a combination:

  1. Progressively recorded frames
  2. A frame rate within perceived motion but not within perceived flicker [1]
  3. A ramp up from black to dark tones that preserves detail yet produces rich shadows rather than a linear scale that makes shots look a little bland
  4. A ramp off the highlights, so the last few stops of exposure happen within a limited headroom, rather than going straight from pale to ‘super-white’.
  5. Big bokeh – these are the circles of confusion, the blobs of light that are totally out of focus in the background of a shot. In other words, shallow depth of field
  6. A richness of colours that don’t bleed out of their bounds – the Film Look neatly colours-in within the edges [2]
  7. Absence of artificial sharpening – those white edges round dark things and dark edges round light things that says CHEAP VIDEO
  8. A subtle ‘boil’ in areas of even tone, rather than the blockiness and banding of 8 bit video (so that’s why HVX200s are noisy!)

Okay. Now here’s the footnotes.

[1] The human eye tends to see motion from a series of stills from about 12-18 frames per second due to the persistance of vision. Why was the cinema known as ‘the flicks’? Because whilst we can perceive motion at that frame rate, our eyes perceive flicker in higher frame rates. It only peters off at about 40 frames per second, and quite frankly we’re much more comfortable with computer monitors at around 50-75 frames per second – or ‘Hertz’ as we should say.

So, do we increase the frame rate to the point where flicker is invisible? Could do, but that’s going to be expensive. Double the amount of flim to shoot, double the bandwidth of analogue video to record. Tell you what, let’s cheat! Let’s show every frame TWICE!

Heck, that’ll do it!

Ah, but whilst this may work really well for projected celluloid and for European TV, our US cousins have a bit of jiggery pokery to do when film moves to video. I’ll save that for another day, but the point is that 20-30 frames per second gives us a perception of motion that’s half-finished. And that’s the film look.

Because the frame rate of film – therefore the ‘Film Look’ – is half-baked, it requires a certain style of camerawork that avoids some nasty effects of such a slow frame rate. Pans, zooms and follow-shots require the sort of care that cabinet makers apply to dove-tail joints. You won’t see them, but they’re there – and if they weren’t there, the film would fall apart like badly erected flat-pack furniture.

[2] And that means high colour fidelity, usually meaning 4:2:2 but with better chips and optics, clever codecs and high definition, this is less of a deal breaking issue in most cases.

So there’s no simple formula to the film look.

And I’d argue that there’s a new look around the corner – Digital Cinema. Now that’s a goal worth pursuing. I’ve seen glimpses of it in 720p50, and 1080p50 and Red may stamp their mark as a desirable look.
So I get the feeling that the Film Look will soon be as quaint (grinning, ducking and running) as Black & White.