Just one Carnetto…

Almost time to depart on a shoot abroad. Nothing new with that perhaps, save for the fact this time we are shooting in South Africa as a two man team.

That’s meant having to do all the preproduction work that, in the past, has been somebody else’s responsibility – and I wasn’t looking forward to it.

Filming abroad requires a carnet (pronounced carnay), which serves as a sort of passport for your kit. You’re taking it out of your country and intend to bring it all back, not sell it. Therefore border and customs control want documentary proof that you’re not going to sell it, and a bond (a returnable pot of cash) to cover the potential loss of taxation revenue should you have a change of heart.

Every major item of kit, each microphone and Lens filter, is listed with serial number, weight, value, and country of manufacture. This needs to be sent to a carnet issuing authority (in my case, The London Chamber of Commerce) in advance of the trip so they can prepare it and stamp it officially. For a fee. Which I will come to in a moment.

All the values of your carnet kit are added up and a proportion of this is what you have to stump up up front as your returnable bond. Well, my kit tipped in at almost £15k, which meant I had to find £4k or so. Not a promise to pay, no. Actual hard cash. In their bank. Before I could have the paperwork.

Okay, so you can buy a bond for this for about £150, but that’s not returnable. I do happen to have the funds in my local bank (based in the biggest trading estate in the UK), so I went to see them. The staff and the manager hadn’t even heard of a carnet, let alone understand the need for a bond. So I spoke to my business manager. He found somebody who had heard of a carnet, but then tried to work out a cheap way of putting £4.5k in escrow rather than just handing it over. It cost almost as much as the non returnable fee.

I should point out that the client isn’t a huge multinational, and we are sort of duty bound to minimise costs. But it was a shame that the bank would cost so much and take so much time.

So I ended up paying the fee on top of the cost of the carnet – not cheap at over £250. All that for a sheaf of paperwork with a few perfunctory stamps. Wouldn’t it be easier to just not bother?

Well, if you do get stopped, that call for cash bond may happen at your destination. Try raising £4.5 cash in Morroco’s airport. I was stopped by UK customs returning from the US with a flight case and had the riot act read to me fir not having the paperwork, and if they had chosen to impound my gear, i’d also be liable for kit rental costs if I didn’t own it.

Then there was the lovely evening I spent in a customs office writing out the details of 12 camcorders used for a video making exercise somewhere hot and sunny. They were merciful because of a well connected ground agent on our party. Note I did not arrange the kit, I was there to edit but volunteered to carry them, and felt a sucker when I realised that nobody had got a magic green form.

Don’t get me wrong – having a carnet can lead to even more trouble. I flew with kit from the Canaries to the UK via Madrid as part of a huge crew. The local airport’s customs were closed for siesta do I couldn’t collect my return stamp. So we hoped we could do something in Madrid. During the transit, I raced around trying to find someone to stamp my paperwork (I speak no Spanish). And when I did, I was asked where the kit was. I mimed “in the plane” and pointed outside. He sighed deeply, held his head in his hands, glanced skyward briefly and stamped the carnet.

As it happened, it wasn’t on the plane. It arrived back in the UK almost a week later. But that is another story.

So, what’s the take home in all of this? Well first off, you’re aware of them. Do you need one for your trip? Within Europe, no. If I go to the US, South Africa or all the ther destinations that sign up to the international carnet, officially yes. If I am going to China, then something similar (but not a carnet) is required. Check. Your milage may vary.

So carnets are a serious bit of paperwork and you should know about them. They are expensive and infuriating, but a lot easier now with web creation and checking. You may be able to get away with it once or twice, or rely on a sweet smile, but one day it will go crunch. I’ve had my crunch day so I budget for it and just pay up. But I will put in a shout for London Chamber of Commerce here, who have been so very helpful. My initial dread of days of mindless form filling are now calling up a simple bit of boilerplate of presaved info on a web form.

And a pot of cash. Sigh.

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LED astray

I shoot a lot of stuff in windowless rooms of swish hotels, pressed into the service of Presentation Theatres. It’s a living. But just last week, whilst shooting in a very new venue next to St Pauls Cathedral, London, I was confused with a problem.

The lighting in some rooms appeared to strobe or flicker. In a subtle manner, not the big horrible flicker of bad Fluorescent or Sodium Vapour lighting. It was so subtle that I reckon many mortals would not have noticed it. I’ve tried to capture it even though the compression process has lessened its effect:

Well, at least you can see it in the viewfinder, rather than when viewing rushes back at home AFTER you can do anything about it. And if you can’t see the ripple effect in the initial shots, don’t worry. It’s just the Vimeo/YouTube compression. It IS very visible on the raw footage.

You’re not seeing things, it is there.

So in these situations, it seems that you can’t stop it, you can only lessen it. Slow the shutter down or turn it off. Experiment with the shutter – you might find a happy harmonic which lessens the effect. At least the compression process seems to minimise it.

Pimp my EX1

EX1 Genus DV matteboxIt’s almost a rite of passage. I now own a matte box, and it feels strange.

Matte boxes are exquisitely expensive for what they are. Explain to anyone the cost of this simple lens shade and slot mechanism and jaws will drop. Of course, they’re full of carefully machined parts, hand assembled to fine tolerances and built to serve for a decade or two of heavy use. But they’re still a lot of money – even the cheap ones.

On the list of ‘things to buy’, they’ve been way down on my list. Way, way down.

Seen on movie cameras and ‘portable studio cameras’, matte boxes have become an icon of ‘shooting for cinema’.

The matte box serves two main jobs: to stop stray light from hitting the lens which could cause flare and lower the contrast of a scene, and whilst doing that, holding filters in front of the lens.
As a rule, film cameras don’t have built-in filters. If you need to block the amount of light, you can’t just dial in some Neutral Density, you dig out an ND filter or two and shove it in front of the lens. If you need to correct for colour temperature, you can’t white-set film, you dig out a Colour Temperature filter (dare I mention Wrattens?). Then there’s ND Grads and polarisers which need to spin around the lens axis, and you may want a sort of contrast reducing filter to even out harsh lighting setups or flattering your interviewee with a light Pro Mist or some such.

So filters are okay, and matte boxes are required to handle all of this. But what about the video end of the market? More specifically, the folks shooting on DV and prosumer kit?

I’ve been a little suspicious of matte boxes. I’d prefer to use effects in post where there’s an undo facility. Having a huge lump of engineering at the front of an EX1 isn’t exactly going to help in hand-holding shots, and lets face it, there are times when it’s going to be nothing more than a Camera Cod Piece.

So fast forward to a couple of recent shoots. Building sites (such glamourous jobs). The EX1’s a great camera with a wide latitude, but a neutral grad would have been great to knock back the sky (overcast but vaguely interesting) whilst leaving the foreground (mostly mud) at a reasonable level. Then the sun comes out so we have glare on damp concrete, grass, you name it. Pola would have tamed it all.

I have screw-in filters, but they don’t fit wide angle adaptors, and to use a pola, I have to take the EX1 lens shade off, and suddenly sunlight hits the filter and I’m holding my hand just out of shot to shade it, and I’m left thinking… life is short. I need a matte box.

I’ve shopped around, looking at some ‘inventive’ solutions that assemble with velcro, slot together like a box, I’ve looked at cheap ones imported from India, second-hand ones that crop up from time to time, and the new ones from Vocas, Chroziel, Red Rock Micro, True Lens Systems, and had to choose between the TLS Kestrel and the Genus DV. The Kestrel was much lighter, felt better made, but didn’t play nice with the EX1. The Genus seemed to be designed around the EX1, working around the annoying Mic bridge over the lens. It fits the EX1 with Century 0.6 wide angle adaptor like a glove, and has adapted the trays so it will accommodate it. Like I say, it’s the perfect fit with the EX. I bought my Genus from TLS, who distribute it in the UK, and took up their offer of a Schneider filter starter pack which includes ND, ND Grad, Pola, Pro Mist equivalent, and a skin tone enhancer. I will probably only ever use the first three, but even then it’s cheaper to buy the set than to buy the 3 filters. Good deal.

So I’m set. I never thought I’d have to own a matte box, but now I do, ready for some more adventurous shoots coming up. It will be put to good use and improve the results of my wide angle adaptor outdoors.

Ah… But then we have a certain interviewee who shall remain nameless, who continues to be dismissive of an EX1 and has an unspoken yet obvious desire for a full on film setup rather than this guy with a little black sausage of a camera, and really wants to see a big long microphone in a furry blimp – indoors – with all the bells and whistles. And, you guessed it, a big lens shade with a bigger peak on the front (he meant the French Flag).

And therein lies the rub.

It’s not just Keifer Sutherland who can only give ‘a big performance to a big camera’. Some interviewees want it too.

As much as I hate myself for accepting this, that Matte Box is going to be used to pimp up my EX1 for certain interviewees, and it will probably do more service in that than in controlling and shaping light entering the lens. And I don’t care.