Just can’t shake the DSLR bug

I have a particular client who wants me to shoot interviews that must NOT look ‘corporate’ and slick. He wants natural, evocative ‘folk 16mm’ or ‘one man and his Bolex’ sort of stuff and is very keen on my DSLR work.

Well, today I finished up with a shoot – CURSING the bloody DSLR. It had overheated and wouldn’t play ball. Right in the last 10% of a slightly tense interview. I had been fighting the focus, I had been nursing the cards (now rare precious things due to use of Magic Lantern), and in the small airless and windowless room we had to film in (on a hot sunny day), I was struggling to see through the steamed up Z-Finder on these long 10 minute handheld takes.

It had started badly with a long trek from car park to venue with heavy kit, the briefest of recces to work out how we were going to film this, and there was very limited time to set up two cameras, lighting, audio, and props. Within 10 minutes, interviewee had arrived, and we were off.

What’s worse is that I was sure that there was something definitely up with the white balance, but I’d ‘done the right thing’ by taking a still and setting it as a custom white balance. I was fighting the urge to ditch the location and go outside to film there. I was fighting with the mental map of how to shoot this ‘casually’, and just let the situation ride whilst I kept the camera moving, the composition still and the subject in focus.

At the end of the shoot, as I walked back to the car, I swore that AS SOON as the FS100 is available with the Birger Mount, my little Canon is going to be retired to Stills duty. I want a proper viewfinder, I want proper white set I can trust, I want NO OVERHEATING. EVER.

Horrible, horrible, horrible nasty DSLRs.

I pounded the steering wheel on the way back. FS100 – the way forward. Birger Mount. I like the lenses, I like the IS, just hate using a Z-Finder (or anything like it), remembering to button on and off before you hit the 12 minute limit, and absolutely hate that ‘sorry guys, need to switch the cameras as the DSLR is on its Lunch Break.’ excuse.

And now I’m home, and I’m looking at the rushes – now that they’re all synchronised with beautiful 24/48 audio and the colour corrector has removed the blue tint. And…

It’s like 16mm film.

The EX1 shot is very competent. It’s technically wonderful, exciting, responds well to light. No problems at all.

But the DSLR image has soul and charm and charisma. It’s like my days with a Moto Guzzi T3 motorcycle. It was infuriating, you could see rust forming whilst waiting at traffic lights. I’m sure it did more miles on an AA rescue truck than under its own steam. One day I hired a VT500 (Guzzi was ill again) – the VT50 was the motorcycle courier’s 500cc standard mount by which all others were judged. It was better, faster, safer, more frugal, smaller engine, and had no bloody soul. It was a simple (but well engineered and leakproof) machine.

The Guzzi was, well, an emotion – a zephyr of memory and sensation encapsulated in aluminium and steel. When it was in a good mood, it transcended metal and became something almost alive. Trouble is, it broke throttle cables, seemed incapable of holding its oil in, and if you did a particularly sharp right turn, the electrics cut out.

But my happiest motorcycling memories come from the Guzzi.

However, I’m not shooting for pleasure, I am shooting for profit. Time to think like a courier rather than a tourer.

I don’t need to make my Canon match my EX1R, I need to make an FS100 or AF101 look like a DSLR.

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FCP-X – from ‘the editor’s NLE’ to ‘the content creator’s editor’?

The new version of Final Cut Pro has been announced, but we don’t get to play with it until June. Whilst the wild speculation is over, the Mac editing community still has to sit on the fence for a while whilst we find out just how revolutionary the new FCPX is.

Don’t get me wrong – FCP really needs a full re-write and rethink. FCP has been broken for a long time: nesting sequences can be a hairy experience. Font handling is so bad, I have to use Motion for lower thirds. Some fonts just didn’t even show up! FCP was so single-tasked you’d lose huge chunks of work time just to render out a finished file. Memory was so badly used, projects over 40 minutes in length got wobbly, requiring you to split your programme up. Managing bins became a zen like experience as dragging a finder folder into your bin didn’t make a link to that folder – any changes to the contents had to be done in both the finder and in FCP. FCP is riddled with little inconsistencies like this.

So, FCP needs a change.

However, there are times when the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. Final Cut Pro is a ‘professional’ package – people earn money with it. People build businesses around it. Large amounts of money are at stake based on the way a bit of software works. Muck around with the fundamental way a bit of pro software works, and it will affect the ability of a swathe of people to put food on the table. Okay, that’s a little too melodramatic, but you get the picture.

Another way of classifying ‘Professional’ software – for me at least – is to denote an acceptance that there are many ways of doing something. If I have problematic audio, I can choose the most appropriate combination of application and plug-in, rather than hand over the responsibility to the application.

For example: audio compression is a pretty standard need for voiceovers. FCP has access to a couple of compressors, albeit rather simplistic and built on an interface made of string and clothes pegs. Over time, I switched to the lovely iZotope Ozone 4 which admittedly costs almost the same as FCPX, but replaces many thousands of pounds’ worth of hardware to give the sound I want.

It’s not just that – I’ve invested a LOT of money in plug-ins that are essential to the work I do – colour correction, compression, animation, motion tracking and so on. I’ve invested in them because the raw tools in FCS weren’t up to the job.

Neither do I want Pro software to hide the annoying little details from me – I do need to know if I’m rendering in YUV 10 bit over RGB. I do obsess over little details that differentiate my work from others on both a creative and a technical level.

So, if the new version has some jaw dropping tricks to stabilise video footage and clean audio, can I please use the software I’ve already got to do that rather than rely on Apple’s implementation?

I see an interesting shift: Adobe Premiere used to be the ‘domestic’ editing application whereas FCP seemed squarely set on the Pro market as a serious choice over Avid. Now it looks like FCPX is positioned as ‘the editor for content makers’, rather than ‘the editor for editors’ – a role that Avid has always occupied, and Premiere Pro seems set upon establishing.

It will make a very big ‘ecosystem’ for Final Cut Pro, and will win new users – but at the expense, perhaps, of the higher end who will drift back to Avid or jump over to Premiere’s very comfortable way of working.

Editing is mostly about ‘In’ and ‘Out’ over ‘time’. We have a lot of choice of NLEs, but their interface shouldn’t be dazzling or clever, it should be invisible. I stopped using iMovie when it got all scrubby and trying to help me do the simplest stuff. I fear the new FCP interface is going to try to do the same thing and will interfere with how I do my J and L cuts, and require a whole raft of new plugins… But the really horrible truth may be that in 12 months time, I’ll have jumped to the new version and will love it so much that this little note will sound like the rantings of a ‘stick-in-the-mud’ grouch.

Editors are (and should be) a rather conservative bunch who take things like upgrades VERY seriously. Bumping up a ‘point revision’ can take weeks of agonising, months waiting for a gap in the schedule to allow for a full backup, the creation of a ‘sand pit’ of the new version, testing all the little things that make or break your given workflow, then rolling out the change. Apple are asking editors (EDITORS! for crying out loud…) to perform a leap of faith into what is basically a 1.0 NLE. Whilst my inner-geek is hovering over a virtual ‘buy’ button in the App Store, the editor within me is wagging a warning finger – do I want to bet the farm on this? Now?

So, even though I got up at 0400 in the UK to catch the first morsels of news about FCP X, I’m not in the least excited about it. There’s not much that’s really new, unlike Premiere’s useful approach to metadata. We don’t really know much about FCP-X other than a slick presentation. Hmph. Time to get back to work – editing in FCP of course.

A good summary, and another one. I note that the Apple website hasn’t updated its info, and FCP-X doesn’t even make the ‘Hot News’, though Larry Jordan’s blog has satisfied me that this natural and to be expected.

Achieving ‘that video look’

Throughout the last 9 decades of cinema, Directors have been stuck with the same tired look forced upon them by the constraints of their technology. Cinematographers at the vanguard of their industry, disenchanted with the timelessness of film, are now looking to achieve that elusive ‘live’ look – video!

The world of moving pictures has gone by a number of pet names, one of which describes one of the pitfalls of having to pay for your recording medium by the half-cubit or ‘foot’ as some would say. ‘The Flicks’ were just that – flickering images in a dark room, destined to cause many a strained eye.

Whilst motion could be recorded at or above 20 frames per second, there was a problem in that the human eye’s persistence of vision (that eye-blink time where a ghost of a bright image dances upon your retina) means you can perceive flicker up to about 40 frames per second. So your movie had smooth movement at 24 or 25 frames per second, but it still flashed a bit.

Of course, clever engineers realised that if you showed every frame TWICE, so the lamp illuminated each frame through a revolving bow-tie cunningly pressed into service as a shutter, then hauled the loop of film (due to mass, intertia, etc – tug the whole reel and you’d snap it) down one frame and give that a double flash. Rinse, repeat.

Every student of film will get taught the special panning speed to avoid juddery images – then forget it. Ditto the use of shutter speeds beyond 180 degrees. And so we’re stuck with motion blur and the last vestiges of flicker in the eyes of an audience reared on a visual diet of 75fps video games.

A collection of flim makers, some with their roots in the DV revolution of the 1990s, are looking to their true source of inspiration, trying to mimic the hallowed ‘television look’ by the simple expedient of shooting a higher frame rate. This gives their work a sense of ‘nowness’, an eerie ‘look into the magical mirror’ feel.

As post-production 3D gains traction, Directors are taking a further leaf out of the Great Book Of Video by using a technique known as ‘deep depth of field’ – where the lens sharply records all from the near to the far. An effect very reminiscent of the 1/3” class of DV camcorders. This will, of course, take huge amounts of lighting to achieve pinhole like apertures in their ‘medium format’ cameras such as Epic, Alexa and F65, but as leading lights such as James Cameron and Peter Jackson jump on the bandwagon, the whole industry can now concentrate on achieving ‘That Video Look’.