Canon & Sony playing nice together

Photo: Sean Barnes

Producer, Shooter & Editor. Photo: Sean Barnes

After 5 days shooting a big banking expo in Boston, I’ve had loads of fun ‘camera spotting’.

Shooting at exhibitions is one of my main activities, and the mixture of run & gun, pack shots, interviews, talking heads and candid videography provides us with very strong opinions of what kit works well. Even down to choice of batteries or lighting stands. And what to wear. But I digress.

I saw big ENG cameras, little GH4s, loads of iPads (!) and even a brave soul with a tricked out Black Magic Cinema camera complete with beachtek audio interface, follow focus and matte box. It’s not the first time I’ve seen a BMCC used at a trade show, but to my mind it does take a bit of a leap of faith to wrestle one of these specialist cameras into service in such an unforgiving environment.

Expo shooting requires kit that doesn’t wear you down – you’ll be on your feet all day, and scooting from booth to booth. You don’t want to be weighed down by too many batteries, and you’ll need plenty of media. Plans change, things happen, and sudden opportunities crop up that might be missed if you need to change lenses or power up a complex camera. Everything has to be quick to deploy yet reach your expectations in picture and sound quality.

In many scenarios, you might not even have a secure base from which to keep bags, chargers and ‘special’ kit (long XLR and power cables for example). Suddenly, you’re in a sort of quasi-military mode, where you’re scooting around with the camera, a tripod, a lamp, some sound kit AND your backpack full of editing machine, hard drives, plus all the other bits and bobs you’ll need throughout the day. 12 kilometres per day with 40lb strapped to your back isn’t quite in Marines territory, but even so…

My go-to camera on these gigs has been the Sony EX1-R, and the magic addition of a spider dolly on the tripod – the little shopping trolley wheels. This enables you to scoot your camera and tripod around, whilst carrying an XLR cable, 416 stick mic and Sanken COS-11 lapel mic, headphones, batteries and water bottle in a ScottEvest ‘wearable office’.

Pretty much every videographer I meet looks at the spider dolly and immediately wants one. It truly adds so much value to your day’s work – and if the floor surface allows it, you can even get a few nice ‘dolly moves’ too – tracking shots, rotating around someone or something – though not all surfaces are up for it.

Due to the cost of carnets, shipping and so on, I rented my main camera from Rule Boston: a Sony PMW300. This is the replacement to the venerable Sony EX3, and bridges the gap between my EX1’s ‘little black sausage of joy’ design and a traditional shoulder mount ENG camera. I became very enamoured with the PMW300’s shoulder mounted ergonomics, thanks to its clever viewfinder design. The EVF is removable, unlike the EX3, so it can be packed into a airline carry-on bag or Peli case, with room for accessories, batteries, charger, etc.

It seemed to be almost a stop faster than the EX1, though I have not put them side by side. I didn’t seem to be using +3 and +6db gain as much as I do with the EX1, and shooting time-lapse outdoors with a 16 frame accumulation shutter actually required -3dB as I ran out of ND and didn’t want to go above f8 on the iris due to diffraction.

There was a little more heft than an EX1, but the pull-out shoulder pad and well placed EVF provided good balance and took some of the weight and strain off the right hand. All controls fell under my fingertips – it’s ‘just another Sony’ in that respect. Even though it was my first time with the camera, under stressful conditions, I was never hunting for controls or jacks. Switching between 1 mic at 2 levels, and two mics with independent level control, to mic plus line feed from mixing desk was simple and quick. I couldn’t say for sure if the mic pre-amps were better than the EX1-R, but I was never struggling with gain/noise even though expos are notorious for horrendous external noise.

There have been some changes to the menu structure, and flipping between ‘timelapse’ mode and ‘candid’ mode required a few more steps than I thought was necessary. Choosing the accumulation shutter requires a walk through all the available speeds rather than it remembering your settings and using a simple on/off toggle. Small point, but it makes a difference for operators in our game.

The PMW300 came with the K1 choice of lens – like the EX3, you can remove it and replace with a wide angle zoom or the new K2 option of 16x Funinon zoom. It doesn’t go any wider – just provides you with a little extra reach at the telephoto end. In the world of expo videography, wide angles are very valuable, though. Often you’re at such close proximity it’s hard to get the ‘scope’ of an expo booth, and as you pull back, your foreground fills with delegates.

This is why I brought my Canon C100 with me. It got a lot more use than I thought. I brought it primarily for talking heads and interviews – for that S35 ‘blurry background’ look with my 17-55 f2.8 and 50mm f1.4. In fact, most of the time, it wore my Tokina 11-16mm wide angle, which did wonderful things for the booth shots. Sony’s PMW Fujinon lens design has quite a bit of barrel distortion at the wide end, and I remember the ‘shock and awe’ of using the Tokina for the first time on my Canon 550D – very good distortion control and tack sharp.

We also had a few presentations to capture with two cameras – the C100 unmanned on the wide, whilst I operated the PMW300 on close-up. These setups were in dark, dingy and drearily lit ‘breakout’ rooms barely lit by overhead fluorescents. Absolutely no chance of extra lighting. This could have been a disaster with ‘panda eyes’ on presenters, but both the C100 and the PMW300 have gamma curves which really help in these circumstances.

This brings us neatly to another ‘trick’ – after all, we have two very different cameras from two separate manufacturers – how on earth are we going to match them?

Whilst I probably wouldn’t want to attach the two to a vision mixer and cut between them live, I could get both cameras surprisingly close in terms of picture ‘look’ by using CineGamma 3 on the PMW300 and Wide Dynamic Range on the Canon. I also dialled in the white setting by Kelvin rather than doing a proper white set. The Canon’s screen cannot be trusted for judging white balance anyway – you need a Ninja Blade or SmallHD or similar trustworthy monitor for that. The Sony’s screen is a little better, but with a slight green tint that makes skin tones look a little more yellow than they appear on the recordings. I don’t mess with the colour matrix on either camera because you need trustworthy charts and constant access to a grade 1 or 2 monitor to do that – and this is where you’d be able to match both cameras for seamless vision mixing.

Suffice to say that in these circumstances, we need to achieve consistency rather than accuracy, so one simple colour correction on each camera will bring them both to a satisfactory middle ground. That’s how the Kelvin trick with the CineGamma 3 and WDR works. Neither are perfect ‘out of the box’ but they are sufficiently close to nudge a few settings and do a great match.

But once again, here’s another important learning point. Because we were creating a combination of Electronic Press Kits, web-ready finished videos and ‘raw rushes’ collections, our shooting and editing schedules were tight. We’d shoot several packages a day, some may be shot over a number of days. We didn’t have time for ‘grading’ as such. So bringing the Sony and the Canon together so their shots could cut together was very important.

The Canon C100’s highlights were sublime. Everything over 80IRE just looked great. The Sony’s CineGamma was lovely too, but the Canon looked better – noticeably better when you’re shooting ‘beauty’ shots of a booth mostly constructed out of white gauze and blue suede. The PMW300 did a great job, and really you wouldn’t mind if the whole job was captured on it, but the C100 really did a great job of high key scenes. Such a good job that I’d want to repeat the PMW300/C100 pairing rather than a double act of the PMW300 with a PMW200. If you see what I mean.

There was one accessory that we ‘acquired’ on-site that deserves a special mention. It’s something that I’ll try and build into similar shoots, and to any other shoots I can get away with. This accessory really added a layer of sophistication and provided a new kind of shot not necessarily seen in our usual kind of videos. The accessory is not expensive to purchase, but there are costs involved in transport and deployment.

This new accessory – this wonderful addition to any videographer’s arsenal of gizmos is… a ladder. Take any shot, increase the height of the lens by about a meter or so, and witness the awesomeness! Yes, you need (you really must have) a person to stand by the ladder, keep crowds away, stabilise it, be ready to take and hand over your camera, but… wow. What a view!

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POV’s 2013 Documentary Filmmaking Equipment Survey

Whilst the number of respondents is a bit too low to be a true picture, POV’s survey does paint an interesting picture of the Documentarist’s world. It’s still a ‘buy’ rather than ‘rent’ market, for the best part in love with Canon’s DSLRs and lenses.

However, there’s a couple of splits  I wanted to see, but isn’t here. Firstly the split by sensor size: what has happened to 2/3″, and what proportion are now S35? Secondly, and somewhat related, body design. There still seems to be plenty of room for ‘the little black sausage of joy’ – the fixed lens, all-in-one camera with a wide-ranging parfocal zoom.

Yes, the Mac dominates in Docco editing. I boggle slight at the FCP7 market – twice that of all the Premiere Pro flavours. FCP7 used to bog down with over 35-40 mins in a timeline, and for larger projects I’d have expected a larger takeup of Premiere Pro.

Still, at least Gaffer Tape makes it into the top 5 ‘things we love’ list.

POV’s 2013 Documentary Filmmaking Equipment Survey

Creating the Dance of the Seven Veils

Unboxing videos are an interesting phenomenon.

They don’t really count as ‘television’ or ‘film’ – in fact they’re not much more than a moving photo or even diagram. But they are part of the mythos of the launch of a new technical product.

I’ve just finished my first one – and it was ‘official’ – no pressure, then.

I first watched quite a few unboxing videos. This was, mostly, a chore. It was rapidly apparent that you need to impart some useful information to the viewer to keep them watching. Then there was the strange pleasure in ‘unwrapping’ – you have to become six years old all over again, even though – after a couple of decades of doing this – you’re more worried about what you’re going to do with all the packaging and when you can get rid of it.

So… to build the scene. My unpack able box was quite big. Too big for my usual ‘white cyclorama’ setup. I considered commandeering the dining room, but it was quite obvious that unless I was willing to work from midnight until six, that wasn’t going to happen. I have other work going on.

So it meant the office. Do I go for a nice Depth of Field look and risk spending time emptying the office of the usual rubbish and kibble? Or do I create a quiet corner of solitude? Of course I do. Then we have to rehearse the unpacking sequence.

Nothing seems more inopportune than suddenly scrabbling at something that won’t unwrap, or unfold, or not look gorgeous. So, I have to unwrap with the aim of putting it all back together gain – more than perfectly. I quickly get to see how I should pack things so it unpacks nicely. I note all the tricks of the packager’s origami.

So, we start shooting. One shot, live, no chance to refocus/zoom, just keep the motion going.

I practice and practice picking up bundles of boring cables and giving them a star turn. I work out the order in which to remove them. I remember every item in each tray. Over and over again.

Only two takes happened without something silly happening – and after the second ‘reasonable’ take, I was so done. But still, I had to do some closeups, and some product shots. Ideally, everything’s one shot, but there are times when a cutaway is just so necessary, and I wish I got more.

Learning Point: FIlm every section as a cutaway after you do a few good all-in-one takes.

Second big thing, which I kinda worked out from the get-go. Don’t try and do voiceover and actions. We’re blokes, multitasking doesn’t really work. It’s a one taker and you just need to get the whole thing done.

Do you really need voiceover, anyway? I chickened out and used ‘callout’ boxes of text in the edit. This was because I had been asked to make this unboxing video and to stand by for making different language versions – dubbing is very expensive, transcription and translation for subtitles can be expensive and lead to lots and lots of sync issues (German subs are 50% more voluminous than English subtitles and take time to fit in).

So, a bunch of call-out captions could be translated and substituted pretty easily. Well, that’s the plan.

Finally, remember the ‘call to action’ – what do you want your viewers to do having watched the video? Just a little graphic to say ‘buy here’ or ‘use this affiliate coupon’ and so on. A nod to the viewer to thank them for their attention.

And so, with a couple of hundred views in its first few hours of life, it’s not a Fenton video, but it’s out there stirring the pot. I’d like to have got more jokes and winks in there, but the audience likes these things plain and clear. It was an interesting exercise, but I’m keen to learn the lessons from it. Feedback welcomed! What do you want from an Unboxing Video?

Canon 7D vs EX1 – lens comparison

With only days to go before I get my Canon 550D (I’m choosing that over the 7D so I can use my SDHC cards), I’m filling in the waiting time with final little checks and shopping lists of things I really shouldn’t buy yet, things I do need to buy, things to go and shoot for testing purposes. This, at the expense of proper work at times.

As I packed up after a shoot yesterday, I got thinking… If I shoot voxpops at around 30% of the zoom range, talking heads up to around 50%, presentations at 80-90%, and I have a 0.6x wide angle converter, what does this all mean in the language of a Video DSLR like the Canon 7D and 550D? What lens(es) do I need to cover myself if that were the sole camera?

So I got to work with a Spreadsheet. It’s not a comparison I’ve seen whilst doing my research, so I thought I’d share. It’s quite illuminating for someone such as I. If it’s popular, I’ll keep it updated with any corrections and maybe add 1/3″ and 2/3″ cameras in there.

But for now, I have some lenses to buy.

Here’s a PDF version

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The joys of tapeless workflow

Since making room for an EX1 in my life, something wonderful has happened to my edit work: I have plenty of well named clips in projects that are filed and searchable.

Of course, logging and capturing is the foundation layer of any edit. But sometimes edits happen to tight deadlines under pressure, and the time taken to patiently spool through each tape and refer to the shot logs, selecting the best takes and marking their in/outs ready for batch capture is quite frankly longer than the time to suck in a whole tape, apply DV Start-Stop detection and switch your thumbnails on so you can roughly sort into bins of rushes. And as deadlines shrink and edit budgets get tighter, there’s a temptation to not actually label each clip according to content. Just rely on bin names. And then you find yourself plucking shots from whole rolls of tape rather than individual clips. And that’s when you hit the needle in a haystack syndrome. The trouble is, taking in each clip and giving it a name takes a lot of time that, thanks to the absurd shooting ratio that DV offers (today I am working my way through 3 hours of footage for a 3 minute insert – a shooting ratio of 60:1), it would take days. And for a 3 min insert I have hours.

Of course professional crews don’t overshoot, and take careful notes of what they shot, where, when, who, and so on. But when a client hands you three tapes, what do you do? So to cut to the chase: The Sony EX1 is partnered with XDCAM Transfer – an application/plug-in for FCP users. Its party trick is to highlight, say, a dozen clips out of 60-100 on a card/disk, and enable you to name them all ‘exhibition GVs’, then jump around instantly between clips marking some good, some no good (which can make them disappear from your shot list), pick out some and add ‘sponsor’ to their filename. 15-30 seconds. Onto the next batch of shots. And so on. Select all, import, and lo – neatly labelled shots minus the dross. And I’ve been timing this: for a 16 GB card (an hour’s worth, maybe 100-200 shots for event work), I can log/label and import in half the time it would take to ingest the footage from tape. And this is firmly implanted in my mind today as I ingest 3 hours of PDX-10 footage with an unset clock, so DV Start-Stop detection doesn’t work, and the tapes are full of TC breaks. Yesterday I had 90 mins of footage shot and edited by end of play for a 6 minute item. Batch naming makes the editor’s lot a happy one, especially in time pressured environments.

 

HVX200 – the Volvo 850 T5 of video cameras

In the next day or two, I am going to take a pot of cash and exchange it for a camera (I already own 2 Z1s, a PDX-10 and an HV20). I really want to own an EX-1. I am nuts: 

  • It has questionable build quality (paint rubs off)
  • It has questionable build quality (back focus issues)
  • It has questionable build quality (twiddly switches)
  • It has questionable build quality (battery ‘booty’)
  • It has been designed in a potting shed (battery runs down on-camera)
  • It has been designed in a potting shed (handle is 3 inches off centre)
  • It has been designed in a potting shed (doesn’t handle IR well)
  • It has been designed in a potting shed (controls ‘sneezed’ onto camera)

 Yet… 

  • Lens is to die for (maybe too sharp for Standard Def?)
  • Sensor is to die for (maybe a Letus isn’t totally necessary?)
  • Could this be the Infra-RED?

So what I posit is that the EX1 should be judged as the typical British sports car like the TVR Cerbera, in that it has no right to be lined up with Ferraris and Porsches in the same performance class, yet there it is. Hanging out on a Snout Break, ready to sprint with the Olympians. The Z1 is a sort of Prius in comparison, loading up on HDV Mung Beans. The Volvo T5 (looking awfully like an HVX200) is ready to pounce, using its reliability, dependability and sheer deliverability (feel the excitement!) to its advantage. Hmmm. The little Smart HV20 – small, fun, rather good… But still a little pip-squeak. And suddenly life turns into an episode of Top Gear…