“The Beekeeper” – A mini Documentary

While driving around country Victoria Australia, in early 2009, I stopped by an old Sawmill near Jubilee Lake in the township of Daylesford. Daylesford has an amazing history including playing a large role during the 1850’s – 1950’s Gold Rush era. Today it’s Melbourne’s weekend escape with many Spa & Massage Centres, thanks to the naturally occurring mineral springs, Restaurants and Art Galleries. However Daylesford has many hidden gems, including the subject of my mini documentary.

My family has a long history with the township of Daylesford, including my Grandmother who taught at the local High School. So I remember traveling to various peoples homes to get things like eggs, milk, bread and honey. For some reason, there are several families that make honey in the district. However I remembered one particular place that looked more like an industrial sawmill then a place to get honey. Having recently fallen in love with my Canon 5DMKII’s ability to record HD video, I thought to myself, why not go back to the mill and ask if I could walk around, take some videos and stills. So on a slightly wet and dreary day, I rocked up with nothing more then my camera.

Barry is the Beekeeper. He’s been working the property for ever, having built the place by hand from scrap. It’s difficult to find words that describe what exactly Barry has built other then I would like to describe it as a “Terry Gilliam” inspired work of art! In all fairness, Barry has built everything he needs to make Honey, including growing the Timber to make the Bee Boxes! Hence the Sawmill’s purpose. After logging the forrest, his small team then turn the raw timber into planks that make Bee Boxes. He makes the Wax inserts that will eventually house the honey, as well as obviously taking the Boxes out into the fields where the Bees do all their work. After the Bee Boxes are recovered, he produces Honey & Wax and sells it all over the world. There are people who travel from as far away as India to buy from him.

So I didn’t really arrive at his door step with a great plan. I just wanted to record some of the visuals before time took it all away and have some fun with my camera. Barry is a very kind and generous man. Not only did he allow me to film him and ask questions, he took me on a detailed and frank journey about his life’s work. With my handheld 5DMKII camera with no external microphone or any lighting, I followed him around the property as he explained a few things to me. In my haste, I forgot to switch off the Image Stabiliser on the 24-105mm lens I was using and the sound has a nasty rattle running through everything I shot. I don’t think it matters because the industrial setting does allow for such mechanical noises but I did also reduce it in Post Production. I used Final Cut Pro and Soundtrack Pro to edit “The Beekeeper”. Using the noise removal tools in Soundtrack Pro greatly helped the audibility of the dialogue.

At the time of filming, I was using the 1.0.4 firmware so everything was 30fps only. I converted all the footage to Sony’s XDCAM 35mb/sec format because mostly I was cutting on a laptop and I didn’t want the files size to bog me down. It’s actually a really great codec that looks nice without getting silly on the file sizes. Because Canon hadn’t released it’s FCP plugin, the conversion was done in Mpeg Streamclip. Back in Final Cut Pro I did add some colour adjustments here and there but not on everything. I loved mostly how it looked as it came off the camera. Because the day was quite gloomy and dark, I was shooting wide open and the resulting depth of field is very pleasing. The tones in the scene were largely monotone browns and blacks, which helped give the images an amazing look. So not much was needed to enhance the overall look and feel.

In less then two hours, I had shot an interview, a good amount of cutaways that I could add as overlay and said goodbye to Barry. I can tell you as practicing filmmaker, that is very fast. To add to it, I was completely by myself. In the professional world I can’t do that! So the power of my 5DMKII is not lost on my at all. Some would argue, “Well hang on, I could do that before with my camcorder!” That’s true, but we could never do the job with such film style and aesthetics. At best we could approach Television style news gathering quality but not a rich Cinema experience. Armed with my laptop, I was also able to do most things on battery power and in the field with no other resources such as tape decks, edit suit, or sound studio! Does that change the ability to tell a great story? – I certainly think it helps.

Several months later I went back to see Barry but this time I took along good friend Tibor Hegedis, who lives in Daylesford as well. He’s an experienced filmmaker in his own right and he was gracious enough to come along and help me re-shoot the doco but this time with more gear, more time etc. We shot for most of the day and I used a Dolly, Lights and Pro level Sound Gear to record interviews etc. However, a really strange thing occurred later. As I was cutting the new footage, I felt it looked manufactured and fake. It looked setup! I actually felt crestfallen by it because I had worked so hard to make better the situation. So for the next few months I kind of left it and moved on to other work. Recently I looked at the original raw edit and was surprised that it was actually quite watchable. The rawness of the interview and the unplanned nature of the questions even seemed to be more honest and believable then the revised version. So after much indecision I decided to post it on Vimeo.com so the world at least could pass comment. Barry’s story is worth watching and he really is an engaging individual. Hopefully, with so many DSLR’s now out in the world shooting video, the lives of individuals, Societies and their hard work can be better recorded for the future. It’s exciting to see technology advance but when it has such a profound impact on our own lives and the lives of the next generation, I can truly appreciate the importance of such a technological change.

Feel free to comment yourself. Enjoy!

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A little night music!

I wanted to do something with the 5DMKII footage I shot in Hong Kong over New Years Eve and decided earlier to sit down and edit it. However, like all creative processes, the job always seems easier at first and then grows exponentially! Copyright free music was my problem. So I launched Logic and started composing a piece of music especially for this short video. But what genre of music? Which instruments would sound right? Luckily I had recently bought a few discs worth of samples so I spent the next few hours creating a soundtrack for my short film. Finally I could actually start editing. I knew already that I wanted to edit in a Music Video Clip style, so I began to cut the images to the beat of the music. The footage I had shot was all shot in one night – New Years Eve 2009/2010, in Central, Hong Kong. I didn’t actually know where the fireworks was going to take place and had taken a MTR to Causeway Bay. There I walked along the shoreline towards Central, where I chanced upon the perfect spot to film the event! There were easily half a million people around the Harbour, maybe even more as the fireworks exploded overhead. Although the fireworks display was quite short (around 15 minutes), the display was spectacular!

The 5D MKII’s strength is definitely it’s low light capabilities when shooting HD Video. It’s still recording in 30FPS which is annoying to me, however hopefully in February we may see a firmware update that will solve this. I also used my brand new 50mm f1.4 lens, which afforded me 2 more stops of light I wouldn’t have had otherwise! This lens is amazing. Very sharp and and at f1.4, produces the most perfect Bokeh. As well as shooting HD Video at 1920 x 1080, I shot quite a lot of stills in RAW mode. Later I combined these stills using QuickTime7 (on Mac OSX 10.6, it’s buried in the Utilities folder for some reason). I also shot several Time Lapse sequences using a Canon TC-80N3 controller. All the sequences including the 5D HD Video footage was converted to the XDCam (1920 x 1080, 30fps 35mb/sec VBR) codec. This made editing a lot more pleasant in Final Cut Pro. I didn’t spend any time on a Grade, so the final images you see in the video (minus the effects of re-compression) are as they were shot! In a perfect world, I would spend more time with my setups when shooting, but given I only had a few hours to film the event, I’m happy with the result. Enjoy! The video is uploaded to my Vimeo account. You can access it by clicking on the image above or navigating to http://vimeo.com/user735977

The Evolution of Motion Photography

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As a Cinematographer, I have spent many hours exploring new technology, evaluating new camera systems and asking questions – “Can this be done with this piece of kit?” However, mostly these “camera technological advancements” have been at odds with the Producers budget or at loggerheads with the creative team’s pursuit of the “Look”. I don’t know how many times someone has approached me with the desire to shoot on a new format and after intensive testing, I have found it to be substandard to what our ultimate aim is. HDV is a good example of this. A simply awful intermediate technology that bridged the gap between mini DV/DV production and HD video recording. Great for the budget but basically crap for the “Look”!

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As a Director of Television Commercials, I also have been on the prowl for equipment that is affordable and also delivers an aesthetic quality that is pleasing firstly to me – then the rest of the world! As the world economy shrinks, advertising budgets for mainstream outlets such as Print, Radio and Television have suffered. While “New Digital Mediums” such as Web, DVD and other digital forms of communications have increased their advertising spend. This would at first look like it evens itself out but unfortunately this is not the case. The Internet and other Digital content delivery systems do not provide Production Houses with the same resources as mainstream advertising. The general perception is that these outlets are cheaper, leaner and quicker! As a result, “Web Production Houses”, who provide content exclusively for the Web, often find themselves as the Ad Agency, The Production House, The Post Production House and the Media Outlet all wrapped into one mess! In my experience, most of these places provide a less then satisfactory experience for their Clients because they have to spread their abilities & resources too far. Savvy Clients then use this to broker better deals with “Mainstream Ad Agencies” to further squeeze their budgets while retaining better creative campaigns. It’s an uneasy system that in Australia is reeking havoc with Production Company survival rates. Ultimately, when I see a budget for a Television Commercial, there isn’t much to play with. The old days of having a full crew onset are long gone and shooting film is certainly not a given! In fact, now days, I rarely get to see film at all. Overseas, in Asia, I still shoot mostly 35mm film but even that is now changing. Since RED arrived on the scene, there is an expectation due to budget, to shoot digitally. That’s fine by me if it isn’t in conflict with the creative process.

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I believe that the legacy of the “Film Look” is mostly the issue. Film was and still is an incredible medium. Over the years, the “Film Look” has been the holy grail of Videographers. As we all (Cinematographers, Video Camera and Lighting Personnel, Directors and Others) become Digital Cinematographers, the quest for a film like feel is still very strong. Manufacturers like P+S Technik have produced devices that provide a simulated way of recording the “Depth of Field” of film via an intermediate optical block. I myself have used these devices to shoot Australian Television Commercials, Music Videos and the Feature Film “Storm Warning“. In all cases, the recording format was video tape. However, while these devices did in fact augment the look of video, they still lacked a real ability to reproduce the true aesthetic of film in my opinion. They were techniques to solve a budgetary issue while minimising the impact to the creative process.

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Enter the world “Digital Acquisition”. I need to distinguish this from traditional video tape recording. “Digital Acquisition” is tapeless. It exceeds the ability of tape recording mechanisms in quality, size and resolution. The revolution of camera systems like RED One, Phantom, Arri’s D21, Silicon Imaging SI-2K and many others is that they record direct to disc. The real revolution is that they have made video tape redundant completely! Most of these systems use Cinema style lenses and mounts, with Sensors that approach the same size as 35mm film. The result is that they reproduce the same optical focal conditions as film, providing the shallow “depth of field” we all crave. Most of these systems provide a much better “RAW” digital negative then videotape ever could also. Many record images twice that of HD video tape with future variants exceeding 4 times that of what’s possible from a video tape recording! You would think that I would be happy?! However I’m not! Nearly all these cameras, as good as they are, once built up to full production standards, are simply too heavy. They are often victims of their own technological heritage and crash! Driven by what amounts to a pretty powerful computer, they are susceptible to heat, wet, shock, dust and sand to a much greater extent then film ever was! Not to mention, that every different manufacturer has their own guidelines for system design, integration and menu structure. This makes learning a new Digital Camera System a massive undertaking for every Digital Cinematographer. What’s more, with the added element of a thing called a “firmware update”, new capabilities can be injected into existing designs, totally modifying that cameras handling and recording abilities. That’s like “pulling the carpet out from under your feet” for a Cinematographer! The look and feel of various brands of 35mm film was a key decision process for Cinematographers and was a vital part of every Cinematographers training, to become familiar by trial and error, with the various “Looks” provided by each type of film. The constant stream of firmware updates means that Digital Cinematographers have to re-familiarise themselves each time they pick up a camera. This is very time consuming.

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Enter a new era again. The DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera) changes the way Stills Photographers shoot completely. It’s fair to say now, that most Professional Photographers have adopted “Digital” as their main form of photography. Nikon, Canon and Panasonic (to name a few) release DSLR’s that are capable of shooting “Video”. Suddenly we have a new kind of revolution taking place. Traditional Video cameras are starting to blend with Photographic stills cameras producing a hybrid camera system that don’t utilise video tape either. Canon in-particular, adds this functionality into their new 5D MKII full sensor Stills camera as a result of a request from Associated Press,Reuters. The reason – so that Field Reporters/ Photographers could shoot Video and Stills with the same light weight camera system and lenses whilst on assignment. I have to qualify that I have shot and Directed Commercials for Canon, including one which features the 5D MKII. However I’m speaking here as an owner and a User and not as a Reseller. Other cameras exist that also can do what the 5D MKII is capable of, I’m simply concentrating on what I know best. For Digital Cinematographers, these type of cameras are also subject to a constant stream of “Firmware Updates” but are much simpler in overall design.

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At NAB 2009, James Mathers (President of the Digital Cinema Society in the USA) interviewed Tim Smith from Canon USA and Tim revealed that Canon hadn’t expected that the camera would be “Dragged” over into the Cinema world as it has. The 5D MKII has become a center point to a new kind of filmmaking movement. Many different manufactures produce complete Cinema style accessories for the 5DMKII including RedrockMicroDVCityIndi Systemschrosziel and Zacuto just to mention a few. There are also professional audio interfaces available like those from Beachtek. Other Inventors are providing monitoring ideas like Dirk Fletcher, while Professional Monitoring solutions are now available from Marshall. On the Web, the new media outlet of the future, there are hundreds of would be Filmmakers and Professionals alike producing stunning short films. Just visit vimeo.com, a popular video sharing web host. Search 5D MKII (or anyway you would like to spell it) and see the hundreds of videos the search engine returns. The same is true on Youtube. There are also many blogs and forums that specialise in 5DMKII Cinematography and filmmaking such as cinema5d.comcanon5dtips.com, and planet5d.com. Many Stills Photographers are also seeing the possibilities of merging Photography with Video. For wedding Photographers that also shoot video for their Clients, this type of unison in camera equipment is incredibly handy. Most importantly it provides a rich visual and photographic style of capturing motion. Famous photographers like Vincent La Forethave actively embraced the new style of cameras, and now shoot Stills and Motion for their Clients. Many are now even shooting Television Commercials as well as the Print requirements. Cameras like the 5D MKII and Nikons D3 are game changers! Yes these cameras are still expensive for the ordinary folk but if you consider that the equivalent HD Video camera used to cost $250,000AU not so long ago, it’s not expensive at all. Not to mention high quality interchangeable lenses – something many prosumer camcorders never delivered. A set of Cinema style lenses used on 35mm motion picture cameras can cost as much as $250,000 also. So the ability for photographers who already own good quality glass, to shoot stunning motion video on these DSLR’s is a massive price advantage.

This Redrock Micro tutorial details the setup and basic configuration of the DSLR Cinema Bundle and Field Cinema Bundle

Where will it all end? No doubt there are other forms of Photography and Cinematography that are being developed. There is a large push for feature films to be shot in 3D at the moment for instance. These early DSLR’s, that shoot HD video, are not perfect. The 5D MKII currently shoots 1920 x 1080 at 30P only. It has no manual control for setting iris and shutter speed etc. A firmware upgrade is likely, and will see it perhaps achieving some of our wishes but ultimately the physical design is not optimum for filmmaking. However, I believe the next generation of DSLR’s will have a much more focused mandate. This will almost certainly include both Filmmakers and traditional Stills photographers wishes. What excites me is that these cameras are being designed with direct participation from the end user, are much lighter in weight then the current crop of Digital Filmmaking tools, and cost much , much less. These cameras will not be a sacrifice on quality, usability and aesthetics like Cinematographers from the “Film Era” have come to expect. In conclusion, I’m very optimistic that we are all heading for a very bright future in the world of Digital Acquisition that will hopefully once again promote ideas and artistry.

Other references see Wikipedia and Canon USA

Interesting reads include: Interview Vincent LaForet and How to use the Auto Exposure Lock

Canon 5D markII is here!

After the announcement of Canon’s 5D mark 2 back in September (rumours had been circulating for much earlier then that, however this was Canon’s official announcement), I was very excited about updating my original 5D.

 

The 5D more or less totally convinced me that digital photography was really here to stay and for three years I used the 5D on countless jobs. It travelled with me through much of Asia and Europe, the USA – basically everywhere. I used it on various film projects including “Not Quite Hollywood” where I literally used it to photograph every interviewee I was involved with. This included Jamie Lee Curtis, George Lazenby, Gregory Harrison, Stacey Keach, Russell Mulcahy, Barry Humphries etc etc. In total, we interviewed around 100 filmmakers on that project. My 5D was also involved in the making of “Storm Warning” – A horror film, “The Long Weekend”, “The Bank Job” (Australian unit), “Broken Wings” (documentary) and hundreds of Television Commercials. As a working Cinematographer, I would use the 5D as a contrast viewing tool and a quick way to demonstrate to my Client/Producer etc a framing or lighting reference.

 

Quite often I would shoot high resolution textures for use with 3D, High Dynamic Imagery for Global Illumination renderings in post production and lately, Tone Mapped HDRI’s. Infrared photography using digital equipment was also a recent undertaking with the 5D. Every location around the world, I would try to motivate myself to shoot a few really nice panoramas of the area, using a nodal tripod head and my 5D. So after hundreds of thousands of shots taken, with no downtime at all, I became excited about updating my 12 megapixel 5D with it’s replacement, the behemoth 21 Megapixel Canon 5D markII! To be honest the amount of Megapixels didn’t really cause me the excitement. It was the news that this latest update would include full 1920 x 1080 HD video, better ISO sensitivity and reduced noise!

 

A common problem for me is the amount of equipment I can take with me to overseas destinations. Tight onboard luggage rules plus general weight restrictions means I often have to decide whether I take a video camera with me on a job. It’s not uncommon for me to have the rushes of a job dubbed to a mini DV tape, and later back at a hotel, I would capture and edit this footage using a mini dv camcorder and my Final Cut Pro laptop edit suit! This was especially true in some parts of the world where the use of the English language was limited. Quietly, I would supply the local editor with my rough cut so that they could see what my intentions were and get a better understanding of the job. Sure it was more work for me, however it often solved lots of problems before they even began. This video camera, although small, still posed a significant weight and space issue with my allotted onboard baggage allowance! The requirement of all the support gear (Batteries, chargers, cables, tape stock, lens cleaning goods etc) usually helped to tip it over the limit. Ultimately it would come down to whether I would leave the 5D behind or the Video Camera! For me, the 5D was an important tool in my Cinematography arsenal. Additionally, as a Director, I would use it for Casting, Location Scouting, Props and Wardrobe and in some cases, the 5D was the primary method of capturing the Television Commercial. For HP in Beijing, Bruce Watt and Myself supplied our 5D’s as part of the major equipment used to capture the commercial. They were setup side by side, one programmed for fast shooting with a very short shutter time while the other was programmed for a long exposure interval. Then in post, we would cut between the 1/2000 of second exposure time shot and another taken at 1/4 of second. The technique was very effective and helped sell All in one printers for HP.

 

So when Canon announced that the new 5D markII would include full HD video, I became extremely excited about the prospect. Finally I could take just one camera with me and have the best of both worlds. Granted, getting rushes on Compact Flash Cards isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, however I have found with the advent of RED and other digitally acquired mediums, the need to capture from mini DV has subsided almost completely. Rushes now days can be delivered as files on disc etc. But the need for having a video camera still plays a vital roll in pre production, animatics, and behind the scenes activities.

 

December rolls over, and finally I have the new 5D markII and with only a couple of days experience with it, I can firmly say it’s magnificent!  So much has been improved, from the Menu and general workflow, Noise reduction, Higher ISO (100 – 6400, expandable to ISO 50 – 25600) to the inclusion of full HD video. Initially, the 5D has been released with only 1920 x 1080 30P video which was slightly disappointing coming from a country that thrives in 24/25FPS! However, strong rumours are suggesting a firmware update very shortly will include 24/25FPS at full HD. With that, all my wishes would be complete! More to come!