Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Northern California Family Trip 2013

We returned from a family trip a week and a half ago.  I finally took the time to pick out some of my favorite photos from the excursion, enjoy!

Armstrong Redwoods

Fun at the Park

San Fransisco

 The Coast and Bodega Bay

Windsor and Wine Country

Jelly Belly Factory and Johnson's Beach

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Overrated RED

If you read my previous post about my ideal digital cinema camera may have noticed that I didn't talk about the RED cameras.  They are easily some of the most popular cameras out there.  And for a long time I bought into the hype.  What's not to love?  Extremely high resolution, variable frame rates, wide dynamic range, raw recording, all at a competitive price point.  The RED has it all, right?

A couple years ago I became disillusioned with RED.  And my frustration with their cameras and the company itself has only grown.  Currently I am in the middle of editing two features both shot on RED.  I was on set for working directly with a RED Scarlet for one of them.  So I have first hand experience with what has become a love/hate relationship.

The number one (and most obvious) reason a producer or director wants to shoot on RED is resolution.  I've heard, "If I don't shoot in 4K I don't have the option of a theatrical release!" and the famous "I want my project to be future proof" many times.  But is that really true?

The founder of RED, Jim Jannard, crossed a line for me when he went from preaching about the advantages of super-sampling, cropping, and down-scaling from 4K to HD to preaching that 4K delivery is here now and your project isn't good enough unless it's mastered in 4K. The belief that HD isn't good enough has led to a resolution race that has no end in sight.

So can I release an HD movie in theaters?  Well, the biggest mega-blockbusters in the last ten years have almost all been finished in 2K (which is close to HD resolution).  Just to name a few: Man of Steel, Star Trek, Hobbit, Avengers, Avatar, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy... has anybody complained about these movies not being sharp enough?  In fact I can only think of a small handful of major movies that have been finished in 4K: Amazing Spiderman, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Skyfall.  Oh and Skyfall wasn't shot in 4K, it was uprezzed.

So what about future proofing?  Maybe HD resolution is good enough today but what about tomorrow?  I don't know about you, but I still watch DVDs.  One of my favorite shows is Flight of the Conchords and it was shot in regular standard defintion.  Clearly content trumps quality.  That doesn't mean I want to shoot in a lower quality format.  But my point is obsessing about the format of tomorrow isn't going to make your project any better today.

Some projects don't need to be future proofed.  Do you really think we'll care what format a shoe commercial or a corporate training video was shot in ten years from now?

And to be honest, future proofing is impossible.  How can you know for certainty what the standard ten or even twenty years from now is going to be?  What if we make a switch to holograms?  Who really knows?  But what I do know is that if a movie is worth hanging onto it will be for its story and not simply because it was shot in the most advanced format of the day.

Yes, 4K is technically better, but it's advantages are barely noticeable.  We should be focusing on improving color sub-sampling and and compression quality instead of the number of pixels.  We got in this resolution race to beat out the quality of film and when it comes to sharpness digital clearly wins.

You really don't have to do everything in 4K.  And shooting with RED means dealing with 4K or even higher resolutions.  Not only that but it records in raw.  raw images have their advantages, ISO and white balance aren't baked into to the image and more information is saved from the sensor.  But it also comes with the bane of extra processing later and more data storage eaten up.  Don't get me wrong, this can be completely valid if you have the time and money to deal with it.  But if it isn't necessary for a particular project then why deal with it at all?

However, the workflow for Red has improved dramatically over the last couple of years.  I am editing footage shot on RED in Final Cut Pro X.  It's quite a simple process to import the footage and transcode proxies in the background which allows me to get straight to work.  But it still isn't nearly as simple or quick as working with footage shot directly to ProRes.  If I want to playback RED footage natively in real time with some reliability RED expects me to fork over thousands of dollars on one of their RED Rocket cards.  Yeah, that's not going to happen.

RED really wants you to buy into their ecosystem when there are many other valid cameras out there to shoot on.  As an editor and shooter I want to be able to shoot on whatever camera best meets the needs of the project.  If I've invested heavily in RED it really limits my options.  And RED is a heavy investment, with many hidden costs.

All cameras have accessories, but RED takes it to the extreme with their modular camera system.  All the pieces, the brain, the lens mount, the handle, the viewfinder, pretty much everything is sold separately.  Even their complete kits aren't very complete.  The idea behind this was to allow you to upgrade your camera bit by bit in order to keep it from becoming obsolete.  But in reality it is quite annoying when you find out you're missing a certain custom cable or modular piece and end up spending another couple grand to make it work.  Those costs add up quickly.  And when you've become fed up with that game and want to sell your RED don't forget about the ownership transfer fees.

One point that Jannard himself can agree on is how frustrating it has been when their company fails to deliver on time and as promised.  It is a very open company.  If you follow their forum there have been many announcements about tech that never got released or evolved and was delayed.  I admire RED for their initial efforts that changed the industry forever.  But I don't think they are that company any more.  While they dreamed up new cameras the competition caught up to them.  They no longer have an edge.  And I feel they have stopped focusing on the little guy.  This has allowed Canon and Blackmagic to fill a void.  Once upon a time I would done anything to purchase their 3K for $3k Scarlet, but it never came out and was replaced by something much more expensive and very different.

But there's not much point in obsessing over cameras that will never be.  What is it like to work with one of their existing cameras?  Well, I've had better.  For one thing the cameras overheat, a lot.  And when they over heat they don't even give a warning.  They just shut down suddenly.  Not cool when you're in the middle of a take.  The camera also takes forever to boot up.  And why is the power button also a record button?  I'm not a huge fan of the form factor, especially with all the little bits you put together to build it up.  It's not the worst thing ever, but it is far from my ideal camera.  Don't even bother with RED Volt batteries.  They are crap and don't last much longer than ten minutes.  Get a third party battery solution.  Don't shoot HDRx, what a waste of time!  RED attempts to sell off the unwanted mixed shutter speed artifacts as "Magic Motion" when it really looks like crap.  Plus it requires even more work in post to process those images.  Thankfully the menus have been improved since the days of the RED One.  Overall the experience is bearable since the picture quality can be impressive if you know what you're doing.

I've been on this rant for a long time now because I feel like many video production people are duped into thinking they must shoot RED and it's the best camera out there.  But it really isn't.  Not a bad tool, but depending on the project you could go with something much more preferable.  The Canon and Sony cameras are far better in low light for example.  Arri Alexa has mind blowing detail retention in the highlights, but who can afford it?  The Blackmagic Cinema Camera is extremely affordable, renders beautiful colors, and shoots straight to ProRes as well as raw.  There are many great tools to pick from.  Don't just choose RED to be a fan boy.  These really are just tools.  Don't get blindsided by hype.  Pick the right tool for the job.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Fedora Pictures Reel - 2013

Film making is a collaborative art and the projects highlighted in this reel feature the talents of many others: Gold Moon Films, Moonstream Pictures, Power and Industry, Binding Light Productions, Rothschild/Martinez Productions, JMills Entertainment, Studio 33, and Anna Kaelin Music.

 Music: Duality by Yuri Sazonoff

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

My Dream Digital Cinema Camera

Just about every 6 months or less a new camera is announced with even more amazing features for even less money.  There have been a few cameras that have peaked my interest over the last year: Blackmagic Cinema Camera, Canon C100, Sony F5, and as of this week Blackmagic's Pocket and 4K Production Cameras.

But of all the cameras I've looked at not one of them is my perfect dream camera.  Each camera has strengths and weaknesses.

Ten years ago the Panasonic AG-DVX100 was the perfect camera for its time.  While the technology world has raced on and thereby making this camera obsolete it will always hold a special place in my heart.  It was the first professional quality camera I got my hands on.

The DVX had a lot going on for it.  A fantastic ergonomic design, multiple frame rate options including the coveted 24fps, a fast Leica lens, and a slue of professional video and cinematic features.  It had a good run of over 5 years and was an extremely popular camera.  No camera since has matched price and performance so perfectly.

Cameras these days have some incredible features but either cost too much or are missing key features, or both.

The Canon C100, for example, is overpriced by $2-3k dollars.  For what you're paying, you should at least be able to get higher progressive frame rates out of it.  And it has a less than desirable on board recording codec, AVCHD at 24Mbps.  On the plus side, this camera's large Super 35mm sensor performs miracles in low light and the camera has an overall great ergonomic design.

The Sony F5 has just about every feature I could want, but at $15k it is well out of my price range.  The form factor is fine if you have a couple camera assistants to help you put the camera together, but it is not the ideal run and gun camera.  Sony also introduced a new custom codec, the XAVC codec which I'm sure is great but ideally I want a camera to shoot straight to ProRes.

I'm more forgiving of the Blackmagic cameras.  Mostly because of their price points, all below $4k.  The highest end camera shoots raw or ProRes at 4k resolution using a global shutter.  A global shutter means no more jello-cam wobbling rolling shutter issues.  If you don't know what this artifact is pull out the camera on your smart phone and pan it quickly back and forth.

The other two Blackmagic cameras suffer from the rolling shutter artifact and have smaller sensors but can still hold their own in spite of this.  You get amazing dynamic range and raw or ProRes on board recording.  The low end Pocket camera is less than $1k and has full HD resolution.  And the original Cinema Camera (as well as the new Production Camera) come with a fully licensed copy of the de facto color grading software DaVinici Resolve.

So what are the Blackmagic cameras missing?  Three obvious features come to mind.

The first is variable and high frame rates.  I'm not a fan of HFR as implemented in The Hobbit, however the ability to shoot at different frame rates allows for slow and fast motion effects.  The F5 already has this feature, with the ability to shoot up to 60fps (120fps is a planned upgrade).

The next is a feature both the F5 and C100 have, built in neutral density filters.  Digital sensors are so sensitive to light that we need filters to expose correctly when we're in bright sunlight.  You can put filters in a matte box or buy variable ND filters that screw on the front of a lens, but this is just extra stuff I would rather not deal with.  Camera manufactures, just put these filters in the camera!

And the third feature goes the opposite direction, better low light sensitivity.  Blackmagic does okay at this, but their cameras have nothing on the C100 and F5.  The ability to peer into the black and still see an image is mind blowing.  In addition to the creative implications, it also means less lighting is required on the set.  Less lighting means less gear and people, which means less money spent on your production.

But all in all, considering that Sony's F5 and Canon's C100 cost 2 to 3 times more than the Blackmagic cameras, plus both of those cameras lack Blackmagic's raw and ProRes on board recording options, I think the Blackmagic line up wins.

Here's my current wish list for what would be my perfect Digital Cinema Camera:
- Costs less than $4k
- Super 35 size image sensor with a global shutter, high native sensitivity (2000 ISO?), a minimum of 12 stops of dynamic range, and around 10 megapixels of resolution.
- Handheld ergonomic design (look at the DVX for a start)
- Built in NDs
- No complaints about a fixed zoom lens if it's fast and sharp, but a lens mount that can be adapted to PL and EF lens mounts is a bonus
- At least 1080p ProRes in camera recording, with LOG curve option (4K ProRes and raw is a bonus)
- 1-60fps (wouldn't complain about even higher frame rates)
- Full manual control
- Professional Connections (SDI, HDMI, XLR, etc.)
- WiFi connection for monitoring, control, and metadata entry
- High Res LCD with touch screen controls, peaking, zebras, scopes, and 1:1 focusing

Something that meets all this criteria would blow my mind!

In addition to my dream camera I think a big brother $10k version with more features but still using the same accessories and has a similar picture quality is a plus.  That way you can rent the more expensive one when you need it while using the inexpensive one you own as a B camera.

My dream camera is probably not that far off, especially with companies like Blackmagic pushing the competition forward.

One final note: I love technology and obsess over gear.  But these are just tools to aid the storyteller.  I do the best I can with the best gear I have access to today while I get excited about what may be available to me tomorrow.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hanging with the Horses

Kim and I moved recently into a small house that shares property next to some horses.  I feel like I've escaped the city in a way when I see these horses hanging out behind my new home.

On a lazy Saturday I pulled out my Canon T2i and slapped the nifty-fifty on it and grabbed some shots of these horses.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

iPhone HDR

Trapped indoors on a snowy afternoon, I found myself bored and playing with my iPhone's camera yet again.  The following images illustrate a concept I often find myself explaining to clients or students new to film making.  It shows why I prefer to shoot a flat image and play with the contrast and saturation later as opposed to doing it in camera.  The iPhone's camera is decent for a smart phone, but it doesn't hold a candle to a DSLR or professional camcorder.  So due to the lack in quality and the low lighting in the room these images aren't the sharpest or cleanest.  But they still get the point across.

In this first image I exposed for the vase.  It shows the limitations of my iPhone camera's dynamic range (the values from black to white).   This is similar to what the contrast looks like when a camera is set to standard video settings.  The windows are blown out, and even the highlights on the flowers are clipped.  While the image looks subjectively "good" it is not ideal.
This second image was taken using the iPhone's "HDR" (High Dynamic Range) option.  The iPhone accomplishes a higher dynamic range from its camera by taking two exposures, one faster and one slower, and combining them (this can have undesired artifacts and isn't ideal for every picture).  The result is more information from the whitest white to the blackest black.  This image looks flat or lacking in strong contrast, and even a little too dark.  To the untrained eye it is not as good as the first image.

I took the HDR image into Adobe's Photoshop Express app and did some minimal adjustments.
It has more vibrant color and better contrast than the original image while not completely blowing out the window.  You can also see that the highlights on the vase and the flowers are retained.

While this is not a perfect test with high quality equipment, I believe it illustrates my point.  The more information you gather in the original exposure the better you can make it look later.

Ideally one is able to shoot in RAW mode on a DSLR or higher end digital cinema cameras.  RAW retains more of the information captured by the camera's sensor so things like white balance, sharpness, and exposure can be adjusted later.

To make a JPEG the camera has to bake settings into the image and information is lost.  Shooting with a flatter picture style will retain some of the detail that would otherwise be lost.  Professional camcorders and digital cinema cameras have film-like picture styles or gamma modes attempt to save more of that detail.

Image sensors are improving all the time.  More color, more dynamic range, more resolution...  I do my best to get the most out of them.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Return to Middle Earth in 48 frames a second

I've learned a lot in the last ten years.  While I like to think that I'm the same as always, experience has definitely had an impact on me.

One constant is that 'The Lord of the Rings' has remained my favorite movie franchise.  It's a pinnacle in cinematic achievement and an inspiring series of movies.  They haven't lost their luster.  However, I don't care for the extended editions as much as I once did.  I now recognize that the theatrical releases are superior edits in most ways (the one exception to that is the exclusion of Saruman's death).

It was easily foreseeable that 'The Hobbit' would see its big screen debut with all the money there was to be had.  I'm glad the same New Zealand team took on the project.  Much of the world has looked forward to returning to Middle Earth through their unique perspective.

Peter Jackson did loose some credibility with his overindulgent 'King Kong' movie.  When I first saw 'Fellowship of the Ring' I knew nothing about him so he gained a lot of respect in my eyes.  By 'The Return of the King' I had done my homework and knew the director wasn't perfect, but was still amazingly gifted.  And more importantly he had built a team around him of amazing talent.

I was accepting and open to the decision of breaking 'The Hobbit' into two parts.  But I felt that one movie would still be the best way to show appreciation for the quaint nature of the book.  There's a reason why the Necromancer story remains largely in the appendices.  Tolkien did a great job of backing up his stories with an elaborate history.  It gives the stories depth.  But the magic of the actual books is a feeling of the larger world in the background while the story movies forward, not being force fed every dry detail.  Understanding Tolkien's notes is important for making the film.  But there is no pressing need to explain all of it to an audience.  In spite of all that I was willing to give them a chance to prove me wrong.

When the project was split into a trilogy it felt like the studios were overindulging  Peter Jackson for a money grab.  Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games are all franchises that began slitting up the books for no good story reason.  From a story perspective, splitting 'The Hobbit' into three parts leaves the conclusion that the third movie will mostly likely be one giant three hour battle.  After barely getting through the long battle that took up over half of 'The Return of the King' I am not particularly looking forward to the third part of 'The Hobbit' trilogy.

Another bold and controversial decision made by Peter Jackson was to shoot not only in stereo 3D, but to double the frame rate.  If you haven't already had the history lesson:  Silent films were shot with hand-cranked cameras at about 16 to 18 frames per a second (fps).  When sound was introduced 24fps was settled on as cost/quality balance.  I've heard the human eye can discern around 50-60 images a second.  This means that movies move in a different way than we perceive motion in every day life.  When digital high-definition came around George Lucas was adamant that the cameras support a 24fps format.  The Japanese Sony engineers told him 60fps is better because it's more life-like and smooth.  Part of the need for digital 24fps was that movies were still being printed on actual film and converting 60fps to 24ps is a pain and doesn't work quite right.  Also, 24fps is why movies look like movies and not soap operas or sports broadcasts.  "Better" is relative.  There's more to film exposure versus video capture but I'm not going to get into that in this post.

Digital image capture has advanced to the point of replacing celluloid.  As the technology races forward perhaps we don't need to be locked into the conventional thinking of the past.  Movie-making has always been split into different disciplines: Art, Business, and Technology.  All three play off each other for better or worse.  The technological and business decision to shoot at 24fps had an artistic implication.  Now the technology doesn't lock us into that original decision and financially it is becoming viable to change things up.  Shoot at 24, 25, 30, 48, 50, or even 60 frames a second.  People all over the world will be able to watch your video.

Over ten years ago I was all for replacing film with digital high-definition video.  I love the advances in technology that democratize movie-making by making the tools affordable to anybody.  But there's always a price.  When affordable digital video cameras supported variable frame-rates I saw so much abuse by videographers who lacked in understanding of the technology.  They complained about 24p recordings largely because they captured/processed the footage incorrectly.  And the introduction of DSLRs that record high-definition video has led to even more crimes.  There's a large lack of understanding in how to properly capture an image.

Peter Jackson's team are not among those people.  They are professionals.  The decision to shoot in stereo 3D led to the idea to try out a new frame rate.  And that led to tests which brought them to informed decisions about how to properly expose images at this new frame rate.  The benefit for those of us not ready for the new frame rate is that 48fps down converts to the conventional 24fps in a simple way.

I first watched 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' in 2D at 24fps.  I've always found 3D to be distracting and with the addition of the high frame rate on top of that I figured I'd be unable to focus on the story if I saw the HFR 3D version upon my first viewing.  So I returned a second time to see the movie in HFR 3D.  There's split between people who love the new format and those who hate it.  While I don't hate it, I also don't prefer it.

This was my reaction:  At first 48fps felt unnerving, like the movie was playing back on fast-forward.  I got a bit nauseous.  But after some deep breaths I felt like I could hold on.  Half way through the film I acutally found myself enjoying a few shots here and there.  But overall it felt wrong.  By the end of the movie I had a mild headache.  When I made a stop to the restroom after the movie I looked into the mirror and saw my eyes were red.  I don't think I am ready for this new format.

While the higher frame rate probably helped most audiences enjoy the 3D by smoothing out the motion, I found it to be an information overload.  I have really become accustom to 24fps and after hours and hours of editing my brain has learned to read each image as it plays back in real-time.  Doubling the frame rate never allowed my brain to process or catch up with all the images and my eyes gave out.

I believe future generations of movie-goers will accept faster frame rates and even look at 24fps much like we look at movies from the silent era today, stuttery/jumpy.  But at the same time I believe that there is a larger-than-life magic to 24fps and it should be looked at as an ascetic choice.  It will not disappear overnight.  There is still a cost concern, high-frame-rates translate to higher data-rates and not every production has the budget of 'The Hobbit' to handle that.  It has taken ten years to replace film with digital.  And digital has taken the last five years to increase the number of pixels and in quality to surpass the quality of film.  With all of this to consider, 24fps is not on its way out the door.  Personally I'm more open to a compromise between higher frame rates and classic cinematic motion.  30fps seems to be the best of both worlds to me.  As I see it now, we will have choices in frame rates for the years to come.

As far as my review of the storytelling in 'The Hobbit':  I enjoyed the film, I even enjoyed it more with a second viewing.  But I feel it has its weak points.  I still hold to my belief that the additional material interrupted the flow of the story.  Radagast the Brown forced his way in.  Gandalf's meeting with Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman dragged.  Other complaints include: The troll with the high-pitched voice was obnoxious.  The Goblin King, while entertaining, had an over-the-top death.  The goblin kingdom fighting sequence became too side-scroller video game like for me.  And why was the main bad guy, Azog the Pale Orc, the only CG character who really stood out?

The strengths of this film are: Martin Freeman as Bilbo, brilliant!  Riddles in the Dark was really well done, Gollum tops himself again.  Overall superb visuals with gorgeous cinematography.  Highly detailed props, sets, wardrobe, and make-up, it held up even at the higher frame rate.  And the 3D, although still distracting, is the best I've seen.  In short, I was happy to return to Middle Earth.

While I do look forward to the next film, I am reserved about the third.  I am still of the opinion that one movie would have given me everything I wanted out of 'The Hobbit'.  This trilogy comes with a lot of extras I don't care for.  An extended home movie release would have sufficed as a way to include the additional content.

As I said at the start of this blog post, I have learned over the last ten years.  Another ten years will inevitably bring more change.  I don't change my opinions lightly and I hope my current perspective maintains its validity in the coming years.

About Me

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Sandy, Utah, United States
I make movies with my friends. I like to find humor in just about anything. I live in a dark cave similar to Batman's as far as cool computer equipment goes. But my cave lacks the gym, car, and suit...