Tuesday, October 13, 2015

4K won't save you...

4K is quickly emerging as the new standard for image resolution in the world of video. With 4x more pixels as compared to HD one might wonder, does it really give you a picture that is noticeably 4x better? Television manufactures would tell you "Yes, of course!" However, based on my own experience, I'd say that in most situations it is hard to see the difference. The leap from standard definition to high definition was far more significant. But my opinions aside, I will concede that 4K, at least as an acquisition format, is quickly becoming ubiquitous. After all, even smart phones are capable of recording 4K video.

But in that ubiquity I feel like there many misconceptions about how we should take advantage of these extra pixels. A word of caution: don't rely on 4K as a safety net! It does not replace proper lighting, framing, and coverage. While it might solve specific issues in post production, no self respecting cinematographer should expect it to make up poor planning or sloppy camera work.

The following are circumstances I've seen where 4K didn't help:

4K won't save you if your shot is under or over exposed. Capturing more pixels doesn't help if those pixels are too noisy or blown out.

4K won't save you if your shot is out of focus. If your lens isn't sharp or if you don't have proper focus it doesn't matter that there are more pixels when they're all blurry.  This also applies if your shot is excessively shaky.  Yes, you can do better image stabilization with the extra resolution. But keep in mind that a really shaky shot can have more motion blur.

4K won't save you if you didn't get coverage. There are many scenarios in which you may need to reframe. For example, the boom mic or a c-stand is in the shot. Maybe the framing could be improved. Sometimes you may want to punch into a interview shot to hide an edit or for a dramatic effect. But these aren't always the most ideal solutions. The worst is trying to get all of the coverage for a scene out of a single wide angle shot. There's a big difference between physically changing a lens and the camera's position for a new angle versus cropping in on a single shot.

While there may be advantages to shooting in higher resolutions, that doesn't make up for bad filmmaking. Proper planning goes a long way. And always do your best work.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

5 Predictions for the Future of Filmmaking

Being obsessed with the movie making process I often speculate as to where the technology is headed.  Here are 5 predictions I think we'll see in implemented or invented in the coming years.

1.  We'll start with Video Literacy.  Educational institutions teach reading and writing as a basic curriculum.  Soon it will be necessary to teach at least some level of to make movies as well.  I'm not sure who coined the term "video literacy" but I do know George Lucas, among others, has often talked about it.  I envision a future where businesses will not rely on video production companies to produce everything and will start doing it themselves.  And I'm not just talking about a dedicated department.  I believe everyone, from the CEO to the new intern, will have to at least have some basic video production skills.  Employers will come to expect it on applicants resumes.  It seems obvious to me that because the tools are so accessible and affordable today it's only natural for more people to begin how to use them.  Video is the best way that I now of to communicate and idea, so why wouldn't we take advantage of that?

2.  Recently I delivered my first DCP (Digital Cinema Package), which is the digital equivalent of a film print, for a limited theatrical release.  It was exciting but it was also an intimidating challenge.  I read as much as I could online and asked a lot of questions to local projectionists as I could.  In the end it passed Deluxe Digital Cinema's quality control so I guess I did alright.  But during this whole process I couldn't help but think there must be an easier way.  The software plugins to make DCPs can be expensive and the servers to play them back at the theater have outrageous price tags.  I believe a company, perhaps Blackmagic Design or AJA, will develop an affordable digital cinema server that will not only play DCPs but more common formats like Apple ProRes files.  And this may by naive, but I'm hoping they'll find a way to do it for under $5,000.

3.  If you've seen my previous blog posts you may know that I'm a huge fan of Apple's editing software, Final Cut Pro X.  I've used it to edit 4 feature films now as well as many hundreds of other projects.  For years I've been dreaming of the day when I will be editing on a giant iPad.  Already we have iMovie on iOS devices, so I'm sure it's going to happen at some point.  I imagine myself moving clips around, trimming edits, playing with the color, and adjusting audio levels all in a multi-touch environment.  Someday soon I hope....

4.  A company that I've been very fascinated with is Lytro.  They make really cool cameras that are the next leap forward in photography. At a time when DSLRs have stagnated for years, Lytro has leaped into the future.  Their images allow you to adjust focus and perspective after you've taken the photo.  Plus you can even extract a 3D image.  So it's only a matter of time until this technology gets implemented into moving pictures as well.  Someday I believe we'll be ditching the lenses and heavy tripods and flying around with touch screen tablets.  In a virtual interface you'll be able to chose your field of view and depth of field to any custom setting.  And for those who liked how certain lenses looked I'm sure they'll have packages you can rent or buy from an app store to emulate a specific lens package.  It'll all be simple metadata that software will allow you to alter at any point down the road.  Further more we'll eliminate the need for chroma keying because the depth information of objects in front of this next generation camera will be stored digitally making it easy to cleanly replace backgrounds and objects.  This will require a lot of emerging technologies to be combined, not just Lytro, but I just got carried away describing my vision.

5.  This final idea I've had for over 10 years now.  I was playing Indiana Jones and the Emperors Tomb when I noticed a bit of cool sound design in the game.  As I got closer to these torches they got louder.  I started to think about how they may have programmed that and came up with an idea I hope to see implemented in the games and movies of the future.  Part of this idea is already in place with Dolby Atmos.  But I'd like to see it taken a step further.  So first think about how 3D modeling and animation tools work today.  You can assign textures and light objects in a virtual environment with a lot of detail and photorealism.  What if you could do the same thing for sound?  Imagine creating or reconstructing a movie set in the computer and then assigning properties to the objects and placing sound effects and dialog into this world.  Then you could place virtual microphones to capture it all in a very realistic way.  You could even create new sounds virtually.  It all comes down to accurate mathematical equations in this physics driven software.  I'd love to help develop a tool like this if anybody reading this has an idea of where to start development.

So there's a glimpse into the inner workings of my brain.  It all might be impractical or things could take a completely unforeseen turn.  But speculating on this kind of stuff helps me wake up in the morning.

Monday, May 26, 2014

What Star Wars means to me

Even though it can upset me, I don't blame anybody for asking, "Hey Brad, what do you think about them making more Star Wars movies?"  I am a huge fan, have been since I was a kid, and Star Wars is a big deal to me.

Like countless others, Star Wars inspired me to pursue my movie making career.  Before seeing the behind-the-scenes TV specials and making of documentaries for Star Wars I had no clue that movie making was even a legitimate career choice.  I began making videos by helping my brother and his friends with school projects and continued doing it with my own friends.  By the time I was 12 years old I was determined to become a movie director.  My parents were less thrilled, it didn't seem like a practical or realistic career goal to them.  But Star Wars ignited a passion in me and it has not stopped.

There is a whole other type of Star Wars fan, one that still loves the visuals, the stories, and characters as much as I do, but has no interest in knowing how it was all put together.  I have shelves dedicated to the making of books and all things George Lucas.  I can't get enough of it.  The immediate impact Star Wars had on the world is obvious, there were huge technical advances made in cinema for the first time in decades and "blockbuster" became a regular word in our vocabulary.  But George Lucas' digital revolution had more far reaching implications than just the way Hollywood movies were produced.

Anybody starting out in filmmaking today owes a great deal to George Lucas' original vision for the future of cinema.  The tools I use everyday were envisioned decades ago by Lucas and he stood out from the crowd by pursuing their development.  I am not just talking about big visual effects.  As a direct result of Star Wars we have ultra high definition camcorders, computer editing software, and surround sound in our homes.  Before Star Wars no one really cared to realize any of these technologies.  Now anybody has access to the tools to tell a great story, even with limited means.  The far reaching affects of this cannot be understated and it should not be taken for granted.

That is why I am so upset that JJ Abrams is so adamant that the production of the new Star Wars movie ignore all of these advancements and go back to shooting on celluloid film.  It's a technology that is over 100 years old.  It's expensive.  It deteriorates.  It isn't good in low light.  It scratches easily.  It has a lot of noisy grain.  It requires a lot of processing time and extra work.  Plain and simple it is not the most ideal way to capture an image.  I don't understand why anybody would ever want to shoot on it today other than for nostalgia or because they think they're too good for newer technology.

Is digital cinema perfect?  No.  Is film better?  Maybe in a few ways, but not even close when you go down a check list of every consideration.  Overall I'd pick many digital cameras over any film camera regardless of my movie's budget.

The decision to shoot a new Star Wars movie on film is a blasphemous statement that George Lucas got it wrong.  Everything he invested in and developed was a waste of time, money, and effort.  They're openly stating that the Prequel Trilogy was a failure and that it's time to go back to the way things were done over 3 decades ago.  I agree that the Original Trilogy is better than the Prequels.  But I don't believe it's because George Lucas was too caught up in pushing digital cinema further.  In fact, I would say that advancing digital cinema was the Prequels greatest strength.  To say that the Prequels were failures because they had computer generated characters and were shot on HD tape instead of film is as ill-informed as saying that Pixar movies are always number one at the box office because they are 3D animated instead of 2D hand drawn.

So what were the shortcomings of the Prequels?  It can be boiled down to one word, story.  I hope that doesn't sound like an oversimplification.  In fact story is the culmination of thousands and thousands of decisions, big and small, made by hundreds of people.  In the end one man was at the helm and the final decisions were his alone.  There are redemptive qualities that the Prequels possess, in spite of their shortcomings.  I still enjoy watching them and am happy that those new movies were made in my lifetime.  Likewise, I am thrilled that Star Wars gets to continue for the foreseeable future.  Currently I am most looking forward to the series "Star Wars Rebels."

What about Episode VII?  Sure, I'm jealous that I don't get to be the one to make it (as are many others).  But it's more than that.  Star Wars means so much to so many of us and I have my reservations.  Part of the magic of Star Wars is giving us something new in a way that we haven't seen before.  So I am highly suspicious of the Episode VII crew's idea that shooting in London on traditional film cameras with the original cast will somehow recapture the nostalgia of the originals.  Lightning seldom strikes in the same place twice.  So instead of looking back, why don't they look forward?

I admire filmmakers like Peter Jackson who are bold enough to experiment and try something new.  I didn't originally agree with his decision to shoot the Hobbit in 3D HFR, but I respect him for doing it.  Setting my own biases and personal tastes aside, I sincerely believe that new Star Wars movies should be done with a similar approach.  There is an entire generation of Star Wars fans that have spent more time in the Star Wars Universe playing video games than watching the movies.  And looking to the future, many movie goers will see traditional 24fps film much like we look at 16fps silent black and white film today.  The technology already exists to please the audience of the future as well as audiences right now.  So why not take the risk?

Whether it's old technology or new technology, it is still technology and therefor requires a technical process.  The advances that have been made in digital cinema are there to benefit us as filmmakers by removing unnecessary difficulties and allowing us to stay focused on more important things like story.  Digital is not a distraction, it enables artists to do better work than ever could before.  Thank you George Lucas for making movies better.

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.

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...