Saturday, September 13, 2014

••◊ Random Travel Photos From Boise

I spent the last few days in Boise and took some obligatory pictures to share on my blog.  Meet the new state mascot, Darth Tater.  "May The Starch Be With You" seems like a true stretch, but Idaho isn't known as a center of fashion design and marketing.  There is a "force" after eating starchy foods, but it's not a force most people want to let loose in public places.

The hotel I stayed at was well decorated, so I took a few photos while waiting for someone in the lobby.

The real reason I look forward to Boise trips are the walks along the river.  Boise has a nice trail going east and west along the north bank of the Boise River.  The usual assortment of dog walkers and runners enjoy a morning stroll...then there's me brandishing a camera and trying to make it clear that I'm not trying to take their picture. It's interesting to walk along the river because you quickly realize that all greenery 40 or more feet from the river is artificially supported with landscape irrigation, just like in San Diego.  Boise is what I would describe as arid prairie; mostly brown year round.

Two years ago I was on the same walk and came across this wagon in a field.  This time the wagon was at the end of the newly paved section of the trail.  Last time I was there the weather was cloudy and dismal winter blue, making for miserable pictures.  This time I took advantage of the bright summer lighting.


Then there's the obligatory pictures of the river itself.

On the way back we had a stop over in Las Vegas for an hour.  After being in Boise I was looking around the airport and realizing what a culture shock this transition was.  I was traveling from ultra conservative quiet Idaho where the airport is considered crowded with 10 people in the TSA line to sin city.  When I first got off the plane I wondered why are all these womens' skirts so short?  What is up with all this gambling and why is the airport so busy?  Leopard print...really?

The nice thing was that the flight home was quiet and the view over the southern California desert was pretty at night.  I wished I could have caught it better with the camera I had.  The light on the horizon created this dappled golden landscape with hazy blue shadows behind the hills.  By the time the landscape was at its most spectacular there just wasn't enough light to take a picture with the point and shoot I had with me.  It's better to experience in person anyway.

Monday, September 8, 2014

••◊ Diffusion Materials for Film and Video Lighting

This week's entry comes from a reclined position on the couch.  I became ill after a music video shoot on Saturday and since then my life has consisted of a series of positional changes while sitting or laying on the couch.  I'm trying to get work done in between naps.  So whatever entry I did today had to be within arm's reach of the couch.

Last week I grabbed some swatch book samples for Lee and Rosco filter products from my local production supply house.  If you don't have these I would recommend that you get them.  The swatches are free and help you choose filter colors and diffusion material without having to just buy a bunch of stuff and try it.  The reason I grabbed the swatch books is that I couldn't find any good reading material on the Internet about standard film lighting diffusion material - i.e. 216, 250, opal, soft frost, grid cloth...etc.  Most professionals seem to have their selection of what diffusion material to use in which situation and it made me feel like I needed to do a bit of self education.

First, I want to say that I come into this study with no particular preference for brand.  Despite similar naming conventions the brands of diffusion and filters have some very significant differences.  It was sort of like when I had a sheet of full CTB from Rosco and went into the shop looking for more.  They only had Lee, which looked quite a bit different!  That taught me to stick with one brand for the particular product I was looking for.  The same can be said of diffusion.

So let's start looking at the diffusion materials, shall we?  216 is the catch all, default diffusion material.  I once read a recommendation from an ASC member that said that if you don't know what you want, start with 216, then decide if you want more or less diffusion.  While Rosco claims a "minimal" color shift, Lee actually rates the color temperature of the material at 6774K, which means it will add blue to your lighting.  Also, if you look at the pictures you'll see that Lee is more dense than Rosco (this isn't a good/bad judgment).  The density is supposed to be similar to tracing paper, but tough enough to withstand film production. 

Another common type of diffusion material is grid cloth.  Grid cloth is known for creating a mixture of diffusion and directional light.  As you can see in the photos below the cloth is a woven grid which heavily diffuses light, along with a less dense base which allows some directionality.  I often hear about other DP's using this as a close proximity diffusion material to emulate diffuse daylight.  One thing that I noticed when reviewing the two swatches is that there is a color temperature difference between the two materials.  The Lee fabric is slighting cooler and the Rosco material is slightly warmer.  You may or may not be able to see the difference on your screen, so I would recommend reviewing the swatches in real life.

Grid cloth comes in a few densities.  Another common fabric is light grid cloth.  As the name implies, it's a lighter density than full grid cloth.  Here the Rosco brand is a bit more diffuse than Lee, however both maintain about the same grid geometry.

Speaking of density, a common use of grid cloth is diffusing light outdoors.  The problem is that these industrial fabrics can be quite tough and stiff, so they make noise that will drive your sound person nuts in the wind.  For these situations the vendors make silent grid cloth.  It tends to be a bit more dense than regular grid cloth, but as you'll see in the photos it's also much more pliable.  So when silent grid cloth flaps in the wind it doesn't make as much noise.

A few DP's I know of like to use either quarter grid cloth or half-soft frost for overhead diffusion outdoors.  I think it depends on the amount of "raccoon eye" correction you're going for, because sometimes I want a full grid or a silk.  The photos below show that Rosco is a bit more dense and has a larger grid pattern than Lee, so the diffusion is going to have a different effect between brands.  The dot pattern on half-soft frost is also a bit different, so the two brands have slightly different diffusion characteristics (but I probably wouldn't be able to notice a difference). 


I realize this can all be a bit confusing.  You're probably thinking what I was thinking at first - "OK, what do I use?"  That just has to come from experience and working with a great gaffer.  My best advice is to follow what a wise DP once told me - "start with 216 and figure out if you need more or less diffusion."

One thing I've been meaning to do lately is go on another expedition to the fabric store and figure out which of these diffusion materials I can closely approximate with regular fabric.  "Rags", as the industry calls them, can be quite expensive.  Sometimes you can get something close enough for $10 at a fabric store as long as it doesn't have to be flame retardant or made for the rigors of daily production.

Monday, September 1, 2014

••◊ "It'll Be Great For Your Portfolio!"

This week I was reminded of one of the common annoyances of being a no-name in video production.  I received an email that we pretty much all have in the past saying, "such-and-such company/organization needs a video done.  They don't have a budget, but it'll be great for your portfolio!"  I usually equate these messages with the calls I receive from phone solicitors every week.

First, do you know what I do?  I don't do event videography unless it's an organization I'm involved with or have a passion about.  As a DP I do photography for motion pictures.  I direct a crew to light a scene, frame the shot, plan equipment needs, and move a camera.  That's what I do.  If they can't afford to hire me that also means they can't afford to hire my AC, provide catering, a camera rental, as well as grip equipment.  Even most of the videographers I know in town need to have the cost of their camera equipment amortized over the year, so they aren't likely to bring their gear to a freebie shoot.

Then you get the statement, "it'll be great exposure!"  Do you really know who I want to be exposed to?  Do I want to be exposed to more NPO's that want free work done?  How will I be credited such that everyone watching the video will know?  Who is doing the edit and color grade such that my footage won't get screwed up in post and I'll look bad?  Unfortunately I've learned this the hard way through the last few years.  There are certain people who you don't want to work with because you know their standards for "good enough" will make my work look like an unprofessional amateur.  There are also projects where I requested to have my name removed from the credits in the end.  Doing these type of projects doesn't get you very far as a director.  Not all exposure is good exposure.

Now there is a time and place for the infamous "portfolio" and "exposure" keywords.  For instance I shot a promo for Aerial Mob earlier this year.  I knew the director and crew and the level of work they wanted to achieve.  I was working with a prototype camera and stabilization system which I knew would get attention on the Internet - which it did.  The video also ended up as a demo at NAB in 2014 playing at the Tiffen booth. 

I like freebie work when I know I'm going to learn something; for instance, working with an ASC member as I did last summer on a documentary or on the Aerial Mob shoot where we were working with the prototype Panasonic GH4 and the Movi-like handheld stabilizer.  Learning opportunities put a few more useful bullets in my back pocket when difficult situations arise.  I love freebie shoots for learning new cameras.  That's how I learned how to use the Red Epic, C100, FS-700, and most of the cameras I've used.

So before someone comes begging to me for free camera work they need to look at it from my perspective.  Does the production really offer anything?  My colleague Angelina has made the proclamation that she won't work on free projects unless it's a passion project.  The trick with marketing free projects is how you sell the "passion" part.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

••◊ Tips for Outdoor Lighting, part 2: Reading a Light Meter

This week's entry falls into the category of "great-big-DUH!"  I was shooting the outdoor lighting tutorial last week and facing a few production delays while I figured out the difference between the light meter reading and the five to seven stops of ND filtering I was using to control exposure in mid-afternoon sunshine.  While flipping through the Sekonic manual later that day looking for a solution I found that the "Cine" version of my meter allows you to program in .3-.9 ND's.  I would have expected this to be programmed into my meter as well given the price, but it really doesn't matter.  Only three stops of ND?...Completely useless in Southern California sunshine.  Just look at the meter reading below.  This was taken at about 4pm and it's still reading f/64-ish at ISO 800!  My lenses max out at f/22 and nobody runs in that range anyway because of diffraction.

The other kicker to this is that cameras like the C100 have their full highlight range starting at ISO 850.  The FS-700 is typically ISO 640 with Cine-gamma 4 or ISO 500 with Cine-gamma 3.  Using less than these ISO's can sometimes not be possible or actually hurt your highlight range.  So the only good answer is to use neutral density filters (ND filters) to control the harsh sunlight.

One simple method I thought of the next day is to simply use an ISO level which corresponds to the amount of ND you've applied.  I didn't even know that my meter could read at ISO 3, but sure enough it does.  So for instance if you have a camera like the Canon C100 and want to run at ISO 800 (I'll talk about ISO 850 a bit later), then you can apply the following table.

ISO                        ND                         Stops
800                        0                             0
400                        .3                            -1
200                        .6                           -2
100                        .9                           -3
50                          1.2                         -4
25                          1.5                         -5
12                          1.8                         -6
6                            2.1                         -7
3                            2.4                         -8

So for instance if we have the camera set to ISO 800 and the meter reads f/64 as the above pictures shows, then I scroll the ISO setting down to ISO 3 and it reads f/4, I know I need 8 stops of ND to get down to a more typical cinema aperture.  Likewise, if I just go ahead and install 7 stops of ND I can scroll my meter's ISO setting down to ISO 6 and take proper readings, which should read in the neighborhood of f/5.6 in this example.  This is much simpler and quicker than figuring out the ND calculation in my head, which can be a real mental challenge when you're trying to write, direct, produce, shoot, and otherwise run a production.  Shortcuts that help the production work faster are always welcome.

Now for the pesky ISO 850 setting that Canon provides as the "optimal" sensitivity...That's only about 0.1 stop more sensitive than ISO 800.  So for practical purposes you can just use the ISO 800 reading or subtract 0.1 stop from the meter reading if you feel you have a very accurate reading.  Sure enough, if you look Canon's charts in the article I linked to above you'll find that there's only 0.1 stop of difference in highlight retention between ISO 800 and ISO 850.

Hope this helps some folks.  I certainly need to do some work on understanding how to properly do meter readings in different situations.  That's a whole advanced DP topic unto itself.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

••◊ Tips for Outdoor Lighting

Yesterday I filmed a short tutorial on outdoor lighting techniques at Video Gear.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

••◊ Pictures from the 2014 San Marcos Criterium

I wanted to post some highlights from this last weekend's San Marcos Criterium put on by my cycling club, Ranchos Cycling.  As with a lot of events, taking pictures of the same bicycle race year after year can get a bit long in the tooth.  There's only so many leader formations, solo breakaways, or Dutch angles of people on bicycles I want to capture.  This year I mostly concentrated on people I know in the races and uploaded plenty of pictures to my Flickr account ( also linked to in the left pane of my blog ) for friends to enjoy.  Welcome to the wonderful world of rip-your-legs-off road racing.

At this point Roger was making a solo breakaway from the the back. As he was coming up the climb I told him to at least look good if he was going to drop out.  Like a serious artist photographer I decreed, "A little more attitude.  There you go.  I want more of that.  Just one more,"  hoping his wife, who was standing a few feet away, wouldn't start throwing water bottles at me.  She's a former hardcore racer chick.

Last, but not least, is a photo sequence I took of an race rules illegal beer feed station someone tried to improvise along the course.  We were on a college campus, so you might expect this from some frat boys.  In this case I think they were just mountain bikers - not a large difference if you've ever been to a mountain bike race.

As usual, the photos are free for non-commercial use.  Contact me for licensing if you want to use them for commercial media.  Until next year...keep hammering.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

••◊ Kodak Film Lives!

I was intrigued by postings at a number of websites today about the deal struck between Hollywood studios and Kodak.  The deal is basically that Kodak will continue to make movie film as long as the studios guarantee to purchase a certain yearly amount.  Fuji exited this business in March 2013, so that leaves Kodak as the last film business.  In the ASC magazine I receive every month at least one article talks about a project shot on film which just completed before the film developing service the project was using shut down.  Then there's the matter of the cameras.  Arri stopped production of film cameras years ago knowing that the future was digital.  What happens when those Hollywood cameras run out of spare parts.  Will Hollywood studios cut another deal with Arri to continue production of spare parts?  How about film processing?  With most film processing houses already gone will Hollywood studios partner and fund a common processing facility somewhere in West Hollywood?  Then there's film schools.  How will those schools continue to teach about using film when all those cameras and the film stock are precious and in short supply?  That means the newest generation of "filmmakers" will be as educated in using film as audio engineering students are with cutting acetate on an LP.

The estimate is that Kodak's film business went from a staggering 12.4 billion feet per year in 2006 to a measly 449 million feet per year.  Typically a roll of film negative is about 400 ft, just as an FYI.  Pretty much all theaters have converted to digital projection, thank goodness.  As you can probably guess the vast majority of those linear feet were positive film projection reels which are not required anymore thanks to DCP and digital projection.  I will never miss the jumpy frames nor the squiggly lines up in the corner when switching between reels...or the really old reel that should have been retired years ago with dust and scratches along with bad soundtracks!

The initiative to save film was lead by Chris Nolan (+Wally Pfister, ASC), Quentin Tarantino (+Robert Richardson, ASC), and JJ Abrams (+Dan Mindel, ASC).  I've never shot with film, so I can't pretend to be some type of expert in this field.  What I do understand is digital capture.  So is this just a matter of people holding on to what they know?  Does it really matter to shoot on film when just about every film goes through a digital intermediate now days?  If we can make digital look "digital" or "filmic" in post, doesn't that give the content producers more freedom?

Some other items in my understanding are that films like Skyfall (Arri Alexa camera), Zero Dark Thirty (Arri Alexa), and The Social Network (Red One camera) were all shot on digital cameras.  Was the experience really compromised by the capture medium?  I loved the look of all those films.  It seems to me that there's more to movie making than the look of film.  To me, and my non-ASC cinematographer opinion, a movie is about storytelling.  It's about how the camera moves, the camera placement, lighting, shot composition, actor blocking, production design, and that certain believability that makes you think a 50-something male actor can still attract a 20-something female actor (OK maybe that was a little over the top, but it happens too often in Hollywood movies not to recognize it - Tom Cruise, anyone?)

I was thinking about this subject earlier this week and reminded myself that I am not a filmmaker.  There is no film.  I'm a storyteller.  I try to tell stories with my work in cinematography.  My goal is to help the director create believability and draw the audience in, not create "footage" - for which there is no such thing anymore, practically speaking.

I was at an ASC open house earlier this year and one ASC member made the point that "digital is as bad as it will ever be, and it's pretty darn good."  I agree.  It's not about the capture medium.  It's about great storytelling.  Just like when records transitioned to CD's it didn't change who created great music or what was considered great music.  It's about compelling content.