Canon 24-105mm: Mark 1 vs Mark 2

To start, I have a specific use for the Canon 24-105mm ƒ4 IS: vérité/handheld video work for documentary/corporate/commercials, so that’s primarily how I’ll frame my thoughts on these lenses. I should also warn you that I shot videos samples of both the MK1 and the MK2 and honestly, it’s nearly impossible to tell a difference. If that’s all you were looking for to help inform any future rental/purchase decisions, you’re good to go—there’s hardly an optical difference! However, I still prefer the MK2 over the MK1.  So here are my long-winded thoughts on both options, and why I now own a Canon 24-105mm MK2.

24-105

The Oopsie & The Situation

It was just before the holidays, so everyone was pretty drained on this one particular gig in mid-December. It was a long day, and as we wrapped at one location, ready to move on to the next one, I grabbed our run bag to load in a hodgepodge of gear (enough to get us wrapped as soon as possible). Unfortunately, it wasn’t zipped all the way, and my Canon 24-105mm flew out of the bag, nailing the slick asphalt below. It’s the moment every gear owner fears—The Big Oopsie (well, it could have been bigger, and oopsier, so there’s that).

Anyway, as you can imagine, the scene was not good. The zoom was stuck. The focus ring could hardly move. The thing was borked. So I sent it off to Canon to be repaired.

If you’ve never sent a piece of gear to Canon, you’ll need to know two things: 1) They’re very professional, and take good care of your equipment. 2) You will pay such an exorbitant price for your repair, you’ll often wonder why you even sent it in the first place. So here I was, praying it was just a $200-300 repair. I was contacted by Canon who notified me that my lens would cost $615 to repair (including shipping, so hey, that’s a bonus!). Which is outrageous to think—you can get this same lens used for an equal or lesser amount than the repair would cost. So now I have a permanent reminder that haste makes very expensive waste.

So that’s my special, specific circumstances for why I needed to buy a replacement, and as such, had to look in to what the new Canon 24-105mm had to offer over the first version.

Why I used the Canon 24-105mm ƒ4 for documentary work

As of writing this—in February 2017—the cine zoom market is just on the verge of being flooded with options. The Canon 18-80mm, the Zeiss 21-100mm, the Angenieux EZ lenses—and those are just the ones that interest me for my work, there are even more on the way. But I have work I need to do now, and investing $5,000 – $13,000 in a lens is something I need to put much thought in to (if I can even afford it!), so I need a trusted solution immediately. More often than not, I shoot in a documentary style, and I do so on the Sony FS7, primarily. I use a metabones speedbooster for most lenses, except for the few APS-C lenses I keep for specific needs (Sigma 18-35mm, Toking 11-16mm). I just prefer the look that the speedbooster gives me. So all of this specific set up leads the Canon 24-105mm to be a great choice: It has a great range, an okay aperture (ƒ4 is too high for video work, but the speedbooster helps), and image stabilization. All for a pretty cheap cost (compared to what cine zooms cost, especially considering this $5-10K cine zoom market is only just now becoming a reality). If you’re not familiar with lenses, you need to know, like everything, it’s a balance. Cost, size, features, etc. The Canon 24-105mm has been the lens for me, for now, because it’s relatively cheap, has good IS (which I don’t believe is the case with the only real competition for this lens, the Sigma 24-105mm), and has a large enough focal range that I don’t need to swap lenses to get on the fly coverage. So for right now, this is what I have to work with, and given enough light, it works out pretty well.

Testing Grounds

I rented the Canon 24-105mm MK2 (from Borrowlenses.com) and mentioned it online. My friend Toby, who runs Photorec.tv, mentioned he could get me a rental of the MK1 to do some testing. So I had a couple days between gigs to try them both out. As always, I wish I had more time, but those rentals go by quick. Everything above and below is not scientific, and completely opinion based—no charts, no graphs, just a tired person ranting about a niche product. So take it all with a grain of salt. But I haven’t found anyone out there discussing these lenses in a perspective for video, which I found surprising. So anyway, if you’re looking for nitty gritty scientific data, or a photographer’s take on this upgraded lens, I suggest one of the following:

DXO

Ken Rockwell

The Digital Picture

I want to thank these people for creating their very in-depth reviews, it absolutely helped me in understanding what the new lens had to offer. I suggest that everyone check out these reviews to get a better understanding of the changes with the MK2.

What I like about the MK2

BUILD: The build of the 24-105mm mk2 is what sets it apart from its predecessor. The focus ring is smoother, bigger, and overall more reliable for manual focus. This is something that a photographer might not find necessary at all, especially if you’re going to have this lens live on AF. But for video work, we need manual focus. The MK1’s focus ring was always a little small, and a little sticky. It wasn’t awful, but I definitely didn’t get smooth focus racking like I can with the MK2. This is a huge step forward if you’re using this lens like I am.

STABILIZATION: The stabilization has been improved…or what I would say, has been changed. The 24-105mm is not only valuable because of it’s range, but because of image stabilization. This is a key element for handheld documentary work. I had been using the MK1 for years, so I know how the IS worked (at least with my copy). I knew what it could and couldn’t do. I knew I could get away with a certain amount of drifting to fake a slider/dolly shot, or that at 24mm I could follow a subject and the IS would do some work to smooth out the offset of my walk. But Canon did something different with the MK2’s IS, which is both good and bad. I found that for static shots, it was markedly improved, taking out micro jitters and just delivering an overall solid image. But for weird moves like orbiting, or quick movements, the IS would freak out a bit, as if it was trying too hard to compensate for the movement. Where the MK1’s IS would just take it in stride, and do what it could. I guess you could relate it to noise reduction—when you get a really good noise pattern, a computer can get in there and make the image look beautiful, because it has so many data points to work with. But when it doesn’t, it starts making bad guesses, and the noise reduction becomes very apparent. The same can be said with the IS in the MK2. When it’s good, it’s great. When it’s bad, it’s rough. But it’s a net gain in my opinion over the previous lens.

LOCK: Having a zoom lock at 24mm is great (although I’d prefer to have this throughout the zoom range).

OPTICS: Distortion at 24mm seems to be improved, and I did notice a difference with flaring. Ten aperture blades means we get rounder out of focus highlights, which I’m always for! This is completely anecdotal, but I believe the bokeh is better on the MK2.

What I don’t like about the MK2

PRICE: Obviously, cost is an issue. But if you take it for face value, it’s technically only $100 more new than the MK1. No one should be buying the Canon 24-105mm MK1 new, so in a way price isn’t too big of an issue (or so I choose to tell myself). And as we all know, this price will come down with time. So don’t rush out to buy unless you have to (which is unfortunately my situation).

OPTICS: Optical improvement is limited. I don’t like that the sharpness in the center has declined. However overall sharpness has improved, which is welcome. Breathing was pretty rough, but it’s not any better on the MK1 (and also, it’s a stills lens, so it’s expected). I guess I was hoping for some optical improvements, but instead it seems Canon looked to perfect the build of there 10+ year old lens. I can’t blame them—they sell a ton of these things, especially being a kit lens.

Which lens I would suggest (and what I’m going with)

Well, spoiler alert: I’ve already placed an order on the MK2. I found the new focus ring to be too valuable of an upgrade to pass up. I think the IS will be helpful as well. And buying new will help me with warranty, which I’m definitely going to pay attention to from now on (and you should too, even on top of insurance). I really struggled with this though, because I found plenty of used copies online. But ultimately it seems the MK2 is right for me (after discussing it, or rather, constantly bugging my business partner and wife about the decision for a few days now).

But that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. In fact, I think my purchase is an outlier. If you have the MK1 and it still works, there is really no reason to upgrade. If you’re a photographer, I really don’t know why you’d upgrade at all…ever. If like me you need to buy one because of gear failure, I’d still suggest renting first to check it out. Either way, I can’t see why I photographer would really be interested in the MK2, aside from some extra stops of IS. For video work, it’s definitely worth looking in to, but if your budget is tight, just get a used MK1.

 

Huge thanks to Tobias Gelston, Photorec.tv, and lensprotogo.com for hooking me up with a rental of the MK1 version of the lens while mine meets its maker (literally?).

Using Final Cut Pro X for Quick Color Correction

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Yesterday I had a really hard time getting a project in to Black Magic’s DaVinci Resolve (lots of mixed media, QTDecoder bug which I still haven’t figured out, but I think it has to do with H.264 media from a Canon 5DMKIII). I don’t have the time to troubleshoot right now, so I decided to brave the FCPX color correction avenue (because that’s what the project was cut in). It’s not as robust as DaVinci, but you can still do a lot—Much more than I initially thought. Unsurprisingly, Apple’s take on color correction is just as distant from the norm as FCPX is for editing.

 

Color correction "classic"
Color Correction “classic” (DaVinci Resolve)

 

It's like the original iMac's silly one-click mouse...sleek, shiny, and frustrating.
Apple’s new color correction method—It’s like the original iMac’s silly one-click mouse…sleek, shiny, and frustrating. (FCPX)

 

 

First thing to know: You’ll be moving pucks around. A lot. And it’s still not fun (when doing your primary correction). If you’ve ever opened FCPX up, you’ve probably seen them. One for highlights, mid tones, shadows, and global. I prefer the 3-color wheels, as is common throughout post production applications. This is possible with some third-party plugins (FilmConvert being one of them), but I’d rather just be in DaVinci (when it works).

 

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These color correction wheels are a little difficult to work with…but still a good effort.

 

As for the pucks in FCPX, they do actually become a pleasant surprise to use when adjusting specific hue v hue/hue v luma/hue v saturation scenarios. As you can see in the examples below (check out that sweet .gif I finally figured out how to make!), changing specific hue properties in DaVinci Resolve is a powerful and easy process. The best way I’ve found to mimic this usage in FCPX is to apply color masks, which can be a surprisingly powerful tool. It’s easy to add or subtract a range from a color mask select (by holding shift or option while you have the droplet tool selected on a new color correction level).

 

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Oops, I’m getting too much of the shorts along with the green trees…that’s what you get for shooting 8bit 4:2:0 and color correcting in an editing application!

 

If you have a decent GPU, it’s not a problem to keep stacking these color corrections. It does start to get disorganized very quickly though. In DaVinci you can create many ‘nodes,’ and arrange them graphically in a flow chart representation. But FCPX is limited to a simplified version. You also don’t need to create a new instance or node every time you want to adjust a hue in DaVinci, so you can see where FCPX is really for just a few minor touch ups—it’s not great for organization, creating ‘looks,’ or dealing with any higher-end color correction abilities (nodes interacting, and other complex stuff that’s way over my head).

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 12.48.06 PM
This is how you adjust hue specifics in DaVinci…pretty simple.

 

When it comes to hotkeys, I’ve found that FCPX is what you make of it. You can assign a toggle for color correction (hidden deep within the keyboard prefs, option+command+k) which is pretty essential. I set it to Command+D to emulate DaVinci’s disable feature (though it overwrote something, but I’m not really an editor, so I was throwing caution to the wind—stuff gets crazy in post-production). Command+7 will get you your video scopes (which are actually pretty nice), Command+6 brings up the color correction palette, and control+tab will toggle color/sat/luma tabs. They’re pretty handy shortcuts (you can see the workflow in the gif below).

 

CC_FCPX

 

You could write a really rather lengthy book on DaVinci Resolve, but when it comes to FCPX’s color correction abilities, you’d be looking at more of a pamphlet at best. I still get caught up on small things that shouldn’t be an issue—like when you make a shape mask, you have to go to the very bottom of the color correction pane to toggle “inside” and “outside”…you’ll definitely miss that the first few times. Still, it’s more powerful than you think. It’s no Color (the color correction application that used to be bundled with Final Cut Studio), but for a really quick turn around, it should get you most of the way there—just don’t expect to be using power windows on this bad boy.

 

Look at all that sweet, sweet real estate!
Look at all that sweet, sweet real estate!

 

Filming and Photographing Hubbardton Forge

Back in late March, I was hired to film and photograph a Vermont-based business called Hubbardton Forge. AOL teamed up with Ford to do an article and short video about one American-based business for every state. This particular shoot was challenging as I only had two hours to film at the forge (to create a one minute video that was up to me to cut and find the story), as well as take enough photos to delivery about 25 selects to the client. It was tough, but really fun. My favorite aspects of filmmaking are traveling, meeting new people, and learning about something I previously knew nothing about—I was able to do all of those on my trip to Hubbardton Forge.

While the shoot itself was a challenge (that I was only able to complete with the great support of the Hubbardton Forge employees), the post production process (which had an equally tight schedule) was where I learned some new techniques for delivering a good product quickly.

In my previous post, I wrote about getting client photo selections out of Zenfolio and in to Lightroom, which was for this gig. The clients seemed to really enjoy using Zenfolio, and it was very easy for me to get the list and start the color correction process. I also broke down and finally purchased VSCO film pack 02. The VSCO film packs really helped correct some of the left over nasty colors thanks to industrial lighting. It also gave the images a nice film look, and helped me deliver the final product much faster than I could have if I was doing everything by hand (the “orange skin fix” preset is worth the fee alone).

The hero of this project was FCPX and my new 27″ iMac. I finally upgraded from a Mac Pro 1,1 (7 years old!) to an i7, 4GB of video RAM power house (I never thought I’d call an iMac a powerhouse). I got the rig just in time—literally the day before. And I’m so glad I did. I didn’t have to wait for transcodes, I didn’t have any crashes, and with 16GB of RAM, I could have Lightroom and FCPX open at the same time without any issues!

Free and Easy Way to Import a Client’s Photo List

While I wouldn’t call myself a photographer, I tend to have a photography gig every now and then. When dealing with a client regarding photography, I use Zenfolio.com. It’s a (relatively) simple set up that allows me to share photos with a client so that they can choose which photos I’ll process and eventually hand over to them. The first step is to upload a big batch of semi-uncorrected material. I use the word “semi” because any photographer knows you don’t share everything—we cull through the first batch before any other eyes ever see it, to weed out anything that is unnecessary (i.e. spray and prays, bad focus, forgotten lens cap…).

The next step is for a client to make selects. Zenfolio has an amazing feature where all you have to do as a client is hit the ‘f’ key and it will favorite the photo. Then you can send out the favorited list to the photographer (some clients still just write down the number for me…not as fluid, but still not so time consuming). The photographer then gets an email about the list, and we’re able to see what was selected.

Here’s where things get tricky. You could pay for a premium account on Zenfolio to get a list imported, which is a plugin that works with Lightroom. If you’re a photographer by trade, and this is how you make the bulk of your income, it’s probably a wise decision to go ahead and upgrade. I work primarily as a cinematographer/camera operator, so still photography isn’t where I put all of my funds. I have a basic account, so I had to get thrifty.

If you’re like me and you need to save a few dollars, there’s still a pretty easy way of taking a bulk list of client selects and getting them into a Smart Collection in your Lightroom library.

Step One: Download the files.

1 Favorite

2 Download_All

3 Download

It sounds counter intuitive. Download pictures that I already uploaded…Well, as far as I can tell, it’s still the easiest way to proceed. If you’re reading this and you have a simpler method of attaining all the file names, please let me know!

Step Two: Copy the list

4 Select All Copy

In Mac OS X, it’s very simple to get a filename list copied to plain text. Simply Command+a (Edit > Select All) the files in the unzipped folder from Zenfolio, then Command+c (Edit > Copy). Now paste into any text editor (Command+p). I use BBedit. This is where it might get a little tricky…

 

Step Three: Sort and Process the text

5 Paste List

Now we’ve got a big list of filenames! But, they have extensions and carriage returns which don’t play very well with this Lightroom work around. If you know grep or any other such search and replace tool, this should be a breeze. It’s really a simply process—we’re telling our computer to search for the carriage returns (next line) and the “.jpg” in the filename (known as the file extension), and replacing them with a space. If you’re adventurous enough to learn a simple find and replace technique, here is my (very very rudimentary) processes in BBedit.

6 Search and Replace

Hit command+f to bring up the Find dialog box in BBedit. Type “.jpg\r” in the find text field, and make sure to type one space in the replace field (for techies out there, the typical grep language for a space—”\s”—didn’t seem to work for me, but I haven’t done this in a long time).

7 Get all replace

Also note that with my find and replace above, there will be one last dangling file extension (as seen highlighted above) that I was able to quickly delete.

Now that we’ve got our file list fixed, select all and copy.

Step Four: Make a Smart Collection

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 7.31.19 PM

Open up Lightroom, and make a new smart collection. Make a new rule using “Filename,” and make sure the next drop down (parameters?) is set to “contains.” Simply paste the copied list of files (from the previous step) in to the next text field. And you should be good to go! Lightroom seems to allow spaces as an ‘or’ which allows this to work pretty well.

9 Start Editing

That’s it—Now start processing!

Cinemagraph Pro: The Easy Cinemagraph Tool

America_lowres2

As you can see above, I just rendered out my first Cinemagraph today! The application Cinemagraph Pro is now on sale for $15…a whopping 92.5% off from the usual $200! I had checked it out a couple of weeks ago, but thought the price was just way too high. For $15, I was definitely interested (maybe that’s just a brilliant marketing strategy? Either way, it worked on me!).

If you aren’t privy to what a cinemagraph is, it’s pretty easy to understand once you actually see one. Basically, it’s just a fancy term for a looping gif that has a static frame with a motion element. There are all sorts of ways to accomplish this unique look, but Cinemagraph Pro makes it really, really easy.

Here’s a look at the interface:

Cinemagraph Pro’s interface does’t have a lot of options, but if you’re just looking for something to do for fun, it’s nice and easy. Load up a movie file (preferably a shot that’s static and has a good motion element that can be isolated for looping), pick your in and out points for looping, then go to the mask area and start paint-brushing around the area you want motion in. It took me all of 2 minutes from booting the application for the first time, to setting up an export.

cinemagraph_mask

I was looking for anything to get started, and I found this shot from a couple of years ago of Keene’s Pumpkinfest (for the special ‘Pumpkin Wars’ on HGTV). It was extremely easy to isolate the flag and guy in front of it with the mask tool. For looping I chose ‘bounce’ because his movement patterns were going to look jarring as it jumped from the last frame back to the first frame. But the bounce option allows you to do that age-old video trick of looping something by playing it forward, then in reverse (see: that one awful Tusken Raider shot in Star Wars: A New Hope).

It also has some pretty decent effects built-in.

 

One thing I would mention is be wary of your export format and size. The first time I did this, I checked off Animated GIF, but left the size at “Full.” One 48MB GIF later, and I had learned my lesson. 1/4 size works perfect for Animated Gifs.

OtherViews_and

There’s not much more to write about…it’s a pretty straight-forward application, and really fun to use. Go forth and create more GIFs for Tumblr users to endlessly reblog!

Magic Lantern 5DMKIII Raw – 5 Tips + Samples

BNARO CinematographyFirst of all, I’ve been much more active on my Facebook page than my blog (some smaller posts don’t warrant writing a blog post over), so please visit and like the page: http://facebook.com/bryantnarocinematography

So the big deal these days is the Magic Lantern raw hack. It’s been around since May. I decided to wait it out a few months to hear feedback from people I knew that had tested it. It’s a pretty scary endeavor, but the only real side-effect is that the bootflag cannot be reset. What does that mean? Well, if you don’t know, you might want to do a lot more investigating in the Magic Lantern forums.

The bootflag is a work-around to direct the camera to use the Magic Lantern firmware, rather than Canon’s built-in firmware (which it defaults to if it doesn’t find the ML firmware on a card). It’s a redirection, whose modification isn’t really a big deal, except unlike most installs you can’t set it back (for now). There have also been some folks talking about battery life going quicker, and boot times being slower as a result to this alpha software. I’ll attest to the fact that the 5D does behave a little ‘funny’ these days, but the payoff is remarkable. Hopefully the firmware will become at least beta, and more stable soon.

So now that the doom and gloom is out of the way, on with the show!

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Five Things To Know

Here are 5 quick things to know about the raw hack that I seldom see any blog talk about:

1. Really understand the risks of using the Magic Lantern firmware (especially an alpha build!). Seriously. If you’re a photographer that can not live without your camera, just don’t do it. Yes, it’s very stable for an alpha, but you could risk losing the thing that makes you money, so unless you’ve got a backup, just wait.

2. Do not use Komputerbay cards unless you have more time and patience than money (to constantly return them when they fail).

3. Flickering Effect: There are still bugs to be worked out, and as such, sometimes messing with camera raw too much can give you a flickering effect (specifically for Adobe Camera Raw).

4. Rainbow Pixels: If you get strange artifacts (rainbow pixels, weird pixels, etc) it’s probably your card (and you probably didn’t listen to bullet point number two!). Your card is also most likely on its way out (R.I.P. your card). Here’s my post on the Magic Lantern forums showing Komputerbay card weirdness.

2KLTBRL
If you ever wanted a video-feed-breaking-up effect, invest heavily in Komputerbay cards…

 

5. Much like Doctor Who, raw video goes through a lot of space in a short amount of time. For me, at 1920×1038 (1.85:1 ratio) at 23.978fps, each .dng file comes in at 4MB. That’s just under 100MB a second! Not bit—Bytes! So, 32GB gets you about 7 minutes of raw video. This then needs to be copied to your hard drive (that takes time), then put into a CinemaDNG format by an application like RAWMagic (that takes more time), then converted to a video format for editing (this could be the most time consuming process of them all). If you’ve never worked with raw files before, you might be in for a reality check. To put that in perspective, the Sony FS100 records 1080P video at 28Mbps. The AVCHD compression gets me roughly 88 minutes to a 16GB card. With raw video on a 5D, I get 3 and a half minutes of video on the same size card (well, one is SDHC, and the other is CompactFlash, but you know what I mean).

In short: Be mindful of the true cost of raw.

Sample Video

Here’s a quick visual to show you what this hack is capable of (granted it’s a compressed image, but the video still shows the power of raw):

I’m blown away by the sharpness and quality of this raw footage. I tweaked white balance, fill, recovery, black level, hue, sat, and added sharpness via Adobe Camera Raw. So it’s not right out of camera, but I definitely didn’t stress over the color corrections (even though the image could be pushed really far). I took these samples very non-chantly while Meag and I ate our meals outside in downtown Keene, so it’s still not quite a stress test of the firmware. I did manage to hit an error after I filled the card—the LCD on the top handle was reading out as if I had space left on the card, until I rebooted (then it fixed itself to say “0”).

I’ve uploaded the ProRes422HQ file to get the best quality possible on Vimeo. Overkill? Yes! But it’s also one less step for me.

My workflow was as follows:
-Record 1920×1038 @ 23.978 (FPS override) to Lexar 32GB X1000
-Run files through RAWMagic
-Import to After Effects (command+i, direct to the first .dng file, tweak parameters in the camera raw module, import as sequence)
-Interpret footage from 30 to 23.978 (right click on file to see the option…I’m not sure why it default interprets as 30p)
-Render to ProRes422 HQ
-Import into Premiere, cut, export ProRes422HQ
-Upload

Here’s a Flickr set of before and after screenshots running the DNG files through adobe camera raw.

The screenshot only shows one tab, so you can’t see my hue/sat adjusts, and sharpening. I added anywhere from 25-50 sharpening. Apply all, click done, and you got yourself some DNGs ready for import!

Please specify a Flickr ID for this gallery

Here’s my first test with the 128GB Komputerbay card (it died the following day):

Pixel artifacts must be from the extreme variance in speed (and inevitable death of the card). I may seem like I’m being really harsh on the company, but they were quite rude with me when I was insisting that the performance wasn’t as advertised.

You can find before and after photos of the color adjustments on my Facebook page.

Conclusion

It sure is nice having a raw video upgrade to my DSLR for free! In the end, you can’t complain with that price point (well, the 1000x card cost money, but that’s the only investment). Would I shoot anything professionally on this thing? Nope, and probably never. I’ve never used Magic Lantern raw in a professional setting, and I most likely never will. Don’t get me wrong, the Magic Lantern team did an amazing job building this thing, but they’re not the ones that have to do tech support if something goes wrong. So for now, professional projects will be created with professionally backed products (if my FS100 breaks, Sony better have a fix!).

But for personal projects, absolutely! I’ll keep it in my kit, and if there’s a day where I’ve got a perfect shot, but just need more latitude, I’ll prompt the client and let them know the risks, and how round about the workflow can be. If they’re still interested, and it’s not that important of a shot, I might go for it (maybe ‘never’ wasn’t the right word)!

In the meantime, I’ll keep experimenting. Having the ability to correct moving images like I can with raw camera files, without putting tens of thousands of dollars down on a higher end cinema camera…well that’s absolutely astounding. We all owe a big thank you to the Magic Lantern team!

Why I Really Like FCPX

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This past January, I wrote, shot, and edited a quick video review (for the Metabones SpeedBooster). I had been sick all weekend, but made it a goal to have the review done before midnight. The product was being released the next day, so I didn’t have a lot of time. I truly believe the only NLE (Non-Linear Editing System) up for the task was Final Cut Pro X. It got me thinking about the negative reactions that still occur to this day when you dare utter the name “Final Cut Pro” (without a “Seven” to follow).

Apple-Refunds-Final-Cut-Pro-X-Purchases-for-Unsatisfied-Customers-2
While Apple may have some of the most hyperbole-driven marketing on the planet, they’re not too far off here.

 

It’s a debate (well, argument) that has been long-standing: Which NLE is the best? If you work in film and television, you’ve heard it, and probably been a part of the discussion. And we as humans just love to argue, myself included. Mac vs PC, SNES vs Genesis, Peanut Butter and Jelly vs Peanut Butter and More Peanut Butter—they’re all pretty much the same argument, which is to say, there really isn’t an argument. And when it comes to NLEs, there is no ‘best,’ only that which is ‘most applicable.’ And FCPX has been most applicable for my personal work, specifically the criteria of editing a video whose running time is less than five minutes with a short deadline.

I was using the old version of Final Cut Pro (can we call it “classic”?) back in High School, which got me in to this whole crazy film world. College taught and forced me to use Avid Media Composer (on Windows). I didn’t like it, coming from Final Cut and Mac OS X, but I dealt with it. Working at Florentine Films, I switched back to Mac OS X, but still dealt with Avid Media Composer. I’ve dabbled in Premiere Pro for some passion projects of mine, and have used FCPX to cut short videos for clients. So, I haven’t used them all (Lightworks, Smoke, Vegas, that weird Boris one, etc), but I’ve used the three big names, and I think each has it’s own claim.

But enough about the other NLEs, Final Cut Pro X needs to be taken seriously. Yes, I believe Apple did a poor job with the launch—They’re actually really bad at starting, and finishing things. But their software always comes around, and after a few rocky point releases (that felt more like alpha -> beta -> gold master releases), FCPX has really shaped up.

Here’s a run down of things I love—and things I hate—about Final Cut Pro X (10.0.8). Note: This post has taken me so long to finish that Apple has released version 10.0.9, but it’s primarily bug fixes, so everything I’ve written about still applies.

 

ORGANIZATION

Keywords

I really love organization. Especially when it comes to editing. Trying to edit something—whether it’s a feature or a two-minute video for your family—needs to be done in an organized way.

Avid has a classic folder structure, where FCPX has the ability to really utilize metadata, something that's becoming more and more important.
Avid has a classic folder structure, where FCPX has the ability to really utilize metadata, something that’s becoming more and more important.

 

Command + K brings up the floating keyword prompt, and you can just start organizing away. When it comes to organization, working with Avid is like data entry in an Excel file. It’s old and slow. Even copy and pasting one piece of text to multiple metadata fields in an Avid bin is so counter-intuitive it seems like they had an R&D department just to make it as complex as possible.

Here’s how you paste text into multiple fields in Avid.

1. Copy text that’s in a specific column.Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 12.23.44 PM

2. Highlight the clips you want to paste to.

Screen-Shot-2013-08-10-at-12.23.54-PM

3. Right-Click (on the correct field) and navigate that monsterous menu to find “Set [name of columns] column for selected clips…” where you are then prompted with a dialog box, to paste the text you copied.Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 12.24.23 PM

4. We’re not done yet! One more dialog box to make sure you definitely want to do this.Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 12.24.30 PM

And here’s how you do the same thing, in FCPX:

1. Highlight the clips you want to change.

2. Type.

Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 12.34.04 PM

 

Four steps vs. two (well, I’d hardly call it two). This may seem like nit-picking, but this round-about process really adds time to your organization. FCPX is fluid, it keeps you moving so you don’t break your concentration. Avid stops you at every step.

MAGNETIC TIMELINE

Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 1.26.17 AM

Last week I had to get a video out for a client very quickly. A 12-hour turn around for a 5 minute video that had no script and two angles (here’s a version of that video). Meag and I used every trick in the book to make FCPX be able to output this video as quickly as possible. It was a blur, but by the end of it, I was about ready to review before exporting when I realized, “Oh crap—I never bothered to check the music edits!” It turns out that the magnetic timeline ended up saving me a huge amount of time by forming around the music. All I had to do was roll a bit of the track out, and it was pretty much good as new! I definitely got lucky with the beats lining up (mostly Meag’s brilliant editing), but with something like Avid or Premiere Pro, I’d have bits and pieces of that audio track all over the timeline at that moment (yes there are work arounds, but this is precisely the function of the magnetic timeline). The magnetic timeline may be a controversial feature (let’s step back a second and put in to context how ‘controversial’ is not at all the right word), but it really has been an extremely efficient tool for me, saving me hours of work in the end.

EXPORT

Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 1.30.45 AM

This is the one. I can’t believe how often this has saved me. That extremely quick turnaround I was talking about? It was only possible because of FCPX’s all-in-one export. I was able to set the output and leave for another gig. I got an email that my vimeo video had been uploaded, and then forwarded the address and password to the client.

You can send a cut straight to Youtube, Vimeo, and Facebook, all with the click of a button. It does the transcoding and uploading all on its own. Now I know Compressor has some scriptability like this, and I’m sure you could get Premiere Pro to do something too, but this is just so easy. And it works.

That’s just the default. There’s a lot of ways to easily customize your outputs. Drag and drop the customizable output to the list, and it shows up on the Share drop down menu. Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 1.43.10 AM

Again, this isn’t new to an NLE, but it’s very easy and a solid GUI design. Sometimes Premiere Pro feels like a programmer’s take on an editing suite. And Avid always felt like they stopped putting money into GUI development in the early 90s.

Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 1.27.16 PM
This is a ‘feature’ from the new version of Media Composer (7). I know I’m harsh on Avid, but that’s some slow development if you ask me. They only recently enabled the ability to hold shift while clicking in a list to select multiple items. I’m pretty sure that’s been a GUI standard for decades now.

Those are the things about FCPX that keep me coming back to use it as an NLE for quick projects. There are some other great built-in features (transitions, audio plugins, Motion integration, etc), but that’s for another post. Here are a few things that I absolutely can’t stand about it.

BROWSER TABS

Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 1.47.39 AM

This is garbage. I don’t know what half of these icons mean when I’m frantically looking for a transition (not just a cross-dissolve, which typically NLEs have hotkeys for). I’ve been using FCPX for a long time now…actually, since it was released two years ago. It’s sort of embarrassing, but I still can’t decipher some of these icons.

“T” for text. Okay, I’ve got that one. And the little “2” in a bullseye is supposed to be Academy Leader, I’m assuming. Okay, that’s video, so probably generated video, yeah that makes sense! Okay, then the hour glass thing is a transition—but whats the thing that’s text and transition? Themes? What are music and photo tabs—MEDIA TABS—doing down here? And this thing to the far left…is that a composite? Is it supposed to be an optical effect process?

What I mean by all this rambling, is that it shouldn’t exist. Apple is often the leader in great design. But this thing is a fall from grace.

FIXED GUI

One thing I love about Premiere Pro, and really just about every Adobe product, is the ability to completely rework the GUI (window placement, sizes, etc) to whatever works best for you, and the project you’re working on. Premiere Pro works a lot like Bridge: There are different columns, and within those columns are tabs, and every element is modifiable. It’s really fantastic, and helps you quickly make a presentable, customizable set up to make editing as efficient as possible.

Just one of the many ways Premiere Pro can be customized.
Just one of the many ways Premiere Pro can be customized.

FCPX let’s you change the size of some of the window elements…slightly. It’s one big window (except for the second-monitor feature). You can close and open certain elements, but it’s really not changing much. Hopefully it works for you, otherwise you’re really not going to enjoy your FCPX experience.

Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 1.16.41 PM
Check out that sweet customization…I can hide some windows and make the viewer all big and stuff! But that’s really it.

Honorable mentioning to Avid for letting you change how buttons look, and colors of windows. It probably works well for some people, but I’ve always found Avid customizations to be a hassle (and eventually you’ll hit an error that resets it, and all those hours of customization will be gone). Also, they’re all individual windows, where something like Premiere Pro has dynamic tab elements that automatically resize when other parts of surrounding windows change.

CONCLUSION

This is by no means written in stone, but this is how I see each NLE being utilized:

Feature Films? Avid.

Documentary? Premiere Pro.

Quick promo/one-man-band production/personal video? Final Cut Pro X.

Avid is still a ‘standard’ to some degree. Lots of bigger studios and production companies have really in-depth workflows that require Avid. You still can’t beat ISIS. It has the best media management out of anything (note: not media ingest, or export—only managing media when it inevitably goes offline). The Roosevelts, a mini-series I worked on at Florentine Films, is a 7-part documentary, each episode being about 2 hours long. The only way you could arrange and keep track of this massive amount of media was through Avid (Unity then, but they’ve since upgraded to ISIS).

Premiere Pro is noted for acting a lot like Final Cut Pro 7, but with updated technology. It takes orders from no one, and has remained codec-agnostic (both a blessing and a curse). It can take any thing you throw at it, you just need to have the right gear and know-how to make it work. It’s also an incomplete NLE—media management and other core NLE functionality is still in its infancy with Premiere Pro. If you don’t believe me, wait until you need to relink media, then after a half-hour of trying, check out the creative cow forums. It gets pretty dismal, and threads always end in “Make sure to tell Adobe! Hopefully it’ll be in the next release…”

As for FCPX, well, there’s not much to say that I haven’t already said. If you play by Apple’s rules (as per usual), all will most likely go well. FCPX still has some really crazy glitches, but most of the crippling ones were taken care of within the first year.

FCPX is all about saving time. Why would we dismiss that? I think a lot of legitimacy to our tools comes from how difficult it is to use them. If you’re constantly trying to find job security through knowing the Arcane Arts of Avid (there should be a blog dedicated to it’s cryptic error messages), then you’re missing the bigger picture of what it means to be a good, valuable filmmaker.

Buy the Right Asset Tag

I love stickers.

Asset tags are great for production gear, or organizing office gear. Between shipping out drives, going on shoots, or just generally keeping an inventory of what gear you own, it’s a really good idea to have these things. You can use the barcodes to scan, but that’s something I don’t think I’ll use for a while. I do use the numbering system in my own Filemaker database, but the most important thing for me is identifying the gear as being mine, and including a contact number if found.

If you’re a huge nerd, like me, you already have plenty of databases for your small business.

I bought a set of 100 vinyl asset tags from MyAssetTag.com about a year ago. When I got them, I figured the Vinyl version would be sturdy enough for my production life. Apparently I was very, very wrong—the image below shows you the wear and tear that my Canon 70-200mm has gone through. The vinyl tag is unreadable, and has since been pulled off.

This asset tag looks more like a captcha image—no bots will be calling me!

If you’re ever in the market to label your production gear, make sure you get the beefier versions of these tags. They’re fantastic on hard drives and computer parts, but anything you take out in the field will render the tag useless within months. Unfortunately, the metallic versions can cost about $300 for 100 stickers. It gets pretty pricey.

All those OWC and Lacie rugged drives look the same. Asset tags help you to safely mingle gear with others!
All those OWC and Lacie rugged drives look the same. Asset tags help you to safely mingle gear with others!

Placement is another important thing to think about for the longevity of the tag. Seems pretty boring, but don’t waste an asset tag by putting it in the wrong place like I did. In the photo above, you can see I’ve got a tag on a hard drive—as well as a Scott Pilgrim sticker!—and another tag on my laptop. The sticker on the hard drive is fine, and to this day shows almost no wear. The sticker on my laptop eventually wore off, so I put a new one on the lid. My mistake was placing a tag right where my palm would be, so that definitely didn’t help. Like the sticker that was on my 70-200mm lens, this one couldn’t stand up to constant use.

Even with a new placement, you can see that this tag is starting to show a lot of wear. You can also see that I do really like stickers.
Even with a new placement, you can see that this tag is starting to show a lot of wear. You can also see that I do really like stickers.

If you don’t go for the asset tags, find another way to label your gear. Rental houses tend to use a specific color of tape that they wrap around gear (stands, cables, light yokes, etc). Whatever you do, use something that’s easily identifiable (bright colors), and make sure you’re consistent. You should already have a database or document of all the serial numbers for your gear, but when you’re wrapping on set after a long day, the last thing you want to do is check serial numbers to see whose 5D is whose.

Metabones Speed Booster – An Unbelievable Adapter

This is the new Metabones Speed Booster EF to E Mount adapter, and it’s mind blowing. You probably wouldn’t expect that from a lens adapter, but then again, you wouldn’t expect an adapter to give your lenses a 1-stop speed boost, a wider field of view, and a sharper image. Yep, you heard it right. Here’s a quick video review:

When the prototype arrived at my doorstep I was eager to see what had changed. When I opened up the package I noticed a lens element in the middle of the adapter…then I saw the words “Speed Booster” printed on the adapter. Still pretty clueless, I popped it on my FS100, put on my 50mm 1.4, and noticed something strange—the FS100 was reading the f-stop at an ƒ1.0. A mistake I thought, this is a ƒ1.4…But then what was all this about a ‘Speed Booster’ and a lens element? There was no documentation on or in the box, but this is a prototype and a very niche product, so that’s understandable. I contacted the company immediately asking for documentation or a manual. I was given the white papers, and there it was: “The Speed Booster: Increasing the speed of photographic lenses.”

Turns out that they’ve designed an integrated ‘focal reducer’ to their NEX lens mount adapter. It’s basically a reverse teleconverter. What does this mean? Well, like they say, it truly does increase the speed of the lens, technically. Why now and not…since the beginning of time? Well, a lot of things have changed lately that let this technique exist. Metabones notes the 18mm flange distance in the FS100 (distance from the mount to the sensor) is much shorter than typical cinema cameras that came before it. Also, using EF lenses meant for 35mm still photography will work just fine with the .71% adjustment, considering the FS100’s super35mm sensor.

It seems like everything aligned perfectly for this thing to be engineered by some really smart folks, and it’s definitely going to pay off. When I first threw the Speed Booster adapter on, I could instantly tell the difference in depth of field. an ƒ1.0 is very, very shallow. You may be thinking, “Well sure you can throw glass behind glass, but the sharpness of the lens will be lessened because of a whole lot of aberrations and what not.” After doing some test, I can confirm that this adapter appears to not only give you a speed up on your f-stop, a wider field of view, but it actually makes the images sharper. The white papers go into extreme mathematical detail about the MTF actually improving because of the speed booster. I’m no mathematician, so I had to just see it for myself. And I did, and it’s awesome.

So, just to review what we’ve got here…it’s an EF to NEX adapter that draws power from the camera, allows you to use your Canon lenses, actually makes those lenses FASTER, gives you a wider, almost full-frame field of view, and also makes the image sharper. This adapter will most likely go on sale January 14th, and be around $600. I can not for the life of me think of why every FS100 owner using EF lenses would not purchase this thing as soon as humanly possible. Metabones, thanks for letting me review your prototype, and good luck with the boat load of cash you’ll be making. Oh, and can I get one of these to keep, ASAP?

For more info, check out Metabone’s white papers on the Speed BoosterPhilip Bloom’s fantastic post, and visit Metabones.com to purchase this bad boy!

 

Update 1-28-13: Check out this VERY rigorous test of the Speed Booster over at LensRentals.com! They really get into the nitty gritty, and the Speed Booster still holds up well.

Update 1-15-13: I shared this on Vimeo via the comments section, but I figure it could help others wondering if they should just go with this one adapter or the other.

I’ll be keeping both in my kit…I value everything that this new adapter does, but I just couldn’t see cutting out the other adapter. I could see wanting to have the crop at times, and also I’d like to use my EF-S lens (the Tokina 11-16mm) and any other EF-S lenses I might rent/buy. I think it’s important for people to keep that in mind.

Also, I always carry two adapters with, in case one fails (never happened, but you always need a backup).

Update 1-14-13: Regarding EF-S lenses, while they might not all work, here’s an example of the Tokina 11-16mm ƒ2.8 (the only EF-S I own). As you can see, the 11mm does vignette (no surprise), but the image is usable zoomed out at 16mm. I’d say around 14mm is safe for seeing little to no vignetting, so it’s not a complete loss.

 

My FS100 Build

One great thing to come from modern camera technology is the versatility of their modular designs. Camera operators and cinematographers have an extensive set of tools to make their camera builds completely unique and effective for whatever the shoot requires (RED for high res, DSLRs for quick/small set ups, GoPros for crash cams, etc). No longer do you have to have a cat on your shoulders, you can have any configuration that may or may not resemble an animal (the Alexa M would be like an alien giraffe maybe? How’s that for some sweet SEO writing?). But with great power, comes great responsibility…and a lot of time to figure out that power-sibility. It’s taken me many months, and many shoots, but I’ve nailed down a configuration for my FS100 that works great for me.

I tend to do a lot of documentary live shoots, and I absolutely love it (it’s almost 100% pure creativity, because continuity is seldom an issue). When I’m on location doing a live shoot, I’m usually by myself, or with one other person (be it a producer/director type, or an assistant). Because it’s typically a run-and-gun scenario, I need to move quickly and power through a long day. What I need for a live shoot is a light setup, a steady rig, and the ability to critically check the image. What I’ve come up with is this:

So this is my ‘basic’ setup (all photos taken on the same day at Dartmouth, as you’ll see). I can quickly change it into a handheld rig by throwing a Redrock shoulder pad on the rail system and handles in the front. I can also deck it out in a big studio set up with a matte box and follow focus. For my live shoot work, the key is having a small core rig that can be functional on its own, adding to it only when I need to. I’ll cover how each of these elements are set up.

1. Mount and Rail System

You need rails for a lot of camera accessories. I have the FS100 mounted on a quick release plate that is connected to a riser, which is connected to the Redrock rail system—it’s really just a cheeseplate with two rod mounts, and the riser. This is the core of all the add-ons: Mattebox, follow focus, lens support, and more. I swap between 8″ rails for smaller work (usually just for a lens support, or a follow focus if needed), and bigger 18″ rails for narrative work (all those add-ons add-up!).

2. ShotGrip Handle

I’ve gushed about this in my other post about using specific gear when I shot Wander My Friends. It’s a well-made wooden handle that screws right into the FS100 (utilizing the top mounting point, and the hot-shoe for added stability). There are other, more robust solutions (SolidCamera’s and Berkey System’s), but this is a small all-in-one solution that works great for me (and is the cheapest). While I still hold the bottom of the camera in tandem with the top grip when carrying the whole rig, I feel confident enough in the design to hold everything just by the ShotGrip handle in lightweight situations. The ShotGrip also has mounting points, but I find that using the rail on the handle (by sliding the wooden handle back, giving some slack on one end) works out best. That’s where the MicroMount comes in.

 

3. RedRock MicroMount

These guys work pretty well. They slide on to one 15mm rail, tighten, and then give you another rail or mounting point (with the microspud, which gives you a 1/4″ 20 male/female mount). You can connect just about anything to your rig with one of these. I use this for my microphone offset (connected to the base of the ShotGrip), and my SmallHD monitor.

4. SmallHD DP4 (with EVF)

SmallHD’s DP4 monitor and EVF have been an extremely invaluable addition to my kit. Again, I’ve gushed about this product plenty, so I’ll just explain how it plays into my basic build. Being configured to mount on a microspud on the shotgrip rail helps keep it close to the camera body, and helps keep the rig more compact.

The EVF is extremely helpful for exterior live shoots. Most of the time, the sun is way too harsh, so using the EVF (with a chammy) helps me actually see the frame. My only use for the on-board LCD is for 4x and 8x punch-ins, to get critical focus. That’s why this set up looks so strange—I have to use the Sony monitor because the punch-in doesn’t feed out to any external source (my biggest issues with the FS100 user interface). I also use the 1:1 pixel mapping (addressed to one of the hotkey buttons on the DP4) whenever I need to quickly check something while using the EVF.

To make firmware lemons into GUI lemonade, I’d say that this set up has actually really come in handy. I can look at a nice clean image in the SmallHD monitor, and whenever I want to check focus (or any indicators), I can glance over to the other monitor without having to touch a button, which could potentially shake the camera. This technique works best for documentary shoots (interviews and live footage), but I have used it for narrative work (it’s a little difficult to be handheld and try this).

5. Noga CineArm

The Noga CineArm is a simple articulating arm, but it’s been in my kit since the beginning (it’s really beaten up by now). I’ve had it break on my once (supposedly a faulty part), but 16×9 (Noga’s North American retailer) fixed it free of charge! The only problem I have with it’s design is how large the knob is (though you can lift the knob and reposition without loosening, so that’s pretty smart). I use this for the DP4, but I’d like to someday find a solution for adjusting my EVF with one hand. SolidCamera has a solution, but it’s too expensive for me.

6. Microphone

As I mentioned earlier, I use the microphone offset (that came with the FS100) with a Redrock MicroMount. I keep the Sony-supplied reference mic (well, that’s what I use it for) at all times. I’ve been burned a couple of times thinking I absolutely did not need to pack an audio solution, only to find that having it would have made everyone’s lives easier. This is a lesson in preparing, but also a lesson in realizing that the FS100 does not have a built-in microphone, which actually can be a problem. Now I keep this thing permanently fixed to the ShotGrip. Reference audio can come in handy during a live shoot (speaking information into the microphone about the location, etc), or a narrative project (being reference to sync the actual sound files). I have a shot in my demo reel where literally hundreds of geese come over a set of trees. When I was shooting that, I remember the noise…it was horrifying! I wish I could have shared that with people, but the file is video-only. I didn’t pack my microphone because the Sony mount is really cumbersome, and I shot it in the dead of winter, in a snowstorm.

NOTE: I typically make sure I have rails and a lens support when using my bigger lenses. This was a special case where I had to run and get a shot quickly.

So that’s my basic set up. There’s a lot more that goes into it, but after working with your own set up, you’ll come find what you do or do not need on your camera build. Find a good middle-ground between functionality and speed.

Using Dropbox for Client Access

I’ve briefly chatted about Dropbox before (and mentioned how to increase your storage size for free), but within the past few months I’ve found myself using the service more than ever. Dropbox is a file sharing site that simplifies the process of passing files around to clients (or friends and family).

The first feature that makes me happy is their desktop integration. To upload a file, all you have to do (after quickly installing the application) is drop your files into the designated folder—the Dropbox application then auto-uploads to your online storage. I’ve found web-based uploaders to timeout for me quite often, especially when I’m uploading multiple gigabytes, so this in-the-background uploader has been a huge step forward for me to actually utilize the service.

From there, you can right-click and get a secure link that can be passed on to your clients. The files can only be viewed by that link, so there’s some security, though I wouldn’t trust it for any extremely sensitive data (finance documents, passwords, your super secret diary, etc), but it’s fine for just about everything else. So you ship off the link to the clients, sounds pretty straight forward, right? The great thing is on the client-end, when they click on that link.

Dropbox has a great interface for both videos and photos. And the exciting thing for me, as an FS100 shooter, is that it can create playable previews of raw .mts files (AVCHD)! Dropbox will do this with just about every video format I’ve thrown at it (.mov and basic codecs are obviously welcome), but AVCHD is still notorious for it’s lack of support, so I was quite amazed at Dropbox’s effort.

Anyway, the client clicks on the link and can see two different views. One being the thumbnail view:

The other view is more straightforward, but you still get a smaller thumbnail, which is great for reference:

Playback is as simple as clicking on the thumbnail/linked text, and viewing the media in their simple playback function. Before the player loads, you can see a large thumbnail, a download link, and some other basic functionality.

The actual video player has limited functionality, but I couldn’t see anyone needing advanced controls in a situation like this, where it’s more of a reference, rather than a final state of playback.

And obviously, the client can download the folder heirarchy that they’ve been given access to. In this example, I’ll pass off the “private” folder that holds the root directory of media, found on AVCHD-based cameras. The only issue I’ve found is that some of the color/gamma interpretations seem to be off a little bit, but if the client can acknowledge this playback as a sort of quick reference, then I can’t see why this would be too detrimental. The video playback is certainly much more lower resolution than the actual video (the source is a 28mbps 1080P file, but this looks more like a quickly-compressed 320×240 file to me, but don’t quote me on that).

So, this is all great, but what’s the catch? Well, it’s not free. The introductory service for Dropbox is free, but even with all the free upgrades I mentioned earlier, you’re still well under the lowest tiered pricing plan’s data cap. For $10 a month, you get 100GB of data. They have other tiers, but this works best for me when passing off footage from a day or two of shooting (compressed footage, if you’re shooting raw or high-bitrate, just use a shipped drive). I know that some tech savvy individuals with their own web hosting might ask, “Why use this rather than an FTP or similar self-hosted file sharing utility?” Well, as someone who has over 300GB of storage available on their own hosting service, I would much rather send a link to a client with this friendly interface, than try to explain how FTPs work (which I’ve done in the past—it was painful).

So in conclusion: Dropbox is great. If someone hasn’t convinced you to use it yet, I hope I have.

Production Notes: Wander My Friends

Tomorrow we will officially be half way through filming Wander My Friends, a feature indie comedy film based on three comic book creators. I’m the cinematographer, and I’ve learned quite a bit already about what has and has not been working in terms of camera gear. I chose to film on the Sony FS100 with still lenses. Mostly out of necessity, because of our low budget, but also out of familiarity (it’s all my own gear, and I know it well). We’re on a tight schedule, have a low budget, and the film is intended to be completely handheld (with some exceptions)—so our options were limited.

Here are some of the major pieces of my kit that make all of this possible:

 Semi rigged-out FS100, for handheld work.

 

Sony FS100

This camera has been fantastic. I’ve owned it for about 8 months, trading up from the Canon 7D as my primary camera. I’ve since sold the 7D, but keep my 5DMK3 and 60D as b-cams (and photographic tools, primarily). After using the FS100, I can’t believe I ever managed to shoot anything on a DSLR. I’m using Frank Glencairn’s K-Tone picture profile, because while I think this camera is a huge step up from a DSLR, it’s still plagued by a 4:2:0 subsampling. Sure, I could go out via HDMI to an Atmos Ninja (or some other recorder), but we need to do really quick set ups and the extra baggage would just slow us down (and I don’t find the higher subsampling to be much more helpful). So I opted to ‘bake in’ the look I want.

The lowlight capabilities also really help us out. The FS100 is probably the best lowlight camera I’ve seen (for its price range…but maybe ever?), which allows us to rely on smaller lighting gear. Another helpful thing for this shoot is that I can roll on both an SD card (very cheap medium, great for indie filmmakers—works for your set photographer, your sound guy, AND your camera operator! What a miracle format) and the FMU, but I’ll address that later. Another great thing about this camera is it’s battery. I can go a full day on the battery bundled with the camera and one extra one. It’s amazing how long the batteries last. Less battery changes (I mean, one a day? That’s no problem) means more time saved, and every little bit of time saved on set helps out in the long run (or the very immediate short run, depending on how tight the schedule is). Just another reason why this camera is the indie filmmakers best friend.

I rotated the LANC control piece of the FS100 so that I can hit it with my thumb while it’s positioned on the handheld rig—not the cleanest solution, but it’s saving me money from having to purchase an expensive LANC controller.

My biggest complaints about this camera would be the lack of SDI out (HDMI is slow, unreliable, short, and expensive), the plastic shell (I’d feel safer with a metallic one), and the subsampling rate for internal recording. It’s latitude is greater than a DSLR, but I’d still like an S-Log like it’s big brother the F3. But for around $5k, I’m surprised at all it has to offer. This camera pretty much makes it possible to shoot an indie feature at an incredibly low price point (even if you include the camera in the budget!).

SONY FMU 128GB

This little device is worth its weight in gold. Actually, it’s really light, so maybe its weight in platinum? I don’t know the cost of rare metals very well, but I do know that this thing rocks (I made a pun!).

A lot of folks may see the price tag and think it’s unnecessary, but what you may not understand is that just being able to record to a 128GB built-in (well, sort of—there’s a module compartment for the unit) flash drive isn’t just helpful in it’s spaciousness, its real worth is in redundancy.

The FS100 can record to both an SD card and the FMU. The first week of shooting we took up about 120GB of space on our drives. We record to 16GB SD cards (which gives 88 minutes of storage, just enough not to get in the way, but not enough to totally devastate a production if it was corrupt/destroyed/some other catastrophe). It’s nice to know that if something happens to our current back up…or both backups…or all back ups for that week, I have everything I’ve shot still in the camera. Well, almost everything: Footage shot at 1080P @ 60P won’t save to the FMU. I’m not sure why though, probably a bandwidth issue? Luckily I only over crank footage rarely, so it’s not an issue (we’re filming this feature in 24p, as one might expect).

SmallHD DP4 (and EVF)

First of all, SmallHD is a wonderful company. I was sent a defective EVF unit (magnets kept popping out, probably a defective glue), which made it difficult to keep the EVF up for using the device strictly as a monitor (which I ended up switching between monitor and EVF quite a bit). They just sent me a brand new unit, without any fuss (I can’t think of a less-old-person-sounding synonym for fuss, so you’ll have to deal with it). I strongly recommend working with this company, they actually listen to their customers!

Anyway, not only is their customer service great, it turns out that their products are fantastic too! The DP4 is a small 4-inch on-board monitor that recently went down in price (I think they’re lining up some new products for Fall 2012). I used to think the FS100’s built in monitor was plenty sharp, and that I could judge focus just fine with it. Well, that’s a thing of the past—The DP4 outputs an extremely crisp image. It really helps me pull focus, and I just can’t go back to any other monitor.

A nice feature is the LP-E6 dual power mount on the back. You can get all sorts of power adapters, but I use LP-E6s for my 60D, 5DMK3, and my Lilliput cheap-o 7″ monitor, so of course I would continue the Canon battery dynasty. I have noticed that even with two fully charged batteries, I only get a few hours of usage. The unit also gets really hot throughout the day. Those are my only complaints to an otherwise fantastic product. The EVF is great too. It’s all a little heavy, but not so much so that it’s unbearable. I like that the EVF eye piece is big enough that I can leave my glasses on and feel comfortable. I’ve added a  chamois eye pad to the EVF (sweat in your eye is not a good thing) and it fits perfectly (on both eye pieces that they ship).

Rokinon 35mm ƒ1.4

Ladies and gentlemen, this is my bread and butter. This lens is so sharp, it’s criminal. I can’t believe they would sell this thing for under a grand, but it goes for far, far less. It’s sharp, it’s solid, it’s got a nice smooth focus ring, and it’s all manual. If you shoot video with photo lenses (i.e. you own gear/glass and you’re NOT a millionaire) you need to buy this one. The 1.4 is great, but I only go their for specialty shots. I’ve found it rock solid at a 2.8, and sometimes I can push it even further open, and still somehow retain lots of detail (and not a whole lot of aberration). It’s got a great minimum focus distance too, so I can really run an entire scene just with this one lens. It’s a 50mm equivalent on the FS100 (not exact, but close), which is my favorite focal point. It works great for mid shots, but also gives a nice clean wide shot. I’d wager that more than half of this film so far has been shot on this lens. In the documentary world, I never break this thing out: all of my work goes to the lovely Canon 70-200mm ƒ2.8 IS II. After using it heavily on Wander My Friends, I’ll have to re-think my documentary camera work to get this lens in there.

FS100 Shotgrip

Great minimalistic handle for the FS100, and it’s made by a local DP! I strongly suggest checking it out. Cameras and wood are meant to be. My only complaint with this thing is that sometimes, with too much weight on the rig, the handle will twist slightly. Just make sure you don’t rely too much on it, as it’s screwed directly into the hot shoe and other mounting points of the FS100. If you really need to deck out your camera, check in with SolidCamera for some really REALLY rugged FS100/700 rigs. The shotgrip is still the best bang for your buck though. Check out the website.


Using the Philip Bloom Pocket Dolly, Photo courtesy of Raz Cunningham

Philip Bloom Pocket Dolly

This thing is pretty awesome. It’s a nice compact slider, and it looks good too. It’s smooth,a solid build, and easy to set up. I can’t make very long moves, but when I need to add one in a pinch, it’s very easy. I strongly suggest adding this to your kit, especially when you want a move, but can’t squeeze a dolly into a space (or have the time/crew).

Here’s a bonus photo of me looking awkward. Next to me is Raz, co-writer and director of Wander My Friends.

Photo courtesy of Charles Lafond

Well, that wraps up some of the big pieces of gear I’m using. I’ll post more soon, once the film wraps. Please check out the Wander My Friends official website, and donate to the Kickstarter if you can.