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.