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.

Current Happenings – July 2, 2012

Today I filmed some quick person-on-the-street type shots for an upcoming Obama related video series. The plan was to match footage that was shot in New York City a couple of weeks ago (I couldn’t attend because of a location scout). I really haven’t shot much video on my 5DMK3, or really on any DSLR ever since the FS100 came into the picture. But surprisingly, it went relatively smooth considering we had audio gear die on us.

The following are screenshots right out of the raw file from the camera.

It was supposed to be a very simple shoot: Handheld 5D, an external recorder, some quick lines, and then we’re out. What ended up happening is that our Tascam DR-100 (which I find to be a very reliable machine) went dead on us. That’s no fault of the Tascam’s, but because whoever borrowed it from the company beforehand (both XLR’s were completely kaput). At the last second, when all seemed to be lost, I thought, “Well, there’s on option I know of, we can go line-in.”

I started shooting on DSLRs (for video) during the wonderful age of AGC (auto gain control). There was no ‘line-in’ without cumbersome setups (Beachtek comes to mind), so everyone grabbed an H4n and created some complicated post workflows. With the 5DMK3, you don’t get the best audio in the world, but for quick shoots like the one I did today, it works perfectly. Line in (XLR to 3.5mm), monitoring out (3.5mm to headphones), and the ability to visually monitor levels and manipulate gain while recording. Anyway, it was my first time using audio in with the 5D, and it was a piece of cake. I’ll probably use this feature more in the future for low budget short films and commercials.

Sony Makes FS700 Official

Sony has officially announced the FS700!

At first review of the specs, it seems like an interesting camera. My bias is obviously that I own the FS100 (purchased about 4 months ago), which I absolutely love. The chance for higher over cranking ability is really great, but as an FS100 user I can tell you that the higher frame rates are not something I’d use in my everyday work (especially since they’re not at full resolution).

That’s not to dismiss the great features they’ve brought, just not enough to dismay those of us who own an FS100. Another great addition is the 3G-SDI out, which I’d love if only to get away from the consumer-grade HDMI port. HDMI has plagued the low-end professional camera market (that seems like an oxymoron) for too long, and the BNC is tried and true (patented in 1951).  Locking HDMI cables have existed for quite a while, but they aren’t perfect (high price and I wouldn’t trust it like I would the BNC). This, along with the built-in ND (sorely missed in the FS100), are the features that will solidify the FS700’s spot in professional work.

Alongside the 3G-SDI out is what some would consider an even bigger deal: The ability to record 4K. Sony has hinted that it will be available at “sometime,” only through the 3G-SDI output, via an external recorder. I don’t think any such device is available yet, but it’s fantastic that the ability will (eventually) be there. I’m skeptical though, because Sony also promised us FS100 owners that the camera would do 4:4:4 via the HDMI out (even though it’s 8-bit). While it technically does this, the camera simply up-samples from 4:2:2 to display at 4:4:4—no extra information is passed. This is kind of sneaky, in the same way that saying your old tube TV can display HD video (through a conversion box).

The real reason any of this is a big deal is the price tag, which is supposedly anywhere from $8-10,000. That puts the FS100 as the junior Super 35MM, the F3 as the big guy, and the FS700 as an intermediate. It shouldn’t be long until the whole line of cameras is updated to 4K, but is that really what we need right now? Future proof, for sure, but really what is needed from camera manufacturers is better chromo sub-sampling and more efficient codecs (at least for Canon and Sony). Instead, we’re getting the 4K resolution race, which to me is exactly like the megahertz race in PC manufacturers in the late 90s. Yes, it’ll make the product better, but that’s not the only aspect of the technology that makes it a good product.

Read more at Cinema5D

Metabones EF to EMount Adapter for the FS100

Here’s a quick review of the Metabones EOS to E Mount adapter for NEX cameras—specifically the FS100.

The first thing I noticed was how solid and substantial it felt. You can see the connectors that interface with each electronic mount, there’s some sort of I/O for firmware use, and a depth of field preview button.

The release trigger is easy to use, unlike my fotodiox adapter.

The build quality is exceptional (especially for the price).

Here’s a list of lenses that I tested, and all worked:
-Canon 50mm 1.4
-Canon 100mm 2.8 Macro
-Canon 70-200mm 2.8 IS II (IS worked)
-Canon 28-135 stock 7D lens (IS worked)
-Tokina 11-16mm 2.8

Ssometimes switching lenses causes the adapter to not recognize the lens at first. After detaching completely (so the contacts aren’t meeting) and resetting the lens, it can be controlled.

F-stops are shown on the display. It now feels like my EF lenses and the FS100 are finally a complete camera system.

To conclude, this adapter may seem high in price, but it’s the only one in it’s class at the moment, and considering what other companies were asking for a higher price with less features, this pricepoint seems perfectly acceptable.

Link to the product:

Update: Conurus has been kind enough to inform me that the firmware I was using for this review is out of date, and that a newer firmware fixes the IS issue I had.

New Sony Camera: 4K, High FPS—FS100 Successor?

Rumors have started about the new Sony video camera, the FS700. Supposadly 4K, high frame rates, and an $8000-9000 price tag. Could be completely false, but it would certainly be a fantastic move for Sony.

I knew this was coming…but didn’t know it would be here so soon! I’ll wait until we get the full specs from NAB, but I’ll likely hold on to my FS100 for a good while—1080P still has longevity in a lot of places (and 8-9 thousands dollars is still out of my budget).