Saturday 28th and Sunday 29th March saw the REDucation training workshop arrive in London at the Met Film School in Ealing Studios West London. I’ve used a Red One but have yet to land a shoot where I can really get my hands on the newer cameras and system. When I was offered the chance to attend the course by Kit Plus magazine I naturally jumped at the opportunity. The course is run over two days in the UK and so there is a lot of information to pack into the 18 hours of guided tuition, lead by John Marchant and Steve Johnson and Dado Valentic on the post and workflow side. Sam Measure was present from RED UK and assisted the groups in setting up of cameras and answering technical questions. Jon Theobald and several Met Film School graduates were also assisting the groups once we got started with the cameras.
The course was neatly broken down into camera setup and operation, shooting, workflow, some basic colour theory and post-production overviews. It began with operations from basic to advanced, the user interface (the menu often puts people off), shooting great images, testing the camera, tips and tricks, inside knowledge and info, ‘touch every button’ and camera builds. As the participants of the course were all introduced to one another in the first half hour it was clear that there was a broad spectrum of experience, professions and interest in the room. From high end stills photographers, their crew, facility company staff, filmmakers, RED owners, graduates, one stop shop small production companies, producers, and the likes of me – freelance camera operators, DoPs and directors from the world of Music Video, Fashion and Independent film, Broadcast and Corporate production.
From an operators perspective it was useful to go through some of the essential maintenance procedures such as cleaning the Sensor / OLPF (Optical Low Pass Filter) and also the most base level of setup – charging batteries, navigating the first level of the menu and optimising the fan settings and formatting your media. One key nugget of information here was to allow the camera to warm up for about 10-15 minutes before you begin shooting with it – and also before you calibrate the black shading of the camera. This is something that I would always do with any rental camera since you have no way of knowing how recently this was done with any hire.
The best thing about RED is the RAW workflow, but this workflow demands a specific approach and understanding of how to get the most out of it. It really depends on what you are producing for and how much time and consequently budget you will have in post to deal with your images. Second to that one cannot fail to mention the overall build quality – the cameras are not low cost but the high quality manufacture of the cameras and their constituent parts – the ‘ecosystem’ is considerable. The RED One is the system that started the Digital Cinema revolution and really made world class experienced Directors and Cinematographers believe that Digital Cinema cameras would and could soon offer greater latitude and dynamic range than traditional film stock. Now with many of the digital cameras out there we are at a point where digital cinema technology far exceeds the visual capability of what was previously achievable on film. But what is so different and special about RED? For those who are converted to it – it is like a religion, something for them to shout from the rooftops and evangelise over. I was keen to find out.
The strangest thing for me or anyone coming from a background of shooting with the correct White Balance in camera, the right ISO setting, perfect exposure and so on and so forth is to understand that with RED RAW you are not restricted to the settings that were on camera at the time of recording. With that in mind we were instructed to shoot by recording ‘as much light as necessary’, but not so much that we blow out highlights we wish to retain. This seemed to me an interesting point, but if I’m honest one that I typically follow whatever the digital camera system I am working with: More light = less noise. It is always far easier in post to scale information back a little than to bring up shadows that are underexposed – this will only ever introduce unwanted noise.
Where the RED comes into its own is the control in post over the ISO and especially FLUT. FLUT enables the DiT or post operator to very subtly change the ISO of an image in a non incremental way – unlike ISO which happens incrementally. This is extremely useful as you can overexpose by half a stop or more when shooting and then bring it back to a correctly exposed level in post. That way making sure we have the highlights texture and we do not have any area of the image with too little light that we can’t adjust. This is by far and away one of the most distinctive and advantageous points of the RED workflow. The exposure dynamics are extremely forgiving. This is perhaps one of the cameras strongest points but also I’d argue its weakest – I do feel that there might be an over-reliance on this latitude by over zealous operators. But, that’s just my opinion. Back to the course. In the afternoon of the first day we spend a good hour and a half shooting some camera tests. We looked at compression ratio setitngs and experimented with the various available frame dimensions, rates and ratios. This is another key point of RED above other systems (that is until Blackmagic Design just integrated compression ratio and RAW into their new UrsaMini camera… more on that in another post). The ability to set in camera the compression ratio used allows exceptional flexibility in the way that you can set the camera up depending on your final delivery and platform.
The second day was headed up by the extremely talented and charismatic Dado Valentic, Dado clearly had passion and emotion for his work and it rubbed off on the participants whom all needed the energy after loosing an hours sleep to the British Summertime clock change. Dado covered lots of ground on the second day; colour science and theory, grading, DiT, workflow overviews, DaVinci Resolve and RED Cine-X. Now this is a lot to fit into a day of course you could spend weeks, months and certainly years learning these subjects but what Dado managed to do was to present complex technical, mathematical and artistic information in a way that was easy to understand for everyone in the room. Dado took footage the groups had shot the previous day in the camera tests and took us through the Cine-X software and later into Resolve, having someone as talented as Dado really demonstrated how the flexibility of the system can be maximised to achieve really any look you want at the end of production. I was keen to learn the main workflows for handling the files and post with the .r3d files. These were standard and in a way for me self-explanatory but for sure if you are going to shoot on RED or any other RAW system then you better plan your post and workflow before you arrive on set. With the latest updates to Premiere Pro CC it’s possible to stay with the original .r3d files all the way through the pipeline from camera > edit > grade and this is truly exciting – though it will require the latest in hardware to make the process a smooth one.
I would definitely recommend the course for anyone who is interested in working with RED on either the camera or post side or like me both. I found it very informative, extremely professionally delivered and full of nuggets of information that will be applicable straight away shooting with any of RED’s cameras. The way in which learners were supported was great, as was the provision on equipment, the group sizes were not too big which meant hands on for lots of people. If you are going to work with RED and want a solid overview then this seems like the logical place to start. Finally, if you’re thinking of buying you receive a discount at the RED store for a week after the course and if that’s not enough to convince you, you’ll get a very cool large mousemat and a 16GB memory stick with the course literature and some RED reel test shots for colour grading – the ideal Weapon with which to practice.
From 24th – 26th Feb 2015 broadcast technology manufacturers, engineers, operators, producers, directors, resellers, dealers, professionals, students, and general media boffins all descended on Excel via the DLR for the annual Broadcast Video Expo. As the UK’s flagship Broadcast, Film and Video technology show the space and visitors witnessed some fantastic products revealed for the first time, as well as exciting developments with existing devices – more on that in a minute.
I was very happy to be at the show working for Kit Plus magazine operating the filming side of the live stream of the shows many talks from the various lecture theatres: Broadcast Tech and Workflow, Cinematography and Lighting, The Connected Theatre, The Production Theatre, Post Production Theatre, Producers’ Theatre, and 4K Theatre. The live production was handled by students from Ravensbourne, supervised by the Kit Plus team operating a mixture of studio kit; NewTek TriCaster, PMW-300 cameras, a Polecam, and a roaming PMW300 with an Atomos Ninja and two EX1s using AJA Ki Pro mini recorders, with wireless RF link to the Tricaster using VideoSys camera integrated transmitters. It is excellent to see students being able to work with such technologies and gain such invaluable real world experience through the publication. I have to say an extremely talented and nice bunch to work with the team was, thanks for having me involved.
Sadly I didn’t managed to find the time to be blogging at the show as I had a pretty full schedule for camera operating, however each lunch I managed to get a very quick peek at some of the things I had wanted to see. So what were the standouts for this year? Well it was no surprise that 4K technology in acquisition is a big deal and it seems it is here to stay, but perhaps more interesting for me was that FCPX seems to be (I’m pleased to say) finding its feet, with some thorough demonstrations by Soho Editors showcasing the software integrating with DaVinci Resolve. I was struck with the proliferation of LED lighting technology which has advanced in pace with camera technology in the past five years, and maybe slightly faster. With the new range from Kinoflo, the ever evolving Dedo light equipment, or larger Fresnel type sources from Arri, a miriad of Bi-colour LED panel sources from Roto-light and many more – We can be in no doubt that the future of lighting is here and now, and more to the point it complements the arrival of new large sensor digital cameras which are increasingly able to stand up to the claim that they can use less light without sacrificing image quality.
When we think of the claim ‘less is more’ the headline lighting product was without a doubt the VHO Pro Literibbon, advertised as ‘the simplest color-corrected lighting product available’, a statement that holds upon a quick visual inspection. They come in hard, high-density 120 and a softer, low-density 60 in either 3200k Tungsten, 5600k Daylite, or tunable Kelvin temperature Hybrid White. The ribbon has adhesive backing so it can be tacked up quickly and located in places where traditional lighting would be much harder or impossible to locate, hidden easily the system is battery operated and controlled by a tiny dimmer. This product is so incredibly versatile, the only restraint is your imagination. The obvious uses are for car interiors or places where you need a hard light source in the shot but of course don’t want to see the source. Alternatively you could be making a prop light more attractive or use them to get around a problem with a location having a low ceiling height, it’s endless. In short they are extremely cool and unique.
While I’m on the subject of cool things take a look at this pic above. Underneath the camera rig and the carbon fiber it’s the chassis off of a Team Losi 1/8th scale Nitro racing buggy. I started racing electric RC cars when I was ten years old and learnt basic RC electronics, things have most certainly changed since the mid to early nineties. This device built by Motion Impossible is certainly a very specialist tool but one that will be capable of generating some really unique angles and shots. Apparently they have used it for filming birds of prey, touring cars and one can only imagine what next? Of course drone technology was a big part of the show last year (NAB will have a whole area dedicated to drones this year), and this is an extension of that service, and is being marketed as such.
The kind chaps at Rycote gave me their new Super-Softie mount to go and test and I’ll write a separate post about later. Their products are always so well engineered and thought out. I’ve always used them so I suppose I have a slight bias but when it comes to sound, if you have to do it yourself you want a solution that will be simple and effective whether it is on camera, on a boom pole or simply in the hand of the interviewee. It worked very well as expected with the Rode NTG-3 microphone input directly to the camera in the loud ambient environment of the busy show. Rycote are a company who are always innovating and eager to improve existing products. The new ‘3D-Tex’ material results in improved wind noise reduction which works better at low frequencies than theirs and their competitors more traditional designs. Another key attraction is the new material will work better in situations where it rains – something that could only come from a British company! I am told that it can be squeezed out and dried quickly if and when it gets wet. A must for news gathering where reporters have to get the shot no matter what the conditions, rapid drying a crucial plus point if you have to then go and film another exterior later that morning or afternoon.
So onto the obvious star of the show which soon created a lot of buzz. Arri announced the latest addition to their camera range the Alexa Mini two days before BVE opened its doors and so it was with much excitement that I finally managed to get my hands on the thing ten minutes before doors opened on the final day of the exhibition! The Alexa mini complements their existing camera range and as everyone is saying it neatly completes their offering with a solution offering the Alexa sensor in a much more compact unit that can be used on Movi and Drone rigs with ease, meaning that larger productions will now be able to keep that Arri image quality for even the most specialist shots in their production. Upon lifting the unit one is immediately struck with the weight – it is incredibly light, a fact due largely to that slick carbon fiber chassis / frame. It has clearly taken a lot of development, testing and expertise to cram all the technology from the Alexa into such a small unit. Now of course adding a lens, lens control, matte box, viewfinder (they were showing it with one off of the Amira which I was told it will be available with), V-mount power, monitor, rigging and grip kit the weight will be increased massively but it will still come in under your average Amira weight. I can see other uses for the camera outside of commercials, features and dramas. For example wildlife or any type of single camera documentary production that requires equipment to be carried over distance can now benefit from the sensor of the Alexa in this new sleek carbon fiber form. I think it will be possible to create a versatile and higher end self-shooting setup based around this camera, as well as fly it and locate it in spaces the Alexa could never go.
Even this prototype is the quality you come to expect from Arri with all their expertise and position in the film and television industry. Who knows what they will be offering in another three to five years time – I’m looking forward to finding out. On a personal note, as an aspiring Cinematographer holding this camera took me back to being a small child when I remember at around the age of five I hung my Dad’s Hasselblad around my neck for the first time and grinned, and then later learning photography on one. That experience made me smile and it made me excited about the future – this camera took me back to that moment at BVE and I can’t wait to shoot with it. When a DoP next to me asked why Arri decided to launch the camera here and not at NAB the response was revealing and said a lot about the show and the UK industry. We were told ‘because the UK has the best technicians, the best engineers, a fantastic industry’ and as a product of that ‘why we we not launch it in such a place?’. Clearly I believe this to be true and I will leave the cynical side of sales patter out of it, I counter the cynics with the fact that they did chose to launch it at BVE. Arri are most certainly very proud to complete their ecostystem with this camera – it will be far far more popular and useful than the modular version and I suspect that by the time Spring comes around we’ll be seeing it being used on a lot of productions. Have a peek at Cinema 5D for the first footage from the camera and a review by Nino Leitner http://www.cinema5d.com/arri-alexa-mini-handson-footage-bve-2015/ There’s also a pretty funny shot / frame grab of me having a peek at a Canon EF lens on an Amira in there, I’ll add at the end of this article.
The CVP stand is always great for getting to compare cameras side by side and play with some rigs that are often overkill solutions but for any camera fanatic a joy to behold. How about this RED Dragon setup for example?! I had a quick play one morning before the show opened and had a lot of fun zooming and pulling and reframing with the ice sculptures they had to track our lenses on. The Sony FS7 was as popular as expected, offering as it does such incredible value for money. A representative from CVP commented on how it has killed off sales of the AJA Cion which I also managed to have a quick test of. I like the Cion a lot from an operators perspective it is perhaps the better camera, though I think that the FS7 will be the camera that will finally knock the C300 off the pedestal of ‘most hired camera in the UK’. I also hear they have had some issues with lens interchange mounts on the Cion and I haven’t shot with it (unlike the FS7) nor seen the image in post. I would like to use the Cion and really learn what it is capable of and I wonder what AJA and Blackmagic will do next now that they have some market share in the camera department? Blackmagic will surely have more camera products in development – can we have 4K in a package like the FS7 with all proprietary codecs and more lens options for half the FS7 price please? I reckon it’s coming. Next year maybe we’ll be seeing new cameras from both those ‘post’ companies.
Finally in regards to workflow the Atomos devices are growing both in their product range and size, I have to say that I feel I need one in my life, an investment for any job no matter what the camera. These devices are great either as backup, main media, monitoring and SSD integration is a game changer. If you need to shoot ProRes or acquire Avid DnX in the field then it would seem that you need one of their devices – what’s not to love about a directors monitor and recorder all in one – and the best bit the fact that they make devices with HDMI 10-Bit, SDI, or both if you need it. Really handy as well for recording live shows or in fact anything you might need to capture in the field and have to hand as media ready to edit. Transcoding is rapidly becoming a thing of the past with both hardware and software advances.
G-Technology were demonstrating their latest Thunderbolt 2 drive devices and they have come up top trumps with some excellent kit. Their answer to the Lacie rugged drives – the G-Drive ev RaW is a head turner. The drives can withstand a 2m drop, though this is reduced if you put an SSD drive inside to 1.2m. They are priced to directly compete with the Lacie’s, they are water resistant and come with either Thunderbolt or USB 3. A definite purchase for transferring media in the field. Finally to complement the drive why not splash out the most money you have ever spent on a cable and get yourself an Optical Thunderbolt or USB 3 cable by Cornering? They are available in lengths between 5.5m and 60m for Thunderbolt and 10m and 50m for USB 3. Ideal for post houses where noisy drive arrays can be stored remotely in fire proof safes for example. The shorter distance of 5.5m Thunderbolt is around £150.00 but you can impress the crew with your optical cable prowess, or not – they might just think you have more money than sense or are very sad indeed. On a serious note, might this technology be the way cable technology is headed? I just wonder if optical will start to come down in price anytime soon.
All in all I really enjoyed the experience of working at the show and managed to see some interesting seminars; worth a concluding mention was Mike Thornton’s ‘How broadcasters should go about implementing loudness recommendation EBU R128 for programmes’. It was a window into the world of audio perception, loudness, metering and the dark art of audio mixing, complete with some very revealing examples and anecdotes about mixers and loudness techniques on some well known television programmes, I strongly recommend checking out the seminar when it appears online via the BVE website and digital channels. The show is here to stay, and if you haven’t checked it out before and are at all involved in the world of moving image production then I strongly suggest you book to attend next year – see you there.
Back in December a Line Producer I know gave me a call and asked if I was available to work on a short film with some provocative (read slightly kinky!) content. I chatted with DoP Anthony Dias and he was short of a Lighting Assistant / Gaffer. When I heard the kit list I became excited – here was an opportunity to get really creative in an excellent location (even if the ceiling was way lower than ideal) with some serious toys and so I offered my services. Anothony’s brief was to ‘update film noir’. Now that’s a fairly tall order but I like the vibe.
We were shooting S-Log 3 in 4K RAW on the Sony F55 using Cooke prime lenses and typically using filters and NDs so the lenses were wide open. But the really cool thing about the shoot was the workflow, Mission Digital were testing out some new kit and ideas and the production really benefited from this. The thing about S-Log is that it is fantastic for post production but means that the output image to a director looks overexposed, lacking in contrast and is generally very unflattering. From the DoP, camera assistants and lighting perspective it can also present difficulties when predicting exactly what the picture will look like further down the line after editing with a LUT applied and colour correction or more extreme grading. LUT’s or REC709 can be used in camera viewfinder to give a more flattering image to work with but the SDI output from the camera is clean and shows the true S-Log image. Step in Colour Front software and three talented DiTs with some sharp eyes; 1. Live Grading 2. Playback (Video Assist) 3. Digital Dallies (syncing and outputting colour corrected files).
The live grades can be exported in a variety of formats with the grades applied or the grade values can be exported as a CDL or Colour Decision List for use once the production has been cut. In real terms it means that the Director, DoP, Lighting Technicians, MakeUp Artists, can see a close approximation or even final graded result live as the pictures are being shot. Lighting for 4K but also lighting for the grade. The live grading DiT can communicate constantly with the DoP regarding exposure levels and lighting continuity. It makes collaborating that much more efficient and brings (one would hope) better results. This is surely a clear example of Digital Fluidity – digital technology bringing about a more fluid and creatively liberating production mode. Why would anyone want to compress these images if they didn’t have to?! RAW images being lit and exposed for the way in which it will be graded and finished. It’s a win win scenario. If you were to introduce compression then you would be losing valuable information and the pictures would not be acquired in the way they were intended to be, and taken into the edit with less control over the look. Again the best thing about this ‘live’ workflow is that you can light and work with the end result in mind but still make no actual solid commitment to these looks that are used when you shoot. If the director or DoP later changes their mind about the extremity of a look lets say contrast, level of black then he or she can do so. This bridge between production and post is critical to the modern 4K workflow as it allows DoPs and the camera department to light and expose the image with an approximation of the end result right in front of them as they shoot. The most effective post workflow will now always begin on set, this workflow will surely save time and by extension money when the production side is wrapped. The maximum control over the images can be gained this way and the DoP is able to work with many more pairs of critical eyes and ears than shooting on film or indeed shooting without the possibility of live grading. Whilst standard on a large scale production the value of a dedicated playback engineer (video assist) cannot be underestimated on a small independent production of this size. It is so much easier for the DoP and camera assistant to be able to request playback than having to operate manually from the camera. It is straightforward to simply ask for it when required be it to check performance, sharpness, shadows, or whatever. The software outputs a burn in CC in the corner of the directors monitor to denote when viewing a colour corrected or graded image. And it’s not just the camera, lighting and directing departments that benefit from this workflow. The value of the colour corrected image extends beyond these departments to hair and makeup and the art department, and into post with the editors and graders. Editors get to work with prettier pictures and graders get to begin their finishing process with a great starting point, with all the information provided by RAW files and S-log curves on top of all the information they need to begin a grade with much of the early work already complete. In short, everyone is able to take something away from this progressive new school way of thinking. The F55 has a few quirks and irritations from a 1st AC’s and operators point of view but with this production we were all in no doubt that under the photographic direction of Anthony the lighting, critical eye of the DiTs, and top notch work from camera assistant Alfie and the great location made for some fantastic pictures. Really looking forward to seeing the fruits of our hard work after it’s final grade.