Wednesday, 26 September 2012

A Big Blog For the Aspiring Film-Maker! Part I

Two years ago I didn't even have a camera, now, I'm a professional Film-Maker with a steadily growing mountain of kit I use on shoots both on land and underwater. I have taught myself the film-making process, technical terms (although they're still a little sketchy) and I have even started to teach myself both Photoshop and web design. All of this has to been to achieve my ultimate goal of setting up my own production company through which I release all my films, giving myself a far greater element of control than if I were having to go cap in hand to other companies and thus risk losing control on the creative process which, with the messages I want to get out there, could prove something of an ethical minefield for me.

I have had to learn all this stuff myself, of course I've picked up on bits of advice here and there from people more experienced than I, but predominantly, I have learnt through doing and also using the internet as a source of inspiration and knowledge. Probably the best sources of inspiration for me at least, are Philip Bloom's Vimeo channel and website and also the Oliviatech website and blog. I also recommend signing up to the No Film School mailing list for a weekly roundup of the best web content for independent Film-Makers, thanks to Paul de Kock for recommending that one to me!

I'll get this out of the way, I'm a proper nerd, a genuine film geek, so part of what makes an enjoyable evening for me is watching After Effects tutorials on or camera reviews. Last night I watched a load of reviews for three point studio lighting rigs and I have even been known to waste a night watching video reviews of tripods! Like I said, I'm a nerd, so to avoid you wasting your lives in the same, equally pathetic way when you could be out drinking gassy lager and trying to get your greasy paws on members of the opposite (or same) sex, I thought I could at least start you off by pointing you in the direction of things which might just help all you aspiring Film-Makers!

Canon C300

The first thing to look at is which camera to use, you can of course rent camera equipment but these days, broadcast standard HD is so readily available at affordable prices, you really want to look at buying.

I am a big advocate of Canon's DSLR cameras and own (and adore) the Canon 7D. There are several Canon DSLRs which are more than capable of producing high end video, the 5D MkII and MkIII, the 550D (Rebel T2i in the States), the 6D, the 60D and the 1Dx, to name the most commonly used and unless you're a multi-squillionaire who can afford a Red, an Alexa or a Phantom, then DSLRs can be the answer to your prayers.

The DSLR is of course, still a "stills" camera with video capability and the bodies, i.e. without lenses, will set you back between £500 - £5000 dependent upon the model. I personally love the fact I can set up a shot and check it with a still, or show a 2nd camera op what shot I want by taking a photo so it works for me perfectly but some people will prefer a dedicated video camera. One down side of the DSLR cameras is that they cannot record video for more than twelve minutes, if they did, they would be classed as video cameras and the relevant tax would be added making them more expensive.

If you want a dedicated video camera then the last 18 months has seen a glut of new models ranging in price from the budget to the mega expensive so bearing in mind the "indie" element of what I do, I'll focus more on those within reach to people like us, maybe also those with a bit more disposable income. To help, I will include video reviews by Philip Bloom because, well, he's "the man."

The Canon C300 (reviewed here by PB) is a great camera, perfect for documentaries and seeing as it is 4K ready, comes with all the add-ons like monitor, handle etc for around the £10K mark, is priced competitively. The benefit it takes CF cards over other more expensive formats is huge, it's relatively small and the output picture looks exceptional. However, the one downside to the C300 is no super slo-mo at 1080p!! Please Canon, fix this with firmware updates if possible! There is also the less expensive C100 and the upcoming, more hi-spec, C500. When the time comes for an upgrade, the C300 will definitely be high on my "wish list."

The Black Magic Cinema Camera

A Canon Pro I may be but I can't ignore other brands on the market and one in particular is causing a massive stir, the Black Magic Cinema Camera (watch the review in full, well worth the time).

The good stuff: It shoots in 4K RAW, the output is phenomenally good, it has a high dynamic range, it's small and it costs £2000, yes, two grand!! That is pretty amazing by anyone's standards. The downsides are that the recordable media is ridiculously expensive, these are not CF cards, nope, they cost around £200 each and for that, you get about half an hour of 4K RAW shooting space, they're huge and will require a computer with serious muscle to even play, let alone process. You can record in ProRes HQ if you want more output to each card (about 3.5 hours) though but the cards are still expensive. Again, no slo-mo high frame rates and also, the BM has an internal battery so no battery changes when the power goes.

Sony NEX FS700

The Sony NEX FS700 is another 4K ready camera, has in-built ND filters, puts out a superb image and is similar in many ways to the cameras above but with one huge bonus on top, super slo-mo high frame rates! What I've seen from this camera has looked very, very good, especially slow motion and it fits in the range between the C300 and Black Magic, coming in around the £7500 mark

Panasonic GH2

The Panasonic GH2 is an option for those on a tighter budget and is a mirror-less DSLR. This side by side comparison with a Red Epic is very interesting, considering the Epic is a 5K, super expensive cinema camera it holds up quite well considering the cost. As a DSLR, it's small, portable, easy to travel with and highly affordable!

These are just a few examples of the newer range of cameras on the market and you will notice I haven't included what could be classed as the traditional camcorder types, i.e. the XF100 or the XL2 and the main reason for that is I haven't shot on those types of cameras before, however, the benefit these more traditional designs can offer, is that they come supplied with many of the extras a DSLR shooter would have to purchase separately so can be a more cost effective solution, however, this is then offset by the size and weight when travelling abroad.

If you were to say, "David, I want a full HD video camera to make my independent films, music videos or wedding videos, what would you suggest?" Honestly? I'd still say the Canon 7D. The new firmware update has addressed many of the issues that ever so slightly hampered the camera previously (in camera audio level control! Hooray!) and the output picture really is exceptional. Cinematic depth of field, clean crisp image, portable, affordable, flexibility and control, awesome, the rolling shutter can be a bit of a problem but that aside, it's absolutely spot on, plus, Canon build quality is stunning, rugged and looked after properly, their cameras will last you forever. There's a reason I was so keen to have Canon involved in "From the Office..."

One day David, one day...

After the camera, you need to consider what lenses you're going to need. In case you're not sure, lenses come in different sizes so you will see lenses described as 8-15mm, 70-200mm, 35mm etc and the simple explanation is that the smaller the number, the "wider" the lens, wide basically means you fit more of what is in front of you on the screen. The higher the number means the further away you can zoom in on something and see it in focus.

I have four lenses I use, my workhorse lens, the Canon 15-85mm which is always on my camera in the bag and which I use for probably 80% of what I shoot, a 10-22mm wide angle lens which I use underwater and is ideal for filming big animals but also inside small rooms or for landscapes, a 50mm prime lens (£60 from Incheon Airport and one of the best things I have ever bought) which is ideal for interviews and pieces to camera and use in low light, and a 70-300mm Macro Sigma lens. I actually used this latter lens quite a lot in A Ray of Light so I could film a lot of the action without anybody realising they were being filmed!

Lenses aren't cheap though so if you can only afford one to begin with, I would suggest the 15-85mm or the more expensive if you can afford it, 24-105mm.

You can record lovely crisp images that are in focus and everything, they may even be well composed and your subject is great on camera but certain things just make a video or film suck, over reliance on stills with tacky animation, bad fonts, spelling mistakes and worst of all bad sound!! We had some issues with sound on two interviews in Behind Blue Glass due to the wind and the lapel mics we had borrowed not working and although I was able to clean a lot of the sound up, it simply doesn't beat recording perfect sound on the shoot, a relatively simple process which a lot of amateur film-makers seem to completely miss out.

Having learnt from my own mistakes I made three essential purchases, a lapel mic, a Zoom H4N and a Zoom H1N to go with my Rode Directional Video Mic. There are other sound recorders on the market but the two Zoom recorders are exceptional value for money and provide outstanding results.

The way I record sound on a shoot is to input the lapel mic into the Zoom H1N, a cheaper option than a wireless radio pack recorder and without the risk of radio interference, with the Rode Video Mic on the camera and plugged into the mic jack input with another mic on a boom going into the H4N. This gives you three ways to record broadcast standard sound and if one or even two fail, you at least have one or two backups. After recording the interview or piece to camera,  then record between thirty seconds and three minutes of ambient sound on the H4N to lay under the "vocal" track, this adds depth and texture to the sound design and gives it that high quality, professional sheen.

Two things to bear in mind:

1. You can never have too much sound recorded
2. Wind is your mortal enemy, avoid it at all costs...

With the latter in mind, high on my shopping list is a Redhead Windscreen, definitely $35 well spent...

Now, I know I've done something similar to this before but with the launch of my production company, Scarlet View Media, (Twitter here) (Website almost ready) and with upcoming productions in the coming weeks, I figured it couldn't hurt to revisit the subject and see if I could maybe answer some of the questions you may have about starting out as a Film-Maker or just an enthusiastic amateur. My main focus will always be the "From the Office..." series and other shark based projects but in order to do those, I have to ensure I can live and eat so I'm approaching this from the perspective of films of all types so hopefully you find some useful information or inspiration here.

I will be featuring accessories, stabilising options, shoulder rigs, bags, editing suites and software. the lot and although this is all only my personal opinion, anything I say is based on my own experiences and I am not paid to say any of this! Part II coming soon...

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Ron Taylor, My Hero.

On the back of the wonderful news in my last blog, I am incredibly sad to hear the news today that my hero, the pioneer of shark film-making, the greatest of them all, Ron Taylor has passed away after suffering with Leukaemia for the last two years.

It is no secret to anybody who knows me or who has spent time with me that Ron and Valerie Taylor are in a group of maybe four or five people who I hold in higher regard than anybody else, the people whom I have looked to in my life for inspiration and influence not only on my professional life, but in how to be as a person.

Make no mistake, if there was no Ron Taylor, there would be no "From the Office to the Ocean," both Ron and Valerie have been the single biggest influence on my career and love for sharks since I first saw "Realm of the Shark" aged seven. By then I had been in love with sharks for four years and in Ron and Valerie, I found somewhere I could gain inspiration and learn as much about sharks as possible. I have no shame or embarrassment to say today what I said back then, "I want to be just like Ron Taylor," I will always want to be like Ron but I know all too well that he was a one off, I can only hope to try my best to maintain the message he brought to the world, to respect our underwater world, to protect it and to teach people about the importance of all life living in the world's oceans.

Ron Taylor's contribution to the world cannot be overestimated. Ron Taylor was the first to film Great White Sharks underwater, Ron Taylor came up with the idea and along with Jeremiah Sullivan, developed the mesh suit, Ron Taylor filmed the live shark scenes in JAWS, Ron Taylor helped film the greatest shark sequence ever filmed, the first shark protection laws came into place because of the efforts of Ron and Valerie and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

I never met Ron, it will now always be an unfulfilled dream and where I could tell the story of Ron Taylor, I feel it better to leave that to the people who knew him, I am merely one of the many people whose lives have been touched by the king of shark related film-making. The letters sent to a nine year old me by Ron and Valerie and the book they sent about the first experiments with the mesh suits (seen in my hands in this pic) are amongst my most prized possessions but the greatest thing Ron Taylor did for me was teach me that you could get close to and film sharks and that those films could inspire generations of people to love sharks in the way he and Valerie do. I have always aimed to try my best to offer a continuation to their work, partly as a way of thanks for the inspiration they gave me.

Millions of people will have a sense of loss with the passing of Ron but nothing will compare to that being felt by Valerie. It's not for me to try and quantify that or tell you about their time together but it's impossible to think of one without the other, they were always just, Ron and Valerie and to me, even with Ron's passing, they will always be Ron and Valerie.

Over the coming days you will read many tributes to the great man and the most moving will be from those who knew him best, my friend Mike Neumann is a close friend of Ron and Valerie's and he would speak of Ron with glowing respect, admiration and no shortage of love, it's not just the people like me from all around the world who looked up to Ron, his close friends also looked up to him, He was that good at what he did and I am reliably informed he was a true gentleman to boot.

All I can say now is to pass on my deepest sympathies to Valerie and Ron's close friends and family, the world has lost a giant of the underwater world.

Like the title of this blog says, Ron Taylor, my hero.

Edit: As I say above about the best tributes coming from those who knew Ron, please take the to read the pieces here, here and here

Ron Taylor - March 8th 1934 - September 9th 2012

Friday, 7 September 2012

Blog Number 100 - A Miraculous Conservation Success Story


Would you believe it? 100 blog posts and unique hits creeping up to 100,000 in the two years since I started "From the Office..." from a completely standing start, two years ago. There's been highs and lows, celebration and controversy, delight and despair and without exception, as we move forward, the popularity of this project and everything that goes with it is increasing at a fantastic rate and even though you might not agree with everything you read here, you certainly keep reading so thank you. As the curator of the world's greatest online blog about someone from Manchester who makes films about sharks, I would like to let you all know I appreciate all your support.

Since I realised this would be blog 100, I wanted to make it a good one and asked on the Facebook group for suggestions as to what it could be about and I had quite a few come through various channels with a "highlights so far" piece being suggested by a few people.

I had actually decided on that but as it turns out, through a gloriously happy twist of fate, blog 100 will be me delivering some incredible news about an amazing achievement which is, in turn, one of the highlights of the last two years

A Ray of Light from Scarlet View Media on Vimeo.

Remember Brad? My antipodean partner in crime who, like me, believes in actually doing things!

Since Brad first contacted me towards the back end of 2010, we have shared many great moments together, some great ideas and epic highs and lows, all of which emanating from our desire to actually go out there into the wild and try to contribute, in our own ways, to making the world a better place.

If you haven't seen the video above, A Ray of Light, watch it, then come back and continue reading because everything will all make so much more sense.

What seems like forever ago, Brad and I talked about a project he had come up with, a survey to find out more about the yearly appearance in the Bay of Palma, of big numbers of Stingrays, many of which we have since discovered, were heavily pregnant. The concept being that he could set up a Stingray survey, utilising volunteers from the yachting community alongside divers and try to understand this annual aggregation more, how big the numbers are, why they're there and maybe even where are they coming from and going to after they leave?

This was a monumental undertaking from the get go because there was no money, no real support from government except from our ever-present and always super cool friend, Gabriel Morey. We talked about how, in order to get people interested in protecting the Stingrays, we would first need to know a lot more about them and their yearly visits to the Bay of Palma. Anyway, long story short, a few months later, Brad emailed to tell me it was up and running and he was conducting surveys with a small handful of divers.

I had been working like a dog for two years solid and had just taken the first order for Behind Blue Glass DVDs and figured I needed a holiday. I had been planning on going over to stay with Brad and Bea anyway and then one night, in bed, I had the idea of shooting a short film about the project but not the usual "... this is bad, look at these horrible images of dead things, we're all gonna die" type PSA, more of an engaging story about the very, very rare breed of people who sacrifice, sacrifice and sacrifice all for a cause they believe is worth fighting for. So, my "holiday" turned into a film shoot and the rest, as they say, is history. Read the full story here.

Good to be back in my "room" at Brad's

In real world conservation, that is, outside in the sun, wind, rain, snow etc, where hopes, dreams and self belief are crushed on a daily basis and where the world seemingly tries its utmost to destroy you, the single biggest problem is lack of funding, followed by apathy, everything else is merely a mild annoyance.

Brad was spending all his own money on the surveys, losing working days, burning through fuel like there was no tomorrow, using all his own gear and surviving on about three hours sleep a night, I paid for the production of the film entirely out of my own pocket and battles with beurocracy were a daily occurrance. We needed to inspire people to care about an animal which just isn't as inspiring as sharks or tigers or as easily marketable as whales and dolphins. The issue here was that we had what was a complete oddity in the Med, a healthy population of a marine creature, so we figured we should do what we can to maintain those healthy numbers and use it as a reason as to why marine protected areas in the Mediterranean, especially those around the Balearics, are so important.

Three weeks in Mallorca and three weeks at home and I had the finished film, releasing it to an entirely poistive response, interest in the project increased overnight, we even bit the bullet with the obligatory Facebook page and launched an Indiegogo campaign with the approach being a requested single donation of $5 from everyone interested enough in marine conservation to help with the running costs of the project but social media based animal awareness pages and groups just don't work like that unfortunately and despite only asking for donations of $5, Brad who was by now becoming quite the overnight sensation, found fundraising desperately slow and immensely frustrating.

And herein comes our amazing news...
Stefan and Irena Lawrence

 Just when things seemed at their most desperate, I am absolutely overjoyed to announce that one individual, the fantabulous Stefan A Lawrence, has pledged a donation of €35,000!!

Stefan's family has lived on Mallorca since the 60's after moving from New York, all of whom share a passion for the sea and all its creatures. In Stefan's on words;

"What gets us up in the morning (apart from our rambunctious two year old) are people like Brad and Bea. These are the doers not the talkers or worse yet the takers in life. As such it is our pleasure to work with and give back to the Med by supporting ONDINE's stingray survey."

This is a testament to Brad's tireless hard work and passion and the whole thing makes me beam with pride for a few reasons but primarily that this has all come from a small group of friends wanting to do what they felt was the right thing to do, to start a project from scratch with zero support, to build that project and make it totally inclusive and to achieve what looked like almost impossible goals. This funding is not borne from a desire to gain plaudits, to benefit financially and nor does it come with a long list of restrictive demands for things in return, it's just someone else doing what they think is the right thing to do.

This is a sign that very real conservation projects can be established by ordinary people in the face of what seem insurmountable obstacles, that there are people out there who believe in action over endless talk and deliberation and that you can just get out there and inspire people to help our marine environments. There are great conservation opportunities on your doorstep, wherever that may be. Whilst people may be railing against dolphin slaughter in Taiji, shark finning in Costa Rica, or the unsustainable harvest of Bluefin Tuna, signing petitions, sending emails and creating Facebook pages, there are projects in your area which need your help and involvement so go find them and get involved! By all means do the other stuff too but don't ignore local issues simply because they may not seem as glamorous at first.

This money means that Brad can get the materials needed for the surveys, cover fuel costs, the hiring of boats and maintenance of equipment. This means that more ground can be covered, proper study can be undertaken and most importantly, that we are now no longer hampered from simply not being able to afford doing even some of the most basic things that are required to run a long lasting conservation initiative. This doesn't mean that opportunities to help the project have now closed of course, to keep the initiative running for years to come will mean that financial support will always be gratefully received and you can get involved by contacting brad direct at

Brad's ultimate goal has always been to make the project self sufficient, so it can be grown and passed on for as many people to take part in as possible, he has always said that this isn't his project, it's Mallorca's project and I absolutely love that, it's a sign of the man and his approach to conservation, he doesn't want people kissing his arse or getting his face on the TV, he just wants the project to achieve its goals. The man is a genuine hero.

This also bodes well for future projects, one in particular I have had in mind for many, many years and which will hopefully be our next project. Obviously I won't be saying anything until Brad and I have the wheels in motion but what I will say, is that if we get it off the ground and it is successful, it will be one of the most amazing and important things you will ever see. Yes really.

In the meantime, to our hugely generous donor, we love you and cannot thank you enough, I am over the moon to see that Brad, who keeps this project running 365 days a year, is getting the support he deserves, the man is a genuine conservationist and Balearic marine life has a brighter future because of him and Bea.

This is conservation with a focus on social issues as well given the partnership with Joves Navegants and which is geared towards encouraging as many people as possible to join in and this incredibly kind gesture by an ocean lover means that it can only get bigger and inspire more people. Good things do happen to good people and sometimes, the nice guys get the rewards they deserve and if that doesn't make you feel good, nothing will!

If this does make you feel good, send Brad a message of support, he deserves a bit of love  for all his effort.