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...

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