DSLR Filmmaking


Weathering the Storm

Or: The Importance of Personal Projects

stom pier

Elizabeth and I spent a week in Maine during Hurricane Irene last year.  As the storm assaulted the coast, we holed up in our beach front cabin, doing our best to stay warm and dry.  During a lulls in the rain, we would race outside to document the weather and the desolation, before being driven back to safety.

I’ve had this cut for a long time and haven’t done much with it.  I’ve been concerned that it’s non – narrative and nothing more than a collection of shots and songs that are boring to anyone but me.

But that’s not enough to stop me anymore.  Ever since I’ve started taking on more clients, I’ve actually become more invested in personal projects.  I find that I NEED to do things for myself, simply because I want to explore the medium for me.

So, here is Weathering the Storm, a piece of visual porn for my enjoyment

* As a side technical note: this is the last piece I shot predominantly in 60p.  Slow motion is awesome, but on a DSLR the morié gets so bad it’s almost inexcusable.

Broad St

8 Things Wedding Shooters Always Need and Never Carry

broad st wedding

Summer wedding season is upon us.  For many filmmakers and photographers, this is our Black Friday – this is when we make bank.  Want to get in on the action?  There are plenty of blogs that will help you buy the best lens and flash, but only this one will tell you what gear you’re liable to forget to pack.

1. Snacks

wedding snacks


Chances are, you’re only eating one meal today.  If you’re smart, you’ve had breakfast and you’re not hung over.  But lunch?  Forget about it.  Lunchtime generally falls around the time that the bride is getting ready, which pretty much rules that meal out.  You’ll have dinner later tonight, around 8:30 or 9pm, when everyone else is eating.  And you’ll probably grab some cheese and fruit from the corner table at cocktail hour.  But a granola bar, hastily devoured on the trip to the church, can mean the difference between a growling tummy or a quiet one.  And no one wants to hear your stomach during the groom’s vows.

2. Sunscreen

wedding sunscreen


For an outdoor wedding, anyway.  Think about it.  You’re going to be outside, away from shade for hours, probably standing in the same spot.  And, unless it’s a wedding with a specific theme, you probably have to leave your wide brimmed cowboy hat at home.  Bummer.  So protect your skin and make your Mom proud by wearing sunscreen.

3. Bug spray

wedding mosquito


Goes along with sunscreen.  Because those mosquitoes are definitely going to be biting during the first look, and they’re hungry!

4. Multiplug Outlet Adapters

wedding outlet


This is one especially for the video shooters.  Because you need to charge your camera battery, your mic battery, your sound recorder batteries and your phone simultaneously.  And the two free outlets in the reception hall are probably taken up by the DJ and his big honkin’ turntable.

5. Earplugs

wedding earplugs


Most people won’t wear earplugs to loud events, because they only attend three or four a year.  When you’re shooting that many a month, you definitely want to protect your hearing.  Buy the highest decibel reduction you can, unless you really want to hear the MOB belt out Rolling in the Deep after a couple glasses of champagne.

6. A Good Multitool

wedding grappler


Really, this should just live in your camera bag, alongside a roll of gaff tape.  Tighten tripod screws, open packaging, cut loose strings and fend off hungry wildlife.

7. Cash

wedding money


In small bills.  Pretend you’re a drug lord or a strip club patron.  Weddings frequently involve travel and travel frequently involves tolls.  And toll booths tend not to give change, especially for large bills.  Until you’ve rolled up to a $.75 toll booth with only twenties, you don’t know what true rage is.

8. The Number of a Reliable Cab Company

wedding mohawk


Because sometimes it’s hard to catch a cab after midnight.  You’re carrying thousands of dollars of equipment; now is not the time to wander the streets of the Bronx, waving at every yellowish car passing by.

What do you always need and never have?  Leave a message in the comments below.

Ready, Aim...

“Sight” – Shooting at 102 Degrees

We opened principal photography on our new short Sight last Saturday, shooting VFX shots outside on the hottest day of the year.  With our thermometer reading 102 degrees in the shade, we unpacked our gear in a dead end alley in South Philly.  We drew up Sam Hall’s old green screen, stretched between two light stands and secured with clamps and rope.

shooting at 102

Keeping one eye on the mouth of the alley, Sam Lodise strapped on a set of kneepads and took up a hunting rifle. He trained it on the camera in front of him, his eye steel – cold orbs.

shooting at 102

As the day wore on, the camera became too hot to touch.  We applied and reapplied wet towels and ice packs in hope of warding off the dreaded “overheat” warning.  All the while, Sam Hall crouches in front of the camera, squinting down his viewfinder adapter and making minute adjustments to the placement of the rifle.

shooting at 102

shooting at 102

Sweat poured.  After each take we passed around a spray bottle and took turns dowsing ourselves.  Our spare bottles of water rapidly heated, baking on the pavement.

shooting at 102

Finally, the final shot was printed and we wrapped.  We retired to a living room full of Pacifico and South Philly hoagies.  Another day in the life.

* All photos courtousy of Elizabeth.  See more of her work on flickr.

Screen shot 2012-03-24 at 8.30.14 PM

Faking HDR Timelapses

I spent a weekend in upstate New York last fall, shooting almost exclusively time lapses.

Upon editing the footage, I found myself struggling with contrast corrections.  Many of the shots had to have shadows brightened, which blew out the sky.  I could have shot HDR, but that opens a whole new realm of workflow problems, not to mention triples my images.

As usual, After Effects provides the solution.

I precomposed the layer, then duplicated the precomp.  Each precomp got its own individual color grading, one focusing on shadows, the other on highlights.  Then, in the main composition, I simply masked out the appropriate places, such as the sky.  The result is a fairly convincing portrayal of HDR in an easy to digest workflow.

While this process isn’t a replacement for true HDR, it is a useful workaround for those times when you can’t handle the image load or the workflow.  It’s fast, easy, and work great.


SBS Screenshot

S*it Bikers Say

A video I shot with Bill Dwyer of atlasrider.com.  Don’t ask me what any of it means, yah tankslappers.


OLB Screenshot

Roman – One Love Baby (Prod. by J Farell)

This is a music video I shot with Samuel Hall for Roman last month.  I’ll be writing up a blog post on it soon, going into some of the technical details of the shoot.  Until then, enjoy.


Return to Assateague

The sand stretches out in front of me.  The waves roll their monotonous song against the shore.  Elizabeth is walking along the wet sand, watching for shells and rocks and little crabs.  Occasionally she pockets something extra – special, an adopted souvenir that will live out its days as potpourri on our bathroom sink.  
Mom turns to look at me.  We’re seated higher, on the dry sand above the tide line.  There are still some people around; tourists catching a few last waves before darkness falls.  
“I’ve been looking for this place,” she says.  
“What, Assateague?” I ask.  
“No,” she replies and I understand her meaning immediately.  
There’s nothing like an east coast beach.  Hot sun, hot sand, cold water.  Boardwalks that span miles, hundreds of shops with identical merchandise, menus of crabs and clams and shrimp.  
I’ve been coming here since I was a kid, young enough to believe my life jacket gave me magical power.  It’s not home.  It’s a sanctuary, a place where I can reorganize the jumble of thoughts in my mind.  
I’ve needed this too.

Due to the recent backlash against FCP, I cut this entire video on Premiere.  We’re still not best friends, Premiere and I, but we are slowly gaining each other’s trust.  I’m curious to see what CS5.5 brings into the mix, and if there are substantial speed increases.

My biggest complaint about Premiere is that it’s just a little too slow.  Final Cut and I move (to use a cliche) “at the speed of my thoughts”.  Premiere and I move “at the speed of my thoughts, plus one second of processing time”.  It gets irritating.  

Color grading and funness was added in After Effects.  This was my first time working with audio in AE that actually needed to be synced perfectly.  As a result, syncing became the most time – consuming part of the whole process.  Let me tell you why.
I had tons of syncing issues.  Literally days of syncing issues.  Normally, I resync my masters in FCP, then export a reference movie to compressor to create the online.  However, I wanted to use an entirely Adobe workflow, so that cut out the “resync in FCP” step.  Instead, I was resyncing in AE, using the TIFF master and the AIFF master (exported from Premiere).
Here’s the issue, the one it took me days to resolve.  Crack open a new Premiere project.  Set it to be the 1080p or 720p DLSR preset.  What’s the bitrate of your audio?  
Great.  Now open up Quicktime and import an .mp3 you like.  Maybe a track from my buddy J Farell.  Good choice.  
Export that mp3 as an AIFF.  What’s your default bitrate for export?
44.1kHz?  Son of a…
Simple, elementary bitrate matching step that I should have caught.  But I didn’t.  And it took forever to figure out what the hell I was doing wrong.  I present it here in the hope that I’ll spare you from the same headache.  
There’s a ton of media associated with this trip.  Check it out on it’s respective sites:

And, as always, feel free to ask any questions that you like.  

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/26910100 w=480&h=270]

This Is Not About Final Cut Pro X

I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon and write a blog post about FCPX.  
I’m not going to do it.
I’m not.
Crap, I am, aren’t I?
Fine.  You win.

You win this round.  But the war still rages!
I first sat down with Final Cut Pro in 2001.  I was in my school’s visual broadcasting program at the time, and they upgraded their tape – to – tape editing suite to a Quicksilver Power Mac G4 and FCP 2.5.  
I hated it.  Coming from an iMovie background, Final Cut was hard to use and incomprehensible.  I followed some of the included tutorials, but they were way out of my league.  For most of the year, I ignored it.  
Next year, in a new program with a new teacher, I dove headfirst into the program.  I learned straight from the manual this time, teaching myself page by page.  By the end of the year, I had purchased a copy for myself.  I loved it.  For the past ten years, Final Cut has been my reason to own a Mac.
There’s been a huge backlash to Final Cut X.  I’m not going to get into the specifics here, because it’s been so well outlined in other posts.  I mean, just reading the comments in the App Store is…well, an adventure.  
Ron Dawson has a very interesting post on the new program.  You should really read it (because it’s well thought out and executed) but in a nutshell, he believes that Apple is targeting photographers with FCPX.  Since all these new fangled DSLR’s do a pretty good job at video, they’re assuming that photogs will be eager to try their hand at some non – linear editing of their own.  
And I think he’s right.  Spot on.  
But his post got me thinking about DSLR’s in general.  I’d like to draw some comparisons if I may, and you can tag along if you want.  
Let’s say FCPX is like my Canon 7D.  For a photographer, it’s a great option.  For a filmmaker, it’s sorely lacking some critical features, like stabilization, follow focus, a viewfinder, XLR inputs etc.  Luckily, other companies make solutions for these products.  In some cases, they do a better job than Canon themselves would.  
Take Zacuto.  Want a viewfinder adapter?  You’re almost certainly going to buy a Z – Finder.  Could Canon or Nikon make a similar product?  Sure.  Would it be as good?  Probably not, because they’re a camera company, not a camera accessories company.  
I think the same holds true with FCPX.  We’re doing it already.  Want powerful color correcting software?  You’re probably using Colorista.  Think of the filmmakers you know who denoise with Neat Video or Magic Bullet DeNoiser or sync tracks with PluralEyes.  We buy add ons to make the software do what we want, the way we want.  
That’s the way I see the new Final Cut.  It’s like the body of a camera.  You can build on it, customize it, and make it your personal editing machine.  Granted, this won’t happen until the developers can get their hands dirty in it, but when they can, we’ll be seeing an impressive editing platform that is designed to edit just like you.  

Pictured: Final Cut Pro X
The reality of the lower price point of FCPX is this: it’s cheaper because it has less features.  And you’ll need to spend more to add on those features.  So now it’s up to you: Do you buy an editing suite that has all the features you use and more that you don’t right out of the box (I’m looking at you Premiere)?  Or do you buy a bare bones – customizable suite and add only what you need and use?  
Decisions, decisions…

48 Hours

It’s 4:00am Sunday morning, and I’ve been up for twenty – two hours.  I’m sitting in front of Samuel Hall’s editing suite in South Philly.  He’s just finished color correcting the last shot from our movie.
“Okay,” he says as we watch the yellow render bar slowly creep.  “What’s left?”
Somewhere, deep inside my barely – operational brain, a list begins checking itself off.  Fix the dialog for the second half of the movie.  Record and add foley.  Write, record and mix music.  Render a master and compress an online.  
Is it four in the morning?  Shit.
“I think,” Sam says, “for our health, we should get some sleep.” 
Bill Dwyer
Photo by Samuel Hall
It’s 6:07pm Friday and we’re in my office in Center City, staring at the 48 Hour Guerrilla Film Competition’s website.  My mind runs through possible prompts.  
Romantic Comedy?  Difficult.  
Grindhouse?  No problem.  
Action/Adventure?  A dream come true.  
Space Opera?  We should probably just concede.  
Sam clicks the “Start” button and the GFC’s website refreshes as it loads our prompt.  We hold our breath.  
“Email me a copy of the script,” Sam says before he leaves.  It’s 10pm Friday and we’ve just finished “Blood” a conspiracy thriller.  It will be our life for the next forty – four hours.
This is not a regular screenplay.  It’s four pages long, almost all dialog.  It’s missing scenes because they’re unnecessary to put down on paper.  It’s a cross between Fringe and the Bourne trilogy.  We wrote it in two hours.  We’ve spent the last two planning out shots and logistics.  We’ve contacted the actors and set up times.  In short; we’ve done all we can for the night.
Sam heads home and I email him the script.  We go to bed, where we barely sleep.  I dream that a fat diamondback rattlesnake is chasing me.
It’s 11:30am Saturday.  Bill Dwyer, our everyman hero, sits on a bench in the middle of a crowded Rittenhouse Square.  Next to him is Alexander Sando, a scientist who might not be as crazy as he sounds.  He’s just told Bill that he needs to inject him with a secret serum; the cure to a deadly virus.
“I don’t mind assisting…” Bill begins.  This is the line he can’t screw up.  This is the prompt line, the one we were assigned, the one that has to be perfect.  
A girl, no older than 9, runs through the shot, yelling.  For a moment, the actors hold it together, then break into laughter.  
“Cut,” I say, grinning.  The father apologizes profusely, but we laugh it off.  This isn’t big budget.  Hell, this isn’t even low budget.
I look over to Sam.  He’s crouched behind his camera, laughing and shaking his head at the absurdity of it all.  
We are alive.  
Bill Dwyer, Alexander Sando, me and Beth Gorman
Photo by Samuel Hall
It’s 4pm Saturday and Andrew Feierabend is pointing a pistol at Bill’s head.  Bill is tied to a chair in the middle of a derelict old building.  The floor is giving way in one corner.  Rain hammers the windows outside.  
“Who am I?” Andrew asks, rage coloring the edges of his words.  “I’m the man with the gun.”
Bill looks into his eyes, fearful.  “Where’s the man with the balls to use it?”
The entire crew breaks into laughter.  Beth Gorman goes over to muss Bill’s hair.  It’s too kempt for a guy who’s just been kidnapped.
It’s 8pm Saturday and Billy Zane is talking to Jessica Fletcher.  Meghan Marvin lies on a yoga mat on the floor, occasionally offering words of criticism to the characters on Murder She Wrote.  I’m sitting on the couch.  Sam’s in a recliner.  His cat, Rooth, is curled on his chest.  
We’re waiting for the footage to transcode.  I close my eyes, trying to force myself into sleep for a few minutes.  It isn’t working.
“I have coffee if you want it,” Meghan tells me.
“I didn’t know you drank coffee,” I say.
“I don’t generally,” she explains, “but sometimes I just really crave it.”
Rooth puts her paw on Sam’s face.  It looks like she’s trying to push his mouth open.  
Beth Gorman and Elizabeth Green
Photo by Samuel Hall
“I can’t do this anymore,” I say.  I push away from the computer and stand up.  It’s 11pm Saturday and I’ve been syncing dialog with images for two hours.  The first scene is almost done.
Sam takes over and begins to cut the chase scene.  I drink grape juice and wonder if I’m going home tonight.  
It’s 2am Saturday and I know I’m sleeping here.  The air conditioner hums in the window, the sound accented by the pitter patter of rain on its metal exterior.  
Our cut is done.  The movie is five minutes and forty – two seconds.  
“I think I can do the color correction,” Sam tells me.
I feel like I’m going to die.  I can actually tell that parts of my brain have shut off.  I remember an episode of SGU where they talked about sleep deprivation.  They said that sections of your brain will actually go to sleep, even when you’re still wide awake.  
Sam exports the XML and opens it in Premiere, then After Effects.  I keep seeing something out of the corner of my eye.  It looks like a human figure.  

Bill Dwyer and me
Photo by Samuel Hall


Rooth jumps on me.  I’m on Sam’s couch.  I don’t know what time it is.  I’ve slept soundly and deeply.  
I check my phone.  8:45am.  Sunday.  I get up and take the coffee out of the fridge.  I consider making half a pot, then decide that’s stupid and brew a full one.  I take my first cup upstairs.  It’s in a black Ikea mug.  
Sam’s already there, in his pajamas.  He’s only been up a few minutes.  The day is fresh and I feel surprisingly good.  
11am Sunday.  I feel like shit.  I ate a bowl of shredded wheat mixed with soy milk and vanilla ice cream.  Then I took two painkillers for my headache.  I feel hot.  I think I’m going to vomit.  
Sam’s music fills the room.  He’s deep in Garageband, pounding out drums, cellos and pianos.  I go down to the basement and record foley.  

Bill Dwyer and Andrew Feierabend
Photo by Samuel Hall
It’s 3pm Sunday.  Sam’s other cat, Chelsea, wanders over his desk, rubbing herself against his chin.  He reaches around her to use his keyboard.  He doesn’t throw her down.  
We’re doing the final mix: dialog, music and foley.  Sam doesn’t like the final piece of music.  He sits down at his keyboard, almost in a rage.  He re – scores the entire end of the movie.  It’s better.  
“I just want my life back,” he says.  It’s a half joke.  Only half.  
I never did vomit.
It’s 4pm Sunday and it’s done.  We stand at the island between Sam’s living room and kitchen.  He makes beans and I eat ice cream.  Upstairs, the computer compresses an online version of our forty – eight hours of effort.  
“We have to re – integrate with society now,” Sam says.  This is true.  We’ve lived this movie for the past two days.  There has been nothing else.
I make a joke about the “civvies” and put my ice cream in the freezer.  We go upstairs to upload the movie to the website.  We are exhausted, pushed to the very brink of our endurance.  
We are alive.  [vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/23794003 w=400&h=225]

Watch it here.

Art with an Invisible Hand

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”
– The Dark Knight, 2009
Jamie Melendez and Swan Vacula
I think I just lost a potential client because I charged for my services.  It doesn’t bother me that much, but it does highlight a topic I’ve been thinking about for some time, and it seemed to be a good first blog post.  
A bit of background: while I’m mostly a filmmaker, I do some photography work on the side.  I prefer to do model work rather than “documentary” style (weddings, events etc).  This is probably because model photography is as close to filmmaking as I can get.  Most of the work I’ve done has been free, but I have done some commissioned work too.  Recently, I put my portfolio up on modelmayhem.com and offered to work with interested models and photographers.  
I was contacted by a young actor to shoot some headshots.  She seemed nice and was very excited to work with me.  We emailed back and forth, determining what she wanted and how quickly she need the shots.  
In the last piece of correspondence she sent, she asked how much I’d charge.  Now, I know a few photographers who do this kind of thing, and I have a a pretty good idea of what the going rates are.  I named a price that was reasonable and in keeping with the industry.  I never heard from her again.  
At the heart of this conundrum is the debate of professional vs amateur work, something that I’ll get into in a future post.  But, in a nutshell, it’s the obligation of the amateur to assess the market’s climate and charge accordingly.  It’s unfair for someone with less experience to make significantly less while still delivering a similar product.  This seems like a dilemma that is confined to our industry.  Well, that and performing arts. 
This harkens me back to another pricing debate I had.  About ten years ago, when I was just starting out, I was hired to make a series of instructional videos for a local karate studio.  The videos, totaling twenty – four in all, were shot, cut and burned to dvd for duplication and distribution.  I even went so far as to create interactive dvd menus and a special effects laden intro.  
I learned a lot throughout the process, particularly what the work was worth.  I undercharged for my services, over – delivered the final product, and left the project with something of a bad taste in my mouth.  
Two years later, the client came to me again and asked me to make another series.  I had gained some experience and suggested a price more in keeping with what the work was worth.  The client balked, but acquiesced and I got my fee.  And he never hired me again.  I found out that he now works with a shooter/editor who does the work “as a hobby”.  
The worst part of this whole situation is that I’ve soured that client on professionals.  I delivered professional grade work for an amateur price and now he’ll expect the same no matter who he hires.  And he’ll always be able to say, “Well, the last guy did it for half of what you’re charging.”  

photo credit: Swan Vacula
The ultimate question here is; what is our work worth?  It’s not an easy one to answer.  In these days of budget cuts and inflated unemployment, it can be difficult to outline a project and demand a hefty price tag from a client with plenty of other options.
I work in a retail store, and it’s easy for us to determine what we charge for our products.  We simply look at what we paid for the item, what the going rate is, and charge so we make a little money and don’t exceed the market value of the product.  But it’s much harder with art because there is no standard “market value”.   Every product is different and requires different things from the artist.  
The truth is, our work’s price is determined by the industry, and we’re obligated to maintain that price.  If the filmmaker across the street charges half of what I’m charging, I’ll have to lower my prices to maintain my clients.  If he then chooses to lower his, we end up in a Adam Smith nightmare, where the client wins but the businesses go bankrupt in a matter of months.
There’s nothing wrong with charging fair prices or making exceptions for clients on a case by case basis; that’s what economics is all about.  But it’s our responsibility to familiarize ourselves with industry rates and make fair and honest quotes about the worth of our work.  If we do this as a community, we make the invisible hand work for us, instead of getting pushed around by it.  

Or, as my good friend Sam Hall puts it:

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/11958878 w=400&h=225]