Filmmaking Tips and Advice

Sunday Gospel for the Camera Assistant

From the Book of Hart:

The Camera Assistant is wary as someone approaches the sacred machine, as watchful as a mother grizzly bear with her cubs. Yes, someone may touch the camera, may look through the eyepiece, may even change the direction the camera is pointing, but no harm shall befall that wondrous machine while the noble Camera Assistant is standing sentinel. No president, queen, or prime minister ever enjoyed protection as vigilant.

When hungry, the camera in the Assistant’s charge shall be fed – film in magazines on top or on the back, electricity through cables plugged into the back or side, heat when necessary, lenses and filters in front, oil for the mechanism inside. When the camera moves to the next set or location, the Camera Assistant places a casual but resolute hand on the magazine or handle, and walks alongside in a procession of vigilance and confidence.

This delicate precision machine is to be kept safe, warm, and dry at all costs, even when the Camera Assistant may not be. It is not only the potential expense that keeps the Camera Assistant so protective, it is “the job.”


NAB 2014: See You on the Show Floor

I’m writing this while waiting in the check-in line at my hotel in Las Vegas for the 2014 NAB Show. This line is pretty long and, well, I shouldn’t be surprised after the cab driver from the airport said NAB will bring an estimated 96,000 people into the city of sin. It turns out that number isn’t so crazy – last year NAB had 93,602 registrants come to Vegas for the yearly Mecca of filmmaking gear.

I’m normally not a gear-junkie, but NAB offers me a chance to get up-close-and-personal with the new cameras and equipment I can expect to see popping up on sets and in rental houses. Plus, it’s a trip to Vegas, right? But NAB is also about connecting with others in the filmmaking community. One of the things I’m most excited for this week is to shake the hands of people I’ve only known through this site and put faces to their virtual counterparts.

So while I don’t have any set schedule or specific plans for the convention, if you see me walking around please don’t hesitate to stop and say hello! You’ll know it’s me if I’m wearing black and/or blue. And if you’re still unsure, my badge has my name listed along with this website.

I hope to see you on the floor of the convention center! Now, excuse me while I have a few beers to try and mentally prepare myself for the explosion of gear and equipment I’ll be subjected to tomorrow.

- Evan

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC Cinematographer with Light Meter

ASC Close-Up with Cinematographer Roger Deakinsz

American Cinematographer interviewed Roger Deakins in April’s issue for their ASC Close-Up column. Among other things, Deakins is asked,”What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?” The same question that 88 other cinematographers have given thought to. He replies:

A onetime producer and studio head advised me to forget my ambition of becoming a cinematographer. Luckily, for me at least, I am not good at taking advice.

A brief interview, but always nice to hear from the man behind 11 Oscar nominations.

More Roger Deakins wisdom here and his thoughts on digital cinematography here.

pb-sidebar Win $250 of Royalty-Free Musicz

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As part of their sponsorship, Premiumbeat is giving away a $250 credit to their site! To enter to win, simply leave a comment on this post sharing what your favorite movie soundtrack is.

A week from now I’ll randomly select a winner and have Premiumbeat hook them up with the prize.

Auto-focus and the human element

Auto-focus and the human elementz

Speaking of pulling focus automatically, Philip Bloom took some time to evaluate Canon’s new dual-pixel autofocus on the C100. After a lengthy intro from Bloom about why he prefers to pull focus manually and the challenges of video auto-focus, he finally lets Canon convince him to try it out:

For me there are two types of shooting where if it worked, autofocus could be very useful. Firstly where you couldn’t touch the lens…steadicam/ glidecam/ movi type devices. Secondly, wide open shallow depth of field, where human error isn’t too likely to get good results.

So there we go. I was going to shoot on the gorgeous Movi (a piece of gear I have had for a few months and have gotten quite good at, but mostly have to use in single operator mode which is very limiting due to focus issues. You really need a focus puller!) , some hand held wide open shots and some tripod shots.

And his verdict? Positive, but tepid:

You will understand more once you watch the video below but one of the biggest issues for me was the limitation of the auto focus area just being that small square in the middle. Never in every shot are you going to want your focus to be dead centre.

He adds later on:

Am I a convert? I would say yes…I am impressed enough to be booking my C100 in when I get back from NAB and also my C300 in May. How much will I use it? No idea. I think on the Movi I will use it a fair amount actually. That’s why it’s a shame it won’t be on my Movi camera of choice, 1DC. At least my C300 will have it, and this feature with the Zacuto grip relocator could be the answer to my one man 3 axis brushless gimbal problems!!

Just in this iteration I really wish we could move the area to be measured ourselves, and also change the reaction speed of the autofocus. Fast works well, slow also works well at times!

Going back to my opening paragraph about I don’t believe it will ever work the way I want it to, why is that? It simply cannot read my mind. That is what autofocus needs to do, to understand what I want in the frame to be in focus etc…Once we have that bluetooth implant for the cerebral cortex available, we will have the best of both worlds! Mind reading autofocus with mechanical precision…then again will my mind deliberately make the autofocus no longer work as well? Perhaps it will be trying to replicate the (flawed) human touch…in which case we are back to square one…

Isn’t this the problem with auto-anything? It can never factor the human element into its complex calculations and algorithms. Auto-exposure always shoots for “correct” exposure even though an “incorrect” exposure – by the software’s standards – may be more artistically interesting and suitable for a story. Auto white-balance can get all sorts out of whack if you mix color temperatures. And the auto-ISO function on my DSLR often overestimates how bright I want an image to be.

Auto-focus, too, has these issues when applied to digital cinematography. In Canon’s implementation, you’re limited to focusing on only what’s in the center of the frame. What happens if the chest of talent is in the auto-focus area, but they’re leaning forward and their eyes are not? What if you want to have two objects on each edge of the frame and rack focus between them? And with that rack focus, by the way, you can’t choose the speed of it (which has a strong effect on the mood of the shot).

These auto-focus advances are technically impressive and I’m sure some people will have a use for it, but ultimately it’s limited in function. For now, pulling focus is still the realm of the camera assistant.

Andra Motion Focus System

Andra Motion Focus wants to help pull focus (or do it for you)z

Matt Allard of News Shooter has the scoop on a new type of wireless follow focus called the Andra Motion Focus system from Cinema Control Laboratories. On the surface, you may think it’s just another competitor to a Preston, but the Andra does much more. Specifically, it can track subjects in a scene and focus to them in an instant. It can even follow the focus of these subjects on its own.

I had a chance to see video demos of the system last week and was suitably impressed knowing that the focus was being pulled by the Andra and not an AC – at least not in the traditional sense.

(Follow the headline link to see the same videos.)

Allard interviewed Sam Fisher, the CIO of Cinema Control Laboratories, about how it works:

The system is essentially a hybridization of a motion capture system and a remote focus pulling system. Using a portable and easy to set up magnetic mo-cap system we’re able to very accurately track subjects and cameras in real time and use that data to drive a lens control motor.  The mo-cap side of the system uses very small sensors which can be mounted to the performer beneath clothing, just like a lavalier microphone.  The user can then decide where they want the focal point, relative to that sensor, and the system does the rest. We are able to get very impressive accuracy which, most importantly allows you to get really crisp eye focus.  We don’t just target the general area of a person, we get the focus right where you want it.

There are two ways to interface with the system.  The basic approach to use an iPad, which opens up a whole new world of creative options.  Another option is to use the hand unit (The Arc) which is similar to hand units currently on the market except that it has a touch screen interface and offers an incredible range of new features, like the ability to simply sequence between desired focal points by simply hitting a button or turning the dial back and forth.

The system can also be used to “save” positions of non moving objects in any given area, and, for dyed in the wool focus pullers who want to do it all manually, the hand unit streams live distance data of any chosen subject or object whether it’s moving or stationary.  Basically it’s like having a Cinetape on several objects at once.  You can choose to let the system pull focus for you, allowing you to simply decide when and how fast to move between subjects, or you can just use the data to pull manually.

That last feature – the ability to get live distance data via sensor – is the most amazing. There are going to be many focus pullers who don’t want to hand control of their craft over to a machine, but having the ability to track distances to multiple subjects in real time while still being able to focus to them at your own speed and at your own discretion is undeniably useful.

Color me skeptical, but I still have a few questions about how the system works:

  • What if the mo-cap sensor is mounted on a lapel, but the talent leans forward?
  • Does the mo-cap sensor have any issues with interference?
  • What is the latency like when using the iPad? Does it require wifi or is it ad-hoc?
  • Can you adjust the timing of rack focuses?
  • For one-man-band scenarios, how much interaction is required for focusing?

The one thing that worries me the most, however, is this exchange between Allard and Fisher:

Q: What lenses will it work on? Can it work on stills and cinema lenses?

A: The system will work with any cine lens:  that is to say, any lens that has focus gears.  Each lens needs to be calibrated once and then it can be stored in the app. There is no limit to how many lenses you can store.  So far we’ve tested the system on Cooke Zeiss, Canon and Rockinon lenses, but we see no reason why it won’t work on any cine type lens.  We’re also hoping to begin working with lens manufacturers to start building a database of lenses and make sure we can find ways to continue to optimize system performance.

Fisher doesn’t say it will work with any lens – only any cine lens. So does that mean it won’t work with still lenses? Is it confirmation by omission? It’d be unsurprising considering that many still lenses have short throws and focus barrels that freespin beyond infinity or minimum focus distance, but it does sever much of the market I could see utilizing this and many useful applications for camera assistants.

Still, this could represent a shift in wireless follow focus systems and be incredibly useful for pulling focus on handheld or Steadicam – whether you let the system take over or use the real-time data. Either way, I believe this is just another tool and not a replacement for camera assistants who do much more than pull focus and use creative discretion when doing so.

Cinema Control Laboratories is going to be at NAB this year (booth C9548) and I plan to get my hands on the Andra and ask all these questions.

Pricing, photos, demo videos, and more details about the concept available over at News Shooter.

What do you think about the Andra system? How do you think it will affect the job of the focus puller? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

30 Tips for Being an Outstanding Camera Assistantz

Cameraman Chris Weaver lists his thoughts on what it takes to be an excellent camera assistant (AC):

Being a professional Camera Assistant can be the hardest job on the crew. It carries more responsibility than most people think and even worse… while everyone else is on a tea break, the Camera Assistant is usually working, loading magazines, filling out Camera Report Sheets or organizing the camera equipment for the next set-up.

The stuff I’ve written here is based on film camera assistants but the rules apply for video assistants too. So, without further ado… let us begin!

The job’s tough, but not too bad, Chris! Anyway, here are some of my favorite tips from the list:

5. When you are on a shoot, always try to listen in on conversations between the Director and the Cinematographer or Camera Operator. You can pick up on stuff and anticipate what will be needed next. (A big part of being a great Assistant is anticipating and being ready in advance)

26. Treat hire equipment as if it’s your own. It’s totally unprofessional and unacceptable to mishandle hired camera gear, just because it’s from a rental company. It’s precision equipment, treat it with total respect because if you don’t I guarantee it will be noted by other members of the crew. To professionals, this type of sloppy work ethic is like red rag to a bull!

29. Work with as many different types of cameras as possible so that you can easily switch from one type of job to another. If you want to be a successful freelance Camera Assistant you will need to have a working knowledge of as many cameras as possible, flexibility and versatility are key elements to being exceptional.

An older article – and one I’ve shared before on Twitter – but worth a re-read and a re-share.

Do-It-Yourself Budget Camera Cart

Do-It-Yourself Budget Camera Cartz

Steadicam operator Lee Clements shows how he built his own camera cart on a budget:

But a Magliner runs $250ish, and the nose pieces, shelves, etc. all start adding up very quickly. You can buy a fully-rigged camera cart from Filmtools for a pretty penny, which I would love to have, but A) don’t have the capital for, B) don’t have a consistent need for, and C) don’t have room in my apartment for. So! Until the day comes when I have more money, more work, and a house, I will continue to find work-arounds.

Magliner’s are great, but expensive. And I’d rather have any camera cart than no camera cart.

The end result doesn’t look too shabby and Lee says it holds his load quite nicely. Doesn’t seem like it’s too hard to replicate either if you have some cash and a weekend to take on the project.

More DIY projects for camera assistants here.