Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Sealed Fates's Cinematography


Since today's shoot was canceled due to hurricane Hanna sweeping through our area, it's a good time to post a bit about how we're shooting our latest feature.

There were several choices to make before the cameras rolled on the first day. Should we shoot in 24p or 30p? SD or HD? and what camera should we use? We already had 2 cameras available: the Canon XL1s and the Canon GL1. The XL1s is a solid choice, with manual control over every setting, but it shoots in SD and in 60i or 30p only. The GL1 is pretty much the same, but not nearly as versatile. I had also purchased the Canon HV20 last year. It shoots in HD, has a Cinema mode that can be converted to 24p in post, and a beautiful picture. But it doesn't have the manual control of the XL1s. Ultimately, I chose control over format and went with the XL1s.

Then there was one other decision: should I use Canon's Frame mode (30p) or shoot 60i and convert to 24p in post? I grabbed the trial of DV Filmmaker, a program that converts 60i to 24p, and did a few tests with both formats, using the same subjects1. While the 30p footage approximated the film look, the 24p conversion had softer light and appeared more film-like. So, I purchased DV Filmmaker and decided to shoot in 60i.

So, the first day of shooting came and after the 4th or 5th take of the second shot, we get the infamous "Remove Cassette" on the XL1s. Anyone who uses that camera will probably know what I'm talking about. The problem is, it wouldn't clear no matter what we did. The drive assembly was dead. Ugh! Luckily, we brought the GL1 as a backup.

But we soon discovered that had flaws of its own.

A few takes into the next shot, we discovered 2 bad pixels on the CCD chip--not on the LCD, but the CCD, so it recorded the bad pixels. Okay, it's an easy fix in After Effects, a minor inconvenience we decided to live with.

Fast forward to the second week of shooting, or, rather, the capture session after shooting the second week. I noticed a few sound drop-offs and, worse, digital breakup on the tape. Luckily, we generally run a lot of takes of each shot, so the glitches were easily avoided in the editing room.

Until week three.

The glitches were getting worse. I was now looking at masking and cloning out glitches. The sound, fortunately, was mostly okay.

Then I discovered, or remembered, a solution. Adobe Premiere CS3 (my editor of choice) comes with a program called OnLocation (OL), which allows you to connect the camera to a PC and capture the signal directly--bypassing the tape. Well, shit, let's try that.

Holy crap, OL was easy to set up! I had purchased a 500GB external capture drive and planned to use my laptop to run everything. The XL1s (yes, we went back to the better camera since we weren't using tape anymore) plugged right in and was instantly found by OL. OL's interface has a nice monitor for our director; it even shows the zebra lines. And, perhaps best of all, no capturing. Each take goes right to the capture drive, and can be labeled as needed.

We were rolling smoothly now. The only real--shall we say...inconvenience--is the camera's wired connection to the computer while shooting, which makes camera moves somewhat limited. Add to that the signal loss when the cable length is too long2, and you have to be really creative in how you shoot. But we use sticks more often than not, so we're managing. We've even established a rhythm when moving the whole rig (camera, laptop, drive, etc.) from one shot to the next.

In the future, of course, I intend to purchase an HD (probably HDV) camera that can shoot in true 24p, so we get the best cinematic look possible for our budget.

Stay tuned for more behind the scenes stories and pictures.

Photo provided by Robert Long II



1I used my daughter's Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals, the battery-operated ones that move and talk, and staged a scene as if they were talking to each other. Silly? Yes, but it worked for the test.

2I've seen several references that say a firewire cable can be 14' without a signal loss, but I used a 10' cable and noticed some degradation in the image. It works, but should be use sparingly. I use it for hand-held shots that require a lot of movement.