Saturday, 27 April 2013

Video shoot for Vodafone awards

On Thursday I got a call asking me if I could film an event on Friday. This was perfect timing because I had everything I needed whereas 1 month ago I would have had to borrow a camera. So Friday came and I packed up my camera and tripod then drove to the hotel where the event was held. The journey took me through the Peak District and the scenery was amazing. My sat nav got me there no problem and my contact there then briefed me about what they wanted. The event started at 7:00PM I got a lot of footage of guests arriving and mingling. They then entered the hall and sat down at their tables so I filmed a lot of this as well. The theme was Mardi Gras complete with Samba Girls and a band. My goal was to get a lot of footage and I filled up half of a 32 gig card (About 100 minutes).

I was using my recently purchased Panasonic HMC-151 video camera. I was a bit apprehensive about the quality of footage because cameras in this price range struggle with low light. You can't really judge how much visual noise there is in footage on the small LCD screen. I was filming at maximum quality (1080/50i) with 1/50 shutter speed and I decided to leave the Iris and Focus on auto. I didn't dare use gain because this would have introduced visual noise for certain. I just hit record and hoped for the best. They only wanted visuals so I didn't have to worry about sound at all. I kept bringing up the waveform monitor to check exposure and inevitably parts of the image were underexposed but most of the light was being directed to the stage which was the priority anyway. I had zebra stripes activated as well so I could check for overexposure. Certain parts were overexposed (such as light sources and white shirts) but overall I maintained correct exposure.

I got home at about 1:30 in the morning and connected the camera up to my plasma TV to check through the footage. It was a lot better than I expected and I breathed a sigh of relief. Couldn't see any visual noise but this TV does have pretty good noise reduction. I then transferred the footage to my laptop and played it back on there. The footage still looked great and there was visual noise but only in dark underexposed areas. Overall, I was content with what I had shot and packed everything up so I could finally get some much needed sleep. I'm so glad I bought this camera now and that night was the first time I used it properly. It definitely passed the test and I'm sure I'll still be using it in a few years time.     

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Panasonic AG-HMC151

Well I finally did it and got a proper video camera. The Panasonic AG-HMC151 is a full HD solid state video camera and I chose this one because I've used it throughout my time at university. The HMC151 is a few years old but the build quality and the image quality is great. The camera has three CCD sensors instead of a CMOS chip which is what my DSLR uses. The DSLR has a few problems that are not present in video cameras like this one. I realised that I needed a proper video camera to do certain projects. For a start, the weight and size of the video camera means it's easy to keep steady handheld. Handheld DSLR footage is atrocious sometimes and this problem forced me to use a tripod when making films. Also, the shallow depth of field capability found in the DSLR is good for cinematic shots but keeping a moving subject in focus is hard work.

The HMC151 pretty much stays in focus all of the time because of the greater depth of field and auto focus feature. Yeah, the Canon 600d does have auto focus but it's useless for video. I still love my Canon 600d to pieces though and I'll continue to use it for making films because the image quality is fantastic. Thing is, the Canon DSLR's data rate is 42mbps but this Panasonic camera is only 24mbps. This is almost half but it doesn't bother me because the pros outweigh the cons in my opinion. With the Panasonic 151 you get 13x optical zoom, dual XLR input for audio, manual control (no navigating through menus), HDMI output, half a dozen HD formats, zebra pattern and waveform monitor (for checking exposure). I have the zebra pattern feature in my little Panasonic video camera and it's a feature that I found very useful. Unfortunately, my DSLR doesn't have this feature and I struggled for awhile with exposure. 

I've done a few tests with the camera already and overall the footage is good. Getting this camera once again reminded me of the importance of having well lit scenes and subjects. With dull afternoon light coming through a curtain, my footage looked flat and average but when I attached my LED light, the camera was able to capture a lot more detail. I'm definitely going to have to invest in some proper lights for future projects. University has taught me a lot but the most important lesson learnt is about lighting. A lot of amateur productions overlook this and suffer in quality as a result. Anyway I'm digressing now so back to the camera.

I've tried mixing footage from this camera with footage from my DSLR (which is currently having a new LCD screen fitted). As I suspected, it's very hard to make a seamless transition between each shot because to the trained eye the differences are blatant. Footage from my DSLR is softer with certain parts of the shot out of focus (shallow depth of field etc) but footage from the Panasonic is sharp and not just the subject but the whole scene including the background. This is the most obvious difference but the colours and contrast (which can be adjusted in software anyway) are also different. Data rate (as previously mentioned) is also different with the Panasonic having half as many megabytes per second than the DSLR. 

Despite these differences, I'm confident that I can use footage from both in the same projects. I'm tempted to label the Panasonic my A camera and the Canon DSLR my B camera but for different reasons those labels should be swapped. I would definitely favour the Pansonic for moving shots where there's a lot going on and I need the greater depth of field. Conversely, the Canon DSLR would be better for close ups where the shallow depth of field is needed to blur the background for cinematic effect. Chances are, I will end up doing whole projects with just the Panasonic in the same way that I have done whole projects with just the DSLR.           

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Film shoot with Canon EOS-1D C camera

Today I helped out on a film which was shot on Canon's top of the line DSLR, the EOS-1D C. This is a serious camera and they were using thousands of pounds worth of equipment. The hire package featured several different prime lenses including 100mm, 50mm and 35mm. There was also a matte box, follow focus, shoulder rig, external monitor and viewfinder. It also came with 128gb compact flash cards and I've just googled them and they cost something ridiculous like £500+ each. 

The hire package cost was about £700 for the week, quite a lot of money. And here's me using a £400 consumer DSLR with £80 lens. This doesn't bother me however because I stand by what I always say. You can still create a brilliant movie with inexpensive equipment. All you need is a great idea and determination. 

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

New Phone

This post has nothing to do with film but it's sort of related. I realised 2 months ago that my humble Samsung d500 was outdated and I just could not keep up with the modern world. I needed a phone with more connection ability. So, I decided to upgrade and it was a very big jump. I had my Samsung d500 for 7 years and I noticed an advert for the Samsung Galaxy Ace smartphone in the newspaper. So, I got myself down to the phone shop and bought a Samsung Galaxy Ace on contract. 

I like the phone, especially the touch screen and virtual keyboard. The best part is being able to connect to the internet easily. My previous phone could browse the internet but it was slower than dial-up and cost me a lot of credit. It's also very handy being able to connect to the internet wherever and whenever. The video camera is nothing special (not even HD) but I don't plan on using it much so that's alright. I have problems with the signal sometimes so really that's the only negative point I've got. Overall I'm happy with it (9/10). Chances are, I'll still be using this phone in another 7 years.

How to make professional looking films?

Like many filmmakers, I started out by teaching myself and learning from my mistakes. I would often attempt to replicate what I saw in movies and this taught me a lot of what I know. I have a degree in Film Production Technology and since I started that course my filmmaking became more serious. I want to share some tips to help other aspiring filmmakers. Hopefully this will be useful and might benefit those who are starting out.  

I always pay very close attention to the audio in my films and I put an equal amount of effort into it as I do with visuals. Try turning the volume down next time you watch a film. Sure, the cinematography might be stunning but without sound you've only got half a film. You want to ensure your dialogue is crisp and can be heard clearly over the soundtrack and sound effects. By using an external microphone, you get more control over sound acquisition than your camera's built in microphone. However, not all cameras have microphone ports. I use a Marantz pmd660 to record my sound and it works great. I need an extra crew member to operate it on set but it's worth it in the end. Next time you make a film, try spending more time on sound design and you'll be glad you did. 

In film, photography, painting etc there's something known as the "rule of thirds". Just divide your scene into 9 equal blocks and position your actors on the vertical lines. This creates a visually pleasing shot and I was surprised at how effective this technique was. I don't know exactly what it is but it makes your film look a lot better. Every feature film I've seen does this. You don't have to do it for every single shot but it's good to have a few where your actor isn't dead centre. Check out the Wikipedia article here to learn more about the rule of thirds. Also, try and use a variety of Close Up, Medium and Long Shots because sticking to one shot type is boring.  

If you don't have a tripod then buy one now. Every film maker needs a tripod because it will help you a lot. Handheld shots are good for certain scenes like if you're conveying a sense of disorientation but an audience doesn't want to sit through an hour of shaky footage that will make them sick. A tripod also lets you pan the camera smoothly and can make a scene seem more interesting. Have a balance of static, moving and handheld shots in your film and it'll look great. Buy a tripod from Amazon and don't worry about it fitting your camera because they're universal. If you're filming with a mobile phone then don't. Buy yourself a camera because you can't attach a phone to a tripod. (Just googled "mobile phone" tripods and they actually exist. I've seen it all now)     

Light is very important because without it your movie will be a black screen. Outside during the day is perfect for filming because the sun is the best light source out there and it's free. However, if you're filming in your mom's basement you're gonna need some artificial lights. Most standard light bulbs won't do because they're not powerful enough. You can buy special light bulbs that are more intense but I prefer using  LED light panels because they're cheap, bright, use very little power and can be mounted on tripods. 

There's something that your camera probably has which you should never use and that's artificial gain. If you increase gain, your image becomes brighter but it also adds a lot of visual noise. This may look okay on your camera's small LCD screen but when you play it back on your computer or TV you'll realise too late how crap the image looks. Your camera has an aperture that restricts how much light enters it. Obviously, when there's too much light (like outside in daylight) you'll want to reduce the amount of light that enters the camera. If you're indoors, set the aperture to as wide as possible and increase the light in the room without touching that gain button. Make sure your shutter is set to at least 1/50 because if you decrease it further then you're going to be getting a lot more motion blur. 

Many cameras these days have 25p (or 24p if you're in the USA) which offers "cinema" like video. If your camera has this option then use it if you want that film look. Also, shoot in high definition because your footage will obviously look better. Many filmmakers are using DSLRs to make movies these days because they're cheap, have large sensors and can accept a wide variety of different lenses. I use a Canon 600 DSLR which is a consumer camera but it's great because of its ability to use all those Canon lenses on the market. The lenses are expensive but they will greatly improve the quality of your footage. 

Before you even start filming your production you must complete the pre-production stage. Plan every aspect of your film beforehand so you know exactly what you want. Obviously you'll have to write a script or at least some sort of guide (if you want your actors to improvise) but it's also worth making a storyboard. If you can't draw that well then just do it on a computer. There's plenty of storyboard software on the web which will make storyboarding fast and easy. Last of all, compile a shot list and shooting schedule for effective time management.    

After you get your footage it's time to put it all together. I'm not going to say one editing application is better than another but you're going to need something a bit more advanced than Windows Movie Maker. Movie Maker is good if you're starting out but it's limited in what it can achieve. I personally use Adobe Premiere Pro and that provides everything I need for editing. When I film on my DSLR, I tone down all the settings so I get as flat an image as possible. This allows more scope for colour grading in post production so I can shift contrast and adjust whites and blacks more. Pay close attention to the pace of you film as well. Think about the sort of mood you're trying to convey. Action sequences should be fast with a lot of cuts while a slow pace with very few cuts will build up suspense.  

That's probably the best advice I can give. Everyone has to start somewhere but if you're dedicated enough then eventually your films will look better. I look back at my old stuff and it makes me laugh and cringe but it all helped me get to where I am today. I'm still learning everyday though and my stuff is still far from perfect.

Monday, 1 April 2013

I want to shoot on film

I want to shoot on film because the film look has always appealed to me. There are three main formats to choose from. 8mm is the smallest and the cheapest and was targeted at consumers for home movies before video cameras became affordable. The quality of 8mm is not great because of its small size but using it will make you appreciate film. Once you expose that reel of film there's no going back and you must then pay to get it processed before you can view your footage. 

Did you know: It's called "footage" because they used "feet" to measure the length of a film reel.

Next up there's 16mm film which is a favourite for low budget productions because it's cheaper than the professional 35mm format but better quality than 8mm. The BBC used to film a lot of outdoor scenes for their programs using 16mm film because decades ago the film cameras were more portable than studio video cameras. Take Only Fools and Horses for example. Interior shots such as the flat and pub were filmed in a studio set so they were filmed with video cameras. Exterior shots however were filmed using the 16mm film format and there's an obvious difference between the interior and exterior shots because of this. Believe it or not, a lot of modern TV dramas in the UK are actually shot on 16mm film. You can see what's shot on what on imdb by clicking on the "see full technical specs" option. 

Last of all we have 35mm film which is the industry standard and the format that most films are shot on. It's expensive to buy, process and scan to a digital format and the equipment required to use it is also very expensive. This makes it unsuitable for amateur filmmakers but the quality is fantastic which is why it's still used to this day. A lot of US TV shows are shot on 35mm film which is why American shows generally look better. I just hope that they continue to use 35mm because I would love to work with it someday if I ever get into the film industry. If I had more money then I would probably buy a 16mm camera and experiment with real film. Eventually (if I get even more money) I'll make a full movie shot entirely in 16mm. 

My journey into filmmaking

I started making films in 2003 when we got our first digital video camera, a JVC mini-dv one. I still can't believe that was 10 years ago. I spent the summer making random videos with my brother and I had no editing capability. Being able to tell a visual story appealed to me and I wanted to learn more about filmmaking. In 2005 I finally got hold of a firewire cable and this allowed me to transfer footage to my PC so I could edit it for the first time. This opened up a whole new dimension for me and the quality of my films would increase from that point. Initially, I used Windows Movie Maker but then I moved onto Pinnacle Studio which had a lot more features. During the summer of 2005 I made a weird horror movie that I forgot all about until I found it on my old computer recently. This was probably the first time I used fake blood extensively and it looked like crap. Too pink and obviously fake. 

My special effects improved the following year when I found a tutorial on the internet demonstrating the compressed air blood squib effect. Eventually, I was able to create this special effect myself but it took many years for me to perfect it. I still had a lot to learn but the internet was there and much of what I know is down to stuff I have found on the web. In 2007 I delved into visual effects and this allowed me to experiment with adding muzzle flashes to gunshots. A year later, I started to experiment with green screen effects which I created using a Subbuteo mat. That same year, I discovered Grindhouse. This inspired me to make my films look old and damaged like the exploitation films from the 70s and 80s. I actually made my own fake trailer back then titled MacHaggis which was about a stereotypical Scottish guy defending his village from the British army. 

I got a High Definition Panasonic video camera for Christmas and I used it a lot throughout 2009. This was also my last year at sixth form and I had to start planning for the the future. My school organised a lot of visits to different universities and one particular university made me finally realise what I wanted to do. Staffordshire University had a Film Production Technology course and their facilities and equipment impressed me a lot so I decided that I wanted to do film after I left school. In my last year of sixth form, I was a senior member of the school's newly established TV channel and I coordinated the production team as we reported on events. This developed important skills in teamwork and communication that would no doubt benefit me when I started projects at university. After my A-levels, I had the whole summer to make more films. I also filmed a band at a local venue and produced a DVD for them.

In August, I went to the school for the last time to collect my A-level results and I was disappointed because I didn't get the required grades. For half an hour I thought that I had missed out on my chance to study film at university but at home I checked online and to my relief the university had offered me a place on their film foundation course. This would last for 2 years but would then allow me to top-up with the degree course. I was so relieved because it meant that I would be going to the same university and eventually I would get to do the degree.

So the summer ended and I started university. Everybody was a stranger but I made new friends straight away because for the first time I was around people who had the same passion as me. In my first year I studied many different modules including film, scriptwriting, digital image production, 3D modelling, website design and history of film. My first year at university was probably the happiest I've even been in my life. The work became more intense in my second year but I still enjoyed it because it was something I loved doing. By summer 2011 I had done my big project for the foundation course and got a very high mark (a distinction). This allowed me to move onto the degree course and I graduated with a HND that same year. 

In my third year (technically my second according to the university level) the modules became harder but I managed. I passed all my modules but I was close to failing a few of them. In my final year, I only had to do the Final Year Project dissertation but I only had 3 months to do it in. I worked very hard and I no longer had the support of working in a team. I managed though and got all my work in before the deadline. I also started my own film production company. So what does the future hold?

I want to get more experience working in a film environment. I've already worked on a few video projects for my local football club and I've approached various organisations offering my film and video services. I'll also continue to make my own films and maybe one day I'll get a top job in the film industry.