Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Why I went back to using my video camera

My venerable Panasonic HMC-151 video camera was gathering dust for years but I recently brought it out of storage and gave it another chance at life. The reason? It's a proper video camera. I had been using my Canon DSLR on a shoulder rig while performing my duties as a B cameraman, filming corporate stuff. The main camera guy would do interviews and such like and he had all the necessary audio bits to record sound and stuff. However, as my role became more prominent, I found myself on shoots where I was the only cameraman and this of course meant that I was now responsible for filming interviews. Without adequate audio input for my DSLR, I found myself recording interview audio separately, using an external recorder. Camera work then became a balancing act where I had to simultaneously monitor and adjust audio levels while keeping my eye on the camera. 

And so, that was when I decided to dust off the Panasonic video camera and here's why:

Audio Input:
For me, film/video production requires equal attention to both audio and visuals. Many times I have found myself watching content that has good quality visuals but the audio is lacking, perhaps because the creator neglected to give this any attention and might have relied on their camera's internal mic. With my Panasonic video camera being semi-professional (prosumer?) I have the option of two XLR inputs for audio and man, the clarity and control you have is beautiful. You get a levels monitor on the LCD display and a physical dial on the camera body. Furthermore, you can actually hook up headphones for listening which is something my DSLR lacks. Granted, the DSLR does have a standard jack for mic input but I always struggle with getting decent audio without noise.

Auto Focus:
The DSLR's ability to achieve shallow depth of field is also its weakness. Sure, manual focus is something that should be practiced as a skill but the auto focus that you take for granted on video cameras is a lifesaver when you need to quickly get a shot without spending a second racking the focus wheel. With my Panasonic video camera, shallow depth of field is not something that can be achieved easily but the ability to switch between manual and auto focus is still present on the camera. Having said that, if I want to throw the background out of focus I can easily do so by zooming in on the subject from a distance while ensuring the background is a fair distance away. By doing this, it becomes possible to achieve a shallow depth of field without a large sensor DSLR, which leads me onto my next point.

The DSLR is brilliant for its ability to changes lenses which is something that makes them really attractive for film makers. However, it can sometimes get frustrating when you want to switch lenses or have to move around more if you're using prime lenses. With the Panasonic video camera, you can go from wide to very tight telephoto with either servo or even faster with the manual zoom ring. You forget how useful this is when you become so used to swapping DSLR lenses. Plus, all those DSLR lenses can get rather expensive when you realise you need so many different ones. Plus, think of weight and space when you need to bring them along on a shoot.

Yep, the large sensor on the DSLR produces a really decent image with all that shallow depth of field goodness but rolling shutter CMOS can produce some rather nasty artifacts. Jelly footage during fast panning and awful looking shaky handheld shots (in the absence of adequate stabilisation) can really ruin the look of an otherwise decent looking shot. Plus, sometimes the footage can look like it was shot on a mobile phone camera which begs the question, why not just shoot on your phone? With the Panasonic and its CCD sensors, these problems are not present and believe me, it really gives you peace of mind not having to worry about all those additional implications. Plus, the weight of the camera makes handheld shots appear fairly stabilised without the need to use a shoulder rig.

The Professional image:
I'm not talking about the quality of footage here, I mean the way others perceive you. Turn up to a shoot with a DSLR and people assume you're there to take photos. This is common when I'm out on a shoot and suddenly your subject stops whatever they're doing to pose for what they think is a photograph. I then find myself having to "politely" inform them that I'm shooting video and not taking photos...Also, there's just something about having a big black video camera that screams pro which is something you don't get with a consumer DSLR and cheap 1.8 lens. Every time I'm out on a shoot and someone sees me with my Panasonic video camera, I get comments like "Wow, that's an impressive camera" and so on. You really establish your reputation as a serious and professional cameraman when you have a professional video camera. 

I still use my DSLR though, don't get me wrong, the footage you can get is fantastic looking but it's better off being treated as a B Camera and not your main one. These days, on a shoot, I take both. You setup the video camera with all of its peripherals so people can see that you're a pro camera guy. You then go around getting a few shots with the DSLR before switching over to the video camera when you need to do interviews with decent audio. I've even reached the point, in my mind, where I want to shoot movies with my Panasonic video camera. I know, with proper attention to lighting and composition, I can achieve results that are on par with the DSLR footage while benefiting from all the advantages that a dedicated video camera provides. 

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Budget (or how to fund your film (or how to spend as little money as possible making your film))

Ambition is a good thing but being an ambitious filmmaker can cost you a lot of money. If I want to make a film, I don't feel satisfied enough making one with available resources. I often get told to just make loads of films, keep that ball rolling but it's not that easy for me. I can't motivate myself to do something just for the sake of it. For me, there has to be specific purpose. I won't just go for a drive unless I need to be somewhere, for example, so I won't just make a film spontaneously. I wasn't always like that though. When I was younger, I would randomly make a film, as an activity with friends, with a senseless plot and random tomfoolery. These shorts that we used to make are a source of great embarrassment for my friends who don't take kindly to me talking about them. But still, I could learn a lot from my younger self, during those awkward times growing up. For me, "experimenting" as a teenager meant filming anything with a camera. The main difference these days is, if I start a project I have to finish it, meaning, I have to be sure that I will finish it before I attempt it. Used to, I would just start something without the end goal in mind and often the project would remain incomplete. Naturally, I now do fewer projects these days since the recent compulsion to finish what I started has taken over my life and guided me. 

Anyway, I digress. It's easy to forget that you're not just spending money on props and equipment. You have to pay actors and crew. Okay, so you can get people to work on your film for expenses and food only but this still costs you money. Personally, I would not make a film without paying my cast and crew. I know how frustrating it is to work for experience and exposure so the philanthropist in me feels obliged to help people out. In my first year at university, the lecturer showed us this triangle where each point was labelled with "Good idea, time and money". He then said, if you have two of these points then you can make a great film. Okay, so it's probably more complicated than that but it's a good starting point. So, for me, money is a major constraint which means I have to make do with good idea and time. The two complement each other, somewhat. If you have a lot of time, no looming deadline for example, then you can formulate your idea and write a great story. With all that time, you can also save up money and gradually build your film up from scratch. Patience and commitment is important under these circumstances and it becomes very easy to give up. You spend a little bit of money here and there, while working your day job (or jobs) then it all adds up. 

So what I am going to do over the next few months, is share my methodology for producing a movie and saving money wherever possible, hopefully helping other people in a similar situation. I have numerous documents on my computer where I have attempted to write up a proposal to use for a indie go go or kick starter campaign but I thought screw it. It won't work for me if I have a load of money suddenly thrown at me. Granted, it might be different for other people but part of me likes the challenge, the struggle and the uncertainty. As some people tell me, "beg, borrow and steal" basically do whatever is necessary to get something done. Obviously, don't steal but you get what I mean. Why not take on the role of DOP as well as director? Why pay someone to make music for your film when you can learn to do it yourself? Think of the satisfaction! There's no excuse not to these days with the internet and its ever expanding well of resources. Can't afford certain equipment? Buy second hand or borrow. Again, use the internet to find cheaper alternatives. For example, with YouTube, you can assess the suitability of certain equipment by watching reviews or examples of someone else's work and then make your mind up about a camera that shoots pro looking footage and is cheaper than the camera you originally considered. But remember, as long as you have your great idea and time then it'll be fine.     

Monday, 4 September 2017

My time at university as a film student

I started university at a very interesting time for film/video technology. It was 2009 and I had only been using a solid state video camera for 9 months. This was around the time when 35mm DOF adapters were the craze and the must have accessory for getting that coveted "film look". Many people were still using mini-DV camcorders, the same format that many of the early high def camcorders used. There were no separate tapes for high definition, HDV was a format that simply recorded high definition footage onto a standard mini-DV tape. My only experience using HDV was in sixth form that year when the school bought an entry level "professional" Sony camera to use for the newly founded (and short lived) school television channel. At the time, I had just about forgotten how awkward and annoying tapes were, since I had transitioned to the SD card format only three months prior.

However, when I started my film technology course at university, September 2009, they were still issuing first years Canon XL1 cameras. This camera was used extensively in Danny Boyle's 2002 movie 28 Days Later so it was interesting to make use of the same technology. The footage from the camera was okay with decent colour thanks to the 3CCD spec but the picture was 4:3 only. Its saving grace was the ability to changes lenses, something that was quite rare for the format. Despite this, we only ever used or had access to the default lens. Another interesting implication was when our lecturer told us not to use Sony brand DV tapes...Even though these were the only brand sold in the Student Shop. So there we were, a class full of students, eagerly waiting to take these cameras home for testing but unable to do so because of dodgy tapes. Thankfully, I had an unused Panasonic tape knocking about in storage at home so didn't have any issues. However, I believe some students took a chance and used the Sony tapes but later encountered problems with corrupt video/missing audio. 

In second semester, we had the opportunity to use a slightly better video camera, whose name escapes me. After first year, we never touched tape again and it wasn't missed. We now had access to the infinitely superior solid state high definition Panasonic HMC-151. During 2011, the DSLR revolution had begun, and my fellow third years were spending their students loans and grants on Canon DSLRs and lenses. That coveted film look was now a doddle with a T2i and 50mm 1.4 lens. Because it was now so easy, our lecturers sighed at the sudden influx of shallow depth of field films that saturated assignment submissions that year. Apparently a poor narrative could be forgiven when the background (and actors' ears) was out of focus. Gone were the days of complex, cumbersome, expensive and exposure darkening depth of field adapters. You could now make nice looking films using equipment worth only a few hundred pounds.  

I'm no stranger to the DSLR craze. I used borrowed ones for assignments before finally getting my own in 2012 and made good use of it for my Final Year Project film. I still use it to this day, for corporate videos with a shoulder rig to make up for that fact that it's not a proper video camera. It seems many of the major camera manufacturers became aware of the DSLR's popularity and subsequently released dedicated video cameras that offer the same large sensor and interchangeable lens capability as their DSLRs. The DSLR video revolution may be over soon but it's still a preferred solution among many film makers. Will it head the same way as mini-DV? A few years ago, I felt nostalgic about the tape format and dug out my venerable JVC camcorder. I thought it would be quite interesting to apply my current cinematography and tech knowledge to try and make something with this camera again, hopefully producing something better than my 12 year old self.

Friday, 18 August 2017

My hiatus

Once again, I find myself making another Blog Post, 2 years since the last one. I guess I'm a commitment-phobe, albeit a selective commitment-phobe. When it comes to regularly creating YouTube videos, writing blog posts or even maintaining high marks in assignments, I'm useless. But on the flip side, I committed to taking a photograph of my ageing face every single day since August 2012, with 5 full years worth of photos detailing all the changes from age 21 to 26. My facial hair fills in, my acne clears up completely and I go through three separate periods of growing my hair out, each time leaving it longer until I chop it all off. From December 2015 to December 2016, I left my hair to grow long for the first time ever. My "face a day" project is one of my many ongoing film projects that will never be completed. But, hitting the 5 year mark is pretty significant so I'm planning on completing the sequence so I can export a video finally and add "experimental art film" to my filmography. Other projects include my lost in limbo Vietnam War horror movie and my "Grand Theft Auto set in the UK" video game that has been in development since 2014.

So what have I been up to since July 2015? Around that time, I applied to my University to go back and do a masters which I started in September of that year. I began a master by negotiated study course that confuses a lot of people when I tell them what I do. In simple terms, it's a "do whatever the hell you want" masters where you're given complete freedom to study everything and anything. With my interest in special effects and visual effects that was only briefly touched upon during my undergraduate degree, I decided to look at green screen and digital environments in order to become better acquainted with the technology. I like being in an academic environment but I know I can't be a student forever which is why I want to get into lecturing, specifically film visual effects. Returning to university has also opened up many job opportunities and I'm currently working as a barista (coffee not law) in the Student Union cafe along with my job as a student ambassador. 

But, University is not the only thing that I've been doing since 2015. Around the same time, I got my foot in the door at the local football club. And no, I don't mean a minor village team, I'm talking about a Premiership Football club with its own 30,000+ capacity stadium and a dedicated media team. My Dad knows people. He's been working in the football industry since before I was born, before the Premiership was even born. Nepotism is a great thing when it happens to you. Football is big money in the UK and I am very fortunate to have tapped into it. During August 2015, I went along to observe a game and shoot a pre-match interview that was then edited an hour before it was due to go out onto the big screen in the stadium. Though I wasn't paid at the time, the feeling of having something you created play out to tens of thousands of people was surreal and extremely satisfying. 

Fast forward to a year, and I find myself back at the stadium but this time, I'm getting paid. I'm there on match days creating graphics for the the big screen and updating scores, times and player lists but the content that I film and edit is also getting played out to all those fans. I'm filming and editing on a regular basis now and it really gives you such a strong sense of achievement doing something that is directly related to your degree. I struggled for several years with finding work but persistence pays off. You may get rejected after attending many interviews for jobs (like I was) but sometimes, opportunities present themselves via non-conventional means and all it takes is the willingness to say yes. Believe!