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Canon Cinema with SNL’s Alex Buono

Those who braved the spontaneous monsoon and made their way to the Yawkey Theater at WGBH in Boston on Wednesday, August 1st, were treated to an inspiring, funny and informative discussion with Alex Buono, the Director of Photography for Saturday Night Live’s Film Unit. The event was sponsored by FRONTLINE, Rule Boston Camera and Canon, and guests were wined and dined and encouraged to see, touch and shoot with the new C300 camera, which has been unbelievably popular since its release earlier this year. Buono uses the C300 in addition to several other Canon cameras for his work, including the 5D Mark II, 7D and the XF305. He shared some of his experiences on set and delved into how and why Canon’s cameras allow him to accomplish things he never could before in less time than ever, plus dropped tips and tricks throughout his presentation for people looking to get into DSLR or cine-style shooting. Naturally, I can’t cover everything here, but I’ll highlight some of the most interesting tidbits.

Buono started shooting for the SNL Film Unit back in 1999, when they were still shooting on film. That was a challenge, he said, because their typical shooting schedule goes like this: the writers deliver the script on Wednesday, they prep on Thursday, shoot on Friday and edit and air the final product on Saturday. Those turnaround times were brutal with film, but with new tapeless workflows, especially with the MXF MPEG-2 format the C300 shoots, they don’t have to bog themselves down with film processing or telecine, or even the painful rendering times that other video workflows might require. Canon’s cameras made it onto Saturday Night Live’s broadcasts in 2009, when Buono used the then-new 5D Mark II to shoot the opening sequence for the show. It was a bold step and a big undertaking, but he was impressed by the unprecedented light sensitivity, the ability to shoot in tiny spaces with a much smaller crew, and of course, the picture quality and shallow depth of field that he had struggled to achieve since leaving his film cameras on the shelf years before. After the success of that shoot, they adopted DSLRs into their workflow and have now added the C300 to their arsenal, which is Buono’s favorite tool yet. I was excited to see how Buono uses these cameras in his work every week and some of the additional equipment he has been particularly fond of. He spoke highly of a number of third-party accessories, including the “Target Shooter” and “The Event,” which are two different shoulder rigs from Zacuto and Red Rock Micro, respectively. He also never leaves home without his Zacuto Z-Finder Pro. Buono also showed off some seriously useful smartphone apps he relies on for location shooting, like Sunseeker and Helios for tracking movement of the sun. Most impressively, he showed us how to do “virtual location scouting” with Google Earth. Using their 3D building models and the time of day feature, he could track the movement of the sun throughout the day, plan out all of his framing, plus get contact information for buildings he wanted access to—all within the Google Earth application. Buono spent a good portion of his presentation talking about the technical specifications of the C300, but emphasized an important point (and my favorite tip from the evening): filmmaking is not a science project. In an industry where it’s easy to get caught up in numbers, feature lists and marketing jargon, it’s important to remember that these cameras are filmmaking tools that help us achieve our visions as storytellers. And the introduction of more affordable equipment and the resulting leveling of the playing field has allowed people to focus less on how much money and effort it takes to get a good picture and more on the things that really matter—good writing and good performances. That being said, he went into a detailed discussion about how the C300 captures and records color information, how capturing two green channels on the sensor dramatically improves low-light capability and how the form factor has significantly improved their flexibility while shooting, both with shoulder/handheld setups and in Steadicam applications. He also emphasized how great it is to be able to shoot a scene with Andy Samberg in the middle of Times Square without swarms of tourists taking any notice at all. Shooting incognito is a luxury few crews with SNL’s level of exposure enjoy. I was also pleased to hear him talk about the importance of color grading with tools like Apple Color, Final Cut Pro, Tiffen DFX or Magic Bullet. He also emphasized how critical good sound is, and recommended that everybody use a decent microphone (like the Rode Stereo VideoMic Pro) and record to something other than a DSLR—be it in-camera on the C300 or with external recorder (like the Zoom H4N). Shooting at 24 frames per second instead of 30 or 60 and using a 180-degree shutter (1/50th of a second on a DSLR) was also his recommendation as the single most important (and probably easiest) step for achieving a cinematic look with your video. There was plenty more that Alex Buono had to say about his experiences shooting commercial parodies, skits and other videos for SNL, as well as his impressions of the new Canon C300, but there was simply too much great information to cover here. He’s been traveling all around the country giving these kinds of presentations, so if you’re lucky, he may be making his way to a city near you and you can hear more about what he has to say. You can also follow him on Twitter at @alexbuono or go to alexbuonoreel.com to see more of his work. Peter Brunet, Engineering Technician, brunet@rule.com

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Smart Storage for the Digital Age

For some time now, Rule Boston Camera has been working hard to become the leader in New England of shared storage, digital asset management and archiving. As the industry moves away from tape and into file-based media, safely and intelligently storing your digital video files has become increasingly important. Our goal in this “Smart Storage Initiative” is to provide the best possible solutions for each customer’s needs—from the one-man-band all the way up to the enterprise-level customer. Naturally, a significant part of this initiative is education and not just for our customers. Recently, we have been putting our vendors’ shared storage products through rigorous testing to see which products fit perfectly with which workflows. No single product, be it from Avid, Facilis, SNS or Apple/Promise, is right for every need or for every customer. We’re doing speed tests, checking compatibility with third-party software, figuring out how you can use each one in collaborative workflows (and more) in order to find how each shared storage product shines and in which areas. The end result:  when you tell us about your business and your needs, we will be able to confidently recommend a product that will be a perfect fit for you and your workflow as well as your budget. While shared storage products like Apple XSAN/Promise V-Trak, Facilis Terrablock, Avid ISIS and SNS EVO are a significant part of the puzzle, we also provide solutions for digital asset management and archiving with products like CatDV from SquareBox and the Cache-A line of products among others. Don’t need or can’t afford a large shared storage system or LTO-5 backups? We can recommend the right storage and backup solutions to fit exactly what you need and want with products from Promise, LaCie, G-Tech and more. The industry is constantly changing and as a result it can be difficult to navigate which is why we’re always on the lookout to find the best solutions out there to match your specific needs. Peter Brunet, Engineering Technician, brunet@rule.com

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Shooting with the Arri Alexa

I had the privilege of shooting with the Arri Alexa this past weekend for an upcoming web series that I am producing with some former Rule Boston Camera interns, entitled “Welcome to the World.” We were lucky enough to get the Alexa for the weekend and we were able to see what this new camera can really do. For those of you who don’t know, the Alexa is already receiving quite the hype. Martin Scorsese is shooting his next feature with it and Roger Deakins has been recently discussing his affinity towards the camera–and they’re not alone. The Alexa achieves about 13.5 stops of latitude (in LogC), is natively rated to ISO800 and is insanely easy to use. While it does not sport the 4K resolution that the RED does, its image clarity and post workflow are just some of the advantages to using Arri’s new flagship product. This was my first large-scale digital production. I come from a Super16 background, and almost all of my larger projects have been shot on Arri 16mm film cameras. I obviously have shot digital before (Canon DSLR’s, primarily, with some experience with the RED One), but never on this scale. We went into the project thinking it would be just something to do for fun, but it became a serious production with a sizable crew and an apartment packed with extras. I’m convinced that as much as I love shooting film, we could not have accomplished what we did (15-page script in 2.5 days!) with anything but digital—and more importantly, without the Alexa. This is a bold statement, I know, but I will explain. One of Arri’s primary competitors to the Alexa, it seems, is the RED One. The RED is a cheaper option (for the body only, at least), and offers 4K resolution, not just 2K/1080p.  However, in my opinion, the complications that arise from shooting such high resolution far outweigh the benefits. In my subjective opinion, the RED certainly looks nice, but has a tendency to look “too real” or electronically sharpened. This is a side effect that I think many digital cameras suffer from, one that has long been an arguing point for the superiority of film. The Alexa, on the other hand, shoots a very clear image, but it doesn’t look overly sharp or introduce any artifacts. The Alexa paired with a set of Cooke S4 primes, like we had, yields an astounding picture, but in my opinion, doesn’t look hyper-real. There is still texture in the image and it’s not unnaturally clean. We chose not to shoot LogC (I’m no professional colorist!), which provides an even greater dynamic range and more flexibility in post. We shot Rec709 and still got amazing images straight out of the camera. The Alexa was also instrumental in our production because of its ease of use both physically and in software (ever seen the menu system on the RED??). We had several shots that required challenging camera moves, and almost everything was handheld. Sure, the camera is heavy compared to a Sony EX3 or even the new F3, but it’s lighter than a fully-built RED rig and is certainly more ergonomic. Having a large, accessible handle on top, built-in shoulder pad and rod support and an all-in-one body design made our handheld shots extremely easy. While the modular design of the RED affords it a considerable amount of flexibility, it can become dauntingly large for handheld shots, especially. We had one particularly challenging shot that started upside down, pointed into a trash can. It then spun around and up onto the DP’s shoulder, where he then walked backward to reveal the room we were in. We stripped the camera to its bare essentials—the body, lens and rods both for a handgrip and to support a Bartech remote follow focus. We had one person holding a Panasonic BT-LH900 so we could remove the viewfinder, another person spotting the DP and another wrangling power and HD-SDI so we could eliminate the onboard battery and so I could pull focus from another monitor in the adjacent room. Even if we stripped the RED down, I believe it would still have more difficult to successfully accomplish the shot with that camera. Since this was a still a relatively small shoot and I will be editing the project, I was also in charge of media management on set. It could not have been easier. The Alexa records to Apple ProRes on Sony SxS media, so loading your footage is as easy as popping the card into an external reader, or in my case, my MacBook Pro’s ExpressCard slot (NOTE: My laptop is 2 years old and NOT the unibody design, so I still have the card slot on the 15” model. The new 15” unibody design does NOT include ExpressCard, but the 17” does). Once the card was in, we could instantly watch the footage directly from the Mac OS X Finder or QuickTime. I went the easy route and made disk images of each card using the Disk Utility application that comes pre-loaded on every Mac. Just for safety/ease, I also just dragged-and-dropped the individual .mov files onto my external RAID 1 drive (ideally, we would have used something like ShotPut Pro to copy the data). As with any large digital production, I would highly recommend having a dedicated Digital Imaging Technician on set to handle media and all additional imaging needs. But in our case, since we could not get a proper DIT and because the Alexa was so easy to use, we were willing to take the risk of not having a DIT. This is not something you could reasonably do when dealing with 4K footage out of the RED. And now that we’re in post-production, I can either load those files directly into Final Cut for editing, or even use Avid Media Access to edit the ProRes footage natively in Avid Media Composer 5. Easy as pie. Now let me be clear: while I’m comparing the RED and the Alexa, they are both very different products with different markets in mind. If you need to shoot RAW and get 4K imaging, the RED will obviously be the way to go. It’s also a slightly more cost-effective solution for some situations. But if you want something that you can get beautiful images with right off the bat in a lightweight, ergonomic package with a streamlined post-production workflow, then you should absolutely consider the Arri Alexa. It’s a wonderful piece of hardware and as far as I’m concerned, my new favorite camera. Peter Brunet, Engineering Technician

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Sony PMW-F3: Back to Back Events

Yesterday, we here at Rule Boston Camera were graced with the presence of Sony’s new Super35-style HD camera, the PMW-F3. We hosted our own event about the camera as part of our weekly Learning Lab Series, and then the New England chapter of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) held their own meeting about the camera and its technology here in the evening. Sony was kind enough to bring a prototype of the F3 as well as an SXRD 4K projector to show off their new tech. Each event had its own personal flair, but both offered interesting insights into Sony’s new large-sensor offering. I recommend reading Mike Sutton’s blog post for a more complete and more technical feature description, but I’ll highlight some of the important parts that were featured during Wednesday’s presentations. The morning Learning Lab event was led by Sony’s Peter Crithary, who took us through the functions of the camera and showed us some truly breathtaking short-form pieces shot by people at USC and Stargate Films. Right off the bat, I have to say the footage looks beautiful. Even with 35Mbit/sec XDCAM EX internal recording, the images hold up well to color grading and compositing. When the camera is attached to an external recording device, though, like an AJA KiPro, Convergent Design’s NanoFlash, or Sony’s own HDCAM SR deck, the imager on this thing really shines. No noise, great depth of field, impressive dynamic range—it has it all. Don’t forget that your lenses can make all the difference in the world! And with the appropriate adaptors, the F3 can use a variety of prime or zoom lenses that are large enough to cover the super35 imager. Peter’s presentation gave us a ton of information on what the camera can do and how it can be applied to the typical, or sometimes not-so-typical, workflow. Not only does it make pretty pictures, it also gives you functionality to boot. For the absolute highest-possible recording quality, he recommended recording to the internal SxS slots for an off-line version, while simultaneously taking advantage of the 4:4:4 Dual-Link SDI output (with a firmware upgrade, available soon) to an HDCAM SR deck for your on-line edit. Both versions will be in perfect sync and the workflow is totally seamless. You can also take advantage of the additional SD/HD switchable SDI port to run an on-set monitor for your client without the need for headache-inducing distribution amplifiers. You can even apply the Look Up Table (LUT) settings you plan to use in post-production color grading in the camera itself, allowing the DP and the client to see it in its (almost) final form—without affecting your 4:4:4 master. Amazing! This is far more than many people will actually take advantage of, but the scalability here is definitely notable. He also highlighted features like 3D Link, where you can connect two F3’s and with one cable, can control both simultaneously for perfectly-synced 3D shooting.  Check out Peter’s Learning Lab session in its entirety on vimeo:  http://vimeo.com/channels/rulelearninglabseries. While Peter’s presentation was a little more practical, aimed at the average user, Hugo Gaggioni took the reigns at the evening’s SMPTE event and spoke more on the technology behind the F3. He took us all the way back to the 70’s and 80’s when CCD imagers were first developed and discussed the transition to new CMOS technologies up to and including future 4K sensors along with the new Super35mm chip in the F3 itself. While not necessarily for the layman, his presentation was packed with fascinating information on how we got to be where we are now—and how the new chips coming out of Sony’s new manufacturing plant are changing the way we shoot HD, 3D and 4K. The people in attendance even got a sneak peek at some of the new technology Sony will be unveiling this year—very exciting stuff! The Sony F3 often seems to come up in conversations about the Panasonic AF100 and Canon’s line of DSLR’s. While the size of the sensor on each of these suggests they are all in the same class, this is hardly the case. Each one is designed to fit a certain set of needs and a certain budget. The F3 is in a slightly different price range than the offerings from Canon and Panasonic, but again, the functionality and feature set far outstrip its competition. On the flip side, however, at $16,000 list price, it is much cheaper than both the Red One and Arri Alexa, another set of cameras the F3 is bound to be compared to. What you must do is really evaluate the needs of your shoot and decide which of these cameras best suits your demands and budget. We were assured that the camera is on schedule to ship in February. We’re all excited about what this camera can do, and I hope you are, too! Peter Brunet, Engineering Technician