Thursday, June 30, 2011

Setting Camera Focus on Yourself

Knoptop chimes in this week on Quick FX with a simple trick that can be very useful. If you do a lot of one-man-banding with your camera, you might be in a quandary on how to get proper focus. If you are near the camera (like me in my webisodes), focusing is easy. If your camera is out of reach, however, how do you check focus? Dave's come up with a nifty trick that allows us to do just that.

The rule is that you always focus on the talent's eyes. Dave has made a set of portable eyes that he's clamped onto a mic stand and parked in the same spot he's going to be standing. Not only is this good for framing, but now he can check focus on his "eyes". If you have a zoom lens, zoom in and focus, then zoom out. Dave is obviously using a prime lens, which doesn't zoom. An external monitor can help you immensely when you have to check critical focus like this.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Full-Length Series I Worked On: The Gap

For quite a few months covering the end of last year and the first part of this one, I was the second DP on a locally produced web/TV show. I say web because it was distributed on YouTube and and TV because it was aired on Comcast's Utah On Demand Channel. Created by Chris Henderson (whom I've worked with before), the show is a tribute to what you can do with very little money and a whole lot of drive. I really liked working on it and wish my schedule would have been such that I could have contributed more (I was supposed to direct one episode).

For regular visitors to this blog, it may interest you to know that this entire show was shot with a first-generation PVC stabilizer rig. No tripods were used. Chris wanted a look similar to the Johnathan Demme film, Rachel Getting Married. He wanted somewhat of a shaky-cam, documentary feel, but once told me that the rig worked almost too well, eliminating a lot of shake that he wanted more of. Oops.

With a budget coming in at around $5000, Chris has achieved quite a feat. Remember, this isn't an 80-minute feature, but a thirteen part show with full-length (30 minute) episodes. He's proof that we can all do the same thing if we get all our ducks in a row and have them follow us into battle. The first episode of The Gap is embedded above. Check it out and if it draws you in, watch the next twelve. If nothing else, you have more proof that the web lets the little guy get his ambitious vision to the masses.

Chris is a also contributing writer to this blog. Please read his excellent three-part series entitled "Casting Your Microbudget Film". You'll be glad you did. I hope to hear more from Chris in the future, not only on this blog, but in whatever project he brings to the internet.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Weekly Recap Link List 6-27-11

From the files of Facebook and Twitter:

Stop taking pictures, start creating images

Dangerous (in a good way)

DIY softboxes light your photos on the cheap

Time travel and layered sound

Why does my DSLR footage look grainy?

EasyCam camera stabilizer / steadycam

How to build 24 DIY softboxes

The web series-to-feature writing model

My filmmaking equipment of summer 2011

"DSLR Camera Rigs"

Minorities at the movies fill seats, but not screens

Maxing out your budget

Final Cut X is out, as is Motion

Steadicam Blackbird stabilizer on electric skateboard

PVC stabilizer with iPhone 4 mount

Mini camera stabilizer

Raj's PVC stabilizer

Paul's PVC stabilizer rig in action

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mini Camera Stabilizer

I've been using my PVC camera stabilizer whenever I need to run hand-held with my camcorder. It works well to avoid the shaky-cam look, as well as providing fast setups and a variety of shots. Many of you have reported success with this rig, not only with camcorders, but with DSLRs as well.

If you have a smaller camera, however, this rig is overkill. Smaller cams have no optical stabilization (and digital stabilizers corrupt the picture), so a rig like this is a must. In this episode I discuss a smaller alternative to the PVC beast, one that gives you almost all the same benefits of the larger model, without the bulk.

This episode is also a good example of valuable viewer input. When James DeRuvo sent me that picture showing off the Wii controller holder he found and his basic idea, it was a fantastic inception for me. Please keep the great ideas coming and this show will last forever (or as long as I do)!

Alternate Wii Wheel

Mini ball head

Cell phone holder + tripod mount

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Web Series to Feature Writing Model

Last week there was an old video posted by Filmmaker IQ that showed part of a lecture by legendary writing professor, Robert McKee (author of Story). In it, McKee talks about how setting up a world with rules sets up “creative limitations.” That is what the writer wants, not freedom, he argues. “The desire to be free is one of the most suicidal notions an artist can have.”

This isn’t exactly a new idea, but an important one. When confined (McKee uses a straightjacket as a metaphor), you have to think your way out of the problem, based on the rules you have set up in your story world. In old computer programming, you only had so much memory. In microbudget filmmaking, you only have so much money. It’s the same idea with writing.

I’ve been kicking around a writing model in my head lately that uses the same limitation idea, but applies it to format, as well as context. In film school, I spend two semesters penning a web series called Charles Strange and the Future Men, a twelve-part story of ten page (or ten minute) episodes, with a cliffhanger at the end of each one. Compared to the feature project I tried to write later, I had a much easier time writing the web series. Why? I think it had everything to do with the limitations of the format.

The series arc was much the same as a feature arc and had a three-act structure. The first two episodes were act one (the same as the first twenty minutes in a feature), episodes 3-9 were act two and episodes 10-12 were the final act. The midpoint of the story (complete with revelatory event) was episode six.

I knew I had to have a cliffhanger (after all, this was a noir story with sci-fi elements) at the end of each episode. That made for eleven cliffhangers. I picked some doozies and spread them out along the episodes. I knew that as each episode progressed, I had to get to that cliffhanger somehow. This made me feel like I only had to be concerned with a ten minute story instead of a much more daunting 120 minute one.

I do like the web series model, but I think that you can do a lot more with a feature. Netflix, peer-to-peer, YouTube streaming, single DVD marketing and even four-walling in a movie theater give you a lot more options than a one-shot on the web. So how can understanding the web series format help us get that feature written?

You’ve probably guessed this already, but collapsing the series into a feature is easy, just get rid of the episode transitions. This may give you a fast pace, but cliffhangers don’t always have to be explosions or heroines tied to railroad tracks. They can be dramatic reveals or shocking events of the heart. If you’re writing a genre story (like I intend to), the potential quick pace may serve you well.

I’m excited about trying this. I’m aiming for an 80 minute first feature, which means I need to write an eight episode web series. I only need seven cliffhangers and a midpoint reveal. I’ll have a twenty minute first act, a forty minute second act and a twenty minute third act. I think this straightjacket will be a good fit.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Time Travel and Layered Sound

Knoptop returns with another Quick FX installment of the "FX without After Effects" series. Here he shows some more great things you can do inside your editor without having to use specialized software to make things flashy. While the dinosaurs are neat, the most impressive things in Dave's video are the simple tricks. Pay attention to the section on layered sound and how good the final result is. I also like the bit about manipulating one frame to enhance the teleporting visual. I'm a big believer in the KISS method, and Knoptop's video is a great example of the quality you can get without a lot of extra steps (even if he does "cheat" a bit and use Photoshop).


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sub-$100 Portable Digital Recorder Roundup

After purchasing my Zoom H1 Handy Recorder a while ago, I was wondering if there wasn’t another decent recorder out there at a similar price point. I knew about Tascam’s DR-05, which was developed as direct competition to the H1, but was that it? Having review powers granted to me by B&H, I requested all recorders under $100 that met some basic criteria.

All these units have on-board stereo mics for ambient sound recording. They also have an external mic input, headphone monitoring and audio levels that can be manually adjusted. I then ran the following tests (available below each photo): sound checks with a cheap unbalanced Radio Shack lav mic, an expensive balanced Sennheiser ME66 shotgun going through an XLR-Pro adapter and an ambient recording with the built-in stereo mics. Use headphones for critical listening.

Alesis PalmTrack ($89)

Build quality:
Decent for plastic unit, though well-spaced buttons and switches feel cheap and SD card door looks like it will break off.
Sound quality: Weak preamp in all modes. Both external mics had very difficult time hitting –24db, let alone –12db. With gain switch set on high, nasty noise was added to signal. Records .wav up to 24bit/48khz or .mp3 up to 320kbps.
Interface: Smallest (OLED) screen in group. Dual horizontal audio meters have multiple marks, including 0db, -6db, -12db and –24db. Meters appear to have slight lag.
Mounting thread: Metal! Located on bottom of unit and would cover SD card door if used.
File transfer: No problem connecting to computer via exposed mini-USB port on side. No file tree, recorded files show up immediately.
Best thing: Metal mounting thread!
Worst thing: Weak or noisy sound.

American Audio Pocket Record ($89)

Build quality:
Rugged and tough. Largest recorder of the group (gameBoy sized) has rubberized buttons and feels like a plastic tank. Rattles when shaken.
Sound quality: Definite hiss detected from onboard mics during ambient recording. Hiss much more noticeable with unbalanced lav (using ¼” to 1/8” adapter that I had to provide) and when using XLR shotgun. Onboard mics NOT disabled when external mic plugged in. Records .wav up to 44.1khz or .mp3 (no bit rate indicated).
Interface: Medium-sized LCD screen. Cryptic “menu” system is not user-friendly at all. Dual horizontal “meters” have no db indicators. “Levels” adjusted by high, medium or low switch.
Mounting thread: None.
File transfer: Connected to computer via exposed min-USB connector after two tries. Overly complicated folder system.
Best thing: You could probably run this thing over with a car and it would still work.
Worst thing: Doesn’t really “work” at all.

Jammin Pro HR-5 ($95)

Build quality:
Cheap and plasticky, buttons are small and close together. Rattles when shaken.
Sound quality: Some hiss detected from onboard mics during ambient recording. Hiss much more noticeable with unbalanced lav and less noticeable (but still there) when using the Sennheiser XLR shotgun. Levels maxed and unit barely hits –12db. Records .wav up to 24bit/96khz or .mp3 up to 192bps.
Interface: Second largest (OLED) screen of group. Easy to navigate menu has basic options. Dual horizontal audio meters have no db marks, but do have db readout. Meters adjusted by wheel on side of unit, but could never get enough level to hit –12db.
Mounting thread: Plastic. Located on back of unit and would cover battery door and two switches if used.
File transfer: No problem connecting to computer via rubber flap-covered mini-USB port on side. Standard file tree system.
Best thing: Large screen is always lit (great when working in the dark).
Worst thing: Hissy sound.

Tascam DR-05 ($99)

Build quality:
Solid and robust. Unit has nice weight and well-spaced, large buttons that click firmly. No rattle when shaken.
Sound quality: Little or no hiss detected from onboard mics, unbalanced lav and Sennheiser XLR shotgun mic. Records .wav up to 24bit/96khz or .mp3 up to 320kbps.
Interface: Largest screen of group. Easy to navigate menu has lots of options. Dual horizontal audio meters have –12db mark and db readout. Adjusted by front buttons, had no problem hitting –12db and beyond.
Mounting thread: Plastic. Located on back of unit and would cover battery door if used.
File transfer: No problem connecting to computer via exposed mini-USB port on side. Standard file tree system.
Best thing: Feels and acts like a real field recorder.
Worst thing: Probably too big and heavy to be mounted on talent.

Tascam PR-10 ($93)

Build quality:
Lightweight and fragile. Most svelte recorder of the bunch, resembling a removeable car stereo faceplate (only shorter). No rattle when shaken.
Sound quality: Little or no hiss detected from onboard mics during ambient recording. More hiss during recording with unbalanced lav. Much better, cleaner sound with the Sennheiser XLR shotgun mic. Records .wav up to 24bit/48khz or .mp3 up to 320bps.
Interface: Next-to-smallest LCD screen. Easy to navigate menu has lots of options (including a stealth mode). Dual horizontal audio meters have no db marks or readout. Adjusted by front buttons, had no problem hitting (what I’m guessing was) –12db mark and beyond.
Mounting thread: None.
File transfer: No problem connecting to computer via exposed micro-USB port on side. Standard file tree system.
Best thing: Perfect size for body mounting on talent or stealth purposes.
Worst thing: No audio meters available on playback.

Zoom H1 Handy Recorder ($99)

Build quality:
Feels cheap and fragile. Except for large record button, switches small but well-spaced. Rattles when shaken.
Sound quality: Little or no detectable hiss during ambient recording or using external lav mic or XLR shotgun mic. Records .wav up to 24bit/96khz or .mp3 up to 320kbps.
Interface: Next-to-smallest LCD screen. No menu system—all functions performed by hard buttons. Dual vertical audio meters have 0db, -6db, –12db and –24db mark. Had no problem hitting –12db mark with onboard mics or Sennheiser shotgun, but external lav needed levels cranked.
Mounting thread: Plastic. Switches on back inaccessible when thread is used.
File transfer: No problem connecting to computer via exposed mini-USB port on side. Standard file tree system.
Best thing: Size and sound quality make it great hybrid (field use or body mount) recorder.
Worst thing: Very delicate case, probably due to cost-cutting. Handle with care!

No real surprises here. The best-sounding recorders are the ones you’d expect: the Zoom H1 and the Tascam DR-05. I was hopeful for the Tascam PR-10, whose size is perfect for body mounting and its name reputable, but its poor performance with the unbalanced Radio Shack mic means you’d need to add XLR hardware to your actor. This defeats any stealth qualities the unit has. It was also no surprise that the XLR Sennheiser shotgun sounded better than the cheaper, muddier unbalanced Radio Shack lav (except on the Alesis and the American Audio units, which are just terrible all around). Of the no-names, the Jammin Pro is the best model, but the $5 you save is not worth the noise and lack of power you get. All units sounded pretty good in the ambient test, but only the Zoom and the two Tascam models give you enough clean power when you need it.

The best choice is really dependent on your needs. If you need a solid field recorder that’s sturdy, versatile and easy to operate, get the Tascam DR-05. If you need to mount a body mic on talent, I recommend the Zoom H1 (which can also act as a field recorder). Either way, your audio is going to sound really good for $99, which is the ultimate endgame with a purchase like this.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Zoom H1 Field Recorder Setup

Back in the Zoom H1 accessory episode of The Frugal Filmmaker, I said I would elaborate on a field recorder setup. This is a fairly painless process of attaching a few add-ons to make your little recorder (no matter what the brand) more practical in an on-set recording scenario.

The main pieces you'll need are your recorder, some kind of XLR adapter (I'm using Sign Video's XLR-PRO, a dual adapter you can also find used on eBay) and an XLR female to dual male Y-cable. Then, just attach your recorder to the XLR adapter and the Y-cable to the box. I'm also using the Sima Quikonnect system which allows quick interchangeability between various recording devices and mounts (camera, recorder, tripod, stabilizer rig, table dolly). That's what those hunks of plastic are you see attached to the box (and one you can't see on the bottom of the Zoom H1).

The XLR-PRO allows me to use any kind of pro XLR audio I want to plug into the H1. As a passive mixer, it also lets me adjust the audio level of each stereo channel--something I can't do on the recorder itself. The Y-cable gives me two mono channels, one I set normally (-12db) and one I run slightly lower. This is a backup track in case an actor speaks loud enough to go past 0db and peak the audio, causing distortion. If that happens, I now have an alternate track that should hit at the appropriate level, with no distortion.

All that remains now is a way to mount the whole rig on your body. I didn't want anything hanging around my neck, so I used the Vivitar mini-tripod/hand grip and stuck it in my belt. It worked well and allowed easy access to the controls.

This setup makes your Zoom H1 that much more versatile, if you already have the parts (or can get them used). If you buy the recorder and XLR box new, you'll be spending $250. In that case, you may as well get the Zoom H4n. You'll still need a Y-cable though.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Smooth Slow Motion (Using Sony Vegas Pro)

One of the coolest effects (and one of the oldest) ever is slow motion. The drama you can create with this effect is awesome and where would the shampoo industry be without it? Some filmmakers like John Woo and Brian DePalma have used this technique ad nauseum, but if you need it, it's good to have around.

Most editing programs will let you slow down your footage in post, but it never looks very good. If you plan ahead and shoot with certain camera settings, it will look great. All you need is a camera that will shoot in 60i (60 frames per second, interlaced) and allow you to adjust the shutter speed. You'll also need a beefier editor that will let you use the Double NTSC (59.940) frame rate. In this example, I'm using my trusty editing software, Sony Vegas Pro.

Links mentioned in the above video:

Download the Lagarith Lossless Video Codec:

Eugenia's original "Butter-Smooth Slow Motion" post:

Download a FREE trial of Sony Vegas Pro 10:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

UCA202: The Effortless USB Speaker Interface

Since I've been doing everything on a laptop for awhile now, I've really wanted to use my audio monitors that have been gathering dust in a box. I've owned a pair of beefy Roland MA-12Cs that I have really liked, but ever since my desktop computer went away, they've had little use. I've been reading Jay Rose's excellent book on audio postproduction and knew I need to be mixing audio on good speakers and not headphones. I wanted to put the Rolands back to work.

So I started poking around on the interwebs and found the Behringer U-control UCA202, a nifty little box that is powered by any computer's USB port and offers RCA line outs, RCA line ins, a headphone jack and an optical output. Not a bad bit of features for $28. It had some good reviews, so I went ahead and pulled the trigger. I'm glad I did.

The setup for this gizmo under Windows 7 was stupid easy. I plugged it in, it auto-configured and before you can say "mixdown", all sound from my computer was routed to this box, which I swiftly plugged my speakers into. Everything sounded great. There were no drivers to mess with, no settings to adjust. The thing just works right out of the box. If I want to divert audio back to my crummy laptop speakers, I just unplug.

I haven't tested the other features, but I'm glad they are there for future-proofing. It would be easy to connect the tape outs from a mixer to the line inputs (I just happen to own a Behringer mixer as well) for a more versatile input experience. The optical out is nice if I ever need to connect my computer to a home theater receiver for a large group presentation or something. The availability of a headphone out (complete with volume control) is good, though I don't ever see using it.

If you decide to order one of these, be careful you don't accidentally order the UFO202, which looks exactly the same, but appears to lack the optical output (and it costs more!). There is a red version that looks pretty stylish, but is the exact same box as this one. If you want to spend a couple more dollars so the U-control will really stand out on your desk, be my guest.

All in all, this is a good find. The USB connectivity means I will always be able to attach my speakers to any computer I own, as long as the USB standard remains available. Now I can finally get down to a realistic audio mix without breaking the bank.


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