Spicing up your Thailand holiday with a little bit of Feature Film shootingI clearly remember the euphoria after having bought my first own video camera, a Canon XM-1 DV camera, almost 14 years ago. I was sure that I could just run outside on the street, point it at friends, cars and the cat of the neigbor and receive Hollywood-like movie images instantly.
As everyone would guess – it didn´t really work this way, even if the camera was state-of-the-art those days when you wanted to shoot an Indie feature on a minimal budget.
But while I was constantly learning to get better in filmmaking, attending filmschool, working as a commercial director for seven years – my dream persisted up to today, to just grab a camera, go out and shoot a film. A stunning one ideally. ;)
So take a look at the teaser mood shots (full-HD playable) that we put together for this article.
If you´re viewing this on iOs - try this link: https://vimeo.com/54848186
To say it in advance – I did not have access to the latest technology of RAW recording, but more than in the old XM-1-days I know now that the camera is the tool to capture – and that filmmaking is so much more beyond 8bit, 10bit or RAW, Rec709, Log or Cinegammas. Cameras don´t make the movie, people do – so I´ll cover technical aspects of the shoot as well as "creative" ones for you to get an idea how we dealt with the cinematography in this Bangkok adventure.
During the years of working after fimlschool I saved some money for an own ambitious feature film and finally started shooting the intro part of it (which is still being written as we were done shooting the first part) which I´ll definitely cover with more articles on hackermovies as we make progress shooting it – this time it´s about the camera part.
Of course I would have loved to shoot it on the Black Magic Cinema Camera, and by the time we started plotting the story in early summer 2012 I was sure I could buy one off the shelf by the end of the year and thus missed the chance to preorder - but now, not having the chance to buy one, I basically only had my lovely hacked GH2 to film.
Which is a great and affordable tool for any filmmaker, but especially pulling focus on it for narrative filmmaking makes it hard to use as a A-cam.
Of course you find Canon 7D´s and 5D´s everywhere to shoot if you don´t have a big budget, but even having had great results with DSLRs in the past (check out our imagefilm „BATELCO INFINITY“ which we shot 2010 on 5Ds and 7Ds ) I wanted new camera technology that is one step ahead of the DSLR revolution – having sensors that resolve the full resolution a BluRay can show, not to bore festival audiences with a slightly muddy picture and moiré because everyone is shooting at least with REDs now for Indie movies, so the image quality bar definitely raised to a new level.
But besides my GH2 and a bunch of Canon EF lenses that I own I couldn´t afford to rent a RED – since the first act of the film takes place in Bangkok, a city that I always wanted to spend vacation and shoot in again after having shot a commercial there two years ago.
So Sony helped me out (big thanks to Sony´s agencies Ketchum Pleon and Häberlein & Maurer) with a demo unit of the FS-700 for two weeks and a set of A-mount lenses that go along with the camera with Sony´s own adapter. As a co-director of the commercial directing duo Alex & Steffen (www.alexandsteffen.com) I´m shooting with Alexas and Epics quite often, so I know that you can´t handle those kind of cameras in run and gun situations and „off the shelf“ without additional gear - and definitely not without an camera assistant.
But for the kind of guerilla shooting I was looking into I needed to operate the camera in Thailand completely by myself, so the size of a Canon C300, Sony FS-100 or FS-700 is perfect for the Indie cinematographer who pulls focus on his own, either with or without a small rig.
Unfortunately there is not much feature film (if any?) work to be seen from the FS-700 on the web, but footage shot by Frank Glencairn and Philipp Bloom proved that the camera´s quality would be in such a high league that it could intercut its footage seamlessly with other new cameras, no matter if we will shoot the rest of the film in Germany end of december and in early 2013 with a FS-100, a Canon C300, a Red MX, a BMCC (*sigh*) or a Sony F5 – let´s see what will be possible.
Don´t get me wrong, even with being a tech camera geek I know that in the end it comes down to storytelling and what the film is about, and not the device it was shot on, so we´ll cover other aspects of this project and the shoots in the future, but for now let´s concentrate on the FS-700 as I haven´t found a source on the net that covers the FS-700´s use for feature film work.
Let´s quickly run through the story to understand what this is all about.
This film (like the script the title is still work in progress, for Thailand we used „On the Run“) is about a German student who is backpacking through Thailand. On her last day before returning to Berlin she meets a Thai girl in the hostel and they spend the next day together and have fun in Bangkok. After partying at night they are suddenly attacked by strangers which looks like a coincidence at first glance.
But having returned to Germany our heroine´s life turns upside down until she realizes that she might have carried a secret package over from Thailand that she was not aware of – and now has to fight to get out of this situation and get her old life back.
Preparations … what to pack?
I wanted to bring as much as possible with me from Germany as we only planned 2,5 days of preparation, and 3 days of shooting. Having to deal with technical problems like missing lenses etc. would have endangered the project when being in a foreign country without speaking the language.
For the shoot I hired the local film company „A Grand Elephant“ I had shot with before and they were willing to help me out getting the shoot done even with my limited budget – and so they took care about everything you can´t deal with as a European (try to shoot under the radar without a permission in Bangkok – you´re in police custody faster than you can press the record button), but still local rentals had their prices, so minial gear and equipment was key.
The gear I brought was the FS-700, several A-mount lenses with a fast aperture (for night shots) (16-35mm zoom f2.8, 35mm f1.4, 85mm f1.4), the Metabones adapter (first generation) and the Canon EF-mounted Sigma 14mm f2.8, Sigma 50mm f1.8 and the Canon 100mm f2.8 . Next to the cheap Panasonic kit lens I planned to use the canon lenses with a dumb simple adapter on my GH2 after the main shoot, since I had to send the FS-700 back after the shooting days and wanted to continue to collect footage of Thailand for the intro credits in the following two weeks after the main shoot.
Of course I read Andrew Reid´s (www.eoshd.com) book on the GH2 and was aware of what it could do and not its great video modus. After the FS-700 arrived a few days before departure I shot some comparison shots in the garden to see how well the footage of the two cameras would intercut with each other. Funny enought the different crop factor did not really play a role aesthetically on the test shots and sometimes I found the GH2 image even a bit more overall pleasant at first sight. It definitely resolved small details much better, running at 70mbps (with the newest driftwood hack) instead of 28 mbps that the FS-700 recorded with. But two big image quality drawbacks definitely legitimated the FS-700 for its much higher price and the use as a A-camera – the latitude was the biggest difference.
If you´re viewing this on iOs - try this link: https://vimeo.com/54713271
In the video you can clearly see the almost dark grass part on the GH2 and the much brighter one in that area on the FS-700. Even denoising and pushing it in post did not help much, the 8bit codec (even with the high bitrate) fell apart very soon. With the BMCC it would have been easy, but the best camera is always the one you either have or can buy, so I wanted to make the best out of the 8bit footage out of those cameras.
The second part where the GH-2 flawed were the out-of-focus-areas. Strong banding occured here, which is not too bad when you have a normal film scene playing with action, cuts etc., but when you compare the shots directly you see that the FS-700 does much better here, it looked way better even on a lower bitrate.
Picture profiles and Cinegammas, of course, are a big advantage on the FS-700 compared to the GH2 and I tested the ones that were created by Abelcine. Using the flat „log-like“-ones in color correction I found out that I always (no matter what subject was shot) pushed the blacks more down to get a nice looking image – in no condition the profile in the dark areas helped me preserve a detail that I really needed. So I changed some details and made the look less flat while still having nice control on the overall gamma curve. Details for my own profile can be found at the end of the article.
Ideally, for the FS-700 I wanted to use the Snapfocus Follow Focus System I was backing on Kickstarter – but it did not ship yet, so I hope to use it for the upcoming shooting days and had to rely on manual focus pulling which is not always easy while you are framing AND directing.
Together with the FS-700´s focus peaking function I loved focus pulling on all of the A-mount lenses, was much easier and intuitive than on the mix of Canon and Sigma lenses I used on the Metabones adapter.
I also got a shoulder rig from Stuttgart-based rental house b44media, but it was originally built for heavier cameras and a regular follow-focus system, adding a lot of weight to the setup which was too light on its own.
So after one shooting day I realized I am basically holding the weight of the rig which makes the arms more tired than it stabilizes the camera. So I went on with a small plasticy arm that I used for my Canon XM-1 (and never since – packed it in because there was no more luggage space for the good old Steadicam JR) and originally planned to stabilize the GH2 with – but it worked well on the bigger camera, allowing even steadicam-like running shots on wider angles with the FS-700.
It once more proved to me that you do not need tons of highend equipment, rigs etc. to handle a camera on a shoot, if you´re inventive and if your story and shooting style allows it , you can get away with much less – gear can help, but it does not make the movie.
Furthermore I brought two LED light units as I did not know what I could expect to be able to rent in Bangkok in the short amount of time. The „kick“ pocket lighting units I was backing on kickstarter did also not arrive in time and their trial demo units were out with people in the states, so I had to bring „old-fashioned“ LED lights. Which was not a big problem – improvising was the key to lighting overall anyway. ;)
That was mostly everything – together with the main actress Esther Maaß we headed for Bangkok while A Grand Elephant production was preparing everything else for our arrival.
The first day was our only day shoot which luckily brought sunshine while all other days were cloudy – great for the images, and challenging for the camera´s picture profile to show how much latitude under extreme conditions can be captured. And definitely the time to put on the lens hood on the LCD display – without it pulling focus would have been impossible in bright surroundings.
We shot with permissions for most of the locations (I approached temples, for example, without the crew, only with the two actresses, because the chance to look like a European tourist was much higher without other crew members), but without any kind of blocking, so our small crew tried to blend in with the street crowds as we attended a ferry ride, visited a flower market and other busy places to capture impressions of street life during the day.
While I was running through the crowd intuitively, following the girls and trying to find good angles on the fly, two assistants „steered“ me and navigated me around bigger or dangerous obstacles (Tuk-Tuks at full speed for example) in case I was watching the monitor too much and not paying attention to the world around.
Interestingly on these places where mostly Thai people and no tourists could be found the „blending in“ worked perfectly. When they recognized me with the camera (which in size is beyond a normal Tourist cam for sure) some of them looked for a second but then continued to walk on normally, which will help a lot during editing since the shots feel very natural and contain a production value that you normally only get if the street is blocked and the full crowd is on your payroll.
The next location was Khao San road – THE famous backpacker road in Bangkok, looking like a Thai version of a Las Vegas strip. The visual overkill in that street is just stunning – but here blending in did not work that well .. we were confronted with a problem that I did not think about when planning the shoot: European tourists! Our first longer dialogue scene (which was especially important for the story) had to be shot here, so I tried to cover the two girls with as much background of the street (depth!) in the picture as possible to see that we did not squeeze in a corner but actually shot on Khao San road the whole time. Which led to dozens of tourists in the frame, taking pictures, standing and oberserving, waving, shouting – the first shots were unusable and as we could not block the people and I did not want to move to a less popular place there was only one solution possible – using longer lenses fully open.
Basically if you shoot wide open in a bright daylight environment the internal ND´s of the FS-700 (which were great to have and took away 6 stops max) are unable to cope with the huge amount of light. But fortunately I brought step up rings for my Variable ND filter from Tiffen, so I could use it on the Carl-Zeiss and the Canon lenses – a combination that solved this tricky situation, because now everyone that was away a few meters was SO much out of focus that you just could see a crowd moving, no matter what they did. The look comes close to the „FullFrame-Everything-Out-Of-Focus-Videolook“ that we have seen so much in the past years due to the big success of Canon´s 5D and I wanted to avoid overusage of out-of-focus-image parts, but in this location it was inevitable.
During the next hour I could gradually take the ND´s away as a thunderstorm was coming in which screwed up continuity a little bit when you suddenly could see backpackers running through the scenery to reach their destination before the pouring rain started. We did a location move while it rained and prepped a disco scene in the late afternoon – a club was opening earlier for us to let us stage our own little dancing scene as the two girls in the story were enjoying a „fun night“.
Here I used the stunning slowmotion capabilities of the FS-700 for the first time and encountered the first little flaw while handling the camera. To say it in advance – it was so much fun that I ended up shooting many more scenes in slowmo that were never planned this way, you can see many of them in the teaser trailer. Not sure if they´ll end up in the film in slowmo, but for the teaser it just looked great and reminded me of what Philipp Bloom once said in his review of the camera: Even the most normal action or movement just looks stunning in slowmotion. True. ;)
I planned to shoot the whole film at 24 fps (since it´s more safe for a DCP file for digital theatres and festivals, not all hardware is updated to play 25fps without problems and for own BluRay authoring it´s still the recommended setting) but since you need to set the FS-700 to NTSC in the menu to be able to record in 24fps you can´t record slow motion without flickering - as you have switched to NTSC which does not work well in a 50Hz-country like Thailand. For normal frame rates it´s just fine, you just set the shutter to 1/50, but 120 or 240 fps it´s not that easy.
So you have to switch the camera to PAL in order to record SlowMotion at 100 fps as soon as you don´t have flicker free pro light equipment. As you can´t mix 24fps and 25fps footage on one SD card (the camera will keep complaning even though for the file structure it should not make a difference) I dedicated one SD card to be a „PAL-card“ which was always used when the camera was switched to record slowmotion.
Besides that minor workflow issue the slowmo shots were just stunnig – dancing people with flying hair accompagnied by laser strobes - you just had to point the camera and guess focus and it recorded cool images just by itself.
On the next day we started with a Tuk-Tuk ride through the city, on vehicle chasing the other and not to drop lenses on the bumpy ride I chose the only zoom lens I carried on the trip, the Carl-Zeiss 16-35mm ZA SSM f2.8, which was perfect for this kind of action as its build quality and image performance is great.
For all the run and gun shots however I found that lens too heavy compared to the camera weight so for wide angles I used the 14mm Sigma on Canon mount and for 35mm the Carl Zeiss 35mm f1.4 – so I basically just skipped using all the focal lengths inbetween which is quite unnormal as 24mm is one of the most-used lengths on a 35mm-size-chip or film - but in the end it wasn´t a big visual drawback, might even add something to the visual language of the film when jumping between 14mm and 35mm regularly without anything inbetween.
I chose not to go beyond ISO 1600 on both the FS-700 and the GH2 (which of course is an unfair comparison as the GH2 noise level is much higher even with the hack and its 70mbps data rate) as this was the amount of grain that for my taste was okay to remove with NeatImage or other De-Grain software, and even with the lenses I carried that were rated at F2.8 the image proved to be bright enough at night – because the two remaining shooting days were night shoots.
During the day the only thing we could do to „light“ the shots was to bounce the sunlight with a white poly, but at night to create a cinematic image there´s much more needed.
I generally underexposed a little bit to preserve highlights for the skies during the day, and for the skintones during the night. I did not care about highlights in the background to clip on lamps or neon street signs (stuff you could recover in a RAW workflow), but an overexposed face is the kind of video-look I wanted to avoid at all costs, even if other parts of the image would fall into deep blacks.
At first I was a little bit afraid of lighting the night interior scenes with so little lighting gear – I could only afford to rent one 4x4 Kinoflo and besides the LED lights that I brought, everything else had to be practical lights that could be found in the sets to create a „film-like“ image – because it´s not (only) the chip on the camera that decides between homevideo-look or a „real film-look“ – it´s framing, image composition – and the LIGHT!
Everyone who follows the filmmaking forums on the web knows those posts from people who found the FS-100 (and so the FS-700) too „video-ish“ compared to Canon sensors – which is a difference that I never really saw on web videos – there is crappy material looking video-ish around from all sensors.
And now after shooting with the camera I would defend it for its look – in its price range it gave me the best change to capture images with great detail in complicated run and gun situations. With any camera you just can´t point it at someone or something and expect to create a still from a Hollywood movie.
And I did not even start to use color correction properly on the material – the teaser video above was corrected with the „Fast Color Correction“ in Premiere to get the Blacks and Highlights right and a little bit of MB Looks on top – it was a 10 minutes task and the final result in detailed color correction will be much better.
Of course you can´t grade nicely what looked bad when shooting it - but if you follow the basics of cinematography even under these difficult (no time to light, not really much gear to light) conditions, you can achieve great results.
First of all I treated our only Kinoflo like the sun – as you would shoot outside with minimal gear and some bounceboards. So that strongest light source was always the key light for the main characters in the shot, the fill from one side would be bounced (mostly off screen or on the floor), and another fill – if needed with a 1/2 CTO or CTB to create some color – was created by one of the LED lamps.
If they were in shot they were either hidden behind stuff in the frame (in the hostel scene for example the vase with flowers in the foreground and the monitor on the desk helped a lot to hide these lights) or in the action scenes they were put in places where the camera would pan fast and they would flare nicely – which is what Michael Bay is doing since ages now. No one wonders why there are four suns in his shots, but when the camera pans past such a 12K Dino light it just looks so cool that we forget questioning this strange visual reality.
And furthermore when it comes to create the look – I am a big fan of smoke machines. Yes, really, if you look at a scene through the viewfinder you would never image how much smoke you just pumped in the set (sometimes I felt that half of my budget is going in the air on windy locations) for it to stay for the full dialoge and still look okay in the end of the scene.
But it just helps so much in creating atmosphere and depth, and blocking unwanted parts of the background if needed – and it played totally in the camera´s favour not having a real log-color-mode natively, the more smoke in the room the more „log-like“ the images looked, preventing over-exposure in highlights and clipping blacks.
The last night we shot the big finale of the Bangkok sequence – a fight scene in a dark alley. I knew that you would normally spend at least two nights to shoot such a scene alone, but on that shooting day all we had left were a few hours until either the crew fell asleep, or the neighbours called the police since we were making noise in their backyard all night. We tried to prevent the latter by having our own police officer with us, which made shooting with a gun and knifes possible in the public and which saved us a lot of time when moving from location to location.
You just put him on his motor bike in front of the convoy and nothing can stop you anymore - no red lights, no Tuk-Tuk armada, it´s big fun and was worth the money!
In the alley we used the same scheme that worked nicely before – hide your lights. Normally it takes quite some time to rig and outdoor environment like this – we just stacked a couple of big baskets into each other, put some trash next to them and it looked very „natural“ for this kind of environment, added texture to the walls – and it blocked our kinoflo which was as high on its c-stand as possible to provide the overall backlight for this scene - and in the trash we could hide the smaller light units perfectly, too.
This scene was the one I worried about most – since it would be at the end of a long shooting day, would require precision, speed and expertise – and there was just so little time to stage, rehearse and shoot it. But fortunately we got last-minute help from real pros – a few members of the stunt team from the famous martial arts movie Ong-Bak agreed to support our project and created a thrilling fight scene together with the girls.
Ideally I wanted to show this fight without a cut (not sure yet if it will work) to make the whole situation more realistic and overwhelm the audience at this point. For that sequence, where the camera would travel around the stunt performers and the girls in close distance, I chose to go with the widest lens we had, the Sigma 14mm, creating the biggest visual impact.
The camera size helped a lot here – from time to time the camera and me cast a shadowon the actors which I tried to eliminate during rehearsal, but as our lights came from further away there was no chance to get rid of that. So I decided to deal with that in post and rather have the camera moving fast and freely – something you would definitely not have been able to do with a fully rigged Epic with monitors, batteries, external monitor and follow focus, THAT shadow would have been way bigger.
Focus, however, was a problem on this one. It´s hard to pull focus on a 14mm anyway as the focus assist functions have a hard time recognizing what is in focus at such a wide angle. But with the camera moving in the middle of the action it´s almost impossible. So I decided to measure one distance – which was a little bit more than a meter – which was the best distance for that shot, and kept the focus on that distance.
While moving through the choreography people might get out of focus (which on 14mm is rather a little bit blurry since the lens was wide open) from time to time, but if there is so much going on you don´t concentrate on it anyway, but whenever possible I tried to match that distance again after losing it for „action reasons“ and so more or less getting the whole scene done with one setup. The end of the take ends with a wider shot (and thus different focus), but a fast pan in the end hides a cut at this stage and at the same time gives makeup the chance to prep the actors with fake blood – any blood and injuries during the scene and the fight will be done in post.
… and the aftermath.
After the shooting days in Bangkok I packed a Pelicase to send the camera and lenses home to Sony Germany, and continued the adventurous holiday with the GH2, the canon lenses and the panasonic kit lens to capture footage for the film´s intro credit sequence.
And believe me, it was SO hard to come back to the GH2 (which I generally love) after filming with the FS-700. The whole handling, the non-existing Image stabilization (if you shoot on the Canon 100mm on the GH2 even your own heartbeat makes the image shaky and wobbly due to the rolling shutter), the screen – and worst of all – the missing Focus peaking which made pulling focus under critical circumstances on the FS-700 possible at all.
Of course with a bigger camera you can´t just shoot footage secretly and act like a tourist, but there were so many occasions when I thought „Wow, I´d like to capture that with 100 fps now!“ or „I would now pull focus on her while walking away, dammit I can´t!“, but this seems to be like everywhere in real life – you only recognize how great a camera is .. when you don´t have it anymore!
Let´s stay tuned for new articles as we continue to shoot this movie. There are a lot of adventures ahead of us and we´ll let you participate in articles and behind the scenes videos as we continue! I am looking forward for feedback, your opinions, questions – and if you might want to help us on our upcoming shooting days in Berlin and Stuttgart in early 2013 - just mail me!
In the end two questions that forum members have asked me:
* Autofocus with phase detection on A-mount lenses – wasn´t that a tempting feature for the Thailand shoot instead of pulling manual focus on the FS-700? Yes, absolutely – inititally I tried to use this feature for certain scenes as the phase detection on the camera seems to be super-fast and very smoothly even in slow-motion. But unfortunately the A-mount adapter for the E-mount we could get hands on was the new LA-EA3 (which comes with the Sony VG-900) which does NOT allow phase detection autofocus (unlike the LA-EA2) on the FS-700. If I get the chance to use a FS-700 for the rest of the shoot we might try this feature! Because even if „pro´s never use autofocus“ - everything that helps making the film and getting sharp focus – is welcome!
* Why not using anamorphic lenses? Wouldn´t that help for the „cine-look“? Yes, sure, but it´s a whole new world to explore. And as I neither have any experience shooting anamorphotic nor do I own adapters and lenses to do so it would have been too much a hassle for the visual benefit. Furthermore I don´t know with which camera(s) we´ll continue shooting the rest of the film in Germany, so it´s definitely safer to stay with a 1:1 pixel ratio in 16:9 and crop to 1:1,85.
.. And three additional notes:
*Note #1: To use the Sony Carl-Zeiss a-mount lenses on the GH2 I bought an adapter, one of these dump ones that just allows attaching the lens. Since they are all electronic and don´t allow manual aperture change I thought it would be the same like with EOS lenses, that they used the last f-stop that was set on a body that can control the lens electronically – but not here: They appeared fully stepped down on the GH2, making the lenses pretty much unusable. Asking the shop that sells them why they don´t write a single word about that fact, they replied that this is a common thing people know. Is that so? Well .. I didn´t. Save your money. Don´t buy such an adapter.
*Note #2: Sorry for all readers of hackermovies.com as this community is normally German-speaking – but due to international awareness of the topic and questions I got from abroad I decided to write this article in English so it can be understood by everyone on the web.
*Note #3: Here are the settings for the picture profile that was used on the FS-700:
- Black level 0
- Gamma cine4
- Black gamma middle, Level -4
- Knee Mode Manual, 75%, +2
- Color mode type STILL, Level 8
- Color Level -3
- Color Phase 0
- Color Depth R-2 G-5 B-3 C0 M+2 Y+5
- WB Shift LB-CC everything set to 0
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