A few months ago I decided to shoot a piece about an extremely talented group of artists that work just a few blocks from my office. One of the key goals for me was to go back to the basics – keeping things as simple as possible. No Steadicams, fancy helicopters, or generators for lighting: just simple and straightforward. I wanted to shoot in a style very similar to the way I used to shoot as a still photographer: one camera, one prime lens at a time, one small light – handheld.
I think it’s very important to exercise these type of "simple" ways of working on a regular basis. While technocranes, jibs and dollies can do amazing moves, you’ll often find that you don’t always need those complex moves to tell a story. Sometimes using your body to slide left to right is the way to go – even if you don’t hit the move on the first go. I find that I can actually save a tremendous amount of time by doing a small move by hand 3-6 times with most of them being "bumpy" or technical "failures" – and nailing just one out of 6. Doing this allows me to be much more fluid and reactive as well to what happens in front of me. It’s physically much more demanding (and will lead you to discover muscles you never knew you on the following day,) but it often leads to great results with much greater variety than you get when you set up complex shots with complex equipment. This is a lesson that took me awhile to learn as a filmmaker – but I think a key one that would benefit almost anyone out there. Take a look at the video above – it was shot over three days – each time I would spend 60-90 minutes max on location – in other words we shot very little and didn’t treat these as full day "commercial" shoots. Below you’ll find a list of the gear I chose and why, as well as a behind the scenes look on the shoot at the bottom of this post.
RED EPIC – M The RED Epic is one, if not my, favorite cinema camera these days. I love using the Alexa, the Phantom cameras, or of course the C300 or 5D MKIII. But the first two cameras don’t allow me to shoot handheld and solo – due to their weight and size (alhough I can’t wait to try out the Phantom Miro!) The Epic gives me an incredibly sharp image, that can be tweeked in post (due to the raw recording format) and graded beautifully. The fact that I can shoot up to 400 fps is a HUGE factor for me as well – not to mention that I can use both PL , Canon EF, Leica M and Nikon lenses by quickly switching mounts on set. This spot was shot between 72 fps and 300 fps (for the sparks.) I find that the fact that this was shot in natural light under fluorescent lighthing, handheld, at 300 fps is amazing – especially when you see the quality of the imagery. This camera will continue to be my go to camera for this type of shooting for the foreseeable future. Another thing to keep in mind – if you’re shooting handheld without sliders/JIBS etc – shooting at a faster frame rate will allow you to effectively hide your "bumps" better in your movement given that the footage plays back much more slowly – a nice trick. Shooting in 5K will also allow you to stabilitze quite a few shots in post using Adobe CS6′s Warp Stabilizer tool that is available in both Premiere and After Effects. Warp Stabilizer can do wonders when you don’t see too much paralax in your shots – it can make a handheld shot look like it was shot on a tripod (and locked off) and make a handheld slide look like it was shot on a slider. Warp won’t fix everything – but it can definitely do some pretty impressive magic when you know how to use it – and what if can’t fix when you’re shooting… two quick tips: 1. Make sure you keep in mind the flickering of HDMI or fluorescent light when you shoot at high speeds – you’ll need to select frame rates that don’t cause the image to flicker when played back in real time (you may not see the flicker when you are recording live – so be careful and make sure to playback each time you shoot a clip.) 2. It is VERY important to put a piece of glass between the sparks and your lens when you shoot them flying at your lens… they are extremely hot and CAN damage your lens and even the glass of the front element if you get too close.
Zeiss CP.2 Lenses These too have become my favorite general purpose lenses. I also think they are the PERFECT investment for new cinema shooters for a few reasons. First the quality of the glass holds up to almost anything out there – you will continue to use these lenses long term. These lenses outperform all of my still lenses, notably in terms of sharpness and notably when wide open. You will of course find that there are Arri/Zeiss Master Primes and Cooke and Leica cinema lenses out there – but those will hurt your wallet quite a bit more than these will. This video should clearly show you how razor sharp these lenses are. The CP.2 series is also a set that will grow with you as they come with both Canon EF and PL mounts that you can switch out in the field. Therefore you can start with your Canon 5D MKIII or other with the EF mounts, and use these for the rest of your career on PL cinema cameras. The size and weight of these lenses is also a huge factor – I’ve found DPs I work with have gone to using these lenses at times over their more expensive Cookes/ Master Primes due to the small size and weight relatives to the Cookes/MPs. You can of course also pull focus exponentially more easily with these lenses (and their detailed distance marking) than you can with EF lenses and Zeiss ZE lenses. Therefore if you are looking to make a long term lens investment but don’t have the mega budget the Cookes/Arri/Leica lenses command – this is the way to go. I would even recommend you overextend yourself a bit and buy the CP series over the Zeiss ZE lenses if you can at all afford to do so.
O Box - This has come to be my favorite Matte Box for several reasons. It can snap on, or be rod mounted. It can also be rod mounted from both top and bottom actually which is especially useful for DSLRS and Epic packages that are small… having top and bottom rods will allow you to fit many more gadgets than you would on a single rail set which is a significant factor. I also love the fact that you can use grips (see below) directly on this matte box and operate. You often find yourself trying to find the space for handle sets on the rods on these tight camera packages – and will also find that the handles are too close to your body. This allows you to put the handles at the end of your camera. This O’Box also has 1/4-20 mounts all over the edges and allows you to mount a bunch of accessories. In my case I routinely mount my LCD or RED LCD on the top lip of the O-Box with a quick release Cine-Lock (below.) That gives me plenty of room for a top handle and EVF on my Epic body – and the EVF up front.
O Grips - These have always been a well hidden secret. They’re my favorite handles/grips for handheld as they actually lock dead tight and do so quickly. You can articulate them easily and also use them as a poor man’s tripod or high hat by adjusting these handles to point your camera while low on the ground. I also use these as top handles.