How is Dynamic Range Measured?

The high dynamic range of the ARRI Alexa Mini allowed me to retain all the sky detail in this shot from “Above the Clouds”.

Recently I’ve been pondering which camera to shoot an upcoming project on, so I consulted the ASC’s comparison chart. Amongst the many specs compared is dynamic range, and I noticed that the ARRI Alexa’s was given as 14+ stops, while the Blackmagic URSA’s is 15. Having used both cameras a fair bit, I can tell you that there’s no way in Hell that the Ursa has a higher dynamic range than the Alexa. So what’s going on here?

 

What is dynamic range?

To put it simply, dynamic range is the level of contrast that an imaging system can handle. To quote Alan Roberts, who we’ll come back to later:

This is normally calculated as the ratio of the exposure which just causes white clipping to the exposure level below which no details can be seen.

A photosite on a digital camera’s sensor outputs a voltage proportional to the amount of light hitting it, but at some point the voltage reaches a maximum, and no matter how much more light you add, it won’t change. At the other end of the scale, a photosite may receive so little light that it outputs no voltage, or at least nothing that’s discernible from the inherent electronic noise in the system. These upper and lower limits of brightness may be narrowed by image processing within the camera, with RAW recording usually retaining the full dynamic range, while linear Rec. 709 severely curtails it.

In photography and cinematography, we measure dynamic range in stops – doublings and halvings of light which I explain fully in this article. One stop is a ratio of 2:1, five stops are 32:1, thirteen stops are almost 10,000:1

It’s worth pausing here to point out the difference between dynamic range and latitude, a term which is sometimes regarded as synonymous, but it’s not. The latitude is a measure of how much the camera can be over- or under-exposed without losing any detail, and is dependent on both the dynamic range of the camera and the dynamic range of the scene. (A low-contrast scene will allow more latitude for incorrect exposure than a high-contrast scene.)

 

Problems of Measurement

Before digital cinema cameras were developed, video had a dynamic range of about seven stops. You could measure this relatively easily by shooting a greyscale chart and observing the waveform of the recorded image to see where the highlighs levelled off and the shadows disappeared into the noise floor. With today’s dynamic ranges into double digits, simple charts are no longer practical, because you can’t manufacture white enough paper or black enough ink.

For his excellent video on dynamic range, Filmmaker IQ’s John Hess built a device fitted with a row of 1W LEDs, using layers of neutral density gel to make each one a stop darker than its neighbour. For the purposes of his demonstration, this works fine, but as Phil Rhodes points out on RedShark News, you start running into the issue of the dynamic range of the lens.

It may seem strange to think that a lens has dynamic range, and in the past when I’ve heard other DPs talk about certain glass being more or less contrasty, I admit that I haven’t thought much about what that means. What it means is flare, and not the good anamorphic streak kind, but the general veiling whereby a strong light shining into the lens will raise the overall brightness of the image as it bounces around the different elements. This lifts the shadows, producing a certain amount of milkiness. Even with high contrast lenses, ones which are less prone to veiling, the brightest light on your test device will cause some glare over the darkest one, when measuring the kind of dynamic range today’s cameras enjoy.

 

Manufacturer Measurements

Going back to my original query about the Alexa versus the URSA, let’s see exactly what the manufacturers say. ARRI specifically states that its sensor’s dynamic range is over 14 stops “as measured with the ARRI Dynamic Range Test Chart”. So what is this chart and how does it work? The official sales blurb runs thusly:

The ARRI DRTC-1 is a special test chart and analysis software for measurement of dynamic range and sensitivity of digital cameras. Through a unique stray light reduction concept this system is able to accurately measure up to 15.5 stops of dynamic range.

The “stray light reduction” is presumably to reduce the veiling mentioned earlier and provide more accurate results. This could be as simple as covering or turning off the brighter lights when measuring the dimmer ones.

I found a bit more information about the test chart in a 2011 camera shoot-out video, from that momentous time when digital was supplanting film as the cinematic acquisition format of choice. Rather than John Hess’s ND gel technique, the DRTC-1 opts for something else to regulate its light output, as ARRI’s Michael Bravin explains in the video:

There’s a piece of motion picture film behind it that’s checked with a densitometer, and what you do is you set the exposure for your camera, and where you lose detail in the vertical and horizontal lines is your clipping point, and where you lose detail because of noise in the shadow areas is your lowest exposure… and in between you end up finding the number of stops of dynamic range.

Blackmagic Design do not state how they measure the dynamic range of their cameras, but it may be a DSC Labs Xlya. This illuminated chart boasts a shutter system which “allows users to isolate and evaluate individual steps”, plus a “stepped xylophone shape” to minimise flare problems.

Art Adams, a cinema lens specialist at ARRI, and someone who’s frequently quoted in Blain Brown’s Cinematography: Theory & Practice, told Y.M. Cinema Magazine:

I used to do a lot of consulting with DSC Labs, who make camera test charts, so I own a 20-stop dynamic range chart (DSC Labs Xyla). This is what most manufacturers use to test dynamic range (although not ARRI, because our engineers don’t feel it’s precise enough) and I see what companies claim as usable stops. You can see that they are just barely above the noise floor.

 

Conclusions

Obviously these ARRI folks I keep quoting may be biased. I wanted to find an independent test that measures both Blackmagics and Alexas with the same conditions and methodology, but I couldn’t find one. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Alexas have a bigger dynamic range, in fact that’s widely accepted as fact, but quantifying the difference is harder. The most solid thing I could find is this, from a 2017 article about the Blackmagic Ursa Mini 4.6K (first generation):

The camera was measured at just over 14 stops of dynamic range in RAW 4:1 [and 13 stops in ProRes]. This is a good result, especially considering the price of the camera. To put this into perspective Alan measured the Canon C300 mkII at 15 stops of dynamic range. Both the URSA Mini 4.6 and C300 mkII are bettered by the ARRI Alexa and Amira, but then that comes as no surprise given their reputation and price.

The Alan mentioned is Alan Roberts, something of a legend when it comes to testing cameras. It is interesting to note that he is one of the key players behind the TLCI (Television Lighting Consistency Index), a mooted replacement for CRI (Colour Rendering Index). It’s interesting because this whole dynamic range business is starting to remind me of my investigation into CRI, and is leading me to a similar conclusion, that the numbers which the manufacturers give you are all but useless in real-world cinematography.

Whereas CRI at least has a standardised test, there’s no such thing for dynamic range. Therefore, until there is more transparency from manufacturers about how they measure it, I’d recommend ignoring their published values. As always when choosing a camera, shoot your own tests if at all possible. Even the most reliable numbers can’t tell you whether you’re going to like a camera’s look or not, or whether it’s right for the story you want to tell.

When tests aren’t possible, and I know that’s often the case in low-budget land, at least try to find an independent comparison. I’ll leave you with this video from the Slanted Lens, which compares the URSA Mini Pro G2 with the ARRI Amira (which uses the same Alev III sensor as the Alexa). They don’t measure the dynamic range, but you can at least see the images side by side, and in the end it’s the images that matter, not the numbers.

How is Dynamic Range Measured?

8 Things to Look For When Buying a Cinema Camera

A couple of weeks ago I shared my thoughts about whether a director of photography should own equipment. My conclusion was that it can be useful early in your career, when you’re shooting corporates or tiny films with no hire budget. So what is the best camera for indie cinematography?

I’m not going to answer that, but I will tell you what to look for when investing in a camera. Hopefully these tips will help you choose the one that’s right for you from the huge and ever-changing array of professional cameras on the market, from the humble DSLR to the ubiquitous Reds and everything in between.

 

1. Image quality

Shooting on a Sony FS7 for “Finding Hope”

The quality of the image is of course the most imporant attribute of any camera. Rather than any technical specifications, I’m talking about the aesthetic quality here: how does it feel? Does it have that elusive “cinematic” quality? Is it “filmic”? Does it remind you of certain kinds of movies?

A good place to start is to look up sample footage on YouTube, or better still Vimeo for less compression muddying the issue. If you can borrow the camera and try it out before you buy, even better. Take away some test footage and try grading it too.

 

2. Resolution

Resolution, the sheer number of pixels a camera can record, is part of image quality, but I include it as a separate point because I see it as more of a technical consideration than an aesthetic one. You should ask yourself what longevity you require from your films – will people still be watching them, say two or three years from now, and if so what sort of resolution might be the norm by then?

Also consider your delivery platform. If everything you shoot is going on YouTube, perhaps you don’t need more than 1080P (standard HD).

 

3. Dynamic Range

Dynamic range is a measure of how much contrast a camera can handle. Too small a dynamic range and you will frequently struggle with bright areas “clipping” – i.e. losing details – or dark areas getting lost in the image noise. Also, the wider the dynamic range, the more flexibility you will have in grading.

For a cinematic image, 12 stops of dynamic range is the absolute minimum, with 14 or more being ideal.

 

4. Maximum ISO

Some ISO tests I conducted on an Arri Alexa Classic in 2017

The ISO (International Standards Organisation) scale rates the light sensitivity of a camera. The most important thing is the native ISO, the one at which the camera is optimised to give the cleanest image with the most detail. On some cameras, setting an ISO other than the native one reduces the image quality considerably.

The higher the ISO, the less light will be required to expose an image correctly. 800 is typical these days, but many cameras go much higher than that. It is worth thinking about spending more money to get a camera with a higher native ISO, because you may save a lot of money on lighting.

 

5. Lens Mount

This is crucial because you may already have a collection of lenses, or you may intend to hire certain lenses, and you need to be sure that they will fit your new camera’s mount.

The Canon EF mount is extremely common and will open up a huge range of options for stills glass as well as some low-end cinema glass. The smaller MFT (micro four-thirds) mount also has a wide range of lenses.

Top-end cameras have PL mounts which take all the beautiful cinema lenses used on big movies, but only choose this route if you are willing to part with a lot of cash!

 

6. Form Factor

A Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera, not so micro once it’s rigged with rails, matte box, wireless follow focus, battery, monitor and video transmitter!

When I started in the industry, cameras were all ergonomically designed to sit on your shoulder, with a nice handgrip to the right of the lens and an EVF (electronic viewfinder) to provide a third point of stabilising contact. Nowadays cameras tend to be boxy, heavy and uncomfortable to hold without additional accessories (see below).

Again, try to gets your hands on the camera in a shop and see how it feels before you purchase. As well as handheld shooting, consider how easy it will be to rig onto dollies, sliders, gimbals, etc.

 

7. Required Accessories

Buying the camera body itself is unlikely to be the end of your expenditure. You will need lenses, batteries, a battery charger, cards, a card reader and almost certainly some kind of stabilising system, be it a simple shoulder rig or an electronic gimbal.

You may also want an EVF, a tripod, matte box, follow focus – the list can seem endless! Be careful to budget your essential accessories before buying the camera. Some cameras seem like bargains until you add up all the extras. Pay particular attention to the media, and to exactly what speed of media you need in order to shoot at the resolution and frame rate that you require, as this can get very expensive.

 

8. Codec

What file type and codec does the camera shoot? Does your editing system support that format? If not, how time-consuming will it be to convert everything?

What compression ratios does the camera support? How much hard drive space will you need to store an hour of footage at that ratio? What about ten hours, plus back-ups? Often there is a trade-off between a highly compressed format like H.264 which is light on disc space but may need converting before you can edit it, and a lightly compressed format like ProRes which burns through disc space but can be dropped straight into most editing software.

8 Things to Look For When Buying a Cinema Camera

Cinematic Lighting Course: Coming Soon

I’m using my time in Covid-19 lockdown for a few different things, some more worthy than others. Lying-in is a big one. Watching all of Lost again. Exercising more. But also I’ve got a big editing project to complete, a project of my own, the perfect task to get me through the long days at home.

Last November I shot Cinematic Lighting, a four-hour online course. It’s something I’d been thinking about for a while, especially over the last year or so as my Instagram following has sky-rocketed (about 33,000 at the time of writing). DPs and cinematography students follow my feed for the lighting diagrams I post every Friday, showing exactly how a lighting set-up was achieved, but some commenters had started to ask why I made certain creative decisions. So the idea for the course was born.

Lighting diagram for the Night Exterior module’s master shot

Cinematic Lighting consists of four modules: day exterior, day interior, night interior and night exterior. In each module I light and shoot a half-page scene with two actors, Kate Madison and Ivan Moy, with behind-the-scenes cameras following my every move. As I do it – with the assistance of gaffer Jeremy Dawson and spark Gareth Neal – I explain how and why I’m doing it. Sometimes I demonstrate alternative options I could have chosen. I talk about characterisation and how to match it with lighting. I quote John Alton and Christopher Nolan. I show clips from other productions I’ve shot and tell the stories behind them. I explain how to use a light meter and get your head around f-stops, T-stops and ND filters. I demonstrate the power of smoke. But most importantly I lay my creative process bare as I work.

Setting up a single in the Night Interior module. Photo: Ashram Maharaj

The original intention was for the course to be a reward on the Kickstarter campaign for Ren: The Girl with the Mark‘s second season, but sadly that campaign was unsuccessful. Over the next couple of months I’ll be investigating my options for releasing this course, and rest assured that I’ll let you know as soon as it’s available.

Meanwhile, postproduction work continues on it. The main thing left to do is the grading of the finished dramatic scenes; each module concludes with a polished edit of the scene which I’ve shot. Rather than hire a colourist, I’ve decided it’s time to finally learn a few things about grading myself. To that end, I’ve purchased a Udemy course and am currently learning how to do fancy secondaries in Davinci Resolve – another good use of my lockdown time, I feel. More on this in a future post.

Meanwhile, stay safe and REMAIN INDOORS.

Filming the introduction to the Day Exterior module. Photo: Colin Ramsay
Cinematic Lighting Course: Coming Soon

Grading “Above the Clouds”

Recently work began on colour grading Above the Clouds, a comedy road movie I shot for director Leon Chambers. I’ve covered every day of shooting here on my blog, but the story wouldn’t be complete without an account of this crucial stage of postproduction.

I must confess I didn’t give much thought to the grade during the shoot, monitoring in Rec.709 and not envisaging any particular “look”. So when Leon asked if I had any thoughts or references to pass on to colourist Duncan Russell, I had to put my thinking cap on. I came up with a few different ideas and met with Leon to discuss them. The one that clicked with his own thoughts was a super-saturated vintage postcard (above). He also liked how, in a frame grab I’d been playing about with, I had warmed up the yellow of the car – an important character in the movie!

Leon was keen to position Above the Clouds‘ visual tone somewhere between the grim reality  of a typical British drama and the high-key gloss of Hollywood comedies. Finding exactly the right spot on that wide spectrum was the challenge!

“Real but beautiful” was Duncan’s mantra when Leon and I sat down with him last week for a session in Freefolk’s Baselight One suite. He pointed to the John Lewis “Tiny Dancer” ad as a good touchstone for this approach.

We spent the day looking at the film’s key sequences. There was a shot of Charlie, Oz and the Yellow Peril (the car) outside the garage from week one which Duncan used to establish a look for the three characters. It’s commonplace nowadays to track faces and apply individual grades to them, making it possible to fine-tune skin-tones with digital precision. I’m pleased that Duncan embraced the existing contrast between Charlie’s pale, freckled innocence and Oz’s dirty, craggy world-weariness.

Above the Clouds was mainly shot on an Alexa Mini, in Log C ProRes 4444, so there was plenty of detail captured beyond the Rec.709 image that I was (mostly) monitoring. A simple example of this coming in useful is the torchlight charity shop scene, shot at the end of week two. At one point Leo reaches for something on a shelf and his arm moves right in front of his torch. Power-windowing Leo’s arm, Duncan was able to bring back the highlight detail, because it had all been captured in the Log C.

But just because all the detail is there, it doesn’t mean you can always use it. Take the gallery scenes, also shot in week two, at the Turner Contemporary in Margate. The location has large sea-view windows and white walls. Many of the key shots featured Oz and Charlie with their backs towards the windows. This is a classic contrasty situation, but I knew from checking the false colours in log mode that all the detail was being captured.

Duncan initially tried to retain all the exterior detail in the grade, by separating the highlights from the mid-tones and treating them differently. He succeeded, but it didn’t look real. It looked like Oz and Charlie were green-screened over a separate background. Our subconscious minds know that a daylight exterior cannot be only slightly brighter than an interior, so it appeared artificial. It was necessary to back off on the sky detail to keep it feeling real. (Had we been grading in HDR [High Dynamic Range], which may one day be the norm, we could theoretically have retained all the detail while still keeping it realistic. However, if what I’ve heard of HDR is correct, it may have been unpleasant for audiences to look at Charlie and Oz against the bright light of the window beyond.)

There were other technical challenges to deal with in the film as well. One was the infra-red problem we encountered with our ND filters during last autumn’s pick-ups, which meant that Duncan had to key out Oz’s apparently pink jacket and restore it to blue. Another was the mix of formats employed for the various pick-ups: in addition to the Alexa Mini, there was footage from an Arri Amira, a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera (BMMCC) and even a Canon 5D Mk III. Although the latter had an intentionally different look, the other three had to match as closely as possible.

A twilight scene set in a rural village contains perhaps the most disparate elements. Many shots were done day-for-dusk on the Alexa Mini in Scotland, at the end of week four. Additional angles were captured on the BMMCC in Kent a few months later, both day-for-dusk and dusk-for-dusk. This outdoor material continues directly into indoor scenes, shot on a set this February on the Amira. Having said all that, they didn’t match too badly at all, but some juggling was required to find a level of darkness that worked for the whole sequence while retaining consistency.

In other sequences, like the ones in Margate near the start of the film, a big continuity issue is the clouds. Given the film’s title, I always tried to frame in plenty of sky and retain detail in it, using graduated ND filters where necessary. Duncan was able to bring out, suppress or manipulate detail as needed, to maintain continuity with adjacent shots.

Consistency is important in a big-picture sense too. One of the last scenes we looked at was the interior of Leo’s house, from weeks two and three, for which Duncan hit upon a nice, painterly grade with a bit of mystery to it. The question is, does that jar with the rest of the movie, which is fairly light overall, and does it give the audience the right clues about the tone of the scene which will unfold? We may not know the answers until we watch the whole film through.

Duncan has plenty more work to do on Above the Clouds, but I’m confident it’s in very good hands. I will probably attend another session when it’s close to completion, so watch this space for that.

See all my Above the Clouds posts here, or visit the official website.

Grading “Above the Clouds”

The Cinematography of “Perplexed Music”

In June I was recommended by a mutual friend to shoot a short drama called Perplexed Music, inspired by the Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet of the same name. It’s a passion project from writer-director Mark McGann, with his brother Paul McGann (Doctor Who, Alien 3, Withnail & I) in the lead role of a man grieving for his deceased partner.

Paul and Mark pose with one of the supporting artists between takes.

Mark was keen from the outset to shoot on an Alexa, and I was quick to agree. Arri Rental very kindly gave us an amazing deal on an Alexa Classic and a set of Ultra Primes. As on Above the Clouds, we used a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera as a B-cam, capturing two specific angles that were impossible on the Alexa with our limited grip budget.

Throughout July, Mark and I had a very satisfying creative dialogue about the cinematic techniques we would use to tell the story of Paul’s character, The Man, who never speaks. I had been watching a lot of Mr. Robot, and was keen to use unusual compositions as that show does. The visual grammar that we ultimately developed eschewed The Rule of Thirds, either squeezing The Man right into the side of frame – at times when things are too much for him – or placing him dead centre for moments of clarity and acceptance, and for flashbacks to when his partner was alive.

The Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera is mounted on a combo lighting stand to capture a high angle through a streetlamp.

While testing lenses at Arri Rental a few weeks prior to the shoot, I took the opportunity to shoot some frame-rate tests between 24 and 48fps. Since the film has so little dialogue, I figured there was nothing to stop us using a lot of slow motion if we wanted to. I didn’t want it to look like a music video though. I thought perhaps a very subtle over-cranking, creating languid blinks and slightly heavier movement, would add to the burden of The Man’s grief. Mark agreed as soon as he saw the tests, and we ended up shooting a number of set-ups at 28 and 30fps, plus 40fps for a pivotal sequence.

I also tested various ISO settings on the Alexa (click here for full details, stills and video from this test). Based on these, I decided to use ISO 1600 for the majority of the film, partly for the extra latitude in the highlights, and partly to add grittiness to The Man’s grief-stricken world, in the form of a little picture noise. When we started shooting the flashbacks, on the spur of the moment I decided to switch to ISO 400 for these. A few years back I shot the music video below on a Red Epic and, for reasons I forget, one set-up was done at a lower ISO than the rest. I remember the feeling this gave, when I saw the final edit, of everything suddenly being smooth and hyper-real. I thought that would be a great feeling to give to the flashbacks.

1st AC Rupert Peddle and 2nd AC Ben Davies set up a lakeside close-up under a diffusion frame which will soften the light on Paul.

Much of Perplexed Music was day exterior, but a couple of sequences required lighting. In the opening café scene, I fired HMIs through two windows, but kept their light away from The Man, keying him with a practical to put him in his own little world. Meanwhile, a happy couple he’s watching are bathed in sunlight (sometimes real, sometimes not) warmed up with a quarter CTO, and bouncing beautifully off their table to give them a healthy glow.

For night interiors at The Man’s home, I was keen to rely on practicals as much as possible. Firstly there wasn’t much space in the little cottage, secondly I didn’t want the hassle of having to shift them around to keep them out of frame when we changed angle, and thirdly it just looks more natural. So aside from a tungsten bounce in a corner of the living room we knew would never be seen, I stuck to practical table lamps and exterior lighting.

Setting up for a night exterior shot. Photo: Gary Horton

I had planned to use direct HMI sources for moonlight through the windows, but my gaffer Sam suggested going softer so that we wouldn’t have hard shadows inside which would need filling. I saw that he was right, so we used a kino through one window and a 2.5K HMI bounced into poly through another (pictured at left).

Perplexed Music was shot over five days in Frome in Somerset and Rame in Cornwall. The latter provided us with a spectacular cliff-top and the isolated St. Michael’s Chapel on the peak of the headland. Here we employed the services of The Fly Company, who captured two dramatic, sweeping shots on their DJI Inspire 2 drone. We were all extremely impressed by what they were able to achieve, especially as it was done in very windy conditions, in between rain showers.

We completed the final set-ups of the schedule as the winds began gusting up to 60mph, and poor Paul could barely stand upright! I was certainly glad we picked the Alexa to shoot on, because anything lighter would probably have shaken during takes, if not blown over!

Lining up a shot with director Mark McGann. Photo: Gary Horton

I had a fantastic time working with Mark and Paul, and the whole cast and crew. We were sad to part ways at the end of the week, and we all look forward to seeing the finished film soon. And at this point, dear reader, I ask for your help. Currently a Kickstarter campaign is underway for postproduction. It’s well over 50% funded at the time of writing, but every little helps in our quest to reach the finishing line. Rewards for backers include thank you video messages from Paul and Mark, and tickets to a private screening in December. Even if you can’t contribute, please consider sharing the page on social media. Thanks!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/perplexedmusic/perplexed-music-post-production

The Cinematography of “Perplexed Music”

“Above the Clouds”: Summer 2017 Pick-ups

This time last year, principal photography had just wrapped on Above the Clouds, a comedy road movie directed by Leon Chambers. We always knew that there would be additional photography, and several days of this have been scattered over the past year.

In May I spent a few odd days with Leon and the Yellow Peril, primarily capturing car-to-car tracking shots. Leon had already shot some of these without me up in Cumbria, so he had the technique down. He attached his Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera to his roof rack with clamps and suction cups – three points of contact in all, to eliminate vibrations.

The focus was left fixed at the approximate distance the cars would be apart, and I could reach out of the passenger window and tweak it, along with the variable ND filter, if necessary. Recording was triggered from the custom remote which Leon had made for the camera last year when we used it for the autumn pick-ups. I monitored on a 5″ Blackmagic Video Assist which – thanks to a firmware update – now has a false colour display, which was very useful for keeping an eye on the exposure.

We had no means of panning or tilting the camera during takes, so we would frame the car centrally, allowing the maximum space to each side for when we went around the bends. This had the nice effect of making the Peril look small in the landscape, surrounded by it on all sides.

And speaking of the Peril looking small, it had shrunk considerably when I next saw it. But so had the landscape.

To keep the audience informed of the characters’ progress across Great Britain, Leon planned to cut to a map at a few strategic moments. At some point the original plan of shooting an Ordnance Survey map on a wall turned into something much more elaborate, a work of art featuring found objects, such as the lead character Charlie might have made herself.

Leon knew he wanted to use his jib to drift the camera over the map. But what camera? We both agreed that these shots needed to have a noticeably different look to the rest of the movie. Both Super-8 and Super-16 were discussed, but ultimately neither were viable. Then I suggested shooting on a full-frame DSLR to get a tiny depth of field. I imagined the camera having fixed focus as it skimmed over the map, with features coming in and out of focus as they passed through the field. We didn’t end up doing that, but Leon did like the DSLR idea.

Asahi Pentax-M 50mm/f1.4

So the decision was made to shoot on a Canon 5D Mk III belonging to focus puller Max Quinton. We ended up shooting everything on a single lens, my Asahi Pentax-M 50mm/f1.4. This is a vintage K-mount stills lens which is beautifully sharp, and we mounted it with a passive EF adapter. 50mm on full-frame is equivalent to 35mm on Super 35, very close to the 32mm which was our most used lens length during principal photography.

I added a half Soft FX filter as I usually do. I had briefly considered omitting it, to further differentiate the map shots from the rest of the film, but undiffused shots in a mostly diffused movie draw attention to the filtration and can be quite jarring.

I offered Leon two options for the lighting. One was to simulate the natural light you would see if shooting the British Isles from a high altitude, i.e. a hard sun source and ambient toplight. The other, which he went for, was to carry on the suggestion of Charlie making the map herself, and make it look like she had lit it herself too, with an eclectic mix of practicals around the edge. A couple of tungsten Chinese lanterns were hung overhead as well for soft fill. To help the camera’s limited dynamic range, I put tough-spun diffuser inside some of the practicals’ shades, on the camera side.

The Blackmagic 5″ Video Assist can be seen here mounted on the back of the camera.

There were a couple of “night” scenes on the shot list. For these we turned off the Chinese lanterns and turned on a desk-lamp practical with a blue-ish LED bulb to suggest moonlight. We also used a string of LED fairy lights to represent a road with streetlights.

For the smallest possible depth of field, everything was shot at f1.4. Even at ISO 320, in the daylight scenes it was necessary to add a 0.45 ND filter to bring the exposure down to f1.4.  We shot on a neutral picture profile, piping the images via HDMI to the Blackmagic Video Assist, where they were recorded in ProRes 422 HQ.

After a few years shooting on Blackmagics, FS7s and Alexas, the 5D’s colour saturation and contrast seemed very pronounced to me, but that really suited the toy-like nature of the map. And the tiny depth of field made everything look even smaller and cuter than it already was.

So, that’s a wrap on Above the Clouds finally and forever. Apparently.

See all my Above the Clouds posts here, or visit the official website..

“Above the Clouds”: Summer 2017 Pick-ups

“Above the Clouds”: October Pick-ups

Day 21 / Friday

My wallet plays a vital part in adjusting the tilt of the camera.
My wallet plays a vital part in adjusting the tilt of the camera.

Two and a half months on, and most of the team are back for three days of pick-ups on this comedy road movie. (Read my blog from principal photography here.) Director Leon Chambers showed me some of the rough cut last night, and it’s shaping up to be a really warm, charming film.

Principal was photographed on an Alexa Mini in Pro Res 4444, with Zeiss Ultra Primes and a half Soft FX to take off the digital edge. Since the pick-ups consist largely of scenes in a moving hatchback – the film’s signature Fiat 500 “Yellow Peril” – Leon has invested in a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera. Designed for remote applications like drone use, the BMMCC is less than 9cm (3.5″) square, meaning it can capture dashboard angles which no other camera can, except a Go Pro. Unlike a Go Pro, the BMMCC can record Cinema DNG raw files with a claimed 13 stops of dynamic range.

Leon has fitted the camera with a Metabones Speed Booster, converting the BMMCC’s Super 16 sensor to almost a Super 35 equivalent and increasing image brightness by one and two-thirds stops. The Speed Booster also allows us to mount Nikon-fit Zeiss stills lenses – a 50mm Planar, and 25mm and 35mm Distagons – to which I add a half Soft FX filter again. A disadvantage of the Speed Booster is the looseness it introduces between lens and camera; when the focus ring is turned, the whole lens shifts slightly.

Filtration causes the first pick-ups hiccup when we realise that leading man Andy’s blue jacket is reading pink on camera.  This turns out to be an effect of infra-red pollution coming through our .6 and 1.2 ND filters. Yes, whoops, we forgot to order IR NDs. Fortunately we also have a variable ND filter, which doesn’t suffer from IR issues, so we switch to that.

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Left to right: variable ND, .6 ND, 1.2 ND. As you can see, there is a pronounced magenta shift on the non-variable filters.

Lighting follows a similar pattern to principal, with a little bounce and negative fill outside the car, and Rosco 12″x3″ LitePads on the dashboard for eye light inside. On the move, Rupert and I monitor and pull focus wirelessly from a chase car. Referring to the false colours on an Atomos Ninja, I radio Leon to tweak the variable ND between takes when necessary. I miss the generous dynamic range of the Alexa Mini, which so rarely clipped the sky – and I do not buy the manufacturer claims that the BMMCC has only one stop less, but it still does an amazing job for its size and price.

 

Day 22 / Saturday

I start the day by reviewing some of yesterday’s footage side-by-side with Alexa Mini material from principal. They are very comparable indeed. The only differences I can detect are a slightly sharper, more “video” look from the BMMCC, and a nasty sort of blooming effect in the stills lenses’ focus roll-off, which reminds me of the cheap Canon f1.8/50mm “Nifty Fifty” I used to own.

A couple of quick shots at Leon’s, then we move to his friend Penny’s house, where a donkey and a horse look on as we set up around the Peril in Penny’s paddock. There are some inserts to do which must cut in with scenes where the car is moving, but since we don’t see any windows in these inserts, the car remains parked. Two people stand, one on either side of the car, each sweeping a 4’x4′ polyboard repeatedly over the windscreen and sunroof. With heavy cloud cover softening the shadows of these boards, the result is an effective illusion that the car is moving.

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After lunch we have to capture additional angles for the traffic jam scene originally staged on day 14. By an amazing stroke of luck, the sun comes out, shining from almost exactly the same direction (relative to the car) as Colin bounced it in from with Celotex during principal. To begin with we are shooting through the windscreen, with a filter cocktail of half Soft FX, .6 ND and circular polariser. Since Andy is no longer wearing the blue jacket, I decided to risk the .6 ND rather than stacking multiple polarisers (the variable ND consists of two polarising filters). The next shot requires the camera to be rigged outside the driver’s window as the car drives away (pictured right).

Then we set up for night scenes to cut with day 11, which, like the inserts earlier today, we achieve using Poor Man’s Process. Instead of polyboards, Gary sweeps a 1’x1′ LED panel gelled with Urban Sodium over the passenger side of the car to represent streetlights. Rueben walks past the driver’s side with another 1’x1′ panel, representing the headlights of a passing car. I’ve clamped a pair of Dedos to Rupert’s Magliner, and Andrew dollies this side-to-side behind the Peril, representing the headlights of a car behind; these develop and flare very nicely during the scene. For fill, the usual two 12″x3″ LitePads are taped to the dashboard and dimmed to 10%.

For a later stretch of road with no streetlamps or passing cars, I use a low level of static backlight, and a static sidelight with a branch being swept in front of it to suggest moonlight through trees.

 

Day 23 / Sunday

After a brief scene against a tiny little micro set, we have more scenes to shoot around the parked Peril – and it’s supposed to be parked this time, no movement to fake. Unfortunately it’s raining, which doesn’t work for continuity. Although I’m worried it will block too much light, the crew erect a gazebo over the car to keep the rain off, and in fact it really helps to shape the light. I even add a black drape to increase the effect. Basically, when shooting through the driver’s window, it looks best if most of the light is coming through the windscreen and the passenger’s window, and when we shoot through the windscreen it looks best if most of the light is coming through the side and rear windows; it’s the usual cinematographic principle of not lighting from the front.

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Shooting through the driver’s window

After another driving scene using car rigs, we move to our final location, a designer bungalow near Seven Oaks. Here we are shooting day-for-dusk, though it’s more like dusk-for-dusk by the time the camera rolls. I set the white balance to 3,200K to add to the dusky feel, increasing it to 4,500K as the daylight gets bluer for real. The extra one and two-thirds stops which the Speed Booster provides are very useful, allowing us to capture all four steadicam shots before the light fades completely.

And with that we are wrapped for the second, but not final, time. Crucial scenes involving a yet-to-be-cast character remain for some future shoot.

Keep up to date with Above the Clouds on the official Facebook page or Instagram account.

“Above the Clouds”: October Pick-ups

Lensing Ren – episode 1

Here is the first in a series of cinematography videos I’m publishing to compliment the five episodes of Ren: The Girl with the Mark as they are released over the coming weeks. These videos will tell you the how, what and why of photographing the show. This week I discuss the camera equipment used, differentiating characters photographically, and lighting Karn’s magical woodland house.

Here is the lighting plan for Karn’s house:

Karns-house-1080p

And here is a video blog from the set of Karn’s house:

You may be interested to read my article on Masculine and Feminine Lighting, which gives some more detail on the techniques used to light Ren and Karn in the riverside scene.

See also: 5 Tips for Perfect Shafts of Light and Lighting Techniques #6: Cross-light.

Check back next Saturday for another instalment of Lensing Ren, and meanwhile watch the next episode of Ren itself from Tuesday at 8pm GMT at rentheseries.com

Lensing Ren – episode 1

Synced: The Japan Shoot – Part 1

cast-and-crew
Actor Shigeki Maegawa, director Devon Avery, actor Oliver Park with Justine Avery in front of him, actress Daisy Hainsworth, actor Sydney Jay, me and gaffer Keisuke Ueda, at Himeji Castle
575W HMI
575W HMI

On Wednesday May 27th I got a call from my friend and actor Oliver Park, saying he was flying to Japan on Sunday for a shoot and did I want to come as DP? He was playing the leading man in Synced, a sci-fi feature film directed and co-written by Devon Avery, and after a month of shooting in Glasgow, the existing DP had opted not to take part in the Asian shoot.

On Friday night my plane ticket came through, at midnight on Sunday I was changing planes in Qatar, and on Monday afternoon (local time) I was in Osaka. The following morning saw me at Arc System, a very helpful lighting rental house, with Devon, his wife/multi-talented assistant Justine and a couple of the Japanese crew. With two night exteriors and a night interior as well as a day exterior scene, a reasonable amount of kit was needed.

The mains electricity in Japan is 100V, 60Hz, so very similar to the US – and indeed the plugs and sockets are identical. But the killer is that you can only draw 7A per socket. That’s a maximum of 700W, as opposed to over 3,000W from a UK socket.

Canon Ultrasonic 24-70mm f2.8
Canon Ultrasonic 24-70mm f2.8

So the biggest lamp we could hire without needing a generator was a 575W HMI. With one of those in the bag, I figured it was best to fill out the package with battery-powered lamps, and so hired four 1’x1′ Bi-Color LitePanels. Although I’m still not 100% sold on the colour rendition of any LED panels (even LitePanels, which are amongst the best), there’s no denying they’re incredibly handy and quick to set up.

Pentax 50mm f1.4
Pentax 50mm f1.4

I would be shooting in 4K ProRes 422 HQ on my Blackmagic Production Camera, at 23.976fps. I initially stuck to two Canon L series lenses for continuity: Devon’s 24-70mm f2.8 and crew member Keisuke Ueda’s Canon L 50mm f1.4. Since I was constantly struggling to expose an image at the BMPC’s native 400 ISO, I later employed my Sigma 20mm f1.8 for faster wide shots, and I couldn’t resist trying my new Pentax 50mm f1.4, which performed beautifully at f1.7 and above, but did seem a touch soft when wide open.

Thunderbolt
Monitoring via Thunderbolt cable to Blackmagic Ultrascopes on a Powerbook

Regular readers will know of the trials and tribulations I’ve experienced getting a monitor signal out of my BMPC, with the result that I bought a 17″ Blackmagic SDI monitor last year. It was impossible to bring this to Japan, so instead – for the first time – I experimented with Thunderbolt monitoring. A runner was dispatched to buy a cable, and Devon installed the Blackmagic Camera package on his Macbook. This package includes Ultrascopes, which provides a live video view amongst other things, though annoyingly only in a pretty small window.

Whenever I turned the camera off or played anything back, the signal would be lost. To get it back, Devon would have to quit Ultrascopes and I’d have to switch to 25fps before he re-opened it. Only once it was re-opened could I switch back to 23.976fps. Please sort out that little bug, Blackmagic Design!

With the kit and workflow sorted, we travelled to Himeji (by bullet train, no less) ready to start shooting on Wednesday. Watch this space for part 2: shooting the kitchen scene.

Synced is copyright 2015 Empty Box Productions LLC.

Synced: The Japan Shoot – Part 1

Converting Blackmagic Raw Footage to ProRes with After Effects

My 4K Blackmagic Production Camera
Blackmagic Production Camera

One of the big benefits of the Blackmagic cameras is their ability to shoot raw – lossless Cinema DNG files that capture an incredible range of detail. But encoding those files into a useable format for editing can be tricky, especially if your computer won’t run the processor-intensive DaVinci Resolve which ships with the camera.

You can usually turn to the Adobe Creative Suite when faced with intractable transcoding problems, and sure enough After Effects provides one solution for raw to ProRes conversion.

I’ll take you through it, step by step.  Let’s assume you’ve been shooting on a Blackmagic Cinema Camera and you have some 2.5K raw shots which you want to drop into your edit timeline alongside 1080P ProRes 422HQ material.

1. In After Effects’ launch window, select New Composition. A dialogue box will appear in which you can spec up your project. For this example, we’re going to choose the standard HDTV resolution of 1920×1080. It’s critical that you get your frame rate right, or your audio won’t sync. Click OK once you’ve set everything to your liking.

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2. Now go to the File menu and select Import > File. Navigate to the raw material on your hard drive. The BMCC creates a folder for each raw clip, containing the individual Cinema DNG frames and a WAV audio file. Select the first DNG file in the folder and ensure that Camera Raw Sequence is ticked, then click OK.

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3. You’ll then have the chance to do a basic grade on the shot – though with only the first frame to judge it by.

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4. Use Import > File again to import the WAV audio file.

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5. Your project bin should now contain the DNG sequence – shown as a single item – along with the WAV audio and the composition. Drag the DNG sequence into the main viewer window. Because the BMCC’s raw mode records at a resolution of 2.5K and you set your composition to 1080P, the image will appear cropped.

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6. If necessary, zoom out (using the drop-down menu in the bottom left of the Composition window) so you can see the wireframe of the 2.5K image. Then click and drag the bottom right corner of that wireframe to shrink the image until it fits into the 1080P frame. Hold down shift while dragging to maintain the aspect ratio.

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7. Drag the WAV audio onto the timeline, taking care to align it precisely with the video.

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8. Go to Composition Settings in the Composition menu and alter the duration of the composition to match the duration of the clip (which you can see by clicking the DNG sequence in the project bin).

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9. Go to the Composition menu again and select Add to Render Queue. The composition timeline will give way to the Render Queue tab.

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10. Next to the words Output Module in the Render Queue, you’ll see a clickable Lossless setting (yellow and underlined). Click this to open the Output Module Settings.

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11. In the Video Output section, click on Format Options… We’re going to pick ProRes 422 HQ, to match with the non-raw shots we hypothetically filmed. Click OK to close the Format Options.

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12. You should now be back in Output Module Settings. Before clicking OK to close this, be sure to tick the Audio Output box to make sure you don’t end up with a mute clip. You should not need to change the default output settings of 48kHz 16-bit stereo PCM.

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13. In the Render Queue tab, next to the words Output to you’ll see a clickable filename – the default is Comp1.mov. Click on this to bring up a file selector and choose where to save your ProRes file.

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14. Click Render (top far right of the Render Queue tab). Now just sit back and wait for your computer to crunch the numbers.

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I’ve never used After Effects before, so there are probably ways to streamline this process which I’m unaware of. Can anyone out there suggest any improvements to this workflow? Is it possible to automate a batch?

Converting Blackmagic Raw Footage to ProRes with After Effects