Choosing your first steadicam

Hey all,

For a couple of months now, I’ve wanted to purchase a steadicam. I own a fig-rig, and it’s great for handheld work. I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it, since I purchased it over a year ago. But, it isn’t a steadicam. It’s more of a stabilizer. Plenty of fig-rig shots in this music video I shot. Basically everything that isn’t stationary was shot with it.

Apophis – Northern Introvert from John Painz on Vimeo.

Here’s a bit of an embarrassing revelation. I’ve been using the damned thing wrong for a year.

Not WRONG, wrong, in the classic sense, like I was using it upside down or anything. No.

See, the fig-rig works with a release plate. A Manfrotto one, since it’s a Manfrotto product. On the bottom of said plate is a stamp that says LENS, and an arrow. For some insane reason, I’ve been putting that plate all the way at the beginning of my camera, instead of at the end, where it should have been. Particularly for use with the fig-rig.

So, whenever I would put the camera on the rig, I would have to spin the camera to lock the plate in place. Spinning it allowed me to turn a knob that tightened the plate. So, basically, if I could turn the camera, it was not tightly on the fig-rig, which means, it was loose, which means I was getting shakes, which defeats the purpose of the thing.

I’m not sure where the inspiration came from to try placing the plate on the camera the opposite way I was doing it. I think it was when I was looking at footage of the web series I’m working on, The Thing, and saw that I was getting shakes when I shouldn’t have been getting them.

So, I tried it. And lo-and-behold… I’d been putting that plate on wrong for a goddamned year.

Imagine my surprise and embarrassment.

Now, aside from getting a handheld look, what I also needed in my repertoire of shot making abilities was a steadicam shot. Plenty of examples of steadicam shots out there, but here’s one of my favorites.

There’s a crane shot in there, too, but I’ll start with steadicam shots for now.

I did a lot of research, boy. A lot. For the amount of money that I wanted to spend, which was under $800, there are a lot of options. Tons of companies out there making them. Steadicam, which is an actual brand name by Tiffen, makes some serious products, many of them high end. More hand held products, like the Merlin Steadicam, for smaller cameras, are at about that price point. They’re a very well respected name in steadicams.

The other name that kept popping up was Glidecam.

Plenty of other names in the ring when it comes to steadicams, and it all depends on how much you want to spend. If you’re at all interested, I’d like to point you to this thread on Reddit that I poured over a few times, amongst other articles I read over and over before I decided on the one I purchased.

One of the issues I saw while researching was that the Merlin, and similar steadicams like it, cannot tilt. At least, not easily. One has to have one hand on the handle, and then fingers on the base just above the handle. So, let’s say you’re walking up stairs, or a hill, or down either… from what I read, it’s not an easy shot to get with the Merlin. The other issue with the Merlin was exactly how much weight it can hold, which is a 5lb camera set-up.

Now, Merlins come with an optional vest and arm attachment, which makes one look like one of those Marines from Aliens. With that vest, you can get up to a 7.5lb set up.

I don’t plan on using a DSLR forever. I didn’t think shelling out $500-$800 (depending on which Merlin you get) for something I might outlast was a good investment.

The Glidecam HD 4000, which is the unit I ended up purchasing, is designed to accept camera set-ups from 4lbs to 10lbs. It also comes with the optional vest and arm set-up. You can also create an adapter to fit the glidecam to the Merlin arm/vest rig… the Merlin rig is supposed to be better than Glidecam’s.

It wasn’t an easy decision. I sweated over it for a long time. We’ll see if I made the right choice.

I should get it by Thursday. I’ll do an unpacking and balancing blog when I do receive it. Should be fun.

Basically, from what I’ve read, any steadicam will get you the shot you need. It’s all about the operator. You can say that about many pieces of equipment, from the camera itself, to the sound equipment… it’s all about practice. Balancing is key… and everything I’ve read about balancing makes it seem like even the slightest jar or touch or adjustment will throw off the rig you’re using… especially the lower end, or DIY rigs.

Again, practice makes perfect. I’ve read that the learning curve on steadicams can take weeks of constant use. One of the things my friend Marcin said to me the other night was that if one can specialize in steadicam operating, one can make money doing it. So, let’s hope that’s true, and that I get the hang of it.

If I had to give any specific advice, I would say read up on all of the tons of steadicams out there for sale, figure out what your max budget is on the unit, and then figure out a value system on the rig itself. How many times will you use it? How important is the shot that you need to get, to justify spending the money, and is there a cheaper DIY way to get the shot? Do you have the potential (and not far-fetched potential, but real potential) for making money to pay for the unit?

Most people who are willing to pay you for your work are only interested in the end result, not the name brand of your products. So, if you can’t afford the one you want, but think it’ll help to own one, get one you can afford and learn the shit out of it.

Remember, Sam Raimi and company built their own steadicams to shoot The Evil Dead. That was 31 years ago. Holy fuck. 31 years ago. You’ve got access to a lot more than they had… so act accordingly.

I’ll leave you with this awesome note from producer Jan Harlan who wrote to Stanley Kubrick about a brand new invention. In 1976.


Sound advice

So, over the past week or so I have been working on both the pilot episode and the second episode of Internet Affairs. I got the gig as both DP and editor via Katie McHugh, who I worked on Off Off with.

If you haven’t seen the pilot, you can view it here.

While editing, I came upon problems with some of the sound. You see, we weren’t able to hire a sound person for that job, and so we used some volunteers.

In situations like this, you use who you can. It happens. The thing is, sound is so important that sometimes spending the extra money is worth it. Scratch ‘sometimes’. Do what you can to get the best sound as possible. If it means spending money, do it. If it means spending an entire day with the volunteer, and recording anything and everything until they have a firm grasp on the machine they’re using, spend the time.

So, for those of you who are doing this with friends, or utilizing cast members, who have no sound experience, let me give you some tips that I’ve learned.

One, make sure the sound person knows the scene, so they can move the mic accordingly. If you’re doing a master or a two shot, or what-have-you, and you need both character’s dialog, or multiple character’s dialog, and you’re not recording with multiple sources, knowing who talks when is going to be very important.

Two, if you’re shooting shots of one character, say, an over-the-shoulder shot, and you’re getting both perspectives, make sure that the mic is on the person who is in the shot. Part of the problem we had with the pilot episode of Internet Affairs was that the mic was more in between the two characters, during one-shots… and so it wasn’t picking up everything we needed.

The good thing about those shots is that, if we’re seeing the back of character X’s head, and the face of character Y, when you reverse it, you can use character X’s sound for Y’s shot. Because you’re only seeing the back of their head. You take out the dialog you don’t need (X’s) from that shot, and sub in the good dialog from their take.

An inexperienced sound person is going to think that the most important thing to do is get both character’s dialog. If you can’t see X’s mouth moving, it’s not important. Hell, even if, when shooting X’s scene, and their take isn’t 100%, you can always have them do the voice in post. But if you don’t get the best quality sound out of the person who’s face is being seen… you’ll spend lots of time trying to massage the audio so that it sound loud enough.

If you don’t have a lav mic, get creative with your shotgun mic, or your recorder. If you’re doing a long shot, and there’s no way to get a boom in there, you have to figure out a way to shoot the scene and get their audio. H4Ns are great, but they’re multi-directional mics that pick up every single bump, touch, brush, and anything else that could possibly come in contact with it.

Explain to your sound person that ‘good’ or fine’ is not an option when it comes to their description of the audio they’re hearing. It has to be great, or better than great.

You don’t want to scare off this person who is volunteering sound, but, I hate to say it, they should be scared. Or, at the very least, they should understand the value of the work they’re doing. If the audio is no good, the work you’ve done for the take, for the shot, for the entire day, could be ruined.

If you’ve got the time, you, as the director/producer or person responsible for said volunteer, should take the time to listen to the audio that’s been recorded. I know it stops production, but better to hear what’s been shot thus far than find out you have to start over that night. Uploading some tracks from an SD card, or even listening to them on your recorder, will take minutes, not hours, and those minutes could save you some trouble.

You may also hear something (or lack of something) that the sound person might not hear, and know a way to adjust both the recorder (H4N’s come with recording level controls) and the person manning the controls.

Since the first episodes of Internet Affairs, I’ve gone out of my way to make sure that the sound people I’ve been working with have either experience, or a firm understanding of what they’re doing. You cannot blame volunteers for their work, unless they screw up, you know, knowingly. All you can do is tell them as much as you can to get the best they can give you, and monitor their work.

That’s probably the most important lesson. Take the time to listen to the audio files, and make adjustments accordingly.

Your sound is going to make your production. Do what you can to get the best sound you can.

Lighting, and the frustration of almost working

I recently purchased a 3-piece lighting kit. Two Lowel Tota 750 watt lights and one Lowel Omni 500 watt light. And for some insane reason, I thought lighting was going to be easy.

Let me walk you through this.

Last year, shooting 8 for Vegas, I learned a bunch. Basically some very real not-to-do things, like using a shoulder rig when you’re taller than 90% of your cast. We shot our first episode, and it had to get trashed. Because of lighting.

Now, one of the things that happens, particularly in video, is that if you see an improvement you begin to believe that what you’re seeing is, actually, the best the shot can be. Because, before you changed things, the scene looked like SHIT.

Our second week of shooting, we added a DP light. A 1000 watt light that flooded the entire room we were shooting in with light. Of course, that was light coming from 1 direction, but who cares! we thought. Look at that picture! It’s 100% better than it was before.

Well. Having gone through the entire season multiple times, while we had better light, we had terrible shadows.

“There’s shadows in life, babe,” as Jack said in Boogie Nights.

Well, that’s true. But we’d like to solve that problem this time around during Season 2 of 8 for Vegas.

So, I bought lights. I could have rented some, but renting is always a bit of a pain in the ass when you don’t have a car, and you have 50lbs of other equipment to get home. Amongst other things.

Not to mention, I really wanted to have a walking studio. Or, at least a taxi one.

I asked my buddy Marcin, who’s a DP, and he said it would be a good investment. Sold.

We took an hour or so to light the interview spot for Sunday’s shoot of episode 3 of 8 for Vegas, and the results were much better than we had last year. Not perfect, but a vast improvement, and that’s not just me saying so.

Last week I took a job that required some problem solving with light. I won’t get into specifics, but I left that gig having found out one thing. Lighting is not easy.

I understand the idea behind three point lighting, but lighting scenes, with continuity when doing more than a one shot is a bitch. So much of the work I’ve done over the last 8 months has been lit naturally. Which is where the problem lies, for me.

I’m getting better with the camera. I see it. I’m excited about it. I look for scenes I can shoot that my 50mm 1.4 lens will allow me to get without too much issue. If I have to work around it, I do.

But to stage a scene with lights from, say, black… is an art. I knew it was an art, but I thought it was something I might luck into. I’m not completely naive or full of myself, where I thought it would be easy. I was just hoping it would be, since I was a bit out of my depth on the last job.

Nope. Uh uh. Hell no.

So, lesson learned. We got the job done, but I’ll do my best on the next shoot.

Which brings me to my next issue. I have been up for three jobs in the past week. I’ve gotten quite close to all of them, only to have them slip right through my fingers at the most penultimate moment.

It’s frustrating. But, three months ago, I might not have been able to get those jobs. So, it’s also providing some hope.

I shot episode 5 of Internet Affairs yesterday. More white walls, and this time the bounce of a 750 watt bulb (along with some regular apartment lights) provided perfect lighting for the scene, and we got great footage. Not to mention, we’re working with awesome actors and a great crew, so… that kind of synergy helps a lot.

I have been working steadily over the passed two weeks with Marc Palmieri on his project The Thing. We’ve been editing non-stop for a showing in October. Should be awesome, I’ll give more details when I have them.

Here’s a shot of me, our director Katie McHugh, our sound guy Ben, and our actress Heather Cambanes from yesterday’s shoot, a little before the torrential rain storm we were about to receive.

It was a lot of fun.

I’ve got two videos for you. This first one is an awesome short animated film:

This next one is a very cool video of what you can do with a GoPro – it’s NSFW (partial nudity) but it’s awesome.

They’re awesome, right?

Ok dear reader. Keep your chin up. Even in the face of being out of ones depth, there’s a lesson in there.


Music video, lighting advice, and more

Hey all,

So, here’s the directorial debut of my first music video:

Apophis – Northern Introvert from John Painz on Vimeo.

I hope you enjoy it.

Now, on to a more practical topic.

Over the last month or so, I’ve been toying with the possibility of purchasing a lighting kit. 3-lights, maybe a 4th, to do some basic 3-point lighting.

The thing is, 3-point lighting works really well for interviews… the majority of the time you’re shooting a short, web series, or feature, you’re doing more than just three point lighting. Trying to figure out what works best for each scene is the challenge. And each scene has its own problems.

So. What to do?

I asked my good friend and DP Marcin KaproƱ for some advice.

I have been looking on a number of sites, and here’s the basic gist. Buy as expensive a lighting kit as you can, so that it lasts, because you’ll always be using them, no matter what. Camera tech is going to keep improving. Lighting… not so much. LEDs are here, and they’re improving, but their costs are so high, regular halogen or tungsten lighting won’t be going away any time soon.

Two companies stand out. Mole-Richardson and Arri.

From what I’ve gathered, they’re work horses. But, probably the most important factor when purchasing these lights, besides their quality, is that they don’t depreciate in value.

From there, there are a number of companies you can purchase equipment from. Let’s call those two tier ones.

Tier two would be… Lowel. That’s about the only company I’ve found that comes close to the quality of the tier one lights. Perhaps BriteK., but I’ve only seen two people mention them in my searches.

I have seen quite a few people comment on Cowboy Studios, but I think I’m going to call them tier 3. From what I’ve read, they’ll do ok in a pinch, but they will not last. They’re made shoddily.

I cannot comment, at all, to LED lights, except for the companies I’ve heard of and seen Marcin use. He was very keen on Kino Flos. I remember the name. I’ve seen it come up in searches. They’re quite expensive.

Mole and Arri lights don’t really come in affordable kits… affordable being relative.

Lowel and BriteK kits can run you from $400 to $1,800 or more.

It just depends on what you’re using them for.

Now, you’ll probably ask “John, why not just rent?” It’s a good question. I happen to live in a city with countless camera and lighting rental companies. They’re all over.

When we were shooting 8 for Vegas, we used a Lowel DP kit. A DP light is 1000w flood light. The idea, for us, was to bathe the entire room in light so we didn’t have harsh shadows in the background.

The problem, of course, is we only had one light. So, we had shadows on our actors.

Not knowing anything about anything last year, we pushed through it.

Probably the most egregious example of this being a problem was in episode 2, which you’ll find below:

The particularly bad spot starts at about 2:20. Just harsh shadows all over.

It was a learning experience, to be sure.

So, what could a couple of additional lights do to help us with that? Well, placing a light to the right of the camera and diffusing it with a softbox would help considerably. It would lighten up both Jennifer’s face, and Drew’s back of head area.

We could also take away the two flood lights above them (lighting inside the pool hall) and replace that with a more direct (and not as harsh) light, so that we’re not getting that blow out on the brightest parts of their faces.

We’ll see what we can do for season 2.

On to my friend Marcin. I met Marcin on the set of a short film in April called Sketch. He was the DP, and we got along really well. So well, that we keep in touch, hang out, get beers, and discuss most topics. So, I sent Marcin an email about lighting. This was my original email, with links:

I have a question. I am interested in purchasing a portable 3-light kit, for shooting shorts and web series, etc… and there are just so many options out there, I don’t know what to do.

There are some Lowel kits that are for about $1,000 and under:

Lowel Tota/Omni Core 44 Kit

Lowel DV Creator 1 kit

Lowel Interview 3-Light Kit

And so many others. I can buy these kits used, too, or in pieces. I just have no idea what is best for a reasonable lighting kit. I know that every job is different. I know. But I need some basics, so that when I come to set, if I need them, I have them. I found these two on ebay:

I thought that last one, for $350, was a very good deal.

Anyway, I realize that I should be renting, but I shoot so much stuff on my own, I really need to get some reasonable lights so that I can try and get some more work, etc… Any thoughts?

Marcin, being the cool guy he is, wrote me back and confused me even more.

When it comes down to lights it’s all about output power (footcandels, lumens, etc), throw, beam, blah, blah, blah.

The Lowell kits are good but they are a little hard to control. As those are lights that are “open face” they don’t throw a hard concentrated beam of light. They spray that light everywhere, harsh, hard light. It’s the soft light that bends and dispenses but with “open face” that’s what you get.

The solution to that is; make sure those lights come with barn doors, get yourself some flags, cutters, nets, black wrap, and just cut the light to the amount you need. All those things will come in handy to control the light which bounces off the reflector in the lamp and sprays everywhere. That’s open face lights for you.

The first one from B&H has a softbox. That is a good thing to have, that gives you a nice soft light. You may also achieve the same with some gels in front of the lamps but softbox is just more controlling and you can put a egg crate on it so it’s more directional and not spraying to the sides. Definitely, a softbox is a good thing to have, but you can always get that later.

It also depends on where you’ll be using them.

But yes, the last one (ebay) does seem like a good deal, and you can do quiet a bit with it.

I hope this was helpful, but you can always ask me more.

So, there you go.

What the hell are flags, cutters, nets, and black wrap?

Sigh. I think I’m going to have to take a lighting class.

Or, continue to learn as I go which, let’s be honest, is more fun.

Part of the problem with all of that equipment is, I do not have a car. What I’m really hoping for is a kit that will give me some leeway, so that I can get to a shoot with everything, and use what I have. I simply cannot carry EVERYTHING that I may possibly need, but perhaps I can carry enough to get the job done.

I’ll report back when I find something!

Time Lapse, Kubrick, and more

Hey all,

So, this evening, after getting over a really crappy cold, I went out with my brand new GoPro Hero 2 and shot a time lapse video.

GoPro Hero 2 time lapse from John Painz on Vimeo.

Neat, huh?

I just went down the block and shot the sunset from Battery Park. I figured I’d see what I could do, first time out.

It was fun, but boy, does it take a lot of footage to create even those 45 seconds or so. The frame rate was 29.97, meaning that for every second of footage, there were 29.97 individual photos. Just go ahead and round that up to 30.

That equaled, basically, 1450 individual photos, taken over about an hour, at one photo every 2 seconds. I only had an 8gb SD card with me, so, that’s what I was able to get out of it. I have to purchase a much larger card.

Let’s see. What else is happening.

I finished transcoding the first episode of Marc Palmieri’s The Thing. I’ll be syncing that tonight and editing tonight and tomorrow.

I also edited the first round of Internet Affairs, and did a 1-minute teaser. I’ll share those once they’ve been approved.

Other than that, things are things.

I have two things Kubrick to mention. One is this really neat article called A Sword in the Bed, about DP Larry Smith and his work on Eyes Wide Shut.

The second thing is this really neat video that came out, called One Point Perspective, and it details some very interesting shot choices Kubrick made and used over and over in his films, from 2001 on.

Kubrick // One-Point Perspective from kogonada on Vimeo.

Really interesting.

Finally, I’m looking forward to leaving the house again, without feeling like I’m going to faint. This cold really threw me for a loop. I got it from Karen, who was sick last week. I also found out my mom was sick… I guess this one’s been making the rounds all over, since my mom’s in Orlando.

I am trying to figure out the best way to use my time. Sitting at home is no longer working for me. I did finish the entirety of Scrubs. After the last episode, I felt that my brain had decided ‘no more tv.’

I was fine with that decision.

So. I have 8 for Vegas ramping up next Sunday, the 9th. A couple of other things… we’ll see what happens. Still looking for some paid work, but I feel that if I keep shooting and learning, even if it’s on my own, I’ll be making progress. At the very least, it’ll help me with my own work.

I’m going to write up a blog post about lighting kits and advice one finds online. Looking up which camera to buy… that was easy. So many people want to buy cameras.

Lighting kits… different story, completely.

Thanks for reading!