I am just going to say right up top that this post is not likely to be very interesting to fans of “Girls Will Be Girls,” whom I understand overwhelmingly comprise our tiny readership. Nevertheless, the new movie wouldn’t have been possible without the burgeoning online knowledge base surrounding HDSLR production, so I wanted to in some small way add to it with a summary of my real-world experience with the medium and certain gear.
The 180 rule
I almost didn’t see this whisper of a blog post, and had I not every frame of the movie would have been worse for it. Keep your shutter speed set at 50! The one day I didn’t I got bad stuff; the rest of the days the footage is crisp and film-y. Yet given how important this setting is to the look of HDSLR video, you don’t hear enough people screaming about it from the rooftops. And thank you Tyler Ginter for the screaming.
Amazing resource. Endless, deep treasure trove of lessons, reviews, test footage, and finished films. Go there and learn.
Ianiled 54 lights
I bought these after seeing this video on Vimeo. They are priced at a slight premium from a comparable firepower LiteBox but well worth it, in principle. The one light splits into three, creating a perfect (and thanks to their dimmers easily and quickly tweakable) key, fill, and hair light. Even more amazing is their “cool” and “warm” settings; on “cool” they mimic the color temperature of sunlight without gels. Their downside is they’re kind of buggy. One light began flickering if its connection wasn’t tight-tight. None of them reliably dimmed with smooth values. In the lower ranges they would stutter down in big steps, going from too-much to too-little. One would go full-blast red when turned too low. Still, overall they came in handy much more often than they frustrated.
Kessler Crane Cineslider and Hercules tripod.
Probably the best-built slider on the market; certainly impeccably built. Complete control of resistance, rock solid on its rails. I haven’t worked with cheaper sliders but definitely appreciated the build quality. The Hercules tripod is almost a joke it’s so sturdy. It’s so heavy you need three guys to raise and lower it. I mean, I get it: With a heavy camera leveraged on the end of a long slider, you want that kind of going-nowhere base underneath you. Still at the end of a long day of setting up shots, I would sometimes with they had skimped on the neutron matter somewhere. The only downside to the thing is a part they don’t actually manufacture — a quick-release mount made by Giotti. It has its work cut out for it — ordinary tripod heads have a twist-tighten knob to clamp your rig to it, but a slider can’t because the thing sits flat atop a larger flat surface that doesn’t leave room for a knob to rotate. They have come up with a system where you pull out a lever to position it so you have the entire 180 degree arc to work with and then clamp that down about two thirds of a turn. The problem was I stripped mine in two days before I figured out how to get the hang of it. The company sent me another at no charge except fifty bucks overnight shipping, and this one made it mostly through the three-week shoot before also mostly stripping. I will stipulate that part of this is probably me, but the fact remains that these things are just way too delicate for a rough-and-tumble production environment. Stripping one has huge consequences too — your camera is no longer secure on the slider, nor one with it. Expect half your shots to have a sudden bump in them until you get a new one. The company makes an optional raised mount for a traditional tripod head — that is the way I would go with this piece of gear.
Whenever anything technical went wrong on the set, I had a saying: It’s me. I’m the last person to advance unhelpful stereotypes — I’m sure that many, many gays are quite mechanically adept, and a couple of them probably aren’t even lesbians; but I ain’t one. So the idea behind “it’s me” was, let’s assume the equipment is fine and figure out what I’m doing wrong with it so that I can stop doing it.
Still, the DP6 was at the center of enough of these situations that in this one case I eventually came around to, it’s it. However, that theory is starting to crumble under the weight of this company’s crazy, crazy professionalism and competence. First, the design and the construction of the thing are just too solid for its builders to overlook basic functionality. Then there’s the way they immediately rushed me a replacement at the first sign of trouble. Then when I sent my original unit back to them, they looked it over thoroughly and returned it with a very ginger communique about how they couldn’t find anything wrong and maybe I mistook where a few things were supposed to go, etc. Since then they’ve checked in several times, and more recently sent me a remote control and tee shirt as… a thank you for all the extra money I cost them? I dunno, but I’m pretty sure if you showed people the SmallHD staff and then me and told them one of us screwed up something pretty simple, no one would pick the band of lovable nerds.
So, I am prepared to revise my assessment below to: It was me. Yes it was a lot of times, and no, I still don’t know how it kept being me, but it just must have been. So for the zero of you who turn to the making-of blog of a gay drag queen movie for technical advice, the SmallHD DP6 is a crackerjack little machine, not that you deserve one if you are taking my “expertise” about anything like this at all seriously.
We now return you to your stale internet review:
The biggest (well, equipment) heartbreak on the shoot. The thing is conceptually amazing — it not only gives you an HD output of your picture, but also includes a focus-assist setting that lets you effortlessly hone in on an actor’s eyes — when they glow with a halo you are in focus. Even better is its color temperature screen that tells you whether and where you are crushing your blacks or blowing out your whites. You come to rely on both features for every shot, and therein lies the problem.
My first one died on day 1, no explanation. Then came back online after the company sent me a backup for my shoot. But then the two six-hour batteries I’d bought for it both became bricks. Are these the sort of batteries from 1990 that are permanently ruined if you fail to let them cycle from full-to-empty and then charge from empty-to-full even once? If so, why, in this day and age? It’s especially a problem because of the thing’s propensity for dying with no explanation; in desperation you will have ruined both your batteries before you figure that out. We began just using its AC cord to power it, but that was janky too. If during a shot it comes unplugged (as its loose-fitting nub easily, easily does,) the Canon 7D stops recording. Things came to a head with the thing a night late in the shoot when we had positioned the camera to face actors supposedly working on a computer at a wall-facing desk — in other words, in a place where there was no way to see the shot except with the monitor. The SmallHD chose that moment to shut down. Why? We think its AC cord just stopped working. I ended up unboxing the backup and using that from then on. That unit didn’t shut down for no reason but had all the other quirks of the first one.
There were just too many issues with the thing. Some of them might have been due to user error, but in a high-pressure time-crunched production environment you quickly realize that doesn’t matter. There’s always going to be a diva on any set, but it should never, ever be your field monitor.
I will say that the people at SmallHD are very helpful and responsive. And their product is, when it wants to be, absolutely amazing.
Just wonderful. As a noob I didn’t quite understand the erector-set idea of having to build your rig yourself and was put off by the carbon-fiber rods (which seem-but-aren’t fragile,) but came to appreciate the rig’s flexibility more and more the better I understood it. Once my camera-in-rig just flat-out dropped onto a concrete studio floor, and was fine (the RRR rig too.) We used the follow-focus (with whips) nonstop and with reliable results. The matte box with RRR filters was also easy to use and allowed us to shoot outdoors with shallow focus. I haven’t tried other brands but RedRockMicro definitely rocks.
These things saved us more than anything else on the shoot. I’ve read that they are pricey compared to non CP.2 Zeisses, and don’t know much about that; and while they deliver stunning results I’m sure many lenses do. The two features that were indispensable, however, were their huge focus wheel that made focusing on the fly incomparably easier than with Canons (and their tiny zero-to-infinity flick,) and the on-lens aperture wheels. Again and again (when the Small HD wasn’t on strike, anyway) I’d see that we were blowing out somewhere and just dial closed the lens. Plus the things are built like tanks, which comes in handy should your rig drop on concrete.
BorrowLenses makes them affordable, too. They have a “FUNWEEK” coupon where you get a week free if you rent for a week, and for every lens you rent. We rented the 35 for close-ups, etc. and the 18 for wide shots. If you too can only afford two and aren’t shooting with a full-sensor camera I’d recommend that pairing. I never found myself needing a lens I didn’t have, though I can also see how the whole set must be a lot of fun to work with.
Steadicam Merlin with Vest
Life. Is. Too. Short. I am sure it is possible to master this thing. But it would be like learning French for a weekend getaway to Paris. They have the nerve to sell this as a consumer item. Beware. I found using a shoulder rig and stabilizing the footage in post with Mercalli is a cheaper and easier way to get the same effect without, by the way, throwing out your back in the process.