4.21.2016

A Few Blog Notes: Where did everything go? Is it all gone now? Why are there gigantic video crews? What's next?


Some blog notes from the main office: 

I bought three Sony cameras recently. I am (currently) happy with all three. The (counter-intuitive) purchases were actually part of a winnowing down or distilling process that I've been contemplating for years. Since the earlier days of digital I've constantly had overlapping brands and overlapping generations of gear within brands. I always found this "embarrassment of camera riches" both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that I worry on assignments about camera failures and general, untimely, equipment death and so having multiple layers of redundancy seemed smart. A curse because it's hard to divest oneself of older technology if part of your anxious mindset is the need to be prepared for anything. ANYTHING. Faced with the idea that things will fail, or that you might need to use multiple cameras to host multiple lenses on an event shoot, I always end up bringing far more gear along than I need. 

Interestingly, my assignments have changed. More and more of what I am doing are portraits, in the studio and on location. Last year we did fewer event style shoots than I've done in the past. The time pressure and the need to have everything immediately at hand has receded a bit, and I like that. More and more I am given assignments that allow me space and time to organize and plan. If I know I have a video interview scheduled for next Weds. I now have time to think about not just what I have in the studio that I can press into service, but what might be the best possible solution for a specific interview project. I can now rent something special and return it after use instead of hewing to my old modality of buying omni-useful stuff, using it sporadically and then storing it in the studio as it depreciates.

To wit, I have a video project in the throes of being scheduled for May and I'm planning to rent a Sony FS5 camera to use for it. Why? As an actual video camera (instead of a hybrid) I get the efficiency of a smoother audio interface, a heartier 1080p codec for editing, unlimited shooting times and a built-in variable neutral density filter. Since I can bill the rental to the job why not use a tool that will make life easier on the set? But, why pay to buy one when I may only want to rent it for specific jobs?

Sure, I'll still have a few layers of back-up via the Sony A7R2 and the Sony a6300...

But I mentioned above that buying the Sony still cameras was part of a process of distillation, right?
How is buying even more cameras a distillation?

I approached the Sony purchase from this "if you were on a desert island and you could start fresh..." point of view. If I were starting out today in photography but I was able to retain all the camera knowledge and experience I've accrued over the years, which camera and system would I buy and use? Which lenses would I find most useful? How could I plan the purchase so I would be able to narrow down the lens inventory to something that would fit in......two hands?

For me, right now, it's what I've bought from the Sony system. Is it all perfect? Not by a long shot. But I've never owned a camera system that was perfect. And, as you know, I've owned a lot. 

Once I purchased and tested the Sonys I took on the other side of the task of distillation which is getting rid of everything else. I was able to sell all of the Olympus gear in a private sale while I sold all of the Nikon equipment to my local camera merchant. And when I say "all of the gear" I mean it. 
The only remnants of the Nikon gear that are still hanging around are a few niche lenses that fill specific purposes, can be used on the Sonys with adapters, and are things I didn't want to have to re-buy in the Sony camp. 

All the camera bodies, all the way back to the Nikon f2's and f4's are out the door. Every dedicated flash and trigger. Every adapter and cord. Gone. Out. 

The only survivors of the purge are two lonely Panasonic fz 1000s to which I seem to have an emotional attachment. Not quite sure yet about their disposition.

You didn't miss a big sale. The previous cameras and lenses are not "listed" on a site anywhere. They are gone.

The Sony attraction may stick. It may not. We'll see. That's part of the process for me. If we hadn't kept up with technology and the application thereof over the years I would long since have been out of the business and doing something else. Neanderthals died out. Don't let your resistance to evolution kill off your business.

Speaking of something else...someone asked in a comment about why there might be a need for large crew video projects. The question was sparked by my post yesterday concerning the huge number of people on crew at the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge downtown for a video production. 

I could write a lot of stuff about the complexity of production and the need for large crews when quick set-ups and take downs are needed but I can distill the whole idea down to this: You pay ten times more to get that last 5% of quality and performance. And sometimes you pay for it and you still can't manage to get it. 

So much about video, and high end still, production is not about taking risks but about taking massive and costly steps to make sure you have reduced risk to the lowest point imaginable. The production I saw didn't need five or six 12 by 12 foot scrims on the shots I watched but they were standing by in case they were needed. And the scrims would need a team of grips to put them up, secure them and then stand next to them to make sure the wind didn't catch the scrims and turn them into deadly sails. 

There was an abundance of generators and large HMI lights there as well. But none of them were needed in the moment because the weather was co-operating and there was a camera moving along with runners and bikers (actors), but the lights, and the crew for the lights, were there in case they needed them. 

Blocking off a public bridge and making sure they public was not injured and that the public didn't damage or steal the waiting gear requires a number of people to shepherd traffic and provide security. Each entry point to the bridge required at least one production person with a walkie-talkie as well as an off duty police officer. Five entry points means ten more people. 

There were a number of actors who would pretend to be Austin joggers, bikers or moms with strollers. Since a group of them might be in each shot the production required that there be multiple make up artists and costume people in order to work on the talent simultaneously. Everyone would need to be ready to go at the same time. I counted five make up stations. Add in costumers and prop masters. 

There were easily twelve trucks which would require twelve truck drivers. Since there were nearly 50 people to feed, and deliver snacks to, it would be much more efficient to bring in a catering staff rather than break for lunch or try to bring in prepared sandwiches, etc. And, by the way, people at the top of the payroll have the clout to demand better food than a turkey sandwich from Subway or a soggy deli tray from Jason's....  I counted four food preparation people at the big dining tent... Lots of steam trays as well. 

You might have seen the shot I took yesterday of the electric vehicle loaded with a camera operator and crew. At my count there were seven people circling the cart. Perhaps one or two are clients who will be reviewing and approving the shots. One is the camera operator and one is certain to be the assistant camera operator who will take the camera out of the operator's hands at the end of each scene and make sure to call out the time code to a crew member who is keeping track of which good take resides where. The rest of the people on the cart are there to director talent or work as intermediaries between all the moving parts. They get the people minders to stop foot traffic before the cameras start rolling, get the talent moving, get the "B" cameras rolling, etc. 

One person from the production company is certainly there to make sure that the client is, at all times, happy and comfortable. 

Now let's winnow down to what I think the real question is: Would the difference in cameras, lighting etc. really translate into that much better a product at the end? Yes! No! Maybe....

Just in technical terms the cameras we're using (Sony consumer mirrorless) have very good video file formats FOR CONSUMER CAMERAS and they do work well for a lot of stuff, but...

The Arriflex Alexa and Sony F55 cameras that are used in these kinds of high dollar commercial shoots do a lot of stuff better. To start out with they are recording a ton more color and detail information. My cameras top out at 100 megabits per second. That's the pipeline out no matter what else I set. This means that my files have to be compressed enough to fit over that bandwidth. Imagine a still camera that's limited to shooting Jpegs with a #6 compression out of a possible 10. Now imagine comparing that with a 90 meg raw file. Huge difference. Imagine shooting only with 8 bit files. Compare that with shooting in 12 or even 16 bit files. In video they talk about color in terms of ratios of measurement. A consumer camera may "see" and record color in a 4:2:0 format where there is a lot of interpolation to make up for actually writing the colors as they appear. A camera like the Alexa or F55 will record in a 4:4:4 format. There is no compression or interpolation of colors.

These high end cameras write their files to external recorders and are routinely sending over between 480 to 900+ megabits per second. It's an enormously bigger pipeline. And in the end, even though it ends up getting edited down the same file size for broadcast the more robust and detailed files are the best they stand up (resist degradation) at every level of editing and color correction. 

Add to that the fact that digital techs (color specialists) are sitting in tents or trailers looking at the feed from the cameras and painstakingly setting camera parameters with the help of scopes that tell them exactly where the blacks, whites and colors fall. Each frame shot will end up not just being "in the ball park" but as technically close to perfect (for final editing) as is humanly possible. 

And we haven't even touched on the human/operator element. It's conceivable that the director of photography was operating the main camera. In all probability he's been engaged in this kind of work, as well as feature film production, for twenty or thirty years. His brain/eye/camera coordination is far advanced compared to a hybrid camera slinger. And his instinct for what constitutes the perfect action shot with glorious backgrounds is highly evolved and much sought after. Given the same quality of camera he is using I may be able to produce nothing but dog crap. He, on the other hand, could probably grab the Sony consumer camera out of my hands and create a feature movie that people would pay to go see. There is so much more to making a project than the camera and the cost of the crew and I shouldn't really have been so flip about it. 

And, if an extra crew member or two can make the DP more comfortable and more productive it may actually pay off in the end for the client, because, regardless of what they end up paying for the entire production, if they are advertising on television and web video worldwide, the production budget will be a small, small fraction of their media buy and the success of their campaign will be completely and utterly dependent on the quality of the content. The video. If the media buy is $50,000,000 and the campaign is highly successful then the client will have made a good investment spending one million dollars on production rather than trying to save money by getting someone like me to do the whole thing for $50,000 or $100,000 with a consumer camera rig. 

But, there is a flip side to that. What do you do if you don't have those kinds of budgets. Let's talk about that some other time. There's a hungry art director out there and I need to get him lunch.....