And the award for best cinematography goes to ...

January 11, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

As a kid I once tried to make a cine camera out of a cardboard box and a roll of paper. I think it was just after I had read a book on the making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and got all inspired to become a film camera man. Needless to say, overall the project was not considered a major success by me or my peers.


Some years later and undaunted by my previous failure I was able to secure a Super 8 cine camera and real projector from Father Christmas.  What was set to be my film making debut that Christmas was slightly marred by Father Christmas inadvertently forgetting to wrap up a small lithium cell battery, to power the camera’s light meter, and include it in my pillow case of full presents.  There may have been some confusion because I did find a rather useless Satsuma and a couple of walnuts in the bottom of it but these seemed to appear every Christmas and prior to this one I had no use for a small round cell battery. A mystery! It wasn’t a case of waiting until Boxing Day and then popping into a shop to buy a battery either because this was the early 80’s on the Isle of Sheppey. Either of these things could cause a problem but combining the two guaranteed that the world did not see a need to open shops over the festive period and it was over a week before the little needle inside the view finder bobbed up and down to signify a satisfactory light level.


What followed was many poor attempts at stop frame animation, no doubt inspired the legendary Morph, and really fast moving planes at air shows as I tracked them for 4 or 5 seconds across the sky before moving on to the next display. Over the next few years I must have amassed a good twenty or twenty five minutes of footage. I decided to quit while I was ahead!  But, just like several years after a boy band’s last tour and the money has run out, film making has come out of retirement.


I was recently asked by OCD, a band I have photographed on a number of occasions, if I could do some HD video to be used as promotional material. I was reluctant and felt it prudent not to mention previous encounters - of any kind! I was persuaded when cash was mentioned and started my planning.


The Canon 5D II is equipment with the ability to shoot 1080p HD video but to be honest I had not even worked out how to put the camera into video mode. A trip to land of Google was required. Planning to show Spielberg a thing or two about film-making I wanted to shoot it at 24 frames per second to give it a true cinematic effect. Things were not looking good, I could not find a setting anywhere on my camera to select the frame rate, the forums just directed me to a no existent menu option. Then I realised I would have to do … a firmware update! Originally the camera did not offer 24 frames per second and to get it I would need to download and install the new firmware.  This was pretty easy, after downloading from the Canon website and copying it to a compact flash card, you just stick the card in the camera and go to the firmware menu option. The camera then detected the version on the card and upgraded the camera.


I enlisted the help of my friend Matt Linehan, who also has a 5D, because I wanted to be able to shoot multiple angles but maintain a consistent image quality and style. We would worry about editing it all together in post-production afterwards. After picking a date and venue to shoot the footage the tiresome planning stage was complete. We are consummate professionals and made the rest of it up on the night.


The initial idea was for one camera to be mounted on a tripod and film everything from a fixed angle. The second camera would then cut in to individual band members for close ups. The immediate problem we had though was we were both filming at similar focal lengths and hand holding a zoom lens was not practical. We swapped the tripod mounted camera lens for a 70-200 and started using that to get the close-ups. One problem now became two!  Firstly we had to try and keep an eye on each other to see who was filming what and when so as not to leave gaps. This was less of an issue because the band had said they only needed sections of songs to edit into a promo video but it was nice to be able to keep the continuity for the whole song. The bigger problems was my ageing eyesight and trying to focus a zoom lens manually in low light with virtually no depth of field. Standing five feet away from the band with a 200mm lens at f2.8 gives you about 4cm depth of field and to make matters worse musicians keep moving!


Another thing I had not really thought about much until we started the shoot was shutter speed. In my brain (small as it is) I had just thought ‘Oh, 24 frames per second setting, so the camera will work out the shutter speed’. I now realise this is rubbish. The camera is effectively running in manual mode and you have to select the ISO, aperture and shutter speed just like you would expose a still frame shot. The shutter speed on a motion film camera is what gives the cinematic feel to film (you notice this when programmes show you a film being made and you see the difference between some video footage of a scene and the actual filmed sequence). Just like on a still shot if the shutter speed is slow and the subject is moving there is some blur to the image. Video is usually shot at a higher frame rate which freezes each individual frame more giving effectively a clearer shot but not what we have become accustomed to in the cinema. Because the film camera shutter is like rotating butterfly wings the effective shutter speed is about 1/48 of a second so the best shutter speed to set on a digital camera to maintain the effect is around 1/50 or 1/60th of a second. This should give a similar level of motion blur as true film … apparently.


So, to recap, for that true motion picture feel set your camera to 24 frames per second, select a shutter speed of around 1/60th second, keep your ISO as low as possible to give you the best aperture value for the depth of field you want. Simple!


Just one last problem now, not including drunk people getting in the way, 12 minutes of HD footage on a Canon 5D Mk II used 4Gb of memory card so you need to have a few spares.


Film in the bag it was back home to work out how to edit it.  I already subscribe to Adobe to run Photoshop CS6. Effectively I rent the software for a monthly cost but that gives me a legal copy with all future updates for as long as I subscribe. It costs about £17 per month but I live and die in this software and a monthly payment is much easier to swallow than the £600 plus cost to buy it. You can do the same thing for Adobe Premier Pro, their film editing software. I downloaded a free 30 day trial version which allowed me to edit everything but for future use I will rent it a month at a time.  It is more expensive to do it this way than signing up for a year contract but I am unlikely to need it month after month.


So, apart from learning how to use Premier Pro, my final lesson in shooting multi-camera film was synchronising two lots of footage. After a bit of messing around I managed to get Premier Pro’s multi-camera mode working.  This is great, especially in CS6, because you can open a number of camera clips at the same time and play them all through simultaneously selecting which one to record to a master clip by clicking on their large thumbnail view. You can drag the record head back to re-record bits if you mess it up. To do this though, you must synchronise ‘in’ points on each clip so that they all line up correctly (you can use 'out' points and time codes as well). I found it much easier to do this visually than by using the audio tracks. For that to work it is imperative that at the start of filming both cameras are pointing at the same thing. In most of our footage they were not. This method also means both cameras have to film everything with no breaks. It is very difficult to drop separate sequences into a single clip and then synch that clip with one from another camera. You effectively need to pad out the missing part of the timeline with blank footage. I did manage to do this on one track, She Sells Sanctuary, but I think more by luck than good judgement.


Anyway, I don’t think my friend Mr Spielberg has too much to worry about just yet. I do consider my third excursion into film a case of third time lucky with this being the most successful thing to date I have done with moving pictures. Between Matt and I, we have managed to put together nearly ten complete tracks all of which are now available to view in the video gallery. There will be no BAFTA or Oscar awards for cinematography just yet but I hope some of the above explains why coupled with the moments of sheer genius there are moments when it looks like it was not just the audience that were drunk.

I’m off now to find a mountain made of mash potato. Click on the links below if you would rather see the videos.

Videos on YouTube (Stream Better)

She Sells Sanctuary

The Chain

Teenage Kicks


Whats Up

Word Up




Original Videos on this site (including Smells Like Teen Spirit)


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