Monday, September 4, 2017

You get what you pay for.....and other cliche's....

"You get what you pay for."  "You can't get something for nothing."  "I wouldn't trust that
cheap stuff, it probably won't work."  "If everyone else was jumping off a cliff........oops,
wrong cliche.  Well we all have heard (or maybe even said) things like this.  The fact, is
a lot of the gear needed for media production is pretty expensive.  Many of us have spent
thousands of dollars on cameras, computers, lighting gear, audio gear, software, tripods, sliders,
drones, lenses, and so on (or maybe that is just me.....shhhh.....don't tell my wife! I mean
you 'gotta spend money to make money.......argh....another cliche!!!) Well, recently I started to get back into live webcasting.  Before starting my own business, I had worked as a videographer/editor for a TV station.  But some of my other duties were directing and switching live TV newscasts and sports.  I had some experience with NewTech's Tricaster and the Sony Anycast.  After I started my own business, I picked up a copy of Wirecast, a software program which claimed to allow you to live broadcast from your computer.  I figured, I knew how to do this too, why not offer it as an additional service?  Back then, you would hook up camera's via firewire cable to your computer.  You could switch between cameras, add titles and stream out to a CDN (Content Delivery Network).

Maybe half a year ago, I picked up a refurbished laptop to use on remote shoots.  I could
back up my cards, use it as a DIT station and even do some editing on it.  I didn't need
the newest and best, so I bought a 2013 MacBook Pro for a really good price off eBay.
And as I started looking into getting back into live streaming, I assessed the laptop as a
webcasting machine.  Now many people will recommend desktops when you want to webcast.
They have more power, you can drop in beefy GPU's and all kinds of capture cards.  They are
great for studio shoots.  But the kind of people that hire me, want me to come to their sporting
event or game, conference or other event and broadcast their event out via their Facebook page, Twitter feed, or YouTube channel.  Other clients will want me to use a CDN maybe set up a
PPV event or similar.  But the common theme, is that I am going into a location outside my
studio (much like most promo film shoots where you film 'on location')  So a laptop would be
much more 'portable' and easy to setup at a variety of locations.  Big bonus, I already have
plenty of cameras as part of my video business  But you can no longer just plug into a computer
via firewire.  And computers do not have multiple HDMI or SDI input ports.  Only HDMI out
ports.  My laptop had a couple thunderbolt ports and a couple USB 3 ports.  I saw that BlackMagic had a device called an UltraStudio Mini Recorder.  It had both an HDMI and SDI port on one side and a thunderbolt on the other.  It cost $137.  I bought two.  Upgraded to Wirecast 7.7.  And suddenly had a two camera live webcasting system.

As I looked into ways to expand the number of cameras I could use, I found several options.
I could get a AJA 4K io.  Which would add 4 more camera inputs via one of my thunderbolt ports.  But that wasn't cheap.  I also found HDMI to USB capture cards.  The most well regarded
seemed to be from Magewell. Although it was much cheaper than the AJA 4K io, it gave you
only one input instead of 4.  And it cost more than twice as much as the UltraStudio Mini
Recorder which gave you the choice of HDMI or SDI.  So I kept looking.  And I came across
this cheap looking device.  Looked similar to the Magewell for about 1/4 the cost.  Now normally I would think 'looks too good to be true' and pass on it.  But the device explicitly claimed that it worked with Wirecast and other streaming programs.  I figured if I used my PayPal account, I'd
have a double layer of protection, one from eBay and one from PayPal.  If it didn't do what it claimed, surely I could get a refund right?  So I took the plunge and ordered the EZCap capture card.  It took two weeks to arrive.  Which is kind of expected as it is coming from a foreign country.  When it got here, I noticed it was nicely packaged.



Once again, I noticed, that on the outside of the box, it claimed to work with most popular 
webcasting programs.....

So I took it out of the box, along with the included HDMI cable.  And wow, it felt cheap.
Like it literally felt like I could snap it in two between my fingers.  Definitely felt like
it would probably break if I dropped it on a hard floor.  Feels like it is cheap, thin plastic.
Definitely a far cry from the UltraStudio Mini's which are made of metal and seem very solid
like production gear should be.  Maybe this is a clue about why it was so cheap.....


But I decided to hook it up and see what happened.  Once I plugged in my FS700 to the 
EZCap, I got a green light on it, which was a nice touch.


And voila.....instantly it was sensed as a capture card in Wirecast.  It gave me 30p or 
60p for frame rates and the following choices for codecs and resolutions.


I have a suspicion that this card was made for the 'EGaming' industry as it defaults to 60P for the frame rate.  Next I tried unplugging my camera.  As happens with the UltraStudio Mini Recorders, this makes a question mark show up in Wirecast...


However, unlike the UltraStudio Mini's, this capture card can be 'hot plugged' which 
means you can just plug the camera back in and it will instantly sense it again.  This is
another nice touch, as you will often have to restart Wirecast to get it to sense the cameras
again with the UltraStudio Mini capture cards.

Now all this testing is something I've done over the past week.  But about an hour after I 
actually got this capture card in the mail, I was scheduled to do a live webcast.
So of course, I decided to try and use it, without having tested anything!  I loaded my
gear into the location.


Then I hooked up the capture cards.....



Several broadcast cameras in the back.....


And a GoPro taped to the wall for a nice reverse angle on the speaker...


All the cameras showed up in Wirecast....



And, believe it or not, everything went great!  It was a 4 hour event and the EZCap capture 
card wasn't even warm at the end of the event!  Unlike the UltraStudio Mini Recorders which 
were both pretty warm.

So what's the verdict?  I'm still really not sure.  On the plus side, it DID work as advertised.
It was sensed instantly, you could hot plug it, and it doesn't even get warm while streaming.
On the other hand, it does NOT feel like it is very rugged....quite the opposite.  On the other 
side, you have the UltraStudio Mini Recorder or the Magewell (which is another version of this
USB to HDMI.) They are made rugged like production gear should be and can take the knocks 
and bumps.  But it's hard to tell for sure.  Although it certainly 'feels' fragile, I can't say for
certain.  When I first got my hands on a Sony FS100 cinema camera, it 'felt' fragile too, but I 
never had an issue with it's durability.  The EZcap does not inspire confidence in the build quality area, but it DOES work and works quite well.  So if you need a budget HDMI to USB capture card, and you tend to 'baby' your gear, it just might be an option for you.  For the rest of you 'live production types' who have a need for rugged gear that can stand up to being knocked around,
you can rest secure in the knowledge, that sometimes cliches are cliche.....because maybe, just 
maybe they have some truth to them....like this one:

"Behind every successful husband....there is a surprised mother in law."  What, isn't that the
way you heard it?

Gabe Strong
Cinematographer/Editor/Owner
G-Force Productions Digital Cinema















Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Let there be light.....

Let's be clear here.  Lugging heavy lighting gear around, is NOT a de-light-ful experience.
So finding a 'lite' kit is really something that can brighten any filmmaker's day.
And lately, there have been a flood of interesting products hitting the market.
Looking through all this new kit can be an en-light-ening experience.
Seriously, one of the new popular types of lights, is the 'LED matte' type.
The lights can literally be rolled up and stuffed into a cargo pants pocket.
Not saying I'd recommend doing that, but you could!  The combination of
cool lights (no worries about wearing gloves or needing fans to keep the talent
from sweating with these) plus small footprint, has made these types of lights
a 'bright spot' for many filmmakers on the go.

One such light is LEDGo's Versa Tile.  I needed a light to take with me when
I travel for corporate shoots.  Most of the time, these shoots involve interviews/
talking heads.  But for me, living in Alaska, they can also involve travel on small
planes, to remote locations.  So having gear with a 'small footprint' is important for
a solo filmmaker.

I recently landed a contract to produce a series of eight :30 spots, each highlighting a
different person in the state university's PITAAS program.  This would require some travel
to fairly remote locations, in small planes.  With this in mind, I decided to 'lighten' my
wallet, and buy the LEDGo.  I bought the single panel....which I figured would be enough 
for a 'one subject' interview.   Below is my 'traveling kit'.  My previous blog entry covered
the rolling bag which holds my cinema camera body, a still camera body, lenses, batteries,
chargers, laptop, external hard drive, Tram 50 mic, SD cards, lens cleaner, iPad, iPhone,
lens converters, GoPro, headphones and a few other odds and ends.  My tripod is packed in
it's case.  The light is packed in it's provided bag.



Bonus, the provided bag is big enough that you can fit a couple extra filmmaking tools in it!....





Back to the light.  I bought a single panel, but you can buy multiple panel kits as well.
Make a big square.....or a long narrow strip.  You decide.  You can buy various frames
so that you can have a big square, a long strip, or whatever configuration you need.
I started by buying this one:
LED Go single panel

The light comes in a nice bag.  Open it up and you see this



After you pull out the light matte.....


It's a little confusing at first, but you will quickly get the hang of
putting all this stuff together.  Remember, you do not HAVE to
use the frame, you could just tape the light matt on the wall.
Or clip it to something with a clothes pin.....I mean C47.
The light will bend easily.  You can use this to 'mold' the
light as needed.



























But if you want to, you can use the included frame and it
works pretty nicely.

One nice feature, is that the light has an included dimmer, and
color temperature fader.  You can literally use it matched to indoor
light, or outdoor light.  For example, say you are interviewing someone
and using outdoor light which comes through a window as the key.
But you need just a little more fill than the reflector gives you.
Boom, throw up this guy, dial the light to the appropriate color, and
fill in the opposite side.

Alternatively, you can use the light indoors as a soft key light
by changing the color temperature.


And with the dimmer, you don't need to worry about 'scrimming' down
the light, although it does come with a nice diffuser if you want to use that.
It's a handy little light, and I really like it.  You can plug it into the wall
with the included AC adapter.  Or you can use a V-mount battery with the
included V-mount plate.  Yet another option is to buy a third party V-mount
to Sony adapter and using Sony NP series batteries.  A ton of options!  Here is a
little review video.



It's 'light', controllable, cool, and has lots of options.  I'd highly recommend 
adding this light to your kit, if you are a solo filmmaker or video producer.


Gabe Strong
Cinematographer/Editor/Owner
G-Force Productions Digital Cinema





Monday, May 1, 2017

Travel gearbag

Like most people who work making promo films and TV spots, I will sometimes need
to travel to shoot something 'on location.'  If you are anything like me, you shudder at
the thought of your expensive camera gear being tossed into the belly of a jet by some
uncaring airline worker.  So normally, I try to carry on my camera body and lenses in
a camera bag.  Now the ideal camera bag would have lots of room inside.  You need
to pack a camera body or two, several lenses, filters, batteries, chargers, memory cards,
and a laptop.  And that's before even starting to think about audio, lighting, tripod, or slider.
Making sure you have enough gear when you are 'on location' but you are not turning
yourself into a pack mule, has been the subject of quite a few film and video discussions.
I have read several articles about this, and know I'm not the only one that sometimes
has a hard time balancing bringing everything I need, with making sure I can quickly
move around and not worry about having to make 5 trips just to get all my gear with
me......as a matter of fact, other bloggers have written about this conundrum.

Here I have a FS700 body, an A6000 body, 5 lenses, a shotgun mic, a Tram 50 lav mic,
headphones, extra batteries and chargers, 12 memory cards, MacBook Pro, AC adapter,
2TB external hard drive, a couple ND filters, a screw on adapter for each lens, adapting it
to 82mm so I can use the ND filters on any lens I have in the bag, a GoPro 4 Black with
Peau Productions modified lens, and a Jobypod tripod for the GoPro in the bag.  The bag
has slots for a laptop, a iPad, and an iPhone.  Which bag is it?  (Keep reading and I will
get to it....but first I'll tell you about my requirements.)
Loaded up

Ideally the bag would have wheels so you could roll it along when in the airport.


My carry on

But for me, many of my locations end up being in fairly remote Alaska locations.


Sunrise in Unalakleet

Bush plane flying in Alaska

Having wheels is great for airports like Seattle, Anchorage, Portland or the like, but when you are in Unalakleet, it will be more useful to be able to put the camera bag on your back like a backpack, because those wheels won't roll so well in snow or mud.
Backpack with iPhone holder on straps


So after a bunch of research, I found the bag shown in the pictures above.  It is
the Vanguard Heralder 51T rolling backpack.

Pros

Holds plenty of gear.

Has 4 wheels so can roll in an airport or on pavement.

Has backpack straps so can be used as a pack.

Has a laptop slot, iPad slot, iPhone holder so you can
bring your edit bay and other devices with you.

Seems to be very well made

Cons

Can get heavy quick.  Partly because it holds a good amount, but also having
the heavy plastic base with wheels makes it heavier than it would be otherwise.

It will fit in overhead bin (at least on Alaska Airlines) but just barely.  If you load
it up (like I did) it is a tight fit.  I did find out on the way back, that if you take your
laptop out of the bag to edit while on the plane, it fits in quite a bit easier.

A bit spendy, but often you need to pay for good gear!

In my next post, I will talk about what other gear I packed on my last
'remote' shoot, as well as reviewing a flexible LED panel light.

Gabe Strong
Cinematographer/Editor/Owner
G-Force Productions Digital Cinema

Monday, April 17, 2017

Win filmmaking gear for free!

All you have to do is enter your email address (which almost certainly means
you will be hit with 'spam/marketing' emails from them) and you have a chance
to win some pretty cool gear.  Is it worth it?  Only you can decide.....
http://woobox.com/f8ugnj/iso7qi



Gabe Strong
Cinematographer/Editor/Owner
G-Force Productions Digital Cinema

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Router Speed Control??

One of the most important things, when crafting an image,
is control of the lighting.  But when you aren't in a studio,
don't have money for a one Ton grip truck, and you have to
shoot on location, by yourself, what can you do?  One of
my best purchases (relative to money spent) has been a few
little items from Harbor Freight called 'router speed controllers.'
They look like this and cost about $20 each.
















Now these allow you to plug any light into them, flip the switch to
'variable' (VAR) and then use the dial to vary the intensity of the light....
like a proper dimmer!  It's not perfect, as the color temperature of the light
will change as you use the makeshift 'dimmer'.  However you just dial
in the intensity of the light that you want to use, and only then do you perform
the white balance.  And you can plug any light up to a 1K into these....cheap
shop lights or whatever.  This really adds a new level of control, to say, an
interview setup.  Throw one of these on the key light, fill light, hair light, and
background light and tweak how they balance against each other....no scrim needed!

However, it gets even better.  I found a new use for this underrated piece of gear a
couple years ago.  I was hired to DP a 'Docudrama'.  The film was about 'first contact'
between Russian fur traders and Alaska Natives.  Some of the scenes were to be shot
in sod houses at the Alaska Native Heritage center, and many of them called for the
scenes to be shot by firelight.  One problem.  The Alaska Native Heritage center would
not allow us to actually light a fire.  So we needed to stage something where it would
be bright enough to see all the great costumes that our actors had.....but looked like
authentic firelight so as to fit the period.  The director was thinking about using a
reflector and having someone 'wiggle' it back and forth near a light.  Then suddenly
an idea came to me.  What I proposed, was taking a couple 1K lights and setting them
down into the fire pit (an area which is goes down into the floor and is about a foot and
a half lower than ground level.) . Then I suggested that we clamp on some orange
gels in front of the lights.....to give them the correct look of 'firelight.'  Finally, I
pulled out my 'dimmers' and hooked one to each light.  Then we tasked a crewmember
to sit at the controls of the dimmers, and 'flicker' the knob up and down in an erratic
way.....low budget simulated firelight.  It wasn't perfect but for a low budget indie
film, it was acceptable.  I cut together some random scenes so you could see how
it looked.  This is NOT an edited piece, I just grabbed some scenes and slapped them
together so you could see if this technique looked realistic enough to use when your
own films call for a fire lit scene.


Not bad for something known as a 'router speed control'....

Gabe Strong
Cinematographer/Editor/Owner
G-Force Productions Digital Cinema






Friday, July 15, 2016

The Big Fundamental

My 2009 Mac Pro has went through quite a rebirth.  New CPU, new GPU, internal Blu Ray burner, RAM upgrade, all four internal hard drive bays full, and now, for the final step, SSD drives.  With
all four hard drive bays full, I went with the Velocity Duo card which is actually a benefit as the SSD
drives perform much better on it then they would in the hard drive bays.  It's a pretty easy process.
Order the Velocity card and the SSD drives.....pictured below is what I went with:

First you just take out the SSD drive and line up the pins


and snap it into place on the card


And then you repeat the process for the second SSD


Now all that is left is to slide the Velocity card into an open PCI card slot....mine
went right next to the 980 Ti GPU.


Now for some benchmarks.  First I ran a disk 'speed test'.  Here is the results


Next for some real world tests.  First, I encoded a multicam dance performance
from AVCHD(FS700/100/VG20) to DVD using the default 'DVD' settings in
FCP X's 'Share' menu.  The timeline was about 1 hour and 22 minutes long.
And it took.....14 minutes to compress it to DVD!  But alas, I forgot to take
screenshots, and by the time I remembered, the project had already went out to
the client.  Yikes!  Luckily, I was just about to start another project.  This was
a multicamera play/performance.  It was 24 minutes long.  And it encoded from
AVCHD (FS700/100/VG20) to DVD using the same default 'DVD' settings
in FCP X's 'Share' menu in....5 minutes!  It literally is so fast that I click on
'Share' and by the time I can click the keyboard shortcut to take a screenshot
(Command/Shift/4) and take the screenshot.....the timeline is already 5% finished!


(See, in the above picture it is already 5% done in the time it took me to click 3 keys!)


(Started at 12:24 and finished with the encode at 12:29!)

So there you have it.  A 2009 Mac Pro, upgraded from a stock quad core 2.66Ghz model
to a six core 3.46Ghz,  a GPU upgraded to a 980Ti (6GB) GPU, and a couple SSD drives
which are on a PC card.  Not bad, not bad at all.  It's an older computer, but it can still
give the 'new kids' a run for their money.  As a basketball fan, I saw today that one of my
favorite players just announced his retirement.  Tim Duncan, who was still ballin and 
showing the young guys how it was done this past NBA season has hung it up.  I'll miss
watching him play.  He wasn't a showman and didn't talk a bunch of junk, he just went
out and performed like a 5 time NBA champ.  Truly an end of an era! And when this 
old Mac Pro finally retires I'll miss it too.  They really don't make them like this anymore.
I may just have to rename my edit computer 'The Big Fundamental'.

Gabe Strong
Cinematographer/Editor/Owner
G-Force Productions Digital Cinema



Friday, January 15, 2016

Changing reality....

Sometimes when you are shooting a video....things
just don't work out for you.  Craft services forgets
your prime rib.  The star actor steals your director's chair.
A moose knocks over the rented Red Epic that you leave
for 'just a second' mounted on the tripod, while you look for
the caterer and the star actor so you can give them a piece of
your mind.  Or, even more our of the realm of belief.......you
have a sunny day in SE Alaska!

So, in this case I was working on a promo video for an
afterschool program.  The script called for some shots, showing
depressed kids, looking out the windows of their house,
while rain ran down the window.  Creating a dreary mood.
How was I to know that when we FINALLY got permission
from the parents to shoot, that it would decide to be a beautiful
sunny day?  Juneau is in the middle of a rainforest, if there is anything
you can depend on,......it's rain!  Except for when you can't.
Not having the option to reschedule the shoot, I decided to
do what every good cinematographer would do.  Just shoot and
and tell them that they can 'fix it in post'.  Except in this case.....I was
doing post as well!  Oops...what was that stupid cinematographer thinking??
Anyways, after the shoot was done, here is what the shots looked like.


Sun...sun.....and more sun.  How did this happen!?



Not exactly the mood we were going for!  Now to start poking
around to find out what can be done in post.  First, a little color
correction.  And push everything a little towards the blue, so it
doesn't look so sunny.  Next, how to make some rain?  I edit
in Final Cut Pro, but there is a great little companion program to Final
Cut Pro called Motion.  And I found a nice filter in Motion called 'Water Pane'
which looked like it did just what I needed.  It would put water drops
on a simulated window.  This filter is in Final Cut Pro as well, but often, this
type of thing is easier to do in Motion (kind of the poor man's After Effects).
In Motion, you can draw masks in, motion track, and all sorts of things.  Anyways,
after I duplicated the filter so I could create my own tweaked version (you usually
don't want to just use these filters 'stock') I dropped it on the clips.  But something
wasn't quite right.




So in the above picture, it looks like the window is behind
him.  You can see that if you look at the water running in the
areas the red arrows are pointing towards, on his ear and shoulder.
Obviously, in this shot, we want it to look like we are inside, looking
over his shoulder, out of a window, and that is NOT what it looks like!



Next, in the above picture, it looks like you are looking out of a
window at the subject.  In this case, we want it to look like he is looking
out a window at us.  Again, note the water running in areas where it
wouldn't be running (as pointed out by the red arrows) if he was
looking out a window at us.  So now, we just need to mask off the
areas where we don't want water to appear.  In other words, we create
a 'mask' where the water is 'allowed' to appear.  Easy to do by drawing
a mask in Motion.


In these two pictures, the mask, is the area which is red.  This is
where the water is 'allowed' to show.



And suddenly everything works!





Just for comparison's sake, here is a little video showing 'before' and 'after'.






And that is just a quick little example of how a person can 
change the 'reality' of the shoot, in post.  If you would like to see
the entire video, it is here:





Gabe Strong
Cinematographer/Editor/Owner
G-Force Productions Digital Cinema