Musings on the Steadicam

If I emailed this to you, it’d be spam
but you came to my website and clicked a link. Damn!

Read on about my favorite deed,
that is: playing the trusty favored steed

to a Steadicam! (pause) Is this new?
No, it’s been a dream I knew

for too long! First, Sling Blade in ’96
Steadicam through the swamp, a long tracking two shot – SICK!

And ROCKY II! Watching Sly mount Philly, I knew:
I could run up stairs with a stick, too!

THE SHINING, Jack’s face on Memorial Drive
prompting Calgary commuters to see stability thrive

and amaze with uncle Stanley’s advice. Kubrick
that is, whose wide angle lens already the rubrick

that brought light and composition to the filmmaking party.
He’s always on my shoulder, a camera just partly.

Raise a glass to the evolution of the art!
And Agnes Varda, whose unctuous visual farts

nonetheless feature not one accidental frame,
and for that reason, on my left shoulder, she reigns.

Now, decades later, I’ve trained enough.
Tested too (some tests were rough).

Work for this year now at ends,
Nothing left but good cheer and friends.

Oh. And! Love of physical activity!
Back to the point, RE: Steadi –

As an early-year joke, the kit’s bespoke!
Customized, ridden to you and free*, it’s true!

My coming out green gift.
Book today and lets share a lift!

Willing to ride east or west –
If it takes days, I’ll rest!

Or take rails! Why? I’m launching (unproven, needing a valid test);
the profit’s to reinvest in a Klassen vest.

When I arrive for you, fit and ready,
I’ll strive, to do my best
you supply the rest
or put our kit to the test.

*Steadicam kit only (Other kit & lights not free.
Remember, IATSE!). Limited time only.

Alexa Mini

I still remember seeing Alexa footage for the first time. I had just been grading a number of projects shot on F900R, HVX200, and 7D.

To my then-jaundiced eyes, seeing the smooth roll-off and deep color of the sweaty flowers in that Alexa footage, at just 1080p… I was in love!

At the time that camera was out of the question.  When the Amira came out, I attended the seminar again, and this year, with the introduction of the Alexa Mini, suddenly the price of that fab sensor and electronics came into range.

Nevermind all the gack you need to carry it, I was compelled.

Now if anyone knows how to blow your socks off quietly, it’s Arri. Their presentations are always immaculate, everyone is on time (well there was that once with the thing on the Gardiner), shirts and pants pressed, and the footage is crisp.

This time, as with the Amira presentation, we got to view things on a 4k projector.  In the Amira demo, we were only able to view in 1080p. Even at 1080P, the architectural details rendered in their demo, and the astoundingly clean, rich colour in Bill Bennett’s aerials: love all over again.  There was a bit of showboating: did we need to see that many intersecting lines in the architecture?  Did we need to see the propeller turn in those aerials?  Yes we did!  The new tech highlight in that Amira demo was the new wide angle zoom. Clean and bright from corner to corner, the lens housing is physically long because it uses a light field to achieve this previously impossible clarity.  I didn’t ask about the price.

But this article is about the Alexa Mini.  After the technical presentation, we got to see another demo video from Europe, another demo from LA. Both beautiful with great color and pleasing detail.  The mini has the same 3.2K sensor you know and love, and their internal ND wheel with Arri’s superior ND filter.  The body was shown rigged up in several configurations for handheld, fluid head, on a Movi, and Octocopter.

Aside from the easy recording to CFast cards, my favorite development is the integrated follow focus system. It will present a real threat to Preston Fiz.   Notably missing from the demo setups was a Steadicam. For that application you might have to add weight, but the boxy form factor means it’s easy to customize and balance.

After, during the fun part, we test drove David Dvir’s Movi while he supervised and clucked at our inferior skills.  As with a drone, it’s a trick to navigate the image from a different perspective than the one your head is at.  In the distance, an Octocopter hung from a large frame ready to mate to the Movi. I was hoping they would fire it up, but that didn’t happen while I was there.

I walked away convinced of everything except the 3.2 sensor on the Mini.

Lighting Secrets and the Panasonic Varicam 35

We were lucky enough to attend a workshop on the Panasonic Varicam 35 at SIM Digital this fall.

For any of you who scoffed at the all-in-one DVX200, the Panasonic Varicam 35 is the long awaited answer to entries in the digital cinema camera market by Sony, Canon, Red, Arri, Blackmagic, Digital Bolex, AJA, Kinefinity, DJI. It’s a crowded market and for an operator there is a lot to know.

If you’ve been to these seminars and “workshops” then you may already know what passes for a seminar is usually a pretty slick sales presentation with a bit of technical jargon and a bare minimum of learning. Usually the highlight will be a little hands-on time where some nervous product reps stand by.

In between all of this tech talk, someone like me will try to glean as much info as I can on how a DP handles their day-to-day jobs.

Theo Van de Sande, ASC, openly shared his career journey interwoven with a brief history of motion picture imaging technology. Thankfully, as regarded the camera, he stuck to just what we needed to know about the Varicam and real-world workflow. Then, he got into the meat of things, sharing a broad selection of frame grabs from different series, with primary corrections done on the grabs. Along the way he shared his lighting setups for each frame.

It felt remarkable to see footage this clean and colourful at 5000 ISO. The existing entries already have amazing, but not always pleasing performance in low light; so much so that you might easily forget you have your ND3 on, but the footage at that ISO looks mushy and soft before you work it.  Yes, you can shoot a film with moonlight, but that doesn’t mean the colors will look great or that you’ll achieve pleasing (or any) highlights.  The high ISO performance thus becomes a tool for specific scenes or looks.

The Varicam is a different beast entirely. With 2 native ISOs, 5000 and 800, it is able to see a scene with pleasing color in low light, and still render accurate color.  And, it can record it all to 2 slots at once in 4K and HD simultaneously, and/or sending a raw signal to a proprietary Codex unit tethered to the camera. In Van de Sande’s hands, we saw how a DP can use the 5000 ISO sensor to radically reduce the amount of lighting required for indoor and outdoor scenes.  It was Panasonic’s color that brought me to the workshop, and I was not disappointed.  Van de Sande even provided the requisite frame of a scene lit by candlelight.

Ergonomically it’s a tube-shaped aluminum-bodied camera, nodding in the direction of a cat-on-the shoulder, hefty and seemingly well balanced, with consideration given to the weight of a cine-zoom.  Notably one demo unit sat on a hefty sandwich of 4 plates.

At the end, almost as an afterthought, we watched the sizzle reel of some car footage shot from a Russian arm. It was pretty. But after all those shared secrets and seeing, just as one example, a massive city bridge lit only by an 800 par can, the car demo felt a little anticlimactic… just a white car, cruising through the night streets. Sorry about the strobing, said Theo.  It was easy to forget how much dynamic range went into an image that clean.  I saw no blocking but a bit of noise. We got to see it with the noise and then again with the noise removed on that lovely 4K projector.

With all that said, the best part was running into Chris, the broadcast service technician at Panasonic in Toronto.  Fond memories of DVX100 repairs from days gone by.

The presentation did it for me. My thirst for an Alexa Mini just got a little less intense.