The Making of a Movie with a DSLR

It’s been a wild ride since I first began this journey of making a feature film with a DSLR camera – in my case, the Canon Eos 5D Mark II. I had already completed three short documentaries to date – all made with traditional video cameras from my first Canon XL-1 to my current HD Sony EX-1. But this time I was heading out on a 99-day journey around the globe, with my 23 year old daughter in search of ordinary people on six continents, who were making a difference in the world, and we had to pack light.

We were “the crew” – the two of us. We had to work efficiently and with gear that would fit into two backpacks and would endure the adventure as we traveled to 17 different countries on 30 flights. I also wanted to shoot both still images and motion, so I opted for the DSLR solution. Of course, I was enchanted by the “big chip” and the cinematic look of these cameras, but I was also thinking of my gear in practical terms – how I was traveling – how I would be shooting – and of course the desired outcome.

You can read more about the gear I took here.

So with my daughter “running sound”, doing the interviews with our subjects, shooting still images, and navigating us through the subway systems in Moscow and Buenos Aires, and me taking care of all the logistics and  shooting both video and stills, we came back 99 days later with almost 3000 gigabytes of content – that’s approx. 150 hours of footage and 5000 still image captures!

I wasn’t mentally prepared for what came next and that was 2 intensive months on my part ingesting all the content into my editing system, transcoding and adding metadata to the files and culling through hours of interview soundbites until I had cut it down to three . It was grueling and my winter months were spent putting in 14 hour days – 7 days a week. I was overwhelmed, yet somehow driven by some force.  It was a lot of work, it was tedious and it was daunting – but yet it was my passion and somehow this inexplicable “force” got me through it.

I raised money along the way through crowd funding on Kickstarter and with that, I hired an editor. After I handed the project off to my editor, Erik Freeland of Springhouse Films, there was a huge sigh of relief on my part. I knew the post production had a long way to go but, I also knew that I had to let it go for a while and step back. Working with Erik has been amazing in itself and he has brought enormous value to this project and film. I have learned a lot from his insights and his talents in knowing how to” tell a story”, and we are finally coming to the completion of this film. Or at least in getting the “first cut” done for a sneak preview on July 17th, at the State Theater in Traverse City, Michigan. The screening is by invitation only and if you would like to attend, just drop me an email at gail@openingoureyes.net and tell me how many people would like to attend.

Since I first dreamed up this project in the final days of 2009, to the departure of our trip in the Spring of 2010, to where we are now, it has been a continual journey on every level imaginable. And I have had many angels working on my behalf – my husband Tom Kelly who has been the “wind beneath my wings” and without his support none of this would have been possible, my extended family who have been amused over the years with my schemes and dreams, my dear friends Angel Burns and Ally Raye who have believed in me and this project and have made incredibly exciting things happen for this film. (I’m not quite ready to divulge some of those exciting things publicly, just yet), Maria Grillo and Jason Harvey at The Grillo Group who have been so giving with their time and talents and created all the graphic design for the film’s release, and so many other “angels” who have helped me with foreign translations, been financial backers, helped me spread the word globally, and every person who was there for me when I needed support and encouragement. I am deeply grateful to have all these people in my life.

We live in an empowering time. When I began my career as a still photographer, over 30 years ago, I never would have imagined doing any of this. In fact just two years ago, none of this would have been possible. Our dreams are as big as we want them to be. I have seen this dream clearly from the start and each day I get closer and closer to seeing it become a reality.

Watch the Trailer

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Photo Plus Expo 2010 Etc.

What a difference a year makes.  I’ve been going to Photo Expo since it started, whenever that was some 20 or 30 years ago. It used to be held at the Coliseum, New York’s old convention center, when it was much smaller.  Over the years Photo Expo got bigger and bigger, with huge sections of the floor devoted to lab equipment and hundreds of other booths displaying everything from cameras to computer software.

The last few years the Expo has gotten smaller.  Gone is all the lab equipment of course, but also not present are some of the big vendors like Adobe and Apple.  This year was the first year there was another photographic event happening simultaneously, called “Shoot NYC….an advanced photography forum”.  This event was hosted by Hasselblad and Broncolor, and just few blocks away from Javits. I didn’t get a chance to get down there but I heard rave reviews from those who went saying it felt like it was geared more for the “professional”.

One difference I have noticed over the years of attending Photo Expo is the shift in the attendees, more toward retail photographers and prosumers. That was reflected both on the floor and in the seminar selections. There was an entire seminar track this year devoted to weddings and portraits. Another sign of the times was seeing an entire seminar track devoted to video and multimedia, as opposed to one or two seminar choices in previous years. I could only find one seminar this year about stock photography; actually it was about microstock in particular. That’s a big change from when there were a dozen seminars relating to stock photography to choose from.

I presented a seminar with Paula Lerner called “Multimedia and Video” and was part of a panel for a seminar called “Ethics and Photography” which was streamed live globally, but I did find time to sit in on a couple of very interesting sessions.  One of my favorites was “Affordably Simple Marketing”, given by Juliette Wolf Robin.  She provided a lot of terrific tangible information.   I also enjoyed seeing and hearing Lauren Greenfield talking about her documentary work.  And even though I’m not a teacher, I found “Teaching in the 21st Century” quite interesting.  As always Blake Discher’s seminar on “Sales and Negotiating for Photographers” was fantastic and fresh. I also attended ASMP‘s annual member meeting where Tom Kennedy spoke about the new media landscape which was right on target.

The floor was smaller and as mentioned before, Adobe and Apple not present.  Canon and Nikon had a lot of action and interest with their hybrid DSLR cameras as expected and I saw a lot more third party gear for the hybrids displayed – Zacuto rigs, Redrock Micro rigs, and Glidecams, along with fluid head video tripods.  This trend is not going away and in fact isn’t a trend at all, as we move more and more toward electronic publishing with magazines scrambling to produce versions for the iPad and get their app designed.

The annual “bash” was more of a bust, leaving people hungry and thirsty due to no food being offered (except bags of potato chips) and a cash bar.  It was held at the Intrepid, which sounded like it was going to be interesting, but not a great venue for a party.  But it was nice to see my friends and colleagues and catch up with them.

It will be interesting to see what this event will look like next year – I can only guess that there will be plenty more changes.

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My Love/Hate Relationship – Shooting Video With a DSLR

I’ve just spent the last 2 weeks intensely editing my footage shot on my 99-day journey around the world, shooting my passion project, Opening Our Eyes.  I wanted to get a trailer ready for the PhotoCine Expo that I’ll be speaking at this weekend in Los Angeles. I knew that I couldn’t possibly go through all 2900 gigabytes of content (145 hours), let alone cull it down to a finished sample in two weeks time.  So, I took a friend’s advice and decided to focus on only two of my ten subjects that I interviewed and shot b-roll on.

Even with going through only 20 percent of my footage has been a grueling and exhausting two weeks.  But it’s also given me a much better sense of working with and analyzing the files that come out of the Canon 5D Mark II and 7D.

Some of my loves:

  1. I love the picture quality
  2. I absolutely love the picture quality
  3. You can’t beat the picture quality

It’s true, the picture quality is stunning and worth putting up with SOME of the workarounds, depending on what type of job I’m working on.  If I’m shooting a corporate event and I need to record longer than 12-minute intervals, which is the case when someone is giving a talk, then I would opt not to use a DSLR because of the limitations on the duration of a clip.  And, regardless of the type of job I shoot, editing the files from these cameras is tedious because I need to transcode them into a file that will play well in Final Cut Pro.

Some of my hates:

  1. 12 minute clip duration – this really needs to change in the next generation of these hybrids in order to make it a more       workable camera
  2. Audio – Canon really needs to come up with a more professional solution for capturing good audio with the video on           one card.  I have used a JuidedLink pre-amp with a gain disabler on it but it’s still not as good as the audio I get when         I capture it to a separate digital recorder – in my case the Samson H4N Zoom.
  3. Having to transcode all the files into a codec like Apple Pro Res so that I can edit in FCP without stutters, stops and             drop frames.
  4. Stabilization is an issue but a solvable one thanks to rigs from Zacuto. And of course you can always use a tripod – and       really should if the situation warrants.

I’m sure I’ll come to other conclusions as I dig deeper into my content and I’ll share my thoughts as I continue to immerse myself in the post production part of this film.

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HDSLR in the Field – Recap of The First 70 Days of 99 Day Project Around the World (Tales of an Insomniac)

I woke up at 4 AM this morning after only a few hours of sleep – my body going through some major jet lag after over 22 hours of flying from Sydney, Australia to New York City via Los Angeles. Yesterday, my full day back, was spent taking care of essentials – like getting my gear to Canon for a full check up and cleaning,

Gear for my first go round.

and a visit to the Apple Genius Bar because my new laptop seems to have a living organism living behind the monitor which shrinks and grows depending on the climate I’m in, and of course taking care of my own personal needs.

As I lay awake in the pre-dawn hours, my mind was spinning with thoughts on what I had to get done before heading to South America on Saturday for the second leg of our documentary Opening Our Eyes. I have only 4 days to recuperate, rest up and gear up for the next leg. The bad part is, I’ve only got 4 days – the good part is, I have those 4 days, and can approach the second leg of this journey with the advantage of having a fresh experience in the field to draw from and make some changes in terms of gear I’m taking on the next leg. More importantly, because my turn around is short, I’m able to stay focused and remain in the mindset of the project.

So as I go over the gear that I brought on my first leg with lessons learned in my head and prepare for the next stint, I’ll share my thoughts with you:

• A good tripod is critical – if you don’t have a decent tripod for video, you can’t get fluid movement, so don’t even try. A locked down shot is better than a jerky shot in motion. I needed to travel light with all the flights that I faced, so I went for a carbon tripod with a fluid head that would fit in a suitcase to eliminate the need for another check on bag. So, for this next leg, I’m seriously thinking of taking my larger tripod because I don’t have as many flights where excess baggage charges could mount up.

• You can never have enough batteries when shooting with a DSLR workflow and by that I mean everything from the camera batteries (and buy lots of them if you can find them for the Canon 5D and 7D) to the expendables for the  DT454 JuicedLink audio preamp, which takes 9 volts to the Samson H4N Zoom which takes AA’s.  By the way, speaking of batteries, don’t make the mistake I made once by not powering the H4N Zoom off before changing the batteries. The manual mentions that by doing so, files can get corrupted. A couple of my audio files did get corrupted – the information was there, but it couldn’t be read.

• I’m leaving my over priced Nikon to Canon lens converter, along with my old Nikon glass at home – I never used them – never felt the need for what I was shooting.

• Can’t wait to edit my timelapse material that I shot using the Canon 7D camera and the Canon timer remote controller TC-80N3.

• I want to get more attachments for my GoPro Hero Cam because there are so many ways to use this camera – it’s amazing and I’m having a ball thinking of all the possibilities in how I can use it. The Hero cam will always be part of my gear kit.

• Always check what audio cords you’ll be needing. I embarrassed to say that I carried around my wireless kit but couldn’t use it with the Zoom because I needed a mini to male XLR cord  and didn’t have it.

• Take 10-20% more memory storage than you think you will need when you’re shooting video. Video is a memory glut. I had been warned by some people that the Lacie Rugged hard drives that I were taking with me, didn’t have a very good track record – but as I write this, my content backups from my Lacie Rugged drives ( over 2000 gigabytes (doubled) ) are transferring to my desktop OWC terabyte drives and seem to be fine so the Lacies did their job. However, they are bulky and I’m going to be getting a couple of 500 gig drives that are more compact. Any suggestions for compact firewire external drives?

• Wish I bought the follow focus with my Zacuto rig. It’s expensive but would have been a real added bonus for visually highlighting one of the beauties of these cameras – the depth of field range that they have.

• Also wish I had a portable dolly like the Indislider but just couldn’t fit it in this trip. As it was, there were some items that I didn’t need to take and will be leaving behind this next leg.

• Wish I brought more mini tools – screwdrivers, allan wrenches etc.

• My Blackberry Tour Verizon phone blew me away. Even when I was in the northern hill tribe villages of Thailand, staying in a bamboo hut without electricity and plumbing – I was able to get my email on my phone! I’m impressed Verizon – I really am. Finding electricity to charge my phone was another matter.

• I could not have survived the 30 flights circling around the world i if I didn’t have my iPod. Thanks Apple.

Feel free to comment and share your thoughts of what has or hasn’t worked for you in the field and you can save me from making potential mistakes as I take on my next leg of this Journey August 7th. We are first headed to the Amazon area of Peru and then down to Buenos Aires, Argentina – again two diverse areas in terms of culture and climate.

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Packing for 3-Month HDSLR Shoot – Too Much or Too Little?

When I embarked on my 3-month journey to create a documentary Opening Our Eyes, I posted a blog entry about what I was packing. http://tiny.cc/7pc9f

I received quite a few comments – publicly posted and otherwise and many people remarked that I was taking too much. After one month into this sojourn, I thought perhaps an update would be in order.

The main verdict is – my hunches were pretty much on target and I didn’t over pack. Sure it’s a lot to carry – but there are two of us and it all fits into two medium sized photo backpacks. I have used all the lenses that I brought except my old Nikon fixed lenses that I planned to use with the converter. Those I could have left behind – but the trip is not over yet so I’ll have to wait on that determination.

Bringing two camera bodies is a must if only from a back up point of view but when shooting stills as well as video, it’s a lot faster to have one dedicated for video and one for stills, especially when shooting with the Zacuto Z-Finder and rig.

And bringing two laptops has proven to be a very smart move. I had recently purchased a new Mac laptop with the latest operating system and there have been numerous times when I could not connect with the Internet – but the older laptop (2 years old) has had no problems. That and with limited Internet time, when we are able to get online, having two computers has saved a lot of arguments over computer time between my daughter and myself. We take full advantage in the airline club lounges to upload items and check email while waiting for flights. I have also had to rely on my extra laptop battery for the older Mac as the original battery was no longer holding a charge for more than an hour.

My audio equipment is sufficient and I am constantly switching back and forth between capturing my audio directly to the camera cards with the JuicedLink DT454 and separately with the H4n Zoom. One item I do not have that I really need is a male-to-male XLR cord. I found out that I couldn’t use my wireless set with either the JuicedLink or the Zoom because they both need male ends and I only have male to female XLR cords. I keep thinking there must be a solution that I’m overlooking so if someone has any thoughts – please let me know.

The small Matthews boom stand rig that I put together is terrific. It was meant to be used for table top studio shooting but for me it is perfect because it breaks down into multiple pieces, is light weight and easy to use.

I’m backing everything up onto two hard drives and I have just now used up the first two (500 G) drives. That leaves me with 6 more drives which is just about perfect depending on how much I will shoot.

Lastly, my iPod has helped with my sanity on these long flights and layovers and my Blackberry Tour phone has worked everywhere and it simply amazes me. Many times it has been our only connection to home. So I have to give kudos to Verizon and their global service. I’m truly impressed. Still a lot of remote places to go – so we’ll see how well it does as we move on.

I stop and think about the equipment we are carrying and the new technology and how this would not have been possible just 5 years ago. It’s an amazing time we live in and I’m taking full advantage of it. Can’t wait to see what the future will bring.

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My DSLR Kit for a Three-Month Road Trip

For those who have been following this blog you know that I’m getting ready to depart for a 3-month trip around the world creating a documentary with my daughter – Opening Our Eyes.  Here is what I’ve managed to fit into two backpacks – it just fits.  Thank goodness there’s two of us.
Please follow our journey http://www.openingoureyes.wordpress.com

Canon 5D Mark II
Canon 7D
Canon 16-35mm 2.8
Canon 24-70mm 2.8
Canon 70-200mm 2.8
Canon 70-300mm 4.5
Canon 1.4X tele extender
Canon 2X tele extender
Nikon/Canon lens adaptor
Nikkor 14mm rectilinear lens f2.8
Nikkor 50mm 1.4
Nikkor 85mm f2
6 Batteries for Canon
1 Battery grip for 5D
3 Battery chargers
Remote control for Canon
AC adaptor for Canon
Rycote Hot shoe extension
4 – 16 GB flash cards – all cards – Sandisk UGMA
4 – 8 GB flash cards
2 – 8 GB SDHC cards
2  – 4 GB SDHD cards
Neutral density filter kit
Polarizer
Epson P6000 digital wallet
Zoom H4n digital audio recorder
JuicedLink DT454  audio preamp
Rode shotgun mic
Tram lav mic
Sennheiser Transmitter/Wireless kit
“Dead Cats” (windscreens)
XLR cords
Headphones
HD Hero helmet camera with attachments
Flip HD
ManfrottoTripod and fluid head
Small Matthews boom stand for mic
Reflector
Zacuto Z-Finder

Zacuto Striker Rig
Flex DSLR remote
Lacie Rugged Hard drives – 4000 GB memory!
Firewire and USB cords
3 – card readers
2 MacBookPro Laptops
1 extra laptop battery
1 extra AC adaptor for laptop
Kindle
iPod
Blackberry Tour
2 Scotte Vests – with 22 pockets in each

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Shooting With the Canon 5D Mark II

Two weeks from today, I will depart for a 99-day journey circling the globe working on a passion project Opening Our Eyes.  It will be both an adventure and a humbling experience.  But right now I’m getting down to the wire and trying to tie up a million loose ends.

This past weekend, I took a break from the details to attend the wedding of my nephew – my sister’s oldest son.

Chris and Trish Saal ©Thomas Kelly

I thought this would be a great opportunity to really do a test run with my new Canon 5D Mark II with the Zacuto rig Striker.  I wanted to capture good audio as well so I ran the Rode mic via XLR connection to the JuicedLink DT454.  To be honest, I was going to capture the audio two different ways – via the JuicedLink and also straight from the mic to the camera via mini jack, but I forgot to bring the XLR to mini jack cord so I ended up capturing all my audio via the JuicedLink. Because the 5D has had a firmware upgrade where I was able to turn off the AGC, I used the JuicedLink with the AGC disabler turned off. But until Canon issues a firmware upgrade for the 7D that allows you to turn off the AGC, you can use the JuicedLink to disable it.

Ultimately this combination was a nice way of working candidly.  I had the Rode mic and JuicedLink attached to an extender on the top of the camera, although I will probably attach the JuicedLink to the Zacuto rig in the future, leaving just the mic on the camera’s hot shoe.  But either way, I was able to get good ambient sound and/or spontaneous sound bites from people. I had done previous testing to know that I first needed to calibrate the camera audio by going into manual settings and dialing the audio down half way.  Then I dialed the volume down on the JuicedLink to whatever setting is necessary according to the meter levels.  In a noisy atmosphere with loud music like a wedding reception, I had it dialed way down.  You never want “hot” audio where the volume levels are spiked.

The image is simply stunning and I am really sold on the look. I shot in late afternoon sunlight as well as on a dark dance floor and the camera handled both beautifully.  The Striker rig with the Zacuto Z-Finder Pro 3Xworked great for stabilization and I didn’t find the focusing to be as hard as I thought it would be.  The Z-Finder Pro 3X is very sharp with built in diopters.  The striker is light and with the camera strap around my neck, it was easy to be in standby mode, relieving some of the stress on my hands.

I did notice though that I tended to start shooting more with a still “moment” mentality rather than in video/motion b-roll.  When I shoot video I have a mantra running through my head to “shoot and move” – meaning shoots lots of variations, from wide shots to close-ups from a variety of angles.  When shooting at the reception I found myself defaulting to one spot – rather than covering the angles and focal lengths, but then again I was caught up in the “personal” moment of the event so I wasn’t thinking too much about “getting the job done”.

All in all I have to say that I really loved working with this camera and I definitely love the “feel” of the images.  I can’t wait to really test it out over the next three months, and I’ll keep you posted.  See a short video “snippet”.

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