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#1 Michael Nash

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Posted 12 August 2005 - 01:52 AM

Hi everyone. I've been away for a while but I'm now looking forward to getting involved in the discussions again.

I recently wrapped season four as DP of "How Do I Look?" on the Style Network, part of E! Entertainment. I actually came onboard in the middle of season three in January, finished the last few episodes and after only a two week hiatus went straight into 13 episodes of season 4. It's been a bit of a new experience shooting a TV series as opposed to doing one long project with variation (like a feature) or multiple short projects all with their own look. It's a three-camera digibeta shoot with some standing sets and some location work, but the show is otherwise very formatted and involves the same scenes every week. I could write a blog about that show alone, and perhaps I will.

But right now I want to write about the current production I'm shooting called "Loading Zone," a sketch comedy show. It's in the tradition of "Kids in the Hall" and "Mr. Show;" where the sketches all tie together in some thematic way, yet each sketch has its own unique look and style. Unlike shows like SNL or MadTV, where the sketches are performed theater-style on a stage, we are instead including the form and look of the thing we're lampooning into the humor of the sketch. The looks so far have included TV news, 16mm documentary, old B&W 35mm, bleach-bypass film, and old tube-camera Umatic cable commercial. It's really putting me through my paces as DP because I have to create completely different looks in a convincing (and funny) way for each sketch.

On a very modest budget we knew there was no way we could afford to rent the equipment of all those various formats, so I looked for a more streamlined approach. We considered shooting some stuff on MiniDV, some on DVCAM, and a little in some flavor of 24P video. In the end I decided that the Panasonic SDX-900 was flexible enough to deliver all of those looks (in conjunction with some post tweaking) and give us a high standard of quality for broadcast or DVD release.

Unfortunately the start date for the seven-day shoot butted right up against the wrap date of "How Do I Look?", so I got no time to prep the camera package. And since this is one of those "labor of love" indy projects (technically a student film), there was no budget for a camera assistant. We have since gotten some well qualified people to donate their time, but the schedule at the start was so jammed we didn't have anyone when we needed them the most.

Day one:
After only a few hours sleep I showed up on set and dived right into the camera's menus to start tweaking the look for the first sketch. Now I was familiar with the camera and the controls it offered, but had no previous time to fine tune anything. So I was painting with pretty broad strokes just to get us going. The first sketch on the schedule was a spoof of a disturbing trend of content in American sitcoms, several of which are shot in 24P HD with the Sony F-900. So that meant 24P (not 24PA, as the show will remain exclusively in 60i), and that warm "Sony" look.

Right away the first thing you notice about the Panasonic camera (same with the Varicam) is that the picture is just so perfectly clean and neutral, with amazing color and contrast reproduction. Even though the specs say it delivers a picture that's merely 450x750 (a pixel count below that of its digibeta counterparts), it looks "too good." It needed some dumbing down. I dialed in 24P / 4:3 / 50mb, Filmlike 2 gamma, and brought the master gamma back up to .35 to give that slightly brighter sitcom look. That may not be technically correct for the way the sitcom cameras are actually set up, but for our purposes it created the right look. But the color was still too neutral, even cold looking for that orange-y sitcom look. Rather than white balance warmer and have it look like I shot through an 812 filter, I wanted to change the bias of the image. I found the quick fix to emulate a Sony camera was to adjust the R-B gamma. I dialed down the red gamma to -10 (which actually INcreases the red saturation and level in the mids) and upped the blue value a similar amount (biasing toward yellow). The SDX does not allow adjustment of the Green gamma alone but you can massage the three levels via R-B gamma and master gamma. It was amazing the difference that made; all of a sudden the image screamed "sitcom." There's actually a drawback to adjusting the color via the gamma which I'll discuss later, but as I said I was painting with broad strokes. Given more time I'd prefer to go into the matrix and adjust colors individually to emulate other cameras.

I didn't have time to get into the detail settings, so I just eyeballed the master level, winding up back at zero anyway. I figured since I was spoofing HD/TV and not film, I could get away with some slight telltale edge enhancement. It wasn't critical that the image looking convincingly like film or hold up under big screen projection.

The next location was an exterior on a tree-lined street, for the same sketch. By this time it was midday with toppy light broken up by the trees (the schedule couldn't be helped, and I'd still be dealing with broken sunlight and tree shadows even in the afternoon). We didn't have permits to block the street nor the lights to fill in sunlight anyway, so I knew I'd have to use the camera to make the most of the available light. I blocked the action to stay in the shadows as much as possible, and tried to frame against broken up light rather than sunlight. I stuck with Filmlike2 gamma to squeeze the most out of the highlights, and brought up the black stretch to +2 to make sure I got as much detail on tape as possible. I'm always cautious when using black stretch because it's essentially a gain boost for the shadows, which means noise in the picture. But the SDX is so clean that noise didn't appear to be a problem. The end result looked good, but will no doubt require some color- and gamma-correction in post to polish the look.

The next setup was for an entirely different sketch, designed to look like 16mm hand-held documentary with some "dodgy" color under fluorescent lights. The sketch is supposed to feel a little more gritty, and the director and I had discussed crushing the blacks and adding noise via gain, but the sketch also included some green screen so I knew I'd have to shoot clean and futz with the look in post. We actually shot the green screen material first, the foreground being a practical doorway under ambient fluorescents. Through the doorway we see the green screen. Fortunately the room we were using had 10' ceilings, so we could stretch our 12'x green to fill up the room. I lit it with just two 650 fresnels bounced off the white walls behind the doorway, augmented with some plusgreen for good measure. For the foreground I used a fluorescent shoplight with tubes pulled out of the practical fixtures in the adjacent room, where the final comp is supposed to take place. I wanted to preserve as much of that fluorescent look as possible, without completely boning myself on the green in the picture. Under tungsten preset the green screen still looked a little desaturated, so I tried boosting the green saturation in the camera's matrix. I noticed on a subsequent green screen setup that this seems to add some noise to the green, so again I'm hoping I didn't screw myself out of a clean comp.

We then went on to a counter zoom/dolly shot -- whatever you call that, I've heard five different names -- where you dolly in and zoom out simultaneously. Bear in mind this is a comedy, so there's no such thing as "over the top." To keep the budget down we went with a simple doorway dolly with skate wheels and track from Wooden Nickel (where the rest of the G&E package came from).

The rest of the day was the documentary style stuff under practical fluorescents. Since we had very little grip and electric help that day I was running around doing most of the lighting myself, while simultaneously acting as "DIT" for this wonderful camera. I made sure to get the technically challenging setups out of the way first, so that we would "die" on something easy (handheld and available light) so that what help we did have could wrap out the rest of the gear.

Day two:
Several sketches in a studio, all made to look like Betacam, so I switched back to 60i and standard gamma, set at .45. This time I needed to cool off the look a little, so I inverted the R-B gamma, adding blue and subtracting red from the mids. For some reason the image still looked too clean, and I finally realized the camera's native "toe" or black gamma is much too neutral and film-like on its own. I actually had to crush the black stretch to -1 to get the image to look like a Sony broadcast camera. Part of the first sketch had an actor in prosthetic makeup and some additional shading to make him look like a well-known public figure. The effect was only partly convincing so I turned on the skin tone detail to smooth out the variances in the makeup while still preserving their intended effect. This worked for the wide shot, but up close the makeup still needed some help. For some reason I was adjusting the R-B gamma while the director was looking at the monitor, and as I turned down the blue he said, "There! that really helped the makeup, whatever you just did!" I had stumbled upon the fact that excess blue and not enough red makes a rough face look even rougher -- stands to reason of course, it's like using some kind of cosmetic filter to even out skin tones. So I set the R-B gamma more neutral for the makeup even though it didn't exactly match the wide shots.

We did some more green screen with simple foreground action, but this was a piece of cake given that the studio was pretty much pre-lit from a grid for this anyway.

The bulk of the rest of the day involved a chase sequence with a puppet, and let me tell you this kind of thing is where productions just grind to a standstill. Fortunately the sequence was well storyboarded so we all knew what we needed, but just getting the quick two-second shots with a puppet requires precision of a hundred little details. Timing, framing, and performance all have to be spot-on for the shot to work. Take after take after take while all the players (myself included, as camera op) worked to perfect the shot. The logistics alone of the puppeteer and the camera take up an inordinate amount of time. People say beware of working with kids, animals, and fire because they're difficult -- I'll add to that puppets (including animatronics). Pad PLENTY of time into your schedule as soon as you put puppetry in the mix. It becomes so bloody technical...

(continued)
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#2 Michael Nash

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Posted 12 August 2005 - 02:04 AM

Day three
Shooting on weekends only, I had some time off during the week to follow up on programming the camera. I also got time to do a proper prep on Friday at the rental house (Moviola). During this time I dialed in a pretty good "film" look and saved it as a scene file. The camera comes preset with a scene file called "filmlike" or something like that, but I deviated from their values a bit. Key is dialing down the H and V detail A LOT, and upping the detail frequency all the way. Since this is supposed to look like film telecine'd to video, it takes different values than if you're capturing detail for later output to film. I kept the pedestal at zero, upped the black stretch to +1, used the filmlike 1 gamma, .50 or so. You can vary the master gamma anywhere between the "normal" .45 and a softer .55 and still have a convincing film look; it's more a matter of what film stock you're trying to emulate. So I ended up using the master gamma as a final touch to blend the chosen knee, black stretch a gamma preset. If anything, putting the gamma too dark (.60) just makes the highlights that much brighter and harder to keep from clipping relative to exposure. I ended up shooting a day exterior with the gamma at either .45 or .50 (I wish I could remember which!) and the black stretch at +1, and I was amazed how beautiful and natural it looked. Things that I thought were going to clip or go muddy appeared completely natural.

We shot some more "TV news" interviews and I reverted to my warmer red gamma. For one setup against a window I filled the face with a chimera with full blue gel, only to find the image way too warm. I was on the correct filter for the conditions, and white balancing and adjusting the preset color temp could not correct it. I panned the camera off the face and out the window and everything looked fine, so I couldn't understand why my gelled, tungsten light was so warm. I rolled the exposure and there it was --DUH -- when you color correct via the gamma you're only affecting the mids and not the full luminance range. That's why the exterior appeared normal, because it was overexposed, while the face in the midtones went orange. I restored a normal R-B gamma and selected a different white balance and everything was fine. Just one of those things that I should have known better, but since I was overloaded with duties already I didn't account for it until it became a problem. So, note to self (and others); R-B gamma can be a quick fix to adjust color bias, but it's going to change the color of things relative to exposure. So for example if you're going to be shooting somewhere with white walls and choose to color correct this way, the wall color will visibly change with adjustments to exposure.

For another challenging shot against a window I raised the master gamma to .35 and underexposed just a touch to keep the highlights from clipping. The autoknee usually does a more pleasing job than what you can program manually, if only because it can do it so quickly and adaptively. But in this case some manual knee values I created the night before looked smoother (I think a POINT of 80%, SLOPE of 20, and CLIP of 100). When you raise the gamma you almost need to compensate for the flattened shadow region by taking the black stretch down a notch. This was in STD gamma.

This was the day that the Panasonic gremlins showed up. Since this was the second weekend we were shooting, it was a "fresh" camera rental and not even necessarily the same unit we had the week prior. Although Moviola appears to properly restore the default settings to the camera before they let it go out again, there are so many *little* adjustments possible with this camera that not everything was set the way I expected. First, the redundancy or overlapping of controls in the menus can get confusing, and locating the correct tier in the menus can be frustrating. I though for sure I had selected the correct playback settings, only to have a minor panic when it appeared we had no sound on tape (although we were recording sound externally as a backup). Turns out there's a little switch on the side of the camera that says "output" that was switched to "cam" instead of "VTR." I mean, whoever thought of turning OFF the ability to playback from the camera, especially when you can still see the PB image in the VF? Lessons learned.

Another big friggin' pain the a$$ is the inability to ride the audio pots on the camera while shooting. For one day we didn't have a mixer and figured we'd go straight into the camera with the mikes and ride the level on the camera, same as I often do in Betacam. Now I knew the Panasonic had a handy little feature to lock the audio input level where you have to push the pot in to turn it, but I didn't know there was no way to defeat it. This meant that our sound person had to forcibly push on the side of the camera to adjust the levels, which of course was useless during a take. The only apparent workaround is the operator audio level pot near the front of the camera, which of course is in an even less convenient place for a sound mixer. We ended up later renting a three-channel mixer.

Day four:
Back in the studio, we set up for a sketch made to look like an old "Twilight Zone" episode. This meant B&W 35mm with an old transfer. Unfortunately there's no master chroma adjustment (like there is with the Sony D-30 and DSR-500), and dialing down the saturation in the matrix and color correction still leaves some pastel-ish residual color. So I figured to shoot in "normal" color and make it black and white in post. For viewing on set we simply turned down the color on the monitor. I programmed in my original "film" look and tweaked the gamma by eye. A slightly softer gamma of .50-.55 seemed more appropriate for a vintage B&W transfer, moreso than the modern crisp gamma of .45. It's always fun trying to compose strictly for B&W, utilizing contrast and layers and such, making sure to have a reference black and reference white to hold the image together. It's like lighting with one hand tied behind your back -- you know you can do it because you light for contrast anyway, but without color for separation you find out actually how good you are. I guess that's the blessing of having done so much more lighting for video; I'm so used to the B&W viewfinder image that unless the contrast looks right there, I don't trust it to look better in color!

Since this sketch played out in overs and singles depending on the joke, we shot a lot of coverage. I'm so used to shooting multi-camera, even for drama, that doing angles over and over for ONE camera seems archaic to me now and painfully slow. This is where I realized there's still a big difference between shooting film over video/HD. 35mm camera bodies are cheap to rent and you can share a set of lenses, so it's relatively cheap to carry a B camera and pull it out for those shots where you need it. Divide or supplement the camera crew as needed. Not so with video/HD -- the camera bodies are expensive relative to the rest of the package, so carrying a B camera that would be dormant half the time is not cost effective. That means we spent four hours on one scene instead of getting the coverage knocked out in two and a half.

Of course this is relative to the cost of the camera and the budget of the production. A two-camera DVX package is doable even on a student budget, and a big-budget feature can afford two F-900's. But for the small independent film -- where cameras like the SDX and the Varicam find a home -- it's just too big a hit on the budget to have more than one camera.

I've learned a couple things during this shoot so far. One is how to better juggle the artistic, technical, and managerial responsibilities of a DP. Since we're doing so may different sketches (essentially short films) within one larger low-budget production, the logistics of shooting have become that much more important. I end up spending more of my time dealing with technical issues of puppets, makeup and such and working with the AD to make up for lost time in the schedule, that I have to consciously remind myself to be faithful to the artistic vision of the director and myself. It occurred to me that every other department can come up to me and ask me questions about what they need, but there's NO ONE over my shoulder asking me "does this shot look right, photographically speaking?" I'm essentially in charge of cracking the whip on my own ass!

The other thing I've learned is how to think more visually, funny as that may sound coming from a DP. Several times a day I'm asking myself; "is this shot communicating what we need it to? Where is the humor or poetry in this scene, and how do I best express this visually?" It may be the difference between shooting something close or wide, straight-on or profile, or going for an unbalanced composition. And as always with comedy, timing is everything. I'm sure I'll carry these lessons with me into other dramatic shoots, even non-comedic ones.

Three more days to go next weekend; I'll let you know how it goes.
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#3 Tim J Durham

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Posted 12 August 2005 - 04:58 AM

Three more days to go next weekend; I'll let you know how it goes.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Michael, that's great stuff..

I'm shooting a pilot right now with the SDX900 and I got one day to set the camera up before I had to start grinding. Luckily, I had my file settings and just had to go down the list. It still took about two hours as there are ALOT of parameters.

Have you checked out the "digital super gain"? It is basically a digital reproduction of having a film camera with a 1/24, 1/12 and 1/6 shutter. It's VERY cool and surprisingly adds very little noise to the picture. But it only works in 60i. I had to shoot the receivers in their position meeting (it's a show about college football) and they were in a darkened room, and I mean DARK, watching video projections on the far wall so they were basically lit by the reflection of the video off the far wall.

Anyway, the motion rendition in DSG is very dreamy and blurred, like that scene in "Garden State", where Braff is sitting on the couch watching as the rest of the party-goers zoom around him. That look has limited utility but in a comedy show just knowing it's there may give someone an idea. Check it out..
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#4 Michael Nash

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Posted 12 August 2005 - 11:15 PM

Have you checked out the "digital super gain"? It is basically a digital reproduction of having a film camera with a 1/24, 1/12 and 1/6 shutter.

That look has limited utility but in a comedy show just knowing it's there may give someone an idea. Check it out..

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Thanks for the feedback. No, I haven't tried the DSG although it does sound cool. Just one more feature you can use to creative effect, when the need arises. On odd occasion I've used the "Hypergain" on Sony cameras for creative effect, although I realize the Panasonic's DSG is something different. I'll have to dig back into the manual (along with trial and error) to learn how it works. I took a class on the camera some time back and read through the manual recently, but there's so much this camera can do.

I can't say enough good things about this camera, and I've shot with just about everything out there (short of the Viper and the Dalsa). For a standard def camera, this unit delivers incredible quality and versatility. It's amazing to me that Panasonic puts out a camera like this for $15K and two years after its introduction Sony finally adds 24P to its XDCAM and Digibeta (at $58K, for the latter!).

BTW, I love the quote in your signature. That's one of those lines that gets plenty of use in daily life. ;)
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#5 fstop

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Posted 13 August 2005 - 06:33 AM

Great thread Michael and all the best with this project!

It's good to have you back. Your presence was missed greatly - your return was long overdue! :)
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#6 Christopher Wedding

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Posted 14 August 2005 - 01:47 AM

Great posts...but a few flags definetly come up when reading your posts. Is there a great website anyone can recommend to learn and understand knee and gamma and black stretch and their relationship to how they effect the look. From Michaels posts and I feel I could presume certain effects but I'm hoping for clarification. I'm trying to improve my DIT skills.

Also, I admitedly didn't search through the posts, but can anyone post their preffered settings in case I get my hands on a camera that hasn't been reset by a house?
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#7 Tim J Durham

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Posted 14 August 2005 - 06:16 AM

Great posts...but a few flags definetly come up when reading your posts.  Is there a great website anyone can recommend to learn and understand knee and gamma and black stretch and their relationship to how they effect the look.  From Michaels posts and I feel I could presume certain effects but I'm hoping for clarification.  I'm trying to improve my DIT skills.

Also, I admitedly didn't search through the posts, but can anyone post their preffered settings in case I get my hands on a camera that hasn't been reset by a house?

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

You can start by reading the "Goodman Guide" which will give you an idea about what each of the menu items are for the SDX900 and you could read the Paul Wheeler book "Digital Cinematography" which deals with Sony digibeta cams but delves into more detail about setting parameters and creating a better image through lighting and filtration.

People rave about the "Goodman Guide" but in my opinion, it is a highly frustrating read. For some reason, he decided not to work through the setting explanations in the order they are presented in-cam so you are constantly leafing through trying to find the next setting. Plus, the
"looks" that he shares give you a picture which has been highly processed in-cam. The settings I use are only to achieve the widest possible latitude and eliminate the sharpening that makes it look video-y then I do color effects in post. That way, if you've changed your mind after shooting, it's not a problem AND you've not lost detail because you thought you wanted a bleach-bypass look and crushed the blacks. The detail lost to compression is gone for good so I'd rather do that stuff in post and record as much detail as possible in the field. I'd share my settings but they are proprietary information and I've promised not to.
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#8 Michael Nash

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Posted 14 August 2005 - 02:56 PM

Is there a great website anyone can recommend to learn and understand knee and gamma and black stretch and their relationship to how they effect the look.

Also, I admitedly didn't search through the posts, but can anyone post their preffered settings in case I get my hands on a camera that hasn't been reset by a house?

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


There's an SDX conference under "video only" here on this site, and there's at least one other sdx user's forum on the web (not sure of the link at the moment, but it shouldn't be too hard to find. It may be part of 2pop). In this site's SDX conference there's a link to downloadable scene files.

But the questions you ask about black stretch, gamma and knee are common to all video cameras, so any information you can find regarding video cameras will be applicable to the SDX.

I can attempt to give you a simplified explanation of the parameters you're concerned about:

Gamma essentially refers to the contrast of the image, more effectively the brightness of the midtones relative to the highlights and shadows. Raising or lowering the gamma changes the brightness of the mids without changing the brightness in highlights and shadow.

Black stretch is essentially the same thing as black gamma, or control over the brightness of dark areas in the picture. Raise the black gamma and the shadows become brighter; lower it and the image appears more "snappy" or contrasty without changing exposure in the midtones or highlights.

Knee function controls the way the camera compresses highlights into a recordable range. It's a little more complex than the other controls, but it allows you to define how much you compress or flatten highlights so that they're visible. It's easy to make something really artificial looking, which is why you often shoot with the knee function in AUTO. But there are those occasions where you can override what the camera gives you and dial in something smoother manually. It takes some practice.

A good way to practice using these features is by playing with the "curves" tool in Photoshop. Set a point in the middle of the curve and tug it up and down to see what GAMMA does. Set another point near the bottom of the curve and tug it up and down to see what BLACK STRETCH does. Set a point very close to the top of the curve and tug it up and down to simulate what KNEE does.

It's the combination of all of these points, along with exposure, that define the CHARACTERISTIC CURVE or GAMMA CURVE of the image.

Add to that the fact that you can make these adjustment in each color channel (also previewable in Photoshop) for even more control over the color balance of the image.
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#9 Christopher Wedding

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Posted 15 August 2005 - 06:54 AM

Thanks guys, you really bridged the gap for me. I appreciate it.
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