1000 fps Phantom shoot - Part 5 - Results

It took awhile, but the spot for which I shot at 1000 fps with the Phantom Flex finally hit the airwaves:

Finding a Doctor in Vietnam

A couple years ago, I bumped my head on a crane and went to a regular hospital in the Vietnamese countryside for some "sewing" as my director so charmingly phrased it.  They took good care of me, but I'm not so comfortable with language differences when it comes to non-emergency medical care.

Then there was the time I went to an international joint-venture hospital...  I'm pretty sure that the purpose of an IV is to put fluids in, but the staff there seemed to think that it was meant to spray my blood all over the place.  Having shot a horror movie or two, I'm reasonably familiar with methods to achieve the same effect without the use of actual blood.  That was a fairly mild incident in a stay I would describe as a comedy of errors.

So, if you find yourself looking for a doctor in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I heartily recommend my physician,  Dr. Mark Siefring.  Dr. Siefring has been caring for patients in Vietnam for the past ten years or so and is well-acqainted with the medical community and resources in Saigon.  When I needed some tests that were beyond the scope of his clinic, he referred me to some excellent local doctors.

In addition to his experience as an Internist and General Practitioner,  Dr. Siefring specializes in Practical Dermatology and Dermoscopy.  For someone who grew up in the desert and spends as much time in the tropical sun as I do, that's a skill set I find reassuring.

In my experience, International S.O.S. is a reliable bet when traveling, however, I spend enough time in Vietnam that I needed to find a primary-care physician.   Dr. Mark fit the bill, and he has taken good care of me.

A lasting and dubious contribution to the English dictionary.

Since my day could not possibly be complete without introducing a couple new words to the English language, here are a pair of neologisms that express my feelings about liability legalese.

Adjective: Cyadyicyte

Cover Your Ass,
Dot Your I's,
Cross Your T's,
Every time

Usage: The cyadyicyte aspects of the EULA were unpalatable, but Jack clicked "Agree" anyway.

And a corollary:

Noun: Cyacyiadyte - an error incurred because of, or in spite of, cyadyicyte practices.

Technically these are both acronyms, however I'd like them to enter common usage in the manner of acronyms like laser, scuba and radar.

That the words cyadyicyte and cyacyiadyte are basically impossible to read, pronounce or distinguish is entirely intentional.

I tested these new words on my friends.  The first person who tried to pronounce them had this to say:
Catchy. It really rolls off the tongue. Say cyadyicyte three times fast. I think my mouth is bleeding.
Oops. That was a cyacyiadyte on my part. I forgot to include a liability waiver. Apparently these new words may pose a health and safety risk.

No one should be surprised if cyadyicyte and cyacyiadyte are not in common usage or do not appear in dictionaries.  Obviously fears about lawsuits precluded it.

Off topic: The future of the internet and prognostications thereupon.

See for yourself what it looks like at http://tent.io
"Tent is a protocol for social networking. Tent is open, decentralized, and built for the future." 
I don't know if the Tent protocol will take off or not, but sooner or later the ideas behind it will.

I hope that something like the Tent protocol will do for Facebook and Twitter users what the HTTP protocol did for AOL and CompuServe users.

In short, "Read the Future on Free Floppy Disks"

I am tired of maintaining my résumé and profiles on several different social networks.  I hate being at the mercy of Facebook when they change the site design and somehow find a way to make look worse.

I find Twitter completely incomprehensible.  Why does anyone want to read little snippets of content buried in what appears to be programming code?

I loathe the fact that almost every web page I visit is cluttered with logos and buttons and links for several disparate social networking tools.   Since I work with people from all over the world, I get invitations all the time to join this that or the other new social network.  Even worse, though I avoid the new ones as long as possible, I know that sooner or later I'll probably need to use it.

Worst of all, Privacy is FUSMAN (Fouled Up Situation, Masquerading As Normal) across the whole social networking spectrum.  No one has a clue about how to manage it, especially me.

I've been looking for a way to get free from The Facebook since they foisted the Timeline Layout on users.  I got used to it but I don't like it.  Facebook only has like buttons.  They define the user experience.  The consistency they provide was actually the reason I started using it and continue to do so.  At least users cannot create custom skins for their profiles.

So when I found out about Tent, I took a look, thinking it was an alternative.  It is not.  It presages something bigger.  By the time I finished reading, I was imagining creative destruction on the scale of the AOL/TimeWarner merger.

I find it amusing when Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are compared.  Wrong Steve.  Steve Case is the guy Mr. Zuckerberg would be better able to emulate.   For an Apple fan, Zuck has poor design sense.  He also seems to have no clue how to consistently anticipate and create what users want before they know they want it.  If I understand the current Facebook strategy correctly, he's busy trying to make Facebook become the whole internet instead.

In my prior life, I had jobs at both AOL and Apple providing technical support over the phone.  I spent lots of time talking to customers of both companies.  They usually were not happy to be talking to me.  The main difference was that Apple customers loved Apple products.  AOL customers, for the most part, did not care.  They just wanted to get online.

While I hate the term "walled garden," Apple, Facebook and AOL could all be described in that manner to some extent.  I don't know what new things facebook will do.  And I don't know how the transition to an open, decentralized social networking protocol will play out.

However, I do know that AOL was a service.  Apple makes lovely things you can hold in your hand.  AOL made floppies and CD-ROM's.  Facebook doesn't do either, but it is a company that doesn't know how to make money with 1 billion people using their service.  I really don't see a meaningful resemblance to Apple.

There are many cool things that Facebook does better than anyone else.  Looking at America Online 10-15 years ago, there are numerous parallels to Facebook in terms of why it was popular and why people liked it.  Two words: Free floppies!

The HTTP protocol changed everything for AOL.  The company was compelled to include support for web browsers.  Users met the World Wide Web and often liked it better than exclusive AOL features.  It certainly had a lot more to look at.  After a while, the AOL client software became a kind of weird vestigial limb hindering users when they double clicked to open the internet or check email.

Facebook has 1 billion users.  It is not going away.  AOL is still around.  They made a shift to web content where they do interesting things.  Steve Case retired as CEO in 2003 and devotes a much of his time and money to doing great things in philanthropy.

I might be wrong about Mark Zuckerberg.  He might yet follow Steve Jobs path. Who knows what might happen as Facebook stock values continue to free-fall.

Anyone who reads The Ad Contrarian regularly saw that coming and understood why.  A simple comparison to Google vis-a-vis the ratio of annual per-user revenue to share valuation could have kept the IPO more in line with a reasonable price per share.  Facebook also uses what looks to me like the most ineffective business model ever created.

The stock price may not even have hit bottom yet.  I think I read somewhere there's be a bunch of employee stock options vesting in the coming months or something.  Outside of search, advertising on the internet is better suited as an ancillary revenue stream.  That presents a big challenge to for-profit social networking companies.

The thing is, I can think of only two social networking services people have every actually expected to pay for: Postage Stamps and Long Distance Telephone service.  Remember those?  They seem to have been largely replaced by dumb pipes for data.

Facebook's new gifting service is a great idea and I could actually imagine wanting to use it.  That's not going to bring investors a return on their investments though.  I have no doubt that Facebook will figure out a way to make more money eventually.

Here's what makes me sure that Tent or something like it is the future: Apple integrated Twitter, then Facebook into iOS and Mac OS.  What comes next?  Pinterest?  LinkedIn?  How will they decide what gets in and what doesn't?

A decentralized social networking protocol could resolve that.  What's more, Apple has what it takes to create something like WebKit for social networking.  The browser wars are over.  WebKit won.

Facebook is also uniquely positioned to facilitate a open standard protocol for social networking.  We know Mark Zuckerberg studies Steve Jobs.  I think it's safe to assume he knows what happened to AOL and why.  Certainly he knows way more about his business than I do.  I don't see why he couldn't synthesize all that information and lead the way on HTTP for social networking.

After all, he did create Facebook.  Looking back at AOL, what he does next depends on whether he chooses to stay in the Facebook business or get back into the social networking business.  The two businesses overlap, almost transparently, but they are not the same thing.

Time to get back to my day job which presently involves studying applied color theory.  Enough with the prognosticating. 

REDucation is coming to Asia

REDucation, the official RED training, is a five-day hands-on training workshop using RED cameras for shooting and post-production.

For Southeast Asia RED users, Hong Kong is the place to be November 5-9, 2012.

To register, you can contact RED Greater China Authorized Reseller, 23magic.

This is certainly a much easier way to get acquainted with these cameras than my first DIT job which happened to be with a RED ONE  in LA, back when the camera had been released only a month or two before.

As I recall, my training went something like this:

"You'll be making camera settings and transferring footage. This is the camera. Here's the menu.  Here's a laptop.  Here's the camera manual, Good luck. Don't screw up. Sorry, I've gotta run - gotta get to the hospital before my daughter is born. Thanks for helping out!"

Not an easy way to get to know a camera.  REDucation is.  Since then, I've used RED cameras extensively, I've taken them to the limits and I find there is always more to learn.

A free REDucation Open House will take place on Nov. 7 with speaker DoP Arthur Wong.  There will also be the usual product promotions and mixing and mingling.  I won't be able to make it, so if you go please ask Mr. Wong how a person can possibly get hired to shoot more than 100 feature films within a normal human lifespan, because I would really like to know.

I had a chance to visit 23Magic founder Percy Fung while I was in Hong Kong recently. Percy and the Digital Magic team have been helpful above and beyond the call of duty on a couple of the feature films I shot here in Vietnam and we keep in touch.

Percy asked me to pass along an invitation to REDucation for RED users in Vietnam. He understands the challenges filmmakers face here and that the course is not cheap.

If you're in Vietnam and seriously considering going to REDucation, I would suggest getting in touch with Percy directly.

The class is aimed at working professionals and folks who have an interest in digital filmmaking.

Search Keywords

I notice that someone wound up on my blog by searching for "eraser gets permanent marker off flashlight lens"

When that happens to me, I typically don't bother looking for an eraser and just use my thumb and index finger to pick up the permanent marker in question.

I assume that this person did not need google to figure that out and was actually looking for ways to erase permanent marker ink from a flashlight lens or other hard non-pourus surfaces.

This also happens to me and when it does, I write over the permanent marker ink with a dry-erase marker and it all wipes off like magic.   YMMV, especially if the permanent marker ink has been there a while.

I hope this helps the next person searching for "eraser gets permanent marker off flashlight lens."   

I really don't mind writing an entry if it will help just one person, but I don't plan to address every interesting google search that comes my way.

Another crazy camera test

I have a long list of unusual camera techniques I'd like to test.  I tend to keep these to myself because a) I don't want to make people question my sanity more than they already do and b) on the off chance it works, I'd hate for someone else to do it first.

I'm going to throw this one out there because I am frustrated with the state of color rendition in digital imaging.

RED said 2k wasn't good enough, made 4k happen, and showed the world why it matters.

I'm still waiting for someone to say 12-bit Bayer ( or whatever) isn't enough, make a sensor that does color better than film, and show the world why this matters.

Here's a camera test that might work as a proof of concept.

Grab three Epic-M Monochrome cameras you might have laying about, along with the usual accessories. Get a red filter, a green filter, and a blue filter. You might want to have these custom made.

Carry all this up a mountain with clear air and a nice view to the west. I'd recommend doing this in Arizona in August, and bringing some rain gear just in case.  

Put one filter on each camera, line them up side by side and genlock them.  Compose a frame where everything in frame is far away.  Enough so that the distance between the cameras is irrelevant.  Since the idea is to use stereographic principles to create three identical frames, personally I'd ask a stereographer to help out.  Up to you.

Set exposure and focus.  Go for hyperfocal if you can.  Wait for sunset.  Roll cameras.  Cut.  Wrap.   Cook steaks on a campfire, put the rest of the food out of reach of bears and get a good night's rest.  Continue in this manner until you see the perfect sunset, run out of food, get attacked by bears, or wish you were on Asteroid B-612.  Go home.

If you don't live in a post-production facilty, go there next.  Tell them what you did.  Give them the footage and let them sort it out.  Wait awhile while they figure out how to handle an unprecedented DSMC color space.

This might not be easy, so don't be surprised if they complain.  When that happens, just throw fat stacks of cash at their heads.  As long as no one loses an eye, it'll make you both feel better.

Once the software development is done, get in the projection room with your colorist.  If he or she doesn't look at the vector scope and start crying, either you did something wrong or it didn't work.

Either way, at least you got to go camping.  With any luck, you've probably got the nicest footage of the colors in a sunset that anyone has ever made.

Hands off with the DC slider + motion control

Recently I went to Los Angeles to shoot a campaign for the young fashion label, ENZOANI with director Tonaci Tran. It had been some years since I worked in LA and I was a bit nervous. I was also excited. This was because I had the opportunity to use some equipment I've been wanting to try for years but which is not readily available in Vietnam. I had a list. The the k5600 Big-Eye Fresnel and the DC Slider topped the list.

From the moment I saw the DC Slider announcement I knew I wanted to use it. It's perfect for a place like VN. I routinely work in very small spaces. DC Slider could be an excellent space saver. Based on the marketing material, I expected that the DC Slider could readily replace a doorway dolly, two sticks of 2m track, and a jib-arm in most circumstances and be able do more besides.

My directors love those low angle tracking shots. I could finally dispense with the high-hat on skate wheels trick, since proper low-mode for dolly isn't available here. Neither are hydraulic booming dollies. I imagine no end to the cool stuff I could do if I put a DC Slider on my dolly...

HCMC has restrictions on which hours of the day I can move my trucks. If I can fit my camera and some lighting into a van, that saves a lot of trouble during daytime company moves. DC Slider looks like a perfect companion for a mobile equipment package like that. I don't care to be in the rental business, but the one expensive piece of kit I've seriously considered purchasing for my work here is a DC Slider HD.

In preparing for the shoot, the director and I agreed that a dolly did not make sense for us. The schedule was tight and the crew was skilled, but few in number. Lots of moving around. We did not want to spend time and energy mucking about with dolly track. So we choose to use Steadicam and the DC Slider instead. No dolly. I went with DC Slider sight unseen. I am not one to be swayed by marketing material not created for Apple.

At this point I observe that my expectations for the DC Slider were unreasonably high.

It did not disappoint.

Well... mostly. But nothing a DC Slider HD wouldn't fix.

Some BTS. Top right shows how I used the DC Slider for the first time.

Day One found us at Blush Bridal wedding boutique in Tustin, CA. Considering to the way they treated our production team, they would be my first choice in the unlikely event I found myself shopping for a wedding gown. Anyone who can accommodate the needs of a DP at all hours when it is not their day job can surely accommodate a bride-to-be most exceptionally when it is their day job.

On this day, since I had a lighting crew of two whom I kept quite busy, it fell to our indefatigable producer Sean Hunter to set up the DC Slider. Since Sean does not make his living as a camera grip, I have good reason to believe the DC Slider can be assembled and used by every capable filmmaker.

Looking at the photo above, even though we would have had sufficient space for that shot on a dolly, the DC Slider saved us the trouble of moving some expensive white dresses and a nice couch. Every second matters. Also, expensive white dresses in the dirty hands of a film crew often fail to remain white.

I am a big fan of camera sliders in theory. In practice I've mostly been disappointed. Too bumpy. One of the things that got me excited about the DC Slider in the first place was the counter weight. I like some heft to my camera support to smooth things out. I've been known to hang a sandbag off a tripod head when shooting handheld with a lightweight camera whereas most people would simply fly the camera around with one hand. That counterweight is right up my alley.

On this shoot, we were using Red Epic. The DC Slider was designed for a lesser... that is, lesser weight, camera. We were pushing the weight limit. This resulted in a setup which was top heavy and a bit bumpy if operated by hand. While the remote focus unit and on-board LCD could not be removed, we found that using lightweight lenses, a slim-profile battery and removing the matte box to reduce weight helped matters, but not without drawbacks.

With a little practice, I was able to use the DC Slider and a stripped-down Epic for acceptably smooth moves executed manually. However, I would highly recommend the DC Slider HD over the DC Slider if you plan to use cinema-grade camera equipment. On day exteriors, we found taping ND filters to the lens rather inconvenient.

For Days Two and Three I was reunited with the incomparable key grip Tom Hunt. Were I to find myself hanging out the side of an airplane by a rope held by a lighting crew of one with a hurricane approaching, I would chose Tom. Again. Partly because he saw me and the plane through the hurricane safely, but more so because he did it with such aplomb and good humor. Few people who look at that footage would imagine that our lighting equipment fit into a small car.

Tom Hunt prepares the DC Slider with motion control.

With no prior experience, Tom, who does on occasion make his living as a camera grip operating 100ft Super Techno Cranes, assembled the DC Slider and had the Motion Control System working within a few minutes.

Utilizing the motion control unit largely eliminated the challenge of keeping overweight camera movements smooth and bumpless. It worked a treat.  Even though we were pushing the weight limit, the equipment managed some pretty steep inclines.

While I won't pretend the DC Slider motion control system didn't inquire about the possibilities that downward movement had to offer, still, it handled steep upward movement with an Epic on board rather well.

Now, as I said, this is a basically hands-off review. I wish I would have had more time to experiment with this equipment myself but I was busy doing my job. I had capable people handling my DC Slider.

I can say that it mostly did what I expected it to do, however unreasonable that may have been. It also did it quickly. I had enough to worry about on this shoot. With the exception of a bit of top-heavy bumpiness during day one of three, the DC-Slider gave me no trouble and that made me happy.

On Day Three we had a pair of matching track-in close-ups on where the actors were situated on steps. It would have taken a significant amount of time and apple boxes to set the same shot with a dolly in the usual manner. Having a DC Slider cut the setup time significantly while giving us exactly the moves we wanted.

When the sun started getting low in the sky and we got hurried into what my Vietnamese crews call "monkey time," the DC Slider was a lifesaver.

We finished principal photography with a downward moving slo-mo magic hour shot. Due a limited amount of flower petals and the exigencies of circumstance, it needed to be a one-take wonder. With our Epic on the DC Slider and Tom handling the motion control, we got it in one.

Setting up for a one take wonder.

I did not have a chance to use the DC Slider and motion control in the myriad ways I would like to try them. However, they met my needs for this shoot and met my expectations for what a slider should be. Quite frankly my biggest disappointment was that I did not have a chance to try to do the kinds of things I hope to do with them.

In conclusion, the DC slider (or, for preference, a DC Slider HD with motion control) has earned a place on the very short list of gear which goes missing from my equipment list only if I can think of a faster, cheaper way to do the job without it.

I would like to thank the folks at Matthews. They did not sponsor this review, though they did facilitate getting a DC Slider and motion control system onto my set. I really want to thank them for making such useful equipment available to filmmakers worldwide who are working in small spaces with a limited budget. Red cameras have taken the Vietnamese film industry by storm by virtue of the price/performance value proposition. I expect the DC Slider to do the same.

Stereoscopic 3D - not so much a passing fad

While researching stereoscopic 3D, I came across some interesting information.

Stereographic imaging was invented in 1838.  It was done with drawings because photography was not yet available...

For context, the first known permanent photograph using a scene from nature and a camera obscura was taken in 1825.  Exposure time was 8 hours.  Development of the daguerrotype culminated in 1837.  The first known glass photographic negative dates from 1839.

Motion picture imaging came rather later. The zoetrope didn't become popular until 1860 or so, some 1,700 years after its invention, though the modern form dates to 1833.

Reportedly, those famous 1878 Eadweard Muybridge photographic series of horses in motion were taken with stereographic cameras.  He even made a stereoscopic zoetrope to view them.

I can't be bothered to do citations, but an interested person could look at a book called "Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film, 1838-1952" by Ray Zone.  Some other books and Wikipedia have information on the topic as well.

My point is that stereoscopic imaging has been around quite some time.  It has just recently emerged from its infancy.  Only with the advent of digital cameras, dynamic stereo-rigs, advanced processing software and digital projection has it become reasonably practical to shoot and project.

Since I can't stand wearing those glasses in a theater and two-camera beam-splitter rigs tend to be somewhat cumbersome, I'd say there is plenty of room for improvement.

I couldn't speak to the continued popularity of 3D with audiences, except to say that auto-stereoscopic cinemas will be welcomed.

Personally, I'm keen to watch "The Hobbit" projected in 3D at 48fps.

I also like 3D for dance.  Dance is an inherently three dimensional form.   I expect dance in 3D will look better projected at higher frame rates - many dance moves tend to move so fast that the eye can't really track the movements in depth at 24fps.

I'd be pretty excited about 3D for sports too; I might even start watching them.

I certainly look forward to more 3D music videos.  I shoot music videos because there's a lot of freedom to break all the rules.  This would be fun in 3D.

Most of all I want to see more films like "Coraline" which use stereo space in interesting ways as part of the storytelling.  When filmmakers start thinking of stereography as a storytelling tool first and foremost, 3D will truly come into it's own.

How to get rich using YouTube

I am not an expert on social media. To my way of thinking, there are no credible experts, so that shouldn't matter. Either way, I do have some notions about how to make money with YouTube. This information can be of great practical use to a cinematographer far from home.

Like most people bloviating about ways to make money online, obviously I have not done it successfully. If I had, I would be fishing in the Sea of Cortez and I would not have time to offer my valuable insights. Actually I'm giving them away at no charge, so clearly they're not valuable. I would like to expand my potential audience beyond one comprised exclusively of the gullible, so I'm making this information available for free.

Here are five easy ways to use YouTube to enhance revenue.
  1. Do not spend any money.

    Purchasing a lottery ticket offers significantly better odds for a return and, in all likelihood, considerably more enjoyment for your dollar.

  2. Don't concern yourself overmuch about quality and/or good taste. Typically, these cost money.

    YouTube offers attractive opportunities and monetary savings to DIY-style amateurs who would like to reach an audience while avoiding the traditional costs of hiring people capable of executing quality creative content and effective media distribution. Even if you already know how to do these things, don't waste time and energy trying to make something good for YouTube. Just make something popular.

    People watching YouTube are not paying for the content, therefore, one assumes, do not have high expectations for quality. That they possess enough free time to watchYouTube at all also calls into question whether or not they might benefit from employment which provides disposable income and/or adequate supervision in the workplace. The comments on YouTube videos may provide helpful insights regarding the demographies which these videos are successfully targeting.

  3. Spend two or three years building an online brand.

    Post content on a regular basis. Content should be creative, engaging and/or humorous. Or cats.*

  4. The mystical /.???

    Once you have a reasonable expectation of achieving 1-2 million views per post, cast an attractive and recognizable female to appear minimally clad in your video (you can spend money on this) and pose provocatively for a risqué thumbnail. In my experience, this should be good for up to 45 million additional hits over the course of two years.

  5. Move to Spain.

    I occasionally receive YouTube links as visual references from directors. I have received links which lead me to believe that the YouTube policies in Spain allow for a rather more clothing-optional kind of content than is permitted by the service in the rest of the world.

    Anyone who says they are serious about monetizing YouTube video content but has not already uprooted their family and moved to Spain because of this anecdote is not truly a serious Webtrepreneur and does not have what it takes to be successful in this realm.


    Making money with YouTube is all about working from home and being your own boss. For what follows, you will work for clients and probably can't work from home so that puts it more in the framework of a profitable hobby:

    Moonlight as a Social Media Expert and promise clients to do for their YouTube channel what you did for Old Spice. It can safely be assumed that any company hiring a Social Media Expert lacks the resources and expertise to fact-check your résumé. This little secret has been successfully and demonstrably used to considerable remunerative advantage.

    If you don't think you can get away with taking credit for the Old Spice campaign, cursory research should reveal several videos with 1 billion or more unverifiable views from a source which also cannot be verified. You can probably take credit for one of those instead.

    Keep in mind that when you say "Do what I did for Old Spice" you mean that you watched the video, clicked the "like" button, added a comment, and shared the video on your facebook page. One should never misrepresent oneself on a résumé, though that need not preclude a judicious use of ambiguity.

    As you prepare for interviews, understand that it takes a special kind of credulity to hire anyone claiming to be an expert in a field which has existed for less than ten years. Who's to say the countless hours you spent watching YouTube while unemployed haven't made you as much of an expert as anyone else?

NOTE: It would be fair to say that I cribbed most of this from The Ad Contrarian. He does it better.

* Many YouTube users try to mimeograph the "flavor of the month" as an alternative to posting videos which contain quality content. Or cats. Wrong time-scale. In the icy glacial fjords of the inernjets, popular trends are called memes. Memes have an average half-life of approximately 72 hours and become considerably more unstable and unpredictable as they decay. They may explode. They may implode. Due to the potential for disaster, "memeographing" content should not be regarded as a sane way to conduct business. Cat videos, in contrast, are reliably popular. Consequently, cat videos demonstrate the highest degree of mental stability yet to be consistently observed in the YouTubes.

Working with style

I like stylized camera work as much as the next person, I suppose.  I don't much care for camera work that calls attention to itself. Doing TV commercials helps me practice stylized camera techniques and get shooting for style out of my system.  On features, I prefer to take what would typically be done for style and try to use it for story.

On my first feature, I took this notion in two directions.

Speed ramps can be used for dynamic, stylized visuals to great effect.  Sometimes it can be distracting.  Here's a shot where I used an in-camera speed ramp to emphasize a story moment in a way which I intended to be subtle and invisible.  I think it works well: the 120 to 24fps ramp is minimally perceptible and mimics my subjective experience of time when someone wakes me up.

I prefer doing speed ramps in-camera because doing them in post precludes dynamic shutter-speed adjustments.  I also prefer to choose the timing and frame rates on set and in the moment, collaborating with the director and actors.  After we get what we intend, I typically try to grab one or two takes without the ramp so that editorial has further options.

In my not so humble opinion, few camera moves are as pointlessly distracting as a 360° Steadicam.  However, a dance scene in which the main character gets dizzy provided me a reasonable story application for 360° Steadicam.  I don't feel the movement distracts from the moment too much, but the shot can make me feel dizzy if I watch it on a big screen.

We did a couple takes of this scene without moving in circles around the actors - we found it less effective.  BTW the full 360° move was not used in the film.  In my experience, 360° shots and full-scene moving masters do not make it through editorial intact.  Also, they typically take a more time to set up and execute.

Even a well-designed, well-paced moving master executed as perfectly as humanly possible warrants additional coverage to give editorial options.  I often find changing the lens and taking a tighter version of the moving master is an efficient way to do this.  My reasoning is that the continuity of movement helps preserve the intention of a moving master while providing a means for editorial to select between portions of takes to shape pace or performance.

Not getting tangled up

Took a break from script breakdown for an upcoming feature shoot. Came across The International Guild of Knot Tyers forum. Trying out a new knot. Maybe I can use it on butterfly frames.

For me, knot tying is a nice metaphor for cinematographic execution. Like a good knot, a good shot is maximally simple, efficient, aesthetically pleasing, and effective for the it's intended purpose. Layers of complexity build upon basic principles applied in a sensible manner.

When I am able to work like that, I find it frees me to focus my creative energy on the things that matter.  The Why rather than the How.

A motorbike friendly bag of tools; Take 2

On my 17th birthday I received a tool kit.  I thought it was the worst present ever.  I now spend a significant portion of my disposable income on tools.  I've written on the subject before.

Recently, the time came to retire my beloved CineBags Cinematographers Bag.  After three years of cruel abuse, the shoulder strap finally gave up.  It also turns out that a heavy, over-the-shoulder bag is not so motorcycle friendly.  Too many motorbikes on the road.  Handlebars can tangle with shoulder straps.  Kind of a safety hazard.  

I limit my possessions to two carry-ons, two suitcases and three toolboxes, so I am pretty particular about my bags. I loved my cinematographer's bag more than I've ever loved a bag, but it was time to try something else.  

So I bought a CineBags Revolution Backpack.  I do not use in the manner for which it was designed, which has some minor drawbacks at times, but it's working out very well for me.  I'm sure I'll get used to it.  The Special Edition fits nicely with my signature colors.

These are the things I carry for a one-bag day (when I leave the toolboxes at home).  The gear gets heavy, so I pull the computer gear if I can not imagine a need for it on that particular day.  If I'm going to be shooting in tight quarters, I throw in some more light rigging gear from my grip box.  

The new bag holds much more than the old one, so photographing the contents presented a bit of a challenge.  All packed, my backpack looks like this:

I make movies for a living, so I like to sport CineBags.  They are useful, so I own a few.  "Life on Location" is a good way to describe the last four years of my life in Saigon.

That rain cover sure comes in handy during the Vietnamese rainy season.

More pictures and an itemized list of the contents after the jump.

Explaining what I do to my friends & family

When folks who do not work in film ask me what I do, it can be difficult to adequately explain.  On a recent job, I came away with a nice illustration of what a cinematographer does.

At the top is a storyboard for a promo trailer I shot for a fashion magazine earlier this month. It's often my job to basically create a given image in camera. A storyboard artist can draw anything. The director's vision can be anything. In such cases, the practical side of my job is to use my camera and my lights to put that image on screen.

Next is a matte painting, a portion of which will serve as the background for the shot once the CGI artists work their magic.

Third is what's called a chrome ball - It shows what the light should like be in order to match the background.

The bottom photo has the set on the left and an image from playback on the right. On some practical level, my work is the difference between the two. When I do this well, it feels like music and I call it making the magic.
There is a human aspect and a emotional aspect to my job as well. These would take a lot of words to inadequately describe. I'll try.

In this case I had maybe 16 people working for me directly. 12-18 hours a day. They bust their butts for me and it's my responsibility to protect and care for them. The only glamour in the film industry is on screen. It's is typically a hot, noisy, dirty job with long hours under extreme pressure.

Meanwhile, our actress is in very cold water very really hot lights. I have to take care of her and make her as comfortable as possible in these very difficult conditions so that she can do her job.

My director knows what he wants to see in his monitor and I have to give that to him. My producer needs that to happen on-time and on-budget. Our clients are on set. They are paying the bill. I need to make them happy with what they see.

The emotional aspect, well that's the real treat. That's the why. It is my hope that when people watch the finished piece, that they feel something; that it moves them.


If you do work in film, here's why you should hire me ;) I was supposed to have a large print-out of a section from the matte painting for the reflection in the water. That didn't make it to set. I came up with a solution using stuff I did have on set.

A piece of beadboard, some golden amber gel, and a few Dedolights - that put a reasonable approximation of a cloudy orange sky on the water with deep blue in the ripples from the chroma blue in the background. At 300fps. As my mentor Chris Chomyn says, there are no problems, only challenges. I like challenges.

1000 fps Phantom Flex shoot - Part 4 - Resources


In addition to the help I had from Chris Chomyn and the crew, I also did some homework preparing for my first 1000fps Phantom Flex shoot.  Here's some online resources where I found useful information:

Phantom Camera Info

Lighting for high-speed:

1000 fps Phantom shoot - Part 3 - Camera Notes

While I've done a fair amount of food work and shot 300 fps with an Epic before, I'd never tried 1000 fps and never used a Phantom.  That meant lots of research and preparation.

The brief from the director called for falling food and splashing water with camera employing a long macro lens and moving fast on a skater dolly.  

In my experience as a first-time user, the Phantom Flex camera was dead easy to understand and use.  The only oddity was that the frame rate was called "sample rate" - a nod to Vision Research camera's other users in the scientific research and manufacturing fields.  Pretty cool if you ask me.  My dad is a physicist and yes, really, rocket scientist.  We think he's used data from Vision Research cameras before.

At any rate, I was also fortunate to have a great DIT from RSVP rentals in the Phillippines who handled all the technical aspects and even triggered the roll for me.

Say you can't count on being lucky like me. Here's what I learned about using the Phantom camera:


So you've done the lighting right and have plenty of it, the big gotcha! that could show up in post but might not be apparent on set, is bad black balance.  At 1000 fps and up, the camera sensor gets very hot, very fast.  Consequently, the sensor can't hold the black point.  That can make the footage wonky in the shadows when you go to color-grade.  On-set playback is reasonably reliable, but I don't like to take chances if I don't have to.

If you're using an Phantom HD, black balance is more of a concern than with the Phantom Flex which has a proprietary HQ mode, which as I understand it, uses something like HDR to help correct for black balance issues.  Nonetheless, it's a best practice to run "Black Reference" before each take.  At 8s to run the routine, it's not such a big deal if you keep that in mind before each take.  

In my research, it seemed there were three different methods of doing this, with the suggestion being to pick one and be consistent.  In practice it was much simpler: let the DIT push a button and wait a couple seconds while the monitor displays black.  On the Phantom Flex there's a dedicated button for black reference, so it's pretty easy... on a food shoot.  A mountain-bike competition might require some anticipation.


The other trick to the Phantom is triggering the recording.  In basic record mode, the camera records a continuous loop to camera RAM.  This is due to the enormous amounts of data being processed.  There is no commercially available non-volatile storage medium that can handle that kind of data throughput.  RAM recording is very cool because you can trigger recording after an event has happened. But it does have some downsides.

The big potential gotcha! with looped RAM recording is that a take exists only in camera RAM until you dump it to non-volatile storage.  

With a Phantom, whatever you capture to RAM can be dumped to a CineMag or an external recorder.  If you can afford the CineMag rental, get a couple.  It's simple, fast & makes your shoot easier.  Transfers are blazing fast, but the CineMag records data sequentially, so if you save every frame of every take, you'll fill up fast and you'll have to transfer data before you can format the drive.  It takes a goodly chunk of time to transfer the data to your HDD RAID array.  It takes a lot more time to play the take back in real-time to an external  recorder

Brilliantly, you can save to CineMag only the takes you like and only the portions thereof which you intend to use.  In other words, think of circled takes as you would when shooting 35mm film; transfer only those and the CineMag will serve you well.

If you go back into record-mode without transferring the data in camera RAM, that amazing unreproducible take will be gone forever.  The camera guards you against this, but 18 hours into the day... well... try to be careful.  

If the camera loses power before you dump the RAM data, it's gone.  If you're using batteries, this can easily come up to bite you.  The Phantom is a juice-hungry beast so batteries go quick, especially with the heat of all those lights in the studio. If the battery dies before you dump your data, you're once-in-a-lifetime take is lost forever.  A/C power is a better choice if you're in a studio.  Just watch those cables.  Power outages are a pretty common occurrence in VN.  Khanh at HK Film dug me up a UPS for the camera's A/C power supply.  Yes, I'm that paranoid.


The unusual aspect of looped RAM recording is this:  you're loop is limited to the amount of RAM in the camera.  Depending on your frame rate and quality settings, you're looking at 3-10 seconds of record time.  It's a good idea to practice triggering.  

On a Phantom you can set the trigger to any time within the limits of the RAM buffer. For my practice, I had Jeremy set the trigger at about 2/3 of the available record time.  With the 10s of record time I had available, I could trigger the record when I saw what I wanted and have the 6s before and 3s after, accounting for the lag between my eyes and my muscle twitch.  

You don't need a $100,000 camera to practice this. Watching a high-speed event and snapping will work just fine.  And here the Phantom is much easier than using film because you don't have to take into account the time it takes a film camera to get up to speed and try to synchronize that with the event you're trying to capture.  For picture, I had Jeremy trigger, since he was more experienced.  I always love having crew who know more about their job than I do.


There's a PC software interface for the Phantom camera.  Vision Research offers it as a free download and it will operate with a simulated camera just in case you don't have an extra Phantom or two laying around the office.  Unfortunately the software is Windows-only.  Vision Research offers some decent, if tedious, software tutorial videos as well. 

Other than RAM-recording and record-triggering, the Phantom works like any other professional CMOS sensor, Bayer-pattern digital cinema camera I know of.  You've got RAW recording to disk.  You're monitor will show applied metadata (ISO, Color Temp., etc).  You can run HD-SDI to an external recorder.  Camera settings are clear and easy to adjust.  You've got exposure-check in the viewfinder and the Vision Research software will give you a histogram.

Basically the Phantom camera was reliable and pretty easy to use.

1000 fps Phantom shoot - Part 2 - Lighting

While I've done a fair amount of food work and shot 300 fps with an Epic before, I'd never tried 1000 fps and never used a Phantom.  That meant lots of research and preparation.

The brief from the director called for falling food and splashing water with camera employing a long macro lens and moving fast on a skater dolly.  I figured I'd need enough light to shoot at an aperture of at least f/4, but for preference f/8.  

For lighting I had 2 basic concerns: having enough light and making sure it didn't flicker.

At high frame rates, most lights powered be normal alternating current power will tend flicker.  The rule of thumb is that when you go above 120 fps with 60Hz power and 100 fps with 50Hz power you can expect flicker.  

And I thought I'd never use math after high school.

The simple way to avoid flicker at high frame rates is to light with the sun or use DC power.  On this shoot neither was an option.  In that case, it's a good idea to have a waveform monitor or vectorscope on set to check for flicker.  Also not an option for me.

Okay.  What now?  Play it safe I guess.  Time for some research.


First off, my mentor Chris Chomyn suggested looking into strobe lighting from Unilux or Claremont and possibly augmenting it with big tungsten lights.  

The strobes give a super cool crispness to the image.  Possibly too crisp. So you can proportionally add some big tungsten to fill it out and have a little motion blur.  Chris pointed out that the big upside to strobes is that they operate a significantly lower temperatures.  This is a very big deal when you're shooting food or actors.  Downsides to strobes: not domestically available in Vietnam,  high rental cost, and needing a to sync your light meter and camera with the strobes.  No strobes for this job.

HMI's:  I usually use HMI's in Vietnam due to the superior power efficiency and having a bit more juice in the blue channel.  At high frame rates, HMI's can tend to flicker.  As an added bonus headache, you can get phase shift from the bulbs, where, as I understand it, the brightest point on the filament moves right and left, causing some weird directional and color shifts.  Arri and others make high speed ballasts that correct this, but like most specialized equipment, I'm not expecting to find it in Vietnam on a normal budget.

In my research online, I read that even without a special ballast, big HMI Fresnels might be okay but PAR's will probably flicker.  The suggestion was to test each individual light you intend to use - sometimes changing the ballast or the head can add or remove flicker.  Without a camera test, I decided not to chance it.  In the past I've had no trouble with 300 fps, 50Hz and off-brand 2.5k HMI Fresnels. But still...  No HMI's for this job.

LED's:  Reportedly, LED's don't flicker if you don't dim them.  f/8 at 1000fps with LED's... I've heard of the lights that can do that, but I haven't seen them.   In any case, definitely not available for this job.  So, no LED's.

Kino's:  Reportedly, Kino ballasts cycle power so fast that they shouldn't flicker up to several thousand fps.  My experience leads me to believe otherwise, even if it was most likely a maintenance issue or I had Chinese knockoffs and in the heat of the moment I didn't notice the substitution.  In retrospect, a 4' 4-bulb Kino 4-select System would have been quite useful, but I wasn't taking any chances. A 4'x2' bounce did the trick instead.  I would have given a good Kino system a try untested, because on two shots, if it worked it would have made that little difference only a professional will actually see, but any viewer will feel.

Excluding even more exotic options, I choose Tungsten lights.  Cheap and available.  Excellent.


In terms of having enough light, again shooting in the sun is the safest way to go.  Since I was shooting inside, I figured I couldn't possibly have too much light while I could easily have too little, so I basically ordered as many big tungsten lights as I could get within the constraints of budget and availability.

Tungsten, A/C power and high speed; here's the conventional wisdom:

The bigger the light the less chance of flicker.  For reasons not fully explained, but seeming to do with the size and cooling rate of a tungsten filament, at 60 Hz, 2k and above is considered safe.  For my job using 50 Hz power, lights 5k and above are expected not to to flicker.

Of course, I found that one website from some high speed specialist company which said the safe minimums were 5k/60Hz and 10k/50Hz.  Lights of that size are in short supply here.  Maxi-brutes aren't much use since it's actually nine 1k globes which pretty much guarantees a flicker.  Fortunately, there are a couple things that you can do with smaller Tungsten lights to help mitigate flicker.

Firstly, you can set the camera to a more open shutter angle. On a Phantom, I believe the max is 359°.   Regardless, I went with a 180° shutter because that's what Chris suggested for a nice balance between sharpness and motion-blur and on the day it looked great.

Secondly, you can put your lights on separate power distribution phases.  I was working with typical 3-phase 220V/50Hz power, so for every light under 10k I ordered sets of 3 and asked my best boy electric, Cuong, to wire one of each to the A, B, & C phase.  For top-light I used three 6x1kW space lights.  For each space light, Cuong rewired the lights so that two 1K globes were on each phase.  I pushed all three space lights through a 12'x12' gridcloth and there was no flicker as far as we could tell on the histogram or in playback.  Due to the heat from the floor lights, we set frame and rehearsed with just the space lights. As far as I could discern on set, separating the phases and pushing them through the diff worked a treat.

My six 5k's were similarly wired to separate phases and displayed no apparent flicker.  I only had two 10k's, and they were fine too.


As one might expect, 68,000 watts of tungsten lighting at a distance of 3m and less generates an uncomfortable amount of heat.  Even with a frame of diffusion softening every light, our lettuce lasted only three or four 10s takes before it wilted.

Here's a photo of the lighting setup.

Here's a general rundown of my lighting design: the light from right side is brighter, slightly harder and somewhat higher up while the light from the left is softer and lower.

I arranged the space lights on top in a reverse pattern from the floor lights to soften shadows.  The space lights also gave enough light to let us turn off the floor lights while setting the frame and rehearsing. That let us do at least some of our work without feeling like we were inside an oven.


Other notes of interest on lighting for high-speed food photography:

1. Wrapping yourself in a light-colored towel is helpful if you find yourself standing directly in 68,000 Watts of tungsten lighting for any amount of time.  Yes,  I'm still finding new uses for the venerable Khăn hôi.

2. Say you've got food that needs to fall though frame in a fairly even arrangement and the props people had planned to drop it by hand, but that just isn't working out.  It just so happens that a 5k shutter makes for a passable mechanical drop apparatus in a pinch.  It worked out for me on this job, anyway.

3. Finally, some of the most helpful advice Chris Chomyn gave me for this job:

"Don't let your need for lots of light overshadow the quality of your lighting....remember the math and light for the desired visual effect....just use more of it in proper proportion from the right angles for your slo mo...."

That's really the key to lighting for high-speed.


UPDATE:  The results.

My first 1000 fps Phantom Flex shoot - Part 1


A couple weeks ago I got a call from a commercials producer I quite like working with who asked if I had ever worked with a Phantom camera.  I had not.  I added that I would very much like an opportunity to do so.  And I got it.  1000 fps here I come, ready or not.

In Vietnam, Phantom cameras are not available domestically.  For this job, we booked a camera from the Philippines for the day of the shoot. Now, I'll try pretty much anything once; if I don't have experience with some technical aspect of the job I figure that's nothing a camera test or two won't fix. Except, since the camera gear was coming from the Phillippines at significant expense, I would have no opportunity to familiarize myself with the camera and do testing.

So I did the next best thing and asked my mentor Chris Chomyn for advice.  As usual, he gave me plenty of useful information and it was a great starting point for my prep.

As things turned out, I was fortunate in two respects.  First, my camera was the Phantom Flex, not the Phantom HD Gold - the 1000 ISO sensor sensitivity and HQ mode make life much easier.  Secondly, RSVP rentals in the Philippines provided a great DIT who handled all the camera settings, record triggering and playback.  Jeremy insulated me from all of that and I was able to focus on getting the image.  He even helped my local crew learn how to use the P+S Technik Skater-Mini dolly for the first time.

I also want to acknowledge Nguyen Tuan Khanh at HK Film, who went to a lot of trouble to find us a P+S Technik Skater-Mini dolly for the shoot, and then took a big glass door off of his office when we found we needed a smoother surface than what the art department had provided.

Most of what I have to say about working with the Phantom at 1000 fps is technical or practical.  Aesthetically, well pretty much anything you can see moving is going to look mesmerizing and beautiful.

Sometimes credited as...

I collect misspellings of my last name.  To my surprise and delight, folks in Vietnam haven't added to that collection at all.  Until now.

I shot a film called Gia Sư Nữ Quái which hits theaters next week.  In a review (via google translate), I found the following - "The film promises more beautiful camera angles, the angle romantic image of the director (DOP) from Hollywood - Joel Spazeski."

How unfortunate.  Why couldn't that have happened in a bad review?

Working in ankle-deep mud

Xe bo, doing what the jeeps could not.

The mud was so sticky, it'd pull the shoes right off your feet. For almost two weeks we were slogging in it.

At any rate, when far afield and encountering difficulties with the terrain, hire local farmers. They will have a solution.

Why the Production Designer is my best friend

To celebrate the theatrical release of Ngôi Nhà Trong Hẻm (House in the Alley), I'll share this photo. It was taken when the production design team was about halfway through their work transforming the house in which we shot 80% of the film.

This one photo guided the look for most of the film. I even incorporated the fluorescent bulb work lights they had lying on the floor.

When the director and I walked in, I could see all the conversations we'd had about aesthetics, mood, color and tone take a concrete form that we could execute. I was very excited.

This photo might simply show an empty room with a light bulb on the floor. But for me it showed me what the film was going to look like. The work on making the walls look old was maybe halfway done, but I could start to feel the textures. The colors were there. It inspired lighting that was unusual, but motivated and rooted in the character of the house. We played with reflective surfaces. The photo speaks to a house that is unfinished yet has a rot rising from the foundations.

I was thrilled with the production design team's work on this house - it made my work so much easier and so much better.  Even if we were simply shooting a closeup against a blank wall, the wall had texture, character and visual interest. I really appreciated that they sought my input and did their best to incorporate my requests. I'm happy with the work I did on the film, however, without their work, the film wouldn't look even half so good.

As a cinematographer who primarily works on projects with very limited resources, I like to see those resources go on screen. That means locations and production design. I can do so much more with a couple lights and a great space than with all the equipment I could possibly dream of in a boring space.

Thanks to the production design team on Ngôi Nhà Trong Hẻm for giving the rest of us in the cast & crew an inspiring space to in which to shoot.

It's not a mistake if you're consistent.

Usually I find my work constrained by limitations. This is typical and I don't expect it to change. And constants are ok. Limitations foster creativity. Probably more than resources.

Many times I have some constraint which prevents me from executing a shot in a conventionally desirable manner. I find that fighting it is an exercise in frustration and gives a poor result almost every time.  The most effective approach I have found is to embrace my limitations instead, and find a way to make them work for me.

Start early and be consistent. Suddenly what started as a mistake becomes a style. What made me crazy in the beginning becomes the look in the project that I love most.

Anamorphic lens flares are the most obvious trend in this sort of thing lately, but it can also be focus issue, lighting challenges, camera movement or any other aspect of the craft where the gulf between what one would like to do and what is possible can't be bridged.

Now, to be frank, this doesn't always work. But I've learned to at least anticipate when that's coming and accept it as a parameter of the job. No sense making myself crazy with something that can't be fixed.

I was taught early on to focus on doing what I can do and doing it well rather than break my neck trying to do what I can't do well and worrying about it. That a mistake is only a failure if you fail to learn from it. That there are no problems, only challenges. I make my living with these words.

That and great close-ups. More words of wisdom: Wide shots win awards. Close-ups get you work.

To be sure, I've encountered challenges that bested me. But at least I found a way to learn from them. On the flip side, much of my best work has come from finding creative ways to embrace the limitations of a project and turn them to my advantage.

That's all great. But my real takeaway from the school of hard knocks where these ideas are a daily struggle: Don't complain. Directors hate a complainer. Producers hate a complainer. Exceed expectations instead.

Believing that the challenges I face make me better, that helps.

Unfamiliar streets

Whenever I lose my way, I don't like to think of it as being lost. Rather it's just unscheduled location scouting.

Personal branding

I'm told it's helpful to have a personal trademark - a distinctive look or characteristic by which folks will remember you. Unfortunately blue jeans and black t-shirts fall short of being distinctive. Consequently my trademark with crews in Vietnam is a smelly towel.

I take consolation in being a Douglas Adams fan. What he has to say on the subject of towels holds true.

On my first feature here, we didn't have a shoulder brace for handheld shots. What little duvy I had, I needed for lighting. So one of my camera assistants provided me with a light-blue towel to cushion the weight of the camera on my shoulder. The shoot involved a fair amount of handheld work. Vietnam is a humid and rainy place, so this towel collected a lot of... moisture. This is in addition to the dirt, dust, grime, grease, and burnt patches it collected as it did double duty for cleanup, fell into this or that mess, or was employed to extinguish a conflagration. It acquired quite an odor.

To the point where the guys would hand it to me whilst holding their noses. Every time the director called for handheld, I started hearing "Khăn hôi ở đâu?"

Now my Vietnamese language skills could be compared to what you'd hear from a hard-living 18-month-old toddler cradled in a 12k, swaddled in a steadicam vest, and drinking too much black coffee. Not that I'm particularly foul-mouthed, but I have a propensity for mispronouncing Vietnamese words in a manner which creates malapropisms of the most vulgar imaginable description. I'm told that after 30, one can only learn a new language to the level of someone in middle school. With Vietnamese, I'll be happy if I learn it to the level of someone that's potty-trained.

At any rate, after hearing "Khăn hôi ở đâu?" a couple hundred times, enough for me to distinguish the words, I asked what it meant. "Where's the smelly towel?"

Then one day, the guys offered me a brand-new towel. Sensing an opportunity to try out a new phrase, I said "Khăn hôi ở đâu?" Oops. One guy ran to the boxes and everyone else burst into laughter. After that, there were no further efforts to offer me a fresh towel.

At the end of the show, I kept it as a souvenir. I brought it home. The housekeeper, who usually finds a way to reuse everything I discard, promptly threw it away in disgust.

In the years since, it's become a running joke with my crews. At the beginning of every show I am proudly presented a brand new khăn thơm (fragrant towel). I ask for a smelly one instead. We contrive new and interesting ways to get the towel dirty and, if possible, engulfed in flames. We hide it from the production assistants and housekeepers who try to wash it. We complain when they locate it by the odor and bring it back clean the next morning. We gauge the luck of the shoot by the condition of the khăn hôi. After awhile, it adds whole new layers to the phase "Always good for a gag."

I've employed logos, color schema, distinctive wardrobe and nifty accessories to no avail. A smelly towel has become my personal trademark. Fortunately, scent can be a powerful memory trigger.

When you think you've seen it all

The other night I encountered the first person I've ever met who has climbed Everest. An altogether fascinating individual. On the subject of love, he told the most romantic story I've ever heard in my life. I won't recount it because I couldn't do it justice. Suffice to say, the girl he wanted to impress fainted.

Yesterday I woke up to an unusual amount of rooster crowing. In the afternoon a friend came by my house to pick something up.  He said "I think I'm here... is it a big white house?" The house I live in isn't white, I think. The street is so narrow, I couldn't say I've gotten a good look at it. At any rate, I said "Are they having cockfights in the street?" My friend says yes. "Ok, you're here."

Prognostications on film's demise may be premature.

Kodak declared bankruptcy. Film is poised to take another big hit in the near future as projection completes the transition digital, and processing facilities soon won't be able amortize overhead costs striking theatrical prints. 3D and the coming move to 60 fps projection are not film friendly.

As audiences become increasingly desensitized to degraded, over-compressed video viewed on the web and digital television, the financial calculus against investing in image quality is moving ever further against film. Besides which, I'm guessing that digital image capture has about five years to go before surpassing film in terms of image quality and capability in every regard.

However, there's one thing special about film which digital doesn't capture. Shooting film requires discipline. Takes are expensive. There's no WYSIWYG monitoring. Every department head lives in fear of missing something and having it show up in dailies.

In my experience, attitudes and behavior on a film set are markedly different than a digital set, especially after the magic words "Roll Camera" are uttered.

Digital frees a filmmaker from many constraints.  Some of those constraints are helpful. With digital, I find there's tendency to roll on everything, even rehearsals, and hope to get lucky. I'm not saying the disciplines of shooting film can't be applied on a digital shoot. Just that digital makes it easier to lapse. Shots very commonly get taken before they're ready.

So you start getting twelve mediocre takes for every setup. The first three are rehearsals. The next three have technical issues that were overlooked during the rolling rehearsals because the camera was rolling. The next six are spent with the actors trying to recapture the performance of take four which was out of focus because the marks got changed but the camera rolled right away to maintain the energy from take three or something like that. And so on. With film, I see far fewer wasted takes.

My experience is that four takes on film will reliably yield a better result than any number of takes on digital. The difference really comes in the cast's performances. Actors are able to conserve their energy and give each take their best, knowing that the whole crew is truly ready to execute smoothly and give the performance its due.

Under the pressures of production and long hours, the mechanics of shooting film create a buffer against slipping into doing sloppy work. Film helps actors give their best performances.  With film you increase the likelihood of fewer and better takes and things move faster. If I'm right about that, film won't be disappearing any time soon, though it might become an endangered species.

Building friendships anywhere

I came across an interesting article today about food and the nature of disgust.

"Don't judge" is a nice kind of platitude to throw around.  The true test comes when one is far from home. A large part of my ability to work successfully with people from around the world involves forming bonds of friendship that transcend barriers of language and culture. A fun way to form those bonds is with food.

Cow tongue is decent boiled in a lemongrass & rice soup. Rats, mice, dogs, and crickets are fairly routine menu choices here in Vietnam.

Snake wine is everywhere - people only buy it for display though. They make homemade "wine" (with an alcohol content closer to whiskey) out of almost anything else. 
Garlic wine is rough. I board with a Vietnamese family and the dad loves that stuff.  Good for the health and all that.  I have to drink it fairly often and try to like it. Strawberry and banana wines are about what you'd expect - delicious. Lin Chee mushroom wine is amazing - delightfully aromatic. 

I tried all kinds of food when I first got here - goat, duck blood mousse, pig brain, pig ears, eel, frog, and a bunch of stuff where I just didn't ask. The only thing I've seen on a plate which no one actually eats are chicken heads.

My favorite out-of-the-ordinary food so far is crocodile. Apparently crocodile is a popular dish. Consequently there is a problem in the countryside with crocodiles escaping from farms. Anyway, I went to one place where they brought a little fella out. I held him. He was pretty squirmy. 

 And no wonder, because they then slit his throat, drained the blood, and took him to the kitchen. 

We grilled the meat at the table and drank the blood cut with vodka. That was some strong drink. I hoped it was safe because of the vodka. 

Grilled crocodile with okra tastes great. Much better than rattlesnake. Crocodile soup, not so much. I'm told the reason they kill the crocodile in front of you is so that you will know the food is fresh. Just like lobster.

My takeaway from the article that motivated this missive is that in a foreign country, acceptance of the food signifies something deeper, an acceptance of the people and an embrace of their culture.  Eating anything that is put in front me is a good way to build trust and foster relationships. And to have fun. People here get a kick out of putting the strangest delicacies on the table in front of me. I've had to demure on occasion, to my great chagrin.  I've also eaten things that really put my gag suppression skills to the test. But in every case, I get tested in an entertaining way and I try to rise to the challenge. We have fun. And I never know. Sometimes, contrary to all expectation, what I'm eating turns out to be delicious.