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.