I recently wrote about a recent job for British Airways titled“Shooting Eight Caribbean Islands in 18 Days - An Odyssey for British Airways” and wanted to follow up with another longer post about some of the challenges involved and the more technical details, so here it is.
Pre-production - What on earth to put in the bag?
Upon getting the call asking for availability I was obviously very excited at the prospect of going all over the Caribbean making eight short films. When I first took a look at a schedule, 20 flights to 8 islands in 18 days, apart from being morosely satisfied that I hadn’t had to plan the logistical-nightmare of an itinerary myself (kudos goes to Green Tea Films for those ninja skills) the scale and the reality of what was ahead soon sank in. Deciding what to take became vital.
There were a few restraints that I had to conform to,
- Maintain the total amount of cases including personal items, to one checked-in bag per flight. We'd be on small planes, boats and trains, hanging off wires 1100ft above sea level, trekking through rainforests and across beaches, so less is more.
- Being mindful of the total value of the equipment as the last minute nature of the job meant that the first island we visited hadn't sent through clearances before we set off.
- Try to be under the radar with what I took and the way I packed.
- Anything that's forgotten wouldn't be able to be shipped as we were never in one place long enough to be sure of delivery.
Usually I take comfort in packing more than I need as I’d rather pack something and not use it, than leave something and need it. The take-away? Only take minimal, essential items to get the job done. No pressure!
A-cam, B-cam and Glass
At Digital Decaf we knew that the Sony PXW-FS5 was going to fit into our kit bag very nicely and were waiting in line when it hit the streets. For many reasons it was the very first choice for the A-cam on this job, it just ticks so many boxes. The FS5 is commonly touted as a great B-cam, but I am so glad (and my back is even more glad) that I didn’t have to lug an FS7 or similar around for close to three weeks. The FS5’s small form factor, light weight and high image quality made it perfect for 18 fast-moving-multiple-set-ups-and-break-downs-move-location-then-go-to-the-airport days on beaches, in rainforests, up waterfalls and so much more fun stuff.
My B-cam was a Sony α7S II for it’s incredible high ISO which paired with the 5-axis image stabilization yielded great results for the night shots in the Dominican Republic Carnival and the dark rainforests of Tobago. Also because the α7S II is full frame sensor (as opposed to the FS5 which has a Super 35) I would use it when I needed to get slightly wider with my main lens, the Sony FE PZ 28-135mm which I used for 90% of the shoot for consistency.
Other lenses in the kit bag were the Sony E PZ 18-105mm (the FS5’s kit lens), my trusty Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L and another old favorite for extra-wide shots, my Nikkor 18-35mm. I had two Metabones adapters for the Canon and Nikkor glass. The T Speed Booster Ultra and the Nikon F Lens to Sony E-Mount Adapter.
On the subject of glass I would be a very happy-camper if the rumors are true and Sony are bringing out a 18-105mm Cine Lens or something of similar quality that will give a good wide-angle option for the FS5. Time will only tell what Sony will do.
Along with the FS5 and α7S II, I took a GoPro Hero 4 for the Turks and Caicos diving scenes and a Canon 5D Mark 3 for any stills and as an additional back up (like I said I like redundancy).
Surprisingly I opted to take only a Mono-pod (Benro A48FDS4 Series) and left my sticks at home. This was mostly to avoid attention at customs as the mono-pod fits nicely into my suitcase. In hindsight, I don’t know if I would make that decision again as I missed my Sachtler frequently. However on this occasion I was lucky, the monopod worked well for the pace we were shooting. Also considering the distance I carried the mono-pod/camera set-up on a daily basis, it was a blessing. Looking back I’d say that this time I got away with it, on most other jobs though I am not so sure.
I worked mainly in 4K and switched to 1080 when I needed either slow-motion or to punch-in with the FS5's great center-scan function. The 4K file on the FS5 is only 8bit which can cause problems when it comes to grading the footage. That’s not ideal but so long as I get my exposure right (more on that later) there would be no need do massive exposure shifts in grading.
While on the subject of the FS5's 4K file, I cant tell you how much I am looking forward to the upcoming 4K RAW firmware upgrade that is coming in May 2016 which will unleash the FS5.
Why shoot 4K for web based content? Well, I went with 4K for a few reasons. I was worried about shaky-cam footage (remember I was on a monopod) so I wanted to be able to stabilize well in post when needed. Also we were moving very fast all the time so I’d cover the wide shots first and foremost, then go straight to details. If I had time (which I frequently didn’t) I’d go on to cover medium shots. However if I had to jump back in the van and move on, I knew we could always punch-in get the medium shots I may have missed.
Tempting though it was to shoot in sLog I didn’t for two reasons. Firstly focusing and judging exposure in the bright Caribbean sun would be tough with the low contrast of sLog2 or sLog3. Secondly, I simply didn’t want to show flat low-contrast files to my clients. Knowing that I wouldn’t have the time to transcode on the fly, shooting sLog would have left me with clients having to use their imagination to visualize the nice vibrant colors hidden in the sLog curve. Not to mention that while transcoding I'd have even less time for to enjoy the local rum!!
Ultimately I opted for Cinegamma 3 in lowlight situations and Cinegamma 4 for brighter, outside use. Both provide a decent file that grades well enough, especially if you’re used to trying to get a good image out of a 5D/H264 file like I am. When I first got the FS5 I had adjusted my settings to closely match those of Erwin van Dijck who did some extensive tests with vector-scope software. I found this a great starting point from which to adjust to my taste.
I recorded with the built in Mic on both cameras but we were not actually shooting for sound. Any usable audio would be a blessing and anytime there was good audio to be had I would roll for sound and tell the camera/editor what it was for at the beginning of each (weird) long take.
Exposure and Focus
If there is one thing that I wish I had taken it would be a good external screen. Something like the new Atamos Flame Series with its super-bright screen would have been perfect on those bright, bright beaches. Focusing and judging exposure on the FS5's small screen is really tough in the blazing sun.
For focus I could mash my eye into the rear viewfinder but I don't like looking through that while shooting if I can help it. Judging exposure I set my Zebras at 70% and put them on a face or whatever mid-tones I had in the shot. Not an exact science but I've learned to dial it in pretty well.
All in All
I am very happy with the kit that I put together, it was a perfect fit for my needs. The FS5/α7S II are perfect for this type of project. Always on the go and moving fast I could pick up a rig and be shooting comfortably in all manner of situations. With more time and money, yes I would have loved to have an FS7 or similar but even with the current firmware version of the FS5 (with no raw support and limited slow-mo abilities) it was a superb choice. Once the new firmware arrives and unlocks the full potential of this little camera I can't see why I'd want to take anything else. And my back will thank me for it.
Steve Boxall is a co-owner at Digital Decaf and a commercial and editorial photographer/director from London. He's now happy to be a legal-alien in the USA. Ask him how he spent a full day floating in Zero Gravity (hint, it’s got nothing to do with him being an alien) and check out his work at SteveBoxall.com.