DSLR Cinema, Cinema Raw, and Cinematic Journalism

by Kurt Lancaster

DSLR Cinema, Cinema Raw, and Cinematic Journalism - by Kurt Lancaster

Run and Gun DSLR Work at Occupy Wall Street

When shooting on the run, it’s important to travel light. Spending a weekend in New York City to see Robert Wilson’s production of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Danfung Dennis’s 5D Mark II documentary, Hell and Back Again at the Film Forum, I squeezed in some time to shoot the Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park.

I had easy access to many different subjects and I handheld all of the shots (with no rig attached to the camera). I kept the camera close to the subjects so as to get their audio clear on my mic (see details below).

Not planning to do any heavy production, I only packed the Canon 5D Mark II body with two Zeiss Contax lenses (purchased used at KEH.com) — 50mm 1.4 and 35mm 2.8 — as well as my Sennheiser ME64/K6P mini shotgun (great for interviews/dialogue), as well as one battery and charger. Outdoors, I wish I had brought along my ME66 shotgun mic, but I couldn’t find my good windscreen, so I utilized my low profile ME62.

Light run and gun setup: Sennheiser with Lightwave windscreen and ETS stepdown XLR to minijack cable. Magic Lantern was used to monitor and adjust levels. Zeiss Contax 50mm 1.4 and 35mm 2.8 lenses were used with a Lightcraft ND fader.

I attached it to the hot shoe mount using a shockmount, and plugged it directly into the mic input of the 5D using the new XLR to minijack camera balun, the ETS PA910 series, providing a low to high impedance connection to the camera. In other words, in a pinch, it’ll provide decent audio when you don’t have a separate digital audio recorder on hand (such as the Zoom H4n or a Tascam DR100). (For sale at Markertek for about $62.)

Most importantly, I  utilized the Magic Lantern, so I could see audio meters while recording and monitor the audio by plugging into the AV port of the 5D.

I shot the project handheld with no strap, no DSLR rig. The omnidirectional aspect of the ME62 picked up a lot of side and background noise, but it ended up adding to the atmosphere of the piece. Furthermore, I stood close to the subject, so the microphone was less then three feet away. I shift my head to the left, while hand-holding the camera, so the subject being interviewed would look at me and not the camera.

My friend, Stacey Sotosky, edited using Final Cut X.

A good shock mount can be purchased here: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/554681-REG/Pearstone_DUSM_1_DUSM_1_Universal_Shockmount_for.html


Kurt Lancaster, PhD, is the author of DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video, Focal Press, 2011 and Video Journalism for the Web: A Practical Introduction to Multimedia Storytelling, Routledge, 2012. He teaches digital filmmaking and multimedia journalism at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication.

The Psychology of the Lens: Patrick Moreau creates filmic intimacy with DSLRs

Patrick Moreau of Stillmotion in Toronto and San Francisco (http://www.stillmotion.ca/) shapes such strong intimate images at weddings, that the NFL hired him to shoot “The Season: Super Bowl XLV” (http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-the-season/09000d5d81e3bdb3/The-Season-Super-Bowl-XLV) and Callaway hired him to create intimate profiles of Callaway golfers. (http://www.callawaygolf.com/Global/en-US/articles/2011/thewinnersvideos.html)


With a background in psychology, Moreau engages “psychology to tell stories” in his documentary work and now in his commercial work. He explains that psychology “helps us really understand the people we are working with as well as the stories we are trying to tell and how we can use our equipment to tell those stories better or in a more relevant way.” It’s not a set formula, but rather, it’s being present and making conscious decisions when it comes to camera and lens selection.


A fleeting, but intimate moment of an NFL player’s worried furrowed brow captured in Stillmotion’s NFL video shot with DSLRs, The Season: Super Bowl XLV.” The long lens and shallow focal depth isolates the player and shapes the psychology of the drama Moreau helped craft through lens choices. (Image courtesy of Stillmotion and NFL.)

A wider lens and deep focus allows Moreau to capture his subject in a space that reveals the character’s emotions in an intimate way. (Image courtesy of Stillmotion and NFL.)


Moreau tells me in an interview at the National Association of Broadcasting (NAB) convention in Las Vegas (2011) that the psychological filmmaking process “forces us to question everything we are doing [and it makes us] really think about why this lens or why this camera tool.”

Click here to read the complete article at Focal Press’s, Mastering Film blog (http://masteringfilm.com/the-psychology-of-the-lens-patrick-moreau-creates-filmic-intimacy-with-dslrs-at-stillmotion/).


White balance with Canon DSLRs — not as easy as video

A couple of my colleagues at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication noted how difficult it is to do manual white balance with the Canon DSLRs some of our students are using.


All I can say: Not as easy as video cameras. The Canon presets have worked pretty well for all the projects I’ve shot, but I’m using a Canon 5D Mark II where I dial in the color temperature I want. Beginning students may know what color temperature to use or just rely on presets — especially when they have to go through the steps I outline below. Or some may just want to use the simplicity of video cameras. Whatever camera you choose to shoot with, manual white balance is an important step not to neglect.


And if it’s more difficult with a DSLR, then you have to decide if it’s worth the extra effort. For me and many of my students who have purchased their own DSLRs, we realize one thing: The image quality, baby, the image quality. But knowing how to color balance is part of mastering the image quality.


Why do we even bother with adjusting color temperature in the first place? Why not just set the camera to automatic. If you’re controlling your image professionally, then you need to use the manual settings so it doesn’t do things you don’t want it to be doing.


Our eyes balance white automatically. A camera’s sensor isn’t as smart as us and it doesn’t have the multitasking capabilities of our minds. So you need to tell the camera what kind of light it’s seeing so it can find true white. White indoors is different than white outdoors. See the chart below:


Color temperature in degree Kelvins. This chart provides a list of different lamps and their corresponding color temps. (Image courtesy of Mapawatt.)


So if you’ve set your DSLR to an indoor light setting (~3700K), such as standard tungsten (a regular light bulb) and you go outdoors (~5500K), the white the camera saw indoors is now different and now has a bluish tint to it. If you’ve set your camera to daylight and you go indoors, the camera’s image now contains a warm yellow cast. See the images below.


The top image contains the bluish tint of an indoor white balance setting used incorrectly outdoors. The bottom image is too yellow — the typical problem with an outdoor setting used incorrectly indoors. The center image is properly color balanced. Photos by Kurt Lancaster (courtesy of Focal Press).


And if you are shooting a scene with multiple light sources (such as a window and a room with fluorescent lighting), you need to tell the camera which one it should see. Is the window your key light? Then dial in the proper color temperature or set the custom white balance.

Read the complete article at Focal Press’s Mastering Film blog:


Apple’s Final Cut Pro X — nothing else quite like it

With an interface that feels like it’s designed for artists rather than engineers, Apple’s new Final Cut X — to  be released in June at $299 — redefines the game, much like DSLRs altered the game for prosumer video cameras by creating a new category of their own. The new Final Cut Pro seems unlike anything else out there in the nonlinear editing (NLE) market.


Apple’s new interface for Final Cut Pro X. Notice the the relationship links and audio waveforms. The upper left features the management and organization window where you can sort files in different categories. The preview window is a film strip, where you can set the preview length (such as a new image every ten seconds) — and audio can be scrubbed allowing you to hear the dialogue. (Image courtesy of Apple.)


Apple’s Peter Steinauer (senior video applications engineer), unveiled the software at the Final Cut Pro User Group meeting in Las Vegas on April 12, 2011, declaring how they’ve created a new version of Final Cut that was designed from the ground up—not a facelift of the existing engine, but a brand new beast.


To read the complete article go to Focal Press’s Mastering Film:

Not DSLR killers, but killer DSLRs: How DSLRs killed the prosumer video camera

It seems the blogosphere is filled with talk about “DSLR killers.” Here are a few predictions ranging from the end of 2008 to March 2011: “Red unwraps ‘DSLR Killer’” by John Mello; “Sony joins the fray with (another) DSLR-killer“; DVXUser thread: “Panasonic AF-100 being called the ‘DSLR killer’. Any thoughts?“; “The Real ‘DSLR Killer’ For Filmmaking (No, It’s Not A Hasselblad)” by Neil Matsumoto.


Indeed, I would argue that the DSLR was the prosumer video camera killer and the video camera had to evolve in order to stay in the game.


Go to Focal Press’s Mastering Film to read more.

Philip Bloom gets a copy of my DSLR Cinema book from Focal Press

The DSLR Cinema book is almost available for order. Amazon lists the official release date as Nov. 2, but it’s available there preorder.


Philip Bloom picked up an advanced copy in Boston last Friday.



What others are saying about the book:


“A huge thank you to Kurt Lancaster for giving a voice to HDSLRs in this new trail-blazing book.”
(Shane Hurlbut, ASC) (DP of Terminator Salvation)


“This book should be in every camera bag. A rich, comprehensive, and poetic examination of how filmmakers and cinematographers are creating stunning moving imagery with HDLSRs.”
Rodney Charters, ASC (DP of TV series, 24).


“Kurt has written a masterpiece in HDSLR books — something that everyone starting to make a movie should read. It is like film school 101 and planet5D all wrapped together in a book. The thing that sets Kurt’s book apart from the other HDSLR training DVDs and books is the expanded look at several different short films. Breaking them down piece by piece (not only the images but the story as well) to help the student understand what went into the films and what to learn from each one.


Sure, there’s good coverage of the very basics of moviemaking (lighting, equipment, rigs, movie terms etc.) for those who are new or moving from stills. And yet there’s also much more detail in the basics than most of the other materials I’ve seen. Detail you can learn sink your teeth into and learn from.


At planet5D, we ask moviemakers to give us details about a particular shoot — but with Kurt’s book, you get an entire chapter on the breakdown of Shane Hurlbut’s “The Last 3 Minutes” — much more detail than we could provide in 10 posts online.


With interviews of major industry players, details about making movies, both the hardware and the story side, you will find plenty to not only learn from but to enjoy in this wonderful book.”
planetMitch (www.planet5D.com)


“Out of nowhere, two DSLR cameras came out, and over a period of 18 months, they have been embraced by everyone from Lucasfilm to keen enthusiasts. … This is easily the most exciting time I have experienced in my 20 or so years in the business. … It’s really good. Great job!”
Philip Bloom, DP, Director, Filmmaker (www.philipbloom.net)


“It tells me exactly what I want to know – how to get the LOOK that I need. Hats off to the author for tackling this subject. It make the book INVALUABLE for the DSLR filmmaker.”
Julian Grant, Producer/Director


“Fantastic Approach! By emphasizing excellent cinematography as a critical aspect of filmmaking (especially cinematography in support of storytelling), he is immeasurably helping myriads of budding filmmakers avoid making crappy-looking films. Correspondingly, by emphasizing a ‘hands-on’ approach, and providing excellent walk-throughs of specific techniques to significantly, measurably  improve the reader’s cinematography, he lifts this book high above the pack!”
Dave Anselmi, Director, Producer, and Instructor, PracticalMysticProductions.com


“It will spread the revolution and introduce people to this way of thinking … it would be a must read for anyone who has been filming for a year or two and still thinks in the old ways of looking through a camera.”
Andrew Jones, Cinematographer


Kurt Lancaster, PhD, is the author of “DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video, Focal Press, 2011.” He teaches digital filmmaking and multimedia journalism at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication.

Blocking in Philip Bloom’s “2 nights in Mallory Square.”

Flagstaff, AZ, 3 Aug. 2010

This is a continuation of my first blog on “Composition in Philip Bloom’s ‘2 nights in Mallory Square.’”

In this blog, I examine how Philip Bloom approaches blocking in this short film. Here’s the film:

2 nights in Mallory Square from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.

Anatomy of a scene 2

What is blocking? Blocking has its roots in the theater. In cinema, it represents where, when, and how subjects are placed and move in the composition, whether working with actors or characters in a documentary. How they are placed, when they move, where they move from and where they go is dependent on the story — there should be nothing random, since these movements (the blocking of the performers) need to be motivated, otherwise random movements not grounded in the story will appear weak onscreen.

In other words, the best blocking reveals the inner motives of the characters — what they’re thinking and feeling. We sense their subtext, their underlying moment-to-moment emotional life. It reveals their psychology.

The job of the director is to shape or choreograph these feelings through blocking, while the cinematographer needs to capture them movements with the camera. In a documentary, the director captures what the subjects are doing and make sure what they’re doing is motivated.

Let’s look at a couple of shots from “2 nights in Mallory Square”. In Bloom’s case, he is the director and cinematographer.

In the opening shot we see a close-up of a scraggly man. We see a moment of concentration, the blocking and composition clear in telling us that the man is intent on doing something. In the next moment we see him lift up a sword and swallow the blade.

We also know that he is an exhibitionist. The way he faces the camera and expresses his body — the body language he conveys — reveal the type of man he is (or at least the image of how we wants to be perceived during this performance).

The several shots where we see Philip Bloom’s arms, with his camera placed in a point of view shot reveals not only the palm reader’s intent — to do a friendly reading of Bloom, but it also begins reveals Bloom’s intent as a filmmaker and it is one of the few times (if ever) he’s put himself in a HDSLR personal video.

The blocking reveals Bloom’s gentility and how he’s having fun in making this piece of digital cinema. It seems to reveal his light-heartedness in how he interacts with other human beings. His subtext reveals his filmic style — never heavy-handed, but light as he appears to float his camera throughout the rest of the film.

In a work of fiction, blocking would reveal the underlying tensions between characters. In a documentary, if a scene has more than one character, we could begin to see such tensions, as well. But in a single close-ups, we see how these characters react to the Bloom-camera — and their feelings his subjects express tend to reflect Bloom’s overt friendliness.

Kurt Lancaster, PhD, is the author of DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video, Focal Press. He teaches digital filmmaking at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication.