The quality of good video depends on so much more than the performance of your camera.

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first. The primary driver of watchability for a video is first, how interesting/compelling is the idea you are communicating. Second is the quality of the script. After acknowledging those two things we can dive into the technical morass that seems to surround any project that is made with fun gizmos and tools.

From what I know of the photography business and what I've seen and heard in the video business pretty much everyone is obsessed with cameras. It's a subject that comes up endlessly and one that gets argued all over the web. Which camera is best? Which files are best? Should I shoot 4K or 2K? Should we invest in Zeiss Primes or go all out for the Leica primes? Should we stick to zooms? Can a camera be any good if it doesn't cost more than $10,000? More than $2,000? Do you need to have a touchscreen? Is Canon better than Sony? Can a project actually be done with a micro 4:3rds camera? Will clients run screaming from the room if you aren't writing files to an external recorder? How will we mount the camera? What cage should we get for our camera? Is the rosewood grip better
than the aged walnut grip? And, of course, who has the best image stabilization (which we will turn off when we mount the camera on a gimbal....). ????

Ummm. Hmmm.  We just wrapped up shooting on a couple of video projects yesterday and I waited until today to write this post so I could take a close look at and listen to the material we created and to write, with reasonable assurance, about what worked and what didn't.

Let me set the stage: Our client is a global healthcare products provider who is introducing a seat back for active wheelchair users. It's had a long development cycle because it's a medical product that has to pass FDA tests and regulations. The seat back is custom fitted to each client. Part of the process is a 3-D scan which is used to create the moulded material. After the back is created it is custom fitted by technicians with deep knowledge about physical therapy and the effects (good and bad) that a seat back can have on the wellbeing of someone who spends long days in a wheelchair.

Our client has a client who was disabled in an armed robbery over 20 years ago. She was shot in the back and her legs are paralyzed. But she is a very active wheelchair user who has raised three great kids, gotten a masters degree in social work, and she spends long days in the workplace. She is also a beta tester for my client's new seat back.

Our brief was to create a short (2 to 3 minute) video about the new product and we worked with our talent in several locations to create a program showcasing how the back enhances her quality of life by enabling mobility and providing comfort and support. We videotaped her coming into "her" kitchen in the morning to make coffee, sitting at the dining room table reading e-mails, going out to an outdoor lunch with friends, on a walk with another friend, and in meetings at "her" office in the middle of Austin.

We have lots of video where she moves while the camera moves, and lots of footage in mixed lighting situations, but we also shot some classic interview footage in a comfortable living room. The interview footage is great because the colors and quality of the video are so lifelike that I am able to suspend my disbelief that what I am looking at is not real life. What she said in the interview was riveting and very affirming and after her last take the (small) crew and the three clients on the set spontaneously applauded her. It was a wonderful moment for me to witness.

When the clients looked at playback of our talent's last take they immediately decide to use it as an opener for part of their annual meeting next week. This meant that Ben and I had to color grade and edit late last night and get that 3:00 minute segment to them at open of business this morning. The rest of the footage, both from our "A" camera and the "B" camera that Ben was wielding has been ingested into Final Cut Pro X by now and we're sorting clips. All of it looks pretty darn good.

So, what miraculous camera created this bounty of video happiness? Was it an Arri Alexa? A Red Dragon? Did we shoot raw? What miracle camera allowed us to leverage our meager skills into a product that clients willingly paid for?

Well, we used two cameras, a Sony a6300 and a Sony RX10iii. And on the a6300 the only lens I used was the 18-105mm f4.0 G lens.

Here's what I discovered: All modern cameras are pretty good. It seems to me that what really makes a difference at this point in time is all the peripheral stuff you bring to the party and how well you use it.

As you may know I bought new lights about a week ago. Two of the Aputure Lightstorm LS-1s panels and two of the LS-1/2 panels. I upgraded because this is the first opportunity I've had to buy and use LED panels with CRIs of 95 and 98, respectively. My older lights were not as color accurate. Here's what I found: A very high color accuracy, with a full spectrum, makes it easier to get amazing flesh tones. We still did custom white balances every time we changed scenes but at every point someone would comment on the quality of the flesh tone color rendering.

The lights were powerful enough to use as fill on an outdoor shot with car. The sun was up in a cloudless sky and the interior of the car was black. We were showing our talent pulling her wheelchair into the car. The wheelchair was in shadow (black on black) and needed as much fill as we could get to offset the exposure on the white car exterior.  Two panels about seven feet away did the trick. That said, if you need outdoor power all the time you'll want more juice than these can give you. Indoors? Just fine.

Seems that the higher CRI, in combination with the digital sensor, is a good match and something the cameras handle well. The multiple parts (cords, power brick, controller) in addition to the Light Storm light panels themselves make set up and tear down slower but I guess that's the current price I'll pay for really clean light color. And a perfect match for daylight streaming through the windows.

I conjecture that better lighting made my camera files look better than a more expensive camera's files would look with less accurate lights. My take away is that better lights can make for better camera files. Any camera. The four lights we brought along were about as expensive as the two cameras we were using for the video. Interesting value proposition considering we'll be using the lights long after the cameras become obsolete...

On to a different technical observation. I've always been told about how noisy all DSLR and mirrorless camera microphone inputs are. Just too noisy to be useful for "professional" quality video production. I've talked before about the need to match the electrical parameters of various microphones to camera inputs in order to get the cleanest sound but this time it was the quality of the microphone itself that made me sit up and listen.

The prevailing mass sourced opinion about microphones is that we must use lavaliere mics with wireless transmitters if we are to achieve good sound. I agree that wireless lav mics can be very convenient but I'm not sure I agree with them being the best option for optimum voice quality.

In fact, if the talent is not moving all over your set I'm coming to the realization that good line gradient microphones can be warmer, more detailed, have more dynamic range and be of overall lower noise than their little "pinhead" brethren. I'm also convinced that a cable connected mic (no radio transfer) can result in a much cleaner overall signal. Now, I'll be quick to mention that I am not using the super high end of radio microphones in my practice. No Sound Devices recorders at $3,000-$5,000 each and no Countryman radio systems in my case; just the Sennheiser EW 100G3s that everyone else seems to use.

After having tested things both ways I opted to pull an Audio Technica AT835B "shotgun" microphone out. I attached it to a boom pole and used the set-up on a light stand to position it about 18 inches from my talent's mouth; just over the top of her head, out of camera range. I ran the XLR connector into my Beachtek D2A which matches the balanced line input to an unbalanced output to camera that is level matched for most consumer camera's 3.5mm stereo inputs.

The room was filled with upholstered furniture, deep carpets and large pillows. It was much less "live" than the studio I work in. We did a few run throughs for level and I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

There was NO discernible noise at all. None. I was wearing closed, AKG headphones and I couldn't hear the slightest hiss or electrical noise. Just very clear and nuanced human voice. So, the microphone, and the correct matching of the microphone to your system plays an enormous part in "helping" the camera to have lower noise inputs. Funny how that works. Really.

But even if your microphone is well balanced and set up you still need to be aware of your levels and you still need to monitor what you are getting with headphones to make sure you aren't picking up the noise from a refrigerator compressor or the bark of a neighborhood dog. But wait! There's no headphone jack on a Sony a6300 (rat bastards!) so how did I listen for problems?

Well that's the next piece in a system that works together to maximize the quality (or at least the operational efficiency) of your camera ---- a good, external monitor. What I discovered recently is that since the HDMI output of your camera contains both the video signal and the audio signal you can monitor the quality of the audio if your external (HDMI) monitor has a headphone jack. Voila. Problems solved. And ready to go.

I've been using the Aputure VS-2 FineHD monitor and I also wanted to mention that it has a feature that puts big audio level meters on the left side of your monitor screen. Big, nicely laid out, audio level bars that are easy to read because they run almost from the top to the bottom of your screen. You get to keep your eyes on the screen to keep track of your visual and audio content at the same time. Need to ride audio levels? Do that with the physical volume controls on your passive microphone interface (D2A).

One of the things that made our video files look so good yesterday was a feature on the new monitor called "false color." The monitor breaks up the image into different colors based on their luminance level. Flesh tones fall on about 65-70% and on this monitor that is equal to a light gray color. You can set your exposure by making sure the talent's face falls into the light gray color instead of yellow or blue or some other color. It's a quick and reliable way to meter since it shows the relative luminance of an object in the frame whereas a histogram only shows the values of the overall frame. You could do the same thing with settable zebras but the false color also shows areas that have gone to pure white or shadows blocked up to pure white.

Ben was assisting me over the last two days and I was thrilled to have him along. While he's got bigger aspirations that producing video he's very, very good at it and very unemotional about dealing with clients or delays or unworkable roadblocks. Much more effective than his father.

He was shooting with the RX10iii and picked up tons of B-roll and secondary angles of interviews and action shots. We both used the same profile for the project (PP1) on both cameras and we both white balanced to the same Lastolite target at the beginning of every scene in a new lighting situation. The amazing thing to me is that the colors matched so well in post.

And how good did the color really look? Across both cameras? Well, the three+ minute program we sent to the client this morning required NO Color correction at all. One tiny bump in the contrast was our only intervention. I've never been able to pull that off before.

To my mind we could have used any of a number of cameras and gotten very similar results. Now that cameras are more mature video tools the real determiners of overall technical qualities are now the ancillary gear you bring to bear and how well you use it. Matching the microphones to the camera inputs. Getting wonderful light. Using the right measurements for fine tuning. Getting the focus nailed via the focus peaking on the monitor (much easier to use than that on the cameras...). It's an additive quality parade that culminates in video that's not painful to watch. Or to listen to.

At a certain point you are at the mercy of the client's ability to source a script and approve a talent but everything else is part of an overall system. And the system is both interdependent and more important than just one sexy (camera) tool. At least that's how we're seeing it today.


Russ Goddard said...

Easily one of the best - maybe THE best - article on video I've ever read. Perhaps that speaks more to my own lack of knowledge/experience! But I find this kind of hands-on REAL WORLD info so valuable . . . and inspirational to go out and do MY stuff, better.

Thanks, Kirk! (Been clicking VSL a lot over the last two days, anticpating your report.)

Craig Yuill said...

I feel that the ambient sound that can be captured with today's cameras is not bad. But I have, nonetheless, been reading up on how to improve the sound quality in video. A number of video enthusiasts seem to use handheld audio recorders to plug in external mics, and then run a line from the recorder to the camera's mic port (or record the audio in the recorder and sync the audio later in post). The common theme seems to be that better audio can be achieved by using better mics and audio circuitry than what are built into the camera.

That monitor with the external headphone jack is very intriguing. You just need to make sure that your camera has an HDMI port.

I agree with Russ, that this is a great article on video. For me, it is because you have emphasized the need for good audio, which is lacking on too many video presentations.