Portrait of Sarah shot years ago on film.
Works comes in with no particular pattern. On Saturday afternoon I videotaped four interviews with the four musical leads for the musical/play, "Million Dollar Quartet." I liked each of the interviews and on each one we shot with a second camera to get different angles, but even so I knew I needed some interesting shots to use as "cutaways" for those (numerous) times when I need to cover over visually obvious edits in the program. I also needed to get interview footage of the director who was unable to make it by for his session on Saturday. I cleared yesterday afternoon/evening with the stage manager (48 hour notice needs to be given to equity actors when we schedule media shoots) and showed up with an assortment of cameras with which to capture stage shots in rehearsal, along with the lights and microphone I'd need to capture the missing interview.
The play celebrates an actual event, an evening in the 1950's (December 4, 1956) when four musical talents all met in an unplanned session at Sun Studios and played together. The musicians were: Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
I got to the theater around 3:30 in the afternoon and grabbed aninteresting photography tool set from my bag. It was the Panasonic G85 and four different Olympus Pen-FT, manual focus lenses, including: the 60mm f1.5, the 40mm f1.4, the 25mm f2.8 and the 20mm f3.5. My first thoughts were to grab a bunch of still images that I could layer into each actor's video making liberal use of the "Ken Burns" pan and scan technique. But as I roamed around between the front row and the stage (no audience ) I realized that the lighting was good for shooting video and there's so much movement and action in the stagecraft of actual, performing "rockabilly" musicians. I set the camera to shoot 4K video and started working hard on my handheld technique.
Gibson is a sponsor for the production and they provided some incredible electric and acoustic guitars so I knew the Theatre would earn some extra brownie points if I included close-ups of the instruments in use as well as kinetic shots of the musicians wailing away on the instruments. I started with the 60mm and leaned in on the stage to get really tight shots of the different instruments. Then I switched to the 40mm to get shots of the instruments and their musicians in action. Finally, I headed wider and got shots of combinations of musicians playing together.
This set of lenses is from a different era (late 1960's/early 1970's), a time when a different aesthetic in lens making prevailed. The lenses seem to have richer color and a more rounded and graceful approach to sharpness. If you think that's a dodgy way of saying these lenses aren't as clinically sharp in the wider apertures as current, state-of-the-art lenses you would be correct. But somehow they seemed to visually evoke the time period in which the play is set.
The 60 and 40mm lenses sharpen up quickly. When you get two stops down from wide open you are rewarded with a satisfying rounded sharpness that still has thicker, richer color. The two wider lenses suffer by comparison with more modern lenses. They seem to be computed to hit their optimal sharpness around f8 but a side "benefit" of their lower overall performance is their ability to create interesting flare and ghosting artifacts. Which I used with great pleasure.
The G85 is a fine performer when shooting 4K video. It lacks the refinement of the fz2500 and also the depth of settings and features but where the rubber hits the road; image quality, it's a contender.
The single focal length lenses are all manual focus which I considered a plus for this style of handheld, snapshot video shooting. I'd see something I liked and I would snap the lens into focus, hit the record button, and capture 10 to 15 seconds of color and movement. With a little practice I could start way out of focus and roll into focus with good results. The click stops of the lens apertures are not the hard clicks you find on modern lenses, rather they are "informational" clicks that are subtle and don't cause the aperture to "jump" noticeably from stop to stop. Because of the gentle detents I was able to roll the aperture rings to get slight exposure changes with smooth and continuous transitions. Such a difference from lenses where the apertures are controlled by the camera body and the exposures jump in discrete hops!
I love shoots like this were I am prospecting for visual gold instead of following a script or a storyboard. It's entirely my own project and I had an extremely good time just hanging out with the talent and shooting things that made me smile.
The G85 is fun to shoot video with. The IBIS works great and every time I changed a lens when I turned the camera back on it would ask me if I wanted to change the focal length of the lens I had keyed into the IBIS for non-system lenses. It was a quick, two step process and it meant that I was fine-tuning my image stabilization for each focal length. The view through the (generously sized) EVF was smooth and stable for every shot. Almost like being on a tripod or slider.
When I felt I had good video coverage of each actor I switched to shooting stills; just to see what I could get. I set the camera for fine Jpeg and switched the still image aspect ratio to 16:9. I did this so I could create a library of the best still shots and quickly drop them into video without having to worry about cropping the images or letter boxing them.
Now I have great A camera and B camera interview footage, live action b-roll and more than enough still material to gild many lilies. The one thing I was missing was a good music bed but the musical director and the sound engineer are recording some of the impromptu jam sessions the musicians keep getting into (they love to play around) and they'll send me audio files to drop in. Nice.
At that point the only thing between me and dinner with the family was my interview with the director. I found a point mid-house where I could frame the director nicely and have the stage in the background and I planted my tripod there. I hung the same Samson C02 microphone on a Gitzo boom pole just 24 inches from his face and lit up my chosen area with two Amaran LED panels and one big diffusion scrim. I've been doing the interviews with the fz2500 so that's the camera I grabbed from the bag to interview with. I set a custom white balance, set my audio levels and put on half a set of isolating headphones and started my interview. I wouldn't hesitate to use the G85 if it had a headphone jack....
When I heard the audio through the phones I almost fell over. I had just used the microphone on Saturday but it was in a live room with some background noise and it still sounded really good. But in the main theater the acoustics were so wonderful, and the room so much larger, that the microphone came fully into its own. I was stunned at its balance and absolute lack of noise. I've had twenty five years of conversations with the director and the transparency of this cheap microphone made it seems as though I was hearing his voice directly. So much for the myth that all cameras have crappy microphone preamplifiers!!! Or that good dialog microphones must be ruinously expensive!!!!
I wrapped up and headed home. Over dinner I reminded Ben that he'd promised to assist me on a job the next day. Later in the evening I headed back out to the studio to re-pack for the next day's shoot. I recharged the two Panasonic batteries I'd used and pulled all of the audio stuff out of my travel package. We'd be shooting MOS (without sound) today and I didn't want to haul around stuff I didn't need. The big change was that we'd be shooting actors in front of green screen and that called for different lighting, background stands and a green, fabric background. Also some intangibles we usually don't think about.
We packed a total of six LightStorm LED lights, eight light stands, background stands, arms for two diffusion disks, black wrap to "barn door" the background lights to prevent spill, and a good light meter. The meter is one of the two intangibles. I used it not to set absolute exposure levels but to measure the consistency of my lights from corner to corner on the green screen. I've been doing this for a long time and was happy to find that I nailed it today in the first set up.
The other intangibles are extra sandbags. We bring sandbags along regularly when we need to anchor stuff well but today we brought three extras for the green screen background. It's a cotton cloth background and always comes with some packing wrinkles. We pull it tight from side to side and use clamps to keep it stretched taut, but there can be horizontal wrinkles that can't just be clamped out. For these we use sandbags against the bottom of the cloth to create a downward pull on the cloth that seems to straighten everything out well. Three across the bottom seem to do the trick.
I'd temporarily forgotten the agony of dragging a bunch of video gear into a downtown high-rise. We knew that security would require us to use the freight elevator but first we had to find it. Ben and I loaded our loyal cart with tons of stuff and bungee-corded it tight. We parked in the loading dock and dragged the cart up the ramp to the freight elevator. Ben waited with the gear while I put the car into the regular parking garage area. Then we headed up to our client's offices.
In total contrast with my self-directed shoot from the evening before ( a scant twelve hour turnaround) I would be working with an art director, a social media director, a creative director and a product manager. We worked to a tight series of story boarded and smart phone tested comps. Each shot was meticulously lit and measured. Once we had the green screen dialed in I used waveforms to set exact exposures and checked for exact flesh tone with a vector scope.
The client requested 1080p instead of 4K for final file delivery so I set up my camera accordingly. After consultations with my Panasonic expert, Frank, I set the camera to shoot 4K at 10 bit, 4:2:2. I knew this would give me the absolute best file for green screen, masking and compositing. Then I activated "Down Convert" in the HDMI menu. This allows for shooting in 4K which gives maximum detail but down converting the file, in camera, to a very sharp 1080p file to send to the digital video recorder. The video file gets written to an optimized ProRes 422 file in the recorder. If I do my job right, and set my curves and exposures correctly, I'll be able to pull the SSD drive out of the recorder, put it in a USB caddy and download the files directly into my client's application on his computer without having to lift one finger to do additional post production. The files should be ready to use, and they were.
After we shot the list of green screen shots we moved to a second location and shot some talent interaction in a small office. We lit quickly with Aputure Amaran, battery-powered LED panels and again custom white balanced then set exposure via waveform scoping.
It was great to have Ben in tow because he's a fast learner and is already 100% proficient with the LEDs, the video recorder and the shooting camera. It's great to have an assistant you trust implicitly to handle just about anything on his own. It meant I could walk away from one set and let him strike that set while the client and I map out the next location.
After the shoot Ben and I headed to our favorite Chinese food restaurant for some Beef Mongolian (with green beans added) and some perfect ice tea. After we unloaded the car I pulled out the SSD drive from this morning's shoot and brought the videos up on my system. I'm always a little paranoid until I can see the work I've done in a controlled environment. I was happy. And I have to say that every time I use the fz2500 to shoot video I come away more impressed than the time before.
Today I worked with the camera at lower ISOs than I have been using. With ample lighting I was able to stay around ISO 160. At that setting the camera is competitive with just about anything out on the market short of the big, over $10,000 machines. It's clean, sharp and has very pleasing colors. The cinelike D is a great profile and the ease of custom white balancing is flat out charming.
While I love the big Sony cameras for anything photographic the Panasonics are quickly become my choice of camera for anything that involves video.
With multiple shoots done and the week half over I need to spend some seat time editing my interviews because they sure aren't going to edit themselves! Since I picked up an external, Thunderbolt, 1 terabyte SSD my video edits have become much faster and more fluid.
Now, one more portrait of a physician and one portrait for an album cover and I'll be able to call the week fully implemented.
If you are on the fence about cameras and could only have one with which to do every kind of imaging imaginable and had a budget of just $1200, I would counsel you to rush right out and buy a Panasonic fz2500. It must be getting daily, invisible firmware updates because the damn thing gets better every time I use it. Gateway drug for the GH5 indeed....