It was a friendly, f2 sort of day. An interesting exercise to try if you are more interested in walking than getting the perfect photo.
What can you do with lousy weather, tight schedules and a couple evening hours to film young actors and dancers outside?
Let's talk about gimbals. I had no idea there were so cool. Now I'm starting to crave the latest ones the way I used to covet lenses....
We were preparing for our big August/September video project and we all (the producer, myself, and the marketing director) sat down to discuss what we wanted it to look like and how we might go about filming. It quickly became obvious that my two under 30 counterparts were smitten with the look of a constantly moving camera and were hoping they could convince the Luddite before them to get on board with the new technology. Use a gimbal. It was uncomfortable. Mostly because I value their opinions and I hate to appear stuck in the past.
The smart thing I did was to consult with a filmmaker I know who loves moving cameras around on gimbals and has a long tenure of experience with six or seven gimbals from four or five geological strata of gimbal development. He had an interesting idea and I guess I grabbed onto it the way a panicked, drunken non-swimmer clings to a flimsy float when accidentally pushed into the deep end of the pool.
He suggested baby steps. He counseled that before I lunged off the deep end into the jungle of available "big boy" gimbals that I might be better served by getting an inexpensive model made for phones and give that a try first. I might be able to learn a lot without making a big and ill-considered investment.
I trundled off to Precision Camera with a bit of attitude. I wasn't even sure I really wanted a gimbal and I harbored the fear that I might not be able to figure it out. Or worse, that I was already so far behind the learning curve that I'd never become proficient with one.
After "kicking many tires" I settled on a phone gimbal that my trusted sales associate thought to be a good seller. I asked him what the definition of a "good seller" was and how that might affect my purchase. He let me know that a good seller, to him, is a product that is reliable and does the job. It's a good seller because people want it and not very many people return them. Works on so many levels.
The one I settled on is a Zhiyun Smooth 2. It cost a hundred dollars and change and comes with its own internal battery as well as a simple set of instructions. I carted it home, charged it up and, after learning that it worked best if I took the fancy case off the iPhone XR I was walking around the studio trying to get used to the three basic control settings.
I spent three or four days working with the gimbal and my phone. My skill set, while not as fluid as those of a Zoomer Gen operator, advanced to the point where I could get the phone camera pointing where I wanted smoothly and consistently. Once I added more image control via an app called Filmic Pro I was become comfortable with the process and happy with the output. Still seems like magic.
But I knew we'd need more control over the video images for the real project and that would mean a camera with a robust video codec as well as a range of good lenses. I was back at the camera store a handful of days later splashing out for my first real gimbal. It was a Zhiyum Crane V2. I bought it because it does all the basic stuff: panning mode, follow mode and lock mode. It also lets you trigger the record start via bluetooth and it has a nifty table top tripod thing on the bottom so when you get tired of holding the gimbal and camera in one hand you can put it down on the ground without messing up the balance you worked hard to set up.
Two days later I was on the pedestrian bridge filming a group of dancers marching toward me as I marched backwards. Here's what I learned that made my first big days with the gimbal work:
1. You need to match the capabilities of the gimbal to the weight of your camera and lens. A combo that's too heavy for your gimbal will cause some jumpiness and motor vibration. I started out by using the Lumix G9 + 12-60mm on the Zhiyun Crane. It's about a two and a half pound load and the gimbal is rated up to a little over four pounds. That worked.
I tried to use that gimbal with the Lumix S1 and the 24-70mm f2.8 lens but that was pushing it. The combo was right at the edge of the specification and it quickly became obvious to me that the gimbal maker was over estimating the product's chops.
2. You have to practice with a gimbal in non-stress situations to master it. Spend time walking around your backyard with the camera+gimbal, shoot some footage and review it. You'll soon intuit a feedback loop and start fine-tuning your technique. I started out with the phone gimbal but as soon as I bought bigger gimbal I started working with it in my off time to try to get as comfortable with it. Theoretical is great for conversations over coffee but experience is almost always a much better teacher.
3. Start re-learning how to walk. I know it sounds crazy but the normal gait of most people is decidedly bouncy. You see it with new gimbal users like me. The footage just tends to bounce up and down as you walk. You have to crouch into it a bit and also bend your knees and try to walk as flat as you can. Smaller shuffling steps seem to work best. And it's the same when you are moving backwards. Bent knees, try to stay low and flat and do more toe to heel, toe to heel. Again, it takes practice and looks really goofy. But the goofier you walk the nicer your gimbal footage tends to look.
4. For the life of me I just couldn't figure out how to move side to side for shots that would require me to follow along next to someone like I was a camera on a dolly. I'd look at the screen and try to kind of shuffle to the side I wanted to head in. My footage looked awful. Absolutely junk. Then my gimbal mentor shook his head and flipped my camera's rear screen out so it was perpendicular to the camera. That way when I pointed the camera at my subject I could look in the direction I wanted to travel and I'd be looking straight into my screen. It's like my subject and I are walking side by side but I'm holding the gimbal so it's pointing at her while the screen is right in front of my face. All of a sudden my tracking shots cleaned up enough to be useable.
5. Some newer gimbals come with controls that allow you to actually focus using a thumb wheel while working with your gimbal. Mine don't. And I'm not sure how people can concentrate on both watching their composition, walking and also checking focus. I can do two but maybe not three. Instead I try to set a focus for a specific distance, use an aperture that gives me a little safety via depth of field and then work with the gimbal while being cognizant of keeping the distance. Of course, this assumes I'm working with manual focusing.
6. I've had some luck using autofocus but just as often when I move off a subject the camera flails to find focus and everything goes to hell. My best luck has been a combination of enabling all the AF points and also using a helpful aperture. The basic, full frame AF will nearly always try to find the closest object on which to focus and that's nearly always the actor I want to follow with my gimbal. If I use face detection AF and my subject turns away from the camera while there is someone else in the frame the camera thinks it's being smart by shifting focus to the other person instead of just waiting for person one to turn around.
It can be a bit frustrating. Not as bad outdoors where light levels are high and sensors are more easily satisfied by not everything we shoot camera be in bright sun. In fact, I'm generally happier if that's not where we shoot.
7. If you shoot projects like we do there is probably a lot of time (five or ten minutes?) between takes. You can stand there with the gimbal torquing your biceps or you can put it down on the little built in tripod but I favor a different compromise. I stick the bottom edge of the gathered mini-tripod legs against my upper thigh. That point of contact takes most of the weight and takes the load off my left arm (that's my gimbal handling arm, by default). Eventually I'll make a little gimbal tip holster you can wear hanging down from your belt and it will receive the tripod legs (all gathered together) and take the weight off without damaging your fine trousers.
8. Following on from point seven... The further out from your body that you hold the weight of the gimbal plus camera rig the shorter amount of time you'll be able to handle the strain. The closer you hold the gimbal to your body the less force it will exert in concert with its best friend, gravity. Elbows in with the gimbal as close as you can get it and still operate it and you'll be good for much longer. I learned that doing lifts with a ballerina girlfriend in high school. If you want to lift someone up onto your shoulder you want to lift as close to your body as possible. You might also ask your dancer to bend her legs and jump up in sync with your life. Anything helps. Also, try to only date dancers that weigh less that 105 pounds. Not always possible in north America...
9. Use a handheld meter, or a waveform monitor, or even histogram to set your exposure but bump up the brightness on your LCD so you can clearly see the edges of your frame if you are shooting in bright sun. Also, a bit of black wrap and some tape will make a decent hood for your LCD which will enhance the image a lot and make you look like a DIY pro.
So, after a bunch of shoots with the G9 and the Zhiyun Crane I was ready to try a gimbal that could handle one of my full frame, Panasonic cameras. A friend had a DJI Ronin S that's rated to handle up to 8 pounds (I'd call it at 5 lbs.) and he was ready to move on to a newer and more technically advanced gimbal so he offered the Ronin to me at a nice price. I've been using it with the Lumix cameras and some of the lenses and it works well. But I've also been using it with the much lighter weight Sigma fp and it feels like a match made in heaven.
I think gimbal development must be where camera sensor development was back in 2010 or 2012 and it's still changing rapidly. I'm trying to master the basics first and get more projects under my belt before I go looking for the greener grass in the next field. I'd hate to fill the studio with a gimbal collection of greatest hits from every era of development; even if that's what my trajectory looks like in the moment.
Go Gimbals. (P.S. I still dislike drones. Mostly on principle).
And Just Like That VSL Is Back. Warning, a lot of this post is about the big show I've been working on. And video. If you don't like that, don't worry, we forgot to charge you for the programming.
Here's my favorite video for the show: https://vimeo.com/462396471
The opening number for the live stream program is at the bottom of this post!
You have to go to Vimeo to see them. I don't trust you guys to watch it in some tiny, embedded format here and the bust my chops because it's too small...
Vacation from the VSL blog.
I really needed that break. I was trying to concentrate on this enormous volunteer project for Zach Theatre back in late August and I kept running out of mental bandwidth. And time. I was feeling stale on the blog since we hadn't worked much and even I'll admit that swimming isn't really a spectator sport. I'm glad some of you waited around to see if the blog would revive. I did write in my Sept. 2nd post that "this is not goodbye.."
How did I recharge the "creative batteries"? Mostly by working a lot on new stuff instead of writing about working. That, and copious amounts of swimming and walking. Between sessions of filming out in the heat and humidity I took times for naps, ate well and read more books. The end result is that I wanted to come back and write. Seems like I missed writing at least as much as you missed reading new stuff.
So, let's catch up.
I'm not sure I've been very clear about the project I've been working on so I think we should start there with some background and description.
Zach Theatre's Annual Fundraising Gala: AKA: Red, Hot and Soul.
Zachary Scott Theatre has been actively making live theater (plays, musicals, dramas, lectures) for the last 99 years. For the last ten years we've been lucky to have a brand new, state of the art theater space to work in as well as three other stages on the campus in which to produce kids programs, smaller productions, and intimate, limited time engagements.
The Theatre, while regional, is a standout in the country for the quality of its work and is often used as a resource by famous playwrights to develop new productions. Anna Devere Smith has done two of her debuts in our theaters. Holland Taylor debuted "Ann" in our theater before taking it to Broadway. Tony Kushner was in our audiences for the first regional run of "Angels in America." And the list goes on. Steven Dietz often debuts his work here; most recently his take on "Dracula."
Our theater is big on education and community outreach. Each year 50,000 school age children are treated to live performances here. There is also an accredited academy for kids who want an alternative learning experience with emphasis on theater as well as a regular school curriculum. Many of the children who see plays at Zach are able to do so because their attendance is subsidized. Scholarships are available for those who want to go to the academy but lack financial resources.
So, every year Zach Theatre's budget is split between creating great, community-based theater and providing a wide array of learning opportunities. Add in a very a professional staff and you can imagine that expenses are high. But in normal years the theater is able to make ends meet by combining ticket sales for their MainStage shows, private donations, grants and support from the city of Austin. They've always been able to come up with needed $$$ and the event that tips the budget out of the red each year is a fabulous fundraising gala they call: Red, Hot and Soul.
The theater erects a giant, air conditioned tent in the central plaza, the furnishings are top shelf, as is the alcohol. The catering (lovely dinners) is by the Four Season Hotel and is flawless/delicious. Singers and actors serenade and entertain the guests and, of course, there are the pitches for the guests to get generous, open their wallets and support Zach. Every year they raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from this one night event. It covers a lot of the expenses of providing a first class live theater venue for our community.
But this year is different. The Theatre went dark at the end of February because of the pandemic. Audiences have been unable to attend any indoor productions. Staff has been laid off. There has been a real existential fear that after 99 years of creativity, inspiration, and the delivery of happiness and joy, our theater would run out of money and close its doors.
The senior staff decided to throw a Red, Hot and Soul gala this year, but virtually. They needed to capture the excitement of the event but without the catering, the cramped banquet table camaraderie and the open bars. But what we still had was a bunch of very creative and popular actors, a committed choreographer, a bright, young in-house video producer and a masochistic volunteer with a history of shooting video. That last one would be me.
It was decided that we'd create a bunch of creative content, intermix that creative content with a live show featuring two emcees, and we'd stream the whole thing up live on YouTube and Facebook. The show would eventually come together (last night) and run almost two hours. The first half hour consisted of photos of past productions intermixed with music, auction items people could bid on, and snippets of interviews with actors and directors.
After that virtual happy hour we'd launch the main show. It would have a creative opening video which we shot back in August mixed with the two live presenters. Then a video of the the kids performing a musical dance number mixed again with the two wise guys in the house. We would cut away to (pre-recorded) quick "check-ins" of people celebrating the event with "watch" parties in their homes. I filmed one such party and my brief was to cut back on the production quality and try to make video that looked like the party attendees were shooting it with their phones. I tried but sadly, it's still in focus and well exposed. I did shake the camera a lot... But the audio is just too damn good.
The one hour (plus some O.T.) ends with Los Angeles based singer/actor: Chanel singing two hits from Tina Turner. That's no coincidence as she was recently cast by a theater in London's famous West End to take on the role of Tina Turner for the season. Of course, that was just before the pandemic shut down the whole London theater scene.
After Chanel's video there's a video of tap dancing to a Stevie Wonder hit and then we sign off and cut to a pre-recorded video of a D.J. to finish up with a bit more house party.
So, what was my role?
It started out with me volunteering to help make video, along with a couple other professionals who initially volunteered. But before we even started shooting they realized that this was an enormous project and they (gracelessly?) backed out. That left me and the in-house producer as the sole crew for a couple parts of the project. Namely, the first half and the second half.
Using a creative narrative conceived by the theater's artistic director, Dave Steakley, we would need to create original video for six different modules for which Joshua and I would do the pre-production, story-boarding, camera work, direction and post production. One critical duty I had for each program was to bring the bling. I was the donor of any and all camera and lighting equipment that was required. I operated the camera for every second of every video. I also went from being a gimbal virgin to a gimbal pro over the space of six weeks (easy enough to do if you have a gimbal in your hands for at least a couple hours a day, every day).
When we ran out of light I pulled lighting stuff out of the studio inventory and had it ready to go. If we needed to record an interview I brought along the bag full of microphones. We'd let the space dictate the microphone we ended up using.
Joshua worked with the development team to schedule our talents. On several shoots we had several dozen talents on exterior locations to work with. We'd do a quick rehearsal and try to get our footage in a couple of takes. At the end of every day I'd put all the raw footage on a hard drive and Joshua would have to take it home and scrub through it, looking for whatever visual gems we happened to get. Then he had the unenviable task of doing all of the editing. We worked hand-in-hand to find codecs and color profiles that would work under wildly different conditions but still keep shadows and highlights under control.
Just last Sunday we were shooting the last of our video properties. We'd shot nearly every weekend and lots of weekdays between August 16th and September 20th. Mix in regular clients and a consistent schedule of swims and you start to get an idea why I felt that also keeping the blog well stocked might be a step too far...
So, at some point in the mix, we had to decide how to handle the live show. We would have our creative performances pre-recorded and in the can but how would we handle the live streaming? In a moment of heedless delirium I suggested that we do a three camera production but I was pretty adamant that since I'd never streamed live before (and didn't want to learn how or buy that kind of gear) we should get a professional crew to do the live show audio and technical work of making a show seem bulletproof and seamless. We bit the bullet and hired a company called, "Werd." And they turned out to be great. They brought along a show director, a video/switching professional and an audio engineer. They did their jobs perfectly. And they were fun to work with.
We lacked a teleprompter and teleprompter operator and the three cameras that would present the live feed on the big day. I guess I was still dazed from a month of volunteering but as my consciousness floated above my body I heard myself suggest that "since I was no longer busy shooting video every day I guessed I could handle the three cameras on the big day." As I floated back down into my body I screamed at my inner self -- "What the hell were you thinking?" It was a rhetorical question. I was already committed.
One of the emcees provided the teleprompter pro. An old family friend. He was great.
The three camera "TV" show.
So, here's what I learned about live streaming a multi-camera show to Facebook and Youtube:
No one streams 4K video. No one streams 10 bit video. No one streams 4:2:2 video. No one streams .Mov video. Your goal is to provide a 1080p video feed that is as skinny (anemic?) as your camera can possibly provide and to make all the color and contrast tweaks humanly possible in camera, in advance, since there is NO opportunity to fix anything in post. Good files = small files.
I found out that all three of my Lumix S1x series cameras can (under humiliating distress) shoot M4P files at the blistering data rate of.... 28 mbs. Not 280. Just 28.
To make things easy for the continuous uploading while switching seamlessly between three cameras you want to make sure that all the settings match up. If you are shooting the show at 30 fps then all three cameras need to be set to 30 fps. If you chose to make a custom look with a tweaked "natural" profile then all three cameras need to have the same color profile.
To make it visually transparent to the audience you also need to make sure you color balance all three cameras with the same target in the actual lighting the presenter will live in. And it's a big help to keep both of your presenters in focus.
We filmed our live presenters in front of a wall of donor plaques in the main lobby of the big theater building. I had the Lumix S1H set up, with the teleprompter, right down the middle. It was a medium to medium wide shot that took in both presenters and bookended them with a flower arrangement on each side. My instructions to them: Stay inside the flowers and you'll be visible. Venture beyond the flowers and you'll quickly fall into obscurity.
The S1H was equipped with the battery grip which (tested in advance) would give me a minimum of 2.5 hours of run time. Without high data rate files, AF and image stabilization it would be closer to 3 hours. I used the 24-70mm f2.8 at f5.6 and tweaked exposure with the ISO setting. At the shooting distance, f-stop and shutter speed I had a zone of sharp focus that was about three feet deep. If needed, I could tweak on the fly. I knew the presenters weren't used to using teleprompters and I figured they'd be scared to go too far off script and get lost so I knew our center camera would get the most play time.
I used a second camera, a Lumix S1, over to the left (as I faced the presenters) by about 35 degrees in order to get a different look. That camera was used with the 24-105mm zoom set to about 50mm and also tuned in at f5.6. Since I only had the one battery grip I set up each of the two side camera with Anker Power Banks plugged into the camera's USB-C input. This charged the battery while the camera worked.
The third camera was an S1 on the other side, but a bit further back than the left camera and set up to use a longer lens so I could get tighter shots that showed bigger heads and less background. This camera also had an external battery running into the USB-C and sported a 70-200mm f4.0 Lumix S-Pro lens. Since this and the 24-70mm both have manual focusing capability via a clutch I took advantage of it. I decided on a focal length that worked well and then focused on the closest presenter. I marked that focus point on the lens with a piece of white tape. I then focused on the second presenter and marked that focus point with a white piece of tape. By using those reference marks I could fine tune focus for each person, when they led the script, without having to punch in to check focus. Two reasons for this: First, the Lumix cameras won't punch in while you are currently running video recording! and secondly, if you could punch in you'd see the magnified image in the mix at the video mixer. The old, tape-on-the-lens method works without a lot of fuss and obviates the need for eye-strain.
I did cheat on the center camera by using a Ninja V monitor (not recording video, just monitoring). With the Ninja you can take the HDMI signal out of camera and into the monitor so you can punch in there to confirm or tweak focus. The magnification doesn't affect the image output. It also gives you a bigger, brighter screen that's easier to visually assess accurate focus on. In the "monitor but not record" mode the Atomos Ninja V lasted all evening with one Sony NP-900 series battery. In fact, it was so parsimonious with power that the battery indicator never showed less than 100%.
When the live show started I stayed close to the "tight" image camera on the right side as long as we were live. If we switched and played a canned video I made the rounds to the other two cameras to make sure everything was going according to plan. I knew the run of show from memorizing the schedule earlier so I knew the points at which we'd be off and the pre-recorded stuff would be on. I'd get back to the tight camera with 30 or 40 seconds to spare, check focus and then pay attention to the presenters' movements.
The streaming production team was thrilled to get feed from three tightly matched cameras but I have to say that seeing the final product highly compressed on YouTube or (even worse) on Facebook is a bit depressing. At least I have the three isolated channels saved from the three cameras. Just in case I want to make some alternate edits in the future.
So, how did the show work?
We didn't miss a beat. No one on the crew messed up. The teleprompter guy was a consummate pro who never got ahead or behind his speakers. My cameras were rock solid every step of the way. The two back ups weren't needed. The presenters sold the program well. We did this whole thing on a shoe string but at last count we raised, over the course of two hours, well over $200,000(+) for the theatre. We beat our initial goal comfortably. Success.
Funny to observe that during the technical rehearsal the day before, and prior to the start of the show, nerves are frayed, anxiety runs high, actors pace the room like trapped animals and engineers triple check their tools.
Once the show starts people get pulled away from thinking about "what could go wrong" and just get into the flow of doing their jobs.
When the show is over there's a delay of any show of emotion until the donation tally is announced. If we did a good job everyone becomes euphoric. Happy. Optimistic.
Someone actually said, "I can hardly wait to do this again next year.....!" I slunk closer to the wall and quickly got my gear out the front door. I didn't want to take the risk that I might inadvertently volunteer again. For once the logical side of my brain had a firm grip on the car keys.
And here's the video we opened the show with: https://vimeo.com/462399373
This week I'll break it down into smaller chunks and talk about how I learned to gimbal, etc. Stay tuned.