One Giant Step Closer to the Elusive Film Look
Ever since the introduction of the modern day video camera, digital filmmakers and producers of every kind have been striving for that elusive "film look." The advent of affordable high definition camcorders, cinema gamma and 24p has brought us much closer to this ideal. But no matter how good the lighting, composition and subjects are, one thing spells "video," whether miniDV or HD, from a mile away: the lack of cinema-style, shallow depth of field (DOF). DOF is a distance range in which objects appear to be in focus. Deep DOF means that more of the scene will appear in focus, shallow DOF means the range will be smaller and objects closer or further will appear blurred. Also known as selective focus, it’s artfully used by DPs to naturally draw the viewers’ attentions to the primary subject.
Watch the spots …
But since the imaging devices in most affordable video cameras are considerably smaller than a frame of 35 mm film, the DOF is increased. This is especially true in 1/3-inch HDV or similar camcorders.
The Redrock Micro M2 currently on the market- the upgraded version of the company’s micro35 that it introduced to much fanfare in 2005- has changed all that and made it possible within reasonable budgets to achieve stunning film-like results by outfitting these small CCD cameras with 35 mm lenses. The M2 projects the image from the 35 mm lens onto something Redrock calls the CineScreen (akin to "ground glass"). This image is then captured by the video camera’s lens and recorded, giving the filmmaker the kind of selective focus usually only available on 35 mm film and the cost effectiveness of shooting on video.
We took the M2, equipped with several of Redrock’s just-introduced optional accessories, for a test drive after much research and investment into which lenses to attach to our new wonder device. For these tests, we mounted the M2 to a Panasonic AG-HVX200. The initial setup for the M2 is pretty straightforward but we do suggest watching the video tutorials on the Redrock site before setting up your unit.
We tested the Indie Bundle that includes the M2 Cinema Lens Adapter, HD Achromatic lens, 15 mm Rod Support System and a Nikon SLR lens mount. Some cameras like the HVX require the M2 shim kit that lets you manually adjust the height of the M2 support base for proper alignment of the adapter. The HVX also requires an 82 mm to 72 mm step-down ring. The Redrock support system is well made, with good, sturdy machined parts. Various rod lengths are available, depending on the size of the camera you’ll be using with it.
Installing the Achromat and M2 adapter was fairly easy, requiring only a few measurements and some careful back focusing to ensure good focus on the M2’s ground glass surface. Once you’ve done this, simply leave the camera in manual focus mode. To be safe, we put up a small piece of gaffer’s tape on the focus ring to make sure the focus of the camera wouldn’t change after setting up the M2. Redrock also includes a "focus stop" in its bundles, which is a neoprene band that keeps the focus ring in check.
Choose Your Glass
Now the fun part. We brought along a selection of Nikon fixed focal length lenses for this test shoot. Why Nikon? Based on my discussions, they seem to be a popular choice among Redrock users. They’re also easy to find for sale and are always excellent quality. Although you can use zoom lenses, which would make framing much easier, zooms tend to produce a breathing effect when pulling focus. Fixed focal length prime lenses offer a better optical quality than the equivalent focal length of a zoom lens. For the purpose of this review, we decided to stick with prime lenses and chose Nikon 50 mm f/1.2, 85 mm f/1.4 and 105 mm f/1.8 lenses. We also decided to bring in an expert in still photography and lens selection, Robert Francis Zemba from Robert Charles Photography. Robert is the 2007 Professional Photographers Associations of America Photographer of the Year award winner. We figured he knew a thing or two about lenses, and we’re quickly learning that’s invaluable. Choosing the correct lenses and aperture is critical.
The optional microFollowFocus, a follow focus unit optimized for 35mm still lenses, installs easily on the rod system and adjusts smoothly. Standard film pitch gearing allows for use on cinema lenses as well as standard 35 mm still lenses. Once adjusted with slight tension on the FollowFocus it operates very smoothly. This will depend slightly on your lens of course, but the microFollowFocus is smooth and accurate and includes a marking surface to aid in focus pulls. Whips, or as Redrock call thems, microWhips, are available in 6-inch, 12-inch and 18-inch versions and fit a standard accessory port on the microFollowFocus. We tested a 6-inch whip and found that it felt good in our hands and had a comfortable handle and smooth, quiet operation. The FollowFocus and whips are great for Dolly setups with two camera operators.
The best part? This follow focus device, unlike comparable ones on the market, is a great deal. Before Redrock, you could find a high-quality follow focus for about $1,200 or more. And this version includes gearing for your lenses. Redrock has publicly stated they intend to deliver many more products in the future that deliver the same high-quality cinema-style results at affordable prices.
The first thing you notice when you look through the viewfinder of your 35 mm mounted rig is the image is upside down. Using a prism to flip it would rob too much additional light from the image, so Redrock instead suggests you use a monitor with flipping capability. For our test, we used a VariZoom VZS1080B 8-inch external monitor. It gives a good clean image in a lightweight, portable monitor that can go directly to the camera; it also has a mode to flip the image right side up. The Marshall monitor is also very popular but it’s slightly more expensive and doesn’t have the flip function. An external HD monitor is required to pull critical focus, whether you’re using a 35 mm adapter or not. Several new camcorders have already hit the market with a flip function built-in, evidence that the use of 35 mm adapters is catching on.
Off and Shooting
Once you fire up the M2, you may feel a slight vibration in the rig due to the spinning of the ground glass in the M2 unit. We haven’t been able to see evidence of the vibration in the image. As soon as you look through your lens, open the aperture wide- you won’t want to go back to a standard video lens ever again. The image through the M2 is crystal clear and it is wonderfully easy to focus and determine depth of field. The effect of seeing the film-like image through your video camera will invariably cause a series of huge grins to ripple across the faces of everyone watching the monitor.
It’s amazing to think that what we once considered beautifully crisp and clean HD footage now seemed incredibly 2D and flat. For our review, we shot simultaneously with identical cameras, one outfitted with the M2 and one with a standard lens. The depth that we saw with a standard Nikon 50 mm lens was subtle and distinct and allowed for precise focal length and depth of field. Having this minute level of precision, and a very smooth follow focus, allowed for focus pulls that were smooth and accurate.
The results of our tests of our same scene with 50 mm, 85 mm and 105 mm lenses illustrates the need to consider angle of view when determining which lens is appropriate for the shot. You’ll learn to appreciate your cameras zoom lens. If you want to change focal lengths, you have to change lenses or your shooting position. But this is a small sacrifice when you consider the final image you get when shooting this way. One last caveat: The size of the rig may concern some shooters. With the adapter, lens, microFollowFocus, matte box, monitor and batteries, your small camcorder has suddenly turned into a monster. Make sure you account for extra setup time when planning your shoot.
1.Do your research on lenses. The M2 adapter does steal about one to one and a half stops of light, so invest in the fastest lenses you can afford. It’s worth the extra money; buy a f1.4 over a f2.8, for example. EBay is a great place to find them.
2.Good selections of lenses to consider are: 28 mm, 50 mm, 85 mm and 10 5mm.
3.Although shooting with a 35 mm adapter and lenses will give you superior results, make sure your shooting schedule and budget allow for the extra time it takes to shoot properly with 35 mm lenses. The days of just zooming in and getting another shot are gone.
4.An external HD monitor is a MUST. Not only will shooting upside down prove frustrating at best, you really need a large true high definition ENG monitor to achieve critical focus.
5.Don’t forget to use an external power source for the M2. Either a DC adapter or external battery works well. Changing the internal 9-volt battery involves taking the rig off and having to setup the back focus again.
6.It’s best not to use any CineGamma modes on the camera to get the cleanest signal possible.
7.Some people like to tweak the camera settings on the HVX, such as increasing the detail level when using the M2. I’ve found that the DVXUser and the Redrock forums are great resources for more information.
8.In an unofficial poll, I’ve found that most people like to use Nikon lenses with the M2 for the great quality, manual operation and availability.