The Challenge of Mobile EFP-Style Productions
Mobile EFP-style field productions are loaded with a wide variety of equipment and logistics nuances. The very nature of mobile, small crew, non-hardlined EFP field production calls for lightly accessorized camera setups, internal ND filtering, very good zoom lenses equipped with powered servos, lightweight but strong tripods, excellent fluid heads, and strong-backed shooters that have the skill sets to quickly use the equipment in smoothly tracking fast moving people and objects. If all those ducks aren’t lined up in a row, then the challenge factors of mobile EFP field production multiply exponentially — and the end product inevitably suffers. Choosing and combining the right cameras and accessories for each mobile EFP production goes a long way in ensuring successful field production, and ultimately happy sponsors, clients, and TV networks.
Throughout a recent single weekend, our crew had the great opportunity and challenge of shooting college football, college volleyball, and Jeeps careening through sand dunes! For the college football coverage, we chose the final home game of the Dixie State University Red Raiders in Saint George, Utah. For the indoor volleyball coverage we chose a women’s volleyball match at the same school. For the adventure travel Jeep sequence we chose the stunning, salmon-colored sand dunes of Sand Hollow State Park, just a short distance from Saint George. That’s a lot of mobile production in a short period of time, in both artificial and natural lighting.
The color of Southwest Utah sand stuns the eyes — it looks almost good enough to eat! Ben Braten perched precariously on top of a sandstone knoll while tracking speeding Jeeps in 4K using the F55/Fujinon Cabrio 85-300/Miller Arrow 55 combination.
The Challenges – And Our Mobile 4k Solutions
We knew that we needed to be hyper-mobile, use a variety of shoulder-held and tripod techniques, and shoot nearly everything in 4K (we also needed to shoot some high frame rate 2K). In sports and adventure travel filming, the good shot sequences appear quickly and disappear just as fast. Shooters really need gear that can be operated as fast as possible — without compromising the quality of the shots. Though I have an extensive background in 4K field productions, especially using Red Digital Cinema cameras, I knew the needs of that weekend’s production would call for a unibody EFP-style camera system that would easily enable EFP-style shooting. Adding those two factors together, the gear list we chose included a Sony PMW-F55 camera, Fujinon Cabrio 19-90mm and 85-300mm zooms (both featuring powered servos), a Miller Arrow 55 head on Miller Heavy Duty CF legs, and Clik Elite Contrejour 40 backpacks. This combination of gear turned out to be an excellent choice all around. As we frequently say in this industry: “Horses for courses.”
The rig shouldered easily and felt very balanced, and the powered servo on the Cabrio 19-90 was exactly the ticket for Ben's tracking of the women's volleyball action. The wide-angle lens I used on my 5D to take this shot makes the rig look way bigger than it actually is. It only weighed 22 pounds — a very easy rig weight load for experienced shoulder-held EFP/ENG-style shooters to handle.
Because my home base is in the mountains of Southwest Utah, and I had some time away from my other television productions, I chose to team up with a highly capable team from the Center for Media Innovation (CMI) at Dixie State University. As a producer and cinematographer I teamed up with CMI producer Phil Tuckett, a multiple Emmy Award-winning veteran of NFL Films, CMI director/DP Ben Braden, an industry veteran, and then we added in a select group of CMI/DSU students. Beyond my work as a producer, I also personally shot various action sequences of football and sand Jeeps. Hands-on camera work has always been my core passion in this industry, so even if I’m producing or directing I almost always find the time to personally shoot some sequences during a project.
How It All Went
The football sequences were shot at night under the stadium lights, the volleyball sequences under indoor arena lighting, and the sand Jeep sequences under beautiful outdoor natural morning light. The F55 is a very intuitive camera to use for any shooter used to the balance, feel, and location of controls on a traditional mobile EFP/ENG camera system. The F55 is versatile too. It can also be used for cine-style setups. The Fujinon Cabrio zooms, with their powered servos (including rocker levers), filled our mobile EFP needs. We did a lot of shoulder-held shooting and found that both of the Cabrio zooms balanced really well on the F55, providing a natural feel and quick reframing and following of action via the powered servos. We rarely zoom during shot sequences, but the powered zooms gave us the capability of quickly re-framing between shots using the rocker levers on the servo units, then to simply hit the servo unit Record button for the next shot. In other words, we essentially use the zooms as variable primes. When we went to shooting by tripod, the Miller Arrow 55 head/HD CF legs combo gave us solid support and very smooth pans and tilts.
The F55 provided the Super 35mm 4K (4096×2160) imaging capability we sought. We added in the Sony AXS-R5 recorder, sporting Sony AXSM memory cards, onto the rear of the camera. That enabled 16-bit 4K RAW at 60 fps, in S-Log2 and S-Gamut profiles, with the added bonus (along with an IDX brick on the back of the rig) of easily counterbalancing each of the Fujinon Cabrio zooms. The rig turned out to be in perfect balance for shoulder-held work. High-frame-rate shot sequences for slow-motion are a staple of mobile EFP-style shooting of sports, adventure travel, and wildlife, and the F55 delivered that quite nicely.
D.P. Ben Braden’s take on the XAVC codec: “The XAVC codec is astonishingly clean. It’s free of noise and artifacts.”
That's me tracking football action with the Cabrio 85-300 via the powered servo unit. The Fujinon remote handle servo wasn't on the Arrow 55 tripod handle in this photo, but shortly thereafter I installed it on the handle. That gave record and zoom functions to my right hand and rack-focus function to my left hand — exactly the way I prefer to work while tracking fast-moving subjects while using a tripod.
Even though a camera system delivers 4K resolution (we also shot some 2K RAW 240 fps sequences), broad dynamic range, and high frame rates, all that is a waste of time unless the lenses you put in front of the camera maximize those values. In essence you need lenses that “dance” well with the camera. We were way pleased to find that the Fujinon Cabrio zooms not only operated intuitively, but perfectly enhanced the 4K raw images generated by the camera. Both the PL-mount Fujinon 19-90 T2.9 Cabrio zoom and 85-300 T2.8-T3.8 Cabrio zoom cover a 31.5mm image circle, feature power and control connections to the camera, digital servo 16-bit encoding, macro functions, LDS and /I lens metadata with the camera, wired and wireless control, and a lot more. With the Fujinon servo attached, the 19-90 weighs just less than 6 pounds, and — even more surprising — the longer focal length 85-300 weighs around 6 and a half pounds. Fujinon did some serious engineering to retain the compactness of these zooms! Beyond their relatively small size, the Cabrio zooms proved to be very sharp (think prime sharp), and have great contrast and edge-to-edge clarity. In short, the Cabrios were a perfect match for the F55 for the EFP style of shooting we wanted to do. The cool thing is that if we then wanted to do a commercial or feature film, the Cabrios would still be a great lens choice. You’d simply remove the powered servo, attach cine-style accessories (matte box, follow focus, FIZ style zoom motors, etc.) and you’d be ready to shoot cine style. The lens barrels are long throw, and markings are the norm for cine work.
In the words of D.P. Braden: “Love the Fujinon Cabrio zooms – they’re extraordinary lenses. Great sharpness, contrast, clean throughout the frame, and very lightweight. Wonderful for handheld or on sticks.”
I also shot various sequences with the lenses, and I definitely second Ben’s opinion of them.
Me tracking speeding Jeeps in 4K/60fps using the powered servo on the Cabrio 19-90. For decades now, I've shot tons of this kind of footage for various sports television networks, and this F55/Cabrio zoom rig was as comfortable as any setup I've ever used. Being in the foreground, the Clik backpack looks large, but in reality it's just medium-sized and way comfortable.
The F55 head itself weighs just 5 pounds. With the addition of the EVF, AXS recorder, a brick, and a few other small accessories the total rig weight was just around 22 pounds. That’s an easy shoulder load weight, and just as easy to quickly carry around from setup to setup. The Miller Arrow 55 fluid head supports loads ranging from 22 to 55 pounds, so we were on the bottom end of the head’s load rating. But the head only weighs 7 pounds, sports a +90 / -75 degree tilt range, has 7 selectable fluid drag positions + 0, and, combined with the Heavy Duty CF legs, it gave us a big, solid head/legs combo that weighed just around 15 pounds but provided glass-smooth pans and tilts with the F55/Fujinon Cabrio setup.
The Clik Elite Contrejour 40 backpacks turned out to be an excellent choice. They’re spacious, comfortable as you walk, and have the many compartments and features a mobile cinematographer, videographer, or still photographer is looking for. The interior dividers can be quickly re-arranged for whatever cameras and accessories you’re using on each production. Beyond that, they just look like a nice hiker’s backpack, thus lowering the security risk for small crews doing real mobile production. They were a key element in our kits. Mobile production can be a total nightmare if you’re stuck using badly designed or uncomfortable backpacks. Fortunately the Clik Contrejour packs made our super-mobile fieldwork even more enjoyable.
In post, the 4K and 2K sequences we shot were converted to ProRes 422 HQ through the Sony RAW Clip Viewer. It was exported out as flat S-Log 2 with S-Gamut color, graded and edited in Adobe Premiere Pro, and finished off using FilmConvert to get the exact “look” we wanted in the pieces.
There are many things that can go wrong on mobile EFP-style production, and you depend on your equipment to deliver as planned. I’m happy to report that our football, volleyball, and Jeep productions basically went like clockwork. The venues were good, the crew was cohesive and, as icing on the cake, each part of our equipment list performed very well. The final edited pieces definitely reflect that — smooth football sequences, clean volleyball pieces, and dynamic Jeep sand dune footage.
The Sony F55 is a great entry into the 4K raw (and 2k raw) shooting arena – very lightweight, intuitive ergonomics and layout, quite modular, clean codec, wide dynamic range, good price point, etc. The Fujinon Cabrio zooms are amazingly lightweight, optically very crisp and clean, with the great bonus of offering powered servos for EFP-style work (or cine-style work without them). The Miller Arrow 55 tripod supported the rig perfectly, and enabled very smooth pans and tilts. The Clik backpacks then helped us to quickly and comfortably transition from one location to another.
As a producer who is also a director, DP, and cinematographer, I always appreciate it deeply when the planned equipment works as it’s supposed to. Happily, that’s exactly the way these productions went. My kudos to Sony, Fujinon, Miller, Clik, Adobe, and FilmConvert for creating the diverse products that danced together so well for these productions. The bottom line is that in the field we were able to quickly generate the high quality, filmic-looking images we needed, and then in post create exactly the edited pieces that we’d envisioned! We simply and effectively picked the right horses for courses to be run on that weekend.
Steve Gibby is a multiple Emmy Award winning producer, director, DP and cinematographer who’s contributed to several hundred international and national television programs that aired on 18 different broadcast and cable television networks.