In November, director Ryan Hamelin took delivery of a MoVi M10 gimbal, the handheld camera-stabilization rig introduced last year by Freefly Systems. He and his partner, cinematographer Erin Trout, put the MoVi to work on test shoots and commissioned work. But in addition to those bread-and-butter jobs, they wanted to mount a personal project that would put the MoVi through its paces while showcasing its place as a real creative tool. A great way to do that, they figured, would be to design a piece of choreography for a small group of dancers — and their camera. The result is "Alice," shot by Hamelin (as the MoVi gimbal operator) and Trout (as the MoVi remote operator) with a highly mobile Canon 5D Mark III DSLR modified for raw recording using the Magic Lantern firmware hack. (You can read more about Magic Lantern here, but please remember that firmware hacks are risky and unsupported by camera manufacturers, meaning you may brick your camera and void your warranty if you're bad at following directions or just exceptionally unlucky. You have been warned.)
Forget about the proscenium arch-style framing of so many dance numbers in Hollywood films. Hamelin and Trout's camera glides smoothly around and sometimes through the performances, finding oblique angles on Erica A. Hart and Molly Horne's choreography and sometimes taking the POV of the lead dancer. Hamelin, who says he first learned about the MoVi by reading articles here at StudioDaily last year, was kind enough to provide a wealth of information on the shoot, including his feelings about the MoVi's single-operator "majestic" mode, the challenges of shooting raw, and the tricks he used for stealing shots on location in New York City. Read on for Hamelin's take on the shoot and, for even more information, see the official announcement from Hamelin and Trout's Climbing Higher Pictures.
Pre-Production and Choreography
We approached pre-production on "Alice" the same way we do with any project — by building our shot list to tell our story as best we could with the equipment we had available. Erica Hart, one of my choreographers, had worked with all of the dancers featured in the film before in various capacities, and that ended up being crucial when it came to on-set adjustments and quick changes. Many of the dancers are members of NYU's Pulse Dance Project, an organization within the clubs/sports sector at the university. She also came up with the music that would drive the short (“Heart Cry” by Drehz), and the track has an energy to it that made the long single takes we had originally planned feel out of place. My partner, Erin Trout, and I are MoVi M10 owner-operators and we really wanted to show off what the rig could do. Instead of the flashy single-take conceit, we decided that "Alice" could be a showcase for the rig’s versatility. I really wanted to make the camera another dancer, and it felt like the MoVi would be perfectly suited to the task.
MoVi Single Operator vs. Dual Operator
Erin and I work exclusively in a two-operator arrangement on most jobs. I run with the gimbal, keeping tabs on the shot via my SmallHD DP4 monitor mounted on the rig itself, while she remotely controls the frame from her SmallHD AC7 monitor. A lot of the issues we’ve seen with other MoVi footage involves pans and tilts that lack the smoothness inherent in Steadicam photography, and it seems like those issues can be traced directly back to the much-lauded majestic operating mode.
For those not familiar with the MoVi, "majestic" refers to a single-operator control style where the rig reacts to the movement of the user and translates those movements into the orientation of the camera. With wide-angle lenses, or walk-and-talks where the adjustments to the pan are minimal, majestic feels like a more natural way of operating the rig. Yet early tests we did for "Alice" demonstrated that even with all the advanced majestic settings finely tuned, I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the dancers in the way we wanted. Total trust and coordination between operators is important to achieve the best takes in a dual-operator setup, but the footage really speaks for itself. We feel that rental houses marketing the rig as a single-operator package are really doing the MoVi a disservice.
On Shooting with Magic Lantern Raw
When it became clear to us that our budget would not allow much in the way of rental equipment, we settled on using the Magic Lantern raw hack on my Canon EOS 5D Mark III. We chose the hack because of the dramatic increase in dynamic range it provided. Since we were almost always going to be using natural light, it seemed like the only way we’d avoid some ghastly, blown-out highlights while maintaining detail in the shadows. Our shoot schedule ended up perfectly coinciding with some wonderfully cloudy days, so all of my initial worries were for nothing. Even so, the jump in image quality was rather remarkable.
The one thing I hadn’t completely prepared for was the file sizes. Each DNG image file is roughly 4 MB, and shooting 24 of them a second can rack up some rather large clips quite quickly. I was able to borrow my roommate’s 128 GB and 64 GB 1000x CF Cards for the shoot, and without them there’s no way we would’ve kept up with the data rates. Over the course of the two-day shoot we shot almost 500 GB of raw footage, all of which had to be processed after the fact. Recent updates to the Magic Lantern hack have enabled rough playback capabilities and even a clean signal through the HDMI port, giving our AC a much higher-quality image to pull focus off of. As you can see in the behind-the-scenes video below, Erin and Dan ended up spending a lot of the shoot huddled under a large golf umbrella due to the sunlight washing out the screen. Our next investment is a dedicated AC monitor; we’re looking at SmallHD's DP7-Pro OLED or High Bright to help with glare and sunlight issues.
Despite reports from friends and colleagues of instability with the raw hack, we didn’t have any issues to speak of with it. The two times the camera refused to roll, we had swapped cards and hadn’t realized that the camera had switched the record media to SD, which was in no way capable of sustaining the data rates of raw recording. Once we had ironed that out, raw acquisition was smooth sailing.
Processing the footage also ended up being simpler than advertised, as the Rarevision RAWMagic app
churned through the bulk of the shots without a hitch. The only moment of sheer terror came when some of the footage began to stutter and show bright streaking purple lines throughout the image. After doing some research, I discovered that the error was a byproduct of the FAT32 formatting of the card. The additional files that Magic Lantern generated once a single file was larger than 4 GB had to be re-integrated into the original file using a terminal command before being processed by RAWMagic. I edited the project with proxies in Apple Final Cut Pro 7 before exporting an XML and going back to the original DNG files for the final color-correction.
On Stealing Shots and Moving Quickly
Obviously it’s never ideal to shoot large portions of a project in locations where you don’t technically have permission to shoot. Luckily, the MoVi gets around a lot of location permit requirements that draw the line at equipment touching the ground, such as light stands or tripods. Because we’re constantly mobile, and also because we took great pains not to impede pedestrians at any of our locations, we were never really in jeopardy of getting asked to leave. Most people were curious about the rig itself, and we had a pretty good-sized audience for our final sequence on The High Line, an elevated public park on the west side of Manhattan. You can see the onlookers in the background of some of the shots.
The week prior to the shoot, I had scouted the High Line and Central Park with most of the members of our dance team. This gave us the chance to work out the blocking in the real space (I brought my 5D with me to gauge lens sizes and basic camera movement) as well as an opportunity to size up security and figure out the best shooting order. A lot of the shots would only exist for a few seconds, and they were the easiest portions to shoot. The longer takes, as well as the giant group dance number, drew a lot of attention, and since we were already losing light it became important to go right back in and try things again without taking the time to discuss the pros and cons of the previous take. The whole camera team was in perfect sync for most of the shots, and it became a matter of knowing what I needed to get and what wasn’t worth trying to get a second time.
The subway sequence was probably the most problematic piece of the puzzle. I knew we needed two subway platforms (one for Alice to enter the train from and another for her to exit onto) as well as a subway car for the performers to move around in. Due to homeland security concerns, filming and photography on the NYC metro is strictly forbidden, and I’ve known several other filmmakers who have had cameras confiscated and, in rare cases, have even had to spend the night in jail. We weren’t interested in either of those outcomes, and we ended up traveling out to Coney Island at around 1 a.m. on a Wednesday in order to board the train at its final station, where we hoped we could get a car all to ourselves.
Between Coney Island and the station where we got off roughly 20 minutes later, we shot the entirety of what you see in the subway sequence. The dancers had been messing around on the train ride out to Coney Island, and getting an amazing take was really just a matter of me not falling over while moving through the car. I knew the footage would look great because the stabilization inherent in the MoVi showed the movement of the train car independent of the movement of the camera, something that has really never been achieved before. Any prior shooting on a moving vehicle has involved an operator on a tripod or with a camera mounted on their shoulder, so the train car vibrations were translated into the movement of the shot. Here, we had a perfectly stabilized camera basically floating down the center of the car, and I’d love to experiment more with that kind of isolated movement in the future.
After operating with the MoVi M10 since December, we feel like we’ve really got a good handle on all the possible ways of operating the rig, independent of any additional equipment. The shots we’re excited about attempting now involve vehicle rigs and moves that go on and off cranes or other devices. Magic Lantern raw was our main challenge on this film, and we’re incredibly happy with the results we managed to achieve. I couldn’t be more proud of our crew and of the wonderful dancers who donated their time to the project.
— Ryan Hamelin