Extreme Shoots with Small-Format HD Cameras
For months now, we’ve been hearing countless variations on a similar theme, which led us to ask: Who makes "the world’s smallest professional HD camcorder" anyway? In February, Panasonic released the AG-HSC1U, a 3-CCD pro camera that weighs just over one pound. We next considered Iconix, which introduced its 720p/1080i/1080p POV camera at NAB last year. The newest model, the Iconix HD-RH1, also with three CCDs, actually beats the Panasonic in size (its head is only 2.3 ounces, though the controller weighs in at 3.5 pounds). Sony’s HVRA1U, which seems mammoth by comparison to these other two, is still proving to be a versatile multi-tasker: it’s both light and sharp enough to go the distance into the Amazon rainforest and out over the Grand Canyon.
Size is one thing, you say, but resolution is another. Read what Michael Slovis, the DP for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has to say about that. By the way, Slovis shoots the show with a Panavision 3-perf film camera. But that wasn’t a problem for him or the VFX team at CSI:. They dealt easily with both formats in post.
Director of Photography, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CBS
Los Angeles, CA
Recent HD Projects: "Monster in a Box" episode of CSI:
Cameras: Iconix HD-RH1; Panavision 3-perf
Mix Monster HD resolutions with 35mm Film
One of CSI:‘s main storylines this season features a potential serial killer who leaves behind miniature models that are exact replicas of murder scenes. In the episode "Monster in the Box," William Petersen’s character, Gil Grissom, returns from a long sabbatical and finally opens a box that had been sitting on his desk for over four months. Inside, he finds one of the serial killer’s replicas. We did a long tracking shot, made possible by the Iconix camera, and took the viewer inside the miniature, looking up and out at Grissom as he carried the model down a hallway and through CSI: headquarters. Using this little camera was the only way to complete the shot within the production timeframe and budget.
What impressed me right away was the high-quality data we captured with the Iconix- it was indiscernible from footage shot on film. We shot that take in 24p and were able to blend it seamlessly with the rest of the show, which is shot on 3-perf Panavision film. In fact, we could shoot everything at 24p and record it onto a D5 deck, which is what we master our show onto anyhow. Frame for frame, we had a perfect match.
It’s also so small and so light that you can rig it to almost anything – from actors to cars to bicycles. Now that I know how well it works, I consider it a part of my arsenal, another color on my palette. It opens the way for me to introduce other ideas to directors while I’m shooting, and it helps me design shots when I’m directing. Because of its small size, there are fewer limitations on how we can use it.
Douglas Spotted Eagle
Executive Producer, Sundance Media Group
Founder, VASST Training
Recent HD Projects: Dream of Flight (includes aerial skydiving footage of the Grand Canyon, the Italian Dolomites and other locations around the world)
Cameras: Sony HVRA1U, -V1U and -Z1U; Canon XL H1
Create and Use Custom Rigs to Take Your Cameras with You to New Heights (and Depths)
Capturing the scale of what President Theodore Roosevelt described as the "wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the [Grand C]anyon," is challenging from any perspective. Without wide lenses and aircraft, capturing human flight [skydiving] inside the canyon is exceptionally difficult, given that there are few points that cameras can be reasonably placed and accessed. The North Rim is 18 miles away from the South Rim at some points, and the bottom of the canyon is 4,000 feet below the surface of the earth. Hardly within useful range of your average camcorder glass.
With five world-class athletes flying through those airspaces at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, the task becomes even more of a challenge. We knew we needed to get the cameras to micro-spires, tables, plateaus and on the bottom of the canyon floor, and the only way to do it was via rappelling, climbing, jumping or helicopter placement. But with the helicopter time at $1,500/hour, I knew we couldn’t afford to spend a lot of time trying to determine the best camera positions. We needed gear that could be easily strapped on a back or belly and transferred into the heli quickly on this very low-budget production.
We shot the Performance Designs Flight Team, parachute pilots that planned on flying as close to the canyon walls as possible, and touching them with their feet in many instances. Expedition skydiving is fast becoming a major facet in this extreme sport. Until this project, expedition skydiving has predominantly been limited to POV (Point of View, headworn/helmet camera). Our goal, along with the flight team, was to bring the total experience to the home viewer.
This was a difficult shoot. Weather and cost prohibited scouting the locations in advance, so we used Google Earth to determine jump locations. The jump locations played an enormous role in determining which stunts would be combined and flown by the pilots, but until the landing areas could be physically inspected, nothing was certain.
Most of the shots during this shoot are outdoor shots, which gave me some latitude in making camera decisions. For this shoot, my primary camcorders were the Sony HVRV1U and HVRZ1U camcorders. We also had two Canon XL H1s for the longer shots; adapters let us use their longer lenses. We had a total of eight HVRA1Us, all used for helmet and Stickypod shots where it was impossible to have an in-place camera operator. While we own XDCAM HD camcorders, the shoot location, cost, winds, dirt and access left me feeling that the smaller HDV camcorders were ultimately the perfect choice. Plus, the flight team already has five A1U camcorders on their helmets. It made sense to interface with these camcorders. I choose to shoot at 60i, and plan for a conversion to 24p later. Shooting 24p with odd aerial angles, exceptionally high speeds, and varying background depths would have added yet one more link in the chain of challenges.
Remember when it used to cost MORE for smaller? The small-format gear we used on this shoot was cost effective and, therefore, much more attractive for this type of production. I’m amazed that you can now have all the bells and whistles in a smaller, cheaper package.
Some of the shots required the cameras to be in a stunt position, with the athletes flying within inches of the lens. Due to placement, the cameras had to be hidden and unmanned, so cameras were carefully tied down and placed precisely on the rim of the Grand Canyon. The canopy pilots swooped the wide-angle lenses at speeds of up to 90 mph, while dragging one foot through the snow. We had to create angles that would let the snow sparkle like diamonds as the pilots created a rooster tail. Any given shot required at least seven cameras and four primary operators. We had to capture the exit from the aircraft (long lens), freefall, canopy deployment and initial canopy flight, all of which happened at approximately 4,000 feet. Next came tracking the canopy pilots through their flight to the ground as they sped towards the camera. As they flew past the rim of the canyons, we had to capture their subterranean hook turns into negative space, which required rappelling or free climbing into the lower areas of the canyon itself, and finally, capturing their landings on the canyon floor, 3,000 feet below the rim. All in all, we had to capture more than 7,000 feet (nearly two miles) of descent at speeds of never less than 60 mph- and do it all in one shot. We also had air-to-air video flown from a Cessna 182, which created a need for extremely precise timing. There is no camera door on the left side of the 182, and the skydivers needed to exit on the left side of the helicopter. This meant the Cessna had to be in a specific point moving towards the helicopter as the skydivers exited. The Manfrotto Fig Rig came in very handily at this point. If you’re shooting from non-gyro-mounted camcorders in any kind of aircraft, I highly recommend the Fig Rig.
Audio was a critical element as well. Not only does an opening canopy have a specific sound, but that sound occurs 4,000 feet up, and near a helicopter in flight. Not exactly your ideal audio setup! We rigged the jumpers with a Sennheiser G2 system that directly transmitted from their camera helmet tops, feeding both a master audio system on the ground, as well as their on-helmet cameras. We also tracked the freefall with an Audio Technica 4073 to catch the sound of air passing through the canopies. To capture the sounds of flight below the rim, we strategically placed 4073s, 815s, and 89s at key points of echo and resonance. Obviously, we didn’t need all these points, but practice runs, to determine correct placement, were completely out of the question. Helicopter time alone would cost more than $1,000 per location to determine perfect audio placement.
We also needed to capture the voices of the precision skydiving team, which lets viewers get an inside glimpse of how these pilots pull off their extremely precise moves within inches of the canyon rim. We simply plugged their Vanquish audio system directly into one of our camcorder channels.
The remote locations demanded that we carry all potential gear with us, as there was no turning back to retrieve anything we forgot, so we set off with cases of tape, bags of batteries, inverters for the chargers, stacks of tripods, a Hollywood Microdolly and Microjib, a couple of Glidecams and a larger crane/jib assembly, plus a Chevy Avalanche, chosen for its rear deck that would allow for camera setup in an elevated position. If you’re planning a similar shoot, create a checklist- it’s not just recommended, but necessary.
For my crew and myself, the shoot itself was both difficult and dangerous. A shoot like this would be cost prohibitive or bureaucratically impossible if it were shot with union talent. I don’t recommend that independent producers work outside union constraints. Our crew was fortunate that we had a very experienced rigger and climbers on the staff. Safety is paramount, and this played a significant role in every decision made, ranging from size of cameras and format, to using booms, jibs and tripods.
Producer, Natural History Unit, National Geographic Television
Bowen Island, British Columbia
Recent HD Project: "King Bear" episode of National Geographic’s Planet Carnivore
Cameras: Iconix HD-RH1, Panasonic VariCams
Go for Risky, But KING-Sized, Shots without a Crane or Jib
We’ve used the Iconix recently to heighten the production value of our natural history stories and provide unique – and sometimes groundbreaking- perspectives on animal behavior. Because it’s so compact, we’re able to use it in remote locations where bringing in a crane or larger jib is not practical or affordable, and where standard-sized HD cameras (and even handheld versions) are too large or cumbersome to position in the required location. In the past, we accomplished this with standard definition lipstick cameras, but now we can get amazing perspectives in high definition to blend seamlessly with other original HD footage.
After years of struggling with the challenge of mixing various formats and resolutions, the Iconix provides images that don’t require tremendous effort in the online sessions to stand up to other HD imagery. We’ve used the Panasonic VariCam as our main camera, but our usual mix has been VariCam, Super 16mm (Aaton XTR or Arri SR3), Toshiba 3-CCD lipstick cameras and SD handycams.
We’re hoping to rig various moose cams to capture unique footage of moose feeding underwater and antler cams to capture the powerful clashes of two moose bulls in combat during the autumn rut.
Producer, Beaver Lake Productions
Recent HD Project: Agraruna Women’s Project DVD
Camera: Sony HVRA1U
Capture Ancient and Disappearing Social Rituals
Last August, I was invited by a group of indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon to come to their village and make a film about the music festival they were creating. The festival was conceived by the Agraruna Women’s Project as part of an ongoing effort to reclaim and remember their traditional culture and traditional knowledge. The reason the Awajun wanted me to make a video of their performances was so they would have DVD copies of the material. The Agraruna people, also known as the Awajun, are part of the group known as Jivaro. They were never conquered by the Spanish and have always been fiercely independent. They didn’t begin to feel the impact of global commerce and technology until the the 1980s.
For a time, they embraced all things modern. But their self-esteem began to suffer, and the rate of suicide among the women rose dramatically. The women found a way to fight their confusion and despair by creating the women’s project to retrieve their knowledge before the living elders who still remember the traditional ways had died off. (They’ve been aided by a Swiss NGO called Nouvelle Planete, and by anthropologist Jeremy Narby, who works with them through the NGO.)
As the 21st Century dawns, this group of indigenous people of the rainforest have chosen to remember their traditional songs and costumes and social rituals by watching themselves on a four-DVD set in the comfort of their jungle home. They have a generator in the village, so the people can watch movies at night. Soon, they’ll be making interactive selections from their own performances, and the sounds of their voices will emanate from the speakers of the TV set. Even in the jungle, everyone will get their 15 minutes of fame.
I didn’t want my camera setup to be too intrusive, so I chose the Sony A1U. I loved the fact that the camera has an unusual single CMOS-chip architecture and yet manages to achieve an HDV image in 1080i. I’ve come to think of it as "the little camera that could." I brought my knowledge of cinematography to bear on the challenge of getting the most cinematic rendering of the people and their performances using this tiny, experimental B-roll camera.
In addition to filming all the performances of the festival over a three-day period, we also recorded all the audio on DAT, and shot documentary sequences over several more days. We imported the footage easily into DVD Studio Pro, and my editors have done some amazing work.
The camera was so small as to be almost invisible. The performers were already nervous, so it was good to be able to minimize the presence of the machine. To make my A1U jungle worthy, I attached a Century Precision wide angle adaptor. I added step-up rings, polarizing filters and a lens shade. I also had a matte box available when I needed to protect the lens from direct light. Finally, I put a lens hood around the LCD viewfinder.
The footage has a truly unique look. The image turned out painterly. There was lots of sharpness, but also a way that the tones softened and blended together because of the algorithm. The big challenge was in what I couldn’t control in the image, because the camera’s design only permits limited access to certain key image control functions. That’s because this model is not meant to be used as a camera for principle photography. I had to avoid letting the camera kick into a high gain mode, because the image fell apart. I made sure to keep a manual exposure setting, and found a low key fully saturated exposure in soft light to be the ideal way to work with this camera.
Director of Photography, 3 ½ Tin Rocket Entertainment
New York, NY and Orlando, FL
Recent HD Projects: VH1 "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony" for Line-by Line Productions
Camera: Iconix HD-RH1
Get that Lens out of your subject’s Face and Watch the Emotions Unfurl
I first learned about the Iconix from another company I work with, Air Sea Land Productions. They shoot a lot of extreme material for the X-Games and, with a special housing they built, use the camera to shoot underwater.
Because of the size of this little guy, I’m able to do things with it I couldn’t do with a standard HD camera. At the induction ceremony for the VH1’s broadcast of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which was live, we used the Iconix backstage in a small area we had set up as the greenroom. The goal was to provide a locked shot of talent right before they went onstage and while they were listening to their introductions to the induction ceremony. It was a very emotional time for a lot of the participants, and we couldn’t be obtrusive, with a full-size camera and cameraman, and still be able to capture what these performers were feeling. We also wanted the footage to have a very specific look, one that was easily distinguishable from the onstage activity. The Iconix allowed us to do both.
The Iconix holds up great, and is very easy to use. There are so many different setups in HD, but in less than five minutes we had the Iconix configured to work with our other camera setups and were uploading data to the production truck. Also, we wanted the Iconix footage to have a very specific look from what the rest of the cameras were showing, and we were easily able to achieve that.
On my next project with Air Sea Land Productions, we’re going to use the camera to shoot alligators in their natural habitat. We want to get up close and personal.
A Small Price to Pay for HD
Iconix HD-RH1, $16,000 (www.iconixvideo.com)
Canon XL H1, $9,500 (www.usa.canon.com)
Panasonic AG-HSC1U, $2,099 (www.panasonic.com)
Sony HVRA1U, $3,100 (http://bssc.sel.sony.com)
Sony HVRV1U, $4,890 (http://bssc.sel.sony.com)
Sony HVRZ1U, $5,946 (http://bssc.sel.sony.com)