DOP Erik Messerschmidt creates a sumptuous ode to old Hollywood with the Red Helium 8K Monochrome camera
SKY LIGHTS The 250ft LED wall illuminating sci-fi epic The Midnight Sky
REBECCA RETOLD DOP Laurie Rose brings colour to a beloved gothic novel
TOON BOOM How digital workflows are transforming animation
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WELCOME H as anyone else found themselves watching more cartoons, or has the new UK lockdown hit me so hard that I’ve returned to childlike comforts? Wait a minute, though, there’s a third option that doesn’t make me sound so tragic. With animators able to continue to operate throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s now a lot more animated content available. Disney’s Soul , for example – a film which takes viewers on a journey from the streets of New York City to cosmic realms to uncover the answers to life’s most important questions – was able to power on. As was Netflix’s hit animated shows Disenchantment and BoJack Horseman . There was also some fortunate live-action/animation hybrids, including The Midnight Sky (page 8) and Tom & Jerry (page 22), which had completed principal photography before any lockdowns were put into place. I therefore have no doubt that there will be a shift in some of the film work to the computer generation. Homebound audiences are crying out for fresh content. In particular, UK viewers are watching more than five extra hours of traditional TV each week, while streaming services have seen at least a 20% surge in usage globally. So, with live-action film and TV schedules facing up to two years to get back to full strength, it looks set to be the animated sector’s time to shine; more of this on page 22!
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Covid-19 has certainly animated one part of our industry, to the benefit of Warner Bros’ new Tom & Jerry film. GEAR REV I EW Sony’s baby cinema camera, the FX6, is put through its paces in a comparison test between the AS7 III and FX9. The 870 EVO SSD is the perfect follow-up act that improves on its predecessor with faster speeds and greater endurance.
transports audiences back to 1940, without being exploitative of the period’s noir style.
08 SKY LIGHTS
Gaffer Julian White forgoes the green screen and builds a 250ft LED wall for sci-fi epic The Midnight Sky.
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10 REBECCA RETOLD
DOP Laurie Rose delves into Rebecca ’s visual language and describes how light evolves alongside the developing story. GEAR
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FEBRUARY 202 1 | DEF I N I T ION 03
PRODUCTION | MANK
Mank wears its luminous black & white cinematography like a costume, blending in with the themes, but never distracting from the story HOMAGE TO THE GOLDEN AGE
WORDS CHELSEA FEARNLEY / P I CTURES NETFL I X
T here was never any doubt that David Fincher’s brilliant Mank would be shot in black & white. The film follows a Hollywood screenwriter, Herman J Mankiewicz aka Mank (played by Gary Oldman), as he wrestles with the screenplay for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane . It’s a sumptuous ode to the Golden Age of cinema – one that transports audiences to a place where they can understand and appreciate the homage – and yet, it is littered with modern filmmaking techniques that aren’t fooling anyone about its release date. Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt agreed that they didn’t want to be confined to shooting on film or within the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 that would have been accurate for the period – not with Fincher’s digital prowess and proclivity for a widescreen format. And, just in case there was any confusion about
the technological resourcefulness of this film, Messerschmidt is even credited as being responsible for ‘Photography in Hi-Dynamic Range’ in the title sequence. “Filmmaking has always been a medium where we selectively employ the techniques that are available on the day,” says Messerschmidt. Nonetheless, shooting in black & white demands huge amounts of creative courage and the cinematographer was conscious about being too seduced by the opportunity. He explains: “Before I had even read the script, I sent Fincher some images referencing the film noir genre of that era. I soon realised that, thematically, Mank is not a noir film. There are certainly elements that call for hard lighting effects, such as the flashback sequences in the writers’ room or with Shelly Metcalf [a fictional test shot director friend of Herman’s] moments before his suicide, but I tried to ground much of it in realism. I didn’t want to draw audiences away from the storyline by being too dramatic, so I chose to light through windows and illuminate interiors with practicals.” SAN SIMEON STROLL However, one drunken moonlit stroll at San Simeon shared by Mank and Citizen Kane’s female lead, Marion Davies (played by Amanda Seyfried), did call for an old
movie trick. “We shot that scene day for night,” he explains. “We had explored the idea of lighting it at night, but upon visiting the location, we realised it wasn’t practical – not for the resources that it would have required. In fact, it was impossible for the fountain sequence, where Marion playfully runs around the rim and Mank catches her. There was no place in that environment where I could put any heavy equipment to light the size of that background and get it to look the way we wanted,” elaborates Messerschmidt. The aim was to create depth; the team wanted to highlight the grandiosity of the Hearst Castle (owned by Marion’s husband William Randolph Hearst), as well as the exotic creatures and lavish gardens it housed. Fincher approved this technique of shooting day for night after reviewing a few stills. Messerschmidt did extensive testing and developed some LUTs for the camera to help with contrast ratios and necessary fill light. He and Fincher then
I didn’t want to draw audiences away from the storyline by being too dramatic
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MANK | PRODUCTION
IMAGE This drum majorette outfit is exactly what Marion Davies wore to the circus-themed party in 1937
In the end, they tested several hundred, but the very modern large format lenses prevailed. He adds: “They were the crème de la crème of the bunch. We did some test shots and ended up liking the Leica lenses. They’re flat and are incredibly sharp, especially at the emphasised mid- range focal lengths we chose to have them at, which were 25, 29 and 30.”
which are also used by the creative duo on Mindhunter . But familiarity wasn’t the reason for their selection. “I went to Panavision in Los Angeles and looked at every lens they had,” reveals Messerschmidt. “We put them on a projector and did clinical tests to assess the resolving power of each lens; to see which were dirty and which were sharp.”
went to the location before the shoot and blocked out the scene in relation to the sun’s position in the sky. He quips: “That night, I didn’t sleep a wink hoping the sun would be out the next day.” TESTING, TESTING… When it came to choosing a camera, it was always going to be a Red for Fincher and Messerschmidt – the pair respectively direct and photograph the hit crime series Mindhunter using a Helium 8K. But whether or not Mank would be shot using a colour or monochrome sensor was always up for debate. “I initially thought that shooting in colour and correcting it to black & white would be advantageous to us, because it would give us more flexibility in post,” says Messerschmidt. “For example, we could do composites, grade in colour and adjust tonal contrasts between shades of colour. But after some side-by-side comparison tests, there wasn’t much to discuss. Clearly, the monochrome sensor was far superior, with a depth of tone and dynamic range to it that just didn’t exist in the colour sensor.” The Helium 8K Monochrome was paired with Leica Summilux-C lenses,
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PRODUCTION | MANK
ABOVE DOP Erik Messerschmidt lit the bungalow scenes through windows to keep the look naturalistic
A FINE BALANCE Unfortunately, advancements to filmmaking technology and techniques can’t eradicate the age-old issue of creating depth to costume and makeup when it comes to black & white photography – and heaven forbid, the actor wears rouge. Messerschmidt says: “We were very lucky to work with Trish Summerville [costume designer] and a great team of makeup artists, who all turned out to be incredibly collaborative people.” In the early stages of prep, Summerville sent fabrics to test and the pair used the black & white camera mode on their iPhones to see how the colours would render. They also spent plenty of time in Fincher’s office, looking at different colours of tile and paint chips, because one shade of green could look completely different
Like on Mindhunter , Messerschmidt employed HDR monitoring on set. “I started doing it for Season 2 of the show and it’s marked a profound change in the way that I work. The beautiful thing about it is, with images so close to the dynamic range of the sensor’s capabilities, I am better able to place exposure balances. That way, when it comes to do the HDR grade, I feel like I’m looking at the fidelity of a digital negative,” he says. Although they experimented with creating frame lines for the retro 1.37:1 aspect ratio, neither Fincher nor Messerschmidt liked composing in the boxy format and, instead, opted for a 2.2:1:1, which is somewhere between a 16:9 and a CinemaScope 2:39:1. “We had to go for a window that we were comfortable with and we also shot Mindhunter in that aspect ratio,” says Messerschmidt.
to another shade of green through a monochrome lens. The process was mirrored when it came to the makeup used on set. “At one point, Seyfried’s makeup artist put 50 different shades of lipstick on her arm and held it in front of the camera. It’s a very fine balance with lipstick, because it can look almost black really quickly,” outlines Messerschmidt. The meticulous details of this film place it as a clear frontrunner in several key categories at this year’s Oscars, including in the category for Best Cinematography. If Messerschmidt wins, he would also make history as the first person to win an Oscar for Best Cinematography for his first film. “It’s crazy, so I’m trying not to think about it. I just hope people enjoy the film,” he says. That would echo the enjoyment he experienced making the film, particularly the election night party scene at the Trocadero. Though, he concludes: “I hope the movie exists as a complete unit.” MANK IS AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX WORLDWIDE
LEFT Director David Fincher and actor Gary Oldman during the filming of Mank
06 DEF I N I T ION | FEBRUARY 202 1
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BRIGHT LIGHTS AT MIDNIGHT Chief lighting technician Julian White talks huge rigs and leaving green screen behind on the set of intense sci-fi blockbuster, The Midnight Sky GAFFER ' S CORNER | JUL I AN WH I TE
WORDS LEE RENWI CK / P I CTURES NETFL I X
S ci-fi is rife with iconic lighting looks. Spaceships, especially, have offered countless visual delights through the years, from the dazzling walkways of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the dim and maze- like USCSS Nostromo in Alien . Now, at the skilled hand of chief lighting technician, Julian White, The Midnight Sky is joining those ranks . Bringing some rare softness to the genre, along with a few splashes of colour, White lights a number of unique spaces, including a post-apocalyptic Arctic tundra and a space vessel whose return to earth must be stopped. “The thing about a spacecraft is, you’re dominated by interior light – exterior isn’t really an option unless there’s a porthole, which we made use of only a few times,” White tells us. “It was mostly VFX for those exteriors, but we did create a fairly powerful sun using an HMI and gobos. He recalls that, inside the ship, his main limitation was the physical build of the set. This meant he had to work very closely with production design and a practical electrician throughout.“We couldn’t exactly screw holes in walls, so we worked out a few simple ways of adding the extra light
we needed. We had a few floor-level panels with some muslin cloth thrown over, for example, so we could look over them and shoot around them easily. It wasn’t a fiddly shoot in that sense,” he explains. The film’s other primary interior setting – out on the Arctic tundra – wasn’t quite so simple, though the most significant rig of all came with the accompanying exteriors. White explains more. “Inside the Arctic research station, we installed a fully working RGBWW LED lighting system, hidden away, built into bulk heads or wherever else was fitting. Those were generic LED ribbons, mainly behind functional backlit transparency arrays, all bicolour, tuneable and dimmable. There were thousands of channels for that, which sounds worse than it was, but it did all mount up on the stage, so required a lot of planning from the earliest prep. He adds: “There was a lot of ambient light coming into the station from our set-up outside, but we augmented that with Sumolights, which are a bicolour LED lens light. We used those individually, but also in a Super 7, which is a seven-bank cluster of the Sumospace fixtures with 30° lenses and
ABOVE Producer Grant Heslov, actors Felicity Jones and Tiffany Boone, and director George Clooney on the set of The Midnight Sky.
As for the Arctic exteriors, they were actually shot in Iceland, but the setting was also reproduced later on a sound stage. White explains that this was decided early on to avoid some of the issues with green screen. Instead, they opted to create a huge LED backlight. “The team snowed up the stage and had these breakaways so the actors could sink into the ice, to keep things practical,” he says. “For the backlighting, we rigged a wall of Arri Skypanels, which we could nit map. “It was a huge set-up, around 50ft high and 250ft wide, wrapping 200° around the stage. I’d estimate we had around 500 of the panels in the wall, then we had a simpler version of that rig in the ceiling with around 120 more Skypanels. This created a very soft, even fill, which you could dim or change the colour of. We almost created a sky with an endless horizon.”
no textiles on them. We could move that around fairly easily if we needed to and used it to introduce some harder kicks.”
In the research station, we installed a tuneable, dimmable bicolour RGBWW LED lighting system, which required thousands of channels
08 DEF I N I T ION | FEBRUARY 202 1
JUL I AN WH I TE | GAFFER ' S CORNER
NAME: Julian White KNOWN FOR:
The Martian, Murder on the Orient Express, Cinderella, Crazy Rich Asians HERO GEAR: For me, Astera really revolutionised the lighting industry of late. When I did Murder on the Orient Express , I built a would-be version with Panalux – a two-bank LED strip with bicolour, wireless control and magnets on the back. It was a great solution, so when the Astera came out, I thought, ‘finally!’. I can pick it up to move, it’s got great colour quality, it’ll last hours and you can hang it on a wall or put it in a stand. It’s really just very versatile.
White explains the reasons for creating such a huge set. “You see, one of the problems with green screen is you’ve got to spend a lot of time and money lighting it, then you have to work in VFX to remove green spill on the actors, but that still doesn’t achieve what I call a ‘sky dome’ – the light that falls everywhere in real life. “So, hearing about this rig, you’d think ‘that it cost a fortune’, but if you don’t spend the money there, it would have to be spent on more VFX anyway and there’s still a certain something you can’t capture that way,” he concludes. Despite what one may imagine, a lighting set-up of this colossal scale wasn’t all that difficult to deal with. In fact, it made much of the shoot very simple. “If you turn on 20 Skypanels overhead, of course you’ve got a nice big softlight,” says White. “And because we’ve got that level of control, you can turn off a few or add in a few as the actors move around and the camera follows. There wasn’t much rigging or de-rigging at all once it was all in place. When we needed additional sources – for close-ups, for example – I relied on more LED softlights like the Gemini 2x1 from RIGHT The vast wall of LED panels offered a high level of control and was used for a wide variety of lighting conditions, from hard sun to evenings and even night scenes
Litepanels, Kino Flo Freestyles often with a 90° honeycomb, and the Astera Titan and Helios – all offering lots of control and all battery-powered, so we could move quickly without worrying about cables. “When it comes to situations like this, my advice would be there is no other way, you just need to be brave and go big. On a technical level, every lighting set-up has its challenges, but I wouldn’t say the scale makes a huge amount of difference, it just requires more manpower.”
White concludes: “It does allow you to take a step back and get away from the nitty gritty, and you really do have to trust your crew. I had a great team working close to me: my best boy Kieran Waites, my rigging gaffer Tommy Royal, my HOV rigger Francis King and my HOV practical electrician Mike Forster were all absolutely integral to the success of the shoot.” THE MIDNIGHT SKY IS CURRENTLY STREAMING ON NETFLIX WORLDWIDE
FEBRUARY 202 1 | DEF I N I T ION 09
PRODUCTION | REBECCA
“I was keen to have a gaffer with a lot of experience,” he explains, “so I worked with Julian White [who was gaffer on The Martian ] for the first time in many years. It was a real joy to glean his experience and combine that with my approach.” THE SUN AND MOON Delving deeper into the film’s visual language, Rose describes how light evolved alongside the developing story. “Ben Wheatley, the director, talked about a three-act structure, with the summer holiday romance serving as the first. These early scenes were the only time I used filters significantly. There was lots of light and it was very saturated to create a very optimistic atmosphere,” he explains. Aside from the hotel lobby, all the French interiors were shot in the UK. “We used lots of big tungsten. I had a number of 20Ks set quite low, which I used from a high angle – so rather than coming directly in, the light would hit the floor and bounce up to emulate the look of high sun. “Even in the lobby, we enhanced the natural light with two 18K Arrimax HMIs fixed on a truss just outside,” Rose elaborates further. “We expected to come back to the UK and that bleak grey and green would show a real change in tone, fitting for their return to this gothic manor,” he continues. “However, the summer of 2019, when we shot, couldn’t have been more beautiful. We fought that a lot and did introduce some rain, but more sun sneaked through than we initially planned.” The final act almost becomes a noir, as Mrs de Winter becomes more empowered and embarks on a detective story of sorts. Again, that marks some visual changes, particularly within the camera work. The interior of Manderley is the location for much of the film’s action
Huge in scale and rich in visual splendour, we talk to DOP Laurie Rose about bringing Rebecca to the big screen once again
WORDS LEE RENWI CK / P I CTURES NETFL I X AND JUL I AN WH I TE
N etflix hit Rebecca has been the subject of much discussion since its release, certainly as a result of its source material and previous adaptation, but also for its aesthetic magnificence. The former is unavoidable, many would say, particularly given the fame of Daphne du Maurier’s book and Hitchcock’s 1940 version. The latter is the result of lots of excellent work, courtesy of Laurie Rose, when it came to lighting. Elsewhere, the costumes are as beautiful as those from the best period dramas, production design is done with the greatest of care and the film’s final look is a perfect fit. Were it created as an original in 2020, there’s little question the film would have been much more highly lauded. “From the outset, it was a readaptation of the book, not a remake of the film,” Rose says. “I didn’t want to try to compare to Hitchcock’s version, so for us, the gothic quality of the source material and period, the production design and the locations all fed into the visual language and shaped our approach much more.” The 1940s film was made in the era of the Hays Code (a set of rules within Hollywood that regulated moral content). “There are dark aspects to Rebecca that they just couldn’t broach on screen. But the book, as with all of du Maurier’s work, is actually vibrantly modern,” Rose explains. “We played to that and the first RIGHT Mrs de Winter tentatively reaches for her sleepwalking husband in one of the film’s blue, dreamlike sequences, lit day-for-night using Gemini 2x1 LED panels from Litepanels
script was very much a psychodrama,” he continues. “The film takes lots of dark twists and, thematically too, there are elements, like the notion of gaslighting, as Mrs de Winter goes on a real journey of self-discovery.” Rose is no stranger to period dramas, having captured, among others, much of Peaky Blinders Season 3, set just a decade earlier than Rebecca , although none of them have been on quite such a large scale. He felt a certain element of expectation pre-production, particularly due to the incredible legacy of Working Title, responsible for period features, such as Emma , Darkest Hour and The Danish Girl . “Still, it was exciting to take things further and fit into that canon,” Rose remarks.
10 DEF I N I T ION | FEBRUARY 202 1
REBECCA | PRODUCTION
ABOVE Laurie Rose mans the Alexa 65 to capture the burgeoning on-screen romance, while the director, Ben Wheatley, observes his performers closely
wanted was already there. We used very big charcoal silks to lessen the brightness and, at times, just had the light coming in from the very tops of the windows to offer that contrast and create the feeling of an overcast day.” He continues: “Elsewhere, we actually built tents that let us see out of the windows, as makeshift studios. Using these, we could shoot in daylight, night- time and green screen, as we wished.” With the sunlight taken care of, the only things left to light were the film’s numerous night sequences. “The biggest set-up were night exteriors in the cove, where Mrs de Winter visits the boathouse. We were working on the north Devon coast and I was concerned about weather conditions. Sometimes, a textile softbox is almost like putting up a kite, so we ended up using Tommybars for moonlight,” says Rose. “We had 16 8ft bars rigged on a 60-tonne crane at the top of the cliff, with the crane armed out flat and the lights shining down directly on the boathouse. We backed that rig up with a few more Arrimax HMIs, with some backlighting the boathouse slightly and some shining out to illuminate the cove,” he explains.
and, indeed, the house is something of a character itself. To do it justice, production designer, Sarah Greenwood, worked across seven different locations – all stately homes across the UK. When pieced together, the impossible geography serves to disorientate the viewer, much like the lead character herself. Within the house, lighting remained much the same through the narrative beats, though its feel changed dramatically. With the newly-weds alone, it seemed to suggest genuine intimacy. As Mrs de Winter battles the cruel Danvers, it evokes a looming yet hidden danger. “The frequent changing of locations did present some problems,” Rose admits. “We just had to maintain that broad, soft- source light with lots of contrast. Usually, this meant natural light and pushing corrected HMIs in through windows, because we wanted to keep the floor as practical as possible.” That wasn’t the only challenge, though. “Rigging in heritage houses is really tricky, so it was a constant conundrum of trying to work out how much available light we could use,” Rose explains. “The grand hall at Hatfield House is amazing, with almost floor-to-ceiling windows, but because it’s north-facing, it’s so beautifully dark inside. The contrast we
“Overall,” Rose continues, “I’d say it’s certainly the biggest lighting set-up I’ve ever worked with.” It would be amiss to exclude any mention of the film’s striking blue motif that returned in a number of dreamlike moments. As Rose explains, this required some day-for-night trickery. To shoot the interiors, everything was blacked out and Litepanels’ Gemini 2x1 LEDs were used to create a fairly hard, silvery blue moonlight. “I like to use that alongside the warm lights you’d get in the thirties, or even a fire, for some nice colour contrast through the mix of temperatures,” he details. “With all of these things, the reality is you have to move fast and you
We had 16 8ft Tommybars rigged on a crane at the top of the cliff – certainly the biggest set-up I’ve ever worked with
FEBRUARY 202 1 | DEF I N I T ION 1 1
REBECCA | PRODUCTION
LEFT Rose supported candlelight, and other period-practical fixtures, with tungsten light to fit the warm, low-voltage look of the 1930s
they’ve just got so much personality and lots of soul,” he enthuses. I found the edges were a bit varied,” Rose continues, “so, that slight sensor crop helped me control that, as well as marrying up the images between the two cameras. Alongside the 65, the results were beautiful – the skin tones, the contrast, the handling, all just beautiful. “Watching on set through the viewfinder or even streaming dailies on a 17-inch monitor, you don’t get a full sense of that scale and that quality. None of that comes through until you see the final product,” Rose explains. He notes that while it wasn’t formatted as such for theatrical release, when it can be seen at home on a larger 4K TV, it looks great. “That’s happening more and more now. When it went to Netflix, the image
can’t fix everything – you can’t adjust every light perfectly. I worked with Rob Pizzey, digital colourist, on Rebecca and all my credit goes to him in that sense. That real balancing and finding consistency from shot to shot or scene to scene just can’t be done without a fantastic colourist on your side,” Rose adds. SHOOTING FOR SCALE Rebecca is a big film and required a set of gear to reflect that adequately. When it came to camera choice, Rose took the opportunity to shoot on the Arri Alexa 65. “I’d shot on every flavour of Alexa until that point, having used almost nothing but Arri since about 2013, but I’d never used the 65. I operated that and used it alongside the Alexa LF as our B camera, because I knew we’d be using a fair bit of Steadicam and that was much more workable when it came to weight,” he says. Rather than shooting at full resolution on the 65, the crew came down to 5.5K, closer to the LF’s 4.5K, just so the lens fields matched more closely. “Knowing a sensor as well as I know the Alexa is a real joy, then to put that sensor into such a large field of view simply looks incredible,” Rose adds. When it came to lens choice, he opted again for Arri, but chose something a little different: rehoused vintage Hasselblad glass, in the form of Arri’s Prime DNAs. “I wanted a big-screen feel and the Alexa 65 offered exactly that, but I also wanted some additional intimacy and texture and that’s what the lenses really brought. The DNAs are interesting lenses and aren’t looking to be optically perfect,
stayed very consistent and, ultimately, it really was beautiful,” he says. “It was all a coming together – of the lighting, the production design, the grand locations – and the format of the Alexa 65 did it justice. I can’t forget the beautiful cast, Armie, Lily and Kristin Scott Thomas, you really can’t get a bad shot of these people,” he says, lauding the actors. “I was so impressed with how all of those visual elements came across together, so I’m overjoyed with the picture,” Rose concludes. REBECCA IS CURRENTLY STREAMING ON NETFLIX WORLDWIDE
I wanted a big-screen feel and the Alexa 65 offered exactly that, while the DNA lenses brought so much personality and texture
RIGHT The moonlight, requiring 16 8ft Tommybars rigged on a 60-tonne crane, was the biggest lighting set-up Rose has worked on
FEBRUARY 202 1 | DEF I N I T ION 13
STAB I L I SED SUPPORTS | GEAR
For most of cinema history, stable moving shots required either exquisite skill or a pile of heavy equipment. Some of the tiniest man-made devices are now making stabilisation easier – but the old guard still has its place FREEDOM
shrunk to the point that we can run smaller aircraft with bigger cameras than previously possible. With a lot of modern cameras increasingly resembling a box with a lens on the front, operating a moving shot from the shoulder often isn’t as easy as it was in the days of shoulder- mounted ENG cameras. For a lot of people, the layout of a 1990s Betacam was a formative experience, and trying to handle modern cameras in their boxy native format can be a recipe for backache. That’s where organisations like Vocas come in; the company recently announced a new version of its USBP-15 baseplate for the Red Komodo. Rigging cameras for different applications gives us a lot of flexibility, and certainly on a gimbal or drone, there’s benefits to stripping off every unnecessary chunk of metal. Operating from the shoulder, though, the extra weight of the accessories is a fair trade-off for not scoring a camera-shaped divot in the operator’s shoulder. It’s been such a big deal that Vocas even has a package of accessories for the Sony FX9 named Alister’s ENG kit. In a now ancient YouTube video showing B4 lenses adapted to big-chip cameras, the estimable
WORDS PH I L RHODES / P I CTURES VAR I OUS
1968 film, Funny Girl . Marconi’s Heli- Tele, made in the mid-seventies, was a metre-diameter sphere containing a camera and was made with vacuum tube technology that dangled off the side of the aircraft like a super-sized seasonal bauble. Later versions of the Heli-Tele were stable enough to point long lenses at small things on the ground from far away, which created surveillance possibilities that excited not only film and TV, but also the police and military. Still, seventies helicopter mounts often weighed enough that the helicopters of the time sometimes struggled to lift off if the crew had been overindulging at the lunch buffet. In 2021, we have literally pocket-sized gimbals for our literally pocket-sized cameras, and even the big helicopter-mounted options have
he opening shots of The Sound of Music show Julie Andrews practically being blown
over by what’s very clearly helicopter downwash, in a scene set long before helicopters were a commercial reality. In late June 1964, when that scene was filmed, helicopter shots required wide lenses to look sufficiently stable, so filling the frame with an actor forced the aircraft to fly very nearby. Now, an actively stabilised camera mount goes without saying, but it’s a mistake to think that such a thing is a new idea. The option to bolt a camera to something that magically keeps it level goes back to the sixties and seventies. The Tyler Major Mount made possible the spectacular shot of Barbra Streisand, which closes the
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Alister Chapman demonstrated that the ENG layout is a classic for a reason. It’s an idea that shows no sign of waning popularity. STEADICAM AND EASY RIG Before modern gimbals came Steadicam in the seventies and Easy Rig in 1993. The latter suspends the camera on a line that runs to a backpack. Imitations and variations of backpack-mounted suspension devices have appeared since, but as the name suggests, they’re probably more about easing the weight than about stabilisation. Of course, any operator admits that fatigue leads to drunken horizons, and there’s a suspension effect that smooths out the position, if not the framing. Both Steadicam and Easy Rig have been used to support active levelling devices and full gimbals. Despite common assumptions, a Steadicam relies solely on inertia and doesn’t involve any gyroscopic components. It’s possible to add a gyro to a Steadicam as a clamp-on accessory, but they’re noisy, power hungry, time-consuming to start and stop, and used only in situations where maintaining a precise level is important. In 2021, it’s probably easier to put a gimbal on top, as with Arri’s Trinity.
stabilisation to a Steadicam-style inertial stabiliser predates Arri’s development. Possibly the biggest challenge with Steadicam-style stabilisers is keeping a level horizon. Placing the camera inside a cage that automatically rolls level eases this process and makes it possible to go from underslung to overslung in a single shot. Add a full gimbal and it’s a stabiliser that can place a camera in a lot of strange places. It’s as if it has somehow become weightless, even though it handles cameras up to 30kg – if you can find someone capable of carrying it while also remaining an effective operator. An Argentinian manufacturer, Basson Steady, is keen to push its (unusually named) Endless 3 stabiliser, which supports an Alexa Mini and functions in a similar way to Trinity for less than a quarter of the price. The payload is lower, at 12.5kg, but practical limits might restrict that anyway. For an even smaller, lighter option at an indie- filmmaker price tag, Tiffen offers a Steadimate-S – depending on the required camera weight handling. That’s compatible with a DJI Ronin-S or Zhiyun Crane gimbal. It’s a DSLR-scale sort of arrangement, but in a world where Blackmagic has developed a 6K pocket camera, great things are possible. STEADICAM VOLT Tiffen has not been idle while gimbals have flourished. Since 1975,
LEFT Arri’s hybrid support, Trinity, is the first to combine mechanical with electronic stabilisation
A STABILISER ON YOUR STABILISER
Trinity is a high-end piece of kit, though the idea of adding active
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permissive jurisdictions, 900MHz with three times the range). The idea appears not to be simply to avoid cabling around a vehicle mount, but to let the operator sit in comfort at a static location, even as vehicle action happens nearby. The company is keen to push the relevance of this to virus-related remote working, although with any luck, those sorts of restrictions might be a memory by the time anyone is likely to amortise the investment. Active stabilisation makes all kinds of things plausible as camera platforms, and one of them is Motion Impossible’s Agito. It’s described
style stabiliser gets, the less effective it is. The design relies on the inertia of the camera assembly and the lighter it is, the less inertia it has. The result is something that’s twitchier, but faster. It’s easier to carry all day, perhaps, but it doesn’t demand any less training or experience. GIMBALS It’s perhaps a little reductive to refer to Arri’s stabilised remote heads as gimbals. Even though in essence they provide the same three axes of stabilisation, the build is more like a conventional remote head with a roll axis – and a huge 30kg payload. As such, the SRH-3 immediately became popular in both conventional remote head scenarios and as a stabilising addition to vehicle mounts, among many other things. The new SRH-360 adds beefier motors to the pan axis and also a new assembly, permitting continuous rotation in pan that can upgrade existing SRH-3s. It’s a modular system, and it boasts newly developed radio modules that allow it to provide both head and lens control over a kilometre at 2.4GHz (or, in more “IT’S EASIER TO CARRY ALL DAY, BUT DOESN’T DEMAND LESS EXPERIENCE”
there have been at least five or six principal series of designs from the name that started it all. The latest Steadicam incarnation, the Volt System, handles cameras up to 22kg and boasts a set of servos that null out acceleration and deceleration forces to keep things level when cornering, starting or stopping. They also let operators dial in a degree of tilt that’s automatically maintained. Tilting a traditional Steadicam design requires constant pressure, which an experienced operator is able to handle, but this inevitably risks adding instability. Gimbals differ from Steadicam in that they stabilise only in the direction a camera is pointing; they don’t stabilise where a camera is. It turns out most of the value of stabilisers is in the stabilisation of the frame, which is why optical stabilisation in stills cameras works so well and why gimbals and handheld Steadicams work at all. There are shots that need stable position, though. It’s common for tracking moves to include foreground elements that are closer to the camera than the subject, encoding parallax information about the three-dimensionality of the scene in a two-dimensional moving image, but those foreground objects might appear to dance around distractingly against the background if position isn’t smoothed out, too. There is also an argument that the smaller and lighter a Steadicam-
TOP LEFT DOP Steven Holleran with Easy Rig’s hero product, the Cinema 3
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while weighing only 5kg itself. The company even reports successfully putting an Alexa XT with Canon’s bulky CN7x17 lens on board. DJI’s most famous products are still drones, though. The fixed- camera Mavic series, currently represented by the Mavic Air 2, is probably best known, but the flyweight Mini 2 ducks the most limiting rules in many jurisdictions. Gudsen’s Moza line tells a similar story, although the company leaps straight to promoting the Moza Air X, depicted with an Alexa Mini on board. The Moza Air X competes with Zhiyun’s Crane 3 Lab, which has a very similar payload capacity at around 4.5kg as well as similar pricing, though the Crane has on- board wireless video that obviates another case full of boxes and wiring. Again, there are smartphone gimbals from both companies. There’s perhaps a need for some caution over the rather ambitious load figures given here; certainly, gimbals work better lightly loaded. So, there are options to put more or less any camera anywhere, and to keep it aimed in the right direction. Perhaps the biggest potential disruptor is the sheer amount of technology that smartphone designers are putting straight into the handset. Many of them digitally stabilise footage as it’s shot, just by floating the image around ever higher-resolution sensors. Whether that sort of technology might grow to the point where it steals any work from the incumbents is probably the sort of thing that keeps gimbal designers awake at night.
it handles comparably-sized DSLRs and the Flir Duo Pro R thermal imaging camera beloved by search and rescue emergency workers. The specifications indicate a gross weight of just over 8.3kg, which places it in the more restrictive legal categories for operation in most jurisdictions, though that’s true of many consumer drones beyond the weight of a gnat. Of course, a lot of work doesn’t demand Super 35 sensors and multi- kilo lenses. Given there are more iPhones than Alexas in the world, it’s clear Freefly and DJI make much of their living with their smallest products. DJI’s offering begins with drones but ranges to tiny devices, such as the company’s Pocket 2 gimbal. On top of that, there are the RS series gimbals that sit on a post grip and are ideal for shooting something like a skateboard from aboard another skateboard. DJI’s upscale option is the Ronin 2, which pushes capacity up to 13.6 kg
as a ‘modular dolly’ that runs either on tracks or on open terrain. From a distance, the free-roaming version might be mistaken for a particularly beefy radio-controlled car, but close up it becomes clear that this is no RC hobbyists’ toy. The vehicle itself comprises core, drive and mounting assemblies, plus stabilisation, which can be combined to suit various scenarios. What’s particularly valuable about this is that it avoids the crippling red tape of drones. Agito could capture many of the same things a really low-flying drone could, but with far less paperwork. Payloads are up to 32kg and an Agito can achieve up to 32mph when it is used on the right terrain. It’s something that seems destined to save the backs of a lot of Steadicam operators, although the ability to do tiny creeping motions is possibly just as valuable. DRONES Gimbals as we know them arrived when Freefly launched the Movi M10 in 2013. Now, there’s not just a gimbal to be seen at the top of Freefly’s website. The company is taking reservations for the Astro drone, a quadcopter shown prominently with the Sony A7R4 but that is also compatible with similar models. With a mid-range capacity of 1.5kg, “DJI’S RONIN 2 PUSHES CAPACITY UP TO 13.6KG WHILE WEIGHING ONLY 5KG ITSELF”
TOP LEFT Motion Impossible’s Agito can be paired with Arri’s SRH-360 for a ready-to-go remote solution
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ADVERTI SEMENT FEATURE | SAMSUNG
POWERFUL, PORTABLE STORAGE Camera operator and kit expert, Ian Follows, considers just how good the Samsung Portable SSD X5 is in a modern production environment
high-capacity cards, it could be used as an offload drive – especially the larger, 2TB version. Then in post, it would certainly speed up the editing process used as a scratch drive, rather than relying on a machine’s internal capabilities.” He continues: “Having experienced its speed, I can say the portable drive is also very helpful when it comes to verification and transcoding. With transcoding, of course, you’re reading a file, doing the transcode itself then exporting that new file, sometimes using just the one external device. With speed like that of the Samsung Portable SSD X5, you can use it as the source drive and sync the drive simultaneously with very little issue.” To remove the finer details and describe the Samsung Portable SSD X5’s astounding speed in the context of the creative process is one thing – albeit important – but the specs speak for themselves. With a modern NVMe interface, the portable drive can read and write at speeds up to 2800MB/s and 2300MB/s respectively. Put into perspective, those read speeds are up to 5.2x faster than a portable SSD with SATA interface, and up to a staggering 25.5x faster than an external HDD. “Speed is nice, not only for the convenience and time saved, but because
Certainly, there are few individuals better suited to cast their verdict on a thoroughly modern device like the Samsung Portable SSD X5. So, what exactly did Follows think? A MODERN WORKFLOW Thanks to its speed alone, the Samsung Portable SSD X5 is an incredibly versatile tool for virtually every step of production. “Having been hands-on with the portable drive, I can so easily identify the various uses for it during a shoot or in post,” Follows explains. “It’s ideal as a jump drive, to get files between machines very quickly. On a smaller or lower-budget shoot, which may not necessarily have
After years undertaking various roles in the camera department, camera operator Ian Follows turned his expert knowledge to writing – primarily reviewing filmmaking technology of all varieties. “I was likely one of the first working DITs in the UK when digital really took off,” he explains. “I still do some professional camera work, but it’s primarily editorial these days. In covering these products, I’ve used most of the gear on the market today in some capacity or another.”
ABOVE The Samsung Portable SSD X5 is small and light enough to fit in even the fullest of camera bags, despite being packed with impressive tech
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IMAGE The sleek, modern, sports car-like design of the Samsung portable drive certainly won’t be lost on image-making professionals
“The Samsung Portable SSD X5 is at the cutting edge of speed. Certainly, external drives don’t come much faster than this”
it allows you time if you make mistakes,” Follows says. “Not so long ago, if a mag failed to upload properly, you had a big problem on your hands, because it took all night to do. So, you’re a mag short the next day, the workflow is inhibited and you’re going over the shoot schedule to make up that lost time.” Gone are the days of all-night whirring and knock-on weekend catch-ups. With the Samsung Portable SSD X5, you can transfer 20GB of 4K video from your PC to the portable drive in just 12 seconds. GOING FURTHER “Of course, there’s the very straightforward use of having the Samsung Portable SSD X5 as the device the producer or director takes rushes home on, provided there are no huge Raw files to exceed capacity,” explains Follows. Naturally, in this instance, or indeed in any other, it’s reassuring to know your portable drive and the contents on it are safe should the worst happen. As the portable drive is a solid state drive, there are no moving parts inside it, though further durability comes by way of magnesium-alloy reinforcement. As a result, it can withstand drops up to 2m. Also inside, a dynamic thermal guard and heat sink ensure the Samsung Portable SSD X5 maintains optimal
performance temperature, even during extended periods of use. Equally, when it comes to digital security, your files are safe thanks to advanced password protection based on AES 256-bit encryption. “It’s good to know that it’s strongly built and, naturally, portable drives are going to be moved around regularly, so it’s also reassuring that thought has been given to that,” says Follows. On the subject of portability, it’s an understatement to say the Samsung Portable SSD X5 is a small device. Measuring just under 12cm long and 2cm deep, and weighing in at only 150g, it’s barely noticeable in a kit bag. Sat at an editing station, there’s just as much to love, thanks to the drive’s sleek, sports car-inspired design. “Portable drives like this one have made huge things possible, things that never would have been possible for anyone other than the highest budget productions,” Follows adds. “You couldn’t have low-compression, high-quality media
without it being incredibly expensive, but now you can. “The Thunderbolt 3 technology is doing just as much in this sense as the SSD. Storage devices with comparable speeds to the Samsung Portable SSD X5 aren’t groundbreaking in and of themselves, it’s just that they’ve never been external – and they’ve certainly never been pocket-sized.” Undoubtedly, the Thunderbolt 3 is the only logical option for connecting a drive such as this. Its powerful technology delivers the fastest bandwidth up to 40Gb/s. Follows concludes his thoughts: “It’s at the cutting edge of speed. Certainly, external drives don’t come much faster than this at the moment.”
MORE INFORMATION: samsung.com/uk/memory-storage
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