Still life with water bottle: An EX1 sports a DvRig Junior; Alan Hereford’s homebrew DvRig is at the bottom of the picture.
Day 0 – Finishing up our preproduction for Rob Nilsson’s film, “Maelstrom”, Tim and I head up to San Francisco and Emeryville to pick up gear. Videofax has an EX1 with wide-angle adaptor to back up ours and serve as a B camera, and Chater Camera has two Lectrosonics wireless systems with Sonotrim mikes to supplement my two existing Sony WRR/WRT-28 wirelesses with ECM-77s.
At Chater, Tim sees a RockNRoller cart that looks useful for hauling heavy stuff, and Jay Farrington offers up a half-Zeppelin with integrated furry (a.k.a. “dead cat”) for my Sennheiser ME80 hypercardioid, when I admit I only have a wool sock over my own half-Zep. The cart is $10/day, the windscreen they throw in for free. Nice folks.
Off to DTC for our lights, at at least those of them that have arrived. Frank at DTC wheels out a pallet of boxes, and we open up an impossibly large box containing a KinoFlo VistaBeam 600. The freakin’ thing is 36 inches on a side (that’s nearly a meter square, for folks in civilized countries) and has a junior pin on it (not the baby receiver we expected, and had ordered stands for); this is serious lighting. Tim and I goggle in stupefaction as various DTC employees, renters, and general hangers-on gather ’round to inspect this monster; it’s a new instrument and not widely available in rental houses.
An even bigger box hold the shipping crate for two VistaBeams:
The road case for the two VistaBeam 600s.
We’ve got a problem here; it’s simply too big to fit in Tim’s Scion xB. Fortunately, a VistaBeam fits by itself, so we can take the instrument, if not its case:
One VistaBeam with protective cardboard, flat, in Tim’s Scion.
We find we have the two VistaBeams, a 1×1 Litepanel, and the kit containing two Litepanel Minis, but the two Diva-Lite 400s, the Arri HMI kit, and the stands haven’t arrived yet. We rent rolling stands for the VistaBeams and DTC gives us three rental C-stands with gobo arms (or it may have been the other way ’round; DTC was chagrined they had neglected to sell us stands for the Vistas, so they threw us some rental gear for free one way or the other to cover our needs), and we scout ’round the grip section for toys: C-47s, blackwrap, gaffer tape, gels, show card, extra grippy bits for securing lights in unlikely places. Finally, we get it all loaded, minus one of the VistaBeams (we don’t want to stack ’em, and besides, what are we gonna do with ’em anyway?).
We finish in the early evening, after stopping by the Emeryville Apple Store to snag three 500GB Western Digital MyBook FireWire800 drives. I leave Tim at his place to charge-cycle the batteries on the LitePanel Minis and study up on the Lectros, and I hurry home to put Videofax’s EX1 batteries on charge, assemble our EX1 kit, and round up all the spare sound, monitoring, camera support, and battery bits I have laying about.
Day 1 – Call time is 2pm. On the way north, I stop at Frys and pick up stingers, power strips for the data wrangling setup, and twenty more AA rechargeables for the Sony mikes and Sound Devices mixer. We arrive at the private residence that will serve as our primary location, and unload; half the cars are then taken back down the single-lane road and parked teetering on the edge of the hillside, to make room for the rest. Our crew consists of Tim Blackmore (data wrangling, lighting, sound), Alan Hereford (B camera, sound, lighting, mad save-the-day skillz), Aaron Brown (sound, alternate B camera, general assistance), and myself (main camera). Both Alan and Aaron were press-ganged into service with something like 48 hour’s notice; all the normal soundies we contacted were booked, so we were winging it on sound and B cam (which Rob didn’t call for, but Tim thought would be a Good Idea).
SCENE 1- Taxi Ride; Alex and Manuel- singing Fado
This is Direct Action Cinema: a short description, rather than a fully-blocked (and fully-written) scene. Alex and Manuel are in the back seat of an SUV behind the driver; I’m in the front passenger’s seat to shoot them. Aaron on sound is behind me, feeding three wireless lavs into my Sound Devices 302 mixer, and giving me the mix on dual XLRs.
Adam gets wired in for the film’s first shot.
Rob Nilsson directs from the floor behind the rear seat: he monitors using an old Sony Glasstron video headset. It’s like Coppola’s Silverfish in that (a) it is shiny, (b) it lets the director see what the camera sees, and (c) it removes the director from direct experience of the shooting area. The Glasstron takes a Y/C feed, so I plug the VMC15FS A/V cable into the side of the EX1. While it’s the rearmost of the three side-mounted connectors, it still presses against the back of my thumb when my hand is on the EX1’s handgrip. I can’t rotate the handgrip, either, because the cable gets in the way.
Fortunately, the DvRig Junior takes the bulk of the weight (the EX1, with wide-angle lens and BP-U60 battery, weights 8 pounds), so rotating the handgrip is not essential. I quickly realize that without the DvRig, this shot would be impossible; with it, the load is tolerable. The DvRig’s spring-loaded center column carries the weight, while its dual-axis fluid head (tilt and dutch-tilt axes) allows full freedom to aim the camera as needed. The Rig will remain on the camera for all but a fraction of the shooting, and I now consider it an essential accessory for EX1 handheld work.
(Alan brought his own homebuilt DvRig Junior: the springy column from a DvRig ENG, to which he had added a ball head and a Manfrotto video quick-release plate. Since the EX1 really requires hands-on operation to exploit its features (the “expanded focus” button on the grip isn’t remoteable, nor is focus, practically speaking), a shoulder mount with its own handgrips isn’t suitable, but the DvRig Junior, or Alan’s reasonable facsimile thereof, carries the weight and lets the camera work in a handheld mode.)
We set off driving, through sun and deep shade. The EX1’s exposure display (“BRT DISP”: percentage readout of brightness in the central area of the screen) is invaluable in determining what’s really happening with levels, while the EX1’s excellent latitude holds detail in the shadows while keeping sunlit skin from blasting out completely.
We return after 45 minutes of driving through Mill Valley, and I set up one of the few tripod shots in the show, of the van arriving at the house. We follow it up with a low-angle walking shot, with the sun coming through the trees, past our actors, into the camera lens. This is fun: I’m following three actors up a stepped, stone path, with the camera handheld low-mode at ground level. We start off in a carport sandwiched in the two feet of free space between two cars; I’m shooting full wide angle (about 4.6mm on a 1/2″ camcorder); I have a soundman with a boom behind me, and behind him is a blind man on a leash: Rob Nilsson with his Glasstron. Amazingly, Rob stays right in step with us, neither stumbling on the steps nor running into us when I stop suddenly and freeze the camera on a tableau. Years of practice!
We follow up with a few indoor scenes and some at the bathtub in the back yard, all with existing light.
Bathtub, day: Adam on camera, Alan on sound, Rob monitoring.
I’m getting lots of detailed direction from Rob, who likes tight, tight closeups, often partially obscured. I wind up shooting a lot of over-the-shoulder and past-the-head shots, all handheld. Since it’s Direct Action, there’s no preplanned dialog, nor marks: actors are moving as they see fit, so I’m constantly roving to maintain framing. We shoot our cover shots tight, and roam continuously between the actors: “don’t count on having a second take.”
Rob dislikes bright light on the actors, and I’m shooting faces at levels between 10% and 25%. Indoors, these look fine in the EVF and LCD, but outdoors, these levels simply read as black. Without the EX1’s exposure readout and histogram, I’d have very little faith that I was getting what I needed. With them, I’m still nervous, but as an instrument-rated pilot I know when to ignore my senses and trust the gauges. The EX1’s expanded focus function and its depth-of-field display (“lens info”) help me keep it in focus: unlike many HDV cameras, the EX1 lets me use expanded focus even while rolling, and I use it frequently. Word comes back from Data Wrangling that the images are unfreakingbelievably gorgeous, which I attribute to the natural beauty of existing light and the EX1’s CINE4 gamma setting with detail turned off…. and the fact that I was able to hold focus more often than not!
I notice my right thumb is sore, and wonder why. I don’t recall mashing it when folding up the tripod, or when rigging a light… odd…
Next: Days 2 & 3…
Day 2 – Tim, Rob, and I meet at 6:45am to cover the starting line of the Dipsea Race. It turns out that half the people in Mill Valley know Rob, and half of them have been in one of his previous films. In between the impromptu reunions, we get the footage we need, and repair to the main location after a hearty breakfast.
SCENE 5- Alex and Ethan- Alex comes to Ethan’s room- writing- asks him about it- asks questions about Christian- and the scene evolves
Tim sets up a VistaBeam behind the door. The VistaBeam draws 600 watts, yet puts out about as much light as a 4k tungsten instrument in a softbox. Bounced off ceiling and wall, it brings the base levels up to the point where I can shoot the scene without blowing out the windows. I even have to throw in the ND1 filter to keep my aperture around f4, yet have the shadows down where Rob likes them. Not for the last time, the VistaBeam proves itself a wise choice.
We need to get low, as in ground-level, so I yank the DvRig and plan to operate completely handheld. Rob is in the hall, monitoring on my Panasonic BT-LH1700W (there’s no way I’m working around that composite cable in full-handheld mode); Tim is mixing, Alan is squeezed between a dresser and the wall, booming (Rob likes to have lavs on all his actors, but we also use a boom mike for coverage, backup, and ambience. This is a short establishing shot, then we’ll come back for closeups, so we’re cool with the required contortions.
25 minutes and 5 seconds later, Rob says, “cut”. It’s jazz, man; improv: sometimes the scenes run a bit long. At the 20 minute mark, I have to choose between dripping sweat on the camera or on one of the actors (it was in the high 80s that day), so I compromise by dripping sweat on both. I fondly remember 4GB P2 cards and 8-minute maximum take lengths, when both slots of the HVX200 were filled… ah, the good old days! 
The VistaBeam moves out onto the rear deck, to kick up the fill level in the dappled light beneath a gnarled tree. It’s 6pm, and the sun is beaming down out of a cloudless sky, yet we have rich detail in the shadows and no blowouts on sunlit skin nor in the sky (I hope to post frame grabs soon).
Day 3 – We sit down at call time and go over the shot list. We’ve shot for two days, and we’ve been busy, but it still looks like we’re about two days behind schedule. How can this be?
I’ve figured out that my sore thumb is the result of the EX1’s composite cable pressing into my flesh; it’s to the point where, after a take, I pretty much can’t use the thumb at all. I tell Rob he’s on the Panasonic whenever possible, and he agrees, so I gratefully switch the EX1 to HD-SDI monitoring as much as possible.
The Panasonic 17″ monitor was a lifesaver.
But sometimes it’s not possible. In one take, we expect to start on the rear deck beside a chair, and wander around a bit, so Rob is on the Glasstron. We have wireless lavs on three actors, plus a boom. As the scene progresses, we rise up from seated eye-level and wander over to the railing, looking out over Mill Valley… when one actor grabs another’s arm and takes off at a dead run. I follow right behind them, and feel a slight jerk on my cables: remember, I’ve got a sound guy attached to me with dual XLRs, and a blind man on a leash!
Somehow both Aaron (on sound) and Rob (on a Glasstron leash) manage to follow without utter catastrophe, and 13 minutes later, the take is in the can. At about the 10-minute mark, Rob’s Glasstrons became disconnected, but the take was a success; we come back only for a couple of cutaways to cover various technical and artistic lapses (on-camera Litepanel Micro fill light reflected in glossy Olympic medal case; soundman caught on camera during another unexpected run).
We finish up with two cameras shooting as the sun slips behind the ridge, the light fading on our actors as they watch the sunset.
At the end of Day 3 (on a six-day shoot), the following truths have become self-evident:
- A DvRig Junior (or similar belt-pod device) makes an EX1 handholdable.
- Operating an EX1 handheld with an analog video cable connected is harmful to the thumb.
- The Sony wide-angle adaptor is a great bit of glass. It tends to be a bit flarey, but it’s been on the camera the whole time and the images are still crisp, clean, and sharp, even at wide apertures.
- Many of the fresh AA rechargeables didn’t fully charge the first time, so we wound up losing some time in the first two days to extra battery changes. Really, I should have bought them a day or two earlier and charge-cycled them to prep them; I simply ran out of time.
- Lectrosonics wireless mics are real delights, with good range, few hits, and strong outputs. But dang: they eat 9V batteries like popcorn!
- Trust the exposure readouts rather than the viewfinder picture. Nothing too surprising there, but I was surprised how differently the viewfinder pictures appeared when moving between indoor shade and outdoor sunlight.
- The BRT DISP function tuned out to be more valuable than the histogram and the zebras, though I used them as well.
- We’re way behind schedule. We’re never going to get it all in the can. We’re all gonna die.
Continued in Part 2…
 Yeah, yeah: how about, “the 11-minute maximum take with a 400-foot mag on an Arri 16BL… ah, the good old days!” There, is that better? Are you happy now? 
 Oops, I just got myself banned from CML for mentioning the Camera That Shall Not Be Mentioned. Dang.