About a week and a half ago I received an email from Leigh Blicher, partner at Videofax in San Francisco. “Just wanted to let you know our F35 has arrived.” My response read something like this: “Ooo! Oh! Oh oh oh! Ooooo oh oh OH! Oh! OHHHHH! Can I come over and PLAY?”
Playtime was scheduled for last Friday at 9am. I’ll go into what we tested and what we saw later in a joint article with Adam Wilt. This article is about the spec spot you see above.
Videofax is located in a beautiful house off Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and as it was a rare sunny day in “The City” (as we locals call it, because it’s really the only city in the Bay Area… except for all the others) we rushed the camera to their kitchen, where Adam, the Videofax team and I shot a series of exposure and gamma curve tests. We recorded onto both HDCAM SR and AVC-Intra, running HD-SDI into a Panasonic HPM-110 deck.
Being a reel-building camera whore, I asked to shoot a few shots with the camera that I could turn into a spec spot. I initially had no idea what I wanted to shoot, and during an email exchange with Leigh I came up with the idea of a solar energy spec spot because most situations involving sun are too contrasty for HD cameras. “Solar Energy Comes Home” popped into my head, and that’s what the shoot became: solar energy coming home from a long day’s work, propping his feet up and watching a baseball game on TV.
Jim Rolin is known not just for being a partner in Videofax but also as the best location video engineer in the Bay Area. He’s a wizard with a paintbox, and this was an opportunity for him to play with the camera in a real world situation, with a mellow, easy-going DP (okay, maybe that’s not a real-world situation after all) who had a definite look in mind. I wanted to play the classic “warm/cool” game, and the description I gave Jim was this: “If this camera had a 4300k filter, we’d shoot mixed tungsten/daylight without the tungsten looking nasty and green”–a common problem for a lot of HD cameras where one “bakes in the look” in the field.
The Sony F35 is designed for a native 3200k white balance and has no internal filter wheel, which means that it’s a good idea to use an 85 filter when shooting outdoors. (There is a digital 5600k option that we did not test.) For this shoot we left the camera unfiltered, and Jim used a paintbox to cool the camera a little bit from its 3200k starting point.
One of the exciting things about working with Sony cameras is that they offer a lot of gamma curve options, and if you’re so inclined you can build them yourself. The four primary gamma curves are Hypergammas 1, 2, 3 and 4. Hypergammas 3 and 4 are the best built-in gamma curves I’ve seen yet in a Sony camera: curve 3 opens up shadow detail and curve 4 compresses highlights, depending on your need, and both of those curves use the full available dynamic range of the camera from 0 units to 109 on the waveform monitor. Curves 1 and 2 do the same thing but limit themselves to the 0-100 range–which is useful if you’re shooting for broadcast and no one will ever color correct your footage.
There are ten total curves in the camera, including Rec 709. I don’t recommend comparing the Rec 709 curves to Hypergammas 3 and 4 if you are at all prone to nausea. The Hypergammas handle highlights beautifully, giving them a painterly smear instead of Rec 709’s nasty hot spot of fire, where the center of the highlight becomes a solid round blob. You can see the Hypergammas at work in the hallway shot of the spec spot: the blown-out highlights aren’t totally film-like but they do have an organic feel that I’m not used to seeing in HD. They don’t disappear into a white hot circle; there are actually a lot of tones between the center point of the hot spots and the outside radius. In fact, in the 1920×1080 version we could see delicate rings in the light created by the bezels of the front door windows.
We also tested some curves from Digital Praxis, who have built custom gamma curves for Sony cameras since the introduction of the F900. They have five curves for the F35, and they reminded me of the Dynamic Level function in the Panasonic Varicam. Rather than affecting just the toe or the knee of the gamma curve, as the Hypergammas do, they compressed both to varying degrees depending on the curve used (there are five strengths, 1-5).
Jim loves Hypergamma 4, especially because it does beautiful things to flesh tones, and he thought we’d use that one setting for the entire spot. Instead we used a mix of Hypergamma 3, Hypergamma 4, and at least two of the Digital Praxis curves. (I’ll try to find out which are which when I write up my joint article with Adam Wilt.)
This piece was shot in Leigh and Jim’s entry hall and living room. I only used one light for the entire piece, a 650w Arri fresnel. Most of the shots entailed a Videofax intern named Marvik walking around while holding the fresnel on a light stand. The lenses were Arri/Zeiss UltraPrimes, mostly the 28mm, 35mm and 16mm. I believe we shot the entire piece between T2 and T2.8, with the camera set at a base EI of 340–although we might have gone to +3db or +6db once or twice. We didn’t see any objectionable noise on the monitor until we got up to +9db. (I didn’t take many notes, for which I apologize: when you shoot a spec spot in two hours one has little time for anything else. Jim will probably remember everything we did, and Adam and I will pick his brain for our next article.) I do remember that in order to get the most out of Hypergamma 3 one is supposed to switch to -3db gain for best results.
This little project was shot between 1pm and 3pm last Friday. Except for our one tungsten light all other light was either natural daylight or a practical with a 25w bulb. That’s it. The material I used for editing came from the HPM-110 deck recording 4:2:2 AVC-Intra to P2 cards. I ingested this into Final Cut Pro using Panasonic’s AVC-Intra decoder, which converted the footage (digitage?) into 1920-x1080 ProResHQ for editing. All the sound effects came either from Apple’s Garageband or Apple Loops.
The occasional banding you see in the video above, particularly on the inside of the front door in the first shot, is entirely due to web compression. The HD footage is amazingly, beautifully smooth, particularly the second shot in the piece looking through the open door at white trim. I’ve never seen so many shades of white in HD before!
It’s amazing what you can do when you have a good idea but very little equipment. And I’m completely beside myself with joy when I consider that only five or six years ago I had to beg for editing time in order to do projects like this, and now I can shoot with a $17,000 camera (RED) or a $200,000 camera (F35) and finish the project myself at home. Not that I want to do every project this way, but my reel has benefited greatly from this technology. And there’s few better learning experiences than trying to edit and color your own material.
Speaking of coloring, the look was created entirely in-camera by Jim Rolin. And it looks absolutely gorgeous. There are some who say the look should be created entirely on set, and others who say it should all be done in post. I say neither: it’s best to pick the right tool for the job. For this little job we did amazingly well with very little equipment other than the F35 and a virtuoso on the paintbox.
I’ll make an announcement when my joint article with Adam Wilt goes live. Meanwhile, enjoy the spec spot.