I just finished 26 days of shooting a dramatic feature motion picture....
The Title: When Love Walks In
The Camera: The Canon XL1.
The "look" of the images in a feature is crucial and overall I'm very pleased with the results. The XL1 did its job and when combined with the talents of our Director of Photography (David Oulashian from LA), we got great results.
The key to the great footage was the lighting. You wouldn't believe the number of times I'd ask David "How much longer?" and he'd give his standard response, "5 more minutes!" But let me tell you, those "five" more minutes made all the difference in the world.
By the way, when a DP says "five more minutes" the Director interprets it as "fifteen more minutes, if your lucky".... when the Director says "five more minutes" the Actors interpret that as "Go to Starbucks, be back in thirty."
Anyhow - XL1 performance....
FOLLOW FOCUS was ruled out from the get-go. Without lens markings, we knew not to even attempt it. We had to block all of our scenes around this. Or use a large enough depth of field that it didn't matter. This obviously effected our approaches to dolly shots and hand-held stuff. Speaking of FOCUS... we did notice some softness on occasion. A shot looked soft (on our 1985 field monitor), but we'd just double check the focus and press on.
DOLLY SHOTS, TRIPODS, HIGH-HATS, HAND-HELD, etc. The XL1 worked well with each of these set-ups. We ran into some snags with a Bogen 3166 Head, but that's not the XL1's fault. We also managed to drive the Moho over our Bogen sticks (IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: don't try this at home!). But once again, this was not the XL1's fault... even though we desperately needed someone or something to blame.
AUDIO - We ran a Sennheiser MKH 416 shotgun into a Shure FP33 Field Mixer which fed the XL1 (16bit via the XLR adapter). Overall I'm very pleased with the sound. There are some rough spots, but rough spots and some dialogue replacement are to be expected when editing a feature. I'm disappointed with the XLR adapter... not in performance, but in design. A few days into shooting we snapped off the little plastic nub thingy that slides into the tail of the XL1 ($250 plus overnight Fed-Ex later we had a new one).
INTERIOR - DAY, EXTERIOR - DAY, INTERIOR - NIGHT, EXTERIOR - NIGHT. All types of shooting conditions and the XL1 performed well. Dolly shots at night in the rain? No problem. Hot, humid, Virginia summer days? No problem.
POWER SUPPLY - The cheesy standard XL1 power supply had to go. After 10 days of abuse it developed a short and so we put it on the disabled list as "Charger only". I found a great power solution from NRG. A much more rugged, four-pin power supply with XL1 adapter for somewhere around $300 (boy, did this make our DP's day).
WIDE ANGLE ADAPTER - Prior to shooting I knew we would need a wide angle option for our tight interiors, so I sunk $400 into a Century Optics .6X beauty. It worked great, but I discovered that we used it FAR LESS than I originally thought we would. The standard 16X XL1 glass lensed probably 98% of this film.
FILTERS - Along with great lighting, filters made our images look fabulous. We used a 1/2 Promist, a Promist 1, a Polarizer, and a .6 Neutral Density. If I would have had more money I would have bought the 1/8 and 1/4 Promist as well as the .3 & .9 ND. The standard built-in Neutral Density Filter on the lens of the XL1 was WAY TOO MUCH for the most part.
As I mentioned before, I've been very pleased with the XL1. The images rival that of the $50,000 Beta SP cameras I've worked with in my day jobs over the last 9 years.
Now we enter post production... hopefully we'll be done by the end of September. I'll write more then and let you know how that turns out.
The Watchdog adds: Kent took a break from post-production recently to answer the following questions submitted by readers...
Q: You didn't have this problem of the focus not holding? Also, I've also heard that it's hard to get a true focus through the color EVF, true or not?
A: In the field our DP would focus using the viewfinder, but we would direct off of an old, cheesy, "soft", field monitor. The viewfinder would show the image as crisp, but the monitor would appear "soft." So occasionally we'd have the DP re-check focus, but 99% of the time he was dead on. We'd dub the dailies to VHS and view them on a different monitor and focus was never a problem. BUT, Now that I'm in post and using a brand new Sony 20" NTSC monitor, I have noticed some images are softer than others. It's particularly noticeable when you cut from one "sharp" close-up to one of the "soft" close-ups. I'm hoping that when I run everything through Cinelook it will help. Unfortunately, After Effects doesn't have a "Fix Out Of Focus" Plug-in.
I've never shot with a VX1000, but I've heard that they are very sharp. Sometimes un-life-like kind of sharp. That type of sharpness, in my opinion, screams "VIDEO!" The film I'm producing needs to feel like film and the soft (yet in focus) images the XL1 produces are just the look that I need.
Focus is only one of a jillion issues/differences between the XL1 and the VX1000. I'm sold on the XL1.
Q: Did you shoot in frame mode? Also, I don't see how its video resolution can be blown-up to theatre proportions without tons of grain. Is it possible?
A: We shot standard 30fps (shutter speed of 1/60th). I wasn't able to do any editing tests with the "movie mode" prior to our production start date, so I chose the "safe" route of straight 30 interlaced. We did do some dream sequence shots at 1/30 shutter speed, but still recording at 30fps.
The DV format blows up to film just as any other video format. Grain - yes. Ideal - no. I've heard from other filmmakers who have had mixed results in the blow-up process. The only DV footage I've seen blown-up was in the Imax film Everest. No, they didn't blow it up to fill the whole three-story screen, but it did look good. When I saw it I knew it originated on video due to the context, but it wasn't until a week or two later that I learned it had been shot with Sony VX1000.
They say there's a few big houses in LA that specialize in video to film transfers and optical prints. They'll do the best job, but it ain't cheap... a full-length feature to 35mm (optical) will cost between $35K & $60K.
Q: What's your planned distribution for the piece? Are you going to festivals or try cable or what?
The plans for When Love Walks In are to Cinelook the edited master, then submit it to Sundance, New York, SXSW, Toronto, etc. If accepted then sink the cash into a 16 or 35mm optical print. Hopefully we'll find a buyer, sell it, recoup the costs, and have enough left over to get us started on our next feature.
Q: How many hours of raw footage did you get?
Altogether we shot 29 hours of footage. With a running time of approximately 110 minutes that puts us at about a 16 to 1 ratio. One of our actresses was a three year old. On her CU's we'd shoot her one line at a time and have her do it over and over again. On her wide shots we'd just let the camera roll and roll and roll and have her do it again and again until we got what we needed. One scene we had to roll for 30 minutes straight. Try doing that on 16 or 35mm and see how quickly your budget disappears.
Q: I would love to see footage shot with this camera. If you would allow me to pay you for a copy of your work I would greatly appreciate it. I currently work in 16mm as well and want to compare apples to apples (16mm well lit and Canon XL1 DV well-lit).
A: Until I get through post on When Love Walks In, I'll be unable to help with this. Around mid-October I may be able to send you some footage. If you're still in need then, let me know. Sorry, but I'm racing toward a deadline... or is the deadline racing toward me?
Q: The section on the power supply was particularly enlightening to me because you are describing a solution that has worked satisfactorily for you and your DP. You mention that it's a solution from NRG costing about $300. Would that be the Compak 13.2v 42 WH pack with 4 pin XLR, plus the adapter?
A: We picked up the NRG Power Station II Compact for $179.95 and the 2CD04 Canon Adapter 4 pin XLR connector. This solution was a real lifesaver. The Power Station II Compact is a 12 volt power supply that should run most any BetaCam type set-up around (I also think it will power DV decks like the Sony DSR-20, but I haven't tested this yet). The 2CD04 4 pin connector drops the 12 volts down to the XL1's 7.2 volts (or whatever it is). It's fairly rugged, looks good, and works like a charm... no Chernobyl-type stuff here. It's 1000% better than the standard issue, cheezy, Canon power supply.
Q: I cant believe you didn't have any focus problems with this camera. Everyone I've talked to or read on various posts all had the same complaints. They've said that the focus drifts, that when they zoom in all the way, set focus and then pull out, the focus doesn't hold.
A: As I mentioned briefly above, we did encounter some focus problems. I'd love to blame them all on our DP, but I'm afraid Canon's gonna have to take some of the blame. I'm not exactly sure what causes it, but some images are softer than others. Important Safety Tip: Always shoot with a field monitor which has a higher resolution than the camera your running into it! As Ross Perot would say... "focus twice, shoot once!"
Q: I would like to know if you intend to go to film. If so, did you do any tests to gauge image quality on 35mm?
A: We will transfer to film (probably 16mm due to costs) if we are accepted into any of the major festivals (I define major here as those where distributors show up looking to buy product). Not that I'm a capitalist pig, but... I'm a capitalist pig. Our goal is to SELL the film. I'm not into hauling a worn-out 16mm print from town to town in the back of a VW bus just for the sake of art. I'm hoping to pay off our investors handsomely and still have the seed money left over to begin work on Paladin Pictures' next feature.
Q: Will you edit on NLE system and transfer to film with effects, or reproduce them optically?
A: Everything will be cut on a non-linear editing system (Firemax/Adobe 5, After Effects, Pro Tools, etc.). Everything includes effects, titles, Foley, musical score, ADR, etc. and then we'll transfer it to film as an optical print. I don't know enough about optical effects to even think of venturing there.
Q: Was it shot in 16:9 (1.78:1 squeezed to 1.33:1) or standard 1.33:1?
A: For When Love Walks In we shot 1.33:1. Mainly due to not knowing whether our edit system (at the time unpurchased) would be able to handle 16:9. Looking back I wish we would have used 16:9. The beauty of all this is that you live and learn... and then you die... But at least you learn in the in-between.
Q: When you did the FilmLook processing did you shoot in Frame Movie Mode? There was a lot of interest in Frame Movie Mode at ShowBiz Expo earlier this year. It seems this show pulled the film types around Hollywood.
A: No, we didn't shoot in Frame Movie Mode. We've shot with a shutter speed of 1/60 per second (standard 30fps). The FilmLook test added the slight film grain, punched the color, did some color correction, and then added the 3:2 pulldown.
In our FilmLook test we processed interiors, exteriors, days, nights, tilts, pans, dolly shots, & handheld. Everything turned out great. The handheld shots were for a dream sequence were shot at a shutter speed of 1/30 per second. When we process the dream sequence for our final cut we will add the same grain, & color enhancements, but we won't apply the 3:2 pulldown. We'll leave the dream at a straight 30fps. The slow shutter speed combined with 1.5 ProMist filters gave the handheld dream a beautiful flowing blur. The pulldown made it more choppy.
When we started shooting this film (April) I hadn't heard much about the success of shooting in the Movie Frame Mode. Looking back (if I'd have had the time) I would have run a few tests... shooting, cutting, and FilmLook.
Then there's the FilmLook/CineLook debate. We haven't seen our final CineLook tests yet. CineLook is great, BUT you have to learn the software and there are Zillions of adjustments you can make. You also must have the hard drive space to store your master AND your Cinelook output. This is a lot of hard drive space when your talking about a 100 minute feature. You also have to have the time to render the thing... Literally weeks without ICE even on a 300mhz 9600.
FilmLook is $85 per minute for the first 30 then you hit the price break. It'll cost 6-7K for a 100 minute feature, but it will only take a day or two. Plus, you get the bonus of an experienced technician who spends every day, all day, making video look like film.
Unfortunately, in the world of true Indie filmmaking, you're continually forced to make compromises. One of ours (in the series of millions) is to use Cinelook over Filmlook. This decision was based on two things... money and money. The first issue of money was the $6-7K it would cost to run it through FilmLook. I simply don't have the money. The second issue of money is that by purchasing Cinelook today, Paladin Pictures can use it to make When Love Walks In today, but also to make more money with it tomorrow. We'll have to wait and see how it all turns out.
Q: Did you consider using some of cannon's other lenses for production? (I'm wondering if this wouldn't have solved the focus problem and allowed for follow focus).
A: No, I didn't have access to any other lenses. If I would have I would've experimented with them and put them to use where appropriate. We did use a Century Optics wide angle adapter, but not nearly as much as I originally thought I would.
For 10 years I talked about making a dramatic feature. Finally I just decided to go out and do it. It's not cheap and definitely not for the weak of heart, but it is possible... even in DV. As DV filmmakers we HAVE to go out and make features. Home movies of my daughters ballet recital are great, but if we really want to push the platform we've GOT to make serious artistic strides in DV. We're standing on the edge of a serious revolution within the film industry. Never before have Independent Films been so widely distributed and accepted. Never before have cameras like the XL1 been so good and so affordable. Filmmaking is finally coming into the hands of the people. It's now up to people like us to pick up the cameras and run with them.
We at Paladin Pictures are not the first prodco to make a DV dramatic feature. Michael Wiese (president of Michael Wiese Productions and contributing editor for Videography, who was excellent at the '98 ITVA conference, I might add) produced a DV feature on the VX1000 last year titled Coyote's Honor. I'm sure he'll sell copies to anyone who wants to see it. He also wrote a series of three great articles for Videography which gave the details of his experience. These articles were instrumental in my approach to When Love Walks In.
Our marketing folks (Spurrier Media Group) believe that we're the first to shoot a dramatic DV feature on the XL1. This may be the case, but I have no way of proving it.
Kent C. Williamson
The Watchdog adds: See the page When Love Walks In in the Image Gallery for actual frame-grabs from the production of this film. Kent's excellent report was originally posted at http://www.m2w.net/reviews/xl101.html, part of the Multimedia Workshop.