Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Seaplanes, speedboats, soccer, chinese food, earthquakes and malnutrition'd children (and director)

While the Red One MX/Epic/Alexa/F3 battles in my head were finally put to rest, thanks to some input from Ms Sara Liza Baumann, she did convince me to help her go shoot part of her Save the Children documentary in Barisal, a small town south of the capital.

I have never been there before, so I really I had no idea what was in store for me. Firstly, I was thrilled to get on a seaplane again, since Barisal only has an abandoned airport and amphibious air transport is currently the safest option to get there. Its been ages since I got on a Cessna airplane (as my faded PPL would indicate). But within 20 mins after taking off in Dhaka, Capt. Emille got us down on Barisal waters. Then came the speedboat that picked us up from the plane. Now these aren't the Scarabs you LA peeps see up by Santa Monica pier either. Think of them as Kawasaki superbike engines put on rickety ass (locally built) mini SUVs, i.e they pack a punch but are unstable as hell.

We got to the jetty, met the Save the Children peeps and were down in the mud and rain shooting within an hour. This was Ms Baumann's new 5D Mk II's first gig. She decided to name him Max. Along with Marisa (my 7D) we began shooting the doc. The 5D was pretty much the A Cam used for the interviews armed with a Rode VideoMic, on a tripod and the 7D was handheld, shouldermounted by yours truly as the B cam. I came up with a way of making my own steadicam, handheld and shouldermount all-in-one system using a Noga Israeli Arm and a RedRock shouldermount. Change the arm settings to 90 degrees vertical and you have a steadicam with the shoulderpad acting as a balance for the 7D, or the 180 degree horizontal and you have a shoulder mount and finally a V shaped arm making a chest support that helps in unwanted shakes when taking handheld shots. Yeah, ingenious....I know.

We sometimes shot in the pouring rain and sometimes in extreme heat and humid conditions. Max and Marisa never dropped a beat or frame for that matter. These DSLRs are beasts. Good job Canon. Also, Baumann only had one spare battery and I had none. Only 3 16GB CF Cards were used. We shot for 3 days and ended up with about 200GB worth of data getting every shot that was needed and sometimes even more. Shooting conditions weren't ideal. Lots of mud making movement kinda hard. The indoors were dark, since these houses can only have one 50-100W bulb on at any given time. Having a blonde director made the locals flock over and ruin almost all my steadicam shots. At one time I even had to get on the hood of a moving minivan since we didn't have a dolly. Improvise, implement and execute.

Then there were the other stuff. You see these UNICEF ads on TV all the time. They show these little kids, suffering from diseases and malnutrition. You feel for them and then move on and do your daily thing. Maybe sometimes you even donate. But when you're 3 feet away from a near dead baby and visibly feel the situation, boy is it different. I try to keep this blog about film related posts (most of the time) but to all those who are reading this, please donate whatever you can to your nearest health organization. I personally guarantee you that: a) it'll be put to great use b) these people really need it and c) you owe it to the world you live in d) I promise to dance in your wedding (which, if you know me, is not an easy thing to get me to do)

There were some other stuff that happened too. We found a great Chinese restaurant and the waiter was awesome and even served us beer, risking his job (cause local restaurants can't serve alcohol without a license). There was a minor earthquake that freaked out my director. The director herself became anaemic and had me freaked out, so I had to force her to take iron pills (thanks Pops). We took an evening walk through a village neighborhood and the local kids forced me to play soccer with em after I dazzled them with some Ronaldo-like moves on the street. They might have not gotten the chance to see Messi, but they sure got to see some MK. Btw, the tea in Barisal sucks.

All in all, another shoot done. I was really happy with the results, depressed with the many problems infants face in these remote areas, glad for organizations like Save the Children caring for these kids and with so much time without any internet, without my favorite TV channels on TV and a semi-lonely hotel room, got some insights on the foreseeable future. And thanks to my mom for suggesting a name for the new camera I plan to buy. What is it you ask? Thats a another post for another day.......

Sunday, September 4, 2011

New camera woes.....even before I get one

Hello, my name is Mehran and I'm a cameraholic.

Its been a week. A week since I've last slept properly and yes, I'm on vacation. Given my line of work RnR is something that I really look forward to. More than 4 hours of sleep is a luxury I can only afford when I'm on vacation. I just quit nicotine too, so that doesn't help. Why do I keep tossing and turning in my sleep? Its easy.....a new camera system I'm about to purchase.

I've lived on one general principal so far: don't worry about tomorrow, as tomorrow takes care of itself. It has gotten me through relationship issues, exams, numerous "life changing" injuries and any other thing that has been thrown at me. My "code" made me snore off any such challenges. Sleep it off and start again tomorrow and carpe diem baby. Now I can't even do that.

The good thing is, if you're a digital filmmaker, life cannot be any better. RED has the EPIC and the RED ONE MX, ARRI has the ALEXA, Sony just came up with the F3 and the list goes on. Remember the days you were just happy shooting an HVX? Seems so long ago. Now your camera is a joke unless it has 13 stops of Dynamic Range, 2K-4K-5K, 100+fps.....the list goes on. The bad thing is, when you have about a $100K saved up and all the above are options, which one do you get?

Two years ago when I bought "Nicole", my CineAlta, the choice was kinda obvious. The EX-1R with an external recorder, Zeiss lenses and a RedRock Micro lens converter. It wasn't crazy expensive and it got the job done, done extremely well. Unlike the RED that was available at the time, it didn't shut down when it overheated in the crazy weather in Bangladesh, or produce "plastic-y" images. It gave a more organic look than the Panasonics and it carried the "CineAlta" name (read my earlier post about the intro of "Nicole" into the Bangladeshi industry against 35mm).

Now, two years later, "Nicole" is on the verge of being sold, just awaiting on her payment. Once she gets adopted, her new owner will be on his way to renting her out and making bank. While her old owner will have about a month to decide on his next camera that is going to debut in a short being shot in Traverse City, Michigan before coming back with me and residing as the new digital powerhouse in Bangladesh.

But I digress. The reason I'm writing this blog is because of the anxiousness of the question I'm facing everyday.....what the hell do I buy??? My choice has narrowed down to one of these 4 cameras.
The RED EPIC, the RED ONE MX, the ARRI ALEXA and the Sony F3 with S-Log/444 enabled.

As a Fincher fan, you'd probably think I was swaying RED all the way. I kinda am. I saw the Social Network (shot on the MX) on the big screen, it looked awesome. I just saw The Winter's Bone and Beginners (thanks Rikhia!!) on DVD, both shot on MX and both looked awesome. Its the closest to 35mm I'd seen in quite some time. Truly, RED finally put a camera out there that I didn't laugh at (not a good thing btw) when I saw the images. So its easy to say that the RED ONE MX is really high on my list. Then RED drops a bombshell by coming up with the new EPIC. It has the same sensor as the MX but, it produces a cleaner image with less noise, Dynamic Range increased by a stop and of course 5K instead of the MX's 4.5K. Plus it can go to 300fps, is only 5lbs, about the size of a DSLR, doesn't chew up the battery like the MX and loads up in 10 seconds, whereas the MX loads up in nearly 2mins. Even Fincher is shooting with em. He's got 5 and along with the MX, he's finished up Dragon Tattoo. So I scratch my plan for the MX and now I'm thinking EPIC. But wait.....further reading.....the EPIC has its own problems. Firstly, it has no playback. Right, no playback, on camera. So to view your last take, you gotta get some external recorder, just for freakin playback. They say that they are working on it and "its right around the corner" and "no hardware will be required", but RED's motto has been "everything we say can change, anytime". So that scares me. Then I think about the first generation of Red Ones (non MXs). They used to have so many problems until RED finally addressed them and finally after 2 years came up with the MX, which truly had better images. Is this gonna happen again with the EPIC? Initial reports say no. The RED ONE MX has made movies (that I love and adore) but the EPIC is currently making movies (Spiderman, Hobbit) that I haven't seen. The EPIC is new. Bugs will appear as it does with anything new. The MX however is tried and tested. As far as image goes, the only thing I can go by are indie shorts on Vimeo that look marginally better than the MX, so not really worth about double the price tag. Sigh....now I'm thinking MX again.

Then there is the ARRI ALEXA. The camera 35mm enthusiast and Coen Bros. DP Roger Deakins swears by as the celluloid killer. For $80K+ it better kill something, apart from your mortgages. But price isn't the only issue here. In a world where RED is throwing K's at you like Roy Halladay in October (sorry non baseball fans), the Alexa is still 1080p. Good enough for my world but down the line when I'm making (God willing) a movie to put up on a theater? Of course you may argue many 1080p movies have been on cinemas so far (Avatar, nuff said). However, I read more again and find out that for the best possible results, the ALEXA needs to record ARRIRAW on an external recorder, which costs $50K itself. Ouch. This doesn't affect the Dynamic Range of this baby, which btw is ridonculous (its 14 stops, no wonder Mr Deakins loves it so much), but it records (compressed) Pro Res (444 or 422) onto SxS cards. But raw images are so much fun to work with, fun enough for an extra $50K, don't think so. You do get the ARRI name with it though. In this country thats worth its weight in gold (which is kinda high now, as my mom keeps reminding us). In Bangladesh, the name ARRI produces what I like to call, a filmmaker's boner.

Last, but not least, there is the lil beast from Sony called the F3. Continuing the love I have for the CineAlta series, this baby caught my eye. The "big-daddy" F35 is still one of my favorite cameras. The F3 with the new upgrade that enables S-Log and the 444 output puts it right up there with the F35. At about 1/4th the price. Which means more new furniture for my soon-to-be apartment and possibly more money in my Audi/Porsche fund. The F3 is being hailed by many as the baby ALEXA. It has more Dynamic Range than the EPIC (without the HDRx, which is another story, but from what I've seen HDRx on the EPIC is something I'd stay away from as it makes the final image look kinda bad) and second only to the ALEXA. The F3 is actually more low light sensitive than the ALEXA. I'll need to get an external recorder though, but Convergent Design has the Gemini 444 coming out (interesting story, I got a text from a local camera rental company in Dhaka saying that they already have one, which is weird since the thing is not even out yet....hmmmm.....) which will record uncompressed S-Log/444 from the F3 onto SSDs. All Sonys come with one thing for sure. It'll be bug-less and reliable. Wont shut down even in extreme heat/humidity. But at the end of the day it still is 1080p, just like the ALEXA. Not future-proof.

So I take into account all these factors and I'm still sleepless and scratching my head. Just talking about the RED (EPIC or MX) made one director start jumping up in joy and start posting on Facebook about shooting on RED. A recent client pushed back my shoot to accommodate the RED, with a nice grin on his face. The guy buying my "old" camera had this to say, "RED!! WOW!! Isn't that camera like ten million taka (or $150K)?" That's what Jim Jannard's company has done. RED now means "business". Fincher, Pirates 4, Soderberg shoots on it, so it must be good. It really is. People here are still mystified by the RED. There are a couple of non-MX Red Ones around here. People have used it and rightly haven't been satisfied. So unless its not an EPIC, they won't understand that its a "new" camera. Then I'm spending 20 mins more just replaying the damn footage as it has no playback. I could get the F3 but there are some non S-Log F3s around as well. Some clients won't even care about the extra features. From a business perspective they'll think about the F3 and the RED ONE MX as its already been here for a while, why pay more (ala the CineAlta syndrome I previously had)? So, I could get the ALEXA and have clients slob all over it and charge ridiculous rates, only knowing that option and the 1080p might also be possible with a camera worth $60K less, so it'll hurt me on the inside. So it comes down to business vs Fincher vs functionality/reliability. As of right now, there are no clear winners. So if you're reading this, please make one for me. Which one would you buy? Oh yeah, I'll need a name for the new cam, whatever it is, got any??