In Case of Emergency

During the planning of this series, we had some trouble casting.  Kim was totally on board but we also wanted to have a male host for half of them and no one seemed to be just right and to have the experience with wilderness first aid.  I had completed prep on the approach - we had a color palette to shoot for, we'd settled on the Arri Amira sporting vintage Zeiss Super Speed lenses.  Special make-up effects had been book and my beautiful wife had been enlisted to design the costumes.  We needed a male co-star and I fit the bill.

Production took place in an abandoned brick factory near Beacon, NY.  We alternated between hosts so that someone was always "in the chair" while the other was on camera.  I don't have a lot to say about this - it's a pretty straightforward concept and it was lots and lots of fun!

Arri Amira, Zeiss Super Speed MK2 Primes

Motherboard Studio Videos

We periodically do little projects in our studio - super quick and fun and it gives me a chance to mess around with new lights.  For these, I keyed with 2x Digital Sputnik DS-1 heads through unbleached muslin then half light grid (both stretched on 4x4 frames).  The key also served as the backlight.  For the rim, I like to dial in a Kino Select 20 at somewhere around 10% intensity.  I love the full color controls of the Digital Sputniks and the new Kinos.  Skypanels are amazing but if you don't have the budget, the Selects do a pretty great job.

There is no turntable, dolly or slider for these - all camera movement is done using little film school tricks and I think it works out pretty damn well.  Easy, quick, fun videos to do!

Canon C300mk2

Rokinon Prime Lenses

Another visit to the UN

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A little bit about MIT's SOLVE program: https://solve.mit.edu/

To cover this event, we deployed three cameras across two crews.  The idea was to go deeper with one of the contestants and still get to know a range of them across the various issues. Erica Matson and I took the early shift in lower Manhattan.  While we spent some time observing then interviewing Mohsin Mohi-Ud Din as he nervously prepared for his 3-minute presentation, our second crew including operator Chris Herde hosed down the UN and the preparations there.

During a break between presenters.

They rigged a C300 with a lens doubler and a Canon L-series 70-200 in a press box on sticks.  At the same time, Chris moved around the floor of the assembly room with a C300 and a Sigma 50-100.

When we arrived with Mohsin, we touched base then I joined Chris on the floor for the event. It lasted a few hours and...you can watch the result of Mohsin's preparations below.

I thought it was important to avoid too much polish on this subject - the documentary should be about the initiative young people are taking to better the world rather than acting as an advertisement for a program.  We opted to shoot with Canon L series zoom lenses and keep as much of the photography handheld as possible.

(3) Canon C300mki, Canon L-series zooms, Sigma 50-100. 

Malala

A few years ago, when I was a DIT in Los Angeles, I spent a few days working on David Guggenheim's documentary HE NAMED ME MALALA.  We were shooting recreations that ended up playing only for a minute or two in the final film and Malala herself was not on site.  Still, I was super proud to be a part of a project that had more depth than selling mobile phones or diapers.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Malala in person.  Ariel Wengroff and I were invited to interview her at the United Nations at the beginning of her Girl Power tour.

The aisles of the general assembly slope downwards so we had limited places to set up where Malala and Ari would be on level ground.  We settled on a landing about halfway up the floor.  I lit the scene using two Astra 1x1 bicolor lite panels.  The keylight for Malala had a softbox on it and the I used the hairlight to key the interviewer.

Canon C300mk2 & Canon C300mk1. L-Series Zoom lenses.

Art for Art's Sake

I was tapped to shoot a series of profiles for The Creators Project to be displayed at the Pulse Art Fair in Miami alongside the art of each featured artist.

I love shooting profiles because I love meeting new people and getting to know them. My approach for these pieces was to create visual rhymes between each artists' work and the world that they inhabit.  I wanted to avoid camera movement or calling any attention to the camerawork at all and just have the images flow over the viewer so that they can make their own connections.

Also, extreme closeups were vital for these pieces.  For me, so much of art making is about texture and medium and by stinging together tight shots, we were able to lend a tactile sense to the work.

I tried to stick with available light but we brought a Kino Celeb 201 and a 1x1 Astra bi-color LED panel.  The Celeb is such a dynamic light for fieldwork - it has built-in diffusion and can be dialed in to any Kelvin between 2500 and (I believe) 6500 AND has a built in dimmer right on the fixture.  For documentary work, I haven't found a better key light.

Canon C300mk1, Canon L Series Lenses

The Solitary Confinement Project

James Burns voluntarily spent 30 days in solitary confinement beginning on December 12th, 2016.  I was tapped to DoP the project and livestream the entirety of the 30 days via Youtube Live.  We also made several supplemental videos.  My write up on the process follows.

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When James told me he wanted to spend thirty days in solitary confinement, I got angry. I already knew a little bit about his prior experience with the justice system. It seemed to me that he was putting himself through unnecessary hardship. We discussed it at length. He explained the potential for good the project had and I was soon convinced.  I continue to be so honored that he felt I was the right person to help him achieve it.

 

Once we’d resolved to do the project, I was then faced with the challenge of how to do the project. The easiest way to make it happen would be to tap into the existing cameras in the cell block.  We traveled to Parker, Arizona to scout the jail there. There were two cameras in the hallway outside the cell and one in an overhead nook inside.  They were all grainy, black and white, 4x3, standard definition images from high-angles.  These factors led to a sense of removal from the cell - of “other-ness," that we wanted to fight.  We wanted to make the“other,” familiar. We wanted to re-sensistize people to the reality of incarceration and isolation.

 

This led me to a few technical priorities:

 

  • We needed to shoot in a frame rate of 24 frames per second to achieve cinematic motion blur and move away from the electronic sharpness of 30 or 60 frame video.

  • We needed to bring the camera angles down closer to eye level.

  • We needed to shoot in color.

  • We needed to shoot in high definition with even exposure so that nothing was concealed.

 

Due to the limited budget and accelerated prep schedule, we also needed to build a system that could be remotely operated.

 

We contracted the services of Advanced Systems Group to assist with the livestream architecture and location build.  Our team from ASG included Andy Darcy, Matt Minnihan and Brent Kennedy who did the build-out, and Chris Keath without whose energy, intelligence and creativity this would not have been possible.

 

These considerations, combined with the budgetary limitations, restricted the number of camera systems we could use. It came down to two systems that had the right form factor, remote-operation and the ability to set framerate to 23.976fps: The AJA RovoCam and the Blackmagic Design Micro Studio 4k.  We settled on the Blackmagic system because of the ATEM switcher with SDI camera control, the smaller size of the BMD Micro Studios and the price. Lenses were selected based on spec provided by BMD indicating which lenses would allow for remote iris and focus control.  Due to the Micro Studio 4k’s crop factor, I settled on an 8mm fisheye for the master and a 14mm prime for the coverage angle.

 

The jail itself is based on a pod-system with a central panopticon-esque tower that controls everything in the facility.  In order to tap into their systems and also set up our own, the most logical place for our rack was a utility room directly above the central tower.  It was only accessible by taking a series of ladders to the roof, walking across to an alarmed, locked and guarded access hatch and dropping down inside.  The jail staff - Karl and Gerry - graciously offered to pull cable for us from the cell that James would be living in back to the utility room.

We wound up pulling six different HD-SDI runs which we fed through the air vent and manually terminated on-site in the two days prior to going live. We also wound up running a single Cat5e cable which I’ll explain later.  We were lucky that the available cell was right next to an access panel into the ventilation and electrical systems so we could house some of our power right by the cell.

 

We installed the switching and broadcasting components in a half-rack case in the sheriff’s conference room and tested it for a few days.  When the time came, we hoisted the whole case up through a hatch in the ceiling of the tower and plugged everything in.  The SDI runs went into a Blackmagic Design ATEM switcher.  We also wanted to tap into the jail’s camera feeds for times when James was not in his cell (we were unable to place cameras outside his cell as there were going to be other inmates with access to them). For that, we took encrypted composite video runs up from the jail’s tower system into a DVR/decryption deck, ran that signal through a Decimator MD-HX and into the ATEM. The ATEM was controlled by redundant MacMini’s with an attached Synology 12TB NAS.  We also had an AJA KiPro for manually capturing key moments in various flavors of ProRes.  The ATEM pushed its signal to dual Matrox Monoarch HDX’s, again to maintain redundancy which would then push an RTMP feed to Youtube Live.  Finally, the Matrox boxes were configured to record program feed at 10mbps h.264 directly to the NAS, segmenting every hour.  We were in talks to work with various CDN services but due to the extremely accelerated prep time, none of them felt confident that they could implement in time.

 

Finally - that Cat5e cable from the cell.  I ordered an Axis M1034-W home security IP camera.  It has 720p resolution and a built-in mic.  We plugged the Cat5e into that as a last-ditch backup camera in the cell and ran the ethernet back directly into our cable modem.  From there, I installed Camstreamer - a consumer app that rips the RTSP feed from the Axis camera and pushes it directly to YouTube live.  This meant that our only non-redundant point in the stream was the ISP (Frontier Communications) who informed us that there was no scheduled down-time in December or January.

 

I want to talk for one moment about the schedule for this prep and production.  James put 8 months of legwork into the prep but due to a number of factors that, frankly, are above my pay grade, we weren’t sure if this was going to happen until about two weeks before we hit “Start Streaming.”  We had some ideas in place about how to do it but nothing was concrete.  We got the greenlight on Monday, November 28th, 2016.  It was important for all of us to do the project before the president-elect took office on January 20th due to that person’s insistence on using various forms of torture (including waterboarding and isolation of juveniles) against citizens of the United States serving time in the penal system.  Working backwards, that meant we’d need James to go in, at the latest, on December 19th.  To give us a little more clearance from the Trump media circus, we settled on December 12th.

 

The first week of prep was a flurry of meeting and emails to get the whole team on the same page.  We met with ASG and architected the system on December 1st, ordered the parts on December 6th and began the install on December 8th.  We completed the install on December 11th - just 24 hours before going live - and spent the remaining time testing and keeping our fingers crossed.

 

It was a challenge to get it all done and running in the time allotted but the team involved was completely focused and supportive of each other.

 

On a personal level, the system implementation turned out to be the easy part.  James and I spent his last day of freedom together in Parker, AZ.  We had amazing lunch at the local carniceria. He made phone calls to his friends and family.  Then I did my usual thing and hoisted a camera up on my shoulder to film the booking process.  I did not expect the level of emotion that I experienced seeing my friend walk out of the showers wearing prison orange.  My wife the costume designer always told me that the clothes can make the man but I never experienced it on such a visceral level until I saw James in that jumpsuit.  His posture had changed - slumped almost instantly - and his face was drawn and tight.  He was trying to maintain his usual bright, thoughtful demeanor but anyone could see that the clothing and the process of relinquishing his freedom were weighing on his mind. I became suddenly aware that I was to be the last familiar face he’d be seeing for a while.  I put the camera down and we spoke for a while.  I took his picture on my phone - just to have it.

 

The time came and the guards gave him his bedroll, towel and hygiene items. We walked down the long hallway to Henry block.  I meant to get some bullshit film student shot of the door closing him off but I found that I had to follow him into the pod.  At the top of the stairs outside his cell, James turned and caught my eye.  Without saying anything, he nodded.  I looked around from my camera - my shield - and nodded silently back.  Then - I got that shot of the door slamming shut.

 

Cameras: Blackmagic Design Micro Studio 4k, Canon C300, Canon 5Dmkii, Axis M1034-W.


Lenses: Panasonic Lumix G MFT 8mm and 14mm, Canon L-Series 24mm-105mm IS USM

Ex-Marines Smoking Marijuana

However you may feel about politicians droning on and on about veterans, the truth is that actual veterans are by and large pretty amazing people. Especially guys from Marines infantry units who saw actual real life combat. I've been privileged enough to work with some of these guys through family, friends, as stuntmen in Hollywood (maintaining muzzle discipline even with rubber guns!)

The dudes at Iron Protection Group in Denver, CO are on another level.  Returning from combat, suffering from wounds, injuries and PTSD, these guys fell back on their military training to find their way and make a business.  Just watch the film to see.

Shot primarily on a C300mk2 using Canon L-Series zoom lenses and Rokinon primes. We also utilized a 3DR drone and a DJI Osmo for select sequences and shots.  The really pretty closeups of fields of weed were shot on an adapted Nikkor 55mm/f1.2 that I love to mess around with.

The New Jersey Weedman

We drove out to Trenton, NJ to talk with Ed Forchion about his cannabis religion.  He's using the constitutional separation of church and state to challenge prohibition of marijuana-as-sacrement.  He's done this before.

I haven't done a tone of drone work but I was extremely impressed by the 3DR. It lacks a lot of the image fidelity of a Phantom 3 or an Inspire but its super easy to use in the field and has a lot of robust, automatic flight controls.

C300mk2s, 3DR drone with GoPro Hero 3, DJI OSMO.

My First Huff Post write up

A few weeks ago, my good friend Aaron asked me to shoot a short series of parody videos with the comedy pair Coker and Stratton poking fun at the younger Trump brothers Donald and Eric.  We shot four scripted pieces, three promos and a ten-minute single shot of the Trump boys eating KFC extra crispy.  It was a pretty good Saturday!

Today, they released the videos and we were lucky enough to get a write up in the Huffington Post!  Pretty cool!

These were shot with the RED Epic Dragon in 6k at 12:1. We utilized Cooke S4 prime lenses, living mostly on the 50mm and the 35mm but grabbing a few of the wider or longer end of the range for the walk-and-talks or the inserts.

Lighting came courtesy of The Sodium Ranch and we kept it simple - a 4x4 Kino Bank (usually draped with unbleached muslin) and a Joker 800 through various frames and flags. Our intention with lighting in the office location was to augment the available overhead lighting and yield what Aaron and I called a "pretty ugly" aesthetic.  Pretty.  But ugly.

We wanted as much sweat shine from the boys as possible.  And we got it.  Enjoy!

Taking Photos of Metallica!!

One of my favorite people at Vice is Kim Kelly. She does the heavy metal and country western beat over at noisey.com and also allowed me to dress her up like an apocalypse survivor and teach first aid in an abandoned factory. Confusing, yes. Awesome, also yes.

Kim called me the other day and informed me that I'd be accompanying her to a Metallica show (yay) at the relatively tiny venue Webster Hall (aka, not a stadium/arena/Super Bowl) and furthermore, I'd be photographing them (oh happy day).

Here are the results: 

https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/metallica-are-so-friggin-good-at-being-metallica

 

 

 

Burning Old Films

I traveled to Rochester with producers Annelise Ogaard and Akil Gibbons to visit the George Eastman House and torch a bunch of hopeless nitrocellulose.  Until 1951, film stock was made by dissolving cotton in nitroglycerine.  The result was a strong, clear plastic with the same properties as gun cotton or flash paper.  When it was exposed to too much heat (like, a carbon arc flame in a projector) it had a tendency burn rapidly.  It creates its own oxygen so it can even burn underwater.  We lit some on fire and shot it at 120fps. Enjoy.