Natural Light Tabletop with Pixel 2

Natural Light Tabletop with Pixel 2

I’ve been picking up a few shots for a curriculum I’m working on with some other folk. The lessons are designed to help media organizations and individuals to learn, and then to pass on, important skills in content production using mobile devices.

These shots will be part of lessons on capturing still images using a mobile device. I’m collecting screen shots and many, many photos to use as examples in the curriculum.

Keeping the gear to a minimum, just window light on my dining room table and a little tripod for the phone. The goal is to help people anywhere, with any device, create nice content.

 

Orchid Arboretums in 360 VR

A little fun with my (now-ancient!) Ricoh Theta SC VR camera.

I had part of a morning in Thailand to explore the Tweechol Botanic Garden outside Chiang Mai. I’ve been there several times and love to walk around the many garden sections. I hadn’t been inside these arboretums in the past, and love these kinds of environments.

This is a little walk-through in 360VR. The video quality isn’t great because of the limitations of this older camera. Pondering an upgrade now… 😉


My “Best Kit” for Mobile Production

I was prepping last week for a short trip to Asia. As I was sorting gear, I thought I’d write a bit here about what I chose to take, and why. Here’s the layout.

mobile gear layout 2

One of the things I’ll be doing on this trip is introducing co-workers to opportunities to use mobile devices and simple gear to create compelling content for their varied audiences. I decided to bring some examples of gear from what I’ve collected over the years.

I want to over the key technical needs for video, audio, lights, and mounting a mobile as a camera. I also want a kit that will fit in a small camera bag that will then slip into my normal carry-on. I’m thinking one-person-band like many of us in the mojo world.


full rig vert 2

Full Rig: I am thinking of mostly run-and-gun shooting, with lots of handheld shots, easily transported, but also something I can set down for a longer shot, like an interview or event, if needed. Of course, I might often choose to strip this down to a few pieces for even more mobility.

My kit ended up being mix-and-match from different manufacturers, but I’ll explain why I chose what I did and spec some models if you want to check them out for yourself. I’m not sponsored by anyone and this is all stuff I’ve picked up over the last few years. There may be some new options that you can also check out based on this list. Create your own “ideal kit.”

 


Basemanfrotto tripod: When I want to set this all down for either a steady shot or just between shots, a nice small tripod is essential. I’m using a Manfrotto Pixi Mini tripod for this one. It’s beautifully designed, very compact and solid. The best part for me is how it feels when I fold the legs and handhold it as a support. It also has quick, one-button leveling. It’s not as infinitely flexible as something like a Gorillapod, but it’s a neater package. If I know I’m going to need to mount my camera on a tree branch or light post, I’d bring my Gorillapod.


shoulderpod handle

Phone Mount: For traditional (horizontal) video production, I really like this mash-up. I’m using a Shoulderpod H1 handle, topped by a Movo PR-1 smartphone grip rig. You can see that I’m also using the Shoulderpod short plate arm when I want to have a mic and light mounted to the rig. I love the Shoulderpod gear. It’s elegant and very high quality. The feel of this handle is great by itself and reminds me of my film shooting days with Aaton cameras and their famous wooden grip. Of course, Shoulderpod also makes a nice grip for a phone as well and it comes as a kit with this handle. But their clamp (at least the original model I have) is missing one important feature – a cold shoe. If I want to go really compact, with just a phone and a small movo grip topshotgun mic, the Movo clamp has a convenient cold shoe to let me just mount the mic (or anything else) up top, and I’m ready to go. With a Shoulderpod and other clamps, I have to add an arm. So, kudos to Movo for adding the shoe, and a handy bubble level. Maybe it’s not as pretty, but I’ll take it. (Movo’s handle, on the other hand, is a short little thing that’s harder to hold. Go figure; mix it up.)


rode videomicroAudio: For on-the-go news and documentary filmmaking, or for capturing b-roll shots, I want a good external microphone. This one is Rode’s Videomicro mini shotgun mic (with their SC7 cable to make compatible with a smartphone.) It’s a big improvement on the phone’s mics and well worth the investment. I can mount it on the phone clamp or on an extension arm, cage, etc. Connecting the mic to a phone like my Google Pixel 2 requires adding a 3.5mm to USB-C dongle. That’s becoming more common. I also add a Rode SC6 adaptor. I audio connections horizlike to monitor audio while I’m filming, especially for interviews. The SC6 lets me connect two mics – like a shotgun and an Aputure A.lav microphone (shown in the gear layout) or two lavalier mics. Plus, I can monitor through its headphone jack.

 

 


aputure led light

Lights: I generally shoot with existing light unless I’m making a scripted, narrative film. But having a small LED light can be very helpful as a supplement for news and doc shoots. This Aputure AL-M9 is small, rechargeable, color-accurate, and dimmable. Their color correcting gels are pretty lame, but, oh well. I would bring a larger LED panel if I’m really trying to light something and so more color adjustment.


sirui tele lensCase and Lens: For a compact and really solid kit, I really like the Moment photo case. They make them for some of the higher-end phones. I don’t like to mess with clip-on lenses if I’m trying to travel small. Again, I’m cheating here by using a Moment case with a Sirui lens. (I’m killing my product endorsement opportunities here, I know!) When I got my Moment case for the Pixel 2, I also ordered the Moment 2x tele lens. That first version from Moment was really pitched as an ‘art’ lens because it was so soft at the edges. (Their new version looks really sweet and they’ve re-engineered the lens for much better image quality, so it’s worth checking out.)  But, when I needed a tele lens, Sirui had a 60mm (2x) tele lens that looks great and mounts on the Moment case. If you are looking today, I think either lens is a good choice – with Sirui being a more budget-friendly option. I carry the tele lens most of the time and not always a wide angle because the Pixel 2 is pretty wide already. This is still for the world of single-lens phones; the add-on lenses do interesting things with more recent multi-lens cameras, so check them out.

There you have it – my running rig. I build it up and down as I need it. And it fits easily in a small camera bag.

This is what’s in my closet and carry-on for simple but effective shooting. I bet there are things you may like and recommend. What say you?

A Few Thoughts on “The Limit” – New VR film from Robert Rodriguez

I’m looking for a narrative VR film I can really love and want to watch over and over again. Could it be, “The Limit?”

“The Limit” is Robert Rodriguez’ latest entry into the world of narrative filmmaking using VR technology. Released on November 20, 2018, it’s an action film that takes the audience on a brief journey to find out why some bad guys are chasing “us.” It’s not much more than that. It’s fun, but in the end not very ambitious as storytelling. Rodriguez, joined by his son, Racer on this outing, isn’t known for his thoughtful character dramas, but for action and trying new things. This film reflects those values. It’s a non-stop action sequence, with only a few moments of relief. For action fans, it may be the next thing. Or?

Let’s Talk Story
The story begins with “us” (the viewer) sitting in a bar, and meeting M-13 (Michelle Rodriquez) who is obviously a badass waitress. The filmmakers take little time to set up anything, but we quickly learn that we can’t speak and have some kind of AR “enhancements” that enable us to see bad guys. Other than that, we have no idea why we’re here. If you read the synopsis for the film, you’ll discover that we are “…a rogue agent with a mysterious past…” — whatever.

We are quickly forced to flee said bad guys with M-13. After that, we mostly get shot, help drive her Jeep, and suffer repeated blackouts after bad things happen to us. But, for some reason, we don’t seem to die from anything we suffer, including a gunshot to the stomach and a freefall from an airplane. Guess that all needs some explanation, which M-13 gladly gives in a long static monologue that tries to fill in a few details in an attempt to convince us that this all matters for some reason. Oh, we’re kind of alike. And now she’s got a plan and goal for herself. Finally! But it mostly involves us walking in to a poorly defended warehouse, killing the stupid henchmen, and confronting the Big Bad Guy (played by Norman Reedus of Walking Dead fame.) He wants something we’ve got, of course. A kind of slow, pitiful chase ensues. We have another blackout. But then there’s a twist ending. You get the idea. Oh, and the story will continue. Theoretically. If anyone would shell out for more. I’m not convinced they’ve given us anything to hope for. Michelle is badass and they treat her pretty well in terms of not really playing on her sexuality. Points for that.

Ultimately, as with many films in this genre, the story suffers for the sake of the experience. Why does this have to be? I’d call it more of a ‘ride-along’ experience. We (the audience) are immersed in the action but are almost completely passive characters, only taking initiative for a moment toward the end. So, we get to watch M-13, the real Protagonist, go through her journey that our appearance at the beginning seems to spark.

The problem with this, and many stories, is that we have no reason to care. We don’t know who we are, or who she is, other than a little backstory and a twist at the end. The stakes aren’t even that high for most of the film because it seems that we can just get shot, survive a car crash, a freefall from a plane, etc., and it’s no big deal. Guess “we’re” pretty badass, too. But “we” don’t say or think much of anything the whole time.

On the medium and techniques used in “The Limit.”
Just a note for would-be viewers; it’s not full 360 VR, more like 180 in a custom “Surreal Theater” that does fill in the other 180 with a dark cineplex, in case you want to see how cool it is to be alone in a dark cineplex.

It’s not an open world by any stretch. The directors choose and maintain our focus using the camera as in traditional cinema and it’s a completely linear timeline. The main difference here is the increased sense of immersion and some ability to look around a limited frame. I think it works pretty well, and it seems to me to be the best option for story-telling. If you let the audience just wander around, it’s hard to create a narrative flow and pacing. That works for exploring worlds in a game setting, but I don’t think we humans will lose our enjoyment of and desire for stories to be told to us. I’m not alone in thinking about ways to guide a viewer, using other cues (visual & auditory) to direct attention but without locking an audience’s POV one frame. But it’s a big challenge, to be sure. The directors do choose to pull us out of the POV a few times so we can watch ourselves drive away, etc. Also, they cut to insert shots that are from our POV, but are done in traditional cuts rather than “moving” us closer. It works fine.

Our character cannot speak for some reason. We communicate, very little, via some kind of text screen, but I can’t figure out where it may be located, if our body and face are supposed to be normal looking. At the beginning the logic doesn’t work. Maybe it begins to make sense later (spoiler!) when M-13 reveals that she’s also a biconically enhanced person. Can she see our communications in a kind of heads-up AR display?

The main problem with a lack of our ability to communicate is that the film is mostly a monologue by M-13. It gets really tedious when she has a long exposition scene where she puts the pieces together for herself and for us. Was this just lazy on the part of the writers, or an inherent limitation of the medium?

Final observation; my feeling is that running time on an immersive VR action film must be kept short. This film is really about 15 mins of actual narrative and Rodriquez made a good decision to keep it brief. Because the viewer is immersed and can’t control their point of view much, the intense action and motion will certainly cause some queasiness for many viewers. It did for me. I could never watch a feature length film without breaks if it is shot in this style. Maybe with some downtime scenes? I’m sure they took that into consideration, but it’s something for all of us to consider if we’re planning a VR film. On that note, an immersive story without all of the intense action is likely just fine for a longer run time. Then, the challenge is to have a real story. And, does anyone want to watch a ‘talky’ character drama in VR? Perhaps?

Other notes: I watched the 3D version on an Oculus Go headset. The film is delivered as an app from the Occulus story and includes a lot of behind-the-scenes material that I think will be fun to watch. The app download is pretty big, over 3GB,ut it’s not a problem to me. You can watch this sitting in a chair as the film is not a full 360 experience.

Why Use a Director’s Viewfinder? – A Tutorial in VR

Here’s a quick explanation of how I use director’s viewfinders – either physical finders (like the Alan Gordon Mark Vb) or smartphone apps (like the Artemis Director’s Viewfinder)

 

Note: I’m playing with VR/360video a bit more and getting my filmmaker’s brain around ways to use it for different kinds of stories. This isn’t really a story, but I got an urge to do a very quick tutorial in VR.

This hastily shot draft gives me ideas for the future. What do you think, does VR add, or detract from the experience? I’m already making my list of things I’d do differently, or add to the next one.

We’re all still learning here.

[Update: YouTube VR is now available on headsets like Occulus Go. You can watch it there, in Occulus, using this link: https://youtu.be/kayay5yl3nM ]

[Production Notes: I shot this with a very basic Ricoh Theta SC camera. I recorded the audio double-system, using a small smartphone lav mic plugged into a spare iPhone 4S sitting behind me on the chair. I synced the sound in Adobe Premiere CC and edited the clips there, exporting and uploading straight to Vimeo for hosting.]

What’s the Best Use of Mobiles in Media Production for Ministries?

There is a lot of chatter these days about the capabilities of mobile devices (phones and tablets) for media production. Journalists for newspapers and local TV stations are now trained to create, file and share their stories all from their mobile phone. Filmmakers as influential as Stephen Soderberg are even embracing mobile devices for big-screen Hollywood projects. What should ministries being encouraging their members to do with the media creation potential they hold in their hand?

I want to encourage people to launch out and start creating and sharing media with their mobiles and I think there is a best use for mobiles in media production. That is the creation of timely, “good enough” content, that places an emphasis on true engagement with an audience.

I’m not saying that a mobile, like a recent iPhone or Android phone can’t do almost everything a filmmaker could want to do. I’m saying that, for most media content creators, there are a few key areas where mobiles make the most sense.

Filming with Pixel 2 in Thailand
Going mobile in Thailand with a Pixel 2, Rode mic, Movo mount, and Manfrotto tripod.

Let me set up a context for what I’m saying. First, my ministry focus is the use of visual story media, shared mostly via social media channels, for the specific purpose of engaging audiences in spiritual conversations – not typically for entertainment or advertising.

Second, one of my roles is teaching ministries how to create compelling content using whatever resources they have at hand. That generally means mobile devices, inexpensive DSLR cameras or camcorders.

I recently spent a week in Asia with a group of students from about a dozen countries. Some were very experienced in media production, and some were novices. We were teaching a mobile-only approach to content creation. That is, the videos and other visual content we made were shot, edited, and distributed using only a mobile device. The following suggestions come from our experience and pushing to see if there are some practical “limits” on what we should be trying to achieve in a mobile-only approach.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t get bogged down with highly planned, complex content. Use a mobile-only approach for creative, immediate, relevant, authentic content. Look at many influencers on places like YouTube. They aren’t creating really deep and complex content, but often focus on generating lots of content quickly, with compelling creative ideas. Most don’t create really complicated mini film projects for every post.
  • Emphasize immediacy and authenticity. Shoot current and cultural events with still and video clips, create very brief vlog-style testimonials and stories, then post your content quickly. Listen to conversations people are having, off and on-line, and join in the conversation with your own content, without delay. Authenticity is a real value held by most people – even if they follow pop stars. Pop stars will carefully curate a portion of their social media, but they also mix in more impromptu content as a way to make themselves seem more approachable, like you’re their new best friend out of 6 million followers!
  • If you have media professionals on your team, try to avoid paralysis by perfectionism! How can my God-given care for quality be a problem? When it effectively paralyzes me or delays the distribution of content because I want to “do it right.” In this case, doing it right may be exactly the wrong thing. Discipline yourselves to create quick-turnaround content that will encourage on-going engagement with your audience while you work on deeper, more complex content. Get it done and out into the conversation.
  • Overall, as you plan a content strategy, it’s wise to include a mix of immediate, less complex content, with some pieces that are more complex and deeper. We want to present competence and trustworthiness, but also approachability. As we think of our engagement strategies, let’s look ahead and develop some content that is well-planned and deeper, but also plan for the more frequent creation of spontaneous content that gives that balance.
Beastgrip Rig
Tricking out an iPhone with a Beastgrip mount, Rode shotgun mic, lens adaptor, and Tamron 24-70mm lens.

Ultimately, who am I to argue with Stephen Soderberg? Of course there is a place to take advantage of a small, inexpensive, good quality device for some larger projects, even narrative feature films. So go ahead and pull out your mobile device (with $2000 worth of accessories!) to serve as a camera on a larger project, especially if mobility and low-profile is a need. But for that complex project, it’s advisable to pass on the rest of the production and post-production work to other devices, like laptops and desktop computers. They just have the power and sophisticated tools to make it more effective.

HOWEVER, by all means we should be using our amazing cameras and apps to create immediate, creative, relevant, authentic content.

Professional Video Apps for Android Devices – Do they exist?!

(Updated 17 February 2018)

I’m happy to say that, after a long time of lagging behind the iOS world, Android devices and apps are finally available to enable professional production on this platform.

And, because most people in the world are using an Android device, it makes sense to think about recommendations to help them, especially non-professional media creators, to choose the best tools for their video content.

For serious video content production, you may want to consider a video-specific app. While almost every general camera app allows you to choose still image capture or video capture (maybe even animated GIF and other formats) there are a few dedicated apps that only shoot video. I highly recommend checking these out, even if they add an app to your collection (who can resist just one more app?!)

Why would you choose a video-only app?

One reason is because a good dedicated video app will have controls that are designed for video shooting and you won’t get settings mixed up when switching between modes on a normal camera app. For instance, this can happen when switching between 4:3 aspect ratio high-definition still images and shooting HD video, which is typically 16:9 aspect ratio on your screen. Some apps choke a bit when switching. And, some apps are set to automatically start video recording when you switch to video mode. I can’t figure out why that’s a default feature (sometimes non-defeatable) but it’s a pain when you’re trying to shoot dedicated video. Ultimately, dedicated apps are designed for video shooting, and make the most of their interface and features.

As with still image capture apps, the image quality from these is essentially the same, if you shoot with the same settings (resolution, data rate, picture profile, etc.) The device hardware is really the defining and limiting factor. [BIG NOTE for low-end phone users; some of these apps are not recommended for you. Filmic Pro won’t even install on my Samsung Galaxy J5 (Marshmallow OS). My best advice if you have a low-end device is to go with a standard camera app, like Open Camera, that lets you shoot stills and video. No need for a specialized app.]

Here are three dedicated video capture apps that are the top of charts for me. I’ll review them in my general order of preference, but they’re all very good. Any weaknesses are generally pretty minor.


Filmic Pro ($15 USD)(plus in-app purchases for some specialized features)

Among mobile filmmakers and mobile journalists, Filmic Pro has long been the go-to app. It started life as an iOS-only app but the Android version is fully developed and gives you a full feature set for truly professional video production on a mobile device.

 

Filmic Pro gives you:

  • Full range of manual controls with a very friendly on-screen interface for manual focus and exposure control. Manual controls on all apps will be device dependent. They should work on most higher-end phones. On a lower-end phone, you still have manual control, but some features, like the sliders you see in the above screen capture, won’t be there.
  • Shooting aspect ratios for every popular format, including square format video, and UI rotation for simple vertical video shooting.
  • High resolution (including 4K) and data rates, depending on your device capabilities. Excellent video quality, including smooth motion.
  • Accurate frame rate. Other apps’ frame rates can vary widely, even if set in the app.
  • Format presets if you want to switch quickly between settings. For instance, a 4K setting and a FullHD (1080) video setting without going through many menus.
  • Automatic exposure and focus “pulling” for more professional control.
  • A continuous auto-focus mode that uses most of the screen as a focus area. This is great for gimbal and other handheld shots where you have a lot of motion in the scene.
  • App upgrades available for even more professional features such as picture profiles and LUTs. (Not really needed by mere mortal visual storytellers.)
  • Picture profile settings – these are advanced settings that professional filmmakers use to give them more control in editing their picture. Typically not something non-professionals want to use, as the video captured may not actually look very good until it is “graded” in an editing program.
  • Live audio monitoring, with on-screen meter, is possible with the proper adapters.

Weaknesses:

  • Lots of options that may be confusing to non-professionals.
  • Display can be cluttered if you have lots of features activated, but they are instantly accessible.

Cinema FV-5 Pro (paid version $4.50 USD)

Cinema FV-5 is a companion to Camera FV-5, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere. But it can also be purchased and used separately as a dedicated video capture app. As with Camera FV-5, the Cinema version is full-featured and well-suited to professional mobile production. If you want a dedicated app, I feel it’s the best choice for lower-end devices, even if features are disabled.

Things I especially like include:

  • Simple controls when first opened
  • Nice implementation of manual controls including a slider for focus and exposure on devices that have the Camera2 API.
  • Paid version (Pro) has full resolution and high data rate capabilities, up to your device’s specs.
  • The most common manual control I like to tweak, exposure compensation, is on screen all the time. Nice.
  • On-screen display of current settings.
  • Continuous focus mode is very accurate and useful.
  • Audio monitoring and on-screen meters
  • Professional features like interface customization, a histogram for video levels, etc.
  • Quick switching between features such as a histogram, stabilization on/off, etc.

Weaknesses:

  • No vertical video mode (interface rotation) – see my comments on other apps for my thoughts on why this is useful.
  • Locking and unlocking some functions, like manual exposure, could be simpler – a few too many clicks to release and re-set.

On a low-end device like my Galaxy J5 I found:

  • Some functions don’t seem to work consistently, like manual exposure by touch/hold on the screen. No change anywhere you put the “box.”
  • Of course, the manual controls change to meet the device specs. The capabilities are still there, just some controls get more basic.
  • Other device-dependent features, like 4K video recording, may be missing on low-end devices.

Cinema 4K (paid version $4.50 USD)

Cinema 4K is designed with many professional features for high-end devices. As the name implies, it can shoot up to 4K if your device can handle it. It is set up for more experienced shooters, but I find the controls are very intuitive and responsive.

I’m reviewing this app with a caveat. On my Google Pixel 2 (still pretty state-of-the-art as I write this) I get great general image quality. However, I see a lot of motion artifacts anytime I pan, tilt, or have a lot of motion in the shot. I’ve tried to track it down, and have decided it’s the app. My A/B testing with Filmic Pro on the same device shows ‘jerky’ motion in footage from Cinema 4K versus Filmic Pro footage, with the exact same settings. I’m willing to consider that it could be unique to the Pixel 2, so until I can do more tests with other phones, I’ll just leave it at that.

Cinema 4K gives you:

  • A very nice on-screen interface with common controls and settings clearly accessible.
  • Extensive, but easy-to-use manual controls, device dependent.
  • Very friendly settings menu that covers almost everything on one screen rather than many menus
  • Full range of resolutions and data rates for video files, device dependent.
  • Full screen, clean display when recording, but manual controls appear when you tap the screen. Nice implementation.
  • Picture profile settings – these are advanced settings that professional filmmakers use to give them more control in editing their picture. Typically not something non-professionals want to use, as the video captured may not actually look very good until it is “graded” in an editing program.

Weaknesses:

  • My biggest concern is actually image quality. Images without a lot of motion are great. I see a lot of motion artifacts in Cinema 4K footage when the camera is panning across a scene. I’ve done a lot of A/B testing and can’t fix it. I believe it is related to variable frame/bit rates used by most apps in mobile devices.
  • No vertical video adaptation. This has been a “rule” in the professional filmmaking world, but it’s passé, to me. Let us shoot 4K vertical video!
  • No live audio monitoring, or on screen audio meters.
  • Cinema 4K will install on a lower-end phone, but many features are disabled. I don’t recommend it for low-end devices (see my note above.)