Monday, June 23, 2014

Video shooting adventures...

I've been shooting a lot of video, from when my kids were still young, some 20+ years ago. Video has come a long way in the meantime, and, in the last 10 years with the advent of the so-called VDSLR based videography, ie. using traditional DSLRs to shoot video (because of their large sensors and pixel size they are performing quite well in low light conditions and are capable of cinematic bokehs), low budget videographers and indy shooters have flooded YT and Vimeo with quite a few interesting projects. Another milestone in the democratization of the medium. The World is flat sort of thing.

One of the nice 'little' things that occurred in digital motion pictures is pixel resolution. I picked up this graph on Wikipedia, and even so, I can't quite grasp the size of it. What is referred to as SD (standard definition) is the sort of resolution used for broadcasting by TV networks for many-many years, and made us, amateur videographers of the late last century, drool of desire for a better amateur technology. Indeed, our quite expensive analog gear back then could hardly produce 400 lines of horizontal resolution at best. Not to mention stability of edit footage after a few cycles in analog mixing tables without genloc and timecode available (far too expensive for an amateur's pockets).

In the last ten years, however, the world has been converted with lightning speed into FHD (1080p) or 1080 lines of 'progressive' (one frame at the time) resolution, and in recent years key industry players and Standards bodies have defined additional resolution targets all the way up to 8K UHD (Ultra High Definition). Actually, anything above FHD is nowadays termed UHD! To get the point, 8K is like stacking 16 Full HDTV monitors upon each other, four in the x axis and another four in the y. In other words, if you regularly indulge yourself by watching Bluray movies in FHD, imagine the monster I just described... what it would turn your living room wall into! Already 4K is an unbelievable improvement. It's your current FHD doubled in both x and y directions. Four times the resolution you enjoy today, that is. Strictly speaking, hardcore 4K is even more than that in the x axis pixel-count (4096 indeed), but for all practical purposes let's assume the 3840x2160 frame size (that's otherwise 4x the current FHD, 2x1920 and 2x1080) under the broadly known 4K label.

I recently saw the picture of a camera shooting 8K, but I doubt there's much activity in that front yet, other than experimental. On the other hand, I read that quite a few mainstream movies being shot these days are already captured in 5K/6K and 12/14 bits of colour resolution. This sounds, spec-wise, like a videographer's wet dream... Why do them pro's do that, then? The film industry still delivers feature films and TV series in current consumer formats (FHD, Bluray and DVD), meaning they encode/downscale their UHD masters into current commercial resolutions, but, I guess, they are shooting UHD for future-proofing and the ability to remaster their work into UHD resolutions when the market is ready for it. In the next so many years... When storage petabytes become as common and inexpensive as bagels and donuts...Understandable...

I consider myself to be a frame resolution and sharpness junkie. Actually, I don't give a diddly squat about resolution per se, if you come to think of it, but I care enormously about image sharpness, richness of colours (gamut) and related bokeh. UHD resolutions are the unique available strategy in the pursue of this goal, regrettably. The prerequisite in preserving the tonal and color state of visible things into their captured image is of course the frame resolution, but not alone. Recording codecs are natural born quality killers too. You can't believe how many codecs already exist, and how many different media file containers are out there used in the video universe. Gives you practically a headache. Makes you wonder why! And they all claim to be the best invention ever since sliced bread. For amateur videographers like myself the world of codecs used for capturing, post-processing and eventually delivering the outcome to viewers is a sheer nightmare. The moment you get the impression that you 'got it', there comes a use-case experience that entirely confuses you, frustrates you and makes you start all over again.

The last few months I decided to further develop my skills as close as possible to today's State of the Art in prosumer videography. Bought some new gear to work with, rigs, accessories, even a Canon Legria FHD G30 camcorder (I wish I knew some more before making that decision... it's definitely ok, but not what I dreamed of), filters, video-mics, tripods, sliders, a pan/tilt electrical head, remote triggers, and only came short of ordering cranes and drones! A year ago I also bought a Hero3 GoPro action camera with all its usual-suspect accessories, but this must have been my worst decision ever. Among many other. The GoPro's are for a different type of videography than mine. Like they say, too old for that shite! Anyways, I normally use VDSLRs, a Canon 5D Mark III and another 5D Mark II, and maybe my old 7D occasionally, but I still dream of the day that I'll get my hands on a 4K Panasonic Lumix GH4. Pity that they only make them mirror-less MFT (micro four thirds), necessitating some sort of adaptor to be able to use my couple of dozen piece Canon and Nikon lens inventory that I built the last 30 years. You can't have it all, can you? Unfortunately, the little marvel is still out of stock in all my online supplier inventories.

I also improved my grading and NLE skills in both FCP and Da Vinci Resolve, by following specialized training (about a dozen courses the last few months alone), and I came that close to order a Black Magic 4K Production camera, which idea I eventually gave up for a planned purchase of the Panasonic mentioned earlier. Tomorrow, I'm expecting a Samyang Cinema lens kit, insanely inexpensive but fairly good obviously, at least if you believe online reviews and YT demo's. The kit contains three lenses, 14, 35 and 85 mm in Canon EF mount.

I can't shoot 4K yet, but I've still done one 4K video project in time-lapse, by capturing high res Raw stills in my Mark III, then crop-processed them in Lightroom, and imported them in a FCP 4K project, from which I eventually rendered them in the 4K format output acceptable by YT. All I had to do was export the frames from Lightroom in the genuine 4090x2160 4K resolution and compose them into a clip in FCP and encode them via Compressor. Take a look here:

Like many out there I tend to agree that although 4K is a thing for when monitors will be able to handle it in the next 3-4 years, still cameras shooting 4K today produce visibly superior quality in FHD than many regular FHD camcorder out there, regardless their robustness, perceived quality and total configuration cost, pro codec used and frame rates captured. I speak from experience. I do shoot with the best Canon glass available on the 5D, capture the HDMI signal in Prores HQ on an Atomos Ninja Blade, and proces all this footage on an 27 inch top of the range iMac with FCP X. Nevertheless, although my 1080p outputs, color corrected, graded and all look reasonably good, 4K is simply miles ahead. I'll be the first to admit that my 1080p clips are indeed nowhere compared to some of the GH4 footage I saw on YT! Goes without saying, many other factors do play quality determinant roles as well, like the dynamic range captured (per a recent DXO-Pro testimony the 5D is rather poor on DR with only 12 stops and change), ISO used, shutter angle and above all the quality of light used in a scene. However, from what I've seen, 4K is still a blast! I mean, big time!

There are moments I feel that I could give my right arm for the ability to capture quality footage like some of the high-end cameras out there. RED, Arri Alexa, the Sony F5, Phantom and why not, the Black Magic 4K Production Camera. Of course most of them use glass in practical configurations of prime and zoom lenses at a cost equivalent of high-end luxury cars. Would you rather buy a 5- lens kit or an S-Class Mercedes Benz? You could only practically rent gear like this. As a B-day present, for instance. Like many rent a Ferrari for a day! I drool watching slow-mo footage shot by RED and Phantom cameras! Gosh, I've been in the wrong job all my life. Day-dreaming of one of these 4K marvels, I keep fooling myself in the meantime with tricks like the one I used in the 4K time-lapse above, and by doing simple slideshows. See an example hereunder :

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