Earlier this summer I had some free time and decided to collaborate with a local burlesque performer called BonBon Bombay on a short film. To ensure that the collaboration was as fun, creative, and free as possible, nothing was arrainged in advance, apart from a preliminary meeting, where a character was discussed. She has been working on a new performance piece based around a clown, but hadn’t had the chance to use the costume yet, so we thought it would be an idea opportunity to make something around this new costume.
On the spot, that afternoon, a short film emerged, based on a day-in-the-life of a dark, moody clown, called Bonzo. For Bonbon, this was the chance to try out the new character, for me, it was a chance to use the Steadymaker Tank PLUS 32-bit stabilizer for an extended period of time, to see how it handled during the shoot. I had used it for shorter periods of time during other corporate gigs, but this was a chance to use it exclusively in this shoot. I decided to shoot only with the stabilizer setup.
The shoot was not storyboarded, it was to remain organic, utilizing whatever locations and setups we found during our one-day shoot, which was to challenge our sense of story, setup, and composition (not to mention continuity), but as there were to be no script, and the film was to be edited as a music video, certain narrative constrainsts could be relaxed.
I had recently purchased a Panasonic GH-4, with 4K resolution, and this gave me an opportunity to not only try that out, but also, thanks to the Anamorphic upgrade to the firmware, I could shoot with my anamorphic lens and test the workflow.
The picture of the camera setup was taken with a rig ‘cage’ attachment, but for size and weight purposes, I attached it to the stabilizer without this. For the lens-porn-nerds amongst us (which is also kinda me), this is the setup I had:
At the base is a ZhongYi Lens Turbo adapter. This is basically a poor-mans’ Metabones Speed booster….it is set of glass and lenses that allows 1 extra stop of light, increases the field of view by 0.72 (a great bonus with a cropped sensor such as the Panasonic GH-4) and allows lenses of different companies to be attached to the camera. Win-win, basically.
On the front of the speedbooster, is a prime lens. (This means a fixed lens that doesn’t zoom). Nikon 35mm f/2. This lens is the widest you can go with an anamorphic setup, as is evident at the widest open settings, you can see some vignetting…but since theres so much frame size to play with in 4k, then its not a problem to zoom or crop out the distorted edges of the frame as needed in certain shots. Without making things too complicated, this lens on this camera, with the lens turbo, works out the same as a 58mm f1.8 lens would on a full frame camera (without the lens turbo).
Attached to that, is a KOWA Prominar Anamorphic 8-Z lens (this is the big chunky silver and black setup in the center/top of the image lens setup). This is basically a lens which distorts the image, it allows more than twice the width, while keeping the height. (I won’t go into details, as this is not about anamorphic filmmaking).
It allows for frame sizes of 6656×2496, which will give you a final resolution/aspect ratio of 2:67, which is wider than Cinemascope, but with some cropping/adjustments ends up being around the standard cinemascope resolution of 2.39. (This means the image is over twice as wide as it is high…or, when you watch on tv, the images that have large black borders at the top and bottom.
Here is an uncompressed frame of the finished film. (It won’t open to the same size as noted above unless you have a huge screen, so there is an option to download the image from the page it opens to, just right click and download to your computer.)
The final component is a Tokina Achromat +0.4 diopter, which is basically a final piece of glass that goes on the front that enables the anamorphic setup to focus at closer distances to the subject than would normally allow. One of the downsides of anamorphic setups is that they do not have a great depth of field and do no focus well to things closer to the lens….in fact, focussing in general is difficult, as you have two lenses to control, the prime and anamorphic lenses.
SO, I realize that I have probably lost half my readers in that last paragraph, and the other half wondering when I am going to talk about the stabilizer, but the reason I wanted to detail the setup is so you have an idea about how to get a closer-to-accurate cinematic resolution and feel to your setup. It removes a lot of the ‘digital’ feel, with attractive lens flares, and the way it renders the scene, this will go a long way to making the shot look more ‘filmic’ and less ‘digital’ (if that is a desirable look for you).
On to the filming itself. We filmed, quite literally, from dawn to dusk. I woke at 3.45am to get to the center of Montreal for around 5am, first light, so we could capture shots in and around the usually busy city streets. This allowed for some surreal footage of Bonbon running uninterrupted up and down the city center roads, free of traffic, surreal in the early light.
I travelled to the shoot with the camera set up in the stabilizer. The idea was to shoot the entire day with the same lens and stabilizer setup, so I travelled there with an already constructed stabilizer and balanced camera. As nothing was to change during the day, it made sense to travel with the completed setup, rather than assemble things there. This way, I could arrive ready-to-shoot, and quickly adapt to a variety of situations. Of course, the downside is the bulk, carrying it between locations was not particularly user-friendly, and the camera would need rebalancing at each new place, as the length of the lens meant that it would either bang against my leg, or the baseplate screws would loosen enough that the camera would come loose enough to lose balance while walking, so I would need to check often and maintain balance between takes.
Unfortunatly, because of the 4k internal recording, I could not use my external monitor with the stabilizer, which I could have really done with using during the shoot, as framing the subject, especially in more complicated moving sequences was tough, both for composition, and crucially, focus. Thankfully, because of the free-flowing nature of the day, shots could be organized, reviewed, and adjusted on the fly. I could still play back the takes through the built-in screen on the camera after each one, although a monitor would have certainly come in handy.
I am including an extra video before showing the finished piece, of some extra moments that didn’t make the cut, including my own homage to The Dark Knight, the iconic first reveal of The Joker.
There is a kind of freedom that comes with making things up on the fly. I would not recommend this for the average shoot, but it is great for thinking on your feet, forcing a different level of creativity from your filmmaking. This kind of creative freedom is great for short creative projects where things like lighting, or preparing for special FX shots is not important, just capturing a series of shots. This kind of creative freedom is magnified with the addition of the stabilizer. It occurs to me that without a pre-planned set of storyboards, I will often attempt to compose my shots depending on what equipment I have with me…if I bring my tripod, I think in a series of fixed, static shots…if I bring my shoulder-mounted rig, I think angles, small movements, controllable shots….however, this isn’t the way to do it. Truly creative types will try to achieve unique, interesting shots, regardless of what equipment they have. They will utilize their equipment to create whatever is the most interesting compositions they can achieve, and sometimes push the boundaries.
With the stabilizer though, the creative freedom is magnified…I don’t worry so much about needing to control the movement, because the stabilizer does a lot of the hard work…it steadies longer, more complex, hand-held takes….I can go from relatively static shots, to walking…from walking, to running in single takes. I begin to think more creatively and less worried about how to achieve shots, more just trying things out and capturing things. For example, the walk around Bonzo at the intersection….I could not even imagine being able to pull off that kind of shot without some kind of track and tripod, or on a bike, in a car, or some other complex setup…with the stabilizer, I just visualize, set things up, and shoot.
A stabilizer isn’t the answer to all of your creative filming problems, it isn’t something that should replace all other filmmaking situations, and it isn’t there to be used in place of all other options, and neither should it be. It is a powerful, useful tool to enable new creative visualizations, and to give more power to the filmmaker in more situations than were previously available.
In short; happy steadymaking!