22 October 2011

Lessons from The Wheels: Auto WB

Back when I bought my Canon 600D specifically for film making, I had everything set to manual.  Most of the settings had to be locked anyway; 25fps, 1/50th shutter, ISO 100 unless you're indoors, and so on.  This bit me in the bum during a shoot for a friend's film when I realised my first half-dozen shots of the day were at the wrong white balance setting.

So white balance went back to Auto and this served me well for a while, until recently when I was shooting The Wheels.  Once again when I was reviewing footage (back home at the computer this time, far too late to do anything about it) I found it to be all wrong.

The cause this time was the mixture of light sources.  At the location I had mistakenly assumed that the outdoor light coming into the room from two sides would be sufficient, but we ended up using a couple of domestic incandescent lamps as well.  I knew the footage would look a bit orange, but what I didn't realise was that the Auto WB setting is taken from the brightest part of the picture, rather than the centre of the frame (as auto exposure is, when taking stills).

When Auto WB gets it wrong

The pictures above show Dave at the table, mostly lit by the incandescent lamps, but the brightest part of the picture is the outdoor scene beyond the patio doors.  The Auto WB has set itself to suit the bright outdoor scene, and as a result Dave and much of the interior is a red/orange hue.  This can be corrected in post but I found the shot above was so pushed to red it was tricky to bring it back to resemble something approaching normal without ruining the rest of the frame, especially when trying to brighten the noisy shadows. (My discoveries about noise in shadows is a whole other post.)

When Auto WB gets it right

This picture shows a different composition, which does not have an outdoor scene in the background; on this occasion the Auto WB has set itself to suit Dave and the interior rather than the outdoors.  As per my usual workflow, some colour balancing was made to match the shot with the others, but you can see it required far less work, and therefore the image wouldn't need to be 'pushed' so far and degraded so much to achieve this.

Learning a lesson
When you're on an important shoot (as opposed to grabbing some shots on a day out with the family), white balance should enter your consciousness as one of those things you just need to check, like adjusting ISO to get the histogram looking right.  Unfortunately white balance isn't something that's so visible on the camera, but luckily allowances can be made in post if the results aren't terrible.  Perhaps a reminder on the shot list / storyboard would do the trick.

17 October 2011

New film: The Wheels

"Sometimes you don't realise you're working too much..."

A short film created specially for the fixed theme of "The wheels went round" for the Chairman's Challenge at Huddersfield Film Makers Club, October 2011.

Although the upcoming Chairman's Challenge had been known of for some months, it didn't feel like a proper challenge if we couldn't cram all the work into the final 10 days before the show.  It was at this point that I, and my semi-reluctant star Dave, realised we had just one weekend left.

I cobbled together the basic premise of the story and drew up a storyboard, only the second time I had bothered to do so.  I thought it would be useful to tick off shots once they were in the can* but it was also very handy to ensure shots followed-on from one another and didn't look too disjointed.  And of course I looked very professional, so much so that I left the beret at home.

We shot during Saturday and Sunday and I spent the next four evenings beavering away at the computer.  There was a lot of time consuming post-production effort for a modest project like this one but the deadline really helped to spur me on.  By this time Dave's work was done and he was relaxing in his trailer.**

Shot on a Canon 600D digital SLR with Rode VideoMic.  Raw footage was transcoded to Apple Intermediate Codec using MPEG Streamclip.  Edited in Final Cut Pro, transferred to After Effects using BasicFCPtoAE, where graphics were composited and shots were colour graded.

* I keep all my camera memory cards in a biscuit tin.
** Dave lives in a trailer.  The house in the film has been empty for months so we helped ourselves.  We call it 'being resourceful.'

14 October 2011

Loading a Picture Style into your Canon DSLR

If you want to load a custom Picture Style into your SLR and use it for movie mode (such as Technicolor's CineStyle), it seems Canon's EOS Utility has a funny way of doing things.

To save anyone the hassle of finding out by trial and error, or perhaps trying to decipher convoluted forum threads, the process is as follows:
  1. Connect the camera to your computer via USB, start up EOS Utility (version 2.6 or later).
  2. Switch the camera's mode dial to a still picture mode, such as M.
  3. In EOS Utility's side panel, click the camera button to show the Shooting Menu. Click Register User Defined style.
  4. Choose one of the User Def tabs at the top, then click the Open File button. Choose the picture style file. The picture style is now on the camera.
  5. Switch the camera's mode dial to movie mode, click Register User Defined style again, then you will find your new picture style is in the drop-down list.

You can upload picture styles whilst in a stills mode.

Once the picture style is uploaded, it can be chosen in movie mode.

For some reason, movie mode won't allow you to upload the picture style file, this has to be done in a stills shooting mode. The picture style then becomes available in movie mode and you can assign it to a user defined setting.

10 October 2011

Transferring projects from Final Cut to After Effects

I'm a big fan of using Final Cut Pro for speedy editing and sound mixdown, then switching my project to Adobe After Effects for colour grading, graphics and titles.

The hard way
This workflow can be a pain. FCP can't migrate projects to AE seamlessly like Adobe Premiere, and since I've doggedly refused to adopt Premiere, I've been forced to manually re-create my edit in AE, either by exporting my FCP sequence in Uncompressed 10-bit* (for MiniDV projects), or importing the native clips into AE and setting in/out points (for file-based clips, e.g. from solid-state media). The first is restrictive and hogs hard drive space, the second can be enormously time consuming even for a short sequence.

*At home I have FCP 5, so no ProRes codecs.

The easy way
The alternative was a very good utility called Automatic Duck, which looks like it has recently been assimilated into Adobe. It transfers to and from FCP, AE along with Avid and other software too, but was a bit pricey at several hundred dollars/pounds. Edit: Automatic Duck software has recently been made free. As in beer. Download your copy now before they change their mind!

The easy & cheap way
Recently I found an excellent After Effects script from Popcorn Island called FCP2AE, and it does a good job converting FCP's XML export file into After Effects CS3, CS4 and CS5. I have tried a legacy version on AE CS3 and it worked well. Unfortunately I can only use After Effects 7 at home, for which this script is not compatible.

The easy & cheap way if you're stuck in the Dark Ages
Shortly thereafter I made an even more fabulous discovery -- a similar solution which is compatible with older software all the way back to After Effects 6.5 and Final Cut Pro 4. BasicFCPtoAE is an application that converts FCP's XML file into an After Effects script, which can then be run in AE and imports the edited sequence and all the native footage. It uses an earlier version of FCP's XML, so it cannot transfer transitions and effects, but if all you want is to get your straight cuts into AE without re-editing the whole sequence again, it is proper bone-fide awesome.

In fact if you're just after no-nonsense cuts, BasicFCPtoAE is actually better than the more modern FCP2AE.  For the latter, the imported sequences and clips are structured in a hierarchy of folders, whereas for BasicFCPtoAE your After Effects project shows the sequence and the clips, that's all.  Much simpler to navigate.

09 October 2011

A few DSLR practicalities

After four months of using a Canon 600D purely for video, I've come to appreciate the following:

  • Interchangeable lenses are full of complete awesome.
  • Old, cheap manual prime lenses are fine to build up a collection of big-aperture glass for gloomy indoor shots, but at some point you get tired of the white bloom and chroma aberrations, and you start saving for better quality stuff.
  • You quickly get over the sound drawbacks and 12 minute recording limit*, unless you're mainly shooting documentaries, in which case you might be better off with something different. Treat it as an image sensor and get used to using dual-system sound on productions that need it.
  • H264 compression is a pig. There is always noise in the blacks, even at 100 ISO.
  • Never set the manual audio gain above halfway, it just introduces a hiss.
  • A Rode Videomic is a great piece of kit, but only when you remember to switch it on. It has a bright LED right in my eye-line but I still have facepalm moments after I realise why my latest clip is silent. My advice: to hell with the battery life, just leave it on all day and make sure to carry a few spare 9Vs.
  • After making do with a consumer MiniDV camera for the past seven years, I've found the 600D's on-screen histogram and the 10x zoom preview are indispensable features for keeping an eye on exposure and manual focus. Make sure you use them.
  • When setting sound levels manually, all sorts of fun can be had with varying degrees of background hiss. I will investigate this further another time, but it looks like another motivation to use dual-system sound.
*The Canon SLR limits on video clips are actually 30 minutes, but the file format used on the memory cards have a file size limit of 4 Gb, which equates to about 12 minutes when shooting either 25fps 1080 or 50fps 720. You could, of course, try the Magic Lantern firmware to get around these limitations.