Film Making Tools – Tripod

I recently acquired a tripod for use in filming and thought I’d show you how I tailored it for my use. I needed a solid pair of sticks with a ball joint head so that I could swap out heads in the future. I also wanted a decent fluid head for steady pans and tilts. After much research, I settled on the Davis and Sanford Provista 7518B tripod with the FM 18 2 Fluid Head. I only have the DSLR to support for now, but as I add to my camera kit I’ll also have a camera cage, rods, follow focus, extra battery, lens hood and external monitors all balanced on the head. So it was important to make sure I would get a head and sticks that I could grow into.

This is side view of the head. The tripod comes with two handles, one on each side. I removed one handle and reversed the other one to make sure my camera could be mounted in such a fashion as to still be able to work the mount plate lock down knob and the tilt knob. Rather than explain, here are some images of my current set up.

The tripod came with a nice zipper bag with a padded area for the head and an extra mount plate. The overall quality of construction is very high and the tripod looks like it means business. I’ve very happy with the locking mechanism for the legs and the overall solid feel of it. There is a spreader that I could hang a sandbag on for added stability, but so far I have not needed to do so. There is a bubble level on the head for adjusting the ball.

The head is smooth without feeling loose. Even if it’s not clamped down, it won’t move with just the camera mounted on it. Overall the tripod with head weighs in at about 13 lbs so it’s not overly heavy, but still much more than the average still camera tripod.

As long as I’m showing off equipment, here are some images of my external monitor setup. I’m using an articulating friction arm attached to the hot shoe to mount a Nexus 7 tablet. The tablet is connected to the camera via a white adapter cable made by Samsung that goes from standard USB to mini USB. You can find that cable in your local Best Buy in the Samsung display area.

The arm is attached to a tablet carrier that has a quarter twenty mount on it. Very handy. With a spacer of wood, I can also mount my little Moto-X phone using the same setup. This is helpful to let the talent see what the shot looks like or perhaps the Director who is not running the camera. I don’t use this in hand held shots, as the camera has a fold out monitor that works best in most cases.

Another recent addition to my camera bag is a set of ND filters in 67 mm. I went with the largest filter size my lenses have at the time when I ordered filters. So now I just use stepper rings to attach them to my 49 mm and 52 mm diameter primes. I also ordered a bunch of 67 mm lens caps so everything matches.

The business end of the camera with Nexus 7 attached and the Olympus 50 mm 1.8 prime. I love my Olympus lenses and will probably get a set of primes for use in filming. I have a third party 28 mm lens, but I’d like to get a Zuiko wide angle and maybe a 1oo mm long lens. Time and budget willing.

Below is a scene from our latest film, The Rematch. My kids are racing on their roller blades again. This was shot with the kit zoom lens set to 50 mm and the ND8 filter exposed for the bright outdoors. We shot it in black and white just for kicks. I’ll post the finished film when we complete the editing.

Blue Screen Model Tests

This weekend I spent time perfecting blue screen photography in my garage studio. Initial tests with my two new 150 watt frosted floods proved to be an insufficient amount of light. So I resorted to the poor man’s movie broads – Work Lights. Each light had a 500 watt tungsten bulb. Unfortunately, the only way I could get a tripod was with a dual light kit. So I now have four lights, two per tripod. The lights are attached so I can either have both on or one on.

This proved to be the right amount of light for the best depth of field. My largest model was about 2ft long and if it were moving towards the camera, it needed at least a foot on either side of the central focus area. I have found that f11-f8 at eight feet with a shutter speed of 60th of a second and a film speed rating of 200 ISO to be the best DOF.

To achieve this result I had to design a proper mount for my blue screen and then ensure that I had at least ten feet to play with in regards to getting the camera away from the model subject. There were other minor set adjustments that I made in order to mount each model that I was photographing. I’ll detail each rig that I used so you can see what some gaffer tape and imagination can achieve.

Blue Screen Setup

My assistant (youngest son, Spencer) and I made a trip to Home Depot the local hardware store to pick up the PVC pipe we needed for the screen and an extra work light and tripod. We had to construct the PVC pipe frame to a 4′ X 6′ piece of blue screen fabric. I ordered the fabric from FilmTools.com. It has blue felt on one side and a foam backing to give it some weight and keep the wrinkles down. This is the same blue screen they use in Hollywood. Not the fabric only version sold in photography stores. It still wrinkles but you can easily steam them out if you have a portable steamer. Which we have and it really works nicely.

We used two corner joints and four three way joints to build our frame. Four end plugs helped make the feet stable We went with two foot long feet but I’ll probably cut them down to one foot to save floor space. Sand bags are a good idea to help keep it rock stable. We didn’t glue anything down so that we could break it down and put it away when I needed my garage back. The main tube diameter is one inch.

The blue screen fabric is held in place with dollar spring clamps also found at the hardware store. I now have enough of these clips to do just about anything. They are part of the cameraman’s ditty bag that should be in any working studio. Also invaluable to have is a roll of black gaffer’s tape.

Work Lights

We made one minor modification to the work lights. I initially wanted to use daylight gels to match ILM model shots from the Star Wars movies. We took metal coat hangers and bent and cut them to fit snugly into the top of the work lights to form a bracket that we then hung the gels from using little metal clips or clothespins. This worked perfectly, but I later ditched the gels for aesthetics.

 

The best light placement seemed to be two of them at 45 degree angles shining on the blue screen and one of them as a key light on the model. You generally don’t want any fill on the models unless they are in a binary star system.

Model Stands

I had a few different mounting options but none of them were ideal. I’ve been retrofitting my models to accept the standard quarter twenty screw found on tripods and other photography equipment. This gives me plenty of options for ball and clamp mounting points. Some of my newer models have half inch PVC mount points. This required a specially build PVC stand that then had to be clamped to a regular tripod with a flat surface.

 

Eventually, I’ll be picking up a real C-stand or century stand to use as my fully adjustable model stand. But for now, I have to use a secondary tripod and get creative. Below are some images of the various mounting setups I used. They are for the most part, self explanatory.

Camera Setup

I don’t have a proper tripod yet, so I’m making due with an old pair of sticks. The camera is a Canon 60D with a 50mm Olympus f1.8 prime. I’m using an adapter ring to attach the lens. The camera was set on manual and I controlled the shutter speed, ISO and f-stops. Focusing was manual and set according to measurements taken by a plastic tape measure so as not to scratch any of the equipment. The film plane (sensor plate) is marked on the top of the camera and the zero end of the measuring tape attached to the camera with camera tape. This lets me keep the measuring tape readily available for precise focusing. I was not using any filters on the lens, save for a UV light protector.

One of the tripods I was using for the models did not have a mounting plate. So I created one out of wood and a quarter twenty screw. I would not mount a camera to it, but it was fine for my light weight models.

Work Bench Area

Behind our blue screen was my work bench area which became the model repair and holding area as well as the place to get a closer look at the images on my laptop. I use a Dell XPS 13 running Ubuntu and a USB adapter for the camera’s SD card. I can take images, pop the card and walk it over to the bench to look at it in minutes. Sure beats the old wait a week for processing that I was used to.

Some of my tools for the model shoot were my Moto-X phone, a Nexus 7 tablet, various adapters. The phone and tablet both had a slew of film-making apps installed that make my life easier on set. The most used tool this weekend was Green Screener, DOF Calculator and Pocket AC.

My desk in the studio was where we parked the camera bag and sometimes the models. I’ll probably make this area my computer base so as to keep the laptop away from any work needed on the models or other equipment.

 

Conclusion

I think I have a decent setup in place to take images of my models that my brother can easily import into Photoshop and create fantastic book covers for me. This was my goal. Achievement unlocked. There are things that I can improve on and over time, I will. Better camera and model mounts are the top priority. But for now, I go back to editing my next book and building the next model.

 

My Return to Filmmaking

My story roots go back to film. I made 8 mm films as a teenager and later went on to film school at UCF. During school and for a spell afterwards I continued to make Indie movies and commercials. Writing scripts actually came before short stories, although I did a fair amount of them as a teenager too. My first finished, long form story pieces were screenplays and I wrote them long before I wrote my first novel.

Lately I’ve been returning to my filmmaking roots by teaching my kids how movies are made. We purchased a nice DSLR and various other pieces of gear to get us going. So far, they are having a blast and so am I. When I gave up filmmaking and joined the AF for a real job, I couldn’t imagine ever getting back into it. It was expensive and it required a team to do effectively. So I took up writing and continued to tell my stories as novels.

Now that my sons are old enough we actually make a pretty good little production team. Over time, we’ll get good enough to make some short films that we can post on YouTube for everyone to see. But for now, we are in learning mode and making simple, demonstration films to learn the craft. Below is a scene from our first practice film.

Technology has progressed at an unbelievable rate since I stopped making films. Now we can shoot and edit digitally and some SPFX are actually easier now than ever before. I would have thrived as a kid today. I’m hoping to spark the same creativity in my own kids. If not, then at least I’ll have the tools I need to get back into it as a hobby.

I expect there will be more posts in the future about our filmmaking adventures. Stay tuned.

The DSLR Winner is

I’ve been in the market for a DSLR camera lately. Back in college, I used to sell SLR cameras and thus carried a ton of baggage from that era. This was from a time long ago when cameras used real film and auto focus was for a trademark busting camera from Minolta. Back then, the best camera we sold was a Nikon and my personal favorite was the Olympus OM-2n. Canon was a name we pushed on consumers because it was generally cheaper and inferior to the Nikon, Olympus and Minolta brands. With all this baggage weighing me down, I tended to steer towards a Nikon DSLR, specifically the consumer model – D5300. It had to be better than a camera called Rebel, right?

Anyway, the kids are very interested in learning how to make movies, so whatever DSLR we got had to be able to handle filmmaking tasks with ease. The Nikon cameras seemed to lack in this area and the more I read up what the current DSLR filmmakers were using, the more I was steered to the Canon brand. Really? That cheaper Japanese brand we used to push on Joe and Jane Consumer? How could that brand be the best for filmmaking. More research.

Finally it became clear to me that the best filmmaking cameras were now being made by Canon. Ugh. *Smacks lips in distaste. Okay, even an old stick in the mud like me can change his opinion if the facts point in a new direction. In this case they did. So I checked out the EOS Rebel5i camera over the weekend. It was okay, about the same as the Nikon but with a smaller pixel sensor. But it still screamed amateur to my eye. Probably because of the red Rebel label. Then again, the Nikon had a red swish on it and that looked bad too. So much for color being a factor.

More research, more staring at camera porn until my eyes bled. More reading DSLR filmmaking blogs and listening to videos and podcasts and finally I began to see that the predominate camera for beginning to advanced DSLR filmmaking was the Canon 60D. The good news for us was that the 60D is now old and can be had for less than a grand with a decent zoom lens, UV filter and a data card.

 

So this is what I’m ordering today, unless something better drifts onto my radar. The lens in this picture is also what I’m ordering. EF-S 18-135mm, I know, it’s a kit lens, but you have to start somewhere. Next lens for my taste will be a prime with a wider aperture. Anyway, after we get this puppy and play with it for a while, I’ll post my review in case you’re interested. This camera sits at the bottom of the Pro line of Canon DSLRs. It has the same battery as the bigger boy cameras and a similar heft. A great starter camera for both photography and filmmaking.