I Will Now Fly A Drone For Work

It's true. Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the "drone" legality craziness, and the FAA is getting a handle on how to proceed, in response to my previous opinion on this subject, I am now comfortable with owning and operating an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) for work and play.

As I prepare for obtaining an airman certificate and commercial UAS pilot's license, I have already purchased, registered, and flown, my new DJI Mavic Pro. I received it on Friday, got the batteries charged and had it in the air without fuss before the sun went down. Later Saturday I got the camera settings where I wanted them. On Sunday I played with the Mavic Pro around my favorite Baptist camp, Cone Oasis, which was unnoccupied by clients at the time. I had the following test video (which I treated seriously as a short film) finished a few hours later.

I'm looking forward to offering UAS aerial cinematography and photography services to my clients. For more information, please visit my Aerial Cinematography page here: http://www.jasonrjohnston.com/aerial-cinematography-photography/

Also, today is my birthday. What a nice way to celebrate and kick off the new fiscal year.


Panasonic AU-EVA1; my next cinema camera?

The big preview of Panasonic's newest cinema camera, seated comfortably between Varicam LT and GH5, happened at Cine Gear Expo in Los Angeles Friday afternoon. Introducing the Panasonic AU-EVA1. I am astounded at how many of my needs EVA1 checks off my list for a cinema camera upgrade. She also added a few things to the list I couldn't have imagined I'd be able to personally afford in a new cinema camera. EVA1 winds up being a miniature Varicam LT, without the Varicam badge, price, or weight. The specs previewed so far are jaw-dropping.

EVA1 will feature Varicam colorimetry, proper V-Log and V-Gamut. It's DCI 4K will be subsampled from a bran-new 5.7K Super 35 sensor, recording to an internal 10-bit 4:2:2 Intra codec at up to 400Mbps on SDXC cards (I will probably want to invest in the new V-class). It will also, eventually, output 5.7K raw over SDI and/or HDMI. It will work with DVX200 batteries. It will do 4K up to 60fps, as well as 2K up to 240fps. Still being tweaked, EVA1 will have some flavor of dual native ISO, probably close to Varicam LT's settings of 800 and 5000. It has built-in ND, EIS, and a swing-away IR cut filter. The top handle, LCD, and side grip, are removable and repositionable. It also sports an active EF lens mount that most likely will be able to communicate with most fly-by-wire EF lenses and be able to control them with buttons on the camera body for iris and auto focus, if you're into that sort of thing. Also, EVA1 is not bad to look at. The button layout is nice and the black-with-red-trim motif is sexy.

My teeny-tiny complaint is that the EF mount is not a positive-locking one. Would that keep me from favoring EVA1 over, say, Blackmagic's Ursa Mini Pro? Nope. Not at all. In fact, the only thing BMUMP has going for it now is it's interchangeable mount system. That's about it. Every other tick goes in EVA1's favor. With the EF-mount, I will be able to utilize my set of SLR Magic APO Hyperprime Cine T2.1 25/50/85mm PL-mount lenses as I have a lovely EF-PL adapter that works extremely well. As I am also a stills photographer who uses Canon equipment, EVA1 should work beautifully with my little collection of medium-fast EOS "L" zoom lenses.

EVA1's price, which Panasonic says will be 'under $8,000', is enticing. Ursa Mini Pro's price ($5,995), plus Shoulder Mount Kit ($395), 256GB Cfast2 card ($580), V-mount battery plate ($95), and a 14.8V 95Wh battery ($247), comes in at a bit more than $7,311 as a working system. "Under $8,000" could literally mean "$7,999," but everything in the box is what I'd need. All I have to buy at that point is a few V90 SDXC cards which are far less expensive than Cfast2 cards. The batteries I already use with DVX200 will work for EVA1, as will my custom shoulder mount kit I slapped together with components from SmallRig and Zacuto.

Speaking of "competition", Canon recently announced it's new EOS C200. Basically an 8-bit 4:2:0 35Mbps camcorder that primarily shoots 4K in a compressed version of Canon's proprietary raw format, utilizing the EOS C700 sensor, at a measly 150Mbps. The lackluster announcement was, for me, a momentary diversion for a product which I don't find appealing. Later, Sony announced they had a thousand personnel working on a new 135-format ("full frame") sensor CineAlta that'll come out at some point in a few years, be really expensive, and will prove to be a PITA to pull focus on. No thanks.

It's also no small thing that EVA1 is petite: less than 7" long, and less than 6" wide and tall. She also weighs less than 3lbs. She's pretty much perfect for jib and stabilizer work, as well as being outfitted for heavier rig work, but with a total rig weight of "not very much" since EVA1 already is light as a feather. A few extra pounds won't make a lot of difference, I don't think. I'm sure she'll be quite strong as I've always been impressed with Panasonic's build quality. To put it bluntly (and to echo a joke from the movie "Airplane"), I like my cameras the way I like my women: petite, smart, strong, and black...with red trim. Joking aside, I think EVA1 is an absolute winner.

A few niggles: it's unclear at this point what the exact dual native ISO specs will be. We also have no idea what the new sensor's dynamic range will be, or if AU-EVA1's image quality will be anywhere near par to the AU's sister Varicam line. We also don't know what the actual MSRP or street price will be. Some other people are very interested in EVA1's ability to auto focus with EF lenses, as well as what it's OIS compatibility will be. I'm not personally interested in either of these functions, so it's not really a thing, but some people are concerned so, for them, it's worth mentioning. What is of concern to me is how the internal codecs will all play with each other, as well as what sort of sensor cropping are we looking at depending on codec, recording format, frame rates, etc. But, these are all little things that Panasonic is tweaking and will disclose in full before the camera ships this fall. Again, I'd prefer a locking EF mount, but having a bayonet version is not a deal breaker.

Is the Panasonic AU-EVA1 my next cinema camera? I believe EVA1 could be a stellar addition to my small family of motion picture cameras, partially retiring my Blackmagic Cinema Camera, and allowing my Panasonic AG-DVX200 to focus on what it does best: reality/ENG work. It would be my intent for EVA1 to handle the TVCs, music videos, shorts, and feature films that come my way. I can't wait to see what EVA1's official specs will be when they are announced later this year. Panasonic says EVA1 is on track to be released by the end of 2017. I still need to see footage to be sure, but I'm looking forward to holding her in my hands soon and seeing what she's made of. That's when I'll really know.

Resources:
http://business.panasonic.com/AU-EVA1.html
http://business.panasonic.co.uk/professional-camera/camcorders/AU-EVA1-cinema-compact-camera-for-cinematic-moments
http://pro-av.panasonic.net/en/eva1/index.html


Panasonic's "Next Camera"

There is only speculation at this point. Panasonic has announced a new cinema camera at NAB Show 2017 this week. However, that's all anyone really knows. There are exactly zero details about the camera released by Panasonic during the tease. Panasonic representatives on the NAB Show floor have offered only scanty hints of what this new camera is all about.

A mock-up of the new camera rests under veil within a thick glass case at the Panasonic booth at NAB Show between the new GH5 and the current Varicam line-up of LT, 35, and Pure. This suggests a camera that fills that void, offering more capability than the GH5, a stills camera, but not as robust (or expensive) as the Varicam LT. The bullet points above the veiled prop admit the camera is "small and light," has "cinematic imagery," will feature "low-cost media, workflow," and will be "available Fall 2017." That's it. When asked what to call this new mystery camera, Mitch Gross, Panasonic North America's Cinema Product Manager, during an interview stated simply it is Panasonic's "next camera."

How soon until the full reveal? Thankfully, that will come the first week of June at Cine Gear Expo in Los Angeles, only five weeks away.

Personally, I have been dreaming of a successor to the venerable, yet under-appreciated, AF100 from 2010. Being an owner/operator of DVX200, I am in love with the fixed-lens camcorder for video projects and some cinema-style work such as TV commercials and music videos. However, the DVX200's biggest advantage is also it's biggest obstacle: the fixed lens. It's a great lens, but having a uni-body camcorder means I never will have the option to use something else. I'm stuck with that lens. Don't get me wrong: it's actually wonderful to never worry about changing lenses, carrying those lenses with me everywhere, risking dropping them during a change, dirtying up the sensor, and other things; but, man, it sure is nice to change lenses sometimes.

For the majority of my work over the past few years has been reality in-nature. I've shot a lot of corporate videos, event videos, wedding videos, interviews, news segments, et cetera. Before I purchased DVX200, I was using my current cinema camera, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera 2.5K EF which I purchased in 2013. Also, a great camera, but hell to use in a reality situation. The cage and rigging makes it bulky and heavy, the lenses need to be changed. There's no ND wheel. White balancing is a chore. Audio has to be recorded externally, and there's a big brick battery lazily affixed to the cage. It's fine for a controlled set, but daunting when covering an event; something that only happens once.

With DVX200, since May of last year, I've only shot a few projects with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera as the majority of my work has been videography. 2016 was also the year I finally purchased a set of proper cinema lenses: the PL-mount SLR Magic APO Hyperprimes. Now, I need to start looking at upgrading my cinema camera. Lately, I have been eyeing the Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro. However, I most likely will not be in a position ready-to-buy until end of the year. With Panasonic's tease of a new cinema camera that just might be a spiritual successor to the AF100, or a straight-up AF200, my interest is piqued.

Panasonic Pro Europe posted this to their Instagram account.

I left the following comment:

So, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess it's [basically] an AF200: DVX200 body and features, m4/3 lens mount (with Super 35 sensor?), internal 10-bit 4:2:2 ProRes (please!) up to DCI 4K, and that flipping LCD has a snap-on loupe. I imagine it'd actually be the same 4/3" sensor in the GH5. Not a Varicam, but would play well with V-log L. 13 stops of dynamic range? Probably aiming to compete with FS5 and 7, and C100-300. Might even be a non-raw competitor to Ursa Mini, and if it's priced lower, all bets are off. Whatever this thing is, I am excited. We'll know at Cine Gear Expo...

Looking at the lens in the silhouette image, it is definitely a Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM Art. I'm going to venture that is a fixed EF mount. I would imagine it is a M4/3 sensor, however, Panasonic might be alright with letting us have a Super 35 sensor. It's not going to be a Varicam. It's going to be a spiritual successor to the AF100 (or, the AF200). It has the same silhouette as the DVX200, minus the rear EVF and affixed lens. AF100 was basically an HVX200 body. This seems like the logical progression of things. It took forever for a successor to DVX100, and it was announced in 2015. I think this would make sense to announce an AF100 successor (again, either spiritually or a literal AF200), that would share the concept of the DVX200, but with an interchangeable lens and, hopefully, better internal codecs. Has anyone noticed that the LCD swivels horizontally (yaw roll)? That, by itself, is exciting.

Personally, I'd love an Ursa Mini Pro...unless something better comes along at the same or better price when I'm ready to buy. And, technically, i am doing just fine with my current cameras so I don't want to upgrade my cinema camera until I can afford to do so, and with a product I know will serve mine and my clients' needs. But, I have a cinema camera. I needed to upgrade the video camera I bought in 2010, so I bought the DVX200 (again, I would LOVE a cinema camera in a DVX200 body). Then I needed cinema glass, and then a nicer field audio recorder, etc. Late 2017/early 2018, I'm looking to upgrade the cinema camera I bought in 2013. Ursa Mini Pro has been the top contender. Who knows about this new Panasonic? I like Panasonic very, very much. So, even if it doesn't do internal raw, if everything else is very strong, my choice could definitely go in Panasonic's direction.

Meanwhile, user Osslund on DVXuser posted the following rumor yesterday:

Just got this info about the new camera. It will have a S35 sensor and 14 stops of dynamic range. 4k up to 60fps. 1080p up to 120fps. All the usual stuff like ND, SDI/HDMI out. The body is very light weight at about 1 kg. Media used will be SDXC cards with dual slot capacity.

The camera pars can be broken down and the shape of the camera is a mix of C100 and FS5. As is the price in the league of a C100 mkII.

If even parts of that are actually correct, Panasonic's "next camera" could very well be an Ursa Mini Pro killer for me. Regardless, the prospect of an "AF200" is super exciting. Too bad I can't be in Las Vegas this week to try and peak through the cloth.


Working With LUTs

A member of DVXuser posted a question about LUT workflow and this was my answer.

My basic workflow is prep, shoot, ingest, edit, mix (sound), color (where you apply the LUT and do your coloring), deliver and pray. It is more complicated than that, but I want to keep things simple. Well, actually...

First, what is a LUT? A 'Look Up Table' is a way of ascribing to a digital image the way colors are mapped or those values are assigned. They can describe how 'yellow' orange is, for example. Colors evoke a mood and it is part of the psychology that goes into setting the tone of a show using the visual language of that show which is a combination of production design, lighting, composition, blocking (both talent and camera) and stage direction, performance (including timing, expression and blocking), even goes as deep as the 'flow' of the show; i.e., where the cuts go and how they relate to the performance and the camera moves, etc...since those should be planned and shot for on-the-day. This whole 'fix it in post' thing is a crutch, but I digress. Also, 'flow' is part of 'tone' and is different from 'workflow'.

Speaking of 'workflow': there are a lot of different ways to go about this and answers are generally subjective depending on a bunch of parameters. Basically, you need to find a workflow you prefer and one that keeps your clients happy. Some folk like the look of logarithmic footage without processing of any kind. Other folk grade it so much it looks like terrible, cheap consumer video. Most of the professional stuff you see in broadcast media and movie theaters are graded in some way. Only occasionally do you come across some old-school film peeps who create the look both on the day via filmstock, filters and gels, and in the lab, avoiding a DI process altogether. That's 'Digital Intermediate', by the way: the phase the edited footage goes through the coloring process, usually with the colorist in some combination with the show's DP, producer or director. 'Digital' because it's done on computer, and 'Intermediate' because it is the process between editing and duping – 'duplication'...lots of stuff newbies need to look up.

The basic workflow stems from the idea that you generally shoot something with the intent of it looking a certain way which is planned between the script-writing phase and the production phase; usually to help the visual language of a show (read: movies, music videos, TV series with any number of different styles or genres on display) evoke an emotional response from its intended audience. The visual language of the show as a whole, or sequences within the show, or scenes within the sequences within the show as a whole, or individual shots within the scenes within the sequences within the show as a whole, can be treated visually different from each other, but generally a show develops its basic look and style within its first few seconds to ground the audience and establish something we like to call 'tone'. Establishing the show's tone goes a long way to help suspend the audience's disbelief and allow them to either enjoy your show or change the channel. That is why you can not start watching a movie from the middle and why comedies are generally broadly lit with saturated colors and dramas usually have a lot of shadows with muted colors.

Sometimes you want to break up sections of your show (like dramatic acts or sequences or scenes) with different palettes but the general tone of a show should be consistent throughout. I shall use the classic fantasy adventure film "The Empire Strikes Back" as an example. It starts with a cold environment with lots of whites and blues; the good guys have bits of orange intercut with the militaristic bad guys' grays and deep blacks. The second act has deep greens, reds and oranges, with the third act becoming much colder, all intercut with those grays and deep blacks of the bad guys. All of it has a slightly cool look with desaturated highlights and midtones with shadows that like to dip into blue. It is a generally blue-ish movie: cold and subjective, which aid the film's anxious tone...but without becoming depressing. When our heroes finally admit their love for one another, the camera is closer and the orange and reds of the room penetrate the scene. "Empire" is the most dramatic of the Star Wars movies, and a terrific film by itself (how I prefer it) which I encourage you to watch with the sound muted. In fact, you need to start watching everything with muted sound. If you can't follow along, then it's not good storytelling.

"You have to learn why things work on a starship." – Captain James T. Kirk

Once you have the tone in mind and have established what sections should look like what without betraying that tone you want the show to establish, then you go about testing different films, cameras, lenses, filters, lights, gobos and intermediate processes (where LUTs come in) along with production design such as wardrobe, the colors of the sets, makeup, props, etc...and combinations of all of that – with talent, or at least stand-ins – to ensure the tone you're going for will be served. Or, you watch a movie or two and decide that you want your movie to look like someone else's movie, but better-er-er. Whatever. Point is: come up with the show's tone before you shoot.

Nowadays it is all very simple because you can have video reference monitors with the ability to import LUTs so you can pretty much see what the final show will sorta look like on the day. You generally light with a style that considers the tone and look and feel of the show and the LUT is a part of that. Seeing it on the day in the monitor is nice but should not be the only thing. It is merely a guide for everyone else except the DP who should know better and understand that, despite the base LUT, the show will still need to be properly graded and shots individually tweaked or corrected.

There is this neat vignette on the collector's edition of David Fincher's excellent "Seven" where his go-to colorist shows examples of coloring that special edition of the film for home video release in what film critic Jeff Shannon described as "a fascinating exploration of the audio remixing and video remastering process, demonstrating the subtleties of digital color and tone manipulation." It uses the final scene as an example: shots done days or weeks apart and show with various lenses and lighting conditions all need to match so they look like the scene takes place all in the same place at the same time. That's what coloring is all about. A LUT will help you get there, but you still need to have an understanding of what's going on outside.

A LUT is simply another tool in the box.

What I am saying is you can not shoot something and then apply a LUT willy-nilly like it is a magic potion that will make everything look legit. You have to plan, you have to shoot for that plan and then execute the plan. You marry into it...even if it was the wrong decision; you commit. Because you would rather spend two years making a movie than two hours watching one. I digress, and no it is not a simple answer at all. A LUT is simply another tool in the box. Logarithmic profiles are another tool. Variable frame rates, DCI 4K and servo zooms are other tools. They all work together to serve the show – whatever it is – whatever message you are trying to say, story you are trying to tell or feeling you want to make the audience feel.

They are only tools and you need to learn them.

Once you know the rules, then you can start breaking them and that is where the fun begins. That is when you can tell a story backwards or use visual metaphors or whatever. That is why experimental films are usually shot by amateurs simply learning their craft, whereas when an established filmmaker creates an experimental film they are usually more coherent. They are better at using their tools to do what they want them to do; build the house that they want to build. Then we can prattle on about foundations like concept, idea, story, script, etc.

It is true the best LUT in the world can not fix broken footage, but also the best footage in the world can not fix a bad performance, bad direction or a bad script. They are all pieces to this enormous puzzle...even when you are just shooting a few interviews, stuff needs to be considered. You need good sound, good light, good composition, good answers, good questions, a motive. You do not simply show up and shoot without looking at the location and deciding whether to use the windows or not, the desk or not, that lamp on the table or not. Movies do the same thing except they consider that on paper and then design and build their sets with the intention of it all serving the style and tone of the movie that helps tell the story in the most appropriate way. That is what it is all about: being appropriate in regard to how the story is told.

That is what it is all about: being appropriate in regard to how the story is told.

Getting back to it: you can certainly ingest your footage, apply your LUT and color, export the graded footage and import that footage into your editor and go from there. Or, you can round-trip by editing the footage, exporting the timeline into a grading software where you do the coloring and then take that back into the editor to tweak and export deliverables. Or, have a one-app solution where you can both edit and color at once on the same timeline in the same app. Apple's Final Cut Pro and Blackmagic Design's DaVinci Resolve come to mind.

I use FCPX 10.2.3 which does not natively support Panasonic's V-log (Varicam) or V-log L (DVX200, GH4) at this time, though you may use another flavor of log-to-REC.709 it does support, such as Canon's C-log. Regardless, you still need to process your footage. For more precise controls there are a number of plug-ins available to grant FCPX the ability to assign LUTs and subsequently correct and grade footage. I use LUT Utility with FCPX's Color, or Color Finale Pro from Color Grading Central.


Why I Will Not Fly a Drone for Work...Yet

Update, July 10, 2017: as of today I will now fly a drone for work.

Update: DOT and FAA Small UAS Part 107 ruling allows an individual to earn a special drone pilot license for commercial applications. More info here.

I tend to do a lot of research before I invest into anything. As a professional filmmaker I have experienced a rising interest from clients who wish to have aerial footage for their videos. Last year, I demanded an aerial shot to begin my short film Immobile. The demand is there, and as I began to look into purchasing my own unmanned aerial camera platform, I decided to take a look at the law. You know? For giggles. As it turns out, there is quite a bit of rigamarole to work through.

To put it simply: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) governs the sky above the United States of America. They demand all Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) where the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV or "drone") weighs more than half a pound but less than fifty-five pounds, be registered before taking off into the nation's sky. This has quite a lot of benefits, requires only a few weeks of waiting and a fee of $5 to be repeated once every three years. Not a problem. I can still pick up a DJI Phantom 4 and fly it around in my living room for practice until the paperwork arrives at my doorstep.

Affordable, professional 4K aerial footage is definitely a service I wish to offer my clients.

As far as the FAA is concerned, any UAV in operation is as important as a big 747 carrying three-hundred passengers, so a mandatory registration makes sense. If you want to fly your little drone around safely in a public park away from pedestrians and people's private property and you keep your eyes on it at all times and always use common sense in its operation, then you've done all you need to legally do.

But what if you've been hired to take your drone up and snap some shots of someone's business? This is where things gets silly.

Affordable, professional 4K aerial footage is definitely a service I wish to offer my clients. However, for commercial purposes the FAA demands that all light aircraft – including your UAV – be flown by a licensed and certified pilot. This means either hiring a pilot with sUAS experience to man your drone, or you spend several months and tens of thousands of dollars to become a licensed pilot with the certifications necessary to fly commercial aircraft. Because I'm not a pilot, nor do I know any with mad sUAS skills, that basically means that my UAV can not legally be used as a professional video or photography tool. Getting caught means an extremely steep fine and a few years in prison.

Until the FAA makes allowances for a simple ground certification for commercial sUAS use (like getting a drivers license) I don't see how I can legally offer unmanned aerial footage services to my clients at this point in time. Considering the pressure professional videographers and photographers like myself are placing on the FAA to make things right, this will all hopefully change soon. In the meantime, I will have plenty of time to practice recreational flying in the park with my DJI Phantom 4.


For more information on the legality of commercial drone usage, I suggest you take a look at Jeff Foster's article "New FAA Drone Registration Made Easy", as well as Mike Fortin's article "FAA 333 Approved, But are you Complying?", both at Drone Coalition. Mister Foster also has a lengthy essay on the developments of sUAS law at Pro Video Coalition titled "Keep Calm: The FAA and sUAVs/Drone Rules". Timothy McDougal has written an informative article for B&H's Explora titled "Drones and the Law: The Sky's Not the Limit". You may also peruse the FAA's Section 333 itself by visiting this link.


Achieving the Film "Look"

Traditionally, motion pictures shot on 35mm film have a certain "look." Ostensibly, this "look" is achieved with digital cameras by shooting at 24 frames per second, with no more, or less, than two shutter exposures per frame, a shallow depth of field, with a field of view and dynamic range relatively similar to that of human vision. So, we can say 24 fps, 1/48 or 180º shutter, an exposure in the Super 35 or Academy 35 standards no more narrow than T5.6, and a lens length somewhere around 28mm in the previously mentioned standards.

But, anyone can do this.

The thing you see mentioned less is lighting for drama, interesting composition, motivated blocking, when to be subtle, when not to be subtle, etc.; all measured appropriately in the service of advancing the story. Production design, costume design, and other departments all align as part of a film's visual language to advance the emotion of the story.

When done well, all are seamless and never thought of; never does a good movie scream out "look at me!" in terms of how well someone did their job with the design or build or performance. The audience is looking and committed to living briefly in the world projected before their eyes by commenting on how well they were transported there. Only afterward and on subsequent viewings should an audience be allowed to think, "gosh, those buildings are well designed." Or, "I wonder how they got those cars to fly." The suspension of disbelief is only as good as the subtlety of the work of the motion picture crew. Later, you can exclaim, "the person who designed those costumes should get an award." The audience should not be imagining what lens was used, where the matte painting ends or what other movie they saw that actor in.

Therefore, I propose that suspension of disbelief created by a well-executed plan involving craftsmanship, artistry and storytelling, is as important to achieving "the film look" as any of the technical aspects. Remember, our role as filmmaker, particularly as a cinematographer, is a heady combination of science and art. Those are our tools more than any frame per second.

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


Sony PXW-FS5 vs Blackmagic Ursa Mini 4.6K

The gap between the FS7 and FS700R is no more. Sony announced the PXW-FS5, a miniature version of their F5, I suppose. It's a sexy Super35 digital motion picture camera sporting the versatile E-mount and offering 4K in XAVC Long GOP 4:2:2 at 100 MB/s, S-Log3, and 240fps in full HD 4:2:2 sans sensor crop. Sony says it should be out in time for Thanksgiving. So how does it stand up against the upcoming Blackmagic Ursa Mini 4.6K? Read more


Panasonic AG-AF100 First Impressions

I'm not interested in turning my little blog into a news website, but I do sometimes mention things that are relevant to what my site is all about: me and my creative and personal interests, one of which is independent film-making. Earlier this week Panasonic announced a new camcorder: the AG-AF100 to be released sometime this fall. What's interesting is that the AF100 is basically an HVX200 that records 1080/24P AVCHD with the depth of field of the Micro 4/3 GH1 (a DSLR) with an interchangeable lens mount.

Micro 4/3 is slightly smaller than APS-C (Canon DSLRs), which itself is slightly smaller than 35mm film, so one should not expect the same depth of field of, however the Micro 4/3 is a great deal larger than current NTSC/PAL or HD video cameras so the depth of field does come much closer to approximating that of 35mm film than other camcorders of this kind, in the estimated price range of $6,000.

This is big news for film-makers looking for the kind of HD video a DSLR can help give you, while offering familiar Panasonic camcorder controls and a host of interchangeable lenses at a price that is very attainable. Of course, I'm a big fan of Panasonic sensors (reminds me of Fujifilm) and it means I won't have to worry about depth of field adapters, step up rings and the problems of adding more glass in front of the primary lens. Now, you just have the lens you want to use and you're shooting with a nice, shallow depth of field.

But, I'm currently happy with my Canon EOS 550D. :)


Star Trek Movie Villains

Here is my list of personal favorite [major] villains from the Star Trek feature films, in order, from least to most favorite. Note that I do not consider the probes from Star Trek: The Motion Picture or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home proper villains.

UPDATE (June 1, 2013): revised to include Khan from Star Trek: Into Darkness.

10. Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Not a slap in the face to actor Luckinbill, but the writing for the character was rather tepid and the notion of Spock having an "evil" half-brother was sort of lame.

9. Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), Star Trek: Into Darkness

It's not that Cumberbatch is a bad actor (in fact, I loved him in BBC's "Sherlock" series), but all these new Star Trek movies are magic shows: they try to razzle dazzle (misdirect) you with one hand while the "trick" is performed by the other hand while you're distracted. Sure, magic tricks are fun and all, but in the end, it's just a trick. And just like there really is no such thing as magic, for the Star Trek movies, the writers are a bunch of hacks who can't come up with anything more than a rehash of stuff we've seen before...again. Of course, that's what being a "hack" means. Despite the on-screen charisma of Cumberbatch's performance, Khan develops into nothing more than a standard action movie bad guy.

8. Nero (Eric Bana), Star Trek

There's a lot of villains in the Star Trek universe whose motivation is paralleled by Melville's Captain Ahab and his quest for vengeance against a certain white whale. Nero was the least developed, and least interesting of them all.

7. Dr. Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell), Star Trek: Generations

Not really a bad guy, Soran just wanted to return to paradise and was so tired of trying that he didn't care who had to die for that to happen. McDowell is great, but his misanthropic antics came in a vast fifth place to all the other shenanigans going on between the other characters (the script seemed to think Data's cat was more interesting). In the end, Soran was more of a slight nuisance than a great villain.

6. Ad'har Ru'afo (F. Murray Abraham), Star Trek: Insurrection

Some nice, evil moments from Abraham as the sadistic (and tragic) Ru'afo who wanted to pull the magic carpet out from under Aladdin and ride it himself. Both parts revenge and jealousy-driven, Ru'afo could have been a great villain but was hurt by not being developed enough to feel sorry for, a humanity that the character needed for depth; a humanity later shown between his lieutenant, Gallatin, who is forgiven by his mother.

5. Praetor Shinzon (Tom Hardy), Star Trek: Nemesis

Even with the borishness of underdeveloped villains, there is such as thing as over development and that's what Shinzon ultimately suffers from. The writers tried too hard to give Picard his equal in evil; his nemesis — says so right in the title — but despite the great work by actor Hardy to bring us a rich and ultimately flawed (in a dramatically good way) character, we're given someone that we have to think about too much and, as such, we can never full appreciate the character and let him be what any good villain should be: fun.

4. Borg Queen (Alice Krige), Star Trek: First Contact

The exact opposite of Shinzon, Krige's villain is fun in all the right spots. From her grand entrance to her gruesome demise, the Borg Queen oozed smart, sexy and sinister in one finely crafted skin-tight latex package. The Queen was the devil, for all intents and purposes, and her use of lust and greed to lure poor Data into a twisted affair is just pure evil, and very well done. Still, just a standard movie villain and better than Shinzon, but not as good as...

3. Commander Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), Star Trek III: The Search For Spock

I love Kruge. Not only is he played with absolute demonic glee by funnyman Christopher Lloyd whose only previous work had been the sitcom Taxi, but Kruge thought the rest of the Klingon Empire was run by a bunch of bureaucratic wusses and decided to take on the Federation all by himself. Then he murders his hot Klingon lover because she knew too much, and had Kirk's son killed just to prove he was "sincere" about being evil gangster. Then when a gunner gets a lucky shot and blows up an enemy ship when he wanted prisoners, Kruge whips out his pistol and incinerates the dude right there in front of everyone, and then calls the dead guy an "animal". Kruge had the tenacity to attempt a sneak attack on the Enterprise which, he admits, outnumbered him 10 to 1. Later, Kruge totally didn't care about dying in battle with Kirk on the erupting Genesis planet, and he had a nasty evil dog pet that he just loved more than anything. He also gives Kirk the chance to give him one of the best deaths in any movie, ever: Kirk kicks him in the face yelling "I...have HAD...enough of...YOU!" until Kruge falls to his death, immolated in molten hot magma.

2. General Chang (Christopher Plummer), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Having Christopher Plummer play a Shakespearean-sized villain next to Shatner's Shakespearean-sized Kirk was brilliant. Brilliantly written, cast and directed, Chang not only shared the same motif with Kirk as a larger-than-life celebrity hero of his respective culture, he also quoted Shakespeare in a tactless battle of wits as he showered the Enterprise in cannon fire from an invisible warship. "In space, all warriors are cold warriors" he reminds Kirk with schoolboy giddiness. Chang wanted to hospitalize Kirk right there at the dinner table, but couldn't because he had bigger and meaner things in the works; like conspiring with Federation and Romulan agents the complete destruction of the Federation by forcing the Klingon Empire into galactic war. And Kirk is out of the picture as Chang had him arrested, completely humiliating the Federation into doing anything the Klingons wanted. This one-eyed PetaQ had it comin', Kirk style.

1. Khan (Ricardo Montalban), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

What can I say? Have you ever heard the Klingon proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold? It is, as Khan correctly points out, very cold in space. As far as Ahabs and white whales go, Khan was the Moby Dickest. A one-time prince of the entire WORLD, beaten back and sent off into the vast wilds of space in cryo freeze to go be some other planet's problem, Khan is found decades later by the sweet, trusting Enterprise and begins his reign of terror again by taking over the ship and boinking all the hot female nurses while Kirk could shook his head. But, ah!, a battle of wits ensues and both Kirk and Khan are so awesome that they can't out-awesome the other. So they call a truce: Khan gives Enterprise back to Kirk and then gets his own lush planet and the pick of the hot female nurses. Khan, obviously given the sweetest deal, shakes hands with Kirk as the captain promises to check up on him from time to time.

Well guess what? By the time we get to Star Trek II, Kirk did nothing for Khan! While Kirk was gallivanting around the stars, Khan's neighboring planet exploded and shifted the way his planet spins, causing the whole thing to become a desolate, bleak, inhospitable desert world that would make Dune look like a Caribbean beach resort.

When some Starfleet science flunkies decide to investigate Khan's solar system for a crappy planet to play with their new toy upon, Khan takes over their ship, slaughters the crew and turns the toy into a weapon that could destroy everyone, everywhere. But he only wants one thing: to kill the man who betrayed and caused the death of his crew and his beloved wife: the pick of the hottie nurses. What a waste. Even his mates tell him, "dude you've saved us and proven how awesome you are. You don't need to kill Kirk" and Khan's like, "I'll destroy the universe looking for this guy". And when he finally catches up to Kirk he doesn't even kill him, he toys with him more, leaving him stranded on some lifeless asteroid somewhere. "I shall leave you as you left me, as you left her; marooned for all eternity in the center of a dead planet... buried alive! Buried aliiive!"

Khan would have won but as Spock pointed out, he was inexperienced behind the wheel of a starship and his blood lust for Kirk ultimately blinded him to the bitter end. The parallels between Khan and Melville's Ahab are completely opaque as he quotes from Moby Dick his last words: "To the last, I will grapple with thee... from Hell's heart, I stab at thee! For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee!"

Brilliantly conceived, written, directed and performed, Khan was the penultimate performance of the late Ricardo Montalban and one of the greatest movie villains ever portrayed. They don't get better than Khan in Star Trek. Some get close (Chang), some try too hard (Shinzon) and others miss the mark completely (Nero), but there is only one best Star Trek villain: and that is saved for Ricardo Montalban's Khan.


Special Effects

Here is an essay I wrote in the "War of The Worlds" (2005) forum at IMDB.com concerning a thread titled "Best Effects scene in history?"

You ALL have to remember that the best visual effects are the ones that you, the audience, don't realize are a visual effect. For that, a special mention MUST be made to the work Industrial Light and Magic did in Forrest Gump. Everything from the ping pong ball to the rain in Vietnam and of course the digital integration of archival footage. The work ILM did made "Forest Gump" a verb. (ex. "They'll need to 'Forest Gump' that actor into the scene.")

Also, have you realized that the majority of the movies mentioned in this thread were the work of Industrial Light and Magic and that they weren't even around until Star Wars. Nor did they do anything other than Star Wars until Dragonslayer, which boasts some of the greatest Star Wars-era VFX of all time.

This is why I must give credit to Stanley Kubrick who was directly responsible for the visual effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which redefined what invisible visual effects were all about without motion control technology. 2001 sold the idea that VFX don't have to look fake. John Dykstra and the newly formed ILM took that idea a step further by making VFX dynamic with computer-controlled movement for Star Wars.

Also, the outstanding work displayed in Alien by director Ridley Scott who was appalled at the shots that came back from the London effects shop and personally supervised and shot the visual effects from scratch to ensure his vision of realism was not tarnished. Much of that work did not use motion control or compositing in any way.

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Looking at The Empire Strikes Back as not only my favorite Star Wars movie but also one of my favorite movies, period, the context of the visual effects enhancing Irvin Kirshner's storytelling as well as acknowledging that the effects don't scream "look at me! I'm a visual effect!" as does The Lord of The Rings and The Matrix. The majority of the work on TESB was stop motion photography. That serves to remind me of the fantastic mine cart chase in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom where EVERY SHOT except for close-ups of the actors, was stop motion photography of tiny little puppets on a tiny little stage. The tiny model train that careens over the cliff in Back To The Future Part III that looked so real.

And though I agree that the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London is hands-down the best human turning into a werewolf scene of all time, I disagree that it is a visual effect and it is, rather, a mechanical effect. This qualifies it as a "special effect" but it removes it from the category of "visual effect". To clarify, in Jurassic Park, the shot of the velociraptor jumping up on the kitchen counter is a visual effect because it was composited into the shot. The shot of the raptor snarling was a puppet that was shot on location in camera and required no compositing and is therefore a mechanical effect.

All are special effects as acknowledged by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences when it had to come to that ruling when deciding who should get the Academy Award, ILM or Stan Winston? Both did.

But to place the transformation scene in American Werewolf as an argument for great special effects when also mentioning "effects films" like Titanic and Terminator 2 would probably be the reason no one here has seen it. A COMPLETE fascination of special effects ranging from the visual (a Star Destroyer), the mechanical (the doughnut hole in the T-1000's head), and the make-up (Chewbacca) effects.

Keeping that in mind, I can have a list that includes AAWIL and John Carpenter's The Thing right beside Star Wars. I also really love that shot in Jaws when the shark eats the boy scout leader. That still freaks me out.