It was only four years ago when everyone was saying the 5D2 was “unfit” for professional productions. Everyone loved the look, but thought it was a gimmick or a toy (or at best a B camera). While everyone else was hating, I felt like I had finally found my paintbrush. Finally I had a camera I could use to create images I had never seen before.
Now I’d be hard pressed to find a production without at least one DSLR hanging around, but four years later I’d also be hard pressed to find a DSLR that was significantly better than the 5D2. The 1DX offered a creamier image with no moire and less rolling shutter, but it’s bigger and more expensive. The 5D3 has better lowlight and a headphone jack, but its “improved” image quality suffocated much of the magic from the 5D2. The 1DC gave us the first 4K DSLR, but, with its worse rolling shutter, giant file sizes, and inefficiently compressed images, it doesn’t provide a drastic amount of latitude in post.
As much as I loved the form factor and intimacy of a DSLR, it was getting harder and harder to take out the 5D each day. With cameras like the F55 and Blackmagic Cinema Camera showing up promising amazing latitude and flexibility in post, I wanted more from Canon and the cameras they were trying to sell me.
Fortunately that all changed when Magic Lantern’s g3gg0 and a1ex brought the 5D3 back ahead of the curve with their Raw module. At first I was skeptical, but once I saw Andrew Reid’s initial tests I knew this was a revolution I wanted to be a part of. As was the case with DSLRs four years ago, everyone is excited to shoot RAW, but they think the format and Magic Lantern are “unfit” for professional use. Once again, I feel like this is wrong, and I decided to go make the first 5D3 RAW narrative film to see how this new ability stands up against a real set.
One of the hallways in NYC's Pier 57.
Cinematographer Luke Taylor called me up and said to drop everything I was doing and meet him on NYC’s West Side Highway. I stood outside of Pier 57 and saw a construction crew and a rundown space, wondering what I was in store for. Once I stepped foot inside, however, I saw a gift from the cinematic gods.
The green room. I've never seen paint peel off the wall this way before. Almost like a snake shedding its skin.
Pier 57 is the legacy of post–World War II engineering at the height of passenger and freight ocean liners. After a decline of ocean liners by the dawn of commercial airlines, the space was turned into a MTA bus depot for the next 30 years. Now run down and forgotten, Pier 57 is set to be transformed into a new out-of-the-box cultural hub and creative marketplace by the developers, Young Woo & Associates.
Shal scouting one of Piers 57's crumbling hallways.
Luke has been working with Young Woo & Associates’ He-myong Woo to document the space through construction. Work began on the ground level, but upstairs was a maze of colorful hallways and peeling paint. With only 10 days left until the upstairs space would be gutted, Luke asked if I wanted to try to make a film in the space. I quickly called up fellow director Shal Ngo and asked him to come see the space and collaborate with Luke and me on the project. With the help of Shal's producer Matt McLaughlin we began to create SKIN.
Shal working with Jamie to refine her movements before the shoot.
We wanted to create a tactile, visceral short film that would literally bring this strange space to life. GIRL A (played by Cassie Mills) would walk the halls exploring the space while GIRL B (played by Jamie Simone) would live out the effects of GIRL A’s actions. Neither Shal nor I are big on artist's statements (especially not for a 3-minute short), but if you'd like to learn more about the concept, feel free to download and view our original treatment for the short HERE.
Based on the low-light scenarios we would encounter shooting in the Pier, we knew this was the perfect choice for a 5D3 RAW short. While I began work on figuring out the technology and workflow with Luke and DIT/Colorist Sam Gursky, Shal worked with Cassie and Jamie to help define their movements and interactions with the space. The choreography was inspired by Butoh dancing, and both dancers shifted between the roles of mother, lover, and daughter.
I SURVIVED 5D3 RAW THE RIDE & YOU CAN, TOO
Luke, Shal and I calibrate the Wonderscope before shooting.
We shot this film just over a month ago, and it’s amazing how far shooting 5D3 RAW and associated post workflows have come.
Even with all these improvements, I cannot advise you enough to perform full tests of your workflow before going onto set. Because of construction deadlines, we only had 3 days to prep the shoot. All of my compact flash cards arrived only the day before, and we never got to build the full rig before we walked onto set.
The team begins another round of Steadicam on Skin.
Shal and I were fortunate enough to have an amazing team of artists and technicians supporting us on the shoot. Without them, we would never have been able to solve all the hiccups that came our way. I describe some of these problems in the notes below, but I’m confident that 90% of them could have been avoided if I would have had time to complete a full tech rehearsal before the shoot.
On that note, I also truly believe you’d be crazy to try to go out there shooting RAW on your DSLR without buying EOSHD’s 5D Mark III Shooter’s Guide. The only reason I got ML working at all was because of Andrew's 4 Step Guide. Andrew does all the work and research for you. My only regret is that it didn’t exist while we were making Skin.
THE FIRST DSLR CHROMA KEY
My 1.5x Wonderscope on the 5D3.
One of the core elements of our film is that blood pours out of GIRL B's body when GIRL A rips off a piece of paint from the green room. We had four different colored rooms (and blood). We didn’t have a lot of time for retakes of the blood effects (much less time to shoot the same shot with alternate colors), so we had to pick parts of her body and hope for the best. Unfortunately, by the time we finished the edit our luck had run out.
As Shal and I walked into the color correct, we had the perfect shot of Cassie ripping green paint off the wall. We also had the perfect shot of Jamie’s back with blood pouring down it . . . except for the fact that the blood was blue.
Chroma keys have always been the worst enemy of the DSLR. Isolating a color without causing problems all over the rest of the image is next to impossible with the camera's traditional .H264 compression (or the 1DC's M JPEG Compression). Shal and I were pleasantly surprise (and beyond impressed) when Sam tried and succeeded at isolating the blood and turning it green.
In the following images you can see our process from ungraded ProRes 4444 to adding our look to the image to keying the blood. If you would like to download the original DNG and try it yourself, you can grab it HERE.
Original ProRes 4444
Graded footage with shockingly clean chroma key
I have always created picture profiles that get my DSLRs 80% of the way to the final image. I have never been able to create a true look out of 5D footage without introducing noise or other artifacts. Even at the best post houses, our attempts to isolate and change skin tones on 5D footage ends with banding and blocks of compression. My jaw dropped when I saw the flexibility that Sam had with the footage, but I was truly in love when we discovered our ability to truly isolate colors.
What’s amazing about shooting 5D3 RAW is that you have an amazing mix of latitude and personality. Each camera is like its own film stock. The RED has tons of latitude, but it always looks a bit monochromatic. Canon is just the opposite. Canon doesn’t want colors to look correct, they want them to look good. Everything is warm and amber, ready to pop off the screen, and that comes through even when shooting RAW. I will be a DSLR guy for life. Even when I am doing bigger jobs with bigger cameras, there is always a moment where I am pouting in a corner wishing I had my 5D.
After we finished Skin, I left NY for two weeks to direct a series of commercials shot on Sony F55s and Canon 1DCs. If Magic Lantern had been in its current state before I left (and I had the time to run propert tests), I would have gladly traded the 1DCs for 5D3 RAW. When you plug the 1DC into a monitor you see one of the most beautiful images in the world, but once you download the card, Motion JPEG compression rears its ugly head. .H264 compression seems to love to be underexposed, but the M JPEG needs a lot of light. This wouldn’t be a problem if the compression also didn’t handle blown-out highlights so poorly. The 1DC is blessed with an amazing chip and two powerful processors, but all the magic you see on the LCD never seems to translate to the final image. The 5D3 is an inferior camera to the 1DC in almost every way when it comes to specs, which is why it’s amazing that Magic Lantern has unlocked so much potential that the 5D3 now seems to come up on top.
I love shooting 4K. It’s fun, excites clients and makes you feel secure going into post, but if I could choose between 1DC 4K and 5D3 RAW 1920x1080 I would take the 5D3 in a heartbeat. The chroma key I showed above would have been nearly impossible with the 1DC. Being able to do that with your footage can and will save you on a job one day, and I would much rather save the day than shoot 4x the resolution of what I’m delivering in.
For me, shooting 5D3 RAW is similar to the feeling of shooting with the RED ONE when it first came out: a hot mess that I don’t want to give up. We all went through so many headaches for that camera, but we stuck with it because it was giving us an image that wasn’t possible with anything else. I hope that g3gg0 and a1ex can continue to improve on their RAW module and that the rest of the community will continue to help improve on the workflows. I would love to see the day very soon where I can shoot a job on nothing but 5D3 RAW.
Cassie bravely gets ready to go into the wall.
--The film was shot on May 24, 2013 using the May19 build of Magic Lantern. We recorded at 1600x1080 to create a square aspect ratio for the 1.5x anamorphic. We shot 1-minute takes because we did not have time to test ExFat. I don’t feel the 1-minute takes hurt our flow on set (especially since we didn’t have dialogue). It was like shooting with my Bolex again.
--We shot entirely on Steadicam using my Wonderscope 1.5x Anamorphic Lens. As we followed GIRL A down the halls, I used a 40mm f/2 taking lens wide open, shooting between 1250 and 5000 ISO. When we were in the room with GIRL B, I used a 58mm f/1.4 taking lens wide open at 5000 ISO. The close focus on the Wonderscope is 3'10", so we used 77mm B&W Diopters for our close-up and macro shots.
Cobra moves in to get the shot.
--Dave “Cobra” Ellis was responsible for all the magical movements on Steadicam. Camera Assistant James Madrid pulled from the distance using a Bartec wireless follow focus. Depending on the location, he would pull off a SmallHD DP6 or 17” Sony OLED monitor. We were able to monitor wirelessly using a Paralinx Arrow (http://www.paralinx.net).
--We used all natural light except for GIRL B's room, where Luke placed a battery-powered Arri Locaster (LINK) outside the door to add a little more stop. We would block GIRL B to the light as we changed positions and setups.
5D3 with Wonderscope on Cobra's sled ready for action.
--We ran into a lot of trouble with CF cards. I had purchased 2x 128gb, 2x 64gb and 2x 32gb KomputerBay cards for the shoot and half of them didn’t work for more than a few frames right out of the package. One of the 64gb cards was usable, but I found its record speeds to be inconsistent. Between each full-minute take we always had a 200-ish frame take that would drop a frame and quit. This was consistent with the card.
--Though they required me to shoot at a lower resolution, my 128GB SanDisk Extreme Pro cards were much more reliable.
--I cannot stress testing enough when using this module. Moore’s Law dished out a six pack of whoop ass throughout the day. Not having time to test the camera on Steadicam, we discovered that when you plug into an external monitor it seemed to eat up precious buffering and made us shoot a smaller resolution than I had tested. Also, CF cards I had no problems with during prep would decide to randomly work or not work throughout the day. I’m not sure if we made mistakes formatting them or what. The important thing is we made it through the shoo,t but I can’t stress making your rig rock solid before going out into the world.
We used only one source in the room and blocked Jamie around it depending on the shot.
--I always thought it was funny that DIT/Colorist Sam Gursky was the first one to suggest we make a 5D3 Raw short, because it was a workflow nightmare from the get-go. We were working on this prior to any utilities being released that would allow for this to utilize a traditional CDNG workflow, and we were rolling VERY hard, recording 528.27gb throughout the day. I never stopped importing and processing the .RAW files to DNG (one by one).
--After the shoot, Sam took these DNG sequences and made his adjustments (clip by clip) to create the ProRes 4444 files that were used for editing and color correction. Using his early 2011 iMac w/Thunderbolt and 16gb of RAM, it took Sam 4 days to transcode all the footage. By the end, he said his computer was so hot that it “could have literally cooked something.”
--Sam and EOSHD’s Andrew Reid had been working to create a Cinema DNG workflow but weren’t able to figure out the kinks in time for the shoot. We chose to finish in ProRes 4444 because we wanted Shal to have the flexibility to edit this like a traditional short and to not worry about workflow interfering with his process. Even while using the ProRes 4444 we were amazed by the amount of information that we were able to pull out in the grade, pulling clean qualifiers to hyper-saturated key colors.
Cassie preparing for her next scene.
--We graded in Resolve 9 on Sam’s Hackintosh system. After finishing the color correction, we brought the final output into After Effects, where we ran it through Neat Video to de-noise the High ISO footage. One of my favorite tricks is de-noising the footage before running it through Film Convert. Unlike other grain overlays, Film Convert really interprets the image, adding the right type of grain to shadows, mid tones and highlights. It's amazing how natural it looks and how it gives the appearance of sharpness to footage that had been softened by de-noising. I prefer the Fuji VD or Astia grain. Kodak grain hasn't looked good since Vision 1 (2 and 3 just look like video noise to me). I was very excited when I discovered that Film Convert supported some Fuji stocks which have more personality to their grain.
Luke was a hero with the 5D3 and saved the day again when he went back into the space with a RED EPIC for some pick ups.
--Luke Taylor went back the next day and shot some additional footage using a RED Epic. There are a handful of RED shots in the final piece. None of us could really tell the difference between the two sets of footage until we got to the final color grade. Grading the R3D files, we saw that the footage was sharper (it is 5K!), but we had a lot less color information, which made the two cameras harder to match. We believe this would have been easier if we would have been working with the 5D3 RAW files.
--One tip we learned in the color: shoot a grey card or chip chart as you would in the film days. Now that you are dealing with metadata and are able to manipulate so easily in post, these charts will help your DIT and colorist balance each shot much more quickly without having to guess.
Meagan and Tyler prepare Jamie.
--The makeup effects in the film were created by makeup artist Meagan Hester and her FX partner Tyler Green. Meagan was featured in season 4 of Faceoff and owns G&Hfx with Tyler, which creates high-end design for film and TV. These effects were subtly enhanced in post by Boardwalk Empire and The American’s Greg Radcliffe (www.gregradcliffe.com) with a Nuke system.
--Additional VFX (the breathing walls) were created by Anthony Ferrara (www.AnthonyFerraraNY.com) in After Effects.
Another shot of Meagan and Tyler's amazing prosthetic work.
--The sound design was created at Silver Sound by Robin Shore, who has been my partner in all things scary since Undercity. He was so enamored with the piece that he spent a weekend sanding a doorframe and searching through a sound library for someone destroying a piano to get the right mood and feel to the piece. Combined with a great score created by Attiss Ngo, we were able to use sound to help enhance all the magic the RAW Module allowed us to create.
--The shots of paint pouring down the walls was created on set by production designer Tiffany Chang. She really embraced the space and found the perfect set of items (that chair and carpet were perfect) to complement it. Jamie's part of the story is much more visceral to watch, but I think some of Tiffany and Meagan's best work was on Cassie. The perfect amount of dirt and wear on her dress—with that splash of worn makeup—made her character really come to life.
Whether 5D3 RAW is right for your production or not, it’s important to the ecosystem of filmmaking. We shouldn’t be imprisoned by our tools. We should be inspired by them. Thanks to the Magic Lantern team, I am as excited about shooting with my DSLR as I was when I first opened the box, and I will always be grateful to them for that gift.
Filmmaking is a team sport, and I could not have asked for better players to come out for Skin. I cannot thank Luke enough for thinking of me to let me check out the space. He was a true warrior not only handling DP duties but also coordinating with the location to make sure we had everything we needed on shoot day. Once Luke was done shooting, Sam took over as our rock. After four days of transcoding and slipping us in to color between his other jobs, Sam was the brains and brawn we needed to get this through post.
There would be no Skin without Shal Ngo. Shal has always been one of the most gifted visual filmmakers I have ever known, and I was very happy to have an opportunity to collaborate with him. If you look through his work you can see a lot of his trademarks all over the film. I am very grateful he was willing to work as co-director with me (always a hairy situation) and thought enough of the project to bring Matt in to help make it a real shoot.
Whatever your weapon of choice, I hope you have a chance to work with some great people and tell a story that makes you proud. If you have any questions about Skin or our experience shooting 5D3 RAW, please don’t hesitate to ask.