Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Camera Thoughts - RED vs. 5D Mark II Techie Geekery

So the independent filmmaking world has been totally changed by the DSLR video revolution and I think for the better, but we went with the RED anyway - here's a little blogg-age about what happened.

A little disclaimer: I'm not an expert on these techie things - I think I know enough to get by, and please feel free to tell me if I'm wrong on anything - I know you techie types like doing that. ;)

For those of you who haven't heard this whole deal: Canon came out with a camera last year, I think last year, called the 5D, it's DSLR or "Digital Single Lens Reflective" and it had a little feature in there where you had the option to shoot high definition video.

Side note: I own this camera for my still photography, so it seemed like the cheapest way to go, use my camera to shoot the short...

So, Canon admits that they put the video capability on there mostly for photo journalists at first as an afterthought (not sure how true that is), so some journalist could shoot off some video on the fly in a gun battle or something. At first the controls were all automatic and you had very little options, but it looked REALLY GOOD and people starting using their cameras to shoot films - sometimes shooting with the lens halfway in the mount of the camera body so they could manually adjust the aperture. Pretty crazy.

Here's the video that made shockwaves, so I've been told.


I think this is a pretty lame short - pretty people running around and looking pouty? He's late to pick her up, even with the helicopter? It was all a dream, but he still has to run out the door at the end? And who buys a girl like that sunflowers...come on man! - But it LOOKS amazing, and this video got a lot of people super jazzed and out shooting. Maybe cause we all said, "I can do better than that." This Youtube link isn't in HD though, but you get the idea. If you really care you can search the web for his website. But you won't. Ha.

Eventually, Canon was kind enough to release a firmware update so that the camera is now a full functioning HD video camera that can rival the RED. Onto that now...

So those of you who haven't heard of the RED before: It's the camera that rocked the filmmaking world about 3 or 4 years ago. It's a SUPER high definition video camera that was made from the ground up to be friendly to film crews. It is adaptable to lots of different lenses it's been used to shoot lots of feature films and the major thing is it is Higher Def than High Def. What!? Higher than High Def?!

So high def can be broken down in to Pixels right? If any of you have bought a T.V. in the past couple years you've probably come across the Scruffy Dude whining at you in Best Buy, "Oh, man, you just got to get 1080p, you just got to. Only way bro."

And as a new owner of a BlueRay / H.D.T.V. combo - yeah, listen to Scruffy Dude. If you are a visual junkie like me, at least. Oh, man - watching "Contact" will change your life: "They should have sent a poet..." Damn straight.

Sorry - the reason I bring all this up, is 'cause high def is 1920 x 1080 - that's pixels vertical by pixels horizontal, or visa versa - whatever! That's the size of High Def video, right? But the RED captures images at over 4000 pixels across by 2000-something vertical, so there isn't even anyway to display the amount of information you capture with the RED - the technology hasn't caught up to display something like that yet! There is so much information there. They are HUGE files!

So, Rider and Alex and I had many discussions about whether or not to shoot with the 5D DSLR or shoot with the RED.

We ended up having a camera test at Movieola with our Director of Photography, Yoram Astrakhan and Producer Mong Chan to play with a DSLR - here's a little clip:

It's mostly making Alex dance around in front of the camera. Which was fun. The guys at Movieola were super cool and patient with us.

During our test we discovered that there was no easy way to have a monitor off the camera, a "video village" for us to watch the filming. Also there isn't a viewfinder, which Yoram wasn't too happy about. You have to look at the back of the camera to check focus - not super reliable...hmm, couple strikes for the DSLR...

The topper was that the cost wasn't that much of a difference - we still had to rent lenses' and a rig for my 5D so it was only a couple hundred bucks more to go with the RED.

So that's what we did and now we are dealing with these HUGE files, but I think it was worth it. Our two 1st Assistant Camera men, Gunnar and Steve knew the RED well and made it all work smoothly - thanks guys.

I think a major part of it too was we realized as this project started to come together that we had a lot of great stuff going for us, the makeup and special effects and wardrobe were looking amazing, the casting and quality of the actors we had - the kick ass crew jumping on board and great locations - it just seemed that we should go with a system that had some history behind it of quality and reliability. And that was with the RED.

Sorry, little camera of mine.

Our next adventure in film making will be with the 5D, I'm sure.

(Whisper) My camera's in the room with me right now so I have to say that...

Sunday, April 18, 2010


So filming is all done, we are in the process now of dealing with the huge files from the RED camera and working on editing our little film but I thought it's be a good time to talk about our last night of filming.

We shot in my studio / living space downtown - it's a good amount of space, plenty for me and whenever I have a photo shoot I can push everything to one side and take me pictures no problem. And we don't need no permits in here.

Once we got 25 people in here with grip and lights and camera - it felt like Honey I Blew Up The Kids...or Honey I Shrunk The Loft...and the crew, we were the kids - it felt small alright.

We shot everything one way and then had to clear everyone out of the other side of the loft, it was a dance of people, actors and equipment, and I hope we don't see a couple C-Stands in the background of some shots.

We hauled in at 5pm on, I think it was a Saturday, yeah - we had to load everything from the front door - as the security guard at the front desk told us. We had A LOT of stuff and soon after we started shooting that security guard, Anthony - real scary looking guy :

Ohh, I have a picture:

That's Anthony. He so tough.

So he comes o the door about 9pm and tells us that I can't have people over to shoot after 11pm..."Do you think you'll be done by 11?" "Uhhh, I think we're gonna be a little bit later than 11..." We were planning on shooting till 5am...

But he ended up being cool and said just as long as no one complains - I don't think I have any neighbors next to me - and we didn't shoot in the hallways (we'd already shot those, hah!) that we should be okay.

There's a happy friendly Anthony. He's really a teddy bear.

(I ended up using him for a photo shoot last week - thanks Rob!)

Still, I was on edge, felt like we could get called out and shut down any time after 11pm...

One highlight was when we were getting ready for a shot a little bit before lunch and Alex Polinsky, one of our actors, said: "I smell something burning.." We had put the pizzas from the rocking "Pitfire Pizza Co" in the oven to keep them warm - but I guess the cardboard was still on there and there was good amount of smoke coming out of the oven.

The thing you should know about my building - if the fire alarm goes off, every door in the building's hallways shut - this high pitch alarm sounds and the fire department comes no matter what. I had this happen once when a friend of mine pulled the alarm by accident, he's French - I guess they do that over there...

Fire loves me for some reason...

So coupled with the fact that we were already past the 11pm cut off, and I was still scared of Anthony at this point - not the best buds we are now - I figured if the fire department showed up - we'd get shut down real quick.

It was hectic for a couple minutes, but I guess they were just smoking and no real fire - little window venting and everything was fine.

But really that was the only hiccup - we were able to get everything and we had a great time.

Rider and I were talking about it a few days ago and there was a moment where he knew we were gonna get it - there is a scene with all the guys, Chris, Chad, Travis, Alex and Adam - they are in a wide shot and you could tell we were with some pros cause the timing was spot on.

The killer for a lot of short films would be not having access to great actors, I feel like watching some shorts at festivals can be painful cause everything else is working, just not the talent.

Rider stoked on Alex Polinsky's performance.

Adam Busch just wants you to eat a chicken wing.

Chris Wylde, Chad Crone and Travis Shuldt listen to a goblin.

I'm so glad we had such kick ass actors. They brought it and we were able to fly though scenes. Thanks you guys.

You have to point a lot if you direct. Yoram Astrakhan - our awesome Director of Photography and real trooper.

Happy Strong Brothers.

Thanks again to everyone who helped out on the project - I can't stress enough how thankful we both are to have such a talented group of friends willing to spend 13 hours cooped up in a loft, or on a mountainside, or playing running charades for the last shot at 3am. 

- Shiloh

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why a Magic Show?

My beautiful and talented girlfriend, Alexandra Barreto (who is producing this short, and without whom Shiloh and I would be utterly lost) has raised a good point about nature vs nurture. When she was a kid, she was always told she was "such a good little actress!" or "such a good performer!" or "such a good singer!"

Now, she has no clue what came first: the instinct, or buying the hype. Is there some kind of performance gene, or did she just get so much encouragement that it became the reality?

Shiloh and I were the same way. Because we started super young, we just sort of assumed there was some natural talent.

But unfortunately, we have videos.

My God.

I can say, unequivocally, there was an absolute absence of talent.

This is a frame from our first magic show.

So lost. So scared.

We performed for our entire school. We brought the principal up on stage, the whole deal. I guess we thought that homemade gold capes, a too-big plastic tophat (is Shiloh wearing a bedazzled headband?!), and some store-bought tricks would make us magicians.

And it did, sort of. We did shows at birthday parties - I mean, we actually got paid. And so all these years, I've carried around this self aggrandizing narrative that we were young, go get' em, born performers. Until Shiloh and I got ahold of the VHS footage.

At which point, reality set in. We were awful.

You can't even understand half our tricks. At one show - in front of a classroom of older kids - I completely blow a trick. My oh-so-quick response? I freeze, turn to the camera, and very urgently whisper, "I messed up Mommy!"

It gives me a stomach ache just to think about it.

I think our only real asset - besides an incredibly patient and encouraging set of parents - was our drive to do it. We enjoyed this crap.

We acted in plays. We did skits. We always put on the haunted house at our school. We made our parents and our friends star in countless alien/werewolf/detective/time travel movies.

Basically, a day without a costume rarely passed through our childhood.

Which is a different thing than "natural talent." More like, natural geekery.

Ok, ok, I'll put it more positively: it was an insistence on the power of imagination. We weren't going to let something like lack of talent get in our way.

Even when it was bad (which, trust me, was all of the time) we wanted to be on the other side of the curtain. And that hasn't changed.

We've put away the magic wands and never looked back, but I think way down at the heart of our filmmaking...it's pretty much still the two of us standing nervously side by side with a bag of tricks.

So when it came time to say "A Strong Brothers Film" in the credits of Irish Twins, we decided it made more sense to call it A Strong Brothers Magic Show.

And hey, if you can't find a clown for that next bar mitzvah - look no further.

This is just awkward on so many levels.

Shiloh gives his hackiest "just getting water out of this newspaper" look.

Shiloh tosses a "magic ring" in the air.

Drops it.

The hat wasn't enough, I had to go with a jumbo bow-tie, too.
(And thank God I had that embroidered "R" on there, who knows what would have happened if Shiloh and I got our capes confused).

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Getting Bigger and Bigger

We shot at our house in Silverlake. Well, actually, we shot at the house in front of us, occupied by our incredibly patient friend and wardrobe artist, Jana Bonderman.

A few days before we shot, someone knocked on Jana's door and notified her that in a week or so, a crew would be shooting some commercial down the street.

Ah, so that's the correct way to get a permit.

Maybe we should've looked into that.

We just took our chances and started shooting. It didn't really hit me until we were flooding the sidewalk with lights, props, gear, and people that all it would take is one neighbor to complain and we'd be shut down.

In all honesty, we never expected our short to become this big of a production. I think when we first started talking about it, we imagined having a Director of Photography, a sound guy, Shiloh and I, and our actors. As it turned out, when we stripped our crew down to only the absolutely essential people for these two night shoots, we couldn't keep it below 20 people. It's like the reverse of delusions of grandeur...delusions of simplicity.

I know there are a lot of people who actually can keep their shoots to a minimal crew. But what you arrive at on the day of filming is the result of a long series of choices that hinge on a central tension - namely, production value versus ease of shooting. Or, put another way, style versus ease of shooting.

A big inspiration for this short (originally) was the Duplass Brothers work. In particular, this short. Which is clearly improvised and very loose - but incredibly well acted and awkward. We loved the moment when a nice evening with friends turns ugly and confrontational. It's delivered in such a real, raw way. Shiloh and I wanted our short to have a similar feel. But we also like our work to look as beautiful as possible (Shiloh is, after all, a photographer). Our style tends towards deliberate camera moves, planned framing, and dramatic lighting. As much as I love them, we would never make a movie that looks like Humpday or The Overbrook Brothers. It's just not our style.

There are some people that will argue that in order to get a real and gritty film, you have to shoot it guerilla style and let your audience see and feel your low budget - kind of like wearing your shirt inside out. I agree to a certain extent, but I also think that 90% percent of "real" and "gritty" will come from your acting and writing. You can shoot something handheld on the street and let your actors make up whatever they want, but the second there's a false moment - the second a character does or says something we don't believe - all the gritty filmmaking techniques in the world won't save it.

With any film, but especially with a short film, what wins an audience over will always be the story and the performances. But if you want to convince people in Hollywood with money to let you direct a film, they need to know that you can make it look as good as the stuff in theaters...which is invariably made with millions of dollars and a crew of 80 plus people.

So we've always set the bar high for ourselves. We shot Irish Twins on 35mm film with a full crew. And this one kept getting bigger and bigger.

But you know what? Our sets looked amazing (thanks to Jem Elsner and his crew), our lighting was awesome (thanks to our DP Yoram Astrahkan and our gaffer Glen Bondock), and in the end, our little movie will hopefully look like something you'd pay 10 bucks to see at the multiplex. Only...shorter.

And the best part of all: we made it through the night without getting shut down.

Thanks to Mallory Morrison for her help and her great photos.
She wanted to get me and Shiloh being "directorial" at the monitor: