Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Mario Directs and Shoots; The Secret Cross

"The Secret Cross" is a psychological thriller. Jimmy Stone has a burial cross on his property but doesn't know why. He's tried many times to go and look at it, but turns away each time not knowing why. His wife is missing and there is a psychopath that trespasses on his farm. I won't give away the ending but there are many twists and turns in this story.

Anthony Tullo, actor and co-director, called me to see if I was interested in shooting this film for him. The script seemed simple enough, but it took me 3 times to read it to finally understand the complicated twists that were involved. I was excited to shoot the film so I could test my abilities in ways they have never been tested. Could I figure out the best way to light, move the camera around, and direct talent so that all the twists and turns came about at a the right point the the movie? It certainly was daunting, but exciting nevertheless.

Anthony and I worked like a well forged team. Anthony played Jimmy Stone the lead character and to his credit, did a great job. We spent every Sunday for 4 months rehearsing with the talent and blocking for camera. These rehearsals paved the way for 1-2 take shoot. Rarely did we go to 4 takes. Everyone was bang on!!

Okay, now to the technical aspects. I used my Panasonic AF100 at 1080p full resolution. I recorded to a Ki Pro mini recorder that was attached to the HD-SDI port via bnc. I used my selection of Ai Nikkor lens(all fitted with focus gears for pull-focusing) 14mm all the way to 300mm. Through the shoot I maintained an f-stop of 4 so that the look would stay consistent. My main EVF(Electronic View Finder) was the new Zacuto EVF Flip(I swear buy this now). My sound technician, Sebastien Salm, recorded audio to the camera as well as to files on his computer as backup. Sebastien and Marius Madau were my camera crew alternating jobs between clapper-loader, focus puller, and DIT. A fairly small but tight team.

Jimmy Stone's farm is set in the Appalachian mountains but we shot in southern Ontario. We went to the Appalachians and shoot b-roll for a few days so that we could set the location in the film. That was an incredible 3 days. I also spent another week doing more b-roll footage of Mennonites driving their buggies in the farm country. On one Sunday, I lucked out and found a street called "Buggy Lane" in the Waterloo region. It was around 9am and there was a slight fog. I had the camera set up in hopes that I would get the penultimate mennonite buggy shot. Well the gods were looking down at me that morning. I had picked a cross roads were most of the Mennonites in this area travel trough to go to church. It was buggy mayhem. They were coming in from all directions, all at the same time. For me it was an hour of being lost in time. There were buggies with horses, a dirt road , corn fields and that's it - no other sign of modern life. For a few hours I was caught in a time warp and it felt great. I followed the last buggy up the hill to the church. There must have been at least 50 buggies and horses there all lined up in neat rows. Well, you know me, I continued to shoot. All in all, a very successful morning.

I also wanted to get shots of vultures circling in the air. My son Sebastien and I went out early one morning to see if we could do just that. Near a town called Listowel( Ontario) we found a field that had about 25 Turkey vultures just walking around. I got the camera set up with the 300mm lens and told my son to run into the field and get the vultures up and flying. He looked at me if I had given him a death sentence. He said, "...will they attack me?" I said, "Probably, but you're a tough kid now get out there." The dutiful son that he is, he turned, ran the 100 yards full tilt, and charged the vultures. I knew he wasn't in any danger and as it turned out they all flew and and started to circle in the air. We got the shot.

The main body of the shoot was done outdoors under the blazing sun. To try to soften the sunlight we used a lot of silk and soft reflector boards. The psychopath wanderer played by Jeff Joslin(MMA fame) required a different type of lighting technique. I wanted him to look sinister and mean so therefore, I used direct unfiltered sunlight. With his makeup, his facial features looked very rugged and direct sunlight accentuated his frightening look. When he pulled his front two teeth out( lost in one of his MMA fights), I really got frightened. I didn't know he could do that and it ramped up his psychopath look immensely.

What really surprised me was the large number of serendipitous events that occurred to help make this film a success. One event was the bottle of Limoncello. The main dinner scene was shot in an old barn which we made look like an country farm house. The bottle of Limoncello plays prominently in the script, but had been forgotten by the props department. We sent someone to find a liquor store nearby and purchase a bottle. We were shooting late and of course all the liquor stores were closed. Just then, one of the crew came in with the exact bottle that we needed. I asked him where he had gotten the bottle. He said, he found it in the basement of the barn. I couldn't believe it! We found exactly what we needed, in a barn situated between Paris and Brantford Ontario. The bottle was unopened as well. What are the chances of that? Gotta love serendipity!!

All in all it was a successful shoot. Check out the website; As I write this, we have planned to have a premiere at the Royal Theatre in Toronto on October 22, 2011.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Just wrapped this scifi pilot using my new Panasonic AG-AF100. This is a 4/3rds , 16x9, MOS sensor camera that you can use basically any lens out there using the appropriate adapter. I shot withmy extensive range of film Nikkor lens and was really pleased with the results. This camera is definitely not a DSLR. Basically it's a proper video camera that shoots filmic like visuals and records audio. There is no moire problems nor is there any artifacting that you find on DSLRs.

The AF100 is the first professional HD Camera to adopt the Micro Four Thirds standards announced in 2008. The “Four Thirds” name is derived froom the 4/3 type(17.3mmx13mm - approximately 0.68 in. by 0.51 in.) image sensor that allows for the use of interchangeable lens.
The 4/3 image sensor is the AF-100 series has about the same imaging areas, after being trimmed to a 16x9 aspectratio, as that of 35mm motion picture film camera. The depth of field and the focal range are also close to that of film cameras. The AF-100 records beautiful, shallow depth of field, film-like images which I’m always trying to achieve.

I’ve always been looking for a HD camera that would bring me back to my film days, where you had to think about stops, depth of field, and change lens to get a certain feel. This camera do that and more. I get the feeling that I’m shooting film even though I’m not. The camera does not have a dedicated zoom like most video cameras so when you want to change focal length, you have to change lens. By doing this, you have control of the depth of field.

The camera records full HD, 1080p, variable frame rate(VFR), using the AVCHD recording format to Apple Pro Res HQ. Boasting a compression efficiency that is more than double that of MPEG-2. In AVCHD-PH mode, the AF-100 is compatible with multiple HD formats, such as 1080/601, 1080/30p, 1080/24p and 720/70p. The new VFR supports full-HD (1920x1080) progressive mode using a 20 step under and over cranking ability. Also the PH mode suppors uncompressed 16-bit LPCM 2-channel digital audio recording for high-quality sound in addition to Dolby Digital 2-channel audio.

Now this is the really neat part of this camera. It records to internal SD cards(class 10 at 90mbs) but it also shoots out uncompressed HD/SDI. This means I can use an external recording device and the one I chose was the AJA KIPRO MINI. This recorder has the ability to record 422 imagery via the SDI out. The KIPRO records to Apple Pro Res HQ which is native to the camera so there is no conversion necessary in Final Cut Pro. It records to Compact Flash cards and since the images are uncompressed, they are naturally of high quality.

What I did on the NORBERT shoot was to record simultaneously to the onboard SD cards as well as to the KIPRO MINI which insured complete back up. The images to the SD cards are recorded in MPEG4 and require conversion to Apple Pro Res when using Final Cut Pro.

Other things I really like about the AF-100 are, 1) ISO setting from 200 to 3200, 2) the shutter speed can be set from 1/2 sec to 1/2000, 3) on board waveform and vectorscope displays, 4) controllable zebra patterns, 5) large viewfinder and LCD monitor, 6) HD focus assist, 7) HDMI simultaneous out with the SDI, 8) XLR inputs for two channels, and 9) settable user buttons. There are more things that I like as well, but aside from the great visuals this camera produces, these are the most important to me.

Norbert and the System

Director Mark Pitcher asked me do shoot a scifi pilot based upon a pulp fiction book written in the 30’s. The story is about a world society that is totally plugged into the “system” via small unit imbedded in their backs. These units do everything for them from control their body temperature, give them vitamins and drugs, and control their moods. Everyone is hooked into an internet type system via the goggles they wear. They are not being controlled by anything sinister or governmental organization, but are all tapped in together. Everyone is called a “Shopper.” Shoppers, via their goggles, are provided with a constant stream of every kind of information you could imagine from new products, to mail, to the thoughts of the girl across the bar. Shoppers get these devices implanted from a young age, and they never turn them off. Until Norbert. Norbert asked a seemingly simple question, “Can I have a off switch?” There has never been an off-switch for personal control units. Norbert becomes an instant world wide celebrity since no one on record had ever had an original thought and since this is a free society, Shoppers get what they want. I’ll stop here since I don’t want to give the ending away.

Here you can see the attached control units.

In this shot the patterns on the walls will be CGI- TV monitors showing ads for products.

Mark and I discussed how much CGI and special effects were going to happen in post and he said pretty much every frame. So I had to design the lighting accordingly. I shot 1080p at 30 frames a second. I used my Nikkor primes - from 14mm(rectilinear) to 400mm all attached with follow focus gears. All dolly moves were slower than usual so that Mark would have better visuals for his CGI. I used my Panasonic 17 HD broadcast monitor to check colour and a Panasonic 8” HD monitor mounted on camera. Again, since so much of this was going to have specials effects, I had to make sure that colour and exposure were bang on. I calibrated both monitors to match and off we went. What really amazed me was the uncompressed visual quality out of the HD SDI port. I had used the 17 in. monitor a lot with other cameras, but the detail coming from the AF100 was astounding.

Mario and his new AF-100 rig. This rig will go from tripod to shoulder in seconds.
I will be testing out the new Cineroid Electronic View Finder(EVF) in the coming weeks. It uses the HDMI out from the camera and can also use the RCA out for backup purposes if needed. If it works out, I'll add it to my kit.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mario Shoots the Film "Skinning the Cat"

I didn't know what "Skinning the Cat" meant until director Jeff Santa Barbara told me. It's a classic yo-yo move where the yoyo kind of crawls along the floor as if you are walking a cat. I don't know. I'm not much of a yo-yo fan. However, the red yo-yo plays heavily in this movie. "Skinning the Cat" was a successful Stratford stage play which Jeff directed. The theatrical script was converted to a movie script and Jeff asked me to shoot it. I was very interested since it was a play with only two main actors. Matt Willson played the kidnapper and Jonathan Harrison played the hostage. Both Matt and Jonathan have years of theatrical experience behind them. I really looked forward to working on a stage play rewritten for the screen. It may not seem obvious at first but stage plays and movies use different languages.

Unlike the theater actor, who gets to develop a character during the course of a two- or three-hour performance, the film actor lacks continuity, forcing him or her to come to all the scenes (often shot in reverse order in which they'll ultimately appear) with a character already fully developed. Since film captures even the smallest gesture and magnifies it 20 or 30 times, cinema demands a less flamboyant and stylized bodily performance from the actor than does the theater. The stage is more friendly to the unattractive, the overweight, and the flawed, while film—despite the advantages of makeup, lighting, soft focus, etc.—is relentlessly cruel to any sign of imperfection in the actor or actress. The performance of emotion is the most difficult aspect of film acting to master: While the theater actor can use exaggerated gestures and exclamations to express emotion, the film actor must rely on subtle facial ticks, quivers, and tiny lifts of the eyebrow to create a believable character.

Fundamentally, each performance is different, and as a film maker, I love the challenge of moving the script forward. Matt and Jonathan where used to project their character's emotions to an audience, whereas in the movie, they had to embody and perform these emotions in as true and believable a way as possible. Capturing them was a challenge. They were used to acting together as a team, but now, they had to do their parts separately, for the wide shots, medium shots and the close-ups. Sometime, Jeff didn't like their performance and would ask for another. Here of course they would have to remember all their lines, gestures, and eye-lines. Another challenge for them was not stepping on each other's lines. I have to admit that these two are consummate professionals, and for their first time on film, they did a superb job!

Now for the technical aspects of shooting. I decided to use my Letus lens adapter, my nikon(nikkor) film lens, a Panasonic HVX200(shooting DVCPro HD at 24fps) and a Firestore FS-100 for capture. My challenge when not shooting film is to make video look like film. Movies are shot on film at 24 frames per second and video shoots at 60i. From Wikipedia;

"60i (actually 59.94, or 60 x 1000/1001 to be more precise; 60 interlaced fields = 29.97 frames) is the standard video field rate per second for NTSC television (e.g. in the US), whether from a broadcast signal, DVD, or home camcorder. This interlaced field rate was developed separately by Farnsworth and Zworykin in 1934,[1] and was part of the NTSC television standards effective in 1941. When NTSC color was introduced in 1953, the older rate of 60 fields per second was reduced by a factor of 1000/1001 to avoid interference between the chroma subcarrier and the broadcast sound carrier."

"The 24p frame rate is also a noninterlaced format, and is now widely adopted by those planning on transferring a video signal to film. But film- and video-makers turn to 24p for the "cine"-look even if their productions are not going to be transferred to film, simply because of the "look" of the frame rate. When transferred to NTSC television, the rate is effectively slowed to 23.976 frame/s, and when transferred to PAL or SECAM it is sped up to 25 frame/s. 35 mm movie cameras use a standard exposure rate of 24 frames per second, though many cameras offer rates of 23.976 frame/s for NTSC television and 25 frame/s for PAL/SECAM. The 24 frame/s rate became the de facto standard for sound motion pictures in the mid-1920s."

So the idea is to shoot video and make it look like film. Panasonic's HVX200 DVCpro HD codec shoots 24p. What's up with the Letus adapter? Well, to get to the point, 35mm Letus adapter gives your footage that cool narrow depth of field seen in movies, a true characteristic of film. A narrow depth of field means that less of your image will be in focus; it gives your footage that artistic edge. For example, if you wanted your subject, who is about 10 or so feet from the camera in focus, but you want the background soft and out of focus, a 35mm adapter could do that. Consumers usually prefer a large depth of field so they don't have to bother with focusing, but the pros love it. The 35mm adapters are small modules that connect to your camera lens, and the other end has a lens mount for your choice of inexpensive 35mm photo lenses (remember those things?) or the pro film lenses with a PL mount (but they cost a lost). I decided to use all my old nikon nikkkor 35mm film lens since I hadn't used them in a long time. Boy, I remembered why I had fallen in love with lens so many years ago. What a fantastic look!

The Firestore Fs-100 is a shooting hard drive. We would shoot the entire day to this drive then offload at night. We shot the entire movie on the Firestore drive without a loss of one frame. All-in-all, I loved this shoot. Very intensive. Long hours. Just loved it!!!

Sebastien, my son, a budding film maker.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

New Blog; Mario and the RED ONE CAMERA

An old director buddy of mine Gary P., called me recently and asked me if I would come down to Florida and shoot 5 commercials for a restaurant chain there. I had shot his first feature film "Jacob's Cry" a few years ago and asked him more about the commercials. When he said that we would be shooting on the Red One Camera I immediately said I was in. The Red One is a digital cine camera that shoots higher quality images than a 35mm film camera. At least that was what I read and had been told. This is the first digital video camera that has a resolution that exceeds 35 mm film, while the dynamic range is coming very close to traditional cameras. At its core, the camera uses a Mysterium CMOS sensor: The physical resolution of this monster is 4900 x 2580 pixels, for a total of 12.64 million pixels. The sensor measures in 24.4 x 13.7 mm (334 mm2). This area covers 4 separate HD frames 1920X 1080 each. I found that the RED is a stills camera on steroids. Since I do a lot of still advertising work and only shoot RAW, this camera was really easy for me to figure out. The reason why I love this camera is that it gives you the look of 35mm lens - that narrow depth of field look. You can't get that today with regular video cameras that operates using 3 chips.The Red shoots 4k RAW(4096) and 2k(2048) supports the industry standard HD resolution of 720p and 1080p, both using HD-SDI or the REDCODE codec to memory or hard drives. Shooting 4k is incredible. The diagram below shows the different size ratios.

Why shoot HD anymore when you can shoot something that is way bigger and has better resolution? There are several advantages to shooting in a higher resolution format. The higher resolution gives more options in post. Assuming you've good focus, the extra resolution can be a lifesaver when zooming in on shots in post. Shooting RAW means raw means the camera captures uncompressed sensor data, allowing more flexibility in post by giving the option of adjusting things such as white balance and doing some basic image adjustments, from a very clean source. When you zoom in, the resolution becomes a major issue, and the image can fall apart very quickly. Also, images tend to look better when down-converted. I have shot for years on HD(Panasonic or Sony), and usually did my post in Standard Definition. You could always see the difference between the original HD footage and the SD downconvert. Shooting 4k RED images look incredible even in SD mode. There is also the fact that the footage you shoot in much more flexible. If your film gets picked up for theatrical distribution, even if you posted in HD, you have 4K source footage you can go back to. The biggest drawback to 4K is generally the size of the files. Uncompressed 4K is ungainly at this time and not practical for most of us. The REDONe shoots 4K at roughly 27MB a second. That's double the HD DVCPro codec and means that you really have to have huge hard drives to accomodate it. With hard drive capacities increasing all the time it starts to become manageable. Another great feature of this camera is that it creats 1K or 2K proxies which allows the editing to be faster. So you can edit with the proxies, the go back and cut the RAW footage. Saves a lot of time. There is also the advantage of shooting RAW. Most higher-end digital SLR still cameras have a raw format option, so a lot of digital still photographers are familiar with the advantages of raw. But for those who're new to concept, raw means the camera captures uncompressed sensor data, allowing more flexibility in post by giving the option of adjusting things such as white balance and doing some basic image adjustments, from a very clean source.

The way I look at it is this - you shoot with the biggest baddest gun you have and create the biggest baddest negative or RAW file then you've got all the information you wanted to achieve. Then you can down sample to whatever format you need. What I mean here is that if you shoot 4k and you are down sampling to 2k, HD , film-out or SD, your image will have all the original data, will be sharper and show less noise when compared to shooting straight HD. Also, it will have that sweet 35mm depth of field look. Operating the REDONE was a breeze. I used the histogram on every set up. Image histograms are found in many of the advanced digital cameras. An image histogram acts as a graphical representation of the tonal distribution in a digital image. Each tonal value is plotted by the number of pixels. When you look at a specific histogram you can judge the entire tonal distribution at a glance. The histogram is usually in the form of a graph where the horizontal axis represents the tonal variations and the vertical axis represents the number of pixels. The left side of the horizontal axis represents the black and dark areas, the middlde represents the medium grey and the right hand side represents the lighter and pure white areas. I use the histogram to calculate the distribution of tones captured by the sensor and whether or not the image detail has been lost because of blown out areas or too dark areas. If you are interested in more detailes information, check out Ed Sutton's book; "Histograms and the Zone System." Or check out; Great diagrams there. The histogram display in the Red was incredibly detailed and I used it to great advantage in my images. Another great feature is a viewable grey scale in the EVF - Electronic View Finder - in other words the eyepiece. By either adjusting the iris or the shutter speed I was able to make sure my exposures captured the image correctly. Here when I overexposed the white end of the scale started to burn out and visa-versa with the black.

I'm looking forward to shooting with this camera more and more.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


We have a natural pond in our backyard. No pumps. No source of water except the rain. It's a typical wilderness pond that is naturally sustaining. It has native plants such as water lilies and native fauna such as snails and water striders.  We inherited this pond when we bought the house and are in the process of figuring out what plants and animals are here.  I at first thought it was a swamp.  I was simply amazed at the amount of life that was in it.

I've been photographing the pond for over a year now and have been amazed at the life that's in the water.  One major event that occurs on a yearly basis is the mating of the American Toad(bofus americanus).  They come in droves and for two weeks saturate the night time air with their mating calls.
Here's an example.  

These toads are amazing.  We had about 20 breeding pairs.  The funny part is watching the unpaired males trying to get in on the action.  Like this one.

One thing about photographing mating toads, at least these guys and gals, they really don't mind.  I had a 50mm Nikkor micro lens about and inch away from the mating pairs and they didn't even budge.  Trying to catch the fighting going one was a different story.  The unattached males were doing everything they could to dislodge the attached males. It was quite funny to watch.  The females were constantly being jumped by 3 to 5 males all the while the proper attached male was kicking them off.  Many times the females went under with all the weight.  My wife vowed that if she ever saw that happen again that she would separate them and give the female a break.  I said that this is a natural process and shouldn't be interfered with. Besides, what female American Toad wouldn't like 3-5 male studs vying for her attention?
That's a typical male perspective of course.  Interesting conversation to say the least.

The toads come, use our pond to their delight, leave a few million tadpoles behind, then just up and leave. No thank you.  Nothing.

Well it's good to know that our backyard pond is helping these toads survive. If scientists say that frogs and toads are a good indicator species that show us the quality of our environment, at least there are a few million(maybe thousands) of little toads soon to be showing the way.
You can see the trail of eggs in this shot.

We like the night time calls and will be looking forward to it for years to come. One caviat though;  I'll have to find a way to mow the small lawn that we have without hurting the little guys.  Maybe it's time to get rid of the lawn.

I'm looking forward to photographing the little guys as their lives progress. It will be a family project to figure ways of protecting them.  Maybe I should invent a "toadsafe" lawnmower.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Mario's Po Man Underwater Housing, Mexico

Hello out there.  Just started my blog today.  I'm a photographer/cinematographer and work on projects worldwide.  I've set up this blog to keep people abreast of where I am and the things I'm shooting.  I will also include interesting production details that may be of interest.  Some of these are funny, some are no so.

This shot is of my Po Man's Underwater Housing.
I just recently did a shoot in Si'an Khan, Mexico.  I'ts a world biosphere managed and run by local Myan families.  They guide you through the jungles and tell you about the flora and fauna.  They show you the ancient Myan ruins and then they take you an a swim down some rivers that were originally dug out by the ancient Myans as trade routes.  These rivers are incredible.

I was using a Panasonic HVX200 with a Firestore FS4 hard drive as my tool of choice.  It produces great HD images and is a light camera to operate.  I built a underwater housing for it using a fishtank.  The idea was for me to float behind the unit and shoot people having fun in the river.  So  I built a flotation device that had an air bladder that could raise the lens higher or lower into the water.  The whole rig worked great, but being that we were under Mexico's intense sun, the internal temperature of the fish tank got so hot that the Firestore drive stopped working.  I didn't know what to do.  I had to get the shots...  So I figured that if the hard drive was shot anyway,  I could try something drastic.  I put the drive in a zip lock bag and put it into an ice cooler that we brought to keep our water cold.  Ten minutes later,  I pulled it out and started it up.  Couldn't believe it - it worked.  I started calling it, "The Little Drive That Could."  We were really lucky.  I gave up on the fish tank and put the camera directly on the support platform with the air bladder.  I floated down the river with the talent and got the shots that we needed.  It was frightening in a few places where I actually was floating with the thing.  One false move and the camera would have been toast.

The  shots worked out fantastic.