The Goal is the Perfect Moviemaking Package

The goal, one that may never be reached, of independent documentary moviemakers is the hardware and software package that allows one to do the most while getting in the way the least. That is what all this concern about filmmaking hardware and software is about.

It is the same thing for documentary stills photographers. I found that Leica rangefinder cameras effectively achieved that goal when making still images. The world of digital documentary filmmaking has yet to see the perfect camera arrive yet but the latest release by ARRI group – the AMIRA – may well be it.

A camera like the AMIRA bids farewell to all this fussing about with DSLR and mirrorless digital stills camera bodies and the myriad bits and pieces one must attach to force them into acting a little more like movie cameras. As Andrew Reid of writes in his article Arri AMIRA priced to compete with Canon C500 – plus, the secret of Arri’s success

It’s exactly how I’d prefer to use a DSLR. Get rid of the tripods, the rigs, the monitors, the transcoding, raw workflows, poor audio support and form factors designed for stills. Get the camera on the shoulder and shoot, focus, expose. It should be easy. In 2014, the oldest camera company is still the one getting it right!

The AMIRA reminds me of the ARRI film camera I once used – pick it up, load it and get to work without bother and fuss in the same way as a Leica rangefinder stills camera.



Resources for Foundations & Documentary Moviemakers

I have been coming across some useful documentary and communications resources for moviemakers and foundations lately. Here are some of the best so far:

I will post more links to such resources as I discover them.

Telling Stories to Advance Human Rights

One of those things that seems so obvious yet so often tends to be pooh-poohed by sceptics: storytelling effectively helps advance human rights.

The International Human Rights Funders Group links to an excellent downloadable PDF via an ihrfg blog post – In Focus: Storytelling and Social Change: How Stories Help Advance Human Rights

The Storytelling and Social Change guide published by Working Narratives offers invaluable insights into how NGOs and not-for-profits as well as grantmakers and philanthropic foundations are using storytelling in support of their work.

Some foundations and organizations are demonstrating that storytelling, however light it may appear, can make a big difference. These case studies show how stories help empower the people most directly affected, educate target audiences, frame issues to attract support for change, and complement other efforts to challenge human rights abuses.

“Storytelling is an empowering process in itself,” says Davidson, “and the stories that come out of it can be used to help change policy.”

How can foundations use stories?

Foundations can have their grantees trained in storytelling. In addition, foundations can explain their own work by telling the stories of the organizations they support. The other thing is, foundations do not often tell the story of what they bring to the party other than the funding they give. But their grantmaking decisions have stories behind them. Those stories show the expertise the foundation brings, and without those stories the foundation is just a pile of money with names on it like “health” or “civil rights.”

Digital Stills Go Back to the Future

Fujifilm has announced a new camera in its innovative X-series digital lineup – the Fujifilm X-T1. The X-T1 joins the X-Pro1 and X-E2 at the professional end of Fujifilm’s X-series of mirrorless digital stills cameras.

Lessons learnt from analog

The X-T1, of all X-series cameras, comes closest to the best of late 1980s analog stills cameras’ mechanical user interfaces. A large array of the X-T1’s controls are accessed via dials on top of the camera which can, reportedly, be operated by feel. Other controls must be accessed through the camera’s menu system and Q menu. It looks like Fujifilm’s engineers have been paying attention to professional photographers’ need for precision and speed.

During the analog era many photojournalists habitually carried two rangefinder cameras, each equipped with very different prime lenses. Zoom lenses tended to be of low optical quality and sometimes poorly constructed too so were unsuitable for professional use in the field.

Those rangefinder cameras were often M-system Leicas. I carried two Leica M4-P cameras when working as a magazine photographer, one camera equipped with a 35mm lens and the other alternating between a 28mmm lens and a 90mm lens depending on the subject matter and the nature of the assignment. Sometimes I would swap the 35mm for a fast 50mm lens if the job was mostly portraiture.

A long time evolving

Digital stills cameras have taken quite some time to evolve to the point reached by analog film cameras in the late 1980s. Manufacturers became seduced by electronic multi-level menu systems and forgot speed and precision. Now Fujifilm, at least, has finally caught up with the best of its own past, fusing the lessons it learned as a manufacturer of some of the finest films ever with those of its superb Fujica and Fuji 35mm and 120 rollfilm cameras.

Fujifilm has also long been a manufacturer of some of the best broadcast zoom lenses under the Fujinon brand and it is intriguing to see how zoom lenses are appearing in the X-Series lens roadmap with more to come soon. I am not sure I would choose to use a zoom on an X-Pro1 camera body (or its hopefully soon-to-be-released successor) but I would have little hesitation in attaching a zoom lens or a long telephoto lens to the X-T1.

An ideal camera and lens kit

My current ideal camera and lens kit for movie production stills, multimedia, photojournalism and documentary photography? Still dominated by prime lenses but one zoom lens in there too:

Years of experience in poorly-lit fast-moving situations led to my choice of camera and lenses as outlined above. Nowadays I would carry two cameras in a double-strap set-up like BlackRapid’s Yeti Slim or Double Slim and a single camera in their SnapR 35. During the analog era only regular camera straps were available and they took their toll on neck and spine.

Yes, there is a downside

The one downside to all this Fujifilm innovation? The company does not seem to care much about movies despite having made superb movie film stock. Pity. Fujifilm’s lenses, sensors and ability to translate the best of film into pixels would be a killer combination for independent moviemakers.

So, it looks like documentary moviemakers who also shoot photographs and require the best of both will need to keep packing two separate systems – one best for video and one best for stills. The camera system that does it all well remains elusive and probably always will.


Toshihisa Iida, Senior Manager Sales & Marketing, Optical Device & Electronic Imaging products division at Fujifilm was interviewed by at CP+ trade show in Japan…

Q: What do your worldwide customers ask for most?

A: More lenses, and greater video functionality, also more customization options and a greater range of accessories – especially flashes.

Q: How important is video to your customers?

A: It’s becoming more important. For example we’re speaking to professional photographers who are telling us that their clients are demanding more and more video as well as stills.

If this means we may be getting radically improved video functionality in Fujifilm’s otherwise wonderful cameras then I am all for it.


It Was Thirty Years Ago Today

I first saw a Macintosh computer when I visited my brother in his university’s graduate physics student lab in the mid-1980s. He was compiling research data on a Macintosh. He also had access to the university’s Unix mainframe computer but he chose to do his work on the Mac as did his fellow graduate research students.

Steve Jobs showed off the first Macintosh – the Macintosh 128Konstage in San Francisco on 24th January 1984thirty years ago today. Creativity, innovation and science changed forever as a result. The impossible or the simply unattainable suddenly became very, very possible.

In the early 1990s the groundbreaking magazine called (not only) Black+White – Black+White for short – was made possible due to the existence of Macintosh computers. That publication changed creativity in Australia forever.

Digital filmmaking as we know is has been made possible by the existence of the Macintosh computer. I had encountered Silicon Graphics workstations and other Unix workstation-class computers in a couple of well-endowed college and university film and multimedia facilities but such machines and their software were well beyond the means of individuals.

Motion graphics designers at a London agency that did feature film effects and titles had Macs on their desktops but relied on Sun Microsystems servers for storage and heavyweight processing. Likewise, the Institute of Contemporary Arts‘ – the ICA’s – digital and graphics labs were equipped by Sun with servers and network appliances as well as desktop Macs. All-Apple solutions were some way off.

But now, an almost all-Apple solution is here insofar as moviemaking goes – the latest Mac Pro, the Thunderbolt Cinema Display, Xsan in OS X Server, OS X Mavericks itself, Final Cut Pro X 10.1, excellent wireless modems and wireless back-up, everything except for 4K displays (for the moment) and external Thunderbolt drives.

I have tried the alternatives over a long period too and always come back to Apple. The reason is simple – Apple’s products simply work.


UltraHD Moviemaking Rolls Ever Onwards

Movie industry website has two stories about the UltraHD 4K juggernaut showing how editing 4K has just become more feasible and more affordable with the advent of Final Cut Pro X 10.1 and Apple’s new Mac Pro computers.

Feasible and affordable when producing independent documentaries and studio-funded Hollywood features, so this current moviemaking is not just about 4K, it is about making movies in all resolutions.

Sam Mestman of We Make Movies, We Make Movies Post and FCPWorks writes:

To me, at least, the barriers and excuses to high quality content creation have been removed. Off the shelf gear is now fast and affordable enough where there is no technical barrier stopping the average person from telling a great story other than having a great story to tell.

Film used to be an artistic medium where the canvas was more expensive than a struggling artist could realistically afford. There’s always been an indie film world but it often involves some major compromises to be made to get a film done. I believe 2014 will be the year where the world realizes this is no longer the case.

Mestman provides two examples of ease and affordability, in colour correction and documentary media management:

High end color correction used to be an expensive art that and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit a feature quality suite. Resolve Lite, free, allows you to grade in timelines up to 3840×2160 (Quad HD).

Documentary editing has often been a lesson in finding a needle in a haystack. Hundreds of hours of footage come in resulting in staggering shooting ratios. By using metadata, and converting your NLE into a database, finding the right clip is now just a searchable keyword, favorite, or text search away.

I once worked at a London creative hotshop advertising agency whose CEO decided to invest in a top-end in-house movie editing suite. The editing suite – hardware and software but minus colour grading abilities – cost more than a nice Rolls-Royce. Only two agencies could afford a suite like that then. How far we have come nowadays.


85 people to 3,500,000,000 people

Oxfam International‘s Working for the Few reports that the 85 richest people own the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people.

This massive concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people presents a real threat to inclusive political and economic systems, and compounds other inequalities – such as those between women and men. Left unchecked, political institutions are undermined and governments overwhelmingly serve the interests of economic elites – to the detriment of ordinary people.