Monday, July 11, 2011

Shooting a Sci-fi Thriller Guerilla Style - Part 2

As promised in part 1 of this series, I want to explore in more depth the use of Magic Lantern firmware for Canon DSLR cameras as well as Technicolor’s CineStyle specifically designed for use in Canon DSLR cameras. In May, I show a new short film called “Stop.” It is a a sci-fi thriller, and I opted to shoot with a minimal crew and do the cinematography and directing myself. There are new tools that open up new possibilities for DSLR filmmakers. So read on, and find out what I learned about using these tools in conjunction with my Canon T2i.

But first, if you haven’t had a chance to see “Stop,” I want to invite you to take a look at the short film right here for free. It’s only eight minutes, and you will have a much better idea of what I am address as I discuss the shooting process using Magic Lantern and CineStyle.

"Stop" - a Mikel J. Wisler short film

Now that you’ve seen the film, I hope you’ll take a moment to rate and comment on it over on IMDb by going to: Honest feedback is welcome! It’s how I learn and grow!

Two exciting things happened as I prepared to shoot this new short film. I was introduced to Magic Lantern and Technicolor’s CineStyle. I had been doing a lot of cinematography for a good year with Canon DSLRs and I wanted to push myself to new level of technical achievement even as I focused on telling an intriguing, fresh, and admittedly complicated story in such as short span of time. I had been experimenting with picture styles for the Canon DSLRs, and had shot a whole short film for director Raz Cunningham back in November of 2010 using the SuperFlat picture style that has been circulating around the web.

The idea of a picture style like SuperFlat is to provide a means to capture as much detail as possible since the camera is going to compress the footage so much in order to save it to CF or SD cards. As a result, when compression kicks in, it can be easy to lose detail information int he shadows or highlights, even when exposure is spot on, and especially if you’re shooting a high contrast scene. But the basic idea is to shoot with as flat of a picture as possible so you can color correct the footage to your heart’s content with as much flexibility as possible given the compressed footage Canon DSLRs generate.

So I chose SuperFlat for Cunningham’s project. And nothing really tells you how well something works like having to shoot with it in real-world situations for several days. In the end, I was overall happy with footage we got, though let down by how SuperFlad seemed screw skin tone a little too much. The detail information is there, but now we’ve got some extra work to do in color correction to make sure skin tone looks right.

Then along came CineStyle, released mere days before we shot “Stop.” In this next video, I explore why I opted for CineStyle, and how that relates to my choice of using Magic Lantern firmware in conjunction with CineStyle.

Magic Lantern is a third party firmware for Canon DSLRs (available for most of the Rebel and pro cameras except the 7D). As mentioned in the video above, it give DSLR cinematographer tools normally available in prosumer video cameras. The fact that Technicolor recommended using CineStyle in ISO 160 or multiples of 160 meant that I could not use CineStyle in its ideal settings on my T2i without using Magic Lantern. And having been interested in experimenting with Magic Lantern anyway, I was happy to take the plunge.

So how does this all work out? Shooting went quite smoothly for the most part. The biggest challenge to using Magic Lantern is that it must be run from the SD cards. So instead of being able to format my SD cards in my T2i, I had to always copy the footage to hard drives on-set (using my MacBook Pro as my DIT machine), and then manually delete the files from the SD card before it could be returned to camera for use. The reason for this is that you must make your SD cards bootable so that when you star your Canon DSLR up, it finds Magic Lantern on the bootable SD card and runs Magic Lantern in conjunction with the native Canon firmware for the camera. If you format the card in camera, it will delete Magic Lantern from it. There’s nothing wrong with doing this and it will not damage your camera at all. It just means you will not be running Magic Lantern. I used three 8 GB SD cards while shooting, so I was never waiting on a card. But it took a little getting used to not formatting my cards in camera.

I only encountered a few bugs using Magic Lantern, and they constantly update it, so lately I have not had issues. Certainly, one feature many shooters appreciate about ML is that it does provide manual audio recording control for cameras like the 5D and T2i, which do not natively have that. Ironically, I prefer to record my audio with my Zoom H1, as it can record a higher bit rates and is made for audio recording, where as the electronics in these DSLRs did not have high-end audio recording in mind. Remember, Canon didn’t really make these cameras for filmmakers, even indie filmmakers.

As for Technicolor’s CinceStyle, I found that It was prone to peaking in the highlights quite quickly. As a rule, I tend to underexpose my DSLR footage a little anyway as they seem prone to clip (that is, he brightest parts of the scene become a white devoid of all detail). I often take exposure readings with a light meter and then double check it against the camera’s light meter. Usually, I will shoot 1/3 to 1/2 stop bellow what the camera thinks is idea exposure. And with Magic Lantern, you have the option of turning on zebras to show you where your highlights are, as well as using false colors to better understand how the camera is exposing the shot. Being a so used to my of the light meter, I used these two option seldom for this particular shoot. And I am quite happy with the results.

Skin tone in CineStyle looks good. The details look great. And I had plenty of flexibility in how I wanted to color correct the footage in post. And that’s a very good thing! Because plans changed mid way through post. Find out why in the video bellow:

Suddenly, with this change in how I wanted the film to look, having as much flexibility with the footage as possible really mattered! In conjunction with this, thanks to fellow producer and lead actor, Trevor C. Duke, who found a great color correction tutorial, I had a better grasp of how to manipulate specific things in each frame as I worked on getting the look I wanted for the film. I made two complete passes of color correction, and the result is what you see in the first video posted.

To find out more about Magic Lantern, go to:

I did all of the post production using Final Cut Studio 3. In other words, Final Cut Pro 7, Color, and Soundtrack Pro. This was all before the new FCP X. And in light of what in this humble indie filmmaker’s opinion amounts to some serious oversights on Apple’s part when creating FCP X, I have yet to bother buying the new program and am currently exploring my options for other possible NLEs for future use. One of the things I am saddest to see go is Color. I find it a fantastic program once one learns it (and it does have a steep learning curve for sure, but it is a pro app, that’s to be expected). FCP X seems to have tried to roll some of the tools of Color into it Final Cut. But from all reports, these tools seem to be limited compared to the number of rooms for primary in, secondaries, color effects, geometry, and primary out in Color that allowed me to have such great control over my footage. We’ll see what happens next. For the moment, I’m still cutting in Final Cut Studio 3 and using Color for projects.

But I hope the above information is useful. By all means, if you have questions or comments, please leave them bellow! I’ll do my best to respond in a timely manner.

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