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A Postcard from the Jefferson Memorial

On a Memorial Day trip to Washington, DC, we visited the Thomas Jefferson Memorial to capture some of the holiday spirit of the visitors.


 

Building an ergonomic camera rig

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In the past two years, I’ve been obsessed with building an ergonomic camera rig. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned about designing such a rig for greater comfort, flexibility and, of course, capturing great footage.

I resisted just buying a pre-built rig because I wanted to figure out the ergonomics myself. By assembling it in a modular and piecemeal way I’ve learned much more than I would have from a turnkey purchase. That’s not to say I haven’t spent some money, but because I love to make things and understand how they work, I opted for a combination of DIY hacking and carefully researched purchases.

The biggest milestone in my ergonomic journey came last year, when I stumbled across a video by David Leitner about his own struggles to build a comfortable rig for documentary filming using the latest generation(s) of DSLR and digital cinema cameras. It’s long, but well worth watching the whole thing if you’re on an ergo-journey yourself.

The essence of his argument is this: a camera should sit on your shoulder, be well-balanced fore and aft and side to side, and need only be held with one hand so that the operator’s other hand is free to focus, adjust camera settings, drink a cup of tea, and fend off rowdy concert-goers. As Aaton camera designer Jean-Pierre Beauviala put it, the camera should sit “like a cat on the shoulder.”

I took this as my gospel, transforming the two-handed rig I had purchased two months before into a one-handed rig.

Now at this point some of you might be thinking, ‘two hands are better than one! With a two-handed rig, as purveyed by industry leaders like Red Rock and Zacuto, I can get more stable footage than with just one handle!’ This argument neglects a few important factors. In my estimation, most of the commercially available rig kits are built with fiction filmmaking in mind — especially the ‘flying’ ones that are designed to be held in front of the operator with two hands and no shoulder rest — and many of the rigs on the market have poor or zero counter-weighting. On a film set, the operator of a two-handed rig is responsible for framing only: an assistant camera person is pulling focus, adjusting iris, etc. Experienced camera assistants will build and adjust the shoulder rig as needed for different types of shots, making sure it’s well-balanced and comfortable. Lastly, shots in a movie are relatively short and you get to put down the camera frequently.

Documentary filmmakers and event videographers need to be up and shooting continuously, sometimes for hours on end with very few breaks. Who else has to shoot in conditions like that? News videographers. What do news/ENG cameras look like?

Panasonic HPX370
Source: Panasonic for Business

Shooting 2012 World Maker Faire for the New York Hall of Science, I used the Panasonic GH2 and a Zeiss cinema lens on a two-handed Red Rock rig. Although it had a good-sized counterweight on the back, the lateral imbalance of the left hand grip and monitor on the crossbar resulted in some real contortions when I needed to change focus or iris — after a couple hours of running around outside, shooting the many wonders of Maker Faire across NYSCI’s sprawling grounds, I was struggling with numb, cold, tingly sensations in my wrists and hands. Notice how my bicep is flexed, working to support the lopsided rig:

Shooting at Maker Faire 2012
Shooting at Maker Faire 2012

And here’s a shot from a documentary project for the Cancer Research Institute in 2012. Notice how my hand is on the knob of the follow focus (hidden behind the monitor), not the left handle.

Shooting for CRI

In the past couple years, for those who’ve been paying close attention, there’s been a promising trend of smaller companies developing ergonomic and beautiful one-handed rigs. In the David Leitner video above, he devotes a large portion of his talk to the importance of the shape and features of the handgrip, singing the praises of carved wooden handgrips with a protusion that extends over the meat of the thumb. (I won’t reiterate his argument — if you’ve read this far, you’ll want to watch the video.) I set out to find a wooden grip and, thanks to bumping into shooter Dustin Lane on 14th St in September 2013, found out about Ray Thomas and his new company KinoGrip. I ordered a grip from Ray and have been using it happily on many shoots since then — in fact, I recently sent it back to him to have a start/stop trigger installed and it should be back in my hands this week. (Ray also kindly offered to reshape/shave down the grip to make it fit my hand better, after I mentioned it felt a bit too large for me.) If you’re going to invest in ergo-customizing your rig, don’t settle for a straight cylindrical handle — it’s worth it to get or make your own moulded grip. I’ve added links to several wooden grip makers at the bottom of this post.

In addition to Kino Grip, my rig includes parts from these other wonderful small companies: Wooden Camera (cage and exquisite EVF mount), SmallHD (DP4 monitor), Kamerar (follow focus), and CoolLCD (rail clamps).

One challenge I’ve faced since getting the wood grip is how to counter-balance the SmallHD monitor and Wooden Camera EVF mount, which exerts a small but significant lateral/downward force on the rig. Over the holidays, I enlisted my dad (and his heavenly garage workshop), and together we made a rig extension that relocates the grip from the right side of the rails to directly underneath the center line of the lens. I’ll have pics of that setup when the grip gets here — until then here’s how it looks on the rig with a wooden half-sphere (part of a lacrosse pouch stretcher found at a sporting goods store!).  See first pic in this post for the rig with triggered wooden grip, plus a closeup of the grip + extension below.

Extension on the rig

 

Note how the monitor is directly in line with and slightly below my eyes, keeping my neck in a neutral, comfortable position. Here’s the piece by itself:
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And here are its proud makers.
The proud makers
Not including shop and design time (Dad worked pro bono), it cost less than $79 — a quarter the price of this functionally equivalent CNC-routed piece from Shooting Machine.

To sum up, I’ll quote Albert Maysles at a recent DCTV event: “the proper place for a camera is on the shoulder.” Get it up there, get it balanced, get a moulded grip, and keep it as light as possible.

Future plans: lead diving weights zip-tied to the rear ends of the rails. Leaving off the Wooden Camera cage whenever it’s not needed to shave off weight. Making great documentaries. More thoughts and pics as plans unfold.

Wooden grip makers:

Current rig parts:

  • KinoGrip wooden hand grip with start/stop trigger
  • Wooden Camera Quick Cage, top handle, and 15mm DSLR base
  • Wooden Camera EVF mount V2
  • SmallHD DP4 monitor
  • carbon fiber rails (bought on eBay)
  • CoolLCD rail clamps
  • Zacuto shoulder pad
  • Kamerar follow focus
  • Opteka counterweight
  • Smallrig T-rosette (part of the piece we built)* see update below
  • Panasonic GH3 and lenses, of course

N.B. Dad and I were completely stumped trying to find Arri rosettes — the raw hardware, not attached to anything else. In the end we went with the Smallrig piece from Amazon as it was the cheapest thing-with-a-rosette-on-it we could find. We originally meant to remove it and mount it directly on the aluminum bar, then decided to mount it as-is. Somebody needs to jump in this market gap and start selling rosettes at $5 a pop!

Update: Russell Hawkins wrote to let me know that Smallrig have started selling individual rosettes (on Amazon, too), as well as a bolt-on version, which I’ll probably get to space the rosette off the square tube. Thanks, Russell!


 

Behind the scenes: On location at the Ford Foundation for USC

When we work on projects that require footage from multiple locations, usually we do all the travel and filming ourselves.

Sometimes budget, logistics, or deadlines make it more practical to hire someone locally to produce a piece of the project. On occasion we have managed the process for a client of hiring and remotely supervising local videographers and then managing all the media assets and editing the final piece. And, on occasion, we offer stand-alone production services to filmmakers from outside New York City who need to shoot something here.

In September, we worked with the USC Price School of Public Policy and c.2K Communications to film an interview with Ford Foundation president Darren Walker for a video tribute to Irene Hirano Inouye as she received the Global Ambassador Award.

We collaborated with c.2K to assemble a crew and equipment package that matched their technical specifications for camera, lighting, and sound so the footage of Mr. Walker would integrate seamlessly with what they were filming in LA.

We’re pleased to have contributed a small part to creating such a lovely tribute — here is the final video:


 

Happy Holidays

With the holiday season beginning and 2013 coming to an end, we are humbled and grateful to have had another year worthy of being called our best yet.

We wish you and yours love, light, and much to be thankful for throughout all the holidays you celebrate this time of year.

To start your holiday season, here’s a little something festive we made to celebrate the rare coincidence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah:

We shot this video with a vintage 1980s Lite-Brite and the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera using its built-in timelapse feature. It was an interesting test of its dynamic range and we were pleased with the detail it preserved in the shadows and highlights. Each Lite-Brite peg is clearly defined (and, if you look closely, in the upper left, you can see our cat).


 

Livestreaming bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry at The New School

Last week author, educator, and feminist theorist bell hooks was in residence at Eugene Lang College, the undergraduate liberal arts division of The New School, leading classes, workshops, and discussions.

bell hooks is one of my social justice and education heroes — her theories were a cornerstone of my graduate studies — so it was an honor to work with Lang College to document two of her public events. Last Tuesday, she was joined on stage in Tishman Auditorium by playwright Eve Ensler in a conversation about gender and the body.

On Friday afternoon, bell hooks held a dialogue with MSNBC host and Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry. If you were not one of the 2500 people who watched the livestream (or the over 175,000 who have watched the archive since then), don’t miss this opportunity to experience a powerful, thought-provoking, and frank discussion about race, gender, media representation, and politics.

Sometimes, when we’re in the technical trenches of producing live streams, we lose sight of how big an impact the end result can have. To see such a full house in both the auditorium and online turn out for a dialogue like this (in the middle of a weekday afternoon, no less) reminds us how necessary it is to create spaces where progressive ideas can be openly explored and discussed, something The New School has an outstanding tradition of doing.

Bringing hundreds of thousands of people into a conversation like this in real time is one of the most immediate ways we can realize our mission: helping clients put good in the world.

- EK


 

Maker Faire is magical!

This year’s World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science was the biggest and best yet! It was our third year documenting this extravaganza of science, technology and art, which gave us a great opportunity to try out some fun new things.

For one, we did a lot more interviews this year, which was a fascinating chance to hear how many makers came up with their projects. We also asked just about everyone how they would describe Maker Faire to the uninitiated — we got some great answers that might just turn into a highlight reel of their own.

We got some fun new angles on a few of Maker Faire’s most popular attractions, including slow motion video of Eepybird’s Coke Zero/Mentos show and the Life Size Mousetrap.

After two awesome days of filming and getting to chat with lots of attendees and makers, here’s our overall recap of the weekend:

Disney was a new lead sponsor of Maker Faire, so we also produced this video to welcome them to the “greatest show (and tell) on earth.”


 

World Maker Faire 2013 at the New York Hall of Science

Step right up, get your tickets, calling makers of all ages and kinds! Every September we get to have a blast running all over the grounds of the New York Hall of Science for an entire weekend documenting the sights, sounds, and excitement of World Maker Faire. To help everyone get fired up for Maker Faire 2013, we edited this promo for NYSCI full of highlights from the past couple years. We hope you enjoy it and get your tickets soon – we’ll see you there on September 21 and 22!


 

Barney Frank on Reducing Military Spending

On Monday, June 4th, we filmed a talk by former Congressman Barney Frank as part of the Public Voices lecture series.

It has been our pleasure to work with the Center for Public Scholarship over the past few years to document their Social Research conference series, and now Public Voices, so that the dialogue and exchange of ideas can be extended to a wider audience of scholars and students in the weeks, months, and even years after the events themselves.

Past Public Voices speakers we’ve had the privilege of filming have included Senator Russ Feingold, human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, and authors Stephen Pinker and Robert Jay Lifton.

Watch the video of Congressman Frank sharing his ideas for reducing the federal deficit and cutting military spending:


 

Telematic Etra

We are pleased to be working with Culture Push and Benton-C Bainbridge to present this series of video chats with pioneering video artist and inventor Bill Etra. The first conversation will take place on Sunday, June 9th at 8 pm.

We will be providing video and live stream production from Bill Etra’s home, enabling him to connect with an audience of visual artists and performers gathered at Share, a weekly jam in Brooklyn. Bill, who is unable to travel for health reasons, will perform live and engage in discussion with the audience.

For more information and to RSVP, check out the Share event page.


 

Documentary of the Week #17: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

“The book is better than the movie” is not a saying you often hear in reference to a documentary.

Having just finished reading Lisa Abend’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I was excited by the prospect of “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” as a visual complement. Although not otherwise connected to one another, the book and the documentary each tell a year-long, coincidental story behind the scenes of the world famous Spanish restaurant elBulli. The book is a compelling read that combines lovely food writing with character profiles, vividly bringing the kitchen to life through the stories of the stagiaires and staff and their painstaking execution of avant-garde cuisine. The film, as put best by The New York Times, is “devoid of emotion, context or narrative” and “oppressively dull.” An hour in, realizing that there would be no interviews or narration, Dan sympathetically suggested that perhaps “Cooking in Progress” is meant to be an art film, not a documentary.

EL BULLI – COOKING IN PROGRESS trailer international from FILMad on Vimeo.

It’s a damning thing to say, but I cannot imagine how strange and confusing this film would have been to watch had I not just read such a good book on the same subject. Dan got through it but, in his words, he’s “weird and likes weird stuff.”

As evidenced by the stack of New Yorkers on my coffee table, it can be hard to make time for reading good non-fiction when we’re already overwhelmed by non-fiction watching, all the other kinds of reading and watching we do, and not to mention our own writing, producing, and editing. But you can’t write well if you don’t read a lot, and as we set out to learn from this Documentary of the Week exercise, you can’t attempt to make good documentaries if you don’t watch a lot (even the bad ones). It turns out you should read a lot, too: it’s all storytelling.

-EK