Friday, 23 July 2010

The Evil Queen of Nature

After writing the previous post I went for a walk in the local forest, and - as if by magic - I bumped into a very nice lady. She was quite happy for me to film her with an array of equipment. Before I continue, familiarise yourself with this:

It's the very lovely, very bosomy Mellie D, who has exactly the right costume in her enormous wardrobe. I went into this with a bag of lenses, a tripod, batteries, and precisely two ideas.

You see, one of my favourite film directors is John Boorman. His films are often brilliant but flawed, and they are always good to look at. He lives in a picturesque area of Ireland and his director's commentary tracks are always interesting.

Two films in particular haunt me. The first is Zardoz, an epic meditation on mortality ruined by too many drugs. It is the one with Sean Connery wearing a silly costume and also there's a giant flying head that spits out guns - Sean Connery's tribe worships the head, and it tells them that "the gun is good! The penis is evil! It shoots seeds that create new life!", and there are immortal people in a dome, and lots of topless women, and a co-star who looks like Rodney Bewes but isn't. Everybody is pasty white. The film has a germ of brilliance, however, and it looks wonderful. The cinematography was by Geoffrey Unsworth, who worked on 2001 and Cabaret and Murder on the Orient Express and Superman, which is dedicated to his memory, because he died in 1978. Zardoz has a distinctively glowy look, and Sean Connery in a silly costume, viz:

Perhaps someone could remake it without the silly costume and the topless women. But that would defeat the point; the end result would just come and go without leaving a trace, whereas Boorman's version of the story will live forever. Yes, he is wearing what is supposed to be a kind of pre-Mad Max post-apocalyptic bandana thing, and no you don't get to see his todger although you are left in no doubt that he has one.

The other film is Excalibur, which was a surprisingly straightforward take on the Arthurian legend. Coming from John Boorman it should have been packed with allegory, and it is still slightly silly - Nichol Williamson's take on Merlin has a peculiar accent, all of the characters shout all of the time - and it packs too much story into too little time. If Zardoz is killed by excess and indiscipline, Excalibur is wounded by being too streamlined. I would have liked to see a drug-crazed, allegorical, four-hour Excalibur with silly costumes and topless women and people delivering portentous dialogue. And more of Helen Mirren in her metal breastplate viz:

According to the DVD commentary track, John Boorman owns that breastplate and has it in his house. Does he occasionally invite Helen Mirren over so that she can put it on, and he can film her? We may never know. She would probably still fit into it today, you know. And people would pay good money to watch her do so.

But I digress. Even the bits of Excalibur that do not feature Helen Mirren look wonderful, but in a different way to Zardoz. It is much harder-edged, more grainy, and has a clever effect whereby the crew shine green lights onto the knightly armour in order to make it look spooky, viz:

John Boorman seems to have had a thing for practical optical effects. The floating text in the cap from Zardoz is just projected onto a sheet of glass, and there are the green lights that I have just mentioned. Nowadays this kind of thing would be done with computers. There is probably a button marked "green glow" in Adobe Premiere. Excalibur was shot by Alex Thomson, and it won him an Academy Award nomination. He also shot Ridley Scott's Legend and Kenneth Branagh's 70mm version of Hamlet and Michael Mann's The Keep, which is one of those cult favourites that isn't very good but it looks awesome. And there's the bit with the silver crosses and the giant cavern and Tangerine Dream that you remember, yes you do:

Sadly Alex Thomson died in 2007.

So, to the point, I set out to emulate my half-forgotten memories of my idea of these films and I have done so. I brought along a small torch with a green gel filter that you can see working in the first clip, but I will talk more about this later, with individual examples. For now, I command you to eat, drink, and be merry. For tomorrow you will live.

For the record, I used three lenses. The wide shots with done with an Olympus 24mm f/2.8. Medium close-ups were done with a Tomioka-made Auto Chinon 55mm f/1.4, which I haven't written about properly. Both of these lenses were shot almost exclusively wide open, using a UV filter smeared with vaseline. I also used my Nikon 75-150mm f/3.5 for telephoto shots. It has excellent circular bokeh (e.g. in the sequence starting at 0:15) and great contrast and the focus ring is very smooth, which is useful for video. It is rapidly becoming my favourite lens.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Mini Lens Tests Blue: Auto Chinon 55mm f/1.4 I

This is the latest in a series of articles about very old lenses from before the dawn of time (the 1970s). This one is an Auto Chinon 55mm f/1.4. Mine was made by a company called Tomioka. I will include cold hard facts in the next post, but for now I am bored with the convention whereby I post sample images from the corners, at a variety of apertures. Too linear, too Western, too up-tight. I want to make all that has gone before seem pale and empty. The world that follows may not acknowledge me as its creator, but it will be my creation nonetheless.

And so here is an impressionistic portrait of the lens, shot mostly at f/1.4, accompanied with M-Tron, the super Mellotron emulator, which I pumped whilst feeding it through the filters of a Korg MS-20:

Auto Chinon 55mm f/1.4: MOTHER COUNTRY LOVE HATE
Canon 5D MkII

That's what the bokeh looks like. There are things that the human mind cannot grasp, and yet they exist. One day the collective consciousness of humanity will encounter an immovable object, and we will not have been so unstoppable after all.

It has a 52mm filter thread. I like it, and in a subsequent post I will show you why. Not today.

Monday, 5 July 2010

No. 1 London Bridge (again)

This was shot with a Canon 5D MkII, and the Canon 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 I wrote about in an earlier post. For stills photography it's a decent lens, limited by poor border quality at wider apertures; the fact of having to stop down to f/8, f/11 restricts you to shooting in good light outdoors, and limits your options for fill-in flash indoors.

As a video lens it comes into its own. Video is forgiving of lenses because the resolution is relatively low, and you can get away with much lower shutter speeds, because the stuff you're shooting is moving anyway. f/11 isn't so limiting at 1/30th or 1/60th of a second. As a consequence the 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 makes for a decent video lens, especially given that it is small and light. It's long out of production and is only available on the used market.

The 5D MkII is still available new although it's a couple of years old now. For guerrilla filmmaking the 5D's only major limitation is the size and weight, which means that you'll need a relatively hefty tripod or support. I used a Gorillapod SLR Zoom, which is the second-heftiest model the company makes and will support 3kg, which is almost as much as a human head. It's solid enough to hold the camera pointing straight upwards, albeit that the 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 is a featherweight. It would probably struggle with the old 28-70mm f/2.8 or any of Canon's L-series zooms. If you have e.g. a Canon 550D or Nikon D5000, for example, a standard Gorillapod SLR would be more appropriate. Having said that, the standard model only holds 800g; it's a shame they don't sell a 1.3kg model. In my experience the Gorillapod's ball head is a godsend, and the flexible legs are a kind of bonus that I rarely use, but on those occasions when I need them, I have them.

For ultimate guerrilla filmmaking then something like an Olympus E-P1 with in-body stabilisation and the Panasonic GH1's range of video capture options would be the ne plus ultra, the sine qua non, the crème de la crème. It would be der musikant, mit Taschenrechner in der Hand. It would be like Holly Hunter in Miss Firecracker, small and easily portable, and good-looking. The E-P1 will go places that the 5D cannot go, because the E-P1 is a gentleman's camera, whereas the 5D is a brute.

Wanna grow / up to be / be a deshaker
The film is made out of long, five-minute video sequences sped up with VirtualDub, rather than a series of still frames. Even with support, it was a windy day and the raw footage was often a bit shaky. Furthermore, some of the shots were taken on London Bridge, which wobbles when buses go by. No amount of tripod will steady London Bridge, but fortunately there is a piece of software that will do this. It's called Deshaker and it's awesome, and just like VirtualDub it's free. I surmise all this free software was originally developed so that people could pirate home DVDs; now it powers me.

Here's what it does. The first fifteen seconds are raw and unprocessed. Notice the wobble every time a bus goes by. The second and final fifteen seconds have been run through Deshaker. They still wobble, but not so much:

It's not so apparent at this smaller size, but look at the area of background behind the YouTube logo at about 10-11 seconds in, and then fast-foward to 25 seconds to see the same snapshot de-shook. I don't have the space and time to tell you how to use Deshaker. It is nightmarishly complicated, although the brief instructions on the website work fine (you select "pass one", play the video, then select "pass two" and do your compression and filters etc and output the results). Every time I have fiddled with the options I have made the output worse.

I also did the music. Lots of M-Tron. I don't know how to write about music.

PROTIP: Earlier on I mentioned shutter speeds. Traditional Hollywood-style motion picture cameras typically shot at 1/60th, which is very slow for stills photography, but not a problem for a movie. Although the individual frames of a movie shot at 1/60th might have motion blur, the movie itself appears to have a liquid flow of motion when played back. The effect emulates the continuous flow of vision experienced by the human vision system. And it emulates the continuous flow of life itself.

In the modern era of video cameras and digital capture it is much easier to use a fast shutter speed, which produces an oddly "hyper real" look, with each individual frame captured in perfect clarity. When played back, a movie shot with a higher shutter speed looks like a series of still images one after the other. The effect is jarring. Steven Spielberg famously used the effect in the battle sequences of Saving Private Ryan, in order to express the chaos and random clarity of warfare. It's commonly used in sports and news footage, so that people can run through individual frames, but the effect becomes tiring after a while. The clarity is too much. Also, it evokes the sweating, ugly faces of rugby players. Rather than e.g. Terence Malick's Days of Heaven.

The jerky hyper-reality was long a problem with stop motion photography, and animators historically devised numerous methods of introducing fake motion blur, culminating in Industrial Light and Magic's motorised "Go Motion" effect. There's an interesting pair of articles in the Skeptical Inquirer, from 1995, about this very topic (one, two).

I digress. The point is that video shot at 1/60th or slower looks more fluid than video shot at higher shutter speeds. In daylight this is a problem, because even shooting at ISO 100, f/11, with a polarising filter, I had to use shutter speeds of 1/125th or thereabouts. I needed to use a neutral density filter. Or a cloud. There's a good overview of this topic here, on a blog about the Micro Four Third standard. It has little Lego men going around in a circle.