Guest post by Helicopter Girls drone pilot Katya Nelhams-Wright
2015 is the year of the drone and Kickstarter is a great place to find startups offering the latest in drone technology, designed to help you capture your life from a new aerial perspective.
One new quadcopter that’s had a lot of media coverage recently is LILY. This was partly due to the slick marketing video suggesting LILY is simple enough that your granny could operate it; but the drone itself seems to have been nicely designed and has some interesting features.
A big plus is that it’s waterproof. This is quite rare with current quads and essential for action sports as it allows you to take off on snow or in water without worrying about moisture affecting the electronics. The tech spec claims the quad can be completely submerged in water so I’d think you could even take off in light rain or snow which would be great. Another interesting design decision is that LILY is flown by a dedicated app/wrist tracker so there’s no need to carry around a traditional remote controller, which keeps the whole system lightweight and portable. On the camera side the specs look pretty respectable and camera stabilisation is built in.
So I guess the big question is would I pre-order LILY? Based on what I have seen I would have to say no.
While it’s a fun concept, I’m not sure I think it’s a good idea to have a sky full of personal drones following their owners down a packed ski slope. Apart from the fact most countries have rules about flying even small drones near members of the public, with no avoidance or collision software in place LILY seems like a disaster waiting to happen. The info on the LILY app is limited at the moment but in the FAQs it says you can stop it in mid flight by touching the wrist tracker. However if you’re busy navigating your way down the slope you’re not looking behind you to see if your LILY is about to crash into a tree or hit a fellow snowboarder.
Secondly, LILY’s flight control system is just not robust enough yet as Guardian Journalist Sam Theilman found out when he had a live demo of the prototype.
LILY feels a long way from being ready to ship and the expected date of early 2016 feels pretty optimistic to get it flight tested for the consumer market. That timeframe gives larger, more established multi-rotor companies time to incorporate some of LILY’s features into their own systems which might mean you won’t actually want your pre-ordered copter by the time it’s finally in your hands. If it were my projects I would have kept my machine under wraps a little longer, waited until the flight controller worked better in a real life scenario and looked for more investment through venture capital rather than pre-sales.
About the author: Qualified drone pilot Katya Nelhams-Wright graduated in Documentary Film and Photography from Harvard University and has spent fifteen years shooting documentaries and factual television series as a producer/director. In 2009 Kat began building and flying drones and in 2011 co-founded Helicopter Girls, one of the first multi-rotor companies in the UK to operate drones for television and film. Recent projects include Detectorists, All Aboard! The Canal Trip in BBC 4’s Slow TV season and Mission Impossible 5 for Paramount Pictures.
I’ve been using the Sony FS700 as our go-to camera for the last two years or so now. I love how versatile it is: our projects range from event coverage to high-end scripted promos and most things in between. 99% of the time I can rig and set the FS700 up to handle the situation – from lightweight run-and-gun to full studio production rig. It also has a party trick: plug in a Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q+ into the back of the camera’s 3G-SDI port and the FS700 outputs a 4K RAW signal.
The Odyssey 7Q+
I used the Odyssey a couple of times on projects a year or so ago and I was impressed with the step up in quality it gave the camera. I wanted to spend some more time testing it but in a real-world production environment. I didn’t want to compare shots side by side or shoot resolution charts as I feel that, although these have their place in certain scenarios, they wouldn’t help me in learning how the hardware and software handles production environments.
I approached Lachlan Walker and Tyson Edwards towards the end of last year to see if they were interested in collaborating on a shoot where I would make a short promo for their business (Ring Fraternity) using the FS700 and Odyssey7Q+. I felt the quality of their downright crazy skills on the olympic rings would match the potential quality the Odyssey 7Q+ would give me. Thankfully they were really up for it.
We met at Burwood PCYC gym in Burwood, Inner West Sydney on a fairly miserable Wednesday night. I loved the location – with its slightly dated and dusty facilities it contributed to the feeling that while you and I are at home watching TV, these guys are still working out after dark!
Single light source from the Lupolux on the 4k frame
The idea was to use only one key light source in the gym to light both the interviews and the overlay vision – we used a Lupolux 650w LED Fresnel. I really love the colour of these lights and the skin tones they give, especially when you do a manual white balance on the FS700 using them as the main source. I felt that the use of strong lighting like this would show off the physique of the athletes without the viewer getting too distracted by the background.
The Fs700 and Odyssey 7Q+ on my Glidecam
The ‘money shots’ were Lachlan and Tyson on the rings, showing off their skills, so I wanted to show as much action as possible with minimal interview vision in the final edit. To give these shots the edge, the help of a steadicam was definitely needed! I have never tried to fly the FS700 with an Odyssey7Q+ on a Glidecam (with vest and arm) before so my plan was to spend the afternoon before the shoot finding a nice solid way to rig it up. As so often happens, time ran out and I found myself frantically trying to find a way to balance it half an hour before the shoot. I settled on a not-so-handy setup with the recorder balanced directly on top of the camera, facing up. The major flaw in this technique – I couldn’t see the screen whilst flying and instead I had to use the monitor on the FS700 itself as a guide. On the upside, this setup was nicely balanced, and using the FS700’s monitor was a reasonable compromise.
I was aware that when shooting 4K on the FS700 the picture profile must be in SLOG-2 mode. Having a base ISO of 2000 means that it is quite noisy, but I honestly wasn’t prepared for the amount of noise that comes with this cine gamma! I think if I was shooting during the day with nicely sunlit scenes then maybe I wouldn’t have noticed it too much, but shooting in this dark gym with one key light really accentuated the noise bed. Luckily, having done a bit of prior research of shooting in LOG, I did slightly overexpose the shot and managed to crush most of the noise out of the image in post. There are still a few shots in the video where I can still see the noise remains so I will definitely be keeping this in mind on future shoots.
The menu system and overall experience of using the Odyssey 7Q+ was very pleasant and I found everything to be solid and well thought-out. I did enjoy having all the camera and recorder’s information turned off on the the screen, as having all that clutter on the picture itself is as one of my bugbears with Sony cameras.
The video was shot in either 4K ProRes 10bit at 25 frames per second or 2K ProRes 10bit at 50 frames per second, using a Tokina 11-16mm (steadicam), Canon 24-105mm with speedbooster and a Rokinon 35mm prime. It was also mildly irritating having to wait a few minutes every time I switched from 4K 25p to 2K 50p, however just being able to shoot in these formats was incredible coming out of a camera like the FS700 so I’m definitely not complaining!
Overall I’m very impressed with the capabilities the Odyssey 7Q+ gave our little FS700 – it definitely turned it into a different camera, and one that can play with the big boys. I would absolutely love to see a viewfinder version of the Odyssey 7Q+, but I don’t imagine that is possible right now: I doubt the amount of technology squeezed into the unit could get much smaller.
The big question is whether to buy a Sony FS7 and sell the FS700, or keep the FS700 and purchase one of these recorders – I feel either option would be a great buy and offer good bang for your buck.
This video test was made possible by the good folks over at The Front camera hire who were kind enough to loan me the Odyssey 7Q+ for the night to shoot this promo. If you need to hire gear in and around Sydney then check them out – they are a great bunch of guys!
So we all know that the Sony a7S is great little camera that is capable of creating lovely images. But what would it be like to actually replace an entire ENG camera kit with one? News cameraman turned video journalist Christian Parkinson’s latest posting to Africa is giving him the chance to find out.
Christian has a decade and a half of experience shooting news internationally and is author of the Camera Confidential (which is well worth a read). His new mission is to be able to cover hard news and features with a kit that fits into his backpack. He is blogging about his experiences and below is his first short post about what is in the bag:
I recently started work as a “Digital video producer” (essentially a VJ with a remit to do innovative work) based in Johannesburg. I had a tiny budget to purchase kit (£4000) and was keen to keep it as light weight as possible while still being practical enough to shoot features and hard news… not easy for a guy used to working with a Sony PMW 500 and a tonne of spares and lights etc.
My entire shooting kit now fits in a small photographers rucksack. Below is kit list below for those who are interested:
– Sony a7S with Movcam cage and Black Rapid strap
– Sony 18-200mm Power zoom (this is for the APS-C size sensor and works great on the a7S which can switch sensor size automatically)
– Sony XLR-K1M XLR Box and Microphone Kit (this is the XLR adaptor that allows me to attach two “pro” mics directly into the A7S)
– Sony a5100 camera with the 16-50mm kit lens (this is a great little “B” camera)
– Sony UWP-D11 Wireless Package (cheap as chips radio mic kit. . .Seems Ok so far but I haven’t had to test it in a challenging environment)
– A Rode Reporter mic
– A leatherman
– A 5m long XLR cable
– Mic stand
– 2x Sony Battery chargers
– 7x batteries (the same batteries work for both of my cameras)
So I also have a laptop bag with three small LED lights and a couple of stands in it. My edit kit lives in a small wheeled bag.
So far I’ve shot two pieces using this kit. . . I loved it though I found it hard to get my focus and exposure spot on in bright sunlight with moving subjects. I’ll write a full review of the kit once I have had a chance to do more and put it through it paces.
This blog post originally appeared on Christian’s own Imagejunkies website and you can follow his progress there.
Christian at work in Kenya with his old ENG kit. Picture by Ben Gurney
The CAME-Single brushless gimbal. The finished product will be black not silver.
Chinese manufacturer CAME has become well-known for making reasonably priced brushless gimbals. For a while their solutions felt a little DIY, but their latest offerings are much improved.
They have just launched a brand new grip-style three-axis brushless gimbal called the CAME-Single. Designed to be used held in one hand it can carry compact system cameras like the Sony a7S, Panasonic GH4 and Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera. The design is similar to rival Chinese gimbal maker Nebula’s 4000 model which we previously reviewed.
Unlike the Nebula this gimbal has toolless adjustment for easier setup and a more substantial build. The rechargeable batteries are interchangeable and are said to last around 10 hours.
The adjustments are all toolless
The CAME-Single can also be mounted to sliders, jibs and tripods to be used as a remote head. A joystick on the handle can control the movement of the camera and this should be useful when the gimbal is mounted this way.
The gimbal can be used as a hot head on a slider
Inside the gimbal is a 32-bit controller board and I assume it runs on the Alexmos system. One very neat feature is the ability to aim the camera angle by simply pushing the gimbal to required orientation and holding it got one second. The CAME-Single then memorises this and continues to shoot at this angle until you readjust it.
Maximum payload is claimed to be 1kg and the weight of the gimbal itself is 1.2kg.
The CAME-Single is due to ship in June but is priced higher than the Nebula 4000. Retail price is $988 US, but if you pre-order now there is a $100 discount bringing it down to $888 US. Just how well this gimbal performs needs to be tested, but I suspect it will be similar to CAME’s other gimbals which are pretty easy to fly.
The CAME-Mini 2
Also new from CAME is an update to their MINI model. This is a lightweight brushless gimbal also for the a7S and GH4, but with a more conventional design. I’ve been testing one for a while and the nice thing about it is that it can fold flat for storage and has batteries built into the bar of the gimbal itself. This makes it very easy to transport and it’s the lightest conventionally shaped gimbal I’ve tried. One annoyance though is that the MINI requires tools to set up and the process can be slow and tricky. CAME have recognised this and just introduced a second version of the MINI that features toolless adjustment. I hope to do a more detailed review in the future.
In what must be a response to the low price of the new DJI Ronin Mini and recent reductions to the original Ronin, CAME have also reduced the price of all their existing gimbals.
CAME 8000 down to $1688 US
CAME 7800 ( old version ) down to $1080 US
CAME 7500 down to $ 980 US
CAME 7000 down to $780 US
CAME-MINI down to $ 898US
Grass Valley’s EDIUS 7 editing package – changes are coming to the interface as well as support for Canon’s new XF-AVC codec.
Grass Valley have announced an update to their EDIUSediting software package that will add support for Canon’s new XF-AVC codec. Announced alongside the C300 Mk II and XC10 cameras, it’s a proprietary codec optimised for the larger filesizes and higher bitrates of 4K production.
FCP X and Adobe Premiere don’t currently support the format natively, perhaps unsurprisingly as neither camera is shipping yet. Grass Valley meanwhile are claiming EDIUS will be ‘the first nonlinear editing system to support Canon’s recently announced XF-AVC video format.’ They don’t specify if that support is native, but even if it’s just avoiding the merry-go-round of transcoding that usually accompanies the release of a new recording format, it could be well worth an upgrade.
There are also changes to the program’s interface, accelerated h.264 playback and a promise of free updates post-purchase.
H264 video compression is ubiquitous, well-supported and really really old – the standard was agreed in 2003, which means although it’s a workhorse codec for nearly all online video content, technological advances in the intervening years mean it’s now looking a bit underpowered.
And with greater-than-HD resolutions gradually gaining popularity for acquisition and finishing, h265 is likely to be the format of choice for the next ten years of video transmission on the web.
It’s early days: there aren’t many devices or software packages that can play h265 content yet, but it’s a very appealing as a format, especially if you’re working in 4K. This is because it aims to be twice as efficient at encoding as h264 – it’s also known as HEVC or High Efficiency Video Codec.
Video Mastering Works offers HEVC h265 encoding as well as a long list of other codec options (and an unfortunate proof-reading error).
h265 takes significantly longer than h264 to encode but the output has a much smaller filesize.
In my own completely unscientific test, encoding the same master video to h264 and h265 resulted in a filesize of 82.2MB for h264 and 47.7MB for h265 – and viewed back using VLC there didn’t appear to be any obvious differences between the two files. In fact I’m not sure it would be possible to tell which was which if you didn’t already know.
The application is definitely multi-threaded – this screenshot shows the encoder using all the available computing power of my (admittedly rather elderly) quad-core PC.
The downside? All that extra number crunching takes its toll on the speed of the encoding process: the h264 file was finished in 4m40s but the h265 file took 10m54s. Not such great news if like me you’re using older hardware (an Intel Core 2 Quad that originally launched in 2008) – but the software makes use of all available CPU cores so if you have a more modern i7 chip with hyperthreading you’ll see an improvement on those times. Video Mastering Works was certainly making use of all the horsepower my ageing PC was able to throw at it.
It is possible to use an Nvidia GPU to take some of the encoding load, but disappointingly the software uses CUDA to achieve this rather than the newer NVENC protocol – personally I’ve never found the increase in speed enough to justify the loss of quality from CUDA encodes. So it could be time to invest in that six-core ‘enthusiast’ PC you’ve been promising yourself…
So all in all Video Mastering Works is well worth a download, if only to see how your computer performs with HEVC / h265 content – although the package as a whole seems like a flexible, reasonably intuitive and very tweakable encoder. If you’re Windows-based it could be a handy addition to your editing and file conversion workflow.
Gimbals. We’re spoiled for choice at the moment, and there are certainly a few new arrivals that are very exciting in terms of ease of use, weight, and cost. But for news and documentary shooters, most gimbal rigs are still too slow to set up, too cumbersome to travel with, and too difficult to use for an extended period of time.
I believe that’s changing now with the Letus Helix Jr. At NAB 2015 this little gimbal was recognized by Newsshooter as the Best Pro Video Camera Accessory, so after trying it out with a few smaller cameras (and also with a RED), I decided to get one for my Canon C100.
The top video embedded above is a collection of Helix Jr shots from two recent shoots. The first part is from a trip to Cordova in Alaska, where in a day-and-a-half of shooting (and a day of editing), my Video Dads partner Travis Gilmour and I ran like crazy to follow the first commercial salmon catch of the season, from ocean to fine dining via jets and helicopter. The second part is from a shoot the previous week that began in the same town, where we followed birding enthusiasts to remote islands.
The second embedded video is the final release from Princess Cruises. Of course not every shot used the gimbal, but as one technique in your toolkit, the Helix Jnr really adds value to the final video.
I received the Helix Jr a week before the first shoot. After a couple hours experimenting with counterweights and accessories, I finally struck a good balance where I can use the C100’s hand grip, mounted to Zacuto’s C100 Grip Extender, as the counterbalance.
I also experimented with the gimbal’s PID (Proportional-Integral-Derivative) settings to smooth out jitters and to slow down the pan/tilt. I’d never done this before with other gimbals, but Letus’s instructions made this a pretty simple process. You increase or decrease the P or D settings by 4, until minor vibrations are gone, and you can also increase the power of the motors. I ended up slowing down the pan/tilt speed a lot because I prefer really slow motion.
The software GUI is easy to use, and you can always reset the parameters if your experiments vary widely from the recommended settings. You can adjust the Helix’s PID settings with a computer or a tablet – I would recommend opting for the model with Bluetooth as it means you can connect to the gimbal without a USB cable.
Once everything was all set up, I was pretty impressed with how simple it would be to use this gimbal out in the field. Using a Manfrotto 394 quick release system I could now lock the C100 on the Helix Jr, set aside the top handle, place the hand grip on the back of the Helix Jr, turn it on and be ready to go. It’s balanced in a way where I can change various lenses, and zoom in and out, without having to rebalance. And because I’m using the same quick release system across my other support rigs I can easily transfer the camera across when I want to change setups.
Ok so that’s all well and good, but how did it do in the real world? My shoots for Video Dads are usually for corporate or nonprofit clients, but in a documentary style, where my partner and I are constantly hustling to grab as many shots as we can. We’re not directing the action, and we have to be quick to capture moments or they’re lost forever. The Princess Cruises shoot is a good example, where we had to shoot a ton of coverage during a very fast day and a half, but we wanted the shots to have a little more oomph than regular documentary shoots. From fish processing to flying in a helicopter, to serving the fish, we had little-to-zero time to prepare, charge batteries, change lenses, or just about any consideration other than to get great shots.
For the birding festival shoot, my partner and I were shooting over two days. We knew we would be running around in mostly rainy weather, and we’d also go out on a boat and hike a few miles to a sandy island where the rare birds liked to congregate. The hike out would be wet, sandy, and the gimbal shots would only be a few seconds of the final film. But at this point I had gotten used to bringing along the Helix Jr in my bag everywhere I went, so it was no problem.
Here were the pros:
The Helix Jr packed down very small for air travel. Once balanced, I left it ready-to-go and it was still very compact to carry in my PortaBrace or Sachtler/Petrol doctor bag with other gear.
It can be balanced, and rested when not in use, without a stand. This is really huge.
I used my A-cam, rather than carrying around another camera. And the process of moving the C100 from tripod/monopod to the Helix Jr and back was really easy.
I used the C100’s LCD screen rather than attach another piece of equipment, which was really nice as it keeps the setup small and simple. The hand grip meant I could adjust exposure and turn AF on or off, without putting the camera down. The C-Cup eyecup can stay on, and I can use the heavier C100 batteries. All of which means I don’t have to change my camera setup to snap it into the Helix Jr.
The Helix Jr’s batteries are small, easy to switch out, they have level indicators, and they’re air travel safe (they’re Li-Ion rather than LiPo). They last a few hours each.
Going from a low shot in ‘briefcase mode’ up to chest level is seamless. Jib-like shots were easy to mimic.
I was able to get a lot of shot variety within my normal shooting workflow, in cars and other tight places (like a helicopter), and did not get overly tired, as the gimbal’s design means you can hold the handles close to your body without sweating buckets.
And the caveats:
The Helix Jr won’t miraculously fix the up and down motion of walking or running. Using a much heavier gimbal setup could help cover that up, or getting better at walking/running (I’m still learning), or shooting from a car or other wheels. It also helps to shoot somebody walking, since their movement covers up any up and down motion.
Like any gimbal, the Helix Jr sometimes gets out of whack when you’re pushing it. But you can help or correct it back in place without putting it down or turning it off, which I found very useful.
There’s no top handle to mount accessories, so I didn’t have any sound input for one of the two shoots. But the handles have 1/4″-20 threads on top and bottom, so for the second shoot I mounted a Rode VideoMic Pro to one of the handles.
Also since there’s no top handle, you’re limited if you want to use the Helix Jr in a helicopter or an extended shoot where you want to attach an EasyRig. You can turn the Helix Jr to briefcase mode and attach the EasyRig to the handle, but that seems like it would be awkward for an extended period of time (where do your hands go?). I shot comfortably in a helicopter for an hour flight (turning the Helix on and off here and there), in regular two handed mode.
The thing I’m most unsure of is how I will start to mix gimbal footage in with the more typical wide/medium/tight sequences in documentary edits. Gimbal footage seems to be more at home in commercial edits. But with the Letus Helix Jr, the fact that gimbal footage is now an option for just about any shoot makes me very excited about the possibilities. For me, the Letus Helix Jr has a permanent place in my travel gear bag, and I think that’s a big win for us run and gun documentary shooters.
In this week’s episode of the Go Creative Show our friend Ben Consoli talks to Ex Machina cinematographer Rob Hardy BSC. The Sci-fi blockbuster was shot on Sony’s F65 and has a distinct look that Hardy crafted. In the course of the podcast they discuss how the movie was filmed and lit.