Interview With David McLain & Jerome Thelia About The Calling And Sony’s A99
New short shows off Sony flagship
By Dan Carr | November 15, 2012
Whilst attending PhotoPlus Expo recently I had the chance to sit down with National Geographic photographer David McLain and his business partner and New York based colorist Jerome Thelia to talk about their recent short The Calling which was shot entirely with Sony's new full frame DSLR, the A99.
Canon's 5D MKII was always something of an accidental hero and the video pro community was quick to lay down a list of desires for the Mk III. In the end Canon went a different route and decided that a specific line of large sensor video cameras was necessary and Cinema EOS was born. When the Canon 5D MKIII was launched it offered only half the things that people really wanted to see and omitted some features like uncompressed HDMI output, leaving them scrambling to add it in a firmware update pre-announced six months before availability.
A camera was recently launched though that ticks nearly every box you could hope for in a DSLR form factor:
- 1920 x 1080 up to 60p
- XLR mic inputs
- Full frame sensor
- Flip out LCD screen
- Uncompressed 4:2:2 signal from the HDMI
- Headphone socket
- AF during video shooting
- Customizable silent control dial
- 2369k-dot OLED Viewfinder
- Video recording to dual card slots simultaneously
This is the Sony A99.
Sony have launched a remarkable number of products in the last few months and I for one am pleased to see that they don't seem to hold back on the specification of one camera for fear of cannibalizing the sale of another, the A99 offers a stacked feature set at a $2800 price point. Impressive stuff on paper.
When Sony needed a project to launch the camera with they called on one of their Artisans of Imagery, David McLain and his business partner at Merge, Jerome Thelia. Jerome brings 20 years of production and post production experience while David cut his teeth shooting photographic National Geographic features. Together they created a wonderful short called The Calling which sees David both in front of the camera as the subject and behind as a cinematographer while they traveled the world over just a few short weeks. At PhotoPlus Expo last month in New York I sat down with David and Jerome to talk about The Calling and working with the A99. Thanks to Jerome for the behind the scenes images used in this post.
Before we get into that though, take a few minutes to watch the short and also the excellent behind the scenes video.
When I'm reading the spec list for the A99 the first thing that jumps out at me is the 1080 60p feature, a first for a DSLR. Jerome was quick to interject though saying that for him the EVF was just as important.
The ability to look though the EVF while you're shooting is greatâ¦. it was interesting to watch Daniel (the DP) who had only shot 5Ds and he wouldn't even look through the viewfinder to begin with. It took him half the trip before he realized that you could look through it while you're shooting, he resisted it to begin with as it wasn't what he was used to but by the end he was hooked and just shooting shooting through the EVF
The thought hadn't occurred to me either to begin with but when you think about it, the possibility of being able to go without the ubiquitous Z-Finder would be quite liberating and significantly reduce the size of an already diminutive shooting package.
In this way it's a ridiculously small, compact camera for its power. That's probably the other standout feature for us and as you know the footprint of the entire crew and your presence sort of starts from the camera body and goes out from there and it really ripples through the entire process including the post process. so having that small of a camera, being able to get that small. We brought tons of support gear anticipating that we would use matte boxes with NDs and all sorts of stuff and we just ended up not using most of that. We just got screw-on NDs and we got so used to working........ we got spoiled really being able to work super fast, super light and being able to shoot just in available light quickly. Once you start to work that way it's very hard to step back and go 'let's take a half an hour to mount this to a support system' when you're going to maybe gain a tiny amount but at the expense of loosing this beautiful light.
What I thought was interesting was that Merge has always worked that way, but Daniel and Adrian are coming from the feature film world so they've almost never worked that way and they insisted that we have all these rigs and matte boxesâ¦... we had like $4000 of unnecessary excess luggage because we were carrying around these pelican cases full of this stuff and they were like 'no we HAVE to have this'. They genuinely did think that, they just didn't realize, and the second they got a tasteâ¦..these are guys who usually have mountains of gear but in the end they were hooked! The ability to just take it out of the bag and shoot, they just loved that. In the end the stuff that we used for the edit was like 90% the most spontaneous stuff, just pull the camera out of your bag and just quickly knock of a shot. That was just really liberating.
Moving on to the audio side of things, if I'm reading this spec from a video standpoint the next thing that jumps out to me is the XLR mic adapter. I shoot with a 5D sometimes and it can be a real pain in the ass to have to bolt on a small two channel mixer to the camera to allow XLRs. This solution for the A99 looks to be considerably less bulky and heavy. Now you guys used that for recording in the Church scene right ?
Yeah if you watch the behind the scenes video you can really see it in use there. We hired local sound guys to come and record it and they were all kind of blown away
It's impressive, the audio levels, you actually get a view meter in the camera so you can adjust your levels and listen to it live from the camera. When we heard about that feature we wanted to do something specific with it so we decided to do this church with a steadycam. Something that the average 5D person wouldn't be able to do and record in-camera audio easily. We had a nice stereo mic set up in the church, sending wirelessly to the camera while David was flying it around on the steadycam and it sounded fantastic.
Yeah just to be able to take out that Pluraleyes step would be a nice workflow time saver. The times when I have worked on projects that involve both photos and video.. the audio has always been a very time consuming element and any way you can shorten that process is welcome.
Granted we didn't shoot a ton of audio, but all the interviews we did with David were done with the XLR inputs and it just makes it so simple to set up. Thinking modularly that way for DSLR makes a lot of sense because you can just add it when you need it.
Did you make use of the HDMI output for external recording at at all?
Yes you can see that in the behind the scenes video as well, we shot in a studio, in a green screen studio here in Manhattan. We shot a couple of green screen shots just to demonstrate that. My background is in visual effects so I've done a lot of green screen work and compositing and I was really curious to see how well it held up. And I'll tell you that in the wide you can see the Sony camera is still doing a lot of digital signal processing and there was a little bit of a line around the edge of the composite. But the uncompressed video is uncompressed 8-bit , the kind of quality you would get off an F3 or another camera like that. We did it two ways, we used a Ninja recorder and also I ended up recording directly to a laptop using the BlackMagic Intensity Shuttle. This also gave us waveform and vectorscope which is really crucial in setting up a key. I mean we walked into this studio with my laptop and this little Intensity Shuttleâ¦ it was rediculous. I've been doing these setups for years and back in the day you would have had a huge camera and a full blown Mac Pro with RAID drives. I'd budgeted about an hour and a half of setup time but we were set up in about ten minutes with lights and a signal coming from the camera.
So I'd say those are the three key features for video then, uncompressed output, XLR and 60p at 1920x1080 ?
Well I'd say AVCHD as well, because AVCHD in my experience, I mean I haven't done an in camera shoot out because you can record MP4 in the A99 as well but intuitively having worked with an awful lot of 5D , 7D footage the A99 stuff looks to be less compressed. Even though the data rate of the 5D is higher, the A99 footage looks less compressed and holds up a little bit better in grading.
You should mention the filter settings as wellâ¦..
Yes this is an area where there could be a bit of an improvement but we were able to use the cameras Creative Styles where basically you're adjusting the DSP, the processing of the image before it gets compressed. You can dial in lower contrast settings which we did, and we experimented a fair amount. So very low contrast, low saturation and no sharpening or as little as possible in camera. The imagesâ¦. I mean it's not like working with RED Raw , or even ARRI ProRes but this was coming out of a sub $3000 camera and it was eminently more gradeable than anything I've seen coming out of a 5D or 7D when shooting with low contrast settings on those cameras. What Sony should do is bring in their Sony S-Log which I've used quite a bit on the F3 and that's just killer. If you could get that curve on this camera, in many cases, in many lighting situations would rival something like an ARRI Alexa especially if you are recording uncompressed with the S-Log out.
What lenses did you guys use then ? As a non Sony user, and I've heard this said to me as well when I've mentioned Sony in the past, there's a perception that there isn't a big enough range of lenses out there.
See I think that's kind of strange because there's two things that I love about the Sony lenses, one is they are Zeiss and that speaks for itself. The other thing is that the focal lengths are the lengths that I actually want. Like they make a 24mm f2.0 for example, which is the perfect size. I don't want a 24 f1.4 most of the time, you know ? Like I don't want an 85mm f1.2 most of the time but they make an 85mm f1.4 so they have these fixed focal length Zeiss lenses that are gorgeous and they're kinda like the way the old Nikon lenses used to be in terms of how fast they are. Not super fast but still fast.
Yeah I don't know if the opinions are centred around the speed of the lenses or not, maybe people haven't adjusted to the fact that we can shoot in such low light these days with astonishing results. I've certainly found myself using slower, but more compact and lighter lenses in the last couple of years like Canon's f4 zooms.
I think the giant lens quiver is more of a fetish as well, I mean all of the photographers I know, that I respect, you could give them two lenses and they could go and shoot almost anything. How many do you really need ? I know this is subjective and different people think differently but the way I'm thinking, literally like most of the pros I know and respect think I need a 24, a 50 and an 85â¦. and yeah I'll take a 135 you know ? And a macroâ¦.. and I'm goodâ¦. and maybe a 14.
Part of the thing too is that just stylistically people fetishize shallow depth of field but it's just such a crutch [laughs] and I mean I understandâ¦ I do it in my own stills photography. But in motion, especially in motion, there's a real limitation to shooting at f-stops under 3.5. You start to get a sameness to everything that is inherently non-narrative. So much of narrative is when motion seeks to establish space and shallow depth of field, even though it looks really beautiful and who doesn't love it but it really flattens the image a lot. Something we wanted to do on The Calling, and I think it shows, is shooting wider and less shallow and relying on composition and motion rather than just shallow DOF to say something. It's a lot harder but ultimately more timeless and I think we're going to look back in a few years and see that the last decade has sort of been mired by easy tricks like shallow depth of field.
Yeah I totally agree!
Youtube is just saturated with videos shot on sliders for now reason, nobody knows why they've put the camera on a slider it's just motion for the sake of motion, that's my pet hate!
Yeah we really went out of our way to not do that on this. We sort of relied on much more traditional cinematography techniques not the 'still photo' trappings. Especially after we saw the current wave of videos out there â¦â¦ everything that's motion is a motorized timelapse thats beautiful but when you see five of them in a row they sort of loose their place, their value. They got in a helicopter, which we did as well, but then you've got to see like twenty helicopter shots that have a sameness about them. At the risk of sounding like we're patting ourselves on the back, we rented a helicopter but we used one shot and only because it was appropriate at that point in the piece with this one sort of abstract through the clouds shot. And this is the story of how we've worked together to bring the best of photography and cinematography together and to try to escape the visual platitudes of the day.
I think it worked really well, it's a beautiful piece and it does stand out as being different from a lot of the other promotional pieces that have been commissioned for recent cameras of this type.
So what have you been shooting with before? I know you guys have an Epic ?
We've used the Sony A77 and the NEX 7 together but as colorist these days mostly ARRI Alexa, especially for commercials and some features, it's the go to camera. And it is an amazing camera but the amazing thing now is this here (the A99) is a $3000 camera that was really a pleasure to grade and clearly a big step up in post from a 5D or a 7D. I mean if you want to shoot RAW the Alexa is a $70,000 camera. But $3000 to $70,000â¦ the Alexa is NOT whatever that isâ¦ 25 times the camera If they could add S-Log to this, then I'd say you would have 90% of the quality of an Alexa. If you could record to an outboard recorder that was compact and small, then you've really kind of obliterated the gap between the digital high end and the low end and you've got a camera that shoots amazing stills. They're really really close to that and I think.
The thing that seems to be a problem in the industry at the moment is nobody wants to cannibalize sales from their other camerasâ¦.Canon's a good example, releasing the 5D MK3 without uncompressed HDMI output. Presumably trying to protect the Cinema EOS lineup somewhat but now Sony and Nikon launch cameras with that capability and Canon is left looking rather silly, having to pre-announce 6 months out a firmware update to enable the output. It's good to see that Sony doesn't seem to be too concerned about this.
I wrapped up my chat with David and Jerome by talking about some of their other upcoming projects, in particular a very interesting sounding documentary about the history of the ball and why we play with the ball, called Bounce. Production is underway and having heard a little about it I'm really excited to see the final film.
To get back to the A99 thenâ¦. it seems as though there is an awful lot to like and whilst David was obviously pleased with it's stills capabilities, having simultaneously created a wonderful set of images on the trip, it was interesting to hear Jerome's perspective as a colorist. Watching The Calling I think there's no doubt that this is the best value for money in terms of HDSLRs for filming right now. Not only is it the most complete featured package but the image looks wonderful to my eye. Welcome to the full frame video party Sony.
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