Ups and Downs:The Art of Making, Hacking, and Hunting to create a documentary in South Sudan

I don't like waiting; for anything. 

My wife can attest to this. I can't leave sweets in the house to be enjoyed slowly over the coming weeks. Instead I rush on them, like a boat load of Viking raiders inches from the shoreline of a new village, as soon as the opportunity presents itself.  It pains me when new technology that I can clearly use in my work, arrives in the marketplace and I have to wait before I can buy it.  I pined for an iphone, I longed for a 5Dm2, I couldn't resist the draw of FCPX even though it was getting mostly frustrated reviews by other professionals.  I couldn't help it, I had to get it.

This was the case in June.  I was thinking about the largest stumbling block for backpack/So.Jo/Visual Journalists: managing all that equipment by yourself.  The tool I needed for my work wasn't really available in the market and I realized that I could figure it out on my own if I learned a little bit of computer and electrical engineering. 

I became a man possessed overnight,.  Again, you will have to ask Erica to really get a full picture of my obsession with solving the problem set before me.  I poured hours and days into building the device I have affectionately called "The Brick".  I'm guessing it represents about a full month of work (about 160 hours or so) between coding, design, and building.  Maybe more.

The Brick is the keystone component of a multimedia management system that I figured out on a sleepless night, worrying about the film by myself.   I built The Brick because I was tired of trying to respond to a situation quickly but being saddled down by the extra steps of recording sound separately from my video because of quality issues in H264 and the preamps in the 5D.  Normally, the process of shooting video with good audio on a 5d rig looks like this:  Hit record on the Audio Recorder to put it in stand by, hit it again to actually start recording, hit record on the 5D.

It's not only inelegant, it's time consuming, and most importantly: it's distracting when you are trying to focus on telling the story.  I wanted one button for everything.  So I built The Brick, sent off a couple of patent applications and now I'm here in South Sudan, where I expected to never use my newly found skills. 

But when I unpacked my bags after landing in Juba on Saturday, I realized I had left my charger for my Sony VG10 back in the states.  I did some research, figured out which charger I had was close enough to the needs of the V-Series battery the camera uses and went to work with the few things I happened to have around: a stray jumper wire left in my bag from my building frenzy days, a female plug that happened to fit the charger for my Brick–which happens to be the voltage and charge controller type for the Battery, and a Leather Man.

A coffee induced moment of clarity:

It looks like it's working, though the charger is a little hot.... I may have to keep an eye on the rig when I do go to charge the battery in the future. :)  But it's working, and right now that's a good step.

Waiting is the hardest part of working here in Juba for me.  I don't mind the power outages, I know how to prepare and work with them.  I don't mind having spotty internet or unreliable connectivity.  I wish I had less gear to haul around, but that's more about choices I've made than the environment.  What's been hard is waiting to start.

It took half a day to get all my journalism paperwork squared away so I could shoot in public legally.  It wasn't until yesterday that I was able to get my first interview with Kuol.  I have exchanged a total of two text messages with KongKong, both short, both mildly hopeful.  He's working out of town but might be back for a few days before I leave.  That's all I know right now

The weather is hot, the light is difficult, and contacts take time to establish.  communication is slow.

But if you are patient, if you have planned and shored up your loose ends.  You can pounce when the opportunity strikes.

Oh God, that I can be a patient man.

I hate waiting.

Initial impressions of CoreMelt's Lock & Load X

[col-sect][column] I remember when I first discovered Final Cut’s SmoothCam filter. I was young and it was summer. I was doing my first helicopter shoot and needed some help ironing out the rough edges on what I learned later was a very clean shoot. Our time together was new and exciting. I was shooting on an HVX200 at 1080p and the client needed a 720p product so I never noticed SmoothCam’s faults. At the end of our shoot, Smooth and I went our separate ways as all summer relationships must. Years later, I needed SmoothCam again and found it lacking. I hadn’t noticed its slow calculations and its ridiculous handling of CMOS footage before, but now it was all I could see.

I found CoreMelt’s Lock & Load X while trying to find a better solution than VirtualDub’s Deshaker for rolling shutter removal.[/column]

[column]I don’t like leaving Final Cut to process my material any more than I have to, so The Foundry’s Rolling Shutter plugin for After Effects is not an option to me. Lock & Load X turned out to be a fantastic find.

The short review of L&LX is that it’s a powerful and quick stabilizer that handles CMOS roll OK.

Here’s a quick video I pulled together over the weekend while some good friends were in town. I shot on my 5D with a 24-105. I kept the IS on for most shots. I was at the back of the canoe so I couldn’t focus on shooting too much with my 8 months-pregnant wife insisting that I not let the craft drift into logs, palms, and alligators. This was made for a realistic worst-case scenario.[/column][/col-sect]

[col-sect][column]How does it work?

First off, you need to know that all digital stabilizers achieve their results by analyzing a clip, finding what objects are consistent in that clip, and then figuring out how to draw a box around those objects such that if that box where the frame it would look like a smooth shot. Basically it’s a dynamic, moving crop box. This means that if you are planning on using any digital stabilizer, you should edit on a timeline that is one size smaller than your source material. So, if you are shooting 1080p, use a 720p timeline. This way, your stabilized images will remain sharp and not be stretched.

As a stabilizer, I have never used a better product than Lock & Load X. It tracks clips quickly and does it in the background so you can keep editing while L&LX is thinking. Even on my laptop I found this to be a hiccup-less process. Once it’s done tracking, you have a lot of control over how the stabilizer plays out. You can control how much it compensates for horizontal, vertical, and rotational movements individually. You can even tell it to lock down a shot so that it looks more like it’s a static shot on sticks. From there, render time is dependent on the complexity of your codec versus your timeline.
[/column] [column]
The soft spot in Lock & Load X is the feature I was the most excited about initially: shutter roll removal. For mild pan object-tilt and light handheld jello it works great, but when movements get a little complex the algorithm gets confused and gives objects a momentary vibrating effect. Is it better than the jello? Most of the time, yes; however I do find it distracting to watch when it’s bad, as you can see in the video above.

Is it worth it?

At $150, I would say it’s worth it for anyone who ends up having to digitally stabilize often in their post-production. I seem to never have sticks around when I should so the large reduction in render time was well worth it for me. As a shutter roll remover it’s the simplest solution around for FCP and if you are doing commercial work or a narrative film and can control most of your camera movements onsite, then Lock & Load X will help get rid of those little imperfections in your image for sure. That being said, it’s not really capable of removing the roll entirely and exaggerates short, fast movements like bumping the camera or moving from the focus to zoom rings. So if I have my eye piece and am being careful, I think the shutter roll removing function will have be really useful, most of the time….[/column][/col-sect]


Ushahidi's Henry Addo and Linda Kamau keeping it extra real, 4 hours into a 20 hour code-polish extravaganza in preparation for the deployment.

I'm in Kenya this week and next, covering the vote on the new constitution. I love this place, working with the Ushahidi team is always a pleasure, it's just that I feel really guilty getting paid to do this stuff with them. It's cliche but I have to remind myself that this is my job-I'm getting paid for this. I would do this for free. Also, they have really good coffee at the *iHub_.

Zen and the Art of Collaboration

I recently co-produced two pieces for Ushahidi regarding their work in Haiti shortly after the earthquake. I helped concept the stories with Sara George, Ushahidi's producer, and then we brought in Andrew Berends to direct. Andrew was already in Haiti shooting for Frontlines and had a great sense of the ground. You come into these types of projects with a particular idea of what is going to happen. You see the arch in your head. You hears the character's voices... and then you get the actual footage back from the Videographer. Andrew did an amazing job when you consider that he really had about 36 hours to pull both stories together. We got a lot of great B-roll and decent interviews.

In this sort of situation the largest hurdle to overcome is one of expectations. Sarah and I had individual ideas about how the stories should go. Andrew had his own understanding of our expectations plus an understand of how realistic those expectations where (which I will never really know). I know he had his own expectations for the projects as he sent the footage back to me, where I tried to let go of my original ideas about the story so I could find the amazing stuff Andrew found.

Lesson learned: your mind can't really be big enough in Non-Fiction story telling.

Canon's great equalizer: the 35mm f2

[col-sect][column]Concerning the Canon 35mm f2

OK, I was wrong.

In a previous review concerning the Sigma 50mm f1.4, I shot off a quick laundry list of problems I was having with the Canon 35mm f2 which I picked up at around the same time. After lots of testing, retesting and even some practical shooting, I have come to the conclusion that I was wrong about the 35mm f2.

When I first started testing this lens I was shooting under very bright, mid-day lighting conditions in central Florida. To give you an idea, this time of year the UV index is usually somewhere around, “You will get skin cancer in five minutes.” So of course the contrast was ridiculous, the color awful, and I was generally unhappy with my photos.

But after a few weeks with the lens, I have to say I was wrong. It’s sharp…really sharp. The highlights hold and it’s tiny! For the money, I’m not sure there’s a better lens in the Canon lineup.

There are a few caveats; almost all lens designs are a compromise between speed, size, sharpness, contrast, color rendition, bokeh, light fall-off, and manufacturing complexity. At the $300 price point, you are going to be dealing with more compromises than you would with say a $1400 lens like the Canon 35 f1.4 L.

Me by the wife (which is why it's sharp) click for full size

The 35 f2 is one of Canon’s original EOS offerings. It showed up in 1990 and it hasn’t changed in 20 years. The seven element design is a bit of a departure from the earlier ten element Canon FD design. As a general rule, fewer elements make for a sharper lens. More elements afford a designer the ability to control light fall-off and color/contrast better, but this can be at the expense of overall sharpness (especially wide open). Note that the 35 f1.4 L has four more elements than its f2 counterpart.[/column]

[column] Can you see where this is going?

From an overall lens-characteristics standpoint the lens is very sharp. It does, however, vignette heavily from f2 to about f3.5, after which it effectively goes away. It is fairly contrasty and the color rendition is a little cooler than other Canon offerings.



Despite the older design, the auto-focus is quite snappy and the little arc-motor is not nearly as noisy as some make it out to be. It may not be as quiet as a USM, but it’s really not a big issue. I think you’ll find that it’s quite acceptable for all but the most insecure photographer.

The great thing about the 35mm f2 is that it’s really small and light weight. The barrel is all plastic with a metal mount, but it doesn’t feel chintzy like those awful 28-80 kit lenses Canon used to include with their consumer bodies.

Who is this for?

If you’re looking for a “standard” lens equivalent (in terms of FOV) for your crop sensor camera, I would look at the Sigma 30mm f1.4 first; not just for the extra stop, but because a 35mm lens will have a 56mm FOV on your camera and that’s a little long for a standard lens (at least for me). Further, while the 35mm f2 is sharp, the bokeh is nothing spectacular. You’re not going to be super happy with it if you’re using it to mimic the kind of photography you’d normally get using a 50mm f1.4 on a full-frame body.

Light, small, sharp and fast makes the 35mm f2 the perfect walk-about lens for your 5D, 1Ds Mark II, or that EOS 1V you just picked up off eBay.[/column][/col-sect]

Regarding 35mm Lenses in General

Paul Meyers, a photography instructor I had, once told me a story about an exchange he observed at the Eddie Adams Workshop. A student was rifling through the lens-cabinet and pulled out a 20mm (this was during a time when super wides were just becoming cool in photojournalism). His team coach caught the student before he made it out the door, pulled him back to the cabinet, took the 20mm from his hands and swapped it for a 35 f2. “When you can fill the frame with this,” his coach said, pointing to the 35 f2, “then you can check out the 20.”

The 35mm focal length on full frame cameras represents an important perspective for a photographer, especially a photojournalist or documentary photographer. It allows you to photograph what your eye sees naturally…everything your eye sees.

James Whitlow Delano has this to say about the 35mm focal length:

“If a person in my photograph fills the frame, that means I was physically right next to them. I have to respect their culture and not anger them by my intrusion. I’m so close they could reach out and pop me in the nose…”

This makes it a challenging prime because there is only one way to fill the frame – you’ve got to get close to your subject, really close. But it’s a great departure from super-wides. It’s a refreshing lens to use and a great focal length with which to challenge yourself and create space.[/column][/col-sect]