Posts Tagged ‘dslr friday’

DSLR FRIDAY: (China) Balls of Fury

Made in China, I assume.

I shoot my video contest entries with a DSLR for one reason and one reason only: It’s cheap.  My Canon T2i cost me about $900 and shoots full 1080 HD footage.  Compared to a $5,500 Panasonic HVX200, that’s a ridiculous deal.  Yeah, you lose a ton of features (like decent audio capabilities) when you don’t shoot with a real “video camera” but unless you’re a well-stocked pro, a DSLR is the best, most affordable option around.

So if your only video camera is a DSLR, you’re probably doing your filmmaking on the cheap.  Which means you need to come up with some low-cost solutions to the challenges that DSLR shooting presents.  One weird thing I’ve noticed about my DSLR is that it hates shadows.  It’s really unforgiving if you use a strong light source.  If you don’t diffuse your lights (including the sun) you’re going to get some stark shadows, especially under your subject’s eyes.  I’ve found that a great, cheap way to soften the look of a video is with one of the oldest tricks in the book: China Balls.

It seems like at least one a year I talk to a filmmaker or read a film book that recommends lighting a scene with a China Ball.  You know what China balls are right?  Those big white, paper balls that you put a light into?  (By the time you read this I probably will have added a giant picture of a china ball to this post)  For some reason I never heeded the advice of those China Ball evangelists.  But now I am a convert!  I started using them a few months ago and the results are pretty sweet.  Check out this video I shot for the Insinkerator assignment that Poptent ran back in the spring.  This entire video was lit with China Balls and natural room light.  Oh actually, the shot of the happy baby was done by my long distance collaborator, HappyJoel.  He did the adorable song for this too.  But the rest was done by me and my big, white balls:

Is that some even lighting or what?  Check out the shots of the “snacks” at the 19 second mark.  There isn’t a hint of shadow on that table.  That’s the magic of the china ball.  You can find a lot of tutorials online that explain how to build a China Ball light but here’s how I built mine:

Also probably made in china

Step 1:  You can order a china ball online here but I just went to Pier One Imports.  I bought 2 decent sized balls for like 16 bucks.

Step 2:  Head to Home Depot (ok, I prefer Menards but I think that’s a mid-western chain) and buy a cheap clamp light like the one in this picture.

Step 3:  While you’re at Menards (or wherever) pick up a 300 Watt clear or white light bulb.

Step 5:  The rest is pretty self-explanatory.  Rip that silver dish part off your light.  Pop open your China ball and put it’s metal support in.  Then put the socket into the ball and shove the cord into the ball’s cord holder bracket thing.

And that’s that.  Now the disclaimer.  BE CAREFUL!  The thing you just built is really goddamn dangerous!!  Most China Ball tutorials will tell you to use a 100 Watt bulb max.  But 100 Watts will only be enough if you want “moody” lighting.  You want to light up the night!!  But if that 300 Watt bulb touches that paper ball you’re fucked.  It’ll start smoking in a few seconds if the bulb has been on for a while.  So if you’re stupid enough to actual build this ball of death, here are the precautions you will need to take:

1.  Always make sure the bulb is hanging in the dead center of the ball.

2.  Always turn the light off when not filming.

3.  Always have a fire extinguisher on set.  (You should always have one whenever you’re setting up hot lights, actually)

So now that you’ve got your ball you’ll need to hang it from something.  A pro or semi-pro would probably stick it on a a “C-Stand” like this one. But one of those suckers will run you $165!! Screw that noise.  I just hang my China Ball from this a simple boom mic stand.  Here’s a picture of the exact mic stand I use.  Guess how much it cost?  Less than 30 bucks!  You can even buy one at Best Buy.  And let me tell you, this thing is perfect for hanging china balls.  It can extend really high so you can get the ball all the way to the ceiling (to mimic a room’s actual light source.)  Plus, the thing is super light weight and can fold up and fit in your car trunk.  A old fashioned C-Stand is so awkward and weighs so much that if you knocked one over you could break somebody’s nose.  So these mic stands are 500 million times better for suspending china balls then a big ass metal stand.

You know what?  I’ve been thinking about it and my version of the China Ball is just too dangerous to actually attempt to build and use.  So please do not build the lighting device I just explained how to make.  For the record, this post is intended for entertainment purposes only and if you burn your house down, it’s not my fault.


Oh snap!

A few weeks back I announced the start of a new, reoccurring feature here on Video Contest News; DSLR FRIDAY.  Since a huge percentage of video contest filmmakers are now shooting their entries with DSLRs I figured our readers might be interested in hearing the occasional DSLR tip.  So does this mean you can expect to see a fresh camera tip here every friday?  Heh…no.  I just announced the feature and already it’s been a few weeks since the first installment.  So think of DSLR Friday as being like a haunted pirate ship that sometimes appears in the harbor when there’s a full moon.  You’ll never know when you can expect to see DSLR FRIDAY but I swear by Poseidon’s beard your best chance of catching a glimpse of it will be on a friday.  Or…a few days after since my posts just get pushed down the page whenever a new one is added.

Today’s tip is going to be simple but sweet. If you shoot with a DSLR then you know that getting good audio with one of those cameras is a bitch and a half.  My Canon T2i (like all DSLRs) has a built in auto-gain function that is famously terrible. Even if you plug an external mic into the camera, the auto-gain is really gonna cramp your style. So if you want good audio you can either hack your DSLR and turn off the auto-gain (we’ll save that for a future post) or you can record audio to an external device.

Zooma, zoom zoom

From my family’s VHS camcorder to to my Mini-DV DVX-100B, every video camera I’ve ever used was able to record acceptable audio. So recording audio and video separately was a totally foreign exercise to me. Like a lot of DSLR users I bought a audio recorder. The thing cost me about 300 bucks and does a pretty nice job.  But using an external audio recorder will leave you with a new problem.  How do you sync up the audio and the video?

I’ve asked a few filmmaker friends about this and some of them say they use software to sync up their clips.  This program called PluralEyes seems to be pretty popular but it costs a $150.  And it only works in Final Cut Pro so if you use imovie or Final Cut Express you’re out of luck.  Plus it just seems like kind of an unnecessary hassle to me.  When I sit down to edit I want to get into it as quickly as possible.  If I’m doing a simple project I don’t want to wait for 60 minutes of audio and video to sync up before I can get to work.

So I sync up my clips the old fashioned way; with a clapper!  You know…one of those clapboard things you always see in movies about movies?  Actual “Filmmakers” have been recording sound and picture separately since the birth of the talkies.  And the way they’ve always synced the two up in post is with a clap sync.  In film they used to have to match the “clap” on the audio track to the visual clap on the screen.  But since your DSLR actually records sound you’ll have it a lot easier then those old-timers did.

Last fall I bought myself and even though the board part fell off the first time I used it, I totally love it.  I actually like it much better without the board since I can can keep the “sticks” in my pocket.  Just using the sticks also helps you keep a lower profile if you’re doing some guerrilla-style filming on the street.  If cops or security guard see a professional-looking clapboard they may be more inclined to ask you what the hell you’re doing.

So here’s how you use your sticks; when you’re on set, after the camera starts rolling you just need to do something that will feel incredibly cliche.  You need to stick the clapper in front of the actors and give it a snap.  You can even yell “Take two” or whatever if that will help you keep track of the clips later.  But if you’re using a ZOOM recorder it will tell you what track you are recording.  So I’ve found that saying the audio track number is INCREDIBLY helpful in post.

Once you start editing you open up the video clip you want to use and right at the start of it you’ll hear yourself announcing which audio clip goes with it.  Once you open that clip up you’ll see a huge audio spike.  That’s your clapper.  And if you look at the audio on the video clip, you’ll see the exact same spike.

If you’re a decent editor I don’t really need to tell you what to do next.  (But I will anyway)  Inch along the track until you get to the spike and you hear the first hint of the “Clack” sound.  Mark that spot as the start of your clip.  Then go to the video clip and do the same thing.  Place the video on the timeline and then stick the audio clip right underneath it.  The audio on both should line up perfectly.  Since I figured out that you should make your first cut one frame after you hear the start of the clap, my clips have been syncing up perfectly 100% of the time.

Of course, you could also cheap out and just clap your hands at the start of each take.  But the sound of a hand clap just isn’t as clean and perfect as the sound of a clapboard.  Also people who do that look like assholes who are to cheap to buy pair of fucking sticks.  So yeah, don’t be that guy.

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