January 19, 2015
Exclusive Interview

How to Shoot a Sundance-Worthy Film on the Blackmagic Pocket in Frigid Weather & Two Feet of Snow

Bob and the Trees BTS
"It is deep winter in rural Massachusetts."

So begins the plot summary of Bob and the Trees, a dramatic film premiering at Sundance next week, and so began the journey of the two DPs who shot the film in the midst of a violently cold and snowy Northeastern winter.

Late last year, I was hoping to write a story about the difficulties of shooting exteriors in the snow. Not only can cold, wet weather wreak havoc on expensive electronic equipment, but shooting in the snow presents its own series of challenges in terms of lighting and exposing images properly. That story ended up coming right to my doorstep in the form of Bob and the Trees, a 2010 short film turned feature that was recently accepted at the Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Diego Ongaro, Bob and the Trees is described thusly in its IMDb summary:

It is deep winter in rural Massachusetts. Bob, a fifty-something year old logger with a soft spot for golf and gangsta rap struggles to make ends meet in a changed economy. When a beloved cow of his gets wounded and a job goes awry, Bob begins to heed the instincts of his ever darkening self.

Bob and the Trees
Still frame from Bob and the TreesCredit: Teague/Vecchione
What's even more intriguing than that delightfully enigmatic and mysterious summary is the fact that Bob and the Trees was one of the first features — if not the very first — to be shot exclusively on a pair of Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras.

This is significant for a few reasons. First and foremost, the BMPCC is one of those cameras that delivers incredible image quality for the price, but also presents numerous technical challenges in order to make it work in traditional narrative and documentary productions (the production of Bob and the Trees really blurs the line between the two). Learning how the film's DPs, Chris Teague and Danny Vecchione, configured their cameras and shot the film can help the myriad filmmakers who now own a BMPCC get the most from the camera in their own work.

Bob and the Trees Poster
Secondly, Bob and the Trees was shot in some horrendous weather. Last year, southward shifts in the North Polar Vortex made for one of the coldest and snowiest winters on record for residents of the Northeastern United States. Bob and the Trees was shot in the heart of the affected region in Western Massachusetts. The crew shot in below-freezing temperatures, often in two or more feet of snow. Like I mentioned before, conditions like this present a whole range of technical challenges for cinematographers.

I recently spoke with Chris and Danny about their experiences shooting Bob and the Trees, about how they made the BMPCC work for them, and about how they handled the challenges presented by Mother Nature. Unfortunately, the Bob and the Trees does not have a theatrical trailer as of yet, so it's hard to show you guys something that will give you an idea of how the finished film looks. Luckily, I managed to get a few sneak preview clips from Bob and the Trees that are exclusive to our site. You'll find those clips sprinkled throughout this interview alongside BTS photos and still frames from the film.

With that out of that way, let's get to the interview with Chris and Danny!

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NFS: First off, introduce yourselves. Tell us a little bit about your history with filmmaking and how you went about making a career out of it. Also, how did each of you land on the crew of Bob and the Trees?

Chris Teague: I studied photography and English in undergrad in Boston and worked for an amazing documentary cinematographer named Steve McCarthy, who taught me a lot. I then went to grad school at Columbia University for film and ended up shooting a lot of student shorts and then transitioned into working as a freelance DP. Danny and I met over 10 years ago when he was at NYU and we've been good friends and collaborators ever since.

Danny Vecchione: I went to undergrad for fine arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I got into film. I then went to grad school at NYU, where I was originally studying directing, but ended up shooting a lot of student films. I fell in love with cinematography and have been doing it ever since. Chris shot Diego’s short film a few years ago, and thought that this film could be an interesting project to collaborate on and co-shoot. Diego was open to that idea, and I came on as a second DP to the project.

Bob and the Trees BTS
Credit: Rob Cristiano

NFS: Give us a brief rundown of the themes of Bob and the Trees. What is the visual style that you guys created for this film, and why was that aesthetic the right choice for this particular story?

CT: Diego wanted to cast non-professional actors in key roles in the film to enhance the authenticity he wanted to achieve. We shot a short film based on these characters a few years ago, and that was a great way to get a feel for what it was like to stage dramatic scenes in a way that kept the filmmaking apparatus as unobtrusive as possible, while still working to make choices with camera placement and movement that helped to tell the story.

The mix of naturalism along with beautiful and carefully composed landscape shots of the Berkshires really balances the film and creates a unique tone.

I don't think we ever got too dogmatic about a visual style. I think we have similar instincts — we all share an interest and excitement in the spontaneity of real things happening in front of the camera, and the way that documentary reality can mix with thoughtful composition and cinematic storytelling.

Danny and I have worked together for years, which makes communication very easy. We had no video village, so Diego really had to trust us with what we were shooting. When we're shooting a scene with two cameras, Danny and I both have a pretty strong sense of what the other person is seeing, and can often anticipate what might happen next and try to position ourselves in ways that allow our angles to complement each other, which can be incredibly difficult in a documentary-style environment when everything can change from take to take. It's a fun challenge.

DV: The film was very interesting to shoot because Diego would set up scenarios for the actors, and we would just run the scene through as many times as it took to feel right. He was referencing very interesting films, such as Ballast, that have a very free form but a beautiful, organic look. The mix of naturalism along with beautiful and carefully composed landscape shots of the Berkshires really balances the film and creates a unique tone.

The script was more of an outline with occasional bits of dialogue in it. The shoot felt almost like a documentary at times, when you feel like you only have one shot at an unrepeatable action, so it was really more about camera operating and trying to capture the actors in the best position that they were going to naturally than forcing them into blocking and hitting marks. Chris and I have worked together quite a bit on set, and can usually anticipate where the other one will be and what they will be shooting in a given situation. I don’t think I could have tried to co-shoot a feature with anyone else.

NFS: I've heard that the conditions you guys were shooting in were less than favorable. Talk a little bit about what those conditions were and what it was like to shoot in those conditions for hours on end.

CT: We were shooting in below-freezing temperatures almost every day, and often in two feet of snow. I wore three layers of pants and four layers on top, two pairs of socks and we all had these amazing rubber army surplus boots that Diego found that totally saved our lives. I wore a heavy pair of fingerless gloves with removable mittens, and a thin pair of cotton gloves underneath.

The cold was most challenging on my fingers, which had to be exposed to operate the camera. It was also incredibly difficult and exhausting to smoothly operate a handheld camera with so many layers and in two feet of snow. But frankly, it's kind of hard to whine about it when you're filming guys who go out into the freezing cold every day and spend all day every day logging, who prefer the cold because the ground is frozen, which makes it easier for them to work in a way that is lower impact on the natural environment. We were actually lucky that it was so cold because it meant the snow stayed dry and pretty much consistent throughout the shoot.

Bob and the Trees BTS
Credit: Diego Ongaro

DV: I can and will complain that it was very, very cold. But it was fun too.

We were shooting in below-freezing temperatures almost every day, and often in two feet of snow. I wore three layers of pants and four layers on top, two pairs of socks and we all had these amazing rubber army surplus boots that Diego found that totally saved our lives.

NFS: Why did you guys choose to shoot with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera? Did you use any other cameras for this production, or was it shot entirely with Pocket Cameras? Talk a little bit about not only the camera settings that you used, but which lenses and camera stabilization gear that you used as well.

CT: We shot on two Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras with the Metabones Speed Booster adapter and Nikon prime lenses. We like the small size and operational simplicity of the camera, as well as its ability to hold highlights pretty well for a camera in its class, which was essential for shooting in the snow. Also, knowing that we'd be working in a mostly documentary-style environment, we appreciated knowing that we'd have the low compression ProRes HQ codec to work with in post. We knew that we could underexpose to protect highlights and bring the midtones up in the color correct without too much noise. 

Bob and the Trees BTS
Credit: Rob Cristiano

Danny and I both operate handheld on small cameras with these really crappy plastic shoulder rigs that work amazingly well. I bought mine over 10 years ago at a garage sale for 7 bucks, and recently Ikan copied the design and branded it the Recoil-XT. I really hate the over-designed, overbuilt, and overpriced rigs that all these companies have made, where you're hanging a big weight off your back that's always smashing into walls and that make a tiny camera bigger than an Alexa. This little plastic rig weighs almost nothing, it wraps around your shoulder and braces against your chest, and you put your hands on the camera body itself, which is where your hands belong in a documentary shooting environment where you need to have fluid access to focus, aperture, white balance, peaking, etc.

Danny and I co-own a lot of gear, and we like the older metal body Nikon primes for their look and because they are very solidly built for photo lenses. The Speed Booster adapter is also a really clever invention and it added a lot to the look of the film, partly because it allowed us to use the Nikons where we may not have otherwise been able to.

We like the small size and operational simplicity of the [Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera], as well as its ability to hold highlights pretty well for a camera in its class, which was essential for shooting in the snow. Also, knowing that we'd be working in a mostly documentary-style environment, we appreciated knowing that we'd have the low compression ProRes HQ codec to work with in post. 

DV: Over the course of the production, Chris and I would talk about other possible camera choices that we could have used, and I am very happy that we went with the Pocket Cinema Camera. While I like shooting with larger and more sophisticated cameras, a larger body and more gear would have meant more crew, time, and complication on set in the snow. The film was shot entirely in 15 days, and a larger footprint would have made the schedule and logistics too complicated. We were both able to carry all the gear that we needed by ourselves. It was a very bare bones approach to it, but the dynamic range of the Pocket Cinema Camera was impressive enough for us to shoot snow scenes while maintaining the integrity of the whites and the shadows.

Chris and I both like older, softer, vintage lenses. We co-own a set of Cooke S2s and these old Nikon photo lenses, both of which I love the look of. They take the edge off of HD images. We only had one set of the Nikons, so Chris and I decided to intentionally mismatch the lens focal length of each scene. In the morning, one of us would shoot with a wider lens - usually a 24mm or 35mm, and the other person would shoot with a longer lens - usually a 50mm or 85mm. In the afternoon we would swap focal lengths so that we could bring a fresh perspective to the scenes and not get stuck in a rut.

NFS: Cold weather and moisture can wreak havoc on expensive electronic equipment. How did you guys maintain your equipment and ensure that it was always working properly (if it was) in the snow and cold temperatures?

CT: Most of our gear fit into two backpacks and two tripod cases, and wherever we hiked in to shoot our incredibly helpful assistant and jack of all trades Phil Dunphy would drop a tarp over the snow that we would throw our gear on. We were very mindful of keeping snow off of all of our gear, which was a pain because we could never set the cameras down. The cameras performed very well in the cold. Even the tiny batteries did well. We were sure to have a ton of batteries for each camera (about 8-10 each) and we kept them in our inner layer pockets to keep them warm. The LCDs on the cameras sometimes had a minor trailing effect because they were cold, but I think this happens with any cold display.

DV: I was surprised at how well the gear handled in the snow. We even shot one sledding scene in a white-out blizzard, and the cameras and lenses were fine.

Bob and the Trees BTS
Credit: Rob Cristiano

NFS: Exterior lighting with lots of snow on the ground can be tricky. How did you guys handle the lighting for this film? Did the snow present any major obstacles in terms of lighting?

CT: For the most part lighting the exteriors was about exposing the image properly. We tried to keep the snow from blowing out and were mostly successful. The Pocket Cinema Camera has a good ability to hold highlights, since we were shooting with the fairly low compression ProRes 422 HQ codec, we knew we'd have some wiggle room in post to bring up underexposed shadows if necessary.

DV: After I read the script, my feeling was that maintaining highlights in the snow was going to be the most difficult thing to achieve technically. We used variable NDs on the lenses so that we wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time dealing with filter changes and could react to the changing weather conditions quickly. We did have a few exterior days in the woods where action was taking place under the shadows of the trees, and there are some hot spots in the background that were unavoidable. My favorite scenes are the overcast or snowing scenes. I wish the whole film was gray and overcast, but I think we made the best of every scene.

NFS: Were there any other unforeseen obstacles that made this film difficult to shoot? If so, how did you handle them?

CT: We thought that shooting with two cameras simultaneously would be essential for capturing performances that may be unrepeatable. While this was somewhat true, we also found ourselves avoiding each other a lot. We were very concerned that the shoot would start to feel like reality TV, because the tendency when shooting with two cameras is to just have one camera cover each character or group and then you have the ability to cut between the two angles. However, this can become visually very dull and boring, and it removes the ability that a skilled camera operator has to become a part of the scene, moving and reacting to things as they are happening. While I think the final cut looks great and doesn't feel like reality TV at all, we've talked about it since shooting and I think we agree that if we did things again we'd try to shake it up a bit more with the camerawork — to shoot some scenes or takes single camera only, just to allow that camera more freedom, even if it means missing some moments.

DV: I don’t really have anything to add on this one.

Still Frame from Bob and the Trees
Still Frame from Bob and the TreesCredit: Teague/Vecchione

NFS: Do you guys have any other advice for young cinematographers who might be facing a cold, snowy winter shoot of their own?

CT: Try to keep things light and simple if you can. Make yourself as comfortable as possible. Don't expect that the rig or piece of gear that worked well for the five minutes you tested it will work well for a 12-hour day of shooting.

DV: Do some tests on the highlights, and take the footage through to post. Make sure you are comfortable with the dynamic range of the camera that you choose.

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We'd like to thank Chris and Danny for taking the time to answer our questions, and also the film's producer Rob Cristiano for setting this up. Bob and the Trees will be having its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival next week, on January 26th, so if you're in Park City, you definitely ought to check it out.

If you have any questions about the production of Bob and the Trees, leave them down in the comments. Also, share your experiences with shooting exteriors in the snow!

Photo Credit for Header Image - Phil Dunphy

Your Comment

33 Comments

does anyone know what monitor they are using in the interior photo, and what is gaffer taped to the top of it?

January 19, 2015 at 10:15AM

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Rob Wilton
DoP
301

Not sure - can tell you what it isn't (a Lilliput 5Dii - which is what I've got, and wouldn't recommend...)

January 19, 2015 at 10:18AM

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Alex Richardson
Director
3382

Danny shot with a Small HD and I had a Marshall 5.6" monitor. We both had Zaxcom receivers on our cameras to take audio from our sound mixer Alistair Farrant.

January 19, 2015 at 10:39AM

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Chris Teague
Cinematographer
248

Great stuff! The short clips look great. It's an amazing little camera - I've just shot my own feature on it, and as long as you're prepared for the crap battery life and the naff screen (an Anker Pro II battery and an external monitor are a must) you can get amazing results.

The two camera approach is a great idea - wasn't really possible on mine (or rather, I think I'd have got far too distracted!), but with a camera that costs so little it's an option on most shoots.

If you'd like to see a teaser for ours, it's at http://bit.ly/dsrteaser1 (and if you wouldn't don't click it!)

Congratulations Chris and Danny,

Alex.

January 19, 2015 at 10:17AM

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Alex Richardson
Director
3382

Love the teaser Alex. Where did you shoot the film?

January 22, 2015 at 3:36AM, Edited January 22, 3:36AM

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Thanks Clive - it was all shot in the south west of England - The Quantocks, Mendips, Exmoor and Dartmoor... I'm very luck to have grown up in that area!

January 22, 2015 at 9:27AM

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Alex Richardson
Director
3382

Great to see some cheap rigs being used. I'm a big believer in cheap gear being just as good as expensive stuff. It really confuses me when I see small cameras rigged to look like an Alexa, the whole point of a camera like the BMPCC is to keep it small and simple.
Well done on Sundance!

January 19, 2015 at 12:45PM, Edited January 19, 12:45PM

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Jamie Hooper
Filmmaker
156

I'm just so torn between a GH4 and a BMPCC. I salivated and researched everything there is to know about the BMPCC until the GH4 came along. Can you guys tell me why you guys opted for the BMPCC over something that shoots 4k? Other than the dynamic range of course (unless that was the only reason).

January 19, 2015 at 1:55PM

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Sahit Anand
Director and Co-Founder of DO. Creative Labs
357

If I were doing mainly doc stuff, I'd probably go for a GH4 - the BMPCC is crap for sound and batteries, so you need some external solutions... But for short fiction films, the BMPCC has blown me away - I spent a lot of time watching videos from both the GH4 and the BMPCC, and the look of the footage from the BMPCC appeals to me far more. You have to work with it's limitations, but get it right and it's incredible. The teaser I posted a link to (above) has two GH4 shots in it (underwater cam), one GoPro (helicam), and the rest is BMPCC.

January 19, 2015 at 3:03PM

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Alex Richardson
Director
3382

I've only played witht he pocket camera a little. I love the texture it has in proress but am not a fan of the heavy yellow highlights and blue shadows.
My question is, when switching raw to bmd film in resolve, does it automatically delete whatever Lut the camera is using in raw? Proress has a more natural look to it. But I want those red warm looking colors I'm so used to from canon... or even my Nikon in portrait mode.

thanks.

January 19, 2015 at 4:47PM

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Vincent Gortho
none
916

correction...

I love the texture it has in RAW*

January 19, 2015 at 4:56PM

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Vincent Gortho
none
916

I don't really think that more pixels necessarily makes a better image. We liked the texture of this camera, which is a factor of its resolution, codec, and sensor design. I wouldn't use it for every project, but it worked well for this one.

January 19, 2015 at 5:19PM, Edited January 19, 5:19PM

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Chris Teague
Cinematographer
248

I own a BMPCC and a GH2, and I've just bought a GH4. I will mainly use the GH4 for paid corporate work as the BMPCC I feel is much more suited to fiction, it depends on the project though. 4k doesn't really interest me as a filmmaker but it could be useful in some situations I guess. I shot my latest short film on the BMPCC and the image for the price is astonishing, very cinematic with lovely texture and natural looking grain. Below are some before/after screen grabs from projects I've shot on my BMPCC.
http://instagram.com/p/taGkXzNVUU
http://instagram.com/p/xfNNdGtVfc

Also, here's a pic of my simple and cheap rig with external battery.
http://instagram.com/p/xrkGv4tVRX

January 20, 2015 at 9:36AM

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Jamie Hooper
Filmmaker
156

looks great. that shoulder rig... if it works, it works. fantastic equipment doesn't necessarily mean a fantastic film. sometimes less is more!

January 19, 2015 at 3:01PM

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Alex Keerma
Writer & Director
105

Is there really a big difference between raw 1080p on the pocket vs 2.5k on the bmcc?

And, I'm still waiting for the mosaic filter.... whenever it comes out. I played with the pocket in raw and found the aliasing very distracting compared to proress.

January 19, 2015 at 4:55PM

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Vincent Gortho
none
916

Mosaic filter is already out and working fine! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXMg92wDLEo&feature=youtu.be

January 20, 2015 at 5:27AM

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Álex Montoya
Writer/Director
483

Great work, but what Nikon primes were they?

January 19, 2015 at 9:14PM, Edited January 19, 9:14PM

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Zachariel Shanahan
Writer/Director
1044

We had the older metal body Nikkors:
20mm f2.8
24mm f2
35mm f2
50mm f1.4
85mm f2
135mm f2.8

January 20, 2015 at 1:55AM

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Chris Teague
Cinematographer
248

Why would someone vote down that? These lenses are great. I have all those older hard stop Nikkors as well, minus the 135. They're gorgeous and work so much better for movies than free spinning modern Canon and Nikon lenses.

January 30, 2015 at 5:11AM

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Daniel Mimura
DP, cam op, steadicam op
2262

I've recently used a BMPCC and a Sony A7s for a short and I must say, I like the colors and look of the BMC over the Sony despite the sharper image out of the sony. The way the BMC handles clipped highlights is more pleasing the codec (pro res or RAW) is a major plus. My buddy bought this camera when it was on sale for $500 and it's an incredible steal in the right hands. It's not just the camera though, to get a good image you need someone who understands how to read waveforms, expose correctly and work with a flat image in post. This means you need the right accessories such as a SmallHD or a TVLogic monitor, which I've used for focus assist and exposure. Very impressed with this little camera and it is more then capable of looking filmic and holding up on the big screen.

January 20, 2015 at 12:37AM

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Brad Watts
Filmmaker/Creative Director - Redd Pen Media
401

How difficult was it to judge performance while keeping your eyes on frmaing and focusing? Did you end up checking a lot of stuff after the take was over?

January 20, 2015 at 5:14AM

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Álex Montoya
Writer/Director
483

Danny and I weren't directing the film, so we let Diego focus more on performance. Diego was very aware of how we were covering the scenes even though he didn't have a director's monitor, and we did watch playback from time to time, but not as a rule.

January 20, 2015 at 11:13AM

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Chris Teague
Cinematographer
248

Hey Guys,

Congratulations on the film, and thanks for giving us this insight into your process.
It's very inspiring to see people breaking the rules and making great work.

I was wondering which Vari-ND you chose. I've been looking into the various options and trying to make a selection. I'm shooting some stuff in the snow in Norway so I'd appreciate your advice.

Many thanks

January 20, 2015 at 9:26AM

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We shot with Light Craft Workshop Variable NDs. Those were just what we had (we didn't do any testing) and they worked out fine for us.

January 22, 2015 at 3:28PM

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Chris Teague
Cinematographer
248

Did you guys encounter any kind of issue with IR pollution while using the ND Filters? Did you guys use any kind of IR Filtration?

June 10, 2015 at 9:54AM

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Philip Leake
Filmmaker
161

Really great article!

January 20, 2015 at 1:25PM, Edited January 20, 1:25PM

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Ben Meredith
Cinematographer/Filmmaker
1092

"below freezing"… please. no big deal. 20F is pretty comfortable shooting temps and I do that every year. wait until you start working at -20 to -30F + wind and then you know what cold starts to be… thankfully you can't really feel it getting colder, but ANY exposed body parts loose heat instantly. at 20F I can usually just work in glove liners and be happy….

January 20, 2015 at 9:16PM, Edited January 20, 9:16PM

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Steve Oakley
DP • Audio Mixer • Colorist • VFX Artist
492

Another consideration to be made regarding the BMPCC is the crop factor. Were there any situations you had while on this shoot when crop factor became an issue and forced you to re-think framing/composition choices? If so, what was your workaround?

January 22, 2015 at 2:55PM

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Clint Till
DP | Director
74

When you're shooting with the Metabones Speedbooster that is designed for the BMPCC you end up squeezing nearly a Super 35mm image onto the Super 16mm sensor, so there isn't really a crop factor to deal with. Our widest lens was a 20mm, which had a wide enough field of view for what we were doing.

January 22, 2015 at 3:26PM

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Chris Teague
Cinematographer
248

We shot with the Metabones Speedbooster adapter that is designed for the BMPCC, and it basically squeezes a super 35mm image onto the cameras super 16mm size sensor. Because of this, the field of view on the Nikons we shot with were comparable to a lot of other 35mm sensor size cameras we've used.

January 22, 2015 at 3:32PM

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Chris Teague
Cinematographer
248

That's amazing! Did the Metabones Adapter help with the Rolling Shutter? All the handheld footage I have watched from the Pocket Camera to this day was terrible. It had this wobbly feel to it. But I don't see that on the footage you guys shot. It's looks very impressive. Did you guys deal with those cameras in any special way while shooting handheld? Which was the longest lens you guys used handheld? Thanks and congrats for the great work!

January 23, 2015 at 2:07PM

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Philip Leake
Filmmaker
161

The adapter doesn't really help with rolling shutter, but we did not find rolling shutter to be much of an issue. I do think the rolling shutter effect can be amplified when the camera is dealing with more vibration, and keeping several points of contact on the body of the camera (two hands and one eye against an eyepiece) along with a chest brace can help reduce bumps and make the camera feel as though it moves like a heavier camera that would sit on the shoulder.

February 2, 2015 at 10:36PM, Edited February 2, 10:36PM

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Chris Teague
Cinematographer
248

Great article, there are many tips here.

January 22, 2015 at 5:43PM

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