A few weeks ago, half way through Nigel Stanford’s follow-up to the Cymatics music video, I had a problem.
The shoot involved nearly continuous motion control setups on a Gazelle MoCo rig. We were shooting almost blind because of it. Let me give a bit more background on the problem. The Gazelle, pictured below, is a large motor controlled robotic dolly with a motor boom arm and three axis motor head attached. It is capable of amazing things, but framing a shot is not the easiest thing in the world. The Gazelle is tethered to an archaic floppy disk driven PC running DOS, and it’s position and movements are essentially a series of coordinates fed into the machine.
Our operator, as patient as a saint, would have to manually move the camera attached to the Gazelle around with what looks like an industrial control remote. Think WWII radio phone with several buttons and a thick cable tethering to the Gazelle. In order to find a frame we had to painstakingly move the dolly, then the boom, then the head, decide on the lens, then find the exact frame. It was slow, agonizing, and considering our tight schedule, meant precious time was being wasted.
We needed to find the frame faster. The best solution is the director’s finder. I can quickly take a lens, throw it on, and frame up the shot exactly where I want it. The best part is that you can do it with the lens in question; then see the DOF, geometry and necessary camera height immediately — all without moving a camera or distracting the operator and ACs from prepping the rig for the next shot. Often times a director’s finder are rare on set, especially with the shrinking budgets these days, it’s a tough fight to get one for a week, if the rental house even carries one at all. When it does, it’s often huge, heavy, and PL only.
Often film equipment is built to survive a war, and it shows when you see how immensely they are built. To complicate the matter further, not every shoot is on PL lenses these days (this one was, but just for argument's sake). It is a piece of kit that I deem mandatory from now on. They save incredible amounts of time, energy, and in turn, save money for the production and help keep intact the backs of your crew. I looked into purchasing one, but not shockingly the prices of even used PL finders are astronomical, anywhere between $3,000 and $7,000 dollars. There had to be some solution that had all the abilities of bigger finder without the size or costs involved.
So… I set out to build my own. With the plethora of S35 (APS-C) cameras out there these days, a solution had to be at hand. I prioritized affordability because, let's face it, no one will rent a homemade viewfinder no matter how necessary or liked it is when it's actually on set. So it needs to be as good as possible, but also as affordable as possible. It had to be flexible in what lenses were useable — meaning interchangeable mounts. This eliminated Canon DSLRs immediately, no PL ability. I really wanted a tiny tiny device. Something I would actually carry to work with me. I did a bit of research and this is what I came up with.
Homemade, but damn good. There is a surprising benefit to using an all digital director’s finder: I can set the shutter speed and ISO to match my main camera so not only can I see the shot, but I can get a rough idea on how the light will look, plus snapping stills or a quick video clip means I can reference the shot later when fine-tuning the position of the A camera. I will list the parts below if you should choose to make one yourself.
It's a Sony a5000 E-mount advanced point and shoot photo camera, a PL to E-mount adapter by Metabones, and a simple pistol grip. I also got a smart EF to E-mount adapter should I need to go with Rokinons, Canon CNEs, or Zeiss CP2 lenses in EF mount. The a5000 was the best choice for me, as I was able to find a good condition used one on Ebay.
The Camera: Sony a5000 (I got a used one ~$160, but they are $450 new)
I went with the older model —as they are easier to find used on Ebay — though there is a newer A6000 available. This camera has an APS-C sensor, and it's damn close to the S35 frame size. It matches most high-end and middle-level Cine cameras with relative accuracy. It offers 16:9 framing and is manually controllable for iris, ISO, and shutter speed. It also has an articulating screen so you can frame low to the ground, and tilt the screen up flat. I recommend a few spare batteries. In liveview, it goes through them relatively quickly. Two batteries last about a day of framing between takes. The camera also takes SD cards of which I had 20 lying around. I’m sure you do, too.
PL: Metabones PL to E Mount ~$370 — Since there would be potentially $30,000 lenses hanging of this thing, I wanted to opt for the best PL adapter I could get. No use if the lens falls off…..
EF: Commlite Autofocus/IS EF to E mount Smart Adapter ~$79.00 — While the Commlite is not a mainstream brand, the quality is quite good, it locks in tight and has fully functional, IS, AF and Iris, which all work perfectly with EF lenses.
The pistol Grip: Barska ACCU-Grip, ~$15.00 – Surprisingly inexpensive, but not too bad. That said, I would always two-hand the system when a costly lens is mounted. Very light. That said, I just found this: $15 also, but made of aluminum Opteka Aluminum Hand grip.
All in, it ran about $700 with shipping/Tax. Not exactly cheap, but it does have a few perks to help justify it. I now own a PL to Emount adapter (hello a7S!), I now own a good EF to E-mount adapter (hello a7RII!) and I also now have a small, feather-light point and shoot-sized camera that can take great glass, and has nearly DSLR quality. I took the following photo with it at a family function a couple of weeks ago. Its image quality is rather stunning for such a small camera.
All in all, it's not an interchangeable ground glass $7,000 ARRI viewfinder that shows EXACTLY the frame your gate is set to — it’s just meant to get you close, and fast. With the speed we shoot nowadays, it's critical. It saved me on the MoCo shoot, as I could just set a frame, show the operator the exact shot, and get to where we needed to be in one quarter the time.
This goes for any shoot you will ever do on Steadicam, MoVI, Dolley, or even a heavy camera on sticks. Remember, just for finding a frame, using a Canon Zoom that covers your prime focal range counts. A mm is a mm is a mm. For the projects where the budget allows, yes a ground glass viewfinder with true frame guides is best, but to have the same ability to move fast can be very useful for any production, big or small.
August 20, 2015 at 9:36AM, Edited August 20, 9:36AM
Great guide and a viable alternative for sure!
August 20, 2015 at 9:41AM
Or use a $20 app on your phone...
August 20, 2015 at 10:27AM
Agreed. Artemis on iOS or Android is a much cheaper and less awkward alternative.
August 20, 2015 at 10:33AM
you can, but cropping in on a wide angle image doesn't really give me a sense of the geometry of the shot. id rather see it through the lens.
August 20, 2015 at 10:59AM
For sure. The lack of wider than 24mm is a limitation, but if you don't require the precision of previewing the scene with the exact lens, or setting the aperture/shutter, Cadrage or Artemis achieve 90% of what your rig does at 1/50th the cost. Plus, I already have my phone on me, so no extra gear to lug around.
August 20, 2015 at 12:44PM
Great post! And if you're REALLY low budget I'd recommend something like the 'Cadrage Director's Viewfinder' for Android or iOS (I think there might be cheaper alternatives on iOS). And no I'm nothing to do with them, the app has just come in really useful for many shoots I've been on. Well recommended.
August 20, 2015 at 10:31AM
I use this app regularly and I find it fits my needs quite well for the most part.
August 20, 2015 at 12:09PM, Edited August 20, 12:09PM
Didn't know this app and it looks pretty cool. Thanks!
August 21, 2015 at 3:21AM
What's wrong with something like this (genuinely curious):
August 20, 2015 at 10:47AM
Nothing. I use one like the one you linked (different brand) and find it excellent
August 20, 2015 at 12:33PM
When only the PL, interchangable ground glass viewfinders were available, this type of viewfinder was the budget version. These range from about $100 to $800 and are very flexible, offering variable focal lengths for different shooting formats, such as S35, anamorphic, S16, etc.
August 20, 2015 at 1:12PM
I remember seeing this on reddit
August 20, 2015 at 11:57AM
Any comments on this one? http://opteka.com/optekamicroprofessionaldirectorsviewfinderwith11xzoom....
August 20, 2015 at 6:38PM
So by the same token, if I wanted a viewfinder for Panasonic GH4 (micro 4/3) I would get a cheap little micro 4/3 interchangeable lens camera and use that?
Just wish I could find something for less than $120 haha.
August 20, 2015 at 6:42PM, Edited August 20, 6:47PM
Used GH1s are about that. They ride around $150.
August 21, 2015 at 8:33AM, Edited August 21, 8:33AM
You can find plenty of micro 4/3 interchangeable lens cameras for cheap on ebay. You can get a Panasonic GX1 for about $120, give or take a little bit
August 22, 2015 at 10:28AM
A part of me rolls my eyes. I absolutely revolt at an idea of of spending upwards of $100 for a framing aid.
I aint a film school major, just been shooting occasionally for a few years on the weekends. And I learned that when I look at a scene then the top of my nose (you know how you see two parts of your nose as long as your eyes are open?) bound roughly a 35mm frame. The very tips of my nose bound a 135mm frame. And that's free! This means I can take the money others spend on a viewfinder and put it towards another piece of gear. A great new mic anyone? I'll take that over a director's viewfinder. On top of that the director's viewfinder takes space, and I submit to you that the space in your film case is just as important as the money you spend on the gear that goes into that case.
And this brings us back to what a director should be capable of and what he/she should delegate. If a director works on his own he should be able to frame in his mind using his eyes. It is actually very easy. If a director relies on a DP then the DP should have an eye for a composition, that's their "raison d'etre".
The viewfinder is more for those guys that would rather fall victims to the gear accumulation syndrome.
Finally with utmost respect to Timur, I do remember his following post in http://nofilmschool.com/2014/09/case-study-lighting-commercials :
"I can direct, and am asked to often, but turn down the jobs and give them to people who want to direct."
Timur comes from a DP background should be able to frame shots in his mind. Now, he went and made a nearly DIY $1,000 directors viewfinder? How many of you guys here have that much for equipment budget, hmmmm? See where I am going with his?
August 20, 2015 at 7:03PM, Edited August 20, 7:03PM
You might want to take some time and read the the article. It's not as cut-and-dry as you're presenting it. Timur put this together specifically for this shoot because it wasn't practical to "frame shots in his mind" given the time and cost to move a giant, complex moco rig into place. If he just winged it, he might have been wrong. Having a viewfinder means he nailed it the first time.
"How many of you guys here have that much for equipment budget, hmmmm? See where I am going with his?"
No, I don't. But on shoots where that's the limit of the budget, you can get away with wasting more time for the sake of saving money. You don't have the day rate of an expensive moco rig and operator to worry about. It's likely you, your friends, and a lot of patience. Time = money. On ultra low budget stuff, I take more time and save money. On things that require a higher budget, we aim to save time by spending some money.
And besides, he didn't spend $1000 on it. He spent $700, and $370 of that was on a PL lens mount. For anyone not working with PL, it's essentially a $300 viewfinder/camera.
August 21, 2015 at 8:32AM
Repositioning a 2000lb Gazelle even a few inches takes a couple of minutes. Add that up over a week, and you're talking hours. Factor in overtime, a 700$ Viewfinder saves 10's of thousands of dollars. Whats that saying? Penny wise, pound foolish...
Yes the DIY viewfinder is not cheap, but it saves HUGE time. Yes i know where i want the frame, but with the situation as it is (not just on this shoot, but many involving Stedicam, Movi, Dolly, Jib etc... ) finding your frames without tying up the whole crew moving the camera apparatus, is efficient.
August 21, 2015 at 12:23PM
You gotta be kidding.......this a joke, right?
August 21, 2015 at 3:18AM
Nja... It makes a pretty "expensive" tool... I know that quality has a price but is there no other DIY solution? Or maybe someone knows a unexpensive way to find your angles and lens? (I'm an old school guy, I kind of hate the smartphone solution or point and shoot digital camera.... I'm really talking of an "analog" way ;) )... In adbance, thank you all...
August 21, 2015 at 1:56PM
Here's a NFS article from 2011 about cheap director's viewfinders that don't need batteries and don't run the risk of scratching your expensive lenses as you endlessly swap them back and forth...
August 22, 2015 at 2:34PM
I've been doing this with my black magic pocket camera for a year now with funny enough the same pistol grip you have there. Director laughed at me when I suggested it on a big shoot once had him test it for like one minute and he used it the rest of the shoot. Crazy useful especially with the speedbooster and sigma 18-35 1.8 on it (rarely take this combo off). Only thing I haven't grabbed is the PL to M4/3 adapter.
August 22, 2015 at 10:40PM, Edited August 22, 10:55PM
i've actually noticed something in the BTS picture that caught my eye beyond the director's viewfinder.
It's the base that is attached to that Kuka KR10. Can we chat a bit. Had a question about the studio too
August 24, 2015 at 12:42PM, Edited August 24, 12:42PM
timurcivan "at" gmail
August 28, 2015 at 11:43PM
It's an intriguing concept and I'd love to try this sometime if I have the funds.
I'm currently using Cadrage on my iPhone (http://www.cadrage.at) as an director's viewfinder. Of course you cannot judge depth of field with this app, but it works perfectly for framing shots.
October 5, 2015 at 2:49AM