How to Make Your Own Director's Viewfinder on the Cheap
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.
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.