Wednesday, November 24, 2010 Part 1 - The Pitch

Instead of just an announcement, I wanted to take this opportunity to really go in depth about the making of a commercial campaign for the IAC's  Over the next few weeks, I will post detailed blogs about every stage of production from the pitch to the writing, casting, shooting, equipment and post production.    I think this is a great opportunity to explain how we work at my company Civilian Studios,  but also to highlight the changing face of where I think advertising and production are moving. I really hope you enjoy this.

I met with at the IAC back in July and found out about their very exciting new venture Now the IAC is a huge conglomerate of internet companies run by Barry Diller.   IAC owns Daily Beast,, College Humor,, evite and about 60 other internet companies. The Proust website attempts to bring you closer to your family by posing a series of questions designed to provide insight to your story and who you are.  Your answers are stored in a private secure intimate website called (named after the famed questionnaire associated with the French writer Marcel Proust.) In addition you can upload photos, videos and even old reports cards.  It's like a virtual family album combined with a documentary or in-depth interview.

IAC had already met with several producers and even some high end advertising agencies about helping them launch the campaign. they asked me to go back and think of some ideas and put together a proposal. I put together a spec spot using a documentary I had made of my parents just one year before.  At the time I asked all sorts of questions, just like the questionnaire.  So I decided to put that material to use and created a 30 second spot from it.  Aren't my parents cute?

My idea for the campaign was to film real people from all ages and walks of life and ask them questions directly from the questionnaire.  Because my background is as a documentary filmmaker i thought this would give the most emotional and interesting responses while also testing their product.  Of course it would be done elegantly and with some artistry and employ an old weathered feeling.  Like the feeling of a really beautifully made picture album bound in leather.

Now some of you are probably wondering is it necessary to make a spec spot for a pitch. The answer is no. In fact some people would say that its not a good idea. In this case though I had the footage and thought it would really illustrate how powerful straight answers could be. I shot this spot on the 5d used some stock music and did the VO myself. In addition I wrote a very detailed proposal complete with schedule and budget. Again this was not a typical proposal, and I did not do the standard AICP bid but gave them a general idea. We would shoot all ten spots over the course of a few days and create enough content to make at least 9 spots and one longer into video that would live on their site.

We waited a few weeks and then we found out the great news that we had won the project.  My next steps were to meet with my amazing producer Sam Milgrim and with fabulous writer Susan Perlbachs.   Stay tuned for the next blog post about writing and casting the spots.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Andrew Cuomo Campaign

I recently directed a project for Andrew Cuomo's run for Governor of New York. The video was written by Jonathan Cranin, former Worldwide Creative Director for McCann and produced by Concentric Entertainment (Craig Anderson), DPs myself, Ben Jacks and Chris Bierlein. I worked with a small crew and shot the spot on both the 5d M2 and the Varicam 3700. I will limit my comments on this blog mostly to production matters.

So the shots with people, I shot on the 5d (myself as DP/Sound and few PAs, producer, staff) and Cuomo on the Varicam (full crew gaffer/sound, staff etc...) Surprisingly, I think the 5d not only holds up against the $60,000 + camera, but in image quality/depth of field, it arguably surpasses it. But when it came down to it, it's the "not ready for prime time" shortcomings in audio and output capabilities that caused us to go with the other camera.

Another main reason we shot with the Varicam for the shots of Cuomo was the monitoring aspect. We wanted to be able to have two monitors: one for the clients and one for myself as well as a viewing option for the DP, and that is just not possible on the 5d. There are solutions with an HDMI splitter but they are not reliable.  Another important reason to choose the Varicam was the need for a quick turnaround for audio since we were also recording Cuomo's longer policy address as well. Again a big short coming for the 5d.

But for the outdoor, man on the street shots, the 5d was amazing. And my Tascam Dr-100, combined with Sennheiser wireless mics and my think tank multimedia bag worked like a gem for the MOS shots.

So what's the lesson here? It's important in this HDSLR revolution to know the limits of these cameras. It's not the be all and end all. It's just a tool like anything else and it should be used as such when it is appropriate. I ran into a fellow doc filmmaker in B&H recently and she was asking me whether to buy an HDSLR or an EX3. Listening to her thoughts, I ended up agreeing with her to go for the EX3. It's a much more common camera, and btw, a lot of networks have not approved the 5d for use on TV shows.

On another note, I was truly moved to be a part of this moment. As a documentary filmmaker, I am usually in the business of capturing a moment from a distance or retelling the history of a moment. But in this instance, I was actually helping create it. And that was thrilling. And seeing this particular politician at this juncture in his his career was both fascinating and a privilege.

Another note,  thanks so much to an amazing crew particularly Scott Olnhausen, Tiffany Faigus (extraordinary production manage and producer) and literally the god of locations - Ernie Karpeles. Literally the best location scout I have ever had the privilege to work with.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sony enters HDSLR Game - but is it enough?

Anyone who has been reading this blog will know that I'm a huge supporter of HDSLR technology and have been shooting on the 5d for over a year now and invested more money than I would like on equipment. In return though, I have made back my investment almost immediately and the camera has allowed me to be involved with some amazing projects I otherwise would not have the opportunity to direct. (I can't reveal at the moment but stay tuned... will blog about the latest developments).

Now having said that, many of my friends and colleagues in the tv and film business have wanted to delve into the technology. But given the ridiculous 5d rig I've built and how completely jerry rigged the whole thing is, I haven't really recommended it. I mean there have been times where I forget to push record on my Tascam or plug it into the camera in run and gun situations and have no sound. A lot of the time I'm shooting I am alone and it's a lot to have to think about.

That's why there new hybrid cameras like Panasonic's AG-AF100 and now Sony's entry with an interchangeable lens HD camcorder are welcome news. This new sony entry takes the technology it's developed for its tiny EXMOR 4/3rds chip from their NEX-3 and NEX-5 and put it in a standard camcorder body.  From what I can see from the video below though, there are no XLR inputs, and also I couldn't find an adapter that would allow one to use Canon, Nikon or PL mount lenses on it.  In addition, like the Panasonic AF100 the camera records in the inferior AVCHD codec.  Not broadcast quality.

Yes it's been over a year and a half and HDSLR revolution has changed my career, but at the same time the love affair is starting to fade.  Are these cameras the answer?  From the specs, I would say no.  The chips are still not full frame, and price point for entry is much higher by about 2 to 3 times. But the silver lining in all this is that Big Companies like Sony are starting to jump on the HDSLR bandwagon and are listening and responding to those of us who have a love hate relationship with these cameras.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

House Finale shot on 5d Mark II

The 2010 finale on the hit series "HOUSE" marks a ground-breaking game changer in the tide towards HDSLR.  The entire show was shot on a few Canon 5ds.  The director and DP wanted to take advantage of the 5d's extreme shallow depth of field that was appropriate for storyline.  They shot with 85mm/1.2 the 50mm/1.0 and 1.2 and two zooms the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm. 

The show's star Hugh Laurie embraced the new technology but joked, "What's next shooting on Iphones?"  In an in-depth interview with Philip Bloom,  Greg Yaitanes (dir) felt that the 5d did things that 35mm film (which the show is normally shot on) could not.

You can read Bloom's interview below.

Also you can watch the first two minutes here

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Red" Alert: Panasonic Introduces Hybrid Camera AG-AF100

Panasonic announced it's newest entry into the HDSLR market the AG-AF100 at NAB 2010.  the first professional micro 4/3-inch video camcorder optimized for high-definition video recording. Scheduled to ship by December 2010, the AG-AF100 will set a new benchmark for digital cinematography. It uses the same sensor as in the GH1 with interchangeable lenses.  And with an adapter can take PL mount and cine lenses, still Canon or Nikon Lenses.  The camcorder records 1080/60i, 50i, 30p, 25p and 24p (native) and 720/60p, 50p, 30p, 25p and 24p (native) in AVCHD’s highest-quality PH mode (maximum 24Mbps). Ready for global production standards, the camcorder is 60Hz and 50Hz switchable.

Features that are going to be welcome additions to those of us who are shooting on the 5d or the 7d are built in ND filtering, HD-SDI, HDMI, time code recording, built-in stereo mike and two XLR inputs with +48V Phantom Power, 48kHz/16-bit two channel digital audio recording.  

The bad news though, it records in AVCCAM which is not a great format considered not quite pro.  Also 4/3 chip is not as good as the full frame on a 5d, and the price is going to be around $6000 and won't be available until Dec 2010.  Still good job, Panasonic, come on Canon what are you waiting for?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Best Lenses for Documentary HDSLR- UPDATED

As many of you know, I've been using the 5dMark2 pretty much since the camera came out in late 2008.  Specifically, I've been shooting with the camera for a feature documentary and have since built up quite a kit of lenses.  With so many lenses and manufacturers out there, it's hard to know which lenses to get and which work specifically for shooting docs.

Shooting with the camera on documentaries is tricky because you don't want to constantly be changing lenses, on the other hand the whole reason to use the camera is so that you can get that beautiful depth of field that we all love. It also important to use fast glass so that you're not spending hours lighting for interviews.

Having said that here are some recommendations for lenses to buy/rent if you plan to shoot a professional documentary with the camera.

*UPDATE:  1. Canon 16-35mm/2.8L  Ever since I bought this lens a few months ago, it's been my go to lens for travel documentary segments i shoot for American Airlines.  it's half the weight of the 24-70mm and it is a more useful range as you can get great landscape shots and great interior shots in small settings.  also it's extreme wide is very forgiving when handheld.  my last two shoots in costa rica and alaska i almost  used this lens exclusively for handheld work and it was fantastic.  The 24-70 never got used.  

2.  Canon 24-70mm/2.8L  Still a very practical lens range.  It's a bit heavier than i would like but it's versatile and fast.

3.  Canon 70-200mm/2.8L IS.  Very important to get the IS version of this lens.  Probably the best zoom lens in this focal length ever made. This is my main lens for doing interviews on tripod. Just gives a beautiful depth of field and the zoom lets you vary shots.  NOTE:  Canon released a new v2 of this lens recently but I have not tested it (don't know if it's worth the extra $800 if you're using it primarily for HD video). 

4. Zeiss 50mm/1.4.   If you had to buy only one lens for the HDSLR package, I would buy this one.  It gives and extraordinary bokeh and the movement of the glass if very smooth.  I use this to shoot at night and for beauty shots.  Extremely lightweight and it has a long rotation which is great for focusing or using a follow focus.

5. Canon 28mm/1.8   A great little fast lens for handheld stuff.  I find this useful when i'm doing running and gunning, both at night and day because of it's weight. Great for doing low shots or if you know you'll be moving around an event for long periods of time.

Here are some other great lenses more for cinema look.  These are lenses I would recommend and have shot with in more controlled narrative or studio settings.

6. Zeiss 85mm/1.4  or Canon 85mm/1.2  (great lenses again for cinema look) but not practical for doc work.  Gorgeous lenses both of them.  UPDATE:  Just shot this lens on a commercial shoot.  gorgeous!

7. Canon 24mm/1.4L  Again a great fast wide L glass, but 3x as heavy as my suggested 28mm/1.8.

8. Canon 50mm/1.2L  Again for the price I think the Zeiss lens is a bit more practical and in my opinion gives a more pleasing color rendition.  But that extra stop makes for stunning shots and if you use autofocus it would help.

9. Lensbaby or T/S.   These are great selective focus lenses.  The lensbaby is the poor man's Tilt and Shift but gives an interesting image.  Great for mood, music videos, commercials.

More tips:

Don't be afraid to buy used glass.  You can save a fortune and the great thing about lenses is that they keep their value over time. Going on craigslist is great, but I have to give a recommendation to Adorama because they offer a 3 year warranty on all their used glass. They have a surprisingly large amount of great lenses and their list is constantly changing.   Also you can buy all kinds of old manual lenses from Nikon, Pentax, Minolta for really cheap and use an adapter. 

Renting lenses is also very easy.  If you're in NYC, Adorama, Calumet, K&M, Hello World, Tamberelli, Abelcine all rent lenses at surprisingly low prices.  Also it's good to test a lens before you plunk down hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.

Use quality glass.... it makes a difference.  I've tried going with cheaper glass like Sigma and Tamron. And I found that the lenses ended up staying in my bag.  I've sold all of them and gone for Canon L glass and Zeiss.  

So good luck and happy lensing....

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Glidetrack SD a great slider for HDSLR

For the last few months I've been using a glidetrack sd which you can purchase from the website I bought the SD range compact ($300 including shipping)  and I think it's the perfect size for HDSLR shooting.   Although the company is in the UK, I was able to talk quite easily to the one man company (Alastair Brown) who gave me tips.  I was surprised to find the glidetrack got to my home in brooklyn in less than a week from the time I ordered it.  Better than I can say of some companies in the US.

Even with my biggest lens (70-200mm/2.8L IS) and my 5d, the slides were smooth and easy to operate.  Glidetrack makes a shooter version, but I found it's not really a practical solution for handheld and it adds bulk, which defeats the purpose in my opinion of having a "portable" slider that fits in your tripod bag.

TIPS: I put a quick release plate between my tripods legs and head. then attached the plate to the bottom of the glidetrack. this allows you to quickly snap on the glidetrack and snap off.

also you can use this as a small jib, by putting the glidetrack on the your sticks then attaching another head onto the top of the glidetrack. very handy.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Future of Magazines

Here's an interesting video about what the potential of future magazines might be...

Living Magazine Cover & Spread - Outside Magazine from Alexx Henry on Vimeo.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Trailer for new documentary

Check out this new trailer for a documentary I am co-directing with Nelson George. We are currently in production for " A Walk Through Fort Greene," a film about the blacks arts movement that exploded on the streets of this quaint Brooklyn neighborhood. The film features Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Rosie Perez, Vernon Reid, Saul Williams to name a few.

A Walk Through Fort Greene Trailer from Diane Paragas on Vimeo.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My Top Ten Movies of 2009

In my opinion, it was not a great year for cinema.  I think a bit better than last year but still a bad one.  The big headline: It's the year of the kids movies.

1. The Hurt Locker – Brilliant pacing, spare dialogue and intelligent filmmaking all the way through. The film puts the audience uncomfortably square in the middle of the conflict both internal and external. Bigelow has always been a master of action and hope this film makes people review her other work especially the underrated Strange Days. I hope she wins the Oscar for Best Director, it’s about time a woman did.

2. Where the Wild Things Are -  Spike Jonze’s pic is a polarizing adaptation of Sendak’s masterpiece. I might have responded to my childhood memories of the book but also that I couldn’t imagine how someone could interpret that work. But Jonze did a masterful job of capturing the complicated emotions of a child while introducing some of the most stunning visuals I’ve ever seen captured on film.

3. A Single Man – This underrated film has been well lauded for Colin Firth’s heartbreaking performance, but Tom Ford should be applauded for a stunning feature debut as both a writer and a director.

4. A Serious Man – Coen Brothers do it again. This strange tale of decent reminds me most of Barton Fink. But proves they are at the top of their game.

5. District 9 – Great imaginative storytelling and realistic visual effects. The allegory of immigration is not subtle but effective.

6. Precious – I really wanted to like this film more than I did. I think Lee Daniels took a mammoth task and pulled some of the best performances of the year from Gabby Sidebe, Monique, Paula Patton, Mariah. Where he lost me was in the breakaway sequences, some of which worked but a lot I found disconnected me from the story. It would have made it higher my list if not for that. Still kudos.

7. Avatar – Ok I was really debating this one. Sophmoric storytelling. Can’t stand Cameron. But I have to say that I was truly transported for moments that make up for all of its obvious flaws. Is it a masterpiece? No. Did I see something that I haven’t ever seen before? Yes. Was I thrilled? Yes at times. That’s enough to make my list.

8. Up – This takes the cake for the best 4 minute montage love story I’ve ever seen. Literally had me in tears 10 minutes into the film. For that. This film makes my list.

9. The September Issue – Fascinating look into one of pop culture’s most elusive figures. But the real revelation was Grace Coddington. Their back and forth ying and yang was fascinating and fun to watch. I should say I have NOT seen The Cove or We Live in Public or Food Inc. So please keep that in mind.

10. Up in the Air - Again, debated this one a lot. But overall the writing is what puts this on my list. Also the breakout performance from Kendrick.
TIED: Fantastic Mr Fox - Welcome back Wes Anderson. I think in a way his form of storytelling is best suited for this kind of animation. Homemade and meticulously detailed, the retro look and feel of the film were charming and obviously a labor of love.