Tuesday, 21 September 2010


It's often said that we become less reactionary as we get older, mainly because we lose the energy to resist the ever-flowing current of stupidity, injustice and lazy thinking that slowly wears us into shiny pebbles of exasperated compliance. I'm not sure that this is true, but these days I can't be bothered to disagree with it. There's been no shortage of things to blog about in recent weeks and in my glory days when I used to post two, maybe three times a month, I'd have cracked my knuckles and diligently tapped out my views on book burning priests and why the pope is a flatulent arsehole. But now I tend to think 'Can I bring anything new to this debate?' and the answer is almost always no. That's okay though, we're not all social commentators. I'm increasingly bewildered by the growing opportunities for people to state their (often unconsidered) opinions on anything and everything and far from creating lively debate it frequently reduces it to gainsay and conjecture. Twitter is especially dangerous in that respect, as many celebrities have found to their cost.

I used to have a website called Hermit Guide, which was basically a self-hosted blog before blogs became de rigueur for every man, woman and terrapin in the country. I'm not claiming to have pioneered the concept of course - I was practically a luddite slapping soil out of my ears before 1999 - but I was quite happy to prattle on about all kinds of nonsense without knowing whether anyone was reading it or not. Back then, having a guestbook was the only tangible evidence that one's friends were stopping by and even then there was no guarantee of repeat visits. Now of course we're all frantic for feedback and approval in the shape of comments, retweets and likes. Who hasn't compared their number of friends/followers with someone else they know? I've been as guilty of that as anyone, but having an online presence isn't as important to me as it used to be, which might explain my infrequent posts of late.

For that reason I unapologetically offer an unnecessarily technical post that will probably interest none of you. Seriously - you might as well stop reading now.

I am planning to make a film. I often make plans that I fail to follow through with - and when I say 'often' I of course mean 'usually' - but this idea has a strangely enduring appeal to me. It has all come about since the advent of HD video on DSLR cameras. Suddenly, extremely high quality recordings are within the budget of the casual user and it opens up so many possibilities. I was initially sceptical when Nikon's D90 became the first DSLR to feature a video mode. It seemed very gimmicky and consumerish, the sort of thing you'd find on a compact but not on a serious camera. Why on earth would you want to shoot video on your DSLR? Then Canon came along and showed exactly why - the 5D Mark II was their first foray into DSLR video and they managed to stride effortlessly ahead of Nikon with full HD (1080p) capture at 30 frames per second, a significant improvement over Nikon's 720p resolution (two years on and Nikon has only just announced its first 1080p capable models). The Canon 5D Mark II is capable of jaw-dropping video quality, equal to that of high end video cameras costing many thousands of pounds more. It has even been used to film entire episodes of TV shows such as House. Having seen the footage, I knew straight away that I had to get in on the action.

What sets DSLRs apart from dedicated camcorders is a combination of larger image sensors and better (interchangeable) lenses. Larger sensors allow for a greater depth of field, which replicates the look of traditional film. It's a surprising fact that even high end digital broadcast cameras have tiny sensors, as small as 1/4 inch. This gives a large depth of field (ie distant objects appear in focus as well as the foreground subject) which is good for television news reports but not so good for feature films. This is because our eyes don't function that way - it's not possible for us to focus on near and distant objects simultaneously so any camera that replicates this shallow depth of focus feels more natural and engaging to us. Being able to change lenses to alter focal length is the other huge benefit. Overall, a DSLR not only offers better video quality than a professional camcorder but is smaller, more adaptable and of course has the added bonus of being able to capture high quality stills too (which, lest we forget, is its primary function).

Having been seduced by the Canon's abilities, I was in a sticky position. In terms of video functionality, Nikon had been left in the starting blocks but switching over to Canon was never really on the cards because I'd invested so much in my Nikon lenses. Besides, my D700 is a better stills camera than the 5D Mark II so I'd be mad to trade it in. The solution was to get one of Canon's two cheaper models that had subsequently appeared, the 7D or the 550D. In terms of video quality there isn't a great deal between them, so I plumped for the entry level 550D. It was perhaps a hasty decision as I've yet to film anything of substance on it; I've stuck to test footage as I'm still working on ideas. It's a very nice little camera though, and I've bought an inexpensive adaptor ring so that I can use my Nikon lenses with it. The trade off with the adaptor is that the lens can only be used manually - you lose autofocus and aperture control (unless the lens has an old fashioned aperture ring, which most don't).

One issue with the Canon DSLRs is the audio quality, which is a real letdown until you learn how to work around it. The cameras have a built in microphone, which is tiny and understandably poor, and also a 3.5mm input socket for using a better quality external mic. The problem is that all three models I've mentioned have a feature called automatic gain control (AGC) which attempts to boost the microphone's sensitivity when it detects a drop in the audio level. The idea is to produce a more even sound, but in reality it's overactive and manifests itself as a very noticeable hiss. The 5D Mark II has overcome this with a firmware update but the 7D and 550D have not (yet) been afforded the same attention. I found a clever workaround online, but it's a bit convoluted and awkward. It involves recording a 19kHz sine wave (inaudible to human adults) and transferring it to an MP3 player. This is then played into the left channel of the camera's mic input via a special lead, while plugging in an external microphone to the right channel. The constant tone of the sine wave tricks the camera into thinking that it doesn't need to employ the AGC and so you are left with crystal clear audio from the external mic. Then, in your editing software, you just remove the left channel (which is essentially silence) and make the right channel monaural so that it's balanced. Hopefully this issue will be addressed in future models.

The reason that my purchase of the 550D may have been hasty is that Nikon are rumoured to be announcing, fairly imminently, the replacement model for my D700. It's expected to match the 5D's movie capabilities while retaining the incredible low light performance that makes the D700 such a great camera. If it can do that then I'll be upgrading for sure, though it probably won't be out until March 2011.

So, nerdy details aside, what sort of film do I want to make? Well of course I didn't establish this before jumping in with both feet and buying the equipment, but I'll definitely be doing something. It could be a handful of five minute shorts, it could be a full length feature. I've had a few offers from people willing to contribute, which is encouraging, and while I'm wary of relying on volunteers I have to acknowledge that it will be hard to make a decent film on my own. 

Don't expect to see anything soon. I just wanted to dispel any thoughts that I might have retired from creative pursuits to tend my allotment or something.