This past weekend, I got my hands on the Phantom Flex again to shoot an insane competition up in Northfield, New Hampshire. Every summer, professional freestyle mountain bikers from all over the world meet up to hit the Slope Style course at Highland Bike Park. These guys are willing to try anything and I decided to capture the event at over 2000 frames per second.
My friends at Rule Boston Camera set me up with a Phantom Flex, Angenieux HR 25mm-250mm T3.5 cine zoom, a Sony color eye piece LCD viewfinder, an Anton Bauer VCLX 560 watt hour battery and two 256GB CineMags. I brought my Vinten Vision 10 AS tripod and Honda EU1000i 1000 watt quiet-series inverter portable gas generator.
The generator weighed as much as the Anton Bauer VCLX battery and gave me the ability to power the Phantom Flex for well over 6 hours on a single tank of gas. I never used the battery.
To help me on this project, I hired a local rider and friend to AC, Nick Keating. Nick and I are gathering footage for a bike film about New England riders, tentatively titled “The Missing Link“. We have a bunch of footage so far and do not know when the film will be released. We are both working on the film as a side project around our busy schedules.
I have shot with the Phantom HD GOLD at Highland last year and I was amazed at how easy the camera is to operate. The HD GOLD could be used like an ENG camera without an external computer, a matte box, or even filters to get decent results when run-and-gun shooting. The Phantom Flex is just like the HD GOLD in operation, but the sensor is much more sensitive, native ISO 1250! It is possible to make exposure at high frame rates in very little light.
I must stress this point: Lighting is always paramount when shooting with any camera. I have found that you can get acceptable pictures out of the Flex with no extra lighting. But, if you really want amazing stuff, fill in your subject matter using an HMI fixture with a electronic flicker-free ballast. If you use tungsten light indoors, try to select the largest watt instrument possible. I have found that a 1k or better lamp does not flicker as bad as a smaller wattage.
The Phantom Flex works quite well in high contrast situations. Many other high speed cinema cameras suffer from “the screen door effect”. This undesirable sensor artifacting and noise occurs when the sensor gets overwhelmed by bright and dark extremes within the frame. It looks like you are shooting through mesh or screen. It is very hard to fix in post.
Just like with the Red and other digital cine cameras, you have to be careful not to clip your whites. Once you hit the sensor with too much light, the detail is gone forever. You ain’t getting any of it back, even when dealing with the raw files. When shooting ENG style with the Phantom, I clip the whites quite a bit. Just take a look at the grey, I mean, white sky! That is what you get for not using filters or having a 2 ton grip truck, lighting director and a gaffer!
The secret to shooting with a Phantom is to let it warm up for at least 30 minutes. This gets the sensor to optimum quality. Also it is vital to black reference (aka black balance) the sensor every few minutes or each time just before a take. The black balance will “flush the sensor”, cleaning the blacks of noise and any possible artifacting. It also seems to help out the overall color in the picture so preform a black reference before you white balance the Phantom.
I had a few super speed prime lenses with me, but I did not use them. I only used the Angenieux HR 25mm-250mm T3.5 zoom lens. I needed to be able to change my focal length at any time and wanted to snap zoom tight into the acrobatic athletes. This lens is lightweight and compact compared to the much more expensive and heavy Angenieux Optimo 24mm-290mm T2.8. The Optimo is a beast of a lens with an outer element the size of a dinner plate! Of course at 2.8 it would have served me better as the light faded in stormy New Hampshire, but I was happy with the smaller HR glass on the super sensitive Flex camera. I was still able to shoot at 2564 frames per second 1080p at f5.6!
As for the shallow depth of field and focus, I had an ARRI FF4 follow focus kit mounted on the rods. I tried to set up in locations where I would follow an athlete within the focus plane. Trying to pull focus, pan, tilt and zoom at the same time was impossible. I did not have an external monitor with me, so Nick could not act as a puller.
But Nick had a very important job. Nick was responsible for the post trigger.
The Flex and other Phantom cameras have a 16 or 32GB internal ludicrously fast solid state drive. The Flex I was using had a 16GB buffer drive. The internal memory is so fast, it can take 8GB/second into its chips! That is mind-blowing bandwidth/data transfer if you think of it. But the camera has to be able to record in an infinite loop because of the high frame rates. At 2564 FPS in 1080p resolution, the Flex gives you just 1.9 second of recording time. That means that when in record mode, as soon as the athlete hits the ground, the post trigger must be pressed. This stops the loop and lets me view what I have captured on the internal 16GB buffer memory. The 1.9 seconds of real world time equals about 4 minutes of slow motion time! Nick was on post trigger and had the discipline to wait for me to yell “trigger” at the end of the take.
After the camera is pulled from loop record mode, I then take about 30 seconds to set an in point and out point on the long super slow internally captured clip. When I am done doing that, I select a save feature and send the cropped clip over to the 256GB camera top mounted CineMag. It takes a few second for the clip to off load and save. Once that process is complete, I re-black balance and get the camera back into loop record and prepare to point my lens at the next rider.
Even though the camera is extremely easy to capture high speed footage with, Nick and I decided to stay around the same spot. The entire kit weighed in at about 40 pounds and the course was wicked muddy. When we did move, the Honda generator was so portable we kept it running! Also, by limiting my slimy hiking, it allowed me to capture almost every athlete to hit the biggest jump, “Free Bird” at the end of the Slope Style course. Plus, I could use my zoom lens to find other shots farther up the hill.
Nick and I were not focused on coverage of the event. We wanted to capture “moments in time” as these fearless riders take to the air and toss their bikes around. This made the shoot a lot less stressful and allowed me to nail some of the killer high speed shots you will see in the finished video. If you want to see a great highlight film of the event, check out Justin’s edit over at Lucent Productions. Also, the boys at DH Productions covered the event with multiple cameras and webcasted the Claymore Challenge live on pinkbike.com.
When the show was over, I took the time to sit down and play out every clip off the Phantom (via uncompressed HDSDI) into a AJA KiPro ProRes 422 LT recorder. I have not played around too much with the native file format recorded on the CineMags. These files are .cine and RAW. So far, all my clients have requested ProRes files and do not want to deal with the large, alien .cine files.
I edited the video this morning and cut the piece on Final Cut 7 to a song from “The Glitch Mob“. The track is called, “How To Be Eaten by a Woman”. If you like it, please support this awesome band and buy the CD or download the tune!
Huge thanks to Nick Keating for helping me out on this project. He will also be editing to this amazing footage and I will post a link to his video on this blog when he finishes it. He also takes some amazing photographs. Take a look at a few of these from his photo stream.
I also want to thank Dave and Ellen Hand for their New Hampshire hospitality and I want to thank Mark Hayes of Highland Mountain for allowing Nick and I to capture the event in high speed.
Finally, if you are in need of television or film gear for rent or you want to buy something new, please visit the folks at Rule Boston Camera. Mike Sutton and Brian Malcolm are only two of a large group of professional people who work at Rule. These guys know the gear and technology inside and out and they offer excellent customer support. I highly recommend them and I have built up a valuable friendship with many of the people who work at their facility in Watertown, Massachusetts. You should meet these people and do the same!
I must warn you, this camera is addictive.
Every waking hour I was shooting with the Flex. If you get your hands on a Phantom, you will see what I mean. But, you have to be a certified Phantom Tech, so take a class. Plus, did I mention the Flex, lenses, batteries and CineMags will cost you about $4k a day to rent?!
I shot more than just mountain biking this past weekend. I will post more “nature” footage in a future blog.