I Ditched the Rig

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It was New Year’s Eve and when my neighbor’s almost endless ear-damaging ‘Sinturon ni Hudas,’ a series of about 10-meter-long firecrackers meant to ward off evil spirits, and humans as well, subsided, I dozed off worrying whether my motorcycle parked outside would survive the night while monitoring fire alerts. It was this time last year when a huge fire broke out leaving 4,000 families homeless and three dead in Apolonio Samson district in Quezon City.

2015 NYE fire in Apolonio Samson, Quezon City

8 AM–I checked my Android. Boom! A fire broke out just right after the world faded to black for me at 2 AM. One dead on the initial reports and a thousand families affected. It was too late to run and get the footage which my news agency in Berlin would probably need. But after a couple of hours, an email came in.
When I went to Apolonio Samson last year, I had a big rig with a 21-inch-long shotgun microphone and mattebox attached.
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It was difficult to get spontaneous shots as people cannot seem to help it goofing around a news camera. This time, I decided to bring just my Canon EOS 60D camera body, my good old 18-55mm kit lens for the wides, a 300mm zoom and my newest special, a vintage 1977 Japan-made Nikon NIKKOR 50mm f2.0 prime lens.

Just like I thought, when I got to the still hot and smoking rubble, almost nobody waved a hand for the news. It was easier to capture the true mood of the area.
2016 NYE fire aftermath, Tondo, Manila
I used a wired lavalier microphone for the interview, of course, but it was difficult getting it right. Leaving my rig means I did not have a matte box to cover my lens. Keeping eye contact with the interviewee, guarding the shot and audio levels while trying to get the right story is hard enough for a solo video journalist and then to top it all up, keeping the lens covered from sunlight with a hand, to keep my contrast as crisp as possible, makes it a whole lot harder.
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My camera also got wet when I was hit by the firemen trying to put out the smoke coming from just a little behind my spot. I used to put a trash bag around my rig in these situations since it has this aluminum brackets that act as the shotgun mic holders and cage at the same time. With this experience, I am now planning a smaller rig setup. 🙂

One thing I like about filming news is the unique kind of high that I get while trying to get the right angle, picking the right person to interview, getting the right images while trying to protect yourself and your equipment in the midst of the overwhelming drama unfolding before me. Making a film out of a script is great but making it out of a real-time chaotic setting under a hairline of time frame is crazy and amazing.
See the breaking news

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Film Education

Now this is a gem for a never-graduating film student like me. This find is the most comprehensive film education I have stumbled upon so far. A film analysis of one of my favorite films, story and cinematography-wise, “Prisoners” in a 30-minute intensive video essay by Must See Films.

The Most Important Cinematography Gadget I Got

While studying and researching about lighting principles, I have learned about one of the most important element to it–the contrast ratio. Contrast ratio is the difference between the subject’s main light or key light and its shadows. In post production this is best represented by the “Offset” or “Shadow” and “Gamma” or the “Midtone.” This ratio is critical to achieving the right mood for the scene. Easily put, subjects in a happy scene have very little or no shadow at all on them and dramatic scenes have heavy or really dark shadows on the subjects.  To achieve this, the director of photography must be able to measure and control the varying light intensities being thrown upon the subject and this is where a light meter, like those of the Sekonic products, come in handy. Most of these meters measure light falling or being reflected on a subject and suggest the right settings for the camera to get the proper exposure. They are mainly used in Photography. Now, these things are really great but can be really expensive, too, especially for an indie filmmaker and a beginner like me, plus, what settings it suggests, in my opinion, would rather render useless to me when I use ND filters, which I often do to lessen the light coming into the lens while maintaining a desired depth-of-field. Anyway, I couldn’t afford one and I don’t think that one of those kinds is what I needed. All I wanted is something to measure light and I can do the rest when I get the next chance to shoot. Then I found this thing that they use in industrial lighting. They utilize this device to measure and make the proper lighting for buildings, warehouses, offices and other “interior design” stuff. I found it selling on eBay for merely $15. It is called “Digital Lux Meter.” It can measure minimal light coming from a dying candlelight or a burning match stick to the sunlight’s brightest at noontime. Perfect!

The Lux Meter on eBay

I have put it to the test when a friend filmmaker called me to shoot his low-budget full-length indie film with a Canon 5D Mark II, without the rigs, and, with, guess what–a couple of cheap hardware lights on improvised light stands! So I brought my homemade mattebox and right after our plane touched down, I sent somebody out to buy two more sets of those precious lights. So after I set up the lights, measured intensities with the lux meter and created the correct ratio for each shot, I simply check my camera display with the help of my buddy Histogram, adjust settings as needed and that’s it!

Ligaw Trailer from Oliver Cruz on Vimeo.

Not so bad, right? We have shot the entire film within eight days with the least of filming gears–not even a follow-focus and I couldn’t possibly have done it right without my beloved lux meter.

A few days ago, another friend asked me to shoot a few TV personalities endorsing a new product, (which I cannot show here), with his only available camera at the time–a well-used tape-format 3CCD Sony VX2100. Well, after the shoot, I think everyone have learned to appreciate that old camera more.

So whatever camera and lights you use, being able to measure light intensity to get the right light-and-shadow balance on your scene will definitely help you achieve the best results in any shooting situation.