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“Danielle’s Birthday”

This is a video I pulled together for my daughter Danielle, who recently turned 4. She had a little party with a few friends, and I spent the afternoon running after them, trying to capture some funny and touching moments.

Pre-Production

There was no pre-production of any kind for this, just spur of the moment decision a couple of days before to try out the Canon 5D Mark II that I had recently purchased. I knew there would be a lot of exterior shots, so I put in a rush order for a Fader ND, which is a variable ND filter, but unfortunately, it didn’t arrive in time. Other than that, inspired by Philip Bloom‘s videos, I planned to set the piece to some music, but didn’t have anything in mind at the start of it.

Production

Since this was the first movie I was attempting to make with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, it felt a little rough and took some getting used to. The form factor of the camera made it difficult to hold steady. I had a Zacuto Z-Finder fortunately, which gave me an additional point of stability beyond my two hands. It also was a life saver for setting focus. Trying to frame kids, and get critical focus was nearly impossible. They’re constantly on the move, but with the Z-Finder, I was at least able to adjust and check focus much more reliably.

I used a Canon 50mm f1.2L lens for the whole shoot. I wanted that very shallow depth of field look, so I tried to keep the aperture set to 1.2 or 1.4 at least. I had wanted to emulate as close to a filmic look as possible, so since the Canon was recording video at 30p, I had wanted to keep the shutter speed set to 60 for the whole shoot. However, since I didn’t have an ND filter, I couldn’t stick to this for the exterior shots without over exposing the entire shot. I resorted to setting exposure by cranking up the shutter speed until the exposure was at an acceptable level. Unfortunately, this meant getting that “Saving Private Ryan” look. Although this frenetic look lended itself to the craziness of the kids running around, it wasn’t my intent.

Post-Production

As far as music, I kind of lucked out with the song. I went to iTunes, searched for “happy birthday” and quickly honed in on the Altered Images song. It was cute, fun, and had a very innocent quality to it, which set the tone for the video. There were a couple of versions, so I chose the longer version (the other one was a little over a minute which was too short for what I had in mind).

For editing, I followed the workflow of converting the Canon footage into a more editing friendly format. I ingested all the H.264 footage straight off the memory card onto an external drive, batch transcoded it to Apple ProRes 422 (HQ) using MPEG Streamclip, and then created a new Final Cut Pro project to edit the ProRes footage. I spent a bit of time going through these steps carefully, to make sure all the transcoding settings were correct since the Canon workflow was completely new to me, but aside from that, it was pretty straightforward.

Most of the edit time was spent on figuring out the pacing and rhythm for the video. The first segment that came to me was the part where Danielle is getting dressed for the day – the opening of the song complemented the look of anticipation on Danielle’s face. The second segment that came to me was when the song kicks in and transitions to a fast beat. I recalled shooting Danielle standing on the cooler outside, after she had loaded it up with drinks and stuff. I had asked her to jump off the cooler a few times and run to me, which gave me the idea of synching her jumping off the cooler with the song’s own take off. With those 2 starting points, I decided to connect them and cut the piece in chronological order.

Since I had arrived at that decision fairly quickly, I didn’t think it was going to take long to cut the video, but synching the edit points to the tempo and beats of the song led to a lot of quick cuts, and a series of jump cuts, all of which took some time to get right. I broke the edit down into little sequences to work on (i.e. playing outside, bouncing on a ball, swinging in the hammock, cutting the cake, playing with a balloon, etc.). For each sequence, I spent a lot of time playing the song, entering markers into my timeline via the keyboard space bar, nudging the timeline markers over a few frames to align them with the actual drum beats, dropping in a few clips for the sequence I was working on, and using the markers as a guide to gauge how long a clip should run for, before cutting to another clip. From there, I would move on to the next mini-sequence I wanted to work on.

Once the edit was complete, I did some color grading using Magic Bullet Looks, exported an uncompressed Quicktime movie at the native 30p that the Canon recorded at, and then used JES Deinterlacer to convert the Quicktime movie to 24p for a more filmic look. I was really unhappy with the end result. There were places in the video where you could see some ghosting effects in the motion. One place that was the worst was when Danielle is closing the lid of the cooler – as the lid swung shut, there was a distracting trail the lid would leave behind, giving the image a smeared look. JES Deinterlacer being a free app off the web, I thought I was getting what I paid for. I tried to use Compressor instead but the same issue would occur, although sometimes in different places. I thought it might be a result of having too much shake in the footage, but in the end, I wasn’t able to figure out the root cause. Due to time, I opted to leave the footage in 30p and upload that.

I plan to write more about my Canon workflow, but for now, a lot of this is described on the Canon site, courtesy of Mr. Philip Bloom.

Issues & Lessons Learned

Aside from the 30 to 24p conversion issues I encountered, I noticed the Quicktime movie I was exporting didn’t accurately reflect the color I was seeing in my timeline – the color saturation seemed to go down in the .MOV file. I’ve noticed this before, but I always forget I have this issue and end up trying to compensate for this by over-saturating the video before exporting to a .MOV file. I need to stop doing this though, because when I upload the video to something like Vimeo or Facebook, the video always looks reasonably close to the color I see in my timeline, resulting in a look that is much more over-saturated than I want. I’ve Googled a bunch of places, and played around with my screen setting and color calibration, but no luck yet fixing this issue.

Another slight issue I ran into was towards the end of my edit. I noticed the chalk scene in the driveway tended to create a bit of a lull in the middle of the video. After thinking about it, I realized the reason for this was that I hadn’t gotten enough coverage of Danielle in the driveway, so the few clips I had available were playing long and didn’t offer as much of a change visually. I ended up going out at some point and getting a few pick-up shots of Danielle outside and a close up of her name in chalk. I was also able to extend the sequence before and after it in order to get in and out of the driveway scene much faster in order to deemphasize and hide the feel of the video slowing down. I’m still not 100% happy with the end result, but it plays a lot better than the initial edit I had.

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