"Unshaven Nathan Smiles Demonically at Frog." Photo by Laura Loe.
Yes, it's happening! Tune in this Saturday (Dec 2) morning at 10AM Pacific Time, to 88.5 KNKX NPR. Aim your antenna towards Issaquah!
I haven't heard the interview, so this will be nearly as much a surprise to me as it will be to you. All I know is Gabriel, Jennifer and I talked a lot, both on the bus and in the studio, and I'm so happy to share some of those conversations with you all. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Jennifer Wing and Mr. Spitzer for inviting me on the show. Sound Effect is a weekly program inspired by the place we live, hosted by Gabriel Spitzer and focusing on a different theme each week. This week's theme is "traffic." You may have heard of the stuff....
I'm the first interview after the opening.
If you're not in the Pacific Northwest, tune in online or locate better radio frequencies here. KNKX is on iTunes.
The ridiculousness of this will only make sense in conjunction with the previous post.
We were talking about the addiction of rabbit holes.
I then proceeded to pull my hair out over how to house the Pocket Camera (whoops, I meant Bmpcc) in preparation for shooting. You have to house these things. They're too fragile to use on a shoot without a protective outer covering, called a cage. Here's what a cage looks like.
Which cage to get?
I feel like this should be one of the simpler steps of the filmmaking process. We're taking about a hunk of metal here, and one with no moving parts at that. Why then are there a few dozen options, and why do most of them cost hundreds of dollars?
It's like learning a language. The more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn. It's positively bottomless, the options here. No Bmpcc cage ideally addresses all the issues you'd like it to address, and things remain convoluted even if your budget is bottomless.
Here's how they've figured out how to make protecting a camera complicated. I'd oscillate from brand to brand, review to review, squinting at spec sheets, price breakdowns, forum discussions and reviews debating the following:
Does the cage cover the camera completely. Should it cover the camera completely? Seems like a good idea to me. But here's the highly reputed Wooden Camera, with its highly reputed Bmpcc cage, and it covers the only left half the Bmpcc camera. Hm. I was thinking about grad school, family, and the meaning of life, and now I'm thinking about how one hunk of metal can protect another hunk of metal from hypothetical drop impacts that may never happen. Not sure how I feel about this….
It's easy to make an argument that a camera cage should cover the whole camera. But what about lightweight versatility? And, really, how many times have you dropped your expensive camera on its left bottom side? Probably none. I sat there, chomping on raw lettuce at 1 A.M., calculating the odds. Trying to remember how many times I've dropped the left corner on something. How many times I've seen someone bang the left half of their camera. Does that happen? Do people do that? Or has Wooden Camera secretly discovered that people only damage the right halves of their cameras? Where are these guys coming from?
Then there's the importance of an HDMI cable clamp. I know you love hearing about cable clamps. The Bmpcc's main video cable port is famously weak, and it stands to reason that strengthening that cable connection with a protective clamp would make sense. I sure thought so. But was I willing to pay thirty percent of the entire cage's retail price for a clamp??
There I go again, munching on stale toast at 2 A.M. (somehow this rabbit hole isn't complete without terribly timed and, even better– nutritionally questionable– food), trying to calculate the odds of ruining my HDMI port without a clamp. The different companies have proprietary clamp attachments. Of course they do. We wouldn't want this to actually be straightforward, let alone easy.
And what to make of clamping the fragile 12-volt power cable as well? Sounds like a good idea to me, but when was the last time you paid $35 plus shipping and handling for a piece of metal smaller than a nickel? Some of these cages don't even have clamps. How necessary are they? Then your brain gears really start whirring. Couldn't one of my welder friends throw something like this together in a few hours?
Gradually, a pattern starts to appear. You'll recognize it, whether you've shopped for lamps, clamps, cars or refrigerators. It's all the same. Capitalism, a terrific idea, is nearing the end of its useful life, and the seams grin at us with a warped sense of humor:
Each competing item available is missing one crucial component. The Smallrig 1665 is ridiculously affordable but has no cable clamps. Great. The Wooden Camera has a power clamp but its HDMI clamp is no longer available, and the replacement they offer for it doesn't make up for the fact that the Wooden is only half a cage. Terrific. The SmallRig 1476 half-cage surpasses the Wooden Cage because- voila- it has both cable clamps, but wouldn't you know it, it's made of three parts, one of which is prohibitively hard to find online and no longer supported by the company. The Tilta ES-T13 has clamps, but so does the MovCam Body Cage and it's $150 less… but why? Why do the Varavon Armor Pocket and CamTree Hunt Mod Cage look exactly the same? Which one's the Indian knockoff that costs a fraction of the price of the other, and is it worth the risk?
You start second guessing yourself.
We haven't even started talking about how the cage you eventually choose is then mounted on a rig.
Rigs are made of several components that add up to an enlarged camera base, upon which other items can be attached– follow focus dials, microphones, loupes, monitors and more. Here we go again. Do you buy a cage that comes prepackaged with all the rig elements, spending a fortune while absolving you of the need to buy each item separately? Or do you search high and low for the best materials, the best price, the right fit....
Or do you simply sigh philosophically, remembering that life is tolerable only with a sense of humor, and rewatch this video of my favorite CWG so far as he rips into the "CamTree Hunt Mod Cage Rig" (someone on their product naming committee was definitely hungover), as his New Zealand accent softly, gently decimates what has to be one of the worst knockoffs in tech history, and chuckle at how passionately– dare I say lovingly– he hates everything about the product?
Sometimes, this is what filmmaking looks like.
As you know, I've been uncharacteristically limited in my blog output of late due to a temporary focus on a number of time-sensitive art projects– trying to turn your favorite blog into a book, and prepping for an upcoming film. I want to share some of what I've been up to.
What does filmmaking look like? What can it look like?
If we appraise the direction or cinematography in a movie, we usually consider it relative to the film's emotional content. We don't say, gosh, Billy, what a great movie. The decision to shoot the climax with prime lenses at an f-stop of 1.4 and an approximate t-stop of 1.8 really got me going....
Okay, well, I might say that. But most people don't.
We forget how ardently technical filmmaking is. Directing is the rare job requiring immense fluency in both intuition, sensitivity, observance of human nature... and the prodigious world of technical gearhead know-how. Manufacturing believable worlds on-screen, with a sense of aesthetic panache, isn't for dreamers. You have to be technically proficient.
Which brings us to what I've been doing the past two weeks: watching video after video of pasty, chubby white guys talking about camera gear. Boy, do they ever know their stuff. Reader, I use the appellation with affection; some of my favorite people are chubby white guys. For reasons too complicated to get into, CWG's are drawn to techy stuff like moths to a flame, and I've gazed upon more than my fair share of late (imagine my confused delight upon finding an instructional video led by a skinny, sprightly middle-Eastern college student!).
You see, one can't just go out there waving an expensive camera about and hope to capture greatness. On one of my earliest pictures I made the critical mistake of ignoring the manual and trusting the romance- ah!- of artmaking, only to learn after shooting that the touch of one simple button would have made the film's visuals incalculably better. One button.
You've got do the pasty white guy routine.
It's for the sake of the art. It's for the art, that I'm spending day after day alone in a dark room, chomping on cheap noodles and reading about sensor size and crop factors, blinking as I step outside to go to work, wondering what all this daylight is.
It's a different world for me, this. I recall while editing Regulate moments of rushing to the electronics store, waiting for it to open so I could get this hard drive, that RAM upgrade. Who'd always be waiting outside the main doors as well?
I knew the look in each of their eyes.
The gathering outside appeared to be a daily morning ritual. None of them spoke to each other, but they were united in glowering darkly at the unopened store entrance, fidgeting with anxiety, unable to continue life without this mini-DVI to HDMI cable, that quick release baseplate slider, this Thunderbolt to USB 3 adapter. And for those moments, I was one of them. I don't know what their end games were, but for me it was my film, and nothing else mattered. Many people want to make a film, and few manage to get one started; only with this sort of single-minded, focused madness can one actually complete a picture.
Although this lifestyle isn't for me, and the clash it represents with the soulful humanity of bus passenger interactions borders on the absurd (cycling between compassion over homelessness issues and wondering whether or not MovCam's power cable cage pocket clamp is compatible with the Smallrig 1665 is a feat of mental gymnastics I've not encountered before!), I find this new world amusing and want to share a glimpse of it with you. After all, there's a whole host of fine folks in windowless basements right now, pulling their hair out over unintentionally hilarious rabbit holes like the one I'm about to describe:
Blackmagic Design, the Australian camera company, leveled the filmmaking playing field several years ago when it introduced a 4k video camera for only $4,000. People were gobsmacked: equivalent technologies at the time costed $20,000 to $50,000. After this Blackmagic Cinema Camera proved its highly competitive quality, despite the low price, Blackmagic further wowed people with its next release, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.
Nerds don't have time to say such long titles, let alone type them; known online almost exclusively as the Bmpcc (capitalizing the remaining letters would obviously be far too arduous), it further flattened the playing field by offering, as much as possible, a digital approximation of 16mm motion picture film. Blackmagic is so confident of this they describe the look with the enjoyably paradoxical title of: "digital film."
You're familiar with digital still cameras (dSLRs) that also shoot video. You may have even heard that such video quality is good (a la Canon's 5D Mark II), or that movies have been shot on them (like Like Crazy, which used the Canon 7D).
This is where we scholared, Blackmagic-familiar geeks take a moment to scoff, arrogantly pointing out that the video function on dSLRs is a mere add-on, designed originally for journalists. dSLRs are stills cameras that also do video. They're not video cameras proper. They're not dedicated. Sometimes the fervor reaches a nigh-religious intensity: they're not worthy.
Religious-level fervor implies a deity worthy of worship, and the Bmpcc is just such a god. It's different.
It doesn't have the multi-functional capability of other cameras in its price range. It doesn't take still photographs. It doesn't record usable audio. You can't review your footage in-camera. You can't even delete your footage. It doesn't do anything at all... except record ridiculously beautiful, film-like images. It does only one thing, and it does that thing extraordinary well.
Like a motion picture film camera.
When we discuss identifying the difference between digital and film, the discussion is usually less about resolution (where film generally still reigns supreme, especially with its advantage of not being made up of smaller units like pixels; 70mm film translates into a currently wildly impossible 18k digital resolution), or color (where film once again reigns supreme, with millions of colors; digital is limited to thousands. Digital movies compensate for this with artistically limited color palettes).
No, the major and most easily identifiable difference, more than the above, is tonal range. If you're shooting a person's face in front of a bright window, film has the latitude to capture both the face and the world outside. Often digital can only get one or the other, leaving you with either a blown out window or an unreadably dark face.
Barring scenes of people standing next to bright skies, the easiest place to ascertain film or digital origins is in looking at skin tones. Skin, especially skin in natural light, is made up of an enormous range of colors, and digital struggles to capture that full range, instead reducing the tones down to several bands of beige. Ew, I say.
This is where the Blackmagic Pocket comes in. It's 13 stops of "Dynamic Range" (they could've just said tonal range) are what make it so filmlike. I know you came to my blog today to hear me talk about how tonal range is measured, but I'll skip the details in favor of this link, stating instead that Kodak film stock has 14 stops of tonal range, whereas the vaunted Canon dSLRs listed above only have a puny 8. Weeeak, moan the CWG's, and I enthusiastically join their chorus. Basically, the Bmpcc looks astounding. It blows away the $15,000 Canon C300's image. When combined with a Sigma lens, it's a reasonable competitor to the Optimo 15-40mm T2.6, which costs $47,000. The Bmpcc is $995. The best cinema lens on the market for it (Sigma's 18-35) is $800. A leveling force indeed.
So all that sounds nice. But– unlike Blackmagic's Cinema Camera, the Pocket Camera doesn't shoot in 4k resolution, but just 1080p. Should I be using a different camera for my film?
Thus began my descent into the rabbit hole. The level of online debate regarding 4k vs 2k vs 1080p, not to mention explanations of what those all specifically are, is legendary. You'd think the answer would be simple- shoot in the highest resolution available. You'd really think that. I did.
But as we outlined above, after a certain point tonal range has a bigger impact on image quality. And, unless you're sitting less than 5.5 feet away from a screen measuring 80 diagonal inches or more (why would anyone do that to themselves??), your eyes aren't even going to be able to resolve the difference between 4k and 2k. Even in a movie theatre, where 2k is the current projection standard, walking from a room screening 4k projection to another with 2k is going to feel borderline identical. Skyfall was shot in 2.5k, not 4k, and no one cares. Seriously. It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Cinematography. You don't hear anybody complaining about the visuals in that one.
After pulling my hair out trying to ascertain these resolution issues, and discovering that 2k and 1080p have the same vertical resolution, and learning that horizontal assignments of pixels are measured vertically (!!?!?).... Rabbit holes don't lead to clarity. They lead to other rabbit holes. It was time to watch more YouTube videos. Forget taking a shower; I grabbed a bowl of frozen vegetables and some stale orange juice. This was starting to get exciting. I was looking forward to pulling my hair out over a completely different issue.
The excitement continues! Click here for Part II!
Really trim, this young out-of-towner. Svelte would be the word. She tossed her hair to one side and listened as I answered her question.
"Yeah, so it's divided into three parts," I was saying. "There's Chinatown, Japantown, and Vietnamtown, and Chinatown has the stuff that stays open the longest."
"So the part I'm going to would be…"
"Chinatown, yeah. And if you'd rather do sushi, that's just a little further east and north…"
"Nah, no sushi, I'm starving!"
"Quantity is an issue! I know how you feel!" We started talking portion sizes. I pointed out various spots I thought might be suitable.
She said, "is it safe to walk around in Chinatown?"
"Um. Uh. It's okay."
"Oh. It's just okay."
"Just pretend to be really confident, you know? And people will sense that."
"Fake it until–"
"Exactly. In a weird way that works."
"Okay," she replied. "I won't have a problem walking in Chinatown. My race, my age!"
"Yeah, you should be fine. And you know, most… a lotta the guys are friendlier than they look."
That's no Pollyanna talk, reader. I feel lucky in being able to speak from experience.
A new ladyfriend and I were once about our business on the town, getting ready to step off the back of a 5, when– wait, I asked her. There's someone I want to introduce you to. Okay, she said, blinking a little when she saw who we were approaching.
I nuzzled with my hand a massive brooding heap near the back doors. The hulking form stirred from light slumber. Swarthy and weathered, dreadlocks and matted layers stuck together, streetspeckled dingy. I waved a hand, friendly.
"Hello Mister Avery! Wha's happening?"
"Aw Mister Nathan, heeyy, now!"
"Listen, it's somebody I want you to meet!"
You remember Avery. He may be the most deferential, respectful man on the street right now– if indeed he's still on the street. This was years ago. "Aw good morning, young lady," he said to my companion. "It's a real pleasure. This is the man right here, you got a good dude."
As she and I stepped out I noticed another man– there's Charlie, waving his sign at Third and Pine, with his usual coterie scattered about him, discussing politics and religion– and over here, another fellow who calls himself Muhammad Ali. He still had his front teeth then. I introduced her to them all by name. She was nonplussed.* What just happened? Who is this guy? These aren't the types of people she was used to meeting. They weren't hipsters with beards and plastic-frame glasses, or uptown professionals. The relationship didn't last, but I hope that morning lives on in her mind as a pleasant recollection, a memory of class boundaries bulldozed aside with decency.
A similar incident happened with another young lady some time later. She later told me, "okay first of all there's like five things about that interaction that have never happened to me before. Lots of people come up to me. But the craziest thing is, I've never had some guy on the street tell me how lucky I am to know the dude I'm with. Guys don't say that. They say to the guy, 'you got a lucky girl. This' a special girl here, she's really beautiful,' whatever. They don't congratulate me for ignoring them for the competition! Jesus! You must really be doing something out here!"
Reader, I blush. It isn't me those fine men are so enthused about, but the act of being respected. It's my enthusiasm for them, my acknowledgment, my ignorance of stereotypes. Oh, it's that one kid bus driver again, who doesn't make me feel like a scary-looking black man, who throws fresh air my way. It's kindness these guys are so excited about, not me. They know hardly anything of me, after all, except my attitude.
As a bus driver, you're in a lucky position. You're an authority figure with undeniable street cred that can't be ignored. Uniquely, you're also a neutral party. That's what separates the role from most other interactions between authority figures and the underserved: you're not enforcing anything. You're serving. You're just there, in the city's worst neighborhoods at night, having a remarkably affable– or pleasantly ho-hum, depending on your approach– evening.
I'm not saying the folks are always on their best behavior. I realize certain situations are eased with my unfair advantage in being male– and a mixed-race male to boot ("Everyone's half-you," a passenger once quipped). Having posters of my face everywhere doesn't exactly hurt either… but moments of respect and appreciation were occurring way before the ad campaign. They occur when people think I'm white. They happen to my bus driver friends who are female. Sometimes, the folks choose to mirror what we offer, because of their own good qualities.
"A lotta the guys are friendlier than they look." Of course I wish that were always true. But the point is that it's often true, and we would do well to elevate our general opinion of certain groups accordingly. There is real kindness out here, and I've seen it, breathed it, and still breathe because of it.
*Nonplussed means surprised and confused, usually to the degree of not knowing how to respond. The word's been developing a slang usage in the US exactly the opposite of its original definition; some people think it means unsurprised or unperturbed (Google the definition for a laugh, as you'll be presented with two perfectly opposed meanings). I use the word here in its original definition.
Two older men of the same race, proximate in age, sitting near me at the front. Things were getting heated. The first fellow, dressed in denim with a touch of red, had clean, long, greying dreadlocks. I see him with a longboard sometimes, always a sparkle in those eyes; this guy might be sixty, but the vitality in his voice, that smart turn of his step, mark him as the embodiment of Frank Lloyd Wright's famous comment: "youth is not an age thing. It's a quality."
He's still got it, in other words.
The fellow seated across from him is different. Also a black American man of about sixty, but clad in a food-stained white sweatshirt and blue coat, with faded sweatpants and sneakers looking worse for the wear; crumbs and dried saliva haunt his mustache and beard, and a trail of garbage– peanut shells, a bottle opener, torn napkins– flanks him on the seats surrounding. He's complaining about his circumstances, and Mr. Clean Dreads is trying to help.
"You gotta get it, man. Whatchu think, folks is gonna babysit they grandpas?"
"Iss taking too long, man, too hard for a nigga."
"What're you trying to do? What's your occupation?"
"I'm on SSI, I can't be workin',"
Dreads leaned forward. "You on what now?"
"That don't mean you can't work. Coul' work under the table."
"Man, come on, nigga, they trying to take everything and give nothin' back! They–"
Dreads has a military background, and that sharpness came out now, the tone you'd use toward a misbehaving child: "Hey. Don't say that word nigga, right? Just, whatever. Don't say it. Don't give 'em no ammunition. 'Cause they hear you say they might slip outta their mouth."
Sweatpants, slurring the words in reply: "don't care what nobody think."
"Look at me. Don't say it. Now. As you were sayin'?"
Sweats rambled about a lawyer and a job, an anecdote of how the world had done him wrong. Our friend in denim and red responded, about to share how he could easily say the same, and yet… he wasn't disagreeing with the facts of the story. It's about the attitude you take. The control you choose to put into action. Sweats wasn't hearing it though, and waxed harsh on the limiting nature of institutions.
"They crooked," Sweatpants said. "They evil. They–"
"You know what? I coulda checked with the government too, right? I's in the army for twenty-two years, and I messed up my back." His tone said, I've been treated unfairly, too. But Sweats wasn't hearing it.
"You can't go to no army, they ain't gonna–"
"'Scuse me, alright? You can't tell me what the army did, man–"
"Listen to me, I'm tryin' to tell you–"
Dreads, exasperated: "okay, okay, you know everything."
"Yup. I tried to go in but that system got me down, man, that system got me down–"
"How old are you?"
"I'm one year younger than you, alright? Look at us. I can't complain, I wish you all the wealth. Just be positive, alright? Don't say… the more you think about that fella, he ain't gonna… you shouldn't even– twenty years ago? That's on nobody's mind, and it shouldn't be on yours. Don't let... that's your conscience fuckin' with you."
"That system got me down–"
"You keep yourself up, bro."
"Every time I go to th' hospital,"
"Man, look at yourself. Look at yourself. You won't ever listen."
"They tryin' to fuck my mind up, I can't think. You don't understand."
"What' I need to understand? I'm tryin' to tell you how to– you know what your problem is? You cain't even focus–"
"Focus, no. Focus on what? Focus on what? Believe me!"
"I believe you."
"I speak the truth. You bein' political."
Dreads could see this was getting nowhere. He said, "naw, I'm not political, I'm crazy."
"I'm crazy too."
"Alright." Resigned. "I act outta my shoe size sometimes."
I smiled at the wisdom in the homespun articulation. Mr. Dreads may not have been getting through to Mr. Sweatpants, but I was learning from his words. Sure, life's unfair; but we get up again. If there's something we can do, we do it. Most wise of all though, in my view, was how Mr. Dreads didn't insist on having the last word, or on changing Sweats' perspective. He leaned back now, letting out a long sigh. Neutral. If you can let other people have the last word, life becomes a lot easier.
Maybe that's why Dreads is so youthful.
This post is a thematic cousin to two previous ruminations on similar subjects:
Pulling Our Weight, Part I
Pulling Our Weight, Part II: Addressing the Homeless Laziness Question