Isaac Marchionna

Corporate Revolutions by Isaac Marchionna

Following up on the earlier discussion of the BE Meyers 40th Anniversary video, this entry will be more of a technical breakdown of a key effects sequence involving a rather large machine gun, dolly, multiple passes, and a little bit of hair pulling.

7 Second Storytelling

BE Meyers not only builds their own products, but helps supply warfighters with products that enhance existing weapon systems, which then help integrate their own laser products, increasing lethality and survivability. Early on in the planning stages we paid special attention to one key product, which was a chassis system for the venerable M2 .50cal machine gun, affectionately known as ‘Ma Deuce.’ Generally in the planning phases we scale our visual storytelling to the requirements of the client, this sometimes tends to keep things conservative, especially when on a narrower budget. However when we sat down to scope what was possible for the anniversary video, and we laid all the possible product stories out, we were struck by the key visual of the M2 in all its built up glory.

Typically as someone involved in planning, production, and post-production I tend to err on the side of restraint when proposing complicated visual sequences. However putting myself in the shoes of the audience I knew that seeing something as modular as the M2, built up, in motion rather than a static build (or a CAD/CAM build), would instantly become memorable, and a wonderfully challenging visual high watermark. So rather than this being a client request we proposed a sequence starting from the pintle mount, up through the chassis, gun itself, accessories, and optics, all while the camera was rotating around it.

However the challenges were these:

  1. Budget clearly did not allow for a MoCo (Motion Control) rig.
  2. The M2 is exceedingly long. Almost 6’ in length.

The first challenge was the main issue. A motion control rig would have made this effect a snap. However given that budget was limited it meant improvising and creating a human powered motion control rig as best as possible. The other was length of the object being filmed. The M2 is almost 6’ long, which meant that lighting the machine gun would be a challenge as well as controlling focus. 

Tylor Jones prepares the camera to rotate around the M2.

Tylor Jones prepares the camera to rotate around the M2.

The solution we settled on was to utilize our Fisher 10 dolly, which would be used for the majority of the corporate location filming, on a 360 length of track. We would then push the camera around each stage of the gun, with 2-3 passes per stage to allow for coverage in case of a camera issue. We would start with the machine gun fully built up, as it would reduce the chance of the gun being bumped or changed in position as little as possible. After each pass a stage would be removed, another 2-3 revolutions filmed, remove another stage, rinse and repeat. Each pass could not be any shorter in length than the pass before it, so using a simple timer app on a phone we were cautious to count out each step, and focus on smoothness of motion, erring on the side of being too slow than too fast.

Because this would be a complicated effect for so little on screen time, it meant that we had to slot in all of our lighting and camera prep while still trying to juggle A-roll interviews. This meant that this B-roll effect was severely under the gun (pardon the pun) to get right, and get done, in a time faster than normally allowed. In addition we were also limited on track diameter, as to complete a 360-degree revolution meant using a smaller track, which limited us on lens choices. This goes back to problem number 2, which is that the object in camera was incredibly long, but would drift out of focus given available light, which limited our depth of field. Ultimately given the restriction on time, and how many lights we could use, it meant being more than a few T-Stops less than where you'd want to be given how ginormously long the M2 is in camera.

The one key thing that a lack of time didn’t allow us to accomplish was to bust out the rulers, lasers, and bubble levels, to optically true up the camera, dolly/track, and machine gun. Another deficiency was in properly leveling up the track to reduce or remove any low or high spots during the rotation. The end result is lovely looking footage, but one where the camera and gun were moving eccentrically to each other. Clearly this wouldn’t work for the final effect. See example below, particularly take note of the shake, and rises/dips in frame:

Original source footage. No stabilization.

How to solve this? Given that each pass would be give or take 55 seconds in length, with 6 individual passes, there was only one solution…basically a lot of key frames. No stabilization tool would be able to make sense out of a long object during a 360-degree rotation moving eccentrically. It essentially would have warp-stabilized the M2 into looking like a bow tie. The most direct solution would be the most time consuming, which would be to take the one constant, in the form of the pintle mount, and using that as our optically true center point. By essentially throwing a pair of vertical guides, and going through roughly 1350 key frames (per pass) the M2 would rotate smoothly during its entire turn. The same had to be done horizontally, due to the aforementioned dips in the dolly track. All in all this amounted to just a little over 8100 key frames. Due to each pass and the resulting key frames you could essentially see that the camera was making a figure 8 as it moved down and around, whereas it should have been a single point.

Each pass had to be frame stabilized to avoid the M2 dipping or shifting.

Each pass had to be frame stabilized to avoid the M2 dipping or shifting.

Once this was accomplished for each pass all 6 passes were overlaid and transition points determined. I knew I didn’t want to have jump cut transitions, but rather I wanted seamless crossfades. This meant avoiding any visual ‘tells’ such as a tension crank that may have moved during installation/removal, ammo belt shifting, etc. After these 5 transition points were determined, the entire sequence was then sped up to a crisp 7 seconds. We didn’t want to make too big a deal out of this effects sequence, enough so as to let the viewer appreciate the effect, but not do an effect for an effects sake that overstayed its welcome.

Rigging lights and gun.

Rigging lights and gun.

Because we wanted to use this sequence to illustrate all the products that BE Meyers either supplies, or creates, we then overlaid product name call outs and product numbers, all tracked to the camera, so that 3D type would follow each component.

3D Product Names and Part Numbers overlaid.

3D Product Names and Part Numbers overlaid.

Overall I’m incredibly happy with the end result, especially given the time and technical limitations. It was also a firm reminder that even 15-30 minutes during production to measure twice, and cut once can alleviate postproduction time by a factor of 10-20x. Ultimately what we set out to do was to create an effect that could have been accomplished rather uninterestingly in a normally throw away line of A-roll, and some B-roll montage, but in a far more compelling visual manner. The end result was technically challenging, but something that was instantly recognizable for it’s addition to the overall piece’s production values, as well as the entire production team striving to raise the bar on what a corporate piece could be.

The Cinematic Corporate by Isaac Marchionna

BE Meyers 40th Anniversary Video

Form follows function. It’s an adage that holds true for the majority of well-designed things. Yet form is a function in and of itself, and when given equal weight to a project, there’s the opportunity to really move beyond the restrictions of what a project could otherwise become.

Combat B-Roll

In March, Shawn Nelson and I, were given the opportunity to tell the story of BE Meyers. A company whose product could best be described as that of science fiction. Lasers only visible to optics that magnify light a million times over, systems built for warriors who operate in the darkest recesses of the world, who do very bad things to very bad people. This is a company that brings high technology, to low-tech situations, and has been doing so for 40 years. Like many in the defense industry it’s all too easy for companies like these to see video as a burden, something that must be done because of the complexity of explaining their story and products. The end result often ends up as one of frustration for the stakeholder’s, and not an experience of storytelling they jump into with excitement. It becomes easy to end up with something that lacks emotion, scope, and quality of execution. Regardless of what industry it’s for, corporate work has a tendency to be all about function, telling the facts, without being an entertaining story that stands on its own.

BE Meyers IZLID Ultra(s)

BE Meyers IZLID Ultra(s)

We were pleased to hear from the outset that our client wanted to avoid these pitfalls, which put us in violent agreement with them, as we wanted to focus on telling a compelling story with equal parts visual execution. The biggest step in this process was to contextualize what the products do, and how to show them in a manner that was as highly cinematic. This execution was informed by working with the client to really flesh out the scenarios that best exemplified each product, and would serve as b-roll that in and of itself could be described as mini-movies. Normally b-roll is a functionary product that works for cutaways, often times becoming visual filler, whereas here we wanted to really give it as much weight as the a-roll it was supporting.

JTAC Mountain Storyboards

JTAC Mountain Storyboards

BE Meyers // Look Book

We found that using ‘look books’ and cinematic references helped to both establish the look and feel, but also create and elevate the bar that we wanted to achieve visually. A big part of this was long exposure wartime photography, and low-light cinematic sequences from films like “Lone Survivor.” We also storyboarded extensively sequences where we would not have the chance to really rehearse, or where components would be in flux (such as how many people there would on screen, or what vehicles would be available to film). This allowed us to have a clear idea of the angles we would need regardless of the changing circumstances, rather than getting distracted by what differences we would have to deal with at production. More importantly these storyboards and cinematic touch points would enable us to help bridge between what the client needed, and what we wanted to execute. This clear line of communication would pay for itself a thousand times over once we attempted the cinematic b-roll, which comprised half the entire production.

Shawn Nelson providing input on framing.

Shawn Nelson providing input on framing.

Logistical Warfare

The entire project filmed over the course of 4 days. With 2 days in the BE Meyers HQ, and 2 days offsite in the wilderness. This presented an extremely aggressive schedule, which required a lot of moving pieces with a lot of safety nets in regards to execution. Days 1 and 2 were treated very much like a corporate piece, but shot in a way more reminiscent of indie film production. This meant an extremely efficient and small crew, in an extremely mobile package. For almost all of these two days the camera moved around on a JL Fisher 10 Dolly, which allowed us to quickly re-evaluate framing, but introduce motion into our shots that would have otherwise required more time to bounce between tripod and slider/dolly. This one tool both presented a fantastic platform to improvise without penalizing the director of photography and the director on their creative decisions, and it also served as a psychological boost for the employees and key executives at the company. Specifically it lent an air of Hollywood, and helped to reinforce their decision that just because this was a corporate story it could also be given the reverence and scale of a commercial/small film.

In addition the dolly also allowed us to create a couple of key signature on-camera effects that would otherwise be too complicated to achieve otherwise, or would have to be handled via computer animation. Specifically we wanted to quickly and visually tell the story of a modular chassis system that works with the Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun. This system enhances an already formidable weapon, and allows for the integration of laser and optics systems that BE Meyers either creates, or provides. To visually tell show each component we envisioned a 360-degree circular dolly shot showing the system building up, from the gun mount, to the chassis, to the gun, lasers, and finally optics. We also wanted to avoid doing this in computer animation, while that can afford more control over focus, angles, and lighting, also looks tends to look cheap, as there’s an authenticity present in having really filmed it on set. There’s a production value just in knowing that was really on camera, flaws and all. This was ambitious given the amount of time to set up this practical effect, but the end results are extremely unmistakable and extremely memorable. This was an effect that could have occupied an entire day of filming, but one that we were able to accomplish in mere hours. I will be covering the effects breakdown for this shot in a future blog post…

Casey Schmidt doing last minute lighting changes.

Casey Schmidt doing last minute lighting changes.

Days 3 and 4 were however a bigger challenge, and not one affected by amount of content, but by location and the logistics of herding cats. These days would serve are our military b-roll, and to accomplish this we adopted a very documentarian mindset. We were able to loosely script certain scenarios, but available vehicles, personnel, and geography would determine how they played out. Because of filming restrictions, such amount of vehicles just to haul personnel out to location, it meant that we worked with available light, and as minimal of rigging as possible. What was a single camera shoot for the past two days in a factory was now a three-camera shoot out in the field. Three RED Epic-MXs, and an entire series of ARRI/ZEISS Ultra Primes, being operated by Shawn Nelson (Director), Domenic Barbero (DP), and I (Isaac Marchionna / Co-Director). The working style was simple, huddle, establish a scenario informed by our storyboards, and then quickly figure out how best to maximize how we would create coverage.

But more than that our goal wasn’t to just provide angles, but to work from the mindset of “how would we shoot this if it were an action movie?” What are the angles we’d grab if we could spend hours lighting or rigging this shot? And once we did, how could we obtain a result that best approached that ideal execution in that narrow slice of time. Having multiple camera operators, variety of lens choices, and subjects (military members) trained to execute orders with impeccable accuracy all added up to give us everything we strived for on that day.

RED Epic MX(s) with ARRI/ZEISS Ultra Primes

RED Epic MX(s) with ARRI/ZEISS Ultra Primes

Day 4 was going to be a challenge not because of subject matter, but because of the logistics of where we wanted to shoot and the problem of moving people and gear into a spot just to begin working. Day 3 took place about 90 minutes south of Redmond, WA, all on paved roads. Whereas Day 4 would be about 3 hours east and located on the side of a mountain, accessible only by off-road vehicles.

To compound the issue 90 percent of the required footage would be filmed from dusk until dark, which meant that daylight was precious for establishing a basecamp, ridding ATVs up the side of a mountain to scout our locations and create a shooting schedule, head back down, and haul multiple trips worth of gear up a rather steep mountain face, all the while chasing the light knowing we wouldn’t get another chance. Once again having a crew that was incredibly nimble made all the difference. Each shot had one major attempt, either we got it, or that shot was lost. Despite the hardship of hauling camera gear up narrow paths, frigid cold winds, the threat of rattlesnakes (of which we saw more than a few), we accomplished every single shot we sought to capture.

Dusk Filming

Dusk Filming

We couldn’t have done this without a great crew. But more than that we couldn’t have done it without a client who enabled us to do the kind of storytelling we thought the project deserved. Our client believed in the story we wanted to tell, and moved heaven and earth to provide us with the people and gear in front of the camera that created a level of production value that can’t be cheated. That level of authenticity pays for itself on screen. This was an incredibly challenging project, but an immensely rewarding one for everyone involved. Our goal was always to enable, and empower the client to create a scenario where their story could be told passionately. And in doing so lay the groundwork for vindicating video as a powerful tool that cinematically tells the story of their family-owned company, what they’ve done, what they do, and for what the future holds. The end result is that we were able to bring together multiple stories, multiple parts of a company, into one exciting and informative cinematic experience. And in doing so work to transcend beyond what could have otherwise been a purely functional corporate piece. 

Run Silent / Run Deep by Isaac Marchionna

Science-y Stuff Happens Here!

Science-y Stuff Happens Here!

The Sounds of Silence
Maybe I'm spoiled on systems like the F900, Varicam, HVX200, even DSLRs, but I want my camera to be seen, and not heard. In the case of the Epic you usually oscillate between two settings, annoying, and hairdryer. There's a small grace period where your fans won't "sing you the song of their people," but it's a very tiny window, and when you've passed the point of no return be prepared to watch as your sound guy starts grinding his teeth in frustration.

So what's the solution? Well, according to RED and their new fan kit 2.0 setup, it's a new lower fan, and the addition of a top fan. The concept is that by having a bigger fan pushing a larger volume of air, in conjunction with a top fan pulling that air through the cooling duct, that theoretically you'll be able to keep the camera cooler for a longer period of time.

The Ideal
Keep the camera as quiet as possible, for as long as possible. This isn't a crazy request. The benchmark I usually hold up is the Arri Alexa, which has a subtle hum, but has never provoked the question on set of "seriously where is that sound coming from?!" The Alexa is also a bigger camera, with a lot more space for allowing the heat to be dissipated. The Epic is a modular design, and you've got a lot of electronics all crammed together. Simply put: 10 gallons of shit, in a 5 gallon bag.


Yeah Mr. White, Yeah, Science!
Alright, so this isn't that scientific, nor did it involve a Winnebago in the desert. However I tried to use a realistic setting for the test, in this case my apartment, which comes close to simulating a nice middle-ground between studio and location audio. My apartment building has poured concrete walls, ceilings, and floors, and has very little noise to it, other than the occasional rustling from my dog sleeping.

The setup was as follows:

-Epic placed about 3.5' from the ground on my Oconnor tripod.
-Sennheiser 416 placed at various locations (2' and 6' from the camera). 3.5' high.

-Audio recorded on the Tascam HDP2
-Room temperature was a constant 73 degrees.
-Each configuration of the camera was allowed to achieve consistent idle temperatures.
-All record times were 15 minutes.

With that said this audio test represents an unrealistic extreme in physical setup. It's very unlikely that you'd ever willingly aim your microphone at the camera, nor would you do so this close. Also this test only captures the onboard noise from the camera. If I was able to design a more elaborate test I would suggest having speakers placed to simulate spoken dialogue, to best capture how the fan noise was impacting the audio off a boom mic.

However we're not splitting hairs in this test, but rather just looking for perceptible differences in fan configurations.

RED Epic Original Lower Fan

RED Epic Original Lower Fan

Combined Audio Tests

Fan Kit 2.0

So lets start with the proposed 'ideal.' This involves the new bottom fan, and the new top fan. Camera was allowed to come to its idle temp after 30 minutes. This produced a natural resting state of 43/70. For those not familiar with the Epic the first measurement is the SENSOR temperature, and the second number is the CORE temperature. So in this case the Sensor is 43 degrees, with the Core temp being 70 degrees.

I normally keep my camera in the Quiet Record mode. However I noticed right off the bat this produced a pretty audible noise from the fans. Based on some forum feedback I heard the magic settings were to go with Adaptive, and keeping the core temperature at it's highest setting within Adaptive, which was 70 degrees. Once I selected this option the fans seemed to idle down. However the sound was certainly persistent, with the vast majority coming from the lower 2.0 lower fan.

The new lower fan can best be described as whiny, as it has a very noticeable electronic sound to it, that is frankly unpleasant.

I also noticed that engaging the camera into quiet record has NO effect on the lower fan's speed/noise. Whereas with the original 1.0 you'd get an immediate silencing of the internal fan. So with the 2.0 lower fan you can safely say that quiet record has no effect, therefore making adaptive the best choice if you're using the 2.0 lower fan.

The biggest thing to note is that with the 2.0 lower fan and top fan is that you will remain at 43/70 for the entire duration of recording. As mentioned earlier I took two samples, once at the beginning of the record duration, and then another 15 minutes later to see how much the fans may or may not have increased in sound. 15 minutes represents a fairly extreme end of the spectrum as far as record times go.

Bottom Fan 2.0 Only

Okay, this thing is a bigger lower fan. Hell, when you see a Camaro with a hood scope or a blower it just looks faster. So it's a bigger fan, it should be better! Well, not really.

Continuing to use the Adaptive mode (since silent record had no effect on the bottom fan's speed/sound). The same sounds persisted from the earlier combo test. The only difference was that the sensor temp raised one whole degree, holding at 44/70 from Idle, to record from start to finish. Not terribly shocking, since the lack of the top fan reduced the combined efficiency.

Original Bottom Fan (Stock Configuration)
This is the configuration your camera comes in by default. Since the original bottom fan responds properly to Adaptive Preview / Quiet Record, I opted to utilize it since the goal is to create the most silent recording possible, not necessarily the coolest camera.

I ran this test twice, once with the target fan speed set at 40 percent, and the second time set at the extremely low speed of 25 percent. The idle temperature speed using Adaptive Preview / Quiet Record was 45 for the Sensor, and 70 for the Core.

For the first test of 40 percent, the camera was audibly louder in Adaptive Preview. Once the record button was pressed the Epic instantly simmered down to it's silent recording, which while not dead silent, is essentially the epic sipping air for as long as possible. At some point the Epic's core temperature rises to a point where it has to speed up the revolutions of the fan. The temperature at which it does this is 76 degrees, which was uniform across all the tests. At 76 the Epic decides it can't hold its breath and needs to start sucking some sweet O2. The question becomes how long of a time period can the Epic hold it's breath in this Quiet Record mode.

In the case of the 40 percent fan speed the time was 1 minute 57 seconds. The sensor temperature had risen to 48 degrees, with the new core temperature at 76 degrees. It held this temperature for the remainder of recording for the 15 minute test. Fan noise was fairly noticeable for these tests.

For the 25 percent speed test the fans engaged at the 1 minute 50 second mark, with a Sensor temperature at 48 degrees, and a Core temperature of 76.

Original Bottom Fan + Top Fan

Here's where we get tricky. This is the same test as the one previous, with the addition of the top fan. Clearly the original bottom fan has something going for it in the ability to actually shut up in Quiet Record mode. But the limitations are that it can only hold its breath for +/- about 2 minutes depending on the targeted fan speed. The question becomes does the top fan extend that duration between silent recording, and when the fans have to rev up slightly to maintain operation.

Using Adaptive Record / Quiet Preview, the idle speed was a steady temperature of 46/70. The idle sound can best be described as louder than the 2.0 upper/lower combination, but lacking any electronic whining. However once you hit record, things change dramatically.

The camera immediately went quiet, and at 40 percent fan speed the Epic remained in its silent mode for 3 minutes 40 seconds. Only when the core temperature hit 76 degrees, did the lower fan speed up slightly, and it's increase was hardly what I would describe as aggressive. It maintained this sound level, never increasing during the 15 minute record.

The final test was at 25 percent fan speed. Once the record button was pressed the camera went silent, and stayed silent, for 4 minutes 45 seconds. Over a minute longer than the 40 percent speed. And just like the 40 percent test, once the camera did it's initial lower fan speed increase it held that temperature and volume for the entire period of the 15 minute recording duration


RED Top Fan

RED Top Fan

 Final Verdict
So I'll try not to beat around the bush here. Why would you want the lower fan 2.0? Well I think if your goal isn't necessarily silence, but rather avoiding the dreaded hair dryer mode, in locations/environments that are normally not as permissive to Epic's current fan setup. 

Outside of that, I can't really think of anything. I've heard some reports, pardon the pun, that there are some lower fans out there that are as silent as the 1.0 fan. In fact on receiving my 2.0 kit I immediately became a little perplexed by the increased noise and electronic whining. This lower fan, used in testing, was sent to RED for examination. Their technicians verified it was working within specification. So if anyone proposes that the lower 2.0 fan in this test was flawed, I can disprove otherwise.

So what's the best setup for those chasing the concept of a quiet camera? To my ears, and equipment it's fairly apparent. It's keeping your 1.0 bottom fan, and adding the Top Fan. In the process of adding the upper fan you extend the Epic's quiet record mode by nearly 250 percent. This is a pretty dramatic increase, and even once the Epic cycles it's lower fan up at the 4 minute 45 second mark, the audio increase is fairly minor. In fact I'd even say the best upgrade for your Epic is just the new fan algorithms if you're on a tight budget!

The information gathered in these tests have given me enough confidence to say that the best combination for your money is the original bottom fan, and new top fan. If RED re-engineers the lower fan to be as silent as the original fan, especially in quiet record mode, while still moving the increased volume of air, then they'd have a winner hands down.

As it stands I think the results are quite deafening.

Top Plate 2.0

Top Plate 2.0