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Film flicker in the viewfinder (film camera operating)


Stephen Perera
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So it's a really peculiar thing to see the film flickering by as you shoot on 16mm or whatever it is when like me, you come from stills photography. Is this predominantly why people use video taps (aside from other obvious reasons like more than one person seeing what one is grabbing)? I find i get used to it and it doesn't bother me after a while....anyone have any tips on camera operating a film camera with a viewfinder......for example when you have to refocus cos you are on a minus budget personal project shooting film?

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No. Video monitoring on a film movie camera was not invented to do away with flicker.

You mean a reflex viewfinder, don’t you? What you need to do for focus control is to let your eye accomodate to the finder brightness. Close your eye socket with the elastic eyepiece on the ocular, keep all extraneous light out for about 20 seconds. Prior to a take you can have the lens diaphragm fully open for brightest view and shallowest depth of field, you set focus. Then stop lens down to necessary aperture and continue to observe sharp-unsharp during exposure. It’s a matter of practice.

 

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9 minutes ago, Simon Wyss said:

No. Video monitoring on a film movie camera was not invented to do away with flicker.

You mean a reflex viewfinder, don’t you? What you need to do for focus control is to let your eye accomodate to the finder brightness. Close your eye socket with the elastic eyepiece on the ocular, keep all extraneous light out for about 20 seconds. Prior to a take you can have the lens diaphragm fully open for brightest view and shallowest depth of field, you set focus. Then stop lens down to necessary aperture and continue to observe sharp-unsharp during exposure. It’s a matter of practice.

 

excellent advice and yes.....I find i get used to it.......yes set focus at T2 and then go down to T8 etc and its a matter of finding the key elements that give away focus and its a good challenge indeed but gratifying....still, the big guns have focus pullers etc so framing is not the issue at all....

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I follow the same practices Simon explains. 

I'll start the shot with the aperture wide open and get my focus checked. I'll only stop down during the actual filming and generally the lighting isn't set until you're ready to roll anyway. On longer lenses its easier to tell focus of course. 

For documentary work, a trick that I've used since my ENG days, is to always use a zoom lens and zoom in, get focus and zoom out. This trick DOES work when the camera is stopped down and running. When I see something I want to shoot, I'll turn the camera on the moment I pick it up to put it on my shoulder and I'll zoom in, focus, zoom out with it running. The XTR has a built in meter, so I know where I need to be stop wise but it only works WHEN RUNNING. So you do waste a few feet of film, but I've found that I miss stuff if I don't turn on the camera first. Now of course if you're staging things, then it's a whole other story. 

Some cameras also have much bright viewfinders than others. Arri has always done a great job with this aspect. Everything from the 435 onward, the viewfinders have gotten brighter and brighter. The Arricam's, 235 and 416 have super bright viewfinders, way brighter than the other mainstream brands ever got. Of course Panavision cameras have excellent, super bright viewfinders as well. 

One aspect of Aaton cameras I never liked is the viewfinder. They hired PS Technik to make a better viewfinder for the 35III and Penelope. Those viewfinders are excellent, but the off the shelf LTR/XTR viewfinders are pretty bad. The aftermarket PS ones for the 35III are very rare and I'm not sure if they're backwards compatible with the 16mm cameras, they most likely are as the 35III viewfinder is pretty much the same as the XTR only with a different magnifier. if I ever found one for sale, I'd swoop it up! 

Oh and it wasn't until very recently that video tap's were "flicker free" thanks to the advent of frame buffering. It's actually a complicated system that buffers each frame based on the shutter location, stores it in memory and then translates it to the given frame rate of the video output. Many people have 24/25p HD taps today, but none of them are frame buffering. They still flicker when you turn the camera on and off, something you don't get with an actual frame buffer video tap. One of the major reasons I stick with my SD tap and SD wireless kit. it just works better and the HD tap's I've seen for 16mm cameras, still aren't great for pulling focus on the Aaton's especially. The Arricam taps are a lot better, but with 35mm, all the optics are much larger, so things are very different. Indyassist is an Austrian company who makes taps for the Arri's and they're very good, but also very expensive. 

 

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  • 2 months later...

I made the mistake last year of thinking that I could make it through a test using an older BL3, not realizing that the viewfinder would be so unusable. But it still astonishes me that so many older movies look amazing and sharp when you consider how awful the viewfinders were in their cameras. 

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Posted (edited)
11 hours ago, Steven Buckwalter said:

I made the mistake last year of thinking that I could make it through a test using an older BL3, not realizing that the viewfinder would be so unusable. But it still astonishes me that so many older movies look amazing and sharp when you consider how awful the viewfinders were in their cameras. 

When ya watch UHD high resolution BluRay's of movies shot on 35mm from the 70's and 80's, you'll see many out of focus shots due to filmmakers moving the camera more and more. Getting perfect focus during a moving shot has always been an issue and it's why so many films of the past, don't even try to run the lenses all the way open. Where the cameras have gotten better, the flicker of the viewfinder, has really made it tricky to insure focus is spot on. This is why focus suddenly got a lot better with the advent of cinetape and wireless follow focus tools. Those tools mixed with faster film stock, allowed DP's to run a more open aperture AND nail their focus without relying on the viewfinder. This is why with modern movies, you never really see a difference between focus of digital and movies shot on film. They're generally always perfect focus because it's so much easier to nail it these days.

 

Edited by Tyler Purcell
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10 hours ago, Steven Buckwalter said:

I made the mistake last year of thinking that I could make it through a test using an older BL3, not realizing that the viewfinder would be so unusable. But it still astonishes me that so many older movies look amazing and sharp when you consider how awful the viewfinders were in their cameras. 

That’s why ACs tape out distances or use tools like cinetapes, why actors have marks and why cine lenses have carefully calibrated and marked focus scales. No need to rely only on eye-focus, and before reflex cameras (the 60s for a lot of films) that was really the only way to do it, other than racking over to check focus before running the camera.

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I did some of my first work in the early 2000s with an ancient Arri 2c that had a viewfinder that didn't swivel, and the ground glass was held in by bars, so it looked like you were just operating through a jail cell. I'm not really sure how I got anything usable out of it, but I feel like it all held up pretty well the last time I looked at it. But I'm definitely thrilled to have a modern digital viewfinder to work with.

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ok since we're talking of focus and cine tape etc.....how do these people work.....chicken and egg scenario to my unknowledgeable mind in this case.......so the cine tape says the actor is at 1.6m now from his previous 1.8m.....so the person with the dial quickly shifts the focus.....so there is 'lag'.....always......obviously with practice the person pulling focus knows the actor say has a mark on 1.3m so Im sure they know how fast to 'pull' right? but do they look at their own readings and somehow see if they are matching? perhaps they practice the moves before....well, of course they do.....anyway.......would love to hear from focus pullers on cine tape....perhaps a link to another part of forum?

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Cine tape is the high tech method. Traditionally, the common method is to use a tape measure and put markers on the floor for each focus point, these were either marked on the follow focus disk or on the lens itself. Good 1st ACs or focus pullers can judge distance by eye as the scene progressed and make adjustments if the actors move off their marks. These skills are developed through experience and practice.

Cine lenses have expanded focus scales, so that AC can easily see and mark up the distances.

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On 10/26/2021 at 1:17 PM, Stephen Perera said:

So it's a really peculiar thing to see the film flickering by as you shoot on 16mm or whatever it is when like me, you come from stills photography. Is this predominantly why people use video taps (aside from other obvious reasons like more than one person seeing what one is grabbing)? I find i get used to it and it doesn't bother me after a while....anyone have any tips on camera operating a film camera with a viewfinder......for example when you have to refocus cos you are on a minus budget personal project shooting film?

It's not the perforations of the film that you're seeing flicker, it's the mirror reflex of the shutter passing across the gate. As for seeing the flicker, contrast is the main thing that makes it apparent. So outdoor, with bright skies in the frame, it will be much more apparent than it is on a dimly-lit (or even just normally lit) interior.

I've never known anyone to use a video tap just to avoid the flicker. Personally I think the flicker is a very reasonable trade off for the HUGE BOON to the camera operator, of looking directly through the lens (with no miliseconds of electronic delay, like we face with digital). It may be a subtle difference for many (or even most things), but anytime to need to follow and actor's motions precisely (standing up quickly, jumping, things like that) realtime viewing makes a huge difference to how effectively an operator can operate.

 

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i must admit when i first used my Aaton XTR XC 5 years ago when i bought it I was surprised at seeing the flicker.....i expected it to be like an SLR haha when it is in fact a mirrorless in modern tech stills camera parlance......but it didn't bother me at all when I rolled camera as I set my points of focus and used my manual Tilta follow focus ring with hard stops......besides, my camera work was never exactly complicated either.....for those that don't know me I'm a Hasselblad V system 'photographer' and shoot motion 16mm for 'projects' that come up and personal stuff I'm not a DP or near it at all. Im in here to learn and pontificate about the beauty of celluloid film cos its only via the motion picture sales to productions that us photographers will have film to shoot in the future!

Edited by Stephen Perera
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How reflex viewfinder flicker on film cameras bothers you, would seem to depend on when you started shooting.  It doesn't particularly bother me, but then, that's what I associate with shooting film and the state of art when I started.

I found the trade-off between the assurance of WYSIWYG with flicker and using a manually adjusted/adjustable parallax viewfinder and maybe not getting critical framing on the finished film worthwhile.

I could see how others would find it distracting coming to it from video or digital viewfinders, but that's just how they were built.

 

Edited by Frank Wylie
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