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Daniel O'Flaherty

Filming Wildlife in box - Advice on how to capture

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As always thank to anyone in advance who reads this and your generosity with sharing your opinions and experience. 

I am in the process of prepping for a particular shoot, one of which that I do not have any experience in the type of shooting, although I'm eager to learn. Basically, the job requires me to 1 shot of a small rodent being shipped in from abroad on a closed set in a studio.

We are to film it inside a box with 30cm width and 100cm length; interior walls fully blacked out, and the box is filled with sand and a few elements of grass. In this box it will be able to move around freely and jump (the rodent can jump 12cm on each leap). I need to have a hole in the box for the lens. They need this to be captured in as high a frame rate as possible, however we are still concerned with subjecting the rodent to too much light which could potentially harm it. After speaking with the animal handler, he has told me the light the rodents are used to would be just a bit brighter than sunset, which is not great. This means 240 FPS is more than likely not an option but I would prefer not to go below 120 FPS (96 FPS is the minimum for sure).

The shutter speed will have to be higher than the average for this also as the rodent I suspect moves and jumps quite fast. To add to this I will need a high F stop to capture the rodent in sharp focus to limit any soft shots (I am trying to get a focus puller on this job if budget will allow). So putting all these factors together it does seem I'm going to need to light this quite brightly , and if the animal care provider does not agree on the lux levels of the light I will have to sacrifice the F-Stop sharpness a but along with reducing the high frame rate.

 

Now a few questions for anyone who may have some experience with filming animals in a studio in tight areas or in small mammal camera boxes:

  • What lens/lenses would you suggest for capturing this creature? The client has requested they only need 1 shot, but I'm thinking if budget allows having a wider lens to capture the interior of the box and the rodent in a full shot, and then secondly a macro lens to hopefully capture an extreme close up as it jumps in mid air - poking the lens through the same hole just changing the lens (I'm thinking perhaps 2x Arri Master Primes as they are the sharpest lenses I have worked with before - suggestions are welcome on brand and especially suggestions on focal length? Its difficult to know this just going off a the 30cm width and 100cm length; I will only have access to the box the day before so will try to arrange a test even if its on my small Black Magic camera. Also any tips on if I should be thinking of using extenders or macroscopic lens adaptors for macro shots, or if I should indeed be looking mainly at macro lenses for this

 

  • What cameras are recommendable? I personally am looking at the Red Helium as it has the option to record 2K in 240 FPS max and various other below frame rates, or the Arri Alexa Mini at 200FPS in 2K Pro Res. I originally actually thought of the Red Gemini as my research shows it performs best in low light situations, however this camera is not an option from my preferred rental house.

 

  • Lighting: How can I light the rodent in the box? In my head there is 3 options - 1. Top of box is a netted material which will keep the rodent in and allow my light to shine through above it (any suggestions on material welcome) - 2. small LED's stuck to the interior top of the box - 3. A hole again through the box with a light shining though (although this means my lighting shape and direction can not change so quite limiting. ------ My first thought is to use an Arri M8 or M18 as the main light with a 45 degree back angle; Also putting in a small piece of white cloth on the interior of the box to get some light bounce back to fill in the front. (I'm lighting to make it look like a real sunlit setting). The M18 I will spot 50%. From my calculations 120 FPS at ISO 1200 with a shutter angle of 90 degrees at 50% spot would allow me to bring the F-Stop to 11 at a distance of roughly 5 metres. Now 5 metres for an M18 to the rodent may actually be to intense for the animal so an M8 may be more sufficient. Going by Arri's photometrics the majority of their lights are recommended to be kept at a safe distance of at least 5 metres but I assume that is not intended to mean for rodent size. Would be interested to hear if anyone has a solution for this in terms of using a different light or managing to put the light through the hole but at distance without leaving a gap in the box. I have to make sure the rodent is not affected by the heat or burned so I have been thinking going LED if I could get enough light in there for my frame rate.

 

  • Any need for a Focus Puller? Normally I would of course want this crew member on board, but the budget is so tight right now and the nature of the shoot makes me wonder if their services would be void when regarding the speed and uncertainty if the animal. F11 should keep this sharp in my opinion, but again not doing this shoot kind of shoot would appreciate your opinions.

I have attached 2 reference pictures of for the shoot. It is screenshots of the same type of shoot filming a gerbil in a confined space. Notice the hot slash of light across the sand, that is pretty much what I am going for. I am also trying to get the same focal length if anyone has suggestions on what this could be. I will have some pictures soon of what the box will look like so I will share that too.

154900995_ReferenceImage_2.thumb.jpg.65abf471865ec053fe2fd25d60a77474.jpg1972530326_ReferenceImage_1.thumb.jpg.2ce97209a425bab0f05b41cc5d043005.jpg

 

Any experience or suggestions is seriously welcomed so please let me know your thoughts or any questions you might have. Thanks so much.

 

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Honestly, for such an ambition and most likely having to work with long lenses that it would be the greatest idea to shoot on s35. I would go for a decent high end ENG camera. Under those conditions, I doubt you Will achieve a deep focus especially with such high frame rates. You don't want to be chasing focus and possibly miss a unique moment due to soft focus. My 2 cents.

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Hi Giray,

Thanks for your response. What would the benefit of an ENG camera have say over the Red Helium if you don't mind me asking? I think I may be able to up the budge for a focus puller but if i can get the area all in focus then great.

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Eng cameras have a better form factor - more of a all-in-one system rather than having to "put together" a camera with 3rd party attachments, rigs etc. 2/3" chip gives you more depth of field that with long lenses you wouldn't have to chase focus between one eye versus the other as much as a s35 or vistavision formats. This is of course my opinion. I used to operate Betacam cameras for example and it was great operating those cameras. Well balanced and all inclusive camera without cages etc. Hand held to sticks you don't have to reconfigure anything. I am not suggesting a Betacam but a 2/3 inch HD ENG camera with same type of body - the high end ones not the basic good enough for news gathering types. For analogy sake,  uvw 100 versus Ikegami hl59 W or sony d600 - sure all is Beta SP but the 100 was the cheapest versus 65k 600 or 59w were not the same at all in terms of colors, dynamic range etc. 100 was straight up good enough for news gathering and some other low profile work. Pair it with a nice long HD ENG lens with a servo and you're set. Red etc is not very practical for documentaries unless you're shooting about the pyramids etc. People nowadays seem to care about how their "rigs'" look with matteboxes etc to imitate cine cameras . You don't need any of that. Those cameras have internal nd filter selection so just regular lens shade that screws on the lens is fine. Don't buy into the idea that you need follow focus etc. We didn't use any of those configurations with Betacams for docs. Practicality wins imo. The last thing you want is to deal with 3rd party rigs etc in an environment like you are going to be working. Mind you most of those people don't even really need a follow focus or mattebox but hey it looks cool i guess. Also the ENG cameras have onboard sound too. Betacams had Dolby 2 ch or 4ch depending on the vtr with proper 3 pin xlr ports and monitoring display and dedicated sound adjustment knobs etc. And the viewfinder placement in relations to its shoulder pad is perfect too that you don't have to fight the camera which is crucial if you are serious about operating. Watch Nat Geo or Discovery wildlife docs... They are shot on these types cameras mostly. It is practical. And the camera has some mass to it for Christ's sake that it doesn't show shakes etc,  which at those long lenses, even on sticks, it gets pretty touchy. I don't get why the craze about awkward brick style bodied cameras. I prefer to operate heavy but well balanced full size cameras for example. In other words, it is a ready to go all in one camera for these types of applications. If you're shooting drama then sure get the RED. Hope it helps.

Edited by Giray Izcan

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Actually alot of nat history is shot on Reds  🙂 .. . .  I dont think any of them are shooting with ENG camera,s for many years now .. its all s35 or larger .. the dual ISO Varicam  is also popular .. Ive used Varicam and f55 for the BBC Bristol nat history unit .. and there was recently a big shoot in the  Antarctic shot with 3 Sony Fx9,s in FF..  dual ISO and very low noise is a big bonus.. 

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Giray thanks for your comments they are helpful. Although it is only 1 shot I'm doing on sticks so its not too much of an issue the build of the camera. But I certainly will keep everything you said in mind!

 

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Robin I most likely will be shooting on the Red Helium 8K. Do you know what is the max I should bring the ISO up to with your experience in RED cameras? I was thinking about the GEMINI for this due to the dual native ISO but it would be hard to get in to the studio in time.

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I'd recommend looking into the Sony Venice. It has dual ISO (500 & 2500 Base ISO), can record 120fps at 4k, and the image gives the Alexa a run for its money. Honestly, a lot of productions are starting to shoot on the Venice because it's a good camera.

The Alexa actually doesn't seem like a good option for this job because it sounds like you'll need to keep your light levels low.

If you're dead set on using Red, I'd recommend the Gemini because it too offers dual ISO (800 & 3200 Base ISO). Since RED cameras can crop in on the sensor, you could use S16 lenses and shoot the camera in a cropped mode to gain the wider depth of field. I don't believe the camera can record faster than 96fps at 5k, though. (But it also can record higher frame rates the more you crop in on the sensor!)

Lighting wise, cheap LED's will most likely flicker at the high frame rate. I'd recommend Digital Sputniks (hard light) or Skypanels (soft light).

---

Alternative idea: have you thought about using infrared light? BBC did it for Planet Earth (~1:56):

Of course, you'll lose color which could be a deal breaker.

MORE ALTERNATIVE IDEA:

You could also use machine learning to color the monochrome infrared footage! One example of machine learning colorization: https://deoldify.ai/

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11 hours ago, Daniel O'Flaherty said:

Robin I most likely will be shooting on the Red Helium 8K. Do you know what is the max I should bring the ISO up to with your experience in RED cameras? I was thinking about the GEMINI for this due to the dual native ISO but it would be hard to get in to the studio in time.

Sorry I wouldn't claim to be an expert in Red camera,s ..  really you would have to do tests to know as it would depend on there lighting .. .  I was just pointing out to Giray that actually RED,s are very commonly used in the nat history world.. and ENG camera,s very seldom.. if ever ..  but I guess shooting 8K will let you crop in but harder to shoot high frame rate ... if I were you I would contact Oxford Scientific films in the UK .. I believe they have done alot of this type of work and might be willing to share some knowledge .. 

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Hi AJ,

Thanks so much for your reply it is very helpful. The Venice is near impossible to rent here at the moment (I’m in the UAE), so my only shot really is the Red Gemeni, although that is quite difficult to find in rental houses here, it’s mostly the Helium or Monstro they have in stock. If all fails I will most likely be in the Helium and push the ISO to 2000. You don’t happen to know from experience how high to push the Helium before the noise becomes an issue? Almost tempted to use my BMPCC4K as that has dual native ISO, but production I don’t feel will be happy aha.

 

I will be on 120FPS 4K FF, so that should crop in a bit and help with DOF as you suggested. I was looking at Arri Master Primes as I have used them before but I also am looking at Red Pro Primes and Tokina Vista Visions as they are also available. I need a sharp lens obviously as it’s just the 1 shot I’m getting so it’s quite important. Do you recommend any of these?

 

Lighting wise I did a calculation recently basing it off a F16 - ISO 2000 - Shutter Angle 90. I decided on a M18 as I have the option to bounce it in to Polly or direct hit in to subject if I need more exposure (especially if I don’t have a dual native ISO camera).  Apparently an M18 1/2 spotted at 5 metres will be exposed or 10% flood will be 3 metres. According to Arri Photometric's website 5 metres is best for safety from subject. Also a point is I don’t want the light to be too hot for the rodent that is why I’m not using any tungsten fresnel lamps. HMI is not as hot so hopefully this will suffice, otherwise I will as you say need a Skypanel S120 @ 1 Meter away to get the same exposure but at F11. Do you think I will have issues with the M18 and flicker? If that’s the case I will go down the skpanel route.

 

P.S. That Infared looks super interesting thanks for sharing. The client will need it in color however but this is great to know for future.

 

 

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19 hours ago, Robin R Probyn said:

... if I were you I would contact Oxford Scientific films in the UK .. I believe they have done alot of this type of work and might be willing to share some knowledge .. 

Wow thanks so much Robin, I will definitely give them an email.

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Personally I wouldn't shoot at f16.. you have the risk of lens refraction .. and getting a "soft" focus look..  re flicker .. I think the only really safe answer is to shoot a test and play back.. any professional LED light like the sky panel you shouldn't have any problem at 120fps..  Ive done this with Astra,s and totally fine ..  

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@Daniel O'Flaherty My pleasure!

The downside to Red cameras are their poor performance in low light compared to cameras of the similar price range (excluding the Gemini's dual ISO). This is simply because so many photosites are packed into the sensor to reach the resolutions their known for. However, if the Helium is all that you have available, then push it to 2000 ISO. You'll have to make it clear to your director and producers that there will need to be denoising in post. Luckily, denoising is fantastic today with programs like "Neat Video". I cranked up the ISO on a Dragon sensor to 3200 and was able to save the footage with Neat Video. You couldn't tell the difference between base ISO and the cranked ISO.

HMI's are actually quite hot; they tend to melt gels faster than tungsten. Hell, I even cracked a mirror with an M18 one time after it was shooting through it for an hour. Needless to say, if heat is an issue at all you'd better go with LED.

Lens wise, all of the options you listed will be fine. You're shooting at a pretty deep stop; even the cheapest of lenses will look good when you're shooting at T11. 🙂

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Thanks AJ, Robin. I think from you said I will go ahead with LED’s to avoid any heat issues. But from my calculations I if I go LED I will need to be at 1 meter from the subject to reach proper exposure. Will this still be less heat wise that the m18 bounced in?

Also can I ask your opinion on 2 last things that have been pondering me. I need to decide how to film in the box. There’s either poking the lens through a rubber slit in to the box and covering the front of the glass with a UV filter fir protection, OR another idea is to use acrylic or polycarbonate sheet on the end of the box and press the lens up against this, possibly using a rubber lens or skirting the lens to avoid reflections. Is one method preferred over the other in this situation?

Lastly I need to cover the top of the box to avoid the rodent jumping out but need to put the light through here. Mu idea is a 255 Frost diffusion gel clamped down over the top. This should have the least effect in the light I think unless you know of any other that’s less intrusive. The other option was cover with acrylic or polycarbonate sheet but I worry that may affect the light passing through. Will the diff be okay? Thanks so much.

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19 hours ago, Daniel O'Flaherty said:

Will this still be less heat wise that the m18 bounced in?

You may be splitting hairs, but LED's are always cooler. If you want to go with an M18, then go for it. But, if heat is a concern, then eliminate that factor with LED. 🙂

Either option you suggested for lens will work.

Diffusion on top will work; it'll create an even light, though. If you're looking for something different, you could just seal it with plexiglass and have a clear window for your light.

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