Monday, February 27, 2012

Really free (Creative Commons) HD stock footage

I've moved the footage library to a dedicated page with thumbnails for ease of use as the library grows. Apologies for the wild goose chase.

Go here for the footage library.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

High-end advertising, film, video production on a budget - Part 2

If you haven't read the first parts of this article please read it over here: Part 1

Optimizing the creative concept for a budget

Unfortunately there is not a lot one can do when it comes to the various hard costs of a production unless you're going to get talent, crew and locations for little or next to nothing which is viable for an indie-film-maker but not in the advertising world.

I’ve noticed that there’s been a trend for marketers to approach production houses directly over the last few years and bypass advertising agencies but in my opinion that's a seriously dangerous route that needs to be navigated carefully. My suggestion would always be not to try and bypass an advertising agency. You need creatives coming up with great ideas and you’re going to pay for that. (For film-makers this means you need good ideas and good writers). Marketing and advertising are two very different beasts and the latter relies on almost purely aesthetic means of creating brand / product. If you’re really intent on bypassing an agency find a production house that has advertising-like people on its team, preferably people that have worked as creatives in the ad industry in the past or as creative directors. These kinds of facilities and freelancers are few and far between but they do exist.

Rather consider down scaling a particular creative idea to a particular budget, or ask your agency to do this (they’re the creative ones). I use this formula all the time. If a client wants a script and storyboard and they have a really small budget I go as big as possible – I try not to allow budget to interfere with creative ideas…initially at least. Once I get their buy-in on the basic concept I will downscale that concept into a new script and storyboard that retains the overall concept but that fits budget.

For example, you could visually demonstrate the idea of competitiveness by filming high-speed shots of Olympic athletes competing on a track or you could film two people playing a game of chess. The visual impact of the latter could be equally appealing to the former with dramatic lighting, good camera angles and good direction. In this example we have scaled down from a huge crew with large rigs, a full lighting crew with generator truck etc down to 2 actors in a small room, some good lighting, a single tripod perhaps with a slide-n-glide dolly and a few crew members. Consider choosing the latter concept over the former and pay for a decent director, DOP (DP), editor and post production rather than going with the big location and skimping on these. The copywriting / script is what’s going to be key here either way. Of course some concepts simply can’t be scaled down and rely on their “bigness” but one gets the picture.

Optimizing production and post production costs

There’s been somewhat of a digital revolution over the past few years and this has it’s pros and cons for advertising. On the positive side, one doesn’t need a high-end Sillicon Graphics Inferno to do decent visual effects work, on the other hand there are a whole lot of untalented and unskilled people doing post production work from their garage. Similarly on the production side we have the Red camera and even DSLRs being used to shoot commercials.

About a year ago I popped into Pudding Telecine Services in Johannesburg next door to where I used to run my own little post production facility to discuss workflow using a DSLR on their new Baselight Digital Intermediate Grading system and was surprised to find out that they had been grading DSLR footage from the Canon 5D and 7D or some time. I had thought I was being quite revolutionary and was certain that one of my commercials shot on the Nikon D90 the previous year was the first DSRL footage to appear on TV in South Africa even though it was a vfx shot and only a small portion of the actual footage appeared in the final shot. So, the revolution has happened. I even know of high-end commercials where the Canon 5D was used as a B cam and produced such lovely shots that they were actually used over A cam in the final edit.

The point is that there are a lot of options here. Ask your production house, DOP or director to consider shooting with less expensive equipment. Some will of course refuse outright and many will still want to shoot on 35mm film. There is a caveat of course. The DSRLs aren’t without some serious issues even if they do produce a great image. Only those with extensive DSLR and post-production experience are going to know how to work around those issues. There are also a host of camera and lens options, like using the Panasonic 4/3rds cameras with still lenses all the way through to an Arri Alexa with Cooke Prime lenses if you have a budget. I know of one production house that has been producing fantastic high-end commercials for years by using prosumer HD video cameras at a greater distance from the subject with longer focal lengths to produce a 35mm like depth of field. I did some post work on some of their shots and thought the back plates came from 35mm film until I was told otherwise. Of course the shots were graded on a DaVinci Telecine so post production also plays a big role.

In terms of post production, these days everyone has a cousin with a Mac and Final Cut Pro – that doesn’t mean they know how to edit a commercial. They probably have Adobe After Effects too. A good edit, a good grade and finishing are absolute key and the money is well spent at a decent post facility. If you really have to save here look for decent freelancers with good show reels. Just make sure that they have some real broadcast equipment. It’s not a good idea to do a grade in Apple Color using an LCD screen if the ad is going to cinema or TV, on the other hand if your target is web or DVD that certainly is an option. There’s one exception to that but I’m keeping that my little secret for now.

As an Indie film maker you're probably well aware of the software that's available. If you don't have the talent or skill look out for good freelancers and negotiate a good rate with them. There are also post facilities in India that do fairly decent work but their turn-around times are really slow. Their rates are pretty good though.

As far as audio goes there's not a lot to be said. Decent equipment and facilities are required for voice over and final mix but one can shop around. Just make sure that the engineers know how to mix and EQ for your final media platform. Don't expect a studio that records garage bands to know how to EQ for TV.


The good news with this digital revolution is that if you’re a small business you can now produce some very decent marketing material in the form of video or animation even if it’s just going to be displayed at the local doctor’s rooms. If you’re a big brand there are tons of ways of getting more bang for your buck and a host of alternative media platforms to explore where budgets are just not going to be all that good – at least for now. The most important point to consider though is not so much on how to get bang for your buck but doing that while maintaining or growing your brand appeal.

Have a quick look at my showreel. A lot of the work under the Directing / DOP section of the reel was completed on an unbelievably tight budget often filmed with my basic DSRL Kit: 

High-end advertising, film, video production on a budget

Whether you’re in advertising, marketing or indie film-making chances are you’ve been faced with a less than desirable budget. Over the next few weeks I’ll be giving a broad outline on what you can do to stretch that budget.

It’s been my aim for the past several years to be able to produce high-end commercial and film work on a shoestring budget. Why? Because I never had the cash to invest in or even hire a high-end 35mm film camera or a Silicon Graphics Flame System for finishing work, so you might say that I’ve become something of an expert when it comes to doing this kind of work on a low budget. That aside I’ve actually done some pretty high end work on TV commercials for big name brands such as BMW, Lexus and KFC to name a few and I’ve even operated a Flame system. I’ve also done some seriously low-budget work and I produced and directed a short film for …..wait for it… R700 (ZAR), that’s less than $100 so I’ve seen the ins and outs of all sides of the industry. The good news is that it’s becoming quite possible to marry a low budget with high-end film-making mostly due to technological advancements. More important however is the creative aspect and good creative people usually cost money but there are ways and means to work with that….more on that later.

While this series of articles are aimed largely at businesses and agencies looking to get the most bang for their buck, If you’re a film-maker or TV producer then for the most part the same principles apply. If I talk about creative concept as it applies to advertising then in the film-making world that is essentially the same as your storyline or script. In film-making your brand or product IS your story. It’s like selling a novel except you’re doing it with moving pictures. Advertising “Creatives” or copywriters are like script writers.

Motivating spend during tough times

Many financial gurus advocate spending on advertising and marketing during financially challenging times. The idea is that during good times there really is no need to advertise as your product is clearly selling whereas during times of reduced spending you really need to heighten product and brand awareness. Chances are your competitors are cutting their marketing budgets and that too is an opportunity to gain an edge in a tough marketplace.

However, the challenge is how to do that without damaging your brand. I’ll explain that in a minute. Above the line (TV) advertising is apparently still the most effective form of advertising (or so the advertising and marketing gurus tell me) but when it comes to motion picture there are obviously a host of other options available from viral videos to localized closed TV networks. I’ve even seen ads for local hardware stores (not the large chain varieties) advertised while waiting in the local doctor’s rooms, so whether you’re a big brand or a small business you’re probably looking at how you to get the best bang for your buck when it comes to advertising and video is a great medium whether it’s going to flight on TV, stream over YouTube or your website or be delivered to potential clients on a promotional DVD.

I believe that the key to good advertising or film-making is creative concept as well as overall production value. Neither of these can really be compromised, except for in reality TV shows where creative concept is entirely ad hoc and happens to a large extent in the edit suite. A good friend of mine that works in print design once told me that one of his clients, a very large producer of meat products went from a loss to a profit by simply changing their packaging and there's a valuable lesson that an translate into motion picture how essentially good production value makes a brand or a film look good. However, most important without question is the creative concept. You can watch a movie with great production value but if there's no story line the movie is doomed at the box office and so it is with advertising.

If you’re a small to medium sized business and you’re considering a video production or TV commercial tread carefully. Instead of a low budget video of your CEO or an actor in a studio telling or demonstrating how good your products are consider something more creative. Ask yourself whether you want to build a high-end brand awareness the likes of Mercedes Benz or the likes of a home shopping channel. Of course there is a place for the latter but there are ways of getting the former without breaking the bank.

Don’t Break your brand, rather spend more

I’m going to contradict myself here but for good reason. I've seen a lot of budget TV commercials coming out these days that are so poorly produced people actually talk about how bad they are. That’s still ok if the only thing your brand or product has got going for it is price point, but it’s a serious problem if your brand relies on image, lifestyle choices etc. I'm not going to mention any names but a couple of friends have actually changed their short term insurance from a popular broker because the ads are so "irritating" even though their original decision to go with that insurance was based on price point.

So the first thing to consider is whether you really do need to save costs. If you’re a reasonably big brand with a semi-decent budget I would suggest you don’t try and save money on the production or post side. I noticed a money-saving trend about 7 years ago when I ran a visual effects shop in the hub of Johannesburg’s Post Production district doing TV commercials where I worked on big brands Ads and clients were trying to save on production and post production costs. It’s not worth the damage it can cost a brand. I can’t really mention any brand names here but I’ve seen some horrific ads that were the result of a combination of tight budgets and risky creative concepts. Some of the ads actually had to be pulled from TV. Let’s just say that Cadavar-like skin tones and animatronic looking animation on CGI babies do don’t brands any favours.

I’m giving away a little post-production secret here, but in the post world you never tell a client that it can’t be done even if you know the result is going to look shoddy. It’s probably one of the reasons I didn’t fit in so well in post-production because I have a bit of an honesty policy. So, if you can’t afford The Mill or one of the better post facilities for your post production then don’t try and get too fancy.

If you’re spending millions on TV airtime then consider dropping a few slots and adding that budget to your production or post budget. Consider choosing less exposure of something really well produced over more exposure of something really bad. The exception here again might be if your sales message is about price point, but that’s also something that has to be carefully considered. Compromising brand image for target market exposure is probably quite damaging in the long run and should probably only be considered for real bread and butter retail type work, in which case you may as well hire a good product photographer and a decent motion graphics freelancer and Bob’s your uncle.

So with the above considerations let’s get down to business in the next article...

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A decent budget film making kit

I've got my own little kit that I use for indie film making and some of the lower budget TV commercials that I've made. Of course if a client has the budget then it's probably a good idea to go and hire a decent kit like a RED or ARRI Alexa and a set of Zeiss CP2 Primes along with a decent DP (or DOP), but that isn't often an option these days where budgets are tighter than ever and your client probably has a cousin that can produce a video for him for next to nothing. If you're making your own short film well then unless you take a second mortgage your budget is next to nothing. So here's a kit I built up over the last 2 years or so to do just that. Occasionally I actually use it for pro jobs where a client has a tight budget.


One of the biggest issues for me has always been how to simulate a film look on a low budget and as most people know that one solution arrived several years ago with video-capable DSLRs, which aren't without their various problems of course.

Currently I'm using a Canon 7D for that kind of work because it's APS-C sensor size is really close to Super 35 mm film which is one of the major reasons why I would use the 7D over the 5D. Of course here we're just trying to look as close to the bigger budget TV commercials and films as possible but choosing a different sized film-back needs to ultimately be a creative decision. The other reason is pulling focus on the 5D with it's shallower depth of field - due to the larger sensor one has to use a longer focal length to get the same framing - and that can be a real pain the ass especially if the budget doesn't cater for a dedicated focus puller. If one is using a smaller frame size such as the popular 4/3 rds sensor the trick to get shallower DOF is to use a longer focal length and move further away from the subject.

Why the fuss about Shallow Depth of Field?

Well it all revolves around the creative ability as a Director or Director of Photography to be able to direct the viewer's attention to what is important in a shot. If you've framed an over-the-shoulder shot for example, you want the focus on the talent that is currently speaking rather than on the shoulder and back of the head of the talent on the reverse - in fact as a director you would like to isolate the part of the shot that is most important. Our eyes actually do this naturally and if you hold your thumb in front of your face and focus on it you will notice that the background is out of focus and vice versa. Of course, that doesn't mean there isn't a place for deep focus (where the entire scene is in focus) and in particular wide angle shots of landscapes or opening shots that set a scene where the viewer needs to take in the entire environment. That's the beauty of a super 35mm sensor size - just slap on a wide angle lens and you have deep focus. you will probably have to stop down a little as well, probably down to f11 or higher depending on the exact focal length you're using. and that leads us on to lens choice...


I have several lenses in my kit that I use for different purposes. Of course, this is a budget kit so there are no Zeiss CP2 Primes here. If budget allows you can always hire them. My goal with setting up my kit was to cover a wide variety of focal lengths with some reasonably good glass. On the zoom side I have a Tokina 12-24mm, a Canon 24-105mm F4 and a Canon 70-200mm F4. On the prime side I have several old Zeiss Jenna Pentacon lenses from 50mm to 180mm which I attach with a Pentacon to EOS adapter. These are in no way the best lenses out there and I might have built my kit differently had I known the ins and outs of these lenses but in coming weeks I'll write about the good, the bad and the ugly of all of them.

Support, Mattebox and Follow Focus

For support I use a Manfrotto 503 Tripod which is ok but not really that solid. I would suggest finding a good old school Sachtler or Conner second hand if possible as they're way more stable than a Manfrotto (But a lot heavier too). Again, if budget allows go and hire one.

I've got a Cavision Follow focus unit which I customized with a Zacuto gear in place of the original. The Cavision does have some play which is not unusual for a budget solution. I'm using a Genus 2x4" Mattebox that secures to the rail system. In my opinion it's crucial to secure lenses to the mattebox if you want to pull focus during a shot on an DSLR. Reason being that the rig is so light you're going to get play on the camera and lens if it isn't secured in at least two places. You can buy adapter rings for the mattebox that come in a variety of sizes and allow the lens to be securely fastened to the mattebox.

I also have a DIY slide-n-glide (DSLR slider) that is great for dolly-type tracking shots and a bunch of other bits and bobs.


At the moment I'm just using some cheap old Halogen worklights with 300Watt and 500watt bulbs. They produce more than enough light but get extremely hot and the 500Watt bulbs tend to melt gels. Having worked with hired lighting kits in the past I find that investing in something like a redhead kit just isn't worth the price - they produce little light and are pretty expensive. The kino-flos and other pro lights are great but outside a small budget. Another option is to look around for something like second-hand 2K lights which I have seen available and they kick serious ass for lighting a set. I've also got a few reflectors and with the 7D I can usually get away with using natural light in shade or indoors and just bouncing it. One of my reflectors can also double up as a scrim to soften direct sunlight.

All in all this kit allows me to produce reasonably decent video with something of a 35mm film look. In retrospect I would probably have chosen different kit and there are a whole lot of caveats which I will go into in the coming weeks -pitfalls to watch out for when selecting what equipment to buy for a budget DSLR film-making kit. On the whole it's not bad but quite a few things I might have done differently.

If you want to see some of the results check out my showreel (under the Directing / DOP section). Everything there was shot with this little kit even some of the commercial work:

Happy Film-making!