High Speed w/ Photron
A few months ago, I did a shoot with the Photron BC2 high speed camera. Wanted to share some thoughts on the whole process in case any of you are “hi-curious” about high frame rates. Here’s the full :60 “Director’s Cut”:
Big ups to Derek Sine for shooting some behind-the-scenes footage.
Win-River Casino was looking to launch a campaign that took them back to their roots to connect with their core audience, the gamers. Now, if you’ve seen a casino ad before, you know they typically feature people who look nothing like casino regulars. When was the last time you visited a casino on a Tuesday afternoon and saw a group of sexy models ordering drinks and blowing kisses on dice? We wanted to play off of this glossy stereotype a bit and decided to create a spot showing ordinary people in extraordinary moments. Enter the high speed.
The High Speed Effect
Everyone looks cool in slow motion. Even your grandma would look like a badass if you filmed her in slow motion walking away from an exploding retirement home. There’s just something intrinsically dramatic about slow mo. I had a conversation with Greg, one of the grips on the shoot, about this topic. Greg’s theory is that when people watch something in slow motion, it engages the part of the brain that processes important, life-or-death information. You know when something dramatic or traumatic happens people say, “I felt like it was happening in slow motion”? Same thing. I have no scientific evidence for this theory, but it seems like a good hunch. At any rate, I was looking to use high speed to elevate the drama of these scenes and create a surreal perspective of the “jackpot” moment.
Ok, onto the technical stuff. The goto cam for this kind of work is usually the Phantom HD or, now, the Phantom Flex. I really, really wanted to use the Flex for this project since its native ISO 1000 would have been handy in the dimly lit casino. But, I just didn’t have the budget for that cam. I decided to go with the Photron BC2 at less than half the cost of the Flex. In a perfect world, budget wouldn’t matter, alas, you know the rest.
Here’s my overall impression of the Photron. It is a pretty capable cam, providing that you feed it enough light and don’t dink around too deep in the poorly designed and confusing software. We shot with Redpro Primes wide open and I was pleased with the sharpness of the 1080p uncompressed tiffs. It was sharp without looking “sharpened.”
The camera shoots 1080p at up to 2000fps. Plenty fast for my purposes. As the resolution is decreased, the frame rates go up, all the way to 86,400fps at a postage stamp sized 256 x 32. Sidenote: filming 30 seconds at 86,000fps would give you 32 HOURS of 24p footage!
There is such a thing as too slow. For people, moving at typical “people-speed,” I found anything above 250fps started to look a little languid. I think a good slow motion shot is a balance between slowing down the subject matter, while retaining enough motion that the shot is still dynamic. Some of the closeup stuff in the restaurant (the dough and stir fry) we shot at 1000fps. The wine pour I shot at 1500fps but ended up speeding it up in post. (Will post the full restaurant spot when it’s ready)
Shutter Speed and Lighting
When you turn the camera on it makes the sound, “Nom nom nom” as it gobbles up all the available light in the room and cries, “Feed me MOAR!” Well, that’s not exactly fair considering it’s not so much the camera but the shutter speeds that eat the light. All but a few clips were shot with a 180 degree shutter so shooting at 1000fps meant the shutter speed needed to be 1/2000 sec. That’s an additional five and a half stops of light. This would be the equivalent of lighting 24fps to an ISO setting of 15. Even though the BC2 is rated to about 640 ISO, we were still blowing breakers on a few of the wide shots.
Like most high speed cams, the Photron has an internal RAM buffer that has to be downloaded between each take. Unlike the Phantom, which can offload its clips to a proprietary Cinemag in a matter of seconds, the Photron is tethered to a laptop and needs minutes, precious minutes to offload. Downloads on this shoot took between 4 and 8 minutes each. That may not seem like a long time, but when you’re on set with a crew, clients, and hot lights starting to melt furniture, 4 minutes seems like an eternity. With this cam, there’s no such thing as, “Oh lemme just get a quick shot of that.”
Each take lives in a folder on the lappy’s external drive as a sequence of uncompressed 16bit tiffs. Before editing, I pulled the image sequences into After Effects, did a light color pass, and then exported to ProRes444.
The BC2 was driven by Photron software running on a PC. I hated it. It was messy, convoluted, and not exactly stable. The software clearly reflects the camera’s industrial beginnings with sciency features that I can’t imagine any cinematographer needing. While it wasn’t exactly user-friendly, it didn’t take long too long to find the settings that I needed to regularly access like, white/black balance, color temp, frame rate and resolution. A redesign of the software could make the camera so much easier to use. As it is right now, it’s not a cam you can rent without a tech, or a crash course in the software (I had the latter). The PC was the weakest link in this whole cameracomputer chain. At one point, the production ground to a halt because the AC power connector on the laptop was loose and wouldn’t keep the computer charged. Stress.
Overall, I think the BC2 is a really affordable way to make great high-speed images. It’s not the fastest workflow and I probably wouldn’t rent it again for a time sensitive shoot (anything with a call sheet and schedule). But if you’ve got lots of time and lots of light, the BC2 is a great option. It’s not exactly a straight forward workflow, but it’s not daunting either. I tell you though, someone needs to make a self-contained, all-in-one, affordable high-speed cam. Oh, look! Fastec is doing just that with their new TS3 camera, 720fps at 720p. Hoping to get my grubby mits on that cam when it comes out.
And that’s all I have to say about that. I leave you with one of my favorite :30 “spin offs” from this shoot.