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Tecnología

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April 2011

Hangman Studios’ James Tonkin likes a challenge – such as using eight Canon EOS DSLR cameras to film a two-hour live concert DVD for the band Archive. Here, he tells Robert Hull about last-minute venue changes, the stress of multi-tasking, and how Canon’s DSLRs captured the epic, cinematic sweep of a band in full flow.

“It’s been a labour of love really.” James Tonkin is sitting in his west London studio and explaining a project he admits he: “lived with for the majority of last year.” The project is ‘Live in Athens’, a DVD of the rock band Archive. Not only is the film an example of how live footage can be crafted to deliver a rewarding concert experience, it’s also a testament to the ability of Canon’s EOS DSLRs to deliver technological excellence and creative invention.

The road to Athens was an intriguing one for Tonkin – who heads up Hangman Studios – and Canon’s EOS DSLR cameras have proven to be an integral part of his journey. Tonkin adds that what gets him out of bed in the morning is: “a combination of the projects I get to work on and the constantly shifting technology around them.”

Tonkin reveals: “I’ve always adhered to trying to create a very filmic look, so when the Canon EOS 5D Mark II appeared it was a ‘light bulb moment’ for me. I was working on an album campaign for Robbie Williams and showed his management some EOS 5D Mark II footage and said, ‘look at this it’s stunning’. For the rest of that year [2009] I filmed everything for him with an EOS 5D Mark II; a 20-minute companion DVD for his [Williams’] album, a podcast series and various ‘Making Of…’ projects. I also remember thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be great to shoot a live gig with these cameras?’.”

©James Tonkin/Hangman Studios

Tonkin admits: “To distil all that work into a trailer was difficult. I’m happy with it [the trailer] because it gets across all the aspects of the DVD. It was all done without a record company: the band paid for it, and the DVD costs were funded by fans through a company called Pledge Music.”

Opportunity knocks

The opportunity to realise this live gig scenario arrived in the shape of the concert film for Archive. The British band has a large European fan base and a repertoire of dramatic songs that Tonkin felt would work harmoniously with the picture quality of the EOS 5D Mark II.

Not having issued a live DVD, the band and its management were keen to create something, but it was by no means a formality – or even that Tonkin would be given the role of creating it. However, his enthusiasm and persistence were to pay dividends. He explains: “I took my EOS 7D, three lenses and a Zacuto Z-Finder out to Paris, where Archive were headlining a festival. When they saw the DSLR stuff next to the conventional video footage it was a night-and-day difference, and I believe it secured me the job.”

A decision was taken to film in Athens, Greece, in September 2010 at the Lycabettus Theatre – an awe-inspiring outdoor setting that overlooks the city. The prospect of shooting here excited Tonkin, but it wasn’t to be. “I had four to six months with this whole plan in place for how we’d film. I’d spent a week there, doing pre-production, and then it started to rain during that week. We did a venue switch in the last 48 hours, and moved indoors to the Badminton Theatre, so a lot of planning went out of the window,” admits Tonkin.


Sensor sensibility

Undeterred, Tonkin and his team prepared to record the two-hour-plus show. A Red One camera was used for the main wide shots, while a Sony EX3 was employed as a crane camera. Tonkin was resigned to using the Sony EX3 instead of Canon EOS DSLRs: “because it was on a five-metre crane, so would be too unwieldy to bring down every 12 minutes to press record again.”

Eight EOS DSLRs were used to capture the band: three EOS 5D Mark II models, three EOS 7Ds and two EOS 550Ds. It was a mixture that worked and one you sense Tonkin is immensely pleased about as, for him, the cameras represent the closest look to film that's available at their price point.

©James Tonkin/Hangman Studios

“This [clip] shows off some of the great depth-of-field,” explains Tonkin. “We had a small window during the soundcheck where we could get cameras on stage and shoot extra shots. It was only for a handful of songs, but I was passionate about getting as many angles as possible. The close-up keyboard shots were from an operator shooting handheld with an EOS 550D.”

“The mixture of sensor sizes played a good part. I used the EOS 7D at the front and paired the cameras up, so we used the EOS 5D Mark IIs with the EF24-105mm lenses to get nice, wide 24mm shots, and then we used the EOS 7Ds when we wanted things a little tighter in,” reveals Tonkin.

Lighting was discussed in detail with Archive’s lighting designer Falco Das Gupta, as the band likes to put on dark, moody shows. However, with only a red or blue wash often sweeping across the entire stage, Tonkin believed changes to the usual set-up would be necessary, and worked closely with Das Gupta in crafting the look of the show.

He explains: “I wanted to inject more white light in, and get more variation to the lighting. If it’s just a solid wash of colour then it’s hard to feel the depth and definition. As soon as you start introducing side-lights, white or backlighting then you create more depth in the image.”

With the DSLR footage working “astonishingly well”, what became the hardest part in post-production was matching the content shot on the Sony EX3. “I’ve been intent on using picture profiles over the last few years to get more dynamic range out of the Canon cameras, and in dialling down sharpness. We balanced picture profiles; we balanced all the Canon cameras in terms of individual look, so that they were all the same. Everything, essentially, had this DSLR, film-like look except for the EX3, which was totally the opposite. I had to use a load of filters in post.”

Problem solving & planning

“For me the fascination is the picture style, the look – everything else I’ll work around,” says Tonkin. It’s a mission statement in keeping with the reality of shooting High Definition video on a DSLR. Solutions were required to cope with battery-power issues, cameras overheating and short-ish record times but with responses such as: “Yes, given everything, I would do it all again with DSLRs; 100%,” you know that Tonkin found a productive workaround for most of the problems.

©James Tonkin/Hangman Studios

The track ‘Bullets’ was shot with dollies, with ‘wide-open’ apertures at f/2.8 at 200mm focal lengths. Tonkin reveals: “I had two cameras on dollies at the front, so you got nice sideways movement, and had another camera on a dolly at the side of the stage, going front-to-back, so we could keep the movement of the cameras. I gave myself one of the singer angles; the close-ups – that was the hardest shooting I’ve done because I’ve never shot on a dolly at f/2.8, wide open at 200mm before, with a moving singer.”


Operators weren’t required to change batteries or recording cards frequently, thanks to practical planning. Tonkin notes: “We used 32GB memory cards on all the cameras and we pretty much got up to the first encore before we had to do a card switch. We used Anton Bauer D-tap batteries – so effectively dummy batteries on the cameras – which we knew would power them for around six hours.”

Any issues of overheating were sidestepped by using external monitors, which meant that the Live View function of the EOS cameras didn’t have to be engaged. Tonkin explains: “As soon as you plug the HDMI lead into the DSLR it cuts out the Live View. I’ve found that the screen being on is the thing that really builds up the heat on the camera.”

One-off shoot

‘Live in Athens’ is a remarkable production but what marks it out for special attention is that it was a ‘one-trick deal’. Tonkin and his crew had a single attempt to capture the essence of the band and cope with the technicalities of the shoot. It’s a sign of skill and planning that it works so well.

Tonkin’s pivotal role in the production extended to the edit suite where his use of the Canon DSLRs led to an efficient workflow. “We shot everything natively to the H.264 codec on the camera and transcoded into Apple ProRes. Because I cut in Final Cut, I used multi-clip so I could have all the cameras on screen at the same time and toggle through the angles. I did an offline codec using ProRes Proxy and did the online edit using the ProRes HQ codec; and graded it in Apple Color [sic].”

With its visual panache and dazzling clarity, ‘Live in Athens’, must feel like a high watermark for Tonkin. “I’m pretty happy with it,” is his polite understatement. More revealing is a satisfaction in a job that brings together two cultural disciplines: “Coming from a music background, my goal is always to make the visuals and the music work seamlessly. That’s always the idea.” And it’s an idea that was perfectly executed.

Technical

Archive 'Live in Athens' DVD shoot - James Tonkin & Hangman Studios

Location:
Badminton Theatre, Athens, Greece

Date:
25 September 2010

Cameras:
3x EOS 5D Mark ll
3x EOS 7D
2x EOS 550D

Lenses:
EF-S17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM
2x EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM
4x EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Accessories:
Marshall 7" monitors
SmallHD DP6 monitor
Arri Follow focus
Redrock eyeSpy shoulder kit
Anton Bauer batteries
Sachtler tripods
Egripment Focus dollies
Hollywood Microdollies

Post-production:
Mac computer hardware
Final Cut Studio 3
PluralEyes software
RedCine-X
Tangent Wave control panel

Biografía: James Tonkin

James  Tonkin

James Tonkin is a filmmaker and the director of Hangman Studios, a London-based creative studio that works across creative short-form productions and commercials for broadcast, cinema, online and mobile platforms. Hangman Studios also crafts multi-platform identity creation for content and brands, including titles and idents. The company’s clients have included Robbie Williams, Björk, The Libertines, T-Mobile, IE: Music, Smart cars and Warner Music.