Sorry for the lack of post recently, but I’ve been busy on various overseas shoots using the Sony Venice camera. I’ll be writing these up in due course.
My 2 favourite and most used lenses are my Fujinon MK zooms . I use the MK18-55 and MK50-135 on both my PMW-F5 and on my FS5. I’ve also used them on a Sony Venice. They are really great lenses. But one thing that I’ve always felt would make them a bit better is a power zoom.
Enter the Hedén VLC system.
For starters the Hedén VLC system allows you to turn a non motorised zoom lens into a power zoom lens, but the Heden VLC system is more than just a zoom motor and control box. It can be expanded with a second motor to not only motorize the zoom but also provide an electronic focus control (although as yet I have not tried this).
Never heard of Hedén before? Well if you work in higher end features and productions you will probably have come across them before as they are a highly regarded Swedish manufacturer of electronic follow focus and zoom systems used in high end Cinematography. For me though, until now their products have been beyond my reach. One of their standard follow focus motors costs around £1.6K/$2K. However the motors and components used in the VLC systems are much cheaper, yet still meet Hedén’s exacting standards. A complete VLC zoom system, including motor, costs around $2,100 USD. It’s still not a “cheap” item, but the system is of very high quality and surprisingly flexible, so it is something that should last many years and work with not just todays cameras and lenses but also whatever comes next.
The VLC system comprises several components. A control box, a motor or motors along with various attachment brackets for the motors depending on your application and a set of cables.
The first time I played with the system it was an early development unit on my FS5. On the FS5 the system is controlled using the Lanc control functions built into the cameras existing handgrip. The cable from the hand grip that normally plugs directly into the camera body is plugged into a breakout cable from the VLC control box and then another connection from the control box plugs into the FS5. This way the handgrip controls the FS5 as normal, but now the zoom rocker on the handgrip also smoothly and accurately controls the Hedén zoom motor. All the hand grips other functions continue to operate as usual.
The motor used by the VLC system is a very high quality compact servo motor and gearbox with digital position and speed feedback. So the controller knows exactly how fast the motor is turning and where it is in it’s operating cycle. The first time you use the system it needs to be calibrated for the lens you are using. This is done quickly and simply, just by pressing the small CAL button on the controller. Once pressed the motor quickly runs back and forwards to find the lenses end stops.
A very nice feature is that when the motor isn’t being driven it can be turned quite easily. This means that unlike some other similar systems you don’t have to mechanically or physically disengage the motor from the lenses pitch gears to perform a manual zoom. In fact, the motor acts as a soft damping system and helps make manual zooms smoother.
My only gripe about the VLC system is the size of the control box. On a camera as small as the FS5 the control box is quite a big lump to add.
For power I run it from a Dynacore BP-U type battery that has a D-Tap output. There is no on/off switch, so you turn it off by unplugging it, but the system doesn’t use much power and I barely noticed any difference in the life of the camera battery when using it this way.
The control box has controls for the motor speed, torque and direction. These controls allow you to fine tune the way the motor operates, so if you want you can have a fast snappy zoom, or if you prefer you can have a slower zoom. The control buttons are mounted below a soft waterproof membrane to protect the unit from dust and moisture. There is also a small LED display that shows the torque and speed settings. When zooming in or out this also shows the requested zoom speed. All the cables are connected to the box using very high quality Lemo connectors.
I found that the FS5 zoom rocker with it’s limited travel seemed to work best for me when the motor was set to quite a slow speed. The motor has lots of torque, so it should have no problem driving lenses with quite stiff zoom rings. However I probably wouldn’t try to use it with a DSLR zoom. I dabbled with producing a zoom motor for DSLR zooms some years back, but found it very difficult. Most DSLR zooms are quite stiff, often have tight spots as well as only limited travel. This makes it very difficult to get a very smooth motion. Feel free to try it with whatever lenses it is that you have, but I think you will need to test the functionality with each photo zoom lens to see how it copes. For proper video and cinemas lenses with smooth zoom rings the VLC system should work very well.
With the Fujinon MK lenses the motor can be attached to the barrel of the lens via a dedicated bracket. There is also a bracket for two motors for those that want to motorize not only the zoom but also the focus.
The benefit of having the motor on the lens is that it’s always in the right place and you don’t need rails etc. The downside is that if you have more than one lens you need to either, swap the motor and brackets each time you change lens, have multiple brackets or if you have really deep pockets a motor and bracket for every lens. Swapping the motor from bracket to bracket is very quick and easy, just loosen the thumbscrew and the motor slides out. So I would recommend having a bracket on each lens and simply swapping the motor over. The other alternative is to use one of the Hedén rail brackets to attach the motor to 15mm rails, then when you swap lenses the motor stays attached to the rails and it’s just a case of lining the motor up with the pitch gear on the lens.
Not long after starting to use the system on my FS5 I was informed that there was an update for the system that could work with any 3rd party Lanc Controller. So I decided to give this a try on my PMW-F5. To make this work you need an additional aftermarket Lanc zoom controller. These are readily available and there are lots of choices.
The Manfrotto controller I used allowed me to operate the zoom from from the pan bar of my tripod. Great for studio or ENG type applications. The only thing you don’t get with an F5 and a Lanc controller is control over record start and stop as the F5 itself doesn’t support Lanc control. So you still have to press the record button on the camera. But this isn’t a big deal and having the ability to zoom from the pan bar is great for so many applications.
Overall I am very impressed with the system. The degree of control you have over the lens is quite remarkable, it’s just as good as the control you get with a high end ENG zoom. It’s very easy to setup and allows you to perform silky smooth zooms with ease. If you want smooth, slow starts to the zoom or extremely slow zooms, both are easily achieved with the Hedén VLC system.
I probably wouldn’t use it for every shoot, especially with the FS5 as the control box is a little bulky. With the F5 or FS7 and other larger cameras this is much less of a concern, so I will probably use it more often with these cameras. I also want to explore using it with Lanc controller that I can use with handgrips when handheld (perhaps using the Vocas Arri rosette kit for remote attachment of the FS5 hand grip).
The biggest strength of this system for me though, is that it isn’t actually lens or camera specific. You can use it with just about any lens and camera. So as you add more lenses to your collection, or if you change camera, you will still be able to use the VLC system just by making sure you have the right motor bracket. The 15mm rod bracket should work with just about any lens. This means that it’s a system that should last you a very long time.
I’ve been shooting with the Fujinon MK18-55mm lens on my PXW-FS7 and PXW-FS5 since the lens was launched. I absolutely love this lens, but one thing has frustrated me: I really wanted to be able to use it on my PMW-F5 to take advantage of the 16 bit raw. Finally my dreams have come true as both Duclos and MTF have started making alternate rear mounts for both the MK18-55mm and the MK50-135mm.
So, when Fujinon contacted me and asked if I would be interested in shooting a short film with these lenses on my F5 I jumped at the chance. The only catch was that this was just over a week ago and the video was wanted for IBC which means it needed to be ready yesterday. And of course it goes without saying that it has to look good – no pressure then!
First challenge – come up with something to shoot. Something that would show off the key features of these beautiful lenses – image quality, weight, macro etc. I toyed with hiring a model and travelling to the Irish or Welsh coast and filming along the cliffs and mountains. But it’s the summer holidays so there was a risk of not being able to get an isolated location all to ourselves, plus you never know what the weather is going to do. In addition there was no story, no beginning, middle or end and I really wanted to tell some kind of story rather than just a montage of pretty pictures.
So my next thought was to shoot an artist creating something. I spent a weekend googling various types of artistry until I settled on a blacksmith. The video was going to be shown in both SDR and HDR and fire always looks good in HDR. So after dozens of emails and telephone calls I found an amazing looking metalwork gallery and blacksmith that was willing for a reasonable fee to have me and another cameraman take over their workshop for a day (BIG thank you to Adam and Lucy at Fire and Iron check out their amazing works of art).
Normally I’d carry out a recce of a location before a shoot to take photos and figure out what kind of lights I would need as well as any other specialist or unusual equipment. But this time there simply wasn’t time. We would be shooting the same week and it was already a very busy week for me.
The next step before any shoot for me is some degree of planning. I like to have a concept for the video, at the very least some outline of the shots I need to tell the story, perhaps not a full storyboard, but at least some kind of structure. Once you have figured out the shots that you want to get you can then start to think about what kind of equipment you need to get those shots. In this case, as we would be shooting static works of art I felt that having ways to move the camera would really enhance the video. I have a small Jib as well as some track and a basic dolly that is substantial enough to take the weight of a fully configured PMW-F5 so these would be used for the shoot (I’m also now looking for a slider suitable for the F5/F55 that won’t break the bank, so let me know if you have any recommendations).
So the first items on my kit list after the camera and lenses (the lenses were fitted with Duclos FZ rear mounts) was the jib and dolly. To achieve a nice shallow depth of field I planned to shoot as close to the lenses largest aperture of T2.9 as possible. This presents 2 challenges. The F5’s internal ND filters go in 3 stop steps – that’s a big step and I don’t want to end up at T5.6 when really I want T2.9, so 1 stop and 2 stop ND filters and my gucchi wood finished Vocas matte box would be needed (the wood look does nothing to help the image quality, but it looks cool). Oh for the FS7 II’s variable ND filter in my F5!
The second problem of shooting everything at T2.9 with a super 35mm sensor is that focus would be critical and I was planning on swinging the camera on a jib. So I splashed out on a new remote follow focus from PDMovie as they are currently on offer in the UK. This is something I’ve been meaning to get for a while. As well as the remote follow focus I added my Alphatron ProPull follow focus to the kit list. The Fujinon MK lenses have integrated 0.8 pitch gears so using a follow focus is easy. I now wish that I had actually purchased the more expensive PDMovie follow focus kit that has 2 motors as this would allow me to electronically zoom the lens as well as focus it. Oh well, another thing to add to my wish list for the future.
One other nice feature of the Fujinon MK’s is that because they are parfocal you can zoom in to focus and then zoom out for the wider shot and be 100% sure that there is no focus shift and that the image will be tack sharp. Something you can’t do with DSLR lenses.
Lighting: This was a daylight shoot. Now I have to say that I am still a big fan of old school tungsten lighting. You don’t get any odd color casts, it gives great skin tones, it’s cheap and the variety and types of lamp available is vast. But as we all know it needs a lot of power and gets hot. Plus if you want to mix tungsten with daylight you have to use correction gels which makes the lights even less efficient. So for this shoot I packed my Light and Motion Stella lamps.
The Stellas are daylight balanced LED lamps with nice wide 120 degree beams. You can then use various modifiers to change this. I find the 25 degree fresnel and the Stella 5000 a particularly useful combination. This is the equivalent to a 650W tungsten lamp but without the heat. The fresnel lens really helps when lighting via a diffuser or bounce as it controls the spill levels making it easier to control the overall contrast in the shot. The Stella lights have built in batteries or can be run from the mains. They are also waterproof, so even if it rained I would be able to have lights outside the workshop shining in through the windows if needed.
I always carry a number of pop-up diffusers and reflectors of various sizes along with stands and arms specifically designed to hold them. These are cheap but incredibly useful. I find I end up using at least one of these on almost every shoot that I do. As well as a couple of black flags I also carry black drapes to place on the floor or hang from stands to reduce reflections and in effect absorb unwanted light.
To check my images on set I use an Atomos Shogun Flame. Rather than mounting it on the camera, for this shoot I decided to pack an extra heavy duty lighting stand to support the Shogun. This would allow my assistant to use the flame to check focus while I was swinging the jib. The HDR screen on the Shogun allows me to see a close approximation of how my footage will look after grading. It also has peaking and a zoom function to help with focussing which was going to be essential when the camera was up high on the jib and being focussed remotely. I also included a TV-Logic LUM171G which is a 17″ grading quality monitor with 4K inputs. The larger screen is useful for focus and it’s colour accuracy helpful for checking exposure etc.
For audio I packed my trusty UWP-D wireless mic kit and a pair of headphones. I also had a shotgun mic and XLR cable to record some atmos.
As well as all the larger items of kit there’s also all the small bits and bobs that help a shoot go smoothly. A couple of rolls of gaffer tape, crocodile clips, sharpies, spare batteries, extension cables etc. One thing I’ve found very useful is an equipment cart. I have a modiffied rock-n-roller cart with carpet covered shelves. Not only does this help move all the kit around but it also acts as a desk on location. This is really handy when swapping lenses or prepping the camera. It can save quite a bit of time when you have a mobile work area and somewhere you can put lenses and other frequently used bits of kit.
The day before the shoot I set everything up and tested everything. I checked the backfocus adjustment of the lenses. Checked the camera was working as expected and that I had the LUT’s I wanted loaded into both the camera and the Gratical viewfinder. With the camera on the jib I made sure I had the right weights and that everything was smooth. I also checked that my light meter was still calibrated against the camera and that the lens apertures matched what I was expecting (which they did perfectly). Color temperature and colorimetry was checked on the TVLogic monitor.
It’s worth periodically checking these things as there would be nothing worse than rocking up for the shoot only to find the camera wasn’t performing as expected. If you rent a cinema camera package from a major rental house it would be normal to set the camera up on a test bench to check it over before taking it away. But it’s easy to get lazy if it’s your own kit and just assume it’s all OK. A full test like this before an important shoot is well worth doing and it gives you a chance to set everything up exactly as it will be on the shoot saving time and stress at the beginning of the shoot day.
On the morning of the shoot I loaded up the car. I drive a people carrier (minivan to my friends in the USA). Once you start including things like a jib, track and dolly, equipment cart, 6x tungsten lights, 4 x LED lights, plus camera, tripods (including a very heavy duty one for the jib) the car soon fills up. A conventional saloon would not be big enough! One word of caution. I was involved in a car crash many years ago when the car rolled over. I had camera kit in the back of the car and the heavy flight cases did a lot of damage crashing around inside the car. If you do carry heavy kit in the car make sure it’s loaded low down below the tops of the seats. You don’t want everything flying forwards and hitting you on the back of your head in a crash. Perhaps consider a robust steel grill to put between the cargo compartment and the passenger compartment.
On arrival at the location, while it’s very tempting to immediately start unloading and setting up, I like to take a bit of a break and have a tea or coffee first. I use this time to chat with the client or the rest of the crew to make sure everyone knows what’s planned for the day. Taking a few minutes to do this can save a lot of time later and it helps everyone to relax a little before what could be a busy and stressful day.
Now it’s time to unpack and setup. I find it’s better to unpack all the gear at this time rather than stopping and starting throughout the day to unpack new bits of kit. Going to the car, unlocking, unpacking, locking, back to the set etc wastes time. This is where the equipment cart can be a big help as you can load up the cart with all those bits and pieces you “might” need… and inevitably do need.
The blacksmiths workshop was a dark space about 6m x 5m with black walls, open on one side to the outside world. Blacksmiths forges (so I learnt) are dark so that the blacksmith can see the glow of the metal as it heats up to gauge it’s temperature. On the one hand this was great – huge amounts of relatively soft light coming from one direction. On the other hand the dark side was very dark which would really push the camera and lenses due to the extreme contrast this would create.
We set the jib up inside the workshop to shoot the various processes used by a blacksmith when working with iron and steel. Apparently there are only 7 different processes and anything a blacksmith does will use just these 7 processes or variations of them.
Most of the shots done on the jib would be shot using the Fujinon MK18-55mm, so that’s the lens we started with. For protection from flying sparks a clear glass filter was fitted to the lens. While the finished film would be a 24p film, most of the filming was 4K DCI at 60fps recording to 16 bit raw. This would give me the option to slow down footage to 24p in post if I wanted a bit of slow motion.
When we did need to do a lens swap it was really easy. The Vocas matte box I have is a swing-away matte box. So by releasing a lever on the bottom of the matte box it swings out of the way of the lens without having to remove it from the rods. Then I can remove the lens and swap it to the other lens. The MK50-135mm is the same size as the MK18-55mm. The pitch gears are also in the same place. So swapping lenses is super fast as the follow focus or any focus motors don’t need to be re-positioned and the matte box just swings back to exactly the same position on the lens. It’s things like this that really separate pro cinema lenses from DSLR and photography lenses.
For exposure I used the cameras built in LUT’s and the 709(800) LUT. I set the camera to 800EI. I used a grey card to establish a base exposure, exposing the grey card at 43% (measuring the 709 level). I used a Zacuto Gratical viewfinder which has a great built in waveform display, much better than the one in the camera. I also double checked my light levels with a light meter. I don’t feel that it’s essential to use a light meter but it’s a useful safety net. The light meter is also handy for measuring contrast ratios across faces etc but again if you have a decent waveform display you don’t have to have a light meter.
For the next 3 hours we shot the various processes seen in the video. Trying to get a variety of different shot. But when each process is quite similar, usually involving the anvil and a large hammer it was difficult to come up with shots that looked different.
In the afternoon we set up to shoot the interview sequence. The reason for doing this was to not only provide the narrative for the film but also to help show how the lenses reproduce skin tones. The Fujinon MK series lenses are what I would describe as “well rounded”. That is, not too sharp but not soft either. They produce beautifully crisp pictures without the pictures looking artificially sharp and this really helps when shooting people and faces. They just look really nice.
For the interview shot I used one of the Stella 5000 lights with the 25 degree fresnel lens aimed through a 1m wide diffuser to add a little extra light to supplement the daylight. This allowed me to get some nice contrast across the blacksmiths face and nice “catch light” highlights in his eyes. In addition the little bit of extra light on his face meant that the back wall of the forge would appear just that bit darker due to the increased contrast between his face and the back wall. This is why we light…. not just to ensure enough light to shoot with, I had plenty of light, if I remember right I had a 1 stop ND in the matte box. But to create contrast, it’s the contrast that gives the image depth, it’s contrast that makes an image look interesting.
The final stage was to shoot the treasure chest and ornate jars that would show off the the lenses macro and close up performance. The treasure chest is a truly amazing thing. It weighs around 80kg. The locking mechanism is quite fascinating and I still struggle to believe that it was all hand made. The small metal jars are made out of folded and welded steel. It’s the folds in the metal that create the patterns that you see.
Once again we used the jib to add motion to the shots. I also used the macro function of both the MK18-55mm and MK50-135mm lenses. This function allows you to get within inches of the object that you are shooting. It’s a great feature to have and it really adds to the versatility of these lenses.
We wrapped at 7pm. Time to pack away the kit. It’s really important not to rush at this stage. Like everyone else I want to get home as quick as I can. But it’s important to pack your kit carefully and properly. There is nothing more annoying than when you start prepping for the next shoot finding that something has been broken or is missing because you rushed to pack up at the end of the previous shoot. Once you have packed everything away don’t forget to do that last walk through all the locations you’ve shot in to make sure you haven’t forgotten something.
I shot a little over hour of material. As it was mostly 60p 4K raw that came to about 1.5TB This was backed up on site using a Nexto-DI NSB25 which is a stand alone device that makes 2 verified copies of everything on 2 different hard drives. The film was edited using Adobe Premiere CC which handles Sony’s raw very easily. Grading was completed using DaVinci Resolve. I spent 2 days editing and a day grading the first version of the film. Then I spent another day re-grading it for HDR and producing the different versions that would be needed. All in, including coming up with the concept, finding the location, prepping, shooting and post took it took about 7 to 8 full work days to put this simple 4 minute film together.
In addition to the recent announcement from Duclos, MTF services in the UK have just announced that they will be introducing a conversion service for the popular new Fujinon MK zoom lenses. Currently these lenses are E-Mount only, but MTF will be producing kits to convert the lens mounts so that they can be used with cameras that use the micro 4/3rds mount as well as the Sony FZ mount. This is great news for owners of Sony’s F5 and F55 cameras.
Here’s the text of their press release:
Since the launch of Fujinon’s MK lenses in February this year, users have continued to request a greater range of mounts beyond the native E-Mount that can be found on the 18-55mm and 50-135mm lenses. MTF have now addressed these requests and have designed brand new solutions to convert the lenses to Micro four thirds and FZ mount systems
Mike Tapa, Managing Director at MTF Services said: “Since these excellent lenses from Fujinon were launched earlier this year, we’ve had more and more of our customers asking for us to produce a solution to open up the use of the MK lenses for use across a broader range of camera bodies. We’re now pleased to announce that we have designed brand-new adapter mounts for both micro four thirds and FZ systems to work seamlessly with both the 18-55mm and 50-135mm lenses.
Fitting the new mount options for the Fujinon MK lenses will be offered as a service from the team at MTF Services. Simply ship your lens over to MTF’s London-based workshop, and the team will fit your preferred mount before shipping back to you, fully tested, professionally adapted, cleaned and ready for use before being safely couriered back to your door.