Three short weeks ago I began production a feature film and as of this past Tuesday we are officially wrapped! The journey to this point has been super exciting but exceptionally challenging at the same time, and I am extremely grateful to everyone on our cast and crew for their efforts and dedication to the project. We were a very small team and everyone on board truly went above and beyond to make this happen.
As I mentioned on this previous blog post, over the coming weeks and months I will release a series of articles outlining how we were able to make this guerrilla style, micro budget feature film a reality. I’m going to cover the entire process – from casting to production to post – and everything in between… And this article is effectively the first in the series.
To kick things off, I wanted to start with a topic that I know many readers of this blog will appreciate: Our camera setup.
So let’s jump right in and take a look at our camera choice –
URSA MINI 4.6K
As many of you know, I am a big fan of Blackmagic and own a number of their cameras. At the same time, I also regularly shoot on many other digital cinema cameras, prosumer cameras, and DSLRs, depending on what the job calls for. Going into this project, there was no clear answer as to which camera we would shoot on, and in fact it took the better part of a month to eventually decide on the URSA Mini 4.6K.
When you choose a camera for any given project, there are a lot of things to consider. Image quality is almost always the first thing people think about, but other factors such as ergonomics, size, functionality, audio capabilities, etc. are just as important.
On this project, the biggest considerations for me were quality, speed, and camera size. These were top of mind as we would be shooting virtually the entire film guerrilla style, and I wanted to ensure we would be able to move quickly and work inconspicuously, while still maintaining a very high level of image quality.
I knew the URSA Mini 4.6K could easily deliver the image quality I was after, and since I already owned the camera it was a natural choice from the get-go. That said, I did consider other options, including the Arri Alexa Mini and RED Epic Dragon on the higher end side, and even some DSLRs on the lower end of the spectrum. Ultimately I was trying to find the right balance between image quality, cost, and usability on set, and although I was pulled in a lot of directions, I eventually came full circle and landed on the URSA Mini 4.6K.
Of all the options, it just seemed to offer the best of both worlds while also helping us to keep costs down.
The one drawback with the camera (and this would have applied to any other cinema camera) was that it was not nearly as inconspicuous as a DSLR. On at least two occasions we were nearly kicked out of locations for shooting – but luckily we had already captured the footage we needed. I am convinced that with a smaller camera this never would have happened, which is why I considered shooting on a DSLR in the first place… But for me, the difference in image quality that the URSA Mini 4.6K could bring to the table was worth that risk.
Let’s move on to the lenses…
SIGMA CINEMA ZOOMS
Picking the right lenses for this project took just as much thought as picking the right camera. All of the same considerations came into play; functionality, quality, size, etc… And after weighing many options, it was clear that the best tool for the job would be the new Sigma Cinema Zoom Lenses. We used the 18-35 and the 50-100 exclusively.
These lenses are of course the cinema counterparts to Sigma’s excellent Art lenses (designed for stills photography), and they really are extremely impressive. Typically I will only shoot with prime lenses on narrative projects, but in this case I made an exception and decided to go with zooms. This was for a few main reasons –
First off, these aren’t just any old zoom lenses. These lenses are very fast at T2.0 and deliver an exceptionally high quality image across the board, rivaling many cinema lenses that are far more expensive to purchase… At least in my opinion. More importantly however, they allowed us to work extremely quickly without having to sacrifice quality. We did not use any other glass on this project, meaning every shot in the movie was captured on one of the two lenses. In fact, I’d say about 75% of the film was shot on the 18-35!
Working this way allowed for quicker setups in between shots, leaving more time for extra takes and bonus shots that might not have otherwise been possible. Every logistical choice on this project came down to efficiency. It was all about how we can maximize our time on set, capture as much footage as possible with the least amount of downtime, and these lenses fit into that framework beautifully. Not to mention, this film’s documentary-inspired aesthetic was enhanced even further by using zooms over primes.
I knew from the get-go we were going to need to use IRND filters to combat any IR pollution that would have otherwise affected the URSA Mini 4.6K’s footage. In the past I had used Schneider IRND filters on this camera with great results, so naturally those were my first choice again here. Three ND filters were used on the whole film: .6, 1.2, & 1.8, which covered us in virtually every scenario. I also had a 1/4 Black Promist filter on set (which we never used as it was a bit too extreme looking), and a Polarizer which was occasionally used to help bring out detail in the clouds, or cut glare when shooting through a car windshield.
The filters were used in conjunction with a Chrosziel mattebox which was attached via rails to the URSA Mini shoulder kit.
Our main location sound was captured by our excellent sound recordist (Scott Vanderbilt), but there were still other on-board audio considerations that we needed to take into account to ensure our workflow would be seamless. For starters, we mounted a shotgun mic to the camera body to capture our reference audio. The camera of course does have a built in mic, but the shotgun’s superior quality also allowed us to simultaneously record one additional channel of audio (direct to camera) as a backup.
The shotgun was running into Channel 1 on the URSA Mini 4.6K, and Channel 2 was receiving a feed from the mixer – essentially all of the mics (boom, lavs, plants, etc.) were mixed together into Channel 2. We mounted the wireless receiver on the side of the camera with some velcro tape and simply left it there the entire shoot.
Most importantly though, we mounted a small timecode sync box to the top of the camera that was fed into the URSA Mini 4.6K’s TC Input on the back of the camera. This jammed the timecode with the audio recorded to the mixer, which would make syncing extremely easy.
Although we slated most of our takes with a traditional slate, having identical timecode on both the camera and the audio recordings meant that syncing could be done with literally one click of a mouse. As opposed to manually syncing in post or using plural eyes/waveform based options, syncing via timecode is faster and more reliable which is ultimately why we went that route. Not to mention, in situations where we weren’t able to slate (either because we were working so quickly or had to remain inconspicuous), it was a life saver.
As we began production, my plan was to operate the camera myself which would mean additional monitoring wouldn’t be relevant, since I would be looking through the EVF the whole time. Early on in production though, I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be able to focus as much as I would like on the story, actors, and overall direction if I was also operating the camera.
A couple days in, I brought a long time collaborator (Andy Chinn) on board with the film to shoot with me, which meant I would need a Director’s monitor. Originally we used a Small HD 502, which worked quite well and didn’t draw a lot of power from our V-Mounts, but we eventually swapped out it for the BMD Video Assist. This was done for a couple of reasons, the one first being it’s size.
The extra real estate on Blackmagic’s 7″ screen was ideal, as there were a number of shooting scenarios where I couldn’t be right beside the camera, and the screen on the Small HD 502 was a touch too small. But more importantly, the BMD Video Assist is also able to record redundancy. This became increasingly important as the shoot went on, since we did not have a dedicated DIT on set. I was doing all of the data management myself, and (thankfully!) there were no issues or lost files along the way. That said, it still gat me a lot more peace of mind knowing that we had a ProRes redundancy of virtually everything that we filmed on the monitor.
Each night when I would back up all of the footage, I would also back up the redundancy SD card and wipe it for the next day. I recorded an HD feed (not 4K) to the monitor, which allowed us to roll on a single card all day. It also meant that while the 4K RAW footage was backing up to my RAID at night, I could pop the SD card from the BMD Video Assist into a laptop and watch the dailies.
Over the coming weeks I’ll be sure to continue rolling out updates on the project, behind the scenes material, and much more. If there is anything in particular any of you would like to know or hear about in more detail, please leave me a comment below and I’ll try to answer as much as I can in future posts.
For now, I’ll leave you with a few more screengrabs from the film!
Be sure to follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for more updates as things progress!
Nice article!!! What dovetail & baseplate system do you have shown in the photos?
Thanks! We were using the standard Blackmagic shoulder kit, and a VCT quick release plate.
Thanks very much for sharing your kit details. Very helpful. I’ve had the Mini 4.6k for about 18 months now and have nothing but good things to say about it. No issues with the camera at all. Recently bought an A7Sii (went on a trip to Cuba, didn’t think running around with the Mini was too smart) and, while I like it and it’s indispensable for those super low-light shots, the image looks thin compared to what I get from the Mini. Impressed with those Sigmas; I shoot with Leica R primes unless I’m on the run, then I switch to the Canon 24-105. A decent lens, but f/4 and not as organic looking as the Leicas. I may rent a Sigma zoom based on your experience and give it a whirl. I’ve learned a lot from your posts and the trailer for Shadows looks awesome. Love your work, and thanks again for sharing info.
Many thanks, Steve! I appreciate the kind words, and thanks for sharing your experience here. I definitely agree with you about the A7S, and would highly recommend renting The Sigmas to test out. I’m still using them regularly and have had great results!
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[…] I shoot a ton of my URSA Mini 4.6K as well, but compared to the FS5 it is a larger camera, isn’t as good in low light, and seems to […]
I learn so much from all your posts! The information you share is invaluable and I’m so thankful for that 🙂
I noticed you mention using a RAID storage for your movie–I wasn’t familiar with those until now. I did some research saw many brands and types (RAID 0, 1, 5 etc.). Which brand have you found to be the most reliable? Or perhaps, quite simply, the one you know as the most widely used in your line of work?
Again, thank you for sharing!
Hey Margie. Thanks for the note! To answer your questions –
I use a number of different brands of RAIDs. In the past I have used G-Technology, LaCie, OWC, and others. They are all good for different reasons, so depending on your needs and budget you have a lot of options to work with. In terms of configuration, I typically work off of a RAID 0 which is the fastest, although the least reliable as it doesn’t protect you from crashes the way that other configurations will. A RAID 5 on the other hand will be a bit slower, but will protect you from drive failure. Hope this helps…
I love your site and your work. I am stuck between buying the ursa mini 4k, canon 80d or the panasonic gh5. How bad is the fixed pattern noise with the black magic cameras? Is the fixed pattern noise just an issue if you don’t light your scenes for enough exposure or is it something else. I really like the look of the ursa mini but i don’t want to dread buying that camera if the FPN is something I will always have to work around.
Thank you so much, Rallo. Honestly – I’ve had no issues with FPN on my Ursa Mini Pro. And while I haven’t used the 4K version, I’ve heard very good things… Between the 3 options, I would go with the URSA Mini, but the GH5 is a great option too! So is the 80D for that matter… As we all know, it really comes down to how you use the camera, and all 3 are fully capable of shooting nice images. If I have to pick though, my vote is for URSA Mini.
Thanks Alot Noam!!!
Thanks Noam! It does. Hope the post production of your film is coming along great.
I am excited for you.
Very much appreciated Jay! It’s coming along… slowly but surely 🙂
Since you have recorded RAW 4:1 at DCI 4K resolution. How much total footage size did you end up with for your feature? Let me guess…12-15TB 🙂
Could you please share your tips on your storage and backup strategy for a full indie feature. What’s ideal/minimum a filmmaker should have: 3-4 CFAST Cards, Two RAIDS?
I couldn’t find anything on the internet which talks about the best way to store footage for a feature film shot in 4K RAW.
Hey Jay! Great question – I think we wound up with about 8TB of footage total as we were pretty selective with coverage and only had about 13 days of shooting (including pickups).
My setup was 3 C-Fast cards (which were dumped to two high quality external drives as needed on set), and one master RAID that all of the footage was dumped to again after shooting. Once production wrapped, I also backed up the entire RAID onto another RAID system just to be safe… Right now there are 4 copies of the footage. Hope this helps!
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[…] his 90-minute dramatic feature film, “Shadows On The Road,” LA-based filmmaker Noam Kroll employed the Sigma 18-35mm T2 and the 50-100mm T2 zoom cine lenses, exclusively. Shooting a feature […]
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[…] film. As some of you know, I recently put out some other articles documenting the feature – including this post about our camera setup, and this post about how we executed our moving car […]
Great post as always Noam. Did you have an issues with the Ursa like dropped/corrupt frames? Or any functionality issues?
Thanks Shawn! I haven’t had any issues like this at all. I’ve shot a ton on the 4.6K (including this feature) and haven’t had a single corrupt file, crash, or anything else go wrong.
Great to hear! Thanks Noam!
Hi Noam. I’m planning on shooting on the Ursa Mini in 4.6k Raw and recording to the BMD Video assist in 1080p Prores proxy to edit with then relink back to the Raw files for the final color grade. My question is when I setup my timeline for the edit. Do I setup a 4k timeline and edit with the 1080p proxy files scaled up or edit in a 1080p timeline?
Good question Derick. Either options could work, and picking the right one largely depends how you plan to re-link to the RAW files and which editing software you are using. That said, I often work in a 1080p timeline and simply change my project or sequence settings to 4K when I re-link to RAW. That way I get faster playback and don’t need to upscale my clips unnecessarily. Hope this helps!
Could you please provide a link to the sync box you used? Thanks
I will ask my sound guy and get back to you!
Based on what I can see in the photos, it looks like it might be a Tentacle Sync, but I could be wrong. Curious to know myself! : )
Having talked with Scott Vanderbilt in the past, he uses Tentacle Sync generators.
Thank you very much Noam!
Great advices as usual! I look forward to watch the movie and also the short!
Great! I look forward to watch the movie!!
How did you pulled focus? With a remote follow focus or manually?
Did you shot camera movements handheld? At what aperture did you shot the moving scenes in order to maintain focus on the character?
Thank you 🙂
Thanks Simone! Appreciate the note. My operator pulled focus himself most of the time, manually with no follow focus. Almost all of the scenes were shot handheld except for 3 or 4 that were on a tripod. The aperture ranged from scene to scene, but generally was between 2.8 and 5.6 on average. Inside and at night, it would often be wide open at T2.0.
Looking forward to sharing more soon!
I’m curious, which tripod you use for the Ursa Mini (with your setup)? I’m thinking of the Manfrotto 504HD head + 546GBK sticks or the Benro BV10 + AD674M sticks.
Look forward to your thoughts.
Hey Kayode – Right now I often use a Sachtler ACE tripod/head combo or a Manfrotto 509. The 504 should work well too! I haven’t used the Benro so I can’t speak for it, but I do have a Benro monopod that has been a workhorse, so I have faith in their brand.
First of, great shots.
Did you record raw or prores and at what resolution? And what was file size like? I’m shooting a feature this year and we are pretty decided it’s the ursamini but we are thinking of how to handle file size. I have an atomos ninja blade and might use that for redundancy.
Thanks Kayode! I recorded RAW 4:1 at DCI 4K resolution. I knew I would eventually crop to 2.39:1, but wanted to shoot in DCI in case any shots needed stabilization, or minor reframing. It seemed like 4K (as opposed to 4.6K) was the best trade off in terms of file size and quality, as I didn’t want to go down to 2K or HD, but 4.6K felt unnecessary. On a 128GB card, I got about 21 minutes. I had 3 cards with me, and generally shot 4 or 5 cards per day, dumping the footage just once at lunch.
Having the blade there for redundancy is a great idea. Just in case you ever run out of card space, it’s always good to have a fail safe!
First off, thanks for finding time to reply. Also the info is quite useful as it gives me an idea wether to get CFast cards and offload or to build an SSD contraption. The advantage of the SSDs is I can keep each one as an original drive.
Thanks again and all the best with the project.
Any time Kayode! Thanks again for the note.
Thanks for sharing. Loved reading this!
Thanks Patrice! Appreciate the feedback.
Do your T2.0 make the Ursa Mini able to capture decent footage in low light? What is your highest ISO you will take it to when shooting in lower light?
It actually worked out really well in low light situations. That said, my idea of low light always has at least some light. This isn’t a “no light” camera like the A7S or most DSLRs, and I generally don’t like to push it past 800 ISO. But at 800 with even minimal lighting and relatively fast lenses, it had no problems at all.
Congrats to all involved, Noam !
I’m very happy for you and just wanted to say thank you for sharing this adventure with us, it’s truly inspiring.
Beautiful work, as always. Never settle and keep climbing those mountains, I know you can do it, I believe in you !
Wish you all the best.
You’re very kind Stefan! I appreciate the note and wish you the very best as well…
Looks beautiful. Can’t wait to see the film!
Thanks so much Darren – Can’t wait to share it.
The filmstills are looking great. The combinationnof the ursa, the sigma and the grading is killing it!
Would you still recommend the Ursa? We’ve ordered the Scarlet-W last year in october, but like eveyone else we are waiting and nothing happens. That means tze cam could be here next week or at the end of the year.
Maybe the ursa would be a good fill in the gap and the red could still be rented for bigger productions.
Cheers from Germany,
Many thanks Sebastian! Appreciate the kind words. With regards to the URSA Mini – I would definitely still highly recommend it… I was really impressed with the results on this shoot. The Scarlet will give you some extra bells and whistles (and more features), but depending on what your needs are, the URSA Mini might do the trick and save you quite a bit of money along the way. I would assume that the RED would be a more lucrative rental item, so if that is a big factor for you, that would be one reason to stick with RED. But with that aside, the URSA Mini can definitely give the Scarlet a run for it’s money… Best of luck!
awesome writing . could you please post some of the lightings details?
Thanks a lot! 90% of the lighting was natural light (sun, window light, etc.) and for a few scenes we used a small LED panel… On the rare occasion when lighting was used, it was usually limited to a single source.
This is awesome!
Lovely screen grabs.
I was wondering if any LUT was applied on them yet?
Hey Andy! Thanks so much. I graded all of these shots from scratch (didn’t use the BMD LUT), however I have since created some of my own LUTs that I will be using to grade the finished film with. The color on the shots above is not final.
Looks great Noam! Im looking at either the Sigma Cine Zooms or the Tokina Cine Primes for my URSA 4.6K.
I have the photo version of the 18-35 and love it! Look forward to seeing more!
Thanks so much Alberto! Appreciate the kind words and let me know which lenses you decide to get!
Was it hard to view the BMD Video Assist screen outside? Debating on getting the BMD Video Assist or smallhd 702 bright.
It actually was really great to work with, even outdoors. In direct sunlight (like any monitor) it needs a hood, and I can’t say how well it compares to the 702 bright as I haven’t used that monitor. But generally speaking, for our needs it was excellent.