Pre-production: cameras

Getting the technology sorted for Eye of the Corvus has taken months of research to find options within the budget, then waiting for the right time to buy.

I admit to being a collector of ‘tech stuff’ – cameras (stills and video), audio recorders, microphones, speakers, tripods etc. It’s not only part of my art practice, it’s part of my offering as a communications consultant. However, when comes to working out what technology will best work for Eye of the Corvus, I fell down a worm hole.

As the project concept started to take shape – that is, an experience of what it might be like to see the landscape from the perspective of a bird – two challenges arose. Firstly, how would I present the experience, and secondly, what technology would capture it in such a way to execute the presentation.

Put like that, it sounds simple enough. Did I mention worm holes?

The sensory elements

There are three elements to Eye of the Corvus – video, sound and movement. In essence, that requires video cameras and audio recorders. But when you’re looking to view the landscape from the perspective of a bird, you need to take in a range of perspectives and environments from the air, from the top of trees and urban structures, and the ground (including road sides) – in dust storms, rain, fog, snow as well as those perfect blue sky days.

The soundscape component will be multi-track mixes of ambient sound, music and other man-made sounds, spoken word and sound effects collected from the range of environments the cameras are working in – at times, hot, dusty, wet, cold environments. I’ll cover the sound technology in another post.

The final component, movement, is an installation topic I’ll come to later, as that requires the assistance of someone who can code and understands the circuitary of motion sensors…who isn’t me.

Kim V Goldsmith digital media artist cameras
Panasonic Lumix GH4, Olmpus Tough Tracker (at front), DJI Mavic Pro Platinum drone
Camera selection

I’ve been a welded-on Canon user since I bought my first SLR in the mid 1990s. They’ve served me well as stills cameras and as HD video cameras, but they’re big and heavy. Fine for use around my home patch, even with three cameras and their lenses in one big camera bag. Head overseas with your seven kilos of carry-on luggage and all of a sudden you have problems.

Along with the need and want to work in 4K video for all the obvious reasons of quality and editing flexibility, I’d started to play with other brands a couple of years ago when I purchased a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 to take overseas. The 4K video on it is fantastic and ever so gradually, I found myself going to it for stills and video.

I was excited to see Canon had released the mirrorless EOS M50 as what I was looking for was not only a quality camera to capture 4K video, but a lighter, more compact camera that would not bust my cabin luggage allowance for when I jump on that plane to Iceland in August. However, as the months rolled on after its release, the reviews weren’t convincing.

Bookmarking reviews and reading lots of comparison posts, it finally came down to the Panasonic Lumix GH4 or GH5. The GH4 was more within my budget given it’s the older model but still considered a workhorse for video production. I put a watch on several ebay offerings and sat back and waited. I also had lenses to consider, in particular wide angle lenses, given the highly lauded Metabones Speed Booster mount was as much as a new lens and my existing Canon lenses weren’t all compatible anyway. Nothing like a complete changeover!

By October, I’d purchased a secondhand GH4 with a Lumix G Vario 35-100mm 1:1.4-5.6 lens for $1,100. I didn’t particularly like this lens when I first got the camera, but it did capture some stunning footage in one of the biggest dust storms Dubbo’s experienced, just in the last few weeks. So, I’ll have to reassess that as I go. I’m now waiting on another ebay purchase to arrive – a secondhand Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 Pro M. Zuiko digital ED lens, picked up for $685. It was fractionally cheaper and with better reviews than the comparative lens, the Panasonic Lumix G Vario 12-35mm f2.8 AF lens.

I’ve been thinking about how to get swooping action from the trees to the ground and action cameras with good image stablisation seem like the obvious choice for this type of set-up, with zip line rigging. I’d bought an Olympus Tough TG Tracker 4K action camera last year that is starting to prove its worth, being waterproof, dustproof and robust enough for some of the tougher filming locations.

Three months down and two cameras sorted.

From on high and immersive

With the wide angle, cinematic shots and the weather-extreme action shots sorted, what’s left are the aerials and the immersion of 360 footage.

So, it’s back to Google and ebay to read reviews, forums, and bookmark deals. For the drone footage, it came down to a DJI Mavic Pro Platinum Fly More Combo deal. It offered all the tech specs I needed, and it was portable. I’d borrowed a Mavic Pro a month before buying one, just to get a feel for it. I was actually considering the Phantom 4 Pro. In the end it was going to be too bulky to even consider. I picked up the Mavic Pro package for $1,899 on the DJI store (and a set of ND filters for $99). As happens, they dropped $200 off the price of the drone only weeks later, after Christmas.

It took a week to work out how to update the firmware and calibrate the drone, as nothing is as straight forward as it first seems. Then I had to find a time of day that wasn’t over 40 deg C and gusting winds of up to 50km/hour. Finally, after much frustration with random disconnections, I managed a test flight at dusk on Day 5, sorting out some cable issues in the process. I’m ready to fly in earnest now.

My research and conversations with my academic sounding boards have had me thinking for some months now that virtual reality (VR) has to be part of this project in some way. Having costed some incredible VR cameras and presentation domes (incredible prices), my project will end up being somewhat more modest, but hopefully offer a glimpse of what it would be like to be immersed in the environments I’m working in. My kit is rounded out with a Garmin Virb 360 camera ($900), that can be used to produce ‘flat’ 1080 videos or 4K 360 video. I’m putting together landscape montages using  the Virb 360 in combination with 360 sound from binaural recordings and the Zoom H2n 360 sound recorder.

Summary

My entire technology budget was about $5,000. I’ve blown it on the cameras alone. Now to fit it all in one or two carry-on bags, along with audio recorders, microphones and tripods, and keep it under seven kilos…

Panasonic Lumix GH4 with Lumix G Vario 35-100mm 1:1.4-5.6 lens – $1,100 (ebay)
Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 Pro M. Zuiko digital ED lens – $685 (ebay)
Olympus Tough TG Tracker 4K action camera$280 (on sale at JB HiFi)
DJI Mavic Pro Platinum Fly More Combo – $1,899 (DJI store)
Mavic Pro accessories (filters, drone/RC storage bags, Lipo battery storage bags, RC anti-glare mounts) – about $140
Garmin Virb 360 camera – $900 + accessories ($200)

The sound technology components are covered in the Pre-production: sound post.

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