Diminishing returns

If you hear the topics of size and weight cropping up in the excited verbal gushing that comes with the prospect of new gear, you may be surprised. Surely it’s all about the specification and the quality of the output, right? Well, whilst priorities don’t exactly change (that much), other factors certainly creep into consideration with experience. Yes, chances are that the overheard conversation is between two relatively seasoned creatives that have been around the block (and who have had to carry their gear with them whilst making that very journey - repeatedly).

I interviewed a one man, small-scale video producer who expressed a fondness for using a certain camera because it was good at “shooting from the hip” - literally. He would hang it at waist height and blaze away, head inclined to its upturned monitor screen. It wasn’t even a “real” video camera, but a lightweight DLSR with enough power to shoot decent footage. And why? Well, because of years spent running visual shows with lights and projectors at head height, angled down into venues. Years spent reaching up and peering over, and: enough! He’d just “had it” with straining his neck and stretching over to lift or adjust this and that. These days he runs a portable video setup that (almost) fits into a backpack.

I know how he feels. I bought a new projector and spent a good deal of time at the lower end of the specification sheets thinking “ok, what’s small?”, and good too. There comes a point when a person has spent enough lonely hours in darkened car parks loading fullsize steel lighting stands into the back of a car through the early hours of the morning. Enough. And of carrying amp-racks, built like lead-filled fridges into venues on the second floor via the stairs - no thanks! The novelty and naive excitement have long-since expired. What can I use to get in and out fast, and get the job done?

Subjectively speaking, one of the most interesting developments of recent times has been the increasing use of smartphones as portable, do-it-all video units. I’ll match that small video producer working out of his backpack, and I’ll raise you a mobile studio that fits into my pocket.

It’s like the Punk ethos all over again but with video and (sadly) often without the attitude.

First of all: here’s a somewhat sobering point from Kyle Cassidy on the Videomaker blog:-

“...consider this – the camera in your smartphone very likely has a resolution higher than standard definition broadcast equipment”. Just reflect on the implications of that for a second.

As we have discussed here before, a handful of commercial releases have already been shot on mobiles - and these didn’t utilise the latest model phones, incidentally. This (very) creative output represents a few cracks in the dam wall that will surely burst given only a little more time.

Yes, you can make something incredibly polished with a lorry load of money, an editing suite of CG workstations and a team of professionals to use them. Wouldn’t you expect nothing less than pristine excellence in such a situation? Fine, but if you can make something interesting with a limited budget, a camera that comes with a monthly phone contract and a lot of resourcefulness, isn’t that on some level more exciting?

There are negative issues with diminishing scale. Until relatively recent times we would have said “storage”, but no more. Although you won’t be working with uncompressed frames anytime soon (probably?). I was researching memory specifications (it’ll happen to you too) and found that a 128GB SD card could theoretically hold 640 minutes of compressed footage at 1920 X 1080, recorded at 24mbps (manufacturers figures). Yes, it does depend upon the technical nature of the recording (compression: what kind and how much? etc), but anything approaching these stats is encouraging nonetheless.

We’ll still need a decent sized screen to the edit, and ideally a decent sized keyboard and mouse (until VR headset video editing happens), but the other bugbear is the mobile phone lens. Well: yes and no. Low-light capture is still an issue with mobiles; though it  is getting better, but external lenses are here. Yes, they are still something of a clip-on novelty in most cases, even “toys” in some cases, but they cover macro, fisheye, wide and zoom capabilities and will only get better with time. And we haven’t even looked at the Go Pro!