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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Master Cinema Series Lunch Party Wrap Up

The digital revolution is just now starting to come into its' own. If you don't know what I'm talking about, then you must have been living under a rock somewhere. Welcome back to civilization! This is the next erra of filmmaking - one which is being shaped by digital cinematography. Like it or not, digital capture devices are changing the way stories are told, and even shaping what stories can be told.

More after the jump.

I remember getting my hands on the dvx100 and being impressed with the images it could capture. But it still lacked a crucial element- the ability to selectively control focus. It's 1/3" imager meant that just about everything was in focus most of the time. And that is when I stumbled across Quyen Tu Le. Also a local in Portland, Oregon, he was making adapters out of his garage that allowed 35mm lenses to be attached to video cameras like the dvx100. And it was then that my relationship with Letus began. From using their first garage built adapter, to testing and using the first Letus Ultimate I was impressed with what Quyen and his brother Hien could design and deliver. But even dispite their great enginuity and technical know how, the use of 35mm adapters still posed some problems - mainly their size, weight, and lenght. (The Le brothers solved the light loss problem. :) )

Fast forward a couple of years and the whole landscape has changed. Video cameras no longer need to be adapted to use 35mm lenses, and huge cumbersome video rigs that are 4' long are a thing of the past. Video DSLR's have stumbled upon a rescipe that is shaping the filmmaking industry. You can argue that DSLR's produce subpar images, they line skip, have bad rolling shutter, on and on - but that is missing the point. DSLR's are allowing an unheard of amount of filmmakers to be able to use a device that allows them to selectively control focus, capture 8 - 10 stops of dynamic range, produce images that have a pleasing color tone to them, all the while being small in size, and easily affordable to every budget level. So that should mean the demise of a company like Letus right? Afterall, 35mm adapters are now obsolete ... right? Why buy an adapter and a $3,000 camera when I can get a 7D or a 5D for a third of the price?

Not so fast - while 35mm adapters have quickly faded away the team at Letus has seen a need that is going unfulfilled in the DSLR craze. And that need is for quality gear that is reasonably priced and allows the cinematographer and filmmaker to work easily and comfortably with the DSLR. Let's face it - regardless of the debates about the image quality, I think we can all agree that a DSLR out of the box is a very inadiquate tool to be used for motion capture. It was never designed to be primarily used as a motion capture device - it is a STILLS camera afterall. And so, over the last year Letus has been designing and developing products with the input from people in the film industry like myself. And more recently Letus has joined forces with Shane Hurlbut, ASC to develope the MCS line of gear. Bringing his team and experience to bear, this combo packs quite a punch.

It has been an exciting journey to be on, and to be intimately involved with. From humble beginnings in a garage to a launch party in LA put on by Shane Hurlbut, ASC, and attendees such as Rodney Charters, ASC it has been quite a ride indeed! October 15, 2011 marks the launch of this new product line - it is the next stage of the digital revolution: making the tools easier to work with. The problem so far has been that the gear market is polarized. Either one can spend a fortune and get top of the line gear from Arri and modify it to work with a DSLR. (Side note: anything from Arri is worth its' price - they know gear and quality.) Or one can get cheap gear that works well for the first couple times out, but then quickly disintegrates in the rigors of production. And that is where Letus and the MCS line of gear is stepping in to fill the void. Their goal is to offer quality gear that will stand the rigors of production, allow for ease of use, speed and reliabilty on set, all the while offering it at a reasonable price. (Not cheap, but not expensive.) And with this new line of gear I think they deliver. So let's take a look at what was unveiled at the launch party and what I got to put my hands on and test out for myself.

The Eye Piece Leveler
This is an accessory that I have wanted now for a while. There is nothing more frustrating when operating then having to adjust my position as I tilt the camera to be able to see through the viewfinder. Film cameras have had this accessory for years, and now it has made its' way to the DSLR market. With a little bit of presure applied to the eye piece the leveler easily keeps the evf on my eye regardless of the tilting of the camera.

Follow Focus
Look out Arri - there is a new game in town! The MCS follow focus is going to offer some serious compitition to the market. I would easily argue that the MCS follow focus is better then the more expensively priced Arri MFF-1. The grip feels comfortable yet solid in my hand. The arm is easy to adjust and locks securely into place. The gear box is small enough so that it doesn't get in the way. And most importantly of all - the gear box itself is buttery smooth with no backlash. It handled the stiff Zeiss Compact Primes, and the smooth Canon L series glass with ease. And best of all, the gear box is manufactured by the same company that makes the panavision follow focus - so you know the quality is there. There is no other follow focus in its' price range that can match it for ease of use, lightness, and build quality.

Will it be the last follow focus you'll even need? Unfortunately not. However, it will be great for 95-99% of most peoples needs. The only place I can see the potential for the follow focus to fall short is when it is being used with a big zoom. Something like the Angenieux 25-250, or the 24 - 290. The small lightweight design could potentially not allow it to fit on a zoom of that size - not to mention that the lens support for the 25 - 250 is 15mm studio, not the 15mm light weight of the follow focus. Which  is when the Arri FF4 or something similar should be used. But barring that situation, the MCS follow focus will be the perfect fit for people looking for a small lighweight follow focus that is quality built and reliable. (And if you are using a zoom like that, then being small and lightweight is not your primary concern ...)

The Man Cam
The man cam is the unique creation of Shane Hurlbut, ASC. The idea behind it is to allow the operator to get in the mix of the action getting shots that are more steady then handheld, and allow for more speed and flexibilty then a steadicam setup. The resulting camera movement is nowhere near as steady as a steadicam, but it is much more smooth then handheld. The man cam is a two part unit separating the power into a backpack that comfortably hangs from your shoulders. The camera itself is supported by a MSC rig that allows for hand grips in the back and front of the camera. It is evenly balanced to that the operator can easily maneuver the camera without having to fight the enertia of an unbalanced comfigeration. (Which really helps in capturing smooth fluid movements.)

At the party a sample set was provided to test out the rig. As the operator you got to follow two marines as they stormed an insergents hideout. After giving the rig a run for it's money in this scenario, I would have no problem operating a rig like this for multiple takes. Although, I do have to acknowledge my personal distaste for handheld work. As I have a personal afinity for the smooth fluid movement derived from any other camera support. That is not to say handheld doesn't have its place, just that I think today it is overused and abused. So while I will not be investing in a setup like this, if I were to use a handheld rig this one would be the one I would choose as it allows for quick and easy setup, and more stable shots then just going straight handheld.

The Shoulder Cam
One of the most uncomfortable camera configurations I have ever experienced is trying to use a DSLR on the shoulder. It never quite sits right, it is unbalanced giving your arms a work out, and it is just plain cumbersome. Well, that is now a thing of the past! Just like the man cam rig the shoulder cam system is evenly balanced and comfortable to use. The camera has now become a part of my body and it behaves like I expect it to. Letus has done a great job at designing the leather padding that is filled with memory foam. Comfortable and form fitting, the MCS shoulder mount was a delight to use. The counter weight in the back not only balanced the rig nicely it also helped by putting the weight on my shoulder instead of my hands. I really felt one with the camera - just as it should be.

The Heart Of The System
At the heart of this new system is the basic idea that everything should work together in unison to allow for quick configuration changes or swapping of camera bodies. The MCS quick release system along with the new light weight, powered, and programable cage, allows for speedy, tool free, setup changes as needed.

Ideally, to be most effecient on set, a separate camera would be built and left in each configuration that was going to be used that day. The next ideal setup is to have each rig built up and then quickly and effortlessly swap the camera body and lens between rigs. And that is just what the MCS system has set out to do. The quick release system offers smooth easy transitions as well as fail safe locks that prevent the body from becoming accidentally detached. The rails, baseplate, and accessories can be easily balanced on each rig to provide an optimal configuration. From powered cages, rails, baseplates, Anton battery mounting options, to top handles and just about any other gizmo - it has been covered, and built tough for production use.

It is important to note that to really get the most out of this system it is best to have different rigs dedicated to different setups. You can piece together one kit that will do it all and then reconfigure that kit depending on the setup. But that defeats the purpose of the system. Yes, it means more expense in gear up front, but that expense will quickly be paid back by the time you save on set by not having to reconfigure every time a new configuration is needed. Time is money on set, and if you can make 30 setups in one day as apposed to 10 - it will be worth it.

Further more, what makes this system great is that it is open enough to allow for whatever Canon has up its sleeve on November 3rd, 2011, Red's Scarlet camera, or whatever else any other camera maker cares to throw into the mix.

(For those of you wondering, yes that is Shane Hurlbut, ASC demoing the gear with Rodney Charters, ASC in the background.)

The Matte Box
As the 1st prototype matte box had just arrived earilier that morning, and it was not up to quality level Hein and the Letus team wanted, it was not on display and I opted to not take any pictures of it, as it will be revised further. However, I can say that you should keep your eyes out for it when it does come to market in the very near future. Lightweight, clip on, with the ability to be rod mounted if desired, this matte box features design elements only found on matte boxes 2 - 3 times it's projected cost.

In my Camera 101 video I talk about the importance of lens choice when putting together a camera package. This point was further driven home when I got to see two 7D's both shooting the same setup, with the same camera profiles, but with different lenses. One was using the Zeiss Compacts, and the other was on a Cooke zoom.

(Yes, I know these are iPhone pictures, not the best for online evaluation, but you can still see the difference.)
7D With Zeiss Compact Prime

7D With Cooke Zoom

And if you have watched my Camera 101 video, or spent much time with me on set, you know I have a strong bias toward Cooke lenses. Side by side, the Cooke delivered a much richer and more creamy skin tones then the Zeiss did in the same setup. Granted, the Zeiss was more "techinically" correct as it rendered the scene how I saw it with my eye. But good cinematography is more then just being technically correct - it is about communicating & story telling and using every tool in your arsenel to reinforce the story being told. But I digress ...

MCS Party
So to get back on topic and wrap this up - the launch party that Letus & Shane Hurlbut, ASC put together was a huge success. It not only allowed me to see the gear first hand, but it allowed me us use the gear in as close to a production setting as possible. Every time I picked up a rig to use it on one of the 5 sets that were available to shoot on, I really felt like the camera was a part of me. Operating and using the DSLR was never easier, nor more organic and natural. Everything was solidly built, well made, and easy to use. This is gear I'll gladly add to my arsenel going forward. I know it has been solidly built, now the fun will be taking it on set and seeing how it fairs in the rigors of production life. I know Hien & Shane are committed to quality, so I suspect it will hold up well.

One last thought - it is an exciting time to be a cinematographer and a filmmaker. Never before have the multitude of options and formats been available to us. It is easy to get lost in the gear and get wrapped up in who / what is best. In the end, each piece of gear is just a tool, and you need to find the tools that help you tell that story well and don't encumber the process.

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer


  1. I was there too. I have to disagree about quality. The stuff feels cheap. The eyepiece system was bent. I was able to bend it back into shape but that's not how it should work. It was about the same quality as Red Rock Micro, maybe less, and that isn't good.

  2. Fair enough- if I came across a piece of gear like that I would come to the same conclusion. However, I did not see anything like that on the floor while I was there. I definitely would not put it on the same level as Red Rock- it all felt much better then that quality. The Red Rock gear I have owned over the years has never held up ...

    However, I have yet to use any of this gear over the long haul. So I can't say for sure one way or the other as to how it will stand up to the rigors of production life. I do know that both Hien and Shane are striving to make quality gear that will last. So maybe there will be additional refinements made to the shipping units ...