Have you watched the new Fujinon XF 16-55mm f2.8 promotional movie? No? What are you waiting for?
I love the delicious hedonism of car commercials, slivers of light slipping over sinuous metal curves, evoking speed, performance, beauty, divine luxury. I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to shoot a car commercial for a company like BMW, or Subaru. When Flemming and I pitched the Fuji XF16-55 project to Fujifilm Japan, which included a video component, I had only one thing on my mind:
A car is a shiny metal object with curves. A lens is a shiny metal object with curves.
The X-T1’s version 3 firmware included manual video control.
Give its to us, the preciousssssssssss!
At the start of December, Fujifilm Japan sent a big box to my Mum’s place in Singapore, containing the new XF16-55mm f2.8 for Flemming, and for me, a Silver Graphite edition of the X-T1 loaded with pre-release version 3 firmware, and an XF 23mm f1.4 to pair it with.
It was waiting for us when we got into Singapore from the USA, immediately curing us of jet lag.
We had none. We pitched Fujifilm the idea of a short commercial promoting the new lens, with the theme Singapore by Night. The pictures would be used for the web, brochures, exhibitions and books from Fuji. The main story would be a photo and video shoot at Zouk Singapore.
Fuji said yes, great, go for it. No questions asked.
My idea for this video was to film the lens in a car commercial like way, and the environment that a music photographer works in – the atmosphere, the crowds, the dark, the lights – without the usual following-the-photographer-around scenes. Most people have a good idea of what a photographer does, I wanted to focus on the lens and what you (or Flemming) could do with it. The end product, the still image, would speak for itself.
Notes on ISO
This was a high ISO job all the way. It was all filmed after sunset, mostly in dark rooms with precious little light:
- The short sweep of Singapore’s CBD at the beginning, was filmed at ISO 800.
- All scenes filmed in the colourful main room in Zouk Singapore, were filmed at ISO 2000.
- The end sequence with Bonobo, in the significantly darker Velvet Underground, was filmed at ISO 2500 (with some grimacing). Some of the other raw clips I have were filmed at ISO 3200, but these were too noisy to use.
- The product sequences with light wiping over various segments of the XF 16-55, were filmed at ISO 1250
I put the whole video together in Adobe Premiere Pro, applying a little noise reduction, and stabilization to the scenes in Zouk.
I’ve used Flemming’s X-T1 to shoot all of 3 still frames. This project was also very much about my getting familiar with the X-T1, a distinctly different beast from X-Pro 1 and X-E2 that I use, know and love.
- Unbelievable power management
I never had to change batteries while filming; a single battery lasts forever. At the end of one 3 hour nonstop session of filming at Zouk, I’d filled a 16 Gb card, and my battery had just slipped down a bar from full charge. In the same amount of time, Flemming was on his second battery.
- Film simulations work with video
I filmed the entire movie with the Velvia simulation to maximise the colours and contrast. No grading was done on any of the movie scenes. There was no need.
- Still frames from the video are crisp and sharp
- The tilt screen is awesome
This was invaluable since the camera was usually under or over my eye level. It meant I didn’t have to get a crook neck from straining to see the screen. Also it is so clear and so detailed, I could pull focus without focus peaking if I needed to.
- Buttons on the back of the X-T1
Flemming has a first generation X-T1 which has very recessed buttons that are difficult to depress. There are numerous discussion threads on the internet addressing and troubleshooting this build issue. The ones in the Silver Graphite edition are just right.
- Motion picture quality
While the colours were pretty good straight out of the camera owing to the Velvia film simulation, the movie files threatened to fall apart if I needed to adjust exposure, apply more noise reduction or mess with contrast or colours (luckily, I didn’t!). It would be nice to have a choice of bitrates and a better video codec so I would have been able to do more with the movie files in post production.
- No autofocus
Neither single servo (via the back button) nor continuous AF worked for me.
- No focus peaking while recording
If I wanted to change focus on a moving subject, I’d have to eyeball it and hope for the best. Thank goodness for a sensational LCD.
- Highlights and shadow level adjustment (via the Q button) don’t work in video
- Tripod screw location
The X-T1 is so light, that I realized right from the start, I needed something to stabilize it with, or I’d never get any useable moving footage. I jury rigged a stabilizing device using Flemming’s little Gorillapod, and 3 kilos of my father’s old fishing sinkers, which it worked a treat. The Gorillapod’s head is tiny, but owing to where the tripod screw is on the X-T1 – right next to the battery compartment door – I would have had to unscrew the tripod head, every time I needed to change a battery (but I didn’t owing to point #1 in The Good).
- [Edit: 14 Jan ’15] Mic input position
The mic input on the X-T1 lives in the same compartment with the USB and HDMI ports. This means that if I wanted to record ambient audio while I was filming, that compartment door would have to remain open to accommodate a mic plug while filming is in progress. As someone who needs gear that withstands unintentional abuse, that is an invitation for said compartment door to be snapped off, as it feels too lightweight to withstand much impact. Of a better practical application, would be to compartmentalize the data ports separately from the mic input, and close the latter off with a rubber plug.
I should note that none of the “bad” points were a show stopper, as we got a nice little movie made regardless. But it would be good to see some improvements made in the near future though, especially with the video codec, and enabling AF during recording. The X-T1 isn’t a bad device to record video on, with its small size being an advantage in the field, and Fuji could potentially take it (and/or their other X series cameras) down the path for filmmaking, the way Canon did with its 5D.
You should have seen the faces of Zouk’s security staff, when I pulled this dynamite-looking contraption out of my bag!
The XF 23mm f1.4 lens for motion picture
I loved having the 23mm f1.4 to film with. Its image quality is superb, and f1.4 is invaluable in dark environments, but the push-pull clutch mechanism to swap between AF and MF wasn’t ideal. There was a lot of shaking when I needed to swap from a pre-focused point to manual focusing to follow my target around. Ergo, none of those sequences are in the movie.
Just under 2 minutes of video was 3 solid weeks of storyboarding, filming, re-filming, voice-over recording and re-recording. The most difficult part of the entire movie to film, was the 1.5 seconds of Flemming introducing himself at the start. Singapore suburbs are a bed of unending cacophony. At 11 pm, when you caught a break in traffic, there’d be rain, adults or children chatting/screaming, TVs blaring, motorcycles whining, bamboo sticks clacking, furniture scraping. Then, you know, traffic. Even through the (again) jury rigged microphone shield I concocted from heavy paper, and his shirt collar, for the lavalier microphone that Flemming wore. Hours and numerous attempts to get what you see in this video. Phew!
All in all, this was a fun project to work on. For me, it was a rare opportunity to conceptualize, produce and deliver a little film grown from a nutty possibility. It was a fabulous exercise in refining narrative. Also, every export I did of the final video (3 in all) took 6 hours each time, as both Premiere Pro and Media Encoder kept crashing. All. The. Time. Software googling and wrangling skills – I’ve definitely got those.
Our thanks to Zouk Singapore for giving us free rein in their venue for 2 nights. They have to have the friendliest security staff I’ve ever come across.
Massive thanks as always to Fujifilm Japan and Fujifilm Nordic for the opportunity to take on this project, their faith in us, and staunch support all through the project. I have not been an X-Photographer for very long, but the faith that Fujifilm has in their brand ambassadors’ ability to deliver, is what makes working with them so great.