Friday, January 16, 2015

Arri Amira on the NFL sidelines

Since receiving my own Amira last November, I've been looking for opportunities to use the camera in different situations. Kind of a bucket list dream of mine has always been to shoot an NFL game from the sidelines. An industry peer and friend, Ted Barnett of Lone Wolf Media, has been shooting every home game of the Dallas Cowboys for the past two seasons. He shoots extreme closeups of the game in a way the average broadcast doesn't cover. He calls it "sizzle" footage that the Cowboys organization uses on the famous jumbo-tron overhead in Jerry World's AT&T stadium as pre-game entertainment. It jazzes up the crowd to see this fluid, yet powerful footage from a cinematographer's perspective.

So naturally, once I had my Amira, I pressed Ted to get me down there. He was excited by the idea to compare our footage, and he got me a pass for the Cowboys - Lions Wild Card Playoff game on January 4th, 2015. Typically, Ted outfits his Sony F55 with a few primes to shoot the game. This day he was going to use his Red 300mm and give me his PL2x extender made for Ablecine by IB/E. It's a quality piece of glass that turned my Canon 30-105mm Cine Zoom into a 60-210mm zoom at a loss of 2 stops. It's especially designed to take deep seated PL lenses and it accepted my Canon Cine Zoom easily. I was curious if the extender would affect the quality images I am used to from my Canon lens. Would there be blurring at the edges, or other aberrations? But I found no such degradation from this adapter. It is a quality product.

We wanted to setup our cameras as identically as possible starting with 120fps, a high shutter rate, he used 1000/sec. I used 500/sec. 3200 ISO, which sounds pretty high for a bright stadium, but with an over-crank frame rate, fast shutter, and 2 stops lost, I needed to push the camera. I started out around f4 when there was sun light coming in and finished wide open at f2.8 on my lens after sundown. Because Ted needed to turn the footage over quickly to the Cowboys, we both baked in Rec. 709 as we recorded. We both white balanced off the same gray card.

I used the pre-game warm-ups as practice shooting action. I found I could follow the ball and focus far and near at this slow pace. Because the Amira weighs 11 pounds alone, I wanted to minimize what went on the system. Adding my lens plus the extender was 6 pound and then running an Anton Bauer Hytron added a nice 5 pound counter weight behind. I was holding between 22-25 pounds (kind of like the old Betacam days) and I was grateful for having Amira's unique shoulder and EVF adjustment on the camera. Ted typically uses his hi-hat to shoot with the 300mm for steady, ground level shots. I was planning on shooting mostly standing or kneeling, like the NFL Film guys were doing, though they had servo lenses. So ultimately, I did not add my rails, matte box, follow focus or grip handles. I didn't want the extra weight and I only saw slight flare when pointing up toward the stadium lights. And beside, I figured my hands would always be on the focus and zoom rings anyway.

There was a great energy being down on the field with the players during pre-game because I was allowed to roam anywhere I wanted, so long as I didn't get into a practice lane. The famous Cowboys Cheerleaders came out and performed. I was starting to get use to the rather short focus pulls from 60 feet to 20 feet, relying on peaking in the EVF to keep me on target. At 200mm and f2.8-4 this was more arduous than usual.

When the event started I got positioned right where the players come out to the roar of the crowd and quickly after that had to pick a position for the kickoff. There is a yellow line, perhaps just a yard off the field of play where all photographers can stand, sit, kneel, whatever, which is pretty close access to the action. We just moved around freely trying to avoid refs, coaches, down marker officials, the best we could. Only NFL Film guys can cross that line and be right at the edge of the playing field.

It didn't take long for me to realize that following the action during a live game in the tight style of shooting we were doing is a whole lot harder than during warm-ups. At ground level the 22 players tend to block a view of the action much of the time. Ted knew from experience the best place for his kind of action was looking down the line of scrimmage a lot of the time. But he couldn't follow an entire play from there. He was going for key moments of action. I was trying to cover him for more of the play but still give him that dynamic closeup that really immerses you in the action.

I blew a lot of plays, especially passing plays away from me or deep down the field. Following the brown ball in the dark crowd using red peaking proved challenging to say the least. Peaking almost became a hindrance with so many busy red lines going everywhere. Next time, I might try focusing without peaking. But as the game progressed, I did get better, and fortunately, I managed to cover all the important big plays pretty well.

Shooting slow motion has it's pros and cons. It smooths out your movement nicely but also tends to exaggerate how slow I'm focusing. So what actually takes 1/2 to 1 second to find focus plays back in 2-3 painful seconds. And the focus pull is often minute on the ring so it's easy to go too far. But there is no denying the fun and energy of covering these spectacular athletes in a deafening stadium.

I only own two 120 gig CFast cards and found I could shoot a quarter and a half of action per card at 120fps using ProRes 422 at 29.97 base rate (basically about 16 minutes of footage). Ted had arranged for a couple assistants (thanks Clay and Payton) to help with batteries and data wrangling for me, right in the end zone, under the rail of beer drinking spectators. Yikes! No damage, thank God!

The next day, Ted got all my footage and quickly assembled his highlight video for the Cowboys. He said they really loved it and they put it up on their website, but have since purged it, so here it is on YouTube

It's generally easy to see which shots are Ted's and which are mine because he has the tighter angles and I have the looser angles. Plus the F55 recorded skin tone a little more red than the Amira. He color corrected both by adding contrast and saturation.

Also, here is a link on my website of what I put together of just my footage.

Though my shoulder was plenty sore the next day, I felt the Amira performed very well. At 3200 ISO the image does get a little noisy, enough so I used Neat Video to clean it up. But the images were very dynamic and of high quality. 

It was a wonderful experience and I hope Ted can convince the Cowboys organization to add me to Ted's crew for every home game next season.


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