Notes from the Pros: James Tonkin, Hangman Studios



Notes from the Pros

An ongoing series sharing words of wisdom from professionals



26 OCTOBER 2010



James Tonkin says that Final Cut Studio and DSLR cameras are a creative rebel’s dream combination. Both can be used to create work that far outscales the cost of the tools and allows story, ideas and good execution to lead the way. The impressive sound design, multi-textured graphic overlays and pacy edits are a common feature of his elegant visual style.


“This is a promo film for an auction house in Beijing with a collection of very expensive watches to auction. I had a very short time on the project. The client wanted to use stills originally, but then we decided to shoot video to make the presentation better.

“Planning in advance, I booked the fight, get a visa, and arrange hiring of Canon MPE65 macro lens,and  5x macro lens zoom in order to get all the details of the watches. I used no image stabilisation, had to become a ninja of camera moves, and use Smoothcam Final Cut plug-in.

“The film explores the Chinese philosophy of time. A lot was shot in London and during the 5 am Beijing rush hour. I went to Athens for the timelapse.90% of the work was done on a laptop and the equipment put into a carry-on suitcase.

“For the shoot, I got a small fluid head and a ringlight from friends, and flew to Beijing. I had two days there, arriving at 8 am and by 11 am I’d started shooting.

“ I used the natural daylight by a window so I could set up quickly to make the watches look elegant. Lighting was a couple of Ikea desk lamps and the ring light. This was very low budget but I wanted to get the most out of the watches. I had no space for something like a dolly pocket slider, so I used the tripod standing on some wheels I found lying around the office.

“I edited the majority of this on the flight on the way back from Beijing, getting back 6am Thursday. Then there was 2.5 days to work in the studio, get some better looks etc, then I took everything to Athens and did the rest there.”

Before showing the watches, James builds interest by combining the video material with studio shots of ink dripping into water. Graphical overlays and treatments give phrases in Chinese characters and English: ‘Time sits, time stands, time goes backwards’. Over the Beijing and Athens city video and timelapse the pace quickens: ‘Time crawls, time flies, time changes, time tells the truth’. The watches appear in stunning detail shot with macro lenses enabling buyers to see the beauty of the working watches, beauty that would have been completely lost using still photography.

“The text was all completed in motion. This is an amazing application and very under used. It’s good for real time editing and you never have to render text in Motion. Other software used was Compressor, DVD Pro, Soundtrack, and Logic, with all the audio done in Logic.

“The project was all on time and in budget and the client was very pleased. I’d FTP things to the client and they’d respond very quickly, often in five minutes. I used Skype with the client to change the text, and it was almost as if they are in the same room.

“This has been the most creatively rewarding job this year, all done myself with just a laptop and a DSLR.”


James covered a live concert in Athens using 10 DSLR cameras. Planning took six months and included a test at an Archive concert in Paris using a Canon 7D, Zacuto Z-finder and a monopod, with the resulting film used as a trailer on the bands website.

“The 12 minute record limit means there are lots of clips. They’re also difficult to monitor, so there would be no live video gallery for picture switching. I planed that each camera would be pre-briefed and would then shoot undirected for 2.5 hours.

“The production used 10 DSLR, 1 Sony EX3, and 1 RED for a 4k wide shot giving a detailed continuous view of the stage. In post, I could zoom in and out of this wide shot, and since I was finishing in a 1080 HD sequence, the 4k picture allowed me to zoom in without degrading.

“I used the EX3 on a crane jib for the continuous record since the Canon 5DMK2 would be too tricky to sort out.

“If I had had a bigger budget, I would have shot all with RED because they have amazing resolution over DSLRs and EX3s would not have given same look. For RED, it would have been around £1k per camera plus operator, but for DSLRs it is around £0.5k.

“I chose experienced DSLR solo camera shooters and I got good footage to work from. The operators brought their own cameras. There were a couple of Canon 550Ds, and the rest were 7Ds and 5DMK2s and the colours were mainly well-balanced.

“Lenses used included the Canon IS fast lenses such as 70-200mm f2.8 or 24-105mm f4. These are very good lenses. There was also one roving camera with an IS lens shooting out of the crowd. A 550D with a Nikon lens gave the best shot.

“With the shutter speed set at 1/50 s, I had to ask for more light onto stage, to allow shooting at ISO 640 to give correct exposure.

“Most cameras had 7” Marshal monitors with battery on the back, and one camera had a SmallHD monitor. Anton Bauer batteries were on most of the cameras so as to minimise the number of things to worry about during shooting. Each camera was given a 32GB compact flash card, which were swapped when it got to the encores. Camera onboard sound was synched to the band master desk audio.

“I had 40 hours of rushes, including Athens and backstage, that was transcoded to ProRes Proxy, the lowest form of ProRes. I output them all at once and then flipped through shots like I would in a gallery.

“It was a problem synching 18 clips x 10 cameras, but the PluralEyes plug-in for FCP saved my life because I spent one day synching the camera angles. It would have taken a week without it. It took 100 hours to transcode RED footage and that slowed down edit. Grading and finishing was done in Colour and then MPEG Streamclip used to convert to h.264.”


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