By Gary Yost
Three years ago I made a short film about what it’s like to work up in the fire lookout on the East Peak of Mt. Tamalpais. The majority of a lookout’s day is spent in watchfulness while listening to Marin County Fire dispatch sending firefighters on calls. As I became more and more familiar with what I was hearing, I began to marvel at how our first responders are instantly ready to help anyone in trouble… and there were plenty of emergencies on that radio. Car and bike accidents, structure and wildland fires, medical emergencies and more… there are a constant string of crises that firefighters have to respond to FAST.
As I sat there and quietly watched for fires, listening to these people who dedicate their lives to helping us, I became more and more impressed with how ready they are to jump into their engines and roll at a moments notice. I started asking questions of my friends in the fire service… “How are you so ready to spring into action so quickly?” “What does it take to be prepared for literally ANY emergency that might arise?” The answers got me thinking about how most people have no idea of the amount of work it takes for these hard-working people to be there for us 24/7, 365 days a year.
Although we all conceptually know that this is what first responders are supposed to do, I’ve been wanting to make a visual document about how firefighters make instant-on rescue possible. When I got the Inspire One in January, I immediately got it in the air to see how I could duplicate the typical jib, crane and dolly moves that I’ve used in film production. I had the unit for less than 2 weeks and began training with my buddy Jamie as a two-man team… he on flight controls and me on camera. What a great way to shoot! Splitting the aerial cinematography workflow into those roles is such a natural way of working, and for an initial test the results were so encouraging that I decided that it was time to finally produce this video about firefighter readiness.
Note that in this piece, all of the terrestrial footage was shot primarily with a GH4 with a Letus Helix gimbal and some b-roll was shot with the Sony RX100m3 on a Pilotfly H1.
Some issues relating to production: One of the biggest challenges when matching disparate cameras (once you get the white balance dialed in and have set the picture profiles to match as closely as possible) is sensor size, and in this case, the GH4, RX100 and Inspire all have small sensors so they match fairly well. My picture profiles are as close as possible to each other (which is to say, still not close but as close as I can get). On the GH4 I use “Natural” with contrast/sharpness/sat turned down to various degrees — all the way down on sharpness but just partially for contrast and sat. The Inspire on January 28th was really limited camera-wise… still WAY over sharpened at 0 and soft at -1, so those images at the mountainside fire station are a bit crunchy, especially with the way too fast (probably 1/250th) shutter. The hose evolutions and roof vent footage was shot with the current (and much better) camera firmware in mid-May with Log -1/-2/-1, but more importantly now I have NDs and shoot at the correct shutter speed, around 1/50th of a second. The RX100’s profile is not super flexible… I use “Neutral” with everything dialed down to -3 (as far as it will go), but the RX100 does have that amazing 50Mbps XAVCS codec, which allows me to grade those images to match everything else. That’s the secret… having enough data to work with but getting at least in the ballpark in-camera.
My workflow is to cut everything ungraded in FCPX until the edit is completely locked and then export an fcpxml to Resolve, where I do two complete balancing passes. The first one is to match exposure, white balance, and general tone with heavy use of the scopes and 4-up neighboring clip display. This is the secret weapon… being able to see and grade your clips in context with each other. Nothing in FCPX (or Premiere) comes remotely close to how well this is implemented in Resolve. After all clips are matching, I do another pass just for power windows and track every entity in the shot that needs to be either emphasized or de-emphasized. These are essentially traveling mattes that hold out various components like the people, equipment, etc. I did a lot of masking of the fire engines from shot to shot to match their red very closely because those are such important elements. And of course every person has a head-and-shoulders power window that’s tracked to their movements. (This is ridiculously easy in Resolve and super fast… it has the greatest tracker ever!) Once I finish that second pass, everything is balanced and I go to the Timeline mode and apply a 2 or 3-node graph of LUTs to the entire piece. I then go into the keyframer and (using static keyframes) adjust the LUT percentages for the shots that need more or less of that effect.
Once that’s all done I export back to FCPX, apply global sharpening and a diffusion layer created with a custom shader I make in Magic Bullet Looks. Adding a touch of diffusion always helps to integrate the shots (or at least I think so… I just like it). After that it’s all about getting the audio balanced, which itself was a bit of a challenge for this piece because these were far-from-optimal recording environments, with lots of background noise, echo, etc. My buddy George used a custom de-convolution software algorithm to remove the echo from the garage sequences. You can hear a bit of artifacting from that process but it’s way better than the insane amount of echo there was originally. So, in a nutshell, that’s the workflow.
Although this may seem like a mind-bending set of tools to learn, it’s totally doable by building a foundation of skills from the ground up. For starters I’d recommend that you look at the great books, videos and blog posts about storytelling from the folks at Stillmotion. Their concept of developing 4-5 keywords for each project and then making every shot apply to one of those keywords is probably the best advice for filmmakers I’ve ever seen. I do it all the time now and it makes the editing process fall into place sooooo much easier.
Anyone interested in Resolve should purchase the Ripple Training home study course by Alexis Van Hurkman, and also his Color Correction Handbook (which is indispensible). Of course Blackmagic generously gives Resolve Lite away for free!
And finally, I recommend the Mixing Light website as a fantastic resource for anyone who wants to learn more about color grading. They’ve got a weekly email blast that contains great articles that you can read for free. Although color grading seems mysterious at first, once you get into it you’ll wonder how you ever finished a project without it.
Always keep in mind that telling a story is not about the tools. Nobody cares what kind of drone you use, or what camera, or the editing or grading software. Storytelling is the art of showing your viewers something new and interesting, and giving it to them in a compelling way. The tools ought to be completely transparent! Once you’ve achieved that, you’re there.
Follow Gary Yost, it’s the cool thing to do: