Creator Q&A: Heat things up with a thermal camera
Sometimes, all it takes is a new tool or a different approach to spark creativity and innovation. Such is the case with this music video directed by Ryan Staake and shot by Adam Donald. The duo acquired a science-grade thermal camera — normally used by fancy scientists to conduct "important research." Their resulting video is equally fancy, and no less important. Take a look:
We chatted with the video's DP Adam Donald to learn how he adapted the camera to capture art, rather than science, and to take his temperature on thermal cameras as a medium.
Vimeo Video School: How did the idea for this video come about?
Adam Donald: Ryan Staake, the director of the video, came up with the concept. He knew he wanted to make a music video shot entirely with a thermal camera in order to create a look that was based off of heat instead of light. He did some preliminary tests by renting a small Flir camera from Home Depot. (This type of camera is typically used for detecting heat loss from homes or buildings and to correct for energy waste.) He also found out that Flir made a higher-end thermal camera, the SC8200, that used the same technology, but offered a much higher resolution and more lens options. However, it was really built for science and lacked most features found in digital cinema cameras. Ryan then got in touch with me to help him shoot it, and figure out how to get the results we wanted on set.
VVS: So how did you end up acquiring the camera?
AD: After spending a lot of time talking with the guys over at Flir, they shipped us the camera body and 4 lenses (a 17, 25, 50, and 100mm). The lenses weren't made out of glass, but some kind of gelatin. Glass would conduct heat differently and, in turn, would affect the overall image. We planned to shoot a majority of the video on steadicam, so I knew we would end up living on wide lenses, mostly the 17 and the 25mm.
VVS: Can you walk us through the steps of how you adapted the camera for this shoot?
AD:This camera is really just a science-grade camera, so adapting to the film/music video world was definitely a challenge. For one thing, the body was literally just a solid metal box, with odd dimensions and no way to record media. It did have an HD SDI out, so we used a Pix 240 to record the signal. Once I had the camera, we rented a space at a local rental house where I met my camera crew and DIT (Digital Imaging Technician). While we were there we built up the camera with a custom baseplate, which allowed us to use 15mm rods to attach our wireless follow focus.
But the real challenge was adjusting the camera settings because there was no onboard menu or LCD screen. We found that the only way to set exposure was to plug in a laptop through an ethernet port on the back of the camera, then dial in our settings, unplug, and shoot. We had to do this constantly when we were on set. There’s no latitude or flexibility with a thermal image, so we really had to commit to each shot in-camera. When we were on set, my technician Matthew Greenberg, was always standing by with an open laptop ready to adjust the settings per shot.
VVS: What's the biggest difference between a normal camera and a thermal camera?
AD: Well, the biggest difference is shooting heat instead of light. Usually, when I’m on set with a digital cinema camera, I spend hours lighting a scene. In shooting with a thermal camera, we didn’t throw up a single light. I found this to be very liberating. The only thing we really had to do was adjust the settings to the temperature in each scene. I believe that as digital cinema advances, fewer lights will be needed. This is due to the new sensors’ ability shoot in such low light. I’m really excited about shooting with the new RED Dragon sensor rated at 2000 ISO.
VVS: That's so interesting! Tell us more about the process of exposing your shot based on temperature rather than light.
AD: Typically when we’re on set lighting a shot, we can see the effect of each light, and then we can tweak from there. When exposing for heat it was drastically different, because heat doesn’t look like anything. The image is just created from information based on temperature, and how that reacts with this unique sensor. There were several settings that you can use on the Flir to create different looks or picture profiles, which determine how the camera will display the thermal information. We decided to go with the “Ironbow” color setting, which was closest to the classic thermal look people are familiar with.
From there, we had to find the best way to meter the heat that was coming in through the camera. There was really only one way to control the dynamic range in the camera settings; we had to adjust the high and low end of the image. In a sense this was the equivalent to adjusting levels, or brightness and contrast, but for heat sensitivity. If we needed to see more overall image we would bring up the high end, and if we wanted to crush the blacks and create more separation we would raise the low end. Introducing different temperatures was our only method of controlling the image. And we really needed to commit because we wanted the image to be authentic and true to thermal. So when we got to post production there was literally no color correction applied.
VVS: Going along with that, it seems like special attention was paid to choosing hot and cold elements to shoot. How much of this was planned vs. developed through experimentation?
AD: Ryan really developed the whole concept for the video. He knew he wanted to play with the camera’s reaction to different temperatures, and introduce different objects and actions that would test this. So it was a great opportunity to be experimental on set. We really didn’t know how things would truly look until we shot it on the day and some things worked better than others. We got a great reaction out of fire and hot water, which almost looked like orange blacklight responsive paint. On the other end of the spectrum, ice and cold water was so dark that it came out black, creating a negative texture, almost subtracting information from the image. This actually created a really nice overall contrast for the piece.
VVS: What was the biggest challenge you faced on this shoot?
AD: I would say the biggest challenge for this shoot was powering the camera. Right now, Flir doesn’t offer a portable battery option, so we had to run on AC power plugged into an outlet. Having to be tethered to the wall made maneuvering with the steadicam kind of difficult. We had to have someone wrangling the chord everywhere we went. And, even though we saved a lot of time not having to throw up any lights, it took about the same amount of time because we were constantly adjusting settings. But given the fact that we were shooting a music video on a science-grade camera we had never used before, I feel the shoot went really smoothly.
VVS: Has the experience of shooting on this camera affected or informed the way you think about cinematography or the way you shoot now?
AD: Shooting on this type of camera definitely opened my eyes as to what’s in store for the future of digital cinema. I think for this camera, it’s such a specific look, that it can really only be utilized for certain things. But I love that new cameras are being developed that change the way in which we make films. Working on this project definitely made me take an alternate approach to how I normally capture an image. Going forward, I’ll look for new and interesting ways to tell stories that haven’t traditionally been seen before.
We chatted with DP Adam Donald to learn how he adapted a thermal camera to capture art, rather than science, and to take his temperature on this technology as a medium.
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