LA Noir – Another HDR Video Frame

This is a frame of video I shot in my loft with the Canon T2i/550d and is another one of my HDR video tests:

LA Noir (HDR Video Frame)

I filmed this at native ISO 1250 using Magic Lantern and the new Technicolor Cinestyle picture profile, tone-mapped it in Photomatix, then de-noised and graded the image in After Effects.

Again, I wanted to push the limit of acceptable lighting conditions–it was pretty dim in my place when I filmed this, and the T2i’s image held up pretty well. (My only wish for my next camera is to have better resolution!) I also hope this image evokes the feeling of an old noir detective film. Enjoy! :D

Canon T2i/550d
Old Vivitar manual lens
24p; 1080p; 1/48; ISO 1250
HDR tone-mapping in Photomatix
HDR created from three exposures +/-2
Finishing in Adobe After Effects with Magic Bullet Denoiser and Magic Bullet Looks

Canon T2i/550d HDR Video Has Arrived!

Thank you, everyone, for stopping by the blog and for your patience in waiting for my HDR tone-mapped video! This short test video has been a long while in coming, as I finally got the film to a point (with both the visuals and audio) where I was really satisfied with the results. (I must also give my amazingly, stupendously talented composer, Noah Potter, credit for really bringing these images to life. I am in his debt. Please check out his great website, and please use him for your film/TV projects. He is a professional talent of the highest order.) Check out the film below (please use full screen):

So, first things first: this video is not, and never was, intended as an HD-DSLR camera test. I’m not here to test the Canon T2i’s moire, aliasing, rolling shutter, and compare resolution charts, etc. If you want that, go here and here–there is a plethora of information on all of the above. As I’m a network television editor, producer, and motion GRFX designer by trade, this was really just a fun side project; a skunk-works endeavor that attempted to combine two of my passions–filmmaking and HDR photography. This video is, and always was, rather, a challenge to myself: to make ordinary, average HD video footage (from a $700 HD-DSLR) look like properly tone-mapped HDR photographs, like this stuff. For me, this film is more art than science.

I used a variety of video clips from my T2i, most of them handheld. Why handheld? Because it proves you can use this technique with just about any single video source. You DO NOT need dual cameras, set side by side, or an expensive beam splitter with and, to quote the great Stu Maschwitz, “Backrubs from supermodels” (although that couldn’t hurt), or any other such equipment. I also used handheld footage to differentiate this technique from time-lapse HDR video, which is an entirely different process altogether. HDR time-lapse is created from HDR photographs. This is ordinary, oftentimes shaky, video footage from one camera.

The other challenge to myself was to devise a true tone-mapped HDR video workflow that was actionable in a real-world setting–and that wouldn’t drive me stark raving mad. It wasn’t easy at first, but I came up with some pretty good solutions (and many that can be improved upon, I’m sure). Truth be told, this technique WILL NOT give you 6 stops more latitude on your T2i or even 4. I also really want to stress the tone-mapping part of all this: there’s a difference between capturing something with more dynamic range, like this awesome Epic HDRx clip, and giving something an HDR tone-mapped look, like my video. To date, there is no software that will give video this tone-mapped look, although I’m sure it’s being worked on as I write this. (Read my last blog post for more of my thoughts on all this.)

And (almost) none of this has to do with production. This technique is all about post-production, my specialty. In fact, the absolute best way to start down this road is to learn how to tone-map HDR photos really, really well. Start here. You can then simply apply all of the same photographic principles to your video footage. That being said, this technique will NOT work with all video clips. I did my best to use a variety of clips, all with some major light and dark areas to see what was possible, but you do have to shoot decent footage. And this is where the production part comes in: you must shoot a VERY flat image. The flatter the better, just like with color-grading this stuff. With an HD-DSLR (Red Epic and Arri Alexa may be exceptions, although I need to test them), you must not blow your highlights and you must not crush your blacks in camera. Keep it ugly, keep it grey, keep it simple.

So what are some of the glaring issues when using HD-DSLR footage and this technique? Aliasing, moire, resolution. Do the clips in my HDR test have moire? Yes. Do they have aliasing? Yes. Is the resolution great? No. Is there noise and blockiness in parts of the image? Yes. Does the T2i have these issues already? Yes. Will this technique solve any of these problems? Absolutely not. In fact, creating tone-mapped HDR video footage will probably (definitely) exacerbate all of these problems.

So why do it then? That’s very simple: I think it looks flippin’ cool. And this is where we may diverge. Many people HATE the look of HDR tone-mapped photographs (and video). I happen to absolutely LOVE them. I love how it evokes a stronger feeling, I love the process of creating them, and I love the look. It’s not some Photoshop plugin trick. It’s reality–times 10. You are seeing everything. That’s why the clip of that guy (me) drinking that beer looks kinda “Uncanny Valley” crazy. It’s real and not real at the same time, and it’s maybe even a little unnerving. But I like that. I like the extremes of this technique. The Chateau Chambord shot in the video is sort of boring and flat, but with the HDR tone-mapping applied, it looks like something out of a fairy-tale (to me). I wouldn’t necessarily use this technique on an entire feature film (unless you wanted to make some funky Richard Linklater “A Scanner Darkly” sorta thang), but it could work wonders on an opening title sequence, a dream sequence, a music video, commercial, Charlie Sheen, etc. You could also use this technique in a more subtle way to really make your video pop and add lots more detail in the shadows and highlights.

So what tools did I use? In order of importance:

- After Effects

- Photomatix

- Final Cut Pro/Avid (or your NLE of choice)

If you don’t have a basic understanding of any of the above, this technique is going to be very difficult to pull off–you need to know them all. (You will be round-tripping between these programs again and again.) I happened, through much experimentation, to find a cocktail that worked for me, but I know it can be improved. Also, here’s some more software that I found indispensable:

- Magic Bullet Denoiser (to eliminate much of the, you guessed it, noise and blockiness in the footage)

- GBDeflicker (to tone down, what else, flickering in the footage)

The above software are not critical, but they will certainly make the finishing work on your HDR video a heckuva’ lot easier and make your image look a helluva’ lot nicer.

A few notes about the clips used in the video, all of which were shot full HD, 24p in the Canon EOS Rebel T2i/550d‘s video mode with various photographic lenses:

CLIP 1: I filmed this last spring on a busy Paris street while vacationing with family in France. (Parisians, please tell me where this street is!)

CLIP 2: I filmed this while back home in Minnesota last September at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, Minnesota. (This is truly an amazing place. Visit if you can!)

CLIP 3:  Same family vacation to France. I filmed this while wandering around the grounds of Chateau Chambord in Chambord, France. (Stunning location. You can see my HDR photography of this same scene here.)

CLIP 4: I filmed this while taking a walk along Dockweiler Beach in Los Angeles. It was a blustery day, so it made for some nice whitecaps on the waves.

CLIP 5: Who’s this guy?? That’s me. I made myself the human HDR guinea pig for this test. My sister Pamela shot this footage of me while we–my mom and two sisters–drank some good booze and soaked up the scene around Montmarte in Paris. (I apologize for the dark circles under my eyes in this clip. We hadn’t been in France too long at this point, so I was jet-lagged and under-slept. Beer helped. :P)

That’s about all I can think to say about the video at the moment. If there’s enough interest in the film, and the technique I used to create it, I would consider recording a video tutorial of my workflow. With the demands of my day jobs, I don’t have lots of free time, but I think doing a tutorial might be fun. So, please let me know in the comments below.

Thanks again for watching the video and stopping by to read the blog–your interest means a lot to me and is much appreciated! With that, watch out for more HDR video and more of what’s next to come from my bag of tricks. (And keep your eyes peeled for changes to the blog, as this site will continue to evolve in the weeks, months, and years ahead!) This is an exciting time to be a filmmaker indeed. :D

- Stephen

*UPDATE: Featured on Planet 5D, THE resource for all HD-DSLR news! Check it out HERE!

Canon T2i/550d HDR Video is Coming

For the last six months, I’ve been obsessed with HDR photography (see my HDR photography work here) and am now obsessed with making HDR video a reality. But I wanted to make it a relatively simple and painless process (although, with HDR, it is rarely simple and painless), with a reliable and streamlined workflow. It took a few days of experimenting, but I think I’ve now concocted a pretty good cocktail for extracting HDR video from the Canon EOS Rebel T2i/550d DSLR. Why the T2i? Because it’s the only DSLR I own, and I love the challenge of getting as much image out of an $800 prosumer camera as I can. I’m also a big proponent of the “rebel without a crew”, “million dollar look on a thousand dollar budget” mentality, both for my own work and the work of others.

Up until now, creating HDR video (or at least giving an 8-bit compressed image a tone-mapped HDR look) was next to impossible. So what are the solutions? That starts with a basic understanding of HDR photography, which I won’t get into here. But, at the bare minimum, you need at least two exposures for every HDR frame: one overexposed and one underexposed. You then combine the two exposures to create an 32-bit HDR file, which you then “tone-map” with popular programs like Photomatix or Photoshop. (For tons more info and great resources on HDR photography, please visit Trey Ratcliff’s excellent site, Stuck In Customs.)

So how do you get two exposures with video? You don’t. You get one and only one constant exposure, shot at a particular frame rate, aperture, shutter speed, etc. On the other hand, the option for HDR video does open up a bit with the introduction of the Arri Alexa, which can capture 14 stops of latitude(!), and the very popular Red One/Epic/Scarlet. The Red Epic purportedly has an HDR feature capable of 18 stops of dynamic range(!!). These are exciting developments indeed and certainly open the door for real HDR video. But, 1) cost is working against you (as these rigs will run you north of $20,000), and 2) YOU STILL HAVE TO TONE-MAP THIS STUFF! What is tone-mapping? Read up on it here.

And here’s where we need to make a distinction between HDR and tone-mapping. Better minds than I can explain the difference, but, basically, HDR is a 32-bit FILE, while tone-mapping is what gives you that crazy/cool/amazing HDR LOOK. This “HDR Look” is what I, and most HDR aficionados, are obsessed with–not file formats. But the two terms get confused and swapped and then they lose their relevance. So, it’s super cool to have an HDR feature on the Red Epic, but you STILL HAVE TO TONE MAP THAT S#*T! And I’m not aware of any video tone-mapping software except Atlas, but it only runs on a PC, and I’m not sure how good the effect really is. And tone-mapping’s the hard part. It’s really at the heart, and art, of HDR photography. . . . But, the guys over at Soviet Montage, impressively, pulled it off. Here’s how they did it:

Video is captured on two Canon 5D mark II DSLRs, each capturing the exact same subject via a beam splitter. The cameras are configured so that they record different exposure values, e.g., one camera is overexposed, the other underexposed. After the footage has been recorded, we use a variety of HDR processing tools to combine the video from the two cameras, yielding the clips you see above.

Okay, this is spectacularly awesome, and I applaud Soviet Montage’s initiative and determination to get this done. But, they’ve posted nothing since, and have yet to explain their post-production workflow. :( This leads me to believe that their process is complicated (Two 5Ds hooked to a beam-splitter? Ugh.) and not very actionable in a real-world setting, although I could be completely wrong once I see the workflow. . . . I needed something better. I needed something 1) cheaper 2) less complex and 3) JUST AS COOL-LOOKING. That 3rd part is the really hard part.

The humble $800 Canon T2i does NOT, in fact, have an HDR video feature and will NOT give you 18 stops of dynamic range. In fact, it’s dynamic range is pretty limited and the image is crippled (like most current DSLRS) with line-skipping, pixel-binning, moire, aliasing, and various video noise/artifacts. But, I love these cameras, and they truly are a revolution in filmmaking. For $800, it’s almost criminal what you can pull off with the Canon T2i and the right lens. I’ve shot some of my best pictures and video on the T2i, and for all its drawbacks, it kicks every other video camera’s ass. Period. And there’s all sorts of reasons for that, but even the fact that you can attach an L Series Canon lens to a $800 $700 camera with a SUPER 35-SIZED SENSOR is downright outrageous. Outrageous and so, so sweet for us filmmakers.

All of this is a big lead-up to the central question: how do I create HDR tone-mapped images from 8-bit T2i video (which is compressed to hell, has visible moire, and nasty aliasing)? I wasn’t sure at first, but now I am. Check out the screen grabs from my HDR video tests. These are NOT tone-mapped HDR photographs. These are from actual T2i footage that I shot over the last year. And the workflow and method I’ve devised is actually fairly realistic and workable, all for under $800, with no beam-splitters, no fancy rigs, etc. Check them out! I will have my HDR video test up very soon, if not in the next day or so. Once I get some feedback on the test video, and if there’s enough interest and people think it looks cool enough, I’ll do a post on my Canon T2i HDR Video workflow–all with average footage, straight out of the camera. I’m pretty excited about all this, so stay tuned, and in the meantime, go out and shoot some video/pictures already! ;0)

Intro and Welcome!

Hello, Everyone!

This is my very first blog post, so forgive me as I get up to speed on this–although, I don’t anticipate it taking too long. (WordPress is pretty straightforward.) I intend to use this blog to highlight my film/TV projects and photography, as well as discuss anything of interest to me. I also look forward to sharing my production/post-production workflow and any advice/wisdom I’ve gained from the last 9 years in the entertainment business in Los Angeles. I’ve got some exciting material to share very soon, so stay tuned. Thanks for stopping by, and please feel free to leave comments below! :D

Sincerely,

Stephen

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