Walter Schoenknecht /
01.12.2009
The Wizard Takes a Holiday
Nobody likes off-the-shelf. And shooters are no exception. You've got diamond plate running boards on your SUV. You've added window awnings to your vinyl-sided tract home. Your aftermarket cell phone case is emblazoned with the logo of your favorite estate-bottled Belgian ale, and your ringtone is a Deep Purple song so obscure that the band members don't remember it.

Not everybody understands your motives. It's not simply a case of marking your turf; your desire to customize arises out of a hope that you can make each thing you touch better than it was before.

And as a shooter, you're confident that you can achieve a "look" so rich, or so fresh, or warm, or vibrant, that your crew will be the only one in town booking five days a week. Or maybe six!

The key, of course, is a camera setup that looks better than any off-the-shelf package sold anywhere. Somehow, you'd need to start with the same pile of circuitry and glass that everyone else owns, yet wind up with a far, far superior rig than your competitors. And that's how you discovered The Wizard.

By definition, The Wizard lives far away, off the beaten path; it's a miracle you ever found him at all. The Wizard has a workshop. He used to work alone, but so many supplicants have found him and his workshop that he's needed help; his cabal consists mostly of silent Asian men, retired as camera technicians from each of the major manufacturers.

You bring, or send, your pitiful off-the-shelf camera to The Wizard, and he nods knowingly. For a fee (seemingly far less than it ought to be), he'll remove the mass-produced stigma from your baby, and infuse it with a uniqueness all its own—all your own. He'll do all the things the manuals prohibit: swap some resistors and capacitors; adjust gammas and enhancers; and most of all, fiddle about with the matrix, the heart of the analog camera's picture processing chain. You'll now shoot with a tweaked-up, hot-rodded, one-of-kind precision instrument. And The Wizard's recipe will go with him to the grave.

There's trouble in the wind, though, for The Wizard and his ilk. Chalk it up to the Internet, or to that ephemeral "Digital Convergence" we've heard so much about; or simply acknowledge the passing of an era—but the magical powers have passed into the hands of Everyman, and the genie's out of the bottle.

HARD TIMES FOR WIZARDS

These days, it seems, the ability to aggressively control the colorimetry, the texture, and the "look" of your camera rests more in the hands of strangers, members of any of several "communities of interest" clustered around your particular model of camera. For it's here that you're likely to find other shooters' camera setup files posted for swaps and comparisons. Unlike those first-generation setup cards, today's files touch virtually every parameter of a modern, microprocessor-controlled camera. As a result, the degree of customization is absolute, as long as you're willing to step up to the task of modifying, testing and experimenting.

Creating new shooting profiles from scratch, though, can be a daunting exercise; your camera's a blank canvas. Actually, it's more like a blank paint-by-number canvas, since all the values are already filled in with defaults. Which ones to change? Which ones will affect the overall look more than others? You'd better hope for a production dry spell, so you'll have plenty of time to diddle all the parameters.

Or… you can start with someone else's numbers. The Sony XDCAM shooters have their Picture Profile datasets posted in any of several forums and communities; tune in elsewhere to find the Panasonic P2 family parameters. Creative Planet's 2-Pop forums host boards for both, as do a variety of other outlets; and the manufacturers' own Web sites often serve as a resource for downloadable profiles and advice on tweaks.

SORCERY MOURNED

The missing element, of course, is the romance provided by The Wizard. His was a true secret society—no one knew exactly which shooters' rigs he'd worked on, and each suspected that his own camera setup was not only unique, but was intentionally superior to his competitors' setups.

One friend, based in Detroit, recounts visits to his East Coast Wizard with great relish, talking about the exotic setup charts and tools he saw there, and insisting that he'd demanded to be present while his camera was serviced. Wishful thinking, in my book—you'd more likely convince Coca-Cola to part with its recipe than observe The Wizard at work.

But romance and mythology don't feed the kitty cat, and I know a whole pile of people who wouldn't trade their self-tweaked PMW-EX3's or HPX-170's for an old analog beast at any price. And I know for a fact that they don't miss their yearly tithe to the Old Wizards' Fund.

Reminds me of a scene from a movie: "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain…" True that.

Walter Schoenknecht is a partner at Midnight Media Group Inc., a New York-area digital production facility. You can reach him via e-mail at walter@mmgi.tv.



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1.
Posted by: Brian Smith
Sat, 01-31-2009 - 1:24PM Report Comment
Having a client spew coffee because the wedding cake looks nuclear...no fun. Be sure to gauge each shoot's tolerance for experimentation.
2.
Posted by: Brian Smith
Sat, 01-31-2009 - 1:21PM Report Comment
A customed set of values won't always provide awesome pictures under any conditions; those values need to be changed for the lighting conditions of the subject/scene. And do you remember the thrill of creating fake white balances? Or white balancing through or on blue gel? And the agony of going with a preset WB, looking through a B&W viewfinder (gnarly), only to get back to the shop to find out the ski slope looks blue. Aaauugh!!! Got to love videography!!! The great thing about shooing broadcast news is shooting every day, and having some leway to try a faked out whitebalance, and if the results where a little too off true color, being able to go back out the next day and try to nail it again. That was fun!




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