From stills to motion: my experience

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I could get used to this.

A few weeks ago, I made my little directorial debut in the form of a TV commercial for Nissan. Unusually for this industry, there was no agency involved; I developed the board with the client and we dealt directly. I suppose that’s also how I landed up being director. The dust has settled, the post-shoot euphoric rush has somewhat calmed down, and I’m now able to put some coherent thoughts together on the whole experience and what it means for my career in the long term.

The honest truth is that for the longest time, I didn’t ever think I could make the jump. I simply couldn’t see beyond single frames; firstly in the form of still life/ product setups – such as the ones I do for my watch or architecture photography – and then later on during my reportage work. You work so hard to condense all elements of the story into a single frame that expanding it into a sequence seems almost like the easy way out, because causality is fixed and dictated directly to your audience. And let’s not even talk about cuts and transitions – where do you use fades? Wipes? Direct cuts? How much should the camera move? Pan or track? Etc. It was a foreign world, and one that I simply didn’t understand.

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In early 2010, a job in a previous life required me to produce a short corporate video for a project my company was doing and that I was managing. Being the control freak and generally creative person I am, I developed the board together with the production house and was on set for the entire thing. I doubt I contributed anything useful, but I definitely did learn a lot about how these things worked behind the scenes and the roles of each person. At the time, digital filmmaking revolved mostly around DSLRs; we shot the production on a 5DII with adapted C/Y Zeiss lenses. Coincidentally, I also happened to be using identical lenses – the ZF.2s are mostly based on the C/Y designs, with the exception of the 15/21/55 and 135 – and I made it my aim to match the end video result as closely as possible because we also needed production stills for the project.

That was the start of cinematic for me: I learned quickly about color grading, mood, use of foreground, implied motion, wide angles vs involvement and detachment etc. A couple of years of developing that, and I believe my work in that style is as good as any. But what I didn’t know was that the circle would complete itself several years later. In the meantime, a Sony NEX 5 found itself into my possession; being a very capable video camera, and able to take the adapted ZF lenses, I made a few (embarrassingly horrible) short films as experiments in motion and pulling focus. I believe minimal effort with google and youtube will reveal them, if one is morbidly curious. There were a few cigar review videos in there too, which I don’t consider to be that exciting – other than for the challenge of operating the camera and pulling focus on yourself while you’re presenting.

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In 2013, I created a board for another healthcare client, which I advised on during production, and operated the second camera. That raised my involvement another notch – and piqued my interest. I could script a scene, I could figure out the lighting (essentially the same as I’d use for stills, but just more of it and continuous) and the camera moves. Putting the whole thing together was still some distance off. The client was pleased with the result (I keep meaning to do an on-assignment post about this, but haven’t gotten around to it yet). There have of course been the very popular workshop videos – however those are more about an instructional objective rather than pure cinematography, though we do try very hard to make the whole thing visually beautiful.

The Nissan commercial – I obviously cannot reveal the car or any more than a few of the lifestyle-type images yet, as launch date is still a little way away – was I believe the start of something for me. I’ve been feeling somewhat ambivalent about still photography for a while; commercial work is usually to-spec for clients and has little room for creative interpretation. You can obviously still shoot for yourself, but if you’re back to back between the eyepiece and Photoshop, sometimes you just want to do something different to keep the creativity alive. I won’t hide the amount of prep work, client management and revisions to the board that took place before the actual shoot – but the four days we were rolling put me on one hell of a high. We have some amazing footage; the team worked like a well-oiled machine and the client was happy.

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Here’s where the circle completes: the assistant director was the same as the one on the 2010 video; as was the DOP. What I didn’t know until a few days into the shoot was that the DOP (Eric Yeong, arranged by my producers) was possibly the best in the country – responsible for many awards and the highest grossing Malaysian film of all time over a 20-year career. And yet Eric, like the rest of the team – was one of the nicest, most humbly unassuming guys you could ever meet. So, it’s no surprise that in the end, the way Eric interpreted the individual shots in the board gelled perfectly with what I had in mind – after all, he’d heavily influenced my understanding of the style several years back.

I’ve pieced together from the crew a few surprising things: firstly, this was an unusually smooth shoot; everything worked, the weather was perfect for all the critical master shots, it rained when we needed it to (long story) and didn’t when we didn’t; personalities didn’t clash and the entire team* did a fantastic job. I think it’s fair to say that everybody left on a high. Secondly, I’ve taken an unconventional route (yet again); photographers usually transition to be DOPs rather than directors; directors are usually ADs first or unit directors. Thirdly, the directors don’t do that much on shoot day: their job isn’t to coordinate (that’s the AD) but to focus on locking the shots, continuity, story and ensuring the board and their vision of the final output gets translated properly on film.

*Executive producer – Adam Lokman; Line producer – Farid Yusof; Assistant director – Prinz Joseph; DOP – Eric Yeong; Key Grip – Boy Singh; Art director – Iskandar; our talents Kubilay and Leticia; Foo, Nadia, Hanif, Simon and all of the dozens of no less critical crew. I am hugely grateful to you all for making my first production a smooth one; and I apologise if I unwittingly did anything stupid.

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However, the biggest surprise was that the crew were really specialists: they didn’t all aspire to be executive producers or directors. A lot of them chose those specific roles because they best suited their strengths and personalities; the resultant level of commitment and professionalism would honestly shame every single one of the ‘professional’ organisations I’ve worked for in the past. Things are done right, or not at all – as long as it takes and as much effort as it requires. When you want to be there, care about your job and actually take pride in your work – the results are on a different level.

I left the job very much on a high. I believe that this is the direction I’m going to be heading in from now on; directing and writing frees me from the necessity of post processing and logistics; it gives me larger budgets and more freedom of expression; and a wider audience. I can focus on the shot instead of everything else that goes on around it. It isn’t a lonely solo pursuit; working with a team of that caliber was something much, much better. I believe the expectations are necessarily much higher, but this is really a situation in which the sum of the parts of the team is much greater than the individuals. And there’s no question I’d love to have the opportunity to do it again.

As for the commercial, I’ll of course post it here as soon as the embargo is lifted – together with an on-assignment behind the scenes. [Edit: that was written a little while ago; the commercial is now on youtube and the on-assignment is in the works.] I suppose now it’s time for me to cut a reel and update my profile. In the meantime, I’ve applied the lessons learned here to the workshop videos – both those we recently released like HTS3: Penang, and the forthcoming Melbourne, Havana and Monohrome Masterclass videos. Anybody need a director? :) MT

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Somebody failed to mention that a Red Epic-X is not a DSLR. It certainly isn’t as ergonomic or light as one – and that EVF is about the size of the Olympus 75/1.8; shooting it this way is definitely masochistic – perhaps that explains the labelling of the switch under the shutter button…

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Comments

  1. Very interesting to see you getting in to video Ming, you may be interested in this guy if you haven’t already encountered him
    a very accomplished videographer with a great blog similar to your own, http://philipbloom.net/

  2. Congratulations on the successful first venture! Now that I read the article, I find it impossible to view the commercial as a “normal” spectator, without focusing on compositions and lighting and being frustrated about the shortness of each cut and wanting to pause/rewind all the time. Hopefully watching movies doesn’t become a similar experience one day…

    I can see from the article and your comments that it has been an extremely inspiring effort. Hopefully you will keep sharing the nuggets of experience that translate into still photography. Cinematic was always my personal favourite of your styles.

    • Haha, thanks. I find myself doing the same with movies now: it’s not so much the compositions but the camera movements and how cleverly (or not) they’ve hidden the tracks or worked with other motion control devices…

  3. Fascinating development. I was/am a photographer first. I started photography at 12 years old and still do a bit now, although not for paid work. I’m now a feature film director and DP/camera operator to some degree. I deeply enjoy your website and imagine I will find it even more interesting in the future if you begin video coverage. I’ve been shooting music videos and corporate work with the GH4 of late and am simply loving the speed and quality that I can capture with little or no crew. The realization that still photography is about to drastically change came from this little camera. When you can grab a still frame of surprisingly high quality from every frame, you can see the writing on the wall. 8K cameras are no more than 3 years away. Imagine the implications then. Anyway, I digress. The best directors are slaves to nobody, meaning that they have sufficient understanding of all the technical goings on on set and in post. You should sample as much as you can in terms of positions on set. I would love to see your work as a DP as I imagine you would be truly superb at it. Congrats on the commercial. It was very well shot. I won’t praise it beyond that as that would be disingenuous. The very nature of shooting commercials for a client like Nissan greatly limits the chances of authentic creative content. I would love to see you shoot your own creative work. I have a sneaky suspicion it would be fantastic. I’m seeing your amazing architectural work…but moving. Now that would be something.

    • Thank you. 8k cameras – enormous storage/ computing requirements? :) I’m already struggling with the 645Z’s single files away from my desktop.

      I’m also glad you understand the realities of client work like this…

      Moving architecture is interesting. Something to work on when I have some free time…thanks for the idea!

  4. Congratulations! It sounds like you needed to shake things up a bit if you were feeling so ambivalent about your still work. I look forward to viewing the video when you are allowed to share it. I’m especially curious to see how your still photography style carries over to your video commercial. Also, I won’t be surprised if your video work somehow improves your still work, the same way, I’m sure, that your excellent still work has undoubtedly enhanced your video.

  5. Congratulations on the satisfying experience. Very interesting indeed and very hard not to envision this as more likely than not opening a glimpse onto your next career transition.

  6. OC Mike says:

    Ming, mark my words, “you will go on to win an Oscar from the Academy.” We really need the infusion of new creative directors that bring amazing images into film. But you won’t be the first, nor the last but I believe that you will go on to make great movies. You will never believe what my favorite movie is, for one that was filmed by a photographer turned cinematographer. And your destiny is now intertwined. The movie is called: The American. The director was Anton Corbijn. This is now your homework assignment. Your style will be different than Corbijn’s style. But equally as great! Now, you will have to watch or re-watch this movie. You can SEE CORBIJN’S PHOTO STYLE. I won’t say anything more because I want you to discover it yourself!!!

    • I wish! These are commercial beginnings with no artistic pretensions whatsoever. Unfortunately filmmaking is something that requires very, very deep pockets…

      Actually, Kubrick started out as a photographer – a really, really good one; it’s just that he went on to become a phenomenal director.

      Will check out Anton Corbijn – thanks for the tip.

    • You guys do realize that once one is doing feature films it’s virtually unknown to have a Director also doing the Cinematography. The director of photography and the director both have too much to be doing to be covering both bases. One of the few that TRY to do that is director Steven Soderbergh … “Ocean’s 11″ for instance … and he does a poor job of the cinematography. Typically simple flat light … because he can’t devote the required time to do it right. The basic lighting he leaves up to his Gaffer. On his well shot movies like Sex, Lies and Videotape and Erin Brockovich he employed talented Dp’s. Someone like Kubrick who DID have his hand in the cinematography is VERY exceptional, but even he also employed terrific Dp’s like John Alcott. Motion picture lighting is all about being able to maintain a constant look, at least throughout a scene that might take place over a day with changing lighting conditions. In interior scenes one must maintain even lighting and exposure on the set while there is moving action within the set, ie. people moving closer to lights. Once edited together shots done at very different times must match. Ming is a terrific photographer. I love his graphic compositions. But I think he would be the first to agree that becoming an excellent Director and a world class LiGHTING Dp are two different things. I’m sure he will do very well for himself. I join everyone in being excited about watching his progress.

      • You definitely can’t DOP and direct at the same time; operating that particular camera isn’t a skill I have yet, but that doesn’t mean I’m not in charge of the framing and movement; I just get a much more experienced person to execute (in this case, one of Malaysia’s top DOPs, Eric Yeong).

        • Eric Yeong’s camera work and lighting was Top Notch … pretty much equal to the Top Car Shooters that I work with here in Los Angeles. You guys will make an excellent team.

  7. Enjoy the experience as much as you can! Putting a commercial together is an absolute beast. An old friend of mine edits and pulls together trailers for movies and the effort required is incredible. Heck even his own 2-3 minute productions take a month of personal time to get all the effects, cgi and music into a cohesive clip.

    The other thing with video is its much harder/perceived less acceptable to ‘rip off’ than stills…

    • There were close to 50 cuts planned for the original 60s version – and each of those could take hours to set up. One CG scene, but that got thrown out of the window. As for ripping off – you can follow the same plot/ style, but it’d be obvious…

  8. How very wonderful for you, Ming… !! :)

  9. John Brady says:

    Ming, I’ve been folllowing your blog for a couple of years. I applaud your continued desire to learn and develop into new areas. I’m intrigued that you tend to abstract the individual from the image-making process; it strikes me that some of my favourite film directors (Kubrick, Nolan) do the same and have a similarly intellectual and distanced style. I’d be interested to see what you could do if you turned your hand to other forms of story-telling.

    • No abstraction of the individual here – it’s not what the client wanted – but the reason I do it is twofold: if you go after a specific individual, I think you’re very much dependent on them to carry through the idea; an idea should be stronger than that. Beyond that, there are issues with using those images as fine art and selling them – most of these opportunities are candid and you certainly don’t have time to get a model release (and might not get one anyway). I could use a coordinated actor, but I’d rather not because that would completely remove the spontaneity of it all.

  10. I think this is a wonderful direction for you to be headed, Ming. Your intelligence, leadership, and visual talent will translate very well. As a film & tv veteran – almost 40 years as a writer/producer/director here in the States – I can vouch for the sheer fun to be had on a set. Also for the grind it can be when things aren’t going well. But you’re very right – film crews define the word professional and are the backbone of the industry.

    One more thing – a piece of advice: take an acting class or join an acting/directing workshop. It will open up another world and help your directing immensely.

  11. Quentin Newark says:

    Hmmm. I am bewildered by the well-wishers. The usual ‘lies’ of car adverts. That the purchase of a car will make you ‘great’. That there are no other cars on the road. My memory is that KL is thick with static traffic. This is a monumental come-down for you, Ming. Whereas with non-client street and architecture and wifely still photographs you at least exerted some control over the content, here it is pap. Deleterious pap. (In that cars do us all damage, both very literally in the hundreds of thousand of road deaths, and environmentally.) Not to mention the financial silliness of buying such expensive vehicles. The scene where the actor is applauded for his fake “greatness” is toe-curling in its falseness. A depressing turn.

    • Perhaps you should try working with a commercial client in Malaysia. You do not realise that these projects are not a blank slate for you to do whatever you wish. You’re given a tight concept brief and are expected to stick to it – was greatness my choice? Absolutely not – and in the end, the client still has final say in the edit. You’ll notice that nobody else has commented on the plot because they all know it’s a commissioned TV commercial, not an entry to Sundance or Cannes.

  12. Great job on the commercial – impressive to start at that level.

    Your new passion may be our loss for those that consistently read your excellent blog, but as a wise man who grew up a bit north of you said a very long time ago, “they must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom”

  13. Let me join the chorus of well-wishers here: congratulations! I’m glad to know that you’ve found a new kind of image-making that’s inspirational — I think you still have a lot to contribute to both still and perhaps now motion pictures.

    I’m approximately 100% sure this is the video. :) Anyone who doesn’t recognize the clouds, light, composition, reflections, color, and a few other things in the first second of the video is probably blind. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2wYDJXMyxY

    I’m curious if you’ve found differences in composition for still vs. motion. I think your sense of it has changed from your first How To See video to the latest ones. The first ones tended to be static, sort of like how many Canon 5DII videos first looked as still photographers started experimenting with video. The later ones do still have still image composition, but work better. The other extreme are motion pictures which have terrible composition if you freeze-frame them, but that’s because the composition only becomes apparent over time.

    • Thanks Andre. Yep, that’s the one – but the 30s cut is a product catalog more than anything, at the client’s direction. The longer one is better – I get to include more of the spectacular cinematic takes…

      Definitely differences in composition – don’t forget that the workshop videos are actually very tricky to coordinate because I’m directing the cameraman, trying to visualise his shots of me, so I need to be conscious of the way I’m moving/ standing/ lit, the way he’s moving, and on top of that looking for photographic opportunities to make my usual standard of images AND explaining what’s going on – part of the reason the earlier ones were static was because I simply hadn’t gotten used to coordinating so many things in my head at the same time. The later videos have more experience under both our belts. Can’t even use a larger team because it’s too conspicuous.

      We can’t do too much moving composition anyway because I don’t want the cinematography to become distracting – it should be transparent. But like for stills, figuring out just how much motion/foreground/cut duration appears ‘natural’ and allows the subject to be noticed instead of the capture of it is very, very tricky and requires much experimentation…

  14. Exciting indeed. Good luck and best wishes on this new exciting journey.

  15. Michael Matthews says:

    Congratulations. You’ve been moving toward this as another facet of your work for some time and it may become the dominant interest. I doubt, though, that the shift will fully displace your involvement in still photography as art. When it comes to motion, though, the most important thing disclosed in your post is the full understanding and appreciation you have for the collaborative effort. As long as you have access to people with the level of skill, interest, and compatibility you’ve described this will only become more and more satisfying. All you need now are clients who are neither insane nor compulsive micromanagers. Find your way past that and the future is golden.

  16. Hi Ming, I am Danyealah and I am a young writer/blogger/poet. I really enjoyed reading this post – so interesting to learn about your experience in film and working creatively with a team. Congrats!

  17. If you bring to video the same commitment and enthusiasm that you do with photography, I can’t see you not succeeding. I shall have a look at this advertisement – although I know little to nothing about video, so I doubt I will be able to appreciate it as much as I do your still photos.

    I have to single out a particular line from this article –

    “When you want to be there, care about your job and actually take pride in your work – the results are on a different level.”

    Words to live by, although precious few people live by them.

    • It’s a lot larger operation to produce a video compared to a stills shoot at the same level – and that in itself is likely to limit how much I do in this field. Resources required are significantly larger. That’s not to say that the lessons learned here haven’t already been applied to the most recent workshop videos – both those launched and still in final production…

  18. Thanks for sharing your experience with video. I’m thrilled that you’re moving in this direction, and I look forward to learning more from you about video. I appreciate all of your posts.

  19. Interesting to compare the post processing in your stills to the ad – does the grading process differ much from your Photoshop workflow (curves etc)?

  20. Just saw the ad (at least a one minute version of it – it’s already online). Very good piece – will wait for the forthcoming behind-the-scenes post to ask some questions. :) The car indoor shots have a very similar lighting that you use in your product shots, as you said.

    I have a huge interest in video / filming – in fact, I’ve become interested in photography after buying a Panasonic GH2 to record some concerts that I attend, and discovering that the little beast could take some interesting stills. Double passion.

    About the E-M1, would like that it have a better video mode too – I have a E-M10 and (as far as I know) it have a very similar video quality; it’s good, but my GX7 is much better for video (is more about the camera’s codec than the bitrate – Panasonic knows some tricks about it, it is why the GH4 have a insane 4k video quality). The IBIS is amazing for handheld shots, even in the E-M10, but the somewhat weak codec and the lack of the 24p mode were deal breakers.

    And Olympus already suggested in some interviews that high bitrates with the 5-axis IBIS are preoblematic – hard to attach a larger heatsink in the floating sensor, which makes sense. Hope that the overcome the problem, I would buy a 5-axis IBIS camera with better video in a heartbeat.

  21. A wonderful direction to take Ming! A perfect application of your talents.

  22. You already revealed the car in the photo with the slate

  23. hans-joachim Benndorf says:

    Very interesting read. I am happy for You that ‘new things’ seem to develop so nicely. Wish You all the best. I am an avid reader of Your articles and learned a thing or two. Cheers

  24. Makofoto says:

    Slates missing something important. “Slates For Sarah”

  25. 2019: Academy Award! ;-)

  26. Congrats, Ming! I knew it was a great assignment and that you were loving it. I suppose it was only a matter of time until you set your sights on a new horizon. Go get ‘em! And call me for music! :)

  27. Maybe you will find the Nikon D810 usefull for video…

    • Possibly, though I really like the fluidity of shooting handheld (but still stabilised) with the E-M1. Sadly the bitrate could be a lot higher…

      • sgreszcz says:

        Ming,

        Very interesting post! I enjoy reading about photographers that make the transition from stills to motion, like Vincent Laforet.

        I am looking forward to more of these posts as well as any of your thoughts, configurations, and experiences shooting video with the olympus cameras (which have the great ibis but poor codec). Andrew Reid at eoshd has a good write up, but I would love to hear from you.

        Thanks,

        Stephen

        • Thanks – we used a Red Epic on this assignment.

          • sgreszcz says:

            Ming,

            I did assume you used the epic for the commercial :)

            I remember reading about you using the em1 for personal video work. I would love to hear your experiences with that. I have used the em5/ep5 and can get some great images, but sometimes the output becomes really blocky when there is too much happening in the frame.

            • Ah yes – we have the same problems with insufficient bitrate in some situations, but we also find that the stabiliser, size and general unobtrusiveness of the whole thing mean that you can get some very dynamic and candid footage…

            • FWIW, I think Ming’s later videos shot with the M1 (is it basically all of them except for the first 2 or 3?) don’t have block-up problems. I remember the first ones, especially the ones where we’d be looking through the M5’s viewfinder (I miss that view, BTW) would block up badly when there’s a pan across some high-frequency detail object, like an office building.

              • The first two were shot with the E-M5 and D600. I can’t do the VF view anymore because I’m not using an EVF camera for stills; it doesn’t make sense to compromise the workflow for this because it wouldn’t be representative anymore – and changing the equipment changes the way you shoot which in turn changes the result…it’s a bit like quantum mechanics :)

                That said, I liked it too and we’re looking for a solution – I’d love to be able to offer that perspective again in future if we can find suitable hardware.

                • Okay, thanks for the explanation. I’m not holding my breath for an EVF camera that will be able to meet all of your requirements. Maybe if pigs start flying and Nikon makes an F-mount mirrorless camera that is not a compete disaster …

      • Congratulations, well done! As for the stabilised E-M1 I can only agree with you. If only Olympus would listen and add some more video-friendly features…
        BTW, you may want to obfuscate the first photo a little bit…

  28. Congrats, I’m sure it will be incredible. I hope that you carry your analytical/fundamental approach applied to video back here. You have greatly helped my photography. Perhaps with your efforts you will help many who like me “hate” taking video (because they always turn out boring) become more adept at the medium.

  29. Oooooh! That’s an interesting development. All the best Ming! We look forward to some interesting posts down this route.

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