I've been a car-lover all my life, and began shooting car races in the 80s. Of course, the television selection for today's enthusiasts consists of "go fast, turn left" reruns, bogus reality, or cheese mixed with T&A. I decided to make something fun to watch, so I grabbed my HD camera, paid some event entry fees and created a true reality ongoing documentary called "Moddin' Art." While I shoot in HD, and edit on state of the art gear, I take great strides not to overproduce this show. Think of "Moddin' Art" as glamorized home movies.
Now, I travel the nation shooting races, shows and meets as a participant, not a spectator. Still paying my own entry fees too. The show's point of view is often from the driver's seat. I drag race, rally race, autocross, drift...and when I'm home, I add performance mods sitting in my own driveway. Hey, nothing goes un-modded around here.
I've mentioned my modded camera in the Cow's Cinemtatography community, and I've had a few folks ask about it. I shoot HDV with a Sony FX1 but you can apply these principles and some creativity to any camera.
Specializing in reality, motorsports and documentaries, I have found there are two major drags to turning each shot into a major production in itself...time, and the fact that you are usually shooting people not used to being in front of the camera. Because life is what is happening as one prepares for a shot, I customized my camera to better suit my needs.
Funky lookin', I know. It can be treated as the teddy bear in a children's photography studio, if needed.
I'll start with that weird lookin' light. I shoot dawn to dusk, in many cases. While I have a sweet light kit, it's just not always feasible to tote. I did a quick Google search for small camcorder lights. I found this one for 15 bucks, I believe. I velcroed it in place so I can remove it at any time, it runs on its own AAA batteries and with just a little creativity, it was able to fit the bill for what I needed.
But it was pretty harsh with those LEDs in a brother's face, so I added some gels -- colored sheets of plastic designed to alter the temps, shades and hues of light color. They are in every light kit and can be purchased in single sheets. I just grabbed some scissors and cut some corners off of some and I can still use the rest of the sheet from ones I robbed corners from. For interviews and such, I clip just the right amount of warmth from my gels, and scotch-tape 'em over the light. It warms the talent and removes the squint from 'em.
Man, I need light sometimes and this velcro special does the trick. I gelled it because it's harsh and was too blue. This scotch tape patch job does exactly what I need.
And check it out! Totally convertible for those really dark shots. Only one more piece of tape to get the whole gel assembly out of the way.
This is technology at its finest.
You know that rule you've been told about never using the on-camera mic because it's not good enough? The very first thing any student who learns a new rule should do is go out and break it.
I just cannot be slowed down with wires and such when shooting action sports and reality. I really like to use the camera mic as much as possible. It's fast, it's unobtrusive, and the FX-1's stocker is great. I literally just lean in on whoever is throwing me some words when I can get away with it.
Plus, it really disarms the people I interview. These are usually man on the street interviews and these folks have never done TV before. Using the camera mic, I'm just a dude with a camcorder, unlike the TV crews who light, mic and scare the hell out of everyone they interview. I can't use takes where people are scared, stale or offering a deer in the headlights vibe. I call 'em “dude” in hopes that they'll relax and do the same.
There are those times when you simply have to mic somebody so I created this little time-saver.
I keep the receiver for the wireless lav mounted and ready to rock at all times. See that little cable coming from it? I just plug that part in, clip the talent and turn it on.
It's mounted with a mic mount I stole off of a cheezy little A/B mixer. It slides off for battery replacement and it's inverted so I have access to the on/off switch....and I can use its antenna for a sweet gel convertible holder. lol If you don't have an old mixer to swipe parts from, just Velcro something together. Cuts my digging and hook up time in half.
Now, the FX-1 is not really a small camera. I do a lot of traveling and there were certain puddle-jumper flights where I had to check my camera at the gate. One go of watching some dude over-hand this thing into the hull of a plane was enough to get me wondering how I could carry it on no matter what size of a plane I was flying on.
By simply removing the view-finder, I shaved inches from its size and it now fits easily into a regular duffle bag. I don't even take my camera case out of town with me now.
Four pairs of undies and 2 t-shirts pads it perfectly, and allows for easy search access by airport security.
I lose nothing by losing the viewfinder because I use the LCD screen without exception. I'm far-sighted so I can actually mount the camera on the front of my shoulder and kind of leeeaaan back when shooting talking heads. Works awesome for stabilization.
You'll see me use that top handle a lot too. If shooting action, I'm usually under-handed.
Camera still weighs less than 5 lbs as-is. I can shoot for 18 hours straight without so much as a sore arm the next day.
Lastly, I keep the mount plate for the tripod on it at all times. Not that I use sticks much but again, it saves time should I need, but I also like the added weight and protection at the bottom. I even use it for quick locked-down worm's eye view shots, utilizing it as a support wedge. Try playing around with that and you'll see what I mean.
In summary, get creative. Feel free to cannibalize from old parts. What I have laying around will be different then what YOU have laying around. The trick is to use a part of of something not needed in one place, to get what you need in another. This is vital in modding, refurbing and customizing in general. Your camera was made for the general industry and that's not who you are.
Mod and share. Tell us what you've got and we'll see what else we can do. Soon we'll have a two-handled, ambidextrous, lit from the side not the front, sweet shotgun-totin', self-steadied, high definition bad boy.
Sacrifices must be made. Click to play, 4.5 MB Windows Media Video.
For now, I'm off to the races again. I'll be keeping in mind what I learned in Sacramento. This is mondo importanto. If you've gone drag racing in your rental, it is a good idea to get rid of your racing number before you return your car. Otherwise they'll be like “Dude, you been drag racing our car?” and you'll have to be, “Oh wow, I didn't know I wasn't supposed to do that.” I've got that video and others, including one where I was busted doing 144 mph, at ModdinArt.com.
And if you want to talk some more about moddin' cameras, spin through the Cow's Cinematography community.