When I bought a Canon 60D at the beginning of 2011, I quickly realized I was going to need some sort of mounting rig, as well as handheld support. DSLR cameras are simply not designed to move the way traditional video cameras do, and the controls, especially camera start/stop, are inconvenient at best. So a rail and cage system for mounting accessories, as well as a shoulder mount that faciliates handheld shooting are pretty much necessities if you’re using it as your “A” camera on shoots.
If you’ve researched mounting rigs, rails, and shoulder supports, you probably know that the quality of design and prices vary wildly. Zacuto’s offerings are widely acknowledged as the industry’s finest, but the price tag on their gear seems ridiculously overpriced to this veteran shooter. There are lesser priced offerings from Redrock Micro, Cinevate, Letus and others, but they too seem overpriced to me, especially when you consider the materials and their relatively low-tech design. That’s where CPM Filmtools comes in. They appear to be plastics company that somehow created a side business of making DSLR support gear. Their rigs differ from their competitors in that they use injected molded components. According to their website, their rail rods are made from carbon fiber, and their cages, plates and mounting components are made from carbon filled polycarbonate. The idea is that this provides strength but at lighter weights than metal based systems. CPM also makes and/or packages lots of other gear as well, like a follow focus, monitor support gear etc.
Keep in mind that many professional tripods and camera bodies (video and still) are made from carbon fiber and carbon filled polycarbonate. So these are common materials that have stood up to years of rigorous professional use in our industry. The CPM Filmtools DSLR Flyer is a combination rail mount, cage system and shoulder mount designed for use with HDSLR cameras. The package lists for $499 less shipping and includes:
Four 12″ Carbon Rails
Two 4″ carbon Rails
Two Side Grips
One Quick Release system
A small Uni Strut
A Belly Pan
An Offset Z Bracket
A Shoulder Mount Kit
A Counter Weight Kit
Buying online was quick and easy, the order shipped within 24 hours and it was delivered in 2 days. Customer service was prompt and my email questions were answered within an hour or two during business hours. So far so good on that front. So how does the CPM Filmtools DSLR Flyer rig rate?
Well…it’s a mixed bag. It is indeed light and strong. But it’s certainly not as rigid as a metal system. And while the system works, I can’t help but think that the folks that designed it don’t actually use it in professional environments, which may not be all bad considering their market. As a video professional with almost 28 years of experience, I’ve come to expect a certain level of quality to pro gear. But the line between “pro” and “consumer” started blurring a long time ago…and today, consumer gear in the hands of a professional can produce excellent results. Overall, the CPM Flyer rig is a good product, but there are some issues with the model we received that keep it from getting high marks.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the box was the really cheap quick release mounts that came with our unit. I immediately got on B&H Photo’s website and ordered two Giotto quick release systems to replace the CPM versions….and a visit to the CPM website a couple months later revealed they now offer the Giottos as an option. So I must not have been the only customer that thought the CPM quick release plates were inferior. So that’s one problem the CPM guys have fixed.
The carbon fiber rods on the system are indeed very strong and incredibly light, but when you try to slide the mounting brackets on and off, the rubber-like plastic on the rod bracket has a tendency to sort of stick. It just doesn’t slide easily the way a metal rail system does. My other major complaint is the knob screws. They’re hard to turn since they have rubbery knobs and they don’t seem to ever tighten to the point of keeping things in place. As an example, our system came with two hand grips that attach to a small rod clamp. The clamp has a 1/4 20 threaded mount on one side to screw the grips into, and another mount on the opposite side to attach to the rods. But no matter how much we tighten the knobs, the rod clamp always loosens and allows the handgrip to slide out of position. The only way to get the rod clamp tight is with a pair of pliers, which sort of defeats the purpose of thumb screws. I actually broke one of the rod clamps trying to tighten it. That’s something that likely won’t happen with metal rod clamps and rods.
The plates and brackets do stay in place using the CPM thumb screws, but like the rod clamps above, they don’t slide easily for adjustment, even if you remove the knob screws. In CPM’s defense, when I emailed CPM about problem, they did send me completely new rods (made differently) and new rod clamps for the grips. But the rod clamps appeared to be identical to the originals…and unfortunately, didn’t slide on or off the new rods any better. So I don’t think the problem is with their rods, which are nicely made, it’s with the clamps. One thing that helped was brushing a little ground graphite onto the rods, but it’s not a permanent solution.
My other complaint is the system came with no instructions. All the parts are shrink wrapped onto a flat piece of cardboard, and while the box and packing is very professional, it literally took me about 2 hours of experimenting (while looking at photos on the website) to figure out how to put the thing together. What you quickly realize is that you can configure the DSLR Flyer system in a bunch of different ways. I ended up configuring it much differently than the lone example photo on the website, and while it’s relatively easy to put the thing together, it would be a huge timesaver if you could look at some sample configurations on their website. I did notice this evening that they’ve added some tutorial videos to the site, which is helpful, but some simple instructions or sample photos are much needed.
A very nice touch with the DSLR Flyer is a counter weight kit that attaches to the back of the rig to help balance the system when shooting hand-held. But again, the mounting bracket is extremely difficult to slide on and off the carbon fiber rails. It almost feels like the 15mm holes on the brackets are too small.
Overall the system works well enough, but I’ve spent hours messing with the configuration trying to find a sweet spot that works for both hand-held and shoulder mounted shooting. You can get the system on and off a tripod pretty quickly if you want to transition from tripod to shoulder, but I’ve never found a way to balance the rig and camera on the tripod AND balance it for hand-held shooting. It seems that if you balance it for hand-held shooting, it’s back-heavy when mounted to the tripod. Balance it on the tripod and it becomes front-heavy for hand-held shooting. Theoretically you could just loosen one of the plates or brackets and slide components back and forth to re-balance, but the brackets and mounts are so “sticky” on the rails that it becomes a huge pain in the rear. Of course I could complain about the poor ergonomics and balance of a lot of DSLR rigs. In fact, many of them look just plain goofy. I have to admit the CPM rig IS a nice looking rig. The cage is a little odd looking, but aren’t they all? The best cages I’ve seen are small and fit snugly around the camera and have cutouts for battery, SD card slots, controls etc.
One other issue we’ve had is that the belly plate that holds the tripod mount doesn’t slide cleanly onto our Miller tripod head. The bottom of the CPM plate rubs up against the knob that tighens and holds the tripod plate in place. Perhaps this is an issue with the Miller tripod, but Miller products are quite popular in the video production world so it could be that the CPM plate was never tested with their products. It appears they’ve targeted their products at the mid-range shooter who’s probably using less expensive tripod systems from companies like Manfrotto, so again…not an indictment, just a fact.
Overall, I think the guys at CPM want to make a quality product and they’ve done a nice job of producing a system that is affordable, strong, lightweight and versatile. If they can fix the bracket and rod mount problems, and get their knob screws to actually hold things in place, they’d have a fantastic DSLR solution at a modest price. But as it stands now, it’s a mid-range solution that mostly works but has some issues. With a system like Zacuto, you’re not paying for materials and workmanship (although they’re top-notch), you’re paying for something that’s been field tested by experienced professionals and then tweaked to work without a lot of fuss from the end-user. That explains the big difference in price between the mid-range products and theirs. So if you’re on a budget and want a lightweight, strong rail and shoulder-mount system and can live with the problems listed, then this is a good solution. But if you make your living shooting video using DSLR cameras, there are more mature (albeit more expensive) solutions available. Bottom line, we use it quite a bit, but we don’t use the hand grips with their rod clamps because they just don’t work. I replaced them with a set from Proaim that work very well with the CPM rig. The rest of the CPM rig is solid though and gets the job done.
We recently added a Panasonic AF-100 camera along with several lenses to our shooting gear and after testing our CPM Film Tools rig with it, it became obvious we were going to need a heavier-duty rig to make the setup functional. After hours spent researching various options, I decided to take a chance on the Proaim Shoulder Rig Kit-201 from www.cinecity.com.
Here’s a direct link to what we bought.
Considering that we only shoot about once or twice a week on average, I couldn’t see spending several thousand dollars for similarly configured kits from Redrock Micro, Cinevate, Zacuto or half a dozen other support companies.
Now I already know what you’re thinking. Equipment made in India is cheap and poorly made! Well…I’m hear to tell you that I’m more than happy with the purchase and am in fact quite impressed by the quality and value of this kit. It included a camera mount, 5 rods, a variety of rod blocks and clamps, a shoulder mount, a follow focus, a matte box, and I added a Gold Mount battery plate with dual rod clamps. Customer service was very good and prompt and I received my order about a week after ordering it, which I thought was pretty fast from India. It was extremely well-packed, and I was immediately surprised by the build quality, which was mostly metal or machined aluminum. The only thing that isn’t all metal is the matte box, but I actually like the sturdy ABS plastic that it’s made from. The french flag and side flags are made from aluminum and parts of the matte box itself are also metal, so all in all it seems very sturdy.
I had read quite a few forum posts and reviews that complained about build quality, loose screws, etc. on Proaim products, but frankly I haven’t found too much to complain about. But to be safe, I did go through the gear and hand-tighten set screws and such. I’m particularly impressed by the extremely affordable follow-focus. I had read complaints that it has too much play, but the one I received has very little play and when installed properly, seems very smooth. In fact, it’s as smooth as follow focus models I’ve rented that have purchase price tags into the thousands of dollars. The Proaim V2 model that came in my kit sells for just under $300 and it’s well worth it in my opinion.
Now I have to admit the build precision of the entire kit isn’t anywhere close to what you might get from Chrosziel or Zacuto, but I don’t expect it to be for the price, which for my entire kit was under $1000. What I mean is that if you look really closely at the camera plate, you can see that the screw holes and plate itself aren’t precision machined. In layman’s terms they are slightly “off.” But it’s so slight that it doesn’t adversely affect how the gear functions.
On a couple of occasions I have had to give the camera a slight “push” when sliding it onto the quick release, but heck, I have to occasionally do that with our Vinten and Miller tripod plates as well. The camera plate itself seems very well-made and sturdy. It has a nice, heavy feel and is all metal (or aluminum). It also has a stylish look, with touches of a blue paint in various places on the otherwise mostly silver and black finish.
The best thing about their kit is all the extras thrown in for free. There are several additional gears for the follow-focus, along with a whip and a hand-crank, both of which seem very well-made and functional. The matte box comes with a variety of soft foam gaskets or “donut rings” to fit a variety of lenses, along with a couple of spares that you can custom cut to fit other lenses. The kit also comes with a rod bracket and weights to help balance the rig depending on how you configure it.
I also added their Gold-Mount plate with dual rod blocks, an item that’s not even listed or pictured on their site. I just asked off the cuff if they had an Anton-Bauer plate and surprisingly, they did! What I like about it is two rod blocks come standard with the plate and are already securely attached. They allow for mounting either vertically or horizontally on the plate rods. The gold-mount plate also came with a D-tap to lemo 4pin cable, for which I have no use, but I can probably get $50 for it on Ebay since similar cables sell for over $100 at various places. The plate was under $200 and is also well worth it, with a nice fit for Anton-Bauer and third-party branded gold mount batteries. I’ve bought gold-mount plates from places like Beillein and our batteries fit so tightly that you almost have to force them on and off. Not so with the Proaim plate, which functions exactly like an Anton-Bauer branded one.
While I like our CPM Film Tools fig and it works well for lightweight DSLRs, this Proaim kit is much more sturdy and can handle larger cameras like the AF-100, which we often use with a 2/3″ Fujinon 20x lens, along with a small teleprompter from www.onetakeonly.com, which I’ll review in another post.
We’ve been using the Canon 60D for 10 months now and I’ve already posted twice about our experiences with the camera. We’ve used it for TV commercials, marketing videos and short-form promotional videos, many of which involved on-camera talent requiring scenes with dialogue and on-camera spokespeople.
So what are my thoughts now that I’ve used it extensively? Well…you can get great results using these cameras, but when it comes to ergonomics and workflow in the field, the 60D (and DSLR cameras in general) just doesn’t compare to a dedicated professional video camera. The 60D certainly has its share of good qualities, especially its excellent video quality. It’s also generally easy to operate. But in my opinion, using DSLR cameras as your “A” camera for professional projects simply requires too many peripheral devices and convoluted cabling setups.
The two biggest issues are with sound recording and monitoring and external video monitoring. Even though the 60D has manual audio controls, unless you’re willing to load third party firmware (called Magic Lantern) every time you turn the camera on, controlling audio levels and monitoring is a convoluted process, requiring microphone preamps, a separate digital sound recorder (mainly for backup) and crazy cabling setups. You also cannot see your VU meters while shooting. The only way to check those is by way of a menu setting during your sound check. You can monitor sound through a separate field mixer or mic preamp while shooting, but it’s a bit disconcerting to not have a meter to check as well.
We’ve also experienced an odd, high-pitched noise on the auido of some of the 60D’s digital files. Oddly, the corresponding audio on our Zoom H2 recorder sounds perfect. This is significant because both signals are coming from the same mixer! We’ve ruled out the microphones, the cabling setup and the cabling itself through extensive testing. Unfortunately, we have not been able to rule out or duplicate the problem in our mixer/preamp (an ART Dual PreUSB). So it’s either an intermittent problem in this small mixer, or it’s a problem somewhere in the 60D’s audio circuitry.
Since I haven’t officially been able to rule it out, I can’t say with certainty the 60D has a problem. I will say that when I put the uncompressed .wav files recorded by the Zoom next to good audio files recorded with the 60D, they’re indistinguishable, both on the waveform and to my ears. So the perception that Canon DSLR cameras record “dirty” sound doesn’t hold water….unless of course our 60D is what’s generating that occasional high-pitched noise. My guess is it’s in the mixer, but until I can prove it I really can’t say where it’s coming from. Having the Zoom files available solved any post-production problems, but it’s still a pain to have to record separate sound.
Video monitoring is yet another pain. You can send an HDMI signal to an HDMI capable monitor, but you can’t get rid of many of Canon’s on-screen menus, such as exposure readings and center frame markings (unless you use Magic Lantern). Same goes for SD monitoring, which can be utilized with a Canon supplied cable. But the down-converted composite signal is positively awful and is only good for framing and very general exposure checks.
And sending a signal to a second monitor for client viewing is a nightmare via HDMI. You either need an LCD monitor with HDMI loop-through (I’m only aware of 2 that are available, one from Marshall and one from Lilliput); or an HDMI splitter. We already owned a $1000 LCD monitor with HDMI input, so I bought an HDMI splitter. Then I bought another one, then another one….well…you get the picture. They DON’T work. I’ve yet to figure out why, but with all three units, one from Sewell Direct, one from Monoprice, and one from B&H Photo, getting a signal on both monitors required a crazy sequence of first plugging in one monitor, then plugging in power to the splitter, then waiting 10-20 seconds and plugging in the second monitor. Occasionally this silly procedure worked, but more often than not it didn’t. Or it would send pink video to one of the two monitors.
I don’t know if there is a problem with the HDMI signal that the 60D sends, if our camera has an issue, or if the splitters are just flaky devices. But I plugged all the splitters into two other consumer HDMI monitors and experienced similarly odd and inconsistent results, so I think it’s just a case of a still emerging protocol that isn’t designed for the fast-paced and demanding environment of professional video shoots. I even received a detailed if comical tutorial from the folks at Sewel Direct (who have great customer service) on the cabling and power-on procedure.
I have recently read that the Magic Lantern firmware (which is free) is now working fairly well with the 60D, but back in the summer when I tried it, it barely worked at all. The latest version is supposed to add on-screen VU meters, headphone monitoring capability (through the A/V jack’s audio out), and an HDMI video output signal without all the standard Canon menus and markings. Why is this important? Because it would allow you to output the uncompressed HDMI signal to a separate digital video recorder and record your video to whatever format, codec and compression desired. This could save a tremendous amount of time in post since you wouldn’t have to convert the complex H.264 files that the 60D records natively. Don’t misunderstand me here, there is nothing wrong with the video quality of Canon’s native files. When shots are properly focused, lit and exposed, they look great. And according to my tests, the files are captured at 44Mb/sec, which compares very favorably to other production quality high definition formats.
But overall, if you’re used to using $30,000 plus cameras designed for professional video, you’ll hate shooting with a DSLR. And if you’re a skilled shooter, you can achieve many if not all of the same shallow depth of field results with clever use of lighting and a long lens setting. About the only time you can’t get the same look is in small rooms or tight quarters. But for my money (and the clients’) I’d rather shoot with a professional video camera any day.
We’ll still use our 60D, but we’ll be getting a new HD camera before the end of the year, most likely the Panasonic AG AF-100, primarily because we’ve shot with Panasonic professional cameras since 2004 and know and understand the menu systems, scene files etc. The AF-100 seems to achieve a nice middle-ground between the conventional DSLR cameras and pro video cameras. Once we’re up to speed with it, we’ll likely use the 60D as a “B” camera on shoots.
I should also point out that we use the 60D for still photography, and for the money, it’s a FABULOUS still camera. In the hands of skilled photographer, the camera can produce truly stunning images. I’m not sure why anyone would pay more for a 5D or 7D when you could get two 60Ds and a couple of additional lenses and in my view sacrifice almost nothing in the way of professional features.
In the last 25 years the growth of computer technology and the internet have both fundamentally changed how companies market themselves. The early to mid-nineties saw the birth of digital production. Then in the early part of this decade, digital television and the internet matured. And in the last three years, social media came of age.
Obviously this technology has had many positive effects when it comes to marketing and advertising, but in my opinion that same technology has had some negative effects as well. Most prominent is a tendency for people to think that digital workflows are inherently faster and more efficient.
When used properly, digital tools can certainly speed workflow and productivity. But two things that are still key to selling people anything is developing great ideas and producing compelling stories. Getting these right STILL requires the two things the best digital tools can’t deliver – time and experience. It’s no secret many projects have tighter deadlines and smaller budgets, and while a modest budget and quick turnaround doesn’t automatically doom a project, it certainly hampers the ability to make it stand out. That’s exactly where the value of experience comes in.
Experienced marketing professionals have typically worked on hundreds or even thousands of projects. That vast experience does two things. It gives the marketing professional great depth of knowledge about how to get projects done. And it provides a tapestry of work and ideas from which to draw upon.
Over the last 15 years here at Magnetic Image we’ve produced literally thousands of projects; from videos and print pieces to websites and social media pages. There is no substitute for that experience. When a client comes to us with a project, even if it’s something we’ve never done before, it’s a good bet that some element of that project is similar to past work. That experience does two things. It allows us draw upon our archives for ideas and workflow estimates, and because we’ve almost always done something similar, it speeds workflow.
These two things are at the heart of being a true professional, which in my opinion is any company or individual that is both fast and good. Give a group of designers a week to create something and you’ll usually get some great looking stuff. But how many designers can crank out great designs in a day? Probably not too many. The advantage these designers typically have over their less talented counterparts is experience. Certainly talent and creativity are important too, but I’ll almost always take the designer that is consistently fast and good over the designer that does great work but takes a week to do it. And rarely does the technology they’re using make any difference in the work or how fast they do it.
I see so many companies that opt to hire small, inexperienced firms to design websites or produce videos or manage their social media, and their hiring decision usually came down to being sold on the vendor’s “technology” or their “digital processes.” In this day and age, any marketing company still breathing is using advanced technology and dozens of digital processes…so I’m still amazed that smart executives are swayed by this. But darned if they aren’t. It amounts to snake-oil most of the time. But one thing is still true. The best technology simply cannot hide bad ideas, bad writing and bad storytelling.
If you don’t know what story your company needs to tell; or can’t tell that story in a compelling way; the design and execution of that story is irrelevant, and the digital tools used to produce are equally irrelevant. It’s a cliche, but experience matters. Oh does it matter!
Dick Ebersol resigned as head of NBC’s sports division on May 19th and just a few days later Joe Posnanski wrote a piece on Ebersol in Sports Illustrated’s May 30th Point After column. What struck me about the article wasn’t anything about Ebersol’s vast list of credits, or any claim about his influence on modern sports or entertainment programming. It was what Ebersol told Posnanski about the most influential thing he ever learned:
“The most important thing to me, was to tell stories.”
Ebersol said it was a lesson he learned from his first boss, the legendary sports producer Roone Arledge. Ebersol told Posnanski that television seems to be turning away from storytelling, with everything becoming fragmented and announcers making radio calls shouting about every play.
I had to chuckle and agree. I turned 50 this year, and while I can probably pass for 10 years younger (on a good hair day), I can’t help but feel a little old sometimes when discussing content for marketing and promotional projects with many clients. The idea of storytelling seems unimportant to most. Yet I still believe that a good story trumps style and glitzy design every-time. Great production values certainly never hurt a project, but a non-existent or poorly written story can kill one.
Stories engage people. They help people identify with characters, places and events. They can take viewers to a faraway time and place. They inspire, teach, make us laugh or comfort us, sometimes all at the same time. Yet many people have lost the ability to tell stories.
Over the years I’ve met with countless executives who have no idea what their corporate story is. They have no corporate identity, no focus on what they sell or what problem they solve for their customers. Most believe they sell a product or service. But people don’t buy stuff or lists of services. They buy a promise. They buy a feeling. They buy a solution. They want stuff to make their life better…to make them look and feel better or to confirm their status. They want products to make their kids smarter or their dog healthier. The best way to frame those promises is through stories.
Dick Ebersol is without a doubt a polarizing figure in sports programming. Some consider him one of the most influential executives in sports television history. Others believe he simply copied the techniques of his first boss, Roone Arledge. From helping create Saturday Night Live and producing dozens of Olympics telecasts, to choosing not to renew NFL rights in 1998 and creating the ill-conceived XFL, Ebersol certainly had his share of wins and losses in his 22-year NBC programming career.
But I’m not looking to judge Ebersol or his place in programming history. I simply think that what he said, “the most important thing…was to tell stories…” is something worth repeating in this blog post.
In lamenting the absence of storytelling in most major sports programming today, Ebersol asked Posnanski, “How are we supposed to know what’s important?” Posnanski didn’t answer him. Neither can I. Stories help us understand the world we live in. They help us identify and empathize with people across the street and across the globe. They help us understand where we’ve been, and give us the inspiration to see what’s possible.
Nobody ever taught me that stories are an important tool in marketing, advertising or television production. It’s just something I’ve believed since I was in my 20s. But I’m glad Mr. Posnanski’s article reminded me that there are still executives out there who believe it too. I just hope the next generation of executives don’t forget it.
By Chris Blair
I just completed our first broadcast project using the Canon 60D and I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the results. Using the camera is really no different than using any new piece of gear. I was apprehensive about the camera’s reliability and its quality until I got used to the controls and became comfortable with the capabilities (and limitations) of the camera.
Want proof you can do broadcast work with the Canon 60D? Here are two spots shot with the camera for HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital.
Although there are definitely drawbacks to using the Canon 60D in the field, most notably monitoring audio and using multiple monitors for client viewing, the image quality is much better than I expected and there are affordable workarounds that overcome these limitations.
I’ve shot with the 60D several times now and while the first shoot was a little nerve-racking, once we developed a reliable workflow, we’re all confortable that the camera can be considered a “professional tool.” Like any camera though, the quality you get can be directly tied to the experience and knowledge of the camera operator.
The most surprising thing about the camera is that the choice of lens is probably more important than the camera itself. It reminds me of wireless microphones. Wireless transmitters are nothing more than two-way radios and the quality of the audio from a wireless system is often more reliant on the quality of the microphone than it is to the quality of the electronics. Another surprising thing is the dynamic range the camera has. You can easily shoot at 800 or 1600 ISO with little or no noticeable grain in your image. Of course, the lower you can keep the ISO, the better your images look, with no discernable grain at all.
And while I was extremely nervous about the audio limitations of the camera, we’ve recorded long interviews with it with absolutely no issues in audio quality. While it helps that the 60D has manual audio capability built in, the camera’s biggest drawback is sill the lack of a headphone jack. We’ve overcome that by using an ART 2-channel microphone pre-amp with left/right mono out to a Zoom H2 recorder. The H2 has a headphone jack and we then feed the 60D via the 1/8″ line out of the H2. It’s not exactly an elegant solution, but it works. Another solution we’re looking into is some of the new HDMI capable LCD field monitors that have headphone jacks built in. Sony came out with one recently, and Marshall is supposed to be coming out with one as well.
Speaking of LCD monitors, Marshall also recently introduced a 7″ field monitor that has built in HDMI loop-through, which solves the problem of only being able to feed one monitor in the field. Up to this point, you had to use small 1×2 HDMI splitters, which require power and add yet another intermediate device to your setup.
The biggest difference in using a DSLR compared to even a high-end EFP video camera is focusing. And I’m not talking about keeping a shot focused when the camera and subject are stationary, but keeping a shot in focus where either the camera or the subject is moving (or both). It takes practice and a steady hand. Having a follow focus mechanism is also a big help. We currently don’t have one but that’s the next item on my list of accessories.
I’ll post more later about the 60D since we’ll be using it this week to shoot a series of new TV spots for a regional healthcare company. These spots all involve actors and dialogue so we’ll be putting the 60D’s audio to the test yet again. We’re also renting a Manhattan 8.9″ LCD monitor and battery powered 1×2 HDMI splitter so we can use two monitors, one for camera monitoring (our 7″ ToteVision HD monitor) and one for client monitoring (the Manhattan LCD).
I recently created a client website that needed an easy to use e-commerce solution for selling books, CDs and digital downloads of documents and audio files. On the client’s old website, she was just selling her book and CDs using a very simple PayPal link for processing and payment. It worked, but wasn’t very attractive and offered little more than credit card processing.
I use Wordpress to build client sites so I spent a couple of hours researching and testing various e-commerce plug-ins. There are several out there that are extremely popular but they all seemed unnecessarily complicated to setup and convoluted to use…not to mention buggy.
Then I found Ecwid. It’s not only a Wordpress plug-in, but also a complete e-commerce solution that can be used with literally any web authoring platform. The plugin is simple to install, and it’s hands-down the best Wordpress plugin (of any sort) I’ve ever used. What makes it so good? For starters, it just plain works, which is a nice change from the bulk of Wordpress plug-ins out there, which are typically buggy and offer little or no instructions for use. Ecwid is rock-solid, full-featured and has just about the best documentation, tutorials, and knowledge base of any product I’ve ever used. That’s a tall statement considering I bought my first computer in 1984 and have worked on all the major OS platforms at one time or another. It’s also FREE for store-fronts up to 100 products, with incredibly affordable pricing plans for stores with up to 20,000 products. Other than the product limit, the free version offers virtually the same functionality as the paid versions, minus some security and SEO features. This software is so good, my guess is that many people try the free version and gladly upgrade to the paid one.
Ecwid is powerful enough to be used for some serious e-commerce needs, but also easy enough for a part-time web programmer like me to figure out with little to no time spent reading the online manual. Interestingly, I almost didn’t even try the software after I first registered to use it. All the other e-commerce plugins I tried used the Wordpress admin back-end for entering data. Ecwid uses it’s own back-end and is tied to your site through their Wordpress API. I’m not exactly sure if that even correctly explains how it connects to your site, but that’s how I understood it.
So after I installed the plug-in, I had to log into my account from Ecwid’s website to start using it. My first reaction was, “how am I going to maintain the look and feel of my website if I’m setting up my store on a third party interface.” Well…I’m here to tell you, it integrates beautifully with your Wordpress theme. All you do is create one simple page in Wordpress and call it “Online Store,” or any other name for that matter. Then you tell Ecwid to use that page for your storefront. Next you start adding categories and products, complete with mulitple product images, comprehensive descriptions etc. Ecwid is incredibly full-featured, with options for adding tax, scores of payment processing choices and a dizzying array of shipping options that will calculate shipping costs for your clients. The features are too numerous to mention but my sense is this software will work for just about any e-commerce need, including large companies with thousands of products.
The best things about Ecwid are:
- The back-end admin interface is intuitive and extremely easy to use.
- The vast, search-able knowledge-base of information available to help when you get stuck.
- Video tutorials to help you get started.
- The fact that it just plain works!
- Its huge feature set.
- It’s FREE for stores with up to 100 products.
- Affordable pricing plans for larger stores.
The Ecwid website is also extremely well-written, easy to navigate and explains the technical mumbo-jumbo of how it works in language that I could understand. This fact is amazing considering the company that created Ecwid is based in Russia! Their site is better written that the majority of U.S. based technology websites!
Last, I love the look and feel of their storefronts and category/product layouts. They’re big and bold and cleanly designed, making the end-user’s experience a good one. There is also a tremendous amount of customization available for both the look and function of the store.
For instance, the default layout asks the end-user to sign-in to their account before proceeding to checkout. Like most online stores, Ecwid will keep a database of users’ information to speed their checkout on subsequent visits. Since this particular website only has about 25 products, and it’s unlikely visitors will return over and over, I wanted to turn this feature off completely and remove the sign-in boxes and requests. Plus, the layout and sign-in box confused me when I was doing a test purchase.
Fortunately, none of this is a problem, because with a simple code change, copied and pasted from the great Ecwid knowledge base, I turned off the user sign-in box and then completely turned off all options for client accounts. If at a later date my client wants to allow clients to sign-up, I just remove the code snippets. The Ecwid website walked me through every stage of making these changes. There are also options for changing the look and feel of the store. If you want to make major layout changes, you need to know a little something about CSS and PHP to make that happen. But for an experienced programmer, it would be pretty easy to change how the store looks and behaves.
If you need a great e-commerce solution, you owe it to yourself to give Ecwid a try. It’s truly an impressive system.
Don’t you just love the New Year? We all have a clean slate with no broken resolutions or abandoned plans. It’s that magical time of year where we all do our marketing plans and set our objectives and everything is still on track. If you’re like most of us, your resolutions are somewhat off track by spring and seriously off the rails by summer. There are some things we can all do to avoid that.
Once you get buy in on the plans, it’s time to get to work. Don’t put your plans in a drawer and file them away. Keep the objectives and the plan where they can be seen, re-read them often and make sure others do the same. You can review them in your weekly status meeting to check your progress. Try to identify one or two things that can be done each week to get you closer to your goals, and then hold everyone accountable to get them done. Breaking the larger things down into pieces will make them easier to achieve and repeatedly reviewing progress will make it easier to get done.
The first of the year is also a great time to review your processes. Is it easy to get things done in your organization? Take time to go through each process step by step to see what steps can be eliminated or what forms or processes can be done away with altogether to make things less cumbersome. The simpler and cleaner you make things, the easier it will be to keep your team moving forward.
Finally, realize that you may need to adjust objectives or plans based on market conditions. What seemed perfect in January may no longer be the right thing for your company in June. A marketing plan is a working document that should grow and flex with your company. Recognizing that will save you a lot of headaches and keep you from forcing a direction that may no longer be right for your company. Identifying the pieces that need to be revised and making those changes will help you stay on the right track.
But remember, while planning is important, actions will determine success. The best workout plan in the world won’t help you get in shape all by itself. So let us help you plan for marketing success, then actually put that marketing plan into motion. We regularly spend time reviewing clients’ plans and processes, which helps chart their progress. So take advantage of the momentum a new year brings and get your plans rolling for 2011. If you’re not sure where to begin, give us a call. Helping clients with advertising planning and execution is what we do.
By Chris Blair
I’ve read with great interest and some skepticism all the hype surrounding digital single lens reflex cameras, commonly called either HDSLRs or DSLRs. I’ve also watched quite a lot of video shot with a variety of these cameras and the results are impressive to say the least. Since our digital still camera is almost a decade old, I thought now was a good time to upgrade to a DSLR for still photography and at the same time test out the HD video capabilities.
After reading a lot of reviews, I settled on ordering a Panasonic GH2, but unfortunately I couldn’t find anyone in the U.S. who would actually sell one. Amazon was taking orders and said they were “back-ordered,” but I read recently that because Panasonic keeps missing release dates, Amazon canceled all orders dating back to September.
B&H Photo published a January availability date, but wouldn’t take orders for them because they have no idea when they’ll actually have any for shipment. This obviously doesn’t bode well for the GH2 despite all the great pre-release reviews from people like Phillip Bloom and others. So I settled on my second choice, the Canon 60D, which is a nice compromise between Canon’s more expensive professional models and it’s much cheaper consumer ones. Why the 60D? Well, for starters it has manual audio capability right out of the box, without the need to install quirky third party firmware, which several other models need to disable the automatic gain control (AGC) during audio recording. The 60D also allows for external monitoring during record, albeit in down-converted SD resolution, which some cameras still don’t provide. Last, it has an articulating LCD screen much like mid-range HD camcorders from Sony and Panasonic, which allows for a lot more freedom when shooting from unusual angles.
The thing that ultimately convinced me was Phillip Bloom’s positive review of the 60D, which can be read here along with a comparison of most of the other major DSLR models. I decided to get the standard EOS 60D DSLR Camera Kit with Canon EF-S 18-135mm Lens, and also added an EF 50mm f/1.4 lens, a Letus Hawk viewfinder, 4 Sandisk 16GB SDHC cards and 4 batteries. I’m also going to eventually add a shoulder mount rig, a follow-focus system and a matte-box, but I wanted to use the camera before deciding on what additional equipment is really necessary before spending another grand or more on support gear.
So what about my first impressions? For starters, I’m struck by all the looming workarounds when compared to both SD and HD camcorders. There is no headphone jack so there is no way to directly monitor audio that’s being recorded. Additionally, the audio input jack is a 1/8″ phone jack that uses consumer impedance levels. So you have to find a way to monitor sound and convert your professional microphones from professional levels to consumer levels.
The workaround is to utilize either a small mixer/microphone pre-amp with a headphone jack, or record separate sound on a digital recorder, monitor from the digital recorder, then sync up the audio later. There’s absolutely no way our projects would allow for recording separate sound and syncing later, nor would I want to add this potentially time-consuming and confusing step to our post-production work flow. For now I’ll be using a small portable Samson Mixer for monitoring critical audio as well converting microphone levels going into the camera — an annoying process but likely not too painful.
Next is external video monitoring. On virtually any professional shoot, clients want the ability to see shots on a 7-9″ external monitor. If you’re doing dolly moves or any sort of creative lighting, external monitoring is also important. The Canon 60D (and other brands and models) have limited monitoring capability. When shooting HD video, the eyepiece you normally use for shooting stills is disabled and you have to monitor on the 3″ LCD screen. If you connect an external monitor via HDMI or the A/V output cable, the camera’s LCD screen shuts off and sends the signal to the external monitor only. When in preview mode, you can monitor the external HDMI signal in full HD, but as soon as you hit record, the signal down-converts to standard definition from the HDMI. The A/V output is always SD, so if you don’t have an HDMI capable field monitor, you can’t monitor anything in HD. Again, this isn’t a huge issue since even with professional cameras, we typically monitor using a crummy old composite signal coming out of the camera. External monitoring on most shoots is rarely seen as critical monitoring, and on 99% of shoots it’s used for framing and general lighting checks. The biggest drawback is not being able to monitor from the camera’s LCD while connected to an external monitor, so having two external monitors on-set is recommended. One for the client and one for the camera operator. You simply loop the signal from one to the other to accommodate this setup.
What about camera ergonomics? Well…if you’re primarily a video shooter who uses professional cameras, all I can say is it’s different. Shooting off a tripod isn’t bad, and with a decent camera rod system you can mount just about any accessory needed to improve functionality. But if you plan to shoot hand held, it’s darn near impossible without a separate shoulder rig. The camera just isn’t designed to be held in one position for more than a few seconds at a time. My shoulders and arms got tired after holding it for about a minute.
You also must have an LCD viewfinder adapter to shoot hand-held, especially if you’re farsighted like I am. I occasionally use reading glasses but I see objects far away just fine. The diopter adjustments on professional cameras easily adjust to accommodate this, but with a DSLR, unless the LCD screen is about 3 feet away, I simply cannot focus on it. Even with perfect eyesight, it’s difficult to shoot hand held just using an LCD screen, especially if you’ve spent 25 years shooting using a traditional viewfinder.
This is where the Letus Hawk viewfinder adapter comes in. While it’s extremely well-made, I’ve had trouble getting it to mount snugly on the Canon 60D and since it came with NO instructions, I’m still struggling to get it to sit flush to the LCD screen. It’s optics are also not quite pro-grade, as the image it produces is slightly distorted, which initially gave me a headache while using it. I got used to it after a few uses, but it’s still an adjustment from using professional viewfinders. The Letus device also isn’t cheap, costing nearly $400. Overall I’m a little disappointed with it, especially the inability to get it to fit snugly to the LCD screen. Hopefully the folks at Letus can provide some insight but I haven’t had time to contact them as of yet. I’ll report back on this after some additional use.
Along with the issues noted above, herein lies the big “gotcha” with the current crop of DSLR video cameras.They all require numerous third-party adapters, gadgets, mounts, cables and quick releases to come close to the functionality and speed of using a professional video camera. The big question is, “will the resulting image quality be worth all the workarounds and additional equipment?”
I plan to find out soon as I’m going to use the camera on an upcoming marketing video. Am I nervous? That’s a big yes. But the only way to truly test a piece of gear is to use it in a professional environment, and I’ve read enough positive reviews of the unit to feel pretty good about it.
I’ll report back on my experiences with the camera as the project unfolds in the next two months.
How much will that cost? That’s a question I’m sure every business gets almost daily. With some products, like a television or computer, the answer is relatively easy. Go online, find the model you want, compare specs and prices, and choose your retailer.
But for most things, figuring out the cost is much more difficult. From buying a car to getting a fence installed, the price can vary wildly based on factors too numerous to even think about.
So what does advertising cost? How about getting a video produced? What about having a website designed…or an interactive kiosk created…or…well you get the idea. There are no quick and easy answers, but there are some guidelines you can use for many types of projects.
Let’s look at websites. If you’ve ever gotten estimates for having one designed, the differences in price can be cavernous. I’ve seen website estimates vary by tens of thousands of dollars based on the same specs. How can this be possible? Some of the disparity can be attributed to differences in turnaround time, differences in how the site is programmed and built, the experience level of the designer etc. But more often than not, if there’s a huge difference between the lowest bid and the highest bid, it’s a good bet you’re looking at one severely underbid estimate and another severely overbid one.
Certainly there are many types of websites with varying levels of complexity, not to mention the growing need to build separate mobile versions. But for most sites, you could use the following guidelines to figure a range of what it should cost.
Good designers have hard drives filled with previous design templates along with pre-built code that doesn’t have to be programmed from scratch for every project. So they can typically create several spec layouts in a couple of days, create a web template or develop style sheets in a few more, then build each page in about an hour or two each.
So if you have a 50 page website you can estimate that most designers will spend two days creating spec layouts, four or five more building the web template or style sheet, then no more than two hours per page after that. Of course there would be pre-production time added in the form of meetings, along with some revision time, but it should take no more than 150-175 hours to build a fairly typical 50 page website.
Most designers and programmers are going to charge you anywhere from $100 to $125 an hour, so using those figures, you could expect to pay in the $15,000 to $20,000 range for a 50 page website. Can you get a website that size done for less? Certainly, but if somebody tells you they can do a 50 page website for $1000, run away…..fast. Likewise, if you get a bid of $50,000 or more for a fairly standard 50 page website, that’s $1000 for each page! That would mean the designer is spending 8-10 per page, which in most cases is ridiculous.
Of course if a site has a lot of video on it or uses a lot forms or interactive elements, then certainly the cost can be higher, but just breaking down the amount of time that someone might reasonably spend on a project can help determine what something should cost.
A similar formula can be used for video. Based on the type and length of video, you can often use broad estimates to determine cost. For television commercials, we can typically get a good quality spot shot and edited in about 2-3 days of actual production. But there are always pre-production costs, including concepting, scripting, client meetings, talent searches, location searches and scouts, and prop or wardrobe shopping to name a few.
So add about 2 days of work for pre-production, and a good-quality television commercial comes in at about 5 days, or 40 hours of work. Using an average hourly cost of about $150, you could expect to pay $6000 for production, plus any talent fees, location costs (like renting space, feeding crew etc.), make-up artists, props and supplies etc. Add another $1500-$3000 for that and a nice-looking television spot comes in at $7500-$9000. Of course there are all kinds of things that can raise or lower the cost, such as needing lots of extras in scenes, needing experienced on-camera talent etc. The cost can go to $20,000 or higher very quickly when well-credited talent is needed. And network quality commercials can cost 10-20 times that, especially if you use union crews and talent.
Can you do commercials for less? Certainly! We’ve produced very nice commerials for around $3500 using volunteer talent, donated locations etc. But when you get below $3000, it becomes difficult to produce a television commercial that rises above the clutter of screaming pitchmen.
So how does that cost compare to a network quality commercial? A McDonald’s commercial was shot in our area a few years ago for a test launch. This particular spot aired in just three markets, yet they closed a local restaurant for three days, spent a full day lighting and gelling windows, hired over 50 extras for two full days of production, and had a star of a CBS sitcom as the spokesperson. The extras alone cost over $50,000, and just feeding the cast and crew (probably more than 100 people) cost thousands more. They had to have spent over $250,000, likely more, for one test commercial!
Want further evidence of what network quality commercials cost? The Directors Guild of America considers a low-budget commercial to be: ”commercials whose total costs do not exceed $75,000 for a one-day shoot, or $150,000 for a two-day shoot or $225,000 for a three-day shoot. No single day’s costs may exceed $75,000.”
So when people think spending even $20,000 for a television commercial is a lot of money, comparatively, it’s peanuts.
Of course commercials aren’ t the only video projects companies use. What about a corporate marketing video? You can typically get about 2-3 minutes of finished video shot in one day of well-planned shooting, and you can typically edit 2-3 minutes per day. So if you have an 8 minute video, you can reasonably plan on a total of 6-8 days of shooting and editing. Add in pre-production time, propping, location fees, talent costs, travel etc. and you could figure 80-100 hours of production time plus expenses and fees.
So using those numbers, a good starting point for a corporate video is about $2500 per finished minute. That rate can usually produce a simple but well-shot and edited piece. So a simple 8 minute video would likely cost between $20,000 and $25,000. Start adding in other things like big camera moves or animated graphics and naturally the cost goes up. Add in extensive travel or multiple locations and it can go much higher. Want experienced on-camera talent? Open up that wallet! Want custom or copyrighted music, get out that checkbook. The total cost all depends on what you think it takes to communicate your message. But bottom line, an 8 minute corporate video could cost anywhere from $20,000 to $200,000 depending on the factors above. But by knowing a starting point for what it takes to produce one, you’ll at least have a way to start figuring your budget.
On the flip-side of this issue is media buying. A common misconception in advertising is that it costs money to hire an agency to buy and place your media for you. I’m amazed at how many marketing directors and directors of communications are unaware that when we buy ad time, be it on television, radio, in the newspaper and often online, we get paid a commission discount from the media outlet. So if we place a $1000 radio buy, we get a percentage of that $1000 placement as our agency fee. The buy costs the client exactly $1000 and we don’t charge the client a penny for the work done in placing that media. Of course if an agency is handling a large ad budget, they’ll typically charge a monthly agency fee to cover research, client meetings etc. But it’s usually a small percentage of the total ad buy. The bulk of revenue comes from the agency discount, which costs the client absolutely nothing. What is it worth to a busy marketing manager or advertising director to take all that work off their plate when it costs them virtually nothing? Yet many small to medium sized companies continue to buy and place their own media because they’re either unaware of this, or unwilling to give up control over placement.
We have media buyers with years of experience placing media in all types of outlets, yet we’ve worked with companies who have recent college graduates making their ad buys! Does this make sense?
You can use basic forumlas like the ones above for just about any type of advertising related production work. It’s also easy to search union and trade group websites to find standard advertising industry rates for various work. I found the Directors Guild of America rates quoted above in about 5 seconds. Of course most companies aren’t willing to spend that kind of money producing their television ads, and for many that kind of cost doesn’t make financial sense.
But once you sit down and reasonably consider the time a project will take, coupled with project related costs for materials, talent etc. Figuring out what advertising costs becomes more manageable. But if you want your advertising to look and sound like McDonald’s, you obviously can’t expect to spend a tenth of what they spend on production and get the same quality product.