A couple of neat tools for making cheap camcorders produce awesome footage

There's nothing wrong with being a critic. We serve a purpose, perhaps even a necessary one, but we'd be bootless without the work of others. I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to be working on now that I'm less-than-fully employed. But I'm leaning toward taking a creative sabbatical, enjoying the last couple of months of summer to absorb—and hopefully create—a little bit of culture. I'm looking forward to decoupling myself from the internet and creating things that others can criticize. One of the things I'm already working on is video. You always hear about how it's easier than ever to make professional-level video on the cheap—and that's as half-true now more than ever. The tools are certainly cheaper; the skills are just as expensive and precious as they ever were. But man, what tools! For less than a thousand dollars, you can buy an inexpensive HD camcorder like my HV20 and a basic editing suite like Sony Vegas. Learning a few basic things about exposure, keeping the camera steady, color correction, and simple editing should only take a few days, especially when you can so inexpensively learn by doing. (I've been shocked at what a difference color correcting makes, and it applies just as easily to footage shot in HD as it does to simple VGA grabs from cellphones.) Anyway, I'm excited, and I wanted to show you a couple of cool things that are somewhere past the basic DIY world, but not into the full-blown professional world—and the results they can bring.


Kadir Köymen's "Handy35" is a custom mount that lets you wed a photographic 35mm lens to consumer videocameras. There are limitations—the video comes into the camera upside-down, so you'll have to flip it in post-production; focusing is entirely manual; some lenses don't play as nice as others with the whole rig—but for just under a thousand dollars fully kitted-out, the Handy35 V5 makes it possible to achieve film-like video with all that pretty depth-of-field in a package that is sturdy and professional looking. It's the same sort of thing that makes using new video-capable DSLRs so compelling, but is for the moment still a cheaper option than, say, the Canon 5D mk II.


Those smooth tracking shots that go from side to side are done with great big train-like track systems in professional shoots. Alastair Brown's "Glidetrack" gets you pretty close in a portable solution. You snap a Glidetrack to the top of a tripod and its weighted ends keep everything in place. The basic Glidetrack "SD" is $320; a model that works with heavier cameras, the "HD", is $475; the $280 "Glidetrack Compact" is half as long, but is small enough to be packed into a travel bag.

Both Together

OC Films shot this test footage with a Handy35 and a Glidetrack. That's just pretty stuff. Note the vignetting that came from using the Handy35 without being fully zoomed in past the adapter. (I like it, but some people don't.)

Poor Man's Steadycam

An oldie-but-a-goodie: Johnny Chung Lee's "Poor Man's Steadycam" can work with all of this stuff to provide gorgeous shots, although depending on your rig it might overweigh the suggest five-pound limit. You can also simply hold your tripod at a balance point to get a similar effect; you could even add a clip-on handle that would give you more stability. This is barely a list, let only an exhaustive one, so if you have any suggestions of things I should be checking out, I am ready to be educated.
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21 Responses to A couple of neat tools for making cheap camcorders produce awesome footage

  1. Cinevidia Home Entertainment Solutions says:

    Thanks for the suggestions. I am planning on making some HD videos for my site Cinevidia Home Theater Systems next month. I have come up with a few ideas that I want to run with.

  2. BingoTheChimp says:

    I second the request to credit the music, preferably in the video itself, unless you have permission from the song and recording owners to leave it off. Even most CC licenses require credit. It’s also just good citizenship ;)

  3. therevengor says:

    Welcome to video, Joel. Two things –

    1. DOF adapters take some technical skill to use – they make the photograph process much more complex. I’ve edited a few projects mangled by amateur DPs who wanted to make their stuff ‘look just like film’ by plunking down the cash for an adapter. Vignetting, strobing, forgetting to spin the ground glass, all kinds of mistakes…

    2. Check out creativecow.net for all your video tech questions. Great community.

  4. Credits #2 says:

    Song #2 is by AIR – Universal Traveler
    unsure about song 3

  5. Mazoola says:

    For the past dozen years, I’ve found John Jackman to be an invaluable resource for getting the most out of DV on the cheap — everything from mail-list posts to online articles to books to occasional correspondence — especially as regards lighting. Start here.

  6. mr.skeleton says:

    Gee, I made a video surprisingly similar to yours, using a pocket digital camera. It’s actually semi-timelapse because the camera can’t do video, so it’s a rapid series of stills: http://vimeo.com/4857299

  7. DefMech says:

    For those wondering: The song is called Love Like A Sunset II and it’s by the band Phoenix.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Steadycam? I thought that was replaced in Hollywood 10 years ago. Since Blair Witch all we seem to get is shakey-cam and bad filtering.

  9. Joel Johnson says:

    Thanks guys. I will try to remember your advice when I’m lost in frustration.

  10. funwithstuff says:

    The HV20 is an awesome camera. Explore the Cine Gamma mode for uncrunched blacks and whites and try progressive scan for a true film look. (Though the 24P progressive mode needs annoying post-processing on NTSC cameras and not on PAL ones.)

    You can get great results without any adapters, too. Get a tripod that’s light enough to carry all the time, and a better mic, like the Rode Stereo Videomic.

  11. BaS says:

    What is the music in the first “HD” test video?

  12. hohum says:

    Another great way to get those ‘gliding’ dolly shots on the cheap is a DIY track system of PVC pipe, skateboard wheels, and some wood and other bits. See here and here. I got my Piece Of Paper From A School in Video Production, and the school had a real dolly system, and a homebrew rig like this… The DIY get-up gave great results for the price, and is definitely a project that you feel good about upon completion.

    Hopefully you’ll make your video efforts available to us! And hopefully you’ll keep sharing what you find out, and asking us for more as well!

    But you’ve already got one of the big importants down – color correction… Once you realize how big of a deal that is, you’re on the right track… Color correction, and no auto-iris!

  13. C LaRose says:

    I highly recommend Jag35.com for 35mm adapters. I just got one and it’s fantastic. About $375 – then you can attach lots of different Canon or Nikon 35mm lenses for that great depth of field.

  14. Dustbuster says:

    Re: colour correction – are we talking in-camera or in post-production here? I’m assuming in-camera correction by using manual white balance and the correction reference card (white or grey, depending). Post correction seems like it would need some pricey software.

  15. Not a Doktor says:

    #15- While watching Street Fighter: Chun Li I was thinking “oh gee this movie is kinda good and I’m not feeling neurotic” then I realized all the fight scenes weren’t shakey-cam and then I got mad at various things.

  16. CREDITS? says:

    What songs were used in the 2nd the 3rd videos?

  17. Tim O says:

    Sorry to get off the video for a minute but can you list the soundtrack pieces you used?

  18. Chris Weitz says:

    Hi — this is cool stuff, 2 thoughts — in addition to David Carroll’s point, or perhaps in refinement of it, the enemy here is “clipping” of exposure at either ends — the contrastiness of video and the tendency for darker gradations to simply fall off a cliff into black and lighter elements to burn out. As much as the Depth of Field issue this is the killer giveaway of video. the lighting referred to is useful in upping foreground luminosity to get it as a closer match to the luminosity of the sky so that you can stop down the lens and end up with light that is within the same ballpark throughout. The problem that then arrives is that the higher the f-stop the deeper the depth of field. Alternately you can use a neutral density filter thus maintaining a limited depth of field. Ansel Adams in “The Camera” writes some great stuff about depth of Field and hyperfocal distance, or the sweet spot and extent of depth of field parallel to the picture plane. The game is to extract as much information as possible in the image; if clipping occurs on either end there’s not much that color correction can do to help you. The color problems associated with digital are I belive due to certain channels of the CCD’s in cameras “maxing out” in their recording of Red, Blue and Green as seperate elements; again this occurs in contrasty situations but is much more easily correctable with software.
    Good hunting — C.W.

  19. David Carroll says:

    Chris Weitz @12

    Thanks for expanding on my point. Additional lighting can and should be used to lower the contrast ratio of a scene. The human eye/brain can easily deal with ridiculously high contrast.

    If you have ever tried to take a picture of the moon on a partially cloudy night, you know what I mean. There is about 8-10 F-stops between a properly exposed moon, and the surrounding clouds, but your eye/brain does it effortlessly.

    Lighting can also be used to make the scene more visually interesting and to give the set some depth by separating the foreground subjects from the background walls.

    As for colour correction. You can fix slight errors between cameras or takes in post, but it is not possible to properly fix big mistakes like shooting with a daylight white-balance under tungsten light.

    The only exception is if you have access to the RAW sensor data, like you do with a still digital camera. Some video cameras like RED offer this but they are a little out of most peoples budget!

  20. martinvm says:

    You’ve got a lovely garden Mr. Johnson!

  21. David Carroll says:

    Joel: The secret to great film or video has always been, and will always be lighting. If you are outside use the sun, but get some reflectors, so you can model the light to perfection. If it’s really bad, buy, rent, or make some 5600K arc lamps. Inside, buy some small 50-150w “kick” lights, with stands and umbrellas. Lowel if you can afford it, DIY if you can’t. Change all the bulbs in the room to 3200 K. If you can’t use corrective gels.

    If the room is mainly lit by a window, put some blue gel on your kick lights, or use your umbrellas as reflectors.

    I have seem movies shot with RED cameras using unaltered ordinary house lights, and the footage looks as bad as a cellphone camera!

    Don’t forget your sound gear, get a couple of wired condenser bug mics and/or stick mics and use them to close mic your subjects. Get creative in hiding the cables. If you are rich, go wireless.

    That’s my 2 cents, spend it as you will.

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