17 April 2024

Seeing the bigger picture with Chris Frazer Smith

Professional photographer Chris Frazer Smith turned to the Ninja monitor-recorder looking to broaden his horizons within the filmmaking industry. With its extensive recording capability and intuitive built-in monitoring tools, the Ninja has ultimately transformed the way he works on a production.

By Atomos

As a highly respected stills photographer with a string of top clients and a whole heap of awards to his name you could perhaps excuse Chris Frazer Smith for not feeling the urge at this stage in his career to venture into a fresh and highly demanding area of the business.

And yet, like so many other successful creatives, much of the reason that Chris has survived and thrived over the years is his natural curiosity and urge to continually be pushing the boundaries. In short this meant that once hybrid-friendly kit started to become widely accessible and available it was just a matter of time before he was going to take a look at what filmmaking might have to offer. And, as so many others have found, once you venture into the world of motion it can become highly addictive.

“I always had a love of film from childhood,” says Chris, “but it wasn’t until I started to buy into camera systems that offered video making facilities alongside those for stills that I started to think seriously about perhaps getting involved in filmmaking myself. Like so many others it was the arrival of Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II with its full frame video capability that really piqued my interest, and I was slightly intimidated by the fact I could shoot at 1080p with this camera. Things just moved on from there really: I ended up going down the rabbit hole of exploring what I could do with this facility, and things just grew from there.

“For me it was just a very natural progression to try to start shooting motion pieces, and you just learn through testing things out and asking those around you how things work. One of the first films I worked on was a personal project about three young musicians, all shot on the 5D Mark II, and I got a DP and a sound guy in and we turned it into quite a little production. It was a great learning curve for us all.”

Transferable skills

As an experienced photographer working with a camera that was primarily designed to take stills, Chris found the sideways move into the world of motion quite a natural one, with many areas, such as composing a shot and directing those on front of his camera, very familiar. When he found himself confronted with new areas that he needed to master, such as an understanding of codecs or fps speeds, he would find someone to talk to or turn to the likes of YouTube or manufacturer websites for some basic online support.

“I’m a great believer in keeping things simple,” he says, “and because I was shooting motion projects for myself rather than from a commercial perspective, I had to come to terms with the fact that there was virtually no budget available for the productions we were working on, so we had to figure things out for ourselves most of the time. But it’s the passion of wanting to create something to tell a story that that drives you to do to do it really, plus the fact that you know in your heart this is the way that things are moving and increasingly advertising agencies and art buyers will be looking to employ people who have the ability to direct as well as to shoot the stills they’re after.”

Chris can also see a time when there could be a convergence of stills and motion technology, where a creative could shoot a motion sequence with a camera that’s so high resolution that really top-quality stills could subsequently be extracted from the footage. “I’ve dabbled a little with RED cameras already and, up to a point, it does work, but how successful it is does still rely on which frame rate you’re working at to prevent problems with movement and blur.”

One of the huge benefits that comes from taking on self-set projects is that there is the freedom to learn and experiment and to make mistakes without the need to satisfy an unforgiving commercial brief. “If you’re doing it for yourself, you can go out and film and make mistakes,” says Chris. “It’s a little like when you’re learning your craft at art college or you’re assisting. Part of that process involves pushing your comfort zone a little and trying out new things that hopefully will work out technically and creatively. And then, if they don’t, you can go back to the drawing board and go okay, what did I do wrong? And that’s a very comfortable place to be.”

There’s also the point that those all-important people doing the commissioning love to see creatives pushing themselves, showing passion for their subject and demonstrating skills that could be utilised on future jobs.

“The Ninja is compact and lightweight, meaning that it’s really easy to work with. Just having that five-inch screen on top of the camera is incredible.”

Equipment overlap

As the stills and motion worlds continue to converge, manufacturers are developing kit for the professional that has the potential to be used in a hybrid way. So, for example, while it’s a fabulous stills camera, the Canon EOS R5 that Chris is currently working with also comes with a full line-up of video capabilities, including full frame internal 8K RAW video, while his stills lenses are equally adept across both disciplines and his Nanlite continuous lighting comes with the capability to be used on both stills and video productions.

There are additional pieces of kit, however, that Chris has invested in as his interest in filmmaking has continued to grow. Audio is something that needed to be mastered, and he works with an Azden mic in tandem with a Zoom H5 recorder. Another essential part of his kit is an Atomos Ninja monitor/recorder, and this keenly priced accessory has effectively transformed the way that Chris works on a production. That onboard recording capability, which includes 6K ProRes RAW, ProRes DNxHD and H.265, has allowed him to step away from the need to shoot everything to card in his Canon camera.

“I work with a 1TB SSD in the Ninja,” says Chris, “and at regular intervals I’ll just pull this out to quickly back up and then off we go again. I make sure not to re-format the SSD, however, until I know I’ve got it backed up on at least two external drives and have checked everything to make sure that it’s all good and clean.”

While the ability to record directly to his monitor has made a huge difference to Chris’ workflow, for him the real game changer has been the Ninja’s seamless compatibility with the EOS R5. “Just having that 5in screen on top of the camera is incredible,” says Chris. “The Ninja offers me fantastic tools such as focus peaking, where there’s a bright outline on the objects that are in focus, and it also allows me to check my curve levels, to make sure I’m not blowing anything out in the highlights or shadows.

“It’s also really compact and lightweight, meaning that it’s really easy to work with. I’ve got a SmallRig cage on the R5, so I mount the Ninja on that alongside a RODE VideoMic to pick up extra sound, and I can run my headphones into its 3.5mm jack socket and that arrangement works fantastically well. And I can just work with that set-up pretty much all day, since the monitor’s battery life is pretty awesome.”

Chris also hugely appreciates how easy it is to work in a run ‘n gun style with his rig, something that’s been crucial on his most recent video production, a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary Pasture and Storm. This was centred on the intriguing subject of musicians who compose and perform music designed for those who have the use of only one arm, and it was a project that required him to be hugely responsive to his subjects.

“I had to run ‘n gun all the time because there was no rehearsal,” he says. “It was all about anticipation and capturing the action as it happened. Working with the Ninja helped hugely in that respect. I didn’t run any LUTs, I just shot everything as RAW footage in 4K. While I did do some testing at 5K, for this particular production I ultimately didn’t have the need that extra quality.”

Focus Peaking is included on the Atomos Ninja, and this highlights the areas that are in focus with a chosen colour to provide a simple visual guide. Images open in a lightbox. The Zebra feature is also on board, and this overlays a diagonal pattern over the parts of the image that are over or under exposed.

The challenge of video

Driven by the continual urge to evolve his offering, and the curiosity that all the best creatives have in their locker, Chris is determined to continue to develop his video skills, and his eyes burn with enthusiasm as he talks through his latest motion project, Night Driver Wanted. For this there is plenty of gritty gimble-shot footage from inside the cramped confines of a classic Jaguar car, and the ability to work in a tight space on the back seat and to compose shots through the screen of the Ninja was crucial.

While Chris’ commercial business is currently still predominantly stills, there’s little doubt that he sees video as an important part of his future, and he’s loving the challenge of mastering this exciting and exhilarating medium.

“For me, I’m always seeing situations now where I can the potential for motion,” he says. “The other day I was shooting some stills portraits of steel fabricators, and throughout I was thinking that I really wanted to shoot motion as well. It was all lit, and all I would have had to do was to have changed a couple of things on the camera set-up.

“It would be great to think that in the future my commissions will involve me working across both mediums, and by showing clients what I’m capable of my hope will be that in the future they’ll come to realise that motion is now something that is an important part of what I do and that those jobs will start to come in.”

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