Monitor Round Table - Perspectives from Directors, DP's, and Producers

I've found the best way to learn is some combo of asking people who have done what you want to do and then doing it yourself.  However, when it comes to gear sometimes you don't have access to testing lots of options, so I reached out to several of my friends - Directors, DP's, Producers, to get their opinions on production monitors and how they actually use them in the real world and because I'm hosting the party, I invited myself to chime in.

If you've got a monitor you love (or hate), I'd love for you to share you experiences in the comments so we can learn from your experiences.

Here's the cast of character's for this round:

 

1. What is your monitor of choice?

 Bernardo - DP:  Currently I’m using a TVLogic VFM058w but I’ve transitioned into just using an EVF whenever possible. I’ve been shooting a lot on the Alexa Amira recently and love the EVF on it, but still take the TVLogic with me whenever I go out with that  camera. I’m currently using the monitor more for my AC than for myself and I’ve found the TVLogic to be the best fit for my AC’s needs. I like that the color is more reliable on it than other monitors I’ve had in the past. If a client ever saw an image on those monitors I’d have to spend the next five minutes explaining that it’s not what the image looks like and they should only view it for framing. This just gets tiresome and I feel like no matter what I say it can potentially make the client nervous about what we’re getting and might make them look over our shoulders a bit more. The TVLogic has great color and it’s a 1080 display, and focus assist features make it a great go to for an AC. It’s also light and sturdy.  Man I hope this gets me sponsored by TVLogic. 

If I don’t have that monitor, I always like to take a DP4 with me just in case anything happens. It works with almost all of our camera systems (other than the Amira) and is small enough to take as a backup. I use this a lot with Ronin or anything where I just need framing reference. 

Not sure if you meant Client monitor or anything bigger than that, but we just got a Flanders AM210 that we use as a color reference in our edit suite and we have taken out as client monitor on the field. We love that!  It’s great to have something that a client can look at without having to apologize for the image constantly. It inspires confidence and keeps everyone happy! 

 Bernardo keeping his Ronin framed up with the Small HD DP4.

Bernardo keeping his Ronin framed up with the Small HD DP4.

Evan - DP:  Currently the SmallHD 702. It's the monitor I own and personally find the most versatile of what I've used so far. Its page oriented UI and high brightness make judging exposure easy, even on bright days - and the size makes judging focus much simpler. 

Ezra - Producer:  My previous monitor of choice was the SmallHD AC7.  For us it was simply a matter of price considering the fact that we never really used the monitor as a true-color DP monitor. It was strictly for the director/producer to be able to watch content and watch takes from a single, relaxed, focused position via a TeraDek wireless system. 

But to be honest, there are plenty of situations where I’ve just used a regular old HDMI computer monitor in more of a studio setting. Again, the goal is content review. So in the case of the Musicbed Sessions, it is an absolute necessity to have something big and bright to be able to see all 4-6 angles we’re capturing. I trust my DP to have dialed in the right settings on the camera monitors where things are more accurate, but I'm more concerned with seeing all the angles working together for the edit. 

Michael - Director:  Whichever monitor is in front of me.  I use a monitor primarily to see framing and use the tools in the camera to judge focus, exposure, etc.  When I am out shooting alone, I don’t generally use a monitor, because the camera tells me everything I need.  On shoots where I’m doing mostly everything, it slows me down.  It takes a long time to get a shot off, with lighting, camera and sound, then to add a monitor - which doesn’t affect the image, only my perception of it - is not a good reason to make my client or talent wait longer.

When I'm only directing, I want the DP to have a good monitor because it's his/her image, not mine.  I will look at their monitor or another on set mostly for framing, but the photography isn’t my problem.

Christopher - Producer/DP:  I just bought the SmallHD 702 a month ago and love it.  In the past I've used the SmallHD 502, the DP4, and the Odyssey 7Q, but only for special situations - I would almost always just stick with the camera's LCD or viewfinder.

 

2. What prompted you to start using a monitor?

Bernardo:  I think I just liked the convenience of putting the monitor on an arm and not being restricted by where the LCD or EVF on whatever camera I was using was. It freed me up to move the camera wherever I need it. 

Evan:  A couple things, the biggest one being that I wanted to have a more consistent way to keep track of how I was creating images, and working with different cameras and different onboard monitors could make that difficult. That second reason was because I shoot on an Easyrig a lot and I find a monitor on top of the top handle most convenient for that, and many cameras don't have that setup. 

Ezra:  It was really a matter of necessity. First the wireless monitor setup - last year, I produced a feature length documentary with Christian Schultz as our director and Ryan Booth as DP. From our first shoot, we realized that being tethered to the camera by SDI was just not an option when Christian needed to focus and see what was happening while Ryan ran around with an Easyrig. 

For the Musicbed Sessions, I’ve been a part of quite a few little “live recordings” where the cam ops are kinda just out on their own shooting whatever. For the Musicbed Sessions, we needed to have precision from each of the cam ops and a multi view perspective for the director (Christian or myself) so that we could know how to adjust between takes to make sure we got what we needed. Between that and our RTS com system, we are good to go!

 Ezra is hiding in here somewhere monitoring this Musicbed Session.

Ezra is hiding in here somewhere monitoring this Musicbed Session.

Michael:  When I began directing, instead of being a director/cameraman, I started using the monitor to see framing and performance and to make sure that what I’m getting in the footage will work in the film.  I often use the monitor to guide the DP to the desired shot, or let the talent know where they’ll enter the frame, how tight the shot is, etc.  If I can, I’ll use the monitor for prep, then watch the takes and see the performances live.  I know what shot the camera is on, so I don’t need the confirmation during the take, and for me I think the performance is better judged live.

Christopher:  After using the Ronin-M without a monitor for about 6 months, I decided I needed to be sure that I was getting the shot everytime and finally pony'd up and bought one.  My background is in skateboard filmmaking so most of my early career was spent not looking at the camera at all - just getting really used to what my lens was seeing and developing muscle memory to get the camera in place for the shot without looking.  I think this confidence - or overconfidence - led me to taking unnecessary risks with my Ronin-M.

3. Did you notice a shift in your work after you started using a monitor on set? 

Bernardo:  I think a good monitor helps you accomplish a couple of different things depending on who’s using it and how you’re using it.  It can be a great tool for an AC pulling focus. It can be a confidence booster for a client or director that wants to have a clear picture of what’s actually being captured and it can free you up as an operator to put and move the camera wherever you want. 

Evan:  My focus tracking got significantly more accurate. Going from the like 4" screen on my C100 to 7" on the SmallHD 702 makes a world of difference. I was pretty good at exposing without a monitor, but I do feel that it has made things even more consistent, especially in super low light and high light situations. 

On my 702 I have one page which is my main "shooting" settings - a lut, aspect ratio markers, and crosshairs (helpful for symmetrical framing). I have another page right next to it which shows a scaled version of the raw image (no lut), zebras, histogram, and waveforms. Sometimes shooting in Africa this week it was honestly hard to tell exactly where my levels were even with a bright monitor with a hood on, but flipping the joystick to the right immediately gave me ALL the image info I could ever want. Histogram for overall final spread, zebras set to 100% for clipping warnings, and waveforms for spot checking levels on skin tones and such. I've found that this simple two page setup allows me to work super quickly to produce consistent results.  Also- I'm not affiliated with smallhd in any way, I just love my 702 haha.

 Evan working with his hanging video village.

Evan working with his hanging video village.

 Page 1 of Evan's SmallHD 702 presets.

Page 1 of Evan's SmallHD 702 presets.

 Page 2 of Evan's SmallHD 702 presets.

Page 2 of Evan's SmallHD 702 presets.

Ezra:  I’ve noticed an incredible shift in my workflow since introducing a monitor. It allows for the individual focusing on the image itself (including the actual movement and operation of the camera system) to do his job and for the director to actually take a moment to see what’s happening in more detail. It is absolutely crucial. Can’t imagine life without a secondary monitor on pretty much any set. 

Michael:  I feel like a big shot. Having a monitor to watch makes me feel cool, like I’m really important.  At the same time, I watch what happens on the monitor and I marvel at how talented my team is to be able to make such fantastic images while I’m standing in the hall watching TV.  However, when I'm shooting as a one-man-band, the monitor slows my work down, so that’s what I notice.  It is one more thing to fuss with and its a filter between me and the talent, and another cable to run, power to feed, stand to set up, etc.  Its a nice thing to have, but I’m fine without.

 When Michael's not busy sarcastically answering my questions, he's winning Emmys and stuff.

When Michael's not busy sarcastically answering my questions, he's winning Emmys and stuff.

Christopher:  I now get better shots with the Ronin in fewer takes.  Since I have the monitor now, I try to use it for everything and it's really helping me mature my compositions.  I was the DP at a huge church for 5 years so most of my work was being seen on a screen in a very large room so I pretty much framed everything in close-ups because when people were watching the screen from hundreds of feet away, it was about the same perspective as watching a video on your cell phone so I didn't trust that wide shots would translate in the room.  I've found recently that I have a lot of unlearning to do as I tend to default back into that mode.  Having a larger 7" screen in front of me has been a great reminder to trust that the audience will see the small details.

4. In what scenarios do you use a monitor and when do you ditch it?

Bernardo:  Ronin, jib, anything mounted, obviously go with the monitor - handheld, depends. I love the Red LCD on the Dragon and use that over an EVF. When I'm using the Amira, I just use the EVF and flip out LCD if i have to get in a weird position to gauge my framing. If I'm using Canon cinema cameras, this means that I’m trying to go leaner so I'll usually ditch the monitor. If i can I’ll even ditch the LCD on the C300 and just go EVF.  I love the small form factor of a stripped down C300

Also, not sure where this fits in, but I’ve been using a wireless directors monitor and absolutely love it. That’s personally one my favorite uses for a monitor on set.  I'll usually have one available for the director or client. Jon and I have been co-directing a lot and the wireless has been a great way to both be in the scene and be able to quickly communicate ideas. 

Evan:  Honestly I use it as much as possible. I've shot with it on all different cameras, with sticks, gimbals, handheld. The main time I ditch it is just if things need to be really stripped down. I just got back from DP'ing a doc in Ghana on my C100 for 9 days and there were a number of times we were shooting dialogue in the van while driving for hours, and having a rigged out camera was super inconvenient. I stripped off everything except for the top handle so I could keep my XLR ports. The one thing I could see changing that is if I had a SmallHD 502 as well for smaller setups. The 702 is admittedly sizable, though I think easily manageable and much easier to judge focus on. 

Ezra:  The only time when I would ditch a monitor is when entering an interview setup. For an interview to be successful, you need your subject to know that you are completely undistracted and focused on the conversation - no monitors, no phones, no notepads, no eye contact with anyone else. However, I was on an interesting shoot once before where Christian and I were co-directing and in that case, I took the monitor and sat outside, and gave him notes between interviews to make sure we had everything we needed. So you really just have to be thoughtful and intentional about that kind of thing really. 

Michael:  I use it when I can’t fit into the room, or when the shot pans 360 degrees.  I use it when the camera is on the hood of a moving car.  Occasionally I’ll use it when the viewfinder of the camera isn’t bright enough to see in daylight.  I ditch it when I’m having to justify getting paid by the hour, or run-and-gun, or chasing daylight.

Christopher:  When I'm filming documentary work I try to ditch the monitor and LCD for that matter as much as possible.  I find that if I bury myself in the viewfinder it somehow creates an invisible barrier between myself and the subject.  When I'm in the viewfinder it's not possible for us to make eye contact with each other and somehow that frees them up to act like I'm not there.  It also helps me feel safe and gives me extra space to think - it's like a safe-haven for introverts.

 Christopher in his safe place - hiding behind a stripped down Canon C500.

Christopher in his safe place - hiding behind a stripped down Canon C500.

 

What's been your experience using a monitor during production?  Share in the comments below.