Finally, I got around to trying the Muvi camera. For unknown reasons, it took over two months to arrive from Amsterdam by mail. Too late for my students, unfortunately, who wanted to use it for a ‘bikers diary’ documentary. After the test with the video sunglasses, I was planning to do exactly the same football game - same time, same place - with the Muvi, for easy comparison, but there was just no way I could motivate my son to leave the house today, so we did a game of indoor golf instead.
In the trial, the Muvi camera is attached to my forehead with a strap that comes in the ‘extreme sports set’ that I ordered with it. I don’t know if ‘indoor golf’ qualifies as ‘extreme sport’, but when I opened the box, I got very excited about the possibilities. It’s a very cool little kit with all kinds of straps and bolts, mainly meant to attach the camera to the handle bar of a (motor)bike. The head strap is supposed to go on your ski helmet - or wherever you like it to go, of course.
The results of this test are pretty depressing. The microphone is truly horrible and I can only bear to watch the video if I turn off the audio completely (and I recommend you to do the same). Also, this camera is even worse than the video sunglasses when it comes to movement. It only works well if you keep your head still and look straight ahead of you all the time, which happens to be the case when you’re skiing or biking. I had no idea I was moving my head so much! It’s really scary to see and it makes me feel I should consider yoga or meditation.
The resolution of the Muvi is also less than the video sunglasses (Muvi = 640×480 @ up to 30 fps, using motion JPEG recording to AVI format on a micro SD card of max 8GB) and the camera angle is only 72 degrees, which is not much when you have no viewfinder and cannot see what you’re filming at all. I also did some tests with the camera strapped to my arm. It generated less shaky video, but is totally uninteresting as a viewing angle. Really, the only reason I see to use this camera is to record a very specific point of view from a moving object that is going in one direction. And I would never use he sound.
The bright side is that it measures only one inch, it costs only 100 Euro (1,000 HK$), and the design is nice. It’s 50 grams of polished black metal, rather than a piece of plastic. The controls are also more user friendly than those of the video sunglasses because, luckily, there’s no MP3 player or photo option. It still takes learning some morse code to understand the language of the lights flashing in different speeds and colors.
In summary, the video sunglasses are a much more interesting addition to the toolkit of a documentary maker than the Muvi. Recording what you see with your own eyes, when you see it, is conceptually very different from a small camera attached to your bike or your forehead. So I only recommend this camera if you like showing off your biking or skiing skills (but only downhill, not slalom).
In a design store, I saw a very small HD video camera with a built in viewfinder, about three times the size of the Muvi. That would mean an enormous improvement of the image, I suppose, but it’s much closer in size to a ‘real’ camera like the FlipHD camera (starting at 200 US$), which has a viewfinder, an optional built in image stabilizer and instant video playback.
And this week, AP Photonics and the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Lab (Astri) presented an extremely small optical photo camera (one centimeter), which has a built in image stabilizer and allows you to take sharp photos while riding a horse. Sony, Apple and Ericsson are interested and will start using the new camera in their smart phones this spring. The Hong Kong government invested US$1.6 million into the project and the price of the camera will be: US$1.50 each!
Please note the comment by Jonathan Marks below, who recommends Kodak Zi8, which seems to have it all, including an external microphone.
My students want to do a short documentary about biking in Hong Kong and I recommended them to get this little camera (100 Euro) to tie to the head of the biker and get his point of view as an additional camera angle:
The Muvi is a pretty cool, very small and incredibly cheap camera with reasonable image quality. It represents a new step in the continuous development of ever smaller and lighter cameras, allowing for a growing range of viewpoints and camera angles in documentary films. Just as direct cinema came with the liberation of the camera from the tripod, one can easily imagine new cinematic styles with the availability of these cameras the size of a thumb. In the current global media society, however, the impact would be far beyond aesthetics.
For example, it’s now literally child’s play to record the world from a child’s perspective - or that of any moving object or subject - adding more points of view to the current scale. Imagine the possible impact of all those emerging voices (and eyes) taking the stage. Will children get voting rights because their points of view can no longer be ignored? Will the current fringe Party for Animal Rights rise to power as a result of the increased representation of pets’ points of view in the flow of media images?
This camera is marketed as a cool gadget for ‘extreme sports’ lovers, but I can imagine much more interesting applications for undercover journalists and NGOs. This little camera can handle a 8GB memory card, which records four hours of video and, even more surprising, it is voice activated. You could go into any workplace with it attached to your forehead, and it will start recording automatically whenever the boss starts yelling at you. Any kind of (loud) abuse could be registered on video this way and serve as instant proof in a court room, which is quite scary when you start to think about it. It is as if we would be carrying a personal security and surveillance system on our heads.
Back to storytelling. The films of Leonard Retel Helmrich come to mind as a more poetic catalog of unusual and immersive camera angles. With the handy cam, we could already film inside a refrigerator, but with the Muvi, we can film inside a bag and its successor may allow for filming inside the body… Personally, I would like to use this camera to make a short film from a child’s perspective, simply called ‘UM’, which is short for ‘unaccompanied minor’, a term used by airlines to refer to the countless children traveling the world in airplanes without their parents for various reasons.
Watch this review, which includes some sample footage. There are many more similar test videos out there. I will share my first trials later.
For my new documentary about the global rise of the Pentecostal religion - which teaches that ‘body and mind are one’ - I am exploring storytelling options to bring viewers closer to the intense encounters with the Holy Spirit experienced by Pentecosta believers. I am considering using 3D or 360 degree photography to shoot in churches and I recently had the privilege to join a shoot with the 360 ‘Ladybug’ camera by City University students enrolled in the ‘Immersive Museums‘ course by Sarah Kenderdine.
The ‘Ladybug’ camera is a rather slick looking device with five cameras pointing sideways and a sixth one on top, recording 360 degree video footage, or rather a collection of six separate video images that can be stitched together in the computer during post-production to form a 360 degree moving image. We are familiar with this kind of viewpoints of the world thanks to Google street view, travel agents and real estate brokers, who use this type of video on their websites.
Google street view
Google has been a motor behind the development of this type of technology by constantly upgrading its cameras, which are mounted on the rooftop of cars to ultimately record every single street in the world. It is now using the fourth generation street view camera and also recently introduced a snowmobile (2010) and a tricycle (2010) to film roads where cars can not travel.
The ‘Ladybug‘ camera is slightly different. It has firewire and a higher resolution, allowing for projection on dome- and semi-dome shaped screens, and six rather than nine cameras to record a surround view. In my imagination, watching a Pentecosta believer meet the devil in person in a dome shaped movie theater, would be an awesome, important and frightful documentary experience, but the field trip with the students to Yau Ma Tei is a rather chilling experience for a documentary director like me. The students have planned to shoot just one shot of the Temple Street market, which requires about one hour of preparations, leading to the ‘director’ sitting in a wheelchair with a laptop on his knees and a sound engineer recording ambient sound on a separate recorder. The fixed focus point for the Ladybug is at 2,5 meter from the camera and no adjustment is possible. Also, the camera has to be at a certain height (about 1,5 meter) to allow the director - in the wheelchair - to be present at his own shoot, but not visible in the picture. And the wheel chair has to be motorized to make a traveling shot of the market, as anyone pushing would be in the picture frame… To a ‘content driven’ documentary storyteller like me, this all seems like a lot of hassle for very little ’story’.
I can still imagine that a visceral Pentecosta church service would be interesting to catch with the Ladybug camera. But the problem with all 360 degree video productions, is that the story has to take place in one - very exciting - location. If not, having the 360o perspective is pointless. Why would you want to look behind you, if nothing is happening? In documentary film, I can think of Raymond Depardon’s Délits Flagrants, set in the examination room of a police station, as inspiration for this type of shooting. Coincidentally, Depardon also made a film in Africa, structured by various 360 degree shots recorded with a regular camera on various locations in Africa. Or the documentary box office hit Etre et Avoir by Nicholas Philibert, set largely in one class room in rural France. Or the documentary films of Fred Wiseman, which deal with institutions and display unusual unity of place (a hospital, a high school, a welfare counter). Wiseman often shot over hundred hours of film though (spending up to a year in the editing room) and at this point in time, that would be technically quite challenging with a Ladybug, as one minute of 3600 footage takes more than an hour to render… Unfortunately, I must admit that after the field trip, it is easier to think of the limitations of the Ladybug (one location, lack of movement, fixed focus, no sync sound) than to think of exciting new opportunities. To be continued.
By the way, Yellowbird in The Netherlands also offers interesting 360 degree video recording packages, but they seem to focus on online productions and do not sell the camera. The result can be seen in Highrise: Out my Window (2010) directed by Katerina Cizek and presented at IDA Doclab.