It’s Christmas. My son-in-law, George, has a local vid-prod-co. He’s feeling magnanimous.

“Stefan, we’re getting a Sony PMW-350 – you can use it anytime. No charge.”

“Thanks, George, that’s really generous [as the 350 is a whopping $22K] but I have my own new camera: The Flip UltraHD. It was $150 from Amazon.”

While the rest of the world is drooling over the latest fare from RED, Sony, Panasonic, the new HD-capable DSLRs, I’m in love my $150 widescreen HD gizmo. I call her Flipa.

The good thing is I’m using her professionally; I’ll get my return of investment back on day one, which just happens to be yesterday.

I can’t wait to try out my Flipa. I buy her a collection of clamps from Steve Cardellini, who lives down the road in Corte Madera, and some lengths of 5/8” aluminum tubing from the local hardware store. From B&H Photo, I mail order a Bogen Manfrotto Mini Ball Head type 494 at $55.00.

Finally, in this mad batch of spending, a Kenko magnetic 0.45X wide-angle lens, costing all of $24.99. The little Kenko comes with a separate ring, which has a peel off adhesive backing. You stick the ring on to the Flip around its lens and hey, presto, magnetism holds the attachment in place. Magic!

With the wide-angle on, there’s some vignetting at the edges. A 7% enlargement in post will fix. Besides doubling your shooting angle, the wide angle takes away a lot of the camera vibration. If there’s one thing wrong with the Flip, it’s the camera shake you get when hand holding.

I’m curious to see if the magnetic wide-angle lens will stay put. I clamp the camera on to our Ford utility’s front grill, pop on the WA lens and drive from the Presidio across the Golden Gate Bridge (at 45mph), up through the Rainbow Tunnel (60mph), past Sausalito and pull over at the Strawberry shopping center, that’s eight bumpy miles and a lot of wind on the bridge.

I get out expecting to see my Flipa without her WA lens. Surprise! It’s still there and the camera is happily shooting away. In fact there’s 1 hour 48 minutes left in her internal 8 GB memory. The results.
How about low light?

The next weekend, my younger son Felix, takes me to lunch at Rancho Nicasio. It’s a terrific restaurant-bar tucked away in the Marin hills – not far from Skywalker Ranch. Naturally, I take my new baby, Flipa. After a very late lunch, just as we’re leaving, a band arrives and starts setting up. I didn’t know they were coming. We’ll stay.

“Hey I’ve got a new camera. Can I shoot something?”

“Sure, I’m Lorin, send me a copy.”

“No problem, I’ll email it to you tonight. Give me a business card.”

I have the WA on shooting Lorin. “Looks too wide,” I think – so, right in the middle of the shot, I simply pull the Kenko wide angle off. Zap! I’m in close. Pop the lens in my pocket.

The Bueno Brothers – 0.45 wide angle above, normal lens below.

You can see the results here. The lens change is about a minute in.

The FlipShare software is brilliant. I click the email icon, drag in the clips, add Lorin’s address, click “SHARE.” Up goes the movie to some FlipShare server in the sky. After a few minutes both Lorin and I get a URL link to a “private” movie. It’s fast and free. He’s thrilled and shares the link with other band members.

This month’s job is for the SFGHF – The San Francisco General Hospital Foundation. Try making a lower third out of that. They’re a non-profit that raises money for the hospital. If you have a motorcycle, bike or car accident in San Francisco, chances are the ambulance will take you to SF General Hospital because it has the only Level 1 Trauma Center in the city.

We interview SFGH former patients. A biker: “They saved my life.” A cyclist: “I would have died.” Now we need to show a stylized accident before each interview. My direct client is John Catchings.

“John, I want to shoot the B roll with a Flip UltraHD camera.”

I do a demo. Within minutes he’s on the Internet buying one for himself. And so did the goofy lady down the road who came over for a cuppa tea. And so does Burton, aged 83. And so does my musician friend, Stephen – I’d better stop… but wait there’s more – add to the list, our own David Williams, esteemed editor of this very Web site, he’s got a Flip too.

I volunteer my son, William. The first accident happened on Clipper Street. We drive there. Yikes! It’s a roller coaster ride straight down. I clamp the Flip to his handle bars, add the wide angle and press THE BIG RED BUTTON.

“Be careful, William!” Too late; he’s halfway down the hill.

He walks back pushing the bike. Puff, puff, puff. Now a shot looking at the wheel. “Bye William!”

Next the pedals… press da button. He’s off again:

He’s walking very slowly up the hill, perspiration dripping from his forehead. Sitting on the sidewalk, “I’m OK, Dad. I need the exercise.”

Time for the tricky shot from behind the bike. “Last one, William. I promise.” I fit an outrigger bar and hang the Flip upside down:

Easy to make it right side up in post:

Puff, puff, puff. He’s back again. We both sit down and check out the shots.

Hmmm… I lied. Maybe just one more, this time with the Sony V1 on telephoto looking up the slope. I find a good spot way down and wave like mad. He can’t see me; I’m too far away. I knew I should have brought my cell. Eventually he sees me and pushes off. Down, down, down. Terrific! It’s Bullitt with Steve McQueen on a bike. Where’s that pesky Volkswagen?

Next, to shoot a motorcycle. None of my sons or friends ride. John emails me the address of a bike shop in San Francisco. I’m about to phone them. I imagine the call: “Hello, I’m making a video for SF General Hospital. We’ve just interviewed a rider who hit a stationary car on the freeway. I want to re-act the accident. I wonder if you could ….” CLICK!

Nope. I’ll go in myself. A salesman comes over. I make my speech. “Hi, I’m making …” Before I finish, the salesman says, “I’ll do that!” his name is Will, same as my son.

Out of nowhere, the manager appears.

“No, I’m not happy about Will helping you. We don’t want people to think that motorbikes are unsafe.”

“I don’t blame you. If I were manager here, I’d say the same. But consider this: you and your clients all ride bikes. If, God forbid, there were an accident, where would they take you?”

“SF General, it has the only Level 1 Trauma Center in San Francisco.”

“You said it and you’re right. This video is to raise money for that very same Trauma Center. In fact, they are building a new one (now I’m quoting from John’s script) with six trauma rooms and two CAT scanners right next to … this is your way of helping the hospital.”

I made the sale – Will can do the shoot!

Will’s only free day is Monday and it’s raining. In fact it’s rained every day this month. He’s unhappy. Me too. I don’t want my camera to get wet. The rain stops. “OK, let’s try one where I follow you with the camera clamped to the front of my car.” Off we go, driving towards the GG Bridge. And then on cue, the rain starts. We don’t cross the bridge but turn right into Crissy Fields, part of the Presidio. The camera is wet but still working. The lens is covered with water; the shot is useless.

We are about to call it a day – and guess what? The rain stops. This time I mount the Flip on the bike. “Will, are you sure it’s safe?” “It’s fine. I’m good to go.”

Will does the approach to the bridge — where the real accident happened — and circles back to meet me. It looks great. But oh dear, the wide angle has fallen off. Bang goes $25.

I’ve bought a Fotopro Action Mount to fit the Flip on top of his helmet. That’s what it says in the ad. Attaches easily to bike and skateboarding helmets. All you do is push the Velcro straps through the slots in the helmet. No way. A motorcycle helmet has no slots!

What to do? I know I’ll tie the Velcro straps around Will’s neck.

“Ouch. It tickles.”

He’s back again. I untie the still running camera. Wow, even upside down, it’s terrific and in HD1280 x 720 at 30p. We’re both excited.

One more. Let’s re-do the shot that was spoiled by rain. I re-fix the camera to my Ford Pickup. We do the circuit again. Without the wide angle, I’m closer. I can see the Flip viewfinder from my driver’s seat. Got to drive carefully. Will is changing lanes. I can’t let anyone cut in between us. The car behind doesn’t understand and toots me. I hate it when that happens. “Can’t you see I’m shooting a high def. film?”

We got the shot. You can rain now. And it does. We just made it.

Back at base, using FlipShare software, I transfer the movies to hard disc. The camera’s USB connector “flips” out but you’d be crazy to plug it directly into your precious computer. Use a USB female to male extender cable, they cost practically nothing and will save that awful moment when the Flip camera levers the computer’s USB slot wide open.

If you have a Mac, the first that happens is that iPhoto opens. (Use me, use me!) No way. Copy the FlipShare software from the camera to the computer and wait a while. Eventually the tardy FlipShare program will open. It’s nowhere near as user friendly as iPhoto but for Flip video it’s miles better. But, it needs a better user interface.

There are important messages in WIDGY UNREADABLE 4 POINT way down bottom left. See them? No you don’t. Dead easy to miss.

My boffin friend Adam Wilt tells me that:
the Flip data rate is 8.9 Mbps, or ~1.1 MB/sec in MPEG-4 AVC while 720p HDV is 19 Mbps or 2.4 MB/sec. The codecs are very different. MPEG-4 AVC is roughly twice as efficient as MPEG-2 (which is what HDV uses), so a 1.1 MB 720p Flip image is roughly what you might expect compared to the 2.4 MB/sec 720p HDV image.”

In other words, it looks pretty damn good. To prove it, I connect the Flip using a mini-HDMI to HDMI cable to my professional Sony HD monitor and examine the quality of a rock steady, tripoded shot. Looks great! BTW, Flip only plays back through its mini-HDMI slot, don’t expect to use that output during record.

With your precious files on your hard disc and you’d think you could import them to Final Cut Pro and start editing. I wish! No; they’re MPEG-4 files. Great for viewing but impossible to edit. I use Square 5’s MPEG Streamclip to make DV files. Find your files in FlipShare Data and knock them off in Streamclip, one by one. Yawn. Not the fastest but it works. You can do other things (like sleep) while it makes FCP compatible files.

Churlish to complain about my darling Flipa, but here goes:
• The lens has no protection, gets finger prints all over
• The rolling shutter makes wobbly, Jell-O shots on movement (check out my GG Bridge movie on YouTube, see the bridge wobble)
• The battery charge indicator is a fake, it goes back to square one even after the battery is fully charged.
• And, finally, for the next model, please add an amazing image-stabilization system. Hand holding a Flip is a ^@>+$!%&*) thing to do!

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