“The Little Mermaid”: Shooting Shirley

The Little Mermaid, an independent live-action take on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, is now showing in cinemas across the USA. To mark the release, over the next few weeks I’ll be posting a series of articles about my cinematography of the film, using extracts from the diary I kept during production.

In this first instalment I’ll focus on the “pre-shoot”, two days of capturing the present-day scenes, undertaken a few weeks before principal photography began. For these scenes, we were all very excited to be working with bona fide Hollywood royalty in the form of Shirley MacLaine. Since debuting in the 1955 Hitchcock comedy The Trouble with Harry (and winning a Golden Globe), Shirley’s career has taken in six Oscar nominations as well as a win for Terms of Endearment, plus an AFI Life Achievement Award, two Baftas, an Emmy and several more Golden Globes.

No pressure then….

 

Saturday

Shirley is installed at a five-star hotel in downtown Savannah for hair, make-up and wardrobe tests. Taking it easy at the studio, I get a call from the UPM telling me that Shirley wants to meet me. Nervously I transfer my lighting reference images (including screen grabs I gathered last week from her previous movies) to my iPad and await my car.

When I get to the hotel I bump into her and the rest of the crew in the hall. Plunging straight in, I shake her hand and introduce myself as “Neil Oseman, the DP”. Evidently not hearing that last bit, and presuming I’m a PA or possibly a fan, she looks me up and down and asks me who I am. I repeat that I am the director of photography. “You’re so young!” she exclaims, laughing at her mistake.

“Well, I’ve been doing this for fifteen years,” I reply, all too aware of how short my career is compared with hers.

“Which pictures? Tell me,” she says.

Again acutely aware that my credits list isn’t going to sound very impressive to her, I mention Heretiks, and Ren: The Girl with the Mark and mutter something about doing lots of features.

To my great relief she doesn’t press the point, instead asking what I think of the wig and make-up she’s wearing. I ask her to step into the daylight, and assure her that it looks good, but that I’d like to warm up her skin tone a little with the lighting, an idea she responds well to.

Satisfied, Shirley moves on to other things, and I hang out in a meeting room at the hotel drawing storyboards, until it’s time for a production meeting.

 

SUNDAY

The present-day scenes were shot on Arri Alexas using Zeiss Super Speed Mark I primes and an Angenieux Optimo zoom, diffused with Tiffen Soft FX filters.

I arrive on location before even the early crew call of 8am, with my gaffer Mike Horton. His and key grip Jason Batey’s teams have rigged a dark box around the beach house’s deck/balcony so we can shoot day-for-night interiors.

At 10am Shirley arrives, blocks the scene, then goes off to hair and makeup. We’re starting with close-ups of her, so the grip and electric teams come in and build a book light. (This is a V-shaped arrangement of bounce and diffusion material, resembling an open book, which greatly softens the light fired into it.) When we start to turn over and Shirley watches playback, I’m gratified to find she is very happy with how she looks on camera. We shoot out all her close-ups, then bring in the little girls playing opposite her and block the wide shots.

In the lefthand foreground here is the 2K source for the book light. In the top right you can see the diffusion frame it’s firing through, and you can just make out the poly or rag we attached to the wall to bounce the light back onto Shirley (in the white nightgown). The net in the upper centre is cutting some light off the background. The camera can just be seen on the right of the photo.

As time begins to crunch, I fall back on cross-backlighting as a quick no-brainer solution to get the wide shot looking good. It’s so important to have these lighting templates up your sleeve when the pressure’s on. (Later on in this blog series I’ll discuss the use of cross-backlighting in several other scenes in the movie.)

For a little while it looks like we might not make the day, but I suggest a way to maximise the beautiful beach view at twilight and get the story beats covered in one two-camera set-up. The shot feels like something out of a classic old movie. Shirley MacLaine walking off into the sunset! Everyone loves how it looks, including Shirley. The praise of an actor as experienced as her is high praise indeed, and it makes my day!

 

Monday

At the monitors with producer Rob Molloy. Photo: Brooks Patrick Allen

We start lighting for our “sunset” scene, which involves firing a pink-gelled 6K through the window and netting the background to get some highlight detail into it. Rather than a book light, this time I use a diffused 4×4 Kino Flo as Shirley’s key. I take a risk and place it further off to the side to get a bit more shape into the light.

Shirley enters, takes one glance at the lighting and remarks, “So, you like this cross-light, huh?”

Busted!

We compromise by adding a little fill from a reflector which Shirley positions herself before each take. Her awareness of how she’s being photographed is astounding. She knows more about lighting than some DPs I’ve met!

Looking at the scenes now, I realise that a large white horizontal reflector in front of Shirley would have been perfect to simulate bounce off the bed, which we moved out when we were shooting the close-ups. Hindsight is 20/20, but I’m still pleased with how it turned out.

Next week I’ll break down the huge lighting set-up required for the night exterior circus scenes.

“The Little Mermaid”: Shooting Shirley

6 Tips for Making DIY Lighting Look Pro

Good lighting can boost the production values of a film tremendously, making the difference between an amateur and a professional-looking piece. For filmmakers early in their careers, however, the equipment typically used to achieve these results can be prohibitively expensive. Far from the Hollywood productions attended by trucks full of lights, a micro-budget film may be unable to rent even a single HMI. Do not despair though, as there are ways to light scenes well without breaking the bank. Here are my top six tips for lighting on the cheap.

 

1. Make the most of natural light

Checking my compass at the stone circle
Guesstimating the sun path on location

The hardest shots to light without the proper equipment are wide shots. Where a fully-budgeted production would rig Maxi Brutes on cherry-pickers, or pound HMIs through windows, a filmmaker of limited means simply won’t have access to the raw power of such fixtures. Instead, plan your day carefully to capture the wide shots at the time when natural light gives you the most assistance. For a day interior, this means shooting when the sun is on the correct side of the building.

See also: “Sun Paths”

 

2. Keep L.E.D.s to the background

£2 LED camping light
£2 LED camping light

There are a plethora of LED fixtures on the market, designed for all kinds of applications, some of them very reasonably priced. It might be tempting to purchase some of these to provide your primary illumination, but I advise against it. Cheap LED units (and fluorescents) have a terrible Colour Rendering Index (CRI), making for unnatural and unappealing skintones. Such units are therefore best restricted to backgrounds, accent lighting and “specials”. For example, I purchased a little LED camping light from a charity shop for about £2, and I often use it to create the blue glow from computer screens or hang it from the ceiling to produce a hint of hair-light.

See also my article on LEDs from my “Know Your Lights” series.

 

3. Key with tungsten or halogen

Worklight
Halogen floodlight

By far the best solution for a high output, high CRI, low cost key is a halogen floodlight; 500W models are available for as little as £5. Their chief disadvantage is the lack of barn doors, making the light hard to control, though if you can stretch to a roll of black wrap you can fashion a kind of snoot. Alternatively, consider investing in a secondhand tungsten movie fixture. With many people switching to LEDs, there are plenty of old tungsten units out there. Try to get a reputable brand like Arri or Ianiro, as some of the unbranded units available on Ebay are poorly wired and can be unsafe.

See also: “DIY Interview Lighting for the ‘Ren’ EPK”

 

4. Control the light

Lace curtains used to break up light in a Camerimage workshop last year

Flooding a halogen light onto a scene is never going to look good, but then the same is often true of dedicated movie fixtures. Instead it’s more how you modify the light that creates the nuanced, professional look. Improvise flags from pieces of cardboard to stop the light spilling into unwanted places – but be VERY careful how close you put them to a tungsten or halogen source, as these get extremely hot. For example, when shooting indoors, flag light off the background wall (especially if it’s white or cream) to help your subject stand out.

See also “Lighting Micro-sets” for an example of this.

 

5. Soften the light

Almost all cinematographers today prefer the subtlety of soft light to the harshness of hard light. You can achieve this by bouncing your fixture off a wall or ceiling, or a sheet of polystyrene or card. Or you could hang a white bedsheet or a shower curtain in front of the light as diffusion, but again be sure to leave a safe distance between them. Professional collapsible reflectors are available very cheaply online, and can be used in multiple ways to diffuse or reflect light.

Hot tub cover = bounce board
Hot tub cover = bounce board. Towel = flag

See also: “How to Soften Harsh Sunlight with Tinfoil and a Bedsheet”; and to read more about the pictured example: “Always Know Where Your Towel Is”

 

6. Make use of practicals

Black-wrapped ceiling light
Black-wrapped ceiling light

Finally, don’t be afraid to use existing practical lighting in your scene. Turning on the main overhead light usually kills the mood, but sometimes it can be useful. You can generate more contrast and shape by covering up the top of the lampshade, thus preventing ceiling bounce, or conversely use the ceiling bounce to give some ambient top-light and cover the bottom of the lampshade to prevent a harsh hotspot underneath it. Table lamps and under-cupboard kitchen lights can add a lot of interest and production value to your backgrounds. If possible, swap out LED or fluorescent bulbs for conventional tungsten ones for a more attractive colour and to eliminate potential flickering on camera.

See also: “5 Tips for Working with Practicals”, and for an example of the above techniques, my blog from day two of the Forever Alone shoot.

6 Tips for Making DIY Lighting Look Pro