Above the Clouds: February 2017 Pick-ups

Last weekend saw many of the crew of Above the Clouds reunite to shoot the remaining scenes of this comedy road movie. Principal photography was captured on an Alexa Mini during summer 2016 on location in Kent, on the Isle of Skye, and at Longcross Studio in Buckinghamshire, with additional location shooting on a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera in October.

The outstanding scenes were to be photographed on stage, at Halliford Studio in Shepperton, this time on an Arri Amira. The Amira uses the same sensor as the Alexas, allowing us to match the look from principal photography in the most cost-effective way. With the addition of a Premium license, the camera is capable of the same ProRes 4444 recording codec as the Alexas too. As per last summer, our glass was a set of Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes, with a half Soft FX filter to take the digital edge off.

Director Leon Chambers designed and built the set himself, sending me photos of a scale model well in advance. He was also specific about certain lighting cues and states that were required across the two sets and six scenes we would be recording to complete the movie. Based on this information, I concocted a lighting plan, which I communicated to Halliford’s in-house gaffer Micky Reeves by Photoshopping stock images of lamps onto Leon’s set model photos.

Last Saturday was devoted to pre-lighting the sets, mainly the kitchen, while construction work continued on the second set.

Day 24 / Sunday

We begin with a morning scene. A 5K fresnel serves as a low sun, streaking across the back wall of the set (see my post about lighting through windows). Even with this direct light four stops over, the natural bounce off the set isn’t enough to bring actor Philip Jackson – with his back to the window – up to key. Micky rigs a Dedo firing into a soft silver bounce just out of frame to solve the problem.

Also coming through the window are two 4×4 kinos, rigged on goalposts above the window. Their daylight tubes reflect off the blinds, serendipitously creating the illusion of a blue sky “outdoors”, where in fact there is only a wall and a white backdrop.

Philip exits into the hallway and disappears from view, supposedly to go out through the front door. No door exists. Instead there is a flag which spark Amir Moulfi rotates in front of a 2K, creating a momentary oblong of light in which Philip’s shadow appears.

The next scene follows on from an exterior captured last October at dusk, when the natural light was soft, flat and cool in colour, cheated even cooler with the white balance. This failing daylight is to be the only source of illumination now in the kitchen set, until Philip enters and turns on the lights. This is the main reason that the daylight 4×4 kinos outside the window were rigged. A third kino from the direction of the front door is added, plus a small LED reporter light to pick an important prop out of the shadows.

Lead actress Naomi Morris enters, silhouetted against the windows. Then Philip enters and hits the lights. Simultaneously, Amir flips a breaker on a lunchbox, activating a hanging practical fixture above the breakfast bar and the 5K which that practical motivates.

Generally I don’t like toplight. It throws the eyes – those windows to the soul… or windows to the performance – into shadow. But with the hanging practical in shot, whatever I was going to use to beef it up had to be somewhat toppy or it wouldn’t make sense. I considered space-lights and Jem balls, but in consultation with Micky I ultimately picked a 5K with a chimera, coming in at a 45 degree back/toplight angle. As you can see from the photos, this looks almost comically large. But large and close means soft, which is what I want. It had to be soft enough to wrap both actors when they faced each other across the bar.

But why such a large lamp? Why not use a 2K, like Micky suggested yesterday? Bitter experience has always taught me to go with a bigger unit than you think you need, particularly if you’re softening it, and particularly if it’s going to take a while to rig. (The 5K was hung from another goalposts set-up.) We ended up dimming the 5K to 50% and scrimming it down a stop and a half. But having too much light like that is easy to deal with. If we had put up a 2K and it wasn’t bright enough, we would have to have taken the whole thing down and re-rigged with a 5K. And even if the 2K had seemed sufficient to begin with, blocking can often take actors into unexpected, dark corners of the set. Being able to turn up a dimmer a couple of notches to handle that kind of situation is very useful.

Besides the 5K, there are a few other sources playing: some 300W hairlights, a pup bouncing off the side of a cupboard to bring up the area around the cooker, a China ball in the hallway, and Leon’s Rosco LitePads serving as practical under-cabinet down-lighters.

Day 25 / Monday

I probably shouldn’t say what today’s set is, because it’s a little bit of a spoiler. There are some lighting similarities to the kitchen: again we have a character flicking a light switch, bringing on two hanging overhead practicals and a 2K with a chimera to beef them up.

A practical lamp on a desk was supposed to be turned on during the scene as well, but we all forget until it’s too late. It would have bounced off the desk and given Philip a little eye-light, and at first I regret losing this. But soon I realise that it is more appropriate for the scene not to have that level of refinement, for the lighting to be a little raw. The toppy, “broken key” angle of the chimera’s light works well for this tone too.

We wrap just before noon, releasing Naomi to high-tail it to Oxford to appear on stage in a musical this evening. Eventually there will be second-unit-style GVs and establishing shots to do, but there will only be three or four of us for that. For the cast and most of the crew, today brings Above the Clouds to an end, eight months after the camera first rolled. 

See all my Above the Clouds posts here, or visit the official website.

Above the Clouds: February 2017 Pick-ups

Above the Clouds: October Pick-ups

Day 21 / Friday

My wallet plays a vital part in adjusting the tilt of the camera.
My wallet plays a vital part in adjusting the tilt of the camera.

Two and a half months on, and most of the team are back for three days of pick-ups on this comedy road movie. (Read my blog from principal photography here.) Director Leon Chambers showed me some of the rough cut last night, and it’s shaping up to be a really warm, charming film.

Principal was photographed on an Alexa Mini in Pro Res 4444, with Zeiss Ultra Primes and a half Soft FX to take off the digital edge. Since the pick-ups consist largely of scenes in a moving hatchback – the film’s signature Fiat 500 “Yellow Peril” – Leon has invested in a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera. Designed for remote applications like drone use, the BMMCC is less than 9cm (3.5″) square, meaning it can capture dashboard angles which no other camera can, except a Go Pro. Unlike a Go Pro, the BMMCC can record Cinema DNG raw files with a claimed 13 stops of dynamic range.

Leon has fitted the camera with a Metabones Speed Booster, converting the BMMCC’s Super 16 sensor to almost a Super 35 equivalent and increasing image brightness by one and two-thirds stops. The Speed Booster also allows us to mount Nikon-fit Zeiss stills lenses – a 50mm Planar, and 25mm and 35mm Distagons – to which I add a half Soft FX filter again. A disadvantage of the Speed Booster is the looseness it introduces between lens and camera; when the focus ring is turned, the whole lens shifts slightly.

Filtration causes the first pick-ups hiccup when we realise that leading man Andy’s blue jacket is reading pink on camera.  This turns out to be an effect of infra-red pollution coming through our .6 and 1.2 ND filters. Yes, whoops, we forgot to order IR NDs. Fortunately we also have a variable ND filter, which doesn’t suffer from IR issues, so we switch to that.

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Left to right: variable ND, .6 ND, 1.2 ND. As you can see, there is a pronounced magenta shift on the non-variable filters.

Lighting follows a similar pattern to principal, with a little bounce and negative fill outside the car, and Rosco 12″x3″ LitePads on the dashboard for eye light inside. On the move, Rupert and I monitor and pull focus wirelessly from a chase car. Referring to the false colours on an Atomos Ninja, I radio Leon to tweak the variable ND between takes when necessary. I miss the generous dynamic range of the Alexa Mini, which so rarely clipped the sky – and I do not buy the manufacturer claims that the BMMCC has only one stop less, but it still does an amazing job for its size and price.

Day 22 / Saturday

I start the day by reviewing some of yesterday’s footage side-by-side with Alexa Mini material from principal. They are very comparable indeed. The only differences I can detect are a slightly sharper, more “video” look from the BMMCC, and a nasty sort of blooming effect in the stills lenses’ focus roll-off, which reminds me of the cheap Canon f1.8/50mm “Nifty Fifty” I used to own.

A couple of quick shots at Leon’s, then we move to his friend Penny’s house, where a donkey and a horse look on as we set up around the Peril in Penny’s paddock. There are some inserts to do which must cut in with scenes where the car is moving, but since we don’t see any windows in these inserts, the car remains parked. Two people stand, one on either side of the car, each sweeping a 4’x4′ polyboard repeatedly over the windscreen and sunroof. With heavy cloud cover softening the shadows of these boards, the result is an effective illusion that the car is moving.

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After lunch we have to capture additional angles for the traffic jam scene originally staged on day 14. By an amazing stroke of luck, the sun comes out, shining from almost exactly the same direction (relative to the car) as Colin bounced it in from with Celotex during principal. To begin with we are shooting through the windscreen, with a filter cocktail of half Soft FX, .6 ND and circular polariser. Since Andy is no longer wearing the blue jacket, I decided to risk the .6 ND rather than stacking multiple polarisers (the variable ND consists of two polarising filters). The next shot requires the camera to be rigged outside the driver’s window as the car drives away (pictured right).

Then we set up for night scenes to cut with day 11, which, like the inserts earlier today, we achieve using Poor Man’s Process. Instead of polyboards, Gary sweeps a 1’x1′ LED panel gelled with Urban Sodium over the passenger side of the car to represent streetlights. Rueben walks past the driver’s side with another 1’x1′ panel, representing the headlights of a passing car. I’ve clamped a pair of Dedos to Rupert’s Magliner, and Andrew dollies this side-to-side behind the Peril, representing the headlights of a car behind; these develop and flare very nicely during the scene. For fill, the usual two 12″x3″ LitePads are taped to the dashboard and dimmed to 10%.

For a later stretch of road with no streetlamps or passing cars, I use a low level of static backlight, and a static sidelight with a branch being swept in front of it to suggest moonlight through trees.

Day 23 / Sunday

After a brief scene against a tiny little micro set, we have more scenes to shoot around the parked Peril – and it’s supposed to be parked this time, no movement to fake. Unfortunately it’s raining, which doesn’t work for continuity. Although I’m worried it will block too much light, the crew erect a gazebo over the car to keep the rain off, and in fact it really helps to shape the light. I even add a black drape to increase the effect. Basically, when shooting through the driver’s window, it looks best if most of the light is coming through the windscreen and the passenger’s window, and when we shoot through the windscreen it looks best if most of the light is coming through the side and rear windows; it’s the usual cinematographic principle of not lighting from the front.

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Shooting through the driver’s window

After another driving scene using car rigs, we move to our final location, a designer bungalow near Seven Oaks. Here we are shooting day-for-dusk, though it’s more like dusk-for-dusk by the time the camera rolls. I set the white balance to 3,200K to add to the dusky feel, increasing it to 4,500K as the daylight gets bluer for real. The extra one and two-thirds stops which the Speed Booster provides are very useful, allowing us to capture all four steadicam shots before the light fades completely.

And with that we are wrapped for the second, but not final, time. Crucial scenes involving a yet-to-be-cast character remain for some future shoot.

Keep up to date with Above the Clouds on the official Facebook page or Instagram account.

Above the Clouds: October Pick-ups

Looking Back: Daemos Rising

Who is that handsome young chap?Last month saw the re-release of Reeltime Pictures‘ Daemos Rising, an unofficial Doctor Who spin-off film I photographed way back in 2003. It’s lovely to know that the film is popular enough for a high street release after so much time, and watching it again brought back many memories. Let the sharing of these memories commence…

2003 was Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary year, but the show had been off the air for over a decade and many fans, myself included, thought it would never return. In September I was weeks away from the start of principal photography on my second (and last) no-budget feature, Soul Searcher, but I was delighted to take a break from the stresses of self-producing to DP a tribute to the show I’d grown up with. “You won’t hear anything more from me now for a week,” I announced on my Soul Searcher blog on September 16th, “for I shall be ensconced in a cottage in a woodland area of Dorset (or possibly Devon – they’re easily confused), shooting a Doctor Who spin-off film for Reeltime Pictures. As you do.”

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 14.59.00The location was in fact in Devon: the home of Ian Richardson, who has since sadly passed away. (Ian had an illustrious stage and screen career, including the lead role in the original UK version of House of Cards.) Although Ian’s involvement would be limited to a voiceover, his son Miles Richardson played the role of Douglas Cavendish, an ex-UNIT operative troubled by a time-travelling ghost, a creepy moving statue and of course the Daemons. For those non-Whoovers amongst you, the Daemons are a devilish alien race featured in a classic Third Doctor serial. Reaching its tentacles deep into the expanded Who-niverse, Daemos Rising was also a sequel to a prior Reeltime production, Downtime, and was tied in to a spin-off book series.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 15.16.32It was Miles who recommended me to director Keith Barnfather, having worked with me earlier that year on a feature called Blood Relative. Miles was joined on screen by his wife Beverley Cressman, playing Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s daughter Kate. Rounding out the cast of three, as the aforementioned spectre, was Andrew Wisher, whose father Michael was the very first (and arguably best) actor to portray Dalek creator Davros.

The shoot didn’t start well. On the journey down to Devon, the prop shaft (bit that connects the engine to the wheels) dropped out of our rental van on the M5! Luis, the driver miraculously got us onto the hard shoulder while we still had some momentum, and the DVD extras include footage of us recovering as we awaited the RAC.

But this brush with death aside, I remember the shoot as a very happy one. It was a small team, just the three actors, Keith, his partner Anastasia, writer David J. Howe and his wife Rosie, and Luis on sound. We all stayed at the cottage, which was lovely, and enjoyed many a home-cooked meal and showbiz yarn. Miles and Andrew even gave an impromptu rendition of Billy Joel’s a cappella classic The Longest Time at one point.

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It was the era of Mini-DV, so I was shooting on my Canon XL1-S in glorious 576i. (I remember the damp playing havoc with the DV tapes when we shot the third act in a cave system called Kent’s Cavern.) I also supplied the lighting package, which consisted of 2 x 800W Arrilites, 2 x 1000W Arrilites and a vintage 5K Mole Richardson fresnel. The latter required a local electrician to wire us a 32A socket into Ian’s fusebox! Back then I used only hard light because I didn’t know any better, and it gave everything a distinctive noir style.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 15.15.26 (2)Speaking of a distinctive style, Daemos Rising is a significant milestone in my career because it was the first time I ever used smoke. The script called for spooky mist in several scenes, so Keith bought a Magnum 550 and we ended up using it on all the night exteriors. He kindly gifted me the machine at the end of the shoot, and needless to say I never looked back. Many a cast and crew may think of their poor lungs and rue the day that Keith Barnfather gave Neil Oseman his first smoke machine!

While the day interior lighting looks rough to me now, I think many of the night scenes still look pretty good 13 years on. Although my lamps were all tungsten, and the XL1 didn’t allow me to dial in a white balance, I would point the camera at something red and force the camera to white-balance on that, turning everything a nice James Cameron cyan.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 15.01.20Just days after we wrapped, the BBC announced that Doctor Who would return in 2005. I fear the new generation of kids who now form the core of Who’s avid audience might find Daemos Rising a little slow and talky, but for fans of the classic series there is lots to enjoy. The tone and storyline are very Who, and there are several easter eggs scattered throughout the film. And some aspects of Daemos Rising fit the new series’ continuity too, including the Brigadier’s daughter Kate — now played by Jemma Redgrave – and UNIT’s Black Archive.

The re-release provides the opportunity to watch Daemos Rising in the aspect ratio we originally intended, 16:9 (the original DVD having been masked only to 14:9) and also offers the option of 5.1 surround sound. It’s available now from Amazon and high street retailers.

Looking Back: Daemos Rising

Above the Clouds: Week 4

IMG_0725Day 18 / Tuesday

Yesterday some of the crew started the long drive up to Skye, but for a lucky few – me, MUA Helen and actors Naomi and Andy – our journey starts today with a flight from Luton to Inverness. From there it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive across the Highlands to the Kyle of Kochalsh, where Gary is waiting for us with his motorhome and the crafty table all set up. Soon afterwards the vans arrive, and the Yellow Peril. From 4pm we are shooting on a little ferry, big enough to hold three or four cars, as it pootles back and forth, back and forth between Skye and the mainland. It is, I think, the most stunning location I have ever shot in. The mountains tower over us from either side of the water, which sparkles in the sun. Although the light turns cloudy pretty quickly, the scene looks epic. All I do is add the usual dashboard LEDs in the picture car, and some sky bounce from Celotex, and darken the skies a little with an ND grad.

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Day 19 / Wednesday

For some reason there’s no water at the cottage where many of us are staying, so it’s a slightly whiffy cast and crew that rocks up in another stunning location this morning. In common with the whole shoot to date, the weather – and therefore the light – is very changeable. We have to roll between the squalls that drift across the valley. An interesting continuity issue arises with the mountains in the background of shot: the light on them keeps changing as clouds move across them. The weather here really is something else; this morning we saw a rainbow so close and so low to the ground that it felt like we could have walked over and touched it.

IMG_0751In the afternoon we’re at yet another stunning location, a bench overlooking a bay. For once the light is fairly constant and sunny, which gives us lovely sparkles in the sea. Again I frame the master like the painting in the Turner, with the horizon bang on the vertical centre of frame: clouds above, landscape and characters below. When we flip around to shoot the singles, the light is hard on the actors’ faces, but frontal, which at least is the most flattering kind of hard light. And it fits well with the dialogue, which references it being sunny, so it wouldn’t make sense to put a diffusion frame up. All I do is have runner Jacob stand just out of frame with some poly, which lifts the shadows a little and makes sure we see into Naomi’s eyes when she looks away from the sun.

Day 20 / Thursday 

IMG_0768Various small driving scenes to start with. Rupert and Max reconfigure the camera as per our test of week 2, and I climb into the Yellow Peril’s modest rear seat to capture the action. I black out the rear window to get a classic dark-to-light depth effect: underexposed backs of seats in the foreground, the actors (including Naomi’s reflection in the rear view mirror) correctly exposed in the midground, and the view through the windscreen slightly overexposed in the background.

We also shoot exterior up-and-pass shots of the car amidst the spectacular scenery, before crossing the Skye Bridge to record a scene in a mainland village. Here we’re shooting dusk-for-night, so I set the white balance to 3,200K and heavily grad the sky. For shots inside the car, I plaster multiple Litepads over the windscreen, gelled with half CTO. The intention was for these to represent the car’s courtesy light, but with a fair amount of daylight coming into the vehicle the effect is more subtle, serving only to warm up what would otherwise be very cold skin-tones at 3,200K.

IMG_0775On the final set-up, appropriately enough, a car with clouds painted on it happens to drive by. And with that, principal photography is wrapped. There is a fifth week to do at some point, perhaps September, when a certain critical role has been cast, but for now the shoot is over. Andy, Naomi, Helen and I will meander back to Inverness tomorrow, while the rest of the crew drive south. I’ve had a great time, and I look forward to seeing a rough cut and shooting the remaining scenes later in the year.

Keep up to date with Above the Clouds on the official Facebook page or Instagram account.

Above the Clouds: Week 4

Above the Clouds: Week 3

IMG_0572Day 12 / Sunday

A split day, starting with two scenes at two different petrol stations (one of them open!). It’s a sunny day and when the cast stand next to the Yellow Peril (the picture car) they are bathed in yellow bounce. We build on this by bouncing more light with the gold side of a Lasolite.

IMG_0590Next we have some interiors in a soup kitchen, which will intercut and contrast with the dining room scenes from day one. Whereas the dining room had perfect three point lighting with a Rembrandt key, I want the soup kitchen to look much less pleasant, so I use toplight, broken keys and cross-light to bring out the texture of the peeling walls.

Our last scene is a night exterior. A sodium vapour security light which we can’t turn off is already backlighting the set. Rather than fighting it, we beef it up using the 1.2K gelled with Urban Sodium. This forms half of a cross-backlighting set-up, paired with a 1×1 LED panel gelled with Quarter Plus Green. Another 1×1 gelled with Mustard Yellow provides a pool of light in the background, while the 4×4 Kino gelled wth full CTB supplies a tiny bit of ‘moonlight’ fill. I’ve never lit a scene with so many different colours, but it feels realistic because there are so many different kinds of streetlamps and security lights in our towns and cities these days.

Day 13 / Monday

IMG_0595In the pub all day. The scenes are meant to have an evening feel, so we black out the windows with thin weed-blocking material which lets a little light through, and close the curtains. On a tungsten white balance we get just a little blue glow coming through the curtains. The window in the door has no curtains, so we gel it with .9 ND and it looks convincingly dusky outside.

Fairly standard stuff today, lighting wise. Cross-backlighting for bar scenes, a bit of blue glow in the deep background from a kino to give depth and show up the smoke.

We echo the Turner scenes with a symmetrical shot of Andy and Naomi seated in front of the fireplace. For a soft, pleasing key we bounce fire both the Dedos into a poly board. A double CTO-gelled LED panel on the floor enhances the backlight from the fire, and the pub’s practicals do the rest.

One of the last close-ups we do has an alcove in the background. It bothers me that the brickwork in there is the same shade and tone as the foreground brickwork – we’re losing the dimensionality – so I have Colin run in with a bit of half CTB to cool down the sconce slightly and separate the alcove.

Day 14 / Tuesday

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IMG_0613More micro sets in Leon’s living room. One of them is a tiny under-the-stairs bathroom, which we light with a single bare bulb hanging down into the shots. Again the Alexa’s dynamic range allows me to hold all the highlights and shadows, even when Andy is inches from the bulb, and it looks completely authentic on camera.

For the first time I try gelling the Rosco Litepads to match the tungsten Dedos. It doesn’t work; the Litepads are noticeably greener. If I try that again I’ll need to spend some time to find the correct cocktail of minus green and CTO gels.

IMG_0633Day 15 / Wednesday

After one final micro set in Leon’s living room we move upstairs for some crucial scenes in the master bedroom. I light it with a 2.5K HMI coming in through the window, that being really the only option. I shape this with gels, diffusion and black-out on the window or the lamp-head itself. For example, when we do Naomi’s close-ups I stick two or three layers of opal to the middle section of the window. That way we keep the nice hot streaks on the background wall, but Naomi has a much softer light on her.

The only other sources are the two 6×2″ Litepads hidden in the wardrobe behind a key prop, dimmed right down so they just silhouette the prop very, very slightly. For the final bedroom scene I go purely with available light, since the sun is now shining in at a nice angle, hitting the bed and bouncing back up into Naomi’s face.

It’s our last day in Kent, and many of the crew will be returning home tonight and commuting for the rest of the week, so it feels like the end of an era. Nevertheless, we remain detached and professional. No-one kidnaps Naomi’s stuffed dog Rupert and messages a picture of him tied up and gagged with gaffer tape, and definitely no-one retaliates by kidnapping Colin’s dashboard Spider-pig.

Day 16 / Thursday

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We are at Longcross Studio & Test Track, an ex-MOD facility in Berkshire. We stage a traffic jam on a road originally built for tank trials. The 85mm lens gets more use than it has the whole shoot so far. The compression of perspective works perfectly for the scene, enhancing the feeling that the characters are hemmed in both physically and psychologically.

Most of the action takes place inside the car and is shot raking across the characters from a side window. To get the best shape to the natural light, we black out the sunroof and place negative fill on the window closest to camera, then bounce in extra light through the windscreen.

The rota polar sees extensive use again, although sometimes it reveals weird circular patterns in the car’s window glass.

IMG_0650Day 17 / Friday

Our second day at Longcross, and this time we’re using the main loop of track. It’s non-exclusive, so occasionally a prototype sports car zooms past us, or a stills photographer hanging out of the boot of an SUV.

Day-playing grip Darren has brought his universal mount which we use as a hostess tray, shooting in through the passenger or driver’s windows. (Leon is not a fan of bonnet-mounted shots.) The rig prevents us from closing the window, which necessitates minor rewrites, but the shots look great and allow us to cover large swathes of dialogue relatively quickly.

The picture car is towed on an A-frame by Andrew’s Landrover. Riding in the Landrover are Leon, Rupert and me, each with a monitor. Leon’s shows a clean picture, Rupert’s of course has focus assist, and I switch mine between clean and false colours so that I can monitor the exposure as we go around the track. Leon connects his mixer to the Landrover’s stereo so that we can all hear the dialogue. Communication back to the picture car is achieved via radio with Max, hiding on the back seat, popping out to slate and even reading in lines for a phone conversation.

IMG_0658Col rigs the two 6×2″ Litepads to the dashboard. They mitigate the sunroof’s toplight by filling in the shadows very slightly, but more importantly they put a sparkle in the actors’ eyes, which always helps the performances come across on camera. I take a light reading inside the Yellow Peril before each lap, but due to the number of trees around the track, light levels during the takes are about two stops below what I get in the car park when we’re prepping. Fortunately the cloud cover is fairly consistent today so there aren’t hot patches of sun to contend with.

Today wraps the English portion of principal photography for Above the Clouds, and we sadly say goodbye to Colin, Zoë, Alice and Andrew. It’s been a really fun team to work with, and it will be strange next week without them.

Above the Clouds: Week 3

Above the Clouds: Week 2

imageDay 7 / Monday

One of our biggest days, shooting several key scenes from the first act of the movie. We’re in the Turner Contemporary in Margate, and getting this location is a big coup for the production. On the flip side, the amount of material we have to get through in our nine hour day is only achievable if lighting is kept to an absolute minimum. I know from the photos that Leon has shown me that there is plenty of natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows and bright white walls. I also know that with eight scenes on the day’s schedule, there isn’t time to rig the kind of extensive negative fill we used at the roadside cafe last week.

We start in the Turner’s cafe, where angles towards the windows look great with the beach and seafront in the background and the daylight wrapping softly from behind and one side. In the opposite direction the light is extremely flat, but there is no time to do anything but hand-bash a little negative fill, grin and bear it.

Upstairs in the gallery, the sea-view windows are so big and there is so much bounce off the walls that there is only about a single stop’s difference between looking towards the window and looking away from it. Nonetheless, we bring in poly and Celotex for the seaward shots to add a little shape and put nice reflections in the talent’s eyes.

Responding to the formality of the gallery setting, there is an unspoken agreement between Leon and I to shoot on sticks and compose centrally or symmetrically. I end the day feeling that we have captured some of the film’s most iconic images.

imageDay 8 / Tuesday

Back in Margate for seafront exteriors. The weather is lovely to start with, but gradually goes down hill as the day progresses. For the first scene we have light cloud, and we use the 8×8 full grid cloth as a bounce to fill in the shadows. For close-ups we add silver from Celotex or a Lasolite to give the talent extra radiance and a glint in their eyes. (See my post on Health Bounce for more on this.)

The influence of yesterday’s gallery scenes is still being felt on the compositions. In wide shots I try to use the horizon to divide the frame into two halves, like the diptych the characters were looking at in the Turner: one above the clouds (or more accurately OF the clouds), and one below. I use a graduated ND filter on most of the day’s wide shots. Even though the Alexa’s dynamic range means that grads are rarely necessary to retain the detail in skies, and they can be added in post, I prefer to get the look in camera, especially on a micro-budget project where time in the grading suite may be very precious.

The day ends with a dusk shot of Oz shuffling along the seafront, which we shoot in the window between the streetlights coming on and the daylight dropping off completely. I set the white balance to 3200K to emphasise the evening look. The colour and positions of the streetlights aren’t great, but there is a lot of production value in the backdrop of Margate, bathed in cool ambience and sprinkled with points of light.

imageDay 9 / Wednesday

Our first scene is on a layby overlooking an estuary. Again the weather starts off nice but deteriorates as the day goes on. By the time we get back to Leon’s for the next scene, the rain is getting noticeable enough that continuity with adjacent scenes is an issue. We decide to wrap for the day.

The camera team uses the time to re-build the Alexa Mini as small as possible and test different lenses inside the picture car for upcoming driving scenes. Our main angles will be from the back seat, looking diagonally forwards for three-quarter singles and straight ahead for a central shot over both driver and passenger’s shoulders to the windscreen. We find that the 24 and 32 work well for the former, and the 20 for the latter. We have a 14, because I knew space would be tight in the car, but it just looks like a Top Gear Go Pro shot.

imageDay 10 / Thursday

We’re in another tiny set in Leon’s living room. Production designer Zoë Seiffert has dressed it as a beautiful/hideous den of clashing patterns and colours, and practical lamps. First up is a day scene, newly added to the script, so as with the Travel Inn I fire in the 2.5K HMI, this time with the curtains open. That might seem like a ridiculous amount of light for a room only about 10ft square, but only a powerful source like that creates all the bounce and ambience that sun would. I make sure the direct beam only really hits the floor. For some shots I put a white sheet over the carpet to maximise the bounce off the floor.

For the night scenes Colin puts all the practicals on dimmers and I place one of Leon’s ETC Profiles outside the window with Urban Sodium gel. Although the curtains will be closed, they are thin enough to be backlit by this ‘streetlight’. The bulb is even visible through the curtains sometimes, but it totally passes as a streetlight. That’s the only source of light when the characters first enter in silhouette, before turning up the practicals.

imageTo beef up the practicals, we rig a couple of Dedos to the top of the set and direct one through sheets of Opal hung from the ceiling, as a key, and use the other as backlight with half CTO on it. We tweak them around shot by shot to follow the blocking. For a scene with more character conflict, I lose the backlight and go hard with the key.

Later we move to another location – conveniently the cottage neighbouring the one where most of us are staying – for a little doorstep night scene. Again I rake the 2.5K along the front of the building, through the full silent grid cloth. In the singles we beef up the existing exterior sconce with three tungsten globes wrapped in Opal. I would rather have used an 800 bounced off poly, for a softer texture, but our package is pretty lacking in tungsten units.

After wrapping we throw a surprise birthday party for Zoë. Colin lights the party with a remote-controlled colour-changing LED fixture and smoke.

imageDay 11 / Friday

We have two hours in a charity shop to set up (including blacking out windows), shoot two scenes, and tear down. Leon decides to shoot them both using only torchlight, and choreographs the cast to light each other throughout the scenes. We hide silver Lasolites and other bounces around the set to reflect the torchlight when it doesn’t make sense for the actors to point their torches where they’re needed. We smoke up the shop heavily to show up the beams.

To anchor the shots, so the pools of torchlight aren’t floating around in a black nothingness, I set two lamps in the background. One, a Divalite gelled with Urban Sodium, spills out of a changing room, and the other, a 1×1 LED panel gelled heavily blue to suggest a computer screen, glows out from behind the counter. As well as adding colour, and colour contrast, to the scene, the pools of light from these two lamps serve to silhouette the characters so you get a sense of where they are when the torch beams aren’t on them.

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We move to a forest car park for the film’s only major night exterior. With our HMI package consisting of only a 2.5K and 1.2K, and no tungsten bigger than a Dedo, this was always going to be challenging. We place the 2.5K in the deep background, purely to light up the smoke and foliage behind the action. The action itself is lit by the 1.2K and two 1×1 LED panels, plus smaller panels taped to the dashboards of the vehicles in the scene.

To get it all done with the time and resources we have, a compromise must be made somewhere with the lighting. I decide that this compromise will be motivation of sources. Other than dashboard lights, there should really only be one source in this scene: the moon. If I had time, I would move the biggest source around to backlight every shot and then bounce it back as sidelight. Instead we leave the HMIs mostly where they are, and fly the 1×1 panels around to backlight or sidelight as needed. It makes no sense whatsoever, but it looks good.

Above the Clouds: Week 2

Above the Clouds: Week 1

Principal photography has begun on my latest feature, Above the Clouds, a comedy road movie written by Simon Lord and directed by Leon Chambers. The film stars Naomi Morris as Charlie, an 18-year-old learner driver who sets off on an epic road trip from Margate to Skye with a ‘gentleman of no fixed abode’ as her responsible adult.

imageDay 1 / Monday

It’s a very different shoot to my last one. With a five figure budget and a total crew of about ten or twelve, we’re lean and mean. About a quarter of that crew are working for me – 1st AC Rupert Peddle and 2nd AC Max Quinton, veterans of Heretiks, and my long-serving one-man lighting team, Colin Smith. We’re shooting on an Alexa Mini. Although it’s lovely how much lighter it is than the full-size model, it’s quite fiddly. It doesn’t help that the EVF is faulty, and while we wait for a replacement Max has to change many of the settings via a smartphone app. The lenses are Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes, my first time with these, and I’m once again using a half Soft FX filter to take off the digital edge.

We start with a dining room scene. As many of the sets will be, it’s built in director Leon Chambers’ living room, so it’s not very big. We’re prepared for this though, and Leon has purchased several Rosco Litepads in 6″x2″, 4″x4″ and 12″x12″ sizes. We stick a 4×4 to the wall behind each character as hairlights, and rig the two 6x2s, at a perpendicular angle to each other, to a flag arm. Wrapped in unbleached muslin, they’re a pleasing key.

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After lunch we move into the shed, dressed as a young artist’s studio, complete with coloured string lights. Colin and I add three tungsten bulbs as additional practicals, plus a couple of the Litepads amongst the rafters. Outside the window we place a 4×4 kino or 2.5K HMI depending on the time of day.

imageDay 2 / Tuesday

Today we’re in Leon’s kitchen primarily, but with several of the scenes spilling into the hall and porch. We put our two HMIs outside the windows and initially use an LED panel on top of a cabinet and my brand new torch gaffered to the side of a cabinet to augment these for a scene that is meant to have an evening feel. Then we move onto a proper daylight scene and those have to go, to ensure all the light seems to be coming in from outside. The other reason they have to go is that we are now doing an ambitious steadicam shot which moves from the kitchen to the hall and porch, then back into the kitchen, then back into the hall and porch as characters exit the house. To the two HMIs we add the 4×4 kinoflo shining down the stairs, augmenting the natural light coming down from the landing windows. Thanks to the Alexa’s large dynamic range, we are able to accomplish the shot without any clipping, even when the door opens and when the characters move through the darkest part of the hall. The rest of the day passes in variations on the theme. I quickly find that the window positions are limiting and a fair bit of head scratching to make the angles work goes on before we wrap.

Day 3 / Wednesday

Back in the kitchen, one of our first scenes involves heavy smoke as a story beat. I decide to go with purely natural light, so that it’s soft enough to illuminate the smoke evenly, rather than producing shafts or pools.

After lunch we shoot a dusk scene in broad (albeit overcast) daylight. I cool down the white balance to 4300K and use a .9 soft edge graduated ND, just edging into frame, to bring down the sky a little.

Later we move to a garage, a scenario in which all the light is coming from outside through the door. Although this looks flat when the camera is looking into the garage, I decide not to fight that. When we look the other way I use matt silver bounce and a 4×4 kino to fill in.

Day 4 / Thursday

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We’re on location at a roadside cafe, and I agonised long last night about how much lighting gear we should take. We don’t have transpo or security so reducing the kit means a lot less hassle for us all, though generally I prefer to have everything to hand just in case. Ultimately I decided to keep it small – just LEDs, a 4×4 kino and then flags and bounce – knowing from location photos that there will be plenty of natural light.

In fact there’s too much. The photos failed to warn me of the skylights, which take a while to block with floppy flags and Easy Up walls clipped between them. Leon has set me up for success though by choosing to shoot the scene with the windows (and therefore the key light) in the background. Flagging the skylights and ambience allows the window light to wrap around the actors in a pleasing fashion, and makes for great modelling in the close-ups, with the window light hitting the talent’s down-sides. This natural light approach requires you to work with and respond to that natural light as well, and so I embrace the appropriate ‘broken key’ look that the sun position creates on male lead Andrew, a homeless man with a troubled past. (‘Broken key’ is a term Shane Hurlbut uses to describe a key light striking the talent not quite from the side, but slightly behind.)

imageLater we shoot a scene in the Fiat 500 ‘Yellow Peril’ outside in the car park. I use a rota polar to find the perfect amount of reflection in the car windows, striking a balance between seeing some clouds (the film is called Above the Clouds after all) and seeing the characters inside.

Again the 4×4 kino proves the ideal source to bring up the light coming through the windscreen, due to its shape and softness. As shooting progresses, the sky darkens. A storm is coming. We drop the kino down to one tube, quartering the amount of key light and therefore allowing me to turn off the Alexa Mini’s internal .6 ND, bringing up the background by 2 stops and re-balancing the overall exposure. But after one more take the rain begins, and we have to wrap. Fortunately we seem to have everything we need in the can.

Day 5 / Friday

After watching the news in shock over breakfast, and wondering just how badly Brexit is going to screw the UK film and TV industry, we head to Leon’s for some more scenes in his living room studio. This time it’s dressed as a Travel Inn, and my lighting is motivated by the bedside practicals on the back wall. (Lighting from the back first – always a good plan.) We put a dedo above each practical and a divalite between those to give us something softer and little wrappy. The only other sources are a third practical and a Mustard Yellow gelled 1×1 LED panel outside the window, representing a streetlight. For a morning scene in the same set we put a 2.5K HMI outside the window and let the closed curtains diffuse it, with no other sources.

The set is then reconfigured into reception, and I employ a cross-backlighting set-up, with an added LED panel to represent the glow from a computer monitor.

imageDay 6 / Saturday

Today’s location is a tiny little mechanic’s garage in the middle of nowhere. Most of the scenes take place in the doorway, so we are at the mercy of the weather, which is incredibly changeable. Bright sunshine, cloud and heavy showers alternate throughout the day.

On the first set-up I ask to wait for cloud on at least one take because I can see from the sky that is going to be the easiest thing to match to as the day goes on. Balancing the light inside and outside the garage will also be easier in cloud, even though the Alexa’s incredible dynamic range can handle it in bright sun too.

Aside from the weather, the big challenge for me is making the shots looking into the garage have depth. The best depth is normally achieved by having the brightest area of the frame be the background, and the darkest area the foreground. Looking into the garage though, the opposite is true. But there are other ways of creating depth. One is to make pools of light with practicals, so I leave on the location’s suitably grungy fluorescents. Another is smoke, so we pump a little in and use a 2.5K HMI through a window and a 4×4 kino tucked around a corner to pick it up.

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After dinner we have a very brief night scene to do. The blocking suggests raking the 2.5K across the front of the building which will also three-quarter-backlight the talent. Extensive experience of doing this in the past warns me that the angle of incidence could cause a massive reflection of the lamp in the shiny garage door, so I choose the lamp position carefully, and push it through an 8×8 frame of full silent grid cloth to mitigate any glare. Also this particular film seems to call for a ‘softly, softly’ approach to moonlight. It’s not fantasy, it’s contemporary comedy, so most of the time my night sources will be streetlights to keep it feeling realistic, but when I have to use moonlight as motivation I don’t want it to be hard and draw attention to itself.

The diffusion looks great, and the door is glare free, but I failed to consider the window. Fortunately Rupert spots a way to flag it. Saved by a great team!

All in all, a very productive day and a good week.

Above the Clouds: Week 1

Feature Shoot: Day 25

The last day. A splinter unit is in a studio in Swansea shooting a body burn stunt, but I miss that because the main unit are shooting exteriors at Margam. There is heavy rain in the middle of the day and it becomes unsafe to do the chase scene amongst the trees that is scripted. I wander around the castle grounds with Paul, Bali the 1st AD and Mikey from locations in an effort to find somewhere safe but visually suitable in which to re-imagine the scene.
After lunch we find a path in the woods and Paul comes up with a way to stage it all in one dynamic steadicam shot. Rupert shoots it beautifully and as the daylight fades Bali calls a main unit wrap.
Many hugs and goodbyes later, I arrive at the studio to join the splinter unit for their last few hours. They are setting up a wire rig from a cherry-picker against a green screen to shoot FX elements of a creepy girl. While that is being rigged, 2nd unit DP Keefa is getting tight inserts of gory prosthetics on a table nearby, shooting on his Red Dragon and referring to main unit footage on a laptop so he can match my lighting.
Producer Mike asks me to shoot a green screen element of the creepy girl staring while the wire rig is being set up. Rupert and Max arrive with the Alexa and we hook up to the mix and overlay system. This keys out the green in real time and allows us to see the creepy girl against the plate we shot at Margam yesterday. She can’t see the monitor herself so she doesn’t know where she is. I ask her to take two steps to her left. It is EXACTLY like Knightmare. Welcome, watchers of illusion.
Keefa takes over to shoot the wire rig stunt, while I work with Paul to shoot inserts. The art department have recreated little pieces of some of the sets in this cavernous studio space. We also shoot a prosthetic head cast of one of the lead actors having her eyes poked out. Lovely. Then we grab some more green screen elements, including fake blood spraying in various directions. Co-writer and prothestics make-up artist Conal is using a fire extinguisher to spray the blood. It goes everywhere.
We wrap at last, and I’m very glad I got to come along and do this last fun little bit at the studio.
Overall the project has been great, and a fantastic opportunity for me. With a budget ten times greater than anything I’ve previously worked on, and a much bigger crew, and the Alexa and Cooke S4s to play with for five weeks, and all those HMIs, I’ve been quite spoilt. All the other heads of department are older than me and have worked on huge TV shows, and I can safely admit now that I was incredibly nervous when we started, but everyone is very, very happy with how the film looks, including me. Hopefully it will lead to more good things.IMG_2966.JPG

Feature Shoot: Day 25

Feature Shoot: Day 24

Jimmy, one of the runners, has written a song about the shoot. He heard the 1st AD ask our steadicam operator, “Rupert, are you ready?” and that inspired him to go home and write and record a pretty awesome song. Some of the crew have been shooting a music video for it on a phone during the lunch-breaks.
We shoot in the corridor in the morning. Lots of chippies are waiting to break down the set as soon as we’ve finished on it. We move upstairs and once again reap the rewards of rigging the chapel lighting so thoroughly as we bash through a critical scene.
After work there is a pre-wrap party. A bunch of us end up at the holiday cottage where one of the actors is staying. The cottage has a VHS deck and a well-worn copy of Free Willy. Of course we put it on. The actor we shot with on day 12 is in it.IMG_2952.JPG

Feature Shoot: Day 24

Feature Shoot: Day 23

More corridor and nun cell scenes today. Everyone is tired, including the actors, and as a result they need more help from the lighting to look good.
We fly out the wall that has the window in it, but we still need the light to look like it’s coming through the (off-camera) window. So the art department remove the window from the wall and the sparks rig it to a C-stand, surrounded by flags.
We do a fight scene involving a sharp item being used as an improvised weapon. We’re about to shoot a cool 2-shot of the actors struggling on the floor, dutched almost 90 degrees. But the point of the sharp item isn’t showing up on camera and looking threatening enough. We’re short on time, so I prop up two torches on my wallet on the floor behind the actors, to edge-light the weapon. Not the first shot I’ve lit with my torch, and it probably won’t be the last.
Just two days left now.IMG_2950-1.JPG

Feature Shoot: Day 23