Kickstarter: The Facts

Crowdfunder success
Crowdfunder success

Crowd-funding has had an almost revolutionary effect on micro-budget filmmaking. No longer are we reliant on public funding bodies or a friend of a friend who wants to write off some income against tax to get our projects financed; we can go to the crowd and build up legions of fans whilst accruing our budget.

As many of us know, however, it’s not that easy. With so many people using Kickstarter, Indiegogo et al it’s increasingly difficult to stand out from the (irony of ironies) crowd, and many campaigns fail as a result.

This morning I read a very interesting blog by writer and producer Stephen Follows. He’s compiled some data about Kickstarter campaigns, the success rates, optimal targets, the best duration, the benefits of having a pitch video and so on.

Some of it confirms my own anecdotal findings (see here for my top ten crowd-funding tips) – e.g. longer campaigns are less likely to succeed than shorter ones – but some of it I had never even considered – like the fact that living in a city with a high population of creative people increases your chances of success.

Read Stephen Follows’ article here.

If you’re planning a crowd-funding campaign I suggest you take a long, hard look at the statistics first. A lot of people are still launching campaigns “to raise a bit of extra cash for my short” without making any real effort to promote them, or to make potential donors feel their contribution is important. Crowd-funding is not a license to print money. You must be prepared to work incredibly hard, harder even perhaps than you work to actually make the film.

I believe that the most successful campaigns are the ones that are short, intense, focused, have elements like minor celebrities attached, have broadcast quality pitch videos and crucially the public is made to understand that this film will not get made without MY contribution.

Kickstarter: The Facts

Soul Searcher: Low Tech FX

In this 2005 featurette I break down many of the visual effects in my feature film Soul Searcher, revealing how they were created using old school techniques, like pouring milk into a fishtank for apocalyptic clouds. Watch the shots being built up layer by layer, starting with mundane elements like the water from a kitchen tap or drinking straws stuck to a piece of cardboard.

Soul Searcher: Low Tech FX

Understanding Shutter Angles

How many of us see that 1/50 or 1/48 in the bottom of our viewfinders and aren’t really sure what it means? Shutter angles or shutter intervals are part of the cinematographer’s toolkit, but to use them most effectively an understanding of what’s going on under the hood is useful. And that begins with celluloid.

This animation from Wikipedia shows how the shutter's rotation works in tandem with the claw moving the film through the gate.
This animation from Wikipedia shows how the shutter’s rotation works in tandem with the claw moving the film through the gate. The shutter angle here is 180 degrees.

Let’s imagine we’re shooting on film at 24fps, the most common frame rate. Clearly the film can’t move continuously through the gate (the opening behind the lens where the focused light strikes the film) or we would end up with just a long vertical streak. The film must remain stationary long enough to expose an image, before being moved on four perforations (the standard height of a 35mm film frame) so the next frame can be exposed. And crucially light must not hit the film while it is being moved or vertical streaking will occur.

This is where the shutter comes in. The shutter is a portion of a disc that spins in front of the gate. The standard shutter angle is 180°, meaning that the shutter is a semi-circle. A 270° shutter would be a quarter of a circle; we always talk about shutter angles in terms of the portion of the disc which is absent.

The shutter spins continuously at the same speed as the frame rate – so at 24fps the shutter makes 24 revolutions per second. So with a 180° shutter, each 24th of a second is divided into two halves, or 48ths of a second:

  • During one 48th of a second, the missing part of the shutter is over the gate, allowing the stationary film to be exposed.
  • During the other 48th of a second, the shutter blocks the gate to prevent light hitting the film as it is advanced. The shutter has a mirrored surface so that light from the lens is reflected up the viewfinder, allowing the camera operator to see what they’re shooting.

Frame rate * (360/shutter angle) = shutter interval denominator

24 * (360/180) = 48

So we can see that a film running at 24fps, shot with a 180° shutter, shows us only a 48th of a second’s worth of light on each frame. And this has been the standard frame rate and shutter angle in cinema since the introduction of sound in the late 1920s. The amount of motion blur captured in a 48th of a second is the amount that we as an audience have been trained to expect from motion pictures all our lives.

Saving Private Ryan's Normandy beach sequence uses a decreased shutter interval
Saving Private Ryan’s Normandy beach sequence uses a decreased shutter interval

A greater (larger shutter angle, longer shutter interval) or lesser (smaller shutter angle, shorter shutter interval) amount of motion blur looks unusual to us and thus can be used to creative effect. Saving Private Ryan features perhaps the best-known example of a small shutter angle in its D-day landing sequence, where the lack of motion blur creates a crisp, hyper-real effect that draws you into the horror of the battle. Many action movies since have copied the effect in their fight scenes.

Large shutter angles are less common, but the extra motion blur can imply a drugged, fatigued or dream-like state.

In today’s digital environment, only the top-end cameras like the Arri Alexa have a physical shutter. In other models the effect is replicated electronically (with some nasty side effects like the rolling shutter “jello” effect) but the same principles apply. The camera will allow you to select a shutter interval of your choice, and on some models like the Canon C300 you can adjust the preferences so that it’s displayed in your viewfinder as a shutter angle rather than interval.

I advise always keeping your shutter angle at 180° unless you have a solid creative reason to do otherwise. Don’t shorten your shutter interval to prevent over-exposure on a sunny day; instead use the iris, ISO/gain or better still ND filters to cut out some light. And if you shoot slow motion, maintain that 180° angle for the best-looking motion blur – e.g. at 96fps set your shutter interval to 1/192.

Understanding Shutter Angles

Soul Searcher Bonus Features to be Released

My feature film Soul Searcher started shooting on October 20th 2003. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the six week shoot, I’ll be releasing one of the DVD extras online every week starting this Sunday with the acclaimed feature-length documentary Going to Hell: The Making of Soul Searcher.

Going to Hell was chosen by Raindance as one of the six best behind-the-scenes docs ever, alongside classics like Heart of Darkness and Lost in La Mancha. Here is the trailer…

In subsequent weeks you can look forward to informative featurettes on lighting, props and martial arts choreography, a breakdown of the sound design of a key scene and a look at how some of the visual effects were created in incredibly low-tech ways using ordinary household items.

Haven’t seen Soul Searcher? Check it out below.

Update: Going to Hell is now online.

Soul Searcher Bonus Features to be Released

Gaffering Basics

A director of photography should always be backed up by a good gaffer. They will ensure that all the lights are rigged safely and that the appropriate power supply is provided for each one. Here are some basics you need to know if you’re stepping into this role.

Redheads draw 800W each
Redheads draw 800W each

P=IV

Remember that from GCSE Physics? Power = current x voltage, or watts = amps x volts. From this we can calculate that an ordinary 13 amp domestic socket on the 240V UK mains supply can provide up to 3,120W.

A redhead draws 800W, so we can run three off one socket (3 x 800 = 2,400W which is under the 3,120W limit) without blowing a fuse.

Most UK houses have two separate circuits (known as ring mains) for the sockets: one for upstairs and one for downstairs. Usually these are each on a 30 or 32 amp breaker. So although you can only draw 3,120W off one socket, you can draw 7,200W (30 amps x 240 volts) total off one floor’s sockets.

Always carry spare fuses
Always carry spare fuses

The first thing the gaffer should do on arriving at a location is to find the fusebox to check how many ring mains there are, where they are and what amperage of breaker they’re on. Beware that large commercial/industrial buildings may have multiple fuseboxes in different parts of the building. Make sure you have access to all of them so you can reset any circuit breakers you trip.

Also ensure you have a supply of fuses in case you blow any in the plugs of your lights or extension leads. When a bulb blows due to reaching the end of its natural life it will take the fuse with it.

Check the wound and unwound ratings of your extension reels
Check the wound and unwound ratings of your extension reels

You need to make sure your cabling is appropriate for the load you’re drawing. Extension leads can melt if you try to run too much power through them. All extension reels will have two maximum wattages written on the front of them: one for when the reel is fully wound, and one for when it’s fully unwound. When the cable is wound up it can overheat very easily, so pay attention to those quoted limits.

16 amp C form plug
16 amp C form plug

Professional hired kit is often fitted with heavy duty cabling, signified by round blue “C form” plugs and sockets. C form outlets can be found in soundstages and factories, on generators and occasionally on exterior walls of houses. They are weather resistant, so much safer for use outdoors than domestic cabling.

32 to 16 amp jumper
32 to 16 amp jumper

The associated cable comes in 16 amp and 32 amp flavours, the latter being thicker with larger plugs and sockets. A 13 to 16 amp jumper – a short adapter cable with an ordinary square UK plug on one end and a 16 amp C form socket on the other – will enable you to plug an appliance with a smaller C form plug into a standard domestic socket. Jumpers exist in every other possible direction and combination too, so it’s important you get the right ones.

13 to 16 amp jumper
13 to 16 amp jumper

Also remember that, although a 13 to 32 amp jumper will let you physically plug, say, a 4KW HMI into a domestic wall socket, that 13 amp plug will not support a 4KW load; you’ll blow the fuse. In fact if something has a 32 amp plug on it then the only way to run it safely off a house is to have a qualified electrician wire a 32 amp socket into the fusebox. Definitely don’t try to do that yourself.

In fact if you’re in any doubt about any of the above, consult an experienced gaffer or electrician. Be safe!

Gaffering Basics

Period Cinematography

White "daylight" (a 2.5K HMI outside the window and  a Kinolfo Barfly behind the actor) and warm "candlelight" (a Dedolight off camera right)
White “daylight” (a 2.5K HMI outside the window and a Kinolfo Barfly behind the actor) and warm “candlelight” (a Dedolight off camera right)

The First Musketeer was my first period production as DP. It’s a genre that brings its own set of challenges and opportunities, most obviously for sets and costumes, and also sound (we spent a lot of time waiting for cars and planes to pass by), but for cinematography too. The first thing that hit me was the restrictiveness of it. Back in the day there were only three sources of light: the sun, the moon and fire. And maybe, at a pinch, starlight.

 

Blue "moonlight" and orange "firelight" - in this case both created by gelled Dedolights
Paul McMaster as Ghislain. Blue “moonlight” and orange “firelight” – in this case both created by gelled Dedolights

I kept colour temperatures simple by deciding that daylight would always appear white, moonlight would be +2,400K (blue) and firelight would be -2,400K (orange). In practice this meant that daylight scenes were white-balanced at 5,600K using natural light, HMIs and kinoflos, with ungelled redheads or dedos for candlelight, while night scenes were typically white-balanced at 3,200K which turned HMIs and kinos blue for moonlight/starlight, with redheads or dedos gelled with full CTO to turn them orange on camera.

This night exterior shot of Lazare (Tony Sams) and Athos (Edward Mitchell) was shot with a white balance of 3,200K, turning the HMI backlight blue, while the warm light around the taven entrance was provided by CTO-gelled Dedos and redheads.
This night exterior shot of Lazare (Tony Sams) and Athos (Edward Mitchell) was shot with a white balance of 3,200K, turning the HMI backlight blue, while the warm light around the tavern entrance was provided by CTO-gelled dedos and redheads.

Occasionally I used straw gels to give “firelight” more of a yellow hue than an orange one, and in one scene involving a church I introduced strongly yellow light and some pink backlight, the theory being that stained glass windows could be held accountable.

A 2.5K provides the frontal keylight here, while a redhead sporting Minus Green gel provides the pink backlight. A second redhead double-gelled with Light Straw uplights the figure of Christ on the back wall, and finally a 1.2K HMI at the rear of the building illuminates the stained glass window.
A 2.5K provides the frontal keylight here, while a redhead sporting Minus Green gel provides the pink backlight. A second redhead double-gelled with Light Straw uplights the figure of Christ on the back wall, and finally a 1.2K HMI at the rear of the building illuminates the stained glass window.

I think it’s very important to soften the images when shooting a period piece digitally. Initially we hoped to do this by using Cooke lenses, but they proved unobtainable on our budget. It was too late to look into filters by this point, so instead I relied on smoke in most scenes to diffuse and age the image.

Like everyone, I continue to learn with every project that I do. Reviewing the rushes towards the end of the shoot, I realised (a little too late) that texture was the key to making the period convincing. There was bags of it in front of me – in the stone walls of the locations, in the beautifully-aged costumes, in the detailed set dressing. It was an era before smooth surfaces. I can now see that my cinematography was most successful when the lighting brought the textures out.

A 1.2K HMI outside the door cross-lights the stonework, while smoke volumizes this light, resulting in a very satisfying depth and texture. The only other light sources are two kinoflo Barflies hanging from polecats above the bench at the back of shot. This backlight is reflected back at the foreground characters by a sheet of silver foamcore beneath the camera.
A 1.2K HMI outside the door cross-lights the stonework, while smoke volumizes this light, resulting in a very satisfying depth and texture. The only other light sources are two Kinoflo Barflies hanging from polecats above the bench at the back of shot. This backlight is reflected back at the foreground characters by a sheet of silver foamcore beneath the camera.

Contrast the shot above with the one below. This location had equally nice stonework, but because I didn’t cross-light it it looks flat and artificial, like a cheap panto set.

A 2.5K HMI supplies the backlight here, while a blue-gelled redhead out of the top right of frame is aimed down the steps to pick out the characters as they descend. An orange-gelled Dedo creates a pool of light around the candle, and everything else is natural bounce off the surrounding stonework. A second blue-gelled redhead at the foot of the stairs firing across the stonework would have made all the difference to the believability of the environment, but hindsight is 20/20.
A 2.5K HMI supplies the backlight here, while a blue-gelled redhead out of the top right of frame is aimed down the steps to pick out the characters as they descend. An orange-gelled Dedo creates a pool of light around the candle, and everything else is natural bounce off the surrounding walls. A second blue-gelled redhead at the foot of the stairs firing across the stonework would have made all the difference to the believability of the environment, but hindsight is 20/20.

So that’s an important lesson I’ve learnt to take forward to the next season. Next time around I also want to play more with different colours of daylight, using more straw, amber and pink gels to stretch out the colour palette and suggest different times of day.

And then there’s the whole candlelight thing – but I’ll save that for my next post.

All images copyright 2013 The First Musketeer. Find out more about the series at www.firstmusketeer.com

Period Cinematography

Black Magic Cinema Camera Review

Throughout September I got a crash-course introduction to the Blackmagic Cinema Camera as I used it to shoot Harriet Sams’ period action adventure web series The First Musketeer. The camera was kindly lent to us by our gaffer, Richard Roberts. Part-way through the shoot I recorded my initial thoughts on the camera in this video blog:

Here’s a summary of the key differences between the Blackmagic and a Canon DSLR.

Canon DSLR Blackmagic Cinema Camera
Rolling shutter (causes picture distortion during fast movement) Rolling shutter (though not as bad as DSLRs)
Pixels thrown away to achieve downscaling to 1080P video resolution, results in distracting moiré patterns on fabrics, bricks walls and other grid-like patterns Pixels smoothly downscaled from 2.5K to 1080P to eliminate moiré. Raw 2.5K recording also available
On-board screen shuts off when external monitor is connected On-board screen remains on when external monitor is connected
Some models have flip-out screens which can be adjusted to any viewing angle and easily converted into viewfinders with a cheap loupe attachment On-board screen is fixed and highly reflective so hard to see in all but the darkest of environments
Maximum frame rate: 60fps at 720P Maximum frame rate: 30fps at 1080P
50mm lens is equivalent to 50mm (5D) or 72mm (other models) full-frame lens 50mm lens is equivalent to 115mm full-frame lens
10-11 stops of dynamic range 13 stops of dynamic range
Recording format: highly compressed H.264, although Magic Lantern now allows for limited raw recording Recording format: uncompressed raw, ProRes or DNXHD
Battery life: about 2 hours from the 600D’s bundled battery in movie mode Battery life: about 1 hour from the non-removable internal battery
Weight: 570g (600D) Weight: 1,700g
Audio: stereo minijack input, no headphone socket Audio: dual quarter-inch jacks for input, headphone socket

Having now come to the end of the project, I stand by the key message of my video blog above: if you already own a DSLR, it’s not worth upgrading to a Blackmagic. You’d just be swapping one set of problems (rolling shutter, external monitoring difficulties, aliasing) for another (hard-to-see on-board screen, weight, large depth of field).

The BMCC rigged with a lock-it box for timecode sync with the audio recorder, on a Cinecity Pro-Aim shoulder mount
The BMCC rigged with a lock-it box for timecode sync with the audio recorder, on a Cinecity Pro-Aim shoulder mount

The depth of field was really the killer for me. Having shot on the 600D for three years I’m used to its lovely shallow depth of field. With the Blackmagic’s smaller 16mm sensor it was much harder to throw backgrounds of focus, particularly on wide shots. At times I felt like some of the material I was shooting looked a bit “TV” as a result.

The small sensor also creates new demands on your set of lenses; they all become more telephoto than they used to be. A 50mm lens used on a crop-chip DSLR like the 600D is equivalent to about an 72mm lens on a full-frame camera like the 5D Mark III or a traditional 35mm SLR. That same 50mm lens used on the Blackmagic is equivalent to 115mm! It was lucky that data wrangler Rob McKenzie was able to lend us his Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 otherwise we would not have been able to get useful wide shots in some of the more cramped locations.

As for the Blackmagic’s ability to shoot raw, it sounds great, but will you use it? I suggest the images you get in ProRes mode are good enough for anything bar a theatrical release, and are of a far more manageable data size. You still get the high dynamic range in ProRes mode (although it’s optional), and that takes a little getting used to for everyone. More than once the director asked me to make stuff moodier, more shadowy; the answer was it is shadowy, you just won’t be able to see it like that until it’s graded.

The colour saturation is also very low, again to give maximum flexibility in the grade, but it makes it very hard for the crew huddled around the monitor to get a sense of what the finished thing is going to look like. As a cinematographer I pride myself on delivering images that looked graded before they actually are, but I couldn’t do that with the Blackmagic. But maybe that’s just a different workflow I’d need to adapt to.

The biggest plus to the BMCC is the lovely organic images it produces, as a result of both the down-sampling from 2.5K and the high dynamic range. This was well suited to The First Musketeer’s period setting. However, I think next season I’ll be pushing for a Canon C300 to get back the depth of field.

I’ll leave you with a few frame grabs from The First Musketeer.

Note: I have amended this post as I originally stated, incorrectly, that the BMCC has a global shutter. The new 4K Blackmagic Production Camera does have a global shutter though.

Black Magic Cinema Camera Review

Tous Pour Un et Un Pour Tous

The calm before the storm of the last day of shooting
The calm before the storm of the last day of shooting

Eleven years ago, on returning home from a three week feature film shoot in New York, I wrote this on my blog: “Whenever you do a big shoot, you spend several weeks working intensively with a bunch of people who you end up utterly adoring, then the shoot ends and you NEVER see them again. Which is horrible, totally horrible.”

This week I’m going through the same depressing experience again, having returned home from the month-long French shoot for season one of The First Musketeer, a project which has knocked the New York feature off the top spot and now ranks as The Best Shoot I’ve Ever Been On.

It was a tough, tough shoot, make no mistake: lots of night shooting (for which I’m entirely to blame), long hours, rain, insufficient food, fatigue and – given the ambitious nature of the show – a miniscule budget and a tiny crew. Only one day off was scheduled, although two others emerged out of last-minute necessity.

But how often do you get to shoot in castles? At night? With sword-fighting actors in stunning period costumes? How often do you get to work with horses, or film in a medieval city carved into the cliff-face of a huge gorge? It was an awesome experience.

Art assistant Denise Barry's photo of the cast and crew shortly after arriving in France
Art assistant Denise Barry’s photo of the cast and crew shortly after arriving in France

What really made it though was the people. I’ve never met such a lovely bunch or bonded so strongly with a group. We went into a bubble, seeing no-one else but our fellow cast and crew, day in day out, staying in the same chalets as them, enduring the same hardships, developing private jokes (Gerard Depardieu), rocking out to the same eighties tunes on RFM as we drove the long, windy roads to location, cooking for each other, drinking with each other, helping each other through the cold nights on set with chocolate, sweets, coffee and hugs. Departmental barriers quickly broke down, with the sound recordist driving the lighting-camera van, he and his boom op helping us every day with our lighting set-ups and our tear-downs, and all the tech crew pitching in to help the art department reinstate locations after wrapping.

I hope this time that I will see everyone again, not just for a wrap party but for further seasons of the show as well. I doubt we will ever recreate the magic of this year’s experience, but we’ll always have Gerard Depardieu.

Tous Pour Un et Un Pour Tous