“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