Above the Clouds: Summer 2017 Pick-ups

This time last year, principal photography had just wrapped on Above the Clouds, a comedy road movie directed by Leon Chambers. We always knew that there would be additional photography, and several days of this have been scattered over the past year.

In May I spent a few odd days with Leon and the Yellow Peril, primarily capturing car-to-car tracking shots. Leon had already shot some of these without me up in Cumbria, so he had the technique down. He attached his Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera to his roof rack with clamps and suction cups – three points of contact in all, to eliminate vibrations.

The focus was left fixed at the approximate distance the cars would be apart, and I could reach out of the passenger window and tweak it, along with the variable ND filter, if necessary. Recording was triggered from the custom remote which Leon had made for the camera last year when we used it for the autumn pick-ups. I monitored on a 5″ Blackmagic Video Assist which – thanks to a firmware update – now has a false colour display, which was very useful for keeping an eye on the exposure.

We had no means of panning or tilting the camera during takes, so we would frame the car centrally, allowing the maximum space to each side for when we went around the bends. This had the nice effect of making the Peril look small in the landscape, surrounded by it on all sides.

And speaking of the Peril looking small, it had shrunk considerably when I next saw it. But so had the landscape.

To keep the audience informed of the characters’ progress across Great Britain, Leon planned to cut to a map at a few strategic moments. At some point the original plan of shooting an Ordnance Survey map on a wall turned into something much more elaborate, a work of art featuring found objects, such as the lead character Charlie might have made herself.

Leon knew he wanted to use his jib to drift the camera over the map. But what camera? We both agreed that these shots needed to have a noticeably different look to the rest of the movie. Both Super-8 and Super-16 were discussed, but ultimately neither were viable. Then I suggested shooting on a full-frame DSLR to get a tiny depth of field. I imagined the camera having fixed focus as it skimmed over the map, with features coming in and out of focus as they passed through the field. We didn’t end up doing that, but Leon did like the DSLR idea.

Asahi Pentax-M 50mm/f1.4

So the decision was made to shoot on a Canon 5D Mk III belonging to focus puller Max Quinton. We ended up shooting everything on a single lens, my Asahi Pentax-M 50mm/f1.4. This is a vintage K-mount stills lens which is beautifully sharp, and we mounted it with a passive EF adapter. 50mm on full-frame is equivalent to 35mm on Super 35, very close to the 32mm which was our most used lens length during principal photography.

I added a half Soft FX filter as I usually do. I had briefly considered omitting it, to further differentiate the map shots from the rest of the film, but undiffused shots in a mostly diffused movie draw attention to the filtration and can be quite jarring.

I offered Leon two options for the lighting. One was to simulate the natural light you would see if shooting the British Isles from a high altitude, i.e. a hard sun source and ambient toplight. The other, which he went for, was to carry on the suggestion of Charlie making the map herself, and make it look like she had lit it herself too, with an eclectic mix of practicals around the edge. A couple of tungsten Chinese lanterns were hung overhead as well for soft fill. To help the camera’s limited dynamic range, I put tough-spun diffuser inside some of the practicals’ shades, on the camera side.

The Blackmagic 5″ Video Assist can be seen here mounted on the back of the camera.

There were a couple of “night” scenes on the shot list. For these we turned off the Chinese lanterns and turned on a desk-lamp practical with a blue-ish LED bulb to suggest moonlight. We also used a string of LED fairy lights to represent a road with streetlights.

For the smallest possible depth of field, everything was shot at f1.4. Even at ISO 320, in the daylight scenes it was necessary to add a 0.45 ND filter to bring the exposure down to f1.4.  We shot on a neutral picture profile, piping the images via HDMI to the Blackmagic Video Assist, where they were recorded in ProRes 422 HQ.

After a few years shooting on Blackmagics, FS7s and Alexas, the 5D’s colour saturation and contrast seemed very pronounced to me, but that really suited the toy-like nature of the map. And the tiny depth of field made everything look even smaller and cuter than it already was.

So, that’s a wrap on Above the Clouds finally and forever. Apparently.

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

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Above the Clouds: Summer 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

Lensing Ren – episode 1

Here is the first in a series of cinematography videos I’m publishing to compliment the five episodes of Ren: The Girl with the Mark as they are released over the coming weeks. These videos will tell you the how, what and why of photographing the show. This week I discuss the camera equipment used, differentiating characters photographically, and lighting Karn’s magical woodland house.

Here is the lighting plan for Karn’s house:

Karns-house-1080p

And here is a video blog from the set of Karn’s house:

You may be interested to read my article on Masculine and Feminine Lighting, which gives some more detail on the techniques used to light Ren and Karn in the riverside scene.

See also: 5 Tips for Perfect Shafts of Light and Lighting Techniques #6: Cross-light.

Check back next Saturday for another instalment of Lensing Ren, and meanwhile watch the next episode of Ren itself from Tuesday at 8pm GMT at rentheseries.com

Lensing Ren – episode 1

Synced: The Japan Shoot – Part 1

cast-and-crew
Actor Shigeki Maegawa, director Devon Avery, actor Oliver Park with Justine Avery in front of him, actress Daisy Hainsworth, actor Sydney Jay, me and gaffer Keisuke Ueda, at Himeji Castle

575W HMI
575W HMI

On Wednesday May 27th I got a call from my friend and actor Oliver Park, saying he was flying to Japan on Sunday for a shoot and did I want to come as DP? He was playing the leading man in Synced, a sci-fi feature film directed and co-written by Devon Avery, and after a month of shooting in Glasgow, the existing DP had opted not to take part in the Asian shoot.

On Friday night my plane ticket came through, at midnight on Sunday I was changing planes in Qatar, and on Monday afternoon (local time) I was in Osaka. The following morning saw me at Arc System, a very helpful lighting rental house, with Devon, his wife/multi-talented assistant Justine and a couple of the Japanese crew. With two night exteriors and a night interior as well as a day exterior scene, a reasonable amount of kit was needed.

The mains electricity in Japan is 100V, 60Hz, so very similar to the US – and indeed the plugs and sockets are identical. But the killer is that you can only draw 7A per socket. That’s a maximum of 700W, as opposed to over 3,000W from a UK socket.

Canon Ultrasonic 24-70mm f2.8
Canon Ultrasonic 24-70mm f2.8

So the biggest lamp we could hire without needing a generator was a 575W HMI. With one of those in the bag, I figured it was best to fill out the package with battery-powered lamps, and so hired four 1’x1′ Bi-Color LitePanels. Although I’m still not 100% sold on the colour rendition of any LED panels (even LitePanels, which are amongst the best), there’s no denying they’re incredibly handy and quick to set up.

Pentax 50mm f1.4
Pentax 50mm f1.4

I would be shooting in 4K ProRes 422 HQ on my Blackmagic Production Camera, at 23.976fps. I initially stuck to two Canon L series lenses for continuity: Devon’s 24-70mm f2.8 and crew member Keisuke Ueda’s Canon L 50mm f1.4. Since I was constantly struggling to expose an image at the BMPC’s native 400 ISO, I later employed my Sigma 20mm f1.8 for faster wide shots, and I couldn’t resist trying my new Pentax 50mm f1.4, which performed beautifully at f1.7 and above, but did seem a touch soft when wide open.

Thunderbolt
Monitoring via Thunderbolt cable to Blackmagic Ultrascopes on a Powerbook

Regular readers will know of the trials and tribulations I’ve experienced getting a monitor signal out of my BMPC, with the result that I bought a 17″ Blackmagic SDI monitor last year. It was impossible to bring this to Japan, so instead – for the first time – I experimented with Thunderbolt monitoring. A runner was dispatched to buy a cable, and Devon installed the Blackmagic Camera package on his Macbook. This package includes Ultrascopes, which provides a live video view amongst other things, though annoyingly only in a pretty small window.

Whenever I turned the camera off or played anything back, the signal would be lost. To get it back, Devon would have to quit Ultrascopes and I’d have to switch to 25fps before he re-opened it. Only once it was re-opened could I switch back to 23.976fps. Please sort out that little bug, Blackmagic Design!

With the kit and workflow sorted, we travelled to Himeji (by bullet train, no less) ready to start shooting on Wednesday. Watch this space for part 2: shooting the kitchen scene.

Synced is copyright 2015 Empty Box Productions LLC.

Synced: The Japan Shoot – Part 1

Converting Blackmagic Raw Footage to ProRes with After Effects

My 4K Blackmagic Production Camera
Blackmagic Production Camera

One of the big benefits of the Blackmagic cameras is their ability to shoot raw – lossless Cinema DNG files that capture an incredible range of detail. But encoding those files into a useable format for editing can be tricky, especially if your computer won’t run the processor-intensive DaVinci Resolve which ships with the camera.

You can usually turn to the Adobe Creative Suite when faced with intractable transcoding problems, and sure enough After Effects provides one solution for raw to ProRes conversion.

I’ll take you through it, step by step.  Let’s assume you’ve been shooting on a Blackmagic Cinema Camera and you have some 2.5K raw shots which you want to drop into your edit timeline alongside 1080P ProRes 422HQ material.

1. In After Effects’ launch window, select New Composition. A dialogue box will appear in which you can spec up your project. For this example, we’re going to choose the standard HDTV resolution of 1920×1080. It’s critical that you get your frame rate right, or your audio won’t sync. Click OK once you’ve set everything to your liking.

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2. Now go to the File menu and select Import > File. Navigate to the raw material on your hard drive. The BMCC creates a folder for each raw clip, containing the individual Cinema DNG frames and a WAV audio file. Select the first DNG file in the folder and ensure that Camera Raw Sequence is ticked, then click OK.

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3. You’ll then have the chance to do a basic grade on the shot – though with only the first frame to judge it by.

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4. Use Import > File again to import the WAV audio file.

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5. Your project bin should now contain the DNG sequence – shown as a single item – along with the WAV audio and the composition. Drag the DNG sequence into the main viewer window. Because the BMCC’s raw mode records at a resolution of 2.5K and you set your composition to 1080P, the image will appear cropped.

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6. If necessary, zoom out (using the drop-down menu in the bottom left of the Composition window) so you can see the wireframe of the 2.5K image. Then click and drag the bottom right corner of that wireframe to shrink the image until it fits into the 1080P frame. Hold down shift while dragging to maintain the aspect ratio.

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7. Drag the WAV audio onto the timeline, taking care to align it precisely with the video.

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8. Go to Composition Settings in the Composition menu and alter the duration of the composition to match the duration of the clip (which you can see by clicking the DNG sequence in the project bin).

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9. Go to the Composition menu again and select Add to Render Queue. The composition timeline will give way to the Render Queue tab.

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10. Next to the words Output Module in the Render Queue, you’ll see a clickable Lossless setting (yellow and underlined). Click this to open the Output Module Settings.

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11. In the Video Output section, click on Format Options… We’re going to pick ProRes 422 HQ, to match with the non-raw shots we hypothetically filmed. Click OK to close the Format Options.

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12. You should now be back in Output Module Settings. Before clicking OK to close this, be sure to tick the Audio Output box to make sure you don’t end up with a mute clip. You should not need to change the default output settings of 48kHz 16-bit stereo PCM.

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13. In the Render Queue tab, next to the words Output to you’ll see a clickable filename – the default is Comp1.mov. Click on this to bring up a file selector and choose where to save your ProRes file.

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14. Click Render (top far right of the Render Queue tab). Now just sit back and wait for your computer to crunch the numbers.

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I’ve never used After Effects before, so there are probably ways to streamline this process which I’m unaware of. Can anyone out there suggest any improvements to this workflow? Is it possible to automate a batch?

Converting Blackmagic Raw Footage to ProRes with After Effects

The Steadicam, the Blackmagic and the Troublesome Converters

I spent last week in rural Sussex DPing Ted Duran’s 30 minute action-comedy, The Gong Fu Connection. It was a great shoot with a real community atmosphere, excellent food and beautiful weather. I’ve just been looking through the rushes and I’m blown away by the amazing images that my Blackmagic Production Camera has produced. They are very filmic with an incredible amount of detail, even though we only shot in 1080P.

Colin operates the Canon C300 on his Steadicam Pilot
Colin Smith operates the Canon C300 on his Steadicam Pilot

Not everything went to plan though. The aim was to capture the fights using fluid Steadicam photography, and since I hadn’t used a Blackmagic with Colin’s Steadicam Pilot before, he and I met up the weekend before to test the set-up.

The chief difficulty was that the rig’s built-in monitor accepts only a composite video input, while the Blackmagic outputs only an SDI signal. I searched online for a portable SDI to composite converter, but no such thing seemed to exist. I already had an SDI to HDMI converter, so the obvious solution was to buy an HDMI to composite converter. But the more links a chain has, the more opportunity for weakness.

I made the purchase and Colin sorted out power adapters so that both converters could run off the same battery as the Steadicam monitor. We tested it at my flat and it worked perfectly.

Flash-forward a week and we’re on set preparing the Steadicam for The Gong Fu Connection’s first martial arts sequence. All we’re getting on the Steadicam’s monitor are colour bars, which are output by the HDMI to composite converter when it’s receiving no input signal. The other converter, the SDI to HDMI one, has packed up.

Without a working monitor on the bottom of the rig, Colin can’t watch his step and frame the shot at the same time. The Steadicam is essentially useless.

There is a Canon C300 on set, being used for behind-the-scenes shooting. Although Ted and I are both keen to shoot the main film exclusively on the Blackmagic, to avoid severely disrupting the schedule we decide to shoot the day’s Steadicam material on the C300. (The C300 has SDI, HDMI and composite outputs. Blackmagic Design take note.)

DO NOT BUY THIS CONVERTER.
DO NOT BUY THIS CONVERTER.

At lunchtime I get on the wifi and see if I can order a replacement SDI to HDMI converter. The only one that can be delivered the next day (a Sunday) is the same model as the one that packed up. Having little choice, I order it. Amazingly it is indeed delivered on the Sunday. Nice one, Amazon.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work. I was at least hoping for the paltry month of service I got from the previous one. But no, this one is dead on arrival.

By a process of elimination we check that the converter is indeed the piece at fault. We swap cables and cameras and the results are the same.

We continue to shoot the Steadicam material on the C300.

But I have one last desperate idea to get the Blackmagic working on the rig.

The CCTV camera set up to film the Blackmagic's screen
The CCTV camera, set up to film the Blackmagic’s screen

On Monday morning I send our driver, Lucky, to the nearest Maplin. I’ve given him instructions to buy a small CCTV camera. When he gets back with it I have Colin attach it to the rig behind the Blackmagic, filming the Blackmagic’s screen. The CCTV camera outputs a composite signal directly to the Steadicam’s monitor.

Incredibly, this works. But it does mean enclosing the Blackmagic and the CCTV camera in black wrap to eliminate reflections on the former’s screen. Which means we can’t get to the iris controls, and we’re relying on the distances marked on the lens barrel to focus. And to make matters worse, the Steadicam Pilot can’t take the weight of a V-lock battery, so the Blackmagic must run off its short-lived internal battery. Between takes we have to plug it into a handheld V-lock to top up the charge.

After capturing two or three successful set-ups with this ludicrous rig, we decide it’s slowing us down too much. I finally abandon all hope of using the Blackmagic on the Steadicam.

For those interested in how the C300 and Blackmagic stack up against each other, the Canon has a sharper, more video look compared with the Blackmagic’s filmic images. The Canon also has more compression artefacts due to its lower bitrate. But they seem to cut together alright once graded.

The lack of an HDMI output on the Blackmagic has been the one thing that’s really caused me problems since buying the camera. I’d be tempted to go for a Kinefinity mod if it wasn’t so expensive…

Of course, the camera is still incredible value for money. Personally I think the only competitors in terms of image quality are the Reds. (The Alexa and film are in a whole other league.) But it is strange that Blackmagic Design claim to have built the camera for people working in the low budget world, but apparently didn’t consider that such people rarely have access to SDI monitors.

Stay tuned for more on The Gong Fu Connection shoot. There is still time to contribute to the project’s crowdfunding campaign over at Indiegogo.

The Steadicam, the Blackmagic and the Troublesome Converters

Forever Alone: Day Three

On the left, a real streetlight. On the right, a 650W Arrilite with Urban Sodium gel.
On the left, a real streetlight. On the right, a 650W Arrilite with Urban Sodium gel.

Saturday night saw the third and final day of production on Forever Alone. If you haven’t already, check out my blogs on day one and two of this sci-fi short by Jordan Morris. (I’ve gone back and added some frame grabs into the day two post.)

This time around, our lighting kit had grown just slightly with the addition of a 650W Arrilite. Without this it would have been near impossible to light the nighttime alley scenes that were scheduled. The alley in question was in a suburban area, conveniently adjacent to the producer’s house and thus a power source.

I knew going into this shoot that I would have to embrace the sodium vapour streetlamps. In the past I’ve always avoided or flagged them, because that grungy orange look gives away that you don’t have the budget to swap out the bulbs like they do in Hollywood. American film and TV nights are always steely blue; British film and TV nights are usually seedy orange. With only one flag and one C-stand in our kit, however, I had no choice.

The orange backlight on Faith (Haruka Abe) and the fence, although apparently from the streetlamp in the background, is actually from an Arrilite 650 out of frame right, gelled with Urban Sodium. A daylight-balanced LED panel, also out of frame right but closer to camera, keys Faith. A second panel hidden behind the end of the fence lights the van and the rest of the deep background.
The orange backlight on Faith (Haruka Abe) and the fence, although apparently from the streetlamp in the background, is actually from an Arrilite 650 out of frame right, gelled with Urban Sodium. A daylight-balanced LED panel, also out of frame right but closer to camera, keys Faith. A second panel hidden behind the end of the fence lights the white van and the grass in the background.

Fortunately there were no streetlamps close enough to spill light onto our character, Faith (Haruka Abe) – they were only creating pools of light in the background, which helped add depth. I used one in particular to motivate a strong backlight, in reality generated by the Arrilite, gelled of course with Urban Sodium (Lee no. 652).

For colour contrast, an LED panel set to 5,600K threw in a little “moonlight” from the side. The second panel, also set to daylight, was positioned to light the deep background. It was so handy, as I raced to rig our final set-up before wrap, to be able to slap a V-lock battery on one of these panels and move it across the street in seconds.

When Other Faith appears on the scene, she’s keyed by a Dedo covered with tough-spun diffuser and the characteristic Medium Blue/Green gel. My favourite shot of the night was her close-up:

Haruka Abe as Other Faith. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris
Haruka Abe as Other Faith. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris

Emulating the beautiful contrasty look of the TV show Fringe, I eliminated all fill light to put one side of her face in crisp, black shadow. An LED panel backlights her hair, while the Urban Sodium-gelled Arrilite rakes across the fence in the background.

Eliminating the fill was unexpectedly difficult – a downside of using a sensitive camera. The slightest bit of bounce would contaminate the blacks, as did a faux period streetlamp in the adjacent garden. It’s hard to figure out where unwanted light is coming from when it’s so dim that your naked eye can barely perceive it.

Forever Alone is now wrapped, and Jordan’s beginning the processes of editing and adding extensive visual effects. Personally I’ve learnt a lot about how far a camera be pushed, specifically the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. Many of the wide shots I’ve reviewed are under-exposed (partly due to our widest lens being relatively slow) but the raw data allows the exposure to be bumped up in post without them looking nasty.

What’s the most you’ve ever had to push a camera?

In this splitscreen shot, the two Faiths are backlit by the 650 - this time without a gel, while an LED panel gelled with Urban Sodium lights the background. A second LED panel, daylight balanced, keys the downside of First Faith (left), while a Dedo gelled with Medium Blue/Green keys the downside of Other Faith (right).
In this splitscreen shot, the two Faiths are backlit by the 650 – this time without a gel, while an LED panel gelled with Urban Sodium lights the background. A second LED panel, daylight balanced, keys the downside of First Faith (left), while a Dedo gelled with Medium Blue/Green keys the downside of Other Faith (right).

Forever Alone: Day Three

Forever Alone: Day Two

Stella Taylor as Charlotte in Forever Alone. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris
Stella Taylor as Charlotte in Forever Alone. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris

This is a continuation of my last post, a report from the set of Jordan Morris’s sci-fi short Forever Alone.

Black-wrapped ceiling light
Black-wrapped ceiling light

Day two saw us shooting a big scene in the dining room. Since the location was only available to us during daylight hours, the windows had to be blacked out with bin bags. Ideally for night interiors, I would put an HMI outside to shine “moonlight” in through the windows, and perhaps use halogen floodlights to create depth and interest in the deep background. This can bother some directors, however, because it means leaving the curtains open – hardly realistic. I figured that if I could create an interesting night interior look on Forever Alone without the crux of open curtains and deep background, it would give me a lot of confidence in the future when working with those restrictions.

An LED panel hidden behind the wall that Charlotte (Stella Taylor) is leaning on supplements the ceiling light from a more flattering angle. A CTB-gelled Kinoflo Divalite provides the blue wash in the foreground.
An LED panel hidden behind the wall that Charlotte is leaning on supplements the ceiling light from a more flattering angle. A CTB-gelled Kinoflo Divalite provides the blue wash in the foreground. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris

I began by turning on the ceiling light, something I almost never do. I’m not a big fan of toplight, but it seemed appropriate given the interrogative nature of the scene, and I knew I could add bounced light off the table-top if the look was too harsh. Also, the shadow of the lightshade added some interest to the room’s blank white walls. I used the 60W tungsten bulb, and placed black-wrap across the top of the shade to prevent bounce off the ceiling from raising the ambient light level.

Cardboard barn doors. This kind of DIY solution is so much easier with sources that don't get hot.
Cardboard barn doors. This kind of DIY solution is so much easier with sources that don’t get hot.

I clamped the Dedo to the top of a mirror directly behind Faith, which allowed me to give her a dedicated backlight. I gelled this pink, foreshadowing her eyes glowing this colour at the end of the script.
Other Faith, a visual representation of the heroine’s darker side, was keyed by another dedicated source, this time gelled with Medium Blue/Green again. Ideally this source would have been a Dedo, to achieve fine control, but only an LED panel remained available. So to reduce the panel’s spill onto other characters, I fashioned makeshift barn doors out of a cardboard box.

To light the living room – visible in the background on reverses – I employed the Divalight. This was gelled blue to suggest moonlight and create some depth and separation – a proxy, I suppose, for those deep backgrounds I couldn’t have outside the windows.

Much has been made in recent years of the low-light sensitivity of modern digital cameras, and the attendant reduction in required lighting power. When competing with natural light, larger instruments are still necessary, but Forever Alone really helped me to see what can be achieved with minimal gear. This weekend I get to see how much I can push this in a night exterior scene, as we complete principal photography. Stay tuned.

Working from the foreground back, an LED panel to the right provides the key on Charlotte (centre), with fill supplied by the ceiling light. Faith (right) is keyed by a second panel, gelled with Medium Blue/Green. A Dedo provides backlight, while a blue-gelled Divalite illuminates the background. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris
Working from the foreground back, an LED panel to the right provides the key on Charlotte (centre), with fill supplied by the ceiling light. Other Faith (right) is keyed by a second panel, gelled with Medium Blue/Green. A Dedo provides backlight, while a blue-gelled Divalite illuminates the background. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris

Forever Alone: Day Two

Forever Alone: Day One

Haruka Abe as Faith in Forever Alone. She is side-lit by an LED panel and 3/4 backlit by a Dedo, while a Kinoflo Divalite illuminates the background. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris
Haruka Abe as Faith in Forever Alone. She is side-lit by an LED panel and 3/4 backlit by a Dedo, while a Kinoflo Divalite illuminates the background. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris

When I was offered the role of DP on sci-fi short Forever Alone, I must confess that I had pause for thought. It was a student production, and the lighting package available from the university was much smaller than I’m used to. But I figured it would be a good challenge for me, to see if I could deliver a slick sci-fi look for a script set entirely at night, using only a handful of small instruments.

Creating darkness around the garage door meant making good use of the garage's random contents.
Creating darkness around the garage door meant making good use of the garage’s random contents.

The package consisted of a Dedo kit, a Kinoflo Divalite, two 12×12″ LED panels, a collapsible reflector, a single C-stand (with an arm but no knuckle) and one flag. And we quickly discovered that the Dedo kit contained only one in-tact bubble. On arriving at the house location, I checked out all the ceiling lights and, amongst the energy saver bulbs, found a single 60W tungsten globe. I immediately added that to my modest arsenal, along with my trusty £2 LED camping light which I’d brought along. Additionally, at my request, director Jordan Morris purchased a powerful LED torch for a key sequence. Dynamic practical lighting always looks good, and I thought it might help fill in any areas which our other sources couldn’t reach.

£2 LED camping light
£2 LED camping light

We were shooting on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera with three Canon primes, the slowest of which was f2.8. Regular shots would be recorded in 1080P ProRes, while VFX plates would be captured in the 2.5K CinemaDNG Raw format. I feared I would be struggling to light to f2.8 without raising the camera’s ISO above its native 800, but in fact only one scene felt underexposed.

Interactive light, the low-tech way
Interactive light, the low-tech way: a 60W bulb on a stick

This scene took place in the garage, where the lead character, Faith, uses her superhuman abilities to generate a glowing light source above her head. To create the requisite interactive light, I borrowed the pendant fitting from the ceiling of the garage, removed the fluorescent bulb, put in the 60W tungsten globe and taped it to the end of a broomstick. I had chosen Medium Blue/Green as Faith’s “special powers” colour, but this is a very dark gel. With only a 60W bulb inside, even boomed above Faith’s head, it didn’t shed quite as much light as I wanted. Hopefully these shots, recorded in Raw, can be brought up in the VFX/grading process without too much noise creeping in.

Other sources used in the garage included the two LED panels, colour-balanced to 5600K so as to show up blue on the tungsten-balanced camera. These were positioned in the rafters at either end of the space and dimmed right down, to give a hint of backlight to scenes supposedly taking place in pitch blackness.

The garage’s ceiling light, turned on by the characters of Mitchell and Charlotte when they enter, was represented by our only functioning Dedo. I chose the Dedo for its focus; I didn’t want the room awash with light, just a pool of illumination that would still have shape and mysterious shadows.

Stella Taylor and Oliver Park, as Charlotte and Mitchell, are keyed here by a Dedo in the rafters. A foreground glow is created by an LED panel. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris
Stella Taylor and Oliver Park, as Charlotte and Mitchell, are keyed here by a Dedo in the rafters. A foreground glow is created by an LED panel. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris

For several shots I used my LED camping light as a key, believe it or not, even going so far as to rig it on a stand for certain close-ups. The distances involved were small, so it was quite effective. In one shot (not the one pictured below) I bounced it off the floor AND covered it in tough-spun diffuser, to get an ultra-sublte eyelight.

Haruka Abe as Other Faith, keyed by an LED camping light (£1.50 from a charity shop). Image courtesy of Jordan Morris
Haruka Abe as Other Faith, keyed by the LED camping light shown above. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris

Stay tuned for my report from day two of the shoot.

Forever Alone: Day One

Blackmagic Production Camera Field Report

I was recently the cinematographer on Sophie Black’s Night Owls, my second shoot with my new Blackmagic Production Camera, and the first one to be shot in 4K. I’m loving the rich, detailed and organic images it’s producing. Click on this screen grab to see it at full 4K resolution and witness the crazy amount of detail the BMPC records…

Click on this screen grab to see it at full 4K resolution and witness the crazy amount of detail the BMPC records.
Jonny McPherson in Night Owls

Images from Night Owls courtesy of Triskelle Pictures, Stella Vision and Team Chameleon. Produced by Sophia Ramcharan and Lauren Parker. Starring Jonny McPherson and Holly Rushbrooke.

It’s been documented that the Blackmagics, in common with the early Red Ones, suffer from the CMOS sensor “black sun effect”. As the name suggests, this means that if you get the sun in shot, it’s so bright that it turns black on camera.

On Night Owls I discovered that this also happens with filaments in bulbs. This is unfortunate, since the film features a lot of practicals with bare bulbs.

The coil of the filament appears black on the BMPC's CMOS sensor
The coil of the filament appears purple on the BMPC’s CMOS sensor

The issue can be fixed in post – apparently Da Vinci Resolve’s tracker feature will do it, or failing that some Quickpainting in Shake would certainly get rid of it – but a firmware update from Blackmagic Design to address the issue in-camera would be very welcome. Since they’ve already issued a firmware fix for this problem on the Pocket Cinema Camera, I’m surprised they even started shipping the Production Camera without this fix.

And while we’re on the subject of firmware updates, how about an option to display 2.35:1 guides? Surely in this day and age I shouldn’t be having to do this…

Taping off the camera screen and monitor for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio
Taping off the camera screen and monitor for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio
The HDMI convertor on the back of my shoulder rig, powered by the V-lock battery
The HDMI convertor on the back of my shoulder rig, powered by the V-lock battery

Some issues with my accessories also became apparent during the shoot. Firstly, 2 x 120GB SSDs are not enough. They last about 21 minutes each at 4K. Since we were doing a lot of long takes, we occasionally found the shoot grinding to a halt because the second card card was full and the first card hadn’t finished copying to the DIT’s laptop. Yes, crazy as it sounds, it takes about three times longer to copy the contents of the card – by USB, at least –  than it does to record onto that card in the first place.

Secondly, I’ve purchased two different SDI to HDMI convertors from eBay – this one and this one – and I’ve found them both awful. They’re really designed for use in CCTV systems. The frame rate is jerky and the colours are so wildly inaccurate that I had to switch the monitor to black and white. It looks like I’ll have to buy an SDI monitor. If I can get one with 2.35:1 overlays, that will solve another of my problems at the same time.

So all of these problems can be fixed, either by investing in a little more kit, or by firmware updates which I hope Blackmagic Design will soon issue.

Finally, a word on the aftersales service: my camera turned out to have a faulty speaker; I sent it back and a week later a brand new one arrived. That’s pretty good service in my book.

Overall, I’m very happy that I bought the camera, and so is Sophie. The images look fantastic and I’m sure Night Owls will go far.

Jonny McPherson and Holly Rushbrooke in a screen grab from Night Owls
Jonny McPherson and Holly Rushbrooke in a screen grab from Night Owls

Blackmagic Production Camera Field Report