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

20 Facts About the Cinematography of Mad Max: Fury Road

cars

The Australian Cinematographers’ Society has released a video of a two hour talk by Fury Road DP John Seale, ACS, ASC. It’s a fascinating watch, with lots of interesting info and some dry Aussie wit; more than once Seale talks about “taking to the drink” when things got tricky!

Watch the video here. (Embedding is disabled.)

John Seale, ACS, ASC
John Seale, ACS, ASC

Here are the most interesting points I took from it, with a few extra details added from American Cinematographer’s article on Fury Road:

  1. The team spent years developing a new 3D camera based on a sensor built for the US military. Director George Miller wanted something rugged enough to survive dusty desert work and small enough to fit into the truck cabs. Camera tests revealed it had only five stops of dynamic range, nowhere near enough to capture detail both outside and inside the cabs in the same frame.
  2. The film was ultimately shot on Arri Alexas (four Ms and six Pluses) and converted to 3D in post. Absolutely no consideration to the 3D format was given during shooting.
  3. When early footage failed to please DIT Marc Jason Maier and his meters, Seale agreed to downrate the Alexa from its published 800 ASA to 400 ASA. The subsequent footage was deemed technically correct by Maier and made Seale much more comfortable that he was recording what he thought he was recording in terms of exposure.
  4. Dailies were rendered with two different LUTs: the standard Rec 709 and a custom one designed to emulate a one-light celluloid work-print. This was for the benefit of Seale, for whom Fury Road was his first digital movie.
  5. Canon 5D Mark IIs with the Technicolor CineStyle profile were used as crash cams. Sky replacement had to be executed on many of the 5D shots to remove banding, presumably caused by the small colour space.
  6. Olympus and Nikon DSLRs were used a little as well.
  7. For close-ups of Max escaping the Citadel early in the film, a Blackmagic Cinema Camera with a Tokina 11-16mm zoom (a combination I used frequently on The First Musketeer!) was rigged on a Movi.
  8. The film was lensed predominantly on zooms, with a few Super Speed primes kept on standby for when the daylight was running out.
  9. Custom-built 15mm and 16mm primes were used inside the cab of the War Rig. The lenses’ hyperfocal distance had been adjusted so that everything from 0′ to 9′ (i.e. everything inside the cab) would be in focus.
  10. Lighting and camera rigs hung from the roofs of the vehicles had to be stripped back because of the shadows they cast. Instead, platforms were rigged on the sides of the trucks, and a track-and-pulley system was built into the War Rig’s cab’s ceiling from which cameras could be suspended.bts
  11. Scenes in the cab were shot at T5.6, with strips of LEDs mounted on the ceiling and on the pillars between the front and rear doors to bring up the actors inside.
  12. Day-for-night scenes were overexposed by two stops so that characters in the shadows could be lifted in the grade, if necessary, without noise.
  13. The film was storyboarded early on, but a script was only written when the studio demanded it!
  14. Miller wanted to shoot everything single-camera, including action, but Seale began sneaking in with extra cameras and soon convinced his director of the efficacy of this method.
  15. Much of the film was shot as Poor Man’s Process, or “Sim Trav” as Seale calls it.
  16. In post, Miller chose shots with camera shake that he liked and had that shake digitally applied to other shots.
  17. Miller decreed that the subject of the shot should always be framed centrally. This allowed him to edit faster, because time wouldn’t be lost on each cut as the viewer searched the width of the anamorphic frame for the subject.
  18. Extensive use was made of two Edge Arms. An evolutionary step up from Russian Arms, these are cameras mounted on robotic arms which are in turn mounted on pick-up trucks.
  19. Other vehicle rigs included custom-built buggies with Alexa Pluses mounted front and rear, and a “Ledge” mount which was a 30′ truss tower built on the back of a truck, allowing high angles without the need for drones or helicopters.
  20. Leaf blowers were used, via flexible pipes, to keep sand off the lenses in moving shots.

It’s interesting to hear how laid-back Seale is. He gave his focus puller a great degree of leeway in choosing the lens package, and let his DIT, gaffer and operator handle the technical side of recording and exposing the image. This level of trust in his team must give him tremendous capacity to focus (pardon the pun) on the creative side of his job without worrying about the details.

I’ll leave you with the EPK B-roll from Fury Road…

20 Facts About the Cinematography of Mad Max: Fury Road

Five Simple But Effective Camera Tricks

Today I’m running down the five simplest yet most effective camera tricks I’ve used in my films. These are all techniques that have been used on the biggest Hollywood productions as well.

1. Looming Hollywood Sign (The Beacon)

Building Moon's forced perspective corridor
Building Moon’s forced perspective corridor

In amongst all the terrible CGI, The Beacon did feature the odd moment of low-tech triumph. As a damaged helicopter dives towards the Hollywood hills, the famous sign is reflected in the sunglasses of the injured pilot, played by my friend and fellow filmmaker Rick Goldsmith. The letters were actually 2″ high cardboard cut-outs stuck to a black piece of card, and Rick himself is holding it at arm’s length and moving it slowly towards his face.

This is a type of forced perspective shot, which I covered in my previous post. Die Hard 2’s airport control tower set was surrounded by a forced perspective miniature of the runways, complete with model planes, and more recently Duncan Jones and his team used the technique to create an endless corridor of clone drawers in Moon.

Colin Smith readies the watering can for Jonny Lewis's close-up, while Chris Mayall steadies the ladder.
Colin Smith readies the watering can for Jonny Lewis’s close-up, while Chris Mayall steadies the ladder. Photo: Simon Ball

2. Rain Fight Close-ups (Soul Searcher)

While most of this fight sequence was shot under the downpour created by an industrial hosepipe fired into the air, this wasn’t available when extra close-ups were required later. Instead a watering can was used.

It’s not uncommon for close-ups in a scene to be achieved much more simply than their corresponding wide shots. NASA allowed Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck to be filmed in their training tank for Michael Bay’s Armageddon, but CUs of the other actors had to be shot dry-for-wet with a fishtank in front of the lens and someone blowing bubbles through it.

3. The Wooden Swordsman Catches His Sword (The Dark Side of the Earth)

Getting the puppet to genuinely catch his sword was likely to require a prohibitive number of takes. (We were shooting on 35mm short ends.) So instead we ran the action in reverse, ending with with the sword being pulled up out of the puppet’s hand. When the film is run backwards, he appears to be catching it.

Backwards shots have been used throughout the history of cinema for all kinds of reasons. Examples can be seen in the Face Hugger sequence in Aliens (the creature’s leaps are actually falls in reverse) and in John Carpenter’s The Thing (tentacles grabbing their victims). At the climax of Back to the Future Part III, the insurers refused to allow Michael J. Fox to sit in the DeLorean while it was pushed by the train, in case it crushed him, so instead the train pulled the car backwards and the film was reversed.

4. Distortion of Tape and Time (Stop/Eject)

A classic Who extermination
A classic Who extermination

At a crucial point in this fantasy-drama about a tape recorder that can stop and rewind time, I needed to show the tape getting worn out and images of the past distorting. I combined two techniques to create a distorted image of Dan (Oliver Park) without any manipulation in post. One was lens whacking, whereby the lens is detached from the camera and held in front of it, moving it around slightly to distort the focal plane. (See this episode of Indy Mogul and this article by Philip Bloom for more on lens whacking.) The other was to shake the camera (and lens) rapidly, to deliberately enhance the rolling shutter “jello” effect which DSLRs suffer from.

Flaws in camera technology can often lead to interesting effects if used appropriately. Let’s not forget that lens flares, which many filmmakers love the look of, are actually side-effects of the optics which lens manufacturers have worked for decades to try to reduce or eliminate. And in the early days of Doctor Who, the crew realised that greatly over-exposing their Marconi TV cameras caused the image to become a negative, and they put this effect to use on the victims of Dalek extermination.

Shooting The One That Got Away. A row of 100W bulbs can be seen on the right.
Shooting The One That Got Away. A row of 100W bulbs can be seen on the right.

5. Sunset (The One That Got Away)

A painted sunset would have been in keeping with the style of this puppet fairy tale, but it was quicker and more effective to peek an ordinary 100W tungsten bulb above the background waves. Click here for a complete breakdown of the lighting in The One That Got Away.

Using an artificial light to represent the sun is extremely common in cinematography, but showing that lamp in shot is less common. For another example, see the opening Arctic sequence of Captain America: The First Avenger, in which a large HMI stands in for a low sun at the back of the mist-shrouded set.

Click here for my rundown of the top five low-tech effects in Hollywood blockbusters.

Five Simple But Effective Camera Tricks

Understanding Colour Temperature

As I was writing my last entry, in which I mentioned the range of colour temperatures in a shot, it occurred to me that some readers might find an explanation of this concept useful. What is colour temperature and why are different light sources different colours?

The answer is more literal than you may expect. It’s based on the simple principal that the hotter something burns, the bluer the light it emits. (Remember from chemistry lessons how the tip of the blue flame was always the sweet spot of the Bunsen Burner?)

Tungsten bulbs emit an orange light - dim them down and it gets even more orangey.
Tungsten bulbs emit an orange light – dim them down and it gets even more orangey.

Colour temperature is measured in kelvins, a scale of temperature that begins at absolute zero (-273°C), the coldest temperature physically possible in the universe. To convert centigrade to kelvin, simply add 273. So the temperature here in Hereford right now is 296 kelvin (23°C).

The filament of a tungsten light bulb reaches a temperature of roughly 3,200K (2,927°C). This means that the light it emits is orange in colour. The surface of the sun is about 5,778K (5,505°C), so it gives us much bluer light.

Colour temperature isn’t necessarily the same as actual temperature. The atmosphere isn’t 7,100K hot, but the light from the sky (as opposed to the sun) is as blue as something burning at that temperature would be.

Digital cameras have a setting called “white balance” which compensates for these differing colour temperatures and makes them appear white. Typical settings include tungsten, daylight, shade and manual, which allows you to callibrate the white balance by holding a white piece of paper in front of the lens as a reference.

Colour temperature chart
Colour temperature chart

Today there are many types of artificial light around other than tungsten – fluorescent and LED being the main two. In the film industry, both of these can be obtained in flavours that match daylight or tungsten, though outside of the industry (if you’re working with existing practical sources) the temperatures can range dramatically.

There is also the issue of how green/magenta the light is, the classic example being that fluorescent tubes – particularly older ones – can make people look green and unhealthy. If you’re buying fluorescent lamps to light a scene with, check the CRI (colour rendering index) on the packaging and get the one with the highest number you can find for the fullest spectrum of light output.

The Magic Lantern hacks for Canon DSLRs allow you not only to dial in the exact colour temperature you want, but also to adjust the green/magenta balance to compensate for fluorescent lighting. But if two light sources are giving out different temperatures and/or CRIs, no amount of white balancing can make them the same.

Left: daylight white balance preset (5,600K). Right: tungsten white balance preset (3,200K)
Left: daylight white balance preset (5,600K). Right: tungsten white balance preset (3,200K)

The classic practical example of all this is a person standing in a room with a window on one side of them and a table lamp on the other. Set your camera’s white balance to daylight and the window side of their face looks correct, but the other side looks a nasty orange (above left), or maybe yellowy-green if the lamp has an energy-saving bulb in it. Change the white balance to tungsten or fluorescent and you will correct that side of the subject’s face, but the daylight side will now look blue (above right) or magenta.

This is where gels come in, but that’s a topic for another day.

The beauty of modern digital cinematography is that you can see how it looks in the viewfinder and adjust as necessary. But the more you understand the kind of theory I’ve outlined above, the more you can get it right straight away and save time on set.

Understanding Colour Temperature

Shadows and Ashes

Colin Smith lines up the Super-8 camera as director Sophie Black pans the mirror.
Colin Smith lines up the Super-8 camera as director Sophie Black pans the mirror.

After an unseemly delay, here’s the third and final part of my series about lighting Ashes, Sophie Black‘s dark fantasy drama. Read part one here and part two here.

For the fantasy world dubbed “Toybox” by the production team, Sophie wanted a gritty, grainy, comfortable look. She was keen to shoot the scene on Super-8 and wanted to make full use of that high contrast celluloid look with harsh spotlighting, deep shadows and vignetting.

The biggest problem for me was how to get a spotlight effect in a fairly small room with an ordinary daylight fresnel. To get a circle of light small enough to fit entirely within the camera’s frame required the lamp to be much further from the subject than was possible within the space. I suggested shooting at night and putting the light outside the window, but the schedule couldn’t accommodate that.

The problem was solved by bouncing the light off a circular mirror. This masked the light into a relatively sharp circle, because the lamp was the entire length of the room away from the mirror. (The closer a mask is placed to a lamp, the fuzzier the edge of the mask will appear when thrown on the subject, so simply cutting a circle out of cardboard and placing it in front of the lamp would have given us a blob of light instead of a defined circle, because there wouldn’t have been enough space to put the cardboard far enough away from the lamp.)

Bouncing a redhead off a circular mirror. Photo: Sophie Black
Bouncing a redhead off a circular mirror for the sweeping light effect. Photo: Sophie Black

Not only did the mirror allow us to achieve a key shadow puppet shot which Sophie had conceived, it also enabled us to create a sweeping light effect for other parts of the sequence. Inspired by one of Lana del Rey’s music videos, Sophie wanted the effect of headlights passing by outside a window. We were able to do this simply by panning a redhead across the mirror.

The Toybox scene was shot both on Super-8 (by Col) and on my Canon 600D as a back-up. I set the ISO to 1600 on the DSLR to bake in a grainy look. I won’t do this again, however, because I failed to take into account the effect of the camera’s H.264 compression. The grain looked fine on the viewfinder, but once compressed and recorded there were lots of blocky artifacts. I hoped that the Super-8 film would come out well so this sub-standard digital material wouldn’t have to be used, but alas there were some focus issues and several of the shots were inexplicably missing from the reels when they came back from the lab. Fortunately the day was saved by a talented VFX artist who applied a very convincing Super-8 look to the 600D footage, which hides the compression artifacts.

Ashes is nearly finished now and we’re all very excited to see how it’s turned out. Meanwhile, here’s the trailer:

Shadows and Ashes

Shooting in the Snow

Chris Newman films the bandstand at Belper River Gardens. Photo: Sophie Black
Chris Newman films the bandstand at Belper River Gardens. Photo: Sophie Black

Flip-top gloves
Flip-top gloves, or “fittens” as they have become known amongst my crew.

Yesterday Sophie Black and cinematographer Chris Newman braved the snow and ice to get me some wintery shots of Belper and Matlock for Stop/Eject. If you too are tempted to take the opportunity of filming in a winter wonderland, I’ve put together some tips with Chris’s help:

  1. DRESS APPROPRIATELY. I’ve never been able to find full gloves, no matter how thin, that give my fingers enough sensitivity through the fabric to effectively operate a camera. Instead I wear fingerless gloves which have mitten-like attachments that can be slipped over my fingertips when I’m not operating. I am roundly mocked for this, but they work. “Wrap up warm,” Chris adds, “and wear sensible footwear with plenty of grip!”
  2. BEWARE OF FOOTPRINTS. If you’re filming drama in the snow, plan your coverage around the inevitable appearance of footprints as your crew tramples around. Start with wide shots and any other angles that might show the ground, then move on to close-ups when the snow’s been disturbed.
  3. EXPOSE CAREFULLY. (No, this is not advice for winter flashers.) If you’re shooting GVs like Chris was, he suggests over-exposing slightly but being careful not to blow out the snow. If you’re shooting people, chances are you will have to blow out the snow in order to get decent skin tones. Chris says a variable ND filter is particularly useful so that you can keep your depth of field shallow, and they’re “also very handy for shooting around sunset as you can lose the light very quickly and need to adjust the amount of light [coming] into the lens.”
  4. PROTECT THE CAMERA. DSLR advocate and Hollywood DP Shane Hurlbut suggests that ziplock freezer bags are the best way to protect these little cameras from moisture and low temperatures. Arrange the zip at the back, so you can easily access the battery and card compartments when you unzip, and cut a hole for the lens, taping around the edges with electrical tape. Beware that your camera may still need time to acclimatise to the cold before it will function properly.
  5. BATTERIES DON’T LAST AS LONG. Cold temperatures shorten battery life, so take plenty of spares and keep them in your pocket to benefit from your body heat.
  6. BRING A LENS CLEANING KIT. It’s “essential for wiping away those snowflakes from the lens and to prevent smudging,” says Chris.

Find out more about Chris and his work at www.christophernewman.co.uk

Shooting in the Snow

Proaim Shoulder Rig Review: Ten Months On

Last July when I bought my Canon 600D (Rebel T3i) DSLR I also invested in a Proaim shoulder rig from Cine City. I reviewed the rig on this site soon afterwards, based mainly on playing about with it at home, but although I mentioned briefly how it fared during the Field Trip shoot last August I’ve never got around to giving a proper verdict on how this rig performs in a shoot scenario. Until now.

First and foremost, the rig is designed to give you the kind of smooth(ish) handheld shots you would get from a shoulder-mounted camera – broadcast/ENG, 16mm or whatever. While it certainly does that, all the weight of your DSLR is on the front of the rig, so it very quickly becomes difficult to hold up. You need to add a counterweight to the back – mine being a backpack which I can fill with whatever heavy stuff is to hand, loosely fastening the waist strap to prevent it swinging around. I’ve yet to make any serious use of this set-up, so I’ll have to get back to you on how it works out in the field.

The Proaim shoulder rig with top handle
The Proaim shoulder rig with top handle

Aside from the shoulder pad, the Proaim rig comprises several other elements which can be fitted onto the core rail system as required. These are:

  • a two-stage matte box and sunshade
  • follow focus
  • hand grips
  • a top handle (an optional extra I went for) with microphone mount

Prior to Stop/Eject, I generally fitted everything bar the follow focus whenever I used the camera. (Sadly most jobs I do lack the budget for a focus puller, and I don’t find the follow focus useful when pulling by eye.) To be perfectly honest, I did this mainly to make the camera look bigger and more impressive – particularly important on corporate jobs!

Shooting for Astute Graphics
Shooting for Astute Graphics. Photo: Nicholas van der Walle

On Stop/Eject there was no time to have unnecessary accessories getting in our way, so I fitted only the follow focus, adding the matte box and sunshades very occasionally to flag a bit of backlight or use a graduated ND filter. Whenever I had to pick the camera up while still on the tripod, I regretted not fitting the top handle, but I never found time to put it on.

So the follow focus was the main part of the rig to get used. And I’m afraid the verdict here is not good. I knew before I bought the rig that many reviewers had complained about the gears having a little play in them. But I also knew that better quality follow focus units were out of my price range, and that some reviewers reported being able to reduce or remove the play by tightening a screw.

Focus pulling
On Stop/Eject, Rick Goldsmith operates camera while Colin Smith pulls focus. Photo: Paul Bednall

Well, no amount of screw tightening has done the job; there is still play. You can turn the focus knob about a millimetre before the focus ring of the lens starts to rotate. Shooting at f1.8 on my 20mm Sigma lens for a big wide – such as the master shot of the basement – that single millimetre can represent 20 metres of focal distance. Result? I had to pull the focus on that master shot by eye.

Col got skilled enough by the end of the shoot to compensate for this play, but it still caused us problems from time to time. I believe Cine City have now released a version two of their follow focus, so perhaps this is an improvement.

I have to say that the most effective parts of the rig are the matte box and sunshades. Aside from looking impressive, the ease with which you can flag off stray light is brilliant – no more gaffer-taping bits of cardboard to your camera.

But I was surprised to find on Stop/Eject that I was often bypassing the rig altogether and slapping the camera straight on the tripod.

You’ve got to do whatever’s going to get the job done right. I’d definitely advise having this rig in your arsenal, assuming you can’t afford one of the better quality options. With a decent counterweight it will massively improve your handheld shots, and the rest of the bits will come in handy too – just don’t expect to use all of them all of the time.

Filming Stop/Eject with a minimal rig
Filming Stop/Eject with a minimal rig. Photo: Paul Bednall

Proaim Shoulder Rig Review: Ten Months On

Marquetry and Macro Tubes

Anne lays sand-shaded veneer pieces into a panel
Anne lays sand-shaded veneer pieces into a panel
Setting up to shoot. Photo: Lisa Sansome
Setting up to shoot. Photo: Lisa Sansome

Last Monday was the first day of shooting on a promotional video for a company in Llandrindod Wells called Aryma. Aryma makes contemporary marquetry – exquisite and intricate inlaid wood panelling, typically for private jets, super yachts and luxury homes. An image is created not through paint of any kind, but by painstakingly building it up from many, many pieces of wood veneer, each one a different colour, and some of them shaded by singeing them in hot sand.

The video marked my first experience of using macro tubes: collars that fit between the lens and camera body to allow the lens to focus on closer objects than it normally can. This was necessary in order to properly capture the fitting of the veneer pieces, some of which are unbelievably tiny. Here is a glimpse of a few of the shots recorded so far.

Marquetry and Macro Tubes

Wheels Within Wheels

One of the great things about DSLRs is that, being so small, you can put them in all kinds of unusual places and, being so light, you can rig them to things with relatively little hassle. Stop/Eject is not the sort of film where we’ll being doing a lot of this (unlike Act of Valor, which I strongly suggest you check out), but there is one shot that needs a custom rig…

Shot 69, as drawn by Sophie Black
Shot 69, as drawn by Sophie Black

In this shot, the camera needs to be attached to the bike in some way so it moves with it, maintaining the same framing on the wheel throughout. This is part of the film’s visual theme of circles, which I discussed earlier this year on the blog.

Rigged for the rear wheel
Rigged for the rear wheel

If the shoot had gone ahead last October as originally planned, this shot would probably have got dropped or replaced with a similar but less effective version achieved by simply steadicamming along next to the bike. But one great advantage of a shoot being postponed is the opportunity to prepare so much better.

To that end, Colin and I borrowed his mum’s bike this morning to test the shot. Under the pressure of a low budget filming schedule, you can’t mess around trying to figure out a rig like this. You have to work it out in advance.

My plan was to use a C-stand arm and a cheap tripod to get the camera in the right place. First of all we tried clamping the arm to the frame of the bike, but it was too thick. So then we clamped it to the pedal (which meant roping or clamping the pedal to another part of the bike so it wouldn’t turn). The bottom of the tripod was clamped in turn to this arm. The handy thing about using a tripod, of course, is that you have a pan-and-tilt head for easy adjustments and a quick-release plate too.

Rear wheel shot
Rear wheel shot

Initially we filmed the rear wheel, but then I realised filming the front wheel would allow us to get a wider frame, since the pedals (which had to be framed out because the arm was clamped to one of them) were further away from the front wheel.

The rig worked out really well. We had to use a lens with an image stabiliser, and when we shoot it for real we’ll put someone on the bike to weigh it down and reduce the bumps further. I’d imagined we’d have to use a second clamp and bungee cords to keep the camera in place, but the sturdiness of the C-stand arm and the low weight of the camera made this unnecessary.

Yeah, we got a bit of the pedal in shot, not to mention Col’s feet. But those things are easily fixed.

Just before I sign off, I have to give you a link to Tony Hill Films, a site I came across while researching bike rigs. He’s built a number of unique and fascinating camera rigs which you can see in action on the site: http://www.tonyhillfilms.com/rigs

Front wheel rig
Front wheel rig

Wheels Within Wheels

Depth of Field

Although I use Ebay quite a bit, I rarely bid in the auctions. It annoys me too much how the price always seems so low and then jumps up exponentially in the closing minutes of the auction as everyone leaves bidding until the last possible moment. But when I saw a Sigma 20mm/f1.8 EF lens I couldn’t help myself and it was me that pounced at the last minute with my bid and won the lens.

The Sigma 20mm/f1.8 on my Canon 600D
The Sigma 20mm/f1.8 on my Canon 600D

What’s so great about this lens? I already have a Canon 18-55mm zoom – what’s wrong with that? The answer is: it’s all about depth of field.

Every filmmaker knows what depth of field is – the range of depth within an image which is in focus. Those of us cursed by tiny budgets to shoot on prosumer video formats have spent many years bemoaning how everything’s always in focus. Then HD-DSLRs came along and suddenly it all changed. Now you can control your depth of field. Now you can throw your background beautifully out of focus and keep your subject crisp and sharp, just like in real movies. But you can’t just turn on your DSLR and expect to get stunning depth of field straight away. So how can you make sure you’re always getting the shallowest possible focal depth? (Not that that is always the best look for every shot, but it’s nice to have the option.)

Let’s go back to basics and look at what affects depth of field. Most of us learnt all this when we first started making films, but let it drain from our brains over the years as our photographic dreams were crushed by the obstinately sharp backgrounds of a thousand Mini-DV frames.

1. Image size.  The larger the image, the smaller the depth of field. That’s why DV cameras with their tiny image sensors give such large depth of field, while at the other end of the scale a 35mm celluloid frame will permit lovely narrow focal depth. It’s also why a “full frame” DSLR like the Canon 5D Mark II will supply smaller depth of field than a “crop chip” DSLR like my Canon 600D.

2. Lens length.  The longer the lens, the smaller the depth of field. We all know this one well enough. How many times when DPing on DV have I heard the director ask me to zoom right in so the background goes nicely out of focus? But in the DV days it never went as out of focus as we wanted it to.

3. Subject distance.  People commonly forget this one. The closer the subject is to the lens, the smaller the depth of field. This is why sometimes you can achieve shallower focal depth by using a wide lens and placing the camera close to your subject than by zooming right in and moving the camera back. It’s also why miniatures will have a tell-tale small depth of field (the distance between lens and subject is miniature, just like everything else in the set-up) unless you take steps to counter it.

Depth of field varying with aperture
At f5.0 (left) almost all of the DeLorean is in focus, but at f1.8 (right) the depth of field is much smaller.

4. Aperture size.  The larger the aperture (i.e. the smaller the f-stop number) the smaller the depth of field. This is the crucial one with DSLRs. This is why I jumped on the Sigma f1.8 lens and why the f1.4 I borrowed on Field Trip was so beautiful. Of course, if you’re shooting in a bright environment then an aperture of f1.8 will give you a very over-exposed image, even with your camera on the lowest ISO. (Remember that you can’t compensate by changing the shutter speed, because that will also change the amount of motion blur in your footage, which unless you’re remaking Saving Private Ryan you normally don’t want to do.) The solution is to use an ND (neutral density) filter to cut down the amount of light entering the lens.

Of course there are far more technical details behind all of this, which frankly I don’t understand but fortunately I don’t need to in order to make films. I hope this post has refreshed your memory or tied together what fragments you already knew. I’ll let you know how I get on with the 20mm Sigma in the field. No pun intended. Well, maybe a little.

Depth of Field