Barry Lyndon: The Full Story of the Famous f/0.7 Lenses

After seeing Barry Lyndon (1975) on the big screen this week, I felt compelled to write a blog post about its cinematography. But what aspect of the cinematography? The painterly look? The many zooms? The use of natural light?

What I knew for certain is that I should definitely not write about the entirely candlelit scenes lensed on f/0.7 Nasa glass, because everyone knows that story. However, reading the vintage American Cinematographer article and some other material, I found the details surrounding this groundbreaking use of high-speed lenses so interesting that I decided to do it anyway.

 

The Vision

Barry Lyndon is the 18th century tale of a low-born Irishman who strives – through various misadventures, and ups and downs of fortune – to become a gentleman. The key visual influence of director Stanley Kubrick and DP John Alcott, BSC were the great painters of the story’s era, such as Vermeer.

Next week’s post will look at this painterly influence in Barry Lyndon more closely, but for now the important thing is the use of candlelight on those classical canvases, and Kubrick’s desire to replicate that look. According to lens expert Ed DiGuilio, who was tasked with adapting the f/0.7 glass for Lyndon, Kubrick “wanted to preserve the natural patina and feeling of these old castles at night as they actually were”.

Typically in movies, a candle in frame may motivate the lighting, but most of the illumination on the actors actually comes from an orange-gelled lamp just out of frame. Kubrick wasn’t interested in shooting Lyndon that way. He wanted all the light in those night interior scenes to genuinely come from the candles themselves.

 

The Problem

How much light does a candle shed? Conveniently, there is a unit of illumination called the foot-candle. One foot-candle is the amount of light received from a standard candle one foot away. Without going into the detail of what a “standard” candle is, it is enough for our purposes to say that the scene below has a key light of about three foot-candles…

… because there are three candles, about a foot away from the actor’s face. (The level of your key light, and consequently where you set your aperture, is almost always measured at your subject’s face, as that is usually the focus of the shot and the most important thing to get correctly exposed. This is why we DPs are always waving light meters in actors’ faces.)

If we look at an exposure table, such as this one, we can see that a three foot-candle key can be correctly exposed with an aperture of T1.4 and an EI (exposure index) of 800. Today that would be no problem, with many digital cameras having a native EI of 800, and the availability of fast lenses like Zeiss Master Primes and Super Speeds.

In the mid-seventies however, long before the advent of digital cameras, things were not so simple. Kubrick and Alcott had little choice but to shoot on Eastman Kodak 100T 5254. Those first three digits denote the film stock’s exposure index: 100. Alcott pushed the stock (brought the brightness up during processing) one stop, re-rating it to an EI of 200. But it still needed four times more light, or two stops more light than our modern-day Alexa or Red. (Check out my post on f-stops and T-stops if you’re getting lost.)

If we’re losing two stops on the EI, we need to gain two stops on the aperture to compensate. And two stops up from T1.4 is T0.7. You may notice that T0.7 isn’t on that table I linked to. This is because a lens with such a large relative aperture pretty much doesn’t exist.

Pretty much…

 

The Solution

Kubrick obsessively researched the problem. He eventually discovered that Nasa had commissioned Carl Zeiss to build ten Planar 50mm f/0.7 stills lenses in the sixties, which were used to take photos of the dark side of the moon. (I was unable to find out the T-stop of these lenses, but I’ll assume it was close enough to T0.7 for it to make little difference to my calculations above.) The developments leading to these lenses stretched back through Nazi military applications during WW2 all the way to the late Victorian era, when the double-Gauss cell at the core of the lenses was first invented.

Anyway, Kubrick promptly bought three of the Zeiss Planars. He liked to own equipment himself, rather than hire it in, and to this end he had also purchased at least one Mitchell BNC camera. As befits Kubrick’s perfectionism, these were perhaps the world’s most precisely engineered cameras, previously used for special effects work.

This is where Ed DiGuilio comes in: “[Kubrick] called one day to ask me if I thought I could fit a Zeiss lens he had procured… to his BNC.” It wasn’t simply a case of the f/0.7 glass having the wrong mount. The rear element was so large and needed to be so close to the film plane that DiGuilio had to extensively modify the camera, literally cutting parts out of it.

Ed DiGuilio (left), President of Cinema Products Corporation, working on adapting a zoom lens for Kubrick’s Mitchell BNC

Once this was done, extensive testing ensued. The focus scale (distances marked on the barrel) had to be calibrated from scratch, and indeed the focus ring was re-engineered to allow the precision focusing that the lens’ tiny depth of field would require. Whereas the focus ring on a stills lens will turn about 90° to go from infinity to close focus, and the ring on a cine lens might turn 270°, the rings on these unique Planars now turned a whopping 720° – two whole revolutions!

50mm is a very useful lens length for close-ups, but Kubrick understandably wanted a wider option as well. Accordingly, DiGuilio located an adapter designed to adjust the throw of cinema projector lenses. Mounted onto one of the 50s, it gave an effective focal length of 36.5mm with only very minor light loss. A 24mm version was also tested, but Kubrick disliked the amount of distortion in its images, and rejected it.

 

The Execution

The colour brown and the trousers of Doug Milsone, Barry Lyndon‘s focus puller, cannot have been strangers to each other. Imagine trying to hold focus on this dolly-back at f/0.7!

By my calculations (which were difficult, because most depth of field tables/calculators don’t go to f/0.7!) an MCU on Kubrick’s 50mm Planar with the subject at 2.5m (8.2ft) and the iris wide open would have had a depth of field of about 43mm (1.7″). To get this same depth of field at f2.8, a popular working stop for cinematographers today, the subject would have to be just 1m (3.3ft) from the sensor plane, which would be a biggish close-up. And remember that focus monitors, peaking and Cine Tape did not exist in the seventies.

To give Milsone a fighting chance, a unique system of focus assist was developed. While the main camera shot an actor from the front, a CCTV camera captured them in profile. This profile image was piped to a monitor, over which a grid was placed. This grid was marked off with distances so that Milsone could see how much the actor had moved by, far more accurately than judging it by eye from beside the lens.

Another problem thrown up by the low-light cinematography was with the viewfinder. Interestingly, the Mitchell BNC was a non-reflex camera, meaning that it didn’t have a mirror on the shutter, reflecting the image to the viewfinder when the shutter was closed. Instead, the camera body racked over to one side to allow the viewfinder to get an image during line-ups and rehearsals, and when it was actually rolling the operator got their images from a side viewfinder with its own lens – just like in a disposable 35mm stills camera. The original prism-based viewfinder on Kubrick’s Mitchell BNC suffered from far too much light loss for a candlelit image to be visible through it, so it was replaced with a mirror-based viewfinder adapted from a Technicolor camera.

The shots resulting from all of these technical challenges are quite soft to the modern eye, but I think that only adds to their beauty. Barry Lyndon captured the exquisite fragility of candelight, and 42 years on the images are still unique and captivating.

Barry Lyndon: The Full Story of the Famous f/0.7 Lenses

The Cinematography of Night Owls

I wrote the bulk of this post over two years ago, when I wrapped photography on Sophie Black’s short drama Night Owls. As usual for no-budget shorts, there followed a long postproduction and then a festival run (it premiered at London Short Film Festival this January) which prevented us releasing any footage online.

But this week a number of great things have happened for the film. Firstly, Night Owls has been released online – you can see it here – and every view counts towards Promofest’s “Short of the Year” competition, so have a watch and help us win! Secondly, the film won an Honourable Mention and Best Actor (Jonny McPherson) at the LA Film Awards. Thirdly, my work on the film won me Best Cinematography at the Festigious International Film Festival.

10476500_250955778426856_3738960460160087990_n
Photo by Elly Lucas

So this is the perfect time to finally publish this look at the decisions and techniques I used in lighting and lensing the film. Night Owls was one of the first projects I shot on my Blackmagic Production Camera, and you can read what I thought of the camera in action in this post from May 2014.

Sophie wanted a soft, warm and cozy look to the short, which is set over a single night, mostly in one room, and tells how a teenage girl and an older man become unlikely friends. At the same time, the dialogue-driven script had moments which hinted at darkness and suffering in the past of both characters. And a cozy look suggests practicals like table lamps, which by their nature cast pools of light and leave other areas in darkness.

On a practical level – if you’ll excuse the pun – I knew that the need to hide lights that would boost the apparent output of the practicals would limit my options in the wide shots, and therefore also in the close-ups which would of course have to match. When shooting a day interior, you can easily stick a huge light outside the window and then shoot pretty much anywhere in the room, crabbing the light to one side or the other if it threatens to come into shot or cast a shadow of the camera. In a night scene with practicals, it’s not so simple.

Dedo rail
Dedo rail

We knew in advance that we could not screw anything into the location’s ceiling, so I was relieved to find that the room had a nice, chunky picture rail all the way around. This soon became a dedo rail, as I used magic arms and k-clamps to rig two of the little spotlights in a classic cross-lighting formation. What I mean by this is that each light was positioned so as to provide backlight on one character and frontlight on the other. This is almost always my starting point when lighting a scene with two characters, and it really came into its own on this project. (See my post on cross-backlighting for more info.)

We had to shoot most of the scenes during the day, so the windows were blacked out. The one that appears on camera was tented around so that we could shine in a blue-gelled redhead, to suggest moonlight, without allowing any daylight in. Another blue-gelled redhead was set in the hall outside the door, creating depth and colour contrast. Our 1.2K HMI was placed in the next room, right at the far end. In front of it we rigged a sort of faux stained glass panel, that had conveniently broken out of another door in the house just the previous week, in order to cast a window-like shadow and give the impression of moonlight coming through a window in the next room.

The reason we rigged so many cool sources was that the first scene in the living room featured only Kent (played by Jonny McPherson), and Sophie had requested that the images only become warmer when Mari (played by Holly Rushbrooke) enters the film. We turned on fewer of the practicals for this first scene, but it was still necessary for their light (represented by the dedos) to be warm in colour to establish that for the later scenes. To counteract this and bring everything back into the blues a bit more, I set up a third dedo, gelled blue, to produce a cool lens flare.

Setting up for the first living room scene. The crossed dedos can be seen in the top left and top right, while the dedo in the foreground is solely to produce lens flare.
Setting up for the first living room scene. The crossed dedos can be seen in the top left and top right, while the dedo in the foreground is solely to produce lens flare.

Sophie and I had talked about various ways of softening the image. We considered hiring a black promist filter, but after rewatching Christopher Ecclestone’s season of Doctor Who, which appears to be have been entirely shot using a black promist, I decided the look was far too cheesy. In the end we went for a set of Zeiss lenses which had had their anti-flare coating ground off. We felt that lens flares would give some sparkle and magic to the images, as well as giving us the opportunity to soften the contrast in the image when necessary. The flares were usually created by an additional lamp, often a dedo or a battery-powered pag light held by Col, aimed directly at the lens.

When Mari enters, Kent has lit the fire, so Col and I set up our usual cluster of 100W tungsten bulbs covered with an orange gel and rigged to a dimmer board. With hindsight we could have gone much more orange with the gel and much more flickery with the dimmer board action, but since the fire at the location was a wood burning stove with only a very small window, it’s probably good that the source of the light remains ambiguous. For the close-ups, the cluster of four bulbs was rearranged into a straight line, which gave a lovely, soft underlight to the character’s faces.

Scn6_wide_overhead
Night Owls’ signature overhead shot. Sophie had a far more complicated shot planned, but it just wasn’t achievable with equipment we could afford.
Shooting the top-down shot. The redhead in the centre of the image is providing lens flare.
Shooting the top-down shot. The redhead in the centre of the image is providing lens flare. The white blob at the end of the C-stand arm on the left is a 100W bulb surrounded by a string-of-crystals lampshade.

A major scene later on sees the two characters lying top-and-tail on the floor, and was shot from a jib kindly provided by All Doors Lead Somewhere Productions. Overhead shots of people lying down can look very flat, but rather than trying to combat that with cross-lighting, I decided to embrace it and light entirely from above. Sophie and Anya Kordecki, the production designer, had found these great practical lights surrounded by strings of crystals, which cast lovely shadows. Knowing that two of these lights were supposed to be just out of shot on either side of frame, I took some license and rigged them one directly over each character’s face, replacing the 40W bulbs with 100W ones. This created a nice pattern of light and shadow radiating out from the faces. To add further contrast, I spotted two dedos up on the actors as well, one for each, gelled with half CTB, so that the centre of each radial pattern had a cooler, brighter circle of light. I decided to shoot on a white balance of 4,500K so that these centre spots would appear white and the radiating pattern would appear slightly orange.

When the characters sit up later in the scene, the two practical lights were almost perfectly positioned to provide cross-backlight. Again I used the dedos to produce the light that is supposedly coming from the practicals. I cheated Mari’s key light around quite a bit; it should really have lit the camera-right side of her face given where the practical was positioned, but we lost too much of her expression that way when she looked at Kent, not to mention that it didn’t look as aesthetically pleasing.

The film noir shot. A dedo just to the left of the visible practical provides the hot backlight, while Mari's key is a second dedo also off left, but in front of her. A miniscule amount of fill is provided by another practical behind the camera.
The film noir shot. A dedo out the rear left of frame provides the hot backlight, while Mari’s key is a second dedo also off left, but in front of her. A miniscule amount of fill is provided by another practical behind the camera.

I hadn’t been intending to use so much hardlight. I’d actually purchased a sheet of unbleached muslin prior to the shoot with the aim of rigging some kind of book light, and I almost did it for these sitting-up close-ups. But Sophie had asked for Mari’s close-up to have a film noir look, highlighting the smoke from her spliff, besides which the weed was bringing out some home truths for the characters, so it made sense to go with stark lighting. The dedos were perfect for this, with their intense, focused light showing up the smoke brilliantly when shone from behind, and spotlighting the actors when shone in from the side. The dark sides of the characters’ faces were lit by a tiny amount of light that’s genuinely coming from the practicals.

The sun - a 1.2K HMI - bursts through.
The sun – a 1.2K HMI – bursts through.

Near the end of the film, the sun rises, throwing a shaft of light into the room. This was supplied by the 1.2K HMI. With hindsight, cranking up a wind-up stand would have been the best way to create the rising effect, but we didn’t have one, so instead the lamp remained static and Col lowered a sheet of card to give the impression of the sun rising over the horizon. Copious smoke was used so that the beam of “sunlight” would show up on camera.

The 1.2K HMI backlights Mari and the rain, while Kent holds a practical just out of frame for key.
The 1.2K HMI backlights Mari and the rain, while Kent holds a practical just out of frame for key.

Night Owls is book-ended by doorstep scenes, the first set at night during a rainstorm, the other on a sunny morning. For both scenes I used the HMI as backlight. This was particularly neccesary for the night scene in order for the rain – actually created by a hosepipe – to show up. (For more on faking rain, check out this post.) At night I set my white balance to 3,200K so that the HMI would appear blue, suggesting moonlight, and in the morning I gelled the HMI with Light Straw and shot on a 5,600K white balance. Fill light was provided at night by the electric candelabra Kent was holding, and in the morning by a makeshift bounce card (a square piece of mountboard covered in silver wrapping paper) hidden from camera by Kent’s body, plus a blue-gelled redhead off to the side of the hall. When we turned round to shoot outdoors looking in, it was necessary to diffuse or dim the HMI, and to break up its light (which now looked very flat due to the lamp being so close to the camera) using tree branches.

That’s about it! Though I think I would do some things differently if I was shooting it now (more soft light, definitely), I’m still really proud of the film and the work I did on it. It’s very satisfying that Night Owls is now gaining the recognition it deserves. Don’t forget to check the film out here. And if you want to know more about the lighting set-ups described above, subscribe to my Instagram feed to see some lighting diagrams and behind-the-scenes photos over the next few days.

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.

The Cinematography of Night Owls

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

Top Tips from Day Two of the Big League Cine Summit 2015

blcs-blue-on-whiteLast week I published the best tips I culled from day one of the 2015 Big League Cine Summit. To complete the set, here are the top tips from day two, starting with that legendary teacher of cinematography, Shane Hurlbut, ASC. Since Shane is so good at sharing his knowledge on the Hurlblog, I’ve only listed a few tips from him; I strongly recommend you check out his site for many, many more gems.

Shane Hurlbut – “Delivering Storytelling Impact with Light, Lens and Camera”

  • On the visual grammar of Crazy/Beautiful: controlled camera moves represent Jay’s controlling mother.
  • Shane likes to use the work of stills photographers as inspiration.
  • He added extra 400W sodium vapour fixtures to the existing 100W sodium vapour streetlights for night exteriors in Crazy/Beautiful.
  • He used a “damaged key” in Crazy/Beautiful to represent Kirsten Dunst’s flustered state. It’s messy, doesn’t quite reach both eyes.

David Vollrath – “Motivated Lighting”

  • “I don’t want to light their faces and bodies specifically. I like to light the space.” – Harris Savides
  • Stand where your subject will be to see what reflective objects are affecting your lighting.
  • Tabletops can be great bounce-boards for toplight. Maybe put muslim or paper on the table to enhance it.
  • Look for things to motivate light: windows, practicals, overhead fixtures, sconces, etc.
  • Once you’ve lit the space, it will become clearer how to light the faces.
  • Work with the art department in preproduction to make sure you get the practicals you need.
  • Flag your other sources off your practical so that excess light isn’t falling on them and washing them out.
  • You can use the reflection of a softbox to create a nice shine on a dark surface or even on a face.
  • A roll of duvetyne armed off a C-stand makes a fair stand-in for a 4×4 floppy flag.
  • “Beadboard” is just another name for polyboard. (I genuinely didn’t know that!)
  • Other bounceboards include foamcore and showcard.
  • Use Source 4 Leikos to fire into your bounce, because they’re easily cut and focused. They’re cheap to rent too.
  • It’s easier to rig a bounce card overhead than a softbox or a kinoflo.
  • Plus Green and Minus Green gels – to match or correct fluorescents – are useful in subtle 1/8th flavours.
  • “Lighting is in the gripping.” Taking away light can be more effective than adding it.
  • A “cocktail” is a layering of multiple gels.
  • A simple black card over a shiny piece of furniture can cut bounce and bring back contrast.
  • Hazers add great atmosphere, but they raise the fill level. To see shafts of light, use a dark background.

Caleb Pike – “Everything You Need to Know About Lenses”

  • A good set of primes will last you decades.
  • Lens choice affects: 1. Field of view, 2. Depth of field, 3. Compression (amount of perspective).
  • Use compression to isolate a subject, or to crop out equipment.
  • Use wide lenses to open up a space, exaggerate expressions or get the most out of camera moves.
  • Longer lenses are more flattering for close-ups. Short lenses can distort the face unpleasantly.
  • Don’t always shoot with your aperture wide open. Choose an appropriate depth of field for your story.
  • Generally it’s best to keep your aperture the same throughout a scene.
  • Avoid non-constant aperture zoom lenses for video work.
  • Primes (fixed focal length lenses) are generally faster, cheaper, lighter and sharper than zooms.
  • Cine lenses are heavier than stills lenses, do not breathe (zoom slightly when focusing), and have fixed filter rings.
  • Cine lenses have hard stops on the focus rings, so you can set focus marks on the lens.
  • Cine lenses have longer throws on the focus rings, so that follow focusing can be more precise.
  • Wide cine lenses have less distortion than their stills counterparts.
  • Passive lens adapters are cheap and simple; smart adapters maintain the electronic connection for autofocus etc.
  • Lens boosters can solve cropping problems caused by using a lens with a sensor size it’s not designed for.
  • Throttle adapters are passive adapters with neutral density fader filters built in.
  • Caleb’s budget lens recommendations:
    1. Nikon 35-70mm f3.5 macro
    2. Olympus 50mm zuiko f1.4 and 1.8 versions – sharp, with long focus throw – around $30
    3. Canon 40mm f2.8 pancake prime
    4. Nikon 100mm F2.8 E series – around $99
    5. Canon 28-80mm F2.8-4.0 L series – well built, very sharp – around $500

Matt Workman – “Camera Moves That Matter”

  • A camera “hand off” is a move that starts focused on one thing and then transitions to focus on another.
  • A classic establisher might start on a mysterious insert then pull back – “hand off” – to reveal the scene.
  • Spielberg, Scorsese, Luhrmann, Singer and Bay all use camera hand-offs frequently.
  • Camera moves increase production value and can cover multiple story beats in one shot.
  • Doing the same thing in cuts reduces your audience’s understanding of the scene’s geography.
  • Crane-ups give you a privileged view, a sense of power.
  • Write down the beats of the scene, then storyboard or previz. All departments can benefit from the previz.
  • Beware of boring bits in the middle of camera moves. Is it better to do it in cuts so you can speed it up?
  • Use Autodesk Maya for previz. Build a library of accurate grip equipment models.
  • Check out Matt’s other site which uses previz tools to illustrate other DPs’ set-ups.

Top Tips from Day Two of the Big League Cine Summit 2015

Hellblazer

A couple of weeks back, I served as director of photography on a music promo for heavy metal band Savage Messiah. Directed by Tom Walsh of Polymath Pictures, the video was released yesterday by Earache Records.

This shoot represented a number of firsts for me: first time operating a Red Epic, first time using a tilt-shift lens, and first time shooting more than 50 frames per second.

Red

While preparing for the shoot, I found this video tutorial from the oddly-named Embassies of Cinema was very helpful in demonstrating the basics of operating the Reds. As Tom said to me, a camera’s a camera, and if you know how to operate one then you can probably find your way around any other, but no-one wants to look like an idiot when they show up on set and start tentatively pressing buttons on an unfamiliar piece of kit.

If there’s one thing I learnt about the Red that I’d like to flag up to other first-time users, it’s the crop factors. The Epic has a Super-35mm sensor, but it only uses all of that sensor when in 5K mode. If you shoot at a lower resolution, the camera simply ignores the outer edges of the sensor, rather than scaling the image to that smaller size,. The result is that your lenses appear to get more telephoto as you decrease the resolution. So watch out for that.

phfx_RedScarletXResFOV

Tilt-shift

The tilt-shift lens
The tilt-shift lens

A tilt-shift lens is one which allows you to move the lens elements around relative to the focal plane. The shift mechanism is primarily of interest to stills photographers who want to capture skyscrapers without them appearing to taper towards the top. The tilt is the fun part.

A classic tilt-shift photograph
A classic tilt-shift photograph

Normally, the glass elements in a lens are parallel to the focal plane (the camera’s sensor). Imagine a shot of three apples lined up next to each other on a table. They’re all the same distance away, so when you focus on one, the other two are in focus as well. But if you tilt the lens, only one apple might be in focus, and part of the background might be in focus too. This effect is often used to make cityscapes and landscapes look like miniatures, but it’s also useful for general weirdness. If you can’t afford to buy or hire a tilt-shift lens, a technique called “lens whacking” offers a low-tech alternative.

tilt_shift_flat

Highspeed Cinematography

Regarding highspeed photography, the only thing I have to say is, “Eh?” Can anyone out there explain why tungsten lights would flicker when shot at 300fps? Everything I’ve read says that only discharge lighting (HMIs, kinoflos) and very small tungsten bulbs should flicker at high frame rates. Surely the filament in a blonde shouldn’t be cooling enough between peaks in the AC power supply to register a flicker in a 600th of a second? I certainly can’t think of any other explanation.

You can see the flickering at around 2:24 in the video if you’re looking for it, but there’s enough dynamic lighting, smoke, lens flares and tilt-shifting that it all just seems part of the deliberate effect.

Setting up to shoot the narrative portions of the promo
Setting up to shoot the narrative portions of the promo. Director Tom Walsh kneels in midground.

Thanks to Tom and designer Amy Nicholson for another great shoot. I look forward to working with them again next week on A Cautionary Tale.

Hellblazer

Picking up the Pieces

A typical Stop/Eject pick-up shot
A typical Stop/Eject pick-up shot

Over the years I’ve developed a bad habit of shooting pick-ups. I really wanted to leave Derbyshire on April 26th with the whole of Stop/Eject in the can, but sadly it was not to be. 25 close-ups of the tape recorder which were scheduled for filming with a skeleton crew on that final day were pushed aside to make way for the weir shots dropped earlier in production.

I grabbed three or four of these close-ups while we were packing up at Magpie, but the rest would have to be shot in my living room back in Hereford.

Which is what I spent most of yesterday doing, with my long-suffering wife Katie standing in for the leading lady once again.

The ultra-spacious 007 stage at Oseman Studios
The ultra-spacious 007 stage at Oseman Studios. Note the iMac in the top right showing the shot from principal photography I'm matching to.

Although it took longer than it would have done with a couple of extra crew and a bit more space, it was incredibly useful to have my iMac right there with all the footage from principal photography on it – some of it even roughly assembled – so we could make sure the lighting and hand movements matched perfectly.

Focusing up close with the Sigma EX 105mm
Focusing up close with the Sigma EX 105mm

Almost every pick-up was shot with a Sigma EX 105mm macro lens which I bought on eBay a few weeks ago. This is a fantastic lens with a huge focusing range which enabled me to get big close-ups of individual buttons on the recorder.

It’s weird shooting things that tight because you start to worry about stuff that’s not normally visible, like tiny bits of dry skin on people’s hands and miniscule dents in things. When you think about what size of screen the film might be projected on at a festival it’s possible to become picky to a crippling degree.

Lovely optical artefacts from using a cheap macro adapter
Lovely optical artefacts from using a cheap macro adapter

For a few specific shots, where bad things are going on in the story, I switched out the Sigma for a Canon zoom and fitted a cheap macro adapter on the front. This gave me soft focus, blooming on the highlights and colour aberration around the edges of frame. I love to do optical stuff like this in-camera wherever I can, rather than relying on post-production effects which can often look cheesy.

Anyway, the shots were all accomplished successfully, despite the fact that the hero tape recorder had a fault and wouldn’t play for more than a couple of seconds before grinding to a halt. For extreme close-ups on the rotating capstans and the playhead moving into position I used a children’s tape player bought from a charity shop last year (for the opening shots of the Stop/Eject podcasts) from which I’d removed the cassette door.

Shooting a kiddies' recorder with the door removed
Shooting a kiddies' recorder with the door removed

A couple of shots were storyboarded as being top-down from directly above the table. To save rigging up the camera on a C-stand, I laid the table on its side and blu-tacked the recorder and tapes to it.

Annoying as they are, I advise you to always expect there will be pick-ups to shoot (maybe right after principal photography, maybe only a couple of weeks before the premiere) and plan accordingly, i.e. keep as much stuff from the shoot as you possibly can, particularly…

  • any key hand props (like the tape recorder)
  • bracelets, bangles, rings and watches so you can film extra shots of characters’ hands (My heart briefly stopped when Katie pointed out yesterday that Georgie wore Sophie’s watch in principal photography, and it was therefore 100 miles away in Belper. Fortunately the one key shot of the watch was amongst those few we grabbed before leaving Magpie.)
  • ideally all of the costumes, but at least tops, since you can often film extra hand shots with the character’s torso filling the background of the frame
  • any parts of the sets that can be used to fill the background of a close-up or medium close-up (We brought the curtain and the table from the alcove back to Hereford with us. Sorry, Mrs. Briggs!)

Of course pick-ups aren’t always because you dropped stuff during principal photography. Often they’re new material that you realise you need as the edit develops. It’s too early to say whether Stop/Eject will have any of those. Either way, there is still one more storyboarded shot to film – of a microwave. Which sounds simple, but it’s not. More on that another time.

Picking up the Pieces

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