“The Little Mermaid”: Boats, Trains and Automobiles

One of the biggest challenges on The Little Mermaid was the amount of material set in moving vehicles at night. Over the course of the story, the heroes travel in two different trains, a pick-up truck and a riverboat, and I knew that lighting large stretches of railway, road or river wasn’t going to be practical on our budget. Ultimately much of it ended up being done against green screen, with the notable exception of the riverboat, the first mode of transport to go before the cameras. Here are the relevant extracts from my diary.

 

Day 14

Today’s a big day because we’re shooting on a riverboat which has been hired at great expense. We have a huge amount of material to cover and there’s no way we can come back to the boat later if we don’t get it all. Chris and I make a game plan in the afternoon and arrive at the dock in good time.

It feels a lot like a micro-budget movie, shooting on a location that perhaps should have been a set (once we set sail you can’t see anything in the background because it’s night) with a tiny lighting package running off a little genny: some Kinos, two LED panels, and a 1K baby. Out there in the dark river, it is eery watching unfathomably huge container ships pass 50ft from us. We leave ‘B’ camera on the shore and try to co-ordinate with them by walkie as they shoot wide shots of the boat and we try to hide!

 

Day 16

Night driving scenes in a pick-up truck today. Poor Man’s Process was considered for these, then doing it for real with a low loader (called a process trailer here in the States). But at last green screen was chosen as the way to go.

The period vehicle is wheeled into our studio and parked in front of two 12×12 green screens, which VFX supervisor Rich dots with red tape crosses for tracking markers. Throughout the night he moves them around to make sure there are always a couple in shot. We light the green screen with two Image 80s (4ft 8-bank Kino Flos with integral ballasts) fitted with special chroma green tubes. Rich tells me to expose the screen at key, which in this case is T4.

Captain Dan Xeller, best boy electric, has lit car stuff before, so I give him free reign to establish the ambient level. He does it with 1Ks fired into 8×4 bounce boards, so that any reflections in the car’s bodywork will be large and sky-like, not strips like Kino Flos or points like pars or fresnels.

For shape we add a 5K with a chimera at a three-quarter angle, and a side-on par can with a “branch-a-loris” in front of it. Key grip Jason Batey designs this rig, consisting of two branches on a pivot like a Catherine Wheel, which can be spun at any speed by one of the grips, to simulate movement of the car.

Finally I add a 2K poking over the top of the green screen with Steel Blue gel, as a gratuitous hair-light.

Most of the night’s work is handheld, often with two cameras, but we also get some dolly shots, moving towards or away from the car, again to simulate movement.

 

Day 17

More green screen work today. At the end of the night we recreate one of the scenes from the boat with a piece of railing against the green screen. I do exactly the same lighting as before – Steel Blue three-quarter backlight, and a tungsten key bounced off polyboard. I love the way the actors’ skin looks under this light. Tungsten bounced off polyboard may just be the best light source ever.

 

Day 18

Stage scenes on real sets today, one of which is meant to be on the riverboat. The grips come up with a gag where we shine moonlight through an off-camera window gobo, which they handbash back and forth to simulate the boat rocking. We end up dialling it down so it’s very subtle, but still adds a hint of movement.

We move to the caboose (guard’s van), one of the train carriage sets. A second branch-a-loris is constructed so that both windows on one side of the carriage can have the passing trees effect cutting up the hard fresnel “moonlight”. We light from the other side with Kinos, and add a 1K baby bounced off foamcore to represent light from a practical oil lamp. Later the dialogue transitions to a fight scene, and we replace the bounced baby with an LED panel so it’s a little easier to move around and keep out of shot. I get to do some energetic handheld camerawork following the action, which is always fun.

 

Day 27

Interiors on stage, followed by night exteriors out the back of the studio. One of these is a shot of the heroes running, supposedly towards the train. It’s shot from the back of the 1st AD’s pick-up truck as we drive next to them. We have no condor today so the 12K backlight is just on a roadrunner stand, flooding out across the marsh between the lamp and the talent. With smoke it looks great, but lens flare keeps creeping in because the lamp’s not high enough.

We also shoot some Poor Man’s Process around a small set of the rear of a train car. Two lamps with branch-a-lorises in front of them, wind, smoke and shaky cameras help sell the movement.

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Later we have a POV shot of a train screeching to a stop in front of the villain. The camera is on a dolly and the G&E team mount a 2K on there as well, to represent the train’s headlight.

Next week I’ll turn my attention to The Little Mermaid‘s smaller scenes, and discuss how the principle of lighting from the back was applied to them. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in some techniques for shooting in genuinely-moving vehicles, check out my blog from week three of Above the Clouds where we shot on Longcross Studios’ test track, and my article “Int. Car – Moving”.

“The Little Mermaid”: Boats, Trains and Automobiles

“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.

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“Above the Clouds”: October Pick-ups