Poor Man’s Process

The WidthScribe promotional video I recently completed for Astute Graphics involved the actress driving a car – except we ended up casting an actress who can’t drive. We got around this in a few different ways, including the obvious substitution of a qualified driver in the wide shots, complete with appropriate wig.

Perhaps the most interesting technique we used, and one which I might well have used even if she could drive, was Poor Man’s Process. Nowadays, most fake driving shots in films and TV shows are achieved by shooting against a greenscreen and replacing that screen in post with a moving background plate. A more traditional technique is to film against a rear projection screen – a screen onto which previously-shot footage of a moving background is projected in real time behind the actors. This was known as Process Photography.

Poor Man’s Process leaves out the screen altogether, shooting against a plain, ambiguous background that doesn’t reveal the lack of movement – typically empty sky. Careful use of camera movement and dynamic lighting create the illusion of movement.

Here is the set-up we used on the WidthScribe promo.

Making the magic
Making the magic

The car is parked on Nick’s drive, which is conveniently sloped so that – from the camera’s point of view – only sky and a bit of a distant tree are visible in the background.

A light behind the car represents the sun, and Nick chops a piece of cardboard up and down in front of it to represent the shadows of passing trees.

Low budget wind machine
Low budget wind machine

Sophie operates a hairdryer to blow Laura’s hair around.

Col shines a reporter light into the lens, moving it around to create the impression of the sun changing position relative to the camera.

And I dolly the camera side-to-side while vibrating it ever so slightly.

When intercut with wide shots of Nick’s wife driving the car for real, you’d never know the close-ups were cheated. (An additional trick we employed was to sit Laura in the passenger seat of the moving car then flop the image in post, for the over-the-shoulder shot of the pylon passing by.)

The drapes are to cut out the reflections in the windscreen.
The drapes are to cut out the reflections in the windscreen.

Poor Man’s Process works best at night, but with the shallow depth of field provided by DSLRs it’s now possible to get away with it in daylight too, so long as the shot is kept fairly tight and the road you’re meant to be driving on is fairly open.

You’ll want to vary the lighting effects you use according to the surroundings the car is supposed to be in. You can use spinning mirrors to sweep “headlights” or “streetlights” over your actors, or move a keylight representing the sun or moon slowly side-to-side, or even place two out-of-focus bulbs in the background of your shot to represent another car behind.

I’ll leave you with an example of Poor Man’s Process in use on a big-budget Hollywood film, Michael Bay’s 1997 Alcatraz actioner, The Rock. All the close-ups in the cars were shot static in a car park.

Poor Man’s Process

Tapering Lines and Milky Shadows

Recently I was hired by Astute Graphics to direct an advert-like promotional film for the launch of their new product, an Adobe Illustrator plug-in called WidthScribe. Here is the result:

Laura gets to grips with WidthScribe on a Cintiq touchscreen. Photo: Sophie Black
Laura gets to grips with WidthScribe on a Cintiq touchscreen. Photo: Sophie Black

It was a really fun and creative project, working with a great bunch of people including gaffer and GlideCam operator Colin Smith, designer and make-up artist Sophie Black, actress Laura Markham, and Nick van der Walle from Astute Graphics.

I have noticed a recent trend in adverts for a milky, low-contrast look, and I felt this would be an appropriate project for such a look. I knew that we would be featuring crisp, contrasty vector graphics throughout the film, so it made sense to counterpoint these with live action that was organic, soft and diffuse.

In preparation I set up a picture profile on my Canon 600D with minimum contrast and sharpness, and slightly reduced colour saturation.

On set the front light came from softboxes, reflectors and natural bounce, though always with a strong backlight to prevent the image from looking completely flat. The backlight also produced lens flare which further reduced the contrast of the image by lifting the shadows. In fact, I decided that almost every shot should have a lens flare, to enhance that organic look. Often this meant that Col would stand next to the camera and shine a 100W reporter light into the lens.

Fake sun
The “sun” here is actually a 1,000W Arrilite in the garden. Lens flare and smoke soften the image, while a fluorescent lamp in a softbox provides fill from out of the top right of frame.

Smoke was used in the kitchen scene, again to lift the shadows and diffuse the light. By a stroke of luck, the direct, wintery sunlight I faked in this scene with a 1,000W Arrilite pretending to be the sun was replicated almost exactly by the real sun when we filmed the office scene the following day.

In a future post I’ll reveal the secrets of the driving shots.

Tapering Lines and Milky Shadows

Corporate Videos

Setting up to shoot
Shooting a promotional video for Aryma Contemporary Marquetry. Photo: Lisa Sansome

When I give talks to film students, they sometimes turn their noses up at the corporate and participatory video work I do around my own creative projects. They like to think they can come straight out of university and make only their dramatic masterpieces. Now, clearly corporates pay the rent whereas the more creative projects sadly don’t for most of us, but there are many other excellent reasons to do them:

  1. Transferable skills. By making corporates day in, day out, you’re keeping your camera, lighting, sound, editing and directing skills honed.
  2. Flexibility. It’s much easier to fit your creative projects around a freelance corporate video schedule than a nine-to-five day job. Even having to go to the job centre to sign on the dole every week can get in the way of your own films.
  3. Favours. To give just one example, a sound recordist is far more likely to work for free on your short film if you’ve hired him for several fully paid corporates jobs in the past.
  4. Finance. Over and above the fees they pay me, I’ve found my corporate clients to be some of my most generous supporters when it comes to investing in my films or contributing to crowd-funding campaigns. (See this post for evidence of this in the indisputable form of a pie chart.)
  5. Equipment. Your wife can’t complain about you buying a shiny new camera if you need it to earn money. And if you just happen to use it for your own projects too, well – everyone’s happy, aren’t they?
  6. Credits. Every corporate adds to your track record. An actor auditioning for your short, a funding agency panellist considering your application, a potential collaborator checking out your website – they’ll all be more impressed and more willing to trust you if they see a long list of corporate credits rather than a part-time shelf-stacking job on your CV.
  7. Dealing with feedback. We’ve all heard the horror stories of directors who’ve received notes from studio executives demanding that they change this or that. Learning to take on board the comments and suggestions of the clients who are paying for your corporates is great practice for this.
  8. Tax break. If you make money from filming, your expenses are tax deductible. And those expenses include the cost of making your own movies, because it’s all part of your business. Many’s the time I’ve lamented spending all my money on making films… until I received a “nothing to pay” statement from the Inland Revenue. Mmmm, nothing to pay.
Corporate Videos

Filming Abroad

Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. Photo: Colin Smith
Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. Photo: Colin Smith

Yesterday Col and I travelled to Amsterdam to film part of the web promo for Aryma. (See my earlier post for more info on that project.) So I thought this might be an appropriate moment to share my top five tips for shooting overseas.

  1. Always pack the camera, lenses, cards and batteries in your hand luggage. Not only will they be safer, but if your checked baggage ends up in the wrong country, at least you can still shoot.
  2. If you’re taking lights, check your bulbs are rated for the voltage of the country’s electrical system. For example, US bulbs (110V) will blow if you try to use them in Europe (220V).
  3. Don’t forget plug adapters.
  4. Where possible, hire a local runner/driver. That gets you a chauffeur, translator and tour guide all in one, and their local knowledge will save you time and money.
  5. Despite what some may say, I can personally testify that DV tapes and SDHC cards and the data on them are not affected by airport x-ray machines.
Filming in the Italian Dolomites for Beyond Recognition (2002, dir. Tom Muschamp). Photo: Simon Ball
Filming in the Italian Dolomites for Beyond Recognition (2002, dir. Tom Muschamp). Photo: Simon Ball
Filming Abroad

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