“The Little Mermaid”: Pools of Light

Although The Little Mermaid takes place mostly on dry land, there were some key scenes involving tanks and pools. These include the moment which introduces the audience to the mermaid herself, played by Poppy Drayton. Here are some extracts from my diary covering the challenges of creating a magical, fairytale look while filming in and around water.

 

Day 10

Today we’re inside the big top all day – actually all NIGHT. We can’t shoot during the day because too much daylight bleeds through the canvas of the tent.

We are setting up when a storm hits. The tent starts to blow about in a slightly alarming fashion, rain lashes down outside (and inside, because the tent isn’t very waterproof) and lightning flashes. We are ordered out of the tent, and I run into a waiting mini-van with Joe from art and some of the camera crew. We sit watching the rain and telling stories for half an hour before we can press on.

Setting up with a stand-in next to the mermaid tank (centre, behind the monitors). In the top right you can see the 575W HMI backlight for the tank, and below that, grip Sawyer Oubre stands ready to fake watery rippling light with a par can and a blue gel frame.

Around the wall of the tent the art department have hung canvas posters; at the suggestion of gaffer Mike Horton, we uplight these with par cans and par 38s. The design of these fixtures hasn’t changed since the 30s, so we can get away with seeing them in shot. The art dept have sourced four period spotlights which we use as background interest (they’re not powerful enough to really illuminate anything), as well as string-lights.

Ambience comes from a Maxi Brute, with just a couple of bubbles on, firing into the tent roof. After seeing a video test of various diffusers during preproduction, I asked for Moroccan Frost to be added to our consumables list, and we use it for the first time on this Maxi Brute. It gives a lovely muted orangey-pink look to the scene.

Steadicam operator Chris Lymberis. Photo: Kane Pearson

We’re shooting our mermaid for the very first time, in a tank in the circus ring. The initial plan is to fire a Source Four straight down into the water to create genuine watery rippling light, while bouncing a par can off a wobbling frame of blue gel to beef up the effect. In the end the Source Four isn’t really cutting it, so instead we rig a 575W HMI, gelled with Steel Blue, to a menace arm and fire it into the tank as toppy backlight. This Steel Blue gelled daylight source, blued up slightly further by the water itself, contrasts beautifully with the Moroccan Frost tungsten ambience which the Maxi Brutes are giving us.

In her mermaid tail and costume, Poppy Drayton looks stunning in the tank. We shoot steadicam angles and some slo-mo to get the most out of the set-up.

 

Day 15

The rocky pool set with two of the side-lighting Kino Flos and the 1.2K HMI backlight (centre) in place

Back on stage, and we’re shooting the rocky pool. This set was built before I even arrived in Savannah, so I’ve been waiting a long time to shoot it. It’s built almost right up to the ceiling of the studio (a former supermarket) so it’s challenging to light. The grips build four menace arms and poke two 4×4 Kinos and two 575W HMIs over the sides to cross-light the set and bring out all the texture in it. Where the set ends they put up a 20×20′ greenscreen, which we light with two Kino Flo Image 80s fitted with special chroma green tubes.

After a wide (which didn’t make the final cut), the next set-up is a 2-shot of our leads in the pool itself. We consider arming the camera out over the pool using a jib, but ultimately decide that it’s better for me to join the cast in the pool, with the camera on my shoulder in a splash bag. 2nd AC Kane Pearson joins the pool party as well, and ends up hand-bashing a monitor for me since the splash bag’s designed for a Panaflex film camera and the viewfinder doesn’t line up. I’m reminded of my frustrating splash bag experience on See Saw back in 2007, but this time at least within a few minutes I’ve found a comfortable and effective way to operate the camera, under-slinging it and allowing it to partially float so I don’t have to support the whole weight.

For this shot we’ve added our par-can-bounced-off-a-wobbling-blue-gel gag for watery light ripples, and combined with the real light ripples and the reflections of a 1.2K HMI backlight, the image looks beautiful.

 

Day 19

After lunch we shoot the singles for the rocky pool scene. The pool itself has been removed, and the actors sit on stools in a paddling pool, with the set behind them. The paddling pool serves two functions: it catches the water that make-up pours over the actors to make them look wet, and it reflects rippling light onto their faces. This light originates from a par can. At first it flattens out the look, then we figure out that we need to lay black fabric on the bottom of the pool. This stops the par can’s light bouncing directly, while retaining the rippling highlights off the water’s surface. (Check out my article on shooting water for more tips like this.)

The low-tech solution for the pool pick-ups

In the final edit this was all intercut with some beautiful footage by underwater DP Jordan Klein, shot both at a local diving pool in Savannah and at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Florida. The main unit shot another scene in the actual ocean, but I’ll cover that later in this series. In the meantime, next week I’ll reveal some of the tricks and techniques used in shooting The Little Mermaid‘s many sequences in moving vehicles.

“The Little Mermaid”: Pools of Light

Negative Lighting

There were no practicals in this corner of the pub, so we placed an 800 open-face outside the window, gelled with Midnight Blue, and a 1×1′ LED panel in the wood-burner, gelled with CTO.

This year I’ve shot a couple of productions on the Sony FS7, a camera I’ve been very impressed by. Its most interesting feature is its high native ISO of 2000, which makes quite an impact on how you go about lighting. The light shed by practicals is often enough to illuminate a scene, or a large part of it, and sometimes you need to take existing practicals away in order to maintain contrast and shape, similar to how you take ambient light away (negative fill) when shooting exteriors.

It’s a strange thing about being a DP that, yes, sometimes you’re required to plan a mammoth lighting set-up using tens of kilowatts of power, but other times it’s just a case of saying, “Take the bulb out of that sconce.” You’re working to exactly the same principles, using your creative eye just as much in both scenarios.

Let’s look at some examples from a promotional film I shot with director Oliver Park for Closer Each Day, an improvised stage soap.

Our location was a pub, which had a large number of existing practicals: mainly wall sconces, but some overheads above the bar and in the corridors too. The film had to be shot in a single night, entirely on Steadicam, with some shots revealing almost the whole room, and to further complicate matters I was a last-minute hire due to another DP having to step down. Keeping the lighting simple, and avoiding putting any “film lights” on the floor where the roving camera might see them, was clearly the way to go.

I identified the darker areas of the room and added a few extra sources: two blue-gelled 800s outside the windows, an orange-gelled 1×1′ LED panel in the wood-burner, an LED reporter light in one key corner, and a small tungsten fresnel toplight onto a key table, firing down from the mezzanine so it would never be in shot. Other than those, and a low level of fill bounced off the ceiling, we relied exclusively on the existing practicals. (They were mainly fluorescent, and ideally we would have reglobed these all with tungsten, but it wasn’t possible.)

This view from the mezzanine shows the diffused 300W fresnel top-lighting the drinking contest table, and the black-wrapped 650 firing into the ceiling for fill.

 

So, that’s the “positive” lighting. Here are three examples of “negative” lighting in the film…

When Big Dick Johnson (yep, that’s the character’s name) first enters the pub, I put a piece of tape over a little halogen spotlight just above his point of entry. This was partly because it was very bright and I didn’t want him to blow out as he walked under it, but it also made for a much better sense of depth in the overall shot. As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, the best depth in an image is usually achieved by having the foreground dark, the mid-ground at key and the background bright. Killing the halogen spotlight helped create this progression of brightness and therefore depth. It’s also just nice in a shot like this to come out of darkness into the light, enhancing the reveal of the new space to the viewers.

When Billy De Burgh scrambles to buy a ticket at the box office, there are two practicals just above his head. Depending on which way we were shooting, I de-globed one of the fixtures – always the one closest to camera. This ensured that Billy always had backlight, and never had a really hot, toppy front-light shining harshly down on him.

On a side note, the blue light inside the box office was existing – I guess they were using cool white LED bulbs in there – and I really like the way it differentiates the spaces on camera. It puts the bored ticket-seller in a cold, detached world very separate to Billy’s warmer, more urgent world.

This doorway where Big Dick ends the film had sconces on both sides. It’s never very interesting to have an actor evenly lit on both sides of their face, and especially as Dick is such a tough, unpleasant character, I felt that more contrast was required. I chose to remove the globe from the righthand sconce, so that when he turns camera left to look at the sign he turns into the remaining sconce, his key-light. We filled in the other side of his face a tiny touch with a reflector.

I would love to have been able to exercise the same control over the street-lamps in the opening scene of the film – some of them are quite flat and frontal – but unfortunately time, budget and permissions made that impossible. We would have needed huge flags, or a council-approved electrician to switch the lamps off.

That’s all for today. Next time you’re in Bristol, check out Closer Each Day. I didn’t get chance to see it, but I hear it’s brilliant.

Negative Lighting

The Steadicam, the Blackmagic and the Troublesome Converters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We continue to shoot the Steadicam material on the C300.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Steadicam, the Blackmagic and the Troublesome Converters