“Above the Clouds”: February 2017 Pick-ups

Last weekend saw many of the crew of Above the Clouds reunite to shoot the remaining scenes of this comedy road movie. Principal photography was captured on an Alexa Mini during summer 2016 on location in Kent, on the Isle of Skye, and at Longcross Studio in Buckinghamshire, with additional location shooting on a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera in October.

The outstanding scenes were to be photographed on stage, at Halliford Studio in Shepperton, this time on an Arri Amira. The Amira uses the same sensor as the Alexas, allowing us to match the look from principal photography in the most cost-effective way. With the addition of a Premium license, the camera is capable of the same ProRes 4444 recording codec as the Alexas too. As per last summer, our glass was a set of Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes, with a half Soft FX filter to take the digital edge off.

Director Leon Chambers designed and built the set himself, sending me photos of a scale model well in advance. He was also specific about certain lighting cues and states that were required across the two sets and six scenes we would be recording to complete the movie. Based on this information, I concocted a lighting plan, which I communicated to Halliford’s in-house gaffer Micky Reeves by Photoshopping stock images of lamps onto Leon’s set model photos.

Last Saturday was devoted to pre-lighting the sets, mainly the kitchen, while construction work continued on the second set.

 

Day 24 / Sunday

We begin with a morning scene. A 5K fresnel serves as a low sun, streaking across the back wall of the set (see my post about lighting through windows). Even with this direct light four stops over, the natural bounce off the set isn’t enough to bring actor Philip Jackson – with his back to the window – up to key. Micky rigs a Dedo firing into a soft silver bounce just out of frame to solve the problem.

Also coming through the window are two 4×4 kinos, rigged on goalposts above the window. Their daylight tubes reflect off the blinds, serendipitously creating the illusion of a blue sky “outdoors”, where in fact there is only a wall and a white backdrop.

Philip exits into the hallway and disappears from view, supposedly to go out through the front door. No door exists. Instead there is a flag which spark Amir Moulfi rotates in front of a 2K, creating a momentary oblong of light in which Philip’s shadow appears.

The next scene follows on from an exterior captured last October at dusk, when the natural light was soft, flat and cool in colour, cheated even cooler with the white balance. This failing daylight is to be the only source of illumination now in the kitchen set, until Philip enters and turns on the lights. This is the main reason that the daylight 4×4 kinos outside the window were rigged. A third kino from the direction of the front door is added, plus a small LED reporter light to pick an important prop out of the shadows.

Lead actress Naomi Morris enters, silhouetted against the windows. Then Philip enters and hits the lights. Simultaneously, Amir flips a breaker on a lunchbox, activating a hanging practical fixture above the breakfast bar and the 5K which that practical motivates.

Generally I don’t like toplight. It throws the eyes – those windows to the soul… or windows to the performance – into shadow. But with the hanging practical in shot, whatever I was going to use to beef it up had to be somewhat toppy or it wouldn’t make sense. I considered space-lights and Jem balls, but in consultation with Micky I ultimately picked a 5K with a chimera, coming in at a 45 degree back/toplight angle. As you can see from the photos, this looks almost comically large. But large and close means soft, which is what I want. It had to be soft enough to wrap both actors when they faced each other across the bar.

 

But why such a large lamp? Why not use a 2K, like Micky suggested yesterday? Bitter experience has always taught me to go with a bigger unit than you think you need, particularly if you’re softening it, and particularly if it’s going to take a while to rig. (The 5K was hung from another goalposts set-up.) We ended up dimming the 5K to 50% and scrimming it down a stop and a half. But having too much light like that is easy to deal with. If we had put up a 2K and it wasn’t bright enough, we would have to have taken the whole thing down and re-rigged with a 5K. And even if the 2K had seemed sufficient to begin with, blocking can often take actors into unexpected, dark corners of the set. Being able to turn up a dimmer a couple of notches to handle that kind of situation is very useful.

Besides the 5K, there are a few other sources playing: some 300W hairlights, a pup bouncing off the side of a cupboard to bring up the area around the cooker, a China ball in the hallway, and Leon’s Rosco LitePads serving as practical under-cabinet down-lighters.

 

Day 25 / Monday

I probably shouldn’t say what today’s set is, because it’s a little bit of a spoiler. There are some lighting similarities to the kitchen: again we have a character flicking a light switch, bringing on two hanging overhead practicals and a 2K with a chimera to beef them up.

A practical lamp on a desk was supposed to be turned on during the scene as well, but we all forget until it’s too late. It would have bounced off the desk and given Philip a little eye-light, and at first I regret losing this. But soon I realise that it is more appropriate for the scene not to have that level of refinement, for the lighting to be a little raw. The toppy, “broken key” angle of the chimera’s light works well for this tone too.

We wrap just before noon, releasing Naomi to high-tail it to Oxford to appear on stage in a musical this evening. Eventually there will be second-unit-style GVs and establishing shots to do, but there will only be three or four of us for that. For the cast and most of the crew, today brings Above the Clouds to an end, eight months after the camera first rolled.

See all my Above the Clouds posts here, or visit the official website.

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“Above the Clouds”: February 2017 Pick-ups

Lighting Droplets

The tarsier puppet in Droplets
The tarsier puppet in Droplets

Lighting in the controlled environment of a studio should theoretically be much easier than lighting a location, but I found recently that it doesn’t come without its challenges.

Last month I had the pleasure of working on a music promo for Droplets by Lewis Watson and Gabrielle Aplin. Directed by Tom Walsh and designed by First Musketeer veteran Amy Nicholson, this magical, handmade puppet fest was only the second or third studio-bound production of my career. Tom had secured the use of Giltbrook Studios, an impressively equipped 1,300 sq ft soundstage in Nottingham, complete with manager Andy Swain as gaffer.

Apart from the exclusion of pesky natural light, the biggest advantage offered by a stage over a location is the lighting grid; no more wondering if that polecat or K-clamp will take the paint off the wall, and no more compromising your backlight position to keep the stand out of frame. The downside of the grid is the time it takes to rig or adjust a light, particularly if the grid, like Giltbrook’s, has no catwalks, and every adjustment must be made by bringing in and scaling a huge ladder. In fact it may be impossible to rig or adjust lights once there is a finished set underneath. All of which means you’re going to need a pre-rig day.

Some of the ill-fated space lights can be seen here, as well as the cucoloris rigged beneath the 650W fresnel key light. At the top left is the 2K fresnel backlight.
Some of the ill-fated space lights can be seen here, as well as the cucoloris rigged beneath the 650W fresnel key light. At the top left is the 2K fresnel backlight.

In the case of Droplets, the pre-rig day was also used to assemble the set, a tree on top of a cave, which must have measured about fifteen feet in height. As soon as it had been erected we realised that the six space lights Andy had spent all morning rigging were going to be in frame, as the top of the tree reached above the bottoms of these lights. (A space light is a circular arrangement of six tungsten tubes inside a cylinder of white diffusion cloth. They’re typically used in large numbers to simulate daylight in a studio.)

Some of the par cans that supplied the colour wash on the backdrop.
Some of the par cans that supplied the colour wash on the backdrop.

In fact my options on where I could put lights were very narrow, because of the lack of space around the set, both vertically and horizontally. We shot against the studio’s white infinity cove, and Tom wanted colour washes over this to suggest various times of day. Andy achieved this with gelled par cans off to either side of the set, but then it was crucial that no other light spilled onto the backdrop or it would ruin the effect.

We rigged a 2K tungsten fresnel immediately behind and above the set, for backlight, but it was hard to put anything in from the sides or the front without contaminating the backdrop. The 650W key light had to be rigged almost directly above the set, and even then its shadow can be seen on the floor in the wide shots if you look carefully. We hung a cucoloris (sheet of wood with random shapes cut in it) below the 650 to created the dappled effect of woodland light, taking care that a patch of light fell on the tarsier puppet’s main position.

For fill I used an LED panel off to the right of the set, dimming it to find a balance between its light being barely visible on the backdrop while still lifting the set and the puppets enough. I placed a smaller LED panel inside the cave, with a turquoise gel to suggest phosphorescence.

The final day/sunset look. From each side an orange-gelled and a pink-gelled par can light the backdrop. A 2K tungsten fresnel provides backlight, while a 650W fresnel with a cucoloris provides dappled light on the tree and tarsier. An LED panel off right supplies fill, and a second panel is inside the cave with a turquoise gel.
The final day/sunset look. From each side an orange-gelled and a pink-gelled par can light the backdrop. A 2K tungsten fresnel provides backlight, while a 650W fresnel with a cucoloris provides dappled light on the tree and tarsier. An LED panel off right supplies fill, and a second panel is inside the cave with a turquoise gel.
For closer shots, a reflector below frame and/or a Dedolight behind camera were used to fill in unwanted shadows.
For closer shots, a reflector below frame and/or a Dedolight behind camera were used to fill in unwanted shadows.

Another advantage of a studio is that you can easily run all the lamps into a dimmer board. This was very handy for Droplets because in addition to the day/sunset look, we had nighttime scenes and a storm to light for, and some on-screen transitions between the states. We were able to set these all up in advance and switch between them pretty much by just pushing a few sliders up and a few others down.

The night state involved a yellow-gelled redhead on the floor behind the cave, pointed straight at the backdrop. With its barn doors removed, this created a circle of light which reminded me strongly of the huge yellow moon in the posters for The Nightmare Before Christmas. I hadn’t been intending to create such a defined circle, but when I saw it I immediately loved its stylised look.

A second 650W fresnel was rigged, close to the first, and with ulcered black wrap in front of it to again created a dappled look, but with a purple gel on it. This took us away from the more traditional blue of nighttime scenes, adding to the stylised look again, and contrasting nicely in colour with the yellow “moon”.

The 2K backlight remained on for the night scenes, but the sunset colour wash on the backdrop was switched off, as was the fill.

Nighttime in puppet land: the 2K backlight remains on, a yellow-gelled redhead lights the backdrop from behind the set, and a purple-gelled 650W fresnel in the grid pushes through a cucoloris to highlight the tarsier.
Nighttime in puppet land: the 2K backlight remains on, a yellow-gelled redhead lights the backdrop from behind the set, and a purple-gelled 650W fresnel in the grid pushes through a cucoloris to highlight the tarsier.

For the storm scene we experimented with strobes, but they caused unpleasant rolling shutter artefacts. Instead I used the flash button on the 2K’s dimmer box to create lightning. Both 650W fresnels were turned off for this state, but the fill was turned back on. While the pink colour wash remained off, we brought up the orange wash just a little bit to suggest an angry sky in the background.

Stormy weather. The orange colour wash coming from the par cans, originally set up for the sunset look, is used here much more dimly to suggest an angry sky. The LED panel off right supplies fill while the 2K backlight is flashed periodically.
Stormy weather. The orange colour wash coming from the par cans, originally set up for the sunset look, is used here much more dimly to suggest an angry sky. The LED panel off right supplies fill while the 2K backlight is flashed periodically.

Copious smoke was used throughout (another advantage of studios – your smoke stays put!) to generate god rays as the backlight streamed through the tree. It also helped soften the backdrop and render the colour washes more convincing as a sky.

Watch the video here. Shot on a Red Epic operated by Chris Wetton. Big thanks to Andy and Giltbrook Studios for all their help. Visit www.polymathematics.co.uk to find out more about the amazing work of Tom Walsh and Amy Nicholson.

Lighting Droplets