The Cinematography of “Perplexed Music”

In June I was recommended by a mutual friend to shoot a short drama called Perplexed Music, inspired by the Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet of the same name. It’s a passion project from writer-director Mark McGann, with his brother Paul McGann (Doctor Who, Alien 3, Withnail & I) in the lead role of a man grieving for his deceased partner.

Paul and Mark pose with one of the supporting artists between takes.

Mark was keen from the outset to shoot on an Alexa, and I was quick to agree. Arri Rental very kindly gave us an amazing deal on an Alexa Classic and a set of Ultra Primes. As on Above the Clouds, we used a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera as a B-cam, capturing two specific angles that were impossible on the Alexa with our limited grip budget.

Throughout July, Mark and I had a very satisfying creative dialogue about the cinematic techniques we would use to tell the story of Paul’s character, The Man, who never speaks. I had been watching a lot of Mr. Robot, and was keen to use unusual compositions as that show does. The visual grammar that we ultimately developed eschewed The Rule of Thirds, either squeezing The Man right into the side of frame – at times when things are too much for him – or placing him dead centre for moments of clarity and acceptance, and for flashbacks to when his partner was alive.

The Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera is mounted on a combo lighting stand to capture a high angle through a streetlamp.

While testing lenses at Arri Rental a few weeks prior to the shoot, I took the opportunity to shoot some frame-rate tests between 24 and 48fps. Since the film has so little dialogue, I figured there was nothing to stop us using a lot of slow motion if we wanted to. I didn’t want it to look like a music video though. I thought perhaps a very subtle over-cranking, creating languid blinks and slightly heavier movement, would add to the burden of The Man’s grief. Mark agreed as soon as he saw the tests, and we ended up shooting a number of set-ups at 28 and 30fps, plus 40fps for a pivotal sequence.

I also tested various ISO settings on the Alexa (click here for full details, stills and video from this test). Based on these, I decided to use ISO 1600 for the majority of the film, partly for the extra latitude in the highlights, and partly to add grittiness to The Man’s grief-stricken world, in the form of a little picture noise. When we started shooting the flashbacks, on the spur of the moment I decided to switch to ISO 400 for these. A few years back I shot the music video below on a Red Epic and, for reasons I forget, one set-up was done at a lower ISO than the rest. I remember the feeling this gave, when I saw the final edit, of everything suddenly being smooth and hyper-real. (You can just about it discern it through the Vimeo compression at 1:48.) I thought that would be a great feeling to give to the flashbacks.

1st AC Rupert Peddle and 2nd AC Ben Davies set up a lakeside close-up under a diffusion frame which will soften the light on Paul.

Much of Perplexed Music was day exterior, but a couple of sequences required lighting. In the opening café scene, I fired HMIs through two windows, but kept their light away from The Man, keying him with a practical to put him in his own little world. Meanwhile, a happy couple he’s watching are bathed in sunlight (sometimes real, sometimes not) warmed up with a quarter CTO, and bouncing beautifully off their table to give them a healthy glow.

For night interiors at The Man’s home, I was keen to rely on practicals as much as possible. Firstly there wasn’t much space in the little cottage, secondly I didn’t want the hassle of having to shift them around to keep them out of frame when we changed angle, and thirdly it just looks more natural. So aside from a tungsten bounce in a corner of the living room we knew would never be seen, I stuck to practical table lamps and exterior lighting.

Setting up for a night exterior shot. Photo: Gary Horton

I had planned to use direct HMI sources for moonlight through the windows, but my gaffer Sam suggested going softer so that we wouldn’t have hard shadows inside which would need filling. I saw that he was right, so we used a kino through one window and a 2.5K HMI bounced into poly through another (pictured at left).

Perplexed Music was shot over five days in Frome in Somerset and Rame in Cornwall. The latter provided us with a spectacular cliff-top and the isolated St. Michael’s Chapel on the peak of the headland. Here we employed the services of The Fly Company, who captured two dramatic, sweeping shots on their DJI Inspire 2 drone. We were all extremely impressed by what they were able to achieve, especially as it was done in very windy conditions, in between rain showers.

We completed the final set-ups of the schedule as the winds began gusting up to 60mph, and poor Paul could barely stand upright! I was certainly glad we picked the Alexa to shoot on, because anything lighter would probably have shaken during takes, if not blown over!

Lining up a shot with director Mark McGann. Photo: Gary Horton

I had a fantastic time working with Mark and Paul, and the whole cast and crew. We were sad to part ways at the end of the week, and we all look forward to seeing the finished film soon. And at this point, dear reader, I ask for your help. Currently a Kickstarter campaign is underway for postproduction. It’s well over 50% funded at the time of writing, but every little helps in our quest to reach the finishing line. Rewards for backers include thank you video messages from Paul and Mark, and tickets to a private screening in December. Even if you can’t contribute, please consider sharing the page on social media. Thanks!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/perplexedmusic/perplexed-music-post-production

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The Cinematography of “Perplexed Music”

“Above the Clouds”: Week 4

IMG_0725Day 18 / Tuesday

Yesterday some of the crew started the long drive up to Skye, but for a lucky few – me, MUA Helen and actors Naomi and Andy – our journey starts today with a flight from Luton to Inverness. From there it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive across the Highlands to the Kyle of Kochalsh, where Gary is waiting for us with his motorhome and the crafty table all set up. Soon afterwards the vans arrive, and the Yellow Peril. From 4pm we are shooting on a little ferry, big enough to hold three or four cars, as it pootles back and forth, back and forth between Skye and the mainland. It is, I think, the most stunning location I have ever shot in. The mountains tower over us from either side of the water, which sparkles in the sun. Although the light turns cloudy pretty quickly, the scene looks epic. All I do is add the usual dashboard LEDs in the picture car, and some sky bounce from Celotex, and darken the skies a little with an ND grad.

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Day 19 / Wednesday

For some reason there’s no water at the cottage where many of us are staying, so it’s a slightly whiffy cast and crew that rocks up in another stunning location this morning. In common with the whole shoot to date, the weather – and therefore the light – is very changeable. We have to roll between the squalls that drift across the valley. An interesting continuity issue arises with the mountains in the background of shot: the light on them keeps changing as clouds move across them. The weather here really is something else; this morning we saw a rainbow so close and so low to the ground that it felt like we could have walked over and touched it.

IMG_0751In the afternoon we’re at yet another stunning location, a bench overlooking a bay. For once the light is fairly constant and sunny, which gives us lovely sparkles in the sea. Again I frame the master like the painting in the Turner, with the horizon bang on the vertical centre of frame: clouds above, landscape and characters below. When we flip around to shoot the singles, the light is hard on the actors’ faces, but frontal, which at least is the most flattering kind of hard light. And it fits well with the dialogue, which references it being sunny, so it wouldn’t make sense to put a diffusion frame up. All I do is have runner Jacob stand just out of frame with some poly, which lifts the shadows a little and makes sure we see into Naomi’s eyes when she looks away from the sun.

 

Day 20 / Thursday

IMG_0768Various small driving scenes to start with. Rupert and Max reconfigure the camera as per our test of week 2, and I climb into the Yellow Peril’s modest rear seat to capture the action. I black out the rear window to get a classic dark-to-light depth effect: underexposed backs of seats in the foreground, the actors (including Naomi’s reflection in the rear view mirror) correctly exposed in the midground, and the view through the windscreen slightly overexposed in the background.

We also shoot exterior up-and-pass shots of the car amidst the spectacular scenery, before crossing the Skye Bridge to record a scene in a mainland village. Here we’re shooting dusk-for-night, so I set the white balance to 3,200K and heavily grad the sky. For shots inside the car, I plaster multiple Litepads over the windscreen, gelled with half CTO. The intention was for these to represent the car’s courtesy light, but with a fair amount of daylight coming into the vehicle the effect is more subtle, serving only to warm up what would otherwise be very cold skin-tones at 3,200K.

IMG_0775On the final set-up, appropriately enough, a car with clouds painted on it happens to drive by. And with that, principal photography is wrapped. There is a fifth week to do at some point, perhaps September, when a certain critical role has been cast, but for now the shoot is over. Andy, Naomi, Helen and I will meander back to Inverness tomorrow, while the rest of the crew drive south. I’ve had a great time, and I look forward to seeing a rough cut and shooting the remaining scenes later in the year.

Keep up to date with Above the Clouds on the official Facebook page or Instagram account.

“Above the Clouds”: Week 4

“Above the Clouds”: Week 2

Day 7 / Monday

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One of our biggest days, shooting several key scenes from the first act of the movie. We’re in the Turner Contemporary in Margate, and getting this location is a big coup for the production. On the flip side, the amount of material we have to get through in our nine hour day is only achievable if lighting is kept to an absolute minimum. I know from the photos that Leon has shown me that there is plenty of natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows and bright white walls. I also know that with eight scenes on the day’s schedule, there isn’t time to rig the kind of extensive negative fill we used at the roadside cafe last week.

We start in the Turner’s cafe, where angles towards the windows look great with the beach and seafront in the background and the daylight wrapping softly from behind and one side. In the opposite direction the light is extremely flat, but there is no time to do anything but hand-bash a little negative fill, grin and bear it.

Upstairs in the gallery, the sea-view windows are so big and there is so much bounce off the walls that there is only about a single stop’s difference between looking towards the window and looking away from it. Nonetheless, we bring in poly and Celotex for the seaward shots to add a little shape and put nice reflections in the talent’s eyes.

Responding to the formality of the gallery setting, there is an unspoken agreement between Leon and I to shoot on sticks and compose centrally or symmetrically. I end the day feeling that we have captured some of the film’s most iconic images.

 

 

imageDay 8 / Tuesday

Back in Margate for seafront exteriors. The weather is lovely to start with, but gradually goes down hill as the day progresses. For the first scene we have light cloud, and we use the 8×8 full grid cloth as a bounce to fill in the shadows. For close-ups we add silver from Celotex or a Lasolite to give the talent extra radiance and a glint in their eyes. (See my post on Health Bounce for more on this.)

The influence of yesterday’s gallery scenes is still being felt on the compositions. In wide shots I try to use the horizon to divide the frame into two halves, like the diptych the characters were looking at in the Turner: one above the clouds (or more accurately OF the clouds), and one below. I use a graduated ND filter on most of the day’s wide shots. Even though the Alexa’s dynamic range means that grads are rarely necessary to retain the detail in skies, and they can be added in post, I prefer to get the look in camera, especially on a micro-budget project where time in the grading suite may be very precious.

The day ends with a dusk shot of Oz shuffling along the seafront, which we shoot in the window between the streetlights coming on and the daylight dropping off completely. I set the white balance to 3200K to emphasise the evening look. The colour and positions of the streetlights aren’t great, but there is a lot of production value in the backdrop of Margate, bathed in cool ambience and sprinkled with points of light.

 

imageDay 9 / Wednesday

Our first scene is on a layby overlooking an estuary. Again the weather starts off nice but deteriorates as the day goes on. By the time we get back to Leon’s for the next scene, the rain is getting noticeable enough that continuity with adjacent scenes is an issue. We decide to wrap for the day.

The camera team uses the time to re-build the Alexa Mini as small as possible and test different lenses inside the picture car for upcoming driving scenes. Our main angles will be from the back seat, looking diagonally forwards for three-quarter singles and straight ahead for a central shot over both driver and passenger’s shoulders to the windscreen. We find that the 24 and 32 work well for the former, and the 20 for the latter. We have a 14, because I knew space would be tight in the car, but it just looks like a Top Gear Go Pro shot.

 

imageDay 10 / Thursday

We’re in another tiny set in Leon’s living room. Production designer Zoë Seiffert has dressed it as a beautiful/hideous den of clashing patterns and colours, and practical lamps. First up is a day scene, newly added to the script, so as with the Travel Inn I fire in the 2.5K HMI, this time with the curtains open. That might seem like a ridiculous amount of light for a room only about 10ft square, but only a powerful source like that creates all the bounce and ambience that sun would. I make sure the direct beam only really hits the floor. For some shots I put a white sheet over the carpet to maximise the bounce off the floor.

For the night scenes Colin puts all the practicals on dimmers and I place one of Leon’s ETC Profiles outside the window with Urban Sodium gel. Although the curtains will be closed, they are thin enough to be backlit by this ‘streetlight’. The bulb is even visible through the curtains sometimes, but it totally passes as a streetlight. That’s the only source of light when the characters first enter in silhouette, before turning up the practicals.

imageTo beef up the practicals, we rig a couple of Dedos to the top of the set and direct one through sheets of Opal hung from the ceiling, as a key, and use the other as backlight with half CTO on it. We tweak them around shot by shot to follow the blocking. For a scene with more character conflict, I lose the backlight and go hard with the key.

Later we move to another location – conveniently the cottage neighbouring the one where most of us are staying – for a little doorstep night scene. Again I rake the 2.5K along the front of the building, through the full silent grid cloth. In the singles we beef up the existing exterior sconce with three tungsten globes wrapped in Opal. I would rather have used an 800 bounced off poly, for a softer texture, but our package is pretty lacking in tungsten units.

After wrapping we throw a surprise birthday party for Zoë. Colin lights the party with a remote-controlled colour-changing LED fixture and smoke.

 

imageDay 11 / Friday

We have two hours in a charity shop to set up (including blacking out windows), shoot two scenes, and tear down. Leon decides to shoot them both using only torchlight, and choreographs the cast to light each other throughout the scenes. We hide silver Lasolites and other bounces around the set to reflect the torchlight when it doesn’t make sense for the actors to point their torches where they’re needed. We smoke up the shop heavily to show up the beams.

To anchor the shots, so the pools of torchlight aren’t floating around in a black nothingness, I set two lamps in the background. One, a Divalite gelled with Urban Sodium, spills out of a changing room, and the other, a 1×1 LED panel gelled heavily blue to suggest a computer screen, glows out from behind the counter. As well as adding colour, and colour contrast, to the scene, the pools of light from these two lamps serve to silhouette the characters so you get a sense of where they are when the torch beams aren’t on them.

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We move to a forest car park for the film’s only major night exterior. With our HMI package consisting of only a 2.5K and 1.2K, and no tungsten bigger than a Dedo, this was always going to be challenging. We place the 2.5K in the deep background, purely to light up the smoke and foliage behind the action. The action itself is lit by the 1.2K and two 1×1 LED panels, plus smaller panels taped to the dashboards of the vehicles in the scene.

To get it all done with the time and resources we have, a compromise must be made somewhere with the lighting. I decide that this compromise will be motivation of sources. Other than dashboard lights, there should really only be one source in this scene: the moon. If I had time, I would move the biggest source around to backlight every shot and then bounce it back as sidelight. Instead we leave the HMIs mostly where they are, and fly the 1×1 panels around to backlight or sidelight as needed. It makes no sense whatsoever, but it looks good.

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“Above the Clouds”: Week 2

“Above the Clouds”: Week 1

Principal photography has begun on my latest feature, Above the Clouds, a comedy road movie written by Simon Lord and directed by Leon Chambers. The film stars Naomi Morris as Charlie, an 18-year-old learner driver who sets off on an epic road trip from Margate to Skye with a ‘gentleman of no fixed abode’ as her responsible adult.

 

imageDay 1 / Monday

It’s a very different shoot to my last one. With a five figure budget and a total crew of about ten or twelve, we’re lean and mean. About a quarter of that crew are working for me – 1st AC Rupert Peddle and 2nd AC Max Quinton, veterans of Heretiks, and my long-serving one-man lighting team, Colin Smith. We’re shooting on an Alexa Mini. Although it’s lovely how much lighter it is than the full-size model, it’s quite fiddly. It doesn’t help that the EVF is faulty, and while we wait for a replacement Max has to change many of the settings via a smartphone app. The lenses are Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes, my first time with these, and I’m once again using a half Soft FX filter to take off the digital edge.

We start with a dining room scene. As many of the sets will be, it’s built in director Leon Chambers’ living room, so it’s not very big. We’re prepared for this though, and Leon has purchased several Rosco Litepads in 6″x2″, 4″x4″ and 12″x12″ sizes. We stick a 4×4 to the wall behind each character as hairlights, and rig the two 6x2s, at a perpendicular angle to each other, to a flag arm. Wrapped in unbleached muslin, they’re a pleasing key.

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After lunch we move into the shed, dressed as a young artist’s studio, complete with coloured string lights. Colin and I add three tungsten bulbs as additional practicals, plus a couple of the Litepads amongst the rafters. Outside the window we place a 4×4 kino or 2.5K HMI depending on the time of day.

 

imageDay 2 / Tuesday

Today we’re in Leon’s kitchen primarily, but with several of the scenes spilling into the hall and porch. We put our two HMIs outside the windows and initially use an LED panel on top of a cabinet and my brand new torch gaffered to the side of a cabinet to augment these for a scene that is meant to have an evening feel. Then we move onto a proper daylight scene and those have to go, to ensure all the light seems to be coming in from outside. The other reason they have to go is that we are now doing an ambitious steadicam shot which moves from the kitchen to the hall and porch, then back into the kitchen, then back into the hall and porch as characters exit the house. To the two HMIs we add the 4×4 kinoflo shining down the stairs, augmenting the natural light coming down from the landing windows. Thanks to the Alexa’s large dynamic range, we are able to accomplish the shot without any clipping, even when the door opens and when the characters move through the darkest part of the hall. The rest of the day passes in variations on the theme. I quickly find that the window positions are limiting and a fair bit of head scratching to make the angles work goes on before we wrap.

 

Day 3 / Wednesday

Back in the kitchen, one of our first scenes involves heavy smoke as a story beat. I decide to go with purely natural light, so that it’s soft enough to illuminate the smoke evenly, rather than producing shafts or pools.

After lunch we shoot a dusk scene in broad (albeit overcast) daylight. I cool down the white balance to 4300K and use a .9 soft edge graduated ND, just edging into frame, to bring down the sky a little.

Later we move to a garage, a scenario in which all the light is coming from outside through the door. Although this looks flat when the camera is looking into the garage, I decide not to fight that. When we look the other way I use matt silver bounce and a 4×4 kino to fill in.

 

Day 4 / Thursday

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We’re on location at a roadside cafe, and I agonised long last night about how much lighting gear we should take. We don’t have transpo or security so reducing the kit means a lot less hassle for us all, though generally I prefer to have everything to hand just in case. Ultimately I decided to keep it small – just LEDs, a 4×4 kino and then flags and bounce – knowing from location photos that there will be plenty of natural light.

In fact there’s too much. The photos failed to warn me of the skylights, which take a while to block with floppy flags and Easy Up walls clipped between them. Leon has set me up for success though by choosing to shoot the scene with the windows (and therefore the key light) in the background. Flagging the skylights and ambience allows the window light to wrap around the actors in a pleasing fashion, and makes for great modelling in the close-ups, with the window light hitting the talent’s down-sides. This natural light approach requires you to work with and respond to that natural light as well, and so I embrace the appropriate ‘broken key’ look that the sun position creates on male lead Andrew, a homeless man with a troubled past. (‘Broken key’ is a term Shane Hurlbut uses to describe a key light striking the talent not quite from the side, but slightly behind.)

imageLater we shoot a scene in the Fiat 500 ‘Yellow Peril’ outside in the car park. I use a rota polar to find the perfect amount of reflection in the car windows, striking a balance between seeing some clouds (the film is called Above the Clouds after all) and seeing the characters inside.

Again the 4×4 kino proves the ideal source to bring up the light coming through the windscreen, due to its shape and softness. As shooting progresses, the sky darkens. A storm is coming. We drop the kino down to one tube, quartering the amount of key light and therefore allowing me to turn off the Alexa Mini’s internal .6 ND, bringing up the background by 2 stops and re-balancing the overall exposure. But after one more take the rain begins, and we have to wrap. Fortunately we seem to have everything we need in the can.

 

Day 5 / Friday

After watching the news in shock over breakfast, and wondering just how badly Brexit is going to screw the UK film and TV industry, we head to Leon’s for some more scenes in his living room studio. This time it’s dressed as a Travel Inn, and my lighting is motivated by the bedside practicals on the back wall. (Lighting from the back first – always a good plan.) We put a dedo above each practical and a divalite between those to give us something softer and little wrappy. The only other sources are a third practical and a Mustard Yellow gelled 1×1 LED panel outside the window, representing a streetlight. For a morning scene in the same set we put a 2.5K HMI outside the window and let the closed curtains diffuse it, with no other sources.

The set is then reconfigured into reception, and I employ a cross-backlighting set-up, with an added LED panel to represent the glow from a computer monitor.

 

imageDay 6 / Saturday

Today’s location is a tiny little mechanic’s garage in the middle of nowhere. Most of the scenes take place in the doorway, so we are at the mercy of the weather, which is incredibly changeable. Bright sunshine, cloud and heavy showers alternate throughout the day.

On the first set-up I ask to wait for cloud on at least one take because I can see from the sky that is going to be the easiest thing to match to as the day goes on. Balancing the light inside and outside the garage will also be easier in cloud, even though the Alexa’s incredible dynamic range can handle it in bright sun too.

Aside from the weather, the big challenge for me is making the shots looking into the garage have depth. The best depth is normally achieved by having the brightest area of the frame be the background, and the darkest area the foreground. Looking into the garage though, the opposite is true. But there are other ways of creating depth. One is to make pools of light with practicals, so I leave on the location’s suitably grungy fluorescents. Another is smoke, so we pump a little in and use a 2.5K HMI through a window and a 4×4 kino tucked around a corner to pick it up.

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After dinner we have a very brief night scene to do. The blocking suggests raking the 2.5K across the front of the building which will also three-quarter-backlight the talent. Extensive experience of doing this in the past warns me that the angle of incidence could cause a massive reflection of the lamp in the shiny garage door, so I choose the lamp position carefully, and push it through an 8×8 frame of full silent grid cloth to mitigate any glare. Also this particular film seems to call for a ‘softly, softly’ approach to moonlight. It’s not fantasy, it’s contemporary comedy, so most of the time my night sources will be streetlights to keep it feeling realistic, but when I have to use moonlight as motivation I don’t want it to be hard and draw attention to itself.

The diffusion looks great, and the door is glare free, but I failed to consider the window. Fortunately Rupert spots a way to flag it. Saved by a great team!

All in all, a very productive day and a good week.

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“Above the Clouds”: Week 1