What’s in a DP’s Set Bag?

I used to own a whole bunch of equipment – camera, lenses, lights – but for reasons I’ve detailed elsewhere I got rid of all that back in 2017. These days I travel pretty light (no pun intended) to set, but there are a few items I wouldn’t like to be without.

Here’s what’s in my set bag, roughly in descending order of importance.

 

1. Phone

Alright, this isn’t technically in my set bag, but it is the most used thing on a typical day on set. I use Chemical Wedding‘s Artemis Pro app all the time to find frames and select lenses, the same company’s Helios Pro to look at sun paths, and occasionally other specialist apps like Arri Photometrics (to work out if a particular light is powerful enough at a particular distance) and Flicker Finder (to check if a light will flicker on camera). I’ve also got Lux Calc installed but so far I’ve never used it.

Other common uses of my phone are looking at call sheets and other production documents if hardcopies aren’t supplied, checking my Google Sheets breakdown to remind myself of my creative intentions for the scene, and taking photos of lighting set-ups in case I need to recreate them for pick-ups.

To enable Artemis Pro to simulate wider lenses with my iPhone 7’s relatively tight built-in lens I also carry a clip-on 0.67x wide angle adaptor.

 

2. Light Meter

I’ve written before about why light meters are still important. My Sekonic L-758D gets heavy use on set, mostly in incident mode but sometimes the spot reflectance mode too; see my post on judging exposure to learn about what these modes do.

I make sure to carry spare batteries for it too.

 

3. Gaffer’s Glass

On The Little Mermaid the crew took pity on me using a broken ND filter wrapped in ND gel as a gaffer’s glass and bought me a proper one. This is like a monocle with an ND 3.6 filter in it for looking into fresnels and other directional fixtures to see if the spot of light is aimed exactly where it should be. I mostly use mine to look at the clouds and see when the sun is going to go in and come out, but you shouldn’t use one to look at the naked sun because even with all the ND it can still damage your eyes.

 

4. Power bank

With the heavy use my phone gets on set the charge doesn’t always last the whole day, so a power bank is essential to keep it running, as of course is the mains charger just in case.

 

5. Travel mug/flask

Most productions are environmentally conscious enough now to dissuade people from using disposable coffee cups and water bottes (though there are still a million half-finished water bottles on set at the end of the day). I always bring my own travel mug and metal water bottle. Keeping the mug clean(ish), especially when switching between tea and coffee consumption, is a daily struggle.

 

6. Croc clips

I always keep a couple of croc clips on my belt when shooting. Although I rarely gel lights myself on larger productions, I find them useful for adjusting curtains to admit just the right amount of daylight, or attaching a rain cover or light-blocking cloth to the camera, or clipping my jacket to something as a last-minute lighting flag.

 

7. Multi-tool

On some productions I’ve worn a multi-tool on my belt every day and only used it once or twice (usually to open wrap beers), so now it stays in my bag unless it’s specifically needed. As a head of department I theoretically shouldn’t be doing any tasks that would require a multi-tool, but it’s annoying to need one and not have one.

 

8. Tape Measure

I think my mum gave me this tiny tape measure which I keep in my set bag because it’s so small and light there’s no reason not to. I’ve used it exactly once so far: to work out if an Alexa Classic with a Cooke 10:1 zoom on would fit into certain tight locations on Hamlet.

 

9. Gel swatches

I picked up a set of Rosco filter swatches at either the BSC Expo or the Media Production Show. I don’t think I’ve ever used it.

 

10. Compass

Occasionally Helios Pro isn’t playing ball and I need to work out roughly where the sun is going to be, so out comes the traditional compass.

 

One final thing. Until very recently I carried a pair of gardening gloves for handling hot lights, but again I shouldn’t really be doing this myself and incandescent lamps aren’t too common on sets any more anyway, so when my gloves became worn out enough to need replacing I decided not to bother.

What’s in a DP’s Set Bag?

“Mission: Impossible” and the Dawn of Virtual Sets

The seventh instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise was originally scheduled for release this July. It’s since been pushed back to next September, which is a minor shame because it means there will be no release in 2021 to mark the quarter of a century since Tom Cruise first chose to accept the mission of bringing super-spy Ethan Hunt to the big screen.

Today, 1996’s Mission: Impossible is best remembered for two stand-out sequences. The first, fairly simple but incredibly tense, sees Cruise descend on a cable into a high-security vault where even a single bead of sweat will trigger pressure sensors in the floor.

The second, developing from the unlikely to the downright ludicrous, finds Cruise battling Jon Voight atop a speeding Channel Tunnel train, a fight which continues on the skids of a helicopter dragged along behind the Eurostar, ending in an explosion which propels Cruise (somehow unscathed) onto the rear of the train.

It is the second of those sequences which is a landmark in visual effects, described by Cinefex magazine at the time as “the dawn of virtual sets”.

“In Mission: Impossible, we took blue-screen elements of actors and put them into believable CG backgrounds,” said VFX supervisor John Knoll of Industrial Light and Magic. Building on his work on The Abyss and Terminator 2, Knoll’s virtual tunnel sets would one day lead to the likes of The Mandalorian – films and TV shows shot against LED screens displaying CG environments.

Which is ironic, given that if Tom Cruise was remaking that first film today, he would probably insist on less trickery, not more, and demand to be strapped to the top of a genuine speeding Eurostar.

The Channel Tunnel had only been open for two years when Mission: Impossible came out, and the filmmakers clearly felt that audiences – or at least American audiences – were so unfamiliar with the service that they could take a number of liberties in portraying it. The film’s tunnel has only a single bore for both directions of travel, and the approaching railway line was shot near Glasgow.

That Scottish countryside is one of the few real elements in the sequence. Another is the 100ft of full-size train that was constructed against a blue-screen to capture the lead actors on the roof. To portray extreme speed, the crew buffeted the stars with 140mph wind from a parachute-training fan.

Many of the Glasgow plates were shot at 12fps to double the apparent speed of the camera helicopter, which generally flew at 80mph. But when the plate crew tried to incorporate the picture helicopter with which Jean Reno’s character chases the train, the under-cranking just looked fake, so the decision was taken to computer-generate the aircraft in the vast majority of the shots.

The train is also CGI, as are the tunnel entrance and some of its surroundings, and of course the English Channel is composited into the Glaswegian landscape. Once the action moves inside the tunnel, nothing is real except the actors and the set-pieces they’re clinging to.

“We cheated the scale to keep it tight and claustrophobic,” said VFX artist George Hull, admitting that the helicopter could not have fitted in such a tunnel in reality. “The size still didn’t feel right, so we went back and added recognisable, human-scale things such as service utility sheds and ladders.”

Overhead lights spaced at regular intervals were simulated for the blue-screen work. “When compositing the scenes into the CG tunnel months later, we could marry the environment by timing those interactive lights to the live-action plates,” explained Hull.

Employing Alias for modelling, Softimage for animation, RenderMan for rendering, plus custom software like ishade and icomp, ILM produced a sequence which, although it wasn’t completely convincing even in 1996, is still exciting.

Perhaps the best-looking part is the climactic explosion, which was achieved with a 1/8th scale miniature propelled at 55mph through a 120ft tunnel model. (The runaway CGI which followed Jurassic Park’s 1993 success wisely stayed away from explosions for many years, as their dynamics and randomness made them extremely hard to simulate on computers of the time.)

Knoll went on to supervise the Star Wars prequels’ virtual sets (actually miniatures populated with CG aliens), and later Avatar and The Mandalorian. Meanwhile, Cruise pushed for more and more reality in his stunt sequences as the franchise went on, climbing the Burj Khalifa for Ghost Protocol, hanging off the side of a plane for Rogue Nation, skydiving and flying a helicopter for Fallout, and yelling at the crew for Mission: Impossible 7.

At least, I think that last one was real.

“Mission: Impossible” and the Dawn of Virtual Sets

Shutter Maths: Flicker-free Screens and Exposure Compensation

An actor’s view by Alan Hay as I fiddle with a TV’s settings to reduce its flickering on camera

In last week’s post I mentioned the minor trouble we had on Harvey Greenfield is Running Late with a flickering TV screen in the background of shot. In today’s post I’m going to look at the underlying maths, find out why the 144° shutter angle I ultimately chose gave the best results and how to calculate the exposure compensation when you change your shutter angle like this.

If you haven’t already read my exposure series, particularly the posts about shutter and ISO, I suggest you look at those before diving into this one.

 

Working out the shutter interval

Harvey Greenfield was shot at 24fps here in the UK, where the mains current alternates at 50Hz (i.e. 50 cycles per second). To avoid certain light sources and any screens in shot from flickering, you generally want to match your shutter interval – the period of time during which light is allowed to charge the sensor’s photosites – to the AC frequency, i.e. 1/50th of a second in the UK. That works out to a shutter angle of 172.8° because…

frame rate x (360 ÷ shutter angle) = shutter interval denominator

… which can also be stated as…

frame rate x shutter interval x 360 = shutter angle

24 x (1 ÷ 50) x 360 = 172.8

So, as with all features I shoot in the UK, I captured most of Harvey at a shutter angle of 172.8°.

Going back to the TV problem, I scrolled through the Red Gemini’s available shutter angles until I found the one that gave the least flicker: 144°. With the twin wonders of hindsight and maths I can work out what frequency the TV was operating at, using the first version of the formula above.

24 x (360 ÷ 144) = 60

144° with a frame rate of 24 meant that the Red was capturing 1/60th of a second’s worth of light each frame. To produce (almost) no flickering at this camera setting, the TV was evidently operating at 60Hz.

The TV screen reflects in the Soft FX filter.

 

Working out the exposure compensation

Reducing your shutter angle reduces the amount of light captured by the sensor each frame, i.e. it reduces the exposure. I was happy with the depth of field and didn’t want to change the aperture, so instead I compensated by increasing the ISO from 800 to 1280. This was a guess made under time pressure on set, but now I can calculate the right exposure compensation at my leisure.

Fortunately, unlike f-stops, shutter angles and ISO are linear scales. Double the shutter angle or ISO and you double the exposure; halve the shutter angle or ISO and you halve the exposure. This makes the maths relatively easy.

172.8° was my original shutter angle. Let’s think of this as 100% exposure. When I went down to 144°, what percentage of the original exposure was that? I still remember the mantra from calculating maths workbook scores in secondary school: “What you got divided by what you could have got, times 100.”

(144 ÷ 172.8) x 100 = 83%

Now we turn to the ISO. At its original value, 800, the camera is only providing 83% of the desired exposure, thanks to the reduced shutter angle. What must we increase the ISO to in order to hit 100% again?

(800 ÷ ?) x 100 = 83%

800 ÷ ? = 0.83

800 ÷ 0.83 = ? = 960

So I should have been at ISO 960 ideally. The closest available setting on the Red is ISO 1000, not 1280 as I selected, so I was actually over-exposing by a third of a stop. Given that we were shooting in RAW, so the ISO is only metadata, and I could see from the false colours display that nothing was clipping, this is a very minor error indeed.

“The question we have to ask ourselves is: how many 83 percents are left? And the answer is: not many.”

Letting the meter do the maths

One more thing. My Sekonic L-758D light meter assumes a 180° shutter (so I set it to 25fps when I’m actually shooting 24fps at 172.8°, as both work out to 1/50th of a second). Another way I could have worked the correct exposure out, if I’d clocked the 60Hz frequency of the TV at the time, is to have set the meter to 30fps (1/60th of a second at 180°) and then changed the ISO until it gave me the stop I wanted.

Shutter Maths: Flicker-free Screens and Exposure Compensation

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 2-and-a-Bit

Day 11

In a conference room at a business centre in north Cambridge we set up for a scene in which the titular Harvey arrives titularly late for a big meeting at work. Here we were joined by my good friend Alan Hay, who voiced all the pre-recorded male characters in the stage play, and now portrays Harvey’s overbearing boss Bryan on screen.

A TV monitor in the background of Bryan’s shot, displaying relevant graphics, gave us some trouble. Neither the 50Hz or 60Hz “flicker free” modes in the monitor’s menu lived up to their names. The best – though not perfect – results were achieved by setting the camera’s shutter to 144°, which works out as 60Hz at our frame rate of 24fps. (Next week’s post will be dedicated to the maths behind this. I bet you can’t wait.)

Stephen and James rigged several Astera tubes to the ceiling, which we mostly used to give everyone a tungsten-coloured backlight whichever direction we shot in (Harvey’s stress colour again). The key light was motivated from the window, which we weren’t able to light from outside of, but we generally used the Litemat 2S to punch up or wrap the natural light from that direction. We used floppy flags on the opposite side of the room to stop too much ambience from the atrium spilling in.

Unfortunately by the time we wrapped the meeting scene we were left with a difficult choice: to rush a long and funny scene in Bryan’s office, or to postpone it for some future pick-up shoot when we could do it justice. Jonnie wisely chose the latter, allowing us to decamp to a private home in Arbury and get ahead with the scenes set in Harvey’s house.

First up at the house was a happy flashback of Harvey and Alice dancing in the bedroom, which Amanda had dressed in calming shades of green. We shot towards the window at 48fps and supplemented the natural light with a single Astera tube in a corner.

Next was a less positive flashback set at night. As it was still broad daylight I closed the curtains, framed out the window and set the white balance to 3600K to turn the remaining light seeping through the curtains into a dim nighttime ambience. I had asked Amanda to provide matching practicals on the bedside cabinets, which we now turned on and dimmed to get a nice warm orange glow. This looked great but left the actors’ faces very under-exposed, so we added a 300W tungsten fresnel motivated by one of the tablelamps. (The thing you see hanging in front of it in the above photo is a makeshift flag to stop the other tablelamp from casting an unrealistic shadow.)

Then it was back to daylight – again natural light supplemented by an Astera – and the camera had to stay locked off so that Jonnie could jump-cut to this shot from the same angle at night. Stephen and James set up the lighting while the daylight faded. The main element that I wanted was a streak of sodium streetlight through a gap in the curtains, again part of the stress colour theme, which was achieved with the Aputure 300D gelled appropriately. We wanted to give the impression that this was bouncing off the wall and edge-lighting Harvey in his second position, but in reality we used the tungsten 300W fresnel – now hidden on top of the wardrobe – to get this effect. We bounced two Astera tubes, set very blue with a bit of green mixed in, off a wall to provide ambience.

Overall the frame was still pretty dark, so I decided to do something I’ve seen advised for night scenes before but never actually done: I reduced the ISO by one stop and opened the iris to compensate. Read my article about ISO if you want to understand all the ins and outs, but essentially doing this allowed one more stop of light to reach the sensor – that’s more information to grade with – without increasing the apparent brightness of the image.

 

Day 12

Back in the house, this time downstairs in the kitchen. We had three daylight scenes to shoot here, and the lighting approach was to push in soft light through the windows using the Litemat or an Aladdin, with some harder streaks where appropriate from the Aputure. Hiding another Aladdin on top of a cabinet and firing it into a corner of the ceiling was a good move by Stephen to raise the ambience in the room while still keeping some directionality.

 

Day 13

Our first task today was to return to the cemetery and pick up a dropped shot from day 8. Then it was another Steadicam/rickshaw scene on an Ely street where rain, traffic and a recalcitrant beer can combined to make things quite tricky.

After lunch we had a strict two-hour window in which to shoot three scenes with a hired limousine. The first required it to be driving around, so Filipe (sound mixer), Olga (focus puller) and I squeezed into the front of the main cabin, shooting down the length of the vehicle on the 14mm to where Paul and Alan’s characters were sitting at the back. Jonnie rode in the front passenger seat and watched the monitor over my shoulder. Next to him was an Aladdin which I could use for fill when necessary, but mostly I relied on the dynamic natural light. The heavily tinted windows were a big help, allowing me to retain most of the detail in the sky outside without under-exposing the talent.

When we returned to base, Stephen had all the flags, bolton and lights ready to move into position around the limo for the night scene. His custom-built LED was gelled with Urban Sodium again to key Alan, and an Astera tube inside the limo provided the impression of a passing ambulance.

Then we were left with less than 25 minutes to capture a daytime dialogue scene around the limo. Jonnie had storyboarded it as three set-ups but there was only time for one. Rupert came to the rescue, quickly balancing his Steadicam as Jonnie devised a camera move that would hit all the needed beats.

After a couple more Steadicam shots we moved on to a scene in a hospital car park, a rare moment of calm for the beleagured Harvey. We shot this mostly on the slider, capturing the dialogue in another single developing shot that taxed poor Filipe again but set exactly the right mood for the story. The natural light was very shapeless, so Stephen set up some floppies on one side and bounce on the other.

The day brought principal photography to an end for Stephen and for leading man Paul Richards, both of whom have done stellar work despite the long hours and high energy levels required.

Just after I wrote this Jonnie sent me a rough edit of the limo/hospital sequence and it has turned out very nicely indeed.

 

Day 14

We convened at a farm near Mildenhall to film Billy the pig farmer, one of the many people who hassles Harvey by phone during the story. In a last-minute casting coup Billy was portrayed by 1st AD Rob Oliver with the unscripted addition of his mother Shirley. A comedy duo to be reckoned with. Between takes we scattered food around to entice the porcine supporting artists into the right positions.

After completing this sequence we all took it in turns to hold a piglet. I’m not sure why.

The final scene of principal photography was a spoof charity appeal for “No More Racism UK”. We shot this down at Ely riverside again, where a crowd steadily gathered to watch us film an old white lady throwing bread at a black couple. We captured the whole thing on the slider with the 50-100mm zoom at 48fps and with the Soft FX 1 for extra cheesiness. To get the depth of field as shallow as possible with our limited ND filters I went down to ISO 250, the downside being a reduction in highlight detail which threatened to blow out the feathers of a white swan in shot. I’m sure that’s symbolic somehow.

We wrapped at the astonishingly reasonable time of 3pm and reconvened in the evening for a pizza-fuelled celebration at Othersyde. The shoot was great fun, the whole team has worked really hard, and I look forward to seeing everyone again for the pick-ups.

The “Harvey Greenfield” camera department: 1st AC Olga Lagun, 2nd AC Fiyin Oladimeji and me
“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 2-and-a-Bit

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 2

Day 6

I think the director is turning into Harvey Greenfield. This morning Jonnie burst unexpectedly out of a hedge apologising for being slightly late.

Our first location was a surprisingly busy park in the village of Exning. We shot under the trees lining the edge of the park, keeping the camera on the same side of the eye-line as this handy arboreal negative fill, allowing the open sky of the park proper to light the actors’ off-camera sides. It’s great when blocking works out in your favour like this.

Then we moved around the corner to Wests Garage. First up here was a 24mm tableau shot to establish Barry the mechanic when he first calls Harvey, just as we have done to introduce the other supporting characters. We placed Barry in an office with a window behind him showing the workshop. Stephen arranged our four Astera tubes (in tungsten mode) around the workshop as practical work-lights, clamping some to pillars and placing others on the floor; wherever possible we are adding orange splashes of light (Harvey’s stress colour) into the background of these tableaux.

Next we shot outside around a car (a Rover I think – they all look the same to me), getting a nice slider shot parallel to the vehicle. Shades of Wes Anderson again. The trouble with all these straight-on shots of windows and shiny cars is hiding all the reflections. Stephen had to build a wall of floppy flags to disguise the slider.

By the time we wrapped the heat was getting to us all, and there was nothing for it but to try out the local pub.

But that was closed for a private party so we went to the other local pub instead.

 

Day 7

Jonnie was wearing Harvey’s jacket. Definitely turning into him.

We were at Othersyde, part of the Cambridge Museum of Technology, for the biggest day of the shoot: 12 scenes and nine pages of script to cover.

We began in a tent – Amanda had kindly found an orange one at my request – which we flagged on one side, adding the Aputure 300D to the other side to bring some shape to the lighting.

Then we moved into one of the venue’s toilet cubicles, where we simply added a skirt of black wrap to the existing overhead light fitting to reduce the light on the walls and add contrast. (Stephen and spark daily James also had to build a black-out tent around the door so that it could be open for the camera to see in without admitting daylight.)

Then we jumped into the bar of the Engineer’s House to grab a one-shot flashback scene. We lit through two windows (the Aputure and the Litemat 2S, I think) and added fill (a CTB-gelled 2K bounced off poly) and a couple of other sources inside (an Aladdin into a dark corner; a tungsten lamp shining down some background stairs). The shot required some well-timed whip-pans – always good for comedy. These require great skill as a camera operator when executed on sticks, but fortunately for me this one was handheld which makes the muscle-memory involved much easier.

Next we were in another toilet cubicle. Again we skirted the ceiling light and tented around the door, but this time another character had to come in. Here we used an LED fixture which Stephen built himself, gelling it with Urban Sodium as this shot is part of a sequence that has a stressy, streetlamp look to it.

By this time it was getting towards evening and we set up for a slider shot at the front of the site, overlooking the River Cam and shooting towards the low sun. Thanks to Helios Pro – a sun tracking app – we managed to time this just right. A 4×4 poly bounce either side of camera was all that was needed to supplement the beautiful natural light.

Sounds like all that would be enough for one day, doesn’t it? But oh no, the big scene was still to come. With 20 or 30 extras we staged a wedding reception under Othersyde’s marquee. Stephen keyed the wedding party at the head table with the Aputure bounced off poly (both rigged to the marquee’s ceiling) and we backlit them with a tungsten 1K firing out of an upper window of the Engineer’s House. A character off to one side was lit with an Aladdin rigged to the roof of the bar. The aim was to keep the lighting fairly warm overall, but to make those warm foreground colours pop we added blue-gelled 300W fresnels uplighting the Engineer’s House and a 1K in the deep background, gelled with Steel Blue, for a hint of moonlight. All of this was supplemented by the venue’s existing string lights, bar lights, LED uplighters in the flower beds and candles which Amanda placed on the tables.

Although we didn’t quite make the call sheet, we only dropped one brief scene – a pretty amazing result and one for the whole team to be proud of. Our welcome reward was a selection of Othersyde’s finest pizzas.

 

Day 8

The morning was spent with a beautiful horse-drawn hearse (featuring more fun reflective surfaces!) while the afternoon took place around an off-camera grave in Ely Cemetery. Some brief scenes with the child actors, faking a corner of the cemetery as a park, completed a damp but straightforward day for cinematography.

 

Day 9

About a third of Harvey Greenfield is Running Late takes its title very literally, seeing Paul Richards’ character hurrying to his next appointments as he makes phone calls and talks to camera. Today was the first day dedicated to capturing these scenes.

The first few scenes were shot as Annie Hall-esque wides in the streets and parkland around of Ely. (Much as Hot Fuzz filmed in Wells but painted out the cathedral, we framed out Ely Cathedral to avoid it becoming an identifiable landmark.)

To get a shot of Harvey looking down at a piece of litter, we put the empty beer can on top of two peli cases. Using the lovely wide 14mm lens we were then able to shoot up past it to Harvey and even rack focus to the can. I never usually hire anything wider than an 18mm but I have certainly learnt to appreciate what a 14mm can do on this shoot, even if it does make lighting and boom-operating more challenging.

Our Steadicam operator Rupert joined us again for the rest of the day, bringing along a rickshaw to enable him to track Harvey more smoothly. This drew plenty of attention from the general public, particularly when we moved down to Ely’s picturesque riverside. Most people were very friendly and kindly stayed out of frame if asked to, but a couple of self-styled pirates seemed determined to get an unscripted cameo. Nevertheless we managed to pull off a long and complicated shot which begins with Harvey approaching camera down a tree-lined car park and then tracks him in profile as he pelts along the riverbank.

 

Day 10

The morning was spent filming outside a house in Romsey – a short walk from home for me – which was standing in for Harvey’s. There was yet more fun with reflections when we had to shoot Harvey’s neighbour looking out of his window. No matter how tight the budget is, I will never ever take a polarising filter off my kit hire list again.

In the afternoon we captured more Steadicam running scenes around Romsey Park, before moving onto the nearby streets when it got dark. Here the Gemini’s low light mode saw use again, allowing us to rely mostly on the existing streetlamps (not pretty, but it works for the story). Stephen rigged an Aladdin to the rickshaw so that Harvey would have a little fill light moving with him.

Finally we moved back into the park, where Stephen had cross-lit the kids’ playground with tungsten sources. This formed the background of the scene, with the action taking place under a streetlamp in front of the play area. As the streetlamp was naturally very toppy, we fired in a Litemat (gelled with Urban Sodium) from above the camera to make sure that we would see Paul’s face for this critical performance scene.

There will be more on Harvey Greenfield‘s second week in my next post. In the meantime you can follow the film’s official Instagram account or Facebook page.

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 2

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 1

Day 1

The weather was dry and overcast, shedding a pleasantly soft light on the proceedings as the crew of Harvey Greenfield is Running Late set up for our first scene, in front of a small primary school in rural Cambridgeshire.

Then we started shooting and the weather went bananas.

One moment we had bright sunshine, the next we had heavy rain bordering on hail… sometimes in the same take. We had lots of fun and games dodging the showers, maneouvering a 12×12′ silk to soften the sun, keeping reflections and shadows out of shot, waiting for noisy trains to pass, and trying to get through takes without the light changing. But we got there in the end.

In the afternoon we moved into the school hall, which we were using as a makeshift studio. As well as numerous flashbacks, the film includes several imaginary sequences, including a spoof advert. This we shot against a black backdrop using dual backlights, one on either side, to highlight the talent. I totally stole this look from the Men in Black poster.

Our last shot of the day was Harvey’s first, and another imaginary scene, this time set in a coffin. To give the appearance of it being underground, the coffin (with no lid and one side missing) was placed on rostra with a black drape hanging below it. To create darkness above it, we simply set a flag in front of camera. Harvey (Paul Richards) lights a match to illuminate himself, which gaffer Stephen Allwright supplemented with two 1×1′ Aladdin Bi-flexes set to tungsten and gelled even more orange.

 

Day 2

One of the few occasions in my life when I’ve been able to walk to set from home: we started at the University Arms Hotel overlooking Parker’s Piece, one of Cambridge’s many green spaces (and, fact fans, the place where the rules of Association Football were first established).

The hotel’s function room was dressed as an upmarket restaurant, where we captured Harvey’s first date with his girlfriend Alice (Liz Todd). We shot towards a window; putting your main light source in the background is always a good move, and it gave us the perfect excuse to do soft cross-backlight on the two characters. The room’s wood panelling and sconces looked great on camera too.

The unit then moved to Emmaus, a large charity shop north of the city, where we filmed a Wall of Pants and some tightly choreographed Sandwich Action. Here we broke out the Astera tubes for the fist time, using them as a toppy, fluorescent-style key-light and backlight.

By now we were getting into the visual rhythm of the film, embracing wide angles (our 18-35mm zoom gets heavy use), central framing (or sometimes short-siding), Wes Anderson-type pans/tilts, and a 14mm lens and/or handheld moves for crazier moments.

 

Day 3

We were based at Paul’s house for day 3, beginning in the street outside for a brief scene in his car. Shooting from the back, we mounted an Aladdin in the passenger seat to key Paul, and blacked out some of the rear windows to create negative fill, much like I did for the driving scenes in Above the Clouds.

The rest of the day was spent in and around Paul’s shed. Or, to be more specific, the middle one of his three sheds. This is Harvey’s “Happy Place” so I stepped up from the Soft FX 0.5 filter I’d been shooting with so far to the Soft FX 1, to diffuse the image a little more. We also used haze for the only time on the film.

Some shots through the shed window gave us the usual reflection challenges. Stephen rigged a 12×12 black solid to help with this, and we draped some bolton over the camera. Inside the shed we used an Aladdin to bring up the level, and once we stopped shooting through the window we fired a tungsten 2K in through there instead. This was gelled with just half CTB so that it would still be warm compared with the daylight, and Stephen swapped the solid for a silk to keep the natural light consistent and eliminate the real direct sun.

I made my first use of the Red Gemini’s low light mode today, switching to ISO 3200 to maintain the depth of field when filming in slow motion. (I have been shooting at T4-5.6 because a sharper, busier background feels more stressful for Harvey.)

 

Day 4

Back to the primary school. We spent the morning outside shooting flashbacks with some talented child actors from the Pauline Quirke Academy. We got some nice slider shots and comedy pans while dealing with the ever-changing cloud cover.

Inside in the afternoon we picked up a dropped scene from day 1, then moved on to one of the film’s biggest challenges: a six-minute dialogue scene travelling through a corridor and around a classroom, to be filmed in a single continuous Steadicam shot. This could easily have been a nightmare, but a number of factors worked in our favour. Firstly, we had rehearsed the scene on location with actors and a phone camera during pre-production. Secondly, we had the brilliant Rupert Peddle operating the Steadicam. Thirdly, it would have been so difficult to keep a boom and its shadows out of shot that mixer Filipe Pinheiro and his team didn’t even try, instead relying on lavaliers and a mic mounted on the camera.

For similar reasons, we didn’t do much lighting either; there were almost no areas of the rooms and their ceilings that didn’t come into shot at some point. In two places Stephen rigged blackout for negative fill. I then chose which of the existing ceiling lights to turn off and which to keep on, to get as much shape into the image as possible. We tried to rig a grid onto one of the ceiling lights to take it off a wall that was getting too hot, but after one take we realised that this was in frame, so instead we stuck a square of ND gel to it. We also rigged two Astera tubes in the corridor, but discovered that one of those came into frame too, so in the end a single Astera tube was the only additive lighting. The existing ceiling lights worked particularly well for a slow push-in to Alice near the end of the shot, providing her with both key and backlight from perfect angles.

 

Day 5

Today we shot a big scene based around a school play. Production designer Amanda Stekly had created a suitably cheesy, sparkly backdrop, and more PQA students dressed up in weird and wonderful costumes to enact snatches of a very random production called Spamlet (making it the second time this year I’ve shot “to be or not to be”, though this time was… er… a little different).

The school had a basic lighting rig already. We refocused and re-gelled some of the lights, keeping it very simple and frontal. Behind the set I put one of my old 800W Arri Lites as a backlight for the kids on stage. To one side, where Alice was standing, we used two Astera tubes, one to key her and one to backlight her. These were both set to a cool, slightly minty colour. My idea of using green for calming characters and moments hasn’t come to fruition quite as I’d planned, because it hasn’t fitted the locations and other design elements, but there’s a little hint of it here.

For the audience, Stephen rigged an Aputure 300D to the ceiling as a backlight, then we bounced the stage lighting back onto them using a silver board. We also used the school’s follow spot, which gave us some nice flares for the stressful moments later in the scene. It was daytime both in reality and in the story, but we closed the (thin) curtains and reduced the ambience outside with floppy flags so that the artificial lighting would have more effect.

We had to move at breakneck speed in the afternoon to get everything in the can before wrap time, but we managed it, finishing our first week on schedule. No mean feat.

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 1

The Cinematography of “Doctor Who”

Just a quick post to say that the latest special edition of Doctor Who Magazine, out now, features an article I wrote about the history of the venerable series’ cinematography. From the cathode-ray tube multi-camera studio shoots of 1963 to the latest ARRI Alexa/Cooke Anamorphic photography, the technology and techniques of lighting and lensing Doctor Who encapsulate the history of TV making over the last six decades. I had a great time combining two subjects I know quite a bit about and was very excited to see the article in print. Look out for it in your local newsagent!

The Cinematography of “Doctor Who”

Pre-production for “Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”

Next week filming commences for Harvey Greenfield is Running Late, a comedy feature based on the critically acclaimed one-man play by Paul Richards. Paul reprises the title role in the film, directed by Jonnie Howard, who I previously worked with on A Cliché for the End of the World and The Knowledge.

The production is based locally to me in Cambridgeshire, and over the last couple of months I’ve attended recces, rehearsals and meetings. I’ve tried to approach it the same way I did Hamlet, reading each draft of the script carefully and creating a spreadsheet breakdown. Scene by scene, the breakdown lists my ideas for camerawork and lighting.

Harvey is a stressed and neurotic character who can’t say no to anything. The film takes place over a single day of his life when he finds himself having to attend a wedding, a funeral, a big meeting at his office, a school play and an appointment at a garage. Numerous scenes see him jogging from commitment to commitment (always running late in more ways than one) while taking phone calls that only add to the pressure. In the finest tradition of Alfie, Ferris Bueller and Fleabag, he also talks to camera.

Talking of finest traditions, the budget is very low but ambitions are high! With 100 script pages and 14 days the shoot will be more of a sprint than a marathon.

The UK film and TV industry is busier at present than I’ve ever known it, making up for lost time last year, so sourcing crew and kit has certainly been challenging. But thanks to generous sponsorship by Global Distribution and Sigma we will be shooting on a Red Ranger Gemini – which regular readers may recall I almost selected for Hamlet – with Sigma Cine primes and zooms. I will be working with a completely new camera team and gaffer.

One of the first things Jonnie told me was that he wanted to use a lot of wide lenses. This makes a lot of sense for the story. Wide lenses fill the background with more clutter, making the frame busier and more stressful for Harvey. They also put us into Harvey’s headspace by forcing the camera physically close to get a tighter shot. We shot some tests early on with Paul, primarily on the Sigma Cine 14mm, to start getting a feel for that look.

Influences include Woody Allen, the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson, Terry Gilliam and Napoleon Dynamite, and as usual, watching reference films has formed an important part of prep for me.

Based on the colour palette Nicole Stone has put together for her costumes, I’ve decided to use orange as Harvey’s stress colour and green when he’s calmer. For most of the film this will just be a case of framing in orange or green elements when appropriate, or putting a splash of the relevant colour in the background. For key scenes later in the story we may go so far as to bathe Harvey in the colour.

Right, I’d better get back to trying to sort out the lighting kit hire, which is still up in the air. Possibly this post should have been called Pre-production for “Harvey Greenfield” is running late.

Pre-production for “Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”

5 Ways to Use Astera Tubes

Astera Titan Tubes seem to be everywhere at the moment, every gaffer and DP’s favourite tool. Resembling fluorescent tubes, Asteras are wireless, flicker-free LED batons comprised of 16 pixels which can be individually coloured, flashed and programmed from an app to produce a range of effects.

Here are five ways in which I used Titan Tubes on my most recent feature, Hamlet. I’m not being sponsored by Astera to write this. I just know that loads of people out there are using them and I thought it would be interesting to share my own experiences.

 

1. Substitute fluorescents

We had a lot of scenes with pre-existing practical fluorescents in them. Sometimes we gelled these with ND or a colour to get the look we wanted, but other times it was easier to remove the fluorescent tube and cable-tie an Astera into the housing. As long as the camera didn’t get too close you were never going to see the ties, and the light could now be altered with the tap of an app.

On other occasions, when we moved in for close-ups, the real fluorescents weren’t in an ideal position, so we would supplement or replace them with an Astera on a stand and match the colour.

 

2. Hidden behind corners

Orientated vertically, Asteras are easy to hide behind pillars and doorways. One of the rooms we shot in had quite a dark doorway into a narrow corridor. There was just enough space to put in a vertical pole-cat with a tube on it which would light up characters standing in the doorway without it being seen by the camera.

 

3. Eye light

Ben Millar, Hamlet‘s gaffer, frequently lay an Astera on the floor to simulate a bit of floor bounce and put a sparkle in the talent’s eye. On other occasions when our key light was coming in at a very sidey angle, we would put an Astera in a more frontal position, to ping the eyes again and to wrap the side light very slightly.

 

4. rigged to the ceiling

We had a scene in a bathroom that was all white tiles. It looked very flat with the extant overhead light on. Our solution was to put up a couple of pole-cats, at the tops of the two walls that the camera would be facing most, and hang Asteras horizontally from them. Being tubes they have a low profile so it wasn’t hard to keep them out of the top of frame. We put honeycombs on them and the result was that we always had soft, wrappy backlight with minimal illumination of the bright white tiles.

 

5. Special effects

One of the most powerful things about Titan Tubes is that you can programme them with your own special effects. When we needed a Northern Lights effect, best boy Connor Adams researched the phenomenon and programmed a pattern of shifting greens into two tubes rigged above the set.

On War of the Worlds in 2019 we used the Asteras’ emergency lights preset to pick up some close-ups which were meant to have a police car just out of shot.

There are all kinds of other effects you could use the tubes for. There is a good example by DP Rowan Biddiscombe in this article I wrote for British Cinematographer.

5 Ways to Use Astera Tubes

Using Depth of Field Creatively

“The Handmaid’s Tale: Offred” (2017, DP: Colin Watkinson, ASC, BSC)

When DSLR video exploded onto the indie filmmaking scene a decade ago, film festivals were soon awash with shorts with ultra-blurry backgrounds. Now that we have some distance from that first novelty of large-sensor cinematography we can think more intelligently about how depth of field – be it shallow or deep – is best used to help tell our stories.

First, let’s recap the basics. Depth of field is the distance between the nearest and farthest points from camera that are in focus. The smaller the depth of field, the less the subject has to move before they go out of focus, and the blurrier any background and foreground objects appear. On the other hand, a very large depth of field may make everything from the foreground to infinity acceptably sharp.

Depth of field varying with aperture
Everyone’s favourite time machine at f/5 (left) and f/1.8 (right)

Depth of field is affected by four things: sensor (or film) size, focal length (i.e. lens length), focal distance, and aperture. In the days of tiny Mini-DV sensors, I was often asked by a director to zoom in (increase the focal length) to decrease the depth of field, but sometimes that was counter-productive because it meant moving the camera physically further away, thus increasing the focal distance, thus increasing the depth of field.

It was the large 35mm sensors of DSLRs, compared with the smaller 1/3” or 2/3” chips of traditional video cameras, that made them so popular with filmmakers. Suddenly the shallow depth of field seen in a Super-35 movie could be achieved on a micro-budget. It is worth noting for the purists, however, that a larger sensor technically makes for a deeper depth of field. The shallower depth of field associated with larger sensors is actually a product of the longer lenses required to obtain the same field of view.

Once a camera is selected and filming is underway, aperture is the main tool that DPs tend to use to control depth of field. A small aperture (large f- or T-number) gives a large depth of field; a large aperture (small f- or T-number) gives a narrow depth of field. What all those early DSLR filmmakers, high on bokeh, failed to notice is that aperture is, and always has been, a creative choice. Plenty of directors and DPs throughout the history of cinema have chosen deep focus when they felt it was the best way of telling their particular story.

“Citizen Kane” (1941, DP: Gregg Toland, ASC)

One of the most famous deep-focus films is 1941’s Citizen Kane, frequently voted the greatest movie ever made. First-time director Orson Welles came from a theatre background, and instructed DP Gregg Toland to keep everything in focus so that the audience could choose what to look at just as they could in a theatre. “What if they don’t look at what they’re supposed to look at?” Welles was apparently asked. “If that happens, I would be a very bad director,” was his reply.

Stanley Kubrick was also fond of crisp backgrounds. The infamous f/0.7 NASA lenses used for the candlelight scenes in Barry Lyndon were a rare and extreme exception borne of low-light necessity. A typical Kubrick shot has a formal, symmetrical composition with a single-point perspective and everything in focus right into the distance. Take the barracks in Full Metal Jacket, for example, where the background soldiers are just as sharp as the foreground ones. Like Welles, Kubrick’s reasons may have lain in a desire to emulate traditional art-forms, in this case paintings, where nothing is ever blurry.

“Full Metal Jacket” (1987, DP: Douglas Milsome, ASC, BSC)

The Indiana Jones trilogy was shot at a surprisingly slow stop by the late, great Douglas Slocombe. “I prefer to work in the aperture range of T14-T14.5 when I am shooting an anamorphic film like Raiders,” he said at the time. “The feeling of depth contributed to the look.” Janusz Kamiński continued that deep-focus look, shooting at T8-T11 when he inherited the franchise for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

At the other end of the aperture scale, the current Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale makes great creative use of a shallow depth of field, creating a private world for the oppressed protagonist which works in tandem with voiceovers to put the viewer inside her head, the only place where she is free.

A director called James Reynolds had a similar idea in mind when I shot his short film, Exile Incessant. He wanted to photograph closed-minded characters with shallow focus, and show the more tolerant characters in deep focus, symbolising their openness and connection with the world. (Unfortunately the tiny lighting budget made deep focus impossible, so we instead achieved the symbolism by varying the harshness of the lighting.)

“Ren: The Girl with the Mark” (2016, DP: Neil Oseman)

One production where I did vary the depth of field was Ren: The Girl with the Mark, where I chose f/4 as my standard working stop, but reduced it to as little as f/1.4 when the lead character was bonding with the mysterious spirit inside her. It was the same principle again of separating the subject from the world around her.

Depth of field is a fantastic creative tool, and one which we are lucky to have so much control over with today’s cameras. But it will always be most effective when it’s used expressively, not just aesthetically.

Using Depth of Field Creatively