Undisclosed Project: Culmination

Today filming begins on the Shakespearian feature I have been prepping since early February. All of last week was again spent in rehearsals, this time focusing on the second half of the script.

By the end of the week I had storyboarded almost the entire film, using Artemis Pro. The production designer was able to print these out and go through them looking for any backgrounds that he might not yet have dressed, or any obtrusive existing objects that should be removed. The 1st AD was also using them to help him plan, as he had not been present at rehearsals. This led to a minor panic when I erroneously included some characters in the background of a shot that those actors were not scheduled for!

Aside from producing these storyboards and getting a fantastic understanding of how all the scenes are going to be played and blocked, a big benefit of the rehearsal weeks was the opportunity to get to know the cast. Normally I have to wave a big camera in an actor’s face the first time I meet them. It’s much better to ease them and me into the process the way we’ve done on this production. A particular highlight was when the well-known lead actor performed some of the famous soliloquies – in the absence of a camera – right into my eyes.

It was a very busy week for all concerned. When the cast weren’t in rehearsals they were in costume fittings or make-up tests, or training for the sword-fight, or doing press interviews.

The gaffer started work on Wednesday, and was joined by the best boy and spark on Thursday. After loading in the equipment, their first task was to re-globe all the sconces and ceiling lights in the auditorium. Later they gelled all the emergency lights to make them dimmer and warmer in colour, ran distro to various convenient points, and cut poly-boards to size.

The camera kit also turned up on Thursday, a slightly surreal event for me after so long working in the building with just my laptop and iPhone. For a few scenes Sean wants to create a kaleidoscopic effect, so I had purchased some cheap kaleidoscope party glasses, a 6” teaching prism, and a set of crystals which can be hung off the matte box. Ironically the cheap glasses give the best effect! These will be hand-bashed in front of the lens, whereas the prism can be clamped to a noga arm for a more controlled effect.

I gave the focus puller a tour of the building so that he could start to think about monitor positions. That will definitely be a tricky aspect of the production with all the cramped backstage spaces.

I feel better-prepared now than I have ever felt going into a feature. It is such a contrast to, say, Heretiks, where I had just one week to get up to speed, and the gaffer had no prep time whatsoever. Nonetheless, there are some things you just can’t work out until the day, and that’s where the stress and excitement come from!

I’ll continue to write a blog during production, but I won’t be publishing it until the film is released. So there will be no new posts for the next few weeks, but normal service will resume in May! See you on the other side.

Undisclosed Project: Culmination

Undisclosed Project: Observation

Well, it’s all very real now. For six weeks I’ve been documenting my non-continuous prep period on a feature film adaptation of a well-known Shakespeare play. It won’t be announced to the press until it is close to release, so I still can’t share the title or any other identifying details. I’ll go so far as to say that it’s being shot in a theatre (though not all on stage), and the director is from a theatre background

On Monday I checked into the hotel and began the first of two full-time prep weeks. Unusually, these two weeks are filled with rehearsals. I may, once or twice, have worked on a film that had perhaps a single day of rehearsals. Two weeks is unheard of, but of course it’s perfectly normal in theatre.

The strange thing for me is that just when a scene is taking shape – the point where I’d normally get involved, when the blocking is nearly final and it’s time to think about shots – we move on to the next one. The last bit of the rehearsals will be done, as normal, on the day of shooting.

As the actors explore the spaces, I do too. Some of them have changed quite dramatically, thanks to the efforts of the art department, since I last reccied them. It’s an unprecented opportunity for me to check many potential camera angles. Before we move on from a scene, I run around frantically with Artemis, trying to take enough shots to make a storyboard. A large part of today (it’s Saturday as I write this) has been taken up with selecting the best shots, scribbling annotations on them and outputting them as PDFs into a Google Drive folder where the director, 1st AD, 1st AC, production designer and others can see them.

During quieter moments, I’ve slipped off to discuss things with the production designer or the stage lighting designer, or just to sit in one of the spaces by myself and think through shots and lighting.

On Friday afternoon a tech recce took place, which I led because the director was still busy rehearsing. This was followed by a Zoom meeting to discuss issues arising.

Less fun but equally important things last week were completing a camera department risk assessment, and taking Covid tests, which leave you feeling like you jumped into a swimming pool without pinching your nose.

Undisclosed Project: Observation

Undisclosed Project: Organisation

By the time you read this I will have entered the Covid bubble for the still-as-yet-unannounced Shakespearian film, the beginning of two weeks of full time prep before cameras finally roll.

The week just gone has been something of a calm before the storm. It started with two important Zoom meetings: one about practicals, the other about the schedule.

The first meeting involved going through all the locations with the production designer explaining what practical lamps he planned to put in each, and me sometimes asking for additional ones. Practicals are going to be a big part of our lighting, and this sort of collaboration with the art department can make a real difference between a smoothly-running shoot and a world of pain wherever you’re trying to hide film lights because you don’t have enough practical sources.

The second meeting, coming shortly after I saw the shooting schedule for the first time, was an in-depth discussion of it with the director, producer, line producer and 1st AD. Most of my concerns – other than some days which felt uncomfortably heavy, and even one or two that seemed wastefully light – were around times of day and equipment. For example, one daylight interior scene was scheduled for the end of day, when we might be losing the light. (The next day I went through it all again by myself and made sure that any night scenes scheduled for daytime could be reasonably done with blacked-out windows.)

We also talked a lot about how things could be rejigged to get as much value as possible out of the two days that we have the crane. It’s expensive, and no-one wants it sitting around while we shoot little dialogue scenes in tiny rooms. Nor do I want one or two scenes in the film to have lots of crane shots and the rest to have none; a sprinkling of them throughout the film would be preferable, though it would mean lots of costume and make-up changes.

Another draft of the script was issued , with pretty minor changes, though one extra room has been introduced, so that will need a proper recce next time I’m there. Reading through a new draft and updating my notes takes the best part of a day, and though it can sometimes feel like a chore, every reading helps me understand the story and characters better.

I did a little more shot-listing later in the week, but it will be much better and easier to do this at the rehearsals over the next fortnight, when I can see how the actors are approaching their characters and how they’re going to use the spaces. I can even take Artemis photos if it doesn’t interrupt their process too much. Roll on rehearsals!

Undisclosed Project: Organisation

Undisclosed Project: Experimentation

The main event of last week’s prep was a test at Panavision of the Arri Alexa XT, Red Gemini and Sony F55, along with Cooke Panchro, Cooke Varotal, Zeiss Superspeed and Angenieux glass. More on that below, along with footage.

The week started with Zoom meetings with the costume designer, the make-up artist, potential fight choeographers and a theatrical lighting designer. The latter is handling a number of scenes which take place on a stage, which is a new and exciting collaboration for me. I met with her at the location the next day, along with the gaffer and best boy. After discussing the stage scenes and what extra sources we might need – even as some of them were starting to be rigged – I left the lighting designer to it. The rest of us then toured the various rooms of the location, with the best boy making notes and lighting plans on his tablet as the gaffer and I discussed them. They also took measurements and worked out what distro they would need, delivering a lighting kit list to production the next day.

Meanwhile, at the request of the producer, I began a shot list, beginning with two logistically complex scenes. Despite all the recces so far, I’ve not thought about shots as much as you might think, except where they are specified in the script or where they jumped out at me when viewing the location. I expect that much of the shot planning will be done during the rehearsals, using Artemis Pro. That’s much better and easier than sitting at home trying to imagine things, but it’s useful for other departments to be able to see a shot list as early as possible.

So, the camera tests. I knew all along that I wanted to test multiple cameras and lenses to find the right ones for this project, a practice that is common on features but which, for one reason and another, I’ve never had a proper chance to do before. So I was very excited to spend Wednesday at Panavision, not far from my old stomping ground in Perivale, playing around with expensive equipment.

Specifically we had: an Arri Alexa – a camera I’m very familiar with, and my gut instinct for shooting this project on; a Sony F55 – which I was curious to test because it was used to shoot the beautiful Outlander series; and a Red Gemini – because I haven’t used a Red in years and I wanted to check I wasn’t missing out on something awesome.

For lenses we had: a set of Cooke Panchros – again a gut instinct (I’ve never used them, but from what I’ve read they seemed to fit); a set of Zeiss Superspeeds – selected after reviewing my 2017 test footage from Arri Rental; a couple of Cooke Varotal zooms, and the equivalents by the ever-reliable Angenieux. Other than the Angenieux we used on the B-camera for The Little Mermaid (which I don’t think we ever zoomed during a take), I’ve not used cinema zooms before, but I want the old-fashioned look for this project.

Here are the edited highlights from the tests…

You’ll notice that the Sony F55 disappears from the video quite early on. This is because, although I quite liked the camera on the day, as soon as I looked at the images side by side I could see that the Sony was significantly softer than the other two.

So it was down to the Alexa vs. the Gemini, and the Cookes vs. the Superspeeds. I spent most of Thursday and all of Friday morning playing with the footage in DaVinci Resolve, trying to decide between these two pairs of very close contenders. I tried various LUTs, did some rough grading (very badly, because I’m not a colourist), tested how far I could brighten the footage before it broke down, and examined flares and bokeh obsessively.

Ultimately I chose the Cooke Panchros because (a) they have a beautiful and very natural-looking flare pattern, (b) the bokeh has a slight glow to it which I like, (c) the bokeh remains a nice shape when stopped down, unlike the Superspeeds’, which goes a bit geometric, (d) they seem sharper than the Superspeeds at the edges of frame when wide open, and (e) more lengths are available.

As for the zoom lenses (not included in the video), the Cooke and the Angenieux were very similar indeed. I chose the former because it focuses a little closer and the bokeh again has that nice glow.

I came very close to picking the Gemini as my camera. I think you’d have to say, objectively, it produces a better image than the Alexa, heretical as that may sound. The colours seem more realistic (although we didn’t shoot a colour chart, which was a major oversight) and it grades extremely well. But…

I’m not making a documentary. I want a cinematic look, and while the Gemini is by no means un-cinematic, the Alexa was clearly engineered by people who loved the look of film and strove to recreate it. When comparing the footage with the Godfather and Fanny and Alexander screen-grabs that are the touchstone of the look I want to create, the Alexa was just a little bit closer. My familiarity and comfort level with the Alexa was a factor too, and the ACs felt the same way.

I’m very glad to have tested the Gemini though, and next time I’m called upon to shoot something great and deliver in 4K (not a requirement on this project) I will know exactly where to turn. A couple of interesting things I learnt about it are: (1) whichever resolution (and concomitant crop factor) you select, you can record a down-scaled 2K ProRes file, and this goes for the Helium too; (2) 4K gives the Super-35 field of view, whereas 5K shows more, resulting in some lenses vignetting at this resolution.

Undisclosed Project: Experimentation

Undisclosed Project: Elevation

Prep for the yet-to-be-announced Shakespearian feature continued last week. Tuesday and Wednesday saw me on Zoom calls with the producers – discussing camera kit quotes – and the costume designer. “Will we see enough of his face through this headgear?” was a question for the latter. She in turn asked how white a white coat should be, and how dark surrounding characters should be to make one person in black stand out. Difficult things to quantify, but important.

The week’s main event was another two-day recce with the director and production designer. The designer had produced beautiful and detailed mood-boards for every room, and had even started to bring in the right furniture and test paint colours. The main aim of the recce was to discuss and sign off on his decisions so that decoration and dressing could step up to full steam.

As we moved from room to room, trying to keep in story order whenever possible, the director revealed lots of his thoughts about the tone and key beats of each scene. I was pleased to find that these were largely in a similar vein to notes I had amassed on my own spreadsheet. And when they weren’t in sync, that was very useful to know at this stage! For most scenes I showed him a reference image or two, again from my spreadsheet, to double-check that we were on the same page.

We were visited during the recce by a grip who had come to see whether a crane would fit into our main location, and if so what kind of crane and whether it could achieve the shots we wanted. I had envisaged using a Giraffe like the one we had on The Little Mermaid, but the grip suggested we would be much better off with a 23ft Technocrane and a basic remote head, as this can telescope and retract rather than only sweeping around in an arc. We measured the distances to see where the camera could end up, and then I used Artemis Pro – a director’s viewfinder app – to see what framing that would translate to with various lenses. One of our most important shots should just be possible at the full extent of the arm, combined with the full range of a 25-250mm zoom.

Whether the budget can afford the crane, however, is yet to be confirmed. This week I am due to conduct camera and lens tests, and once I’ve made a decision on those then we will know what is left for fancy grip equipment!

The only other thing to happen last week was the hiring of a data wrangler. Since I lined up the 1st and 2nd ACs quite soon after my own hiring, the camera department is now complete.

Undisclosed Project: Elevation

20 Years of Blogging

Today is the 20th anniversary of my first ever blog post. On March 4th, 2001 I wrote the inaugural “journal” entry on the-beacon.com, a website about a terrible no-budget action move I was writing, directing, producing, etc, etc. (clip below). My blog continued across two other project-specific websites for the next few years before they all got integrated into neiloseman.com in 2011.

There is a history of my blogging exploits in my 1,000th post from January 2015, and if you’re interested in blogging yourself, I shared some tips not long afterwards. (The post you’re reading now is the 1,261st, in the unlikely event that you care.) If you visit the Blog Archive page you can delve back into my old posts, either by month and year, by production or by topic.

It is strange to think how different the world was when I wrote that first post. The Twin Towers were still standing. Buying a take-away latte was swanky and cosmopolitan. Ordering something remotely meant getting a catalogue, then filling in a form and posting off a cheque and waiting up to 28 days. Your choice of filming formats came down to celluloid or standard definition DV. Everyone still took their holiday snaps on 35mm. The internet was all dial-up. VHS was still the dominant home video format, though DVD was on the rise. “Netflix” was probably something fishermen did. Superhero movies were rare. Flat screens and touch-screens were a sci-fi dream. I for one didn’t own a mobile phone. There was no social media. The term “blog” had been coined but wasn’t widely known. And the idea of a pandemic shutting down the world for a year, keeping us from our loved ones and making us all mask up in Tesco’s was utterly inconceivable.

Blogging has certainly been useful to me. It helps me to organise my thoughts, and I frequently check my old posts to remind myself how I did something so that I can repeat the trick… or avoid making the same mistake again! It’s even got me work, writing for RedShark News since 2017 – a website edited by none other than Simon Wyndham, fight choreographer for that blog-starting film of mine, The Beacon. That in turn has led to me writing for British Cinematographer magazine since the end of last year.

It’s quite fitting that now, as back in March 2001, I am prepping for a feature film, and sharing that process on this blog (albeit in vague terms, as the project hasn’t been officially announced yet). The budget may be a tad bigger, and I may only be DPing rather than doing pretty much all the major jobs myself, but some things haven’t changed; in my second ever post, I complained about my main location being closed due to a disease outbreak…

20 Years of Blogging

Undisclosed Project: Iteration

I continue to saturate myself in the script for the yet-to-be-announced Shakespearian film. Some other little projects I had going on have now wrapped up, leaving me free to concentrate purely on this production, which is due to start shooting a month from now.

I spent the best part of last Monday reading a new draft of the screenplay and updating my spreadsheet of notes to reflect the changes. Going back over this spreadsheet and the script and re-evaluating them from different angles formed a signficant part of the rest of the week. On Thursday, for example, I focused on the swordfight (narrows it down, Shakespeare fans!), scouring YouTube for reference videos and noting which camera angles seem most dangerous and engaging. In fact, watching references was another big part of the week. I worked my way through the whole Godfather trilogy (above), some more episodes of Servant, bits of several action movies that have a specific type of night exterior, and a couple of the lead actor’s recent films, to see how other DPs have lit and lensed him.

At the end of the week I went back over the spreadsheet and filled in at least one idea for every scene that did not yet have an entry in its “camera” or “lighting” column. Sometimes this would be an idea for a specific shot – e.g. “angle from outside the window looking in”; sometimes it would be a general vibe for the camerawork – e.g. “close, handheld, intimate”; sometimes a specific source – e.g. “soft top-light rigged to ladder”; sometimes a more general lighting note – e.g. “group in a patch of light, surroundings dark”.

Production sent over the quotes they have received for my camera list. At least one of them was within the budget, so that’s good! This week I’ll discuss that with the producers and hopefully decide which rental house we’re going with.

Speaking of equipment, a cheap novelty optical item arrived from eBay. I used this and my iPad to shoot a very rough demonstration of how we might achieve a special effect in camera, sending the video to the director for his feedback. He liked it, and wants to add in a few more instances of it throughout the film.

Another idea I proposed was a lighting effect, for which I sent the director this video I’d found online (below). I don’t intend to do something exactly like this in the film, but I saw a way it could be modified to our story. I ended up shooting my own rough test that is closer to how I see it working in our film.

Less exciting than any of the above, but very important, was taking an online Screenskills course in Covid awareness. I’d done the Basic Awareness course already, which takes about 30 minutes including a brief quiz, but Screenskills were offering free places for HoDs on a more in-depth course, so I signed up. This consisted of a three-hour presentation about the virus, how it can spread on set and what can be done to mitigate it in various departments, followed by another quiz. I learnt a few new things and my awareness was indeed raised.

Undisclosed Project: Iteration

Undisclosed Project: Collaboration

Prep on the yet-to-be-announced Shakespearian feature continued last week. (Read the previous week’s post here.)

On Monday I went back to the location with the gaffer, someone I’ve worked with several times before, and looked at all the spaces we will be using. It is too early to start any lighting plans, but we talked in general terms about what sort of instruments we might want to use and roughly where. The gaffer had already seen my lighting mood board (above) and we had discussed the overall look on the journey to location, so we were already on the same page about what we are trying to achieve. He had some technical conversations with staff at the location about the existing lighting and power sources, and we finished the day by checking out one of the film’s few exteriors as it was getting dark, in order to see what existing sources there are for the night scene we will be shooting there.

I spent a significant chunk of Wednesday on a Zoom call with the production designer, and a couple of other crew, going through each of the spaces again and finding out what changes the art department are planning to make to them. It was great to see the designer’s reference images and to show him some new ones of my own so that we can bounce off each others’ ideas and keep the film on a coherent track. This is especially important as we intend to rely heavily on practical lights for many of the rooms. The location has some already in place, but we will be adding lots more.

The designer mentioned The Shining as a useful reference for the project. To my shame, I had never seen it, a mistake I swiftly corrected. I immediately saw that the designer was right, as the film’s setting of a single, large, empty location lit almost entirely by tungsten practicals in the public areas and fluorescents in the service areas has a lot in common with our intended look for this project.

I lost no time in passing the reference on to the gaffer, and to the director, who I spoke with on Friday. We discussed a number of general topics – approaches I think is the best word – and he updated me on some changes to the script.

I’ve been developing a large spreadsheet breaking the script down scene by scene, with basic info like location, time of day and a brief summary of the action, as well as notes on character, camera and lighting, and a couple of the most relevant reference images. This will get more detailed and specific as prep progresses.

Watching reference material is a big part of the process at the moment. As well as The Shining, I’ve recently checked out Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant, Ingmar Berman’s Fanny and Alexander, and I have Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy on my list too. Shoot for the moon and you might land on the roof, right?

Finally, with the help of my 1st AC, I put a very rough camera list together. My hope is that soon I can conduct tests to make a final decision on camera and lenses.

Undisclosed Project: Collaboration

Undisclosed Project: Exploration

Last week saw the start of prep for me on a new feature film. The project hasn’t officially been announced yet, so I’ll simply say that it’s an adaptation of a Shakespeare play.

Prepping a feature can seem a bit overwhelming sometimes, more so than actually shooting it. At least when you’re shooting, you only have to worry about one scene at a time. Where do you start when prepping 100 minutes of moving images?

Familiarity with the script is the first thing. I’m one of those people who was put off Shakespeare by being forced to study him at school, so – other than a few famous lines – I knew nothing about this play until I was hired a few weeks ago. Since then I’ve endeavoured to become as familiar as possible with the material, both the play and the film script.

The director wrote a 24-page treatment which makes very clear the themes he wishes to draw out of the play, but last week was my first opportunity to sit down with him and start to get inside his head. This was part of a two-day recce of the film’s single location: the first day exploring the space and seeing what was available; the second day starting to pin down exactly where we would shoot what.

This is an unusual adapation set in no particular period (the director says it should have “a feeling that’s not now”) so the possibilities are wide open. I have developed a mood board of 60-odd reference images, and last week was a chance to see what chimed with everyone else.

Also present at the recce were the production designer and other members of the team, and I began to see the directions they were going in with their own creative contributions. These of course inspired further ideas for my cinematography, as did a conversation I had with the lead actor. “The camera is a character,” he said as we discussed how to handle the soliloquys.

I always think about how camerawork can reflect and enhance character, but I’ve rarely thought of the camera as its own character. On a similar theme, the director’s treatment describes a “clever, all-seeing camera”. Actualising that idea is a fascinating challenge for me. What does the camera want? What is its relationship with the other characters? How do those relationships develop as the film goes on?

These are the kind of broad, over-arching ideas that must be grappled with in these early days of prep. Soon I will have to draft an equipment list and get into all kinds of other specifics, but it’s important to allow time for exploration.

Undisclosed Project: Exploration