Time Up for Tungsten?

Poppy Drayton, in “The Little Mermaid”, lit by a tungsten 1K bounced off poly

Last October, rental house VMI retired all of its tungsten lighting units as part of its mission to be a Net Zero company by 2030. I know this mainly because I am currently writing an article for British Cinematographer about sustainability in the film and TV industry, and VMI’s managing director Barry Bassett was one of the first people I interviewed.

Barry is very passionate about helping the environment and this is reflected in numerous initiatives he’s pioneered at VMI and elsewhere, but in this post I just want to discuss the tungsten issue.

I love tungsten lighting. There’s no better way to light a human face, in my opinion, than to bounce a tungsten light off a poly-board. (Poly-board is also terrible for the planet, I’ve just learnt, but that’s another story.) The continuous spectrum of light that tungsten gives out is matched only by daylight.

Dana Hajaj lit by another tungsten 1K bounced off poly

Tungsten has other advantages too: it’s cheap to hire, and it’s simple technology that’s reliable and easy to repair if it does go wrong.

But there’s no denying it’s horribly inefficient. “Tungsten lighting fixtures ought to be called lighting heaters, since 96% of the energy used is output as heat, leaving only 4% to produce light,” Barry observed in a British Cinematographer news piece. When you put it that way, it seems like a ridiculous waste of energy.

Without meaning to, I have drifted a little away from tungsten in recent years. When I shot Hamlet last year, I went into it telling gaffer Ben Millar that it should be a tungsten heavy show, but we ended up using a mix of real tungsten and tungsten-balanced LED. It’s so much easier to set up a LiteMat 2L on a battery than it is to run mains for a 2K, set up a bounce and flag off all the spill.

Shirley MacLaine lit by a tungsten book-light in “The Little Mermaid”

I admire what VMI have done, and I’ve no doubt that other companies will follow suit. The day is coming – maybe quite soon – when using tungsten is impossible, either because no rental companies stock it any more, or no-one’s making the bulbs, or producers ban it to make their productions sustainable.

Am I ready to give up tungsten completely? Honestly, no, not yet. But it is something I need to start thinking seriously about.

Time Up for Tungsten?

What is a French Over?

Film industry jargon isn’t shy of national references. A Dutch angle is a canted shot. To Spanish a piece of kit is to get rid of it (a corruption of “it’s banished”). To German a light – I think – is to lie the stand horizontal, attach the head, then raise the whole thing vertical. Or maybe that’s Italianing. I forget. But what is a French over?

It’s a type of over-the-shoulder shot. It requires the two characters to be bodily facing in the same direction, like on a bench or in the front seats of a car. If the camera shoots from behind their bodies, it’s a French over. Here are a few examples.

“Norman” (2010, DP: Darren Genet)
A commercial shot by Patrick O’Sullivan
“À bout de souffle” (1960, DP: Raoul Coutard)

A French over feels a little more conspiratorial or voyeuristic than a standard over. It gives the viewer a sense that they’re privy to a confidential conversation.

It works well for bench scenes because benches often have nice vistas in front of them which you can keep in the background of your close-ups, and you don’t have to cross the line to do a wide shot behind the bench showcasing the whole view.

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” (2015, DP: Robert Elswit, ASC)

It’s far easier to shoot French overs in a car because the operator can simply sit on the back seat rather than trying to jam the camera onto the dashboard.

French overs allow the editor more flexibility too. A typical problem of covering dialogue scenes where characters are facing the same way is that you can often clearly see the foreground character’s mouth, which locks the editor in to maintaining lip-sync every time they cut. In a French over you only see the back of the foreground character’s head so this problem is eliminated.

They’re not to everyone’s taste though. You certainly see less of the actors’ faces than in a standard over, and if the cast are not going to turn to look at each other very often their emotions could easily end up unreadable. If that’s not the effect you want, standard overs would be a better choice.

What is a French Over?

5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Iris in Your Lens

Inside a lens, amongst the various glass elements, is an ingenious mechanism which we call the iris. Just like your biological iris, it controls the amount of light passing through the pupil to form an image. I’ve written about the iris’s use to control exposure before, and its well-known side effect of controlling depth of field. But here are five things that aren’t so commonly known about irises.

 

1. f-stops and the entrance pupil

This image shows the exit pupil because it’s seen through the rear element of the lens. A view through the front element would show the entrance pupil.

The f-number of a lens is the ratio of the focal length to the diameter of the aperture, but did you know that it isn’t the actual diameter of the aperture that’s used in this calculation? It’s the apparent diameter as viewed through the front of the lens. A lens might have a magnifying front element, causing the aperture to appear larger than its physical size, or a reducing one, causing it to appear smaller. Either way, it’s this apparent aperture – known as the entrance pupil – which is used to find the f-number.

 

2. No-parallax point

The no-parallax point of a lens is located at its entrance pupil. Sometimes called the nodal point, although that’s technically something different, this is the point around which the camera must pan and tilt if you want to eliminate all parallax. This is important for forced perspective work, for panoramas stitched together from multiple shots, and other types of VFX.

 

3. Focus

If you need to check your focal distance with a tape measure, many cameras have a handy Phi symbol on the side indicating where the sensor plane is located so that you can measure from that point. But technically you should be measuring to the entrance pupil. The sensor plane marker is just a convenient shortcut because the entrance pupil is in a different place for every lens and changes when the lens is refocused or zoomed. In most cases the depth of field is large enough for the shortcut to give perfectly acceptable results, however.

 

4. Bokeh shape

The bokeh of a 32mm Cooke S4 wide open at T2 (left) and stopped down to T2.8 (right). Note also the diffraction spikes visible in the righthand image.

The shape of the entrance pupil determines the shape of the image’s bokeh (out of focus areas), most noticeable in small highlights such as background fairy lights. The pupil’s shape is determined both by the number of iris blades and the shape of their edges. The edges are often curved to approximate a circle when the iris is wide open, but form more of a polygon when stopped down. For example, a Cooke S4 produces octagonal bokeh at most aperture settings, indicating eight iris blades. Incidentally, an anamorphic lens has a roughly circular aperture like any other lens, but the entrance pupil (and hence the bokeh) is typically oval because of the anamorphosing effect of the front elements.

 

5. Diffraction spikes

When the edge of an iris blade is straight or roughly straight, it spreads out the light in a perpendicular direction, creating a diffraction spike. The result is a star pattern around bright lights, typically most visible at high f-stops. Every blade produces a pair of spikes in opposite directions, so the number of points in the star is equal to twice the number of iris blades – as long as that number is odd. If the number of blades is even, diffraction spikes from opposite sides of the iris overlap, so the number of apparent spikes is the same as the number of blades, as in the eight-pointed Cooke diffraction pictured above right.

5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Iris in Your Lens

“Die Hard”: A Masterclass in Composition

I hope you have all enjoyed Die Hard as a traditional staple of your Yuletide festivities. Every time I see it I am in awe of, among other things, the composition by DP Jan de Bont, ASC and camera operators Michael Ferris, Michael Scott and M. Todd Henry. Let’s have a look at some of the beautifully framed images and see what some of the hallmarks are.

 

Low Angles

“From up here it doesn’t look like you’re in charge of jack shit.”

So many low angles in Die Hard, some motivated by the blocking but many simply to make the characters seem larger than life.

 

No Rule of Thirds

“There are rules for policemen.” / “Yeah. That’s what my captain keeps telling me.”

De Bont uses the full width of the 2.39:1 anamorphic frame to creatively place his subjects, rarely obeying the Rule of Thirds and often squeezing characters right into one side of the frame.

 

Short-siding

“Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.”

Short-siding means placing a character close to the side of the frame which they’re looking towards, and this happens quite often in the film as well.

 

Deep Raking Shots

“Welcome to the party, pal.”

The filmmakers love to have a row of characters ranging from near to far. Even in over-the-shoulder shots, de Bont frequently adds an extra element in the background, continuing the depth procession begun by the foreground shoulder and mid-ground actor.

 

Dutch Angles

“You oughta be on fucking TV with that accent.”

Jan de Bont is from the Netherlands, so every shot… But I’m talking specifically about the canted shots which underscore the deception of the scene where Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber pretends to be a hostage (with a highly convincing English-German-American accent) and the subsequent shoot-out in the computer room.

 

There are also a lot of great camera moves in Die Hard, but that’s a post for another Christmas. Happy new year and yippie-ki-yay, motherfuckers!

“Die Hard”: A Masterclass in Composition

My Best Blog Posts of 2021

Anyone else feel like this year was two steps forwards and two steps back? The current panic and looming threat of restrictions seems very much like how we all felt last year. All that’s needed to complete the effect is a last-minute U-turn to prevent Christmas mixing.

Anyway, I’m fortunate enough that the year as a whole has treated me quite kindly. In keeping with tradition, I’ll round it off with a list of my favourite blog posts.

 

“Superman II” Retrospective

This was originally written for RedShark News, a website about moving image technology and production news. The editor let me do a series of retrospectives about classic films and how they were made, most of which have subsequently made it onto this blogSuperman II was one of the first I did and is still one of my favourites. The story behind its production is so unique, with the first two films being initially shot back to back, then the second one being temporarily shelved due to budget overruns, the director being fired and much of it being re-shot. I had to cut a few hundred words out for the RedShark version, but you get the full-fat edition here on my site.

 

Luna 3: Photographing the Far Side of the Moon without Digital Technology

I first read about the Soviet probe Luna 3 in Giles Sparrow’s coffee-table book Spaceflight. I have been fascinated by space travel ever since watching all the programmes celebrating the 25th anniversary of the moon landing in 1994. When I discovered that Luna 3 had a photographic developing lab inside it, I knew it would make a great article. Again this appeared first on RedShark News.

 

Undisclosed Project: Experimentation

I spent most of this February and March in prep for a feature adaptation of Hamlet starring Sir Ian McKellen, which was an absolute privilege to work on. Although I wasn’t allowed to name it at the time, I posted weekly blogs about the prep process, of which “Experimentation” is my favourite. This instalment covers the camera- and lens-testing process and includes a video of the results. Hamlet itself is likely still at least a year away from release, but rest assured that I have written a production diary and it will be posted when the film is out… or scroll down for a sneak preview!

 

The Cinematography of “Alder”

This article gets to the core of what I like this blog to be about: sharing my own experiences of cinematography, analysing the decisions I made, and sharing the results. This is the story of Alder, a fairytale short filmed in a single, packed day!

 

Tungsten bulbs emit an orange light - dim them down and it gets even more orangey.The Art and Science of White Balance

Another keystone of this blog is reference information about the technical side of cinematography. This article aims to cover everything you need to know about white balance and colour temperature.

 

5 Ingenious Visual Effects With No CGI

Another piece that started life on RedShark News, this one looks at how VFX that nowadays would be computer-generated particle simulations were done in the pre-digital days. I’m fascinated by traditional VFX; I used to tape films and TV shows on VHS and use frame-by-frame playback to analyse how they were done. (One show that went under the microscope in this manner was the 1988 Doctor Who story “Remembrance of the Daleks”, and I was lucky enough this month to interview the digital matte-painter responsible. You’ll be able to read that piece in the January issue of Doctor Who Magazine.)

 

The Colour of Moonlight

Every now and then I write what I think of as an “investigation” post; I dig into a concept like the Inverse Square Law, CRI or the Rule of Thirds and try to find out where it came from and whether it’s actually as useful or accurate as we tend to assume. In this particular post I try to find out where the idea of blue moonlight in cinema came from, and how the exact colour has developed over the years.

 

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 2

The second feature I shot this year was a micro-budget comedy based on a critically acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe show. I posted a production blog as we went along, and I’m picking week 2 as my favourite because it includes the crazy day we shot 11 scenes and over eight pages.

 

“Quantum Leaper”

A tale from right back at the start of my filmmaking journey, this post brought up lots of fun memories as I was writing it. Quantum Leaper is an amateur spin-off of the 1980s-90s cult sci-fi series Quantum Leap, which my friend David Abbott and I made on a Video-8 camcorder in the mid ’90s. Sadly, not long after I wrote the piece, Quantum Leap star Dean Stockwell passed away, but I still hold hopes that Scott Bakula might one day appear in a sequel series to find out if Dr Sam Beckett ever returned home.

 

A Preview of Things to Come

I can’t say at present when Hamlet will be released, but when it is I’ll be publishing my diary from the shoot. I’ll leave you with a preview from Day 1…

We started with scenes at the stage door, one of the few spaces in the theatre that has natural light coming in. Gaffer Ben Millar and I considered trying to add artificial light outside to the main window which was backlighting the scene, but instead we opted to light through a little side window with a Fomex wrapped in unbleached muslin. After a hiccup about blocking and crew shows, we bashed through three set-ups including two using Wes Anderson-esque central framing and eye-lines very close to camera.

Next up was a scene in the substage, next to the boiler room. Here we installed a practical tungsten bulkhead light on the wall as our key, adding to the extant yellowy-green fluorescents that illuminated parts of the background, and the Fomex spilling down a staircase. Lots of black negative space in the frame added to the moody look.

After lunch – during which I sorted out the footage transcoding plan with line producer Stephen Cranny and data wrangler Max Quinton – we moved to the glamorous location of the gents’ toilets for Ian McKellen’s first scene. The location had been very flat and white originally, but Ben’s crew rigged three Astera tubes to the tops of two walls – the two walls that we were mainly shooting towards – and that created a nice wrappy backlit look. Director Sean Matthias embraced the weirder shots I had storyboarded, which I was very happy about!

My Best Blog Posts of 2021

Newton Thomas Sigel on the Cinematography of “Bohemian Rhapsody”

The following article originally appeared on RedShark News in 2018.

Directed by Bryan Singer, of X-Men and The Usual Suspects fame, Bohemian Rhapsody charts the story of Queen from their formation in 1970 to their triumphant Live Aid set in 1985, with plenty of their classic rock hits along the way. Rami Malek (from Amazon’s Mr. Robot) turns in an Oscar-winning performance as larger-than-life frontman Freddie Mercury.

In his tenth collaboration with Singer was director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC. I spoke to Sigel about how he approached evoking an era, recreating the concerts, and lensing a legend.

“Every day was this wonderful trip back in time,” enthuses Sigel, who saw the movie as a chance to relive his own youth. “I love shooting music. There is this wonderful transition from the end of the counter-culture, through glam-rock into the hedonism of the eighties.”

Shooting digitally, Sigel employed both the Alexa SXT and Alexa 65. “I decided the movie needed to have a visual arc that best represented the band’s transition from idealists to rock stars, and all the issues that creates. To that effect, I did the first act with old Cooke Speed Panchro lenses on the Alexa SXT. As Queen is discovered, and begins to be known on the international stage, we transition to the Alexa 65.” Sigel later fine-tuned this arc during grading.

The cinematographer paired the large-format Alexa 65 with Prime DNA and Prime 65-S glass, testing all the lenses to find the ones with the most gentle fall-off in focus. “Each lens had its own personality, and was never really ‘perfect’. Our 28mm had a particularly crazy quality that, when used sparingly, had great effect.”

One thing that struck me immediately about the cinematography is the distinctly un-British, warm and glowing look, with lots of sun streaming through windows. This was all part of Sigel’s plan, which develops as the film progresses. “What begins as warm and golden, with its own special LUT, grows ever sharper and cooler, even desaturated,” he explains. “The beginning is all handheld and grainy, the rest much cleaner, with the camera on Steadicam and crane.”

Sigel took a down-to-earth approach to photographing Malek’s Mercury. “I always wanted Freddie to feel very real,” he states. “It is important that you sense his vulnerability at the same time as he is projecting the bravado of the consummate showman. Like so many great performers, Freddie exuded confidence and brashness on stage, and yet, had a terribly shy insecurity in ‘real’ life.”

The highlights of Bohemian Rhapsody are undoubtedly the concert scenes. To tackle these, Sigel began by watching every single piece of Queen footage he could lay his hands on, noting the development of the stage lighting over the years. “I wanted to be as faithful to that as I could, while still having it service our story,” he says. That meant eschewing the easily-coloured RGB LED fixtures so common in movies and concerts today, and going back to the traditional method of laboriously changing gels on tungsten units. “We stuck to period lights,” Sigel confirms, “predominantly par cans and follow spots.”

The sheer number of concert scenes was a challenge for the filmmakers, who at one point had to shoot four gigs in just two days. “We had so many concerts to shoot and so little time, I needed to develop a system to quickly change from one venue to the next,” Sigel recalls. “Because Queen’s lighting was based on large racks of par cans, we were able to construct a very modular system that would allow us to raise or lower different sections very quickly. By pre-programming lighting sequences, we could also create sequence patterns with different configurations of light pods to make it look like a different venue.”

The types of units change as the story progresses through the band’s career. “By the late 70s, Queen was among the first bands to adopt the Vari-Lite, which was championed by the band Genesis,” Sigel explains. “That opened up many more possibilities in the theatrical lighting, which also reflected the band’s ascendancy to the upper echelons of the rock world.”

Sigel notes that he embraced all opportunities to capture lens flares from the concert lighting. “There is a great moment during Live Aid where Freddie makes this sweeping gesture through a circular flare, and it almost seems as if he is drawing on the lens.”

The historic Live Aid concert forms the jubilant climax of the film. Queen’s entire 20-minute set was recreated over seven days of shooting. “We photographed it in every type of weather Great Britain has ever seen: rain, sun, overcast, front-light, backlight – you name it. We couldn’t afford to silk the area as I would have liked,” Sigel adds, referring to large sheets of diffusion hung from cranes to maintain a soft, consistent daylight. “So it was a constant battle and the DI [digital intermediate] certainly helped.”

Filming for Bohemian Rhapsody began in autumn 2017, but by December trouble was brewing. Twentieth Century Fox halted production for a while, with the Hollywood Reporter citing the “unexpected unavailability of director Bryan Singer” as the reason. Dexter Fletcher, who had been attached to direct the nascent film back in 2013, ultimately replaced Singer for the last leg of photography.

“A change like that is never ideal,” admits Sigel, “but Dexter was very impressed with what we had done so far. With only a couple weeks to go, he was happy to carry on in the direction we had begun. Obviously he brought some of his own personal touches, but what I noticed the most was the ease he had in communicating with the actors.”

Reflecting on his long history of collaboration with Singer, Sigel is very positive. “When you have done that many movies together, there is a shorthand that develops and makes much of the work easier because you know your parameters from the beginning. Bohemian Rhapsody was truly the ‘labour of love’ cliché for so many people involved; it was quite remarkable.”

Asked to sum up the appeal of Bohemian Rhapsody, the cinematographer declares, “The film has everything – a deep emotional core at the centre of what is otherwise an exuberant celebration of Queen’s music. I also think Freddie’s story of an immigrant outsider just trying to fit in has a resonance today that is very profound.”

Newton Thomas Sigel on the Cinematography of “Bohemian Rhapsody”

“Time Bandits” Retrospective

Released 40 years ago, Terry Gilliam’s surreal sci-fi adventure Time Bandits remains a supremely imaginative film, defying conventions of plot and never talking down to its target audience of children. Let’s take a time portal back to 1981 and find out how it was made.

“I was broke. I had to write something fast,” Gilliam once said of the film’s origins. By other accounts he conceived Time Bandits when Brazil’s development stalled due to financier Denis O’Brien “not getting it”. (O’Brien was George Harrison’s partner at Handmade Films, which had originally been set up to fund the Monty Python feature Life of Brian.)

After dreaming up the idea of a knight on horseback bursting out of a child’s wardrobe, Gilliam jotted down a mere two sides of notes under the characteristically whimsical heading, “The film that dares not speak its name: a treatment… not a cure”. After describing the opening sequence, in which ten-year-old Kevin is whisked through a time portal by a rabble of robber dwarves while pursued by God, the treatment brazenly states: “And so starts this terrific attempt to get the movie moneybags to part with a few million bucks.”

The moneybags were not convinced, however. O’Brien took Gilliam’s script, co-written with Michael Palin, around LA and returned empty-handed. It was then that O’Brien and Harrison decided to put up the film’s $5 million budget themselves, with the ex-Beatle even mortgaging his office building to do so.

The script was ambitious, featuring as it did a tour of historical settings from the Napoleonic Wars, through Sherwood Forest and ancient Greece, to the deck of the Titanic, and from there into the “Time of Legends”. This last sequence finds the protagonists aboard a boat which turns out to be a hat worn by a giant. Although this might seem a classic product of a Python’s imagination, Gilliam in fact admits to stealing the idea from a book by fantasy artist Brian Froud, who would go on to be a conceptual designer on Time Bandits’ nearest thematic neighbour, the Terry Jones-scripted Labyrinth (1986).

Palin wrote the part of Robin Hood for himself, but O’Brien insisted on casting John Cleese to improve the film’s box office prospects. Palin instead took the role of Vincent, hapless lover of Shelley Duvall’s Pansy. It was Duvall who was hapless, however, when Gilliam climbed some scaffolding to demonstrate to his cast how to fall correctly and ended up landing on her.

Amongst the actors playing the eponymous Time Bandits were Kenny Baker, best known as R2-D2 in the first six Star Wars films, Jack Purvis, who played a number of Jawas and Ewoks in the same franchise, and David Rappaport, whose extensive credits include episodes of The Young Ones, The Goodies and Not the Nine O’Clock News. A seventh bandit, Horseflesh, was cut over fears that Disney might perceive a Snow White rip-off and sue.

“I always thought of it like the mini Pythons,” said Gilliam of the bandit gang. “There was the leader, then there was the second one who really thought he could do it better…”

Meanwhile, the screenplay specifically called for the Greek king Agamemnon to be “none other than Sean Connery, or an actor of equal but cheaper stature”. O’Brien, who played golf with Connery, simply offered the part to the man himself. The cheeky Pythons accordingly updated the stage direction to read: “none other than Sean Connery, who it turns out we can afford”.

Nonetheless, creativity was in much greater supply than money, and Gilliam employed clever editing, reverse shots and miniatures to capture his vision within the budget. “I don’t think that there was anyone in American who believed that film cost less than 15 if not 20 million dollars,” O’Brien opined in a 1989 documentary.

O’Brien was not always supportive, however. He wanted to cut certain controversial moments like Vermin (Tiny Ross) eating rats, but Gilliam fought him. “There was a point where I threatened to burn the negative,” the director admitted in the same documentary.

O’Brien particularly hated the famously downbeat ending. Kevin wakes up in his own bed during a house fire, and is rescued by none other than Sean Connery. Connery himself suggested this second role after he proved unavailable to film Agamemnon’s scripted reappearance (and death) in the showdown at the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.

The controversial moment comes after Connery’s firefighter departs; Kevin’s parents touch a piece of concentrated evil and immediately explode. O’Brien was forced to withdraw his objections to this shocking twist, however, when a test-screening audience chose the ending as their favourite part of the movie. While many fans of Time Bandits might agree, Gilliam believed that the test audience were simply trying to say that they were glad the movie was over!

“Time Bandits” Retrospective

“The Little Mermaid”: A Tale of Two Cameras

As The Little Mermaid is leaving Netflix next week, I decided to go back to my production diary from 2016 and see if there were any more extracts that might be of interest. Tying in with my recent post about shooting with two cameras, here are a number of extracts demonstrating how we used our Alexa Plus XR (operated by me) and Alexa Studio XR (operated by Tim Gill). I definitely won’t say that we made the most effective and efficient use of two cameras the whole time, but I certainly learnt a lot about the pros and cons of having a B-cam.

 

Day 1

We start in a third floor bedroom… After we get the main coverage, we head out to the garden for the next scene, while the B-camera team steps in to pick up a couple of inserts.

As soon as we’re outside, the sun starts to dick around. Those clouds are scudding in and out faster than we can swap ND filters and fly in Ultrabounce to fill the shadows. Eventually we get the three-channel Preston (which only arrived this morning) hooked up so I can pull the iris remotely for our big jib shot. B-camera arrives and picks up alternate angles, and using the two cameras we’re able to wrap out the scenes by lunchtime.

Now we’re inside, on the first floor this time, in a beautiful little circular study. The electrical department have already set up the lamps, so it doesn’t take much tweaking to get us ready to go. Over the course of the afternoon we shoot out our scenes in the study, while B-camera gets various POVs out of windows and establishers of the house exterior. Although the G&E (grip and electric) crew are thinly stretched to support both camera crews, having that second camera is incredibly useful.

 

Day 2

This morning we’re in a church, shooting a montage scene in which Cam interviews a number of locals. We use two cameras to capture a locked-off wide of the interviewee (which can be jump-cut between characters) and a roaming CU simultaneously. Since Tim’s B-camera is doing the roaming shot, I spend the morning at the monitors, keeping an eye on both feeds…

 

Day 3

The forecast says cloudy all week, and we dearly want our exteriors at Lorene’s House to be sunny and beautiful. But actually the dark, overcast skies work in our favour when the AD has us spend the morning shooting a “sunset” exterior. Our 12K HMI, gelled with full CTS, has enough power to cut through the dim natural light and give the impression of a gentle sunset. Working with both cameras, we get a great tracking shot, a jib shot and some other coverage. Then we leave the B-camera team behind, under the direction of VFX supervisor Rich (for the above green-screen shot), while we move back inside to block and light other scenes…

 

Day 8

… We have planned our day to maximise our two cameras. We’ve only been getting about eight set-ups a day, and we knew that with the stunts and effects we have today we would be pushed to even get that many. So we planned six two-camera set-ups and an insert, and we stick closely to this plan. A-camera lives on the crane with the (Angenieux 19.5-94mm Optimo) zoom most of the day, getting the most out of the scale and height of the big top and the action, while B-camera – using the (Cooke S4/i) primes for a change – gets the closer shots. This leaves me free to look at the monitors, which is useful but often boring. (All the material from this day sadly hit the cutting room floor.)

 

Day 12

Our last day at the circus… For most of the day the B-camera is nearby shooting different stuff. This is great in principle, but in practice we tend to get in each others’ way, our lighting affecting their shots and vice versa.

 

Day 24

… After lunch we have a big fight scene to shoot, and the pace of work kicks up several gears. I light a small clearing so we can shoot 180 degrees with two cameras simultaneously. Some directions look better than others, but in an action scene no shot will be held for very long, so it’s not necessary to get every angle perfect.

Normally I open the Cooke S4s no wider than 2 and two thirds, as no lens performs at its best when wide open, but my resolve on this is slipping, and it’s really hard to get a decent amount of light through the dense trees at this location, so I go wide open (T2) for this sequence.

 

Day 25

Our last day on Tybee Island. We start with pick-ups in the woods for various scenes shot over the last few days, then move to the beach, a portion of which we’re cheating as a “river marsh” location. This is a night scene, so we have to go through the slow process of moving the condor (cherry-picker) around from the woods. This involves a police escort to get it across the highway…

Meanwhile B-camera are shooting a shot of a car driving along the road behind the beach. Since the G&E crew are all tied up, at (co-director) Chris Bouchard’s suggestion they use the location work-light and have to fiddle with the white balance to render it a reasonable colour on camera. More and more micro-budget cheats are being employed as the production goes on, and to most of the crew, who are used to big-budget stuff, it’s ridiculous. I don’t mind so much, but I feel bad for the B-camera team.

 

Day 26

We are back on the stage, in three different sets. I’ve lit them all before, but most of the lamps are gone and some require a new look because the time of day is different. Towards the end of the night we leap-frog from set to set, sending G&E and the B-camera ahead to set up while we’re still shooting. To my surprise it works. The sets are small enough that we have enough G&E crew to split up like that.

Top row: A-cam 1st AC Jonathan Klepfer, A-cam 2nd AC Kane Pearson, me, B-cam 1st AC Geran Daniels; bottom row: B-cam 2nd AC Matt Bradford Dixon, digital loader Alex Dubois, B-cam operator/2nd unit DP Tim Gill

For more extracts from my Little Mermaid diary, visit these links:

The Little Mermaid is currently available on Netflix in the UK – but hurry because it leaves on November 30th – and Showtime in the US.

“The Little Mermaid”: A Tale of Two Cameras

Al’s 10 Best “Quantum Leap” Episodes

It was with great sadness last week that I read the news of Dean Stockwell’s passing. The actor had a long and varied career, but to me he will always be Admiral Al Calavicci, the holographic observer from the cult 80s/90s sci-fi show Quantum Leap. Only the other week I wrote about how I was such a big fan of this series as a teenager that my friend David Abbott and I made our own version of it.

With Scott Bakula’s time-travelling Doctor Sam Beckett very much the protagonist of the show, the intangible Al was often relegated to exposition and comic relief, both of which Stockwell handled expertly. But every now and then Al would come to the fore and really demonstrate the actor’s range and talent. In tribute to him, here are ten of Al’s best episodes across Quantum Leap‘s five seasons.

 

1. “Pilot”

When you’re familiar with Quantum Leap you know that Sam and Al’s friendship is one of the series’ few constants. No matter how “Swiss-cheesed” Sam’s memory gets, he always remembers his best buddy Al. So it’s quite strange when you go back and watch the pilot and Sam’s first leap has scrambled his memory so much that he doesn’t even recognise Al, let alone realise that he’s a holographic projection from the future. The uninitiated viewer is similarly in the dark to begin with, watching Al shouting at an unseen character named Gooshie (Project Quantum Leap’s head programmer) and then disappearing through an invisible door. Al would never be an enigma like this again, and it’s a fun way to start a classic buddy relationship.

 

2. “HoneyMoon Express”

Al and the team at Project Quantum Leap constantly monitor Sam’s time-travelling adventures from their top-secret Stallion Springs, New Mexico base in the future. For the most part this all happens off screen, but the Season Two opener “Honeymoon Express” is one of the few occasions when we get a glimpse behind the curtain. The US Senate is threatening to withdraw the Project’s funding, so Al must attend a hearing to justify the continued expense of staying in touch with Sam. Resplendent in his dress uniform, Admiral Calavicci argues passionately on behalf of his friend, though the funding is ultimately secured when Sam changes history and a new senator is suddenly in charge.

 

3. “Jimmy”

Prejudice versus tolerance is a recurring theme in Quantum Leap, appropriately enough for a show about walking a mile in another man’s shoes. The classic episode “Jimmy” tackles this theme head-on as Sam leaps into the body of a man with learning difficulties. Al pressures Sam not to screw up his mission, which is to ensure that Jimmy holds down a job so that he doesn’t die in a state home. Eventually it comes out that Al’s beloved younger sister Trudy had Down’s Syndrome and died in an institution at the age of 16, hence the hologram’s desperation to stop the same happening to Jimmy.

 

4. “M.I.A.”

Al’s most heart-wrenching episode is the Season Two finale. His first wife, Beth, remarried while Al was a missing, presumed dead POW in Vietnam. Al never got over losing the love of his life, and a string of failed marriages followed. In “M.I.A.” Sam meets Beth during the Vietnam War and has the chance to tell her that her husband is still alive – a chance he refuses to take, on the grounds that time travel should not be used for personal gain. Al is understandably upset with Sam, a rare case of serious friction between the two friends. The episode ends with an incredibly moving scene – very reminiscent of the movie Ghost, although Quantum Leap did it first – as the holographic Al dances to Ray Charles’ “Georgia” with the unknowing Beth.

 

5. “The Leap Home, Part II: Vietnam”

The hypocritical Sam spends the opening two-parter of Season Three trying to change his own family’s past for the better, first at his childhood home in Indiana, then in the jungles of Vietnam alongside his older brother Tom. Out of respect for his fellow soldiers, Al spends the episode in his dress uniform again, spotlessly white amidst the mud and greenery. At one point in the story, a war photographer snaps a band of American POWs being led away by the Viet Cong. The episode’s final scene shows us that photo, revealing that one of the prisoners is none other than a young Al. Stockwell was nominated for an Emmy for this episode (having won a Golden Globe for the series the previous year).

 

6. “The Leap Back”

This is my all-time favourite episode of Quantum Leap, because after three years we finally got to visit the Project in the future and meet Al’s colleagues who have been helping Sam behind the scenes all this time, including the supercomputer Ziggy. The reason is that Sam has been catapulted into the holographic imaging chamber in place of Al, who has quantum-leaped. The story is really about Sam and how he deals with being reunited with his wife Donna (whose existence Al has been keeping from his Swiss-cheesed friend), but that’s intercut with hilarious scenes in which Al gets to experience for himself how difficult it is to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes – including having his own memory Swiss-cheesed. Perhaps a little cruelly, Sam revels in being a hologram and giving unhelpful advice while his buddy is floundering, but Dr Beckett soon sees the serious side of the Observer’s job when he must helplessly watch his friend in danger.

 

7. “Running for Honor”

Another episode that confronts prejudice, “Running for Honnor” was extremely controversial for American television at the time (1992) as it portrayed homosexuality in the military. In fact, some advertisers threatened to pull out when they learnt of the content. Their narrow-mindedness was shared by Al, who is openly homophobic until the ever-tolerant Sam teaches him the error of his ways. Quantum Leap‘s regulars rarely got to have their own character arcs, so it’s nice to see Al go through a process of change in this episode.

 

8. “A Leap for Lisa”

After dancing close to Al’s past life in both “M.I.A.” and “The Leap Home, Part II”, the Season Four finale goes all out and has Sam actually leap into his buddy in 1957. At this time, Al is a young ensign falsely accused of murder by a naval court, an accusation Al easily refuted before Sam accidentally changes history. Now the odds of Al being executed for the crime are rising, finally reaching 100%, at which point old Al is spontaneously replaced by a different hologram. Stuffy and English, Edward St John V couldn’t be more different from his cigar-chomping, womanising, wise-cracking counterpart. Needless to say, Sam saves the day and Al is restored. Elsewhere in the episode, Admiral Calavicci is forced to emotionally relive the death of his girlfriend Lisa Sherman.

 

9. “Killin’ Time”

By Season Five, scenes taking place in the future at Project Quantum Leap were more common, and this episode has them in spades. Sam has leapt into a serial killer, and like all of Sam’s “leapees”, the criminal is temporarily displaced into the Project’s Waiting Room. When he get holds of a gun and escapes to a nearby city, Al must track him down and bring him back. Apart from his brief experience as a leaper in “The Leap Back”, this is the only time we get to see Al in the role of action hero.

 

10. “Dr. Ruth”

The Waiting Room again plays a key role as it hosts Sam’s latest leapee, celebrity sex therapist Dr Ruth Westheimer. While Sam works to fix the tumultuous relationship of two of Ruth’s colleagues, Al takes advantage of the therapist’s presence in the future to get some advice on his own romantic woes. In fact, this turns out to be the real purpose of Sam’s leap. A highlight of Al’s therapy is when Ruth gets him to use the word “breasts”, but only after he’s hilariously avoided it with every euphemism under the sun.

Al’s 10 Best “Quantum Leap” Episodes

Zoetrope Update

During Lockdown 1.0 I made a zoetrope and shot a number of time-lapses and animations with my 35mm SLR to go in it. Below is an update on this project, but first here are the links to the earlier posts about it, in case you missed them:

Although the zoetrope itself turned out very nicely – all the more surprising because I’m terrible at DIY – the content did not. I concluded that any future efforts needed to be very simple, bold and high-contrast.

Recently I got around to shooting a couple of new animations. This time, instead of detailed, complex or subtle efforts like sunlight moving across rotting apples or Lego minifigs passing each other in the street, I went back to basics. Inspired by typical animations supplied with zoetropes in the Victorian era, I created loops of a figure walking and running.

First of all I drew out the 18 frames of each cycle using online reference material. I wanted to shoot in natural light so I rigged a black backdrop outside on the patio. Dressed in my lightest-toned clothes, I adopted the 18 positions of the walk cycle one by one as my flatmate clicked my Pentax P30t’s shutter. Then I went through the run cycle in the same way to complete the roll of 36 exposures. We used Ilford Delta 3200 film, one second of exposure time and a pinhole (purely so I could say I had made and exhibited a motion picture without ever using a lens). By the time we finished, the light had fallen off a stop or two.

When I got the material into the darkroom I under-exposed the contact prints (making them lighter) because I had learnt that a spinning zoetrope darkens the image considerably. After all, you are only viewing it through tiny slots; what you’re mostly looking at is the opaque outside of the drum. I always print on multigrade paper which means that the contrast can be adjusted using a special set of colour filters. In this case I used the 4½ filter (on a scale where 0 produces the softest contrast and 5 the hardest) to get the boldest possible look. The resulting prints still looked very milky, especially the running one which I’d had to brighten more to compensate for the light falling off, but that was what I knew I needed.

When I got home and tried them in the zoetrope, the running animation just didn’t have enough contrast in it to work. The walking animation works better but still isn’t as good as I’d hoped. I think that what’s really required is strong studio lighting absolutely blasting the subject, a completely white outfit, and a backdrop with all light flagged off it.

The learning process continues!

The results look better in this video than they actually are, because the phone I shot it on conducted its own process of reducing the motion into discrete frames for your device and brain to reassemble.

Zoetrope Update