“The Little Mermaid”: Prep Diary Part 2

This is the second part of my flashback to spring 2016 and the pre-production for The Little Mermaid. Part one is here.

 

Weeks 3 & 4

Nothing much seems to happen the third week of prep. After the Shirley shoot finishes on Monday, I take Tuesday off. I’m so exhausted I can barely move, which bodes ill for the 26-day slog of principal photography that’s coming up! Things are quiet in the office on Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday is Good Friday so it’s a holiday. The three-day weekend is enjoyable but also frustrating given how much prep there is still to do.

Next Monday I go scouting with Anthony, the new locations manager. He takes us to a quarry ten minutes down the road from the office, where we finally find the cliff we’ve been searching for since prep began. The location has a lot of potential for many scenes, so we’re very pleased. (Ultimately it went unused because of safety concerns.)

On Tuesday there’s a page turner, which is like a table read only without the cast. We spend five hours going through the script, asking questions and addressing issues that might come up. I try to clarify certain things in the script and make sure everyone knows how Chris, the director, wants to approach things. (He’s just a talking head on my iPad right now, due to visa delays.)

Gaffer Mike and key grip Jason have arrived in town for the page turner, and on Wednesday morning we get down to the business of writing a lighting list. It’s difficult for me to get my head around the crew structure here in the States. The gaffer is the head of the electrical department, so they only deal with lamps and distro. Flags, cutters, nets, black-out, bounce boards and so on are handled by the grip department, led of course by the key grip… who also handles the camera grip, like cranes and dollies.

Most of the rest of the week is spent visiting locations with Anthony, Mike and Jason, while the latter two finesse the list and get quotes. On Wednesday evening I convene the camera department to debrief from the Shirley shoot and discuss what can be done to improve the crew structure, equipment package and workflow.

By the weekend it stills feel like there is much to figure out, and there is only one week left before principal photography begins. Still, I won’t be sorry to say goodbye to office work and get back on set.

 

Week 5

It’s the last week of preproduction and we should be spending it doing tech scouts and production meetings. But unfortunately many HoDs have been hired late, and there are lots of locations left to find, so it’s a frustrating week for me, waiting for stuff to happen. I try to nail down the grip and electrical items which are only required on specific dates, but it looks like some of that will have to be done as we go along.

I spend more time location scouting with Anthony, during which I realise just how time-consuming it is to drive around, spot possible places, make friends with the owners and just get to the stage where any of the crew can check it out.

We visit a possible beach location, a nice little spot on the same island we did the Shirley Shoot on. Chris, still unable to enter the US, participates by video call. He wants me to roll up my trousers and test the water, because the principal cast will have to spend hours in it. It’s nice enough for a paddle, but I don’t think I’d want to spend a day up to my waist in it. (Actually, that’s exactly what I and several other cast and crew end up doing.)

As the week goes on I spend less and less time at the office, because there simply isn’t much left I can do. I occupy my evenings swimming in the pool and binge-watching season one of Outlander, which Starz have made free for a couple of weeks here in the US. The cinematography in the first couple of episodes is utterly stunning, in fact it’s the most beautiful cinematography I’ve ever seen. It’s very inspirational, and I have a couple of good ideas for lighting A Little Mermaid as I watch it. (Recently I had the exciting chance to ask David Higgs BSC about lighting the Outlander pilot, for an article in the January issue of British Cinematographer.)

Chris finally arrives on Saturday, two days before the shoot. In the evening there’s a “pre-game” party by the pool. It finally feels like we’re making a movie. The equipment has all arrived, and there are trucks and trailers parked outside the production office.

On Sunday we do the closest we’re going to get to a tech scout. It’s great to be able to walk around a location with the directors at last. (Writer Blake has joined Chris as a co-director.) I try to use Helios, a sun tracker app, to work out when the sun will hit the back of the house, but in the end I trust my own estimation better. I whip out my light meter to check the contrast ratio between sunlight and shade; it’s 8:1 (3 stops), well within the Alexa’s dynamic range, but setting up an ultrabounce to fill in the shadows, as the key grip suggests, will make the image much more pleasing to the eye.

I figure out the broad strokes of the lighting for the interiors and let the G&E (grip and electric) team know the plan. With Larry, the 1st AD, I discuss how we’re going to maximise our two cameras in order to make our day.

I can’t believe we’re about to start principal at last. Five weeks is by far the longest prep time I’ve ever had for a movie. It’s feels like I’ve been here forever! But I’m only halfway through my time in Savannah…

Here are links to my diary entries from the shoot:

The Little Mermaid is currently available on Netflix around the world.

“The Little Mermaid”: Prep Diary Part 2

“The Little Mermaid”: Prep Diary Part 1

I’ll soon be starting five weeks of prep for a feature, and it’s got me thinking about the five weeks I spent in the spring of 2016 prepping The Little Mermaid. I published a number of entries from my production diary when the film was released, but the entries from pre-production have gone unseen… until now…

 

JANuary 12th, 2016

It is four or five months since Chris, the director, first mentioned the project to me. In that time he has been developing the script with the writer and producers, and I’ve read a draft or two. Last week I was introduced to the producers by email, and today Chris and I get together to start chatting about the film.

It’s just broad strokes today, nothing structured, nothing firm. He talks me through the next round of script changes and we watch some bits of DVDs I’ve brought. I’m not thinking photographically yet, just tone and genre, so we watch parts of The Rocketeer and Big Fish. I start to get some basic ideas of what Chris does and doesn’t like.

Yesterday I went to the library to get my head around the geography of the state our story is set in, and bit of the history and culture. I found a book called Photographing America and it has some interesting plates from the Deep South in the 30s and 40s. They set the stage for me in terms of architecture, landscape and clothing, but their gritty black and white photography is not appropriate for this film.

Chris and I Skype Fabio, the line producer, and later have a brief conference call with producers Armando and Rob. At this stage it is just about introductions. Chris enthuses about me to them, and curates some stills from Ren: The Girl with the Mark to wow them with. Armando responds positively – it’s just the look he’s after for this. Well, this is the second feature job Ren’s got me. Cheers, Kate!

 

Week 1

Since that day in London with Chris, I’ve done bits and pieces of prep around finishing up post on Ren. The script went through a few more drafts, I joined in a few conference calls with members of the team, and started a shot list.

But on March 5th I fly into Savannah, Georgia and I’m straight into full-time prep, living and breathing A Little Mermaid.

On Sunday I wake early, my body still five hours ahead of US East Coast Time. After talking to Chris, who’s still in the UK due to visa delays, I take a ten-minute walk through the sunny streets of Savannah to meet David, the storyboard artist. We eat blueberry pancakes with maple syrup and he shows me his boards for the movie’s finale. Chris Skypes in and we discuss the priorities. We need about 15 more sequences boarded – at least key frames – ASAP so that production designer Jay can be sure to accommodate our needs in the sets he is already starting to build.

At noon I head over to an apartment complex where Jay and line producer Fabio are staying. This place has a pool so I’m getting myself moved here as soon as I can. We spend seven or eight hours, with Chris on Skype, going through the schedule line by line, making sure everything is doable and everything is in the most efficient order.

Poppy Drayton is playing our mermaid. Back at the apartment I watch a trailer for The Shannara Chronicles and screen-capture all her close-ups. I analyse the lighting in each one, labelling them accordingly in a folder. Her time on this production is limited so I probably won’t get to camera-test her; I need to figure out how to light her based on what other DPs have done.

Monday is my first day at the warehouse. It’s an old supermarket that’s been gutted. There are four or five small offices and then a huge open space, part of which is occupied by the bones of the “rocky pool” set.

The week soon settles into a blur of video calls with Chris, interviews with potential camera assistants and gaffers, and lots of discussions about sets and locations. It’s really exciting to be shown around the space by Jay as he describes all the sets he’s going to build. For some scenes there is a lot of back and forth about whether they should be studio or location. We are working with a child actress and Chris is very keen to get the best performances, so the level of control we could get in the studio is very appealing, but that must be balanced against our art department budget.

I’m assigned an office that’s just 6ft square but is very cool because it has a sort of camera obscura in the door so I can see a little projection of what’s outside. Of course the door doesn’t really close properly (particularly once I’ve run an extension cable in to compensate for the lack of functioning power sockets in the room) but never mind. By mid-week I have a monitor to hook my Mac Mini up to and I’m properly in business.

I task the PAs with printing out the script and taping it in a long line of pages along a wall along with the corresponding storyboards. Eventually we will add reference images and concept art, if I can ever get access to a functioning colour printer!

A little bit of location scouting takes place during the week. We check out a nice rustic field behind the studio where we’ll set up our circus, we visit a fort in the hope that it might work for a scene near the finale (it doesn’t) and I take a look around the beach house we’ll be shooting the film’s present-day book-ends in on March 20th and 21st. (Principal photography starts April 11th.)

Another issue to be decided is which camera to shoot on. Initially we discussed having lots of cameras, which meant going with Reds for budgetary reasons. The Panasonic Varicam is suggested, and I’m almost flown to Atlanta to test it, but in the end we decide to go with Alexas, thank God. (With hindsight, I really should have gone and tested that Varicam. I was irrationally against all non-Alexa cameras at this time.) We’ll have two bodies, one for me and one for a B camera operator who will sometimes splinter off into a 2nd unit. The glass will be Cooke S4s with a half Soft FX filter, the exact same recipe as Heretiks. I know this will give me the organic, period feel that A Little Mermaid needs, as well as the magical quality. We’ll also have a couple of Optimo zooms in the kit, a luxury we couldn’t afford on Heretiks.

By the end of the week I’ve pretty much locked down the camera kit, finished the shot list for the whole movie, and hired 1st and 2nd ACs and a 2nd Unit DP. We still don’t have a gaffer, which is worrying. The crew pool in Savannah is not huge and we’re struggling to find people with enough experience.

On Saturday, aside from a couple of hours in the studio, I chill out. I’ve now moved to the same apartment complex as the rest of the crew, and I’ve just had a very nice dip in the pool. I think I might just have the best job in the world.

 

Week 2

At the end of this week we have our two-day “pre-shoot” with Shirley MacLaine, to capture the contemporary bookends to what is otherwise a 1930s story. Peter Falk’s scenes in The Princess Bride are an inevitable reference for these.

Director Chris is still having visa issues, so writer Blake will be on helming duty for the pre-shoot. He gives me Maggie Smith’s storytelling scene in Hook as a reference. I haven’t seen the movie in ages, so I rent it and watch the whole thing, delighting in the beautiful cinematography. I love the candy blues and hot pinks of Wendy’s London home, and will aim to emulate them.

A lot of this week is taken up with locking down equipment and personnel for the pre-shoot. The biggest issue as the week opens is that I still don’t have a gaffer. With my options limited – and despite a brief panic during which flying my UK gaffer out here seems like a very real possibility – I pick someone on a trial basis. If they do a good job for the pre-shoot they’ll get hired for principal.

Because the gaffer is hired so late, putting together a lighting list is my responsibility. I hate doing this, because I always forget stuff and piss everyone off at the last minute by making additions or changes. Like forgetting to check whether the HMIs are pars or fresnels. (I always want fresnels because they produce better shafts of light.)

With equipment and crew in place, my attention turns towards principal for a little while. The VFX supervisor, Rich, has flown in from LA, and together we scout some locations. Unfortunately none of the locations are locked yet and the options we are given to look at are far from ideal. But we have a good session going through the shot list together, checking that there aren’t any VFX requirements that he missed in his breakdown.

We also discuss shooting format, which is generally going to be 2K ProRes 4444. He wants me to shoot green-screen shots in Arri Raw, but after he’s gone I realise that we don’t have the right Codex on our cameras for that. 3.2K ProRes will have to do. Another good tip Rich gave me is to expose the green-screen at key (i.e. the same light reading on the green-screen as on the talent’s face) or up to half a stop over.

I’m glad I invested in a light meter, which arrived at the studio this week. It also comes in handy during another scout of the pre-shoot location. We have some night shots on the beach, which will have to be shot at dusk because it’s too big an area to light artificially. During the scout I take light readings on the beach at dusk, and determine that we have until 7:50pm, 20 minutes after sunset, before it is too dark to shoot.

If you want to follow the chronology, my diary entries about the “pre-shoot” are here.

Tune in next week for my diary entries from the remaining three weeks of prep. The Little Mermaid is still on Netflix if you fancy checking it out.

“The Little Mermaid”: Prep Diary Part 1

What is Negative Fill and How Do You Use It?

The 4×4 flags and matt silver bounce board used to shape the “Heretiks” shot later in the article.

If you’ve ever learnt anything about lighting, you’ll have heard of the Three Point System: key, backlight and fill. That last one is a soft light which raises the shadows and reduces contrast in the image.

As you might expect, negative fill is the exact opposite. It brings the shadows down, increasing contrast. It’s a big part of cinematography today because the dynamic range of digital cameras is so wide and their light sensitivity is so high that taking away light has become just as important as adding it.

Negative fill – neg fill or just neg for short – can be accomplished with anything black, most commonly a polystyrene board (American name: bead-board), blackout material (usually bolton in the UK or duvetyne in the US) or a flag. 5-in-1 reflectors have a black side that can be used for neg fill too. The term solids or black solids can be applied to any of these tools, indicating that they are completely opaque, as opposed to nets.

When DPs talk about neg fill you often hear the word “shape” come up in their reasoning. Neg fill is typically applied to the camera side (broad side) of the talent, allowing their other side (short side) to remain bright. This has the effect of making the face – or any other object – look more three-dimensional. Hence “shape”. (This is all part of the theory of short key lighting, which I’ve covered in detail before.)

Below is an example from my online course, Cinematic Lighting. In these before and after shots, I use the black side of a 5-in-1 reflector (though you see silver facing camera) to neg-fill Ivan’s short side, adding mood and contrast.

We made it more permanent by replacing the reflector with a 4×4′ floppy flag on a C-stand.

Here’s an example from Heretiks where I chose to put a glint of light back into the darkness created by the neg fill, by using a matt silver reflector to create a rim-light. (There are many more diagrams like this on my Instagram feed.)

Neg fill is most commonly used outdoors, but it can be desirable indoors too, for example when white walls are bouncing light around everywhere. For the shot below from Exit Eve, I had the white wall behind camera covered with bolton so that the light would all be coming from behind the talent. (See my article on lighting from the back.)

In the café scene from Above the Clouds we shot towards the windows, but there was still too much ambience (mainly from skylights in the roof) on the camera sides of the actors for my taste. We only had a limited supply of flags, so we pressed the sides of the Easy-Up tent into service too!

I’ll leave you with this extreme example of negative fill from Instagram.

 

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What is Negative Fill and How Do You Use It?

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

The far side of the moon (frame 29) as shot by Luna 3

It is 1959. Just two years have passed since the launch of the USSR’s Sputnik 1 satellite blew the starting whistle for the Space Race. Sputnik 2, carrying poor Laika the dog, and the American satellite Explorer 1 swiftly followed. Crewed spaceflight is still a couple of years away, but already the eyes of the world’s superpowers have turned to Earth’s nearest neighbour: the moon.

Early attempts at sending probes to the moon were disastrous, with the first three of America’s Pioneer craft crashing back to Earth, while a trio of Soviet attempts exploded on launch. Finally the USSR’s Luna 1 – intended to crash-land on the surface – at least managed a fly-by. Luna 2 reached its target, becoming the first man-made object on the moon in September 1959.

The stage is now set for Luna 3. Its mission: to photograph the far side of the moon.

Luna 3

Our planet and its natural satellite are in a state known as tidal locking, meaning that the moon takes the same length of time to circle the earth as it does to rotate around its own axis. The result is that the same side of the moon always faces us here on Earth. Throughout all of human history, the far side has been hidden to us.

But how do you take a photograph a quarter of a million miles away and return that image to Earth with 1950s technology?

At this point in time, television has been around for twenty years or so. But the images are transient, each frame dancing across the tube of a TV camera at, say, Alexandra Palace, oscillating through the air as VHF waves, zapping down a wire from an aerial, and ultimately driving the deflecting coils of a viewer’s cathode ray tube to paint that image on the phosphorescent screen for a 50th of a second. And then it’s gone forever.

For a probe on the far side of the moon, with 74 million million million tonnes of rock between it and the earthbound receiving station, live transmission is not an option. The image must somehow be captured and stored.

Video tape recorders have been invented by 1959, but the machines are enormous and expensive. At the BBC, most non-live programmes are still recorded by pointing a film camera at a live TV monitor.

And it is film that will make Luna 3’s mission possible. Enemy film in fact, which the USSR recovered, unexposed, from a CIA spy balloon. Resistant to radiation and extremes of temperature, the 35mm isochromatic stock is chosen by Soviet scientists to be loaded into Luna 3’s AFA-Ye1 camera, part of its Yenisey-2 imaging system.

Luna 3 launches on October 4th, 1959 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in what will one day be Kazakhstan. A modified R-7 rocket inserts the probe into a highly elliptical Earth orbit which, after some over-heating and communications issues are resolved, brings it within range of the moon three days later.

The mission has been timed so that the far side of the moon is in sunlight when Luna 3 reaches it. A pioneering three-axis stabilisation system points the craft (and thus the camera, which cannot pan independently) at the side of the moon which no-one has seen before. A photocell detects the bright surface and triggers the Yenisey-2 system. Alternating between 200mm f/5.6 and 500mm f/9.5 lenses, the camera exposes 29 photographs on the ex-CIA film.

The AFA-Ye1 camera

Next that film must be processed, and Luna 3 can’t exactly drop it off at Snappy Snaps. In fact, the Yenisey-2 system contains a fully automated photo lab which develops, fixes and dries the film, all inside a 1.3x1m cylinder tumbling through the vacuum of space at thousands of miles per hour.

Now what? Returning a spacecraft safely to Earth is beyond human ability in 1959, though the following year’s Vostok missions will change all that. Once Luna 3 has swung around the moon and has line of sight to the receiving stations on Earth, the photographic negatives must be converted to radio broadcasts.

To that end, Yenisey-2 incorporates a cathode ray tube which projects a beam of light through the negative, scanning it at a 1,000-line resolution. A photocell on the other side receives the beam, producing a voltage inversely proportional to the density of the negative. This voltage frequency-modulates a radio signal in the same way that fax machines use frequency-modulated audio to send images along phone lines.

Attempts to transmit the photographs begin on October 8th, and after several failures, 17 images are eventually reconstructed by the receiving stations in Crimea and Kamchatka. They are noisy, they are blocky, they are monochromatic, but they show a sight that has been hidden from human eyes since the dawn of time. Featuring many more craters and mountains and many fewer “seas” than the side we’re used to, Luna 3’s pictures prompt a complete rethink of the moon’s history.

Its mission accomplished, the probe spirals in a decaying orbit until it finally burns up in Earth’s atmosphere. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight will capture the public imagination, and unmanned space missions will suddenly seem much less interesting.

But next time you effortlessly WhatsApp a photo to a friend, spare a thought for the remarkable engineering that one day sent never-before-seen photographs across the gulf of space without the aid of digital imaging.

One of the 500mm exposures
Luna 3: Photographing the Far Side of the Moon without Digital Technology

24fps or 25fps, which is best?

The monitor overlays here show how “Annabel Lee” was shot at 24fps with a shutter angle of 172.8 to prevent flickering of non-incandescent light sources, a typical recipe for UK filmmakers today.

An article of mine from 2014 weighing the merits of shooting at 24 vs. 25 frames per second has recently been getting a lot of hits. I’m surprised that there’s still so much uncertainty around this issue, because for me it’s pretty clear-cut these days.

When I started out making films at the turn of the millennium, 25fps (or its interlaced variant, 50i) was the only option for video. The tapes ran at that speed and that was that. Cathode ray tube TVs were similarly inflexible, as was PAL DVD when it emerged.

Film could be shot at 24fps, and generally was for theatrical movies, since most cinema projectors only run at that speed, but film for television was shot at 25fps.

Three big technological shifts occurred in the late noughties: the delivery of video over the internet, flat-screen TVs and tapeless cameras. All of these support multiple frame rates, so gradually we found that we had a choice. At the start of a shoot, as a DP I would have to ask which frame rate to set.

The frame rate and resolution menu from my old Canon 600D, the first time I owned a camera that could shoot 24fps.

Americans and others in NTSC regions are in a different situation. Their TV standard of 30fps has a discernibly different look to the international movie standard of 24fps, so the choice of frame rate is as much creative as it is technical. I don’t think anyone can tell the difference between 24 and 25fps, even on a subconscious level, so in Europe it seems we must decide on a purely technical basis.

But in fact, the decision is as much about what people are used to as anything else. I shot a feature film pilot once on 35mm at 25fps and it really freaked out the lab simply because they weren’t used to it.

I shot the 35mm pilot for “The Dark Side of the Earth” (2008) at 25fps because tapes still played a part in postproduction at that time. Today I would not hesitate to shoot at 24.

And what people seem to be most used to and comfortable with in the UK today is 24fps. It offers the most compatibility with digital cinemas and Blu-ray without needing frame rate conversion. (Some cinemas can play 25fps DCPs, and Blu-rays support 25fps in a 50i wrapper which might not play in a lot of US machines, but 24 is always a safer bet for these formats.)

Historically, flickering of non-incandescent light sources and any TV screens in shot was a problem when shooting 24fps in the UK. These days it’s very easy to set your shutter to 172.8° (if your camera measures it as an angle) or 1/50th (if your camera measures it as an interval). This ensures that every frame – even though there are 24 of them per second – captures 1/50th of a second, in sync with the 50Hz mains supply.

 

The Times when 25fps is best

There are some situations in which 25fps is still the best or only option though, most notably when you’re shooting something intended primarily for broadcast on a traditional TV channel in the UK or Europe. The same goes if your primary distribution is on PAL DVD, which I know is still the case for certain types of corporate and educational videos.

Once I was puzzled by a director’s monitor not working on a short film shoot, and discovered that it didn’t support 24fps signals, so I had to choose 25 as my frame rate for that film. So it might be worth checking your monitors if you haven’t shot 24fps with them before.

“Finding Hope” was shot at 25fps simply because the director’s monitor wouldn’t accept 24fps signals.

Finally, if your film contains a lot of archive material or stock footage at 25fps, it makes sense to match that frame rate.

Whichever frame rate you ultimately choose, always discuss it with your postproduction team ahead of time to make sure that you’re all on the same page.

24fps or 25fps, which is best?

“Superman II” Retrospective

At Christmas 1978, when Superman: The Movie opened to enthusiastic reviews and record-breaking box office, it was no surprise that a sequel was in the works. What was unusual was that the majority of that sequel had already been filmed, and stranger still, much of it would be re-filmed before Superman II hit cinemas two years later.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic-book icon had made several superhuman leaps to the screen by the 1970s, but Superman: The Movie was the first big-budget feature film. Producer Pierre Spengler and executive producer father/son team Alexander and Ilya Salkind purchased the rights from DC Comics in 1974 and made a deal to finance not one but two Superman movies on the understanding that Warner Bros. would buy the finished products. Salkind senior had unintentionally pioneered back-to-back shooting the previous year when he decided to split The Three Musketeers – originally intended as a three-hour epic – into two shorter films.

After packaging Superman I and II with A-listers Marlon Brando (as Kryptonian patriarch Jor-El) and Gene Hackman (as the villainous Lex Luthor), the producers hired The Omen director Richard Donner to helm the massive production. Donner cast the unknown Christopher Reeve in the title role, while John Williams was signed to compose what would prove to be one of the most famous soundtracks in cinematic history. Like many big genre productions of the time – Star Wars and Alien to name but two – Superman set up camp in England, with cameras rolling for the first time on March 24th, 1977.

Tom Mankeiwicz (creative consultant), Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Richard Donner (director), Pierre Spengler (producer). Brando is dressed in black to isolate his head for the Fortress of Solitude hologram effects.

“We were shooting scenes from the two films simultaneously, according to production conveniences,” explained creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz in a 2001 documentary. “So when we had Gene Hackman we were shooting scenes from II and scenes from I, or when we were in the Daily Planet we were shooting scenes from both pictures in the Daily Planet, while you were in that set.”

Today – largely thanks to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – we are used to enormous, multi-year productions with crew numbers in four figures, but the scale of the dual Superman shoot was unprecedented at the time, eventually reaching nineteen months in duration. It was originally scheduled for eight.

“Dick [Donner] never in the course of the picture got a budget; he never got a schedule,” claimed Mankiewicz. “He was constantly told that he was over schedule, way over budget, but nobody told him what that budget was or how much he was over that budget.”

Given that overspends were funded by Warner Bros. in return for more distribution rights, Spengler and the Salkinds were watching the value of their huge investment trickle away. So despite Donner’s popularity with the rest of the cast and crew, his relationship with the producers became ever more strained, to the point where they weren’t even on speaking terms.

Richard Lester directed iconic Swinging Sixties films like “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Knack… and How to Get It”.

Ilya Salkind suggested bringing in The Three Musketeers director Richard Lester, who agreed on condition that he would be paid monies still owed to him from that earlier film. By some accounts his role on Superman was that of a mediator between the director and the producers, by others he was a co-producer, second unit director or even a back-up director in case Donner cracked under the pressure of the endless shoot. “Where does this leave… Donner?” asked a newspaper report of the time. “‘Nervous,’ a cast member says.”

Eventually, with the first movie’s release date looming, the filmmakers decided on a change of plan. Superman II would be placed on the back burner in order to prioritise finishing Superman: The Movie – and get it earning money as quickly as possible. At this point, three quarters of the sequel was already in the can, including all scenes featuring Brando and Hackman, both of whom had had contractual wrap dates to meet.

Superman: The Movie was a hit, but Donner would not direct the remainder of its sequel. “They have to want me to do it,” he said of the producers at the time. “It has to be on my terms and I don’t mean financially, I mean control.” Of Spengler specifically, Donner was reported to bluntly state, “If he’s on it – I’m not.”

And indeed Donner was not. The Salkinds had no intention of acceding to his demands. Instead, the former mediator Richard Lester was hired to complete Superman II, and Donner received a telegram telling him that his services were no longer required. “I was ready to get on an airplane and kill,” he recalled years later, “because they were taking my baby away from me.”

Master of miniatures Derek Meddings wets down the New York street. Many miniature effects were reshot simply so Lester could claim directorship of them.

Meanwhile Brando was trying (unsuccessfully) to sue the producers over royalties, and demanded a significant cut of the box office gross from the sequel. Rather than pay this, the producers elected to re-film his scenes, replacing Jor-El with Superman’s mother Lara, as played by Susannah York.

It was far from the only reshooting of Superman II footage that took place. Ironically, given the earlier budget concerns, Lester was permitted to redo large chunks of Donner’s material with a rewritten script in order to earn a credit as director under guild rules. Major changes included a new opening sequence on the Eiffel Tower, Lois Lane’s realisation of Clark Kent’s true identity after he trips and falls into a fireplace, and a different ending in which a magic kiss from Clark erases that realisation from her memory.

Some of the reshoots included Lex Luthor material, but Hackman declined to return out of loyalty to Donner; the result is the fairly obvious use of a double in the climactic Fortress of Solitude scene. The deaths of Geoffrey Unsworth and John Barry, plus creative differences between Lester and John Williams, meant that the sequel team also featured a new DP (Robert Paynter), production designer (Peter Murton) and composer (Ken Thorne) respectively, although significant contributions from all of the original HODs remain in the finished film.

Comparing his own directing style with Donner’s, Lester told interviewers, “I think that Donner was emphasising a kind of grandiose myth… There was a type of epic quality which isn’t in my nature… I’m more quirky and I play around with slightly more unexpected silliness.” Indeed his material is characterised by visual gags and a generally less serious approach, which he would continue into Superman III (1983).

Although some of the unused Donner scenes were incorporated into TV screenings over the years, it was not until the 2001 DVD restoration of the first movie that interest began to build in a release for the full, unseen version of the sequel. When Brando’s footage was rediscovered a few years later, it could finally become a reality.

Footage from Margot Kidder’s 35mm screen test was incorporated into the Donner Cut to show Lois Lane discovering Clark Kent’s true identity. Although causing some minor continuity errors, the scene is far more intelligent than Lester’s rug-tripping revelation.

“I don’t think there is [another] film that had so much footage shot and not used,” remarked editor Michael Thau. A vast cataloguing and restoration effort was undertaken to make useable the footage which had been sitting in Technicolor’s London vault for a quarter of a century. Donner and Mankiewicz returned to oversee and approve the process, which used only the minimum of Lester material necessary to tell a complete story, plus footage from Reeve’s and Margot Kidder’s 35mm screen tests.

Released on DVD in 2006, the Donner Cut suffers from the odd cheap visual effect used to plug plot holes, and a familiar turning-back-time ending which was originally scripted for the sequel but moved to the first film at the last minute. However, for fans of Superman: The Movie, this version of Superman II is much closer in tone and ties in much better in story terms too. The Donner Cut is also less silly than the theatrical version, though it must be said that Lester’s humour contributed in no small part to the sequel’s original success.

Whichever version you prefer, 40 years on from its first release, Superman II is still a fun and thrilling adventure with impressive visuals and an utterly believable central performance from the late, great Christopher Reeve.

“Superman II” Retrospective

Finding the Positive in 2020

This year hasn’t been great for anyone. It certainly hasn’t for me. Even as I’m writing this I’m hearing the news that, in a staggeringly foreseeable U-turn, the Christmas bubble rules have been severely restricted. So how to wrap up this stinker of a year?

I considered making this article about the pandemic’s impact on the film and TV industries and speculating about which changes might be permanent. But who needs more doom and gloom? Not me.

Instead, here are six positive things that I accomplished this year:

  1. We shot the final block of War of the Worlds: The Attack in February/March, and I was recently shown a top-secret trailer which is very exciting. There is plenty of post work still to do on this modern-day reimagining of the H.G. Wells classic, but hopefully it will see the light of day in a year or so.
  2. After a couple of lax years, I got back to blogging regularly. This site now has a staggering 1,250 posts!
  3. I completed and released my first online course, Cinematic Lighting, which has proven very popular. It currently has over 1,000 students and a star rating which has consistently hovered around 4.5 out of 5.
  4. I made a zoetrope and shot several 35mm timelapses and animations for it, which was a nice lockdown project. Even though the animations didn’t come out that well they were fun to do, and the zoetrope itself is just a cool object to keep on the shelf.
  5. I wrote my first article for British Cinematographer, the official magazine of the BSC, which will be published on January 15th. In the process I got to interview (albeit by email) several DPs I’ve admired for a while including David Higgs BSC, Colin Watkinson ASC, BSC and Benedict Spence.
  6. The lockdown gave me the time to update my showreel. Who knows if I’ll ever work again as a DP, but if not, at least I can look back with pride at some of the images I’ve captured over the years.

Despite the restrictions, I hope all my readers manage to find some joy, love and comfort over the festive period. And if not, just consume a lot of mulled wine and chocolate; it’s the next best thing.

In a tradition I’ve neglected for a few years, I’ll leave you with a rundown of my ten favourite blog posts from 2020.

  1. “The Rise of Anamorphic Lenses in TV” – a look at some of the shows embracing oval bokeh and horizontal flares
  2. “5 Steps to Lighting a Forest at Night” – breaking down how to light a place that realistically shouldn’t have any light
  3. Above the Clouds: The Spoiler Blogs” – including how we faked a plane scene with a tiny set-piece in the director’s living room
  4. “Working with White Walls” – analysing a couple of short films where I found ways to make the white-walled locations look more cinematic
  5. “10 Clever Camera Tricks in Aliens – the genius of vintage James Cameron
  6. “The Cinematography of Chernobyl – how DP Jakob Ihre used lighting and lensing to tell this horrifying true story
  7. “5 Things Bob Ross Can Teach Us About Cinematography” – who knew that the soft-spoken painter had so much movie-making widsom?
  8. “5 Ways to Fake Firelight” – a range of ways to simulate the dynamics of flames, from the low-tech to the cutting edge
  9. “A Post-lockdown Trip to the Cinema” – an account of the projection sacrilege commited against a classic movie in my first fleapit trip of the Covid era
  10. “Exposure” (four-part series) – in-depth explanations of aperture, ND filters, shutter angles and ISO
Finding the Positive in 2020

A Cinematographer’s Guide to Looking Good on a Webcam

This night shot is lit by a desk-lamp bounced off the wall behind and to the left of camera, plus the monitor light and the Christmas lights you can see at frame left. The background is lit by a reading lamp bounced off the ceiling (just out of frame right) and more Christmas lights.

It may be the beginning of the end for Covid-19, but it doesn’t look like home working and video calls are going away any time soon. We’re very lucky that we have such technology in the midst of a global pandemic, but let’s be honest: webcams don’t always make us look our best. Having lit and photographed movies for 20 years, I’d like to share a few tips to improve your image on Zoom, WhatsApp, Google Meet or whatever your video call software of choice is.

Firstly, low camera angles are not flattering to many people. Wherever possible, set up your webcam so that it’s at eye-level or a little above. If you’re using a laptop, this might mean stacking a few books under the device. Consider investing in a laptop stand that will raise the monitor and camera up if you’re going to be doing this a lot.

Avoid placing the camera too close yourself. A medium close-up works best for most video calls, head and shoulders at the closest, or down to your waist if you like to gesticulate a lot. Follow the classic rules of composition and make the most of your camera’s resolution by framing your head near the top of the shot, rather than leaving a lot of empty headroom above yourself.

It’s important to be aware of automatic exposure if you want to look your best on a webcam. Your camera and/or software continually assess the average luminance in the frame and alter the shutter speed or electronic gain to achieve what they think is the correct exposure. Since webcams have very poor dynamic range – they can’t handle a great deal of contrast within the frame – you should think carefully about what elements in your shot could sway the auto-exposure.

For example, a bright white wall, window or table lamp in the background will cause the camera to reduce its exposure, darkening the overall image and perhaps turning you into a silhouette. Even the colour of top you’re wearing can be a factor. If you have a pale skin tone and you’re wearing a black top – prompting the camera to increase its exposure – you might well find that your face bleaches out.

The black hoodie causes the automatic exposure to rise, bleaching out my face.
The lighter tone of this t-shirt enables the automatic exposure to produce a balanced image.

This brings us to lighting. Most of us are used to lighting our homes and workspaces so that we can see what we’re doing comfortably, rather than worrying about how the light is falling on our own faces.

The clearest and most flattering type of lighting is generally a large, soft source roughly in front of and slightly above us, so if possible position your computer or webcam in front of a window. If direct sunlight comes in through this window, that is less ideal; try to cut it off with your curtains. The indirect light of sky and clouds is much softer and less likely to confuse the auto-exposure.

If you have little or no natural light to work with, the main source of light on your face might well be the monitor you’re looking at. In this case, what you have on your screen can make a huge difference. A blank white Word document is going to light you much more effectively than a paused Netflix frame from a horror movie.

Monitor light can leave you looking blue and ghostly, so consider placing a strategic window of pale orange colour on your virtual desktop to warm up your skin tone. Try adjusting the monitor’s brightness or switching to a darker desktop theme if your monitor is bleaching your face out completely.

Of course, your screen is not just a light source. You need to be able to use it for actually viewing things too, so a better solution is not to rely on it for light. Instead, create another soft source in front of and slightly above you by pointing a desk-lamp at the wall above your monitor. (If the wall is a dark or saturated colour, pin up something white to reflect the light.) The larger the patch of wall the lamp illuminates, the more softly your face will be lit.

You may find that your background now looks very dim, because little of the light from your monitor – or bouncing off the wall behind your monitor – is reaching it. Worse still, the auto-exposure might react to this dim background by over-exposing your face. In this case, use a second lamp to illuminate the background.

Often the room’s main ceiling light will do the job here, though it will likely result in an image that has an overall flat look to it. That might be just what you need for a professional video call, but if not, feel free to get creative with your background. Use table lamps to pick out certain areas, string up fairy lights, or whatever you feel best reflects your personality and profession.

The main thing is to get your “key light” right first – that’s the soft source in front of you that keeps you lit nicely. Everything after that is just icing on the cake.

This moodier shot has the much the same set-up as the image at the top of this post, but with a brighter light in the background and a dimmer light in the foreground.
A Cinematographer’s Guide to Looking Good on a Webcam

“A Cliché for the End of the World”

Photo: Catherine Ashenden

In August 2019 Jonnie Howard, director of The Knowledge, approached me about shooting an unusual short film with him. A Cliché for the End of the World is only two minutes long, but Jonnie wanted to shoot it as two unbroken takes which would be presented side by side. Each take would follow one character, starting and ending with them next to each other, but separating in the middle.

My first thought was that the two takes would have to be shot concurrently, but to squeeze two cameras into the small location and keep each out of the other’s frame would have been impossible. Instead, we settled on shooting with a single camera. After capturing 18 takes of the first side, Jonnie reviewed the footage with his editor Kat and selected one to use. We then shot the other side, with Kat calling out cues that would keep the actors in sync with the selected “master” take. (It took 18 takes to get this side in the can as well, partly because of getting the cues right and partly because of the difficulties Steadicam op Luke Oliver had in manoeuvring up the narrow staircase.)

The film had to be lit in a way that worked for both sides, with the camera starting in the living room looking towards the kitchen, moving up the stairs, through the landing and into the bedroom.

The HMI skips off the floor (left); Jeremy creates the dynamic look of TV light (right)

Working as usual to the general principle of lighting from the back, I set up a 2.5K HMI outside the kitchen window to punch a shaft of sunlight into the room. I angled this steeply so that it would not reach the actors directly, but instead bounce off the floor and light them indirectly. (See my article on lighting through windows.)

Gaffer Jeremy Dawson blacked out the living room windows to keep the foreground dark. He used an LED panel set to 6,600K (versus our camera’s white balance of 5,600K) to simulate an off-screen TV, waving a piece of black wrap in front of it to create dynamics.

The HMI outside (left); the diffused Dedo in the loft (right)

Next we needed to bring up the light levels for the actor’s journey up the stairs, which were naturally darker. Jeremy and spark Gareth Neal opened the loft hatch on the landing and rigged an LED Dedo inside, aimed at the darkest part of the staircase. They diffused this with some kind of net curtain I think.

To brighten the landing we set up a diffused 2×4 Kino Flo in the spare room and partially closed the door to give the light some shape. Both this and the loft Dedo were a couple of stops under key so as not to look too artificial.

Luke Oliver balances Jonnie’s C200 on his Steadicam rig.

All that remained was the bedroom. The characters were to end up sitting on the bed facing the window. Originally the camera in both takes was to finish facing them, with the window behind it, but this would have meant shadowing the actors, not to mention that space between the bed and the window was very limited. After some discussion between me, Jonnie, Luke, the cast, and production designer Amanda Stekly, we ended up moving the bed so that the camera could shoot the actors from behind, looking towards the window. This of course made for much more interesting and dimensional lighting.

The window looked out onto the street, and with a narrow pavement and no permission from the council, rigging a light outside was out of the question. Furthermore, we knew that the sun was going to shine right into that window later in the day, seriously messing with our continuity. Unfortunately all we could do was ask Amanda to dress in a net curtain. This took the worst of the harshness out of any direct sun and hopefully disguised the natural changes in light throughout the day at least a little.

When the sun did blast in through the window at about 6pm, we added a layer of unbleached muslin behind the net curtain to soften it further. We doubled this as the angle of the sun got more straight-on, then removed it entirely when the sun vanished behind the rooftops opposite at 7pm. About 20 minutes later we rigged a daylight LED panel in the room, bouncing off the ceiling, as a fill to counteract the diminishing natural light. We wrapped just as it was becoming impossible to match to earlier takes.

We were shooting in RAW on a Canon C200, which should give some grading latitude to help match takes from different times of day. The split-screen nature of the film means that the match needs to be very close though!

As I write this, the film is still in postproduction, and I very much look forward to seeing how it comes out. I’ll leave you with the start and end frames from slate 2, take 17, with a very quick and dirty grade.

“A Cliché for the End of the World”

The Hardest Shot I’ve Ever Done

It is night. We Steadicam into a moonlit bedroom, drifting across a window – where a raven is visible on the outside ledge, tapping at the glass with its beak – and land on a sleeping couple. The woman, Annabel, wakes up and goes to the window, causing the bird to flee. Crossing over to her far shoulder, we rest on Annabel’s reflection for a moment, before racking focus to another woman outside, maybe 200ft away, running towards a cliff. All in one shot.

Such was the action required in a scene from Annabel Lee, the most ambitious short I’ve ever been involved with. Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, the film was the brainchild of actor Angel Parker, who plays the titular character. It was directed by Amy Coop, who had already to decided to shoot on an Alexa Mini with Cooke Anamorphics before I was even hired.

Working with animals has its own difficulties, but for me as director of photography the challenges of this particular shot were:

  1. Making the bedroom appear moonlit by the single window, without any lamps being visible at any point in the Steadicam move.
  2. Lighting the view outside.
  3. Ensuring the live raven read on camera even though the shot was quite wide.
  4. Making Annabel bright enough that her reflection would read, without washing out the rest of the scene.
  5. Blocking the camera in concert with Annabel’s move so that its reflection would not be seen.

I left that last one in the capable hands of Steadicam op Rupert Peddle, along with Angel and Amy. What they ended up doing was timing Angel’s move so that she would block the window from camera at the moment that the camera’s reflection would have appeared.

Meanwhile, I put my head together with gaffer Bertil Mulvad to tackle the other four challenges. We arrived at a set-up using only three lights:

  1. A LiteMat 1 above the window (indoors) which served to light Annabel and her reflection, as well as reaching to the bed.
  2. Another LED source outside the window to one side, lighting the raven.
  3. A nine-light Maxibrute on a cherry-picker, side-lighting the woman outside and the cliffs. This was gelled with CTB to match the daylight LEDs.

Unfortunately the outside LED panel backlit the window glass, which was old and kept fogging up, obscuring the raven. With hindsight that panel might have been better on the other side of the window (left rather than right, but still outside), even though it would have created some spill problems inside. (To be honest, this would have made the lighting direction more consistent with the Maxibrute “moonlight” as well. It’s so easy to see this stuff after the fact!)

Everything else worked very well, but editor Jim Page did have to cut in a close-up of the raven, without which you’d never have known it was there.

The Hardest Shot I’ve Ever Done