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

Day 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Day 12

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

 

Day 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Day 14

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

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

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

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

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

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 2

Day 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Day 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Day 8

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

 

Day 9

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

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

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

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

 

Day 10

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

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

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

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

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 2

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 1

Day 1

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

Then we started shooting and the weather went bananas.

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

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

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

 

Day 2

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

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

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

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

 

Day 3

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

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

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

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

 

Day 4

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

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

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

 

Day 5

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

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

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

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

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 1

Undisclosed Project: Culmination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undisclosed Project: Culmination

Undisclosed Project: Observation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undisclosed Project: Observation

Undisclosed Project: Organisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undisclosed Project: Organisation

Undisclosed Project: Experimentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the edited highlights from the tests…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undisclosed Project: Experimentation

Undisclosed Project: Elevation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undisclosed Project: Elevation

Undisclosed Project: Iteration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undisclosed Project: Iteration

Undisclosed Project: Collaboration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undisclosed Project: Collaboration