5 Tips for Successful Pick-ups

Discussing the next set-up on the Ren pick-ups shoot with director Kate Madison. Photo: Michael Hudson
Discussing the next set-up on the Ren pick-ups shoot with director Kate Madison. Photo: Michael Hudson

Recently I’ve been involved in pick-ups shoots for a couple of projects I lensed last year: action-comedy feature The Gong Fu Connection and fantasy series Ren. Both pick-up shoots were strange experiences, featuring some very familiar aspects of the original shoot – locations, sets, costumes – but noticeably lacking others – certain actors, crew members and so on. The Ren pick-ups in particular were like re-living principal photography in microcosm, with stressful crowd shoots followed by more relaxed, smaller scenes and finally night shots with flaming arrows again!

A CTB-gelled Arrilite 1000 stands in for the 2.5K we used for backlight during principal photography on Ren! Photo: Michael Hudson
A CTB-gelled Arrilite 1000 stands in for the 2.5K HMI used for backlight during principal photography on Ren! Photo: Michael Hudson

I’ve blogged previously about how a director/producer can prepare for pick-ups – by keeping certain key props and costumes, for example – but today I have a few thoughts from a DP’s perspective.

1. Keep a record of lighting plans. I have a pretty good memory for my lighting set-ups, but not everyone does, so keeping notes is a good idea. Your gaffer may even do this for you. I frequently use this blog as a means of recording lighting set-ups, and indeed tried to access it during the Ren pick-ups shoot but was foiled by dodgy wifi.

2. Keep camera logs. On a properly crewed shoot this will be the 2nd AC’s job. The logs should include at least the following info for each slate: lens, aperture, ASA, white balance and shutter angle. This can be useful in principal photography too, for example if you shoot the two parts of a shot-reverse at different ends of the day or different days all together, and need to make sure you use the same lens.

Production assistant Claire Finn tends the brazier which provides smoke in the absence of the Artem smoke gun we used during principal photography. Photo: Michael Hudson
Production assistant Claire Finn tends the brazier which provides smoke in the absence of the Artem smoke gun used during principal photography. Photo: Michael Hudson

3. Have the original scene handy when you shoot the pick-ups. Load the edit onto a laptop or tablet so that you can compare it on set to the new material you’re framing up.

4. Own a bit of lighting kit if you can. In the shed I have some battered old Arrilites and a few other bits and pieces of gear that has seen better days. On a proper shoot I would leave this at home and have the production hire much better kit. But for pick-ups, when there’s often no money left, this stuff can come in handy.

5. Keep gels. If you employ an unusual colour of gel during principal photography, try to keep a piece of it in case you need to revisit that lighting set-up in pick-ups. Production will have to pay for the gel once it’s been used anyway. On the Ren pick-ups shoot, after pulling all of my gels out of the plastic kitchen bin I keep them in, I was relieved to find that I still had two pieces of the Urban Sodium gel I used in the flaming arrows scene the first time around.

Urban Sodium gel provides the grungy orange light for the flaming arrows scene, just as it did last November. Photo: Hermes Contreras
Urban Sodium gel provides the grungy orange light for the flaming arrows scene, just as it did last November. Photo: Hermes Contreras
5 Tips for Successful Pick-ups

Lighting Techniques #3: The Window Wrap

So, you’re shooting a daylight interior. You’ve got an HMI as your “sun” blasting in through the window, giving great backlight when characters are faced away from it, and casting some interesting windowframe shadows when they’re faced towards it. But what if they’re side on to the window?

One side of the actor’s face is hotly lit while the other is in complete shadow. Maybe it’s an edgy or scary scene and you want that look. Fine. But maybe not.

You could just use bounce to generally fill in the rest of the actor’s face. Sure, that will work. But The Window Wrap will look sexier.

Take a Kinoflo and set it up inside the room near enough to the window that the audience can buy it as window light but far enough around that it seems to wrap the harsh HMI light softly around the talent’s face. Crucially, as long as the camera is on the opposite side of the actor’s eyeline to the window, you’re still lighting their downside; the nearest part of their face is still the darkest, but now it’s a smoother transition between the bright light of the downside and the darkness of the upside.

Here’s an example from The Gong Fu Connection with writer/director/actor Ted Duran:


Sketch 2014-08-15 19_37_08

This technique was inspired by this lighting workshop video with Eric Kress, DP of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (original Swedish version).

Lighting Techniques #3: The Window Wrap

Lighting Techniques #2: Cross-backlighting

A common scenario in filmmaking is that you have two characters standing talking to each other and you need to do a two-shot and an over-the-shoulder of each. A quick way to light this kind of scene is cross-lighting: you set up two lamps so that each lamp serves as one character’s backlight and the other’s keylight.

I practice what I like to call cross-backlighting. What I mean by this is that the lamps are both on the opposite side of the actors’ eyeline to the camera. The result is that the downsides of their faces are lit. (Check out this post on key angles if you’re not sure what I mean by downside.)

This old Soul Searcher lighting featurette covers cross-backlighting around the 5:30 mark.

Here’s a super-recent example of cross-backlighting in action, on the set of The Gong Fu Connection. I’ve complicated things a bit though here. I’ve decided I want the characters’ keylights to be softer and cooler in colour than their backlights.


So there’s actually a dedo and an LED panel behind each actor. The camera is set to a white balance of 3,200K. Each dedo provides a strong, white backlight, narrowly focused so as not to spill onto the opposite actor’s face. The LED panels, positioned much closer to the talent, provide a slightly softer light with a dialled-in temperature of 4,500K.

Sketch 2014-08-15 07_29_38


For the close-ups I repurposed the LED panel that wasn’t being used as a background light, dialling it back to 3,200K to match with the location’s existing tungsten lighting that was already doing a lot of the work.


When we got to Carmina’s close-up I decided the LED panel alone was still too harsh, so I bounced it off the silver side of a collapsible reflector. I adjusted the panel to an angle where just a little direct light was hitting the side of Carmina’s face, and this kind of blends with the bounced light to provide a gentle wrapping illumination.

Stay tuned for more lighting techniques.

Lighting Techniques #2: Cross-backlighting

Lighting Techniques #1: Three Point Lighting

This is the first in what I plan to be an ongoing series of quick techniques you can apply to your own cinematography. The first few are going to be from The Gong Fu Connection. If you find this post useful, please consider supporting the film over at www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-gong-fu-connection or even just sharing the link.

Let’s start at the beginning with three point lighting. The idea is that you should light a person using three sources:

  1. The KEY light models the face. What does that mean? Well, a face is a weird, lumpy object with lots of sticky-out bits and inny bits, and as a result it looks very different depending on where the main light is coming from. Light it from the front and it will seem flat – noses seem smaller, wrinkles and spots are reduced. Light it from the side and the nose will cast a huge shadow, as will every pimple. See my blog post on key light angles for more on this.
  2. The FILL light prevents the shadows cast by the key light from being completely black. Ideally the fill should be a soft, directionless light so it doesn’t cast its own shadows. The dimmer the fill light (i.e. the greater the key-to-fill ratio), the moodier your scene will look. Sometimes I like to not use any fill at all.
  3. The BACKLIGHT creates a rim of illumination around your subject, cutting them out from the background. It makes the whole image look slick and sparkly.

That’s all very well in theory, but here’s a practical example. This is a close-up of actress Marién Enid in The Gong Fu Connection.


Marién’s keylight is an Arrimax M18 – a super-efficient 1.8KW HMI. It has a Straw gel (Lee no. 103)  to warm it up a bit. Why such a powerful lamp? I was using it as backlight on the wide. For this CU it needs to be much softer, so I intercept it a couple of metres from Marién with some tough-spun diffuser (no. 214). I have a roll of the stuff which I carry around. Frequently I slide it like a giant toilet roll onto a C-stand arm, unroll it to the desired length and peg the other end on another stand.

The Kinoflo Tegralite that provides the backlight
The Kinoflo Tegralite that provides the backlight

You can see that the keylight hits all of the lefthand side of her face (known as the downside, because it’s the side away from camera) but pretty much just her cheek on the righthand side. For my money, this is the optimal key position because it gives the most shape to the face.

The backlight comes from a Kinoflo Tegralite (a 4ft 4-bank kino with a built-in ballast) shining through the doorway behind her. Again, this is a source that had been previously established on the wide shot. You have to think through your set-ups before you set your lamps for your wide, so that they will work for your other angles without so much cheating that everything looks completely different.

Fill is provided by a silver reflector out the bottom left of frame, bouncing the kino back onto the upside of Marién’s face. The ungelled kino gives a nice bit of colour contrast with the straw-gelled M18.

Look out for more lighting techniques coming soon.

Sketch 2014-08-15 07_07_38

Lighting Techniques #1: Three Point Lighting

Int. Car – Moving

Hama suction mount
Hama suction mount

Inside a moving car – an everyday setting, but amongst the more challenging ones for a film crew. You can tackle it with greenscreen, or with front projection, or with Poor Man’s Process. Or you can do it for real.

On The Gong Fu Connection we did it for real. If you’re going to attempt this you’ll need three things:

  1. A very wide lens, if you want to get both the driver and the front passenger in frame. I used the wide end of a Tokina 11-16mm zoom, kindly lent to us by DIT Rob McKenzie.
  2. An LED panel to ensure the cast are sufficiently illuminated when the vehicle passes through dark areas.
  3. Some kind of suction mount.

I still had a Hama car mount I’d bought back in 2000 to do car chases like this with my Canon XM1.

I can’t believe I used to rely entirely on that mount to hold the camera, with no safety rope. I’d never do that now.

Of course, this mount wouldn’t support the weight of the Blackmagic. It was just to provide an extra anchor point. Most of the camera’s weight was actually rested on the dashboard, as you can see below. Cardboard and gaffer tape were used to secure it firmly, and the V-lock battery was placed in the open glove box underneath.

The Blackmagic, mounted on the dashboard with an old Hama suction mount, some cardboard, some gaffer tape, a wing and prayer
The Blackmagic, mounted on the dashboard with an old Hama suction mount, some cardboard, some gaffer tape, a wing and prayer

We ruled out mounting the camera on the bonnet partly for safety and partly because windscreen reflections can be a real nightmare. But we did mount the LED panel on the bonnet, or rather in the gap between the back end of the bonnet and the windscreen, nestled on the wipers. Its yoke rested against the windscreen, maintaining the panel at the right angle. Bungee cords and gaffer tape held it firmly and a bin bag protected it from the spitting rain.

Under the black bag is an LED panel to keep some consistency to the light on the actors as the car moves.
Under the black bag is an LED panel to keep some consistency to the light on the actors as the car moves.

Baldur, the character in the front passenger seat, was supposed to have a laptop on his lap. Since it was out of frame, I gave him another LED panel instead to represent the light coming from the screen. With hindsight I wish I’d gelled it cooler, but never mind. I gaffer-taped over the brightness and colour temperature dials on the back of the panel to stop them getting accidentally knocked out of position.

Exposing for these shots is tricky, particularly when you’re driving on country lanes where a dark, tree-lined avenue can suddenly give way to a bright, open field. If you turn up the LED panels too bright, the dark sections look fake, but if you don’t turn them up bright enough then the dark sections look too dark. I made a guess and it turned out to be pretty bang on.

When we shot, only the three actors and the sound recordist were able to be in the car. Before it drove off, I started the camera rolling and Colin popped in with the slate. Then it was all down to the actors. They did a series of takes and came back to show us the results. Everyone was happy, and that was that.

Support The Gong Fu Connection at www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-gong-fu-connection

Int. Car – Moving

The Steadicam, the Blackmagic and the Troublesome Converters

I spent last week in rural Sussex DPing Ted Duran’s 30 minute action-comedy, The Gong Fu Connection. It was a great shoot with a real community atmosphere, excellent food and beautiful weather. I’ve just been looking through the rushes and I’m blown away by the amazing images that my Blackmagic Production Camera has produced. They are very filmic with an incredible amount of detail, even though we only shot in 1080P.

Colin operates the Canon C300 on his Steadicam Pilot
Colin Smith operates the Canon C300 on his Steadicam Pilot

Not everything went to plan though. The aim was to capture the fights using fluid Steadicam photography, and since I hadn’t used a Blackmagic with Colin’s Steadicam Pilot before, he and I met up the weekend before to test the set-up.

The chief difficulty was that the rig’s built-in monitor accepts only a composite video input, while the Blackmagic outputs only an SDI signal. I searched online for a portable SDI to composite converter, but no such thing seemed to exist. I already had an SDI to HDMI converter, so the obvious solution was to buy an HDMI to composite converter. But the more links a chain has, the more opportunity for weakness.

I made the purchase and Colin sorted out power adapters so that both converters could run off the same battery as the Steadicam monitor. We tested it at my flat and it worked perfectly.

Flash-forward a week and we’re on set preparing the Steadicam for The Gong Fu Connection’s first martial arts sequence. All we’re getting on the Steadicam’s monitor are colour bars, which are output by the HDMI to composite converter when it’s receiving no input signal. The other converter, the SDI to HDMI one, has packed up.

Without a working monitor on the bottom of the rig, Colin can’t watch his step and frame the shot at the same time. The Steadicam is essentially useless.

There is a Canon C300 on set, being used for behind-the-scenes shooting. Although Ted and I are both keen to shoot the main film exclusively on the Blackmagic, to avoid severely disrupting the schedule we decide to shoot the day’s Steadicam material on the C300. (The C300 has SDI, HDMI and composite outputs. Blackmagic Design take note.)


At lunchtime I get on the wifi and see if I can order a replacement SDI to HDMI converter. The only one that can be delivered the next day (a Sunday) is the same model as the one that packed up. Having little choice, I order it. Amazingly it is indeed delivered on the Sunday. Nice one, Amazon.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work. I was at least hoping for the paltry month of service I got from the previous one. But no, this one is dead on arrival.

By a process of elimination we check that the converter is indeed the piece at fault. We swap cables and cameras and the results are the same.

We continue to shoot the Steadicam material on the C300.

But I have one last desperate idea to get the Blackmagic working on the rig.

The CCTV camera set up to film the Blackmagic's screen
The CCTV camera, set up to film the Blackmagic’s screen

On Monday morning I send our driver, Lucky, to the nearest Maplin. I’ve given him instructions to buy a small CCTV camera. When he gets back with it I have Colin attach it to the rig behind the Blackmagic, filming the Blackmagic’s screen. The CCTV camera outputs a composite signal directly to the Steadicam’s monitor.

Incredibly, this works. But it does mean enclosing the Blackmagic and the CCTV camera in black wrap to eliminate reflections on the former’s screen. Which means we can’t get to the iris controls, and we’re relying on the distances marked on the lens barrel to focus. And to make matters worse, the Steadicam Pilot can’t take the weight of a V-lock battery, so the Blackmagic must run off its short-lived internal battery. Between takes we have to plug it into a handheld V-lock to top up the charge.

After capturing two or three successful set-ups with this ludicrous rig, we decide it’s slowing us down too much. I finally abandon all hope of using the Blackmagic on the Steadicam.

For those interested in how the C300 and Blackmagic stack up against each other, the Canon has a sharper, more video look compared with the Blackmagic’s filmic images. The Canon also has more compression artefacts due to its lower bitrate. But they seem to cut together alright once graded.

The lack of an HDMI output on the Blackmagic has been the one thing that’s really caused me problems since buying the camera. I’d be tempted to go for a Kinefinity mod if it wasn’t so expensive…

Of course, the camera is still incredible value for money. Personally I think the only competitors in terms of image quality are the Reds. (The Alexa and film are in a whole other league.) But it is strange that Blackmagic Design claim to have built the camera for people working in the low budget world, but apparently didn’t consider that such people rarely have access to SDI monitors.

Stay tuned for more on The Gong Fu Connection shoot. There is still time to contribute to the project’s crowdfunding campaign over at Indiegogo.

The Steadicam, the Blackmagic and the Troublesome Converters

The Script and the Cinematographer

cover pageWhen I read a script that I’m going to shoot, there are a number of things I’m looking out for. I want to identify the themes and the character arcs, so that I can come up with ways of reflecting these in the cinematography (see my previous blog post for examples). And on a more mundane practical level, I’m figuring out what equipment is required, and which scenes or sequences might be difficult photographically.

To demonstrate my thought process in planning a project, I thought I would share with you today the things I highlighted in a particular script and why. The script in question is The Gong Fu Connection, written by Ted Duran, and we start shooting it this Friday. It’s an action-comedy drama in which a young Chinese businessman learns a life lesson via his connection with an Englishman who has introduced Kung Fu in a farm community in Sussex. You can help us make the film by going to www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-gong-fu-connection and contributing, or by spreading the word on your social media networks.

Throughout the script I’ve highlighted the time of day in the slug lines. One of the first things I need to know as a DP is, “Are there are night scenes?” because that will have a big effect on the lighting equipment needed. Ted’s script is nice and specific, not just DAY or NIGHT, but DAWN, MORNING, AFTERNOON, EVENING and DUSK. This is a really helpful starting point in considering the light. In general I see that there are a lot of daylight exteriors, so bounce and negative fill are going to be my two chief weapons.

The very first slug line is:


Day or night?
Day or night?

Immediately I’m wondering, “Is this going to be a guerilla shoot or are we going to have permission?” Clearly we will never be allowed large lighting set-ups and we will always be working around the general public. Battery-powered LED panels will come in handy here.

A little lower down the page is:


Straight away I’m thinking, “Should it be night instead?” Even though in summer you may go to a restaurant in daylight, somehow it feels like it wouldn’t look right on camera. I make a note to discuss this with Ted on the recce, and indeed we end up deciding to shoot it after dark.

The next scene features a phone conversation. I make a note to ask if the person on the other end of the line will be seen.

Another station scene contains the direction:

He gets on the train… The train whizzes past an urban landscape…

I highlight this, to remind myself that this is a hidden extra scene – on board the train, as opposed to at the station. Again I’m wondering what the extent of permissions will be and what restrictions there may be on equipment. I also highlight other hidden extra scenes later on – an interior bedroom scene in which a character sees another character outside through the window, and a montage set in a variety of different places and times.

I highlight the following in a café scene:

Time passes, we see the clock tick past… Half an hour and two coffees later…

Maybe there are jump cuts here to show the passing of time? I’ll want to adjust the keylight outside the window to simulate the progress of the sun.

A violent flashback takes place in an apartment. Although the script specifies DAY, the content makes me imagine the look a little differently. I write the following notes: “Dingy look? TV light? Maybe night. Rough, handheld fight. No finesse or control.” Ultimately Ted and I do decide to set the scene at night. The flickering TV set will be a key light source. The handheld look will contrast with the more slick steadicam and tripod work which will characterise the Kung Fu fights later on in the film.

A more pastoral scene features two characters walking and talking beside a lake. I write: “Watery reflections? Bounce M18 off surface of water?” I’m thinking to enhance the beauty of the setting by using the rippling water surface to bounce an ArriMax M18 onto the characters’ faces.

A direction later on reads, “He is lost in his own world.” I write “push in?” beside this as a shot suggestion. Then I read:

Startled, he turns around to see a man towering over him in his dressing gown with a long plaited beard, who looks at him with a frown on his face.

This character, Mandragor, clearly has a special signficance, a mystical presence. I write “special lighting for Mandragor?” next to this passage. This will probably be stronger backlight or perhaps an unusual eyelight of some kind. I highlight his other appearances in the film too.

A dark room in a grungy pub
A dark room in a grungy pub

A dawn scene specifies that “the sun has just risen”, which I highlight. If it’s a cloudy day, or we’re unable to shoot at dawn, I may need to fake this with an orange-gelled HMI.

Later on, a direction reads:

RICKY smiles, then looks at AERONA dreamily.

I highlight this and write “classic beauty shot” above. I won’t go as far as a soft-focus filter, but the lighting needs to be particularly flattering here to represent Ricky’s enamoured POV.

A flashback in a pub has a nice clear description which is a great springboard for the cinematography:

… Playing pool in a dark room in a grungy pub…

I’m immediately thinking smoke, shadows, pools of light from the over-table fixtures. I also highlight the word “laptop” since the screen will be a light source which I may want to use or beef up with a hidden LED panel perhaps.

Scenes in moving cars are always tricky
Scenes in moving cars are always tricky

Later on I’ve highlighted a dialogue scene in a moving car. I need to talk to Ted about how he wants to shoot it, and to think about how the camera can be rigged to get those shots.

The only time a specific shot is mentioned in the script is here:

Ricky is running as fast as he can. We see a close up on his face as he thinks.

I highlight this, knowing that it will be tricky to accomplish and hoping that Colin Smith, our steadicam operator, will be up to the challenge!

Having read the script a couple of times, I go back and make some notes on the cover page about the general photographic approach:

City – dark, dingy, oppressive, handheld, little/no eyelight – handheld?

Country – light, backlit, bounce-from-below

Characters with no connection – Lucia, the bad guys, Ricky to begin with – are framed in clean singles. Handheld or stiff tripod.

Characters with connection – Matthew, his posse, Ricky as the film goes on – are framed in 2- shots and dirty singles. There are more fluid shots with pans or tracks.

And that’s all. Some of these notes are just for me to think about, while others raised questions I needed to ask the director and producer about. Preparation is key in filmmaking, and in the heat and stress of the shoot I’ll be glad I gave some consideration to these issues in advance.

The Script and the Cinematographer

Sun Paths

Checking my compass at the stone circle
Checking my compass at the stone circle

I’ve spent the last three days in Sussex, scouting locations for a short film called The Gong Fu Connection. Written and directed by Ted Duran, the film follows a young man as he learns Kung Fu, not just the fighting but the whole lifestyle. Themes of sustainability and connection to nature are woven throughout.

The script is predominantly daylight exterior, with many picturesque rural settings including a number of farms. As director of photography, my main concern during the recce was to make the best use of the natural light. That meant checking the orientation of each location to the sun path.

Apps like Helios exist to show you the sun path on your iPhone or iPad wherever you are, but I find that for most locations such precision is unnecessary. A simple compass and a bit of guesswork based on the time of year can tell you what you need to know.

The best direction to shoot is usually towards the sun. This gives everything a lovely halo of backlight, while illuminating it softly from the front with “north light”. If north light isn’t enough, you can choose your reflectors at will – soft or hard, white or silver or gold – to mould the frontlight. For more on this, see my blog entry on moulding natural light. (One exception to this rule of thumb is establishing shots of buildings, which look best in crosslight.)

The shooting schedule is still in flux, so I was able to give the Gong Fu Connection’s production team my recommendations about when scenes should be shot for the best light.

An Artemis screengrab showing various focal lengths and the compass bearing at the lower centre
An Artemis screengrab showing various focal lengths and the compass bearing at the lower centre

One app I did use extensively on the recce was Artemis, the virtual director’s viewfinder. Although Ted and I didn’t use it for picking lenses at this stage, it was useful to take screengrabs so I could get a sense of how the location would look with different focal lengths. Artemis also handily displays the compass bearing at the bottom of the screen – something I only noticed after I’d spent the whole three days photographing my pocket compass!

Of course there are plenty of other things to look out for on a location recce – check out my post on Ten Questions to Ask on a Recce. And if you’re scouting locations without your DP, read my earlier post about what you can look out for on their behalf.

Support The Gong Fu Connection and get access to exclusive rewards on Indiegogo.

Sun Paths