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

“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

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

The Cinematography of “Chernobyl”

Like many of us, I’ve watched a lot of streaming shows this year. One of the best was Chernobyl, the HBO/Sky Atlantic mini-series about the nuclear power plant disaster of 1986, which I cheekily binged during a free trial of Now TV.

In July, Chernobyl deservedly scooped multiple honours at the Virgin Media British Academy Television (Craft) Awards. In addition to it claiming the Bafta for best mini-series, lead actor Jared Harris, director Johan Renck, director of photography Jakob Ihre, production designers Luke Hull and Claire Levinson-Gendler, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, editors Simon Smith and Jinx Godfrey, composer Hildur Gudnadóttir, and the sound team all took home the awards in their respective fiction categories.

I use the phrase “took home” figuratively, since no-one had left home in the first place. The craft awards ceremony was a surreal, socially-distanced affair, full of self-filmed, green-screened celebrities. Comedian Rachel Parris impersonated writer/actor Jessica Knappett, and the two mock-argued to present the award for Photography & Lighting: Fiction. Chernobyl’s DP Jakob Ihre, FSF gave his acceptance speech in black tie, despite being filmed on a phone in his living room. In it he thanked his second unit DP Jani-Petteri Passi as well as creator/writer Craig Mazin, one of the few principal players not to receive an award.

Mazin crafted a tense and utterly engrossing story across five hour-long instalments, a story all the more horrifying for its reality. Beginning with the suicide of Harris’ Valery Legasov on the second anniversary of the disaster, the series shifts back to 1986 and straight into the explosion of the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Soviet Ukraine. Legasov, along with Brosi Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) and the fictional, composite character Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) struggle to contain the meltdown while simultaneously investigating its cause. Legions of men are sacrificed to the radiation, wading through coolant water in dark, labyrinthine tunnels to shut off valves, running across what remains of the plant’s rooftop to collect chunks of lethal graphite, and mining in sweltering temperatures beneath the core to install heat exchangers that will prevent another catastrophic explosion.

For Swedish-born NFTS (National Film and Television School) graduate Jakob Ihre, Chernobyl was a first foray into TV. His initial concept for the show’s cinematography was to reflect the machinery of the Soviet Union. He envisaged a heavy camera package representing the apparatus of the state, comprised of an Alexa Studio, with its mechanical shutter, plus anamorphic lenses. “After another two or three months of preproduction,” he told the Arri Channel, “we realised maybe that’s the wrong way to go, and we should actually focus on the characters, on the human beings, the real people who this series is about.”

Sensitivity and respect for the people and their terrible circumstances ultimately became the touchstone for both Ihre and his director. The pair conducted a blind test of ten different lens sets, and both independently selected Cooke Panchros. “We did a U-turn and of course we went for spherical lenses, which in some way are less obtrusive and more subtle,” said Ihre. For the same reason, he chose the Alexa Mini over its big brother. A smaller camera package like this is often selected when filmmakers wish to distract and overwhelm their cast as little as possible, and is believed by many to result in more authentic performances.

When it came to lighting, “We were inspired by the old Soviet murals, where you see the atom, which is often symbolised as a sun with its rays, and you see the workers standing next to that and working hand in hand with the so-called ‘friendly’ atom.” Accordingly, Ihre used light to represent gamma radiation, with characters growing brighter and over-exposed as they approach more dangerous areas.

Ihre thought of the disaster as damaging the fabric of the world, distorting reality. He strove to visualise this through dynamic lighting, with units on dimmers or fitted with remote-controlled shutters. He also allowed the level of atmos (smoke) in a scene to vary – normally a big no-no for continuity. The result is a series in which nothing feels safe or stable.

The DP shot through windows and glass partitions wherever possible, to further suggest a distorted world. Working with Hull and Levinson-Gendler, he tested numerous transparent plastics to find the right one for the curtains in the hospital scenes. In our current reality, filled with perspex partitions (and awards ceremonies shot on phones), such imagery of isolation is eerily prescient.

The subject of an invisible, society-changing killer may have become accidentally topical, but the series’ main theme was more deliberately so. “What is the cost of lies?” asks Legasov. “It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all.” In our post-truth world, the disinformation, denial and delayed responses surrounding the Chernobyl disaster are uncomfortably familiar.

This article first appeared on RedShark News.

The Cinematography of “Chernobyl”

How is Dynamic Range Measured?

The high dynamic range of the ARRI Alexa Mini allowed me to retain all the sky detail in this shot from “Above the Clouds”.

Recently I’ve been pondering which camera to shoot an upcoming project on, so I consulted the ASC’s comparison chart. Amongst the many specs compared is dynamic range, and I noticed that the ARRI Alexa’s was given as 14+ stops, while the Blackmagic URSA’s is 15. Having used both cameras a fair bit, I can tell you that there’s no way in Hell that the Ursa has a higher dynamic range than the Alexa. So what’s going on here?

 

What is dynamic range?

To put it simply, dynamic range is the level of contrast that an imaging system can handle. To quote Alan Roberts, who we’ll come back to later:

This is normally calculated as the ratio of the exposure which just causes white clipping to the exposure level below which no details can be seen.

A photosite on a digital camera’s sensor outputs a voltage proportional to the amount of light hitting it, but at some point the voltage reaches a maximum, and no matter how much more light you add, it won’t change. At the other end of the scale, a photosite may receive so little light that it outputs no voltage, or at least nothing that’s discernible from the inherent electronic noise in the system. These upper and lower limits of brightness may be narrowed by image processing within the camera, with RAW recording usually retaining the full dynamic range, while linear Rec. 709 severely curtails it.

In photography and cinematography, we measure dynamic range in stops – doublings and halvings of light which I explain fully in this article. One stop is a ratio of 2:1, five stops are 32:1, thirteen stops are almost 10,000:1

It’s worth pausing here to point out the difference between dynamic range and latitude, a term which is sometimes regarded as synonymous, but it’s not. The latitude is a measure of how much the camera can be over- or under-exposed without losing any detail, and is dependent on both the dynamic range of the camera and the dynamic range of the scene. (A low-contrast scene will allow more latitude for incorrect exposure than a high-contrast scene.)

 

Problems of Measurement

Before digital cinema cameras were developed, video had a dynamic range of about seven stops. You could measure this relatively easily by shooting a greyscale chart and observing the waveform of the recorded image to see where the highlighs levelled off and the shadows disappeared into the noise floor. With today’s dynamic ranges into double digits, simple charts are no longer practical, because you can’t manufacture white enough paper or black enough ink.

For his excellent video on dynamic range, Filmmaker IQ’s John Hess built a device fitted with a row of 1W LEDs, using layers of neutral density gel to make each one a stop darker than its neighbour. For the purposes of his demonstration, this works fine, but as Phil Rhodes points out on RedShark News, you start running into the issue of the dynamic range of the lens.

It may seem strange to think that a lens has dynamic range, and in the past when I’ve heard other DPs talk about certain glass being more or less contrasty, I admit that I haven’t thought much about what that means. What it means is flare, and not the good anamorphic streak kind, but the general veiling whereby a strong light shining into the lens will raise the overall brightness of the image as it bounces around the different elements. This lifts the shadows, producing a certain amount of milkiness. Even with high contrast lenses, ones which are less prone to veiling, the brightest light on your test device will cause some glare over the darkest one, when measuring the kind of dynamic range today’s cameras enjoy.

 

Manufacturer Measurements

Going back to my original query about the Alexa versus the URSA, let’s see exactly what the manufacturers say. ARRI specifically states that its sensor’s dynamic range is over 14 stops “as measured with the ARRI Dynamic Range Test Chart”. So what is this chart and how does it work? The official sales blurb runs thusly:

The ARRI DRTC-1 is a special test chart and analysis software for measurement of dynamic range and sensitivity of digital cameras. Through a unique stray light reduction concept this system is able to accurately measure up to 15.5 stops of dynamic range.

The “stray light reduction” is presumably to reduce the veiling mentioned earlier and provide more accurate results. This could be as simple as covering or turning off the brighter lights when measuring the dimmer ones.

I found a bit more information about the test chart in a 2011 camera shoot-out video, from that momentous time when digital was supplanting film as the cinematic acquisition format of choice. Rather than John Hess’s ND gel technique, the DRTC-1 opts for something else to regulate its light output, as ARRI’s Michael Bravin explains in the video:

There’s a piece of motion picture film behind it that’s checked with a densitometer, and what you do is you set the exposure for your camera, and where you lose detail in the vertical and horizontal lines is your clipping point, and where you lose detail because of noise in the shadow areas is your lowest exposure… and in between you end up finding the number of stops of dynamic range.

Blackmagic Design do not state how they measure the dynamic range of their cameras, but it may be a DSC Labs Xlya. This illuminated chart boasts a shutter system which “allows users to isolate and evaluate individual steps”, plus a “stepped xylophone shape” to minimise flare problems.

Art Adams, a cinema lens specialist at ARRI, and someone who’s frequently quoted in Blain Brown’s Cinematography: Theory & Practice, told Y.M. Cinema Magazine:

I used to do a lot of consulting with DSC Labs, who make camera test charts, so I own a 20-stop dynamic range chart (DSC Labs Xyla). This is what most manufacturers use to test dynamic range (although not ARRI, because our engineers don’t feel it’s precise enough) and I see what companies claim as usable stops. You can see that they are just barely above the noise floor.

 

Conclusions

Obviously these ARRI folks I keep quoting may be biased. I wanted to find an independent test that measures both Blackmagics and Alexas with the same conditions and methodology, but I couldn’t find one. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Alexas have a bigger dynamic range, in fact that’s widely accepted as fact, but quantifying the difference is harder. The most solid thing I could find is this, from a 2017 article about the Blackmagic Ursa Mini 4.6K (first generation):

The camera was measured at just over 14 stops of dynamic range in RAW 4:1 [and 13 stops in ProRes]. This is a good result, especially considering the price of the camera. To put this into perspective Alan measured the Canon C300 mkII at 15 stops of dynamic range. Both the URSA Mini 4.6 and C300 mkII are bettered by the ARRI Alexa and Amira, but then that comes as no surprise given their reputation and price.

The Alan mentioned is Alan Roberts, something of a legend when it comes to testing cameras. It is interesting to note that he is one of the key players behind the TLCI (Television Lighting Consistency Index), a mooted replacement for CRI (Colour Rendering Index). It’s interesting because this whole dynamic range business is starting to remind me of my investigation into CRI, and is leading me to a similar conclusion, that the numbers which the manufacturers give you are all but useless in real-world cinematography.

Whereas CRI at least has a standardised test, there’s no such thing for dynamic range. Therefore, until there is more transparency from manufacturers about how they measure it, I’d recommend ignoring their published values. As always when choosing a camera, shoot your own tests if at all possible. Even the most reliable numbers can’t tell you whether you’re going to like a camera’s look or not, or whether it’s right for the story you want to tell.

When tests aren’t possible, and I know that’s often the case in low-budget land, at least try to find an independent comparison. I’ll leave you with this video from the Slanted Lens, which compares the URSA Mini Pro G2 with the ARRI Amira (which uses the same Alev III sensor as the Alexa). They don’t measure the dynamic range, but you can at least see the images side by side, and in the end it’s the images that matter, not the numbers.

How is Dynamic Range Measured?

Working with White Walls

White walls are the bane of a DP’s existence. They bounce light around everywhere, killing the mood, and they look cheap and boring in the background of your shot. Nonetheless, with so many contemporary buildings decorated this way, it’s a challenge we all have to face. Today I’m going to look back on two short films I’ve photographed, and explain the different approaches I took to get the white-walled locations looking nice.

Finding Hope is a moving drama about a couple grieving for the baby they have lost. It was shot largely at the home of the producer, Jean Maye, on a Sony FS7 with Sigma and Pentax stills glass.

Exit Eve is a non-linear narrative about the dehumanisation of an au pair by her wealthy employers. With a fairly respectable budget for a short, this production shot in a luxurious Battersea townhouse on an Arri Alexa Classic with Ultra Primes.

 

“Crown”-inspired colour contrast

Cheap 300W dimmers like these are great for practicals.

It was January 2017 when we made Finding Hope, and I’d recently been watching a lot of The Crown. I liked how that series punctuated its daylight interior frames with pools of orange light from practicals. We couldn’t afford much of a lighting package, and I thought that pairing existing pracs with dimmers and tungsten bulbs would be a cheap and easy way to break up the white walls and bring some warmth – perhaps a visual representation of the titular hope – into the heavy story.

I shot all the daylight interiors at 5600K to get that warmth out of the pracs. Meanwhile I shaped the natural light as far as possible with the existing curtains, and beefed it up with a 1.2K HMI where I could. I used no haze or lens diffusion on the film because I felt it needed the unforgiving edges.

For close-ups, I often cheated the pracs a little closer and tweaked the angle, but I chose not to supplement them with movie lamps. The FS7’s native ISO of 2500 helped a lot, especially in a nighttime scene where the grieving parents finally let each other in. Director Krysten Resnick had decided that there would be tea-lights on the kitchen counter, and I asked art director Justine Arbuthnot to increase the number as much as she dared. They became the key-light, and again I tweaked them around for the close-ups.

My favourite scene in Finding Hope is another nighttime one, in which Crystal Leaity sits at a piano while Kevin Leslie watches from the doorway. I continued the theme of warm practicals, bouncing a bare 100W globe off the wall as Crystal’s key, and shaping the existing hall light with some black wrap, but I alternated that with layers of contrasting blue light: the HMI’s “moonlight” coming in through the window, and the flicker of a TV in the deep background. This latter was a blue-gelled 800W tungsten lamp bounced off a wobbling reflector.

When I saw the finished film, I was very pleased that the colourist had leant into the warm/cool contrast throughout the piece, even teasing it out of the daylight exteriors.

 

Trapped in a stark white townhouse

I took a different approach to colour in Exit Eve. Director Charlie Parham already knew that he wanted strong red lighting in party scenes, and I felt that this would be most effective if I kept colour out of the lighting elsewhere. As the film approaches its climax, I did start to bring in the orange of outside streetlamps, and glimpses of the party’s red, but otherwise I kept the light stark and white.

Converted from a Victorian schoolhouse, the location had high ceilings, huge windows and multiple floors, so I knew that I would mostly have to live with whatever natural light did or didn’t shine in. We were shooting during the heatwave of 2018, with many long handheld takes following lead actor Thalissa Teixeria from room to room and floor to floor, so even the Alexa’s dynamic range struggled to cope with the variations in light level.

For a night scene in the top floor bedroom, I found that the existing practicals were perfectly placed to provide shape and backlight. I white-balanced to 3600K to keep most of the colour out of them, and rigged black solids behind the camera to prevent the white walls from filling in the shadows.

(Incidentally, the night portions of this sequence were shot as one continuous take, despite comprising two different scenes set months apart. The actors did a quick-change and the bed was redressed by the art department while it was out frame, but sadly this tour de force was chopped up in the final cut.)

I had most control over the lighting when it came to the denouement in the ground floor living area. Here I was inspired by the work of Bradford Young, ASC to backlight the closed blinds (with tungsten units gelled to represent streetlights) and allow the actors inside to go a bit dim and murky. For a key moment we put a red gel on one of the existing spotlights in the living room and let the cast step into it.

So there we have it, two different approaches to lighting in a while-walled location: creating colour contrast with dimmed practicals, or embracing the starkness and saving the colour for dramatic moments. How will you tackle your next magnolia-hued background?

For another example of how I’ve tackled white-walled locations, see my Forever Alone blog.

Working with White Walls

“Above the Clouds”: The Spoiler Blogs

During 2016-2017 I blogged about the production of Above the Clouds, a comedy road movie which I shot for director Leon Chambers. It premiered at Raindance in 2018, closely followed by Austin Film Festival, where it won the audience award for Best Narrative Feature, the first of four gongs it would collect.

In two decades of filmmaking, Above the Clouds is easily in the top five productions I’m most proud of. Since this January it has been available on AmazoniTunesGoogle Play and other platforms, and I highly recommend you give it a watch. DO NOT continue reading this blog unless you have, because what follows are two blog entries that I held back due to spoilers.

 

DAY 14

(from Week 3)

The script calls for Charlie to be seen sitting in the window seat of a plane as it rises quite literally above the clouds. This is another micro-set filmed in Leon’s living room, in fact half in the living room and half in the hall, to leave enough room for the lights beyond.

Although the view out of the window will be added in post, I need to simulate the lighting effect of bursting through the clouds. My plan involves a 1.2K HMI, and a 4×4 poly board held horizontally with a triple layer of 4×4 Opal sheets hanging from one edge.

We start with the HMI pointed straight into the window and the poly board held high up so that the Opal hangs in front of the lamp. As the plane supposedly rises through the cloud layer, Colin lowers the poly until it is below the level of the lamp, while Gary tilts the HMI down so its light skips off the poly (like sun skipping off the top of clouds) and bounces back up into the window. Gary then tilts the HMI back up to point straight into the window, to suggest further banking or climbing of the aircraft. This direct light is so hot that it bounces off the armrest of Charlie’s seat and gives a glow to her cheek which syncs perfectly with a smile she’s doing.

 

DAY 25

(from February 2017 pick-ups)

Today’s set is a dark room. A photographer’s dark room, that is. Not just a random dimly-lit room.

We begin with only the red safe-light in play. The wall-mounted practical has a 15W bulb, so it needs some serious help to illuminate the room. Micky rigs a 1K pup with Medium Red gel and fires it over the top of the set, above the practical. The effect is very convincing. Pure red light can make everything look out of focus on camera, which is why I chose the slightly magenta Medium Red gel, rather than the more realistic Primary Red. The colourist will be able to add some green/yellow to correct this.

During the scene, Naomi pulls a cord and the normal lights come on. These are two hanging practicals, fitted with dimmed 100W tungsten globes. In a very similar set-up to yesterday, we use a 2K with a chimera, poking over the set wall on the camera’s down-side, to enhance and soften the practicals’ light.

To read all the Above the Clouds blogs from the start, click here.

“Above the Clouds”: The Spoiler Blogs

Pick-ups for “Rory’s Way”

In August 2016 I was recommended to a production manager who was crewing up a small pick-ups shoot in London. The pick-ups were for Rory’s Way, or The Etruscan Smile as it was then known, a $12 million feature based on the best-selling novel of the latter name, starring Brian Cox and Thora Birch. Apparently test screenings had shown that the film’s ending wasn’t quite satisfying enough, and parts of it were to be remounted.

I was given a storyboard consisting of actual frame-grabs from the original version of the scene, alongside notes explaining how the action would be different. Not to give too much away, but the scene involves Brian’s character in bed, and a baby in a cot next to him. The changes simply involved Brian giving a different reaction to what the baby is doing. The bed was to be set up on stage against a blue screen, and composited into backgrounds extracted from the principal photography footage. The baby’s performance was not to be changed, so he was to be rotoscoped out of the original footage too.

I was sent the camera report, 2nd AC’s notebook and script notes from principal photography. The crew had known that the view out of the bedroom window would be added in post, and that separate takes of the baby and Brian would be digitally combined, so they recorded plenty of information for the VFX team. Between the three documents, I had the focal length, focal distance, aperture, white balance, shutter angle, filters, lens height and tilt of every set-up in the scene.

My next step was to email  the main unit DP, who was none other than Javier Aguirresarobe, ASC, AE – the man behind the lens on Thor: Ragnarok, Nicole Kidman vehicle The Others, two of the Twilight films, and Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Needless to say, I was honoured to be recreating the work of such an experienced cinematographer.

Unit still of Javier Aguirresarobe, ASC, AE on location in Scotland for “Rory’s Way”/”The Etruscan Smile”

Javier told me that he had shot with Arri/Zeiss Master Primes, and explained the feel and colour of lighting he had been going for. He had used an 81C (coral) filter to warm up the image a little, and a 1/8th Black Promist for diffusion.

After that, I sat down over coffee with Ben Millar, my gaffer. We analysed the footage from principal photography and reverse-engineered the lighting. I say “we”; it was mostly Ben. This is why a DP hires a good gaffer!

The pick-ups shoot was a single day. The afternoon before, the director and the camera department convened at the studio. The plan was to go through each of the set-ups using a stand-in in the bed. For each set-up, we first used the camera logs and script notes to put on the correct lens and filters, and set the sticks to the right height and tilt. Then, with a print-out of the original shot taped underneath the monitor, we nudged the camera around until we had the closest possible match in framing. This done, ACs Max Quinton and Bex Clives marked the tripod position on the floor with tape, writing the lens length, height, filters etc. on the tape itself to make things super-efficient the next day.

The pick-ups set was nothing more than a bed surrounded by blue screens. The bright gap between the screens represents the window from the original location.

On the morning of the shoot, the lighting department had two or three hours to set up before Brian was called. We used mostly Kinoflos, with a lot of flags to represent window frames through which light sources had been shining on the original set. The VFX supervisor Stephen Coren and I checked the histograms on the monitor to ensure the blue screen was lit evenly and to the level he required.

We were ready to roll in plenty of time, and things went more or less to plan, with the addition of an extra shot or two. The editorial team were in the next room, checking our shots against the original material, and they reported that all was well.

We finished up with a single wide night interior shot for an earlier scene in the movie. This was an interesting one, because we had to extrapolate the lighting for the whole room from a single close-up that had been shot in principal photography. Our wide shot, recorded entirely against blue, would be dropped into a wide shot from principal – a daylight wide shot, that would be digitally painted and retimed for night.

At the time of writing, Rory’s Way has just hit UK cinemas, but I have yet to see it. For all I know it might have been re-edited again, but hopefully my shots are still in there! Either way, it was a fascinating exercise to analyse and reproduce the work of a top cinematographer.

Pick-ups for “Rory’s Way”

“The Little Mermaid”: Sun, Sea and Cinematography

(Spoiler alert!) The denouement of The Little Mermaid takes place in the waves on a picturesque beach, where Cam (William Moseley) has carried Elizabeth (Poppy Drayton). In true fairytale style, our hero and heroine finally share their first kiss, parting to reveal the flaring orange sun behind them, just above the horizon. By the time we got to this sequence, we had already shot some water scenes, but those were in controlled, studio-like conditions. Working with natural light and real waves was going to be a whole different ball-game.

Here are some extracts from my diary, revealing how this magical moment was ultimately captured.

 

Day 22

Scenes at the beach today, with actors in the ocean. We’ve been worried about this sequence since the earliest stages of preproduction. Will the cast get too cold? Will it be too dangerous with waves and jellyfish and razor-sharp oyster beds? Will we get the magical dawn lighting the script requires? Building a partial beach set against green-screen was considered for a long time, but eventually shooting on a real beach, and this one particular beach, turned out to be our only option. (We’re back on Tybee Island, the same island we did the Shirley Shoot on so very long ago, and Baywatch seems to have all the other beaches tied up.)

The weather is good, with a cloudless sky. We’re cheating sunset for sunrise, and I know exactly where the sun will go down, thanks to the Helios and Sun Tracker apps.

We get ready to go into the water shortly after 6pm. The ACs put the camera in the splash bag and we bring it into the ocean. It starts to leak. Which is pretty much the last thing you want to happen. We pull it out before the camera gets damaged, but now we’re wondering how to shoot the scene. Someone suggests I just put the camera on my shoulder (I’m only going in up to my waist) and a couple of the crew spot me to make sure I don’t drop it. Sounds risky, doesn’t it? But it works. Meanwhile Captain Dan joins us in his waders to hand-bash a polyboard bounce, and the ‘B’ camera team are on a pontoon trying to get alternate angles.

Perhaps the most important thing I do today is ask Will to pick Poppy up the other way around. You see, when we’re about to turn over, Will picks up Poppy with her head to his right and her tail to his left. But I can see that if they play the scene with Poppy this way around, I will end up framing the two-shot with my back to the sun, losing that magical image of the low sun in the background, and probably casting camera shadows on them to boot. So I ask Will to pick Poppy up the other way around.

As the sun races towards the horizon, we get two magical takes. I’m constantly reframing to keep the setting sun in the background, and as the hero and heroine kiss, it flares out perfectly between them. Everyone is ecstatic.

 

Day 23

‘B’ cam 1st AC Geran Daniels on the pontoon with the Alexa XR Studio and the hefty Angenieux 19.5-94mm Optimo

It’s another beautiful day, and the first task is to go out on the pontoon and shoot Poppy’s double swimming about in the mermaid tail. I use the Angenieux zoom for only the second time (it normally lives on the ‘B’ camera), and for the first time on my shoulder. Damn, that thing’s heavy. But my shoulder has worse to come today.

As sunset approaches, we must shoot pick-ups for Saturday’s water scene with the principal cast. Today the tide is much lower at sunset, and getting out to a deep enough spot (up to around waist or chest level) means walking over very squelchy mud which you sometimes sink in up to your knees, and sharp oyster beds. So instead we get into the water via the pontoon. This boat has a limited capacity, so I’m dropped off on the first trip, before it returns to the dock twice more to get the rest of the cast and crew who are needed. It’s extremely pleasant to swim about in the ocean (more of an estuary really) while we wait.

In the water with 2nd AC Kane Pearson and some expensive electronics. The white patch on the splash bag is the $5 of tape!

Line producer Fabio has proudly repaired the leaky splash bag with a $2 bicycle inner tube patch. 2nd AC Kane, a big spender, added $5 of tape, and we successfully tested it before we set sail.

Because the splash-bag doesn’t fit our Alexa’s viewfinder, Kane has to hand-bash a 5.6” monitor in a ziplock bag (along with a Teradek receiver and battery) so that I can see what I’m shooting. This works pretty well though. The hardest thing is the mud; it’s impossible to find a firm spot, so during the takes I’m always sinking and trying to keep my balance and follow the action at the same time. Kane has to prop me up on a couple of occasions.

For all the material in the ocean I stick to a (Cooke S4i) 32mm lens; the zoom won’t fit in the splash housing, and lens changes take too long. (The cast can only be in the water for 30 minutes at a time, according to Screen Actors Guild rules.) Although we mostly shoot at water level, where the splash bag floats and is easy to control, one set-up requires me to put it on my shoulder. The weight is quite something, but with help I get the shot.

With the water scenes wrapped, and the tide now higher, we swim back to shore. We’ve been in the water at least three hours, and it was exhausting but a lot of fun too.

That concludes my blog series on The Little Mermaid. If you missed any of the earlier instalments, here are the links:

Don’t forget, if you’re in the UK, the film is currently available from all good high-street DVD retailers and on Amazon as a DVD or download.

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“The Little Mermaid”: Sun, Sea and Cinematography