My Best Blog Posts of 2021

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

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

 

“Superman II” Retrospective

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

 

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

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

 

Undisclosed Project: Experimentation

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

 

The Cinematography of “Alder”

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

 

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

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

 

5 Ingenious Visual Effects With No CGI

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

 

The Colour of Moonlight

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

 

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 2

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

 

“Quantum Leaper”

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

 

A Preview of Things to Come

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

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

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

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

My Best Blog Posts of 2021

“The Little Mermaid”: A Tale of Two Cameras

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

 

Day 1

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

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

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

 

Day 2

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

 

Day 3

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

 

Day 8

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

 

Day 12

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

 

Day 24

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

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

 

Day 25

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

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

 

Day 26

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

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

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

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

“The Little Mermaid”: A Tale of Two Cameras

“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

Pre-production for “Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”

Next week filming commences for Harvey Greenfield is Running Late, a comedy feature based on the critically acclaimed one-man play by Paul Richards. Paul reprises the title role in the film, directed by Jonnie Howard, who I previously worked with on A Cliché for the End of the World and The Knowledge.

The production is based locally to me in Cambridgeshire, and over the last couple of months I’ve attended recces, rehearsals and meetings. I’ve tried to approach it the same way I did Hamlet, reading each draft of the script carefully and creating a spreadsheet breakdown. Scene by scene, the breakdown lists my ideas for camerawork and lighting.

Harvey is a stressed and neurotic character who can’t say no to anything. The film takes place over a single day of his life when he finds himself having to attend a wedding, a funeral, a big meeting at his office, a school play and an appointment at a garage. Numerous scenes see him jogging from commitment to commitment (always running late in more ways than one) while taking phone calls that only add to the pressure. In the finest tradition of Alfie, Ferris Bueller and Fleabag, he also talks to camera.

Talking of finest traditions, the budget is very low but ambitions are high! With 100 script pages and 14 days the shoot will be more of a sprint than a marathon.

The UK film and TV industry is busier at present than I’ve ever known it, making up for lost time last year, so sourcing crew and kit has certainly been challenging. But thanks to generous sponsorship by Global Distribution and Sigma we will be shooting on a Red Ranger Gemini – which regular readers may recall I almost selected for Hamlet – with Sigma Cine primes and zooms. I will be working with a completely new camera team and gaffer.

One of the first things Jonnie told me was that he wanted to use a lot of wide lenses. This makes a lot of sense for the story. Wide lenses fill the background with more clutter, making the frame busier and more stressful for Harvey. They also put us into Harvey’s headspace by forcing the camera physically close to get a tighter shot. We shot some tests early on with Paul, primarily on the Sigma Cine 14mm, to start getting a feel for that look.

Influences include Woody Allen, the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson, Terry Gilliam and Napoleon Dynamite, and as usual, watching reference films has formed an important part of prep for me.

Based on the colour palette Nicole Stone has put together for her costumes, I’ve decided to use orange as Harvey’s stress colour and green when he’s calmer. For most of the film this will just be a case of framing in orange or green elements when appropriate, or putting a splash of the relevant colour in the background. For key scenes later in the story we may go so far as to bathe Harvey in the colour.

Right, I’d better get back to trying to sort out the lighting kit hire, which is still up in the air. Possibly this post should have been called Pre-production for “Harvey Greenfield” is running late.

Pre-production for “Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”

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

20 Years of Blogging

Today is the 20th anniversary of my first ever blog post. On March 4th, 2001 I wrote the inaugural “journal” entry on the-beacon.com, a website about a terrible no-budget action move I was writing, directing, producing, etc, etc. (clip below). My blog continued across two other project-specific websites for the next few years before they all got integrated into neiloseman.com in 2011.

There is a history of my blogging exploits in my 1,000th post from January 2015, and if you’re interested in blogging yourself, I shared some tips not long afterwards. (The post you’re reading now is the 1,261st, in the unlikely event that you care.) If you visit the Blog Archive page you can delve back into my old posts, either by month and year, by production or by topic.

It is strange to think how different the world was when I wrote that first post. The Twin Towers were still standing. Buying a take-away latte was swanky and cosmopolitan. Ordering something remotely meant getting a catalogue, then filling in a form and posting off a cheque and waiting up to 28 days. Your choice of filming formats came down to celluloid or standard definition DV. Everyone still took their holiday snaps on 35mm. The internet was all dial-up. VHS was still the dominant home video format, though DVD was on the rise. “Netflix” was probably something fishermen did. Superhero movies were rare. Flat screens and touch-screens were a sci-fi dream. I for one didn’t own a mobile phone. There was no social media. The term “blog” had been coined but wasn’t widely known. And the idea of a pandemic shutting down the world for a year, keeping us from our loved ones and making us all mask up in Tesco’s was utterly inconceivable.

Blogging has certainly been useful to me. It helps me to organise my thoughts, and I frequently check my old posts to remind myself how I did something so that I can repeat the trick… or avoid making the same mistake again! It’s even got me work, writing for RedShark News since 2017 – a website edited by none other than Simon Wyndham, fight choreographer for that blog-starting film of mine, The Beacon. That in turn has led to me writing for British Cinematographer magazine since the end of last year.

It’s quite fitting that now, as back in March 2001, I am prepping for a feature film, and sharing that process on this blog (albeit in vague terms, as the project hasn’t been officially announced yet). The budget may be a tad bigger, and I may only be DPing rather than doing pretty much all the major jobs myself, but some things haven’t changed; in my second ever post, I complained about my main location being closed due to a disease outbreak…

20 Years of Blogging