“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

Beautiful/Realistic/Cheap: The Lighting Triangle

We’re all familiar with the “good/fast/cheap” triangle. You can pick any two, but never all three. When it comes to lighting films, I would posit that there is a slightly different triangle of truth labelled “beautiful/realistic/cheap”. When you’re working to a tight budget, a DP often has to choose between beautiful or realistic lighting, where a better-funded cinematographer can have both.

I first started thinking about this in 2018 when I shot Annabel Lee. Specifically it was when we were shooting a scene from this short period drama – directed by Amy Coop – in a church. Our equipment package was on the larger side for a short, but still far from ideal for lighting up a building of that size. Our biggest instrument was a Nine-light Maxi Brute, which is a grid of 1KW par globes, then we had a couple of 2.5K HMIs and nothing else of any signifcant power.

Director Amy Coop during the church recce for “Annabel Lee”

The master shot for the scene was a side-on dolly move parallel to the central aisle, with three large stained-glass windows visible in the background. My choices were either to put a Maxi Brute or an HMI outside each window, to use only natural light, or to key the scene from somewhere inside the building. The first option was beautiful but not realistic, as I shall explain, the second option would have been realistic but not beautiful (and probably under-exposed) and the third would have been neither.

I went with the hard source outside of each window. I could not diffuse or bounce the light because that would have reduced the intensity to pretty much nothing. (Stained-glass windows don’t transmit a lot of light through them.) For the same reason, the lamps had to be pretty close to the glass.

The result is that, during this dolly shot, each of the three lamps is visible at one time or another. You can’t tell they’re lamps – the blown-out panes of glass disguise them – but the fact that there are three of them rather gives away that they are not the sun! (There is also the issue that contiguous scenes outside the church have overcast light, but that is a discontinuity I have noticed in many other films and series.)

I voiced my concerns to Amy at the time – trying to shirk responsibility, I suppose! Fortunately she found it beautiful enough to let the realism slide.

But I couldn’t help thinking that, with a larger budget and thus larger instruments, I could have had both beauty and realism. If I had had three 18K HMIs, for example, plus the pre-rig time to put them on condors or scaffolding towers, they could all have been high enough and far enough back from the windows that they wouldn’t have been seen. I would still have got the same angle of light and the nice shafts in the smoke, but they would have passed much more convincingly as a single sun source. Hell, if I’d had the budget for a 100KW SoftSun then I really could have done it with one source!

There have been many other examples of the beauty/realism problem throughout my career. One that springs to mind is Above the Clouds, where the 2.5K HMI which I was using as a backlight for a night exterior was in an unrealistic position. The ground behind the action sloped downwards, so the HMI on its wind-up stand threw shafts of light upwards. With the money for a cherry-picker, a far more moon-like high-angle could have been achieved. Without such funds, my only alternative was to sacrifice the beauty of a backlight altogether, which I was not willing to do.

The difference between that example and Annabel Lee is that Clouds director Leon Chambers was unable to accept the unrealistic lighting, and ended up cutting around it. So I think it’s quite important to get on the same page as your director when you’re lighting with limited means.

I remember asking Paul Hyett when we were prepping Heretiks, “How do you feel about shafts of ‘sunlight’ coming into a room from two different directions?” He replied that “two different directions is fine, but not three.” That was a very nice, clear drawing of the line between beauty (or at least stylisation) and realism, which helped me enormously during production.

The beauty/realism/cost triangle is one we all have to navigate. Although it might sometimes give us regrets about what could have been, as long we’re on the same page as our directors we should still get results we can all live with.

Beautiful/Realistic/Cheap: The Lighting Triangle

8 Things to Look For When Buying a Cinema Camera

A couple of weeks ago I shared my thoughts about whether a director of photography should own equipment. My conclusion was that it can be useful early in your career, when you’re shooting corporates or tiny films with no hire budget. So what is the best camera for indie cinematography?

I’m not going to answer that, but I will tell you what to look for when investing in a camera. Hopefully these tips will help you choose the one that’s right for you from the huge and ever-changing array of professional cameras on the market, from the humble DSLR to the ubiquitous Reds and everything in between.

 

1. Image quality

Shooting on a Sony FS7 for “Finding Hope”

The quality of the image is of course the most imporant attribute of any camera. Rather than any technical specifications, I’m talking about the aesthetic quality here: how does it feel? Does it have that elusive “cinematic” quality? Is it “filmic”? Does it remind you of certain kinds of movies?

A good place to start is to look up sample footage on YouTube, or better still Vimeo for less compression muddying the issue. If you can borrow the camera and try it out before you buy, even better. Take away some test footage and try grading it too.

 

2. Resolution

Resolution, the sheer number of pixels a camera can record, is part of image quality, but I include it as a separate point because I see it as more of a technical consideration than an aesthetic one. You should ask yourself what longevity you require from your films – will people still be watching them, say two or three years from now, and if so what sort of resolution might be the norm by then?

Also consider your delivery platform. If everything you shoot is going on YouTube, perhaps you don’t need more than 1080P (standard HD).

 

3. Dynamic Range

Dynamic range is a measure of how much contrast a camera can handle. Too small a dynamic range and you will frequently struggle with bright areas “clipping” – i.e. losing details – or dark areas getting lost in the image noise. Also, the wider the dynamic range, the more flexibility you will have in grading.

For a cinematic image, 12 stops of dynamic range is the absolute minimum, with 14 or more being ideal.

 

4. Maximum ISO

Some ISO tests I conducted on an Arri Alexa Classic in 2017

The ISO (International Standards Organisation) scale rates the light sensitivity of a camera. The most important thing is the native ISO, the one at which the camera is optimised to give the cleanest image with the most detail. On some cameras, setting an ISO other than the native one reduces the image quality considerably.

The higher the ISO, the less light will be required to expose an image correctly. 800 is typical these days, but many cameras go much higher than that. It is worth thinking about spending more money to get a camera with a higher native ISO, because you may save a lot of money on lighting.

 

5. Lens Mount

This is crucial because you may already have a collection of lenses, or you may intend to hire certain lenses, and you need to be sure that they will fit your new camera’s mount.

The Canon EF mount is extremely common and will open up a huge range of options for stills glass as well as some low-end cinema glass. The smaller MFT (micro four-thirds) mount also has a wide range of lenses.

Top-end cameras have PL mounts which take all the beautiful cinema lenses used on big movies, but only choose this route if you are willing to part with a lot of cash!

 

6. Form Factor

A Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera, not so micro once it’s rigged with rails, matte box, wireless follow focus, battery, monitor and video transmitter!

When I started in the industry, cameras were all ergonomically designed to sit on your shoulder, with a nice handgrip to the right of the lens and an EVF (electronic viewfinder) to provide a third point of stabilising contact. Nowadays cameras tend to be boxy, heavy and uncomfortable to hold without additional accessories (see below).

Again, try to gets your hands on the camera in a shop and see how it feels before you purchase. As well as handheld shooting, consider how easy it will be to rig onto dollies, sliders, gimbals, etc.

 

7. Required Accessories

Buying the camera body itself is unlikely to be the end of your expenditure. You will need lenses, batteries, a battery charger, cards, a card reader and almost certainly some kind of stabilising system, be it a simple shoulder rig or an electronic gimbal.

You may also want an EVF, a tripod, matte box, follow focus – the list can seem endless! Be careful to budget your essential accessories before buying the camera. Some cameras seem like bargains until you add up all the extras. Pay particular attention to the media, and to exactly what speed of media you need in order to shoot at the resolution and frame rate that you require, as this can get very expensive.

 

8. Codec

What file type and codec does the camera shoot? Does your editing system support that format? If not, how time-consuming will it be to convert everything?

What compression ratios does the camera support? How much hard drive space will you need to store an hour of footage at that ratio? What about ten hours, plus back-ups? Often there is a trade-off between a highly compressed format like H.264 which is light on disc space but may need converting before you can edit it, and a lightly compressed format like ProRes which burns through disc space but can be dropped straight into most editing software.

8 Things to Look For When Buying a Cinema Camera

The Cinematography of “First Man”

A miniature Saturn V rocket is prepared for filming

If you’re a DP, you’re probably familiar with the “Guess the Format” game. Whenever you see a movie, you find yourself trying to guess what format it was shot on. Film or digital? Camera? Glass? Resolution?

As I sat in the cinema last autumn watching First Man, I was definitely playing the game. First Man tells the true story of Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) extraterrestrial career, including his test flights in the hypersonic  X-15, his execution of the first ever docking in space aboard Gemini 8, the tragic deaths of his colleagues in the launchpad fire of Apollo 1, and of course the historic Apollo 11.

The game was given away fairly early on when I noticed frames with dust on, a sure sign of celluloid acquisition. (Though most movies have so much digital clean-up now that a lack of dust doesn’t necessarily mean that film wasn’t involved.) I automatically assumed 35mm, though as the film went on I occasionally wondered if I could possibly be watching Super-16? There was something of the analogue home movie about certain scenes, the way the searing highlights of the sun blasting into the space capsules rolled off and bloomed.

When I got home I tracked down this Studio Daily podcast and my suspicions were confirmed, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

 

Cinéma Vérité

Let’s start at the beginning. First Man was directed by Damien Chazelle and photographed by Linus Sandgren, FSF, the same team who made La La Land, for which both men won Oscars. What I remember most about the cinematography of that earlier film is the palette of bright but slightly sickly colours, and the choreographed Steadicam moves.

First Man couldn’t be more different, adopting a cinéma vérité approach that often looks like it could be real and previously-unseen Nasa footage. Sandgren used zoom lenses and a documentary approach to achieve this feeling:

When you do a documentary about a person and you’re there in their house with them and they’re sad or they’re talking, maybe you don’t walk in there and stand in the perfect camera position. You can’t really get the perfect angles. That in itself creates some sort of humbleness to the characters; you are a little respectful and leave them a little alone to watch them from a distance or a little bit from behind.

Similarly, scenes in the spacecraft relied heavily on POVs through the small windows of the capsule, which is all that the astronauts or a hypothetical documentary camera operator would have been able to see. This blinkered view, combined with evocative and terrifying sound design – all metallic creaks, clanks and deafening booms, like the world itself is ending – makes the spaceflight sequences incredibly visceral.

 

Multiple gauges

Scale comparison of film formats. Note that Imax is originated on 65mm stock and printed on 70mm to allow room for the soundtrack.

Documentaries in the sixties would have been shot on Super-16, which is part of the reason that Sandgren and Chazelle chose it as one of their acquisition formats. The full breakdown of formats is as follows:

  • Super-16 was employed for intense or emotional material, specifically early sequences relating to the death of Armstrong’s young daughter, and scenes inside the various spacecraft. As well as the creative considerations, the smaller size of Super-16 equipment was presumably advantageous from a practical point of view inside the cramped sets.
  • 35mm was used for most of the non-space scenes. Sandgren differentiated the scenes at Nasa from those at Armstrong’s home by push-processing the former and pull-processing the latter. What this means is that Nasa scenes were underexposed by one stop and overdeveloped, resulting in a detailed, contrasty, grainy look, while the home scenes were overexposed and underdeveloped to produce a cleaner, softer, milkier look. 35mm was also used for wide shots in scenes that were primarily Super-16, to ensure sufficient definition.
  • Imax (horizontally-fed 65mm) was reserved for scenes on the moon.

 

In-camera effects

In keeping with the vintage aesthetic of celluloid capture, the visual effects were captured in-camera wherever possible. I’ve written in the past about the rise of LED screens as a replacement for green-screen and a source of interactive lighting. I guessed that First Man was using this technology from ECUs which showed the crescent of Earth reflected in Ryan Gosling’s eyes. Such things can be added in post, of course, but First Man‘s VFX have the unmistakeable ring of in-camera authenticity.

Imposing a “no green-screen” rule, Chazelle and his team used a huge LED screen to display the views out of the spacecraft windows. A 180° arc of 60′ diameter and 35′ in height, this screen was bright enough to provide all the interactive lighting that Sandgren required. His only addition was a 5K tungsten par or 18K HMI on a crane arm to represent the direct light of the sun.

The old-school approach extended to building and filming miniatures, of the Saturn V rocket and its launch tower for example. For a sequence of Armstrong in an elevator ascending the tower, the LED screen behind Gosling displayed footage of this miniature.

For external views of the capsules in space, the filmmakers tried to limit themselves to realistic shots which a camera mounted on the bodywork might have been able to capture. This put me in mind of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which used the same technique to sell the verisimilitude of its space vehicles. In an age when any conceivable camera move can be executed, it can be very powerful to stick to simple angles which tap into decades of history – not just from cinema but from documentaries and motorsports coverage too.

 

Lunar Lighting

For scenes on earth, Landgren walked a line between naturalism and expression, influenced by legendary DPs like Gordon Willis, ASC. My favourite shot is a wide of Armstrong’s street at night, as he and his ill-fated friend Ed White (Jason Clarke) part company after a drinking session. The mundane suburban setting is bathed in blue moonbeams, as if the the moon’s fingers are reaching out to draw the characters in.

Scenes on the lunar surface were captured at night on an outdoor set the size of three football pitches. To achieve absolute authenticity, Sandgren needed a single light source (representing the sun) fixed at 15° above the horizon. Covering an area that size was going to require one hell of a single source, so he went to Luminys, makers of the Softsun.

Softsuns

Softsuns are lamps of frankly ridiculous power. The 50KW model was used, amongst other things, to blast majestic streams of light through the windows of Buckingham Palace on The Crown, but Sandgren turned to the 100KW model. Even that proved insufficient, so he challenged Luminys to build a 200KW model, which they did.

The result is a completely stark and realistic depiction of a place where the sun is the only illumination, with no atmosphere to diffuse or redistribute it, no sky to glow and fill in the shadows. This ties in neatly with a prevailing theme in the film, that of associating black with death, when Armstrong symbolically casts his deceased daughter’s bracelet into an obsidian crater.

First Man may prove unsatisfying for some, with Armstrong’s taciturn and emotionally closed-off nature making his motivations unclear, but cinematically it is a tour de force. Taking a human perspective on extraordinary accomplishments, deftly blending utterly convincing VFX and immersive cinéma vérité photography, First Man recalls the similarly analogue and similarly gripping Dunkirk as well as the documentary-like approach of 1983’s The Right Stuff. The film is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD, and I highly recommend you check it out.

The Cinematography of “First Man”

“The Knowledge”: Lighting a Multi-camera Game Show

Metering the key-light. Photo: Laura Radford

Last week I discussed the technical and creative decisions that went into the camerawork of The Knowledge, a fake game show for an art installation conceived by Ian Wolter and directed by Jonnie Howard. This week I’ll break down the choices and challenges involved in lighting the film.

The eighties quiz shows which I looked at during prep were all lit with the dullest, flattest light imaginable. It was only when I moved forward to the nineties shows which Jonnie and I grew up on, like Blockbusters and The Generation Game, that I started to see some creativity in the lighting design: strip-lights and glowing panels in the sets, spotlights and gobos on the backgrounds, and moodier lighting states for quick-fire rounds.

Jonnie and I both wanted The Knowledge‘s lighting to be closer to this nineties look. He was keen to give each team a glowing taxi sign on their desks, which would be the only source of illumination on the contestants at certain moments. Designer Amanda Stekly and I came up with plans for additional practicals – ultimately LED string-lights – that would follow the map-like lines in the set’s back walls.

Once the set design had been finalised, I did my own dodgy pencil sketch and Photoshopped it to create two different lighting previsualisations for Jonnie.

He felt that these were a little too sophisticated, so after some discussion I produced a revised previz…

…and a secondary version showing a lighting state with one team in shadow.

These were approved, so now it was a case of turning those images into reality.

We were shooting on a soundstage, but for budget reasons we opted not to use the lighting grid. I must admit that this worried me for a little while. The key-light needed to come from the front, contrary to normal principles of good cinematography, but very much in keeping with how TV game shows are lit. I was concerned that the light stands and the cameras would get in each others’ way, but my gaffer Ben Millar assured me it could be done, and of course he was right.

Ben ordered several five-section Strato Safe stands (or Fuck-offs as they’re charmingly known). These were so high that, even when placed far enough back to leave room for the cameras, we could get the 45° key angle which we needed in order to avoid seeing the contestants’ shadows on the back walls. (A steep key like this is sometimes known as a butterfly key, for the shape of the shadow which the subject’s nose casts on their upper lip.)  Using the barn doors, and double nets on friction arms in front of the lamp-heads, Ben feathered the key-light to hit as little as possible of the back walls and the fronts of the desks. As well as giving the light some shape, this prevented the practical LEDs from getting washed out.

Note the nets mounted below the key-lights (the tallest ones). Photo: Laura Radford

Once those key-lights were established (a 5K fresnel for each team), we set a 2K backlight for each team as well. These were immediately behind the set, their stands wrapped in duvetyne, and the necks well and truly broken to give a very toppy backlight. A third 2K was placed between the staggered central panels of the set, spilling a streak of light out through the gap from which host Robert Jezek would emerge.

A trio of Source Fours with 15-30mm zoom lenses were used for targeted illumination of certain areas. One was aimed at The Knowledge sign, its cutters adjusted to form a rectangle of light around it. Another was focused on the oval map on the floor, which would come into play during the latter part of the show. The last Source Four was used as a follow-spot on Robert. We had to dim it considerably to keep the exposure in range, which conveniently made him look like he had a fake tan! Ben hooked everything, in fact, up to a dimmer board, so that various lighting cues could be accomplished in camera.

The bulk of the film was recorded in a single day, following a day’s set assembly and a day of pre-rigging. A skeleton crew returned the next day to shoot pick-ups and promos, a couple of which you can see on Vimeo here.

I’ll leave you with some frame grabs from the finished film. Find out more about Ian Wolter’s work at ianwolter.com.

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“The Knowledge”: Lighting a Multi-camera Game Show

“The Knowledge”: Shooting a Multi-camera Game Show

Robert Jezek as gameshow host Robert O’Reilly. Photo: Laura Radford

Last week saw the UK premier of The Knowledge, an art installation film, at the FLUX Exhibition hosted by Chelsea College of Arts. Conceived by award-winning, multi-disciplinary artist Ian Wolter, The Knowledge comments on the topical issue of artificial intelligence threatening jobs. It takes the form of a fake game show, pitting a team of traditional London cabbies (schooled in the titular Knowledge) against a team of smart-phoning minicab drivers. Although shot entirely on stage, the film’s central conceit is that the teams are each guiding a driver across London, to see whether technology or human experience will bring its car to the finish line first.

You can see a couple of brief promos on Vimeo here. It’s a unique project, and one that I knew would be an interesting challenge as soon as I heard of it from my friend Amanda Stekly, producer and production designer. This week and next I’ll describe the creative and technical decisions that went into photographing the piece, beginning this week with the camera side of things.

Photo: Laura Radford

I had never shot a multi-camera studio production like this before, so my first move was to sit down with my regular 1st AC and steadicam operator Rupert Peddle, and his friend Jack D’Souza-Toulson. Jack has extensive experience operating as part of a multi-camera team for live TV and events. This conversation answered such basic questions as, could the operators each pull their own focus? (yes) and allowed me to form the beginnings of a plan for crew and kit.

At the monitors with Jonnie. Photo: Laura Howard

Ian and Amanda wanted the film to have a dated look, and referenced such eighties quiz shows as 3-2-1 and Blankety Blank. Director Jonnie Howard and I knew that we had to supply the finished film in HD, which ruled out shooting on vintage analogue video cameras. Interlaced recording was rejected for similar reasons, though if memory serves, I did end up shooting at a shutter angle of 360 degrees to produce a more fluid motion suggestive of interlaced material.

I was very keen that the images should NOT look cinematic. Jonnie was able to supply two Canon C100s – which I’ve always thought have a sharp, “video-ish” look – and L-series glass. I set these to 1600 ISO to give us the biggest possible depth of field. For the remaining two cameras, I chose ENG models, a Canon XF-300 (owned by Rupert) and XF-305. In an ideal world, all four cameras would have been ENG models, to ensure huge depth of field and an overall TV look, but some compromise was necessary for budget reasons, and at least they all used Canon sensors. We hired a rack of four matching 9″ monitors so we could ensure a consistent look on set.

Photo: Laura Radford

One Canon C100, with an L-series zoom, was mounted on a pedestal and outfitted with Rupert’s follow focus system, allowing Jack to pull focus from the panning handle. The other C100 would shoot a locked-off wide, and was the first camera to be set up. A 14mm Samyang lens made the set look huge, and I placed it low down to emphasise the map in the foreground, and to make it easy for the other cameras to shoot over it. Once that frame was set, we taped a large V shape on the floor to indicate the edges of the wide shot. As long as the lights and other cameras stayed out of that area, they would be safe.

Jack operates the pedestal-mounted C100. Photo: Laura Radford

Generally Jack’s pedestal-mounted C100 followed the host, Robert Jezek, or captured the interesting moving shots, while Rupert and the third operator, Jimmy Buchanan, cross-shot the two teams on the XF-100 and XF-105. No filtration was used, except for a four-point star filter on one camera when glitter canons are fired at the end of the game. This cheesiness was inspired by the 3-2-1 clips I watched for research, in which star filters were used for the tacky sequences showing the prizes on offer.

Next week I’ll discuss lighting the show. Meanwhile, find out more about Ian’s work at ianwolter.com.

Photo: Laura Radford

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“The Knowledge”: Shooting a Multi-camera Game Show

The Inverse Square Law

If you’ve ever read or been taught about lighting, you’ve probably heard of the Inverse Square Law. It states that light fades in proportion to the square of the distance from the source. But lately I started to wonder if this really applies in all situations. Join me as I attempt to get to the bottom of this…

 

Knowing the law

The seed of this post was sown almost a year ago, when I read Herbert McKay’s 1947 book The Tricks of Light and Colour, which described the Inverse Square Law in terms of light spreading out. (Check out my post about The Tricks of Light and Colour here.)

But before we go into that, let’s get the Law straight in our minds. What, precisely, does it say? Another excellent book, Gerald Millerson’s Lighting for Television and Film, defines it thusly:

With increased distance, the light emitted from a given point source will fall rapidly, as it spreads over a progressively larger area. This fall-off in light level is inversely proportional to the distance square, i.e. 1/d². Thus, doubling the lamp distance would reduce the light to ¼.

The operative word, for our purposes, is “spreads”.

If you’d asked me a couple of years ago what causes the Inverse Square Law, I probably would have mumbled something about light naturally losing energy as it travels. But that is hogwash of the highest order. Assuming the light doesn’t strike any objects to absorb it, there is nothing to reduce its energy. (Air does scatter – and presumably absorb – a very small amount of light, hence atmospheric haze, but this amount will never be significant on the scale a cinematographer deals with.)

In fact, as the Millerson quote above makes clear, the Inverse Square Law is a result of how light spreads out from its source. It’s purely geometry. In this diagram you can see how fewer and fewer rays strike the ‘A’ square as it gets further and further away from the source ‘S’:

Illustration by Borb, CC BY-SA 3.0

Each light ray (dodgy term, I know, but sufficient for our purposes) retains the same level of energy, and there are the same number of them overall, it’s just that there are fewer of them passing through any given area.

So far, so good.

 

Taking the Law into my own hands

During season two of my YouTube series Lighting I Like, I discussed Dedo’s Panibeam 70 HMI. This fixture produces collimated light, light of which all the waves are travelling in parallel. It occurred to me that this must prevent them spreading out, and therefore render the Inverse Square Law void.

This in turn got me thinking about more common fixtures – par cans, for example.

 

Par lamps are so named for the Parabolic Aluminised Reflectors they contain. These collect the light radiated from the rear and sides of the filament and reflect it as parallel rays. So to my mind, although light radiated from the very front of the filament must still spread and obey the Inverse Square Law, that which bounces off the reflector should theoretically never diminish. You can imagine that the ‘A’ square in our first diagram would have the same number of light rays passing through it every time if they are travelling in parallel.

Similarly, fresnel lenses are designed to divert the spreading light waves into a parallel pattern:

Even simple open-face fixtures have a reflector which can be moved back and forth using the flood/spot control, affecting both the spread and the intensity of the light. Hopefully by now you can see why these two things are related. More spread = more divergence of light rays = more fall-off. Less spread = less divergence of light rays = more throw.

So, I wondered, am I right? Do these focused sources disobey the Inverse Square Law?

 

Breaking the law

To find the answer, I waded through a number of fora.

Firstly, and crucially, everyone agrees that the Law describes light radiated from a point source, so any source which isn’t infinitely small will technically not be governed by the Law. In practice, says the general consensus, the results predicted by the Law hold true for most sources, unless they are quite large or very close to the subject.

If you are using a softbox, a Kinoflo or a trace frame at short range though, the Inverse Square Law will not apply.

The above photometric data for a Filmgear LED Flo-box indeed shows a slower fall-off than the Law predicts. (Based on the 1m intensity, the Law predicts the 2m and 3m intensities as 970÷2²=243 lux and 970÷3²=108 lux respectively.)

A Flickr forum contributor called Severin Sadjina puts it like this:

In general, the light will fall off as 1/d² if the size of the light source is negligible compared to the distance d to the light source. If, on the other hand, the light source is significantly larger than the distance d to the light source, the light will fall off as 1/d – in other words: slower than the Inverse Square Law predicts.

Another contributor, Ftir, claims that a large source will start to follow the Law above distances equal to about five times the largest side of the source, so a 4ft Kinoflo would obey the Law very closely after about 20ft. This claim is confirmed by Wikipedia, citing A. Ryer’s The Light Measurement Handbook.

But what about those pesky parallel light beams from the pars and fresnels?

Every forum had a lot of disagreement on this. Most people agree that parallel light rays don’t really exist in real life. They will always diverge or converge, slightly, and therefore the Law applies. However, many claim that it doesn’t apply in quite the same way.

Diagram from a tutorial PDF on light-measurement.com showing a virtual point source behind the bulb of a torch.

A fresnel, according to John E. Clark on Cinematography.com, can still be treated as a point source, but that point source is actually located somewhere behind the lamp-head! It’s a virtual point source. (Light radiating from a distant point source has approximately parallel rays with consequently negligible fall-off, e.g. sunlight.) So if this virtual source is 10m behind the fixture, then moving the lamp from 1m from the subject to 2m is not doubling the distance (and therefore not quartering the intensity). In fact it is multiplying the distance by 1.09 (12÷11=1.09), so the light would only drop to 84% of its former intensity (1÷1.09²=0.84).

I tried to confirm this using the Arri Photometrics App, but the data it gives for Arri’s fresnel fixtures conforms perfectly with an ordinary point source under the Law, leaving me somewhat confused. However, I did find some data for LED fresnels that broke the Law, for example the Lumi Studio 300:

As you can see, at full flood (bottom graphic) the Law is obeyed as expected; the 8m intensity of 2,500 lux is a quarter of the 4m intensity of 10,000 lux. But when spotted (top graphic) it falls off more rapidly. Again, very confusing, as I was expecting it to fall off less rapidly if the rays are diverging but close to parallel.

A more rapid fall-off suggests a virtual point source somewhere in front of the lamp-head. This was mentioned in several places on the fora as well. The light is converging, so the intensity increases as you move further from the fixture, reaching a maximum at the focal point, then diverging again from that point as per the Inverse Square Law. In fact, reverse-engineering the above data using the Law tells me – if my maths is correct – that the focal point is 1.93m in front of the fixture. Or, to put it another way, spotting this fixture is equivalent to moving it almost 2m closer to the subject. However, this doesn’t seem to tally with the beam spread data in the above graphics. More confusion!

I decided to look up ETC’s Source Four photometrics, since these units contain an ellipsoidal reflector which should focus the light (and therefore create a virtual point source) in front of themselves. However, the data shows no deviation from the Law and no evidence of a virtual point source displaced from the actual source.

 

I fought the law and the law won

I fear this investigation has left me more confused than when I started! Clearly there are factors at work here beyond what I’ve considered.

However, I’ve learnt that the Inverse Square Law is a useful means of estimating light fall-off for most lighting fixtures – even those that really seem like they should act differently! If you double the distance from lamp to subject, you’re usually going to quarter the intensity, or near as damn it. And that rule of thumb is all we cinematographers need 99% of the time. If in doubt, refer to photometrics data like that linked above.

And if anyone out there can shed any light (haha) on the confusion, I’d be very happy to hear from you!

The Inverse Square Law

Lighting with LED Screens

Gravity’s LED light box

LED lighting has found its way onto most sets now, but there is another off-shoot of LED technology which I see cropping up more and more in American Cinematographer articles. Sometimes it’s lighting, sometimes it’s a special effect, and often it’s both. I’m talking about LED screens: huge LED panels that, rather than emitting solid, constant light, display a moving image like a giant monitor.

I touched on LED Screens in my article about shooting on moving trains, and moving backgrounds do seem to be one of the most common uses for these screens. House of Cards has been in the news this week for all the wrong reasons, but it remains a useful example here. Production designer Steve Arnold describes the use of LED screens for car scenes in the political drama:

We had a camera crew go to Washington, D.C. to drive around and shoot plates for what you see outside when you’re driving. And that is fed into the LED screens above the car. So as the scene is progressing, the LED screens are synched up to emit interactive light to match the light conditions you see in the scenery you’re driving past (that will be added in post). All the reflections on the car windows, the window frames and door jambs is being shot while we’re shooting the actors in the car. Then in post the green screens are replaced with the synced up driving plates, and it works really well. It gives you the sense of light passing over the actors’ faces, matching the lighting that is in the image of the plate.

The green-screen stage used for a car scenes on House of Cards, complete with LED screens for interactive lighting.

This appears to be the go-to method for shooting car scenes now, and more exotic forms of transport are using the technique as well. Rogue One employed “a massive array of WinVision Air 9mm LED panels” to create “an interactive hyperspace lighting effect” (American Cinematographer, February 2017).

The hyperspace VFX is displayed on a huge LED screen on the set of Rogue One.

Production designer Doug Chiang comments on the use of LED screens in the Death Star command centre:

We wanted to see things on the viewscreen where traditionally it would have been a giant bluescreen; we wanted the interactive reflective quality of what you would actually see. Even though we ultimately had to replace some of those images with higher-fidelity images in postproduction, they were enough to give a sense that the quality of light on the actors and the reflections on the set looked and felt very real.

One of the first major uses of LED screens for lighting was in the seminal stranded-in-space thriller Gravity. Concerned about blending the actors convincingly with the CGI backgrounds, DP Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC came up with a solution that was, at the time, cutting-edge: “I had the idea to build a set out of LED panels and to light the actors’ faces inside it with the previs animation.” (AC, November 2013)

Gravity also featured a scene in which Sandra Bullock’s character puts out a fire, and here once again LED panels provided interactive light. This is a technique that has since been used on several other films to simulate off-camera fires, including Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and the true story of the BP oil rig disaster, Deepwater Horizon.

An LED screen in use on Dunkirk

Traditionally, fire has been simulated with tungsten sources, often Maxibrutes, but on Deepwater Horizon these were relegated to background action, while foregrounds were keyed by a huge 42’x24′ video wall made up of 252 LED panels.  DP Enrqiue Chediak, ASC had this to say (in AC, October 2016):

Fire caused by burning oil is very red and has deep blacks. You cannot get that with the substance that the special effects crews use – all those propane fires are yellow. Oil fire has a very specific quality, and I wanted to reach that. It was important to feel the sense of hell.

By playing back footage of real oil fires on the video wall, Chediak was able to get the realistic colour of lighting he wanted, while retaining authentic dynamics.

The giant LED wall on Deepwater Horizon

This technique isn’t necessarily confined to big-budget productions. In theory you could create interactive lighting with an iPad. For example, a tight shot of an actor supposedly warming themselves by a fireplace; if you could get the iPad close enough, playing a video of flames, I imagine the result would be quite convincing. Has anyone out there tried something like this? Let me know if you have!

I’ll leave you with a music video I shot a few years back (more info here), featuring custom-built LED panels in the background.

Lighting with LED Screens

24 Things I Learnt from CineFest

img_1220Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the Bristol International Festival of Cinematography: five days of masterclasses and panel discussions with a range of DPs from Oscar-winners like Chris Menges, ASC, BSC and Billy Williams, BSC, OBE to emerging cinematographers like Rina Yang. It was fascinating to watch the likes of Williams lighting the purpose-built set and explaining his decisions as he went. I learnt a huge amount, so I decided to share some of the opinions and nuggets of wisdom I collected.

  • Everyone agrees that the role of the DP is being diminished. Films are more collaborative than they used to be, often with lots of input from the VFX team right from the start.

Getting Work

  • You have to create your own luck. (Rina Yang)
  • Going to LA parties and schmoozing helps. (Roberto Schaefer, AIC, ASC)
  • Each clip on your showreel should make the viewer feel something. (Matt Gray, BSC)

Prep

  • Director Philippa Lowthorpe and Gray, her DP, spent weeks of prep getting on the same page when they worked together – chatting, exchanging photos, films, and so on.
  • Spend as much time as you can with the director in the early stages of prep, because as you get closer to the shoot they will be too busy with other stuff. (Schaefer)
  • Start with ten ideas about how you want to approach the cinematography of the film. If you hang onto five of them throughout the shoot you’re doing well. (Gray)
  • Hire a gaffer who knows more than you do. (Schaefer)

Equipment

  • On Gandhi, co-cinematographer Billy Williams, BSC, OBE was granted only half of the lighting kit he asked for. That was a $22 million movie which won eight Oscars!
  • Schaefer usually carries a 24’x30′ mirror in his kit, in case he needs to get an angle from somewhere where the camera won’t fit.
  • Schaefer doesn’t used OLED monitors to light from, because the blacks are richer than they will ever be seen by an audience on any other device, including in a cinema. He won’t judge the lighting by the EVF either, only a monitor calibrated by the DIT.
  • Focus drop-off is faster on digital than on film. Hence the current popularity of Cooke lenses, which soften the drop-off.
  • Nic Knowland, BSC uses a DSLR as a viewfinder to pick his shots. He also likes to record takes on his Convergent monitor so he can review them quickly for lighting issues.

On Set

  • You have to give the actors freedom, which may mean compromising the cinematography. (Nigel Waters, BSC)
  • Gray would never ask an actor to the find the light. The light needs to find them! As soon as actors are freed from marks, they can truly inhabit the space. [Note: in my experience, some actors absolutely insist on marks. Different strokes for different folks.]
  • On digital, everyone wants to shoot the rehearsal. (Schaefer)
  • Digital encourages more takes, but more takes use up time, drains actors’ energy and creates more work for the editor. Doing fewer takes encourages people to bring their A game to take one. (Williams)
  • Director Philippa Lowthorpe prefers a DP who operates because there is no filter between the ideas you’ve discussed in prep and the operation of the camera.

Lighting

  • Sometimes when you start lighting a set, you don’t where you’re going with it. You build a look, stroke by stroke, and see where it takes you. (Knowland)
  • Williams advocates maintaining the same stop throughout a scene, because your eye gets used to judging that exposure.
  • Knowland relies more on false colours on his monitor than on his light meter.
  • Schaefer often foregoes his traditional light and colour meters for an iPad app called Cine Meter III.
  • Knowland will go to 359º on the shutter if he’s struggling for light.
  • It’s worth checking the grade on a cheap monitor or TV. That’s how most people will watch it. (Schaefer)
24 Things I Learnt from CineFest