Undisclosed Project: Experimentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the edited highlights from the tests…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undisclosed Project: Experimentation

Undisclosed Project: Elevation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undisclosed Project: Elevation

Undisclosed Project: Iteration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undisclosed Project: Iteration

Undisclosed Project: Collaboration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undisclosed Project: Collaboration

“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

What is Negative Fill and How Do You Use It?

The 4×4 flags and matt silver bounce board used to shape the “Heretiks” shot later in the article.

If you’ve ever learnt anything about lighting, you’ll have heard of the Three Point System: key, backlight and fill. That last one is a soft light which raises the shadows and reduces contrast in the image.

As you might expect, negative fill is the exact opposite. It brings the shadows down, increasing contrast. It’s a big part of cinematography today because the dynamic range of digital cameras is so wide and their light sensitivity is so high that taking away light has become just as important as adding it.

Negative fill – neg fill or just neg for short – can be accomplished with anything black, most commonly a polystyrene board (American name: bead-board), blackout material (usually bolton in the UK or duvetyne in the US) or a flag. 5-in-1 reflectors have a black side that can be used for neg fill too. The term solids or black solids can be applied to any of these tools, indicating that they are completely opaque, as opposed to nets.

When DPs talk about neg fill you often hear the word “shape” come up in their reasoning. Neg fill is typically applied to the camera side (broad side) of the talent, allowing their other side (short side) to remain bright. This has the effect of making the face – or any other object – look more three-dimensional. Hence “shape”. (This is all part of the theory of short key lighting, which I’ve covered in detail before.)

Below is an example from my online course, Cinematic Lighting. In these before and after shots, I use the black side of a 5-in-1 reflector (though you see silver facing camera) to neg-fill Ivan’s short side, adding mood and contrast.

We made it more permanent by replacing the reflector with a 4×4′ floppy flag on a C-stand.

Here’s an example from Heretiks where I chose to put a glint of light back into the darkness created by the neg fill, by using a matt silver reflector to create a rim-light. (There are many more diagrams like this on my Instagram feed.)

Neg fill is most commonly used outdoors, but it can be desirable indoors too, for example when white walls are bouncing light around everywhere. For the shot below from Exit Eve, I had the white wall behind camera covered with bolton so that the light would all be coming from behind the talent. (See my article on lighting from the back.)

In the café scene from Above the Clouds we shot towards the windows, but there was still too much ambience (mainly from skylights in the roof) on the camera sides of the actors for my taste. We only had a limited supply of flags, so we pressed the sides of the Easy-Up tent into service too!

I’ll leave you with this extreme example of negative fill from Instagram.

 

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What is Negative Fill and How Do You Use It?

A Cinematographer’s Guide to Looking Good on a Webcam

This night shot is lit by a desk-lamp bounced off the wall behind and to the left of camera, plus the monitor light and the Christmas lights you can see at frame left. The background is lit by a reading lamp bounced off the ceiling (just out of frame right) and more Christmas lights.

It may be the beginning of the end for Covid-19, but it doesn’t look like home working and video calls are going away any time soon. We’re very lucky that we have such technology in the midst of a global pandemic, but let’s be honest: webcams don’t always make us look our best. Having lit and photographed movies for 20 years, I’d like to share a few tips to improve your image on Zoom, WhatsApp, Google Meet or whatever your video call software of choice is.

Firstly, low camera angles are not flattering to many people. Wherever possible, set up your webcam so that it’s at eye-level or a little above. If you’re using a laptop, this might mean stacking a few books under the device. Consider investing in a laptop stand that will raise the monitor and camera up if you’re going to be doing this a lot.

Avoid placing the camera too close yourself. A medium close-up works best for most video calls, head and shoulders at the closest, or down to your waist if you like to gesticulate a lot. Follow the classic rules of composition and make the most of your camera’s resolution by framing your head near the top of the shot, rather than leaving a lot of empty headroom above yourself.

It’s important to be aware of automatic exposure if you want to look your best on a webcam. Your camera and/or software continually assess the average luminance in the frame and alter the shutter speed or electronic gain to achieve what they think is the correct exposure. Since webcams have very poor dynamic range – they can’t handle a great deal of contrast within the frame – you should think carefully about what elements in your shot could sway the auto-exposure.

For example, a bright white wall, window or table lamp in the background will cause the camera to reduce its exposure, darkening the overall image and perhaps turning you into a silhouette. Even the colour of top you’re wearing can be a factor. If you have a pale skin tone and you’re wearing a black top – prompting the camera to increase its exposure – you might well find that your face bleaches out.

The black hoodie causes the automatic exposure to rise, bleaching out my face.
The lighter tone of this t-shirt enables the automatic exposure to produce a balanced image.

This brings us to lighting. Most of us are used to lighting our homes and workspaces so that we can see what we’re doing comfortably, rather than worrying about how the light is falling on our own faces.

The clearest and most flattering type of lighting is generally a large, soft source roughly in front of and slightly above us, so if possible position your computer or webcam in front of a window. If direct sunlight comes in through this window, that is less ideal; try to cut it off with your curtains. The indirect light of sky and clouds is much softer and less likely to confuse the auto-exposure.

If you have little or no natural light to work with, the main source of light on your face might well be the monitor you’re looking at. In this case, what you have on your screen can make a huge difference. A blank white Word document is going to light you much more effectively than a paused Netflix frame from a horror movie.

Monitor light can leave you looking blue and ghostly, so consider placing a strategic window of pale orange colour on your virtual desktop to warm up your skin tone. Try adjusting the monitor’s brightness or switching to a darker desktop theme if your monitor is bleaching your face out completely.

Of course, your screen is not just a light source. You need to be able to use it for actually viewing things too, so a better solution is not to rely on it for light. Instead, create another soft source in front of and slightly above you by pointing a desk-lamp at the wall above your monitor. (If the wall is a dark or saturated colour, pin up something white to reflect the light.) The larger the patch of wall the lamp illuminates, the more softly your face will be lit.

You may find that your background now looks very dim, because little of the light from your monitor – or bouncing off the wall behind your monitor – is reaching it. Worse still, the auto-exposure might react to this dim background by over-exposing your face. In this case, use a second lamp to illuminate the background.

Often the room’s main ceiling light will do the job here, though it will likely result in an image that has an overall flat look to it. That might be just what you need for a professional video call, but if not, feel free to get creative with your background. Use table lamps to pick out certain areas, string up fairy lights, or whatever you feel best reflects your personality and profession.

The main thing is to get your “key light” right first – that’s the soft source in front of you that keeps you lit nicely. Everything after that is just icing on the cake.

This moodier shot has the much the same set-up as the image at the top of this post, but with a brighter light in the background and a dimmer light in the foreground.
A Cinematographer’s Guide to Looking Good on a Webcam

“A Cliché for the End of the World”

Photo: Catherine Ashenden

In August 2019 Jonnie Howard, director of The Knowledge, approached me about shooting an unusual short film with him. A Cliché for the End of the World is only two minutes long, but Jonnie wanted to shoot it as two unbroken takes which would be presented side by side. Each take would follow one character, starting and ending with them next to each other, but separating in the middle.

My first thought was that the two takes would have to be shot concurrently, but to squeeze two cameras into the small location and keep each out of the other’s frame would have been impossible. Instead, we settled on shooting with a single camera. After capturing 18 takes of the first side, Jonnie reviewed the footage with his editor Kat and selected one to use. We then shot the other side, with Kat calling out cues that would keep the actors in sync with the selected “master” take. (It took 18 takes to get this side in the can as well, partly because of getting the cues right and partly because of the difficulties Steadicam op Luke Oliver had in manoeuvring up the narrow staircase.)

The film had to be lit in a way that worked for both sides, with the camera starting in the living room looking towards the kitchen, moving up the stairs, through the landing and into the bedroom.

The HMI skips off the floor (left); Jeremy creates the dynamic look of TV light (right)

Working as usual to the general principle of lighting from the back, I set up a 2.5K HMI outside the kitchen window to punch a shaft of sunlight into the room. I angled this steeply so that it would not reach the actors directly, but instead bounce off the floor and light them indirectly. (See my article on lighting through windows.)

Gaffer Jeremy Dawson blacked out the living room windows to keep the foreground dark. He used an LED panel set to 6,600K (versus our camera’s white balance of 5,600K) to simulate an off-screen TV, waving a piece of black wrap in front of it to create dynamics.

The HMI outside (left); the diffused Dedo in the loft (right)

Next we needed to bring up the light levels for the actor’s journey up the stairs, which were naturally darker. Jeremy and spark Gareth Neal opened the loft hatch on the landing and rigged an LED Dedo inside, aimed at the darkest part of the staircase. They diffused this with some kind of net curtain I think.

To brighten the landing we set up a diffused 2×4 Kino Flo in the spare room and partially closed the door to give the light some shape. Both this and the loft Dedo were a couple of stops under key so as not to look too artificial.

Luke Oliver balances Jonnie’s C200 on his Steadicam rig.

All that remained was the bedroom. The characters were to end up sitting on the bed facing the window. Originally the camera in both takes was to finish facing them, with the window behind it, but this would have meant shadowing the actors, not to mention that space between the bed and the window was very limited. After some discussion between me, Jonnie, Luke, the cast, and production designer Amanda Stekly, we ended up moving the bed so that the camera could shoot the actors from behind, looking towards the window. This of course made for much more interesting and dimensional lighting.

The window looked out onto the street, and with a narrow pavement and no permission from the council, rigging a light outside was out of the question. Furthermore, we knew that the sun was going to shine right into that window later in the day, seriously messing with our continuity. Unfortunately all we could do was ask Amanda to dress in a net curtain. This took the worst of the harshness out of any direct sun and hopefully disguised the natural changes in light throughout the day at least a little.

When the sun did blast in through the window at about 6pm, we added a layer of unbleached muslin behind the net curtain to soften it further. We doubled this as the angle of the sun got more straight-on, then removed it entirely when the sun vanished behind the rooftops opposite at 7pm. About 20 minutes later we rigged a daylight LED panel in the room, bouncing off the ceiling, as a fill to counteract the diminishing natural light. We wrapped just as it was becoming impossible to match to earlier takes.

We were shooting in RAW on a Canon C200, which should give some grading latitude to help match takes from different times of day. The split-screen nature of the film means that the match needs to be very close though!

As I write this, the film is still in postproduction, and I very much look forward to seeing how it comes out. I’ll leave you with the start and end frames from slate 2, take 17, with a very quick and dirty grade.

“A Cliché for the End of the World”

The Hardest Shot I’ve Ever Done

It is night. We Steadicam into a moonlit bedroom, drifting across a window – where a raven is visible on the outside ledge, tapping at the glass with its beak – and land on a sleeping couple. The woman, Annabel, wakes up and goes to the window, causing the bird to flee. Crossing over to her far shoulder, we rest on Annabel’s reflection for a moment, before racking focus to another woman outside, maybe 200ft away, running towards a cliff. All in one shot.

Such was the action required in a scene from Annabel Lee, the most ambitious short I’ve ever been involved with. Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, the film was the brainchild of actor Angel Parker, who plays the titular character. It was directed by Amy Coop, who had already to decided to shoot on an Alexa Mini with Cooke Anamorphics before I was even hired.

Working with animals has its own difficulties, but for me as director of photography the challenges of this particular shot were:

  1. Making the bedroom appear moonlit by the single window, without any lamps being visible at any point in the Steadicam move.
  2. Lighting the view outside.
  3. Ensuring the live raven read on camera even though the shot was quite wide.
  4. Making Annabel bright enough that her reflection would read, without washing out the rest of the scene.
  5. Blocking the camera in concert with Annabel’s move so that its reflection would not be seen.

I left that last one in the capable hands of Steadicam op Rupert Peddle, along with Angel and Amy. What they ended up doing was timing Angel’s move so that she would block the window from camera at the moment that the camera’s reflection would have appeared.

Meanwhile, I put my head together with gaffer Bertil Mulvad to tackle the other four challenges. We arrived at a set-up using only three lights:

  1. A LiteMat 1 above the window (indoors) which served to light Annabel and her reflection, as well as reaching to the bed.
  2. Another LED source outside the window to one side, lighting the raven.
  3. A nine-light Maxibrute on a cherry-picker, side-lighting the woman outside and the cliffs. This was gelled with CTB to match the daylight LEDs.

Unfortunately the outside LED panel backlit the window glass, which was old and kept fogging up, obscuring the raven. With hindsight that panel might have been better on the other side of the window (left rather than right, but still outside), even though it would have created some spill problems inside. (To be honest, this would have made the lighting direction more consistent with the Maxibrute “moonlight” as well. It’s so easy to see this stuff after the fact!)

Everything else worked very well, but editor Jim Page did have to cut in a close-up of the raven, without which you’d never have known it was there.

The Hardest Shot I’ve Ever Done