During 2016-2017 I blogged about the production of Above the Clouds, a comedy road movie which I shot for director Leon Chambers. It premiered at Raindance in 2018, closely followed by Austin Film Festival, where it won the audience award for Best Narrative Feature, the first of four gongs it would collect.
In two decades of filmmaking, Above the Clouds is easily in the top five productions I’m most proud of. Since this January it has been available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play and other platforms, and I highly recommend you give it a watch. DO NOT continue reading this blog unless you have, because what follows are two blog entries that I held back due to spoilers.
The script calls for Charlie to be seen sitting in the window seat of a plane as it rises quite literally above the clouds. This is another micro-set filmed in Leon’s living room, in fact half in the living room and half in the hall, to leave enough room for the lights beyond.
Although the view out of the window will be added in post, I need to simulate the lighting effect of bursting through the clouds. My plan involves a 1.2K HMI, and a 4×4 poly board held horizontally with a triple layer of 4×4 Opal sheets hanging from one edge.
We start with the HMI pointed straight into the window and the poly board held high up so that the Opal hangs in front of the lamp. As the plane supposedly rises through the cloud layer, Colin lowers the poly until it is below the level of the lamp, while Gary tilts the HMI down so its light skips off the poly (like sun skipping off the top of clouds) and bounces back up into the window. Gary then tilts the HMI back up to point straight into the window, to suggest further banking or climbing of the aircraft. This direct light is so hot that it bounces off the armrest of Charlie’s seat and gives a glow to her cheek which syncs perfectly with a smile she’s doing.
Today’s set is a dark room. A photographer’s dark room, that is. Not just a random dimly-lit room.
We begin with only the red safe-light in play. The wall-mounted practical has a 15W bulb, so it needs some serious help to illuminate the room. Micky rigs a 1K pup with Medium Red gel and fires it over the top of the set, above the practical. The effect is very convincing. Pure red light can make everything look out of focus on camera, which is why I chose the slightly magenta Medium Red gel, rather than the more realistic Primary Red. The colourist will be able to add some green/yellow to correct this.
During the scene, Naomi pulls a cord and the normal lights come on. These are two hanging practicals, fitted with dimmed 100W tungsten globes. In a very similar set-up to yesterday, we use a 2K with a chimera, poking over the set wall on the camera’s down-side, to enhance and soften the practicals’ light.
To read all the Above the Clouds blogs from the start, click here.
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 TheKnowledge‘s lightingto 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The outstanding scenes were to be photographed on stage, at Halliford Studio in Shepperton, this time on an Arri Amira. The Amira uses the same sensor as the Alexas, allowing us to match the look from principal photography in the most cost-effective way. With the addition of a Premium license, the camera is capable of the same ProRes 4444 recording codec as the Alexas too. As per last summer, our glass was a set of Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes, with a half Soft FX filter to take the digital edge off.
Director Leon Chambers designed and built the set himself, sending me photos of a scale model well in advance. He was also specific about certain lighting cues and states that were required across the two sets and six scenes we would be recording to complete the movie. Based on this information, I concocted a lighting plan, which I communicated to Halliford’s in-house gaffer Micky Reeves by Photoshopping stock images of lamps onto Leon’s set model photos.
Last Saturday was devoted to pre-lighting the sets, mainly the kitchen, while construction work continued on the second set.
Day 24 / Sunday
We begin with a morning scene. A 5K fresnel serves as a low sun, streaking across the back wall of the set (see my post about lighting through windows). Even with this direct light four stops over, the natural bounce off the set isn’t enough to bring actor Philip Jackson – with his back to the window – up to key. Micky rigs a Dedo firing into a soft silver bounce just out of frame to solve the problem.
Also coming through the window are two 4×4 kinos, rigged on goalposts above the window. Their daylight tubes reflect off the blinds, serendipitously creating the illusion of a blue sky “outdoors”, where in fact there is only a wall and a white backdrop.
Philip exits into the hallway and disappears from view, supposedly to go out through the front door. No door exists. Instead there is a flag which spark Amir Moulfi rotates in front of a 2K, creating a momentary oblong of light in which Philip’s shadow appears.
The next scene follows on from an exterior captured last October at dusk, when the natural light was soft, flat and cool in colour, cheated even cooler with the white balance. This failing daylight is to be the only source of illumination now in the kitchen set, until Philip enters and turns on the lights. This is the main reason that the daylight 4×4 kinos outside the window were rigged. A third kino from the direction of the front door is added, plus a small LED reporter light to pick an important prop out of the shadows.
Lead actress Naomi Morris enters, silhouetted against the windows. Then Philip enters and hits the lights. Simultaneously, Amir flips a breaker on a lunchbox, activating a hanging practical fixture above the breakfast bar and the 5K which that practical motivates.
Generally I don’t like toplight. It throws the eyes – those windows to the soul… or windows to the performance – into shadow. But with the hanging practical in shot, whatever I was going to use to beef it up had to be somewhat toppy or it wouldn’t make sense. I considered space-lights and Jem balls, but in consultation with Micky I ultimately picked a 5K with a chimera, coming in at a 45 degree back/toplight angle. As you can see from the photos, this looks almost comically large. But large and close means soft, which is what I want. It had to be soft enough to wrap both actors when they faced each other across the bar.
But why such a large lamp? Why not use a 2K, like Micky suggested yesterday? Bitter experience has always taught me to go with a bigger unit than you think you need, particularly if you’re softening it, and particularly if it’s going to take a while to rig. (The 5K was hung from another goalposts set-up.) We ended up dimming the 5K to 50% and scrimming it down a stop and a half. But having too much light like that is easy to deal with. If we had put up a 2K and it wasn’t bright enough, we would have to have taken the whole thing down and re-rigged with a 5K. And even if the 2K had seemed sufficient to begin with, blocking can often take actors into unexpected, dark corners of the set. Being able to turn up a dimmer a couple of notches to handle that kind of situation is very useful.
Besides the 5K, there are a few other sources playing: some 300W hairlights, a pup bouncing off the side of a cupboard to bring up the area around the cooker, a China ball in the hallway, and Leon’s Rosco LitePads serving as practical under-cabinet down-lighters.
Day 25 / Monday
I probably shouldn’t say what today’s set is, because it’s a little bit of a spoiler. There are some lighting similarities to the kitchen: again we have a character flicking a light switch, bringing on two hanging overhead practicals and a 2K with a chimera to beef them up.
A practical lamp on a desk was supposed to be turned on during the scene as well, but we all forget until it’s too late. It would have bounced off the desk and given Philip a little eye-light, and at first I regret losing this. But soon I realise that it is more appropriate for the scene not to have that level of refinement, for the lighting to be a little raw. The toppy, “broken key” angle of the chimera’s light works well for this tone too.
We wrap just before noon, releasing Naomi to high-tail it to Oxford to appear on stage in a musical this evening. Eventually there will be second-unit-style GVs and establishing shots to do, but there will only be three or four of us for that. For the cast and most of the crew, today brings Above the Clouds to an end, eight months after the camera first rolled.
Lighting in the controlled environment of a studio should theoretically be much easier than lighting a location, but I found recently that it doesn’t come without its challenges.
Last month I had the pleasure of working on a music promo for Droplets by Lewis Watson and Gabrielle Aplin. Directed by Tom Walsh and designed by First Musketeer veteran Amy Nicholson, this magical, handmade puppet fest was only the second or third studio-bound production of my career. Tom had secured the use of Giltbrook Studios, an impressively equipped 1,300 sq ft soundstage in Nottingham, complete with manager Andy Swain as gaffer.
Apart from the exclusion of pesky natural light, the biggest advantage offered by a stage over a location is the lighting grid; no more wondering if that polecat or K-clamp will take the paint off the wall, and no more compromising your backlight position to keep the stand out of frame. The downside of the grid is the time it takes to rig or adjust a light, particularly if the grid, like Giltbrook’s, has no catwalks, and every adjustment must be made by bringing in and scaling a huge ladder. In fact it may be impossible to rig or adjust lights once there is a finished set underneath. All of which means you’re going to need a pre-rig day.
In the case of Droplets, the pre-rig day was also used to assemble the set, a tree on top of a cave, which must have measured about fifteen feet in height. As soon as it had been erected we realised that the six space lights Andy had spent all morning rigging were going to be in frame, as the top of the tree reached above the bottoms of these lights. (A space light is a circular arrangement of six tungsten tubes inside a cylinder of white diffusion cloth. They’re typically used in large numbers to simulate daylight in a studio.)
In fact my options on where I could put lights were very narrow, because of the lack of space around the set, both vertically and horizontally. We shot against the studio’s white infinity cove, and Tom wanted colour washes over this to suggest various times of day. Andy achieved this with gelled par cans off to either side of the set, but then it was crucial that no other light spilled onto the backdrop or it would ruin the effect.
We rigged a 2K tungsten fresnel immediately behind and above the set, for backlight, but it was hard to put anything in from the sides or the front without contaminating the backdrop. The 650W key light had to be rigged almost directly above the set, and even then its shadow can be seen on the floor in the wide shots if you look carefully. We hung a cucoloris (sheet of wood with random shapes cut in it) below the 650 to created the dappled effect of woodland light, taking care that a patch of light fell on the tarsier puppet’s main position.
For fill I used an LED panel off to the right of the set, dimming it to find a balance between its light being barely visible on the backdrop while still lifting the set and the puppets enough. I placed a smaller LED panel inside the cave, with a turquoise gel to suggest phosphorescence.
Another advantage of a studio is that you can easily run all the lamps into a dimmer board. This was very handy for Droplets because in addition to the day/sunset look, we had nighttime scenes and a storm to light for, and some on-screen transitions between the states. We were able to set these all up in advance and switch between them pretty much by just pushing a few sliders up and a few others down.
The night state involved a yellow-gelled redhead on the floor behind the cave, pointed straight at the backdrop. With its barn doors removed, this created a circle of light which reminded me strongly of the huge yellow moon in the posters for The Nightmare Before Christmas. I hadn’t been intending to create such a defined circle, but when I saw it I immediately loved its stylised look.
A second 650W fresnel was rigged, close to the first, and with ulcered black wrap in front of it to again created a dappled look, but with a purple gel on it. This took us away from the more traditional blue of nighttime scenes, adding to the stylised look again, and contrasting nicely in colour with the yellow “moon”.
The 2K backlight remained on for the night scenes, but the sunset colour wash on the backdrop was switched off, as was the fill.
For the storm scene we experimented with strobes, but they caused unpleasant rolling shutter artefacts. Instead I used the flash button on the 2K’s dimmer box to create lightning. Both 650W fresnels were turned off for this state, but the fill was turned back on. While the pink colour wash remained off, we brought up the orange wash just a little bit to suggest an angry sky in the background.
Copious smoke was used throughout (another advantage of studios – your smoke stays put!) to generate god rays as the backlight streamed through the tree. It also helped soften the backdrop and render the colour washes more convincing as a sky.
Watch the video here. Shot on a Red Epic operated by Chris Wetton. Big thanks to Andy and Giltbrook Studios for all their help. Visit www.polymathematics.co.uk to find out more about the amazing work of Tom Walsh and Amy Nicholson.