What I Learnt from Ren

This coming week the core team from Ren, the fantasy adventure web series I lensed last autumn, will meet for a de-brief. We’ll discuss the challenges of season one and how we can meet those going forward to season two and beyond. And we’ll probably drink wine.

So I thought now would be a good time to reflect on what I personally learnt from Ren: Season One, and where I’d like to improve for season two.

“People talk about lighting, but the hardest thing to do [for a cinematographer] is to shoot a day exterior over an extended period… especially in England.” – Roger Deakins

The biggest challenge I was plunged straight into was the fact that most of the season was set outdoors on a single day. How could I maintain a consistency of lighting without huge cranes, silks and big HMIs, or without demanding the production grind to a halt whenever the light didn’t match (something the schedule couldn’t accommodate)? Quite simple, I couldn’t. Perhaps if I’d been involved in preproduction, I could have helped shaped the schedule so that certain scenes were only being shot at certain times of day, but given how much the schedule changed during shooting, this probably wouldn’t have helped.

Colin Smith slates a shot of RIchard Zeman as the Kah'nath Commander
Colin Smith slates a shot of Richard Zeman as the Kah’nath Commander

But being forced to leave lighting the set to Mother Nature had its advantages. Whereas indoors, or at night, the cinematographer must light the set and the actors, for daylight exteriors the only thing you have the ability to light is the actors. That really focused my attention on the faces and telling the story through the way light hit them.

I was able to compile a mental dossier of what works well for each actor – and each character. So I knew that Ren (Sophie Skelton) looked best with a soft front- or side-on key, but not three-quarter, that Hunter (Duran Fulton Brown) looked best in toplight, that Karn (Christopher Dane), the Commander (Richard Zeman) and Lyanna (Dita Tantang) all looked great with a hard side key. I knew that Baynon’s (James Malpas) eyes looked extra expressive with a large bounce board under his face, whereas Hunter only needed a little dot of an eyelight. And so on, and so forth. In the future I want to get better and faster at compiling these ‘dossiers’.

Setting an eyelight under the camera
Setting an eyelight under the camera. Photo: Richard Roberts

Despite gathering all this info during the exterior shoots, it was a still a bit of a shock when week six hit and I suddenly had to light these familiar faces entirely artificially. In the past I’ve often seen natural light as more of a hindrance than a help, but working with it for five weeks solid gave me a new respect for it, and I found myself more critical of my own lighting than ever.

The main challenge indoors was achieving the soft, innocent look I’d established for the title character without a skyfull of natural light to bounce around. The kinoflos I used to key Sophie often made her look very shiny, much to the exasperation of make-up artist Becca Youngs, who had to keep slathering more powder on her. (Which is one of many reasons why camera and make-up tests in pre-production would be beneficial for future seasons.)

In fact it wasn’t until the very last day of the shoot when I discovered that the best soft sources were actually hard sources – like 800W tungsten lamps or even the 2.5K HMI – bounced off Celotex (matte silver bounce board). If you read things like American Cinematographer you start to realise that most DPs create soft sources this way, bouncing par or fresnel fixtures off poly, foamcore, Ultrabounce or the like and often pushing it through diffuser of some kind as well. Stephen Murphy and Ed Moore conducted a great test of various bounce and diffusion materials on their blog recently. The problem with this kind of lighting for a low budget DP is that you need to hire larger lamps, because bouncing and diffusing really dilute a lamp’s power. Though in last month’s Cine Summit, DP David Vollrath recommended cheap-to-hire Source 4 Leikos as bounce sources, so that’s worth looking into.

Shooting on my Sigma 50mm f1.4 from under my signature Stealth Cloth, to keep sunlight off the Blackmagic's screen
Shooting on my Sigma 50mm f1.4 from under my signature Stealth Cloth, to keep sunlight off the Blackmagic’s screen

The other thing I’d love to spend money on next time, if at all possible, is a set of cine lenses. Season one was shot with my three Sigma DSLR primes and some legacy Pentax primes belonging to gaffer Richard Roberts. While the Pentax glass looks great, and the Sigma glass is fine at f4 – the stop I shot most of the show at – when it starts to get wide open it goes a bit soft (not that the average viewer would notice). Inevitably some of the night and interior scenes had to be shot wider than f4, and everything shot on the B camera – Richard’s Blackmagic Cinema Camera, with its smaller 16mm sensor – was exposed at f2.8 to match the depth of field. Plus I deliberately used an ultra-shallow depth of field for certain scenes in which Ren is feeling the effects of the spirit within her. So lenses that hold their sharpness better at wide apertures, and which are easier to pull focus on, would be great for season two.

Whatever level of resources we can get for future seasons, I know it will be a fantastic experience and I’ll learn a whole lot more, so bring it on!

Filming Ren's death scene. Just kidding…. or am I? Photo: Michael Hudson
Filming Ren’s death scene. Just kidding…. or am I? Photo: Michael Hudson
What I Learnt from Ren