One Light, One Shot

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I have always been intrigued by the challenge of shooting a scripted film in black and white with no artificial lighting. I came close with “Teacher of the Year,” a feature I shot last year written and directed by Jason Strouse. It tells the story of Mitch Carter (Matt Letscher), a teacher at Truman High School surrounded by eccentric faculty, who wins the California Teacher of the Year Award just before receiving a tempting offer to leave his low paying job. While we did shoot in color, we shot about 75% of the film using only natural and found lighting.

Jason wanted the movie to look like “Waiting for Guffman” and “Waiting for Superman” — two films whose shooting styles could be called “Waiting for a Grip Truck.” ‘Guffman‘ was filmed on Super 16mm, but that wasn’t an option because of our budget. ‘Superman‘ used a Sony PMW-EX3 and a dated 720p HD camera; a Panasonic AJ-HDC27 Varicam which was among the first HD cameras to rival film. The images from the Varicam were closest to what we wanted: not too nice, a little rough yet soft on the faces, and a homemade feeling. We went a step up and used the P2 card version of the camera, the HPX-500. This gave us the same quality images but with a more cost effective and efficient workflow.

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As an ENG shoulder mounted camera, the 500 was a perfect fit for our Cinéma vérité approach, with the action feeling unplanned and the characters often conscious of the camera and interacting with it as though it was another character. To create this illusion of documentary filmmaking, I operated the camera handheld for most of the movie covering multiple scenes in one shot: starting wide, moving in, and panning from person to person to catch their lines. If the action in a scene felt more private, I would keep my distance and use the zoom rather than physically moving closer. It didn’t have to be perfect. Jason wanted it too look unrehearsed and, on a few occasions, he had to tell me to make more “mistakes,” miss more lines, pan to the wrong character, let someone stand up out of the shot and then catch up with him, and other illusions of spontaneity I had to fight against my instincts to achieve.

Most of the film was set at a school and a house. Jason is an English Teacher in real life and we were able to use his workplace as the main location. Some of his students worked as interns on the shoot and it was fun teaching them about filmmaking. We had a camera intern and I taught him how to make marks for the actors, fill out the slate and clap it for each shot. By the end of the shoot, he’d transformed into a great 2nd AC. I invited him to Intern for me on my next project, so he joined me for a week at Universal Studios and Fotokem scouting locations and testing film stock.

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Lighting at the school was almost completely from natural daylight. Windows in the classrooms provided ample soft light and the natural layout of the rooms enabled me to frame out the windows so that I didn’t have to deal with clipped highlights and overexposure. The HPX-500 has little latitude and the badly rendered highlights quickly become posterized and distracting. The one light we used was employed for interviews, a few night interiors and a night-for-day pickup shot in a classroom.

The film is completed and is seeking distribution. You can see a montage of the film by clicking here.

A Bite Size Production For “The Big Meet”

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Executive Produced by Lane Carlson; producer, Jessica Mathews; screenplay, Christian Elder and Lance Dean.

A Los Angeles screenwriter with a severe drinking problem meets a mysterious stranger in a bar one night. Based on Lance Dean’s short story “Buy Me A Drink Nate, I Promise I’ll Take You Home,” the short film stars Lane Carlson, Mike Genovese, Jessica Mathews and Rachel Middleton, and for the first time teams up director Christian Elder with me as cinematographer.

In this dark but cheeky noir thriller, the mysterious stranger mistakes the screenwriter for a long lost friend, generously paying for all his drinks on an all-night binge. When the stranger takes the writer home to meet his two beautiful young lady companions, which he refers to as “wives,” the group of them seduce the writer into committing a hideous crime. With six practical locations around the Los Angeles area, a three-day shooting schedule and a very small crew, this film proved to be an extremely challenging exercise in the minimal preservation of artistic integrity.

I started work on the film only a few days before principal photography began. Thankfully, we were able to scout all the locations within those few days, enabling me to think ahead and prepare for each day’s shoot. We had a three-ton grip and lighting package, but never used more than three or four lights for most set-ups. We had Kino Flos and peppers for our work horse lamps. With budget and story in mind, we chose to shoot digitally in 4K raw with the Red One MX and a set of Red Pro Prime lenses.

Elder wanted a dark and dingy noir feel to the images. This excited me. I imagined a similar look when reading the script and I enjoy exploring the dark side of things. Light is interesting when it fights its way through darkness, having a life of its own, triggering an emotional response in both the artists and their audience.

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To help keep things simple and efficient, I worked with a monochromatic palette based on the natural light of each location. For Interior day work, the action was always set against big windows. We didn’t have the resources or the time to balance the exposure inside and out. My general rule of thumb was to color balance for the exterior, and work at the edge of exposure, keeping just enough detail outside while letting the inside go dark, adding what we could, as close as we could (a 2k with full blue and/or a 4×4 daylight Kino Flo) to give the actors an edge. At a restaurant location, we took advantage of foreground elements such as glasses and bottles. It was easy to light glasses and bottles for kicks and highlights. Those objects also helped balance the frame and hide parts of the set we didn’t want to see.

For night work, we motivated everything from practicals. At the house location where the antagonist lives with his two “wives,” we went for a consistent black and gold look by using peppers to augment the practicals, and by setting the camera’s color temperature to 8000° Kelvin. There was one exception — we wanted to emphasize the emotional change in the protagonist, so that when he enters a cold dark place in his mind, in preparation for the pending atrocity, he is also physically entering a cold dark place in the house. In this case, it was a bathroom, which we cooled off with a daylight Kino Flo. I also let some tungsten light spill in and mix with the Kino, giving us a little hint of green as if the bathroom was practically lit by uncorrected fluorescent lights.

For an exterior night scene at the same location, we couldn’t find anything to motivate the light. But we wanted it to look very urban, so urban that the moon was obscured by all the stuff built up around us in a city environment. We went with a sodium vapor look (as if coming from the lights of a nearby industrial center) by using a 2K tungsten Fresnel for a back light and tungsten balanced Kino Flos for fill, key and background light. And again, we set the camera’s color temperature to 8000° Kelvin as a time- and money-saving alternative to gelling all the lights.

The film is now in post-production. We’ll be targeting film festivals in 2013.

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*All images are frame grabs from the 4K raw footage and copyright 2012 The Big Meet, LLC

Color Correction on any Budget

Color Correction seems to elude a lot of micro budget or low budget productions and some new filmmakers don’t understand why its a crucial step in the filmmaking process. Color Correction is not just merely a tool for fixing mistakes. It is the crucial last step in fulfilling a director and cinematographer’s vision. It reinforces the illusion that every shot in a scene was captured sequentially, in real time, even though some of those shots might have been filmed hours, days, or months apart using different cameras, lenses, and film stock. It allows the director and cinematographer to emphasize certain locations, scenes, and emotions, resulting in a creatively enhanced experience for the audience member. But as schedules shrink and budgets tighten, color correction becomes more challenging. A well sought after solution is to manage the look of the images on set with one of many workflows currently available. However, this isn’t always practical for micro budget projects or movies shot on film.

I shot a 35mm short film, “Akira”, for writer, director and producer Ray Vernazza. We spoke at length regarding our approach to the post-production workflow. We wanted to color correct and finish on film but didn’t know if the funds would be available when it came time to conform the digitally edited movie. To be on the safe side, we decided to supervise the dailies transfer at Technicolor and rough in the look of the film, knowing that additional corrections would be simple enough for the editing software to handle. We never got passed a digital release for the film, so our approach paid off and, as a bonus, I was always confident the film would look good when screened during earlier stages of the editing process.

For a digital sitcom pilot I shot recently, “Living with Moffet” (directed by Eric Somers), there was no money available for color correction and the director was doing the picture edit himself. He had assumed we just wouldn’t do any color correction but when I offered to help him find a solution and donate some of my time, he became enthusiastic. I knew he was editing the film with FCP X, so I spent about an hour watching some tutorials and familiarizing myself with the color features before sitting down and attempting to use the software for the first time. I calibrated the monitor using a Spyder 3 pro device and after working with the first few scenes, became comfortable enough to move forward with confidence. The end result wasn’t ideal but I was able to achieve the basic look we had in mind and fix any shot-to-shot matching issues resulting in a quality finish.

For another digital project, “Little Black Box” (directed by Jon Hampton), there was a small amount of money available for the color correction. I had just seen a series of great shorts at the LA Film Festival and noticed they were all colored by Color Space Finishing. We contacted Peter at Color Space, told him about the project and its short running time, then discussed the look we wanted. He agreed to work on the film solo on a Da Vinci Resolve system in his own color suite. By the time I came in to look at the progress, I was 99% satisfied, we did one tweak and it was ready for final output. This led me to recommend Peter for my 2nd feature, “Teacher of the Year”, directed by Jason Strouse. We finished the Color Correction last week, just in time for the Sundance Film Festival submission deadline. The Producer, Director and myself are very happy with Peter’s work.

Regardless of your system of choice, its best to collaborate with a professional colorist whom has access to good color balanced monitors. Recently I have found this route to be accessible for most low/micro budget projects. Its also a great way for up-and-coming directors to become familiar with the process and discover the ways color correction can enhance a film’s visual impact, raise production value and compete with and/or surpass bigger budget projects.

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