Common Ground

Fun In The River

As a teenager, I began taking trips to Mexico to help build houses and was immediately drawn in by how happy, resourceful and loving the local people were, despite living in severe poverty. The children had more fun playing fútbol barefoot in the dirt, then I ever did playing with my 6 foot long GI Joe aircraft carrier. It was an epiphany that would forever influence my outlook on life.

As an adult, I have traveled back many times with my wife, Celia. With every return, we make it a point to explore regions of the country we haven’t yet seen, as well as revisit the places we’ve come to know already. And with every trip, we dive a bit deeper into a foreign culture of which we have limited knowledge but much love for. Some of the most fulfilling days of my life have been spent walking the streets with my camera, talking to strangers and gathering stories from everyday Mexicans. Rarely would I encounter a sour soul. An invitation into their home for a drink and conversation was more often the rule than the exception.

I’ve just completed post production on a series of photographs that chronicle these experiences. I hope to reveal to you the love of this place as it floods the streets everyday, and the common bonds we share as humans, regardless of class or culture.

Selected photographs are regularly posted on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and VSCO. Limited edition prints are currently for sale, I’ll be looking to exhibit and publish a book later this year.

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

Tea Bag

This morning; after enjoying a wonderful breakfast Celia made for me, I remained seated at our little cafe table tucked near the window of our small alley Kitchen. I lifted my tea bag out of my green mug and held it there until the last drop fell. I studied it and imagined myself inside the bag; consumed by herbal aroma, trapped amongst harvested bits of dried plant life. Would I be able to get out? Would I want to get out? Would my strength at that size be enough to claw through the seemingly delicate bag? And the biggest question of all; would I survive the dunk into steaming hot, potentially boiling water?

Anyhow, I love these moments when my mind is free to wander. Most days I’d quickly dismiss the wandering so that I can efficiently continue my day. But even though I am currently very busy, having over piled my plate with projects on the buffet line, I embraced this mornings pondering. I took the time for a little tea bag photo shoot and wrote this blog post. And despite the many things on my to do list, I still have two hours before a director I’ve been working with comes by for an edit session. Not bad; there is time for the little things!