Highway Tea is a silent era, ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ tale of a budding romance between two Victorians, her rich and him poor, retold over a quintessential British ritual, high tea. The film takes place over a modern day overpass, and the images are captured using a hand-crank film camera.
The offbeat idea came to me as I drove across an overpass and spotted two people, dressed in Victorian garb, probably on their way to an event. It got me thinking: what if they whipped out a table and chairs and had tea in this most unlikely of places, compressing 120 years in the process (give or take). What if she were rich? If he were poor? What would they each bring to the table, so to speak? It felt like the premise for a quirky tale.
Time. It’s a funny old thing. Grab a picture from the last 100 years; chances are you’ll be able to pinpoint the decade it’s from. Whether it’s the bell bottoms of the 60s, the muscle cars of the 70s, or the big hairdos from the 80s, each picture has a time stamp. And it’s not just the subject that tells us when the picture was taken. From grainy, black and white pictures of war and misery, to razor sharp I-can-see-your-pores snaps from the last decade, there’s no mistaking a picture’s age. But what if you faked it? What if the subject was mismatched with the device capturing the picture? Two Indie films explore this very concept.
My Old Hand Crank Camera, a documentary by Pieter-Rim De Kroon, tells the story of a Dutch filmmaker who discovers and resurrects an old hand crank camera. He then travels across the Netherlands, capturing contemporary scenes of trams, people and wind turbines, the camera flicker and hand crank motion instantly sending the pictures back to an impossible past.
The second film, Londoners, by Joseph Ernst, documents modern day London using a similar era hand crank camera. While today’s Londoners look different and act more casually than their Edwardian counterparts, they are nonetheless equally intrigued, enough to put on a performance. This ultimately results in a bizarre mismatch between the contemporary subject matter and the unmistakable black and white pictures captured.
In both these films, it’s amazing how today’s world seems like yesteryear. How the people in front of the camera instantly become memories. How the beauty of film and fast motion tells a story that feels like it’s been lost through the years, yet it was captured just last week!
A silent movie, in colour
For most of us, the motion of cranking a camera denotes a movie title in a game of charades, but this contraption was once used to film some of the greatest movies in the history of cinema. A hundred years later, those Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton performances still amaze, the timing impeccable, the gags truly timeless.
The way we experience these classics is down to the technological limitations of the time. The motion, which appears ‘jerky’, is the result of shooting at a frame rate less than the ‘standard’ 24 frames per second (fps). This jerkiness adds to the comedy, and the hand crank rhythm has a hypnotic effect. I find this peculiar, and fascinating!
With this in mind, I felt that Highway Tea could be a whimsical intersection of these disparate elements. A romance between two people from different walks of life, and the tension that arises from them being out of step with each other. That mismatch could be implied by shooting a modern day setting with a hand crank camera, at 16 fps, but instead of black-and-white film, this would be in glorious colour! Our Victorians would stutter to the hand crank motion, begging the question: are they relics in a modern world or have they been catapulted to some distant time in the future? There’s only one way to find out…
A Cranky Affair
It turns out that finding a working, hand crank camera is not easy. I spoke to DPs, went through prop shops, and contacted a friend in New York who was rumored to own such a camera. No dice. There were more ‘modern’ cameras, like the Arriflex 2C that could be hand cranked, or much older and more authentic cameras that could only be human powered, such as the 1914 Williamson Type 4 camera. Regardless, it seemed impossible to locate an actual working camera, let alone get to the stage where I could actually shoot something!
- Bell & Howell Filmo DL70
- Kodak 7203 Vision3 50D Film Stock
- iPhone 7 housed in ALM mCAM
- ALM EnCinema SLR lens adapter
- Wollensak 17mm f2.7 Cine Velostigmat
- Wollensak 6 inch f4.5 Cine Telephoto
- Bell & Howell 1 inch f1.9 Super Comat
- Zeiss Planar ZF 50mm F1.4 (for iPhone 7)
I was venting my frustrations to fellow filmmaker Derek Prusak, a gentleman with vast experience in all manner of film cameras, from Super 8 all the way to IMAX. One day over coffee he brought in a sturdy leather camera case, plonked it in front of me, and said “shoot with that”. He must have been fed up with all my whining!
The camera Derek brought with him was a Bell & Howell Filmo. Historically, these 16 mm cameras have been used by the military in the battlefield, for news gathering, student films and home movies. The Filmo is a non-reflex camera with a turret that holds three shooting lenses and a viewfinder with three matching viewing lenses. Derek also pointed out another interesting fact: “the fact that you can use a spring to power the camera or crank it by hand makes it a viable option when a power source isn’t available.” It also turns out that this particular model had variable speed capability, and could be set to shoot anywhere between 8 to 64 fps (including 16).
So in my hands I had a bona fide 1940s, hand crank film camera, waiting to be resurrected. The only problem for Derek – as the person with the most knowledge of the camera – was his automatic conscription as both the camera package supplier and onset expert. I’m sure he would have happily traded back my whining instead!
Hitting The Mark
The first person I reached out to was Greg Emerson, the film producer. He read the script and was onboard straight away. Then I told him my plans to shoot it using a hand crank camera. He was skeptical: “With everything that goes into a shoot day…talent, crew, location, support…and have it boil down to acquiring the images in such an antiquated way…ya, you could say I was nervous!”
So we shot tests. With such an old camera and set of lenses, Gordon Yould, our cinematographer, was leaving nothing to chance; “We shot a focus test to make sure the markings on the lenses were accurate, as well as the registration in the camera”, he recalls. Furthermore, the camera comes from an era when reflex cameras had yet to be invented. Essentially, you can’t just look through the lens at what you’re filming. Prusak explains further: “The Bell & Howell Filmo cameras used the parallax viewfinder system, which utilised a matching set of lenses. One of the lenses you would shoot the picture with and (an accompanying) small lens that mimicked the focal length was used as the viewfinder.” Sounds logical enough, though it’s a way of working that’s foreign to almost all of us in the digital age. Even Yould, a cinematographer who still shoots a fair amount of film, wasn’t immune to a little stress; “shooting through a range finder was definitely a little nerve racking!”
On the day of the shoot, we were off to a good start. With only a few setups and the performance already rehearsed, we had enough time to quickly go through the motions before calling for Action. Cranking the camera certainly took a little getting used to, but this is what we had signed up for; “in order to keep the frame completely still, one would need quite a hefty tripod and maybe a second mounting point on the top of the camera. But I went ahead and let it flex. I thought why lock it down? Gives it that authentic hand crank aesthetic”, Yould concluded. And before long we had a rhythm going (pun intended).
What also helped was that most of the shots were locked off; I didn’t want the 4/3 framing and the fast motion of the actors to clash with any dynamic camera moves that would have felt out of place. In other words, while I wasn’t beholden to accurately representing a certain era of filmmaking – what with our mash-up of technology, time period and mise-en-scène – I wanted to harken back to simpler times, with clean framing (no over the shoulder shots), and let the juxtaposition of the elements play out.
Things were going to plan until Yould sensed something wasn’t right; it had suddenly become impossible to crank the camera. Prusak walked over and confirmed what we feared: the camera had jammed. I guess that’s the risk you take when you shoot with a 1940s camera!
“Backup plans upon backup plans”, Emerson reflects on how we planned for the situation. “We had an extra hand crank camera from Derek’s collection, an Aaton 16mm film camera that the DP had in his arsenal, and then if all else failed we had the digital option of course. It was the only way I was able to sleep the night before!”
After what felt like a brief interlude, Prusak had us back up and running. Despite another brief but well natured interruption from a local police officer (time to present your permit!) we managed to wrap an hour before the sun came down, leaving me with some work to do in the colour timing department.
Beautifully exposed pictures…Check
When the log film scans came back from the lab, I knew we had something special. I applied a simple Log-To-Print curve to evaluate the dailies and straight away I was floored! I shared the results with the DP. “Wow, it’s really beautiful!”, Yould was more relieved than he had let on. “Waiting for the dailies, I kept going through my mental check list: Film loaded correctly – check. Correct viewfinder for the lens… check. Distance to subject… check. Correct F stop… check. Crank at 16FPS… check. And you still have a feeling that something’s gone wrong!”
Out of the can, through the eye of a bygone camera, the pictures had a texture, a feel, and the right amount of ‘imperfections’ that, ironically, today’s generation of moviemakers strive to achieve with Looks from any number of social media apps. Even though the film did end up going through a digital intermediate process, the basic look did not change all that much from the original scans. My vision of acquiring pictures with the desired look and feel in camera had worked out, without so much as a having to fire a Colorista Magic Bullet! On top of that it was a relief to grade this movie without someone, at some point, asking for grain to be added on top. That’s because it was already there!
Light Leaks & Jump Cuts
Highway Tea had some unique editorial challenges, specifically dealing with fast motion 16 fps material played back at the ‘standard’ 24. Taking this challenge head on was Cris Mertens, our editor for the film. “Milton wanted to keep as much of the film in its original frame rate to preserve the authenticity of the medium and pay homage to silent era films of the past. The tricky thing with 16fps is that people’s movements are incredibly fast and while large dramatic actions catch the eye – some of the subtle acting gets lost as it just flies by.” As much as Cris kept an eye on the frame rate, I literally became obsessed with it, often insisting we let the cut run a little looser in areas to force the shot to play in real-time, at 16 fps. However, there were some shots that still required a little bit of massaging, but Cris did a great job with those. “I had to pick choice moments to slow things down so the viewer could properly digest the story beat or emotional moment the actors were portraying. I used optical flow to smooth out any speed changes to make sure everything felt natural and balanced.”
One of the wonders of using an old camera are the happy accidents that occur along the way. From speed changes at the end of each take, to the final moments of a take that we decided to use as the final shot of the movie. Cris embraced it all, making the sum greater than the parts.
In many movies from the silent era, we’re accustomed to seeing a jump in the action, where some of the original material has been lost to the ravages of time. Cris used this often-seen defect in a creative manner for Highway Tea. “There’s a moment where the man takes off his jacket but takes too long to sit down. There’s no sense in wasting time showing the entire action, so instead I just cut out 4 seconds in the middle, overlaid a burn-out effect from the camera tests and walla! The moment just looks like a neat hiccup in the ‘old’ footage! In another case, I chose to use certain performances or takes because the film’s defects would compliment the moment nicely – like the last shot of the film burning out – almost as if that’s all there was to the reel!”
Pick up an iPhone
For the shot where we dolly from the ruined scone to the sardine can, we didn’t hit focus. A last minute decision to use an untested lens hurt us in the end. You can fix many things in post, but focus isn’t one of them.
Even though we returned to the location for pickups, this shot would have required too much setup time, and so I decided to shoot it myself, in my back yard, using an iPhone 7. I’ve shot tons of footage over the years with an assortment of iPhone rigs, and knew that for what we needed, the iPhone would do just fine.
First thing’s first – if we were to have any chance of matching the iPhone material to the film, I needed to have total control, and this is why I used FiLMiC Pro. This app transforms your iPhone into a very competent camera. If there’s something that can be set or overridden on the iPhone, this app can do it. You can adjust everything from focus, exposure and shutter speeds, set your white balance, shoot your material using a flat or log curve, all while monitoring real-time histograms and zebra stripes. Combine FiLMiC Pro with the EnCinema 35 SLR Adapter, and you have a very capable lightweight alternative to a DSLR! A simple grade and some 16 mm grain added in post and our audience would be none the wiser.
Striking a chord
From a score perspective, Highway Tea was a tricky little beast. Along the lines of juxtaposing the old with the new, the classic with the modern, we needed a score that would reinforce the story arc and inflection point. For this I turned to Christos Stavrinides, who composed a score that was as meticulously crafted as the pictures themselves.
“Two people… two eras… one couple… one music “. Duality. Τhe two main parameters on which the score was based was time and gender. Τhe traditional piano (feminine) of the old era struggles to coexist with the contemporary electric guitar (masculine). The addition of the clarinet and acoustic guitar underscore the divergence of the two musical worlds. An unusual tête-à-tête whose result is unpredictable. Eventually, in an unconventional yet natural manner, the duality becomes unity in harmony”.
I couldn’t have said it better myself ;)
A Moment, in Time
Today, technological barriers in filmmaking are largely non-existent. We are spoiled for choice with ultra high resolution cameras, drones that cost next to nothing, and post production tools that can fix almost anything. Even our smartphones have capabilities our hand-cranking ancestors could have only dreamed of. Yet in this sea of digital possibilities, I still see the beauty in dialing it all back, in capturing an unfolding story through a humble lens in a gloriously analogue way.
For me, the process of making Highway Tea became one of restraint versus embellishment, simplicity versus complexity. I wanted to create the feel of a film that could be found in a time capsule. Laced up on a film projector and watched on a pull-down screen, its catchy music chiming over a monophonic loudspeaker. Enjoyed, for just a moment in time. A time in the distant future, no doubt.
For some fun behind-the-scenes clips of Highway Tea, check out the following:
In the context of time, 37 seconds isn’t much, but for Yuma Takada, it’s the difference between living a normal life, versus the one she leads as a person suffering from cerebral palsy. This coming of age movie tells the story of an aspiring, disabled manga artist as she struggles to overcome an overbearing mother, a devious and capricious friend, and the sad memories of a childhood without a father, on her way to achieving her artistic dream and finding her freedom.
The eponymous movie is director Hikari’s first feature film, and packs considerable emotional punch. A little background; Hikari and I have worked together for the better part of a decade. Back in 2012 I graded Tsuyako, her award-winning short film, and in 2013 A Better Tomorrow, which premiered at Cannes later that year. I’ve always loved Hikari’s passion and her desire to tell difficult, gut-wrenching stories. With 37 Seconds beautifully photographed on location in Japan and Thailand, I couldn’t wait to get stuck into the visuals, but first I needed to understand Hikari’s vision and the motivations of Yuma as she navigates a world of adult comics, drag queens and a raging intergalactic war!
From script to casting and back again
Hikari’s bold decision to cast Mei Kayama, a young actress with cerebral palsy, in the lead role is perhaps serendipitous in hindsight, as she adds a dimension to Yuma that perhaps is only possible with an actress who struggles with each movement, every take. “Mei rides an electronic wheelchair, which makes blocking quite challenging. Since she was a first-time actress, we planned for 45 shooting days which was 10 days more than what we would normally schedule”, Hikari recalls.
What is even bolder is her decision to change course as a result of casting Mei: “The script was originally about a young woman who was paralyzed but once I auditioned Mei – who has cerebral palsy but not paralyzed (as the script called for) – I changed the story to fit her physicality.” It’s this appetite for risk-taking, as well as a willingness to adjust to new opportunities as they present themselves, that is a hallmark of a successful Indie filmmaker.
Moving with the flow
37 Seconds was produced in association with NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster. In a world where 4K TV inches closer to becoming the norm, and with NHK historically being a technology trailblazer, certain requests were made to the filmmakers. Stephen Blahut, the cinematographer, explains how this affected his choice of camera: “The film had certain obligations that meant we had to plan for a 16:9 aspect ratio and 4K deliverable.” Thankfully the movie was shot in 2018, where you could have had your pick of any number of 4K+ cameras. For his A Camera, Stephen went with the Red Dragon, a 6K camera, and a set of Cooke S4 lenses, as well as 100mm Zeiss macro lens for detail shots.
It’s primarily with this setup that the filmmakers achieved one of the most standout features of 37 Seconds, the striking photography. It is both static and dynamic, dramatic yet sensitive. Stephen elaborates: “Hikari and I discussed this early on. At the start we wanted to distance the audience from Yuma, establishing them as sort of voyeurs. (We) kept the camera back and chose to have longer takes with locked off frames. I find this method encourages the audience to actively engage and think about what is going on in the frame, rather than swiftly moving past the image. It’s strenuous and rewarding at the same”.
“As the film progresses we desired to push into Yuma’s interior space and introduced dynamic elements to the shot structure. As far as striking a balance is concerned, this came through in-depth conversation between Hikari, who is also a cinematographer, and myself. We spoke at length about the relationship from scene to scene and what we were building to.”
The primary setup worked great for the majority of the movie, but there were certain scenes were the camera and the crew needed to be inconspicuous. Stephen explains: “One particular series of shots chronicles Yuma moving through the infamous Kabukichō red-light district in Tokyo. Given the nature of the environment it was essential to air on the side of caution. With a background in street photography, I traveled to the district to get a sense of the space. Hikari and I scouted the location, establishing both angles and a path for the lead actress to travel so we could be as efficient as possible on the day of the shoot. We paired down the personnel to a skeleton crew of myself, the director, and a few other team members that would hold at a distance. We opted for a Sony AS7ii paired with a DJI Ronin S Gimbal. The small package made us look like a documentary or maybe even made me look like a tourist. We were in and out in under an hour!”
A Look For All Seasons
Part of securing financing for any movie is the ‘package’ put together for potential investors. This typically includes the logline and memorable sound bites, as well as brief biographies of key cast and crew. What always stand out though are the glitzy pictures used to convey the overall ‘feel’ of the movie. In the case of 37 Seconds, both Hikari and Stephen collaborated on these pictures, their efforts culminating in a Look Book. “It was a great project for me to work on because I became acquainted with (Hikari’s) intentions, and an invaluable document in my opinion for the director, the colourist, and cinematographer. It can really establish a clear touch point for the film”, Stephen reasons.
Early on, Hikari envisioned her movie going through three different Looks, or phases: cold Tokyo, representing Yuma’s stagnant situation; passion scenes, which included Yuma discovering Tokyo’s night scene and her experience at the Love Hotel, and earthy tones, as Yuma grows as a person through knowledge and experience. Each look would reinforce Yuma’s journey and state of mind.
Before a single frame was shot, Hikari, Stephen and myself brainstormed these ideas over a Skype call between Tokyo and LA. There were the different sections of the movie, which needed to flow in and out of each other organically, as well as specific scenes such as the Love Hotel, which would be bathed in a strong magenta light. That intensity would be pushing up against the primary camera’s colour gamut, I observed at the time.
With these ideas in mind, I was sent some early test footage to create various Looks. These included interiors under both daylight and night time conditions (tungsten and fluorescent), as well as a few shots lit to simulate the aforementioned love hotel setup. I banked these Looks and refined them over time leading up to the DI of the movie.
From Look Book to Reality
From a colourist’s perspective, a Look Book provides some guidelines. While few movies fit into neat, pre-defined sections like this, it does inform you as to how to treat certain scenes, certain situations. At the same time, the movie and the protagonist are complex. Their emotions go on a roller coaster ride and take us, the audience, with them. Stephen agrees: “We wanted to keep the look book in mind when shooting the film but felt no obligation to adhere to the system we created. It really became more of guideline in the end”.
With ideas swirling, I thought about the stylized look of manga characters, with accentuated, inky lines and strong contrast, not dissimilar to a Japanese person’s slick black hair against skin that is typically paler. Getting that contrast right is tricky; traditional ‘linear’ controls such as lift, gamma and gain can easily lob off shadows and dock highlights on their way to adding contrast, and an S-Curve can stretch out the mid tone, leaving it ‘thin’. Therefore, I turned to Soft Light. This blend mode is based on the relationship of shadows and highlights to 50% grey; anything lighter than mid grey gets brighter and anything darker gets heavier. By starting off with ‘gentle contrast’ in each scene, I could use a Soft Light and opacity to control the ‘inkiness’ of the shadows, giving me progressive contrast and snappier highlights. Then if I needed a shot to be brighter or darker, I simply used overall gamma to bounce the mid tone up or down, without affecting the black/white anchor points or relative contrast. This proved crucial as we continued to refine the tone of the film; “Mei had much more of an innocent look than I anticipated, and her disability was very different than what it was in the original script, so we went more towards a brighter tone”, Hikari recalls.
To complement my blending mode approach, I decided on a ‘bias-based’ technique for the colour treatment. This forgoes the ‘typical’ clean whites/blacks approach, which all too often can suck the life out of a picture, stepping over the subtle differences of shadows tinting one way while the highlights sway in another direction. By choosing to bias the colour of the image, you respect the original photography, yet augment it with the style that is required.
For this I turned to Curves. For the majority of Tokyo scenes, I used the Blue/Cyan curves, particularly the -> Saturation and -> Density curves to gives those colours extra depth. These adjustments bend the image towards colder tones, without the coolness riding roughshod over the warmer colours, which is so important for healthy looking skin tones. Similarly, for Thailand, I used the Green/Yellow curves to capture the beauty of the jungle and the stickiness of the humidity, again keeping the other warm colours at a baseline that made sense.
By using this bias based approach to grading the movie, we were able to control how much ‘Thailand’ we wanted, or how much ‘Tokyo’. For example, when Yuma returns home in the end, Stephen wanted her to bring back a bit of Thailand with her, to signify the warmth she was bringing back to her mother. I simply used my Thailand grade and picked 50% opacity, and now we had a subdued warmth as we combined the original Tokyo look with some ‘heat’ from Thailand.
Forcing a scene that is warm earlier in a movie to a colder tone later on is something we see repeatedly, and many times it looks fake and forced. This technique is often used to enforce the emotional state of the characters, or to express the overall mood of the scene. However, in the scene where the mother confronts Yuma after going through her possessions, the tsuchikabe walls in Yuma’s house can’t suddenly turn blue because she’s having a confrontation with her mother. Did someone swap out the light bulbs?!
So I went with the photography of the scene, which was more naturally lit but also had a strong key light. I increased the gain significantly, while dropping the mid tones deeper, which has the effect of thrusting the characters into the limelight. Then I pushed some very strong vignettes, rotating them from shot to shot to make sure they weren’t hiding any faces. The vignettes serve to separate the characters from the background, and to heighten the conflict between them.
For the Love Hotel, we can see a clear thread between the Look Book, the early tests we did, and the final result we ended up with. The strong magenta is a bold choice, and a welcome one. The colour has become anathema in grading circles, and in my mind that is a problem, as this gorgeous colour can represent passion just like the colour red, but at the same time adds overtones of sleaze and ambiguity. The magenta that bathes the Love Hotel is a culmination of the use of that colour, as we build up to it from the point where Yuma begins to discover the Tokyo night life. From the scene where Yuma encounters the drag queens, to her detour into the famous Kabukichō red-light district, Hikari and I had a few arm wrestles over how much magenta we should ‘creep in’, but in the end we both felt that its use made the picture richer and more layered.
In a final ‘twist’ to our magenta journey, we swing wildly to a sea of cyan as Yuma washes her shame in the bathroom. The saturation of the cyan against the Soft Light, dense black deliver the punch and conclusion to this episode of Yuma’s self-discovery.
Distance? What distance!
With the movie having such an unconventional plot, it should come as no surprise that the DI was anything but conventional. With the director, DP and colourist all located in different parts of the world, we needed a way to communicate our ideas and address notes over a robust feedback channel, regardless of time zone. Enter Frame.io, a leader in the world of cloud-based video review and collaboration.
From the very first Skype call I had with both the director and DP, to the remote review sessions, to the exchange of media through Frame.io, this is a project that could not have been executed using the ‘traditional’ way. As a big fan of the service, I’d used Frame.io on countless smaller projects (shorts, music videos), but never on a feature. A 4K feature, and one that would require regular uploads, deliveries to and from multiple vendors, and a paper trail for every step of the way. So we rolled up our sleeves and took the plunge.
On studio pictures, remote services between your creative team members is not a big deal, and that’s because the client pays a pretty penny to have those services available to them. But what about the independent filmmaker, who often has similar demands, but pockets that are more holey than deep? That’s where services like Frame.io enter the picture. Hikari recalls the transition to working this way: “At first it was challenging because of the time difference. But then it became so much easier because of the ease-of-use of Frame.io; I was able to review all the reels as they progressed through colour, share my thoughts down to the specific section of the image, and receive feedback from Milton, our colourist. Being able to work interactively this way meant that I could still work closely with Milton, even though I was in Japan, which was wonderful!”
Our utilization of Frame.io didn’t end with remote reviews. After delivering VFX pulls to multiple vendors through Frame.io, and realizing that it made the process so much more efficient, we moved more and more of our day-to-day activities to Frame.io; VFX deliveries back to us (versus hard drives), reel turnovers, complete with Avid Bins, media and offlines, and communication between team members all benefitted from the process. We reviewed entire reels. Created manifests out of CSV exports. We came 90% close to approving the final movie, all while achieving phenomenal transfer speeds. We became so comfortable with the process that uploading hundreds of gigabytes of data a day became common practice.
The strength of a service like Frame.io is not merely the wonderfully thought out and crafted tools that the company offers, or even the open Application Programming Interface (API) that allows you to customize the service to your heart’s content. The opportunity comes in the risk that it encourages the filmmaker to take, to replace ‘traditional’ processes with disruptive ones, which streamline the moviemaking process as a whole. For that we thank the hard working NY-based team at Frame.io.
Remember to smile!
Just like Hikari’s decision to take a gamble on Mei, and change the script to reflect her reality, Hikari’s message is bold yet nuanced: “Don’t hold back. Allow experiences to happen, because you never know what doors they may open. And remember to have fun with it all”. I don’t know any filmmaker worth their salt who would disagree with that statement!
37 Seconds Premiered at the 69th Berlin Film Festival to critical acclaim. It won both the Audience Award as well as the CICAE Art Cinema Award under the prestigious Panorama section. It is also an official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival 2019. The movie was produced by knockonwood, Inc. Films Boutique has picked up sales and Netflix is the worldwide distributor.
All images courtesy of Knockonwood Inc.
In Never Hike Alone, director Vincent DiSanti dances on the fringes of the biggest horror franchise of all time, Friday the 13th. In this fan movie, we follow Kyle McLeod (Andrew Leighty), an adventure blogger on a mission to find the infamous camping grounds of Crystal Lake. Throughout the movie he documents his progress with his action camera, the entries of which become progressively grimmer, as his survival skills are put to the extreme test in a game of cat and mouse with the camp’s resident serial killer, Jason Voorhees.
The video diary style plays well to a younger audience brought up on Facebook Live and a ‘found footage’ approach to filmmaking popularized by another long running franchise, Paranormal Activity. At the same time there is plenty of meat for lifelong fans to sink their teeth into. Pun not intended!
From the sweeping camera angles to the locations to the design – Never Hike Alone screams of production values typically associated with a studio picture, not an Indie crafted together using blood, sweat and little help from Kickstarter. The result is a movie that adds to the horror lore of Friday the 13th, albeit in an ‘unofficial’ capacity.
The Hidden Location
Like any independent filmmaker knows, one of the hardest things to cheat on a project like this is the design. For a major studio picture, you have the funds and the means to build almost anything you can imagine, either practically or virtually. With Indies, you’re down to whatever you can put together on a shoestring budget, or, for the more resourceful filmmaker, what you can find.
Through a passing conversation with a couple Vince had been working with during the original trailer, they casually mentioned an abandoned camp up the road, College Camp, and whether he’d be shooting there. What followed was something akin to a real-life sleuth investigation that had Vince superimposing a phone image over a paper map, in search of the location equivalent to the holy grail. “I began zooming in and scanning a satellite view of the forest where I eventually found one of the buildings tucked between a grouping of trees. From there I traced a path that seemed like a road leading all the way back to the highway.”
That path led him to College Camp; “from that moment, we knew we had struck gold”. The abandoned camp – with its cavernous main cabin hall, creepy attic and countless rooms and buildings – would fatefully become Camp Crystal Lake in Never Hike Alone, allowing Vince to expand the scope of the story he wanted to tell.
Toys of the Trade
As someone who’s graded a fair share of Indies, I’m used to dealing with cameras of all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s due to budgetary constraints, coverage needs over a compressed timescale, or just the desire to eek the best picture possible out of the most unlikely of cameras, Indie filmmakers have always pushed the boundaries in this area.
At the start of Never Hike Alone, the primary narrative camera was the Sony A7sii. This seemed like the best DSLR choice at the time, producing the most filmic images, but production is rarely just about the final result: “Its major downfall was that it was a difficult camera to rig as it required several accessories that never seemed to work together simultaneously. On top of that, the rig had trouble keeping up with the physical demands of the fight scenes and slowed us down a ton on set”, DiSanti recalls.
- Red Epic 8K
- Varicam 35
- Sony FS7
- Sony A7sii
- DJI Phantom 3 Professional
- (x2) Go Pro Hero 4 Blacks
ZEISS ZF LENSES:
- 25mm f/2.0
- 35mm f/1.4
- 50mm f/1.4
- 85mm f/1.4
But as luck would have it, cameraman Evan Butka, who’d been renting Vince his beautiful Zeiss lenses for the movie, became enamored with the project. He soon jumped onboard, bringing along his Red Epic 8K camera. “Shooting with the Red made life so much easier from a technical standpoint and of course gave us beautiful 8K images that would give us much more leeway in post.”
In another twist of kindness, Evan introduced Vince to Ben Meredith, another cameraman who would step in when Evan wasn’t available. And what do cameramen have? Cameras – this time a Varicam 35, ideal for low light situations; “We relied on the Varicam to capture a lot of our night and early morning scenes. Overall that camera is a workhorse that never let us down or gave us any issues.”
Finally, to round things off, Co-DP JD Martz brought with him his personal Sony FS7, which ended up becoming the B camera for the majority of the production. “It was great for guerrilla shooting when the main production cameras were not available. Most of the scene of Kyle running from camp with Jason giving chase was shot with that camera.”
Of Lin & Log
Working with many different cameras doesn’t have to be a nightmare; if all the material has a video gamma-style transfer curve (like Rec709), you can create a base by dialing out any differences using a primary grade, upon which you apply your Looks and other tweaks such as sharpness. This was my approach when matching the DJI Phantom shots with the Sony cameras throughout the extreme hiking scenes, as well as the night showdown between Kyle and Jason. For the ‘video diary’ footage though, the intention was to retain a visual difference between the punchy, ultra-sharp Go Pro material, and the more filmic narrative pictures from the Red Epic. As such, I kept the former bright and vivid and let any corrections ride in most instances, even if it meant blowing out highlights. However, for the latter I kept the contrast in check more than I normally would to create a softer look.
The real challenge arose when Log and Lin material were intercut. This happens throughout the movie, especially during the fight and chase scenes. In these instances it is important to consider the final deliverable. “Our original goal was to release the film for free on YouTube, however, we found ourselves with a unique opportunity to premiere at the Telluride Horror Show”, DiSanti informed us when we started testing the pipeline. With that information, I could make some decisions.
This setup for me meant a 709 world (sRGB on most computer screens), and thus I chose to convert my log images to video gamma using a base correction (versus using an output LUT). Since the conversion was ‘live’, I could always dig beneath it to retrieve any blown or crushed details, while reaping the benefits of a ‘homogenised’ timeline, allowing me to easily apply Looks between the Lin and Log material. Since the pictures were pretty much bang on in terms of exposure, we had minimal problems.
For the Red material specifically, the manufacturer gives you a plethora of choices for just about any occasion. Unlike other jobs where I typically choose to work in RedLogFilm space, for Never Hike Alone I chose RedColor2 / RedGamma2 for my colourspace and transfer curve. This gave me rich images with a slightly flatter look, perfect to use as a starting point.
Out of the can, the images looked beautiful, but lacked uniformity. This was purely down to the varying capabilities of the cameras, as well as the intercutting style between the video diary shots and the narrative footage. Before considering any specific Look treatments, it was essential to balance everything out.
From a colour perspective, I wanted to create a distinction between the time when Kyle is looking for Camp Crystal Lake, when he actually finds it, when Jason finds him, to the time the terror unfolds in and around the camp and beyond.
For the exteriors near the camp, there was a lot of warmth in the environment; this is Southern California in mid Spring, where any green ground cover can quickly dry out under the bright sun, casting russets and golden hues across the underbrush. Those colours impart a warm and inviting feel, the opposite of the foreboding Look I was aiming for.
To set that tone, I modified a Look I’d used for a past job – June Gloom. Basically, you start by selecting three colours – yellow, red and magenta – from the black point all the way up to the mid tone, with a good deal of feathering into the highlights. Those ranges are then desaturated, leaving behind the cooler colours, but also some life in the skin tones. On first glance the image appears to cool, but it’s misleading: the absence of warmth is what tricks your eye into thinking the image is much bluer. The modification I made to this Look was to further saturate the greens and blues left behind, as well as any warm colours left behind that were key story points.
The result is a creepy, ominous look that repels any inherent warmth in the image (like the fried underbrush). It’s especially effective on cloudier days, which are devoid of brighter highlights.
It’s in the Sky!
Nothing makes a picture look like a million dollars more than well timed aerial footage, and this movie has plenty of it. “I purchased a [DJI Phantom 3 Professional] and learned to fly it on my own for the production.” DiSanti states. And watching the movie – from the breathtaking reveal over the lake to the epic crane as the ambulance races off leaving Jason in its wake – I would say he didn’t do a half bad job: “The hardest shot in the entire film was definitely the shot where Kyle runs across the log while the camera dollies forward over a large creek.” So if the director thing doesn’t work out Vince, then he can always be a drone operator!
Never Hike Alone premiered at Telluride Horror Show to glowing reviews as well as simultaneously launching online on YouTube. The movie continues to rein in hundreds of thousands of horror fans from around the world, and has ticked up to an astonishing 900K+ views on YouTube. Lifelong fans of the Friday the 13th series haven’t felt this good about a Friday film since the 80s. “What seemed like a pipe dream early on in the process ended up being an experience I will certainly never forget”, DiSanti concludes.
The scope of the project is probably captured best by Greg Emerson, the online editor for the project: “Never Hike Alone was a full throttle 4K DI editorial job: six different camera types with variations in resolution, aspect ratio and bit depth. Digital FX, paint outs, variable re-speeds, reticule overlays…the show had everything that a $100M, big studio film would.”
For my full interview with director Vincent DiSanti, check out The Search for Camp Crystal Lake.
Somewhere near Vasquez Rocks (and a ditch in Santa Clarita), a camper van unleashes a group of revelers chasing a Summer Of Love. At least that’s the vibe the director, Randal Kirk II, was hoping to capture with his latest branded piece for Night:Shift Goods. With hippie-styled attire and rainbow flares galore, as well as a guest appearance from legendary folk musician and photographer Henry Diltz, I’d say he got pretty close!
Old School meets Instagram
Summer of Love is intended to showcase Night:Shift’s home goods collection, marketed towards a diehard Doors fan base. The inspiration for the piece came from watching classic Doors music videos with Director of Photography Gordon Yould; “We felt that an ‘on the road’ vibe would capture the spirit of Jim Morison”, Randal recounts.
But in a world where everything old is new again, that fan base is shifting, and so the intent was to capture a new audience of young fans, without alienating the old timers. “I wanted to cast someone influential in a younger demo that would fit this vibe, so I cast psychedelic skater Richie Jackson, a very popular skater in the social age.”
And Richie can skate, though that’s not wholly why Randal cast him for this piece: “Richie has broken away from the core skate scene and is more of an artist using his board as a brush.” That statement dovetails one of the surreal sequences, with Richie bouncing on and off a bed draped in Doors merchandise. It’s a stunt he’s performed on Instagram to an audience that Night:Shift, through Randal, is trying to reach.
This is familiar territory for Randal, who has made his living doing promos for skate and urban clothing companies, viral videos on YouTube and Vine, and genre-bending music videos.
Throw me a camera!
Gordon had some strong opinions on recreating that 60s magic: “when I heard it was for Doors material I instantly blurted out FILM! WE NEED TO SHOOT FILM!” Luckily Randal and Gordon were on the same page: “We were tired of seeing retro pieces shot digitally with Super 8 and flare effects added in post. They’re missing the textures and magic that can be done on film. Digital flare and digital film burns can work, if you augment it with actual film.”
And to get that carefree, organic texture, Gordon decided to go experimental with the film that he used; “I had some old 400′ short ends in a shoebox and figured let’s load ‘em up and see what happens! In the end the film came out a little grainy but kinda cool considering over 10 years of heat and cold fluctuations”
Alongside the two film cameras – an S16 Aaton XTR with an Angenieux 12-240mm Zoom and a S8 Canon 814 – digital coverage came courtesy of two Sony cameras – an FS7 and a A7Sii DSLR. The subject matter and the need to capture tons of B roll necessitated two small crews shooting guerilla-style. It’s debatable which material ended up the A roll and which the B roll!
Putting it all together
When it came to the cut, the services of Andrew Polich were employed, who wrangled all the footage from the various sources. The final piece moves at a good clip, but the combination of slo-mos and longer takes ensure the audience doesn’t feel they’re on a roller coaster. It’s a fine balance, and it works really well! Randal is very vocal on the style: “It might be my ADD but I’ve always cut at a fast pace. The biggest challenge filmmakers face today is keeping the audience tuned in so they won’t grab their phones and check out something else.”
There are a lot of ‘retro’ techniques on display here – sprockets and keycode punching through the left side of the frame, blending modes used to simulate double exposures, and a cute use of multicam.
Enter the Monkey
The combination of that much material from so many different sources created certain challenges, the most glaring of which was the presence of grain, or none at all. To make the visuals flow and feel like one cohesive piece, I had one of two choices: ‘clean up’ the film a little to make it match the Sony material better, or add some texture and grit to the digital pictures to make them look more like film. As a self-confessed film fanatic (my still camera of choice is a Canon AE-1 Program), there was only ever going to be one way. For this I turned to my grain plugin of choice, Film Convert by Rubber Monkey.
Most film grain plugins I’ve used do a great job in three areas: grain profile, correct tone, and controls for applying the grain as a positive or negative effect. Let’s call these the ‘post controls’ of a film grain plugin. However, because there’s no regard for the Transfer Curve or Colourspace of the underlying footage, the applied grain often ends up looking ‘superficial’. The lack of ‘transfer controls’ means the contrast and density of the resulting image is typically off, and you need to tweak the image further to get it to the right place before you can even evaluate the grain. Cumbersome, yes, but this is what we’ve had to deal with for many years.
Film Convert takes a different approach; it gives you direct access to the ‘transfer controls’, allowing you to select both the camera and the profile used during the shoot. Once selected, the film grain is applied, and the default results are great! You can use additional controls – de facto 3-way joyballs, lift/gamma/gain and saturation – to tweak the final result. Film Convert comes in both stand-alone edition (the image above), as well as a plugin for your colour corrector or editor. I use both versions for my work.
With the grain out of the way and the blend effects in place, it was time to have some fun. In my mind, The Doors is all about experimentation, freedom and psychedelia. I wanted the grade to reflect this.
I already had a head start with some of the tricks Andrew pulled in the edit, namely using film burns and black & white flips as transitions. I loved the organic effect this had on the footage, and worked towards accentuating that.
For my base grade, I didn’t want the piece to have too much contrast, which would have given it a more ‘modern’ look. So I floated the blacks more than I usually would, and kept the mid tones and highlights a little lighter. The flash frames and film edges gave me the contrast I wanted without having to put that in the image. I also let the exposure ride, sometimes wildly, between shots, which felt more natural to me.
To push the psychedelic look, I relied on key shots and techniques; skies were given a teal, slightly electric treatment, which added to the ethereal quality. Offsetting the teal shadows and skies, I added some warm vignettes; this gives the picture a ‘faded’ look, like old photographs, and also creates colour tension between the warmth and the cooler shadows and skies.
The rainbow flares, which were achieved using practical prism and rainbow filters, were pushed further. Also with the flares, because I was pushing the mids and the highlights just that little bit more, magenta started to wring around the hot spots. Normally I would correct this, but I kept it in, sometimes even accentuating it, to get some interesting, almost cross-processed looks.
Finally for the skate scene, it was gold all the way! This was largely a matter of embracing all the variance in the native photography: the expired super 16mm film, the erratic grain, the layered film and digital effects, all as the sun was setting. I pushed tons more warmth into the shadows, flatlined the blue gain for the digital shots to get that strong yellow highlight, and added more contrast compared to the previous scenes, which gave me those strong, iconic silhouettes.
I think for this job, Gordon sums it up just perfectly: “on the day it was amazing to film with our talents and the legendary [Henry] Diltz. Randal is always great to work with and his visions are a blast to bring to life through cinematography.”
You can check out more stills by going to the Summer Of Love Gallery.
Randal Kirk skates down familiar territory in his debut feature “DGK: Parental Advisory” – a ghetto fairytale that takes place inside the mind of DGK rider Baby Scumbag, aka Steven Fernandez. The movie combines music video-type narratives with some of the most amazing tricks performed by DGK riders. “The individual stories are abstract, much like a music video, but as a whole they tell a story”. Randal’s idea of combining these two normally different elements was ambitious, and I had the pleasure of helping him craft those images into a finished piece.
“DGK: Parental Advisory” is different from most skate movies that preceded it, both due to the format as well as the story it tells; “DGK is a unique brand in that all its riders have been dealt bad cards in life. Skateboarding became their golden ticket out of that life”, Randal told me when we sat down to discuss the look of the movie. “I wanted to tell a story that captured the heart and soul of the team’s riders.”
The cinematographer that stepped up to the task was none other than Salvador “Vallo” Lleo, someone I have collaborated with many a time before. True to his reputation, Vallo gave us some beautiful, cinematic sequences: “I knew my pictures were going to be intercut with cool-looking fisheye skate board sequences…so to create contrast I steered towards conservative framing and story telling”. But that didn’t mean that Vallo had it easy. “For the exteriors we had no permits and there was a lot of guerrilla-style shooting with the camera on the shoulder, the lens wide open and praying for an image…it brought back memories of my early days as a young film-maker.”
Tools of the Trade
Three Red Epics were used on this movie for the tons of coverage that Randal insisted on. “His energy and passion kept everyone going in the hardest of times”, recalls Vallo. His lenses of choice were the Cooke S4s and for his lighting style, Vallo didn’t have to look far beyond the brand’s name: “Dirty Ghetto Kids is the name of the company. The texture had to be gritty and rough. High contrast situations, mixing vibrant temperatures and super-stylized lighting design”.
Vallo has long left his trusty tripod behind and replaced it with his new Technocrane. It’s ultralight, super fast to move compared to the standard Supertechno and great in tight spaces and remote locations. “This crane is so great and easy to work with that there will be days where the camera would not come off!”
As practical as a crane is, it’s the sweeping shots that it helps capture which make it an amazing storytelling tool. In the last shot of the movie, a wounded Stevie Williams steps out of an ambulance and skates away into the distance. As the crane goes up, dozens of kids skate after him with a gorgeous Downtown LA in the background. “It was a one take shot. Magical! Then Randal next to me shouted ‘OK kids…it’s a wrap!!’ Man, people went nuts! All these kids were hugging me and thanking me for the best experience of their lives. At that moment, it all made sense…and for me, that very moment was the coolest thing I have ever experienced. All the pain and suffering melted away. It reminded me of all the reasons why I came into this business. Not for the money, not the glamour or the fame but for these amazing happy moments that brings people together.”
Glossy with a Twist of Primaries
My approach to colour timing DGK was developed with Randal on previous collaborations, but this time with a twist. Randal explains that “over the years I’ve developed a glossy look for all of my videos that glamorizes the moment…This approach was appropriate for this piece since as a brand DGK has lots of bright and glossy colours in their designs, mixed with edgy/controversial images, much like the art I have made in the past.” The way I translated Randal’s vision to the screen was by giving the music videos a polished, poppy look with deep saturated colours and snappy blacks. However, this time I explored washing entire sequences with primary colours that existed in the pictures, giving them a certain vibrancy and unique signature look. The four images below show this approach.
There are many ways to achieve this effect, and the most basic one involves ramping up the lift/gain for the colour that you want to add, or even using printer lights (actually *subtracting* the colours that you want since you are theoretically working on the negative). This is certainly an option, but for me leaves you with an image which lacks color depth. Adding a wash doesn’t mean that every other color should be suppressed.
Instead, my approach was to use both blending modes and curves. After balancing the image, I threw on a Hard Light, which instantly added contrast, bloomed the highlights and dug into the blacks. Since we were going for drama in this piece, this single action helped get there fast. From here on you are sculpting, and curves gives you pinpoint precision. I increased saturation in my Yellow curve, but then to kill off the orange that was creeping in, I also increased the saturation along the Cyan curve. This is because Cyan sits across from Red, so any movement in either direction is going to affect the opposing colour. If too much Yellow/Cyan crept into parts of the image that I didn’t want it to, with curves its just a matter of adding a break point to contain its effect. I did this in the Cyan curve, because I wanted to retain the warmth in the blacks instead of cooling them off.
Not all images lend themselves to the same approach. For example, the picture above of Stevie Williams from his piece shows an exterior setup, with lots of colourless things in the scene (concrete, chain fence). Throwing on a Hard Light completely blasts the image with too much light, and his face disappears into the shadows. It’s the wrong approach. So for this, I made sure that I kept any gain adjustments in check, while using curves to seep in both colour and gain where I wanted it. The surrounding forest was perked up by adding green saturation, while his cap was brought out by adding saturation in the Red curve. For both primaries I brought down the gamma curve too, deepening the colors and giving them added richness.
Lost Ghetto Kids
“DGK: Parental Advisory” was a dream project for me, a collaboration with two artists I admire, who are always looking at breaking new ground with every shot, every scene, every motif. In the final act, as the skateboarders navigate past the frozen antagonists to overcome the conflict in their lives, Randal sits back and reflects on the project: “I’m visually communicating how skateboarding is these kids’ ticket out of a life of crime, drugs and death. Skateboarding has saved the team riders from all the harsh realities they could have potentially faced in their lives. Through skateboarding they are now living their dreams and the dream of all the lost ghetto kids on the street.”
In a first for this blog I interview Randal Kirk, the director of the movie in Lost Ghetto Kids. Here you can get the scoop on the story development, Randal’s ideas on creating memorable images and how it was to work with the army of kids in “DGK: Parental Advisory”.
Noel Gallagher steps right into a domestic argument as the referee in “Dream On”, the fourth music video from Noel’s debut album “High Flying Birds”, directed by Mike Bruce. The noir-themed boxing match features some well-known faces, including stunt actress Zoe Bell (Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds) running husband Troy Mittleider ragged around the ring, with Omar Doom (Inglourious Basterds) and Brent De Boer (Dandy Warhols) among the spectators.
“Dream On” is my fourth collaboration with Mike Bruce, Salvador Lleo and the rest of this talented crew. Both the black & white look and camera motivation for this music video were clearly inspired by Scorsese’s classic “Raging Bull”, but it was “The Hurricane”, shot by cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins ASC, that Salvador referenced most for examples of fighting styles. As the colourist, my challenge was to capture that dynamism in the grade but at the same time retain the elegance and subtlety in the images that Salvador had captured.
Lights, Camera & Scissor Lifts
“Dream On” was shot at the Hollywood Rentals stage up in Sylmar, a place where Cinemtographer Salvador Lleo tries to take his projects to whenever possible: “They have a huge array of grip and lighting gear, and the head manager Luis Barroso always treats us really well and is very accommodating with budgets”. Amongst his lighting package were nine 6K Space Lights, rigged 20′ above the ring with full silk. These lights were then wrapped with duvetyne to create a massive soft box, with the boxing ring acting as a kind of bounce light for the actors. “There aren’t many ways to light a ring other than from above since the camera is moving all around the set”. Rounding up the lighting setup were multiple old school 1K photo floods in the background to create depth, as well as four 5Ks on the floor with large chimeras for fill.
In terms of cameras, Salvador used the Red Epic paired with Cooke S4i lenses for nearly all setups, except for the slow motion shot right at the end of the video that was captured using the Diablo CAM at 800fps. “Shooting high speed is a painfully slow process. You need a ton of light and it takes a long time to play back the results”. Both cameras were rated at 3200 Kelvin, with the Red’s ISO set to a low 320 while the Diablo was set to 500.
Along with his super mobile telescopic 9-28′ Technocrane that has replaced his regular tripod, Salvador employed a scissor lift to create an in-camera effect of the boxer floating above the ring. Initially, this was intended to be a green screen setup but instead Salvador and the crew had the boxer lean back on the edge of the lift to create the effect. Being the last shot of the day, Troy was completely exhausted. “Troy was in real pain trying to stay parallel to the lift. I don’t think he needed to do much acting…he was really suffering!” quips Salvador. Another small victory for in-camera FX!
Grading with Zones
Another technique I often use to manipulate black and white images is based around the concept of an ‘adaptive’ zone system, or breaking up an image into a number of gradations that represent exposure values. My approach is to define separate low/mid/high sections using whatever tool is available on the colour corrector of choice (I use Ranges on the Pablo). The sum of all the ‘zones’ adds up to the total exposure of the image, from the blackest to the brightest pixel. These ‘zones’ are defined according to the level of control you need in a specific area of the image, which in turn is based on the type of look you are trying to recreate. For example, if you were to create a noir-type grade, you may decide to ‘weight’ your selections 40/40/20 (lows/mids/highs), which would give you more control in the low to mid range of the image, versus a skip bleach selection (20/40/40), which would give you finer control of the highlights. This may all sound very technical, but it’s actually very intuitive, in a large part because I use a ‘hicon’ key mode to define each separate zone, as I’m doing for my noir-look in the images below. The white/grey area defines the zone, with very little range being allotted to the Highlights region.
Each zone can be manipulated using master lift, gamma and gain. In addition to the nine control points spread across the three zones (lows/lift, lows/mids, mids/gain, etc.), I also use overall lift, gamma and gain to adjust the picture as a whole, giving me a total of twelve control points for the entire image. All of this can be achieved on a single layer of colour, giving me incredible control over the image. I also find this zone process beneficial because there is a natural ‘balance’ built into the qualification process since the zones are interdependent of each other.
The before and after images above show how I used the zones to sculpt the images in Dream On. For the crowd shots, I created a feeling of the spectators emerging from the shadows, suppressing the lows, mids and highlights separately without relying on keys of any kind. For the actual boxing shots, I made sure that I allotted most of the zone to the mid to highlight region, which gave me finer control over the skin tones. By then pulling the gain away from the gamma I was able to get some striking contrast in the skin tones without losing all of my detail in the shadows. The overall result of using this technique is a more organic look that doesn’t feel like all that you’ve done is to desaturate the image and crank the contrast!
You can check out more before and after stills in the gallery.
Also, there is a great behind the scenes little video shot by Brent De Boer himself using his Flip camera! It can be found here. Finally, Noel talks about the experience of making the record High Flying Birds in a brilliant little documentary on Vimeo.
Justin Bieber gets into the festive spirit with this theatrically released music video, timed to coincide with the animated feature “Arthur Christmas”. Directed by Charles Oliver and shot in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, the music video meshes a Steampunk version of Santa’s Grotto complete with wind-up dolls reminiscent of the classic birthday party scene in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This was my first time working with this creative team, and an ideal opportunity to combine my skills as both a colourist and stereo specialist.
“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” was shot and released theatrically in stereoscopic 3D. This was Charles’ second project shot in this medium: “I was very pleased to work in 3D again. The first project I did in 3D was a year earlier – a piece for The League of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD) called MATCHED“. No doubt Charles’ work on “The LXD” and his own dance background was the reason why Scooter Braun, Justin’s manager, approached Charles with the project. “As a young kid, I was in musical theater and toured various countries as part of a performing group. From there, I started teaching dance for a few summers as a way to not have to work for my father’s construction company. I don’t think there is film musical made that I haven’t seen, especially the old ones.”
Camera, Lights & Stereo Rigs
Cinematographer Alice Brooks was the eye behind the lens, continuing her collaboration with Charles Oliver, which started with The LXD series. The cameras used were Red Epics paired with Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses, ranging from 20mm to 85mm. To a large extent the selection of camera came down to choice of stereo rig, which in this case was the Helios Rig provided by ParadiseFX. “It’s a great rig, very reliable. We only had it go down once on a two-day shoot, which is rare for 3D”, Alice recalls. The Red Epic’s small form factor also makes it the perfect choice for smaller, more lightweight stereo rigs, which is a good thing since 99% of the music video was shot on steadicam, with Nick Franco operating. Supervising the stereo onset was veteran stereographer Max Penner.
The camera was rated at 800 ISO and 5000 Kelvin, yielding an overall rusty warm palette in the original photography. “We were going for a desaturated, industrial feel, while intending to make the color red pop.” The warehouse itself was dressed in a very monochromatic way, with cold concrete floors and cinder blocks, but there was enough red in the costumes that I was able to isolate and create good colour contrast. However, the surrounding brick walls were also red, which I wanted to treat in order to bring the focus to the dancers. The lighting Alice designed helped hugely in this respect, giving the dancers good separation from the background: “We used lots of large backlights that were rigged in the ceiling and we skip-bounced all of our front light into the concrete floor. The floor was very dirty and the concrete was grey. It gave this really beautiful cool glow. We brought in smaller sources to cross-light and edge-light from time to time too.”
From RAW to Real
When it comes to ‘transferring’ RAW images into something that will give you flexibility in the timing suite, there are literally thousands of permutations. Answering some basic questions allows you to make the right choices at this critical stage. The most important variable for me is what the final deliverable will be, followed by the nature of the material itself. Regardless of whether you are going out to film or not, I always like to start with a Log-like image. In cases where the primary deliverable is a DCP vs. film (more and more these days), I rely on a small number of density curves I have built that emulate an Input LUT. The nature of the material dictates which curve I use to get the image to a good starting point.
For this music video, I used a REDlogFilm gamma curve and picked REDcolor over REDcolor2 as my colour space. REDcolor gives me a little more saturation in the ‘negative’, which is better than adding it later on with the potential of introducing noise. As usual, from here I established my base contrast and density level. Again, the choices here are endless, but generally at this stage I try to confine myself to using density and gain controls: limiting my options helps me get to where I am going faster.
The Steampunk Look
We tried various grades with Alice that we would present to Charles the next day. We generally pushed towards a much cooler palette, with varying degrees of blue. After experimenting with half a dozen looks, we settled on what we referred to as our ‘Steampunk Look’ – a cool, shadowy image with glowing highlights and red costumes bleeding through. Our coolness didn’t come in the form of a blue tint though, we simply added ‘white’ to the scene. Care was taken to ensure that the image didn’t feel ‘monochromatic’ by retaining enough colour in the image.
Neutralising the colours involved adding a ton of blue gain, as well as taking out blue points using printer lights (printer lights work in reverse as you are theoretically working on the negative). This got rid of the rusty tint, but left us with a desaturated image. From there I began sculpting, using a luminance key to select and suppress the shadows and low mid tones, which was also where the background fell. On the other end of the scale, I used a hicon key to pick off the highlights and really bloom them, adding both gain and defocus. For the red costumes and skin tones, I selected the upper range of reds (leaving out the darker red bricks) and slowly eased them back into the picture, pushing the saturation a little further. A final S-curve pulled it all together and gave the image more ‘snap’.
Every music video has challenges, especially when you add the element of stereo into the mix. However, not having the talent available until the day before the shoot presented a unique challenge, especially for a dance-based video. Charles approached the problem from a different angle: “we knew we would not be able to teach Justin any choreography before the day of the shoot. Alice and I worked with Tom (Production Designer) to create a space that could be broken up and shot in sections, each covering different parts of the song. Then I worked with Galen (Choreographer) to create both freestyle and tightly choreographed sections that would work in that space. The result gave us plenty of options when it came time to cutting the video. It’s actually not my preferred method of working – I would much rather create a fluid piece with contiguous choreography and have our lead in the center of that dance the whole time. But frankly, I was surprised to see how pleased I was with the result of this different approach.”
You can check out more before/after images by visiting the Gallery.
Roaring across scorched deserts and rumbling across war-torn city streets comes a trailer for the MMO; World Of Tanks. This two minute trailer took director Steven Ilous across the Atlantic to Imagination Studios, where 60 artists worked for 60 days to create this CG extravaganza. The result – a photorealistic trailer for the game that holds the Guinness World Record for the “Most Players Online Simultaneously on one MMO Server”.
This was my second collaboration with Steven, and a return back to the world of pure CGI, with its own set of challenges. The raw images that Steven brought back with him had a real energy to them, but as great as they looked, Steven was wise enough to know that clean renderered images are simply the beginning of the process, not the end.
Since this was Steven’s first time directing tanks, he needed to rely on certain tricks to convey a sense of scale. Steven; “To prevent consumer confusion, we couldn’t use humans! We tried to offset that by incorporating human artifacts that would subconsciously establish a familiar sense of scale”. You can see this clearly in the shot of a baby doll being crushed by a tank. “I wasn’t quite sure how I would go about applying real world choices to these massive, cumbersome machines. They have a tendency to miniaturize the sets.”
The good news is that colour can help a great deal in this situation. For example, by reducing the contrast and focus on foreground objects, you can kill their volume, and thus reduce the effects of miniaturization. This is one of the tricks we also use in stereoscopic photography and conversion, and it’s amazing how these two simple adjustments can skew the monocular depth cues enough to create a false sense of scale and perspective. We used this technique on the sand dunes in the desert scenes, as well as certain shots in the streets of Berlin.
To recreate the final days of the allies charging through the streets of Berlin, Steven went into incredible detail: he called a photographer friend in Berlin and asked him to take pictures of the cobblestones as a reference for these scenes. He worked very closely with the Wargaming.net team, who were incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. Ultimately this attention to detail paid off in the colour session, because the images we were starting with had subtle details and realistic textures.
For most Berlin shots, I used contrast and density to establish a base grade, which instantly revealed a magenta tint in most shots. Pushing green into the blacks and mid tones helped, but also reduced the intensity of the flames, which I didn’t want. To fix this, I created a secondary correction for the flames, dialing back some of the original warmth. Even with this addition though, the flames felt anaemic.
At this point we started experimenting with blending modes. Just like with Photoshop or any other compositing application, the Quantel Pablo allows you to freely combine the colour tools with paint and compositing, and that includes blending modes. We composited the colour corrected shot over itself and then played with modes like Screen and Overlay. Screen worked particularly well, bringing out the flames nicely. However, I wanted the effect to spare the shadows, so I used a simple luminance key and opacity slider to ‘mix in’ just the right amount of vibrance and contrast.
This is one thing I love about working with a system that allows you to ‘composite with colour’: what would normally take many layers of colour to achieve on a pure colour grading system can simply be achieved using a blending mode and an opacity slider in the Pablo!
Diffusion vs. Sharpening
Many times with CG there is a requirement to use diffusion filters to even out some of the sharpness you get with certain renderers. However, for World Of Tanks we wanted to retain a lot of the sharpness for the tanks themselves. The answer was an unusual approach: we diffused many of the shots using some light grain, before colouring them and finally selectively sharpening them to bring back some of the ‘crispness’. The effect has an almost documentary-like feel to it, and works particularly well with the exteriors.
The bridge above shows this effect. The diffusion combines nicely with all the particle FX, adding to the overcast and dull sky. Where there is contrast though, the ‘unsharp mask’ filter brings out the detail, giving the tanks a real presence and overall a more modern look to the piece.
You can check out more stunning visuals by visiting the Gallery.
For more examples of Steven’s work, visit his website by following this link.
Noel Gallagher finds himself surrounded by an eclectic cast in his debut solo single “The Death Of You And Me” from the album “High Flying Birds”. Directed by Mike Bruce and lensed by cinematographer Salvador Lleo, this music video was shot out in the desert at Club Ed, Lancaster, CA. Famous for movies like Rob Zombie’s recent “The Devil’s Rejects”, the Last Chance Cafe serves as the perfect setting for a stuck-in-a-rut waitress longing for something better than her pitiful existence serving the local bizarre folk.
Salvador used the Red Epic with Zeiss T2.1 lenses for this shoot. The 5K camera is capable of capturing some striking images, and the compact size makes it ideal for use with Salvador’s latest toy – a 28 foot telescopic Technochrane. “This is the perfect tool for a new generation of lightweight cameras. It is light, steady, fast and programmable, and can be operated by a single person.”
For all the exteriors, Salvador fought hard to keep the exposure from running away under a beating sun. For the diner scenes, he resorted to a technique he refers to as ‘invisible lighting’, using soft fill light to keep the shadows from falling off too much. Since he was dealing with daylight for both locations, Salvador rated the camera at 5600K. He used an ISO of 500 for both setups.
Last Chance Cafe
For this music video I created two distinct looks: a sombre grade for the diner interior with its scary characters, versus a Van Dyke-inspired look for the exteriors as the travelling troupe passes through. In both instances I added some Grain to soften some of the sharpness you sometimes get from digital cinematography.
The diner itself had some great key light streaming through the shutters, but because these scenes were shot during midday, the overall images were very hot – the direct opposite of what I was trying to achieve! The ‘fix’ was to bring down the gain and reduce the overall contrast, while raising the gamma a little to compensate. Crashing down the pedestal by 20% kept the right amount of snap in the image. I also added some blue in the highlights to help pull back some of the red in the booths.
Another thing I used to accentuate the mood was heavy off-centre vignettes. These are great for burning off frame edges or for spotlighting people. Usually I’ll bring down the gamma but raise the gain in order to keep some highlights poking through. Varying their position and keeping the edges soft keeps them hidden and unobtrusive.
The one character I wanted to stand out from this moody backdrop was the brooding waitress. Her longing for a better life separates her from the rest of the diner’s denizens, and so I wanted to make this distinction by separating her from the background. This is where good casting and wardrobe are so important in the storytelling process, and ultimately makes the colourist’s life so much easier.
The two areas I focused on were her skin tones and her blue dress. The skin tones I kept bright and healthy by keying back to the ‘richer’ base layer, which didn’t have the low contrast treatment. This was a little tricky since there was so much red in the diner, so muting the red walls and the booths in advance helped. I also had to rely on some loose roto-splines to further qualify her face.
The blue dress was relatively easy to separate. However, instead of just applying saturation – which often knocks the selected area out of balance and introduces noise – I cranked up the contrast using an S-curve and then brought down the density a little. This approach worked particularly well once the waitress emerges from the pool all wet. The intense blue ties up with one of the Gypsies’ blue shoes, creating colour continuity between the two scenes.
Van Dyke Processing
The outside world brings with it the promise of something better in the form of a travelling gypsy troupe. For these exteriors, Mike wanted a very stylised, almost sepia feel. I liked the idea, and thought it could work well with the earthen tones in the caravan and the mules, as well as the gypsies’ clothes. I decided to try out a technique I had toyed with to replicate the rich browns found in an early printing process known as Van Dyke. This would create an almost ‘rusty’ feel with deep browns and red-tinted skies.
For this special treatment I turned to Curves. Combined with saturation, there is very little that can’t be achieved using these controls. After balancing the image with a base grade and bringing down the saturation, I started adjusting the individual RGB curves to get my Van Dyke look. To create the deep browns, I brought down the black points for both the green and blue curves, using the latter to control how much brown I wanted to mix into the shadows. For the red curve I ended up creating five points: points two and four were brought down while point three was brought up. In the end the red curve looked like a Double-S. This alternating approach keeps the reds in check, and ultimately creates a more interesting image. The blue and green curves were used to control the overall contrast.
Finally, to give the troupe an extra whimsical dimension, I qualified the red shirts, instruments and the blue shoes and ramped up the saturation. As the gypsies move closer towards us, our eye catches more and more flashes of colour, hinting at the life and excitement they bring to this otherwise dull world.
You can check out more stills from “The Death Of You And Me”, visit the Gallery.
Salvador Lleo’s personal website can be found here.
Stay tuned for the next installment. Coming soon…
Shot and directed by photographer Tony Kelly, this latest commercial for American Apparel pits the superb talents of two break dancers – Lil Demon and Jalen – against each other in this high-rise dance off.
Tony was searching YouTube one day for break dancers and came across these two world champions separately. He had the idea of bringing them together for the first time, and having them battle it out against a glamorous backdrop, instead of the grimy surroundings usually associated with the breakdancing scene. The commercial is shot on the rooftop of American Apparel’s HQ in downtown LA to showcase the company’s new kid collection.
For this shoot, Tony paired a Red One camera (MX sensor) with an Angenieux 25-250 zoom lens. The entire commercial was shot at 120 fps for a slow motion effect that is cut to classical music – a strong contrast to the breakdance performances. Tony wanted a colourful, youthful look with glowing, bright faces full of life.
A Softer Approach
This was easier said than done. Since it was overcast on the day of the shoot, only the dancers in the foreground had any colour in them; the background was almost completely grey. In this situation, it becomes very difficult to pull an accurate key because you are missing the Hue component for an HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance) qualification. A different approach is needed.
I began by adding contrast and increasing saturation a little. You need to be careful though: cranking up the saturation in a desaturated image will introduce noise – the opposite of the clean, youthful look we a going for. Instead, I decided to pull a couple of ‘loose’ keys on the background buildings and then the skyline, adding some warmth in the former and some blue to the latter, creating an almost duotone effect. Because we are introducing colour instead of saturating what is already there, we end up with crisper, more uniform colours. For the sky I further restricted my qualification with a feathered ellipse, essentially graduating the amount the blue added. Now with a much ‘cleaner’ set of colours I applied overall saturation before bringing out the faces a little that were now buried in the contrast.
This approach can work when you are going for a more ‘fluid’ look, where you really don’t care about colours spilling into each other. The pastel feel of the background helps the break dancers in the foreground stand out. Overall, the client was thrilled with the way we managed to transform the overcast photography into the colorful images you can see in the Gallery.
You can see the full commercial on Vimeo.
You can see more of Tony Kelly’s amazing work here.
Cruising down the Sunset Strip in a Rock-N-Roll speedboat are punk band We The Kings. This music video was shot by prolific cinematographer Salvador Lleo over the course of two gloomy days in LA.
For this music video, Salvador used no less than three types of cameras – a vanilla Red One, an upgraded Red One and two Canons, a 5D and 7D. In terms of lenses, Salvador shot the band on the boat using anamorphic lenses, before switching to spherical lenses for the night party scene. The Canons were used for pick-ups.
When you think of anamorphic lenses, Panavision’s Primos or Hawk lenses usually come to mind. How about a set of High Speed 1.4 Lomo Anamorphic lenses, with markings in metres instead of feet? Enough said. “American ACs really love them”, Salvador jokes. He decided to go anamorphic for the exteriors out of practicality – two words you usually don’t find in the same sentence. “They work out great for a small boat crammed full of people!” Indeed.
It figures that in a city known for its perpetual sunlight, both days of the shoot were completely overcast, but then again everyone round here knows that ‘June Gloom’ really starts in May. Nevertheless, the pictures needed to feel sun-drenched and pop!
For all the ‘speedboat driving’ scenes, I started my base grade by adjusting contrast and density, slightly clipping the boat and keeping it white, then bumping the saturation to see where the colours fell. Saturating an image quickly exposes its temperature, and you can use this information as a guide to achieving your look with the joyballs. In my case I wanted hot and sunny, so I pushed a lot of yellow into the blacks and red into the mid tones, which turned the skin tones golden and gave the trees some life. I then added blue in the gain to counter some of the red contamination I was getting in the road. Because I had clipped the boat with my contrast, I didn’t have to worry about my whites going blue – a risky technique that can work with some careful planning.
To erase any remnants of an overcast day, I qualified the sky and added some blue, and then saturated the greens and the blues to further bring out the trees and the sky. I then qualified the model’s bikini and warmed it up to match her skin tones. Overall, a straight-forward look that instantly transforms the grey raw images into sunny LA, June Gloom or not!
Salvador chased the speedboat from the streets of Culver City to Downtown LA, up to Hollywood Boulevard and the Sunset Strip and all the way to the ocean, then back to Culver City for the Party scene. As he lost light, he switched from the anamorphic Lomos to the spherical Zeiss lenses, shooting wide open while bumping up the ISO from 320 to 800 (Red One MX) and 500 (Red One) to compensate for the critical low light.
For the ocean drive (above), I spent most of my time re-distributing the light. You can see from the Before image in the Gallery that the band are pretty dark, and overall the image lacks contrast. A quick application of an S-curve snaps the blacks and brings out the boat nicely, while a healthy dose of blue printer lights floods the image with ‘twilight’. A soft inside/outside vignette is used to burn off the left edge and bring out the band. Finally, a skin tone qualification brings back some warmth in the band’s faces.
To visit We The Kings official website, click here.
Salvador Lleo’s website can be found here.
Cinematographer Salvador Lleo shoots and directs this latest music video for KUDO. “This is guerilla-style shooting at it’s best – no permits, no lights, no crew!” Lleo jokes. For this one I had to pull out all the stops, charging through a multitude of looks that needed to move with this hip-hop artist’s style.
Salvador shot this music video all around Downtown LA – Broadway, bridges, tunnels, the LA river – as well as Hollywood Blvd. He used an upgraded Red One camera with the new MX sensor, combined with a standard set of Zeiss T2.1 lenses. The increased latitude in the blacks was instantly apparent as I started pushing in contrast using S-curves; the blacks remained rich despite being bossed around.
I crafted no less than seven looks for this music video, each covering a different location and mood. We wanted to combine ‘classic’ looks like Hi Con Black & White and Fashion-style photography with a more ‘urban’ approach for Hollywood Blvd, the bridge and tunnel scenes, as well as Poster effects for some sections (see below). Making it all ‘work’ together was a matter of keeping the contrast snappy and the images rich with detail.
The Hollywood Blvd. look was the most challenging. Initially I used lift and gain to add contrast, and then slightly cooled off the blacks. I picked up the highlights using a luminance key and stretched them almost to clipping point and added some blue. To push in the deep greens and blues into the blacks, I brought down the black point in my red and blue curves. This has the effect of ‘creeping in’ the colour (look in the shadows of the door) vs. oversaturating the image with green/blue.
To give the image some ‘bling’, I did two things: first I applied a soft vignette, rotating the hues at the same time. This was carefully planned, with the blues shifting to rich yellows, creating a warmer outside ring that counter balanced the cooler centre. Then I addded more yellow and saturation to the already golden skin tones and hot highlights, giving me a combination of cool and warm highlights. I call this ‘colour tension’, and this can be quite effective with the right application.
You can see the Befores and Afters in the Gallery.
A series of freeze frames are used to punctuate this music video. Salvador wanted something special for these. I came up with the idea of turning these frames into graphic-style posters, relying on a tool I unfortunately rarely get a chance to use: Colour Map.
At a basic level, Colour Map allows you to define a gradient in the Pablo Paintbox™ and apply it to an image, replacing the colours in the picture with the hues in the colour map, while retaining the relative luminance values. The effect is extreme, but provides a good starting point for our poster.
Once I had applied the colour map, I then brought back the artist’s skin tones by using an HSL qualifier constrained by a roto-spline. I desaturated the skin tones and pushed a lot of contrast into them. This makes him stand out from the background. To finish it all off, I went back to the Paintbox™ and painted some mattes, which I then used to dodge and burn the corners, creating some variety in the green and orange grads.
The final result shows the ‘poster effect’ I was after, and literally took just a few minutes to create in the colour timing session.
The ‘gas mask’ setup was also fun. Salvador shot this in an open door garage, draping a 20 x 20 unbleached muslin cloth to block out direct sunlight and diffuse KUDO’s edges. For these ‘moving posters’ I cranked up the contrast to whiteout most of the background. I then created a ‘wraparound’ glow effect by qualifying a luminance matte and then growing and blurring the matte, while increasing the gain. Finally, I saturated the blues and used an Unsharp Mask filter with customised settings to create a graphics style look.
KUDO’s Facebook site can be found here:
You can reach Salvador Lleo’s personal website here.
“What is the future of mobility?”
That is the question BMW poses in its four-part webisode series entitled “Wherever You Want To Go: Four Films About the Future of Mobility”. Influential academics, pioneers, and entrepreneurs stir the imagination with their unique visions of the past, present and future of technology, cities and transportation.
The four webisodes are directed by Kurt Mattila. Each episode has a running time of almost 6 mins, and focuses on a particular subject.
Activate The Future was shot on the Canon 5D, a regular in many of todays documentaries. As I have stated before, this lightweight camera offers compelling HD images at an unbeatable price. As the post production tools have improved over the past two years, we have seen the images coming out of this game-changing camera gradually improve. Practically, this means that the bottom end has improved to the point were we are able to capture subtle details without having to expose for the darker areas. You can see this in the image above, where Buzz Aldrin’s suit jacket still has a lot fine detail in the shadows.
Blending Film, VHS & HD
Many times with documentaries, the basic role of the colourist is to ‘even things out’. This is because the material can come from so many different sources: film archives, old TV VHS recordings, and then modern HD video and graphics. Making all of this feel cohesive relies on picking the right approach.
For all the 1970s flying car infomercials, I was dealing with badly deteriorated VHS tapes, with severe white balance problems, interlacing and sharpness issues. Colour balancing and then sharpening the shots made a dramatic difference. At the same time, I applied subtle blurs to the backgrounds in the graphics and models (above) to blend the surrounding shots better with the stock footage. Most times matching saturation and contrast is enough to bring the images closer.
Each other scene had its own treatment depending on the subject matter, and generally I tried to retain a lot of the mid tone in the image and keep the saturation up. With the right lenses, the Canon 5D already produces some very photographic images, so it was just a matter of giving each scene that little bit extra. For example, in the image below of Mike Musto, Editor-In-Chief of ridelust.com, I decided on a cooler look, a nod towards the steely blue BMW commercials we have all seen over the years. I used printer lights to add an overall blue tint, and then desaturated my blacks a touch. I then qualified the skin tones separately to bring back some of the warmth that I had lost. I finally saturated the blue jeans and the red brakes to give a little extra punch.
Working on mixed format jobs is always a challenge, especially documentaries. Filmmaker’s expectations of what a documentary should look like have changed, and with a job as high a profile as this, the clients were every bit as interested in ‘the look’ as they were in the narrative. As cameras continue to improve, those expectations slowly begin to align with what is possible under a constrained budget, and that’s where the colourist can really make a difference.
The award-winning ‘Dragonslayer’ tells the story of ‘Screech’, a lost kid falling in love in the suburbs of Fullerton, California. “[Dragonslayer] is a portrait of a new generation of kids from the rotting suburbs of inland California, and a celebration of what makes them so unique” comments Tristan Patterson, the director of the documentary.
Dragonslayer was lensed by Eric Koretz, and was my second collaboration with this Cinematographer. The documentary was filmed off and on over the course of a year and a half.
Most times documentaries can pose a challenge for a colourist; the very nature of these narratives usually leads to compromised images, hastily filmed in order to ‘capture the moment’. However, I found that with Dragonslayer, this wasn’t your typical documentary!
Eric used the Canon 5D Mk2 as his primary camera outfitted with a variety of lenses: the Canon L series 24-70 and 70-200 zoom lenses, a must in the run and gun world of docs, as well as an 85 T1.2 for all the low light night stuff. When time permitted, a set of Zeiss ZF 21, 35, 50 and 100 lenses were used. The superior sharpness and optical quality offset the inconvenience of using the primes.
Dragonslayer differs from many other skateboarder movies I’ve seen in that it is shot with a more filmic aesthetic, both in terms of the framing and the pace; crazy wide-angle lenses and crash zooms are out, replaced with a more sensitive approach that feels fresh and less pretentious. The colour choices reflect this, and I worked hard to bring out what was already there, striking a balance between the rawness of the ‘negative’ whilst striving for cohesiveness and uniformity. For a colourist there is something very satisfying about the fact that the audience will never see what the ‘befores and afters’ looked like!
The filmmakers also gave Screech a Kodak Zi8 to record his own stunts with. The camera is capable of capturing HD @ 720p, but in one of the those ‘fortunate’ accident moments, Screech flipped the switch to record standard definition!
Instead of fighting the ‘compromised’ images or trying to find a way to ‘fix’ them, I accentuated them further by pumping a lot of saturation in the blues and greens while keeping the skin tones ‘healthy’. One thing I didn’t want to do was stretch the contrast like crazy in order to bury the noise. Instead, I floated the blacks a little and pushed in some grain to hide some of the more offensive noise. The vibrant look goes with Screech’s ‘elevated’ state as he skateboards his way through life. And let’s just say that the use of recreational drugs are rampant in this movie!
Another scene we had a little fun with was the Tattoo Parlour. We really wanted to accentuate the intricate tattoos on display, as well as the vibrant colours bouncing off the walls and the posters. Compared with the natural and softer palette of the rest of the documentary, we wanted this to feel more grungy, more raw. I achieved this by pushing a good amount of cyan in the blacks, and offsetting the coolness with yellow in the mid tones. I then punched the oranges and the reds but protected the skin tones so that they wouldn’t go nuclear! Saturation can be a powerful tool for storytelling, but you need to know where to use it; without being selective you can end up with an image that looks like it’s made of candy!
‘Dragonslayer’ has been an award magnet ever since it hit the festival scene. It recently won the Best International Documentary at the hotDOCS Canadian International Documentary Festival. That’s in addition to the two awards it won at SXSW – Grand Jury Prize For Documentary Feature and Best Cinematography.
To stay up to date with Eric Koretz’s latest work, visit his website.
My collaboration with Cinematographer Salvador Lleo continues with Tsuyako, a story set in postwar Japan, where a factory worker and mother must decide between duty and love, her family and freedom. The short was directed by Mitsuyo Miyazaki in her home town back in Japan.
The five and a half day shoot was a gruelling one, with 14 hours of footage for a running time of 27 minutes. Capturing that amount of footage in that short amount of time also meant that compromises had to be made, specifically with the lighting setups of each scene. Welcome to the world of Indy filmmaking!
The images that Salvador has captured for Tsuyako do justice to the textures and the nuances that come from hundreds of years of aging. This is the kind of stuff that is hard to reproduce on a soundstage, and from the images below you can see why. The weathered wood, the scratched steel, the dirt and grime and hard graft are all on display. For Tsuyako, Salvador used a set of standard speed Zeiss lenses T2.1, along with his Red One camera. He felt that “the low contrast and soft quality of the glass helps to round off the ‘digital edge’ of a super high resolution digital camera such as the Red One”. And he’s right, because in the absence of film stocks, you need to make the glass work harder in order to create the images that you want. Salvador’s philosophy is that “the pairing of old and new was optimal for creating a more organic and filmic image that is in tune with the period piece”.
The factory scenes were a lot of fun to colour time, specifically because of the way that Salvador used fluorescent lighting: as a fill light to his warmer tungsten key light. The secret to working with any fluorescent source from a colour timing perspective is avoiding clipping. Although this may sound like common sense, it is even more profound when using this kind of light source, because fluorescents tend to leave a horrible green ‘residue’ around the clipped areas vs. daylight or tungsten. Keep the whites legal though and you will get some strong yellow/green seeping through the image that will add body to any industrial-type setting.
Tsuyako recently won the Future Filmmaker Award at the 2011 Palm Spring International Shortfest. You can read about the awards in the festival press release here, as well as in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety.
For more stills from the movie, visit the Gallery.
You can reach Salvador Lleo’s personal website here.
Australian hard rock band Airbourne give it everything they have in this music video, which pits two unlikely contestants against each other.
The music video was shot by Salvador Lleo in Los Angeles on a Red One MX camera using Zeiss T2.1 lenses. Four main setups – the band’s performance, the two contrasting training scenes and the final boxing match – were given a distinct look.
Hot and Cold
Every good boxing match is preceded by training scenes of the boxers preparing for the fight. To accentuate the different training styles and psychology of the fighters, we decided on two contrasting looks: a warmer, more natural look for ‘Average Joe’ Washowsky, while going for an uninviting, fluorescent-lit feel for Rich ‘The Machine’ Ballard. It’s always easier to push an image towards a specific look when it’s already leaning in that direction.
For the warmer scenes, I used the joyballs to push some red in the shadows and yellow in the mid tones. This gave the image an overall warm feel but kept the highlights clean. I then used a luminance map to select just the blacks, pulling down the gamma and desaturating them. I usually try not to use the lift when targeting just the blacks because I like to retain some of the subtle details in the shadows. Finally, any greens or blues were neutralised by bringing down the saturation and density.
For the cooler look, I started off by reducing the gamma and snapping the highlights to add contrast. Whenever you have fluorescent lighting in a scene, usually just adding contrast will bring out some of that green in the image. I went further by pushing cyan in the gain, but cooling off an image in this way can inadvertently tint highlights in an unnatural way. The way I fixed this was by using a hicon to key back to the base layer and recover some of the original colour.
Both of these treatments worked very well on most of the shots, with very few tweaks needed to even them out.
A Guinness Moment
The climax of this music video is the boxing match between ‘Average Joe’ and ‘The Machine’. The boxing ring was built on a stage, and lit with nine 6K skylights using 4×8 bounce cards for fill light. This gave the images a very cinematic feel.
Both Salvador and the Director initially wanted a black and white look reminiscent of Raging Bull. I’m a big lover of Black and White photography, but felt that it would feel pretentious for this application. However, I understood the desire for a classic style, and suggested a ‘weathered’ look along the lines of those UK Guinness commercials from the nineties. Going more in this direction would give us the same ‘classic’ feel, without having to get rid of all the colour!
I used a different technique for this one. The idea came from some cross-processing experiments I was trying out a few weeks earlier using the Curves in PhotoForge2 – a cool little iPad app.
After desaturating the overall image, I brought down the density to hide a lot of the spectators in the background and bring out the boxer. I then used RGB curves to push contrast into the Red and Green channels, while at the same time applying an inverse contrast curve to the Blue channel. This has the effect of cooling off the low to mid range, while keeping the highlights (skin tones) unaffected. Curves are great in that you can easily slide the points along the scale, until you literally ‘mix’ in the colour you want. The end result is almost a monochromatic version of the original image. However, unlike a black and white treatment, this look retains a lot of the subtleties of the original colour.
After establishing the look, it’s down to finessing; I used an asymmetrical shape to sink the boxer further into the darkness, animating it off as he lunges forward. I also then decided to bleed back some of the original blue and red from the fighters’ boxing gloves, adding a little spice to the ‘tinted’ look. You can see some examples of this in the Gallery.
You can watch the HD version of “Bottom Of The Well” on YouTube.
It’s hard to believe that the sweeping fields in The Smell Of Success are nothing more than soundstages at Melody Ranch Studios in Santa Clarita! Expertly lensed by David Mullen, ASC, the story is about a manure salesman in 1960s heartland America, and even though the gags are overdone at times, the images ooze quality. Pun intended ;)
Timing this movie was challenging, especially because the DP was not available during the DI. As a starting point David had sent me a handful of stills, which evoked the overall ‘feel’ of the picture. A further challenge was the fact that the movie had already gone through a lengthy preview process, which left it with a lifeless sepia look and little colour separation. This was far from the painterly look both the DP and the Production Design department had planned for.
After untangling what had already been done, I started with a clean slate. This movie was shot on the Red One camera long before the upgraded MX sensor became available, and as such before Red’s FLUT colour science offerings. I picked RedLog for my gamma curve, giving me maximum detail in the highlights. The Zeiss Ultra Primes and Angenieux zooms David used gave me crisp images with excellent definition – a good starting point.
I started by discovering what was in the image, playing mostly with contrast and density and pulling out all the nuances that I knew existed in the ‘negative’; I was right – David had captured some remarkable, ‘filmic’ images, tempering the sharpness of digital cinematography with Classic Soft Blacks and Smoque filters. Through his lighting he created a soft overhead skylight for the outdoor farm scenes, using a combination of daylight Kinos, HMI lighting balloons or Lumapanels, the effects of which can be seen in the ‘Midday’ and ‘Afternoon’ images below.
Even though the gorgeous images had a well designed earthen palette, I still felt that some subtle accents could be used to signify the different times of day.
Seeing the same colour tint over the course of an entire movie soon nulls the effect, and so to keep the eye ‘entertained’ I experimented by adding graduated pinks into the dramatic skies earlier on in the day. This combined well with the hard sunlight being simulated by the 18K HMI. I qualified the clouds and pulled back on the luminance so that I wouldn’t tint the brightest parts. I then brought the gamma down to expose a little more detail in the clouds, and offset the colour by adding a hint of orange. This created a nice transition between the horizon and the clouds.
For later on in the day, I followed the same technique but used less pink. I also wanted to make the clouds feel heavy, almost like they’re engulfing the foreground. I turned to S-curves for this, giving me contrast in the ‘body’ of the clouds while snapping the highlights and deepening the blacks. At times the clouds almost look like they’re touching the ground!
For the afternoon I replaced the pink with orange, especially in the mids and the blacks, giving the ground a sweltering and humid feel. This worked well with David’s afternoon setup – a tungsten 12-light HPL MaxiBrute to simulate the warmer sunlight late in the day. By the time we reach ‘golden hour’, the sky is on fire, with the dipping sun blasting through the trees. For this I actually composited two identical layers over each other, blew out the base layer and blurred the whites. I then used a Soft Light blending mode on the top layer, which I also keyed through to reveal the base. The blending mode provides a nice transition between the two layers.
The whole treatment is in keeping with the whimsical nature of the story, and despite the added ‘texture’, I feel remains true to the cinematography.
I also had a little fun with the ‘high-on-mushrooms’ night scene, where I played with a stylized violet-blue wash and stark contrast. I also kept the blacks a little cooler than I normally would. This is one example of where you can use saturation to really fill in an image in the absence of mid tones. Overall, the movie has a very painterly quality.
For more stills from The Smell Of Success, click here.
To see more of David Mullen’s work, check out his website.
Do It is a short directed by Steve Petersen, Co-founder and Creative Director at Big Machine Design. This was Steve’s first foray into the medium of filmmaking, and an attempt to prove that he could tell a story in a format longer than the 30 second TV spots he has mastered over the years.
The story is about Bernie, a tormented pharmacy clerk who has delusions of putting society right by killing the current ineffective mayor and replacing him with another. Tormented by his demons and his inability to act, Bernie’s’ vivid fantasies get him into trouble more than once, and prove to him that ultimately the only way to fix the problem is to come up with a plan and just Do It!
Coming from the graphic design world, Steve is a very visual director, and for Do It he incorporated many graphic elements into his movie: graffiti splattering across the walls as Bernie wanders the streets at night, depicting his inner thoughts, as well as hand drawn title cards that break up each act. Steve also wanted this ‘superhero comic style’ to be present in all the live action sequences. For example, Bernie tries to overcome his loneliness and low self-esteem by fantasizing about being superhuman. In this altered state he becomes the hero, beating up the bad guys and saving the day. When he comes down from his ‘high’, we are back in his dreary world. Steve wanted to match the framing and the pace of each scene with recognisable colour cues to signify the state Bernie was in, augmenting the intense graphical style.
The challenge was to balance the intense look Steve wanted with some ‘breather’ scenes that would give the audience time to reset their eyes! If everything is super intense all the time, the effect quickly wears off. Luckily, the story provided opportunities for a more mellow palette in some scenes, particularly the ones where Bernie is going about his drab and mediocre life.
For all the pharmacy scenes, I decided to use a muted and cooler palette. I started off by balancing out the blacks and highlights, and then dialing down the saturation by 20%, which is a substantial amount on a well exposed image. I also added a slight blue tint to the mid tones. This gave me a good base and starting point.
All the bottles on the shelves and Bernie’s blue uniform still felt very vivid, so I qualified both the blues and greens and brought those down separately. I left the reds where they were because I didn’t want to desaturate the skin tones further.
To give the image a little bit of ‘snap’, I used a luminance key to select the highlights and then brought up the gain, which added contrast to Bernie’s face. I also let the highlights burn off a little, pulling the eye further away from Bernie’s blue uniform that still felt a little pronounced. Bringing the saturation down further would have made it look monochromatic.
For the images below, which I fondly referred to as the ‘Abbey Road’ setup, I started off by stretching the image to the point where my brightest areas (car on the right) were clipping. When I’m going for a high contrast look, I usually try to either crush the blacks or blow out the highlights, rarely doing both. This avoids the much dreaded ‘video look’. I then warmed up the highlights, knowing that I’d get red ‘contamination’ in the sky, but I would take care of that later on. For my blacks I went more towards green; the combination of red highlights and green blacks pushes orange into the mid tones, picking up the warmth in the buildings and the tarmac.
Then I treated all the primaries separately, blasting saturation in the blues and to a lesser extent the greens, while reducing the saturation in a narrow band of reds. This gave me rich red highlights from my base correction, without the excessive tint in the skin tones. I then burned off the corners with a strong vignette, while qualifying the sky inside of the shape and boosting the gain a little. This created a halo effect coming from behind the skyscrapers in the background. I also then took out the red I had introduced in my base correction.
Finally I did an overall grade, pulling the highlights and mid tones towards a cooler palette, and again boosting overall saturation. I almost always do a grade on top of all my other corrections, largely because this has the effect of rolling all the colours into one unified look.
You can visit the Do It gallery by using the following link.
S. Darko was photographed by Marvin V. Rush, ASC, and takes place 7 years after the tragic death of Donnie Darko. The story follows his youngest sister, Samantha, who has run away from home, unable to deal with the loss of her brother. The old adage of “cameras don’t shoot movies, DPs do” certainly rings true with this movie. Shot with an early build of the Red One camera, Marvin’s masterful cinematography adds credibility to this bizarre ‘sequel’ of a cult classic.
For S. Darko, Marvin was working with a constrained budget. This meant that in order to be able to afford such goodies as a techno crane, he needed to make compromises, and this came in the selection of older and cheaper Zeiss Super Speed lenses. Despite having less sophisticated coatings and not being as sharp compared to modern ones, older lenses are finding a new lease of life being paired with new digital cameras. “Resolution is only one aspect of production. If you a photographing a woman then you don’t necessarily want more resolution”, he quips.
Knowing Your Tools
The majority of filming occurred 50 miles west of Salt Lake City, Utah in the late spring of 2008. This is evident in the dramatic mountain ranges and brilliant clouds floating overhead. “Clouds contain a tremendous range of exposure. If you want to capture all of that detail, you have to bring your exposure down and expose for the brightest part of the cloud”, and thus knowing the ‘native’ ASA of the camera is essential. For the Red One Mysterium sensor, almost all DPs I’ve worked with agree on an ASA of 320 for daylight and 200 for tungsten. Understanding the limits of the capture device is essential. “Doing an accurate latitude test is imperative. What are the blackest blacks and the whitest whites”, Marvin asks rhetorically.
This is a cinematographer who knows his tools. When the gorgeous images rolled into the DI suite, I was pleasantly surprised by just how much detail there was in the clouds, but not at the expense of the faces. I felt that Marvin had captured the maximum amount of latitude the camera was capable of. This allowed me to to really isolate and saturate the sky while bringing out the clouds at the same time. A separate qualification on the faces was used to lift them out the shadows.
Just as you’d expect with a name like S. Darko, this movie has an oxymoron or two: looming mountain ranges frame rusty graveyards and rinky dinky motels in the middle of nowhere. The Production Design team must have had a hell of a time filling every nook and cranny with the million and one chachkas hanging from the walls. When appropriate, I pushed the colours a little further, made the landscapes a little bolder, and turned those cheap motels a little rustier. There’s a fair amount of folklore strewn throughout this tale, and each scene required a slightly different ‘treatment’ in order to bring out the photography.
The three images below show such a treatment. In the first picture, the RedLog file has the usual low contrast and desaturated look, but the colour separation and strong shadows are still evident. The second picture shows the effects of the LUT and a base grade. Note that the overall temperature of the scene feels cool, and in this instance the RAW file was debayered using 5600K (daylight) and 320ASA. This is how the camera was rated for this scene, and provides a good starting point: the colours feel ‘natural’, with clean blacks/whites and good colour separation. However, this scene takes place much later on in the day, and so I wanted to add a ‘rustier’ tint to it. I did this by adding a good amount of mid brown to the blacks and red to the highlights, but left the mid tones alone; this was to preserve all the subtle blues in the jeans and pamphlets, as well as the greens in the book keeper’s shirt. I finally brought down the shadows and removed some of the red tint from the blacks.
In addition to the Red One camera, Marvin used his own Sony EX1 for a very specific reason: time-lapse. The camera’s built-in intervalometer makes up for the fact that it’s a fixed lens camera, producing ‘spectacular’ HD images that cut well with the Red One footage. Marvin shot a time-lapse sequence of a motel in the middle of nowhere during the day with the intention of transitioning the shot into a Day-for-Night during the DI.
Achieving a good Day-for-Night effect is all about good planning. There are certain steps you need to follow in order to get a convincing result.
Usually I start off by bringing down the overall gain and saturation. You can also bring down the lift as well, as long as the blacks don’t get too ‘blocky’. Even though we’re trying to create a night look, we still want to retain the integrity of the image. If you can’t bring down the gain without turning the image into mush then you can pull a luminance key and bring the highlights down by themselves. If I use this approach, I always make sure to use a good amount of softness in the key to avoid any banding.
The next step is to start identifying problematic areas: long shadows indicating a setting sun, bright roads, distracting backgrounds (in this case the rock formations) – all of those need to be treated separately, either by qualifying them or by using custom shapes. Many times I tend to actually bring up the gain on foreground objects, while bringing down the lift and overall density to simulate reflecting moonlight. Sometimes, it also helps to use soft grads to effectively ‘burn off’ distracting areas. In the example above, I have a separate correction on the road, the motel, the cars, the sign and the rocks, as well as a grad on the top part of the frame.
Now with all that sorted, you can finally go in and tint the overall image blue, while further reducing both saturation and gamma. This global adjustment has a unifying effect on all the corrections below it, and is one of the reasons why I wait until this point to tint the image. The other reason is because I want to retain my colour separation as late as possible, retaining the green in the trees, the reds in the sign and the earthen colours of the rocks.
For more S. Darko stills, click here.
This is one of the prettiest pieces that I’ve ever worked on! Animator extraordinaire Jonathan Ostos Yaber combines stop motion animation with CG and matte paintings to bring to life the story of a Puppet Artist who chases his dream all the way to the big city, leaving behind what he loves for what he desires most.
There is a specific discipline when working with images that are already both vibrant and exceptional, quite often the case with stop motion and CG. The very richness of the images can also be the problem, and focussing the attention of the audience becomes the main task. For Sr. Alambre, I used many soft vignettes to create some ‘spot lighting’, and also blurs the foreground and the edges in some shots to simulate shallower depth of field.
As beautiful as these three images were to begin with, they all had their challenges. The first one felt flat and looked like a night scene lit up by a tungsten moon! I simulated some mixed lighting by pushing some blue in the shadows around the characters, but kept their skin tones warm to indicate the light reflecting off the canvas. Some soft vignetting also helps focus the eye. The second image is much more surreal, and therefore I augmented much of the pastel colours with some saturation in the mid tones while retaining cleaner highlights. The third image is all about drama, and shows an example of selective blurring to simulate a shallower depth of field. I also isolated Sr. Alambre using some qualifiers to lift him from the background, and snapped the contrast to create an almost Hi Con look.
Sr. Alambre is one of those shorts that’s a real labour of love. The thought and effort that’s gone into it is evident, and the story is relatable to any artist who’s struggling to make it big. It’s been an Official Selection in so many festivals the filmmakers have lost count!
Hybrid was my first opportunity to collaborate with John Leonetti, ASC, a great cinematographer and good friend! Looking at the images you’d never guess that half of this feature was shot in almost complete darkness, and with an early build of the Red One camera. John nailed the exposure, and gave us some great images to work with.
Hybrid was shot in the days before the MX upgrade to the Red One camera, a time when every DP was trying to get the most light onto the sensor. The lenses John picked for Hybrid were the Cooke S4s as well as the Angenieux Optimo zooms, both great lenses with very high optical qualities. The camera was rated at ISO 320.
Most of Hybrid takes place in a five-story car park. In the first half of the movie we cut between the various levels, including the office, the mechanics’ workshop and the ramps connecting each level. For these setups John combined different types of lighting: “I mixed kelvins in the practical lighting intentionally to give color separation. We mixed 3200k, incandescent with 5600, daylight and fluorescents which were cool white, blue and green.”
In the second part of the movie, a car crash that takes out the building transformer, emergency lights are triggered, and hence we called this setup ’emergency mode’. John and I decided that as we descended through the levels, the picture would get darker. This required planning, for example knowing how dark we could go on level 2 so that we still had a picture by the time we reached level 5! “You always need somewhere to go,” John would often tell me if he felt we were going too dark.
This setup meant that we ended up grading ‘hero’ shots when John was available, establishing a look for key moments in the story, and then filling in the shots around them when John had left for the day. Using this approach, we knew how dark we should be in each section before committing to grading the entire scene. You always want to use the time with the DP wisely, which is why this technique is quite common with DPs who have a busy schedule.
John is one of those DPs who really gets stuck into a project, colouring his own stills and laying them out to a Pink Floyd soundtrack! The stills were pulls from the original R3D files and coloured onset. He went further than most DPs in that he gave the stills a real punchy, saturated look. After talking about the movie, we definitely felt that we wanted to go for a strong ‘industrial’, gritty look, with rich cyans and blues creeping into the blacks, but not at the expense of the actors’ skin tones. We also wanted to bring out the ‘distressed’ look in the walls, the furniture and the cement floors.
A strong look doesn’t have to mean an overpowering look devoid of detail; I like to retain the subtleties from the original ‘negative’, and for this type of job I opted to use curves to establish a new ‘base’ instead of using the joyballs. Curves are a very powerful tool but can also be tricky, because unlike the joyballs that are compensating all three primaries at the same time (add red and you take away green/blue at the same time), curves are additive unless you manually compensate. However, this also makes them ideal for making sweeping changes to an image. For example, take the Blue → Blue curve, crash down the black point and you end up with golden blacks, just like that!
In the case of Hybrid, I played mostly with the Red → Red channel, bringing down the black point and then balancing that with the Green → Green channel to push my blacks and mids more towards blue. This is where it pays to know your colour wheel and your additive vs. subtractive way of colouring.
Now with a strongly biased base, anything you build on top will inherit those characteristics. This is when I will switch to the joyballs and master controls and add density and contrast, as well as push the mid tones to a warmer place. This teases apart the picture, giving you that colour separation that keeps the image interesting and ‘real’. I used this approach on most of the movie, except for the darkest scenes where I was trying to conserve as much of the picture as possible!
Dealing with Black
When the majority of your frame is made up of black, there is a tendency to really pull up the gain in an image to bring out anything that constitutes a picture. There are two problems with this: firstly, by pulling the highlights away from the blacks, you are exacerbating the noise level in the blacks, and that’s not a good thing. Secondly, if you push the gain hard enough your skin tones will start to ‘posterize’. Both of these are not good scenarios. What’s else can you do then?
The approach I use is a tiered one. I use the gamma to bring up whatever is visible in the picture up to a comfortable point, ie. before the noise becomes excessive. It’s important to set your pivot points so that the gamma has a minimal effect on your blacks, otherwise you’ll be lifting the noise! Then I’ll use a luminance map to select the brightest areas, and use the gain to pull out any remaining highlights.
It’s important to remember that the goal with these kinds of shots is not to create a perfectly distributed bell-shaped histogram, with lots of body and good highlights. We are merely trying to get a pleasant picture, and as long as the eye catches those highlights and a little bit of mid tone, you should be fine.
You can find more stills of Hybrid here.