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 watch the entire music video on my Vimeo here, as well as more 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.
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.