The Challenge: To film and light for a 360 degree shot that was set at night and had to be shot in the bright sunlight of the daytime!
I always cringe a little when a Producer says ‘We have this shoot that needs to be set at night, what do you think about shooting Day For Night?’
My first thought is similar to when I get asked to shoot a commercial in ‘one single shot’ or ‘the suicide method’ as a Director friend of mine calls it – ‘oh bugger’!
I always think, why don’t we just shoot it at night..? I like lighting at night it gives you a chance to create something special… However, shooting at night is not aways practical especially when your scene takes place in the middle of the Arabian Desert.
On this occasion the Day for Night approach was probably the right idea.
The project was to shoot x2 commercials for Abu Dhabi Education Council. The first theme was centred around an Arabic man and the second an Arabic lady. They would be walking in the middle of the desert… yep, as the title suggests, at night surrounded by nothing other than sand dunes and stars! The camera would make a 360 circle around the person as he/ she is walking and then settle in a locked off position as they head off up a dune towards a pathway that in post would later be made out of stars…. Essentially, the message is ‘follow your dreams and make your own pathway through education’. Ok, sounds a little cheesy, but a fair message to the youth and a fun project so now just how to do it..?
That’s exactly what I thought… Take a look at it first and then I will run you through how I did it.
Lighting a vast area of the desert can be an expensive and an impractical thing to do. That’s why Eye Squad, the production company, sensibly wanted to keep the shoot to it’s simplest form and go for the day for night approach.
As you can see the commercial takes a slight fantasty feel and with that approach you can get away with a lot of creative freedom – which we like!
1) The first obstacle to approach was how to do the 360 degree move in the middle of the desert?
Steadycam was an considered, but in the end I decided to shoot it the old fashioned method – from a dolly with a 360 degree track. I’ll be honest, Steadycam availability was an issue, but also I like to be in control when I am shooting especially when it essentially is one main shot. Due to the shot being 360 degrees there would be no ‘behind camera’ as such and the idea of being stuck at a monitor some distance away behind a sand dune never excites me.
For the same reason, Hector Fernando, the Director, rode on the dolly with me and the extremely talented Focus Puller Toyota (one of the best I have ever worked with) pulled focus remotely from within the 360 track.
2) How was the track set?
With a lot of sweat! Building a track in the desert is never ideal let alone building a 360 degree track… The Grips probably felt like I did when I get asked to shoot day for night ‘oh bugger 360 in the dessert’ but as usual they did a fantastic job!
It took about 10 guys to carry all the wood necessary to lay the foundation and then carry the track and Panther dolly up the dunes – not an easy task! There was countless tracking boards, apples boxes, pags, wedges… It must have taken about 2 hours from start to finish, which is pretty quick considering the conditions and it needed to be 100% secure and level to endure a full days worth of filming and the weight of Hector and myself… Two dolly grips took it in turns to push whilst the actor walked through the centre of the track. Hector counted aloud to ensue both the camera and actors were in sync with position. It took a couple of takes to get the speed right on both parts then it was relatively simple… for us on the dolly anyway…
3) What Camera and why?
The Producer asked if we could shoot this on the Canon 5D MK II or Canon 1D IV and although I don’t mind admitting I am quite a fan of HDSLR, I pushed for the RED on this one. Hector the Director wanted to shoot a minimum of 50fps which the 5D MK II can not do. The Canon 1D IV can do comfortably, but it doesn’t hold anywhere near the resolution of RED. RED shoots RAW 3K 16:9 at 50fps (60fps max at 3K) and as there was a lot of post work to be done on this particular job and with the exposure latitude the RED camera has it seemed the most sensible choice.
4) Which frame rate and which lens?
Hector wanted a slowmo feel without being too over the top, so we opted to keep it simple and shoot at 50fps. As explained to achive this frame rate you have to drop to 3K (which is still incredibly high resolution), but does mean your lens size increases by about 1/3 due to the area of the chip that is used. I opted to shot on a 16mm Zeiss Ultra prime lens which at 3K essentially became about 21mm. Which was wide enough to do the job.
5) What Filters did I use?
When I have shot day for night in the past (on HD) I have used ‘day for night’ filters and to be honest they worked really well. This is Tiffens description of what they do:
The Cool Day for Night is based on the perception that moonlight is cool, therefore, bluish in color. To simulate a feeling of moonlight, a specific shade of lavender is used producing visual coolness while maintaining realistic flesh tones. In addition, since the ability to see details at night is diminished by lower light levels, a low contrast component is added to the filter.
Due to the fact that we were shooting RED and it shoots RAW you don’t really need to use this type of filter anymore, as you can adjust the colour temperature and contrast in post to suit the scene. After chatting to Tallen Chow the talented senior Flame Artist at Optix Post Production we decided it would be best to shoot it completely clean with nothing but straight ND filters to reduce the depth of field.
I shot at T4 which is a good stop to simulate a similar depth of field you would have at night and enough stop not to make the focus pull too tricky.
6) How was it lit?
As it was shot in the daytime I relied completely on natural light, the Sun is one serious source – especially in the desert on a cloudless day… Normally I would have used 12×12 frames with silver or white silk to bounce light back, but due to the fact the camera would make a 360 degree move I couldn’t have anything set up that would be in shot so instead I lined the floor with silver and white poly boards to bounce the light back up. Giving some fill to the actor and actress. Plus with the actresses black Abaya (local female Arabic dress) it gave a beautiful kick of light as she walked and the fabric swayed in the wind. A very Simple method!
7) What about the shadows?
The sun does cause shadows, but does the moon? Well if you watch many films that are shot at night they seem to think so… When the actress is walking up the dunes you see her shadow, to be honest quite a long shadow… This was because this shot was shot towards the end of the day. I purposely shot a static plate of the scene/dunes so shadows could have quite easily been taken out in post (if you have a few hours), but both the Director and client thought it added to the scene. Watching the cut version I do too! The lady’s shadow gives it some contrast and enhances the fantasy feel. Some people might say it’s wrong, but within filmmaking you have certain perameters of creative freedom. Would there really be a pathway made out of stars…!
Check this short behind the scenes video, which shows us filming the static shot as the actress walks up the dune, it also shows Marina, the make up artist, sitting next to the now redundent 360 track and talking on the phone to her Mum – who is in Italy I think…
The angle for this shot was completely cheated, due to location of dunes and the sun’s position. The more experienced I get the more and more I learn to cheat angles. I recently did a commercial where all the eye lines and backgrounds were cheated to get the best backgrounds – although usual practice this one was extreme and I nervously look forward to seeing it! As soon as I get a copy I’ll share it with DOP Blog.
8 ) Post Production
The dunes are all completely real but the sky’s colour has been changed and stars added in post, to help achieve this night time feel.
After the 360 shot it dissolves into a locked off shot of the actress walking up the dune. A post zoom was added which helps keep the momentum and energy of the commercial. That’s the great thing about shooting such high resolution like 3K is post zooms can simply and precisely be added. Everyone prefers to work on prime lenses when they can due to the quality of the optics and if a zoom is required later, it’s a simple thing to do.
Static clean plates were taken so Tallen the Flame artist could clean the sand if there were any unwanted foot prints from previous takes, which I think he did have to do when the actress walked in the wrong direction…
Overall it was a cool shoot and I think the day for night method worked really well. Although I’m not usually a big fan of this method, I would suggest it in a similar instance again as long as the production had the time and a decent post budget to work with a talented Flame artist. From a filming perspective I wouldn’t have really done much differently (which is a change) apart from ensured the Grips got to set the track much earlier in the morning to avoid having to carry tracking boards and the dolly up the dunes in the swealtering heat… Those guys are seriously tough! Shooting it at night would have been cool (literally), but a very big and expensive set up would have been needed to light the actress and the dunes to get a decent result.
The Director and Production company were very happy and the Client loved it so I guess that’s the main thing!
Any other questions just add a comment and i’ll get back to you.
If you are interested in more of my Filming Tip and Tricks then my books could be of interest: How To Become a Cameraman – Includes Filming on Location , Lighting for Film and TV and How To Beat the Competition