Hello fellow filmmakers, sorry for the silence over the past year… I just got so busy with filming and traveling, but that’s no excuse as that’s what I should have been blogging about.
Anyway apologies over, I’m back with a plan to write more frequent, but shorter blogs.
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
My goodness it has been a krazy with a capital K time since my last post… I have been busy shooting a mixture of productions on a range of camera formats (no, not just pointing)…
From an MTV reality shoot ‘My Super Sweet’ (yes I have no shame) shot on Digi Beta – ‘Digi Beta!’ Yes, they do still sell the tape stock and yep I am keeping the old school alive!
To a project for Nokia featuring music performances shot on two HDSLR’s 5D MK II & 7D and finally some high end channel promos shot on a massively huge stage for a new sports channel, oh plus two very sweaty days of filming landmarks of Abu Dhabi in 50+ humidity, which was all shot on RED with the MX sensor woohooo!
Oh yer, I threw some tilt shift lenses in the mix, inspired by Vincent Laforet’s Photographic work!
Beautiful Photography, looks just like a toy town.
There will be a full interview with Vincent about his work with HDSLR’s on the blog in the next couple of weeks! Very Exciting!
Anyway, as promised THIS POST is about how I shot the Gulf Air (GA) commercial using the 5D MK II, so I should get on with it!
There is currently a Revolution in our industry and HDSLR (high definition single lens reflect) cameras are at the center of it!
Yep, the little camera that looks and feels like a stills camera, well is a stills camera… that has an incredible video function and due to this has muscled it’s way past all the big fellas and safely found a spot in our industry.
Some people think this is a good thing like DP Gale Tattersall who shot the Season 6 finale episode of ‘House’ on 5D MK II and Philip Bloom who has championed them from the get go…whilst others are not so keen…
This DP Versus Producer video is great:
I love these types of videos, really funny, I can’t help but chuckle like Beavis all the way through..!
HDSLR’s are not just replacing HDV Cameras like the EX3, but competing against big players like RED… Now, if you compare the stats, they do not compare! RED shoots 4/4.5K
The Canon 5D MK II records in H264 (normally a delivery format), but the shallow depth of field that can easily be achieved due to the full frame sensor and lenses available does make your footage look beautiful and that can not be denied.
It’s this filmic look that all of us are trying to simulate and that is one of the reasons Director Richard Topping and I chose to shoot on it for the 1min GA spot. Other reasons were so we could shoot time lapse in stills mode, keep our kit small and light weight as we moved around our location, Gulf Air’s hub Bahrain Airport, and the final reason it’s very cheap…
Top Tip #1
Record your time lapses in stills mode
You can shoot very high quality STILLS (not video) in RAW. These stills can then be edited together to make a sequence. Using this method dramatically cuts down on the amount of material recorded and thus data space. It is the traditional way to record time lapses and as such they will have a different feel to just sped up video.
Use a timer remote – Experiment taking different amount of frames per second over different durations.
Kitted up with x2 5D MK II, Canon 24-70mm & 70-200mm F2.8 lenses, a set of Nikon Carl Zeiss Primes and a cheap adapter ring, 2x Z-Finders, matte box, 4×4 straight ND’s, ND Grads and some screw on ND’s, 2x Vinten pro 5 tripods and the Canon stills remote we set off to shoot.
The 5D is a small and light weight kit compared to regular HD kit, which is cool, but two things I miss on the 5D MK II is that the camera does not have any peaking or zebra functions that most people who are used to shooting video would expect!
Using an expensive piece of plastic with a magnifier really helps judge focus and exposure, the best one I have found and used on this job is the Zacuto Z-finder.
As it was sooooo bright in Bahrain, you need to be able to view your LCD screen away from light, true you can put a black cloth over your head, but that can get a little hot and doesn’t allow you to look for any oncoming planes… The Z-Finder works as it provides you a magnified clear image of the LCD screen away from any stray light or reflection, which is a massive help when judging focus and exposure.
Top Tip #2
Use the Z-finder so you can clearly see your image
For Focus: Use the + button (on the right of the camera near the shutter button) it works as an expanded focus control, which means it zooms into your image to help you check focus.
For Exposure: Use the scale at the bottom of the frame to help find the correct exposure. If unsure very slightly under expose. As digital recording is all about 0’s and 1’s over exposed footage will record less/ no detail, slightly under exposed material can be graded up, although beware if too under exposed and ‘pulled up’ it will look very grainy.
The Gulf Air spot was initially meant to be 80% stills time lapse and 20% video, but Richard and I decided that it was imperative to shoot more video and change this percentage around, due to the nature of the airports activity. If I had known this at the start I might have pushed to shoot the 1min spot on RED like I did the profiles, but I am glad we didn’t as it was another opportunity to push and test the 5D to the max.
I am always keen to shoot as wide open as possible i.e F2.8, by doing this you can easily stitch yourself up as focusing becomes much harder (see previous post ‘Tough Focus‘) and for this part of the job I didn’t have a focus puller (even though it would have been good) I did not really need one as the camera was always static.
I love using focus creatively to draw the audiences attention to a specific area. To do this you need to be able to correctly expose your shot, adding ND (neutral density which is essentially sunglasses) will help you do this. If you are from a stills background you might be tempted to increase the shutter to get the F stop you want. With video this has negative effects on everyday normal speed motion and makes it look staccato like. If you watch the part of the commercial where two vehicles cross each other (approx 20 seconds in) you can see where I have done this… Personally, I wouldn’t have put it in the final edit, but being the DP and 98% of the time not around for the offline edit you have limited or no input, unless you make a special effort or notes for the Director.
Top Tip #3
Use Screw on Filters
If you do not have a matte box use screw on filters. These are cheap and do exactly the same job. You can even screw one on top of another. This way you will be able to reach the correct exposure and prevent increasing your shutter speed. For regular action, avoid increasing the shutter too much faster than double the frame rate, i.e. 25fps = shutter 1/50. Over 1/100 you will start to notice the staccato effect. High shutters are great for fast moving action or if you just want to generate an edgy atmosphere…
As I was using two 5D MK II cameras I set them up exactly the same. I reduced the Sharpness, Contrast and Saturation and enabled Highlight tone Priority in the menu. This helps keep details in your highlights.
Top Tip #4
Set the Camera Picture Profile
Reducing your Sharpness, Contrast and Saturation in the menu gives your footage a more flat RAW look. You then have more control in the grade to boost the material and achieve the look you want.
Due to the nature of the shoot I couldn’t light any of the interior locations and I think it really shows… For us DP’s it’s all about light. As the DP Vs Producer video illustrates there is a misconception about lighting for HDSLR Cameras. Many ill informed people believe you do not need to light, this is completely wrong! Firstly, there is a big difference between illumination and lighting, the later is about creating a look, feel and atmosphere where as illumination is literally what it says – ‘illuminating’ so you can see the image… Which can lead to boring flat looking images…
HDSLR cameras perform very well in bright conditions, as you can see from the shots of the airplanes, but in low light not so well. The images can very quickly become grainy, which isn’t ideal.
Overall, it’s all about how you use the camera whatever it is. Every camera can look good in the right conditions. It is a case of ensuring you have all your settings correct, sufficient and modeled light, and then what you shoot and how you shoot is of most importance!
What are your thoughts? Let DOP BLOG know!
If you want to hear from Vincent Laforet then make sure you subscribe to the DOP Blog and don’t miss his views on HDSLR filming and explanations on how he shot his films including the Reverie, the very first production shot on Canon 5D MK II…Coming Soon!
The Gulf Air Commercials were Produced by Nick Hamilton CNBC in conjunction with Alchemy Films Dubai
5D MK II from AMAZON USA
5D MK II from AMAZON UK
Bahrain was the location for five Gulf Air Commercials.
A Director friend of mine Richard Topping initially contacted me about the job. When he explained that four of the commercials were to be one single shot… and the fifth one made up of time lapse sequences, instantly I was intrigued.
This single shot concept (which always makes me a little edgy) was to start on a close up of a Gulf Air employees eye and then develop out to a mid shot. The shot had to sustain approx 28 seconds of the 30 second commercial, and the final product would consist of voice over from the employee about their personal experience working for Gulf Air with a flowing graphic that would later develop into the GA logo.
Sounds easy right! But as everyone knows, a commercial that relies entirely on one single shot is always far from easy… As in any commercial there are several considerations and apprehensions for the DOP. For this project the main one for me was not lighting, tracking or operating the camera, but the focus… Pulling focus from two inches away from a person’s eye to approx 7ft at a wide aperture (T2.8 that I wanted to shoot for aesthetic reasons) is one of the trickiest shots a focus puller will have to perform, especially when they have to repeat it take after take… I know you are probably thinking ‘Why? it sounds easy to me’… Well, the hard part is pulling from the macro close up of the eye to the Close Up (CU). When you are that close, the eyeball and the eye lash are a completely different focus and the movement and control on the follow focus has to be exact. If the talent is 1cm off their mark or even slightly sways the image will go soft.
As the whole commercial relies on this one shot and it is also going to be in slow motion, every single frame is under the ‘microscope’. See my Top Tip for Pulling Focus for this kind of shot at the end of this post.
The 4 commercials featuring the employees were always going to be shot digitally and after weighing up some options Richard and I decided to shoot on the RED camera, mainly due to it’s 2K resolution at 100fps and grading capability. For the time lapse commercial we decided the Canon 5D MK II would be the best option – I shot both real time time lapse and stills mode time lapse, as well as regular 25fps footage. The final edit ended up being mainly comprised of real time footage – You can view the 5D commercial at the bottom of this post – I think it looks really cool! If you want to know more about how the RED and 5D compare, subscribe to DOP BLOG as my next post will explain my view on each camera and look at the practicality of shooting on both.
We decided to shoot at 100fps to slow down the action and make the reactions from the employee/ talent more dramatic and defined. At a given cue point from the Director the employee would smile, this would later be worked with the VO for the Gulf Air tag line ‘Come smile with us’.
I asked my focus puller Glen Donaldson to research some lenses and test which would work best. He found a 24mm macro PL mount, with a close focus of 2 inches. When shooting 2K on the RED, the lens size increases and hence becomes longer, a 24mm becomes approx a 50mm. Many people call the 50mm the ‘work horse’, and people perceive it as the lens closest to the human eye. I’ll be honest…… The 50mm is never my first choice, as I prefer to work wide or tight. On this occasion I do think it was the right choice. Keeping this mid point lens size meant I could achieve a shallower depth of field and keep the background as defocused as possible and hopefully the audiences attention on the subject.
We shot 3 of the Gulf Air staff commercials interior and the one of the pilot exterior. As expected it took a few takes to get the focus perfect.
Due to the fact that the location was a working airport, we didn’t have complete control of the surroundings. For the Pilot we knew Gulf Air could arrange a static plane as a backdrop, but couldn’t rely on one passing in the back of frame due to direction of wind and air traffic control stipulations and their last minute landing decisions.
As with all filming, all of a sudden the perfect plane appeared in the background, I yelled ‘track in’ to the key grip, Glen focused up, the talent who has having a cup of tea quickly leapt back onto his marks and Richard called ‘ACTIOOONNN’ and we tracked back just in time to see the taxiing plane in the back drop… We did about another 20 takes after this with no more planes, but I guess they liked this one best.
TOP TIP FOR PULLING FOCUS:
My top tip for performing such a focus pull at a wide aperture from a macro close up to a wide shot when tracking is to have your focus puller lay down as many focus marks (along the length of the track) as possible. In this instance, our talent was static which really helped. The length of the track was almost 3m. I gave the talent hard precise marks (for their feet) using camera tape because even if they are 1cm off their mark, this would greatly affect focus. When you are so close in on a subject even them swaying slightly can be the difference between the eyeball being in focus and the eyelash!
It is imperative that the focus puller has precise focus marks on their follow focus that 100% match the focus marks laid out along the track.
To help keep the tracking and focus pulling in sync, the key grip timed his tracking with the focus marks (alongside the track). I also asked the 1st AD to count backwards from 7 (7 seconds was the duration of the shot in real time) – this way Glen the focus puller, and the key grip could keep both tracking and focus timings in sync, as much as possible…
Glen is from a film background and doesn’t like to work from a monitor. Instead he relies completely on his follow focus marks. For this type of shot I believe this mathematical method works the best. It’s not fail safe, but it certainly reduces the risk of chance… When you are shooting a commercial with clients on set and have to perform the same shot for multiple takes you can not reply on getting a ‘fluky’ take…
Good job everyone nailed their jobs! Sometimes a little bit of added pressure like an unexpected plane coming into frame and only one chance to get the shot is what everyone needs to be put them on top of their game!
Here’s the fifth commercial which was shot entirely on the Canon 5D MK II.
To find out how I shot this using the 5D make sure you SUBSCRIBE to the DOP Blog (click on subscribe button top right of this page) I will tell you all about it in the next post!
Let me know what you think of the commercials and whether you have any other top tips on pulling focus for this kind of shot? DOP BLOG wants to hear from you.
PS. Need any accessories for your HDSLR? Zacuto is a winner!
Amazon great deals on all electronics! Just bought a FLIP HD Camera and shocked how good it is… Oh No!