Believe me, being a journeyman DP shooting indie pictures is a hard way to make a living, but it does have its rewards. It can be much more than a job for hire if you are able to enjoy the contagious passion of your filmmaking collaborators. I generally end up getting more involved than just shooting, pulled in by the enthusiasm. This was certainly the case with 1000 to 1: The Cory Weissman Story. In addition to shooting and serving as co- producer, I even had a very small acting role. (Although not as famous as my older brother Jerry “Leave It to Beaver” Mathers, I did a fair amount of acting as a child and still have fun doing the occasional odd bits for my friends.)
As with many Indie pictures, the needs of 1000 to 1 were greater than the available resources, but I got by with a little help from my friends. I received assistance with everything from lensing, lighting, filters, (both lighting and camera), and power solutions. By way of thanking them and sharing with readers my practical experience using these technologies, (some for the first time on any feature,) I would like to tell you about the tools I employed on this movie. 1000 to 1 is the inspiring true story of Cory Weissman, a high school basketball star who scored 1,000 points in high school and was expected to be a standout athlete in College. Following a catastrophic stroke at the end of his freshman year, the film chronicles his comeback with the support of his friends, family, and entire college community. Even the opposing team gets in on the act with an amazing show of sportsmanship by helping Cory make the first and only point of his college career.
The movie was graced with the support of Gettysburg College and tremendous production value was afforded by the use of the stately campus where the real events took place, next to the historic battlefields in Gettysburg, PA. Key professionals were brought in from all over the country, and students also filled many support positions. I was hired onto the project by an old college buddy, Bob Burris, who for many years served as a show runner for TV hits such as “Growing Pains.” He wrote a great script and Produced along with former Disney Finance Executive, Bruce Gordon, while another television veteran, Michael Levine, was brought on to direct.
Even with a modest budget, the project attracted such talent as Beau Bridges (The Descendants), Jean Louisa Kelly (Mr. Holland’s Opus), Michael Lerner (Oscar nominated for Barton Fink), Cassi Thomson (Big Love), and in his first dramatic feature, a great young actor, David Henrie (Wizards of Waverly Place). I recommended my friends Richard Halsey, ACE, (Academy Award for Rocky) and his wife Colleen Halsey, ACE, to cut the picture, and the famous Latin Jazz Artist, Arturo Sandoval, is doing the score.
The ingredients to make a nice little picture were in place, but my humble equipment package was not quite up to the task. It seemed like a worthy project, so I didn’t hesitate to ask for help and the kind assistance of several manufacturers and vendors enabled me to have what I needed to get the job done right. I’ll start by telling you about the glass, but let me first explain why, as an owner of a large ensemble of quality lenses, I would need help. For better or worse, we all know RED has been a disruptive force in the field of Digital Cinematography, and I don’t mean this in a critical way. I think the company relishes in it, and much good has come of their influence in the market. The pace of innovation was accelerated throughout the industry and the added price competition resulted in professional level tools being made available to lots more filmmakers. But change is not always easy, and one challenge for me as a RED owner was when they expanded the image area necessary to cover and get the full quality out of the Epic camera. I had invested heavily in lenses as a hedge against the rapid pace of obsolescence in the electronic end of cameras. Glass seemed a safe investment until my old lenses started to vignette on my new Epic. I could keep shooting at the same resolution I had been enjoying with my RED One; after all, the MX sensor was cut from the same cloth, (or chip, as the case may be.) However, I like to get the most out of my gear, so I approached Angenieux, the manufacturer of my much beloved Optimo 17-80mm and encouraged them to find a solution.
As you might expect it took many, many months, but Angenieux did come up with an answer. They would create a new version of the 17-80mm by reengineering and changing out the rear elements to expand the coverage area. It would also expand the focal length to 19.5-94mm, and the stop would get just slightly slower, (from T2.2 to T2.6,) but the effective angle of view would remain the same as what I’ve grown accustomed to with the 17-80mm. This is a great range for the kind of work I do, wide enough for most masters, and just long enough to get a close-up. I will sometimes put it on the A-camera in the morning and not take it off all day, saving time by using it like a variable prime. A new lens would answer the call, but what about the Optimo I already owned. It turns out they figured out a way to retrofit the 17-80mm and convert it at the factory to the 19.5-94mm, a service they now offer to Optimo owners. Since I had been the one pestering them for so many months, it was agreed that mine would be the first to be converted and I shipped it back to the factory in France. Now I was sure that when the supremely dependable folks at Angenieux told me this was feasible, the quality would be excellent; they never turn out anything less. However, the time table was a bit more sketchy; it is a French company after all, and aside from speeding around Parisian traffic circles, the French don’t like to rush. So with this movie looming, and no firm delivery date set, I decided to explore other options.
I remembered from my DCS coverage at NAB that Chuck Lee had demoed a very interesting new concept, a 19-90mm Fujinon zoom called the Cabrio. It had the range I like, covered the expanded image circle of the Epic at 5K, but what was really unique about this lens was that it was designed to be hand-holdable. With this PL mount lens, Fujinon made it more practical and effective to use a large single sensor digital cinema camera in a handheld, shoulder- mount configuration, and the concept made a lot of sense to me. It may look like an ENG lens, yet it had cinema quality glass, in a compact form factor with an integrated zoom servo weighing only about 6 pounds, (2.7 kg.) This meant no more powering a separate motor which tend to slip and often need adjustment, and no more extra cables dangling in the way. In fact, the zoom, iris, and focus all have separate built in motors, which can be accessed from a panhandle control or wirelessly via a new remote being offered in cooperation with Preston Cinema Systems. I like the idea so much I ordered a Cabrio, but again, delivery time was tentative. It wouldn’t be the first movie I’ve shot entirely with primes, but I started to get a little nervous when it was down to about a week and a half before production on 1,000 to 1, and my two zoom lenses were still at opposite ends of the earth, (Japan and France.) I’m sure my friends at Angenieux and Fujinon started getting pretty tired of my daily calls, but it did pay off. With only two days before the start of production, both lenses arrived on location.
You might call it conspicuous consumption and it’s not a luxury I often get to experience on lower budget movies, having two fine zooms available in the same focal range, but I think I made good use of them both. I could keep the heavier Angenieux built up in Studio configuration on the A-camera, and have the Fujinon ready for handheld or Steadicam on the B-Camera. The Fujinon came in particularly handy shooting the opening title sequence which featured the lead actor David Henrie dribbling a basketball through the historic Gettysburg battlefields. These battlefields make up a national park protected by the U.S. Forest Service, who are very picky about the filming activity they allow. We were able to secure a daylong filming permit with strict limitations, one of which was that the total number of cast and crew would number no more than five, and any basketball bouncing could only happen on the narrow roads that ribbon the monuments. There would be no big crew for dolly tracks or cranes, but I managed to keep pace with David Henrie’s running, and get good camera movement by shooting out the sides and rear of a minivan for which the handheld Fujinon proved ideal. I could quickly adjust the size of the shot without pulling the camera off my shoulder, which was a life saver. “1000 to 1” ended up being the first feature to use either of these two great new lenses, the Angenieux 19.4-95mm Optimo and the Fujinon 19-90mm Cabrio.
This project also allowed me to thoroughly check out the Schneider Optics Platinum IRND filters. I had been an early tester of the prototypes, which quite effectively handled IR pollution at a wide range of ND levels. However, manufacturing problems with the complex dyes needed to achieve good results caused the filters to fade over time. Schneider wasn’t about to release them before they were ready, which resulted in a fairly long backorder. I can now report after using them extensively over many months that this problem is history, and the gels do everything they’re supposed to. With constantly changing weather in the area at that time of year, it was great to have a full set of these on hand, to quickly switch filters to keep the proper exposure level along with the perfect amount of IR filtration.