Originally slated to be a web-only spot, the first shoot day went so well that when the client saw the results they ordered a second shoot day, added an actor and made a $1m+ national ad buy.
I’ve been holding off writing this article as I’d hoped to see a :60 version of the spot that contained all of the really cool shots that we created over those two days (or nights, as they were night shoots), but the client was thrilled with the :30 and the :15 versions so the :60 was never commissioned.
As of November, 2010–when this spot was produced–this was my second shoot with Arri’s Alexa, and the first time I’d used it in Rec 709, or WYSIWYG, mode. Due to the short turnaround time and the visual effects components we opted to craft the image in camera, rather than shoot in LogC and grade the footage later, in order to get the footage into post as quickly as possible.
Before I launch into an explanation of the tools and tricks used in crafting this spot I should probably show it to you. Here it is:
Turn the page for some inside insights…
Director Eric Peltier’s original script called for a series of mysterious shots set in a dark house lit only with a weird flickering light. The light is eventually revealed as coming from a TV that has turned itself on, and eventually the OnLive logo appears. The spot was meant as an online teaser to prime the pump for a more aggressive OnLive digital ad campaign. As we were working on a bit of a budget the director cast his own home, a beautiful old house in Berkeley, California, as the hero location. On the first shoot “day” we pre-lit during the afternoon and then shot until about 1am.
Gaffer Alan Steinheimer.
As camera assistant Paul Marbury built our Arri Alexa in the late afternoon, my gaffer, Alan Steinheimer, who had not yet worked with one, stopped by to take a look. The camera was aimed into the living room of the house, which was unlit but for skylight coming through a wall of windows on the far side of the room. The monitor showed significant detail both in the dark living room interior as well as the sunlit exterior. It was only due to fast action on my part that Alan’s jaw narrowly missed hitting the floor with great force. “I’ve never seen a camera do that before,” he said.
Director/editor Eric Peltier.
My primary concern at the beginning of the shoot day was to create a gel pack that felt like moonlight. Every HD camera camera responds to color in its own way, and often in multiple ways depending on the color matrix chosen, and I didn’t have a sense of how the Alexa saw blue daylight when white balanced at 3200K. I tend to prefer moonlight that’s more cyan than blue as some of the prettiest blues have a bit of green in them, and sometimes the addition of green adds a “silvery” quality to the light. We did some dusk color testing with the camera pointed at a white ceiling into which we aimed a 2k open-face tungsten light, which we then covered with 1/2 CTB to see how the tungsten-balanced Alexa responded.
The resulting blue cast was pretty subtle, so we doubled the 1/2 CTB gel and added 1/4 plus green to it. This got me a bit closer to what I’d been looking for but I felt the blue was still a little muted. Instead of adding more blue we doubled the plus green and got a rich, almost silvery moonlight that felt emotionally correct for the spot. That determined our moonlight formula, which became uncorrected HMI 5600K light with the addition of 1/2 plus green gel.
Both the Alexa and the Sony F35 handle blue with great subtlety, and that’s a trait I greatly appreciate. In days of old certain cameras, Sony cameras in particular, were way too responsive to blue, to the point where anything with blue in it would simply turn blue. A cyan tie or a purple lampshade turned the same shade of bright blue. The release of the Sony F35 and F23 saw a much subtler handling of blue hues, where objects that contained blue no longer simply became blue, and Alexa does equally well in this area.
Director Eric and I line up a shot.
Our shooting plan was to start inside the house, just inside the front door, and gradually work our way into the living room, where the mysterious flickering TV set lay in wait. The character of the flicker was meant to be abrupt and harsh, and initially I toyed with the idea of using small tungsten lights on dimmers to create the flicker effect. Tungsten filaments take time to heat up and cool down, however, and I sensed the attack and decay weren’t abrupt enough to sell an electronic effect. Tungsten lights flicker well enough to create convincing fire effects, but we needed something much, much sharper for a flickering television. It occurred to me that the best way to achieve this would be to hang a video projector over the TV and feed it from the same video source. The TV wasn’t bright enough to illuminate a room on its own so the projector would push the video image deeper into the room in perfect sync with the TV.
Director Eric loved the idea and we acquired a video projector within the hour.
First, though, we did some shots in the vestibule just inside the front door, looking through some glass pane doors into the living room. As budgets have been somewhat reduced in the last year or two we’ve been adapting to methods and techniques that are more “budget friendly”; in this case we traded a dolly for a custom-made 4′ slider built by local grip Todd Stoneman. By using wide angle lenses (primarily a Duclos 12-16mm T2.8 zoom) and putting something in the foreground of every shot we made excellent use of all four feet.
In this shot you can see hints of flickering projector light on the ceiling.
We lit the room primarily with a 4k HMI fresnel placed outside the living room windows. I think we also had a 1200w PAR outside the off-screen window on frame right. We used the fresnel for hard shadows that raked the living room furniture through some very nice multi-paned windows along one wall, while the PAR-which casts much less distinct shadows-merely contributed to the overall ambience. I think in this shot we had an additional small PAR aimed through another window at the sliding door.
As bright as the living room looks in this shot the only light placed inside the room was the video projector. This allowed us to use wide angle lenses without a lot of tweaking and relighting.
We shot a number of inserts around the inside of the living room–a couple of laptops sitting on a table, stereo headphones draped over the arm of a chair-but the one additional shot from this night that made it into the final :30 is that of a collection of toy robots:
In retrospect I probably could have defocused the projector a little to make the flicker more mysterious, but it’s a pretty darned cool shot just the way it is. The robots are lit with a whisper of additional light from a single 3200K Kino Flo bulb taped to the edge of the shelf.
The rough cut containing these shots was so successful that the client asked us to return the following week with an actor to shoot additional footage, much of which replaced the most of the shots we captured on the first shoot day. With the exception of camera assistant Paul Marbury, who wasn’t available and was ably replaced by Rod Williams, the original crew returned and we repeated our fairly simple lighting setup. This is where the fun REALLY begins. Turn the page…
The first shot added was of the front of the house, where a 1200w PAR raked the wood siding while the video projector lit the ceiling inside. We used a branch-o-lorus stacked in line with a nearby bush to break up the light a bit.
The closer light is a 1200w HMI PAR lighting the front of the house; the far light is a 4k HMI fresnel lighting the living room through floor-to-ceiling windows. They are covered to protect them from rain.
I love using multiple shadow sources because the interplay of the two patterns is much more interesting than a single pattern alone. The closer pattern provides some initial texture that isn’t terribly distinct, and then the openings in the second pattern act as apertures through which the image of the first pattern is projected. The result is a very interesting mix of soft and hard shadows that weave through each other, much like sunlight through dense trees on a sunny day: the interplay of shadows from leaves at different distances from the ground creates a mixture of hard and soft textures that are much more interesting than one layer of leaves alone.
The outside of the house looks really green because we lit green paint with greenish light. It looks really cool.
This setup was a lot of fun to light. The hard light raking across the far wall and the couch is from the 4k HMI fresnel outside the window on frame right. The flashes of light are from the video projector, rigged on a goal post directly over the TV and aimed through a small frame of either Hampshire Frost or Opal. The musical instrument on the left of frame is lit by a bounce card sitting just off frame left, and the actor is lit by both the 4K HMI outside as well as a Rosco Axium LitePad above and to his left. There’s an additional LitePad above and behind the actor but it’s not there for him; it’s meant to highlight the controller he’s holding.
Key grip Ernie Kunze rigs the slider on apple boxes for the TV scenes. The windows on the left are lit by the 4k HMI fresnel in the back yard, and the square of light lighting the windows in the back of the room is from the video projector rigged over the TV. Not bad for a projector that we picked up on a whim from Best Buy.
We used a 4′ slider to create a dramatic move over the couch and into the TV.
The controller, shot on an 85mm Ultra Prime at T2.8. The flash of red is from the video projector.
The controller needed a little extra care. The light coming through the window didn’t do it justice as hard light doesn’t illuminate black shiny surfaces well. Instead we lit it like a car, reflecting a light source in its upward-facing surfaces. Rosco had asked if I’d be willing to test out their new Axium series of LightPads, and shortly after I screamed “YES!” into the phone they shipped me a Gaffer’s Kit with a wide variety of LightPads of varying shapes and sizes.
The 1’x1′ was the perfect unit to swing over the product to give it a bit of glow. We added a 4’x4′ frame of Lee 216 diffusion to spread the highlight across the surface of the controller. If you think of the top of the controller as a mirror, we had to reflect something to reflect in that mirror in order to see it. We added the diffusion to make the reflection wider and wrap it around the controller’s curves.
The Rosco Axium LitePad on the right lights the controller through a frame of Lee 216 diffusion. The duvetine attached to the light and the back of the diffusion frame prevents spill light from bouncing off the back of the diffusion and washing out the background. The LitePad on the left, in the background, adds a little 3/4 back light to bring up the shadows on the actor’s fill side.
Rosco LitePads are uniquely designed in that they are the only LED product that doesn’t project light into the scene. Instead they glow softly in a fashion that makes me think of them as a flat Chinese lantern. They’re great for product shots, or hiding a light source in a scene without making it obvious that I’ve added an additional light, or for what I call “volumetric lighting”: since these “glowing” sources don’t project light objects have to pass near them to be lit–which helps the audience “feel” the size and shape of the space as the proximity of the actors to the light source changes. When I want to define a space by having actors pass through “glows” of soft light without drawing attention to those light sources, LitetPads, Kino Flos and China balls are my “glow” tools.
The base unit took a little more care. Eric wanted it to glow as it was turned on, so we had to light it two ways. In the “off” state it required the same kind of lighting as the controller, as it was made of the same black shiny material. In its “on” state we had to create a soft warm glow that dimmed up over the course of a second or two.
That’s me touching lights. Behind the TV is the LitePad that illuminates the back wall and creates a smooth highlight in the surface of the base unit. The narrow LitePad that I’m holding is meant to pop the front of the unit. In the very top of frame, directly above the lens, you can see the snoot hanging from the tweenie that is creating the “warm glow” effect. In the background you can see one side of the overhead speed rail rig that holds the video projector out of frame over the TV.
The base light was a narrow Rosco LightPad taped to the back of the TV. It reflected nicely in the top of the base unit and also added some light to the wall, which in turn was reflected in the shiny surface of the shelf holding the base unit. It was pretty late at night when we did this shot and I’m not sure how we could have done this as quickly and effectively without that one perfectly-shaped LitePad.
The front light was a very narrow LightPad strip that lit the flat front of the unit.
Products generally look a lot sexier when shot up close with a wide angle lens. We used a 20mm Ultra Prime and put the lens inches away from the product. (Ultra Primes can focus very close, typically around 1′ from the focal plane for the wider lenses.) Focus was placed between the front of the unit and the logo. I think we shot most of the interiors at T2.8 or so, but we lit this shot to T4 for increased depth of field.
The base unit with “glow” and added visual effects.
There are certain products that benefit from both hard light and soft light, and this base unit was one of those. The shiny black surfaces looked best with a large soft source reflected in them, but the logo has a matte non-shiny surface and required hard light. We lit the logo with a tweenie, rigged overhead with a snoot. Notice that the tweenie’s hard light has no other effect on the rest of the base unit other than to cast a shadow on the shelf. The base unit’s surface is like a mirror, and unless an object or light source is reflected in that mirror you won’t see the surface directly. As no part of that tweenie reflected in the product’s surface from the camera’s perspective, its effect was invisible except on the logo.
Me, director Eric Peltier and camera assistant Rod Williams finesse the base unit setup. You can see the “glow” tweenie at the top of the frame. The round white object directly below it, sitting on the edge of the shelf, is another custom-shaped LitePad that’s standing by (I don’t think we used it). The narrow LitePad lighting the front of the base unit is reflected in the TV.
The explosion was obviously done in post, although there are some physical effects present as well. Westernized Productions did all the post VFX work and a couple of their people came out with 2’x4’s and bounced the furniture up and down during the explosion sequence.
One interesting note: when we returned for the reshoot the team from Westernized asked me what I was doing that made their life so easy in post. They were working on another project that was also shot with an Alexa, and they were having a hell of a time compositing elements into that footage whereas they had zero trouble with my footage.
A few questions later I discovered that the other crew was rating their Alexa at EI 800, whereas I was rating mine at EI 400. The Alexa is very clean at 800 but there is still some noise, and compositors hate noise. My tests had shown that 400 gave me a much cleaner signal, and as I prefer a cleaner look I habitually rate the Alexa slower. It makes perfect sense that this would make VFX people happy: not only does less noise result in cleaner edges, allowing for better comps, but the comped elements don’t require added noise to make them match the background plates. (If you want to bring undue attention to a composite then add a very clean element to a slightly noisy background plate. The side-by-side comparison makes the differences very obvious.)
This shoot was great fun. It was also an honor to learn that the initial shoot went so well that the client escalated their expectations, paid for a re-shoot, and made a huge ad buy based on the quality of what Eric, my crew and I pulled off. The spot ran nationally in the U.S. on network and cable television throughout December 2010 and January 2011, and I’m told it still pops up from time to time on cable.
I can’t wait to show you the viral pieces we shot in May. They’re in post now, so hopefully I’ll have more to show in a couple of weeks.
Project: “OnLive.com” national spot
Production company: Rearden Studios
Writer/Director/Editor: Eric Peltier
DP: Art Adams
Camera assistants: Paul Marbury (day one), Rod Williams (day two)
Gaffer: Alan Steinheimer
Key Grip: Ernie Kunze
Lighting/grip from Lighting by Steinheimer
Camera and lenses from Chater Camera
Visual effects by Westernized Productions
Stills by Matt Polvorosa Kline, and used with his permission.
Disclosure: the LightPads mentioned in this article were provided at no charge by Roscoe for testing purposes.
Art Adams is a DP whose Xbox is very, very afraid of OnLive’s business model. His website is at www.artadamsdp.com.