One of the best things about this business is that greatness lurks around every corner. If you are resourceful and creative you’ll find it well enough.
I’ve shot several viral projects for production company Seedwell and I was honored to be invited to shoot their first broadcast spot. The hitch: there wasn’t much money to do it with. That’s not unusual. Clients generally won’t trust you with a lot of their money until you have a proven track record, and that doesn’t come about until you’ve shot successful spots for them. It’s a classic Catch-22 situation.
Naturally we jumped at the chance to wow them. How could we not? While I don’t regularly pursue low budget work I do invest in creative relationships that show promise, and the Seedwell team are not only extremely creative but they are extremely nice people as well. It’s also an awful lot of fun to make something really awesome out of relatively little. I love shooting big budget spots on Arri’s Alexa and RED’s RED ONE, but once in a while it’s fun to do the same quality of work with a lot less. No matter the budget there’s never quite enough time or money to do it “right,” so it’s good practice to consistently over deliver regardless of the project.
Besides, not having the right tools or the proper crew can be very freeing: you can only do what you can do, so rather than fret about lost opportunities I prefer to focus on creative possibilities. I firmly believe that it’s the people behind a project who make the difference, not the tools. The tools help, and sometimes the right tools are necessary to achieve specific shots, but in general creativity is not determined by the gear on hand. It’s who uses it that counts.
Blue Nile Jewelry came to Seedwell because they wanted to update this commercial, originally broadcast in 1999.
Here’s what we did using a Canon 5D, a stock zoom lens, a two person grip/electric crew and a Kessler slider:
Turn the page to see how we pulled this off…
The first trick was to find a nice restaurant to shoot in, something that shouldn’t be hard to do in San Francisco. When I first met director David Fine and producer Kimi Milo at Piperade Restaurant, near SF’s financial district, I couldn’t believe my eyes: the place was very nicely decorated, it was well laid out… and it was all ours. The management was very amenable to letting us do just about whatever we wanted.
The interior of Piperade, shot during the location scout. We blacked the windows out on the shoot day and also removed the hanging bottle sculpture on frame right. The podium on the left had to stay in place so we shot around it.
“How did you find this place?” I asked Kimi. “The San Francisco Film Commission? A profressional location scout?”
“Nope,” she said. “I thought it was a nice place so I asked if we could shoot here. They said yes.”
As a very successful businessman once told me, “If you don’t ask, the answer is automatically ‘no.’ If you ask the chances of a “yes” answer increase dramatically.”
Director David Fine has a relaxed intra-table conversation with production manager Kimi Milo. On the shoot day I left the track lighting on, but dimmed way down, for the wide shots. I wanted to see the lights glimmer out of focus in the background but I didn’t want them to actually light anything.
It was pretty clear that we had to shoot away from the front windows to take advantage of the restaurant’s depth. Cross-shooting would force us to look at closer backgrounds, but since the focal length would be longer for those shots the backgrounds would drift nicely out of focus. The trick was to find a way to quickly light a moody night restaurant interior with a small crew and still make our day.
Originally Seedwell asked me if I wanted to shoot this spot on a Sony F3, but I opted instead to use their Canon 5D. The F3 is a much easier camera to work with from an operator/assistant standpoint, but as a DP I like the quality of blown-out highlights on the 5D more than I do on the F3. Moire can be an issue, but I’ve become very good at spotting it on the camera’s LCD monitor and I don’t run across it nearly as often as I thought I would when I discovered the issue years ago.
Using the 5D made focus a bit more difficult for my assistant but it freed up some more money for lighting and grip, which is where I really wanted to spend it.
I mentally toyed with a couple of different lighting setups. The fast method would have been to stage a line of Kino Flos behind the bar and create a big, broad light source that would have been very pretty. What it wouldn’t give me is the foreground/background contrast that I saw in my head when I imagined a moody restaurant interior at night. I really like finding ways to increase contrast between the foreground and the background and the fastest method I’ve found so far is simply to get the lights close to the action so that they drop off quickly. This isn’t always optimal as the lights start to block in the actors, and they often have to be moved around on a shot-by-shot basis, but when working in a small location with a low ceiling and a small crew that’s really the only way to do it.
Yes, that’s an actual slate. For a long time everyone tried to use iPad slates but the basic wood-and-plastic model saves a lot of time. It’s always a good idea to record double-system sound with the 5D as the audio recording is the 5D’s biggest weakness, primarily because of the audio-in connector.
The biggest pain for the wide shot was finding a place for the fill light. The brunette actress was easy to light: outside frame right we put an open-face tungsten 2K through a medium Chimera (to reduce spill) and then put that through a frame of Lee 129. I’d have loved to do the same thing to the other actress but there was no way to hide a large source in the shot. As the camera never came around in front of the blonde actress we hid a 1K fresnel behind the vertical wooden beams on the very left of frame. That edged her face enough that it looked lit, and the hardness of the light was hidden because we never saw the shadows it cast.
I love Lee 129. It’s denser than 216 or grid cloth. I love that the diffusion fully becomes the light source without any hint of specularity. Specular (or “hard”) light has its place, but when lighting beautiful women for digital capture soft light seems to work best on faces. I love how the reflection of a large source in skin makes it glow.
I tried putting the fill light, a 4’x8′ bead board lit with an open-faced 2K, directly over the camera but it just didn’t look right, which is odd as that trick almost always works. The way the light fell off past the hero table made the environment feel obviously lit. In the end we put the fill over the right side of the camera and wasted some of the light off the foreground table. There’s a faint hair shadow from the fill light on the blonde actress’s face, but for a quick wide shot it worked fine.
We executed the dolly move on a 5′ Kessler HDSLR slider. We couldn’t actually move the camera over the foreground table the same way the original commercial’s crew did, but by running the slider diagonally right next to the table and panning the camera during the move we managed to create a shot that was comparable in feel.
Key grip Ernie Kunze stabilizes the slider.
To light the rest of the restaurant we backlit the other diners by placing an open-face 2K in a doorway at the right rear corner of the restaurant. We diffused it with a frame of Lee 250, which spreads the beam but retains a little bit of specularity, and we put some color on it, probably minus green or a salmon color. I’ve been using reddish back or fill light in restaurant locations a lot recently; for some emotional reason I equate dim red lighting with fine dining.
As an accent we put a 4’x4′ daylight-balanced Kino Flo on the floor in front of the back wall, and we put more daylight Kinos behind the bar to add a bit of color contrast. There’s a saying in interior design, “Warm colors advance and cool colors recede,” and it seemed right to use cooler lighting in the background when it was motivated.
One or two tables in the background had tweenies armed over them to put a splash of light into the middle of the tablecloth. This filled faces a little and created occasional splashes of hot light around the room. If we hadn’t done that the background would still have looked okay but it might have felt a little “muddier.” It’s nice to have highlights scattered amongst the shadows as it makes the shadows feel darker and more intentional. It also creates what I call “volumetric” lighting, where the bounce light from the tables lights only the people around each table, creating a sense of volume and depth in the shot.
There are a couple of practical downlights raking the brick wall that we left on and dimmed down. We also dimmed the track lighting way down for the wide shot, just to add some out-of-focus highlights.
The final light that we placed was a 3200K Kino Flo behind the hero table, placed on apple boxes so that it was just below the back edge of the tabletop from the camera’s perspective. This created hot but soft highlights on the underside of faces, as if a light was bouncing off the table cloth or the floor. This worked well for the tug-of-war sequence also: this spot was all about a diamond ring, so I intentionally lit arms and hands to focus the audience’s attention on the jewelry.
This shot used nearly the same lighting as the wide shot, except that the hard light on the blonde was swapped out for another open-face 2K through a 2’x3′ frame of Lee 250 and a 4’x4′ frame of Lee 129. (We only had the one medium Chimera, so we duplicated the look using multiple frames and a few more flags.) Both lights are to the sides and slightly behind the talent so that the soft sources reflect in each actress’s skin and create smooth, beautiful modeling. Each key light is also acting as a back light for the actress closest to it. You can see the rear daylight Kino casting some blue on the rear wall as an accent.
Notice how the Kino Flo hidden behind and below the table is drawing attention to the talents’ arms and hands. 3200K Kinos look a little cool compared to 3000K tungsten lamps, and I used that as a bit of color contrast.
Soft light from below almost always feels natural to me. Both sunlight and lamp light turn floors into light sources, and it’s nice to have a light source that’s beautiful and doesn’t come from above the frame. Light from overhead can feel a little too obvious.
For this setup the 4’x4′ Lee 129 frame is placed just off frame left. For fill we used a second frame of Lee 129 placed directly next to the first frame, basically over the head of the brunette actress, with an open-face 650w tungsten unit through it. Instead of creating a separate fill source we really just extended the key source by making it wider and dimmer. The light wraps beautifully around the actress’s face and then drops off to darkness. I find this look so much more interesting than simply making one side of her face bright and the other side less bright, which is what happens with a traditional key+fill lighting setup. Two opposing lights mean two opposing tones, whereas a big soft source that wraps results in many, many more tones.
The backlight on her hair is a 3200K 4’x4′ Kino Flo, oriented vertically–probably with 1/4 CTO on it to bring the color in line with the 3000K tungsten lamps. The lamp is vertical for two reasons: (1) so it doesn’t wrap around her face from behind and highlight the tip of her nose, as it might if it was oriented horizontally; and (2) to create a uniform highlight in her hair. Hair catches backlight because it’s shiny, and if I were to use a smaller light I’d end up with a small highlight. Imagine every strand of hair as a round shiny mirror: I’m simply putting a large source behind her to reflect in the full length of hundreds of long, small mirrors.
Director David Fine (foreground) guides us toward our comedic destiny. In the background you can see: the key light just over the monitor (a 2K open face lamp through a 2’x3′ frame of 250 aimed into a 4’x4′ frame of Lee 129), the fill light (immediately to the right of the key and consistenting of an Arri open-face 650w unit aimed through Lee 129), and a Kino Flo scratch light on the right of the table. I don’t remember what the Dedo light was for, I think that was left over from the wide shot. David is watching the action on a Flanders Scientific 1760W monitor, which is my current favorite field monitor.
Same lighting setup, only reversed. The glows on the back wall are from practicals in the restaurant ceiling, and the highlight on the tablecloth at the rear left is a tweenie rigged overhead and dimmed down.
Same idea, only closer. That frame of Lee 129 is creating a wonderful glow in her skin. The one thing I regret here is not adding an eyelight so her eyes didn’t go completely dark when she looked down. I haven’t been a fan of dedicated eye lights but I may start moving my lighting in that direction.
The Canon 5D on a Sachtler Video 20p head, in turn mounted on a 5′ Kessler HDSLR slider. We did a couple of nice slow moves during this setup where I slid back and forth under the fill light (the frame of Lee 129 over the camera). The key is hidden behind the fill frame, although you can see the C-stand holding the 4’x4′ frame just to the right of the camera. Also on the right side of the frame, in the deep background, is the 2K and Lee 250 diffusion combo that’s backlighting the rest of the restaurant.
I used some filtration in front of the lens–a Tiffen Soft FX 1/4 + 1/4 Black Promist combo–and while it looked quite noticeable on set it turned out to be very, very subtle when we saw the footage in post. There’s something about the Canon 5D’s HDMI output that exaggerates both diffusion and highlights. I’ve noticed on several shoots that highlights that appeared burned out on set don’t look that way at all when viewing the footage on anything other than the camera. It’s very odd.
I shot this spot at ISO 400, T2.8, and a 1/50th shutter. ISO 400 is what I was used to back when I shot film, and it’s a nice compromise between keeping light levels fairly low and reducing image noise. I’ve shot the Canon 5D at ISO 800 before and it works well in a pinch, but I prefer the cleaner look that I get from lower ISO’s. If we’d had any HMI’s on the set I’d have gone to 1/60th shutter as I tend to be overly paranoid about flicker.
I graded this at Seedwell on their Final Cut Pro 7 system, using Color 1.5, where I added a node tree based on these directions in the Apple Color manual. The approach was something I’d not heard of before: using edge detection, create a mask for all the strong edges in the shot, then invert the mask and soften everything that’s not a hard edge. It worked remarkably well, as you can see below:
This shot was all about the jewelry. I lit the hand using low, raking soft light that half-lit each finger, emphasizing both the shape of the fingers and the texture of the aligned fingers. Gaffer Alan Steinheimer held a piece of silver card overhead to create a glint in the facets of the diamond ring. Originally we tried moving the silver card around to create a moving glint but it also changed the exposure on the hand and gave away the gag. Holding the card in place gave us just enough of a highlight on the ring to make it come alive without drawing attention to our lighting gag.
The edge-detection node tree trick in Color smoothed the skin nicely but preserved the hard edge of the diamond, which really draws our attention to it.
The Kino Flo behind and below the tabletop helps draw attention to the actresses’ hands and arms during the tug-of-war. The background bokeh is… well, interesting. It’s not terrible, but there’s a little bit of a cat’s eye effect as the highlights approach the top edge of frame. We shot this on a stock 24-70mm Canon zoom wide open at T2.8, so overall the look isn’t bad at all for a fairly inexpensive lens that was never designed for moving picture use.
We lit the bar with daylight Kino Flos for a little color contrast.
These shots cut together quite nicely. I really like how the key is very, very soft but blends gently into the fill and then goes away completely. Soft light with high contrast is very striking, and even though one side of each actress’s face drops almost completely to black the effect is very flattering and suites the mood of the piece.
We grabbed this shot at the end of the day. We were a little rushed due to time but comedy is often about the reactions of innocent bystanders to a bizarre situation, and this waitress looks as if she knows exactly what’s happening, has seen it all before, and is a bit bored by it. David wanted to capture some of the tug-of-war in the foreground so we used a 180mm prime to get this shot. The widest T-stop was T4 or so, and we didn’t have time to do a lot of additional lighting, so we bounced a light off a card placed off frame left and let the background light give her a nice hot edge. In the grade we brought her exposure up some more and then darkened the people to her left and right to create the feeling of a localized light source aimed just at her. She is the focus of this shot, and as it’s a short clip I wanted the audience’s eye to go straight to her.
The fact that the background is a little darker and she’s a little brighter than the other shots doesn’t really matter: if the audience is focused on those details then we’ve done something horribly wrong elsewhere.
Gaffer Alan Steinheimer works his dimmer magic. Alan has a small dimmer system that he’ll bring along occasionally to help us dial in light levels and color temperatures quickly. I’m being speared by the monitor stand, but for some reason I don’t seem concerned.
Turn the page for a bit of summing up and final hints/tips…
I did the final grade myself, as there wasn’t quite enough budget for a professional color grade, and I think it turned out pretty well. We had to create two versions, one in standard def for broadcast and an HD version for Seedwell’s website. Believe it or not, there’s quite a bit of standard def still out there: a number of systems, including Google TV (where this is running) will only accept standard def deliverables, and often they’ll insist on 4:3 and won’t accept letterbox! These systems are almost completely automated: you go to a website, pick the shows during which you want your spot to air, pick the number of times and dates that you want it to air, pay by credit card and upload a Quicktime file. The spot is inserted into standard def cable television streams and can start airing immediately.
The SD 4:3 version was fairly simple to grade. David had already reframed a number of the shots so I came in and did a little tweaking and moved on to color and power windows. When I got to the HD version, however, I had to back off on some of my vignettes as the highly compressed H.264 footage showed a lot of banding in certain shots, primarily the ones showing the blue-lit background bar. I don’t feel like I lost any of my look due to having to back off the grade, but it was interesting to see how much more I could get away with in SD than HD when it came to Canon 5D footage.
I should point out that the reason I was able to push the footage around as much as I did has much to do with Steve Shaw’s excellent Canon 5D gamma curves.
The client is thrilled, and the spot is airing now.
For the last few years it’s felt as if we’ve all been working around a “cult of the camera:” the camera became, for a short while, more important than the people using it. While different cameras have different strengths, and some cameras are definitely better than others, in the end the camera is one of the least important factors in achieving excellent results. It’s the people behind the camera that matter more than anything else, and in this case we had an exceptional crew and a fantastic creative team that turned out a product that had very little right to look as good as it did given the resources at our disposal.
Disclosure: I have consulted for Tiffen Filters and they gave me the filter mentioned in the article for free. I have no financial ties to Light Illusion and Steve Shaw other than that I bought their gamma curves and use them constantly.
Art Adams is a DP who makes just about any camera look better than it should. You can see the proof at www.artadamsdp.com.