A bit of prior planning, some clever visual effects and a new RED software build help a talented production team get maximum bang for minimum bucks.
Not long ago I wrote about some PSAs that I shot for an organization called WEAVE. Directed by Ian McCamey, and made possible on a low budget through generous contributions of equipment and stage space by Adam Wilt and his employer Meets the Eye, these :30 PSAs won several regional Addy Awards and prompted the agency to ask Ian to direct several spots for the California State Fair. The budget was low for what they wanted to do but it wasn’t impossible, and it was another chance to strut my stuff with a budding and very talented director.
Ian and I first met through his former boss, Stu Maschwitz, while Ian was a visual effects editor at The Orphanage. I’d mentioned on the Cinematography Mailing List that I was looking for directors to work with on creative spec spots and Stu responded and introduced me to Ian. That introduction led to spec spots for Porsche, Lego and Facebook, with an upcoming spot for Abilify as well as a spec music video for Pink Martini (currently in post). With the dissolution of The Orphanage Ian is now directing full time.
Ian has wonderful sensibilities and a very down-to-earth working style, so it’s very easy for me to bounce ideas off of him and enhance his ideas with mine.
Before I go on I should probably show you the spots:
The :15 versions of these spots have been running in Sacramento theaters in front of Iron Man 2 for a couple of weeks. The: 30 versions will air starting in late June. Turn the page for a behind-the-scenes and inside-the-brains look at how we pulled off this shoot in one day…
This was my first shoot in a barn, I’m happy to say.
The barn we chose faces north and south, which meant that if we shot north inside the barn we wouldn’t have to deal with the moving sun. By looking north we were guaranteed to have very little change in the background that we could see through gaps in the barn’s construction, as the exterior in that direction would remain roughly front-lit and overexposed all day long.
We were able to cover the south side of the barn with black visquene and flags, blocking out all exterior light. The crate shots were a series of lock-offs and stray bits of sunlight passing through the barn’s wooden slats and hitting the set would have caused a number of expensive problems in post-problems we couldn’t afford.
Here’s my lighting setup for the interior of the barn:
The 6k PAR, bounced into a 12’x12′ Ultrabounce, created a soft but contrasty base light for the barn interior. The 4k PAR, through a Chimera with a light-controlling grid on it, provided a touch of hair light. The 1200 PAR on the top right provided a nice sunlight kick from the key side, and the lights in the crate provided a magical glow. One remaining 1200 PAR provided a hint of fill from near the lens, bounced off a 4×4 piece of bead board on the key side of the lens.
The 1/2 CTO and 1/4 Minus Green on the 1200 PAR scratch light produced a light salmon color that felt like sunset. A mirror caught some of that light and raked it across the front of the hay bales directly behind the crate. (I frequently use mirrors to try to cut down on lighting costs and setup time, but in the future I think I’ll just add an additional light. Trying to work a mirror into a beam of light without cutting that light off of something important can be a bit of a pain.)
My shooting stop was just shy of T4 on a 35mm Zeiss Super Speed, shooting on a RED (build 30) rated at EI 320. We shot the crate itself in multiple passes.
We created the glowing light between the crate boards by covering the interior of the camera-facing sides of the crate with tracing paper and filling the interior of the crate with open-faced 1k and 2k tungsten lights. Blasting the tracing paper with light turned the paper itself into a light source, which then radiated light through the gaps in the crate’s boards. (This effect was severely enhanced in post.) We also waved flags around the inside of the crate to create shadow elements.
That technique worked great when the crate was empty, but there was no way it would work with people and dinosaurs standing in it. For those shots we replaced the hot tungsten lights with 3200k Kino Flos, rigging them around the inside lip of the crate on all four sides. We took the bulbs, and the metal base that held the sockets, out of the black plastic lamp housing to make the lights lower in profile. They were rigged as shelves just below the lip of the crate using chicken wire.
The crate itself is one pass, and the opening of the crate encompasses numerous other passes.
This is Poppy, the California State Fair mascot. This shot caused us a little bit of trouble as we’d tried to frame for our largest element from the start, as all the crate shots were meant to be locked-off for visual effects, only to discover that our largest element was taller than we’d expected. Poppy bumped the top of frame. We solved the problem by making the frame bigger: our project format was 4K HD, so we switched to 4K 16:9 for this one shot. That gave us just enough room to squeeze Poppy into the frame without breaking our lock-off shot.
Poppy’s yellow fur became quite saturated under tungsten light so we switched off a few of the interior Kino Flo bulbs. That’s my one complaint about RedColor: right out of the box the colors are very, very saturated. (More on Build 30 color later.)
You may have noticed that nearly every shot in this spot has a handheld feel to it. Ian likes rough camerawork because it sells the visual effects better than a lock-off does. It wasn’t so long ago that all visual effects shots had to be locked-off, so the freedom to track objects inexpensively adds production value to low budget VFX projects like this one. Originally Ian wanted to create the handheld movement entirely in post, and I’ve seen him do that kind of thing very convincingly in the past, but I had another thought: if we placed a couple of reference markers in the shot and then spent a minute or so shooting them handheld, it should be possible to lift the motion from that shot and lay it on top of another.
This seemed like it might result in more natural camera movement as well as eliminating the need to create camera shake from scratch. In order to do this we needed a larger frame to work with. Here’s what would have happened if we’d tried to rotate the above shot, of the kids on a roller coaster, without shooting tiles to extend the background:
By shooting four different “tiles,” or shots, including the crate but shooting more of the background than could be seen in the 4K frame alone, we ended up with a “Super Image” as a background:
The light area shows the 4K frame with plenty of room to move around inside the grayed-out 8K background plate.
After shooting all the crate elements I broke the camera loose and shot those four overlapping tiles, and then I had the grips put two C-stand-mounted tennis balls in the shot. I then hand held the rolling camera for about a minute while Ian watched the monitor and talked me through a series of moves and reactions. Then the compositor tracked the tennis balls in post and laid that movement across all the other shots, filling the blank spots around the moving frame with the super image created by the background tiles.
The result is a series of locked-off visual effects shots that look as though they were actually shot hand held in real time. As a bonus, Ian discovered he had plenty of room to rotate the crate for the roller coaster shot. That wasn’t part of the original plan but was a very nice extra.
This is a similar shot that really shows off the lighting. The fill from near the lens really did more for the crate than it did for the people, and if the script didn’t call for a glow emanating from the crate I’d probably use a bigger fill light. In this case, though, the soft sidelight and the tungsten light in the crate blend nicely with the hard kick of “sunlight” from the left of frame. Soft sidelight on its own can be very pretty but that nice hard kick from the key side adds a lot of character.
This is a great example of how keeping the light sources on one side of the frame and letting them blend into each other creates a very natural but rich look. It also shows the power of color contrast, as the HMIs sometimes appear in flesh tones as slightly cool and contrast nicely against the warm light from the 3200K Kino Flos.
I wish I could take credit for the rock and roll lighting in this shot, but I can’t. We didn’t have the time or budget for moving lights on location. The moving lights are entirely a post effect, and are quite well done.
Shooting the dinosaur went smoothly once we got him out of his trailer, but that alone took hours. We had no choice but to stake live chickens to the ground in a trail that led to the set.
But seriously… there was no dinosaur present when we shot this element, and the flying hay is a post effect. It’s brilliantly animated and really sells the shot.
We shot the usual silver ball and gray ball, where the silver ball shows where the light sources are and the gray ball reveals contrast and quality of light. With these two references the “lighting” on the dinosaur can be matched to the lighting in the set.
It took a while to shoot the lid flying off the crate. The grips rigged a rope-and-pulley system overhead and it took us a long while to get it to fly off just the right way. The action was significantly sped up in post.
The barnyard animals were green screen elements shot the year before by someone else, using a different camera, for last year’s spots. They worked startlingly well.
We had to tone down the interior lights for the jockey, who-naturally-showed up wearing white pants. Fortunately the RED held the highlights very well.
The snap zoom on the crate was done entirely in post and it looks wonderful. I asked Ian why so many projects that reframe RED footage in post look so bad, and he says it’s because they don’t go back to the original 4K file. They zoom in to the image after it has been downrez’d to 2K or 1920×1080 for editing, which results in a softer image. Going back to the original 4K file seems like a no-brainer but I’ve seen it done the other way quite often.
This is the only shot of the crate that was actually handheld. Every other shot of the crate was locked-off due to the visual effects, and the motion was added in post.
One we finished shooting into the barn it was time to shoot the kids in the doorway. This was a tough shot as looking from an interior outdoors into sunlight is always difficult. Competing with the sun is never easy. As we saw the ground in the wide shot I was unable to cheat and put a large net behind the kids. We had to pound a lot of light into the scene in order to bring the foreground exposure up enough to match the background.
The half soft frost takes some of the curse off the hard sun, and the 6K par was probably 6′ or 8′ from the kids through a 6’x6′ frame of full grid cloth. Surprisingly, I didn’t use the full 6’x6′ frame, as filling the frame didn’t give me enough punch. I had the electricians put the PAR through the bottom quarter of the diffusion on the side closest to the camera. I had to keep the light fairly low in order to get into their eyes.
Soft light from near the lens is a very fast way to create very smooth and pretty closeups. Although the size of the source was relatively small, filling only a 3’x3′ patch of diffusion, it looked softer because it was so close to the lens axis. The closer a light is to the lens axis the softer it looks, which allowed me to use a smaller, brighter light source while still retaining a soft feel.
(The boy is the director’s son, who just happened to be perfect for the part.)
I used a polarizer to take some of the curse off the hot sky and to bring color back into the grass. Grass is shiny and tends to reflect blue skylight, which gives it a desaturated look unless a polarizer is used to eliminate the blue reflection.
Here’s what I figured out during the location scout:
I realized that the time to shoot this opening shot was at the very end of the day, when the sun back-lit the kids and gently raked the front of the barn, so I asked Ian and our producer/AD, Tom Ruge, to schedule the shoot such that we could do this shot last.
The good news is that, when it came time to shoot, the sun was in the perfect spot; the bad news is that it was a hazy day and exposing for the barn made the sky blow out into a featureless white.
When Ian and I first tackled color correction (yes, we graded this ourselves in After Effects-it was that kind of budget) he showed me added effects that made the shot a lot more interesting. He had inserted a blue sky and some artificial clouds (there were no distinct clouds in the sky during the shoot), but this necessitated handmade mattes around the kids as they ran toward that barn and covered the effects. As we tweaked things further it became clear that once we’d made our grading changes Ian would have to completely redo the mattes, which is a very time-consuming process. Instead I came up with a cunning plan.
Over the course of my career I’ve discovered that there are some shots that are greatly improved by using the most obvious grads possible. This doesn’t work for every shot, but once in a while it’s the perfect solution. In this case I suggested a diagonal blue grad across the top of frame and an orange one across the bottom:
This played very well and didn’t require any matting. The diagonal where the blue grad transitions into the orange one frames the kids nicely, and the fact that the orange grad trails off on the right side of frame helps keep the eye focused on the left, where the kids are. By raising the clouds above the kids Ian eliminated the need for further matting. (There was also a power line running to the barn that Ian removed.)
This was a 16′ move on a doorway dolly sitting on track. I handheld the camera in my lap, and we rolled at 30fps to give the shot a slightly dreamy feel. We tried 36fps initially but that turned out to be way too slow.
I’d dropped into 3K to do this shot at 36fps (the RED ONE won’t run faster than 30fps in 4K HD) and Ian later asked me why I didn’t switch back to 4K HD when we fell back to 30fps. It boiled down to time: changing to 4K HD meant a lens change, as using more of the sensor area meant the lens would appear wider. At 3K the RED was only using a portion of the sensor, so the 18mm lens I used actually looked more like a 25mm lens. Switching to 4K would have meant that the 18mm lens looked like an 18mm lens, and I’d have had to quickly change to a 25mm lens to roughly match the current frame size. I didn’t think it was worth the time as the sun was setting fast, and I really liked the frame as it was.
I’ve got some comments about RED’s new color science on the next page…
Gaffer Alan Steinheimer examines the lighting while key grip Joseph Scott removes the green screen from the set.
I was quite excited about using the new RED color science, but I was disappointed to see that, once again, a RED software change meant dealing with an entirely new camera.
There are two ways to determine a camera’s EI: the film method, and the video method.
The film method is based on determining where a film stock picks up enough density to create an optimal image. The point where the density becomes acceptable determines the bottom of the straight line portion of the gamma curve. (I’m not sure I’ve got that totally right, but one thing I can count on when writing for the web is that someone will correct me in comments.)
The video method looks at where middle gray falls: if one lights a gray card and then exposes the gray card for 18% gray (usually 42-45 units on a waveform monitor) the resulting combination of shutter speed and aperture will suggest the EI of the camera at its current settings. In this case the EI of a WYSIWYG camera has been predetermined by the manufacturer.
RED uses the film method in determining its EI of 320, basing that number on a “sweet spot” that offers the best compromise between highlight detail and noise. In my early tests I used the video method, looking only at RAW mode and placing an evenly exposed 18% gray card at dead center on the histogram, and came up with an EI of 160. I rated the camera at 320 on my very first RED shoot and was quite unhappy with the amount of noise I saw, and on every other shoot since I’d rated the camera at 160 and enjoyed a silky-smooth and noise-free look. I lost a stop of highlight latitude but I almost never missed it.
In the past I’d manipulated the output settings (changing View>Exposure to -. 4) to darken RedSpace’s gamma to match RAW’s gamma, so that if I toggled between one and the other the only difference I saw was that the image became desaturated in RAW view. The client saw a WYSIWYG image at my preferred EI, which if uncorrected would have looked a stop too bright. I relied almost entirely on my meter to set the stop, and verified each exposure by briefly toggling into RAW.
This time, when I fired up the camera running Build 30, I discovered that RAW’s gamma no longer tracked the same way. The only two options were RAW and REDColor (fine, no problem with that) but now RAW’s gamma was nearly exactly the same as RedColor’s! Toggling into RAW didn’t darken the image anymore; instead, both RAW and RedColor showed an effective EI of 320!
It was common knowledge that RED was applying some sort of gamma correction to RAW before Build 30, but now RAW changed so completely that (1) I clearly wasn’t seeing “raw”, and (2) I couldn’t rate the camera at 160 anymore as I couldn’t verify my exposures by looking at the image in RAW mode. Previously, if something looked too hot in RedColor and EI 160, I could toggle into RAW and reassure myself that none of the channels was clipping. For the first time in the two years since my first RED shoot I was forced to rate the camera at 320.
The good news is that the RED’s shadow noise has been much reduced, and while I saw some patches of noise on the monitor during the shoot it almost completely went away when we viewed the footage in post on a broadcast monitor. Any noise you see in the final spots is due to the addition of artificial film grain in After Effects.
As for REDColor… I’m a big fan. It’s a bit too saturated for my taste but it worked well for a spot aimed at kids. I know that on future shoots I can desaturate the image in the View menu without sacrificing underlying color data. What most impressed me was how the new color science handled tungsten light under a daylight white balance.
Tungsten light has a lot of red in it, which is what makes it appear warm, but it also has a lot of green. If you look at a vectorscope you’ll see that orange and green are adjacent, and it’s very easy for a saturated orange to “tip over” into green. I’ve seen this happen on both film stocks and video cameras when shooting saturated warm elements like firelight or raw tungsten light under a daylight white balance. REDColor handled the warm tungsten crate light wonderfully, rendering it as a very natural and pleasant warmth.
I should mention that I shot this entire project on daylight preset white balance, and we didn’t do much to the color during the grade. We tweaked the contrast a bit but the color is as the camera saw it. Very saturated objects of known color, like skin tone and grass, can be tough to shoot because odd color shifts are readily apparent. Desaturated images are much easier to photograph as odd color shifts are less obvious and more easily forgiven. This spot called for punchy colors and Build 30’s color science delivered exactly what we needed. (I owe a big “Thank you! ” to RED’s Graeme Natress for his constant efforts to perfect RED’s colorimetry.)
Well, that’s it. Suffice to say that I love my job, I love going to work, and I love solving artistic and technical challenges like the ones we saw here. When working with a talented director and a great crew it’s easy to deliver more bang for the client than the budget should allow.
Director: Ian McCamey
Producer/AD: Tom Ruge
Production Company: Rough House
Agency: Runyon, Saltzman & Einhorn
DP: Art Adams
Gaffer: Alan Steinheimer
Best Boy Electric: Ernie Kunze
Key Grip: Joseph Scott
Best Boy Grip: Cliff Henry
Camera Assistant: John Gazdik
DIT: Jay Farrington
Camera equipment by Chater Camera
Post by Rough House
Editor: Marc Cebrian
Compositor: Kit Klangsin
RED ONE, 4K HD, 23.98p (plus 4K 16:9 23.98p and 3K 30p)
EI 320, Software Build 30
Zeiss Super Speeds (18mm, 35mm, 50mm)
No filters for interiors; Schneider Tru Cut IR 750 and Tru-Pol for exteriors