In the last two years I’ve often described myself as a “reel-building whore.” If I’m asked to do a low-budget and “reel worthy” freebie by a trusted director/collaborator I jump at the challenge. When director Ian McCamey asked me to shoot a freebie music video with three interactive mimes who were all played by the same actress, I couldn’t say no.
About six weeks ago the band Pink Martini announced a contest: anyone who wished could make a music video for one of the songs on the band’s newest album, and the winner would become the official promotional video for the album. The winner would also be flown to Nice, France for a live concert, which is nice and all, but we just wanted to stretch ourselves and show the world what we could pull for virtually nothing.
Enter Nanishka Camberos, actress extraordinaire. Nanishka is one of Ian’s favorite actress friends, and with good reason: she’s very talented and very humble, which is a wonderful combination. She had to learn two different choreographed routines that were perfectly timed so that the points of interaction aligned perfectly. (One visual effects moment required her to hand sunglasses to herself!)
After several weeks of choreography we secured The Producer’s Loft for a single day of production, and our small but dedicated crew descended on the stage and worked feverishly to make the project a reality. Here’s the semi-final result:
The Producer’s Loft was perfect for this project as it has a moderately-sized lighting/grip package that works for most everything you’d shoot on a small stage.
There’s still some visual effects cleanup to be done but 95% of the video is complete. Turn the page to read how we pulled this off on a limited budget and with very few resources…
Actress/mime Nanishka Camberos and director Ian McCamey have a brief chat before reverting entirely to hand gestures for the rest of the day.
We decided to shoot this project on Canon 7D cameras for highly technical and artistic reasons: we could get two of them for free.
I’d shot one prior project on the 7D and thought it was a decent, but not great, camera. Even after turning the camera’s saturation down considerably the colors were too punchy and odd for my taste. I’d heard great things about Steve Shaw’s gamma curves for the 5D and 7D, and as I’d used some of his other gamma curves (primarily on Sony F35 projects) with great success I thought I’d give them a try. At $40 for a three-curve package I could hardly go wrong.
Makeup and wardrobe stylist Maria O’Reilly prepares Nanishka for mimery.
The curves worked very well. The 7D is a somewhat contrasty camera and I was concerned that I’d have a hard time holding highlights, given that Nanishka’s mime makeup consisted primarily of white grease paint and that the background was meant to be nearly black. I used the lightest curve possible and the highlights held wonderfully. The colors were rich and natural without appearing artificial, the way they had on my previous 7D shoot.
Director/editor Ian holds up our makeshift time code slate: his MacBook Pro playing a Quicktime movie that contains both the song audio and a full-screen time code reference.
The biggest technical hurdle was finding a monitor that accepted an HDMI signal, as that’s the only live video signal the 7D outputs. Adam Wilt was kind enough to loan us an Ikan monitor prototype that he was reviewing, so we had a live but not very accurate color feed. Ikan monitors tend to be the “cost effective” monitor choice, but unfortunately cost effectiveness always comes at a price: proper viewing required us to be directly in front of the monitor, as off-angle viewing resulted in dramatic color and brightness shifts. It was quite a chore squeezing myself, a director and a stylist within an approximate 10 degree viewing angle.
We used Canon’s EOS utility to control the camera, and view a 1fps live image, on my Mac G4 Powerbook. (Apparently 1fps is the best one can expect over a USB cable.) For some mysterious reason Canon provides this software only to purchasers of 5D and 7D cameras, and we weren’t guaranteed access to the installation disks that originally came with either of the cameras we used. Fortunately a friend sent me this link and I was able to easily download and install the utility. Here’s hoping that Canon recognizes, soon, that those of us who rent their cameras need access to their software too.
Camera intern Ted Allen and I discuss deep and pithy things in front of our monitoring station. On the left is my G4 Powerbook running Canon’s EOS Utility; on the right is the Ikan monitor we borrowed from Adam Wilt.
The EOS utility made it possible to install our custom camera curves as well as control all exposure and look functions remotely. This allowed us to lock off the camera for our visual effects shots and roll it without having to touch it. It also gave us an additional reference image to use alongside the Ikan monitor, and by averaging the two we had a good idea of what the recorded image looked like. (The Ikan monitor was great for viewing motion, and the laptop worked very well for viewing accurate color.)
Ian borrowed one camera from a friend, and our second camera came from Ted Allen, a film student who has been interning with me for the last year. One camera was locked off for the visual effects shots while the other was free to shoot closeups, although never at the same time. We used stock 28-135mm zooms on both cameras, with an f-stop range of f3.5 (wide) to f5.0 (tight). Even though the f-stop changed when we used different focal lengths (we always lost some f-stop when zooming in) I didn’t see any obvious exposure changes in the image or on the camera histogram.
One big surprise was that the 7D didn’t seem to be as fast a camera as the 5D. I had to set the camera at 1/30th sec. shutter and ISO 320 just to get a decent exposure. This played a little bit of havoc with the green screen, as motion blur was enhanced, but Ian said he could work with it-and he did. During the shoot we also saw a fair amount of noise in the image, both on the Ikan monitor and on the laptop, but that noise disappeared in post so it seems we were mislead into thinking there was more noise in the image than there really was by the 7D’s monitor outputs.
The lower part of the background was covered by green cards as one of Nanishka’s characters was meant to lay on the bench while watching her other selves interact in the foreground. In the end this character was dropped and replaced with a clean background plate as Ian decided the story was stronger without the third character.
At one point in the song Nanishka hands herself a pair of sunglasses. This was a tricky maneuver as the glasses had to hit the same point in the same way in both plates. We put a baby nail-on plate on a short C-stand and created a platform for the sunglasses to hit, and then we marked the stand carefully. By using the same stand on the same marks Nanishka was able to take the sunglasses from a PA wearing a green glove, and later hand the same glasses to the PA for the other side of the action, while hitting the same mark each time.
Nanishka prepares to receive sunglasses. The small C-stand next to her is precisely placed so that the sunglasses always land on the same mark, no matter which character has them. Later, in different makeup, she will hand herself the sunglasses using that same platform. Note that the C-stand legs are very carefully marked for position.
Originally we tried using a regular C-stand with the arm extended but realized quickly that it was too big and cumbersome. We had to place and remove the C-stand during Nanishka’s performance, and the short stand was much easier to position without getting in Nanishka’s way. (If she’d blocked the C-stand briefly then that could be fixed through rotoscoping, but if the C-stand blocked her then there’d be no way to remove it.)
Resetting for the hand off. Production assistant Whitney Kahl stands in for Nanishka’s better half. Note her green glove, which will be replaced later with Nanishka’s performance.
If you’ve always wanted to learn to light mimes but were afraid to ask how, turn the page…
The lighting was fairly simple but took a while to set up as the technical crew consisted of myself and Ted Allen, my intern. Originally I wanted to use a Leiko to create a spotlight effect, but the Leiko we found at the studio didn’t have an iris and I couldn’t make it project a pool of light that was the right size. Instead I used a 1k Baby on full spot, with a couple of wire doubles in it to balance it with the background.
I have a healthy respect for the old masters of hard light as it can be very difficult to use, especially in color. Black and white lends itself to hard light because it’s automatically an abstract medium; our eyes expect color images to look a bit more realistic, and although there are many hard light sources in the everyday world they often blend together into a low contrast ambiance. A busy street at night is a great example of this concept: street lights, shop lights and headlights create an environment that feels like night, and contains a lot of sharp shadows, but often doesn’t contain rich, deep blacks or areas of severe contrast.
It’s difficult to light faces well using hard light. The higher the contrast on the face, the more precisely the lights must be placed. It’s very easy to make people look bad with hard light. Contrast is a key player, which means fill light plays a major role. In these images from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, note that while the key light is not placed “perfectly” the reduced contrast created by the fill light smooths the rough spots on faces:
The first three Indiana Jones movies were shot by the late Douglas Slocombe, BSC, who was the last reigning master of classical hard lighting. Whenever I want to study hard light I pull one of these films off my DVD shelf.
Classical hard light modeling illuminates the face from above and to one side with the intent of casting the nose shadow along the “smile line,” an invisible line that connects the corner of the nose to the corner of the mouth.
Classical hard lighting, with the nose shadow extending down the smile line.
I wasn’t terribly worried about lighting Nanishka with hard light, as her face is beautiful and can take light from nearly any angle, but I still wanted a properly placed fill to help her out during those moments when her head was turned at an odd angle to the key. It’s possible to compensate for an unfortunately-placed key light by placing the fill light in a pleasing position; often the placement of the fill light is more important than the placing of the key.
To get the look I wanted I knew the fill had to come from a large-ish source placed as close to the lens as possible. To that end I placed a 2’x3′ bounce card directly below the lens and hit it with a floor-mounted Baby. The combination of source size and placement near the lens gave her skin a luminous quality while also reaching under the brim of her hat and creating large eye lights.
Soft light from below does wonders for eyes and hat shadows.
Fill from below looks very real and natural, as if the light sources at the top of the frame are creating ambience by bouncing of the floor. Bouncing off the floor, however, has a very different look, and the steeper the bounce angle the more the talent will look “underlit.” Sometimes this is good, but when lighting for beauty instead of mood it’s better to fill with a large source near the lens rather than near the talent.
The effect of the fill source alone: Nanishka on the right has ducked out of her key light.
Occasionally a fill source placed beneath the lens will cast shadows upward onto walls and other background objects, but if the fill source is big enough these shadows will be very soft, natural and realistic. Sunlight striking a floor through a window will result in exactly these kinds of shadows in a room, and while we often don’t notice them consciously the subconscious picks right up on them.
The exposure was driven by the background: two Babies lit the black curtains and a 200w Inky on an overhead C-stand arm lit the background bench from above. This Inky really determined the F-stop as we weren’t able to rig a Baby on the C-stand arm due to weight. Exposing for the background bench meant pushing the ISO and opening the shutter to eliminate perceived noise, but after seeing most of that noise disappear in post I’ll keep the shutter closed down and increase the ISO in the future.
Two more Inkies served as backlights, one for each mime position. A 4’x4 tube Kino Flo with Lee 122 “Fern Green” lit the green cards that covered the bench (so that Nanishka could be inserted later, in her third on-screen role) and another Kino Flo hidden behind the bench cast a glow onto the curtains from below.
The foreground lighting setup.
I had Ted follow Nanishka with the “follow spot” Baby during her performance, and all the other lighting stayed the same to ensure consistency between the different performance passes.
Ted Allen plays follow spot operator when he’s not working as camera assistant, electrician or grip.
While our little video appeared to be the most professional entry in the Pink Martini contest the band apparently preferred a more rough and home-grown approach. We didn’t even make the top five. Although we’re all disappointed that our hard work didn’t result in a decisive win, place or show, we’re quite happy to have created a cute little art piece that has a special place on our reels.
This is what happens when you let a DP touch his own lights. The Leiko mounted to the post is not working, nor are any of the other lights in the shot beyond the Baby at the top of frame, the Baby aimed into the bounce card below the lens, and the green Kino Flo behind Nanishka.
Stills from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” are used for education purposes only and are the property of Paramount Pictures.
Dancers/Mimes: Nanishka Camberos
Story and Choreography: Ian McCamey & Nanishka Camberos
Choreography Consultant: Suzette Slaughter
Makeup/Wardrobe: Maria O’Reilly
Camera assistant/electrician: Ted Allen
Production Assistant: Whitney Kahl
Studio: The Producer’s Loft, San Francisco (Special thanks to Vic Ferrer, Owner/Benefactor, and Benoit Lacasse, Stage Manager Extraordinaire)
Art Adams is a director of photography who lights like a mime: silently and with practiced skill. His website is at www.artadams.net.