My first RED shoot: The training wheels come off!

Okay, I have to admit it: I now like this camera more than I thought I would.

As those of you who read Adam Wilt’s blog know, he and I and some other members of the Digital Cinema Society (Pacific Northwest Chapter) got together and did our first official RED shoot. To say that it came together quickly is an understatement. I had the idea to do the shoot on Monday, April 21st, and we shot on Saturday, April 26th, without knowing quite what we were going to shoot.

That fateful Monday found me driving around on various errands and thinking about my demo reel, which I felt was ready to ship but for the burning and packaging. After a conversation with my buddy Jay Farrington, DIT and co-owner of a local camera rental house (Chater Camera) in which the word “RED” occurred over and over again, it struck me that my reel would be a bit more powerful if I had something to show that I’d shot on this camera that I’d been testing so long.

I’d shot a similar project in 2000, when I needed some “new fangled” HD footage to show around. Jay and I joined forces with a local director and put together a tabletop setup on a small blue screen stage, which we then shot with an F900. None of us had ever used the camera before, but we figured it out and actually did some fairly nice work. My initial idea was to do the same thing again, which begged the question of where and what to shoot. I called my friend Craig Thomas and asked if we could shoot at his house, and to my surprise he said yes.

Craig and his wife Diana have a marvelous Mission-style home in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland. Not only is it decked out in beautiful dark wood but it’s filled with odd and interesting antiques. It literally looks like a house from another era, although which era might be hard to nail down. The centerpiece of the living room, for example, is a 1950’s era wood cabinet television set that’s been gutted, with a new color tube put inside.

Craig is a 3D animator who occasionally directs. He used to do a lot of broadcast design work, as well as own his own ad agency in New York, so he’s no stranger to production. That’s why I never thought he’d agree to let me use his house as a location. But he did, and he even agreed to my timeline: a shoot the following Saturday, starting in the afternoon and going until we were done. Anyone who has ever seen a film crew shoot in someone’s home makes a mental note never to let that happen to them, but he and Diana were more than happy to let me do whatever I wanted. Now THAT’S friendship.

Speaking of friendship, I then called on a group of DCS members to help me out: Adam Wilt, HD genius and minor digital deity, agreed to be my digital acquisition supervisor and do whatever else needed doing. Tim Blackmore signed on as “factotum”, and DCS Pacific Northwest Chapter president Simon Sommerfeld agreed to help as well, bringing along some of his own lighting and grip equipment.

Chater Camera allowed me to take any available gear I wanted, as long as I had insured it (that was my first experience getting my own production insurance!) and I quickly ended up with a full RED package, a set of Zeiss Ultra Primes, Sachtler 30 sticks and a selection of filters and diopters, as well as some basic lighting/grip equipment. Adam supplied a 17″ Panasonic LCD monitor.

My initial thought was to exploit my cousin’s teenage daughters in a Verizon Wireless spec spot. I’d been tossing around the idea for a while, but when my cousin’s kids turned out to be unavailable I had to punt. I’m not the strongest people director, and although I’m perfectly happy shooting tabletop on my own I had Jay Farrington’s voice ringing in my ears: “You’re good at shooting faces. Get some flesh tone in there.”

I’d recently made the acquaintance of a local director, Jono Schaferkotter. Jono is a media designer for Compass Rose Media and he’d been given the chance to direct a corporate project for them that I subsequently shot. We’d gotten along really well, and I thought I’d take a chance and ask him if he was interested and available. He was, and when I described the location he said he had an idea percolating in his head that would make for a great spec spot: “Nintendo Wii: The New Classic.”

Initially Jono asked a friend to portray our middle-aged Wii player but the friend backed out a few days before the shoot. When I mentioned this to Craig he said he had a neighbor that had a great look and might be willing to play the part. As a result we ended up with Bob Craig, the guy who lived across the street from Craig, as our talent. Neither Jono nor I had any idea what he looked like before we arrived at the shoot, but he turned out to be perfect.

It was very much a “my dad’s got a barn and mom can sew costumes, so let’s put on a show!” production, but it had the makings of something promising. We plunged blindly ahead, hoping enthusiasm would make up for planning. (It did.)

For the nuts and bolts, continue to page 2.

Building the RED wasn’t hard at all, because there just weren’t that many parts. Chater Camera had added a riser to the Arri matte box mount so it would fit properly on the front of the RED, and once I figured out which proprietary cable went where it was quick to get the LCD on-camera monitor plugged in and ready to go. The RED drive mounted reasonably easily, although the drive enclosure sits on a hinge which is not adjustable without the proper hex tool. That was a bit annoying, as I’d like to be able to be able to move the drive out of the way quickly depending on the specifics of operating the shot.

We didn’t have a viewfinder. I’ve been told by a couple of owner/operators and rental houses that as soon as they saw them they sent them back for being too cheap. The LCD was fine under our conditions. I was a bit concerned about seeing focus on such a small on-camera display but Adam showed me that not only did the camera offer a zoom-in option (coded to user button 2) but the LCD had an additional zoom button. It became relatively easy to judge critical focus on the RED LCD, something I’d not expected when viewing a 4k image through a 720 line monitor. I’m not sure the LCD would be much help judging critical focus on a moving close up, but for what we were doing it was just fine.

I’d originally wanted to shoot the entire spot under tungsten light, knowing that’s where the camera had historically been weaker, but that fact that we had to start shooting night-for-day in a house with a lot of windows ruled that out. Blue is a very invasive color and a little goes a long way, and I learned long ago that if I had blue light leaking into a tungsten scene it can be faster and easier to switch over to 5600k light rather than try to clean the blue up with limited time and budget. Another factor was that the TV had gone from being an interesting background object to the star of the show (a Wii played through a 1950’s era TV is quite something to see!) and as the TV screen is very cool in color temperature (approximate white point of 6500k) it made more sense to light everything with 5600k light. (There was one exception to this rule.)

We had the option of tungsten lights with full CTB, 4″ 4-tube Kino Flos (which could be bulbed for tungsten or daylight) and a 400w Joker HMI. We used them all at one time or another, but there were only three instances where I used more than one light per setup.

The first shot was of an old radio: wide static, wide pan, tight static, tight pan. I thought I saw a little rolling shutter judder on the on-camera LCD, saw a little bit on playback, and again later when viewing the footage via the log-and-transfer plugin in Final Cut Pro–but most of that went away after processing through Red Cine. Normally one shoots tabletop at 30 fps to eliminate strobing on pans, as strobing shows up much quicker when you’re panning across an object that’s very close to the camera, but I decided to go with my normal 23.98 fps with a 1/40th shutter. 1/40th (or 217 degrees) puts the exposure time right in the middle of the 60hz flicker-free zone, and as I’d seen rolling shutter artifacts when shooting a test under Ace Hardware cool white flourescents I decided not to take any chances.

After finding a panning speed that worked for the radio we checked a little bit of footage. Sucking the R3D files off the drive took quite a lot of time, so we spot checked footage by opening the R3D directly on the RED drive and looking at it in Red Cine (at which Adam is a wiz). We saved the export process for large-scale lighting changes. Part of the lengthy transfer process was due to the Firewire 400 limitation on my portable drives.

The next shot was of a 100-year-old music box with a large two foot punch-holed “record”. The lighting for this shot was very simple: we placed a bounce card against the wall, lit it with a tungsten unit gelled with CTB, and reflected the card in the platter. I later added a little bit of digital ND grad to the shot during color correction (to be covered in a future article).

We moved quickly through two other shots that I’m not that excited about, the fishbowl and the toy train, before we really started to find our way. We shot “portraits” of some clay doll heads in a cabinet by the fireplace, lit very simply with a Kino Flo (daylight-balanced) placed about four feet away.

You can’t tell very well from this still but we lit our talent, Bob, as a reflection in the glass while he played tennis with the Wii.

After shooting a wide and tight with the Ultra Primes I put on my Lensbaby just for kicks. It yielded a really interesting shot, where I was able to place the focus precisely on the ruby red lips of one of the doll heads and let the rest of the image fall out of focus. This lens, plus accessories such as a wide and tight adapter and a set of macros, only cost around $450-$500 for the entire kit, so I carry it around with me just in case I see an opportunity to use it. The adapters give me a three focal length range (approximately 35mm, 50mm and 85mm) and the macros let me shoot nearly 1:1 when using a Pro35 or 35mm-sized sensor. It’s a cool trick to have around, just in case.

After dinner we moved on to shooting some other shots that didn’t make it into the final piece, such as a globe lit from the inside and a row of still cameras. Due to the underexposure latitude of the camera and the speed at which I had to move to get us out of the location before morning I lit these shots very quickly and simply, with a Kino Flo from the side and ambient fill. I knew I could deepen the shadows later if I wanted to.

We did shoot our one tungsten shot of the day right after dinner: a shot of a ceiling, with a light fixture in the foreground, with shadows playing on the ceiling as someone in the next room plays with the Wii. I did that with a tungsten balance to match the lights in the ceiling fixture but in retrospect I should have been a bit more daring and used 5600k light to do the ceiling effect. Final color correction showed that 3200k light doesn’t turn bright nasty orange/green under a daylight white balance on this camera the way it does on other cameras. I could have been more aggressive with the color, although as this was my first real RED shoot I opted to stay neutral and create a sepia tint in post.

This was lit almost entirely by a 2k bounced into a 4×4 piece of foam core in the next room. The shadow in the upper left corner was made a little less dense by one lit tube in a Kino Flo laying on the floor. The shadow on the ceiling is Bob playing with the Wii.

Then we started getting into the hero shots. It was dark outside now, so we could open up our shots and include windows in the background. We shot the TV set using a P+S Technik Mini Skater Dolly, a very small, low and smooth-rolling device that’s great for tabletop work. I knew a doorway dolly wouldn’t be smooth enough for what I needed to do, and I didn’t want to subject my crew to wrestling a real dolly up the outside steps to the front door. I also thought the low angle, rolling the Skater dolly on the floor, would be pretty cool.

We lit this by bouncing the 400w Joker into the corner of the room over the TV to bring a little light down on the wall from above, allowing the TV to pop out a little bit. We filled with a vertical Kino Flo at a strong side angle, to bring out some texture on the TV chassis and to keep it out of the reflections in the front of the tube. I exposed the TV set picture at Zone 8 on my spot meter (set at 320 ASA).

During this time we became aware that we were getting quite a bit of moire on the TV tube, and no degree of adjusting and tweaking got rid of it. It changed as I dollied around the set, and some angles were better than others, but it was really infuriating after a while. We couldn’t get rid of it. Finally, Adam told me flat out that, effectively, we were doing the worst thing you can do with a sensor: shoot another sensor. The RED’s 4k worth of photosites were going to beat against the TV’s .5k worth of pixels no matter what we did. Eventually I just threw the image slightly out of focus, which eliminated the moire and will look fine once it’s downrez’d to 1k HD or NTSC.

The other issue we had to deal with was that we couldn’t get rid of the TV roll bar by setting the camera at 1/60th shutter. We had to go to 1/30th for all shots involving the TV. We still had a phase issue but at least the roll bar became a couple of lines that slowly moved through the shot instead of being more offensive. (I’m not very excited about shooting screen shots with this camera in the future.)

After that shot we turned around and featured our “talent” for the first time. Bob had never acted before but did an excellent job of taking direction, evoking several comments that the casting for this spot was excellent. We lit this shot with a couple of 4×4 bounces set on the floor, with a gelled 2k bouncing into it. We also added a little bit of light to the background around the front doorway by bouncing a smalled CTB-gelled tungsten light into the ceiling.

Our second to last shot was the “product shot”: The Wii controller being placed on the top of the television. I used a bounce card, reflected in the wooden top of the TV set, to light both the top of the TV and the Wii controller. We shaped the light so that it created a bit of an isolated shine in the top of the TV, and added a bounce to the left of camera to bring up the shadow side of a remote a little to keep the shot from being too moody.

There’s a splotch on the wood near the top of the controller that Craig is going to remove for me. That shot should be ready on Monday, and I hope to assemble the final piece on Thursday (after shooting Tuesday and Wednesday).

The last shot was the hardest, because it was our widest shot so far and we shot it around 1am in the morning. I ended up lighting it with one light, the 400w Joker, aimed across the top of the set onto the far wall. I wanted to create a bounced light source that would radiate from the back of the set forward, softly backlighting everything in the shot and spilling minimally across the background. There was a little more spill on the background than I’d like, but the shot worked–and I helped shape it a little during color correction by adding a grad to the top of the frame.

I only used fill on one shot on this shoot; most of the shots didn’t need it and the camera saw plenty of detail in the shadows. I was very paranoid about clipping channels, though, and later on I found I’d been a bit too cautious. Even though we’re told to shoot the camera like a film stock, my practice of placing shadows on specific zones (see the Ansel Adams Zone System) turned out to be a bit too “thin” for the RED. The digital negative ended up being about a stop under overall, with a little more noise than I’d like, so in the future I’m going to meter to determine a base stop and then open up the aperture while watching the histogram. If I clip a highlight in one channel I’m not going to worry about it, as it’s more important to keep the signal above the noise than it is to worry about one bright spot that can probably be fixed in post.

I’ll detail the color correction adventure in a future post. I certainly learned a lot about posting RED footage in a low budget workflow environment, and I hope you won’t have to make the same mistakes I did.

For shoot credits please see page 3.

Produced in cooperation with the Digital Cinema Society, Pacific Northwest Chapter

Nintendo Wii: “Classic”

Director: Jono Shaferkotter

Director of Photography: Art Adams

Digital Acquisition Supervisor: Adam Wilt

Gaffer: Simon Sommerfeld

Factotum: Tim Blackmore

Editors: Jono Shaferkotter, Craig Thomas

Music: Rachel Williams

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Art Adams is a cinema lens specialist at ARRI, Inc. Before that, he was a freelance cinematographer for 26 years. You can see his work at Art has been published in HD Video Pro,…

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