Thursday, August 18, 2011

Lighting A Scene Naturally

Here is a blog article from Shane Hurlbut, ASC that walks through his decisions in lighting the final scene of The Greatest Game Ever Played. He deals with some ideas such as "Color Contrast" that you may never have heard before. If you deal with lighting at all, you should read this. He plans to do a series of posts on lighting, so I will try to keep you up on the latest from his site.

Shane's blog.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Tool or the Task?

For several years I have followed with great interest as all the cool new tools have been released. Every few months there is a new camera that is the "must-have" for filmmaking, and hundreds of companies are now creating amazing tools for the independent filmmaker.

But the vast majority of the equipment is being purchased and reviewed by people who will never use it to create a marketable product. I know several people personally who own the latest software, hardware, cameras and accessories and never actually create anything with it. And before you think I am being too critical, know that I have my share of stuff sitting on shelves and in the garage that has rarely seen the light of day. Thinking about all of this yesterday let me to this conclusion.

You can test whether you are a true working professional by gauging the following. When you hear about an unbelievable new product, are you more excited about the tool itself or more excited about the specific task it will help you achieve? If you are mentally plugging that tool in to your existing workflow realizing that it will help you work better, faster or more economically on an upcoming project, then you are probably a professional. If you are solely interested in features, specs and marketing photos with no particular project in mind, then you are probably a hobbyist (or maybe an engineer).

I am always amazed when I talk with professionals in the film industry how little they know about the "latest and greatest." It seems they are even disinterested in it. Perhaps it is because they are entrenched in the old way of doing things and not interested in trying anything new. This is probably a little true. More likely, however, is the fact that they are more focused on the task of filmmaking than they are the tools. They are able to work with almost any tool to get a great result on-screen. And they have figured out that any new tool will eventually reveal it's limitations. Since there is no perfect tool for every job, they simply learn the limitations of the one they are using and make sure they work around those problem areas.

There is some great stuff on the market today, and I am glad for it. It has certainly made things cheaper and easier for the indy filmmaker. But there are a lot of "flavor of the weeks" out there too. To me, it is like the infomercials for kitchen tools. There are literally thousands of different types of cutters, choppers and dicers that have come and gone over the years. But no matter how many you may have bought along the way, chances are when it comes time to slice the vegetables, you end up using a plain old kitchen knife. The others were amazing when you watched the commercial and when you first used them, but for whatever reason you reverted back to the knife.

In the end, there are a lot of ways to get the job done, but if you are focused more on the tool than on the task, you will accomplish very little.

Monday, August 15, 2011

On-Camera Acting Classes

I have decided to do a group acting class each week to work with actors not only on interpretation, but on developing the necessary skills to work on a film set. My brother, Nathan, who is the Fine Arts Director at Creekside Christian Academy in McDonough, GA, is working with me to offer the classes to those involved with the school as well as to those with interest in the community. If you live in the South Atlanta area, check out the website, which will have even more information as things progress, to find out details. You can get there by clicking here.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Directing Fact #3 - The Books Are Right

Every book I read, every seminar I attended and everyone I talked to said the same thing. "Never do a movie with children or animals!" I guess I thought it was just something people liked to joke about, because I promptly went out and wrote a script that featured both.

It is not that all kids or animals are problems, in fact, I had a few really talented kids who were much more professional on-set than were some of the adults (including seven-year-old Chase Wainscott, pictured here). However, it only takes one or two poorly-behaved kids to turn the entire set into utter chaos. One of our most tension filled moments of the production came after about three hours of trying to get ten kindergartners to walk single file down a school hallway without looking at the camera. Everyone on the crew was yelling either at each other or at the kids. Between takes, the 2nd AD and one of the PA's were trying to keep the kids in a line by playing follow the leader between rows of desks in a classroom. One of the five year-olds looked at me during this exercise with seething hatred in his eyes and asked, "What is this, some kind of a circus?" Well, yes, actually. That is what it had become. The worst thing about the situation was that one of our executive producers had chosen that very moment to bring some of his friends on-set to see the production. They did not stay long.

When you realize that every additional take you shoot is money, it becomes important to cast professionals in your film so that you can get great stuff quickly and consistently. Screen actors must be skilled in doing multiple things at once. Not only do they have to jump into character immediately and remain in character for reaction shots, but they must at the same time perform precision blocking, hit floor marks exactly without looking, stay open to the camera when other actors move, and be conscious of leaving extra space in the dialogue for editing, Oh, and they must do the entire scene EXACTLY the same way every single time. Children, while they may be great on-screen, rarely have the ability to pull off this combination of things. They also need a lot of reminders about things like speaking clearly. Therefore, you spend a lot of time in additional takes and you pray that there will be options for cutting shots together with continuity once you get into the editing room. In addition to their acting inabilities, children are also subject to child-labor regulations that dictate a shorter workday with more breaks. This results in a less productive daily schedule.

Animals do not need much explanation, but you should heed the warnings there as well. Unless you are using trained animals, you will spend a lot of time even on the simplest task. We needed a dog to jump up in a window sill to scare our kids. No amount of coaxing or treats would do it for a good thirty minutes before we finally got lucky. Horses tend to be frightened by large reflectors and run away at the least opportune times. If you need just one or two to stand in a particular place, good luck. You have to use feed to get them there, but that also brings the other six horses from across the field. In most cases you have either no horses in your shot or too many. All that said, it is very rewarding to get a great shot with horses in the background.

Would I ever do a movie with children and animals again? Probably (except for kindergartners). But I would be sure to plan appropriately and spend more rehearsal time working through the exact blocking they would be doing on-set. I would also audition more carefully and would have someone stationed in the waiting room during auditions to find out which hellions we should send packing.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Directing Fact #2 - Time Flies. Period.

You may think this photo is from a night shoot, but no. This is just after finishing our final scene on Day 5. There are a lot of reasons this one went long, not the least of which is that we were attempting the impossible--shooting actors on one boat from another boat without either boat being anchored to anything. What a nightmare. But even without that impossible task, we had a difficult time making our days, simply because everything takes longer than you expect. I don't know how many times I thought to myself that a particular simple scene or portion thereof would take a couple of hours when in fact it took two or three times that long. Learning to estimate the shooting schedule is critical, but coming to the realization that there is no such thing as a simple scene is a good start.

Even the simplest scene with two actors requires a minimum of 3-5 setups. Outside of the setup time required for blocking and lighting (30 to 90 minutes), there are a huge number of other factors which can eat time off the clock. Delays during setup can include power issues, equipment malfunctions, intermittent cloud cover, makeup and costume problems, missing props, location issues, crew indecision and more. Once you actually roll camera, there are any number of things that can ruin a take. These include actors missing marks, flubbing lines, looking at the camera or breaking continuity. Of course, you can expect multiple takes for getting the perfect performance as you have envisioned it. There are also camera issue such as lens flares, improper exposure, operator error, boom mic in shot, wrong framing, wrong timing between the dolly and actors, bugs or other stray objects in frame, or the biggest issue of all--missed focus. The sound department also contributes their share of re-takes for any number of sound issues including mic interference, visible mics, handling noise, air traffic, animals, insects, vehicles, trains, air conditioning units, lawn mowers, noisy off-screen cast and crew, and everything else you can imagine. Now, throw in complicated technical elements such as extras blocking, untrained animals, airplanes taking off/landing during a scene, remote-control helicopters hitting marks, etc.

This list is only things that happened during our recent film shoot to cause delays. It is by no means comprehensive. When you consider that a take must be free of all of these issues in order to be usable, it really does become necessary to shoot a huge number of takes in order to get even one that can be considered good. So, you can see why even a scene with only three setups (angles) can never be considered "simple." The lesson to be learned is that a shooting schedule with high per-day page counts will often result in either incomplete days or in compromised production value. Finding a balance between meeting the budget and keeping the quality high (technically and in performance) is certainly one of the biggest challenges a director faces.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I Know These People!

This is one of the funniest videos I have seen in a long time. Every single statement in the piece is one that I have heard multiple times over the years. If you are a video professional, I am sure it will ring true with you as well.

Can't believe it took me this long to find such and excellent video! Watch it here.

Lighting Tip #10 - The Language of Lighting

Which face in the two images on the left would be considered properly lit? While you may instantly decide that you prefer one over the other, the fact is that either one could be correct. In the context of this particular film, however, one would be correct and the other would be very wrong. The only way to know which is correct is to know the lighting ratio that has been pre-determined for the project.

Lighting ratio is simply a way to communicate the difference in level between the key and the fill as it falls on the subject. A ratio of 2:1 (something like the image on the left) would be much more evenly lit than a ratio of 5:1 (something like the image on the right). My numbers for these particular shots are guesses, by the way, since I did not measure the light on location--but you get the point.

In this film, which is a children's film, the decision was made in pre-production to keep it bright and happy. The best way to accomplish this goal was first of all to choose colorful locations, costumes and set decorations. Equally important, however, was to keep the lighting ratio low. This is why the image on the left is the only choice that could work for our film. The image on the right is much more moody, gritty and dark, which may be perfect for another film. And, in fact, it could work in our film, but only if we were trying to accomplish a dark, scary effect on one of the subjects.

Why is it important to know all of this? Well, it is the language of lighting. How else could we describe to the second unit director of photography how to light scenes that will match the first unit? How else could the History Channel hire DP's in ten locations to shoot interviews for a show and have them all look like they were shot by the same crew? It is critical to be able to describe to someone else what you are looking for, and that is where knowing your lighting ratio is important. It is important for your own shooting as well. If you can have a clear idea of the ratio you want while you are lighting each shot, you will end up with a much more consistent-looking project in the end.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Lighting in the Real World

Dan Lennie at F-Stop Academy has put together some very extensive training programs for would-be video producers. One segment that he is offering as a stand alone module is called "Lighting For Digital Filmmakers" and is currently at a special price.

The one thing I think is a problem for those of us trying to learn more about lighting is that most training only deals with 3-point lighting and generally the examples shown are interviews. It becomes infinitely more complicated, however, when you are lighting a "real-world" scene, especially one in which characters are moving around. Dan deals with this more effectively than most training courses do. You can learn more by checking out his website.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

First Movie Poster for The Solomon Bunch

Just created a temporary poster for The Solomon Bunch. We needed something to submit along with all the information to be listed on the IMDb website. Everything should be online within the next week or so.

Visit the official website for now and I will post once they have us online at IMDb.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Directing Fact #1 - YOU are not making a movie.

I come from twenty years of productions that for all intents and purposes have been a one-man show. I have many times marveled at the credits on television documentaries, wondering why in the world they would need that many people. More often than not, I choose to not list credits at the end of my own productions because I am embarrassed that I only have three or four names total. While this can and has worked for me in documentary, promo, training and commercial productions, it does not work on a film set.

Preparing for my first film, I found myself often making a mental note of something I would need to be sure to take care of on a particular day of the shoot. They were all very simple things that would not take any time or effort at all. But somewhere along the way, I started to realize how fast they were adding up. There would be no way for me to oversee all of these little things by myself. So I began passing them off, which now unnerved my production manager and assistant directer since these were things they had not heard about previously. I finally got my list down to just one task the night before shooting began and one task on the morning of Day 1.

The first task was putting together the sound cart for our audio guys. Most of the equipment was mine or stuff I had borrowed, and I already had a plan for how to rig it up as a cart. I estimated about two hours to put it together. I was a little off. By the time we had rigged it all together, labeled everything, proved microphones, set up recording templates and gathered all the accessories that might be needed, I got a total of fifteen minutes of sleep.

The task the next morning was much easier. I had agreed to pull the trailer with our movie car to the set. This would not be a problem since I was driving my SUV to the set anyway. Call time was at 8 am, but at 8:45 I was still waiting alongside the Interstate for a police officer to show up. With a flat tire on the trailer, my plan was to simply unload the movie car and drive it the last 30 miles to the set where it would be needed soon. I could not do that, however, without a police escort since my movie car was a very convincing police cruiser. While I really could not afford to be a couple of hours late to the set, I figured it was a better option than being arrested for impersonating a police officer. After permissions and escorts from two counties, I finally drove onto the set in the police car.

No one noticed, of course, because they were already busy shooting the first scene (as I had instructed them by phone). Looking around, I suddenly realized two things. First, this was way bigger than me. My first AD and Director of Photography had things humming and probably would have had a decent scene in the can whether I showed up or not. It was humbling, but it also gave me a great sense of respect for what we were undertaking. My second realization, however, was that I would not see my own vision for my film on-screen if I was also a PA, grip, sound guy, production manager and driver.

A film is like a ship at sea. A lot of people and processes are in place to make it move and maneuver. The captain may be running the show, but his only real job is to hire a good crew and then make sure the boat is always pointed in the right direction. If he has to run up and down the ship taking care of things, no matter how important or how simple, he will be distracted and the results could be disastrous. As a director, after you have found great actors and a great crew in pre-production, you should be focused on only two things--getting the coverage you will need in the edit room, and getting the performance you want from your actors. Everything else is a distraction that someone else should be handling. It is not easy to make this happen on a small budget project, but I believe it is the key to having a great, cohesive end-product that you will be happy with.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Lighting Tip #9 - Know Your Camera

While good lighting practices generally apply to every situation, it is important to know the capabilities and limitations of the camera and format you are shooting on. The amount of latitude in a camera can make a difference in the way you light. For example, when using a camera with 10 stops of dynamic range, you will be forced to light the scene much more evenly than if you had 14 stops. With a higher latitude camera, you can get away with including both well-lit and very shadowy areas in the same scene--and it may actually create a better result in some cases.

Another thing that is important to know is how your camera handles highlights. Some cameras have a nice-looking roll-off into a blown-out window while others may have the same window looking like a home video. If your camera falls under the latter category, then you will have to bring up the overall lighting of the interior, gel the window with a neutral density filter. or simply find a way to keep the window out of the shot. Be aware that each camera handles differently the highlights in different colors as well. Some may blow out reds before any other color, so you will need to take that into account when lighting the scene.

The overall light level of a scene can be affected by the camera as well. For example, if you have a camera with a higher ISO rating, then you are able to work with much less light and get the same results. While one camera may require an evening scene to have a 5k light as a key and a bunch of lights bringing up the background, another camera may capture the same scene with a small KinoFlo as the key and existing light for the background. In the picture above, we shot a scene of two boys in a fishing boat at close to nine o'clock at night. It was supposed to be a daytime scene, and because we were shooting with a camera rated at 800 ISO (Sony PMW-F3), we were able to get the look of daylight with just existing light and a single Litepanel LED light. On most cameras, this would have looked far too grainy to be of use.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Inception - Behind the Scenes

Here is a BTS video I found to be very interesting and informative. It covers the filming of fight scenes that were done in a tumbling hallway. I am glad someone out there is willing to put in the effort to figure this kind of thing out, because I have a feeling I will be making no such contribution to the filmmaking industry.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Great Camera Shootout 2011

Zacuto has posted a new documentary which compares the capabilities of most of the popular film cameras on the market today. It is a very in-depth and scientific comparison that will give you a good grasp on which cameras work best in which situations. The Sony F3, which we used on our recent film shoot, is included, and I thought the results matched very closely to what we found on-set. One thing in particular that seems to be a weak point is the way it handles yellows. It tends to overexpose in the yellows well before it overexposes in any other color. We thought this was strange while shooting, and sure enough these tests found the same thing. Other than that, I thought it matched up well against the other professional formats when you consider the price range it comes in. Take a look at this documentary, which is in three parts. The final segment is due out sometime this month.