#1 I’m as equally terrible a DP as I am a great DP
People say (and I’m personally guilty of this) that you can make a beautiful image with any camera as long as you know how to use it, but I think that’s just bullshit we tell our students or ourselves when we don’t have access to the tools we want. In the ideal world of filmmaking this would be true, maybe it is true in the right hands with the right expectations. But making movies (or maybe just going to film school) really ruins your attitude towards filmmaking because it puts the pressure, self-imposed as it may be, of the entire history of cinema and breeds a sense of competition between your art and everyone else’s . I suppose this happens in all the arts but film is a special medium that not only requires a lot of technical skills, but also an incredible amount of money to keep up with the exponential advancement of technology where the gap between how much money you have really shows.
(DIY light stands)
Nakom did not have a lot of money for production. After the costs of transporting the crew into the upper east corner of Ghana and acquiring the long list of props and making a living space for the 2+ months of production there was only 3k left over for all equipment expenses. The long production and lack of proper insurance put rentals out of the question, not to mention the entirety of the gear package needed to fly into the country with me as clandestinely as possible as to not raise suspicions about our tourist visas. So we made a few essential purchases: new tripod, monitor, rounded out my existing Nikon prime set, lots of small extension chords and sockets, and the rest came from my personal gear or generous donations by other filmmakers. I knew it was gong to be tough out there and I was going into battle with little support, but I figured I could handle it like I have on every other project.
(The TV Logic 56WP was my best friend on set, especially for framing in 2.35:1 and shooting in spaces too tight for an operator and a camera)
When I first arrived on location I took my light meter out just to get an idea of what I was up against. I turned on ambient and took a reading: f64. Then I took out my spot meter and pointed it at one of the local boys who had gathered around to see what the heck this stranger was doing with this funny device, staring at the sun and shaking his head: f16. Then I took a spot reading on the sky: Eo. Exposure over, the meter doesn’t go that high. If I was shooting on another camera system (or better yet film) instead of on the SONY FS100, I probably would have bypassed this concern knowing I had enough latitude to handle that sort of high contrast situation. But instead what I thought was that all our work was going to be in vain.
(The FS100 rates at about 10-12 stops depending on scene file settings but the 28mb AVCHD compression really limits major color correction saves in post)
I’m a DP. My job is to take what is in the director’s mind or the words on the page, and make it concrete; that’s what I tell people who have no idea what a DP is. That is what’s at the core of the job to me. All the other stuff is built upon this and, unfortunately, I’m bad at my job sometimes. I get caught up in the lighting being imperfect, the location too short for a proper wide shot, the fact that an actor has to walk over there for the story but I don’t like how it messes up my wet-dream of a frame. I forget my job is to be unnoticed, at least consciously, by the audience. I forget that great cinematography assists the story, not overshadows it.
But there is a second side to the job of being a DP when you don’t have the budget to hire a full crew, and that is all the technical aspects of capturing the image. Someday perhaps I can have a team that handles that aspect, though the nerd in me will never completely ignore it, but for now it’s also my responsibility to handle all the technical on top of the creative side of the camera and that is where I catch myself getting caught up.
(We quickly realized we were going to be far over our planned shooting ratio and needed to do some math to figure out how many extra cards to try and ship in)
(Notes for lighting and camera)
There are two types of cinematographers in me: one that takes all the experience of shooting documentaries and other on-the-fly projects to accommodate and roll with any punch, make the best of it, and another that is a perfectionist. To be a good DP, or a good person, you need a balance of both these personas. When I’m looking at a shot in the blazing African sun with an unforgiving white sky and dark-skinned actors I shouldn’t be cursing my director’s for putting me in this situation, but stepping back and thinking about how best to work with what’s there and make sure the audience doesn’t notice.
(We didn’t have a ladder so my AC JB employed a little help in wrapping the china ball)
(JB taking one for the team by hollywooding an exposed bulb to get some background illumination for an interior night shot. See below shot for why this was a big favor)
(Bugs are attracted to light, and we have the only light for miles)
The proper thing to do in al these situations is get the frustration out (preferably as internally as possible) and then buckle down to find the best compromise between reality and perfection. 8 out of 10 times I could do that, and that’s what makes me a great DP, but I couldn’t do it every time; I couldn’t let go of certain stubbornness that MY shot wasn’t perfect, that MY vision of the scene wasn’t what was happening on set, or that MY idea was better than the director’s idea. I curse the directors, the lack of gear, the weather, but mostly I curse the camera and myself, and that’s why I’m a terrible DP.
(On a particularly hard shooting day I just sat down and meditated in between takes to keep focused and centered)
Nakom was no walk in the park for any department. The sound department met with a huge battery issue (at on point we changed bats every 2 takes), faulty wiring, and a general lack of experienced boom operators (we even had one guy who was deaf operating the boom). Production was literally impossible in the traditional sense and our PM must have been a magician to hold everything together. Her job was so crazy I can’t even go into it but let’s start with the fact 4 out of 5 actors didn’t have clocks of any sort. There was not one actor in the film who had ever been in a movie, so the directors had to start from scratch with every single person. Compound this with directing a movie in a language few people speak which has no traditional written form in a village so remote it’s not even on the map and you have the most nightmarish directing job I’ve ever heard of. All of these people were struggling to do there job as best they could despite the environment trying it’s best to thwart them.
(With no trees to climb, we resorted to this setup to get an arial shot of a scene)
So I’m extra ashamed to say it was hard at times to separate my anger at the directors from the film. Occasionally I even have the desire to sabotage the film to get back at the people involved. Though I never act upon this, and fleeting as it always is, I’m ashamed that the thought has crossed my mind. It’s cowardly, like punching someone’s child to get back at the parent knowing the blow would hurt more than a direct one. And as the guy behind the camera, there is a lot you can do to abuse your power to ruin a film. I told you, I’m a terrible DP.
But then I remind myself: the film hasn’t done anything to you, it IS you. On set we are all parents, and directors and DPs are like spouses in that you both love your kids so much you fight with one another over what’s best for them. Filmmaking, unlike many other artistic mediums, is very rarely the product of a sole artist. Each person who is making the film gives a little something to the production whether they are the director or a PA. It’s what makes filmmaking so special. In fact, the love of collaboration is what enticed me towards being a cinematographer instead of photographer (that and a bit of cowardice at being solely responsible for my art).
Which leads me to the 2nd thing Nakom taught me.
NEXT UP: Life (and movies) is about people, not things.
And once again the group of Japanese friends comes up with some new rrrrrrrroll gifs, which haven’t lost their creativity since our last post.
Whole lamb in cuts
15 cuts of venison
Bag of deer brains for tanning
8 packages of beef
10 packages bones for stock
1 baby octopus
30+ jars/bags fruit mashed
15 bags fruit whole
20 bags fruit dried
Jar of sassafras bark
Bag of whisky stones
7 bars lamb soap
2 bags bee food
Bag of beeswax hand cream
Jar of dead bees
5 whole quail w/ feathers
Re: Arial Shots
Remember when I mentioned the joys and pitfalls of getting arial shots from trees? (read it here)
Well, this is what happens when you don’t have a tree to climb. Luckily my AC JBzor found a decent sized stick and, being a wide shot, the boom op Key Soap could sacrifice sound for safety and prop me up from both sides of this crumbling mud wall. The director threw himself in as the final break-your-fall safety as, after all, it was his idea to get an arial shot in this location.
Sometimes the making of a film is just as interesting as the making of the film. Over the next few weeks I’ll be jotting down notes, ideas, tips and retellings of some of the more challenging, interesting, or inspiring moments that happened throughout the production of Nakom in the upper east region of Ghana. In the mean time What Took You So Long made this BTS short that is guaranteed to wet your whistle.
Dance til you drop (at Pusiga, Ghana)
In pre-production we put a lot of thought into what camera system we’d use for the film Nakom. We had a few requirements for the camera that were entirely environmental and, obviously as it is on any production, budget considerations as well. Because we were shooting in such a remote place that does not have electricity, we needed a camera with exceptional battery capacity, and we wanted those batteries to be lightweight and do double duty in some of the portable lighting units we planned to bring. It was also essential that the camera itself be light as I was flying in with only what I could carry myself for gear save a few items the directors brought ahead of time. That included all support, lighting, G&E, sound, really close to everything gear related was coming in my bags. The last big environmental issue was the extremes of light that we knew were going to exist filming on location in Ghana. I took my first light meter reading when I arrived at had an f45.5, and at night it’s completely underexposed with nothing but small fires and the moon for illumination.
In the end we settled on using the SONY FS100 for a number of reasons. First, we had used that camera on our previous collaboration, Sombras De Azul, and I knew the directors felt comfortable with the camera and its capabilities. Secondly, it fit the criteria for exceptional battery life and a small, lightweight profile which cameras like the Alexa or Black Magic did not. And third we knew we could record simultaneously to a 128gig FMU and SD cards to make solid state backups as we went, allowing us to film for 707 min before needing to get to power to offload the FMU to external drives. The final selling point was I knew the camera could survive the extreme heat which a RED system or a DSLR setup is less acclimated for. It also has an exceptional image stabilizer when coupled with SONY E-mount lenses which, though not my favorite lenses, are fairly reliable and neutral looking. That stabilizer really comes in handy when you’re standing in the back of a moving motoking or handheld 15m up in a tree getting arial shots.
I do have the SONY 18-200mm on set, which is my primary daytime lens, and a set of Nikon photo primes in 24mm (f2.8) 28mm (f2.0) 35mm (f2.8) and 50mm (f1.4) which are my primary night and interior lenses. I was planning on using the Nikons as much as possible because i love how sharp they are and feel they flatten the image mite than the SONY zoom, but have found that with the Nikon to E-mount adaptor needed to get them onto the FS the lenses flare more than usual and can appear cloudy if not properly shaded. I also purchased an ND fader for the lenses but once I got it in the field I found it was adding even more haze to the image and was upsettingly warming for an ND filter but with just a polarizer I was looking at f22+ in the sun and no lens looks good all the way up there. In the end I simply had to give up using them outdoors which is a real shame as they give a much more vibrant image and life than the SONY 18-200.
Every exterior is shot with a polarizer, I never take it off during the day. If I can afford the stop I keep it on inside as well. Many actors are bald plus its very hot so we all sweat; the pola helps me control the shine as there is no make-up on set. Bright exteriors get an ND 6 or 8, sometimes both to get stop into a 5.6 range, though some days I’m still shooting at f11 or f16.
We were happy to find that the batteries are running about 3-4 hours each and all multiple mights in the LED units I have. I brought 8 along and one did go down but we’re still managing to keep power available by sending a daily run on a moto to the nearest town with electricity, a 45min round trip.
So far I’ve been very happy with the camera’s performance. SONY is legendary for low light performance and noise so I’m not afraid to push the camera up higher than I would other systems although coupled with the Nikons and a scene file I created specially for my lighting I’ve been able to maintain an f4 at only ISO 1000. I did have to push up to ISO 1600 for 2 night glidecam scenes to shoot at f5.6 but know from previous experience that even at ISO 2000 I’d be happy with the image noise, after ISO 4000 I will really regret it later. I’m especially proud of the night exteriors which was a big anxiety for me in preproduction and the SONY low light algorithm has been a big part of that success.
I am also using a TV Logic monitor for 90% of the set-ups, the exception being glidecam shots where I’ve had too many struggles getting proper balance. We love it because it allows us to see the 2.35 matte clean and I use the false colors function during the tricky daytime exposures and peaking for focus at night, the Nikons being particularly finicky with their tiny throw.
I think the most useful item on set had been my directors viewfinder. It was a gift from my wife because she knew I would have never bought one for myself, and it has been an incredible tool for both myself and the directors to scout locations and brainstorm shots beforehand. It also speeds up the process on set because when moving angles I’ll often grab the viewfinder and get the angle, height and lens dialed in without having to lug the camera over first. Another great tool has been a small $30 tripod which I use mostly as a stand for an LED light, but doubles as a high hat for shots too low for my regular sticks. It’s also great for Broll days which get very tiring when lugging larger legs around. They are so fast and simple that you don’t hesitate to just grab a shot real quick and thus we are greatly increasing the variety and more spontaneous moments you miss when needing to stop and set up the full rig.
The trade offs for using the FS100 are definitely in the highlights and only 1080 capability. I really pushed for a 4k solution originally, the extreme latitude differences between bright environment and dark skin being my biggest worry, but none really seemed feasible given our constraints and budget. Some scenes I’ve simply had to let go of the highlights and I know I’ll be dreading the color correct on those, but you get to a point where you just can’t fight it anymore and remind yourself that as long as its not taking away from the acting the general audience won’t mind. It’s also been a tricky game with night lighting as I’m limited to only 1k total power usage for some rather large exterior shots and that extra information would really help in post to bring out the dark faces against dark backgrounds.
We are still a little under 1/2 way through so there is still many challenges to come, and this camera is being put through all the paces and then some, but I feel confident we made the right choice for this film in the FS100. It’s rugged, dependable and everyone is exceptionally happy with the image quality coming out the box. It’ll be interesting to see how it all holds up when we get into the color correct and blowup, but we have to get it in the can first and foremost.
I wrote this for Maiko a while ago but found it again hiding in my notes:
Little Lily Lisbeth Jane
had ideas that were quite insane
she thought that if she could fly
she wouldn’t stop just at the sky
she’d fly to space and see the stars
and sing songs with the men on Mars
she thought that if she could swim
she’d visit sharks just on a whim
and soaking wet at home she’d say
I did the most interesting things today!
She could climb the mountains and spelunk the caves
peek inside volcanoes, she was really quite brave
but there was only one thing she truly feared
and that was kids who called her weird
so day after day, Lily Lisbeth Jane
grew to be a girl who was quite plain
the Martians stopped singing and the sharks were all sad
she was the best friend they’d ever had
and so she grew and they faded away
and that’s why Mars is just rocks today
and if you’ve ever been to see the sea
it tastes quite salty, you’d have to agree
it’s from all the minerals, or so it appears
but doesn’t it remind you of the flavor of tears?
and when’s the last time you saw a shark smile?
I can tell you it’s been quite a while
So to all the Little Lilly Lisbeth Janes’
who’s ideas they say are quite insane
keep jumping on clouds and riding on fish
painting with rainbows and making a wish
it’s you that puts shapes in the sky
and you that keeps the fish eyes dry
please Little Lilly Lisbeth Jane and Billy Bradley Altrumaine
Silly Sarah Macentyre and Daring Deke Desmond Esquire
learn to fly and learn to swim
go to far away places on a whim
dance with dragons and sing to the stars
and maybe one day we’ll find life back on Mars.
What’s an epic film without a large sweeping shot from way up high? You obviously want it. But, how do you get that shot in a place where your light stands are cobbled together from soggy 2x2s and every “ladder” you’ve seen sags under the weight of the smallest malnourished child?
Climb a tree, obviously. So our solution has been that we look for trees by a road we want to shoot at, then I climb as high into said tree as possible (with or without shoes) and toss a rope down to which we tie the camera and proceed to haul it up. So far it’s actually worked quite well (thanks SONY FS100 image stabilizer) and I’m very happy to climb tree after tree despite nearly falling from 2.
If you are going to attempt this I suggest leaving lots of rope on the camera end so another person can maneuver your baby around tricky branches. Also, baobab trees are an amazing climbing species, but watch out for giant spiders.