Developing the Visual Style for The Three Stooges in Super 16mm Film

Shooting The Three Stooges.

We shot the film in Sydney, Australia in 2000…only a few months before the Olympic Games. Needless to say shooting on location for all the exteriors was a challenge, with all the advertising for the Games plastered on billboards, walls, shop windows, buses and taxi’s, requiring some creative angles and staging, particularly given there was little to no traffic control.
The film covers the life of the Three Stooges from their early days in Vaudeville in the 1920’s, through the creation of 22 years of shorts for Columbia Pictures to their “rebirth” on stage in Boston in 1959.
For budget reasons we shot on 16mm so rather than see that as a disadvantage I used the format as the basis of the visual style making use of the grain structure, higher contrast and color rendition. The increased depth of field would have posed a problem but I decided, as is pretty much normal for me, to shoot wide open for interiors and exteriors. This was only for the flashbacks and “current day” elements. The black and white shorts needed to be shot with very wide DOF.
Having to shoot 1959 as current day, the 20’s through ’59 as period flashbacks and also recreate, with absolute accuracy, several of their black and white shorts, was the real challenge.
I decided to shoot the bulk of the film in Super 16 with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This largely because the shorts, to be strictly accurate, had to be shot in a 1.33:1 ratio. Choosing the widescreen ratio for everything other than the shorts gave the shorts more “separation”.
The shorts also needed to be black and white.
I chose three filmstocks.
  1. “current day” interiors and exteriors Eastman Kodak EXR 7248 100T
  2. “flashbacks” interiors and exteriors Eastman Kodak EXR 7298 500T
  3. “shorts” Eastman Kodak EXR 7245 50D
This choice gave me a variety of grain size and contrast so simply by changing the stocks I had higher contrast between all three elements. I added further to this by exposing all flashbacks at T2.8, all current day at T8 and all shorts at T16.
To develop the visual style for the show I decided on a shifting color palette through all the flashback and current day material using coral filters and slowly phasing them out as time progressed to shooting completely clean for the current day. Being on 16mm added grain, although shooting on the Kodak T grain stocks it was nowhere near as apparent as it would have been several years earlier. I used the grain as an element of the visual style.
The idea was current day would feel slightly colder, more neutral and have higher contrast whilst the flashbacks would start very warm and, by progressively decreasing the strength of the filtration, slowly bring the color to match the current day.
 
I used a combination of coral filters, black pro mists and the varicon for all the material other than the shorts and shot close to wide open on generally longer lenses where possible so depth of field was shallow. As we progressed through the years I slowly increased the lighting contrast, reduced the intensity of both the corals and pro mists and brought the look back to match “current day” 1959 with no filtration and higher contrast lighting.
 
The shorts required a great deal of research and some testing. We could not shoot black and white due to studio policy so had to go with color stock.
In the period the lighting on all the shorts was hard light, the sets were generally one wall sets (sometimes two) and most were shot on a single lens. Filmstocks were slow and lenses were not very fast so I figured choosing the 50ASA/ISO stock in combination with a T16 stop and hard light would bring me close to the original.
Director Jim Frawley had decided on the shorts we would shoot so working with Production Designer Larry Eastwood we decided to paint all sets in shades of grey, dress the actors in shades of grey through black and shoot on slow, 50D, daylight stock using HMI’s so there was no filtration and no need for tungsten daylight color balancing in the grade.
The other reason for the 50D is it behaved almost like a reversal so I had much higher contrast built in before putting up lights. This was further necessary as the original shorts were lit relatively flat and shot at a T8 stop.
 Note: some of the shorts were presented in 4:3 and others in 1.85:1 The reasoning was to differentiate between screening room viewings and live action filming of the scenes.
Shooting the shorts and flashbacks on different stocks, at widely different apertures, led to another challenge as the Director wanted on camera transitions of the boys going from behind the scenes onto the B&W set and coming off set. This required very different lighting between the on set material and the behind the scenes material, as well as filtration.
To accommodate the transitions we carefully set up each transition so it was an individual shot on the 50D stock. I could light the behind the scenes area for a T2 and the shorts set to a 16 and we blocked the shot so I could execute a large iris pull which would be hidden in part of the set, the actors movement of by passing through a shadow. Of course in the grade each of those shots had to be graded to B&W. In the final edit only a few of the on camera transitions were included.
One of the biggest problems in the shoot was staging the scene with Curly and the clam chowder. It looks a very simple scene but the challenge was to shoot the scene on the equivalent of a 35mm lens (as it was in the original 35mm photography) whilst holding the top of the counter and framing over Curley’s head. The problem was to go wide enough to hold the shot we needed to go to an 18mm lens and pull further back…which made the shot very wide and we saw off set.
 
To come in close, as the camera was in the original, and shoot on the 35mm equivalent, we had to raise the counter to get the bowl in shot but the counter had to be so high it was ridiculous. After watching the original and trying multiple lenses and camera positions, one of the grips saw what was happening. Basically the camera would be set up in essentially one position and the set wall would be adjusted to accommodate the shot. Easy in most cases because the sets were only a single wall most of the time. So we popped on the 16mm lens, moved the set wall in until it matched the original shot and voila, problem solved.
We also made quite a lot of use of steadicam throughout on the “current” and flashback material….to help counterpoint the static nature of the shorts. Steadicam was used however, to drive the story, not as a gimmick, so the moving camera was always structured in to the storytelling rather than being an excuse to move the camera. Steadicam shots were used as single shots, not intercut with “coverage”.
This covers the basics of the development of the visual style for the film. If you have any questions you can contact me by email or through Facebook.

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SUSHI TUSHI

SUSHI TUSHI
In response to numerous questions via email you can get the inside scoop on how I went about shooting Sushi Tushi. A football film, with no stadium, on a small budget. The studio, the bluescreen, lighting, codecs, LUT’s, lensing, etc… I will include lighting diagrams and storyboards to give an complete look inside the shooting of a relatively complex independent film.

 

 

 

Irrefutable Proof – Grading the candle scene

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I have had quite a few questions regarding the candle scene frame grab I posted some time back. To answer the questions I have included a series of still frames and a brief explanation of what I was doing to get the final look I wanted. It is important to realize the final was not an afterthought but was what I was after. I therefor needed to light for the elements that were going to be important in the final grade.

1. This first panel shows the original image as recorded in the camera. I recorded in  logC so the image has an enormous amount of detail but appears very “flat” and without contrast.
When I am lighting the shot on set I know exactly what the final image, after color grading, will be so I light the shot in a way that gives me all the elements I will need in the grade to make it work. Essentially what I record on set is my raw material as the final image is always made in the “printing” stage. That was true on film and is the same in digital. The trick is I have to “see” that final image before I start lighting the set so I am sure I have all the image detail I will need later on.
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 2. Here I have started to grade the image. As this is a candlelight scene the light needs to be isolated so using a “power window” I invert it so rather than increase the light level of the candle I decrease the light level of the area outside the power window. I am doing this also because the Director specifically wanted the board dark so the writing was slowly revealed as the character walks along the board.
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 3. Next I invert the widow again (in another node) so now I am working “inside” the selected area and I add warmth to the central part of the image to represent the warm glow of the candle. I do not add color to the outer area as I want the blacks to stay relatively neutral. If I warmed the entire image it would be way too red and would not look natural.
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4. As I had darkened down the outer part of the selected area the actors (Jeanine) head basically
disappeared into black. I do not want that. I need a slight amount of separation from the background but I want it to look as if all the light on her and separating her from the background is from the candle. So I now create another power window behind her, adding a lot of edge softening so it is not obvious and raise the base black level of the image just enough to give separation of her hair from the background but not so much that it looks un-natural.

 

The image is starting to look close at this point BUT the area around the candle is not bright enough to look realistic. The area near the candle should be brighter than anywhere else so I need to add one more power window specifically for the candle.4

 

 5. This is the final shot with all the power windows and corrections added to make the shot work. The last thing I have to do is set up a tracking vector for all the power windows as this is a moving shot in the film so all those windows need to be moving with Jeanine, and they also have to move and look like they are realistically a result of the light coming from the candle. At the end of the shot Jeanine moves from the board turning to Rinaldo so I also have to remove some of the windows (without that being noticeable) so when she turns those windows do not turn with her as that would look ridiculous.5
This is the most important shot in this scene so once this is graded I then go through all the shots in the scene and balance them in mood, color, contrast and brightness to give the entire scene a coherent feel and look totally believable

THE CRATER – Lighting the Vietnam War on a Budget

I have had many questions regarding lighting for some of the dramatized battle re-enactment scenes in “The Crater”.
The lighting plan was simple, there were essentially no lights.

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Screen shot 2014-06-13 at 3.02.13 AMThe concept called for very minimal lighting as Director, David Bradbury, wanted absolute realism and the nights of the battle, as described by the Vets who were there, “were pitch black, no moon, nothing, just black”. Helping keep to this plan was the fact this was being done on a vey tight budget so there was no financial room for condors with 12K’s, balloons, Musco, generators, etc. to light the huge battle field for the all night time battle scenes.Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 3.43.02 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 3.42.47 PM

The lighting plan involved playing the battle in “layers”, lighting, at very low intensity, the background and then allowing flares, explosions and muzzle flash to light the middle ground and foreground with no additional supplemental foreground lighting.balmoral_attack3Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 3.55.43 PMScreen Shot 2014-06-15 at 3.53.50 PM

Each sequence was staged by laying down smoke from explosive pots in the deep background. This was lit by the explosions themselves and by a single 5K backlighting the smoke at extremely low level. Next the explosions moved progressively towards camera laying more smoke and the middle ground and foreground was the charging troops and lots of muzzle flash. Essentially everything played in silhouette unless “soldiers” were captured on camera during an explosion or muzzle flash. The added benefit of this was no-one (particularly the camera operators) had any idea where anyone was except when there was light…..again, exactly as experienced by those who were there, and this, adding to the realism.

Ultimately the effect was to create as much disorientation and chaos as possible so nothing was evenly lit and only fleeting glimpses of the action were visible. Exactly as it was described by the Vets.

Everything was shot on the SONY F55 at 1600ISO, wide open at T2.9 on Fujinon Cabrio 19-90 lenses. As the re-enactment footage was to be intercut with potentially every other format imaginable (PAL-SD, NTSC-SD, 16mm, 35mm, color, black and white, and HD interview footage from several different camera’s) I decided to stay with HD resolution so we shot 1920×1080 in S-Log2. This allowed easier integration of the footage by keeping the resolution at a reasonable level. In post film scratches and “dirt” were added which made for an even closer match to all the actual newsreel and documentary footage from Vietnam.

The day ext of the Aussie soldiers after the bombing was shot about 30 minutes after sunset with only ambient light. The scene in the command center using only 100W Tungsten bulbs dimmed to about 50% to get the warmth.anzacshq_after

One lighting unit I was able to use was the searchlight mounted on the Centurion tank. These were used in an on/off fashion during the battle when the North Vietnamese soldiers were attacking. The actual light (part of the Centurion Tank) was a 1 million candlepower Xenon that was mounted just above the gun and provided some serious illumination on the battlefield. Of course during battle this light never remained on and was only used in occasional very brief bursts to locate the attacking soldiers. Screen shot 2014-06-14 at 12.01.18 AM silhouette_soldiers Screen shot 2014-06-14 at 12.03.00 AM

“The Crater” will be screened in Australia in April as part of the Gallipoli Centenary Celebrations and should be available for viewing on Vimeo shortly after.

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FILL-LITE – The best soft lights available

I used the Fill-Lite’s for the first time on the feature “Irrefutable Proof”, which just wrapped Principal Photography in Syracuse NY, essentially lighting the entire movie with them. This Indie film was shot on a very tight budget with huge locations and required an innovative approach to the lighting to keep costs down and maintain a very strong visual style. Fill-Lite make an exceptional unit and this was my first chance to put them through their paces.

Having demo’d the units earlier in the year at a seminar I gave for Band Pro, I knew their potential but did not appreciate the usefulness and versatility of these small units until I had them on set.

“The Lady Pleaser”
The quality of the light is astounding, dubbed by my crew “the lady pleaser”, great wrap and essentially the quality of a soft light thru 216 (without the 216). The fall off is relatively short which meant less cutting and shaping in tight locations and being a square emitter they could easily be panned or tilted to control spill and intensity in different parts of the set.

I used them as singles, doubles and quads, to light masters and close-ups, green screen car scenes, men and women. For women, when punched thru diffusion, the light almost becomes a liquid. I also used them skirted as coup lights for large areas where they provided the perfect amount of base shooting on the Alexa at 800ISO, as fill on overcast day exteriors and in ultra low temps (-9 degrees and color temp and output did not change). In every situation these incredible units excelled. I will not be shooting again without them.

Their small compact size and amazing light quality make them ideal for shooting in very tight locations as, at a little less than 1″ thick, they take up such a small amount of space. They are also supplied with brackets allowing them to be directly attached to set walls giving them an even smaller footprint. Compared to Kino Flo’s or Chimera’s, well there simply is no comparison, these little units outperform in every area.

No Heat-No Generator-Less Cost
Of course one of the big advantages of LED lighting in general is that they do not produce heat. Therefor almost all the electrical energy passing into the LED produces light so they are much more efficient. This allowed using the lower wattage lights off normal household circuits, so I was able to structure the lighting for the film around a lighting package that did not force us to carry a generator, other than a 6500W as a backup source or for remote locations. Any night exteriors were shot dusk for night.
Actors also loved the “no heat” aspect of the Fill-Lite’s .

Check them out at www.fill-lite.com

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Rob leads Band Pro LED Lighting Workshop

Band Pro’s Burbank Headquarters held an LED lighting workshop hosted by DP Robert Draper, ACS on Thursday 1/23.
Full report BandPro website

Rob Draper,ACS discusses Rembrandt during the demo.

Rob Draper,ACS discusses Rembrandt during the demo.

Is It Technically Perfect – Who Cares?

I have had a few emails today regarding my earlier Facebook post. I was questioned as to why the images did not look like they were shot on Alexa or Canon 5D (two of the camera’s I used for the shoot). My response is….what should images from the Alexa and Canon 5D look like? Is there a rule for using those camera’s or do they have a very special signature that says…this image was shot on a “this or that” camera. It seems most these days regard a good image as something with shallow depth of field and sharp as a tack. Continue reading

How did you light Mammoth Caves for Face of America?

Helium Balloons, crane and equipment loaded into main cavern.

I have been receiving this question on and off for several years now. This was one of the early shoots on the 900 series SONY HDCAM  and I had to come up with some novel ways of lighting …. dancers, a constantly moving camera, nowhere to “hide” lights and no mounting as the caves are a National Park. Continue reading

Dynamic Range – What’s it all about?

Dynamic range has become the catchphrase for a whole generation of image makers but many are not sure exactly what it is, what it means or how they can use it. Continue reading