Placing Horizon Lines in The Adventures of Roman – An Outback Musical

The Adventures of Roman Pilgrim was one of, if not the, first Hi Def films for theatrical release shot in Australia.

The film, conceived, written, produced and directed by talented Aussie Filmmaker Anny Slater, shot on the Panavised SONY 950 camera in Tibooburra, far western NSW. It is a fantasy which, in brief, tells the story of a young boy searching the Aboriginal songlines for his “voice”.

“Roman” featured an original score by renowned Jazz Musician/Trumpet Player James Morrison with Christopher Horsey (“Bootmen”) as “Roman” starring and choreographer, The Topp Twins as “the Fates” , David Ngoombujarra (“Down & Under”) as “Albert”, Michael Veitch (“Fast Forward”) as the “Guardian of the Threshold, Taryn Laleen as “Spirit Guide”, John Morrison as “The Butcher” www.swingcity.com.au

As a side note, shooting at the intersection of Sth Australia, NSW, Qld and Northern Territory and working on a limited budget, we needed to shoot as much as possible available light with only reflectors, bounces and careful attention to sun position. All the dreamtime dance sequences were shot totally available daylight with each angle timed to the position of the sun.

After discussions with Anny we decided to shoot flat 2.35:1 aspect ratio on spherical lenses to make the most of the outback locations and the wide theatrical screen. The aspect ratio also worked well for the staging of many of the scenes which required vast wide shots as well as substantial separation between the actors.

Shooting 2.35:1 meant much attention would have to be paid to the horizon line, particularly as one of my pet peeves is horizon lines jumping up and down the screen in the edited scene. I wanted to overcome those jumps and, at the same time use the horizon as part of the storytelling.

 

I had shot a film many years earlier, In Broad Daylight starring Brian Dennehy and Marcia Gay Harden, about a guy who terrorized Skidmore Missouri, eventually to be gunned down by the townfolk (true story). My goal was to use the horizon to tell a subliminal part of the story.

 

In the early part of the film I wanted Brian to be towering over the landscape I shot from lower angles and in particular, on exteriors, kept the horizon running cutting Brian between chest and knees. As the film progressed I moved the horizon line higher until he was eventually trapped by the landscape.
In “Roman” my goal was the same. Use the horizon to help drive the story subliminally and that meant ensuring the horizon did not draw attention to itself by “jumping” up and down in the frame across edits.

 

I shot many tests on an SLR for “Roman” and decided to have a chat to my pal, one of America’s top artists, Eric Hopkins. Eric paints Maine landscapes and he tends to see his world from 10,000’. This obviously means he puts a lot of thought into placement of the horizon in his paintings. We had discussed horizons many times before but now the discussion could turn to implications for the moving image.

 

 

Who is Eric Hopkins? Watch the following short video I shot with Eric on his approach to horizons for another project several years back. He was in the process of taking his art 360 degrees by combining with glass.

I hopped an early morning ferry for the 60+ minute ride out to Eric’s studio on North Haven Island.
We talked at length about where the horizon should be, with my primary concern the “jumps”. I had an idea that the horizon could be played at angles through the frame which also meant the actors would be angled as well.
Eric grabbed some cardboard, cut out a 2.35:1 frame, drew a this line across a table and we started playing. We were both surprised to discover that the more off horizontal the horizon became, the more interesting the picture. However, that was great for static shots or one angle but how about intercutting?

 

I shot loads of stills, transferred them into Final Cut and edited shots into sequences and surprisingly, intercutting also worked better with large departures of the horizon from strictly horizontal. (Watch one of the tests below).

 

Next was to test the theory with people in the shot. I photographed family members in different compositions…WS, MS and CU and then cropped and dropped them into the frames with the horizon line. It worked, for intercut still frames so my theory was it should work when the actors and the camera were moving.

 

In fact it did, and it worked brilliantly (if I do say so myself). Strangely, when watching the film the angle of the horizon and the actors was not noticeable to audiences, unless they were told about it up front. If it was mentioned after a screening they could not recall. Further, the actors, even though to camera at crazy angles, always appeared normal but with a tension and dynamic in each shot that would not have been apparent shot conventionally. Steadicam work was a challenge but Steadicam Operator Andrew “AJ” Johnson was all over the wacky angles and pulled off some stunning compound shots tracking the dancers and maintaining the horizon placement.
Sadly, you do not get the full impact of the technique on a small computer or tv screen. I really works best on a big screen. However, you will see in the following short assembly it does definitely add a different dynamic to the story.

 

Visit Eric Hopkins Gallery

Want to know about the Aboriginal Songlines?

Presented by Colin Jones, lecturer in Aboriginal History, talking about his culture, his history and his art.

 

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.

LED street lighting – “The end of cinema”

This one gave me a really good laugh.

“Say goodbye to moody Collateral-style movie shots: How LED street lights mean films set at night in LA and across the world will now be bathed in gray” 

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The story appeared in the Daily Mail  and declares movies will never be the same again if global street lighting changes from Sodium Vapor to LED. It was obviously written by someone who was about, well lets just say not too old, or a movie critic, since I recall, not so long ago, lamenting the fact that the world had slowly become bathed in the ugly (and for a cinematographer difficult to control or balance) orange glow of sodium vapor lamps. Purportedly for the same reason everyone now wants to switch to LED…cost saving.

Whatever the reason all I can say is about time. The faster those awful orange sodium vapor lamps disappear the better, as far as I am concerned, and I am reasonably confident many DP’s will agree.

For the writer of the story I am confident there will be plenty of films shot under the new lights and, if an orange glow is required, I am equally confident we DP’s will have a good idea on how to achieve it.

Using Varicon in Digital Cinematography. (text & video post)

rob draper, acs demonstrates varicon
What is the Varicon?

I have been using the Varicon (on film primarily but also in HD) since it was first produced by Arriflex. It allows me to have maximum control over density AND detail(without the need to set up fill light) in the blacks without any noise penalty.

Continue reading

What’s on the Menu in Jerez? Canon 5D MkII and Varicon

Who would have thought my favorite piece of film equipment would prove to be an equally good miracle worker on a Canon 5D Mark II. Continue reading

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

Upcoming Posts – Technocrats and Artists

Over the coming weeks I will be posting articles with my viewpoints on various aspects of cinematography. Gained from more than 30 years experience in more than 50 countries I hope to provide an insight into seeing through the technology to the art of what we do as cinematographers.

Is it worthwhile owning your own equipment?

This was in response to a college graduate who was looking at purchasing equipment as a way of getting into the industry.

Owning your own gear is a bit of a double edged sword. On one hand you have the potential to make extra income and make attractive deals for Producers but at the same time, what will be an attractive deal to one will become a burden to another.

Fortunately, I am in a position where I can make strong representations regarding my equipment and, based on years of experience, show Producers Continue reading