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.
Some screen grabs from Tales from the Darkside. Came up during a seminar in which I was using one of the segments as an example of real-time in-shot scene transitions using compound moves, theatrical scrim and lighting techniques. Much more interesting than CGI.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.