A Family Man

I shot this film in Toronto under a different title, and the Trailer recently was released. The film comes out in May and features some amazing performances by Gerard Butler, Gretchen Mol, Willem Defoe, Alfred Molina and a future young super-star Max Jenkins. Such an interesting project with a first-time Director, Mark Williams, who was amazing. The story was so delicately told and Mark had spent an enormous amount of time developing the script. He knew the story very well and was very humble about his knowledge of the camera, and asked for the crew’s help daily. I like it when a first-time Director is this self-aware and doesn’t pretend to know what he thinks he should know. The fact is, he knew more than anybody about what type of story he wanted to tell, and it was our job to keep the communication open and help him to use the camera to translate those thoughts to the screen. Many first-timers might think they are putting themselves in a position of weakness if they approach the crew with such a brutally frank assessment of themselves, but I find it to be quite the opposite. I think a crew can tell if a Director knows his way around a film set, and when that Director puts the crew in a position to help him, they are more than willing to do so. I think in this case, we gained an immense amount of respect for Mark, because he was so knowledgeable about the nuances of the storytelling and the crew was duly respectful of his talents and sensitivity.

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Please meet Max Jenkins, who plays young Ryan in the story. He and Gerry carried this film on their backs and worked hard at cultivating a relationship off camera as well. On weekends, Max and Gerry would sometimes visit children’s hospitals and other personal outings. I thought it was very nice of Gerry to extend himself in that manner to young Max and I think it made a big difference when it comes to their onscreen relationship. A funny story about Gerry and his generosity. The cast, Director and myself were having rehearsals in the house that served as location for the film. The family that lived in the house was very nice and had arranged to be out of the house while the rehearsals where in progress, but the time got away from us and before we knew it, the family was quietly returning home from their long day and beginning to cook their evening meal. Upon finishing rehearsal, Gerry went into the kitchen, where family and a few of their son’s friends were gathered and asked if he might have some water. By then, the kids were sitting at the table and starting to devour a wonderful-smelling roast chicken. They invited Gerry to sit with them and join them of dinner, to which Gerry accepted without hesitation. The kids were in awe of the fact that they were having dinner in their own house with Gerrard Butler. He engaged them with questions about the sports they played, school, what they were up to and gave them a memorable experience and could not have been a nicer guy.

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The film existed in three worlds… that in the family home, hospital and Dane’s office, Blackridge Recruiting, which was a competitive and high-tension business run by a manipulative boss played by Willem Defoe. He would keep the team leaders in constant competition with each other with the ultimate goal being the influx more commission dollars. It was very much a boiler room office with interesting dialogue and many interesting recruiting tactics that clearly crossed the line into the unethical. We had one scene where Dane’s group was burning the midnight oil and Mark and I spoke about getting some sort of exterior where we could see that in a transitional shot. Our office “set” was in a high-rise in downtown Toronto. As I recall, we were on the 18th floor in a building that was under renovation. My goal was to get to a building I could see across the street… hopefully on the 18th or 19th floor there, and do a wide shot where we see our cast members working into the night. The location manager found a series of offices that he could get for us and showed us stills from the different angles which looked stunning. We wanted to shoot the shot at the end of dusk, where we had an invisible amount of ambience on the building’s granite face. I also wanted to establish a brighter interior look at night so that our office, even though only partially lit, would have visual pop from a great distance. The only problem was that the building we had chosen for our camera placement had tinting on their glass that was unimaginably dark and with huge amounts of green. Since we were shooting through the foreground glass, I had to open the camera up in order to get our sensitivity to levels that not only gave us sufficient exposure, but also gave us enough image to work with so that we could achieve our massive minus-green grade without everything going too gray. As I recall, I was at a 359 degree shutter, ISO 1600 and wide open on a 50mm G-Series Panavision anamorphic prime. At night, we lost too much exposure through our window tint so the need to shoot at dusk was paramount. I also wanted to carry the hotter glaring look of the interior into our scenes that followed. Interesting set of technical and storytelling challenges!

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One of the highpoints of this film was working for the first time with Production Designer, Charisse Cardenas. This being a low-medium budget Indie, our need for production office space eventually migrated my desk away from the director’s office and into the middle of the art department bullpen. I rather enjoyed working with the art department and got a real appreciation for the level of attention they gave to every prop and piece of set decoration… not to mention the painstaking detail to Charisse’s designs. We had one scene in Ryan’s school classroom that we wanted to play in a colorful manner in order to show a contrast between his once normal daily life as a 9 year old boy and the more limited palette in his new hospital environment. Typically, in these types of classroom spaces, the color can get so unthinkably random that the scene can begin to look like what I term as “Disney Channel Random Hue.” I talked to Charisse about the need to focus our intent from a color standpoint, and wow, did she ever. She somehow added massive amounts of color but in a very specific set of tones and hues. She also worked closely with the wardrobe department and they frequently compared notes on what they were working on throughout the film and how they could connect on a color level. Quite extraordinary. I find that when those two departments can work well together, a DP’s life becomes just a little better! Charisse was also very collaborative in giving me my practical placements… especially in places such as the office and hospital where my practicals were largely lighting the scenes. I therefore needed very specific types of LED Channels, such as you see in the first image, or the office fluorescent ceiling to be laid out and executed according to what my placement, color and exposure needs were. She never once questioned anything I had a need for on this front and always found a way to integrate the designs with her appropriate sense of style. She also collaborates with Clint Eastwood on films such as American Sniper and approaches every project with the same degree of detail, no matter what the budget level.

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Interestingly, when I started prepping with Mark Williams, I tried to sit with him to do a page-turner of the script in order to get our initial ideas in place. Those meetings weren’t flowing like they typically do, so I needed to change up what I normally do in order to get into the Director’s head. Once we got into scouting and he could stand in a location that he liked, he found it easier to discuss his story ideas. He had such a masterful grasp of the writing and a wickedly sharp sense of humor, frequently wise-cracking that if I bothered to read the script, making this film might be bit easier. Hilarious. So I scheduled repeat visits to the locations and we walked through the script that way… very much a non-linear version of a page-turner, but it got the job done… and in a way that Mark could get his head around the shooting of the material. We had a wonderful group local Camera/Grip/Electric people from Canada. In fact, Technicolor, Toronto showed such commitment to the film when they did the dailies grade, that we brought them the D.I. when we finished the project. For me, its fun to mix in the lower budget indie films with the larger movies. I see that DP’s should, and can move from genre to genre… high budget to low budget… theatrical to TV… narrative to commercial… Home or on the road. Its definitely good for any DP to keep moving in all directions.

Captain America: First Avenger – Suborbital Bomber

One of the more challenging sets on this film was The Sub-Orbital Bomber, which was a very large flying-wing type of aircraft that manifested itself in stage form as a huge gimbaled cockpit set. The set itself was 20 feet tall and placed on a huge gimbal that was 14 feet tall. All lighting and camera needed to be independent of the gimbal (such as camera cranes and sun sources) so that the movement of the set could be registered. In this case, we had the rear wall of the set built to be removable so that we could build our 50 foot TechnoCrane onto a 24-foot rostrum, then float the camera over the moving floor. The set was so large that the 50-foot Techno did not give us a reach into the full depth of the set… only about three quarters of the way in fact… and we made up the rest by coming in through the front glass, or riding-out the gimbal action with smaller jib-arms that still gave a dynamic movement, that related to the set activity. This was a very beautiful set, designed by Rick Heinrichs, that let light in from a single large source in the front. Rick used a metal finish that was reflective and most of the set was rendered in this reflected light value, or high altitude direct setting-sunlight created with a gelled 100K SoftSun. I proposed setting the Bomber Flight at sunset, which gave us a light angle that made moving sun effects more visible and allowed us to create a color contrast.CA6

I had the idea of playing the changing light on Chris’s face as though the Suborbital Bomber was flying amongst clouds. This hopefully would have conveyed some sort of feeling of speed, which is good considering we could see no windows looking back into a set that was the size of a flying small ballroom. My general rule of thumb for any process flying sequence is to unlock anything and everything… all axis on the camera, all lights and any camera mountings. Therefore, we had a moving sun, moving clouds, a camera that could move in, out, left, right and up & down. Never locking pan or tilt so that it was free to float independent of anything else.

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Instead of a greenscreen out front, we were able to use a white source that would bring cooler reflection into the set… and VFX agreed to make their mattes using luminance keys with roto instead of a color key. This set was a real ankle turner. Steel grates and steep steps and drop-offs, as well as built-in VariLites located in wells for some of our light effects. We were all no stranger to an ice-pack at the end of the day (and a cold beer)

 

 

Category 5 – Low Light Levels in Large Areas

I’ve had quite a few inquiries on this set up on my Instagram page, so I’d thought I’d get a little more in depth here… and also include the lighting rendering that I gave the Grip/Electric department. I’m always amazed by how the Arri Alexa accepts light. To me, it’s very different lighting with that camera as compared to film. I remember the first stage interior I shot with that camera… the crew was working on assembling the body and so I started working on lighting the set, film style, with my meter. It was a simple day interior set in a NY apartment and I had a mix of HMI and tungsten lighting units creating the look I wanted. I balanced the levels as I would with film and got the set up and together as a whole. By then, the camera crew had the Alexa together and I framed the first shot and was shocked by what I saw on the monitor. What I had lit as a soft low-key day shot looked like a horribly over-lit amateurish parody of a bad soap opera. I was completely stunned and went about eying only the monitor and making balance corrections according to the monitor image and waveform. Throw in a double here, a flag there etc. When I got the scene rebalanced, I raised my head from the monitor and could barely see anything. The levels were far lower than what I would set on film, but the image looked fine. So, I had to chalk that up to a futurC54e of learning about digital and the best way to transition that format into the movies that might require that medium. That said, digital cameras are a tool and a good one. Now I can plan my lighting based on the Alexa’s sensitivity… particularly in mixed light (HMI and Tungsten) situations. Case in point, a large interior space in Bulgaria where our main characters seek refuge and ultimate (and extremely creative) escape from those in pursuit. Here we have the amazing Maggie Grace and Toby Kebbell cutting silhouettes and doing a great job of showing themselves in scale with their surroundings. Placing characters in a shot like this reminds me that all the technical learning and transition to a digital world is really only background… and a gaining of familiarity with tools with which to tell a story in the best possible way. Add two amazing actors, and a talented and energetic Director and suddenly the technical distractions vanish… and I’m left with the same fun storytelling task that excites every filmmaker.

Below is the lighting diagram with notes on all 4 of the Mall’s levels as well as rooftop and exterior street level lighting placements through sky lights. This rendering was also accompanied by two location visits where we walked the riggers through every light placement and hanging rig to be used. Since most of the lights were seen by camera, the hanging rigging needed to be low-key. The large central skylight will be replaced with a VFX skylight with hurricane clouds and lightning seen through clear glass. Interactive falling water on glass was created with LED projection of an image of water falling water on the windows in our production office.

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Category 5 – Night for Day

I like working with Directors that demand a lot from their DP’s. Rob Cohen is that type. Always looking for something innovative… be it a technical operation or artistic endeavor. He’ll usually challenge himself to shoot his films with techniques that have not been done before. On our first meetings, we discussed a few unusual ideas that fall into this category. One was the use of night-for-day photography (yes you read that right) for our moody storm scenes. Since our entire film takes place during daylight hours in the middle of a giant hurricane, we had discussed the idea of shooting the entire movie night-for-day… but discarded that plan as unreasonable given our indie “little-big-film” budget. There was one sequence where the storm turns to its fever pitch in a series of scenes on our small-town-America main street. Faced with cloudless summer days and no way to block the sun to that scale on a film this size, Rob made the aggressive call to shoot that sequence night-for-day. We only had 4 days to put the lighting together and our resourceful unit production managers worked around the clock to get us the balloons and cranes we needed to execute this effect over a vast space. Plus, all my lighting had to be rigged above Elia Popov’s Category 5 hell-raiser-set-buster 100mph fans and fat goose-rounder rain.

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It was a crowded sky but thankfully Elia and I got along well. The sequence involved actors moving from the street, along rooftops (Toby Kebbell pictured here) and up a 60-foot radio tower. This technique allowed moving water and atmosphere to create about 80% of our finished sky. VFX will have a much easier time finishing these skies than they would have trying to paint out blue skies and inevitable hard shadows. Plus, we got the mood we wanted and put the audience in the middle of a lethal storm, the likes of which few have lived to tell about.

TowerShot on our lighting pre-focus on the Sunday evening preceding our first days shoot on Monday. JemFX SFX cranes and stunt cranes will be added between my three came positions. Lesson learned the hard way: Get there early and claim your airspace!

Our hard-working camera and grip crews and excellent balloon electrics made this sequence what it is. It was wet and uncomfortable but we got footage that could not have been made by any other means.

The Great Bill Paxton

I’ve only worked once with Bill, and it was not long ago… the pilot for his last project Training Day. We were all excited to work with him as the stories of his professionalism and easy going sense of humor were legendary. He was as humble as can be… fun and treated my crew with such respect and humor… talking to the grips, electricians and camera people between takes. Just a sweet nice guy and magnificently talented. On one of our off-days, I decided to watch Apollo 13, in which Bill played astronaut Fred Haise. Upon Fred getting sick in space and vomiting over the cabin of the Apollo Spacecraft, the other astronauts in the scene radioed that Fred might be skipping his next meal. To which Fred replied (pardon the language); “I’m hungry. I could eat the ass out of a dead Rhinoceros.” I remember falling over laughing when I heard Bill say that line, so when I saw him on the following Monday, I made a point of telling him how great he was in that film and how much I loved that line delivery. Bill said; “I added that line. It wasn’t in the script. Gary Busey gave me that line and said he had been trying to work it into his dialogue for years but never could do it… so he sorta gave the line to me to use, and I was able to work it in there. The problem was, I called Gary that night and told him I used the rhinoceros line and he told me he had since used it himself in a film. That son of a bitch.” Haha. Bill’s story about the line was even funnier than the line. Later that same day, we got a little behind on our day and the Director of the project got a little impatient with the crew and with frustration that his day had gotten slightly away from him, shouted to the crew from the video monitors to hurry up so he could shoot. Because Bill stood with us all day long, he could see that the crew was working hard and that the demands of the day were quite ambitious. So, he elected to lighten the mood by shouting to the crew with a half grin; “Let’s go you sons of bitches! Godammit you guys are all useless… every last one of you! C’mon you bastards!” The crew couldn’t stop laughing and even the Director appreciated Bill’s levity. What a guy. Rest in peace Bill.

 

The Wolfman – Geraldine Chaplin

I’d be remiss if I did not include a frame of Geraldine Chaplin as part of the great experience of shooting this film. She plays a Gypsy wise-elder… or is it fortune telling charlatan? She had a complete and total reverence for the set and filmmaking process. It was hard not to think that her father had engrained this appreciation into her upbringing. She had long passages if dialogue and was serious about her work and as kind as can be to the crew and the camera. I loved her performance and I loved her eyes! They caught light from almost any angle and this was important for her character. A typical gypsy fortune teller might be perceived with the stereotype as a rip-off artist… But we wanted her words to ring with sincerity. It became clear upon meeting her that this truth was going to come from her eyes and I made every endeavor to make them expressive and pure. Not a difficult task, keeping in mind what I had to work with… But important to have that kind of intent based on the storytelling.

 

Training Day

We flew some amazing aerials over the Los Angeles area a few weeks back. Went up early over downtown and right after sunrise, flew down over Long Beach/San Pedro area and had this incredible marine layer effect in the harbor. It was laying low and the big gantry cranes were protruding out from what looked like clouds. We rolled like crazy on different angles and enjoyed the undulating look of the fog. It was burning off as we shot, so it was a fleeting moment and we exposed to favor this warm hi-con look we have for this project. Director Danny Cannon was flying with us and he was mentored by the great Tony Scott. Therefore, his film languaging is largely visual and he encourages big, bold rule breaking. I told him over the headsets that I’ve never seen LA look like this from the air. His reply: “Sometimes all you need is a foreigner up here taking a look and you’ve got a new view on it.” Was he ever right.

 

Expendables II

This was my first film with Director Simon West, who interviewed, and hired me, over the phone. I met him for the first time in Bulgaria, where we shot the film. We had our cast of Expendables, being mainly Stallone, Statham etc. And our full-time villain Jean Claude Van Damme. Others would come and go for a few days at a time, such as Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and Bruce Willis. Bruce was with us for about 5 days and on his final day, we shot a long 3-page monologue between he and Stallone in a tight airplane fuselage parked on the tarmac. This was his introduction in the film and we had him in very sketchy light… with very hot rim-light coming in through the windscreen and his face in a very faded pool of greenish light. The airplane was packed with our three cameras, actors, and sound. Our intent was to finish Bruce’s side by lunch, turn around on Sly then move to an adjoining stage for a quick 13/8 pages on another set. Upon completing Bruce’s side at 12:15, he announced he would be catching an afternoon flight that required him to leave us by 1PM. Yikes. We quickly moved everything to the next stage for our last scene. The only wrinkle was that I was going to spend lunch finishing the lighting and since lunch was now non-existent, I was in a pickle. Yasho, our hard working Bulgarian Gaffer helped plug lights in as I wheeled them into place and made gel calls… that were surprisingly understood by the non-English speaking Bulgarian electricians. At about 12:45, Stallone came up to me and asked, “Shelly, how much longer are you gonna be because he’s leaving at 1:00.” I told him and Simon to just start rolling and I’d complete the lighting while we shot take 1… and by no means should they cut the cameras. I had three fresh mags loaded and I advised they roll continuously until they had the scene… assuming Bruce would head for his car upon hearing the word “cut.” The lighting was completed and we got the scene by 1:01. On his way out Bruce shook my hand and leaned-in into my ear, “I thought for sure you weren’t going to get that… good job.” Then he left the set wearing the wardrobe department’s $3,000 Armani suit. It’s a beautiful business!