it just reduces the risk of monumental cock ups. It’s not a popular opinion but I believe it to be true. I’m always surprised when people talk about a problem they had on a shoot and then to impress on how bad it was they finish with “…and they are so experienced”. The disastrous event normally has its roots in one of two roads; 1. A moment of gross stupidity – which I have to say we all have or 2. The person is very experienced but just not in what they are doing. You might have, for instance, an experienced commercials DoP who is on their first food shoot (you know who you are – I’ll not name names), or first stereoscopic, or first beauty, or first high speed….the list goes on to eternity. I only say this as I have just completed my fifth feature film which is called Solo. Solo is also a first for me, it’s a light hearted music based feel good film set in the bright hot sunny country of Spain. My four previous films have been very dark, both in the subject matter and the pictures. So I am an experienced DoP but this was very much a new area for me and full of monumental cock up opportunities. In my favour I had the 4 day recce to start getting to grips with how the sun looked in the small village of Barx, where we were shooting. The recce started and finished with, as Jonathan the writer and producer called it, ‘an almost unheard of’ blanket of cloud – and he should know as he lives in Barx!
With that gone the only thing left was the old mantra of test, test and test again. Apart from looking at as many types of bounce board as possible and having my eye almost surgically attached to the sun’s position the other main factor I wanted to know inside out was how the lenses would respond to the contrast levels. I had just bought a set of Celere lenses by the German engineers Hans Inno Tech – I think I had the first full set in the UK – and had used them on a couple of commercials but nothing longer. I knew I really liked the look but still didn’t know all of their characteristics so tested for sharps (at all stops), colour rendition (especially when backlit) and contrast.
They responded very well and I was especially happy with how bright backgrounds held detail with very little ‘smudging’ on the edges of contrast areas. For Solo this was going to be important as many of the background walls were white or bright colours. The village of Barx was also to become one of the characters of the film, it has a life and energy that we wanted to embrace and flow out of the pictures and so pushing the backgrounds out of focus all the time wasn’t appropriate which meant holding the contrast was even more important. With this in mind and having confirmed with the tests I decided a stop of T4 was about right and that’s what we shot at least 90% of the film at. The shoot went very well – and it’s not often I say that. Without doubt I can consider myself ‘more experienced’ in the highs and lows of shooting predominantly exterior locations in a sunny spot but what if anything was the main lesson? It has to be ‘don’t fight the sun, you will never win’. Whatever you throw at it all you will do is make the result ‘less bad’, and I’m coming at this from the stand point of Solo being feel good – ie, the cast have to look beautiful. Silks were an enormous help to reduce harsh shadows but the light still wasn’t ideal with the light being both top-ey and uninteresting. What we had, which was the saving grace, was an enormously flexible production team headed by the lovely Sukey who really worked the scheduling around where the sun was. I’m eternally grateful for all the constant tweaks and moves that weren’t ideal for production but allowed us to keep control of the light.
Always one of the pleasures of gaining new experience and learning new systems that work for you is the relief you feel at the end that it didn’t all go ‘tits up’. Luckily the potential for monumental cock ups remained only a potential and never developed to a situation where you had to try and blame someone else. But why is that? What is it that stops that happening, well for my tuppence worth, it starts with all the testing so that at least you know some boundaries but more important than that is having an atmosphere on set where people aren’t afraid to ask questions. It goes without saying that the director on Solo, Nic Cornwall, is a terrific director who can bring the story and characters to life with style and feeling but what he also adds is that atmosphere on set where we are all comfortable to ask for what we need. Nic is a master at empowering cast and crew to do this and it not only creates a rather lovely environment to work in but also reduces the chance of poor decision making. I was fortunate that my camera team embraced this and worked so well as a unit. Ashley Bond, a phenomenal focus puller, came in for the first week to set up the team and get things running smoothly whilst also taking charge of the drone team and stepping into 2nd unit Dop when needed. He handed over to Aggie Balogh who not only continued with Ashley’s open but structured set up but built on it and the team delivered an outstanding result. I won’t mention you all but you know who you are and I hold you all in the highest esteem.
I’ll finish this with my take on the experience v’s cock ups conundrum. I expect all of my team to be, at worst, excellent at what they do. What separates the good from the exceptional is not their key skill (focus pulling for instance) but their ability to create an atmosphere of structure, calmness and most importantly openness. It is this ability that is the root to avoiding catastrophic errors and one that I always look for in the team that works with me.
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