So when a client, and it has to be said, on a somewhat dodgy phone line said we want you to film some dancers in back light I thought ‘well I can do that, not too tricky’. I was just filming a spot for BBC World wide to promote Bake Off which was a heavily back lit promo, as you can see from the picture, so was smugly confident.

Behind the scenes on a trail for Bake off
Behind the scenes on a trail for Bake off

It was only a day or two later that I had another call and realised my school boy error of not listening properly – it was actually black light, or UV as it is more frequently referred to. This was not something that I had an enormous amount of experience in and was further complicated by the fact that it had a very short run time, was to be delivered in a VR environment at 360 and, as the producer said ‘did I mention we are shooting in Russia?’ I have been sworn to secrecy and therefore can’t talk about the client, dance troop or subject but if you’re interested I can talk about the tecce bits. We shot on the RED Dragon as with 360 you really have to shoot in a minimum of 4K and used stills lenses so that we had coverage across the large Dragon sensor. There was no focus pulling so these lenses worked well. We tested a range of focal lengths. With 360 you normally use a fisheye and an absolute minimum of 5 cameras but as this was essentially a stage show which was to be keyed into a Virtual Reality environment we thought that it might read better it we shot the scene ‘flatter’. The fisheye lenses did not really work well for this shoot as it meant being very close to the show and the perspective felt ‘wrong’ even after flattening the image. We ended up using a Nikkor 24mm for the overall performance and swinging onto a 50mm for some elements which seemed to give us the best overall coverage. The real lessons for me came in gaining a better understanding of how the reflected black light, or UV light, reads on the digital sensor. The low cut filter already on the RED Dragon was pretty good, in fact, compared to the old RED ONE it was amazing but just to be sure we also added a Tiffen 4×4 UV filter. The idea is that you need to completely cut any sensitivity to the physical UV light (frequencies below about 400nm) and so all you record is the reflected light which is within our visual register.

We had one day of testing before heading to Russia and this is what we discovered, UV light that reads as blue will never get above about 15% on the waveform. All that happens is that you start losing detail but the level remains stubbornly low. I had expected it to be low as it is essentially only one channel but was worried by exactly how low it was. I tried chucking more light at it but although this made a difference visually, ie some of the detail just started burning, the levels just stayed low. Other colours that combined different channels gave a higher turnout on the waveform but still was visually burning out at 35%. Here’s a picture of the monitor screen that shows the waveform and the visual appearance of the dancers.

The shirts are burning but the waveform shows very low levels
The shirts are burning but the waveform shows very low levels

We used 40W florescent tubes for the bulk of the lighting that was floor mounted. To try and spread the light from above we had a 400w UV softlight. This filled in the shadows above but did little else. I’m pleased to say that the film has now gone through post and the everyone is very happy. There certainly was an element of me that was still convinced that these levels would cause problems with the post process but much to my relief it was unfounded. As I’ve always said, one of the things that I love about this job is that there are always new things to learn and puzzles to solve, long may it continue!

Well, I’m sure there is a small on-line group out there who do this exact thing but I have to confess to never having tried. I’ve always gone straight for the hammer, boring I hear you say but I stick to my guns and reply that a hammer is better than a jelly when it comes to banging in nails. This is a roundabout way of talking about using the right tools for a job. Recently there have been a huge number of new tools for camera stabilizing and aerial work which is terrific. I am lucky to be involved with a range of budgets to make films and so my path crosses a wide range of these tools, my decisions are based sometimes on budget requirements and sometimes by choice, however it’s really important to be aware of each tools limitations even if you are forced into one by budget. This is possibly going to turn into a rant but I will try to avoid it! The rant would be about people comparing the MOVI or Ronin to a steadicam. This happens all the time by people who love the Ronin and are constantly heard saying ‘oh, it’s just like a steadicam, but better’ and people who have booked a Ronin instead of a steadicam and moaning that they didn’t get that steadicam look that they wanted. I have had two projects recently, one I used a Ronin on and the other used an AR rig (posh steadicam, for those who don’t know). So why did I choose these tools? Let’s look at film 1. This was a film for RM Sotherby’s who are one of the worlds leading classic car auction houses. They asked me to film a 1960’s short wheel based Ferrari 250GT worth a cool 12 million Euros.

I designed a sequence to start the film where we followed the driver to the car to build up some atmosphere. Great idea I thought, then I saw the budget and more importantly, the time we had with the car. So in my budget I could afford either a steadicam and 1 camera or a Ronin and 2 cameras. Lets talk briefly about what each tool can offer. The steadicam is an excellent tool that gives smooth and precise movement in pretty much any direction but it is limited in range of height, you can either go low mode and have knee height to chest or high mode and have waist to head, but not both in one shot (unless you use the AR rig, more of that later). Also it takes at least an hour to set and balance. The Ronin is very flexible but there is a very definite up/down movement as the operator walks which is extremely difficult to lose. This is normally disguised if there are people moving in shot but can look terrible if you are just tracking past inanimate objects. It is quick to set up but generally less precise.

So rewind to film 1. Here it is, apologies for the text start and end, it’s an approval version.

We went with the Ronin as the second camera that I could then afford gave as more options for the driving shots we also needed. For the Ronin sequence nearly all the shots had a person in so the up/down movement was disguised. If you look at the shot before the end of the opening sequence where the camera tracks around the car you can definitely see the vertical movement but the time saved in setting the Ronin and the cost savings made this the right tool for this job despite it’s limitations. A steadicam would have given us slightly more elegant moves but there wouldn’t have been much in it and the loss of the second camera would have had a huge impact.

The second film was a trail for Discovery Channel to promote a series of VE day films. The director, Zeliha Bozkurt, went for a bold one shot treatment. We were to move through a living room seeing props that connected with a radio broadcast of some key moments throughout WWII.

The room is devoid of people until a reveal at the end (ut oh, sorry, plot spoiler). To complicate things we needed to make sure this move is complete within a 40 seconds. The set was slightly oversize but nowhere big enough for a dolly, there was a long lateral move with no people in shot so Ronin was out, the shot required a camera height from knee to head so Steadicam was out, the only choice left was an AR rig. These are brilliant tools. It is basically a jib arm mounted on a steadicam vest which allows the camera to move between floor level to about 2 meters whilst the steadicam op moves around as normal. If you ever need one Simon Wood is your man, not only a magnificent operator but also a true gent. Here’s the film;

If we had booked  a Ronin for this job we would have all been cursing it and indeed I would be one of those people moaning that it wasn’t a steadicam. That in no way means the Ronin or MOVI aren’t great tools, they just have different characteristics. There have been plenty of times that I have had to redesign shots because we just couldn’t get the steadicam around a tight corner whereas a Ronin would easily have fitted. In fact, I have just finished another job for the National Trust where we ended up using a Ronin for that exact reason, some of the spaces were so tight that we couldn’t accommodate the footprint of a steadicam. We did also have some long moves along straight corridors where the Ronin’s up/down movement would have been obvious so for these we stood the Ronin op on a flatbed dolly with soft wheels which worked well. Anyway, I digress, the point I was making is that as DoP’s we need to know the tools. We are blessed with new fantastic tools all the time, it is our responsibility to make sure that we use the right ones for the right jobs. However cool, wacky and creative it sounds I am not going to bang in a nail with a jelly.

One of the things that I love about being a DP is how you are constantly using and adapting what you know to find solutions to questions you haven’t been asked before. Does that make any sense? I’m not sure, however I do know that recently I was asked to shoot some models (as in miniatures, not people!) and make them look like models but to keep a real world feel to the atmosphere within the model. I have shot miniatures before as second unit DoP on some of the features but the aim was obviously to pass them off as real world, this was very different as the aim was to keep both the real world elements and the model elements.  Our model shots had to cut into tilt and shift time-lapses taken in Dubai by Nic Cornwall of Little Big Fish Films. His brief to me was to keep the essence of the environment but not compromise the charm of the models. Here’s a couple of frame-grabs of the tilt and shift material that we were asked to match.

As you can see the scale of the tilt and shift was quite extreme and with this in mind the model maker and Nic decided to use a very small (or big – depending on what way you look at it?!) scale of model, the scale was 1:87 so our figures were barely 2 cm tall. This helped keep the detail down on the figures also which was part of the charm. We used the same tool that they had shot the time-lapses on, a Canon 5D but a very different lens. Whereas the time-lapses were shot using ultra wide lenses we opted for a 100mm macro, with a couple of the wider shots made on a 50mm. Many of the tilt shift sequences were shot as physical time lapse with an intervelometer but we decided that our shots suited being shot in standard 25fps motion. The time-lapse motion combined with the raw feel of the models felt like an unnecessary distraction.

So what did we do to set the tone of the models in the real world? Firstly, whenever possible we used practical effects such as water sprayers to simulate grass sprinklers and mini projectors in the classroom. I treated these as if they were in the real world, so for the sprinklers, I back-lit heavily and for the classroom I darkened off the main space and used the projection to partially light the classroom. We did cheat heavily with the projection as we back projected in the wide shots so that the light from the projector played on the pupils faces but we also front projected for a different angle so that the projector would flare down the lens. This worked very well as the flares from the projector actually took on the shape and colours of the animation we were projecting.

We also tried to create as much depth as possible by adding in foreground detail. This helped give the model a feeling of space and distance that was more in line with how a real location would exist. Again we used flares to add to the atmosphere and texture and help sell the shots. Finally, the lighting,  2 of the sets were exteriors, one was day time interior and one was night time interior. I choose lights that would give very clean shadows and were in scale for the models, namely dedos. We also had light panels to give a general ambience. The dedo light was about the right size to approximate the sun when scaled up and can give a very crisp light as it is so focusable.

These worked really well and once again my basic premise was to light as if the locations were real so for example in the classroom all the ambience comes from the window and the key light for the pupils from the projector. We had one scene on the solar farm where we needed to see the sun go down. To achieve this we cut a hole in the background which was just smaller than a dedo. We shone a dedo through this and moved the whole backing down through shot creating the feeling of the sun going down as the flare moved across the lens. We then dimmed up a cool light panel to create the moon ambiance.  All we were doing was trying to replicate what would happen if we scaled everything up by 87 times and it proved very effective.

It really is this kind of problem solving that I love, where you use and adapt the experience you already have to extend its purpose to new scenarios. I can’t ever imagine getting bored of this job! Thanks again to Nic at Little Big Fish Films for bringing this project to me and allowing the use of the stills.

Well, as is normal for this time of year I’ve had a bit of time to get things back in shape. This translates roughly to ‘doh, bloody quiet isn’t it!’ Still, much to my relief, the phone has started ringing again and some interesting films are bubbling away now which will be great. I have seen the first cuts of The Lighthouse, the film I shot at the tail end of last year, and it all looks very promising. In fact, and I’m not one for doing this, but I’d say it could be a real cracker. Chris Crow, the director, with editor John Gillanders,  have managed to create a daunting atmosphere and I can’t wait to start hearing the score and dub. So, what have I done with all my time? Well I’ve managed to get hold of some of my recent work and have cut new showreels for drama and commercials. They are on the drama and commercials pages on the site but just to make it doubly simple I’ll add them below also. I hope you enjoy them, it was really nice to look back at some of the work I did last year and it reminded me of all the fun we had making the films.

I hadn’t realised that Promax had country dependant awards but now I do know, and how do I know you may well ask? The very talented Gemma Baukham has just won another 2 silver Promax awards for a trail I shot with her for BBC WorldWide trail showcasing ‘Come dine with me, South Africa’. This trail has already won an award for the photography from the New York Festivals 2014 so it’s lovely that it won another 2 in the categories of ‘Best Entertainment Promo’ and ‘Best Promo not using programme footage’ ( a nice catchy title there). Here it is;

It was shot on an Arri Alexa using Cooke S4’s. We shot in south London but the brief was for it to look hot morning in South Africa so we lit mostly from outside with large sources. It was shot in a day which caused a certain level of panic as there was –  A. a lot to shoot and B. an odd bird that initially refused to do as was asked of it! There is one shot in the promo that I have always hated but there is no way I’m going to tell you which one and overall I think the promo works really well. It was a brave direction for Gemma to take by not having voice over or an clips and I know she met with some opposition but I really think it paid off.

Just before I sign off I thought I’d put this one up as well. It’s a promo for an exhibition at the ‘London Museum’ that looks at Sherlock Holmes. Again shot in a day with half at the Museum and half in a greenscreen studio it was a tough call but all got done with time for a coffee at the end. We shot it on an Epic with our rehoused Nikon primes. The film was posted by FGreat in London who did a splendid job of it.

Granted this is not a catchy title and as it suggests might not be everybody’s cup of tea but for slightly fixated people like myself it’s an endless source of joy and fun. In fact there is something about the tools that we use to make films that causes constant argument and infatuation. I was on speaker phone to my business partner the other day and we were getting very excited about different benefits of tripod makes when eventually his wife spoke up and asked us to question whether we actually had a life? I think she might have a point?!  However, when it comes to lenses, well that’s a whole different kettle of fish – surely anyone can see that?

So, for Lighthouse, what lenses and why? To start this story we really have to go back to way before Lighthouse as the choices ultimately came from a period of testing and experimenting that started with the last feature I shot with Chris Crow, Viking Saga – The Darkest Day. With this film we used a lot of 1970’s Canon FD stills lenses and placed glass objects in front to distort and diffract the light. We also used a lensbaby for one scene. We loved the layering that this gave as it became more of a texture than an effect, anything that looked like an effect was immediately binned but what we were left with we loved. After Darkest Day we shot a couple of pop promos and then a tease for Lighthouse, both of which built on these lens choices, pushing them more into the world of visual texture. Chris sent me quite a few references with distortions and foreground details that he liked and I started thinking about how they could work for Lighthouse. For the tease and the pop promos we had become a bit fixated with lens whacking (shooting with the lens removed from the camera body so that you allow light to leak through from the camera mount). Here’s the one of the pop promos to give you an idea – you will also see use of the lensbaby on it as we were exploring how far you could go before it becomes a definite effect.

The problem we discovered with the lens whacking was that you could not focus on anything far away as you could not get the lens close enough to the camera body without losing the flare as the lens clashed with the camera body. To solve this I bought an old 35mm Tokina lens with a Nikon mount and took it apart so that only the central lens housing remained. This meant that you could move the lens right in towards the sensor without clashing with the body and hence could focus at any distance. I’ve put in a picture of it below, the crew affectionately labelled it, ‘the skinny one’.

Chris also showed me a vimeo film where someone had reversed the front element of a lens which blurs the outside edge of the picture. I blatantly ripped  off this idea (sorry I can’t name check you as I can’t remember the link now) and made my own reverse element lens which the crew imaginatively named ‘the reverse element lens’ (who says we are not a kooky bunch!) I will put some frame grabs of the reverse element lens and the lensbaby below but framegrabs do not really work for the lens whacking as it is the collective effect of the moving image which gives the look. I should mention that we decided to only use the lensbaby in the most unobtrusive mode – ie with the lens straight in it’s mount and a deepish stop. Before we see the examples I would like to say a special thanks to my team who not only put up with all this nonsense, but embraced it and even suggested how we could take it further, they were an amazing crew to have on board and I’m thankful to them all for their commitment, skill and wonderful approach to the continual pressure of the Lighthouse shoot. They were;  Camera team, Keefa Chan – focus puller, Steve Owen – 2nd assistant, Jonny Mason – Camera Trainee, Jordan Wallace – Camera and DiT Trainee, Grip was Sean Harding and the Gaffer was Vern Raye with Spark Edmund McKay. I salute you all. Here are some example of the modified lenses.

These modified lenses worked well with our main set of lenses which were a set of rehoused Nikon prime stills lenses dating to the 1980’s. These lenses are less sharp than the Masterprimes or Ultraprimes that I would use for a more action based film and they flared beautifully. That said there were times that we wanted to create some additional artificial flare but both myself and Chris always favour creating this in camera if we can. To achieve this I asked my local glass cutter to cut 10 x  4″ x 4″ squares of good quality glass. I then asked my camera team to tape them around the edges and crack them in as many different ways that they could. It was Sean who really took this on board and attacked them with style. We then put these one by one in the matt box and looked at the effect they gave.

Whenever a direct light source hit them they flared rather beautifully but we ended up using the less broken ones as the end result could be too heavy. This is definitely something  I’ll do again when the right film presents. Here are a couple of framegrabs that show the effect.

And finally a first rough grade test that show you what the Nikon lenses look like;

 

Time has just disappeared. It seems that we are having breakfast one moment and then the first is calling a wrap on the day with everything in-between being just a blur. It was, without a doubt, a punishing schedule and we were just making the day by minutes each time. There was no allowance for pick up days so it was essential that we didn’t fall behind. Making this film has really reminded me of the fundamental differences between long form and short form work. With short form, commercials etc, we basically try to make each shot count as an entity in its own. They obviously still have to add together all the pieces to make a whole but the  consistency is second to the impact of each shot. When you have 30 seconds to sell a product there is no space for a shot that does not powerfully reinforce that aim. With features it’s much more of a slowburner and so shots, and indeed scenes, can exist to subtly reinforce character traits without necessarily moving the story as a whole forwards. With Lighthouse we had a very clear visual structure which moved with the character arcs and we shot as close to chronologically as was practical. This helped in keeping the consistency of the visuals going but equally was frustrating in the sense that for the first part of the shooting I always had a nagging feeling that we were holding back on the energy of the photography. The photography starts  in a documentary feel, then develops into a very structured solid framing style before moving into the final phase of visual chaos where the basic rules of focus, lines and framing were well and truly thrown in the bin. I constantly had to remind myself of an interview I had read with either Conrad Hall ASC or Gordan Willis ASC, I forget which, where they said that the mark of successful photography in a feature was consistency. Making a beautiful image is not such a difficult thing, making an image that remains true to the story and is consistent to the needs of the story is much more difficult. My feeling with Lighthouse is that we succeeded in this but only the edit will tell!

Without doubt we had an amazing team, I don’t think there was a single HoD who didn’t commit 110% to the film and who didn’t produce really exceptional work (excluding me, of course, as I am certainly not the best judge of that!). Chris Crow, who wrote, directed and was one of the producers was a dream to work with again. He has such a clear vision of how the film should be but still allows his collaborators the freedom to explore. Production Designer, Tim Dickel, really gave us a set that we couldn’t wait to put on the screen. Costume ( Sian Jenkins) and Make up (Cat Williams) both designed beautifully and my gaffer Vern rigged the most amazing green and lights all on rope.

For those of you who my wife would categorise as a ‘photography nerd’ I’ll talk now about some of the challenges and some of the ways we explored the visual style. During prep we boldly decided that the set should be claustrophobic, whilst this did work, it also made life very difficult! If I stood on tip toes my head touched the beams so lighting from above was completely out of the question, even moving lights on stands in the set was difficult as we couldn’t lift them more than 20cm before they clashed with the beams.

On top of this the film is set in a storm so it felt wrong to put light coming in from the windows. What we mainly ended up doing was raking light across the walls for the daylight scenes and adding a little fill and smoke to spread the light around a bit. For nightime we used the candles and stove as sources adding flicker from a home made ficker box that worked tremendously. These sources were generally placed at floor level to hide them. I looked at ways of focusing the candle light which we hoped to use as the film became darker. The best method came from a tool I discovered whilst shooting a documentary. The documentary was based on Artisans and one of the contributors was a shoemaker who told me that shoemakers traditionally used a ball filled with water which acted as an organic way of focusing the light from a candle. I had a ball blown and tried it out, there’s a picture above to show you the results. Sadly as the schedule was so demanding on set this was one of the tools that never made it although I’m storing it away for use on something else one day. As the film progresses the widows get boarded up which restricted the practical light even more. To still get some justified light in I asked the art department to break some of the panels that made up the exterior of the set and we pushed in some light through all the cracks that were made. This created a very different look for the last few scenes.  It took a while to find a good lighting scheme but by the last day we had it pretty much nailed!

If I’m honest with you I was a nervous man when thinking about the first week of shooting on Lighthouse. The week was all the location scenes in the film and the majority were beach exteriors. The problem with being on a beach is there is nowhere to hide! If it rains, it rains, if the sun shows its face, it shines, if it’s windy it…. well you get the idea. However, we were very,very,very lucky and almost had the weather we wanted on cue, just as the first called scene complete the weather would morph into what we needed for the next set up. Amazing and surprising. It’s an absolute pleasure to be shooting with Chris Crow again who always manages to get the best from everybody and the performances from the leads Mike Jibson and Mark Lewis Jones certainly back this up. Here are a couple of framegrabs from this weeks shooting;

The look we are getting is very much what we’d set out to achieve. We are shooting on a RED Epic with the Dragon sensor coupled with some old 1980’s Nikon glass. These lenses really flare beautifully and allow the super sharp sensor to lose some of the hard edged resolution that it can give. It’s working very well for us although my focus puller, Keefa Chan, has to work double hard as they are a bit of a bitch to use. We are mainly shooting 4K but move to 5 or 6K when we are shooting plates or need the shot to be a little wider. As you use more of the sensor in 6K than 4K the same lens will give a wider shot. To give you an idea of where we are going with the visual style I thought it might be interesting to share the mood film that we originally made to show the backers.

This was achieved by using a rather large amount of lens whacking and also throwing on a lens baby every now and then. As we move further into the deterioration of one of our characters minds we will be employing a lot more of these techniques which I’ll chat about when we get to it. I’ve modified a few lenses to help this along but again I’ll talk more about this when we start using them. Finally I thought I’d show you a few of the references that I found to start off discussions on the look with Chris. I always find it useful to have these as a starting point and can’t wait to emulate them more and more as we move on with Lighthouse.

 

Well it’s all in the title isn’t it? We were all delighted when it was announced that Playing Burton won the Welsh BAFTA in the 2014 category of Best Film/Single Drama. Even if I say so myself, it is a terrific film. Headed up beautifully by director Wyndham Price combined with a fantastic performance by Josh Richards as Burton. It’s a winning combination and the judges did well to recognise it. This was shot on a RED ONE with the original sensor and really has a lovely feel to it. We used old Nikon lenses which allow the flares and imperfections to add a certain texture that suited this subject well. It has been on Sky Arts about 100 times but never had a theatrical release, it would be lovely if this gave it enough of a push to get it there as it really is a big screen film.

Well they say that it’s third time lucky and I have just heard that ‘Playing Burton’, a film I shot, has been nominated for a Welsh BAFTA. I say third time lucky as it is actually the third film that I have worked on that has been nominated for a BAFTA. The first was actually a pilot episode that I made with Upsidedown Films which I co-own. It was a very long time ago and stared Jason Hughes. It was directed by film-maker Wyndham Price and actually shot by my business partner and long-time friend Zoran Veljkovic SAS. The SAS is the Serbian Association of Cinematographers rather than the other type of shooting that goes on with the army version! The pilot was the first episode of what would have been six if it had been commissioned. As Zoran had already worked with Wyndham I took on the duties of the producer which was an interesting experience and, if I’m honest, not one I will repeat! However I am a great believer in having a good understanding of other departments and this certainly helped me appreciate some of the struggles that production constantly deal with. The second nomination came for a comedy drama that was directed by the very talented and lovely Misha Manson-Smith. This time I did shoot it and once again it was a rather long time ago. We shot it on a PDW800 with a pro35 and some Zeiss glass. It was called Delta Forever and still today I am very fond of it. This time it was a Scottish BAFTA that the nomination was for.

So now to 2014 and the third nomination, again for a Welsh BAFTA (results not in as this is written). As with the first nomination, this was directed by Wyndham Price and this time is a feature film biopic. Zoran was not available for this shoot so I filled his very large boots and took the reins to DoP the film. It is very closely modelled on the stage play of the same name which is a monologue given by an actor playing Richard Burton. We were very fortunate to have Josh Richards play the role for us and he gave a mesmerising  rendition of the character. Wyndham pulled everything together beautifully and really made a rather lovely film of which I am very proud of my part. Fingers crossed that this time we win. There are excerpts on the drama tab of this site if you want to see any more of either Playing Burton or Delta forever.