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Thursday, September 26, 2013

••◊ A History of Influences

I'm stuck at home due to illness this week, but that doesn't mean I have less time to think about film making. I personally hate sick days because it's usually just me at home, bored out of my mind...which of course means lots of time to be a couch potato philosopher.

This week I saw two videos that were from different resources, but when combined together gave a bit more clarity into what we do as artists. The first video comes by the way of Chase Jarvis in Seattle. He hosted a sit down interview with Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist. Austin has been travelling around talking about how working artists are always actively searching out influence to steal, combine, and re-mix into our own work.

The second video was posted on Shane Hurlbut's blog yesterday and features Steven Spielberg.  I found his comments interesting that he talks about filmmakers today only stretching their influences back to the 70's; about 40 years ago.  However he goes on to say that his influences as a "70's movie brat" stretch back to the 30-40's - to the dawn of color and sync sound, about 40 years before he started making films commercially. 

At some point - maybe when there's a radical shift in storytelling style (1970's) - there seems to be a dividing line in which the new generation looks at the time before that shift as immature.  I know that I very quickly tire of actors yelling in the scene in order to get enough volume into the microphone.  A lot of older pictures are lit like stage plays with flat lighting because of the technical limitations of film and film making equipment at the time.  That's not to say that I don't like classics like North by Northwest, but it's not the sort of storytelling look and feel I find myself being influenced by today.  I'm sure in another 30 years the filmmakers will have the same opinion of films that don't have perfect looking sets due to CG set generation.  Can't you just hear them saying..."like....why did all those old dudes use real sets and actors?  I can do better in my mom's basement with Windows Movie Maker."

...and yes, I agree that black and white versus color isn't a real issue for good storytelling.  Just look at Spielberg's Schindler's List, which is a hybrid of modern cinematography and monochrome.

Now if only I could time my Seattle trips with one of Chase's sit down interviews.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

••◊ The Blockbuster Look - Color Grading

I found this great color grading tutorial from Juan Melara in Australia.  Oh...the wonders of the Internet.  Hope you find it as interesting as I did.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

••◊ Why I Shouldn't Do Film Contests.

I think I mentioned this a couple times in my various musings, but when filming, you should really know who you're going into battle with.  Now that I've provided my conclusion, I guess it means I have to work backward to where this all started.

I've participated in the 48 hour film project twice now, however it really should have been three...let me explain.  The first year I connected with a group who's charismatic leader is primarily a CG/Sci-Fi sort of fellow.  This being his first foray into film contests decides to remake Chris Nolan's Inception in 48 hours - 11 page script and all for a 7 minute maximum run time.  Needless to say we ran out of time around midnight on Saturday with many scenes left to film.  After a short pow-wow with one of the writers, they decided to create a scene that just had the characters summarizing the plot verbally so we could at least get something into the edit. He had to be driven, barely alive, to the drop off location on Sunday after being up the entire 48 hours.

The next year I was contacted by a group of western re-creation actors that decided they wanted to make a film.  When I got there they explained that they didn't need any help with a camera, they wanted someone to "hold a boom pole" (I've learned that if a producer wants a person that "holds a boom pole" they don't really understand production.  BIG RED FLAG.  Audio folks are just as skilled and professional as camera operators).  Then they started showing me their work and it was more like a western you might see on a Saturday morning children's show - but ever so gracious I patiently and intently watched.  I never got a call on the day of the production, which turned out to be AWESOME.  They were filming up in Ramona in 100 degree heat in the middle of summer.  Clarence and I went to see Scott Pilgrim Versus The World, which is now one of my favorite films.  I found out from my friends that the film was so bad that people started laughing during the screening.

Last year my friends decided to try to make a film and they already had a main camera person, so I helped out on audio.  Another guy borrowed my camera, however he never bothered to remove the big spec of dust on the lens!  This team came up with a story but neglected to write an ending!  So once again it was a 10pm writing session on Saturday trying to come up with an ending to an implausible plot.  Before the producer/director/editor handed in the final film, he slipped all the audio out of sync!  I didn't bother to go to that screening.

This year I was asked by some colleagues to DP their short for the Producers Guild of America film contest.  It seemed reasonable, but as they say in scriptwriting, "then chaos ensued."  Here's a rough timeline from the weeks leading up to the contest.

Roughly two to three weeks before the contest

- I get an email saying they are looking for a DP and wondering if I would put my hat in the ring.  "Sure, put me in"...after all the producer just won his screening group at the 48 hour film project here in San Diego with a well written story

Roughly two weeks before the contest

- They pick me.  Yeah!  Time to start studying the work of the producer who is the "inspiration" for this year's contest.  Late night study sessions start.

- I ask and get the local rental house to loan us an FS-700 camera for the shoot because the alternative is to shoot on a 5D mark III (blah!).  Cool!  I get to shoot on a respectable camera.

The weekend before the contest

- We meet for a pre-production planning session at the director's house.  Goes well.  They go over a list of locations, believing that the rules will stipulate some sort of romantic comedy.  The leading location is a restaurant.  I know exactly how to light it.  Other locations are mentioned, but nothing is locked down.  We plan for a 7am Saturday morning call time.  Lighting equipment is a real concern because so far I'm seeing a lot of "home depot" and "amazon.com" type lights. The producer agrees to go do location scouting and lock down locations that week.

- Their gaffer comes through with a series of Mole Richardson fixtures, Chinese lanterns, diffusion, and gels.  Cool.  I want kino's too, but the producer doesn't want to spend $120 on a set of bulbs.

- On Tuesday the rental house manager calls me up to say that the camera is no longer available to us.  We scramble for other options, but it looks like we're stuck with a DSLR.

The weekend of the contest

- On Friday we get the word that the contest is a romantic comedy for an "unlikely couple" in a restaurant or car.  Awesome.  This is what we were expected and prepared for.

- I assemble the actors for lighting tests, but then we get a call from the producer, who is also the editor.  He wants more time to edit so we're moving the production to Friday night until daybreak on Saturday morning.  Also, they didn't lock down location options or the restaurant.  The production is moved to a different location where they can still get late notice permission on Friday.  I have to explain to them that I've been working all day since 5am and can barely stay awake as is.  They quickly replace me with my AC.  I agree to help them as much as I can until it's unsafe for me to drive home.  Scrap the lighting test because quality doesn't matter as much as time to them.

- I'm also told that I can't remove the director's camera from the "cage" he's put it in, which means it won't mount on my tripod.  This means we're stuck with an ancient Manfrotto tripod that has no spring balancing, much less any way to reasonably balance the camera.  The camera immediately slams forward on the tripod head unless you keep it locked down.  Meanwhile, my O'Connor 1030D head sits idle in a corner.  Oh...the frustration.  Director's can pick cameras (some of the time), but don't mess with my tripod!  It's sort of like my red stapler (see Office Space reference).

- I barely stay awake during dinner at 8pm.

- Around 10pm the crew arrives at the filming location and it's quickly obvious that we aren't prepared for this.  The gaffer shows up with half his equipment because he wasn't prepared for a Friday night shoot.  We have ONE extension cord to run from a building to a trolley car that's right sized for a clown car - that we plan to put six characters, a DP, director, audio, camera, and lighting equipment into while filming.  There's a full sized trolley car 15 feet away, but it doesn't have enough "character" for the producer and director. 

- When we turn on two 1k's we pop a circuit breaker in the building.  Lighting is going to be a challenge without a reasonable amount external power.  My former AC turned DP looks at me with worried eyes.

- The producer informs me that we have Chinese lanterns, but not the fixture or bulbs that go inside...an obvious WTF moment to pause and contemplate the order of the universe. 

- The trolley car won't start.  Most of the internal lighting still works though, even with one bulb partially broken and dangling from the ceiling.  We're wondering how long it will last on the car battery.

- They bring a DIY built rain maker which wasn't previously discussed in pre-production.  We're not sure if/how to use it yet.  The grips set it up anyway.

- At 11pm the actors arrive and get their scripts.  Actors start reading and makeup/hair is buzzing.

- A band is playing loudly at a club down the street, but quits around 11:30pm.

- I give the DP a few suggestions on how I might light the trolley to give the impression of trolley movement with minimal lights.  It can be done.  Old films did that all the time on a sound stage.

- It's 12am and I'm starting to get dizzy from lack of sleep, so I go home.  Just before I leave I tell the director and producer I'm sorry I had to disappoint them.  The director makes a comment about being up since 10pm the previous night.  You can draw your own conclusions there.

The following Tuesday

- I find out that they were shooting until 8am on Saturday morning by placing Duvetyne fabric over the trolley to continue night for another 2-3 hours.  The first shot was probably around 1am Saturday morning.  I made the right decision to back out.

- I see the final cut and wonder why they put me in the credits.  I think I mostly unloaded equipment and set the DSLR camera settings.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

••◊ Upgrading the Marantz PMD661 audio recorder

I recently helped out at a shoot at the Del Mar Racetrack.  After getting settled with the cameras in the morning they asked me to go out and record some horse racing audio (crowd, hooves, trumpet...etc).  The problem was that the LED audio level meters were basically invisible in Southern California sun by mid-day.  In a desperate attempt to see the level meters I made a makeshift hood out of gaffers tape, but even that wasn't enough.  Evidently the LED output was designed to satisfy a Japanese engineer's testing on a dimly lit lab bench!

Being an adventurous EE myself, I opened up the unit and found the LEDs in question.  They were just standard surface mount run-of-the-mill 0603 size LEDs.  After a quick search on Digikey I found suitable replacements from Kingbright (754-1547-1-ND, 754-1542-1-ND, 754-1543-1-ND).  I also increased the current drive a bit by swapping out the series resistors.  This modification allowed me to swap out the amber LEDs Marantz chose and replace them with yellow LEDs.  It's much easier to distinguish between red/yellow, than red/amber in high brightness outdoor conditions.

The LED driver is a serial to parallel converter made by JRC (NJU3718A).  The IC can drive up to 5mA per pin when powered at 3.3v.  I thought this might be a bit weak since the LEDs are rated at 20mA...until I actually ran the LEDs at 5mA and burned a hole in my retina!  The new technology high brightness LEDs are pretty insane.  I also increased the drive current to the LEDs surrounding the REC button, since it was hard to tell if I was recording while standing in the sun. 

Here's a picture, post modification, with the LEDs causing lens flare with indoor lighting.

While outdoors the LEDs are finally visible and this is in afternoon sun during a Southern California summer.  I would normally be squinting because it's so bright.

I think we have success.  Now the recorder has the opposite issue.  While indoors it's hard to look at the level meters because they are just too bright!