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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

••◊ Aerial Views from a Pacific Northwest Winter

This year's Christmas visit was filled with disappointment.  I spent the last three days in bed, sick after a visitor thought it was appropriate to show up to my mom's house with the walking plague.  I hate it when people think *their germs* are clean.  I gave an Amazon Kindle Paper White to my aunt, much to her elation, only to find out that the Wi-Fi was broken on delivery.  On top of that I was supposed to take pictures for my mom's yoga studio, but as the opportunistic morning arrived a large storm rolled in with ominously dark clouds.  That pretty much killed ambient window light.  Lacking artificial studio lights we were sunk even at ISO 1600.  So this year was pretty much a buzz kill.

I also intended to see some great Oscar contenders during the holiday, but I only got as far as seeing Gravity (=awesome!), which was streaming on Alaska Airlines.  I did suffer through a lot of duds including: The Lego movie (really?), Kumare (feel asleep), Dr. Who (classic Brit camp), World War Z (limited selection on Netflix streaming).  I re-lived Wayne's World (party time...excellent!).  Need for Speed wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, but mostly because of the car racing.  At least I didn't take the poison pill option (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) on Netflix.  You *know who you are* who added that to the queue!

So the best I have to harvest from this year's trip is a few pictures I took during my travel home.  The picture below is of the port of Tacoma, just south of the SeaTac airport.

Here's a picture of the cascade range with a fresh blanket of snow.

The two pictures below are of Mount St. Helens in southern Washington State.  You can see the top has been blown off.  There's also snow being dusted off the ridge line by strong winds.  The second picture below was taken a few days before during my arrival flight.  I like the swirling cloudscape surrounding the mountain.

Mount St. Helens is one of many volcanic mountains in the Cascade Range.  The other nearby notable volcanos are Mt. Rainier to the north and Mt. Hood to the south.  However Mount St. Helens is most notoriously known for an eruption in 1980 that killed 50 people and reduced the peak by nearly 1000 ft after being triggered by an earthquake.  In the picture below you can clearly see the horseshoe crater to the right side of the peak.  I only have vague memories of Mount St. Helens.  I remember that my grandpa kept a plastic transparent film canister with ash from the eruption for some odd reason.  I also remember seeing piles of ash along I-5 during long drives from Seattle to Portland.  Back in 2000 I did a bike ride up to the crater called Tour de Blast, which was anti-climatic because fog was covering the crater at the observation deck. 

The final picture is what I believe is Mount Hood in Northern Oregon State.  It seems to be missing snow so far this year.

As I settle back in at home (and return the broken Kindle) I'm hoping to take on more projects that build my level of craft this year.  My New Year's resolution starts in two days - and no, it doesn't involve the level of fortitude necessary to sit through Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

••◊ Triggering record on an Atomos Ninja using HDMI timecode

Dom and I recorded a short tutorial for Video Gear last weekend.  This was a tutorial I wish I would have had before the last music video shoot I DP'd.  Hope this helps someone else...

Sunday, December 7, 2014

••◊ Evolution of Craft

I saw this video pop up today with a number of contemporary cinematographers.  Given that it's award season in Hollywood I expect to see more of these potential Oscar nominee videos come online.  One important point I take from the video is that it's no longer about bazillion-"k" video resolution nor having the latest stabilizer.  It's about craft - which for a cinematographer involves knowing where the camera should be and how to light the film for the story.  Both Shane Hurlbut and Vincent Laforet made similar points recently.  Shane talked about it in his Illumination Experience seminar and Vincent recently wrote a long blog post about it.

This year was about taking more risks as a DP.  I've decided that next year it will be more about craft.  The tools I have available are good enough.  I need to do a better job at storytelling.  This involves lighting, camera positioning, and camera movement - all to the end of supporting the story.  If people notice my cinematography then it's a failure.  They should be sucked into the story.

Until then, enjoy this video from The Hollywood Reporter.

Friday, November 28, 2014

••◊ Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (Finally)

Earlier this year I went to an ASC talk with Dan Mindel, who shot both of JJ's Star Trek films. He mentioned that they wanted to go back to the real feeling of Star Wars, with real sets and a production design that wasn't superficially CG. That's the same way George described his original vision of the first trilogy (ep4-6) back in the day.
I have to say that so far the teaser trailer has me excited to revisit this story line. Star Wars is not a whiny drama (i.e. ep1-3), it's an adventure. Thank you Dan and JJ. May the force be with you in bringing this story back to life.  NOW...get psyched - the teaser has been unleashed!


Saturday, November 22, 2014

••◊ Pictures From "You're Everything" Music Video

Last Friday I was the director of photography for Jorandy's "You're Everything" music video.  The thing that had me the most nervous was the weather.  San Diego weather is normally quite tame and sunny, but it had been cloudy and rainy all week prior to the shoot.  The video is split into two parts; one where Jorandy writes the song to his dream girl, and the other where he goes on a group date with her.  It was sort of Elton John's "I'm still standing" music video combined Richard Marx' "Don't Mean Nothing" meets West Side Story.

Since the day started out at Jorandy's house re-arranging furniture and setting up lights we could start with a light workload (no pun intended).  We rented a couple Hive plasma lights from Video Gear to match the outdoor lights.  I put the PAR outside on the patio and diffused it with bleached muslin.  The flood lamp was placed in front of the organ and bounced off a circular fold out reflector for fill.

As you can see in the photos below, the second part of the day worked out OK...just in time.  It was hit and miss right up until when we started to record.  We recorded the main part of the video in the food court area of Belmont Park and I used two shiny board to reflect light as a hair light on the girls and as a main light on the boys.  I had Ultrabounce, silk, reflectors, and whatever else we could use as a backup.  The director didn't give me a clear shot list, so I had to come a bit over prepared. 

If I would have had more budget I would have wanted a couple 18k HMI's and the 12x12 silk, but we didn't the crew of budget for it.  In fact, my budget had been cut to 40% of the original budget earlier on Monday, and we had to argue for that amount. 

My excellent AC for the day, Peter, really saved me a lot of work and worry on this shoot.  We were using the new DJI Ronin stabilizer for most of the park shots so we could keep the camera moving.  He had previous experience setting it up, so I left that to him while I concentrated on the shots.  The problem with the Ronin is that it destroys your shoulders after an hour or two.  Other people have told me that the MoVI is lighter, but I'm not sure it really matters.  The previous day I was at Shane Hurlbut's seminar and his comments about using the MoVI mainly centered on how they took the weight off their operator's shoulders.  By 6pm my shoulders were completely fried and Peter took over the final shot. 

What I can say about the Ronin is that it's very easy to operate and much easier to setup than a Steadicam.  The main problem I had is that even at the faster self-operator panning speed it still wasn't quite fast enough.  That's just a firmware issue, so it will probably get fixed in the future.

The director really, really wanted a shot of Jorandy riding the roller coaster with Channing.  So I set him up to do it.  After all, I didn't want to be responsible for dropping his camera!  I had rented a 15mm Zeiss (=awesome) prime as our roller coaster lens because I knew that would be better for vibration and allow the director to sit in the seats directly in front of Jorandy and Channing.  The first time he was so excited that he accidentally hit the stop button as the roller coaster was just starting.  The second time the SD card door flipped up on the C100 camera during the first part of the ride and the camera stopped recording.  Everyone was dizzy about then, so we only got a few seconds of usable footage and no one was willing to go for a third try.

The director wanted some footage in the bumper car ride, however the park folks told us at the last minute that we couldn't take the camera on the ride.  All I could do is grab some lame footage from the side lines.  Then we turned on the black lights and filmed the group dancing the bumper car area.  Even at f/2.8 and ISO 3200 the camera was challenged to get exposure.  I had to push the footage about a stop in post to get it as bright as you see below.

The evening ended with a sweet note on the carousel.  I had to ride it standing up and facing backwards while holding the Ronin for a couple minutes.  Ouch.  My shoulders were killing me at this point and all I could think is "make this thing stop!"  Final shot - suck it up princess.

This was my first music video and I have to say that these shoots have their own style.  Narrative is one thing, documentary is another, and music videos are their own beast.  Looking back on it now I could see definite areas for improvement in organization and some thing I would have done completely differently with a more robust budget.  However, that's true of just about any project.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

••◊ Pictures From The Idaho Cup Bodybuilding Championships 2014

This last weekend I worked on the crew at the Idaho Cup Bodybuilding Championships in Boise.  The day began with the usual departure from Lindbergh Field, which you can see in the middle left of the aerial picture below.

The difference was this time the promoters had me routed through Denver.  Yes, Denver...nearly 3/8 of the way across the country...and back.  It must have been once heck of a cheap ticket deal.  In the background of the picture below you can see the Rocky Mountains and the front range with Denver in the far distance to the north.  The airport is off further to the northeast.  The good news was that the weather was nice and cool when we landed.  The bad news was the turbulence that rattled the plane when we were just south of the City!  Which brings me to the second picture below with the sign that clearly reads "Tornado Shelter."  I guess the turbulence wasn't as bad as it could have been.

I had just enough time to make it over to the eateries in the airport between flights, literally.  What I quickly settled for was a fast food Mexican place called "Tamales."  I should have known to toss the burrito when I ordered chicken and it came with pork instead.  No time to complain...just going to have to scarf it down...flight loads up in 15 minutes.  Well, for the next two days my gut felt like Mike Tyson's punching bag.  I like Chipotle, Qdoba, and others, but from now on when it comes to burrito places trust must be earned!

The show venue was a place just west of the city called Revolution Concert House.  It's large by rock-n-roll club standards, but small enough to be manageable for our experienced crew.  One thing I really appreciated about this experience is seeing all the autographed guitars on the walls from acts that have come through the area.  Some were from shows at the concert house, others from nearby venues.  It goes to show you how the owner/operators have a love for what they do and the acts that come to entertain people over the years.  Besides, in what other circumstances would you see Steve Martin and Primus in the same display?



This particular show was "adopted" from a previous promoter who decided to close up shop and skip town.  Normally that would mean that the show would be abandoned and forgotten, however Louis (on the right in the picture below) wrote Brad and Elaine a passionate letter explaining why they should adopt this show with only 2.5 months for planning.  You see, Louis was over 300lbs last year during the first Idaho Cup.  Shortly after that show his close friend passed away from a heart attack at 37 due to an unhealthy lifestyle, leaving a wife and three kids.  Louis was so inspired by the bodybuilding show that he decided to get in shape and enter into the show in 2014.  He lost a truly inspiring 120lbs to compete.  You may notice that his belly skin is stretched and drooping from the excess weight he was carrying all those years.  Now into his forties he's met the challenge, got in shape, and knows he doesn't have to carry the burden of an early death sentence from heart disease.  You can the true source of his inspiration and dedication in the second photo.

Louis' performance was met with loud applause at the night show.  People sometimes get caught up in the steroid and narcissism hype of this sport, but most of the time the sport is about people making themselves their own heroes, even if it's only for a day. 

As usual, here are a few pictures from my backstage perspective at the show.

Elaine always makes sure the women in the show are treated as princesses, tiara and all.  She was unpacking the tiaras at lunch and I decided to grab one to take a picture.

After the show we went to The Yardhouse in Eagle, where I had some great spicy jambalaya, which completely made up for the previous day's burrito bomb.


I still need to make up for lost sleep.  At least the next show is six months away so I have time to recover.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

••◊ Thoughts On How To Provide Outdoor Fill Light For Filmmaking

I was reading a post and replies about outdoor fill light on cinematography.com this week.  Someone posted a question about how to create natural looking fill light while filming outdoors.  Their question was mainly about how much light, rather than the characteristic of light. However a number of people chimed in about how important it was to maintain a natural color in the fill light.

Just so we get the first question out of the way, a few people recommended to keep fill light about 1.5 stops down from direct sunlight to make it look natural enough.

Now, as for the light quality there is an additional parameters to discuss.  First, if your actor is back lit...which they probably are outdoors, then the fill light will be coming mainly from ambient sky light.  If mid-day direct sunlight is 5600K, then sky light might be in the neighborhood of 6500K to 9500K depending on the time of day.  An HMI light may or may not get you close, however both Lee and Rosco make blue diffusion materials that can help compensate for the difference between an HMI/LED/Plasma light and the much blue-er sky light (click on the picture above to see some of the materials I found as examples).

The other thing to consider is reflected light off the ground.  This is where fill light might become green due to grass or brown due to dirt.  In an interview with Natasha Braier, ADF in American Cinematographer she talked about how they ran their diffusion rags through dirt and coffee for The Rover.  She wanted the world they were creating to feel dirty, so even the reflected and diffused light was dirty.  If you've seen The Rover, then you know that the lighting looked consistently natural through the entire movie.

This is now something I'm going to keep a watchful eye over, i.e. the color of ambient and reflected fill light in a scene.  Only in comedies does it make sense for everything to have eye popping clean light.  In the real world that doesn't exist.  The next trick is how to explain to the producer that I want to take their $300 diffusion rags and spill coffee grounds on it.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

••◊ Documentary: The Act of Killing

I just viewed "The Act of Killing", an Oscar nominated documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer.  After 20 minutes it became readily obvious why this film received an Oscar nomination.  Just a warning - this documentary contains what I would describe as almost surreal "strong" content, so it certainly isn't for everyone.  My local PBS station is streaming it for free for a next few days, so if you want to watch intense documentary film making here's a link.

Friday, September 26, 2014

••◊ We Might Need A Bigger Light...How To Know?

I was talking with a director about a moonlit scene along a beach here in Southern California.  He said the producer wanted a scene where he was walking down the beach after dark.  The question was how to light it and how much would it cost?  That's what leading me to this particular blog post this week.

First, some basics.  Light from a light fixture falls off in as the inverse squared.  Confused?  Let me explain.  Let's say you are standing 10 feet from a standard Arri Fresnel lamp and you take a meter reading.  The meter says T5.6 (no f-stops!...we're filmmakers here, not still photographers).  Then you move to 20 feet from the lamp.  The meter should now say T2.8.  The reason?  You moved 2x the distance from the lamp therefore the comparative amount of light is 1/(2squared)=1/4.  That's 2 stops less light.  Now let's say you moved out to 40 feet (2x again) from the lamp and take another reading.  The light meter should read T1.4, i.e. 2 stops less again.  The main point I want you to take away is that every time you double your distance from the lamp you have 2 stops less light. 

The other point is that as you get further and further from the lamp the light fall off becomes more and more gradual.  Just look at the way the graph is trending.  Think about the sun and moon.  It's a large lamp a long, long distance away.  Have you ever noticed an exposure difference by moving 10, 50, or 100 feet back from the sun?  How about a mile?

The other basic concept for any cinematographer is how to calculate what size of lamp you need give the essential exposure parameters of ISO, shutter speed, and lens T-stop.  I've wrote about this before, but here is the summary again...

foot-candles = 25 x (T-stop)^2 / (ISO * shutter time)

A quick way to calculate the required lamp size is to remember that T2.8 at ISO 100 and 1/48th shutter (i.e. 180-degree shutter at 24p) takes 100 foot-candles.  You can see how to quickly do the math in your head from there if you know the formula.

So back to the problem at hand...

I figured along this particular beach we want to light about 1/10th mile (528 ft) of 100 foot wide beach to sell the light as moonlight.  As a starting point I'm going to assume a modern camera with ISO 800, a T2.8 aperture, and 24p.  Moonlight is never fully lit like sunlight, so let's assume that the person is exposed 2 stops under.  This means I need enough light to properly exposure at T1.4, i.e. 2 stops less than T2.8.

This gives the following table of required foot-candles from our fixture...

Distance (feet)      T-Stop      Foot-Candles (assume ISO 800, 1/48th shutter, T1.4)
528                        T1.4         3.125
264                        T2.8         12.5
132                        T5.6         50
66                          T11          200
33                          T22          800
16.5                       T45          3200
8.25                       T90          12800

Now let's look at the photometric chart for a Mole-Richardson 4k HMI PAR fixture.

The medium setting on the beam focus seems to give us just over 3200 foot-candles at 20 feet.  This roughly matches our requirement at 16.5 feet.  Also the narrow beam focus greatly increases the output, however you need to keep in mind that we need to illuminate a 100 foot wide section of beach so the background doesn't quickly go to black and ruin the effect.

What this doesn't take into account is atmospheric haze, the light position, and gels.  There's a diffusion effect from the atmosphere, so you may want to consider moving up to a 6k PAR from a production margin standpoint.  I want the light to be about 528 feet back from the subject we are lighting.  The light will require a crane and generator, which needs to be parked somewhere and you won't necessarily have a spot exactly 528 feet away to park!  Also, moonlight tends to be very blue so you may want to gel the light with a CTB of some sort.  That will significantly drop the light output.  You may then want a 10k or 12k PAR. 

The main point of this exercise is to show why you may want to consider a "big" light sometimes.  Cinematographers commonly use 12k and 18k HMI lights and it's not because they want to be Hollywood fancy-pants blowing through those multi-million dollar budgets.  Sometimes you just need a big light, especially when you need even lighting over a large production set.  A "Wendy" light is a good example.

If you have questions, feel free to leave a comment.