Category Archives: Film making

Advice from a DP

Here’s some tips I got from experienced feature Director of Photography, PJ Raval, earlier this year at SXSW.

PJ consistently recommended the P2 system, even if you buy one of Panasonic’s cameras that records on this system (eg. the HVX-200), it should hold much of its value for resale after the shoot. [This was certainly true earlier this year].

He said that 24P on the DVX (DVX-100) is better than 24f on the Sony Z1. To get even better results from the pro-sumer Panasonic camera, PJ suggested switching off the knee, setting the pedestal lower and setting the zebra at 90-95%. He also suggested shooting everything on the pre-sets, including white balance (daylight or tungsten).

The anamorphic lens is great, he said, but does have some drawbacks, for example no big close ups due to (spherical) aberration.

Them’s me notes. If that made sense to you (it does to me), then enjoy!

No Frame Of Reference

Today is out of sync. This week is out of sync. DVD’s that should have been delivered four weeks ago still haven’t arrived with the customers. Complaints come in and the DVD’s are still in transit. One eff up follows another.

I met a producer two weeks ago. She wanted someone to edit her feature for Cannes. Problem is, she doesn’t really have a feature. Only six hours of rushes shot on her palmcorder. Problem is, she doesn’t have a script. Or an outline. She wants to use material from the net, but doesn’t have all the clearances. She originally wanted her feature done in two weeks. Biggest problem is, she has no money, isn’t paying. A friend commented it was like being given a knife and fork and asked to provide dinner.

Last week I had paying work all week. No feature editing happened. Can’t find the woman’s name on films she claims to have produced. Weird. Maybe she made her money/rep some other way on those films. Begs too many questions and I have no time. Today she sent a friend to collect the rushes.

The paying work continues to come in, meanwhile. Like a feeding frenzy. And there are these sharky people in the water. No DVD’s, no feature edit. The rep of Ascalon Films is going down and the money just keeps coming in. Out of sync.

This week is the Ann Arbor Film Festival. One of my screening committee counterparts blames me for too much narrative. I blame him for too much boring crap that the audience walks out of. And they do walk out. Sometimes. It’s no way to make money. Money goes down that way. But rep for experimental, pushing the boundaries, goes up. Out of sync.

I am still hungover from last night’s opening party. Free vodka and a cool after party. Good times. Today is out of sync. Tonight we’ll go see a group called The Wet Spots playing live at the /Aut/ Bar. 10pm (actually, it was more like 1am when they did their set). Good times. Crazy. I sync therefore I am.

The Word Of Spike

On Thursday, I went to a lighting workshop hosted by Anthony ‘Spike’ Simms at the Detroit Film Center. Here’s some bullet points of things he talked about which I thought were cool:

• Shooting a feature film on a Panasonic DVX100 can look really great. Spike showed us some rushes he’d done using this miniDV camera with 35mm lenses attached through an adapter. These were snow scenes at night shot at 24P. He’d got great contrast by increasing the black levels, past normal broadcast standards. I think he said it was an increase of 10%.

• Spike had also shot blue for daylight and used white for night on the same feature. This seemed counter-intuitive at first because blue light is often used to represent moonlight (except for Sacha Vierny, who apparently prefers pale green). However, blue daylight worked really well. Perhaps it’s because we’re all used to seeing blue daylight on camcorders and digital stills cameras that have been set up for tungsten. Spike got the blue daylight feel by white balancing for tungsten. He did this by holding an orange gel (CTO) in front of the lens then white balancing, then removing the gel.

• Kinoflo supplies “super blue” tubes for creating an even light on blue screens.

• Household domestic circuits are usually rated 15 amps in the US. As power (Wattage) equals Volts x Amps, that gives 1650W of power available on the 110V supply. 1500W to be on the safe side. Playing it even safer means aiming to plug in only up to around 1000W of light on a single circuit (if it’s being used for other things like computers, kettles, hair driers, etc). 15A seems pretty low to me coming from the UK. Now I know to split the load more even with my small light kit.

• Backlight coming from different sides of the subject is sometimes refered to by different names. A “liner” refers to a lamp on the key light side, an “edge light” refers to a light on the fill side. They’re often confused and no one is expected to remember.

• Bouncing light from low surfaces, including floors, can look really nice, particularly for fill light. The effect is like sunlight streaming through a window and hitting the floor then bouncing around a room.

• Pegs can be used to break up light if you put them on a barn door. Black wrap works even better. I already use black wrap (or “cinefoil” as Spike said it’s also called) but I’ve never thought of using clothspins.

• Warm colors advance, cool colors recede. Spike demonstrated this by pointing out that an unlit white wall appeared blue on the TV monitor. Then he lit someone in front of the wall, but kept the wall unlit. The subject was warmer in tone and “popped” out of the background. Then Spike took same half CT blue and put it on the light. The subject blended more with the background and the shot looked more natural. Then he showed us an orange gel on the same light. The subject popped out of the background even more. Useful effect.

• I noticed that Spike never moved a key lamp around to reduce or increase intensity once he’d put it in place. Instead he added more diffusion and/or neutral density to them to control the light. This meant that he set his key light up to control the angle and position of the light first, then worked on the intensity second. Nice.

• Michigan has two main lighting rental companies for film/video. These are Detroit Power and Light (DPL) and Midamerica Cinesupport. Both of these can supply gels, spare bulbs and other stuff.

• Spike started off as a PA then became a boom operator (sound assistant). He said this is an ideal place to start on sets because you get to observe everyone else doing their job and you actually need to be informed about what’s going on (framing, blocking, lighting, etc).

• Lighting dark skin tones against bright blue sky is much harder than it looks because of the extreme contrast. Bouncing light with reflector boards is a really good solution.

• If you can’t afford a crane to place a large lamp up high for a moonlit night scene, then choose a location that’s in a valley with high sides. Works great.

Those were things I thought were the most interesting during the evening. Other people made a ton of notes and no doubt found out different things. I’ve also posted this over on the Cinema Slam Forums.

Award Winning Filmmaker

So I’m editing a short promo for a local producer, Beth Winsten. Today Beth brings round some VHS tapes including one of the Selina Scott program from the UK. Oh. My. God. Can I say that when it’s Easter in Jesustan? Whatever. Scott has got to have been the biggest airhead ever to grace the idiot box. She was interviewing mortician turned author, Thomas Lynch. I can only guess he was asking himself how someone so brain dead was still capable of movement.

Meanwhile, in far off Mount Pleasant, MI, Fate & Fortune has tied for second place in the Central Michigan International Film Festival. American Short Film has placed third with John’s other film, Europa Society. We took the trip up to Mt Pleasant las week to receive our certificates (picture me doing the jiggy dance at this point. And then stop).

Mt Pleasant is the first place I’ve been (though probably not the last) where one of the local theaters has been turned into a church. That’s right, a church. Not a bingo hall. What’s that? “Only in America.” Quite.

Anyway, John and I met Richard Brauer who appears to be Michigan’s major feature filmmaker of the moment having completed four in four years. Yes, I did hand him a business card. Who knows whether he’ll call, but it had to be done. And we got a nice write up in the local paper.

I should write some here about meeting Academy Award winner, Sue Marx, and showing her the various shorts from the UK. About going to various production companies seeking more camera/lighting/editing work. About visiting TV stations in Detroit. About Cinema Slam. About parties, screenings, learning, working. About this. About that. Network network network.

I should definitely mention the Ann Arbor Film Festival, for which I was a member of the screening committee. Maybe I should mention hanging out with Charles Kriel and see how many of you know who that is (I didn’t but he’s a cool guy). There was partying to the small hours, many films and at one point, someone I recognized was chatting to the Michigan Theater’s director of programming, but I couldn’t remember his name, so I interrupted them to ask for free popcorn. Turns out that was Crispin Glover. Nice. Hello? McFly?

Now, since the floor didn’t open up to swallow me after that incident, I’m just two days away from completing one of the New Year’s Resolutions by learning Avid. There’s a nice guy I met at Film Fest who has his own production company in Detroit who’s going to show me how to use the system which is apparently pretty similar to FCP. Then, cutting some scenes for another guy who’s just finished shooting his first feature. At the weekend: Lord of the Rings extended edition marathon over at Anthony’s house on Saturday. Sunday: collapse.

Oh, and I haven’t mentioned, but we now have a concept artist for the feature I’m developing with two Detroit writers. It’s all crazy. This year’s goal is now: make enough to live on by working part time and develop personal projects the rest of the time. Think it’s possible? Wait and see.

Editor At Large

Today my quest for meaningful and ultimately gainful employment in the creative world of film takes me out to West Bloomfield where a group of guys with a lot of footage are seeking assistance cutting it into a feature. Then I’m planning on meeting an experimental filmmaker here in A2. Also needs an editor. Hopefully I’ll be able to help.

Take The Blue Pill

So, this evening we were out at a talk given by John “DJ” Des Jardin, visual effects supervisor on The Matrix sequels. We had a wee drinkie before we went…

DJ’s talk was excellent. He gave lots of good information to the students at the UofM, illustrated with plenty of slides, DVD clips and videotape showing stages of the production process.

I managed to get in three (or was it five?) questions at the end. What were the main things I discovered, you’re wondering. First, the concept artist has a key role–the main role, in fact–in how a film finally appears, visually. I kind of new that but it’s interesting to me. The Wachowski brothers found their concept artist, Geof Darrow, through their background in writing comics.

Second, they do render more than is actually needed. But not a lot. The computer artists create a few extra frames at each end of the shot (handles) but these are only 8-12 frames. The whole film is edited using pre-visuals–rough renderings of the animations which show the movement but not the final look. This lets the director(s) work out the timing for shots and avoids excessive, time consuming and therefore expensive, rendering.

Third, musicians are brought in at an early stage. Once the pre-vis edits are done, in fact. This gives them lots of time to work on their part, that whole emotional thang, while the art department renders. Some of the shots took two years to figure out how to create and then render.

Laura asked if they consider themselves artists, drawing a comparison with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (which is visually far more beautiful than The Matrix). I think she was trying to get DJ to differentiate between art and technique. The Matrix sequels used a lot of CGI rendering that built itself, with computer algorithms creating cities and motion capture characters laid over AI.

Is it art? Or is it simulation? Or perhaps a little of both? We only got a little way down that subject, but it was still an interesting talking point. Oh, and some of the students wanted to ask questions too.

Finally, I just had to ask, as diplomatically as possible, “Um, why did the third film suck so badly?” DJ laughed and defended it faithfully, referring to the Zen character of the whole story. I’m not sure I buy into that. After nearly six hours of building a committment to a set of characters, I’m not sure I can grasp them being snatched away from me. But DJ said that’s life and maybe it would have been received differently if there hadn’t been 9/11.

“In the end, it’s about the fact we have to live together. We have to find a way to co-exist.” Well, okay, yes. That is real life. That’s what it’s all about. I’m not sure if it’s what we go to the movies for, but it’s plausable. The debate continued with students joining in. I’m left thinking, it’s true in life but is it true in movies? And is there art in simulation?

Resident Filmmaker

Somehow I’ve been adopted as the filmmaker in residence at the Michigan Theater. Apart from the obvious blagging my way into film screenings and running Cinema Slam, I’ve discovered it gives me unprecedented access to the national filmmaking community. Which is, of course, a Good Thing.

This afternoon, for example, I went to see a preview of Imelda, a documentary about Imelda Marcos, wife of the former Filipino dictator. Now I have to say, I’m not big on documentaries and this one was no exception. Imelda won the prize for Best Cinematography at Sundance this year. Imelda taught me a lot about the Filipines. It was kind of interesting, it was kind of pretty. The subject was clearly on another planet but, what can you do? Many people will like this film. I still nodded off a couple of times. Three, in fact. I just don’t care that much about barking mad rich people and Imelda didn’t make me care.

The reason I went, however, was because there was a Q&A after with the award-winning cinematographer, Ferne Perlstein. And that actually was worth it. Ferne was far more interesting than the film, in my not-so-humble opinion. Directors of photography have lots of interesting stories and Ferne was no exception. I introduced her to Mike Williamson, a local DP who has shot two features in the past year. Mike has helped me shoot the latest Ascalon Films short, Serial Dating, which we’re currently in the process of editing. All in all, the after-film bit was better than the film.

Last week I was at the Michigan to see a special student preview of Mr 3000. Both the screenwriters and the executive producer were University of Michigan graduates (or alumni, in the local vernacular). Mr 3000 was pretty cool, especially as I now understand most of the rules of baseball. And, as with Imelda, the screenwriters and producer stood up afterwards and took questions, which was very insightful. For example, they said you need friends who don’t all say nice things about your script, but who say honest things. And they said Hollywood is the centre of the film universe.

Afterwards, Lee the theater marketing director gave me bags of goodies to give to them as a thank you for coming. Bear in mind, I should have been canvassing for my next career move and this was a gift of an opportunity. So I went up to each of them in turn. First the producer… He’s talking to a student who’s clearly a family friend. Then I recognize a student behind him who I know has made a really cool film. “Do you want to get past?” he asks and I think, “Shit, I’ve blown it.” Nothing clever to say, I just do the decent thing and hand over the goodies.

It wasn’t the same story a few weeks ago, though. Lee emailed to say a new film was premiering at the Michigan and to ask if I would mind coming down to take a few pictures of the producer. There would be free drinks. I emailed yes immediately. Then I looked up imdb to check out the career of the producer in question. Tom Hulce. Yes, the artiste formerly known as Amadeus. I ran off a copy of a film treatment and a DVD of The Car. Two large gins and very good screening later, I put both of my offerings things in his hand.

Hey, who knows if he ever looked at either of them. It’s Tom Hulce, you know? I remember meeting Ridley Scott years ago after a screening of Black Rain which I was reviewing for the Watford Observer. I’ve always kicked myself for not just throwing in the journalism shtick and asking for an unpaid internship. You know, it’s Ridley Scott. How often do you get to meet Ridley Scott? “Hi! I’m a really big fan of your work. I’d just like to say, thank you. Thank you for setting a standard.” He shook my hand. “Thanks.” Oh, good grief. But the ground didn’t open up and swallow me, so here I am.

Here I am. And right now I’ve got a stack of scripts and films to watch sitting right here on my desk. No doubt the creators of these things are wondering if they’re ever going to be watched. And, no, generally I’ve just been too busy to take a look. Much like Mr Hulce, I suspect. But honestly, I meant to look really. And I will. If you keep putting stuff out there, keep meeting the right people, keep working at it, as long as what you’ve got is good, then eventually the law of averages has to work in your favour. Or favor, as they say here.

You know what I mean.

Selling Out And Having Cake

It’s Friday night and we’ve flown into LA for the screening of The Car at the LA Shorts Fest. Several friends have come along for the screening at the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood. There’s Joseph and Lynn. Russ Collins from the Michigan Theater has come out to LA on business and is there, and so is my actor friend, Mark. Only one problem. The screening is sold out.

Somehow Lynn and Joseph have secured tickets anyway and Mark is already in the theater by this point, which just leaves Russ. We hang on to the last possible minute and the guy at the festival tent relents and gives Russ a ticket he’d been keeping in case a filmmaker showed late. We hurry in and we’re rewarded with catching the end of someone’s speechifying about a film that doesn’t live up to its own hype. But we’re in.

Overall, the standard was pretty high and it was fun to be in LA. Laura and I used a load of frequent flier miles to get there so we felt justified in hiring a bright red Mustang convertable for the weekend. It was worth it. We drove up to Malibu for lunch on Saturday and came back with the top down, cruising down Sunset Boulevard, playing a track called Comfort Eagle by Cake. Playing it loud.

We are building a religion,
We are building it bigger
We are widening the corridors and adding more lanes
We are building a religion.
A limited edition
We are now accepting callers for these pendant keychains
To resist it is useless,
It is useless to resist it
His cigarette is burning but it never seems to ash
He is grooming his poodle
He is living comfort eagle
You can meet at his location but you’d better come with cash

Now his hat is on backwards. He can show you his tattoos
He is in the music business he is calling you “DUDE!”

This is our theme for the weekend and we play it as we pass by Duran Duran’s star on the walk of fame, we play it as we check out the Beautiful People, we play it as we head on over to the Biltmore Hotel. This is where we’re meeting Russ and Joseph for drinks. We park underground and emerge into downtown LA. There’s only a handful of people on the street and they are either moving quickly or asking for change. Laura is impressed enough with one story to part with a dollar.

Outside, the Biltmore is huge. Inside it’s more lavish than the Ritz and, lucky for us, doesn’t have a dress code. They don’t have someone on guard to gesture with thumb and forefinger at their collars while breathing the word “tie” like a religious mantra. They just bring us peanuts and nibbles. They provide a drinks menu. They serve us. Which is nice.

We drink 007’s, a martini which is a mix of vodka and gin. They seem pretty potent. Actually I started with a G&T which was far more gin than tonic. Lynn had a single glass of wine and then interrogated Russ, who didn’t seem put out and, in fact, stayed for at least two more drinks. I don’t think he ever made his business meeting that night.

Sunday, we went up to Griffith Park, which is one of the truly cool things to do in LA. The observatory is closed until next year but it’s a great view and there seem to be a plethora of hiking trails around there. Hiking wasn’t on our “to do” list, however. Onwards it was until we came, at last, to Gower Gulch–a strip mall named for the cowboy-film casting calls once held there–where good Mexican folk smiled and made us sushi. We ended our stay with a brief ride out to the beach, to see the sea and hear the surf before crashing on to the shores of our pillows for the night.

There was more. There’s always more. There was a cathedral. There was architecture. There were other beers. Many beers. There was being stuck in traffic in one of the most beautiful neighbours you could imagine while the Hollywood Triathlon blocked the roads. There was breakfast at Farmer’s Market and Mark and I talked a bit about getting the best performance from an actor and… Well, there was more. And let’s not forget “The Car”–sold out in Hollywood. What a great city. Great people. Great weekend.