The Visual Anatomy of a Scene: 'One Click Away' Part 3
This article is a continuation of the series “Anatomy of a Scene.” See Part 1 and Part 2. In this post, I’ll discuss the use of some non-traditional lighting sources that we used for the “One Click Away” project. These low light level sources would require a very light sensitive camera. First, I’ll discuss our choice of camera (Sony PMW-F3) overall.
My intention is not to spark a debate over what camera is best in all cases – but to illustrate the aesthetic, technical, and financial factors that influenced our decision. I’ve worked with the RED MX, the RED Epic, Arri Alexa, Canon C300, and Canon DSLR cameras. They are all good tools to choose from, depending on the specific needs of a project. I’m not suggesting to anyone what camera they should use.
We chose the F3 based on a combination of low light sensitivity, dynamic range, and rental cost. On this project, I knew that there would be situations where working in low light would be advantageous financially and aesthetically. The F3 has a native ISO of 800 and it is amazingly noise free at ISO’s as high as 3200. Note: the Canon C300 had not been released at the time of our filming. I would now consider it as a viable alternative. The project was originally budgeted to shoot with an Arri Alexa. This would have been an excellent choice for low light and dynamic range. However, the Alexa is an expensive camera to rent. As the project progressed in pre-production, some of the original parameters expanded to include a larger cast. This increased costs, but the budget remained the same. As a DP, it’s only natural to want to use the best tools available. However, it’s important to look at the big picture for the sake of the film as a whole.
The Alexa’s 14 stop dynamic range is unbeatable, but I found myself arguing for the less expensive Sony F3 in order to help balance the budget in other areas. For me, the Alexa really excels when shooting sunny day exteriors or day interiors with bright windows that are difficult to control. Two of our project days would be filmed in studio interiors. The location day interiors had dark trees outside the windows and we could adjust our schedule for the best light. I knew that I would be able to control the lighting well enough to work comfortably within the F3’s 12+ stops of dynamic range. We also chose not to use the Sony S-log gamma. One factor was that Jason Satterlund, our director, had not graded with it before and we ran out of pre-production time for him to test it.
I love the extra dynamic range possible with S-log, but it does require more effort with color grading. Another factor for not choosing S-log was the additional cost and hassle to rent an external recording deck such as an AJA Ki Pro Mini. While it’s true that one can record to S x S cards in S-log, I had doubts about the color fidelity going that direction. In addition to creating a flat contrast image, S-log severely de-saturates the color. XDCAM only records in 4:2:0 color space to S x S cards. I was concerned about restoring that color loss accurately. With more time, testing would be the best way to prove or disprove this theory. Based on our location scout, I knew that I would be able to control my lighting ratios fairly well. I find S-log most helpful in extreme contrast scenarios such as bright sunny exteriors seen through un-gelled windows. When lacking these extreme conditions, I’ve had very good luck working with the various Cine Gammas options (Cine 1 – 4) found in the F3 Picture Profile menu. They require less severe adjustments when grading.
One of the scenes in “One Click” called for a little boy (actor Fred Pitman) to appear in front of a giant TV with a channel clicker (3:25). Jason and I discussed several ways of approaching this challenge including using green screen and a virtual TV. In the end, we settled on filming it “live” with a projector to help the kid’s performance and to see the “real” light reflection on his face. We rented a portable screen that was literally 16′ by 9′ in dimension. We used a HD video projector to rear project the pre-edited video material on the screen. To make the young boy appear dwarfed by the screen, we shot at a low angle with an extremely wide-angle lens: a Duclos cine modified Tokina 11-16mm zoom lens. This is where the sensitivity and dynamic range of the F3 worked really well. By boosting the gain to +9 db (ISO 2000) and selecting Cine Gamma 3, I was able to hold detail on the bright subject areas of the screen and still see the reflected light from the screen flicker on the boys face – even though he had dark skin.
Cine Gamma 3 is fairly balanced between highlights and shadows. Mid-tones fall at about 50 IRE. But it offers more dynamic range on both ends than the Standard Rec 709 Gamma setting. For comparison, Cine 1 setting holds more details in the highlights, but less in the shadows. Middle gray mid-tones fall lower at about 35 – 37 IRE. I use this setting for sunny day exteriors and day interiors with bright windows. I don’t use Cine 2, which is similar to Cine 1 except it clips highlights at 100 IRE. Cine 1 records highlights up to 108 IRE. Cine 4 is biased toward more detail in the shadow region, but less in the highlights. I use this gamma setting more for night interiors or whenever I need more shadow fill.
When we photographed the boy directly in front of the video screen, I liked the starkness of having him silhouetted against the screen with no light on his back. However, when he walked away, his profile felt too dark. To resolve this, we added a 1200W HMI par “edge light” or “kicker” just to the side of the screen in the direction that he would exit. This light separated him nicely while maintaining a clean minimalist look. The final visual step that really made this scene beautiful was done with a mop! The floor of the stage was painted black, but it was very dusty and dirty from lots of previous foot traffic. When we mopped a thick layer of water over it, the dingy floor magically became a black mirror – reflecting the video screen and the little boy. If you look carefully, you can see a few air bubbles in the floor.
When it came time to shoot the boy’s reverse shot, we slightly cheated his body to the side to avoid a camera shadow (from the screen) on his face. With the reverse shot, we radically changed our view to a high angle to look down on the boy. This of course diminished him and made the screen feel more powerful. We turned off the kicker light because it would be too frontal and compete with the beautiful shifting pattern of light from the screen. The boy was blending into the background of the dark floor, so we added a soft backlight using a Kino Flo Diva 400. I often like using this particular instrument for backlighting because it is lightweight for rigging and can be dimmed to a desired output. The challenge with positioning this backlight became hiding the reflection of the light in the shinny floor. Since our camera angle was very steep, the backlight had to also be steep in order to hide the reflection of the light behind the boy’s body. You can still see a little light reflection in the floor, but it doesn’t appear to be an obvious “movie light.”
No Movie Lights
One of my favorite scenes was the little girl (actress Deja Fitzwater) sitting in the “dollhouse” (4:07). Our still photographer, Levy Moroshan, loaned us a dollhouse set that was originally built for a fashion shoot. The size of the room was large enough to accommodate our little girl, but the claustrophobic scale made her feel trapped. We wanted to enhance this feeling and symbolize the threat to children from unsupervised exposure to media. To create a “big brother” feeling, we placed two TV’s outside the windows. With the brightness set at full level, we ran a pre-recorded pattern of analogue video “snow.” The creepy flickering light from the TV’s was augmented by the low angle light glow emanating from the girl’s video tablet. The camera gain was set to +12 db (ISO 3200). The T stop was 2.6 on an 18 – 80mm Arri-Fujinon Alura zoom lens. This type of shot (using video displays as light sources) would not have been possible a few years ago without the latest generation of large sensor cameras with clean low light capabilities.
In Part 4 of Anatomy of a Scene, I’ll discuss some “in camera” visual illusions that we employed.
[First photo: Levy Moroshan]
Randolph Sellars, Director of Photography and Filmmaker, has over 30 years of experience photographing a variety of projects in 11 countries around the world. He has shot 23 feature films, including The Juniper Tree, which was a Grand Jury finalist at the Sundance Film Festival and was singer/actress Bjork’s first feature film.