February 24, 2016

When Your Actor is Your Camera Mount: BTS on 'The Irrational Fear of Nothing'

Snorricam
The frenetic, disorienting movements of the Snorricam render it a great tool for portraying deranged characters—even on a shoestring budget. ​

In Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, DP Matthew Libatique strapped us to a psychotic Ellen Burstyn as she overdosed on speed. With the camera pointed right in her face (far past the "too close for comfort" threshold), we went deep into the recesses of her manic delusions. That stomach-lurching point of view granted us unique access to Burstyn's inner turmoil, and it was all made possible thanks to the Snorricam. 

Now, Paul Trillo and DP Ed David have another entry for the Snorricam history books. Their short The Irrational Fear of Nothing straps us to the back of a neurotic man as he roams New York City in a paranoid mania. The experience is akin to getting a piggy-back from a man on the brink of an anxiety attack. 

"The world rotates around him as he remains center in the frame," David told No Film School. The effect is somewhat of a stop-motion puppet feel. (In fact, the film bears many similarities to Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa.) Reality feels warped; perspective is difficult to discern. In one shot, the main character rides an escalator. Much like being on an airplane during an especially sharp turn, it's hard to tell which way is up.

As would only be the case in New York, no one bothered the crew as they traversed the city and its subways with their unique rig. "Everyone is so myopic that they didn't even realize this bizarre contraption hanging off of this man," said Trillo. "That sort of reinforced the theme to me: that each individual's thoughts are worldview, no matter how inane they may be. That is all that matters to that person."

To build the rig, Trillo and David ultimately settled on the Sail Video System 3rd Person View camera mount because it afforded them the maximum amount of flexibility. They shot on an Olympus OMD EM5 II. "When you add a Snorricam, the weight is tripled, so the actor's basically wearing a 15-lb. rig," David said. "I like working with small cameras, because you can do weird and interesting things with them that you can't with heavier cameras."

"The physical stress [Michael Puzzo's] rib cage went through to wear that harness is nothing to envy and borders on war crimes," added Trillo. "I cannot say enough about how good of a sport he was."

"I'm getting spoiled with the Alexa and Red and Sony F65. You can screw up. With this camera, you either get it or you don't as you shoot."

"We placed the camera at a distance with the lens set to 9mm with a 4/3 sensor," David said. But keeping the camera in the same frame throughout the shoot was more difficult than David had imagined. "Paul drew an 'onion skin' on the monitors — a reference to the center point that marked the frame — and I had it on my monitor, too." 

As the actor moved, the camera would move slightly, so the team had to figure out a way to combat the shake. "We didn't want the viewer to throw up," said David. The solution was somewhat improvisatory: They enabled the camera's internal Steadicam and manually held the camera when things got too shaky. 

"The biggest challenge for me," said David, "was using a camera in a narrative setting that had several challenges: its native ISO is around 200 and its dynamic range was only about 11-12 stops. In essence, it was noisy and there was not much room for shadows or highlights. It isn't like most cinema cameras I work with."

"So for scenes that we lit — the audition scene, the diner, his bedroom — it was a challenge to make them feel natural. We also were flying through setups. The only scene that was more controlled was his bedroom, where we had time to light. The other setups were 2 Astra Litepanels 1x1 and a Dedolight 200w HMI light."

Limitations forced David to think more critically about the tools he was using. "I'm getting spoiled with the Alexa and Red and Sony F65," he said. "You can screw up. You can underexpose and bring things up; you can overexpose and recover data. Shooting raw, you can change white balance after the fact. You can control the exposure on the skin tones and you can add power windows. You have so many safety nets. With this camera, you either get it or you don't as you shoot it."

But for all the novelty of the Snorricam, both Trillo and David caution against gimmickry. "When you're using a specific technique," said David, "think about how it relates to the story and hopefully how it elevates the story."  Trillo also emphasized the importance of story over equipment. "I was interested in how the technique lends itself to telling a very specific type of story," he said. "A story that wouldn't be as strong if it was told any other way. For me, that's the key. Once I unlock what narrative that best suits the visual, then I feel like I have something."      

Your Comment

14 Comments

February 24, 2016 at 3:43PM, Edited February 24, 3:43PM

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pioszub
producer
17

well done and I loved the concept, but we can see the shirt weirdly wrinkled at the bottom, even if that was the look they were going for it's still not a very wise decision since viewers will link it to the technique.

February 24, 2016 at 3:53PM, Edited February 24, 4:37PM

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I'm glad you brought that up. That was the biggest challenge of the rig, actually. The shirt kept popping up. We thought of solutions - we gaffed it to the rig - one idea was to have two shirts intersect to hide this. Or sew it on - but the actor Michael would want to take it off cause 1 hour straight with a 15lb rig on your back is tiring. The other challenge was that the rig would sometimes not be level with the ground. The actor Michael walking around could sometimes do this. It was an interesting challenge.

February 24, 2016 at 7:11PM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
1642

a hole cut in all the wardrobe for the rod to go through would have easily solved the problem. i've used the doggy-cam with an arri 2c many times in my career. DSLR's are too easy!:)

February 24, 2016 at 11:13PM

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Steve chase
Director
33

I feel like the general audience would never pick up on it though. What about a slight letterbox?

Either way great work. I really enjoyed that.

February 25, 2016 at 12:05AM

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Luke Neumann
Cinematographer/Composer/Editor
2548

yup thats true.. Maybe if you put it like a belt at waist level? would it become to shaky?

February 25, 2016 at 7:23AM

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Good ideas!
We tried putting the belt lower but it affected stabilization - it had to be around the hips or it was even shakier.
In terms of cutting a hole - the only issue is the shirt would still flap. We probably also should have sewn two other points to connect to the rod.

By the time we noticed this, it was before the first shot, and we only had one jacket, so it was a risk I don't think we wanted to take.
We should have had two or three shirts, or at least did this by the second day of shooting.
Oh well, you live and learn. :)
I think in the end the idea was to crop the shot a little bit but I think Paul decided it wasn't too distracting to see.
While we shot the first thing we did was pull the shirt down, but yes, that was a challenge.
The other issue was the moire on his collar - I only noticed that about half way through the first day. Again, showing from our mistakes how important it is to work with wardrobe - especially on something that is so important for it.
And about snorricam on the srii - I can only imagine the weight would be around 30-40 lbs once its fitted further out - and that the actors only did 8 minute takes with breaks. Our actor Michael was doing 40 minute takes.

February 25, 2016 at 8:31AM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
1642

Maybe splitting the bottom of the shirt (right under the frame) in half so that the rig can go around it would have solved the issue, But great work anyway.

February 26, 2016 at 9:09AM

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One of the best shorts I've seen this year, the style they chose to shoot fits the script perfectly, and as a whole I think it makes for a great conversation about what being human means. Also have to say great job on camera and grading.

February 24, 2016 at 3:59PM, Edited February 24, 3:59PM

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Sebastian Kammonen
Filmmaker
308

Very interesting short film, and very well done. The transparent paper over the monitor was a good simple idea to keep him lined up all the time.

February 24, 2016 at 4:10PM

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Alex Everingham
Video Editor
554

Love the snorricam. Could not agree more with making sure using something like this only help propel the story further, rather than just using it as a gimmick. Built my own PVC snorricam for the C100 on my own short film, Bridgetown - https://vimeo.com/107873835

February 24, 2016 at 4:55PM

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Bryan Tosh
Director of Photography
391

I could think of a few dozen things to say, but "I liked it and found both the film and the filming method fascinating" seems to be the most succinct.

One of the few films I've seen that actually sparked something in me to get off my keester and start working on a project again. Rather burned out from the last one I spent 2 months of my life on.

February 24, 2016 at 7:49PM

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dam, i was really developing an idea like this, but it looks like this guy beat me to it :( love the film though.

February 25, 2016 at 7:41AM

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Luke Coutts
Director, Photographer, Cinematographer, Actor,
166

I shot 3 years ago a shortfilm based in the same concept with very nice BTS. Sent dozens of emails to NFS editors and no one ever replied. Maybe that now there is new staff I shall give it a try again, althought it seems to be a bit late for the "novelty" factor.
You can watch it all here: http://kollimator.parol.es/

February 25, 2016 at 10:28AM, Edited February 25, 10:29AM

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Jupiter de la Bâtardise
writer/filmmaker
187

Super cool Jupiter - I like the energy a lot!

February 25, 2016 at 4:38PM, Edited February 25, 4:38PM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
1642

The concept was amazing, the execution was good as well. I did not notice the wrinkle in the shirt until I read it in the comments. I was mostly focused on how strange the character was and how I wish that he would be more confident. How does he have the guts to go out for a television commercial and in his daily life he is just so timid? Well done!

February 27, 2016 at 9:23AM

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terry
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