This is the first article in a series written for filmmakers specifically interested in learning more about the craft filmmaking from a visual perspective. In this series, I will “dissect” scenes from some of my more interesting projects as a Director of Photography and discuss the visual aspects of creating these scenes from both an aesthetic and technical perspective. I think that it is equally important to explore the creative thought process (the “why”) as well as the nuts and bolts (the “how to”). I’ll start by profiling a recent project called “One Click Away.” This was an ambitious and visually challenging project with a modest budget.
The message of the project was to warn families about how easy, and often, young children are exposed to internet pornography as well as point out the negative effects of adult pornography addiction. The film was written by Rajeev Sigamoney and Jason Satterlund, produced by Marc Dahlstrom, and directed by Jason Satterlund of Big Puddle Films for client Josh McDowell ministries: Just1clickaway.org. Still photographs were taken by Levy Moroshan. I’m not choosing this project to promote any particular message, religious belief, or doctrine. Rather, I chose this project as an instructional example of how creative decisions are made and executed within a collaborative team that is working well together. Whether or not you agree with the message or intention, I hope that you will find the discussion of craft and techniques useful. For me, this was a fun opportunity to work with a creative director looking for dramatic cinematography.
Stylistically and logistically, our team approached “One Click Away” like a suspense/horror feature film – although on a much smaller scale. This was an ambitious project for everyone involved. We had only three days to film many set-ups with a cast of over 30 actors – and it was the first time that director Jason Satterlund and I had ever worked together. To add to the challenge, Jason was living in a different state at the time. So by necessity, we had an extended pre-production planning period that consisted of a series of long phone conversations squeezed in between our busy work schedules.
During these conversations, we went over the script several times as well as storyboards of key scenes. Jason also introduced visual motifs from still photographs and films that referenced specific camera angles or lighting styles that he was inspired by or wanted to emulate. Since we would have several scenes of people looking into computer monitors and television screens, Jason sent me several frame shots from “The Ring” (US version). This was particularly helpful because I had not seen that version of the film. I could still relate because I’m a fan of the original Japanese version, “Ringu.”
One of the most interesting scenes to visually interpret was a symbolic montage scene that I dubbed “tormented souls.” This scene called for a series of people in anguish – all staring into camera. The intention of the scene was to symbolically express the torment of addiction to pornography. Jason envisioned a locked-off frame that would jump cut many diverse faces as they went through phases of addiction. At the height of feeling “trapped,” a series of arms and hands would grab the victim from behind, choking and smothering them as they “struggled” with their addiction. When I read the script, I envisioned a modern version of Dante’s Inferno. Jason sent a reference photograph of hands covering a face that was more specific.
We both agreed that a wide-angle lens close up of each person would be appropriately unflattering, thereby enhancing the torment. After testing several lenses prior to our shoot, I settled on a Zeiss 18mm CP.2 prime lens with a PL mount to go with our Sony F3 camera. This particular lens has close focus ability. Actors could stand only inches from the lens, which would distort their facial features just the right amount. A fisheye lens would have been too heavy-handed, and possibly comical.
We also wanted a disturbing lighting effect, but there were practical considerations. We needed to film ten actors in this montage within a tight shooting schedule. This would require an efficient “one size fits all” lighting scheme that once set up could be executed quickly. Jason liked the simplicity of a “ring light” with the beautiful eye light that it created in a subject’s eyes. I also thought a ring light would be an effective and efficient way to light a subject standing extremely close to the lens. But we reasoned that a traditional ring light was too flattering and the look is too often associated with high fashion “beauty” lighting. My challenge prior to shooting would be to explore an alternative eye light.
Triangle Light Pattern
After rejecting round shapes in the eyes as too pleasing, I tested various straight angle reflections using single Kinoflo fluorescent tubes as a reference for length and width. Based on this experimentation, I came up with the idea for a triangle shaped keylight and eyelight combination that would look unnatural and feel disconcerting. To achieve this effect, I designed a custom triangle light pattern that would surround the lens. I started with a piece of 4’ x 4’ black and white foam core and cut out a triangle shape 3” wide with sides approximately 3’ 6” in length. I used the white side of the foam core to draw lines and make cuts. In the middle of the triangle, I cut out a circle exactly the diameter of the lens. I covered the triangle “cut out” using paper tape and thick tracing paper (used for it’s heavy diffusing quality and cheap cost).
While cutting out the triangle shape, I realized that the center of the foam core would no longer be supported or hold a rigid shape once placed over the lens. I fixed this by gaffer taping 3 sections of rigid coat hanger wire at each corner of the triangle. The thin shadow of the wire did not read in the eye reflection. The entire foam core pattern slipped tightly over the camera lens with the black side facing the actors. It was supported firmly in place by cutting two additional holes and inserting the iris rods that would normally be used for a camera matte box.
My camera assistant, Sam Garr, came up with the great idea of further stabilizing the foam core by borrowing a bracket from the matte box and thumb-screwing it to the rods, pinning the foam core securely in place. The matte box bracket was black, so it would disappear into the black foam core and not be seen in the eyes.
I illuminated the triangle shape (covered with tracing paper) from behind the camera using three 1K fresnel lights adjusted for even lighting of the triangle cut out. With the subject so close to the lens, there was plenty of exposure on the face as well as an eerie “triangle” shaped eyelight. Actually, the reflection looks more “shield” shaped since the curvature of the eyeball “bends” the straight lines. The dark side of the foam core facing the actor prevents any other competing reflections in the eyes. I also discovered during earlier experimentation that the front tripod leg would create unwanted shadows on the triangle pattern due to its proximity to the bottom of the triangle. To remedy this, we extended the camera forward using our Fisher 11 dolly’s 24” offset arm coupled with a rotating offset (optional accessories). Flags and duviteen (black cloth) were added to the sides of the foam core pattern to prevent extraneous spill light (from the 1K’s) from contaminating the darkness of our back wall.
I’ll go into more details about this set up in my next post.
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.