This article is a continuation of the series “Visual Anatomy of a Scene”. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. This post will conclude the series about the “One Click Away” project. I’ll discuss some creative visual illusions that we created “in camera” for the project. Although techniques involving green screen compositing are often the best solution to creating visual effects, I like to consider “in camera” effects whenever possible because they usually feel more organic and real.
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One of our most interesting challenges was how to shoot the scene where the man lying in bed at night is attacked by hands coming from beneath the covers (4:39). See featured photo at top of blog post. From the beginning, the director, Jason Satterlund and I wanted to create this effect live. Discussing this approach with the art director, Vince DeFelice, it was obvious that a fake bed with holes in the mattress (to allow hands and arms to protrude) would need to be built. I had several concerns with making this work. First, it would be very claustrophobic for two actresses to work on top of each other underneath a bed with normal clearance. More space could be built underneath a fake bed, but it was important that the actresses be able to get maximum extension of their arms through the bed. This would require them to be as close to the bottom of the bed as possible.
I began to ponder how we could raise the actresses up closer to the bottom of the bed without squishing them – and still provide some brief relief between takes. I was discussing with Vince the crazy idea of renting a warehouse pallet jack that could be raised and lowered as needed, when Jason blurted out “what if we built the bed against a wall instead of on the floor?” This was a brilliant solution that solved several problems at once. The cost of building the set against the wall (as if it were the floor) was no more expensive or significantly time consuming to build than a normal oriented set. With Vince’s 90-degree design, the hand-grabbing actresses would stand behind the “bottom” of the bed. It would still be a little crowded, but they could press their bodies forward and get maximum extension of their arms. Between takes they could relax without being subjected to the discomforts of gravity.
This clever change of perspective also saved us the cost of renting a long jib arm and a wireless remote follow focus for only one shot. With the bed built upright against the wall, we could create the illusion of a high angle crane-up from our subjects by using our existing dolly instead of a jib arm. Our subjects simply stood upright and leaned against the bed. As a bonus, the dolly shot proved to be much easier than a jib shot to execute and repeat with consistency.
There was only one additional art direction challenge to overcome to complete the illusion. Vince had to fight gravity and create realistic folds and wrinkles in the sheets and comforter and then staple them in place – thus cheating the direction of gravity. Fortunately, Jason also anticipated this issue and cast a couple with short hair. Long hair would necessitate extra hair styling including taping hair to the bed. Ouch!
When discussing the mood of the lighting for this scene, Jason and I agreed that moonlight streaming through a window would feel appropriately lonely and moody. The use of “moonlight” as a light source in films is a stylized convention that audiences have learned to accept in films even though it doesn’t look realistic. Simulating real moonlight accurately would be much too dark and visually boring. Therefore, our challenge is to create moonlight that feels psychologically real. I find that a large swath of uninterrupted moonlight tends to feel more artificial, so I wanted to break up the moonlight coming through the “off camera” window. I considered using a tree branch shadow, but thought that might be a bit cliché. Instead, I asked Vince for a piece of lace material (with a large pattern) that could simulate a window curtain.
For the moonlight, I used a 2K fresnel light with ½ CTB (color temperature blue) gel. I backed the light about 30 feet from the fake window curtain in order to get very sharp shadow patterns on the actor’s face. I did have to tilt my brain 90 degrees to get the angle of the light correct for the tilted set. When placing the light, it seemed like the wrong angle until I looked at the set through the camera. To finish the lighting, I added just a slight hint of ½ blue overall fill light by bouncing a gelled 1K fresnel into a 4 x 4 sheet of foam core. During the take, I had a grip gently move the lace curtain as if a breeze were blowing. It’s a subtle effect, but I think the slight movement and the “texture” of the light pattern added to the creepiness of the scene.
Lens Compression and Precise Framing
Another challenging illusion was the scene where a young woman surfs the net. Suddenly, strong arms thrust out of the computer and attack the woman (5:18). We knew it would be hard to hide a body behind a computer screen. Initially, we assumed that we would have to cut a hole in a desktop to allow room for our attacker. During scouting, Jason and I used my Canon 60D camera as a portable video viewfinder to explore angles, etc. When we lined up a “mock shot” of someone sitting at a desk with a computer, I realized how little of the desk we actually needed to see to “sell” the shot. Rather than cut a hole in the desk, all we needed was a very slender desktop, just wide enough to hold the keyboard and the mouse. When we actually shot the scene, the computer monitor was placed on apple boxes closely behind the attacker at desk level. To give the illusion that the monitor was on the desktop closer to the subject, I backed up the camera and used a long lens (80mm) to compress the apparent distance between the monitor and the subject.
The shallow depth of field of the long lens also helped to hide sketchy details of our background. We were shooting on a stage without a proper set for this scene. Originally, we planned to shoot the scene with a stylized “black limbo” background – but changed our mind when we saw it. Vince, our resourceful art director, quickly scrounged up a few elements to break up the black background. The practical lamp, in particular, adds a much-needed highlight to the background, which helps to add depth and reality. If you study the background carefully, you really don’t see much. We were counting on the brevity of the scene and the action to keep the viewer’s attention focused on the foreground.
We lit our subject with a 4’ quad kinoflo key light and a Kinoflo Diva 400 backlight – all tungsten balanced. For the subject’s fill light, we simulated light from a computer screen by using a couple of Rosco light pads which are thin panel LED lights (daylight balanced). The light pads are extremely useful for tight areas because they are very thin (approx 1/3”) and are available in different dimensions. We simply paper taped them to the surface of the monitor. Most LED light panels are relatively bright, but rather specular and harsh in quality. The Rosco light pads are not as bright, but much softer due to a unique “scoring” design that diffuses the LED's. They are also dimmable, which allowed us to “pulse” the lights slightly to indicate screen changes.
This concludes the “Anatomy Series” for the “One Click Away” project. There are other projects that I would be happy to “dissect” in future posts if there is interest from readers. What do you think? Are these detailed discussions of technique and craft helpful or educational?