How to Shoot a Sundance-Worthy Film on the Blackmagic Pocket in Frigid Weather & Two Feet of Snow
"It is deep winter in rural Massachusetts."
So begins the plot summary of Bob and the Trees, a dramatic film premiering at Sundance next week, and so began the journey of the two DPs who shot the film in the midst of a violently cold and snowy Northeastern winter.
Late last year, I was hoping to write a story about the difficulties of shooting exteriors in the snow. Not only can cold, wet weather wreak havoc on expensive electronic equipment, but shooting in the snow presents its own series of challenges in terms of lighting and exposing images properly. That story ended up coming right to my doorstep in the form of Bob and the Trees, a 2010 short film turned feature that was recently accepted at the Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Diego Ongaro, Bob and the Trees is described thusly in its IMDb summary:
It is deep winter in rural Massachusetts. Bob, a fifty-something year old logger with a soft spot for golf and gangsta rap struggles to make ends meet in a changed economy. When a beloved cow of his gets wounded and a job goes awry, Bob begins to heed the instincts of his ever darkening self.
What's even more intriguing than that delightfully enigmatic and mysterious summary is the fact that Bob and the Trees was one of the first features — if not the very first — to be shot exclusively on a pair of Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras.
This is significant for a few reasons. First and foremost, the BMPCC is one of those cameras that delivers incredible image quality for the price, but also presents numerous technical challenges in order to make it work in traditional narrative and documentary productions (the production of Bob and the Trees really blurs the line between the two). Learning how the film's DPs, Chris Teague and Danny Vecchione, configured their cameras and shot the film can help the myriad filmmakers who now own a BMPCC get the most from the camera in their own work.
Secondly, Bob and the Trees was shot in some horrendous weather. Last year, southward shifts in the North Polar Vortex made for one of the coldest and snowiest winters on record for residents of the Northeastern United States. Bob and the Trees was shot in the heart of the affected region in Western Massachusetts. The crew shot in below-freezing temperatures, often in two or more feet of snow. Like I mentioned before, conditions like this present a whole range of technical challenges for cinematographers.
I recently spoke with Chris and Danny about their experiences shooting Bob and the Trees, about how they made the BMPCC work for them, and about how they handled the challenges presented by Mother Nature. Unfortunately, the Bob and the Trees does not have a theatrical trailer as of yet, so it's hard to show you guys something that will give you an idea of how the finished film looks. Luckily, I managed to get a few sneak preview clips from Bob and the Trees that are exclusive to our site. You'll find those clips sprinkled throughout this interview alongside BTS photos and still frames from the film.
With that out of that way, let's get to the interview with Chris and Danny!
NFS: First off, introduce yourselves. Tell us a little bit about your history with filmmaking and how you went about making a career out of it. Also, how did each of you land on the crew of Bob and the Trees?
Chris Teague: I studied photography and English in undergrad in Boston and worked for an amazing documentary cinematographer named Steve McCarthy, who taught me a lot. I then went to grad school at Columbia University for film and ended up shooting a lot of student shorts and then transitioned into working as a freelance DP. Danny and I met over 10 years ago when he was at NYU and we've been good friends and collaborators ever since.
Danny Vecchione: I went to undergrad for fine arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I got into film. I then went to grad school at NYU, where I was originally studying directing, but ended up shooting a lot of student films. I fell in love with cinematography and have been doing it ever since. Chris shot Diego’s short film a few years ago, and thought that this film could be an interesting project to collaborate on and co-shoot. Diego was open to that idea, and I came on as a second DP to the project.
NFS: Give us a brief rundown of the themes of Bob and the Trees. What is the visual style that you guys created for this film, and why was that aesthetic the right choice for this particular story?
CT: Diego wanted to cast non-professional actors in key roles in the film to enhance the authenticity he wanted to achieve. We shot a short film based on these characters a few years ago, and that was a great way to get a feel for what it was like to stage dramatic scenes in a way that kept the filmmaking apparatus as unobtrusive as possible, while still working to make choices with camera placement and movement that helped to tell the story.
The mix of naturalism along with beautiful and carefully composed landscape shots of the Berkshires really balances the film and creates a unique tone.
I don't think we ever got too dogmatic about a visual style. I think we have similar instincts — we all share an interest and excitement in the spontaneity of real things happening in front of the camera, and the way that documentary reality can mix with thoughtful composition and cinematic storytelling.
Danny and I have worked together for years, which makes communication very easy. We had no video village, so Diego really had to trust us with what we were shooting. When we're shooting a scene with two cameras, Danny and I both have a pretty strong sense of what the other person is seeing, and can often anticipate what might happen next and try to position ourselves in ways that allow our angles to complement each other, which can be incredibly difficult in a documentary-style environment when everything can change from take to take. It's a fun challenge.
DV: The film was very interesting to shoot because Diego would set up scenarios for the actors, and we would just run the scene through as many times as it took to feel right. He was referencing very interesting films, such as Ballast, that have a very free form but a beautiful, organic look. The mix of naturalism along with beautiful and carefully composed landscape shots of the Berkshires really balances the film and creates a unique tone.
The script was more of an outline with occasional bits of dialogue in it. The shoot felt almost like a documentary at times, when you feel like you only have one shot at an unrepeatable action, so it was really more about camera operating and trying to capture the actors in the best position that they were going to naturally than forcing them into blocking and hitting marks. Chris and I have worked together quite a bit on set, and can usually anticipate where the other one will be and what they will be shooting in a given situation. I don’t think I could have tried to co-shoot a feature with anyone else.
NFS: I've heard that the conditions you guys were shooting in were less than favorable. Talk a little bit about what those conditions were and what it was like to shoot in those conditions for hours on end.
CT: We were shooting in below-freezing temperatures almost every day, and often in two feet of snow. I wore three layers of pants and four layers on top, two pairs of socks and we all had these amazing rubber army surplus boots that Diego found that totally saved our lives. I wore a heavy pair of fingerless gloves with removable mittens, and a thin pair of cotton gloves underneath.
The cold was most challenging on my fingers, which had to be exposed to operate the camera. It was also incredibly difficult and exhausting to smoothly operate a handheld camera with so many layers and in two feet of snow. But frankly, it's kind of hard to whine about it when you're filming guys who go out into the freezing cold every day and spend all day every day logging, who prefer the cold because the ground is frozen, which makes it easier for them to work in a way that is lower impact on the natural environment. We were actually lucky that it was so cold because it meant the snow stayed dry and pretty much consistent throughout the shoot.
DV: I can and will complain that it was very, very cold. But it was fun too.
We were shooting in below-freezing temperatures almost every day, and often in two feet of snow. I wore three layers of pants and four layers on top, two pairs of socks and we all had these amazing rubber army surplus boots that Diego found that totally saved our lives.
NFS: Why did you guys choose to shoot with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera? Did you use any other cameras for this production, or was it shot entirely with Pocket Cameras? Talk a little bit about not only the camera settings that you used, but which lenses and camera stabilization gear that you used as well.
CT: We shot on two Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras with the Metabones Speed Booster adapter and Nikon prime lenses. We like the small size and operational simplicity of the camera, as well as its ability to hold highlights pretty well for a camera in its class, which was essential for shooting in the snow. Also, knowing that we'd be working in a mostly documentary-style environment, we appreciated knowing that we'd have the low compression ProRes HQ codec to work with in post. We knew that we could underexpose to protect highlights and bring the midtones up in the color correct without too much noise.
Danny and I both operate handheld on small cameras with these really crappy plastic shoulder rigs that work amazingly well. I bought mine over 10 years ago at a garage sale for 7 bucks, and recently Ikan copied the design and branded it the Recoil-XT. I really hate the over-designed, overbuilt, and overpriced rigs that all these companies have made, where you're hanging a big weight off your back that's always smashing into walls and that make a tiny camera bigger than an Alexa. This little plastic rig weighs almost nothing, it wraps around your shoulder and braces against your chest, and you put your hands on the camera body itself, which is where your hands belong in a documentary shooting environment where you need to have fluid access to focus, aperture, white balance, peaking, etc.
Danny and I co-own a lot of gear, and we like the older metal body Nikon primes for their look and because they are very solidly built for photo lenses. The Speed Booster adapter is also a really clever invention and it added a lot to the look of the film, partly because it allowed us to use the Nikons where we may not have otherwise been able to.
We like the small size and operational simplicity of the [Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera], as well as its ability to hold highlights pretty well for a camera in its class, which was essential for shooting in the snow. Also, knowing that we'd be working in a mostly documentary-style environment, we appreciated knowing that we'd have the low compression ProRes HQ codec to work with in post.
DV: Over the course of the production, Chris and I would talk about other possible camera choices that we could have used, and I am very happy that we went with the Pocket Cinema Camera. While I like shooting with larger and more sophisticated cameras, a larger body and more gear would have meant more crew, time, and complication on set in the snow. The film was shot entirely in 15 days, and a larger footprint would have made the schedule and logistics too complicated. We were both able to carry all the gear that we needed by ourselves. It was a very bare bones approach to it, but the dynamic range of the Pocket Cinema Camera was impressive enough for us to shoot snow scenes while maintaining the integrity of the whites and the shadows.
Chris and I both like older, softer, vintage lenses. We co-own a set of Cooke S2s and these old Nikon photo lenses, both of which I love the look of. They take the edge off of HD images. We only had one set of the Nikons, so Chris and I decided to intentionally mismatch the lens focal length of each scene. In the morning, one of us would shoot with a wider lens - usually a 24mm or 35mm, and the other person would shoot with a longer lens - usually a 50mm or 85mm. In the afternoon we would swap focal lengths so that we could bring a fresh perspective to the scenes and not get stuck in a rut.
NFS: Cold weather and moisture can wreak havoc on expensive electronic equipment. How did you guys maintain your equipment and ensure that it was always working properly (if it was) in the snow and cold temperatures?
CT: Most of our gear fit into two backpacks and two tripod cases, and wherever we hiked in to shoot our incredibly helpful assistant and jack of all trades Phil Dunphy would drop a tarp over the snow that we would throw our gear on. We were very mindful of keeping snow off of all of our gear, which was a pain because we could never set the cameras down. The cameras performed very well in the cold. Even the tiny batteries did well. We were sure to have a ton of batteries for each camera (about 8-10 each) and we kept them in our inner layer pockets to keep them warm. The LCDs on the cameras sometimes had a minor trailing effect because they were cold, but I think this happens with any cold display.
DV: I was surprised at how well the gear handled in the snow. We even shot one sledding scene in a white-out blizzard, and the cameras and lenses were fine.
NFS: Exterior lighting with lots of snow on the ground can be tricky. How did you guys handle the lighting for this film? Did the snow present any major obstacles in terms of lighting?
CT: For the most part lighting the exteriors was about exposing the image properly. We tried to keep the snow from blowing out and were mostly successful. The Pocket Cinema Camera has a good ability to hold highlights, since we were shooting with the fairly low compression ProRes 422 HQ codec, we knew we'd have some wiggle room in post to bring up underexposed shadows if necessary.
DV: After I read the script, my feeling was that maintaining highlights in the snow was going to be the most difficult thing to achieve technically. We used variable NDs on the lenses so that we wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time dealing with filter changes and could react to the changing weather conditions quickly. We did have a few exterior days in the woods where action was taking place under the shadows of the trees, and there are some hot spots in the background that were unavoidable. My favorite scenes are the overcast or snowing scenes. I wish the whole film was gray and overcast, but I think we made the best of every scene.
NFS: Were there any other unforeseen obstacles that made this film difficult to shoot? If so, how did you handle them?
CT: We thought that shooting with two cameras simultaneously would be essential for capturing performances that may be unrepeatable. While this was somewhat true, we also found ourselves avoiding each other a lot. We were very concerned that the shoot would start to feel like reality TV, because the tendency when shooting with two cameras is to just have one camera cover each character or group and then you have the ability to cut between the two angles. However, this can become visually very dull and boring, and it removes the ability that a skilled camera operator has to become a part of the scene, moving and reacting to things as they are happening. While I think the final cut looks great and doesn't feel like reality TV at all, we've talked about it since shooting and I think we agree that if we did things again we'd try to shake it up a bit more with the camerawork — to shoot some scenes or takes single camera only, just to allow that camera more freedom, even if it means missing some moments.
DV: I don’t really have anything to add on this one.
NFS: Do you guys have any other advice for young cinematographers who might be facing a cold, snowy winter shoot of their own?
CT: Try to keep things light and simple if you can. Make yourself as comfortable as possible. Don't expect that the rig or piece of gear that worked well for the five minutes you tested it will work well for a 12-hour day of shooting.
DV: Do some tests on the highlights, and take the footage through to post. Make sure you are comfortable with the dynamic range of the camera that you choose.
We'd like to thank Chris and Danny for taking the time to answer our questions, and also the film's producer Rob Cristiano for setting this up. Bob and the Trees will be having its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival next week, on January 26th, so if you're in Park City, you definitely ought to check it out.
If you have any questions about the production of Bob and the Trees, leave them down in the comments. Also, share your experiences with shooting exteriors in the snow!