Thank you Emily Prescott and Marguerite Nocchi of Call Me Crazy Entertainment (@callmecrazyent) and producer Lauren Brooks for being a badass fellow Umass Alum. They brought me on to shoot a low budget indie feature length film and I had a great time. Working 5 days a week in that capacity is exactly how I like to operate. Being immersed in the process ( virtually drowning in it, but hey live by the camera die by the camera) is where the best learning and growth happens. And boy did I need the learning and the growing. So here are some sample images and color grades and a bit of commentary to go along with it. I’ll admit that this is mostly for my own reflection on the process and quality, but if anyone else finds this stuff interesting, that’s a bonus.
IMDB: Stuck on Someday
Camera: Nikon D800
Lenses: Zeiss Primes
- Distagon 25mm f/2
- Milvus 35mm f/2
- Planar T* 85mm f/1.4
- APO Sonnar 135mm f/2
- Litepanels Astra 1×1 BiColor
- Aputure Amaran 528W plus small LED accents
- 300w Tungsten Lamps
We also rented a Matthews 24″X36″ scrim kit and I brought along a lot of DIY bounce boards, diffusion, and dimmers. I bummed from black wrap from a friend and relied heavily on CTB and CTO to exaggerate color differences.
This was the first two days of shooting. There was some adjusting that needed to be done on my part. I had never touched a Nikon until that night, so the first days of principal photography were also camera tests!
The scenes all take place in the day, but our hours were overnight. The reception area was right next to the entrance with huge windows that would reveal the actual time of day. I hoisted the 1×1 led panel, along with some diffusion and blasted it at 5600K, hoping to simulate daylight outside.
The tale of two sets. We started our first full week of shooting at an AirBnB in Somerville. Day 1, no prob. Day 2, we get ousted because of the city’s dispute with the property owner. So, we spent half a day traveling to a backup location. The bedroom scenes were all shot the first day, and the living room and kitchen scenes were captured over the next few days at location 2.
The film’s lead, Emelie, saved the production by getting her Aunt and Uncle’s home as a replacement for the AirBnB that fell through. They were generous and probably had no clue what they were agreeing to. We completely upended their living room for 3 days!
Daytime scenes were pretty straightforward in the living room. I planted the 1×1 LED near the windows, and bounced it off the ceiling at 55k to bring up the ambient light in the room.
Nighttime scenes were more complex. We had to shoot them all day, so we blacked out all the windows, which you can see in the wide still above. I used DIY diffusion (wax paper) in the practical lamps to soften them. I also attached dimmers to control the exposure. I also used my Aputure 528S with tungsten filter as a fill. The 1×1 LED was still bounced from the ceiling with a CTB to add a little color to the shadows, and the camera was WB around 4000K to keep the tungsten lights extra warm and cozy.
On top of this, I used a small Flashpoint LED with black wrap and gels to simulate the flicker of a TV in the room.The actually flicker was made possible by the multi talented producer, Lauren. The TV Effect would make several more appearances on set over the course of the film.
The bedroom scenes were pretty straightforward. It was small, well decorated, and well lit from big windows. The night scenes took some finesse to get right, but the desk set piece was accomplished with just some wax paper diffusion and a dimmer on the lamp. I also gaffed diffusion and CTB over the ceiling lamp until the exposure was in the right ballpark.
The before and after color grade above is an example of the night kitchen scenes. The biggest challenge of this room was the two walls that were different colors. The actors had to face a green wall while they sat at the table. We had to gaff bounce of neg fill to the wall to prevent the green paint from bouncing green hue onto their faces. In a different way, the red wall was shiny, bright, and close to skin tone, which is not what you want to frame your actors against, usually. We avoided it as much as possible. I rigged my 528S on a c-stand above the actors and used the 1×1 to fill the background.
During the day, I placed the 1×1 on the deck outside and shot it through the window to direct some edge light onto the actors and the table. Spill from the other windows was either blocked or diffused with the Matthew’s kit.
The group meetings were the largest of the whole production, in terms of crew and cast size. The lighting setups were also much more varied because I attempted to suggest various times of day and seasons as we rocketed through scenes. The picture above reveals some of the makeshift rigging I used to cut and diffuse the overhead lighting. The 1×1 light panel can be scene back near the windows as well, where it was used to reinforce the natural light source.
The exterior night shots were a bit of a gamble on my part. We had to rearrange the shooting schedule, which complicated the sequence of shots. It was actually relatively early in the evening when we shot this scene, but I attempted to use white balance and orange gels to create a later nighttime atmosphere. The orange glow coming from inside the building was the 1×1 LED set to 3200K and ~2stops of CTO added. The camera was set ~3200K or lower to amp the blue tone in the image. A daylight LED was used to light Emilie at the top of stairs in a way to emulate a nearby streetlamp or security light. With a bit of color tweaking in post, the roughly 4pm shoot hopefully comes across as 8 or 9pm.
There were two challenges to lighting and framing this scene. The relatively close quarters between the tables and the counter meant it was tricky positioning a camera at the right distance. I tried a few different places for a wide at the table, but I ended feeling better about wider shots from behind Nick.
Creating the right exposure with the giant window next to the actors was the second challenge. Daylight flooded in from that window, but the interior lights were all greenish flourescents. I experimented a bit with the large LED panel to create the right softness and directionality to reinforce the in house lighting, but the process was complicated by a class of film students who showed up to scout the location! Dozens of college kids filled the tiny diner snapping pictures and talking with their instructors while I was hoisting lights.
Eventually they cleared out and I was able to settle with the main 1×1 diffused from behind the counter at about 10 feet. I also placed a smaller LED at the end of the counter out of frame as a hair light for Emilie and the waitress.
This scene late in the afternoon was picturesque. The actors were in shade, but the surrounding area was in late afternoon daylight. It created a good separation between the subjects and the background, but also forced me to consider how to white balance without any additional lighting. In the end, I balanced for daylight and accepted that everything in the shade would look cooler. The color grade attempts to counter act that and to adjust the apparent season.
This park bench location was a different set of problems. The direct mid day sunlight was harsh on the actors and we didn’t have enough resources to diffuse the entire scene. The other option would have been to put them under a tree, but that would have forced high ISO and a blownout background. I decided we could live with squinty actors in the wides, and we tried to squeeze the closeups enough to bring in small 24″x36″ diffusion flags.
Gavin and Declan’s Apartment
The week that we spent shooting in Gavin and Declan’s apartment was an interesting mix of practicals and set lighting. I tried to make the small apartment as visually interesting as I could using varying background colors and diffusing practical lights. In the photo above, you can see the actors are lit with tungsten and the rest of the set is lit with cool ctb gels.
In the screen captures below, I show the before and after color grades for the reverse shots. I intentionally lit the doorways behind each actor with a different color to reinforce the context of the shots and to visually match the characters’ opposition. I felt this extra step was needed because we chose to compose the shots so that both actors would appear on the same of the frame. When it’s cut, they would occupy the same space as a device emphasize their power struggle. It’s more typical to frame actors on opposite side of the frame, so having the color cues in the background was meant to help orient the viewer when the camera “flips” back and forth.
The overall mood of the scene was a night time interior, so I reinforced practical lights at either end of the room to create high contrast side lighting on the actors. The mixture of color temps was a bit tricky to sort out in color grading, but it eventually accomplished what I had hoped, a some what warmly lit but varied looking color palette.
Ryan’s House Exterior
A very quick scene, but one of the few exteriors. Daylight did virtually all the work here. I used a 2×4 diffusion silk which was small for this task. It wasn’t ideal and the tricky part was shooting in a way to hide the shadow of the diffusion frame as the actors crossed under it.
Ryan’s New Apartment
This scene was meant to mirror the take-out food scenes in Gavin’s apartment. In many ways, the setups were identical: warm lights to the left of frame, cool lights high and to the right with a TV flashing in front of the actors. They were framed on the same sides of the shot as the other scene as well. The only difference was the wide from the actors’ left, and the TV in the shot.
The Bobby set was our last week of shooting. Our setups were split between exteriors for a yard sale and for porch scenes, and an evolving interior from cramped hoarder dwellings to normal living conditions.
Creating the illusion of a house full of decades worth of hoarding was no small task. Sometimes it required actually filling the set with boxes, knick knacks, clothes, etc. But for certain setups, we orchestrated a production design “junk wall” and strategic camera angles to “fill” the space.
As the film opens, Bobby’s house is crammed with junk. Emily and I talked about making the space feel squeezed and claustrophobic. I used the 135mm lens for the earliest sequences, and then backed off to the 85mm as the character’s space begun to de-clutter. Eventually, we were able to shoot in the same space with a 35mm to show the complete transformation of the room.
This kitchen scene was lit with a 1×1 LED bounce diffused from the ceiling, and an Aputure 528s with CTO shot from the pantry behind the subject. The idea was to create a highlight source that would appear to be from a window, but would not stand out from the interior color temperature.
This scene marked the beginning of the de-clutter process. The character of Bobby is still beneath the shadow of her hoard, with some light leaking in from outside.
A later scene where Ryan has made advancements in organizing Bobby’s mess. But now Ryan’s face is in shadow as she’s still hiding from her own self made mess.