Like 2 months ago I shot some live-acoustic videos for my musician pal/ director pal Corey. I’ve done a few of these with him in the past and they’re always really fun & really simple for both of us. He gets some content, & I get to have a little practice lighting different scenarios/locations. It’s also great practice for handheld operating, which I think you can never get enough of. We shot 2 in one day. The first one was for his song Never Fade, & we wanted it to feel expansive, open, & hopeful. The second one was Bury Under Burden, which called for imagery a bit more intimate, contained, & darker. Here are my musings on this shoot & how I approached it.
Zeiss CP.2 35mm
1/4 Black Pro-Mist
We shot the first one at an iconic touristy spot in Austin, the top of Mount Bonnell. Corey & I scouted out the spot a day prior and found an area farther down from the main mob of people. The exact spot we picked was super CRUCIAL to it not looking like complete shit. It was practically on a ledge but it overlooked the water. At the right angle, it gave me really nice leading lines from the river thing. More importantly, it was the only spot that gave me those nice leading lines, good backlight, AND some natural negative-fill from the trees on camera-left. Not to mention, there were foreground rocks which influenced our idea to track with Corey from behind and reveal the guitar that he picks up and starts playing, which was a somewhat creative way to start the video, versus just starting on a frame of him already at his mark.
There were other spots nearby that gave us more open space, but they didn’t have natural neg-fill so it would’ve looked flatter. This one was trickier for operating though, because I would be stepping up and stepping down from pretty tall rocks while trying to keep camera stable and not fall. Challenge accepted.
The lighting was super easy for this. Like I just mentioned, the spot we picked was crucial and pretty much gave us the look we were after. All I had to do was small easy tweaks. Initially I wanted to have a pretty large footprint up on the mountain. At first I was like "let's setup an 8x8 bounce, 8x8 neg-fill, and a bunch of other shit." But people much smarter than I told me that would be a bad idea since we didn't have a permit. And I didn't have a large crew, so getting combo stands and a shit-ton of heavy sandbags would've been tough to haul up there. And it was gonna be kind of windy. We had myself, Corey, Brooks (1st AC & G&E swing), Robby (helping w/ everything), & Sam (sound).
To get the gear up to the top of the mountain, we had to go up a crap-ton of stairs and it was tiring as hell. We brought like 4 C-stands, a bunch of sandbags, an Aputure 300D (gonna run off batteries but ended up not using), a Litepanel Astra 6x, a 4x4 breakaway frame, a 5 in 1 reflector, and a bunch of other knick-knacks.
For this setup, Brooks set up a 4x4 frame of some bounce material. I don't even know what it was. I think it was ultrabounce? Unfortunately that was the only professional bounce I had with me. We also set up a circle bounce from a 5 in 1 reflector directly next to it to make the bounce a bit bigger. It did a tiny bit. The last piece of the puzzle was a battery-powered Lightpanel Astra 6x that we used to just add a little ping to the eyes. It was too harsh so we taped a little piece of silk to just make it a bit easier on Corey's eyes. We put it right next to the bounce and slightly behind. It would've been nice to add a touch of softening to the backlight but the location made it pretty impossible to do it with our resources.
Initially I wanted to have some negative fill camera-left but it would've just been so annoying to position, and the trees were blocking enough light to give me SOME contrast, so I decided it would suffice. Some people that read cinematography blogs would recognize that what I'm doing at this location is called a "sun-sandwich" which is when you bounce light from the OPPOSITE side the sun is shining from. Usually these look unnatural and terrible and flatten out faces. In this case, because of the way we positioned Corey by the trees, we got nice contrast, so I think the sun-sandwich was acceptable. There was really no way around it because if Corey was looking the opposite direction (looking camera left), we would not have gotten a good background frame, and his face would've been flatter on camera-right.
A whole other piece of the puzzle was actually filming the freaking thing. Like I mentioned, there were some rocks that I had to work my way around. I had Robby spot me which helped out big time. I decided to not use my Easy Rig because of how much I would be moving on rough terrain and stepping up & down, it would have translated my hip movement into the camera moves too much. So instead I just decided to go true handheld. However, since the starting frame was low, I started off holding the camera from the top-handle, then had to smoothly raise it up to my shoulder. Holding the 25lb rig steady for each 4 minute take was TOUGH. Each take I'm telling myself "don't screw this up don't screw this up." From the creative perspective, we liked the idea of starting low on the feet, and as he picks up the guitar, we reveal the expansive-ness, then we slowly push-in & out for the duration of the song. Occasionally I would try to truck-right to get some flares from the sun. It was also important for us to get really subjective to his eye-line at some point, so we saved that moment for the end of the song when Corey was the most emotive with his performance. That was our opportunity to go more frontal with the camera and capture a bit of flare. After that moment, I had to quickly track backwards, stepping down a big rock, to move out to a wide before the song ended. That was tricky but I pulled it off with the help of Robby who was spotting me. My 1st AC Brooks also crushed the focus pulls. I was shooting at a T2.0 because I wanted that nice creamy background, and he did not disappoint. The other aspect to this was getting good live sound, and Sam was able to get the boom in a great position that was out of frame but still sounded good.
We were getting kind of stressed during part of this shoot because we had a 30 minute window of the light we wanted. And the first few takes, Corey popped his guitar strings twice. After the second time, he didn't have any more strings with him on the mountain. He had to sprint down to his car at the bottom of the mountain, sprint back up, and get them changed out. So that cut our shooting window even shorter! Which meant that I pretty much had to be perfect in my operating. Luckily, we somehow got a take in the can, which was a huge relief. And although we were in a public place and had no permit at all, it still kind of looked like we were suppose to be there. Some people were talking really loud as we were about to roll, so I shouted really loudly "QUIET ON SET." And everyone there shut the hell up. Hehe suckers. This one ended up being fun to shoot and I'm pretty pleased with how it came out considering what we were working with.