Short Film Cinematography: Day 2 of 2
Updated: Mar 23, 2022
My attempt at getting gritty-ish images with a tinge of polish
Hey everyone, in this post we're gonna look at day 2 of a short film I DP'd in October called Hello Ma'am. Link to my day 1 breakdown is here. On day 1, we were filming in a fancy house and using a lot of soft-lighting and controlled camera movement (dolly + sticks). On day 2, we were in a shitty-house that is a stark contrast to day 1 (the film starts out with what we shot here on day 2). The mindset with the cinematography was to 'mess up the iamge'. We wanted a sense of fractured light, and a kinetic & subjective camera that moves through the world as the main character does. The production designer, Ashley Landavazo did a great job of art direction which made it easier to get richer images on-camera. You'll notice that there is a consistent warm/amber hue throughout the frames. The director wanted it to feel like "the heat of summer." Now, I didn't go crazy with the in-camera color-temperature, but I did nudge it in the right direction while on-set. For instance, we put warmer gels on some of the lights at times, and an in-camera white balance of 6000-7000k. Then the rest of the look came through in the grade. We're going to look at some of the techniques that I think worked quite well, while discussing some that may have needed a different approach or a subtle tweak.
We shot the day almost entirely handheld to further have the camera feel attached to the character in a way. We wanted it to feel very subjective so wherever our characters went, and however our character moved, the camera would sort of follow. We also shot this day at 1600 ISO because I wanted to degrade the image a bit more and introduce some noise, which looks pleasing on the Alexa (I usually don't like shooting high ISO's, especially with most RED's, but I liked what the Alexa was doing at 1600).
To recap from the last post, this was our lighting package
-8 Astera Titan Tubes
-Lightmat 4 & Lightmat 2
-Joker 800 (didn't use)
-1/2 Ton Grip trailer
-Fog machine (hazers are better but the fogger was free)
Camera package Alexa XT Plus + Zeiss Standard Speeds T2.1 (16, 28, 40, 50, 85)
*FYI, I don't really mention focal lengths I use on shots because I usually forget. However, I do know that the 28mm and the 40mm are heavy workers for me
Here's some selects from the film, which is still in post. The images are graded but not exactly shot-matched quite yet
The first scene of the day
To maximize our amount of shooting time, we started with a simple exterior scene that would allow 2 of my 3 G&E fellas & the production designer to work on setting up the interior of our protagonist's bedroom while we shot outside. So call time was 7:30, and we wanted to roll on the first shot (the one above) at 8:30. At face value, getting this shot was pretty simple. We found a house with an interesting pop of color for the background, and allowed us to shoot into backlight.
Shooting into backlight always looks great for exteriors, and it's also a time-saver because you don't have to worry about diffusing unflattering hard light on the face. The bush you see in the foreground is not a real bush, it's just a branchaloris, or as I like to call "a tree on a stick." Just a branch we attached to a C-stand. I specifically wanted it on the bottom of the frame because I thought it would be interesting to have our main character sandwiched between 2 pops of color, in this case red & green. We threw up an 8x8 Ultrabounce but I don't think it was doing much on the wide. We also threw up three 4x4 floppies and I think you can see it darkening his face on frame-right a bit, but again, you can see it's effect more when we moved in for the closeup.
When we moved in for the closeup, we moved in our negative fill to the edge of frame to really crunch down the shadows and give us contrast on the face. I sometimes like to angle the floppies at a 45 degree angle to cut more ambient light from the top (I didn't do this on the wide because it wasn't really making a difference).. We moved in the ultrabounce a little bit as well to give us more punch on the face. You have to be careful when you do this though so you don't end up with light levels on the face that are WAY different from the wide shot. A little bit of differentiation is fine though. We got a little lucky because it was cloudy enough to diffuse the sun, but the clouds weren't thick enough to make it all gloomy, so we got a really nice, soft warm backlight that looks like I did it on purpose. I didn't. Also notice that we're bouncing from the same side of the sun to keep it looking naturalistic.
It's really important to point out that there's an element to this scene that requires more thought than you would initially think. This scene is one-half of a phone conversation that we were shooting the other end of hours later (it's the shot of the girl at 1:36 of the video above). So we needed to have the characters looking in opposite directions. With this exterior location, the sun position wouldn't have allowed us to have the background we wanted while having him on the left of frame & looking to frame-right, because that would've meant we'd have to fill from the opposite side of the sun (fill from camera-right), which wouldn't look natural. But I had to make sure that it wouldn't mess up the other shot we'd be doing later on, if we had the other character on frame left, looking right, so I had to double check that before we committed to that framing. It's really important to identify details like that in the script and in your locations before you shoot.
The Bedroom (morning look)
So by the time we finished shooting the exterior scene, we had made a lot of progress on lighting the interior. Before we dive into the lighting, there's a couple principles at play that allowed me to achieve success on the aesthetic of this scene. We scouted a lot of locations and this one had a small bedroom, that made it somewhat difficult to work in, but it had a north-facing window, which meant that we wouldn't be getting direct-sunlight beaming in, which is good because we had around 4 hours of filming and 2 different "looks" to shoot here. Also, outside of the window was a big patch of darker trees, which gave me texture outside and more importantly, wasn't going to clip-out on-camera. Again, Ashley did an amazing job on the production-design here because white-walled rooms are usually terrible for DP's but the amount of art direction really brought it to life. In this scene, we had 2 practicals on, each with my own bulbs that I tossed in there (I think I put 60w incandescent bulbs in each and dimmed them down).
This scene is supposed to feel very raw and imperfect, and our protaganist was pacing back & forth around the room so we didn't want to constrain him with marks. The camera needed to pretty much follow him around wherever he went and be very reactive & loose. Props to my 1st AC Brooks Birdsall for keeping things sharp af when actors' movements & speeds were changing so often. We set the lighting up once and left it, so this really was all about lighting the space and letting the characters inhabit it.
So this is the first scene of the film, and when I think about the "heat of summer," it meant hard, warm light piercing in, and a crap-ton of haze. We had the M18 with 1/2 CTO outside of the window, about 20 feet away, raking into the room at an angle. The angle of the light is important because you usually don't want to point the camera directly at your movie light that is lighting the scene. It's important to get your light a reasonable distance away from your window because it gives you a more realistic falloff of light. When you jam a light right up against a window, it's going to be really bright near the window and then fall off very drastically the farther you get from the window. When the light is farther away, the falloff isn't as drastic, which is much more realistic (remember, the sun is really far away). If I had the M18 right up against the window on this shot, then the sheers would be WAY brighter, so when I adjusted exposure to compensate for it and not clip them out completely, the interior would be way too dark. The light also needed to be fairly high up on the combo stand to give us the angle that was realistic. I'm lucky that my gaffer, Keaton Loudamy, has such an inherent understanding of light that I don't have to worry about making sure the lamps are being placed in the right spot and at the right height. It's also important to note that on a budget, you're usually not going to get the same falloff of light that a Hollywood movie gets, but you want to try to understand light falloff and the inverse-square law and get as close as you can.
So we placed our sun-source, and it hit the sheers and bloomed them quite nicely. I asked art department for curtains + sheers on the windows because it gives texture to a window, and the curtains can act as cutters for the light. In this case, the sheers are sandwiching the hard light that is leaking through, which to me looks really nice. I exposed the camera to the point just before the hottest highlight clipped out, which makes the rest of the room really dark, so that's why we mounted a Lightmat 4 up top (color temp was like 5000 or so I believe); this brings light into the room from the SAME SIDE as the window. It had a grid on it because otherwise it would spill all over the side walls. It wasn't quite enough level but it's the best we had.
Now this is a very very important point I'm about to make: You don't want to show up on the day, shine a light through a window in a small bedroom, and then realize that you need to mount an additional lamp above the window, and casually ask your crew to setup a wall-spreader once you see what the light is doing. Going in, you have to know that is going to be the right move, because otherwise you're taking the crew's time on something that they could've done already if you thought ahead. You're also taking time away from art department that needs the time to set up the room. That's why we started our day with the exterior scene, so we could have some crew working ahead. It's also important to make sure with the director ahead of time that you won't be needing to see that part of the room. If you do need to see that part of the room, then you either add time to remove the rig after you get all the other coverage, or add the rig after you shoot the shots the need to be that wide. Alternatively, you can compromise on the aesthetic, which is a discussion to have in pre-pro with the director. In this case, we could get all the shots we wanted while framing out everything above the window, so it was a win-win.
The last 2 things we did: We attached some duvetyne to the wall opposite the window to make sure we wouldn't get any light returning from the fill side & ruining the mood. & then we used a fogger & wafted it around to give us a layer of haze which helped lift the shadows a bit and make the image feel denser.
The Bedroom (mid-afternoon look)
We shot the previous scene for a little over an hour, and then we had around 30 minutes to change the look over to something that looked like it was a few hours later in the day. We then had 45 minutes to shoot this scene. It was pretty easy. We took the 1/2 CTO off the M18, and tossed up a diffusion frame (250 I think?). We did this to give the light a softer wash in the room. We then crunched the shears together a bit to further soften the light. If we had the time I would have liked to pepper in some hard light somewhere to give the space a little more edge. We turned off the bedside practical and turned on the practical in the frame-left corner, and we propped up a titan tube in the closet to give it a pop of light.
For this setup above, the blocking was tricky for our lighting because the actress started on one side of the bed, near the bedside table, grabs a box, then hops to the other side of the bed. So I just had the gaffer Keaton hollywood a titan tube to wrap the window light around a bit more. When having someone hollywood a light, make sure they know what they're doing and have a steady hand because it's really easy to move a light too much or too quickly, and you'll see the light changing in the middle of the shot, which is an obvious giveaway and will take the audience out of the story. In this shot, if there even was any movement of the light, it was shielded by the handheld camera movement from when the actress quickly moved from mark 1 to mark 2. I don't usually like to point a light directly at a face; I'll usually want to diffuse it or bounce it, but we didn't have any time lol. The ideal situation here would have been to have her parallel to the window so she can be side-lit by it, but it just wasn't feeling natural to her so we ended up with this positioning, which is fine.
The Living Room
Our living room setup was quite similar to the bedroom setup in terms of the lights we used and general placement, but we had to do a shot-reverse-shot so it made it a little bit trickier. We had about 30 minutes to set this up. We shot the wide first, which looks OK because of the raw gritty style we adopted, but generally speaking, there's a lot that could be improved. We brought the M18 + 1/2 CTO over to shoot through the window that is just off camera-right. I wanted to rake a slash of light across the room that stopped at about waste level, letting the face remain soft.
But something about this frame seems off to me. My initial thought would be to mount a stronger key-light to hit our main character, but the issue is that the character lands on this mark you see in the frame above, and I didn't want it to look like he magically walked into a beautiful keylight that is randomly in one spot in the room. And the hard sunlight looks really artificial here. Maybe if we used a Joleko instead of an M18, I'd get a narrower beam of light with more directionality, combined with a thicker level of haze, we could've gotten a thick ray of light. Maybe we could've completely re-blocked the scene and picked a camera angle that works better for a pretty-wide. Or maybe I picked this because it was the most conducive for the upcoming setups, which would ensure we'd be able to get all the coverage in a timely manner.
This shot you see up above ended up being one of my favorites. Again, the sheers + curtains made this image look awesome. The different colors and densities gave the window a really dynamic feel in this shot above. We already had the M18 out there, so we moved it over a bit to the camera-right side of this window and we used a Lightmat 4 on a wallspreader to bring the window light a bit further into the room. We also added negative fill, per usual. For framing, I intentionally inched in the practical shade on the right to give that side of the image a point of brightness, because otherwise it would've just fallen off to mushy darkness because there was nothing back there.
And in the top right, there is another practical but it didn't make it into the frame, but you do see the little highlight on the base of the lamp, which is subtle but makes it look a tiny bit better. As you'll see in the BTS photo below, we added an additional titan tube to bounce into the ceiling just to provide a tiny bit more ambient light that I think we needed.
Car Scene #1
This first car scene was shot at around 3:30pm. We had about 30-45 minutes to shoot it. The most important thing here is to find a good position for the car. I was looking for the most backlit area I could find. Even though the sun seems like it's directly overhead in the afternoon, unless it's noon or 1pm, the sun usually favors one side of the sky. So I found a spot that looked good for this shot, and we just tossed up some duvetyne to block some of the light coming from behind the camera. Simple stuff for this shot. Situations like these are a great example of why I wanted to shoot on an Alexa. I didn't do anything to control those hot highlights, because I couldn't. We were on a 16mm lense so we'd see everything.
When it came to this shot below, we moved the car forward to find a patch of greenery that was dark and wouldn't blow out. Don't be afraid to cheat the background significantly when you haven't really established geography of things very clearly. Besides the duvetyne to block ambient light spilling in, we just used a 4x4 beadboard. You'll see it in the BTS photo. Notice that it's raised up a little bit we we minimize how much light we're shooting up the character's nose. You might lose a little bit of output, but you get a more naturalistic feel to the light. You especially want to be careful with something as small as a 4x4 because it can look really artificial if you're not careful because bead-board is quite punchy. 8x8's or 12x12's are usually better but in this case it would've been overkill and we didn't have time. One more note: the top of the windshield coincidentally had a orange tint that helped create interesting skintones and further push our "heat of summer" visual motif.
With the shot of the older fella here, it's the same setup but we moved the car forward again to find a darker background that wouldn't blow out. Everything else remained the same. The yellow tint from the windshield is really pronounced here and gives a really cool effect.
Car Scene #2
This scene was a bit more involved in it's setup and we had about 30 minutes to find a spot for the car and get going, and then about 30 minutes to shoot. In the story, it takes place several hours after the previous scene we shot. On the camera side, Brooks, my 1st AC tossed in a polarizer to fight windshield reflections.
Then we table-topped a 4x4 floppy to cut out ambient light from the top, we draped some duvetyne over the left-side of the windshield to block more light from the fill-side, used duvetyne to block more light from the entire passenger side, and then we tossed up a 4x4 beadboard to bring up the face. Does it make sense that that side of his face and in general, the whole left-side of the car is THAT much darker. No, but also nobody cares because it looks good.
Now for the closeup, we did things a little bit differently, and unfortunately I don't have any BTS photos of this particular setup, so you'll actually have to read this part kind of carefully. Because of the angle of the car & the backseat in relation to where the sun was, we couldn't just move the 4x4 beadboard closer to key our actor. We used a silver reflector to catch more sunlight, which threw a bunch of hard, nasty light in this direction, so we diffused it with a frame of 216. Then we just brought in our negative fill a bit closer. Now, another thing to look at is the bright bottom left corner of fame, where the bottom of that back-window is. That area is softened off. We had direct sunlight beaming into that area and make it go way too bright, so we used a frame of 1/2 grid to diffuse it (you'll see it in the BTS photo above). The combo stand that is holding the diffusion frame is hidden behind the car in the spot behind the actor's head in frame. Also, since we didn't have time to move the car to a different position, you'll see that in the deep background, we have a WHITE car. But it's not blowing out. This is a big reason why the Alexa was such a useful choice. And shooting at 1600 ISO gave us an extra stop of latitude in the highlights. Last thing to note: on frame-right, the window being dirty gives that part of the image alot of texture. It wasn't intentional, but I'm gonna keep this in my bag of tricks in the future.
The Importance of the grade
Here's an image showing in-camera vs color graded frames. In my opinion, on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd say the value of learning color grading to a higher than basic-level understanding is a 10. It helps me understand where to expose things on-set so I don't mess things up for later. It also helps me know where I can take shortcuts on-set when I'm scrapped for time. And it's FREE to learn since Davinci Resolve costs nothing for the basic version. Some of my favorite resources are Noam Kroll's Grading Class, Juan Melara's Blog, and some of Avery Peck's videos.
For on-set monitoring, I sometimes use a LUT that has a 1/3 stop, 1/2 stop, or even a 1-stop push-down, to help retain a healthy signal. But on this film, for some reason I just used the regular Rec709 monitoring LUT and paid attention to my waveform and occasionally checked false color. As well as using my light meter, mostly for setting the key light.
Anyways, hopefully that was a useful dive into some of the setups from Day 2. I'm happy with how alot of it turned out and it was fun to recount some of my approach. Let me know if any of ya'll have suggestions, notes, questions, etc..