I don’t always get the luxury of having a set to light well in advance of shooting a project, either as director or as cinematographer. But this weekend I have exactly that opportunity. I’m the cinematographer for a new short film being co-produced by Stories by the River. The film is a comedy written and directed by Chris Esper. This is our first partnership since meeting a few years back at the very first Stories by the River Film Festival.
We’re transforming our space at The River South Center to serve as the primary location for this new short film. We’ve done this in the past with my short film, “Parallel,” which used the main room at the Center for two key locations. The current set-up really takes advantage of the open ceiling and metal rafters that allow us to rig lighting into place as if we were on a small sound stage.
I opted to work with tungsten balanced instruments for this set-up as we’re using the dimmable perimeter lights that art part of the space. The lighting is mostly compact fluorescents (CF) and LED lights to minimize power draw and heat production. The notable exception is the SourceFour 750w Par in the left of this picture that is being bounced into a flex fill to provide a large amount of ambient fill light of one of the key areas of the set.
I opted to keep things very simple and practical for this shoot. So most of the lighting instruments are actually rather common units. Two Chinese lanterns hang over the main table to provide fill light and help sell the idea of implied overhead lights that will never be actually seen in the film.
In one of the other areas of the film set, I hung a single lantern with two CF bulbs in it. Each bulb gives off the equivalent light to a conventional 150w tungsten bulb. So it’s like having a 300w Chinese lantern. On the left of this picture is also simple clamp light with a single CF bulb (100w equivalent). It will serve as side/backlight (depending on shot angle). Because of this, I left the bulb naked rather than defusing it.
I’m mostly using clamp lights anyone can grab at a hardware store. This allows me to attach the lights to the metal rafters and hang the Chinese lanterns from them. In some cases, like the clamp light in the left of this shot, I used the metal cone they come with to help provide a little shielding for the LED bulb in the instrument as well as having somewhere to clip my diffusion.
For the key light for the main area of the set where much of the action take place, I actually went well off the beaten path and used a painter’s LED light that I had been using for home renovation work this summer. The light is powerful, putting out 4,000 lumens. It’s essentially daylight balanced (around 5,000 degrees Kelvin). So I threw a light CTO gel and some diffusion on it.
We’ll be shooting with two BlackMagic Pocket Cinema Cameras through the weekend. Likely, we’ll need to make small lighting adjustments as we go, but being able to work with Esper head of time light the set on Thursday means that we’ll be up and running tonight for our first night of shooting in no time at all. The project wraps Sunday, but this location will be wrapped at the end of the day on Saturday.
When the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (BMPCC) went on sale this past summer for 50% off, I just had to spring for one. I had been keeping my eye on it anyway since a good friend had just gotten one for his company, Votary Media, and the Roxsen focal reducer adaptor that both allows for use of Canon EF lenses and increases the field of view along with giving roughly one added stop of exposure. I was skeptical about how this off-brand “speed booster” adaptor would work, but Votary Media hired me to edit several videos they had shot with the Canon T4i and the BMPCC with the Roxsen side by side. Cutting that footage removed all doubts for me that this is an incredibly great set-up for price. The footage from the BMPCC even with the Roxsen focal reducer was hands down far superior in sharpness and overall quality compared tot he the Canon DSLR footage. And they hadn’t even shot it raw.
So I snagged the BMPCC and the Roxsen, which made integrating the new camera into my gear easy as I have a set of Rokinon EF mount cine lenses and still shoot on Canon DSLRs regularly. I got busy doing some tests. But, let’s face it, nothing really tests a camera like an actual production.
I served as the cinematographer for a new Stories by the River short film called “A Regular Haunt.” We shot the whole film on the BMPCC with the Roxsen in raw. Having run my own tests beforehand, I opted to keep the ISO at 400. Later, having read other reviews of the camera and about the native ISO 800 of the camera, I have done more shooting using 800. But I do have to admit that the clean nature of the ISO 400 footage is very attractive to me and I found it to have no discernible limitations in the controlled and carefully lit environment I was shooting in for “A Regular Haunt.”
As for the Roxsen and Rokinon lenses combo, I found that I need to make sure I stay at T2 or above. T2.8 if often best. The reason for this is that the Rokinon lenses are ultimately inexpensive lenses and their sharpness dramatically drops off when wide open. I’ve noticed that the Roxsen seems to accentuate this loss in sharpness when wide open. But the moment I close up a bit, the image is remarkably sharp. Much sharper than any DSLR footage out there!
One quick personal note about how approach using the “speed booster.” Rather than thinking of it as adding an f-stop (or T-stop really) to my exposure, I tend to think more in terms of ISO. In other words, while the BMPCC was set to ISO 400 for this film, my light meter (yes I love using a light meter) was set to ISO 800, which is the equivalent to one more stop of light. This way, I can take light meter measurements and note that the light meter indicates the f-stop is 2.8 and then set my lens to 2.8 without hassling any further math.
Here’s a quick look at our workflow for the project:
The workflow was great, though quite data-intensive. I have now shot two projects with this camera in raw. After carefully examining the footage, I think that if I shoot another short film with it, I will opt to shoot most (if not all) of the footage in ProRes HQ in film mode. It can be nice to have the option to shoot raw for VFX shots or other situations with a wide dynamic range such as shooting against windows or bright sky. But most of the time, ProRes HQ in film mode and proper attentiveness to setting good exposure is just as good as raw.
Sadly, when I shot “A Regular Haunt,” the latest firmware update was not yet out. So even though we shot framed the film for 2.35:1 aspect ratio, I had no on-camera guides for this. I also absolutely hated how the BMPCC could not format SD cards in camera. Those issues have been addressed in the latest update to the firmware. You can find that firmware update here.
The combination of the BMPCC and Film Convert offered us the opportunity to really give the film a 90’s horror movie look, which was what the director and I wanted to achieve. You can see the end result below and let us know what you think of it.