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Some decisions re: a low budget feature


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#1 Alex Opdam

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 12:54 AM

I am planning to shoot a low budget super16mm feature beginning in about 2 months time and there are some things that I'd like to run by some of the wise minds of this place before I commit to them. First off, when I say low budget I mean I am basically just going to pay for the film costs and the sound guy, everything else will be deferred payment. Fortunately the story has been written with a low budget in mind so a lot of it occurs in residential apartments and houses which should be easy-to-get/free locations.

1) Lighting style:

My locations, as mentioned, are predominately residential apartments and houses, with the odd quiet street shot or public car park. Given this, I'm inclined to think I'll end up shooting at a pretty quick pace and the lighting work done will be pretty naturalistic and really whatever can be achieved in these real-world living locations, with the equipment we can get.

The lighting in the first house scenes of Little Miss Sunshine seems to be a good target to aim for. They appear to be using a lot of practicals and haphazard lighting and I understand shot on 500t (albeit 35mm). I'm a little concerned that even if I mimicked the lighting and went 500t, I'm still shooting on a smaller guage film and with poorer glass and film grain could get out of control.

What are the thoughts around here about shooting in this high speed/practical lighting style? Any good places to check up info on it or maybe specific editions of American Cinematographer that would be worth reading?

2) Lenses:

I have shot some footage recently on a canon 7-63mm zoom lens which I was relatively happy with. I guess I'd consider spending a little more and try shooting on a set of primes but last time I was relying on the mattebox that came with the zoom to hold filters etc so I don't know what I'd do otherwise. I think that the zoom would allow me to keep a big more pace up with organising shots and so forth so I guess I'm trying to work out how much benefit I'd get from a prime set.

3) Film stocks:

At this stage I'm leaning towards shooting 500t for indoors which makes up the bulk of the film. I'm almost thinking though that if I end up allowing sunlight to flood in, and am forced to 85 the lens, wouldn't I pretty much be better off just shooting 250D for indoors and using daylight lights (or gel some tungsten ones?)

Are there any good examples of super16mm projects shooting naturalistic indoor stuff on 500t? If the grain is going to get out of control I guess I'll reconsider and try to accomodate 200t or so, but at this stage I think it would be quite convenient for my purposes.

--

Apologies for the length of the post guys, but if anyone has advice or suggestions regarding what I'm proposing I'd love to hear it. I'm going to have to square away some of these decisions now since it will affect what I need lighting/location wise, and I'd love to hear past experience or opinions!
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#2 Kevin Riley

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 03:58 AM

2) Lenses:

I have shot some footage recently on a canon 7-63mm zoom lens which I was relatively happy with. I guess I'd consider spending a little more and try shooting on a set of primes but last time I was relying on the mattebox that came with the zoom to hold filters etc so I don't know what I'd do otherwise. I think that the zoom would allow me to keep a big more pace up with organising shots and so forth so I guess I'm trying to work out how much benefit I'd get from a prime set.

It's all in the "pre production". If you have the location, a viewfinder, and can rough out an agreed storyboard with the director in pre production then stick with the primes. I am assuming you are the DOP by the way. Yes you will save time with the zoom but you will forfeit image quality and more importantly the commitment to lens choice and placement is the first step in building the foundations of a decently shot scene. You say you were "relatively happy" with the 7-63mm. That does not sound enough to base a decision on what you are shooting your feature on. If the cost of the Matte box hire is stopping you from using primes then give up something else in the budget not your preferred glass.
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#3 tommy holman

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 08:25 AM

Hi,

I'm not sure if this is going to be of any help but here it goes,

I have just finished a 20 minute short on super 16 with an £8000 budget. I to opted for the 500t with practical lighting and was astounded by the quality of the image. I shot entirely on Kodak 7218 500t and used house hold lamps to light all of the interiors. When daylight was a concern I simply used an 85 to correct it to tungsten as stops where not a concern. I would seriously recommend using the 7218 as the latitude is vast and the quality is great.

In many ways I was disappointed with the lack of grain on the 7218 (It was non-existent) and decided to push the image 2 stops in the lab to push out the grain, but it sounds like this will not be a problem for you.

One thing I would suggest to keep in mind is generally house hold lamps tend to burn orange, so If you want to balance the lamps to 3200k I would use photo form bulbs or simply correct it in post :)

This was the first time I have used household lamps to light a film and again was amazed at the speed at which myself and my gaffer could light a scene so would highly recommend it if time is an issue.

All the best,

Adrian Barry

adriansmbarry@googlemail.com
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#4 Adrian Barry

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 08:31 AM

Sorry i was logged in under my friends name before, this is my account

Adrian Barry

adriansmbarry@googlemail.com
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#5 Alex Opdam

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 08:35 AM

That does not sound enough to base a decision on what you are shooting your feature on. If the cost of the Matte box hire is stopping you from using primes then give up something else in the budget not your preferred glass.


Thanks for the advice Kevin. Assuming I was to go for a set of primes that won't totally break the bank but will be noticably superior to the canon zoom, is there anything you can suggest? I had a look through an older set of zeiss primes (just through the viewfinder) and wasn't hugely impressed by what I saw but maybe I was mistaken.

This was the first time I have used household lamps to light a film and again was amazed at the speed at which myself and my gaffer could light a scene so would highly recommend it if time is an issue.


This is very encouraging to hear Adrian, is there any way I'd be able to have a look at some stills or footage of the stuff you shot? The lack of grain you describe is quite encouraging to hear - were you shooting through expensive glass?

Thanks again for the replies guys I'm taking it all on board here.

Edited by Alex Opdam, 07 April 2007 - 08:37 AM.

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#6 Adrian Barry

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 09:07 AM

We where using a set of standard zeis primes with the arri sr2, the only specialist lens' we used where a 100mm macro and a 200 telephoto lens, I would be more than happy to send you some stills but it is currently being edited in bournmouth and i'm in london, I will have accsess to the footage in about a month, I hope this is not to late for you.

One problem however If you do not have a matt box you will not be able to add any nd filters which could be problamatic in the sun as quite often you will be getting a huge fstop. If you are shooting with natural sunlight on the 500t I would seriously recommed getting a set of combination ND and 85 filters.

If there is any thing else I can help with please do not hesitate to ask

Adrian Barry
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#7 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 10:39 AM

The main advantage of primes is that they are faster generally than a zoom, helpful when shooting low light conditions.

You need to have the options of using ND filters when filming outdoors, even on slower-speed stock. In direct sunlight on a clear day, it can be over f/16 at 50 ASA.
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#8 timHealy

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 11:25 AM

If you are shooting in small apartments, primes may have better close focus distances than many zoom lenses.

best

Tim
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#9 Andy_Alderslade

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 02:58 PM

Remember if style/content is requiring a lot of focus racking the zoom will breath during the focus pulls/adjustments. You may be okay with this (a lot of Truffuat's later films were full of obvious lens breathing) but otherwise you may find it fustrating to have a slight zoom during a static shot.

Yes 500T (both Fuji and Kodak) has good grain, but as its a feature, don't you think its worth sticking to 200T/250T film, its amazing how easy it is to get an exposure in domestic/residential locations with it. Primes (particularly super speeds) will also make this possible. Keep 500T for your real chalenging low light locations.

A wide variety of photoflood bulbs of different whateges will help with location shooting.

A matte box really is a must, without it your putting your lenses in harms way; the weather, grit, peoples, even backsides may damage the front element causing you a host of problems.
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#10 tom quinn

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 04:23 PM

Hi Alex,

I shot two low-budget shorts on 7218 this year. The first used very minimal lighting (we only had one day in the location, which was a store open for business!). It was a pretty lo-fi look, but allowed me to really focus on performances. The film ended up being a Kodak Eastman finalist, which really surprised me because it was mostly practicals and a few scoops and fresnels bounced for fill. I attribute a lot of it to the kids in the film, who were really cute and did a great job.

Here's a link to a clip. Note - for the outdoor stuff we didn't have an 85 so I had to choice but to blow it out and time it later. http://www.stationho...a_bicycles.html

We used superspeed primes (getting around a 1.4-2.0 in the shop with their practicals).

The second film was for a friend of mine and he wanted to try for a look similar to Birth, shot by Harris Savides. I am used to shooting on video so shooting film and going for a style was a scary prospect. We used the superspeed primes again and 7218. A lot of the lighting was practicals augmented with china balls, kinos, and some fresnels. Some of those stills here: http://www.stationho...RTB_Stills.html

There is definately grain (for some reason i noticed it more on this film than the first) - especially in brighter areas (which I had in some cases exposed a bit too hot and timed after). I think that for the most part we could have shot on 250 with few problems, but I did run into some difficult focus situations shooting with a 50mm. A few takes go soft as folks miss their marks or when we tried dolly moves. Many times were were shooting between a 1.4 and a 2.8 - not a smart move. Live and learn.

The great thing about 7218 is that it handles mixed light really well. I'd imagine the same is true for Kodak's Vision 2 250d, but I haven't had opportunity to use it yet.

Anyway, I'm still finding my way myself, but hope this helps.

later,
tom
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#11 Alex Opdam

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 07:35 PM

Thanks for all the suggestions guys.

First off, I intend to use a mattebox regardless of whether I got for a zoom or primes - I'm well aware of the necessity for ND and 85 filters etc, it's a just a matter of whether it will come with the zoom or be an added cost.

The main advantage of primes is that they are faster generally than a zoom, helpful when shooting low light conditions.


Would you say that image quality between say a zeiss standard prime kit and a decent zoom like the canon 7-63 is not as much of a significant factor then?

After taking all of these suggestions on board I'm still torn on a couple of things.

If I go the way of the primes and 200t (which should technically be a better quality image than 500t and a zoom) I imagine I would end up working regularly at the 1.4-2.8 end of the lens. Given that, I'm a little concerned that with my fairly ordinary viewfinder (russian kinor -> super16 mod) I could find myself having the odd problem with focus - especially given the narrow margin for error when shooting so wide open. With a zoom lens at least I'd have the ability to zoom in and focus on eyes etc to make sure.

I guess what it comes down to is how much quality I have to gain from shooting with a standard primes kit, and what I can get away with in terms of lighting levels.

Again, your thoughts are all much appreciated.
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#12 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 08:08 PM

If I go the way of the primes and 200t (which should technically be a better quality image than 500t and a zoom) I imagine I would end up working regularly at the 1.4-2.8 end of the lens. Given that, I'm a little concerned that with my fairly ordinary viewfinder (russian kinor -> super16 mod) I could find myself having the odd problem with focus - especially given the narrow margin for error when shooting so wide open. With a zoom lens at least I'd have the ability to zoom in and focus on eyes etc to make sure.


Aren't you hring a focus-puller / 1st AC?

Zooming in to check focus is fine before a take, rather than run a tape measure, but that doesn't save having to pull focus during a take if the subject is moving.

There is no qualitative answer to your questions in terms of "how much better" a prime is than a zoom, especially if you can't be sure what f-stop you'll be using either at.

Generally you would carry both on a film shoot and use whatever works best for the scene and your style of directing. And generally if you are shooting in daytime and can stop down more, you might use a zoom more often to save time, whereas if you were shooting at night and had to work at wide f-stops, you might use mostly primes.

You're trying to decide basically on where you can cut corners, and everyone decides that differently. There is no magical solution that gets you maximum quality at maximum convenience.

There was an old American Cinematographer article by Ken Richter about getting sharp images in 16mm, since he mostly shot landscape, nature, and sport documentaries for projection later in 16mm. After someone complimented him on the quality of the presentation and asked him what the secret was to getting such sharp images in 16mm, he wrote this article. It basically can be summed up as this: technical quality is the end result of dozens of individual choices that separately don't seem to have much of an effect on quality, but they become accumulative.

So knowing that the best technical result would be to use the slowest-speed stock with enough light to shoot at a mid-range f-stop (plus give the negative some extra exposure) on the best prime lenses... the questions are what is practical for you and what really matters artistically for your project.

So the opposite of using the slowest film stock, well-exposed, on prime lenses stopped down... would be to use the fastest film stock, underexposed, on a zoom lens shot wide-open. Obviously for practical reasons, you want to be somewhere inbetween the best and worst case scenario.
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#13 Alex Opdam

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Posted 08 April 2007 - 02:23 AM

Aren't you hring a focus-puller / 1st AC?


I'll have a camera assistant, but at this stage unless I rent/buy a mattbox plate with rods and a focus wheel, it would be a case of the 1st AC just twisting the barrel of the lens which I might as well almost do myself.

I should apologise for not being more clear in my first post, when I say this is a low budget feature I mean in the sense that a film like 'Primer' is low budget. A sound guy is going to be paid up front and all the rest of the shooting budget is going towards film costs and food/catering. At this stage the skeleton crew is looking like it will consist of myself, a gaffer, one camera assistant, a sound guy and a 1st AD/producer.

Zooming in to check focus is fine before a take, rather than run a tape measure, but that doesn't save having to pull focus during a take if the subject is moving.


This is something I was thinking of pretty much improvising on the zoom while operating, weighing in the chance that the odd shot or focus pull might come up a little soft during certain actions. It is far from ideal but for the style of film I'm looking at shooting, I don't think it would be the end of the world if some of the shots came out a little rough.

There is no qualitative answer to your questions in terms of "how much better" a prime is than a zoom, especially if you can't be sure what f-stop you'll be using either at.


I guess I'm trying to guage if the difference between a decent zoom or a prime is going to be a noticable difference in image clarity. I have already resigned myself to the idea that my lighting will not always be ideal and much of the shoot will be relatively rushed, so I wonder if this (along with the film speed) is something I'm going to need to sacrifice in order to get the project to happen at all. I understand that for many of you you probably have certain minimum limitations under which you will refuse to shoot. For myself, however, I'm at the point in my career where I can afford very little and am just trying to guage whether this decision will be a noticable or negligible difference in quality, given the scale of my production.

If a set of primes/mattebox/focus wheel adds $1000 to a $14,000 budget, it could quite possibly be worth it if it gives the images a less amateurish (less soft) look. If it adds $2000 to the budget and another 25% onto the shoot length, it may be too much considering the other technical bottlenecks that the film will already endure.

Perhaps that is too subjective a call to make, and I naively thought it may have been a little more clear cut. I do thank you all for your help though and will keep all of your thoughts in mind when I examine all the final factors and come to my decision.
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#14 Andy_Alderslade

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Posted 08 April 2007 - 04:15 AM

I'll have a camera assistant, but at this stage unless I rent/buy a mattbox plate with rods and a focus wheel, it would be a case of the 1st AC just twisting the barrel of the lens which I might as well almost do myself.


No this isn't necessarily the case. While working wide open, you will find it very difficult to focus by eye while concentrating on framing or whatever movement your participating in, panning etc.

A 1st AC can certainly pull focus aptly using only the barrel, its not ideal but they can do it. They can also do something you cannot, they can see if someone is understeping or oversteping their mark and making a relatively 'invisible' adjustment.

If you do it by eye, you may end up 'searching for focus' during the take, which will be very obvious - however you may like that, it may be part of your style.

Also remember if your using an older or less proffesional camera you will be working with a darker view finder too, so it may be hard to tell whats in focus or not.

Edited by Andy_Alderslade, 08 April 2007 - 04:17 AM.

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#15 tom quinn

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Posted 08 April 2007 - 09:13 AM

I'd agree. I have a hell of a time pulling focus myself when shooting on 16. It's difficulty to keep the composition solid and to check focus (plus I have a hard time seeing that sharply when the light is cut in half through the viewfinder).

just 2 cents.
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#16 Adrian Barry

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Posted 09 April 2007 - 05:29 AM

I'm not sure if it is the same in the states but what I have discoverd in England is that taking some time out to go and spend some time in the camera houses can result in huge discounts of camera equipment hire. On my last shoot I spent a few days down in pinewood studios and was astounded by the "want to help" attitude every one had. It seems at the end of the day many people have been in the low budget situation and understand that money is always a huge issue so are willing to negotiate on prices and lend a hand where possible.

I would recomend taking a few days out to go and get to know some of the guys you are renting equipment from so they get to know the project you are about to do. By doing this on my last shoot we managed to get thousands of pounds worth of equipment for next to nothing. It also helps to build a level of trust between yourself and who you are renting from.
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#17 Alex Opdam

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Posted 10 April 2007 - 03:11 AM

I would recomend taking a few days out to go and get to know some of the guys you are renting equipment from so they get to know the project you are about to do. By doing this on my last shoot we managed to get thousands of pounds worth of equipment for next to nothing. It also helps to build a level of trust between yourself and who you are renting from.


I'm actually in Australia but thanks for the tip - I was going to go in there and see what sort of deal they would do me for renting some stuff for a couple of weeks, but I'll definitely give them my story now and see what sort of deal they can cut me.
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#18 timHealy

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Posted 17 April 2007 - 04:56 PM

No this isn't necessarily the case. While working wide open, you will find it very difficult to focus by eye while concentrating on framing or whatever movement your participating in, panning etc.

A 1st AC can certainly pull focus aptly using only the barrel, its not ideal but they can do it. They can also do something you cannot, they can see if someone is understeping or oversteping their mark and making a relatively 'invisible' adjustment.

If you do it by eye, you may end up 'searching for focus' during the take, which will be very obvious - however you may like that, it may be part of your style.

Also remember if your using an older or less proffesional camera you will be working with a darker view finder too, so it may be hard to tell whats in focus or not.


I agree with using an assistant for focusing even if it is just doing it on a barrel.

The help will be tremendous while you are concentring on other things.

Best

Tim
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