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Seven Days in Utopia


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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 25 June 2010 - 11:50 PM

I'm leaving town on Monday to begin prep on an indie feature called (for the moment) "Seven Days in Utopia". It's based on a Christian-themed inspirational book about life lessons from golf learned on a real golf course in a remote area of the Hill Country in Texas, in a small town called Utopia. This is a fictionalized account about a young pro golfer has has a career setback and is looking for some direction, salvation, enlightenment... and ends up in this small town for a week and finds a mentor.

We are shooting in Utopia, TX and also in Fredericksburg, TX. Schedule will be pretty tight considering we have some major golfing sequences to shoot, and it's going to be very hot out there. Shooting golf is a challenge due to all the open ground you have to cover, and the lack of shade.

The director/screenwriter is a young man named Matt Russell, who comes from a visual efx background. Casting is just getting settled.

Turns out that I've worked with the AD before, Joe McDougall, on "Infested", a small F900 horror movie I did in Long Island, NY back in 2001. Due to the tax breaks and whatnot in Texas, I have to hire most of the crew locally, but I'll probably have my key grip out there, Brad Heiner, and maybe one or two others. The production sound mixer is Matt Nicolay, who does the Polish Brothers movies and also did "Akeelah and the Bee", we've probably done seven or eight features together.

When I got the call about the job, I was told that they were going to shoot in 35mm, which was nice to hear. I haven't shot 35mm since "Jennifer's Body" two and a half years ago. Seems like a smart choice considering all the harsh day exterior work we have to do, and all the moving around. We picked 3-perf and I convinced the director to shoot this in the 2.40 aspect ratio, which I think is well-suited for the Hill Country landscape.

The producer had a good experience with Fuji on a previous project and asked me to consider it, which was fine with me. This seems like a good project to try out the new Vivid 500T stock along with the Vivid 160T stock, though you may think that a lower contrast stock would be better-suited for harsh daylight. However, the notion of shooting something with a Kodachrome look (like the look that Shane Hurlbut gave "The Greatest Game Ever Played") was appealing. For now, I can best describe the intended look as being lifted slightly towards "magic realism".

Last week I shot a quick test comparing Fuji F-64D to Vivid 160T, as well as a separate Vivid 500T test. I also tested some various mild diffusion filters to try out. My main interest was in seeing whether I'd prefer the finer-grained look of F-64D, but with the older grain structure, to the Vivid 160T, which does have a crisp look with a visible grain structure. I projected the test at FotoKem, and they also scanned a couple of frames for me so I could look at them on my computer.

Truth is that all the stocks were rather similar grain-wise, the F-64D just being a hair finer-grained but also a bit softer in detail, the Vivid 160T having a crisper look. The Vivid 500T is a close match to the Vivid 160T. I'm probably going to go with the Vivid 160T for the day exterior work, Vivid 500T for interiors and night work. I may consider getting something a bit lower in contrast, like Eterna 250D, for any scenes that we might shoot in the deep woods if there is a lot of contrast.

I'm also leaning towards using Schneider diffusion, a 1/8 Black Frost for the wider shots, then perhaps a 1/4 Black Frost or a 1/4 Classic Black for close shots.

When I projected the test, I had to readjust my eyes to seeing printed 35mm again, after looking at clean HD monitor images for the past two years.

It seems to get the printer lights I normally like to get, I'm going to have to overexpose the Fuji stocks a bit; the odd printer light numbers are probably the result of Fuji (and Kodak) changing their color mask density recently to make their stocks better suited for scanning (less noise) -- you mainly notice that the blue printer light values are very low.

I actually shot these two Vivid stocks on Memorial Day, before I tested them, when I was flown out to Texas to shoot a rodeo event in Utopia, in order to capture crowds for the film. I only saw the results in an HD video transfer but I was impressed by how deep the blacks were. The stocks remind me a bit of the look of the old 5247 stock, or maybe the first Kodak EXR stocks. They are not super clean, smooth, and flat like Kodak Vision-3 stocks, they look sort of gutsy and textured, like "classic" film.

This movie will be going through a new post process (for me at least) -- the negative will be scanned to 2K DPX files up front, and from that, dailies will be generated and later, the final D.I. will be done. While doing everything at 4K would have been even nicer, at this budget-level, it just wasn't a realistic option. This process may allow me to get something I've liked about Red shoots, which are actual frames from the day's shooting: hopefully the lab can send me some select 2K DPX files so I can examine how the actual negative looks, rather than just live with DVD dailies, the bane of my existence on film shoots.
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#2 Tom Lowe

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 12:30 AM

David, thanks for this update. It sounds like film is the best choice for this project indeed. I hope you don't get roasted in that Texas sun. B) I will be looking forward to following the progress of this film, as always.
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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 12:49 AM

David, thanks for this update. It sounds like film is the best choice for this project indeed. I hope you don't get roasted in that Texas sun. B) I will be looking forward to following the progress of this film, as always.


Yes, I just feel that in this intense heat, running around without dealing with HD monitors (and being less "fiddly" with the image, which tends to happen when you view HD images, you feel the need to fix a lot of things), will tend to help us move faster.

I sort of wish we were shooting in 4-perf 35mm anamorphic, since that would look the best for the golfing wide shots and landscapes, but we will have to shoot so many angles that we're going to have to rely a lot on the 11:1 Primo zoom, and following little rolling golf balls would be a lot harder in anamorphic (though "Tin Cup" was anamorphic.)
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#4 Freya Black

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 02:20 AM

Just out of interest, was 2 perf considered at all given the aspect ratio?

love

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#5 Rob Vogt

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 02:58 AM

This sounds like a neat project. I wonder if the producers would consider anamorphic for B-Roll
How long is the shooting schedule?
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#6 Jon Rosenbloom

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 09:05 AM

Good to hear somebody's working!

To get that aspect you mask the top and bottom of the image? Also, if you're out in the Texas sun, wouldn't you be able to work at a 5.6 - 8, or whatever, if you wanted to shoot anamorphic?

Is the DI back to 4 perf more expensive??
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#7 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 12:02 PM

Unless I go with the 1.3X Hawk anamorphics, I can't really mix 3-perf Super-35 and 4-perf 35mm anamorphic in the same project without needing more cameras and lenses.

Sometimes I wish I owned a VistaVision camera & lenses that could pull out for the wide shots... well, maybe someday a 6K Monstro Epic will do that job...

I'm shooting with my favorite "Fincher" groundglass from Panavision, created for "Panic Room", another 3-perf 2.40 movie. It is a raised 2.40 frame just below common top. This allows the full frame (16x9) negative image to look more or less correctly composed in HDTV when not letterboxed because the headroom is about the same. ARRI has a similar GG they call "2.40 / 1.85 one-quarter offset" or something like that, but it's only made for 4-perf.

I'm just not fond of the 11:1 Primo anamorphic zoom, if we end up having to use the zoom a lot, and I doubt I could get the new front-element anamorphic zoom. In fact, I doubt I could get much of anything anamorphic right now from Panavision -- I was just over there and the lens department was converting some spherical 11:1 Primos to anamorphic because Michael Bay has taken almost every anamorphic set they have for "Transformers 3", I think every C-series and G-series were gone.

D.I. costs are the same between 3-perf and 4-perf, since it is mostly billed by time spent and by 2K versus 4K costs. It's the savings in raw stock where the smaller format helps.

I thought about 2-perf... but the lack of cameras (and the format is popular right now, according to Panavision) combined with the fact that this project may end up being seen more in 16x9 HD, plus the fact that as an efx person, the director may want a taller negative to work with, all led me to believe that 3-perf was a better sell.
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#8 Thomas James

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 04:55 PM

8 perf VistaVision or 5 perf 65mm film sounds like a wonderfull choice but I bet this format would have to be used sparingly to stay within budget. However every movie has its climax like that golf shot that wins the game
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#9 Chris Keth

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Posted 27 June 2010 - 06:53 PM

This sounds like it could be a really fun film to shoot, even though covering all that ground on the links will be tough for your crews. A lot of golf courses are quite artfully crafted and I can see some very nicely composed big wide shots coming out of that. What sort of reference material have you and the director been passing back and forth?

Edited by Chris Keth, 27 June 2010 - 06:54 PM.

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#10 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 04 August 2010 - 04:46 PM

Week One

I’m shooting this golf movie out in Texas, starring Lucas Black and Robert Duvall. Because we needed a number of real-life golf pros to appear in the finale, at the Valero Texas Open, we had to schedule around them and the availability of the course we are using for that, Boot Ranch in Fredericksburg, a beautiful location with a waterfall, river, canyons, great vistas on various tee boxes. All of which explains why we had to start the shoot with the hardest stuff, shooting the climax, with our biggest numbers of extras, etc.

I also should explain that prep on this movie has been a crash course in golfing, since I don’t play the game nor watch it on TV much (though I watched a ton of golf movies before I came up here…) Luckily I have a lot of experts around to tell me what is authentic or not, including our lead actor, Lucas, and our A.D. Joe McDougall -- both play regularly. And all the pros. One of the nicest is guy named Rich Beem, who gave me a lovely bottle of wine at the end of this week.

Anyway, this movie has been in the works for some time, as with most indie movies, and the budget has sort of formed over that time to accommodate the cast and script, but we are still limited to a 25-day shoot, and the script is wildly more ambitious than the number of shooting days. So the majority of my time is spent just trying to shoot faster and get more shots done per day, rather than finesse things. It’s not helped by the 100 degree heat everyday as we stand mostly under the full weight of the Texas sun.

Because the budget has been tight, getting the right equipment has been a juggling act and I’ve had to be a lot more flexible and accommodating than normal. For example, after testing all the Fuji Vivid stocks I was going to use on the show (and already shot some B-roll on, back on Memorial Day at a rodeo), in the last minute we got a killer deal on Kodak stock (it’s really a buyer’s market these days on film…) and I had no choice but to switch, not that there is anything wrong with Kodak stock, it’s just that Fuji had been generous to us as well, gave us free stock for our shoot on Memorial Day even (we told them it was a "test"), and I had no time to retest the Kodak stocks at this point for my filtering style. (By the way, Fuji Vivid 500T is fantastic if you love rich blacks...)

I had hoped that the Fuji Vivid 160T would give me a somewhat (ironically) Kodak Kodachrome look for the golf, but I’m happy now that I’m shooting almost everything outside on the Kodak Vision-2 5201 50D stock – for one thing, the grain & sharpness is wonderful, and the second is that will all the fast set-ups I’m having to throw together, I probably am better off with a wider-latitude, lower-contrast stock than Vivid 160T simply because I’ve got people wearing baseball caps in toppy noon light and I can’t do much fill-lighting. When I can, I have a 12x12 Ultra Bounce or Day Blue off-camera for soft fill, but often it’s backed pretty far off due to the restrictions of the playing and the grass and the two cameras I have to run on everything.

I've had no time to silk any of the golfing shots, I have to shoot in whatever light I encounter.

I’ve also had to deal with shifting post plans, not knowing until a week ago which lab would be doing the dailies and where the D.I. would be done. First FotoKem was going to scan everything at 2K and create HD dailies from that, as well as provide the data for the D.I., now they are just doing traditional HD and DVD dailies and the neg will be scanned later for the D.I. at Tunnel Post.

I’ve tried to use ND’s and Polas to keep the depth of field low, since that’s one of the reasons we are shooting 35mm in the first place. I’m probably at an f/4-5.6 split most of the time, on longish lenses for the close-up. In fact, most of the wider shots are done on A-cam with Primo primes but most of the tighter coverage is done on B-cam with the 11:1 Primo zoom.

After a month of amazing storm clouds in the sky during prep, halfway into the first day of this first week of shooting, it all blew away and/or burned off for the rest of the week, which is a bit disappointing. Same thing happened to me on the first week of “Astronaut Farmer” though in New Mexico so hopefully I’ll get some good clouds on film eventually.

We ended the week with a late afternoon scene in a meadow, for a flashback where the young version of the main character learns golf from his dad, ala “The Natural”. It was followed by a twilight scene where we see them still practicing – the trick as always was to get out there at the right time of the day and be able to shoot some coverage while the sun was still up and then end up with the wide shots done at Magic Hour. We ended up shooting the day scene in the last rays of sunlight, which was nice, and then I only had to silk that orange sun off of the actors for two shots before the sun was gone, then we backed up and got the wide shot in the right light. It’s almost amazing to me to shoot these Magic Hour scenes – I switched from 50D to 500T stock for this scene, pulled the 85 filter after the grey scale, and had to use ND.60 in the camera just to be able to shoot at f/16! But by the last shot, I had no ND filters in and I was shooting at f/2.0 – that’s like an 8-stop change in light level just in a fifteen minute period. By the last few shots I had to stand next to the lens and open it up by a third to half a stop after every take to keep up with the light-level drop. But I’m always elated to finish a Magic Hour scene and actually get all the shots I wanted. (I've got a whole outdoor driveway scene at Magic Hour coming up... wish me luck on getting that done.)

I’ve got a great crew assembled, mostly Texans, but I have my key grip Brad Heiner out here, plus my A-cam operator Theo Pingarelli and 1st AC Marcos Lopez. Locals George Neidson is on B-cam with 1st AC John Sheeran, who I worked with last back in 1999 on “Clean and Narrow”, a half-mil drama shot in Texas City. The grips and electrics have worked their a---- off doing a great job dealing with this massive location, which goes for acres and acres. Shooting golf is all about moving great distances as quickly as you can. Most of our gear is on a caravan of carts pulled by gators up golf paths. We’ve also had to deal with how delicate the grass is on the greens.

Since I’m never convinced I can see sharpness on a DVD, the dailies colorist at FotoKem (Greg Peskay) has been sending me HD screen grabs off of his system every day, which is a great compliment to the DVD’s. He’s doing a great job, I really like the dailies he has sent me.
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#11 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 04 August 2010 - 05:21 PM

I can't do this too often, but here are some general examples of frames from the dailies, reduced and compressed, etc. keep in mind. I tweaked the blacks a bit and added a touch of sharpening to compensate for reducing the size, and I asked for this particular scene to have a colder color cast, most of the movie will be timed on the warm side. The aliasing is probably coming from being a grab from a 1080i signal I'm guessing, since this is film there is no aliasing in the original.

Posted Image

Posted Image

This was from the morning of the first day before I lost all the clouds in the sky for the rest of the week.
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#12 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 04 August 2010 - 05:31 PM

Congrats David and good luck. I am a bit sad not to see Vivid in the mix, but hey, at least Kodak will give you the ranges you need (by it's flatter image) to massage the compromises you have to make later on.
I'm looking forward to any setups you can post (as I always do with your production journals ;)) And as for anamorphic, ever consider just picking up an old beat to hell Konvas 2M an a few Lomos; something to keep, metaphorically in the trunk, and pull out when you can.
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#13 Jon Rosenbloom

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 09:37 PM

I hope it's a dry heat.

How do you feel about using soft edge nd's, and pola's if you're panning around?
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#14 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 11:20 PM

I hope it's a dry heat.

How do you feel about using soft edge nd's, and pola's if you're panning around?


You have to watch out, it often doesn't work.
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#15 Eric Steelberg ASC

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Posted 07 August 2010 - 12:40 AM

Always great to read your experiences. Like always you do a great job of conveying the the daily decisions and compromises that arise on a feature. Can't wait to see your work.
As for me, I'm going to attempt to end my hiatus from the forums.

Can you talk about some of the conversations you and the director had in prep about the approach in developing your visual grammar?
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#16 Hal Smith

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Posted 07 August 2010 - 04:11 PM

As for me, I'm going to attempt to end my hiatus from the forums.


Please do, there's a lot of us here that feel pretty good about "one of us" having moved up to the big time!
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#17 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 08 August 2010 - 12:02 AM

Can you talk about some of the conversations you and the director had in prep about the approach in developing your visual grammar?


The director and the production designer had already storyboarded the movie before I was hired, though they are very loose boards and a lot more extensive than we have time to shoot, so we are picking and choosing through them. So what input I've had on scene construction has either come during my review of the boards with the director, or on the set.

In terms of visual grammar, I think the primary issue has been one of realism versus romanticism, since there is a "magic realism" aspect to the story (not that anything magical happens) in that this interlude in this small town has certain symbolic weight to it, sort an idealized version of small town life... so the question is how to shoot it, get the tone right. I brought up some examples to the director, some movies shot in Texas partly, and he has gravitated towards the ones with a romantic look rather than strictly realistic. So I have decided to use some light diffusion on the lens for the Utopia town sequences. Before that point, the character will be seen in a sharper, colder color scheme and light. We have a number of blue magic hour shots in the early sequences too, to give us that colder tone.

The director tells me that some of the DP's he interviewed seemed overly interested in one direction or the other, either making the movie seem like a fairy tale or making it strictly realistic... my job is to make the stylization seem subtle and motivated by the story, just lift it a little above normality to suggest spirituality. In the last few days, as the sun has gotten lower, I've done that by allowing lens flares rather than always shade the lens.

In terms of shooting golf, there is an attempt to keep it accurate, which can sometimes drive me batty -- having to have the caddy to the player's right most of the time, etc. It's hard to stage an interesting composition sometimes when you can't place people in certain positions because they always stand across from each other. So often I've wanted to frame the main character's face in the foreground while his father (the caddy) watches in the background, but then I get told that I can't have a caddy standing too much in the background during a drive off of the Tee Box. When you are rushed, it's nice to be able to have two people facing the same direction rather than face each other, requiring a reverse angle. After four days of that, I finally was allowed more leeway from the experts after they told me the certain situations when a caddy might stand somewhere else, etc. But too often when I have a lot of players and caddies and crowds, everything falls in a U-shape around the main character, making it hard to avoid reverse angles and 180 degree flops, since you also have to shoot the golfer as he hits away from camera (to see where the ball is going) and towards camera (to see the face of the golfer.)

The other problem with golf is that simply once you hit the ball off of the tee, it just disappears, it's so tiny in the frame.

With all the shots we have to get, I pretty much have to embrace the sunlight no matter where it comes from, even dead overhead... the harsh sun seems part of the sport, and since everyone is wearing ball caps, the main issue is just getting some fill to bounce back up into the faces.

Next week, we start to do more interior scenes, and Robert Duvall starts being in a lot of scenes, so that should be an interesting change from all the pro golf shooting.
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#18 XiaoSu Han

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Posted 08 August 2010 - 01:08 AM

oh wow, 25 days only!

good luck!

how many setups are you aproximately getting each day?

what kind of budget was that again?
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#19 Thomas James

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Posted 08 August 2010 - 05:03 PM

I remember once shooting a movie about minature golf.
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#20 Thomas James

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Posted 09 August 2010 - 10:02 AM

You know I bet this movie is in actuality a spoof about Tiger Woods.
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