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The Astronaut Farmer Wk. 5


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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 09 October 2005 - 11:14 PM

Shooting at the ranch all week, just lots and lots of family scenes in the house, the barn where the rocket is being built, in the fields, etc. Mostly doing more of what I was doing last week in terms of lighting & camera set-ups, but a few examples:

Had to shoot a dialogue scene where Farmer, the main character, races down a dirt road towards his ranch gates -- his lawyer rides along arguing with him, then Farmer hits the brakes and does a spin out in the road at the entrance to the property in front of some reporters. We decided that a camera car would probably not work well down this narrow dirt road so for the dialogue, I had to strap a camera on the side with a hostess tray, use available light only for the truck interior, and have the truck tear off down the dirt road with only the soundman in the back of the truck. We played back the tape from the video tap when the truck came back. So focus and framing were locked off, which was tricky since the lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) sort of jumps into the truck and leans forward at Farmer. So I shot on Fuji F-64D with no filters at about an f/11 on a 75mm Primo anamorphic. I wanted the depth of field to cover for the lack of someone pulling focus on the scene. The stock handled the contrast difference from the outside to inside quite well (it was about two stops overexposed outside the truck and about two stops underexposed inside -- basically I split the difference in exposing.) Luckily a pick-up truck cab has lot of glass all around so it's not so dark in there.

We've been shooting outdoors a lot all-day up through sunset, even for scenes not written as sunset. This is great in the sense that a normal scene may now have a late afternoon look but it has locked us into some time-of-day continuity where future scenes also have to be at sunset to match. For example, we had a big scene out in front of the barn entrance which took all day to shoot; I saved Virginia Madsen's close-ups for last so she would be back-lit by the sun, not front or top-lit as earlier in the day. So I got some great late-afternoon sun on her hair (even though this may look a little mismatching with the earlier coverage). But then we still had one more scene to shoot where two FBI agents drive up to the barn and enter to confront Farmer about his rocket. So we really only had time to shoot one shot looking from inside to the outside of the big barn doors before we lost the light, then we had to cover the scene in the barn NOT looking towards the big open doors. By coincidence, the barn faces west, so I was looking straight into a bright sun setting in the background. So the FBI agents pull up into this big flare from the sunset, and walk towards the camera in silhouette into the dark barn. I measured the sun hitting the meter and exposed as if I were front-lit, not backlit, so the barn interior was several stops underexposed.

Looked great in dailies, but now I'm locked into this setting sun look for several scenes in a montage of other agents entering the house and interrogating the family that we shoot next week.

Same for another shot I did where the family drive out their gates past the media camped outside. It was supposed to be a late afternoon scene but by the time we shot it, it was twilight, with a sunset sky and the media lights flaring the lens against the sky. Which looked great, except now when I shoot them arriving at their destination, it has to be dusk, and I still have to shoot them loading the family in the car, which will have to be dusk as well.

I lit the interior of the barn for the scene of the FBI agents by continuing that look from the wide sunset shot of them entering. It was night now, so I placed a tungsten Dino at the entrance of the barn to recreate the setting sun look (on Fuji F-250D stock). I played the agents' faces quite dark, just backlit by the orange sunset effect with a little raking soft Daylight Kino light on their faces. For the reverse where Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) and his father-in-law (Bruce Dern) are looking at the agents, I lit them slightly more sideways (not frontal) with the orange sunset light from the Dino, but not through a 8'x8' frame of Grid Cloth to soften it. I used a #1 GlimmerGlass diffusion on all the barn interior scenes.

I love that look of lighting people with the tungsten Dino through a big frame of diffusion on daylight-balanced stock -- it looks so Storaro-ish!

Another time-of-day issue was a post-funeral reception at the house. We shot the funeral two weeks ago on a hilltop at sunset against a dramatic sky (lucky). The next scene was on a porch where Farmer notices a man in a field. He goes out to meet him and finds out he's from the bank appraising his cattle herd for a foreclosure. Well, story-wise, the scenes had to be either at twilight or night if the funeral was a sunset. I didn't want to light this field of cattle at night but I wasn't sure I could shoot a one-page dialogue scene in a field at twilight. The porch scene was shot at night looking into the building, lit for twilight with soft blue light (HMI's bounced off of a 12'x20' UltraBounce.)

The director wanted one wide shot of the appraiser scene in silhouette against the twilight sky, so we decided to find a hilltop near the house. We got up just before sunset, brought in the cattle, and set-up two cameras shooting opposing angles in order to get both sides of the conversation at once. I managed to get two takes of over-the-shoulders, then change to longer lenses for two takes of close-ups, all shot simultaneously as the light was fading, then broom everything and hop downhill to shoot the wide shots in silhouette against the last glow in the sky. I used Fuji F-500T with no 85B filter (since the sunset funeral was played warm and golden, I wanted this dusk scene to play very dim and blue-ish.) I decided that the faces would be underexposed by one and a half stops. So with a 320 ASA base rating for the stock, I was getting an f/5.6 on my meter just after the sun set, which means I shot it at f/8-11 split, which was odd considering it was dusk. But we had quite a bit of skylight that evening on the hilltop. Of course, the light began to drop like a rock but even the last close-ups were shot at an f/4 and then when we moved downhill to shoot the silhouettes, I was able to shoot at an f/2.8 even with barely no light since I was going for a silhouette (I exposed the dusk light hitting the ground about three stops under so the sky was exposed more correctly but the foreground was dark.) I guess I could have used a spot meter instead on the sky to judge exposure but my method seems to work. Besides, if it had gotten any darker, I would have just shot wide-open and hoped for the best anyway...

So it was something of a rush to pull-off that dialogue scene at magic hour and not get screwed, as often happens if you don't set-up early enough.

I had three big scenes in the house at night in small rooms with several people in the frame (the whole family plus Bruce Willis' character visiting them). Since I saw the whole room in the masters using a 40mm anamorphic lens, I lit all three scenes with an overhead softbox -- there was no off-camera place to light from, and besides, some characters would then shadow others. So the scenes had that Gordon Willis lighting look. The question for me was when I shot the coverage, should I re-light from the ground with soft light more from the side, or keep going with the overhead soft key. Well, since we were using two cameras on everything getting wides and mediums, there was no clear distinction when I went in tighter (not a big enough change in shot size) where I felt I could get away with cheating the key from overhead in the wider shots to the side on close-ups. Plus we were running behind so I decided it would be faster to just keep using the soft box key in the close-ups. What I did was bring in a Chinese Lantern over the camera in the close-ups to augment the softbox overhead key but extend it a little lower so it was less toppy. Then I added a small eyelight to fill-in the eye sockets a little. Can't say it was the most interesting way to light a night interior, but it looked realistic and it was quick. When you're rushed, keep it simple basically.

The living room and dining room were both shot this way. The third scene was in the kitchen, where instead of tungsten softboxes with lightbulbs inside, we had rigged overhead Kinos (an Image 80) so I could switch between tungsten and daylight tubes for the different scenes in that room.

Another issue that has come up is the use of smoke. I smoked most of the day interiors in the first three weeks of the shoot, and the actors were complaining a lot (and the crew). I tried to smoke the barn set but it was built sort of open-aired and there was no way of containing the smoke. So yesterday was the first day interior in the family ranch house we shot, and the question was whether to smoke it. I promised the lead actress that would try and minimize the number of smoked sets in one shooting day, so for this scene -- a very emotional one where she discovers her father has died in his sleep -- I decided not to smoke it in case she was going to be crying a lot. So I tried instead the Tiffen Smoque filter I've been carrying to shoot inserts with.

The traditional problem with shooting inserts in a smoked scene is that since you are focused on something close to the lens, you don't see any smoke -- and if you could, it would be too wispy. So the shots look too clean and contrasty compared to the wider shots. So normally I stick something like a 1/8 ProMist or something on the inserts (assuming an unfiltered wide shot) just to add some softness. So now I'm using these Tiffen Smoque filters and they work pretty well at hazing up an insert.

But for wider shots, I was worried about how realistic that would look. But in order to appease the actors' concerns about acting in smoke, I've decided that when I want a beam of hard light coming through the room in daytime, I'd use real smoke, but when the room was only lit with soft window light, I'd use the Tiffen Smoque filter. It's an interesting look, almost like an old Harrison Double-Fog filter but without the loss of sharpness. So I shot this scene of the dead father laying in his bed in a wide shot lit with soft window light coming through curtain shears on one side of the frame. It had a very nice tableau look, like a Whistler or Sargent painting, and the Smoque filter soft of softly fogged the room around the windows, like a haze. It was pretty convincing except when someone crossed through the window, where with real smoke, they would sort of go behind the haze, but with the Smoque filter, when they momentarily blocked the window in the face, the hazy glow would disappear for a moment. But I like the look from the filter in general, sort of reminded me of what Zsigmond did in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" using Double-Fogs but without the loss of sharpness. I was using the Smoque #2.

The room was lit basically with a 6K HMI shining through a 6'x6' frame of Light Grid outside of a window, plus a little hard HMI light (from another 6K) coming through a smaller window just to put a tiny spot on the head of the bed. But more or less the look was of a single side window lighting the room. Fill came from a Kino Wall-O-Light with 216, half the tubes off, and flagged just to fill in the middle of the room slightly as she crossed the frame to the bed. I probably could have not filled-in the scene at all since it was sofly side-lit but since she was standing with her back to the windows, I wanted to bring up the ambience in the shadows a little to see her expression. This was all on Fuji F-250D rated at 160 ASA, shooting at an f/4.0.

But starting next week I have some breakfast scenes in the house where I have to use real smoke to get sunlight streaming through the room.

I've been really impressed with how the Fuji F-500T handles low-light -- it looks very clean and sees well into the shadows. It reminds me of Kodak's 5229 Expression stock more than 5218.
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#2 Sean Azze

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Posted 10 October 2005 - 10:25 AM

Hey Mr. Mullen

Thinking back to the last Polish brothers film you did, Northfork had a very distinctive look to it. I was wondering if The Astronaut Farmer would have an overall look that carries throughout the entire film.

Thanks again for all the great, informative diary entries!
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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 10 October 2005 - 12:54 PM

Well, this film is more comedic and a family tale, so the look is not as stark and stylized as "Northfork". Plus this is not a period movie. We're still shooting in anamorphic, but there's a lot more interior dialogue scenes in this movie. We're going for a warm Norman Rockwell look inside generally with a Western painting feeling for the landscapes when appropriate. But there is a lot more "reality" about these settings -- for example, there are some scenes at a Dunkin Donuts and Dairy Queen, a grocery store, etc. So for those, the look is natural, realistic.

The silver aluminum rocket standing in the wooden barn surrounded by wooden poles and beams sort of sums up the visual contradiction of this movie -- high-tech meets old West.
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#4 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 10 October 2005 - 05:35 PM

Dinos and Wendy's! Don't you just love them? I just recently discovered them and I'm in love with them now. Every time I use HMI lights (like I did today), my heart sinks a little. They're so garish and uncharming. They do however put out a lot of light, so when you're juice-poor you don't have much choice. But if I could I'd leave HMI's at the rental house for the time being. It sounds like it's going to be a nice looking film, David.

Are you using the Eterna 500 or is it the regular one?
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#5 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 10 October 2005 - 06:25 PM

I'm using Eterna 500T, regular F-250D and F-64D, all rated 2/3's of a stop slower. I've pushed the Eterna by one stop (to 640 ASA by my rating) for some shots.
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