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The Astronaut Farmer Wk. 6


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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 16 October 2005 - 04:15 PM

The days keep getting longer as the scenes uncompleted get dogpiled onto the remaining shooting days. This week we had a big county fair scene with both day and night scenes; a big square dance happens at night. We also had a series of scenes at a hospital where the main character recovers from a crash. Originally both sequences were scheduled for a day and a half each, but then they got crunched into one day apiece. So I had two very long (about 16 hours each) days in a row and we were still rushed.

Since I had shot the same county fair four weeks ago on my day off for some b-roll footage, I had a good sense of how it would look in available light. I decided to continue with that look, shooting at night on Eterna 500T pushed one stop (rated at 640 ASA with the push), mostly at T/2.8. The dance floor was out in the open, lit with overhead strings of light bulbs. I added about seven Chinese Lanterns over the floor just to get to a T/2.8. The background carnival rides exposed brightly, giving the scene a very naturally-lit look. The depth of field was really low though because of shooting in anamorphic, plus we were shooting dancers whirling around the floor with no marks, and the cameras were dollying throughout as well. So focusing was a nightmare. On the few times where we stopped and picked up a separate close-up of the action, I brought in one more Chinese Lantern on a C-stand to get the stop up to a T/4.

Just to get through the night faster, we convinced production to rent a third Panaflex and hire a crew for it so I could run three cameras on the dancing, or run two cameras on scenes and let the third roam around and get pick-ups and b-roll material. We also had a short Technocrane (about 20') for some high angles and small crane moves.

With a #1 GlimmerGlass on the lenses, the light bulb strings and Chinese Lanterns had a nice glow, plus the halation from the colorful carnival lights in the background.

The next day we moved to an abandoned hospital in the middle of town. The electric crew had been there weeks earlier to repair the wiring so I could get the whole wing working in terms of overhead fluorescents. I liked the main hall because it had glass doors at the far end, which I covered in 1000H paper and backlit to maintain daylight through the night of shooting. I shot all of these scenes on Eterna 500T with no 85 filter in daylight, shooting a gray scale with half correction so that the following scenes would be somewhat cold-looking. I also shot with no diffusion filters for a starker look. The overheads had Chroma 50 tubes.

For the first scene in the hospital where the camera is over the shoulders of the wife and doctor looking in at the main character in an ICU ward, I lit the bed by bouncing a 1200 watt HMI PAR off of the ceiling and using a black skirt to keep it off of the walls. I then added some scrims to get the shot down to a T/4. I lit it this way, instead of using an overhead fluorescent, because when I turned around and looked at the wife's face through the glass window, I could pull the scrims and make the reflection of the bed brighter in the glass, so we see her injured husband reflected in the glass over her face (although it is a soft reflection, not a focus-rack). Otherwise, most of the ICU scenes were lit with light coming through the window, or for the night scenes, an off-camera lamp effect (in this case, I just brought in a 4-bank Kino with tungsten tubes.) Generally I was shooting at a T/4.

I did one scene on a long lens of the characters standing in the hallway silhouette against the bright glass doors in the background.

We had one scene where a character steps into an elevator, talking, and the doors close over them. The overhead light was not bright enough so I hid a bare Kino tube inside the elevator, which had to be powered with a block battery and an inverter inside the elevator, since the doors closed and the elevator moved.

The next day we had to finish out the scenes with the FAA administrator, played by J.K. Simmons. Our production offices at an old prison outside of town has a cool-looking 50's era lobby with a glass guard desk in the center, so we dressed it as the lobby of an FAA office. It reminded me of a location for "Catch Me if You Can", and I decided to go Janusz Kaminski and backlight the heck out of the lobby with spotted-in big HMI's (two 18K's and a 4K Xenon outside), smoke up the set, and try and get lens flares off of the glass-encased guard booth as I dollied through the lobby. That was just one shot though. We then moved into an office set with a backdrop of a skyscraper outside of the windows. We picked the backdrop for the grid pattern of windows, but found that the lines on the backdrop weren't perfect and the 50mm anamorphic lens also tended to bend the grid, so we spent a long time trying to re-hang the backdrop to look straight to the camera lens, which then created wrinkle-problems in the backdrop as it sagged as we tried to make it look straight to the lens. What we ended with was OK but we may want to tweak the view in post to digitally straighten the lines more, I don't know.

We ended the week back at the ranch house. We had one day exterior scene to shoot that we staged on a low hill with the rocket barn in the background, framed by an arching tree in the foreground. I used F-64D, unfiltered except for an ND grad on the sky, at a T/8. Looked very painterly like the first shot in "Barry Lyndon", except after we got the master, a downpour of rain hit us. We shot the close-ups under a 12'x12' tent of Half Soft Frost (to keep the rain off of the actors), but the light also kept dropping until I was wide-open at T/2.8 on the 135mm E-Series. I didn't want to switch to a faster stock for the coverage since I used the slow stock on the wide. But at least with the shallow focus, you couldn't see that it was raining in the background. It got very cold and miserable out there, plus the mud got very slippery. Such hard work just to shoot two guys talking in a field!

I also set up a nice shot indoors where I dollied down a small hallway looking out the front doors as the family converges to head out for the county fair. But we were lit and ready by 5PM, but due to the damp air, I couldn't get the actress on set until 6:30PM. By this point, waiting, I switched to Eterna 500T pushed one-stop, pulled the filter, and dropped scrims in the lights so that the interior was a stop underexposed and the exterior was two stops overexposed. But by the time we actually rolled cameras, it got even darker until I was shooting wide-open and the exterior was now a stop darker than the interior. That depressed me because it was such a nice shot originally at 5PM when I was ready to shoot it. We then broke for lunch and when we got back, we re-did the shot but with the camera up high at the top of the stairs looking down, so I could light the ground outside of the doors & windows to look like daytime.

We ended the last day of the week (and Bruce Dern's last scene) in a set built to look like the base of the Atlas rocket in a deep cement pit, that has to be tied in editing to the upper rocket set sitting inside the barn set. It was a cool set with the entire base of an Atlas missile looking like it was two feet off of the ground, surrounded by worklights. I pointed every light bulb in the set into the lens to create a glarey, flaring look. I also noticed when I came into the set that a high fluorescent worklight was at a nice angle to create a sheen off of the aluminum rocket. It was an 8' fixture, so I couldn't replace the tube with something more correct, so I hung 4-bank Kinos in that area to create the same sheen. It's weird when shooting shiny cylindrical objects how a single fluorescent tube, if placed at the correct angle, will stretch over the whole surface and light the metal.

Bruce Dern paid me a nice compliment, saying that Alfred Hitchcock (who he worked for in "Marnie" and "Family Plot") would have hired me because I was fast but had style. But he's prone to pay everyone on the crew a lot of nice compliments. He also said that Hitchcock and Doug Trumbull were the only true geniuses he had worked for in the industry.
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#2 Jon Rosenbloom

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Posted 16 October 2005 - 05:52 PM

Was that a 5 or 6 day week? I'm really amazed you have the energy to write (and write well) about your work. There's a sense in your diary, which I've often felt - during prep for the few short films that I've shot - that on most jobs our main task is just to get the damn thing on film, and if you can fit some artistry into the process, then you're ahead of the game. The situation, the location, the weather, the b.s. all dictate a lot of your decisions. In other words, 95% of our attention is on logistics, and somewhere in all the chatter there's a little notion about how the film should look. Know what I mean? (The other 5% I reserve for craft service.)
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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 16 October 2005 - 06:32 PM

5-day weeks.

Next week is our last full week, then we have one day off, and we shoot for three more days I think.

I was thinking the same thing today while wandering through the art book section and DVD section at Borders. I have no time or strength to look at art or movies to study them for ideas.

Basically you plan as well as you can during prep, designing the look, etc. and then you're off and running during the shoot with no time to do much more than be instinctual and shoot from the hip. So I sort of fill myself up with artistic ideas in prep and then don't think so much about that during the shoot, hoping that I've absorbed those ideas and now are responding to what's in front of the lens and how much time I have to shoot it.

For example, that nice shot of the barn framed by the trees -- it was an angle that the director and I stumbled across weeks ago while looking for a camera placement for another scene. So we thought at the time "this is nice -- maybe we'll find a use for this angle later". So suddenly this new scene gets added with no location for it determined and the director tells me "I want to get the presence of the rocket in the scene (because they talk about it) but not shoot it at the rocket" so I reminded him of that camera position we saw weeks ago and he said "great!"

Or sometimes when we're rushed, we have code words like "tableau" or "painting" that pretty much tell us where to put the camera.

One thing that's great about Michael Polish is that he truly appreciates a good wide shot so if I shoot one, I know it will be in the movie. A few scenes are only covered in wides, or wides and mediums, which is nice because the close-ups in the movie will take on more power because of that.

The hard part is lighting and composing a good wide shot, which really requires good elements to work with in front of the camera in terms of locations, production design, weather, etc. It's not hard to make a close-up look like a Vermeer or Rembrandt, but it's really elusive and hard to do that in a wide shot.

But when you're really rushed and winging it, it's good to be able to drop your preconceived ideas and just respond as an artist to what's in front of you. I've had other directors who totally cannot see what the most powerful composition of a scene or location will be because they've gotten it into their heads that they need a certain type of camera move.

Also when you're rushed, it's good to be working with a good production designer like we have. We also have storyboards for 80% of the movie to work from as a guide, which help steer us towards our original artistic intent. But we are quick to change things on the set.

What's also nice about working with Michael is that he doesn't mind if I make decisions based on where the light should be because he loves lighting as much as I do. So if we walk into a drab little room and I say "would it be OK to play the master in silhouette against that window with that tree in the background?" generally I know he'll like the idea too. But I'd only make a suggestion like that if I felt it was appropriate dramatically. If the script indicates that something must be seen, we stage with that in mind. Sometimes he'll see some interesting angle on a room or location not specific to that scene and we'll talk about when and where we can incorporate it later.

The main problem I have with being rushed is that sometimes you make technical mistakes that are forever in the movie (unless cut out). Like running two cameras on scenes with actors that don't want to rehearse first, so you wing it, and maybe get one more take to correct mistakes before you move on. Often I ask for a blocking rehearsal but it's too hard to get all the actors and children onto the set and spend the time staging, so Michael and I end up designing the blocking without them. So we arrange furniture and stage with stand-ins, and then the actors come back from make-up or their trailers and I'm waiting to see how they will really play the scene (compared to a stand-in who just stands like a lump where I place them) and as soon as they step onto the set I hear "we're going to shoot the rehearsal!" Which is somewhat annoying to me for technical reasons, but if that's how the actors need to work, then I have to live with that. But I know I'm going to here complaints months down the road like "why was that actor soft?"
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#4 Mike Williamson

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Posted 17 October 2005 - 01:56 AM

It sounds like an interesting film, David, hopefully you guys can find a way to make up some ground at some point. On some level it's amazing that films get made, let alone made well, on tight schedules like you're on. I'm sure it's all familiar ground for you and you'll make the best film possible. It sounds like you're working with talented people and that makes a big difference.

Good luck with the rest of the movie, looking forwards to seeing it!
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#5 Jeremy

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Posted 17 October 2005 - 11:13 AM

Shooting in the rain under the 12' x 12', was it sunny on the master and you had to try to match that, or was it overcast on the master? What was your approach to the look for the actors in the close-up? Back light, negative fill, etc? I love that shot in "Barry Lyndon;" I'm looking forward to seeing this film!

Thanks for the insights, as always!
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#6 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 17 October 2005 - 12:45 PM

It was overcast in the master. All I did was tent the close-ups with the Half Soft Frost (to not lose any light but cut the rain) and add a soft side light from a 6K HMI coming through two frames of diffusion.
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#7 Travis Cline

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Posted 18 October 2005 - 02:27 PM

David, its good to hear that even on a larger production you have trouble getting a blocking rehearsal and/or a rehearsal. I have such a hard time getting director's, AD's and actors to give me an actual blocking rehearsal if any at all. Do you say to them at the time they decide to skip rehearsal that it may be out of focus or framing may be bad? I never know how much to push. I don't want to sound like a whiny DP, but I also want to get the production what they want.

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#8 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 18 October 2005 - 11:41 PM

Well, you can only mention the problems of not having blocking or camera rehearsals so many times before you give up and just work with it.
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#9 Travis Cline

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Posted 19 October 2005 - 04:42 PM

So true. I hate to give up though, even though I so often have to.

Travis
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#10 Jon Rosenbloom

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Posted 20 October 2005 - 11:12 AM

This begs a question I've been waiting to ask: what's the extent of the DP's responsibility in "producing" the film? It's the DP's job to make it look good, and in order to do that we have to fight for the necessary tools. For instance, if all they're willing to pay for is an old Angenieux zoom, it's part of your job to convice them that that's going to suck, right? But, at what point do you stop fighting and just go w/ what they give you, and let the chips fall where they may? Another example would be getting a schedule that's too short, well there are a million examples ...
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#11 Evan Kubota

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Posted 21 October 2005 - 06:21 PM

"There's a sense in your diary, which I've often felt - during prep for the few short films that I've shot - that on most jobs our main task is just to get the damn thing on film, and if you can fit some artistry into the process, then you're ahead of the game. The situation, the location, the weather, the b.s. all dictate a lot of your decisions. In other words, 95% of our attention is on logistics, and somewhere in all the chatter there's a little notion about how the film should look."

I'm not a professional DP, but I feel exactly the same way on my own productions. Logistical nightmares and technical issues take so much time and effort that shooting becomes a struggle to get through the shotlist. There certainly doesn't seem to be any time to consciously focus on aesthetics. I kind of do what David does - saturating myself with ideas and images (in my case when I'm writing and storyboarding) and hoping that some of that shows in the finished product. My current project is more technically complex than my previous work, so I feel even less certaintly about the finished result.
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#12 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 22 October 2005 - 06:33 AM

Yeah - filmmaking is compromise. All the time and in every shot. It can be very frustrating, but I'm beginning to come to terms with it.

Conrad Hall, ASC, talked about his "happy accidents" that come out of such conditions and I must agree. A film that was 100% lit on paper, everything drawn out, everything planned would probably not end up being the best shot film. We need input - mistakes, time contsraints etc makes us choose solutions that might end up being better in the end. Some of my favorite shots I've done have been rushed or otherwise compromised shots.

This scenario happens quite often: I order the gaffer to move a light from A to B and while doing so the light accidentally pans off and hits something completely different but interesting. "Stop!", I yell. "That's interesting". And we work from there - a happy accident.

Time constraints and bad planning are hell, but sometimes they work in your favor.
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Metropolis Post

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Aerial Filmworks

rebotnix Technologies

Visual Products

The Slider