I had the pleasure of being the cinematographer for a pretty ambitious project a few months ago. Director Clayton Haugen came to me with a 16 page script and said "We have a day and a half to shoot this". I wasn't too intimidated as I have a pretty quick style of shooting but even still, we had our work cut out for us!
The basic plot of the film is that we are in an alternate version of history where England won the revolutionary war. So we are set in 2020 current day America but under English rule. In the story our protagonist is caught up between his majesty's army and the rebels. We also come to find out a powerful secret about her in the final scene.
Since we were shooting mostly outdoors in bright sunlight we decided to shoot on RED for maximum dynamic range. Also with the 5/4k we had options to reframe in post if we needed extra coverage or to smooth out some shots. Our A-cam was an Epic with a set of Zeiss CP2s, B-cam was a Scarlet with Rokinon Cine primes. We made sure to have 2 cameras so that we could shoot double the coverage in our limited amount of time. At some points we even got cross coverage to make up some lost time.
Since we were on such a tight schedule I decided on a small lighting package. We had one Joker 800, 2 Kino 4x4s, 2 1000 LEDs and a 12x12 bounce. For cam support I had my Ronin gimbal and a Dana dolly.
Having a great crew is key to moving fast. It was pretty hectic at times but everyone really pulled together and we got everything done in time and on budget.
Now I will break down some shots and explain what I did and why.
Our opening shots were supposed to be during sunrise with golden rays coming across the frame rimming the subject as she walked the horse to the stables. Weather was not cooperating too much over the weekend so we decided to shoot sunset instead. My vision was to get really nice rays coming through but sometimes a shot just doesn't work out how you planned. This is what we got instead, but after seeing it I was quite happy with the outcome!
This was a transitionary scene going from the stable to the reveal of the majesty's royal army. I wanted to keep the pace and have the shot be interesting so I chose to shoot this on the DJI Ronin with a 25mm. The biggest challenge was keeping my footing while walking backwards over very uneven rocky terrain. Luckily the Ronin is a champ and it worked out great. It also enabled us to shoot a lot of dialog in a few takes.
This shot here is where the film really turns and shows itself to be different. I wanted a strong visual queue when this happened. I chose to shoot really low with a 14mm to get a unique perspective while seeing the soldiers in the distance. Also using the barn and the actors for a nice frame within a frame.
Again using the environment and actors to create framing.
For this shot I wanted to create that old western/ranch feel. I used a a 35mm and I set the camera a little lower than the eye line so we are slightly looking up at Frank. Also using the trees to contrast nicely with the sky and separate him from the background. I used a 12x12 silk to diffuse the light coming in from the right and used the joker with diffusion for his key light. I wanted a smaller source to create the intense eye light rather than a large soft specular reflection.
Another use of the Ronin to transition Frank from the barn to the Soldiers. I followed him all the way to create some tension, I then continue the shot wrapping around keeping David in the frame while following Walcroft as he begins his interrogation.
Most of the dialog in the yard was all natural light. I chose not to bring any fill in for Walcroft's shots because I wanted him to appear darker and without any eye lights. I wanted him to be separated from the viewer to drive home his soulless character.
For Addie and Frank we had them staged so that the sunlight was keying them with big soft light. This helps brighten them up and gives them more of an eye light. This makes a big separation from showing the "good guys" and "bad guys".
For a master shot I chose to use the Dana dolly set on the porch further from the action. I set it up so that i would pass over some foreground elements to create depth. I also chose to shoot on an 85mm so that we create distance and tension in the scene. The 85mm tightens up the frame while still keeping the important subjects within it.
Another pivotal scene in the film is when the rebels come out and ambush the soldiers. For this I chose the Ronin again to get a unique perspective showing the action of the rebels running it. It really ramps up the energy and brings you into the new scene that is unfolding. The shot ends with a sweeping low shot of our new character coming into the scene revealing her with powerful movement.
This was a shot I pushed the time on so that I made sure I got it. I really wanted a "stand off" shot with two personalities facing each other down. Having the girl with the gun in the middle of the frame really upped the action and tipped the scales in the rebels favor giving more power to her statements and allowing us to capture some more dialog in one frame. I used an 135mm to really close the frame up and separate the actors from the background.
For the final scene I wanted it to be pretty dramatic and contrasty. The rim light is motivated as a skylight of sorts or some broken beams at the top of the garage. I used a Kino to get some more back light on Addie and then keyed her with an LED. I shot the master of this scene on the Dana dolly with a 25mm and also a 50mm.
The biggest challenge shooting this film was how much we needed to do in such a limited amount of time. Balancing coverage with creativity. I couldn't spend a lot of time on each set up to really be picky over lighting or camera movement. I had to choose when and where to put key shots that move the story forward. All in all times like these make you a better film maker, It's good to have deadlines to force you to make decisions and think quickly.
Here are some takeaways:
Great crew members will always make your work better. Surround yourself with people who help to push you to be a greater film maker.
You don't need a Michael Bay set size to create great images. Sometimes just a few lights and getting creative can yield some awesome results.
Never say never. 16 pages in 1.5 days seems daunting but if you plan well you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.
Shooting a nice looking image is only half of what a cinematographer does. The other half is helping move the story. When doing your pre production be sure to be thinking about why you are shooting the way you are and how it is helping to move the story forward.
With over 8 years of experience in the film industry one of my biggest passions is giving back to the community. Visit, learn, share, love.