From August 22nd through the 24th, I participated in the 48 Hour Film Project as the Director of Photography. The 48 Hour Film project is a race where certain details of a film are given to each team, and 48 hours later you have to deliver a finished film which includes those details. Each team gets a different film category such as Romance, Thriller, Comedy, etc. Initially we drew Musical/Western (meaning we could create either a musical or a western (or both)). So we decided to throw that fish back and ask for one of the Wild Card categories which we would be required to do. We drew “Chase/Escape”. I was thrilled with a category that has so much potential! We were also given the details of the items that we would be required to place into the film somehow. These items were:
Two weeks before the main event, most of the crew was able to get together and talk about how the day would go. Many of us were first timers and weren’t sure what to expect. But we had a few people who had done this two, three or four times before which made me feel better. I asked about workflow and the Gaffer and I spoke about the look. Since we didn’t know the category yet, it was hard to really make any decisions creatively. The Director, Ryan Lawson, expressed his enthusiasm and said that he would be mostly hands-off on the creative process and would instead dedicate his time working with the actors.
We met our 1st Assistant Director, Elena Muntean. She was a first time AD but she had directed in the past so she knew exactly what to do. She was very helpful with call sheets, lists of locations, cast and crew info sheets, etc. She also communicated with the entire cast and crew regularly about the call time and asked questions if she didn’t know something.
Shirin Caiola, our producer, was keeping track of everything. She got locations and actors and crew members (and backup crew members). She handled all of the legal forms and made sure all of the expenses were paid and the information was gathered. She was also going to be one of the actresses.
Shirin requested help with finding people and locations. Everyone asked around and most of us were able to pull in others to help. The AD got a sound mixer (her husband, Johnny Jonab Burt). I was able to get my friend Sarah Snow to be the composer who got her band-mate John Szymanski involved. The others were able to secure a bunch of locations some of which seemed extremely promising (an empty office building floor and a skyscraper rooftop were some of my favorites).
I chose the Nikon D4S as our A camera package and had a Nikon D800 on standby as a backup. Since our crew wasn’t large enough for a second unit, I just kept the D800 in the trunk of my car for most of the shoot. The D4S was fed into an Atomos Ninja Blade which served as the monitor and recorded the footage to Apple ProRes 422. The editor, Jesenia Ramirez, and I chose 422 over HQ (which has a higher bit rate) simply to speed up the footage ingesting and to shorten the render times. We also didn’t want to take any chances with programs freezing or crashing if the footage was too taxing on the computer, since we couldn’t afford a computer going down and we’d be using the computer pretty much non-stop for two days straight. We had two SSD hard drives for the Ninja Blade and as soon as the first location was shot, I gave the footage to Jesenia and she started ingesting it and worked on it while I continued to shoot on the other SSD. For the 60 fps shots, I recorded the footage onto the internal CF card in the Nikon (a Sandisk 32 GB Extreme Pro card), since the Ninja Blade can’t record 60p. Everything else was recorded at 24 fps in the Ninja Blade. I chose the Flaat profile by Similaar as the profile for both the D800 and the D4S but I modified them to return the sharpness setting to 0 (from some strongly negative number). This is because reclaiming sharpness from a softened picture is almost impossible to do in post.
For lenses, I chose the 14-24mm f/2.8, the 24-70mm f/2.8, the 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII and the 85mm f/1.4G all by Nikkor. I also had a Lensbaby 3G and Nikon 105mm f/2.8D Macro lens ready in case we needed that specialty glass. The lens I used the most was the 85mm and the 24-70mm. I have a 2x teleconverter for the 70-200mm, but decided I wouldn’t need it and left it at home. During production, I would regret this when shooting the opening scene. But in post, I later realized using it would have probably been too long of a focal length. Other optical items included a a Tiffen ND filter kit, a Cavision 0.9 ND grad filter and 77mm Tiffen circular polarizer.
For camera support, a Zacuto DSLR baseplate was handy for supporting a very smooth follow focus by Redrock Micro (though I was wishing I had the Black edition many times). I used the PV matte box from Genustech in clip-on mode which worked great with my Cord Vision 77-80mm outer diameter Cine Rings which I had on every lens.
Camera support equipment we had was a Kessler PB Pocket Dolly, a GlideCam HD2000 (which we didn’t use) and various Manfrotto tripods and heads for camera and slider support. I also used the X-Rite Color Checker Passport, though we didn’t end up using any of those shots in post as we haven’t worked out that workflow with SpeedGrade yet.
I also used Shot Designer to lay out shot ideas I had before production started. I focused mainly on conversation scenes and character reveals. I also took a lot of inspiration from the book Master Shots which I had on a Kindle app on my phone for quick reference. During production, I used Shot Designer to explain a complicated blocking to the director (see Scene 04 image).
On Friday night, after receiving the category info, the writer, Ken Reed, went off and brainstormed on his own and wrote the script in about 5 hours. Then he handed it off to the director for review and tweaking. The editor and I were given the script around 4am and we had a few requests to make of the writer. We got revisions around 5:15am but didn’t have time to read them as we had to get moving and make it to the call time of 6 am Saturday morning.
We had a large cast and crew many of whom work regularly in film and TV productions that come to Chicago. I can’t say enough about this great crew.
My role was as Director of Photography. Our director was concentrating mostly on the delivery of lines by the actors and keeping us all to a schedule along with our Assistant Director. This allowed me a lot of creative freedom as well as allowing me to contribute decisions on the outcome of the whole film. I was able to set up all of the shots of the film including blocking the actors and selecting all of the camera lens selections and camera moves (or lack of moves). I was also able to decide on the “look” of the film’s scenes and I did the color grading (with Jesenia doing a final color grade tweak from my settings as this was my first time color grading a film). While shooting, I also contributed a few ideas to help sell the story to the audience such as the main character carrying a cinder block and wearing a neck tie (which I decided he should drop in the final dream sequence). I also directed a few scenes where the shooting space was too tight for the director to see what I was getting (the bathroom scene, the bedroom scenes and two of the three dream sequences).
We had three shoot locations that we ended up using for the film: a park, a restaurant and an apartment. Chase Park was a difficult, yet secluded, location. I wasn’t involved in the selection process unfortunately and I originally envisioned a park with a hill and more trees, but we made it work. The weather was not ideal being mostly overcast (but not enough to darken the sky enough), slightly foggy (but not foggy enough to be dreamy), and extremely hot and humid and wet. All of the ground was wet and muddy and our Key Makeup Artist, Rose Nobs, had her work cutout for her keeping the sweat in check and the makeup looking good. Since the sky was mostly overcast, the sky was much brighter than the ground. I was glad it was overcast, but had to avoid shooting with too much shy in my shots. I used a grad filter in a matte box to cut down on the exposure difference.
During the first few scenes that we shot, the restaurant we had reserved changed their availability and told us to wait until noon before we came over. This would have changed our schedule completely, which we weren’t sure would work. So the producer was able to make a few calls and secure use time to shoot at Pho Viet, which was perfect. This location was very close to the apartment location and the park and when we arrived, we were able to take over 50% of the restaurant. We moved tables around and set up lights and cameras and sliders and audio equipment. It was great! The windows even had attractive blinds that we could lower and use to tweak the background exposure.
For the last location, the apartment, we made use of almost every room including the bathroom, bedroom, living room, hallway, entrance way and front porch. At one point, I even set up in the shower and we used a boom arm to hang a mini mole over the sink for lighting.
Tom Maloney, our Location Sound Mixer, was so detail oriented that he was often more accurate than the slates we were clapping into the front of every take. This really helped our editor. He was also pretty funny and we
cracked jokes through most of the day and night. In the middle of everything, he kept track of recording ambiance and room tone for use in sound cleaning later in post. And when the sound was bad in the park, he spoke up and made sure to get clean recordings of all of the dialog of each of the actors despite buses, birds, airplanes and a pretty vigorous tennis game going on a few feet away from the bench where we were shooting some scenes.
Before I met our Gaffer, Don Winter, I’d been told that he was the real deal and that he had a lot of great experience. I was intimated when I saw his list of equipment and was worried that we would have trouble communicating since he was using Mole Richardson studio terms (such as Babies, Peppers, etc.) while I was used to more general terms used in still photography and videography (such as 500 fresnel, 1k open face, strip light, and other lights you find in an Arri kit). But once we started talking, we got along perfectly. He and I both knew that for this film we should work with the ambient light and tweak it to look best, but not to overdo it. I’d make a request, sometimes with specifics, he’d suggest options and we’d execute it until it looked great in-camera. For every shot I set up, I knew the look I wanted for it and Don was able to craft my ideas into exactly what I think we both had in mind. He brought along an assistant who was very entertaining and helpful throughout the shoot and who early on performed as our waitress since we were an actor short. One location in particular where we were shooting the bedroom scenes was very fun. It started raining very heavily outside and the light in the window just evaporated to a dark blue. We were supposed to shoot a morning scene and I wanted to include the window in the shot because a boring wall was the alternative. So he placed a half CT blue gel on a Baby light and bounced the light off of the ceiling to get an overall cool ambiance and added a slash of light with a Mini-Mole across the sheets to add to the morning light effect. It was all subtle and worked great and was exactly the shot I envisioned.
A friend of the director, Cory Byers, came along to act as our first and second assistant camera operator. He didn’t have any focus pulling experience so I delegated him to 2nd AC exclusively simply for the sake of time. Cory continued to slate nearly every scene and acted as a general PA since our designated PA dropped out a few hours before we started. He was a great help.
As soon as production wrapped, I went to the makeshift edit room to give the last of the footage to Jesenia and tell her about some of the specific cuts I had in mind for some of the scenes and to help out if I could. Jesenia took the audio and video and created more than what we gave her. I love editing so watching a master at work is a real pleasure. She worked with the Adobe Creative Cloud of post-production software including Bridge, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Audition, SpeedGrade and Media Encoder. After the sound mix arrived, it had a few audio pops that seemed impossible to remove with the time we had left. Jesenia pulled the audio into Audition and blew all of us away working in the Enhanced Spectral Display environment to remove the pops visually. Johnny Jonab Burt, the Post Sound Mixer and I just sat there behind her with our mouths open truly aghast at her speed and talent.
Johnny took the enormous number of recorded tracks (a boom mic as well as lavaliers on every actor) and spent seven hours tweaking all of the levels and creating sound environments in Pro Tools using media and an OMF that Senia provided. Jesenia and I also asked him to create a few special sound effects for the dream sequences that we thought would really improve the feeling of the running scenes.
The music was something that none of us were sure about as music can really change the tenor and feeling of the whole story. Luckily we placed it into the capable hands of Sarah Snow and her co-composer John Szymanski who used Pro Tools to lay out the music they recorded. Together they brainstormed the feel of the film they wanted to convey and wrote to the music cues that I set up. I had never done music cues before but I knew I wanted something during the restaurant scene, the first dream sequence, the first reveal of the hooker in the doorway (I asked for something Jessica Rabbit-style), and the final scene leading into the last dream sequence and the closing credits. But really, I left it up to the composers to craft to their hearts’ content. Amazing results! When Jesenia put it into the film along with the mixed sound, it flowed together so well that we all instantly liked the movie better.
It was fun working with the actors and the mood on the set was very light and good. After production wrapped, it didn’t hit me because we still had most of the post production process to go through. A lot of it is a blur. I took a nap for about an hour while I was watching the editing. Around 5 am, we locked the picture and the sound mixer came by to work his magic. I started on the picture grading and let Jesenia nap for about an hour. She woke up and tweaked my work and then the composer came by and we gave her what she needed to get to work. Everything came back around 3pm and Jesenia put it all together and made some additional heroics. Everything was done and final rendering started exactly on time according to the post schedule Jesenia put together two weeks previous which seemed insanely cool to us. Got in the car soon after that with all of the forms and final cut on two forms of media and ran it over to Magnanimous Media.
The screening of the films was done in groups at the 400 Theater on Sheridan in Chicago. We made a very good showing compared to our competition and I’m confident that we had one of the tightest final films. I’m also very confident in my own contributions to the film. We didn’t end up garnering any awards, but were told by the organizers that we made it to the top 7 of the fan favorites (out of 57 total films). I’m confident that we have a great team to go for it next time.
It was a great experience and I’m looking forward to the next film project!