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Stéphane Dirschauer, writer/director of A DISPLAY OF EMOTION, contacted me in September 09 with his latest script VOL DE NUIT. With the NFB and Ontario Arts Council already on board, we got prep underway early – a full year before going to camera. It was so early, in fact, that the 7D was still just a rumour, but I had a feeling that this would be a better system for us than film or the RED (the other options we were seriously considering and pricing out) because we needed something we could use under low light with minimal noise and artifacting and, especially, something small. I started looking at Philip Bloom’s 7D samples, specifically the now-iconic Dublin’s People video, and thought that this might be our best option for the night-heavy story, much of which also includes the characters talking in a moving taxi cab through the city.

See DUBLIN’S PEOPLE by Philip Bloom:

Stéphane saw the link and brought up a good point: he didn’t want the lushness of the shallow depth of field and the vibrancy of the colours and bokeh to distract viewers from the performances on screen. Not having heard much criticism of the HDSLR “look” that people had otherwise already started falling in love with I thought that this, from a directorial standpoint, was a very valid concern. Agreeing that the practical benefits of the 7D were otherwise perfectly suited to our needs, I spent the year shooting as much as I could on DSLRs to see what the differences in the visual and technical approach would actually prove to be.

For the most part, many of the commercials and shorts I’ve done on DSLRs so far have called for the loose, improvised style that is now the quintessential 7D aesthetic: breathing focus, shallow depth of field and handheld. But none of this suited the style we had in mind for Vol de Nuit. We didn’t want to date the film or equate it with a look that is too current and overly reminiscent of the format we would be capturing it on. We wanted a very controlled look – classical, stark and precise. As we all now know, pulling focus and achieving pin sharp accuracy on DSLR still photography lenses is extremely difficult. So back in August I began talking to my friend Mike Reid about his new 7D, modified with a PL mount by Illya Friedman in LA at Hot Rod Cameras. The 7DPL with 35mm cine lenses was the system we went with and it worked beautifully.

VOL DE NUIT is the story about Karine (played by the brilliant Montreal-based actress Marilyn Castonguay), a young woman working for a catering company at an upscale reception and finding out that her father is in critical condition following a car accident. Karine gets caught stealing a guest’s purse in an attempt to find some fast cash for a trip home to her family in Quebec. Gauthier (Bernard Arène) sympathizes with Karine and helps her flee the scene.

This project had some amazing challenges. For one, we needed to light a two-level reception hall encased by 25′ windows at night (the Assembly Hall venue in Etobicoke – a tricky location technically but the most beautiful one we saw). The scene involved 35 extras, a wipe-out of champagne flutes and some indoor/outdoor window action. I needed to tie all of this visually with the dingy hallway and industrial kitchen of another location. To give the two worlds a very different feel, I used 1/4 Warm Black Pro Mist filters on the reception scene and very soft, warm light. We abandoned our filters for the bowels of the reception hall, shooting under our own overhead daylight fluorescent tubes and 3200K on the camera for the hallway and kitchen sequences. You can see the difference in these screen grabs, taken straight off of the raw footage:

I ended up grabbing a small set of Zeiss Super Speeds from Complete (25mm, 50mm and 85mm, as well as a 14mm that was used on some tracking shots in the narrow hallway, as seen in the garbage bag shot above). All interiors were shot ISO 100, and night car interiors/exteriors were shot at ISO 400. Here are some shots from our night car scenes, lit with the help of some soft tungsten and HMI lighting in the stationary scenes and a 9″ Mini Flo kit in the moving shots:

ISO 400, 85mm Zeiss Super Speed, f2

Much thanks goes out to 1st AC Alex Leung (who, like me and the guys at Complete, was also loving the ARRI follow focus and cine lenses on the 7D), Misha Petrenko for his care and his eye with our lighting, Jason McKendry and Cliff Ramnauth.

Can’t wait to see the finished product (and hear the score!) of what is bound to be a beautiful and elegant piece. Post-production will be completed at Technicolor in Toronto in February 2011.

I have begun shooting a short film called HAEDO with writer/director Darby MacInnis. A South American priest’s story is pieced together through flashback sequences, the first of which we shot in a custom-built confessional (made by production designer Jeannette Nguyen) on the Canon 550D (see my review here). So far I have nothing but good things to say about the workflow. I can shoot up to 48 minutes in 1080p and the small size of the camera allowed me to squeeze into our confessional easily, grabbing some beautifully abstract shots through the faux wrought iron window in our very low-key lit set.

S16mm footage will be shot to illustrate the story being told by the Padre in this scene- we’ll be playing with light leaks, flares, overexposure and overcranking to help depict his experience of these memories.

For now, check out some of the 550D screen grabs from day one:

 

I just wrapped writer/director Mark Allen Wilson’s short “Be Still” on the Canon 7D and am really happy with the loose aesthetic we achieved over the course of our  four-day shoot. The spontaneity behind our rough, moving, handheld coverage reads like the fragmented and meandering state of mind of the teenaged characters depicted in the film. We shot the project in Toronto’s Chinatown East, and our ability to grab discreet and genuine moments with our young cast in both very tight and very crowded public locations (the subway, grocery stores, weaving through floor-to-ceiling aquariums in a pet store, jaywalking through rush hour traffic) is proof that the size and portability of these little HDSLR cameras makes for a fantastic way to shoot in the city.

Screen Grab from the 7D footage of "Be Still"

Mark Allen Wilson came to Toronto from Los Angeles to shoot his short because he was intrigued by the energy of Toronto’s Chinatown on Spadina Avenue. When locations there did not correspond with the atmosphere we had in mind for the film, Joyce Wong, producer on the project and a native of Toronto’s East end, suggested we scout the Broadview and Gerrard area. This proved to have a much more local and intimate feel of an urban neighbourhood with a stronger sense of community.

The dynamism of the editing (Mark had an assembly going as we were shooting) combined with the fluidity of the camerawork creates a tone that allows the viewer to enter the headspace of our 15-year-old protagonist, who is feeling both alienated and apathetic in the bustle of his vibrant but aggressive surroundings. The story is simple, and the minimal dialogue creates an unsettling sparsity to the environment. In the film, the boy is to deliver a package from his father’s shop to another local business owner. On his way he is distracted by a couple of wayward girls who tempt him into an evening of procrastination and listless loitering that, in turn, changes the lives of his entire family. As the majority of the scenes are covered through moving close ups and pans between characters, the shallow depth of field achievable with the 7D makes for an incredibly claustrophobic and intimate feel in the footage- it works really well for a story about a boy living entirely in his head.

“Be Still” was captured in 1080p and I dialed in custom settings lowering the contrast to -2 while keeping all of my other picture settings neutral at 0. I wanted to retain as much detail in the blacks as possible, especially since many of our interior locations were dimly lit and our exteriors (all nights) were exclusively lit by fluorescents from store signs, store windows and overhead street lamps. On these night exteriors I set my ISO to 800 and shot wide open at F2. Subway scenes were shot at ISO 640, and our interiors varied between ISO 200 and 500 (I found in testing the 7D and T2i that anything over ISO 1000 tends to exhibit too much digital noise for my liking). You can see some screen grabs in an album I’ve created on my website. I used the Red Rock shoulder mount, but I must admit that the exceptionally light weight of the 7D made it more difficult for me to operate in a truly intuitive way; I prefer having more weight to the camera so that I can operate by moving into and out of shots with more force. Next time I would add weight to the camera either by attaching an onboard monitor, a large matte box or by simply using a heavier shoulder mount to give the camera that extra presence when operating.

I’m eager to see what Mark does with his cut and particularly with his sound design on this very visually-explored story. The film will be finished in Los Angeles by December this year.

OmniCam prototype at the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute

I was at a symposium at the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute in Berlin, where new prototypes in 3DTV and 180 degree shooting and projection were the main focus. There is no doubt that 3D cinema and television will become the standard eventually- right now it’s just a matter of bringing production costs down (the camera department on “Step Up 3D”, for example, had a price tag of $2 million). Wim Wenders, who was present at the Institute for the official unveiling of the panoramic cinema, will be the first to tackle 3D in a narrative drama.

3DTV in particular amazes me because it offers an experience so reminiscent of the physical world that 2D quickly seems merely representational in comparison. I say “3DTV in particular” because I feel that the technology is not intended to shock and impress us as much as the theatrical 3D films have been designed to do. I was surprised at how unostentatious the use of 3D feels in the context of regular programming (car races, a medical show, a crime drama, etc.). It sounds obvious but there’s no other way to put it: 3D just feels natural.

The 180 degree high-resolution digital theater was also incredible. The possibilities for both narrative and documentary filmmaking are exciting, but again, far too expensive for now. “Tomorrow’s Cinema” is a theater with a high-resolution digital 180-degree panoramic projection by Kinoton, and an IOSONO 3D sound system by IDMT (your experience of the sound mix differs depending on where you are in the theater). I love the idea of shooting with a 180 degree frame; it opens up more possibilities for concept-driven blocking and gives some freedom back to the audience to choose which part of a scene they are interested in observing. It’s also a much more active way of watching a scene unfold, as you need to physical turn your head to take it all in and catch something you might otherwise miss. Like 3D, this, too, is providing an experience a little truer to life than traditional projection. I think an interesting evolution in visual storytelling will come out of 180 degree shooting if it ever gets the chance.

The camera system, called the OmniCam, consists of six lenses and CMOS sensors, each sending data to a device that “stitches” the images together for monitoring. The seamless assembly is later finessed via the Kinoton’s seven projectors. Apparently there are talks with ARRI regarding the further development of this camera system.

Still from "The White Ribbon", lit by Christian Berger's CRLS.

“I produce more than just a reproduction. There is a difference between photographing skin and photographing soul. I need to like the people in front of the camera- then I can do more to support them with light.”

-Christian Berger, AAC

Yesterday at the Berlinale a really great seminar was led by renowned Cinematographer Christian Berger, AAC, whose most recent work can be seen in The White Ribbon. A long time collaboration with Michael Haneke has allowed Berger to continue working in a very naturalistic style, often using available and minimal lighting. During the talk he frequently emphasized the importance of providing physical space to the actors, a philosophy that explains his ability to design long, moving takes (with Steadicam, as seen in The Piano Teacher) or  minimalistic master shots that slowly reveal information or the essence of a situation.

It is this approach that inspired Berger to develop the B&B Cine Reflect Lighting System, an ingenious lighting solution based on reflectors of various textures and sizes used with a parabolic HMI “Panibeam” light. The unit itself provides a mere 1200 Watts, but the distance of the throw offered by the bounce material, called Paniflectors, is remarkable. Ultimately, the single unit can be redirected via Paniflectors to become any number of light sources of varying qualities and intensities.

Berger demonstrated how a mirrored Paniflector the size of a postcard redirected the light of the Panibeam unit (discreetly placed far from set in an adjacent alleyway) onto the rooftop of a neighbouring apartment building 75 feet from us. The benefits of lighting this way are obvious- less equipment, less power (the 1.2KW light can be run off of 15A household power, like any other) and, of course, greater emphasis on the ingenuity of a creative DP and crew (the rigging possibilities convinced us all that lighting this way was just much more fun). The lack of additional lighting units on set was particularly important to Berger when working with children on The White Ribbon. With his Paniflectors in place outside location windows,  illuminating each scene with soft bounced light, he was able to keep his interior day sets entirely free of any film lighting equipment whatsoever. Lighting through windows on otherwise inaccessibly high apartment buildings also becomes much simpler with this system. I’m eager to give the rental houses in Toronto a call about this as soon as I get back!

On a side note, a bizarre debate was sparked today when Georgian director/producer Rusudan Pirveli, a guest on a Berlinale panel, discussed shooting Red on her debut feature. She gave a piece of advice to the crowd and told us to stop insisting that we shoot 35mm film when trying to get low budget projects financed. This prompted an audience member to declare that the Film and HD formats are as far removed from one another as music is from painting. Regarding HD technology he argued, “This is not cinema.” Good on Rusudan for her reply: “Technology means nothing- what is becoming more important now is taste and talent.” Do we really still need to be having this conversation?

Stuart Hammill in THE CHESTER KIDS

Writer/Director Travis Ainley contacted me in May 2009 with an incredibly bold script called THE CHESTER KIDS. He told me he wanted to shoot it documentary style- improvised, handheld, available light and minimal film lighting- and on a shoestring budget. We would be shooting the feature film north of Toronto on Georgian Bay. Travis began talking references with me- Buffalo ’66, Dancer in the Dark, The Squid and the Whale, The Wrestler, Larry Clark’s photography- and I knew that his project was something I wanted to be a part of.

THE CHESTER KIDS, shot on the Red One over the course of 20 days, tells the story of two young men, Stu and Harry, best friends since high school who are now clinging to whatever remains of their disintegrating friendship in the years following Stu’s move from Chester.

Travis requested one thing of me from the get-go: “Don’t make the film too pretty.” It was great to reconnect with a rougher, more instinctual shooting style and not only feel free to experiment but actually be encouraged to do so by the director. The film was shot entirely handheld (by far my favourite way to operate) and the shallow depth of field in many of our scenes made for some beautiful improvised focus pulling by 1st AC Joshua Fraiman, allowing Travis and the actors immense flexibility in their blocking. Montreal-based Gaffer Simon Lamarre-Ledoux and I came up with some inventive ways of using our small lighting package (HMIs, Red Heads, small Arri fresnels), and most of the film’s night interiors were lit using only practical fixtures running 100W  and 150W bulbs. I stuck with ISO 250 for the majority of the day scenes and dialed in ISO 500 for night scenes.

Among the production convoy touring our many great locations in the small town of Stayner, Ontario and nearby Collingwood was a Winnebago equipped with a Baselight colour correction suite set up for our dailies and data management. Watching the film unfold on location helped us tremendously by enabling us to sift through the material we were getting on our tight shooting schedule.

The loose aesthetic combined with a sensational cast and courageous script make this one of the most exciting projects I have worked on so far. I’m incredibly excited to see the film once the cut is locked, and I can’t wait to revisit this project in the final colour grade.

SEE A TRAILER I CUT TOGETHER BY CLICKING HERE!

See an article in The Enterprise Bulletin about the shooting of The Chester Kids, including an insightful interview with our amazing producer Chris Agoston.

Director Zaheed Mawani and I spent some time in New York City and Chicago in June shooting footage for his new documentary project “Three Walls: a documentary about the Office Cubicle”. The film takes a humourous and poignant look at the changing shape of white collar work in North America. The style has been a pleasure to work with, as I have been picking up where other talented DPs have left off and continue to share the cinematography on the project with Jared Raab. The visual concept of the piece is to highlight the spaces in which people spend the majority of their adult working lives, the office cubicle, by placing the subjects within static frames composed for the office environment that surrounds them.

In New York we met with architects who lent us their insights on various office models and the psychological effects they have on employees. We also spoke with cube and pod workers, explored their workspaces and found surprising beauty and visual interest in their own personal corners of the corporate world. In Chicago we covered the NeoCon exhibit of office furniture and adopted a fly-on-the-wall approach to unveiling some of the latest innovations in office design.

Post-production on the documentary is expected to wrap in Winter 2010. In the meantime, here are some screen grabs of our scenes from New York City and an office furniture manufacturing factory in Albany, NY: