Enchantments Day 5 (and the rest of it) – Part 2

Ah, me.

It’s Friday, September 27th, and I’m sitting at the financial center with a cup of coffee, my ipod, and my computer. The Dust Brother’s soundtrack to Fight Club is what I’m listening to at the moment.

I got sleep last night. I rested all day. I played Call of Duty, I got food for dinner, I took a nice walk.

Content sigh.

All of this adds up to one thing, and one thing only. Principal photography on Enchantments is done.

If I were a heroin junky I probably would have OD’d this morning.

That’s not to say I didn’t have a good time. I did. In fact, after just two years of being a self-taught DP, I just shot my first feature. I’m feeling pretty good, albeit the anxiety, nightmares, and general unease have not departed.

Now, that’s not to say that Kelsey wasn’t insane for picking me… truth be told, that remains to be seen. When I have a blog post that simply has a headline with ‘GOODBYE’ in it, you’ll know something’s wronger (?) than usual.

Let’s get back to Day 5. The first party.

At this point we’ve been up for about 4 hours or so, give or take. Frank (our PA) and I have to black out the windows in the apartment because this party takes place at night, and the sun is creeping in. We grab some industrial strength tape, some black garbage bags, and get to work.

Shooting inside of the apartment is kind of a pain. We’ve got 11 actors and 5 crew (including myself) in this tiny space. Luckily, it’s a quick scene. A couple of shots, a couple of foley grabs, not too painful. The problem for me was the lighting.

Kelsey and I went to go check the place out before we shot, but without the opportunity to have, say, 5 hours with the place, at night, and with some actors or ethnic stand-ins… it can kind of be hit or miss.

I say ‘ethnic stand-ins’ because lighting a party that has both white and black people, and shades in between, can sometimes be difficult. If this were a sequel to Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, I wouldn’t have fretted so much. But it wasn’t.

I mean, it isn’t. This is not a Nazi exploitation film. It could have been, but Kelsey has her vision.

So, we get there and I’m trying to think ‘mood lighting, John. Mood lighting.’

Well, the cheap 60 watt bulbs I’m putting up with clamp lights are casting shadows that are reminiscent of Hammer films more than anything else.

This is not a Hammer film. It could have been, but…

So, I try another tactic. Available lighting. There’s a pretty heft bulb blazing above us in the room. High ceilings… it’s not looking too shabby. We still get shadows under the eyes, nose, and chin. These happen, but not as drastic as with the clip lights. What it set was a kind of mood, and, with no real time to set up, it’s actually better than I thought it was going to be.

It’s not Nazis or vampires, but it’ll do for now.

I’m gonna take you way back now, for a moment. In September of 1991, before the internet, I went to SVA to become a comic book illustrator. At SVA they make all first years have the same classes together. So, you pick a group, you stick with it for the entire year. I can’t say why they do this, but I think it’s because there are a lot of transplants coming from all over, and it’s easier to make friends that way in the big bad city.

Well, that first year, I met a couple of guys who are still my friends today. Jeff and Thane. Jeff lived on 2nd Avenue and 5th Street, and was the strangest, coolest guy I’d ever met. Thane was a laid back dude from Colorado who is probably loving their pot laws these days. Both are very talented artists.

One day I’m over at Jeff’s place with Thane and this guy John Slater, another SVA student. It’s late. Super late, and Jeff decides to pop in a VHS (yes, this was before DVDs too, jesus christ) of the funniest goddamn thing… Ren and Stimpy.

Now, it’s an east village one bedroom, so it’s small. Jeff’s girlfriend at the time was sleeping in the next room, and had to wake up early, unbeknownst to us. The short Space Madness comes on, and we lose our minds.

I laugh so hard I have to ask him to stop the tape because I can’t breath.

Suddenly, Jeff’s girlfriend comes out of the bedroom, grabs him, drags him into the bathroom, and screams at him.

We leave quietly and not so quietly. Saying “busted” to your friend while his girlfriend has him by the throat is probably not the best way to make an impression.

Now, I can’t remember if this was the first time I’d been at his place or not, but what I remember was, Jeff had these long fluorescent bulbs that had colored gels over them in the corners of his room. He was a big pot smoker, amongst other things, and loved to set the mood for that particular activity.

Those lights have been in a small corner of my brain ever since. They did wonderful things to set the mood of a room, and I’ll be damned if those lights didn’t come into my brain when I saw this guy’s apartment for this shoot.

The problem was, A) we didn’t have any more money to spare. B) I had no idea how it was going to look on camera.

Suffice it to say, I didn’t get a chance to use those lights, but they inspired me to think of something else we might use in the store.

Christmas lights.

But I’ll get to that.

With the first party finished, we took the bags on the windows down and started cleaning up our host’s roof deck for party #2.

We added 5 actors, had 11 costume changes, and some set direction to do. Luckily it was a nice and sunny day on a roof deck that faced North. I was able to shoot everything on my 24mm 2.8 lens with a nice hard depth of field, so that most things were in focus.

All good.

We get to shooting some MOS (without sound) shots, and get into these two tracking (follow) shots of the main character. And, I have to say, they’re looking pretty good.

Until…

Let’s take you back a little over a year or so. In March of 2012 I went out in the early morning to try and catch a sunrise on the Brooklyn Bridge. It was very early and I was inspired to try and shoot anything and everything.

I shot a bunch of footage. The sunrise was shit, but I was happy to be out and about.

As the daylight got better, I got some shots of buildings, just in case. Think of it as b-roll I could just have, you know?

When I got home to check it out, something strange happened to shots of brick buildings. A wavy look to the footage, as if the camera could not figure out what it was photographing.

A little bit of research led me to what’s called moire and anti-aliasing.

Moire is essentially a pattern that the camera can not focus on correctly, and shows up as waves. This can happen with inanimate objects and clothing, particularly clothing with a tight knit pattern, like on suits or… a lady’s dress.

I sit down and start looking at a particular shot after we yell cut. One of our actresses, Johanny Mota, who I worked with on Internet Affairs, was wearing a very nice dress that had a nightmare moire issue.

It looked like her dress was made of ants. Here’s a photo (click for a larger one):

You can see the slight banding on the back of her dress. It’s easier to see in video form, but take my word for it. Even on the small viewfinder, it was not something I wanted to see so prominently.

I told Kelsey we had to re-shoot it. I felt bad, but it’s not a pleasant thing to have in your film. It’s distracting, and you don’t want that.

So we did the new shots and the day was saved! The light from outside did not bother us one bit, thank god. No direct sunlight, which is a severe pain in the ass to shoot with.

We got in a nice group photo and wrapped that location without much to-do.

So, we’re gonna move on from the party, and I’m going to give you a general idea of how the rest of the shoot went.

But let’s get back to Christmas lights.

After we did our initial light test in the store, there were two areas that I thought needed some help.

Keep in mind, there are lights EVERYWHERE in this place. For me, that was fantastic news because that meant we weren’t going to have to go nuts renting lights. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have. With a larger budget the lights in the store would never have been much of a factor… maybe. I say that coming from the place of a small child lost in the woods saying ‘we should go this way!’ and following a bunch of bear tracks.

I could be right… maybe?

Lights. Man, we had a bank of 5 and a bank of 4 at the front of the store. A bank of 3 in the middle, and then two standing lamps and two ceiling lights in the back.

But there were two areas that looks like they could use something extra. One was the fragrance oil bottles at the back of the store. The second was the book shelves at the front, which we’d be seeing plenty of over the course of the film.

Here’s a test shot that shows you the kind of atmosphere those tiny lights helped achieve:

It helped add some dimension and, for these shallow depth of field shots, some cool circle light patterns.

We’ll see if it works in the end. Sometimes they were a pain because of lens flare.

This is not a JJ Abrams film.

So! Let me break down what we accomplished over the course of the last 3 weeks or so.

With an AD (Sibyl), a script supervisor (Mark), a PA (Frank), a sound guy (Nick or Jose), our cast, and two people in way over their heads, we shot 91 pages in 10 days, plus one re-shoot day.

Four of those days, including our re-shoot day, were half days.

With an ultra low budget, and the majority of people on set not getting paid, this is one of those recipes for disaster type scenarios where things should have been going wrong left and right.

But they didn’t. Not really, and if they did, we solved the problems without too much difficulty.

We had no suicides, no murders, no assaults… all positives.

It was quite an interesting and positive experience. I learned a ton, as I’m sure most people involved did, too.

I’m thankful for the feelings I had that so much faith was placed in me. That’s a wonderful feeling to have.

Kelsey and I still have to get back to the store to shoot some additional b-roll for the credits and for inserts here and there. Shouldn’t be too much of a pain.

What will be a pai… challenge will be editing this film. I’m not going to get into the particulars, but let’s just say I’ll have no shortage of blog posts over the coming month.

I’ll leave you all with something funny that happened to me this past Monday, the 23rd. For many years I’ve been playing in a pool league. I took a season off earlier this year, joined a new team I didn’t quite fit in with, and found myself on a completely different new team, in a division full of people I am friends with. Great.

On Monday, one of my teammates was talking about a project he was working on. He’s a director/producer something something at Bloomberg News. Cool.

I got to talking about this project, and started sharing some of the issues we were having… but ultimately talked about the good things. Kind of.

He asked me some cinematography questions, including a question about lighting. “What kind of kit are you using?”

Yeah. We’re not. The place is full of fucking lights.

“You’re not using a light kit? No kino-flo’s or nothing?”

Nope. Budget wouldn’t allow for it.

“That’s a mistake.”

TELL ME ABOUT IT, JACK!

“Yeah, I mean, do you even have a ring light?”

A… what the hell is a ring light?

“Are you kidding?”

YES! No.

“A ring light is a light that allows for bouncing off of the eyes. Makes it seem like actors eyes aren’t all black, like a doll’s eyes.”

I hear ‘doll’s eyes’ and all I’m thinking of is:

Ok, ha ha, but shit. I don’t have a fucking ring light. No one ever said anything about a GODDAMNED RING LIGHT.

“So, wait, you’re just using the lights in the store?”

Yeah, man, they’re everywhere.

“But… what about a back light?”

Jesus fucki – what in the hell is a back light?

“Are you serious?”

I DON’T KNOW ANYMORE!

“A backlight is one of the three basic lights in 3-point lighting.”

Do you mean a hair light?

“Well, it’s not just for hair.”

Yeah, man. We have one of those. It’s great. It lights up the hair, the back, the fabric on people’s clothing, it’s awesome. Because the store is full of lights!

Anyway. After that conversation, I raced home and checked the first piece of footage I found that was inside the store. What do I see? Like 7 lights hitting the eyes of one of the characters. There’s light everywhere.

But it’s interesting that he mentioned something (not that interesting because I don’t know all that much) that I didn’t think of before. Never even occurred to me. I’m looking at ten different things while I’m setting up a shot, and I have to learn to create a mental checklist of all the things that I need to remember.

1 – focus

2 – are the lav mic’s visible?

3 – is the boom casting a shadow?

4 – can I see the actor’s faces clear enough?

5 – what’s visible in the background?

6 – am I getting any lens flare, and if I am, where’s it coming from?

7 – what’s happening in the background?

8 – DO THE ACTORS LOOK LIKE DOLLS?

9 – am I going to cast a shadow on anything?

10 – am I going to trip on something?

And so on.

I’m sure there’s more to add to the list, but my brain has decided it’s time to check out at this point.

Thanks so much for reading. The Enchantment’s adventure continues on Monday, when we begin our edit.

John

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Enchantments – Day 5 – part 1

Kill me.

Nah, just kidding.

Day 5, Saturday, started out just like any other day.

On Friday I woke up at 6am so that I could get up in time to get to set Saturday morning at 3:30am.

AM.

AM.

Now, sure, we all have our stories about getting someplace early. A life-saving or possibly life-ending surgery. Packing up all of your belongings because you’re broke and have to make the 15 hour trip back to your parents house in a car Vegas wouldn’t put odds on to make the trip. Preparing for the breakfast rush at McDonalds.

We all have our crosses to bear.

I fought tooth and nail to stay awake Friday. The urge to take a nap was overwhelming at one point, and I thought I was hallucinating a talking pillow who kept saying “Look at what you’re missing out on…” and then he would wave his little hands in front of his pillow body.

I beat that pillow senseless and stayed awake until 8pm or so. I went to sleep, tried to stay asleep as best one can, and was interrupted a number of times from a cat who was clearly beside himself with the desperate sense of loneliness. You can only ignore a cat for so long.

At 10:30 I consoled him as best I could and woke up at 2am trying to figure out why I couldn’t breath. Doc, my cat, was laying by my face and I’d rolled into him. My phone alarm was going off and I couldn’t see it. Then I couldn’t understand what it was. Then I tried to figure out how to turn it off.

You get the picture.

I got up and turned down the sun dial on my computer monitor, which seared my retinas and blinded me to the fact that I shouldn’t be awake. I was now awake, and in pain. The brain is a fucker when you wake up. Everything that’s supposed to listen to the brain to function… there’s a big revolt around 2:15am.

Food doesn’t taste right. Water tastes soapy and feels like it has tiny worms in it. Colors are completely messed up and so things look rotten and… you get the picture.

I packed up my gear the night before, double checking it. I did another check, ate, watched part of a horrible film, Dead Man Down, and finally got out of my apartment in sort of one piece.

I have the following equipment with me on shoot days. My camera, batteries, cards, 3 lenses, other accessories, tripod, fig rig, light stand, two tota lights, cables, laptop, my messenger bag full of shit, and a bag of clip lights and bulbs.

I’m walking out of my apartment complex looking like a fashionable hobo, again. Carrying all of that stuff, I have to kind of limp out. The security guard is busy playing games on his phone, too busy to get the door. I grunt past him and get a ‘morning’ that is more auto response than anything else.

Ha! The jokes on him. He’s working at 2:30 in the…

I get a bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll and grab a taxi.

Now, a few words about the location we’re going to. Our director Kelsey and I went out to the lower east side on a Sunday (I think) about a week before to check out the place where we could film this shoot. I got there about 20 minutes early and found THE MOST PERFECT SPOT. A half block of scaffolding, out of the way and perfectly lit in the middle of the night. I could not believe our luck. It was around the corner from our main location for the day, and I would not have to worry about lighting.

I’ve lived in New York City basically my whole adult life. I’ve seen scaffolding pretty much every day I’ve been here. I asked a guy who lived across the street from the scaffolding how long it had been up on the building it was attached to. He said at least 6 months.

Now, as I was moving towards the location, I started to realize that we were shooting this on a Friday night slash Saturday morning. This did not occur to me when we were figuring out our schedule because our main location (an apartment with a roof deck) could only be shot on a Saturday morning, and when you’re trying to shoot a film you try your hardest to cram in what you can.

As I’m traveling to the location, the streets of the lower east side were packed with people.

I was concerned to say the least.

I get out of the cab and walk to the location. I see familiar landmarks like the stand-up MRI place and the coffee shop on the corner.

What I don’t see are the building or the scaffolding. They’re both gone.

It’s about this time that I start laughing like a guy off his meds. The city of New York has never been efficient at anything in recent memory. But in a week they were able to not only take down and remove the rubble from an entire building, but take the scaffolding down that we so desperately needed/wanted.

Frank, our PA and all around savior shows up and says “This is a great spot.”

Poor, poor Frank.

I leave him with the stuff and walk down the block to see if I can get some decent lighting from available buildings. Kelsey shows up.

“This isn’t the spot.”

It is.

“There’s no scaffolding.”

I know.

“This isn’t the spot.”

This went on for five minutes. I show her a spot across the street and we head over with our script supervisor Mark to do some lighting tests.

There’s a stretch of about 20 feet that we can use that Kelsey is satisfied with. Great.

Our other star gets there. We start prepping, and we start shooting.

Now, I don’t know a ton about shooting outdoors at night, but we rented the 24mm 1.4 lens for exactly this reason. We’re getting a nice image with the ISO ramped up to either 800 or 1000. I don’t want to go more than that because the image will just be grainy.

Problem is, I’m having DOF (depth of field) issues. For one scene I have to pull focus. It takes a bunch of takes. For another scene I’m getting soft focus because I simply can’t tell the difference between right and sort-of-not-right.

And times a wasting. And it’s cold out. And windy.

We have two shoots we have to do while it’s dark out. By the time we wrapped that location, we were about 35 minutes behind schedule.

Second location.

We’re there at about 6am and we pass our first East Village puker of the night. I stop the group and try and steer them around. There are puddles of it. Fun times.

We get to the location and the lighting is bad.

Two of those big bulbs were out. It’s like the movie Gods are fucking with us just enough for their own amusement, to make us think on our feet and compromise to get the shots down.

We move down the block and I see a tinge of blue in the sky. Further down the block everyone looks like they have jaundice. Fixing the color temp on the camera looks weird. The sky is turning and we’re running out of options.

The one place that looked like a nice balance was in the middle of the street. We do a test, and the way everyone’s heading, it doesn’t work. Danielle, who’s one of our co-stars, says “What about if we walk the other way.” I take a look at it, curse inwardly for not thinking that, and say “Sure, I guess.” The shot looks pretty darn good, if memory serves. Danielle is not getting B-camera or lighting credit.

We get the shot, almost get run over a handful of times, and move on into the apartment on time at 6:30am. It’s clearly morning… or early evening, which works just fine.

Now, the same night we checked the area for good lighting, we went to this guy Will’s apartment on 11th Street. It’s small, but nice. It’s also got a killer roof deck. But, again, it’s 6:30am, and the party takes place at night. We need to black out the windows in the apartment (thankfully accessible from the roof deck). Frank and I leave to get some black garbage bags.

By now it’s quite bright out. East 11th Street grabs a lot of morning day light. Luckily, the roof deck opens out North. No harsh lighting problems for us, I’m thinking, when it comes time to film the day party.

And I have to say that at this point we’re pretty damned lucky. We haven’t fallen behind. We’ve had to compromise every once in a while, but not to the point of sacrificing much. We’ve been getting good takes from our actors, and I haven’t failed miserably in the lighting department. Yet.

We get back, black out the windows, and fill this tiny 10×10 room with 14 people. It’s not a complex scene, but it’s tight quarters with some simple mood lighting.

Doing party scenes are strange. If you were to watch a party scene in a film, and then see how it’s filmed, you’d be surprised. At least, I was, until someone showed me what happens.

Everyone at the party is quiet, mock talking. The noise of the party is recorded separately, and then added on in post. Seems so simple.

We get through that pretty quickly… then we start prepping for outside.

More people, more problems.

It’s 7:40pm on Wednesday. I’ve been editing other projects and trying to play Call of Duty, to no avail. I have to get to sleep in a little over an hour for a 5:30am call time.

I’m exhausted, so I’m gonna do this day in two posts. Be back on Saturday for the rest, and an update on the last week!

John

Enchantments – Day 2

It’s Sunday and I got an email from director Kelsey O’Brien saying the footage that we shot on Saturday looked good. So, I took a chance and looked at it.

I have this terrible habit of not looking at footage until I’m done shooting. So many things can go wrong between setting up a shot and actually shooting it. Lighting, forgetting to white balance, soft focus.

So, I looked at interior shots that we did on Saturday. Most of the shoot day took place outdoors, and I was happy with that footage, but this being the first time we shot footage INSIDE the store Enchantments, I was concerned, to say the least. The majority of the film takes place inside the shop.

First and foremost, lighting. I have not had to deal with staging lighting to any kind of real degree in any of the projects I’ve worked on. What lights I do own, and what was available to me, served me reasonably well up until now.

Tackling lighting is kind of frightening… to me, at least. It makes or breaks a scene, and, unless you’re shooting noir footage, it should be as subtle as possible. I knew coming into this feature that I would have to concentrate greatly on lighting.

The store itself has some nice lights in there, and I brought two clip lights with 75 watt bulbs to help fill in faces. We’d done some test footage, you can see it here:

https://vimeo.com/72739558

The scenes we shot Saturday took place at a different part of the store. I’d shot some photos, and they were good, but I thought they too warm. I ended up purchasing some purple and pink gels from B&H. Never bought them before but I thought, since this is supposed to be a magic shop, cool and mystical coloring would be better than red/orange/warm.

Not to mention, when I did the test footage, I did not shoot the footage with custom white balance. So, the cameras default white balance setting was warmer than normal, and not to be relied on.

On my 7d, the profile I’m shooting with is flat, so that I can do more with color correction when I edit.

Now, the reason I was concerned was, we had 52 camera movements over 9 scenes that we had to shoot in 6 hours. There was very little time for me to try and perfect the lighting in the indoor scene. First time shooting there, crazy schedule… you see where I’m going.

Here was our first shot:

Click on it to see a larger version (you can do that with most of these photos I’m linking to.

Here is the color corrected version:

This first scene was shot at 6am, due to an actor needing to get to work. Plus, as I mentioned, scheduling. Shooting that early presented its own problems. Specifically, it’s fucking dark out at 6am.

What this prevented was showing depth in the scene, due to the fact that the darkness outside blended with what darkness there was inside the store (particularly in the background).

On top of that, the darkness outside allowed what light reflections there were in the store window to become that more apparent.

First and foremost, too many bulb reflections.

Red circled lights are store bulbs that might have been able to be moved.

Blue circled lights were lights that were helping, kind of, but should have been shifted so that they were not in awkward positions, or as harsh.

Green areas were areas that should have been illuminated with lighting to provide depth.

On the corrected version you can see the blacks are crushed a bit. I can lessen that up later, particularly when I start using FCS Color for correcting, but I figured I would check the interior shots now with FCPs 3-Color Correct just to see what’s what.

Now, this is an establishing shot and will be on screen for all of five seconds. That’s not an excuse. It just means we don’t have to reshoot this particular scene. It’s also a great learning experience for future shoots. There’s now a moratorium on shooting wides before 8am.

Here are two over-the-shoulder shots on the two characters that were in this scene.

Original.

Corrected.

Original.

Corrected.

You can see the purple from the gelled 75 watt bulbs helping out a bit, here. But the images are going to need some help in terms of warmth, and I might need to lessen the purple light during future shoots.

But, I’m happy with them. Another 10 minutes or so and I would have removed the glare behind Dusty (top right), and added a stronger hair light to Cat. All good to know now.

Regardless, it was a good day. We got all of the shots in, and had a good rhythm going.

Rhythm.

Jesus, that word will never not look weird to me.

Our next shoot at the store is a full day on Tuesday. 8 scenes, 62 camera movements. We’ll have to shoot many of the scenes out of order, so that I’m not constantly changing the lights. I think that will help speed things along greatly.

Thanks for reading!

John Painz