Camera: RED Dragon 6k HD
Lenses: Zeiss Ultra Primes
April and May have been very eventful months! I was able to work with a lot of new people on projects ranging from more Napa Valley Wineries, to 24 hour fitness shoots. It was also the first time I took an actual vacation in years! Though, most of my vacation was spent exploring Kauai to take awesome photos. Besides that I had the opportunity to shoot one of the most challenging and funnest shoots yet for Daisy Cottage Cheese.
At first you wouldn't think much of it but the scripts were funny, the concept was hilarious, and it was a very complicated logistical adventure. Luckily I didn't have to worry about too much of the logistical stuff but I did have to figure out technical parts for lighting and camera. Luckily I have an amazing team with me so I wasn't nervous. This post is going to breakdown the process and maybe tell a few stories.
First off, we had the pleasure of shooting at 32 Ten Studios in San Rafael that used to be owned and operated by ILM. Industrial Light & Magic or ILM as people in the business know it, is responsible for almost all the visual effects of every major motion picture. Specifically this sound stage was used to shoot VFX for Star Wars, Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, War of the Worlds, and much much more!
We had our scripts and storyboard already done when I entered the project. Everything was very simple, 4 separate sets, 3 actors, and almost every shot was a whip pan into the shot and a dolly push in. Easy on paper but much harder to actually do on a decent budget. The main headache is the fact that every set is very symmetrical and when I whip pan into a set, I have to nail the mark every time. I also can't have any bounce when I come in and it has to be fast. We did 2 things, 1, shoot every commercial in its separate pieces and 2, shoot them again but in one whole take. The close ups and individual parts were a challenge alone so I knew the one take was going to be tough. I'll get back to that later.
For preproduction we talked out every shot, how big the sets should be, where we should place camera, and how we should orient the stages so they were relatively the same distance from camera any way i panned. I also talked to my gaffer Steve Griggs about either running everything off the ground on stands or building a grid and hanging lights. After talking about it more and more we decided the best option would be to do a combination of both. Steve wrong up this beautiful lighting design and we talked about the different options for lights but for the most part, this is what we ended up with. We did add kinos, a few bigger lights, and a couple different tweaks but it was basically this setup.
Camera Prep Day
We shot on my RED Dragon with Ultra primes. We had a 16,24,32,50,85,100. We also had my brand new Bright Tangerine VIV matte box, Teradek Pro 600, and 3 productions monitors. I was told the night before that client would be in the back room of the studio so I needed to find a way to get them a feed from crew's video village. I went out this morning to measure how many feet of BNC cable I would need to run while Steve Griggs and Steve Forbes figured out how much speed rail they needed to rig up our grids over the sets.
I ended up figuring out we needed about 200ft of cable. Now the big worry was if the signal would degrade because of how far we were running the feed. Our solution to this was to put my one teradek receiver in the middle and split it both ways but luckily we ran it 200ft from our video village and it worked perfectly. Lastly the other good thing about being at location was making sure the sets were where they needed to be. Our savory set was about 25ft wide in the front when the rest were about 19. This meant i was not going to have an even spacing for our one take. Luckily I was able to tell our awesome art department this and they made the adjustment accordingly. Our sweet set also needed to curve in more which we ended up moving even more on pre-light day.
Pre-Light & Set Build
The most exciting part about this shoot was shooting in a studio from scratch. The sets were built to our specs, we got to light it from scratch, and we controlled everything. I haven't had the chance to do this on any of my sets yet because most of the time we are in practical locations. I have done this many times though for my photography so I was fully confident in getting the look I wanted but on a bigger scale.
Doug Freeman, our art director, built the sets the day before we came into light. They weren't completely finished when we arrived the next day but their was enough for us to do while they finished. By the time we got to the end we still needed to make some tweaks but time was up so anything that needed to be adjusted was pushed until the next morning where we had an extra 2 hours to make last minute tweaks. Steve and I made a game plan for the next day and all was good.
Day 1 of Filming
If you're early, you're on time. If you're on time, you're late. If you're late, you're fucked. If you've ever worked in film, you should have heard this saying by now. Camera team likes to beat the producer and the rest of the crew to set most of the time and this morning we were ready. Call time was 8 and we were ready to go on set at 7:30 am. A little over kill but there was still a lot to do that day and we wanted to be prepared. The game plan was to shoot the sweet set first but sadly our makeup artist was in a car accident on the way to set so we went to savory who didn't really need makeup. Thankfully Emily was ok but for our G&E crew, we weren't 100% ready for the second set. We quickly lit it and made adjustments but it took us the full 2 hours. Our big problem was our sunset background, we were getting reflection off the front of it and we could also see the seams of the 3 sections. It took a lot of tweaking but we finally had it dialed in.
For those who've never shot with a background like that, it's basically a photo printed on a translucent paper so that when you shine light from behind it, it gets bright like it's real. This background was very large and hard to make 100% real but the sets were also made to look like sets. We started filming and everything went well. It took me some time to get down the whip pans in but I dialed it in so i could nail it about 80% of the time.
Our next problem was the sweet set. We thought we were going to have the first 2 hours fixing the lighting in that set but because we switched sets, we didn't have the time. The biggest problem we had was a shadow on the back wall. We had a chandelier hanging from a pipe that laid on top of the set. The problem was we saw the shadow of the pipe on the back wall. We were going to hang kino bulbs on the back wall to knock off the shadow but it was taking too long. I also had to be shooting photos of the Savory set for banners while we re adjusted lights in the sweet set and camera crew moved dolly and camera. We were all frustrated trying to time management and fix problems when we finally decided to hang the chandelier from the ceiling above. It was actually faster to do so then setting up the 3 kino bulbs. Luckily by the time I finished photos on the Savory set, everything was set for sweet.
The rest of the day we were a little rushed trying to catch up on everything we were behind on but the good news was once every set was lit, we would never have to light them again the second day. I sent everyone on my crew to lunch while I finished up the last scene. We finished the day strong and it was now time to reorganize how we were going to shoot the second day. We thankfully readjusted to shooting everything we needed from each set at one time. Moving the dolly for every set was a nightmare logistically and we came up with a good gameplan.
Day 2 of Filming
Day 2 was upon us and I was excited because I didn't have to worry about taking photos. We started powering through most of the sets. The part that took the longest was getting clients okay for certain shots or how the cottage cheese looked in the bowl. We went a little over lunch but that was ok. The hardest part of the day was coming up, the 1 takes. Day 1 after having some problems with nailing the whip pans in, we tried to come up with a solution for the one takes. I was on a nice sachtler fluid head but we thought a gear head might be ideal. Our friends at the camera house said they get theirs from LA but they also don't recommend it because there would be some wobble in how fast we wanted the whip. Next option was my Movi M15 but I was not confident that there would be no wobble. Lastly we tried a kessler motorized head but it sadly was for timelapses and was way too slow so the only option I was left with was nailing the shots. I think it only took me 3 rehearsals and i could nail it almost perfectly.
Earlier in the day I had also planned to switch to a wider lens and shoot at 6k with 5k guides. As long as the set was inside the 6k frame i could miss a little on the 5k guide. By the time we got to the last set up and started doing the one-takes we were very rushed and I completely forgot until midway through. Luckily I nailed it on the 4th time and from then i nailed it almost every time. As I said there were 4 sets so i had to start on set 1 and then it went 1-2-3-2-3-1-4. The hardest set was the 4th set. It was on the complete opposite side of the sweet set. Every time we got to the end of the take and I was nailing every whip you could feel the energy in the room get tense. No one was sure I would make that last whip. I have a great video my AC Joe shot of our director and AD watching monitor and reacting. One take i completely messed up the last pan and everyone, including me just lowered their head in disappointment but on the next take i nailed it. Though I forgot to switch lenses and have 5k guides, I shot 6k Full Frame with guides for 6K HD and still got the shot perfect in camera.
I'm happy to say it was a fantastic shoot and the entire crew killed it. FIlmmaking is a funny thing, when you're on set it's usually very stressful but fun. Sometime you hate every second of it because everything is going bad but even the worst times are better than sitting at home watching TV.
Nick Mahar is a Director of Photography based in Los Angeles & San Francisco.