Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

The Secret To Delivering Great Images Within Tight Deadlines

Test Frame: Experimenting With Gels

Earlier this week I received news from my writer & director friend AJ Brooks that the short I DP'd for him won first place in last months DVXuser fest. To add a little perspective, this film was shot over two nights with a volunteer crew of five (AJ & myself count as 2 of that 5), and then edited and delivered it four days later. The news of this win reminds me yet again that the secret to great images with tight deadlines is not in using fancy gear and large crews, but it is in spending the time in preproduction developing a solid plan and testing it out beforehand.

Here are the two steps I took to set us up for success.

1. Work with the end in mind

For this project I knew I had two limitations: no budget and a tight turnaround. Those two factors drove a lot of the choices I would have to make for this project. Not having a budget meant that I would have to get creative. My crew would be small, and so would my lighting package. And having a tight turn around meant that I would not have time to grade the footage- what came out of the camera was what was going to end up on screen.

Practically speaking, this informed my lighting choices in the following ways:

  • I would need to keep the lighting setups small and only light what was absolutely necessary to see.
  • To create as much depth as possible, I would need to use light sources to do multiple jobs when possible.
  • The lighting instruments I was using would need to be easily moved and adjusted.
  • Because we had a large exterior to light, I would need to pre-light that on the night before the actual shoot (we had a lot of cable to run).
  • I needed to shape the light so I was happy with what ended up on screen, as I wouldn't have the time to do any formal grading.
  • Any "grading" that I was going to do had to be automated, so that it could be done while I slept in-between the two shoot days.
Stills From The Rehearsal
2. Use the rehearsal time & pre light day to conduct tests

To light the entire film, my entire lighting package consisted of: five- 4' MacTech 5600k LED tubes, two- 2' MacTech 5600k LED tubes, and one- 1' MacTech LED tube. (In total those lights only drew about 300w of power). I also had six- C-Stands, two- 4x4 floppies, one- Combo Stand, one- 6'x6' frame with light grid, and a 2'x3' flag kit.

Since I knew that this would be my entire lighting package, I began experimenting on the evening we had rehearsals. As AJ worked with the talent on blocking the scene, I carefully threw up the 2' tubes and roughed in the direction of the key light to see how that played on the scene (while doing my best to not disrupt the flow of rehearsals). This gave me a good idea of where I wanted the light to come from and how it interacted with the blocking of the scene.

With the direction of the light figured out, what I needed to know next was fill ratios, noise levels, and gel combinations to match the light of the lantern. But that would have to wait until the evening of the pre-light.
Test Frame: Fill Levels
Test Frame: Fill Levels
Test Frame: Fill Levels
The stills above are from the fill ratio test I did. The point of this test was to get a feel for what I wanted the fill ratios to be at for the film. In addition to this test, I also pushed the ISO up and down to see how it affected noise levels, and then I gelled the 1' MacTech to get it to match the lantern (image at the top of this post).

The last part of the testing was to figure out a "grading" workflow. We shot this film on the C100, and I knew that I couldn't hand over ungraded Log files, as there wouldn't be time for a proper grade. But I also knew that I didn't want to use the built in profiles either. So that's when I decided to create a look using FilmConvert and have After Effects auto apply the look to the Log footage and render out my one-light grade while I slept.

Fortunately for me, when I woke up my footage was graded- and the workflow test was a success. All I had to do was to send off the tests to AJ and talk over the results with him before we began shooting later that evening. With all of our ducks in a row, it was just a matter of putting the plan into action.

Delivering great images within tight deadlines doesn't always have to involve lots of gear and crew. The secret is in spending the time in preproduction.

What secrets can you share about delivering great images within tight deadlines?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!

If you are interested in watching the film, here it is:
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