We are back this week (and by we, I mean me and all of my readers, which before this post was probably like two people). Anyway, I posted on the great world of Reddit if anyone would be interested in technical breakdowns of low budget shoots, and I got an overwhelming “YES!” from my fellow Redditors, so I will try (really hard) to post at least one of these every week.
I’m frequently working in the realm of narrative films where what little budget the film has ends up either going into gear rental or crafty. So here we are! Strap yourselves in for a joyous ride that will probably be full of twists and turns because that’s just the way my brain operates.
DISCLAIMER: If you want to skip down past the camera-y goopity goo, and get into the lighting breakdown, scroll all the way down until you see the overhead layout.
If you read the previous blog post (you don’t have to, I’ll summarize it right here), you’ll know that we selected the C300 Mark II as the camera for this short film because of the speed, ease of use, and familiarity for me. We had a lot of setups and very little time on these shoot days, and this particular day was no exception.
I can already here some people saying: “But Ben, you said this would be low budget. That camera costs $500 a day to rent!” True, this is out of a lot of people’s budget when drafting up gear lists for short films, but I swear the information below will be helpful regardless if you’re shooting on a t5i or an Arri Alexa (okay, if you’re shooting on Alexa’s regularly, you probably have nothing to gain from what I have to say, let’s not kid ourselves here).
The location was an abandoned basement, made to look like a refugee camp during wartime. We had I think six hours to shoot I think a dozen setups. I have an oftentimes horrible memory.
Part of me likes the fast pace of short days. You’re sharp and in the zone the entire time, because there’s no time to waste. If you have a good crew, it prevents it from getting too stressful, and I always try to keep everyone from being too serious, but still maintaining focus. I can’t say enough how important it is as a DP to manage the morale of your crew. Much like a director, your crew is going to embody the work ethic and attitude of the DP, so as important as it is to be technically and creatively on point, it’s just as important to keep spirits high and remember that this is what we get to do for a living, and it’s a blast.
Back to the shoot.
We ran the entire day on my SHAPE Offset Shoulder Rig, which I don’t mind plugging because it’s just the best out there. We went with my Sigma 18-35mm (my go-to narrative lens) the entire day.
In camera, we were running a slightly customized C-Log2. There’s a base option, and then an option to run custom settings within that, so we ran C-Log2, BT.2020, and the Production Camera color matrix, which is the “Arri matching” picture setting, and indeed, simply throwing on an Arri LogC to Rec709 input LUT brings out a decent starting point image with these settings, which I was impressed by. Canon definitely stepped up their game from the original C-Log.
For lighting, we were using an old 1K open face (Mickey Mole), a Lekolite (can’t remember the wattage off the top of my head), a 300w, a couple of 150w’s, some foamcore for bounce/fill, natural daylight, and fog machines. Pretty minimal package considering the darkness of the room we were shooting in, and for the setup below, we only used two lights!
In my tests from the tech scout, I already knew the amount of level was going to be a hurdle. The base ISO of the C300 Mk II is rated at 800, and unlike the C100 series, you really shouldn’t be going over 800, especially in dimly lit situations. This is the first time I had ever worked with a true Cineon Log curve, and nailing exposure, or exposing for one stop over, is a must. You cannot underexpose log curves, because bringing the level up in post gives you all sorts of noise headaches. Even if you overexpose at the cost of a slightly higher ISO, I found this to be preferable, since that noise can be crushed back down in the grade. At least, I think this is the right way to do it? No one’s told I’m wrong, but no one’s told me I’m right either, so for now, I’ll just operate under this assumption.
On the day of, the film gods threw us a nice curveball by sending a storm our way, meaning the amount of light was cut down by a significant amount less than when I had scouted it in bright daylight.
For the shoot, we had a ton of different setups, but I’m going to focus on just one here. Our setup was fairly minimal, and I was really pleased with the end result, so here goes!
From the images, you can tell exposure was a tough battle (these aren’t the final grade, but they have a rough grade applied). All things considered though, I’m happy with what we captured.
So how did we get this look? With a godly gaffer, that’s how!
The conversation begins with the director and I. This was a scene, going all the way back to our first script breakdown meeting, that I just knew we had to nail, because it’s an emotionally strong moment for the female lead (Carmen), and such a powerful image in the context of the script.
We knew the mood of the scene, and from our location scout, we knew exactly where this scene was going to play. Placing them by a window was going to be crucial because we didn’t have a lot of sources to work with, and I wanted to give this a subtle silhouetted look to begin with. Windows are such a great way to get light when you don’t have much, so I always try to block closer to windows if I can when I’m short on lights.
My instructions for the gaffer were to keep the subtle silhouette of the two backlit by the window, and to punch them out ever so slightly.
If you look at the two shot, you can see that the window is playing a big role in this. It plays on the tops of their heads, the floor, the walls, etc. The Leko you can see hitting Carmen’s neck, shoulders, and back. The fill is super subtle in the wide, but it’s what’s giving them just this little touch of overall ambience, and you can catch it playing on the CU of the little girl on her right cheek (camera left). I believe we walked it in for that shot, since it was really far back for the wide.
There’s also a flag cutting off the lower portion of the window to reduce the glare coming from the window, and that combined with a bit of fog is what’s creating that cool-looking atmosphere behind them in the wide, and what gives them their silhouette against the background. Without the flag, the glare was way too intense, which I didn’t really think looked so bad until my gaffer threw up a flag to show me the difference. #GodBlessTheGaffer. It was a really quick last minute decision made right before rolling, and we since we had no time to rig it properly overhead with a stand out of the way of the shot, the C-stand holding said flag is actally sitting in the shot, hidden by a wooden plank we found, cleverly disguised as set decoration. Hehehe.
We also flagged off the wall a tiny amount on the CU of the little girl. As it was, the wall was sitting on a very close IRE to the exposure on the girl’s face, so we flagged off the wall a bit to punch her out more from the background.
Finally, we had two extras positioned in the background. I had them positioned against the wall so they would avoid any spill from the window or the Leko, keeping them in the background, and not distracting from the focus of the shot, which is the little girl and Carmen. I positioned our wooden post we found during the location scout into the edge of the frame to just provide a little extra detail as well.
Overall, this is an image I’m very proud of. I think it has a subtle look to the lighting, which is what looks more cinematic to my eye, at least. I think we had it setup in about 30 minutes. The gaffer had prelit a lot of it while we were shooting in a different area of the location, so we just tweaked once we got picture up and lit to taste from there.
Oh, another thing that I think is HUGE on shoots like this – set up your frame first thing, before anything else. Work with the director on finding the frame, and lock it in there and let everyone else work after that. When you have the frame up right away, everyone can see what’s coming next, so set dec can start arranging props, the AD can place extras, the gaffer and DP can light, the boom op can figure out where he/she needs to be, etc. It just help speed things up so much instead of just guessing what the frame might be. I’m still working on making this more consistent of a thing, but it does help a lot.
The biggest thing I’ve learned from watching professional DPs work is their attention to detail, and that’s such a huge part of cinematography. This was a good example of painting an image that tells a story, and making sure we had all the little things that make this image what it is. We did it with only the sun, two lights, and white foamcore! Just two lights, and some cheap foamcore you can buy anywhere. I want to stress how important that is, because, if creatively executed, you can do a lot with just a little bit, since a lot of us don’t have access to generators and 18Ks.
For me, low-budget shoots are all about making the most of what you’re given. I always stress how important it is that I attend the location scout, because so much of the image and the pre-production comes from seeing the location before we shoot. Had I not seen this place before coming to set that day, I would’ve been racking my brain figuring out where to place this scene, and we would’ve lost a lot of time we didn’t have.
Lastly, having a crew that has your back is huge. I just came off a shoot where my crew was so instrumental to the making of the images, and this shoot here was no exception. I’ll write another post on this later, but trusting your crew is big, as they will see things you don’t because you’ve got 800 other things racing through your head.
That’s all for today. I think I’ve done enough damage to your retinas for one day.
I’ll be back next time breaking down a super, super, SUPER low budget film shot on DSLR, as that was a pretty big request to see lighting breakdowns without fancy cameras or many lights. If these pick up speed, perhaps I’ll start doing video breakdowns as well, but for now, the written word will be the format of choice. I’m very open to suggestions, so please leave a comment letting me know what you think of this, what you’d like to see next, etc. And again, nothing I say here is gospel, so take it with a grain of salt from someone who only thinks he knows what he’s doing.
If you’re interested in keeping up with my work, please feel free to peruse the website at your convience, and follow me on Instagram, where I post lots of fun nonsense.
Thanks for reading!