Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Mario Directs and Shoots; The Secret Cross

"The Secret Cross" is a psychological thriller. Jimmy Stone has a burial cross on his property but doesn't know why. He's tried many times to go and look at it, but turns away each time not knowing why. His wife is missing and there is a psychopath that trespasses on his farm. I won't give away the ending but there are many twists and turns in this story.

Anthony Tullo, actor and co-director, called me to see if I was interested in shooting this film for him. The script seemed simple enough, but it took me 3 times to read it to finally understand the complicated twists that were involved. I was excited to shoot the film so I could test my abilities in ways they have never been tested. Could I figure out the best way to light, move the camera around, and direct talent so that all the twists and turns came about at a the right point the the movie? It certainly was daunting, but exciting nevertheless.

Anthony and I worked like a well forged team. Anthony played Jimmy Stone the lead character and to his credit, did a great job. We spent every Sunday for 4 months rehearsing with the talent and blocking for camera. These rehearsals paved the way for 1-2 take shoot. Rarely did we go to 4 takes. Everyone was bang on!!

Okay, now to the technical aspects. I used my Panasonic AF100 at 1080p full resolution. I recorded to a Ki Pro mini recorder that was attached to the HD-SDI port via bnc. I used my selection of Ai Nikkor lens(all fitted with focus gears for pull-focusing) 14mm all the way to 300mm. Through the shoot I maintained an f-stop of 4 so that the look would stay consistent. My main EVF(Electronic View Finder) was the new Zacuto EVF Flip(I swear buy this now). My sound technician, Sebastien Salm, recorded audio to the camera as well as to files on his computer as backup. Sebastien and Marius Madau were my camera crew alternating jobs between clapper-loader, focus puller, and DIT. A fairly small but tight team.

Jimmy Stone's farm is set in the Appalachian mountains but we shot in southern Ontario. We went to the Appalachians and shoot b-roll for a few days so that we could set the location in the film. That was an incredible 3 days. I also spent another week doing more b-roll footage of Mennonites driving their buggies in the farm country. On one Sunday, I lucked out and found a street called "Buggy Lane" in the Waterloo region. It was around 9am and there was a slight fog. I had the camera set up in hopes that I would get the penultimate mennonite buggy shot. Well the gods were looking down at me that morning. I had picked a cross roads were most of the Mennonites in this area travel trough to go to church. It was buggy mayhem. They were coming in from all directions, all at the same time. For me it was an hour of being lost in time. There were buggies with horses, a dirt road , corn fields and that's it - no other sign of modern life. For a few hours I was caught in a time warp and it felt great. I followed the last buggy up the hill to the church. There must have been at least 50 buggies and horses there all lined up in neat rows. Well, you know me, I continued to shoot. All in all, a very successful morning.

I also wanted to get shots of vultures circling in the air. My son Sebastien and I went out early one morning to see if we could do just that. Near a town called Listowel( Ontario) we found a field that had about 25 Turkey vultures just walking around. I got the camera set up with the 300mm lens and told my son to run into the field and get the vultures up and flying. He looked at me if I had given him a death sentence. He said, "...will they attack me?" I said, "Probably, but you're a tough kid now get out there." The dutiful son that he is, he turned, ran the 100 yards full tilt, and charged the vultures. I knew he wasn't in any danger and as it turned out they all flew and and started to circle in the air. We got the shot.

The main body of the shoot was done outdoors under the blazing sun. To try to soften the sunlight we used a lot of silk and soft reflector boards. The psychopath wanderer played by Jeff Joslin(MMA fame) required a different type of lighting technique. I wanted him to look sinister and mean so therefore, I used direct unfiltered sunlight. With his makeup, his facial features looked very rugged and direct sunlight accentuated his frightening look. When he pulled his front two teeth out( lost in one of his MMA fights), I really got frightened. I didn't know he could do that and it ramped up his psychopath look immensely.

What really surprised me was the large number of serendipitous events that occurred to help make this film a success. One event was the bottle of Limoncello. The main dinner scene was shot in an old barn which we made look like an country farm house. The bottle of Limoncello plays prominently in the script, but had been forgotten by the props department. We sent someone to find a liquor store nearby and purchase a bottle. We were shooting late and of course all the liquor stores were closed. Just then, one of the crew came in with the exact bottle that we needed. I asked him where he had gotten the bottle. He said, he found it in the basement of the barn. I couldn't believe it! We found exactly what we needed, in a barn situated between Paris and Brantford Ontario. The bottle was unopened as well. What are the chances of that? Gotta love serendipity!!

All in all it was a successful shoot. Check out the website; As I write this, we have planned to have a premiere at the Royal Theatre in Toronto on October 22, 2011.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Just wrapped this scifi pilot using my new Panasonic AG-AF100. This is a 4/3rds , 16x9, MOS sensor camera that you can use basically any lens out there using the appropriate adapter. I shot withmy extensive range of film Nikkor lens and was really pleased with the results. This camera is definitely not a DSLR. Basically it's a proper video camera that shoots filmic like visuals and records audio. There is no moire problems nor is there any artifacting that you find on DSLRs.

The AF100 is the first professional HD Camera to adopt the Micro Four Thirds standards announced in 2008. The “Four Thirds” name is derived froom the 4/3 type(17.3mmx13mm - approximately 0.68 in. by 0.51 in.) image sensor that allows for the use of interchangeable lens.
The 4/3 image sensor is the AF-100 series has about the same imaging areas, after being trimmed to a 16x9 aspectratio, as that of 35mm motion picture film camera. The depth of field and the focal range are also close to that of film cameras. The AF-100 records beautiful, shallow depth of field, film-like images which I’m always trying to achieve.

I’ve always been looking for a HD camera that would bring me back to my film days, where you had to think about stops, depth of field, and change lens to get a certain feel. This camera do that and more. I get the feeling that I’m shooting film even though I’m not. The camera does not have a dedicated zoom like most video cameras so when you want to change focal length, you have to change lens. By doing this, you have control of the depth of field.

The camera records full HD, 1080p, variable frame rate(VFR), using the AVCHD recording format to Apple Pro Res HQ. Boasting a compression efficiency that is more than double that of MPEG-2. In AVCHD-PH mode, the AF-100 is compatible with multiple HD formats, such as 1080/601, 1080/30p, 1080/24p and 720/70p. The new VFR supports full-HD (1920x1080) progressive mode using a 20 step under and over cranking ability. Also the PH mode suppors uncompressed 16-bit LPCM 2-channel digital audio recording for high-quality sound in addition to Dolby Digital 2-channel audio.

Now this is the really neat part of this camera. It records to internal SD cards(class 10 at 90mbs) but it also shoots out uncompressed HD/SDI. This means I can use an external recording device and the one I chose was the AJA KIPRO MINI. This recorder has the ability to record 422 imagery via the SDI out. The KIPRO records to Apple Pro Res HQ which is native to the camera so there is no conversion necessary in Final Cut Pro. It records to Compact Flash cards and since the images are uncompressed, they are naturally of high quality.

What I did on the NORBERT shoot was to record simultaneously to the onboard SD cards as well as to the KIPRO MINI which insured complete back up. The images to the SD cards are recorded in MPEG4 and require conversion to Apple Pro Res when using Final Cut Pro.

Other things I really like about the AF-100 are, 1) ISO setting from 200 to 3200, 2) the shutter speed can be set from 1/2 sec to 1/2000, 3) on board waveform and vectorscope displays, 4) controllable zebra patterns, 5) large viewfinder and LCD monitor, 6) HD focus assist, 7) HDMI simultaneous out with the SDI, 8) XLR inputs for two channels, and 9) settable user buttons. There are more things that I like as well, but aside from the great visuals this camera produces, these are the most important to me.

Norbert and the System

Director Mark Pitcher asked me do shoot a scifi pilot based upon a pulp fiction book written in the 30’s. The story is about a world society that is totally plugged into the “system” via small unit imbedded in their backs. These units do everything for them from control their body temperature, give them vitamins and drugs, and control their moods. Everyone is hooked into an internet type system via the goggles they wear. They are not being controlled by anything sinister or governmental organization, but are all tapped in together. Everyone is called a “Shopper.” Shoppers, via their goggles, are provided with a constant stream of every kind of information you could imagine from new products, to mail, to the thoughts of the girl across the bar. Shoppers get these devices implanted from a young age, and they never turn them off. Until Norbert. Norbert asked a seemingly simple question, “Can I have a off switch?” There has never been an off-switch for personal control units. Norbert becomes an instant world wide celebrity since no one on record had ever had an original thought and since this is a free society, Shoppers get what they want. I’ll stop here since I don’t want to give the ending away.

Here you can see the attached control units.

In this shot the patterns on the walls will be CGI- TV monitors showing ads for products.

Mark and I discussed how much CGI and special effects were going to happen in post and he said pretty much every frame. So I had to design the lighting accordingly. I shot 1080p at 30 frames a second. I used my Nikkor primes - from 14mm(rectilinear) to 400mm all attached with follow focus gears. All dolly moves were slower than usual so that Mark would have better visuals for his CGI. I used my Panasonic 17 HD broadcast monitor to check colour and a Panasonic 8” HD monitor mounted on camera. Again, since so much of this was going to have specials effects, I had to make sure that colour and exposure were bang on. I calibrated both monitors to match and off we went. What really amazed me was the uncompressed visual quality out of the HD SDI port. I had used the 17 in. monitor a lot with other cameras, but the detail coming from the AF100 was astounding.

Mario and his new AF-100 rig. This rig will go from tripod to shoulder in seconds.
I will be testing out the new Cineroid Electronic View Finder(EVF) in the coming weeks. It uses the HDMI out from the camera and can also use the RCA out for backup purposes if needed. If it works out, I'll add it to my kit.