Over the last couple of years I’ve tended to look at films from more of an aesthetic point of view. A flimsy plot or far-fetched story is easily forgivable, in my opinion, if the film looks amazing. Conversely, a gripping story and/or great performances I find hard to watch if the cinematography is bland or poor. As this year we had to undertake two major secondary roles as well as our own films, I wanted to put my new found enthusiasm for operating the camera to good use and try my hand at D.O.P roles.
At the start of the year Sam Wain and I had bought a Panasonic Lumix GH4 with a Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 lens and a metabones speed-booster – giving us an extra f- stop and reducing the crop factor. I hadn’t had a massive amount of practice before the secondary roles became available, so I spent some time playing around and experimenting. I was used to the Canon D range and had plenty of experience with my own 600d and the university 7d’s – but this and the Black Magic’s we were able to use this year are a level above.
I managed to secure 2 films as a DOP this year. The first was a music video for Hip Hop artist King Kofi, directed by Fred Iyeh. The shoot was due to start in early February but due to production issues was heavily delayed. It was frustrating trying to keep enthusiastic about a project and keeping a creative outlook when delay after delay keeps occurring. Although these issues were no fault of Fred’s, the work load of my own film was stacking up, making it even harder to find time for the video. Eventually Fred changed his producer and immediately things started moving again. By early March we were having positive meetings and his new producer, Amnah, got things back on track.
Fred’s video was to be narrative based and would follow the lead character and artist as he struggles to get over a previous break up. After talking with Fred we decided that a mixture of slow mo and regular speed footage would suit the film nicely. The video was to be split into 2 shoot days, the first of which would be the party scene where the protagonist witnesses his ex at a party. As there are elements of flash back, it could be used as an identifiable feature to distinguish between past and present. The slow mo would be easy, so long as it didn’t involve lip syncing, which, it didn’t. The Black Magic only shoots 30fps so is not able to shoot slow mo. You can slow the footage down but this skips frames and looks poor. In any case, it was my job to achieve as much as possible with the camera. I advised Fred that we could use my GH4 as this can shoot full HD and 4k at 96fps, allowing a smooth image. Fred was unsure exactly what speed he wanted so I would shoot at 96fps which would allow him to use that as a minimum speed that could be increased to suit. Before we would shoot the dramatic elements of the video, we would shoot in the TV studio at university. Fred wanted a master shot of the artist performing the track from start to finish in close up. It was pretty simple stuff – I set up two rotalights, each at opposing 45 degree angles to the subject and moved him away from the black backdrop, turning the house lights off. I adjusted the settings on the lights so one side of the face was lit warmer and brighter than the other – creating slight shadow and definition across his face. The opposing light filled the spots that were too dark with a whiter light- creating a slight contrast. We shot various focal lengths and position and experimented with camera movement.
The tone of the music is fairly melancholic and contemplative so we aimed to match the visual aesthetic. I wanted to avoid using to much artificial light where possible, although this obviously would not be possible for the night party scene. I visited the location with Fred a few days before the shoot to have a look around and map out the shots. The room we had for the party scene was rectangular and had floor to ceiling mirrors along one length and floor to ceiling windows along the other. Clearly this was an absolute nightmare environment in which to shoot with light bouncing around everywhere and the possibility of lights/camera/crew being visible in the shot. I suggested to Fred that him an Amnah find some black bedsheets and cover the mirrors and drape some fairy lights over it to make it less bland. The window would be less of a problem as the light source within the room would be minimal enough to cause a distinguishable reflection. We were shooting outside of the room for the intro to video where was a large decking area. In the corner was a wooden bench arrangement and nearby were some potted plants. There was no light outside so I suggested that we turn on the lights inside to slightly illuminate the area but it was still to dark. The LED Rotalights would be ideal to light the scene – as long as they were set to a yellower colour temperature. I spoke with Amnah about buying enough fairy lights to decorate the outside area as well because it looked pretty bland. If the lights were behind the characters and I shot using a low f-stop, it would give a nice bokeh effect where you could see the lights glisten, appearing larger and hexagonal. I also suggested placing candles around the area to justify shooting with a warmer colour temperature, if not to light the scene.
When it came around to shooting we had various issues. The initial plan was to go handheld and follow the character along a corridor where he has an exchange with another man. The walls, though, were clinical and sterile and the shots looked bland and uninteresting. Further still, the lights were timed and censored meaning they kept flickering on and off and from white to yellow. It wasn’t a great start. There was lots of waiting around for the evening to arrive and the darkness to fall for the party scene. All the invited extras were 2 hours late so we finally got shooting around 9pm. The plan was to get to central London that evening to shoot another scene but it just wasn’t going to happen. Fred wanted to shoot 39 shots between 14:00 and 22:00. From the get go I voiced my concerns but it was more out of time restrictions and necessity than naivety. Either way it was wishful thinking. Alex was on set as gaffer and did a great job lighting. We did the best we could with the location but, there was a lot of pressure to get the shots quickly. We wrapped at 23:00 and ditched the evening shoot, instead rearranging for the evening of the next shoot day.
A few days later we had 3 locations to shoot in the afternoon and evening. The first two shots were in Camden and would involve the character sat outside his ex’s house in the rain. Unfortunately for us, it was a bright sunny day. We managed to acquire a hose pipe and a location with an outside tap. The protagonist sat in the shade on a set of steps whilst a crew member doused them with freezing water. Fred wanted it slow mo, which seemed the right idea, but when you playback it seems to highlight the artifice of the rain. With that done we moved to a university dorm room to shoot a pillow fight. The room was tiny – no more than 10ft x 6ft. The walls were whitewash and the window was letting in harsh rays of midday sun that formed a square patch on the wall above the bed – where the action would take place. I had to use the 14mm lens to frame both characters so the frame was dominated by the blandness. We blocked the light as much as possible but had 20 minutes to get the shot. It’s, without doubt, the weaker of the whole video. In fact, Fred has now removed the scene entirely – something I think necessary. Finally, we reconvened that evening at Piccadilly circus. Here we would shoot the protagonist after leaving the party with another girl. Because of the volume of people around, we went handheld. Fred wanted me to shoot them walking around the side streets in a tracking motion but the without anything other than my tiny LED panel would struggle to make it look nice. Instead, I put forward the idea of maximising the beaming lights coming from the advertising panels at Piccadilly Circus. The lights would flicker white to yellow to pink and along with the traffic lights in the background, again shallow depth of field and distinct bokeh, would give an ethereal aesthetic. We very much improvised and experimented with movements and positions and slow motion and were lucky to be able to have such a huge wall of changing light to work with.
Fred is a good director to work with because, although he knows what he wants, he is more than willing to let you pitch in with ideas and experiment – understanding that a fresh and objective set of eyes can offer alternatives. Fred allowed me to be ‘hands on’ on this project and try and inflict my own visual style -even if there wasn’t much time with which to plan.