Making cool shit is fun. And I wish I got to do it more often. So, when my friend and director, Joan Cassin, asked me if I’d be interested in working on a passion project / mini doc, I said, “Hell yes.”
There was no money. Getting it scheduled was hard, but finally the night came — we were going to grab what equipment we could afford, beg, borrow, or steal, and try to make something happen. The plan was to get together with a local chef, Daniel Gursha, who has a passion for cooking locally and seasonally, and make a little film poem.
Our package was in some ways incredibly bare bones but also incredibly fortunate — we had an ALEXA Mini, some Leica R’s, some Quasar battery operated tubes, and few pick ups from Rule — The DMG Lumiere Mini Mix, a Laowa Macro Probe Lens, a Cineo Remote Phosphor LED, and an EasyRig. That’s the fortunate part. The bare bones part was that we had almost no support and only one person, the super helpful Sarah Secunda, to help move stuff around.
First up we wanted to knock the Laowa macro stuff out of the way. The Laowa was a delight to use–although not the easiest in terms of execution. Wide open it’s at a healthy T14, which may not scare some people, but as a proud member of the litemat/titan tube/neg fill for 90% of situations generation, I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d get there. Especially when not in a studio.
A lot of probe lenses will open to a 5.6 or 8, but it’s a little bit of a gotcha. Usually there is a tremendous amount of chromatic aberration and general funk to the lens at the aperture. Not to mention that at these focal distances you just need a lot of depth of field to be able to tell what the hell you’re looking at. By starting with a T14, the Laowa basically says, we need this much light to start to look good. Deal with it.
One other complicating factor was we needed to be overcranked. For me, on a macro photography scale, things just look a little better slowed down. They do this when shooting miniature sets for films. You can barely notice but it helps you parse what you’re seeing more easily and feels like a more natural scale of movement.
I went to 48fps, with a 220 degree shutter–which is kind of my go to set up if we aren’t sure if the footage will be retimed. The 220 degree shutter allows for a more normal motion blur if you retime to 24fps, without making the overcranked stuff look like a blurry mess. The Laowa comes with a ring of LED lights around the lens, but I wouldn’t recommend using it if you can avoid it. The solution to not having enough light was to just rip all the diffusion off and walk lights close to the lens. When you are at deeper stops you can really start painting with lights. At wide open and 1600 iso, the slightest change in light can really mess up your scene, but at T14/16, you can have a light at 100% intensity and next to the subject and really feel it in a different way. It’s fun. If I can, even on fast lenses–say a 2.0 at 800 iso, I’ll often try and keep a .6 in front of the lens just so you can be a little more liberal with how you splash around the photons.
The next hurdle we had to cross was camera movement. We didn’t have a dolly, or slider, or a grip, or anything. Also, it bears mentioning that this was one of the most unfriendly locations for this kind of work. The counters were small and up against the wall. On an impulse I had grabbed my daughters super small pink skateboard and brought it to the shoot. In order to get the lens level with the cutting board we brought over a lower table from the kitchen, put the skateboard on that with a small cutting board on top, and then rested the camera on that. Rickety, but it worked–being overcranked helped us tremendously in smoothing things out.
Here you can see it in execution. Macro close ups are great, but moving ones are bananas.
After we finished up the tabletop portion we switched to getting a little footage of the chef in action. Fire is an element to our story and we needed to capture him grilling some vegetables and meat. We took off the Laowa, put on the Leica R’s, and I strapped into the EasyRig.
For the grilling scene I really wanted to splash color everywhere. I wanted a warm, welcoming light coming from the direction of the house, and also a strange cold color coming from the outside world. We only had one RGB light, the DMG Lumiere, so I set that to the Rosco Jade gel preset, and stuck it way out in the yard, as high on a c-stand as it would go. For the warm welcoming light, I took the Cineo with a chimera on it, and taped full CTO inside the softbox. The Cineo is a great light–it renders tungsten or daylight beautifully, but essentially you are relegated to 3200 or 5600 depending on the panels you have, which these days feels like a real limitation.
This scene was fun to shoot–I wish I had spent a little more time getting some eyelight in there, but I’ll definitely remember next time. I think as an operator or a DP I always have a checklist playing over and over in my head. Just going over framing, exposure, contrast, and colors again and again — and I’m always finding small things to add to the list. This time was a reminder not to forget eyelight. I haven’t used the Rs much but liked them very much–wide open they feel very soft with nice fall off, even at a 2.8. Next time I may try a little deeper stop for more resolving power.
All in all it was a long but really rewarding night. Thanks to Director Joan Cassin for bringing me on to shoot, the invaluable help of Sarah Secunda, the awesome BTS photos of Danny Ebersole, and the delicious food of Chef Daniel Gursha.
– Matthew Dorris, DP, @filouza