Great fun shooting 2 LEGO Spots

We shot both of these in one day and moved at a whirlwind pace with a small crew, mostly natural light and some well-placed units.  We let the Alexa and compositions do a lot of the heavy lifting.  I’ve always loved Legos, and I’m thrilled I got the chance to shoot for the brand.  🙂

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Creating Worlds (Bringing the Ancient Middle East to the Midwest)

Ark Encounter Teaser :60

Director/Producer: Benjamin Wilt (benwilt.com)
Director of Photography: Nicholas Matthews (nicholasmatthewsfilm.com)
RED Epic & Cooke S4s with ¼ BlackPromist
Graded in DaVinci Resolve & Cinegrain added

Frequently, I’m working on locations where space is highly constricted, the walls and ceiling don’t move, and the lighting and schedule dependent on controlling, shaping, and blending available light and film units together to tell the story. When Director Ben Wilt showed me the script for this teaser and said that we’d be shooting in Cincinnati in a warehouse, I knew we’d have the exciting challenge and joy of working on a stage (albeit a fabricated one in this circumstance).  We’d be transforming a drab warehouse interior into an another world.

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Ben wanted to set up Noah as a major character of the park and hint at what some of what people might see in the upcoming attraction, without revealing too much. (For an insider look at the director’s perspective check out http://www.benwilt.com/#!ark-encounter-teaser/c1lpq.) This was a perfect opportunity to paint with light, enticing the audience with the mystery of the main character and the world. The lighting had to enhance the authenticity of the set, feel motivated emotionally and physically, and set an underlying tone for the teaser. While we hoped to capture a Disney-esqe mystery and flair, the eloquent text that the dialogue was pulled from, dripped with raw emotion. This informed the camera-work and the low-key lighting.  Ridley Scott’s films Gladiator & Kingdom of Heaven were among the references we discussed–particularly the authenticity of the art design and the moody yellowed palette of Gladiator.

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Initially (and very briefly) we considered trying to find a location that we could redress for Noah’s workshop, but given our fast-paced timeline, the specificity of the space, the lack of Ancient architecture in the Midwest, and our budget, it simply wasn’t feasible. After shooting tests in a variety of halls, we met with the production designer for the Ark Encounter (and this teaser) and settled on a specific set of dimensions for Noah’s workspace that felt psychologically appropriate and pragmatic for our budget. I had no idea how they would take this initial list of dimensions and transform it into such a beautiful, organic, and authentic set. It was a blast collaborating with such a skilled design team to bring this world to life.

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Working with the Art Department from the beginning, allowed us to create a unified color palette and have the set work for the lighting rather than competing against it. From the start, we wanted broken shafts of light that we could pass through, adding mystery, creating realistic atmospheric elements, solidifying the illusion of 3D space in a 2D medium with depth cues, and obscuring the film tools just outside the windows. To accommodate that goal, they built these large bay windows with ornate lattice-work to break the shafts of light apart. Additionally, I was able to have the production designer build these handmade, period-accurate oil lanterns, which worked as accents on the wall and our key light on Noah. The lantern smoke motivated the fogged atmosphere (created with a fog machine which we fanned prior to each take) and allowed us to see the beams._mg_1670img_1488

The tighter a budget is, the more carefully you have to invest every dollar. With our budget and the small size of our G&E crew (myself, one grip, the director, and our camera-operator and one day for pre-light), I needed to know how much power we’d have/needed, how many and what units it would take to achieve this look, and how much cable we’d need to run. If I made a mistake, there wasn’t more money or time to rent additional units. As a result, I drew up a lighting plot as the rough basis for where we’d generally place the units.

We needed an affordable parallel beam option that packed a punch without requiring a generator/best boy or a mess of units, stands, and wires. We had Mole Richardson ship 3, 2k Molebeam Projectors out to Cincinnati to create the effect in the main windows and we used a few Source 4s to punch through the final window on the right (given that we wouldn’t see the double shadow they were casting).

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These were the perfect units to create a realistic look of hard evening sunlight punching through the windows and lighting the room. We backlit the fog as much as possible to emphasize the beams on camera. Additionally, we paired dimmed down 1ks with chimeras to softly bring up the ambient levels of the space overtop of each beam. And we keyed Noah with 3 spotted fresnels bouncing up off his architectural blue-print.  This reinforced the illusion that it’s a variety of flames (not just one light on a dimmer) keying his face.  The units were run through Magic Gadget 2k flicker boxes to give us more precise control over creating a realistic flame effect.

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Checking the frame during our pre-light.

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Because we were doing effects work and shooting in very moody light, the Red Epic provided the optimum image quality for the best value. We shot wide-open on Cooke S4/is with a ¼ Black Promist at an 800 ASA base. The Epic captured this warm, low-lit color palette and stylized look quite well.

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Camera department sets up another shot.

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Camera Op and AC prep the Epic

On a side note, the power of raw is never more apparent than in the quick montage of workers building the ark, where we matched closeups shot in daylight with closeups shot within the Creation Museum under artificial lighting simulating the sun.

I love projects like these where it takes everyone working together from the director, dp, production designer, matte painter, makeup artist, compositor, carpenters, camera operator, G&E, etc, to fulfill a singular vision. It was a privilege to take a small crew with a modest budget for a period-piece commercial and to try and create a big spot. And, at the end of the day, it’s always great to hear the investor say, “Wow.”

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A photograph I snapped while metering exposure on “Noah”

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Another Noah shot I snapped. Love the look in his eyes.

We worked with a variety of terrific vendors including: Gripmeister Lighting, the Camera-Department, Hammer TV Grip and Lighting, Mole-Richardson

WHO IS NICHOLAS MATTHEWS?

Nicholas Matthews is a director of photography who specializes in story-driven commercials, narrative films, and music videos. To see more of his work visit www.nicholasmatthewsfilm.com.

Wartman Boxing Commercial :60 – Execution of the Vision (Part 3 of 3)

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Director/Producer: Benjamin Wilt
Director of Photography/Colorsit: Nicholas Matthews|
RED Epic & Cooke S4s with ¼ BlackPromist
Graded in DaVinci Resolve & Cinegrain added

(to view an inside look at the Director’s vision for this project visit http://www.benwilt.com/#!wartman-brothers-boxing-/cwzs)

WHY LIGHTING MATTERS: A CASE STUDY

Given these two important variables that I was balancing (creative storytelling & pragmatic execution), I decided that we’d spend the night before our shoot pre-rigging the gym to highlight and hide what we wanted for our stylized, moody boxing commercial.

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We didn’t have the crew or money for a generator, so we were stuck with the power in the gym.

For our main setup in the gym. You can see we chose to mount Tweenies to the ceiling over the ring. This gave us a hard, controlled toplight that didn’t spill all over the room. It spotted the ring, kept us from relighting for each setup involving the ring (a good thing when you have limited time with talent and a small crew), made sense for the location, and gave us a lot of light to overcrank. I was nervous about flickering, but we didn’t see any in the monitor for the ring shots. We hit the backwall and trophies with more Tweenies gelled with ½ CTB and filled in the ropes in the foreground of the ring with a diffused baby. We cut off any daylight leaking in from the door. Lastly, we filled the room with fog before each take to bring out and diffuse the lighting a touch.

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For the setups with the speedbag and punching bag, I loved the idea of using a strong backlight to really bring out the shape of the boxers—making it more about their form than the boxers themselves. We lit with a single leko which dramatically flared the beautiful Cooke S4s; we used negative fill to enhance the dramatic look. This created an elegant interplay of the silhouetted boxer and the bag. With the light bouncing off the bag up onto the face of the boxer, flaring the lens as the bag bent with each blow. We fogged the room up for this as well.

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Lastly, our setup involving Charlie was pre-rigged to keep him moving between shadow and ¼ sidelight, just until we finally see his reveal. We wanted to present him in a way that captured the intensity and character he exhibits. We used a mixture of lekos and Babys to accomplish this.

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WHY THE RED EPIC WAS PERFECT FOR THIS PROJECT:

It’s beautiful. 🙂

We really pushed the Epic with our use of Tungsten lights, cool blue look, and the slow-motion material. I for one feel that the camera performed fantastically. It especially handled the high-contrast imagery beautifully—I love the way the overexposure blooms with the softness of the Cookes and the filtration (¼ BlackPromist) we used.

Personally, I love starting with a sharp image because it can be softened however you desire. Though the RED Epic isn’t a perfect camera, it offers so much at such a considerably low cost. We rented for one day and received the ability to shoot slow-motion & normal speeds with a cinematic sharpness, dynamic range, and resolution. It’s a no compromise sort of camera. You’re not constantly fighting with the camera’s weaknesses to achieve cinematic imagery, you’re working with it. For us with such a small budget and crew, being able to know what we shot instantaneously is so powerful. We don’t have to worry about an expensive re-shoot because we buzzed the focus—you can see exactly what you got in 1080 on the confidence monitor.

CONCLUSION:

Are there things I would change about this spot if we weren’t shooting a fast-paced, low-budget, commercial with a small crew? Yeah, but I’m thrilled with what we achieved with our time & budget. I think lighting has the ability to make good stories great, but it can’t save a bad story. I love telling good stories with light and I want to keep doing so. To do so means making creative choices that are pragmatic for the project. Great storytelling has to be creatively and fiscally responsible and inspired.

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WHO IS NICHOLAS MATTHEWS?

Nicholas Matthews is a director of photography who specializes in story-driven commercials, narrative films, and music videos. To see more of his work visit http://www.nicholasmatthewsfilm.com.

Wartman Boxing Commercial :60 – The Power of Lighting (Part 2 of 3)

Writer/Director: Benjamin Wilt
Director of Photography/Colorsit: Nicholas Matthews
RED Epic & Cooke S4s with ¼ BlackPromist
Graded in DaVinci Resolve & Cinegrain added

(to view an inside look at the Director’s vision for this project visit http://www.benwilt.com/#!wartman-brothers-boxing-/cwzs)

WHY LIGHTING MATTERS

After the location scout, I knew that it was essential for us to strategically re-light the entire gym to capture our little moments.

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While we could have used and augmented pre-existing light, we would be fighting with color spikes & flickering from the fluorescents in our slow motion footage, light spilling over a rather visually-busy location & distracting our viewers from what we felt was important, and constantly battling flat-lit underexposure.

In this digital age, we have the luxury of very sensitive cameras (boasting unheard of usable ISO ratings), which have huge creative possibilities, because it allows us to see when before it was impossible (and to use practicals more to light scenes!). This has also created problems. You’ll here statements like “we don’t need lights, anymore” or “why are you wasting production time (MONEY) setting those units, when we could be shooting.” Additionally, just because certain environments can be brighter doesn’t mean they should be. If it’s nighttime and we’re in the city, when you overly raise the exposure without clear aesthetic reasons, it feels quite unnatural psychologically.

Ultimately, lighting is about more than just getting an exposure; it has shape and feeling. It determines what we see & when we see it & how we perceive what we’re seeing. To quote Gordon Willis ASC, A cinematographer is a visual psychiatrist – moving an audience through a movie … making them think the way you want them to think, painting pictures in the dark.” This is why lighting matters so greatly—it’s storytelling!

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WHY LIGHTING MATTERS: PRAGMATISM & SIMPLICITY ARE FRIENDS OF CREATIVITY

Telling stories is a privilege, and cinematic stories—no matter how small—take money. We as Dps have a huge responsibility. Deliver a look that accentuates and propels the story…while staying under time and under budget. We certainly bear a certain lion’s share of the responsibility for staying on schedule. So, while we’re interested in achieving a look, don’t fool yourself into thinking certain looks & styles don’t cost you a certain amount of time and money.

To quote the master, Roger Deakins, ASC, “I am finding that my lighting becomes more and more simplified as I gain experience, which facilitates moving the camera more easily. I always operate myself and so I am very aware of the flexibility I need as an operator. With that in mind I have always tended to light for the situation and not a single shot. It is hopeless to light a close shot, however brilliantly, only to find that the lighting used can in no way be justified in a wider view.”

I believe this is just as important as creative vision and it’s a huge consideration in your marketability as a DP. Keep in mind, If you stay on time and under budget you usually get to keep making stories—at least that’s Woody Allen’s secret.

Furthermore, there’s a certain staleness to lighting that’s too exact and too precise. Consider what Conrad Hall ASC, said, “There’s a certain beauty to imperfection.”

WHO IS NICHOLAS MATTHEWS?

Nicholas Matthews is a director of photography who specializes in story-driven commercials, narrative films, and music videos. To see more of his work visit http://www.nicholasmatthewsfilm.com.

Wartman Boxing Commercial :60 – The Backstory & Vision (Part 1 of 3)

Writer/Director: Benjamin Wilt (benwilt.com)
Director of Photography/Colorsit: Nicholas Matthews
RED Epic & Cooke S4s with ¼ BlackPromist
Graded in DaVinci Resolve & Cinegrain added

(to view an inside look at the Director’s vision for this project visit http://www.benwilt.com/#!wartman-brothers-boxing-/cwzs)

THE BACKSTORY:

This was one of those exciting pop-up projects that came together one week prior to shooting and was shot on the heels of a much larger week long production. It didn’t have a lot of money; we had a small crew; and we had one day to capture all essential material, and most of our talent would only be around in 1 & 2 hour blocks.

So why did I say yes to an ambitious project that I knew would require working late into the night pre-rigging after a full day shoot on another project, as well as a grueling 14 hour next day.

I believe that great cinematography is great storytelling, not just fancy gear, cool shots, and awesome lighting. And after meeting Charlie Wartman, I felt he was an awesome subject, I believed in frequent collaborator & fantastic director, Benjamin Wilt’s vision. (Admittedly, I’ve been fascinated with boxing since I was a kid.)

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THE VISION:

We set out to create something that would stand apart from boxing gym commercials both visually and as a storyline.

It wasn’t about the gym, it wasn’t about the individual boxers; and it wasn’t about the bashing & pummeling we associate with the sport. It was about Charlie & his view of boxing.

Visually we wanted elegance, something slick & beautiful, but with character—more like a stylistic documentary than a grungy commercial. It wasn’t going to be a rapid fire montage set to hip hop, instead we were capturing snapshots of the boxer’s form.

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WHO IS NICHOLAS MATTHEWS?

Nicholas Matthews is a director of photography who specializes in story-driven commercials, narrative films, and music videos. To see more of his work visit http://www.nicholasmatthewsfilm.com.

SPCA Pet Adoption :30 Spot – Creating a High-End Commercial with Low-Budget Costs

MAKE A DIFFERENCE: USE YOUR CRAFT

I’m not a director by trade; I’m a director of photography, but I love telling stories, especially for causes that I care about. A few months after my wife, Renee, and I adopted a dog, we decided to produce a short spot for the local chapter of SPCA to give back to a non-profit.  We wanted to achieve something that stood apart from previous marketing endeavors by SPCA, that felt like a national spot, and not break our pocketbook.

Keeping all that in mind, Renee and I brainstormed and developed a short treatment: an aging, lonely, English professor connects with a miniature friend…and you can too. 🙂 It wasn’t supposed to be overly funny or any sort of a hard sell. We wanted deadpan, vintage, and sorta cute…which is kinda what my Dad (yep that’s my Dad) and George (yep, that’s our dog) actually are if you put them together. We set about trying to determine what visual moments would best illustrate his loneliness and his connection with the pooch. Furthermore, we toyed with what little details could inform us about his and the dog’s character.

Here’s a list of guidelines, bits of wisdom I’ve picked up from here & there that especially apply when you’re trying to create something with a small crew & little budget.  I creatively call these, “GUIDELINES FOR THE INDIE FILMMAKER.”

  1. Tell a good story.
    Seems obvious, but figured it should be said.
  2. Good, cheap, fast – choose two.
    This is really the greatest production phrase I’ve ever heard. And unfortunately, I always end up trying to choose cheap and good. Sometimes I only get cheap. 🙂 While it took us one weekend to shoot, we both have full time jobs and it took about a week’s worth of evenings and a weekend or two to edit, color correct, record, mix, and sweeten the audio, etc…
  3. Filmmaking is all about juxtaposition (well, at least some of it is).
    Given this, Renee and I tried to use that idea in a lot of ways. We tried to make my dad seem more deadpan by having a flurry of activity around him. We loved that George and my Dad are so different in size, so we tried to accentuate that. Additionally, we pushed the set-design colors to varying levels so that the passage of time & different activities seemed more obviously distinct. We even tried to fill the opening scene with lots of empty chairs, since the point of chairs is to seat people….sorta seemed sad to sit alone in a room full of empty chairs.SPCA_Blog_0000_lit_ungraded shot SPCA_Blog_0001_Background
  4. The devil’s in the details.
    We really tried hard to incorporate vintage items into the shoot to further express the quirky, cut-off-from-modern-society feel that makes my Dad’s character feel (I hope) so loveable. We’ve got a Polaroid Automatic 340 Land Camera strapped around his neck in the birthday scene along with vinyls in the background, an aluminum Christmas tree in the Christmas scene, my Dad’s glasses from high school, a Super Nintendo, used copies of Melville and Kafka, and an antique bed. Yes, we did indeed pull those suits out the back of my Dad’s closet…. All this helps make up a cohesive environment (I hope). Additionally, those books and the use of the school architecture were designed to show the English professor aspect of his life. 

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  5. Know your limitations.  Create your story around those.
    Since we knew we were trying to make a good and cheap spot, we had to know our limitations and cater our project specifically to them. 1) We had free gear, but only a tripod in terms of camera support, so that meant locked off shots or panning and tilting, especially since the DSLRs have the dreaded rolling shutter. And frankly, locked shots fit the mood of the piece. See, I’d originally thought about trying to get a jib for some of the shots, but the more I considered using it, the more I realized, we’re two people using my Dad’s borrowed time. Do we really need those shots/shot? I knew it’d add a lot of time to what we were doing, and it might not even be the right feel, so I nixed it. 2) I wasn’t using professional actors, so what story could I tell that let my actor be comfortable and natural? Oh, deadpan and sitting there? That’s who my Dad is. 🙂 3) We were making this for no money, so we used the locations we had—my parents house. This was great, because we dug around in their garage and ended up finding almost all the vintage items we used in the piece.

(Expanding the dynamic range of DSLRs: Keeping the camera locked off allowed me to expand the dynamic range of the 5d Mark II in one or two shots by re-exposing for the blow-out portions of the frame and then compositing the takes together.)

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  1. Don’t take advantage of people.
    These weren’t paid actors. They were my dog and my Dad, and we shot at my parents house. They weren’t getting anything out of this experience professionally; my Dad was just trying to be nice and help me out. Keep that in mind on your own projects, and try to make it fun. Respect the property where you’re shooting and respect the time and needs of the people you’re using (FOR FREE in this case). Do you really need another 10 takes or will that one do what it needs to? Do you need that shot or sequence? Because it means another three hours of this person’s free time. I cut a scene and series of shots we were going to try and grab because we started running low on time….and it’s probably better for it.
  2. Enjoy happy accidents.
    My favorite shot in the piece is the bedroom balloon explosion. That was a total accident. We were just throwing a lot of balloons around, and one of them hit the lighted candle and boom! George and my Dad had the exact same reaction and it really tied them together in a natural way which I loved. Also, the final shot just sort of happened as we were catching the shots of the school we realized it’d be a lot of fun to see the two of them walking together for a final moment. This turned out to be a great way to reveal the logo.
  3. Less is more.
    I really think this applies to so much in filmmaking. It reminds me of a Gordon Willis quote, “If it feels wrong, you’re probably doing too much.” Sometimes lo-fi solutions are actually the best solution, particularly if you’re going for a rough, vintage, homemade feel. When I was trying to decide what sound would work for the paper snow-flakes scene, we actually recorded me just blowing across the microphone. Or for the stars stopmotion animation, Renee and I just peppered our bedroom ceiling with glow in the dark stars and took pictures as we moved them. In order to get a decent long-exposure before each frame we would wave a lamp underneath the stars. Obviously we didn’t do this evenly each time. This created a neat glowing, flickering effect. And those shooting star streaks were just our cell phones waved around during a couple frames. I loved how organic that turned out looking…sometimes simpler is better. Additionally, we were thinking about pursuing a 60 second spot…..with one more scene and taking a longer time to get to the same place. But 30 seconds told our story much more economically.Books Stars

Just a reminder that no-budget doesn’t mean “free.” The only reason we were able to create this spot with no budget and give it to SPCA completely free of charge was we had a lot of “donations:” 1) free gear, 2) free time provided by actor(s), 3) free locations, 4) free props, 5) I was able to color correct, edit, and shoot the piece, 6) free access to editing software and compositing software, 7) time for the audio mixing and audio recording was donated. That amounts to a whole lot of FREE….

FOR YOU GEAR NUTS & HOW-TO FOLKS

Tech Specs: 5d Mark II, Nikon AI Lenses, AE Color Correction with After Effects, Cinegrain

We live in an amazing time where $2500 can get you such a great camera body (and who knows what cool story-telling tools will be released soon)…I mean sure it doesn’t compete with an $80,000 camera, but it’s $2500 and if you use it right, only film geeks would ever know.

Although the sets and wardrobe emphasized that boxy-feeling, we decided to use the camera to enhance that atmosphere. We utilized older Nikon AI lenses (rplens.com), mostly the 24mm, usually wide-open which gave us, edge softness, barrel distortion, and all the fun things that helped push the vintage feeling, as well as the perspective of a 24mm lens. I used the neutral profile and bumped the contrast down all the way and the sharpness down all the way. We pulled the saturation back some in post, but I kept an eye on it while we were shooting.

We used low ISOs 160, 320, maybe 640, but our goal was to keep a clean image in camera so that we could use Cinegrain’s 35mm vintage stock without any digital artifacts or noise. In my opinion, Cinegrain is the magic touch for taking the plasticy look out of digital images and making them look organic again. Our lighting was quite simple as we didn’t have a ton of units, and our goal was to enhance the natural lighting I was careful to keep the full dynamic range of the 5d and lit as precisely as possible for the compressed H.264. I feel this is vital to making DSLRs look like film. To keep it from feeling too soft and “clean” like in a studio, we intentionally tried to bring some hard light into the backgrounds, to remind us of the world outside sort of falling into this house. I color corrected and composited using a mixture of After Effects and magic bullet, eventually adding a hint of sharpness to counteract the overly soft image. (I love using images from Evan E. Richards blog as a helpful reference for production and post-production)

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Lastly, don’t forget audio. The Vimeo Music Store was a god-send as it allowed us the opportunity to find a catchy, high-quality indie sound without having to specially hire an artist to create the music. Instead we paid a business license for a great deal. This is an awesome resource. My audio engineer, Aaren Neely, did a great job using sound effects and foley and our “awkward music cut” to maintain the quirky, cute emotion we were trying to achieve.

We had a blast creating this spot (our very first project we worked on together from start to finish). Certainly a ton of work by a lot of people goes into creating a :30 spot. And it was a joy to send it on it’s way to SPCA Cincinnati, only to find out they were interested in using it in their marketing, especially because it was different than previous advertisements they’d produced!

Director/DP: Nicholas Matthews
Producer/Art Design: Renee Matthews
Audio: Aaren Neely

WHO ARE WE?

Renee and Nicholas Matthews are a Cincinnati-based couple with a passion for story-telling. Nicholas is a director of photography who specializes in story-driven commercials, narrative films, and music videos. To see more of his work visit http://www.nicholasmatthewsfilm.