A Short and A Feature Film: Process Breakdown, Part 1

In January I had the opportunity to DP an ambitious short film titled "I'm Sorry, I Love You" for director Jaime Gonzalez. The short is not yet released but will be soon and I'll be featuring it here next time when I start to break down the shots.
We were both working on the upcoming feature, "False Hopes", which I DP'd in February so we were able to get some equipment on loan that I had recommended purchasing for that project. In the next few blog posts I'll be walking through some things I learned in the process and breaking down some shots in regards to camera movement, lighting, working with daylight, lighting night interiors, and the biggest one: lighting daylight scenes that continue on into the night.

The short film was a perfect opportunity to test out all the new goodies a week before moving on to the feature. It is critically important to test all equipment including lights, stands and grip pieces to ensure it is functioning out of the box. Do you really want to show up on a shoot and put up your 8x8 silk just to find out the clamp doesn't tighten, letting it spin around in the wind? I arrived in LA a day early from Denver so I could do equipment checks and review angles in the house location we were using. It turned out that I had spent the first day and next morning right before the shoot troubleshooting and calling up tech support for various last minute catastrophes. Like I said, equipment tests are critical.

Recording raw on the Atomos Shogun Flame

We were shooting on the Sony FS700 with raw upgrade via SDI out to the Atomos Shogun Flame which does a very good job of transcoding the raw signal into Quicktime ProRes which provides are very gradeable codec. Highlights are recoverable, details are sharp and colors are rich. The Shogun was super easy to setup to receive the raw signal and it was up and running within minutes. 

 Crisp details of FS700 Raw signal, recorded on Atomos Shogun Flame.

Crisp details of FS700 Raw signal, recorded on Atomos Shogun Flame.

The monitor is big, bulky and heavy when powered by a couple large Sony L series batteries so it's really important that you have an appropriate rig with proper length arms to support it. What I had intended to do was use the Atomos as the director's monitor on the dumb side of the camera, or elevated on top so the director could stand a couple of feet behind watching action on the bright, 7" monitor with beautiful HDR color grading. I wanted to mount my 5" SmallHD 501 fed by HDMI out from the Atomos which supports loop through so I could get close and pull focus. This turned out not to be possible. I couldn't get a clean signal feeding in to my SmallHD. Whatever I saw was garbled noise. I checked around and couldn't find an answer so I upgraded the firmware on the Shogun as it was handed to me with firmware several generations old, but still no luck. I got an answer via email from Atomos pretty quickly. In case anyone needs to know, if the Shogun is receiving a raw signal you can't loop out a non-raw signal. In any event, the Atomos is large enough for more than one person to view, but not at all times. Sometimes when there is dolly action or handheld work you just can't share the monitor. The Atomos/FS700 combo decision was made by the production company and so I was a bit surprised to find out certain things weren't possible. When it's not your gear you will be presented with surprises, which is why the DP needs to be prepared for any circumstance and keep on researching.

A Warning Regarding Dracast LED Fresnels

 Dracast LED 500 fresnel cord spliced with extension cord to get up and running in a hurry.

Dracast LED 500 fresnel cord spliced with extension cord to get up and running in a hurry.

 Dracast LED fresnel plug frayed after two days

Dracast LED fresnel plug frayed after two days

I purchased 4 of these for the feature film and was simultaneously disappointed and impressed. I had a very limited equipment budget to use for a 30 day shoot. We'd be in mostly household or small commercial locations and renting wasn't really an option. Not only would I not have the time to go pick and drop off more powerful lights as we needed them but I wouldn't be able to run generators for more powerful and cheaper tungsten heads. We decided on purchasing LED and one 565W HMI from CAME TV which turned out to be a fantastic unit and I wished I had gotten another one.

We bought 2 of the LED 500's and two of the 700's. The price point is great and the light output and color reproduction is fantastic. However, if they don't turn on then what good are they? Dracast support however was good and they answered the phones right away. The build quality is probably the biggest disapointment on these heads. One of the 500's arrived with a shorting control panel, a missing screw and none of the 4 would illuminate. Documentation? None in the box or on the website. Tech support explained I needed to change the mode on the side panel to the A1 option and then dial up the power. Why were they defaulted to DMX mode? Why is there nothing explaining what A1 or A2 is? Mysteries abound.
The next issue you need to know about is that the cords are the lowest quality I've ever seen. First, they annoyingly short. You'll need to go buy an additional extension cord for each unit because they won't even reach the wall once you put it up on a stand. Second, you must very gently remove the plug from the wall. I don't mean grip the housing and base of cord together in a firm grip, I mean only pull the plug housing by pinching with thumb and forefinger as any pressure on the cord itself will pull the cord right out (or at least begin fraying the connection). I had to replace the cord ends with new ones from Home Depot as they would never last on a month long shoot. Two of them broke on the first day and another began shorting two days later. The weak rubber cord is not crimped or reinforced by the plug housing and at the other end I saw the outer rubber coating begin to split at the housing of the head itself which is even worse. It's easy to replace a plug, but not easy to open the unit and access the power supply.

Final advice: I really wanted to like these lights. Even though the light output and quality is wonderful I would still suggest to move on to another, more expensive brand if you can afford it. The cuts in build quality are just not worth the savings if you're left stranded. I should also add that we bought two of their light panels and 4 smaller battery powered blender panels and they worked perfectly with no issues. There are lots of options for LED panels out there, but not many affordable ones for fresnels which is the dilemma when working with limited budgets.