A construction inside an old airplane hanger at Meuller Airport.
I have a friend that I met through swimming named, Chris Archer. He's an awesome former UT swimmer and all around good guy and he's been working as a photographer for the last few years. I used him as an assistant on a food shoot for a major hotel last year and really liked his personality and his work ethic, so when he asked me if I would help him with a complex video project I was pleased to say, "yes."
Chris is relatively new to video and up until recently most of his shoots have been done with a Nikon D800, and mostly handheld. But Chris is a disciplined professional who can jump into new stuff and study it deeply. Chris teamed up with a modern dancer named Amy to brainstorm a really cool video project that would be a gem in each of their portfolios. Amy created a dance that takes place on a field of sand, against a curtain of falling sand, set against limbo black and Chris created a way to shoot that creative construct with fine control and very high production value.
This is the basic set construction. The wooden structure provides a place from which to
pour sand and anchor our black background. Note the two troughs for sand that radiate out from the center point, near the top of the structure.
The project required about two tons of sand and a lot of lifting. Inside each trough, in separate compartments, are electric sanders that provide vibration to even out the distribution of sand. The construction of the super structure took the entire day, last Sunday. Once the structure was finished we tested it and fine-tuned the flow of sand.
Then Chris was able to bring out his camera and start figuring out where the edges of the frame were and how to set up to take advantage of the confines of the set. I got busy lighting stuff. I brought along my gray case full of grip gear in order to safely and securely set up lights overhead. We knew we wanted a soft, overhead light for our main camera work so we settled on a Chimera Pancake, with skirt. We attached it to the safety rail of the structure, right over the spot in which Amy would be dancing. The light source inside the Chimera Pancake was a 1,000 watt mogul bulb (big ass tungsten).
Chimera Pancake Lantern with skirt for blocking off spill light and directing illumination into a smaller circle.
If you look at the image below you'll see a rare example of my attention to both safety and detail. I needed the light to be at least two feet out from the support in order to hit the "sweet spot" of the dance set below so I used one Super Clamp to attach my rig to the 2x4" board. The rig consisted of a Super Clamp, holding a Manfrotto Magic Arm, connected to a stand adapter and then to the light. You can see a second Super Clamp near the bottom of the frame with a wire attached. I have a tether wire running to both the Magic Arm and to the speed ring of the light itself. This way, if anything chooses to detach itself, all the materials would be caught by the tether wires instead of raining down on dancer or crew. Safety first with overhead instruments.
A view of the Magic Arm and its safety harness.
All the principal photography was done with the new, Sony F55 camera which shoots in uncompressed 4k, uses a full frame sensor, and was set up with a PL lens mount. We used Zeiss Super Speed Cine Primes for the entire project. Chris's choice of lenses was the 35mm t-1.5, the 50mm t-1.5 and the 85mm t-1.5, and yes, they are worth the cost. Each of the lenses was amazingly sharp at its widest aperture. Sharp in a way that very few camera lenses I've played with really are. The camera is not light at 13.5 pounds and gets incrementally heavier with every attachment one adds. Like high performance battery packs and one of the most detailed EVF finders I've ever looked through. Interested in the F55? Look at one here.
Sony made this camera for people (Hollywood) who want to make feature films.
Sony F 55 on Sachtler sticks with Zeiss Super Speed lens.
As you can imagine, we all worked hard at keeping sand off the camera and especially out of the optical pathway. I didn't try to take any still shots with it but I'd guess with the huge pixel wells on a full frame, 8 megapixel sensor, the low light shots would be amazing. Interesting fact: the native ISO on the camera (base ISO sensor sensitivity) is 1250. But the camera is nothing without the idea and the nuts and bolts production.
By Monday Afternoon we had thirty feet by nine feet of black flocked material stapled into place
and the volunteer crew was loading up the sand troughs and filling up the dance area.
Volunteering to help Chris and Amy with their project was an good move for me. We got to try out lots of things I haven't done before in a shoot. And helping them with their creative project reminded me of the enormous value of shooting for yourself; following your own creative muse with a disregard for cost and time. Getting things right because you want them to be right, not because you need to get paid. I think the process of self-assigning kicks up the creative juices to a higher level because your audience is so much more discerning and, at the same time, less compromising. The cost of a project like this? I'll estimate just the rentals and raw materials at about $ 6,000. Time is a whole different matter. This is not a Kickstarter project or a project funded with other people's money. This was a project that Amy and Chris did because they had a vision and wanted to see it through without compromise or distraction.
Chris and Amy did about two weeks of planning and preproduction for the shoot. The stage assembly, video shooting and set tear down was four, twenty hour days in an airplane hangar with no air conditioning or amenities. In Texas. In the Summer. The edit will probably take weeks of time. Do the rest of us have the same commitment to creating our own art? It humbles me and makes me think that I'm just playing around at being a creative person sometimes. Working on a project like this (as a volunteer) kicks your ass in a number of ways. First, you want to make sure your friend is able to achieve the vision he had when he started. That should be a matter of pride for any volunteer. Second, you are learning by example how to be "all in" for a project. Chris and Amy sweated every detail and spent an incredibly concentrated amount of time during the actual shooting. No breaks for play-off games on TV (what a crappy waste of precious time that would be). No end of day re-caps at the local watering hole. Just work until you get "it."
Finally, they show me by example what it takes to make a vision not only come alive but to do it in a way that faithfully captures the initial dream. Not "good enough" but exactly "what I saw in my mind's eye."
This is the incredibly talented Amy. No Diva here. She hauled sand, carried in drinking water and repeated tough motions over and over again for the camera. Graceful as they come but also tough as nails...
At one point we needed to go harder and stronger with the lighting. So we did.
We were shooting some footage for slow motion and needed some extra light power for the exposure. We decided on a bare Arriflex 1000 watt open face fixture with barndoors and used the rudimentary controls to tighten the beam a bit. We also added a front fill light which was an Arriflex 650 watt open face fixture in a Chimera video softbox with a 3/4 stop front diffuser. You'll notice our black Westcott FastFlag running interference between the fill light and the left side of the set. We wanted to keep as much light as possible off the black.
Amy Smoothing the Sand Before a Take.
The view above gives you an idea of how our light ended up looking for the slow motion sequences. You can get away with a harder light on video since your subject is in constant motion.
Chris operates the ten foot jib.
On Tuesday morning we broke out the ten foot jib and assembled it. The jib comes packed in pieces in rigid travel cases and sometimes feels as though it requires a degree in mechanical engineering for assembly. Fortunately Chris had the foresight to ask the rental house here in Austin (GEAR) to show him the set up procedure, and while they took him through the steps he documented each one on his iPhone. Major plus for us. We stuck the Sony F 55 on one end and just about 90 pounds of counterweights on the other end. Along with the internal slider weight we were able to achieve a totally neutral balance. You could operate the whole rig with one finger (if you were brave enough to do so with a camera that's more expensive than my car at the other end...)
The Camera at the end of the ten foot jib. Chris was as smooth an operator on his first go around as I've seen with seasoned pros.
I'm a real baby where safety and expensive gear are concerned so you can see in the image above that I've insisted on safety tethering the camera unit to the super-structure of the jib. I didn't want the camera to come loose and fall on Amy or into the sand pile. It never budged but I'm paranoid enough to think that something might have happened if I'd had the hubris NOT to tether the camera. The purple cord is to the LCD monitor at the back of the jib that allows Chris to move the massive arm with assurance.
Amy during a take with sand falling and camera moving smoothly.
Chris operating the boom while monitoring the frame in the small monitor on the end of the arm.
While we had missteps and false starts and issues with every imaginable part of the project Chris and Amy were able to problem solve, resolve and move on with the performance and filming with a discipline and endurance that was astounding. I saw a lot of the footage as we were shooting and lighting and I'm very excited about the project. I can hardly wait for the weeks it will take to edit, and then edit some more, and then finally put it into a form I can watch from head to tail. I already know it will be amazing. Chris has definitely stepped up to the creative challenge of high production motion and made some great art. One showing at the right agency and he'll be moving into the role of director in no time.
I was happy to be a small part of the crew. It made me think. It made me work with some new passion and it made me reflect. That's a lot to get in return for volunteering.
I love this last shot because it shows off the use of the boom (jib) and divides the frame in a nice, offset diagonal with the triangle of the slightly offset hangar door echoing the white glow of the hot light on the set. Note the black flag to the side of the soft box to keep light off the black set wall. Note also the equipment case that gives Chris a safe spot to "land" the jib between shots. It all seems so cool.
P.S. All of my "behind the scenes" shots were made with the Samsung NX 300 camera and kit lens.