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Location Stories and Kit Advice from a Freelance Director of Photography.

Ray & I

Ray & I

Part 1.

‘Withnail and I’ is one of my favourite films.
When in the bath ‘I’ says he’s not a writer, they’re just his thoughts really. Here are some of mine.

As I travel the globe filming ‘Househunters International’ for Leopard USA I feel an affinity with ‘I’, with my longtime friend and sound recordist Ray fulfilling the Withnail role. Not from a debauched angle, I hasten to add, although his former life as bassist and Indie rock band Audio Engineer does enrich our evenings with tales of being ‘escorted across the state line’, but rather a life well filled.

On a recent trip to Burgundy, or The Burgundy as one of the contributers kept annoyingly correcting us, the director, local fixer and myself had to travel via the car rental office in order to add another person onto the insurance. Ray didn’t want to come, and why should he, so we dropped him at the hotel first. It turned out he took all our bags to our rooms to make up for not doing the extra drive with us. And, as he relayed to us the next day in the van, it suddenly dawned on him, as delivered the bags, that he had access to all of our rooms! What could he do, what prank could he play, whilst our feline presence was not there?

Of course the first, best, and oft repeated joke that first sprung to his grown-up mind was to add some artwork to our bedroom – in the form of a ‘cock ‘n’ balls’ drawing. Lacking in paper, napkins would have to do. Lacking in pens and pencils due to the rubbishness of the hotel a classic film-crew “Sharpie” was his chosen medium. After a frustrating 5 minutes it became clear that a thick permanent marker and a thin tissue were not good collaborators, and the defeated Ray had to give up and throw the ripped, scribbled mess into the bin. It turned out the only bedroom he decorated was his own, for the table he chose as his easel now has a beautiful and permanent ‘original’ on its top.

Crews often find ways to joke, or play around, as even a job that sounds amazing when described down the pub can be monotonous and repetitive in reality. There was a time when it would be the crew driving rather than a local fixer, and once on the road with the new hire car I could be sure to feel a overwhelmingly hot bottom. After a moment’s hesitation (had I wet myself?) it became clear that it was of course due to Ray turning on my heated seat to the max. The game then grew so that it was about turning my own one off and his one on without him noticing. Sounds childish. It was. That’s why it was fun.

We have a lot of fun on location. Some of it is funny when it happens. Some of it needs a few weeks to mature before it’s funny. We have a ‘Stinky Fixer’ Leader Board. I’m convinced that’s part of the training for local runners. “Right people listen up! You wanna be a location Fixer for HHI?!?! Throw away your deodorant! Do not, I repeat, DO NOT, take a shower except once a week.” Some of them are not funny at the time. I must of course point out that the smell does not stop them being nice people. And good fixers.

Perhaps with the exception of Pierre. After being dropped at our ‘house tour’ location our director David told Pierre to go and get some coffee. An hour and a half later he was still not back, and Ray and I were very grumpy about the ‘no coffee’ situation, as was David and the people we were filming. A whole two hours later Pierre returns… with no coffee whatsoever.

“Where have you been?…asks David…
“I was having a coffee.” Says Pierre, “You told me to!”

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ps. If you’ve not seen Withnail and I, then you must go and watch it right now.

If only to find out how to ‘make time’.

Three Camera Shoots #2

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So the three cameras are all running, the board has been clapped, and John Oliver is asking questions to Stephen Hawking for his Sunday night HBO show ‘Last Week Tonight’. Stephen is his first interview for the section of the show called ‘Great Minds: People who think good.’ And John’s asking him to clarify an answer because he can’t tell from Stephen’s tone of voice whether or not he’s being sarcastic. And now Stephen is talking, or at least his computer is talking, all over John’s questions. After 2 more questions, with Stephen’s answer bearing more relevance to the question that is about to be asked rather than the one that was just asked, his carer jumps in to explain that Stephen is laughing so much that he keeps hitting the wrong cues at the wrong time.

All three camera operators, myself, Al Beech and Joel Csanyi were holding back laughs. The other 2 had it slightly easier with their locked off shots; Al had John Oliver, and Joel had the wide two-shot. It was me with my shot of Stephen, on the track, and on an 85mm lens that was struggling to keep it steady! I did wonder just for a moment whether Stephen Hawking was using Quantum physics to enable him to answer questions that had not yet been asked. But then I guess they had actually already been asked, in another parallel universe somewhere.

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In the second half of 2014 year I had two very similar shoots, and I ended up lighting and shooting them in very similar ways. The second shoot was a Leadercast Interview with Malala Yousafzai ,for their upcoming conference. The 17 year old from Pakistan recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in fighting for the right of all girls to education. Both shoots were for American clients and both were shot on location. In each case we used 3 x Canon EOS C300 cameras all running at the same time, linked using Timecode Buddy TRXs with Ray Hill’s Sound Devices mixer as the master source. And of course we used a clapper board as well – always good practice. A clapper board is not only a ‘just in case’ tool, it also helps to settle everyone on set and get everyone focused. Editors like it too so they can see where the shot starts when spooling through at high speed.

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In terms of glass, we used a mixture of Canon L series, and Samyang Primes. On both occasions the single shot cameras were on Canon 70-200 f/2.8L lenses; for Stephen Hawking the wide two shot was on a 14mm T3.1 Samyang, and for Malala we used a 24mm T1.5 Samyang. The reason for the difference is purely the size of the rooms we had to work in. Any room starts to feel small when you put a film crew in it, and when that film crew consists of 3 cameras, sound, ‘video village’ for director, producer, DIT, makeup and client, and lighting stands it gets pretty tight.

The only difference between the two set-ups from a camera point of view was that for the Last Week Tonight interview the director Mike Rubens wanted to put Stephen’s close up camera on track. In the Malala interview the director Andy Hutch and I went with the more conventional ‘wide tracking shot’. When you have 3 cameras all running simultaneously in this situation, without any preplanned camera moves its always better in the edit to only have 1 tracking shot when cutting.

For the HBO shoot, which was at Cambridge University, I spent a lot of time on the phone with the Production Manager Dani Drusin in New York talking through logistics and kit requirements. Skype audio was great for this, and free; it really feels like your sat next to them. And then director Mike and John Oliver met us in Cambridge on the day of the shoot, when we had very animated discussions / disagreements about the best way to make a cup of tea; much to the amusement of Mike.

I’m actually a ‘non teabag squeezer’, it completely changes the flavour. And of course milk goes in after the teabag comes out. Obviously. Well apparently not, according to other crew members. Both Luke Clarke our DIT / Camera Assistant, and Joel on 3rd Camera squeeze their teabags. …And then Joel says, “The milk has to go in before the teabag comes out otherwise how can you judge the colour! Right?” After we all had our tea in hand, all made in a slightly different way, as if to prove to our new American friend just how important tea really and truly is to a Brit, we started setting, and lighting, in the Potter Room at the Dept of Applied Mathematics.

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There are two main challenges when lighting for 3 camera angles whilst on location. How do you light for a wide shot without compromising your close-ups singles? And how do you light for close-up shots without the light stands being in the wide-shot? The easy answer is to put you main key light behind the wide 2-shot camera. However this means the wide shot can look very flat, and in the close ups, the key is coming from the wrong side. For my lighting set-up I wanted to be able to key light John and Stephen from the ‘nice side’.

For those that know this… skim read this next bit… for those that don’t, this is my favourite lighting lesson. In an interview situation it always looks better if your main light source, either a light or a window, is coming from the same side as your interviewer. So your interviewer sits between the camera and the light source. This is the ‘nice side’. This point is debatable in dramatic situations, but for interviews it really works.

In order to do this on location we used boom arms and clamps and what’s called a ‘cross-key’ set up. So each person has their own key light, and that key light acts as a backlight for the other person. Having the light, in this instance a KinoFlo Vista Single, on a boom arm means you can put the stand back out of shot – on the wide – and get the light into a nice position for the close-up shots. And then we had a couple of Dedos to pick out background spots and as extra rim lights, and an LED Light Panel bounced into a Reflector for fill.

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The interview went very well – and the final cut is very funny. You can see the finished thing on my Showreel page. We did pick up Johns questions afterwards as a ‘safety’ on a clean single but they weren’t needed in the final cut; they went with the dirty singles, which always look nicer anyway.

From an editorial perspective I know that John Oliver and their creative team had been working with Stephen before the actual shoot day, in order for Stephen to be able to have enough time to type out his answers and have them ready for the interview. I imagine there was a process of sending things back and forth to each other until their ‘conversation’ was set. And then on the day Stephen had his answers, and quips, all cued up and ready. It was only when he started laughing that the issues arose.

My only slight reservation about how it looked was that the ceiling in the room was quite low and as a result I couldn’t get John’s keylight up quite high enough to loose the reflection in his glasses. It is very slight, and it comes and goes. With the time that we had, and the restrictions of the room and of filming all 3 angles at the same time we had to let that one go. But I found that very frustrating.

The VT starts with a short montage to go with John’s narration, which was shot by myself and Al Beech, and I had the privilege of filming Stephen in his office whilst he was working on his current lecture – to be given to students the following week. I filmed him as he chose the first half of the alphabet, followed by the second line and then the letter ‘f’. Then he chose the second half of the alphabet, then the fourth line and then he wrote the letter ‘o’. And then he did the same thing to write the letter ‘r’. And then he wrote a ‘space’. One word, finished. Only thousands more to go. The amount of patience and good grace he must have to write like that is incredible. And to write books, books with theories and ideas that have had as much influence as Albert Einstein is absolutely staggering.

Our filming for the interview with Malala Yousefzai went equally well. We were filming at Aston Hall in Birmingham in a freezing cold 17th century stone floored room.

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The timing of the interview was even more current as Malala had just received her Nobel Peace price. Also the interview took place the day after the Peshawar School massacre in her own country of Pakistan, so there was a large police presence along with private security as well.

It was Andy Hutch directing this shoot. I’ve worked with Andy lots before, and he in turn has done lots for Leadercast. In the run up to the shoot the location had changed innumerable times until it finally settled at Aston Hall, which looked stunning. Andy had sent me video links to two recent examples of Leadercast interviews, with Laura W Bush and Condoleezza Rice. They both looked beautiful, but were also very different in style, which was helpful. (differences in lighting technique, location, and set up) So the bar had been set quite high, and yet we knew we had room to add our own ‘feel’ or ‘style’ to the proceedings. Andy was keen to get some kind of establishing shot at the very top of the film, showing the whole room with lights and cameras etc, and after various options were discussed – Jimmy Jib, steadicam, long track, MoVI rig – we went with steadicam. Cineworks, based out of Pinewood Studios, is run by the very talented Guy Linton, and he would be both our Steadicam Op and 2nd camera Op for the interview. His Assistant James Harwood would pull focus – or stop actually as it happened – whilst on the steadicam rig, and then be our 3rd camera Op.

Guy is a DoP in his own right as well a Jimmy Jib and Steadicam Op so I was glad to have him on the shoot. It gave me a chance to try and crack his Yorkshire ‘deadpan’ with my best lightbulb jokes.

Q .How many continuity-artists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A. Lightbulb? What lightbulb? Noone told me about any lightbulb!

Q. How many freelance cameramen does it take to change a lightbulb?

A. 8. 1 to change it, and the other 7 to tell him ‘Yeah I was offered that job but I turned it down’

Q. How many DoPs does it take to change a lightbulb

A. 1. He holds the bulb and the world revolves around him.

No? Don’t worry, Guy didn’t laugh either.

We shot the steadicam shot at 50fps so that Andy could ramp the speed up and down in the edit. The shot started from outside the front of the building, and then came in through the doors and then around Malala and Henry, our interviewer, to end on a 2-shot of them in font of the fire. By the time everyone was out of makeup and had been briefed the light levels were a little lower outside than they had been – and yet the shot till had a stop-pull from f11 to f4 as the camera came in through those doors! Guy used the Canon CN-E 24mm T1.5 Lens for the shot.

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The lighting setup for this interview was very similar to Stephen Hawking’s setup, only it was a much larger room. The cross-key lighting using Kinoflo Vista singles was exactly the same, we just had larger fill lights using 1k and 2k Fesnels bounced into 4×4 poly boards to lift the overall light in the room. Then we used Dedos to pick out spots as before, and there was a lovely ‘kick’ coming through an open door in the back of shot over Malala’s shoulder, made using an LED Light Panel.

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All three cameras needed french flags to get rid of lens flares coming from the key lights. Much more so in Malala’s setup than Stephen’s as the Vista Singles had no ‘egg crates’ on; another way to increase the overall exposure of the room.

My only disappointment of the day was that as the sun started to go down we realized that the light coming through the window in the background of Malala’s close up would not stay the same throughout the hour long interview and so we had to frame it out.

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The interview is in the edit at the moment, I’ll put it up on my site once it’s finished and I’m allowed to do so.

Two very interesting shoots with two very interesting people. Lighting people is my favourite thing to do. And doing it with a correctly made mug of tea in my hand makes it even more enjoyable.

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The Sahara #1

I woke up at 6.30am, opened my bedroom window and just had to set my camera up for a timelapse. Because what I saw was this…

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Erg Chebbi

I’ve been working for a US show called ‘Househunters International’ for a number of years now and they send me to lots of great locations to film people who are relocating from one country to another. For those who’ve not seen it, it’s a cross between a property show and a travel show. It is shot initially for HGTV in the U.S.A and is also shown in 17 other countries worldwide. So when Leopard Films told me they wanted to send me to the Sahara Desert in Morocco for their spin-off show ‘Off The Grid’ or OTG, I was super excited. We were to film Karen Hadfield in her search for a property suitable for turning into an artists retreat. www.cafetissardmine.com

As I packed kit and clothes my text conversations with Director Alicia Piav, Producer Erin Fitch, and Sound Recordist Ray Hill seemed to revolve mainly around what the best ‘desert song’ would be; the boys going more in a sound-scape direction, and the girls in a more songs-about-deserts direction. We’d been told that after landing in Morocco and an overnight stay in Marrakech, we would have an 8 hour drive up and over the Atlas mountains, then to Rissani and then finally arriving at our hotel at the foot of the World Heritage site that is ‘Erg Chebbi’. It actually took more like 11 hours as we stopped a few times to film, and reset the GoPro cameras into different positions. Oh, and we got lost at the end bit. Literally lost in the desert. In the dark. We got to Hotel Yasmina at about 10pm.

http://www.hotelyasminamerzouga.com/

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Atlas Mountains

The main camera I use for this show is the Canon EOS C300 with EF mount and lenses. I also use a Canon EOS 5D Mark II as a B camera. And we use GoPro Hero 3s for in-car filming. Having bought the C300 last year to film a BBC kids show called Jedward’s Big Adventure, it took me a good couple of months to create a rig that worked well for all the handheld shooting I do, and I went through a few different configurations until ending up, as most cameramen do, with a good mix of manufacturers. I’ll go into my rig in more detail in another blog entry but for now the basic list is:

Redrock Micro: Ultracage – Black Series
Shape: Quick Handles
Vocas: 15mm support bars – 350mm
Diety: Mira Loupe
Chrosziel: 412-02 Mattebox
Hawkwoods: VL-C300 power adaptor
Terradak: Bolt – Wireless TX RX for monitoring
(We’ll talk about lenses another day.)

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First day filming the ‘meet and greet’

On our first day Ray an I were in Toby’s car – Toby Wood. Alicia and Erin were with James – James Cutting. Toby and James were our local fixers and although Toby is English he’s lived in Morocco for 40 years and is fluent in Arabic and French. And He puts on Pink Floyd – Shine on your crazy diamond. A very good desert track indeed, especially the first couple of minutes.

Morocco is a ATA Carnet country so I wasn’t able to change or alter any of the larger kit items. However there were 4 smaller things I thought of taking that I was very pleased about, and 1 that I didn’t and wished I had. When filming in the desert you expect it to be hot and dry, but what I didn’t expect was how windy it would be. For 5 out of our 7 shoot days the calm and sunny mornings gave way, at about 3pm, to very high winds. And with the wind came dust and sand. A lot of dust and sand; coming down, up, sideways and through. So firstly my rain cover went straight onto the camera. Because of the shape of my rig I find a rain cover designed for Sony PDW-f800s or PMW500s works best. And then when mounted on the tripod I stopped up the gaps using lens wraps and gaffer tape.

The other ‘sand in the camera’ bit of kit to talk about here is batteries. I used the smaller Canon BP-955 purely because you can shut the battery door properly, unlike with the larger BP-975 or Swit S-8845 equivalent. I tend to use my IDX V-locks to power both C300 camera and Terradek Bolt wireless transmitter, when monitoring for a director is needed; and the internal camera battery when it’s not.

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Filming in the wind and the sand

Even with the rain cover, lens wraps and smaller batteries, the sand got in, and the third thing I brought with me was lots of canned air. Each evening I would blow all the sand away from all the kit. It was at these times, in between wrap and dinner that Sayeed would come chat with us. He worked for the hotel, and also as a camel guide. He told me he could speak not only English but Australian and American as well.

“Oh how lovely! That is Amayyy-zing!” English

“Aaaah yeah! I love Beer. Naa you Blaady didn’t. Australian

“Yeah that’s great man. That is aaaawesome!” American

It must be pointed out that all these phrases were actually said in exactly the same voice and accent.

As it turned out one of our local fixers – Toby Wood – thought to carry an air compressor in his vehicle, which we ran off the car battery. It wasn’t as powerful a jet as the canned air, but it was an unlimited supply and also came in very useful.

And then the fourth thing I brought and was pleased about was a large 48” Lastolite Reflector – as well as my normal 38” one. So when conducting interviews outside I would use one reflector in the usual manner, and then the larger one as a sunshade, with a sand bag I had brought over from the UK; empty I hasten to add. There was plenty of er… sand to refill once on location.

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The sunshade rig

I never realized the roads – well tracks – would be quite so bumpy. They looked and felt corrugated. All the kit was bumped and bounced around loads and I ended up holding the camera on my lap the whole time. We were also bumped and bounced around, which we all got used to. Until I got ill that is. After waking up and visiting the toilet a few too many times I thought I would soldier on, and we filmed a great set-up on the main 1000’ dunes with the contributors on camels. We only had to break twice for me to take a quick trip behind the nearest dune. At the next location I lay down and didn’t get back up again. High fever, shivers. Anyway, they drove me to the local hospital and put me on a drip with a mega dose of paracetamol.

Wasn’t quite sure where I was for some of it, and it all got a bit weird, with a couple of local women looking in on me and just laughing and laughing. Alicia my director was brilliant, as were the contributors Karen and Jess – dubbed Patsy and Patsy, by their own volition – very Ab Fab. On the journey back to the hotel whilst I was lying on the back seat of the car talking rubbish, we had to make two stops. Firstly we had to stop so that the others could buy beer and wine. It seems you can never be too ill to stop a film crew stocking up on booze when they have to stay in a dry hotel. And the second stop was a rather urgent call of nature for me. Praise God that in a landscape that was as flat as a, well a desert, they managed to find a small pile of stones about 4’ high for me to crouch behind. It didn’t take long for someone to christen it ‘Phil’s Hill’.

I had to stay in bed for the rest of that day and the next, but was good to go after that and we shot some great stuff in the local Souk in Rissani. Whilst filming I put Ray on ‘Donkey watch’. Any time he saw a donkey pulling a cart or a donkey laden with produce we just had to film them. We also witnessed a brilliant shouting match between two date farmers, it was proper kicking off!

The one piece of kit I didn’t have and wished I had… was a pair of sand goggles. I got so fed up of the sand in my eyes that I ended up wearing my swimming goggles, complete with blue tint. It was the only thing that worked and by that stage I didn’t care if I looked stupid or not.

We also had some great footage from a GoPro Drone camera operated by the very lovely Sebastian

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The sky over the Atlas Mountains on our drive home

Morocco was truly amazing. And by the end of 11 days of sand and wind and illnesses we were very ready to head home. Erin got poorly too, hence her choice of desert song below. After another 12 hour drive and some unbelievably beautiful skies we arrived back in Morocco for one more night at the Lovely Riad Kasbah before heading home.

Riad Kasbah

What a very beautiful landscape, and what a privilege to go there to film it. I left a little bit of me behind in morocco. And I don’t just mean behind Phil’s Hill.

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Team Sahara.

Our 6 Best Desert Songs

Phil: Gogo Penguin – Kamaloka.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=REwNxxd1qgI

Alicia: America – A Horse with no name

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQzW6wz2JQk

Ray: Brian Eno & David Byrne – The Carrier

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBnAiks8Hio

James: James actually wrote a song about Ray – and sang it to Ray on our last night at the hotel. That is and will forever be his desert song.

Toby: Pink Floyd – Shine on you crazy diamond

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zACEJdFOpA

Erin: Wilson Phillips – Hold On

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIbXvaE39wM