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The Cinematography of ‘Encore’

Encore is a short film I worked on back in September 2015 and is now doing the rounds at the festivals. It’s written and directed by Adam Peter Marsden and the project came about by me suggesting he wrote 3x 3 page scripts and I would pick the best one for us to shoot as a technical exercise.

Well, the project ballooned and after about 9 months in pre-production we finally shoot over 2 days in September 2015.

Sadly,  I can’t share with you the whole film as it is doing the festival circuit, but I can share the opening sequence with you and I will walk you through the technical challenges the film presented.

So, the film is completely set in a theatre at night. We start off ‘backstage’ and then finally make our way onto the stage. For a film that is only going to be 4-5 minutes, there are a lot of locations!

Early on, we discussed Frank’s office and what that needed to look like and were quite sure that, as we wanted something so particular, we were probably going to have to build a set to shoot it on. Further, we needed to find a theatre that was happy to host us and also looked the part. All very straight forward!

We looked up and down and high and low and came across Mansfield Palace Theatre. The theatre looked the part, it had everything we needed and had 3 days available in our shooting window! Great!

Mansfield Palace Theatre set centre stage for Encore

So where shall I start?

MOOD REEL

After discussing the script with Adam, I had a good idea of how we wanted the film to look. Now, I know many DoPs don’t particularly like to take influence from other films, but I do! I find it is a great way of discussing the look of a project with a Director. Along with listening to music and looking at photographs, it just adds to my understanding of what the director is after.

After discussing this, I could see there were going to be a few different ‘looks’ to the film, depending on the mood and scene, and I thought a great way of combining these was to produce a mood reel. We could then use this as a starting point for discussing the look of the film with our Production Designer Kate and my Gaffer Noel. Ultimately, we ended up taking influence from The Green Mile for it’s lightning sequence, Shawshank Redemption again for it’s lightning sequence, Black Swan for it’s stage work and The Assassination of Jessie James by the coward Robert Ford for it’s lantern work. I’ve embedded the mood reel below for you to take a look at how we started our creative process.

THE CAMERA

Both myself and Adam were very keen on upping the production value on this project over the last short we had worked together on, ‘Scarlett and the Man’and one way I knew we could do this was with careful selection of the camera. As the film is set back in the late 50s early 60s, we did seriously consider shooting 35mm film to help convey the look of the time; but when it came down to it the cost and risk was too high for us to take on this project, so we stuck with digital. We decided on the Arri Amira. To be honest, apart from my own camera this is my favourite camera for drama. The tonal quality and the way it handles mixed lighting is really wonderful and matches the look of it’s bigger brother the Arri Alexa. The camera was paired with the Canon CN7 zoom lens. Now, while I’d have preferred primes the CN7 offered us fantastic picture quality and great usability.

LIGHTING

So, as you can see from the mood reel, there are many different looks to the lighting in the film. We have some low key backstage work along with some high key stage work and then some lightning thrown in to boot.

Now, I never consider how I am going to light something in great detail until I have seen the available space and location. As the film is set inside at night, I knew everything was going to have to be lit from scratch therefore I was keen for us to lock down a location as soon as possible.

The two biggest challenges on this shoot was the lightning sequences, I had never created or attempted to create the look of lightning before, and also the Theatre itself, as I am not used to lighting stage plays!

Lightning

So there are several approaches to lightning, namely ‘doing it in post!’, lighting shutters, handheld flags or specialist lightning lights such as strobes or ‘Lightning Strikes’ units.

I was a little unsure of how to tackle it so asked in the Roger Deakins forum. As you may know I am a big fan of Roger’s work and the forum he has for DoPs and cinematographers to chat is wonderful! Anyway, I asked for some advice and got some from the main man himself!

While the Lightning Strikes units would provide the most realistic and custom made solution, it was way out of our budget! Equally, as the whole film is a play on stage craft, performance and such like, we liked the idea of the lightning being a bit dramatic or dramatised!

Frank with lightning coming from the door on his LHS

Thankfully, my trusty rental house ProVision had some strobes and lighting shutters in stock for me to test as these were suggested as the second best solution. I had hoped the strobes would work as we could rent several of these and place them at strategic locations on the set and trigger them all from one handheld controller. Sadly, the rolling shutter of the Amira meant we got serious rolling shutter artefacts and the length of the strobe ‘flash’ was less than that of the shutter scan.

I moved on and tested the lighting shutters, these are almost like venetian blinds for lights! They had a twisty knob that you can turn to close and open the shutters. Obviously the speed of opening a closing was much slower so there were no rolling shutter artefacts to contend with! With a little bit of pushing and pulling in post, I think the effect works quite well!

We rigged the shutters with a 2.5kW HMI Fresnel as I wanted the lightning to be blue plus one of the locations was very large to fill so needed lots of punch!

The large entrance of the theatre we had to fill with lightning

Now, without diffusing the shutters you get serious shutter shadow problems but when you place a 4×4 trace in front of it with some full diffusion you remove all the shadow issues and get lovely clean ‘dimming’.

Lighting the Theatre

Now, I’ve never worked on stage shows or theatre productions, so my knowledge of theatre lighting is limited. I knew to make the budget work, and also the lighting, we would have to use the lights the already had in the theatre.

Once we had confirmed the location I had made a provisional meeting with the technical manager to discuss what lights they have permanently rigged and what they can pull out of the kit room for me. Thankfully most of their lighting was tungsten fixtures so this allowed me to work the way I do with film lights!

Taking reference from our mood reel, and having a schematic of the theatre, I could determine where I wanted little hot spots and generally how I wanted the stage, backstage area and more importantly the theatre seating itself lit!

Stage lighting plan

Firstly the stage: the biggest thing for me was to make the pianist look ghostly! So I wanted to hit him hard with a blue spot light to generally over expose him a little and to make him look cool in colour temperature. Thankfully the theatre had a 1.2kW follow spot. These are discharge lights (similar to our film lights) but with a different lens configuration. Using the photometric information for the light and dimensions of the theatre I determined what stop I would have to be at to get the pianist about 1 stop over exposed. Therefore wanting to shoot at T2.8 I needed a T4!

I then peppered the stage with Parcans and Source4 lamps with varying levels of blue gel in them so I could dim them without going too orange.

The stage with 1.2kW spot light and several Source4s

The idea was that all of the stage lighting could be controlled from the lighting desk at the side of the stage and therefore as we were shooting I could tweak the intensity of lamps as we went along. Sadly this didn’t work as well as planned, but I feel confident that in the future this would work really well!

Frank down the side of the stage

The side of the stage was another interesting place. Both myself and Adam wanted it to have a ‘pools of light’ feel, as thought this security guard was going around in the dark. As we had various Fresnel lamps available from the theatre, along with trussing and rigging, I made use of what we had and peppered the wing of the RHS of the stage with some hard light hitting the floor for Anthony (Frank) to walk through and on the ropes down the wall to give a bit of atmosphere. I wanted this light to be almost colourless, or sliver in nature, so we gelled the lamps with 1/2 Plus Green and 1/2 CTB. I find this works well for silver moon light so thought it could work here too!

Now, onto the theatre seating. Obviously when shooting a stage performance you don’t really need to think about lighting the audience. That said, from my time doing Outside Broadcasts I know how annoying it is when trying to get shots of the audience in complete darkness! Therefore I knew if we want to see the seating it would need to be lit. We were planning on adding some smoke to the stage which would give us some atmosphere and lift the shadows but given the dark seat covers etc. I wasn’t convinced this would be enough on its own to bring up the audience.

As Frank sweeps the stage you get a feel for the audience seating and space

Therefore, as I have done before to light a large area, I rigged several Fresnel lamps in a line behind diffusion to give me a large soft source. As I wanted the light to appear to be spilling from the stage we rigged the lamps on the truss nearest the audience above the stage. I used 5 lamps across a distance of about 2.2 meters behind two 4×4 trace frames with Opal Frost in them, placing a larger lamp in the middle and gradually smaller fixtures towards the edge. Doing this helps give some directionality to the light.

Line of Fresnel lamps for lighting the audience seating

Fresnel lamps rigged for lighting the seating

 

Opal Frost is a very thin diffusion which diffuses in one direction more than the other, when rigging several lights in a line getting that little bit of extra diffusion in the horizontal axis to blend the shadows from each light is very handy!

These lights again were all rigged into the lighting desk so we had control over them during the shoot.

THE GRADE

As we had worked so hard on creating the look of Encore, we were very keen on getting the film professional graded. We enlisted the help of Colourist Jason R Moffat. Jason looked after us for the day and guided us through the grading process resulting in a film both Adam  and myself are very happy with! We didn’t deviate from how we had shot the film but the tweak Jason could make to the lightning really improved the effect and the slight colour shifts and matches between shots really helped gel the film together.