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The Cinematography of ‘JOHN’

JOHN was imagined for the Enter the Pitch film competition in 2016. Why not check out the film here then head back over and I will tell you all about how we made it and how I harnessed only NATURAL LIGHT to shoot the film!

So, Enter The Pitch is a short film competition designed get filmmakers to come up with contemporary film ideas using the bible for inspiration. The worthy ideas form a Longlist which get voted on by the public, as you have already done, to form a short list which gets given to a panel of industry judges who ultimately decide the winner of the £25,000 production budget to turn their pitch film into a short film.

Now you don’t have to be hot on the bible to understand our idea or watch our film but I will give you a bit of background into the idea. In Luke Chapter 1 an angel comes to Zechariah and tells him he is going to have a son and he is to name him John. The angel outlines what John will be like and what he will achieve. It is the angel’s message to Zechariah which forms the basis of our pitch film. At this stage I hear you ask, what is you contemporary setting then?! Well, the American frontier, setting our story in 17th Century America in the harsh uninhabited lands of the North.

Screengrab from JOHN

Teamed up with Director Adam Marsden we set about making our pitch film for the competition and ultimately coming up with a short film concept.

We knew for the pitch film we wanted to use a voiceover to carry the film. Using voiceover gives you the most flexibility in the edit when creating these short films as you then don’t need to record sound on location with the Actor and it allows you to move scenes and shots around in the edit compared to where they appear in the script.

We also knew for the basis of our pitch film we wanted to use the visual of John living in the wilderness and preparing himself for leading the people to the way of the Lord (as outlined in may of the Gospels). We felt that both visually this could be powerful but equally, to create the pitch film, we had no budget so couldn’t get in extras and specialist locations!

Adam came up with several key scenes he wanted to shoot and we sat down and discussed what he wanted to get out of each scene, and therefore the shots we would require.

THE RECCE

With all this in mind we set off to do a location recce at a couple of locations Adam had in mind. Now bare in mind, we are wanting to re-create America in South Yorkshire/Nottinghamshire UK! No small task, but Adam was convinced he knew a few spots that could work! We spent about 2 days trying to find the ideal locations for our scenes. This might seem excessive for a 2 minute pitch film but we knew the location would be everything and mould the look of the film so much, particularly as we were going with natural light! Equally we only had our Actor and crew for a day so needed to find locations near each other to fit everything into the schedule.

Adam and I on our recce for John

After picking our favourite locations we ended up visiting our forest and campfire on two separate days, both at different times of the day to see how the light looked. When working with natural light and natural environments finding the perfect spot, in my opinion, is key to getting the look you want. For instance, ensuring the background of the shot is looking how you want it, ensuring the light is coming from the right direction and deciding which ways you can shoot to get the best looking pictures.

THE LIGHTING

On the whole we wanted to make use of the sun as a backlight, so always shooting toward the sun or the sun in a 3/4 position will give lovely shadows and layers to an image. Sadly it was overcast for much of the shoot day but that said still placing the sun in those positions you get some really lovely modelling of the light on the trees etc. When the sun did pop out we really used it to our advantage.

For most of the film some negative fill was used on the camera side of the actor, just using a piece of polyboard painted black. When the sun came out the white side of the polyboard provided some great fill.

Our actor lit entirely by the campfire

For the campfire scene, I had bought a couple of small LED panels to supplement the fire but once I got them in a couple of position I thought might be useful they just looked foney so didn’t end up using them. In the end we just ended up using the light of the fire. In addition to the fire I still wanted there to be a bit of atmosphere, a bit of light in the sky, and ambient light so you could see the environment we worked hard on sourcing. To achieve this we had about an hour from when the sun went below the horizon to the sky becoming to dark to shoot the sequence!

Setting up for the campfire scene

THE CAMERA

We knew exactly how we wanted to shoot the pitch film; making use of wide lenses, handheld camera work and small moves on a slider/dolly.

The Sony FS7 ready to roll!

Wide Lenses

Going with what I had in the kit bag I carried out some tests with my 17-40mm f4 Canon L Lens with Speedbooster on the Sony FS7. Compared to s35mm this would give me the equivalent field of view of a 12mm-28mm lens. Not bad going in one lens! Granted, it is not the most ideal lens for narrative work but when working with only one assistant, on a tight schedule, it could have been much worse! I knew I didn’t want go down the extreme shallow depth of field route on this project, heck we had some lovely surrounding we wanted to see! So I shot most of the day footage at around f5.6-8 and the campfire scene was around f2.8.

Handheld Camerawork

I have to say, I am normally an advocate of the tripod/slider for narrative work unless the piece calls for handheld – and this project did. I carried out several tests with Adam around my house, testing how the movement translated depending on the lens and distance between the subject and camera. We got some really interesting results and found the 12mm end very smooth and ‘floaty’. We mainly ended up shooting around 17mm-28mm on the lens, shooting only extreme close ups on the longer end.

Shooting short film ‘John’ on the the FS7

The Slider

We used the slider a lot more than expected, it gave us some great shots. Even with a slightest amount of parallaxing it can turn a dead shot into something with some anticipation and wonder! For instance, the first shot in the film! We used my short 80cm slider to achieve theses shots. Sadly, as your lens gets wider and wider you have to travel along the slider further and further to get that parallaxing you need to make the shot work!

THE LOOK

I hate how green looks on most digital cameras, and shooting a film with a lot of green in is something I keep seeming to do at the moment! So making use of film emulation LUTs helps get that digital looking green back to something more tame! As I have done with several projects now I created a custom LUT for the film, based around a Kodak 50D film stock LUT and Fuji print stock LUT. By taking some test shots, you can import them into DaVinci Resolve and apply the two LUTS together, along with a correction layer in between, to create your custom LUT. You then can import this LUT into the camera and use it for onset previews and into the edit suite for a basic grade.

Screen grab from JOHN

We shot on the Sony FS7 in CINE EI mode, shooting in Slog3. I rated the camera at 1000ISO most of the time, as I feel I get cleaner blacks overexposing and bring it down in the grade, but did bump the camera up to it’s native 2000ISO for the campfire scene. As the LUT I created transformed the image so much (for instance not letting highlights go above 80%) I used my waveform set to the sLog3 picture to determine my exposure, basically checking my highlights and if anything was clipped. This is the first narrative project in 3 years where I haven’t relied on my light meter for exposure. Perhaps I am getting used to how the picture in the FS7 viewfinder looks or perhaps find it easier with the changing intensity of the sun to rely on my eye and waveform a little more… That said, everything turned out as expected.

We didn’t have long in the grade so I used this custom LUT to form the basis of my correction and just tweaked from there!

CONCLUSION

So there we have it, that is what goes into the cinematography of a short pitch film! As you can see my mantra “By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail” still rings true. So much of the work I do is in the Pre-Produciton phase of the project, in this case picking suitable locations that translate well on camera.

Please share, vote and rally on our pitch in the Enter The Pitch competition. Every vote counts and the more votes we get the greater our chances of getting that £25,000 production budget to make our short film JOHN into a reality! The public vote closes at 12 noon on the 31st October 2016.

Screen grab from JOHN