XL1S and P+S Technik Mini35 on Seinfeld / Levinson Shoot,
Part One: an article by Charles Papert, S.O.C.
Be sure to see photos which accompany this article.
Perhaps inspired by the BMW Films series, Radical Media was hired to produce a long form Internet spot for American Express, written by and starring Jerry Seinfeld with Barry Levinson directing. My good friend and associate Shane Hurlbut (Drumline, Crazy/Beautiful) was hired to DP the spot, and when he was told that the intention was to shoot on DV, he brought me on to operate and advise him on the approach to shooting a high-end DV project. Shane had thoughts about using the P+S Technik Mini35 system with Cooke S4 lenses to optimize the picture quality, and once I showed him some footage I had shot with the system, he felt comfortable that this would be a solid way to go.
We rented two setups from Otto Nemenz in Hollywood. Otto has done a commendable job of modifying their Mini 35 rig, building a custom power base and reconfiguring cables so that the FU1000 viewfinder receives its 12v power without having to go through the Canon step-up, while providing various film industry standard connectors for accessories. It also has a multiple-format frameline generator so you can dial in various aspect ratios with shaded borders. For a camera department that is more attuned to working in film, it was a nice bridge.
And away we flew, to New York City, arriving late on Thursday night with an early call for the scout on Friday. I was excited to work with Barry, as I am a big fan of several of his films, particularly "Diner." During some down time on set, I was able to chat with him about that film and he told me some interesting anecdotes about the production. It's obvious that more than twenty years later, it's a project that was near and dear to his heart as well.
The piece we were shooting revolves around Jerry Seinfeld hanging out in New York with Superman, who was to be created using Flash. This presented certain complications to the shoot which occur whenever one is working with a special effects character, and in particular accommodating the somewhat limited 3D applications of Flash. A lengthy meeting with the animation team on Friday night involved going through the script shot by shot and determining what would be needed for the effect to succeed, i.e. when or when not to use green screens, which shots had to be locked down, etc. We were also briefed on the proper etiquette for greeting the Man of Steel. "Superman" was okay, "Mr. Man" not so much, and we had to promise not to bring any kryptonite on set, that sort of thing.
Sunday, November 2, 2003: Pickup Unit
Shane, myself and our B-camera operator and sometime-assistant Gary Hatfield set out to Times Square to shoot some plate shots for a sequence where Superman flies between the buildings. Since no other actors or crew were needed, it made sense to knock this off to help with the schedule for the rest of the shoot. We walked around Times Square grabbing shots for about three hours, shooting on the fly. It's always interesting trying to imagine where and how a CG character is going to move and operating the camera as if they are really there; you have to do a bunch of variations in speed, varying the lenses and hoping that you've given the animation guys plenty to work with. The other challenge was the high contrast of light in Times Square on a sunny day, given the limited latitude of DV. We didn't have a field monitor so I was setting the exposure via the viewfinder. I own an FU-1000 (the Canon black and white viewfinder for the XL1), so I was reasonably comfortable; however the rental viewfinder was a bit different in contrast, so I had to hedge my bets a bit! I think it worked out fine. Fortunately, we will have monitors for the rest of the shoot. We are shooting in 60i (regular) mode to maximize the resolution, with the assumption that down the road, some sort of interlace software such as Magic Bullet will be applied. We were a few shots in when it occurred to me to check the custom presets, and sure enough we were shooting with a somewhat wacky setting; color saturation turned all the way up, setup all the way down. I was sure they can be brought in to line in the color correction process, but that didn't seem like an ideal place to start!
Monday, November 3, 2003: Day One -- Principal Photography Begins
An early morning call; the usual madness of a crew working together for the first time added to the unique environment of working in Manhattan. The electric crew was hard at work lighting the stage of a faux Broadway show that figures into the script, so the rest of the unit moved over to Tribeca to shoot a walk and talk with Jerry and Superman. I felt it was important to attempt to match the two cameras since they would be intercut, so we set them up with similar lenses pointed at a colorful street scene and I "painted" them as much as can be done with an XL1s through the custom presets. At this point I realized why the camera we used the previous day had such funky settings; it really needed to have the setup and saturation dialed in where it was to match the other camera. At this point I also played around with cheating the white balance using gels, trying different combinations to see which rendered the most pleasing image. I eventually settled on a 1/8 plus green and a 1/4 CTB, which gave a nice warm look with accurate skin tones. This packet became our default setup, and since the XL1 does not "recognize" the Mini-35 as a bona-fide lens and will not retain white balance settings, we were pulling out the filter packs many, many times a day…
We moved quickly into our first setup, with the "A" camera on the 25-250 zoom across the street and the "B" camera on the 300mm on the opposite corner. The fur was flying as it became apparent that we couldn't hardwire the two cameras to Video Village for the director to see (and for me to adjust exposure), because we couldn't drag the cable across a busy New York street! I attempted to hook up my Modulus video transmitter to the B camera but apparently the cable was bad and it blew the damn thing up. Not a happy event by itself, and unfortunately events have a way of snowballing. Since I had to man the A camera, I never got to dial in the exposure, and the B shot was a bit overexposed as a result. We were forced to shoot in the worst case scenario, with hot sun blazing on the backs of their heads and fully shaded backgrounds. If we had shot each camera individually, we could have brought in diffusion or netting out of frame, but shooting at 90 degree angles meant it would have gotten into one or the other shot. Time constraints forced us into pressing ahead. The effects coordinator appeared to inform us that we should be shooting in Frame mode after the first shot, even though we had been told 60i in pre-production. I told him that we had now shot several pieces in 60i, and he felt he could de-interlace them without problems. I did wonder why we wouldn't then shoot all of it in 60i to preserve the full resolution (being conscious of the 25% resolution loss in Frame Mode), but I'm sure the decision was sound.
Things got better as we moved into tight coverage, and Shane was able to finesse the lighting and exposures. We were incidentally shooting with a T2 on the Cookes, and adjusting the relay on the Mini35 to fine tune exposure (if the relay lens dial went any higher than a 3, we would add ND filters up front). Also we used the -3 db setting on the camera for exteriors, going up to 0 db for interiors.
In the afternoon, we moved back to the theatre to shoot Jerry and Superman watching a musical from the front row. It was here that we discovered a back focus issue with one of the two cameras. It seems that out in the daylight, with the relay lens on the Mini 35 set to the mid position, there was enough depth of field on the groundglass for the image to resolve properly; but with the dark interior and the relay opened up all the way, the image was slightly soft. Normally you can get to the back focus adjustment on the Mini 35 reasonably easily, but it does require removing the XL1 and the Otto Nemenz setup prevented us from doing so. We ordered another rig from TCS in NY, although it would arrive too late for the theater sequence which was completed with a single camera.
To shoot a reverse through the dancers towards J&S, a green screen was deployed. The shot was lined up with the audience, then the screen added and the dancers did their thing; then we shot the audience without the dancers. This was because any element that would pass in front of Superman needed to be a separate layer to avoid rotoscoping.
We called it a night and Shane and I headed across the street to the Underbar at the W Hotel to chew over the events of the first day over a couple of bourbons. As we sat in the bar, a very well groomed and nicely dressed chap walked passed carrying a DVX100. It seemed a bit incongruous, and when I popped out to the bathroom a few minutes later, I saw a sound mixer set up in an adjoining booth and a few other folks with cameras. It didn't look like a low budget shoot somehow, yet there were no lights present and a minimum of crew. Then I saw the gent who had walked past us from the front, and realized it was George Clooney; just in front of him was Steven Soderburgh, shooting two actors in the next booth for their (now-cancelled series) "K-Street". I said hello to George as I have worked with him a few times in the past; he gave me a bear hug and proudly informed me that he had gotten his 600 card (meaning he was now a member of the camera union). I told him that I hoped the dues weren't breaking his bank account.
Tuesday, November 4, 2003: Day Two -- Times Square
A few quick shots with the neon and video screens in the background, including a couple of Japanese tourists pointing, "Look! Up in the sky!" etc. Then on to our restaurant location a few blocks away, for a scene of Jerry and Superman arriving for lunch and conversation (a classic Seinfeld setting). We were prepared to ND the windows at the end of the restaurant, but the day was dark and stormy so the levels outside were containable. Shane brought 18Ks bounced off 12x20 griffs through the windows, plus some 6k par hard light through the back windows to separate the background. The result was a beautiful, rich feel to the room. The close-ups at the table were lovely, the background obviously soft but plenty of highlights (the art department had provided incandescent fixtures at each table) and activity and depth. Lenses were on the longer side, over-the-shoulders on a 75mm and close-ups with a 135mm.
Shane and I felt we had finally dialed in a very 35mm-looking image now that we were under a controlled environment. Barry was also impressed. The TCS Mini35 matched nicely to the Otto Nemenz rig. Life was good. Then the heavens opened up and we were hit by the Perfect Storm (perhaps Mr. Clooney had brought it with him…)Fortunately the rain wasn't hitting the windows directly, but we still "shot out" the angles that involved windows first. Even still, by 4 pm we were lighting across the street in an attempt to keep the daylight look going. The bar had wooden blinds on the window, which we adjusted to get a sheen which helped sell the daylight as well.
We had the animation director with us for the entire shoot, and he would advise for any given setup how to accommodate the yet-to-be-drawn Superman. Sometimes we were required to shoot background plates for the animators to use as needed, which would often include camera movement. Gary and I would have to repeat our camera moves with no actors, sort of a poor-man's "motion control"--very interesting! Wrap was called, and we proceeded to motion-control our way through a couple of slices of fabulous NY pizza. They just don't make 'em like that in LA, sadly.
Wednesday, November 5, 2003: Day Three -- Alley and Apartment
Today we shot scenes in a classic NYC alley, where Superman nabs a thug who has stolen a DVD player out of Jerry's hands. We had nice soft overcast light and were able to shoot without lights or bounce for most of the morning. We did a fair amount of handheld, which the animators had no concerns about in terms of adding Superman later. Modern technology at its finest.
One shot featured Jerry and Superman reflected in a police car window. In another shot Jerry sprinted down the street, searching the skies for the flying Superman, which we shot with the 300mm at the far end of the street. I gave the camera assistant a stop of T4, which is as much as I dared with the Mini 35 before the groundglass became apparent. This was, incidentally, one of the earlier versions of the Mini35 with the rotating groundglass; the latest version (400 series) with oscillating groundglass appears to to bear much deeper T-stops before the grain becomes visible. Long lens shots with a fast moving subject coming at the camera is one of the hardest focus and I knew we only had a couple of takes before Jerry would want to move on. We did some rehearsals with a PA, and I fed the assistant notes on where during the run he was soft i.e. he was too far ahead or behind. By take three, Jerry's last, he nailed it nicely.
On to the apartment interior, which Shane lit beautifully with 18k's bounced through the tall windows to the side of the apartment. The art department had done a nice job of filling the room with furniture--when I last saw it on the scout on Friday, it was completely bare. The coverage was pretty basic, but for a scene involving a short circuit on the TV with smoke that had to engulf Superman, we had to shoot some separate smoke plates (courtesy of our able effects guy, who designed a great-looking spark and smoke effect) against green screen. This set shows up in one of the hilarious TV teasers, also viewable on the website.
Thursday, November 6, 2003: Day Four -- Theatre District
A walk-and-talk across 44th street ends with the thug stealing Jerry's DVD (preceding the alley scenes shot yesterday). The St. James Theatre, home to Broadway's "The Producers" was redressed with the fictional show "Oh Yes Wyoming", the musical from Day 1. A few passersby were baffled by the posters and marquee sign, but ended up delighted spotting Jerry, who was signing the odd autograph in between takes. We attempted our first Steadicam shot of the show, but sadly some snafus with the video transmission meant that Barry had no image on his monitor. We scrambled to hardwire, but for some reason we were unable to split the outgoing video signal from the XL1 to the Steadicam and out to the monitor. After a couple of takes, Barry canned the Steadicam shot and we went back to the dolly. I was pretty annoyed, since I haven't seen video issues like that since the early days of my Steadicam career. Part of it was due to a rented transmitter to replace the one of mine that blew up on the first day... this being the final indignity of that mishap!
The rain was moving in on us, with the result that a wide shot taken from a scissor lift that would eventually show Superman flying up and away looked especially murky, prompting our first "pushed" shot. I had to crank the camera up to +6 db of gain, with both the Cooke and the relay optics wide open. For the last few shots, Shane blanketed half the block with bounce light, bringing our shooting stops back to normal and restoring a daylight look to the gloomy exteriors. And without much fanfare, our New York shoot was wrapped.
Friday, November 7, 2003 through Saturday, November 8, 2003
Fly home to Los Angeles; sleep; drive out to Death Valley (so much for my weekend)! Continue on to Part Two and I'll meet you there.
Check out the finished product for American Express at www.jerry.digisle.tv/room.html.
The Watchdog notes: As one of the hardest working people in show business, Charles Papert, S.O.C. has extensive experience as a cinematographer and Steadicam operator. His work may be found within familiar movies and TV shows including Scrubs, E.R., The West Wing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Crazy/Beautiful, American History X and Office Space, among many more. He is a member of the Society of Camera Operators and a founder of the Los Angeles-based Instant Films. Somehow he manages to squeeze in time to help moderate our DV Info Net Community message boards, where you can chat him up about Steadicams, lighting, lenses, and general Hollywood trivia.
Go on to Part Two: Death Valley.
See the images which accompany this article.
See the images which accompany Part Two.
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Written by Charles Papert, S.O.C.
Thrown together by Chris Hurd.