Steve Mims is a writer, director, director of photography and editor based in Austin, Texas. He shoots 35mm, 16mm and High Definition and his work includes commercials, shorts, documentaries and feature films.
Last October I shot a short fiction film called HONORARIUM. It’s a twelve-and-a-half minute piece that I worked on over the course of the fall and finished in early December. I wound up shooting roughly fifty percent of the film using the Sony PMW-EX1 and the balance on the Canon EOS 7D.
Stats for HONORARIUM
Technical: trt 12:27 • B&W • stereo • HD1080p
Cameras: Sony EX1, Canon EOS 7D
Editing: Final Cut Pro 6.0.6
Clip: watch selected shots on VIMEO
This has evolved into a long article as I have not only ventured into the technical aspects but into a broader perspective of filmmaking. For me, technical choices are mostly tied to aesthetic decisions. Sometimes aesthetics determine the technical choice and sometimes it’s the other way around. As I started this piece I found myself wading into issues that ultimately pushed this project in a distinctive direction, far outside issues of frame rates, shutter speeds, ISO, and codecs.
So, there is a great deal here that is strictly about my personal approach to a project and I apologize if that’s not of interest to the reader. I have separated this article by headings, so that you can skip right down to the information you might be looking for and bypass whatever you like.
So that you’ll know where I’m coming from, I’ve started with a bit of ancient personal history.
I started making my own films when I collaborated with my uncle on an 8mm animated short when I was twelve. In high school I bought a Super 8mm camera and made a series of summer epics, mimicking the films I loved: westerns, comedies and swashbucklers. In college I moved on to 16mm and made four short films in four years while working as a projectionist and a public relations office camera operator. At one time I occupied all the available dweeb jobs on campus. In college I also learned linear videotape editing and three-quarter-inch video production. From there it was one-inch video, more 16mm, 35mm, S-VHS, digital video, Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, DV, HDV, HDCAM, XDCAM right down to today’s digital SLRs that shoot full 24PHD.
In short, filmmaking for me has been one long, interesting mutation. I’ve adapted to it all and I have never regretted learning the “next thing.” As I see it, it was purely a cosmic joke that I entered filmmaking when it was done on emulsion (for me in 8mm). I love film.
I love the way it looks, but I am not romantic or nostalgic about it. I have made a few films that could have used more “takes” and I have had my share of shots rendered unusable by rolling out of a roll of film late in a take. Hairs have found a way to get stuck in my camera gate. I have logged my hours groping around in a film changing bags and finding sync on a Steenbeck flatbed editor. I’ve coughed up money for film prints for festivals. Even on the worst day it was interesting, fun and challenging, but it wasn’t the primary reason I was working.
Story attracted me to filmmaking. I became infatuated with Alfred Hitchcock (thanks to Truffaut’s book) then John Huston, Michael Curtiz, Orson Welles, George Roy Hill, Spielberg, Kurasawa, David Lean and Peter Weir for their ability to design a film that told stories largely visually. That became my focus and it allowed me to mostly sit out the somewhat tiresome film vs-video-16 vs 35-DV vs real-broadcast-hdv vs real HD-Canon vs Panasonic-P2 vs SXS-DSLRs vs real-honest-to-god-1080p-with-REAL-broacast-viewfinder discussion.
Actually, I had to live through and participate in all those discussions, but it was always a bit of a chore and mostly a bore. I would still rather just shoot and edit and finish a film and show it and let everybody else sort out the technical details. I am still bothered that the WITHOUT-A-BOX film festival entry form makes you reveal the format you shot on. First: who cares and why? Virtually every film now, in the end, is a giant QuickTime file. Is how it gets folded in there important (are you judging the film initially based on format and your estimation of it)? Second: you tell me. How do you think I shot it? What does it look like?
But you cannot really skip the tech stuff if you make your own films. It’s the technical issue you don’t wrestle to the ground that will sink you. So you have to wade in there, sort out the real issues from the manufactured ones and figure it out. It really isn’t theoretical and or incomprehensible. Most of the concepts you need to understand are visible and audible and weirdly organic to the process. Light, lenses, focal stops, frequency and amplitude-they’re all related in a pleasing way that falls elegantly into place.
Years ago conversations about film versus video with clients and students would all be qualified with a careful delineation of what works on film and not on video. It was a very real, valid discussion. Some argue it still is, and I would agree today, but only to the extent that a budget allows you to go for the measurable percentage of latitude and resolution you still get from silver halides.
To my eye HD 24p pulled digital filmmaking virtually alongside analog film. Lacking in latitude and resolution, but matching the frame rate and shutter speed, 24p changed the nature of discussions with clients and consideration for personal work. In some small ways, however, all the three-chip versions of 24p still manage a slightly plastic representation of skin, making it come across as shiny and difficult (for me) to expose correctly, compared to film.
The RED One camera upped the ante sporting a single large chip that resulted in a more film-like image reproduction and sensor width that allowed 35 mm lenses and depth of field. Unfortunately, Red’s roll out and subsequent test-by-investment-buy-it-and-try-it implementation has been like staring at a guy stuck in a revolving door. It is interesting, but only briefly. I realize that Red is a very important evolutionary development and that users are committed to it and I don’t want to imply any disrespect. I’ve seen great projects shot on Red.
Canon finally brought home the digital filmmaking bacon in 2009. The EOS 7D: 24p, 1/48th shutter, tremendous (compared to film) ASA/ISO ranges, a single large sensor with a usable image area near that of a 35mm motion picture camera, 35mm lenses, recorded on flash memory or output to an external device, all at a bargain price. Hot dog. That’s incredible.
So I had to try it.
I had developed a short film story with my friend Reid Nelson early in the year. By April we had a script ready to be shot, but we both were too busy to make the schedule. In late summer we started preparing again, shooting this time for an October start date. I own a Sony PMW-EX1 with a matte-box and follow-focus, and our intention was always to shoot on XDCAM.
At the end of September the rumors were swirling that Canon might announce a “digital cinema” camcorder with the same sensor that was in their announced 7D. I’m a sucker for rumors like this and I wrote to Chris Hurd of DV Info Net to see what he knew. Chris’s tight lips would sink no ships. As my fellow camera-dweebs reading this know, Canon did not announce such a camera (I am still watching for it.) Chris did however, because of my little inquiry, offer the loan of his new 7D for a week… the same week we had already booked to shoot our short film.
On October 7, 2009, we began shooting HONORARIUM, a short film partly using the Sony EX-1 and partly on the Canon 7D. We had no time for tests.
Here’s my account of what happened, why and why I’m thrilled about it.
HONORARIUM follows HOLBROOK (Reid Nelson) a controversial speaker at an academic conference who is picked up at the airport by a volunteer ANNE (Alex Gehring). Her assignment of delivering him to the conference is derailed by protesters and her efforts to fulfill her role test the limits of social decorum and duties.
Our script had been completed in the spring, but the shooting delay allowed us to rewrite and polish it all the way up to October. It also allowed me ample time to draw storyboards for every camera set up. I have anxiety dreams about showing up at a shoot completely confused and unprepared, even when I am not working. I almost always edit my own projects, so the editor part of me does not want to live through cutting a film with insufficient material or boring shots. Filmmaking really can be a “sin in haste, repent in leisure” situation. If you are the one trying to edit lame material, the repenting part is not so much fun.
So I storyboard everything using a template I designed that allows room for a panel only slightly larger than a thumbnail image and areas for specific notes. Over the years I have learned that the faster I draw storyboards (in an almost gesture style) the better they look. The key thing is to get the eye-lines and the subject size right. Beyond that I always write notes to myself about entrances and exits (again, as an editor, I have had to live with my directorial mistakes and I have wanted to kill myself for silly, basic errors).
Once I have a numbered script and storyboards that match I feel comfortable that at least I have a complete “plan-A” for making a film that works on a visual level. It is a great relief. The hard part, designing the film, is over. I can then totally focus on getting it down correctly on film. I always wind up deviating from the script and the boards in shooting, but only when location logistics don’t match up, a better option presents itself, or serendipitous a event happens that provides something I could not have hoped for or foreseen in advance. But, at minimum, I know that if I execute my original design it will work.
One more note about storyboards. I draw them whether I have seen the location or not. I want to make the movie that’s in my head, not record the scene on location as it is dictated by the geography of the space. I don’t want to be a slave to the reality of the location. That can be tiresome. Hitchcock said that his job was to fill a rectangle in an interesting way and that everything beyond the ‘box’ isn’t important. That’s a simple and liberating way to think about filmmaking. In the end, I often wind up re-thinking everything once I have a location and making up a new strategy on the spot. But even then, the exercise of figuring out what is important in advance helps me make decisions.
I decided to make HONORARIUM black and white for two reasons. I love black and white and I hate the random color palate that low budget films sometimes get by default. When you can’t repaint the set or re-costume actors you wind up stuck with colors that are distracting or inconsistent. In black and white everything matches. Your eye is never drawn to a random splotch of red in the background. Black and white also reduces having to worry about color temperature issues on the set. You don’t have to worry so much about tungsten, daylight and fluorescent sources.
We designed props for the film as dictated by the script: a book dust jacket, a lanyard, a newspaper and a business card. The whole project was designed to be small in cast, locations and props, so collecting and designing them only took a few days. Kakii Keenan, our art director, handled most of this and also designed our only sets: a bar, a hotel room and a laundry. Kakii has skills that make her unlike anyone I have ever met. She has literally made a cake and changed out the fuel pump on a car on the same day on a shoot. I have often had to ask her to make something virtually from nothing instantaneously and she’s done it. In the case of HONORARIUM she wrangled a laundry list of items with almost no money.
Our only “from-the-ground-up” set was a laundry/dry cleaner’s shop. Rather than hassle with a real location, we converted a wide entrance way and hallway at our studio location and dressed it as a “mom and pop” style small business. Kakii found a clothes rack, bought some plastic film garment covers, built a counter, created a door sign, and those items plus a few other props totally sold the illusion of a small laundry. I had written that the laundry had a swinging back room door with a porthole style window. We knew we would never find that, so we built it out of foam core and a glass plate (for the window) and mounted it on a C-stand. It’s my favorite illusion in the film.
A piano bar scene was shot on a sound stage against a green screen. We scouted countless bars in Austin without luck. We either could not afford to shoot or we could not make “bar hours” work for our schedule, so we wound up borrowing a bar height table and chairs and shooting standard coverage: a master, reverse medium shots, and reverse close-ups. After principal photography and a rough cut of the film was done, I shot background plates at a bar near my house using the Canon EOS 7D (more about that later).
All the other locations in the film were practical, with little or no art direction issues of note.
Tuesday, October 6th was our last day of pre-production. We picked up some additional gear at the University of Texas RTF equipment checkout, including a Matthews doorway dolly and a 1200 watt HMI. Otherwise our gear package consisted of my own equipment, which includes a Lowell DP kit, an Arri 650 Fresnel, a Mole Richardson 250 watt midget, and grip equipment.
We moved into a studio in east Austin and pre-lit our first set for the next day: the bar scene that was shot on green screen. John Mace, a former UT student of mine, served as gaffer and together we pre-lit the green screen and a bar-height table and two chairs. We designed the lighting to work for both the two shot (master) and the reverse close-ups with minimal tweaking. We used a 1K open-faced DP with a Chimera soft-box rigged with additional diffusion overhead for the key light. We used the HMI and the Arri Fresnel as kickers. We flooded the green screen with two DP lights from base plates on the studio floor.
That evening I met with Reid and Alex, the two leads, for a brief rehearsal.
Planned as a Sony EX1 shoot, HONORARIUM became a Canon EOS 7D hybrid a week before principal photography. Canon announced the 7D on September 1st, shipped it on September 29th, and we started shooting with it on October 7th.
My EX1 is setup with several Picture Profiles, one of which is my favorite and what we used on HONORARIUM. I’m a big fan of Eastman Kodak 7248, a fine grain 100ASA emulsion with great, warm skin tones. Our picture profile on the EX1 is my custom version (as close as I can get). Here are the picture profile settings:
Gamma -99 /CINE1
Black Gamma +/-0
Low Key Sat +/-0
Additionally, I set the gain to -3db and the shutter to 1/48th of a second at 24 frames progressive.
The Canon EOS 7D was set up using virtually all the factory presets except for a few adjustments that had been changed by Chris Hurd. I think it was set for “Highlight Tone Priority” in Custom Functions, and dialed into a “Landscape” picture profile.
We recorded all location audio on the Sony camera using an Audio Technica short shotgun microphone patched directly in via the XLR jacks of the camera. We did not use an external mixer. When shooting with the 7D we recorded sound on the Sony camera and slated for double system.
Wednesday, October 7th was our first of three scheduled days and our most ambitious at nine pages of script.
Using the EX1, we shot the piano-bar scene from about eight until eleven a.m. It was a three and a half page dialogue scene, so we shot a single master many times, and then rotated the table and chairs and re-lit for the medium and close shots. Since we had pre-lit the set the day before it went easily. Once coverage of that scene was complete, we shot the hotel room scene in the same space. The brief scene was an overhead angle down on a hotel room bed. Holbrook is awakened from sleep by a phone call. Kakii brought in an inflatable mattress and we lit modifying the lighting from the bar scene. We added two reflectors that we panned across the scene at intervals to simulate light leaking in through hotel room curtains. Before lunch we shot an insert for the interior airport scene. It was a full shot of a book dust jacket author photo.
After lunch we moved on to a scene at the end of the film where Holbrook and Anne part company. The scene is in a long hallway that was impossible to light, so we shot with the existing overheads for the wide shot. John Mace rigged a high hat atop a 12 foot step ladder to achieve the high angle in the master shot. For closer angles we supplemented the existing light with the Arri 650 and bounce boards.
Next we built the set for the laundry scene in the same corridor. We were ready to shoot by dusk (we needed darkness to have it fit with the script) and we were ready when our cast members arrived. I designed the shooting sequence to accommodate our 95 year-old actor, Alex Sole, so that we did his shots in script sequence and finished with him first. The scene is simple, but surprisingly complicated visually, so we did not shoot a master. We shot it exactly as story-boarded. Working without a break we finished by 11pm.
Thursday, October 8th was set aside so that we could prep for Friday and Saturday and so that Alex Gehring could make her day job.
Right:Arak Avakian and Alex Sole.
Friday, October 9th was supposed to have started with an early call to shoot Alex driving Reid from the airport. Heavy rain canceled that shoot, so we began with a noon call at the University Teaching Center on the University of Texas campus to shoot an airport concourse scene in an enormous corridor.
This was the first day we shot with the Canon 7D. My neighbor and production still photographer John Pozdro loaned me his Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 lens and we used it for the rest of the day.
After having used the EX1 the day before, the change to the Canon 7D was electrifying. It was as if, optically, we’d switched over to a 35mm motion picture camera. The 85mm lens delivered beautiful, glossy, shallow depth of field shots while only being a few feet away from the subject.
Additionally, we bumped the ISO up to 800. As the rest of the shoot unfolded we often used no lights. When we did light, it was primarily with bounce boards, reflectors, the Mole Richardson Midget and the Arri Fresnel 650. It was really liberating. The whole project had been designed to be small, but suddenly it got even smaller; which means it also got faster and less complicated and, reminding me of my days all the way back to shooting Super 8-a lot more fun. The airport scene, for instance, came down to me operating and Andrew Miller (our sound recordist) filling in as first AC. Andrew managed a couple of tricky focus pulls. We only had one line of sync dialogue in the scene and we recorded the track using the Sony EX1 as double-system audio recording device.
Later that afternoon we filmed a dialogue scene in Anne’s car as she drives Holbrook away from the airport. We used Alex’s aging Mercedes which has the world’s loudest diesel engine. Shooting with the EX1, hand-held from the back seat, we shot many, many takes, trying to get the page of dialogue in one unbroken take. We finally got it, but it was a real compromise and we wound up reshooting the whole thing a couple of weeks later.
We finished the day shooting the opening and closing shots of the film on the 7D. In a restroom we set up the camera for the revelatory opening close-up of Hobrook as he rises into frame, apparently staring at himself in a mirror. We used the 85mm lens and a single light, the Mole Richardson Midget with a snoot, mounted to throw light into an aluminum bowl that substituted for the restroom sink basin filled with water. The reflections out of the bowl are very subtle in the final shot, which, thanks to a truly amazing performance by Reid, we got in one take.
I was so thrilled with the lens by then that I started coming up with additional shots, so we moved back into the main corridor at the studio and picked-up the final close up in the film. Another giant extreme close up of Reid that bookends the movie. Once again, the combination of the lens, camera and terrific performance got us an amazing shot in just a couple of takes.
On Saturday, October 10th we did a scaled down shoot of Holbrook and Anne finding her car at an airport parking lot. Without a tripod, crew or lights I shot it exactly as story-boarded in less than an hour.
We moved to downtown Austin to shoot an exterior scene on the sidewalk, then picked up a wonderful vista from the twenty-seventh floor of a condo, and finally a brief exterior scene where Anne arrives at a hotel to pick up Holbrook. All this material was shot on the EX1.
After lunch we moved to Reid’s apartment (which serves as Anne’s in the movie) and shot a complicated scene where she arrives there with him. We used the 7D exclusively here with both the 85mm and kit lens that comes with the camera for wider shots. Again we used little or no lighting, and we wrapped by six p.m.
Footage from the EX1 was downloaded and converted to QuickTime using the Sony XDCAM Transfer (v.2.1.0). Footage from the Canon EOS 7D was transferred via USB to my MacBook Pro. It was converted from H.264 QuickTime files to XDCAM QuickTime files using Streamclip (v.1.9.2). Once all the files were the same: XDCAM, 1920×1080, 23.98 fps, I made a rough cut of the film in Final Cut Pro (v.6.6.1)
I cut the green screen scene in the bar and composited temporary still images for the location plates. About a week later I shot final background plates at a local bar on the Canon 7D (This time loaned to me by John Mace, who bought one after being amazed by it on our shoot.)
When the rough cut was complete I made a laundry list of pickup shots and dialogue issues and booked Reid, Alex and Kakii for a few hours of pickups on Wednesday, November 4th. We picked up the botched interior car scene by cheating the interior of the noisy Mercedes by substituting my Honda Element.
We mounted the EX1 on a high-hat atop two apple boxes directly behind the passenger seat in the element. Next we put an apple box in the very rear of the Element. One at a time, I had Reid, then Alex, sit on the apple box and Kakii drove us out onto to the freeway. By keeping the framing tight, I was able to exclude the giveaways that we weren’t in the Mercedes and the sound was much better. Once we had coverage in ‘singles’ of both actors, we had them play the scene again in the Mercedes. This time we went back out onto the freeway and stayed ahead of them while shooting a long-lens trucking shot as they repeated their dialogue over and over. Within about an hour and a half we had everything we needed. Finally, I had the actors come back inside the Element and we recorded several versions of the scene with wild dialogue. Those wild lines eventually wound up replacing all the sync dialogue in the scene.
Our last pickup was an overhead “sniper” view of the Mercedes coming to an abrupt stop and then accelerating. We shot this from a nearby parking garage.
With this additional material, I built a fine cut of the film complete with temporary music tracks. I did all the picture timing and audio mix work inside Final Cut Pro. I had always planned to crop the film from 1.78:1 to 2.35:1 and doing so required that a “reframe” many shots to preserve the correct composition. Beyond desaturating the image to make it black and white, I also adjusted the added the “proc amp” filter and adjusted the setup levels to increase the black level in the image shot by shot. I also used garbage mattes throughout the film, feathering the edges to provide a subtle vignette in selected scenes.
Finally we replaced our scratch music with an original score designed by Reid and the band The Miracle Waters (John Jordan, John Bush and Chris Mosley at Mescalito Studios.
I love designing, shooting and editing films and I had a fun time on HONORARIUM. From the outset it was built to be a small film and I think it really benefits from that diminutive approach. Because the cast and locations were limited we got to pay more attention to the performances and the look, even on a tiny budget. I am happy with the final result narratively, visually and aurally. It’s a tight little short that I hope surprises people with its narrative twists and low-key punch.
The Sony EX1 proved itself, again, as a fine camera. The Canon EOS 7D, however, really heralds the future of cinematography. With a single large, sensitive imager that reproduces 35mm optics in a small elegant package, the 7D is today capable of delivering stunning images that compare with the Red and even motion picture film itself. The option of shooting at a high ASA is a simple, revolutionary change. The days of enormous lighting packages for film shoots are probably soon to be gone. It’s a real watershed.
My list of complaints about the 7D is pretty short and obvious. The lack of a real cinema-style viewfinder makes operating much more awkward and haphazard than it could be (my EX1 has a follow focus and a two-stage matte-box and even with it’s dinky viewfinder I can operate it focusing by eye). Pulling focus is tricky, but possible, even without any aftermarket devices. Ergonomically it’s somewhat awkward to shoot film-style on a DSLR camera.
Much has been written about the H.264 files and compression issues associated with those files. While I understand that the compression could be better, I’ve seen HONORARIUM projected on a 2K projector at the University of Texas intercut with the footage from the EX1 and it all looks amazing… far better, I have to admit, than most of my 16 mm projects look projected on a large screen.
My adventure with the 7D on this film started with my naive hope that Canon was about to come out with what I have been calling a “digital cinema” camera with the 7D technology in an ergonomically designed film-style body in October of 2009. My sincere hope is that they do so soon, building in numerous storage and compression options. The 7D as it is today has convinced me that such a camera could be, or would be, a spectacular filmmaking machine.
Below: These scenes feature Reid Nelson and Alex Gehring.
In the end, making HONORARIUM has been like every film project I have ever worked on. If you’re lucky, it is a chance to get yourself creatively into and out of trouble, learning from your mistakes along the way. It’s a little like a bar fight as it might have been described in a John Ford western: “You gotta shoot your way in and cut your way out.” Happy New Year — Pilgrims.
Thanks to: John Pozdro, Chris Hurd, Susanne Kraft, Linda Cavage, and Andy Garrison at the University of Texas at Austin Department of Radio-TV and Film, J. Kevin Smith, David Layton and Mike Nicholson of PictureBox Productions.