XL1S and P+S Technik Mini35 on Seinfeld / Levinson Shoot,
Part Two: an article by Charles Papert, S.O.C.
Continued from Part One, here's a brief summary from Charles Papert, S.O.C. to re-cap what this shoot is about: "...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 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." Once you've read through this, be sure to check out photos from the set which show Charles and crew plus the XL1S and Mini35, in action producing Jerry Seinfeld's AmEx spot.
Sunday, November 9, 2003: Day Five -- Rigging and 2nd Unit Establishing Shot
The second film in the series features Jerry and Superman taking a road trip somewhere in the desert in a 1965 Porsche. Our first day was to be spent shooting the scenes within the car, so we spent the morning rigging onto the process trailer which was to be towed by a camera car for Monday's photography. Shane wanted to find the camera angles and lenses to avoid having to do that work on Monday morning. I also took the opportunity to paint our cameras, the original two from Otto (the one with back focus issues having been sent back to us) and two from TCS, which would give us the opportunity to shoot three simultaneous angles on the process trailer with a backup rig in case of more problems. We had a couple of Fisher dollies riding on the process trailer with our first setup consisting of a frontal two shot on a 75mm, a single of Jerry on a 135, and a raking profile shot on a 50mm. The animation folks were concerned about road reflections in the glass which would complicate their work, so we used a combination of polarizers and carefully set flags to knock out as much reflection as possible.
In the afternoon, a small unit drove out to the desert to shoot the opening shot which was a driveby of the Porsche with a photo double for Jerry. My shot required me to shoot the Porsche coming towards camera at about 40 mph, then hard panning as the camera passes and landing on a specific composition as it disappears in the distance. Not so bad, although 180 degree pans are always tricky because you have to walk around the tripod. This one was on a 100mm lens, which made it that much more difficult to pick the exact moment to pan and hope to land on the right frame at the end. We did a few takes as the light was fading, but felt we might have to come back another day.
Monday, November 10th, 2003: Day Six -- Driving Footage
Even with our lights and flags rigged and camera positions set, we still had last minute issues to deal with in the morning. Our new video assist department showed up and I had requested two decent broadcast 9" monitors to be set up on the end of the process trailer with Hoodmans so I could judge exposures on the fly during takes . It took a while to find two monitors that matched well enough for me to trust what I was seeing. In retrospect, I wished I had ordered a waveform monitor for the shoot, but in a run and gun situation it could have been unwieldy, so I had to go a bit on faith for some of the shots. We drove up and down the highway into Death Valley with a long caravan of vehicles and CHP troopers holding traffic behind and ahead of us for what seemed like forever (and was in fact something like 8 hours).
Our grips had cut ND hard gel into perfect shaped panels which were applied to the back and side windows as needed to bring the desert landscape exposure into a proper range. For instance, when we were shooting backlit the front angles looked fine since the background hills didn't have too much direct sun, but the side angle was looking out at sidelit mountains and hot desert floor, and using an ND3 hard gel on the opposite side window was just the ticket to keep the highlights from blowing out. As we swung the trailer around or as the road changed, we would pop the hard gels on or off to taste. A nice quick solution. Shane had rigged a 6K par on the camera car as a key, diffused through a 4x4 frame of light grid cloth, but only to bring up the faces without looking "lit."
Tuesday, November 11th, 2003: Day Seven -- Death Valley Racetrack and Rest Area
A scene of Jerry and Superman talking across the car roof was covered from many angles, including a Jimmy Jib that got a great shot booming from street level to a high angle, revealing the "endless road" effect behind them. We had limited camera movement on this job because of the 2D nature of the Flash animation to be used with Superman as mentioned earlier, but the perspective didn't change so much on this shot that the animators were concerned. For a shot from behind the pair as they drive down the road, Gary crammed into the back "seat" of the Porsche with a 14mm lens. He's happy to do the more physically awkward operating, and I'm happy to let him do it!
Another scene today involved an older woman taking a snapshot of J&S. I shot what was meant to be her point of view through the viewfinder of her camera with the viewfinder matte effect to be added later. It was fun pretending to be an amateur (read: "bad") photographer, framing J&S in the bottom of the frame and off to one side. Question: why is it that amateur photographers opt to frame so much headroom in their snapshots?
The last two hours of the shoot were a full-on scramble as this was our last day with Jerry and Barry, and many shots left to do before the sun dropped. We finished the scenes for the day, then picked up the one shot we had left the day before, which had to be lit with 18ks after the sun died.
We then had to shoot a TV spot for broadcast, a short teaser that would be used to promote the films. The plan was to show the two wandering in the desert in a long lens shot. Shane called for the 300mm with a 2x extender (which would give us a 600mm effective) but I discovered that the setup resulted in the ground glass of the Mini35 being too present, the "Swirling Vortex From Hell" as I called it was unavoidable even wide open. We pulled the extender, and by now the light level had dropped to dangerous lows. We stuck to our 0 db setting as I knew that for broadcast the +6db would be a killer, with the assumption that it would be cranked as needed in color correction. Shane grabbed a Coral soft grad and held it in front of the lens as there was no time to mount the 6x6 mattebox that accommodated the grads. We got the shot, and with a fair amount of back-slapping, the principal photography was wrapped. I slept well that night (thankfully I wasn't visited by the same scorpion that made an appearance in Jerry's room).
Wednesday, November 12th 2003: Day Eight -- Inserts and Drive-bys (well, at least the Inserts...)
We had about eight insert shots in and around the car that we had amassed throughout the shoot this week, so we set up in the parking lot of the hotel and started in at it. However, the rains moved in which was incredibly bad luck, considering it almost never rains in Death Valley. We covered the car with a big overhead silk and bashed away at various close-ups . The intention was to finish our drivebys and establishing shots in the afternoon, but the rain showed no signs of letting up so Thursday was added as an additional day. Shane had to leave to start another job so I was moved up to DP the remaining work.
Thursday, November 13th 2003: Day Nine -- Drive-bys (at last!)
The morning started full of clouds again, which wasn't promising. We set out for our first location, and by the time the sun rose, it was clear we were looking at a healthy sized wait. The shots had to match the footage from Monday, which was all shot under lovely blue skys and plenty of sun. After having set up the opening scene (Sunday's ballbuster, the 100mm 180 degree pan), we sat and waited. Four hours later a break in the clouds gave us a couple of opportunities to shoot in partial sun, but required some heavy duty filter technology; to combat the dark and stormy clouds in the top of the frame, I used a hard ND6 grad on the bottom of the frame which allowed me to open up and brighten the skies, then a hard Blue Sky grad to add color to the now white skies. Finally the clouds moved and we had the day we wanted, and then the Porsche broke down. Seized alternator. What a bummer!
Two hours later, the car was fixed and the clouds were starting to move back in. After sitting for an eternity, we now had maybe three hours to get all of the work for the day. We cooked through the 100mm shot (I got it at last!) and on to a Jimmy Jib setup down the road, which was the final shot of the show. I sent Gary on ahead to set up another shot while we improvised an additional crane shot, then we sprinted over to Gary's camera as he panned the camera on a 300mm against the mountains. After two takes the light was gone on the car, as a massive storm cloud was swallowing up all the sun in the valley. We turned into "sun chasers", a convoy of four trucks and 8 cars flying east towards the last break in the clouds, hoping to find something shootable. I saw one mountain range in full sun, and then we landed in a patch maybe a half mile wide that wasn't in shade. We jammed into motion and got the new shot, and then called the day and the shoot complete. And we all said our goodbyes and headed off to greener pastures (i.e. anywhere that wasn't Death Valley).
The bottom line is that by all measures this was a fairly high end 35mm commercial shoot, except that instead of a film magazine at the back of the camera, we had a humble XL1s. Many of the images we got were really beautiful and testimony to the capabilities of this system, quirks and all. And it was nice not having to deal with the rigamarole of film shooting such as constant reloads and gate checks, etc. I strongly suspect that even industry-savvy viewers of the final product will be unlikely to detect that it was shot on digital, let alone DV (on a camera that has taken a bit of a back seat in light of recently introduced models). It was a fun job, a bit punishing and relentless (as many of them are), but interesting and some laughs along the way to boot courtesy of Mr. Seinfeld. 'Cause he knows a few things about comedy!
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.
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Written by Charles Papert, S.O.C.
Thrown together by Chris Hurd.