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Kevin Burnfield January 23rd, 2003 07:55 AM

First Born
In the mini-35 thread Charles Papert mentioned a film he worked on called FIRST BORN which was shot on video and they worked for a film look. I asked him to discuss it so I'm starting this thread to discuss this film specifically.

You can see the film at iFilm here:

Below I'll quote over the messages Charles first posted about it.

Kevin Burnfield January 23rd, 2003 07:57 AM

CR post from the mini-35 topic thread

Well put Barbara. I would go one step further and point out that the XL1 is very capable of a cinematic look with or without the Mini 35 if one commits to taking this approach to lighting (of course, the added depth-of-field characteristic of the Mini 35 will further the cause).

Digital cameras are not currently "faster" than available filmstocks, i.e. they require at least as much light to capture the image as a film camera. I usually rate the XL1 at 250 ASA, whereas Kodak makes several excellent 500 ASA filmstocks, netting an additional full stop of exposure. If one is attempting to achieve cinematic results with a DV camera, the only reason not to use a similar lighting package as one would when shooting film would be budgetary.

I was approached to shoot a DV movie a few years ago. Coming from a primarily film background but also having shot some narrative work on Digi Beta, once I discovered that the director wanted to achieve a feature film look as opposed to a Dogma style, I convinced him that we needed a significant lighting package. Even the gaffer was a bit baffled that we were pulling out 4K HMI's with a" little video camera" but the results were well worth it (and can be seen here). Now if the Mini 35 had been around then...!
Charles Papert, SOC

Kevin Burnfield January 23rd, 2003 07:59 AM



I'll start with the easy stuff--it was an XL1 with the 14x manual lens, in frame mode.

Then it gets a bit fuzzier (we shot it 2 years ago); the budget was around $25K and it was a 5 day shoot.

The G/E package was a large van package, with grip up to a 12x12 set and lighting up to 5K tungsten and HMI up to 2500 par (I confused this with another job when I mentioned 4K's earlier). It was just big enough to handle the day exteriors, but only just (the scene that takes place around the car when the wife is leaving was particularly tough with that size package). Contrast control is always the challenge with video in general and it took plenty of nets on the windows and all our firepower to balance windows with interiors. For the Steadicam shot that followed the couple through the door of the house with the newborn baby, we tented the area outside the door only allowing a bit of daylight in to balance with the interior level.

I'd be happy to answer any other questions--but we may be getting off-topic here...?

Charles Papert, SOC

Rob Lohman January 23rd, 2003 03:10 PM

Looks very nice! Haven't had time to see the whole 25 minutes
yet though.

Kevin Burnfield January 23rd, 2003 05:06 PM

yeah, I'm ready for all the stories in as much brutal details as Charles would care to go into.

Charles Papert January 24th, 2003 12:09 AM

Kevin, you could be opening up a Pandora's box here! I'll watch the short this weekend to refresh my memory and have at it. It's too bad the image quality on iFilm is not as high as it could be, it really does lose a lot in the process. Having seen it projected at Sony's Hollywood screening room on an absurdly state-of-the-art projector (and from that moment convinced of the viability of DV filmmaking), it's tough to reference that teeny low-res version you guys are seeing. But I'll do it! I'll do it!

Kevin Burnfield January 24th, 2003 10:20 AM

(G) Bring it on.

I agree about the low quality of the version on iFilm, even the quicktime one is less then spectacular but I think details would be helpful not only to me but the others here.

Charles Papert January 26th, 2003 02:03 PM

OK here we go!

Opening scene in park: was actually the first scene shot. Some opening-morning jitters, especially mounting the XL1 to my full-size Steadicam for the first time (I had just fitted a 5.6" LCD to the rig to replace the CRT monitor for lightweight work but hadn't had the opportunity to test it first). Considering that the first shot pulling back from the mom was in low-mode, it was a busy morning! Some 4x4 reflector boards were in use as well as 4x8 beadboard for bounce. The high speed roundy-round of the panicking guy was obviously Steadicam also, and the "Evil Dead"-esque rocket towards him was sped up and blurred in post. (The director, who works in digital effects at Sony, edited on FCP 2.0 with AfterEffects).

Nightime living room scene: I wish you guys could see it in its native form, it seems so bright on the web! I was interested in seeing how far into underexposure DV would hold up. Pretty far, as it turns out. The reflection shot in the glass door was picked up at a different location at dusk. The fireplace area was lit from underneath with a soft bounce; the shot where they hug is one of my favorite in the film, and it made me realize how great the XL1 is at achieving warm skin tones.

The office: the car (nice ride huh?) pulling up was low-mode Steadicam. Still not sure why the headlights flared (no, we weren't using a star filter!) I'm never crazy about having actors drive cars right up to me for safety reasons but this guy did a nice job. I'm also not crazy about doing Steadicam on shows that I'm also DP'ing, especially with digital where you need to keep a serious eye on exposure, but they couldn't afford a separate Steadicam operator so I relented. Not any more though... I've always liked the wide shot of the lobby, kinda Kubrickian. The director got the "Bannon Biotech" lettering from a prop house or something, didnt' cost much and lent much authenticity (much more so than a flat sign). Probably lit with Kinoflos off to the side and below the receptionist's face and perhaps a tungsten edge light. The elevator was another Kino, plus one for outside that was knocked out once the door closed.

I had a prior commitment and another gentlemen shot most of scene with the labtech. Unfortunately he managed to not follow my notes for the lighting so I can't really comment on the intention...the lab itself was supposed to be much darker to hide the somewhat low-tech environs. We brought it down in post, but the ratios are not where they should be. I returned in time to shoot the walk and talk, thankfully we had another Steadicam operator that day so I could focus on other issues. We handheld a small Kino for fill and let the overheads provide the basic illumination. The dialogue was later looped becuase the hall was too echo-y or something.

(next post)

Charles Papert January 26th, 2003 02:42 PM

Mom in the baby's bedroom: Lit with a large tungsten unit outside the window to the right for texture, plus a Pepper bouncing into a card hidden to the right of the large box in front of her (simulating the practical lamp). We used a skateboard dolly on track.

Dinner scene: a soft key just below the table provided the glowing fill light, with another unit mounted up high behind the actors for separation. I was also trying to play the depth of the hallway seen in the master shot by alternating light and dark areas. That confounded depth of field in DV--the only way to deal is with lighting unless you can go seriously long lens, and that has another effect entirely (distancing from the subject) which isn't always appropriate. The greenery outside the windows behind the guy's head was lit with some of our big guns (5k's I think) because the glass was tinted and it took a lot for the trees to read. We used the dolly for the coverage (close-ups) so we could jockey into new compositions as each character moved around the room.

Walk-and-talk in the park: Same location as the first scene. We used a long dolly run to add some spice to the master shot. For reasons to be pointed out later, we had an Arri geared head with us that day (here's an Arrihead) which I used as it would deliver smoother results at the long focal length than the scrappy fluid head we had that first day, which was subsequently replaced on my insistence. My operator was not comfortable with the gear head so I took over the reigns for the master shot, which unfortunately meant I couldn't keep as close an eye on exposure--the result is it was shot about a half stop hotter than I would have liked and some of the highlights are blown out, a look I hate. To help isolate the close-ups, we went extremely long lens and knocked the exposure down with ND filters.

"2 years later" I've always liked the slightly ominous music scoring behind this scene, which augmented the somewhat creepy feel of being watched that we created with the opening dolly move and the longer lens coverage of the guy coming around the car. Even though the couple is smiling and happy, we are setting up "trouble in paradise". I used silks and reflectors on the shot of the mom getting out of the car to countour the light. The shot of them entering the house was the one I referred to in an earlier post where we tented the area outside the door to keep the exposure similar to the interior. Video has such a limited exposure range, if I had shot without the tent it would have been completely blown out outside (or virtually black inside, either one). A couple of 12x12 double nets hang over the doors seen in the background to control that exposure. HMI's provide fill light. The Steadicam shot of the mom checking out the photo on the mantle was made as the light was dying and we were scrambling to knock down exposure to maintain the light outside the windows. Another favorite shot follows as the dad comes home from work. A double net hangs outside the door, cutting down the background light, with several HMI's pumping up the interior. The hot vertical strip of light on the background was an open door to the exterior around the corner, held at just the right angle.

Balcony scene--late afternoon sun, nice warm saturated colors. We shot the master and his coverage first while the sun was still above the horizon, then turned around for her closeups after it had dropped but was still providing skylight. I think we used a silk for his closeups to smooth out the direct sun a little bit. We shot handheld for the energy of the scene and also to be able to keep the actors from blocking each other. It was a race to the finish line because of the setting sun.


Charles Papert January 26th, 2003 03:25 PM

Baby's birthday: Our first shot inside the house, and in retrospect I wish I had made it a little more contrasty. A 2500 HMI par bounced into beadboard from the right side of the room provides most of the illumination, but should have been topped so that the level would fade higher up the walls. I was pretty happy with the Steadicam shot that opens the scene though.

Kitchen at night: A single large tungsten unit blasts through the windows, with some other units in the living room down the hall. When he turns the lights on, it's just the existing overhead lighting in the kitchen working (although I recall turning off certain of the globes to provide modelling to the scene). Convenient.

Hospital: When we scouted the location, I was struck by the round porthole-type window and came up with the single-shot concept which the director took to. It really would have required a jib arm on track to execute properly because of the short distance between the window and a desk behind it, but we ended up having to go Steadicam with a zoom snuck in (I think we had a Varizoom on the white 16x lens). This was the same day we had another Steadicam operator, so he performed what is a truly difficult Steadicam move, and did a great job. We backlit the fish tank and also worked a fresnel unit that bounced off the surface of the water and created the ripple effect on Mom's body. Because of the somber moment I kept the mood down as much as possible, including on the doctor as she walks up (using solids for negative fill, and a Kino downlight at the door).

Carport: We didn't plan the dissolve transition from the previous window at the hospital to the opening shot of the archway, but the director came up with it on the spot and I thought it worked great. It was a nice overcast day, perfect for the story (and unusual in LA!). The dialogue in the car required a substantial amount of lighting through the windshield and netting the individual actors to balance.

Graveyard: Here's why we had the Arrihead (this was same day as the park scenes, thankfully it got overcast when we moved to the cemetary). A friend was shooting a spec commercial and wanted to use my Hot Gears, which work with a geared head to make it a full blown remote head such as one would use on a crane (here's Hot Gears). We arranged to use his crane and gearhead with my Hot Gears during the day which netted us this crane move as well as the last shot in the movie, and then he got to use our stuff at night. Perfect situation! Ultimately it cost us nothing to get these high-production value shots. We did lose the light and had to come back another day to get the close-ups, in the pouring rain. I think the director had to paint out some raindrops in post. I really love the light quality on those close-ups though.

Argument over mom leaving in living room: not much to say about this except I like the blocking. And for some reason we had to re-shoot the close up of Mom just before she heads down the stairs, so that was a different day. It matches pretty nicely I think. In looking at the closeups, I remember that I always had to give the dad an eye-light because his eye sockets were pretty deep and he would look too sinister otherwise. Mom had a great face and took all kinds of light well, although I preferred to give her soft light which seemed to work best with her character. I love her extreme close up when she says "I know".

Argument continues at carport: We were lucky enough to get the master opening shot done in overcast light. When it turns into coverage as she gets in the car, I had to do a lot of silking and filling and adding light to balance out the sunlight on the trees etc. For the shot on the hood of the car, we mounted the camera on a sandbag and tied it down securely. I'm still amazed we got it considering how just a little variation in her driving angle would have blocked the dad in the background.

Dad returns to the office: the low angle of the feet (we referenced "The Right Stuff" for that shot) was low mode Steadicam, the same day as the other lab scenes.


Charles Papert January 26th, 2003 03:38 PM

Dad returns to baby's room: Shot at night with a 5K tungsten unit and some theatrical blue, with plenty of gobos breaking up the light; I recall using 1" paper tape all over the windows to create the patterns)

Dad at the cemetary: It was tough creating the fill on the shots that look up at him with the trees behind. Too much and it starts to look lit, but it required quite a bit to manage the overcast sky. I think the high-contrast background is pretty interesting in that the trees went jet-black. Sometimes you can get things on DV that would photograph differently with other mediums, and it can be striking. The insert of the trowel in the grass is obviously long lens and shallow focus, one of the few in the film. It's almost distracting to me for this reason. I fought hard to shoot all the coverage that we ended up with, which meant two sizes on the dad and two sizes of his point of view (over the shoulder and clean), because I knew that the director would need it all to be able to compress the action and not have to keep cutting back to the same shot, which was the case. The final crane shot (using the setup described earlier) was technically tricky, because it required the track to be laid perpendicular to the arm, and as the base was dollied left to right the arm was swung in such a way that the camera appeared to be pulling straight back. Any variation in speed between the various folks operating the base and the arm meant that the camera would wander from side to side during the pullback. Not to mention that it is a challenge to operate such a shot, in that one is constantly backpanning (dialing the pan just to keep the camera pointed in the desired direction). Once the dolly had finished moving, we then swung the arm fully from left to right along a 180 degree arc while booming up, which gave us that massive travel as dad walks away. The funny part was seeing the XL1 sitting at the end of this 23 foot arm, on top of a remote head many times larger than the camera! Since we were fighting the light as usual and dealing with the logistics, I never noticed the car parked behind the taxi that keeps poking into the frame at the end. It's always frustrated me, because you really want to feel the isolation at that point and have the guy and the taxi be the only signs of life in the whole cemetary. It may not look like a big deal on the little web screen but when projected, it's definitely there...

Anyway, there's some thoughts on First Born. I'd be happy to elaborate on any of it, if you guys are still awake...!

Imran Zaidi January 26th, 2003 03:57 PM

Wow, I feel like I just got a $1,000 workshop for free! This is excellent stuff, Charles. I, for one, am extremely grateful for this information, as the quality of your footage is excellent. I would love to see it on my TV or projected on a big screen. How did that fare? The lighting and the cinematography are so film-like, I bet most viewers would be fooled.

This really proves the point that just because it's 'DV' doesn't mean you can skip out on the production values that would make 'film' look good. And DV itself has some qualities that can be used to your benefit, not just used to imitate film (something I've heard Richard Linklater say as well). The end result speaks for itself...

Thank you!

Charles Papert January 26th, 2003 04:06 PM

Thank you, Imran.

I think it looks best on a great broadcast monitor, but that screening at Sony was pretty breathtaking. I'm sure some major line scaling was in effect, but it managed to hold up extremely well on a 30 foot screen without looking too soft (I have since seen it on lesser projectors at festivals and it didn't fare as well). The frame mode does cause that 25% loss of resolution which becomes an issue with a large image size, but I think it looks great on a 14" broadcast monitor.

Which reminds me that I forgot to mention that I did not use any diffusion, feeling that the frame mode softened the image as much as I wanted. I also was interested in experimenting with not going to the standard black promist to flare/soften the highlights, wanting to see if I could reign in the dark forces of over-exposure. I know I used ND's and a polarizer, and I think I looked at using Ultra-cons for one of the exteriors that I couldn't control as well as I would have liked, but then the sun went in and all was well.

John Locke January 27th, 2003 03:09 AM


Great info...thanks for that!

Two things...first, for some reason, I'm unable to view "First Born" at iFilm. Never had a problem with any other films at that site. Do you know of another URL where it can be seen?

Second...I feel like an idiot, Charles, but some of the things you mentioned I'm not too clear on. Can you explain these?

- silking (When to use silking? What is the exposure compensation? How big are the sheets? Where to you buy them?)
- beadboard (basically...what is it?)
- skateboard dolly on track (Aluminum track or flexible track? What kind of dolly?)
- 12x12 double nets (no idea what this is)
- Ultra-cons (ditto)

Charles Papert January 27th, 2003 08:34 AM

Hi John.

No idea why you can't view "First Born". As far as I know it is not being shown elsewhere.

Please, my dear Mr. Locke, feel not like an idiot! I have a similar reaction when I look into some of the threads here that deal with the computer end of things--I get lost REAL fast. But that's why we are all here, I guess. I purposefully chose not to minimize or explain my terminology partly so I could just get through that diatribe without burning up too much bandwith, but also so that anyone interested could ask (as you did) for me to clarify, which would probably be more beneficial to all involved.

Silking--silks come as part of the grip package, ready to stretch onto the various size frames (6x6, 12x12, 20x20 and so on). There are different grades and thicknesses, and other materials such as vinylite (which looks like shower curtain) that can be used. They are all intended to diffuse the sun to make it less harsh. They will all cut light to some degree but rather than compensate the exposure, we usually fill in with a different light source to bring the level back up if needed. Generally they are a rental item. Somewhat unsuited for a smaller shoot because of the size of the frame required to get enough coverage and the height that the frames have to work means enough skilled personnel to know how to tie them down and be prepared to move them as the sun shifts. Other grip "rags" that are flown on these frames are singles and doubles (nets that cut the light one half or one stop respectively, which are also used on smaller metal frame flags to work in close), solids for blocking light and grifflon or muslin which reflect light.

Beadboard is a foamcore-type material that has a white, slightly shiny surface (must be some kind of glass bead coating, I've never looked that close!) It's used to bounce light with high efficiency without being as spotty as a silver material.

Our skateboard dolly was a low-end affair, really just a wood board with skate wheels riding on standard aluminimum or possibly steel track. The flexible track (Losmandy) had not yet been introduced. I've been looking into that with interest. We did have a Chapman Peewee with us for one of the days (the crane day) which is much more flexible, having a hydraulic arm. It's the same dolly I spend my days on at "Scrubs" when not running around with the bloody Steadicam!

Ultracons are a very interesting filter that Tiffen makes (check their website). I think they are underrated, but its probably because they are a little tricky to use. Essentially they pull some light from the brightest part of the frame and use it to fill in the darkest, thus compressing the contrast range. Very useful for video. The problem is when you pan from a contrasty frame to a low contrast area, you can see the effect change. Unlike soft cons or low cons, they manage to do their job without causing flare around highlights.

Keep 'em coming folks!

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