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October 2, 2013

Opus Cinematography

Behind the Scenes

I must emphasize that Joseph Truong really excels at crafting stories with exotic locations while filmmaking, and when he had asked me about coming on board for an adventure that would span from the plains of Africa to France’s Côte-d’Azur, I knew early on I’d have to find suitable filming locations. Africa’s yellow-plained fields with singularly dotted trees would define the location where our huntress,  beautiful Tristen Albert, would go on her expedition. A marina in Monaco and a cliff overlooking the setting sun on the sea would be an example of two other locations I’d hope to find.

These locations required an entirely new way of capture than I’ve been used to. I  knew early on that this short would need a sense of grandeur. All my previous works had used spherical lenses and I already knew well and good what I would be getting into if I decided to use this system once again. Things needed to change and I had a feeling that the world of anamorphic lenses would be where I’d end up. There is a certain quality to an anamorphic lens that really compels me. Already knowing that a true anamorphic setup would be way over our budget, I scoured to find an affordable solution that would yield appropriate results. However, following such a strategy opened my eyes to many compromises. For example, there are some reasonably priced anamorphic lenses that you could place in front of your lens but it would be up to you to find an appropriate way to mount it to your camera (clamp, rails, etc.). Also, depending on the brand of the anamorphic lens, the image quality could vary quite a bit. The vast majority of anamorphic lenses in this segment use the infamous ‘dual focusing’ system that many budget anamorphic shooters out there are very familiar with. In essence, you focus first with the camera’s lens and then focus second with the anamorphic lens. This makes it nearly impossible to pull focus. There is however an anamorphic lens (Iscorama 36 1.5x) that does allow the operator to rack focus by setting the camera body’s lens to infinity focus but the only drawbacks are its high price and rarity. Isco patented the single-focusing system and thus prevented other companies from implementing it in their lenses. Focusing distance was another issue I had to look at. Minimum focusing distance for these lenses is usually around 4-5 feet and gets a bit better as one pays a little more. I did not see this as such a big negative but a compromise nonetheless. Finally, I also had to make a decision on the squeeze factor of the anamorphic: 1.33x, 1.5x, or 2x (labeled as such but true value may be different). After some researching I was really drawn to the look of the more narrow 1.5x and 2x squeeze factors.

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After a long time hunting for the best image quality to price ratio, I  managed to settle on the Isco Ultra Star 2x anamorphic lens. Based on some sample footage, the image quality and sharpness were superb. This lens had no native way of mounting onto my camera’s lens and so I had to mount it using a custom built rail rig. After having received it and conducting my own tests I could easily replicate the findings I had found online and even surpass them. At an aperture of F4 for all my manual lenses I’d be using (Canon FD 35mm F2 SSC, Canon FD 50mm F1.4 SSC, and Carl Zeiss JB MC 80mm F2.8), the sharpness was phenomenal along with the flaring that was both gracious and controlled when aiming in direct light. A 35mm lens was the widest I could go with the GH3 before serious vignetting formed. One great bonus by going anamorphic is the amount of horizontal resolution gained. For example, using a 1.5x squeezed lens and filming at 1920×1080, the effective horizontal resolution would now be 2880 pixels or 2.9k. On a 2x squeezed lens, this becomes 3.8k of horizontal resolution!

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I had the opportunity to use the 5D Mark III and it’s newly rejuvenated inception as a RAW camera but I opted not to use it as I wanted to push the GH3 to its limits. I had already become very comfortable with the GH3 while on a one month trip in Europe(www.vimeo.com/66435657) and I was very curious if I could push the little camera even further with some new glass in front of it. The GH3’s advantage over the 5D is its wonderful 1080p/60p mode for beautiful slow motion. With this short being a model editorial as well, slow motion was key for us in making sure Tristen’s amazing expressions came through to the audience.

Day One

It was quite an incredible sight when all I saw was fog stretched so extensively across the land.

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Our first day of filming would take us to an area that resembled the African Savanna. The tall yellow grass we found there were perfect  with the sun used as our key backlight. For an extra touch we brought a 2000 W smoke machine that added a nice mood. Reader forewarned, this is a serious smoke machine that managed to fill about three acres of land in under an hour. It was quite an incredible sight when all I saw was fog stretched so extensively across the land. Where needed, we used a Joker HMI to serve as a rim light.

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We finished the first day of filming with our night time scenes. We had positioned Tristen beside an old fashioned outdoor fire pit that essentially served as a practical. In order to get proper exposure at F4 while shooting at 1/125 shutter speed for slow motion, we brought in a Kino Flo Diva to augment our practical and serve as our key light. We then used our Joker HMI as our rim light, behind a 2×4 silk, that diffused it nicely.

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Day Two

Our second and final day of filming involved filming in a forest, a marina, and a cliff. We didn’t use anything more than the sun again as our natural key. With our crew being only myself and Joseph, and also having to chase the light, we took only what we needed and filmed as efficiently as possible. Being my second day of having used the ‘dual focusing’ system, I was getting very comfortable in quickly setting up shots.

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Whereas before it would have taken me about a minute to correctly line up and focus a shot, I could now get it down to about 20 seconds or less. This allowed me to maximize the amount of time I had with my natural key light and allowed Joseph to quickly bounce between his ideas he had in mind.

I find postproduction to be an incredibly liberating part of the filmmaking experience.

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I find postproduction to be an incredibly liberating part of the filmmaking experience. Perhaps even the most creative part because it allows you to re-imagine everything you just filmed and tell a story you wouldn’t have thought of a-priori.

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I worked closely with Joseph to get the story to where he wanted. Having the immense advantage of being able to see and grade the footage on the spot allowed him to get those last minute creative ideas that can really help tell a film’s story. One element in Opus that really helped to create a certain authenticity to the time and epoch the story belonged to was the additional plate shots we had filmed while on our trip in Europe. The first was a shot that was taken outside a moving train at night with no light motivation other than the near full moon and the reflection off rocks from the train’s lights. Luckily, we had some extremely fast lenses with us (Voigtlander Nokton 25mm F0.95) that allowed us to get those shots. Yes they had grain, but I could live with that given how dark it truly was! The second shot of a sail boat on the water was actually filmed in Dubrovnik. Croatia’s southern city gave on to the Adriatic and really matched well with the look from Monaco on the Mediterranean. Postproduction was completed with Premiere Pro and graded using FilmConvert and the standard colouring tools in Premiere.

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Opus allowed me to finally dive into the world of anamorphic and I truly love it. Regardless of all of its potential nagging points I could not imagine having filmed Opus any other way. Feel free to e-mail me at julien@cloudintheskystudios.com if you have any questions about my process in filming Opus or anything in relation. ∎

 

Technical Specs

3.23:1

Digital Capture

Panasonic Lumix GH3 (Natural -5 -5 0 -5)

Canon FD, Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar

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