Since I started my journey as a filmmaker, I have been extremely passionate about narrative filmmaking. The vastness of the art, including the need to rely on teamwork and focus on stylistic lighting and camera work really excites me. Unfortunately, over the past two years, I have been unable to produce as many narrative films as I would like to – which is why I was really excited when Brian Stockton, the co-writer & director of The Sabbatical asked if I would be interested in DP’ing the project.
The Sabbatical is a comedic feature film about a workaholic fine-arts professor on sabbatical who starts doubting his marriage and his work. Shortly after, a mid-life crisis ensues.
When deciding to be apart of this project, I wanted to ensure I had a focus. What I hoped to do with this film was explore different techniques and push myself and my skill set. In this post, what I want to do is walk you through the first two weeks of production and show you how I decided to approach some of the scenes and show how I pushed myself to learn. Production for this project is also split into three sections as we are hoping to capture a variety of seasons in this film.
Our first major obstacle with this project was budget and pre-production. Like any project, time is a huge factor and with us working on a micro budget, we were forced to think of approaching setups in new ways. With access to both Nikon and Kessler equipment, we knew that this project would be possible because we would be able to quickly move between setups due to form factor and versatility of equipment.
There were no pre-production days budgeted so we were all forced to think on our toes and problem solve on the fly. I’ve professed on this site over and over again the importance of pre-production and I must say, the last few projects I have featured on this site have not spent the time needed to do the job right. However, what these projects have done is show how to overcome the inevitable problems that arise due to the lack of pre-production.
Look and Feel
Coming into this project, Brian had a good idea of the style of this project. He was hoping for a cross between Manhattan, Rushmore, and Lost in Translation. He wanted to go ultra widescreen using 2.35:1 ratio (which I use on almost all projects now). From both Manhattan and Rushmore he was wanting to use these wide compositions that they relied on heavily. He was hoping to use the look but more importantly the tone from Lost in Translation. His last note was that he wanted to use a lot of natural light and/or fairly simple lighting setups – which I knew would in the end turn into more work than he was expecting.
Cast and Crew
For this project, skill sets were very diverse – with some people fresh out of the University of Regina’s film program and others that have worked professionally in the industry. It made for a good mix of people. Our major obstacle when it came to crew was the amount of people on set. For most people working on this film, they were forced to fill multiple roles.
Our leads for this film were James Whittingham and Laura Abramsen. For both of them, this was their first feature film in the lead role.
James Whittingham was born in Fort Frances, Ontario, and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan where his life as an improvisational comic actor began after landing the role of The Big Bad Wolf in a Kindergarten puppet show production of “Little Red Riding Hood.” James improvised puppet shows for neighbourhood kids until he starting making films at age twelve. In high school and University Whittingham performed comic roles at the local cable TV station and in student and independent films before graduating with a BFA in film production from the University of Regina in 1992. Whittingham then teamed up with Kevin Allardyce in Regina for a local cult TV show, The James and Kevin Show. In 1997, after working with comic mentor, Dan Redican, Whittingham and Allardyce had starring roles on CBC Television’s Just for Laughs in that season’s interstitial segments. The duo continued to develop shows for Canadian Television before parting ways professionally in the early 2000’s. Whittingham experimented with comic blogs, podcasts and YouTube in the 2000s while working on other television pilots and independent films in Saskatchewan, including regularly working with director Lowell Dean (13 Eerie, Wolf Cop).
When first approached about the project, I was excited to work with James as I have been a fan of his style for awhile. So far I have been extremely impressed with his work on the project and love watching his character evolve on screen.
Laura Abramsen is from Kanata, Ontario and now lives in Regina, Saskatchewan. She is currently taking a theatre degree from the University of Regina.
Laura’s performance on this project caught me off guard. So far, there has yet to be a moment while she has been acting where I was not stunned by what I was seeing. Her diversity in styles and emotion are something I have yet to see from someone her age! I am extremely excited to see how this character comes to life when the edit starts to take shape.
For this project, gear played a huge role in us being able to even shoot. We chose to shoot the project on the Nikon D800E’s for three main reasons; Form factor, quality of image and look. I’ve found that the D800 produces an extremely pleasing image with digital noise that I actually really like! In combination with the Nikon glass, I find the image extremely organic.
We were looking for something that was easy to move between setups as well as something that allowed us to untether if need be.
Quality of Image
When looking at different options, we were looking for something that would perform nicely in low light situations and provide an image that would allow us to push in post if necessary. I didn’t choose to shoot everything flat but there were a few key scenes where this was needed. We didn’t have the budget to go with a raw format so this was the next best option. Another reason we chose to go Nikon is because of our desire to shoot ultra widescreen. I’ve found that Canon is horrible on the wider end of their lenses. The edges of the 14mm, 24mm & 16-35mm show vignetting as well as softer edges whereas Nikon does an amazing job on their wide end at minimizing vignetting as well as edge distortion / blurring. We were also needing a full frame camera to get the wides we were needing in the tight spaces we were working.
First and foremost, how a film looks plays an integral role in how a film is interpreted. When choosing our camera, we wanted something that had an organic feel – even when shooting in low light scenarios. In the tests I have done, I have been really impressed with the quality and look of Nikon’s video noise as well as the level of detail you are able to accomplish with this camera. We chose to shoot on the D800E’s as I was willing to shoot around any moire / aliasing issues as I wanted that ‘little bit more of detail’. I know many people say you don’t need it and that you actually don’t need anymore but I feel that the difference is noticeable – at least in the way in which I deal with these files in post. Like anything, this always boils down to personal preference – and my preference is the D800E.
As for support gear, I relied heavily on gear from Kessler and Shape Wlb. From Kessler, the main gear I used was the 3ft and 5ft Cineslider, 2ft Stealth and basic controller motor kit. This gear allowed me to quickly setup and tear down between setups. We will also be using the Kessler CineDrive setup for our establishing shots for each of the scenes that require them. For any gear to be extremely helpful on set, you need to be able to quickly get it out of the way when it is not needed. For this production, I almost always ran with the camera on the 3ft Cineslider even when there was no motion in the frame. It helped to quickly reframe between setups if I needed to tweak the image or get the framing where it needed to be if the actors missed their mark. We were then able to quickly tear the rig down and get it out of the way in seconds with the help of the Kessler Kwik Release System.
As for the hand-held rig, I used the Shape Composite Stabilizer and flew the camera on the rig the entire shoot. This allowed me to quickly go from sticks to hand-held and also allowed me to mount all the accessories we needed for our rig. At the base of the Composite Stabilizer I used the Kessler K-Plate which allowed me to keep the system small and compact and allowed me to quickly snap into whatever configuration I wanted using the Kessler Kwik Release system.
My major challenge with this film is that I was wanting to shoot at f1.4 – which many focus pullers would be thinking I am crazy. I really wanted to create a unique look for this film and thought that playing with depth throughout the film would be a great way of getting into the mind of the character. I both operated and pulled focus and was able to do this because of the quality of image on the back of the D800E’s LCD screen in combination with the focus assist on the Marshall 5″ monitor. There would have been no way that I would have been able to do this using the Canon 5D Mark III’s screen. In some cases I did have to steal a couple extra takes when there was a lot of movement in the scene but overall, we were able to follow the action flawlessly.
I was extremely impressed with all the gear on the shoot and would not have been able to accomplish the shots if it wasn’t for the gear.
As mentioned earlier, our major challenge was time. For many of the setups, we had 15 minutes to block and light the scene. This turned out unrealistic as I was not willing to compromise to the point of not caring. When approaching any setup, there is a fine balance between perfection and ‘good enough’ and my goal with every scene was to border the line of perfection. I was happy with a lot of the setups but must say that I don’t think we started to hit the level of perfection I was hoping for in the first two weeks (not to say that we won’t get there!)
Another challenge we had due to time and budget was coverage. At the start of the shoot, it was a bit of a challenge to get the coverage I was wanting for each scene. There were a few key scenes that we had hoped to play out in a wide master and it was scheduled to be filmed in just this manor. However, I made it a point that we HAD to get coverage for these scenes, even though we were hoping for them to play as wides. Because we did not spend the time we needed to in pre-production, it was key that we got coverage of these scenes in case we were unable to play them as a wide when we started the edit. I focused on lighting setups that allowed for a quick turnaround so we were able to quickly get these shots.
For almost every scene we were limited to three setups due to time. I mainly shot the wides and MS-CU’s. I would have liked to have a lot more coverage but I was happy with at least getting three!
Below are some of the scene breakdowns from the first two week shooting block. We are shooting over multiple seasons so this is just the first part of production.
Lucy’s House – Scene 20/22 & Scene 40
Our first shoot day was Monday and we were focusing our shoot inside Lucy’s house. The biggest challenge on day one was finding a way for us all to work in unison. With us all working together for the first time, we needed to find a rhythm as well as distribute roles that had yet to be distributed.
Coming into these scenes, I knew the look I was hoping to accomplish so it was easy to determine how I wanted to light the location. With Lucy’s house, I wanted to do a general lighting setup that would play through each of the setups and then use accent lights between setups. This allowed us to do the general lighting before the day was scheduled to start.
I was trying to create a dark incandescent feel with the first setups of the day. We wanted to create a warm feeling with light rays streaming into the house. In order to do this, we used a fog machine to make the rays visible. We also used the fog machine to help soften the light. In regards to lighting, we had 2 x 1K’s out the front window both tungsten balanced, a 650W coming in the side window to soften out the scene and fill in the gaps left from the front window and a diva in the front entrance as they enter the house. We then had small accent lights inside to help fill in the areas as the actors more through the scene. The back window we blacked out for this setup.
We had three different set ups while in the house and I simply had to tweak the small lights between setups and pan the light coming in the side window.
Between scene 20 and 22, the only tweaks that needed to be made were the lights inside. because we were dealing with soft lights coming in from outside, we were easily able to balance the entire image without overexposing the key elements in the scene. There was a little blow out in the window but when we correct the image, we will be able to pull most of that information back.
For this scene, we panned the side window light to act as a key for James and a rimmer for Lucy. We also had two more small lights filling in the scene. Again, negative fill played a huge role in keeping the light off of the side of their faces that was towards camera.
Scene 16, 29, 27 & 60
This film has a lot of car scenes and the car is used as a vessel of their relationship. If you were to take all the car scene and butt them up against each other, you would be able to easily see the evolution of this relationship. I wanted to create similar shots so the audience could be reminded of the importance of the conversations that take place in the car. Like the previous setups, we were limited to three setups outside of scene 60 where we had a four hander and were forced to have five setups to capture the entire scene. Most of the setups used a key light coming in the front window with negative fill being used on the singles to help shape the actors faces.
Our major challenge with scene 16 is that we were filming it during sunset so had a limited window for filming the wide shot. Between the three takes we got in the wide shot, there is a huge change in the background due to the sun going down. Unfortunately this will limit us in the edit room but hoping we will be able to pull some of the colour back in the background once the sun went past the horizon. We shot the two close up shots when the sun was down so you will see that the contrast ratios are a little bit different from the wide. I tried to get it as close as I could with still keeping shape to their faces but in the end was not able to quite get it consistent. I think Laura’s setup is passable but James is completely different from the wide as you will see that in the still taken from the wide in the image below that no light was hitting his face. In the wide, light was hitting his face for two takes so chose to go that route.
This scene was a lot of fun to film. We shot this early in the morning and the light was gorgeous so we made sure to shoot the wide shot with the major light and then mimic the light in the tighter shots. For the wide shot, we had a 1K pouring in and for the closeups we used the same 1K and then blacked out the back windows.
This scene was a mixture of natural lights from the environment as well as a 650W as the key and a 1K as the rimmer light. Our key was daylight balanced and diffused and our rimmer was a hard tungsten light.
In scene 60, our setup was very simple. The wide shot was shot with no tweaks to the environment and then our close ups played using negative fill in order to control how much light was hitting the actors faces as we were shooting in and out of the clouds.
This scene was a fun scene to light but also posed some challenges. This scene was to take place at night and we shot this during the day so we had to black out all the windows for the scene and simply play with practicals. Our key was a china ball at the top of frame and we filed in the scene using the Lowel Blender, which is a small vari-colour temperature LED light. We then had a rotating party light to help fill in the scene and add some energy to the setups. We were filming the start of a party scene so the rotating light played well. To help soften the lights some more, we also used a fog machine again. Our consistency between the wide and tights is lacking in regards to smoke but we will be able to match the lighting by simply bringing up the blacks.
This scene was also challenging to light as we were filming just as the sun was going down and we were also limited on the amount of lights we were using due to a lack of power at the location. I would have liked to have more light in James’ face at his first position but overall I am happy with the result. For the lighting, we had a diva lighting up the tree and James’ first position, a 1K lighting up the entrance to the gallery as Lucy’s key and another 650W light as Lucy’s top light located to the left of frame in the wide shot.
For many of the scenes, I tried to play it off as being magic hour as Brian left the time of day open for all the scenes. It will be interesting how everything cuts together as I fought to have as many scenes at magic hour as Brian would let me. For this setup, we had 2 x 1K’s out the bedroom window as the key and then filled in their faces with a diva on the MS and CU.
And That’s A Wrap (On Part I)
So far these first two weeks have been absolutely amazing. Not only has it allowed me to think more creatively again but it has also affected how I approach other projects. This project has made me realize that there is no reason why other corporate or commercial work can’t also take the approach of a narrative film – with a focus more on creative lighting and storytelling. I have always tried to push myself and the work I do but I feel this project has really reinvigorated me and allowed me to think outside the box again. It is really easy to fall into a routine even when trying to push yourself. I highly recommend that if you haven’t shot a narrative film in awhile that you take the time out of your busy schedule and go for it!!!