Anatomy of a scene – Pollywaffle

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Alexa’s on Puberty Blues Series 1 with the longer zooms on.

Puberty Blues – Series 1, Episode 7, Scene 41B 

- Directed by Emma Freeman

I thought it might be fun to start looking at scenes I’ve shot and worked on and try to do a little breakdown of the thinking behind how we staged and created them.

Rarely as filmmakers do we talk about filmmaking and the merits of looking at the coverage and staging in particular.

You always hear, “Oh I loved the photography” or maybe “great editing” or even, “amazing production design”.

I’ve never heard anyone say “awesome coverage” or “stupendous staging”

I thought I’d start with something easy.

This is a scene from the first series of Puberty Blues.  Debbie and Sue are walking up the beach at the end of the day after watching Gary and Danny surf for the day.  It’s really a way to transition into an evening scene to come and also to remind the audience about the roles girls have in this surf culture.  They’re talking about Vicky another girl in their “gang” being literally kicked by the boy she’s going around with because she ate his pie instead of waiting patiently on the beach for him to come in from surfing and eat it.

They’re talking about the fickle nature of the relationships these girls have in servitude for these boys.

You can read the relevant script pages right here.  Go ahead now and read scene 41B.

Puberty Blues Episode 7 Goldenrod Amendments 15.6.12.pdf

And here’s the scene.

Now when we got to this scene we were a little behind on the day.  We were loosing light. Fast. From memory we only had 30-40 mins of daylight left.  And on a beach everything goes super slow.  Director Emma Freeman and I had to come up with a way to shoot this scene super quickly.

As we were on a hill, you’ll also notice the sun being very low, most of the scene plays out in the shade of the hill.  At the very very end they walk up into some lovely warm and low sunlight.

I always like to have the scene play out in full.  It’s about 50 seconds long, so we decided to have the group walk towards us up the hill instead of in the beach car park as originally planned.  I knew I’d have time for two setups at most.

Steadicam doesn’t work in a scenario like this.  Going backwards up a hill of sand would be very difficult for any operator.  And to be honest, we didn’t really do a lot of Steadicam on Puberty Blues anyway.  The house style tended to favour very long lenses.

We typically had the 150-600 MK 2 on for exteriors.  I also often had a 2X doubler.

I knew we’d never have enough time for more than one setup looking down the hill so I had the B camera (my camera) with the Canon 150-600MK2 and doubler start as the closer frame and then set the A camera with the 25-250 Cooke MK3 as the looser frame.  The idea was that if the girls grew too much into my frame then the A camera frame could take over towards the end of the scene.  It would also serve as a wide shot to get into the scene at the beginning.

The great advantage of shooting such a long lens on the B camera is that it takes longer for the shot size to “grow” as the cast walk towards the camera.  So I knew I could hold the shot and it would take them a while to walk close enough to the camera to grow out of the shot.

This shot requires an incredibly skilled focus puller, in this case the legendary Frank Hruby.   The girls are walking up a hill. We couldn’t really see the ground and the wider camera is running at the same time, (not used in the edit though) so it’s hard to put marks down because they are seen. There’s no rehearsal.

So stocktake.  We have one two camera setup.  A very long lens shot (near 1200mm) and a looser but still long shot (was probably 75mm).  The sun was fast disappearing behind us so I had the cameras set on the left side of the track so we wouldn’t cast shadows on them.  This meant they were moving left to right.

The A camera shot wasn’t used in the scene.  You’ll have to imagine it.

So with literally only a few minutes of the shooting day left we raced to the bottom of the hill.  You’ll notice that the sun has actually set in the shot from behind looking up.  You can’t see it anywhere.  But I knew that I could keep shooting this angle after then sun had gone and you probably wouldn’t notice for a while .  The sky would still be hot and we could “cut” them out or silhouette them against the sky.

So basically we mirrored out first setup but this time from behind. We set the cameras on the right side of the track and therefore had the girls travelling right to left so we were still on the same side of the line.

You’ll notice the camera is zooming a in a little on the reverse. We didn’t have time to rehearse so I just rode the zoom as the went up to get the frame I wanted for the top of the hill. You’ll notice the camera isn’t rock solid either. At 1200mm any little bit of wind will move the camera and even operating it ill transfer some vibrations.

Once again in the edit they only used the “B” camera shot in the follow as well.

So it ended up being a two setup scene with 4 potential shots but in the edit they only used the tighter lead and follow size.

Lighting was “As Is” or “Oysters” as we like to say (from Oysters NATURAL)

There’s nothing like the panic at the end of the day when you’re chasing light to focus you in on getting the bare minimum to make the scene.

Can anyone else think of or show some examples of really minimal coverage with really long lenses ?

 

Posted in Anatomy of a scene, Production | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Sony F-55…so close…

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B Camera Focus Puller Jessica Clarke-Nash hides behind the Panavised F55 with the 24-275 Primo Zoom

I’ve never much been a fan of Sony’s cameras.

Whilst they are an innovative company, I’ve always found the cameras pictures a bit cold, impersonal and the cameras themselves overly complex and over-designed in the menu and control systems.

They also seem to have a sales culture that is about segregating different sectors of the market the way THEY see it and use different codecs and media to delineate these markets.  All of it proprietary.

Though I should note that they have rather promisingly announced that they will do an option for recording ProRes on the F55, which is a huge plus for episodic fast turn around TV and means a more readily acceptable file format for established post companies that are all geared to ProRes and DNx.

Still, I have been keeping an eye on them, and my interest was really piqued by the F65, which is a really interesting camera.  Of course, I’d never use it on a series because thing thing is just too big ! I don’t like the gigantic huge camera platform on set.  Even the Arri Alexa is a little on the long side for me.

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Setup Director Kate Dennis lines up a frame while I pretend to know how to pull focus

When I first started work on the new Endemol TV series “Party Tricks” I knew I needed to probably look at a camera with a global shutter.  Party Tricks is a show about politicians in the glare of the public and media eye, it would mean a lot of camera flashes and production wouldn’t be fixing and paying for the fixes for when you get the half lines on camera flashes from rolling shutter cameras.

Wanting a production camera with a global shutter camera of course narrows the field quite a bit.

There’s the Sony F65, the Sony F55 and then the Arri Studio / PLUS which has a global shutter option.

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Sony F55 with 19-90 Primo zoom mounted on the Gizmo Head

I really liked the idea of the F55 early on for three reasons.

1.  Global shutter, which as discussed, would be important for all the camera flashes.

2.  Smaller physical size.  The Sony F55 is considerably smaller and lighter than an Alexa.

3.  16bit files at 4K meant a lot of scope for grading and post.

So, let’s look at the pluses.  The global shutter is great.  Really great actually.  Not only does it solve the issue of camera flashes, but it’s nice to see the other CMOS / Rolling shutter artefacts go away.  Things like a fast pan and objects moving quickly though shot like a car going the opposite direction to you on a car interior.  It’s motion rendering and cadence is very sweet and you quickly get used to it and when you have to go back to a rolling shutter, you do “feel” the difference in subtle ways.

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B Camera Focus Puller Jessica Clarke-Nash

Episodic TV drama series shooting  is very demanding, especially with the one thing you can never buy, time.  Having a smaller camera makes it easier to manage.  It also means we can use it in more awkward and difficult locations. “Party Tricks” producers John Edwards and Imogen Banks always prefer their shows to use real locations rather than studio / sets.

The advantage of this is the reality and truth that comes from not being able to fix staging problems by simply moving a wall out of the way.  The built-in patina of the world is real because that IS the world.  We’d be shooting on location, and especially in Victoria’s state Parliament, where as a 150 year old building it wasn’t designed with long lines of depth and shoot through for film crews, let alone easy access for lighting and just moving gear and trollies around. So a smaller footprint than the Alexa would be a big advantage to me.

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A Camera / Steadicam operator Matt “Lone Wolf” Temple

I have found that the Alexa once built, with a long zoom, and transmitters and batteries ends up being a very very long camera and it’s hard to be mobile and agile in both your operating and just moving the camera between setups.

And finally high bit depth has been something I’ve really come to appreciate lately.  While many focus on the resolution, I’ve found the single biggest difference to image fidelity I can make is the bit depth of the codec. In the case of the Sony, it can shoot at 16bit when you’re shooting 4K RAW.  And that’s a huge leap over 10 / 12 Bit codecs like ProRes in the Alexa.

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A Camera / Steadicam operator Matt “Lone Wolf” Temple and A camera focus puller Bryn Whitie show how it’s done

Party Tricks needed to have a slick and modern look to it and oversampled 1920 derived from a 4K file with very high bit depth files would mean I could maintain that look.  I wanted the blacks to be really deep and have a kind of solid feel.

So, in summary the F55 offered me high bit depth images with the added advantage of a RAW 4/ K workflow and a smaller footprint and relatively low cost compared to other global shutter options.

I did some testing earlier on and found that the DR was pretty close to an Alexa (though not quite as good) and that was the last thing I wanted to make sure of before committing to the Camera.

Early on I’d been talking to Panavision who have done a really nice cage for the F55, that kind of amps it up.  It means you have extra mounting and accessory options and I was also really taken with their new EVF option. More on that later.

Hook lurks in the shadows on Party Tricks

Hook lurks in the shadows on Party Tricks

I was lucky enough to have my colleague Hook working with me full time and one of the great things about the F55 is it can load a user LUT generated out of Resolve.  We were able to create a great look for the editorial transcodes that got everything much closer to the intended final look.  He also did some LUT’s that helped us match the BMCC2.5K and 4K cameras to the F55.

We did learn that the way the Sony reads the Resolve LUT’s in V4.0 had an error that caused them to not display correctly.  We were able to manually edit the LUT to work, but they’ve now fixed this with V4.1

So once committed to the F55, I then started to discover that most of the camera’s shortcomings were in it’s software…or rather in the way I expected it to operate. The biggest single issue is that there is no way to output basic exposure tool’s and overlays out of any of the camera’s outputs.  Because they have opted for a specific VF / monitor connector that means frustratingly, you can only use one or the other, that you can’t have basic exposure tools output over the SDI output.

Just a couple of things that would be really really useful if anyone from Sony is listening.

I’m really surprised / not surprised that Sony have gone with this proprietary VF/EVF cable connector.  Whilst I guess on the upside it means you can have extra buttons on the screen and they can make the screen smaller by having the graphics processing / image processing in the camera, it has some downsides.  One of them is that you can’t run more than one of these connections at a time.

 

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A Camera operator Matt “lone Wolf” Temple takes a break from the busy schedule. Note the custom Panavision directors monitoring station in front of Matt.

So I can’t for example, run a SONY viewfinder AND run the Sony monitor (which is very good) at the same time, unless it’s running via HD-SDI. What’s frustrating though is that if you run the screen (or an EVF)  via HD-SDI then you loose some critical exposure monitoring tools when shooting 4K raw like Zebra and False Colour. Not only that but the screen is missing some basic functionality.  There have many times when using it in the last few weeks my focus puller would have liked to invert it so it doesn’t sit as high about the camera.  Most on board monitors have this basic feature. Not having basic exposure tools over SDI is a big problem.

It means for example, when using the camera on a crane, there’s no way to use Zebras or false colour for exposure.  HELLO ?!

You’re lead into a false sense of customisation because you have 4 assignable buttons and the WiFi remote.

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A Camera Steadicam Operator Matt “Lone Wolf” temple braves a crane walk off

Now these damn assignable buttons.  Why the hell wouldn’t you make it possible to put the frame grab function on the camera into an assignable button….you know…like taking a picture with a single button push ?  Instead, in their infinite wisdom, Sony have made it so if you want to grab a frame from your video, then you have to dive into the menus..about 3 levels deep and then grab a frame, somehow through the overlay.

One of my favourite Alexa functions is to be able to grab a snap during a take.  I usually try and grab one for every setup I do and I can then either grade them to show the colourist later what I’m planning for, or even just as a moral boosting email at the end of the week to show everyone what we were up to for the week.

 

Maybe they can do a snap on extra module for the back (RED style) that at least gives you a second EVF connector….

The WiFi interface seems like a good idea.  The theory is that you can use any device with a web browser to connect to the camera and access the menus and even remote roll the camera.

The only problem is that a lot of things you want to change can’t be accessed from the web interface.  Like the VF settings for example.

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Loader Jade Court-Gold tries the Panavision EVF

Sony offer two viewfinder options and I don’t think either of them are very satisfactory.  I ended up using the new Panavision made viewfinder.  They offer an OLED viewfinder which has plenty of resolution but it always kind of dim an pallid in terms of image.

Sony have been making cameras for a long time but they seem to make newby mistakes like putting all the overlays in the viewfinder on TOP of the image.  Alexa have a great way of keeping the image area free of clutter in their viewfinder.  All the status is on the outside of the image area.  On the Sony, it is instead overlaid over the image.  That means you often miss things in shot because it’s hidden behind the battery status info !  Not only that you can’t even change the brightness of the overlays either.

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I’m checking the playback with A Camera Focus Puller Bryn Whitie and A Camera / Steadicam operator Matt “Lone Wolf” Temple

Rather weirdly there isn’t any return video so I also can’t monitor what another camera is doing, just to compare my frame size as we line up the frame.  Again, this seems like a rookie mistake to omit this important feature.

Multicam cameras means using timecode to sync all the cameras.  For some reason there sin’t an indicator of the presences of an external TC clock.  Even an F900 says “EXTC” when an external TC source is present.

There are lots of buttons and they can easily be accidentally pressed.  There is a lock that means they are deactivated.  I’d love to see the assignable buttons able to still be active even when the lock button is engaged.

Sony also do employ some strange language and menu conventions.  Every function you do you have a menu that says “execute” but, crucially there’s no indicator for what you’re about to execute.  In the heat of battle you might load some new media and dive into the menu to format it and it will say “execute” but you could also be doing a black balance.  It makes you stop and think about what you’re doing because you’d only have to be distracted for a second to forget what you’re about to execute.  Please can we know which menu we’re about to “execute” ?

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A and B camera operators trying to be cowboys. Myself and Matt “Lone Wolf” Temple

I did find that moire could often be a problem especially going from 4K–> 1920 output, but I’ve since learned that there is a different 2K OLPF that can be used.  I’ll be testing that on the next job and good on Sony for offering the option to easily change the OLPF

Right, so now that I’ve had a whinge…

I should remind anyone still reading to this point that I do in fact really like the pictures from the camera a lot and there’s a lot that really is great about it.  It’s relatively low cost, small in size and really delivers a lovely and very malleable 4K RAW file with great looking motion cadence.

It’s just with a few small tweaks this camera could really give the current gold standard, the Arri Alexa a decent run for it’s money.  Right now, it’s a camera I can put up with for the advantages like Global shutter, but it’s in no way a very satisfying camera to use day to day because of these niggly little things.

 

Posted in Equipment, Production | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The Ravens

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Indianna Gregg, who plays Ruby, a little girl menaced by Ravens on her daily walk to school

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XL2 on a remote head for some fast moving point of view shots

One of the more ambitious films I’ve ever worked on, is the short film The Ravens.

For anyone interested in following this project you should head over to their facebook page or their blog.  They’ve been very open about their filmmaking process and it’s a great behind the scenes look at us making this special film.

The Ravens is a film about PTSD.  It’s a very personal film for writer director Jennifer Perrott who grew up in a defence force community at Jervis Bay on the NSW South Coast.

The Ravens is about a soldier struggling to return to a normal family life after service in an unamed foreign theatre of conflict.  Told through the eyes of his young daughter trying to come to terms with her fathers increasingly erratic behaviour, this story looks at the challenges facing returning service personnel coping with trauma and the effects on their families, using the daughters own struggle with a pair of nesting Ravens that menace her on her daily walk to school.

I hadn’t had much experience with PTSD before The Ravens or even understanding what it was, but I was shocked to learn that more soldiers have died from suicide in recent conflicts than have actually died in combat.

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A GF 6 allowed us to get shots of our Ravens Nest and Raven POV’s

When we first started discussing the film we kicked around the idea of shooting on film but I kind of didn’t think to take it too seriously.  For starters it’s expensive, but there was a bigger problem.  There wasn’t even a lab where we could get our film processed !

In April of 2013 with little notice, Deluxe had closed their doors and the last film processing lab in Australia had closed.  Shortly after, Park Road, Peter Jackson’s lab in NZ also closed their doors leaving only Technicolor in Thailand as the last remaining lab in the region, and they only do 35mm.

Shooting on film would mean that we’d have to send the film overseas just to get it processed.

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Focus Puller Pim Kulk trying to look like he remembers how to lace an XL2 !

But the more we talked about it, the more we liked the idea.  PTSD is a highly traumatic condition and we wanted a way of really emotionally cutting to the core of what was happening with our characters.  Being told primarily from a young girls point of view we wanted something that would be very subjective and experiential.

Jen had also not long returned to Australia from Europe where she’d worked a lot in  the TVC world with 35mm and though we met working on season 4 of Offspring, she still felt very strongly about the emotional draw and cut through of shooting on celluloid rather than digital.

Several times we tried to talk ourselves out of shooting on film and we just ended up coming back to it.  The film was self funded so there was a substantial cost, but because of the films subject matter, we were able to secure some totally amazing deals on the film stock itself from Kodak, and also it’s processing and transportation.

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We reached out to several labs around the world and LA based Fotokem offered us a generous deal on processing and scanning to 4k via the Arriscanner.  We would transfer the film to LA and then they’d send back a bunch of hard drives with our 4K rushes on it.

We also had a great sponsorship gift from Rapid Worldwide to get our film to LA from Sydney without being x-rayed !  We actually shipped our first days rushes from Sydney and had a neg report from Fotokem within 48 hours.  Kind of amazing really !

We did have neg insurance on our 6 day shoot and we only sent the first days rushes as a precaution after already doing a steadytest and lens check on the camera.

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Finally Panavison were exceptionally generous and gave us access to a heavily discounted top shelf camera package, the Millennium XL2 as well as some beautiful PVintage primes that I’d just finished using on Puberty Blues 2.  It was a real joy to have access to that kind of lens and camera package and we certainly couldn’t have made the film without their generous support.

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Putting the Nauticam Blackmagic housing to good use in the kiddie pool

We also had occasion to use some Blackmagic cameras and I’m interested to see how they’re going to intercut with the film as well.

With the film now in post, please follow the film at the links I’ve put above, and I’ll be sure to post something more comprehensive about the shoot once it’s complete.

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Lens Testing

Here’s some more tests for a TV series I’m in early pre on.

Earlier, I looked at the Sony F55 and the Alexa.

Having now decided to shoot with the F55, mainly because of it’s global shutter and smaller size while offering nearly the same DR as the Alexa but at 4K, I had to choose my lenses.

I knew I wanted to look at the Cooke S4′s, the Ultraprimes and the Panavision Primos.  I originally hoped to use the new V series Primos but they weren’t available despite some earlier tests I was able to do with them

I know it’s a particular favourite of the setup director that she loves out of focus lights, especially at night.  We’ll hopefully have some elevated city office locations which should give us nice lights at night so I wanted to also look at how they compared when they were out of focus as well.

I used some xmas lights for this and also had a look at the lens breathing (image size change with focus) as the lens racked through a pretty big pull.

I also looked at these at T4 and at T2.  I used a Tiffen regualr ND for this.  My collegue HOOK did the initial grade for this based on the ultraprime.  You’ll notice slight differences between the cookes and the primos and although they are small they are there. I could have balanced them out but left them with the same ultraprime “neutral” grade so you can see the differences.

You’ll ALSO notice the ND add’s its own colour cast as well.  At T4 with the ND6 in place, you’ll notice there’s a colour difference.

I’ve made it possible to download the files so take a closer look.

What other differences can you see ?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Production, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

Curiosity…the best tool a cinematographer can have ?

CocoRosie - Child Bride

CocoRosie – Child Bride

Call it a new years resolution, but I’ve been thinking about trying to be more curious this year…actively curious…

Curiosity is a basic human emotion.  We are all seemingly and fundamentally curious as a species.  To try to understand when we don’t understand…

Curiosity is therefore a driver of both creativity and storytelling itself…To discover “what happens next” is one of the basic tenants of storytelling.  It’s what causes us to “lean into” a story….once we’re fed a little information, we all can make connections and assumptions about what may happen next.  And we need to know what happens next.  We also like to be surprised.

I think this is also why self directed multi linear narrative will never replace storytelling

Back in 2011 I made a new years resolution to actively take more risk with my work.

Curiosity seems to be the corollary of risk.

In the most literal sense I guess I can apply this to the technology and process of filmmaking.  I can be curious about cameras.  I can be curious about lenses.  I can be curious about lighting.  This is all the tech stuff.

I can also be curious about story. I can be curious about the story world itself…

So I’m aiming to make 2014 the year of the curious.  Yeah yeah I know it’s March already, but better late than never !

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

- Albert Einstein

Curiosity is a fundamental tool every cinematographer should have and nurture.

Posted in Philosophy | 9 Comments

Camera Testing – a four way comparison

Alexa

I’m in very early pre-production for a new TV series.

I was keen to compare the Sony F-55 against the Alexa as this new show will probably feature a lot of on camera flashes, always a problem for rolling shutters like that found on the Alexa.  The global shutter of the F55 should take care of that issue, and the smaller size and apparently very wide colour gamut are also interesting.

I was also interested in testing their 4K RAW recording as well, so I set up a bit of a dynamic range test to compare them.  I also threw a 4K and 2.5K Blackmagic camera into the mix.

The first thing I did was find some skin tone so thanks to my camera department volunteer  Dane Howell for stepping in at the last minute.

The test was done at Panavision Sydney and was thrown together at the last minute so I had to scrape things together.  I would have preferred to do this at daylight colour temperature as most sensors get the most DR at around 5000K. As it was I metered the CT at 2870K.

Lens wise I used the new Panavision V series Primos for all the cameras.  The 40mm for the Alexa, F55 and 4K Blackmagic with the 27mm for the smaller sensored 2.5K bmcc.

I had a grey card along with a skin tone reference card ( both are Fotowand charts from friend Anders at The DOP Shop) plus an X-Rite passport.

Behind dane I set up a piece of poly with a 100w Dedo set to rake along it’s length.  I do this as a way of creating an exposure “ramp” that goes from near white to clipping.  It usually means I can compare the clipping point and it’s easy to pick what is and isn’t clipped.  This clipping point will also shift along the poly as I open the exposure or close it down.

In the deep background I tried to have something that was true black and near black.  Theres another piece of poly down there with some black stripes of tape on it.  It’s barely reflecting back some light and next to is close to true black (in the shade)

I basically assumed the native ISO of the camera was what the manufactured recommend and started off with that as the “Zero” point.  I then went up in half stop increments and down in half stop increments.  So you have + and – 3 stops either side of the manufacture recommended ISO.  You can extrapolate your own ideas about how to expose these cameras from looking and comparing.

So I lit Dane to be 102 Footcandles.  This gives us T 8 @ 800 ISO @ 25 FPS 180 Deg shutter for the Alexa and the BMCC 2.5K

For the F55 the base exposure for zero was T 8 2/3 while the 4K blackmagic was T 5.6.

So if you want access to these files, I’ll need you to leave me an email address in the comments field to invite you with.  I’m using Just Cloud and after uploading them all up there, I’ve now learned that I can’t publicly share a file over 50MB !  There are close to 40GB of files so I’m not uploading them all again to another server !

If you’re worried about spam just substitute the @ for “at”

Make sure you post back your findings too !

DR

DR test

Posted in Uncategorized | 179 Comments

Slating like a Butler

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Slates….

They’re a tribalistic filmaking ritual.  Even in this digital age they are still ever present, a 100 year old filmaking tradition.  It also seems these days there are a gazillion slate “apps” that all ape the original concept…. two bits of wood being banged together on a board made of slate that you can write on.

The slate, as much as the camera itself, has become an icon for representing filmaking in action. Even the general public know that they’re an intrinsic part of the process.

There is of course a serious and useful purpose to slates, but that original purpose has also grown and transformed as well.

So really, let’s consider, what IS the purpose of the slate ?  Well, there are two primary reasons to slate.

The first is to provide a synchronisation reference for double system sound syncing.  An audible clap with a visual reference so that sync can be checked by an editor later on.  When recording sound separately it’s very easy for this sound to go out of sync through the various contortions of the post production pathways.  Timecode…even in 2013 seems to be inconsistently reliable.  A manual sync reference is a great failsafe for sync and checking sync.

The second is as a note to editorial to show what scene the shot belongs to, if any special processes are required in transcoding, and any other miscellaneous editorial relevant info. There might also be notes to post about which LUT’s to use for example.  The script supervisor also makes notes relevant to each take which flow through to editorial as well.  Camera sheets will also help the loader track down equipment failures like magazines that are scratching later on as well

There are great side effects to slating that I see on set.

I like to think of slates as the filmaking version of the starters gun.  It’s a countdown to the race beginning, the call of “action”.  It calms and settles everyone on set down and focusses everyone’s energy into the singular event even that becomes “the take”.  Actors and crew are used to the ritual of the calls and the act of slating and it’s a precious few seconds that allow actors to “drop” into character.  When those calls go out the crew start to quiet and prepare for the take.

You can literally see it happen with actors as the slate comes in.

I’ve been chatting with some of my own crew and some directors about slating technique and protocol and it seems in this digital age some discipline and technique has been overlooked…. and it occurred to me that it takes a huge amount of subtle knowledge to be able to slate properly. One director was bemoaning the fact that they had to keep staring at the loader’s face on the split right before every take during an important emotional scene.  They also took an interminably long time to actually announce the slate as well, totally distracting the beginning of the take.  “Doesn’t anyone know how to slate ?  Don’t they know how they can influence the beginning of a scene ? That they can set the tone for the actors ?  Why are they taking so long to announce the slate and get out of there ? What ever happened to the discipline of the film days where you’d get the slate and only the slate in shot and get the hell out of there ???”  It was a full blown rant…..

Like a butler, you need to be totally present yet not noticed.  The way you speak, the manner with which you slate can greatly affect actor performance and the on set ambience.  You’re also a constant visual representative of the camera department.

Let’s consider who actually sees you when you slate.  For starters the director is watching, probably in the next room, anxiously hoping their note to the actor will play in the scene.  The last thing they want to see is you goofing off, trying to find a camera, drawing pretty rainbows on the slate or pulling faces just before the call of action and taking an interminable amount of time to announce the slate.

So that’s just on set.  Then the footage goes to editorial.  Then the editing assistant has to sync it or check the sync.  Then the editor will look at it.  Then they’ll strike DVD’s or files for Producers.

So then the Producers will be looking at you.

Then probably some TV executives or EP’s as well.

Oh.  And then the director will watch rushes and again be reminded how annoying you were the first time for pulling that face the second time around (cause you know, it was recorded).

And then they go into the edit suite and start cutting and AGAIN they look at you drawing attention to yourself.

So just bare in mind, that there’s a huge audience of senior heavies watching you, people that one day might be considering employing you, and you’re representing not only yourself but the camera department and the general mood of the set (and by extension the director)…

So I’ve been collecting and gathering slate knowledge.  And I’ve been trying to come up with a slating manifesto.  These might not work for you, but this is how I’d like my slating to be done.  Let me know if you’ve got any other suggestions.

Like silver service you kind of need to be perfect all the time and not be noticed. You need to be aware, observant and sensitive to what’s happening in the scene itself and adjust yourself to suit.  You’re doing an important job, but you need to do it discretely and not be noticed.

Here’s how to slate with class.

The Slate goes in at the very last minute.  The operators are looking for issues in the frame as you run up towards a take.  You standing there holding a slate in a way that means they can’t be checking for reflections, or any other compositional things they might want to look at like lighting for the lead actor. After the AD has called roll and you’ve heard the confirmation of sound speed, THEN you present the slate to camera.  Not before.

Know your lenses and know how far away to stand.  There are several theories, but 1’ for every 10mm of lens is a good start. That means 5’ for a 50mm or 10’ for a 100mm.  Also knowing your lenses means knowing your minimum focus so you won’t be at 4’ on a 40mm that has a focus minimum of 5” will you now ?

Be Quick.  I almost want to make this rule number 1.  Get in say the bare minimum slate it and get out as quickly as possible without knocking anything over or causing a commotion.  Don’t annunciate every single thing on the slate for example “127 – 1” instead of Shot 127 take 1. And that could be “one two seven one” or “one two seven take one” to avoid confusion about the first number.

Don’t make the operator chase you.  I don’t want to have to go looking for you.  I don’t want to have to move my careful pre-framed or staged shot just to get a slate, then try and remember where I was framed.  Put the slate in the existing frame. Every time an operator has to move off their pre-frame to find you a kitten is killed….

Exit Strategies.  You should be planning where to slate from before they call turnover. You should be planning where to stand and then how you’re going to exit.  You should slate from the side you’ll be exiting camera from.  Don’t cross the frame.  Don’t put yourself in the frame. Some loaders like to look from behind the slate to use the filter reflection to line up the slate.  None of us want to see you. Exit without disturbing the actors, the camera or lighting.

Read the scene. Make a judgement based on what’s happening around you and work out how loud you need to be with your clap and your read.  If you’re on a busy street with a wide lens you’ll need to project a lot louder and towards the microphone (not the camera) than if you’re in a studio doing a discrete scene on a long lens.  You don’t want a loud bang right in front of an actors face either, especially on a sensitive scene.  Make sure you barely clap so you won’t disturb an actor who’s about to bare their soul, processing a note form the director or even trying to remember their lines.  The last thing you want to do is interrupt the beginning of an emotional scene that is the whole critical turning point of the entire film.

Be Steady. Always drop the slate into frame with the sticks open so there is no confusion with an MOS slate.  This is done so editors and assistants can find the sync point when scrubbing the footage at high speed.   Where possible always use two hands to hold the slate steady especially when near the faces of actors to avoid any catastrophes.  You don’t want to be known as the loader who injured THAT actor… Make sure you don’t cover any vital information with your fingers. While clapping the sticks keep the slate steady and count to one after the clap to make sure the editor can easily find the sync point. Once it has clapped don’t let it bounce open and cause any double clap confusion. If you make a mistake (which happens) call ‘second clap/second mark’ and CALMLY mark the slate again.

Keep it clean. The slate must be clear and legible.  It’s meant to be readable !  Don’t use funny or fancy style fonts or drawings/jokes in the corner. It makes it difficult for people down the line in post to glance quickly and know what’s going on.

Spell it right. The most embarrassing thing is to have spelt the Director’s or DOP’s names wrong so check it and double check it again before putting it out there. Humiliation really.

Get it right. It’s YOUR job to actually have the right numbers on the slate in the first place.  The script supervisor rules here and it’s best you fall into line unless you want them yelling corrections at you as you’re calling it in shot and therefore giving “bad service”. There are also several different numbering systems and every script supervisor has their own way of doing things.  Do it the way they like and your life won’t be hell. Seriously. Learn their system and do it the way they like.

Let there be light but not too much. Make sure you always have a torch handy to put light on the slate in a dark scene, or when it’s a brightly lit set angle the slate down slightly to avoid reflections.

Don’t walk away with the slate. If you have to leave the set for very important jobs like making coffee for me then leave the slate next to the camera with a marker so that the production is not held up waiting for the slate to return….and my coffee.

Don’t walk away with the slate. When shooting multi-camera it’s great to try and get a common slate but don’t get caught trying to make it happen, if you need two separate slates then do two separate slates. This is a common mistake when shooting a wide shot at the same time as close up, remember there’s no point putting a slate on if the editor can’t see what’s on it. Also announce each camera as you mark it.  “A” mark and “B” mark for example.

For slates that aren’t the norm. 

I love tail slates though continuity and editors hate them.  I like them because it means I can pre-roll into a scene.  I make it a habit to roll a few seconds at least before the actual call of turnover as I ALWAYS get shots that get used in the cut of an actor doing their thing in the run up to a take.  A slate often ruins my “stolen” shots so I’ll often ask for a tail on my camera.

For tail slates make sure that you identify by calling the numbers at the head of the scene and make sure you call out when the director calls cut so that camera and sound don’t cut before your slate is in there. At the end of the take drop the slate into frame upside down to mark and then turn right way up so that editorial can see the numbers.  Make sure you come up with a suitable punishment system for operators like me who always forget and cut before the tail slate comes in.

It’s a classic loader mistake to yell for a tail slate thinking the scene is over, but when the director hasn’t actually called cut.  Another sure fire way to earn the ire of any director is to run into the scene in the middle of a take with a tail slate !

For MOS to avoid confusion make sure your fingers are in between the sticks to identify there will be no mark and hold steady in the frame.

Always talk to to the script supervisor.  Make sure that what your slate says matches what the continuity notes say. What the continuity person says goes, traditionally they are a representative of the editing department so it’s their call.

Here’s a final note….watch this amusing compilation of slates from Inglorious Basterds. Although hilarious, it perfectly illustrates WHY YOU SHOULDN’T slate like this.  Notice how often it *infects* the actors as she comically announces the late ?  Notice how the actors are often in character but are distracted or comment on the slate ?  That’s a no no in my book.

Only made possible with the awesome informal input of several directors, post supervisors script supervisors and especially my long suffering focus pullers and loaders, Jessica Clarke-Nash, Jade Court-Gold, Cam Gaze and Grant Sweetnam.  You’ve all taught me how to slate like a butler.

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