As some of my Twitter followers and Facebook friends may have noticed, I have recently been asked to be the Director of Photography on a commercial shoot in rural china which will air on China Central Television in the coming months. The big american shoe company who the commercial was for, has a charity program which donates one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair purchased. They have a sister company, which operates only in china that will have their branding attached to the film. The brief was simple. Make a short commercial that will touch the hearts of the chinese people. We already had a storyboard that I had no input on, but I was happy with it. Let me start off by saying, that it’s very hard to go to a country which is so different to the country you normally work and live in and understand the mindset of the viewers and make a commercial which will appeal to them. People from different country don’t think alike and assuming that one film appeals to every market in equal measure is wrong. Saying that, we had a producer and a team to advise us in China, so we could lock down what we should shoot and concentrate on getting it done.
Before I get too much into the technical side of things, i can honestly say that shooting this commercial was the most physically and mentally exhausting shoot I’ve done so far, but it was also one of the most rewarding ones. What makes this so great on a personal level for me is not the way we shot it and how the final film looked (Even though everyone is really happy with it including myself), it’s knowing that you can make a difference in some peoples life so easily. I’ve never met kids which were so happy to just watch us work and so determined to help and learn. Seeing the living conditions of the people in these remote villages makes you appreciate what you really have. It’s been one of the most eye opening experiences in my life so far and even though I am young, I have seen a lot already!
Choosing the right gear.
Every project starts the same. You brainstorm, you write, you plan, you make arrangements but you also pick the gear. I got an email very early on from the producer, asking for the highest possible quality for this commercial. The final broadcast is 1080p, but we all agreed, that shooting in 4K would give us superior image sharpness and clarity and enable us to do some adjustments in post. As the Director of Photography, I had the task of picking out the right gear. Very early on, I went in to Video Europe and met with RED tech Tom Smith. I chose to shoot the commercial on the RED Epic, because of it’s extremely compact form factor and amazing image quality. We considered the Scarlet, however, there were some slow-motion shots, that we could only achieve with the EPIC at our desired resolution of 4K. The first idea was to go with a Carl Zeiss CP.2 or Arri Ultra prime set, but after some consideration, I decided it would be a much better idea to lens the EPIC with 2 Angenieux Optimo DP zoom lenses. The Angenieux’s have great image quality and would allow us to work a lot faster. At the end, I went with the Angenieux Optimo DP 16-42 T2.8 and Angenieux Optimo DP 30-80mm T2.8. These are cinema zooms which have great focus action, smooth apertures and cover a decent zoom range. Even though we had a storyboard, I wanted to be able to quickly adjust focal lengths to find the best shot. I sadly wasn’t able to scout the location before the actual shoot, because it’s a long way away, even from Beijing where we worked from for 3 weeks. With lenses sorted out, the next task was to rig the camera. I chose to go with the RED 15mm lightweight support as a bars system. To be able to knock down the exposure by using Tiffen IRND filters, I opted to go with the GENUS ELITE mattebox, which is a compact and lightweight mattebox, with 2 filter stages (1 rotatable by 360 degrees). The mattebox is very lightweight and extremely ruggedly built and withstood many bumps and knocks on the way to the shoot, on the shoot and on the way back. I used the Genus Side Flags and Genus folding top flag with the ELITE. I sadly didn’t have the luxury of bringing a 1st AC, so focusing and all that came down to me. The Angenieux lenses have a long throw on them, so I wanted to use a nice follow focus on it, to be able to focus accurately. In the end, I went with the GENUS SUPERIOR FOLLOW FOCUS, which is Genus’ top spec follow focus system and features a latch on quick release and doesn’t have any play/backlash in the focus action at all. To power the whole rig, I used the Anton Bauer Dionic HC’s. These are pretty small and power the EPIC for about 90 minutes with the 5″ top monitor. I mainly used the 5″ monitor on the EPIC, but sometimes I had to switch to the BOMB EVF to judge exposure and focus. Most of the time I exposed the image with the histogram, but it’s always good to double check by judging the exposure by eye. It was really important to me, to shoot the commercial with the right tripod. The setup wasn’t too heavy, but not light either, so I picked a Sachtler Video 20P with carbon fibre legs. The tripod has a wonderful fluid head which supported the EPIC with no problem at all. The legs were very rigid but also very light, due to the carbon fibre.
The village where we shot is in the chinese Sichuan province, about a 5 hour drive from the closest town, which has running water (cold!!). Shooting is one challenge, but before you can even think about all that, you have to overcome the obstacle of actually getting your gear to location. I took all the equipment from London, so had to make sure it’s safe inside the passenger planes, but also in the SUV on the paths to the village. I was able to just check in 2 pieces of baggage, to save on costs. One case was my HPRC 5400W hard case, which carries all my Kessler gear (Pocket Dolly, Motors and Mount, Basic Controller, Oracle Controller and even a REV2 head). The second piece was a big sports bag, which I really really love for traveling. Sadly it doesn’t have any wheels, so you either need to lug it or put it on a baggage trolley, BUT it is massive and not one airline has complained about the size so far. I managed to get all my clothes into that bag, the whole Video 20
tripod (Head detached from legs), a RODE BLIMP and many many more things.
The camera, lenses, mattebox, harddrives, filters, follow focus, rods and batteries all went into the airplane cabin. It’s a massive challenge to get all the gear onboard, but I was able to do it with the Petrol bags PD336 backpack. It’s an enormous backpack which has great back support and nicely padded straps. I was able to put the EPIC into the Petrol Bag with the DSMC Side handle on and leave the Wooden Camera top plate and picccatiny rail still mounted, too. The bag comes with many different dividers so you can customize it to your needs. I took a big divider from another Petrol Bag (PD620) and created a “2nd level”. I used velcro to attach the divider on one side of the bag and this gave me a ‘flap’. Now I was able to have a 2nd level, on which I stored the Genus Elite Mattebox. That way, I could use double the space as I would have normally used. The bag is also very solidly built, so I didn’t worry about any gear being knocked or scratched during transport.
How do you approach a shoot like this? Well, you hope for the best and prepare for the worst . We had storyboards, shot lists etc all written out, but it all changed on location. Some locations didn’t work because of the weather and such, so we had to quickly find an alternative. We found some locations which were really beautiful, that the producer and his team didn’t see on their previous location scout.
As the Cinematographer, I can talk mostly about the gear side and how I shot it. We basically have a 25 and 10 second window to tell a story. Yes, the commercials are 30 seconds and 15 seconds long, but each of them has 5 seconds worth of titles at the end. You need to take all that into account when you shoot the project. If your pans/tilts are too quick or too slow, they might not cut with the piece. It might seem to frantic if they’re too quick and if they’re to slow, you will loose the effect of any movement at all, because there is not enough time to let the whole shot run through. We added some slider movements, which I shot on the Kessler Crane Pocket Dolly, I shot some slow motion at 120fps and did a few combinations of slides,pans and tilts to give it all some more dimension and movement in the shot. What was great about the EPIC was, that we were still able to change a few things around in post. The light didn’t match in some of the shots, simply due to the time we had to shoot the commercial, but the .R3D files allowed us to match them up nicely. There is however a progression of time in the commercial. We are showing the journey of the kid who leaves his hut in the morning to go to school. A journey which takes some children a couple of hours each way. I was really fortunate to have the Angenieux zoom lenses. The kid, who was our main actor had to run barefoot over the rocks, dirt paths and through streams. It’s all a stress on him, especially if he is actually running. So instead of tiring him out and having to have him on hold in between the shots, I could have him run one way in a wide, quickly zoom in and have him run the same path again in a matter of minutes. The thought of having to change lenses, reattaching the mattebox and follow focus is just a pain, especially in those dusty environments. Overall, i would say that the shoot was extremely efficient and the compact camera setup allowed us to work quickly. We were able to reposition and reframe in a matter of minutes. You can sometimes forget how much power is actually under the hood of this tiny camera, called the RED Epic.
Saving/Backing up the footage.
The Red EPIC produces an enormous amount of footage, so having a strategy in place to save files and back them up is highly recommended. It’s a good idea to give it some thought before you leave for the trip, so you don’t face the situation of not having enough hard drive space for all your footage on location. We had 4 128GB RED Mags available, so we could go one full shooting day, without backing up. There was simply no time to back up the footage as soon as the mag came out of the camera, so back-ups were done at the end of the day! As soon as the mag came out of the camera, it was taped over, so couldn’t accidentally be reused. I am a big big fan of G-Technology drives, because they’re very robust, reliable and fast. I have plenty of them and never had one fail on me. Just before the trip I got a 1TB USB3 G-Drive Mobile, which is absolutely fantastic. It’s powered by the USB3 port on my Retina Macbook Pro and performance wise, it’s incredibly fast. The first round of backups was done onto the G-Drive Mobile, the 2nd and 3rd back-ups were all done on a G-Drive Mini, 750GB. As the Retina Macbook Pro doesn’t have any Firewire 800 ports (The G-Drive Mini’s use FW800 or USB2), I used a Firewire to Thunderbolt adapter, which you can pick up in the Apple store for about 25 quid. The G-Drive Mini’s aren’t quite as fast as the G-Drive mobile, because you’re essentially using FW800 speed through Thunderbolt, but it wasn’t a problem, as the backups were done at the end of the day/at night anyways. What I really like, especially about the G-Drive Mobile is, that it’s incredibly small, light and very robust. Yes, it’s pretty scratched already after this trip, but I now know, that I can really rely on it. For my next shoot, I’ll definitely get additional G-Drive Mobile’s, as they can be easily packed away and provide superb performance via USB3. The only thing I could wish for now, is that my IMac at home had USB3. Once I got back to Beijing and also back to Amsterdam, where I currently live, additional copies of the RAW footage and working files were made onto 2 G-Raid 2TB units. These run via FW800 into my IMac and are great for backups when I get home from a shoot. The next thing i need to do is start looking into archiving solutions, so I’ll see what G-Tech has on offer. Maybe a G-Drives with multiple terabytes.
You can call me crazy, but we cut the whole commercial on Final Cut Pro X. We picked it over Premiere due to a few reason, the main one being the speed in which it allowed us to work in. I am very glad that FCP X got .R3D support a while back, so we could just drop RAW red media straight into FCP X and edit away. Here’s the crazy thing: We didn’t even have to work with proxies, because FCP X gave us superb performance and incredible editing speed on a Retina Macbook Pro. Other team
members created end titles, subtitles and such in After Effects and we just dropped them onto the timeline and added transitions. Once we had our cut done, the voiceover was recorded in a studio (I didn’t join/oversee this part, so can’t say more about that) and got mixed down, whilst we were doing the grading simultaneously in Adobe Speedgrade with a colorist. I have to say, I have never really given Speedgrade any attention, but it’s crazy what kind of results you can pull out of it. We exported the final files with Compressor and created an uncompressed .mov file which had to be converted on a special Sony machine at the television station, to be brought into the right format for broadcast. This was all done without us being present, as the final edit was delivered from Amsterdam, to Beijing by me. We were very hard pressed for time in China, but I feel like we made the best out of it.
If I would have to put it into one sentence: It’s been one heck of an adventure! Shooting a commercial for TV is a really rewarding thing, but knowing that you can make a difference by shooting a TV commercial for a humanitarian/charity project, is something else. What I can take home is to be more appreciative of what I have and that you shouldn’t always take things for granted. I learnt a few new things about the filmmaking process, as I believe you never stop learning, but what really occurred to me when I was laying down in my bed in the Beijing hotel is, that I learnt a lot about life! I don’t want to sound poetic or anything like that, but being out there and seeing the dedication and work these kids put into their education to strive for a better life is truly incredible! The commercial has gone on air in the first weeks of april and they already sold 8000 pairs of shoes on the first day alone. That means that 8000!!!! poor kids will receive a new pair of shoes soon! It really gives me a warm feeling. I know that I normally cover a lot more gear and details about the process of shooting, but I don’t think it’s a top priority here. What I can say though is, how impressed I am by all the gear we had on the trip. The RED Epic was amazing, the Angenieux lenses were incredibly beautiful, the Genus equipment was super solid, the Sachtler tripod took a massive beating but performed like a champ and the Petrol Bags helped us get it all there and back in one piece!
I really hope that you enjoyed reading the blog post and that I could inspire you in one way or another, to go out there and make a difference!