Monday, December 21, 2015

Short Takes through A Glass Brightly part I

Steve Romano’s cinematography jobs have taken him to many far-flung locales, but for String Theory, the grand-prize winner at the International Cinematographers Guild’s 2011 Emerging Cinematographer
Awards, he and director Zach Gold never left Gold’s studio in Brooklyn in their quest to capture the big ideas surrounding a girl (Evelina Mambetova) who experiences rifts in her reality. String Theory is the latest in a series of fashion-focused shorts by Gold, and it uses A.F. Vandervorst’s 2010 collection as its springboard.

According to Romano, Gold and producer/stylist David Dumas, who also served as art director, wanted a film that was beautiful and haunting, with serene moments interrupted by jarring images. “My job as a director of photography is to act according to the vision of the directors, including the art director,” Romano observes. “You’re enhancing what they created, and you have to make them feel welcome in the process.” Romano, who also works as a Phantom camera technician, supplied the production with a Phantom HD Gold camera, Leica prime lenses (re-housed by Van Diemen Broadcast) and most of the
small lighting package, including a couple of 2x2 Kino Flos, a 10K Fresnel, a 5K Fresnel and a handful of 2K scoops.

The girl is introduced in a dusty, windowless room lit by dozens of warm practical lamps. She kneels, motionless, on a pedestal, covered in what looks like a fine layer of silt; a soft toplight (a diffused 1K) separates her from the background. In the next shot, she comes to life and shakes off the silt, which cascades off her skin in slow motion. The filmmakers shot Mambetova’s movements at 1,000 fps,
recording to 512 GB CineMags. “We had to match the light for the rest of the scene, but with something like 5 times more light,” says Romano. “We made sure the light was coming from the same angles as in the previous shot, but we concentrated the light on her instead of the whole set.”

To boost the light level for the slow-motion shot, a Mole 10K gelled with 12 CTO, Opal and 216 was positioned above the actress. “There are no super-wide high-speed shots in the film,” notes Romano, who used tighter compositions to hide the limited amount of light available at advanced frame rates. “Having a really good gaffer helps. Christian Ern was our gaffer and lighting director, sides were actual mirrors. The top and the other three sides were panes of two-way glass. Romano pointed his camera through one of the two-way mirrors and lit the box through the other two-way mirrors with a 5K Fresnel.
Romano shot the box at a T1.6, but it was still difficult to get enough light. "The Phantom HD Gold is rated at 250 ASA, which I estimate to be less, and each pane of two-way glass blocked as much as 1½ stops of light from both the lens and the lamps," he says. "Further complicating matters, hot lamps can have an adverse effect on butterflies, so I didn’t shoot above 30 fps. On the tighter shots, we removed the top glass, moved the light in a bit closer and were able to shoot at 200 fps. “If we’d shot it on the [Phantom] Flex, we would have had 2½ more stops of light sensitivity,” he reflects. “I could also get a lot more light [without heat] from some of the newer LED lights we have today.

Doing a lot of bug photography, I’ve learned there are things you can do to get bugs to move, but heat will make them stop,” he continues. “We had to turn the lights off, cool them down and keep the top of the box off for a while. Once the butterflies get over it, you put the top back on, crank the lights up and shoot. No butterflies were harmed in the making of this picture, by the way.” In one of the film’s most stylized
sequences, Mambetova stands in a Plexiglas tank that covers her torso, and it’s full of butterflies.

Shooting against a white background, Romano toplit the actress with a heavily diffused 10K Fresnel and aimed two Nine-light Maxi-Brutes at the background. Once the butterflies were in the tank, the filmmakers sat back and waited for something to happen. “Bugs, puppies and little kids are arduous to photograph because there’s no way you can corral them,” says the cinematographer. “The beauty of the Phantom
is its circular buffer. When you shoot anything above 450 fps at 1920x1080 on the Phantom HD Gold, as long as the camera is on, you’re always recording into its internal circular memory buffer. If you use what’s called a ‘post-trigger,’ you can hit the record button after the action is done, and you’ve got the shot. At 1,000 fps, you get 4.4 seconds of data [in the internal memory], approximately 2.7 minutes of footage.”

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