Yesterday I shot a zero budget short film around Richmond/ Twickenham. I used the Canon 7D and in this blog I will be going through the shoot, how the camera performed, hiccups, compromises, lack of time…all the usual stuff you experience when making a short film! Behind the scenes photos taken by Alex Kubalsky and Andy Dunn.
It was completely up to me what I wanted to shoot this on and I has have yet to shoot a short drama on the 7D it was the perfect time. Done a couple of commercials and lots of other work with it but this was the first time done a short drama.
These are the reasons I went with the camera.
Form Factor is a strong factor. I wanted something small and relatively discreet. After all permissions were not guaranteed for our locations so I wanted something that would not attract too much attention. Although the 7D’s form factor on it’s own is a bit of a nightmare. Handheld is tough. Focus is very difficult. So of course I was pimping it up. Tripod: Miller DS20 Solo. Handheld rig: Zacuto Tactical Shooter. Viewfinder: Zacuto Z-Finder. Marshall Monitor: Follow Focus: Zacuto Follow Focus.
Yes everything above is expensive. Can you get a away with cheaper alternatives? Of course. But I needed something that I knew performs brilliantly and would help me, not cause me issues during the shoot. Oh and of course I already had these luckily!
If the 5DmkII had 24 or 25p I would have shot using that camera for sure. It does have a punchier image, less noise and better in low light. But the firmware has not arrived yet so it will be 7D. Which is of course absolutely fine as the 7D produces stunning images too!
What is the film?
It’s an idea by myself and Director Armin Ruede to take scenes from classic movies and rework them. Although not quite as was envisaged. This short film was inspired by a scene in “Lost in Translation”.
It features two characters. Both married who meet each other away from home on business…
The female lead was played by Angela Bull and the male by Rez Kempton.
The film consisted of three main scenes. Scenes 1 and 3 were in roughly the same location and Scene 2 in a cafe. We started with scene 2, a cafe in Kew near Richmond. We had originally planned to just do it outside on a table outside, but it was cold and the cafe had a really nice conservatory in the back. Being a bit cheeky we asked the lady in the cafe if there was any chance we could use it. She said yes so we effectively took over the conservatory. It was a bit of blessing. We suddenly had a much more controlled environment to shoot in and much warmer. Outside was also going to be a problem with the road noise. Inside still suffered from noise, as Richmond often gets the planes landing at Heathrow. A problem we had to cope with.
Apart from myself , the two actors and Armin Ruede, the Director, we had with us Alex Kubalsky, a friend of mine from Japan/ LA who was over in London as my 1st AC. Andy Dunn, a BBC director interested in seeing a drama shoot as he had just bought a 7D was second AC. Bradley Steenkamp on sound, Glenn Jones boom operation and some extras. It was minimal crew and it worked just fine.
Now the biggest factor against us all day was easily time. Being the winter we had about 8 hours or so of daylight. We started at location one at 8am and by the time we were rigged for sound, scene dressed, rehearsed, extras in etc we didn’t start rolling till 930am. A bit slow for sure. But as all the kit was packed away and everything had to be set up so Armin’s idea of rolling at 830am was always a bit optimistic. Fortunately, I didn’t have to light the scene. I could have added a little bit of extra lighting but with us aiming to strike at 10am I knew this would be a mistake…the light was pretty good in the end as you can see from the ungraded frame grabs below. Would I had prefer additional lighting? Of course… a little bit of subtle lighting would have helped a lot. We just had not time for it. In hindsight a lite panel mini would have been very useful.
The film was shot with a mixture of handheld and tripod. All the cafe scenes were shot handheld. It was a very static location and the handheld really added to it. I sat down in a chair to keep the eyeline of the characters and used the Zacuto Tactical Shooter to get good handheld with the Z-Finder. I often recommend the Zacuto Rapid Fire if on a budget but I needed the extra handle for longer handheld scenes to get that extra stability.
Now the biggest problem when shooting handheld with this combo was Armin had no way of seeing what I was shooting. Now this is the fatal flaw with shooting the 5dmkII and 7D. If you have to use a viewfinder, and I find it helps immeasurably when handheld, then you cannot use a monitor. Plug a monitor in and you lose the LCD. Now you can shoot handheld and mount the monitor onto the rig and use that, then you could use a powered HDMI splitter and use two monitors or just have the director behind you looking in yours. I needed the viewfinder so it meant Armin had to watch back clips after I shot them. This slowed things down and was far from ideal.We really need to be able to have that LCD working AND plug a monitor in. Not sure if firmware can make this possible but I hope so!
For the wide establishing shots I used the Canon 24mm F1.4 which in full frame terms equates to about 38.4mm. Not super wide. But wide enough for what I needed. That’s the problem with all these awesome L series lenses I have, they just aren’t as wide on my 7D as they are on the full frame 5dmkII! I shot ISO 100, shutter was at 1/50th throughout the shoot apart from one shot at the end of the day (more of that later). When shooting video you want to keep your shutter to as close to double your frame rate as your camera will do to get the optimal film motion. Slower shutter and you get motion blur, faster and you suffer the “Gladiator” effect. Which is fine for some stuff. Not for this though! I shot 25p as it is the EU standard for TV and DVD. If I shot at 24p then shutter would have been 1/50th too as the camera does not have 1/48th. My iris was down to about f2.8 for most of the stuff inside. More open that that and my depth of field would have been too shallow and I would have lost the actor’s focus every time they move slightly. I focused manually with my hand on the barrel as I didn’t use the Zacuto mini base plate or follow focus whilst handheld. I like shooting “from the hip” when handheld. I tend to “feel the camera” and the focus and focusing feels utterly natural for me this way. Canon lenses also focus the “right way”, like my video lenses. Clockwise for nearer, anti for further. If you are used to Nikon lenses that is the other way. Very confusing! My picture profile was neutral with sharpness down one notch. I am always experimenting with PP settings and normally I recommend sharpness all the way down. I went with down one notch for an experiment, it is after all easy to soften that sharpness in post if it is too much…
When shooting dialogue as singles I did some as dirty frames (with the edge of the other character soft to the edge of frame) and some as pure tight shots. Key when doing these shots is make sure your camera is at roughly the same eyeline as the character you are filming next to. Too low and the other character looks like the are looking up, too high and it looks like they are looking down. This meant when filming Rez I had to slump slightly to match Angela’s smaller frame.
Sound was recorded on the Zoom H4N. A good little device. Not ideal for narratives like this though due to the limitations of two XLR inputs. Ideally I wanted both characters to have personal mics and a boom. Three channels that needed to be recorded separately. Bad idea to do a live mix down to two channels as if the sounds recordist makes a mistake you are stuck with it. Bradley didn’t have any personal mics with him and with the limitation of two channels it was going to boom only. Far from ideal and something we struggled with in wider shots. We also had the problem of planes Every 90 seconds or so we had one go over. A PAIN IN THE ARSE. Being a conservatory meant sound proofing was pretty poor. I also used the Rode Video Mic to get reference audio. Very useful when syncing sound in the edit and for auto sync plugins like Pluraleyes. Make sure you use a slate that is labelled correctly. It makes the editor’s job a lot easier when it comes to renaming clips and doing manual sync.
So we got the wide establishing done, the wide 2-shot of the whole scene, a tighter 2-shot of the whole scene and all of Angela’s singles. Then the owner of the coffee shop turned up very angry that we were not allowed to film inside and told us to leave immediately. We had only done a couple of lines of Rez’s singles so whilst Armin took him to the front to try to calm him down I quickly got the coverage we needed of Rez’s singles so we had something “in the can”. Not ideal. Armin was not there to watch the performance and we only got one run through from that angle but it was better than nothing. So we quickly de-rigged and was out of there at 1030am. 30 minutes later than scheduled but not bad considering the coverage we managed to get. I wanted some cutaways of cups and other things but had no time to get them. I will try to go back one day soon with just the camera and get them…great thing about the small camera. Also continuity sucked with the froth in the coffee, it was not even between takes. You really need a continuity person to make sure this doesn’t happen. Unfortunately we didn’t. Remember little things like that are really important.
We were very lucky with Location 2. We wanted a park style place to film. Top of wish list was York House gardens. A beautiful spot that I only discovered accidentally this year whilst looking for a place to test my Cinemek G35. I have lived in the area almost 20 years and never knew it was there. Quite stupid of me…have a look at the short film I made of the location with the Cinemek and EX3 about a year ago below…
Surprisingly a short phone call by Armin and we were told no problem. Very surprising and great news.
We had extras coming, a family with kids so we scheduled to do that first but as they were late we decided to get some other shots first. I got the Miller tripod out for the first time and used the 70-200mm Canon f2.8 IS. I really cannot recommend this lens enough. I understand it is being replaced shortly. The IS helps so much you cannot underestimate it. I did a quick test to show Alex, Andy and Bradley the problems with the rolling shutter of the 7D on the end of the lens. I had the camera on the tripod all the way to 200mm, tapped the pan handle and watched as the image turned to jelly. I then turned on the IS and did the same thing. Nothing. ESSENTIAL LENS.
Light was a small issue. Luckily it wasn’t raining, like today as I write this blog. It was mostly blue skies with clouds. Of course with winter sun being very low, lens flare was a huge issue, a mattebox would have helped on some shots for sure but only a little bit as the light was so low it was practically down the barrel for some shots. I needed speed again and was constant changing of lenses but more importantly the inability to use my vari-nd meant (with matte box on accessing it impossible) I opted not to use a matte box, any flares i would get them flagged by my assistant…Continuity of light was the main challenge. Shoot a wide with sun out then then tights need to have sun out or vice versa. Sun coming through the trees created a beautiful dappled light on Rez for one shot so I wanted that light. Of course that cost us time as clouds went past and we had to wait. Always an issue and something you have factor in timewise. Don’t schedule your shoot to go smoothly. Always factor in problems with light, noise etc. That way you get less stressed and rush less. There was no leeway in the schedule for this so we were always fighting against time. Ungraded frame grabs below…
It’s very important of course to make sure everyone gets a break, food, drink. Grumpiness and fatigue will set in! I had to skip mine as we were so behind. Needed to block out the next scene! I missed out on some very fine pies as seen below!
For the 2 big wide shots outside I used a real favourite lens of mine for the 7D. The Tokina F2.8 11-16mm. Gorgeous lens. Affordable and great image. Check out the frame grab below…
Of course with time against us a big problem was falling light levels. We rattled through scenes quickly. We still got most of the coverage we needed but Armin realised if we were going to have a film that could be edited we had to drop some shots/ angles to make sure everything was covered. Not ideal but that’s the nature of the zero budget short film in one day!
I did some handheld walking back with Rez and Angels by the river using the 35mm f1.4 set to f2.8 and the Zacuto Tactical shooter. The Zacuto rig with the extra hand support made the footage pretty good. More ungraded frame grabs below…
Next up was the climatic final scene where they say goodbye. By this point the sun had technically gone down, we moved location 5 minutes away and tried to get as much as done as possible. Throughout the shoot we were dogged by planes, police sirens, children crying, then at this location an air ambulance landed the other side of the river from us meaning we lost about 20 minutes of shoot time. With the sun just about gone this was a disaster. When you have these awful audio problems make sure you record lots of wild/ buzz track at each location. Essentially just ambient noise for 2-3 minutes that you can use for underlay to even out the uneven sound recording. Don’t forget to do this!!
So with the helicopter there, I did a few non-sync shots but there weren’t many. As soon as that engine was off we were off. We did the scene from 5 angles. Big wide from front, medium wide, two singles and a rear shot. Big wide was good. ISO 200 f2 on the 24mm. Medium wide same settings on 35mm. Single on Rez ISO 400 F1.8 on 50mm. Then due to helicopter taking off…single of Angela ISO 1600 50mm f1.2 shutter down to 1/30th (from 1/50th) so a huge difference. Basically it was dark. Very dark. We had no additional lights with us as we didn’t plan to shoot in the dark so I had to compensate with high ISO, which is not as clean on the 7D as it is on the 5DmkII, dropped the shutter (not ideal) and was very lucky to have such a fast piece of glass. Made sure Angela didn’t move to much, but even the slightest move meant I had to try and track her with the follow focus. I did my best…you can see some frame grabs below of the drastically changing light levels….going to require some film grain and good grading (done by me) this film!
So was the 7D the right choice? Absolutely. I wanted filmic look, controlled depth of field from a nice big chip. There was no way I could have got this done with my EX1 and adaptor. Not enough light. Handheld is a nightmare…5dmkII no 25p. Could have done with that extra boost from the 5dmkII at the end…
All in all I was very pleased with the results and will certainly be using this a lot in the months to come. A great camera and perfect for this sort of work. Armin is cutting this, I will be grading it. It should be done just after Christmas. I will share it with you then.
Big thanks must go to the Angela and Rez, their performances were great and their utter familiarity with the lines and the parts made my job a lot easier. Also big thanks to everyone, all of whom gave their time for free. I remember putting out a tweet looking for help of this shoot for free and someone berated me saying it was people like me asking for help for free that is killing the film industry. Getting experience on shoots like this is invaluable for many people. If you expect everything you do to make it has to be paid you will have a long wait! None of us got paid, we all gave our time for free to try something out, create a great film and get great experience.
Biggest thanks must to go Armin who brought us all together and worked incredibly hard in making this happen. Never seen a director more passionate or ready for a shoot than Armin.
Here is a short clip of the rushes from the outside the beautiful York House gardens fountains…
Below is a full list of the kit that I used on the shoot.
MarshallV-LCD651ST-HDMI with 2 Sony L series large batteries
1 Beyerdynamic mce86 and boom pole