You have probably already seen this but just in case you haven’t this really is a must watch.

Undercity is a fascinating 30 minute film about Steve Duncan showing cameraman/ director Andrew Wonder amazing things below Manhattan and at the end above Manhattan.

Not that it really matters what camera you shoot something on, “Undercity” clearly benefited from the excellent low light capability and small size of the Canon 5DmkII.

I don’t want to talk too much about the content of this, best if you just watch it. But I am really busyright now, in the middle of lots of things that have to be done today but everything stopped when I started watching it. It gripped me immediately. 30 minutes online is a long time to hold a viewer’s attention these days but if the content is good enough…I wanted more!

Technically he used one single lens, the wicked 24mm F1.4L from Canon, a Zacuto Rapid Fire (now called the Target Shooter) which has always been my recommendation for a hand held rig as it’s so small but gives you the stability you need. For sound he used a Sennheiser G2 plugged into a Zoom H4N. I assume he just left the Zoom recording the whole time and it was synced up in post using pluraleyes.

This film is getting a lot of deserved attention and rightly so. It’s perfectly paced, well shot, got a likeable protagonist and scares the shit out of you at times. This really is guerilla filmmaking at it’s best and already my favourite film of 2011, big screen and small screen!

It looks like he shot pretty wide open most of the time which is a bitch to do, but his control of focus was tight and accurate, no mean feat and the handheld was masterfully done

Although I would not recommend taking a trip down there yourself, yes it’s illegal, but more importantly it is bloody dangerous. Let the filmmakers transport you there, they have done the hard work for you!

SO sit back, make sure you click HD and full screen it! Enjoy!

EDIT: Director/ Cameraman Andrew Wonder has written for me a nice detailed explanation of the shoot which you can read under the video.

UNDERCITY from Andrew Wonder on Vimeo.

When the 5D came out I felt like I had finally found my paintbrush. I always shot stills with my Nikon F and rangefinders. Those small cameras always allowed me to connect with my subject better than any traditional video camera and always dreamed of them capturing motion. I was a union AC while I was in film school and after a few real sets I fell very out of love with “traditional” shooting. I always felt ENG guys were the real badass’ of cinematography and using the 5D with canon lenses is the perfect mix of panavision and fujinon.

Since buying the 5D I’ve used it for a lot of broadcast TV work including two reality shows for MTV. The first was called The Real Show Choir and was shot almost completely wide open on a 50mm 1.4 and was aired pre-House. The second aired this fall and was the 200th episode of MTV’s MADE. I shot it with a sigma 24-70 and a beta copy of the beachtek DXA-SLR (which I burned through 5 of before figure out how to make it production ready). I still prefer the zoom H4N to the beachtek but when you are giving a network 12-16 hours of footage a day not having to sync is a lifesaver.

I had just bought the camera right before we started shooting Undercity so this adventure was a great trial by fire to see if the 5D could handle action and extreme environments (like my rangefinders). I was also using the camera at the same time to shoot a lot of parkour videos with some guys from your side of the pond. We actually shot one with Steve who took the athletes to some real funky abandoned places upstate New York (http:0//vimeo.com/1806400) and a cool one with EX1s (this was before clients believed the 5D could do anything) where we shut down a state fair and I would climb rollecoasters with them as they jumped (http://vimeo.com/17746153).

The footage in this video is just a few of the adventures we shot over the course of a month in four of NYC’s five boroughs.

THE LOOK/FEELING:

I had seen a lot of videos of TV programs that had dealt with this subject matter and they always felt bland and emotionless. People seem to have so many preconceptions of the mythical world of the underground that I wanted to play with those fears and tensions while still teaching a bit of history. Emotionally I hoped that if I was always within 5 feet of Steve and if he was always speaking to me, the way he would take a girl on a date, you would have a true visceral experience when watching. What also makes this shooting style effect is that since you never see my reaction to the situations then audience members are forced to project their pre-concieved notions about the dangers of the underground onto the film creating even more tension. We took this idea even further in the edit using a mix of quicker jump cuts with drawn out long takes to keep an continual sense of uneasiness.

Look wise I used a custom profile based on the portrait setting in the PP menu. I wanted everything to pop and I didn’t want to do it in post. We were almost always shooting at 2500ASA or above so I knew that any grading (no matter how minor) would make the footage even noisier. I also think the skin tones are nicer in the portrait settings (with the right white balance and color tone) than the neutral.

For white balance I always use 2800 K for tungsten lighting. I felt like it was handling mixed lighting better than 3200.

THE RIG:

We went through a lot of trials with the audio rig to get it right. The biggest concern was the audio recorder. Luckily Jeff, Andy and Charlie from Abel Cine Tech in New York helped me every time something would break/not work to find a better piece to keep me and the gear safe. We were always using the Zoom H4N but originally we were putting it on a hot shoe on top of the camera with the lav receiver velcroed to the back of it. That worked for a while until I was climbing out of a sewer and the zoom hit the manhole and fell into the sewer. Somehow by immediately putting it in a bag of rice when I got home both were saved and still work to this day. After this failure I starting wearing a AC pouch with the Zoom h4n and receiver on my belt which gave me more flexibility. Recently I’ve switched over to using the zoom h1 because it’s so small and sounds great. The 1/8″ in works great with my lavs. I also now put another H1 on top of my camera with a hot shoe adaptor to get me nice stereo recording of the ambiance in the tunnels. I learned that using a traditional shot gun (like the rode mono video mic) is not good in the tunnels because you’re mostly looking at someone’s back and all the creepy noises really mess with the audio gain and don’t record well. The stereo recording (even the in camera audio) mixed with the lav on the zoom created a really nice mood where you got to hear my actions and Steve’s. I would record the entire shoot without stopping and then used pluraleyes to sync up in FCP.

The biggest invention that saved my life was the Zacuto Rapid fire (now striker). At first when trying to put it in my arm pit I hated it, but I quickly discovered that I could hold it in a bayonet position (see photo) which would allow me to run backwards and forwards while keeping the camera steady (as opposed to the arm pit method which only worked when I stood still). What I loved about the rapid fire is that when you need it, it’s there but when the camera is on a strap over my shoulder it’s like nothing is attached to the camera. For camera straps I prefer my old Sony DV strap because I can draw/drop it much quicker than the canon. It’s also more inconspicuous when trying to get the camera to a hidden location.

KEEPING IT STEADY:

On the first day of shooting I got my foot stuck in the track and lost my shoe. After retrieving it and climbing for a few more hours I looked down to discover my pant leg soaked with blood and my ankle completely black and blue. I had done some real damage but didn’t want to stop shooting and even with an ace bandage around my ankle and a cut that took weeks to scab we kept shooting. Because of the bandage my weight distribution had changed and my hand holding was not as smooth as usual (especially when climbing). I knew I had relearn my breathing and balance with this new distribution so I used a trick from when I first starting shooting. For just over a week I would walk around my apartment with a mug filled to the brim with boiling water. Soon I was able to walk around on my bad ankle without burning my hand which gave me the control I needed to run and climb while still keeping the camera steady.

LENS:

In terms of lenses I specifically used the 24mm 1.4 mk i. I tested both versions and felt like the version 1 was a little softer in a good way (I swore the moire problems were less pronounced) and the flares looked more cinematic. I felt like the mk ii tried to hide the flares with its fancy modern coating but the times they did show up it was much uglier and since I wasn’t shooting stills I couldn’t photoshop them out. Sadly I had to use the UV filter (creating more flares) because of all the muck down. Originally I wasn’t using the lens shade but when we were climbing out of a station I smashed the front of my lens pretty hard and realized it was very helpful for protection.

FOCUSING:

I am a huge z-finder fan but it would have been way too dangerous to shoot in the tunnels with it. 90% of the time I was either running, climbing or watching out for obstacles (3rd rail, etc) and had to shoot/focus without looking at the LCD screen. To focus it I had to go back to my rangefinder training and try to use zone focusing. I spent a few days with the lens and trained my hand to know the distance for a close up, medium shot, wide shot and infinity on the lens. When we were running through the tunnels I used muscle memory to keeps Steve in focus and rack to the background when necessary. I bought the camera right before shooting this piece and got used to pulling canon lenses with my hand that now I can’t focus anywhere near as accurately with a follow focus or longer rotation focus barrel.

LIGHTING:

We used all natural light. In situations where it was too dark I would give Steve a litepanel miniplus to use as a flashlight

PHOTOS:

–From our last expedition featuring Steve trying to get the water out of my hip waiters with NY Times reporter Alan Feuer in the background. Photo credit: Erling Kagge

–The camera rig

–Sound Pouch with 2 lavs

–Bayonet position with the Rapid Fire

Comments

  1. @iGert says:

    I watched the whole video with great interest! What a guy! I would love to do such a tour with him!

    On the other hand: climbing the bridge without any safety gear made me go: ‘wow, that’s nuts!’ On the other hand: I love it! Wanna go up there :-)

  2. skilled says:

    I saw this a few days ago. Just brilliant!

  3. Ronald Vonk says:

    Cool documentary! Watched it earlier this week.

    This is what I like to do in my weekends, by the way! :) Nice to see work from fellow urban explorers getting so much attention. I hope to have some more time this year for sharing more of my own work online. Since our daughter was born three months ago, finding the time for anything that isn’t payed work or baby-related is quite challenge!

    1. Ronald Vonk says:

      Edit: *quite a challenge

  4. I was totally sucked in !!! At forst I was saying to myself “well okay let’s see some 5D footage again might be fun”… And 30 minutes later the video finished and I didn’t see it running out !
    Very great documentary.

    A bit too much blurry but that’s the guerilla fun of the thing ! Really great stuff.

  5. Kirk Gaydon says:

    That was insanely nuts, but riveting to watch! but think of the cameraman! He had to lug the camera up that bridge!

  6. that was amazing. Wow

  7. Kaan Akalin says:

    Really fascinating stuff. Tunnels into the past. Glad these journeys were shared.

  8. Charles Diaz says:

    This documentary was well done. I commend you for taking such risks to capture the beauty of the forgotten (or hidden) parts of the city.

  9. Fotis says:

    That was a great doc! can’t see any rolling shutter issues though it was shot handheld! bad luck with that dead pixel…

  10. Ronald Vonk says:

    Great shooting info in the updated post, especially about the sound!

  11. kenbo says:

    Nice work. Nicely shot and well edited.
    I love all that kind of stuff, exploring secret underground tunnelling and old infrastructure that’s been covered up.

  12. bigmac says:

    Great tips on how to become your own ‘steady’ cam. Focussing using no fancy follow focus is great too. What do you prefer, Philip: FF or focussing by hand like Andrew?

  13. Loved this!

    Makes me really wish I had the camera and skills back when I was a bit younger, as this was a big hobby of mine.
    We Called it “Urban Spelunking”.

    Canon 5d… perfect for this type of stuff, Can’t wait to see more.

  14. Steve says:

    V.cool … I couldn’t stop watching until it was finished, even though I was late for an appointment :)

  15. What would be the benefit of mounting the H1 vertically ? I mean, left and right becomes up and down. Or should I not look that closely to the images?

  16. Hate to be a stick in the mud, but I have to say, not as thrilled as everyone else. I thought it was a little too much on him and not the sights he was going after. The running around the subways at the beginning brought to mind the sequences in The Breakfast Club, when the kids were running through the halls just for the hell of it. His hiding up the stairs and around a corner in the old City Hall station while the train passed by was pointless. They could have stood at the top of the stairs, filmed the train go by, and be invisible to the conductor in the fast moving train. Would have gotten a really great shot.

    Love the overall idea of the film, and there are some great images. I just would have liked to have seen more of what he went to film. Once in the famed City Hall station, why not some close-ups on some of the architectural details that make it special?

    What looks like a dead pixel near the center certainly didn’t help matters, with all those dark scenes.

  17. Anil Rao says:

    Outstanding!

    This is what sells the need to go and shoot rather than just talk.

    The fastest 30 mins to have passed in a long time, that was refreshingly invigorating, and indicative of what should be talked about regarding the so called dslr revolution, whilst it started out a bit Cloverfield, the overall content/style/delivery/interest level was more interesting than anything that has been at the cinema for some time and also illuminates the technology being used, which to be fair is more exciting to see than the continuing yawning debates about which camera is best and all the like. This could have been shot on Sellotape for all I care, it’s the content that is king and the vision behind it. Please champion more of this Phil, and great feedback from the maker too, you feel him and his passion and his pain to achieve and this leaves us inspired, not retired.

    Best
    Anil.

  18. Jon Chema says:

    This was definitely well shot but the compression for web is killing me. Skin tones look very “cartoony.” I’m sure the full-rez version doesn’t look as bad.

  19. Bradley Kents says:

    Given that the H1 recorder’s tripod mount is just threaded plastic and strips very very easily, does anyone have a thought about how Wonder is mounting it on the hotshoe of his 5D. From the photo above, it looks like he’s not using the tripod mount on the bottom of the H1, but instead turning the H1 on its side. Then what? Is that a velcro mount or something?

    Fantastic video and thanks to Wonder and Philip for sharing info on the setup!

  20. Craig Palmer says:

    Compelling viewing real good stuff… much better than the Discovery type series that ran in 2010 on New York’s Infastructure

  21. I liked the video, but found the beginning of it a bit frustrating.

    I felt him trying very hard to create a sense of unease and danger– But I didn’t understand what was so dangerous or what I was supposed to feel so uneasy about. So the entire time they were in the first tunnel I was thinking to myself “why are they acting like this? This place seems expansive, empty and NOBODY is there nor would any of the workers likely give a darn”.

    After they leave the tunnel the guy does some explaining and I started to really enjoy this a lot more.

    In summery: Great little slice of life documentary from a perspective most of us would never see in our lives if it weren’t for this great technology and creative filmmakers like this. However, I wish they would have included the bit where he explains the dangers of what he’s doing BEFORE they enter the first tunnel. That would have been nice.

    1. Note: this is coming from a guy who knows NOTHING about urban exploring and the laws/dangers surrounding it. On a second watch through the opening was actually quite visceral.

  22. A.Lwin says:

    Wow this is cool, I enjoyed the entire Subway part and was surprised that the lights would be kept on for an unused station. The last part on the bridge made my palms sweat, reminded me of another video I saw sometime back http://gqballer.com/random/stairway-heaven-tower-climb-video-how-much-do-tower-climbers/

  23. Marc says:

    Why do you need to promote people breaking the law? You are just promoting others to endanger themselves and others. And it will just cost the tax payers for more surveillance cameras and higher security. Big thumbs down!

    1. Philip Bloom says:

      Marc,

      In the post I say please do not try this yourselves as it’s illegal and highly dangerous. This has been on the front of big publications like the New York Times, and already had half a million views when I posted it.

      No matter what you stop people doing Marc they will find a way to do it. It’s human nature.

      Best

      P

  24. Kirk Graham says:

    Just saw these guys on the Today show!! featuring the short..

  25. Wow, brilliant. When that guy ran down the bridge at the end, my stomach turned! I Live in the U.K in Hull and we have a huge suspension bridge. I had the chance to go to the top, Legally and safely ha, it was scary but got some great shots and stills up there. Unfortunatly losted. I cried for weeks.

    That old platform i think it was in the subawy with those wall plaques looked amazing. Good stuff!

  26. Justin says:

    Yeah well…….

    Ok – the subject matter was amazing, but to me, at least the first half of that documentary was a lesson in why the 5Dmk2 is NOT a run and gun doco camera. I mean, literally at least 70% of the shots are out of focus. Period. I don’t know what broadcaster thinks this is ok, but between the completely out of focus shots and – worst of all – the APPALLING sound, I think it is almost unwatchable. Even the exposure isn’t crash hot for a lot of it – oh…it’s difficult to get that right with this camera on the fly?….exactly – this is the wrong camera for the job.

    Those of you raving about this need to pull your head out of the amateur film makers, shallow-depth-of-field obsessed culture, and see a film that technically does not deliver. It does get a bit better in the second half, but jeez – are pretty colours and amazing low light images enough to justify out of focus and terrible sound? I don’t think so, and I’m amazed anyone would have paid for this.

    Please don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly support independent budget doco making, but this is just a wasted opportunity. Getting good exposure of something does not make an out of focus with bad sound clip one to keep.

    Apart from all that, the storytelling could have been way better handled.

    This is a classic example of the current DSLR-shallow-depth-of-field pro-am culture allowing sub-standard work to suddenly be ok. There are other (technical and artistic) ways that this story could have been told better. Pretty surprised that Philip is raving about it.

    1. Philip Bloom says:

      the places they filmed in without the 5dmk2 they would not have been able to see anything. Yes they struggled with focus but the content carried it through.

    2. So, what work have you done that is getting a bazillion hits on the internet and landed you a sweet job? Not trying to be mean, in fact I hope I am wrong about you, and hope that you really are an awesome filmmaker who actually knows what he is doing and has room to critique other very popular pieces of work because yours is actually equal to or better than theirs.

      FYI, My stuff is not popular at all yet, and I hope that I can get the success that this guy has been having.

      1. Philip Bloom says:

        sorry you have lost me…are you talking to me?