Exactly 2 years ago…my favourite ever blog post and the my most memorable job ever! Going to Skywalker ranch to show them how great the 5DmkII was…

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DECEMBER 2011: It’s two years ago that I was in Skywalker Ranch. This was the single most exciting thing to happen in my career, I am an utter geek and this story still makes me smile! What a great time! I went back 4 times after this and of course then shot 2nd unit RED TAILS for them on the cameras. I do  have an open invite to go back whenever I want. I must take them up on it. An amazing place and amazing people!

LUCASFILMThe problem with email, especially getting several hundred a day, is you miss some. Some more important than others. One email I completely missed was from Rick McCallum. Producer of the Star Wars prequels and many other films and TV shows at Lucasfilm. He said he loved my work and wanted to talk to me about working together on a movie they were making. I missed this email. Not good.

Fortunately they didn’t give up on me. Head of post production Mike Blanchard phoned me up 3 weeks later to see if I could come over and consult about the potential of using video DSLRs for their productions. He called whilst I was shooting so it went to voicemail. I picked it up the next day and thought holy shit! They must have thought I was playing hardball by not replying to Rick. I wasn’t. I am just a bit useless with all the emails!

“Star Wars” has been a part of my life for over 30 years. I saw it as a child when I was 7 and the second film, “The Empire Strikes Back” affected me enormously. I was in tears when I came out of the cinema. My hero…Han Solo, frozen in carbonite taken by Boba Fett! Anyway, I digress…

NOOOOOOOO.....
NOOOOOOOO.....

Of course I phoned Mike back said yes please! 5 days staying at Skywalker Ranch as their guest and showing them how to get the best out of the Canon 5DmkII and the Canon 7D. They also wanted to be shown how to use the EX3, Letus Ultimate and Nanoflash.

So I flew to San Francisco on Saturday last week and drove to the ranch (via Best Buy of course!). What a stunning place. In the middle of nowhere with enormous beautiful natural grounds and complimentary buildings. I was put in the Federico Fellini apartment. Each apartment is named after a famous person. From architects to actors, composers, writers, photographers, filmmakers. The one I was in is the one where Clint Eastwood always stays. Yes, I slept in Clint’s bed!

The first night, knowing the weather was not supposed to be great over the next few days I did some night timelapses using my 7D and 5DmkII. I left them running until 3am when they froze over!

All photos are taken with the Panasonic GF1 with the 20mm F1.7 Pancake lens.

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The next day I spent the afternoon filming around the ranch, the morning was a washout but it was dry enough to start. Using my 5DmkII, Miller DS20 Solo tripod, 16-35mm F2.8, 24mm f1.4, 35 f1.4, 50mm f1.2, Shift Tilt f3.5 24mm and my 70-200mm IS f2.8. I also brought with me the new Glidetrack Shooter. Rick asked me to bring it and Alastair from Glidetrack kindly shipped one over to me straight away to take with me. The shooter gives you the ability to do really lovely simple dolly shots without the drag of a full dolly and track set up. I also used both the Fader ND 72mm variable ND filter and 77mm thin Singh-Ray vari-nd on every shot to keep my shutter to double the shooting frame rate for optimum film motion. That means when shooting on the 5d I was at 1/60th and on the 7d I was at 1/50th.

But still the weather was crappy. Very grey overcast day. Everything looked very flat and lifeless which makes it that much harder to make things look beautiful.

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The ranch is beautiful and reminds me a little of Scotland mixed with Italy. Rolling hills, horses, cows, a stunning lake and beautiful buildings. It was even cold, very much like Scotland. I left the rushes converting to Pro Res overnight and at 7 in the morning i put together a rough edit to show Rick and Mike at 9am.

I had, at this point, never seen my work projected on a really good projector before so this was going to be a real test of the cameras. Rick and Mike wanted to see how well the footage held up on the big screen. They had shot some stuff and weren’t happy with what they were getting. So they converted my edit into an MXF to play through Avid and I sat down to watch the edit. I was nervous. Never having seen my work on a big screen as good as this, but also George Lucas came in to watch and also the legendary sound designer Ben Burtt. My heart was racing. I watched as the edit played and they loved it. My favourite moment was when the star timelapse came on and Ben Burtt said “Hey, now, hang on!!” This was a very quick ungraded draft edit knocked together from a crappy grey day as a test, not supposed to be shown as an example of my work! Then Quentin Tarantino came in as he was due to talk at a screening of “Inglorious Basterds” and George said to Quentin, come see this. Quentin waxed lyrical, calling it Epic and William Wylersesque and was shocked it was shot on a DSLR. He had no idea you could shoot HD video on them or they were so good. I love George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino, so to have my work screened to them was pretty special to me. Rick, Mike and I also watched some of my other work on the big screen. “Venice’s People”, “San Francisco’s People”, “Cherry Blossom Girl” and “Sofia’s People”. They all looked incredibly good on the big screen. Better than I could ever have imagined. We watched everything in the Stag theatre at the ranch too. Probably one of the best screens in the world. 40 foot screen and it looked incredible.

Ben Burtt with his Zacuto iphone grip junior
Ben Burtt with his Zacuto iphone grip junior

Mike and Rick were over the moon. They didn’t know how well these cameras would hold up on the big screen and it passed with flying colours. Lots of swear words of incredulity were used!

80% of the footage was shot on the 5DmkII at 30p, then conformed to 23.98p in Cinema tools, effectively causing a slight slowdown but as no sync was used this was fine. All the timelapses were done on the 7D apart from the first star one. Some shots of the mist on the lake were done on the 7D too in 23.98p mode. I found them indistinguishable in the edit. Picture profile was Neutral, sharpness all the way down, contrast all the way down and saturation down one notch on both cameras.

Original poster art in the main house
Original poster art in the main house

During the day I also went through the cameras with Mike and Rick on how to get the best out of them. Rick has my 7D training dvd so already knew a lot. I went through all the Zacuto gear with him. He particularly was impressed with the Tactical Shooter with Z-Finder. We also used the Marshall monitor and Miller DS20 Solo (and of course the Glidetrack)

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Rick McCallum
Rick McCallum

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Rick shooting with the Zacuto Tactical and Z-Finder
Rick shooting with the Zacuto Tactical and Z-Finder
Rick McCallum
Rick McCallum with the Zacuto sniper kit
Mike Blanchard
Mike Blanchard

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The next day we shot with the Sony EX3, Letus Ultimate, relay and Nanoflash recording at 280mbs. Testing out this combination for the big screen too and it also looked pretty good! Although we did a lot less filming with this combo as it was the DSLRs that we really wanted to see how well they stood up.

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Ex3 with Nanoflash
Ex3 with Nanoflash

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Letus Ultimate with Relay
Letus Ultimate with Relay

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So why were we shooting with these cameras and why is Lucasfilm’s producer Rick McCallum interested in them?

First off Lucasfilm has been at the forefront of digital technology. They were instrumental in getting a 24p Sony HD camera to use for some shots in Episode 1 of Star Wars and shot episode 2 & 3 entirely digitally. So being ahead of the pack has always been something they do. Pushing the reluctant industry forward kicking and screaming!

George Lucas with the F23 on Episode 2
George Lucas with the Sony F900 on Episode 2

Rick and Mike had seen what these cameras were capable of and wanted to really know just how much you could push them. They had seen mine and others work online but really wanted to see how well they performed projected. The joy of these guys is they have a great attitude. If it looks great on the big screen then that is the most important thing. Not codecs, limitations, bit rates etc…all those are very important but the most important thing by far for them is how it actually looks and it passed with flying colours. That is what they really care about.

Here is the Stag Theatre at Skywalker sound where we saw the films on the 40 foot screen.

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On the day I left, Wednesday, I got up at the crack of dawn as I knew it would be really frosty. It paid off. I got some lovely shots of the frost and the mist which meant I could finish the edit properly as I had more footage to complete it. Which I did on the plane home using my 13″ MBP and then graded it using Magic Bullet Looks as well as tidying up the earlier edit and creating the new timelapse from stills.

Shooting on the ranch
Shooting on the ranch

Below is my polished edit of my film of Skywalker Ranch that I did on the plane home, not the rough cut that was shown. It’s a very gentle piece that captures the feel of the grounds. Mostly shot on the 5DmkII, conformed to 24p as it was non sync and the timelapse was all done with stills. I have to say as fan, a geek and a filmmaker. Being at the Skywalker ranch and being made so welcome by all these incredibly talented people has been a highlight of my career. Next week I get to meet up with Rick again in Prague, along with Albert Hughes (of the Hughes Brothers) who has just finished his latest film “Book of Eli” with Denzel Washington to do some test shooting with the new 1DmkIV. I will post footage and my review of that camera as soon as I can.

HUGE thanks to Lucasfilm for giving me permission to post this short!

Am hoping to get a red lightsabre in the post for Christmas! EDIT: I did, Lucasfilm sent me some goodies, check out this silly video of me unwrapping them here

 

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All large photos are ©2009 www.philipbloom.co.uk

23 comments

  1. Happy anniversary !!!

    Wow, you kinda lived one of my dreams ! (Big Star Wars fan too, and watching the BTS of the latest ones is one of the reasons that pushed me into doing a cinema school…. One of the other reasons being the film “Garden State”… Anyway !)

    I am now starting my career as an editor and would LOOOOVE to get a job at Skywalker Ranch (and would looooove to work with Ben Burtt !)

    Well, you’re a lucky man !

    Oh and I discovered you with that video at the Skywalker Ranch… 😉

  2. That was one of your most memorable reports. And it inspired thousands, many thousands to go out and buy/use 5Ds for film & timelapse. Here at last was proof and the coming-of-age of HDSLR.

    I think one of your greatest assets is, and one that many fail to see (if you get to meet Philip you’ll understand) is that you have a lot of time for people and are always entusiastic to pass on your knowledge and help.

    I think there are many jealous people out there who take you completely the wrong way.

    I, for one, will continue to be inspired by your work.

  3. Yeah, this was really cool. And a reminder about how great of an invention the internet really is. Just by making a splash on the web you caught the eyes of some of the most successful filmmakers ever. From the other side of the Atlantic.
    Which everybody should be reminded about now and then, you never know who is listening on the web.

  4. This was my favorite blog post and video too. I was thinking about purchasing a DSLR, found this post and was stunned by the Skywalker video. I then purchased the F-stop Academy training you made with Den Lennie, bought a 5D and got started.

    I have seen you 3 times at seminars in Boston, DC, and Austin and learned something every time. Your generosity in sharing benefits many and is an inspiration. Yes, this was my favorite blog post because it got me in the business. I am just getting started, but since then I have shot 6 TV commercials and several other promotional videos.

    I watched the F-stop training videos again recently with a bit of nostalgia and it struck me how few times people cross our paths that really make a difference. For that, I thank you.

  5. I envy you, however I also discovered your website and your work through your Skywalker Ranch video. When I didn’t have a very good camera, I owned this Handheld Canon Vixia and shot a star wars fan film on it. I am still working on the movie… adding the effects and so forth. I shot it all on cheap camera but since it’s all I had at the time and loved making movies so much I went with it. Wish I had my 5D or Sony NEX5n when it ( http://vimeo.com/33030008 ) shot.
    I think it’s totally cool that your career has taken you this far. Take pride in your work, make it look good and it will get noticed… so now look where you’re at… Lucky!

  6. Hey, this might not be the best place to post this, but it would be interesting to hear what kind of lights you generally use on a shoot. I suppose this was probably all shot only with available light and thats actually the impression that I get of most of your videos. Its great to hear about all the cameras and lenses you use, but do you actually use a lot of lights at all?

    If you get some time maybe you could write maybe a little about your lighting kit or your lighting aproach in general? My guess is a lot of people might be interested in that, maybe a good idea for a blogpost?

    I know your a busy man, but if you should find yourself not knowing what to write about, maybe that might be just the ting 😉

    Cheers

  7. Congratulations Philip! Great post…
    You’ve taken us all on one heck of a journey.
    I’ve been following your blog for some time and really appreciate all the time and effort you take to show us your world. Interesting times ahead.
    KUDOS to you…

  8. Spunkman – Can’t beleve it’s been two years !!! I can’t thank you enough for all you have done for us – you have been a true inspiration and we will always be grateful to you for everything you have shown, taught and done for us – your work on Red Tails was magnificent – hope you will always know our gratitude. And of course, our thanks !!! Keep showing us all how it’s done – Rick

  9. And after two years, it’s just Two Days till Red Tails opens here in the States.

    I was in Oshkosh this summer when George Lucas brought the trailer to the movie, for would have been the worldwide premiere, as we were lead to believe. Only problem was that they released it earlier that day to the web, Yahoo! as I remember. Drat! We had to wait for it to get dark to see the trailer in the outdoor theater with a couple thousand pilots and aviation fans!

    They liked it, needless to say. Those familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen seem to be real please with the film. I just wonder what politics were going on behind the scenes that led to this film not getting a Christmas or summertime release. January? Really? I mean it’s George Lucas!

    Hope it gets to England soon!

    Alan

  10. Watched “Redtails” on the big screen with my daughter on Saturday night. Pure entertainment! Loved it! I’m well-versed on WW2 fighters & bombers and was amazed at how realistic they appeared — especially the bomber stream of B-17’s. My daughter, who is not overly-familiar with any aircraft, made a telling statement: this was the first air combat movie she’s seen that she could tell who was who and what they were doing. Kudos to the Lucas Team for that.

    My WW2 fighter/bomber enthusiast colleagues dwelled too much on the sometimes-incredible aerial maneuvres, pyrotechnics, Luftwaffe pilot caricaturing (complete with duelling scars, no less) and other technicals. They were missing the point. They were missing THE STORY. My 29-year old daughter didn’t. She was awed by what the Tuskegee airmen achieved and the obstacles they hurdled to do so. She got it.

    Phil, that last scene with a triumphant “Raygun” approaching in a jeep to rejoin his unit — that WAS yours, wasn’t it? The movie audience cheered at that scene!

  11. Hi Philip,

    Big up from Cape Town! Your work is absolutely outstanding! I am about to buy the MK2 now as the MK3 is still quite expensive, just one question : is this video is shot with MK2 i.e the first shot of the tree and the 2d shot of the house?

    Many thanks
    Abdel

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