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!
The 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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!
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.