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Monday, June 4, 2012

Where the Hell I've Been

The past few months have taken there and back again through a roller coaster of productions, projects, and other what have you's.

Most of my time has been invested in the new web and soon to be TV series Proper Manors.  Proper Manors is a modern soap opera written, filmed, and produced right out of our little town of Ogden, Utah.  Proper is the brain child of creators Pietro D'Alessio and Jef Phillips.  The screenplay follows many of the adventures Pietro and Jef shared together during their 30 plus year friendship mixed with some creative imagination and thickened plots courtesy of Head Writer Jason White. Proper Manors takes place in the fictional town of Proper, USA and follows the lives of several  well to do families and more specifically, their post adolescent children.
As with any soap opera, the saying of "the plot thickens" is an understatement as the first season is sure to give viewers plenty of twists and turns as they are sucked into the lives of the characters.   The characters themselves are played by A-Class talent both from the local scene and Los Angeles.  Never in my career have I witnessed such great performances by such sophisticated and method oriented actors and actresses.  As a cinematographer, I am usually fussing over light, composition, and the director's vision rather than the actors delivery.  I couldn't help but be drawn in their performances and my eyes could not be turned away from the monitors.

Part of the Press Kit I shot for Proper Manors.  This was taken during poor lighting conditions during the midday with one light between scenes.
Characters: Walter Platz as Alessandro Sorrento and Guy Nardulli as Antonio Sorrento

The Nitty Gritty- What it takes to create the appearance of a Big Budget Production with minimal budget and grains of sand:
I can honestly state that Proper Manors is the largest production I've worked on with the smallest budget.  This inherently has its own set of challenges and caveats to overcome. Proper Manors would never have come to reality without the people who have gone beyond their call both on camera and behind the scenes. Many people have donated their talents, time, and financial resources to the production.  As a the Director of Photography, I have been blessed with some of the finest crew a cinematographer could ask for.  My hat goes off to my camera operators, grips, and gaffers.  The camera operators are always making my life easier as I am not having to constantly check focus, exposure, or verify composition.  A common saying in the film making world is that if the gaffers are the light, then the grips are the shadows.
The Proper Crew prepares for an interior vehicle scene at the Ogden Airport.
Our Proper Manors crew consistently provided what I asked for in rushed amounts of time with minimal equipment.

Camera Operator Sam Webster and myself roll playback on a shot from Proper Manors
Photo courtesy of Cameron Davis Rees
When in comes down to the Cinematography of Proper Manors, I wanted to shake things up a bit and get away from the sound stage lighting and generic day time television look that dominated the airwaves for the past 3 decades.  Daytime television had its day which has now concluded as the major networks slowly pulled the plugs on many long running staples of the soap opera genre.  With the downfall of the economy, it is much cheaper to produce a talk show or court based reality series than it is to produce a soap opera.  As a fan of true cinema and having my roots deep into the grounds of motion picture and film, I wanted to give proper manors an updated feel and composition that ran congruent with many of today's feature films and prime time television dramas.  This was a huge undertaking and challenge as we were shooting under a tight and rushed schedule with minimal equipment and prosumer cameras ranging from Canon DSLR's and Panasonic Vari-Cams.  Many of our scenes took place in low light conditions or areas with large variances of light and dark.  The lack of lights and small latitude our digital cameras had made getting the look the directors and I wanted  constant hindrance.

So how is one to deal?  
1. Be ready to compromise- Shoot tighter and closer where you can easily and appropriately light your scene using what equipment you have.  I'd much rather sacrifice a mediocre wide shot with inefficient lighting to make it look right for an beautiful closeup where it looks right and still tells the story appropriately. Be ready to to explain to your director why you are doing this as they will most likely and rightfully so protest to why you are wanting to change their imagined wide shot. 
2. Shoot as flat as possible- If you're shooting on DSLR's, be sure to turn down all your color settings including color tone, sharpness, etc. to expand the dynamic range and latitude of the camera.  I recommend Technicolor's Cinestyle which is available for free via Canon's or Techicolor's websites.
Director Jaison H. Costley directs Actress Toiya Leatherwood prior to a take on set of Proper Manors. Seen through an external HDMI monitor on a Canon 7D.
Photo courtesy of Cameron Davis Rees

3. Be a Colorist- Since you'll be shooting flat, your native picture will need to be color graded.  And when I say color grading, I mean more than Apple Color or the Brightness/Contrast filter that comes with your NLE software.  I recommend Red Giant's Magic Bullet Colorista II combined with Magic Bullet Looks.  I personally used Black Magic's Davinci Resolve which is a dedicated external program that is less "plugin" and consumer based and really made for creating grades from scratch quickly and efficiently.  Also be sure to have  a calibrated monitor to grade on.  While a broadcast or IVP panel  monitor is preferred, you can get away with your consumer TLT monitor as long as you get an external calibrating tool to get you in the ballpark of displaying accurate color.  I use the X-Rite Color Munki.
4. Edit with Intermediate Codecs- Never under any circumstances edit the native MP4, MXF, AVCHD, etc. files your camera records in.  They are codecs developed simply for recording the best picture possible while compressing the data size as much as possible so it will fit on a memory card.  Convert your footage to Apple Pro Res or if you are an Adobe user like me, consider Cineform AVI or MOV.  This will take up more hard drive space, but allow the footage to be graded and battered a bit further in post production. If you are doing any CGI, keying, or compositing, this is a must!  As the files are uncompressed, your processor and GPU will also thank you. 
The Proper Crew prepares for a jib shot on location in Ogden, Utah
Photo courtesy of Cameron Davis Rees

5. It all come Down to Lighting- Despite what camera you are shooting with, lighting your subject and scene will make or break the production value and final look of of your film.  Simply blasting a halogen flood light from the hardware store isn't going to make your scene or actor look beautiful.  I am NOT saying you need thousands of dollars worth of lighting fixtures to make a scene look good.  I still use my work lamps  on many sets.  It's how I use them that makes a difference.  Consider making some DIY modifiers from parts from the craft store.  I use Tinker Tubes as frames to hold DIY silks made from shower curtains or rip stop nylon from the fabric store.  I use Black Foil Wrap as DIY barn doors to control the direction and spill of a light.  Create your own V-Cards or bounce boards from foam core insulation and bead board.  There are countless ways to be innovative and control the quantity and quality of your light.

Press Kit Image featuring Beau Stine as Jef Knights and Amy Lia as Claire Walden
Proper Manors has a lot of potential.  The story is compelling, the cast possesses the talent to deliver that story, and the following behind the show has been exponentially growing due to the constant efforts of our marketing and executive production team.  With the network soap operas being cancelled, lingering demographic will need a show to turn their eyes to, and that show will be Proper Manors.  The initial delivery will be via online through the official website, although current negotiations for local network distribution are in the works.  

Creator Pietro D'Allesio
and associate producer Mande Ophiekens
discuss Proper Manors
Photo Courtesy of Cameron Davis Rees

Camera Operator Sam Webster jumped in as a test
subject during a press kit shoot

I have to give thanks to a few individuals who work behind the scenes of this huge undertaking to keep it running each week:

Kimberly McDonald- Unit Production Manager and "the backbone of Proper."
Ashley Eliza Parker- Executive Producer and "do-it-all super woman who puts up with Ben's crap." 
Orion Hansen- Producer /Marketing  and "does anything you ask man."
Matt Johnson and Jaison Costley- Directors and "Abiders."
Ryan McDonald- 1rst Assistant Director and "Achiever"
Robert Lawson- Audio / Scoring and "savior of post production."
Edson Rojas- Editor and "searcher of good takes."
Jake Smith- Editor and "associate searcher of good takes."
Sam Webster- Camera Operator and "wee-little shireling."
Kyle Calder- Camera Operator/AC and "helmet head."
Brad Leatham- Key Grip and "not to be confused with Warren Workman."
Steve Haynie- Grip and "likes to play with dollies."
Henrick Patterson- Gaffer and "keeper of C-47's."
Jimmy Carrigan- Grip and "stealthy ninja"
Merrill Nelson- Camera Operator and "follower of Avid-ism."

Camera Operator Merrill Nelson speeds on Jef Knights played by Beau Stine
Photo by Cameron Davis Rees

Directors Matt Johnson and Jaison Costley walk onto set after one of many  "production meetings."
Also pictured boom operator Mike Lawson
Photo by Cameron Davis Rees

Camera Operator Sam Webster frames a  shot using a remote monitor for an interior vehicle scene

 I ask that each of you as followers of my photography take quick click over to the Proper Manors website as the pilot is live and the second episode will post live on Thursday June 6, 2012 at 10:00AM MST.  Feel free to email me any questions regarding the filming and technical process of Proper Manors.  Or simply leave a comment below.

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Next Post: Shooting a Commercial Campaign for Two Dog Style Wine