Continuing our coverage of the movie “Dimensions: A Line, A Loop, A Tangle of Threads” – today we get some behind the scenes from the Director of Photography Simon Dennis and a discussion on the color grading of the film.
meet the director of photography – Simon Dennis
Dimensions, photographed in Cambridge during the summer, is the directorial debut of Sloane U’Ren, a production and set designer whom I’ve worked with on commercials.
Prior to Dimensions, I had previously shot many pop promos and shorts on the Canon 5D so I knew its strengths and potential weaknesses. This being my first feature with it and my first attempt at a ‘period’ project, I felt I needed to take advantage of its obvious strength – it’s select depth of field. I have to say, I am not a fan of the current trend of the ultra shallow depth of field look; I feel it’s a look that’s very easy to create and fine for ultra stylish projects like pop promos or beauty work in commercials. Yet I knew through tests I could reconfigure my F-Stops to be very close to a 35mm DOF table, especially as we decided early on we’d capture the story with a 2.35:1 ratio. Pro Motion Hire in London provided me with a fantastic and deliberately lean drama package for the 4-week shoot. For part of the shoot, Alastair Brown also supported us by supplying in kind one of his 2 metre Glidetracks, which we used for great effect on certain key setups.
When going into a project, I tend not to be overly inspired by previous films as it can potentially warp your ideas and take you down the wrong path of approach, especially a period film as they are littered with past conventions. I was, however, partly inspired by Vilmos Zsigmond’s hazy widescreen photography on the 1971 western McCabe and Mrs Miller, Wally Pfister’s simple but effective work on The Prestige plus certain Technicolour films of the 1950s for the strong reference to colour. This type of inspiration was purely a short hand for me and the director to build on and develop. The look and tone we eventually felt right was something classical and elegant with little need for big dolly moves. It was more about good old-fashioned composition, coverage and mood.
I don’t know about you but I find in ‘standard mode’ the blacks fall off very sharply in the 5D, much like certain film stocks. Yet knowing I could not always light and control every layer of a location within the schedule, I decided to create a user setting with ‘reduced contrast’ whilst keeping the ISO close to 100 for the majority of the shoot. This way I knew I had more of a handle on the blacks, noise and general contrast in post. For certain night work I did push the ISO closer to the 1000 mark, which I felt held up fine, something the camera is famous for.
Glass-wise, I ended up choosing a set of Zeiss Distagons with a Nikon adaptor, which I had used on a previous widescreen project with great effect. These ranged from 18mm up to 100mm, plus I brought in a Canon 70- 200mm zoom, which was primarily used for B-Roll/B-Camera material shot and operated by local Cambridge film student Alex Turner. The Distagons do breathe a lot on long focal moves but for this project, I felt due to its more classical look, it would not be a hindrance. Filter-wise, I kept it simple – NDs to control the DOF and Polarizors for exterior days when I needed a little lift in the cloud contrast.
A specific location
Since we're talking about the look and feel of the movie, why not have a look at one particular location? These two quick movies show the before and after of ‘Stephen's workshop'
As the edit draws close to completion, Adam has started to work on grading (colour correction/manipulation) the film. In our case, as Simon Dennis and his team got beautiful colours ‘in camera’ (i.e., during the shoot), most of the grading work will be quite subtle. Small changes in colour can change the feel of the pictures quite dramatically – perhaps warming or cooling a particular sequence. In certain scenes, Sloane wants to gently accentuate the mood through colour, so slight adjustments will be made accordingly. In other parts, specific areas of the picture (see the videos below for an example) will be lightened/darkened to help draw the viewers attention.
We have a purely digital work flow (we shot on the Canon 5D), and of course our grading is being done digitally. It is amazing to think though that this is a relatively recent way of working – ‘O Brother, Where Art Though’ was the first film to be completely graded digitally (it was shot on film and then scanned). There is no doubt that we couldn’t have made Dimensions if it wasn’t for digital technology – our budget just wouldn’t have allowed us to shoot on film. Of course a digital versus film debate rages (like vinyl versus CD), but the bottom line is that in a digital world, indie filmmakers can achieve so much more then was possible only a few years ago.
Of course these ‘tools’ don’t necessarily make for a better film – after all, we’ve all seen amazing looking films that don’t engage us at all on a story level. Sloane and I have always said that the story is the key – we hope that our audience will become engaged and involved with Stephen, Conrad, Annie, Jane and the others. That said, Sloane of course wanted to present the story in the best looking way possible. If we want viewers to buy into our elegant 1930s (ish) world and then follow the characters to darker places, then we need to set that world up – and with our tiny budget that was no easy feat.
Although we were short on budget, we were not short on talent. Somehow, every department managed to make magic happen and we are continuously amazed (and thankful) that we had such a brilliant group of people working with us. When Sloane and I speak of Dimensions we like to refer to it as our film – the ‘our’ being everyone that has been (and will be involved). We are very proud of what we have achieved and feel immensely fortunate that we have such a fantastic team of people involved.
This is a quick iPhone video of Adam lightening Jane’s (played by Camilla Rutherford) face to bring her out of shadow. In this scene, Jane is hosting a garden party and talking to her friend Alice (Georgina Rich). An army of wasps, changeable weather and a huge amount to shoot in little time made it a challenge, so it is lovely to see it come together!
First of all, Adam sets up the software to track Jane’s movements…
And then makes the required adjustments…
The Edit Suite
The edit suite is set up with the following gear:
- Mac Pro 8 core 2.8GHz, 16GBytes SDRAM, two NVIDIA Quadro 4000 graphics cards (for grading acceleration) • Blackmagic Designs DeckLink HD Extreme 3D broadcast I/O card
- Sonnet eSATA RAID controller card
- 22TBytes external RAID storage
- G-Tech G-Safe 2TB for rushes and project archive
- Apple 30” Cinema Display
- NEC Spectraview Reference 271 Grading Monitor
- Blackmagic Designs HDLink Pro 3D HD-SDI to DisplayPort converter • i1 Pro monitor calibration spectrophotometer
- Avid Media Composer 5.5
- Final Cut Studio (FCP 7)
- Adobe CS5 Master Collection
- A large number of Final Cut Pro and After Effects plug-ins
- Shake 4.2
- Mocha Pro
- Lightwave 3D v10
- Processing (a Java-based software environment) for custom image generation and manipulation • Final Cut Server
- Mac Mini running Mac OS X Server
- DaVinci Resolve
- Tangent Wave grading control surface
- Logic Studio
- Filemaker Pro and Bento
- Kef Q10 Near Field Monitors
- Denon 5.1 Surround amplifier
- Roland M1000 digital mixer
- Sound Devices 422 analog mixer
- Toshiba 42” TV for Client Monitoring
What do you think?
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We'll conclude the “Dimensions” series with technical info and coverage of the audio side of the movie.
All Dimensions posts:
- “Dimensions: a line, a loop, a tangle of threads” and an HDSLR feature film
- “Dimensions” – Ant Neely on writing
- “Dimensions” – Sloane U’ren on directing
- “Dimensions” – Simon Dennis – the Director of Photography and Color Grading
- “Dimensions” the final section on audio with Carl Homer
Just because they have it available, here's an extra tidbit:
(cover photo credit: snap from the movie)