Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cinematography Sketchbook-Prologue to Juggernaut

One of the more obvious problems that I felt that my film Juggernaut had in it's early rough cuts was a visually weak opening. In terms of narrative, I felt that beginning it with the Toxic Halloween Protest and the accompanying news reports on same with the whole "film-within-a film" motif was the only way to go. It established a bit of the diegetic background, set up a kind of macabre atmosphere that would be one of the guiding motifs of the film and gave it that meta-twist that was totally accidental and fortuitous. The problem was that the video consisted of ripped news footage and night video that had needed to be bumped up. I really wanted to create a prologue with a certain amout of visual panache, preferably shot on film, and with a lyrical/philosophical bent that would act as a kind of "portal" to the overall conceptual framework of the film. I had discussed it with Ethan Spigland, my Thesis Adviser and I decided to go with a composite idea that I had. Monte Mccolum (Hybrid, Milk in the Land) suggested opening with aerial shots of IBM which I thought was cool, but not twisted enough. I though why not go with the aerial shots but from a strange point-of-view, through some kind of "scrying pool" that the "white brotherhood" (who become a recurring motif in the film and figure strongly in the film's prospective ending) was looking down from accompanied with a voiceover that set the conceptual tone of a merged political/personal subjectivity's "fall-from-grace".
On top of that, let's have the pov based out of a kind of subterranean lair. What would would ultimately ensue would be a major set construction- based out of the basement in my apartment in Queens which consisted of paper-mache' and chicken wire (yes, you heard correctly). It was a task that took me several weeks to single-handedly accomplish. But after everything was said and done, I thought it looked kind of good (in a Star Trek-the Original Series kind of way).

The film footage was shot on Kodak Double-X B&W Negative with a Bolex. The lighting consisted of Lowell 750w and 250w spots (the 250w blew out early on with no replacement bulb-(thanks New School !)-so we had to get creative) and some incidentals. The fact that the assignment was limited to the use of only prime lenses gave us some restrictions but in hindsight I'm glad I didn't have a zoom lens (my "go-to" for everything) because we we're already vexed by the lighting situation. The "shimmering" light on the backdrop was done with a 250w spot and a half-filled aquarium (an idea stolen from Alf Sjoberg's "Torment" which I had seen the week before). There were several rather complex backwind experiments attempted (one of which can be seen in the fial cut)
Luckilly for me, one of the "hooded figures" is my friend Michael Lieberman from the Hunter college MFA Film program who had alot of great insights as to how to make it all work. Also in attendance was the fearless Darrell (Mac) Mcindoe and Luis (Cholo Milk) Perero. The aerial footage was shot out of the back- window of a Cessna 172 with a Canon XL1 which I opted for due to the zoom lens. If you look real close at some of the shots, you can see the "puke splattter" at the point that I got airsick at about 35 minutes in. (and who says I don't suffer for my art?) Below is the finished product (that also appears elsewhere in this blog).

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cinematography Sketchbook -Group Project

One of the assignments for Chris's class involved a studio group-project that involved setting up a shot or series of shots to be filmed with an Arriflex SR and shot with Kodak 500T negative film which is fine-grained but excellent in low light. Ian Johnson, one of the members of my group, was an accomplished jazz musician who brought in a drummer and horn player while he accompanied on a stand-up bass. We decided to execute a series of different shots of this performance. Below is the write-up for my idea:


PRODUCTION ORDER (who goes first that day, second, so on , how
long for each)- I believe the production order is



WHAT EACH PERSON OR GROUP IS DOING (short description of each
set-up): My set-up will include a series of dolly-ins and rack-outs to create what has become known as the “Goodfellas” technique using a white or black backdrop and photographing two or several musicians.. The additional element would be a large Fresnel spotlight either mounted on a western dolly or stationary in which the lens would be manipulated in order to distort the shadow of each of the photographed musicians. The distortion effect with the camera movement in conjunction with the distortion effect of the shadow may produce some interesting effects.

The western dolly would be pulled backward and forward in combination with different combinations of zooms and dollys

4 set-ups for each musician.

1) Dolly in , zoom out, Fresnel moved closer

2) Dolly out, zoom in, Fresnel moved closer

3) Dolly in , zoom out, Fresnel moved farther away

4) Dolly out, zoom in, Fresnel moved farther away.

I would estimate a distance of probably eight to ten feet between the subject and background

It might be interesting to throw some kind of gobo up in front of the spotlight.

Camera will probably need to be mounted at a slight high angle in order to frame both musician and shadow but high enough so that the DP will not have to crouch.

TYPE OF MEDIA & HOW MUCH (do you want film, video, other kind
of video besides school cameras) and how much you need for film
stock or media)- About 130ft. of film-stock and possibly videotape.

EQUIPMENT NEEDS (what equipment do you need- be SUPER specific
and overestimate)-Arri-sr, follow-focus, western dolly, regular dolly and track, Fresnel spotlight, (filter holder, scrim, patterned gobo). ND filters, gloves, sandbags, video camera and tripod

CREW NEEDS (what crew members do you need for your shoots? Your
classmates will fill these roles be specific and thorough)-

1) DP

2) Assistant camera op to rack zoom

3) 2 Dolly operators

4) 1 Western dolly operator

5) 1 spotlight operator

GENERAL NEEDS (do you need actors, white t-shirts, balloons, a
bag of maggots, a red sheet, etc.?)- An absence of maggots.

The overall execution of this exercise was somewhat limited due to time constraints. I settled on using just Ian as the subject as opposed to the whole trio. What I realized is that in order to really maximize the overall idea and "look" to be obtained would have required much more practice time as well as set-up time. I will post the results if I get access to the video. It will be interesting to see what we obtained.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Cinematography Sketchbook-DIY Jib Shoot

I had one of those outrageous brainstorms, I believe it was over the summer, concerning a vignette I wanted to include in the film that would incorporate some of the general motifs and trajectories that are played out in other scenes. The autobiographical plot-line of my recovery conflated with some of the motifs of the whole "spiritual journey", "quest for higher knowledge" motif that runs through the film. I wanted to play out my "hitting bottom" as some classical alchemical experiment gone awry. To do this, I thought, why not start it as this low angle elegiac pan over all this occult aracanum-books, documents and what-not. I call it the "masterpiece theater" effect. This was a bear of an undertaking for what amounted to maybe a minute and a half of screen time. But you know how I am-as soon as I get something in my head I have to run with it. The most difficult aspect was the whole logistics of the jib/dolly mechanism. After looking at several DIY youtube videos frame-by-frame and picking my friend Brian Murphy's (who teaches in the Binghamton University Cinema Department as well as being a rising star experimental filmmaker) brain-I finally decided to eschew the original concept of a cable and pully mechanism for something a little simpler (and more easily controllable) which can be seen in the photos above and below

The jib was a four-man operation-two men (Wilton Vought and Steve Grietzer, both professional videographers) manned the handles of the stand and had to get their forward movement synched up pretty well. A long set of RCA cables was hooked up to a monitor where I watched and directed. A fourth man had to feed the cables to keep the movement unobstructed and to guard against an incipient shadow (that was Greg Harris, who also stars as one of the cleanroon suit guys as well as the rehab counselor-amazingly, nobody yet has caught that...) The set was lit with a combination of 2 tungsten spots and an incandescent spot with an orange gel. As much as I fiddled with the 3-way color corrector in FCP I couldn't seem to improve upon what we had gotten in camera (it could probably be improved with maybe a .2 gaussian blur and some motion blur) For what amounts to about 1.5 minutes of screen time over 10 people were involved (I'm getting into Lucasfilm territory...). Wilton Vought who helped work the camera is also a rare book dealer and supplied many of the "occult tomes" in the shot (there is alot of money in that set-up, some of those books go for 700 bucks.) My friend Jason Detrani, head of the Communications Department at Broome Community College supplied the lights. The old-looking documents were done on natural fiber paper and printed by my cousin Vincent Sorrentino and Kevin Bird at Jack's Sign Shop in Endicott. The voice of British occultist Israel Regardie was provided by Englishman and fellow Media Studies student, Jonathan Lukes. The indefatigable Kyle Garren stars as my alter-ego. The "dramatis personae" of the intervention includes my father, my brother, Frank Bongiorno, Joe Bernard (as the EMT Tech), my cousin Jeff Waslyn (a real Vestal police officer) and Father Stavros Lever (yes, he is my real AA sponsor). Also Jeff Sutliff stars as the other half of my "disease". Also on the assist was the always- vigilant Jim Little, who helped build the jib.

Below is a "take" of the shot (of which there were many) to let you get an idea of how it went down:

Followed by a "rough-cut" of how it works in the overall scene

Cinematography Sketchbook-Assorted and Sundry Things

Herein lies s bit of a travel log of projects and various musings that went on over the last semester (some of it actually recedes back over the fall but is directly related to spring projects as building block or seeds) . Christopher Ernst, the instructor of my Cinematography class here at The New School, fits into that rare genus of film practitioners gifted with a strong and cutting-edge theoretical vocabulary as well as being inordinately tech-savvy. He was exceedingly supportive of our overall needs and goals and was flexible to the extent that he was willing to accommodate our works-in-progress within the existing syllabus.
One of my big preoccupations over the semester was my mixed feelings concerning the general hodge podge assortment of material which comprises, Juggernaut, my documentary work-in-progress. Since starting the project over three years ago-the shift in standards from mini-dv to HD as a general format of choice for a lion's share of production work has left me in a quandary as to how to maximize the visual potential of mini-dv and to tweak and light it to get more of a "filmic" look. Chris was instructive while being at the same time candidly realistic- basically his take was this- "If you want "film"-shoot on film." Having said that- he went out of his way to fill us in on the latest advances in prosumer cameras and lenses hitting the market with some phenomenal cinematic elements. For the right price, the sky really is the limit in regard to things like depth-of-field, resolution and flexibility of focal lengths with the new HD rigs. But here I was, stuck with a majority of my footage in 24p SD, ripped .flv files and multi-generation vhs tapes. What to do?
Well, one of the things I became aware of-(or better was generally aware of but usually ignored) were the various menu settings in cameras like the Panasonic DVX-100B and Canon XL2s. The footage below was shot on the XL2s with the following settings
menu settings;
black-stretch (for a lower con look)
color matrix-cine
V detail-norm
Color Gain-+1 (1 click above center)
color phase- G+1 (1 click toward G from centre)
Red Gain-0
Green Gain-+3
Blue Gain-0
Sharpness-3 (-3 clicks from centre)
coring +1
set up level 0
master level 0
I believe these are correct-I am reconstructing.

The first thing I learned was that using the "gain" is not a good idea at all. What I also realized was that you can get some really good images out of this camera. For instance look at the texture of the stone floor around 3:40 into the video. The overall"effect" seems to work better with available daylight as opposed to florescent light. I would assume it would also look good in tungsten with the right lighting set-up.