Trying Not To Come Up Short — Gathering the Right Tools for the Short Film “Union”

by | Aug 30, 2017 | Essays | 0 comments

JM Headshot2014Med
by James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society
(Excerpted from the August 2017 Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter)

I am often offered the opportunity to photograph short films, and by reflex, I have learned to turn them down.  There is rarely monetary compensation commensurate with the amount of time required, which is anything but short, and at this point in my career, I really don’t need material for my demo reel.  However, if the story piques my interest, and the other filmmakers are people I might like to work with, then it is worthy of consideration.  This was the case with a short film I recently shot called Union, (named after a street in downtown Los Angeles).

UnionPosterCroppedAdapted from Steven Heighton’s literary prize winning short story “Shared Room on Union” by Writer/Director Micky Levy, Union is a thriller that unfolds when a young couple are robbed and then locked in their trunk once the robber discovers their car has a manual transmission.  In a quirky twist, he is unable to steal it, because he can’t drive a stick shift.  In the confines and darkness of the trunk, the couple is forced to deal with some of the hard truths of their relationship.  When a potential savior happens by, but refuses to release them without a payoff, another quirky ironic twist turns the tables on our characters, but I don’t want to give all the fun away; you’ll have to see the movie.

MickyDirectingDinnerSuffice it to say that the story is clever and the script is well written, which is what first drew me in, but I also wanted to work with this Writer/Director.  Although Micky Levy, (standing in photo), is still an aspiring feature director, she is an accomplished screenwriter, with several produced movies including, Rails & Ties, starring Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden for Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions.  She has also previously directed award winning short films and plans to direct her first feature in the near future.

Levy is a filmmaker who is definitely on the rise, and someone I thought I should get to know better.  So, when she reached out to me after seeing a movie I shot a few years back, BRAKE, which was also largely set inside the trunk of a car, I wanted to find out more, but shooting in such a confined space was only one of the challenges the movie would present.

2inTrunk1What was not inside the trunk of a car would need to be a rather large scale night exterior on a downtown street, and the Director wanted to make a statement about gentrification, and interracial relationships, so the two lead characters would have vastly different coloring.  The male lead, Sean Patrick Thomas, (Save The Last Dance), was a very dark complexioned black man and the female lead,  Alexandra Grossi, (Worthless), was a light skinned blonde.  I had faced this challenge before in a TV pilot for Judd Apatow, where Kevin Hart played opposite Amy Poehler, so that didn’t trouble me much either.  However, this time the characters would spend a great deal of time trapped in that trunk only inches apart with no good motivation for individual light sources, although I did sell the direction on working a flashlight into the scene.

GunPoint5The biggest challenge was probably the available budget; Indie movies never have enough, and short films are stretched even thinner, but working with tight budgets is another area where I have ample experience.  To quote Liam Neeson from the movie Taken: “I don’t have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career.”  So I knew I could do a good job on this little project, but I would somehow need to gather the right tools.

One way I knew I could help move the production along, even with a meager budget, was to access some of the required gear from my manufacturer friends.  They are often willing to make their new products available to me for evaluation on special projects, which also helps in my mission to cover new cinema technology for DCS.

I don’t often have the time to run scientific tests and would rather evaluate gear in a real world production environment.  It gives me a better sense of how these tools perform where the rubber meets the road, and helps the productions I’m working on, pulling in items that they might not otherwise be able to afford.  On Union, I received assistance with everything from Cameras, Lenses, and Support, as well as Lighting.  So I’m going to tell you about how I met some of the challenges of shooting a fairly complicated 18 page script over only three nights, with a very small crew, and some great gear.


VariCamLTonUnionKnowing I had a large night exterior with fight action that I wanted to sometimes shoot at higher frame rates, I was looking for a camera with high sensitivity.  It would also need good dynamic range to handle the vastly different skin tones of the two people trapped in the trunk.  I’ve previously had the good fortune to work with the VariCam, but it was mostly in concert and documentary situations, never on a narrative project.  So I figured this production might be the perfect opportunity for me to get more familiar with Panasonic’s flagship camera.

VariCam35onUnionFor purposes of shooting speed and to adequately cover the fight action, I requested two cameras.  My friends at Panasonic were kind enough to provide both a VariCam 35 and an LT, which also gave me the opportunity to compare the two models.  With the same great dual native ISO sensor, they are completely compatible, so I used the lighter weight LT for my handheld and jib shots, saving the VariCam 35, which was built up in studio mode and riding on the OConnor 3575 for the longer lens work and for the higher frame rate capability; (the LT maxes out at 60fps in 4K).

Without having two complete camera crews, I didn’t get to use the second camera too much, but it was there when I needed it, and the Executive Producer, Emad Asfoury, who has a background as a Cinematographer, was willing to jump on the second camera.  I also found that I didn’t need to use the higher ISO very much, but when I did, it came through with flying colors.  I lit the night exterior for the 800 ISO setting, but when I needed to jump to high frame rates, I simply bumped to the other dual native setting of ISO 5000, and had plenty of exposure.  It is incredibly handy that the approximately two and a half stops of extra exposure compensation going from 24fps to 120fps is almost the same as what you gain going from 800 to 5000 ISO, and the footage from the two ISO settings cuts together beautifully.

MonitorWe recorded 4K/4:2:2 and I decided to shoot Vlog to retain as much dynamic range as I could.  The LUTs provided by Panasonic looked pretty good out of the box, and I used one of them to feed all of the monitors on set so my collaborators would know what I was going for.  However, it was handy to be able to access the log version both in the viewfinder and on my LUT capable SmallHD monitor, to occasionally double check how I was exposing.  MeVariEVF DP7onUnionThis LUT was then passed along to post, so they were able to also land where I expected for the dailies.  (I didn’t have time to organize it for this shoot, but next time out I want to use ACES to make this process even more bullet proof.)  I’ve become a big fan of the VariCam for its color fidelity, versatility, and that great dual native ISO sensor.


Another trick for working fast with a small crew is to use zooms.  I’ve always liked shooting with zooms to get just the right size shot and to have the ability to sometimes hide a zoom into a move to help optimize my framing.  However, in the past, I would always have to keep the primes handy due to their faster stops, higher resolution, wider coverage, and because zooms were big and heavy, they were only practical in studio mode. Although they produced beautiful, quality imagery, there was no way you were going to do any handheld with a Cooke or Angénieux 10 to 1 zoom.

MathersCabrio1Enter the Fujinon Cabrio, which debuted a few years back, and this dynamic started to change.  Their 19-90mm, with the built in servo, made handheld with a zoom a breeze, and at T2.9, it wasn’t much slower than a standard prime.  I invested in one of these lenses and have always been extremely happy with the results.  In the meantime, Canon and Angénieux have also come out with high quality, hand-holdable zooms, but since I already have a Cabrio in house, I reached out to Fujinon and they loaned me another 85-300mm Cabrio to cover the longer end.  I shot this whole little movie with the two zooms, which gave me great flexibility and avoided the time intensive lens changes required had I used primes.

Schneider 0dc wa00 114 digital cinema wide angle 1420490756000 1105302WideAdapterOnUnion2

The one thing I would have been lacking, however, was an extreme wide angle, especially necessary inside the confines of the car trunk.  This need was filled with a clamp-on wide angle adapter provided by Schneider Optics.  Quickly slipped onto the front end of the 19-90mm and focused via the Cabrio’s Macro adjustment, it becomes something in the neighborhood of a 14mm field of view without any loss of exposure, and the optics hold up quite well.  The combination of these two zooms and the adapter gave me coverage from 14mm all the way to 300mm at a constant T2.9 without the necessity to ever pull a lens off a body, a really effective way to work quickly with lots of versatility.


Since I had a fairly large night exterior with no budget for “Big Guns,” ( or for that matter, the generator, heavy cable, and manpower necessary to set it all up), I decided to limit myself to one household circuit that we could run out of a building adjacent to our street set.  Of course, that meant LED technology would be required.

Having had a couple of color rendition issues in the early days of LED lighting, I’ve been shy to rely on them completely, especially when mixing units from several manufacturers.  These kinds of problems used to be fairly common, arising from spikes in green or magenta, or even worse, the inability of some units to produce certain wavelengths in the spectrum.

You can filter a spike, but if a unit fails to produce part of the spectrum, you can’t simply add it, even in post.  These issues have always been very hard to see with the eye, (or even with a standard color meter), but they do show up on camera and are hard, if not impossible, to correct in the DI.  However, much work has been done over the last few years is this area, not only by the manufacturers, but also by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  The AMPAS Science and Technology council has come up with a measurement tool known as the Spectral Similarity Index, or “SSI,”and they have encouraged manufacturers to create more uniform color characteristics in their products.  I’m very happy to report that the kind of issues that scared me off of LED lighting in the past have gotten to be the exception, and we can now enjoy their myriad benefits like cool running and low power consumption without too much worry.

However, there is a caveat; you can’t grab just any Home Depot LED shop light or cheap knock off of quality brands.  You can only truly rely on trusted manufacturers.   For this project I chose several units from BB&S, a brand I’ve come to know and trust.  I’ve long been a fan of their remote phosphor unit, the Area 48.  It’s a highly color accurate and soft source that renders great skin tones.

BBS Lighting Area 48 2x2 FrontFor the first time on this project, I used what BB&S refers to as their 2×2, which is basically four Area 48 units banded together onto a single yoke to make one big soft source.  Add to that the integrated DoPChoice Softbox and it makes for a nice soft push across a large set.  I like to create this kind of large soft source then cut it in the foreground, so that it plays evenly across a large set.  In the old days I used to rely on a MaxiBrute or two bounced into a large Griff.  That meant a setup using up to 18,000 watts of power fed by tons of heavy cable with lots of grip support.  This can now be virtually replaced by one unit drawing less than 480 watts which can be easily moved around on a combo stand.  I kept another single Area 48 as a floater, which was even easier to move around.

LookingPrettyAtDinner2Although it was overkill, I used this same technique for a small, low key dinner scene for the end of the movie; (pictured).  I could have certainly gotten by with smaller units, but these were already built for the exterior, so I simply dimmed them down and rolled in some built-in camera ND to keep the nice shallow depth of field I was after for this scene.

FlyerOnUnionAlso note another handy BB&S unit that looks like a China Ball extended on a pole over the set.  Their “Flyer” system is a lightweight, dimmable, Bi-Color LED designed to easily and quickly place soft overhead light where it’s needed.  The fixture and soft box diffusor are lightweight enough that they can be extended on a common K-Tek boom pole that comes with the kit.  The unit can easily be rigged on a C-stand creating a fast and safe alternative to a full menace arm rig.  At only 2 lbs., and able to run off a camera battery attached to the included belt pack, it also makes a great traveling light to float with a moving camera; (I understand the Flyer was used this way extensively on LaLa Land.

GunPoint4Getting back to the night exterior, I like to oppose the large soft source with a fairly strong back edge large enough to cover the entire set.  Something like a 12K or two up on a condor used to serve this purpose.  Luckily, our set was up against a building with good roof access, so the condor was not required, but what replaced the “big gun” is pretty amazing.  I’ve discovered a light from a company that is new to cinema lighting, but has a long history in the manufacture of mission critical military and health devices, (including pacemakers!).  This company, and their new lighting division, which is known as Terra LED, was eager to get feedback on their latest product, the Axy 600.  It’s a single source LED drawing less then 7 amps of 110 AC power, with a whopping output of 60,000 lumens, which is  in the ballpark of a 4K HMI Par.

Axy 600onRoofTo my knowledge, no one has yet been able to create a single source LED with that kind of punch.  The holdup has been the intense heat that is generated, which would quickly cause the LED to fade and shift color.  This light’s inventor, John Goncz, however, has come up with a pretty revolutionary liquid cooling system.  Now, most lighting designers might be reluctant to have liquid around electronics, but his background with precision medical devices must have paid off, because the system seems to be working quite will, is extremely quiet, and the light is cool to the touch.  AXY 60The only minor drawback is that with added liquid comes weight, but at about 45lbs, it is still roughly equivalent to the 4K Par it replaces, so who can complain?  Plus you get full dimming control and can run it off a household circuit; (in fact, you could squeeze three of these onto a 20AMP circuit).  The color seemed to match my other units quite well and the output was such that I found myself often throwing diffusion and a “brancholoris” in front; (who wants to dim when you can diffuse?).

IS3onUnionAnother light I like to keep at the ready is the Zylight IS3.  The unit features an array of 22 separate 4-color light engines, which can be combined to match standard daylight, tungsten, or any variety of extremely saturated colors from a warm 2500K all the way up to a very intense blue at 10,000K.  I used it to throw just a splash of color in the background as if coming off a yellowish mercury vapor or some other odd industrial light source.  I didn’t have a chance to use it here, but the light also has the ability to create flicker as if from a fire or TV as well as a very believable police light effect.

RoscoLED Tape Pro Gaffer Kitv2Now, let me tell you about the lighting for the car interiors. For both front seat driving shots and for being trapped in the truck, I relied on a new product from Rosco known as their RoscoLED Tape VariColor Kit.  The kit includes 3 reels of flexible, field-cuttable strips of LED tape with a RoscoLED Control Box that supplies power, flicker-free dimming, and color-control to the LEDs.  I discovered the flexibly of using LED strips when I did BRAKE, the movie I previously shot almost completely inside the trunk of a car.  The beauty is that they are so easy to hide.  However, in those early days, the strips had to be soldered together and manually connected to transformers with inconsistent colors that were all over the spectrum.  With Rosco’s new system, all three of the VariColor LED reels come pre-configured with water-proof, multi-pin connectors allowing for simple plug-and-play operation and even DMX control.  We were able to hide separate strips for each actor allowing us to balance the black and blonde skin tones.

CarInteriorWe also used the RoscoLED kit for our driving shots.  Since they are so small, easy to hide, and can run off of just about any 12 volt power source, like a cigarette lighter or a camera battery, we figured it would be easy to jump in the car and grab a few quick cross angles with the actor driving.  Ironically, as the would-be car thief in the story, the lead Actor actually did not know how to drive a stick shift.  The low budget solution was to scramble to rent a U-haul as a poor man’s process trailer, and towing the car made the lighting even easier.  We simply taped a strip of LEDs right to the windshield directly in front of each character, balanced to taste, and still had two strips left over to use as edge lights taped to the ceiling in the backseat.

It was the union of the right camera, lens, and lighting technology that allowed me to achieve good production value and visually convey the story on a shoestring budget for the short film Union.  The project is still in post, but I’ll be eager to show it when it’s ready, and to thank all the companies for supplying such great gear.  They are, in alphabetical order: BB&S Lighting – DoP Choice – Fujinon – OConnor, Panasonic – Rosco – Schneider Optics – SmallHD – Terra LED – Zylight

I also need to thank my many friends and filmmaking colleagues who shared their behind-the-scene photos to help me demonstrate my process for this article.  They are, in alphabetical order:

Emad Asfoury – Lorette Bayle – Dwight Lay – David Mahlmann



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Recent Posts

Archived Posts