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RETRIAL (TV-show) - Journal

I'm writing this post to share some of what I learned from shooting a TV-show called "Retrial." Keep in mind that what I write here might not be applicable to everyone. Please don't hesitate to reach out to me for any clarification and any feedback. I'd greatly appreciate it.

Retrial is a 8-episode show, shot over 55 days. We shot the majority of the show on two cameras. Occasionally we had a third camera dayplay for action-heavy sequences. 

In this post, I'll try to explain what I've learned from "Retrail" about multi-camera shooting, lighting, and some general advice for shooters who want to work on long-term narrative projects. 

12mm Ultra-Prime

PREP

 

TECHNICAL

On any long-term project, but especially when shooting on several cameras, it's crucial to dedicate a day to sync all of your settings and to test lenses, filters, tripods, handheld rigs and etc. This is in part the job of the AC, but as a DP you're responsible for this as well. Make sure to get yourself familiar with every aspect of the camera that you're using.

Here are some useful things to test prior to the shoot:

Lenses

- Focusing: Make sure the lenses focus at close-focus, infinity, and somewhere in the medium range. Make sure the distance markings on each lens are correct.

- Aperture ring: Check if the aperture ring is working fine, and that it's not too tight or too loose. 

- Shoot a focusing chart on every lens at wide-open, 5.6, and 16. That way you can see if there are any defects at different t-stops. This is especially important to do with vintage lenses, since they can change the image dramatically when wide-open vs. more closed down.

- Shoot a test when you have a bright tungsten bulb in the frame. Shoot at different t-stops and see how the lenses deal with veiling glare. 

- Check for scratches and other potential physical defects on the front and rear elements of each lens.

Knowing how your lenses perform in different light conditions and aperture settings will help you use them creatively to affect the look of each scene and to troubleshoot if necessary.

 

Below are some stills from a lens test I did before "Retrial." We tested each lens at different T-stops, checked for veiling glare by shooting a 150W dedo-light right into the lens, and checked the focus at different distances to make sure the markings correspond to actual focus distance of the lens.

 

When testing the aperture, make sure to compensate for exposure difference every time you switch to the next T-stop. I prefer using the shutter angle to control the exposure - that way the color won't be affected. I don't recommend compensating with NDs, because that will introduce another variable and affect the test results.

Click on the images to open them in a pop-up.

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Filters

I suggest shooting a test for every filter and filter combination that you're planning to use. Also do a test for halation - shoot a test with a bright source in the frame. 

Color-match your NDs. Sometimes you'd get a set of NDs that all look different from each other, some are green, while others are magenta. Make sure you test them outside in sunny weather - that's when they are more likely to show their defects.

 

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Top-left: GLIMERGLASS 1; Top-right: WARM-PRO-MIST 1/2

Bottom-left: PEARLESCENT 1/4 + BLACK SATIN 1/4; Bottom-right: Black Satin 1/8

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The images just have Alexa REC709 LUT on them.

These NDs were all from the same set. You can clearly see the extreme color shift between them.

Camera

Sync your settings and color-match your cameras. Make sure they don't have any color differences between each other. I suggest shooting a color-chart in different lighting conditions with the same lens. 

Also, get familiar with the way your camera performs when exposed correctly and when under/over exposed. See how much noise you get when underexpose 3 stops, or how much detail you can bring back from an overexposed highlight, etc.

 

Build the camera out so it can be easily moved between rigs - from tripod to handheld, or dolly, or stedicam, etc. Prep is the best time to consider all the possible situations you'll be shooting in, the different builds, shooting styles, climate conditions, etc; and to get all the necessary accessories to make sure your camera package is ready. Collaborate with your AC to address all of these questions, all of the possible scenarios of the shoot, and to build out the camera to your personal preferences. 

Keep in mind the weight and balance of the camera, especially for a long-term shoot or if you'll be doing a lot of handheld. 

 

If prepping for a fast-paced shoot where you won't have time between set-ups, I don't recommend using heavy and large lenses - that will slow you down. Every time you need to switch a lens or change the camera rig a heavy lens will prove to be a burden. 

 

I personally stay away from putting too many accessories on the camera. I like to keep it simple - just the EVF, wireless focus, and wireless video transmitter, and I always have a monitor with a noga arm on stand-by, in case the camera is on a dolly and it's easier to operate with the monitor. Again, have a very clear channel of communication with your AC so they're on the same page as you as to how you like to work. 

I created an extensive prep-list that goes over all the details that the AC should look out for during checkout. Although it's not necessary to read it before continuing, you can find it HERE if interested. (it's a work in progress)

LOCATIONS

This might sound obvious, but you should scout as many locations as you can before the shoot starts. Sometimes it isn't possible, and sometimes you're still finding locations even after production has started. However, as the DP, you should try your best to make yourself available to scout as many of the locations you can. If it's possible, go with the production designer, gaffer, key grip, and camera assistant. Each department will have their own list of things to think about on location, so it's best to bring everyone at the same time and talk through their thoughts, ideas, and concerns.

It's best to bring a camera with you to location and to download a director viewfinder app to your phone (ex: Artemis, Cadrage). Use it, and take as many shots as you can. Make sure to check where the sun is going to be during the shoot (for this I use the app "Sun Seeker"). If you have a BTS photographer, I'd suggest inviting them to location scouts as well. They might find an interesting composition / angle that you didn't think about. 

 

Some of the locations pictures I took during the scouts for this show.

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Stills from the footage

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I always go through the location scout checklist below and note everything for each of the locations. (Note: Some of the more logistical points are production's responsibility, but it's still good to know them for your own records)

LOCATION SCOUT CHECKLIST:

- Power capabilities (to see if we can use house power for our smaller units)
- Measurements: Ceiling height, Walls, Windows, Doors

- Which floor is the location on? Can we put units outside?
- Which cardinal direction are windows in each room facing? (North/South)

- Available art / practicals
- What kind of bulbs are in the practical units?

- Color of walls / can they be painted or wall-papered?
- Sound scape (Highways/construction sites nearby?)
- Elevator: is it usable for gear? Does it have a working schedule?
- Location availability: Days of the week / times of day
- Location owner contact info
- Parking and Basecamp location
- Truck unloading location

PRODUCTION DESIGN

 

Before going into a long-term project always talk to the production designer about the look of the show. Personally I like having practical lights in frame, and when appropriate, built into the set. I'd almost always talk to the production designer about what type of lamps and lamp housings we'd need, and hopefully the production designer will find some good options to keep in their truck throughout the whole show.

Depending on the scene / location, I also ask for different fabrics that can be hung like curtains. There are countless types of fabric out there, and they all have different transparency and reflectivity qualities. Spend some time at a fabrics store with your production designer and choose several options for the shoot.

For this TV-show, we went to more than 5 different fabrics stores in search of the right kind of curtains for our bus location. We wanted gray curtains that could be ironed so that they would have folds about 1.5 inches apart. In the script, the majority of the bus scenes have the curtains closed. Because of that we wanted the curtains to have enough transparency so that the bus wouldn't feel like a dark box closed off from the world. Another factor we had to consider was the way the curtains would react to harsh sunlight. We had to find a fabric that wouldn't light up in the sun and make it difficult to expose for the interior of the bus. 

After our extensive search, we finally found a store that had enough of the right type of fabric that fit all of these factors and could deliver in time of the shoot.

And our labors and the choice of curtains really paid off. When we started shooting the bus scenes everyone in the crew was surprised how good it looked with just natural light.

Click on the images to open them in a pop-up.

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SHOOT

 

I found that, for me, the key to lighting for multiple cameras is to keep the lighting simple. I'll share a few techniques that are all about simplifying your lighting. You can obviously use the same techniques for single-camera shoots as well.

LIGHTING

It's important to keep the amount of gear in the room to a minimum - you want to give the cameras and the actors some freedom to move around. This applies to any kind of shoot, but especially so when you have several cameras - more gear, larger footprint, and another camera to see the room.

Quickly about gear...

For my lighting package I decided to get one 18K HMI as the main unit working through the windows, two Joker 800 HMIs for their versatility and extremely low-profile, and Litemats and Astera AX1 tubes for lighting inside the room and for providing key and fill lights for actors' faces. 

Occasionally, we'd have two M90s instead os the 18K.

LIGHTING PACKAGE:

ARRIMAX 18K

2x Arri M90 (Dayplay)

2x Joker 800w

8x AX1 Asteras (one case)

1x 1K Triolet

1x Litematt 4

4x 150w Dedo-lights

2x Bi-color LED panels

12x12 Grid

12x12 UltraBounce

ULTRA-BOUNCE OUTSIDE THE WINDOWS

 

This first technique I found extremely versatile for any location with windows. You don't necessarily need an 18K or a 9K to do this; I've seen people use a 4K HMI and have amazing results.

 

Basically, you put your most powerful unit outside and bounce it into an Ultra-bounce frame (12x12 in our case). Then, depending on your location, you might want to add negative fill (8x8 Black solid, or 4x4 floppy) opposite to the light to prevent it from bouncing and filling up the whole room. 

For larger rooms you might need more than one Ultra-bounce and additional units.

 

The UB frames can be pretty close to the windows - that way the light will be softer inside the room. But make sure that the light fills up the Ultra-bounce evenly, otherwise it will have a spotlight in the middle of the frame which will result in harder quality.

I found that bouncing is a far better approach than trying to soften HMIs by putting frames in front of them.

As you move through the coverage, you might to tweak your lighting - add more fill for close-ups, add an edge light, create more pools of light, etc. But like I said - this technique is a good starting point. 

Here are some examples from the show when I used this setup:

 

Click on the images to open them in a pop-up.

Click the arrows to see other shots in the scene.

Hover over each image to see lighting notes.

BLOCKING AROUND WINDOWS

The second lighting technique is actually more about blocking than lighting.

This is about how you approach the scene together with the director, not just as a DP. 

In a TV-show format, the director is rarely ready to do a blocking rehearsal the moment you walk into a location. It's usually at least 30 minutes to read the script, do some last-minute rewrites, and to decide how to block the scene. I use that time to get a general lighting plan started. The G&E team runs the power from the generator, they set up the 12x12 frames and our trusty 18K outside of the windows - general things that we can do just from knowing which room we'll be shooting in and what time of day the scene is supposed to be.

Then the director will usually show me and the gaffer a rough blocking, without actors. And at this point I've already spent some time looking at the way the natural light works in the location, and this is the time where I'd ask the director if they can change the blocking slightly, so it would be easier for me to light the actors. 

 

I can't write down a ultimate formula that would work for every location out there, but here is a list of things that I usually look out for during this initial blocking:

1. Blocking in relation to windows

Generally speaking, you want to have the characters always getting side-lit from the windows. So when setting up the blocking try to get the actors to work along a line that's parallel to the windows. So when they walk around the room, their faces always getting lit from the side rather than from the front. This applies to most traditional scenes set in daytime interiors, where several people talk to each other and you cover the scene with OTS shots and Close-ups. For example, look at the scenes a mentioned in the previous lighting technique, they will almost always follow this rule.

 

This is a blocking diagram from one of the scenes from earlier. The light is coming through the windows - always side-lighting both characters.

2. Depth

Again, generally speaking, it's easier to light actors when they are further away from walls. Unless you're trying to achieve a flat effect, you pretty much always want to have the subject separated from the background. Physical distance is not the only way to achieve separation, but having actors further away from walls gives you more space to work with; more space to put lights in. And even more importantly, the light that's meant for the actor's face won't spill onto the background behind them.

But you don't always have the space that you need. In that case you can use other methods of separation. See the slide gallery below and make sure to hover over the image for explanation.

3. If a character enters the room, where is the door in relation to the windows? I try my best to avoid a situation where there are two actors in the scene and one is standing/sitting with their back to the windows, while the other character enters the room and gets front-lit by those same windows. That blocking is really hard to make look good. And it's not impossible, but really hard to do it when there isn't much time to relight. See an example of this blocking below:

And like I said, this isn't a strict rule. I've seen people shoot in similar locations with similar blocking, and the results were great, but generally speaking, I'd suggest avoiding this type of blocking if you don't have a lot of time on your hands to light.

LIGHTING APPROACH

 

After shooting many similar scenes for TV shows, you start to notice that the simple lighting set-ups tend to produce better results in the end. On my first TV show, our lighting package had two 6Ks and two 4K HMIs as our main units. And sometimes my lighting plans were straight up ridiculous... See below:

 

And the saddest part was that the final image didn't look particularly amazing after all that hard work.

So for my second TV show I decided to stay away from using too many units. It's very easy to get lost when you have a lot of variables affecting the image, and every light you put up is another variable. And every light needs control - you have to flag off unwanted spill, then it's likely that you'd want to soften the light, then control the spread, and etc.

 

So when working with many units, sometimes it's a very good idea to just turn everything off and see if you actually need  all of the units. I think it's important to try to avoid destroying the natural light beauty that is in the scene originally and just working to enhance it a bit.

And this is a separate point, but also important. Don't challenge the natural light. No matter how many units you have, It's never a good idea to try to out-do the sun. 

I have a short anecdote about this, but feel free to skip it and click here to jump ahead.

This happened during my first TV-show project. We were shooting inside a restaurant, and it was going pretty well. We had some extra time for the next scene, so the director asked me If I'd be ok with shooting it in the outside seating area of the restaurant. It was around 11AM at that point. We went outside and looked at the set - it wasn't bad - the tables created a lot of depth and the whole seating area was covered from the above by a black tent. But there was a pretty nice natural light coming under the tent from the side.

We agreed to move outside for the scene. It was going really well. With quickly shot out our first direction and it was time to "flip the room". And once we did I saw that right behind the character that we were about to start shooting stood a massive white building that was getting absolutely blasted by sunlight. 

I let our a nervous chuckle. I did see that building when we looked at the set initially, but I just didn't think that it would be much of a problem. 

So we rolled out half of the truck to just get enough light to expose for the actor's face. I think we had a 6K PAR about 10' away from him shooting through light diffusion and another 4K PAR through 250 frame about 5' away from his face for fill. It took us about 30 minutes to set everything up, inching the lights closer and closer to the actor's face just to get the exposure and we were finally ready to shoot. The image was definitely too contrasty and the white building in the background was still the brightest thing in the frame. We were out of time and had to start shooting.

 

We went for a take, then another one. I started to calm down, but then I noticed that the actor was having trouble opening his eyes. He was doing his best to act normal, but he couldn't help to keep squinting. The amount of light we were shooting into his face was so overwhelming that he just couldn't keep his eyes open. And it wasn't a short scene.

The director turned to me and said something like: "Is that how they taught you to light in America?". I couldn't say anything back so I just laughed and kept staring at the monitor.

We finished the scene and broke for lunch. Before the lights went off I briefly sat down on the chair where the actor was sitting during the scene. I couldn't open my eyes... all I saw was a bunch 4x4 frames as bright as the sun.

 

The scene never made it into the final cut, and maybe I'm partly responsible for that...

MULTI-CAMERA COVERAGE

 

When I worked on my first multi-camera project, I tended to overcomplicate the camera positions. I was trying to get as many cool angles as possible in one take, and often times the two cameras would be in each other's way, or the light would be good for only one of the cameras. So during that project I learned how to efficiently use two or more cameras with a few simple concepts.

When I started working on "Retrial", I decided to operate myself, partly because half of the shoot was in really tight locations, and also because I developed a certain amount of trust with the B-cam operator from the last project. I knew that I could rely on him to get a decent composition and to look out for under/over exposure. 

I'll try to sum up the concepts that I developed during the shoot.

WIDE AND TIGHT

This is an obvious choice to start with due to its simplicity. Both cameras are pointed in the same direction, one is shooting a wide or a medium shot, while the other camera is shooting a tighter version of the same shot. This technique works really well for Over-The-Shoulder type coverage.

It's best to have both cameras to be able to make lateral adjustments to always stay close to the eye-line - so having them on a dolly or a slider works really well for this type of coverage. See an example below.

 

A

B

The best part about this technique is that you don't have to compensate on lighting

Close-up (A cam)
Medium (B cam)
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If you're new to multi-camera shooting, this is a good technique to start with. I often use this technique in simple scenes with only two characters.

THE OLD SCHOOL METHOD

This is a level-up from the previous technique, but It's really simple once you understand it. It's a great way to approach every scene in a formulaic way.

The approach is simple: shoot the scene all the way through from two opposite directions, using all of your focal lengths. Then shoot any additional shots/inserts that you think you'll need.

 

Let's break it down. 

Once you've set the blocking of the scene. Pick the first direction where you want to shoot. Like I described above in the lighting part - ideally the actors would be working along a specific direction (Line), and professional actors will always feel where the cameras are, and they will adjust their position to always be in a good place for an OTS shot. 

Set your cameras shooting roughly in the same direction. Ideally you'd have the cameras on dolly or handheld, so you could make small lateral adjustments as the scene progresses. Below is an example scene from the show.

 

A

B

There are 3 characters in the scene (red, blue, green circles). In this case we decided to get all the coverage on Blue and Green first. Both cameras are on the same dolly track, in this case, they are both on Dana dollies.

At some point in the scene the Blue character stands up and sits down closer to the Red character. Thus creating a new 180 line between them. See below

A

B

As you can see, A camera moves to the left on the track in order to get into a good position for when the Blue character sits down. 

In this technique, you shoot the full scene pretty much all of your focal lengths. So if you have a standard 6-lens set, it will take at least 3 takes all the way through to get through the set. Once you've done that, you will have pretty much all of the coverage you need for Blue and Green characters. See below

Wide of the scene. (A cam)
Close-up on Blue (A cam)
Medium wide (B cam)
Focus moves between Blue and Green
Medium on Blue. (A cam)
Blue stands up and camera tracks him.
Blue sits down
Close up on Blue. (B cam)
Insert on the laptop tilts up to...>>
...Close up on Green. (B cam)
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At this point you have all the coverage in this direction and it's time to "flip the room" - cameras go on the other side, and you have around 5 - 10 minutes to do lighting tweaks as well as any production design tweaks.

Now usually both cameras would switch lenses back to their widest ones. But in this case we didn't think that we'd need a wide shot in this direction, and we started with medium and tight lenses.

Close up on Red (B cam).
MCU on Red (A cam)
Medium wide. (A cam).
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A

B

So at this point, you have almost all the coverage you've set out to do. Now is the time to get shots that you couldn't get before, and any extra coverage that might elevate the scene.

The only necessary shot left is the Close-up on Red that would cut together with the Close up on Blue after he switches seats. See below.

A

Close up on Red
Reverse (from earlier)
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So that covers the full scene.

 

But you probably noticed that that final setup was shot with one camera. Where was B cam? 

 

1. First of all, B cam doesn't need to be always shooting. And more often than not, it's best to just finish the scene with one camera than trying to squeeze in extra coverage and loose time for setting up B cam.

 

2. Second option - you can do another take of what B cam was shooting before - this is often a good way to get additional take without loosing any time. But it would only make sense to do that if you will be running through the full scene. 

3. Third option - improvise. If you trust your operator, let them find an additional shot, while A cam is getting ready. A great shot that people always forget to shoot is an extreme close-up. While A-cam is getting ready, you can have B cam switch to a 135mm and just get someone's extreme close up - that will really spice up the edit. Or you could get a profile shot on a tight lens. Usually at this point B cam will already have a very tight lens on, so you might not even need to switch and save time. Another good option is to get an insert shot on whatever the characters are doing with their hands - that can also be helpful in the edit. Sometimes it's hard to come up with a good option in the moment, so I suggest writing down a list of extra options for yourself and having it on-hand.

It could look something like this:

-Extreme CU

-Profile shot (dark side)

-Hands doing things

-Feet walking

-Back of the head

-Detail in the set - try to find something related to what the scene is about. (A broken glass; A clock; etc)

-Shoot an OTS, but keep the focus on the shoulder. 

I suggest to not copy-paste this list, but to make your own, that will fit the visual language of the project you're working on.

4. And finally, you can ask the B cam unit to start setting up for the next scene while A cam is getting ready to shoot. That could mean switching a lens, or going from tripod to dolly, changing the filter pack, or maybe even setting up a rough wide shot for the next scene, so you could see the rehearsal play out. 

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This old-school method of coverage ensures that you'll never miss any piece of the scene, and you'll always have multiple angles to choose from when editing. However it is a rather blunt tool, and it's not the most creative way of shooting a scene. And that's what makes it such a versatile approach.

 

This method is a great starting point that you can adapt and change to every scene. 

Important side-note: When you have more than 3 characters in the scene, things get complicated fast. You'll have to adapt this method a little bit to each number of people in the scene.

FINAL WORDS / GENERAL ADVICE

 

During this shoot, I'd write notes to myself to remember for future projects. They are very much informed by my experience on this show, so it's a take-it-or-leave-it type of advice. Here it is, unedited:

- Don’t forget about shooting extreme high angle - it’s a good establishing perspective.
- Try fill lighting from under the face
- Don’t over-complicate color grading (careful with the qualifier tool)
- Don’t forget to experiment. (Try shooting at a deep stop for the whole shoot, or only use Sticks, or only use one lens) limiting yourself in some aspects will force you to be more creative in other aspects.
- DON’T RELY ON COLOR GRADE! It will look like you see it on the monitors (or worse). So fix it before pressing record.
- Try to meet with the colorist early on to establish the look you're going for. Create a LUT for shooting.
- Be careful when using gimbals. The result often looks a lot worse than during the shoot. Don’t think that it can correct your mistakes. And put a lot of effort into framing. Do more static shots as well, almost like a tripod, but with the slightest movement.
- Always research the camera that you’ll be using. And it’s best to do preliminary tests with under/over exposure.
- A good focus puller is often underrated.
- Whenever shooting anything that has to do with guns - it might get loud. Bring noise cancelling headphones/earplugs. Because getting a blank shot right next to your ear will hurt. Always have appropriate eye and ear protection.
- Create a small kit of things you might need on set. Here are some ideas: (band-aids, phone charger with adapter to charge in a car, small toothbrush, earplugs, Advil, sunglasses, water flask)
- Have some mirrors on set. It can really be useful to get a complicated shot in a tight location; or to act as a lighting unit (ex: to have a sweeping light effect pass through the room).
- Some things that you should ask your production designer to always have in their truck: practical lamps, plants, glass jars, different curtains, lightweight black cloth)
- Spend time analyzing how different filmmakers work - coverage, lighting, production design choices, location choices, editing. 
- Half of DPing is keeping the Director in a good, productive mood.
- Contrary to what many DPs say, you don’t have to listen to everyone’s opinion about your lighting:)
- Sometimes, turning off most of your units can improve the image. 
- Shallow depth of field is overrated
- Do your best to have a good monitoring solution on set. It’s important to see the shot on a good screen and with preliminary grade already. 
- Always try to make the image better, even if it might be hard for the crew. It’s worth it at the end. I often don’t ask the lighting crew to do that extra thing, just because I feel sorry for them.
- Large sources far away
- Remember to match the settings on multicamera productions. Especially look after white balance and shutter angle. (per scene)
- Get one good Macro lens for those XCUs in Slowmo
- Always treat your crew with respect. 
- Always bring your swimming suit to away shoots:)

This is is for now! Please let me know if anything isn't clear, or if you have other questions. 

Thank you for reading!

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