I prefer LiteGear LiteMat’s over just about any other light for documentary location lighting. Why? Because they are so easy to control. With most lights, you need to deploy flags or bulky soft boxes keep the light from spilling everywhere. The LiteMat kits contain everything you need to control the light without requiring anything else – the poly skirt, the diffusion, and a poly grid. So when I heard about the LiteMat SnapGrid which promises even finer control, I investigated.
The SnapGrid is made by a company called The Rag Place (at their Georgia facility). For $200, they will custom-sew a 40-degree SnapGrid for the LiteMat1. That’s a lot of money for what you’re getting, really, but hey, it’s the film industry. I pulled the trigger on it and received email notification that my custom-sewn SnapGrid was finished and shipped within 3 days. That’s snappy!
The SnapGrid arrives in a nice compact hand-sewn bag that’s made out of durable, water-shedding poly material. The grid itself, as it’s name implies, snaps open with what feels like blinds used as stiffeners under the black fabric.
It’s made of material that seems well suited to day-in, day-out use. The unit velcros easily onto the poly skirt of the LiteMat 1, making a super-compact and highly controlled light source. You can also attach it directly onto the LiteMat without diffusion or the poly skirt if you want maximum light intensity.
With the grid in place, the light is very well controlled. With the light on a stand at 5 feet above the ground, you don’t see any light hitting the ground in front of it until you get to about 5.5 feet. By comparison, even with the poly grid that ships standard with the LiteMat kits, you get some spill at less than one foot.
Minimal light loss
The thing with thick black grids, however, is that they are lossy. You lose some of the light intensity. The larger the grid, the more it sucks up the photons of light. And this is a pretty thick grid, about 3 1/4″ deep. So just how much light do you lose? I set my light meter to ISO 1000 at 24p, and did a little test:
LiteMat1 S2 with 1/4 diffusion at 10′: f/2.0.4; with poly grid: f/2.0. with SnapGrid: f/2.0.1.
So we’re looking about about a 1/3 stop light loss. Amazingly, the SnapGrid suffers slightly less light loss than the poly grid, at least in the center of the focus area. However, the focus area is much tighter, and the light intensity falls off quicker as you move away from the center.
As a bonus, the SnapGrid is small enough that you can fold it into one of the main compartments in the LiteMat1’s carrying case. And that’s great, because I am going to want to have it with me everywhere I go. The SnapGrid really allows this light to reach its true potential as a location lighting power tool.
Sierra Nevada today published a project that I worked on with director Mark Bashore. I was one of two DPs on the project, spending a day at the company’s beautiful brewery in Chico, where I shot the opening push-in shot on their bar. Then Mark and I returned to Seattle where he turned his living room into a studio for three evenings in a row, and we got down to the business of making beer beautiful. Here’s a few insights I learned in the process.
Probe the ingredients
To get inside the hops, we used a probe lens, which is designed for tabletop photography and special-effects shots. A probe lens was used for many of the special effects, which used models, in the original Star Wars. For our shoot, I rented one from Innovision Optics, an LA based company that helped pioneer the development of probe lenses in the 80s. They sent us their Probe II + package, which covers Super 35mm sensor cameras and comes in PL mount.
I rigged my Sony FS5 camera and probe lens on an Rhino EVO motion control sider, which allowed us to move the camera smoothly and repeatably into the bundle of dried hops which we suspended above and around the lens. To achieve the effect of sunlight shining through the hops, we used an Arri 650 fresnel, which Mark moved by hand outside the hop bundle. Our challenge was to get a bright enough light outside to simulate sunlight, but not so bright that it blew out our shot, or revealed how dried the hops really were. We shot many takes and the one we used seemed to strike the right balance.
Fill the Fish Tank
We filled a small fish tank with beer, and spent an entire evening placing the camera under it, beside it, and over it. We used a couple of Arri 650s directly without diffusion in some cases, and also bounced off foam core, to illuminate the beer. In many cases I shot at 120 and 240 frames per second to add a dreamy quality to the pouring. Basically it came down to repeated pouring and shooting from many different angles. We repeated that with the light in many different positions until Mark felt like he had enough stuff to take into the edit.
A forest of light stands
On this shoot I discovered that the smaller your subject, the more c-stands you’ll need. To properly illuminate the beer, and kill unnecessary glare, required a stand for everything: the lights, the flags, and the gobos we occasionally had to use to defeat glare or unwanted lens flares. We had two or three boom stands as well, and those were invaluable to get the lights into play where we needed them despite the room already being filled with other stands.
The perfect drop
The last shot, featuring the drop of beer that rises out of the water, is my favorite. I was shooting with a 100mm Canon macro f/2.8 lens, which doesn’t have much depth of field. So we had to really blast the Arri 650 pretty much directly from above. Mark’s wife Katrina just poured a LOT of beer until it happened. I set up the slow motion to capture with a rear trigger. This way, when we saw something that looked interesting I would press the record button. Then we’d have to wait 45 seconds or so, until the file could be written to disk from the buffer. The nice thing about using the rear trigger was that we only captured clips that had potential. Thus we avoided having to capture long sequences of slow mo that would have to be reviewed during editing. But the long write times definitely slowed us down during the shoot.
The slow-motion footage on the Sony FS5 can be pretty grainy, even when the Slog is properly overexposed. So I had to denoise the clips using Neat Video plugin. It’s pretty incredible how good the clips looked after that.
Turn on your TV. What’s the first thing you see? Somebody talking to the camera. Blah blah blah. Open a film on Netflix. What’s the first thing you see? Action. The essence of cinematic storytelling is showing, not telling. So, if you aspire to cinematic storytelling with your documentary filmmaking, why film talking heads in the first place? Why not commit to showing instead of telling?
I’m a little hesitant to share this insight, because it’s valuable to me. Big medical organizations hire me to to tell their most important stories, and it’s a financially rewarding gig. Why give away my secret? But ideas are cheap – it’s execution that matters. So here’s a cheap idea that, when applied, has proven invaluable to me and my clients.
Stop shooting interviews with a camera.
Wait, what? How can you say that – aren’t you a camera guy? Yes, I am. But my first commitment is to story. And I’ve observed that:
Being on camera feels like a performance to most people; being on mic feels more like a conversation. Talking heads are boring; mic’d conversations are more authentic.
Cameras need lights, grip and crew. Sound needs only a mic, a recorder, and a quiet place, so audio costs less.
If the audio interview doesn’t move you, you move on. It’s easy to do that because you’re less invested when you use a mic.
Not having any interview footage forces you (and your client) to choose a visually interesting character who provides cinematic b-roll opportunities.
Recording interviews audio-only adds a “radio edit” step to your editing workflow, building client buy-in early in the process. This translates into fewer client changes at the rough cut stage, faster delivery, and a happier client.
Let’s unpack this.
Talking heads are boring
Most people aren’t actors. So, they are uncomfortable when a camera is pointed at them. There are ways of minimizing this, but the simplest, most effective way is to simply nix the camera. Instead, bring only a microphone. That way, you can be sure they’re never thinking “how do I look?” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Great interviews are genuine, human conversations. And when cameras are not in the mix, everything gets easier. Not only for the subject, but also for me. No part of my brain is thinking about the lighting, or the frame rate, or the ISO. I’m just thinking about the person I’m talking to. I’m fully present. And THAT is the foundation of an extraordinary interview.
Camera interviews are expensive
In the large-nonprofit productions I do, a typical interview involves a crew of 3-4 people and a station wagon full of equipment. If we split the equipment up between picture and sound, about three-quarters of the “stuff” we bring belongs in the picture category. By going audio-only with your interviews, you eliminate three-quarters of your stuff. This also allows you to cut your crew in half. You see where I’m going with this: Cameras are expensive; talk is cheap.
Documentaries need casting, too
Great documentary films are built from great stories. Great stories emerge from great interviews. And great interviews come from great characters. To find great characters, you have to do casting.
When you use a mic for your interviews, you turn your interviews into casting sessions. If the interview is weak, it’s easy to move on to another story candidate without incurring the high costs of camera production. It allows you to cut your losses quickly.
On the other hand, if it’s an extraordinary interview, it’s easy to get your client to buy in to the story, with a radio edit. And the only thing left to do is the b-roll. More on that below.
It forces you (and your client) to choose wisely
Too often, clients settle. They settle for a boring character and an uninspiring story that has few b-roll options. They do this because you let them. And you let them by shooting interviews.
When you shoot an interview, you can always cover your lack of good b-roll by cutting to the talking head, like they do on TV. But no matter how well you’ve lit the interview, it’s still a talking head.
When you have no talking head, you force both yourself and your client to pick a strong character, who will provide you with action to film. That is, you force yourself to show instead of tell. That’s sometimes an uncomfortable place to be. But trust me, it’s a good place to be.
The radio edit advantage
We’ve all been there. You work really hard on an edit, you present it to your client, and you hold your breath. Will they like it? How many changes will they make? What if they don’t like it?
I have discovered that if you take the time to introduce your client to a story with a “radio edit,” you (and your client) will be able to breathe a lot easier when it comes time to deliver your rough cut.
A radio edit is an audio-only version of your film that would totally work if it were aired on the radio, including music and pacing. The first time I did this, the client came back to me with a surprising comment: “Wow. This sound like a This American Life piece. We can’t wait to see what it looks like with video!”
By giving them a polished radio edit first, you introducing them to your story gently. You invite them to buy in to the story, and to your approach. I find that clients have a few changes at this stage. But these few are much easier and less expensive for you to make than they would be after you’ve added b-roll.
Here’s how it works
On this project, my client needed help launching a $2 billion fundraising campaign. They wanted to find a story that would inspire their audience to believe that heart disease was beatable, and that their donations could have a direct impact. Because of the big numbers at stake, the approval chain included a lot of brass, including the CEO. Red flag!
The first person we interviewed (mic only) didn’t move us. Neither did the second person. So we kept looking. Then we found Jim. Here’s his radio edit:
The client liked the radio edit, and suggested some minor changes. Here’s the final film:
When they saw the rough cut (for this and another film we made concurrently using the same approach), they sent me this email:
Dan. I don’t think we have ever given this little feedback on videos. They’re universally loved, and we think they’re going to work really well.
Werner Herzog once said “Good footage always cuts.” The visuals don’t have to literally match the dialog (as long as you have great story as a foundation). Somehow by choosing a character who inhabits an interesting environment, who does interesting things, the footage will always cut.
So. Next time you’re faced with a high stakes interview-based project, consider how ditching your camera can help you do more with less.