Three short weeks ago I began production a feature film and as of this past Tuesday we are officially wrapped! The journey to this point has been super exciting but exceptionally challenging at the same time, and I am extremely grateful to everyone on our cast and crew for their efforts and dedication to the project. We were a very small team and everyone on board truly went above and beyond to make this happen.
As I mentioned on this previous blog post, over the coming weeks and months I will release a series of articles outlining how we were able to make this guerrilla style, micro budget feature film a reality. I’m going to cover the entire process – from casting to production to post – and everything in between… And this article is effectively the first in the series.
To kick things off, I wanted to start with a topic that I know many readers of this blog will appreciate: Our camera setup.
So let’s jump right in and take a look at our camera choice –
URSA MINI 4.6K
As many of you know, I am a big fan of Blackmagic and own a number of their cameras. At the same time, I also regularly shoot on many other digital cinema cameras, prosumer cameras, and DSLRs, depending on what the job calls for. Going into this project, there was no clear answer as to which camera we would shoot on, and in fact it took the better part of a month to eventually decide on the URSA Mini 4.6K.
When you choose a camera for any given project, there are a lot of things to consider. Image quality is almost always the first thing people think about, but other factors such as ergonomics, size, functionality, audio capabilities, etc. are just as important.
On this project, the biggest considerations for me were quality, speed, and camera size. These were top of mind as we would be shooting virtually the entire film guerrilla style, and I wanted to ensure we would be able to move quickly and work inconspicuously, while still maintaining a very high level of image quality.
I knew the URSA Mini 4.6K could easily deliver the image quality I was after, and since I already owned the camera it was a natural choice from the get-go. That said, I did consider other options, including the Arri Alexa Mini and RED Epic Dragon on the higher end side, and even some DSLRs on the lower end of the spectrum. Ultimately I was trying to find the right balance between image quality, cost, and usability on set, and although I was pulled in a lot of directions, I eventually came full circle and landed on the URSA Mini 4.6K.
Of all the options, it just seemed to offer the best of both worlds while also helping us to keep costs down.
The one drawback with the camera (and this would have applied to any other cinema camera) was that it was not nearly as inconspicuous as a DSLR. On at least two occasions we were nearly kicked out of locations for shooting – but luckily we had already captured the footage we needed. I am convinced that with a smaller camera this never would have happened, which is why I considered shooting on a DSLR in the first place… But for me, the difference in image quality that the URSA Mini 4.6K could bring to the table was worth that risk.
Let’s move on to the lenses…
SIGMA CINEMA ZOOMS
Picking the right lenses for this project took just as much thought as picking the right camera. All of the same considerations came into play; functionality, quality, size, etc… And after weighing many options, it was clear that the best tool for the job would be the new Sigma Cinema Zoom Lenses. We used the 18-35 and the 50-100 exclusively.
These lenses are of course the cinema counterparts to Sigma’s excellent Art lenses (designed for stills photography), and they really are extremely impressive. Typically I will only shoot with prime lenses on narrative projects, but in this case I made an exception and decided to go with zooms. This was for a few main reasons –
First off, these aren’t just any old zoom lenses. These lenses are very fast at T2.0 and deliver an exceptionally high quality image across the board, rivaling many cinema lenses that are far more expensive to purchase… At least in my opinion. More importantly however, they allowed us to work extremely quickly without having to sacrifice quality. We did not use any other glass on this project, meaning every shot in the movie was captured on one of the two lenses. In fact, I’d say about 75% of the film was shot on the 18-35!
Working this way allowed for quicker setups in between shots, leaving more time for extra takes and bonus shots that might not have otherwise been possible. Every logistical choice on this project came down to efficiency. It was all about how we can maximize our time on set, capture as much footage as possible with the least amount of downtime, and these lenses fit into that framework beautifully. Not to mention, this film’s documentary-inspired aesthetic was enhanced even further by using zooms over primes.
I knew from the get-go we were going to need to use IRND filters to combat any IR pollution that would have otherwise affected the URSA Mini 4.6K’s footage. In the past I had used Schneider IRND filters on this camera with great results, so naturally those were my first choice again here. Three ND filters were used on the whole film: .6, 1.2, & 1.8, which covered us in virtually every scenario. I also had a 1/4 Black Promist filter on set (which we never used as it was a bit too extreme looking), and a Polarizer which was occasionally used to help bring out detail in the clouds, or cut glare when shooting through a car windshield.
The filters were used in conjunction with a Chrosziel mattebox which was attached via rails to the URSA Mini shoulder kit.
Our main location sound was captured by our excellent sound recordist (Scott Vanderbilt), but there were still other on-board audio considerations that we needed to take into account to ensure our workflow would be seamless. For starters, we mounted a shotgun mic to the camera body to capture our reference audio. The camera of course does have a built in mic, but the shotgun’s superior quality also allowed us to simultaneously record one additional channel of audio (direct to camera) as a backup.
The shotgun was running into Channel 1 on the URSA Mini 4.6K, and Channel 2 was receiving a feed from the mixer – essentially all of the mics (boom, lavs, plants, etc.) were mixed together into Channel 2. We mounted the wireless receiver on the side of the camera with some velcro tape and simply left it there the entire shoot.
Most importantly though, we mounted a small timecode sync box to the top of the camera that was fed into the URSA Mini 4.6K’s TC Input on the back of the camera. This jammed the timecode with the audio recorded to the mixer, which would make syncing extremely easy.
Although we slated most of our takes with a traditional slate, having identical timecode on both the camera and the audio recordings meant that syncing could be done with literally one click of a mouse. As opposed to manually syncing in post or using plural eyes/waveform based options, syncing via timecode is faster and more reliable which is ultimately why we went that route. Not to mention, in situations where we weren’t able to slate (either because we were working so quickly or had to remain inconspicuous), it was a life saver.
As we began production, my plan was to operate the camera myself which would mean additional monitoring wouldn’t be relevant, since I would be looking through the EVF the whole time. Early on in production though, I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be able to focus as much as I would like on the story, actors, and overall direction if I was also operating the camera.
A couple days in, I brought a long time collaborator (Andy Chinn) on board with the film to shoot with me, which meant I would need a Director’s monitor. Originally we used a Small HD 502, which worked quite well and didn’t draw a lot of power from our V-Mounts, but we eventually swapped out it for the BMD Video Assist. This was done for a couple of reasons, the one first being it’s size.
The extra real estate on Blackmagic’s 7″ screen was ideal, as there were a number of shooting scenarios where I couldn’t be right beside the camera, and the screen on the Small HD 502 was a touch too small. But more importantly, the BMD Video Assist is also able to record redundancy. This became increasingly important as the shoot went on, since we did not have a dedicated DIT on set. I was doing all of the data management myself, and (thankfully!) there were no issues or lost files along the way. That said, it still gat me a lot more peace of mind knowing that we had a ProRes redundancy of virtually everything that we filmed on the monitor.
Each night when I would back up all of the footage, I would also back up the redundancy SD card and wipe it for the next day. I recorded an HD feed (not 4K) to the monitor, which allowed us to roll on a single card all day. It also meant that while the 4K RAW footage was backing up to my RAID at night, I could pop the SD card from the BMD Video Assist into a laptop and watch the dailies.
Over the coming weeks I’ll be sure to continue rolling out updates on the project, behind the scenes material, and much more. If there is anything in particular any of you would like to know or hear about in more detail, please leave me a comment below and I’ll try to answer as much as I can in future posts.
For now, I’ll leave you with a few more screengrabs from the film!
Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!