‘The Blackout’

It was this time last year that I was preparing to be cinematographer for indie feature, The Renata Road. Do any of the crew receive updates on it’s progress? It would be nice to hear how it is going, how it’s looking and for me in particular, how my work has graded.

This year I am part of a team of friends working on The Blackout Film Project. In short, small production teams will each produce a chapter of a larger film. An ingenious way to democratise the process and use efficiency of numbers to get the job done. http://www.blackoutfilmproject.com/

Back to the day job: Football Focus & green screen shoot

Back to the day job this week after The Renata Rd. Successful green screen shoot for Nick Wheeler (http://www.my-crew.co.uk/your-crew/crew-profile/nick-wheeler/lighting-camera-dop) with gaffer, Ewhan in Sheffield completed, but not without the drama of having to move location after we’d unloaded lots of gear – a different room in a different building down the road! The client, Philipe of WebMD was v happy with our efforts and the final product. Thanks to ProVision for the first time hire of Canon C300 camera, 4 x 4′ Kinos lights and green screen. The C300 in Log mode produced v nice images.

Jib operating for Football Focus today. A tribute to Sir Tom Finney. Really pleased to work on this edition as a Prestonian. It was hard not to let a degree of stress in the gallery affect me and I was slightly dissatisfied with my jib work. That, combined with having no jib assistant to track the base – an unusual arrangement, makes this a tricky job. One more show, Final Score to go after a rather long lunch break.

Good Bye The Renata Road, For Now


It’s with slight regret that I wake up this morning with no crew to join and no location to go to. What’s my motivation?…and so I’m still in bed (midday).

We formed great bonds working so hard together for such long hours. Although, of course, I have conflicting emotions as I’m also relieved to be free to have time for my family and indeed everything else in my life. We worked some pretty crazy hours. I had intentions to write this blog most evenings and to document the lighting/photography techniques of the day…there wasn’t always time.

I gave it my all and feel like I applied almost every trick I know. Often I knew what I wanted to achieve with the lighting, but not necessarily how to achieve it, so I learned so much from this experience. As in the past, the little Dedo lights became my best friend for their ability to be directional and controllable – picking out a subject without lighting the background, controlled with their integral dimmers and compact enough to go in tight spaces or be hung from scissor clamps from the ceiling their cables extended on XLR cables. At times I wish they had a little more punch. I wonder whether cinematographers on big budget movies use them. And the china ball has to get a credit.

My big conundrum during the shoot, which probably shows my ignorance, was how to get enough exposure without ruining the ambiance and balance of levels I was seeing. On occasion, using the a slower Zeiss 18mm f3.5 lens (most lenses were at least f2.8), I resorted, after lighting the scene, to adding a flood of light from a 2kW lamp through muslin to lift everything – the only way I could think of getting the exposure I needed. Often I cheated the shutter angle towards 360 degrees, justifying it by the fact that the narrative is dreamlike and by the fact that most of the shots were static and the actors not moving much in frame (ISO on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is always at 800ASA so that can’t be adjusted to increase exposure).

I think I’m happy with pretty much every single shot that went in the can – that’s pretty satisfying. Bar one poorly placed track – laid in a hurry – that made a really simple short shot a pig to operate and multiple shadows (3!) on an otherwise beautiful shot as the protagonist walks around a swimming pool (with every take he walked further along the pool – probably at my request – increasing the number of shadows…please use an earlier take Mr Director/editor!).

I’ve got to say thank you to the actors, and in fact to everyone, for being patient with me while I learned on the job, forgive me for being ‘at speed’ and then running around the camera to make a further tweak (1st AD, Beth). Some of the coverage Ed and I discussed required nearly ten passes on the same scene and of course multiple takes on each pass….not necessarily my fault, as the repetition is just part of single camera shooting, but it did make me feel a bit guilty / sorry for the actors especially as the drama I shoot day-to-day is shot multi-camera and therefore if a take works very often that’s the only pass, done and we move on.

These are the people I worked most closely with in my role: Jordan, 1st AC was calm, cool and good for a nudge…”Jim have you spotted that?”. Amy, 2nd AC was happy and kept us smiling and was always ready with “50mm coming up” or “can I just swing that battery”. Craig, Gaffer – I was lost on the few occasions he wasn’t on set…were does he keep this / how did he do that / can we get some steps cause I’m not as tall as Craig – such a hard worker. Ben, no-one knows if he did a good job cause no-one heard his sound recordings! I have a feeling he put in a very strong performance! Sorry for the maze you had to take to get your mic in among the scene to avoid shadows/reflections/being in frame. 1st AD, Beth was great at keeping things moving and was v supportive. The team of runners kept us going and on the few days when their number dwindled we really noticed it. Michael took on the role of DIT with some trepidation at first, but Ed wouldn’t have a film without the organisation of footage and stock. And Mr Greenberg lead from the front with leadership and the firefighting ability of a seasoned politician.

I hope my grammar is okay? CJ is a stickler…thanks for all the quiz questions and the fun.

By Jim Cullen, DoP, The Renata Road

Thanks to Phil at in-vision TV facilities Ltd. for providing Zeiss prime lenses and Metabones Speedbooster.

Thanks to Steve and Siobhann at OConnor Engineering, Vitec Videocom Inc. for providing tripod/pan and tilt head for the project and for their support.

Thanks to René Bijleveld at Alphatron Broadcast Electronics B.V. for replacing my original ex-demo EVF for new.

Thanks to Matt at Top-Teks Ltd. for selling me camera gear at the best price he could do!

Thanks to Andy Bennet for providing tripod/pan and tilt head, baby legs, HMI Arri 575, stand and bulbs.

Thanks to Danny at ProVision (part of ITV) for providing in-line dimmers. 

Thanks to Toby Gregory for all the rest of the kit, technical support and gripping.

Thanks to Jenny at Cameras Underwater Ltd. and Ewa-Marine for rushing out a BMCC splash bag to us.

Thanks to Nick Wheeler and Eric Young for lighting advice.

Thanks to Grant Perry: 

 ”We have worked very hard over the last year to be able to build the Blackmagic Cinema Camera at a lower cost so we can reduce the price and allow access to digital filming to a wide range of cinematographers and photographers.

We have done it and from today the Blackmagic Cinema Camera EF and MFT models will be reduced in price to US$1,995. This is very exciting and is one of the proudest moments of my life to be able to do this!

I think people will be able to use the savings to invest in some exciting lenses and rigs to really boost the creative possibilities. The Blackmagic Cinema Camera is a fantastic design that’s now well proven. The advantage of the 2.5K sensor is it has enough resolution to eliminate the bayer resolution loss of a HD sensor, but when shooting RAW it produces files that are too not to big to store and work with easily. It’s a fantastic solution.”


Smoke On The Water

I think 3 days have gone by and I think I’ve done 6 shifts shooting the Renata Road in that time. Days are merging. Just to illustrate my confusion, on 5 February I worked from 18:00 hours through to 7:00 on 6 February (my birthday!!). Saw my wife and boy between 8:15 and 8:30, went to bed then returned to the set in the early afternoon to continue: I think I had 2 birthdays.

We’ve been shooting in a swimming pool for the last 2 days. Everything had to be battery powered. No china ball this time. I lit with light panels. B camera (Black Magic Cinema Camera) had to run in a splash bag with no external battery – that meant 30 minutes between battery charges. Not good for production but did mean lots of breaks!

And then…a tear found in the splash bag! Water on my lens and BMCC. Not cool.

The whole swimming pool shoot was improvised and I had my Miller tripod / pan-tilt head in the water which didn’t really do the kit any good (update: Miller pan/tilt head is no more – an expensive sequence!). The camera, with splash bag, was ratchet-strapped to the pan / tilt head. It was a bit of a compromise with the available kit but we got the shots. I learnt lots like pointing the lamps down to get the shimmer of the water up the walls, opening the door to the outside for 30 secs to get smoke on the water…and with that deep purple rif in mind I say good night.

China Ball

Well the china ball really came into it’s own yesterday. It provided lovely soft lighting on the actors and left the background nice and dark (and the lighting didn’t need changing between passes). But what a long day and what a lot of ‘coverage’ in the scenes we did – swapping camera position to catch every line and look between three actors. We must have heard the same lines 20 times…v patient actors.

Thanks to my Dad for diverting past B&Q for the DIY china ball on the way to a family gathering yesterday.

During the last scene I operated the pan and tilt handle with my right hand while tracking the dolly along the track myself with my left…only the opposite of what I’ve done for what, 15 years, that’s how tired I was – I didn’t even notice. I thought it was unusually difficult to hold the pivot! The shot would have been a whole lot easier had I remembered how I usually do it (I’d got used to operating ENG, Electronic News-Gathering, style with my right hand over the previous 14 hrs!).

Then I couldn’t find the GoPro…it was plugged in to the Mac all along which I overlooked about 3 times…remembered what the steering wheel did and got home safely anyway!

Right, enough social media. Time to back up yesterday’s files.