A simple little hair/makeup kit for no-budget filmmakers… a crucial weapon against Murphy’s Law

Imagine this scenario: you and your minimal crew of two or three people meet up at 9am on a Saturday for a guerrilla shoot at a slightly out-of-the-way distinct location… a ravine with a great vista, a creepy old barn, a horse stable, a honky tonk diner on top of an erupting volcano, whatever.

You have coffee & food for your people, and all the gear you need, so you’re good to go. Then an actor shows up with beard stubble, even though in the scene before and after this one (that you shot last weekend) he’s clean shaven. And you’re a fifteen minute drive from his house. Which means at least forty minutes to send him back to shave. Not to mention that he’ll hate doing it, because he probably already hates being there at 9am on a Saturday. And he’ll probably mutter some comment about not having enough gas to get to work after the shoot. Basically what I’m trying to say is that your actor hates you 14% more now.

This will happen to you. I’m not putting a voodoo curse on you. Because I don’t need to. Because it naturally will just happen to you.

Maybe you’re thinking “my actor is awesome and would never show up unshaven!” Well, what about your friend Jason who has a small part making snarky remarks while helping him carry a dead body to the car before being melted by alien lasers? Jason is usually hungover before 1pm and hence totally like forgot to shave this morning.

So, be readyz for dat. Go to Walgreens or whatever and grab a few things for a simple, minimal hair/makeup kit. I figured this out so early on that I had completely forgotten about it… I just happen to come across mine as I was cleaning my workshop. And now this little blog post is born… ah, the miracle of life.

So here’s what I would recommend you have in your lil’ kit…

    1. A bag of cheap disposable razors.

    2. Shaving cream.

    3. A hairbrush.

    4. The strongest hair gel they gots. Satan loves being a stubborn rear cowlick incarnate. Because ruining your film is a top priority for him, duh.

    5. Good quality, name-brand absorbant paper towels. When wetted with bottled water + a bone-dry oil-sucking soap like Neutrogena = remote location wash sink. This is pretty obvious… I feel dumb for even typing it out.

    6. A few dryer sheets in a ziplock bag. This can help if a piece of costume or wardrobe smells unpleasant and bothers an actor. If actor A had a scene with a chain smoking character a few days ago and now their jacket wreaks of Joe Camel, you can rub a dryer sheet all over it (not joking) after first shaking it out. Dryer sheets are also helpful if you have stale-smelling, “dry clean only” thrift store wardrobe that you can’t afford to dry clean.

Okay I need to preface the next part by saying I don’t know anything about makeup, so keep that in mind. Luckily, I have pro makeup artists for shoots nowadays, but these suggestions worked for me back in my no-budget days…

    7 a. Baby powder. If an actor gets hecka shiny, you can put a little on a paper towel and dab away (if the paper towel alone doesn’t do the trick). It’s not exactly the best way to handle this, but for no-budgeters, it gets the job done. There’s probably better powder options at Walgreens in the makeup section, but I have no idea what they are. But worst case scenario, if you’re shooting in the middle of nowhere and your only nearby shopping option is a gas station, baby powder can work.

    7 b. Kryolan Colorless Anti-Shine Powder. This is a more effective and more professional alternative to baby powder. If you’re gonna be shooting a lot in hot, humid environments, or for long hours under hot lights, I’d recommend you buy some.

    8. Powder puffs. These work better than a paper towel for powder. If you know you’re gonna need to powder actors, get some, they’re cheap.

How did this article end up being like twenty paragraphs, when it should’ve been like three sentences? Anyways, I hope that somehow helps someone.

Sharpening your footage in post — in a non-crummy way

This one’s quick and easy, and there’s a good chance you already know this if you’re a seasoned post professional. But I see poorly sharpened footage all the time, so it must not be totes common knowledge.

Maybe your old no-name lenses are a little soft, or your exterior establishing shot needs to look a little more detailed, or you’re matching different lenses, whatevs. Do dis:

  1. Don’t use Sharpen. That’s like a race car driver using an automatic transmission.
  2. Use Unsharp Mask.
  3. Right off the bat, set it to 100% Amount, and 0.3 Radius.
  4. If that doesn’t do the trick, then try upping Amount to 200% at the most, or Radius to 0.5 maximum. But generally, going beyond that will cause negative byproducts.
  5. Lastly, adjust Threshold as needed… for video there are many factors involved in deciding whether to set it high or low (types of skin, lighting, how much geometric stuff is in a shot, how noisy your footage is, etc), so really just slide it around and eyeball it to taste.

So there ya go… Unsharp Mask, 100% / 0.3, or adjust to taste within ranges 50-200% / 0.3-0.5. And generally, this applies to still photos as well. The settings should be pretty universal whether you’re doing it in Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro, After Effects, Sony Vegas, or whatever else.

Before & after color grading comparison of flat scanned 35mm on the Outpost DVD

The British independent low-budget (£200,000 according to wikipedia) feature Outpost directed by Steve Barker achieved something pretty extraordinary– it rose above the endless flood of made-for-straight-to-DVD movies that belong to what I call the “post-Alien subgenre” (a group of soldiers/technicians who don’t like each other are stuck somewhere isolated/dark/claustrophobic, waiting it out for a specified amount of time until rescue/safety, while being killed off one by one by a mysterious & obscured creature/entity)… by being bought up by Sony and given a limited theatrical release in the UK.

Ok cool story, brodawg. Yeah so on the DVD there are deleted scenes that appear to be from an assemblage edit of the flat transfer film scan footage. Which means you can directly compare that to the look of the color graded final feature, if you’re into that kinda thing. It was shot on (Fuji) 35mm, so the flat transfer holds 13-14 stops of dynamic range (good prosumer video cameras and DSLR/DSLRish cameras hold 7-10 usable stops). The color grade’s bleach bypass/ENRish look is kinda par for the course considering the genre, but it’s definitely well crafted. And if you wear an eye patch, have a parrot on your shoulder, and use the word “booty” in a non-hiphop way, you can even rip the deleted scenes and try mimicking the final result… which would be pretty useful for anyone who’s learning to color grade. BUT THAT WOULD BE ILLEGALZ.

Here be the Outpost DVD on Amazon.

Efficient footage filenames when using an external recorder

If you haven’t noticed, most of the tidbits I put on this here blawg are born-ed of my trial & error, my woeful miseries, and my occasional tiny logistical victories over the ruthless gremlins of Murphy’s Law. Wait, that makes it sound like this article is going to be a lot more exciting than it actually will be — you’re all “dayumm this gonna have gremlins an’ stuff in it, like some Ghostbusters 3 shii ri here.”

Nope, boring. Just filename suggestions for recording footage to an external recorder like a Sound Devices PIX 240i.

Recently I was DP on a feature, shot on a Sony F3 with one. I assume other external recorders allow for flexible filenaming with automated take number advancement, just like the PIX 240i does — which is great. Because of this, I recommended to the producers that we shoot without slating. It can save significant time on a production, especially one like ours where we had a language barrier, chaotic locations, and a tight schedule… along with all the other factors of a low budget production.

So here’s the formula I recommend for the filename structure:
(project acronym)_(scene number)_(date)__(take number)

If your film’s called “The Buried Dirtball“, you’re shooting scene #26 on July 10th, and it’s the fifth take, then itsa gunna looka lika thissa:

Though there’s one caveat… I don’t have a 240i in front of me, so I’m not 100% certain you can get all that stuff into the filename. But as I recall, you can manipulate the naming pretty heavily.

Including the date may seem cumbersome and maybe even unnecessary at first, but to me it is now essential. We didn’t use it when shooting the aforementioned feature, and that’s exactly how I learned that we should have. You may end up shooting shots from a particular scene many days apart from one another, so trying to figure out what the last numbered take was for that scene can be time consuming, if even possible at all when on location. But you probably can remember if it was earlier that day. So anyways, this can help prevent you from having shots with the same filename, which can be disastrous if one file happens to overwrite the other when placed into the same folder.

Note the three digit numeral for the scene & take numbers. That’s so if you put all your .mov files into the same folder, they’ll stack in proper order, making it easy for you to find stuffz.

Also, don’t use spaces instead of underscores… yes, I know it’s not 1997 anymore, but if for some reason the spaces cause some kind of problem for like your sound designer or colorist, then you’ll get to send a text message to yourself with nothing but a saddyface emoticon in it. Also, I’ll get to laugh loudly in your face. And I’ll probably make sure I eat something stinky immediately before. Like dog feces. That’ll teach you a lesson. Haha, in your face, bro. Jaykay, that’s just simulated schadenfreude– I would probably send you an upbeat, encouraging emoji to make you feel better, like that iPhone one of the twins in cat suits dancing.

The extra underscore before the take number is just there to visually scan better.

Also, you can use s000 (scene #0) for random unassigned stuff like 2nd unit exteriors, etc. I prefer this over other methods since those shots will all be easy to find in one place.

If you have a script supervisor on set, they can notate the “o’clock” time for shot numbers if you’re not slating (ie. shot3A was shot 2:16 – 2:38pm), and the assistant editor can then check the “date created” and rename the clips in the editing software, or just organize them into folders if you don’t need to go that hard.

Yeah, so anyways, based on my experiences on productions big and small, this format should work as a catch-all, with minimal time, energy, or headache during shooting and post. You can add more stuff to the filenames I guess, but going into the recorder’s interface to add shot numbers can be a slow and confusing hassle, especially if you’re not a fully crewed production with a dedicated script supervisor and 2nd AC. I would recommend the sorting of footage by shot be done in editing software, where it’s pretty simple & painless.

Using Super 16 lenses on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera: It works for a 1080 HD crop

There are Super 16 lenses that have been sitting around collecting dust for the last 5-10 years, and you can usually scoop some up at bargain prices. That’s because, aside from a minority of Red users, no one’s been using them, due to HD sucking all the wind from its sails like some sort of gigantic cloud vampire. No, I’m not drunk. Yeah so anyways, that all might change now that the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is starting to ship in quantity.

The BMCC sensor size is a good chunk bigger than Super 16 (abbreviated “s16″ from now on… I’m too lazy to type it out the bazillion more times I’ll need to reference it). But it’s close enough that some s16 zoom lenses will cover the sensor at the higher end of their focal length ranges, probably half to three-fourths of its zoom range, depending on the particular lens. That’s because the image circle of a zoom must be big enough to fill a format’s picture area when at its shortest focal length, ie. zoomed all the way out. And then by principle of a zoom lens, that image circle will get larger as you zoom in. As that image circle gets larger, it can hence fill a larger picture area/sensor. Here is a diagram featuring completely random and arbitrary imagery:

But here’s one thing to keep in mind: some still photography zoom lenses maintain their small image circle due to their particular design, so the same may apply to some s16 zooms as well.

    ***A LIL’ UPDATE***
    Cinematographer John Brawley has posted some frames from his tests of the following s16 lenses…
    Angenieux 11.5-138mm T2.3
    Canon 6.6-66mm T2.7
    Canon 8-64 T2.4

    The results don’t look too great for full BMCC sensor coverage. The Angenieux maintains a small image circle, and the Canons show noticeable chromatic aberration outside the s16 picture area, even when they cover the sensor. You can see all the DNGs via his dropbox link in this Blackmagic Forum thread.

    A few paragraphs down, I’ve added examples of how these lenses can work for the BMCC via a 1080 center extract.

I have no idea if they’ll fill the BMCC sensor. Do long focal length primes have larger image circles than their short focal length counterparts? Maybe. Image circle sizes vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and product line to product line. So the only way to know is to test that specific lens.

This might be a big deal for some people. And it’s so simple: just crop into the 1920 x 1080 center pixels of the 2432 x 1366 frame of BMCC footage. Actually, you’ll only have to do that for footage that needs it. Like I mentioned earlier, some lenses will cover the whole sensor. But as a boilerplate, unilateral policy, it’ll work for all s16 lenses, regardless of focal length. Here’s why…

You can click here or on the picture to see a full res version of this BMCC 2432 x 1366 frame diagram. Notice how the Super 16mm picture area is just big enough to cover the extracted 1920 x 1080 HD frame from the full BMCC frame? Boom, there ya go. So it’s all good with using s16 lenses.

    Here are some examples of how the 1080 center extract would work with the three aforementioned s16 lenses…

    You can click on them to see ‘em as full res 10% quality jpegs… which means they’re just for examining the image circle, and not the image quality of the camera. You can get to the original DNGs via this Blackmagic Forum thread. Mucho thanks to John Brawley for letting me use these frames.

I haven’t tested this myself because I’ve yet to get my filthy hands on a BMCC, but numbers don’t lie. There are a few things to keep in mind if you choose to do a 1080 center extract:

  1. You’ll have to shoot in 2.5K RAW mode. Obviously the downsampled 1920 x 1080 ProRes or DNxHD modes won’t work for this.
  2. You’ll need to mark the 1920 x 1080 center on your viewfinder. This is actually not that big of a deal. You just get some clear touch screen protective cover, and then make your markings via trial and error… ie. set up a tripod & chart/whatever, import footage & perform the extract, then mark the cover. I do this exact process for certain kinds of VFX shots all the time, it’s easy.
  3. You’ll have to do the 1080 center extract in post, but it’s hecka easy. Do I even really need to explain this? I will, just in case. In whatever software, make your timeline/composition/whatever 1920 x 1080. Set your BMCC footage to be at 100% scale/size, that way it’s only showing the center. If a particular shot doesn’t need the 1080 extract, then change its scale/size to 79%.
  4. It’s obviously not going to look as good as the full sensor 2400 x 1350 image that’s been scaled down to 1920 x 1080, because of Bayer filtering mumbo jumbo that you can google. Whether or not the optical resolution is good enough is up to you… but if your basis of comparison is a DSLR/DSLM, then it likely will. From the samples I’ve seen, a 1080 center extraction looks pretty great. And if you do see de-Bayer artifacts, try extracting from a slightly larger area than 1920 x 1080 if your lens’ image circle allows for it.

If you’re thinking it’s just weird and strange to capture image areas that are going to be discarded or unseen by the viewing audience, just keep in mind that it’s standard procedure with most non-anamorphic lensed 35mm shooting formats. Also, cropping in to 1080 on the BMCC is very similar, in principle, to the crop resolution modes of the Red cameras. Plus, really, your work is 99% likely to ultimately be seen in 1080 HD anyway. Is the 1080 center extraction worth all the extra work? Probably only if you just really wanna shoot on a fast cine zoom that’s affordable.

Also, if you’re content with shooting for a 720 HD finish, you can use standard 16mm format lenses… by cropping to 1578 x 888 and then downscaling to 1280 x 720.

The simplest way to add production value to your film: Avoid white walls & wardrobe

To me there’s four explicit things that differentiate professional films from their student/amateur counterparts (other than marketing budgets, ha)…

  1. Sophisticated lighting
  2. Extensive foley
  3. A lack of white-walled interiors
  4. A lack of white wardrobe

Numbers 1 & 2 usually cost some mucho money. But 3 & 4 don’t, so you should totally jump all up on those for your projects.

Go to the Apple trailers page and watch a bunch of ‘em. Count how many times you see white-walled interiors versus color ones. Usually the more fantastic & stylish the film, the darker the color of the walls… and even with “realistic” films, the walls that “feel” like they’re white are actually light gray or beige or light blue. That’s because professionals know to avoid putting white on-camera, because it limits your lighting options since you’d have to walk on proverbial eggshells in order to not have it blow out overexposed. And that’s working with film and its 13-14 stops of dynamic range, as opposed to your (assumed) DSLR/DSLM/video camera’s 7-10 usable stops. Which means you should be extra concerned about avoiding white walls.

So you can either choose locations with that in mind, or you can score extra go-getter points by painting your location’s walls. House paint is pretty cheap, especially considering the visual difference it makes for your film. If just hearing the concept of spending a day laboring away to make your bedroom’s walls mauve or pistachio sounds like absolute insanity to you, then –REALTALK– you may not be cut out to be a filmmaker. No-budget filmmaking is 60% moving heavy objects. Wait, unless you have a big trust fund… then just hire someone else to do it and soldier on.

Yeah so anyways, get those white walls out of your film and it’ll not only look better, it’ll convey the mood/tone better (omg the scary room’s walls are bLoOoOood rEd), and will give you more lighting options without fear of blowing out the walls to yucky clipped white. The lighting thing is especially true if you have limited light modifying gear, which is probably your case. Unless the aforementioned trust fund thing applies.

And needless to say, that stuff applies, like, tenfold to white wardrobe. Because limiting how contrasty or varied you can light your actors is like shooting yourself in the foot. This is something that I’ve seen occur in a lot of student and amateur films. What’s most hand-to-forehead inducing about it is how easily avoidable it is. So don’t put your actors in white clothes in like direct sunlight, unless they’re supposed to be visiting from the afterlife. As with walls, “white” wardrobe in professional films are usually actually a little darker. Often a preexisting piece of white wardrobe will be lightly dyed, though I have no direct experience in that, so I can’t offer any advice or suggestions on doing it yourself.

Checkity these details from the last of the above framegrabs. Note that the towel on Sally Field’s shoulder is blown out white, with the same RGB values as the blown out practical light units.

That means a white dish towel will blow out on a $230 million superhero studio film shot on Red Epic… so a white dress shirt will likely do the same on your project shot on a DSLR. I assume that since it was a minor prop, they didn’t bother to dye it, or maybe they didn’t realize it was going to sit on her shoulder or whatevs. But there’s no way they’d have a piece of wardrobe doing that.

Also worth noting is that some folks feel the same way about using pure black wardrobe, which can appear on-camera as pure formless black in some lighting situations. Though this is less perceptually disrupting than a blown-out white shirt, in my opinion.

I’ve shot projects where white walls and shirts were beyond my decision-making control, and I had to work around them. All of those projects would’ve turned out better-looking had the white been replaced with something else.

The ultimate no-budget filmmaker lenses for mirrorless cameras: Nikon IX rises from the grave

Listen up, I feel like this is kinda a big deal. So you’re dirt poor. Or a student. Or a dirt poor student. Or a dirt student (agriculture major). And you wanna put an earnest effort into seeing if you can cut it as a filmmaker. So you buy a GH2. Good choice. And you go the ultra-frugal route and get only the body without the 14-42mm kit lens. In my opinion, it’s totally worth the extra $100– but you’re scraping… and maybe you’re more into longer focal lengths anyway.

So here’s what ya do about lenses: get on the ol’ eBayz and search for “nikon ix”.

These lil’ dudes are dead lenses. We’re talkin’ in a sealed coffin dressed in their mom’s favorite outfits. They deaddddd. They were made for Nikon’s Pronea cameras, which were part of APS (Advanced Photo System), a failed consumer photo film format thingee from the 90s. Made for a now-extinct film format, these lenses can’t work on present Nikon or Canon DSLRs because they have rear protrusions that would hit the reflex mirrors.

Well now we gunn git our George Romero on, bcuz these now be ZOMBIE lenses. Their putrifying little lens hands are reachin’ up out of the dirt in front of their little tombstones. Except instead of wanting to eat our brains, they wanna help you get yr filmmakin’ on, deep discount style– because they can work great on a GH2 or other Micro Four Thirds cameras, and likely on NEX/E-mount and NX cameras as well.

Once you apply all my advicey thangs listed later in this article, you’ll find yourself with some nice video-friendly lenses that are lightweight with good optics, with a useable focus throw, hard stop focus ring, and a clickless aperture… at an incredibly affordable price. You can have two filmmaking-ready zoom lenses that span from 20mm to 180mm for as little as $60.

They may not be Nikon’s finest lenses, but they’re still Nikkors made with mid/late 1990s lens technology. I really don’t think you’ll find this kind of quality at these price points. Here’s your shopping list…

>> Continue to the full article

Planning for reflections for highly efficient VFX

So this is about using additional “reflection takes” from a shoot to greatly aid in a composite.

Here’s a scenario: you shoot an actor on greenscreen that, in the final composite, will be walking past a wall made of brushed aluminum, or polished granite, or even dark plastic. You should shoot an additional take with a mirrored panel reflecting the actor mimicking the “real” take, but with blocking altered to ensure the actor never overlaps the reflection (since this will give much more leeway for manipulation in post). Then it’s relatively quick and painless to composite the reflection onto the wall or whatever, better melting the elements together visually while also giving an organic look to CGI objects without spending eleventeen thousand hours on shaders and rendering in 3D software.

Here’s some more specific guidelines…

  1. Plan for objects that have less than perfectly crisp reflections. This is because your “reflection take” will likely not perfectly match the real take of the actor’s performance… not to mention that your reflection panel probably wasn’t a high quality mirror to begin with.
  2. Shoot the actor’s performance on greenscreen like normal, with no reflection panel (thus allowing for a simple composite without having to roto out the panel).
  3. Then set up a mirror or shiny board where the reflective object will be in the composite. Reblock the actor doing their performance so that you get an unobscured shot of the reflection. This will likely require some spatial cheating, but whatevs. It’ll help when compositing if the background in the reflection is either greenscreen or black (duh), but this usually isn’t super essential. I’d suggest having the actor watch the “good” take a few times so they can study & mimic their movements and timing.
  4. In composite, finalize the actor’s position and timing into the shot. Then throw in the reflection take and tweak it to match the reflective properties of the particular surface. You’ll likely be using “Add” or “Overlay” composite modes. Btw, you should be working in linear blend mode whenever you’re doing photoreal-ish compositing or using motion blur (if using After Effects via the “Blend Colors Using 1.0 Gamma” checkbox under File > Project Settings).
  5. Geometric mega-accuracy of the reflection’s placement and angle aren’t nearly as important in selling the shot as having the kinetic properties of the reflection match the actor… meaning that the timing of an arm swing or head turn need to be pretty close, so bust out the retiming/speed change plugin/tool if it doesn’t.

Back in ol’ 2007, this technique really saved my skin when a project I was directing/DP/compositing became logistically stressed with revisions when the signoff process grew more complicated than anyone expected. Nobody’s fault, just the nature of the beast. To put it lightly, we found ourselves in a super crunch, both in terms of time and budget. If any students are reading this, note that this kinda stuff happens all the time and probably the primary difference between a professional and amateur is that the pro is able to not bother dwelling on obstacles and just focus on figuring out a way to deal with it as best as possible within the limitations, without ripping their own hair out and going insano. Then, theoretically, you eventually matriculate to projects with big juicy budgets and long healthy schedules that are super fun with lots of creative latitude. I’ll let you know when I ever hear of one of those. The clients who give those out must hang out with Santa Claus and ride unicorns or something.

Anyways, we had to reassess a sequence that contained a CGI refrigerator. It originally was going to animate into existence in a fancy way that can only be done in 3D software, and the shot was to be 3D matchmoved. But due to aforementioned schedule/budget factors, we were hard-pressed just to get the shot done with the fridge static, un-animated. Because of the “reflection take” I was able to use just a still image render of the fridge and make the shot look “good enough”. This saved us several hours, since it nixed having to matchmove as well as eliminate the render time for the fridge. Here’s a lil’ video clip showing a breakdown where you can see how big of a difference the reflection take makes…

Is it optically accurate? Not at all. But it “feels” right to the average viewer. Is it invisible realism? Nope. But it sells the shot with a minimum amount of time and resources.