Rutherford Falls - Camera Arm Car operating

Now that the series has aired, I can share another single pickup day I worked on, this time for the Peacock series Rutherford Falls. These are some simple driving shots of a BMW driving down a desert road, with some passes, jib ups, and other various shots. We were in a Mercedes arm car with a "The Edge 3" arm and head, shooting on a RED Gemini, as part of it would be occurring near dusk and into the night, so light levels would be low by the end.

I was camera operating the head via joystick and, while I've operated remote heads before, this was my first time operating in an arm car. It's really not that different from operating on any other shoot with moving elements or other car to car shots, which I do fairly frequently, so I wasn't worried at all. I was very happy with what we shot and the director seemed pleased.

All our shots are in the final episode (episode 10) of season 1. We did a night shot that is used in the middle of the episode (around the 12m15s mark) with the camera floating from the highway shoulder onto the road as the main character's car drives by. My focus puller did a great job as it was totally dark and there weren't really any visible marks he could pull to, so he was flying by the seat of his pants and nailed it.

We also shot what is essentially the closing shot of the season (they cut to the credits after our shot, then briefly cut back for an inter-credits "we have one more thing" moment). It's kind of cool that we were entrusted to capture the "closing shot" that is a nice visual send away to the characters for the season as the car zips by on a lonely highway while the camera jibs up with the car receding away towards the mountains.


Miracle Workers season 3: Oregon Trail VFX plates

Earlier this year I did some second unit photography for season 3 of Miracle Workers: Oregon Trail. These were VFX plates of river crossing locations, where the VFX team would take the high resolution pan and tile plates and populate these environments with CG characters.

The tool of choice was the usual RED Gemini. I shot each set of tiled plates with a couple different lenses: the Zeiss Super Speed 25mm and the Sigma Art Cine 14mm. In situations with little direct supervision, it's always safer to shoot two options in case one of them doesn't work for the VFX team. Adding that second option, even if it wasn't asked for, on a shoot like this is just a smart move since we had plenty of media and drive space and the plates weren't that data intensive anyway. They don't want to add another day of shooting pickups and I would prefer not to make the 6-hour drive to this location again. In the end, it is a bit time consuming since I'm shooting tiles (about 8-14 tiles for each shot), but I knew my schedule and knew I had the time to give them that secondary coverage and still make my day.

There was also a drone team shooting with us, but the wind was pretty strong and so our unit had to split up, with myself going off and shooting the plates all on my own while the field producer stayed with the drone crew, supervising their work. Fortunately, I had gone over the locations with the field producer beforehand, so I knew what to get and where.

One of the locations had a barrel full of firewood burning just off screen with tons of smoke pouring out, and there were no other places where the land jutted out into the water far enough to get the shot, so it had to the that place. Knowing I couldn't stop the smoke, I quickly moved on, hoping the fire would die down before I returned later in the day. When I came back to shoot the location near the end of the day, it turned out delaying was a positive, as the barrel was no longer smoking, but on top of that the tide had gone down and I was able to get out even further to place my camera, which ended up with a better shot.

After wrapping things up, I headed back and met up with the field producer and drone team as they were finishing up their day, and just in time too. The sun would soon be too low to get the shots we needed. Mission accomplished.

Getting the tripod a little wet is a small price to pay for a better shot.


Hacks HBO Max additional driving plates

I found the other episode we shot driving plates for in episode 7. This was a nighttime shoot, so we used a different LUT and mounted the cameras at a normal height rather than the elevated height for the double decker bus shots. We also had one camera mounted on the front, facing forward and up to capture reflection plates for the windshield. These shots were a little more simple, as they were background plates for a car driving scene.

The road was pretty rough, as construction had just started and they were tearing up the road (as you can see from the traffic cones in my shot of the monitor), but production needed to comp in the background of them driving up to the wedding chapel. Thank goodness for post-stabilization!


Last driving plates for Mom

Well, all good things eventually end and our time shooting driving plates for the Warner Brothers show Mom has wrapped. After running 8 seasons, we shot the plates for the final episode which aired just this last month. This was a pretty good show to shoot driving plates for, as they have quite a few driving scenes in them, much more than Young Sheldon, Bob Hearts Abishola, or any of the other WB shows we occasionally work for. Hopefully a new Chuck Lorre show will take its place and that show has lots of driving scenes.

As usual, we shot these on a RED Gemini with a 14mm Sigma Art Cine lens. This wide field of view gives the post production team some room to reframe as needed. The camera is mounted on a DJI Ronin 2 on a Flowcine Black Arm system to keep everything smooth, with us matching the camera height and angle of the original photography.

When we're shooting, we are provided with footage of the scenes that were shot on green screen, so we know the angle the camera was at, how long the scene runs (so we know how long of a continuous run to make), and if there are any vehicle maneuvers we need to make (such as pulling over, swerving, sitting at a stoplight/stop sign, etc) and when those maneuvers take place. Of course, we have police escorts involved to make sure everything is done safely and in a controlled manner.

Generally, we try not to fly the camera with an eyebrow, as even at low speeds and using our mesh eyebrow, the motors in the gimbal work hard, especially if the camera is facing forward. But all these shots were shooting backward and to the sides, and speeds were fairly low, so we were able to get away with the eyebrow on the camera. When we can't have an eyebrow, and due to the wide field of view on a 14mm, we have to plan the time of day carefully to both match the lighting of the already shot show footage while also avoid shooting into the sun as we can't have flares.

While these sorts of shoots are more technical in nature than creative, I enjoy putting that side of my brain to use, solving technical issues and not worrying about how I'm going to light a scene, for instance. Fortunately, I have a mix of projects that allows me to do both technical as well as creative work.

So, what do the final results look like? Well, here are some screengrabs from the episode this shoot was for, with all the backgrounds being the footage we shot that day.


Hacks HBO Max series plates

Earlier this year I went up to Las Vegas to shoot some driving plates for a show called Hacks. I had no idea what it was, but knew we had to rig the camera array 13' up in the air to match the second story of a double decker bus. We used a triple RED Gemini array, controlled through a router so we could roll and cut all 3 cameras at exactly the same time.

We did runs on both the Panavision lenses they shot the series on -to exactly match the optical characteristics- as well as 14mm Sigma Art Cine primes to give them larger field of view options. Better to give them both options and not need one than shoot one option and need the other that wasn't shot.

I was pretty surprised when a couple months later I saw ads for a new HBO Max show called Hacks. And dang it, it looked pretty funny. So these plates worked in episode 3 and, while I know they shot some of it practical, obviously plates were needed for other parts. Watching the show, since I knew plates were being used in the scene, I kept a close eye on stray hair strands, as that's usually the biggest way to notice VFX backgrounds. Whatever they did, they did nice work. There were a few instances where I think I can tell it's VFX backgrounds, but overall they did a really good job compositing everything together.

We shot plates for another scene as well, but I haven't seen them appear in the show yet. I'll keep an eye out for them and share once they're up. In the meantime, if you haven't see the series, I recommend it.


Social Media Artist Spotlight

I had a last second request the other night to help shoot a social media promo for an artist friend, Daria Aksenova. The client was only expecting something shot on a phone, but since my new RED Komodo was sitting around, the video got a little upgrade.

Shot in 6K 16:9 sensor mode, 2K ProRes in portrait orientation, as this was specifically for an Instagram Story. I used my Sigma 18-35mm lens, mostly at the 35mm end. I monitored with the standard RWG-> Rec709 transform, but used the Panavision DXL LUT in Premiere and that's all the color grading I did other than slightly warming up the other shots to match the second. The first two shots are lit with just a single desk lamp and in the first picture I used my AAA pocket flashlight to shine on the foreground material to give it some bokeh. The other two shots were lit with a single Kino Select 30.

I recorded to ProRes as I haven't tested out the Komodo r3d workflow on my laptop and didn't have the time to lose if there were issues (under 3 hours from deciding to shoot the promo with no shot list to delivering the files - one 15 second cut and one 30 second cut). Fortunately it was only 4 shots and the client didn't want audio, as they wanted to add their own music. I'm used to shooting for exactly what I want (rather than "change it in post") so not having the added flexibility of r3d wasn't a huge deal for me.

If I had had more time to figure out what to shoot, I would have timed the last shot a little differently, but oh well. What can you do?

As for the Komodo, I tried using the autofocus feature for the shot seen in the second photo, keeping the pencil in focus as I pushed in. It didn't work very well as it kept hunting around. I'll admit, it is a fairly challenging autofocus situation. I ended up just locking my focus on my "b" mark and let the pencil come into focus as I pushed in. I think it worked better that way anyway than keeping the pencil sharp through the whole move.

I didn't exactly push the dynamic range too hard other than the first shot, with the dark foreground and shadow side while also having a sliver of bare lightbulb in the lamp visible. I think the highlight rolloff in that very bright part held up well, with no harsh clipping, considering I was exposing for the darker portion of the image. Most of my shoots over the past few years have been Alexa (Classic, Mini or Mini LF), so I was surprised that I could get a similar looking image out of the Komodo with very little effort. Again, I wasn't exactly pushing the sensor to the limits or anything, but it has a nice, organic feel and pleasing colors.

Would the Komodo be my first pick as an A-Cam for bigger productions? Maybe, maybe not. The extremely limited frame rates (very few off-speed options, even at lower frame rates) and limited aspect ratios straight from the camera (only 6K offers a 16:9 option right now and there is no anamorphic support yet) keep it fairly limited, though it's likely only a matter of time before more options get added. Once those are addressed, I don't see any reason why it's not a perfectly viable option for anything that doesn't need super-slow motion shots. If I need to overcrank a lot, I'd use something else. But the rest of the time? I think the Komodo will get the job done just fine.


What is this, a house for ants?

One of my friends is working on developing a children's series and needed help shooting some miniatures for the opening and some cutaways. Since I've shot several miniature sets before, I was asked to help light and shoot the buildings. The series is a puppet driven concept with the pilot already shot and an almost completed teaser trailer, so it was just a matter of matching the look that had already been established.

This was a bit of a challenge, as the space we had to shoot in was a tiny, side office space that already had equipment stored in it, so everything was a tight fit, as you can see in the picture to the left. This makes it difficult to precisely place lighting and also limited us on the placement of the set relative to the background, which makes it harder to sell the "far off in the distance" look. We solved some of that by adding a light atmospheric haze that helps push that background farther away since it's "fading" off into the distance. The haze has to be very controlled, however, as it builds up fast in such a small space and we didn't want it too apparent in the foreground.

One of the fun things was that we were shooting both day and night scenes, so got to light for the two times of day. I always enjoy a good miniature that has built-in lighting, as it makes it feel that much more alive. Since this show utilizes puppets, I think the hand-crafted look of these sets also fits the overall visual aesthetic where we aren't going for absolute realism, but more of a fantasy-enhanced version of the puppet reality.

We shot on the Arri Alexa Classic, using my set of Sony CineAlta prime lenses for a look that is very comparable to Zeiss Ultra Primes, but at a fraction of the cost. We had a set of 3 Zeiss Super Speeds on hand as well, but not in the focal lengths we wanted.

Overall, it was a fun shoot with good people, even if the small space did provide some lighting and plane separation challenges. I did have to be careful when operating on the moves, as when shooting miniatures the small movements and possible vibrations get amplified, so you want to take things nice and smooth, keeping a careful eye out for anything that might make the shots look too much like miniatures.


The Glamorous World of Driving Plates!

The past couple years I developed my skills shooting driving plates. While I had done them before, I started doing a lot of shoots for several of Chuck Lorre's Warner Bros. television shows (Bob Hearts Abishola, Young Sheldon, Mom) along with occasional episodes of other television shows. If you aren't familiar with what driving plates are, here's the lowdown.

Often, on television shows that have driving scenes, those scenes are shot in a car on a greenscreen stage. This keeps the actors safe and also allows for a controlled environment, since the car isn't actually moving on the road. But since they need to look like they're driving, background plates of the moving street needs to be composited in behind them. So what happens is we get the edit of the driving scenes and we match the camera height, angle, and replicate any driving "movement" (such as swerves, pulling up to a curb, etc) so that the background can be properly matched to what they shot on the greenscreen. This takes us from city streets and freeways to suburban neighborhoods, parking garages, and even the drive thru. Whatever the story calls for, we shoot.

For most of our shoots, we use Jack Carpenter of Carpenter Camera Cars and rig up a RED Gemini on a DJI Ronin 2 with a FlowCine Black Arm. The Ronin keeps the camera stable and level while the Black Arm absorbs the larger side to side and up and down movement. The RED Gemini, with its dual gain sensor, allows us to shoot night driving plates on darker streets while keeping the sensor noise under control.

There are many options for lens choices, as each production calls for different parameters. The majority of my shoots want to shoot wide plates that they can then zoom in on and shift around the frame, giving them a lot of placement flexibility in post. For this, we generally use the Sigma Cine 14mm T2. We run a matte box at all times, during the day to be able to add ND filtration and block out sun flares, and at night just to reduce flares from street lights (so no ND). When we're not doing Gemini on the Ronin, we tend to also shoot Arri Alexa hard mounted to the truck, oftentimes with 2-3 cameras simultaneously. Again, depends on what the client asks for.

So maybe the world of driving plates isn't that glamorous after all, but it's an interesting part of the filmmaking process, one that most people don't even think about. I'm glad I've been able to develop this skill and enjoy the process and the wind blowing through my hair as we drive down the road (well, maybe I enjoy it a little less during the winter night shoots...😉). But the team we've put together to shoot these is all great and I love working with them.