CERTIFIED, an adventure in DSLR cinematography                 

A film I shot back in September of 2010 was recently selected and is in competition at the American Pavillion’s Emerging filmmakers showcase at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, 2011.

When I was first approached to shoot CERTIFIED, the director, Luke Asa Guidici and I had extensive conversations on why we felt it was imparrative to shoot on 35mm, in particular Anamorphic 35mm. The film’s setting was a 1950s rural town in Virginia.  Naturally we both knew and understood that if we shot on 35mm as oppose to any digital format available at the time it would immediately get us closer to our desired final look.  Six months later when it became time to put all the pieces together, shooting on 35mm began to slip further and further away from being economically responsible given our limited budget.  After many conversations we ultimately decided to shoot with a PL converted Canon 5DM2.  It was far more important for us to have the right lenses and the right lighting package and by choosing a DSLR over a more superior format such as Red MX or an Alexa allowed more money to be spent on lenses and lighting.

Prep

Being that this was a period film and we were going for a very classical look to the final film it was extremely important to have the right amount of camera and lighting support.  Most people when they think of shooting on a DSLR or a 5D they immediately assume you’re shooting under available light and “running and gunning”, this film was far from that.

We worked with Alternative Rentals, in Culver City, at the time the exclusive supplier of Hurlbut Visual’s camera systems. One of the great advantages at the time of renting from Alternative Rentals aside from their constant support throughout the project was having access to Hurlbut Visual Camera system. (which comes preloaded with specific profiles for different types of lenses, whether it be Canon, Zeiss, or Panavision glass.) 

One of the biggest hurdles currently with shooting on a DSLR format is the H.264 codec used to record its HD 1080 video.  

 The standard profiles of the Canon 5D and 7D have a high degree of built in contrast as well as being highly saturated.  It’s designed to give the user a solid out of the box image, which it is indeed, however if one wishes to do any type of manipulation or color correction to the image in post this becomes problematic since your “negative” already has built in contrast and saturation.  What these custom profiles enable you to do is shoot closer to a “raw” look or flattened (low contrast) image allowing for more flexibility in post, which while might not be important for the average user, for a cinematographer it is essential.

One of the other most important decisions a cinematographer faces in a digital age is what lenses to put infront of their sensor.  Being that we were going for a classical or period look we initially looked into using some older vintage glass.  I’ve had success in the past using retro fitted PL lenses from the 60s and 70s with various digital formats, however due to the large sensor of the 5D, most of the vintage standard 35mm lenses available didn’t fully cover the full frame sensor.  What we ultimately ended up with was a set of  Arri Ultra Primes, being modern glass they fully covered the 5DM2 sensor without a problem.  Now came my problem, where I had originally wanted older lenses in order to embrace subtle imperfections and varrying degrees of fall off one is accustom to with older glass, I know found myself with some of the cleanest, sharpest, lenses available.  To help combat the sharpness of the lenses as well as the 5DMS itself I ended up using a combination of filters in front of the lens to achieve our desired “period” look.  I relied heavily on Hollywood Black Magic Filter in combination with a set of Mitchelle A,B, and C filters.

One of the other decisions early on was that we wanted to classically move the camera which meant shooting from a dolly almost ninety percent of the time.  We ended up using a Chapman Super PeeWee and Arri 2 Gear head to achieve incredibly smooth moves with our little 5D rig.

Production

With our custom profiles and Arri Ultra Primes we jumped head first into production.  Our location was a rural farmhouse deep in Topganga Canyon.  Due to our limited budget and the nature of the script we were allowed a load in and prelight day followed by a single day of principle photography.  I was fortunate enough to have an amazing crew helmed by, Matt Iwrin, 1st AC and Nickolas Smith, Gaffer.  I’ve had the pleasure to work with them for the past couple of years now and I knew that if any crew would be able to pull off an 8 page script in a single day it was a crew helmed and managed by them.  We had a pretty minimal lighting package consisting of several 6K pars and Jokers and a small 3 ton grip package which included several 12x12 and 8x8, ultra bounces and unbleach muslin.  Given that a majority of our interior work was confined to one large room in the house with a huge bay window, I knew that the window would act as our key for the scene.  Orginally my intention was to use several 18Ks bounced into unbleached Muslin then chopped and diffused further, however since the budget only allowed for 6K Pars on the day I ended up going direct and double breaking the 6Ks far away from the window.  We ended up with an incredbly healthy stop of around a 5.6 at ISO 320.  This was essential due to the nature of shooting on the 5DM2 with its full frame that has an even shallower depth of field than traditional 35mm film.  My intention from the beginning was to shoot around a 4 / 5.6 which would give the equilvalent depth of field you’re used to seeing when shooting 35mm at 2.8 / 4.  If I had been forced to shoot wide open the depth of field would have been too shallow and distracting for our classical period look.  We shot our exteriors first thing in the morning and by lunch we had moved inside.  We ended up shooting well past sunset and thanks to my gaffer who continually worked ahead of us we were ablle to keep consistant ratios once the sun dropped.  After a hard fought day we ended up finishing everything we needed and I believe managed to get every shot our shot list, a rare thing to have happen for a short film with such a short shooting schedule.

Post

I knew after we wrapped that we had a pretty solid negative to work with, however since this had been my first time taking a DSLR project all the way through post I was extremely anxious to get into the color suite  and view the film.  Since the Canon 5DM2 uses an H.264 codec to record it’s HD 1080 video the files had to be transcoded to Apple Proress 422 (HQ) prior to edititoral.  We ended up using a software called 5D to RGB, which after extensive testing we found delievered the best results and actually helped smooth out the H.264 codec.  One of the great tools of this software is not only are you able to ouput Apple Prores 422 (HQ), you’re also able to output DPX files if you wished to go to a film out.  Using 5D to RGB along with our custom look up profiles we were able to get the “flattest” image possible to work with in post.  When it came time to color correct we ended up on a Nucoda system, helmed by colorist Andrew Drapkin  and I was taken a back by the amount of manipulation we were able to do to the negative, far beyond what I was expecting, given the extrememy limied dynamic range of the original H.264 codec.  I was able to save and bring down certain highlights as well as bring up the toe (low end) of the curve in some places.  I believe it was a combination of all three elements that allowed us to have such room on the negative to play with in post (custom profiles, 5D to RGB transcoding, and the platorm for which we phyiscally did the coloring)

Conclusion

There was not a single element that “created” the classical look of the film, it was a combination of custom  profiles, great lenses that I was able to shoot at the desired F stop, not to mention great production design and a director’s unrelenting vision to get it right, from wardrobe all the way down through designing the comic that the main character reads in the opening title sequence.  Making a short film is truely a team effort, it also can be some of the most rewarding effort.  I’m extremely thankful to our amazing crew and production team that pulled all of the elements together to make CERTIFIED such a success.

Written by John Matysiak