Spirit Canoe:: The little canoe that could?
It may sound cliche to say so (and believe me, I find myself speaking in cliches a lot) but for ever ten or so plain, boring, product driven, commercial, there comes along maybe one good project. Spirit canoe was definitely one of these memorable ones. Combine a simple idea with heart, a good crew with heart, and a song with heart, and place them with Montana as their back drop, and something is bound to come out of it. Even though I couldn’t tell if this would turn out at all, from the beginning I knew that the experience, at the very least, was going to be something to remember. Along with having a young, hungry crew, spirit canoe also had a special undertone of bittersweet excitement for myself: it was to be my last job as a staff cinematographer at the Helio Collective. Whether I liked it or not, Spirit Canoe would be my goodbye to a family that I had spent my last three years with.
So without making this too linear, I wanted to take some of my favorite frames/scenes, and explain the story behind them. Hopefully this will give you a little bit of insight on how near and dear this project is to me, and give you a behind the scenes glimpse of how we accomplished this fun little passion project.
The cabin sequence is one of my favorites. We had a local location scout find this little gem. It was a small cabin that was redone, and had a lot of dark stained wood throughout it. Chad Dawson (the director) and myself knew that it fit the tone that we wanted to achieve. The theme for this project was to find good locations that were somewhere in the vicinity of the look that we were trying to achieve. This way, we wouldn’t be fighting the location the entire time. With some dressing, this location would be perfect.
We wanted to achieve a early morning hazy look where our character would be leaving his cold- uncertain environment to go on a journey in search of something unknown. I looked at a number of paintings and other films where DP’s had lit for “just before the sun breaks,” and brainstormed various looks with the director. Early on, chad and myself wanted to really play with underexposure at times. We knew we would be in a lot of contrasty situations (exteriors on water which we knew we wouldn’t be able to control 100 percent) so we decided that at times, we would really have to flirt with some serious underexposure. This was absolutely fine, as we wanted to be grounded in realism, and for nothing to be too “perfect.” This was about a character that was trying to find himself, it was ok for him to not be lit like a supermodel, and show some vulnerability through our lighting. In addition, it was important to me to not see everything within the frame. I wanted to make the beginning more about figures, and less about detail, so that maybe we could raise some questions right off the bat.
I decided to cover the windows of the cabin with hampshire frost. This way, I wouldn’t have to blow the windows out, and I could balance them just right. I find that anything heavier than hampshire tends to require you to really pump a lot of light through in order for it to not look like diffusion. The hampshire allowed me to keep the windows at an almost grey level. I loved this, because if you look carefully, you can see the outline of the mountains. In addition, it adds this feeling of isolation. Its often used in political dramas on sets, I believe, because it adds to this theme of being isolated. I felt that we could use this feeling to our advantage, rather than make it feel over the top, and completely unnatural.
I decided to shoot a series of 2.5k HMI fresnels through the windows. I love the old 2.5k HMI fresnels as the lens is so large, allowing me to add a bit of soft sunlight within the frame, without being too punchy. Typically I work with HMI pars as I want to be ready for anything, and in a pinch a Par can do just about anything. That being said, I knew that I would only need the fresnels in this situation. To be honest, it was a breath of fresh air for myself, as they just look so good as is with a little bit of diffusion. In addition to the HMI’s, I had a few 4 foot 4 bank kinos which I doubted that I would use unless I was going to bounce them into ceilings. To me, If I am using exclusively kino’s, the light appears natural, but if I’m using HMI’s and available light, they tend to seem too synthetic to my eyes without a lot of diffusion. I’m a fan of using kinos practically, like to replace an actual florescent source. In addition, with a small location like this, I like to shoot sources out the window, and gently bounce light around. It is quick, and does not add too much spectral value to the shadows. So, for the most part, I simply adjusted the HMI fresnels, and used various bounces and bits of bleached muslin to bring up my shadows. I love to work this way, as it is always honest in terms of the look of the fill that is produced, as it is natural fill, and it is fairly quick.
To increase our hazy morning atmosphere, I decided to haze the set. The set was fairly easy to haze, as it was so small and well insulated. Although it can easily be overdone, I love a bit of atmosphere, especially in a typically contrasty situation, as it ads a touch to the shadows, and adds a slightly glow to the highlights. Its best to judge the haze level by eye, as it sometime is nearly impossible to see on a monitor. That being said, modern color correction programs have made it easier to align these levels within reason. The big thing, is that you don’t want the fog to entirely settle unless you want it to look like cigarette smoke. This requires a grip or PA to constantly be waving a flag around the set. No one like to have that job, so appreciate anyone who steps up to the plate to guarantee themselves sore arms for the next six months.
For the most part, we wanted our character to play in silhouette for the majority of the scene. For this, the lit windows worked perfectly to achieve this. In addition, the deep stained wood had a gentle spectral quality that added so much to the scene. This scene lit quickly, as it was all about positioning bounce light, and doing micro adjustments to my HMI’s. I was very pleased with the pacing. I’m a stickler for creating lighting setups that get myself and my crew in a “rhythm.” I don’t like to work slowly, and I don’t like to over tweak. Sure, every setup has a level of “tweakability,” but sometimes you can’t kid yourself. The bests sets are when a strong rhythm is established, and the crew is just in this “pocket.” I feel more intuition is used when in this state, as everyone is “feeling” the set.
Weeks prior, myself and the camera crew did camera tests, and created a number of LUT’s to be preloaded depending on where the scene played out within the film. The basic Idea was to start cold, get slightly warmer, and end very warm. There were also looks for our “fantasy” scenes, and storm sequence. This particular LUT had a simple contrast curve to give us our deep backs, but also allowing some detail in the shadows. It was also a cooler and lower contrast look that only added warmth in the skin tones so that the faces did not appear to be too pale.
All in all I was quite pleased with how that scene lit.
Later that day, we completely switched up the lighting setup for a series of “flashbacks” that our main character would have. The director and I tossed around ideas for what these flashbacks should feel like. We looked at photos, frames, and everything else in between. Within the pitch document, chad had a series of images that were these very nostalgic looking Polaroid’s. All of them usually had a strong sense of where the light was coming from, and they often included flares. Based off of these, we decided that we wanted the flashbacks to have this feeling of “nostalgia” but mostly sell the look by the feeling that it was perfect golden hour. I tossed some ideas around, and then remembered some work I had seen from David Mullen ASC on “Big Sur” where he had used a tungsten 5k within the frame, outside a window, to produce the feeling that the sun was setting.
We did some tests, and found that we could really sell this warm sun feeling by simply using a big tungsten source outside the window. The day of the shoot, I realized that there was much more to this setup than we first expected. I lit each scene with a Tungsten 5k, and bounced light from inside, a couple of times reinforcing our fill light with some 650’s on a bounce. It seemed simple enough at first, until we realized how hard it was to make the sun feel real. I had the grip crew tape the light stand so that It was not visible (a tedious task, thank you guys), and we found it best to set the frame up on sticks (although i would be operating hand held) so that we could sit and find the perfect position for our “sun.” This was the most tweaking we had done all day, and I commend the grip crew for being patient while we moved the light an inch here, and and inch there, until it was in the optimal position. The crew and I found that if we used the horizon with the mountains in the background, and positioned the light where it felt like it was just over this, it really sold the look. At first we were placing the source wherever, but it just seemed too unnatural. I think that it looked good above the horizon because of how warm and large the source was. To us, it felt like the sun just before sunset, so if you placed it any higher in the sky, of course it would feel unnatural.
In addition I had 8x and 12x frames of silk to knock down ambient light that was bouncing from a hillside across the way. This way we had a more accurate level of contrast, and it felt like the light was just starting to fail as the sun goes down.
These shots where also fashioned with a custom LUT that I had created that was very loosely based on a cross processed look. I just wanted it to feel like it was shot on expired film or something of that nature, but just barely “hint” at this, as I didn’t want it to feel like an Instagram filter.
All in all, we lit things very simply with just a couple of lights. I like when we can do things this way, as it keeps things honest. No double shadows, things of that nature. As always, this product was only possible because of the effort of a hard working crew. I can’t thank the crew enough for putting so much into this little project. Thanks for having my back guys and gals! Check back soon for the release of Spirit Canoe, and more BTS fun.
Camera Settings and Equipment:
Camera: Red Epic-M
Lens Package: Funinon 19-90
Filters: Tiffen 4x5’s
(Email me for a full equipment list)
Camera Settings for “Present day” sequence
Custom LUT at 5600k
180 degree shutter
Scene lit for: T4
Camera Settings for “Flashback” sequence.
Custom LUT at 5600k
180 degree shutter
Tiffen Black Pro Mist 1/8
Scene lit for: T5.6
Helio Collective, Chad Dawson, cast and crew of Spirit Canoe, David Mullen ASC, Scott Chestnut, Filmlites MT, Montana Film office (in no particular order)