Tag Archives: indie

On Set: “Champion” starring Lance Henriksen, Dora Madison Burge, and Cody Linley

Setting up a shot on the set of "Champion."
Yours truly setting up a shot on the set of “Champion.”

As some of you may already know, I started working on a new feature film called “Champion,” as Dir. of Photography/Cinematographer. It stars Dora Madison Burge (Friday Night Lights), Cody Linley (Hannah Montana), and… wait for it… Lance Henriksen (every awesome movie, ever). I’ll cut to the chase: I’m approaching 40, and had no idea who Dora or Cody were before they signed up for this film (but it turns out they’re awesome).  But Lance Henriksen?! How effing sweet is it that I get to have one of my all-time favorite actors in front of my lens? I never would have thought I’d get this opportunity. Strap in, because I’m going to gush about this for a while.

Bring me the hat of Lance Henriksen
Let’s start the bad-assery here: Me wearing Lance’s hat. Well… his prop hat. It counts.

Like many people who are about my age, I first saw Lance in James Cameron’s “The Terminator” and again in “Aliens” in 1986, as the android synthetic human called Bishop. We all know how bad-ass the knife scene in that film was, and so far, everyone on set has been able to keep their cool and not ask him to do it. No-one wants to be “that guy.” He really did do it, BTW, and he said that Bill Paxton didn’t know about it beforehand; Paxton’s surprised expression while Lance was stabbing the knife between his fingers was authentic.

Since “Aliens,” Lance has been one of my favorites. His roles are always just so cool. But what I really love about working with him is the fact that Lance Henriksen the man is simply a dream to work with. He’s incredibly nice, laid-back, professional, and his experience really adds to the production. All of us on the crew of “Champion” will be better filmmakers after working with him. During breaks on set, Lance can often be found “holding court” as the crew gathers around him to hear his stories.

AF100 cameras and Samurai recorders get tuned up on the set of "Champion".
AF100 cameras and Samurai recorders get tuned up on the set of “Champion”.

Now, on to the tech: We’re shooting “Champion” on two Panasonic AF100 cameras capturing footage to Atomos Samurai recorders. Day One was a test of our patience, however, when one of our Samurais kept spontaneously turning itself off. After a firmware update failed to fix the problem, it was determined by the Atomos LA office that it was a faulty unit. They overnighted a new one to us the next day. I call that some pretty sweet customer service. Since then, both units have been flawless. Using the Samurai in the field is a dream. I wish they had brighter screens, though.

Both of our Samurais are running AtomOS 3, which adds some awesome and much-needed features to the unit, including peaking, zebras, false color, and the ability to not only mark clip ins and outs during playback, but also export XML so you can then open your rough cut in Final Cut Pro. Talk about a time saver: you can do your rough edit in the car on the way back from the set! I still wish the screen on the Samurai was brighter, but I can live with it, since I’m using my Cineroid most of the time anyway.

Since our MacBook Pros do not have eSATA ports, one piece of new technology that has made life easier on set is the new LaCie Thunderbolt to eSATA hub, which makes things flow much faster and allows us to save a lot of money in the storage budget. Footage can be backed up on multiple eSATA drives by our dailies editor without wasting any time. Before, we had to use USB 2.0 or FireWire docks, which was excruciating, considering we’re shooting about 100GB of ProRes footage per day. Yay for Thunderbolt. I just wish the Thunderbolt architecture would mature faster with third party suppliers. There aren’t many Thunderbolt products out there, which really confuses me, considering how fast it is.

Read my Horrible Tale

Panasonic AG-AF100 with Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L lens
The New Love with a Canon 24/1.4 L

Like many people, I’ve drooled over the Panasonic AF100 since it was first announced several months ago. Working as a DP on indie films for about seven years now, I’ve struggled with finding that perfect camera system to satisfy the desires of the discerning no-budget filmmaker while delivering a satisfying image. At first, I used 3CCD cameras like the venerable Panasonic DVX100 and Sony Z1U mounted to a Redrock Micro M2 adapter in order to achieve the “cinematic” look, but I never found much satisfaction in that. Lacking a better alternative I begrudgingly continued on with it until the day Canon announced the EOS 5D Mark II, which was an immediate game-changer in the world of indie cinema, as we all know.

By profession, I am a stills photographer/photojournalist, as that is how I make most of my money. Cinematography has always been a paying hobby for me. So, when Canon announced the 5D2, it was easy for me to justify getting one. Oh, what the heck, I’ll use it for movies too…

Canon EOS 5D Mark II cine mode
The 5D2 in Run-n-Gun mode

At first, I loved the 5D2 for filmmaking because I was drunk on the joy of that shallow depth-of-field, and I didn’t pay much attention to anything else. Then, about halfway through the first feature I shot with it, I started to get really annoyed with trying to use the DSLR form factor in the field, and the primitive audio controls were killing me slowly. The firmware update to allow manual video and audio level control was superb, but it did nothing to satisfy the other problems of trying to film with a DSLR.

After we wrapped principal photography on the first feature, the editors got down to business, and they kept telling me how awesome it looked. Indeed, it did look great, especially when compared to my old footage from the 1/3″ cameras. However, after I received the locked FCP file from editors and began my process of color grading the piece, I noticed a lot of quirks and anomalies in the footage that are now well-known to DSLR filmmakers (we shot our film very early after the 5D2 was released. To this day, as far as I know, ours was the first feature film to be shot on DSLR. Seriously, we started filming a couple days after the 5D2 started shipping. I was waiting for it.). There were a lot of problems with moire, and there was a lot of noise in shadow areas, etc. Plus, since the camera records straight to H.264, it was really easy for the footage to look dirty, especially in low light situations, even though I was shooting with my f/1.4 Zeiss primes most of the time. They helped with sharpness and contrast, but good glass can only do so much when you’re recording to such a compressed codec.

On the set with EOS 5D Mark 2
On set with the 5D2

When I started shooting the second feature, I wasn’t thrilled about using DSLRs again, but they were still the best choice. The next film was shot on my 5D2 and a 7D. Once again, I was also the colorist, and when I started work, I was horrified to see how different the footage from each camera was, even though the color settings and white balance were unified in each scene. I had to do some major work to get them to match up, all the while seeing the same old problems that irked me on the first film.

HVX200 with Redrock Micro M2 adapter and Marshall monitor
The Great Beast that is the HVX200 with Redrock Micro M2 adapter.

By the time that film wrapped, the Panasonic AF100 had been announced, and I vowed that I would never shoot another feature on a DSLR, unless it was being utilized as a B-cam. I launched a grand scheme to get an AF100 as soon as they were available. The grand scheme, of course, was to sell as much of my surplus camera gear as I could by the time its December 27th ship date rolled around. As it happened, last week I got stupidly lucky and found a used AF100 on eBay, of all places. The owner had bought it for personal use, and decided it was too complicated, so he put it up for auction. I saved about $800.00 and got a week-old camera. Score.

Testing lenses on my Panasonic AF100
Lens testing with the AF100

And now, I am completely in love with my AF100. I’ve found my new A-cam. When looking for online places to share the AF100 love though, I was disappointed to find that there just aren’t that many sites yet. So, I made this one, dedicated to the AF100 and indie filmmaking in general. Please enjoy the content – I promise there will be more very soon.

Darren