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Cinematography: Behind the Scenes – Broken Links

Sometimes it takes more than just a team to make a film.

By James Mathers
Founder, Digital Cinema Society

The classic setting sun shot, in this case of Bonnie Bedelia, never grows old.

The classic setting sun shot, in this case of Bonnie Bedelia, never grows old.

My latest movie, Broken Links, had needs that were greater than the available resources. I was lucky and received manufacturers’ assistance with everything from cameras, lenses, and support, to lighting and data management. I’d like to share my experience using these tools, some for the first time on any feature, and tell you how I employed them on this little movie.

Crew of Broken Links celebrates the end of primary shooting.

Crew of Broken Links celebrates the end of primary shooting.

Broken Links was not my first time working for Producer/Director Meir Sharony; I shot one of the very first movies acquired on the RED One, Balancing the Books, for him in early 2008. His productions are totally independent and self-financed; every dollar that can be scraped together needs to show up on screen. The idea is to work with a very limited crew and equipment package, trying to devote the maximum amount of resources toward the cast.

Let’s face it, it’s not the below-the-line factors such as the cinematographer or the type of camera used, it’s the on-camera talent that draws an audience. Much as I may wish there were more funds to devote to my department, I have to agree that it makes sense to invest as much as possible in hiring the best available on-camera talent.

With a few twists along the way, Broken Links is basically the story of a woman coming out of a very dark period in her life following the death of her daughter and subsequent divorce. Sharony was able to gather a prominent cast including Olympia Dukakis (Oscar winner for Moonstruck), Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard, Parenthood), Sam Robards (A.I. Artificial Intelligence), Sorel Carradine (The Good Doctor), and in the leading role, Brooke Smith (Ray Donovan, Silence of the Lambs).

Olympia Dukakis looks out over New York during an emotional scene in Broken Links.

Olympia Dukakis looks out over New York during an emotional scene in Broken Links.

What’s important

This may sound paradoxical coming from me, a guy who spends a lot of time behind cameras, but I really feel too much is made these days about what cameras are used. It’s as if somehow the electrified hunk of silicon, metal, and various plastics is solely responsible for creating the image. Rather, it’s what is in front of the lens, together with the filmmaker’s craft behind the lens, that makes compelling cinematic imagery. Even the most capable camera cannot perform at its best when controlled by those lacking experience and talent.

I hate to admit it but movies can now be shot with an iPhone! Factors such as budget, form factor, and workflow options help to determine which camera is the right tool for any given job. Many times these decisions are based on what the filmmaker has access to. Owning RED cameras for many years gave me easy access to a good image capture system I was able to offer many producers, even though it may not have been the very best camera out there at any given time. I no longer own cameras, and now need to assess each project based on its unique needs.

DP James Mathers does a test with the OPTI-FLECS lighting panel.

DP James Mathers does a test with the OPTI-FLECS lighting panel.

Broken Links was gearing up to go into production about the same time that the AJA CION was hitting the street. There had yet to be a feature shot with the new camera, so I thought this movie might make a good test case, and luckily my friends at AJA were open to it. Saving on camera rental is always helpful, but it is not really that big of a budget item, even on a small movie. There were some other factors, however, that convinced me this camera would be a particularly good choice.

With obvious benefits such as future proofing the product, and the seamless reframing possibilities, acquiring in 4K has now become a given. The producer also wanted to finish the movie on his desktop with little or no outside services required, so the CION’s ability to shoot 4K ProRes straight to convenient on-board SSD drives was a big plus. The CION does output RAW, but it is uncompressed, and I was concerned it could get a little cumbersome with an outboard recorder.

I like shooting RAW, and usually avoid “baking-in” my color choices on the set; however, since no one would be coloring my dailies on this movie, I opted to try to get it pretty close to what I wanted right on the set. In other words WYSIWYG—What You See Is What You Get. I felt the ability to have more color information was particularly important to telling this story of an emotional journey, so the 4444 color space was appealing.

Another plus of the CION is the form factor. The camera only weighs about 7 pounds, and even with my 19-90mm Fujinon Cabrio, a Zacuto Gratical EVF, and an Anton Bauer battery, it is still only about 21 pounds and very well balanced at that. While this wasn’t a movie with a lot of handheld, it’s always nice to quickly be able to go into that mode when you’re in tight spaces, or need that unsteady aesthetic.

Broken-Links_settingsI would like to point out here what I believe is a misconception about the CION. Having a camera that is ergonomically designed for handheld might suggest that it is ideal for run-and-gun productions, but that is not the case. The camera is capable of capturing some beautiful imagery, yet it has taken a lot of flak in blogs and on-line forums. I believe much of this is due to the false expectation that this is the kind of camera you can simply throw on your shoulder and shoot in whatever light may be available.

With a base rating of 320ASA, which I find an accurate appraisal, it is not the winner of the low light derby. The latest firmware also offers ASA settings of 500, 800, and 1,000, but if you want to stay in the sweet spot where this camera really sings, you’ll stay locked, as I did, at 320ASA.

If you don’t have the ability to light, either from lack of time, experience, or equipment, then perhaps the CION is not the camera for you. In my case, I was aware of the camera’s limitations going in, and felt that they were far outweighed by the aforementioned strengths. After years shooting film at that same sensitivity, and then also using the early RED cameras extensively at that rating, 320ASA is a mark I am very comfortable lighting. The CION was highly reliable throughout our shoot, and turned out to be a very good choice that I would consider again for many different kinds of productions.

Data management

What proved to be more of a challenge was where to put all that data. I don’t know when it started to become the DPs job to figure out the complete workflow, but that seems to be the case these days, especially on smaller productions. It used to be that once the footage left the camera, a cinematographer was pretty much out of the picture until possibly the final color correction.

Personally, I don’t mind the extra responsibility, because it helps me protect my choices and insure the work will not get tampered with too much on its way down the post-production pipeline. Whether I like it or not, post considerations do play an ever-increasing part in determining what kinds of cameras are used, so I obviously want to be involved in that conversation.

It was up to me to figure out what to do with dozens of terabytes of data that would be generated. Ours was a two camera package and capturing 4K ProRes 4444 is roughly 10 Gb/minute per camera, and that’s just for the camera original. Of course, that needs to be backed up with RAID protection and two copies seemed reasonable, so the overall capacity adds up pretty quickly. I turned to my friends at Other World Computing (OWC) for a solution and was gratified to find out they had the tools to efficiently and securely back up, transport, and archive all the data.

The key on-set component was the OWC ThunderBay 4 RAID, a four-bay drive enclosure with dual Thunderbolt 20 Gb/s ports. Individual bare drives are currently available in up to 6Tb capacity, so each enclosure can now accommodate a whopping 24Tb which, configured for RAID 5, gave a working capacity of 18Tb. That’s a lot of storage packed into an eight-and-a-half-pound box with dimensions of less than 10’’x7”x6.” OWC provides all the software to easily set up a variety of RAID configurations.

Storage may not seem very exciting, but if you’ve ever had to worry about losing your precious work due to an equipment failure, it will definitely get your attention. I’m very careful about the components I choose for data management. I’ve owned a ThunderBay-4 for about a year, which we use to edit and manage the DCS streaming content. It has worked flawlessly so I knew I could count on it for this movie. OWC was kind enough to provide another unit for this production and everything was controlled on-set with a latest model MacBook Pro.

The CION records to very compact 256Gb or 512Gb solid state Pak media, which you can transfer over Thunderbolt or USB-3 via the AJA Pak Dock. Even though you could theoretically daisy chain via Thunderbolt, you also need to connect a monitor, shuttle drives, etc., and we found that another OWC product, the Thunderbolt 2 Dock, was really helpful in unifying all these peripherals. The Dock has 12 ports including dual Thunderbolt 2, powered USB 3.0, FireWire 800 for legacy devices, a 4K HDMI to connect monitors, Gigabit Ethernet, for computer control, as well as audio in and out. While it is typical to see your data manager stuck waiting to complete downloads and backups at the end of the day, with such a high-speed system and good management techniques, our data manager/DIT was usually one of the first ones to sign out at every wrap.


Besides a short crew and practical locations, another caveat of this production was that it would be lit only with units that could plug into a household circuit: no generator. Luckily, great strides are now taking place in the development of low wattage lighting, and this project gave me the opportunity to try several new technologies.

Mathers depended on storage from Other World Computing, seen here on the left in the black boxes.

Mathers depended on storage from Other World Computing, seen here on the left in the black boxes.

The need for small, highly controllable units made me think right away of my friend Dedo Weigert’s wonderful little tungsten lighting instruments we know as dedolights. However, when I visited their showroom, I was blown away at the wide breadth of their product line. They’ve gone way beyond their little tungsten units, and now feature a full line of LEDs, as well as HMIs. Many of their new lights still take advantage of Dedo’s patented “double aspheric” lens technology. This is what gives their lights such tremendous focusing ability and light output comparable to much larger units.

I became particularly fond of their small LEDs, (20W, 40W, and 90W), which are similar in size to their classic tungsten units, but with greater output even at the lower wattages. They are also fully dimmable and available as a Bi-color. A distinctive yellow focusing band sets them apart and you could find them mounted all over our set as rim lights or specials precisely highlighting elements in the background.

We were also fortunate to get our hands on a couple of their HMIs. A nice feature of these units is that they can be operated as either 400W or 575W daylight from the same ballast without changing the globe, and again offer all the great precision light control Dedo is famous for. In addition, we carried a modular projection attachment capable of creating razor sharp edges and shadow patterns; think Source4 on steroids.

Dedo was also kind enough to provide a 400/575 PAR (parabolic aluminized reflector), which we used as a large source through their 5ft diameter “Dedoflex Octodome.” With one of our stars in her 80’s, and shooting in 4K, it helped to keep our close-up lighting on the soft side, and this was just the ticket.

Our “Big Gun” was only a 500W fixture, but it did the trick. It was provided by a new company called Red Scorpion LEDs, designed from the ground up by cinematographer and former gaffer Marcelo Colacilli, with an emphasis on giving maximum output per watt that can still be plugged into a household circuit. They can reasonably be thought of as a replacement for an HMI PAR with their biggest unit, a 1K, being roughly equivalent to a 4K HMI PAR. The 500W unit that we had seemed to exceed what I would expect from a 2.5K HMI, and proved plenty big enough for our purposes.

We also found the smaller 200W fixture to be quite handy, and used them both primarily as daylight fill. I have found that the array of multiple LEDs allows them to be snuck in closer with little or no diffusion, compared to the single hot source of an HMI globe. It’s easier on the actor’s eyes, and you don’t see a hot spot giving away your source.

Color correcting

As with most LEDs, the challenge with the Red Scorpion’s lights is color fidelity. Given the design emphasis on output over color rendition, this is admittedly more of an issue with their units. Luckily, another manufacturer I’m friendly with, Rosco, had recently approached me about testing a line of gels specifically designed to offer an array of options to deal with LED lighting. The new Rosco line is known as OPTI-FLECS and comes as semi-rigid reusable filters in 21 varieties of standard colors and diffusions.

DP Mathers peers through a Zacuto Gratical on the AJA CION with 75-400 Fujinon lens.

DP Mathers peers through a Zacuto Gratical on the AJA CION with 75-400 Fujinon lens.

A gel can only absorb color, so if a portion of the color spectrum is missing, there is no gel that can create it. This is why users of lesser quality LEDs are often disappointed when they try to use gels to fix their lights. However, gels can be very effective in helping to control spikes in the spectrum, which is the issue with Red Scorpion LEDs, so OPTI-FLECS was the perfect solution.

During our preproduction camera and lighting tests, we matched a variety of filters to different types of LED lights. We found a couple of the “Rouge” gels worked really well on the Red Scorpions to give nice skin tones for our daylight fill, one with frost and the other with just the color correction.

Shooting in practical locations with only smaller lights also created a challenge in keeping the windows from blowing out. Again, Rosco came to the rescue by providing their Cinescreen. I’ve never been a fan of affixing ND (neutral density) gel directly onto window glass; it is very time consuming, imperfections are easily seen, and when the light changes, there is no quick fix. However, Cinescreen is a cloth-based netting or scrim material that can quickly be stretched on the outside of the window and changed as necessary. It knocks out about two stops with the added bonus that it is re-usable.

The rest of our lighting was filled out nicely with some innovative products from a company called BBS. Their Flyer system is a lightweight, dimmable Bi-Color LED designed to easily and quickly place soft overhead light where it’s needed. The fixture and soft box diffusor are lightweight enough that they can be extended on a common K-Tek boom pole that comes with the kit. The unit can easily be rigged on a C-stand creating a fast and safe alternative to a full menace arm rig. At only 2 lbs. and able to run off a camera battery attached to the included belt pack, it also makes a great traveling light to float with a moving camera. This was the perfect rig for this movie and we found ourselves using it on almost every setup.  We even used it to light our crew photo.

BBS also provided us one of their new remote phosphor lights known as the Area 48. Remote phosphor is a type of LED technology that uses higher output “super blue” LEDs, then matches a particular phosphor coating to the wavelength of light emitted to achieve the desired color temperature. The coatings are integrated into a lens that looks like a hard gel and can be swapped out to achieve varying color temperatures, including 5600K daylight, 3200K, or Chroma Green, Chroma Blue, etc. The results tend to have much better color rendition and create a very soft source with a tremendous output per watt. The Area 48 uses only 122W of power, is fully dimmable, and can also run off of camera batteries. This versatile unit also saw a lot of use on our movie.

Camera Support

For camera support, I always count on OConnor and am a big fan of their 2575. On this movie, they offered us a prototype for a new, lighter weight head called the 2560. It looks identical to the 2575 and offers the same solid feeling and form factor, but in a much lighter weight package, (about 16lbs compared to 23lbs for the 2575D).
Our B-camera was often carrying the Fujinon Premier 75-400; a stunningly beautiful lens, but hefty, and the 2560 handled it effortlessly. I didn’t feel there was any significant trade off, and having lighter-weight camera support allows for faster and easier setups, so the 2560 was perfectly suited to this kind of shoot and may become my fluid head of choice going forward.

Last, but not least, I would like to tell you about the Zacuto Gratical EVF, which I was allowed to demo on Broken Links. Besides a bright display with brilliant colors, there are several features which can be valuable to the cinematographer. The ability to accept HDMI or SDI, coupled with the ability to cross convert, is very helpful. It also supports viewing LUTs (look-up tables) which can be exported to the director’s display even if I may choose to be looking at the straight output of the camera. Other features include a built-in wave form, histogram, false color, focus assist, pixel-to-pixel zoom, and many more.

Broken Links is now in the hands of the editors, and I’m sure they will be able to craft a movie we will all be proud to be associated with. I know I couldn’t have gotten such good results without a little help from my friends.

(Excerpted with permission of the author from the Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter, June 2015)

September 4, 2015