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iPontificateHD Production: 24 Days in the Valley, Part III


- October 15th, 2004

24 Days In The Valley: The Life And Times Of An HD Production In South Texas

In Part I and II of this series, I introduced readers to the production of Harvest of Redemption, a High-Definition narrative feature I shot in the Texas Valley. In Part III I will cover the technical aspects of the production and some of the problems and solutions we encountered during filming.

Being the Director of Photography, one of my first responsibilities when coming onto a project like Harvest of Redemption is gauging and ordering all necessary grip and electric gear needed for a feature length film. This often poses some interesting issues when working with a meager budget, as equipment costs can easily rise beyond the allotted cash cap.

A DP must read the script and balance what will be the bare essential equipment needed to get the shots necessary to make the film interesting visually, without breaking the bank. This often depends on piecemeal collections from numerous sources, and a bit of ingenuity on the part of the grip electric department in order to make the shot look like we had the cash of a big budget film. The grip department consisted of local boys Pete Garcia (key grip), Phil Acevedo, Carter Robinson, and Steve Longoria, who also doubled as grip and boom operator.

We rented the majority of our equipment from Tony Brummer of Texas Film and Lighting located in Austin, Texas. He was very flexible with the rate he was charging for all the gear for the entire month of August. We rented the essential gear needed including stingers (electric cables), lights, C-stands, a Mathews Dolly with 18 ft. of track, bounce boards, sand bags, clamps, and 12X12 silks. The lighting package consisted of 2 Mole 2K Fresnels, 2 1K Fresnels, and 2 650W Arri Fresnels with additional gels, scrims, diffusion, and flags for light control. This is a bare minimum lighting package that required some creativity when having to light an exterior night scene with so few lights.

INT. migrant worker home

INT. Currandera's house

"Donde esta el electricidad?"

One major issue we encountered while in production is how are we going to power this lighting package without a pro-generator rig that can be found on most projects of this size? On most sets, a full sized generator on a trailer housed in a sound proof box provides an almost limitless source of juice for lights, video, and sound.

We couldn't afford one.

So, we resorted to consumer grade Honda portable generators that make a LOT of noise. This posed a problem, as the movie is a period piece set in the 30's and 40's; in order to use the generators, they would have to be far away from our action and dialogue in order not to ruin the sound. We often found ourselves in a catch-22 because in order to get the generator that far away, we would have to use all our stingers, leaving for the lights we were trying to power in the first place!

That meant we had to sometimes resort to stealing power from a nearby house, or from multiple houses, in order to not overload the amps on an older building which can cause electrical fires. When we would first arrive at a new location, our fist thought is where are we going to get juice from today?

Lead Actor Joey Partida

EXT. Bodega Party Scene

Working with the Panasonic Varicam was a great experience, but it posed a whole host of new problems that needed addressing. Using such an advanced camera, it requires a lot of additional accessories in order to make sure the shot is perfect and controlled. Video Assist is an essential part of production and was necessary when using a camera like the Varicam. (Video assist is essentially a monitor connected directly to the camera used by the director to watch what is being captured on tape, and for checking light placement, color temperature, and focus.) The video assist station consisted of a Sony HD 14" monitor, an AJA powered downconverter running to a 13" Sony Field monitor for the sound department, and various BNC cabling for the video feed from the camera.

Often times we couldn't use video assist because we would be in remote locales without an adequate power source. While we did have the generators, the noise issue kept us from using video assist during takes, so we would have to set camera, cut the generator then roll a few takes. When moving to a different set-up, we would power on the generator, checking lighting and frame, then cut the power again. Over and over we repeated this time-consuming practice, but it was necessary in order to get the perfect shot.

"Are we using the Jib today?"

Another piece of equipment we rented was an 18ft Jimmy Jib Lite for sweeping shots in the air or over people. This piece of equipment can really add to the production value of a film and was utilized extensively during production. The Jib requires power to the remote controlled head for camera motion and adjustment. While the Jib makes the shots look wonderful, it requires 2 people to assemble it and break it down between shots. It also requires a lot of weight in order to balance the camera on the opposite end of the jib arm and a huge tripod to support the entire rig.

For one scene, two kids are chasing each other through the rows of a citrus orchard. I decided to get a little crazy and put the entire jib and supporting equipment in the back of a pick-up truck . This gave us the ability to dolly along with the kids, but also gave us the additional height requirement needed to get over the tops of the citrus trees. On the command of action, we barreled down the soft sand, the jib on the back manned by Camera Assistant Francisco Aladana, generator raging, and me in the passenger seat of the truck controlling the camera/head, yelling directions to the driver for speed, and Fransisco for jib commands. This shot required a lot of precise timing and practice, but it was well worth it, and the shot looked spectacular.

Jib in Pickup @ Orchard

Jib on mountaintop

For another shot at the top of a small cliff I wanted the Jib to make a motion over a large cross while the lead actor kneeled praying. This meant that we had to carry all of the equipment over very difficult and rock terrain to get to the summit. There were no roads leading to the top, so we had to hand carry all the camera gear and Jib gear to the top; this equated to around 1,000 lbs. of gear. It was extremely difficult but well worth the shot. The only problem we faced was getting a strong source of power from down below where the generator was located.

Needless to say we used all the stingers available, but because the distance was so great, the voltage dropped off considerably and we had to carry the generator by hand halfway up the mountain, all the while chasing the sun as it made its way below the horizon. Literally with five minutes of usable light remaining we wrapped the shot and scene.

Next week I will discuss the post-production process for Harvest of Redemption in all its High-Def glory. I'll also discuss the gear needed when cutting a feature film, including information on the down-conversion from HD.

With five years in the entertainment industry, and three years writing for The Mac Observer, works passionately on various genres of film, including documentaries, narrative features, and shorts. He has two feature films under his belt as Director of Photography and Camera Operator, and his current role at TMO is to cover digital media and the film industry.

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