Hamilton Jewelers DSLR Video Shoot w/ Director’s Production Notes

Hamilton Jewelers DSLR Video Shoot w/ Director’s Production Notes

It’s the time of year that is filled with industry predictions.  No predictions from me this year, just realities.  One reality is that we are able to do much more with less.  What’s more, don’t anticipate clients abiding the same thing only better.  They will not be denied.

Technology and talent has proven itself worthy of turning micro budget into an artful result.  The key is to hold the line on what matters.  When money is tight, the line is paper thin between a film spot resembling a college project and a professional production.  Accept a bid and you’re committing to high expectations.

Friend to Permission to Suck, Director/DP David McCarty,  gave me a heads up on a low budget video spot he shot for Hamilton Jewelers.  Impressed, I asked if he would be interested in answering a few questions for a PTS post.  His response was so generous I reproduced it here along with stills and the finished spot.

Where Style Is Timeless: The Hamilton Jewelers

The inspiration behind the project was the current explosion of interest in the early 1960’s era; almost entirely due to the television show Mad Men. We wanted to stage a dinner theater in 1960 where it would be natural to have men and women very well dressed thus offering a vehicle to feature the client’s diamond jewelry.

The storyline is that of a newly engaged young couple. The scene shows everyone in the room involved with the music with the exception of our young couple who are more interested in each other.

This was a micro budget production, so the first obstacle was securing a cheap location that could play as a 60’s era dinner theatre. Second, it needed to look, more or less, dressed and ready to shoot. Third, we needed the run of the place, controlling everything for 10-12 hours.

We found just the location a short drive from our offices in New Jersey. The brother of one of our Senior VP’s just happened to own an Italian restaurant that had an upstairs dining room. He had designed it to look like the old dinner theaters of that era. It was perfect. He was not only closed on Mondays, but he could handle the catering for us as well.

The second task was talent. We were shooting in New Jersey, outside of Philadelphia, and needed good talent. Our usual suspects for styling, hair and makeup were all out of NYC anyway so we cast our principal talent there. We rented a van and drove our talent, stylists, hair and makeup artists down from NYC. The extras all came out of Philadelphia and provided their own transportation. I recruited my daughter and her fiancé to fill in as our third couple.

My Director of Photographer flew in from SF, and I acted as both Director and second camera operator. We both used our personal Canon 5DMII’s and ultra fast “L” lenses, but rented a Red Rock Micro Shoulder Mounted Rig and a SmallHD DP6 monitor. We also had pro sticks with high-end fluid heads on hand and I provided the 1m Glidetrack HD.

Our Producer handled the rest of the crew and the lighting order, which was small. Basically, we had a lighting truck from which we pulled a bare bones lighting package: A handful of Fresnel spots, a couple of Kinos, some flags, and enough board to block the light from the windows.

Our Gaffer and Key Grip was the same guy who rented us the lighting package. He came with an assistant.

We weren’t shooting with sound so we saved on the sound crew. Our intention was to show the idea of the musicians, a little hint to sell the story without being a focal point.  We anticipated plugging in a piece of stock music during post. Our Producer, who happened to be a musician himself, cast friends of his for the shoot.

I’d asked him to see if he could round up a stand up bass player and a horn player. We’d pay them out of our “extras” budget, which meant I’d have two less people in the audience. As it turned out, the producer’s friends were real pros, and they played while we shot them. I was so thrilled with the quality, that I asked the Producer to find out if they’d be willing to record an original piece of music together and license it to us to be used for the piece. In the end, that’s exactly what we did.

The lighting setup was designed to be pretty simple. A key light composed of a couple of fresnel spots bouncing off a wall, flagged to prevent spill. We had another fresnel bouncing off some broken mirrors to provide a little ambiance, and some hair light. The only light that ever moved all day was the hair light, which we used to provide the edge.

The DP shot almost entirely hand held using the Red Rock Micro rig, while I shot almost entirely off sticks, much of it locked off. We added a couple of “dolly moves” using the Glidetrack set on a couple of apple boxes.

Originally, we had no intention of having video playback for the clients. When you’re working on a micro-production, there are just things you don’t get. Video village is one of them. But the Producer and the AC had worked on some other DSLR shoots and had come up with a pretty effective system.

Using a Black Box video splitter with an aux. battery attached to the rig, we output the HDMI signal to a 17” monitor in the other room for the clients. It worked beautifully. The DP used the new SmallHD DP6 monitor, attached to the rig and fed into the splitter. I could either stand behind him to view, or watch playback through the camera after each shot. The client could watch both live and playback of all feeds, at least from camera A. She just had to trust me on camera B.

The room pretty much came as is; they even had the table lamps. Only problem was they were candle powered. We needed more light so we rented a dozen 40wt lamps and tied them into a dimmer. The restaurant provided the desserts, stemware, drinks and dishes.

We planned to handle hair, makeup and styling on the principals, while the extras were asked to show up ready to go. In the end, while we could get away with everything else, even the extras had their hair done. Our hair guy was a maniac; total overachiever.

Once the talent (both principals and extras) had gone through wardrobe, hair and makeup, we were ready to shoot. Except one last thing. The jewelry. The client actually had a small crew herself.  Together they got the correct jewelry on the correct people, keeping track of exactly who had what. This stuff was the real deal complete with security.

The DP and I had discussed the look we wanted at length, and while there were a few key shots we knew we needed, beyond that, we simply found our shots as we came to them. There were no storyboards, just a story. We work together a lot and had discussed the shoot at length. By the time we had the talent in place, we just went to town.

The shoot was based on a 10 hour day, with talent on a 12 hour day door to door from NYC.

The DP and I worked pretty hard to set the white balance to what we wanted before we started shooting and our cameras were calibrated to one another. We wanted to be a little warm, even to the extent that our whites were warm.

Since we couldn’t show people actually smoking, a smoke machine helped give us the needed atmosphere. The intention was to desaturate the footage slightly in post, but the added smoke pretty much took care of it for me. Therefore, there was almost no grading done in post.

Because of the limited 8 bit color depth on these cameras, you are pretty limited to how much you can manipulate the footage in post. It’s best to go old school and get it right in camera. This is by far the most important thing I’ve learned in several years of shooting with the 5DMII.

The shoot went off without a hitch and we finished on time. (Well almost without a hitch. The van with the talent showed up an hour late because of traffic. We still got it all done.)

The footage was backed up to several drives and that evening I transcoded all the 5DII video files into ProRes 422 (HQ) 1280×720.

The next day the DP, Producer and I all had to catch a flight to a location scout for another job, but when I got back a few days later, I was able to begin editing.

By then, our musicians had banged out a few options for me. They sounded great. Only one problem. The sound was too good. Since they had recorded in a studio, it didn’t feel right, so I imported them into Apple’s Soundtrack, added some room tone, ambient sound effects and even a little reverb to give it an authentic sound. It sounded great and I was ready to edit.

I edited in Final Cut Studio. Because we went to the trouble of getting the look we wanted in camera, I needed only a few slight adjustments here and there; nothing that couldn’t be handled in FCP’s 3-Way Color Corrector.

The voice over was originally done as a scratch track using the voice of an audio editor at our local production house. I loved his voice, a Gene Hackman sound alike, but the client wanted a more traditional VO, so we re-recorded it using non-union talent.

The beauty of creating video for the web is the story can be as long as you can maintain interest. No more :15’s or :30’s. Make it as long or as short as you want. In the end, the piece came out exactly how we wanted. It was a team effort including a trusting client. The client got extremely high value and we all got a nice piece of film.

There is no question that you can do amazing things with micro-production DSLR shoots, but if, and only if, client expectations are managed. You have to know what you can and cannot do being upfront and clear with the client. They also have to trust you. If they begin micromanaging the shoot, you will be lost. When you’re shooting a bare-bones production, there is no room for error.

One good idea, if you can swing it, is to have access to a larger lighting package than you think you’ll need. Something you can pull from, a la carte, if you have to. I’ve not needed the extra, but knowing it’s there is certainly a little added insurance.

Critical is your ability to think on your feet and take advantage of opportunities and the inevitable opportune mistakes. On micro-production jobs, you’re going to be more run and gun so you’ll need good instincts and be ready to make quick decisions.

I find another important aspect of successful micro-production is to have good ideas.  Everyone wants to be a part of something with quality. The budget is irrelevant. If you have a good concept and a good plan, you can get highly talented people to come along for the ride. If you’re a demanding asshole that’s trying to do too much with too little, you’ll create a catastrophe. Build a team of creative professionals and treat them like gold. They’ll break their humps for you and thank you for the opportunity to boot.

My final thought: be realistic. You can shoot a $500k film or something 1/10th the budget. Either one can be great. They won’t be the same scope, but if you maximize what you have and do everything you can to bring every dollar on the screen, it can be great. The trick is to never try to shoot a $500k film for $50k.

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