OK, you’re looking at that picture of an overhead 40 x 40 rig full of space lights hung off a champion crane and saying, “you’ve got to be kidding me”. How could this be a rig for any budget?
Wait, now I want you to look at this rig below with the same concept that uses only china balls and zip cord spanned with wall spreaders. “Ok that’s more like it. That must be what he’s talking about”.
Well, they both are the right rigs for each respective production. How? They are simply the most cost effective way to achieve the look while being mindful of cost, man days, and production budgets. Here’s why.
The crane rig was for a TV series I shot called Hit The Floor. We had a large scale dance number at night in the middle of a field. The dancers would start in darkness holding only lanterns. As each dancer was added to the frame the light level would increase culminating in an ethereal lyrical dance with 12 dancers moving in opposing concentric circles.
Seems simple enough, so what were the challenges? For one, the girls could only perform that demanding dance a few times without a long rest period. Second the ground was uneven which presented the risk of a sprain or injury. Meaning, we couldn’t do unnecessary takes. Third, the time cost. That Friday, the company was on splits so after completing lunch we would be making a full company location move. We would only have a few hours to make this happen at the end of an already exhausting week of shooting and we were all determined to keep it to a 12 hour shoot day. We also needed to shoot looking 360 degrees. The dance needed to be covered from every angle with multiple moving cameras.
After a discussion with the producers and first AD, we decided that time would be the biggest challenge to prevent extending costs beyond controllable budget limitations. We also considered the very real risk of loosing everything if we pushed the dancers too hard resulting in an injury that could shut down the shoot. Photographically, I needed to provide a way to maximize our setup time getting 3 cameras, technocrane and a steadi-cam to shoot all 4 angles in 2 setups. We knew that the dancers movements may not be like those of an actor hitting marks, but still needed to make sure we captured the energy and tone.
I then had a collaborative meeting with Gaffer Paul McIlvane, Key Grip Anthony Vietro and Dimmer Operator Samantha Bahramian. The game plan was to have a large controllable light source that could dim and control the source direction by our dimmer operator. In this way the light could change on cue and gradually increase to match the dance. It could be adjusted always maintaining directionality and tone by turning off and on rows of lights within the box. On the ground, I set 2 long dolly tracks at opposing 90 degree angles, the techno on track, and a floating steadicam. The operators benefited because they didn’t have to worry about keeping gear out of the shot because everything was flying. They could simply go with the performance. The next set up was to pick up the opposing 90 degree angles to complete our 360 coverage in only 2 setups. The third and final setup was letting the steadicam alone do a pass unencumbered and free to move 360.
The execution was to have it all rigged and ready when we landed. Dolly track already laid and light rig flying. The camera crew would pop onto the dolly while steady was prepped. The first take was the entire performance. The second was pick ups from those angles. Then we moved track and camera for the second setup and did the same. Our dimmer operator flipped the keys and direction on the board and we were ready again. The third setup was steadicam only so both A and B cameras, the techno, and their dollies were sent to wrap out saving man hours and time.
Even though we had higher equipment costs we had lower man hours. I always say, you don’t pay fringes on equipment you pay them on labor so controlling those cost were essential. It was actually cheaper in the long run and the producers knew the investment would pay off. It looked fantastic. The crew went home at a reasonable hour and all the dancers were safe. It was a win-win.
Now about that China ball rig. I was working on a micro budget feature called Do You Take This Man. The cast was comprised of big budget well known actors who loved the script and were 100% committed to giving it their all despite limited schedule and budget. We had a dinner table scene involving 9 actors and a hefty amount of dialogue(over 15 pages). Performance was key. Continuity was key. The actors would have to run the scene many times to get everyone covered and long setup times would have done a disservice to their performance as well as making the directors job more difficult that it needed to be. I wanted to accommodate all of this and make sure the actors had an environment free of equipment so they could focus on their performances.
The dinner table was an equal sided square that could accommodate all 9 actors. We would have a full day to rig and tent the house including the time to set up our homemade soft box. The concept was the same as the crane rig. Rows of controllable dimmable light sources that we could change as we moved setups. We didn’t have money for expensive equipment so we built in line squeezers and ran zip cord to the china balls. All purchased at Home Depot and Pier One. The rig was hung off wall spreaders and used adjustable teasers for light control.
During shooting the camera remained innocuous almost like a documentary. Capturing the real moments between the dialogue giving the actors the freedom and sense that they were no longer on a movie set but really immersed in the scene. This was invaluable for the tone of the film. Shooting went quickly because we only had to move camera to the next setup and adjust the light settings by dimmer. It looked great with a naturalistic feel while remaining directional and having shape.
Both rigs overcame the challenges presented to production and each served the needs of budget and performance while giving a look consistent with the tone of the scene. The magic and fun of being a cinematographer is collaborating with your crew to overcome every challenge. The most satisfying aspect of my job is creating a collaborative art work where every member of the team has value and contributes.