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Celebrating Pagan Holidays

Last summer, I had the privilege of DPing a feature film, Pagan Holidays, from Chicago-based director, Clifton Holmes. Years ago, Holmes adapted a novel from the late Richard Leyman. The acclaimed author loved the film, but it went into production purgatory after Layman’s untimely death.

Considering Holmes’ sketchy track record with dying film collaborators, I was leery being a part of his project. But then I read the script, and thought it was worth the risk. For his second film, Holmes wrote a fantastic twist on the faustian pact. It read like Richard Linklater helmed some hybrid of Rope and Rosemary’s Baby. To capture the dialogue-heavy script with minimal locations, we loved the look and color flexibility of the Blackmagic Raw files. I had filmed a 70s horror-looking short early this year and we wanted a somewhat similar look for this picture. To make it happen we used…

• Zeiss Contax lenses (28, 50, 85mm) + a Tokina 11-16mm
• LEDs and Kino Flows
• Sandisk SSDs

Holmes and I discussed several camera options but, in the end, nothing under $10k had the organic, filmic look of the Blackmagic. The filming experience was great overall. There was never any issues with the Blackmagic Camera ( although there were some recording errors from a rented OWZ SSD card). The fantastic color science of the Blackmagic allowed for unique looks for each scene. With minimal locations but multiple moods, the flat, raw files were necessary in creating unique looks for each environment.

Stay posted for more details regarding its immanent release. The leading actors, James Doherty and Gabe Buetel-Gunn were fantastic and alone are worth the price of admission.

Telephonophobia

Last spring, when the Blackmagic Cinema Camera was just message board folklore, poet, Rachel Marie Patterson read from her in-progress phobia series. Each of poem, full of fun, gothic grit, would make a fantastic Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode premise. With a freshly preordered, mythical BMCC on my B&H purchase history, I thought the camera would be great to film a horror short based off Patterson’s poetry. Ten months after Rachel graciously let me adapt her work, Telephonophobia was finally made.

Telephonophobia (A Blackmagic Cinema Camera Short) from Strapping Production on Vimeo.

The goal for Telephonophobia was to capture a somewhat primal, lower-contrast, yet still colorful, 70/80s horror look, not unlike The Sentinel, The Shining, Halloween, etc. With a BMCC and a couple lenses at my disposal, we found a fittingly outdated location complete with pink carpeting, macabre dolls, lace doilies and crystal candy bowls.

On the set, we used a simple lighting setup, bouncing a soft light from above and using a Kino Flo as a key. With just these two lights, we lit every scene. There were a few moments where a more sophisticated setup would have helped, but the BMCC still allowed for a decent look with the minimal lighting. While lighting and exposure aren’t synonymous, many shorts were purposely ‘overexposed’ a bit without clipping the sensor. John Brawley’s recommendation to expose as high as you can without clipping is very useful. I had to lower the exposure .5-1.5 stops on many shots and still found that the file still holds in all of the highlight information. This ‘overexposure’ method also helps lower noise.

Where the Blackmagic Cinema Camera really shines is in post. With the free Resolve software and the $300 FCPX, you have a professional editing setup at your disposal. The grading options are endless and the workflow is seamless between the two programs. After creating proxies in Resolve, the piece was edited FCPX before roundtripping back to Resolve. In Resolve, the clips were graded before exporting 2048 x 1080 Prores 4444 files back into FCPX for finishing.

While I still haven’t found a use for the night vision plugin, Final Cut Pro X continues to impress. The speed and intuition of the program is fantastic. I also took my FCPX post production a step further by mixing most of my sound in the program. With the help of devilishly talented Jumbling Towers members, Joe DeBoer and Louis Wall, we recorded the music/noise for the score. I edited those tracks in Logic and then brought them all into FCPX. In FCPX, I assembled the score and previously recorded foley. I usually do this in Logic once my final edit is complete, but it was nice to do this on the fly and forgo FCPX roles. The effects in FCPX are great, especially the very sophisticated space designer.

With a great source material and talent to work with, I only hoped to do the actors and source material justice. The Blackmagic Cinema Camera certainly helped with that process. The images from this camera are truly insane. The work John Brawley has done with the camera is incredible. It’s not an exaggeration to say that a feature film-quality production could be made with this camera and another $3k worth of equipment. I’m not saying Telephonophobia is of that caliber, but I shot all the material for less than $6k in equipment. Assuming you already have a computer, you can replicate this setup with…

$3,000 camera
$ 0 Resolve grading software
$ 300 FCPX editing software
$ 500 Rokinon 35mm lens
$ 400 Rokinon 14mm lens
$ 800 Canon 100mm macro lens
$ 300 in light rentals
$ 400 SSD card

There is little doubt in my mind Brawley, Soderbergh, Bloom and the other countless resourceful DPs and directors out there couldn’t make a holllywood-looking film with that exact equipment.

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