Friends and colleagues often make fun of my shooting pictures out of focus. I go along with the mickey-taking and we all laugh. Yet focus and where we choose to put it (or not, as the case may be) is at the very heart of how we photographers/DSLR film makers communicate to our audience. For me the focus is predominantly very shallow, forcing the viewer to look at a particular part of a picture which, when combined with sympathetic lighting and, of course, the right subject matter, can become a moment of pure picture perfection or movie magic. When you add to this the use of colour (for example, in fashion designer Tom Ford’s big-screen directorial debut, A Single Man), then both the still image and, even more so, the moving picture, become what to many of us are arguably the most powerful media for creative expression available today.
As much as you can prepare for such a shoot, there will always be takes that just don’t work and at such times, we would simply reinvent them.
My use of light and focus is not everyone’s cup of tea and yet, as I move through the melee of mixed media within the visual arts, there are always individuals with similar passions. Charlotte Lurot and I first met in November 2008 in the Raphael Gallery of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Unbeknown to me, Charlotte had been following my photographic work with fashion designer Roksanda Ilincic over several seasons. She and I seemed to see the world in very similar ways, ie prime lenses, available light and selective focus, along with emotive, atmospheric and, at best, ethereal moods. Charlotte is the founder of Bacchus Studio and was producing a fashion show for Roksanda that I had decided to film as my DSLR video baptism. By a quirk of fate, or opportunity, depending on your particular belief, it turned out that Charlotte was also a film maker. If I hadn’t decided to dip my toe into the waters of the DSLR video with what at that time was a pre-production Canon EOS 5D MkII, I would never have met Charlotte, wouldn’t have worked on her directorial debut, would not be writing this article and wouldn’t be attending pre-production meetings for three new projects planned for 2011. Our first film collaboration was for Elizabeth Arden for London FashionWeek Spring/Summer 2010 and the partnership worked well.Within a couple of months Charlotte was back with a bigger and far more ambitious project, a perfume commercial. It had barely been a year and yet here I was looking at storyboards and taking part in castings, working out lighting plans with my assistant Billy Waters and putting together a crew to shoot on a huge sound stage.
Founded more than a quarter of a century ago, Amouage is a niche luxury fragrance house that draws inspiration from the Sultanate of Oman, where it was founded. The commercial, Memoir, takes its name from the company’s latest perfume and is Charlotte’s fourth film for Amouage, but her first as director. Its narrative is based upon ‘then’ and ‘now’. The ‘now’, is the fleeting moment of time... a small, still moment, an act of remembering. Emotions are restrained; the camera is a voyeur capturing the intimate, solitary experience as the two characters remember an experience that is yet to be revealed. The ‘then’, is their story unfurling, to reveal the content of their memoir, the narrative behind the reactions we have seen in the ‘now’. Dynamic light and shadow speak of a long passage of time contracted by the camera. The film doesn’t ‘conclude’ but gently leads the viewer towards drawing their own conclusions. My first concern with any moving picture project is time. To create the looks that Charlotte illustrated in the storyboard, and with which I would feel happy, would take plenty of it. Originally the production had been planned as a one-day shoot, and yet when Billy and I looked at the storyboard we both agreed it would take us three days. Finally, after several days of revisions, we all felt comfortable that the project could be achieved within two days. There are inevitably time and budget pressures when working on large productions and it’s sometimes far easier to agree to a director’s or producer’s requests.Yet it’s saying ‘no’ that usually means the shoot will go smoothly and eventually everyone will be happy with the finished result, and have a piece of work of which they can be proud.
Casting was a long and sometimes exhausting process; partly because this project required the models to act, to dig deep and show subtle, yet convincingly real, emotion. As always, we directed many of the favourites during the casting and shot pictures as a useful aid.When casting this project I wondered if the model industry was going through the same challenges as those involved in photography. Surely more and more models are now being asked if they have acting experience. The castings gave us time to discuss the storyboards and develop some ideas and reject others while working out lighting plans, wardrobe, make-up and any one of what seemed like hundreds of shooting possibilities. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with some of fashion’s greatest photographers, it’s their attention to detail and the huge amount of time invested in organisation and preparation prior to shooting. Understandably, in order to prepare the budget, the producer was squeezing me for the equipment list and yet Billy and I were still working out how we were going to shoot some of the scenes, as we had decided to do all effects in camera and not post. We had agreed on a 60ft sq sound stage in north London, which would mean we could segment the space and create two to three sets within it. This was imperative, as we could then finish shooting one scene and jump straight to the next, so as to meet the schedule without any creative compromises. Whether shooting stills or video, it’s always essential to surround myself with highly experienced people. Our crew would be no more than six, including myself. As nearly all of my photographic assistants are themselves photographers, and I wanted the same while shooting moving pictures, this crew was made up of experienced photographic assistants with a couple of movie industry chaps – one a lighting and rigging technician and the other a film editor acting as digital tech and on-site editor. Having the capability to review and edit as we shot gave us the opportunity to piece together the story as we went. This is now something I always include in the crew list. There is an additional benefit to having an editor on site who has a deep understanding of the shoot – he or she can make editing suggestions which can sometimes change how and what we shoot.
Initially I decided to shoot on two Canon EOS 5D MkIIs, until Charlotte mentioned the need to shoot at a higher frame rate and the possibility of using a Phantom camera (ultra-fast 1,000fps and suitable for slow-motion filming) for a couple of the scenes. The Phantom, while amazing, requires huge amounts of light and also a crew; not to mention a setup which would eat into our budget and time. On top of this, it simply would not have had the look of the rest of the film. As Charlotte was looking for around 100fps and not 1,000fps, I had another idea... enter the Canon EOS-1D MkIV, 50fps in SD (standard definition), 1,280 x 720px (plenty for most uses). When slowed down in Final Cut to the equivalent of 100fps or, even better, combined with Canon primes and a battery that would power Iron Man, the decision was clear. I first used the 1D MkIV back in June as a stills camera for a very, very low-light shoot for fashion house Louis Vuitton and was impressed, yet it’s the video capability that has really grabbed my attention. Its robust 1-Series build quality means it will go anywhere and I’ve been using it ever since. This is not to say that I have stopped using the 5D MkII, which still scores when a lightweight body is needed. In fact, it’s still one of the best-value DSLR/video cameras on the market and in my opinion a great camera on which to start a pro career. To complement the best of Canon’s video DSLRs, we added 14, 24, 35, 50, 85, 135 and 180 lenses, plus 45 and 90mm tilt-shift L series primes. As backup, or should we decide to add zoom to a take, we took along 17-40, 24-70 and 70-200mm. Although we had this formidable line-up, the 50, 85, 135, 180 and 45mm tilt-shift did all the work.
For months I’ve tried to keep my shooting simple, avoiding the complex paraphernalia that is now available to turn what for the most part is a relatively simple stills camera into a scale model of Paris’s Pompidou centre. It started with the Z-finder (a revolutionary eyepiece). I wouldn’t want to shoot without one of these little wonders now, and my personal preference is x2.5 and a frame connected to a base plate rather than stuck on. Having looked at all the available construction kits, my favourite is by Zacuto, which created the Z-finder. The Cross Fire is not the cheapest but is beautifully thought through and engineered; it takes a little getting used to but once set up, it makes a significant improvement to tripod-mounted and hand-held shooting, plus follow focus. For Memoir, I decided to shoot most of the commercial directly from EOS Utility. Rather than using external monitors we tethered the body to a fast 17in laptop, or even a MacPro, on a trolley, and then controlled focus, exposure, plus custom functions and settings right from the screen. Once the lens is on auto focus, it’s possible to zoom into the area of focus to get a lock and then zoom out before shooting. An additional advantage of using the Mac is that several people can screen share and so the take can be viewed on a network. It’s even possible to have both the camera monitor and EOS Utility running simultaneously, so I can still shoot from the Z-finder with manual focus while the director, crew and, at times, models, are watching the footage on the laptop. After all the preparation, it’s often a relief finally to be in the studio and making pictures The crew quickly set to work building the track for the dolly that would carry a 4K HMI. This was in the form of an 8m semi-circle and many of our wide shots would depend on this.We had allowed enough time in the first shoot day to pre-light each set and even though this ate into our first morning, it proved an excellent long-term investment, as we could move through both days from take to take knowing exactly what was needed and where. It was time to forget the technical and get on with the aesthetic. The ‘now’was shot with a range of HMIs through frost frames flagging the light, soft and sensual as it hit the models. The ‘then’was much harsher with direct 1.2K, 2.5K and 4K. To paint the backgrounds we left spare stands with all manner of reflective materials creating abstract shapes that added interest and intrigue. Charlotte gave me a huge amount of space and at times it was quite literally as if we were in each other’s heads, as she would mention something that would be on the tip of my tongue and vice versa. I am certain that a working relationship like this one is rare and I appreciated every minute as we moved from scene to scene. Our hard work during casting sessions paid off. Both models did an extraordinary job, digging deep to find the memories that sparked the emotions, which in turn reached the lens. As much as you can prepare for such a shoot, there will always be takes that just don’t work and at such times, we would simply reinvent them. For me these challenges represent some of the most enjoyable aspects of this type of project. As well as the usual macro close-up and portraits, the sheer scale of the studio offered so many wider opportunities that, combined with high vantage points, it inevitably gave the final film a big feel. The passage of time was beautifully illustrated with the HMI on the dolly and track that also gave us some unusual visual effects with moving shadows. Several scenes were shot through clear acrylic that was lit with slowly-moving reflected light to add additional atmosphere and sensitivity which, for me, constituted some of the best sequences. This project is the next step for both Charlotte and me, tiptoeing into this new and ever-changing world of DSLR film making. For my part I’m not even sure just how much of me is photographer and how much is film maker. I try not to look too far ahead, as the road is not clear for any of us and I’m certain that includes photographers, traditional film makers and manufacturers alike. So like all good travellers I’m going to enjoy the journey. After all, “It’s the journey, not the arrival, that matters.”