I saw some older images of Kalli when she was modelling in Miami with slicked back hair parted on one side and I really liked how it looked, particularly paired up with a blazer and some dark eyeliner. Other than that, the styling was the only pre-production decision we made. The entire shoot was more or less impromptu and in the moment; ideas that spontaneously arose as we were shooting.
Kalli ended up bringing over two blazers, one simple black one and a really cool white piece that instantly made me picture her smoking. We bought some cigs, took the outfits, and we headed up to my roof around 8PM.
Equipment, Lighting & Technique
One thing I’ve been wanting to do is shoot a fashion/model film on my Sony NEX-7. Typically I shoot 720HD at 60fps on my Canon 7D, but the NEX-7 shoots 1080HD at the same frame rate. Thing is, I don’t have the same lenses for it AND the camera is so much lighter, so the quality of the handheld movement (and the camera moves in general) wouldn’t be the same as I’m used to. This shoot was a good opportunity for me to try a new workflow.
One of the HUGE advantages to the NEX-7 is the fact that it’s so small and light, which means ergonomically it’s easy to shoot with one hand. While you COULD shoot the 7D with one hand if you’re strong enough, it’s just really not a smart idea, especially if you have a lot of other work to do. If you’ve ever shot several days in a row with post-production, you might be familiar with how annoying a strained wrist can be between holding a camera and messing around with a mouse for hours on end.
That said, shooting single-handed allows me to do some interesting things, like hold a light in my other hand. I lit the scene using a Litepanel Micro that I was just holding in my other hand. I had it attached to a small handle that made it easy for me to manipulate the light however I wanted. As we shot, I just moved the light around in different ways—underlighting, hard frontal lighting, overhead feathering, side lighting, etc. I’ve never before been able to so directly change the lighting on the fly AS I was shooting video. It really allowed for some interesting dynamics.
Another advantage of shooting with the NEX-7 using this handheld light technique is that it’s able to auto focus WHILE you’re shooting video, and it does so quickly. Not only can you not auto focus while shooting video on a 7D, but even if you could, the auto focus speed, reliability, and quality just isn’t in the same league. The NEX-7 auto focus is lightning fast, and as a guy who prefers to manually focus everything, it says quite a lot that I feel very confident about the NEX-7’s AF.
All that said, the NEX-7 is just a different tool with different pros and cons. The Canons still have huge sensor sizes (very important with bokeh and depth of field), and the actual weight of the camera has its advantages. Also since the lenses are larger on the Canons, it’s much easier to manually focus, which is important if rack focus plays a role in your aesthetics. I have very little brand loyalty, and in these quickly shifting technological tides, it’s the actual features of the tools I use that matter most, not who makes them.
Shooting & Directing
I shot using the standard 18-55mm lens that comes with the NEX-7. I’d just set the focal length and then direct Kalli through a range of motions. It was basically a sort of dance where we just flowed in and out of eachother’s energy. In a way we were directing each other—I’d tell her in a very general way what to do (smoke, walk, lean on the wall, open your jacket, close your jacket, keep your back to me), and then how she actually expressed that dictated how I shot it and what the next directions I’d give would be.
As usual I made sure to cast a wide net when it came to the variety of shots. Since I was limited in my lens selection, I couldn’t do some of the stuff I’d normally do, like get tight closeups of lips, eyes, etc. I managed to get some shots of that, but not nearly to the same extent. What I could do though, was use the articulating LCD screen to get a lot of low and hi angle shots and have an overall more dynamic camera. Even if the shot isn’t extremely high or low, being able to just raise and lower the camera without having to get on a knee, or shoot without a clear idea of what you’re shooting because you’re looking at the screen from a steep angle, is just so much more comfortable. While not all that footage I shot from different angles made it to the final cut, it’s important to mention that I thought to shoot that stuff so I could CONSIDER it in the edit. Films are made in the edit, NOT in the shoot.
Mind Your Surroundings
It’s always a bit scary shooting on location because unless you specifically have a permit, you never really know when you might get into trouble. I didn’t specifically have permission to shoot on the roof, let alone shooting a topless model, (though technically speaking, it isn’t expressly forbidden by the management either) so it’s always a possibility that something unpredictable might go down—security might arrive, civilians might walk onto set. This becomes much more of an issue when you’re shooting sexual content.
Come around 10PM, while Kalli and I are shooting by the roof entrance in her white blazer, we hear someone climbing up the stairs and whistling. We stop shooting, I turn off the light, and we become ninjas for a few moments. But not the cool, calm and collected kind of ninjas though—more the deer in headlights type. We both froze. I had no idea what I was going to say (I should have had that prepared ahead of time) to whoever was coming up. It had to be the super right? Who would come to the roof so casually whistling a tune? The door opens up and it’s a guy with his guitar. When he sees us, the whistling stops, and he stands there silently staring at the two of us.
It’s a Mexican standoff.
Finally, after a long silence, I say, “I’m cool if you’re cool.” “I’m cool.” he replies, and then he goes on to tell us that he’s just coming up to the roof to play his guitar. Later on his roommate came up and they both started singing a duet off in a corner while Kalli and I were shooting. Not a bad way to spend a Monday night.
In hindsight, one big mistake I made when shooting this was that I shot it in black and white. Even though my intention was to have the film be black and white, I should have shot it in color and then converted it to black and white in post. Why? Well, maybe I would have changed my mind and made a color film, but because I didn’t shoot it color, it’s just not an option. Also, I could do things with the color information, like selectively smooth out skin tones, but since everything is grey, I’m much more limited in the work I can do in post.
It gets kind of confusing sometimes because I shoot photos in black and white and they get saved in color, so I never have to think about it. This was somewhat of a reverse situation where I had to remember to shoot it in color even though I know the final product was going to be black and white. Sometimes it’s not easy to remember that what you shoot is not the final product, but rather just a step towards it (depending on your work flow—it might be that you choose to shoot the final product as your process). If you know you’re going to do work in post, you have to remember when you’re shooting what you’re going to need in post to make that conversion to the final product.
The song is from the Dredd 3D soundtrack. I had seen the movie recently and I really liked the minimal, dark, action movie dance beats. This particular song is “Lockdown.” Originally I thought to maybe use some kind of foreign music for the Kalli film, maybe German, French (though I already have a lot of French in my films), or Italian. But when I was going through several options for this film, the Dredd soundtrack and this specific song really jumped at me. I recut it to remove the intro, doubled up some of the phrases, and cut out the ending. I tend to like songs with meaningful differences between the phrases. I’m not sure if there’s a term for that in music, but basically an up and down, fast and slow aspect to the song that implies some kind of structure. If the song is too repetitive, it makes editing more difficult for me. That’s not to say you can’t use repetitive songs—there are some really cool fashion films out there with really repetitive beats, but I know just speaking for myself, it’s much harder to make choices and getting the edit done in a relatively quick time frame is important to me.
If you ever have to recut a song, it’s good to become familiar with the structure of music—typically 8 beats to a measure, 4 measures to a phrase, and the phrases make up the basic blocks of the song. Normally everything is done in even numbers, even when things don’t match this pattern—a short measure with 4 beats, a short phrase with 2 measures. Rarely do you get a single measure by itself (though it happens), and you don’t often see 3 measures to a phrase. All of this helps you to figure out where to cut and how to do it seamlessly.
Preparing the Footage
Here’s my basic workflow before I actually start editing:
1. Go through all the footage and use in and out points to select clips that have ANY value.
2. Put all those clips on the timeline. As you place the clips convert all of them to slow motion (if you shot slow motion: 60fps to 24fps).
3. Copy the timeline onto a second sequence (so you have your first pass of clips saved). Go through that second timeline and delete/trim clips that don’t seem as useful on the second pass. Go through a third and fourth pass if necessary. The point is to reduce the length of the timeline to something manageable. The first pass might be 20 minutes of footage, then 10, then 7.
4. Create multiple layers of video. Organize the clips onto seperate layers based on content (closeups, full body, nudity, smoking, first look, second look, walking, whatever makes sense to you for that specific project).
5. Create a new timeline. Start editing by pulling clips from the organized, multi-layered timeline.
Interesting thing about this edit. I had the idea in my head to do a double-exposure effect, so to test it, I assembled some random clips (from my third pass) together. I also randomly superimposed the clips on top of each other—no real thought behind the process. When I realized that doing double-exposures would work with the footage and the soundtrack, I went ahead and started editing the video—selecting shots, building them into a narrative, carving out a rhythm with an interesting texture. But when I got about 30 seconds in, I found that my choices didn’t have nearly as much emotional impact as the double-exposure test I had randomly assembled. So rather than over-think it or fight it, I just took that test, tweaked it slightly, and then used it as the intro to the film. I then transitioned into the more well thought-out edit I had put together, and all of a sudden the whole thing popped off the screen.
The lesson here is: There is deep wisdom in chaos. Embrace it.
You’ll come up with stuff that you would never have though to do, and the truth is, you didn’t. You, the audience, and the content will be better for it.
I used the phrases of the music to structure the play between Kalli in the two different looks. I also decided to only use double-exposure with the smoking shots. Not only did they just look better, but I also felt like the nudity was an important part of this film and that using the double-exposure effect took away from it. Also, the black blazer shots tended to be darker, and placing two dark layers on top of each other tended to darken the overall image rather than look like to superimposed shots.
I’m a big fan or making the edit organic and a little “dirty.” Rather than follow consistent patterns (like always cutting on the beat) I try to setup a pattern that I deliberately break once and awhile. Here I took it a little further than usual. Inspired by the random cutting of the intro, I decided to cut off-beat for quite a number of cuts. When it comes to how I chose to superimpose the images, it was mostly an intuitive trial and error process. I just kept switching clips and playing with the timing and rhythm until it seemed like what I was doing was pretty bad ass. It’s mainly an unconscious process, embracing the emergence rather than trying to rely on any kind of conscious theory or philosophy of how to do it. At the same time, it’s important to not be a perfectionist. Trial and error will kill you if you’re neurotic about it. Make something that sucks, something that’s just 50% good, get through it, come back to it later and see if you can improve it. Scrap it and start over if you can’t.
Basically I increased the contrast quite a bit, tweaked some of the shadows and highlights a bit, and then used curves to bring up the blacks and bring down the whites (collapsing the tonal range toward the mid-tones). The specifics of what I did aren’t really too important. That’s the basic gist of it. I wanted the footage to look messy, and since the lighting was pretty different in a lot of the shots, I didn’t have to spend too much time working on any specific sequences. Also, with the video being black and white, I didn’t really have to worry about color consistency. It was much easier this time around than my other films.
On a final note, the primary focus of the shoot was actually to shoot photos. The video was secondary. In going through the photos I took, I liked them much more in color. While I didn’t really have the opportunity to make a color film because I had mistakenly shot the whole thing in black and white, I’m still pretty confident I would have ended up with a gritty black and white film mainly because I only have one other black and white film in my portfolio.
I’m still undecided on how the photos and video in the same editorial should go together, whether they should match, complement, or look completely different so that they comprise two separate bodies of work. My instincts tell me that the answer is to let the content decide.