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Teetering on The Edge of Oblivion

Oblivion being, in this case, a good thing. Welcome back to a fresh blog post of filmmaking and stuff! Things are happening, as they always are, and I’m excited about those things and so I will write about them because this is what this particular corner of the web is for! So I’ll talk about the important stuff first. Disclaimer: the first section below is very long and introspective and maybe a bit incomprehensible, so read at your own risk.

Staring Into The Expanse of Space

Alright, enough with the cheesy melodramatic titles. Admittedly, I don’t know of a better way to summarize where I’m at right now. But before I can explain where I’m at right now, I must explain where I was at a few weeks/months ago.

Since February at the beginning of this year, I wanted to make a big film. Something I can call “my latest and greatest,” one project that could define where I was in terms of how competently I think I could use the tools of filmmaking. There were many attempts at starting some grand project; anything that I could say met my new standards of filmmaking. And of course, I bought all the shiny toys – new camera, new equipment, new tools, in the hopes of assuring a great product. I wanted to create something that would define me. A pinnacle of what I’ve learned so far. Despite such lofty goals, all of those attempts failed in one way or another, except one particular project: Spaceship Over McAllen (let’s just call it Spaceship for short). It’s very important to note that Spaceship was in no way a part of those attempts at a grand, defining project.

It just kind of happened.

What’s interesting is that the reason why Spaceship ended up getting made and released, as opposed to my several other contrived attempts at creating a movie during the same time period. I found out that the reason was just that: the other attempts were contrived. The notion that I had to create some huge project ended up being a baseless one; and there are at least 3 projects that fell apart because it’s simply not enough to want to want to make an awesome movie; Sierra Leone was one of them. Sierra Leone was a product of the singular desire to make a damned movie, not of any deeper passion or inspiration, and so it failed. Spaceship didn’t start with me sitting down and saying, “Okay JP, it’s time to make a movie! What should it be about?” like Sierra Leone was.

Making Spaceship wasn’t a conscious decision, some attempt at grandeur, no, it was just my intrinsic desire to explore a concept I thought was worth exploring. Spaceship started off as a series of special effects tests – there was no story, no direction, no script, no casting, no planning. You can even see it in a blog post I wrote about it when it was just a faint idea (Hey! That’s why this thing is useful!). You get the vibe from that blog post that Spaceship was clearly some sort of “in-between” project to kill time; an afterthought. But those special effects tests tapped into some deep desire to make a fully realized sci-fi short. Doing those tests was like realizing that, shit, it was possible to sell a CGI shot of a ship. It looked convincing! And so there was potential there. I realized that potential, and shortly after it triggered a flame of motivation that turned what was  just a couple of shots of some visual effects into a fully-realized concept short featuring city-wide evacuations, major news coverage, global announcements being made, military reactions, and the destruction of a tower. That’s stuff I didn’t think I could do. But it took months and hundreds of hours of painstaking work to see that vision come to life.

I consider Spaceship to be my best work to date. Definitely a far cry from perfect, yes, and most certainly not the best work I will ever do, but Spaceship is, so far, the most coherent and moving thing I’ve created. And I think the success of Spaceship is not attributed to knowledge, or technical competency (although those things did play a role), I think it’s attributed largely to motivation. Because, in order for Spaceship to have been made, being the large undertaking that it was, there had to be lots and lots motivation. Enough to keep me working for three months on this thing. And there definitely was, because the video exists, it’s there on YouTube. So I’ve been trying to study my motivation and how I got suddenly swept by it in April during Spaceship’s production, because I’ve been lacking motivation to do anything film-related for the last three months. And I’ve been frustrated as hell because, since I moved to Austin, there’s been no spark, no drive.

Motivation is kind of like a drug. During a motivation-high, everything makes sense. There’s a goal, and you’re working towards it. It’s that you can have a shit day, but at the end of the day, you know that there is a great project sitting on your desk that you can’t wait to work on when you get home. That there’s potential, that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that slaving hours away in front of the computer will be worth it. It’s hope, and it’s addictive and it’s responsible for awesome things; in my case, a cool video. Once the video was released to the masses, there’s an even more exciting ‘high’ of praise and opportunities and all sorts of great things that comes from the aftermath of a successful release (I’m still getting job offers because of Spaceship to this day). But after the motivation high and the release high settle down, there’s some sort of creative withdrawal.

After a three month burst of energy and purpose for Spaceship, things hit a standstill post-release. I had a few ideas, but nothing ever came out them. Seeing a film idea through until the end is expensive, demanding quite a bit of time and personnel, so my little side projects did not seem like they were worth those precious resources. It became a cycle of self loathing: frustration at myself because I couldn’t come up with anything, and my efforts to come up with something were hampered by frustration. After coming off of the wonderful buzz of motivation, the months after that feel like withdrawal, like something is missing from life, and it was miserable. So I needed motivation, desperately. I needed that high. But how? How did I suddenly get that with Spaceship? Does one generate motivation within? Does it depend on certain circumstances? Does one just start working and hope that somewhere down the line they’ll get hit with the spark of motivation? That approach certainly didn’t work with Sierra Leone. So what is it then?

These were the sorts of questions I’ve been asking myself for a while, and just when I thought this creative slump was going to be permanent, something wonderful happened around two weeks ago. It was sudden, random, unexpected, but it happened. I got hit with motivation, the kind I’ve been longing for since Spaceship. And in many ways, this wave of motivation is much more than that.

So I’m really stoked. There are questions like the ones above, however, that three-weeks-ago-me would have loved to have known the answers to. So is motivation, at least for me, self-generated or does it arise out of certain circumstances? The answer is, well, both; leaning more towards circumstances and what I would call a ‘trigger’, or that ‘Aha!’ moment. I think there must be some underlying desire to explore certain elements in film. These can be vague. In the case of Spaceship, I had always wanted to make something dealing with humanity’s reaction to a historical event as it unfolds. I had always wanted to explore sci-fi from a very grounded, realistic documentary approach. I always wanted a shot where something crazy happens, like a building collapsing, and the shot holds through until the very end. So those were some of my vague, detached desires. Then there was the trigger, the visual effects tests. It was at that moment where everything clicked. The fact that, hey, those really vague concepts can be explored through a very possible and tangible way! So that surge of motivation came from those two things: (1) my long held desires for exploring certain things or elements in a film and (2) the realization that these certain elements can indeed be connected and can be achieved with the resources I have. So with this latest idea, I had number one in place: certain elements I want to see come to life. And I just had my sort of “trigger” moment two weeks ago.

So there. I’ve seemed to answer how motivation happens for me in a nutshell, which I consider a huge advancement in understanding myself, which is awesome. If you, the reader, somehow made it this far – goddammit I’ll buy you a cup of coffee one day. Because you are a champion and you deserve it. We must continue though, about how I came across this idea. The reason I’m writing all of this down is because when this thing inevitably gets made, future-me will have very much appreciated that I set the time out to talk about this sort of stuff I won’t remember vividly down the line. Okay, onward.

I’ll explain how this sudden surge of creative energy happened as best I can, but these things are inherently fuzzy. I’ll give it a shot. Three weeks ago I saw an image online, just some promotional image that someone made for their own film coming out later this year or something. It was a simple image, just the title of the film in stylized neon text with an image of a girl suspended in mid-air next to it. But something about the image deeply resonated with me, because the image fell perfectly in line with the very broad qualities I knew I wanted to explore in some film I might make in the future; qualities like the colorful neon scheme of the image, the clean-yet-grungy futuristic look of it, the captivating image of a girl suspended in what seems like zero-g (and much, much more). All of those elements, some visual, some auditory, some conceptual, constituted (1) as I listed above, are the vague elements I’ve always wanted to see come to life. The image released all these cool ideas hidden in the recesses of my mind, and I was so overwhelmed by this sudden flurry of things, that it consumed my thoughts for the next three days. All I could think about were shots, locations, colors, visual style, music, atmosphere, mood, subject matter. I knew that there was a complete product just waiting to come out of these ideas.

Within the week, I had the beginnings of what I guess I’d call an “idea space” for this film. No script, no story, but that didn’t matter, that will come later in the development period. This “idea space” is like a swirl of elements and qualities I’d like to explore , nothing much more specific than that aside from maybe shots and situations, all unified by one thing (what that thing is, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the film and that’s what I’m trying to figure out). It’s all very vague and malleable. The same swirl of thoughts I came up with about this movie resembles what my thoughts were like before Spaceship. Except on a much larger scale. And that’s what’s got me so excited. There’s a metric ton of work to do, just on the pre-production. I’m thinking months of pre-production. I want to be careful and methodical in making sure these ideas translate as smoothly and as sensibly as possible on to the page, and later, the (digital) film. I’m going to do a few months of research and development before I even think about scripting. Another exciting thing about this development is that I think I’m trotting in, to the best of my knowledge, new territory. I’ll make sure to reveal more details later down the road when things settle down a bit. I haven’t even started my research. I’ve never even done research for a film, but I’m definitely doing it for this one.

So that about puts me where I’m at right now. No satisfying conclusion, not yet at least. That will be something that will become known as time progresses. Once finals comes to a close this week, I will begin living and breathing this film. And details and other cool stuff will begin to emerge. If you’re still reading, I’ll go ahead and upgrade that coffee to a beer, because you probably need one. Also, relevant video below:

Slow Motion & Stuff

In other news, I went to Mexico for Thanksgiving break! And it was fun and cool. Upon discovery that my iPhone 5S had that slowmo feature everyone forgot about, I wondered if I could put it to good use. So I shot some beach related stuff and was actually pretty damned impressed with the footage a phone gave me. It looked pretty damn good. So with all this slowmo footage, I decided to edit it all together into a cliche montage driven my an M83 song. And man does it fit. Here it is!

It’s cool what simple framing and shot composition can do to turn an iPhone shot into a cinematic one. I’ve been learning more and more in the last few months that camera choice is rarely a factor in what makes a shot look good. A well-lit, well-composed, thought-out shot will look great on an iPhone or a RED alike. The cinematography work Jason Johnston did for the 36 hour film race put anything I’ve done to shame. And he was working with the camera I own, a Blackmagic Cinema Camera!

Me doing FX and the editor, well, editing on the right.

Me doing FX and the editor, well, editing on the right.

Speaking of that 36-hour race, we didn’t end up getting first place. But we did end up making a pretty damn great film of a caliber I haven’t seen before in the Rio Grande Valley, and we won a few awards to justify it. We got the Best Script, Best Makeup, Best Actor, Runner-Up, and Audience Choice awards. Maybe we did sweep it! Note: when I say we I speak for the team which was largely Eight-by-Two films, run by Charlie Brenner and Jason Johnston. Blulight Studios did not compete, we solely did VFX work for the team. Which wasn’t all that much largely due to time constraints and the grounded nature of the film, but I’m excited for the day I can post it up for all to see.

Trying to do some 3D rendering on an aging Dell laptop = not fun.

Trying to do some 3D rendering on an aging Dell laptop = not fun. Also it’s probably like 4am in this picture. Coffee mandatory.

Well, that’s about it. With a new project I feel passionately about now on the table, this blog should hopefully be seeing some action in the coming months. Stick around, and I hope you like what you see! As for the beer/coffee promises deep in that really long part of the blog post, I wasn’t kidding. I’ll fulfill those. Right. Later, all.


Fall Check-In

Hello. I’m still alive. It’s been almost two months since the last post, and several questions are probably (not) going through your mind. Questions like “What happened?” or “What’s going on with Sierra Leone?” or “I don’t have any questions?”  So here’s what’s been going on the last two months with Sierra Leone and other stuff.

Sierra Leone Is No More

Movie-making never ceases to generate interesting and unexpected experiences for me. Each project raises new problems to face, lessons to be learned, wisdom to be gained. In the case of Sierra Leone, trying to figure out what went wrong was as much as a learning experience as making the film.


Opening shot. This actually looks pretty good when its been color graded.

I was pretty excited about Sierra Leone. It looked good when Jason and I wrote it up, it looked good when we were filming it, and it looked good when we reviewed the footage after production. Once we were settled in Austin, I began the task of putting together the rough cut of the film and designing the mock-Facebook animations that were needed in one scene (you can see the Facebook stuff in the post before this one). After working on the cut for a few days, reviewing footage many times, I ended up scrapping the project. Why?

Well, I didn’t know the answer to that question at first. Upon completing the rough cut, there was a jarring dissonance between what I expected the film to feel like and how it actually turned out. Despite quite a bit of time spent trimming and moving clips in Premiere, I couldn’t get the pace of the any scene down correctly. It was an exercise in frustration and many questions were swirling around in my head, trying to diagnose the problem. Was it production? Did we get enough coverage?

Editing the project further, none of the aspects of the film fit together. Some scenes were to be edited normally, others instead featured elaborate, long shots. The film style switches back and forth between different inspirations we had, with no clear “linkage” of any ideas. Certain shots were done simply because they looked cool on their own, not when joined with the rest of the film. We wanted a Drive-inspired atmosphere and editing style, Cuaron’s long-take action sequences, an internet-detective sequence resembling similar sequences from the short film Online Now, among several other inspirations. Cohesion was nowhere.

I realized it wasn’t any technical problem or production issue that caused Sierra Leone to bust. It was the result of a clusterfuck of conflicting ideas in the presentation of the film. It was like picking toppings for a pizza, and saying “I think oreos, peanut butter, and ramen noodles are delicious foods. Why not use them all as toppings on my pizza, it’ll be delicious!” No it won’t. While oreos and peanut butter are delicious foods on their own, everyone who’s tried to eat oreos and peanut butter on a pizza will know it’s definitely not delicious but actually pretty gross.

When it became apparent that the film was suffering from multiple personality disorder, I had no choice but to stop working on it. It was too disjointed and awkward to see the light of day. I have rendered some unfinished clips from the film you can see for yourself if you wish. Again, I apologize to anyone who was looking forward to the film’s release. The good thing is that it was all literally written and shot in the span of a quick few days before I moved to Austin, so it’s not like it was a gargantuan effort involving many people. So that makes me feel less guilty about pulling the plug on it.

What’s Up, Man?

After Sierra Leone fell through, I’ve just been getting through my first semester in the film program at UT Austin, meeting some cool new passionate film people, and trying to decide what I’m going to do for my next project. Academics are taking up more time than ever, so finding time to work among all that’s going on is challenging. But stuff will eventually get made. I’ll stop neglecting the blog here from now on. Hopefully.

In the spare time I’ve had, I’ve been cooking up a new cinematic title sequence for Blulight Studios that should go at the beginning of films and such we make. The design is still very rough, but here’s the gist of it below.

I wanted the title to speak about Blulight Studios’ current aesthetics: a metallic, industrial-looking design. Creativity is ‘engineered’, through the image of gears shifting about and complex machinery at work, all generating the very bright and mysterious blue light you see towards the end of the clip, the life of the machine (I just made all that up, cool). But in all seriousness, I feel that the intro title sort of gets that theme across with the imagery portrayed.

If you look closely, the background has geometric dots!

If you look closely, the background has white dots placed geometrically. Only visible in 1080p HD.

A cool fact about the intro is that it is entirely created inside of After Effects, thanks to Element 3D. I downloaded some flat images of gears and extruded them and textured them inside of Element to create the gear elements. After that, it was a matter of animating and arranging the gears with the particle system inside of Element. Creating the epic towers of gears was relatively quick and easy, it just took some time adjusting sliders and settings until everything looked right. The scene was lit with an environment map and some individual lights, positioned strategically. When we transition to the bright light, the comps were switched to a more 2D animation. The light was simply a solid being animated by a mask, and the title is extruded text in Element. Perhaps I’ll post a making-of video whenever its finished, there’s still a few kinks to work out. Here’s an alternate version with cool metal plates at the end:

Film Racing

For the last bit of news, I’ll be participating in the Cinesol 36 hour film race doing lightning-fast visual effects work for another studio. I’ve spoken to the director and the D.P., both very talented folk and I’ve got lots of confidence that the team will sweep the awards. Hopefully nothing goes terribly wrong, as filmmaking does depend on so many crucial things. Film races are quite intense, but coming from my experience doing six or eight hour races, I feel confident I can perform well. I’ll have more info on how that ends up turning out after this weekend.


Well, that’s it for now. I’ll keep this place updated with new stuff as it happens. Plans are on the horizon, and things will definitely pick up soon or something like that. Peace out for now.

Creating A Social Network

Whoa. Ambitious title there. To the reader’s disappointment, this post won’t discuss creating an entire online social network of half a billion subscribers; instead, we’ll talk about creating a photorealistic copy completely inside of Adobe After Effects, at four times the resolution of your internet browser, totally customizable for your cinematic needs (and copyright evasion).

I’ve made the AE project file available for download right here but please note that the photos of real people/media used below will not be included in the project file until the entire short film project is made available for download. Check out a sample page below.


Here’s a sample from the project file; all of this was created inside of Adobe After Effects.

Now, a few notes about the project file: I apologize for the mess of layers in the comps. It’s a natural byproduct when attempting to create web graphics in a program that is not too well suited to do so. The bulk of the design was creating using basic solids, ramps, and masks inside of AE. The bonus, however, is full control of the many elements that make a page.

Now, in an attempt at organization, I’ve color coded (or precomped) layers that are grouped together on the page. For example, the element containing photos in Rick’s profile (pictured above on the left) is going to appear as one composition on the main timeline of the page. To find all four main pages I created (two profiles, one of a general news feed, and one of the messages page), simply open up the folder titled “PAGES FULL” in the project tab.

This is more or less what I’ve been working on in the last week for our short film, Sierra Leone. In the beginning of the short, the main character uses Facebook to find information about what his girlfriend has been up to. Since we were dealing with fictional characters, as well as a fictional event that happens in the film’s world, we could not just screen-capture Facebook as it currently is. We needed to build Facebook from the ground up to fully control all of the elements that appear on the screen, as well as quadruple the resolution for a crisper, cleaner, more cinematic image (and close-ups of text).


100% zoom at 720p. Holds its resolution this close.

This way, we are able to present exactly what we need to the viewer, while retaining the Facebook experience, and avoiding unintentional use of any logos or property that could be used against the film. Pretty nifty if you ask me. Now that the Facebook elements have been created, we are now going to move ahead into creating the rough edit. More on that in the next blog post as we continue to cover the making of the short film under the working title “Sierra Leone.” That’s it for today, here’s a quick behind-the-scenes clip on the set of the shooting day last week (note our script supervisor and audio guy were currently out). Stay tuned!


Sierra Leone Shoot & Big News!

Blulight Studios is now in Austin, Texas! The move went well and we are still getting situated. But, eight days ago before we moved, we shot our short film under the working title, “Sierra Leone.” Well, here’s how it went!

Coffee and Preparations

The shoot was to start at 9:00am and was neatly scheduled until 7:00pm with breaks and lunch thrown in the day at appropriate times, thanks to (actual) producing. This was the first “real” short that we were going to create with a larger crew of people and decent production value, so scheduling was very important. Also, since we were going to be moving literally a day after we finished shooting, there was no wiggle room. It was the first short we shot that operated on a tight schedule, first short we provided craft services (pizza) to the new crew and actors, and the first short we used call sheets and of course, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera!

So I woke up at eight in the morning and laid out all the equipment we would need on my bed. Jason and PA’s Danny and Dexter came over and helped load it into the truck my dad graciously lent us. Then we caravanned out to Jason’s which would be where we would shoot the first scenes. When we got there, Jason had set up coffee and water bottles to grab freely, which proved essential for maintaining a comfortable environment on set. After that, it was just a matter of shooting!


This is what the set looked like in the morning-ish.

Rigging Her Up

Sierra Leone is a very simple story at heart: A deranged man sees his obsession with someone else, drives to that someone else’s house, and brutally maims (or kills?) him. In order to help convey the man’s shaken world, we wanted to shoot the physical confrontation sequence handheld, with long takes that move the scene forward in real time. Since we were shooting on a Blackmagic cinema camera, this was a real challenge for a few reasons: the camera was larger and heavier than anything I’ve worked with, it has a fairly huge crop factor, and the rolling shutter would be problematic.

We needed to use what gear we had to assemble a rig that was flexible, small, and light so it could fit through small spaces and be handled well during the complex sequences. Using the GINIRIG parts, as well as this square case designed and shipped with the BMCC, we created several rig designs, but none really fit the bill. Finally, the day before the shoot, I came up with the variation you see in the picture below.


1st AC Charles and I doing stuff with the BMCC rig and whatnot.

The rig above required some ingenuity. The bottom part that the BMCC rests on is simply the bottom part of the square bracket, with handles. The top portion is the GINIRIG baseplate and rails, upside down and screwed on to the handy holes on top of the BMCC. A top handle was slapped on there. The follow focus was put on upside down as well, almost coming in contact with the screws that jut out of the lens gear. It looked odd, but it worked and achieved all the goals stated above.

Going Wide

The BMCC’s crop factor is pretty bad. My Rokinon 24mm Cine lens, a fairly wide lens by anyone’s standards, turns into a 55mm portrait lens on the BMCC. For the long take sequence, we needed to get up, close, and personal. Shooting on such a tight image would not only be very difficult, but we would get a very shaky shot, and rolling shutter (jello vision) would be in full effect. We had to turn to the Rokinon 8mm fisheye I had laying around to tone down the camera-shake, which made the sequence look fairly different from what I had imagined. Take a look at the stills below.


(Sort of) ungraded still from the Sierra Leone shoot. Shot in ProRes.


A second (sort of) ungraded still from the Sierra Leone shoot. Shot in ProRes.

So with the Rokinon giving me wide, distorted shots, the action taking place in long takes, and the nature of the action in general, the sequence vaguely resembles an Asian action cinema flick. Hopefully I can knock out the distortion in post, as well as some other clean-up and stabilization required in shots, but otherwise, the look is cool.


Another shot from the same day, different set.

It Was A Long Day

The shoot went smoothly. We stuck to schedule and even finished up the morning shoot a few hours early. The crew worked well. We ran into issues with the audio on the BMCC. For some reason, with our Rode Videomic setup, the audio was just simply not working. Takes would come out dead silent. To my understanding, the BMCC cannot do phantom audio power, which shouldn’t be an issue with the Videomic since it is self-powered, but it just didn’t want to work anyway. We lucked out since on-location audio was not exactly critical with this specific short (almost no dialogue), but it could have messed us up should we have shot something that needed audio.


This shot makes Jason look about fifty years old. Bad timing!

As the day went on, we got what we needed, but my brain was fried by the end of the day due to lack of sleep, operating the camera during the long sequence shots, and getting burned out on coffee. My directing abilities sort of diminished, and I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen again (and I get a damned DP for the next short). But I was satisfied with what we got, and now I’m excited to work on post here in Austin now that we are all settled in!

The Big News

For all aspiring filmmakers out there reading this, this should be exciting or something for you.

For the first time (that I’ve ever heard of), after we release this short, we are putting this entire project and its resources up on the internet for download.


ProRes footage straight from the BMCC, project files, script, production documents, color grading project, all the works will be put up for the deepest insight into how this project was made. You will be able to edit, grade, do audio work, and pretty much control this short film yourself. It will all be there as an aide to any filmmakers wanting to know how this all works and how it all happens.

Well, that’s about it! I’ll keep you guys updated with post work on this short and how its coming along in the future, as well as the cool experiences here in the amazing city of Austin, Texas! Thanks for reading, and stay classy.

State of Transition

So we shot “Sierra Leone” (working title) on Monday and Tuesday, the detailed details and a pretty big surprise are coming up!

-after this long and exhaustive move, of course. Expect the post to go up Friday or Saturday. But for now, large amount of physical activity, delicate stuff being carefully put away, and other exciting (not) stuff. Stay tuned.

Sierra Leone & Free Call Sheet Template!

Sierra Leone is the working title of our short film currently in pre-production. The actual title will make more sense when it’s finally decided upon. But first thing’s first: download our free call sheet template! See what it looks like below.

Call sheet being used for shoots in Sierra Leone

Call sheet being used for shoots on Sierra Leone

What’s Cookin’?

Not a Breaking Bad reference, I swear (haven’t seen the show).

So Jason and I have been writing a short we could shoot before we leave, under the working title “Sierra Leone.” I wouldn’t call it a rushed project, as everything has been smooth sailing thus far- but its going to be the result of having only a little more than a week to write, plan, and shoot. We’ve worked on eight shorts that had to be created entirely in under six hours, two of which won awards, so I’d say we are working in familiar territory.

Sierra Leone is going to be an exercise in style and execution above anything else. We are taking a rather short, simple script and bringing it to life with atmosphere, creative cinematography, and a different tone and pace then we’ve made before (think Drive- wait, don’t think Drive, we are being totally original, I promise).

What secrets lie in these pages? (hint: none)

What dark secrets lie within these pages? (hint: none)

The story is about a man seeking revenge for having been wronged. But, was he wronged in the first place or is he not okay in the head? Those are the types of questions you’ll be asking yourself (along with “why am I watching this?”) while watching Sierra Leone. Hopefully. If the story itself fails to engage, the cinematography and mise-en-scene will hopefully come to the rescue. If those fail to engage you, then I’ve run out of options and might as well go back to making the Weekly Shorts (look! explosions! lens flares! DO I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION NOW?)

The script is mostly complete, just going through minor revisions now. The shoot dates have been planned (Monday/Tuesday), hence the free call sheets made available at the top of the post. I am now storyboarding the shots, shown below.

Underlining, markers, colors, drawing little pictures - Is this the 1st grade?!

Markers, colors, drawing little pictures – Is this the 1st grade?!

With the script on the left side and the storyboard frames on the right (and some good music on), I go through the script, underline an action I want to storyboard with a color, and write down the reference number- for example: “RF 6”. On the storyboard, I write frame 6, and roughly draw out what shot I have in mind for that action. In the description boxes, I write additional information I need for that shot- stuff like the lens, shot type (wide, medium, close-up), if the shot moves and how so, and lighting or any other stuff I need to write down and remember. That way when it comes to shoot day, I’m not completely unprepared and at a loss for what I want.

The interesting challenges during shooting are going to be the long shots, of which there are two or three. These shots are more than thirty seconds in length, and will require substantial choreography not just for the actors, but the photography and audio teams. That’s going to be interesting and fun.

6 Days Until Austin

Clock’s ticking, y’all. I’ll keep you updated.

Blackmagic Cinema Camera First Impressions

Ah yes, first impressions. It wasn’t until a few days ago that the BMCC dropped a thousand dollars in price, and in the following few days, I went ahead and ordered an EF version. It wasn’t really an impulse buy since I was already scouring the market and preparing funds for a new camera. With that price drop, it was almost an immediate purchase. It has too much goodness for me to buy any other camera for that price range. The camera came in yesterday, and I’ve yet to be disappointed, well, except for one thing, which I’ll talk about later. Here’s my report on the BMCC so far.

She’s A Real Beauty

You’re in for a world of beautiful image fidelity.

The camera just looks good. Whoever designed the physical unit has eye for design, and could fit in with Apple’s design philosophies. It’s a beautiful blend of dark rubbery material and aluminum. It’s got a lot of weight to it. 1/4 inch screw hole placements make sense, input covers are easy to work with, and the buttons on it click with satisfaction. The capacitive touch screen on the back of the unit is nice and big, but fairly reflective which gets a little annoying. Dealing with glare is never a good thing.

You can catch some of the reflection - Xbox controller for size comparison

You can catch some of the annoying reflection – Xbox controller for size comparison

Just chillin.

Just chillin.

Along with the EF camera, I got three more items. This square bracket came included for free, an external battery to supplement the mediocre battery life of the internal battery in the camera, and an SSD for storage of course. The total for everything, plus SquareTrade protection, was $2,635. A hefty price indeed, but it will pay for itself in future.

All Rigged Up & Ready To Go

Looking ready to dive into a shoot.

Looking ready to dive into a shoot.

I rigged up the Blackmagic with what I already owned along with some of the new accessories. Besides the weight and a small issue with an attachment point rocking a bit, the rig pictured above was a pleasure to use. Here’s a breakdown of the individual pieces of equipment on the rig itself:

Let’s look at shooting.

Shooting Raw, Dog

The camera is easy. If you have a few months experience shooting DSLR’s, you can skip the manual and dive right into using the Cinema Camera. The menus are a breeze to go through, settings are easily accessible and workable. The only caveat: shutter speed is not a setting; shutter angle takes its place. This means if you’re used to dealing with DSLR shutter, be prepared to know how to deal with shutter angles.

I’ve been told a lot that 12-bit RAW (the Blackmagic specifically shoots in CinemaDNG format) is a pain-in-the-ass workflow. It’s a massive file size, demands detailed grading work, can’t be edited unless it’s transcoded, takes a lot of time, and generally makes babies cry. I agree that it can suck if you are unprepared. But if you are working on a short project and have some of the basic resources, time, and knowledge, it’s really not that big of a deal.

With that being said, if you-

  • demand instant gratification with your projects
  • don’t know what ‘color bit depth’ is
  • don’t care about researching what ‘color bit depth’ is
  • don’t like color grading
  • need to finish the project immediately
  • don’t have at least a hundred gigs free of hard drive space
  • like the band Creed
  • have an SSD that is less than 100 gigs
  • don’t own Adobe After Effects or DaVinci Resolve (comes with the camera, silly)
  • have no idea what RAW means

– then you probably shouldn’t shoot in RAW or perhaps own a Blackmagic Cinema Camera just yet.

This is what one shot in RAW looks like. Audio at the top, and a DNG file for each frame.

This is what one shot in RAW looks like. Audio at the top, and a DNG file for each frame.

Here’s The Damn Footage Already

So, after shooting random stuff around my house in RAW, I transferred the footage over to my computer to see what all the fuss was about. I opened up DaVinci Resolve (a thousand-dollar color-grading program that comes bundled with the camera, used by professionals in the industry), and realized that I wasn’t familiar with the program all too well. I knew what RAW was, I knew about the possibilities with the bit-depth and the sheer flexibility in grading RAW, I just didn’t know how to use Resolve all too well. So after around forty minutes of YouTube, I was ready. And man, the fuss is fully justified. This was the result (watch in fullscreen HD for appreciation, keep in mind YouTube degrades the quality of the footage):

So that was my first test with RAW. Shot with the rig pictured above, on a Rokinon 24mm Cine Lens (without caring too much about shot composition). Right off the bat, without talking about color yet, the Cinema Camera shoots in magnificent detail. Edges of objects are sharp, textures come to life, and tiny leaves and such in the distance are rendered with great resolution and accuracy. In 2.5k, you get lots of room to work with. Each shot was graded in a log-like color-space and gamma, which means the image starts off very flat. But all the information is there, waiting to be revealed as you work with it.

Like a young sapling waiting to blossom into a flower.

Like an ugly young sapling waiting to blossom into a beautiful flower.

I tried to shoot high-contrast areas, where sunlight meets shade, to show off the dynamic range of the camera. I went as far as selecting the highs and pulling them down in some shots; it really gave the shots an almost multiple exposure HDR-like quality. I didn’t try to stylize any of the shots at all, the furthest I went in stylization were the shots of my dad- I exclusively sharpened his face and de-contrasted the rest of the image to bring attention to him, and increase the detail a bit more.

This was all done in DaVinci Resolve; a great piece of software, in fact, the most intuitive and powerful piece of software I’ve ever worked with before. It has so many great tools that allow for unlimited possibilities in the realm of coloring and treating your footage, allowing for care in every last detail. Well worth the thousand dollars it would have cost stand-alone.

My Conclusion & A Nasty Surprise

I couldn’t be happier with the purchase. Film theatre quality for a little more than $2,000. It’s all so damn impressive. As I learn to work with the footage some more, it will look better (than it already does).  I can’t wait to see the first short done with it that we’ll be shooting very, very soon (more on that in the next post). In the upcoming short, you’ll be able to see not only the prowess of the camera in narrative filmmaking, but also artistic grading and cool cinematography I’ll be doing.

It all sounds too good to be true, which is why my buzz was killed with a little defect in the camera I got. As I was working on the footage, I saw a dark smudgey-thing in a shot, staying in the same place in the frame throughout the shot. Maybe a smear on the lens, I thought. Looked at my lens, nothing was wrong with it. Looked at the sensor of the Cinema Camera and found a little nick on the glass in front of the sensor. The nick casts a pretty noticeable shadow on the sensor in direct light, hence the dark smudge.

There's the scratch, it's beneath a few layers of the glass.

There’s the scratch, it’s beneath a few layers of the glass.

So now I must go through the hassle of RMA and get a new unit, one that hopefully doesn’t have any defects.

Seven Days Until Austin

Well, I hope this has been an informative blog post about my first impressions on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. I’ll have more information on it as its used in future productions! Stay tuned on the blog, the next post will go pretty in-depth on the short film currently in the works. Goodnight and goodluck.