Thursday, March 19th – It was a rainy evening in downtown Los Angeles and we were setting up for Day 2 of Production on my new TV show Limited Edition. I had spent the past 15 months getting to this point; writing, securing funding, casting, location scouting, rehearsing, shot listing. I had successfully grown my commercial company Vitascope Arts into a six-figure business over the course of only a few years but this was going to be my first big step into creating fully produced original content, completely in-house. I had a lot riding on the show and I was more prepared for this project than anything I had ever done in my life. On this Thursday, most of the state had already been ordered to begin social distancing, to stay home, and all large gatherings had been banned. We were on set working, payroll had been financed, equipment had been paid for, insurance covered, locations booked, yet we all knew our production could be shut down at any moment. And then, just like that, one of my crew members scrolled their phone and announced “The Mayor just shut down all of Los Angeles. We have until midnight.” Full lockdown. It was a surreal feeling. Not only would the production have to shut down indefinitely but we weren’t even supposed to be outside of our homes. Everything was immediately put into perspective and the world would be changed forever. Let’s go back a few months.
RED VS ARRI VS SONY
I shot my two feature films and almost all of my commercials with Red cameras. But with this TV show I wanted to seriously consider all of the high-end digital options on the market. My cinematographer, Mike Testin, and I narrowed it down to the Sony Venice, the Red Monstro and the Arri Alexa Mini LF. At the time, I wasn’t aware of any productions that had shot with the mini LF. As I did more research I saw an interview with Roger Deakins where he talked about using it on 1917 and it sounded like the way to go. Deakins summarized it pretty simply when he said “the image that the LF and the Signature produces seems, to me, more like what my eyes see than anything else I’ve experienced so far.” After selecting the LF, we then discussed what aspect ratio we wanted to shoot at. The big advantage you get with the LF (large format) is that you can shoot 4.5K Resolution Open Gate. With Open Gate you’re capturing footage with the entire sensor, making it extremely easy to crop later to whatever dimensions you want. I loved the idea of having this flexibility and then we could just add guides to our output if we wanted. If you’re shooting Large Format you actually need lenses that can cover the entire sensor. We decided to shoot with a massive Zero Optik’s re-housed Nikon AI-S FF Prime Lens Set that our rental house (ShadowCast Pictures) had just acquired. It included the 15MM, 20MM, 24MM, 35MM, 50MM, 55MM, 58MM, 85MM, 105MM, and 135MM. I would have a full arsenal of visual options at my disposal.
SHOOTING WITH THE ALEXA MINI LF
The first day of production we shot the title sequence to the show in a studio downtown. The sequence would feature our lead actor, Christopher Dietrick, in various close-ups as the background falls off into darkness behind him. A beautiful intro sequence really sets the tone for the entire show like True Detective or Game of Thrones. I wanted the intro to Limited Edition to be abstract and stylish yet simple. I really wanted to flex the muscles of the LF on Day 1 and I thought a sequence like this could do that. The images we got were some of the cleanest, detailed close-ups I’ve ever shot. I loved the look of the camera immediately, almost film-like. As we moved into the rest of our schedule, we got to experience the look and feel of the camera even more. We shot in a beautiful loft downtown where our main light source were the open windows. For these scenes we really got to see the luxury of the LF’s dynamic range and the level of detail in the shadows. There is a very painterly aspect to the image, something I’ve only seen with this camera. Another day we shot on a stage with really bright, neon signs everywhere, and when we put a simple Rec709 LUT on the output the color popped beautifully. Needless to say, shooting with this camera is one of the main reasons I can’t wait to get back into our production.
ADVICE FOR FILMMAKERS DURING THE QUARANTINE
Every film and TV production in the country was shut down. There are thousands of filmmakers, directors, editors, and producers just like me that are now scrambling to figure out how they will continue to work during this brutal pandemic. I would start by letting all of your existing clients know that many commercials, YouTube videos, PSA’s, explainer videos, can be made from start to finish completely within the computer. You can utilize your creativity, your editing skills, motion graphics and visual effects, to create beautiful work for all types of purposes. Work with voiceover artists remotely and complete your project. Use this time to hone your post talents, because these are going to be skills that can help you for the rest of your career. I have also already been shooting projects in my living room for clients. I rented a full Red Gemini package for 50%+ off from a Los Angeles based rental house and set up backdrops in front of my couch. Rental companies are getting crushed in LA right now because all of the productions have been shut down. They will be willing to rent to you for unreal deals. If you’re a writer, now is the time to work even harder than you ever have in your life. Have that spec screenplay ready to go when this lockdown is over. Streamers and networks will be craving new content after months of productions being shut down. Have those projects ready to go. Maybe it’s something as simple as a script for a spec commercial – finish it.
Our TV show Limited Edition was shut down by coronavirus – just like every other production in the country. We’ll be back. We’ll resume filming as soon as it’s safe. But we need to get this world healthy and it will only happen if all of us work together. I offered my story and experience as a way to relate to all of the filmmakers out there and hopefully some of my advice can be applied to your own career to help you through this time. I’ve also included a link to donate to Feeding America, which is helping provide food for children.
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