Mobile & Lightweight: DSLR Shooting for Web Promos
Once in a while, there are jobs which simply tick all the boxes for a DoP: tell interesting stories, in extraordinary places, with fascinating people… And make 'pretty' pictures to boot! In 2010 I was offered one of those. It was a series of promotional films for Vodafone's online Power to You campaign. They would be testimonial documentaries from seven countries, illustrating how mobile technologies had helped customers for the better.
The stories were diverse. In Kenya, William's shoe cleaning business has been transformed by the M-PESA mobile phone payment system. In neighbouring Tanzania, medical administrators now get a daily picture of drug stocks from even their remotest clinics, via the use of an SMS-fed website. And Taxi drivers in Portugal can connect to local police via a panic button that uses the local mobile network.
The films were being made by Outsider, a commercials production company based in London. Director Matt Huntley set the challenge of telling these real stories in an unfussy way, yet have the kind of pace and pictorial 'polish' of a mainstream TV commercial. We would be a unit of four people. It was clear that we'd need a camera kit that not only delivered good pictures but was compact enough to avoid spending the remaining budget on excess luggage charges! As the films were destined for the web, DSLR was the obvious choice. Lightweight and unobtrusive, I could actually carry two Canon 5D MKII camera bodies and a set of prime lenses as hand-luggage!
I took a range of other kit from S+O Media, a favourite facilities house in West London. That included a single 6.5" Hi-brightness Marshall 651 on-board monitor for operating. I like using only one monitor, mounted on-board with DSLR because it brings the director back to the camera. It means you're shooting the film together again, closer to the days of 16mm documentary filming rather than the modern way of being monitored remotely from a video village in another room. The portability of my Wally Dolly was given the thumbs up by the Outsider team, who are used to needing a full grip truck (no disrespect to Grips, though!); We used Wally Dolly moves to add some contrast to the handheld shots. I also had a Miller Compass 20 fluid head and 3 Stage Solo DV carbon-fibre legs. Apart from having a deceptively sturdy spreader-less legs setup, the Solo DV legs of the tripod made the small camera even more discreet, and easier to carry around for long days in sometimes physically hard conditions. The flexibility of camera heights - 18" to well over my head height - was invaluable. Another cameraman friend suggested I could take the compact tripod apart and fit it in my suitcase for flying… which I duly did and filled the tripod bag instead with useful lighting stands… and spare socks.
One of the joys of using DSLR is exploiting the format's shallow DoF for actual storytelling, beyond the ubiquitous 'ultra-shallow focus' look that’s in vogue right now. One such opportunity was the Taxi Seguro story in Lisbon. The Taxi driver Daniel talks about the feelings of isolation in his cab late at night; we decided to use the shallow focus to always separate Daniel from the exterior of the cab. We tried to create a feeling of being in a bubble floating through Lisbon's streets, which I think broadly works in the film. The freedoms of DSLR were another advantage for telling the Taxi driver's story: the size of DSLRs meant that I could put the camera virtually anywhere within the cab. Also, being able to push the camera to 1600ASA and 3200ASA, to work at very low light levels, was very exciting. The texture of available light - street lighting mainly - is more interesting and believable to watch.
There were some special moments: witnessing lives being saved by something as simple as a SMS message in Tanzania was amazing. And of course, there were hiccups too. During a night reconstruction scene with a Police car and our hero in Lisbon, the prop police car was suddenly withdrawn from us barely an hour before calltime! With no time, money or Props department to solve the issue, a speedy solution and some fudging was necessary… In my sweaty hotel bathroom, I unscrewed the shaving mirror and paired it with a 800w redhead with blue gel… by spinning the shaving mirror, flashes of hard, blue light played across the cab... It was just enough to run the scene convincingly.
All in all, we met some interesting people and I saw parts of the world that otherwise I'd never have seen. I think we told the stories in a sensitive, articulate way, and the client was over the moon… A real pleasure.
Its been a good 2011 so far: with the same team, I've completed an interactive music video for UK artist Paloma Faith; I’ve also shot a motion-control heavy promo for UK charity Childline and some Finnish TV station idents using a 360 degree camera rig. There are now so many platforms where skilled camerawork is required: for whole host of stories, in different genres, with different challenges, that it makes the job of today's cinematographer more exciting than ever.
The full kit (mostly from S+O Media): 2 x Canon 5D mkII, 1 x set of zeiss ZF primes, 1 x canon/sigma 70-200mm zoom, 1 x 6.5" Marshall 651 HDMI monitor, 1 x Genus Lightweight Mattebox, Redrock Micro DSLR rig, 1 x Miller Compass 20 head & 3-stage Solo DV carbon fibre legs; Divalight 400, Bebob LED Lux PAR light, 7" Panelite, and a California Sunbounce & sunswatter kit…
About the Author
Tom found himself passionate about filmmaking at age of 14, via the Children’s Film Unit, a 16mm training workshop in London.
After graduating from the Bournemouth Film school in 1998, he spent a decade shooting a wide range projects: TV documentaries, low-budget feature films, promos, installation films and shorts. Some of these projects earned him awards (including an iBAFTA). He has also invovled in directing.
(1036) Compass 20 Fluid Head
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