Behind the scenes on 30-min domestic violence awareness film 'Escape'
This post we look at the process of producing, directing and shooting the film Escape.
On the surface everything appears enviable about Kate's life; a beautiful son (Jake), a loving husband (Bill), good friends and a comfortable home in the suburbs. As we start to lift the edges though we see that Kate's life is spiralling out of control at the hands of Bill's intimidation and abuse. With the help of her friend Sally and a chance encounter with a stranger also enduring a similar domestic situation (May), Kate realises she has to escape her domestic Hell for the sake of her and Jake's safety.
This was one of those once in a lifetime opportunity projects! I'd produced, shot and directed two films already for this client's ongoing three stage campaign spanning over 3 years, so when their plan for a 3rd instalment of the 'Pull Ya Head In' campaign against domestic violence came to fruition with funding support through a government grant, I was over the moon with excitement.
Escape is a 27 minute film when shown in it's entirety, and a 6-part web series when broken up as scripted.
I was given the green light to begin development in October 2016. At an executive producer level I immediately brought on a writer and together we began researching and developing the story. By December 2016 after many rounds of changes, review and feedback we finally locked off the treatment and the script writing process began. Christmas and new years breaks slowed things down but by March 2017 a script was finished and ready for shooting. At this stage I brought on a producer to handle that side of things and allowed myself to focus solely on the directing and cinematography of the film. I had a distinct style and look I was going for and this project was too big to add producing into the mix too.
Patrick, the producer I brought on to take over from myself did a great job of pulling this thing together. We had a budget that was by typical short film standards quite decent. But no matter how much money you have it's still never enough. It's like this - you have more money, so you aim higher. Whatever I shoot, I want it to look like I had twice as much money as I did. Pat and I had to call in more than a few favours to make it happen, but the result is something everyone can be proud of.
The shoot was held over 6 days.
I had a vision for this project right from the start. It's a story about domestic abuse. For most people it's an uncomfortable subject. And that's how I wanted the audience to feel - uncomfortable. To convey this my plan was to shoot it in a way that would leave the viewer always feeling like they are the third person in the room, witnessing this abuse, but not being able to do anything about it. It was important to me that everything from the acting to the cinematography to the score supported that feeling of discomfort. This was crucial to telling this story and getting my audience in the headspace to take action as the film is part of an anti-domestic violence campaign.
We didn't have time or money for rehearsals in pre-production. Pre-production was all about casting, crew, costume fittings and locking in locations. I had a chat with each of the actors in pre-production about their character, who they were and what their motivations were. I only had about half an hour with each actor and that was it. Then the next time I saw them was on set. But I didn't mind that. I like just getting on set, chatting with the actors about the scene, doing a few onset rehearsals and then rolling a take. Rehearsals play better in the actual environment.
I often say 80% of directing is casting. If you've done the right thing when selecting your cast, you'll have a great shoot. If you cast poorly, it's going to be tough. I've experienced this both ways and the latter is not a lot of fun. But on Escape, we cast very well. The level of talent I had to work with was phenomenal to say the least and it made my job on set very easy.
Directing and cinematography for me come hand in hand. This is where I love to play. I love composing the frame, lighting for the mood and then letting the actors bring their best to the scene. And I love a motivated camera. The camera should tell as much of the story as the actors do. Following from my aim as a director to give the film a feeling of discomfort, I shot 90% of the film handheld and (as much as possible) with something dirty (blurry) in the foreground. Foreground combined with the natural movement of a handheld camera give the feeling that someone is watching. I wanted that someone to be the viewer. Working with our art director, I was able to find objects to place in front of the camera and throw them out of focus.
I also wanted the look of the film to be moody, but natural looking. It seems to me that with the rise of LED and fluorescent lighting fixtures lighting in film has moved away from the classic Hollywood look and more towards a natural, softer but deeper look. The close-up above of Sally shows exactly what I mean. I'll go further into lighting breakdowns below.
Here's what we had to shoot & light this film with:
- 2x RED Epic-W's @ 7K res (4K for 150fps), 2:1 aspect ratio, 10:1 compression, 1280 ISO, 25fps, 180 degree shutter
- Carl Zeiss CP.2 prime lenses 25, 35, 50, 85mm
- Tamron 18-50mm zoom lens (for drone shots)
- Tilta rig & handles + RED DSMC2 side handle
- Tilta matte box
- Formatt Hitech Firecrest IRND 0.3 - 1.8ND
- 1/4 & 1/2 Black Frost diffusion
- 2x Arri Skypannel
- Arri L7 LED Fresnel
- 2K HMI
- 2K Tunsten "Blondes"
- Creamsource Doppio Mini (daylight LED)
- Westcott LED Flex light 1x1
- Litematt (tungsten)
- 12x12 frames with 1/2 stop grid diffusion
- 4x4 Poly
- Black flags and floppies
- FreeFly Alta 6
- FreeFly MoVi M15 gimbal
Handheld vs. Tripod
Jumping right into it from Image 1 (above the directing section), the first two scenes after the opening credits and last scene of the film represent a world where Kate is happy and/or at peace in her life. These are the only places I used a tripod for calm and steady shots. The rest of the film is shot handheld and the degree of camera shake is determined by the level of anxiety or panic the female characters are experiencing. For image 1, I put haze in the bathroom, bounced a bit of fill into the ceiling with an Arri Skypannel and put a HMI through the window for that harder daylight, which was also diffused by the texture of the window.
Storytelling Through Different Looks
I also use a different approach to colour. It's subtle, but I found the tonal difference in skin tones, shadows and warmth from what I got with RED's IPP2 colour science and the Arri Alexa look gave me something I could really work with. When comparing the two looks side by side, the Alexa look gave me more of a warmer magenta tone to the skin, while IPP2 gave me more of a greener tone in the shadows. So for the calmer scenes shot on a tripod I used TrueColor's RED to Alexa LUT and for the handheld scenes I used RED's IPP2. This doesn't mean I think the Alexa look is better. Just better suited to the feeling I was conveying in those particular scenes.
If you look at image 2 of Sally, this is where I feel the tones offered with IPP2 (along with the lighting and depth of field) helped tell that part of the story rather well.
Skipping ahead to the BBQ scene in image 3, we shot this scene at around 9:30 in the morning. This allowed us to take advantage of the northern sunlight while it was still low.
Shooting in July in Sydney meant that we were shooting in winter. The day's are shorter, but the light is generally softer and lower. We threw up two 12x12 floppies with 1/2 grid diffusion. This cuts 1/2 stop of light and diffuses it so that it's nice and soft, but doesn't cut it so much that it looses all shape.
RED Helium 7K vs. 8K
Worth noting about the RED Helium 8K sensor, at 7K the field of view is bang on 3-perth super35 film. This is why I like to shoot at 7K because I know I'm working to a S35 standard. 8K resolution is actually a slightly larger format. For the shot in image 3 above I was on the 25mm lens, but with the space restriction imposed I just wasn't getting a wide enough shot. 25mm was the widest lens I had, so for this I pushed the resolution up from 7K to 8K and with the way the RED works with sensor cropping, this gave me a wider field of view, similar to the look of a 20mm lens.
Given that the film takes place in suburbia, I thought it was quite fitting that we'd shoot some aerials over suburbia with the drone and pepper them throughout the film as scene transitions that make subtle reminders of where we are and how these stories could be happening in any neighbourhood. I shot the aerial shots with the Epic-W on the FreeFly Alta 6 drone and as always, with the 35mm lens. This just gives the nice wide aerial shots a natural looking field of view.
Lenses and Filtration
I had 1/4 black frost diffusion running in both cameras to soften up the image and to bloom the highlights. The practical in image 6 has a nice bloomy glow around it that takes the edge off the clinical sharp nature of the CP.2's.
Lens choice was based on the gear I already owned. I was careful to ensure both cameras were sharing the same set of four CP.2 lenses to maintain consistency in colour, contrast and sharpness. We'd either shoot a side-by-side closeup and mid shot or mid shot and wide shot, or we'd cross shoot the dialogue. This meant our shoot days covered more coverage more quickly than if we were working with only one camera, something I fought for in the budget. The trade off was that I didn't actually want to camera operate but have two separate camera crews under my direction. But due to budget restraints I was forced to camera operate as well as DP and direct. Thankfully though my 1st Assistant Camera was amazing at taking the camera from me the moment I called cut so I could leap over to the actors and other camera operator with directions.
With the exception of flashback scenes, I shot the whole film at T2.8. The flashbacks were wide open at T1.5 and for those scenes we also removed the 1/4 black frost and dropped in a 1/2 black frost to embellish the foggy memory effect. I also stayed consistent with ISO at 1280, which on the Epic-W's firmware at the time was considered the base ISO. This meant using ND filters to compensate for the changing exposure values.
Day for Night
We had a few interior night scenes that were shot during the day. For image 8 my gaffer tented the window with black floppies and trusses with thick black fabric, leaving just enough gap to throw the Arri L7 through it. I asked our art director to wherever possible throw sheers on the windows. I love the look sheers give. The Arri L7 looks like a HMI but is actually an LED fresnel that's fully colour tuneable from 2,800 to 10,000K, it's dimmable, uses low power consumption but packs a punch when you need a shaft of light and you're working off standard house power. For a bit of colour contrast and some fill on Jake's face when he sits up in bed we placed the Arri Skypannel dialled in to tungsten in the hallway, bounced the light off the ceiling and adjusted the crack in the bedroom door until the light leek looked right.
Back to always shooting through something for the observational feel of the film, image 9 shows Jake's face through the gap between Bill's body and arm. The catchlight in Jake's eyes heightens his childish innocence.
By contrast, Vincent has no catchlight in his eye during his hard stare at May, which is followed by him intimidating and belittling her. It's not easy to control for every scene (and I know we didn't get it perfect every time) but where we got it right it makes a powerful image. Image 10 also was a day for night scene where we tented the whole pergola outside the window to frame right, and then lit accordingly. Here's that that looked like from behind the scenes:
For the scenes in the mini-mart we used a lot of 1/2 green to supplement the unnatural, sickly look of typical fluorescent lighting in shops. I also put a light haze in the air to help build on the atmosphere in the scene (image 13) where May is cheated by her boss.
In image 15 you can see the focus is on Kate's reflection in the mirror. Naturally as viewers our eyes are drawn to the part of the image that it in focus. Shooting T.2.8 on the 35mm over Kate's shoulder allows us to follow her eye movements as she notices May walking in image 16.
I really feel this shot (image 16) shows off the high dynamic range of the RED. We've got detail in every part of this image, from the long shadows on the road and the grass to the fluffy clouds in the sky.
Remaining in the Shadows
I love shooting into the shadows. It looks nicer, adds shape, creates depth and tells a bigger story about the people in the frame when we keep the camera on the fill side. Tonally, it also works with the dark undercurrent of the film. This means shooting into the shadows and having our key light backlight the subject. Here's some more examples:
The Escape Scene
The escape scene at the climax of the film was a tricky scene to light because of the clients requirements for us to shoot the scene cinematically as per the rest of the film, and then re-shoot the scene in 360. The main consideration when shooting with a 360 camera is that it sees in every direction, so you have to either hide the lights (which doesn't leave many options) or make them practicals in the scene. Since the driveway location had a car port, our gaffer suggested we strap two fluorescent dimmable tubes to the poles under the awning and let them fall into shot as if they were practicals. We then had a cream source way up high some 50 feet away giving us a moonlight source.
I really had to compromise here a bit because of time restraints. If we weren't pushed for time I'd have lit the scene the better for the 2 camera shoot and then changed the lighting for the 360. However, working into the night with a child on set meant we were restricted by certain rules around how late and how many hours a child can work on set for. And so we lit for two very different types of shoots in one setup.
Images 21 to 24 below shows where we had placed some practicals in the scene.
We also had traffic control on set with us for the part of the scene where Kate reverses out into the street and drives off with Bill chasing the car down the street.
You can see the 360 version if you're using a mobile phone below:
The Calm after the Storm
After their escape, Kate and Jake sleep in the car until morning and Kate is woken by the warm glow of the sunrise on her face. The shot in image 25 was filmed around 10am. To emulate the golden sunlight look of a sunrise we used a 2K "Blonde" tungsten open face lamp on a dimmer and my gaffer was simply cranking it up from zero. I would give the actress a cue and she would open her eyes and wakeup as if the sunlight had woken her up.
To cut the reflections off the windscreen that we were shooting through we simply draped 2x black floppies on c-stands over the windscreen. Then once I looked through the viewfinder I realised since we were shooting this in a carpark and the next shot we were cutting to would be a wide shot where the car is parked on the street outside a police station, we needed to fill the background with a parked car to sell the idea that Kate is actually parked on the street.
Shooting at Dusk
The film draws towards a close 3 months after Kate's escape where she catches up with May on the street and offers her advice for how to get help. We scripted this as early evening and I wanted to shoot at dusk. Image 27 is another one of my favourite shots. The low light level, the gradient in the sky, the headlights and streetlights all work together to bring this sort of romantic look to the picture. It's not actually a romantic scene, but more of a touching moment between these two woman who have created a new friendship, and the message in the scene is of women supporting other women. Working with colour on screen, our art director has also done a fantastic job of working with the blue-ish tones as evident in the car and May's clothing, which I think it really makes the shot work as your eye is led around the frame by the colour blue.
7K, High ISO and Noise Reduction
Now this is where I believe the RED Helium sensor really shows off. Due to a setback we had moved slower than expected and by the time we got to our turn around for Kate's close-up the sun was all but gone. Under the given circumstances our lighting kit had to be battery powered and really wouldn't be able to create a large enough source to not look like a spotlight. So I decided to leave our ISO at 1280 but opened up to T2.0 and lit it best as I could with the lights we had, knowing full well that it would be underexposed and would need attention in post. When I finally got the grade I really got to see the power of the 8K sensor.
People ask "why do you need to shoot at 8K or even 7K when TV's are at best 4K and broadcast is HD. Well, aside from reframing options, the image when shot at a higher res looks that much smoother when you downsample it to 4K or (even more so) HD. To put it simply, noise gets smaller and becomes less noticeable. So in this case where we were shooting underexposed, bringing up the exposure in post was a very doable thing. Here's what I did: I shot the film at 1280 ISO (the base ISO for the Helium at the time before RED remapped the ISO). Because the footage was shot in raw I was then able to reset the ISO in post, where I lifted it to 2500 ISO. This introduced a fair bit of noise, which was noticeable at 7K resolution. I then used Neat Video (a noise reduction software plugin) to remove the noise as best as it could. It did a pretty good job, but there's always something plastic looking about the image when you do this. Finally, when it came to mastering the film I mastered in 4K, downsampling the 7K video by almost half. This squeezed down the overall image, making any artefacts that were a result of the high ISO and noise reduction tool so small that it was now no-longer noticeable. Had the image been shot and mastered in 4K I don't think it would have turned out so well.
Our final scene of the film ends with a subtle push in. This was another day for night scene, where we tented the outside of the window and pushed a HMI through it as a moon source while we lit the interior with tungsten for a warm white feel to it.
So that's it! This one was a mammoth to produce so I hope I've convinced at least someone that I know what I'm talking about. If you have any thoughts I'd love to read your comments.