Shooting Trent & Isabella: Blackmagic Firmware & Indie Film
COW Library : Blackmagic Cameras : Kylee Peña : Shooting Trent & Isabella: Blackmagic Firmware & Indie Film
New York-based filmmaker Paul Del Vecchio is an all around sort of film rebel. Starting out with his father's oversized VHS camera back in the fifth grade, he fell in love with film and pursued it aggressively – straying the path briefly to work with special effects makeup in college. When he wasn't happy with how filmmakers were utilizing the makeup effects, he decided to jump back into directing and lighting, and editing his own stuff.
A post production professional by day, Paul jumped at the chance to work as a director of photography for David Wharton's Trent & Isabella, an independent action feature about an assassin on a mission to find his kidnapped girlfriend. The film's visuals were inspired by spaghetti westerns and films noir.
Shooting a film with such distinct looks is no small feat, so Paul decided to use the Blackmagic Cinema Camera with Leica-R lenses and a Blackmagic-specific speedbooster. With the new firmware upgrades and debayer process which converts raw image sensor data into an RGB image, Paul could push the look the way he wanted with leverage in post – getting the shots he needed without adding to the workload on an indie set.
Creative COW: How did you get involved with Trent & Isabella?
Paul Del Vecchio: I love working with friends and people who respect you and you respect them. The collaboration that's there is incredible, so I jump at the opportunity. I really wanted to work with [director David Wharton] and I knew I could do a good job so I was like yeah, let me DP the project. I also wanted to train myself better with lighting, and obviously doing a film and doing lighting is the best way to do that.
The visual style of the film is very important. How did you work with David to establish the look?
We had a lot of conversations about the source material. David didn't come to me like 'hey I want this look'. It was like what are the influences on certain scenes and what the characters are going through in those scenes. He had an idea of what he wanted, but he came to me we'd talk about it. Each scene pulls influences from different genres. There's a basement scene where a girl is being held captive, and the mood of it is more like horror or thriller.
Each scene pulls influences from different genres. A basement scene where a girl is held captive evokes a mood of a horror or thriller genre, while the warehouse set kindled a sense of film noir.
Then there's a shot on the beach with big sand dunes and what we wanted to capture there was a spaghetti western feel. And then one of the other scenes takes place in a warehouse set and that was more like a film noir crime drama look. It pulls from many different genres. We talked it out and we watched some movies, like old films noir, looking at some shots from that time period and genre. We definitely watched The Good the Bad and the Ugly and some Sergio Leone westerns.
How did the new firmware upgrades help you as a DP?
The ProRes debayer on the original firmware was, to my eye and personal taste, just too soft for me. It didn't resolve as much detail as I would like, especially when you're using the 2.5K raw mode.
We talked about shooting raw anyway then converting it to 2.5K ProRes so we wouldn't have to store the raw files, but we didn't have the manpower or budget for that workflow. So we said, "Let's just shoot with the new debayer, and that captures a LOT of the detail." It's a lot closer to the 2.5k raw than the original version of the firmware. It gave us what we wanted without dealing with the crazy workflow of converting from raw to ProRes or the additional storage costs.
We didn't want to shoot it and let it sit a while. If we're gonna shoot this, we're going to finish it. A lot of times people shoot things and then they don't do anything with it because the workflow is so crazy that they sit on it, and we didn't want to do that. We're trying to get this done as soon as possible and then we're putting it out there.
How did the camera handle the dynamic range of your scenes, especially the noir scenes?
My style is to get it as close as possible in camera while shooting flat then adjusting contrast and stuff later in post. At ISO200, the camera is very clean, but it also seems like I'm losing a little dynamic range at that point because the curve is different on the footage. It's a starting point, and I don't like that as a starting point. So I prefer ISO400 and 800.
Del Vecchio notes, "When you light them [dark scenes] it's not about barely having any light, it's having very powerful light so you can create the contrast ratios."
I don't shoot at 1600 because it's too much of a danger zone for me. You'll too often see the sensor pattern or static noise and I didn't want to have to deal with that in any of the footage. We were using lots of lights. In a lot of the dark scenes, when you light them it's not about barely having any light, it's having very powerful light so you can create the contrast ratios.
Have you been working with the footage in post? Are you happy with the results?
I'll be doing the editing and color correction actually. It's crazy because my favorite part is being on set, but my second favorite part is color correction. If you understand all the technical side of how to use the programs, you can be more creative and know what you can get away with on set. I tried to avoid doing any fixing in post since I'm shooting it too.
Paul will be doing the editing and color correction
I shot mainly at ISO400 so if I did do any under-exposing and I needed to push it up a bit it wouldn't be the end of the world. I was definitely able to push it up and down in post – and Resolve is my weapon of choice for that.
How do light and color help tell a story for you?
Subconsciously, it's something where you look at something and it's just scary, for example. The general audience isn't going to say oh, they have really dark shadows and they lights positioned a certain way. They don't pick out the technical and they don't care. When they look at something, it brings out an emotion. That's the goal. We were always asking what's the mood and how do we design to the mood. That was the deciding factor in the overall look. There were a lot of times where we wanted to light it more or cast a shadow there, but it didn't fit the mood and if it didn't fit, we moved on.
Did you have any particularly difficult scenes to shoot?
It's one of the film noir scenes was very difficult. It was difficult because we were up against a schedule and a tight set so we were trying to cast shadows and make sure the environment around them was dark. The problem was there were six characters standing in different locations, so we had to keep adjusting lighting while we were up against the schedule and that was a challenge. Plus it was hot that day. But we had no technical problems with the camera or anything.
What's your favorite part about the filmmaking process?
Getting really awesome images and shooting with friends.
That's the main thing: to have a good time. This was probably the best filmmaking experience I've had. At the end of the day, looking at the raw footage and knowing we're getting what we want and being proud of the work that we're doing, you can't really ask for anything more.
What did you learn about being a DP on this film that you can bring to the rest of your career?
The more stuff you do, the more you learn. I'm a big fan of learning by doing. With this project, we were establishing so many looks. I've learned I can push the image a certain way and shoot a certain ISO to get different looks. It's something I kind of knew before, but this really increased my knowledge on the whole thing.
Also, my friend David is really about getting stuff done. There are certain times when there's a fear you have of starting a project for whatever reason. I would say when you're consumed by that fear like 'I'm gonna screw it up, it needs to be perfect', you don't really get anything done. I feel it's better to have a film that has a couple things you don't like about it than not have a film and sit there in fear of doing any of the work.