When we saw a barrage of banners and posters for a horror movie called "P2," all we could think of was the tapeless video storage used by our cuddly little Panasonic HVX200 camera. We decided we simply had to have a little fun with the idea of our cuddly camera becoming... not so cuddly.
Click the image below to see the original trailer for the movie and DVD release.
Now click the image below to see how that inspired us.
We threw together this shoot in about two days, with about a $20 budget, which meant we had to make some compromises. The first of these really drove home how much we already take the tapeless workflow for granted!
Since we only have one HVX, and it appears on-screen as an "actor" in many of the shots, we obviously couldn't use it to shoot. We had to look elsewhere, and our first choice given the low-light conditions was a 2/3" camera like the HPX500 - the bigger sensor would pick up more light and give us nicer looking pictures in conditions beyond our control. However, that fell through and we ended up borrowing a tape-based camera for the shoot. We didn't shoot an enormous amount of footage, but even so, the forgotten process of logging and capturing footage from tape was agonizing.
As we've watched prices for tapeless media continue to plunge, the thought of going back to tape seems more and more ridiculous to us. Up until recently we've managed most shoots with just 2 4gb P2 cards. This does mean taking camera breaks every now and then to transfer footage and clear off the cards, but we're usually able to schedule this to take place while setting up a new shot or running rehearsal, so it's not actually adding downtime. With a couple 16gb cards, we don't see this ever being an issue again.
We copy our footage direct to a laptop drive, usually, and then often copy it a second time for safety to a portable drive as well. The footage is a snap to bring in via Final Cut Pro's Log and Transfer utility, where we review and rename footage items before starting the edit.
The entire crew consisted of just 4 people, with Asa Shumskas-Tait and myself directing. I also operated camera, Harrison Lee served as both grip and "HVX puppeteer,” and Mike Celestino was just a nice guy and lent an extra hand wherever needed. The lovely Kristen Carter stars as the woman in distress. Asa Shumskas-Tait and Rick Castañeda edited and did sound, while I sat back during post and contributed nothing more helpful than snarky comments.
We nearly broke our HVX at least once, and nearly broke our actress repeatedly (both mentally and physically). Our HVX puppeteer, Harrison, got a great workout holding the tripod and scuffling around like a crab for the scene where the HVX chases our heroine with a knife.
Most of the shoot was done guerrilla-style in a parking garage, which becomes very interesting when you start stacking up big piles of boxes and shrieking for your life and all that. But we made it through without drawing too much unwanted attention, surprisingly. We had a backup location in mind in case we had to run, but it wasn't an issue.
Since we had to stay mobile, almost all of the lighting was achieved with just two Litepanels Minis. The adjustable output on the Minis allowed us to fairly easily achieve some key effects, like the menacing HVX appearing out of the darkness (it's actually not moving at all).
One of the famous features of the HVX is its variable frame rate, so we had written a number of slow-motion jokes into the script.
For the slow-motion sequence we did use our HVX200 as the primary camera, and shot at 60fps - two and a half times our final output rate of 24fps. That's as slow as the HVX will go, and it gave us the maximum flexibility to retime shots in post as needed.
Unfortunately, the higher the frame rate, the more light you need, and as previously mentioned we didn't have much to spare. I still felt that boosting the levels in post would be a better option than trying to fake the slow motion, and the results were pretty satisfactory to us here.
We also tweaked settings (such as reducing the detail level and dropping the black level) to achieve a softer, more filmic look for most of the interiors.
We knew we wouldn't have a lot of time in post, so we also tried to do most of the color correction in-camera as well. Normally we follow a pretty rigorous post-production color correction process and make a lot of tweaks (using Color, Color Finesse, and Digital Film Tools' 55mm plug-in set) , but this wasn't a budgeted project so quick and dirty was the play.
So we did most of our color correction in camera and committed to decisions we knew we could stand by, much like shooting film. The white balance in the camera is a dumb sensor, so it's easy to trick. If you point it at something blue and push the button (effectively lying and saying "this is white"), then your image will be cast in warm, orange tones... and vice versa if you want cool blue colors.
A great way to do this is to carry around different colored gels and throw them up in front of the lens, but I've been on many shoots where you just scavenge around for something red, white, or blue to balance with. "What about this vat of fake blood?" "No, too red!"
We used motion tracking for the shots where the camera LCD screen flips around and "speaks" to our heroine. We used Imagineer's Mocha to track the screen's position and sent the corner pin data back to After Effects, where we designed and placed the "message" into the LCD Viewfinder. Finally, we painted out the black spatula that we used as a "handle" to flip the screen around, so that the viewfinder screen would look like it was flipping itself.
We chose the spatula because it was black, and would simply fade into the black body of the camera. Also, it happened to be in Asa's kitchen, where we shot this. Harrison started the flip with the spatula, and then Asa reached up and with his finger completed the move. It required the grace and timing of two very talented ballet dancers – unfortunately we didn't have any of those, so we made do with Harrison and Asa.
Once finished, all of the effects shots (about 8 in total) were rendered out as uncompressed full-res files and sent back to Final Cut for our final export. Very minor tweaks were made to our on-set color settings to match between shots – but because we were making a highly stylized trailer and not a strictly narrative film, even this wasn't as important as it would normally be.
This was a fun and interesting project for us. We got to combine a lot of our modern digital toys with a lot of old low-budget film school cheats. Today's cameras, accessories, and post tools create a ton of possibility and potential, but there's still no substitute for having a handy bag of $0 tricks on hand. The best results can come when you blend both approaches.