For what it's worth, I’m not normally a "microfilmmaker". It may sound a bit grandiose, but I'm used to shooting decent sized productions. I say this because I still shoot occasionally at the micro level, and having had the advantages of a bigger budget, it can be a challenge adapting to a smaller production. This however, is a challenge I embrace readily - as all DP's should. The goal is to find the best tools that will fit within the budget, and use them to visually represent the story to the best of your abilities. This article is about doing just that, focusing on a short film I shot called Illegal, while using the Panasonic HVX, the Red Rock M2 cinema lens adapter and Nikon still lenses.
Some of my work that I'm most proud of was done on micro budget films, where I had to come up with other ways to apply my craft. Illegal is a good example of this. When Andrew Oh, the director, asked me to collaborate with him once again, he made it clear that there wasn't going to be a whole lot of money - only $12,000 in fact - and that we would be shooting on HD with the HVX200. I was fine with that, having never shot HD before and eager to get some experience on it, but I at least wanted to use a cinema lens adapter.
Lots of effort has been spent in the digital filmmaking world trying to emulate the look of film as much as possible. 24p was a huge step forward in capturing film-like motion, and HD was another great improvement for resolution. There were still however, two very big giveaways in digital cinematography. One, it just couldn't reproduce the organic softness of film, and two, it couldn't come close to the shallow depth-of-field of 16- or 35mm. The development of the 35mm lens adapter has gone a long way towards resolving both these issues. One such model is Red Rock Microsystem's M2.
The M2 has become popular among indie filmmakers most notably for its affordable price. Its adaptability with almost any camera and almost any lens is another strong selling point, as well as the sheer simplicity of its design. The M2's contribution to creating a more cinematic look is immediately noticeable.
Like all good things that come inexpensively however, there are drawbacks. The Red Rock is no different, though none of its inconveniences would ever prevent me from continuing to use it. The image it renders is so beautiful, it easily outweighs any obstacles one has to overcome in order to get there.
The most notorious hindrance is the fact that the Red Rock flips the image upside down. This is actually the way images are rendered on film through a lens, but film cameras are able to revert the image back to normal. The M2 lacks such a prism, which was a conscious decision by Red Rock in order to keep costs down for the consumer. It should also be noted that a prism would have the undesirable effect of further increasing light loss. More on this later.
The easiest solution to reorient the image for proper viewing is to attach an external LCD on-board monitor and rig it upside down. The image would still be recorded upside down, but can easily be flipped in post. The external LCD however, does make the camera set-up increasingly cumbersome. This would be tolerable if you were on sticks or dolly, but it becomes especially unwieldy when you have lots of handheld shots like we did on Illegal. Once again however, one look at the image produced, and it's impossible to say that the effort spent wasn't worth it.
The second major hurdle is the aforementioned light loss. The M2 states that it takes away about a stop and a half, but it sure feels like two stops once you're in the field. Any cinema lens adapter needs extra light and there's no way around it. If you want to maximize its capabilities, you'll need to get bigger lighting units - which should not be confused with renting bigger quantities of small lights.
Bear in mind that I'm not talking about breaking out 4K's and 6K's. A couple of 1200 and 575 HMIs will work wonders while not putting a huge dent in the budget. These lights go for about $125/day before discounts, and are worth every penny because they are by far the most powerful lights you can rent that can still be plugged into a normal 20-amp household socket. This becomes especially valuable when you don't have a generator at your disposal and can only tap into house power. They're also daylight-balanced, which means you don't have to blue-gel your tungsten lights and cut their output in half. I've found that when shooting HD, these HMIs become my workhorses as I rely heavily on them.
The other pressing need for bigger lights is that once you use a 35mm adapter which knocks off almost 2 stops, your camera's ASA starts to hover around 100. Indoors, or anywhere at night, that's a tough order to fill without the necessary wattage. Compound this with the fact that you probably won't have the luxury of high-speed primes, and now things get very dicey not only for exposure, but for focus. Even if you had the means to rent T1.3 lenses, chances would be good you'd be shooting wide open, and your depth-of-field would be so shallow you'd be jeopardizing your focus. If you were just shooting for the small screen, like a music video for example, you wouldn't be as worried. But if you had ambitions to film-out for the big-screen, you would likely encounter scenarios where shots you thought were sharp while editing, were in fact soft once magnified and projected. Ideally, you'd want bigger lights to give your focus-puller a fatter stop to work with, so that focus wouldn't be so critical. After all, shooting on HD with an M2 and cinema lenses won't mean much in the end if half your movie is out of focus.
Enough tech-talk for now though. No doubt everyone reading this article knows that it's not about the toys you have, but what you do with them that counts. I'd like to give some examples of how I lit Illegal and how the M2 put on the finishing touches.