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Filming Intern

Hello and welcome to my first blog post!

 
With this blog it is my intention to share a little bit of film and photography love with you, including pictures and stories from set, possibly some words of wisdom every now and again and links to articles and other blog posts that I think you might enjoy as much as I have.
 
With this first entry however I'm going to break down a shot from a film I recently worked on as the DoP (that's 'director of photography' for you non-film types - basically the person who decides where all the lights go, where to put the camera etc).  I'm really proud of this one as this film was the first fictional drama piece that I have DoP'ed for quite some time so I really tried to make it my best work to date piling into it everything I've learnt from being the assistant to other DoPs.
 
The film is called 'Intern' and is the story of a young lads first day on a film set.  Despite his best efforts to impress he can't but help getting on the wrong side of everyone else and after being shouted at one too many times he decides to get his own back on them...!
 
This shot is right at the start of the film so it was important to really set the tone and give visual clues to how the rest of the film would play out.  Our intern, dressed rather inappropriately in a swanky suit, doesn't know who he should be reporting to so on surveying the scene he decides to approach the two people sitting casually chatting on the sofas.  He quietly sits down and waits for his moment to chip in - not realising that he's butting in on the director and the star of the commercial they're shooting!
 
This whole film is about being "outside of the gang" - the intern is the new-boy, the unknown person stepping into a group of people who are obviously comfortable with each other and have worked together before.  He's doing the best he can but being the outsider, being different, being new, he's just making everyone else angry with his constant mistakes (PETE NOTE: film sets aren't like this at all, if there's a new person coming in for their first day we'd all usually help them out as best we can - we're a great bunch of people really!).  
 
It was therefore important to try and get this idea of "you and us" across in the visuals and the shots.  Throughout the film I tried to show the intern being away from everyone else, either by only having him in the frame or separating him from the other characters who are all standing together.  Again, this hopefully shows him being the outsider and that they are uniting against him.  With this shot in particular, we have these two characters together in the foreground being all friendly, with the intern clearly separate and alone on the other sofa.
 
And so to lighting - the hidden art of the film making process!  The studio we were filming in is actually a basic photography studio - it's long and thin with completely black walls and horrid strip lighting in the ceiling as it was previously an office space.  The film is about filming a TV commercial and the set includes a large green screen at one end and these sofas at the other end.  The idea behind the whole lighting design was to have all the characters lit incidentally by all the lights set up to film the commercial at the other end of the room so it was important to make everyone in this shot look like they were being illuminated by these light sources.
 
Here is the scene set-up from above:
 
 
 
As you can see we're filming in a corner so it doesn't give us much room to play with but then this is what makes film making so creative and fun!  With the camera going in behind and between the two characters on the red sofa, our main subject of the shot is the intern on the green sofa.  In a normal circumstance we would probably light the background first but as the background is a blank black wall we just skipped straight onto lighting the actor.
 
As this was a student film there was no enough money in the budget to hire in "professional" filming lights so being the creative folk that we are and because we at least half know what we're doing the main sources of light used in this film were relatively cheap workshop lamps, which are available from many DIY stores or online (there are loads of videos on YouTube explaining how to use these, look them up if you're making a film on a tight budget).  These things are great in my opinion but you need to know one or tricks to use them.  Here, we actually turned the lamps away from the actor and bounced the light back at him with a big piece of poly board - which is literally a large, flat piece of white polystyrene the same as you would get molded and packed around your new washing machine.  This technique of shining the light off something else makes the light nice and "soft", which is a very flattering form of light used in both film and photography that avoids the forming of nasty, harsh shadows across your subject.  Bouncing the light also spreads it somewhat which explains the light on the sofa.
 
 
 
The next thing we had to do was light the two actors in the foreground as they were in total darkness.  The light source according to the geography of the film is some way behind the camera so it made no sense to have the lad who is further away from the light source being better lit than the people closer to it.  It caused a bit of a problem having the camera where it was as it was often casting a shadow onto one or both of the actors faces.  In the end our best solution was to put another workshop lamp behind the camera facing up towards the ceiling and then bouncing it back down towards them with a reflector quite literally over the top of my head.  This kind of put the eyes of the foreground actors into shadow, which is someone we'd normally like to avoid but the focus on this shot is the intern across the way so we went for it. 
 
 
 
 
At this point we were almost ready to go but there was just something about the look of it I wasn't quite happy with.  The top of the interns head was just disappearing into the black of the wall so I decided to put in a rim light, just to light up the top of his head to give a little bit of separation from the wall.  This proved to be trickier than I thought - as you can see from the reflection in the photo frame (which you can't QUITE see properly but it's a photo of a tree-line avenue, meant to signify the interns "long road ahead" in his career, another visual clue!) we had strung up Christmas tree lights around the room, not to actually light anything or anyone but just to break up the solid black wall.  Although these lights were not actually powerful enough to give that glow off the top of his head they were good enough to "explain" where such a glow would come from.  Our solution here was to take a couple of small AA-battery powered LCD box lights, put a bit of orange gel over them and literally suspend them just out of shot above his head.  It was a real pain to get them there and involved using about 3 metres of black tape to hang them from the roof but it was more than worth it and completely made a good shot into a great shot!
 
So here you go, the final lighting set-up for this shot:
 
 
You might also be interested to know the lens choice played a big part in making this shot work as well.  For this I used a 28mm f2.8 prime lens, stopped to about f4 or 5.6 I think it was.  Why?  Different lenses and different lengths of lens give different views of the same scene - some lenses make everything seem bunched together when staked in the frame like this no matter how far away they are in reality while other lenses create a distance between subjects at the front and subjects further away from the camera.  If you remember, the whole film is about how the intern is outside of this little gang so I chose this lens to make the distance between him and the foreground characters to be quite far.  A lesser experienced DoP might have chosen a longer lens to get the "shallow depth of field" which is so over-used in DSLR film-making, forcing the faces in the foreground to be completely blurred but not only would that have looked really really horrible I knew that this would make the intern look a much similar size to the other two faces, putting him almost on an equal footing and taking away from the theme and the story of the film.
 
 
So there you have it, a complete break down to what I think is one of my favourite shots I've ever performed!  It just goes to show how much thought and effort can - should? - be put into every single shot of a film and how it relates to the rest of the film and the story on the whole.
 
Hope you've enjoyed reading this and I hope you come back again!
 
 
Pete
Filming Intern

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