Behind the Scenes | Uncommon Power Gallery & Safety Case

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May 14th, 2014

Filmmaking is a lot like solving a puzzle—there are a lot of pieces to put together and getting to the end result is as equally frustrating as it is rewarding. The first thing we work through in solving the “filmmaking puzzle” is the concept. After settling on what direction to head towards the question becomes, “How exactly do we pull this off?” And because we’re always striving to push our creative boundaries, the next question that immediately comes into play is, “Can we pull this off?” Oddly enough, when that feeling of the unknown arises, we’re usually onto something good. Now before we break down all of the pieces involved for our latest Uncommon production, we recommend watching the two finished commercial spots below. Bonus points if you can figure out how we made the magic happen on these pieces before reading on and watching the Behind the Scenes featurette at the end of this post!

The rest of this post can get a bit technical.  Fear not, you definitely don’t need to know all the gear terminology to follow along! :)

Phones moving in space. No CG. Those were the parameters we set for ourselves. The most obvious thought in bringing these parameters to life was to use a turntable. The limitations of that approach, however, were also just as obvious. A turntable can only rotate along a single axis and we would be severely limited in the number of angles if we didn’t want to include the surface of the turntable. Did we like this idea? No. Did we buy a turntable anyway? We sure did! It never hurts to have fallback plans.

Since the turntable option was, well, off the table, we turned our attention to camera motion control rigs. At the time, Kessler had just released their CineDrive motion control system. If we could program the camera to move, tilt, and pan, then we could potentially get the shots we needed.

Meet the Kessler CineDrive

The pan and tilt head paired with a slider and a focus motor gave us 4 axis/variables of control. The challenge was that the slider was only capable of lateral movement, unless we rigged the slider to a motion controlled crane to give it vertical movement. But even then, it still wouldn’t be capable of circular movement. Did we think the idea would pan out? We weren’t sure, but it was worth a shot. It helped that LensProToGo was/is renting them out. We snatched it up along with a Kessler CineSlider.

The choice of camera was a fairly straightforward one as we wanted the most resolution we could get so that we could crop into the image for creative framing. The RED Epic, capable of 5K images, made a lot of sense to use on this production. The ability to shoot high frame rates was an added bonus in case we needed to smooth out any movement with slow motion. When everything came in, we mounted the RED Epic to the Kessler Cinedrive, threw on a macro lens, and took it for a spin!

RED Epic camera on the CineDrive

Using a combination of a slider and a panning head to simulate a camera circling the phone meant that we had to program the slider to move fairly quickly. Though the CineDrive system handled the quick moves like a champ, the problem with shooting in macro was that every little movement is amplified. We found that the combination of the speed and the large payload of a RED Epic caused too much vibration in the image. Furthermore, the restriction in terms of the types of shots we were able to achieve was still a problem.

The next idea we had was placing the camera on a tripod and somehow using motion control for the phone. This sounded promising and was something we had considered before. Would it work? We had no idea since we couldn’t find anyone who had done anything similar before! 

The real challenge here was finding a solution to clamp the phone to the pan and tilt head in a way that was solid enough to minimize vibrations in the system, yet also flexible enough to allow for a wide variety of moves while having necessary clearance for free movement. After head scratching and headache inducing few hours, we started with a crazy system of Mafer clamps, pipe, Cardellini clamps, and a grip head.

Mafer clamps, pipe, Cardellini clamps, and a grip head

Mafer clamps, pipe, Cardellini clamps, grip heads, oh my!

The system was solid, if bulky, and very difficult to adjust. Moving the phone became a complex puzzle of adjusting this clamp and that clamp, and all in all, it was a bit of a nightmare. The breakthrough for us was using a Noga cinema arm. Suddenly, we had infinite adjustability at the twist of a single knob!

Enter the Noga cinema arm

Enter the Noga cinema arm!

If only we were done here! The next real challenge was centering the phone exactly along the X and Z rotation axis so that the phone rotated instead of moving in a circle like a Merry Go Round.

Rotation axis

Rotation axis

From the diagram, you can see that the intersection of the two axis is floating in free space. It turns out that judging it by eye was surprisingly difficult! The infinite adjustability of the Noga arm was a blessing and a curse here—the flexibility was great but if we only wanted to move the phone over by a hair, once we loosened the knob the whole system went limp. It became a tedious process of re-adjusting and testing. Clearly, this wasn’t acceptable! ENTER LASERS.

Laser guides

Laser beams!

We used a system of lasers to be able to visibly see where the center was and our success rate went up considerably from there. Finally, at this point, the motion portion of the puzzle was solved! The next arena to tackle was lighting. We knew that as the phone turned, we wanted to get a lot of specular reflections to help the shots come alive. We also knew that we wanted the lights to be shaped like bars.  We did some rough calculations regarding family of angles, angular velocity… wait, no we didn’t.  We just figured we needed lights, and we needed lots of them!  Cheap fluorescent fixtures fit the bill perfectly.

We picked up eight fixtures from Home Depot and wired them so that they could be plugged into a standard AC outlet. Fluorescent lights aren’t exactly known for having a smooth, continuous color spectrum so we were a little worried about the footage looking a bit green. Thankfully, because this was for a product shoot, it wasn’t too big of an issue since we didn’t have a lot of skin tones to worry about.

Flourescent Lights

Building a time machine

The glorious light.

Vibrations aside, due to the macro nature of the shoot, we had to work very hard to manage unwanted reflections. We used copious amounts of black gaffers tape to tape over all the shiny metallic C-stands, clamps, and anything else that decided to show up. Reflections came from the most surprising places and sometimes we would have no idea where they were coming from at all!

Gaff tape everywhere!

Random black gaff tape everywhere!

The other challenge was managing tiny dust particles and scratches barely visible to the naked eye. We solved most of our dust problems by wiping things down with lens cloths and removing dust particles with medical tape. Other problems like scratches, blemishes, and even digital text were just too persistent and required composting work in post production.

Digital cloning - Mom calling at 6AM?

Before and after some digital painting – Mom calling at 6AM?

If you’ve made it this far and you’ve correctly predicted how the two commercial spots were produced, then congratulations! You’re either a master puzzle solver, a genius, or you were hiding in the shadows during our production! If you cheated, and just scrolled all the way down from the top just to watch the BTS featurette, that’s cool—BUT NO BONUS POINTS FOR YOU! At any rate, we hope you enjoyed this inside look at how much work went into all of the moves, turns, drops, and splashes. And, though frustrating and confounding at times, it was certainly rewarding finding out that the answer to our questions was YES. We could indeed pull off these concepts.

the art of pulling

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May 6th, 2014

There are two things that we greatly enjoy—telling stories and taking on new creative challenges.  Our storytelling has extended into wedding, documentary, and commercial work, but something that we always wanted to try was getting our feet wet in the music video world. We were given the opportunity to make that leap this past year with the Midwestern rock-pop quartet, ELSINORE. Making killer tunes since 2004, this band is the embodiment of passionately pursing a craft and the art of bootstrapping that goes along with it. ELSINORE recently released their latest album, PUSH/PULL, counseled by seasoned producer Beau Sorenson (Death Cab for Cutie, Bob Mould), via Parasol Records.

Ryan Groff, the band’s lead singer, teamed up with us to create a visual representation of the album’s opening track, “The Art of Pulling.”  In his words, “This song, along with the entire PUSH/PULL record, is about living with yourself and the people around you. It’s a wake-up-call of a song, asking the “you” in the song to get up and DO something.” And DO something we did, as our collaborative efforts led to involving 50 of ELSINORE’S closest friends and a host of favorite locations around Champaign-Urbana. Read on to learn more about the creative process behind the smokey, dream induced goodness of “The Art of Pulling.” 

elsinore blog 01

The challenge of cinematography is translating a vision into a frame. More than creating a picture that looks nice, whenever possible we try to be intentional in using visual elements to enhance the story, even if it’s on a subconscious level. Aside from the band, our story follows three main characters who are stuck in a rut, so to speak. With these three main characters we decided to use soft light to give the scenes a gloomy feel, not too dissimilar from a depressing overcast day. We kept the colors on the cold side and intentionally kept the color palette muted. Teresa Ellis of Surface 51 was our production designer and she did a fantastic job dressing the sets in line with this vision.

On a technical level, we wanted to keep the lighting as natural as possible. It’s ironic how much effort was put into achieving that goal so that the image didn’t look overlit or fake. It’s worth mentioning that virtually no interior shots used natural, available daylight. Part of our shoot took place at That’s Rentertainment, a video rental store (yes, they still exist, and yes, this one is AWESOME) and aside from the doorway entrance, the video rental store has no windows. Even if it did, it wouldn’t have helped us since our shooting times were after store hours, from 10pm-7am!

The smoking man’s apartment was actually a music recording studio converted into a set. Similar to the video rental store, it also had no windows (a fine example of art direction magically transforming a location). Finally, the painter’s studio is actually a storefront and while it had large windows, whenever cars or trucks passed by the busy street, it would cast distracting colored reflections into the room.  The solution?  USE OUR OWN LIGHTS.elsinore blog 02bWe didn’t use tungsten lights for a variety of reasons. First, a good amount of our scenes called for a blue daylight look. The second reason is because we were shooting for slow motion. At 240 frames per second, regular tungsten bulbs will flicker due to 60Hz AC house current. We decided on a combination of fluorescent fixtures and plasma lights.  There is a shift in the music video where each of the three main characters has a personal epiphany. We have a major change in the lighting scheme as they burst outside into a warm wash of golden sunlight.  The change in lighting is symbolic,  and the visual theme of warm light remains for the rest of the piece.

During the conceptualization phase, we agreed early on that using colored powder and smoke would be a great way to visually symbolize the idea of an epiphany or inspiration. While we did end up compositing and computer generating some smoke to enhance a few shots, we wanted to do as much practically as possible and get them in camera—this ultimately meant a lot of takes and retakes as it was a real headache trying to control puffs of powder, smoke, and the direction of wind. Major kudos to all of our production assistants who helped with these sequences as we couldn’t have done this without them! It also took quite a bit of patience and mental math as we juggled numbers in our head to ration our limited supply of smoke grenades. We grossly underestimated how quickly we would go through 25 smoke grenades and ended up ordering a total of 100!

elsinore blog 03

All this technical and creative origin talk aside, this post would be incomplete if we didn’t mention all the people who volunteered their time and resources to make this film happen. We’re humbled that so many people believed in ELSINORE and in the project to contribute. It was truly amazing to see local artists, actors, businesses, and volunteers come alongside us, willing to help throughout the shoot. Ryan Groff either has great friends, the power of persuasion, or both—after all, we didn’t need much convincing to hop on board with this project ;)

smart enough dumb enough | elizabeth + philippe

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April 25th, 2014

Salvage One is a 60,000 square foot antique store/warehouse with four floors worth of salvaged items. On the main floor you’ll find display cases full of decorative knobs, a ceiling lined with all types of vintage chandleries, statues donning shutter shades, and a back room lined with rolls of film cascading from ceiling to wall. Things only get more eclectic as you make your way up the stairs. Pinball machines sit next to stained glass windows, and there’s even a library full of romance novels organized by color spectrum, adding to the collective edgy-fun feel of the space. Stopping through Salvage One to pick up a decorative item is one thing, but using it as a wedding venue is something else entirely—and that should let you know exactly how Elizabeth and Philippe roll.

salvage_one_part1b_blog

Simply put: Elizabeth and Philippe are fun people who like to surround themselves with fun people, and their wedding day was every bit a celebration. And while some may not be able to handle mismatched tables and chairs or sitting in church pews next to hanging door frames, these two, true to every bit of  who they are, wholeheartedly embraced the space and had an incredible time doing so.

salvage_one_part2_blog

 

lead you to ground | linda + ben

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March 17th, 2014

From custom-made Michael Jackson socks to a dazzling fireworks display over Chicago’s skyline, there was certainly no shortage of visuals to capture on Linda and Ben’s wedding day. And while there was a certain grand quality about things [the entire day taking place at the Trump International Hotel & Tower], there was also a very intimate quality as well.

Linda Ben_resize for blog

Achieving a “big small” vibe is no easy feat. It would have been a simple task to rely on the aesthetics of the day to carry the story, but to us, the people are the pulse of the film. We find our story as Linda gives a meaningful bouquet to her bridesmaid or when Ben shares with his best man about his proposal along the streets of Paris. We find it in the hand-stitched sequins MJ socks gifted to Ben or during the exchange of their personal vows. And while the fireworks and the sky scraping towers may be impressive, they cannot hold a candle to the people.

the heart to follow | julie + marcus

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March 10th, 2014

Often times, because of distance and travel schedules, flesh-and-blood face time is replaced by its Apple approved counterpart and we must conduct our getting-to-know-you sessions over digital means. While we never had the chance to meet Julie and Marcus in person before their wedding day, we didn’t let that prevent us from getting to know them beforehand. As we settled into our chairs and huddled over the phone, it wasn’t long before we got a sense of the warmth and hospitality of our soon-to-be hosts. It certainly helped that Julie and Marcus appreciated a good conversation and considered themselves equally “words-y” people.

julie and marcus

Our suspicions about Julie and Marcus were confirmed when, on their wedding day, upon exchanges of hugs and handshakes, the first thing they asked us was if we needed anything. I understand it’s common courtesy to ask, but it was the way they asked, how they asked that was really, quite striking. As the day unfolded and we filmed along, it was remarkable to see how much they cared about everyone. It’s no wonder these two are so well loved. And that’s precisely what we hope to communicate through their wedding film—their giving, self-sacrificial, genuine hearts.