“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” - Albert Einstein
Passionately curious – you gotta love that. Curiosity is a huge building block in our creative process and in Einstein’s case: the scientific method as well. In our business, most directors have at least one thing in common with Einstein – and that’s curiosity. Directors tend to like a creative process packed with bold new concepts fueled by big ideas. They’ll assemble like-minded artists who will charge into the process of puzzling out the technical and aesthetic challenges of the script. Our unique process of filmmaking travels a circuitous, non-linear path to completion, filled with unexpected obstacles, financial constraints and scheduling surprises. Undaunted, each department tackles and for the most part resolve every challenge successfully. Scientists advance their research in the laboratory. In filmmaking we shoot tests. I talk about testing a lot, so I decided to make a video about it.
Camera tests are an essential part of pre-production. There are many different kinds of camera tests and every department benefits from the. From screen tests, hair and makeup looks, to helping the costume designer determine the perfect color of a garment. In a very subtle way, film and video interprets color differently than the naked eye. So paint color, wardrobe and makeup hues are tested very carefully.
But that’s just the beginning! There are technical tests that cover every aspect of cinematography. Lenses of all focal lengths and special application, frame rate, shutter angle, filter effects, exposure and even camera’s themselves. From the latest Blackmagic and GoPro designs, to the DJI Phantom 4 drone quad copter – new equipment is always being tested for possible use. Filmmaking is story driven, and many of those stories drive technical advancement.
I remember vividly the day Steven Spielberg dictated that the kids in E.T. were going to wear blue jeans. This is logical, kids wear blue jeans. ILM’s problem was blue jeans photographed in front of a blue screen had never ended up looking “blue” in an optical composite. Academy Award winning optical supervisor, Ken Smith, after weeks of testing, created a synthetic blue separation that added color back to the jeans without the dreaded “blue fringe” artifact. This was a real breakthrough for the time and advanced the capabilities of optical printing until digital compositing took over years later. Simple story point, not so simple problem to solve.
If the project is stunt intensive involving car chases, gunfights and explosions -chances are, car rigs will be tested, guns will be fired to assess muzzle flashes and test explosions will be filmed for color, smoke content and size.
“G-Force” had a massive chase sequence that required an entire prep day to research specialty remote car rigs of every design imaginable. The task was to figure out the best “low” rig to film tiny, high speed vehicles driven by an elite team of talking guinea pigs. What a business!
Some tests are for developing “actor action” performance.
On the “Ring 2”, our director, Hideo Nakata wanted Samara’s movements as she climbs out of her well to be super creepy, almost bug like. In other words, an important performance beat that needed to be tested. Can the actor physically deliver the basic moves? If so, can we capture the scene “in camera”? Will the shots need to be enhanced with visual effects? Our actress was a contortionist so her performance was extraordinary. The well set was built horizontally and could slowly spin, giving the audience the sense that she was corkscrewing her way up the well shaft. The actress performed her action as slow as possible while we filmed her at 4 fps. The next step was to take that footage and print it up to 24 fps. The director was thrilled with the performance and approved the effect, all achieved in camera and made possible by a series of tests.
Testing for reference.
One of the most memorable scenes in “The Empire Strikes Back” is the pivotal snow battle on Hoth, (filmed in Norway). The centerpiece of the Empire’s winter weaponry are the massive “Snow Walkers”. Ever wonder how they came up with the lumbering pace of these machines? Early in prep, ILM brought an elephant to the studio and photographed it walking around the parking to ascertain a realistic gait for the “Walkers”. This test footage became invaluable reference for the model makers and stop motion animators.
Testing for a 17th Century period piece.
We tested firelight, candles, torches and lanterns extensively on Salem, a show that takes place in the 1690’s. As fast as cameras are these days, it’s still difficult to shoot an entire scene with candle and firelight only. These sources are proximity bright, but the light falls off rapidly, necessitating supplemental tungsten sources to create additional ambience. We invented a super soft box containing household frosted 100 watt bulbs that punched through muslin diffusion. The light created was so soft that it lacked directionality, perfect for room ambience ostensibly lit by fire alone.
Fireplace light is a great broad source and provides tremendous illumination but it is a very hard light and is not flattering on women. Also, the frequency of flickering can be a little high plus the sound guys don't like the hissing. So, whenever the fireplace wasn't in the shot we would use a 500-watt pancake light to stand in for the fire. Soft and warm, it's a beautiful, silent light source and doesn’t create the heat of an actual fire. We tested candles too, and found that the double wicked version gave off an impressive amount of light. The air becomes foul after hours of candle use, so we tested battery powered candles to place in the deep background. These worked very well and in addition to helping mitigate the polluted air, their use helped with our tight candle budget.
There is almost no limit to the kind of tests you might film for projects of any size. If a skeptical director needs to be convinced – test it! If you have doubt – test it! There are enough unknowns on any given shoot day to begin with – don’t add to the chaos by guessing about this and that. Besides it’s wonderful showing up for work knowing that something is going to work even better than expected due to a test or two!
With a decent DSLR camera you can have a lot of fun just getting to the bottom of color temperature. Do you really know the difference between 2000 K and 4000K? Or just how blue is 9000K? You can learn about all of these things on your own time and maybe even apply this knowledge while planning the look of your next project.
Play with depth of field! Lock off your camera and photograph a measuring tape. Run through all of your f-stops with a fixed focus at a set distance. You’ll be amazed at the DOF difference between F2.8 and F8.Return to Musings