For the first two weeks of April, I had the pleasure of working as DP for “Starla,” a narrative feature by director Rik Cordero. From the film’s conception, it was designed to be shot quickly and on a minimal budget; most of the scenes required only two actors at a time, and locations (while visually diverse) centered around only two geographical places. Our speedy eleven-day schedule and small crew meant that we had to use as much available light as possible, and we rarely did more than two takes except for action- or effects-oriented shots. Prior to “Starla,” I’d shot several music videos and commercials on my AF100, and it seemed like a good fit for the feature. Little did I know just how perfect it would be.
My basic rig is built around the Zacuto universal baseplate, with 15mm rods supporting matte box, follow focus, and a 90-degree-offset Anton Bauer mount on the back (like an ENG camera). I monitor with a 7″ Marshall with SDI pass-through to video village. This rig can be switched between tripod build and shoulder-mount in about twenty seconds, and is light, comfortable, compact, and well-balanced. However, by removing the Bauer plate, switching to the 5″ Marshall (incredibly lightweight), and adding the camera’s removable ergonomic handgrip to the side, I can build the AF100 more like an HPX170, allowing much more flexibility in small spaces. With my 7D rig this would have meant I couldn’t monitor, since my SDI converter needed battery power, but the AF100’s many video outputs mean this small build works great for jib, steadicam, and car rigging as well. This small configuration was the element that made possible several shots that move through spaces in unpredictable ways, which was an aesthetic choice Rik made very early on in pre-production. The best thing a camera can do is allow you to make your director’s vision a reality, and the AF100 had my back at every turn.
A large part of the film takes place outside in bright sunlight, and because we didn’t have the time or manpower to fly large diffusion frames or fight sunlight levels with big lights, I frequently had to use the sun as a key light. Paired with a polarizer, the AF100’s built-in ND wheel made exposing for the sun simple. I also used varying strengths of Tiffen Black Pro Mist in front of the lens, to soften the highlights and give the image a little more filmic look. I rated the camera at 200 ISO for most exteriors and 400 ISO (its native speed) for most interiors, pushing one stop to 800 ISO for a few shots. Even at 800, the image was fairly clean, and what noise was there wasn’t too bad-looking.
I shot the film using my Canon FD prime lenses, mounting them on the AF100 with a Micro 4/3rds to FD adapter. With the optical adapter I used for these lenses on the 7D, I’d have to stop down a bit to avoid blooming, so I’d almost forgotten how gorgeous this glass is wide open. I’d recommend Canon FDs to anyone for AF100 work; adapters are cheap and the image quality is fantastic, very similar to a cine lens.
Because of the low budget and short post-production schedule, I chose to achieve the film’s look in-camera, rather than rely on color grading. My beloved Panasonic painting tools made this process quick and painless, and I was able to fine-tune the image as we shot, as well as avoid the problem of heavily grading footage that’s been compressed. If you get the picture close to what you want before it’s encoded onto the cards, you’ll end up with less work trying to hide compression artifacts in the graded image. It leaves less room for post-production changes, but Rik knew what he wanted it to look like beforehand. The film, which has been picture-locked, “needs no grading,” according to Rik. Here is the teaser trailer for the film.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without a phenomenal crew. First AC Thomas Chalifour quickly picked up the nuances of the camera, and came up with a couple new configurations for particularly tricky shots. Key Grip Christopher Fisher did fantastic dolly and jib work and operated parts of shots that required camera handoffs, as well as devising rigs on the fly for some unconventional situations. Gaffers Al Roberts, Russell Burger, Blaise Miller, and Justyn Davis (who traded off days) lit the film beautifully. And steadicam operators Brandon Sumner and James Leonzio rocked their moves in all conditions. I also have to mention producer Ryan Biazon, whose flexibility and preparedness rescued several scenes from last-minute disaster. “Starla” is a diverse mix of aesthetic styles, but the AF100 handled all conditions beautifully and allowed us to create images that exceeded the director’s expectations. They say out of the trio of money, time, and quality, you can choose two; but the AF100 (along with a few talented, passionate people and a lot of planning) got us as close to achieving all three as I’ve ever been.
Clayton Combe is an award-winning cinematographer based in NYC. Check out his work at tonmanproductions.com, and follow him on Twitte @tonmanprod. “Starla” premiers on June 25th at the NYIT Auditorium. Check out the teaser at starlamovie.com, and follow the link to buy a ticket!