I was recently approached by producer Jonathan Federico, who was putting together a short promo for a fantastic men’s fashion label, Copperwheat. The theme of the collection is Urban Warrior, and the clothes have military-fatigue-crossed-with-military-uniform quality, so we chose to pay homage to that aesthetic with the look of the film.
The concept he had was of two ‘urban warriors,’ members of rival gangs, making their way to a final showdown (and, of course, looking great in the process). I was immediately enthralled with the concept. Jonathan gathered photos of fighters from a variety of revolutionary periods, especially the Zapatistas, and he scouted locations in Bushwick and Williamsburg, which look almost like bombed-out, third-world war zones, filled with barbed-wire, graffiti and dilapidated windowless buildings.
We decided on a war-zone documentary style, with a cinéma vérité, handheld look, using Children of Men, The Battle of Algiers, Z, L’Enfant and The Bourne Ultimatum as references.
I must have watched this closing scene from Children of Men ten times (spoilers obviously):
Since we were going for a handheld look and quick action, my primary concern, from a technical perspective, was rolling shutter. I usually shoot with DSLRs, which are often affected by the dreaded ‘jello effect’ at the edges of the frame during fast, erratic movements. So I decided to go with the recently-introduced Pansonic AF100, which is much improved in this area.
It was a single-day shoot, so I knew that we would have to work quickly to get all the shots we needed. The smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor was attractive in this regard, because of its more forgiving deeper depth-of-field relative to the full-frame Canon 5D Mark II and also the APS-C Canon 7D or Nikon D7000, and allowed us more focus leeway for fast action shots. And I also like that Micro Four Thirds is closer than APS-C in size to the 16mm film stocks that front-line war documentarians classically used, giving it a more authentic war zone vibe, while still achieving a somewhat cinematic depth.
Using the Voigtlander Nikon adaptor for Micro Four Thirds, I used Zeiss primes, 18mm f/3.5, 35mm f/2.0 and 50mm f/1.4, which gave us a decent range. I knew I didn’t want any wide-angle distortion, and a 50mm proved useful for long shots, though in retrospect, I would have even liked something longer, to bring a telephoto alienation to the piece, as in news reportage on hostage crises.
In more controlled scenes (as in the first half of the video), however, where critical focus was a luxury we could afford, it was slightly frustrating to be shooting without the digital zoom I’ve become accustomed to on the DSLR live view modes. I found it occasionally difficult to quickly find critical focus using the Focus Assist built into the camera in low depth-of-field scenarios. However, putting the viewfinder in black-and-white mode helped tremendously in finding the red outlines of the Peaking Focus Assist tool, and I’ve since discovered other tricks on forums to help with critical focus that I’m eager to try on future shoots.
Shooting all day from dawn to scorching midday light through to soft dusk, the built-in ND filters were a Godsend, allowing me to keep my ISO/gain as low as possible and my aperture exactly where I wanted it for each shot. I quickly became unable to contemplate life without it. It’s hard to imagine that the market demand for a convergent all-in-one stills/video camera would not eventually force this indispensable feature into DSLR bodies.
Coming from the DSLR world, and only having a few hours to familiarize myself with the camera, I had only begun to get a sense of the vast potential and extensibility of the camera before we were off and running. The 1st AC, Alan Lewis, is a master troubleshooter, and encyclopedic in his knowledge of video cameras, even though he comes from the stills world, so any problems we encountered were quickly resolved.
The camera is very well-built, but surprisingly light, even when on a shoulder rig. The LCD screen is bright and beautiful, and surprisingly clear even in midday sunlight. The menu system, indebted more to Panasonic’s pro video cameras than it’s Micro Four Thirds stills cameras, was foreign to me, but it didn’t take long to adjust. With many programmable function buttons, there are seemingly infinite ways to customize the camera to your needs, so I’m really excited to get to know it better before my next shoot.
And now, here is the video!
Nathan Lee Bush is a photographer and filmmaker in New York City. His work is on his site and blog.