In late April 2013 came a Saturday which was to be my first weekend off for the year. The day began lying in bed checking social media and email on the iPad, as standard. Katie and the baby were fast asleep and it was around 8.30am – a huge sleep in for me. I’m the kind of early riser who thinks nothing of starting work at 5am.
On Facebook was a message from friend and fellow photographer Murray Brooks, so I replied, had no response and forgot about it further, instead heading down to the office around 9am to fire up the computers and check for missed calls overnight. There were five or six from Murray, so something was definitely up. After a return call to him, it turned out he had car trouble and was unable to make a commitment, and was I up for doing it? And it being my weekend off, I was happy to get into something new, because what else are weekends off for when you love what you do?
The assignment was to photograph up to 8 models – but there was a twist. It was to be a live shoot on the set of a movie, Dream of a Shadow, By 10am one of the producers was calling me to sort through the details, a call sheet was emailed through and, working backwards, I had less than 3 hours to select and prepare equipment before a 1 hour drive to the location. Judging by the call sheet and Google Maps, it was clear I’d be working on a smaller, rather than larger, set. Necessary information when it comes to equipment selection. As always, we travel with more equipment than less, but my main challenge for now was to stage all selected equipment and prep in less than 3 hours.
Large studio soft-boxes and strobes, while ideal for this assignment, were not going to be practical with the kind of space limitations I expected I’d be dealing with. The live model shoot was to be filmed as part of a scene, so I’d not only be working with the on-set talent, but also with the DOP, Steadicam Operation and any other crew. So I selected 2 x SB900’s in 12″ x 12″ soft boxes triggered by a Nikon SU800 commander on camera. I also chose to shoot with a FX body. Which meant ensuring lots of AA batteries charged, along with the camera batteries. I decided as well to bring plenty of SB800’s and our pocket wizards, just in case we needed to light a larger area. Our Manfrotto XXX stands that fold and pack flat are great for a strobist style of approach and we certainly recommend those.
So I arrived on set about 15 minutes early and meet the Director, Producers and rest of the crew. As the various actors came and went into makeup, introductions were made and I was able to catch up with a few familiar faces – one being Hollie Neilson, whom I had photographed 14 months prior, the day before Katie gave birth to our son Luke. Hollie has a lead role in this feature film and had flown in from Brisbane for a day of filming. If you’ve not been on set before, you soon learn patience. There are set up times for the crew, actors practice blocking and then there can be several takes and several camera / lighting changes on top of that. Knowing this gave me the opportunity for a few of my own set up changes as we progressed. Primarily I was shooting with a Nikon D3 and D800, with on the D3 being a 17~55mm f2.8 and the 85mm F1.4 on the D800. There was at one stage an opportunity to get the 70~200mm VR f2.8 on the D3 for a few shots of Hollie when the cameras weren’t rolling.
It was certainly a challenging shoot. I shadowed the steadicam operator most of the time, moving my lights in and out as actors changed locations to better suit lighting the scene for film. So I decided to shoot in mostly in manual mode with the flashes set to TTL and let the computers do the calcs. Actors and crew constantly walked in front of, and were blinded by, the IR signal Pocket wizards were looking to be an option but the set was small and I was getting enough good shots to put up with the occasional misfire or under exposure as an actor stood in front of a soft box. With all this going on I had to remember my role on set as an actor, knowing my mark. In one scene I even had a line – kind of novel for me, who’s always behind the camera!
After take on take and lots of set changes as the director and producers discussed various aspects with the DOP, we where getting close to finishing up. After some pizza and a cold beer as part of the KRAFT services on set it was approaching midnight. Time to wrap it up, pack the gear away and head back to the studio. By the time I arrived back at the studio I decided to wait until the following morning before loading the images into Lightroom and back up to our servers. Both the D3 and D800’s have dual card slots and allow for shooting in a raid configuration having a copy of each image on each of the camera cards. Of course everything we shoot is RAW.
So there you have it, a live shoot on set, on what was to be a lazy day off, with only 3 hours to prep for the shoot. Knowing your equipment, being flexible and having trust in your abilities and the others you work with goes a long way to ensuring a successful shoot. Check out Dream of a Shadow and if I’m lucky I may get my 15 seconds of fame in a cinema near you some time soon. Murray you owe me a Saturday!