Sunday, May 8, 2016

Tripod & Pickup Shots

Tight framing on computer monitors

This week I started filming pickup shots for the computer monitors for the movie. During filming I had intentionally left all prop laptops with blank screens (because I hadn't had time before the shoot to rendered the fake data on the laptop screens). After a bit of GIMP-fu, I'm ready to finally replace the placeholder images in my timeline with actual footage.

My rendering of 'atomic collisions'
During the sciencey segments of the movie the sequence of edits will alternate between:
  • Back of laptop facing the camera (can't see screen) while the characters reacts to something on the laptop.
  • Cut to pickup shot of laptop screen, in a tight enough shot that the characters can't be seen.
Without access to my original actors or the original shooting locations I knew my shots would need to be tight to keep continuity alive. But at the same time I didn't want my pickup shots of monitors the be suspiciously close either. My original plan was to fill the frame 75% with the monitor and only the out-of-focus edges of the frame would be used to 'feather in' the scene. My goal was to re-stage the laptop in an environment that ball-park resembled the original set (e.g. place the laptop on a similar colored desk, use a similar colored wall in the background, etc.).

When project planning for this I had allotted quite a bit of time to 'reverse engineering' some of the sets in addition to trying to reproduce the same natural lighting. I had even gone as far as wearing similar clothes to the original actors, since my hand and arms would be visible on the keyboard. But when it came time to film the pickup shot I quickly realized a full-framed shot of the screen would be sufficiently believable. No hands in shot, no room details in the shot, no wasted time reverse engineering the set.

No two hands shake alike

The principle photography was shot completely hand held, and mostly by my hands. Though I was extremely conscious to avoid shaky hands during filming, most of the footage has a noticeable shake to it. In my opinion though this isn't a show stopper, since the omnipresence of the shaking throughout the movie quickly loses its distracting nature and settles into more of a stylistic signature. Thus, as it turns out, consistency in the shaking appears to be more important.

This realization hit home during filming of the pickup shots. I recruited my roommates to hold the camera while I drove the computers. Later, after I dropped the footage into the timeline, I felt something off. It took me a while to realize that each person shook the camera in slightly different ways (a bit more side-to-side, a bit more shaky in bursts, more shoulder shaky than wrist shaky, etc.).

Reading shaky text

As it turns out, my script relies pretty heavily on some exposition via text that appears on laptops and phone. Subversion, secrets, and other expositiony bits that I preferred not to be doled out through dialog. Additionally when the characters are experimenting with the machine, the information on the screens will be used to visually re-enforce the success or failure of their experiments. All in all, I am asking the audience to do quite a bit of reading during these pickup shots.
Shaky cam in all other shots are forgivable; but in the shots with text, it flirts with the 'reading while in a car' kind of sickness.

While a moment ago I touted the benefits of maintaining consistent shaking in all shots, these will have to be an exception. At risk of being captious, it is for this reason that I will have to re-shoot the pickup shots.

How to convert a rock band mic stand into a camera tripod

To truly get shake-free shots, I'll need a tripod. Instead of buying a tripod I very successfully converted an old mic stand (the last remaining rock band periphery that I still own). Using random parts that I had laying around, it took about 10 minutes to convert.

Stuff you'll need:
  • Philips screw driver
  • A bolt that fits the camera's tripod mount
  • A small L bracket with a large enough holes on both sides.
  • A medium sized spacer (or a few washers)
  1. The curved plastic part at the top is removable. Unscrew the bolt and nut that holds it in place. Keep the nut and bolt. Set aside the plastic piece. 
  2. Practice fitting the L bracket with the spacer in the groove where the plastic part used to be. Alternatively, if you don't have a right size spacer, you could cut off the bottom part of the original plastic piece and use it as the spacer.
  3. Practice fitting the tripod bolt. We want to make sure the tripod bolt doesn't have too much play (which would make the camera susceptible to rotation. You could use a nut to accomplish this, but I found that simply the head of the tripod bolt fitting snuggly against the top of the stand was sufficient.
  4. Screw it together: Place the tripod bolt in L bracket facing upward. Place the other half of the L bolt and the spacer in the groove. Use the original nut and bolt to tighten it all together.
  5. Spin the camera onto the tripod bolt.
  6. Loosen the bolt just a tad to allow the camera to tilt up and down as needed
Original plastic mic piece on left.
L bracket in place
 where the mic piece used to be.

Quick and easy.

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