Benefits to Staying Busy

Good grief... My bad for all the whining and moping I've done the last few incredibly slow months. Freelancing is feast or famine and I'm now neck deep in multiple client projects – Thank God.

That being said, I'm diggin' some of the benefits of staying busy while things were so slow. The creative treatments I'm writing now for client projects are better thanks to the the effort I put into my slow season personal projects. In working those creative muscles on my own time, I feel somewhat more confident now that I'm putting client names and logos on them.

Writing has always been important to me and I'm intentional about being overly prepared and having a clear direction for projects. Still I've never been overly confident in putting together a creative treatment. I'm like 90% certain there's a book or something out there on the topic that all the cool kids have read and I've somehow missed.

What I've somewhat put together about treatments come from Google searches and a solid collection of "look-at-how-busy-I-am-writing-treatments" screenshots from various directors' Instagram Stories. I still remember seeing Spike Jonze's single page treatment for Pharcyde's “Drop” video years ago. That and the Filmsupply fam had a solid post with Diego Contreras on creative treatments not too long ago.

I'm crazy thankful for the treatments I've found online and the friends who've shared theirs with me over the years. I still feel that writing a good treatment is like spotting a unicorn, but now it's like I know the Unicorn's name is Steve and somehow he's a couple people in front of me ordering at my regular coffee shop. If you need me, I'll be silently fanboying from my place in line and absolutely trying not to bother him – no promises though.

Composition with Henri Cartier-Bresson

Seems more often than not I'm late to the game, but still happy to be here. I'm assuming that every proper photography student knows who Henri Cartier-Bresson is. If not – especially the cool kids shooting street stuff and portraits – they should be doing something else.

I've talked about it before, but I've been spending a dumb amount of time this past year or so digging through the photography and fine arts sections in public and university libraries. I figure studying the work of others I respect and admire will hopefully seep into the work I'm doing. Cartier-Bresson has easily become one of my favorites and this week I picked up "An Inner Silence: The Portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson."

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As a cinematographer I'm always approaching composition in how it would fit a wider aspect ratio vs. being able to shoot still photos in a taller portrait. Obviously there are visual ideas better suited to a taller frame, but I'm still interested in how they can be used in a widescreen, 2:1, or 16:9 image. I'm not here to write a dissertation on composition, but no question Cartier-Bresson's work is something to study.

This Week's Phoned in Blogpost

Yo. Got uber busy this week and a decent blog post didn't make the cut. In the meantime, here’s a shotgun blast of things from the last few days.

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Not sure what the cool kids do to stash away visuals found via their phones, but I'm a fan of photos and screenshots – especially with filing away ideas I dig on Instagram. I try to clean up the rats nest of content I pack away on a regular basis by transferring the collected images to my computer and then organize them across my different devices via iCloud. Here's a few from this week:

And speaking of phoned in, part of the cinematographer's life is spent on the road and away from family. Anne the Wife and I try to be intentional about staying connecting via phone calls and FaceTime while we're apart. I for sure don't travel as much as some of the DPs and camera department pros I follow online, but there are seasons where I'm out. In 2013 I was overseas for over three months as a crew member on a big project plus some additional travel with other clients. My first kid was born at the end of 2012 so all that travel had me gone almost a third of his first year. I'm pretty sure he associated me with living in his mom's iPhone. Anne the Wife is the best part of my life and we've now got two little house fires – I'd be wise to not screw this up.

...and by the way, have you seen Boots Riley's "Sorry to Bother You" yet? EASILY one of the most interesting films I've seen in a good while. Do yourself and see it while it's still in theaters. We need more art like this in our lives.

So we made a thing...

No clue. Absolutely no clue what was going on here. I'm just diggin' the fact that I've got friends who trust me and are basically up to make stuff no matter what.

In the latter part of June I'd bought a one-way ticket to New York City with plans to connect with friends, make stuff, and meet new people. In prepping for the trip I reached out to Olivia Abiassi to see if she'd be up to make something while I was in town.

Olivia is an actress friend of mine who I stumbled upon while casting a short film a few years ago. I say stumbled because she was actually off camera reading the female lead's part to help with the male talent's audition video. In hearing her read I immediately knew she was the lead I was looking for. She worked her tail off for that little passion project of mine and her performance was more than I could ask for. Fast forward a couple years she's now living and working in NYC.

Normally I'll put solid time and effort into prepping for a shoot. This project was more or less thrown together during my 45 minute subway commute from Washington Heights to her place in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There was no scout ahead of time; Not even a decent concept. Just me plowing through her Instagram account and listening to a TON of Logic's "The Incredible True Story" album.

A few months ago she had posted a short clip of herself prepping for something and accidentally – and absolutely – struck gold. She's got a great sense of humor and doesn't seem to take herself very seriously. She's also got great eyes and facial expressions which absolutely deliver on camera.

This simple Instagram post opened the idea of her getting completely lost in her own world and caring less about what people around her thought. In just about everything I try to make there's a bit of me braided in somewhere. For this utterly informal short I started her off buried in her phone trying to keep up with either the nonsense of social media or the non-stop stream of the world's bad news. In putting on her headphones, she's able to escape for a bit.

From a production standpoint, the headphones were key. I sent her a playlist I'd put together during my commute, but we ended up keeping Logic's "Fade Away" on repeat and that kept her movement timing consistent. I on the other hand couldn't hear the music, gave some basic direction, and just had to keep up.

Just about every movement piece I've done recently has been shot off speed. There's a TON of grace and forgiveness in shooting in higher frame rates, but for this piece I wanted to challenge myself with shooting in real time and intentionally using longer takes in the edit vs. the easy out with quick pacing to hide mistakes.

The edit took a bit longer than I expected in trying to sync her movements to the music as well as the un-rehearsed and un-controllable aspects of the footage we got. There were plently of interesting looking shots that I just couldn't use because they didn't fit the music – not to mention the unusably soft shots I blew focus on.

We're not curing cancer or anything, but we did have a very loose storyline with a beginning, middle, and end. We honestly just wandered around the Lower East Side of Manhattan not far from her apartment just looking for good/interesting looking light. The ice cream break was intentional, but accidentally hitting someone on the subway with her purse while she was dancing wasn't; Thank God that very large man was cool as hell.

...a day late. Thx New York.

My bad. Monday's post didn't happen. But hey! It's Tuesday Wedensday morning and I'm doing the thing... My apologies to the five RSS subscribers – who I'm assuming are mostly bots at an Amazon server farm outside Boardman, Oregon.

I'd been in NYC since last Monday working to make new connections and continue building existing ones. Thank goodness for creative friends who've opened their homes, studios, and schedules to take me in.

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First and foremost, David and Cassie Bizzaro are freakin' saints. They've let me crash on their couch while I've been in town. David and I – along with puppeteer Jake Bazel – shot some new content for one of his YouTube channels that'll should be releasing soon. If you've not done so already, do yourself a favor and check out The Bayr Show. I got to the point where I couldn't breathe because I was laughing so hard throughout the Clap with Rhythm stuff.

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There's also this gem. Olivia Abiassi is an actress who played the lead in my 2015 short "Nora" while she was at the University of Oklahoma. She's now living in NYC doing the working actress thing. She and I ran around the Lower East Side of Manhattan with her dancing like a crazy fool in public in front of my camera. I'm working on the edit now and hope to release it soon.

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Outside the people I met, I also spent a good deal of time roaming the city. July 4th had my watch recoreded me walking just over 21 miles. Some of that was thanks to me roaming The Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than three hours and still not seeing everything. There was also the "Hey, I'm going to join the masses in watching the NYC fireworks in person." I figured that'd be awesome (meh, it wasn't) and I got some blurry photos of fireworks like everyone else in America that night. My blurry photos were intentinoal though. "Slow-shutter speeds, you're the best." he said in trying to justify carrying around a full-frame DSLR all day.

Punching Financial Anxiety in the Face

I nerd out about spreadsheets. It started in college while I was tracking money as the financial manager for a handful of touring music groups. As an undergrad I carried around a spreadsheet breaking down each day into 15 minute increments to keep track of how I spent my time: class, music rehearsals, eating, studying, sleep, etc.

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Fast forward to today, there are jillions of tiny little digital boxes with personal and business records going back further than I care to admit. My spreadsheets don't hold a candle to the actual financial software I use for business and personal use, but when it came time to apply for a small business loan the bankers complimented how detailed my Profit and Loss statements were. #nerd

Something else to know is that I'm an anxious little monster, especially when money is tight which is not helpful in the least.

More than anything – and this should be obvious – the main business spreadsheet I keep records a running total of project money in and out as well as profits. There's a good deal of other information riding shotgun, but my point for this post is keeping track of the money, specifically the profits and having at least an idea of what's ahead. In times past, I thought I had an idea as the timing for my busy and slow seasons. "The winters are always slow" would've made for an appropriate face tattoo considering how many times I've said it. Turns out I was only partly right.

Last week had me Googling spreadsheet formulas – as one does – because I was looking to try and utilize visually some of the financial data I'd recorded over the years. I'd found some nonsense formulas, plugged in my data, checked/re-checked, and setup a graph to visualize the info I now had. The graph below visually represents my small business's year to date monthly profits, beginning in 2014, as columns with the purple line as an average of each month.

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Sharing my financial specifics isn't relevant or helpful, but having been at this for a bit the records I've kept are somewhat of a yearly road map to help me understand my cash flow, get a grip on my slow and busy seasons, and anticipate the associated anxiety. There'll always be outliers – June 2017 was awesome – so that's why I'm so interested in the averages.

Turns out my "Winter is Coming" fears aren't as scary as I've made them out to be while the month of June can go straight to hell. July is getting started and with it comes the upswing of early fall numbers; Early winter just looks like a drunk toddler with a blowtorch.

Again, I'm an anxious little monster and I know tons of other freelance creatives who fight these same demons. This colorful little roadmap brings me back to the reality that some months are better than others and my fears of "I'll never get any more work so I should get a real job" are just dumb. This June was slow – as per usual – but I intentionally used that free time punching my anxiety in the face by working on personal creative projects and adding to my stock footage portfolio. Staying physically active is also crazy helpful in dealing with my – at times – crippling anxiety issues. Thank goodness the training for the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon always starts in early January and helps keep my winter slow season demons at bay.

Could've Been Bike Shorts...

"You could always make bike shorts if your idea doesn't work out."

To the nice Hobby Lobby lady who sold me a couple yards of Spandex: Thanks for not tripping out when I showed you some weird reference images on Pinterest and then asked me to come back later show what I ended up making.

So yea, this one went super dark and ghostly. Like the way these things normally start off, I'd been sitting on a handful of reference images and used them as a starting point to make something; I'm suuuper interested in selective focus and in-camera effects.

The internet told me I'd need to shoot through some kind of transparent layer so I started experimenting with different types of plastic diffusion and fabrics. I was looking for something translucent and would look interesting on camera when you touched it. A trip to an arts and crafts store had me finding a couple different types of Spandex that were on sale. Figured I'd need a frame to stretch the fabric to keep it taught, so it was off to Home Depot to spend like $3 on two 1" x .5" x 8' pieces of cheap lumber. I used screws to keep the pieces together and attached the Spandex using spring clips.

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Once I got the framed fabric and my camera setup, it took a bit of experimenting before I finally landed on a look. I'd bought both white and black versions of Spandex and tried out each one individually as well as layering them. The white looked more interesting with the lighting and shadows; Having the black layered behind the white kept the setup from being translucent.

Initially I had the lighting setup on camera right with no diffusion and in front of the fabric. That made for some interesting looking long shadows on camera as I touched the Spandex screen, but wasn't the look I wanted. With how I pictured the edit and knowing I'd never be able to reproduce the light to dark gradient across the screen, I moved the light above the frame but still frontlighting the fabric. Most of the reference images I had were backlit, but I wasn't able to reproduce that look with how small a space I was using. Moving the overhead light just behind the fabric worked for the space I had and gave me the look I wanted. I didn't use any of the footage with my hands in front of the backlit fabric, but it still made for some interesting looking imagery as the light interacted with the fabric stretching the other direction.

A monitor tethered to the camera allowed me to see what I was doing as I was interacting with the fabric. The initial imagery I was getting looked super dark and ghostly and reminded me of a Nine Inch Nails track I'd heard from an interview with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the Song Exploder podcastI'd highly recommend checking it out if you've not heard it already.

The initial test footage was shot at 48 frames/second, but was still too fast for the look I wanted. 60 frames/second didn't work either, so I lowered my camera resolution from 8k to 6k widescreen so I could get to 99.9 frames/second on my RED Weapon Helium. The movement speed looked right, but I ran into flicker issues with the lighting and my shutter set to 180°. The FLICKERfree iPhone app fixed that by letting me know I needed a 299.7° shutter angle. Thanks internet...

Another unexpected result from the testing was how flexible the look was once I got it into post; Obviously though working with a high-end camera and raw .r3d files doesn't hurt. My reference images were black and white, but after experimenting with different color temperatures I again fell in love with shooting with tungsten lighting on a white background at 4500k. Neither the blacks nor whites were being clipped in the raw .r3d files so there was still all the color information to use in post. I kept the in camera dark and ghostly look for this edit and didn't do any color correction or grading, but can easily imagine other possibilities with this footage.

After 8pm

Anne the Wife and I gots the two kids: one is 5 years old, the other is 11 months. Turns out neither of them can be trusted to cook, bathe, and/or get themselves ready for bed on their own, so we pretty much close up shop after 6pm for family stuff. By the time we get those two tiny humans fed, cleaned up, and to sleep, Anne and I basically collapse from the day only to get up the next morning to start all over.

A couple weeks ago Anne and The Boys were out of town a few days and I made it a point to be out after 8pm. That's a freakin' double rainbow covered in unicorns around here so I lined up a shoot with an absolute BEAST of a dancer I met through Instagram named Emmett Prince. He's a dance student at the University of Central Oklahoma and was up to shoot around downtown Oklahoma City after dark with a couple complete strangers.

Somehow I also wrangled another two filmmaker buddies of mine to help out on our shoot: John Dewberry is a saint and a kick arse AC; Steve Mathis's last real jobs were gaffing Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, so he basically just puts up with me.

In getting all this nonsense together, I had a couple key reference images and videos plus I was listening to a ton of Frank Ocean and Anderson .Paak. There wasn't a proper storyline, but I had the locations in mind and I wanted to work with a black male dancer in his early 20s. If you're up for it, here's the link to download the look book as well as the music playlist we used during the shoot.

All the nervousness kicked in right before our 8pm call time and I was ready to puke in the parking lot just to get it over with. The three guys on the project were donating their time and I made sure to keep the shoot under two-ish hours total with a round of drinks on me afterwards. I'd scouted earlier in the week and lucked out with all of the locations being pretty close to each other. The look at the first location didn't end up working and we only made it to three of the other five locations I had in mind. The footage we were getting felt right and I had no problem nixing the other two spots so we could keep within the promised time frame. Crazy thanks to John the AC for snapping some behind the scenes pics at our last location.

There's always the urge to just throw money at a project and this one was no different. That being said, I didn't have the money to throw at it. And two, I know through personal experience that throwing money at a thing isn't always the best solution. The goal was to shoot this project in a way where I was participating with the talent vs. simply observing them at a distance. This could've been a great situation to break out my Steadicam setup, but I knew I'd need to rent out a wireless follow focus and monitor package for my AC. An EasyRig would've been IDEAL to balance out a handheld look and not straight up kill my back, but again I'd need to rent one of those. "No self-respecting Director/DP would go into creative battle without the proper tools," right?

I'd packed my Steadicam but ended up not using it after only a few minutes – the camera angles just weren't right; Thank goodness I didn't drop the money on a wireless follow focus and monitor kit rental. I'm not going to say an EasyRig wouldn't have been helpful, but not shooting with one actually freed me up to try camera angles and movements that I wouldn't have otherwise.

One key piece of additional gear was a battery powered Bluetooth speaker. I've done shoots with music sputtering out through my iPhone, but the sound quality and volume is passable at best. We used a JBL Flip 4 connected to my phone and it worked like a champ. The burrito sized speaker was loud enough, sounded great, and the setup was dummy-proof. Either John the AC was holding it or I had it clipped to the small messenger bag I had on me throughout the shoot.

For the gear-heads, we shot with my RED Weapon Helium at 8k widescreen and ether 60 or 48 frames/second depending on the light levels. In terms of lensing, my 25mm Zeiss CP.2 emphasized the on-screen talent and his performance, but didn't separate him from the locations like a tighter lens would. I swear if I were forced to choose between a 25mm lens or food and water, I'd still pick food and water but I'd have to think about it for a minute.

We were shooting with existing light at each location so we tested to make sure we weren't getting a flicker fight between shutter speeds and the light fixtures. The first two locations had no beef with a typical 180° shutter, but at one point we had to break out John's FLICKERfree Calculator app and adjust accordingly.

Knowing that we'd be dealing with lower light levels, I evicted the Standard OLPF that's set up camp in my RED for the Low Light version. It’s the first time I'd used it so I made sure to check out test footage online beforehand – which for the most part ended up being a waste of time. There's very few situations where I'd use the Skin Tone-Highlight OLPF, but I feel like the Low Light optimized version helped to give me just a bit more light, especially with my T2.1 lens and shooting around ISO 1600-2000 on the high end. All of this footage is straight out of camera BTW using RED's RedGamma 4 / Dragon Color 2 look – which I absolutely dig. Given the opportunity, I'd love to see what a qualified colorist could do with the raw .r3d files.

DIRECTOR, CAMERA, & EDITOR - me
FEATURING - Emmett Prince
CAMERA ASSISTANT - John Dewberry
GAFFER - Steve Mathis
MUSIC - "White" by tiedy ky

Sources Sources Everywhere

I'm assuming part of being a creative is constantly feeding your reference bank so you'll have something to pull from when you're making stuff yourself. Without some kind of reference, inspiration, or source, I'm more than likely just going to keep doing whatever it is I'm already doing. I'm probably also not likely to grow or improve.

Years ago I had a notebook where I'd take an image from a newspaper or magazine, paste/tape it to a page, and then write a short story or even just a couple paragraphs about who/what was in the image and/or how it made me feel. There was ABSOLUTELY nothing profound about it or anything I wrote, but it was a fantastic practice for the kind of work and projects I'm passionate about today. Obviously the internet has changed just about everything so now I collect references in both digital formats and physical notebooks and draw from those sources and ideas for new projects.

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Pinterest and Instagram seem to be my major sources for interesting and inspiring imagery online. I subscribe to the print edition of The New Yorker and try to read a good deal of the articles each week, but I primarily keep my subscription for the photos. I'm also constantly pulling screenshots from videos as well as anything else I see on the internet, in print, and in person that looks interesting and set it aside to hopefully use down the road.

It's always great to see new work from people you admire and be able to link their imagery to other stuff you've seen. It's also hella boring to keep seeing visual trends after they've run their course – I'm looking at you 2009-11 and all your DSLR bokeh tests. I'm praying the "I only shoot film cameras" and "let's only shoot with super colorful Quasar Tubes and Sky Panels" trends wrap up soon. I'll fight you though if you start talking crap about my lens flares... They're freakin' beautiful.

I'm constantly curating my Instagram account and following the rabbit holes I come across. I'm pretty sure they led me to my regular rotation of sites like LensCulture, BOOOOOOOM!, Empty Kingdom, Colossal, It's Nice That and who knows how many others.

More and more though I'm intentionaly looking for inspiration that's outside my normal online sources. Older photography and art books at the public library are a freakin' gold mine. It's incredibly refreshing stumbling across interesting work that's not suggested by some algorithm. I'll just take a picture with my phone and file it away with the others.

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Monsters and Night Scouts

Anne and The Boys are out of town a few days this week. It's always weird having the house to myself overnight and having even a short respite from parental responsibilties. I joke about Anne being the family quarterback and me being the JV waterboy, but she NO DOUBT runs the parent show around these parts. That being said, not running the dinner service, being wrist deep in the day's dirty bottles, and coercing two small children to go the f**k to sleep I made the most of last night and was out before, during, and after dusk like some kind of monster.

The better three-quarters of my family are off visiting relatives with her mom. They're planners – and better than me – so they arranged their trip while I'm working the deadCenter Film Festival this week. If you're up for it, go watch what on-camera talent Katie Parker and I put together for them last year.

I was also out last night scouting for another small personal project shooting this week. For scouts, I'm normally out with my Canon 5D Mark III & 24-70 lens kit plus the Artemis app on my iPhone. The DSLR is out there because the images are better and I can do more with the camera, but having an iPhone app that will show the aspect ratio with a specific camera, resolution, and lens is incredibly helpful in prep. Sidenote: I promise I shot these last night; The app dates are off.

If I'm out by myself, I'll shoot my clinched fist to get an idea of what the light will look like. The knuckles and creases are a quick stand in for the shapes of the face and eye socket. Lower light levels don't always play nice with my camera's auto-focus so I'll open my hand up to give it at least a fighting chance. I've also seen people online carrying around black marbles to check for eye light – but I'm not dealing with that kind of nonsense. Probably should though...