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.

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

Fashion Films with Tony Li

Have you guys met Tony Li? You should.

"TONY LI is an American Photographer and Creative with an emphasis in fashion, commercial, editorial, and model development. He is a design graduate of The Art Institute of Dallas with an 11+ year background in the apparel industry ranging from management to visual merchandising." - via thetonyliproject.com

I first caught Tony's work something like 15+ years ago while I was still in school. Luckily we've been able to start working together the last few years. This short fashion film for the Kim Dawson Modeling Agency is probably our biggest collaboration at this point.

We'd been looking for something to work on together – i.e., me constantly pestering him about shooting something till he wore down. He does a ton of work for the Kim Dawson Agency and they'd reached out about doing a fashion film featuring Cassius Simpson for their 2017 Model Search; That's where I come in. Tony did the heavy-lifting with the concept, styling, and putting the team together then leaned on me and my narrative storytelling experience. I also shot and cut the piece, but we don't have to get into that.

One thing I will mentioned is how freakin' awesome it is working with on-camera talent who know what they're doing on camera. No disrespect for those I've worked with over the years, but there's an ocean between the talking head pieces with corporate-types running major organizations vs. professional models whose livelihood depends on their look and how they deliver on camera. Good lord just look at these beautiful people...

Tony killed it with the location and wardrobe. Seeing as how I wear a limited rotation of hiking pants, t-shirts, and running shoes, there's no need for my fashion input. We'd planned to shoot a few hours in Tulsa and then head out the the Tall Prairie Reserve outside Pawhuska, OK. The shoot somewhat felt cursed seeing as how our main talent's flight got pushed three times and cut our crazy long day in half. We had to nix the Tulsa part of the shoot and just make it up as we went outside civilization in Pawhuska.

When I can, I try to be crazy intentional in the gear and creative choices made. We shot with my RED Weapon Helium and Zeiss CP.2 lens set (25/35/50/85) – mostly at 8k widescreen at 60 frames/second. Widescreen was a good fit visually for the flat, wide-open location vs. a narrower frame. Going handheld (with a rented EasyRig/Serene Arm setup) let me move quickly from shot to shot and setup to setup vs. the time it would've taken to shuffle around with a tripod and/or dolly setup. Shooting at 60 frames per second gave me the grace to fake smooth-ish looking camera moves too. We had a couple PAs on set, but anything camera related was on me. Shoutout to PA Hans for making sweet haze love by stirring up gravel road dust via gas powered leaf blower. It made everything look like heaven, but I'm still cleaning that nonsense out of my camera innards.

I will say I beefed it with the polarized filter I was using. I knew we’d be out with big skies filling a good deal of the frame and I was primarily focused on using a polarizer to help deepen the blues. They're basically useless if you're shooting into the sun, but we did get a few shots where it was helpful. The problem though is that I ended up needing to direct a good part of the shoot and move quick to make sure we got what we needed before we lost our light. That being said, making sure my polarizer was in the correct position for each shot was honestly the first ball to drop in the additional responsibilities I was juggling. In some of the pre-dusk frame grabs you can see the darker blues in one corner of the frame thanks to the polarizer not being set properly vs. the more consistent sky color once I stoped using it closer to dusk. My bad…

Post-wise, those freakin' 8k files at a 12:1 compression were monsters. In total, we shot just over a terabyte of footage during the 2-3 hours on set and this back before my "oh hey, lets edit with proxy files" days. Thank goodness I've started cutting with proxies so the full-resolution files aren't bogging down my computer as bad. I hate not being able to edit as fast as I can think because I'm waiting on my computer to catch up. Plus I'm not having to pray my shots are in focus because proxies let me watch the clips at a higher playback resolution on my editing timeline. I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize again to my MacPro and Premiere setup; Glad I've matured and seen the light.

CREATIVE DIRECTOR & PRODUCER - Tony Li
DP & EDITOR - me
MODELS - Cassius Simpson & Marisa Harbert
HAIR & MAKEUP - LB Rosser
STYLIST - Tony Li
STYLIST ASSISTANT - Sarah Eliza Roberts
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT - Hans Kleinschmidt
MUSIC - "Longing" Max LL

SPECIAL THANKS - Kim Dawson Agency, Musicbed, East + West Tulsa, My Mod Mess

A Lighting Test

So this was a different thing. By far the most moody and stylized projects I’ve done to date verses what normally fills up my hard drives. I’ve been sitting on a couple reference images for a long time that I absolutely wanted to use but for one reason or another hadn't gotten around to shooting. The whole idea was wrapped around lighting, body structure, and direction. Well, that and my thing of always wanting to do stuff and a goal to post to my blog at least once a week this year.

In putting a treatment together – or at least a look book – I dug through a ton of references I’d already had stored away. I’ve also been listening to a TON of Anderson .Paak so I knew his music would be playing a major part. By the way, I'm awful at coming up with titles, so ignore the "Graceful Strength" part if you download the look book. This whole thing was more about a lighting test than anything proper.

There were also the self-imposed restrictions of a simple background, using my own equipment (short a couple c-stands and apple boxes), and keeping the talent either seated or lying down. I’d love to talk about my incredible studio space with all its incredible amenities, nice leather couches, and cases of LaCroix Sparkling Water, but instead I’ll show you my bedroom where I pushed everything up against the walls before the shoot and then reset before Anne the Wife got home.

Initially another model was lined up but reached out to someone else due to scheduling conflicts. Madison Bready is an OU student I met years ago and worked with a few times recently. Turns out Madi was absolutely the right person for the shoot. Cynthia Dreier is a makeup artist I’ve worked with on quite a few projects and she killed it in making sure Madi looked her best and kept us on track during the shoot. Did I mention Madi is an OU student, because we only had like 90 minutes to do makeup and shoot everything in between her classes that afternoon. Oh, and did I mention I was super happy with what we got? Because dang…

Gear-wise, we shot with my RED Weapon Helium at 8k, 60 fps, 2:1 aspect ratio, and 15:1 compression through my Zeiss CP.2 len set (25, 35, & 50). I'd also set my white balance to 4500k to warm up the tungsten light and white backdrop – along with her skin tones and haircolor. That being said, all the footage in the edit is straight out of camera; I didn't do any additional color work to the footage (or still frames). I also tried a step printing technique shooting at 8 fps and a 360° shutter angle, but it was at the last couple minutes of the shoot and I wasn’t really happy with the footage; I should’ve shot closer to 4 fps. For lighting, I setup an Arri 650 head through a couple scrims and two layers of diffusion. A bunch of black fabric hung on camera right helped control the spill. I’d roughed in the lighting setup using a styrofoam head on a light stand before the talent got there.

Post-wise, I knew the 8k files were going to be a monster. We shot about 325 GB of footage which isn’t nuts with my camera package, but honestly it’s a pain to edit such large files. Adobe Premiere on my Mac Pro setup will handle it like a champ, but having to lower the playback resolution to 1/8 or 1/16 just to just slog through the .R3D files is like tying that champ’s arm behind his back before going into a fight. I’d worked with offline edits WAY the hell back in the days of SD footage and tape decks, but this simple YouTube tutorial pretty much changed my workflow and is keeping me from looking so longingly at those fancy Alexa Minis and their blissful 4k sensor sizes.

Music is always the hardest part for me during an edit. I promise, I’m all about supporting other creatives and paying to license music, but after a genuinely solid effort I couldn’t find or afford something that fit as well – in my opinion – as this Anderson .Paak track. 99% of my edits start with a music track – especially with personal projects; It's got to feel right or else it's not worth the effort.

After I'd gotten somewhat through a rough edit (and several glasses of whiskey) I reached out to a few other creatives for feedback. Crazy thanks to those guys for the insanely solid ideas, helping me step back from how close I was to the work, and look at what I was missing.

Good grief I hope to do more of this soon.