A Poem About Nothing
I was excited to re-team with director Austin Smagalski in June, 2016 on this DRYGULCH music video for spoken word poet Christopher Siders' piece "A Poem About Nothing." This poem reads like a swirl of memories from the artist's childhood and adolescence. The writing is vivid and the description is quite visual. Austin and I drew from a couple sources for visual inspiration but knew that our limited resources on this project would require a very specific vision. Of course, what really sells this piece is Christopher's powerful performance which I'm honored to have played a part in supporting.
Themes and References
Christopher is a dynamic performer so the last thing I wanted was for the visuals to get in the way of his connection with the audience. "A Poem About Nothing" is personal and quite raw.
Austin and I knew that the visuals needed to match up with Christopher's narrative. As he moved through different emotions, experiences, and periods in his life, we needed to feel the changing tone in the lighting and composition.
We needed a dramatic performance scene that would play all the way through the piece. Knowing that we would be shooting at the historic Mack Sennett Studios, I started looking for lighting and composition references that fit the basement performance space we had scouted.
When we started prep for this piece, I pretty quickly found the below frames from Inglourious Basterds that had the high contrast and vulnerable framing I was looking for. I specifically liked the eye light angle and slight color contrast in these still. I ended up going a different way with the lighting, but these frames definitely inspired the composition and overall approach to the performance scene.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
The other element of this piece - to be intercut with the performance - was a series of (somewhat) abstract inserts of Christopher against a white cyc. It was important to Austin that these inserts correspond with specific parts of the poem, so the cinematography challenge here was how to implement story beats without getting too wide or literal.
These stills from Watchmen felt pretty close to what we wanted to do by combining very specific color work with tight, angular composition and slight background texturing. It was pretty clear at this point that the way to pull this off was using a digital projector as the key light. We settled on a variety of color and texture assets that matched the narrative beats we needed.
I knew we would be shooting multicam on the performance piece, so lighting had to be either practical or constrained to the 45º of the set that we would never see. (Although we got close to seeing 360º so in retrospect I would have just rigged everything and kept the floor clean.)
We wanted to keep this setup relatively muted and dark in terms of color and contrast. The exception to that was the practical specialty tungsten fixtures that added some "spark" to the environment but (dimmed way down) didn't spill onto our background or talent. This was an important element from a thematic perspective and I think we pulled off the intended effect with these unique fixtures.
The key for the performance was a Tweenie through two stacked silks (again, limited resources) flagged off pretty much everything expect for Christopher. The fill was just the dimmed-down practicals as well another Tweenie dimmed way down and bounced off beadbord for a little ambient on the theater seats.
For the inserts, we moved out of the basement into one of the Mack Sennett stages and setup our projector and Macbook Pro controller a fair distance from the back cyc wall. This distance was important as I wanted to hit the backdrop with our key but still have it be a couple stops under.
I added a Kino Flo 4' 4 Bank for edge light and we started running through our assets - making tweaks in Premiere Pro as needed.
Our camera choice was pretty much based on budget constraints, but because this project was shot in completely controlled conditions, I wasn't too concerned. We needed to be able to go multicam for the performance and I didn't want to match different cameras in post, so we went with the Sony a7s. This let us source multiple bodies and invest more on the grip and electric side.
We used Canon still glass, again for budget reasons, but I'm generally fine with L Series lenses for controlled pieces like this that don't have much focus pulling. They are reasonably sharp and quite fast. We ran the 70-200mm f/2.8 L on A CAM and a 50mm f/1.8 on B CAM (stopped down to 2.8 - where it is reasonably sharp.)
We decided early on that this piece should be almost completely locked down to keep attention on the energy of the poetry. We covered the performance pretty heavily, keeping Christopher's eyeline direct to A CAM and at least 90º from B CAM.
For the inserts, we dropped B CAM and kept the eyeline 20º to 45º from A CAM. The idea here is that while the performance piece is Christopher speaking to the audience, the inserts are more personal and vulnerable - a peak into the emotional and narrative landscape of the poem. For this reason I stayed closed to 200mm on this sequence.
To get technical for a minute: I did not use the S-LOG 2 option as from past experience the 8-bit, 3200 ISO files just don't hold up to much grading. Instead I used one of the "Cine" gamma options and exposed at 2000 ISO with a 360º shutter to add some more blur to Christopher's movements. I wanted to keep things cooler for the performance so went to about 2700 K which kept the dimmed-down practicals from going too orange and gave the key a nice blue temperature.
Watch the Video