I was recently hired to record a brief message from the mayor of Charleston, SC, announcing his intention to seek re-election. This would be his tenth(!) term as mayor of this historic city.
The parameters of this project were interesting. We had to shoot at sunrise, in a park with several fountains, as the sun rose behind the mayor, and it had to be one continuous, two-minute shot with no cuts. I chose to shoot this with the Canon 5D Mark II, using the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.
The deceptively simple concept was to make the scene look as natural and un-staged as possible. Unsurprisingly, pulling off a natural look took some very unnatural work! Fortunately, the client (the mayor’s media team and agency) understood the necessity of getting it right, and allowed me to put together a small team consisting of myself, a gaffer, an audio operator, a grip, and a hair/makeup stylist. If I’d had to shoot this by myself, it would not have looked or sounded nearly as good.
Before the shoot, I scouted the location with the client’s media team. We decided on the location you see, because the white structure to camera left creates a nice contrast to the natural sky and water on the right, and the diagonal created by the receding perspective of the building naturally directs the viewer’s eye to the subject in the center of the shot. We had to line up the shot carefully so that the American flag wouldn’t be optically coming out of the mayor’s head.
At the time we shot this, the building was undergoing some renovation, and there were orange cones and safety mesh all over it. We had to surreptitiously lay all that distracting material down on the ground prior to the shoot, and replace it as soon as we were done. This was probably slightly illegal, but it was worth the risk to ensure that I didn’t have a bunch of orange cones in the background of my shot.
The first challenge was the fact that the subject of the shot would be completely back-lit by the rising sun. There would be enough ambient light for me to simply open the aperture, but this would overexpose the sky. I wanted to be able to capture at least some cloud detail, and this meant bringing in some light – a lot of light – for the mayor, so that I could iris down enough to expose for the sky and the mayor at the same aperture. My gaffer, Len Spears, brought in a 1200 watt HMI (which, unlike a tungsten lamp, produces light approximately the same color temperature as daylight), which we shone through a large synthetic silk. I intentionally set this key light on camera left, which allowed the mayor to be backlit on the opposite side from the rising sun. Although this doesn’t make sense logically, it is a very flattering look, and one which we are very accustomed to seeing in movies and on TV.
One note on this setup: to avoid a distracting reflection in the mayor’s glasses, we had to move the light further to the left, and higher up than we initially thought. This meant we had to ask the client to wait a moment while we adjusted the heavy HMI and silk, but this is far preferable to remaining quiet and then having a dissatisfied client. When I was first getting started in video production, and industry veteran advised me that, “A shoot is a train: the passengers are paying you to take them where they want to go, but you have to be in charge of driving it.” That turned out to be some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. When you’re being paid to shoot a piece of film (literally or figuratively), your client is counting on you to do it properly. As long as you’re polite and efficient about your adjustments, it’s always preferable to solve a problem in the field than to try to fix it later. If you’re not sure about your focus, the sound quality, or some aspect of the shot, stop and fix it!
Since the park didn’t have electrical outlets, I rented a small generator to run the HMI. While dedicated cinema generators are designed to be quiet, this small project couldn’t justify the cost of bringing in a cine genny truck, so I rented a portable 10,000 watt generator from my local Sunbelt Rentals shop. Our original intention was to run several long extension cords to keep the noisy generator as far as possible from the mayor, but we ran into an awkward situation in which the resistance from the length of extension cord was enough to keep the HMI ballast from firing up. Fortunately, we’d built in enough setup time to allow us to adjust the location of the generator without delaying the shoot.
The next challenge was audio quality. In addition to the generator, the park is directly in front of a river, and has two large fountains within earshot of our location. We weren’t permitted to turn them off (although, as we were packing up, two city workers showed up and turned the closest fountain off for some unknown reason), so my audio operator, Trey Murdaugh, hung several sound blankets from C-stands, all around the mayor. This insulation served a double purpose, as it not only blocked a surprising amount of generator and fountain noise, it also shielded the mayor from the distracting stares of passers-by. Since this announcement had to stay confidential until its public release, this concealment-by-sound-blanket worked out very well. Having a dedicated sound operator (recording audio on a high-end Sound Devices mixer) meant that I could focus on the camera, lighting and client needs, without worrying about sound.
The final challenge was shooting directly into the sun. And in this case, I was assisted by the constant and unpredictable variable of luck. We had just enough cloud cover to make the sky look beautiful, and to keep the sun from flaring the lens, but not so much that the morning looked cloudy.
We shot two takes. The mayor is an excellent and highly experienced public speaker, so he was able to deliver a largely extemporaneous, two-minute speech without so much as a single “uh” or “um.” The first take was fine, but it went a little long. He pared it back a bit for the second take, and we were done. As we shook hands and bid the client’s team a good day, the sun emerged from the clouds, and absolutely blasted our location. If we’d had to shoot five minutes later, the lens flare would have been a serious problem. As it was, thanks to careful planning, an experienced crew, and some help from Mother Nature, the shoot went smoothly, quickly, and the mayor and his team were delighted with the process.
Post-processing was absolutely minimal. I warmed up the shot a bit with Colorista II, in order to bring out some of the golden, early-morning tones in the background. I edited the 1080p footage on a 720p sequence, so that I was able to add a very subtle zoom to the shot, at the client’s request, while retaining HD quality. A simple lower-third title graphic was the only other element added in post.