I was approached by a Los Angeles actor’s networking collective to direct some scenes for the group and help their members build their reels. ActionGroupLA is a membership of actors of various disciplines who get together monthly to pool their resources and shoot shorts and specs. After directing a back-alley-gangster short for the group, they approached me to direct a series of intimate dramatic scenes that take place over different eras within one room. With no budget, only a single day and some tangled Janga-esque balancing of actor schedule availabilities, we embarked on a day of production that would encompass 12 pages of script and four scenes covering 40 years in time from the 1970s to today.
I liked the challenge of working in one room with limited gear and getting four distinct looks. We couldn’t make any alterations to the walls, so the change-over would happen with subtle costuming and set decoration as well as in my lighting and camera treatment.
I shot with my Canon EOS 7D using my ikan D7w onboard monitor, an ARRI Fresnel kit with one 650W, one 300W and two 150W fixtures; two 4’ x 4 bank Kino Flos, a Lumos 300MK 1×1 LED panel and a Litepanels Croma LED.
First up for the day was a very somber scene. Taking place in 1994, Grace, as an adult, played by Megan Reinking, has just split from her longtime boyfriend and is crushed. She’s staying with her sister, Shiela (played by Tamara L. Rhodes) in the house where they both grew up. The scene is dim; depressing. Grace hasn’t left the room in several days—just sitting and contemplating her life. I decided I wanted venetian blinds in the room and purchased a set of black blinds from a local home improvement store and we temporarily hung them up off of an existing curtain rod with a pair of spring clips. I utilized the natural daylight coming through the window—adjusting the blinds on a shot-by-shot basis, but decided to color balance to make it feel cool, by setting the camera to 3,800° K. Windows are only on one side of the room and the natural light, from the mostly-closed blinds, was great on Megan’s face, but I needed a little shaping behind her, so I had my gaffer, Daniel Harvey, bring in the 4’ x 4 bank Kino with daylight tubes and placed that behind Megan, with just two tubes on and the doors pinched down to give her a little edge as she sits on the side of the bed.
Tamara enters from the doorway, and just outside the door is a small window—I left that natural, but we bounced a 300W ARRI into the ceiling in the hall with a cut of 1/2 CTB on it to brighten the world outside the dim bedroom a bit.
For details, I brought in the Lumos 300MK panel for a little needed fill on a shot-by-shot basis mostly just to lighten the contrast, and I worked in a small Litepanels Croma fixture as a little eyelight for both Megan and Tamara. I composed this scene for a 2.39:1 aspect ratio and letterboxed the footage in editing.
The second scene takes place in 1986 and we see Grace, a little younger, played by Areti Athanasopoulos (also the writer of the project) with her boyfriend Derrick, played by Nathaniel Edwards. They’ve visiting Grace’s parents for the weekend and have just had dinner and are retiring to the bedroom. Nate is amorous, but Areti won’t let him—she’s uncomfortable here in mom and dad’s house with thin walls. The scene is dramatic and reveals that she hasn’t yet told her parents that she’s living with a man, but I decided to go warm and brighter than one might expect. I wanted this to feel realistic—like a young adult returning to her teenage bedroom; nothing romantic or overly dramatic. I brought in a pair of practical lamps from elsewhere in the house and put one at a vanity we brought in for the scene and another by the bed. It’s a night time scene, but we were shooting during the day, so Daniel had to black out the windows. We used a technique I’ve turned to many times by using black seamless backdrop paper to tape up to the windows. It’s cheap, opaque, very quick to apply. For me, it beats trying to tape up duvetyn or—especially—trying to tent in the windows. Most of the time I’m not a fan of light coming through a window at night—it doesn’t feel real to me unless it’s in a city and you’re looking at street lights or something coming through the window. Here, I didn’t mind if the windows went back behind the curtains—so the covering was simple and Daniel got help from our first AD, Devi Brulé to make the job go faster.
The actors enter the room and go to the vanity where they’re edged by the off-camera practical. It was a tight space, but I wanted a large soft light, so Daniel and I utilized the white door behind camera to bounce the 650W Fresnel into and placed a 3’ square of silk diffusion in front of that, creating a book-light that was very soft as the key for Areti and Nathaniel at the vanity. The quality of light was nice, but I was looking at an image that was a little flat to me. There wasn’t any room for a negative fill on the actors, so I went the other way and had Daniel use one of the 150W Fresnels to put a hot spot on the wall behind the actors to give a little more contrast to the image. I played this scene in 1.78:1 aspect ratio—opening it up a bit more from the first scene.
The third scene takes place in 1977, where we see Grace (now played by Chanel Marriott) and Shiela (DaNae West) as young teenagers. I wanted to keep the same warm tone, but make it aged. I went with an ISO of 3200 on the 7D to pick up some noise and degrade the image a bit. I also went with the Technicolor CineStyle picture profile—not to give me more latitude in color correction later (what it’s designed to do), but to give me a more low contrast, washed palette. I set the camera’s Kelvin temperature to about 5,000° to make the tungsten-lit scene very warm. It’s a dark scene, again, and I kept faces a stop underexposed. I utilized the same practicals as edges and brought in a 150W Fresnel to put a hot cut of light on Grace, who is sitting on the floor, as if it’s coming from the practical. We put the 150W Fresnel through the 3 x 3 silk diffusion, but only diffused the top half of the light beam so that the bottom half would be hot on Chanel, but the top half, on her face, would be soft (as if coming through the lampshade). I used the Lumos panel, dialing it a bit cooler than the practicals, for a little soft, low, fill that would compliment the warm tones with a cooler contrast. When the scene opens, Chanel is sitting on the floor by the side of the bed and DaNae is sitting on the bed. I edged DaNae with the 300W Fresnel from the side, as if it were coming from the practical on the vanity across the room. I also put a “puck light”—a little round low-profile tungsten light intended to be put up under a shelf in a kitchen or living room (purchased from an Ikea years ago in a kit of five) on the floor in front of the dresser in the background to give that a little texture. This scene was, again, composed for 2.39:1. Space was tight in the room and I wound up having to sit in the closet with the camera to get the right shot of Chanel and DaNae on the floor.
The final scene takes place in modern day. A new family has moved into the home and we see a new story beginning. Mom (Glenda Suggs) and daughter (Karin Pyrak) bicker about the move. Karin isn’t happy having to leave her school and friends and Mom tries to console her. I wanted this scene to play very open, bright, new. We took all of the coverings off all the windows and utilized natural daylight. The windows have an Eastern exposure with a lot of tree cover, but by the time we opened the windows for this scene, the sun was on the other side of the house and I just got a very nice, soft light through the windows. I lit this scene 100 percent natural light—just let the sunlight be my key and let the room bounce it around to fill. I set the 7D at ISO 320, white balanced to the sunlight to keep it bright, white and framed, again, for 1.78:1.
The challenge, photographically, with this project was to create four distinct looks emulating different eras and overall emotional tones with a small kit and a camera crew of two. We covered all 12 pages in just under 12 hours.