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Our Man in LA

Jul 11, 2024

By Iain Blair

Welcome to the first ‘Our man in LA ’ newsletter in what I hope will be a long series of informative, interesting and inspiring newsletters about our industry stretching off into the distance, to the bright horizon ahead. Yes, a quick look in the rear-view mirror reveals a trying past year or so for the business industry of Hollywood, what with all the strikes and labour disputes, still-sparse post-Covid theatre audiences, and ongoing threats to the studios from streamers and the potential biggest disruptor of all – AI. 

Yet despite all such ongoing problems, movies are being made, TV series and commercials are being shot, the future looks bright and the horizon looks like a great place to set your sights on, as evidenced by Oscar winner Kevin Costner’s new epic western, the aptly-titled Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1. The first of an ambitious four-film cycle, the movie, which received a standing ovation at its Cannes premiere, reunites the director with cinematographer James Muro, who did Steadicam (the revolutionary system is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary) and B-camera operating on Costner’s Academy Award-winning epic Dances with Wolves, and who made his debut as a director of photography on Costner’s 2003 hit western Open Range.

Muro shot Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 on Red Raptor cameras and Leitz Summilux-C lenses. “I’ve shot on Red cameras for a long time,” reports Muro. “I like how they work and how the images look. Before starting Horizon, I checked out the Red Raptor and the sensor is just so good with skin tones. It was perfect timing for this project. Similarly, I’ve shot with the same lenses for years because they were familiar, but I thought for this project it’s time to think about what lenses I really want to use. So I tested the Leitz Summilux-C lenses and my goodness… I love how they flare, in that they almost don’t flare. They’re so small. I don’t have to change rods over and over again because each lens is the same size. I loved the quality of the image I was seeing from the Raptor/Summilux-C combination and I knew the functionality [of their small size and matched ring locations] would be so expeditious for us. My goal was to keep the camera package as small as possible.”

Cinema auteurs and purists may legitimately shudder at the thought of their big vista films such as Horizon: An American Saga being watched on tiny smart phone screens, but the reality is that more and more people stream their shows and movies on their phones, and top directors including Steven Soderbergh and Sean Baker have successfully embraced the new technology – Soderbergh shot Unsane and High Flying Bird on his iPhone, and Baker used his to shoot Tangerine  as well as parts of his award-winning The Florida Project.  Also embracing the technology and its potential are forward-looking companies such as Blackmagic Design who just announced Blackmagic Camera for Android, which adds digital film features and controls to Samsung Galaxy and Google Pixel phones.

Blackmagic Camera for Android

This greatly improves the results creatives can get, so shots can be used for television and film production. Based on the same operating system as Blackmagic Design’s award-winning digital film cameras, these professional features give Android content creators the same tools used in feature films, television and documentaries, and offer the same intuitive and user-friendly interface as Blackmagic Design’s award-winning cameras. Users can adjust settings such as frame rate, shutter angle, white balance and ISO all in a single tap, or record directly to Blackmagic Cloud in industry standard files up to 8K. The HUD shows status and record parameters, histogram, focus peaking, levels, frame guides and more. Creatives can shoot in 16:9 or vertical aspect ratios, plus shoot 16:9 while holding the phone vertically if they want to shoot unobtrusively. There are also tabs for media management including uploading to Blackmagic Cloud, chat and access to advanced menus.

The settings tab unlocks the full power of the phone’s camera, with quick access to advanced settings such as monitoring, audio, camera setup, recording and more. The record tab allows control over video resolution and recording format including space efficient H.264 and H.265. Professional audio options include VU or PPM audio meters. Blackmagic Camera also includes professional monitoring tools such as zebra settings for checking exposure, focus assist, frame guides and more, and a built-in chat workspace means project members can talk about shots and quickly share creative ideas, all without leaving the app. “The Blackmagic Camera app for iPhone has been incredibly popular since it was launched last year,” said Grant Petty, Blackmagic Design CEO. “We are excited to be able to give customers with Samsung Galaxy or Google Pixel phones the same controls for shooting digital film as our professional cameras. Plus, the Blackmagic Cloud workflow lets customers record to Blackmagic Cloud Storage and automatically sync with DaVinci Resolve.”

When independent filmmakers Freddie Wong and Matt Arnold approached Bongani Mlambo about shooting their new sci-fi road trip film, We’re All Gonna Die, the Zimbabwean cinematographer immediately embraced their nimble-production approach to shooting in the Utah desert. They decided to use two cameras, an A-Camera body Canon 300 Mark III and a B-Camera body Canon C70. “The C300 has great battery life,” Mlambo explains. “We were out on the road a lot of the time, so we had to consider where we would charge stuff and how we would manage media.” For lenses, the team opted Zeiss Lightweight Zoom LWZ.3 21-100mm with Zeiss CP.3s prioritising a set that was cinematic but could also stand up to various outdoor conditions without slowing down production.

DP Bongani Mlambo & Director Freddie Wong on set of We’re All Going To Die

Mlambo explains the workflow, saying, “We ended up shooting a lot on the zoom because of how quickly we had to move. I had the LWZ.3 lens on the C300 trying to get as much coverage as possible. Meanwhile the C70 mostly used the primes.” Faced with dramatic desert temperature changes, and far from reliable power sources, the durable camera package was essential to making the shoot work. Fighting to keep the natural light consistent throughout a sequence, both Mlambo and director Wong would frequently cross-cover scenes. “The LWZ.3 surprised us more than anything; it cuts seamlessly with the CP.3s. Having a light camera and with a light zoom lens helped us a lot throughout production,” says the DP.

The film showcases vivid coloration, rich in reds and blues that harken back to iconic landscape painters of the 1900s, including Maggiori, cited as one of the filmmakers’ references. Mlambo achieved this look using stacked filters, including Glimmer Glass and Black Diffusion FX. “I started using that stack because, even though I like the Hollywood Black Magic, that filter can sometimes create this big halo on point sources, which is not always desirable,” he explains. “I wanted to find some other combination that would hold contrast, soften resolution and fine lines, but still give me some halation. Having flexibility to stretch the looks in different directions from a solid base was only possible thanks to the Zeiss lenses.” Mlambo added a Zeiss diopter for some of the film’s most emotionally charged scenes, “getting really close to actors’ faces or putting them at different angles so that it distorted the visual plane.”

Zeiss LWZ.3 20-100mm

The new Middle Max Menace from Matthews Studio Equipment offers great booming capabilities in a versatile, user-friendly support that travels fully assembled inside a standard cargo van. Based on the same principles as the original Academy Technical Award-winning Max Menace Arm®, Middle Max is built to accommodate the rise of smaller production vehicles among image makers. With a payload capacity of 150-lbs./68kg (80-lbs./36kg when fully extended) Middle Max can arm into most locations to hold lights, reflectors, cameras or set dressing from its own compact base. In addition, it extends up to 5.49m/18-ft high and can lower to 1.83m/6-ft below grade. Prioritising convenience of movement, Middle Max features a hand truck-style steering handle and puncture-proof tires to navigate studio floors or rugged terrain. 

Finally, Tiffen just unveiled its newest filter design – The Magnetic Control System (MCS,) an elegantly simple new way to harness magnetic power to swiftly and securely attach genuine Tiffen filters to lens fronts. MCS makes installation and removal lightning fast. Thanks to their extremely strong magnetic force, filters stay locked in position even during demanding shooting situations. The MCS Adapter can stay on indefinitely or detach instantly by gripping the knurled edge and gently rotating.

Once in place, the lens instantly receives any Tiffen MCS precision glass filter, including ND, Polas, Colour, Effects, and the extensive array of diffusion—including Black Fog, Night Fog, and Antique Black Pearlescent. All MCS filters are easily identified due to their matte black finish, distinctive blue ring, and handy raised edge. Each MCS filter includes a matching lens cap that instantly attaches to the filter front or directly fits to the lens via the MCS magnetic lock.  MCS Filters come in 58mm, 77mm, and 82mm with available Step-up MCS Magnetic Adapters to accommodate other sizes.

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