Behind the scenes; Bring the Outside In
In April this year me and my wife Izzy had the opportunity to re-purpose a project with Kings College London that was impacted by the pandemic. Instead of filming on location; we filmed the whole project at home during lockdown; it was the only way we could work given the circumstances; no crew, some equipment and a toy poodle.
Our film in question was 'Bring the Outside In' - an immersive short film to teach you how to make your own recycled paper tree at home during self-isolation. It was commissioned as part of the 'Take Time In' programme managed by The Exchange of Kings College London. The ethos of the film; “As we remain, for the most part, inside, The Exchange invites you to bring a bit of the outside into your home."
Working from home
When it comes to filmmaking you don't ideally want to be at home; nothing beats a set or a studio for space, crew and equipment options. Over the years I've grown to really love the camaraderie of being on set with other filmmakers, actors, models, photographers, make-up assistants, cinematographers, stylists - the ambience in a room of people doing what they love is hard to beat. Although I do need to add the caveat that people who love what they do are also very hard on themselves and demanding of others so it's not this overtly joyous setting; it's a setting of concentration and collaboration.
The first challenge was meeting the brief; I always pride myself on creating high quality films that help immerse the viewer; not always easy when facing new parameters such as having no space to put lights up or not having enough room to add some production design to the set. A popular belief in filmmaking is to understand that limitations can actually help the creative process ... I'm not a big fan of this received wisdom. However I will say that at times it can simplify things but the reality is that it creates an enforced simplicity; you lack options and that results in a reductionist creative approach in that you're having to choose minimal options out of neccessity - fun? No!
Shaping natural light
One of the first challenges was not having all the lighting equipment I would usually want on a shoot. Our film was split into three main sets in our home; the living room, our kitchen, and finally our garden. We have these large sash windows in our living room and I knew that would be a great source of natural light which we could use. Whether you're using natural or artificial lights the fundamentals don't change; the sun is a strong hard source of light. The sky is like a light diffuser, our atmosphere softens the light along with all sorts of other filtration mechanisms.
I always knew that the sun would act as our key light and that we could use additional softer sources to complement the sunlight; practical lights such as lamps, reflectors (we used a silk flag) and then to add some shape and texture we could also block the light by using negative fill (in this case a black fabric sheet).
While sunlight is an amazing resource for any filmmaker it also has the same issues as working with any powerful light; it's a hard source and needs to be controlled and if you're filming a person that means you need to soften the light so it falls on the skin in a pleasing way. As we only had a single diffusion flag to control overhead spill on the talent (Izzy) I remembered that I had some old unbleached muslin fabric and decided to drape the fabric over our windows. This did a great job of softening and warming up the sunlight. I still maintain that unbleached muslin is one of the best diffusion or bounce materials in the business.
I have quite a few lenses that I like to use; for this project I wanted to shoot anamorphic - why? Well there's quite a few reasons; I wanted to maximise the scale because we were actually shooting in a relatively small space but most of all I wanted the unique soft look that this type of lens produces. Anamorphic lenses are the polar opposite of clinically sharp footage found when using spherical lenses. They're hard to focus, cumbersome and at times plain annoying. The image they produce is something very special though; they create a painterley image - the whole point of making a film is to not replicate reality as such; we're gently trying to abstract reality (at least I am - apologies David Lynch!). I wanted a certain dreamy filmic look that was organic and textured. It's ultimately about feeling - you have to get a feeling of some sort when you watch the film and for me anamorphic does that in a pronounced way; it's a impressionistic way to shoot - that produces all sorts of distortions and softness which add to the final image.
Filming at night in our kitchen
The second set in our home was our kitchen; this was to be used for all of the step-by-step tutorial shots of the film. This segment of the film was also a bit closer to product style photography - we could not rely on natural light as the subject and materials needed to be clearly and evenly lit. For this we used a couple of LED tubes that I had and they worked perfectly for the overhead shooting style required. This is where the filmmaking would be more clinical as we had to define the steps, optimise them and at times understand where to minimise and exaggerate key movements. As we filmed in natural daylight for the living room sequence we wanted a more warm tungsten lighting aesthetic for the night shoot. This is where my LED tubes from our studio came in handy as they're incredibly lightweight and quite easy to rig overhead. The real secret of these tubes is that the tube shell itself is a form of diffusion which creates a softer light.
Outdoor ending sequence and garden shot
As I was prepping the ending scene Izzy had a burst of inspiration! She pitched an idea of her drawing a tree in our back garden. It would involve her standing by our back window. I initially wasn't that excited by this set-up but we had a go and discovered a wonderful tree reflection in the window really gave the image a beautiful poetic quality.
The final shot of our film would see our talent (Izzy) hanging her newly made paper tree outside of her living room window. The main issue we experienced with this shot was the weather! It rained continuously for 3 days with heavy overcast clouds; we had to hold tight and wait for clearer skies. When the weather eventually improved (big sigh) we set up the scene and used some black cloth against our wall to create some shape to Izzy's face and I also stuck a tube near her so we could get some much needed light to expose her face. In an earlier scene we used a tungsten practical lamp in the same space so I decided that we would diall the tube to tungsten and try and replicate the practical lighting from the lamp (which was not in frame for this shot). All in all it took about 15 takes! It was worth it though as the ending scene is probably my favourite shot of the whole film - it just works so well and we shot it using a master and medium shot finishing with a slow zoom out.
Working with A-list talent
Every film needs a star right? Well we had a secret up our sleeve; our toy poodle Mango. She was a dream to work with and insisted on being paid in treats and chicken livers. Ok I'm not being entirely honest; Mango did insist to be lit a certain way, she refused to act until I had a nice catch light on her brown eyes. Oh yeah there was also that time where she demanded a close-up to highlight her chiselled doggy jawline.
Filming at home is certainly not easy but is very possible; all it requires is a good understanding of natural light and how to soften light with fabrics. If you are trying to film at home and are having issues - just head to the nearest window and use it as a side light - the quality of light from the sun is unrivalled. Lighting manufacturers struggle to replicate the colour quality of natural light.