How DP Justin Talley Geared Up for Shooting Somewhere Slow in Close Quarters

Indie filmmakers today face a mind-boggling array of technical choices. Gone are the days when you selected 16mm or 35mm if you had the budget, or DV if you didn’t. Today, you have to consider not just your shooting format, but the camera’s sensor size and type, its form factor, its slow-motion capabilities, its low-light performance, and more.

With new cameras reliably raising the bar for quality acquisition on a regular basis, cinematographer Justin Talley took a wait-and-see approach to his job on the forthcoming indie film Somewhere Slow [IMDb], now in production, finally settling on the brand new, attractively priced Sony NEX-FS100 as the best combination of performance and ergonomics for the film’s needs.

As he went through last-minute preparations for the shoot, Talley gave StudioDaily an advance look at his camera rig, explaining the decision-making process that pointed to the FS100 and sharing his reasons for picking all the gear that goes with it. We’ll be revisiting Talley after the shoot to find out how the camera really performed, and to get the story behind post-production, including editorial and color-grading.

Click on the images below to advance the slideshow; hover over to pause. All images courtesy Justin Talley.

Somewhere Slow is written and directed by Jeremy O’Keefe, whom Talley met through mutual friends. O’Keefe showed Talley his script, and Talley was immediately a fan. “I called him back immediately and said, ‘Yes, I’d love to work on the film,'” Talley says. “It was the best drama script I had read that had not, at that point, been produced. And it’s a very giddy, surreal experience to be here and know that it’s actually happening. These films that are genuinely good can have a hard time getting off the ground, and it’s a great credit to him and his team that they were able to put this film together.”

“We really believed in the project,” says producer Michael Anderson, who with his business partner and additional producer on the project, Christopher Sepulveda, met O’Keefe when they worked together at Santa Monica’s Celebration Theater. “It’s an emotional journey that feeds an audience that doesn’t get a lot of woman protagonists in solid roles. It’s a voice that is often marginalized, and we wanted to bring resources together to present it in a unique and interesting way.” As the project came together, actress Jessalyn Gilsig from Glee came on board in the lead role. Wallace Langham (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), Robert Forster (Heroes), and David Costabile (Breaking Bad) have also joined up.

Budgets are a big issue, and the producers struggled to reconcile the expenses with the emotional needs of each scene. “At the moment of turning point, it’s a rainy day and there’s a robbery. Closing down an entire block of the area and bringing in rain, trucks and cranes for that day is nearly the budget of the next five or six days of shooting,” Anderson explains. “But we knew that the emotional payoff for the story was key at that moment. So there is another scene where two people walk down the street with bicycles. We had to say, ‘Sorry – no lights!’ It’s a mundane thing, but we have to focus and do our best without having all the resources in the world.”

Planning for an Intimate Shooting Style

When planning the shoot, Talley immediately started looking at large-sensor cameras. “The style is very raw, very intimate, and it doesn’t leave a lot of room for trickery on my part,” he tells F&V. “There aren’t a lot of dolly moves or Steadicam work, and the vast majority of the film is handheld, so Jeremy’s biggest tool to work artistically, beyond setting the stage with realistic lighting and a handheld camera, is just having the ability to select focus. And that said large-sensor camera.”

The choice was somewhat difficult to make just because the market is changing so quickly. A few months ago, Talley would have been choosing, essentially, between the RED and ARRI Alexa cameras, with a DSLR having an outside chance. But as a cinematographer on commercials, Talley had access to up-and-coming camera systems, as well as the opportunity to work with post houses to take a close look at footage. That meant he would be comfortable using a brand-new camera system, as long as he had an opportunity to put some footage through its paces before taking the leap. So he kept his eyes on the latest and greatest camera releases, knowing that he wanted to combine that large sensor with as small a form factor as was practical. That’s because a significant chunk of the film takes place at a small Rhode Island beach house – a practical location where room to move will be at a premium.

“The whole story is kind of written around that location,” says Anderson. “It was an escape for the director when he was growing up, and he extrapolated it to be the escape for the main character in our journey. He wanted it to be authentic, a beach cottage in the middle of a small town. And those are hard to build on stages on our budget. It was cheaper to bring our crew to the beach house. But then we had to overcome the non-movable walls, the non-movable flyout ceilings, and get a camera that would fit in those spaces and deliver an image that could be projected on a big screen for – hopefully – a theatrical release.”

This is where Talley saw the opportunity for the latest technology to really serve the story. “When this new wave of cameras came out – the Panasonic AG-AF100, the Sony NEX-FS100 and the Sony PMW-F3 – that’s where my eye went,” he says. “They are physically smaller, they afford a larger sensor, and they’re more or less fully functional cameras, meaning they can do a lot more than the SLRs can.” Talley was impressed by the FS100’s sleek form factor because he saw the potential for building a rig that he describes as “Voltron-esque,” allowing him to quickly transition in the space of a minute or two from a full-on digital-cinematography rig to a minimal, Hasselblad-sized handheld set-up that can be squeezed into a small room.

DP-Friendly Rigging Options

“It’s a very easy-to-rig camera in any configuration you want,” he explains. “A company called Berkey System makes a cheeseplate that attaches to the top of the camera and allows you to mount rails up there, mount your focus motor above and still leave the follow-focus waiting to fly into place below. You can easily mount two monitors to the top of the camera and leave your onboard LCD closed or turned out to the side.” Talley owns a TVLogic VFX-056W viewfinder that converts the camera’s HDMI-only output to HD-SDI, which can be used to feed that second monitor. He also has a SmallHD DP4 electronic viewfinder, which he compares to EVFs from Red and ARRI: “It really makes this camera something wicked. It’s easy to focus and super color-accurate – it’s one of the best I’ve seen.” These are held in place with adjustable mounting-arm components and clamps from Ultralight Control Systems.

The Berkey mounting plate also made it easy to use the camera with an Easyrig 4 Vario, for Steadicam-style motion shots, by providing a stable surrogate top handle for the camera. “It’s been a major part of the shoot thus far,” Talley said one week into production. “We’ve done two days where I basically never took it off.” After using the system for a week, Talley also decided to trade out his steel iris rods for aluminum rods from Berkey, trying to trim as much weight as possible from the rig, which is a hefty 32 pounds when fully loaded.

Again, a prime concern is an ease of moving the camera through its various configurations. “[The FS100’s] versatility is really remarkable, and that’s one of the things we need on this show,” Talley says. “We’re going to shoot one time in a practical bus bathroom, somewehere between 11mm and 16mm. This camera can go from an Arriflex 535 size down to an [Aaton] A-Minima size in two minutes, and you don’t have to change lenses or change stocks. You’re just ready to go.”

Putting the Picture Through Its Paces

But at some point the ease of rigging the camera has to take a back seat to the image, and Talley needed to convince himself that the camera’s AVC HD recording was cinema quality. “The footage from the FS100 blows up extremely well,” he says. “That was a huge concern for us, and it passed those tests with flying colors. We tested it against a number of different cameras, bringing in the native AVC HD off the SD cards and blowing it up 1000 percent. I shot under very challenging conditions with a lot of muddy midtones and a lot of strong white and black slashes running through them with a focus chart in the center. I zoomed in, I violently hand-held the camera and rocked it from side to side and up and down. It did a great job. It wasn’t super-skewy, there were no problems with aliasing, there were no white lines running through browns and dark greens, and there was no more moirà© than you would expect on the focus chart.”

He took a look at external recorders for the shoot, but opted to stick with the camera’s on-board recording. The speed of switching between rig types was one concern, with a separate recording component only adding to the complexity. Talley was also worried about space constraints in general, and another piece of gear could be one too many.

Shooting by Candlelight

Talley was also impressed with the camera’s low-light performance, which he calls “almost unnverving” in its ability to see into the dark. He says it has about 12 stops of latitude, similar to the F3, including an unusual degree of latitude in the shadows. He won’t be pushing it to its limits on Somewhere Slow, but he will be depending on its performance in candlelight scenes that he’s trying to light as naturally – meaning minimally – as possible. “As a cinematographer, you have to pay close attention when you read a line of dialogue like, ‘Turn out all the lights,’ or ‘We can’t have any lights on in here,'” he says. “The characters are not supposed to be in this house, so they’re keeping a low profile by lighting candles. There are two shots, in particular, where someone is walking through a narrow hallway with a candle lighting their way. This camera will let me make that look like the human eye would see it, and I will take advantage of that.”

Talley wants especially to avoid the clichà© of using moonlight streaming through windows as a light source. “One of the scenes is a five- or six-page long dialogue scene in a bedroom,” he says. “We may squeeze one light in to magnify the candlelight and afford a tiny bit of moonlight creeping in through the window, but if those candles can drive the lighting, so much the better. Bad moonlight is a pet peeve of mine.”

He also cites the camera’s variable speed mode as a standout: “You press that slow-motion button and it switches over to 60fps, you hit iris-compensation, and then you hit record. The way the camera works, it records one MB per frame, up to 60 MB/second, so whether you record 60 frames or 24 frames, you’re at the same bit rate and your slow-motion footage looks fantastic.”

The last piece of the puzzle to come together involved lenses. Talley plans to lean on a set of Zeiss ZF primes, including a 28mm f/2.0, a 50mm f/1.4, and an 85mm f/1.4. When the camera needs to be farther from the action, shots will be picked up with a Canon 70-200mm zoom. And for the super-close-up work, he’s packing a Tokina 11-16mm zoom and a Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. The latter will do double duty as a nice 100mm prime lens, bur its main function will be allowing Talley to catch stylized shots of the film’s lead character, Anna, whenever the director feels it necessary. “I appreciated them on the DSLRs, but these nice Zeiss ZF lenses blow me away on the FS100,” he says. “The coatings really do give you more latitude, and they have the same flaring characteristics as much more expensive lenses. I tested them by pointing them at a bare light bulb from three feet away, and there was no flaring, no ghosting, nothing.”

While some of the most challenging footage will be captured in that Rhode Island beach house, the most difficult technical sequences are all being shot on the West Coast. Accordingly, Talley is sourcing his equipment through AbelCine in Los Angeles.

Finally, like any good modern DP, Talley had one eye on production and one eye on post as he prepared for the shoot. Accordingly, he decided to create two different picture profiles for the camera. One is a fully graded look, ideal for locations where Talley will have all the control over the environment that he needs to essentially create a final look in camera. “AbelCine put out a 5D Mark II profile for the FS100 that’s very attractive,” he says, “and our graded picture profile will be somewhere between that and Abel’s standard profile.” (More information on AbelCine’s FS100 scene files is available here.) The other is a raw ITU709 color profile that will give editor/colorist Brian Voelkerding more latitude to grade the picture in post-production.

At the end of the day, Talley simply expects the camera to deliver quality imagery under challenging working conditions, including budget and time constraints as well as restrictive locations. “It’s a very, very, very good image,” he says. “And it still takes me aback when I look at how small the camera is.”

With that, we reach the end of the story so far. Keep an eye on StudioDaily when we revisit the production in about a month to find out whether the game plan changed during the shoot, and to hear more about what’s happening in post-production. For more on Justin Talley, visit his website: