A one of a kind contest, LA Post Fest called on editors around the world to edit unique cuts of the short film “Protocol”. Shot entirely on green-screen and with multiple takes of each shot for maximum flexibility on the edit bay, it required a unique mindset to shoot the footage that contestants would use to create their own unique edits of the film. We spoke with the director of photography, Andrew Parrotte, about the challenges of shooting a film intended to be edited together in as many different ways as possible, and why the Blackmagic URSA was used to do it.
Clint Milby: How did you come to be involved in LA Post Fest and the film “Protocol”?
Andrew Parrotte: I often attend the monthly LAPPG meeting with Justine Gendron (who aided in the post-production workflow), of which Woody and Wendy are the founders. At a summer meeting in 2015, Woody approached me and pitched Protocol. He said he was looking for a Cinematographer to shoot the project. I hadn’t heard this spin for a festival before and I loved the idea, so we set up another meeting to talk pre-production.
CM: What were your primary concerns as the DP, shooting completely on green screen, to make sure you captured something people could work with?
AP: Limiting green spill was one of my major concerns, even over getting a good, even green screen. Having a strong deep key was important back before 2007, just before the RED One came out. With the cameras we have now, including the Blackmagic URSA, we can work with a key that’s as low as 40% and help lessen green from spilling everywhere. Since we incorporated camera movement via a jib we of course added tracking marks so plates could be added in post. Using green for our marks is just fine, despite what some people say on set. You don’t need to have a different color tracking mark, as I found out after talking with our VFX supervisor. We just used a few marks and tried to make sure our actors didn’t cross over them so there would be less rotoscoping work needed.
CM: Did you have problems with green screen bleed on the actors/props/sets and/or reflections? If so, how did you counteract them?
AP: We had a lot of shiny and reflective surfaces from props to space suits, helmets to glass beakers. We covered all the green surfaces we could that wouldn’t be seen in a shot by shot basis. That helped a lot. Having a bit more distance between our green screen and our set would have helped too. As it was, my gaffer Philip Jackson and key grip Mike Switch were able to push the whole set back quite a few more feet than planned. It helped tremendously. I would have loved to shoot at a 144* shutter as well to lessen motion blur. Less motion blur would have meant a sharper image on any movement and thus an easier keying job.
CM: With so many different cameras on the market, why did you choose the Blackmagic Design URSA for this project?
AP: Using a 4K camera was an important spec we knew we had to incorporate. VFX work is so much easier when you have the resolution and data to go with it. Of course you can do so much more NOW than you could back in 2006 or even 2010, but we didn’t want to make it difficult on our contestants. They had a PL mount option as well, which was a spec we needed since we knew what lens set we were using before hand. I think we could have gotten away with many camera types but the Blackmagic URSA worked well for us.
CM: With a wide variety of formats and resolution, which ones did you choose to capture?
AP: We shot all of Protocol in 4k RAW DNG for the highest quality image. Shooting with the highest resolution we could was the best way to go since we were doing so much VFX work. DNG files might make it tough for those who have never worked with them but it really was the best option. I know everyone got proxy H264 files to edit with but the winners for the showcase will be completed in 4k 4:4:4:4 with ProRes files.
CM: What lens system did you utilize and why?
AP: We shot with Optar Super Speeds rented from Division Cameras. They aren’t the sharpest lenses for VFX work but they were the speed we needed for our budget. I’ve used this same set of lenses on a few different projects now and know what I can and can’t get away with.
CM: Were there any other interesting challenges you faced during the shoot?
AP: It really was challenging to shoot the project once on set. I had to keep in mind that we weren’t “baking in an edit”. We did multiple takes for each angle and the actors gave a different performance each time. One might have been aggressive, the next caring, and then apathetic. When thinking in terms of Cinematography, I wanted to light in a way that the editors could choose what the atmosphere of this planet would be. Was I going to use a hard light source as if the planet had no atmosphere? Was there going to be a single shadow for a single sun or multiple shadows as if there was another light source in this solar system? Since this was the first year for LA Post Fest I decided to keep it what I would call “traditional” and go with hard light and no atmosphere. I felt there was no easy way to give them all the options I really wanted to give them.
CM: Would you recommend the Blackmagic Design URSA to other filmmakers and/or use it yourself again?
AP: The Blackmagic URSA camera is a great camera. When they make upgrade parts, like a new sensor, you can swap them out which helps make the camera a bit more future proof. You have a few different frame rates to choose from up to a max of 60fps. Global shutter is huge in my opinion. You can eliminate the “jello” effect that plagues the DSLR market, and really, a lot of the bigger cameras out there. The URSA camera can do a few different formats up to 4k DNG Raw. You’ll use a lot of hard drive space of course, but that’s about the best in quality you’ll need and at a price point that’s affordable for those wanting to venture out of the DSLR market. We will probably use the Blackmagic URSA for our 2nd Annual L.A. Post Fest as well. The image quality was just what we were looking for.
As Parrotte mentions, LA Post Fest will return next year. With over 200 entries worldwide, the contest was a resounding success, and we can’t wait to see what next year’s experiment in creativity will bring from across the world.