Some of my posts are emotional, others more prosaic, and this one, at the opposite end on the spectrum of the mundane, is so purely technical that I think it kind of loops around and becomes poetic. Of course there has always been a poetry to technical pursuits that appeals to me as an artist, but I understand if you don’t find the poetry here, hidden as it is.
This post is all about calibrating my Sekonic L-758C light meter. Keep in mind I’m not a director of photography or a gaffer, and 90% of the time union regs don’t allow me to even touch the lights or the cameras at work.
That being said I think that light meters are cool and I follow my interests.
A few years ago I bought a trumpet.
3 reasons to use a light meter…..
1. Proper exposure
Access to DSLRs like the 5D (not to mention Sony’s new A7s) have given us a terrible education on how much light it takes for most cameras to register a rich image. Scrappy shooters like me who cut their teeth shooting web videos with small crews are accustomed to walking into a room, ANY room, and thinking “of course there’s enough light to shoot.” This has spoiled us, and in many ways ruined us when it comes to using better cameras, which incidentally have smaller sensors (less light gathering) and don’t automatically apply their own noise reduction to the image (which is how DSLRs achieve those super high ISOs). I’ve read a lot of internet posts where people turn on their cameras, aim them at the sofa with only the room lights on, and then post those pictures to the web saying that the image looks grainy. Yeah, those images do look grainy. The Red Epic, and the Red Dragon are not low light cameras, especially compared to DSLRs. So just how much light is enough light? Well as it turns out, Red gives you a lot of tools to evaluate the light reaching your sensor. There’s a histogram, the goal posts, and the traffic lights. But this post will address NONE of those in-camera tools, because I went third party and got a Sekonic L-758C light meter. This is now my light measuring device, and it’s like having a year of grad school in my hand every time I turn it on. If you want those deep rich blacks that your camera is fully capable of, then you’re going to need more light, and if you can quantify those amounts it’s going to be a lot easier than just saying “add a bunch more.”
2. Know the usable latitude of your sensor
Latitude, or dynamic range, is an expression of how much your camera can see into the shadows on the low end, and into the highlights on the high end. Everything below the dynamic range is too dark, everything above is too bright. Everything in the middle makes a picture, and that’s your camera’s latitude. Whether you are shooting in full sun or deep in shadow, you want to consider where your imagery falls on the available latitude spread that your camera has. I was listening to Alex Vendler’s interview on The American Cinematographer’s podcast, and he talks about shooting the dark imagery for the horror flick The Woman (see scary woman). He explains shooting in the “toe of the curve.” When I heard that expression I found it to be movingly poetic, and I had NO IDEA what it meant, although I instantly felt a need to be able to do this as well. Essentially what he meant was that he was exposing a lot of scenes in that subtle range of the camera’s latitude where it’s juuuuuusssst about to be too dark, but it’s NOT too dark. You can make out detail but everything is on the low end of the dynamic range, and within a stop or two of being underexposed. You can’t shoot in the toe of the curve without knowing exactly where the falloff happens, and for that you need a light meter.
3. Don’t trust monitors
Apart from the DIT’s monitors, which are usually calibrated, monitors on set or on the camera won’t give you an accurate sense of exposure, so I have a desire to be able to circumvent the monitor entirely through my own ability to quantify the amount of light in a scene, and to know how it’s going to show up in the footage, AND to able to do this without relying on a monitor. Does this mean that I am banning monitors? No. Monitors can stay. But for my own education, with my own camera, I want to know when they are lying.
So I could have just bought the light meter and stopped there. But in my quest for truth, I discovered that light meters come from the factory with their own inherent deviations, and that the instruments themselves need to be hooked up to OTHER INSTRUMENTS to be calibrated. For this you use a clandestine service like Quality Light Metric, which involves dropping your meter at a mailbox store on the Northeast corner of LaBrea and Hollywood. Just walk in and flash your meter, the people behind the counter will give you instructions. It’s kind of like being a spy. Not that I’d know. Or would I…….(beat)…..but Sekonic also provides software that allows you to calibrate your meter according to the sensor of your particular camera, and that to me felt very sexy and intimate, so I set out to master the Sekonic Data Transfer software. If you are doing this for a cinema camera that shoots RAW, be prepared to go super deep, lock yourself in the office for a few nights, have a container of gorp and a pee bottle under the desk. And to instruct you in this endeavor I will send you to Ryan Walter’s indispensible video tutorial where he gives an in depth, click by click tutorial in how to do it. I watched this video 30 times last weekend, and it’s more like a textbook to me now. Without Ryan’s help I’d have been totally and completely lost.
Somewhere out there there must be a prelude to this video because Ryan starts with “Now that you’ve shot your exposures using the Sekonic Profile Chart…” But I couldn’t find the video that talks about how to shoot those exposures, and while you can largely infer how it’s done from Ryan’s video above, there are some basic practices I had to deduce by trial and error. Determining the usable latitude of your sensor is entirely dependent on how you plan to color correct your footage. Don’t forget that. Red, for instance, has 16 stops of latitude for the Red Dragon sensor. That may be the case, but from what I’ve found, the entire usable range is only apparent in uncorrected RAW footage, and no one will finish a project in the uncorrected RAW output. Maybe you have created a look that is super flat, and maintains all information, but for me, based on my own subjective taste, I always adjust shadow and highlight levels in a way that’s visually pleasing, and which reduces the visible latitude. Dramatically. You see in order to calibrate your sensor, you are going to export jpegs for the Sekonic software to analyze, and in order export those jpegs, you’re going to WANT to put a look on them that you like. Maybe it’s a look you’ve created for one specific shoot, and in that case you can create a Sekonic profile which is project specific. Or maybe you want to export jpegs which match the RAW look, so that you always know how much information is there to be played with. It’s entirely up to you. But spending time with this process will help you understand the complicated and subjective relationship between light levels, aperture settings, RAW footage, color correction, and the final latitude represented in your image. To begin to understand this chain of consequences will make you appreciate your camera a lot more, and it will bring you more into the mindset of how professional cinematographers evaluate light and exposure, EVEN if they don’t use meters themselves.
Ryan captured his chart images at various exposures but with a constant aperture. He did this using a series of stacked ND filters and by varying the shutter angle of his camera. There is some extremely complex addition and subtraction here, and I will leave you to puzzle over the particulars yourself. It’s like solving a riddle, and when you get it you’ll be happy. All the info you need is in Ryan’s video, just be prepared for some new forehead wrinkles.
There’s only one key piece that you need to know going in that is not stated clearly enough. You will need a light powerful enough to give you an initial reading of somewhere between f32 to f45. The first two times I did this I used my old Mole Richardson soft light with a 1K bulb. And my initial light readings were too low for any of this shit to make sense. In fact, it wasn’t until I was all done that realized that I didn’t have enough light, so fortunately for you I plodded on and made another revealing mistake….You have to make sure that your profile chart is evenly lit. During setup I noticed that I got a slightly different reading at the outer edges of the chart than I got at the middle of the chart. These readings were off by 1/10 of a stop and I sort of figured that it might not matter. But it does.
This process involves looking at your footage on a waveform, and if you’ve exposed properly you’ll see a perfect staircase of exposures, representing the descending brightness of each chip. If you have uneven illumination, like I did, then your waveform will be bowed and slanted, and the software won’t give you accurate results.
My first batch of charts were crap, and it’s because I was using the wrong light and the light was too close to the chart. Moving the chart further away from the light evened out my illumination a little bit, but not completely. And while moving the chart further away made my exposure more even, it also decreased the amount of light even further. Remember how I said you’ll need enough light to get somewhere between a 32/45? Well as you can see I was working with a 5.6. That’s not enough. You’ll see that the “better waveform” on the right still has slanted chips, and the amount of slant gets worse towards the edges. As of this writing I haven’t gotten a chart illumination perfect because I’m going to need more light.
Also before you start, you’ll need to go into the custom settings of your Sekonic meter and make sure that the meter is set to display aperture values in full stop increments, as opposed to 1/3 stop increments. If you don’t do this, then you’ll get meter readings that say things like 6.3 and 2/10. But when you go to enter your meter values into the Sekonic software, the dropdown menu jumps from 5.6 to 8. That’s because 6.3 is one third of a stop above 5.6 and the drop down menu does not allow for thirds. You’ll get it when you do it.
I’m totally not finished calibrating my meter, but I can see where it’s headed. Based on my how I shoot and the looks that I favor, I can expect around 8 usable stops from my Dragon. Having spoken to a few DP’s I trust, this is a totally acceptable shooting range. I know that the full dynamic range is there for me to use, should I get into a scrape but knowing how my standard curves look, I’m using only the part of it that I want.
This short video that I directed has gone live today on Funny Or Die. This was my first collaboration with Matt Berninger, Tom Berninger, and Carin Besser. Phenomenally funny people. If you haven’t seen their documentary, Mistaken For Strangers, I highly recommend it.
Shot on my Epic with my new Leicas, mostly the 24mm.
If you’ve watched the video above, you’ve seen through my new lenses, but if you have the stomach for it I will tell you in painstaking detail ABOUT my new lenses.
I’ve recently begun building my own set of vintage Leica lenses and modifying them for cinematography. I didn’t come up with the idea. It’s a trend actually and it’s popular because there are plenty of these old gems on the used market and they are a fraction of what true cinema quality lenses cost. I kind of hate that I’m such a follower on this one, but the more it was put in my face on the internet, the more I had to try for myself. This is myThird Eye Blind. My one disclaimer here is that what makes a lens, or a movie, or an idea cinematic in the first place is something that no two humans will agree on, but nevertheless there are cinema lenses out there which cost as much as half a house (in a crappy school district). But if you’re adventurous and not super wealthy you can own a set of these. If my experience is a yardstick, however, there is no quick or clear cut path to get you there. Reading my account will be a good way for you to see if this sounds fun or annoying. What I won’t get into are the performance characteristics of the lenses, or even my subjective opinions on how they look except to say that they look awesome to me. Every time I mount them on the camera I have a visceral response, not only to the images I’m seeing on my monitor, but to the way they change the aesthetic of the camera itself. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m really into curating the look of my equipment even though it has no direct impact on what you see on screen. I get more excited about using my tools when the tools themselves have been considered carefully, and are a pleasure to look at. Despite how handsome they are as collectible antiques, you must like the pictures they take, so I will posit, for the rest of this article that you already do, or that you’ve consumed enough reviews, photo blogs, and discussion threads on this topic to decide that you’re ready to wade into the marketplace. Most people buy cinema lenses in matched sets for visual consistency. While people are out there on the internet selling full sets of Leicas, in all likelihood the individual lenses are still coming from different owners and possibly even different decades, and the sets are often cobbled together by someone like me who has taken the time to buy them and bundle them. So it’s a tossup when it comes to the quality of a “set” versus the quality of buying them separately. I found that it would be a little cheaper to buy them all at once because traditional volume pricing rules seem to apply, albeit in small amounts. I just felt like it would be less of an education to get a ready made set. Later on I stopped thinking that, but then even later I changed my mind back. This is where I stand now. Buy them one at a time and make a connection with each lens. I Since I am methodical I began with the widest angle I would want. I found a 19mm Leica for sale on Reduser for $1100. The post read
“I have Leica/Leitz R 19mm 2.8 Version 1 for sale, beautiful vintage lens sn#2869697. The lens has been converted and de-clicked to Nikon F mount via Leitax bayonet. Optically and mechanically I would rate it 9+ perfectly smooth focus throw, the glass is flawless, no dust, scratch marks or haze. I’m selling it because I has the Version 2 and want to get rid of this to make room for some other gear.”
Let’s call this guy Seller A. Seller A’s post is very densely packed with information, especially for someone who is new to Leicas. First of all, the fact he specifies that this is a “Type 1” means that there is more than one type. In the case of the 2.8 19mm, there are two types, and you can read an in depth comparison between here. The serial number tells you when it was made, and there are lots of resources you can use to look it up. I used this one to find out that the lens was made in 1977.
What is de-clicking? These lenses were all built with a tiny ball and spring mechanism in the iris ring so that the iris would make a very satisfying click as you rotated through the different stops. But if you are using this lens for cinematography, you don’t want your lens clicking in the event that you have to open up or stop down while the camera is rolling. So you need someone to take the back of the lens off, remove the clicking ball, and add some very thick grease. Thus, de-clicking the lens.
Lastly, the lenses were built to mount with Leica cameras, and if you are a cinematographer you are going to want to use a different mount. At this point, the options can get a little overwhelming, because there is no right and wrong way to go. If you have a 5D then you need to convert the Leica lens to a Canon mount. But what if you have Red? You can buy a Leica mount for your Red Epic or Scarlet, or you could buy a Canon mount for your Red and convert the lenses. Or in the case of this particular 19mm Type 1, if you were a Nikon owner, you could keep the Leica 19mm with the Nikon mount and buy a compatible Nikon mount for your Red. There’s also the question of PL. Most professional cinema cameras use the arri standard PL mount, so for a few weeks I did a lot of handwringing about whether I should just go with PL since that would be more “professional.” But then I stumbled upon this excellent post by Matt Duclos who explained why PL isn’t an option for vintage still lenses. So I decided that I would buy this 1977, 19mm Type 1 from Seller A and convert the Nikon mount to Canon.I emailed Seller A to make sure this was possible and he assured me that this just a matter of a simple mount swap. I sent $1100.00 through Paypal and a few days later my beautiful 19mm Leica showed up in the mail.
The fact that I could not actually use this lens due to it having a Nikon mount did not stop me from falling in love with it. The optics were pristine, and the 19mm has a particularly large and inviting front element. It’s like a big glass bosom, and you kind of want to rub your face on it. But I had to do the mount conversion, which I had already planned to do at Duclos Lenses, so I put in a new box, along with the original Leica mount, and sent it to Duclos for their full cine-mod treatment. This service includes de-clicking the aperture, converting the camera to the mount of your choice, adding a focus gear to the outside of the lens, and adding an 80mm front ring for matte box applications and 80mm screw-on filters. Even though this lens had been de-clicked by Seller A, I asked Duclos to investigate and make sure it was done right.
This quest for “rightness” is a part of my personality, and is more intensely manifest where machinery or electronics are concerned. If there is anything amiss with a gadget in my house, then I feel a creeping uneasiness throughout the day and I cannot concentrate. People who benefit from this neurosis are those who buy my used gear, because everything from packaging to paperwork is pristine. Every item that I send back out into the world has an identity and a history. Every bump and scrape is assiduously accounted for. I see myself as a custodian of mechanized objects, and a rehabilitator of broken things. As if I have taken some sort of hippocratic oath to these gadgets, I cannot in good conscience allow them to stay broken. But this trait actively works against me in the collection of vintage lenses, for their flaws are why you buy them in the first place. Their flaws are the perfect antidote to the alien crispness of Ultra HD. You will be working at cross purposes if you seek perfection from your second hand, 50 year old lenses of unknown provenance. But I had not quite learned all of that yet, and I’m getting ahead of myself.
A week after sending the 19mm to Duclos I get a call from them saying that they need the Leica mount to install my Canon mount. It works like this: to convert a Leica lens to a Nikon mount, you can buy a Nikon adapter. The most popular are made by a Spanish company called Leitax. Duclos uses the Leitax mounts, and Leitax’s Leica to Nikon adapter replaces the original Leica mount. But Leitax’s Leica to Canon adapter bolts on top of the original Leica mount. So while that was a new piece of information to me, it should have been no problem since I had received the original Leica mount with my 19mm, and had packed it into the box when I sent the box to Duclos. But Duclos said it wasn’t in the box. The case of the missing Leica adapter was never solved, and the mystery is exacerbated by a few factors.
I have no idea what an original Leica mount looks like. Yes there were a few tiny screws and some other metal odds and ends in a small envelope which came in the box from Seller A, but to be honest, nothing looked like what, in my head, a “mount” should look like. And I didn’t take a cell phone picture of it, which was a mistake. When Matt Duclos told me that the Leica mount wasn’t in the box, all I could say was that I remember putting something in the box with the lens, but I can’t say for sure what it was. And I wish it were sufficient that Seller A had told me that those odd bits were in fact the original mount, but as it turns out he was a little foggy on how the Canon and Nikon Leitax adapters worked, and had inadvertently misinformed me about this during our transaction. Seller A was a super nice dude, and this is not a complaint or an indictment of him. I’m merely pointing out that there was a small gap in his knowledge, a gap which had to do with the mounting system. So on this particular issue, namely what kind of mount was in my shipment, I felt like I could not use his word as a forceful proof that I had sent Duclos what they needed to do my conversion. And I tell you this story not to lose you in a hailstorm of details, but to illustrate how small gaps in the knowledge chain can lead to uncertainty, delays and confusion.
Packing is a wildcard. Whatever those odd bits of metal were, they definitely got lost somewhere along the way, and when you have tiny pieces of metal in tiny plastic sleeves packed into a cubic yard of packing peanuts, shit gets lost. And that is something you will deal with again and again.
In the end I had to rely on Matt Duclos to scrounge all the missing pieces, which he did for free, and I am grateful. He saved my new lens. But it meant that my 19mm lens conversion took about almost a month instead of 1 week. So from the moment I paid for that lens, till the moment I could actually take pictures with it, was almost 2 full months. This process takes patience. But before I sent my 19mm off to Duclos, I got to hold it briefly in my hands like a mother holding her baby before giving it up for adoption. That was the moment I pledged to accelerate my plan. I wanted a whole family! While the 19mm was still en route to Duclos, I got on the internet and started shopping for a full set of vintage Liecas. Because you know….fuck “methodical”. Pretty soon, through postings on Reduser, I got an email from Seller B. Like Seller A, he was responsive andand easy to deal with. His email pitch to me was brief.
“Here are the pictures of the lenses28/35/50/90/135/180
all in beautiful shape
price is $4300 includes de-clicking and dampening the iris with heavy grease.”
He also sent some tantalizing photos like this one…. By this point I’d begun to have a rudimentary understanding of the various strata of Leica lenses. I knew that my 19mm Type 1 was cheaper than a Type 2, and that certain Lecias made during specific decades were highly coveted. For all focal lengths, Leicas belong to various classes or families. The family names generally group a certain speed as seen below:
Summilux’s in good condition can easily run $6000.00 on Ebay per lens, and that’s before any mount adapters or cine-modding is done. Summicrons can be anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500.00 depending on the focal length, and the Elmarit lenses are usually $350.00 to $700.00. Bear in mind that from what I’ve read, all of these prices are a good 20 to 50 percent higher than what they were a few years ago. After a rigorous googling, I figured that a family of 6 Leicas (3 of which where Summicron, the other 3 Elmarit) going for $4300.00 was a good deal. So I bought the lot of them thinking that I could always sell individually the ones I didn’t want to keep so really there was NO POSSIBLE WAY I could lose money on the deal.
A few keystrokes on Paypal and six days later a large box arrived at my mailbox. I ran up the stairs, hefted it onto the dining room table and tore into the packing. Slowly my ebullience began to fade as one by one I pulled the lenses from the box. They looked like they had been packed in a big hurry, some had been thrown unsecured into bubble sleeves, without any tape. Additionally, Seller B had declicked the irises of these lenses by himself, which involves removing an inner shroud which rests just under the Leica mount in back, and then removing the microscopically small ball bearing and spring mechanism. The shrouds, all of them different, as well as the ball bearings and springs, had been dropped into open or torn plastic bags. Those plastic bags were then swimming loose in the packing material. As expected, many of these small pieces had shaken loose in transit and were resting on the very bottom of the box. I fished two nano sized ball bearings out from under the bottom cardboard flap with my thumbnail. I was positively aghast that someone could be so sloppy with details. I tried to organize everything as best as possible, and made this glum video when the dust had settled.
Note that these tiny shrouds and ball bearings were utterly and completely worthless to me. I just didn’t know that at the time is all.
The next and most obvious step would be to test the lenses to make sure they worked. All of them, however, had Leica mounts, so even though I have a Red and a Canon 6D in the apartment, I had no way to use the lenses without adapters. Getting the Canon adapters from Duclos is a reasonably priced affair, but getting them directly from Leitax and installing them yourself is cheaper, especially when you need 6 of them.
My Leicas arrived on January 20th, 2014. The next day, January 21st, I ordered 6 Leitax Canon adapters from Spain. It took a couple weeks for them to arrive, but on Thursday Feb 6th the adapters showed up and that night I learned how to mount them on all the lenses. Turns out, it’s totally easy! Let me back up just a little bit and say that the lenses varied quite a bit in condition. Having absolutely zero experience with vintage lenses, I looked for help in what criteria I should use to evaluate them. This article on Ken Rockwell’s website proved invaluable, and if it weren’t for him I would have had a major panic attack over some dust particles I could see on the inner elements. According to Ken’s standards, all of the lenses were clean enough to keep, except for the 50mm, which had two rather large smudges on the front, which would not wipe away with lens cleaner and a microfiber cloth. I had found one lens which was not in “beautiful” shape. But the real test was taking pictures. I had to choose a good walk-around lens and go outside. I settled for something right in the middle, the 35mm Summicron. The first chance I had to walk around the block and snap some photos was the following Sunday, Feb 9th. Here’s a flower pic. Obviously a photo that I had to take, and guess what, I love this photo! Now that I was finally able to test my new set of lenses, I did the briefest inspection of them all and took maybe two photos with each one. Then, as an exercise, I went onto Ebay and found similar lenses in similar condition to see what they were worth. The cheapest was the135mm f/2.8 Elmarit-R Type 2 (S7), serial number 2612496, made in 1973. This is a heavy lens, and you can find one like it on Ebay for $420.00. The most valuable lens was the 90mm f/2.0 Summicron-R Type 3 (E49), serial number 3030566, made in 1980. Similar lenses were going for almost $1300.00. Conservatively speaking, Seller B had saved me about $200.00 by selling them as a set. He had also saved me a shitload of time. Still psyched about my totally tubular flower photo, I was feeling pretty good. That Sunday evening I really took some time with each lens, sitting quietly at my desk, shooting multiple subjects at various distances and different aperture values. About 20 minutes into playing with the 28mm it stopped focusing on anything closer than 4 feet.
I called Seller B, who was pretty surprised to be hearing from me a 20 days after I received the lenses, and a full 26 days after he had shipped them. I explained the delay in waiting for adapters from Leitax, apologized for not having been able to test them sooner, then finally got around to letting him know that the 28mm wasn’t working right. He was considerate and understanding, however, and told me that if I wanted to have the lens serviced that he’d refund me up to a couple hundred dollars, depending on the cost of service. Very nice of him.
After we got off the phone, the 28mm started focusing correctly again, then it wouldn’t, then it would. I kept trying to figure out exactly what was making it behave so strangely when it seized up altogether and the focus barrel jammed completely. I didn’t bother Seller B again because he had already authorized the service. Instead I posted this question on Reduser asking for a Leica service referral. I got a recommendation for Steve’s Camera Service Center in Culver City. Monday afternoon I went to Steve’s with the 28mm, and also the 50mm to see about those two persistent smudges on the outer element….oh and also the 35mm because it was my favorite and I thought maybe Steve of Steve’s Camera Service Center would look at me with respect and camaraderie when he saw it.
Steve said that all three lenses were in need of a total overhaul.
Seller B and I had a testy exchange while I was standing on the sidewalk outside of Steve’s. Seller B’s point was actually what I said at the beginning of this post, in fact it’s his wisdom which I was paraphrasing – You can’t buy lenses this old and expect them to be mechanically perfect. You buy them because of their imperfections. If you can take a photo and you like that photo, then be satisfied with your vintage lens and accept the fact that lens technicians anywhere will still be able to find flaws with it. On this point I had to agree with Seller B, but remember what I said earlier about being a sworn caretaker of used equipment, and how everyone who buys from me knows exactly where an item came from and everything that has happened to it? Once Steve of Steve’s Camera told me that the lenses were in need of an overhaul, I was then morally bound to repeat that information, so three of my lenses instantly lost their resale value.
It may or may not be true that all of these lenses need some amount or repair, but I’m not nearly expert enough to separate fact from fiction in this regard. I’d be only dummy who would put “needs overhaul” for one of these lenses in an Ebay listing, but that’s what I’d been told by a professional and I believed it. There is also the fact that the 180mm was one lens that hadn’t been declicked. I never brought it up because it’s not a big deal. But Seller B left that information out, and then there was that shitty job of packing, so I decided that I didn’t trust his lenses and asked him to take them back. He claimed that the 28mm was working perfectly when he shipped it, and given how much time had elapsed, how could he be sure that I hadn’t rented the lenses out for the three weeks they were in my posession. It was kind of a mess, but despite it all Seller B agreed to take the lenses back and return my $4300.00. I was grateful because he didn’t have to do that.
After the lenses were returned, and after my full refund was issued, I got a very polite, somewhat longish email from Seller B, who I guess had been stewing over the whole business. He recapitulated all the points he had made on the phone and then asked for a $300.00 restocking fee. I responded with my own polite, even longer email re-understanding his points while re-restating mine, and acceding to his request for a restocking fee, which I thought was reasonable. This email exchange went on and on, with us politely arguing over why we agreed with one another. And in some sense, these emails herald the true completion of the start of my education because now I had an opinion of my own. The $300.00 restocking fee was my tuition.
My 19mm Type 1 returned to me that very week…cinevised. At this point I had a sense of what I was looking for: a set of Leicas from the Elmarit family. They are the least expensive, and I don’t shoot nearly enough to justify the leap in cost for faster lenses.
It’s finally done! Thanks to all of Alex’s friends who helped out on graphics, sound, makeup, wardrobe. Thanks to Birns and Sawyer for giving me a deal on the lighting package. Most importantly, take yoga from Alex! I had spine surgery 2 years ago and instead of going to physical therapy I went to her class. It made me stronger, more pliable, and sometimes in class I felt like I was having a direct conversation with my injury, negotiating with it, coaxing it into cooperating again. Her website is here.
Eric Ledgin and I wrote a pilot for IFC which we shot in Stockholm three months ago. I’m definitely post euphoria, going through the comedown phase, back to reading science fiction books at the coffee shop, and beginning to await word on the series. The good news is that there are abs classes every single day at Equinox. So it’s not like I’m wasting time entirely.
I’ve long since accepted that any big project, especially if it goes really well, is followed by a long and excruciatingly mellow denouement. I don’t know if Eric is going through the same thing. Funny because I could ask him. We talk several times a day.
In May of 2011, around the time I was leaving Late Night, I was telling my friend Dan Pasternack about how fucked up my penis looked after spine surgery. Pasternak asked me if I’d ever thought of writing a sitcom based on my own life (there was more than just the penis story fyi). It was nothing I had the inclination or confidence to try until Eric and I started traveling together.
Ledgin was on the monologue staff at Late Night, and shared an office across the hall from me with 2 other mono writers Morgan Murphy and Justin Shanes. I used to hear them analyzing jokes together, and loved to hear the way they focused on language. Crafting a monologue joke has a weird, almost equation-like elegance. Writing a monologue joke is something that I never successfully did in my entire time at Late Night. My brain does not work that way. The monologue writers were writing about 60 jokes a day, and I was fascinated by their process, and the intellectual rigor that they applied to it. I was just beginning the divorce process and Eric was in a relationship which had some ups and downs, so we had a few “deep talks” at work then started hanging out outside of work. One night I was doing karaoke in Manhattan with Eric and his girlfriend (they’ve since split up and Eric is now married to someone else…more on that later…or not…I mean this isn’t Eric’s blog) when I realized that when I was in his presence I felt like a winner. Which is the best thing you can say about a friend. I told him that when I was in my 20’s someone once told me that all the girls in Stockholm were hot and that I was planning to go. I asked the two of them if they wanted to come to Sweden and be my wing couple. She couldn’t get the time off of work, but Eric and I were on hiatus at the same time from Late Night, so he took a risk and said yes.
On April 18th, 2011 we landed in Stockholm for our vacation, still very much getting to know each other as friends. It was those long, meandering conversations that Eric and I had which became the basis of our show, but finding the structure would come later. In the moment there was simply a “Let’s work together!” vibe. On the plane home we wrote down every detail of our trip, diary style, just so we wouldn’t forget. Eric was still at Late Night in NY and I was in LA, so over the next 9 months we took those memories and crafted them into a larger idea, which we pitched to Pasternack (who incidentally is VP of Development at IFC) and the rest of the IFC development team.
After getting the official script order, we sat down one summer day in 2012 at a restaurant in Los Feliz and starting actually writing the pilot. We had put a year of time and energy into developing the idea, but had never actually written anything scripted, per se. I called Eric that night after our first session and said “I love writing with you!!” He was like “I was just thinking about how well our first day went!” It was adorable you guys.
The pilot was finished in August and approved in November with a plan to shoot in Sweden in the Spring.
We finished filming on April 19th of 2013, 2 years and one day after we first landed in Sweden for our vacation.
Now at this point you are probably asking, “What lenses did you guys shoot with?” Okay, I’ll get to that. We shot on Kowa anamorphic lenses.
Jonas Alarik, our DP, is a native Swede. He works mostly with the Alexa, and I have a bias for the Epic. He was open to both platforms so we decided to test both when I got to Stockholm. But as for lenses, I started floating the idea of shooting anamorphic to other people months earlier, and I got zero enthusiasm for the idea. Finally one night, a few weeks ahead of the shoot, I had the temerity to broach the idea in an email with Jonas. Here is our exchange:
Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 11:38 AM
To: Jonas Alarik
Do you ever shoot anamorphic? If so do you like it? I did it once and loved it. It’s an idea that’s been kicking around in my head for a few months.
Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 12:51 PM
To: Michael Blieden
I just did a feature film on Alexa with anamorphic lenses, and I love it too. I would thou say it´s not the fastest choice of equipment.. Don´t really know if it´s realistic with our budget and time limits.. But I like the idea!
27 mar 2013 kl. 19.38 skrev Michael Blieden:
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Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 12:57 PM
To: Jonas Alarik
What I like about it it’s the way it makes every frame special. And day exteriors would be so cool. I know it would be harder on us for night exteriors because anamorphics are slower right? but we could shoot those regular 5k and crop them.
Theoretically I’m not opposed to having some limits in focal length. I think it forces you to be creative. But the budget problem is very real and I can’t argue that one.
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Thu, Mar 28, 2013 at 3:37 AM
To: Michael Blieden
Yes, I like the idea. I think it helps a lot to create a more natural texture and look for the digital cameras. I’m an old school film guy and the modern digital cameras are a bit too clean and dead for my taste. One way to change that is anamorphic lenses, especially old anamorphic lenses. I also think that longer lenses often is preferable when you have a lack of resources. It helps you to select the pieces of the world, and gives your image the right feeling, plus keeps away whatever you don’t want people to see. I also could work with just a few lenses if necessary. I think that some rules, limits and radical choices before we shoot would help us to be creative and make a distinctive look for the show. To go anamorphic could be a step in that direction..?
27 mar 2013 kl. 20.57 skrev Michael Blieden:
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We tested anamorphics and spherical lenses on Red and Alexa and it’s funny what happens to two camera geeks in a rental house. We both walked over the cameras we preferred and started playing with them. Me to my Red and Jonas to his Alexa. Occasionally we’d wander over to the other person’s station, but basically we were both absorbed in our own exploration for the better part of an hour. Then I had to come to terms with the fact that I was acting, directing, and with Ledgin, still writing. In a production as fast paced and small as ours, I wanted Jonas to work with the tool he naturally gravitates to. His brilliant work with the Alexa speaks for itself. I needed to let go of the camera, literally. So we chose Alexa and it worked out amazingly well. Jonas did exquisite work on this shoot. I will risk saying that even though it’s vaguely self-congratulatory but I cannot help but fawn over this man’s work. He pulled images that were straight out of my dreams. And for the record, the anamorphics we used are as fast, or close to as fast as any other lenses we could have used, from an aperture standpoint. Given the amount of low light shooting we had to do, this made it possible.
Also, at this point I have to give a very special thanks to @Radical.media who produced this pilot. They rep me for commercials so I knew that they had expertise shooting all over the world. Frank Sherma and Donna Portaro went way out of their way, for months and months, to bring all the pieces together for this shoot. They showed extreme care for the material. They are our partners and guides, and when it came to making decisions, whether it was lenses, wardrobe, locations, or 2 million other things you encounter shooting overseas, they were always helped us find the best creative choice, and made sure it was doable.
The screen grab below will illustrate the aspect ratio difference between Anamorphic 2.35 and 16×9. The frame on the left is how we shot it, and the frame on the right is what airs on every cable channel. Shooting anamorphic but planning for the 16×9 crop is an accepted practice, so we took that into account when shooting.
Anyone who’s kept up with me is not surprised that I’m spending this much time on cameras, lenses and the Red vs. Alexa debate. For the record, I still love my Epic, Alex Hanawalt and I are going ahead with the Dragon sensor upgrade, and my penis did completely recover from surgery.
I’ll have much more to say about this project as time goes on.