Main Titles for “Up All Night”

In August I got a call from NBC’s “Up All Night” EP’s Erin David and Andrew Singer.

“Up All Night” is a Broadway Video show and so is Fallon, so they knew me from my work there. They were looking for ideas for Up All Night’s main titles.

Their goal was to create a 30 second open to play at the top of every episode which would showcase their stars, Christina Applegate, Maya Rudolph, and Will Arnett. And yes I realized that I just described what “main titles” are so cut me some slack if you are in tv and just got super bored for a second.  There had been some discussion of wanting to evoke the idea that we were looking through a scrapbook of the characters’ lives from the time before they had a kid, back when they were young and wild.

Photo by Zack Marchinsky.

I got on the phone with Erin, Andrew, and Lorne Michaels the next afternoon and pitched them a 6 beat story about the three main characters, Reagan (Christina), Chris (Will), and Ava (Maya) all told with still photos. The beats were:

1 Leaving A Club

2 Being Drunk On The Street

3 Going To Another Club

4 Dancing

5 Pregnancy Test

6 Passed Out With A Baby

Showing a sequence of stills is a technique that has been around forever and something I’ve used when appropriate. It certainly fit in with the scrapbook theme, especially if constantly wasted people kept scrapbooks of all the times they were wasted.

I shot a segment for Late Night called “Head Swap” and shot it entirely with stills. I’d typically shoot around 3,000 stills for every episode of Head Swap, then dump them onto editor Chris Tartaro’s computer and say “deal with this, jerk.” Then he’d laboriously, painstakingly edit a 4 minute video one still picture at at time.

Directing for stills is way different and for me much easier than directing for live action. Actors know that if I’m trying to catch a tiny slice of time, then they can act larger than life, and there is no pressure to carry a scene, say words, or give their emotions any context. They can bascially pose their way through the moods we want to capture in the photo. It’s a fun way to continuously get big performances from actors who normally prefer to be subtle and real.

Lorne, Erin and Andrew approved the stills approach and the story, with Lorne adding a beat where the Chris and Reagan are trying to put a baby crib together. I then spent a few days looking for reference photos on the internet.  I scoured tons and tons of stock photos of people at nightclubs, people partying on the street, people being pregnant, and people passed out in their bed with children. That is literally a sentence made entirely of search terms I used in google for the 3 nights as I stayed up surfing for reference material.

At first I had a really hard time finding some legitimately cool photos of people dancing in nightclubs. They were either too plastic looking or too posed or not exciting. Then I found Caesar Sebastian’s photostream on Flickr. You can also see AMAZING images on his blog. The images of his that captivated me the most, like the one in the link above, were wild and colorful pictures of people dancing, where lights were trailing across the photo as if it were a time lapse, but in the center of all these swirling colors was a crisp and sharply exposed human form, with no trailing or blurring. I was amazed at the technical aspect of these pictures, because on the one hand there is clearly an open shutter involved, and camera movement which is what creates the streaking. But then how did he get the subjects to expose so crisply and with no trails? The answer is a setting called 2nd Curtain Sync, wherein the camera tells it’s flash to go off at the very end of the shutter cycle. So even if you have the shutter set to be open for a full second, the flash still pops at the end of that second. And digital flashes are so fast these days that film cameras like the Red can’t even register and entire flash in a single frame. The bayer pattern of the sensor doesn’t scan the pixels fast enough. I know this because I recently shot a scene with characters being hit with mutiple flashes at once (using 5 Canon 580EX type 2 flashes). And if you take a single frame of the Red footage where the flashes went off, there is clearly a large horizontal area in the image where there is simply no flash. It’s as if the flash was set off behind a shelf or a horizontal bar, which is then casting a shadow onto the subject. But what you are seeing is that area of the sensor, a millisecond or so later in time than the part of the frame which is illuminated by the light from the flash.

My point in going into all that is that if your subject is standing in front of you in darkness, then you can leave the shutter open for days and days, and sweep the sensor across the subject not get any blurriness or trailing because the subject is not emitting any light. But when the flash pops, even if you are in the middle of a fast pan, the dark subject in the foreground will show up crisp and in focus on the sensor because the subject is illuminated for such a short duration. And at the same time all the lights in the background continue to leave a trail across the sensor.

Test shot taken in my apartment featuring Tim McAuliffe, Jessica Kozak, and Sarah Kozak.

Jerry and I got on the phone together and clicked through Caesar’s Flickr photos, and Jerry could pick out which photos were shot with 2nd Curtain Sync, and which were shot with 1st Curtain Sync, where the flash is triggered at the beginning of the shutter cycle, as opposed to the end. Using 1st Curtain Sync, the trails of light seem to emanate away from, or out of the subject. With 2nd Curtain, the photos show lights trailing behind the subject, creating  sense of forward motion.

Jerry also suggested some awesome ideas like zooming in while flashing with 2nd Curtian Sync, which creates a Star Wars hyperdrive effect.

Jerry Ward sent me a bunch of lenses, and another awesome Canon guy named Jung-Jin Ahn sent me a 5D mkII body, a 1D mkIV, and a whole case of lenses including Canon’s new 8-15mm L series fisheye lens.

Incidently, I didn’t use any cool effects on the pictures of Christina Applegate being pregnant, because the reference photos I found were hilariously boring, and so I kept those photos normal looking. There are some slobs out there on the internet who took unflattering, poorly lit pictures of their pregnant wives. They also inspired me.

To shoot most of the setups for our 6 beat story, I had to trail the Up All Night production for about 2 weeks and steal the actors for 10 minutes at a time between scenes.  All of our nightclub shots, however, were done in one morning at Spot 5750 on Hollywood Blvd. This shoot was tightly choreographed because time with the actors was severely limited and we had a lot of setups to do. I went down to the club a day early and took reference photos of every setup we planned. Spot 5750 waitress Evelyn Stepp and camera assistant Zack Marchinsky were kind enough to serve as stand-ins. Below you can see an example of a test shot and a final shot.

While I was preparing for the nightclub shoot I was hanging out with composer Martyn Lenoble. Martyn wrote the music for the main titles and does a lot of other scoring for the show. He’s married to Applegate, used to be in Porno For Pyros, and has played with tons of bands you’ve heard of. I mentioned to Martyn that I wished I knew what music all the actors liked so that during the nightclub shoot I could surprise them with some favorite tunes and maybe photograph some genuine reactions. The dude instantly wrote me a list of Christina’s favorite songs! Cool husband alert. So then I had people email me playlist ideas for Will and Maya. I mean, obviously these guys are all great performers, so we would have gotten our shots either way. But I’d like to think this made their jobs easier, and they did have great expressions whenever their special songs came on.

As the season goes on you will see some of these photos change, as the producers want to keep updating the open. I’ve done one refresh already so if you watch the show this week you will see some new photos taken by me and some by NBC photographer Colleen Hayes.

Swedish Twixtor Prodigy

Have you seen this video? It’s beautiful, and not easy to do. The slow motion effects were done in After Effects with a plugin called Twixtor. Twixtor is powerful but temperamental, and I’ve never been able to execute such gorgeous slow motion as this. I set out to find the artist and interview him. I’d like to pretend like I’m some great detective, but it actually wasn’t that hard. Took me about 15 minutes. We spoke over gchat today and he’s this brilliant 18 year old graphics nerd from Sweden. His name is Rickard Bengtsson and you can see more of his work on his Vimeo page.

If you want to hear what he had to say, I’ll be talking at the Creatasphere Technology Expo at the Universal Hilton tomorrow, March 3, from 1-3. Attendance is free. Here’s the blurb I wrote about my talk, entitled The Post-Human Shooter:

Everyone will tell you that it’s not about the technology and it’s all about the story. Cool, now that we’ve covered that, let’s talk about that one shoot where there’s no money for a dolly, a Phantom camera, or a 1st AC, but you want the effects of all three. On that job the technology is the story, and it goes way beyond knowing what buttons to press. On those jobs you become intimate with the camera and software is your assistant, complete with a personality, quirks, strengths, and dislikes. I’ve had a bunch of successes and one humiliating failure using technology to shoot beyond my budget level. I’ll tell those stories, talk about what worked, and share the test footage.

Check out some of the other speakers here.

In a couple days I’ll post my interview with Rickard, filmed off my laptop screen. Elegance!

Mad Men Emmys Commercial: My RAW Epiphany

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This is a technical post is for a narrow band of director/operator dudes and ladies like me who toil every day with prosumer cameras, trying to elevate the look of their work so there is no “sumer” left in the viewer’s mind, only “pro.”

I got to shoot this spot with a Red camera on the Mad Men set, and this was the first time that I really understood the power of working with the RAW format. When setting a look on the morning of this shoot, I balanced the camera to 5600K. This homogenized everything, giving it distinctly yellow/gold patina. It was a strong choice which added to the vintage feel. We shot the spot and everyone watching on the monitor was fine with it. When I got back to New York our editor Chris Tartaro and I looked at the footage in Red Cine X. We had the option to completely undo my color temperature choice from the shoot, and look at the same footage as if I had shot it at a more neutral 3200K.
Soon as we did that, I realized 2 things: 1) When a production designer and scenic artists have put a lot of work into something, the palette they choose should be allowed to speak for itself 2) The reason I have developed this tendency towards giving the entire scene an (occasionally over the top) unifying color bias in camera is because 70% of the time I am shooting in ad hoc locations that we don’t have the time or budget to repaint entirely. This technique has been valuable for me, but as I work on better and better sets I need to back off on this.

The RAW thing. Mad Men taught me to appreciate it.

Photo by Michael Yarish