Behind the scenes look at filming a project by yourself, during COVID-19.
Working alone presents its own challenges, but if you have the right equipment, your job becomes easier (most of the time).
Let’s start by addressing the gear used (which was totally overkill) to complete this project. Our camera was the hallowed Alexa Mini, paired with an Atlas Orion 40mm 2X Anamorphic, T2 lens (woo wee). Since we were putting a teleprompter in front of our camera and lens combo (gross, I know), the 40mm was too wide for our teleprompter.
The frame was so wide using a 40mm 2X anamorphic lens, that the edges of the teleprompter were well within the frame. (Because of the visual stretching, a 40mm 2X anamorphic lens has the effective field-of-view of a 20mm lens)
To solve for the width of our frame/lens, I placed an Atlas 1.6X Extender, on the back of the 40mm Atlas Orion 2X lens. This adapter/teleconverter/extender makes the 40mm lens feel like a 64mm, T3 lens. There are no free lunches in the lens game.
By gaining a tighter 64mm focal length, you lose one stop of light. We are already fighting for light as the teleprompter consumes roughly a stop of light from our exposure, but now the Atlas Extender has joined the party. We are now down two stops of light from our ideal exposure.
Even at the effective 64mm focal length, I had to pay close attention to the prompter. If the tripod was bumped, the teleprompter bag would drop into frame.
Time for the fun stuff: Lighting
The real hero in our lighting world was our diffuser for the key light. The diffuser used was a massive 5 foot, Octa-Soft Box by Glow. I’ve included a link below:
Using this massive 5′ OctaBox, with the included silk and egg crate on the Aputure 300X, yielded flattering results.
For lighting, I went with the Aputure 300X as the key light. My new favorite hair light is the Falcon Eyes RX-29TDX. We boomed our hair light just behind our talent.
The Falcon Eyes strip light is a 1’x3′ light mat that can easily roll up. Both the 300X and the Falcon Eyes light are bi-color, so fading between color temperatures is convenient.
Even with the Aputure 300X at nearly full brightness, our image was slightly underexposed. The 300X was shooting through our Glow EZ OctaBox. Once the Glow EZ Octa Box is attached, the light goes on a short journey.
First, the light bounces off a small metal disk inside the softbox. Then the light reflects off of the silver lining inside the octa-box and is then diffused through an inner silk baffle.
Pushing forward, the light is further diffused through the large silk on the outside of the OctaBox. Lastly, the light is both contained and brought down in intensity by the egg crate on the front of the OctaBox.
All of this “massaging of the light” was ultimately worth it, as the result was incredibly flattering. The Aputure 300D Mark 2 might have been a better choice, but that light was not on set.
Booming Lights: Fly Safe
Using light stands with wheels will change your life (for the better).
By mounting our lights onto Matthews Mini Boom arms and Matthews Monitor Rolling stands, I was able to easily scoot our key and hair light into position. The monitor stands are fairly expensive at about $390 per stand, at the time of this writing.
Keep in mind, I’m working alone on this shoot. Having the added convenience of rolling light stands was a giant time saver.
Audio: Wireless Lav
For the love! As if we don’t have enough going on with this one-man-band operation, why not run audio by ourselves?
The FCC has recently made using wireless audio in the 614 to 698 MHz frequency band, illegal as of the spring of 2020.
Luckily, I’ve upgraded one of my wireless lavs to something that works in the 470 to 516 MHz band.
The Alexa Mini does not have an in camera mic, and is designed to be used in conjunction with a sound operator, or with a Pre-Amp. I connected a Beachtek Pre-Amp to the Alexa Mini so I could capture wireless audio from the lav kit.
Teleprompter: Why Not?
By default, I am anti-teleprompter for good reason.
Unless you are very familiar with your script, it is challenging for your talent to intimate the tone of what they are reading (especially if they are not a performer, actor, actress by trade).
The key takeaway here is, you are less likely to achieve a genuine performance out of your talent with the use of a teleprompter.
One solution is to have your talent write the script in their own voice, but that is too time consuming and presents new challenges.
Now, the one exception I make for the use of a teleprompter is for any script that is data heavy.
I get it, I also do not want my memory bogged down with percentages and data sets, but those are the breaks. So now let’s begrudgingly introduce the Glide Gear $200 teleprompter, designed for tablets and mobile devices.
In the spirit of the Do-It-Yourself mantra, I modified this Glide Gear teleprompter to accommodate the Alexa Mini. I did this by removing the top platform where a camera would normally sit.
Then, using a hacksaw, I cut the base of the plate in half (after extending the support bracket to hold your tablet or phone).
By removing this extra aluminum material, you can now position the teleprompter much closer to your camera.
I then mounted a small-ball head with a quick-release clip on the bottom of the teleprompter. This whole rig now mounts to a single light stand that I could easily move in and out, once my camera is ready.
Davinci Resolve is an excellent platform to work in, but I’ve committed too much time and effort to Adobe. I would hate for those skills to go to waste.
So, I decided to learn how to edit a rough cut and add color in Davinci Resolve. Then in Premiere Pro and After Effects, I added the finishing touches.
In Davinci Resolve Studio, there is an amazing noise reduction tool. Since we lost two stops of light because of our 1.6x Atlas Focal Extender, and the teleprompter glass, we set our Alexa Mini camera with a dangerously high ISO (1,600… ouch).
Here are three images of the same frame.
The first is the log image, as recorded internally. The second image has a color grade treatment. The third image has noise reduction applied.
Now those images above are just low-res screen grabs from Davinci Resolve, but it is easy to see the effectiveness of Danvinci Resolve’s noise reduction algorithm.
Compared to the Neat Video noise-reduction plugin for Premiere Pro, the Davinci Resolve noise reduction produces better results in a fraction of the time. (Neat Video is effective, but it is very taxing on your computer).
Here is a screen grab of the project in Davinci Resolve. You can see in the node graph that I reduced a bit of Mid-Tone contrast, to soften our talent’s skin. This helps conceal any unwanted wrinkles and blemishes.
The rough cut with each person reading their section was then exported with the color already applied as one long clip. That clip was then brought into Adobe’s Premiere Pro.
For fun, here is what my timeline looks like in Premiere Pro:
The catchy intro was mostly done with existing project templates, but a lot of tweaking and modifying was done in Adobe After Effects and also in Premiere Pro.
A lot of the b-roll were from projects I have already shot or they were clips downloaded from stock-footage sites.
Lastly, the music used was found on Sound Stripe, a subscription based online library. A few sound fx were also added to sweeten some of the b-roll footage, (woosh, impacts and different beeps and boops).
The camera that made all of this possible:
So there you have it, a comprehensive breakdown of this ambitious, one-man-band project.
A quick note about how this Alexa Mini camera, and Atlas 40mm Anamorphic lens came into my possession.
Like most filmmakers early in their career, I started with cheap DSLR cameras. I also used a lot of cheap DIY lights, (and hey, sometimes they still find there way on professional sets).
In the past four years, I’ve made a concerted effort to say “Yes”, to almost every and any project that came my way. A lot of work went into filming with the goal of saving to buy high-end gear.
- Weddings? Sure
- Can you film some BTS of our photo shoot? Yup
- Close to no-budget-corporate interviews? Ok, I’m game
- Music videos? Hell yeah! (later to find out it’s rare for a music video to have a decent budget)
- Do you film funerals? Strangely enough, there is a very small slice of the population that will pay you to film funerals
- Corporate film shoot where you are hired on as a gaffer? Finally, now we are talking
After enough time, your network grows and you are offered better deals on sets with larger budgets (finally).
By no means was an Alexa Mini, or Atlas Orion Anamorphic lens, necessary to achieve our end result. If anything, the Alexa Mini added a few problems to the setup, (namely audio).
There are countless ways to solve the same problem and these tools were brought in primarily as a test since they were recently purchased.
Thanks for sticking around for this whole write up.
e-mail or comment if you have any other questions!