The American Society of Cinematographers

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ASC Heritage Awards

3 student filmmakers discuss their award-winning short films.

Photos and frame grabs courtesy of the filmmakers.

The 2015 ASC Gordon Willis Heritage Awards were recently presented to student cinematographers in three categories. For Documentary, Rob W. Scribner (Full Sail University) won for Warbird Pilot: Behind the Visor; in the Graduate category, Steven Holloway (American University) won for The Defeat (x3); and in the Undergraduate category, Nicolas Aguilar (Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts) won for Run. To be eligible, students must be enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program or have graduated within the past year.

Established to inspire the next generation of cinematographers, the ASC Heritage Awards are renamed annually in memory of an extraordinary ASC member. This year’s honoree, Gordon Willis, ASC, crafted bold, uncompromising images in collaboration with directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Alan J. Pakula. Willis received two Academy Award nominations — for Zelig and The Godfather: Part III — in addition to an honorary Oscar and the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award.

Warbird Pilot: Behind the Visor

Director/Cinematographer: Rob W. Scribner

Rob Scribner, who started flying Cessna 150s at an early age and later served in the Air Force, melded his love of aircraft with his passion for cinematography in this short documentary about “warbird” pilot John-Curtiss “JC” Paul. Warbird pilots are volunteers who maintain and fix legacy aircraft for places like the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho; when Scribner — who had been studying cinematography online with Full Sail University — met Paul, he knew he’d found a story that needed to be told.

In the film’s most thrilling sequences, Scribner takes viewers up in the air with Paul as the pilot takes these legacy aircraft through pitches, rolls and acrobatic tricks. Scribner, already crammed into a small space behind Paul, had to wear a full-face visor and oxygen mask while he struggled to hold the camera above him to shoot. “It was hard,” he says. “You’re trying to focus, watch the histogram and keep the framing right. And when we started pulling 3Gs, I had to push the camera up with all my might.”

Most of the project was shot with the Sony NEX-FS100, Scribner says, but he also used a Canon EOS 7D and 60D, and some GoPro Hero3 footage. “I didn’t have many lenses to work with,” he notes, “mainly the 18-200mm [f3.5-6.3] Sony E-mount and a 20mm [f2.8] Sony E-mount, which worked great for fast shooting.”

Scribner captured his interviews with Paul at 24p with the FS100 fitted with the 18-200mm, the 7D with a Canon EF 50mm prime, and the 60D with a Canon EF 18-135mm (f3.5-5.6) zoom. The latter lens was also fitted to the 7D for time-lapse shots.

The FS100 was the A camera, which recorded to 64GB Sony Memory Stick Duos and shot in AVCHD at 1080p. For this camera, Scribner shot at “500 ISO for most of the shots, but during the motorcycle sunset shots toward the end of the evening, when not pointed at the sunset, I had to kick it up to 3,200.” He also used the FS100 for b-roll, nearly all of which was shot at 60 fps “to create more emotion for the viewer,” Scribner explains. On a few occasions he shot at 1080p and 60 fps with audio, in order to capture the sound of the engines starting up for use in post. “Even though the FS100’s S&Q [mode] is a better quality, it has no audio capabilities,” he says.

For the time-lapse 7D work, the camera recorded raw to 8 and 64GB CF cards, and the resolution was scaled down to 1080p in post. “Each time-lapse sequence was set with 144 frames, so at 24 fps it would be a six-second duration in post when put together,” Scribner notes. “I also used .3, .6 and .9 Tiffen ND filters. I stacked them together so I could expose the shot longer to get that nice, streaky look when things were moving in the shot. It was about five-second exposures with about seven-second intervals.”

The 7D and 60D interview footage were both shot in 1080p/24p. The 60D time-lapse footage was shot nearly identically to that of the 7D, other than the use of 16GB SD cards. Both Canon cameras shot at 160 ISO for time-lapse footage and 320 ISO for interviews.

With the camera in motion throughout the film, Scribner made use of “my homemade slider that I built about five years ago,” he says. “It’s a very simple design — lightweight and easy to move around in a hurry.”

Scribner’s lighting package consisted of five 500-watt Britek lights — all 3,200K and fitted with soft boxes — one boom stand, five daylight gels and one 100-watt Britek cone light. “For the interview, I used an overhead 500-watt Britek light with a soft box, and another 500-watt Britek way back on camera right to help create a nice rim light for the profile shot.” In the background, he used two 500-watt units with daylight gel to give more light and separation between Paul and the vintage P-51 Mustang.

Scribner edited and graded the film in Adobe Premiere Pro CC on his MacBook Pro. The final deliverable was “1080p H.264 at 24p — basically Web-ready,” he says. “My main goal for this film was to get a Vimeo Staff Pick, which I did right after releasing it, so before I started shooting I planned everything to be delivered on the Web.

“Basically, I had little to no budget to make this film, so I had to use what was available to me at that time of my life,” Scribner says. Scrappiness and focus saw him through. “No retakes,” he notes about the airborne shots. “As long as I was focused on what I was doing, I was okay.”

Warbird Pilot: Behind the Visor can be viewed here.

The Defeat (x3)

Director/Cinematographer: Steven Holloway

While enrolled in a theory class for his MFA degree at American University, Steven Holloway and his classmates were assigned a team project related to the class focus on different film genres. Holloway took over sole creative authorship of The Defeat (x3) when his teammate had a work conflict and dropped out. The result is a quirky and satisfying paean to three distinctive film eras. In the scenario, two men hunch over a board game; one of them, briefly interrupted by a phone call, finally throws the dice, makes his move, and cackles with glee when he sees that he’s won. A cut then reveals that the winner is in fact the loser’s daughter — and the game is Chutes and Ladders. The Defeat plays that scenario three times, in three different styles: German Expressionism, French New Wave and Film Noir.

“It was one of those projects that kept building into more and more,” says Holloway. “I did a lot of visualization, especially when it came to emulating the different eras. I spent a lot of time researching the mise-en-scène of each period, how people dressed, how much audio was used or perhaps not used, and a great deal of time studying the lighting.” He says he paid careful attention to “knowing what camera angles and focal lengths to use, and the different types of lighting that would be needed. Making those sorts of decisions helped me better represent each particular era.”

The biggest challenge, he says, was that he only had a single day to shoot. “The set and lighting needed to be significantly and quickly changed between each vignette,” he says. “To keep the production moving, the set was prelit for each vignette the day before. Sometimes relighting the set was just a matter of turning lights off or on, and blocking or unblocking windows.”

Holloway’s lighting package included an array of tungsten fixtures, such as 650-watt Arri and 150-watt Dedolight Fresnels — with a small Chimera Pancake Lantern soft box — and a Colortran Ellipsoidal for the background shadow patterning, as well as ambient daylight. Holloway says that Gordon Willis’ lighting particularly influenced his work as a cinematographer. “I don’t think there were many doing the kind of toplighting he did at the time in The Godfather,” he says. “His lighting inspired me early on, and I was able to employ some of those techniques in my film and still keep it true to the era.”

Holloway shot with a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, using Arri/Zeiss Ultra 16 prime lenses, maintaining an ISO setting of 400 and a shooting stop between T1.3 and T2.0. He recorded to a Video Devices Pix 240 in the ProRes HQ codec. He shot in color but then, in postproduction, desaturated the image to black-and-white to fit all three eras. Shooting for black-and-white made lighting easier and faster, says Holloway. “Dimmers could be used on tungsten lights or mixed with daylight without having to be concerned about color shifts or balancing the color of one light source to another.”

Similarly, shooting for black-and-white made the Pocket Cinema Camera a good choice, Holloway opines, because it offers less IR protection than many other cameras. “This, I believe, enables the camera to capture a broader tonal range by filtering out less of the visible portion of the red spectrum,” he says. “Without color, IR contamination of the image is eliminated.” This, along with prelighting the sets, “benefited the shoot and the final film,” says Holloway. “It gave the production more time to focus on the camerawork and the actors’ performances.”

Holloway edited the short himself on Avid Media Composer. “I graded the finished picture in Final Cut Pro X, after exporting it from Media Composer in the native ProRes HQ codec,” he says. “I did so because I determined that an FCPX export would more closely match the graded picture, and I wouldn’t have problems with the levels being raised or lowered while making the H.264 deliverable.”

Holloway’s daughter Brooklyn served as makeup artist and costumer. Dave Renken, who portrays the winner, served as gaffer; both he and Art Kennedy (the dad) were first-time actors. Bailey Parater, a friend of Holloway’s daughter, played the girl.

The Defeat (x3) can be viewed here.


Director: Trevor Stevens

Cinematographer: Nicolas Aguilar

Nicolas Aguilar met Trevor Stevens in a screenwriting class, and the two immediately felt a kinship. So it was natural for Aguilar to shoot the senior thesis project Run, directed and co-written by Stevens. The gritty story begins with reluctant gang member Marcus (Jordan Mosley), who has always sheltered his younger brother, Martell (Erick Bowman), promising to take him away from the neighborhood and gang life. Marcus’ life intersects with that of Dean (Heston Horwin), a young recruit with a rival motorcycle gang known as the Riders Under Naberius M.C. When the gang takes Marcus captive, Dean is left to guard him. Marcus convinces Dean to let him go, and the two try to escape the warring gangs through a nighttime industrial landscape.

Aguilar shot mainly with a Red Epic Mysterium-X, recording 5K full frame at 8:1 compression to 240GB RedMag SSD cards, but used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II for three specific shots: the opening sequence on a motorcycle, Marcus in a car with a gun, and Martell drawing on Marcus’ arm. “We put Technicolor’s CineStyle color profile on the 5D Mark II and photographed half a stop underexposed whenever we worked with it,” says Aguilar. “We rated it at 320 and 640 ISO, depending on whether it was day or night.”

With the Epic, he used Arri/Zeiss Ultra Prime 20mm and 24mm lenses — as well as a Rokinon Cine 24mm and a Zeiss Planar 50mm for the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. “Perhaps 90 percent of the film was shot with the 20mm,” Aguilar reports. “My shooting stop was T1.9 most of the time in night exteriors, while interiors were at T2.8.” Aguilar says he rated the Epic at ISO 800 and then “let things go dark when they needed to be.” No lens filters were used on the production.

“My thought was to keep it simple,” Aguilar says, “but stylistic enough so the characters feel threatened and chased. I wanted to close the gap between the audience and the action as much as possible — that’s why I chose wider lenses and stuck basically to a single lens for the whole picture. I wanted the audience to have the ability to look around if they wanted to, while allowing the actors to really carry the action and emotion of every moment. I wanted them to feel like Marcus: slowly discovering the space and hoping not to make a wrong turn.”

Aguilar operated for nearly the entire movie, which was shot over six days, most of it with the camera on a Freefly Systems Movi M10 gimbal. But several shots required multiple operators and complex hand-offs. “I set up a remote control for the Movi so I could control the frame as it passed from one operator to the next, and I communicated with my operators over walkies,” Aguilar explains. He lists Pascal Combes-Knoke, Al Stevens, Rob Sandberg and Matt Komorous as operators. He also credits 1st AC Jon Wang for “pulling off distances and always hitting the mark.”

The majority of the movie was lit with practicals, but Aguilar carried a relatively substantial lighting kit and worked with two gaffers, Luka Pascalicchio and Mike O’Kane. The kit included two Kino Flos (a 2' four-bank and a 4' four-bank], one Arri M18, an array of Mole-Richardson units, and two Luminys Systems 1K sodium-vapor lights and a 1K metal-halide fixture. Aguilar also purchased about 20 household fixtures and 50 lightbulbs that were carefully placed and controlled through dimmers and sometimes gels.

When simulating or supplementing practical streetlights and industrial work lights, Aguilar notes, “falloff was a creative choice. At times we chose smaller units closer to the talent, and other times larger units farther away. There’s a sort of intimacy when using smaller units.”

Most challenging about the shoot, says Aguilar, were the long sequences, especially the second-to-last scene, a cat-and-mouse shootout with numerous extras, in the dark, in and around vehicles, which Aguilar shot with the Movi M10. (Handheld was reserved only for the last shot of the film.) “I had to create a style and cohesive voice visually so it doesn’t look like a bunch of kids chasing people around in an action sequence,” he says. “These are two men bonded by family and kinship. My challenge was to put these characters in a real-looking world and make the cinematography as invisible as possible.”

The production was edited at Chapman University by Mackenzie Marlowe. Company 3 colorist Bryan Smaller performed the digital intermediate using DaVinci Resolve. As the cinematographer explains, “We shot 5K, edited in 1080, and finalized a deliverable in 1080.”

Run can be viewed here.


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