Combat Cameraman: The Battle Plan

August 15th, 2011

One of the most important aspects of any film is how the movie will look and be shot. Jason Beckwith is a key member within the Project Arbiter team whose sole duty was to make sure that the film had a unique look and feel. Jason was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule juggling production and personal obligations to answer some key questions about the production, his approach and his thoughts.

No matter what, get that shot!!!

How did you become involved with Project Arbiter?

Michael Chance and I work for the same advertising agency.  If my recollection is correct, we were flying back from a shoot in Austin when Mike mentioned his idea for the project.  Having been fascinated by the Philadelphia Experiment, and other so called conspiracy theories over the years, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of making a personalized version of the pseudo-science cloaking technology.

The whole project started as a very short, five minute, proof of concept film.  I helped Mike develop that script, which was very different from the 20 minute version that we eventually filmed.  At this time, Mike engaged a concept artist named Robert Simons to work on the project. Mike had spoken to a couple of Hollywood costume makers to build a custom suit for the Arbiter to wear.  I suggested that it might be cheaper to find a costume from another movie to modify. There was an auction of props and costumes coming up that had a space suit from the movie ‘Wing Commander’. We lost the auction, but Robert used a picture of the costume as a base for Photoshopping what the final suit could potentially look like.  After losing the auction, Mike started to look at the Hollywood costume places again.  Every bid that we got at that time was cost prohibitive, and it seemed as if it might just be too expensive.  Then, I suggested we contact a Cosplay fan to construct the suit.  Mike looked around and finally ended up contacting Blue Realm Studios, who had built some great Master Chief suits from Halo.  They were excited to step up to the challenge of making Mike’s idea, and Robert’s visual concept into a reality.  Once the suit was in progress, we began looking for a German tank.  Once again, we tried the Hollywood route, and again found the cost prohibitive.  Then, I brought up re-enactment groups, and Mike started calling around.  This lead to meeting Hans Beerbaum, who has a tank, as well as a whole bunch of other German and Russian WWII hardware.  At that point, we realized that we could expand the story to match the assets now available to us, and we were off and running!

Jason is always on point with his creative eye.

What is it about cinematography that inspired you to become a DP?

I don’t think that there is any single event that made me say, “I want to be a Director of Photography.”  There were a number of things in my life that brought me to this point.  My mother grew up with her five brothers in Redwood City, CA.  This was very close to where Marine World/Africa, USA was operating before it moved to Vallejo in 1986.  One of my uncles worked closely with the elephants there and he was brought to Death Valley with one of them to film an unknown sci-fi movie.  In 1976, at the age of five I was brought to see my uncle, dressed as a Tusken Raider, riding a creature called a ‘Bantha’ in a movie called ‘Star Wars’.  Of course, my little mind was blown by the sheer scope of that film.  Years later, I was watching a documentary on how Indiana Jones was made, when I had the epiphany that whatever exciting moment that you witness a protagonist living through on film, was shared by someone right there with a camera.  There had to be someone else there for every moment that happens.  When I was 10, I found Cinefex magazine at my local comic shop.  I devoured every issue that I could get my hands on, reading them repeatedly, trying to understand the basics of optical compositing.

Without access to expensive film cameras, I turned to live performance special effects which most performers bill as a ‘magic show’.  I learned the craft through books and other magicians.  I left home at the age of 15, and street performed magic for a very meager living, until I began employment at a Wizard’s workshop.  Through wood and metal working, I built the boxes that ladies were cut in half in, and a myriad of other fascinating projects.  The most important lesson that I learned was that a flashy trick by itself meant nothing.  Without a compelling story being told during the performance, there is nothing for the audience to care about.  I believe that this simple idea holds true, from the smallest close-up trick, to biggest special effects shot in the highest budget film.  I believe that the heart of all film-making and performance is story.

One of my favorite parts of any production is the choices made to adapt a story from words to a visual language.  It’s a fascinating process to decide what shots are needed, and how to break up a written story into a visual medium.  What do you leave out?  Is the camera a character, witness or voyeur?  Should the story be told with the camera in the middle of the action, or watching from a safe distance?  Is there a cut-away that can enhance the sequence?  Is there a way to tell this portion of the story in a more intriguing way?  Should you frame a nervous character’s shifty eyes, or is a close-up on a nervously tapping pencil that they are holding a more revealing and suspenseful shot.  Is there something that needs to be in frame to foreshadow a future event? These are the questions that every production needs to ask, and how they are answered can dramatically change audience perception of the story.

Another day at the office for Director of Photography, Jason Beckwith.

What are your references in regards to your style and vision? Who’s work do you admire?

Style and vision are moving targets, as each production demands that it serves the story first.  As often as they publish, I pick up issues of American Cinematographer, HD Video Pro, and Cinefex magazine.  These all provide great insights into productions both large and small.  While it’s far easier to ‘learn while doing’ than by reading, you never know what tricks and tips may bubble to the surface in the heat of production, when you are racing the clock to finish a scene.  Books can also be great learning tools, and I pick up a lot of ‘The art of …’, or ‘The making of…’ books.  I’d recommend ‘Cinematography’ by Blain Brown for anyone with an interest in film.  It’s a survey level book that give the reader a well rounded understanding of what it takes to make a movie, from the perspective of the camera department.  For a deeper level of what makes up our visual language, try ‘The Visual Story: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV, and Digital Media.’ by Bruce Block. I also devour the extra material on every DVD that I watch to see how they are lighting the scene and what kind of camera support equipment is being used.

I could make you a list of great cinematographers like: Wally Pfister, Janusz Kaminski, Roger Pratt, Bruno Delbonnel, Darius Khondji, Conrad Hall, Jeff Cronenweth, Philippe Rousselot, Roger Deakins, etc. While I admire their work, and study their techniques, I’ve been lucky to be on set with a number of local cinematographers who put as much care into lighting industrials, product and corporate talking heads. I spent a decent amount of time on set with Jon Van Amburg early on, and a lot of his tips and advice stick with me. I’ve been doing this for quite a while now, but I love being on set with people more knowledgeable than I. The little tricks that you can only learn on set are so valuable on future productions.

Really, there is so much that goes into making a frame look great. Great art direction, lighting, make-up, costumes and the work of the whole crew makes each frame what it is. So much work goes into each scene that I always feel a great responsibility to capture what they’ve done as the best possible image possible. I never want to disappoint or let down a crew that I’m working with.

Teamwork - Jason Beckwith and director Mike Chance having fun on set.

On set, there were many challenges in bringing Mike’s vision to life. What were the most difficult challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

The most difficult challenge in the filming of Project Arbiter was the same as most low budget productions; time. We had a lot of material to cover with limited time on set, or with certain actors. It feels like we are always behind schedule on almost every film that I work on. Project Arbiter was no exception. We streamlined everything that we could in order to shoot quickly, but PA is an effects heavy film and a crew can only move so fast. Having a B-Cam helped out immeasurably, but it was only available for about a third of the shooting that we did. Our excellent ACs, Jason Burton, James Jeffrey, Tina Quach and Erik Danford were instrumental in getting the camera department moved and set up quickly. I hate to be the one holding everything up, and we really strove to be waiting on the other departments whenever possible. Jason Burton and James Jeffrey were both present along with Mike and I at numerous test shoots, and that really helped to get the camera department on the same page.

Another big challenge for the ACs was the shallow depth of field that we used on the short. Outside, we were running a fair amount of ND so that we could open the iris to around t/2.8 on most of the shots. Blocking the actors, and the hand-held camera operation meant that missed marks would have to be adapted to immediately by the ACs to keep a crisp focus. Another issue was the size of the camera vs. the amount of working space that was available. For instance, shooting in a WWII vintage B-25 or German half-track with a 35 pound camera the size of a fully configured Red One didn’t leave me a lot of room to squeeze myself into. While sometimes a challenge, it can be tough keeping up with Mike as he likes to change up the shots that we’re after, on the spot. Since we were working with Prime lenses, these changes necessitated quick lens swaps to capture new ideas. While challenging, these decisions to change framing and take advantage of whatever was available on set ultimately benefit the picture far more than if we had rigidly adhered to predetermined storyboards.

Jason and James Jeffrey prep the next setup while in the Test Chamber set

Stay tuned for PART II!

David Bettencourt, Co-Producer 

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