Greg Pak: FilmHelp: Production

Steve Mallorca talks “Slow Jam King” — screening now in NYC!

Ron Domingo in Slow Jam King
Ron Domingo in “Slow Jam King”

A FilmHelp interview by Greg Pak

Steven E. Mallorca’s award winning feature film “Slow Jam King” is now screening at the Imaginasian Theater in New York City. Click here for screening times. And read on for an interview in which Mallorca talks about everything from his set getting raided by police to his favorite slow jams.

Greg Pak: Tell us a bit about the film and who should go see it.

Steven E. Mallorca: “Slow Jam King” is an offbeat road comedy about JoJo Enriquez, a Filipino-American wannabe gangsta-pimp who, in his attempts to answer his call to the streets, carjacks Vance, a traveling perfume salesman with an affinity to country music. Stuck along for the ride is JoJo’s friend, Devaun, an ex-funkateer and reluctant family man, who tries to talk sense into JoJo and diffuse the situation. The motley trio embark on an escapist roadtrip to Nashville, where they discover truth, love, and the dirty underbelly of the Nashville country music scene. Anyone that’s looking for a good time, enjoys genre-bending films, and likes their humor on the irreverent side with a healthy dose of multi-cultural absurdity should come out to check out “Slow Jam King.” I sort of equate this film to early ’90s Native Tongues hip hop – it’s fun and a little absurd, but with a conscious voice to it – like if De La Soul, or Tribe Called Quest were a hip hop movie…. or better yet Prince Paul. So if you’re a fan of that kind of hip hop, you’ll definitely get into “Slow Jam King.” Also, I think that anyone who’s a do-it-yourself filmmaker or musician can enjoy the film, too.

Continue reading Steve Mallorca talks “Slow Jam King” — screening now in NYC!

Tape to film hint: Give your frame some breathing room

By Greg Pak
When shooting for a tape-to-film transfer, be sure to give your frame a bit more breathing room than you might otherwise. A little bit of the edges will be cut off when the tape is transferred to film. And a bit more will be cut off when you transfer from your negative back to video. The upshot is that if you’ve shot too tightly, you might see cut off chins and shaved heads, which can be claustrophobic and unpleasant.

Stuff in the air

By Greg Pak
Just saw a great low-budget slasher movie called “Savage Island” at ShockerFest in Modesto — and it reminded me of one big tip for cinematographers:
Get stuff in the air.
“Savage Island” was full of smoke and wind and general turbulence. Smoke gives movement and layers to the frame — it’s inherently cinematic. The filmmakers also gave depth to their frames by very often using leaves or other natural materials in the foreground.
Good to keep in mind.

How to make a filter stay in place without a filter holder

By Greg Pak
taped on filterOn an incredibly low-budget shoot, you may find yourself (as I recently did) needing to use a filter but having no filter holder. A simple solution is to roll a piece of camera tape on itself sideways, sticky side out. Then attach this tube of tape around the rim of the lens and then stick the filter into place.
Hey, presto! A workable, if fragile, solution!
For those who are interested, the filter in the picture is a 55mm Tiffen 812 warming filter which actually fits a still camera lens of mine. It’s a pretty cheap filter — I think it cost about twenty bucks or so — and works nicely with the little c-mount lenses on my Eclair ACL 16mm film camera, using this jerry-rigged method.
The 812 warming filter adds a bit of warmth to the scene (surprise, surprise). We used it on my short film “Cat Fight Tonight” and again on a new short I co-directed with Susie Lee entitled “Ode to Margaret Cho.”

How to Pick a DV Camera

By Greg Pak

With a variety of manufacturers making digital video camcorders ranging between $600 and $9000 dollars, it’s easy to get confused about what kind of camera for low-budget filmmaking. Here are a few pointers for your consideration.

1. Make sure the camera has manual focus and manual exposure controls

Many inexpensive camcorders are almost entirely automatic, with no manual controls for determining focus and exposure. This may be handy for the casual home movie shooter, but it’s unacceptable for anyone needing creative control for serious shooting.
You need manual focus so you can focus on exactly what you intend to see sharply and can quickly adjust as needed. Automatic focus mechanisms have a tendency to surge back and forth a bit as the frame changes — a distracting and nasty-looking effect.
Similarly, you need manual exposure control to control the images you record. Some auto exposure mechanisms will make a character’s face too dark if the character is standing in front of a brighter background. Or the reverse can happen — in one common, ugly glitch with auto-exposure, a close up of a pale character will look fine — but if the camera tracks backwards, the character’s face will begin to blow out as the camera tries to expose for a darker background.

2. Be certain the camera has a jack for an external microphone and a jack for headphones

Some of the cheapest consumer camcorders don’t have a jack for an external microphone. This means that you’re stuck with the sound from the built-in microphone on the camera. These microphones are notoriously substandard — again, they’re fine for home movies, but if you’re making a fiction film in which you need to have your camera across the room while your characters whisper to each other in bed, you need to be able to get a microphone on a boom near those actors. If your camera has no audio input jack, you’ll have to record sound separately on a DAT player, for example, which opens a whole new can of worms we won’t go into here.
A headphone jack is also essential for monitoring your sound. Without a headphone jack, you’re not certain what kind of sound you’re recording until you play the tape back through a television set or monitor. And you don’t want to get back from a weekend of location shooting in Alaska to discover your sound is screwed up.
Also, an XLR sound jack is superior to a mini sound jack. But very few of the affordable cameras will have the XLR option – the Sony PD 150 comes to mind.

3. Ideally, get a camera with manual control of audio levels

This is a tough requirement — very few of the cheaper cameras have any manual control of audio levels. The cameras set audio levels automatically as they record. For documentary shooting, this is often preferable. But for fiction shooting, you have a better idea of your characters’ volume and would benefit from being able to preset sound levels. The disadvantage of letting the camera set the levels automatically is that when characters fall silent, you’ll hear the room tone surge as the camera tries to find sounds to record. It’s an unpleasant sound which you can deal with when you’re editing, but it’s a pain that you could avoid if you have a camera which lets you preset sound levels. Also, if you have a camera that lets you preset sound levels, you can use an external mixer for even more precise control of sound levels.

4. One chip versus three chip

The sensitivity of cameras is gauged by the size and number of computer chips they contain. The bigger the chips and the more chips you have, the better your image quality. Generally cameras are one chip or three chip. Three chip cameras are preferable. One chip cameras can generate great images — particularly under good lighting conditions. But three chip cameras hold up better in low-light situations. Three chip cameras tend to be considerably more expensive than the cheapest one chip cameras.

5. MiniDV versus DVCAM

I’ve been told different things about these different formats. MiniDV and DVCAM cameras use the exact same tapes, so there’s no difference in tape quality. But DVCAM cameras use more feet of tape to record the same amount of material — a tape that runs for 60 minutes with a MiniDV camera may only run 45 minutes or so with a DVCAM camera. The impression this gives is that DVCAM cameras are recording more information and hence have a better image quality. I do not know what the clear answer is here. I do know that material I’ve seen from a Sony DSR 300 DVCAM is much sharper and cleaner than images recorded under the same conditions on a Sony VX-1000 Mini DV camcorder. But that may have as much to do with chip size and lenses as tape format.

6. NTSC versus PAL

If you’re producing solely for television or the web, the NTSC versus PAL issue isn’t important for you — you should get a normal American NTSC camcorder and not worry about it. But if you’re hoping to transfer your video to 35mm film for theatrical projection, you should seriously consider getting a PAL rather than an NTSC camera.
NTSC is the American and Japanese video standard. PAL is the video standard used throughout Europe. PAL has about 100 more lines of resolution that NTSC, meaning it’s about 20 percent sharper and cleaner. In demos of video to film transfers from lab like DuArt and SwissEffects, PAL footage always transfers much better than NTSC footage.
The disadvantage is that PAL records at 25 frames per second. Film runs at 24 frames per second. So when labs transfer PAL video to film, they do it frame for frame, which means the program slows down by 4 percent. (When transferred to 24 fps film, every second of 25 fps PAL footage has an extra frame. All those extra frames add up…) I haven’t gone through the process with one of my own films, so I haven’t had to experience and deal with this slow-down. But I’m concerned about it — in particular, if I were making a comedy, I’d wonder seriously about the effect this slow-down would have on the timing of the gags.
I’ve heard that filmmakers can prepare for these effects by slowing the footage down 4 percent when they’re editing — this allows them to preview the exact timing of the final film print. But this still means the footage is 4 percent slower than it actually was when it occurred on the set. I haven’t yet heard of filmmakers being outrageously disturbed by these effects. But it’s something I’m considering as I think about how to shoot my next films.

7. Lenses

The quality of the lens can make a big difference in image quality. I’ve been very happy with my Sony VX-1000 for the DV shorts and documentaries I’ve made. But some filmmakers prefer the Canon XL-1 over the Sony VX-1000 because different lenses can be used with the Canon camera body. And the gorgeous lens of the larger format Sony DSR 300 DVCAM camera, for example, blows the VX-1000 lens out of the water. In general, I’d advise prospective buyers to test different cameras by shooting and comparing footage. People have different opinions about the looks from different cameras — your best bet is to test some cameras and develop your own opinions.

8. Filters

If you plan to use filters with your DV camera, it’s a good idea to confirm that filters are available which will fit the size of the lens on the camera you’re buying. I know that Tiffen makes many filters which will fit the Sony TRV 900 and the VX-1000, for example. But I don’t know if it makes filters which will fit the lenses of the many smaller camcorders from different manufacturers. You can always create work-arounds, taping filters to lenses, for example, but it’s always nice to be able to get the exact right filter for your camera.

9. Various other features

Different cameras provide various nifty features which, while unessential, may be very attractive to certain filmmakers. In this category, I’d list fold out viewfinder windows, flash memory card slots for still photos, titling options, and various digital effects.
Another subjective preference issue is whether you prefer a black and white or color viewfinder. Many of the larger, professional cameras only have black and white viewfinders. B&W viewfinders tend to be sharper than color viewfinders, allowing more precise focus control. Some cameras, like the PD 150, have a B&W viewfinder and a color LCD fold-out panel, giving shooters both options.


Shoot those Stills

By Greg Pak
Everyone will tell you this, and it’s so true: Make sure you get good 35mm publicity photos (a.k.a. “production stills”) during the shoot.
Ideally, you should shoot both color slides and black-and-white. In practice, I’ve mostly shot black-and-white and had nary a festival complain. But if you have excellent color stills, you’ll no doubt have them used more and in better venues — some magazines, for example, will run someone else’s mediocre color photo before your excellent black-and-white.
Even if you’re making a MiniDV short, shoot those stills on film.
I’ve just made this mistake myself — in the scramble to shoot “The Penny Marshall Project” (a Blair Witch spoof from the Pollyannas) in a single day, I let the shooting of 35mm stills slip by. For publicity, I’ve made do with frame grabs from the video.
Penny Marshall Project stillThe photo on the right depicts Lisa Jolley in “The Penny Marshall Project.” This is a frame grab from a video image displayed in a Final Cut Pro window on my computer — not a 35mm still. Online, it looks okay. Blown up for a festival program, newspaper, or magazine, it’s a little less than ideal. I’ve gotten away with it, but 35mm stills would give better results.
With certain productions, you can shoot stills after the fact — I’m fairly confident, for example, that I can get a few good stills for “The Penny Marshall Project” if I can get an actor or two in costume in a dark corner of Central Park. But for most projects, if you don’t shoot the stills that day, you’ll never get ’em (’cause the actor’s moved to L.A., the costume’s gone back to the rental shop, and the location is now a parking lot, etcetera).
Regarding the content and composition of stills, avoid wide shots of ten people — those will seldom get reproduced. Go for simple but striking images of one or two actors.

mouse still
Seung-Hwan Han in “Mouse”

My most successful still is the image at the right for my short film “Mouse.” Almost every festival that ran “Mouse” included this photo in its program. “Mouse” may not have been the best film in a given program of shorts, but it had the most striking photo and as a result got the most graphical attention.

Equipment Specifics

By Greg Pak

I’ve recently received a number of emails asking for specific production and post-production equipment advice. What follows is a list of different equipment I’ve used to shoot each of my films with links to additional pages detailing the pros and cons of each piece of equipment. Hope it helps.

The Penny Marshall Project
Format: MiniDV
Camera: Sony TRV-700
Sound: Sennheiser K-6 series with ME64 capsule, plugged directly into the camera
Lighting: All available light
Editing system: Final Cut Pro

The Informed Consent Zone
Format: MiniDV
Camera: Sony VX-1000
Sound: Sennheiser K-6 series with ME64 & ME66 capsules, plugged directly into the camera
Lighting: Omni light kit, Japanese lanterns with Photofloods
Editing system: Final Cut Pro

Asian Pride Porn
Format: MiniDV
Camera: Sony VX-1000 and Sony TRV-700
Sound: Sennheiser K-6 series with ME64 & ME66 capsules, plugged directly into the camera
Lighting: Cheap lamps and Photofloods
Editing system: Final Cut Pro

Po Mo Knock Knock
Format: 16mm
Camera: Eclair ACL
Lenses: Angeniuex 12-120 and Switar 16mm prime
Sound: Sennheiser K-6 series, recorded on a non-timecode DAT recorder
Lighting: Omni Light Kit
Editing system: 6 plate Steenbeck (analog)

Fighting Grandpa
Format: 16mm
Camera: ArriSR for the main shoot, Eclair ACL for pickups
Lenses: Angeniuex 12-120
Sound: Sennheiser ME and K-6 series recorded on Nagra 4 tape recorder
Lighting: Cheap lamps and Photofloods
Editing system: 6 plate Steenbeck (analog), AVID

Format: 16mm
Camera: ArriSR for the main shoot, Eclair ACL for pickups
Lenses: Angeniuex 12-120 and Schneider prime lenses for the main shoot, Switar 16mm prime for pickups
Sound: Sennheiser ME series recorded on Nagra 4 tape recorder
Lighting: Babies, inkies, Japanese lanterns with Photofloods, one HMI, color balanced practicals
Editing system: 6 plate Steenbeck (analog)

Mr. Lee
Format: 16mm
Camera: ArriSR
Lenses: Angeniuex 12-120
Sound: Sennheiser ME series recorded on Nagra 4 tape recorder
Lighting: Babies, Inkies
Editing system: 6 plate Steenbeck (analog)


The DIY Shockmount

By Greg Pak
As I was leaving my apartment on a recent trip to Alaska for my documentary “Brother Killer Wolf,” I left my boom pole and shock mount in my entry way. When I returned for it (after realizing in the Holland Tunnel that we’d left without it), it was, of course, gone.
I grabbed a microphone clamp on my way out the door and mulled over my options as we flew to Alaska.
Circumstances prevented me from getting a replacement shock mount — we were heading into the bush pretty much as soon as we got to Alaska. But I was able to borrow a little collapsible monopod from the Anchorage outfit from which we rented camera equipment. The monopod, which extended about four and a half feet, was designed for 35mm still cameras. But the small screw on its head fit the screw at the bottom of the microphone clamp I’d brought from home. Incredibly, it looked like I’d found my solution.
But of course without a shock mount, the mic picked up every bump and jostle I gave to the boom.
Luckily, I had a shock mount holder I’d made for use with my microphone clamp. As you can see from the photo, it’s just a short piece of wooden broom handle with a hole drilled in it for a bolt. The piece of broom handle fits into the mic clamp; the shock mount then screws onto the bolt.
My challenge was to make a shock mount which could screw onto that bolt.
After experimenting with a cut-up plastic water bottle, I ended up using a wire hanger. With a few twists and kinks made with my Leatherman pocket tool and a couple of big rubber bands, I rigged the nifty li’l dude you see in the adjoining picture.

Shoot Recans

By Greg Pak
Others may disagree, but for the low-budget 16mm short, I highly recommend using shortends and recans rather than fresh stock.
What are recans, you ask?
Occasionally productions will load film into magazines but end up not shooting it — these unexposed rolls of film make their way to vendors who test them and resell them at a hefty discount — usually $80 for a recan which would cost $120 fresh. Short ends are the same as recans — just shorter, since some of the film was shot during the original shoot.
I shot “Fighting Grandpa,” “Mouse,” and “Po Mo Knock Knock” with almost nothing but recans and short ends. I’ve had only one problem — the rim of one roll of “Mouse” dailies was fogged, resulting in the edge code being unreadable. This terrified me, of course, but I discussed it with my negative cutter and had the negative and workprint edge coded to match each other. Problem solved.
For a feature film with a budget, I’d shoot fresh stock. But as long as I’m strapped and I can find reputable dealers who test their stock, I’ll continue using recans for my shorts and docs.
����Shortend/recan dealers in NYC I’ve used:
����Raw Stock, 212-255-0445
����Steadisystems, 30 W. 21st, 212-647-0900
����Film Emporium, 212-681-6922

Listen while You Shoot

By Greg Pak
When working as a cinematographer on documentaries, I wear headphones whenever possible to monitor the sound that’s being recorded. The technique allows me to hear interesting things which can improve my shooting.
For example, on a recent project, one subject was equipped with a wireless mike. Even though he wasn’t on screen all the time, I could hear his voice through my headphones. From time to time, I’d hear him start an interesting conversation. I’d turn and catch him on tape from across the room — something which would never have happened if I wasn’t monitoring the sound.
It’s worth noting that this is a much easier thing to do when shooting video — if the sound is recorded directly into the camera, you can simply plug your headphones into the camera’s onboard jack. If you’re shooting on film, the sound is recorded separately, which makes the wiring a little more awkward, since you’ll have to run your headphones to the sound person’s recorder…
In general, I’d recommend wearing headphones if possible, but give ’em up if awkward wiring hurts your shooting or the sound person’s recording.