Bike Race Shoot, Day One

Our third short film started shooting today at the local grade school. We shot for about two hours and then broke for ice cream. We managed to complete three scenes from our movie titled: Bike Race.

In a nod to J.J. Abrams, we sent out a G+ post of our slate and billed it the first picture from the set of Bike Race.

But the truth is, we’re far less secretive than the Star Wars 7 folks. Below is the slate in action being held by my AC – Spencer.

Here’s the world famous DP doing his camera stuff. We shot on the Canon 60D with our two prime lenses – 28 mm and 50 mm Olympus and went with ND4 and a T stop of 11. The footage came out pretty clear and crisp considering the nice, sunny day we had to work with.

Below is a close up of the camera set up for the opening shot. I was using our French Flag to shield the view screen as the sun was behind my back. The camera is mounted on a pair of offset rods and a cage. We did not use the follow focus for any of the shots as the one we have, won’t work with our short lenses.

The trickiest shot of the day was a hand held tracking shot through the green bars of a fence. I just ran along the fence letting the low, tight shot create the needed tension of a close race.

Our shot list was done a week before using my phone camera and Celtx software. We just printed it out and followed it as closely as possible.

The final picture from the shoot is a screenshot from the film. Both racers are framed by the overhang of the school.

When your crew and talent are all under age 14, there is only so much you can do in one day. We endured fractured egos, inattentiveness, water sprinklers and rain clouds to get our first four scenes filmed. As the only adult on set, I had to be more councilor than director.

Shot Breakdown Film 3

This post will be very high on the film geek meter. If you don’t care about how movies are made, move along.

Shot One

Close Up of the Hero played by Spencer. The camera is mounted on a tripod and looking down at him, we are in the POV of his opponent who is taller than Spencer. The background is light colored and the lighting on his face is hard key from the left. This throws the opposite side of his face into shadow, which sets his face apart from the light background. This shot is nearly perfectly aligned. It could have slightly more headroom on Spencer. There was enough ambient light in the garage to not bother filling in the dark side of his face. The high key light adds to the drama and seriousness of the shot.


Shot Two

This is the opposing shot of the villain, played by Jack. He’s taller and more imposing, so the camera is lower looking up at him from the POV (Point Of View) of Spencer. Again we have high key from the sunlight outside. Again the background, while more interesting than with the plain wall behind Spencer, is also darker overall. Because – bad guy man! But we still give the shadowed side of his face a lighter background. This stuff is not by accident, it’s the way you light a dramatic film. The angle could be lower in this shot to accentuate his badness and greater height.

I actually was concerned you’d see the cameraman in his sunglasses, so I had Spencer stand right beside me. In the end, he’s not very visible and neither is the cameraman. Did you notice the bad guy is wearing darker colors than the good guy? That was a lucky coincidence. I didn’t plan that. But your subconscious knows it as you watch the film.


Shot Three

Two shot of the hero and the bad guy facing off. Here you see the height difference real good and there is a slight hesitation on the part of Spencer as they slide into view. Meanwhile, Jack is big and imposing and non-moving. Reinforcing the notion that he’s the heavy. The background should have been darker. This would separate their faces better from the noise of the background. Otherwise this is a pretty boring shot. The focus is on the racers and not the background, so having them in focus and the garage soft helps make them pop.


Shot Four

Now we cross over and are looking out into the glaring sun. This shot was exposed for the background, which causes the foreground to go into silhouette. Because the background is also way out of focus, we only focus on the two racers. This shot was carefully staged so that both boys would slide out of frame and I could rack focus the lens to the third boy standing in the driveway ready to flip the coin. It took us two takes to get the slide out and rack focus to work. Not too shabby. Many have pointed to this shot as the most memorable one in the film.


Shot Five

Coming out of the darkened garage, the racers blast past the camera. I went low with this shot for added dramatic flare. It would have been more awesome in wide screen! But getting the camera low, adds speed to the shot. We are thrust into the race at the start and it only gets faster as we go. Cutting as they have already started also adds to the speed of the shot.


Shot Six

About the only thing this shot has going for it is speed and intensity. The racers are dark against the light of the background. That’s good. But they are soft in focus due to my limited depth of field. I should have exposed this closer to f11 instead of f8. Especially since all the exteriors had the ND 8 filter on them. Which makes the image darker and lets you bring your f-stops up to f11 or f22. The shaky camera covers this a bit and puts the audience right in the action and intensity of the race. I was running with them, not skating. I don’t skate.


Shot Seven

This is the only tripod shot of the race and it’s also a panning shot. I went wide angle to try and catch some JJ Flare in the sun but wound up with a washed out look that only works to cause unease in the viewer. Luckily the racers go by fast enough that nobody focuses on how awful the shot looks. The bad guy pushes our hero out of the way and passes him with an evil laugh. I do like the long shadows in this shot, working to re-frame the shot.


Shot Eight

The final shot before the crash is back to a hand held camera. We want to press the gas pedal here and rocket the viewer into the big finale. I think it works well enough, but it’s not a pretty angle. This is also where the Hero starts to get the upper hand in the race by cutting inside. In this shot you can really see the color difference in their outfits.


Shot Nine

Worst shot in the film! This shot is poorly acted in that Jack didn’t really “sell” the hit to the fender and my horrible, washed out image didn’t help it one bit. Of all the shots we did that day, this is the one I’d like to re-shoot. I think I’d cut to a shot of him coming over the hood of the car to help sell the impact. Maybe add some lens flare and shaky camera. A close up of Spencer’s face as he zips past might work to, if it was quick. Maybe cut with a CU of Jack’s expression as he flies over the car.


Shot Ten

This is the POV shot of the bad guy rolling after he crashes in the grass. I did it hand held and rolling around in the grass. It ends in a tilted shot of the victor passing. This is my Dutch Angle shot for the film and I think it finishes strong on the action side.



Shot Eleven

The victory pass by the hero. I didn’t give Spencer any guidance for this except to be happy that he won the race. He instinctively raised his hands in a “V” shape as he went past and the end result is just great. You really sense his pleasure at having triumphed over the bad guy. The shot is composed well, with the subject to screen right following the rule of thirds. The background trees help balance out the frame and add a bit of interest without taking away from the main action.


Thus ends my shot by shot break down of Film 3. Every time you shoot a film, it helps to break it down afterwards and find out what worked and what didn’t. That’s how we learn from our mistakes. There were many great shots in this film and one or two bad ones. Fortunately the bad ones didn’t ruin the film for most viewers.

Lessons Learned From Short Film 3

This film was a sequel to a film we called The Race where both brothers raced each other around the court on roller blades. The first film ended in a tie, so they raced again in this movie. The first film was pretty basic and was all shot on a tripod with very few edits and only a half dozen scenes. For the sequel I wanted to step up the editing by shooting more coverage. I also wanted to increase the tension by getting the camera moving and in the thick of the action. I think we accomplished both of those goals.

I also decided to alter the camera’s settings to try and give the story a more “film” look. This also involved shooting in black and white. We shot on the Canon D60 with the 18-135 mm kit lens set to 50 mm. For the exteriors I used an ND8 filter. This was also the first use of our new fluid head tripod. Ironically enough, I went hand held for the actual race and so only used the tripod for the interior shots of the kids gearing up and the coin toss.

I used Open Shot on Ubuntu to edit this film. It was my first attempt at editing video since college. Needless to say, things have changed a bit in the last twenty years. After I got a decent cut I decided to go ahead and drop in titles and credits and then I found some fast paced music online and dropped that in. Since we shot the film in MOS or without sound, we always intended it to have a music overlay.

We shot the interior footage at 60 fps in order to facilitate slowing the scenes down in post. But I never learned how to do that so those shots look more video-like than the rest of the film which we shot at 24 fps (frames per second). Eventually I’ll get better at using Cinelerra and we can readdress those shots in a new edit. Open Shot crashed on me many times during my edits. I eventually figured out the auto save feature and then didn’t lose any cuts after that. I find the cutting tool to be very tedious and not very accurate in that program. But I have nothing to compare it to at this point. I hope to use Cinelerra for the next film, but that’s only if I get the time to go through a bunch of video tutorials. Because that program is not intuitive.

This film was shot, directed and edited all by myself. It’s not easy or ideal being a one person band on a dramatic film. Too many moving pieces to keep track of. All the shots were thought up on the spot and then I had to get the kids to execute which is a bit like herding cats. Lessons learned: Plan better, get a helper and perhaps go a bit slower so I can think things through.

Some of the hand held footage is soft, meaning out of focus. Partly that’s due to the zoom lens I was using and part of it was due to incorrect exposure which limited my depth of field. No excuse for that on such a sunny day and with using a neutral density filter. For the next film I’ll be using my prime lenses that all have measurements on them so we can set the focus better.

This film is a perfect example of what four people can do in an afternoon with a few decent film tools. Get out and make something and I guarantee you will learn things and get better at filmmaking.

Sergio Leone Films


If you want to be a filmmaker, study the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. The man was a composition genius. Turn off the sound to any of the Eastwood Man With No Name westerns and just watch the composition of the frame. Then notice the use of extreme close ups juxtapositioned with wide shots. This was part of Leone’s unique style, but it was inspired by Kurasawa and Italian opera.



American directors like John Ford and Stephen Spielberg are the only thing that come close to what Leone was doing in his westerns. The best way to watch Leone westerns is to turn off the sound and study the composition of each shot. The Rule of Thirds, negative space, lighter backgrounds and darker foregrounds, altering the frame of a shot, are all there. Lighting is mostly naturalistic but resembling classical painters. All this from simple action westerns.


Each one of these movies is like a class in filmmaking. Leone defined a look that even to this day modern filmmakers pay homage to. The films are well loved by fans of action western movies and rightly so. Great story telling framed by brilliant cinematography and direction.

A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good The Bad and The Ugly are all available on Netflix. As much as I hate the lack of westerns on Netflix, these films are gems. Watch them over and over again and learn from them.


Film Making Tools – Tripod

I recently acquired a tripod for use in filming and thought I’d show you how I tailored it for my use. I needed a solid pair of sticks with a ball joint head so that I could swap out heads in the future. I also wanted a decent fluid head for steady pans and tilts. After much research, I settled on the Davis and Sanford Provista 7518B tripod with the FM 18 2 Fluid Head. I only have the DSLR to support for now, but as I add to my camera kit I’ll also have a camera cage, rods, follow focus, extra battery, lens hood and external monitors all balanced on the head. So it was important to make sure I would get a head and sticks that I could grow into.

This is side view of the head. The tripod comes with two handles, one on each side. I removed one handle and reversed the other one to make sure my camera could be mounted in such a fashion as to still be able to work the mount plate lock down knob and the tilt knob. Rather than explain, here are some images of my current set up.

The tripod came with a nice zipper bag with a padded area for the head and an extra mount plate. The overall quality of construction is very high and the tripod looks like it means business. I’ve very happy with the locking mechanism for the legs and the overall solid feel of it. There is a spreader that I could hang a sandbag on for added stability, but so far I have not needed to do so. There is a bubble level on the head for adjusting the ball.

The head is smooth without feeling loose. Even if it’s not clamped down, it won’t move with just the camera mounted on it. Overall the tripod with head weighs in at about 13 lbs so it’s not overly heavy, but still much more than the average still camera tripod.

As long as I’m showing off equipment, here are some images of my external monitor setup. I’m using an articulating friction arm attached to the hot shoe to mount a Nexus 7 tablet. The tablet is connected to the camera via a white adapter cable made by Samsung that goes from standard USB to mini USB. You can find that cable in your local Best Buy in the Samsung display area.

The arm is attached to a tablet carrier that has a quarter twenty mount on it. Very handy. With a spacer of wood, I can also mount my little Moto-X phone using the same setup. This is helpful to let the talent see what the shot looks like or perhaps the Director who is not running the camera. I don’t use this in hand held shots, as the camera has a fold out monitor that works best in most cases.

Another recent addition to my camera bag is a set of ND filters in 67 mm. I went with the largest filter size my lenses have at the time when I ordered filters. So now I just use stepper rings to attach them to my 49 mm and 52 mm diameter primes. I also ordered a bunch of 67 mm lens caps so everything matches.

The business end of the camera with Nexus 7 attached and the Olympus 50 mm 1.8 prime. I love my Olympus lenses and will probably get a set of primes for use in filming. I have a third party 28 mm lens, but I’d like to get a Zuiko wide angle and maybe a 1oo mm long lens. Time and budget willing.

Below is a scene from our latest film, The Rematch. My kids are racing on their roller blades again. This was shot with the kit zoom lens set to 50 mm and the ND8 filter exposed for the bright outdoors. We shot it in black and white just for kicks. I’ll post the finished film when we complete the editing.

Blue Screen Model Tests

This weekend I spent time perfecting blue screen photography in my garage studio. Initial tests with my two new 150 watt frosted floods proved to be an insufficient amount of light. So I resorted to the poor man’s movie broads – Work Lights. Each light had a 500 watt tungsten bulb. Unfortunately, the only way I could get a tripod was with a dual light kit. So I now have four lights, two per tripod. The lights are attached so I can either have both on or one on.

This proved to be the right amount of light for the best depth of field. My largest model was about 2ft long and if it were moving towards the camera, it needed at least a foot on either side of the central focus area. I have found that f11-f8 at eight feet with a shutter speed of 60th of a second and a film speed rating of 200 ISO to be the best DOF.

To achieve this result I had to design a proper mount for my blue screen and then ensure that I had at least ten feet to play with in regards to getting the camera away from the model subject. There were other minor set adjustments that I made in order to mount each model that I was photographing. I’ll detail each rig that I used so you can see what some gaffer tape and imagination can achieve.

Blue Screen Setup

My assistant (youngest son, Spencer) and I made a trip to Home Depot the local hardware store to pick up the PVC pipe we needed for the screen and an extra work light and tripod. We had to construct the PVC pipe frame to a 4′ X 6′ piece of blue screen fabric. I ordered the fabric from It has blue felt on one side and a foam backing to give it some weight and keep the wrinkles down. This is the same blue screen they use in Hollywood. Not the fabric only version sold in photography stores. It still wrinkles but you can easily steam them out if you have a portable steamer. Which we have and it really works nicely.

We used two corner joints and four three way joints to build our frame. Four end plugs helped make the feet stable We went with two foot long feet but I’ll probably cut them down to one foot to save floor space. Sand bags are a good idea to help keep it rock stable. We didn’t glue anything down so that we could break it down and put it away when I needed my garage back. The main tube diameter is one inch.

The blue screen fabric is held in place with dollar spring clamps also found at the hardware store. I now have enough of these clips to do just about anything. They are part of the cameraman’s ditty bag that should be in any working studio. Also invaluable to have is a roll of black gaffer’s tape.

Work Lights

We made one minor modification to the work lights. I initially wanted to use daylight gels to match ILM model shots from the Star Wars movies. We took metal coat hangers and bent and cut them to fit snugly into the top of the work lights to form a bracket that we then hung the gels from using little metal clips or clothespins. This worked perfectly, but I later ditched the gels for aesthetics.


The best light placement seemed to be two of them at 45 degree angles shining on the blue screen and one of them as a key light on the model. You generally don’t want any fill on the models unless they are in a binary star system.

Model Stands

I had a few different mounting options but none of them were ideal. I’ve been retrofitting my models to accept the standard quarter twenty screw found on tripods and other photography equipment. This gives me plenty of options for ball and clamp mounting points. Some of my newer models have half inch PVC mount points. This required a specially build PVC stand that then had to be clamped to a regular tripod with a flat surface.


Eventually, I’ll be picking up a real C-stand or century stand to use as my fully adjustable model stand. But for now, I have to use a secondary tripod and get creative. Below are some images of the various mounting setups I used. They are for the most part, self explanatory.

Camera Setup

I don’t have a proper tripod yet, so I’m making due with an old pair of sticks. The camera is a Canon 60D with a 50mm Olympus f1.8 prime. I’m using an adapter ring to attach the lens. The camera was set on manual and I controlled the shutter speed, ISO and f-stops. Focusing was manual and set according to measurements taken by a plastic tape measure so as not to scratch any of the equipment. The film plane (sensor plate) is marked on the top of the camera and the zero end of the measuring tape attached to the camera with camera tape. This lets me keep the measuring tape readily available for precise focusing. I was not using any filters on the lens, save for a UV light protector.

One of the tripods I was using for the models did not have a mounting plate. So I created one out of wood and a quarter twenty screw. I would not mount a camera to it, but it was fine for my light weight models.

Work Bench Area

Behind our blue screen was my work bench area which became the model repair and holding area as well as the place to get a closer look at the images on my laptop. I use a Dell XPS 13 running Ubuntu and a USB adapter for the camera’s SD card. I can take images, pop the card and walk it over to the bench to look at it in minutes. Sure beats the old wait a week for processing that I was used to.

Some of my tools for the model shoot were my Moto-X phone, a Nexus 7 tablet, various adapters. The phone and tablet both had a slew of film-making apps installed that make my life easier on set. The most used tool this weekend was Green Screener, DOF Calculator and Pocket AC.

My desk in the studio was where we parked the camera bag and sometimes the models. I’ll probably make this area my computer base so as to keep the laptop away from any work needed on the models or other equipment.



I think I have a decent setup in place to take images of my models that my brother can easily import into Photoshop and create fantastic book covers for me. This was my goal. Achievement unlocked. There are things that I can improve on and over time, I will. Better camera and model mounts are the top priority. But for now, I go back to editing my next book and building the next model.


My Return to Filmmaking

My story roots go back to film. I made 8 mm films as a teenager and later went on to film school at UCF. During school and for a spell afterwards I continued to make Indie movies and commercials. Writing scripts actually came before short stories, although I did a fair amount of them as a teenager too. My first finished, long form story pieces were screenplays and I wrote them long before I wrote my first novel.

Lately I’ve been returning to my filmmaking roots by teaching my kids how movies are made. We purchased a nice DSLR and various other pieces of gear to get us going. So far, they are having a blast and so am I. When I gave up filmmaking and joined the AF for a real job, I couldn’t imagine ever getting back into it. It was expensive and it required a team to do effectively. So I took up writing and continued to tell my stories as novels.

Now that my sons are old enough we actually make a pretty good little production team. Over time, we’ll get good enough to make some short films that we can post on YouTube for everyone to see. But for now, we are in learning mode and making simple, demonstration films to learn the craft. Below is a scene from our first practice film.

Technology has progressed at an unbelievable rate since I stopped making films. Now we can shoot and edit digitally and some SPFX are actually easier now than ever before. I would have thrived as a kid today. I’m hoping to spark the same creativity in my own kids. If not, then at least I’ll have the tools I need to get back into it as a hobby.

I expect there will be more posts in the future about our filmmaking adventures. Stay tuned.

The DSLR Winner is

I’ve been in the market for a DSLR camera lately. Back in college, I used to sell SLR cameras and thus carried a ton of baggage from that era. This was from a time long ago when cameras used real film and auto focus was for a trademark busting camera from Minolta. Back then, the best camera we sold was a Nikon and my personal favorite was the Olympus OM-2n. Canon was a name we pushed on consumers because it was generally cheaper and inferior to the Nikon, Olympus and Minolta brands. With all this baggage weighing me down, I tended to steer towards a Nikon DSLR, specifically the consumer model – D5300. It had to be better than a camera called Rebel, right?

Anyway, the kids are very interested in learning how to make movies, so whatever DSLR we got had to be able to handle filmmaking tasks with ease. The Nikon cameras seemed to lack in this area and the more I read up what the current DSLR filmmakers were using, the more I was steered to the Canon brand. Really? That cheaper Japanese brand we used to push on Joe and Jane Consumer? How could that brand be the best for filmmaking. More research.

Finally it became clear to me that the best filmmaking cameras were now being made by Canon. Ugh. *Smacks lips in distaste. Okay, even an old stick in the mud like me can change his opinion if the facts point in a new direction. In this case they did. So I checked out the EOS Rebel5i camera over the weekend. It was okay, about the same as the Nikon but with a smaller pixel sensor. But it still screamed amateur to my eye. Probably because of the red Rebel label. Then again, the Nikon had a red swish on it and that looked bad too. So much for color being a factor.

More research, more staring at camera porn until my eyes bled. More reading DSLR filmmaking blogs and listening to videos and podcasts and finally I began to see that the predominate camera for beginning to advanced DSLR filmmaking was the Canon 60D. The good news for us was that the 60D is now old and can be had for less than a grand with a decent zoom lens, UV filter and a data card.


So this is what I’m ordering today, unless something better drifts onto my radar. The lens in this picture is also what I’m ordering. EF-S 18-135mm, I know, it’s a kit lens, but you have to start somewhere. Next lens for my taste will be a prime with a wider aperture. Anyway, after we get this puppy and play with it for a while, I’ll post my review in case you’re interested. This camera sits at the bottom of the Pro line of Canon DSLRs. It has the same battery as the bigger boy cameras and a similar heft. A great starter camera for both photography and filmmaking.