The Making of “Your Girl”

Creating a Truly Photographic Look

Filmmaking is inherently experimental. I’ve always been inspired by the Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lyndon, in which he customized a camera to make use of a special set of NASA lenses in order to film in extreme low light conditions. Now, this is cool on its own, but it’s also a technique that entirely lent itself to the story and its concept.

And while we’re making no claims to be Kubrick, our latest Sister Crayon video had a similar mission in mind for experimentation. We wanted to do something that would support a very simple concept that focused on performance.

Camera One ← → Camera Two

During our initial brainstorming with the band (Terra Lopez and Dani Fernandez), the key words that came up for the “Your Girl” video were “raw”, “intimate”, and “personal”. Director of Photography Jesse Dana and I loved the look of both Tintype portraits as well as old black and white mobster mugshots, and we felt that there was something here that captured those ideas.

LEFT: Tintype by Kevin Zamani (whose Large Format camera we used for this video) RIGHT: Mugshot reference. Check out those milky greys!

As filmmakers, it should continually be our responsibility to do whatever we can to push boundaries in our work, both to further our craft and inspire others. For this endeavor, building a camera apparatus that would allow us to achieve a certain look of large format photography, started with a large format camera itself.

This was at least a three month long journey of testing and trial and error to create something unique. Check out the behind-the-scenes video here:

The surface area of our camera was 5" by 4", which offers many lens characteristics much different than a 35 or full frame sensor: much shallower depth of field; larger use of optics (a 90mm lens acts as a wide angle); and could be used to get these beautiful striking close-ups which both Jesse and I felt look more like eyesight in so many ways.

LEFT: Extreme close-ups possible by the completely adjustable focus. CENTER: Some interesting silhouettes happening due to natural vignetting. RIGHT: The exploring the possibilities of close-ups and vignettes.

To get a similar image from a digital video camera would mean a sensor whose data rate would be totally unachievable even today — the closest camera being the Alexa 65 or similar 65mm sensor camera, which still wasn’t out yet. We tested a few different possibilities, finally landing on what was described by our crew as “a Letus35 adaptor on steroids” — filming the back of the LF glass with Jesse’s Sony F55.

“At every point where we hit a wall we were able to find a solution and we kept moving forward.” — Jesse Dana

Everything had to be custom in our bizarro camera rig, from the ground glass and focus gear of our LF camera, to the 7ft camera tray holding everything. We originally thought that we could simply butt the two camera’s together and capture an image, but the vignetting from the ground glass was too great capture an acceptable image. After further experimenting, we found that the cameras needed to be at least 5' apart, and thus, we ended up with this ridiculous but effective comical monstrosity.

LEFT: Set it, but don’t forget it. CENTER: Balance is everything. RIGHT: Would ya look at that!

So now we had to use this practically with our concept and performance. The original concept for the video called for elegant close-ups of a dancer, almost abstracted, but this became clearly impossible in our current setup, so we had to adjust accordingly.

LEFT: In case you thought we didn’t use lights. CENTER: “Let’s get these bad boys on!” Kiva Knight on the dimmer board. RIGHT: Jesse Dana basking in the glow of our final setup.

The uniqueness of this camera rig added an unexpected element of imperfection that added to the feeling of the video. Simple camera movements were often more cumbersome, so framing was a bit less controllable. Focus was a major issue because the LF camera wasn’t meant for live focus pulling, so it was a lot more work to keep our subjects in focus (MASSIVE props to our AC, Theresa Wong!). It felt like we were back in the early days of cinema, and all these imperfections became part of the artistry and style of the final piece, instead of detracting from it.

LEFT: “It’s like free jazz, I think, right? No? Ok, ACTION! RIGHT: Getting a little artsy with the hands.

Finally came two very difficult decisions: Color vs. B&W, and Frame vs. No Frame.

We originally planned on finishing in B&W, so in production we set all of our monitors for that look. However, we still filmed everything in color, and the results of mixed lighting ended up being very interesting. We also shot 4k, with the intention of cropping in to a 5:4 aspect ratio, so we captured the edges of the frame. The challenge was to figure out which of the 4 options to go with.

The final decision came back to “Why are we doing this?” And the idea of “raw and intimate” led us to settle on B&W without a border. But here is a sample of the different versions.

And, of course, here is the final result:

In this BTS video we make a simple statement, “All this work for something so effortless.” And this is the true work. This is by no means the end of an exploration, for we should always be asking ourselves, “How can we do this better? What works? What doesn’t? What does it need?” This video is about the exploration. It’s about the journey. It’s a reminder that we should always be seeking to advancing our craft and finding new ways to tell stories, not matter how small the or great the steps taken might be.

Let the experimenting continue! We hope you enjoy our efforts.

BTS video by Max Maddox

Photo credit: Myleen Hollero