DP Breakdown: Special Olympics New Jersey “We Bring the Game”
This breakdown is written by DP Oren Soffer.
A couple of months ago, director Tyler Wallach and his production company Red Leaf Film brought me on board to shoot a fundraising/sizzle video for the Special Olympics branch in New Jersey, titled “We Bring the Game.” The concept of the treatment was to showcase the lives of a few Special Olympics athletes both with and without the facilities and resources that the Special Olympics organization can provide them, and how those facilities and resources can allow the athletes to find their true potential.
Tyler and the Special Olympics New Jersey had locked in the concept and the script for the piece, and now it was my job to bring the whole thing together visually. Our goal was quite simple: We wanted to really glorify these athletes and show them fulfilling their athletic potential by shooting them in their chosen sports in much the same epic, energetic way a high-end sports drink or athletic shoe company would shoot athletes in their ad campaigns. We looked at work from Adidas and Gatorade for inspiration, and set out to emulate that style as best as we possibly could while still working within our very limited budget constraints.
Our main challenge, as is the case with most low-budget shoots, was time. We had five athletes to film and each athlete had a “with the Special Olympics” scene, and a “without” scene, which meant 10 scenes in total, in 10 completely separate locations. We knew we only had two days to shoot the entire thing, so we had to work very hard with our producers and plan out our schedule and locations to a T in order to make sure we were getting everything we need. Because of our limited budget we also did not have a ton of flexibility with regards to locations – we were pretty much at the mercy of the Special Olympics facilities and other local sports facilities they could connect us with.
Luckily, as it turned out, we managed to consolidate a few of the facilities so we were shooting multiple scenes in the same general location. For example, the parking lot with the gymnast is in the same sports complex as the gymnasium we see her in later in the piece; likewise, both the interior and exterior basketball courts as well as the loading dock and the weightlifting room were all part of the same Special Olympics facility in New Jersey, which meant that we were able to move from one location to the next relatively quickly without losing too much time.
However, with our other locations nearby but not in the same place, after factoring in company moves we ended up with about 2 hours per shooting location to get everything we needed, and for some locations where we had limited access, even less (we only had one hour in the indoor swimming pool, for example). As a result, I knew that our logistical approach in terms of the look of the piece would have to embrace the time constraint, and that I would have to adopt a particularly loose style of shooting in order to maximize our time in each location and make sure we were getting all of the angles and actions we had planned to cover.
As a result, we ended up shooting 90% of the piece handheld, with myself operating our lightweight RED Epic Dragon camera attached to an Easyrig Cinema 3. We shot a few wide shots in each of the “with the Special Olympics” scenes on a Dana dolly as well, in order to give those scenes a bit more of a clean, composed, epic quality as opposed to the looser, more sullen quality we wanted to give the “without” scenes, in order to really drive home the difference. We also took a bit of a different approach to camera movement: for the “without” scenes, we set up more static, composed shots (though still captured handheld on the Easyrig) in order to emphasize isolation and mundaneness. Then, for the “with” sections, we elected to move the camera a lot more to imbue those scenes with an increased sense of energy and dynamics. For some scenes, we even got creative: In order to capture the dynamic quality of the speed skater, for example, I strapped myself onto a sled and had Tyler, our director, skate drag me around the rink while I captured shots of the speed skater, cradling the camera handheld in my lap. It was very scrappy, but I’m thrilled with the results – sometimes, on a low budget, you have to do what you have to do.
Lens-wise, I’m a big believer in simplicity and as a result, we actually only had three focal lengths on the shoot: 32mm, 50mm and 75mm Cooke S4’s. I feel confident about capturing the majority of any given piece on just a limited selection of focal lengths and prefer not to get large lens sets that bog us down with too many choices to deliberate about on the day. For the “before” scenes, we stuck to more telephoto focal lengths, again in order to emphasize isolation and a sense of removal, but shot a lot of the “with” material with the 32mm, getting right up and close to the athletes to really immerse the audience in the action. The Cooke S4’s are also a great, solid choice for lightweight prime lenses that have a modern look but not one that is too sharp or clinical. They pair very nicely with RED cameras in particular for this reason.
Going into this piece, I always knew lighting was going to be a big challenge. We had our very limited budget to contend with (which also meant limited crew – we could only afford to hire a 1st AC, Kelsey Johnson, and a gaffer, Jacob Bittens, on this job to support me!), as well as our limited schedule. On top of that, we had fairly large and challenging locations to light. As a result of all of this, I knew my approach had to rely mostly on available light, and using our very limited light kit surgically and periodically only to enhance lighting that was already present at our locations. When relying on available light in this way, it is imperative to do proper tech scouts of all of the shooting locations, and the entire creative team behind the piece did just that, two days before the shoot. This also helped us schedule our days as we could calculate exact distances between locations as well as plan out our shooting order at each location (Tyler, the director, and I shot listed the entire piece in a separate meeting before we set out on the tech scouts).
At each location, the most important thing for me to discern is how much control I have over the house lighting. This is something that some locations are initially a little hesitant to allow, but when relying on available light it is imperative that we retain as much control over it as possible, and this is a point that is always good to keep insisting on until locations are cooperative. Luckily, we found that the lighting in all of our locations was relatively malleable, which I knew would give us a lot of flexibility during the shoot. Our strategy for the interior locations became simple: turn off the house lights close to and behind the camera and leave on the ones in the background, then use our lighting package (which consisted only of three 4’ 4-bank Kino Flo units as well as a couple of Diva-lite Kino Flo’s and some 6x6 cuts of muslin) in order to “wrap” that background light around to a reverse side key that would play nicely on the characters. Our key light was usually a single (or sometimes two) Kino flo units bounced off of a large cut of muslin – the locations were large enough that we found that we didn’t have to shape the light too much, it fell off and played on the space very naturally. The last piece of the puzzle was to make sure I was always positioned shooting into the backlight and keeping our key on the reverse side of the characters, and voilà – our dramatic look remained consistent throughout.
For our exteriors, we relied on natural sunlight as our key, and used some negative fill to increase contrast whenever possible (2x3 black solid flags, in this case – wish I had something bigger, but with one gaffer and a limited budget, there’s only so much you can do). Some of our interiors also had quite a good and natural look when relying only on sunlight – we got very lucky with the indoor basketball court, for example, as it had two skylights in the ceiling that cast down a beautiful, soft-but-contrasty toppy daylight look that would have required a significant amount of hardware to recreate artificially.
As with any shoot reliant on natural light, there are always some disappointments: When we scouted the basketball court for example, it was a sunny day, and we timed our schedule for the actually shooting day so we could capitalize on the beautiful rays of light that filtered down through the skylights and created an even more dramatic and beautiful look. Of course, on the day of the shoot, the weather was cloudy and we did not get any direct light in there, but the softer, moodier look ended up working for us. Likewise, we were hoping that all of the exterior “before” scenes would have a cloudy, moody look to them, but the morning we arrived to shoot the gymnast’s “before” scene, we had bright sun. There’s nothing one can really do in these situations but make the best of it and move on – DP’s all throughout history have and will always lament our inability to control the weather.
The final stage of creating the visual look of the piece came in post. We teamed up with Kath Raisch, an incredibly gifted colorist at Company 3, for the color grading. Kath has had some sports commercial grading experience herself in the past, and we built on that experience as well as looking at our original references for the overall look and style of the piece as inspiration to build our final look. We went for a very cinematic feel, lifting shadows a bit and muting colors while also popping highlights to really emphasize contrast. Saturation was kept at a low for the “before” scenes but we wanted the “after” scenes to have more of a pop to them, so those are a bit more saturated in the final piece. Add in a little grain plate, and the look is set!
All in all, I’m very proud of how this piece turned out – we were working with extremely limited resources and time and relied a lot on natural light and being in the right place at the right time to get the shots we needed. Luckily, we had a great crew and very accommodating locations – plus, by allotting the proper amount of time in pre-production to come up with a precise game plan for each location, we went into the shot confident that we would be able to get while we need, while still leaving room for flexibility and spontaneity on the day, as we were unsure of specifically what each athlete was going to do right up until we had them on set. Combined with a really energetic and skillful edit courtesy of Dan De Winter at Rock Paper Scissors, as well as a very filled-out sound mix from Justin Kaupp at Pomann Sound and a beautiful score by Alain Mayrand, I think the final piece turned out really well and accomplished the exact goal we had when we set out: to create an epic spot that feels a lot larger in both budget and scope than it seems, and one that would get people excited about and inspired by these Special Olympics athletes.
Oren Soffer is a Cinematographer working in New York and Los Angeles. He had two feature films distributed theatrically and on VOD earlier in 2016. During his studies at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, Oren was nominated for the ASC Gordon Willis Student Heritage Award, and was a finalist for the Arri Volker Bahnemann Award for Cinematography. Oren has also shot dozens of short films, commercials and music videos, worked for a variety of clients including Discovery Channel, Bloomberg News, Time Inc, Refinery 29, Target, MTV, Nickelodeon, L’Oreal and Skype, and has worked on multiple feature films studying under acclaimed Director of Photography Reed Morano, ASC.