Cinematographer Nastasha Braier, ASC CDF (The Neon Demon, Gloria Bell, Honey Boy), speaks to lessons learned during her first-time filming on a virtual vehicle process stage. A mid-production decision brought the crew of the investigative journalist drama She Said (produced by Plan B/Anapurna/Universal) to Carstage in Long Island City where Braier quickly developed innovative ways to make the most out of their shooting day. She Said was one of the early feature films to shoot at the New York LED stage, which services production throughout planning, content preparation, LED panel positioning, live on-set programming and color correction.
What made you go to Carstage?
Natasha Braier: It was a production decision. We had to do some car work for a scene where they go to the Hamptons, but it was not possible in our schedule to dedicate a day to go all the way there to do process trailer. We had to think about alternatives. I thought the film had to be realistic and truthful to reality. So we tried to shoot it in a way that it also felt very real. I didn't want to do green screen. Even if you can do a very good green screen; it just didn't feel right with the rest of the approach. So we thought of doing it at the Carstage.
Was this your first-time filming on a LED Stage like this?
Natasha Braier: I had shot some virtual stage work for commercials before but it was my first experience at Carstage. This time the movie scene needed to be integrated with the rest of the film, which in this case is very, very naturalistic and real. It was a different type of challenge.
Did you shoot your B-roll or were you able to use stock footage?
Natasha Braier: No, Third Law Productions/PlatePros shot those roads at the Hamptons. We found locations in the map that seemed right in terms of orientation and lengths, and they went and shot that. And then, for the exterior night in Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge, they also shot it for us.
What was your learning curve like with Carstage? Did you have to spend some time playing with it first or could you walk right in?
Natasha Braier: I had done a little bit of LED work, but only commercials or music videos where it's in and out, a bit experimental. The tricky thing here was to make sure that it's at the same level of reality as the rest of the movie. We didn't have time to prep. This decision happened in the middle of production. I came in on a Saturday and played a little bit just to familiarize myself with the setup that they had there. We took a camera and shot for a couple of hours. I learned as much as I could from that test.
I figured out how the size of the screens, with the type of shots that I needed to do in the car, would dictate a certain angle, a certain position of the screens and a certain closeness from the screen to the cars. That didn’t leave a lot of room for us to light the talent with any other extra lights, as I've done in the past with other systems. If I wanted to add my lights, I would have had to correct my lights a lot.
What did you do when suddenly faced with this lighting challenge?
Natasha Braier: We devised a way in which we created the lights inside the screen. The characters would be lit by the screens. For example, when you shoot a profile, you would have the screen with the footage there, right? The actress is a bit backlit by those images in the on-camera screen, but at the same time she also has the other off-camera screen in front, front-lighting her. Everything in the on-camera screen that was in shot was driving footage. Everything else that was still screen, but not in the shot, became my lighting.
If there was too much front light, I would make half of the screen black, like a black flag. Then instead of adding lights, I would create lights. Literally, where I would have put a fluorescent or an LED panel, I would just get the technician to draw a white rectangle, and that became my white light. We would see how much light the actress was getting, and if it was too strong, they would make the rectangle smaller and do other tricks like that. Imagine a rectangle with a lightened exposure, that still has a little bit of the transparency of the image. Then if there's trees passing, that light is still in movement. We were grabbing areas and making them brighter or darker to create the lighting using the LED screens.
It was really fun to start to play using the image as a lighting source. We started drawing black squares, black rectangles, and white rectangles. For the night scenes, the whole scene was of course much darker so there was less light impact from the screen on the characters. The sky was too dark for the same strategy to work. Even if there was street lighting, the camera that captured the original location didn’t usually capture the lighting source.
Can you give us an example?
Natasha Braier: For example, the characters are driving on 11th Avenue and I wanted to have these sodium lights passing. To create that effect, we would draw these orange balls that would track with the footage. You have a building that is moving and we would draw these orange balls of light just out of frame. Then the balls would light the actress while we controlled the intensity and the intervals.
Once I figured out what we could do, we just started to draw the rest of the lights. We figured out the color, the intensity, the pattern. The technician programmed the rest of the footage and kept drawing all the lamps. If it was too many lamps, we could kill some of them. Or if we needed it in some moment that it was too dark, we could say, “Oh, can you just add another light?” That was really crazy.
Even though it was a big movie, it was a tight budget for all the stuff that we had to do. I barely had that day of prep, but it would have been really amazing if you had a bigger project, and you had more time. You could design the entire lighting, the one minute of driving, just do whatever you want, because you're drawing everything that happens in every moment.
Did working with the LED screens effect the actors in any way? Did you have to place them to go with the light differently?
Natasha Braier: I don't think it effected them. The good thing was that the prior day, that one day of prepping and figuring it out, made things faster on the day, because I knew I didn't need to add any film lights. Plus I knew, ‘okay, here we need the rectangle, we need the bigger rectangle...’ We were prepared and we had more or less a preset for every different situation. It wasn't totally finalized, but we had a good draft to start with and look at our in rehearsal before calling the actors and making some tweaks.
I think it was great for the actors because even if you are in Carstage and you're not really driving a car for real, when you are in that environment and everything is moving around you in the screens, it feels a lot more interactive than just doing a green screen. For the camera it's great, because you get the lighting changes. You get the interaction with the glass and all the surfaces of the car. It's all very, very real. But I think also for them and for their experience, it's one step more real than the green screen.
Did you also do any traditional driving scenes or were you able to get everything at the Carstage?
Natasha Braier: I think we did everything at the Carstage. There weren't that many. That was also a budgetary decision. You save so much time if you can do it all there. You just have the extra work of providing yourself with good plates, which is a whole thing. But once you have that, it can be very time efficient.
If you're going to do another project, with more prep time, what would you change?
Natasha Braier: I think if I could do it perfectly, I would want to do the plates myself on quality Alexa. There were some issues with the kind of color space and contrast that were challenging... Once you get in the stage and you have a plate that has certain contrast levels and certain colors, and you have real people and the Alexa capturing it all, that's when we had the most tweaking. I had my DIT on set and we were grading the plates as much as we could so that it would be in the right space. If I had more time, I would have shot the plates on Alexa and spent more time grading them properly before even going to the Carstage and making sure that the color space was better.
But it looked good.
Natasha Braier: Yeah, it looked great. It's just, if you look at the dailies, everything has a kind of magenta hue, so we had to take that out.
That was also on the actresses which is why I decided to light the actresses with the LED panels. If I was trying to use my lights, then it would have been very difficult. They would have been in two completely different worlds. But because the lights were also the LED panels with footage, then everything was in that same world... Then I could make a general correction.
Did that effect your relationship with the editing or the colorist?
Natasha Braier: No, because we really did everything we could to get it right on camera the day we filmed it. I always rely on getting it right in camera. I'm old school, I'm used to shooting on film. I would make sure that my DIT got the footage for the screens as good as it could be and then we did the best kind of balancing that we could do on the day. What we're seeing in the monitor we know is going to work and then in the grade, we tweak a little bit and just make it a little bit better. I would never want to rely on, 'okay, this doesn't look right, but I will fix it in post.' It's just not the way that I think.
Is there anything that you would advise others who are doing this?
Natasha Braier: I would definitely say–to help my fellow colleagues, it is very important that you get time to test and to prep. This is not a situation where like fast food, you walk in with your car and you switch the stuff on, you shoot your scene and go away. To have a good result, you need prep. I was very fortunate that the people at the Carstage were so willing to prep, and my producers understood the importance of this and made that possible. I came on the weekend, and we spent a whole day getting ready. That’s why the one day that we had to do all the scenes was a success. We finished on time and we did, I think, really cool stuff. But it would have not been possible if we didn't have that one day to prep.