Shooting C.R.E.A.M with a Custom Cooke Speed Panchro 40mm + RED Epic Dragon
Ensemble Mik Nawooj ‘s C.R.E.A.M. music video is a cover of Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 hit by the same name and was an exploration of portrait photography within the medium of motion picture. I was excited to get the call from producer Irma Kollar, who asked if I’d shoot a music video for director Marta Dymek . What stood out for me was how unique this orchestral rendition was and how Marta wanted it to look and feel: she wanted a piece that would be a series of portraits in which people express the words in a thoughtful and intimate manner.
At our pre-production meeting, Marta shared visual references that were greatly influenced by Richard Avedon’s portrait photography. The idea was to gather a large group of people over the course of a day and have them lip sync specific segments of the song. Richard Avedon’s work was highly relevant, as he photographed working-class people against a neutral background. I studied his photos and came up with a plan as to how to best emulate his photography and apply it to the motion picture medium as a music video.
We began our creative talks by discussing the shooting format. We agreed that the expressive quality of black and white and its direct relation to Avedon’s work seemed 100% on point. Aspect ratio was the next topic. I expressed a personal interest in exploring 1.618:1, often referred to as the “Golden Ratio.” It’s a pattern found to naturally occur in nature and, to my surprise, is what most laptop screens are designed to display.
This was perfect for a piece that would be mostly seen online as it entirely fills the screen without letterboxing whatsoever. Most importantly, I had shot tests in the past and really liked how this format frames the human form. Everything feels balanced and people fit snugly into this surprisingly unused rectangle.
We chose a Red Epic Dragon as our camera package and shot in 5K with a Cooke Speed Panchro 40mm lens. I have a background in machining and, prior to this production, I had recently finished rehousing a vintage Cooke Speed Panchro 40mm. It’s fortunate that I started with this focal length, as it was the perfect lens for the video.
The Cooke Speed Panchro family of lenses has a soft quality that counters the harshness of digital, producing a pleasing focus fall off. I find 40mm to be a magical focal length as its limited degree of compression suits faces well and creates a three- dimensional character. It’s in the perfect spot of being neither a wide-angle nor a telephoto. As the piece is comprised solely of a series of portraits, this was the one and only lens used for the entire video.
Working on a low-budget music video, we didn’t have the luxury of time and a fancy studio. Our producer, Irma, scheduled a packed day with 24 extras and musicians cycling through our set in marathon fashion. We took over a band rehearsal space in Oakland, CA and setup a 12’ wide seamless white paper as our makeshift cyclorama.
Our lighting approach was to create a setup that would work with several people and allow for quick adjustments. Gaffer Jeff Carroll set up two four-bank Kinos on each side of the seamless canvas to cast an even field of light across the backdrop. The key light used for the extras came from camera right and was made into a booklight. A 2K Fresnel was bounced into a 6X6 frame of Ultra Bounce, then further diffused by a frame of 6X6 Quarter Silent Grid. This created a key that was reminiscent of Avedon’s soft, indirect lighting. We placed the booklight higher than it may be used traditionally so that it came from an angle that would feel “toppy.”
Opposite the key we had a 1K Arri Open Face bounced into a 6X6 bounce for fill. Jeff had all the tungsten units on dimmers so that he could adjust the key to fill ratio as needed. For the musicians, we switched things up and dropped a black seamless backdrop to contrast the other set and flipped the key light to camera left. A 650W Arri Fresnel was mounted to the ground just behind the musicians, creating a halo/vignette effect on the background. Jeff panned the Kinos that were previously illuminating the white seamless towards the musicians, which now served as backlight.
Camera movement remained relatively conservative as either a locked down frame or an occasional push in. The camera lived on a Dana Dolly with 10’ of track and was ready for whenever Marta would call for camera movement. We’d often start a take with a stationary camera and Marta would later gesture for movement in which case we’d dolly forward and backward. At time’s we’d break from our traditional compositions and find frames with negative space.
The production of C.R.E.A.M. was a day full of portraits and performance. The entire experience felt like a personal study into the work of Richard Avedon and appreciation for Wu-Tang Clan’s powerful words. From our pre-production discussion on format to the execution of lighting and camera placement, we were able to produce a new take on an old hit.
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