'Pagan Holidays' Transforms from a Small, Independent Project to a True Feature Film
With Help from the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera EF
It's how he came to direct "Pagan Holidays," the first official project from Basic Elements, a Chicago based entertainment production company aimed at creating reasonably budgeted feature length productions, both narrative and documentary, which Clifton founded in 2012.
"'Pagan Holidays' was a last minute substitute for a larger project that kept having location problems. I had a couple of actors reserved for that time period, and I really wanted to work with them. 'Pagan Holidays' was a project I thought I'd get around to at some point, but strangely, it made its way to the front of the line because it was doable and felt right at the moment," explained Clifton.
"I've worked in production, primarily editing, for more than a decade, but the actual film aspect of making movies is something that I've been interested in. I didn't have much access to equipment, so I mostly wrote, drew and imagined. On the occasions when I could get my hands on something, I'd try to do what I could, but usually what I wanted to do was beyond my budget," he added.
When Clifton realized that he had the perfect opportunity to shoot "Pagan Holidays," he turned to DP Kyle McConaghy who just happened to own a Blackmagic Cinema Camera EF.
"The images coming out of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera were so cinematic. The colors, the resolution and most importantly, the movement, everything looked like just like film, which is what we were after. Add to that the RAW format and flexibility in grading with DaVinci Resolve, and it was a done deal," said Clifton. "'Pagan Holidays' is small, indie feature filmmaking, but we still wanted professional a product as possible. Because Kyle owned the camera, all of a sudden, a true film look was not beyond the budget."
Capturing all the RAW Details
"Pagan Holidays" tells the story of two rock and roll scoundrels who experience a very bad night as their past comes back to haunt them in the form of a groupie, who just so happens to have a bloody contract that says their time on earth is running out.
Clifton had always been fascinated by the larger than life rock stars of the 1970s, their giant egos and lavish lifestyles, as well as the legends that swirl around them. "Pagan Holidays" tells those stories wrapped in a suspenseful contract with other worldly forces, a contract for fame and wealth that's due.
"We wanted to go for a 1970s or 1980s horror film look, leaning toward the Italian Giallo style of film, and the American films inspired by them, with their grain and saturated colors. But we had no control over the shooting location or the color scheme we found there, so physically creating the look during production was out of the question," said Clifton. "Thankfully, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera's 13 stops of dynamic range captured all the detail, and we were able to experiment and create the exact look in post. Except for two shots, all of the film's principal photography was shot in RAW.
"The Blackmagic Cinema Camera allows a filmmaker to get a great image that can be played with and pushed into all kinds of directions without the image falling apart. You can't get that with any of the DSLRs out there," he continued. "And, again, here's a camera that produces an actual look that is pleasing, that is film like and feels organic right out of the device. Unless you are shooting on actual 16mm or 35mm film, it would be very difficult to get those images from a different camera in the same price range."
Flexible Features and Form Factor
The Blackmagic Cinema Camera's RAW codec not only increased the team's flexibility when it came to creating the film's look, but also when it came to an inflexible shooting location. According to Clifton, one unanticipated problem popped up in the amount of reflective surfaces while shooting in an apartment.
"We spent a lot of time trying to get the angle and lighting right to hide inescapable reflections, and I'm talking about reflections within reflections. But there were times when we just went with the knowledge that we could bury reflections in the exposure by using the RAW format," explained Clifton. "We lit it in a way where, in the normal exposure, you could see hints of crew or the camera, but we could dial down the exposure later in DaVinci Resolve and be left with just the actors and what we wanted to see out of the windows, but without an unwanted arm, camera or face looking back at us."
As camera placement was essential to the film, Clifton noted that a larger camera would have been an issue. "Just the size of the camera itself allowed us to shoot in a real location and get great, cinematic shots. We could control depth of field and push the camera back to get shots where you'd usually be knocking holes in the walls, floors or ceilings to accommodate the equipment, or be wishing you were on a set where you could fly the walls away," he said.
"It's also small and unobtrusive. You can get into wild locations and shoot professional images without attracting undue attention to what's going on. It's possible to shoot a scene in a public area without anyone knowing," noted Clifton.
Creating the Physical and Psychological Look in Post
For the look of the film, it was a bit of an adjustment working with modern palettes but trying to achieve a "dated" ambience, and it was actually during post when Clifton settled on a slightly different look than was originally planned, but felt it was best for the story.
"There was a particular look that we wanted going into the production, but we had to be flexible and adjust because of certain factors," said Clifton. "By working with the material in post in DaVinci Resolve and playing around a little, we were able to find a look that suited what we wanted physically, as well as what we wanted for psychological effect.
"DaVinci Resolve is the natural starting point for processing the Blackmagic Cinema Camera RAW files and pivot point for round trip editing options," he added. "DaVinci Resolve is innovative because it's set up to allow for round tripping between other editing programs. But as a standalone for color correction, there is an ease of use and so many tools ready at an editor's disposal, that it is one of the best programs to use."
Clifton noted that DaVinci Resolve's mattes, keys and timeline as among the application's most essential features. When changes were made to a clip on the timeline, they were applied to all the subsequent clips from the same shot, as opposed to needing to copy and paste an "effect" on all related clips from the shot. Or an individual shot or series of shots were isolated and made their own "clip," all of which Clifton found very advantageous.
"DaVinci Resolve is so fast and saves time. And how can I forget the node options for editing, which streamlined the coloring process by allowing for so many variations to be played with at any time. I haven't seen that option in my other editing programs before," noted Clifton. "The many tools at an editor's disposal in DaVinci Resolve makes color correction a quicker and simpler process than I've ever experienced."
When it came time to bury some of the inescapable reflections, Clifton used DaVinci Resolve's exposure and color controls to create darkness that hid the camera and crew, while emphasizing the the images they wanted in the frame. Clifton also noted that there were several instances where they had to use available light, and the locations had bulbs that created an unusual color temperature.
"DaVinci Resolve's ability to adjust an image's color temperature directly is almost magic. We used it for effects and minor corrections at other points," said Clifton. "Today, so many cameras are locked into fixed color temperature ranges, and DaVinci Resolve's color temperature and exposure controls are the perfect tools to combat the resulting, unavoidable color issues.
"Pagan Holidays" is in the final stages of editing and looking for a video release around fall 2014, if not sooner.