The Lenses of Space Rangers

I shot Space Rangers on 4 lenses.  The Canon 50mm f1.8, also known as the “nifty 50” because of its all plastic body and low price.  The Sigma 24mm 1.8, the Canon 15 – 85mm zoom, and the Tamron 18 – 200mm zoom.  I would guess that 90% of the film was shot on 2 lenses, the 50mm and the 24mm.  I’m really a huge fan of prime lenses.  They are generally sharp, fast and don’t clutter the image with artifacts associated with zoom lenses.
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The Nifty 50 is a particularly good lens for close-ups.  It doesn’t distort the features of the face like a wider lens would, and at f 1.8 you can get very nice shallow DOF.
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The 24mm is wide enough on a crop sensor camera that it gives a field of view very similar to the human eye.  Its great for shots where you have 2 or 3 people talking to each other, which I had a lot of.  It was also a perfect lens for medium shots in our small “command deck” set.  This lens is very sharp, and with a wide aperture of f1.8 it can shoot in very low light situations.
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The 15 – 85mm zoom was used infrequently.  Primarily when I was in a very small set and just needed a much wider field of view.  For a zoom it is exceptionally sharp, but with a wide open f stop range of 3.5 to 5.6, it’s not a very fast lens.
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The Tamron 18 to 200mm zoom was a lens I grabbed a lot for outdoor day shooting.  The long end of the zoom allowed me to compress locations visually and give the shots a very “big” look.  I used this lens the most for the “asteroid” sequence that was shot in northern Arizona.  This lens is the least sharp of all the lenses I own, but under the right conditions it can produce extraordinary images.

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The Equipment of Space Rangers: Cameras

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I’ve been asked several times what cameras were used to shoot Space Rangers, so I thought I would write a short blog about that very thing.

In my previous blog, I talked about the classic 50’s CinemaScope look we were trying to achieve. Part of the look of major Hollywood films then and now is the ability to use shallow depth of field to isolate the subject, and make them pop out of the background. The advent of large sensor DSLR cameras have made that possible on a micro budget these days, but there also seems to be an obsession with shallow DOF even when the shot doesn’t call for it. In fact back in the golden age of Hollywood, the “holy grail” of cinematography was actually deep focus photography. They were trying to keep as much in focus as possible, which at the time, with low speed film, was often not easy get. I was trying to get deep focus for some shots, and shallow for others.

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Given the budget of the show, meaning practically zero, my choice of equipment was limited to what I already owned. I used 2 cameras for shooting Space Rangers. The primary camera was the Canon t2i. Even though this is an older model, without all the bells and whistles of the new ones, this large sensor camera can produce beautiful images. Paired with fast lenses it can produce good results in very low light. The crop sensor is almost exactly the same size as Super 35mm motion picture cameras, so the lenses have the same crop factor of most films you see in the cinema.

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My “B” camera was a Canon HF-S200 camcorder. This consumer grade high definition camera has a very small sensor, providing very deep focus. This was my goto camera for those shots where I had all 3 Space Rangers in the frame, and various distances to the camera, and I needed them all in focus. This camera is also very fast to set up and start shooting with. It allowed us to get in and out of locations where we were under a time limit, and still get the shots we needed. Sadly this camera took a nose dive in a VERY windy location, and no longer functions properly.

 
What I learned shooting Space Rangers, is that in the future, if I was shooting a film with this much use of green screen, I would opt for a camera that shoots at least a 4.2.2. color space. The cameras I used were 8 bit (4.2.0) and it makes life difficult for the visual effects team. Having said that however, when you are making a movie, you do it with the equipment you have available to you. If you wait for the perfect camera, you’ll be waiting forever.
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The Space Rangers Talk About Filming

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The Visual Look of Space Rangers by Douglas Monce

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In trying to devise a photographic style for Space Rangers, I looked at a lot of different films from the mid 20th century, and I noticed some pretty interesting things. It lead to doing quite a bit of research for the film.

The History of Color Film in Movies

First a little history about color cinematography. In the late 1930’s the first viable full color film system came in to being. It was the “3 strip” Technicolor system. Technicolor employed a large camera, with 3 strips of black and white film. 3 filters made sure that each strip of film only recorded one 3rd of the color spectrum. Red, Green or Blue. The images from these 3 strips of film were combined together on to one film strip in the laboratory using special dyes. Technicolor had a very rich look that we associate with films like The Wizard of OZ (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939)

But there was a problem with Technicolor. The cameras were HUGE, and the process was complicated. So the search was on for single strip film that could record the full color spectrum. In 1950, with a little help of records captured in World War 2 from the German company Agfa, Kodak developed Eastman Color. A single strip of film could run through a standard 35mm motion picture camera, and get full realistic color. No more need for the bulky Technicolor cameras.

The folks at Technicolor saw the hand writing on the wall, but they also realized that the name Technicolor had been fixed into the minds of the general public as standing for high quality spectacular color images. So they developed a way to make classic Dye transfer Technicolor prints, from Eastman Color negatives. The results of this process didn’t exactly look like classic 3 strip Technicolor. In fact it was a unique look all its own, that we tend to associate with widescreen CinemaScope films of the 1950’s

Modern Technology, Retro Look

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It’s this 1950’s version of Technicolor that I wanted to emulate in Space Rangers. But how to do that with modern digital cameras. I started by looking at some of the films of the 1950’s, to try and figure out what exactly it was that made these images so unique. I looked at films as diverse as “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955) “Forbidden Planet” (1956) and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954) among many others. What I discovered surprised me. That 50’s Technicolor look had as almost as much to do with the color choices in the sets and makeup, as it did with the Technicolor process.

So I set about doing tests. I found that if I had my actress made up to match the 50’s style, then placed her on a background of neutral colors, she would “pop” in a way that reminded me of those 50’s films. From then on the selection of paint and fabric colors was very important to achieving this look.

Star Trek and the Tao of Colored Light

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The next rather huge influence on Space Rangers, was the original 1966 version of Star Trek. Star Trek was the first professional job as a director of photography for Gerald Perry Finnerman. As the show was on NBC, the first “all color network”, the producers of the show encouraged him to be bold with color. The sets of the Enterprise were painted in a light grey, so Finnerman would wash the walls in deep reds, greens and violets. Not only did this help the sci-fi factor, but it helped disguise the fact that sets were being redressed and used over and over again. He would also use a red or blue hair light on the actors. Just a hint of color touching the actors face. (Colored light on an actor’s face was a no no according to network dictates.)

With this in mind, I grabbed my color gels and never looked back. I tried to be as bold as Finnerman with my color washes. But having no network to please, I also used color on the actor’s faces. For me it just felt right to make the show as dramatic as possible.

The Masters of Composition

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In watching this widescreen films of the 50’s, I was amazed at the dramatic use of the frame. CinemaScope having been introduced in 1953, you could see that the directors and cinematographers were discovering how to use this extraordinarily wide frame. Sometimes allowing the actors to move around the frame with little movement of the camera. This was partly a solution to a technical problem with focus in CinemaScope, but it was also an artistic choice.

Many of the directors and cinematographers of the day, studied the old masters of art, for ideas of how to handle this new format. You can see as you watch the films the use of classical composition. The camera always seems to be exactly where it needs to be to cover the action. No one was better at this than director John Sturges. I think I watched his film “Bad Day at Black Rock” 20 times while preparing Space Rangers.

Space Rangers

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I hope that all of this research comes across in the final product. While my intent was not to be slavish to this style, my hope is that Space Rangers will give people old enough to remember, that nostalgic feel of 1950’s cinema. Those too young to remember might be prompted to check out some of these classic films.

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Welcome to the Home of the Space Rangers!

What is Space Rangers, you ask.  Good question! Let us explain.

Space Rangers is a retro sci-fi web series from Atomic Age Pictures. Amanda Lee, Lana Flynn, and Veronica Kelly, star as the Rangers, patrolling the outer reaches of known space, making it safe for settlers from Earth. Inspired by Sci-fi classics of the 1950’s, such as Destination Moon, and Forbidden Planet, Space Rangers is told in the manner of a Republic Serial, with a cliffhanger at the end of each episode. Space Rangers will be bringing action and adventure to a web enabled device near you!

Cue video!

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