two cameras one movie – shooting a feature on the red epic and red one

as the trailer for mythica 3, which i shot for A. Todd Smith, begins to roll out (see below) i’ve been thinking about a few of the things i have learned since that shoot took place.
and there are a lot.

so what to write about in 600ish words (my personal web preference) or less? is it that you should actually get along with your gaffer (instead of finding one that hates you)? is it that working outside in 20 below does weird things to equipment, and weirder things to people? or is it some advice about working with producers that are, of necessity, rushing your shots?

the answer of course, is none of those, but instead: what i learned from shooting simultaneously with two (different) cameras on one set.
luckily for me, the two cameras were a red one mx and a red epic, so at least they shared the same sensor and the look would be pretty easy to dial in on both. but the two cameras are really the easy part… how do you effectively shoot two cameras in one scene with a lighting setup that needs to work for both cameras?
the answer to that, for me at least, is that you’ll mess up a few times figuring out what works for your set. and that really is the crux of it… i’m not sure one particular two-camera method will work on all sets with all directors. we tried the ‘shoot wide with one, medium with the other, and then tight/ecu on the next’ setup. we also tried the ‘shooting across to get coverage from opposite sides’ approach. there is also the ‘A cam getting the primary shots from the list, with B cam picking off inserts from notes given by the director, as well as following the operators intuition’ way of going about it…so what did we finally figure out?

for me the worst was shooting from opposite sides for coverage. i’m not sure how this can work on most sets. occasionally the scene would facilitate lighting that would be workable from both angles, but more often than not stands, flags or people, would be in one cameras shot, or the lighting would be too frontal, or too sidal, or too [insert -al word here]. one time we had painted ourselves into a corner where we had to shoot this way to get the scene done in the time allotted, and i knew that the other operators shots would just be garbage… and they were, and there they are in the movie, because what can you do?

on set with Melanie Stone and Kevin Sorbo
2nd AC Eric Stokowski gets ready to slate with Melanie Stone and Kevin Sorbo

side note: there will be dp’s that tell you to put your foot down with the 1st ad and get the shot right regardless of the schedule, because your reputation is on the line if the shot looks like crap, and to those souls who fall in line with that: i envy you. but for the world i currently live in the 1st ad has the entire production to worry about and yes, getting good looking shots is a concern (and yes, they know you can–if you just have 10 more minutes), but when they don’t control the purse strings, they answer to a higher power that sometimes is willing to have a not-so-great angle and make the day–and the movie.

having ‘a’ camera be the master angle, with ‘b’ picking off inserts worked well for me… but it was largely a waste of time for ‘b’ camera. after the 1st take they’re pretty much useless and they find themselves getting the same things over and over.

so the best way to cover a scene with two cameras? move in as you go. wide/medium then tight/ecu… with the ecu being able to float to grab other inserts as needed. as long as the director can see both screens to know whats getting covered, this works the best. even still, it’s not perfect. there will still be times you cover the same things as the other camera as you move in, or things you ‘need to get’ even though you know ‘b’ camera got it just fine.

now that’s the best way to cover a scene… in my opinion. but my guess is your director or producer will have other ideas. something i regularly hear is ‘i want to shoot both ways so i’m sure i get the best performance from each actor on camera’. my advice, which is just the dumb advice of a lowly dp, is to get better actors.


P.S. I love good motivated camera movement and dutch angles, which explains why this is my favorite shot of the film: