Zeiss ZF.2 Lenses Take Low Budget Feature Documentary to the Next Level
In May 2010, I set out to make a low-budget-high-quality documentary feature film about elderly Americans. I raised the funds on kickstarter ($12,500), got an unsolicited and very generous donation from an LA based non-profit, and by mid June found myself on a journey that would take me over 13,000 miles by car all over the United States. It was a thrilling adventure and for two months I sat across from some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know, some 22 interviews in all.
In my mind’s eye, I had always conceived of the project in a very specific and stylized way. I wanted desperately to move past the “shallow-depth-of-field equals-quality” plague that seems to have struck the indie film world. While I very much appreciate the ability to obtain shallow depth of field on video, especially in interviews, I often ride the focus with the aperture wide open to follow a character as they move during an interview. Essentially I was trying to create my own style and look for this project that wasn’t only relying on the technical convention of shallow depth of field. It was clear that I’d need a suite of high quality still lenses and a lighting strategy to accomplish this effectively.
I had experimented with Carl Zeiss prime lenses in fall of 2009 in a series of naturally lit portrait interviews (of which Pat the shop-owner was a part), which have screened internationally in several festivals. Those “test” shorts allowed me to hone in on the style I wanted, and I became very adept at shooting alone. For that portrait series, I relied entirely on a 50mm f1.4 and a 85mm f1.4, mounted to a Sony EX1 via the Letus 35mm lens adapter.
Pat – (Sony EX1, Letus Extreme, 50mm Nikkor f1.4 and Zeiss ZF.2 85mm f1.4)
My primary camera was/is a Sony EX1 with a Letus Extreme 35mm Lens adapter on the front, supported on aluminum Letus rails. There is something very organic about the EX/Letus setup that current DSLRs just can’t seem to match (IMHO). I think it’s the ground glass the EX imager is focused on that takes the edge off. Regardless, I have owned the Zeiss (ZF.2) 85mm f1.4 for three years now, and it’s a very, very high quality lens for about $1,200 (over at Zacuto where I grabbed mine). You feel it when you pick it up because it’s built like a tank – it feels worth its weight – and I don’t feel like it’s going to shatter into a billion pieces if it were (heaven forbid) dropped. Dented and scratched maybe – but not broken.
Hands down, on the EX1/Letus, the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 is my favorite lens. It’s sharp edge to edge with no obvious need to find a “sweet spot” and because of the low aperture, I am able to shoot dimly-lit interiors that would otherwise not have been possible. In my portrait series, and in The Elders, I wanted the focus to be on the person’s face. I ride the focus ring pretty hard, so if they’re moving I’m right there with the eyes. For me, the shallow depth of field isn’t what makes it look good – for me it provides frame after frame of attention to a particular part of the frame, usually the eyes.
Lilah – (Sony EX1, Letus Extreme, 50mm Nikkor f1.4 and Zeiss ZF.2 85mm f1.4)
My secondary camera is the Canon 7D and I own the Canon 24-70mm f2.8 L Series that I use often as a master-wide, although with the 1.6x crop factor is more like 38mm. The telephoto is handy but when I’m rolling with two cameras alone, it usually stays wide at 24mm and wide open at 2.8.
For The Elders, I was desperately searching for a lens solution that would give me a more creative range of options. This wasn’t “run-and-gun” filmmaking, so having an assortment of primes on hand was an option, and I didn’t “really” need a zoom lens on the 7D, as it wasn’t my primary lens. What I really wanted was the option to lock the 7D down with a much wider prime lens that could make up for the 1.6x crop factor (what’s great about the EX/Letus setup with a prime lens is you can still “zoom” through the range of the EX1 turning that 85mm into something close to a 120mm!).
DSLR Crop Factor:
In my digging around to find a solution, I turned to Richard Schleuning of Carl Zeiss USA for some suggestions on a lens set that wouldn’t completely break the budget of my already low budget documentary. He suggested (as had Philip Bloom) that I seriously check out the ZF.2 lenses that had just been upgraded to the now very popular CP.2 (Compact Prime) lenses. I asked about the difference between the two sets and to my delight he said they’re the same glass but the CP.2 have a “cine” exterior (markings, follow focus grips, stopless physical aperture rings, etc), designed from the ground up for use on professional projects but also for use with DSLR cameras and on cameras with PL (positive lock) mounting option, as is common with 35mm cinema cameras.
ZF.2 Carl Zeiss Lenses:
As the ZF.2 lens sets are cheaper to rent (and buy) – they retail for about $1,200-$1,800 per lens, versus +/- $3,500 each for the CP.2 – I opted to go for the ZF.2 lenses and was extended a sponsorship by Carl Zeiss and given a complete set for the duration of my project.
What was amazing about this lens set, is that I had SO MUCH choice, and wasn’t relying ONLY on my 85mm Zeiss, but had a veritable army of glass at my disposal. Even better – I could pop anyone of these lenses on my EX1/Letus OR on the 7D.
I was pretty stoked to be on the road with such an amazing lens set! But what I discovered was that many of the ZF.2 lenses in the set would have been more useful to me on a full frame camera (5D) but on the 7D (APC-S), after some playing around, I settled in to five of the lenses that accomplished everything I needed: 28mm 2.0, 35mm 2.0, 50mm 1.4, 85mm 1.4, and the 100mm Macro (!!). The wider 18mm I only ended up using in one shot, outside, in Elko Nevada. On the 7D (remember the crop factor!) it’s really more in the 28mm range – so not “that” wide.
Still from The Elders:
When I started thinking about how I would shoot The Elders, and what “look” I wanted to achieve, I decided I would stick to my “focus riding” method and keep the aperture open in the interviews. I devised a lighting scenario that would be easy to set up, but would give me a dramatic look specifically intended to make the interviewees’ facial features “pop.” Working alone for much of the shoot, it took some trial and error. I was lucky enough to have some help from Matthew Hashiguchi for the first 12 days of the shoot, and we dialed in what would become the standard setup. I also decided that the EX1/Letus would be my primary camera and would handle most of the close ups, and that I’d leave my Canon 7D fairly wide and untouched for the bulk of the interviews.
I also decided that I would need the ability to get pretty wide in close spaces but still have my subject fill the frame. 50mm didn’t do it. 35mm was a little better, but on the EX/Letus and on the 7D there’s the crop factor so a 35mm is really more like 56mm.
In my preproduction research, I was also trying to determine if I would shoot the interviews contextually, or with an isolated background (black).
In the end, I decided to go with a hybrid approach, where the interviewee was contextualized in their environment but the background was soft, and the the lighting was high contrast, as you can tell in these photos of “Coach” and “Doy.” We interviewed Doy inside his shop. His interview is EXACTLY what I wanted to achieve on every interview – and out of 22 in all, we came pretty close.
I lit the interviews with one KinoFlo Diva 401 from directly overhead with their built in dimmer and soft box (which is really more like a soft bag that you pull tight on either end), and when space permitted, I had a keylight (a 200 watt mole richardson on a dimmer) just out of frame – also high contrast but with a chimera softbox – and finally another 200w backlight (mole richardson) on a dimmer to give them a tiny glow.
This turned out to be a really great set up, although the interiors weren’t always space permitting, I came out the other end with a lighting set up that I believe helped achieve a more filmic and dramatic look. Below are some of the only behind the scenes photos I have of this project due to the fact that for most of the shoot I was solo.
What I would have done differently
There are a few things I would have changed, but foremost, I would have spent more time refining my camera and lighting set up before I left. The first interview once I was officially “on the road” was wonderful, but from a lighting and color balance standpoint, a total disaster. We were somewhat rushed (which turned out to be a fairly common occurrence throughout the film), as we were just a 3 hour block on someone’s surprisingly busy schedule. The tight time frame had us rushing during set up and I wasn’t very meticulous in calibrating the two cameras, which caused serious headaches in post-production. Making sure the 7D was recording a FLAT color should have been at the forefront of my setup from the begining. It’ll get fixed in post – but not without some talented color correction. Had time permitted, I would have blocked out a full week to test various light and camera set ups and I would have calibrated the cameras before ever leaving Boston. This is my only major regret, as some of the best interviews suffer in the image.
Overall, I’m very pleased with how The Elders has turned out, and I think you will be too. Below is the official “trailer” for the film. Enjoy, and thanks for watching/reading.
The Elders – Official Trailer)
Directed by: Nathaniel Hansen
Produced by: Nathaniel Hansen, Maria Menounos, and Keven Undergaro
Original Score by: Lee Strauss
Lens Set provided by: Richard Schleuning – Carl Zeiss USA
DV SOLO 20 Tripod provided by: Gus Harilaou – Miller Tripod
Crowdfunded via: www.Kickstarter.com
Special Thanks to Chris Hurd, Philip Bloom, Mitch Aunger, Miller Tripods, Carl Zeiss USA, and http://www.Kickstarter.com
More clips at http://www.theeldersfilm.com