Nicholson Ren | Cinematographer & Colourist



Greta attends a ballroom dancing class with her friend Betty. Greta has hopes of getting a cha cha or two with Lily, whilst other students have their own agendas. 



Pre-Production for this film began in March and lasted for around 2 months. I had two major concerns after jumping on board as the cinematographer. Firstly, I didn't have much choice of the location. The scout hall I was essentially given to work with had a big purple wall with windows on both sides. Initially I felt that the colour stood out too much to a point that would be distracting but eventually we learned to embrace it and design the production around it. Secondly, The windows were also directly under the path of the sun which meant that sunlight would constantly be moving across the floor as the day goes on. My solution to this problem is detailed below in the production section.


During this phase I visited the set twice more. The first time was for a table read and to meet the cast as well as having a look at the dance choreography and have a camera test. I tested the smoothness of the floor for large sweeping motions with a tripod dolly and the shots which we envisioned. It was also a chance to get some footage for a Pozible crowdfunding video -

Storyboarding - Before and After

OTS MS on Students

3 Shot MS - Greta Enters, LIly Leaves

MS Greta + Betty at Car

MS Ms Fine

WS Dream Sequence - Greta walks in

MS Dream Sequence - Twirl Out

The style of the film was meant to reflect the Director's previous film which was captured mostly in mids in long takes. A lot of the action and dialogue was planned to be captured in profile or flat against the purple background in mids or wides. Rarely did we plan to go in for OTS shots for coverage as we wanted the situation to play out in front of us. A large proportion of the film was planned and captured similarly to how we envisioned it in pre-pro.


The production started off in the worst possible way, after the first night we were left 6 hours behind schedule (due to reasons I will explain below) but eventually wrapped the next night only 30 minutes overtime. I put the extreme boost in productivity down to the calm attitude of the director and all cast and crew. She showed no signs of panic or stress even as we started the next day 2 hours behind again as the lead actresses had to undergo an extreme do-over for the dream sequence. We essentially shot 14 pages of the script in the last 6 hours of the shoot.

The shoot was split into 3 different sections - Exterior, Interior, Dream Sequence. Naturally we wanted to film the hardest scenes first - the exteriors. We had planned 1.5 hours to do this but due to a minimal budget, I found out that our lights weren't "powerful" enough to give us the exposure and light up the scene the way I wanted. Our brightest light was a 2K and because we were shooting wides and mids, had to place the light slightly furthur away which resulted in our background being massively underexposed. We also barely had enough power cables to bring all the lights we needed to light up the background and had to spend time re-blocking the scenes to suit the distance which our lights could reach.

We shot the film on a Blackmagic Production 4K camera in 4K Prores 422 25fps on a Canon Zoom 24-70mm f2.8. Our lighting equipment consisted of a 2K LED light, 2 Aputure 672s, 3 red-heads, 1 4-Bank Kino-Flo, 1 China Ball and a 8 x 8 Butterfly frame. With this equipment, the team had to come up with some creative lighting strategies to achieve the best look possible.

Shooting Exteriors

ginger test 2_1.2.1.jpg

I placed the 2K light just out of frame and used it as the key onto the actresses and car. I wanted it to look like a streetlight spilling on to the floor. Ideally, there would be another light behind the car to light up the rest of the carpark and give an edge light to the subjects. The Aputure LED behind the camera was to give some definition to the leaves dirtying the frame and make the shot look more voyeuristic. The final light in this shot was placed behind the trees on the right side of frame and gave a bit of depth to the trees. The blackness surrounding the subject kept them more or less the focus of the scene so despite being slightly under you're still drawn to them as the subjects.

Ginger Test 1_1.1.1.jpg
ginger test 3_1.4.1.jpg

In order to make the most of what we had I decided to focus on exposing the foreground elements to f2.8 with my china ball and 2 Aputures and then using the 2K as a background fill. Wider shots were much harder to expose and I had to bring the lights just out of frame and point it directly at the subject. I wanted the sources of light to come from a top-down direction to simulate streetlights. I had to use an extra LED light to fill so that the shadows weren't so harsh. With these set ups I managed to get images that look different to my previous works and with a little bit of grading, brought up the subjects slightly more. 

Dream Sequence

dream sequence bts.jpg

The lights we used for this sequence was just the 2K LED light on a C-stand, a China Ball and 4 floodlights I bought from a hardware warehouse to act as backlights. I wanted to make the beam very solid and hard similar to a theatre light but we didn't have enough output for that. Especially since I knew we would be moving alot on a tripod dolly I kept the camera at f/5.6 to make it easier to keep focus but at the expense of under exposure which I hoped we would be able to pass as "grain". In order to also light our protagonist as she was further away from the spotlight I made a portable China Ball to follow her movements and had it back off when she joined in the spotlight.

This sequence was scheduled to take 2 hours but eventually ended up taking 5 hours.





Shooting Interiors

By the time we got around to shooting these scenes we had 6 hours left and 11 scenes to shoot. I knew that in order to be the most efficient I had to have the least lighting changes possible between scenes. My game plan was to light the majority of the room and scenes from a 8x8 diffusion and use a kino-flo as a key to highlight faces and areas of interest. We shot these scenes chronologically as much as it was all in one location it made sense to just follow the characters emotional journey through the class. The simplicity of the shot designs and story meant that we could shoot multiple shots using just one set up which allowed us to make up for all the lost time from the night before.

The set up for this whole shoot was probably the most drastic I've ever had to do for a shoot yet. As we were shooting with large windows on both sides of the roof I knew that I had to block it all out and make my own source to keep base light levels consistent. I had my team black out all the windows from the outside using garbage bags and then set up an 8 x 8 diffusion to be our main source. My Aputure LED lights were always on stand-by to use as fills or to add a splash of light to the background walls. 


Lessons Learned

Every set that I have served as DOP on has always taught me something new. For this particular project I learned many things, one which was not to underestimate the difficulty of lighting night exteriors and the amount of power we need to do that. Another would be the power of keeping calm and level headed in times of stress and to trust in your team. I had the lucky opportunity to choose my team members for this and because I knew of their capabilities I knew we could pull through in time. I remember taking a 10 minute break 2 hours before we wrapped and telling the director that "yes it was possible to finish on time", which brought a smile to our faces then when 4 hours previously we decided to just keep shooting without breaks until the end as we had literally 80% left to shoot (although I did skip lunch on the day and had a spoon or two for dinner before going back to prep for the next scenes, it showed that things could get accomplished if you are determind to do it .)