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Pip: recreating a past I didn't live

October 16, 2017

Set in Italy in the modern day and in the 1970s, Pip presented a number of challenges for us low-budget filmmakers (myself and Phoebe Nightingale, the writer and co-director of the film). We set out to focus on the emotion of the film and try and capture an intense, quiet moment in the interior life of this person, and worry about the technical aspects later. We were really happy with the script as it ended up, so eventually we did have to start worrying about how to actually shoot the damned thing!


Problem one: getting to Italy. We cast Pip and her young self very quickly- they are mother and daughter, and friends of Phoebe. They also have a house in Italy with an orange tree, but the setting wasn’t quite right otherwise (too urban). In the end, we elected to shoot it in the UK, which meant faking an orange tree. Phoebe spent a day in wiring oranges onto a pear tree, and we’ve yet to have bad feedback about that, so it looks like it worked (sort of- any readers from countries hot enough to actually grow orange trees, sorry!)


Problem two: the look. Pip has three distinct sections with distinct looks- modern, past, and a sort of dreamlike past, an idealised version. I’m no good with lights and we didn’t have good access so we tried to define look with grade/grain and lenses.


The modern section was shot using the best lenses we could afford- which isn’t much, it’s the Samyangs. They are super sharp a few stops down and that meant we could have a lovely digital look. This section of the film was shot on Blackmagic Cinema Camera (the 2.5k original!) in raw, and then basically had a day-for-night grade applied. 


The past was more difficult. We originally experimented with using anamorphic filter lenses and shooting on the GH4, and I was grateful to borrow some from a friend to try that out. I made a little test film and wasn’t overly happy with the results- the look is cool, but i wanted more flexibility in post and the lens set-up was very fiddly to focus and frame. So we chose instead to shoot the past sections spherical, on a set of vintage stills lenses I’ve built up over the years- a Super Takumar 28mm and a Helios 58mm (of course). (I also have a Jupiter 135mm but it wasn’t worth using on this). This section was given a very summery grade, which has some excellent results- you’d hardly guess the wides of Pip and her mum under the tree were shot at 8pm in the rain in the UK!


The dream section of the film required another vintage look, but much stronger. I recently acquired an old 16mm camera from my dad, which has two lenses mounted on a turret- so I removed these and adapted them for my GH4. These C-mount lenses are extraordinary- the Schneider-Kreuznach 44mm, which has a wonderful colour rendition and sharpness a few stops down, but which also blooms magnificently and loses contrast wide open, and the 85mm, which has some significant haze and is also quite soft wide open. Here we also filmed in slow motion, 96fps on the GH4, where the internal processing makes it quite soft- which luckily was perfect for this (never thought I’d say it). 


The film was shot in about four hours- extensive storyboarding from Phoebe (which also helped to define the look and made the edit a lot easier). The lead actors are mother and daughter, which really helped with directing the kid because their relationship was so natural. She was great- really lively and happy to be directed. 

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© 2017 By Will Webb.