Adam Coleman is a New York City based cinematographer who has trained under some of today’s most influential DPs like William Rexer (Public Morals, The Get Down) and Pete Konzal (House of Cards). We speak with Adam about his journey and some of the modern techniques he incorporates into his workflow.
Hey Adam, tell me about how you got into the industry.
Adam Coleman (AC): When I was in college I was studying cinema and art history. No one really told me there was a difference between making films and studying them. I guess one day it hit me that what I wanted to do was make stuff and I wasn’t on the right path. I started to look for any job or internship with something related to creating images.
“I ended up working as an assistant for some wedding photographers and eventually got a general production internship with Click 3X.”
It was a long road of growth at Click 3X, but after interning on many commercial shoots and around the office a position opened up in their Machine Room. I was offered the position and took it. The position was called a Tape Operator and I was responsible for ingesting all the incoming footage and printing the finished commercials to tapes… BetaSP, Digibeta, HDcam, D5 to name a few.
How has your role at Click 3X evolved over time? It must have been great exposure to be on set on so many professional commercials.
AC: Our company was always shooting our own content. We had a very tiny stage that doubled as a conference room. One of my many responsibilities was to flip this room back and forth when needed. That led into setting up all of the lights and eventually the cameras. I had no clue what I was doing most of the time but just started to figure it out and ask a lot of the right questions. It was around this time that I knew I wanted to pursue a life on set instead of in a dark machine room.
“Eventually the company opened a stage on the next floor and asked me if I wanted to build it out and run it.”
They also made the decision to purchase a RED camera and really dive into the live action business. It felt like a great opportunity so I jumped at it.
I spent a couple of years bouncing around camera and lighting departments of a range of shoots but mostly stuck to focus pulling on the bigger ones. Click 3X also had an enormous need for in-house smaller scale production. I would shoot pickup shots for larger commercials, stills for designers, orthographic photography for CGI, case study videos, witness-camera for VFX, Instagram photos for our interactive department, b-roll stock footage, VFX tests, photo boards, even the occasional casting session.
Eventually, I gravitated towards focus pulling and I had the opportunity to assist for some really top tier DP’s like William Rexer (Public Morals, The Get Down) and Pete Konzal (House of Cards) until about 3 years ago when I started to take shooting really seriously. Since then I have been on that DP hustle you are always talking about. Shooting every commercial, music video, doc that I can get my hands on.
When did you first start to use 3D to plan your cinematography work?
Adam Coleman early previs work in Cinema 4D
AC: When I was in High School I worked at this shoe store that no one every came into. I was alone with the company computer which had sketchup on it. I remember teaching myself how to use it to model the store, but never really took it further then that. Years later after meeting you and seeing you use it on a commercial we were working together on, I decided to take it up again by building my stage to spec. I have been exploring the 3D world for prep ever since. I was using some of the early sketch-up camera features to frame shots and have really watched it change a lot as a program. One of the post artists I know that was learning to light in C4D saw what I was doing and told me that if I brought the models into a 3D program that I could light them the way I do on set. I installed an older version of the software that the company wasn’t using and got a grey scale guerrilla plug-in to create cyc walls and softboxes. Since then pre-vis has been becoming more and more an integral part of my workflow.
Tell me about the 92Y project and what you did in pre-production with the director and the rest of the team.
AC: The 92Y Project was very different from many of the other shoots I have worked on. The concept was to turn a 360 Live action world into a CGI transformation of that same world. The final delivery was for Oculus so right from the beginning of we wanted to stay in the 360 mindset. When we prepped I took along my RICHO Theta camera to the tech scout to give everyone a feel of how the space would look in 360.
Choosing a 360 capture solution was also an interesting process. I have been very frustrated by the lack of usability of the early go-pro rigs; I find them very unreliable. The OZO was an exciting opportunity because it allowed us to view the image while we were shooting. From our scout we could tell that where we positioned the camera and the overall composition was going to be very important for the final cgi transformation of the architecture. Creating a composition for 360 is much different from how we are traditionally used to. I don’t know if fibonacci’s numbers apply to 360.
Adam Coleman lighting diagram for 92Y, created with Cine Designer
For the green screen section of the shoot the prep needed to be really dialed in. I had several meetings with the director, producers and post team to discuss our approach. I had built the space in 3D and was able to show the team what our set would look like through the camera. We had to account for the height of the green screen to have enough room to cover dance performance with ariel lifts and give them enough space east to west to not restrict their movements. The green screen elements will later be composited into the 360 footage and CGI animations. Very specific camera notes were taken from the OZO footage to make sure we matched camera height and spatial relationship to the environment.
How did the shoot go and how did you approach the lighting?
Adam Coleman green screen lighting setup
AC: The shoot went really well. We had a very limited time in the space and were lucky enough to have a pre-light the night before that helped us to not waste any time on the day. We discussed shooting this element on our stage at Click 3X and I did not feel that the 20×20 space was large enough to give the dancers enough room to perform a realistic routine. I sat down with the director, producers and the entire post team to discuss what was the best option for our needs. We decided hanging a green screen in the same location as the 360 shoot and matching the plates of the project together would be the best option, the other was to shoot on a larger isolated green cyc and add in the reflections and contact shadows after; we determined it would be less work in post with the route we took.
For a lot of green screen shooting I think it is important to be at a high foot-candle and a fat stop. I wanted to be at a 90° shutter to reduce motion blur and at a T5.6. When budget is tight and getting larger units into a space is an issue I like to use 2K Open faces to throw a lot of light around. At full flood they spray light everywhere but if you have the distance to separate your subject from the background they work great for green screens. That with some additional help from some of the performance parcans that already existed in the space I was able to get the green to a T8-1/2. I then cross keyed the dance space with 2K opens through light grid. The final addition is a little bit of backlight from two source 4s with Hampshire and 1/4 minus green.* My electrician for the shoot normally lights all of the live dance performances and theater productions that happen at the space; he said to me “with dancers, you need to light them from the side to give them shape.” Normally I use backlight on GS to create separation but I really liked the way a little heat on the side created clean lines while they moved.
*Minus green on the backlight is kind of an old trick for suppressing green spill and creating separation that I have seen so many DP’s do. I used to not do it just to be different until a flame artist I was doing tests with said what I was shooting keyed better with the backlight. Now I do it much more often, when appropriate.
What can you share about working with the Nikia OZO. There are a lot of VR cameras hitting the market but this one looks pretty solid.
Adam Coleman setting up the Nokia Ozo Virtual Reality 360 Camera
AC: Working with the OZO camera was very exciting. You can’t really beat being able to see the image in a Oculus headset. For onset workflow it is the only camera that is suitable for commercial production right now. As for the post workflow, I was able to do some very simple test stitches with autopano that worked fairly well for the amount of time I had spent. For final stitches most people are using Autodesk’s Nuke in a very tedious process. I think the camera is a great concept, but am excited for when some VR options with a few more cinematic tools and more dynamic range. I found that the highlights of the camera held up pretty well but in the low light the noise was very unforgiving. Much of the image is baked in as well, so setting proper exposure and white balance on set is very important. We used a 24” Sony monitor with the OZO creator software to judge exposure by eye.
My VR Tech Ben Schwartz and Mike Nicholas at AbelCine were also super valuable in the process as well. As you could imagine with any new technology that there are a lot of quirks to that need to be troubleshot and they were on top of everything from prep and even following up on post problems. Nokia has also been very helpful in fielding any workflow questions I had and were able to give me a beta version of the new Creator suite to process some troublesome clips.
How do you see cinematography evolving? You are already shooting VR and using Previs/CineDesign which is great!
Adam Coleman Cine Design vs On Set
AC: I think that VR and Previs/Cinedesign are very big components of what will be expected out of the DP’s tool set. I am certainly embracing that. An in-depth knowledge of post-production and workflows will also be an important aspect, there will be a time in the future where the cinematographer will be responsible for much of the visual effects supervision and workflow management. I imagine that light field capture will be an interesting prospect and think that we can expect to see cameras with more dynamic range and large resolutions as well.
What kind of projects interest you?
AC: A few years ago I assisted on an OKGO music video (The Writings on the Wall) and it really opened my eyes to accomplishing something that has a lot of moving parts. Since then I have gotten enormous satisfaction out of technically challenging shoots. But I feel like I haven’t really settled into a niche yet.
I have done different types of commercials, music videos, and some narrative work. I would love to get involved with some more traditional story telling but overall I really like to work with creative and passionate directors that show up to set with a purpose. Some of the creatives I respect the most can turn the most simple concept into something completely unexpected.
What’s up next for you?
AC: Right now I plan on continuing to grind. I have officially removed myself from camera assisting and am exclusively shooting as of the past year. Now I am just focusing on adding projects that I want to represent me as my body of work. Click 3X has been exceptionally supportive of me growing as a director of photography and gives me the opportunity to venture out on my own to shoot projects.
Currently I am prepping a comedy gameshow/web-series with Dave Attell (Dave’s Old Porn, Insomnia) that is just about to shoot. I have also been discussing VR with many creatives. I have a collective of friends that I shoot projects with, and we have a few projects coming out soon that I am excited about. I am also prepping an NYU Student film that is being directed by one of my former interns.
Cinematography Database Profile (2016)
Adam Coleman lighting diagram for 92Y, created with Cine Designer