Indie film-maker takes DIY ethic to the extreme by building his own cameras
By Ben Coxworth
November 2, 2011
Two young men who spend their time together building Mad Max-esque vehicles and weapons see their lives and friendship thrown into violent disarray when one of them meets a girl - that's the premise of Bellflower, an independent American film that has been hitting the festivals and arthouse theaters since it was released this August. It's a simultaneously brutal and poetic movie, which writer/director/star Evan Glodell wanted to reflect in the look of its onscreen images. While he perhaps could have tried simply applying some digital effects in post production, he decided to ingrain the film's look on a deeper level ... so he had it shot with cameras that he jerry-rigged together himself.
For several years, Glodell was a beta tester of Silicon Imaging's 2048 x 1152-pixel SI-2K Mini, a digital cinema camera. He still owned an early prototype when it came time to shoot Bellflower, but that prototype was about to undergo some extreme modifications.
"Ever since I was a kid, I was always tearing things apart, building things and occasionally blowing things up," he told Gizmag. "So when I first heard the idea of using analog/optical devices to heavily modify the image from digital cameras, I set out to start creating some of my own. After quite a bit of trial and error, I had gained a basic knowledge in optics."
With that knowledge in tow, he proceeded to strip down the Mini, retaining only its electronics, recording software and image sensor. Its "new" lenses were second-hand models made for 16 mm movie cameras, still cameras, and even industrial applications such as surveillance cameras. Its other optical elements, focusing mechanisms, and image-modification doo-dads were either cannibalized from other devices or built by hand.
Footage shot with the camera has a soft-edged, saturated look.
That first system was known as the Coatwolf Model I, named for Glodell's Coatwolf Studios production company. While most of the film was shot with that camera, he wanted something special for Bellflower's chaotic, trippy climax - hence the Coatwolf Model II. To achieve the unreal look he wanted, Evan used optical components scavenged from photocopiers and photographic enlargers in its construction.
This resulted, amongst other things, in shots with a very shallow, telephoto-like depth of field.
Whereas the Model I was relatively easy to hold on one's shoulder, the Model II was considerably less ergonomically-friendly. On both cameras, functions such as exposure, shutter, and frame rate were controlled by an attached MacBook. A separate monitor served as a viewfinder (until it broke down), power came from a wired-in deep cycle battery, and the cameras were just generally not conducive to field use. The behind-the-scenes video below illustrates just how involved the whole set-up was.
"It was brutal at times," said Glodell. "The only laptop we had was under the minimum specs for the camera (it wasn't fast enough), but it was all we had, so we would often have to keep the computer on ice to keep it from overheating. All the homemade stuff would break regularly, we were constantly struggling to keep the cameras functioning."
Part of the mayhem involved dirt getting inside the cameras, which is something that cinematographers generally strive to avoid - specs of dirt on image sensors or the inside of lenses have a nasty way of showing up in the final image. After much of Glodell's footage had been digitally cleaned up in post production, however, he realized that it had lost an organic, authentic quality that the dirt specs had given it. Much of that original footage made its way back into the finished product, literally giving the film a "gritty" look.
"One of the main reasons for doing what we did was to give more character to the image, and the image technically is not being improved, but being heavily degraded," he explained. "Things like dirt have always been a part of the look, but at times it would get out of control and the image would be more messed up than we wanted, but in the end we are extremely happy with the final product."
Some of Bellflower's distinctive look can be seen in the trailer below.
Source: American Cinematographer