Q&A with “Blackbird” Cinematographer, Brandon Habuda

Brandon¬†Habuda is a cinematographer from the DMV area. We had the chance to ask him a few questions about his short film “Blackbird,” a personal project from Brandon that caught our eye several weeks ago.

1. What was the inspiration behind Blackbird?

Blackbird for me started as a visual piece and became something more after I brought on my co-writer and on-set director Sheila Avellino. I was inspired after watching The Handmaid’s Tale to create something with a bleak tone yet packed full of emotion and atmospheric beauty. Children of Men was also a big visual inspiration. Sheila and I took my original concept, fleshed it out with more details, and created a world the characters had come from. At the same time the symbolism in the film I wanted to be up for the viewers interpretation, I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback on that. I love hearing what people believe the sunflower field location means.

2. What obstacles did you face during production and how did you overcome?

Budget is always an obstacle but my budget for this was particularly low since it all came out of my pocket. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to create the scale I wanted with the resources I had at hand, that all came down to my art director Kari Bare who made the world come to life despite my limited resources. Another obstacle was the weather, we filmed in an unused metal works factory that is in complete disrepair found in Orange, Virginia. The weather in Virginia as of late has been pretty temperamental so it’s hard to predict if at any given day it’ll be sunny, overcast, or pouring rain and on our setup day before the shoot in December we got the latter. It poured rain all day long and the location just floods completely so I made the decision to cancel and reschedule a month from then in January which ended up being a perfect day, if a bit cold, but you could see the actors breath which I thought was a pretty nice bonus.

3. What did this short film teach you about yourself as a filmmaker?

What I learned more than anything was to trust my gut and prep in preproduction as much as possible. Blackbird relied heavily on natural light with the sun acting as the key throughout the film. Both of the sunsets were real. In the scouting I did for the sunflower field I had to find a field that faced the sunset yet flowers were orientated away from it so you could still see them. For the warehouse I spent considerable time hanging out and exploring it, taking reference photos to look back on exposure readings, time of day, and WB/tint, since again I planned to make full use of the sun throughout the day. On the setup day before the shoot I orientated the camp to complement perfectly with where the sun was setting using a suntracker app. Shoot day at the warehouse was scheduled in a way that I shot each scene at the perfect times of day where the scenes were lit correctly by the sun ,a lot of it being chronological in order to give the feeling of a passage of time. The warehouse was one 10 hour day with the entirety of the camp shots being filmed the last 2.5 hours of the day and the sunflower field was filmed entirely in 20 minutes during sunset on a separate day last year during the summer.

4. Can you provide a basic summary of the gear used to shoot this film?

A lot of the gear I already owned or my crew already owned like the cameras, Steadicam, Inovativ carts, and SmallHD monitors. A 1 ton G&E package was provided to us by The Washington Source. Capital Camera Rentals managed by Kyle Pallansch sourced the lenses for me. The sunflower field was shot on a RED Epic-W Helium, Cooke Anamorphic 40mm,1/8th Tiffen Black Promist, Tokina Cinema ND, and I operated with a SmallHD 702 Bright. Warehouse location was shot with a RED DSMC2 Gemini, Kowa 50mm vintage anamorphic, 1/8th Tiffen Black Promist, Tokina Cinema ND, and Myles the Steadicam Op operated using a SmallHD 702 Bright. For set monitoring we used a SmallHD 2403 Studio for color reference and 2403 HDR for the 1st AC Andrew Capino to pull focus from. 

5. How did the SmallHD monitors help you achieve your vision for Blackbird?

SmallHD monitors have allowed me to work very quickly which was critical for this film. Every minute spent fiddling with a clunky interface to access the monitoring tools would have taken away from my limited time to film everything in the camp during the sunset. I prefer false color myself for judging exposure over a light meter when framed up because of the speed you can turn the tool on to reference, make the necessary exposure changes, and quickly turn off and get right back to shooting. OS3 has the best false color tools I’ve ever used it’s incredibly intuitive and customizable. In reference to speed SmallHD monitors are the lowest latency monitors I’ve found made for production, they feel very natural when pulling focus off of or operating handheld. The 1703 P3X is an amazingly accurate tool, it’s without a doubt my favorite product SmallHD makes. It was used as a reference monitor while remotely viewing the color grading session in post which was critical to have accuracy when giving notes.

Brandon Habuda, Cinematographer
website
Instagram