Talent Feature – A Christmas Mission, Sierra Leone by Timothy Naylor

Talent Feature – A Christmas Mission, Sierra Leone by Timothy Naylor

My name is TS Naylor. I made my first short films in university with a Nitzo Super 8 camera, shooting on Kodachrome and splicing by hand. Yes, I’m that old. Fast forward, since graduating NYU’s Grad Film Program in the 90’s, I’ve been working in New York City as a cinematographer, shooting indies, TV shows, documentaries, music videos and spots.  I also work as a union camera operator.

Somewhere along the line, I forgot why I came to NYC – which was to make my own films. It wasn’t until I bought an a7S – which I’ve since upgraded to an a7S II – that I felt I could make a film with little or no crew, lights or fuss. I’ve since made five short films – four narrative and one documentary – over the last two years. A recent short, Buried Deep, qualified for competition in two Academy-eligible film festivals: Urban World and Palm Springs. My cinema5D featured film A Christmas Mission, Sierra Leone, part of an effort to raise the standard of healthcare in Sierra Leone, is now being developed into an hour-long documentary for PBS. 

Name: Timothy Naylor.

Currently based in: Brooklyn, NY.

Language(s) spoken: English, some Spanish.

Occupation: My bread and butter is working as a Director of Photography and Union camera operator. In the last year and a half, I’ve begun to direct more projects.

How did you get started in our industry? I began as production assistant in the Detroit area, mainly cleaning cars for auto-related spots and industrials. Then I began assisting for Steadicam operator Kirk Gardner, SOC. After that, I moved to New York City to attend the Graduate Film Program at New York University. Upon graduation, I immersed myself in NYC’s independent scene and shot several features. Since then, I’ve been working as a DP on spots, branded content, occasional indies as well as operating for TV and film.

Current assignments: I’m attempting to make the leap from cinematography to director/DP. To that end, I recently directed, shot and edited a short comedy titled The Brazilian Dilemma for Amy Schumer’s theatre company, The Collective. We’re picture-locked and are now finishing up the sound design and color correction. I have another short – Buried Deep, about a couple that loses a lottery ticket in a blizzard – that is currently in competition at the Academy-eligible Palm Springs Film Festival. My most recent project, A Christmas Mission, Sierra Leone, is a short documentary that shows how volunteer medics save lives in the bush of Sierra Leone. This was my first documentary and I absolutely love the format. Shortly after it went online, a production company in NYC has been working with me to develop it into an hour-long documentary for PBS. Hopefully we return to Sierra Leone by mid Summer 2017.

What types of productions do you mostly shoot? As a DP, I work a variety of assignments. I shoot about one indie feature a year, day play on episodic TV as a camera operator as well as shoot branded content and spots for a variety of clients. In short, I alternate between passion projects and paying bills.

What is your dream assignment / job in our industry and what are you really passionate about? Be they narrative or documentary, telling compelling and entertaining stories on film is what I care about the most. Currently, with all the new gear coming out, there seems to be an obsession with making technical eye candy, heavy on aesthetics and light on content (any narrative film made by gimbal makers). My ideal project would be the opposite of that – directing a several-part series documentary that expounds upon the human condition (such as Baraka) or a dramatic series like Black Mirror. My dream used to be making movies for the theatrical release. But now I believe that the best writing and creative diversity seems to be streaming out of my TV, so that’s where I’m focusing now.

In the work that you are presenting us, now that it is done, what would you have done differently throughout the production? I shot A Christmas Mission, Sierra Leone on my A7s II with just a Canon 24-105 and a Rokinon Cine 20mm 1.9. I also took a Rode Video Pro Mic, a Sennheiser G3 lav kit and a DJI Mavic with me.  I took no lights or tripod. The intent was to have the entire camera package in a backpack. Going to a country riddled with petty theft and corruption, I wasn’t about to check in anything but clothes. Sure enough, Royal Air Maroc lost my luggage and I didn’t see my clothes until ten days later. Thank God I didn’t check in my camera.

Yet I made the mistake of not testing my DJI Mavic in the US. I didn’t know you couldn’t use it until it was “activated online”. In the bush, I was without internet for ten days, so the Mavic was a paperweight.

The other mistake I made was not thoroughly testing EOS HD Pro Color settings. They have their place and purpose, but were far too contrasty, clipped too easily and were too red for midday African sun and black fleshtones. I used them for a day and after viewing them on a monitor, went back to my own custom settings which were mostly Cine 4 or S-log 2.

While I had to keep the package light and tight, I wish I had brought a small monopod with me. Focusing long focal lengths while hand held without a shoulder rig and keeping it steady was not easy and sometimes impossible. A shoulder rig would’ve given me steadier and sharper images, but the stripped-down mode drew far less attention and gave me access to situations that a “pro” camera rig wouldn’t have. This was a moment where content trumps aesthetics.

While my narrative background has trained my eye to capture drama, I felt I could’ve been more patient and wait for moments to play out before changing shot size or angle. When I shoot “doc” footage for branded content clients, we know what we’re looking for and don’t shoot for so long. But with my film, a vérité doc, where action is less predictable, it’s best to wait for something compelling to unravel. It’s almost like fishing.

What current camera, lenses and sound equipment do you use? On mid to high-end client or broadcast work, I work mainly with Arri Alexas, Minis, REDs and F55s. All rented – NYC has a great rental house situation. I used to own a RED Epic package but concluded you can never have the back up a rental house provides in a big market like NYC, and clients come to expect that here. Also, the owner-op market is so flooded that owning a RED isn’t as profitable as it once was.

For smaller jobs, docs and personal passion projects, I have my trusty a7S II. There’s more to love than hate with this camera. It’s enabled me to shoot things in a way I never could before. After owning it for more than a year and half, the low light capabilities still blow my mind. The rolling shutter is another story. I know one day when I’m raking leaves, they’ll announce the a7S III, 10 bit, variable ND, uber cam. Until then…..

For sound on A Christmas Mission I primarily used an onboard Rode VideoMic Pro with the db boost set at 20db. It’s much cleaner than jacking up the camera’s levels. For the one interview, I used a Sennheiser G3 lav kit and, for the voiceover, a Zoom H4 using its built-in mic. The sound quality of the H4’s mics blew my mind. I’ve had it for three years and just started using it.

What’s is your favorite light equipment and why did you choose that kit over other solutions? I absolutely love my Westcott Flex light kit. It consists of two dimmable and battery powered 1’x1′ 5600k Flex Lights. They’re amazing. I can roll them up and stuff them into China balls, clip them to car visors, throw them in refrigerators, etc  – they have endless possibilities. For close-ups and interviews, I velcro them into Impact Quick Boxes, a fast foldable softbox system with diffusion and an egg crate, either in 15″x15″ or 24″x24″. What’s more, they get a stop more light than Lite Panels and are some of the most color-accurate LEDs on the market. I created a battery kit with NP 970 batteries and a NP to D-Tap adaptor I found on Amazon, rigged with a Nano-style clamp from SmallRig. The whole kit is incredibly compact and great for travel gigs. I’ll have this package long after my camera.

Do you use drones/gimbals in your productions? If so, what is the most effective way you’ve found of deploying them? I was one of the early adopters of the DJI Ronin. I used it on all sorts of jobs, but mainly for high-end branded work and commercials. I’m a big fan of gimbals in that they really free up the camera. But there’s a caveat with that: because it’s such a specialized and physical endeavor, it can be a distraction for the DP to also be the owner-operator, so I use it primarily when I’m just the operator. If I use it as a DP, it’s on smaller gigs and I make sure we have an AC that knows my kit better than me.

I recently bought and sold a Movi Pro. While I absolutely love it, for lower end jobs, clients didn’t want to pay much more for the rental than a Ronin, though it cost three times as much. For high-end jobs, for me, it’s a far too complex piece of gear to worry about as a Director of Photography, so I’d rather hire an operator. Getting rid of it was tough, but my Ronin has been replaced, updated, etc., and it’s working really nice and, unlike the Movi Pro, it has a thumb controller. All said, I am looking forward to the release of the Ronin 2. I participated in a round-table discussion with DJI on the redesign over a year ago and they took all of our suggestions seriously.

But perhaps what I’m most excited about is the convergence of small lightweight gimbals like the CAME TV Prophet with improved autofocus and codecs on small cameras like the Panasonic GH5. This will truly raise the bar for the independent filmmaker with the least amount of hassle.

What editing systems do you use? Way back I started on Avid, then moved to FCP. When FCP X came out, I hated it, jumped ship and tried Premiere Pro, which was OK. Then, a few years after FCP X’s disastrous intro, a colleague suggested I give it another try citing numerous improvements, so I edited a short project on it and have used it as my primary NLE ever since. After the 10.3.1 update, I feel it runs circles around any other NLE out there. Many still hate it but I feel they haven’t taken the time to learn it. Going from FCP 7 to Premiere Pro is like going from knowing Italian to Spanish – not a big deal, while going from FCP 7 or Premiere to FCPX is like going from Spanish to Chinese. But since I learned it, I’ve found that I can edit projects about 30% faster on FCP X. That more than makes up for the time it took to learn it.

How much of your work do you shoot in Log and what is your preferred way of colour correcting? With higher-end jobs I tend to shoot log with Arri Log C and RAW with RED. The C-log grades beautifully. I also shoot with a LUT that has some room to apply an overall correction in post. For my personal projects, the ones I do on my a7S II, I usually shoot Cine 4. I customize the black level to + 5, sharpness off, Pro Color and the magenta / red up a tad and the green down. This is my default setting for most things. I find the flesh tones in Cine 4 to be the best on the a7S II. For higher contrast situations and darker skin tones, I have a set up in S Log2 with saturation boosted to + 15 or so, sharpness off, and Pro Color. I stay away from S-log3 completely as I find the flesh tones dead and noise level too high.

How frequently do you travel and do you have any tips when it comes to packing your gear? I do at least 4-6 weeks of travel work a year, mostly domestic but some international. Depending on where you’re going, keep the most vital stuff with you for carry on. Prioritize from media, camera, lenses on down. Some jobs have just too much gear to carry on, so inquire about media luggage discounts. This will get you huge discounts with major airlines down to 25.00 per case, and up to ten cases per person, depending on the airline.

Read up on the airline and country’s transportation authority’s battery restrictions. Make a copy and take it with you. You’ll be surprised what they don’t know. In the US, I can carry on as many under 100Wh batteries as the weight limit allows but can’t check them into the cargo hold. Every country’s different, so read up on it.

Pack a change of clothes in your carry-on, as check-in luggage can and will get lost or stolen if you travel enough. Check your equipment insurance to make sure it covers you for every possible scenario. Also, purchase travel insurance. It’s cheap and covers you for medical emergencies, change of flights and airlifting in emergencies. I bill the client for this.

If you’re travelling to a developing country, get recommendations for a good fixer – someone who speaks the language, knows the local culture, thinks quick on their feet and so on. Oftentimes you can get a driver/fixer combination – that’s the best, as they can deal with police or gang checkpoints when you’re driving. If the country’s politically unstable, consider an armed guard. Never let the fixer or guard know ahead of time where you are going.

Also, make three copies of your media: one for you, another for your producer and one you mail back via DHL or some reputable shipper. If worst comes to worst, one of them should make it home. If it’s a longer term job, start sending media back before you get back. When feasible, purchase or rent enough camera media cards so you never have to erase the cards. I’ve been on jobs where the producer would FEDEX us fresh cards from across the country once they received our full cards. At the end of the day, the media is your most valuable cargo.

You can follow Timothy Naylor’s DP work here, and also find more of his work as a director here.

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