Cinematography - Travis LaBella

It all started when I was in Guyana. I had just wrapped up a reality show in South America when I heard via email that Matt, Collin, and Eric were moving forward with “Telescope.” I was familiar with the script, and after hearing their ideas and ambitions for the project, I knew it was something I had to be a part of.  In fact, I was first asked to shoot the project years before in film school at Northwestern University, when it was going to be produced for a class project. I think we’re all glad that it wasn’t made then, because this time around we had much more production resources and experience behind us.


The pre-production process started Spring of 2012 and was very thorough. There were a lot of late nights shot-listing the film and being economical about every decision we made, as we had all of 2 full shooting days to shoot the movie. We assembled an incredibly capable crew that was part of the conversation very early on, with Production Designer Molly Burgess heading up the ship construction, and Gaffer Jonathan Mahoney heading up the lighting team.  From the beginning, Matt and Collin had a clear vision for the interior look of the spaceship – they wanted the lighting to feel practical, and although we were going to build a lighting grid above the set, the goal was to make the light look as naturalistic as possible. A big part of that look came from the set design, as we only utilized functional set pieces that had unique lighting features and buttons. We built the lighting around these set pieces, accenting then with ellipsoidals from above, and overall keeping the light levels pretty low to maintain the glow of the set pieces. The Sony F65 proved to be an ideal camera for many reasons, but a big part of it was its low light capability and native 800 ASA.  As for glass, we used almost exclusively zoom lenses, partially because a bunch of the shots involved zooms, but also for efficiency and speed on set. Our go-to lens was the Fujinon 18-80 Alura Zoom, and we were often around a T2.8 inside the ship.


One of the most challenging yet rewarding decisions we made was to practically project everything you see outside the bubble of the ship on set, through a massive 16’ x 9’ rear projection screen. We knew we’d already have a ton of VFX shots to tackle in post, such as the horizontal green screen monitor in front of our main character, so the practical rear projection saved us a ton of time on the back end, but also added a visual element that I don’t think we would have been able to achieve otherwise. For the wildly vibrant shots of our character going through the extreme ‘light speed’ sequences, we ended up shining the projector light right onto our main character (sans projection screen) through an array of flags and nets, which ended up giving us the best look versus simulating those colors through traditional lighting methods. We also ended up using this projector screen for the some of the green screen work, where we needed to simulate different nebulas and other space elements in the bubble’s reflection, as well as the character.

Wes Ball, who was our lead VFX artist for all the ship exteriors, also headed up designing the ‘warp speed’ and other looks you see in the rear projection.  We further integrated these looks into the set and story by having them change throughout the shot. For instance, when Bello zooms in the telescope, we tilt up mid-shot and see the rear projection video change accordingly.


Another element of the set that ended up being an integral part of the look of the ship was the LED ring around the ship’s bubble. Our big reveal of the front interior of the ship was the dolly in from behind our character, and I was looking for some kind of practical lighting element to bring focus to the window that our character had to space. I decided on a daylight-balanced LED ring, and as a bonus, it had a wireless remote so we could easily control it right next to the monitor on set. At some point in the pre-production process, the LED ring also became part of the ship’s functionality, as it turns on and off when the main character is “recording” through the telescope.

The spaceship set becomes a very dynamic environment throughout the short, and we needed to build out the overhead lighting to match the rest of the ship going through ‘light speed,’ as well as simulating the power going out completely, so we kept all the lights on dimmers to be controllable as possible. We were shooting 4K RAW on the F65, but I balanced the camera on-set to 4300K, to be somewhere in the middle of all the daylight, tungsten, and mixed sources we had throughout the ship. A variety of Kino Flo “Bar fly” lights and Chimera soft boxes rounded out the rest of the ellipsoidal lighting in the ship.


We ended up wrapping our spaceship set and striking it by Sunday evening of the shooting weekend, in a huge part thanks to Producer Kris Eber and the Soapbox Films team, who set us up for success. We shot additional footage of certain elements the following weekend, such as the slow motion elements of the watch and our lead character, which were shot around 1,000 frames per second on the Phantom Flex camera.  Other plates and exterior pickups were shot on the RED Epic, so in the end, the film is a fusion of many different camera formats, but Al Arnold at Fotokem was instrumental in bringing it all together in DI. This project was truly a team effort, from everything from the set build to the extensive VFX work, and I think we’re all happy with the final result.