Behind the Scenes with the Director of Photography: Early Detection PSA

Steve Buckwalter

November 18, 2020

Steve Buckwalter recently shot the MAKE/FILM’s PSA Early Detection | Live to See Another Day. In this blog post he shares how he created the magic seen in the film.

PSA: Cancer Screening During a Pandemic

It all started with an idea. I wanted to do something a little different for this project. Outdoor light bulbs aren’t new per se, but I really wanted to not see the cross strings suspending them, and just have a little extra flavor of magic. So I started trying to figure out how I could actually do it within budget.

I started with some Previz work to see if I could figure out the best pattern of light bulbs and how wide I would need to make the strands to get the widest field of view. I wanted to make a grid and suspend the lights from that, but quickly ran into the fact that I couldn’t afford a crane to fly it and had to work with the stands that I had which could only support a certain amount of weight.

So I had to figure out how much belly there would be in each strand in order to figure out how long each down strand would be. To do this I developed a series of charts on grid paper (shown below) that numbered each strand and bulb with how long the strand needed to be, and how long each down strand needed to be.

After purchasing all of the supplies that I needed, I started doing a lot of measuring and wiring. Over the course of several weeks, I watched a lot of TV while stripping and wiring about sixty bulb sockets.

I knew I didn’t want to figure out the build while we were out in a field on the shoot day watching the sun set. For that matter, I didn’t even know for sure how the rig was going to go together.

So I went out on the Saturday before the shoot at about 3pm and started building it in my parents’ backyard. By about 7:30pm I had barely gotten two strands up, and it wasn’t working very well.

I came back on Sunday and started around 1pm with a clearer idea of how to build it. I finally finished right around evening (with a lot of help from my parents) and was able to film a few test shots, followed by tearing it all down in the dark.

On the plus side I knew the idea was going to work. But the downside was the charts that I created miscalculated how high I could raise my rig with the stands that I had, and now we were only a few days removed from the shoot.

I unsuccessfully tried to track down taller stands and instead found myself rewiring almost every strand so that there weren’t clumps of extra black wire tangled around every connection. But finally, the night before the shoot, I had it all ready to go.

Because of the preparation the shoot came together fairly easily, especially with more hands to help with the initial build. We shot with our two RED cameras and a pair of rented anamorphic Kowa lenses that lent the shots another layer of distortion, crazy flares, and out of focus areas.

PSA: Cancer Screening During a Pandemic

In fact, the lenses had a very loose relationship with focus which made it a challenge to shoot, especially because we were trying to cram everything into magic hour. There was a tiny window where the ambient daylight worked really well with the bulbs; when it was brighter they were less impressive, and when it was darker the bulbs overwhelmed the ambient light. In a perfect world we could have split the shoot into multiple days but that wasn’t on the cards. In the end, we were able to widen that window a little in post, and where we didn’t, the shifting tones add to some of the visual interest.


Click here to learn more about the project and the survivors featured in the PSA.