Jessica Tolliver developed a passion for storytelling at a young age and founded her production company, Mad Panda Lab to ensure she would have the freedom to create films, music videos, and promotional content without limitations. Her drive has led to opportunities working with major brands such as The Chicago Bulls, Nike, and The Chicago Cubs. Jessica is also a member of the ICG Local 600 union as a Camera Utility.
At the peak of the 2020 lockdown, most people passed the time binge watching Netflix content. Not so Jessica Tolliver. She was creating content. Fresh from a soul care retreat where she reflected upon her inner child, Jessica set about writing and producing a screenplay, “Wonder Child” — a message to her younger self. With a skeleton crew and an indie budget, she wore many hats, and her versatile Litepanels Gemini 2x1 Soft and Gemini 1x1 Hard panels produced a variety of creative lighting setups in each scene.
In this age of multiple video-on-demand streaming platforms, content is king for parting viewers from their subscription dollars. Great news for filmmakers, however, the insatiable demand for content coincides with an explosion of content creators, meaning competition to get projects made has never been higher. For studios and streaming platforms looking for the next big hit, a spec script is no longer enough to pique their interest. A proof-of-concept video is often required too.
Short films made of scenes that represent the story, tone and themes of a potential film or series, a proof-of-concepts show the skill and vision of a director and screenwriter. Proof of concept shorts that have become full motion pictures include “Sin City”, “The Babadook”, “300”, and “District 9”.
Contrast and collaborate
Describing “Wonder Child”, Jessica says, “It’s a kind of love letter to millennial black women like me. Through a series of events, Anne, the main character, acquires a mysterious crystal that physically transports her back to her childhood. Through interactions with her creative 10-year-old self, she has new self-discoveries.” Adding, “It’s a story to encourage people to never lose sight of their inner child and their big imagination because it’s so special.”
“I’m a cinematographer, so I rarely direct. But with this project being so personal to me, I wanted to direct as well as DP,” says Jessica. “Jon Benson was the Gaffer but sometimes he would also DP, or I would go to the monitor, and he would jump on the camera. That’s one of my favorite things about indie films—it’s so collaborative.”
The proof-of-concept comprises two key scenes from the story, each with dramatically contrasting lighting. The first scene strikes a dark and moody tone. Set in a present-day yoga studio, we are introduced to the mystical ‘Taylor’ and the mysterious crystal. In scene two, we are transported back to Anne’s bright and light-hearted 90s childhood bedroom. “I intentionally put those two jarring lighting styles together,” says Jessica.
There was a huge amount of available light, so we needed a lot of high-power, high-intensity lights. The Litepanels were perfect to balance out big, bright ambient light source.”
Consistency is key
Two Gemini 2x1 Soft panels and three Gemini 1x1 Hard panels were the primary light sources in each scene. “In the yoga studio, the two Gemini 2x1s were the key, and we used an eight-by-eight diffusion,” says Jessica. “The Gemini 1x1 Hard lights played a lot for the ambient light. Sometimes we would have the 1x1 bouncing into the ceiling – it just brought up the entire space.” With correlated color temperature control across the full spectrum from a warm 2,700K to a cool 10,000K, the Gemini lights could take over when ambient light wasn’t available. “Shooting in the Fall, our hours of daylight were minimal, so every hour counts,” says Jessica. “We had times where the sun was setting, but we still want to keep rolling. That’s when we really cranked up the Geminis to bring up the ambience to match the shots that we created earlier in the day. We relied on the Geminis to maintain a consistent daylight quality throughout the day.”
Shooting on an Arri Alexa Mini LF, keeping everything looking natural, was top of Jessica’s mind. “I hate cranking up my ISO,” she says. “I feared when the sun went down, I would need to introduce grain to the sensor trying to compensate – but the Geminis brought in a natural ambiance and really saved me when we were losing the daylight.”
With just one light running on AC, power can be daisy-chained to other Gemini units using power thru powerCon cables. And in DMX or Primary/Replica mode, someone can control together all connected lights from one central control point via DMX, on-board controls or mobile.
“At times, we doubled up the 2x1s, and the output was like we added an HMI,” says Jessica. “Just having that power really made those last hours count.”
Bold & Discreet
The light and lively childhood bedroom scene oozes with the 90s character. Bold colorful memorabilia, Nintendo 64, posters, board games, card games and more. “We wanted to light the entire space,” says Jessica. “We had 1x1s tucked into the corners outside of frame running on Anton Bauer Dionic XT batteries, which was great because they had a tiny footprint and there were no cables on the floor.” She adds, “A light that was small and compact with huge output was critical. The 2x1s wouldn’t fit in the bedroom space because it was my real childhood bedroom, but the 1x1s were perfect. Very simple, but very effective.”
When a visual effects 360 degree shot called for some overhead lighting, the eight-by-eight diffusion was not suitable, so the crew used a SnapBag, one of the many light shaping accessories for Gemini, to soften the output from above. “It created a really strong, very focussed and soft source that was so nice,” says Jessica.
From concept to completion
With the proof-of-concept in the can, the next stage of Jessica’s “Wonder Child” journey is to take the project through to full production. “In early 2023, we will launch the crowdfunding campaign for the concept and fingers crossed. It gets funded that we can complete Wonder Child,” she says. “A production company already inquired about making a feature, but I’m leaning towards a series. Next, I would like to shoot a pilot episode in its entirety – so stay tuned.”
The anything anywhere survivor
Asked to describe Gemini lights on the production of Wonder Child, Jessica says, “I would say they’re flexible and versatile. Versatile because we could use only Geminis for both scenes. Flexible to accommodate whatever situation you throw at them, whether you need a modifier or need it to run on battery power, throw it up on a boom. It’s lightweight.
It’s a survival kit light, something that you keep in your car or van or just always on standby. Because chances are you’re going to need it. You know, ready to solve whatever problem you have.”