DoP Alan Jacobsen on the MSE MAX Menace Arm

DoP Alan Jacobsen’s mantra is: “There’s a way to do this that will work.” The problem-solver loves the “tinker-toys aspect of filmmaking”. So when he was brought on to shoot a segment of VH1 Divas: Unsilent Night, holiday special, starring some of music’s greatest performers, he welcomed the challenge. The scene featured four musical legends sitting at a roundtable in an elegant lounge situated in Brooklyn’s 90-year-old, newly renovated Kings Theatre. The room was 16’ wide by 32’ long, the ceiling 14’ tall, the dresses big, and the timing short. His task was to portray Patty LaBelle, Chaka Khan and Vanessa Williams giving “baby diva” Teyana Taylor “The Diva Doctrine”. He would only get the stars for 30 minutes, sight unseen, and at the mercy of the stage show schedule happening downstairs.
 

With no time for retakes or relights, he had to get it right. That meant lighting the whole room to account for the unexpected. The practical set included an antique candelabra overhead that could not be removed or touched. The gowned performers would gather around a lavishly decorated table amid a sea of rosy-hued flowers and tea candles.

“This shoot was a real challenge,” says Jacobsen. “Because it was an historic room I couldn’t build an overhead grid, or otherwise rig from above. The three dollying cameras would see most of the room, so handheld and goal-posting wouldn’t work. I figured I would have to arm-out something, but with those iconic divas, it had to be safe. I remembered the MAX Menace. Although I had never used it, it seemed like just the right tool to do this job and do it safely. It offered a super solid rigging point that could reach in from behind camera. Given the MAX’s impressive weight capacity I figured I could hang multiple lightweight fixtures along the arm, almost like a linear grid down the middle of the room. The grips were excited to try it and we were all amazed at how simple it was to use.”


Built in the 1930s, the building had no elevator to the second floor, so the crew (headed by Jeff Holman, Rome Peterson and Joe Venezuela) carried the MAX Menace upstairs by hand, grateful that it is self-contained, all in one piece.

When set up, MAX’s base stood a good 12’ from the table and the arm extended overhead, out of the way—ready to rig; Jacobsen’s crew appreciated MAX’s handcrank:

“We rigged MAX down low and then cranked it up in the air in a very controlled operation. Once up, it didn’t bob around. We would crank the arm up, note changes, bring it back down, make adjustments and send it back up.”

The lighting had to be flattering which meant a nice big soft source. Jacobsen nixed the potential shadows of the practical glass chandelier by turning it off and bringing in a prop that would hang below a large softbox above the table.


“We mounted everything off the one MAX Menace Arm! Starting with a 5’ Octaplus 57 High Heat soft box. Inside I put four of my little bare bulb 1K Mole Richardson Molette fixtures. I had plenty of output to be able to dim them down for a nice warm candlelight tone, and also subtly control individual levels on each of the ladies as soon as they sat down. I like using tungsten on faces—it keeps skin tones rich and glowing, and Divas gotta love that!”


“Since the MAX’s boom is square vs round, we were also able to rig overslung on top of the arm, without worrying about it twisting under a slightly offset load. This allowed us to add two lightweight 200W NSP Par cans above the softbox (added glow onto the shelves of candles in the background), as well as a 1K Chimera to extend the soft keylight towards the door for entrances. Finally, we used MAX's Drop Down Attachment to reach out to the full 17.5 feet and a third NSP Par can lit the white tablecloth for flattering bounce fill for our lovely ladies. That’s SIX fixtures, all from one stand, safely and elegantly!”

Did Jacobsen like the results?

“In situations like this it’s all about problem solving, and being as prepared as possible. Thanks to fast a great crew, resourceful thinking and great tools like the MAX Menace Arm we pulled it off safely, without a snag. And, the Divas were happy!”