Welcome back to Tstops. In this instalment I want to bring about a new section theme: Camera Work 101. I think sometimes we take it for granted that a person learning (myself included) just “knows” a very simple basic thing. Sometimes I wish someone had just told me about certain aspects of cinematography when I was starting out. Often a lot of talk is thrown around for Lighting, Composition, Lens choice, Exposure, and color… But one thing thats far more subtle, but contributes a lot to a shots look, is camera height.
Camera height does a couple things, it controls lens distortion and it controls foreground and background composition.
For example, on a long lens, where facial distortion is at a minimum, you can afford to use camera height to select where the horizon falls in the background. Now this may seem a trivial element, but it can have big implications if used thoughtfully.
Another example, On a wider lens, using pan and tilt to center the lens on the background, you accomplish your proper head room in the frame using the camera height. When you do this, you don’t somehow feel the width of the lens, simply that something is “special”. This is a Technique Roger Deakins uses on a regular basis. He tends to shoot with slightly wide angle lenses for some medium closeup shots, but his use of composition, and camera height, corrects for the distortion and the lens.
A good example of the use of camera height and its effect on framing (inspired by a blocking study done by filmmaker John Hudson) is the hunting scene from No Country for Old Men, where the main character Llewelyn Moss stumbles upon $2,000,000 of apparent drug money in a briefcase. The first shot, where he is unaware of the impeding danger, Deakins uses the large sky, a relatively wide lens, and creates a feeling of expansiveness and solitude, ie safety.
As the scene progresses, the camera work shifts a bit, as the lenses start to get longer, the horizon begins to shift higher into the frame, showing more and more of the terrain. Grounding the character in reality, and making the desert seem smaller, or rather… more mysterious.
Once Llewelyn realized the amount of danger he is in, the horizon is nearly invisible, giving the sense that he can’t “see” the bad guys coming any longer. Remember, on screen, the audience only sees what you show them. If you obscure the background, it adds a sense of mystery, because the audience is denied the special ability in film to see the bad guys before the character does.
In general, for classic hollywood coverage, the camera height, by center of lens for a portrait shot should be somewhere around the actors lip level. For women, its not a bad idea to be level with the eyes or even slightly above. In combination with with a longer lens, somewhere in the 50-100mm range (65 being my favorite), its very flattering to faces.
Much like in the Roger Deakins example i just showed, the camera height can have quite an effect on the psychology of the shot. However, when you start to reach levels outside the normal range of heigh, be mindful of eyelines. The only time you can somewhat forgo an eyeline is with very extreme cases of low angle, or high angle shots.
Most filmmakers know what the visual language the extreme high angle and low angle shot say, but I will briefly discuss them. The high angle shot is often used to make a character seem small, powerless and weak.
The opposite is true, when you need to assert a sense of power to a character. I mean, quite frankly, if you have a hero…. You shoot him low angle, hence “Hero Shot”.
I think the point has been made. Its a simple technique that works. Its part of the basic language of cinema that audiences are accustomed to, and they know what it means when they see it.
Now, at any point once the basics have been mastered, you have room to experiment and be creative with how you use the language to tell the story. Not all high angle shots indicate weakness. Sometimes its to help show elements of the environment. For example, this is from a film I worked on called “Pepper and Paul“. The high angle shots are there to give a sense of the two characters contrasting lives, not necessarily that either is in a position of weakness.
Learning how and when to break the basic rules is the fun part of the job of a cinematographer. Hopefully this brief overview gave you some new ideas. Thank you for reading!
In this installment I’m going to talk about a very interesting shoot I did for TheVerge.com and Director Noah Shulman. It was for the Samsung sponsored holiday gift guide. We needed to create about a dozen “Cinemagraphs”. That is to say, still images, in which a small moment is in motion. It’s interesting to me because its the true hybrid of photography and Film. In order for the effect to work, the subject, Aloe Blacc, had to remain motionless with exception of one small element of his person, or a moving element in the scene. If he was to shift about, the effect would be ruined.
Here are the assembled Cinemagraphs in one video for easy viewing: but please click here to see them in context on the site.
It felt a bit like shooting oldtimey large format, where everyone in the room had to remain absolutely motionless and the effective “shutter” was 2-6 seconds. We needed one actual still moment, then a few seconds to capture the motion. The two images were then composited, converted to GIF, and made into the Cinemagraph you see in final presentation.
We shot on RED Dragon at 6K full raster 5:1 Compression. The lowest compression and the highest resolution we could go. This was to ensure the post production pipeline had the most information to work with, as far as resolution for scaling, denoise, and compositing.
Lighting was nothing particularly out of the ordinary, we utilized the north facing windows of the studio for a constant and even daylight glow, and augmented when needed with an ARRI M18 1.8K HMI with a Chimera and 2″ Egg Crate to suppress spill. We also had my new favorite light of all time, the Dedo 150. Its been said, if given the option of two lights to shoot with, you pick a giant light… and a tiny light. The Dedo is my new tiny light. So unbelievable practical. It provided most of the “edge” light you see in the setups.
This was a fun shoot for a new medium and I’m happy to be able to share the experience.
Until next time,
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About 2 months ago, I had the opportunity to work on five very different commercials, within about a 1 month span. 2x Fashion spots, 1 Toy commercial, 1 spot for Sesame Street and finally a sneaker commercial with a cross marketing twist. I found these five commercials very interesting as they were each so different. Different styles, directors, locations and circumstances. It was really fun to shoot with so much variety.
Shot on Alexa Studio with Zeiss Super Speed MK I lenses. This is the Alexa with the optical viewfinder and Spinning mirror shutter. It’s wonderful having an optical viewfinder, feels so much better than a EVF.
This shoot really is a great culmination of many elements. We shot in the Presidential suite of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, with Victoria’s Secret model Sarah Stephens. How could we go wrong? Beautiful talent, beautiful location, beautiful camera and lenses. Jennifer, our director, is one of the fastest and best prepared directors I have had the pleasure of working with. She got access to the location weeks before the shoot, and shot an Iphone previs with Artemis shot by shot, then animated it so it had a sense of pacing. This meant that I had the advantage of being able to know exactly how long each shot needed to be. Thus, we could focus on making each of those moments as perfect as possible. The catch on this shoot was the fact that we only had 6 hours to shoot the whole thing, load in to tail lights. Having concise shots, and frames already established just let us focus so intensely on exactly what we needed and nothing else. I used the latitude of the alexa to its fullest using the natural sunlight, and shaping the contrast in the room with black floppies and a 1.8K ARRI M18 with a Chimera as selective fill.
Take this shot for example:
The main ambient is sunlight, with a side kick from the M18. Lighting Diagram from below. I rated the camera at 800, then dropped in an ND .9 and on some shots an ND .3 to keep the lens around a T2.8. There was also a 1/8th Hollywood Black Magic Filter in play as well as a 1/4 Pearl Filter. The HBM filter is a combination of 1/8th Classic HD Soft, and 1/8th Black Promist. It softens the already soft highlights, and helps keep the models skin looking completely flawless. The pearl filter is similar to the Blackmagic, but includes white diffusion, making it glow a bit. The Pearl was used in the bedroom, the HBM was used in the darker scenes.
I am very happy with how this piece came out. It goes to show, putting amazing things in front of the camera is far more important than the camera itself.
Tom Wong IATSE lcl600 DIT did the grade in DaVinci. He is a stellar colorist, and really knocked it out of the park.
In reality this was a fashion shoot, but it was 90% beauty, the direction I really want to go in.
This was more or less a classic commercial. Big studio, big lights, crafty table, canvas chairs and 10 monitors….
Over the course of the last few years, the Home Shopping Network has been trying to freshen up their look while retaining their signature style. The challenge on this shoot was time management. We had three models, and 10 looks each, all shot in 60Fps 6K HD. It worked out to about 15min per look, and we had 30 looks to get in the can. We shot 27 128GIG mags that day. 3 TB of footage. The only way we’d make it out alive was to have our media work flow down packed. I purchased a USB3 Redmag reader, and two 4TB G-RAID thunderbolt HDD daisy chained to my macbook. I had to use my own computer cause i know it worked, I had ample time to test it. Each card was offloaded and double backed up in 21 Minutes. It fit perfectly in the 10 hour day. It worked out to about 3 cards per hour, and the loader was running cards back the instant they came out of the camera. The RED mags were hot when they left the camera and still warm when they came back.
The director Little Marvin ( thats his legal name) asked for a contradiction…. He wanted a soft, yet hard light. I knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted a Briese light look. However, there were none in Tampa at the time. So i did my best to improvise. I used a single source 10k fresnel, pushed it through a 4×4 frame of 250 Diffusion with a 1ft hole in the middle, and over that hole I had the gaffer tape a scrap of opal diffusion. Then, that was cut into the vignette you see by taking two 4×8′ black foamcore boards with two semi circles cut into the center, when placed side by side it creates a circle about 6 feet across. That was placed just out of frame, and the result is a small bit of hard light punching through the opal, mixed with the broad soft light of the 250 around it, then cut into a theatre spot light like circle by the foam core. see below for a diagram. You get the clarity and specular highlights in jewelry, while still being kind to the model. In fact, i find hard lights on truly beautiful faces accentuates the features. Just look to old hollywood. Softer lighting is kinder to faces that are not “perfect”, though still looks great on anyone.
I rated the V2 OLPF RED Epic Dragon at ISO 800 and used a Formatt 1/2 CTB filter in the Mattebox. (read more about why I used the Blue filter here) I also installed a Red Cine X replication of Juan Melara’s KODAK 2393 LUT. We shot on a Fujinon Cabrio 19-90 and I allowed the image to slightly overexpose. The dragon has so much dynamic range I was never in danger of clipping the skin tones. I did this to help soften the skin. As the lut compressed the highlights, it flattens out the brighter tones, in effect clarifying the variations in the models skin. Plus since we were using a single source, it helped me get a bit extra light into the shadows to retain a bit of the information.
I find the RED Dragon sensor to behave much more like photochemical film than video. Its much more “alexa” than MX chip. Its dynamic range is way up top. Especially with the new V2 OLPF. Just like 35, the best way to get a thick negative is to open up a half stop or stop, then “print” down in development. Or in the Dragon’s case, RCX.
The nearly 15 hours of footage boiled down to what you see. A :30 second spot.
3: “Come Play” – Sesame Street – Directed by Koyalee Chandra.
I have had the fortune to shoot a full on broadcast spot for Sesame Street. It was for their new show in an after school time slot.
The main challenges on this shoot is that when working with the muppets, there are so many constraints to framing, camera height and special needs to the Muppeteers. That said Koyalee our director envisioned a moving camera, and some “stunts”….. This means special setups. My favorite thing in the world!!! We built for the shots of grover a dual Dolley, that moved together, parallel so the Muppeteers can operate grover on one dolley, with their monitors and tools, while the camera was bolted to that dolley on a perfectly parallel track with speed rails, and the camera can maintain the appropriate frame.
We shot in Carroll Park in Brooklyn. The day was sunny, and utilising the dynamic range of the Dragon ( I keep talking about it because its such an important and freeing aspect of the camera) all we needed was a bit of fill light bring up the character, without having to worry about a forest of flags and nets. Outdoors in direct sun, a 4K par HMI with 1/4 CTO and some opal diffusion provided us with enough punch to lift the shadows against a back lit sun. The highlight retention keeps the image looking natural, while saving us time and effort. We planned the day so that as the sun moved across the sky, we shot the different pieces so all the scenes were back lit then filled in, maintaining a consistent look, despite a constantly changing sky.
We shot with a custom look, based on REDLOGFILM that I built in RCX to give the post team a nice starting place from which to work. A simple 709 look.
I enjoyed the technical challenge of making simple camera moves cater to the complexity of working with the Muppets.
4: “TMNT Crossover Shoe” – FILA – Directed by the Diamond Brothers. Shot on RED Dragon V1 OLPF (for low light sensitivity) with Fujinon Cabrio and Duclos 11-16.
This was my first Shoe commercial. Working again with the Diamond Bros, we had a very fun shoot, albeit short cause the final spot is only 15 seconds. We needed the look and feel of Sodium vapor lamps, so we used a 9K Maxi Brute, placed relatively far from the set, at the same height as the actual street lights on the street we shot on. This ensured the angle, and shadows would fall naturally, while giving us the output we needed to achieve the slow motion shots and wide shots equally well. I skinned the Maxi in Urban Vapor 2, a somewhat green/yellow gel that matches Sodium vapor while maintaining a degree of color accuracy. Roger Deakins used these gels on Tungsten lights for “In Time” to make the film feel like Los Angeles at night. It pays to read American Cinematographer, its full of great information. For the Over head shots we rigged the camera to the Condor, and raised it up to the appropriate height with a “grip saver” offset.
(Again, sorry for the lack of pictures of the setups, damn phone…..)
The Condor was then repurposed to a lighting platform after that shot was completed. To prevent too many shadows from crossing the set at various intensities, we black wrapped the street lights selectively to build the ambient light level we wanted, and it really helped to balance the scene.
We also used the Low Angle Prism again, to get the camera appear to be nearly floor level for the dolly shots and shoe shots.
I love shooting night exteriors, sadly we had to buy stock footage of the city for the night aerials. Budget didn’t allow for a chopper shoot….
Sometimes the dreaded words on a phone call from a producer are “Run n Gun”. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with the style, but it usually means your job as DP becomes making order from chaos. It can be documentary, event coverage, or produced commercial “spontaneity”. The last thing you need is your equipment getting in the way. The K.I.S.S. principal comes into play, Keep It Simple Stupid. I have been over the years building up a perfect speed setup for my needs. It can be expanded to pretty much any camera in the medium to small size. Epic, Scarlet, C300, BlackMagic or F3/5, but i usually use the Epic and here is why.
You need to address three simple factors. Light control, Mobility and flexibility in imaging/delivery. Meaning, each component of the trifecta must encompass a broad range of uses.
Speed is a by product of light weight and small size. 90% of the time im using my RED epic with an Atomos Samurai Blade, with some light Canon zooms and a good quality tripod. I use a Cartoni Focus HD head, with Carbon Fiber Induro legs. Being able to move fast usually means no time for matte boxes or standard filters, so I go with variable ND from LightCraft. These are high quality variable ND with minimal green cast. I really like these filters, as most daylight situations require a rather wide range of ND. They provide 2-8stops of ND, and come in the two sizes most useful for Canon zooms, 77mm and 82mm. This helps me significantly, I believe in holding one Fstop and ISO throughout a production to keep the feel of the image the same. I can dial in the exposure in wild environments to precisely what i need, without touching the rest of the camera settings.
My Light Craft Variable ND in Action with a Black Magic Pocket Camera setup. Director Randy Scott Slavin taking a look at a frame.
The epic gives me the flexibility of framerates, small size, and while i’m recording to Prores for a quick delivery, the RAW is still there for high framerate shots, and double backup on the footage. I have 2x 230wHr Global Media Pro batteries and 2x 96wHr GMP batteries. The 230’s are more than enough to power the RED and Atomos Recorder for 4 hours alone. Between the four batteries, im getting almost 10-11 hours of constant runtime. So in essence I carry, 4 batteries, 4 lenses: Tokina 11-16, Canon 16-35 L, Canon 24-105 IS L and canon 70-200 IS L. They all fit neatly in a Tenba Roadie Backpack including the camera. (the Roadie is the most durable soft bag i’ve ever had, seriously its awesome). I am covered from 11-200mm, not counting the additional push of dropping to 3K on the epic to extend the 200mm even further to approximately the FOV of a 280mm. This is the essence of Run n’ Gun. Be ready for anything. That said, I am becoming a fan of the Black Magic Pocket Camera with the Metabones Speed booster. Its really quite good for small shoots. When using the Metabones Adapter, nearly S35 FOV, a 1/2 stop Light bonus, 13 stops dynamic range, and extraordinarily lightweight, almost to a fault. (You can see the setup I used for a corporate video above.)
The tripod is very important. The reason I went with the Induro CF series is that not only are they strong, light and good quality, but they are NOT expensive. Especially considering the materials used. From a business standpoint, building a lightweight setup is a black hole of cash flow. It means repurchasing a lot of stuff in a smaller package. A good used Cartoni head in decent shape is only about $250, and the Induro legs about $469. Consider its competition: The miller CF legs, are over $1000 for something similar ( though understandably has more features). Even the Manfrotto 504HD package, is about $717 from a very popular online retailer. The name of the game is getting something reliable that will get the job done, and keeping costs down. For me thats the Induro/Cartoni combo. All the weight savings and fluid head performance at half the price. It won’t go as tall as the Millers, but for 99% of my shooting its tall enough. My studio tripod is an O’connor Fluid head with Ronford Baker two stage medium duty legs and spreader. It weighs about 45lbs by itself with no camera. Not practical for running around, nor was it cheap, so a lighter configuration means getting most of the performance of the heavy duty stuff, while keeping the business account intact.
As you can see, a studio setup is not ideal for mobility.
There is no right or wrong. I’m sure there are some folks who think I’m crazy shooting a run n’ gun with this configuration, but I find it rides the line between quality and speed perfectly for my work. Hey, if I need to go faster, there is always the Black Magic Pocket Camera.
As many of you may or may not know, I used to be a fine artist. A sculptor to be exact. Before I started in the field of the moving image, I made sculptures and drawings, then sold them in galleries. I was in love with making the work. Every material I came across, man made or natural was a language in form, shape, color, composition and space. This all started pretty early, around age 13, I picked up a pen, and just started creating images. I always saw pictures, I think visually, almost to a fault. If I can’t see something, I will imagine it until it makes sense to me. This has always been the case, in elementary school, getting failing grades in math, only to receive perfect scores in geometry sections. I can see the geometry, and its components and mechanisms make sense to me as clear as day. I couldn’t understand why other students had trouble in geometry, while they excelled at arithmetic. I had to adapt, I imagined the numbers in my head as shapes and units, and did my division and multiplication there. What I didn’t realise, is that I had been conditioning my self, since early childhood to see things in a different way. I thought I was odd, my teachers felt I had trouble focusing or that I was day dreaming. No. I was converting the world to pictures so I could understand it in terms that made sense to me. My history classes were detailed movies in my head, with the actions and dialogue playing out in realtime. My science classes (which I loved and excelled at) consisted of visualising cells, organ functions, chemistry reacting and physics playing out in my head space. I had been secretly training to be an artist, cinematographer my whole life without knowing it. Looking at the world differently, and seeing not what is there, but what could be there. What’s funny is, while I was picturing these things, I automatically made them as beautiful as I could. This just happened by default.
This in essence is what cinematography is. You read a script and make an image come to life. However, unlike a director, who makes the action happen, the DP gets the fun job of creating the feeling and mood around the actions. This is a very intangible and difficult terrain to negotiate. This is the return of the concept of “what could be there”. There is no right or wrong way of achieving an image, but art is all about intention and invention. When I attended NYU, for Studio Art ( I did not go to film school), the one thing that was drilled into us was that everything matters. Every color, every line, every shape and every brush stroke. (Big thank you to my teacher Jesse Bransford! for kicking my butt about this) The reason being, you know, as the creator, that the tiny imperfection is meaningless to the core idea of the piece. In a weird way, after staring at a canvas or sculpture long enough you actually become blind to those things. Your eyes adjust and write off the tiny imperfections. The viewer will not. With contemporary art, every square millimeter counts. This is how I try my hardest to approach cinematography. With the unforgiving eye of a viewer. This makes the job a lot harder. You have to balance speed, coverage, and quality against your own standards. I feel this is the only path to take. “Measure twice, cut once” as my father used to say. This forces you to make decisions. Decisions are important. Decision, on set, is another word for some kind of limitation. Limits are where great art is created. It breeds creativity and wit. I wondered, why some super famous directors work seemed to suffer over the years. Their first 10 films being amazing, with their last 5 being mediocre. I think the problem is that having the great success and the budgets and resources that go along with it, they no longer have any limits as compared to their beginnings. They can create exactly what they (think they) want; even force it to happen digitally with VFX. This lack of pause, and re-examination of the scene is detrimental. This applies to any art. More often than not, cutting the complex shot short, leads to a more elegant solution. This forces you to examine what’s really happening with the story. Think about it. If you told a story to a friend, and described everything in detail, the story would come across as flat or unfunny. Its the WAY you tell the story, the parts you leave out, the parts you embellish, that add the humor and engaging qualities. Its the decisions you make on the fly and the punchlines you build that get the point across in an entertaining way.
This is why I like limits when making decisions. I was never a fan of the post heavy cinematography that has fallen into vogue as of late. Not because there is anything wrong with post color, stabilization, or reframing, but because it removes the human element from the story. Its like going back half way through a joke and retelling a part because you didn’t tell it right the first time. Subconsciously it comes across as forced. Shooting for the look you want means crafting an image from scratch and trusting in your images. Take a moment, get the joke right and don’t be afraid to be funny the first time!
In cinema, telling a story with a camera is a balancing act of beauty, utility and thrift. The beauty is obvious. Utility means actually getting functioning parts to tell the story… but then there is “thrift”. This is the part that comes from you. How do you accomplish a shot? How can you maximise what’s happening on the precious real estate of the screen to give the audience the maximum amount of information without being obvious. Cinema is not a stage play. You have the luxury of guiding the audiences focus to elements that have the most impact. Yet, as an artist, you can also create elements that emphasize what the scene is about. The amazing Roger Deakins is the master of this. This one scene from No Country for Old Men, in my opinion the finest cinematography of the last decade, illustrates the balance between, setting mood, creating elements and creating metaphor. Please watch this clip.
What deakins did here is the script calls for the antagonist, Anton Chigur, to be hiding in the hotel room. However when he enters, like a ghost the room is empty. Chigur WAS in the room… after all, they both stare at the empty deadbolt slot in the door, and they both saw each others reflections… How did deakins create the feeling that Chigur is like a ghost, without being obvious. His elegant solution is that when the door finally opens, Tommy Lee Jones’ character casts two distinct shadows on the wall. There ARE two men in the room… its just that one of them is a shadow. This kind of layered meaning, is what I mean by thrift. There is so much information conveyed by this sequence of shots, thats not only gorgeous, but cuts like butter and without dialogue, but still tells the story. That is the mark of an artist.
Less is more. This is specifically what I mean by intention, limits, and decision making. The scene could have gone many different ways… There could have been shots showing Chigur, actually hiding in a different room searching for the drug money and escaping with Tommy lee Jones’ character in the background. That would have served the story as well… But it would have been obvious, and reduced the mystery of who Chigur is. The decision to light and shoot the scene in this way is pure genius. It develops character and moves the story along without the need to be cluttered or complex. I cannot think of how it could have been done better.
In conclusion, I strive to make the shot speak as much as the actors. Its not easy, but the artist in me won’t let it be any other way.