7 Female DPs You Didn’t Know You’ve Been Watching

We’ve all heard the shocking statistics about the tiny proportion of DPs who are women. So when you watch film and TV, sadly, you might assume that you’re always watching the cinematography of a man. Today’s post encourages you to think again.

To mark International Women’s Day, I’m highlighting the work of seven female DPs who are lensing mainstream productions, and whose cinematography you’ve probably seen. All of these women are great role models for aspiring DPs.

 

Sharon Calahan, ASC


Raised in the USA’s Pacific Northwest, Calahan studied advertising art, illustration, and graphic design. Her first job was at a TV station, where she worked as an art director but also got involved in lighting sets. She joined Pixar just as the company was starting out, becoming the lighting supervisor on Toy Story, before graduating to director of photography for A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo. In 2014, Calahan became the first DP working purely in CGI to be admitted into the American Society of Cinematographers. By this time, her extensive experience of studying and mimicking natural light had led her to take up landscape painting, and for Pixar’s next release, The Good Dinosaur, director Peter Sohn used Calahan’s landscapes as the visual template for the entire look.

 

Anna Foerster, ASC

 
 

A German cinematographer and director, Foerster is perhaps best known for her collaborations with her fellow countryman Roland Emmerich. After working as an FX unit DP for him on Independence Day and Godzilla (1998), then second unit DP and director on Tomorrow and 10,000 BC, she graduated to first unit DP on Anonymous and White House Down. Anonymous is an independent historical thriller suggesting Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Lord Oxford, while White House Down is of course an all-out action thriller. On the latter, Foerster came up with a number of clever tricks to hide the lighting units from the wide lenses she favoured. She also worked hard to sell the sound-stages that most of the movie was shot on as real day-lit interior and exterior locations. Foerster’s directing credits include Underworld: Blood Wars, and episodes of Outlander and Criminal Minds.

 

Sue Gibson, BSC

Derbyshire-born Gibson developed an interest in photography at the age of fourteen. She studied at Newport College of Art, then at the National Film and Television School (NFTS), graduating in 1981. After starting out in commercials, she shot her first feature, Hear My Song, in 1989, which won The Evening Standard Award for Technical Achievement. Her other feature credits include Mrs Dalloway and – in a very different genre – second unit on Alien vs. Predator. She worked extensively in British TV, particularly murder mystery, lensing episodes of Poirot, Marple, LewisSpooks and The Forsyte Saga. In 1992 Gibson became the first female member of the British Society of Cinematographers, and later served as its president between 2008-2010. She passed away last summer, and was posthumously awarded The Philips Vari-Lite Award for Drama at The Knight of Illuminations Awards for two of her Death in Paradise episodes, her final work.

 

Ellen Kuras, ASC

Born in New Jersey, Kuras studied photography and 8mm filmmaking after university, with a view to becoming a documentary filmmaker. After lensing the award-winning short doc Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia, her career diversified to eventually include such big-budget features as Blow and Analyze That. Kuras has also collaborated twice with French director Michel Gondry. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, she used her documentary background to put the realism into Gondry’s magical realism, with handheld cameras and naturalistic lighting. But she brought the magic too; for example, using a camera-mounted spotlight for a tunnel vision effect during the sequence in which Jim Carey and Kate Winslet try to hide within Carey’s memory. Although more classically composed, 2008’s Be Kind Rewind was similarly creative, featuring low-fi VHS recreations of big movies, and a memorable montage captured in a single developing shot. Kuras’ many awards include an unprecedented hat-trick of Best Dramatic Cinematography gongs at Sundance, and an Oscar nomination for The Betrayal – Nerakhoon, a documentary feature she directed.

 

Suzie Lavelle, ISC

Lavelle is an Irish DP who studied at NFTS before entering the TV industry as an AC. Her sumptuous, colourful and contrasty lighting has featured in some of the BBC’s most high-profile TV dramas. “The Abominable Bride”, her Sherlock outing, was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 2016. “Cold War”, her contribution to Doctor Who‘s 2013 season, is one of the best-looking and most atmospheric episodes the venerable series has ever produced.  And, along with James Mather, she swept away the dull photography of Ripper Street‘s first two seasons and established the much moodier style for season three that would continue for the rest of the show’s run. Lavelle’s other TV credits include VikingsThe Living and the Dead, Endeavour and Jekyll & Hyde, and she photographed the award-winning features One Hundred Mornings and The Other Side of Sleep.

 

Urszula Pontikos, BSC

Hailing from Gdynia in Poland, Pontikos has photographed a number of indie features, including Weekend, Second Coming and Lilting. The latter won her the Cinematography Award for World Cinema (Dramatic) at Sundance 2014, but she’s also shot some of the most interesting British TV shows of recent years. Despite a self-confessed nervousness about the scale of the show’s night exteriors, Pontikos delivered confident, slick and atmospheric cinematography for BBC 1’s Cold War spy thriller The Game in 2014. The following year she photographed the first two episodes of Humans, setting the style for this hugely popular C4 sci-fi drama. She employed unusual eye-lights, symmetrical composition and linear camera moves for scenes featuring the robotic “synths”. Her other TV credits include the crime dramas Glue for E4 and Marcella for ITV.

 

Mandy Walker, ACS, ASC

Born and raised in Melbourne, Walker got her first industry contacts from a short film course she took after graduation. Persistently calling these contacts yielded some unpaid work and her first feature at the age of just 25. More Aussie features followed, until a Chanel Nº 5 commercial with Baz Luhrmann and Nicole Kidman propelled Walker into the big-time with an epic drama, entitled – of course – Australia. Since then, Walker has lensed the likes of Natalie Portman (Jane Got a Gun) and Robert Redford (Truth). Her latest release is Hidden Figures, an inspiring and important drama about African-American women who worked on Nasa’s space programme. Walker used subtle techniques to enhance the themes of racism and sexism, like placing the camera below the heroine’s eye-lines so that they were always looking up at the white men. Hidden Figures is in cinemas across the UK right now, and I highly recommend it.

 

That’s all for now, but some other great DPs to check out are Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Girl on the Train), Uta Briesewitz, ASC (The Wire) and Cynthia Pusheck, ASC (Magnolia).

7 Female DPs You Didn’t Know You’ve Been Watching

Goodbye 2016

2016 has not been the best of years, at least not according to the sinister algorithms that run my Facebook feed. The year has been kinder to me than it has been to seventies and eighties celebrities, however.

Ren: The Girl with the Mark, the short-form fantasy action series I photographed in 2014 and spent parts of 2015 postproduction supervising on, met with great success in 2016. The series was released on YouTube in March, and episode one has to date had over 100,000 views, with overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Alongside the series, I released Lensing Ren, a set of companion videos that broke down the lighting design and other cinematography choices in each episode. I thought it would be interesting to make frame grabs part of the lighting diagrams, so you can really see the effect of each lamp. It’s an idea that I’ve carried through to my Instagram feed, so if you’re the kind of person who often looks at a shot and wonders, “How was that lit?” then be sure to follow me and find out.

We’ve lost track of how many awards nominations Ren: The Girl with the Mark has received at festivals this year, but the tally of wins stands at a dozen, including four Best Series and Grand Jury Awards. And although a trio of nominations for Best Cinematography didn’t yield me a win, Ren has already been selected for several 2017 festivals, so there will be plenty more chances!

2016 did supply me with my first ever Best Cinematography award though, courtesy of  the Festigious International Film Festival and Sophie Black’s short film Night Owls. This was one of three awards which Night Owls collected this year. And two other shorts I photographed have scooped awards during the year: race drama Exile Incessant, and supernatural drama Crossing Paths. Congratulations to everyone who helped make all these projects such a success.

As regards new productions, my 2016 was dominated by two feature films: family fantasy The Little Mermaid, and comedy road movie Above the Clouds. You can already read my daily blogs about the latter film, and I hope to publish plenty of content about the cinematography of the former film when it’s released next year.

The Little Mermaid was the perfect follow-up to last year’s Heretiks, going from my first six-figure-budget film to my first seven-figure-budget film. It also gave me the opportunity to light and shoot Oscar-winner and Hollywood royalty Shirley MacLaine, film in an incredible 1930s circus, go swimming with an Alexa, and gate-crash Baywatch‘s wrap party. There were tremendous challenges and lessons to be learnt along the way, and I came out stronger, far more experienced and eagerly anticipating the release of what should be a really magical family film.

I also got to work on my first eight-figure-budget movie this summer, although I only did two days as pick-ups DP, recreating the lighting and camerawork of the extremely experienced cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, which was very instructional. Again, I hope to post a blog about that when The Etruscan Smile is released.

Meanwhile I have continued, as ever, to both acquire and share knowledge of the craft of cinematography. For example, in September I attended Cinefest, Bristol’s International Festival of Cinematography, while the same month I published a series of posts covering all the main types of lighting unit currently available. I learnt quite a bit while researching those posts, and hopefully readers got a lot out of them too.

And in that vein I’ll be releasing a new YouTube programme in January 2017. Lighting I Like is a 6 x 3 minutes series that aims to raise awareness of the contribution which cinematography makes to a film or TV show, while educating aspiring DPs about the hows and whys of lighting design. Each week I’ll look at a scene I’ve picked from a major movie or series, explaining what makes the lighting so good and how I think it was achieved. Simple as that!

Lighting I Like will be released on Wednesdays starting January 4th, with the first episode discussing a scene from the Netflix series Daredevil. Be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel so you don’t miss it.

And with that I will sign off for 2016. Enjoy your new year celebrations, and I wish you all the very best in 2017.

Goodbye 2016

24 Things I Learnt from CineFest

img_1220Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the Bristol International Festival of Cinematography: five days of masterclasses and panel discussions with a range of DPs from Oscar-winners like Chris Menges, ASC, BSC and Billy Williams, BSC, OBE to emerging cinematographers like Rina Yang. It was fascinating to watch the likes of Williams lighting the purpose-built set and explaining his decisions as he went. I learnt a huge amount, so I decided to share some of the opinions and nuggets of wisdom I collected.

  • Everyone agrees that the role of the DP is being diminished. Films are more collaborative than they used to be, often with lots of input from the VFX team right from the start.

Getting Work

  • You have to create your own luck. (Rina Yang)
  • Going to LA parties and schmoozing helps. (Roberto Schaefer, AIC, ASC)
  • Each clip on your showreel should make the viewer feel something. (Matt Gray, BSC)

Prep

  • Director Philippa Lowthorpe and Gray, her DP, spent weeks of prep getting on the same page when they worked together – chatting, exchanging photos, films, and so on.
  • Spend as much time as you can with the director in the early stages of prep, because as you get closer to the shoot they will be too busy with other stuff. (Schaefer)
  • Start with ten ideas about how you want to approach the cinematography of the film. If you hang onto five of them throughout the shoot you’re doing well. (Gray)
  • Hire a gaffer who knows more than you do. (Schaefer)

Equipment

  • On Gandhi, co-cinematographer Billy Williams, BSC, OBE was granted only half of the lighting kit he asked for. That was a $22 million movie which won eight Oscars!
  • Schaefer usually carries a 24’x30′ mirror in his kit, in case he needs to get an angle from somewhere where the camera won’t fit.
  • Schaefer doesn’t used OLED monitors to light from, because the blacks are richer than they will ever be seen by an audience on any other device, including in a cinema. He won’t judge the lighting by the EVF either, only a monitor calibrated by the DIT.
  • Focus drop-off is faster on digital than on film. Hence the current popularity of Cooke lenses, which soften the drop-off.
  • Nic Knowland, BSC uses a DSLR as a viewfinder to pick his shots. He also likes to record takes on his Convergent monitor so he can review them quickly for lighting issues.

On Set

  • You have to give the actors freedom, which may mean compromising the cinematography. (Nigel Waters, BSC)
  • Gray would never ask an actor to the find the light. The light needs to find them! As soon as actors are freed from marks, they can truly inhabit the space. [Note: in my experience, some actors absolutely insist on marks. Different strokes for different folks.]
  • On digital, everyone wants to shoot the rehearsal. (Schaefer)
  • Digital encourages more takes, but more takes use up time, drains actors’ energy and creates more work for the editor. Doing fewer takes encourages people to bring their A game to take one. (Williams)
  • Director Philippa Lowthorpe prefers a DP who operates because there is no filter between the ideas you’ve discussed in prep and the operation of the camera.

Lighting

  • Sometimes when you start lighting a set, you don’t where you’re going with it. You build a look, stroke by stroke, and see where it takes you. (Knowland)
  • Williams advocates maintaining the same stop throughout a scene, because your eye gets used to judging that exposure.
  • Knowland relies more on false colours on his monitor than on his light meter.
  • Schaefer often foregoes his traditional light and colour meters for an iPad app called Cine Meter III.
  • Knowland will go to 359º on the shutter if he’s struggling for light.
  • It’s worth checking the grade on a cheap monitor or TV. That’s how most people will watch it. (Schaefer)
24 Things I Learnt from CineFest

10 Ways Low Budget Shoots Differ from Micro Budget Ones

My camera and lighting crew for last year's feature
My camera and lighting crew for last year’s feature

I’ve been working in the film business for 16 years now, but until very recently I hadn’t really worked on a ‘proper’ production, one that had a budget above five figures. Here are some differences I noticed stepping up from micro-budget to low budget…

  1. Formal crew structure. There is a proper separation between departments, even between camera and lighting (which is quite strange for the DP, in charge of both). Woe betide anyone who moves set dressing without asking the art department, or who plugs something in without checking with the sparks, or who stores equipment in a room without asking locations.
  2. Proper production and locations departments. The feature I worked on last year had two producers, a line producer, a production manager and a production co-ordinator, plus a locations department. I’m used to productions where one person does all those jobs, and often directs as well. Figuring out which person to approach about any given issue was fun! (Creative Skillset’s website is a good place to check if you’re not sure who does what.)
  3. Advance prep. With a large crew, time cannot be wasted waiting for things that could have been pre-rigged. Heads of department are expected to think ahead and splinter their crew if necessary to be ready for things coming later in the day or week. For a DP this most commonly means pre-rigging distro and/or lighting.
  4. Delegation. Aside from operating the camera, I did little hands-on work on the recent feature shoot. Lens changes, grip rigging and lighting set-ups are all handled by other people on the instructions of me, and of the gaffer and the 1st AC. Sometimes this means the DP can go and have a cup of tea, but often it provides important thinking and planning time – an opportunity to reccie the next set and design the lighting, or to review footage in the edit room, or reccie a possible location with other HoDs, or discuss the afternoon’s shots with the director. It’s impossible to do this sort of forward planning if you’re changing your own lenses and setting your own lamps up.
  5. Hard wrap times. On micro-budget shoots the wrap time is a theoretical concept, with no more relevance to reality than an episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants. On a bigger production, you wrap at wrap time, because if you don’t then the gaffer might pull the plug. Occasionally the crew will be asked if they are willing to go over by half an hour, say, in order to complete a scene. But everyone must agree, and that half hour must be deducted from the next day.
  6. Lunch break, not just lunch. In micro-budget land, getting lunch at all is not a given. But when you do get it, you’re often expected to eat as quickly as possible and get straight back to work. On a bigger production you get your hour lunch break come hell or high water. And there’s proper catering. With desserts!
  7. Reliance on the crew. If you’re working with a small camera and mains power, you can stay late with the director and steal a few extra shots, if necessary. But when everything’s run off a generator, which only the gaffer is qualified to operate, and your camera package is almost too heavy to lift onto your own shoulder, and you have no idea how half the bits and bobs connected to it work because your ACs always deal with it, you really can’t do anything on your own.
  8. Permissions and qualifications. For insurance reasons you must have qualified people overseeing the electrics and the rigging. You must also check with the locations department before using any space or equipment or filming in any area that was not discussed and signed off in preproduction.
  9. Paperwork. Most HoDs seem to have some kind of daily paperwork to do on a larger production.The DP happily escapes this (the ACs handle the camera reports), though they do have to complete a risk assessment before shooting commences.
  10. People management. Because of the size of the team under you, people management becomes a major part of an HoD’s job. I’ll go into more detail on this in a future post.
10 Ways Low Budget Shoots Differ from Micro Budget Ones

10 Tips for Meetings

Did this t-shirt get me the job?
Did this t-shirt get me the job?

Late last year I secured a great feature film job as DP, on the basis of a personal recommendation followed by a meeting with the director which went really well. Making a good impression at a meeting like this is clearly crucial. But although such meetings are essentially job interviews, they are much less formal and rely much more heavily on the director and DP having similar tastes. Here are a few tips to help you give your next one your best shot.

  1. Be prepared. This means reading the script and any other documents provided, ideally more than once if you have the time and you’re serious about wanting the job. Look up the director’s previous work to get a sense of their tastes.
  2. Dress to impress. What you wear to a meeting can influence its outcome, just as wearing a smart suit to a traditional job interview can. During the shooting of the feature, the director commented that the Highlander t-shirt I wore to the meeting reassured him that my cinematic tastes were broadly in line with his own.
  3. Be willing to travel. If you don’t live in London, you’re going to have to travel there for most meetings. Don’t complain about it, don’t even mention it if you can avoid it. But also don’t do it if you have doubts about the quality of the production and what it’s going to do for your career.
  4. Bring showreel footage. The director will likely have seen your showreel before you meet, but it doesn’t hurt to bring additional clips or stills that are particularly relevant to this project. In my feature meeting, frame grabs from Ren: The Girl with the Mark helped demonstrate what I could do with a period setting.
  5. Bring some creativity to the table. Put some reference images together to show the visual ideas that came to your mind when you read the script, and how you think the cinematography of the project could be approached. I found an image of some monks with a shaft of light coming in the window that perfectly summed up how I saw the feature, and the director really responded to it.
  6. Be flexible. Be prepared to listen to the director’s vision and bounce off their ideas.
  7. Bring people and/or kit to the table. What do you have access to that puts you ahead of other applicants? Often in the micro-budget world this will be your camera, or maybe a drone or a jib, but once you get into the realm of more reasonable budgets, directors and producers appreciate skilled crew more. The feature director really wanted to use a lot of steadicam in the film, so before being offered the job I contacted a talented steadicam op I knew and got an expression of interest from him which I was then able to go back to the director with. I think this was a big part of the reason I got the job.
  8. Be OK with the budget. If it’s late enough in preproduction that the crew fees and the kit hire budget are fixed, don’t grumble about them. All you will achieve is to make the director think you’re going to be difficult to work with. Instead cite examples of how you achieved great results with similarly limited resources in the past.
  9. Don’t be cheap. Offer to pay for the drinks. I’d probably take it as a bad sign if the director allowed me to, but offer nonetheless!
  10. Follow up. We all think of great things we should have said when we’re halfway home. Send an email with those extra thoughts, any links you may have discussed in the meeting, and a thank you for their time taken in meeting you.
10 Tips for Meetings

Review of My Year: 2015

Shooting Ballet Pointe Shoes on an Alexa HD
Shooting Ballet Pointe Shoes, my first time working with an Alexa

Where has the year gone? Can you believe that all of the Back to the Future trilogy is now set in the past? It’s been a great year for me, one of moving in the right direction.

At the end of last year I said, “In 2015 the goal is very simple: keep DPing drama, with a bit of gaffering in the gaps.” And that’s exactly what I’ve done. That and postproduction supervising a web series – but more on that in a minute.

Last year I made the huge but entirely correct decision to stop doing corporates, and that did lead to some gaps in my schedule. 2015 started slowly, with a couple of gaffering jobs on Oliver Park’s short Vicious and John Quarrell’s The Gift.

In late January I reached the milestone of my 1,000th blog post, and published an article looking back at my various film blogs over the years.

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 15.53.09
Photo: Laura Radford

Meanwhile, I asked Kate Madison if she needed any help with post on Ren: The Girl With the Mark, the awesome fantasy web series I had DPed for her the previous autumn. By Easter I had cut 30 or 40 behind-the-scenes and production diary videos for the show, become postproduction supervisor for the series and moved into Kate’s spare room! Between the paying jobs this year I’ve overseen the show’s many VFX – even doing several of them myself – created an EPK, organised ADR sessions, appeared on Comic Con panels, and shot hours of interviews for a DVD documentary.

Moving out of Hereford was a much-needed change, although the place treated me well over the years. Cambridge, my new home, is a beautiful city which encourages lots of healthy cycling, and London is much more accessible from here.

Some of the crew rigging lights on Exile Incessant
Some of the crew rigging lights on Exile Incessant

Work picked up as the summer approached. Shorts I’ve cinematographed this year include Gisella Pereira’s fairytale Ballet Pointe Shoes, James Reynolds’ race drama Exile Incessant, Stanislava Buevich’s black comedy Self Control, Douglas Morse’s medieval comedy The Second Shepherds’ Play, and Ben Bloore’s mysterious drama Crossing Paths, plus the period comedy web series pilot Owl House by Mark Keegan. And I was delighted to visit Japan for a few days to shoot pick-ups for a sci-fi feature called Synced, directed by Devon Avery. Most of these projects have blog posts about them, so click the links above to check those out.

But 2015 saved the best for last, with my first paid feature film job coming out of the blue in November, courtesy of a glowing recommendation from sound recordist David Bekkevold. I learnt so much from this project, some of which you can read in the daily blogs I posted, and others of which I’ll be blogging about soon. I now feel like I could walk onto almost any set as a DP and acquit myself reasonably well.

heretiks-still-empire-exclusive

As 2016 approaches I have an ambitious 30-minute fantasy short booked in for the end of January, and attachments to three features. A lot of my work is now in the period/fantasy arena, which is exactly what I was hoping for after doing The First Musketeer back in 2013. It’s taken sixteen years, but I finally feel like I’m getting there – wherever there is!

As usual, I’ll leave you with my ten favourite blog posts from this year…

  1. Women on Film: Characters or Glorified Props? – an article about misogyny in the movies
  2. Lighting ‘3 Blind Mice’ – demonstrating how backlight and contrast control can help tell the story
  3. Shooting in Rain – practical advice for keeping the camera rolling in a downpour
  4. 20 Facts About the Cinematography of Mad Max: Fury Road – culled from interviews with the DP
  5. How to Correct Cosmetic Issues with Lighting – handy tips for flattering your cast
  6. Synced: The Japan Shoot – Part 3 – how I lit a nighttime street scene in Himeji with a few small units
  7. The First Musketeer: Lighting the Barracks – lighting breakdown for a key action sequence from the period web series
  8. Distribution and the M&E (Music and Effects) Mix – an explanation of how films are dubbed, what materials a producer needs to deliver to a foreign distributor, and a video showing the various stages in creating Soul Searcher’s Japanese dub
  9. Crossing Paths: Day Exterior – revealing how to manipulate the sun to get the best results
  10. Feature Shoot: Day -1 – testing lighting looks and Soft FX filters with the Alexa and Cooke S4s
Review of My Year: 2015

2015 Cinematography Showreel

I thought it was about time my showreel got an update, so here it is:

Please get in touch if you need a DP. I’ll consider most projects as long as they’re creative and not entirely unpaid.

These are the films, series and promos featured on the reel. If you want to find out more about any of these productions, you can find links in the showreel’s YouTube description.

* Note: I only worked on the trailer, not the film itself.

The music is “Up is a Down” from the OST of Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End.

2015 Cinematography Showreel

Mini-DV Memories

Goodbye, Mini-DV
Goodbye, Mini-DV

I’m moving soon, to a much smaller place, and lots of my stuff has to go. Amongst the things going into bin bags at the moment is a large number of Mini-DV tapes. Funny to think how ubiquitous they were in the micro-budget movie world just a few years ago, and now they’re a thing of the past.

How could a mere 720 x 576 pixels ever have looked good? (I frequently deinterlaced my DV footage and cropped it to 16:9, which must have reduced the vertical resolution to about 200 lines!) Cathode ray tubes certainly helped. CRT screens have a lovely softness, which I still prefer to LCDs, and that softness blurred the limited number of pixels into one organic image. Bright colours were particularly softened, a fact which Mini-DV compression exploited by devoting little data to chrominance, resulting in blocky saturated colours that looked terrible on your computer, but which blurred magically back into acceptability on your CRT TV.

An example of very blocky saturated colours in Soul Searcher
An example of very blocky saturated colours in Soul Searcher

I don’t know how many stops of dynamic range a typical DV camera had, but it wasn’t many. Shooting in daylight was a nightmare; you could never find an aperture setting where you weren’t losing loads of detail in blown-out whites and/or crushed blacks. I embraced the contrast, lighting everything like film noir, which the format handled pretty well. In this 2005 featurette I outline the lighting techniques I learnt for Mini-DV. While incredibly crude by today’s standards, the underlying principles are still sound.

Shooting Soul Searcher on my XL1
Shooting Soul Searcher on my XL1

The video bitrate of DV was just 25mbps. By comparison, my Blackmagic Production Camera shoots at 880mbps – that’s 35 times more detail per frame. Despite this, there were a few big theatrical films shot on DV, Lars von Trier’s The Idiots being first. Perhaps the best known is 28 Days Later, shot on a Canon XL1, a camera I owned for several years.

I loved that camera! And in some ways it was better than today’s ultra-HD cinema cameras. It was so light and comfy to put on your shoulder. You didn’t need a rig – it actually had a bloody hand grip next to the lens! And get this – it had a viewfinder! That came with it, no extra charge! There was no DITing, no dual system sound to sync. How easy it all was!

A nice bit of noir lighting from Soul Searcher
A nice bit of noir lighting from Soul Searcher

After shooting my feature film Soul Searcher and countless other projects I DPed, my XL1 met an ignoble end, its lenses Ebayed and its malfunctioning body Freecycled. I’d foolishly bought a Sony A1, an awful, awful HDV camera that I was stuck with until I joined the DSLR revolution in 2011.

minidvThat A1 will not survive my moving cull either. It’s languished in a drawer for the last few years, my sole remaining means of playing back old DV tapes. Now the tapes are going, so will the camera.

So goodbye, Mini-DV. I cut my teeth on you. Your accessibility allowed me to learn my craft, and your shonky dynamic range forced me to learn to control light. For that I will always be grateful.

Mini-DV Memories

What Does it Take to be a Cinematographer?

Adrian Biddle
Adrian Biddle

Being a director of photography is not just about having an eye for composition and understanding light. There are many other skills a DP needs. Today I’ll discuss what some of those are, in my opinion, and in the opinions of some top Hollywood DPs.

“Obviously you have to know what you are doing, have an eye for photography, and know about film and composition. But it’s a team effort.” – Adrian Biddle (Aliens, Event Horizon)

Shane Hurlbut (Need for Speed, Terminator: Salvation) says that 33% of a cinematographer’s job is managing their crew. You need to pick great people to work with, nurture them, share your knowledge with them, and trust them to deliver the goods.

Frankie DeMarco (Mad Men, All is Lost) advises trying to think like an editor: what specific shots do you need to tell the story? Editing is one of the areas it’s most useful to have experience of, as a DP. Knowing whether what you’re shooting will cut together is vitally important. I often find myself suggesting to a director that we run a scene from a little earlier, have someone come into shot at the start, or cut it later so they exit shot, knowing how useful that stuff can be in post.

Understanding the jobs of other departments is very useful. The more you know about production design, costume and make-up, the better you can light it. The more you know about acting, the better you can appreciate the impact your decisions – equipment placement, the strictness of adherence to marks you demand, the lenses and angles you select – have on an actor’s work. This doesn’t mean that you have to do all these jobs at some point, but try reading the occasional book or watching the odd YouTube video about the subject, or better still, forge great relationships with other heads of departments and pick their brains.

Douglas Slocombe
Douglas Slocombe

There are of course many rules to cinematography – the line of action, Golden Thirds, lighting the downside – but how many of them do you need to know?

“To any aspiring cinematographer, I’d say learn the rules before you try and bend or break them. You need a foundation on which to build.” – Douglas Slocombe (Indiana Jones trilogy)

You should take every opportunity to learn; read every blog, every book that you can, go to workshops, to masterclasses; watch behind-the-scenes videos. The more knowledge you have to fall back on in a crisis, the better.

“You always try to create a certain style for each film but there are times when you have to make it up as you go along.” – Jan de Bont (Die Hard, Flatliners)

Flexibility is key. You have to do what’s right for the scene, what’s right for the set and the talent, what the director wants, and what works for the schedule. Sometimes this means changing tack at the last minute. You can’t throw a hissy fit and weep for the lighting set-up you’d imagined; you have to get on with it. Corporate videos, in which you often have to sacrifice your photographic ideals for the mundane needs of the client, are great training for this.

You have to be a storyteller; all heads of department have to be. As DP, your tools for telling the story are lights and lenses. You need to absorb the script, appreciate the narrative beats and come up with creative ways to accent those beats using your tools.

Perhaps the most important thing to have is life experience.

“It’s my personal interpretation of a script that allows me to create the visuals. That interpretation is based on my own life experiences, aesthetics, education, and knowledge, all of which help to shape my understanding of a story.” – Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln)

Thanks to Stephen Murphy and his DOP Documents for the block quotes.

Janusz Kaminski
Janusz Kaminski
What Does it Take to be a Cinematographer?

1,000th Blog Post

1000

Little did I think, on March 4th 2001, when I typed the words “The Story So Far” on www.the-beacon.com, that I was starting a fourteen-year journal/rant/ramble that would continue to the crazy Doc-Brownian future of 2015 and encompass a thousand entries. Today I’m going to tell the story of my blogs as they leapt from project to project, highlighting some of the best posts along the way.

Lorna-Jane Hamer in The Beacon
Lorna-Jane Hamer in The Beacon

For the first decade of my online odyssey, I saw blogging as a kind of “bonus content” to accompany my film projects. I remember planning the website for the original short version of Soul Searcher before I even had internet access. Both that project and its immediate successor, Cow Trek, had retrospective production diaries on their websites.

But when I embarked on my first professional(ish) feature, The Beacon, I launched a website for it at the very start of preproduction. A simple splash page, a brief About page and a “Journal”. The project was so huge, I think I felt that breaking it down into bite-sized blog posts as I went along would make it more manageable for me, and help me feel that I was making progress.

paper-scanMy early blogs were really production diaries, reporting what had happened since the last post. I was young and cocky, and I often tried to be humourous. Much of the humour was obscure and probably put off some readers, with hindsight, but at the time I didn’t feel like many people were reading it anyway. I was wrong.

In September 2001, the World Trade Centre attacks spookily echoed a scene I had shot a month earlier in which a plane full of terrorists crashed into a cinema. On September 26th I wrote: “A couple of people have asked me if I’m going to make any changes to The Beacon or delay its release in the wake of the events in America. The answer is no.” I regretted being so blunt when this quote made it into local papers under the headline: “Film-maker is defiant on hijack plane crash”.

The Beacon’s blog ran for sixteen months, the most entertaining posts being those that displayed my lack of concern for safety, or our efforts to avoid the Malvern Hills Conservators, who threatened to shut down the shoot. August 9th 2001’s entry, on the second day of shooting the car chase, had drama from both of these angles.

The Soul Searcher website
The Soul Searcher website

On March 27th 2002, a few months before The Beacon’s blog fizzled out, the website and production journal for my next feature were launched. Soul Searcher‘s journal followed the reporting style of The Beacon’s, with the same surreal humour, though this time with increasingly frequent Back to the Future quotes, for no good reason. Often I was deliberately playing to the audience of cast and crew who I knew were avid readers.

This journal ran for four years, ending on the day Soul Searcher was released on DVD in the UK. Along the way, every up and down of the production was documented. And believe me, there were many downs. I saw no reason to conceal the problems we faced; I realised that the struggles were entertaining. I still bump into people today who enjoyed and were inspired by my Soul Searcher blog back in the mid-noughties.

Some of the best Soul Searcher posts were:

My next blog covered my attempts to develop and finance another feature, The Dark Side of the Earth. “What the hell is the matter with me? I’m back for more punishment,” is how I began my first entry, on October 14th 2005.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Max
Benedict Cumberbatch as Max in The Dark Side of the Earth’s pilot

(Shortly afterwards, concurrently, I began publishing the paper-and-ink journal I’d kept for the original, amateur version of The Dark Side of the Earth, each entry being posted exactly a decade after it had been written. Yes, I had a blogging impulse before I even knew what blogging or the internet were. Read this teenage journal and my contemporary annotations here.)

By this time my blogging style was maturing, and I was learning to hold back some of the bad news in case potential producers or investors were reading. This perhaps led to a wider appeal, evidenced by Film & Festivals Magazine publishing an abridged version of my Dark Side journal in September 2009.

Although I shot a 35mm pilot starring Benedict Cumberbatch – read my posts about the stressful shoot here and here – it slowly became clear that The Dark Side of the Earth was going nowhere, and by 2011 my posts were rarely about the project.

What’s more, times had changed. Back in 2001 a lot of people had never even heard the term “blog”. A decade later, blogging had exploded, and it had evolved into more of a magazine format. No longer could you get away with simply reporting your progress on a project. Now readers demanded tips, interviews, videos, image galleries, tutorials. I realised it was time to start a new site, one that would be about me sharing my filmmaking knowledge and experiences.

NeilOseman.com launched on August 5th 2011, and quickly became a much richer and diverse blog than any of my previous ones. Tying in with my gradual retreat from self-originated and self-directed projects, cinematography became the main focus of the site, though other aspects of filmmaking continue to be covered. Here are some of my favourite posts from the last four years:

Here’s to the next thousand posts! And for those of you looking to learn more about the art of waffling on a website, I’ll be posting my top blogging tips in the next few weeks.

1,000th Blog Post