Six Cinematic Uses for Fairy Lights

They’re everywhere at this time of year, twinkling away, but I carry a string of fairy lights with me on every shoot, whatever the season, because they can be useful in many ways. Here are a few:

1. Firstly and most obviously, they’re handy set dressing to tell the audience that it’s Christmas. Useful in a montage to help sell a passage of time, like in this shot from Stop/Eject:

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2. Fairy lights produce lovely bokeh in the background of a close-up, as in this scene from the Doctor Who TV Movie. Use a long lens and a wide aperture for the maximum effect.

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3. In fact, you can use fairy lights to create a completely abstract background of out-of-focus lights, maybe as a backdrop for credits, titles or DVD menus.

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4. You can tape fairy lights to a polyboard and create a lovely soft light source as Eve Hazelton demonstrates in this video at 4:28.

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5. Fairy lights against a black background, underexposed, make an instant starfield backdrop as seen in Soul Searcher at 39:21. These were actually some of Hereford’s Christmas lights that the council had put up outside the window of my flat.

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6. Similarly, fairy lights can represent distant city lights, as seen outside in the first shot of this trailer. (It was actually filmed in the daytime with makeshift black tenting around the window and the fairy lights within that.) For another example, check out the model shots of the train in Soul Searcher, above, like the one at 1:22:07. This behind-the-scenes photo of the miniature set shows the string of fairy lights that were used as “streetlights” between the model buildings.

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Six Cinematic Uses for Fairy Lights

Review of the Year: 2014

Lining up a shot on the village set for Ren
Lining up a shot on the village set for Ren. Photo: Michael Hudson

Last year’s review saw me uncertain as to where to go next as a director, but chuffed to have DPed some great projects including Girl and a Scar and The First Musketeer. I stated my goals for 2014 as follows:

So in 2014 I hope to work as DP for many more great directors, to complete A Cautionary Tale, to see Stop/Eject get into a significant festival, to enter Virgin Media Shorts again.

Finding a frame with director Sophie Black on Night Owls
Finding a frame with director Sophie Black on Night Owls. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou

Well, I’ve achieved 50% of those.

Virgin Media Shorts is no more, so that was the end of that goal.

A Cautionary Tale – now re-titled Amelia’s Letter – is nearly finished – finished enough that we entered it into a festival last month. But we still need to tweak the grading, record the music with live players and mix the sound.

Stop/Eject got into the highly significant Raindance Film Festival, and has recently been long-listed for a Bafta. Not too shabby.

Last but the opposite of least, I have indeed worked as DP for many great directors this year. You may have heard me mention a little web series called Ren once or twice, and that I quite enjoyed it. As I write this I’ve just been looking at some of the rushes again and even though I was there for two months shooting it, I’m blown away by the production value which director Kate Madison got on screen. Big things will happen for Ren, I feel sure of it.

Shooting Hellblazer
Shooting Hellblazer. Photo: Amy Nicholson

Shorts I lensed this year included Coffin Grabber (dir. Claire Alberie), The Gong Fu Connection (dir. Ted Duran), Access All Areas (dir. Rick Goldsmith), Night Owls (dir. Sophie Black), and Forever Alone (dir. Jordan Morris), plus the music promo for Hellblazer by Savage Messiah (dir. Tom Walsh).

Perhaps the most important thing to happen in my career this year was my decision to stop doing corporates. This was a massive decision that started with me telling a client of over a decade’s standing that I didn’t want to do their editing any more, and snowballed from there. Little corporate jobs booked way in advance were getting in the way of bigger, last-minute drama shoots. There could only be one winner.

Corporates had been my main source of income for nearly fifteen years, but I’d had enough. I simply couldn’t take the lack of creativity any more.

I was focusing in on what I wanted to do and stripping away what I didn’t. I don’t want to be executing notes from corporate clients. I don’t want to be shooting interviews. I don’t want to be lensing training videos in bland offices with no crew and a client who has no understanding of aesthetics or story. And I don’t want to be stuck in a room with a computer, editing, especially when there are so many people out there who can do that much better than me.

Gaffering on By Any Name
Gaffering on By Any Name. Photo: Sophie Wiggins

I want to be on set, DPing drama. I want to tell stories with lighting and composition until I die. If people want me to direct things occasionally, fine, that’s fun, but cinematography is my passion and my calling.

An interesting sideline that has developed is gaffering, something I’d never done before this year. I’ve worked on two shorts and a feature this year as gaffer for DP Paul Dudbridge, and it’s been great experience to watch another cinematographer at work.

So in 2015 the goal is very simple: keep DPing drama, with a bit of gaffering in the gaps. There is a short film in development for me to direct, and I have a vague ambition to direct some music videos, but those are much less important than continuing to light and shoot drama. If I can earn enough money to buy one of those new-fangled hoverboards that are coming out next year, maybe some self-lacing Nikes and a hover conversion for my old road car, I’ll be happy.

Merry Christmas everyone and remember: life’s too short to not be doing what you love.

Review of the Year: 2014

Cinematography: My Process

Consulting director Sophie Black's storyboards on Night Owls. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou
Consulting director Sophie Black’s storyboards on Night Owls. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou

I thought it might be of interest to describe my typical working process as a director of photography on a shooting day. Different directors and ADs will run their sets different ways, so this is a generalisation.

I like to start the day by reading some of Stephen Murphy’s DOP Documents over breakfast. These elegantly-laid-out collections of screen grabs from top cinematographers are fantastic inspiration.

On some productions I’ve had long talks with the director, I’ve seen storyboards or shotlists and I’ve been on the location scouts or walked the sets already. On others I’m a last minute hire and I know nothing beyond what it says in the script. (And this should go without saying, but you need to read the script. Apparently some DPs don’t. WTF?)

Whenever I see the set for the first time, be that in preproduction or on the day, I start to think about light sources. If it’s outdoors, what is the sun orientation? If it’s indoors, where are the windows? If it’s night, what practical sources are there and do I need to add or remove some?

Ideally the next thing that happens is that the actors arrive, still in their street clothes, and the director blocks the scene with them. If I see anything that can be tweaked to orientate the talent better towards the light sources, or to provide more interesting framing, I’ll suggest it.

During the blocking I’ll wander around with Artemis (a virtual director’s viewfinder app on my iPad). If there’s a shotlist or storyboard, I’ll find the angles described and check they work. If not, I’ll find the angles I think will work well. I’ll screen-grab all of these and show them to the director when they’re done blocking. There may then be some give-and-take, perhaps adjusting the actors in situ through the viewfinder, until the director is happy.

Before the actors depart to get into costume and make-up, I’ll have my assistant put down marks for their key positions. Then the cast can leave and I can get down to the business of lighting the scene. Here’s broadly what I’m thinking about, in roughly the order I tend to think about it:

  1. Realistically, where would light be coming from?
  2. How should the scene be lit to create an appropriate mood?
  3. How should the cast be lit to look their best and enhance their characters?
  4. Aesthetically, what lighting will look the most pleasing?
  5. Practically, where can I put lights with the grip equipment I have, without any of it coming into shot?
Lensing Three Blind Mice
Lensing Three Blind Mice

Once I’ve taken a few minutes to figure that out, I’ll start issuing instructions to my gaffer. I might walk around planting lamps, or just stands, and let the gaffer finish the job by cabling them, or I may let him set some lamps up while I puzzle over whether I’ll need other lamps elsewhere. Meanwhile the camera is being set up with my chosen lens on, either by an assistant or me, if we’re short on crew. (Most directors leave lens choices to me.)

When most of the lamps are set, I’ll fire everything up and draft in whoever’s around to stand in for the actors so I can see if it’s working as planned. I don’t use a light meter, so everything is judged by eye on the monitor, perhaps with the aid of a histogram. Some tweaking usually ensues.

By this point hopefully the cast are back on set and we can start camera rehearsals. Although these are useful to the cast and director, they’re invaluable for me so that I can practice the camera move and see how the light works on the actual actors and costumes. Usually there’ll be a little more tweaking of lights before we shoot. With any luck this doesn’t hold up the director because they’re busy giving last minute direction to the cast.

After we shoot I’ll tell the director whether the take was any good from a camera and lighting standpoint. I generally don’t request retakes unless I’ve screwed something up pretty badly. Long experience has taught me that the editor will always choose the best take for performance, regardless of any minor camera wobbles or dodgy lighting, so I’m not going to waste time insisting on another take which won’t get used. The important thing is for the director to get the performance they want. Having said that, it’s my job to flag up any cinematography fluffs so that it’s the director’s decision whether to go again or not.

Once the first shot is in the can, lighting for the coverage should be fairly straightforward. I’ll have my assistant change the lens, then I’ll move the camera to the new position myself and see how the existing lighting works. Then I can tweak things accordingly.

And so it goes on until the scene is wrapped.

OK, enough from me for a minute. Want to see a legendary cinematographer’s process as he lights a scene? Check out this unique and fascinating video.

I’ll leave you with the latest Ren production diary, which asks (and fails to answer) the question: “What is a DoP anyway?”

Cinematography: My Process

Traction: A First Time for Everything

Me (far right) with the cast and crew of Traction in December 1999
Me (far right) with the cast and crew of Traction in December 1999

Fifteen years ago I made my first professional film, Traction. Okay, it wasn’t professional in the strictest sense – I wasn’t paid – but I racked up a number of important firsts on the project and learnt a lot. Based on a true story, it’s about a teenaged boy undergoing traction for his juvenile arthritis.

Today you can go out and make a film on your smartphone and reach an instant audience via YouTube, which is great, but you need to collaborate with others if your work is ever going to reach its full potential. Here’s how Traction challenged and improved me.

  • First time having a production company to answer to. Traction was produced by The Rural Media Company as part of its youth media programme, in which I was a participant. It was a completely new experience for me to have to submit a draft script and take on board the feedback of the company’s senior staff. I was probably resistant at first, but their advice was good. You’re not compromising your artistic vision by asking for and acting on feedback from others, you’re making it stronger. And when you work with a budget, you will always have to answer to the people supplying that budget, so get used to arguing your case and sometimes losing.
  • First time directing anyone other than my friends. I had to learn to be clearer and more communicative to get the best out of the other young people who were acting as my crew. They were all into the project far more than my corralled schoolfriends had ever been into my amateur films, which was great and really energising for me as a director.
  • First time directing anyone with acting experience. How to work with actors is something I’m still learning to this day, but the process started right there in 1999 when I ran my very first audition at Hereford College of Art and then directed Rowan Middleton for the two days of the shoot. It’s been said many times by many people, but don’t just cast your mates in your films. Unless your mates are really good actors and right for the parts. Obviously.
  • First time having to stick to a schedule. Although the only costs of Traction’s production were travel and catering expenses, and the youth worker’s fee, I still had a responsibility to ensure that Rural Media did not have to pay for more than the agreed two days’ worth of those costs. This forced me to be prepared, disciplined and ready to compromise when time ran short. Staying on schedule is always a challenge for a director, and the sooner you can start to learn this skill, the better.
  • First time shooting on digital video. Traction was a great opportunity for me to learn a new medium, having worked exclusively on the analogue Video-8 format up to that point. Most filmmakers own a camera, but have you considered hiring or borrowing a better model for your next project? Push yourself, learn to use a new bit of kit and raise your production values at the same time.
  • First time using lighting. Many new filmmakers are scared of lighting, and I probably was too before Traction. Don’t be afraid to experiment; it’s one of the best ways to learn.
  • First time having to use only copyright-cleared music. If you’re only posting your films on YouTube, you can get away with using copyrighted tracks and the system will just put an iTunes link under your video. But dipping into the vast catalogue of pre-existing music can make you lazy. Why not advertise for a composer – there are so many out there desperate to get a start in film scoring – and get some original music for your piece?
  • First time being limited to a final running time. Traction was made for a competition which had a strict five minute time limit. Nothing sharpens your editing skills more than a hard running time limit, and for that reason I’d recommend that every filmmaker try entering a competition at some point in their career.

If you’re a new filmmaker trying to raise your game, ask yourself if you’ve pushed in every direction you can to improve your work, or are you stuck in your comfort zone?

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Left to right: sound recordist John Galloway, me, and actors Rowan Middleton and Rosie Laws

Traction: A First Time for Everything

2.39:1 Composition

In the days of 4:3 cameras, many filmmakers chose to mask off their viewfinders and shoot in 16:9 widescreen. Now that 16:9 is ubiquitous, those of us wanting something more cinematic turn to the glorious 2.39:1, a.k.a. Scope. Choose your aspect ratio carefully though, not just because it “looks cooler”. 2.39 works well if you have lots of landscapes, lots of extras or a wide set. It’s not so great if one of your main sets is a tall, narrow booth, as I found out the hard way on Stop/Eject.

I love composing for the 2.39 ratio. You have so much flexibility on where to put your subject in the frame. The rule of thirds is obsolete here. You can put someone almost anywhere in the 2.39 frame and have it look good. They can be short-sided (placed on the “wrong” side of frame) but still have looking space. They can be just off centre, or they can be squeezed right to the edge. And if it’s a two-shot or a dirty single, you can illustrate the closeness of the characters’ relationship by choosing the distance between them in the frame – anywhere from overlapping (a couple madly in love?) to facing each other across the full width of the widescreen frame (enemies with no common ground?).

Here are some of my favourite examples of 2.39 composition. First up, The Matrix, lensed by Bill Bope. Look at how he uses black space to create a stark minimalism. One of the most powerful things you can do with all that horizontal space is to not use half of it!

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Matrix-door

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In this close-up (below), Morpheus starts off conventionally framed on the left, but leans forward at a key point, crossing the width of the frame to become short-sided, as pictured. It really makes it feel like he’s getting in your face.

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Symmetrical shots become more powerful in 2.39. These ones really help reinforce the rigid, computer-generated nature of the matrix.

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In Donnie Darko (DP: Steven Poster), formal composition (framing characters centrally) is used as a stylistic device in the dream sequences. Again, a powerful symmetry in this wide format.

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I love the composition of this shot from Armaggedon (DP: John Schwartzman). He’s on the “wrong” side of frame and he’s barely off centre, but somehow it works beautifully. It almost looks like he’s surging forwards with the flag, rather than seeming dominated by it, like he would if he was on the right of frame.

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Jan de Bont’s cinematography in Die Hard is a masterclass in 2.39 composition. Check out the depth in these raking shots.

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Below, De Bont uses the doorway as a symmetrical frame for the composition, which gives Willis license to be anywhere within it.

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Here’s an interesting lesson in shooting over-the-shoulders in 2.39. Put the foreground actor on the edge of frame and you’ll find it very hard to keep a sense of depth if you put the background actor over on the other side of frame. You need them nearer so the perspective can continue off into the other side of frame, perhaps with other characters (or a statue, in this case) in the deep background or just the set.

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Here’s a nice bit of short-siding, balanced out by the car.

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And finally, I utterly adore this shot/reverse from Alien (DP: Derek Vanlint). If ever a director tells you that shot/reverses have to match, show them this scene. Every rule in the book is broken. He’s shot from a low angle, she’s shot from head height. He’s in a mid, she’s in an MCU. His single is dirty, hers is clean. He’s on the left of frame, and so’s she! But isn’t it gorgeous? Both characters are given power through composition, but in different ways. His power comes from the low angle of the camera. Hers comes from her being placed towards the closer end of the horizontal lines in the set. If she’d been placed on the tapering end, on the right of frame, she would have no power in this scene at all, compositionally. I can’t say whether it’s intentional, but the fact that this compositional power – equal but different – matches the power the characters have in the dialogue and performance, is just exquisite.

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What are your favourite 2.39 movies, and how do they use the frame to help tell the story?

2.39:1 Composition

Five Great ‘Making Of’ Books

I love a good ‘making of’ book. Even if the film it’s about is rubbish, you can usually learn something, so long as it’s not one of those cheap cash-in books that relies mostly on reproducing the script and the press kit. DVD extras can be great, but an in-depth book can be so much more immersive; you almost feel like you’re part of the crew by the time you get to the end.

Here, in my opinion, are five of the best ‘making of’ books. If you’re looking for a Christmas present for the filmmaker in your life, you could do worse than tracking down one of these tomes.

cover_fontThe Making of Jurassic Park

Don Shay & Jody Duncan

I can still picture the shop I bought this in when I was thirteen years old. Spielberg’s paleo-blockbuster was one of the major cinema events of my childhood, and along with this book it planted the idea firmly in young Neil’s mind that filmmaking might be a pretty cool thing to do when he grew up. Shay and Duncan, the writers behind the awesome Cinefex magazine, note in the acknowledgments that their publisher wanted “a book of substance and quality on the making of Jurassic Park”. The pair delivered in spades, detailing every step of the journey that started with a best-selling novel, saw Stan Winston and his studio build the most sophisticated and convincing animatronics ever seen on film, took Spielberg and his crew onto a storm-lashed Hawaiian island, and ruined Phil Tippett’s career with ground-breaking computer-generated dinosaurs. But perhaps what inspired me most as a teenager were the 40 pages of storyboards reproduced at the end of the book, a showcase to Spielberg’s visual storytelling genius. I loved this book so much that I mimicked its style when GCSE Media Studies required me to write a journal about the making of my coursework film.

The_Making_of_Star_Trek_Deep_Space_Nine_coverThe Making of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens

By the time I found this in my local library in the late nineties, I was already well set on the path to filmmaking, but I still knew little about how big films and TV shows were made, except what I’d read in The Making of Jurassic Park. The Making of ST: DS9 was a detailed and informative guide to the process of making a high-end US TV series. Having recently tracked it down and re-read it, I found it just as interesting the second time around. While the business side of network TV has probably changed, and the days of off-lining on 3/4″ tape are long gone, much of the content is still relevant, and is backed up by extracts from call sheets, treatments and production memos. Kudos must go to the writers for covering oft-neglected subjects like the art and importance of editing, the role of stand-ins, and the financial reasons behind key creative decisions.

CE3K200Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Spielberg’s Classic Film

Ray Morton

This is the only book on this list which is unofficial, and while that means it lacks for pretty photos, it also means it doesn’t pull its punches when discussing the struggles and conflicts of the production. Engaging and well-researched, Morton’s book traces the origins of the UFO craze and Spielberg’s fascination with it, along with the steps in the young director’s career that brought him to the point where he could make this seminal sci-fi movie. Like many great films, Close Encounters’ production was a troubled one, with a budget that spiralled out of control as studio bosses – convinced they’d backed a dud – fretted and fumed. Two converted aircraft hangars in sweltering Mobile, Alabama, seemed like financial black holes as cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond poured megawatts of light into them and the practical effects crew flew in a full-size mothership underbelly. Morton documents all the creativity and uncertainty in workmanlike fashion, and also uncovers the stories behind the re-releases and special editions.

51qMqBgrATL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Titanic and the Making of James Cameron

Paula Parisi

Not to be confused with the glossier and less substantial James Cameron’s Titanic by Ed W. Marsh, this 230-pager is an intimate account of Cameron’s journey from the depths of the Atlantic ocean to the excesses of the Mexican coastline set as he strove to tell a story that had gripped his imagination. Those intent on hating Cameron will dislike this book, which endeavours to counter the bad press he frequently gets by drilling to the core of the passion and determination which drives him. With a budget that climbed so high it required two major Hollywood studios to finance, Titanic was the biggest undertaking in motion picture history at the time, requiring a full-scale replica of the titular ship, hundreds of extras, hydraulic sinking effects, cutting-edge motion capture and 163 days of photography. Whatever you think of the film, it’s hard not to be sucked in by the drama of this book, as Cameron battles against everything from nature to studio executives to complete what looks set to be a financial disaster, only to have it shatter box office records and scoop eleven Oscars.

Making_of_TESB_coverThe Making of Star Wars / The Empire Strikes Back / Return of the Jedi

J. W. Rinzler

It’s not surprising that the most loved films in the history of cinema have some of the most comprehensive and beautiful ‘making of’ books ever published. It’s only surprising that it took 30 years for them to be written. Drawing on Lucasfilm’s extensive archive of interviews, Rinzler takes us almost day-by-day through the development, production and postproduction of the movies that would define cinema for a generation. Arguably echoing the films themselves, the third book is the weakest, as by then Lucasfilm had financial stability, and making the movies was no longer a huge risk. I was shocked by how difficult Lucas found it to fund Empire; although phenomenally successful, Star Wars had yet to make him much money and everyone thought the sequel would be a pale shadow of the original. All three books are beautifully illustrated with photographs both rare and familiar, concept art and storyboards. There are also extracts and summaries of early versions of the scripts, and the Empire book even includes an extensive transcript of on-set conversations from the day Solo’s descent into the freezing chamber was filmed. Essential reading for filmmakers everywhere.

I’m sure there are some classics I’ve missed from this list. By all accounts, The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam vs. Universal, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner and The Making of Ghostbusters are all excellent, but sadly I’ve so far been unable to get my hands on them. What are your favourite ‘making of’ books?

Five Great ‘Making Of’ Books