9 Fun Photic Facts from a 70-year-old Book

Shortly before Christmas, while browsing the secondhand books in the corner of an obscure Herefordshire garden centre, I came across a small blue hardback called The Tricks of Light and Colour by Herbert McKay. Published in 1947, the book covered almost every aspect of light you could think of, from the inverse square law to camouflage and optical illusions. What self-respecting bibliophile cinematographer could pass that up?

Here are some quite-interesting things about light which the book describes…

  

1. SPHERES ARE THE KEY to understandING the inverse square law.

Any cinematographer worth their salt will know that doubling a subject’s distance from a lamp will quarter their brightness; tripling their distance will cut their brightness to a ninth; and so on.  This, of course, is the inverse square law. If you struggle to visualise this law and why it works the way it does, The Tricks of Light and Colour offers a good explanation.

[Think] of light being radiated from… a mere point. Light and heat are radiated in straight lines and in all directions [from this point]. At a distance of one foot from the glowing centre the whole quantity of light and heat is spread out over the surface of a sphere with a radius of one foot. At a distance of two feet from the centre it is spread over the surface of a sphere of radius two feet. Now to find an area we multiply two lengths; in the case of a sphere both lengths are the radius of the sphere. As both lengths are doubled the area is four times as great… We have the same amounts of light and heat spread over a sphere four times as great, and so the illumination and heating effect are reduced to a quarter as great.

 

2. MIRAGES ARE DUE TO Total internal reflection.

This is one of the things I dimly remember being taught in school, which this book has considerably refreshed me on. When light travels from one transparent substance to another, less dense, transparent substance, it bends towards the surface. This is called refraction, and it’s the reason that, for example, streams look shallower than they really are, when viewed from the bank. If the first substance is very dense, or the light ray is approaching the surface at a glancing angle, the ray might not escape at all, instead bouncing back down. This is called total internal reflection, and it’s the science behind mirages.

The heated sand heats the air above it, and so we get an inversion of the density gradient: low density along the heated surface, higher density in the cooler air above. Light rays are turned down, and then up, so that the scorched and weary traveller sees an image of the sky, and the images looks like a pool of cool water on the face of the desert.

 

3. Pinhole images pop up in unexpected places.

Most of us have made a pinhole camera at some point in our childhood, creating an upside-down image on a tissue paper screen by admitting light rays through a tiny opening. Make the opening bigger and the image becomes a blur, unless you have a lens to focus the light, as in a “proper” camera or indeed our eyes. But the pinhole imaging effect can occur naturally too. I’ve sometimes lain in bed in the morning, watching images of passing traffic or flapping laundry on a line projected onto my bedroom ceiling through the little gap where the curtains meet at the top. McKay describes another example:

One of the prettiest examples of the effect may be seen under trees when the sun shines brightly. The ground beneath a tree may be dappled with circles of light, some of them quite bright… When we look up through the leaves towards the sun we may see the origin of the circles of light. We can see points of light where the sun shines through small gaps between the leaves. Each of these gaps acts in the same way as a pinhole: it lets through rays from the sun which produce an image of the sun on the ground below.

 

4. The sun isn’t a point source.

“Shadows are exciting,” McKay enthuses as he opens chapter VI. They certainly are to a cinematographer. And this cinematographer was excited to learn something about the sun and its shadow which is really quite obvious, but I had never considered before.

Look at the shadow of a wall. Near the base, where the shadow begins, the edge of the shadow is straight and sharp… Farther out, the edge of the shadow gets more and more fuzzy… The reason lies of course in the great sun itself. The sun is not a mere point of light, but a globe of considerable angular width.

The accompanying illustration shows how you would see all, part or none of the sun if you stood in a slightly different position relative to the hypothetical wall. The area where none of the sun is visible is of course in full shadow (umbra), and the area where the sun is partially visible is the fuzzy penumbra (the “almost shadow”).

  

5. Gravity bends LIGHT.

Einstein hypothesised that gravity could bend light rays, and observations during solar eclipses proved him right. Stars near to the eclipsed sun were seen to be slightly out of place, due to the huge gravitational attraction of the sun.

The effect is very small; it is too small to be observed when the rays pass a comparatively small body like the moon. We need a body like the sun, at whose surface gravity is 160 or 170 times as great as at the surface of the moon, to give an observable deviation…. The amount of shift depends on the apparent nearness of a star to the sun, that is, the closeness with which the rays of light from the star graze the sun. The effect of gravity fades out rapidly, according to the inverse square law, so that it is only near the sun that the effects can be observed.

 

6. Light helped us discover helium.

Sodium street-lamps are not the most pleasant of sources, because hot sodium vapour emits light in only two wave-lengths, rather than a continuous spectrum. Interestingly, cooler sodium vapour absorbs the same two wave-lengths. The same is true of other elements: they  emit certain wave-lengths when very hot, and absorb the same wave-lengths when less hot. This little bit of science led to a major discovery.

The sun is an extremely hot body surrounded by an atmosphere of less highly heated vapours. White light from the sun’s surfaces passes through these heated vapours before it reaches us; many wave-lengths are absorbed by the sun’s atmosphere, and there is a dark line in the spectrum for each wave-length that has been absorbed. The thrilling thing is that these dark lines tell us which elements are present in the sun’s atmosphere. It turned out that the lines in the sun’s spectrum represented elements already known on the earth, except for one small group of lines which were ascribed to a hitherto undetected element. This element was called helium (from helios, the sun).

 

7. Moonlight is slightly too dim for colours.

Our retinas are populated by two different types of photoreceptors: rods and cones. Rods are much more sensitive than cones, and enable us to see in very dim light once they’ve had some time to adjust. But rods cannot see colours. This is why our vision is almost monochrome in dark conditions, even under the light of a full moon… though only just…

The light of the full moon is just about the threshold, as we say, of colour vision; a little lighter and we should see colours.

 

8. MAGIC HOUR can be longer than an hour.

We cinematographers often think of magic “hour” as being much shorter than an hour. When prepping for a dusk-for-night scene on The Little Mermaid, I used my light meter to measure the length of shootable twilight. The result was 20 minutes; after that, the light was too dim for our Alexas at 800 ISO and our Cooke S4 glass at T2. But how long after sunset is it until there is literally no light left from the sun, regardless of how sensitive your camera is? McKay has this to say…

Twilight is partly explained as an effect of diffusion. When the sun is below the horizon it still illuminates particles of dust and moisture in the air. Some of the scattered light is thrown down to the earth’s surface… Twilight ends when the sun is 17° or 18° below the horizon. At the equator [for example] the sun sinks vertically at the equinoxes, 15° per hour; so it sinks 17° in 1 hour 8 minutes.

 

9. Why isn’t Green a primary colour in paint?

And finally, the answer to something that bugged me during my childhood. When I was a small child, daubing crude paintings of stick figures under cheerful suns, I was taught that the primary colours are red, blue and yellow. Later I learnt that the true primary colours, the additive colours of light, are red, blue and green. So why is it that green, a colour that cannot be created by mixing two other colours of light, can be created by mixing blue and yellow paints?

When white light falls on a blue pigment, the pigment absorbs reds and yellows; it reflects blue and also some green. A yellow pigment absorbs blue and violet; it reflects yellow, and also some red and green which are the colours nearest to it in the spectrum. When the two pigments are mixed it may be seen that all the colours are absorbed by one or other of the components except green.

 

If you’re interested in picking up a copy of The Tricks of Light and Colour yourself, there is one on Amazon at the time of writing, but it will set you back £35. Note that Herbert McKay is not to be confused with Herbert C. McKay, an American author who was writing books about stereoscopic photography at around the same time.

9 Fun Photic Facts from a 70-year-old Book

Book Review: “Cinematography – Theory & Practice” by Blain Brown

Browsing in Waterstones not long ago, I came across the third edition of this hefty tome. Although it is clearly aimed primarily at the student market, a flick through convinced me that amongst the egg-sucking tutorials there was enough detail to make it a worthwhile reference book for grandma’s shelf.

The front cover proclaims the book to be “for cinematographer & directors”. The first five chapters are certainly applicable to directors, covering the visual language of cinematography, the metaphors of lighting and composition that help tell the story, the classifications of the various shot types, shooting to edit, and such core concepts as the line of action. Any director willing to read the remaining thirteen chapters, however, should really learn to delegate the techie stuff and go read something like An Actor Prepares instead.

These thirteen chapters cover in detail the topics of colour, exposure, digital sensors, dynamic range, colour space, image control, lighting, lenses, camera movement, on-set procedures and data management. As a devotee of the art of lighting, I was disappointed that this huge part of the DP’s role gets only two chapters. Perhaps this is because Brown has written a separate book devoted to illumination, though he has also written a book on digital imaging and that doesn’t stop him devoting multiple chapters in Cinematography: Theory & Practice to this subject.

Some of you may wonder why, in this age when you can google any topic of which your knowledge is lacking, you would buy a book. Firstly, finding something in the index of a book which you know you can trust can still be quicker and more effective than wading through search engine results. (I’ve already grabbed my copy off the shelf once to check the sensor size comparison chart.) Secondly, if you read the book cover to cover, amongst all the things you expected to learn, there will be unexpected nuggets of knowledge which a google search might never have led you to.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter for me was the one called “Cameras & Sensors”. It taught me loads about how digital sensors capture images, and how they are processed by the camera. And the chapter on “Linear, Gamma, Log” transformed my previously-hazy understanding of log-C into something much more concrete. The chapter on “Measurement” laid out some interesting pros and cons of waveform monitors, histograms, false colours and light meters, explaining how each has its place in choosing exposure.

Cinematography: Theory & Practice is generally well-written and laid out, but sometimes topics creep up in places that don’t quite make sense. It seems illogical, for example, that the chapter on lenses should come much later on than the one on cameras and sensors. Following the light path would have made much more sense to me. Also the proof-reader seems to have fallen asleep for a while, because there are a couple of chapters in the middle sprinkled with typos and minor errors.

If there is a fourth edition, I would like to see the lighting sections expanded, and some more nitty-gritty about how lenses work (Filmmaker IQ’s video on this topic is hard to beat).

These niggles aside, Brown has produced a very solid reference work. While reading it, I’ve been continually impressed by the depth and breadth of the author’s knowledge  – or perhaps the quality of his research. There is apparently a companion website containing useful videos, but I was unable to get past the splash page (possibly because I’m some kind of bibliophile Luddite).

For any student of cinematography, this book will provide an excellent grounding. As for working DPs, I would challenge any of them to read the book without learning at least something new. Maybe you won’t read it cover to cover, but I’d be surprised if you couldn’t find a few chapters that could helpfully plug some gaps in your knowledge.

Book Review: “Cinematography – Theory & Practice” by Blain Brown

Lighting I Like: “Life on Mars”

This week’s edition of Lighting I Like focuses on a scene from Life on Mars, my all-time favourite TV show. Broadcast on the BBC in 2006 and 2007, this was a police procedural with a twist: John Simm’s protagonist D.I. Sam Tyler had somehow travelled back in time to the 1970s… or was he just in a coma imagining it all? Each week his politically correct noughties policing style would clash with the seventies “bang ’em up first, ask questions later” approach of Philip Glenister’s iconic Gene Hunt.

I must get around to doing a proper post on colour theory one of these days, but in the meantime, there’s a bit about colour contrast in this post. And you can read more about using practicals in this post.

I hope you enjoyed the show. The sixth and final episode goes out at the same time next week: 8pm GMT on Wednesday, and will feature perhaps the most stunning scene yet, from the Starz series Outlander. Subscribe to my YouTube channel to make sure you never miss an episode of Lighting I Like.

Lighting I Like: “Life on Mars”

Lighting I Like: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”

The third episode of my YouTube cinematography series Lighting I Like is out now. This time I discuss a scene from the first instalment in the Harry Potter franchise, directed by Chris Columbus and photographed by John Seale, ACS, ASC.

 

You can find out more about the forest scene from Wolfman which I mentioned, either in the February 2010 issue of American Cinematographer if you have a subscription, or towards the bottom of this page on Cine Gleaner.

If you’re a fan of John Seale’s work, you may want to read my post “20 Facts About the Cinematography of Mad Max: Fury Road.

To read about how I’ve tackled nighttime forest scenes myself, check out “Poor Man’s Process II” (Ren: The Girl with the Mark) and Above the Clouds: Week Two”.

I hope you enjoyed the show. Episode four goes out at the same time next week: 8pm GMT on Wednesday, and will cover a scene from episode two of the lavish Netflix series The Crown. Subscribe to my YouTube channel to make sure you never miss an episode.

Lighting I Like: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”

Lighting I Like: “Ripper Street”

The second episode of Lighting I Like looks at a scene from the season four premiere of Victorian crime drama Ripper Street, available on Amazon Prime in the UK.

On closer inspection, the “tungsten fill” I mention in the video is more of a soft tungsten toplight – perhaps a Chimera Pancake – rigged to the ceiling in the centre of the room. When Jackson exits at 2:00 you can see him walk under it.

Here’s some further reading if you want to know more about using practicals, and candlelight in particular:

5 Tips for Working With Practicals

Candlelight – how I tackled multiple candlelight scenes in my first period production, The First Musketeer, including a video blog from the set.

I hope you enjoyed the show. Episode three goes out at the same time next week: 8pm GMT on Wednesday, and will cover a scene from the 2001 movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Subscribe to my YouTube channel to make sure you never miss an episode.

Lighting I Like: “Ripper Street”

“Lighting I Like” Launches

The first episode of my new YouTube series is out. Lighting I Like discusses some of the best and most interesting illumination I’ve seen in film and TV, including how and why I think it’s been done. The first show is about a scene from season two episode four of Daredevil – and beware there is a spoiler.

After recording these shows, and while editing them, I spotted more things about the lighting in the clips. For example, in this Daredevil scene I noticed that there is a backlight tucked just behind the building on the right of frame. This backlight isn’t hitting the actors because a fire escape is shadowing them, but it’s giving that golden glow to the rain and street in the background. It must be gelled with something like Mustard Yellow to match the existing street lamps.

I hope you enjoyed the show. Episode two goes out at the same time next week: 8pm GMT on Wednesday, and will cover a scene from the season four premiere of Ripper Street.

“Lighting I Like” Launches

Book Review: “Green Screen Made Easy”

coverMicro-filmmaker Magazine’s Jeremy Hanke recently got in touch and asked if I would review his book, “Green Screen Made Easy”. I used to make a lot of micro- and no-budget movies packed full of VFX, but I usually avoided green-screen because I could never make it look good. Although those kind of projects are behind me, I agreed to the review because I figured that this book might help others succeed where I’d failed – and also I was interested to find out why I had failed!

What Jeremy and his co-author Michele Terpstra set out to do is to cover the entire process from start to finish: defining chromakeying, buying or building a green screen, lighting and shooting it, sourcing or shooting background plates, choosing keying software, and all aspects of the keying itself.

The book is aimed at no-budget filmmakers, hobbyists or aspiring professionals making self-funded or crowd-funded productions, those digital auteurs who are often their own producers, writers, DPs, editors, colourists and VFX artists. Perhaps you’ve tried green-screening before and been disappointed with the results. Perhaps you’ve always seen it as a bit too “techie” for you. Perhaps the unpaid VFX artist you had lined up for your sci-fi feature just pulled out. Or perhaps you’ve already reached a certain level of competency with keying and now you want to step up a level for your next production. If any of these scenarios ring true with you, I believe you’ll find this book very useful.

“Green Screen Made Easy” is divided into two halves, the first half (by Jeremy) on prepping and executing your green screen shoot, and the second half (by Michele) on the postproduction process. Both authors clearly write from extensive first-hand experience; throughout the text are the kind of tips and work-arounds that only come from long practice. By necessity there is a fair amount of technical content, but everything is lucidly explained and there’s a handy glossary if any of the terms are unfamiliar to you.

camera-techniquesThe section on lighting and shooting green screen material contained few surprises for me as a cinematographer – see my post on green screen for my own tips on this subject – but will be very useful to those newer to the field. The chapters on equipment are very thorough, considering everything from which camera and settings to choose to ensure the best key later on, to buying or building a mobile green screen, or even kitting out your own green screen studio – all with various alternatives to suit any budget.

The postproduction chapters revealed clearly why I struggled with keying in the past. Michele explains how the process is much more than simply pulling a single key, and can involve footage clean-up, garbage matting, a core key and a separate edge key, spill suppression, hold-out matting and light wrapping. The book guides you through all these steps, and outlines the pros and cons of the software and plug-in options for each step.

4picsOnce you’ve read this book, I’d say the only other thing you’ll need before you can start successfully green-screening is to watch some YouTube tutorial videos specific to your software. While the instructions in the book look pretty good (as far as I can tell without attempting to follow them) the medium of text seems a little restrictive in teaching what is inherently a visual process. There are explanatory images throughout “Green Screen Made Easy”, but in the ebook version at least I found it difficult to discern the subtle differences in some of the before-and-after comparisons.

Ultimately what will make you the best “green-screener” is practice, practice, practice, but by reading this book first you’ll give yourself a rock-solid foundation, an appreciation of the entire process from start to finish, and the insider knowledge to avoid a lot of time-sucking pitfalls. And keep it handy, because you’ll be sure to thumb through it and re-read those handy tips throughout your prep, production and post.

“Green Screen Made Easy” is available in paperback and ebook editions from Amazon.

Book Review: “Green Screen Made Easy”

Star Wars Episode VII: The Feminism Awakens (Spoilers)

Star-Wars-7-Character-Guide-Finn-Rey

J.J. Abrams, though one of my favourite directors, has something of a chequered past when it comes to representing women on screen. Although noted for female leads in some of his projects (the TV shows Felicity, Alias and Fringe), he’s not averse to showing them in their underwear to grab ratings or boost ticket sales. The season four premier of Alias springs to mind – a scene with Jennifer Garner in lingerie was brought to the start of the episode as a flash-forward in a cynical effort to hook audiences – as does the gratuitous shot of Alice Eve in her underwear in Star Trek Into Darkness, which rightly caused an internet furore.

So I waited with mixed feelings to see where Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens would fall on the misogyny/feminism spectrum. BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD.

The film presents two new central characters, vying for the position of protagonist: John Boyega’s Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey. For the first few reels, the script seems to be trying too hard to be feminist: Rey is constantly rebuffing Finn’s patronising attempts to protect her. This reeks suspiciously of the “post-sexism” portrayal of female characters, whereby they serve the same old plot function of damsel in distress, but are made “strong” by perfunctory attempts to assert their authority and complaints about how reckless and useless the men are – even though the patriarchal script still has those same men save the day.

screen shot 2015-10-19 at 10.31.30 pmThis theory seems to be confirmed as Rey is knocked unconscious and carried off to the villain’s lair, leaving us to assume her plot function is indeed just to be rescued by Finn. Aboard the Death Star, or whatever they’re calling it, villain Kylo Ren creepily remarks that he can take whatever he wants from her. He proceeds to mind-rape her with the Force – a much darker interrogation than Vader’s implied use of the floating spiky ball thing on Leia in episode IV. But the film toys with our expectations as Rey turns this invasion back on Ren, and subsequently escapes her cell through her own agency.

Things get patriarchal again when a climactic light sabre battle sees Rey knocked unconscious as Finn fights the villain. But suddenly J.J. turns the tables. Rey recovers, Finn is knocked unconscious, and Rey triumphantly defeats the antagonist with a bad-ass combination of physical and mental prowess. At least, she defeats him as much as the antagonist can ever be defeated in the first part of a trilogy. Presumably in Episode IX she’ll send him spiralling fatally into the depths of a bottomless shaft, since the whole plot is just a re-run of the original films.

2326134Despite its female protagonist, Episode VII’s feminism is far from perfect. In common with other female leads in contemporary cinema, Rey is surrounded by a sea of male characters, as if the filmmakers have to compensate the audience for the lack of one big leading penis with a plethora of supporting penises. The movie only passes the Bechdel Test by the skin of its teeth, as far as I can recall – Rey’s conversation with Maz Kanata being at least partly about Luke, and dialogue between Rey and Leia not occurring until the film’s closing minutes.

Frequently throughout the running time, Rey is referred to simply as “the girl”. This is a recurring and worrying theme in genre movies: “Give me the girl”, “Let the girl go and I’ll give you the MacGuffin”, etc, etc. Apparently women are so insignificant and interchangeable that they need no names. Let’s hope that J.J. and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt were deliberately pastiching this as part of their subversion of gender roles.

Either way, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is refreshingly feminist and presents a great female role model. Hopefully there will be just as many little girls wanting light sabre toys as little boys (though I find the lack of Rey action figures disturbing). I doubt we’ll ever see a female Bond  – sleeping with hunky men then not caring when they get killed – but we’re moving closer to a female Doctor Who – two major Timelord characters having recently regenerated into women – and having a woman at the centre of the Star Wars universe is a definite step in the right direction for the world media’s representation of the gender.

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Star Wars Episode VII: The Feminism Awakens (Spoilers)

My Two Cents on the Bafta Best Picture Nominations

Looking at this year’s Bafta Best Picture nominations, I realised there was only one that I hadn’t seen, so I headed off to the cinema to complete the set. For what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on the five nominated films.

_TFJ0226.NEFTHE IMITATION GAME is the story of Alan Turing, the man who helped shorten World War II by breaking the Nazis’ Enigma code, but was driven to suicide after being convicted of indecency for homosexual acts. The film takes numerous liberties with the truth – creating conflict where none existed, and ignoring other people who contributed to the code-breaking success – but such liberties are often necessary in adapting reality to the needs of cinema.

As played by the ever-brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch, Turing is arrogant and socially inept to the extreme, like a wartime Sheldon Cooper. Keira Knightley turns in a solid performance as Turing’s friend and confidant, as do Mark Strong and the rest of the supporting cast. With great design and beautiful 35mm cinematography, the film is a treat for the eyes.

Of all the nominated films, this is the one that got me most, emotionally. I rooted for Turing and his much-doubted Bombe machine to work, and when it does the film really soars. Then begins the plunge to the opposite end of the emotional scale. It is truly tragic what this country did to Turing, and I felt the shame of that keenly as the film drew to a close.

video-undefined-24475D3100000578-421_636x358THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is similar in many ways, the story of another brilliant Englishman whose life is marred by tragedy. Eddie Redmayne is Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist who defied time in more ways than one. Diagnosed with motor neurone disease in the sixties and given two years to live, Hawking went on to model the origins of the universe.

The film is based on the autobiography of Hawking’s wife Jane, played by the very talented Felicity Jones. But inevitably it’s Redmayne who provides the tour de force performance, reportedly exhausting himself on every take as he maintained Hawking’s contorted postures.

Director James Marsh peppers the film with galactic spirals, from the simple joy of the Hawking kids playing around a circular fountain, to the profound mundanity of UHT milk swirling in a British Rail coffee. Like The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything looks great, though its digital crispness can’t quite match the beauty of the former film’s 35mm images.

While both of these films are extremely well made and engaging, neither demonstrates a particularly unique cinematic voice, which would seem to be necessary to justify the winning of a Best Picture Bafta.

1398885003815THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, on the other hand, is stamped with the unmistakable style of auteur Wes Anderson. Formal compositions, deliberate lateral tracks, stop motion FX, intertitles, neo-fetish costumes and quirky characters all abound in this tale of hotel concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and his young apprentice Zero (Tony Revolori).

Book-ended by scenes in the present day (shot in 1.85:1), the film quickly moves to 1968, which depicts the titular hotel in decay, the 2.39:1 frame literally revealing the fraying edges as they bow under the distortion of Anderson’s super-wide lenses. Conversely, the main narrative, set during the hotel’s heyday of 1932, is seen only through the blinkered eye of a 4:3 frame, all flawless straight lines, as slick as Gustave.

As in all of Anderson’s best work, every situation comes across as hilariously ridiculous, and every character is memorable. Fiennes is delightfully arrogant and self-involved, Revolori is charmingly earnest, and the supporting cast are clearly having the time of their lives. The ski/sledge chase is a particular highlight, the stop motion wide shots looking joyously like something out of a seventies kids’ TV show. (I had the pleasure of working with lead animator Andy Biddle many years ago on Soul Searcher.)

But while The Grand Budapest Hotel is the quirkiest of the nominations, this quirkiness has been well practiced by Anderson throughout his career. He’s not pushing himself, and so this film does not, to my mind, merit a Best Picture win.

The last two nominations, however, both push the artform of cinema by challenging the conventions of how films are made.

boyhood_hires_3BOYHOOD, directed by Richard Linklater, was filmed in annual stages over twelve years, in order to capture the genuine ageing of its young protagonist (Ellar Coltrane). I don’t know about you, but I’m often distracted from the storyline of a movie by unconvincing ageing make-up or the substitution of what is clearly a different actor to play a character at a different age, so it was great to see a movie that finally showed real ageing.

The film stays close to reality in other aspects, too. None of the cast look like (or are, for the most part) movie stars. It’s unusual to see a spotty face or an overweight leading lady in a Hollywood movie, but Linklater does not shy away from these things. The performances are all naturalistic, even when the kids are very young; Samantha’s teasing of her younger brother will be recognisable to anyone who’s not an only child, and provides an early highlight in the film. The look of Boyhood is equally raw; its 35mm images are dirty, and you can feel the stock being pushed in the night scenes.

Unfortunately, Linklater also chose to be true to life in the narrative: there isn’t one. A burst of story a third of the way through sees the family suffer as mum (Patricia Arquette) marries a violent alcoholic, but otherwise it is, like life, a series of unconnected events. Characters show up and disappear without explanation, like the friends we lose touch with. Towards the end, Mom monologues about the futility of life, and that’s the theme I took away from this unique, accomplished but unsatisfying movie.

birdman_aFinally we have BIRDMAN, in which Michael Keaton gets near the knuckle as Riggan Thomas, a has-been actor most famous for playing a Batman-esque superhero. Riggan is now trying to reinvent himself as a serious thesp by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play.

Apart from a brief montage near the end, Birdman echoes its theatrical setting by appearing to consist of one continuous shot. Although this isn’t unprecedented in movies, nowhere has it been done as effectively. The technical and logistical challenges of shooting a movie like this – with grips dancing around behind the camera and technicians dimming lamps up and down to maintain shape in the lighting – God knows how the boom op got in there – would overwhelm most directors, but not Alejandro G. Iñárritu.

DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s roving camera puts you right inside the action. His wide lenses, pushing incredibly close to the actors’ faces, provide a level of intimacy unparalleled in my experience of cinema. That the performances not only stand up to this minute scrutiny, but positively shine, and that the pace never flags despite the impossibility of trimming scenes in post, is evidence of a tremendous talent and skill from director and cast alike. Both Keaton and Emma Stone, as his daughter, turn in career-high performances, extending their range beyond what we have previously seen from them.

But most importantly, Birdman tells a great story with strong and interesting characters. It’s essentially a portrait of a man’s mental breakdown, and it uses the simplest techniques – arresting performances, honestly photographed – and the most complex ones – elaborate hallucination VFX within a single-shot framework – to paint this portrait.

So, because it tells a strong story, and because it does that through the highly effective use of a challenging and near-unique production methodology, BIRDMAN would be my choice to win this year’s Bafta for Best Picture.

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My Two Cents on the Bafta Best Picture Nominations

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