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

“Above the Clouds”: Week 2

Day 7 / Monday

image
One of our biggest days, shooting several key scenes from the first act of the movie. We’re in the Turner Contemporary in Margate, and getting this location is a big coup for the production. On the flip side, the amount of material we have to get through in our nine hour day is only achievable if lighting is kept to an absolute minimum. I know from the photos that Leon has shown me that there is plenty of natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows and bright white walls. I also know that with eight scenes on the day’s schedule, there isn’t time to rig the kind of extensive negative fill we used at the roadside cafe last week.

We start in the Turner’s cafe, where angles towards the windows look great with the beach and seafront in the background and the daylight wrapping softly from behind and one side. In the opposite direction the light is extremely flat, but there is no time to do anything but hand-bash a little negative fill, grin and bear it.

Upstairs in the gallery, the sea-view windows are so big and there is so much bounce off the walls that there is only about a single stop’s difference between looking towards the window and looking away from it. Nonetheless, we bring in poly and Celotex for the seaward shots to add a little shape and put nice reflections in the talent’s eyes.

Responding to the formality of the gallery setting, there is an unspoken agreement between Leon and I to shoot on sticks and compose centrally or symmetrically. I end the day feeling that we have captured some of the film’s most iconic images.

 

 

imageDay 8 / Tuesday

Back in Margate for seafront exteriors. The weather is lovely to start with, but gradually goes down hill as the day progresses. For the first scene we have light cloud, and we use the 8×8 full grid cloth as a bounce to fill in the shadows. For close-ups we add silver from Celotex or a Lasolite to give the talent extra radiance and a glint in their eyes. (See my post on Health Bounce for more on this.)

The influence of yesterday’s gallery scenes is still being felt on the compositions. In wide shots I try to use the horizon to divide the frame into two halves, like the diptych the characters were looking at in the Turner: one above the clouds (or more accurately OF the clouds), and one below. I use a graduated ND filter on most of the day’s wide shots. Even though the Alexa’s dynamic range means that grads are rarely necessary to retain the detail in skies, and they can be added in post, I prefer to get the look in camera, especially on a micro-budget project where time in the grading suite may be very precious.

The day ends with a dusk shot of Oz shuffling along the seafront, which we shoot in the window between the streetlights coming on and the daylight dropping off completely. I set the white balance to 3200K to emphasise the evening look. The colour and positions of the streetlights aren’t great, but there is a lot of production value in the backdrop of Margate, bathed in cool ambience and sprinkled with points of light.

 

imageDay 9 / Wednesday

Our first scene is on a layby overlooking an estuary. Again the weather starts off nice but deteriorates as the day goes on. By the time we get back to Leon’s for the next scene, the rain is getting noticeable enough that continuity with adjacent scenes is an issue. We decide to wrap for the day.

The camera team uses the time to re-build the Alexa Mini as small as possible and test different lenses inside the picture car for upcoming driving scenes. Our main angles will be from the back seat, looking diagonally forwards for three-quarter singles and straight ahead for a central shot over both driver and passenger’s shoulders to the windscreen. We find that the 24 and 32 work well for the former, and the 20 for the latter. We have a 14, because I knew space would be tight in the car, but it just looks like a Top Gear Go Pro shot.

 

imageDay 10 / Thursday

We’re in another tiny set in Leon’s living room. Production designer Zoë Seiffert has dressed it as a beautiful/hideous den of clashing patterns and colours, and practical lamps. First up is a day scene, newly added to the script, so as with the Travel Inn I fire in the 2.5K HMI, this time with the curtains open. That might seem like a ridiculous amount of light for a room only about 10ft square, but only a powerful source like that creates all the bounce and ambience that sun would. I make sure the direct beam only really hits the floor. For some shots I put a white sheet over the carpet to maximise the bounce off the floor.

For the night scenes Colin puts all the practicals on dimmers and I place one of Leon’s ETC Profiles outside the window with Urban Sodium gel. Although the curtains will be closed, they are thin enough to be backlit by this ‘streetlight’. The bulb is even visible through the curtains sometimes, but it totally passes as a streetlight. That’s the only source of light when the characters first enter in silhouette, before turning up the practicals.

imageTo beef up the practicals, we rig a couple of Dedos to the top of the set and direct one through sheets of Opal hung from the ceiling, as a key, and use the other as backlight with half CTO on it. We tweak them around shot by shot to follow the blocking. For a scene with more character conflict, I lose the backlight and go hard with the key.

Later we move to another location – conveniently the cottage neighbouring the one where most of us are staying – for a little doorstep night scene. Again I rake the 2.5K along the front of the building, through the full silent grid cloth. In the singles we beef up the existing exterior sconce with three tungsten globes wrapped in Opal. I would rather have used an 800 bounced off poly, for a softer texture, but our package is pretty lacking in tungsten units.

After wrapping we throw a surprise birthday party for Zoë. Colin lights the party with a remote-controlled colour-changing LED fixture and smoke.

 

imageDay 11 / Friday

We have two hours in a charity shop to set up (including blacking out windows), shoot two scenes, and tear down. Leon decides to shoot them both using only torchlight, and choreographs the cast to light each other throughout the scenes. We hide silver Lasolites and other bounces around the set to reflect the torchlight when it doesn’t make sense for the actors to point their torches where they’re needed. We smoke up the shop heavily to show up the beams.

To anchor the shots, so the pools of torchlight aren’t floating around in a black nothingness, I set two lamps in the background. One, a Divalite gelled with Urban Sodium, spills out of a changing room, and the other, a 1×1 LED panel gelled heavily blue to suggest a computer screen, glows out from behind the counter. As well as adding colour, and colour contrast, to the scene, the pools of light from these two lamps serve to silhouette the characters so you get a sense of where they are when the torch beams aren’t on them.

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We move to a forest car park for the film’s only major night exterior. With our HMI package consisting of only a 2.5K and 1.2K, and no tungsten bigger than a Dedo, this was always going to be challenging. We place the 2.5K in the deep background, purely to light up the smoke and foliage behind the action. The action itself is lit by the 1.2K and two 1×1 LED panels, plus smaller panels taped to the dashboards of the vehicles in the scene.

To get it all done with the time and resources we have, a compromise must be made somewhere with the lighting. I decide that this compromise will be motivation of sources. Other than dashboard lights, there should really only be one source in this scene: the moon. If I had time, I would move the biggest source around to backlight every shot and then bounce it back as sidelight. Instead we leave the HMIs mostly where they are, and fly the 1×1 panels around to backlight or sidelight as needed. It makes no sense whatsoever, but it looks good.

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“Above the Clouds”: Week 2

9 Tips for Easier Sound Syncing

Colin Smith slates a shot on Stop/Eject
Colin Smith slates a shot on Stop/Eject. Photo: Paul Bednall

While syncing sound in an edit recently I came across a number of little mistakes that cost me time, so I decided to put together some on-set and off-set tips for smooth sound syncing.

On set: tips for the 2nd AC

  1. Get the slate and take number on the slate right. This means a dedicated 2nd AC (this American term seems to have supplanted the more traditional British clapper-loader), not just any old crew member grabbing the slate at the last minute.
  2. Get the date on the slate right. This can be very helpful for starting to match up sound and picture in a large project if other methods fail.
  3. Hold the slate so that your fingers are not covering any of the info on it.
  4. Make MOS (mute) shots very clear by holding the sticks with your fingers through them.
  5. Make sure the rest of the cast and crew appreciate the importance of being quiet while the slate and take number are read out. It’s a real pain for the editing department if the numbers can’t be heard over chit-chat and last-minute notes from the director.
  6. Speak clearly and differentiate any numbers that could be misheard, e.g. “slate one three” and “slate three zero” instead of the similar-sounding “slate thirteen” and “slate thirty”.
Rick Goldsmith slates a steadicam shot on Stop/Eject. Photo: Paul Bednall
Rick Goldsmith slates a steadicam shot on Stop/Eject. Photo: Paul Bednall

For more on best slating practice, see my Slating 101 blog post.

Off set: tips for the DIT and assistant editor

  1. I recommend renaming both sound and video files to contain the slate and take number, but be sure to do this immediately after ingesting the material and on all copies of it. There is nothing worse than having copies of the same file with different names floating around.
  2. This should be obvious, but please, please, please sync your sound BEFORE starting to edit or I will hunt you down and kill you. No excuses.
  3. An esoteric one for any dinosaurs like me still using Final Cut 7: make sure you’ve set your project’s frame rate correctly (in Easy Setup) before importing your audio rushes. Otherwise FCP will assign them timecodes based on the wrong rate, leading to errors and sound falling out of sync if you ever need to relink your project’s media.

Follow these guidelines and dual system sound will be painless – well, as painless as it can ever be!

9 Tips for Easier Sound Syncing

A Day in the Life of a DP

What does a cinematographer’s working day look like? Here’s a snapshot of last Wednesday, the fifth shooting day of six on a short film in south London. It’s a split day, with one daylight and one night scene scheduled, so the call time is 2pm.

IMG_24941:48pm As the cast and crew begin to arrive (I’m being accommodated at the location, conveniently) I check my notes for the upcoming scene. These were written during my second reading of the script, a few weeks previously, and include my thoughts and ideas on camerawork and lighting.

IMG_24961:54pm I sit down with James the director and Mari the 1st AD to decide what order the day’s set-ups will be shot in. Generally shots are grouped by the rough direction the camera is pointing in, to minimise lighting resets.

IMG_24972:13pm Mari assembles the crew to watch a block through of the scene, so everyone knows what they’re doing. Using Artemis, the virtual viewfinder app, James and I select the lens and camera positions for the first set-up. It’s a Steadicam shot, so my 1st AC and Steadicam operator Rupert is in on this conversation.

IMG_24982:24pm The cast go into make-up and it’s time for my department to swing into action.

IMG_24992:26pm On the recce the previous week I had broadly decided how to light this scene. I confirm the details with Ben, my gaffer, and he and the spark begin setting up the key light outside, a 2.5K HMI, and a kinoflo for fill.  IMG_25012:31pm I go and set up an Arrilite to shine down the stairs.

IMG_25022:31pm The ACs rig the Steadicam and put on my chosen lens.

IMG_25032:32pm Meanwhile, DIT and standby 1st AC Max sets up the director’s monitor and focus monitor, which are connected wirelessly to the camera with a Teradek Bolt system.

IMG_25063:09pm Rupert rehearses the Steadicam move using a crew member as a stand-in.

IMG_25073:13pm 2nd AC Nat marks positions to aid Max in pulling focus.

IMG_25083:47pm With camera and lighting set, we get a break waiting for a tricky ageing make-up to be finished. We are completely professional during this hiatus.

IMG_25104:31pm We frame up the actor, Sibusiso, in position to check how the make-up looks under the right lighting.

IMG_25114:38pm Dimple, the spark, sits in while Sibusiso returns to make-up for tweaks, and I tweak my lighting.

IMG_25264:41pm I decide that the morning sunlight look I’m going for is too subtle, so I have Ben replace the HMI’s half CTO gel with full CTO.

IMG_25124:44pm Rupert and James finesse the camera move. When the make-up artist, Carly, is happy, we start shooting.

IMG_25134:44pm I sit back and watch the monitor, giving a note or two to Rupert after the first take.

IMG_25144:57pm With the Steadicam shot in the can, we select a lens and position for the next shot, a wide.

IMG_25164:59pm Activity on set pauses while James catches a spider that is freaking out some of the crew.

IMG_25185:04pm I squeeze myself in behind the camera, which is set up on sticks on the stairs, ready to shoot the wide. James gives some final direction to Lasharne, the actress, before we shoot the first take.

IMG_25195:05pm Nat prepares the clapperboard for the next take.

IMG_25205:12pm The camera team set up the slider for the third set-up.

 

IMG_25215:32pm Carly does final checks on Lasharne’s make-up.

IMG_25225:32pm For this set-up I’m using a polyboard under the camera in an effort to raise the room’s ambient light level closer to the burnt-out view through the window.

IMG_25236:25pm Mari and James adjust an armchair to better suit the next set-up, another slider shot.

IMG_25247:12pm Cunningly disguised as a lens, my cup of tea sits in easy reach beside the tripod.

IMG_25257:12pm We do a camera rehearsal to see if the set-up can accommodate Lasharne standing up, and it can. Max will move the slider while I control pan and tilt, and Rupert pulls focus remotely.

IMG_25278:13pm As the daylight starts to fade, we complete the scene and break for ‘lunch’. The food is quickly devoured.

IMG_25288:14pm We assemble on set again to watch a block through of the nighttime scene.

IMG_25298:21pm Ben discusses a car headlight effect which James wants for the scene.

IMG_25308:24pm We clear the set to allow Jorge, the art director, to dress it. I check my notes for the scene.

IMG_25318:29pm Once Jorge has done his thing, James and I pick a lens and position for the first set-up. By this point most of the lighting has been done, except this…

IMG_25338:50pm Ben and Dimple construct a car headlight rig using two 300W tungsten fresnels mounted on a camera a dolly.

IMG_25349:10pm The 300s prove too dim and the dolly too flimsy, so instead a Source 4 is rigged to Rupert’s Magliner.

IMG_253510:29pm The night scene is deliberately designed to echo the day scene, so I’m soon back on the stairs for a wide shot.

IMG_253612:46am We carry on with the scene, getting some very cool shots in the can, before wrapping a little after midnight. The kit is packed away in the living room, ready to load into the van tomorrow. Cider and sleep beckon.

A Day in the Life of a DP

Cow Trek: Director’s Log

Back in 2000 I directed and co-produced a surreal Star Trek spoof written for me by my old schoolfriend Matt Hodges. Although it was made a few months before I started blogging, the website did feature a retrospective production diary, and today I’m going to share that with you. But first, here’s the film…

Who is that handsome young fellow?
Who is that handsome young fellow?

To find out how the project came about, in a strange little Malvern pub called The Prince of Wales, read the production notes on Cow Trek’s film page. And here’s the shoot diary…

Sunday, December 17, 2000

There are two Hereford-Worcester roads. Each one has a pub named The Wheatsheaf on it. These are facts. I know them. I did not know them before this day. And that’s what made us an hour and a half late as we roamed the Bromyard Downs in my mum’s little Peugot, with an unfeasible amount of equipment (and lard) in the back, at a unfeasibly early time on an unfeasibly cold Sunday morning, trying to find an unfeasibly unfindable farm.

All of this time, Matt was sat in a very uncomfortable position in the rear right seat, or what would have been the rear right seat, had it not been folded down to fit more gear in, effectively encasing the unfortunate Mr. Hodges in a metal box constructed from grip equipment and plastic poles. And a piratical wheel. Sometimes, I suspect Matt may regret writing Cow Trek.

Mike Hodges as Farmer Blackbeard
Mike Hodges as Farmer Blackbeard

Still, we got there in the end, and eventually filmed our first shot, with Mike (Farmer Blackbeard) having quickly learnt the intricacies of tractor operation. It was then that Julia Evans, head honcho of Longlands Farm, asked us exactly what we needed to film. When I mentioned a cow in a field, she was very surprised. She had no idea. The cows were in barns. Fields would be tricky. Very tricky.

Closing my mind to the fevered panic which threatened to engulf my very soul (and a fair bit of my hair as well), I pressed on with the two farmyard scenes featuring the main dialogue twixt brothers Hodges. Once Matt had donned a flat cap, he looked more like a farmer than you could possibly imagine. Big sideburns are surprisingly agricultural. (Perhaps Matt’s next script should be about a ska band that are also farmers.)

It didn’t take long for me to start getting paranoid and shooting far too many takes and angles of everything, but we weren’t on a particularly tight schedule so it didn’t really matter. The first yard scene had that tacky low budget look with the two actors looking at a cow “that’s there, honest, but it’s just out of frame so you can’t see it”. Oh well.

Writer Matt Hodges in his role as Farmer Giles
Writer Matt Hodges in his role as Farmer Giles

As the sun went down, we repaired to the farm’s study, where we promptly set up a whole bunch of lights in an attempt to make it look like day. Muchos comedy ensued as Mike improvised a sequence in which he swapped his hook hand for a biro appendage to sign his cheque, and then impaled it on the aforementioned appendage to hold it out to Farmer Giles.

Monday, December 18, 2000

Having discovered, to my horror, that sound man David Abbott’s car had broken down, I was forced to get my mum to take us to the farm today.

Arriving at the delightful time of 8:00am, we were kindly provided with a cup of tea by Julia, who then dutifully got two cows from the barn and put them in the paddock near the farmhouse. Sipping our tea gratefully, we watched Julia and her husband chasing one of the cows around, trying to get it into the field. We opted to make the other cow our star.

As Matt had been saying for some time, the cow’s action consisted primarily of eating grass and walking along. This would not take all day, he insisted. Always the professional (read: know-it-all), I was more conservative. However, that cheeky bugger Matt turned out to completely right. Julia helped us out with the walking bits, shooing the cow up and down the lane. We were completely unable to get the beast to stand still next to Matt (a cutaway for the yard scene), but you can’t have everything.

The starring cow
The starring cow

I was loath to broach the subject of bovine sexual congress with Julia, as she had been so helpful thusfar, despite having clearly not been briefed as fully as I had hoped on what we were going to need. An effect, I decided. It would be tricky, but what the hell?

And at about midday, we realised we’d finished. Buggery. Mum wasn’t picking us up till 6:00pm. We killed the afternoon filming extra cow shots, recording sound effects and sitting around in the farm house.

In the evening I went up to Chris Jenkins’ abode, for ’twas he that was providing a basement as a studio for the spaceship interiors. We had spent all of Saturday working on the set, but had progressed considerably less quickly, and considerably more expensively, than I had anticipated. Even the Hodges’ input on console construction had not brought us up to speed. But by the end of Monday night I was confident that we had done enough groundwork to allow Tuesday afternoon’s filming to start on time.

How wrong I was…

Tuesday, December 19, 2000

Actor Si Dovey (in red shirt) and I (in gillette, I regret to say) move a set panel into place while David Abbott adjusts the jib. Actor and composer Chris Jenkins, whose mother owned this basement, is in the yellow shirt.
Actor Si Dovey (in red shirt) and I (in gillette, I regret to say) move a set panel into place while David Abbott adjusts the jib. Actor and composer Chris Jenkins, whose mother owned this basement, is in the yellow shirt.

I can’t for the life of me remember what took us so long on Tuesday morning. We had been scheduled to finish the set between 10am and 2pm, then film the Engineering Room scenes until 5:30. In the end, we didn’t shoot a thing until 4:00pm.

Late in the morning, I sent David out to get some gerbils. Directing him to the only pet shop I knew of in Malvern, with additional instructions to pick up some extra hardboard for the set, I was extremely pleased when he turned up an hour later with three hamsters. It was around this time that Chris’ sister Sarah became an inpromptu member of the crew, looking after the gerbils and making (occasionally) helpful comments as we affixed three plastic wheels to the fake walls and inserted rodents into them. Praise the Lord, the little blighters actually went round in them! Sadly we couldn’t get them all to go round at once, but I was happy enough.

Finally Jim got to do some “acting”. The script described Engineer McHaggis as “an overly Scottish man” who does “overly Scottish things”. Jim’s interpretation of the character, combined with the poor selection of Scottish items which were available to dress the set, is best described as “a barely Scottish man doing barely Scottish things”. Not only was he incapable of doing the accent, he also couldn’t deliver a long line, forcing me to cut the scene.

Oh Jim, why?

Lee Richardson (Captain Lightstar), Chris Jenkins (Ensign Lancer) and Si Dovery (Lieutenant Steeljaw) rehearse their lines.
Lee Richardson (Captain Lightstar), Chris Jenkins (Ensign Lancer) and Si Dovery (Lieutenant Steeljaw) rehearse their lines.

Wednesday, December 20, 2000

I don’t know at what point I realised that this day had about 50% of the film’s total running time scheduled to be shot on it, but I was brown-trousering when I did. However, I reasoned with myself, there were no animals today. Just lots of big dialogue scenes. But all in one location. Easy, right?

Two and a half hours after our scheduled start time, we had finally constructed the sliding door for the bridge set and were ready to shoot. Once we got going, we rocketed through it. Again, loads of takes were needed – this time because my shotlist called for complex tracks/cranes combined with multiple focus pulls, and I kept arsing them up.

I was annoyed when, about five scenes in, I had to rearrange my lovely lighting set-up in order to make way for an extra wall section. It never looked as good after that.

Lee managed to get his arse out. A deliberate out-take – the sliding door opens and there are the hairy cheeks of the Tuxman’s posterior.

Somehow we wrapped five minutes ahead of schedule, but there was then lots of clearing up to do. The mighty director was reduced to scrubbing the carpet, as it transpired that the dust sheets I had used whilst painting the set were of insufficient thickness, and the paint had seeped through to the carpet. I am told that those patches are now the only clean areas of the carpet.

Cow Trek: Director’s Log

Know Your Lights

Whilst prepping for The First Musketeer here in the south of France I was able to record this video blog showing the lighting kit we’ll be using and what it all does. If you don’t know your kinos from your dedos, or can’t can understand why a 2.5K HMI is SO much better than a 2K blonde, this vlog will shed some light [groan].

The first week of the adventure is drawing to a close, although we only started shooting two days ago, the rest of the week having been taken up by travel and prep.
After picking up the lighting kit from Panalux and Filmscape on Monday, we set off in a convoy of five vehicles first thing on Tuesday morning from High Wycombe. After a noon crossing from Dover to Dunkirk we drove all afternoon and most of Wednesday to get to Puy L’eveque, the medieval town in which we’re based.
The main task on Wednesday was to test the workflow of the Black Magic Cinema Camera kindly lent to us by gaffer Richard. This is my first time working with the BMCC and I’ll share my thoughts on it in a forthcoming vlog.
Shooting began on Thursday, coinciding with a storm which broke the sweltering hot spell and has seen pretty much continuous rain become the dominant weather since then. There were challenges with horses, generators and (as ever) time, but as of this writing we’re on schedule and everyone seems to be very happy with the footage acquired.
I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to reveal about the series and the details of what we’ve been shooting, so I’ll leave it there. Stay tuned for more video blogs.

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Know Your Lights

Depth Cues in Cinematography

One of the most important jobs of a director of photography is to help the viewer’s brain decode the image. Just as a sound mixer must get the cleanest possible dialogue and ensure that ambience, music and effects don’t distract from it or drown it out, so a cinematographer must ensure the eye is drawn to the character and not distracted by the surroundings.

Depth is a key part of creating this clarity. Christopher Nolan once said: “95 percent of our depth cues come from occlusion, resolution, color and so forth, so the idea of calling a 2-D movie a ’2-D movie’ is a little misleading.”

This week, on The Deaths of John Smith, I photographed a shot that used every trick in the book to create depth. Why? Because it was a one-shot scene, a flashback taken out of context, and the audience needed to “get it” quickly.

When I first set the camera up and we stood John (played by Roy Donoghue) in position, his dark suit melted into the dark wood panelling behind him, so there was clearly some work to do. Once lit, as you can see from these frame grabs, he stands out sharply.

Kirsty Minchella-Storer (Sarah) and Roy Donoghue (John) in The Deaths of John Smith, directed by Roger Harding, copyright 2013 Two Hats Films
frame2 frame3 Kirsty Minchella-Storer (Sarah) and Roy Donoghue (John) in The Deaths of John Smith, directed by Roger Harding, copyright 2013 Two Hats Films

Let’s look at the depth cues going on here.

  1. DEPTH OF FIELD. Although I’m shooting at f1.8, on a 20mm lens nothing is massively out of focus, so that isn’t helping much.
  2. SMOKE. There is more smoke between the camera and a distant object than between the camera and a close object, and therefore smoke aids depth perception.
  3. CONTRAST. The foreground is darker than the background, helping the eye to distinguish between the various layers. In particular, the smoke picks up the light from the windows at the back of the room, creating a blue-white haze against which John’s dark suit stands out clearly, as does Sarah’s silhouette.
  4. COLOUR CONTRAST. The foreground is lit with warm orange, while the background is a cool blue, again enhancing the separation between the layers. (Imagine you’re standing on a hill and looking at another hill in the distance. That distant hill looks much bluer than the one you’re standing on, due to atmospheric haze. The smoke and colour contrast mimic this effect.) For most of this film I kept all the light sources within about 1,500K of each other, but in this scene I deliberately allowed more like 3,000K of difference between warm and cool sources to give the flashback a more stylised look.
  5. BACKLIGHT. John has a little edge-light on his righthand side, ostensibly from the wall sconces, but in reality from a hidden Dedo. This helps to cut him out from the background.
  6. FRAMING. The doorway frames the image, adding an extra layer of depth.
  7. PARALLAX. This is the optical phenomenon whereby, when you move your head (or a camera) things closer to you appear to move more than things further away. By dollying slightly into the room behind Sarah we create a dramatic parallax effect as the doorway grows on camera much more than John and the room behind him.

I’ll leave you with my (retrospective) lighting plan for this scene. Be sure to check out the film’s official website at www.thedeathsofjohnsmith.com

Lighting plan
Lighting plan
Depth Cues in Cinematography

How to Light a Church

Roger Harding (left) and Jeremy Heynes in The Deaths of John Smith.
Roger Harding (left) and Jeremy Heynes in The Deaths of John Smith. A 1.2K HMI punches through the window on the right, while a fluorescent softbox illuiminates the arches on the left. Background light comes from two 500W halogen work-lights rigged to a dimmer, while fill (given that it was getting dark outside at this point) comes from a blue-gelled 1K Arrilite behind and to the left of camera.

This weekend shooting began on Roger Harding and Darren Scott’s feature-length comedy The Deaths of John Smith. As director of photography I was called on to light a beautiful rural church on a limited budget. Here are some tips for ecclesial cinematography:

  • Hire HMIs – powerful, daylight-balanced lamps. Without at least one you will never have enough light to illuminate anything but the tiniest of churches. As a backlight on a mezzanine level, a 2.5K HMI will illuminate most churches. Better still, put them outside the windows and create artificial sunbeams. (A blue-gelled blonde or redhead outside a stained glass window is pretty much useless; those windows cut out so much light.)
  • Use smoke. A £50 disco smoke machine is perfectly sufficient – use it to volumize the light and emphasise the depth and scale of the building. If you’re struggling to expose a bright enough image, smoke helps there too – because it catches the backlight and lightens up the shadows.
  • Candlelight is a good way to introduce colour contrast into your scene. Dedos are the best lamps to fake candelight with, as they can produce a small circular pool of light. Failing that, any tungsten source will do, ideally rigged to a dimmer board for a bit of flickering.
  • Assuming you’ve got your HMIs punching directly in through all the windows on one side of your church (that’s the side the “sun” is on), you now need soft light coming in through the opposite windows. Ideally these would be larger HMIs playing off bounce boards, but you might get away with soft boxes or bounced tungsten sources (gelled blue, of course) hidden behind pillars inside the building.
  • Sellotape together some old bits of coloured gel and rig them in front of a fresnel to simulate daylight through a stained glass window. Note that this doesn’t really work with unfocused lamps like redheads.
Left to right: David Draper, Bryan Ferriman and Adrian Moore.
Left to right: David Draper, Bryan Ferriman and Adrian Moore. Our single HMI shines through the lefthand window, suitably volumized with smoke, leaving natural light to deal with the other two. A blue-gelled 1K Arrilite off to the right of frame creates the edge-light on the righthand side of each character. An existing halogen spotlight over the organ was gelled with half CTB to cool it down a little. I chose to leave the nearside of the characters dark to contrast the foreground with the brighter background.

On The Deaths of John Smith I only had access to one HMI, so for every shot I needed to carefully choose which window to put it outside of for the maximum impact. I relied on natural light as well as blue-gelled redheads and fluorescent softboxes just out of frame for fill light. Nonetheless, I’m very pleased with the results. Next weekend we have to repeat the performance with a large congregation….

All images copyright 2013 Two Hats Films. Visit the Facebook page or the official website for more info on The Deaths of John Smith.

Here the "sun" (HMI) is outside of the lefthand background window.
Here the “sun” (HMI) is outside of the lefthand background window, but I couldn’t resist cheating a little and pushing a 1K Arrilite through a nice yellow stained glass window in the top centre background. Additional backlight comes from a blue-gelled Arrilite off frame right, while a softbox behind and to the left of camera illuminates the actor’s face.
How to Light a Church