Heretiks: Day -1

I eat breakfast at the hotel with the co-writer. We talk about dodgy Alan Moore adaptations and the perfection of Die Hard. When we get to the production office I’m still trying to figure out the lighting list, which is tricky because my gaffer is in transit from Poland! The office is in a castle, which is very cool but you have to go outside to make phone calls; the thick stone walls cut out all reception.
Paul is sitting doing storyboards, and he talks me through what he’s drawn for the first few days. They’re crude, but they give me an idea of how flexible I’ll have to be on lighting to accommodate the roving Steadicam moves he wants. I show him my blog post on 2.39:1 composition to see how he feels about things like short-siding, formal composition, squeezing people into the edges of frame. He’s up for all of it, which is great.
Julian, the production designer, takes me around the rooms we’ll be shooting in at the castle. We talk about where we can help each other out.
After lunch it’s time to set up for the make-up tests. An Alexa, the Cooke S4 primes, a monitor and some basic lighting gear has been delivered for this. I pick a room in the castle from which I can easily eliminate the natural light and while Rudy, my AC for the afternoon, sets up the camera, I establish a 3-point lighting set-up. We have three actors and four make-ups in total to test. I also want to test Soft FX filters and see if any of them will work for the show. We try different strengths (1/2, 1 and 2) on the first actor and quickly we all agree on 1/2. It gives the image a filmic softness without looking cheesy.
Leaving the 1/2 Soft FX in for the rest of the tests, I experiment with different lighting to see how the prosthetics and straight make-up react. I try four different keys: a 650W tungsten fresnel bounced from the side, the 650 bounced from above, the 650 direct and a kinoflo direct. I had issues on Ren with kinoflos causing shine, but here we seem to be fine. I test with and without fill, with hard and diffused backlights, and with bounce from below. We also look at cooler and warmer white balances to see how moonlight and candlelight will affect the make-up. What’s great about these tests is that I can play with the looks and get immediate feedback from Paul as he stands at the monitor. He really responds to the moodier looks, which makes me very happy.

Heretiks: Day -1

Heretiks: Day -2

Up at the crack of dawn to travel back to Wales, armed with a nice new warm coat, ski socks and thermals! On the train I read some relevant American Cinematographer articles and watch Ida. Stylistically it’s nothing like Heretiks will be, but I want to see how they handle some similar themes visually. It is as beautifully shot as everyone says it is.
I arrive at the production office…
We have a big production meeting, going through the schedule day by day to address the concerns of the various departments. Naked flames vs. LED candles are discussed again. Having dealt extensively with the latter on The First Musketeer, I’m keen not to go down that route again. I get to see some initial make-up tests, and there’s lots of back-and-forth with me, Ben (the gaffer), the rental house and production about the lighting list, trying to get it down to a level that works for the budget and the size of our lighting crew.
Back at the hotel I write a risk assessment – urgh – apparently insurance companies expect these from all HoDs now. Dinner with one of the writers and one of the producers – they’re very nice, as is everyone on the team. Then I get to work on some lighting plans.

Heretiks: Day -2

Heretiks: Hitting the Ground Running

Carthusian-monks.jpgI just got hired last-minute to photograph a 17th Century supernatural thriller feature. At this stage I don’t know how much time I’ll have and how much I’ll be allowed to say about it, but I thought I would try a daily blog. It might make a nice change to “bring you along” on a shoot. So let’s dive right in.

November 11th
I’m one of several DPs to meet with Paul, the director, about the project. Since first being contacted about it yesterday (sound recordist David kindly recommended me) I’ve only had time to read the script, watch the trailers for Paul’s last two films and do a quick google for some reference images. Several of those images are from The Devil’s Backbone, a film that sprung to mind as I read the script for Heretiks. Another image is the one in this post. I love the idea of the God rays coming in but not hitting the characters; they’re trying to be divine but falling short. I suggest to Paul that this could be a visual theme, and he seems enthusiastic. The meeting goes very well.
Paul’s keen on using a lot of Steadicam, so even though I haven’t got the gig yet I call Rupert (my 1st AC and Steadicam op on Exile Incessant) and sound him out.

November 12th
Mid-morning I get a call from the producer, offering me the job. I immediately confirm Rupert and spend the next few hours trying to fill out the rest of the camera, grip and lighting crew. After a brief discussion with Paul about shooting format, we quickly settle on the Alexa. I call the rental house, 180 Degrees in Bristol, to introduce myself, confirm the camera package and Cooke S4 lenses, and add an extra item or two.
Around 5pm I set off for South Wales, to be ready for tech scouts the next day. Rammed into a rush-hour train from Paddington, I go through a hardcopy of the script with a biro and two highlighter pens: blue for lighting, pink for camera. I also compile a character cheat sheet, because the script has a lot of characters and I know I’ll get them mixed up otherwise. It will also help to track their journeys through the story.

November 13th
I wake up to a wet, windy and bitterly cold Welsh morning. I’m going to need to buy thermal underwear before the shoot starts. A dozen of us pile into a minibus and drive to the first of our two main locations. As Paul talks everyone through the scenes, I struggle to keep up, being less familiar with the script than the others, some of whom have already been on the project for weeks. We don’t have a gaffer for the shoot yet, but a friend of the production manager’s has come along to draw up a lighting list. I’m also liasing with the effects supervisor and the production designer as we consider the requirements of each room. The first location is home to a protected bat colony, so only a specific type of bat-friendly smoke can be used.
After a very welcome pub dinner, we proceed to the second location. By this time it’s much clearer what Paul and Justin (the production designer) are aiming for. I can’t wait to see Justin’s plans come to life. When the recce is finished, we go through the schedule to determine which days will require naked flames – requiring an additional effects person on set. Then I head home, finishing my script mark-up on the way. I have the weekend off, then it’s back to Wales on Monday to start prep in earnest.

Heretiks: Hitting the Ground Running

5 Things Directors Should Know About Cinematography

IMG_4793_2watermark-1000pxAny director worth their salt will be skilled in telling a story with the camera. But, quite understandably, they’re not familiar with the key concepts of cinematography – particularly the lighting side of cinematography – which a DP employs every day to create images that have impact, mood and production value. For the most part, directors don’t need to know these things – after all, that’s what the DP’s there for – but understanding a few of the basic concepts can help set up your film for visual excellence before the DP even gets involved.

1. We don’t light from the front.

It is logical to assume that light coming from behind the camera will give the best illumination to a scene. And on a purely cold, scientific level, it’s true. But on an aesthetic level, it couldn’t be more wrong. Quite apart from the practical issues of boom shadows and actors squinting in the sun, frontlight gives a flat, depthless image similar to a photo taken with flash.

Lighting from behind. Gotta love it.
Lighting from behind. Gotta love it.

Similarly, anyone who has taken photos with a camera in automatic mode will have been told – or quickly learnt – that shooting towards the sun, or when indoors, towards a window, is a bad idea, resulting in silhouettes and/or blown-out skies. So directors are often surprised when towards the sun (or a window) is EXACTLY the direction I want to shoot in, because it supplies beautiful backlight and allows me to fill in the shadow side – the side towards camera – as I see fit. No, it’s not going to be a silhouette (unless that’s what we’re going for) because I have a lamps and I have manual control of my iris.

2. Dark scenes do not require a camera with good low light sensitivity.

It depends what you mean by dark. A scene that is dark as a creative decision won’t actually be dark in reality because it will still be lit, perhaps highly lit, to create a moody, contrasty look. Therefore the camera’s sensitivity is not much of an issue.

A scene that is dark because you don’t have the budget to light it properly – yes, that’s going to need a sensitive camera if you’re going to see anything but noise.

3. You can’t fix everything in the grade.

It is truly amazing what can be done with today’s colour correction software, but there are two things it can’t do: it can’t save an image that was seriously underlit or underexposed, and it can’t change the angle or quality of light. Colour and intensity, yes. Angle and quality (soft/hard), no. And since these are the main things a DP determines, grading can never replace a good cinematographer. If it doesn’t look good on the monitor on the day, it will probably never look good.

4. We can’t light without seeing the blocking.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned up on set and asked to see the blocking, and been told no because the actors actors are in make-up, “but they’re going to stand kind of here.” In most circumstances, the first scene of the day should be blocked BEFORE the actors go to make-up. That way the DP can be lighting while the cast is getting made up, which is much more time efficient. Otherwise the DP tinkers about trying to light the space and looking at their watch, then when the talent comes out everyone is kept waiting while the DP changes all the lighting. Because inevitably the actors will want to do something different than what the director had in mind, or the director forgot to mention that one of the actors has to be seen coming through the door at the start, etc, etc. Blocking can also throw up problems with the scene which can be solved by various other departments while make-up is going on.

Great costume - check. Great location - check. (Photo from The First Musketeer by Jessica Ozlo)
Great costume – check. Great location – check. (Photo from The First Musketeer by Jessica Ozlo)

5. A good camera and a good DP are not substitutes for good design.

Light and lensing can only do so much. If what’s put in front of the camera doesn’t look good to start with, there’s very little I can do about it. Get an art director. Please, please, please, get an art director. They will do much more for the look of your film than I can. I don’t care if it’s a futuristic sci-fi movie or a gritty drama shot in a student flat, you need an experienced person with an artistic eye adding character to the sets and locations, developing a palette and composing everything beautifully for the camera.

5 Things Directors Should Know About Cinematography

Stop/Eject Now on YouTube

After 18 months in the making and 2 years on the festival circuit, the short fantasy-drama Stop/Eject is now available to watch for free on YouTube. Here it is…

Stop/Eject stars Georgina Sherrington – best known as Mildred Hubble from ITV’s The Worst Witch – as a grieving widow who discovers a mysterious old tape recorder that can stop and rewind time… but can she save her husband?

The journey of getting Stop/Eject to the screen has had its ups and downs, with the whole project almost collapsing in autumn 2011, before being reborn and shot in April 2012, then a very quiet period of rejection upon rejection from festivals until its official selection for Raindance 2014 and its subsequent long-listing for a Bafta this year. A feature-length version was even in development for a while, until I realised that the concept just doesn’t work beyond a short. For me the high-point was a screening last week ahead of Back to the Future at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge, with a buzzing audience of almost 100 people.

Those of you who have been waiting a while to see Stop/Eject, I very much hope you enjoy it. If you want a copy to own, we’re selling a very small number of DVDs and Blu-rays that are left over – go to

Stop/Eject Now on YouTube