My New Online Course: “Cinematography for Drama”

My new second online cinematography course, Cinematography for Drama, is now out on Udemy. The course explains the role of a DP on set, from collaborating with the director in blocking the cast and choosing the camera angles, to lighting the scene with depth and mood.

Across the four modules of the course, I set up and shoot scenes in common contemporary locations: domestic banter in a sunny kitchen, a monologue in a dark bedroom, an awkward first date in a restaurant, and a walk-and-talk in an outdoor bar. Watch me try out different blocking and camera angles to get the most depth and interest in the frame, create movement using a slider and a gimbal, and work out the coverage needed to complete the scene. Then learn the secrets of cinematic lighting as I set up LED, tungsten and practical lights to create a look. Witness the camera rehearsals through to the final take, then sit back and watch the final edited scene. Every step of the way, I explain what I’m doing and why, as well as the alternatives you could consider for your own films.

This is a follow-up to my best-selling Udemy course Cinematic Lighting, which has over 3,600 students and a star rating of 4.5 out of 5. Here is some student feedback:

  • “Excellent. Informative and enjoyable to watch.” – 5 stars – David C.
  • “Thank you to Neil and his team for a fantastic course that gives a real insight into the thought process of a cinematographer.” – 5 stars – Dan B.
  • “Some great tips in this. Really enjoyed watching the decisions being made as and when the scenario is actually being lit, some good workarounds and nice in depth descriptions to why he’s doing what he is. Genuinely feels like your taking in some advice on set! Well worth taking the time to do this!” – 5 stars – Ed L.

You can get the new course for a special low price by using the code IREADTHEBLOG before April 2nd.

My New Online Course: “Cinematography for Drama”

Cinematography in a Virtual World

Yesterday I paid a visit to my friend Chris Bouchard, co-director of The Little Mermaid and director of the hugely popular Lord of the Rings fan film The Hunt for Gollum. Chris has been spending a lot of time working with Unreal, the gaming engine, to shape it into a filmmaking tool.

The use of Unreal Engine in LED volumes has been getting a lot of press lately. The Mandalorian famously uses this virtual production technology, filming actors against live-rendered CG backgrounds displayed on large LED walls. What Chris is working on is a little bit different. He’s taking footage shot against a conventional green screen and using Unreal to create background environments and camera movements in post-production. He’s also playing with Unreal’s MetaHumans, realistic virtual models of people. The faces of these MetaHumans can be puppeteered in real time by face-capturing an actor through a phone or webcam.

Chris showed me some of the environments and MetaHumans he has been working on, adapted from pre-built library models. While our friend Ash drove the facial expressions of the MetaHuman, I could use the mouse and keyboard to move around and find shots, changing the focal length and aperture at will. (Disconcertingly, aperture and exposure are not connected in this virtual environment. Changing the f-stop only alters the depth of field.) I also had complete control of the lighting. This meant that I could re-position the sun with a click and drag, turn God rays on and off, add haze, adjust the level of ambient sky-light, and so on.

Of course, I tended to position the sun as backlight. Adding a virtual bounce board would have been too taxing for the computer, so instead I created a “Rect Light”, a soft rectangular light source of any width and height I desired. With one of these I could get a similar look to a 12×12′ Ultrabounce.

The system is pretty intuitive and it wasn’t hard at all to pick up the basics. There are, however, a lot of settings, some of which even Chris doesn’t fully understand yet. To be a user-friendly tool, many of these settings would need to be stripped out and perhaps others like aperture and exposure should be linked together. Simple things like renaming a “Rect Light” to a soft light would help too.

The system raises an interesting creative question. Do you make the image look like real life, or like a movie, or as perfect as possible? We DPs might like to think our physically filmed images are realistic, but that’s not always the case; a cinematic night exterior bears little resemblance to genuinely being outdoors at night, for example. It is interesting that games designers, like the one below (who actually uses a couple of images from my blog as references around 3:58), are far more interested in replicating the artificial lighting of movies than going for something more naturalistic.

As physical cinematographers we are also restricted by the limitations of time, equipment and the laws of physics. Freed from these shackles, we could create “perfect” images, but is that really a good idea? The Hobbit‘s endless sunset and sunrise scenes show how tedious and unbelievable “perfection” can get.

There is no denying that the technology is incredibly impressive, and constantly improving. Ash had brought along his Playstation 5 and we watched The Matrix Awakens, a semi-interactive film using real-time rendering. Genuine footage of Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss is intercut with MetaHumans and an incredibly detailed city which you can explore. If you dig into the menu you can also adjust some camera settings and take photos. I’ll leave you with a few that I captured as I roamed the streets of this cyber-metropolis.

Cinematography in a Virtual World

Slit-scan and the Legacy of Douglas Trumbull

Award-winning visual effects artist Douglas Trumbull died recently, leaving behind a body of memorable work including the slit-scan “Stargate” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But what is slit-scan and where else has it been used?

Slit-scan has its origins in still photography of the 1800s. A mask with a slit in it would be placed in front of the photographic plate, and the slit would be moved during the exposure. It was like a deliberate version of the rolling shutter effect of a digital sensor, where different lines of the image are offset slightly in time. 

The technique could be used to capture a panorama onto a curved plate by having the lens (with a slit behind it) rotate in the centre of the curve. Later it was adapted into strip photography, a method used to capture photo-finishes at horse races. This time the slit would be stationary and the film would move behind it. The result would be an image in which the horizontal axis represented not a spatial dimension but a temporal one.

Such a collision of time and space was exactly what Stanley Kubrick required for the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when astronaut Dr David Bowman is treated to a mind-warping journey by the alien monolith.

Douglas Trumbull, then only 25, had already been working on the film for a couple of years, first producing graphics for the monitors in the spacecraft (all done with physical photography), then detailing and shooting miniatures like the moon bus, creating planets by projecting painted slides onto plexiglass hemispheres, and so on, eventually earning a “special photographic effects supervisor” credit.

“The story called for something that represented this transit into another dimension,” Trumbull said of the Stargate in a 2011 interview with ABC, “something that would be completely abstract, not something you could aim a camera at in the real world. 

“I had been exposed to some things like time-lapse photography and what is called ‘streak photography’,” he continued, referring to long exposures which turn a point light source into a streak on film.

This germ of an idea developed into a large and elaborate machine that took five minutes to shoot a single frame. 

The camera was mounted on a special tracking dolly driven by a worm gear to ensure slow, precise movement. While exposing a single frame it would creep towards a large black mask with a 4ft-high slit in it. Behind the slit was a piece of backlit artwork mounted on a carriage that could move perpendicularly to the camera. This artwork – an abstract painting or a photo blow-up of flowers or coral – slid slowly to the right or left as the camera tracked towards it. Remember, this was all just to capture one frame.

The resulting image showed a wall of patterned light stretching into the distance – a wall generated by that slit streaking across the frame.

For each new frame of film the process was repeated with the artwork starting in a slightly different position. Then the whole strip of film was exposed a second time with the camera adjusted so that the slit now produced a second wall on the other side of frame, creating a tunnel.

The Stargate sequence was unlike anything audiences had seen before, and one of the many people inspired by it was the BBC’s Bernard Lodge, who was responsible for creating Doctor Who’s title sequences at the time. For early versions he had used a ‘howl-around’ technique, pointing a camera at a monitor showing its own output, but when a new look was requested in 1973 he decided to employ slit-scan.

Lodge used circles, diamonds and even the silhouette of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor rather than a straight slit, creating tunnels of corresponding shapes. Instead of artwork he used stressed polythene bags shot through polarising filters to create abstract textures. The sequence was updated to incorporate Tom Baker when he took over the lead role the following year, and lasted until the end of the decade.

An adaptation of slit-scan was used in another sci-fi classic, Star Trek: The Next Generation, where it was used to show the Enterprise-D elongating as it goes to warp. This time a slit of light was projected onto the miniature ship, scanning across it as the camera pulled back and a single frame was exposed. “It appears to stretch, like a rubber band expanding and then catching back up to itself,” visual effects supervisor Robert Legato told American Cinematographer. “This process can only be used for a couple of shots, though; it’s very expensive.”

Thanks to CGI, such shots are now quick, cheap and easy, but the iconic images produced by the painstaking analogue techniques of artists like Douglas Trumbull will live on for many years to come.

Slit-scan and the Legacy of Douglas Trumbull

7 Awesome Female DPs

For International Women’s Day in 2017 I wrote about “seven female DPs you didn’t know you’ve been watching”. Since then I’m happy to say that both the number and visibility of women behind the camera seem to have improved, though there’s still a long way to go before equality is achieved. So here, on the eve of this year’s IWD, are seven more female DPs whose work has caught my eye.

 

Natasha Braier, ASC, ADF

Braier is best known for Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. On this film she began to develop a unique technique she calls “lens painting”, whereby she creates a custom filter for every shot by applying a range of substances (presumably onto an optical flat). “I have a whole set of five suitcases with different materials, different powders and liquids and glitters, things like that,” she said in a 2020 interview. Braier’s other features include Amazon Original Honey Boy, and she’s currently shooting the pilot of American Gigolo for Paramount. Her awards include several for commercials and three for Neon Demon, and she was number 15 on The Playlist’s “50 Best and Most Exciting Cinematographers Working Today”.

 

Catherine Goldschmidt

Born in California, raised in New Jersey and now based in London, Goldschmidt studied cinematography at the American Film Institute. Her credits include episodes of Doctor WhoA Discovery of Witches and new Amazon series Chloe, as well as the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. She has provided additional photography for the features Hope Gap (shot by another female DP to watch, Anna Valdez Hanks) and Spider-Man: Far from Home, while her short-form work includes the Qibi comedy series Dummy starring Anna Kendrick (impressively framed simultaneously for 16:9 and 9:16 aspect ratios). Goldschmidt founded the female DPs’ collective Illuminatrix along with Vanessa Whyte.

 

Magdalena Gorka, ASC, PSC

Gorka is a graduate of the Polish National Film School. I remember seeing her on a panel at Camerimage in 2017. She talked about how getting the look right in camera was important to her, because she worked on low-budget productions and she didn’t always have control in post. These days she’s shooting Star Trek: Strange New Worlds so presumably the budgets have gone up a bit (though who knows about the control). She also lensed the entire second season of Netflix Euro-thriller Into the Night, several episodes of underdog superhero saga Doom Patrol, feature films including Bridesmaids and Paranormal Activity 3, and music promos for Katy Perry and Elton John. Gorka was recently welcomed into the American Society of Cinematographers.

 

Kate Reid, BSC

With a background in art and a year at the University of California under her belt, Reid studied cinematography at NFTS. After graduating she worked as a camera assistant under such DPs as Balazs Bolygo, BSC, HSC and Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC before rising to the rank herself. Her early work included documentaries like Years of Living Dangerously and award-winning shorts like Nazi Boots. She now shoots a lot of high-end TV, including episodes of Game of Thrones, action thriller Hanna, detective drama Marcella, and upcoming dark comedy The Baby from HBO. She was nominated for an ASC Award this year for “Hanged”, her episode of Josh Whedon’s sci-fi show The Nevers.

 

Nanu Segal, BSC

It was while Segal was studying chemistry at university that she became an avid cinema-goer and began to consider a career in this industry. “It seemed to offer the perfect combination of technical intrigue and artistry,” she told Primetime. She subsequently attended film school and learnt from the likes of Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC and Sue Gibson, BSC. Segal has shot the features Marvelous and the Black Hole, Old Boys, The Levelling and An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn. Her shorts include Bit by Bit, For Love and All of this Unreal Time. She contributed second unit photography to Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

 

Ari Wegner, ACS

Wegner attended a Melbourne film school where she made shorts with fellow students in her spare time. She has shot commercials for brands like Apple, and TV series like The Girlfriend Experience for Starz. In 2017 she won a BIFA for period drama Lady MacBeth (gaffered by one of my regular collaborators, Ben Millar). Last month she became the first woman to win a BSC Award for Best Cinematography in a Theatrical Feature Film, for Montana-set drama The Power of the Dog. This, and the many other cinematography awards the film has scooped, are the just reward for Wegner’s unprecedented year of prep with director Jane Campion. The pair took inspiration from another impressive and talented woman, turn-of-the-20th-century Montana photographer Evelyn Cameron.

 

Zoë White, ACS

White has shot 12 episodes of the multi-award-winning Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, garnering Primetime Emmy and ASC Award nominations for her episode “Holly”. There’s many ways to translate the way you want something to feel,” she said in a 2019 interview about the series, “and there’s a lot of gut instinct that comes with deciding what it is that you think is most effective for a particular moment.” White also shot the pilot for Netflix drama Hit and Run, and two episodes of Westworld plus aerial photography for two more. Her indie work includes short psychological thriller The Push (winner of Best Cinematography at Brooklyn Horror Film Festival 2016) and coming-of-age drama Princess Cydney. 

7 Awesome Female DPs