Beautiful/Realistic/Cheap: The Lighting Triangle

We’re all familiar with the “good/fast/cheap” triangle. You can pick any two, but never all three. When it comes to lighting films, I would posit that there is a slightly different triangle of truth labelled “beautiful/realistic/cheap”. When you’re working to a tight budget, a DP often has to choose between beautiful or realistic lighting, where a better-funded cinematographer can have both.

I first started thinking about this in 2018 when I shot Annabel Lee. Specifically it was when we were shooting a scene from this short period drama – directed by Amy Coop – in a church. Our equipment package was on the larger side for a short, but still far from ideal for lighting up a building of that size. Our biggest instrument was a Nine-light Maxi Brute, which is a grid of 1KW par globes, then we had a couple of 2.5K HMIs and nothing else of any signifcant power.

Director Amy Coop during the church recce for “Annabel Lee”

The master shot for the scene was a side-on dolly move parallel to the central aisle, with three large stained-glass windows visible in the background. My choices were either to put a Maxi Brute or an HMI outside each window, to use only natural light, or to key the scene from somewhere inside the building. The first option was beautiful but not realistic, as I shall explain, the second option would have been realistic but not beautiful (and probably under-exposed) and the third would have been neither.

I went with the hard source outside of each window. I could not diffuse or bounce the light because that would have reduced the intensity to pretty much nothing. (Stained-glass windows don’t transmit a lot of light through them.) For the same reason, the lamps had to be pretty close to the glass.

The result is that, during this dolly shot, each of the three lamps is visible at one time or another. You can’t tell they’re lamps – the blown-out panes of glass disguise them – but the fact that there are three of them rather gives away that they are not the sun! (There is also the issue that contiguous scenes outside the church have overcast light, but that is a discontinuity I have noticed in many other films and series.)

I voiced my concerns to Amy at the time – trying to shirk responsibility, I suppose! Fortunately she found it beautiful enough to let the realism slide.

But I couldn’t help thinking that, with a larger budget and thus larger instruments, I could have had both beauty and realism. If I had had three 18K HMIs, for example, plus the pre-rig time to put them on condors or scaffolding towers, they could all have been high enough and far enough back from the windows that they wouldn’t have been seen. I would still have got the same angle of light and the nice shafts in the smoke, but they would have passed much more convincingly as a single sun source. Hell, if I’d had the budget for a 100KW SoftSun then I really could have done it with one source!

There have been many other examples of the beauty/realism problem throughout my career. One that springs to mind is Above the Clouds, where the 2.5K HMI which I was using as a backlight for a night exterior was in an unrealistic position. The ground behind the action sloped downwards, so the HMI on its wind-up stand threw shafts of light upwards. With the money for a cherry-picker, a far more moon-like high-angle could have been achieved. Without such funds, my only alternative was to sacrifice the beauty of a backlight altogether, which I was not willing to do.

The difference between that example and Annabel Lee is that Clouds director Leon Chambers was unable to accept the unrealistic lighting, and ended up cutting around it. So I think it’s quite important to get on the same page as your director when you’re lighting with limited means.

I remember asking Paul Hyett when we were prepping Heretiks, “How do you feel about shafts of ‘sunlight’ coming into a room from two different directions?” He replied that “two different directions is fine, but not three.” That was a very nice, clear drawing of the line between beauty (or at least stylisation) and realism, which helped me enormously during production.

The beauty/realism/cost triangle is one we all have to navigate. Although it might sometimes give us regrets about what could have been, as long we’re on the same page as our directors we should still get results we can all live with.

Beautiful/Realistic/Cheap: The Lighting Triangle

The Long Lenses of the 90s

Lately, having run out of interesting series, I’ve found myself watching a lot of nineties blockbusters: Outbreak, Twister, Dante’s Peak, Backdraft, Daylight. Whilst eighties movies were the background to my childhood, and will always have a place in my heart, it was the cinema of the nineties that I was immersed in as I began my own amateur filmmaking. So, looking back on those movies now, while certain clichés stand out like sore thumbs, they still feel to me like solid examples of how to make a summer crowd-pleaser.

Let’s get those clichés out of the way first. The lead character always has a failed marriage. There’s usually an opening scene in which they witness the death of a spouse or close relative, before the legend “X years later” fades up. The dog will be saved, but the crotchety elderly character will die nobly. Buildings instantly explode towards camera when touched by lava, hurricanes, floods or fires. A stubborn senior authority figure will refuse to listen to the disgraced lead character who will ultimately be proven correct, to no-one’s surprise.

Practical effects in action on “Twister”

There’s an intensity to nineties action scenes, born of the largely practical approach to creating them. The decade was punctuated by historic advances in digital effects: the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2 (1991), digital dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993), motion-captured passengers aboard the miniature Titanic (1997), Bullet Time in The Matrix (1999). Yet these techniques remained expensive and time-consuming, and could not match traditional methods of creating explosions, floods, fire or debris. The result was that the characters in jeopardy were generally surrounded by real set-pieces and practical effects, a far more nerve-wracking experience for the viewer than today, when we can tell that our heroes are merely imagining their peril on a green-screen stage.

One thing I was looking out for during these movie meanders down memory lane was lens selection. A few weeks back, a director friend had asked me to suggest examples of films that preferred long lenses. He had mentioned that such lenses were more in vogue in the nineties, which I’d never thought about before.

As soon as I started to consider it, I realised how right my friend was. And how much that long-lens looked had influenced me. When I started out making films, I was working with the tiny sensors of Mini-DV cameras. I would often try to make my shots look more cinematic by shooting on the long end of the zoom. This was partly to reduce the depth of field, but also because I instinctively felt that the compressed perspective was more in keeping with what I saw at the cinema.

I remember being surprised by something that James Cameron said in his commentary on the Aliens DVD:

I went to school on Ridley [Scott]’s style of photography, which was actually quite a bit different from mine, because he used a lot of long lenses, much more so than I was used to working with.

I had assumed that Cameron used long lenses too, because I felt his films looked incredibly cinematic, and because I was so sure that cinematic meant telephoto. I’ve discussed in the past what I think people tend to mean by the term “cinematic”, and there’s hardly a definitive answer, but I’m now sure that lens length has little to do with it.

“Above the Clouds” (dir. Leon Chambers)

And yet… are those nineties films influencing me still? I have to confess, I struggle with short lenses to this day. I find it hard to make wide-angle shots look as good. On Above the Clouds, to take just one example, I frequently found that I preferred the wide shots on a 32mm than a 24mm. Director Leon Chambers agreed; perhaps those same films influenced him?

A deleted scene from Ren: The Girl with the Mark ends with some great close-ups shot on my old Sigma 105mm still lens, complete with the slight wobble of wind buffeting the camera, which to my mind only adds to the cinematic look! On a more recent project, War of the Worlds: The Attack, I definitely got a kick from scenes where we shot the heroes walking towards us down the middle of the street on a 135mm.

Apart from the nice bokeh, what does a long lens do for an image? I’ve already mentioned that it compresses perspective, and because this is such a different look to human vision, it arguably provides a pleasing unreality. You could describe it as doing for the image spatially what the flicker of 24fps (versus high frame rates) does for it temporally. Perhaps I shy away from short lenses because they look too much like real life, they’re too unforgiving, like many people find 48fps to be.

The compression applies to people’s faces too. Dustin Hoffman is not known for his small nose, yet it appears positively petite in the close-up below from Outbreak. While this look flatters many actors, others benefit from the rounding of their features caused by a shorter lens.

Perhaps the chief reason to be cautious of long lenses is that they necessitate placing the camera further from the action, and the viewer will sense this, if only on a subconscious level. A long lens, if misused, can rob a scene of intimacy, and if overused could even cause the viewer to disengage with the characters and story.

I’ll leave you with some examples of long-lens shots from the nineties classics I mentioned at the start of this post. Make no mistake, these films employed shorter lenses too, but it certainly looks to me like they used longer lenses on average than contemporary movies.

 

Outbreak

DP: Michael Ballhaus, ASC

 

Twister

DP: Jack N. Green, ASC

 

Daylight

DP: David Eggby, ACS

 

Dante’s Peak

DP: Andrzej Bartkowiak, ASC

 

Backdraft

DP: Mikael Salomon, ASC

For more on this topic, see my article about “The Normal Lens”.

The Long Lenses of the 90s

Working with White Walls

White walls are the bane of a DP’s existence. They bounce light around everywhere, killing the mood, and they look cheap and boring in the background of your shot. Nonetheless, with so many contemporary buildings decorated this way, it’s a challenge we all have to face. Today I’m going to look back on two short films I’ve photographed, and explain the different approaches I took to get the white-walled locations looking nice.

Finding Hope is a moving drama about a couple grieving for the baby they have lost. It was shot largely at the home of the producer, Jean Maye, on a Sony FS7 with Sigma and Pentax stills glass.

Exit Eve is a non-linear narrative about the dehumanisation of an au pair by her wealthy employers. With a fairly respectable budget for a short, this production shot in a luxurious Battersea townhouse on an Arri Alexa Classic with Ultra Primes.

 

“Crown”-inspired colour contrast

Cheap 300W dimmers like these are great for practicals.

It was January 2017 when we made Finding Hope, and I’d recently been watching a lot of The Crown. I liked how that series punctuated its daylight interior frames with pools of orange light from practicals. We couldn’t afford much of a lighting package, and I thought that pairing existing pracs with dimmers and tungsten bulbs would be a cheap and easy way to break up the white walls and bring some warmth – perhaps a visual representation of the titular hope – into the heavy story.

I shot all the daylight interiors at 5600K to get that warmth out of the pracs. Meanwhile I shaped the natural light as far as possible with the existing curtains, and beefed it up with a 1.2K HMI where I could. I used no haze or lens diffusion on the film because I felt it needed the unforgiving edges.

For close-ups, I often cheated the pracs a little closer and tweaked the angle, but I chose not to supplement them with movie lamps. The FS7’s native ISO of 2500 helped a lot, especially in a nighttime scene where the grieving parents finally let each other in. Director Krysten Resnick had decided that there would be tea-lights on the kitchen counter, and I asked art director Justine Arbuthnot to increase the number as much as she dared. They became the key-light, and again I tweaked them around for the close-ups.

My favourite scene in Finding Hope is another nighttime one, in which Crystal Leaity sits at a piano while Kevin Leslie watches from the doorway. I continued the theme of warm practicals, bouncing a bare 100W globe off the wall as Crystal’s key, and shaping the existing hall light with some black wrap, but I alternated that with layers of contrasting blue light: the HMI’s “moonlight” coming in through the window, and the flicker of a TV in the deep background. This latter was a blue-gelled 800W tungsten lamp bounced off a wobbling reflector.

When I saw the finished film, I was very pleased that the colourist had leant into the warm/cool contrast throughout the piece, even teasing it out of the daylight exteriors.

 

Trapped in a stark white townhouse

I took a different approach to colour in Exit Eve. Director Charlie Parham already knew that he wanted strong red lighting in party scenes, and I felt that this would be most effective if I kept colour out of the lighting elsewhere. As the film approaches its climax, I did start to bring in the orange of outside streetlamps, and glimpses of the party’s red, but otherwise I kept the light stark and white.

Converted from a Victorian schoolhouse, the location had high ceilings, huge windows and multiple floors, so I knew that I would mostly have to live with whatever natural light did or didn’t shine in. We were shooting during the heatwave of 2018, with many long handheld takes following lead actor Thalissa Teixeria from room to room and floor to floor, so even the Alexa’s dynamic range struggled to cope with the variations in light level.

For a night scene in the top floor bedroom, I found that the existing practicals were perfectly placed to provide shape and backlight. I white-balanced to 3600K to keep most of the colour out of them, and rigged black solids behind the camera to prevent the white walls from filling in the shadows.

(Incidentally, the night portions of this sequence were shot as one continuous take, despite comprising two different scenes set months apart. The actors did a quick-change and the bed was redressed by the art department while it was out frame, but sadly this tour de force was chopped up in the final cut.)

I had most control over the lighting when it came to the denouement in the ground floor living area. Here I was inspired by the work of Bradford Young, ASC to backlight the closed blinds (with tungsten units gelled to represent streetlights) and allow the actors inside to go a bit dim and murky. For a key moment we put a red gel on one of the existing spotlights in the living room and let the cast step into it.

So there we have it, two different approaches to lighting in a while-walled location: creating colour contrast with dimmed practicals, or embracing the starkness and saving the colour for dramatic moments. How will you tackle your next magnolia-hued background?

For another example of how I’ve tackled white-walled locations, see my Forever Alone blog.

Working with White Walls

Making an Analogue Print

This is the latest in my series about analogue photography. Previously, I’ve covered the science behind film capture, and how to develop your own black-and-white film. Now we’ll proceed to the next step: taking your negative and producing a print from it. Along the way we’ll discover the analogue origins of Photoshop’s dodge and burn tools.

 

Contact printing

35mm contact sheet

To briefly summarise my earlier posts, we’ve seen that photographic emulsion – with the exception of colour slide film – turns black when exposed to light, and remains transparent when not. This is how we end up with a negative, in which dark areas correspond to the highlights in the scene, and light areas correspond with the shadows.

The simplest way to make a positive print from a negative is contact-printing, so called because the negative is placed in direct contact with the photographic printing paper. This is typically done in a spring-loaded contact printing frame, the top of which is made of glass. You shine light through the glass, usually from an enlarger – see below – for a measured period of time, determined by trial and error. Where the negative is dark (highlights) the light can’t get through, and the photographic emulsion on the paper remains transparent, allowing the white paper base to show through. Where the negative is transparent (shadows) the light passes through, and the emulsion – once developed and fixed in the same way as the original film – turns black. Thus a positive image is produced.

Normally you would contact-print multiple strips of negative at the same time, perhaps an entire roll of film’s worth, if your paper is large enough to fit them all. Then you can examine them through a loupe to decide which ones are worth enlarging. You have probably seen contact sheets, complete with circled images, stars and arrows indicating which frames the photographer or picture editor likes, where they might crop it, and which areas need doctoring. In fact, contact sheets are so aesthetically pleasing that it’s not uncommon these days for graphic designers to create fake digital ones.

The correct exposure time for a contact print can be found by exposing the whole sheet for, say, ten seconds, then covering a third of it with a piece of card, exposing it for another ten seconds, then covering that same third plus another third and exposing it for ten seconds more. Once developed, you can decide which exposure you like best, or try another set of timings.

120 contact sheet

 

Making an enlargement

Contact prints are all well and good, but they’re always the same size as the camera negative, which usually isn’t big enough for a finished product, especially with 35mm. This is where an enlarger comes in.

An enlarger is essentially a projector mounted on a stand. You place the negative of your chosen image into a drawer called the negative carrier. Above this is a bulb, and below it is a lens. When the bulb is turned on, light shines through the negative, and the lens focuses the image (upside-down of course) onto the paper below. By adjusting the height of the enlarger’s stand, you can alter the size of the projected image.

Just like a camera lens, an enlarger’s lens has adjustable focus and aperture. You can scrutinise the projected image using a loupe; if you can see the grain of the film, you know that the image is sharply focused.

The aperture is marked in f-stops as you would expect, and just like when shooting, you can trade off the iris size against the exposure time. For example, a print exposed for 30 seconds at f/8 will have the same brightness as one exposed for 15 seconds at f/5.6. (Opening from f/8 to f/5.6 doubles the light, or increases exposure by one stop, while halving the time cuts the light back to its original value.)

 

Dodging and burning

As with contact-printing, the optimum exposure for an enlargement can be found by test-printing strips for different lengths of time. This brings us to dodging and burning, which are respectively methods of decreasing or increasing the exposure time of specific parts of the image.

Remember that the printing paper starts off bright white, and turns black with exposure, so to brighten part of the image you need to reduce its exposure. This can be achieved by placing anything opaque between the projector lens and the paper for part of the exposure time. Typically a circle of cardboard on a piece of wire is used; this is known as a dodger. That’s the “lollipop” you see in the Photoshop icon. It’s important to keep the dodger moving during the exposure, otherwise you’ll end up with a sharply-defined bright area (not to mention a visible line where the wire handle was) rather than something subtle.

I dodged the robin in this image, to help him stand out.

Let me just say that dodging is a joyful thing to do. It’s such a primitive-looking tool, but you feel like a child with a magic wand when you’re using it, and it can improve an image no end. It’s common practice today for digital colourists to power-window a face and increase its luminance to draw the eye to it; photographers have been doing this for decades and decades.

Burning is of couse the opposite of dodging, i.e. increasing the exposure time of part of the picture to make it darker. One common application is to bring back detail in a bright sky. To do this you would first of all expose the entire image in such a way that the land will look good. Then, before developing, you would use a piece of card to cover the land, and expose the sky for maybe five or ten seconds more. Again, you would keep the card in constant motion to blend the edges of the effect.

To burn a smaller area, you would cut a hole in a piece of card, or simply form your hands into a rough hole, as depicted in the Photoshop icon.

 

Requirements of a darkroom

The crucial thing which I haven’t yet mentioned is that all of the above needs to take place in near-darkness. Black-and-white photographic paper is less sensitive to the red end of the spectrum, so a dim red lamp known as a safe-light can be used to see what you’re doing. Anything brighter – even your phone’s screen – will fog your photographic paper as soon as you take it out of its lightproof box.

Once your print is exposed, you need to agitate it in a tray of diluted developer for a couple of minutes, then dip it in a tray of water, then place it in a tray of diluted fixer. Only then can you turn on the main lights, but you must still fix the image for five minutes, then leave it in running water for ten minutes before drying it. (This all assumes you’re using resin-coated paper.)

Because you need an enlarger, which is fairly bulky, and space for the trays of chemicals, and running water, all in a room that is one hundred per cent lightproof, printing is a difficult thing to do at home. Fortunately there are a number of darkrooms available for hire around the country, so why not search for a local one and give analogue printing a go?

Some enlargements from 35mm on 8×10″ paper

 

Making an Analogue Print

8 Things to Look For When Buying a Cinema Camera

A couple of weeks ago I shared my thoughts about whether a director of photography should own equipment. My conclusion was that it can be useful early in your career, when you’re shooting corporates or tiny films with no hire budget. So what is the best camera for indie cinematography?

I’m not going to answer that, but I will tell you what to look for when investing in a camera. Hopefully these tips will help you choose the one that’s right for you from the huge and ever-changing array of professional cameras on the market, from the humble DSLR to the ubiquitous Reds and everything in between.

 

1. Image quality

Shooting on a Sony FS7 for “Finding Hope”

The quality of the image is of course the most imporant attribute of any camera. Rather than any technical specifications, I’m talking about the aesthetic quality here: how does it feel? Does it have that elusive “cinematic” quality? Is it “filmic”? Does it remind you of certain kinds of movies?

A good place to start is to look up sample footage on YouTube, or better still Vimeo for less compression muddying the issue. If you can borrow the camera and try it out before you buy, even better. Take away some test footage and try grading it too.

 

2. Resolution

Resolution, the sheer number of pixels a camera can record, is part of image quality, but I include it as a separate point because I see it as more of a technical consideration than an aesthetic one. You should ask yourself what longevity you require from your films – will people still be watching them, say two or three years from now, and if so what sort of resolution might be the norm by then?

Also consider your delivery platform. If everything you shoot is going on YouTube, perhaps you don’t need more than 1080P (standard HD).

 

3. Dynamic Range

Dynamic range is a measure of how much contrast a camera can handle. Too small a dynamic range and you will frequently struggle with bright areas “clipping” – i.e. losing details – or dark areas getting lost in the image noise. Also, the wider the dynamic range, the more flexibility you will have in grading.

For a cinematic image, 12 stops of dynamic range is the absolute minimum, with 14 or more being ideal.

 

4. Maximum ISO

Some ISO tests I conducted on an Arri Alexa Classic in 2017

The ISO (International Standards Organisation) scale rates the light sensitivity of a camera. The most important thing is the native ISO, the one at which the camera is optimised to give the cleanest image with the most detail. On some cameras, setting an ISO other than the native one reduces the image quality considerably.

The higher the ISO, the less light will be required to expose an image correctly. 800 is typical these days, but many cameras go much higher than that. It is worth thinking about spending more money to get a camera with a higher native ISO, because you may save a lot of money on lighting.

 

5. Lens Mount

This is crucial because you may already have a collection of lenses, or you may intend to hire certain lenses, and you need to be sure that they will fit your new camera’s mount.

The Canon EF mount is extremely common and will open up a huge range of options for stills glass as well as some low-end cinema glass. The smaller MFT (micro four-thirds) mount also has a wide range of lenses.

Top-end cameras have PL mounts which take all the beautiful cinema lenses used on big movies, but only choose this route if you are willing to part with a lot of cash!

 

6. Form Factor

A Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera, not so micro once it’s rigged with rails, matte box, wireless follow focus, battery, monitor and video transmitter!

When I started in the industry, cameras were all ergonomically designed to sit on your shoulder, with a nice handgrip to the right of the lens and an EVF (electronic viewfinder) to provide a third point of stabilising contact. Nowadays cameras tend to be boxy, heavy and uncomfortable to hold without additional accessories (see below).

Again, try to gets your hands on the camera in a shop and see how it feels before you purchase. As well as handheld shooting, consider how easy it will be to rig onto dollies, sliders, gimbals, etc.

 

7. Required Accessories

Buying the camera body itself is unlikely to be the end of your expenditure. You will need lenses, batteries, a battery charger, cards, a card reader and almost certainly some kind of stabilising system, be it a simple shoulder rig or an electronic gimbal.

You may also want an EVF, a tripod, matte box, follow focus – the list can seem endless! Be careful to budget your essential accessories before buying the camera. Some cameras seem like bargains until you add up all the extras. Pay particular attention to the media, and to exactly what speed of media you need in order to shoot at the resolution and frame rate that you require, as this can get very expensive.

 

8. Codec

What file type and codec does the camera shoot? Does your editing system support that format? If not, how time-consuming will it be to convert everything?

What compression ratios does the camera support? How much hard drive space will you need to store an hour of footage at that ratio? What about ten hours, plus back-ups? Often there is a trade-off between a highly compressed format like H.264 which is light on disc space but may need converting before you can edit it, and a lightly compressed format like ProRes which burns through disc space but can be dropped straight into most editing software.

8 Things to Look For When Buying a Cinema Camera

How to Process Black-and-White Film

A few weeks ago, I came very close to investing in an Ilford/Paterson Starter Kit so that I could process film at home. I have four exposed rolls of 35mm HP5+ sitting on my shelf, and I thought that developing them at home might be a nice way to kill a bit of lockdown time. However, I still wouldn’t be able to print them, due to the difficulties of creating a darkroom in my flat. And with lockdown now easing, it probably won’t be long until I can get to Holborn Studios and hire their darkroom as usual.

So in this article I’ll talk through the process of developing a roll of black-and-white 35mm, as I would do it in the Holborn darkoom. If you haven’t already, you might want to read my post about how film works first.

 

You will need

 

Loading the developing tank

Holborn Studios’ darkroom, run by Bill Ling, displays this handy reminder.

The first step is to transfer the exposed film from its cassette – which is of course light-proof – into the Paterson tank, which is designed to admit the developing chemicals but not light. This transfer must take place in complete darkness, to avoid fogging the film. I’ve always done this using a changing bag, which is a black bag with a double seal and elasticated arm-holes.

Start by putting the following items into the bag: the film cassette, scissors and the various components of the Paterson tank, including the spiral. It’s wise to put in an empty film canister too, in case something goes wrong, and if the tail of your film isn’t sticking out of the cassette then you’ll need a can opener as well.

Seal the bag, put your arms in, and pull all the film out of the cassette. It’s important NOT to remove your arms from the bag now, until the film is safely inside the closed tank, otherwise light can get in through the arm-holes and fog the film.

Use the scissors to cut the end of the film from the cassette, and to trim the tongue (narrower part) off the head of the film.

Paterson Universal Developing Tank components, clockwise from the white items: developing reels or spirals, tank, light-proof lid, waterproof cap, and agitator – which I never use. In the centre is the core.

Now we come to the most difficult part, the part which always has me sweating and swearing and regretting all my life choices: loading the film onto the spiral. I have practised this with dead film many times, but when I’m fumbling around in the dark of the changing bag it’s a hundred times harder.

It’s hard to describe loading the spiral verbally, but this blog post by Chris Waller is very clear and even includes pictures. (Chris recommends cutting a slight chamfer onto the leading corners of the film, which I shall certainly try next time, as well as using your thumbs to keep the film flat on its approach to the reel.)

If you’re working with 120 film, the loading process is very slightly different, and this video describes it well.

Once the spiral is loaded, you can thread it onto the core, place the core inside the tank, and then put the lid on. It is now safe to open the bag.

 

Developing

Developing time info displayed at Holborn Studios

Holborn Studios’ darkroom is stocked with a working solution of Kodak HC-110 developer, but if you don’t have this luxury, or you’re not using the Ilford Simplicity packs, then you’ll need to make up a working solution yourself by diluting the developer according to the manufacturer’s instructions. For HC-110 dilution B, which is what Holborn uses, it’s 1+31, i.e.one part concentrated developer to 31 parts water. The working solution has a limited shelf life, so again consult the manufacturer’s instructions.

Further dilution is required at the point of development, at a ratio of 1+7 in this case, but once more this may vary depending on the chemicals you choose. For one roll of 35mm, you need 37.5ml of the HC-110 dilution B, and 262.5ml of water for a total of 300ml.

The developing time depends on the type of film stock, the speed you rated it at, the type of developer and its dilution, and the temperature of the chemicals. Digital Truth has all the figures you need to find the right development time.

Agitating

I was taught to ensure my water is always at 20°C before mixing it with the developer, to keep the timing calculations a little simpler. At this temperature, a roll of Ilford HP5+ rated at its box speed of ISO 400 needs five minutes to develop in HC-110 dilution B. Ilford Delta, on the other hand, needs a whopping 14.5 minutes to process at its box speed of 3200.

Once your diluted developer is ready, pour it into the Paterson tank and put on the cap. It is now necessary to agitate the chemicals in order to distribute them evenly around the film. My technique is inversion, i.e. turning the tank upside-down and back again. Do this continuously for the first 30 seconds, then for 10 seconds every minute after that.

Inside the tank, your latent image is being transformed into an image proper, wherein every exposed silver halide crystal is now black metallic silver.

 

Fixing

Once the developing time is up, remove the cap from the tank, and pour away the developer immediately. At this point some people will say you need to use a stop bath to put a firm halt to the developing process, but I was taught simply to rinse the tank out with tap water and then proceed straight to fixing. This method has always worked fine for me.

After rinsing the tank, pour in enough fix solution (again prepared to the manufacturer’s instructions) to fill it completely. Put the cap back on, agitate it for 30 seconds, then leave it for ten minutes.

During this time, the fixer renders the film’s unexposed crystals inactive and water soluble. When the ten minutes is up, pour the fixer back into its container (it’s reuseable) and leave the tank under running water for a further ten minutes. This washes away the unused silver halide crystals, leaving only the exposed black silver corresponding with light areas of the scene, and just the transparent plastic base corresponding with the dark areas.

Squirt a little diluted washing-up liquid into the tank to prevent drying rings, then drain it. You can now open the tank and see your negative for the first time.

 

Drying

Remove the film from the developing spiral, taking care to only touch the ends and the edges. Squeegee the top part of the film, dry your hands, then squeegee the rest. This removes droplets which can otherwise mark the negative.

Now attach two hooks to the film, a light one at the top to hang it from, and a heavy one at the bottom to stop the film curling as it dries. Holborn Studios is equipped with a heated drying cabinet, but with patience you can hang a film to dry in any dust-free area.

When your film is dry, you can cut it into strips of six frames and insert them into a negative storage sheet.

You can now scan your negatives, or better still print them photo-chemically, as I’ll describe in a future post.

How to Process Black-and-White Film

Should DPs Own Equipment?

Recently I discovered Tailslate, a podcast by DPs Ed Moore, BSC and Benedict Spence. The second episode focuses on equipment, and the two men discuss the pros and cons of having your own gear. I have some pretty strong feelings on this myself, so I thought I’d share them here.

I owned equipment for the first 17 years of my career. I was fortunate that at the time I first went freelance (late 1999) I had a small inheritance which I was able to invest in the wonderful new Mini-DV/Firewire technology that had recently emerged. I bought my first semi-professional camera, a Canon XM-1, along with a decent Manfrotto 501/520 tripod, a basic tracking dolly, sound gear, and for editing a PowerMac G4, Mini-DV/VHS deck and a pair of Yamaha MSP5 active nearfield speakers. (The speakers are the only things I still have, and I’m using them as I write, 20 years on. They are the best thing I’ve ever bought. Nothing else has ever served me for so long, so frequently and so reliably.)

Shooting on my Canon XL1-S back in 2003

Apart from the speakers, everything else got replaced every few years as it fell into obsolescence or simply packed up. The XM-1 was replaced with an XL-1S, then I moved onto HDV with a Sony A1, then onto DSLRs with a Canon 600D/T3i, then a Blackmagic Production Camera, which turned out to be my last camera.

Immediately you can see one of the key problems with owning equipment: the fast pace of technological progression and the need to upgrade regularly to keep up. But owning equipment had disadvantages even before the fast-paced digital revolution. In a fascinating Clubhouse Conversation from the American Society of Cinematographers, M. David Mullen, ASC recounts his own experience with gear:

I ended up never owning a camera package. Because of that, I shot mostly 35mm in my early days… People I know who bought a [super]-16 camera, they ended up shooting [super]-16 films for the next ten years or so. So you can get tied to your own equipment.

But there are benefits to owning kit, of course. Corporate clients expect you to provide the gear yourself or to hire it in without any fuss. Clearly the former allows you to make more money from these jobs.

My last camera, the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K

For creative jobs, things aren’t so cut and dried. Owning a camera will certainly get you more work of a certain type. That type is unpaid and low-paid. If you expect to charge a hire fee on your gear, forget it. The type of productions that want you to have your own gear is the type that can’t afford to hire, either from you or from a facilities house. They’ll expect you to come along and bring your gear for free.

We all need to do this type of work at the start of our careers, which is why owning equipment is great at that point. But ultimately I sold my Blackmagic in 2017 and didn’t replace it because I no longer wanted that type of work.

I think things are a little different if you can afford to own a high-end camera. I’m pretty certain that I’ve lost jobs in the past, despite being a better cinematographer than the successful applicant, because they had a Red and I only had a DSLR or a Blackmagic. If you can afford an Alexa then you might well be able to get quality jobs off the back of it, but most of us aren’t in that position!

A camera that I could never afford to buy

The best thing about not owning gear is that you’re free to select the best equipment to tell each particular story (budget and production mandates notwithstanding). Each production is different, and there is no single camera or lens set that is best for all of them. Resolution, high frame rates, colour science, contrast, sharpness, weight, size, cost – all these factors and more influence a DP’s choice, and it’s a critical choice to make. If you’re pushing your own camera or lenses to the production just so you can recoup some of the cash you spent to buy them, you’re doing the story a disservice.

In conclusion, whether or not to invest equipment depends on your budget and the type of work you want to do. But if you’re shooting a drama, even if you own equipment, you should be asking yourself what camera and lenses will best set the tone and tell this story.

Should DPs Own Equipment?

“Above the Clouds”: The Spoiler Blogs

During 2016-2017 I blogged about the production of Above the Clouds, a comedy road movie which I shot for director Leon Chambers. It premiered at Raindance in 2018, closely followed by Austin Film Festival, where it won the audience award for Best Narrative Feature, the first of four gongs it would collect.

In two decades of filmmaking, Above the Clouds is easily in the top five productions I’m most proud of. Since this January it has been available on AmazoniTunesGoogle Play and other platforms, and I highly recommend you give it a watch. DO NOT continue reading this blog unless you have, because what follows are two blog entries that I held back due to spoilers.

 

DAY 14

(from Week 3)

The script calls for Charlie to be seen sitting in the window seat of a plane as it rises quite literally above the clouds. This is another micro-set filmed in Leon’s living room, in fact half in the living room and half in the hall, to leave enough room for the lights beyond.

Although the view out of the window will be added in post, I need to simulate the lighting effect of bursting through the clouds. My plan involves a 1.2K HMI, and a 4×4 poly board held horizontally with a triple layer of 4×4 Opal sheets hanging from one edge.

We start with the HMI pointed straight into the window and the poly board held high up so that the Opal hangs in front of the lamp. As the plane supposedly rises through the cloud layer, Colin lowers the poly until it is below the level of the lamp, while Gary tilts the HMI down so its light skips off the poly (like sun skipping off the top of clouds) and bounces back up into the window. Gary then tilts the HMI back up to point straight into the window, to suggest further banking or climbing of the aircraft. This direct light is so hot that it bounces off the armrest of Charlie’s seat and gives a glow to her cheek which syncs perfectly with a smile she’s doing.

 

DAY 25

(from February 2017 pick-ups)

Today’s set is a dark room. A photographer’s dark room, that is. Not just a random dimly-lit room.

We begin with only the red safe-light in play. The wall-mounted practical has a 15W bulb, so it needs some serious help to illuminate the room. Micky rigs a 1K pup with Medium Red gel and fires it over the top of the set, above the practical. The effect is very convincing. Pure red light can make everything look out of focus on camera, which is why I chose the slightly magenta Medium Red gel, rather than the more realistic Primary Red. The colourist will be able to add some green/yellow to correct this.

During the scene, Naomi pulls a cord and the normal lights come on. These are two hanging practicals, fitted with dimmed 100W tungsten globes. In a very similar set-up to yesterday, we use a 2K with a chimera, poking over the set wall on the camera’s down-side, to enhance and soften the practicals’ light.

To read all the Above the Clouds blogs from the start, click here.

“Above the Clouds”: The Spoiler Blogs

How Digital Sensors Work

Last week I delved into the science of how film captures an image. This time we’ll investigate the very different means by which electronic sensors achieve the same result.

 

CCD

In the twentieth century, the most common type of electronic imaging sensor was the charge-coupled device or CCD. A CCD is made up of metal-oxide-semiconductor (MOS) capacitors, invented by Bell Labs in the late fifties. Photons striking a MOS capacitor give it a charge proportional to the intensity of the light. The charges are passed down the line through adjacent capacitors to be read off by outputs at the edges of the sensor. This techniques limits the speed at which data can be output.

My first camcorder, an early nineties analogue 8mm video device by Sanyo, contained a single CCD. Professional cameras of that time had three: one sensor each for red, green and blue. Prisms and dichroic filters would split the image from the lens onto these three CCDs, resulting in high colour fidelity.

A CCD alternates between phases of capture and read-out, similar to how the film in a traditional movie camera pauses to record the image, then moves on through the gate while the shutter is closed. CCD sensors therefore have a global shutter, meaning that the whole of the image is recorded at the same time.

CCDs are still used today in scientific applications, but their slow data output, higher cost and greater power consumption have seen them fall by the wayside in entertainment imaging, in favour of CMOS.

 

CMOS

Complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor sensors (a.k.a. APS or active-pixel sensors) have been around just as long as their CCD cousins, but until the turn of the millennium they were not capable of the same imaging quality.

Each pixel of a typical CMOS sensors consists of a pinned photodiode, to detect the light, and a metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistor. This MOSFET is an amplifier – putting the “active” into the name “active-pixel sensor” – which reduces noise and converts the photodiode’s charge to a voltage. Other image processing technology can be built into the sensor too.

The primary disadvantage of CMOS sensors is their rolling shutter. Because they capture an image row by row, top to bottom, rather than all at once, fast-moving subjects will appear distorted. Classic examples include vertical pillars bending as a camera pans quickly over them, or a photographer’s flash only lighting up half of the frame. (See the video below for another example, shot an iPhone.) The best CMOS sensors read the rows quickly, reducing this distortion but not eliminating it.

Today, all the major cinema cameras use CMOS sensors, from Blackmagics to Alexas. Medium format stills cameras clung on to CCD technology longest for that higher image quality, but even these are now CMOS.

CMOS sensors are cheaper, less power-hungry, and not suspectible to the highlight blooming or smearing of CCDs. They are also faster in terms of data output, and in recent years their low-light sensitivity has surpassed CCD technology too.

 

Beyond the Sensor

The analogue voltages from the sensor, be it CCD or CMOS, are next passed to an analogue-to-digital convertor (ADC) and thence to the digital signal processor (DSP). How much work the DSP does depends whether you’re recording in RAW or not, but it could include things like correcting the gamma and colour balance, and converting linear values to log. Debayering the image is a very important task for the DSP, and I’ve covered this in detail in my article on how colour works.

After the DSP, the signal is sent to the monitor outputs and the storage media, but that’s another story.

How Digital Sensors Work

How Film Works

Over the ten weeks of lockdown to date, I have accumulated four rolls of 35mm film to process. They may have to wait until it is safe for me to visit my usual darkroom in London, unless I decide to invest in the equipment to process film here at home. As this is something I’ve been seriously considering, I thought this would be a good time to remind myself of the science behind it all, by describing how film and the negative process work.

 

Black and White

The first thing to understand is that the terminology is full of lies. There is no celluloid involved in film – at least not any more – and there never has been any emulsion.

However, the word “film” itself is at least accurate; it is quite literally a strip of plastic backing coated with a film of chemicals, even if that plastic is not celluloid and those chemicals are not an emulsion. Celluloid (cellulose mononitrate) was phased out in the mid-twentieth century due to its rampant inflammability, and a variety of other flexible plastics have been used since.

As for “emulsion”, it is in fact a suspension of silver halide crystals in gelatine. The bigger the crystals, the grainier the film, but the more light-sensitive too. When the crystals are exposed to light, tiny specks of metallic silver are formed. This is known as the latent image. Even if we could somehow view the film at this stage without fogging it completely, we would see no visible image as yet.

For that we need to process the film, by bathing it in a chemical developer. Any sufficiently large specks of silver will react with the developer to turn the entire silver halide crystal into black metallic silver. Thus areas that were exposed to light turn black, while unlit areas remain transparent; we now have a negative image.

Before we can examine the negative, however, we must use a fixer to turn the unexposed silver halide crystals into a light-insensitive, water-soluble compound that we can wash away.

Now we can dry our negative. At this stage it can be scanned for digital manipulation, or printed photo-chemically. This latter process involves shining light through the negative onto a sheet of paper coated with more photographic emulsion, then processing and fixing that paper as with the film. (As the paper’s emulsion is not sensitive to the full spectrum of light, this procedure can be carried out under dim red illumination from a safe-light.) Crystals on the paper turn black when exposed to light – as they are through the transparent portions of the negative, which you will recall correspond to the shadows of the image – while unexposed crystals again remain transparent, allowing the white of the paper to show through. Thus the negative is inverted and a positive image results.

 

Colour

Things are a little more complicated with colour, as you might expect. I’ve never processed colour film myself, and I currently have no intention of trying!

The main difference is that the film itself contains multiple layers of emulsion, each sensitive to different parts of the spectrum, and separated by colour filters. When the film is developed, the by-products of the chemical reaction combine with colour couplers to create colour dyes.

An additional processing step is introduced between the development and the fixing: the bleach step. This converts the silver back to silver halide crystals which are then removed during fixing. The colour dyes remain, and it is these that form the image.

Many cinematographers will have heard of a process call bleach bypass, used on such movies as 1984 and Saving Private Ryan. You can probably guess now that this process means skipping or reducing the bleach step, so as to leave the metallic silver in the negative. We’ve seen that this metallic silver forms the entire image in black-and-white photography, so by leaving it in a colour negative you are effectively combining colour and black-and-white images in the same frame, resulting in low colour saturation and increased contrast.

“1984” (DP: Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC)

Colour printing paper also contains colour couplers and is processed again with a bleach step. Because of its spectral sensitivity, colour papers must be printed and processed in complete darkness or under a very weak amber light.

 

Coming Up

In future posts I will cover the black-and-white processing and printing process from a much more practical standpoint, guiding you through it, step by step. I will also look at the creative possibilities of the enlargement process, and we’ll discover where the Photoshop “dodge” and “burn” tools had their origins. For those of you who aren’t Luddites, I’ll delve into how digital sensors capture and process images too!

How Film Works