The Sunny 16 Rule in Cinematography

If you’ve done much still photography, particularly on celluloid, you will probably have heard of the Sunny 16 Rule. It’s a useful shortcut for correctly exposing bright day exteriors without needing a light meter. Is it of any use in digital cinematography though? Yes, and I’ll explain how.

 

How the rule Works

Sunny 16 is very simple: if the sun is out, set your aperture to f/16 and your shutter speed denominator to the same as your ISO. For example, at ISO 100 set the shutter to 1/100th of a second. At ISO 400 set the shutter to 1/400th of a second – or 1/500th of a second, if that’s the closest option the camera permits – and so on.

You can use the rule to work out other combinations from there. Say your ISO is 100 but you want the sharper, less motion-blurred look of a 1/400th shutter. That’s two stops slower, so open the aperture from f/16 to f/8. (Check out my exposure series if this is all Dutch to you.)

The Sunny 16 Rule works because the sun outputs a constant amount of light and is a constant distance from the earth – at least constant enough to make no significant difference. The sun’s illuminance at the earth’s surface is about 10,000 foot-candles. The following formula relates illuminance (b) to f-stop (f), shutter speed (s) and ISO (i):

Using Sunny 16 in the case of ISO 100 and a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second, this formula gives us…

… 6,400 foot-candles. Less than 10,000fc, certainly, but remember this is only a rule of thumb – and one designed for film, which isn’t hurt at all by a little over-exposure. The rule probably accounts for the fact that you may want to see into the shadows a bit too. (See my article “How Big a Light Do I Need?” for explanations of illuminance and foot-candles and more on the above formula.)

Anyway, you can see from the equation why the shutter speed denominator and ISO cancel each other out if they’re the same.

 

Using the rule in cinematography

A few weeks ago when I was on the banks of the River Cam setting up for a scene in Harvey Greenfield is Running Late, my 1st AC Hamish Nichols asked which ND filter I wanted in the matte box. It was 5:30am; the sun had barely risen and certainly wasn’t high enough yet to reach me and my light meter over the trees and buildings on the horizon. But I knew that it would be hitting us by the time we turned over, and that the weather forecast was for a completely cloudless day, indeed the hottest day of the year at that time. So I was able to predict that we’d need the 2.1 ND.

How did I work this out? From the Sunny 16 Rule as follows:

  • I was shooting with a 1/50th of a second shutter interval (a 172.8° shutter angle at 24fps), so the Rule told me that f/16 (or T16) at ISO 50 would be the right exposure.
  • I was actually at ISO 800, which is four stops faster than ISO 50. (Doubling 50 four times gives you 800.)
  • I wanted to shoot at T5.6, which is three stops faster than T16.
  • That’s a total of seven stops too much light. To find the right optical density of ND filter you multiply that by 0.3, so 0.3 x 7 = 2.1. (More on this in my ND filters post.)

Everything on a film set sucks up time, so the more you know in advance, the more efficient you can be. Little tricks like this mean you don’t have to do a last-minute filter swing and waste five minutes that the director could have used for another take.

The Sunny 16 Rule in Cinematography

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 3 Part 2

Day 21

Photo by Jonnie Howard

A morning full of short running scenes, all shot as oners on the Steadicam by Luke Oliver. Pretty much every crew member had had a cameo by this point, and today it was my turn. My character: Nerdy Cyclist. Alright, technically it was just Cyclist. The nerdy bit was just me (a) beefing up my part and (b) playing to type.

For the afternoon we moved to The Lab, a cocktail bar, where we filmed one of the fantasy/imaginary scenes that cuts with the very first shot we did of Harvey back on Day 1. Mixologist Tom was dressed in an elaborate all-black costume so Stephen and I hit him with two tungsten lamps, one either side, at an angle somewhere between side-light and backlight. This cut him out from the background, showed up the layering in the costume, edge-lit the cocktail shaker and liquids being poured, and deliberately kept Tom’s face dark. Quadruple win!

 

Day 22

We returned to Othersyde to pick up the one scene we dropped there on our most packed day of principal photography, Day 7. I referred to the blog post to help get the vibe of the lighting the same. The main motivation was the real streetlamp at the front of the site, which we wrapped using an Aputure with a lantern attachment, rigged on a mini boom. Another Aputure lantern gave a cool moonlight wash on the venue’s terraced outdoor seating, and a blue-gelled 300W tungsten fresnel uplighter replicated what we did on the other side of the building last year. A 2K blasted light from the direction Harvey has come; this light represented the ongoing wedding, so we had a couple of people moving around in front of it for dynamic shadows.

I ended up turning off the first Aputure for the wide as it seemed to kill the mood, but we brought it back for the close-up to show more of Paul’s face. To represent the light of his phone as he turns it on, Stephen held a PavoTube just above the camera and twisted it quickly around to face Paul on cue. We adjusted the eyebrow on the camera to flag the tube’s light off the phone itself.

There were a few bitty pick-ups to do while we were outside with access to power, including a “BOV” – a POV of a bee. We did this with the probe lens on Jonnie’s Canon C200, which I had to float around and then jab into Paul’s neck. Sorry, Paul.

At 1am we moved into an adjacent industrial street – having decided that it was unreasonable to have Paul shouting dialogue in a residential area at that hour – for some Steadicam shots. I went to the Gemini’s low-light ISO 3200 and Stephen hand-bashed a lantern on a boom pole to fill Paul in between streetlamps, which became a fun dance when we had to do a 270° orbit!

 

Day 23

We convened at Cambridge’s Castle Hill. Nearby Indian restaurant Namaste Village kindly agreed to let us shoot a brief scene there at the last minute, even having one of the staff do a spot of acting. I posted a video breakdown on Instagram – here it is:

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Neil Oseman (@neiloseman)

Back outside we filmed a nice sequence of shots ending with a 360° pan following Harvey as he walks around the top of Castle Hill talking on the phone. As the other end of the phone call had been shot with Steve’s head sometimes out of frame, we went the other way and gave Harvey loads of headroom, capturing some nice clouds along the way.

Then it was time for another pick-up from Day 7, reshooting the tent scene for continuity reasons. Again we put a light on one side and black-draped the other to get some shape into the light inside. This time we used a wider lens, the 14mm, and with the help of a runner I handheld it over Paul rather than trying to squeeze the tripod in around him like last time. He got a nasty shock when I accidentally knocked the matte box off and it hit him in the face. Er, sorry again.

After wrapping a few of us went back across the road to Namaste Village, where the food was excellent.

 

Day 24

On our last day we caught up to the elusive pick-up that was always meant to be a pick-up: the scenes with Harvey’s mum. We took over Rachel’s grandmother’s house for several hours, most of the shots being in a corner of her living room. Unusually I was drawn to a corner that didn’t have a window in it, because it had the best furniture and dressing to establish the character in our standard 24mm tableau shot.

But this meant – with all the windows behind camera – that it was a challenge to make the lighting interesting. We faked a window just off camera left using a diffusion frame with muslin and a grid over it; Stephen bounced the 600D into it from across the room. I closed the room’s curtains as much as I could get away with before the lack of natural fill light started to make it look like night. (For later scenes we closed them all the way and put a 300D behind the muslin, as pictured above.)

To add more interest to the shot I played around with the positions of two table lamps and a floor lamp. Pausing to check my script breakdown notes from last year I saw that I had written “a single practical floor lamp” in the lighting column; too many lamps would kill the scene’s sad tone. This is a good example of a breakdown keeping me honest as a DP and preventing me from getting carried away doing stuff on set just because I can (though that definitely still happens sometimes). I ended up with just one lamp in the back of the main shot.

After some variations on that main shot for later scenes, and a brief scene in the kitchen, we packed up and headed out for exteriors. Most of these were happy flashbacks from the early days of Harvey and Alice’s relationship, and Jonnie wanted to fill them with filmic references. First up was a Jules et Jim homage with the pair racing across a bridge, then a “remake” of one of Jonnie’s own amateur films with Harvey and Alice spinning around holding hands. For POV reverse shots we put the tripod on the point which they span around, and I set the panning tension to zero so that they could pull the camera around themselves by holding the moose bars (handgrips).

Next was a Manhattan-esque shot with the couple on a bench looking up at Ely Cathedral. We clearly weren’t going to light the cathedral on our budget, so we set up around sunset and waited for the streetlamps to come on and the ambient light to drop to a nice dusky level. We rolled when the daylight was metering at T1.4 at ISO 800, though I exposed at T2. To cut Harvey and Alice out from the background a bit Stephen stood just out of frame with an LED lantern motivated by a nearby streetlamp.

He pulled the same trick at our next location, a passageway beside Prezzo, where we did actually have to light a small portion of the cathedral wall as well, using a battery-powered Aputure (200X I think). We couldn’t have done it for long on the batteries we had, but fortunately it was a brief scene.

Our final set-up was a Poor Man’s shot of Harvey running at night. We did this on the green beside the cathedral because it was a handy open space where we could get a completely dark background save for a few dots of distant lights. Stephen armed a FalconEyes over Paul and swung it back and forth to create the illusion of passing streetlamps. The shot needed a tiny touch of fill, so we taped a PavoTube to the top of the matte box, setting it to 1% intensity and taping over most of it to get it down to a low enough level. (I was at ISO 3200 and on a 14mm lens, so mere inches from Paul’s face.)

Then Rob said the magic words, “It’s a wrap.” Like most micro-budget projects there are still a few loose ends to be shot, but those will be done with Jonnie’s camera and no crew. For most of the cast and crew Harvey Greenfield has run his course and I’ll see them at some distant time for the premiere. Thank you Stephen Allwright (gaffer), Jeremy Dawson (spark), Hamish Nichols (1st AC), Fiyin Oladimeji (2nd AC) and Nana Nabi (2nd AC daily) for all your hard work, and to Jonnie for bringing me onto this fun and creative film. Huge thanks also to Global Distribution, Red and Sigma who supported us with equipment which brought the whole thing up a level. The rough cut is already fantastic and I can’t wait to see it finished.

Read all my Harvey Greenfield is Running Late posts:

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 3 Part 2

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 3 Part 1

Photo by Jonnie Howard

Day 17

Our first location was a medical training ward populated by creepy dummies; we had a brief flashback scene to do around a hospital bed. When we arrived there was nice warm sunlight coming in through the frosted glass behind the bed, so we made sure that stuck around by putting an orange-gelled Aputure 600D out there. Inside we wrapped this with a FalconEyes and Stephen added some soft fill because I wanted the scene to feel romantic. To get some green into the frame (a calming colour in the film’s visual language) we stuck a couple of Nanlite PavoTubes into the background as practicals.

While Hamish (our new 1st AC) and Fifi were building the camera I faffed about with the Prosup Tango slider, trying to figure out a way to have the track go over the bed so we could pull straight back from Paul. It proved impossible simply because the track also ended up in frame, and instead we simply set it up beside the bed. It took a bit of clever blocking by director Jonnie to ensure that the camera could point directly along the axis of the track, rather than at an angle, which would have broken the established visual grammar of the film. This is the sort of thing that takes a bit of time to get back into after months away from the project, but it’s important to get it right.

Next we moved into the foyer, which we were playing as a bank. There was plenty of natural light but we made sure to keep that in the background, neg-filling behind the camera, and adding a key (a Rayzr MC 200) at 90° to the talent (Alex Wilber), who was partly facing towards a computer monitor on that side of camera anyway. A heavily dimmed 2K served as backlight.

After a brief panic when we thought we were missing our favourite lens, the 14mm, we moved to Cambridge 105’s studio a couple of blocks away. A special guest star played a Tony Blackburn-esque DJ and threw in some brilliant improvs.

We fought a battle against the high, bright sun that kept trying to come in the south-facing window, despite us having diffed a lot of it, and blacked out the whole top section, and having blinds partly lowered, and the windows having some special solar coating on them anyway. Once again we fired in the 600D, which probably did very little compared with that sun, and wrapped it inside with a FalconEyes, and added the PavoTubes into the background for colour. The DJ’s computer monitors were set to 60Hz, but I’d learnt my lesson from last year and immediately set the shutter to 144° to sort that out.

 

Day 18

We were at Anglia Ruskin University for the day, mostly in one of their media studios. Here we had to shoot a number of things against a black backdrop, mainly to cut into the climax of the film. These included a 180° camera move using the university’s track and dolly. I thought briefly about doing some elaborate lighting rig in which lamps would have to be dimmed up and down to maintain backlight and eliminate front-light as the camera circled, but then I came to my senses and we just fired a Source Four straight down onto the makeshift table that the two actors were hunched over so that it would bounce back up to them. I was using the Soft FX 1 to match the look of the Happy Place scenes from Day 3, which helped to take the harshness out of the highlights where the Source Four was directly hitting the cast.

A little later Jonnie started flinging things in front of the camera. Had he finally cracked? No, he just wanted some lovely slo-mo shots of key props arcing through a black void. We went to 120fps, the Red Gemini’s maximum 4K frame rate, and the higher native ISO of 3200. We were able to make a stop of somewhere between T4 and T5.6 by bouncing two 2Ks into an 8×4′ poly just out of frame, and using three triple banks of the uni’s linear cyc lights in the grid as backlight.

After lunch we came to a couple of crucial shots that were dropped from the night shoot on Day 10, meaning we had to replicate the lighting from Vinery Park. We used the cycs again, a Source Four on a stand as a special flaring backlight simulating the park’s streetlamp, and a couple of 2Ks through a diffusion frame as the key. Although we were back to 24fps we still needed loads of light because one of the set-ups was on an f/14 probe lens sliding into Harvey’s mouth! “It feels really weird,” Paul remarked. Yep. And sorry for bashing you in the teeth with it.

As our time on the campus ticked down we moved across to another building to shoot a call centre scene. We went for our 24mm “tableau” frame that we’ve used to establish all the characters who ring Harvey in their own environments, followed by a couple of other set-ups. We kept the talent’s (Kate Madison) eye-line between the camera and the windows for a nice short key, beefing it up with a FalconEyes, and added a dimmed 2K backlight and some warm PavoTubes in the background (orange being the stress colour in the film’s visual language).

 

Day 19

The good folks at BBC Breakfast were up bright and early, set up at the Granta beside Sheep’s Green, shooting live news footage of what was widely forecast to be a record-breakingly hot day. We were up pretty early too, watching from the banks of the Cam at 5:30am as the BBC drone flew over, and hoping that it wouldn’t ruin a take (which it didn’t).

We were shooting Harvey Greenfield‘s only stunt, which I probably shouldn’t spoil by describing. We’d given Stephen the day off, and my trusty 5-in-1 reflector was our only lighting gear, but of course there was no shortage of sunlight. I used the white side for most set-ups, running along beside the Steadicam later in the day to keep Paul’s face filled in when he wasn’t facing the sun.

There was an interesting moment when we had the sun in the background of a low-angle shot. As I’ve experienced before, the Soft FX filter reflected a rectangle of light onto the subject. But even when we took it out, the IRND filter did the same thing. Do all filters do it, I wonder? Must test that one day.

We wrapped a little after 3pm, as the heat was reaching its maximum. Despite all the dire warnings (and drone-worthy news coverage) it hadn’t been too hot to work. We were all sensible with hydration, shade and sunblock, and I even swam in the Cam a couple of times during the day to cool off. You don’t get to do that very often on a shoot!

Straight after wrap I went for another swim in Jesus Green Lido, whence a Channel 5 news crew were broadcasting live weather reports with the pool in the background. The presenter was positioned in the shade and they’d set up a 600D on either side of him to fill him in. Believe it or not, that would inspire the next day’s lighting.

 

Day 20

First up was a one-shot flashback scene at the Arts Picturehouse. We used the 600D as the “projector”, positioning it just barely out of the top of frame, and a 4×4′ poly armed over the camera as the screen bounce. During the takes Jeremy wiggled his hand in front of the 600D to create dynamics in the flare.

The day’s main scene was a fake advert starring a nineties keep-fit icon. The aim was a cheesy infomercial vibe, with a 4:3 aspect ratio and over-the-top acting. We cross-front-lit the scene with the Aputures 300D and 200X (thank you, Channel 5), with only a bit of diff on them. I over-exposed by a stop and took out the Soft FX filter to make the image even less filmic. I framed with a lot of headroom and even did a deliberately late tilt-down at one point. When the actual aerobics start, we went even more naff by adding two PavoTubes into the background and the Rayzr MC behind camera, all flashing nasty disco colours. It was great fun.

By the time we moved onto the last scene – another 24mm phone call, in a GP’s waiting room – it was at least 39°C in Cambridge and the UK’s temperature record had been broken.

There’ll be more from this shoot in next week’s post. In the meantime, you can read all the Harvey posts here. Note that the link will display them in reverse chronological order, so scroll down for the older ones.

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 3 Part 1

Is Modern Cinematography too Dark?

“Why are things so dimly lit today? Can barely see anything.” Such was a comment on a frame of my cinematography that I posted on Instagram last year. It was a night scene but far from the darkest image I’ve ever posted.

“The First Musketeer” (2015, DP: Neil Oseman)

I remembered the comment recently when double Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kamiński said something similar in an interview with British Cinematographer. He lamented what he perceives as a loss of lighting skills that accompanied the transition from celluloid to digital filmmaking: “Now everyone shoots dark… Pictures are so murky you need to crank up the TV to see it… They just don’t know how to light.”

I think there’s a tremendous amount of talent in today’s world of digital cinematography, but the technology might have encouraged a trend towards darker images. With celluloid it was always better to err on the side of over-exposure, as highlights would fall off attractively but shadows could get lost in the grain. With digital it is more advisable to lean towards under-exposure, to avoid the harsh clipping of highlights.

We should also consider that modern digital cameras have more dynamic range than film, so there is less risk inherent in under-exposing a scene, especially as you can see on your histogram exactly what detail you’re retaining. But the same should be true of over-exposure too.

The demand from streaming platforms for HDR delivery also encourages DPs and colourists to play more with very dark (or very bright) images. Most viewers will still see the results in SDR, however, and some crucial information at the edges of the dynamic range could get lost in the transfer.

“Crimson Tide” (1995, DP: Dariusz Wolski, ASC)

The trend for darker images may have started even before the digital revolution though. “I think contemporary photography is going away from pretty pictures,” Dariusz Wolski told American Cinematographer in 1996, well over a decade before digital capture became the norm. “Something that is dark is really dark, and something that is bright is very bright. The idea is to stretch photography, to make it more extreme.”

Wolski may have been onto something there: a trend towards more naturalistic images. You have only to look at a film made in the first half of the 20th century to see that lighting has become much more realistic and less stylised since then. Darker doesn’t necessarily mean more realistic, but perhaps it has become a convenient trick to suggest realism, much like blue lighting is a convenient trick to suggest night that has very little basis in how things look in the real world.

The most noticeable increase in darker images has been in TV – traditionally bright and flat because of the inherently contrasty nature of the cathode ray tube and the many lights and reflections contaminating the screen in a typical living room. Flat-screens are less reflective, less contrasty and generally bigger – and a dimmer image is easier for the eye to interpret when it’s bigger.

Perhaps people are more likely to draw the curtains or turn off the lights if they’ve splashed out on a TV so large that it feels a bit like a cinema, but what about all the mobile devices we have today? I went through a phase of watching a lot of Netflix shows on an iPad Mini on trains, and I was forever trying to keep the daylight off the screen so that I could see what was going on. It was annoying, but it was my own fault for watching it in a form that the programme-makers couldn’t reasonably be expected to cater for.

A shot from “Games of Thrones: The Long Night” (2019, DP: Fabian Wagner, ASC, BSC) which has been brightened by disgruntled fans

“A lot of people… watch it on small iPads, which in no way can do justice to a show like that anyway,” said DP Fabian Wagner in defence of the infamously dark Battle of Winterfell in Game of Thrones. I’ve never seen it, and I’m all for a DP’s right to shoot an image the way they see fit, but it sounds like he might have gone too far in this case. After all, surely any technique that distracts the audience or takes them out of the story has defeated its purpose.

So, the odd extreme case like this aside, is modern cinematography too dark? I think there is an over-reliance on moodiness sometimes, a bit like how early DSLR filmmakers were too reliant on a tiny depth of field. DPs today have so much choice in all aspects of crafting an image; it is a shame to discount the option of a bright frame, which can be just as expressive as a dark one.

But if a DP wants to choose darkness, that is up to them. Risks like Fabian Wagner took are an important part of any art-form. Without them, cinematography would go stale. And I for one would certainly not want that, the odd negative Instagram comment notwithstanding.

Is Modern Cinematography too Dark?

“Red Dwarf VI”: Making a Sci-fi Sitcom in 1993

I have been a huge fan of the British sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf since the age of 12 or 13. The show has undergone many changes over the years, and every fan has their own view about which era is the best, but for me seasons V and VI will always be my favourites. I discovered the show during season V and I remember the huge anticipation for the next season. During this time the show’s production values were very high but it was still extremely funny, with the main characters all well established and well rounded.

So I was delighted to come across Joe Nazzaro’s book The Making of Red Dwarf in a charity shop recently. It focuses on the production of the series’ most lauded episode, the International Emmy-winning “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” from 1993. The episode sees mechanoid Kryten deliberately contract a computer virus in order to save the Red Dwarf posse, and their efforts to help him battle the infection within the framework of a Wild West VR game representing his consciousness.

What I find fascinating is that the series, at that time at least, was made in such a different way to modern high-end TV or film, following instead the multi-camera sitcom pattern of rehearsing all week and recording in the evening on Saturday.

The cycle began on a Sunday, with production designer Mel Bibby removing the previous episode’s sets from Stage G at Shepperton and installing the new ones.

On Monday the director, writers and cast rehearsed on the set while certain crew members travelled to location – the Laredo Western Club in Kent – to pre-rig. A British sitcom at this time had no director of photography; instead the camera angles were chosen purely by the director and technically executed under the purview of the camera supervisor, while illumination was provided by the lighting director, in this case John Pomphrey. His work at Laredo included putting warm lights inside the buildings to match the look of the interiors which he planned for the studio.

Pomphrey lit a lot of rock and pop shows, and was inspired by concert lighting for such bands as Iron Maiden:

“If you look at them they’re into the same colours I am: oranges, deep blues; powerful colours. I don’t believe in understating something, because you’re generally watching it on a small screen in a well-lit room, so you’ve got to overstate the colours. In the cinema, you can get away with subtle tones, but I don’t think you can on this show… I’m a frustrated cinematographer: I want to make ‘Aliens’.”

Tuesday was the location shoot, conducted with multiple cameras (though not for every set-up) as director Andy DeEmmony worked through his storyboards. At this time all UK TV was 4:3 standard definition. While a high-end drama would have used 16mm film, most shows, including Red Dwarf, were captured on a tape format like Betacam SP. “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” saw the series make rare use of a crane, and behind-the-scenes photos also show at least one HMI shining through a diffusion frame. It was common practice at this time to use large HMIs to fill in shadows on sunny day exteriors.

On Wednesday rehearsals continued on stage, culminating in a tech run during which camera supervisor Rocket previewed shots using the classic hand-framing method. In the evening the production team convened to discuss the next episode, “Polymorph II: Emohawk”.

Thursday was known as the Pre-VT day: the day when all scenes too complex to shoot in front of the live audience must be recorded. With “Gunmen” this meant scenes inside the Last Chance Saloon which required such camera tricks as pulling knives out of antagonist Jimmy’s jacket on nylon wires so that in reverse it looked like the knives were pinning him to the wall, Rimmer’s bar fight with four cowboys, and a scene aboard the Simulant ship which is the source of Kryten’s infection.

Pomphrey would communicate by radio with Dai Thomas, who spent studio days in a darkened cabin operating a lighting desk while watching the action on two monitors.

Friday saw more rehearsals, while Tuesday and Thursday’s footage was edited to show to the live audience tomorrow.

Saturday began with blocking and camera rehearsals, before the doors opened to the public at 7pm and recording commenced at 7:30.

It seems that Shepperton Stage G was not equipped with a gallery like a dedicated TV studio; instead, vision mixing was done from the scanner – an outside broadcast truck. For those who don’t know, vision mixing is live editing, cutting from one camera to another in real time as a production assistant calls the shots from the director’s camera script. Elsewhere in the scanner, an engineer monitored the images, doing something akin to the job of a modern DIT, adjusting colours, sharpness and even remotely controlling the cameras’ irises. (Zoom and focus were controlled by the camera operators.)

It’s a testament to all concerned that the show looked so cinematic despite being made this way. Later seasons became even more cinematic, doing away with the live audience for a little while, then bringing it back and later kick-starting Ed Moore BSC’s career when he shot seasons XI and XII beautifully. By this time the show was produced by Dave (a channel named, appropriately enough, after Red Dwarf‘s slobbish hero Dave Lister). It was now captured in HD, on Red cameras of some flavour if I remember rightly, with a focus puller for each one and a more film-like crew structure .

It’s unclear at present if any more seasons will follow 2020’s “The Promised Land”, but if they do I’m sure the series will continue to evolve and embrace new technologies and working practices. Which is a very dull way to end a post about a very funny show, so instead I’ll leave you with one of my favourite jokes from the series, which will make no sense whatsoever unless you remember the set-up.

Kryten, no kitchen appliance should give a human being a double polaroid.

“Red Dwarf VI”: Making a Sci-fi Sitcom in 1993

What Makes a Good Shot?

It’s a very difficult question to answer, but let’s look at a few major things a cinematographer considers each time they set up their camera.

 

Tonal Range

“Above the Clouds” (2020, dir: Leon Chambers, DP: Neil Oseman)

TV sets and other moving-image devices, especially if they are non-HDR, cannot display as wide a dynamic range as most scenes have in real life. So it is often seen as desirable to make the most of what contrast a screen can reproduce by including at least one area of the blackest black and one of the whitest white, with a good distribution of all the tones in between.

Contrast makes an image richer and also easier for the viewer’s brain to interpret, but as with all of these rules, it is perfectly possible to break it with excellent results. For example, you may want to keep a scene in a prison entirely in the shadows, so that when the prisoner escapes into the daylight the viewer will feel the impact of the highlights. Tonal distribution has a big impact on mood, and thought should be given to what mood a DP wants to convey. 

 

Colour Schemes

“Alder” (2019, dir: Vanda Ladeira, DP: Neil Oseman)

Since Isaac Newton invented the colour wheel in 1704, artists have devised several colour schemes which can evoke different feelings, the most common in cinematography being complementary and analogous.

A complementary colour scheme uses two hues on opposite sides of the wheel for maximum colour contrast, punch and vibrancy. Think Ripley’s yellow power loader against the blue lighting of Aliens, or the infamous teal-and-orange grading of Michael Bay’s films.

An analogous colour scheme uses hues adjacent to each other on the wheel for a harmonious or oppressive effect. Think the greens of The Matrix, or the reds of Mars in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall.story

There’s more on colour schemes in this post.

 

Composition

“Perplexed Music” (2018, dir: Mark McGann, DP: Neil Oseman)

“The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant and immaterial,” said the great American photographer Ansel Adams. I might not go that far, but they can certainly be overrated.

The Rule of Thirds, for example, is intended to produce a balanced image, but what if you don’t want a balanced image? Placing a character in an unusual part of the frame, as is frequently done in Amazon’s Mr. Robot (above), can be powerfully unsettling and say much about the character’s status and mindset. Breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules may not be wise, but breaking them in a single shot to make the viewer sit up and take notice, or breaking them subtly but consistently throughout a film to subconsciously cue the audience into a theme or character trait, is a good use of cinematic technique.

As for camera moves, some believe that they should always be motivated. Some like them to be expressive. Some simply like to keep dollying the camera back and forth to add energy to a scene. As long as the movement helps to immerse rather than distract the viewer, it is serving its purpose.

 

Depth

“The Gong Fu Connection” (2016, dir. Ted Duran, DP: Neil Oseman)

As film and TV are usually monoscopic media, cinematographers often aim to compensate by enhancing other types of depth cues. Commonly this is through lighting – using backlight to cut a layer out from the background, using colour to separate layers, or alternating light and dark layers. Haze and camera movement can also be used to create a greater sense of depth, as can lens choice, be it a wide lens which exaggerates perspective, or a long lens that throws backgrounds out of focus.

The result is not just impact but clarity, ensuring the viewer is not distracted from the story trying to figure out what they’re seeing. Again though, you may sometimes want just the opposite, to disorientate the viewer or make them work to find the important element in the frame.

This post has some good examples of depth cues.

 

Production Value

“The Little Mermaid” (2018, dir: Blake Harris, DP: Neil Oseman)

A DP has the responsibility of capturing on film or digital media the work of every other department on the production (except sound!). If the costumers have spent weeks sewing beads onto a period dress, a cross-light to bring out the texture is the least the DP can do. If the make-up department are struggling to hide the joins in a prosthetic, softening or dimming the lighting will help. If a huge set has been built or an expensive location hired, showing it off in at least one wide shot is probably advisable.

 

Story and Character

“Ren: The Girl with the Mark” (2016, dir: Kate Madison, DP: Neil Oseman)

As I’ve hinted throughout, the most important thing is that every aspect of the shot is working towards telling the story, revealing or enhancing character, and conveying the right overall mood. This might be by keeping everything quiet and conventional to let the performances shine through, or it might be through crazy framing, crunchy contrast and dramatic movements. The possibilities are endless.

What Makes a Good Shot?

Back to Back: The Making of the “Back to the Future” Sequels

With the runaway success of the first instalment, there was no way that Universal Pictures weren’t going to make another Back to the Future, with or without creators Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. So after confirming that Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd were willing to reprise their roles as Marty McFly and Doc Emmett Brown, the producer and director got together to thrash out story ideas.

They knew from the fan mail which had been pouring in that they had to pick up the saga where they had left off: with Doc, Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer zooming into the future to do “something about your kids!” They soon hit upon the idea of an almanac of sport results being taken from 2015 into the past by Marty’s nemesis Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), resulting in a “Biff-horrific” alternate 1985 which Marty and Doc must undo by journeying into the past themselves.

Gale’s first draft of the sequel, written up while Zemeckis was away in England shooting Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, had Biff giving the almanac to his younger self in 1967. Marty would don bell-bottom trousers and love beads to blend into the hippy culture, meet his older siblings as very young children and his mother Lorraine as an anti-war protestor, and endanger his own existence again by preventing his parents going on the second honeymoon during which he was conceived.

Upon returning from England and reading the draft, Zemeckis had two main notes: add a fourth act set in the Wild West, and how about 1955 again instead of 1967? “We could actually do what the audience really, really wants, which is to go back and revisit the movie they just saw,” Zemeckis later explained. “That is the thing that excited me most, this idea of seeing the same movie from a different angle.”

Adding the Wild West act ballooned the script to over two-and-a-half hours with an estimated budget of $60 million, far more than Universal wanted to spend. So Gale revised the screenplay, expanding it further with a neat point in the middle where it could be split in half. As two films, each budgeted at $35 million but shot back-to-back over 11 months, the project was much more appealing to the studio. However, it was still a bold and unusual move for Universal to green-light two sequels simultaneously, something that it’s easy to forget in these days of long-form movie franchises planned out years in advance.

A sticking point was Crispin Glover. As Marty’s father George McFly he had been a difficult actor to work with on the first film, and now he was demanding more than a ten-fold pay increase to appear in the sequels. “Crispin… asked for the same money that Michael J. Fox was receiving, as well as script approval and director approval,” according to Gale. He gave Glover’s agent two weeks to come back with a more realistic offer, but it didn’t come. Glover would not be reprising his role.

Jeffrey Weissman in prosthetic make-up as George McFly

Gale accordingly made George dead in the Biff-horrific 1985, and Zemeckis employed several tricks to accomplish his other scenes. These included the reuse of footage from Part I, and hanging cheap replacement actor Jeffrey Weissman upside-down in a futuristic back brace throughout the 2015 scenes. Life casts of Glover’s face taken for the ageing effects in Part I were even used to produce prosthetic make-up appliances for Weissman so that he would resemble Glover more closely. “Oh, Crispin ain’t going to like this,” Fox reportedly remarked, and he was right. Glover would go on to successfully sue the production for using his likeness without permission, with the case triggering new Screen Actors Guild rules about likeness rights.

Make-up was a huge part of the second film, since all the main actors had to portray their characters at at least two different ages, and some played other members of the family too. A 3am start in the make-up chair was not unusual, the prosthetics became hot and uncomfortable during the long working days, and the chemicals used in their application and removal burnt the actors’ skin. “It was a true psychological challenge to retain enough concentration to approach the character correctly and maintain the performance,” said Wilson at the time.

Filming began in February 1989 with the ’55 scenes. To save time and money, only one side of the Hill Valley set – still standing on the Universal backlot – was dressed for this period. The company then shot on stage for a few weeks before returning to the backlot in March, by which time production designer Rick Carter and his team had transformed the set into a gangland nightmare to represent Biff-horrific 1985. In May the company revisited the Hill Valley set once more to record the 2015 scenes.

When the real 2015 rolled around, many were quick to compare the film’s vision of the future to reality, but Gale always knew that he would fail if he tried to make genuine predictions. “We decided that the only way to deal with it was to make it optimistic, and have a good time with it.” Microwave meals had begun to compete with home cooking in the ‘80s, so Gale invented a leap forward with the pizza-inflating food hydrator. Kids watched too much TV, so he envisaged a future in which this was taken to a ridiculous extreme, with Marty Jr. watching six channels simultaneously – not a million miles from today’s device-filled reality.

While the opening instalment of the trilogy had been relatively light on visual effects, Part II required everything from groundbreaking split-screens to flying cars and hoverboards. This last employed a range of techniques mostly involving Fox, Wilson and three other actors, plus five operators, hanging from cranes by wires. While every effort was made to hide these wires from camera – even to the extent of designing the set with a lot of camouflaging vertical lines – the film went down in VFX history as one of the first uses of digital wire removal.

But perhaps the most complex effect in the film was a seemingly innocuous dinner scene in which Marty, Marty Jr. and Marlene McFly all share a pizza. The complication was that all three roles were played by Michael J. Fox. To photograph the scene and numerous others in which cast members portrayed old and young versions of themselves, visual effects wizards Industrial Light & Magic developed a system called VistaGlide. 

Based on the motion control rigs that had been used to shoot spaceships for Star Wars, the VistaGlide camera was mounted on a computer-controlled dolly. For the dinner scene, Fox was first filmed as old Marty by a human camera operator, with the VistaGlide recording its movements. Once Fox had switched to his Marty Jr. or Marlene costume and make-up, the rig could automatically repeat the camerawork while piping Fox’s earlier dialogue to a hidden earpiece so that he could speak to himself. Later the three elements were painstakingly and seamlessly assembled using hand-drawn masks and an analogue device called an optical printer.

The technically challenging Part II shoot came to an end on August 1st, 1989, as the team captured the last pieces of the rain-drenched scene in which Marty receives a 70-year-old letter telling him that Doc is living in the Old West. Four weeks later, the whole cast and crew were following Doc’s example as they began filming Part III.

In order to have open country visible beyond the edges of 1885’s Hill Valley, the filmmakers opted to leave the Universal backlot and build a set 350 miles north in Sonora, California. The town – which had appeared in classic westerns like High Noon and Pale Rider – was chosen for its extant railway line and its genuine 19th century steam locomotive which would form a pivotal part of the plot.

Joining the cast was Mary Steenburgen as Doc’s love interest Clara. Initially unsure about the role, she was persuaded to take it by her children who were fans of the original film. “I confess to having been infatuated with her, and I think it was mutual,” LLoyd later admitted of his co-star. Though the pair never got involved, Part III’s romantic subplot did provide the veteran of over 30 films with his first on-screen kiss.

By all accounts, an enjoyable time was had by the whole cast and crew in the fresh air and open spaces of Sonora. Fox, who had simultaneously been working on Family Ties during the first two films, finally had the time to relax between scenes, even leading fishing trips to a nearby lake. 

The set acquired the nickname “Club Hill Valley” as a volleyball court, mini golf and shooting range were constructed. “We had a great caterer,” recalled director of photography Dean Cundey, “but everybody would rush their meal so that they could get off to spend the rest of their lunch hour in their favourite activity.”

There was one person who was not relaxed, however: Robert Zemeckis. Part II was due for release on November 20th, about halfway through the shoot for Part III. While filming the action-packed climax in which the steam train propels the DeLorean to 88mph, the director was simultaneously supervising the sound mix for the previous instalment. After wrapping at the railway line, Zemeckis would fly to Burbank and eat his dinner on the dubbing stage while giving the sound team notes. He’d then sleep at the Sheraton Universal and get up at 4:30am to fly back to Sonora. 

The train sequence had plenty of other challenges. Multiple DeLoreans had been employed in the making of the trilogy so far, including a lightweight fibreglass version that was lifted on cables or hoisted on a forklift for Part II’s flying scenes, and two off-road versions housing Volkswagen racing engines for Part III’s desert work. Another was now outfitted with railway wheels by physical effects designer Michael Lantieri. “One of the scariest things to do was the DeLorean doing the wheelie in front of the train,” he noted in 2015. “We had cables and had it hooked to the front of the train… A big cylinder would raise the front of the car.”

The film’s insurance company was unhappy about the risks of putting Michael J. Fox inside a car that could potentially derail and be crushed by the train, so whenever it was not possible to use a stunt double the action was played out in reverse; the locomotive would pull the DeLorean, and the footage would subsequently be run backwards.

The makers of Mission: Impossible 7 recently drove a full-scale mock-up of a steam locomotive off an unfinished bridge, but Back to the Future’s team opted to accomplish a very similar stunt in miniature. A quarter-scale locomotive was constructed along with a matching DeLorean, and propelled to its doom at 20mph with six cameras covering the action. Marty, of course, has returned safely to 1985 moments earlier.

Part III wrapped on January 12th, 1990 and was released on May 25th, just six months after Part II. Although each instalment made less money than its predecessor, the trilogy as a whole grossed almost $1 billion around the world, about ten times its total production cost. The franchise spawned a theme park ride, an animated series, comics and most recently a West End musical.

But what about Part IV? Thomas F. Wilson is a stand-up comedian as well as an actor, and on YouTube you can find a track of his called “Biff’s Questions Song” which humorously answers the most common queries he gets from fans. The penultimate chorus reveals all: “Do you all hang out together? No we don’t / How’s Crispin Glover? Never talk to him / Back to the Future IV? Not happening / Stop asking me the question!”

Back to Back: The Making of the “Back to the Future” Sequels

Back in Time: The Making of “Back to the Future”

Spaceman from Pluto is a 1985 sci-fi comedy starring Eric Stoltz and Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd plays Professor Brown, an eccentric scientist with a pet chimp, who builds a time machine out of an old fridge. Stoltz portrays a teenage video pirate, Marty McFly, who is accidentally sent back to the 1950s in the machine. After almost wiping himself from existence by endangering his parents’ first meeting, Marty returns to his own time using the power generated by an atomic bomb test in the Nevada desert.

Fortunately this movie was released in some alternate version of history. In our timeline it went through a number of changes in writing and production to become the blockbuster classic Back to the Future.

For co-writer and producer Bob Gale it all started when he came across his father’s highschool yearbook and realised that, had he and his father been peers, they would never have been friends. Spotting the comedy potential in the concept of a teenager going to school with his parents, Gale sat down with co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis to develop a script. 

The pair knew they needed a time machine and decided that it would be created by a backyard inventor rather than some government organisation. “I can’t really put my finger on when I stumbled on the idea of time travel,” said Gale in 2002, “whether it was from watching The Twilight Zone, reading Superman comics, or when the H.G. Wells Time Machine – the George Pal movie – came out, but I do remember being totally fascinated by that film.”

Writer-director Robert Zemeckis & writer-producer Bob Gale

Getting Back to the Future made proved challenging. Most of the studios that Gale and Zemeckis approached found the script too sweet and innocent compared with the typical R-rated teen movies of the time. Disney, on the other hand, felt that the mother-falls-for-son plot was too taboo. 

Making matters worse was the duo’s less than spectacular track record. Their first two feature films, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, were both box office flops. They even had the dubious honour of writing the least successful film of Steven Spielberg’s directorial career so far, 1941.

Everything changed when Michael Douglas hired Zemeckis to direct 1984’s Romancing the Stone. The adventure romp was a hit and suddenly everyone in the notoriously fickle Hollywood wanted Back to the Future. Spielberg, who had always loved the script, signed on as executive producer and – after a false start at Columbia – the movie was green-lit by Universal Pictures.

Studio president Sid Sheinberg requested a number of script changes. Professor Brown became “Doc” and his chimp became a dog. Marty’s video piracy (which would have explained his possession of the camcorder with which he films the time machine’s test run) was written out, as the studio were understandably unwilling to promote the revenue-slashing crime.

Sheinberg also hated the title Back to the Future and wanted it changed to Spaceman from Pluto, a reference to the comic clutched by the Peabody children after the DeLorean crashes into their barn on arriving in 1955. Zemeckis and Gale turned to Spielberg to help them dodge this title without offending Sheinberg; his solution was to send a memo saying what a big laugh they all got out of Sheinberg’s joke. The studio president never mentioned it again.

The title Back to the Future was retained, but the barn scene did prompt another change. By this point the writers had realised that an immobile fridge was not dramatic or practical as a time machine, and were searching for a suitable vehicle for Doc to build it into. They chose the slick, stainless steel DeLorean with its futuristic gull-wing doors so that the Peabody family could mistake it for a UFO.

Budget concerns drove the elimination of the A-bomb scene. Shooting on location and building the miniatures of the bomb and its test tower were estimated to cost $1 million. Switching the power source to a lightning bolt not only saved this money by keeping all the action in Hill Valley, it enhanced the time metaphor represented by the clock tower as well as giving Doc an active part in the climax rather than being stuck in a blast bunker with a walkie-talkie.

The filmmakers’ first choice for the role of Marty McFly was Michael J. Fox, the 23-year-old star of sitcom Family Ties. But that show’s creator, Gary David Goldberg, refused to even let Fox see the Back to the Future script, fearing the actor would love it and resent Goldberg for not releasing him from his Family Ties commitment.

A disappointed Zemeckis accordingly began screen-testing other actors, eventually narrowing the choice down to C. Thomas Howell (best known for the coming-of-age drama The Outsiders) and Eric Stoltz (who had appeared in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Wild Life). It seems that Sid Sheinberg was Stoltz’s most vocal advocate. Gale recalled the studio president declaring: “I’m so convinced that Eric is going to be great in this part, if it doesn’t work out you can recast it and start all over again.”

No-one expected that to actually happen.

Filming began on November 26th, 1984. The logistics of transforming a real town into Hill Valley in both 1955 and 1985 were daunting, so instead production designer Lawrence G. Paull adapted the town square set on Universal Studios’ backlot, which had originally been built for the 1948 film noir An Act of Murder.

Special effects supervisor Kevin Pike had taken three DeLoreans and, working to concept art by the legendary Ron Cobb amongst others, fitted them with a variety of aircraft surplus parts and other junk to create the iconic time machine. The “Mr. Fusion” generator added to the vehicle in the final scene started life as a coffee grinder.

Cast in the role of Doc Brown was Christopher Lloyd, whose prior roles included a Klingon commander in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, a psychiatric patient in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and five years in the sitcom Taxi. In another alternate timeline he wasn’t involved in Back to the Future either, having binned the script in favour of a stage role in New York; it was his wife who made him reconsider.

Basing the character on the conductor Leopold Stokowski, Lloyd made the Doc larger than life. Eric Stoltz had a very different approach, a method approach, focusing on the serious aspect of Marty’s out-of-time predicament and apparently ignoring the fact that he was starring in a comedy. “Eric didn’t get it,” camera assistant Clyde E. Bryan remembered in 2015. “Eric didn’t understand the physical, pratfall type of humour that Bob [Zemeckis] was looking for.”

By the sixth week of filming, almost halfway through the schedule, Zemeckis knew he had a huge problem. After conferring with Gale and his fellow producer Neil Canton, the director asked Spielberg to come to the editing suite and watch the 45-minute rough cut of everything that had been shot so far. All the filmmakers agreed that Stoltz had to go.

Unwilling to have Universal shut down the film and suffer the attendant negative press, Zemeckis kept filming with Stoltz for another week, with most of the cast and crew unaware of the situation. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Canton worked out exactly how much reshoots would cost ($4 million) while Zemeckis and Gale went back to Goldberg at Family Ties, begging him to let Michael J. Fox take the role. Goldberg agreed on condition that the TV show would take priority. Fox himself claims to have merely weighed the script in his hand before agreeing to do it.

During the lunch break on Thursday, January 10th, 1985, halfway through filming the DeLorean’s test run in the car park of the Twin Pines Mall, Zemeckis called Stoltz into his trailer and broke the bad news. By the following Monday, Michael J. Fox was Marty McFly.

The young actor’s schedule was exhausting. He would wake at 9am, work on Family Ties from 10am to 6:30pm, get driven to Universal and shoot Back to the Future until 2:30am. Any scenes that required Marty in daylight had to be filmed at weekends.

Nonetheless, Fox somehow managed to squeeze in guitar lessons in preparation for Marty’s performance at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. He already had some experience with the instrument, but was determined to learn to play “Johnny B. Goode” note for note so that he could finger-sync perfectly to the pre-recorded track. Marty’s singing voice was provided by Mark Campbell, while the energetic choreography of his performance incorporated the signature moves of Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton as well as Chuck Berry.

The scene is one of the most memorable in the movie, but Zemeckis and Gale were very worried about it during editing. “It’s the only scene that doesn’t advance story or character, and we didn’t know how that was going to play,” said Gale. A preview screening in San Jose removed any doubts; the audience loved “Johnny B. Goode” and everything else about the movie.

After a second preview, this time with Sid Sheinberg in attendance, Universal realised they were onto a winner and moved the film’s release date up to the July 4th weekend, paying through the nose to accelerate post-production.

“I want it to be violent,” Zemeckis told the animators creating the effect of the DeLorean breaking the time barrier, “something akin to a Neanderthal sitting on the hood of the car, chipping away at the fabric of time in front of him.” The hand-drawn cell animation combined with built-in lighting on the car and actual fire trails that had been captured on location, plus additional pyrotechnics overlaid after the fact, created the signature effect.

Meanwhile, Alan Silvestri assembled the largest orchestra in Universal’s history to record Back to the Future’s iconic score, and a tie-in single was provided by Huey Lewis and the News. The latter took a couple of attempts to get right; Lewis’ first submission was a minor-key track that didn’t work at all, according to Zemeckis. It was only after the filmmaker showed Lewis the skateboarding scene that he understood the upbeat mood required and composed “The Power of Love”.

Fox was away filming a Family Ties special in England when Back to the Future was released. He was surprised to get a call from his agent telling him that it was the biggest film in America. It spent 12 weeks at the top of the US box office charts and quickly became part of popular culture, with even Presidents Reagan and Bush Senior giving speeches about taking the country “back to the future”. To date it has grossed almost $400 million.

Summing up the film’s appeal in 2002, Gale offered: “There’s something very special about this story that everyone can identify with, the idea of trying to imagine what your parents were like when they were kids – that just touches everybody.”

When Back to the Future was released on VHS in May 1986, fans noticed a small change from the theatrical version. There as expected was the DeLorean’s lift-off and departure to the future – originally intended by Zemeckis and Gale simply as a joke on which to end the story. But now, sandwiched between that final scene and the end credits, was a caption.

The caption read: “To be continued…”

Back in Time: The Making of “Back to the Future”

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: June 2022 Pick-ups

Last summer I lensed Harvey Greenfield is Running Late, a hilarious comedy feature starring Paul Richards, based on his acclaimed one-man play, soon to have its 100th performance. We had a 14-day window in Paul’s schedule for the shoot, during which we captured two thirds of the film – less than we’d hoped, but still a remarkable achievement given the resources we had and the production value we achieved. This summer we shoot the rest.

 

Day 15

Ten months on, we returned to the house from days 11 and 12. It’s on the verge of being sold, and this was our last chance to mop up the outstanding material here.

We eased into it gradually with simple inserts, recreating the look and lighting in the kitchen using Fifi’s camera notes, clips from the assembly edit, and this blog (yes, it’s not just for you, dear reader). At times like this I wish I recorded even more information – intensity and colour temperature readings for every source would be extremely useful, but is that really practical?

After traumatising Paul with a reshoot of a scene in which he gets slapped (accidentally for real the first time around) we popped outside to get a shot of him on the street, filmed through a car windscreen. Last year we captured the first monologue of the film as a oner, but with hindsight director Jonnie Howard decided it needed breaking up; this windscreen shot is one of several that he has added to illustrate the things Harvey monologues about. Proving that there are no easy shots, it took me an embarrassingly long time to eliminate annoying reflections in the glass by covering shiny parts of the dashboard with matt black tape and putting a polarising filter in the matte box.

Next we moved to the back garden for one of the film’s most complicated shots. It starts off as a two-shot of Harvey and Alice (Liz Barker) in a nighttime interior setting then – via a low-tech, Michel Gondry-style transition – becomes a single of Harvey in a daytime exterior. Gaffer Stephen Allwright and spark Jeremy Dawson built a dark box out of flags and bolton, parts of which had to swing away to let in the natural light during the transition. A light had to be panned off and a reflector swung in too, while production designer Amanda Stekly and her helpers performed their own magic with the set. By the time we got it in the can we were losing the light, but the result was well worth it.

The dusk gave us just the look we needed for a quick scene in the bedroom, then we were into full nighttime scenes. I climbed into the wardrobe to get the right camera angle – we were without our beloved 14mm lens this time around, so the locations felt a little tighter!

Later we had to recreate the lighting of the aforementioned oner, so we could shoot coverage, again with extensive reference to the camera notes, rushes and R3D metadata, this blog, and on-set photos captured on my phone. Last year we dialled a custom cyan colour into the Astera tubes and I really wish I had noted the XY or HSL numbers so that we could have dialled those into the Rayzr MC 200 that was replacing them for the pick-ups. Instead we had to judge it by eye.

It was now about midnight and we still had an important sequence in the kitchen and living room to shoot; we ultimately captured it in two set-ups and an insert. This day’s filming had seen the most extreme examples of the colour scheme I planned last year: orangey-red colours to represent Harvey’s stress, and cooler, greenish shades for calmer moments. By the end of the night it was starting to look like The Neon Demon and I was wondering if I had gone too far. I guess I will find out when it’s all cut together.

 

Day 16

A pleasant cycle ride through Cambridge and out across a meadow brought me to the brand-new village of Eddington and the impressive Storey’s Field Centre where we would be filming the office of Harvey’s boss, Bryan (Alan Hay). First up was a fantastic shot of Harvey huffing and puffing up a spiral staircase in the centre’s main hall. The high-tech building had its lights and two layers of blinds controlled electronically, and Stephen was able to completely reshape the natural light in the huge wide shot and even put a glorious streak of light on the staircase just by pressing a few buttons. If only every location was equipped so.

A smaller, but still obscenely spacious, hall served as Bryan’s office. French windows faced east into a beautiful courtyard garden. High windows on the opposite side of the room featured motorised blinds again, which sadly would not stop halfway, forcing us to close them completely to control the light. An overhang above the French windows, combined with the high walls of the courtyard, meant that very little natural light now entered the room. For a key, Stephen constructed a book-light by pointing an Aputure 600D up into a tilted frame of Ultrabounce and then hanging some diffusion (half grid, I think) off the top edge. We added a tungsten fresnel on a boom to give some orange, stress-themed hair-light to characters in the middle of the room.

The first shot was effectively the POV of a dartboard, so we stuck three darts to the matte box with Blu Tack. Sharp points and oily substances – exactly the things you want right next to your lens! – but it looked great.

The next couple of shots featured co-writer Raymond Howard’s baby daughter. One was a contra-zoom, captured on the 18-35mm which I zoomed manually off the barrel while pushing in on the Tango ProSup slider. The other required me to brandish the handheld camera right in baby’s face for a very long time until she eventually cried.

Then it was onto the big scene. This featured Bryan referring to a PowerPoint presentation, which meant a lighting transition as the screen came down and the projector fired up. For Harvey’s angle, with his back to the projector, we boomed an Aputure 300D behind him to simulate the projection beam, and sat a pocket LED light on the matte box to represent the bounce off the screen; these faded up as the 600D book-light and tungsten hair-light dimmed down. For Bryan’s angle the real projection light wasn’t doing enough on his face, so we “extended” the practical lamp on his desk with a small tungsten fresnel. For the wide shot we could get away with re-angling the practical so that it cast a dramatic, Citizen Kane-esque shadow from Bryan up onto the screen.

All in all, the day’s work added a huge amount of scale and humour to the movie. It was lovely to see and work with everyone again for the weekend. Next month most of us will be back for eight more days of running late.

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: June 2022 Pick-ups

What is a Diopter in Cinematography?

If you’re a fan of early Steven Spielberg films, you’ve probably heard of split diopter shots (also spelt “dioptre” in the UK). Brian de Palma used them a lot too, and Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture is absolutely riddled with them.

A split diopter allows half the image to be focused at one distance and half at another. Shallow depth of field is sought after by many filmmakers today, but it wasn’t always so popular. Sometimes a director or DP wanted both characters in a deep two-shot simultaneously in focus, and slow film stock and/or lenses meant that it wasn’t possible to just stop down the iris.

So what is a split diopter (a.k.a. split-field diopter)? It’s a convex lens of a semi-circular shape that can be slotted into your matte box. Light passing through this lens is converged so that it focuses closer, while light passing through the empty half of course goes unaltered to the main lens.

Bog-standard diopters are available too, with no missing half, enabling the entire image to be focused closer than normal. (In stills photography they are sometimes called close-up lenses or macro filters.) These are especially useful with anamorphic and zoom lenses, which tend to have greater close-focus distances than spherical primes. There’s no stop loss, so you don’t have to compensate with more light.

I carried a set of diopters with me on Hamlet and we used them for a couple of shots with the vintage Cooke Cinetal 25-250mm zoom (CF: 5’6″) when I was shooting quite tight and quite close to the talent.

So that’s what the physical object is. But a diopter is also a unit of measurement. A typical set of physical diopters (full or split) contains ½, 1, 2 and 3 strengths. What do those numbers mean?

A diopter is defined as a reciprocal metre, or 1 over the focal length. It’s the same unit used to define prescriptions for glasses. The important thing in cinematography is what effect a diopter of a given strength has on your minimum and maximum focus distances. Apps like pCAM Pro will work these out for you, but let’s do the maths ourselves because it’s my blog and I said so.

The formula for minimum focal distance is

where

  • x is the normal minimum focus of the lens (in metres),
  • x’ is the new minimum focus,
  • and d is the strength of the diopter.

Let’s take my Cooke Cinetal as an example. The 5’6″ close focus in metres is 1.68, so with a number 1 diopter…

… or with a number 3 diopter…

Diopters can be stacked; simply add the strengths together and then drop that number into the formula, so in the above case we’d have a total of 4 diopters (diopters the units, not diopters the objects!) which would produce a close focus of 0.22m. Keep the strongest diopter closest to the camera when stacking.

You have to be careful that you don’t reduce your maximum focal distance too much and find you can’t hold focus on a character as they move away. Your new maximum focal distance y’ (when the main lens is set to infinity) is

So that would be 1m with a number 1 diopter! Pretty restrictive, huh? A number 3 diopter gives you a maximum focal distance of 0.33m, even worse! I remember having to cheat Ian McKellen (CLANG!!!) a little closer to camera when we did a diopter shot on Hamlet, so that we could pull focus to him from a foreground actor’s hands.

If you bear that caveat in mind, however, a set of diopters is a very useful thing to have with you.

What is a Diopter in Cinematography?