It may be the beginning of the end for Covid-19, but it doesn’t look like home working and video calls are going away any time soon. We’re very lucky that we have such technology in the midst of a global pandemic, but let’s be honest: webcams don’t always make us look our best. Having lit and photographed movies for 20 years, I’d like to share a few tips to improve your image on Zoom, WhatsApp, Google Meet or whatever your video call software of choice is.
Firstly, low camera angles are not flattering to many people. Wherever possible, set up your webcam so that it’s at eye-level or a little above. If you’re using a laptop, this might mean stacking a few books under the device. Consider investing in a laptop stand that will raise the monitor and camera up if you’re going to be doing this a lot.
Avoid placing the camera too close yourself. A medium close-up works best for most video calls, head and shoulders at the closest, or down to your waist if you like to gesticulate a lot. Follow the classic rules of composition and make the most of your camera’s resolution by framing your head near the top of the shot, rather than leaving a lot of empty headroom above yourself.
It’s important to be aware of automatic exposure if you want to look your best on a webcam. Your camera and/or software continually assess the average luminance in the frame and alter the shutter speed or electronic gain to achieve what they think is the correct exposure. Since webcams have very poor dynamic range – they can’t handle a great deal of contrast within the frame – you should think carefully about what elements in your shot could sway the auto-exposure.
For example, a bright white wall, window or table lamp in the background will cause the camera to reduce its exposure, darkening the overall image and perhaps turning you into a silhouette. Even the colour of top you’re wearing can be a factor. If you have a pale skin tone and you’re wearing a black top – prompting the camera to increase its exposure – you might well find that your face bleaches out.
This brings us to lighting. Most of us are used to lighting our homes and workspaces so that we can see what we’re doing comfortably, rather than worrying about how the light is falling on our own faces.
The clearest and most flattering type of lighting is generally a large, soft source roughly in front of and slightly above us, so if possible position your computer or webcam in front of a window. If direct sunlight comes in through this window, that is less ideal; try to cut it off with your curtains. The indirect light of sky and clouds is much softer and less likely to confuse the auto-exposure.
If you have little or no natural light to work with, the main source of light on your face might well be the monitor you’re looking at. In this case, what you have on your screen can make a huge difference. A blank white Word document is going to light you much more effectively than a paused Netflix frame from a horror movie.
Monitor light can leave you looking blue and ghostly, so consider placing a strategic window of pale orange colour on your virtual desktop to warm up your skin tone. Try adjusting the monitor’s brightness or switching to a darker desktop theme if your monitor is bleaching your face out completely.
Of course, your screen is not just a light source. You need to be able to use it for actually viewing things too, so a better solution is not to rely on it for light. Instead, create another soft source in front of and slightly above you by pointing a desk-lamp at the wall above your monitor. (If the wall is a dark or saturated colour, pin up something white to reflect the light.) The larger the patch of wall the lamp illuminates, the more softly your face will be lit.
You may find that your background now looks very dim, because little of the light from your monitor – or bouncing off the wall behind your monitor – is reaching it. Worse still, the auto-exposure might react to this dim background by over-exposing your face. In this case, use a second lamp to illuminate the background.
Often the room’s main ceiling light will do the job here, though it will likely result in an image that has an overall flat look to it. That might be just what you need for a professional video call, but if not, feel free to get creative with your background. Use table lamps to pick out certain areas, string up fairy lights, or whatever you feel best reflects your personality and profession.
The main thing is to get your “key light” right first – that’s the soft source in front of you that keeps you lit nicely. Everything after that is just icing on the cake.
I used to do a lot of editing work alongside DPing, and although those days are now behind me, their influence lives on. Every day that I work as a cinematographer, I use some of the knowledge I gained while slaving over a multi-coloured keyboard. Here are some of the most important things I learnt from editing.
1. Performance always wins.
The editor will always use the take with the best performance. What this means for the DP is that there is really no point requesting another take because of a missed focus pull, bumpy dolly move or dodgy pan, because inevitably the performance will not be as spontaneous and engaging as it was when you cocked up the camerawork, so the editor will use the first take.
Of course you need to make the director aware of any significant technical issues, and if they want to do another take, that’s absolutely their prerogative. But the editor will still use the first take. So get it right on the first take, even if that means pushing for another rehearsal.
2. Your darlings will die.
You know all your favourite shots? All the ones you’ve been mentally ear-marking for your showreel? The beautifully-lit wides, the fancy camera moves, that cool scene with the really interesting set? Yeah, half of those won’t make the final cut.
That wide shot is used for a single second before they cut into the meaty mid-shots. The camera move slowed the scene down too much so they chopped it up. That scene with the cool set looked great but didn’t advance the plot.
Two things to learn from this: 1. Do a great job, but don’t be a perfectionist, because you might be wasting everyone’s time on something that is destined for the cutting room floor. 2. If you want that shot for your showreel, grab it from the DIT, otherwise you might never see it again.
3. Bring ’em in, let ’em leave.
I can’t count the number of times, when shooting a close-up, I’ve advised the director to run the whole scene. They just wanted to pick up a few lines, but I convince them to let the talent walk in at the start and walk out at the end. That way the editor has much more flexibility on when to cut, a flexibility which I know that I appreciated when I was the one wrangling the timeline.
Any angle you shoot, push to cover the entire scene from it. In most cases it takes only slightly more time, and it’s easier for the actors because they get to do the whole emotional arc. And the editor will have many more options.
4. Spot the Missing Shot.
The ability to edit in your head is incredibly useful on set. If you can mentally assemble the coverage you’ve just shot, you can quickly identify anything that’s missing. Years of editing trained me to do this, and it’s saved annoying pick-ups several times. Officially this is the script supervisor’s job, but smaller productions may not always have someone in this capacity, and even when they do, another person keeping track can’t hurt.
5. Respect the slate.
On smaller productions, the clapperboard is often treated as an inconvenience. People sometimes chat over it, directors giving last-minute instructions, or actors finishing their showbiz anecdotes before getting into character, rendering the audio announcement unintelligible. On no- or micro-budget productions there might not be a 2nd AC, so the board gets passed to whoever’s handy at the time, who has no idea what the current slate or take number are, and the whole thing becomes a meaningless farce.
Which is fine for everyone except the poor bastard in the edit suite who’s got to figure out which audio clip goes with which video clip. It can add hours of extra work for them. I’ve been there, and it ain’t pretty. So, for the sanity of the (assistant) editor, please respect the slate.
One of the things which I believe separates a good director of photography from a bad one is preparation. On a big production you may have weeks of paid, full-time prep, but on a micro-budget movie you may be lucky to have a single meeting before the shoot. In the latter case you’ll have to use your initiative, put in the time for free, and use Skype a lot, but either way the quality of the prep can make or break the production.
Here are ten things a DP should do to set themselves up for success before the camera rolls. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, rather it’s a run-down of the things which I have found to bear most fruit later on in the production.
1. Get inside the director’s head.
Some directors will come to you with a beautiful set of storyboards, concept art and reference images, but many won’t. Many will simply have an idea in their head of how they want it to look, and it’s your job to find out what that vision is. Often this will happen before full-time prep begins. It will consist of watching movies together, pouring over books of photos, sharing Pinterest boards or Dropboxes full of images, all the while discussing what they do and don’t like. The aim is to get such a clear idea of their vision that when you set up a shot you’ll deliver the mood they’re looking for first time.
2. Work with the art department.
The next person to get in sync with is the production designer. This is an incredibly important and symbiotic relationship; you have the power to completely destroy each others’ work, or to make each other look like geniuses! Two things you should talk about early on with the designer are the colour palette of the film (and any palettes specific to certain locations, plot threads or characters) and the aspect ratio: does the shape of the sets being designed fit the shape of the frame you’re planning to compose? Next you’ll want to discuss each set and the position of windows and practicals within it, to ensure that you’ll be able to get the lighting angles you need. For their part, the designer will want to quiz you on where the key camera positions will be, and the rough lens lengths you’ll be using, so they know where to put in the most detail and the important bits of dressing.
3. Get to know the needs of the other H.o.D.s.
Although the production designer is the most important head of department for a DP to work with, they are by no means the only one. The visual effects supervisor is increasingly a key collaborator; you should discuss the look you’re going for and how that will integrate with the VFX, and whether plates need to be shot at a higher resolution, in RAW, or any other technical requirements. You should familiarise yourself with the costume designs and discuss how those will integrate with the overall look. Similarly the make-up department will want to talk about about lens filtration, coloured lighting and anything else that may affect how their work looks. The line producer is a crucial person to get on the good side of. Sooner or later you’ll have to ask them for something expensive and unexpected, and they’re much more likely to say yes if you have tried to help them earlier on, by reducing your equipment list for example, or by hiring local camera assistants to save on accommodation costs.
When you start to scout the locations, you’ll want to pay careful attention to the direction of the sun. Which windows will it come through as it moves around over the course of the day? Are those trees or buildings likely to shadow that park bench where the characters will be sitting? With a bit of experience – and a compass, if it’s cloudy – you can estimate this, or use apps like Sun Tracker and Helios which are designed for exactly this purpose. For interiors, windows that never get direct sunlight are most convenient, allowing you to light them artificially, and thus constantly, without having to flag the real sun. For exteriors, shooting into the sun is generally most desirable, for the beauty of the backlight and the softness of the reflected fill. Of course, there will always be compromises with the other demands of the production.
Each director has a different process, but often they will draft a shot list on their own before passing it to you for feedback. There are many things for a DP to consider when going through this list. Do the shots reflect the style and visual grammar you both discussed earlier? (If not, has the director had a change of heart, or have they simply forgotten? Directors have a lot to think about!) Do the shots provide enough coverage for the editor? Are there too many shots to realistically accomplish on schedule? (Very often there are!) What grip equipment will the camera movements require? Are any special lenses or filters required, e.g. a macro lens for an extreme close-up of an eye?
6. Shoot tests.
Testing is a crucial part of the prep for both technical and creative reasons. Usually you will want to test a few different cameras and lens sets, to see which best serve the story. For example, a period film lit with a lot of genuine candlelight may work best on a sensitive camera like the Panasonic Varicam combined with soft fall-off lenses like Cooke S4s, while a sci-fi thriller might be suited to a Red or Alexa and a set of anamorphics for those classic flares. Until you’ve tested them and compared the images side by side though, you can’t be sure, and neither can the director and producers. Often costume and make-up tests will be requested, which may be combined with the camera tests to see how the different sensors render them, or maybe done separately once the camera kit is locked down. These tests are also a great opportunity for the DP to demonstrate for the director the type of lighting you plan to use to, and to make sure you really are on the same page. Ideally a DIT (digital imaging technician) will be available to grade the test footage, developing LUTs (look-up tables) if required, and providing proof of concept for the finished look of the movie.
Once the 1st AD has drafted the shooting schedule, they will show it to the DP for feedback. When determining how much can be done in a day, the 1st AD is thinking of the script page count, and they may not have seen a shot list at this point. Along with the director, the DP must bring any concerns they have about the schedule to the 1st AD in prep, or forever hold your peace! Is there enough time to get those tricky camera moves you’ve planned? Has the re-light time for the reverse been factored in? Have things been arranged in a logical order for lighting, or will things have to be torn down and put back up again later? Does the schedule permit things to be shot at the best time of day for light? Are the night scenes actually scheduled at night or will the windows have to be blacked out? Are there critical close-ups towards the end of the schedule, when the cast will be tired and no longer look their best?
However good-looking the talent may be, they will always look better under certain types of lighting than others. Often you will figure out what suits each actor after a week or so of shooting, but ideally you want to find out before principal photography begins. You can do this during testing, if the cast are available and you have enough time – trying out different key angles, fill levels, backlight and lenses to see what works best for their individual faces. Apart from anything else, this is a great way to establish trust with the cast right from the start, assuring them that they are in safe hands. If testing isn’t possible, watch some of their previous work, looking carefully at how they have been photographed.
9. Mark up your script.
There’s no point in having lots of great ideas in preproduction if you forget them when you’re on set. Everyone has a different system, but you may wish to mark up your script and/or shot list. This could include using coloured highlighters to differentiate day and night scenes at a glance, underlining any references to mood or camera angles in the stage directions, or indicating beats in the development of the story or characters which need to be reflected in how things are lit or shot.
10. Plan your lighting.
Everyone likes to get rolling as soon as possible after call time, and a big factor in achieving this is how quickly you can light. Ideally you will have planned the broad strokes of the lighting in preproduction, and communicated that plan to the gaffer. Budget permitting, the lighting crew can even pre-rig the set so that only tweaking is required when the whole unit arrives. In this case you’ll need to have been very clear and specific about what you want set up and where, drawing diagrams or approving those which the gaffer has drawn up. Often you’ll need to know the rough blocking of the scene before you can plan the lighting, so you should make sure the director indicates their intentions for this during scouts.
Every film is different, but follow the steps above and you’ll be well on your way to an efficient and productive shoot in 2018. Happy new year!
I joined this social media platform last summer, after hearing DP Ed Moore say in an interview that his Instagram feed helps him get work. I can’t say that’s happened for me yet, but an attractive Instagram feed can’t do any creative freelancer any harm. And for photographers and cinematographers, it’s a great way to practice our skills.
The tips below are primarily aimed at people who are using a phone camera to take their pictures, but many of them will apply to all types of photography.
The particular challenge with Instagram images is that they’re usually viewed on a phone screen; they’re small, so they have to be easy for the brain to decipher. That means reducing clutter, keeping things bold and simple.
Here are twelve tips for putting this philosophy into practice. The examples are all taken from my own feed, and were taken with an iPhone 5, almost always using the HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode to get the best tonal range.
1. choose your background carefully
The biggest challenge I find in taking snaps with my phone is the huge depth of field. This makes it critical to have a suitable, non-distracting background, because it can’t be thrown out of focus. In the pub photo below, I chose to shoot against the blank pillar rather than against the racks of drinks behind the bar, so that the beer and lens mug would stand out clearly. For the Lego photo, I moved the model away from a messy table covered in multi-coloured blocks to use a red-only tray as a background instead.
2. Find Frames within frames
The Instagram filters all have a frame option which can be activated to give your image a white border, or a fake 35mm negative surround, and so on. An improvement on this is to compose your image so that it has a built-in frame. (I discussed frames within frames in a number of my recent posts on composition.)
3. try symmetrical composition
To my eye, the square aspect ratio of Instagram is not wide enough for The Rule of Thirds to be useful in most cases. Instead, I find the most arresting compositions are central, symmetrical ones.
4. Consider Shooting flat on
In cinematography, an impression of depth is usually desirable, but in a little Instagram image I find that two-dimensionality can sometimes work better. Such photos take on a graphical quality, like icons, which I find really interesting. The key thing is that 2D pictures are easier for your brain to interpret when they’re small, or when they’re flashing past as you scroll.
5. Look for shapes
Finding common shapes in a structure or natural environment can be a good way to make your photo catch the eye. In these examples I spotted an ‘S’ shape in the clouds and footpath, and an ‘A’ shape in the architecture.
6. Look for textures
Textures can add interest to your image. Remember the golden rule of avoiding clutter though. Often textures will look best if they’re very bold, like the branches of the tree against the misty sky here, or if they’re very close-up, like this cathedral door.
7. Shoot into the light
Most of you will not be lighting your Instagram pics artificially, so you need to be aware of the existing light falling on your subject. Often the strongest look is achieved by shooting towards the light. In certain situations this can create interesting silhouettes, but often there are enough reflective surfaces around to fill in the shadows so you can get the beauty of the backlight and still see the detail in your subject. You definitely need to be in HDR mode for this.
8. Look for interesting light
It’s also worth looking out for interesting light which may make a dull subject into something worth capturing. Nature provides interesting light every day at sunrise and sunset, so these are good times to keep an eye out for photo ops.
9. Use lens flare for interest
Photographers have been using lens flare to add an extra something to their pictures for decades, and certain science fiction movies have also been known to use (ahem) one or two. To avoid a flare being too overpowering, position your camera so as to hide part of the sun behind a foreground object. To get that anamorphic cinema look, wipe your finger vertically across your camera lens. The natural oils on your skin will cause a flare at 90° to the direction you wiped in. (Best not try this with that rented set of Master Primes though.)
10. Control your palette
Nothing gives an image a sense of unity and professionalism as quickly as a controlled colour palette. You can do this in-camera, like I did below by choosing the purple cushion to photograph the book on, or by adjusting the saturation and colour cast in the Photos app, as I did with the Canary Wharf image. For another example, see the Lego shot under point 3.
11. Wait for the right moment
Any good photographer knows that patience is a virtue. Waiting for pedestrians or vehicles to reach just the right spot in your composition before tapping the shutter can make the difference between a bold, eye-catching photo and a cluttered mess. In the below examples, I waited until the pedestrians (left) and the rowing boat and swans (right) were best placed against the background for contrast and composition before taking the shot.
12. Quality control
One final thing to consider: is the photo you’ve just taken worthy of your Instagram profile, or is it going to drag down the quality of your feed? If it’s not good, maybe you should keep it to yourself.
Shortly before Christmas, while browsing the secondhand books in the corner of an obscure Herefordshire garden centre, I came across a small blue hardback called The Tricks of Light and Colour by Herbert McKay. Published in 1947, the book covered almost every aspect of light you could think of, from the inverse square law to camouflage and optical illusions. What self-respecting bibliophile cinematographer could pass that up?
Here are some quite-interesting things about light which the book describes…
1. SPHERES ARE THE KEY to understandING the inverse square law.
Any cinematographer worth their salt will know that doubling a subject’s distance from a lamp will quarter their brightness; tripling their distance will cut their brightness to a ninth; and so on. This, of course, is the inverse square law. If you struggle to visualise this law and why it works the way it does, The Tricks of Light and Colour offers a good explanation.
[Think] of light being radiated from… a mere point. Light and heat are radiated in straight lines and in all directions [from this point]. At a distance of one foot from the glowing centre the whole quantity of light and heat is spread out over the surface of a sphere with a radius of one foot. At a distance of two feet from the centre it is spread over the surface of a sphere of radius two feet. Now to find an area we multiply two lengths; in the case of a sphere both lengths are the radius of the sphere. As both lengths are doubled the area is four times as great… We have the same amounts of light and heat spread over a sphere four times as great, and so the illumination and heating effect are reduced to a quarter as great.
2. MIRAGES ARE DUE TO Total internal reflection.
This is one of the things I dimly remember being taught in school, which this book has considerably refreshed me on. When light travels from one transparent substance to another, less dense, transparent substance, it bends towards the surface. This is called refraction, and it’s the reason that, for example, streams look shallower than they really are, when viewed from the bank. If the first substance is very dense, or the light ray is approaching the surface at a glancing angle, the ray might not escape at all, instead bouncing back down. This is called total internal reflection, and it’s the science behind mirages.
The heated sand heats the air above it, and so we get an inversion of the density gradient: low density along the heated surface, higher density in the cooler air above. Light rays are turned down, and then up, so that the scorched and weary traveller sees an image of the sky, and the images looks like a pool of cool water on the face of the desert.
3. Pinhole images pop up in unexpected places.
Most of us have made a pinhole camera at some point in our childhood, creating an upside-down image on a tissue paper screen by admitting light rays through a tiny opening. Make the opening bigger and the image becomes a blur, unless you have a lens to focus the light, as in a “proper” camera or indeed our eyes. But the pinhole imaging effect can occur naturally too. I’ve sometimes lain in bed in the morning, watching images of passing traffic or flapping laundry on a line projected onto my bedroom ceiling through the little gap where the curtains meet at the top. McKay describes another example:
One of the prettiest examples of the effect may be seen under trees when the sun shines brightly. The ground beneath a tree may be dappled with circles of light, some of them quite bright… When we look up through the leaves towards the sun we may see the origin of the circles of light. We can see points of light where the sun shines through small gaps between the leaves. Each of these gaps acts in the same way as a pinhole: it lets through rays from the sun which produce an image of the sun on the ground below.
4. The sun isn’t a point source.
“Shadows are exciting,” McKay enthuses as he opens chapter VI. They certainly are to a cinematographer. And this cinematographer was excited to learn something about the sun and its shadow which is really quite obvious, but I had never considered before.
Look at the shadow of a wall. Near the base, where the shadow begins, the edge of the shadow is straight and sharp… Farther out, the edge of the shadow gets more and more fuzzy… The reason lies of course in the great sun itself. The sun is not a mere point of light, but a globe of considerable angular width.
The accompanying illustration shows how you would see all, part or none of the sun if you stood in a slightly different position relative to the hypothetical wall. The area where none of the sun is visible is of course in full shadow (umbra), and the area where the sun is partially visible is the fuzzy penumbra (the “almost shadow”).
5. Gravity bends LIGHT.
Einstein hypothesised that gravity could bend light rays, and observations during solar eclipses proved him right. Stars near to the eclipsed sun were seen to be slightly out of place, due to the huge gravitational attraction of the sun.
The effect is very small; it is too small to be observed when the rays pass a comparatively small body like the moon. We need a body like the sun, at whose surface gravity is 160 or 170 times as great as at the surface of the moon, to give an observable deviation…. The amount of shift depends on the apparent nearness of a star to the sun, that is, the closeness with which the rays of light from the star graze the sun. The effect of gravity fades out rapidly, according to the inverse square law, so that it is only near the sun that the effects can be observed.
6. Light helped us discover helium.
Sodium street-lamps are not the most pleasant of sources, because hot sodium vapour emits light in only two wave-lengths, rather than a continuous spectrum. Interestingly, cooler sodium vapour absorbs the same two wave-lengths. The same is true of other elements: they emit certain wave-lengths when very hot, and absorb the same wave-lengths when less hot. This little bit of science led to a major discovery.
The sun is an extremely hot body surrounded by an atmosphere of less highly heated vapours. White light from the sun’s surfaces passes through these heated vapours before it reaches us; many wave-lengths are absorbed by the sun’s atmosphere, and there is a dark line in the spectrum for each wave-length that has been absorbed. The thrilling thing is that these dark lines tell us which elements are present in the sun’s atmosphere. It turned out that the lines in the sun’s spectrum represented elements already known on the earth, except for one small group of lines which were ascribed to a hitherto undetected element. This element was called helium (from helios, the sun).
7. Moonlight is slightly too dim for colours.
Our retinas are populated by two different types of photoreceptors: rods and cones. Rods are much more sensitive than cones, and enable us to see in very dim light once they’ve had some time to adjust. But rods cannot see colours. This is why our vision is almost monochrome in dark conditions, even under the light of a full moon… though only just…
The light of the full moon is just about the threshold, as we say, of colour vision; a little lighter and we should see colours.
8. MAGIC HOUR can be longer than an hour.
We cinematographers often think of magic “hour” as being much shorter than an hour. When prepping for a dusk-for-night scene on The Little Mermaid, I used my light meter to measure the length of shootable twilight. The result was 20 minutes; after that, the light was too dim for our Alexas at 800 ISO and our Cooke S4 glass at T2. But how long after sunset is it until there is literally no light left from the sun, regardless of how sensitive your camera is? McKay has this to say…
Twilight is partly explained as an effect of diffusion. When the sun is below the horizon it still illuminates particles of dust and moisture in the air. Some of the scattered light is thrown down to the earth’s surface… Twilight ends when the sun is 17° or 18° below the horizon. At the equator [for example] the sun sinks vertically at the equinoxes, 15° per hour; so it sinks 17° in 1 hour 8 minutes.
9. Why isn’t Green a primary colour in paint?
And finally, the answer to something that bugged me during my childhood. When I was a small child, daubing crude paintings of stick figures under cheerful suns, I was taught that the primary colours are red, blue and yellow. Later I learnt that the true primary colours, the additive colours of light, are red, blue and green. So why is it that green, a colour that cannot be created by mixing two other colours of light, can be created by mixing blue and yellow paints?
When white light falls on a blue pigment, the pigment absorbs reds and yellows; it reflects blue and also some green. A yellow pigment absorbs blue and violet; it reflects yellow, and also some red and green which are the colours nearest to it in the spectrum. When the two pigments are mixed it may be seen that all the colours are absorbed by one or other of the components except green.
If you’re interested in picking up a copy of The Tricks of Light and Colour yourself, there is one on Amazon at the time of writing, but it will set you back £35. Note that Herbert McKay is not to be confused with Herbert C. McKay, an American author who was writing books about stereoscopic photography at around the same time.
Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the Bristol International Festival of Cinematography: five days of masterclasses and panel discussions with a range of DPs from Oscar-winners like Chris Menges, ASC, BSC and Billy Williams, BSC, OBE to emerging cinematographers like Rina Yang. It was fascinating to watch the likes of Williams lighting the purpose-built set and explaining his decisions as he went. I learnt a huge amount, so I decided to share some of the opinions and nuggets of wisdom I collected.
Everyone agrees that the role of the DP is being diminished. Films are more collaborative than they used to be, often with lots of input from the VFX team right from the start.
You have to create your own luck. (Rina Yang)
Going to LA parties and schmoozing helps. (Roberto Schaefer, AIC, ASC)
Each clip on your showreel should make the viewer feel something. (Matt Gray, BSC)
Director Philippa Lowthorpe and Gray, her DP, spent weeks of prep getting on the same page when they worked together – chatting, exchanging photos, films, and so on.
Spend as much time as you can with the director in the early stages of prep, because as you get closer to the shoot they will be too busy with other stuff. (Schaefer)
Start with ten ideas about how you want to approach the cinematography of the film. If you hang onto five of them throughout the shoot you’re doing well. (Gray)
Hire a gaffer who knows more than you do. (Schaefer)
On Gandhi, co-cinematographer Billy Williams, BSC, OBE was granted only half of the lighting kit he asked for. That was a $22 million movie which won eight Oscars!
Schaefer usually carries a 24’x30′ mirror in his kit, in case he needs to get an angle from somewhere where the camera won’t fit.
Schaefer doesn’t used OLED monitors to light from, because the blacks are richer than they will ever be seen by an audience on any other device, including in a cinema. He won’t judge the lighting by the EVF either, only a monitor calibrated by the DIT.
Focus drop-off is faster on digital than on film. Hence the current popularity of Cooke lenses, which soften the drop-off.
Nic Knowland, BSC uses a DSLR as a viewfinder to pick his shots. He also likes to record takes on his Convergent monitor so he can review them quickly for lighting issues.
You have to give the actors freedom, which may mean compromising the cinematography. (Nigel Waters, BSC)
Gray would never ask an actor to the find the light. The light needs to find them! As soon as actors are freed from marks, they can truly inhabit the space. [Note: in my experience, some actors absolutely insist on marks. Different strokes for different folks.]
On digital, everyone wants to shoot the rehearsal. (Schaefer)
Digital encourages more takes, but more takes use up time, drains actors’ energy and creates more work for the editor. Doing fewer takes encourages people to bring their A game to take one. (Williams)
Director Philippa Lowthorpe prefers a DP who operates because there is no filter between the ideas you’ve discussed in prep and the operation of the camera.
Sometimes when you start lighting a set, you don’t where you’re going with it. You build a look, stroke by stroke, and see where it takes you. (Knowland)
Williams advocates maintaining the same stop throughout a scene, because your eye gets used to judging that exposure.
Knowland relies more on false colours on his monitor than on his light meter.
Schaefer often foregoes his traditional light and colour meters for an iPad app called Cine Meter III.
Knowland will go to 359º on the shutter if he’s struggling for light.
It’s worth checking the grade on a cheap monitor or TV. That’s how most people will watch it. (Schaefer)
In the celluloid era, light meters were essential to ensure proper exposure of the film negative. In today’s digital world, where you can immediately see your images on a monitor, it may seem like light meters are obsolete.
But these devices still have their place in modern cinematography. On a bigger production, when you may not be at the camera the whole time, they can be very useful. Interrupting your ACs (as they set up the sticks, swing the lens, put on the eyepiece extension, balance the fluid head, run cables to the monitors, etc.) in order to see if your image is correctly exposed on camera can be inefficient.
And having the reliable, hard number a light meter gives you can be more reassuring than judging false colours or histograms.
Here are four ways in which I used my brand new light meter on my last production, The Little Mermaid:
To call ND filters. When shooting outdoors, I would take light readings in the sun and in the shade, and when then the sun was in, to understand the range of light levels I was dealing with. I could then pick an ND filter that would put me at a stop at where I would still have the room to adjust the iris a little either way if the light got brighter or darker. This was particularly important when we were shooting on water in a splash bag, when changing NDs or even just adjusting the iris was a longer process. (In my next post I’ll look deeper into stop maths and ND filters to demonstrate exactly how to select an ND filter based on a light reading.)
To measure contrast ratios. The Alexa can handle up to seven stops of over-exposure and eight stops of under-exposure. Knowing this, I could use my meter to see if certain areas were going to blow out or crush, before the camera was even set up. I could also measure how many stops the key side of an actor’s face was above the fill side, and thus work out the key-to-fill ratio. At present this is still something I judge by eye on the monitor, but the more I get to know the numbers, the more I suspect I will start determining it in advance.
To check green-screens are properly lit. The visual effects supervisor, Jafar, told me that green-screens should be exposed at key, or up to half a stop over key. So if I was shooting at T4, I would walk along the green-screen and take readings at various points to make sure the meter was generally giving me between f4 and f4½.
To schedule a dusk shot. For a twilight scene on a beach, I needed to know in advance exactly what our window of opportunity was. Looking up the sunset time is all well and good, but it doesn’t help you figure out how long afterwards there will be enough ambient light left to shoot with. So while at location the day before, I went out onto the beach and took light readings every few minutes after sundown. These told me I had 20 minutes from sunset until the ambient light dropped below what the lenses could expose.
The director of photography is one of the crew members who has the greatest influence over the pace of a shoot. How long you take to light each set-up has a huge impact on how much gets done in a day. So it’s only natural that you are usually consulted on the shooting schedule during preproduction. More often than not, your pleas for more shooting days will be ignored because there simply isn’t the money. Nonetheless, it’s your duty to feedback on the schedule, and if you can be specific about your concerns then you may occasionally succeed in getting tweaks made. And if not, at least you can say, “I told you so.”
Here are some things I’m looking for when I assess a schedule.
Length of shoot. Are there enough days? Is there a second unit to mop up up anything you drop, or do you have to cover everything on every day yourself?
Turnarounds. Is there a full day of daylight exterior immediately after a night shoot, for example?
Night scenes scheduled during daylight hours. Is the AD expecting you to black out windows, or is this a mistake? I hate blacking out windows; it robs the visuals of depth.
Stunts, VFX, make-up gags etc. Has the AD factored in the extra set-up time that comes with these things? Again, if there’s a second unit for this stuff then it may not affect you.
Nightmare shots. Has adequate time been allowed for any special, fancy shots that might take longer than usual to set up?
Location moves. Are there any location moves during the day, even just between rooms in the same house? Has time been allowed for these moves? Has extra time been allowed for the first scene in each location, to allow it to be lit properly? This may be less of an issue if you have a pre-rig crew.
Easing into it. Does the shoot start off a little easier to give the crew time to get into the swing of things?
Movie star shots. Are there any big heroic or romantic moments late in the schedule? Towards the end of the shoot, everyone will be tired, and this will show on the actors’ faces. Try to have key close-ups brought forward in the schedule, or warn the AD that lighting and make-up will take longer than normal.
Seasonal variations. On long shoots, there may be noticeable changes in season (trees in leaf/not in leaf, for examples) during production, and the available hours of daylight may change. Has this been taken into consideration?
Cover sets. Has the AD got contingency plans if the weather is bad?
A good 1st AD should have thought of most if not all of these things, but it never hurts to check them out yourself.
Want to learn more about scheduling? Check out my posts on scheduling my feature film Soul Searcher and my short film Stop/Eject.
I’ve been working in the film business for 16 years now, but until very recently I hadn’t really worked on a ‘proper’ production, one that had a budget above five figures. Here are some differences I noticed stepping up from micro-budget to low budget…
Formal crew structure. There is a proper separation between departments, even between camera and lighting (which is quite strange for the DP, in charge of both). Woe betide anyone who moves set dressing without asking the art department, or who plugs something in without checking with the sparks, or who stores equipment in a room without asking locations.
Proper production and locations departments. The feature I worked on last year had two producers, a line producer, a production manager and a production co-ordinator, plus a locations department. I’m used to productions where one person does all those jobs, and often directs as well. Figuring out which person to approach about any given issue was fun! (Creative Skillset’s website is a good place to check if you’re not sure who does what.)
Advance prep. With a large crew, time cannot be wasted waiting for things that could have been pre-rigged. Heads of department are expected to think ahead and splinter their crew if necessary to be ready for things coming later in the day or week. For a DP this most commonly means pre-rigging distro and/or lighting.
Delegation. Aside from operating the camera, I did little hands-on work on the recent feature shoot. Lens changes, grip rigging and lighting set-ups are all handled by other people on the instructions of me, and of the gaffer and the 1st AC. Sometimes this means the DP can go and have a cup of tea, but often it provides important thinking and planning time – an opportunity to reccie the next set and design the lighting, or to review footage in the edit room, or reccie a possible location with other HoDs, or discuss the afternoon’s shots with the director. It’s impossible to do this sort of forward planning if you’re changing your own lenses and setting your own lamps up.
Hard wrap times. On micro-budget shoots the wrap time is a theoretical concept, with no more relevance to reality than an episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants. On a bigger production, you wrap at wrap time, because if you don’t then the gaffer might pull the plug. Occasionally the crew will be asked if they are willing to go over by half an hour, say, in order to complete a scene. But everyone must agree, and that half hour must be deducted from the next day.
Lunch break, not just lunch. In micro-budget land, getting lunch at all is not a given. But when you do get it, you’re often expected to eat as quickly as possible and get straight back to work. On a bigger production you get your hour lunch break come hell or high water. And there’s proper catering. With desserts!
Reliance on the crew. If you’re working with a small camera and mains power, you can stay late with the director and steal a few extra shots, if necessary. But when everything’s run off a generator, which only the gaffer is qualified to operate, and your camera package is almost too heavy to lift onto your own shoulder, and you have no idea how half the bits and bobs connected to it work because your ACs always deal with it, you really can’t do anything on your own.
Permissions and qualifications. For insurance reasons you must have qualified people overseeing the electrics and the rigging. You must also check with the locations department before using any space or equipment or filming in any area that was not discussed and signed off in preproduction.
Paperwork. Most HoDs seem to have some kind of daily paperwork to do on a larger production.The DP happily escapes this (the ACs handle the camera reports), though they do have to complete a risk assessment before shooting commences.
People management. Because of the size of the team under you, people management becomes a major part of an HoD’s job. I’ll go into more detail on this in a future post.
Any director worth their salt will be skilled in telling a story with the camera. But, quite understandably, they’re not familiar with the key concepts of cinematography – particularly the lighting side of cinematography – which a DP employs every day to create images that have impact, mood and production value. For the most part, directors don’t need to know these things – after all, that’s what the DP’s there for – but understanding a few of the basic concepts can help set up your film for visual excellence before the DP even gets involved.
1. We don’t light from the front.
It is logical to assume that light coming from behind the camera will give the best illumination to a scene. And on a purely cold, scientific level, it’s true. But on an aesthetic level, it couldn’t be more wrong. Quite apart from the practical issues of boom shadows and actors squinting in the sun, frontlight gives a flat, depthless image similar to a photo taken with flash.
Similarly, anyone who has taken photos with a camera in automatic mode will have been told – or quickly learnt – that shooting towards the sun, or when indoors, towards a window, is a bad idea, resulting in silhouettes and/or blown-out skies. So directors are often surprised when towards the sun (or a window) is EXACTLY the direction I want to shoot in, because it supplies beautiful backlight and allows me to fill in the shadow side – the side towards camera – as I see fit. No, it’s not going to be a silhouette (unless that’s what we’re going for) because I have a lamps and I have manual control of my iris.
2. Dark scenes do not require a camera with good low light sensitivity.
It depends what you mean by dark. A scene that is dark as a creative decision won’t actually be dark in reality because it will still be lit, perhaps highly lit, to create a moody, contrasty look. Therefore the camera’s sensitivity is not much of an issue.
A scene that is dark because you don’t have the budget to light it properly – yes, that’s going to need a sensitive camera if you’re going to see anything but noise.
3. You can’t fix everything in the grade.
It is truly amazing what can be done with today’s colour correction software, but there are two things it can’t do: it can’t save an image that was seriously underlit or underexposed, and it can’t change the angle or quality of light. Colour and intensity, yes. Angle and quality (soft/hard), no. And since these are the main things a DP determines, grading can never replace a good cinematographer. If it doesn’t look good on the monitor on the day, it will probably never look good.
4. We can’t light without seeing the blocking.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned up on set and asked to see the blocking, and been told no because the actors actors are in make-up, “but they’re going to stand kind of here.” In most circumstances, the first scene of the day should be blocked BEFORE the actors go to make-up. That way the DP can be lighting while the cast is getting made up, which is much more time efficient. Otherwise the DP tinkers about trying to light the space and looking at their watch, then when the talent comes out everyone is kept waiting while the DP changes all the lighting. Because inevitably the actors will want to do something different than what the director had in mind, or the director forgot to mention that one of the actors has to be seen coming through the door at the start, etc, etc. Blocking can also throw up problems with the scene which can be solved by various other departments while make-up is going on.
5. A good camera and a good DP are not substitutes for good design.
Light and lensing can only do so much. If what’s put in front of the camera doesn’t look good to start with, there’s very little I can do about it. Get an art director. Please, please, please, get an art director. They will do much more for the look of your film than I can. I don’t care if it’s a futuristic sci-fi movie or a gritty drama shot in a student flat, you need an experienced person with an artistic eye adding character to the sets and locations, developing a palette and composing everything beautifully for the camera.