Exposure Part 3: Shutter

In the first two parts of this series we saw how exposure can be controlled using the lens aperture – with side effects including changes to the depth of field – and neutral density (ND) filters. Today we will look at another means of exposure control: shutter angle.

 

The Physical Shutters of Film Cameras

As with aperture, an understanding of what’s going on under the hood is useful, and that begins with celluloid. Let’s imagine we’re shooting on film at 24fps, the most common frame rate. The film can’t move continuously through the gate (the opening behind the lens where the focused light strikes the film) or we would end up recording just a long vertical streak of light. The film must remain stationary long enough to expose an image, before being moved on by a distance of four perforations (the standard height of a 35mm film frame) so that the next frame can be exposed. Crucially, light must not hit the film while it is being moved, or vertical streaking will occur.

Joram van Hartingsveldt, CC BY-SA 3.0

This is where the shutter comes in. The shutter is a portion of a disc that spins in front of the gate. The standard shutter angle is 180°, meaning that the shutter is a semi-circle. We always describe shutter angles by the portion of the disc which is missing, so a 270° shutter (admitting 1.5x the light of a 180° shutter) is a quarter of a circle, and a 90° shutter (admitting half the light of a 180° shutter) is three-quarters.

The shutter spins continuously at the same speed as the frame rate – so at 24fps the shutter makes 24 revolutions per second. So with a 180° shutter, each 24th of a second is divided into two halves, i.e. 48ths of a second:

  • During one 48th of a second, the missing part of the shutter is over the gate, allowing the light to pass through and the stationary film to be exposed.
  • During the other 48th of a second, the shutter blocks the gate to prevent light hitting the film as it is advanced. The shutter has a mirrored surface so that light from the lens is reflected up the viewfinder, allowing the camera operator to see what they’re shooting.

 

Intervals vs. Angles

If you come from a stills or ENG background, you may be more used to talking about shutter intervals rather than angles. The two things are related as follows:

Frame rate x (360 ÷ shutter angle) = shutter interval denominator

For example, 24 x (360 ÷ 180) = 48 so a film running at 24fps, shot with a 180° shutter, shows us only a 48th of a second’s worth of light on each frame. This has been the standard frame rate and shutter angle in cinema since the introduction of sound in the late 1920s. The amount of motion blur captured in a 48th of a second is the amount that we as an audience have been trained to expect from motion pictures all our lives.

A greater (larger shutter angle, longer shutter interval) or lesser (smaller shutter angle, shorter shutter interval) amount of motion blur looks unusual to us and thus can be used to creative effect. Saving Private Ryan features one of the best-known examples of a small shutter angle in its D-day landing sequence, where the lack of motion blur creates a crisp, hyper-real effect that draws you into the horror of the battle. The effect has been endlessly copied since then, to the point that it now feels almost mandatory to shoot action scenes with a small shutter angle.

Large shutter angles are less common, but the extra motion blur can imply a drugged, fatigued or dream-like state.

In today’s digital environment, only the Arri Alexa Studio has a physical shutter. In other cameras, the sensor’s photo-sites are allowed to charge with light over a certain period of time – still referred to as the shutter interval, even though no actual shutter is involved. The same principles apply and the same 180° angle of the virtual shutter is standard. The camera will allow you to select a shutter angle/interval from a number of options, and on some models like the Canon C300 there is a menu setting to switch between displaying the shutter setting as an angle or an interval.

 

When to Change the Shutter Angle

Sometimes it is necessary to change the shutter angle to avoid flickering. Some luminous devices, such as TV screens and monitors, or HMI lighting not set to flicker-free mode, will appear to strobe, pulse or roll on camera. This is due to them turning on and off multiple times per second, in sync with the alternating current of the mains power supply, but not necessarily in sync with the shutter. For example, if you shoot a domestic fluorescent lamp in the UK, where the mains AC cycles at 50Hz, your 1/48th (180° at 24fps) shutter will be out of sync and the lamp will appear to throb or flicker on camera. The solution is to set the shutter to 172.8° (1/50th), which is indeed what most DPs do when shooting features in the UK. Round multiples of the AC frequency like 1/100th will also work.

You may notice that I have barely mentioned exposure so far in this article. This is because, unlike stills photographers, DPs rarely use the shutter as a means of adjusting exposure. An exception is that we may increase the shutter angle when the daylight is fading, to grab an extra shot. By doubling the shutter angle from 172.8° to 345.6° we double the light admitted, i.e. we gain one stop. As long as there isn’t any fast movement, the extra motion blur is likely to go unnoticed by the audience.

One of the hallmarks of amateur cinematography is that sunny scenes have no motion blur, due to the operator (or the camera’s auto mode) decreasing the shutter interval to avoid over-exposure. It is preferable to use ND filters to cut light on bright days, as covered in part two of this series.

For the best results, the 180° (or thereabouts) shutter angle should be retained when shooting slow motion as well. If your camera displays intervals rather than angles, ideally your interval denominator should be double the frame rate. So if you want to shoot at 50fps, set the shutter interval to 1/100th. For 100fps, set the shutter to 1/200th, and so on.

If you do need to change the shutter angle for creative or technical reasons, you will usually want to compensate with the aperture. If you halve the time the shutter is open for, you must double the area of the aperture to maintain the same exposure, and vice versa. For example, if your iris was set to T4 and you change the shutter from 180° to 90° you will need to stop up to T2.8. (Refer back to my article on aperture if you need to refresh your memory about T-stops.)

In the final part of this series we’ll get to grips with ISO.

Learn more about exposure in my online course, Cinematic Lighting. Until this Thursday (19/11/20) you can get it for the special price of £15.99 by using the voucher code INSTA90.

Exposure Part 3: Shutter

Exposure Part 1: Aperture

This is the first in a series of posts where I will look in detail at the four means of controlling the brightness of a digital video image: aperture, neutral density (ND) filters, shutter angle and ISO. It is not uncommon for newer cinematographers to have only a partial understanding of these topics, enough to get by in most situations; that was certainly the case with me for many years. The aim of this series is to give you an understanding of the underlying mechanics which will enable you to make more informed creative decisions.

You can change any one of the four factors, or any combination of them, to reach your desired level of exposure. However, most of them will also affect the image in other ways; for example, aperture affects depth of field. One of the key responsibilities of the director of photography is to use each of the four factors not just to create the ideal exposure, but to make appropriate use of these “side effects” as well.

 

f-stops and t-stops

The most common way of altering exposure is to adjust the aperture, a.k.a. the iris, sometimes described as changing “the stop”. Just like the pupil in our eyes, the aperture of a photographic lens is a (roughly) circular opening which can be expanded or contracted to permit more or less light through to the sensor.

You will have seen a series of numbers like this printed on the sides of lenses:

1      1.4      2      2.8      4      5.6      8      11      16      22     32

These are ratios – ratios of the lens’ focal length to its iris diameter. So a 50mm lens with a 25mm diameter iris is at f/2. Other lengths of lens would have different iris diameters at f/2 (e.g. 10mm diameter for a 20mm lens) but they would all produce an image of the same brightness. That’s why we use f-stops to talk about iris rather than diameters.

But why not label a lens 1, 2, 3, 4…? Why 1, 1.2, 2, 2.8…? These magic numbers are f-stops. A lens set to f/1.4 will let in twice as much light as (or “one stop more than”) a lens set to f/2, which in turn will let in twice as much as one set to f/2.8, and so on. Conversely, a lens set to f/2.8 will let in half as much light as (or “one stop less than”) a lens set to f/2, and so on. (Note that a number between any of these f-stops, e.g. f/1.8, is properly called an f-number, but not an f-stop.) These doublings or halvings – technically known as a base-2 logarithmic scale – are a fundamental concept in exposure, and mimic our eyes’ response to light.

If you think back to high-school maths and the πr² squared formula for calculating the area of a circle from its radius, the reason for the seemingly random series of numbers will start to become clear. Letting in twice as much light requires twice as much area for those light rays to fall on, and remember that the f-number is the ratio of the focal length to the iris diameter, so you can see how square roots are going to get involved and why f-stops aren’t just plain old round numbers.

If you’re shooting with a cine lens, rather than a stills lens, you’ll see the same series of numbers on the barrel, but here they are T-stops rather than f-stops. T-stops are f-stops adjusted to compensate for the light transmission efficiency. Two different lenses set to, say, f/2 will not necessarily produce equally bright images, because some percentage of light travelling through the elements will always be lost, and that percentage will vary depending on the quality of the glass and the number of elements. A lens with 100% light transmission would have the same f-number and T-number, but in practice the T-number will always be a little bigger than the f-number. For example, Cooke’s 15-40mm zoom is rated at a maximum aperture of T2 or f/1.84.

 

Fast and slow lenses

When buying or renting a lens, one of the first things you will want to know is its maximum aperture. Lenses are often described as being fast (larger maximum aperture, denoted by a smaller f- or T-number like T1.4) or slow (smaller maximum aperture, denoted by a bigger f- or T-number like T4). These terms come from the fact that the shutter speed would need to be faster or slower to capture the same amount of light… but more on that later in the series.

Faster lenses are generally more expensive, but that expense may well be outweighed by the savings made on lighting equipment. Let’s take a simple example, and imagine an interview lit by a 4-bank Kino Flo and exposed at T2.8. If our lens can open one stop wider (known as stopping up) to T2 then we double the amount of light reaching the sensor. We can therefore halve the level of light – by turning off two of the Kino Flo’s tubes or by renting a cheaper 2-bank unit in the first place. If we can stop up further, to T1.4, then we only need one Kino tube to achieve the same exposure.

 

Side effects

One of the first things that budding cinematographers learn is that wider apertures make for a smaller depth of field, i.e. the range of distances within which a subject will be in focus is smaller. In simple terms, the background of the image is blurrier when the depth of field is shallower.

It is often tempting to go for the shallowest possible depth of field, because it feels more cinematic and helps conceal shortcomings in the production design, but that is not the right look for every story. A DP will often choose a stop to shoot at based on the depth of field they desire. That choice of stop may affect the entire lighting budget; if you want to shoot at a very slow T14 like Douglas Slocombe did for the Indiana Jones trilogy, you’re going to need several trucks full of lights!

There is another side effect of adjusting the aperture which is less obvious. Lenses are manufactured to perform best in the middle of their iris range. If you open a lens up to its maximum aperture or close it down to its minimum, the image will soften a little. Therefore another advantage of faster lenses is the ability to get further away from their maximum aperture (and poorest image quality) with the same amount of light.

Finally it is worth noting that the appearance of bokeh (out of focus areas) and lens flares also changes with aperture. The Cooke S4 range, for example, renders out-of-focus highlights as circles when wide open, but as octagons when stopped down. With all lenses, the star pattern seen around bright light sources will be stronger when the aperture is smaller. You should shoot tests – like these I conducted in 2017 – if these image artefacts are a critical part of your film’s look.

Next time we’ll look at how we can use ND filters to control exposure without compromising our choice of stop.

Learn how to use exposure practically with my Cinematic Lighting online couse. Enter voucher code INSTA90 for an amazing 90% off.

Exposure Part 1: Aperture

Where to Place Your Horizon

I once had an argument with a director about the composition of a wide shot. I wanted to put the horizon nearer the top of the frame than the bottom, and he felt that this was the wrong way around. In reality there is no right and wrong in composition, only a myriad of possibilities that are all valid and can all make your viewers feel different ways. In this article I will take a metaphorical ramble through these possibilities, and ponder their effects.

You would think that the most natural position for the horizon would be in the vertical centre of the frame. After all, in our day-to-day life, when we look straight ahead, this is where it appears to be.

In practice, a central horizon is not a popular choice. This article by Art Wolfe, for example, argues that it robs the image of dynamism, sending the eye straight to the horizon rather than letting it wander around the frame. The technique is also at odds with the Rule of Thirds, though as I’ve written before, that’s not a rule I place much stock in.

The talented photographer and vlogger Arian Vila, however, describes the merits of a central horizon when composing for a square aspect ratio. And this is an excellent reminder that the horizon does not exist in a vacuum; like anything else, it must be judged in the context of the aspect ratio and the other compositional elements of the frame.

For Leon Chambers’ Above the Clouds (out now on Amazon Prime and other platforms!), I placed the horizon centrally several times:

This was a deliberate echo of the painting “Above the Clouds” which appears in the film and provides the thematic backbone.

A year or two after shooting Clouds, I came across Photograms of the Year: 1949 in a charity shop. Amongst its pages I found another diptych, one created by the book designer rather than the two entirely separate photographers:

These two images, perfectly paired, demonstrate contrasting horizon placement. At Grey Dawn emphasises the sky by placing the horizon low in the frame, creating a sense of space. Meanwhile, Homeward Bound positions its horizon somewhere beyond the trees near the top of frame, drawing attention to the sand and the wheel ruts and indeed to the figures of the caravan itself, rather than to the destination or surroundings.

Horizon placement is closely tied to two other creative choices: headroom, which I dedicated a whole article to, and lens height, i.e. is this a low or a high angle? Even a GCSE media student can tell you that a low angle imbues power while a high angle implies vulnerability, but these are terms most applicable to closer shots. When we think of horizon placement we are probably concerned with big wides, where creating a mood for the scene or setting is more important than visualising a character’s power or lack thereof.

Breaking Bad is an example of a series that predominantly chooses low horizons to show off the big skies of its New Mexico locations. “[Showrunner] Vince [Gilligan] is a student of cinema and knows movies like the back of his hand,” says DP Michael Slovis, ASC. “It was always in his mind that this was a Western in the style of Sergio Leone and the Italian Neo-realists.”

Incidentally, there’s an amazing desert scene in the episode “Crawl Space” where a sunlit close-up cuts to a big wide. The wide holds as clouds roll over the sun. The action continues and the shot still holds, the line between sunlight and shade visible as it rolls away across the desert, until finally a new line slides under the camera and sun breaks over the actors once more. Only then are we permitted to see the scene up close again.

This creative choice, to set the character’s small concerns against the vast immutability of nature, comes from the same place as the choice to put the horizon low in frame.

Returning to Photograms of the Year: 1949, my eyes light upon another pair of contrasting images:

Despite its title, Towards the Destination shows us little of where the sailors are heading, by placing the horizon high in the frame and focusing on the water and the reflections therein. Rendezvous at Chincoteague, by placing its horizon low in the frame, radiates a feeling of isolation that is in contrast to the meeting of the title.

As we consider the figures in these photographs I am forced to concede that the argument I alluded to in the introduction may have been less about the position of the horizon and more about the position of the actor. I think the director felt that it was unnatural for an person to appear in the top half of the frame rather than the bottom half.

I can see his point. The vision of our naked eyes is definitely framed along the bottom by the ground, while the top remains open and unlimited – outdoors, at least. So if a person is standing on the ground, we naturally expect them to appear low down in an image.

But this – like nose room, the Rule of Thirds, the 180° Rule, short-key lighting, so many things in cinematography – is merely a guideline. There are times when it just isn’t helpful, when it can lead to wasted opportunities.

Here is a shot of mine from The Gong Fu Connection (dir. Ted Duran) where the horizon and the cast are placed in the upper half of frame:

Would it really have been better to frame them lower, losing out on the reflections and the foreround rushes, and gaining just empty sky? I think not. This composition was especially important to me, because the film’s titular connection is all about man and the natural world. By showing the water and greenery, we root the characters in it. A composition with more sky might have made them seem dwarfed by nature, lost in it.

This article has been something of a stream of consciousness, but the point I’m trying to make is this: always consider the content and meaning of your shot; reflecting those in your composition is infinitely more important than adhering to any guidelines.

If you enjoyed this, you may be interested in some of my other articles on composition:

Where to Place Your Horizon

The Cinematography of “First Man”

A miniature Saturn V rocket is prepared for filming

If you’re a DP, you’re probably familiar with the “Guess the Format” game. Whenever you see a movie, you find yourself trying to guess what format it was shot on. Film or digital? Camera? Glass? Resolution?

As I sat in the cinema last autumn watching First Man, I was definitely playing the game. First Man tells the true story of Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) extraterrestrial career, including his test flights in the hypersonic  X-15, his execution of the first ever docking in space aboard Gemini 8, the tragic deaths of his colleagues in the launchpad fire of Apollo 1, and of course the historic Apollo 11.

The game was given away fairly early on when I noticed frames with dust on, a sure sign of celluloid acquisition. (Though most movies have so much digital clean-up now that a lack of dust doesn’t necessarily mean that film wasn’t involved.) I automatically assumed 35mm, though as the film went on I occasionally wondered if I could possibly be watching Super-16? There was something of the analogue home movie about certain scenes, the way the searing highlights of the sun blasting into the space capsules rolled off and bloomed.

When I got home I tracked down this Studio Daily podcast and my suspicions were confirmed, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

 

Cinéma Vérité

Let’s start at the beginning. First Man was directed by Damien Chazelle and photographed by Linus Sandgren, FSF, the same team who made La La Land, for which both men won Oscars. What I remember most about the cinematography of that earlier film is the palette of bright but slightly sickly colours, and the choreographed Steadicam moves.

First Man couldn’t be more different, adopting a cinéma vérité approach that often looks like it could be real and previously-unseen Nasa footage. Sandgren used zoom lenses and a documentary approach to achieve this feeling:

When you do a documentary about a person and you’re there in their house with them and they’re sad or they’re talking, maybe you don’t walk in there and stand in the perfect camera position. You can’t really get the perfect angles. That in itself creates some sort of humbleness to the characters; you are a little respectful and leave them a little alone to watch them from a distance or a little bit from behind.

Similarly, scenes in the spacecraft relied heavily on POVs through the small windows of the capsule, which is all that the astronauts or a hypothetical documentary camera operator would have been able to see. This blinkered view, combined with evocative and terrifying sound design – all metallic creaks, clanks and deafening booms, like the world itself is ending – makes the spaceflight sequences incredibly visceral.

 

Multiple gauges

Scale comparison of film formats. Note that Imax is originated on 65mm stock and printed on 70mm to allow room for the soundtrack.

Documentaries in the sixties would have been shot on Super-16, which is part of the reason that Sandgren and Chazelle chose it as one of their acquisition formats. The full breakdown of formats is as follows:

  • Super-16 was employed for intense or emotional material, specifically early sequences relating to the death of Armstrong’s young daughter, and scenes inside the various spacecraft. As well as the creative considerations, the smaller size of Super-16 equipment was presumably advantageous from a practical point of view inside the cramped sets.
  • 35mm was used for most of the non-space scenes. Sandgren differentiated the scenes at Nasa from those at Armstrong’s home by push-processing the former and pull-processing the latter. What this means is that Nasa scenes were underexposed by one stop and overdeveloped, resulting in a detailed, contrasty, grainy look, while the home scenes were overexposed and underdeveloped to produce a cleaner, softer, milkier look. 35mm was also used for wide shots in scenes that were primarily Super-16, to ensure sufficient definition.
  • Imax (horizontally-fed 65mm) was reserved for scenes on the moon.

 

In-camera effects

In keeping with the vintage aesthetic of celluloid capture, the visual effects were captured in-camera wherever possible. I’ve written in the past about the rise of LED screens as a replacement for green-screen and a source of interactive lighting. I guessed that First Man was using this technology from ECUs which showed the crescent of Earth reflected in Ryan Gosling’s eyes. Such things can be added in post, of course, but First Man‘s VFX have the unmistakeable ring of in-camera authenticity.

Imposing a “no green-screen” rule, Chazelle and his team used a huge LED screen to display the views out of the spacecraft windows. A 180° arc of 60′ diameter and 35′ in height, this screen was bright enough to provide all the interactive lighting that Sandgren required. His only addition was a 5K tungsten par or 18K HMI on a crane arm to represent the direct light of the sun.

The old-school approach extended to building and filming miniatures, of the Saturn V rocket and its launch tower for example. For a sequence of Armstrong in an elevator ascending the tower, the LED screen behind Gosling displayed footage of this miniature.

For external views of the capsules in space, the filmmakers tried to limit themselves to realistic shots which a camera mounted on the bodywork might have been able to capture. This put me in mind of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which used the same technique to sell the verisimilitude of its space vehicles. In an age when any conceivable camera move can be executed, it can be very powerful to stick to simple angles which tap into decades of history – not just from cinema but from documentaries and motorsports coverage too.

 

Lunar Lighting

For scenes on earth, Landgren walked a line between naturalism and expression, influenced by legendary DPs like Gordon Willis, ASC. My favourite shot is a wide of Armstrong’s street at night, as he and his ill-fated friend Ed White (Jason Clarke) part company after a drinking session. The mundane suburban setting is bathed in blue moonbeams, as if the the moon’s fingers are reaching out to draw the characters in.

Scenes on the lunar surface were captured at night on an outdoor set the size of three football pitches. To achieve absolute authenticity, Sandgren needed a single light source (representing the sun) fixed at 15° above the horizon. Covering an area that size was going to require one hell of a single source, so he went to Luminys, makers of the Softsun.

Softsuns

Softsuns are lamps of frankly ridiculous power. The 50KW model was used, amongst other things, to blast majestic streams of light through the windows of Buckingham Palace on The Crown, but Sandgren turned to the 100KW model. Even that proved insufficient, so he challenged Luminys to build a 200KW model, which they did.

The result is a completely stark and realistic depiction of a place where the sun is the only illumination, with no atmosphere to diffuse or redistribute it, no sky to glow and fill in the shadows. This ties in neatly with a prevailing theme in the film, that of associating black with death, when Armstrong symbolically casts his deceased daughter’s bracelet into an obsidian crater.

First Man may prove unsatisfying for some, with Armstrong’s taciturn and emotionally closed-off nature making his motivations unclear, but cinematically it is a tour de force. Taking a human perspective on extraordinary accomplishments, deftly blending utterly convincing VFX and immersive cinéma vérité photography, First Man recalls the similarly analogue and similarly gripping Dunkirk as well as the documentary-like approach of 1983’s The Right Stuff. The film is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD, and I highly recommend you check it out.

The Cinematography of “First Man”

Aspect Ratio and the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I used to be a casual follower of superhero films, until I was inducted into the Marvel Cinematic Universe via a movie marathon. Despite different directors for each instalment, the MCU has a fairly consistent look and feel, so I was a little surprised when we got to The Avengers to note that it differs visually in one significant way from all of its predecessors. Whereas the five previous films (and indeed most of the subsequent ones) were in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, The Avengers was presented in the taller 1.85:1 ratio.

This initially struck me as counterintuitive. 2.39:1 was introduced in the 1950s to tempt watchers of the new-fangled TV back into the cinemas, and ever since then it has been associated with the biggest, most epic, most cinematic of movies. It seems like the natural choice for a superhero franchise, so it’s no surprise that the MCU adopted this ratio for most of its instalments. But if wider images mean a more epic movie, then surely The Avengers, the climax of Phase One and the coming-together of a whole team of superheroes, should be, if anything, even wider than its 2.39:1 predecessors?

“The Avengers” (2012, DP: Seamus McGarvey, BSC, ASC)

I’m certainly not the first person to be nonplussed by the choice. A quick google later on threw up plenty of forums where fans complained that The Avengers was “not cinematic enough” because of its aspect ratio. Some linked the choice of ratio to director Joss Whedon’s TV background, claiming he was more comfortable with that shape of frame.

The real reason for Whedon’s decision became clear as the action ramped up into the third act. The battle of New York is not a two-dimensional conflict; Thor and Iron Man are flying around, the Hulk climbs up buildings, the Chitauri ships float above the streets, and Stark Tower plays a key part in the action. The extra frame height of 1.85 was essential to tell that story.

“I wanted to feel the space around us, and use wider lenses,” said Whedon. “That’s why I went 1.85 instead of wider. In IMAX, I wanted it to fill your eyeball completely.”

“Ant-Man” (2015, DP: Russell Carpenter, ASC)

Continuing the movie marathon, the MCU does not return to 1.85 until Ant-Man, and director Peyton Reed initially encountered resistance from the studio when he advocated this ratio. “It’s a big conversation because it affects production design. It affects everything. And it felt to me… that shrinking was a vertical act and it was going to serve the movie even more. And I had to make a case for the fact that it was still going to be epic.”

I wonder if the days of wider aspect ratios being perceived as more epic are numbered. IMAX sequences are becoming more and more common in blockbusters, including the Marvel films. Digital IMAX has an aspect ratio of 1.90:1, very similar to the 1.85 which is so often perceived as the small-scale, poor man’s ratio. (To confuse matters, the 1.90 sequences are often cropped to 2.39 for ordinary cinemas and home entertainment release.) An epic feel is very much what the IMAX brand is selling, so the traditional perception is being turned on its head. Both Avengers: Infinity War and the recent Endgame were shot entirely in Imax 1.90:1, and are sure to be the very definition of epic for a while to come.

Things seem to be going the same way over in the DC universe too. On the social media platform Vevo, director Zak Snyder had this to say about Batman v. Superman and Justice League: “I had so much fun shooting the IMAX sections of my movie (BvS) [that I] sort of fell in love with that giant less rectangular aspect ratio and so that’s why I shot JL 1:85”.

Image size may have something to do with this shifting trend. After all, a larger image is surely more epic than a smaller one. In theory, 2.39 should result in the largest image, with curtains or masks at the sides of a cinema screen opening up for these widescreen presentations. In practice though, many smaller multiplex auditoria mask the top and bottom of their screens for 2.39, making for a smaller overall image than 1.85, just like when you watch 2.39 content at home on your TV or monitor (which is 1.78:1). My local multiplex recently converted its largest auditorium to IMAX, which involved no change to the width of the screen, but an increase in height.

Add to this the fact that 2.39 overtook 1.85 as the most common aspect ratio for top-grossing films over a decade ago, and it’s small wonder that filmmakers seeking to make their work stand out from the crowd are turning to taller frames.

“Avengers: Infinity War” (2018, DP: Trent Opaloch)

However the trend of aspect ratios ends up going, it’s important to remember that there’s no wrong or right. I’ve done jobs where directors have told me, “It’s a movie, it’s got to be 2.39,” or, “It’s a series, it’s got to be 1.78,” but there is always a choice. Are your sets tall or wide? Are your lead characters similar or dissimilar in height? Are landscapes or body language most important to this story? It’s factors like these that should really determine the best ratio for your movie, just as Whedon and Reed both realised.

See also:

Aspect Ratio and the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The 4:3 Aspect Ratio is Not Dead

This summer I shot Exit Eve, a short film from director Charlie Parham dealing with the exhausting and demeaning life of an au pair. We took the unusual decision to shoot it in 4:3, a ratio all but obsolete, but one which felt right for this particular story. Before I look at some of the ratio’s strengths and challenges, let’s remind ourselves of the history behind it.

 

History

William Kennedy Dickson

The 4:3 motion picture aspect ratio, a.k.a. 1.33:1, was created about 120 years ago by William Kennedy Dickson. This Thomas Edison employee was developing a forerunner to the movie projector, and decided that an image height of four perforations on 35mm film gave the ideal shape. In 1909 the ratio was declared the official standard for all US films by the Motion Picture Patent Company.

When the talkies arrived two decades later, room needed to be made on the film prints for the optical soundtrack. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences responded by determining a new, very slightly wider ratio of 1.37:1, known fittingly enough as the Academy Ratio. It’s so similar to 4:3 that I’m going to lump them together from hereon in.

When television was invented it naturally adopted the same 4:3 ratio as the big screen. The popularity of TV led to falling cinema attendance in the 1950s, to which the Hollywood studios responded with a range of enticing gimmicks including widescreen aspect ratios. Widescreen stuck, and for the next generation 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 were the ratios of cinema, while the narrower 4:3 was the ratio of TV.

By the time I entered the industry in the late 1990s, 4:3 was much maligned by filmmakers. It seemed boxy and restrictive compared with widescreen, and reminded those of us in the guerrilla world that we didn’t have the budgets and equipment of the Hollywood studios. Meanwhile, the wide compositions of big movies were butchered by pan-and-scan, the practice of cropping during the telecine process to fit the image onto a 4:3 TV without letterboxing. 4:3 was ruining our favourite movies, we felt.

Then, in the 21st century, 16:9 television became the norm, and the 4:3 aspect ratio quietly disappeared, unmourned…. Or did it?

 

Contemporary Cinema

Although they are firmly in a minority, a number of filmmakers have experimented with 4:3 or Academy Ratio in recent years. Some, like Andrea Arnold and the late Éric Rohmer, rarely shot anything else.

Arnold wanted a combination of intimacy and claustrophobia for her Bafta-winning 2009 drama Fish Tank. She carried the ratio over to her next film, an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, despite the prevalence of big landscapes which would have prompted most directors to choose 2.39:1. The Academy Ratio focuses the viewer’s attention much more on the characters and their inner worlds.

“Fish Tank” – DP: Robbie Ryan, BSC

Mark Kermode has this to say about the 1.37:1 work of Arnold and her DP Robbie Ryan: “What’s wonderful about it is the way [Ryan] uses that squarer format not to make the picture seem compressed but to make it seem taller, to make it seem larger, to make it seem oddly more expansive.”

Meek’s Cutoff (2010), a modern western by Kelly Reichardt, recalls the early Academy classics of the genre. As with Wuthering Heights, characters are placed in the landscape without being dominated by it, while the height of the frame produces bigger skies and an airier feel.

“Meek’s Cutoff” – DP: Chris Blauvelt

Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2013 Oscar-winner Ida deliberately goes against the grain, shooting not only in 4:3 but in black and white as well. It’s the perfect format to convey the timeless, spartan existence of the titular Ida and her fellow nuns. The tall frame allows for copious headroom, inspiring thoughts of Heaven and God, beneath which the mortal characters seem small.

The 2017 animated feature Loving Vincent, meanwhile, adopted 4:3 because it was closer to the shape of Van Gogh’s paintings.

David Lowery, director of last year’s A Ghost Story, wanted to trap his deceased title character in the boxy ratio. “It gave me a good opportunity to really hammer home the circumstances this ghost finds himself trapped in, and to dig into and break down the claustrophobia of his life within these four walls… And it was also a way to tap into some degree of nostalgia, because it feels old-fashioned when you see a movie in a square aspect ratio.”

4:3’s nostalgia factor has allowed it to be used very effectively for flashbacks, such as those in the recent Channel 4/Netflix series The End of the F***ing World. Wes Anderson delineated the three time periods of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) with different aspect ratios, using 1.37:1 for scenes set in 1932, the very same year in which that ratio was standardised by the Academy.

 

“Exit Eve”

Nostalgia, intimacy, claustrophobia, isolation – these are just some of the feelings which cinema’s original aspect ratio can evoke. For Charlie and I on Exit Eve, it was the sense of being trapped which made the ratio really fit our story. 

I’m also a great believer in choosing a ratio that fits the shape of your primary location, and the converted schoolhouse which we were shooting in had very high ceilings. 4:3 allowed us to show the oppressive scale of these rooms, while giving the eponymous Eve little horizontal freedom to move around it. One additional practical consideration was that, when lensing a party scene, the narrower ratio made it easier to fill the frame with supporting artists!

It wasn’t hard to get used to framing in 4:3 again. A lot of Exit Eve was handheld, making for fluid compositions. There were a couple of tripod set-ups where I couldn’t help thinking that the extra width of 1.85:1 would be useful, but for the most part 4:3 worked well. 

We were shooting on an Alexa Plus with a 16:9 sensor, meaning we were cropping the image at the sides, whereas ideally we would have hired a 4:3 model to use the full width of the sensor and a larger proportion of our lenses’ image circles. This would have allowed us to get slightly wider frames in some of the location’s smaller rooms.

Our sound department had to adapt a little. The boom op was used to being able to get in just above the actors’ heads, but with the generous headroom I was often giving, she had to re-learn her instincts.

Classic 4:3 overs in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”

I had forgotten how well dialogue scenes are suited to 4:3. With wider ratios, over-the-shoulder shots can sometimes be tricky; you can end up with a lot of space between the foreground shoulder and the other actor, and the eye-line ends up way off camera. 4:3 perfectly fits a face, along with that ideal L-shape of the foreground shoulder and side of head, while keeping the eye-line tight to camera.

Not every project is right for 4:3, far from it. But I believe that the ratio has served its sentence in the wilderness for its pan-and-scan crimes against cinema, and should now be returned to the fold as a valid and expressive option for filmmakers.

See also:

The 4:3 Aspect Ratio is Not Dead

“The Knowledge”: Shooting a Multi-camera Game Show

Robert Jezek as gameshow host Robert O’Reilly. Photo: Laura Radford

Last week saw the UK premier of The Knowledge, an art installation film, at the FLUX Exhibition hosted by Chelsea College of Arts. Conceived by award-winning, multi-disciplinary artist Ian Wolter, The Knowledge comments on the topical issue of artificial intelligence threatening jobs. It takes the form of a fake game show, pitting a team of traditional London cabbies (schooled in the titular Knowledge) against a team of smart-phoning minicab drivers. Although shot entirely on stage, the film’s central conceit is that the teams are each guiding a driver across London, to see whether technology or human experience will bring its car to the finish line first.

You can see a couple of brief promos on Vimeo here. It’s a unique project, and one that I knew would be an interesting challenge as soon as I heard of it from my friend Amanda Stekly, producer and production designer. This week and next I’ll describe the creative and technical decisions that went into photographing the piece, beginning this week with the camera side of things.

Photo: Laura Radford

I had never shot a multi-camera studio production like this before, so my first move was to sit down with my regular 1st AC and steadicam operator Rupert Peddle, and his friend Jack D’Souza-Toulson. Jack has extensive experience operating as part of a multi-camera team for live TV and events. This conversation answered such basic questions as, could the operators each pull their own focus? (yes) and allowed me to form the beginnings of a plan for crew and kit.

At the monitors with Jonnie. Photo: Laura Howard

Ian and Amanda wanted the film to have a dated look, and referenced such eighties quiz shows as 3-2-1 and Blankety Blank. Director Jonnie Howard and I knew that we had to supply the finished film in HD, which ruled out shooting on vintage analogue video cameras. Interlaced recording was rejected for similar reasons, though if memory serves, I did end up shooting at a shutter angle of 360 degrees to produce a more fluid motion suggestive of interlaced material.

I was very keen that the images should NOT look cinematic. Jonnie was able to supply two Canon C100s – which I’ve always thought have a sharp, “video-ish” look – and L-series glass. I set these to 1600 ISO to give us the biggest possible depth of field. For the remaining two cameras, I chose ENG models, a Canon XF-300 (owned by Rupert) and XF-305. In an ideal world, all four cameras would have been ENG models, to ensure huge depth of field and an overall TV look, but some compromise was necessary for budget reasons, and at least they all used Canon sensors. We hired a rack of four matching 9″ monitors so we could ensure a consistent look on set.

Photo: Laura Radford

One Canon C100, with an L-series zoom, was mounted on a pedestal and outfitted with Rupert’s follow focus system, allowing Jack to pull focus from the panning handle. The other C100 would shoot a locked-off wide, and was the first camera to be set up. A 14mm Samyang lens made the set look huge, and I placed it low down to emphasise the map in the foreground, and to make it easy for the other cameras to shoot over it. Once that frame was set, we taped a large V shape on the floor to indicate the edges of the wide shot. As long as the lights and other cameras stayed out of that area, they would be safe.

Jack operates the pedestal-mounted C100. Photo: Laura Radford

Generally Jack’s pedestal-mounted C100 followed the host, Robert Jezek, or captured the interesting moving shots, while Rupert and the third operator, Jimmy Buchanan, cross-shot the two teams on the XF-100 and XF-105. No filtration was used, except for a four-point star filter on one camera when glitter canons are fired at the end of the game. This cheesiness was inspired by the 3-2-1 clips I watched for research, in which star filters were used for the tacky sequences showing the prizes on offer.

Next week I’ll discuss lighting the show. Meanwhile, find out more about Ian’s work at ianwolter.com.

Photo: Laura Radford

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“The Knowledge”: Shooting a Multi-camera Game Show

8 Ways “Barry Lyndon” Emulates Paintings

Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 period epic Barry Lyndon, although indifferently received upon its original release, is considered a masterpiece by many today. This is largely due to its painterly photography with strong, precisely composed frames that leave the viewer feeling more like they’ve wandered through an art gallery than watched a movie. Today I’m going to look at eight methods that Kubrick and his team used to create this feel. It’s an excellent example of how a director with a strong vision can use the many aspects of filmmaking to realise that vision.

 

1. Storytelling

The American Cinematographer article on Barry Lyndon notes that “Kubrick has taken a basically talky novel and magically transformed it into an intensely visual film.” You have only to look at a series of frame-grabs from the movie to see just how much of the story is contained in the images. Just like a painter, Kubrick reveals a wealth of narrative within a single frame. The shot above, for example, while recalling the landscapes of artists like Constable in its background and composition, also clearly tells the story of a courtship threatened by a third party with violent designs.

 

2. Design

Kubrick was keen for Lyndon to feature the type of rich fabrics which are often seen in 18th century art. He referred costume designer Milena Canonero to various painters of the period. “Stanley wanted beautiful materials,” she recalls in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, “because as he quite rightly said, that’s why in those paintings they gave that wonderful light.”

 

3. Aspect ratio

There was much confusion and controversy surrounding Kubrick’s intended ratio for Lyndon. The negative was apparently hard-masked to 1.6:1, with the result that VHS and DVDs used this ratio, while the images were vertically cropped to 1.78:1 for the later Blu-ray release. However, the discovery in 2011 of a letter from Kubrick to cinema projectionists finally proved that 1.66:1 was the ratio he wanted audiences to see the film in.

1.66:1 was a standard ratio in parts of Europe, but unusual in the UK and USA. It’s not far off the golden ratio (1.6180:1) – a mathematically significant ratio which some artists believe to be aesthetically pleasing. There is evidence that Kubrick was not a fan of wide aspect ratios in general, perhaps because of his background as a photographer, but it can be no coincidence that Lyndon distances itself from the cinematic ratios of 1.85 and 2.39, and instead takes a shape closer to that of a typical painting.

(Most of the images in this post come from Evan Richards’ Cinematographers Index, and he in turn grabbed them from the 1.78:1 Blu-ray. The image above is in 1.66:1 but shows the 1.78:1 crop-lines.)

 

4. Composition

“The actual compositions of our setups were very authentic to the drawings of the period,” says DP John Alcott, BSC in his interview with American Cinematographer. Perhaps the film’s most obvious compositional nod to classical art is the large amount of headroom seen in the wide shots. As this article by Art Adams explains, the concept of placing the subject’s head at the top of the frame is fairly new in the history of image creation. Plenty of traditional art includes lots of headroom, and Lyndon does the same.

 

5. Camera movement

There is little camera movement in Barry Lyndon, but there are 36 zoom shots. Unlike a physical dolly move, in which the parallax effect causes different planes of the image to shrink or enlarge at differing rates, a zoom merely magnifies or reduces the whole image as a single element. This of course only serves to enhance the impression of a two-dimensional piece of art. In fact, the zooms resemble nothing so much as the rostrum camera moves a documentary filmmaker might make across a painting – what today we’d call a Ken Burns effect.

It’s interesting to note that, although Barry Lyndon is famous for its fast lenses – the f/0.7 Zeiss Planar primes – the movie also used a very slow lens, a custom-built T9 24-480mm zoom. From various accounts, other zooms used seem to include a Cooke T3.1 20-100mm and possibly a 25-250mm of some description. Of course, none of the zoom lenses were anywhere near fast enough for the candlelit scenes, so in those instances the filmmakers were forced to use a Planar and pull back physically on a dolly.

 

6. Lighting

“In preparation for Barry Lyndon we studied the lighting effects achieved in the paintings of the Dutch masters,” Alcott says. “In most instances we were trying to create the feeling of natural light within the houses, mostly stately homes, that we used as shooting locations.”  The DP closely observed how natural light would come in through the windows and emulate that using diffused mini-brutes outside. This made it possible to shoot long days during the British winter when natural light was in short supply. Last week I covered in detail the technical innovations which allowed Alcott and Kubrick to shoot night scenes with just genuine candlelight, as 18th century painters would have seen and depicted them.

 

7. Contrast

Film stock in the seventies was quite contrasty, so Alcott employed a few methods to adjust his images to a tonal range more in keeping with 18th century paintings. He used a Tiffen No. 3 Low Contrast Filter at all times, with an additional brown net for the wedding scene “where I wanted to control the highlights on the faces a bit more,” he explains. He also used graduated ND filters (as in the above frame) both outdoors and indoors, if one side of the room was too bright. Most interestingly, he even went so far as to cover white fireplaces and doorways with fine black nets – not on the lens but on the objects themselves.

 

8. Blocking

The blocking in Barry Lyndon is often static. While this is certainly a creative decision by Kubrick, again recalling painted canvases and their frozen figures, it was also technically necessary in the candlelit scenes. Whenever the f/0.7 lenses were in use, the cast were apparently instructed to move as little as possible, to prevent them going out of focus. As one YouTube commenter points out, the stillness imposed by these lenses mirrors the stillness required of a painter’s model.

8 Ways “Barry Lyndon” Emulates Paintings

9 Uses for Central Framing

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on lead room, the amount of horizontal space the subject is given in front of them in the frame. Commonly the subject is placed to one side or the other, but there can be times when sitting that actor bang in the middle of the screen is most appropriate and effective. Here are some reasons you might want to do it.

 

1. To show immersion in the environment

When you surround a character with equal amounts of the background on both sides, you embed them into that background, creating a strong connection between them and their environment. This can be seen to great effect in the above frames from Road to Perdition and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (DP: Conrad Hall, ASC) and The Revenant (DP: Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC).

 

2. To create power

Central framing can give a subject tremendous power and dominance, particularly in combination with a low angle, as seen in the above examples from House of Cards (DP: David M. Dunlap) and Django Unchained (DP: Robert Richardson, ASC).

 

3. To suggest formality or rigidity

These scenes from American Beauty (DP: Conrad Hall, ASC) use central framing to emphasise the formality of Lester’s performance review, and the stilted, suffocating nature of his home life.

 

4. To create order

Kubrick used central framing with strong single-point perspective to create worlds of perfect order… so perfect that they would have to come crashing down sooner or later. The above examples are from Full Metal Jacket (DP: Douglas Milsome, BSC, ASC) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (DP: Geoffrey Unsworth, OBE, BSC).

This shot from The Matrix (DP: Bill Pope, ASC) also uses central framing to symbolise order, the calculatingly perfect order of the machines.

 

5. To suggest duality

When you shoot a shot-reverse with both parties centred, the two characters appear to replace each other on screen every time you cut. This can suggest a strong connection between the characters, or a strong conflict as they battle for the same piece of screen. Donnie Darko (DP: Steven B. Poster, ASC, ICG) uses this technique to set up the antagonism of the rabbit, while also suggesting he’s a part of Donnie, a figment of his imagination.

 

6. For humour

Centre framing is of course a huge part of Wes Anderson’s style, as in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Grand Budapest Hotel (DP: Robert Yeoman, ASC). But I don’t think it’s stylisation for stylisation’s sake; his movies all have the feeling of tall tales told by ageing relatives with the aid of a scrapbook full of dorky, posed photos. The symmetry helps create the dorkiness, and from thence – as Lee & Herring used to say – the humour arises. The same is true of this classic scene from Garden State (DP: Lawrence Sher, ASC).

 

7. For faster cutting

Mad Max: Fury Road (DP: John Seale, ACS, ASC) was framed centrally in service of the editing. Director George Hill realised that if he put everyone in the same place in frame, the audience wouldn’t need to search the screen for the subject after every cut, allowing him to edit faster without making the action incomprehensible. See this post for more on the cinematography of Fury Road.

 

8. For impact

When used judiciously, central framing can have a big impact, giving a character their moment in the spotlight, putting them centre stage. It can underline a key character or story beat. The examples above are from Hugo (DP: Robert Richardson, ASC), Rogue One (DP: Greig Fraser, ACS, ASC) and American Beauty again.

 

9. To Break the fourth wall

And finally, if your subject is looking into the lens, addressing the audience, then central framing is the natural composition. It’s not the only composition though; often the subject will be framed to one side so we can see the action continuing in the background even as it is narrated to us. But if the shot is just about the narrator, often central framing will be the most effective, as in the above shots from Amélie (DP: Bruno Delbonnel, AFC, ASC) and A Series of Unfortunate Events (DP: Bernard Couture).

9 Uses for Central Framing

The 2:1 Aspect Ratio

Last autumn I wrote a post about aspect ratio, covering the three main ratios in use today: 16:9, 1.85:1 and 2.39:1. The post briefly mentioned a few non-standard ratios, including 2:1. Since then, I’ve noticed this ratio popping up all over the place. Could it be on its way to becoming a standard?

Today I’ll give you a little background on this ratio, followed by a gallery of frame grabs from 2:1 productions. The aim is simply to raise awareness of this new(ish) tool in the aspect ratio toolkit. As ever, it’s up to the director and DP to decide whether their particular project is right for this, or any other, ratio. However, I would caution low-budget filmmakers against picking what is still not a common ratio without considering that smaller distribution companies may crop your work to a more standard ratio either because of convenience or negligence.

Woody Allen and Vittorio Storaro shooting Café Society

Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC – the highly-regarded cinematographer of Last Tango in Paris and Apocalypse Now amongst many others – began championing the 2:1 ratio around the turn of the millennium. It was one of the most complicated times in the history of aspect ratios. The horror of pan-and-scan (butchering a movie to fit its 1.85:1 or 2.39:1 ratio into 4:3 without bars) was starting to recede with the introduction of DVD, which was in fact still 4:3 but could contain squeezed 16:9 content. Widescreen television sets were starting to build in popularity, but some programmes and films were being broadcast in the middle-ground ratio of 14:9 so as not to offend the majority of viewers who still had 4:3 sets. And Storaro recognised that HD would soon supplant celluloid as the primary capture and exhibition method for cinema, likely bringing with it fresh aspect ratio nightmares.

Storaro proposed “Univisium”, a 2:1 aspect ratio that fell between the two cinema standards of 1.85:1 and 2.39:1. It was a compromise, designed to make everyone’s life easier, to produce images that would need only minor letterboxing no matter where or how they were screened. However, the industry did not share his vision, and until recently 2:1 productions were relatively rare, most of them lensed by Storaro himself, such as Frank Herbert’s Dune, Exorcist: The Beginning and Storaro’s first digital picture, Café Society.

John Schwartzman shooting Jurassic World

Perhaps the biggest 2:1 movie to date is Jurassic World. DP John Schwartzman, ASC wanted to shoot anamorphic 2.39:1, while Steven Spielberg, exec producing, advocated 1.85:1 (like his original Jurassic Park) to provide more height for the dinosaurs. 2:1 was arrived at, again, as a compromise.

And compromise is likely what has driven the recent explosion in 2:1 material – not in the cinema, but online. Recent shows produced in this ratio include The Crown, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Stranger Things and House of Cards on Netflix, and Transparent on Amazon. I expect the producers of these series were looking to give their audience a more cinematic experience without putting off those who dislike big black bars on their screen, not unlike the reasoning behind the 14:9 broadcasts in the noughties.

2:1 may be a ratio born out of compromise, but then so was 16:9 (invented by SMPTE in the early eighties as a halfway house between 2.35:1 and  4:3). It certainly doesn’t mean that shooting in 2:1 isn’t a valid creative choice. Perhaps its most interesting attribute is its lack of baggage; 16:9 is sometimes seen as “the TV ratio” and 2.39:1 as “the big movie ratio”, but 2:1 has no such associations. One day perhaps it may be thought of as “the streaming ratio”, but for now it is simply something other.

Anyway, enough of the history and theory. Here are some examples of the cinematography that can be achieved in 2:1.

 

Cafe Society

DP: Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC

 

Jurassic World

DP: John Schwartzman, ASC

 

House of Cards

Season 5 DP: David M. Dunlap

 

Stranger Things

Season 1 DP: Tim Ives

 

The Crown

Season 1 DPs: Adriano Goldman, ASC, ABC & Ole Bratt Birkeland

 

Broadchurch

Season 3 DP: Carlos Catalan

 

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Season 1 DP: Bernard Couture

The 2:1 Aspect Ratio