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

Lead Room, Nose Room or Looking Space

Like headroom, last week’s topic, lead room is one of the first concepts we are introduced to when we begin learning camera operation. And like headroom, it’s a rule that’s made to be broken. If a character is looking screen-left, certainly it’s most common to place them on the right of frame – giving them lead room (a.k.a. nose room or looking space) on the left, but that is not the only option. In certain situations it’s more appropriate, or simply more aesthetically pleasing, to place them on the left, or in the centre. And although The Rule of Thirds suggests how far to the left or right they will commonly be placed (a third, or two-thirds of the way across the frame) it is, again, far from the only option.

Below I’ve compiled a spectrum of lead room: a series of examples showing the whole range of horizontal positions within a frame where a subject could be placed. (Note: I’ve flopped some of the images to maintain the screen direction.) All of these examples are from 1.78:1 or 1.85:1 productions, but of course with the 2.39:1 Cinemascope format there is an even greater range of options. On the righthand side, to aid comparison, I’ve placed different crops of the same photo (by Richard Unger).

No composition is fixed in motion picture production. Actors move around, miss their marks; it’s difficult for a DP to be precise about where the subject appears in the shot, so reading a particular intention into an individual frame is dangerous. But if, within a film, there is a trend of characters, or a specific character, being placed in one particular part of the frame, then it’s fair to assume that the filmmakers were deliberately trying to create a particular effect.

With that in mind, the thoughts below are not intended to analyse why that specific shot in that specific production was composed the way it was, but rather to consider in general terms what meanings and emotions that kind of composition might convey.

 

“Carol” (DP: Edward Lachman)

This is the maximum lead room you can give an actor in 1.85:1 without cutting off part of their head (which you may want to do in certain extreme circumstances, but that’s a subject for another post). This is someone backed into a corner, isolated. They have full cognisance of their situation – they can see it all in front of them. What you choose to place on the other side of frame is very important with an extreme composition like this. Negative space, as in the above example, creates an unbalanced frame, suggesting someone in a precarious situation, whereas another person or object would appear to dominate the subject.

 

“Atonement” (DP: Seamus McGarvey)

This is widely considered to be the ideal framing, with the subject placed according to The Rule of Thirds. Assuming that Keira is looking at another actor here, and that that actor’s single is framed with him in the left half of frame, the brain can comfortably merge the two shots into one, creating – subconsciously – a split-screen like a phone conversation in an old sitcom. The shot-reverse will be pleasingly balanced, and no tension will be created – at least not by the lead room.

 

“Fargo” (DP: Roger Deakins)

On more than one occasion I’ve tried to frame a shot like this, only to be told by the director that the subject is “too close to the centre”, it’s “wrong” and the subject must be placed on a third. What I should have done is shown them this frame, said, “If it’s good enough for Roger Deakins….” and then coughed in a way that sounded suspiciously like “thirteen Oscar nominations”. What’s interesting about this composition is the visual tension it creates when edited with the reverse. If the other actor is similarly close to the centre, their images start to overlap, almost like they’re duking it out, and if the other actor is placed further from the centre, they will seem trapped by their interlocutor. Or maybe composing the shot this way sometimes just allows for the best range of movement from the actor and the most pleasing frame.

 

“Lost in Translation” (DP: Lance Acord)

Placing someone in the centre of frame can be very powerful. It suggests someone in control, balanced, dominant. Now of course, that is not at all an accurate description of Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation. But notice that big, bright practical light so close to his head; it completely unbalances the composition. This just goes to show that the subject’s   position relative to background elements can be of equal or greater importance to their position within the frame. I aim to do a whole post about centre-framing in the near future.

 

“Hugo” (DP: Robert Richardson)

Although short-sided, the boy still has some lead room, in fact an amount of lead room that would be perfectly normal in a 4:3 composition. Personally, I would be comfortable with this composition for purely aesthetic reasons, but it could also be used to create some visual tension, suggesting things unknown behind the subject, waiting to creep up on them figuratively or literally. It could also suggest the character is weak, particularly if intercut with another character who is more traditionally framed.

 

“Les Miserables” (DP: Danny Cohen)

Now we are into territory that many will find uncomfortable. A character short-sided like this may seem unbalanced, lost, trapped, wrong-footed or isolated. Or they might simply be deep in thought;  you can easily imagine another character entering in the background of the above frame, breaking Crowe’s reverie, restoring the compositional balance and turning it into a deep two-shot.

 

“Mr. Robot” (DP: Tod Campbell)

Imagine someone walking into a room and standing right up against the wall, facing it. You would think them strange, disturbed. You might wonder if they were looking at something imaginary. This is the effect created by extreme short-siding. It also serves to make the subject look completely alone, even though they might be speaking to someone just inches in front of them. Mr. Robot is the only place I’ve ever seen composition this unusual, though I’m sure there are other examples out there.

 

Next time you watch a film or a TV show, pay attention to the lead room. You may be surprised to find that non-standard compositions are employed more often than you thought.

Thanks again to evanrichards.com, where I found most of the frame grabs.

Lead Room, Nose Room or Looking Space

Headroom

One of the first things that amateur photographers and cinematographers are taught is  “correct” headroom. Don’t put people’s heads in the middle of the frame, we’re told, but at the top. Rules are made to be broken though, and here are three examples of beautiful cinematography which do just that.

 

Broadchurch

“A town wrapped in secrets” is the tag-line of this critically-acclaimed ITV detective serial. In classic murder mystery fashion, every character is hiding something, causing suspicion to rest on each of them for a little while until the the person hiding the right secret is found.

David Tennant’s DI Alec Hardy complains of the small coastal town’s “endless sky”, an observation which could equally apply to the cinematography, framing the action as it often does with expansive headroom. While this may be partly an attempt to emphasise the isolation of the titular town, where people are small in the face of nature, its primary effect is to evoke the secrecy so integral to the storyline. Just as the police – and viewers – are figuratively misdirected by the suspects’ lies, so the camera is literally misdirected. The message from Matt Gray, BSC’s cinematography is: look at the beautiful sky and the paintings high up on the wall, because if you look too hard at what’s in front of you, you’ll see that the surface perfection of the bucket-and-spade idyll is built on foundations of sand.

 

Utopia

This stylish, stunningly-photographed thriller ran for two seasons on Channel 4 in 2013 and 2014. It featured a group of disparate characters following clues in a cult graphic novel to uncover a chilling conspiracy. It was the first TV show I’d ever seen in 2.39:1, it had a garish, digitally-manipulated palette, and its composition broke all the rules.

Amongst Utopia‘s visual hallmarks was the use of plentiful headroom. Characters were frequently crushed into the lower half of the frame, a symbol of the powerful conspiracy looming over them. The overall look crafted by director Marc Munden and DP Ole Bratt Birkeland placed the viewer completely outside of the comfort zone of TV’s visual conventions, into a world where you couldn’t trust or rely on anything. (The Amazon series Mr. Robot uses similar techniques for similar reasons.)

Both seasons of Utopia can be viewed free at channel4.com

 

IDA

The makers of the Oscar-winning Polish indie feature Ida also chose an unusual aspect ratio; 4:3 had not been commonly used in features for decades. It was director Pawel Pawlikowski who wanted to try framing his subjects low down within the boxy ratio, leaving lots of headroom.

DP Lukasz Zal, PSC embraced the idea. “We saw that [the odd framing] created the feeling of loss, isolation and that it wasn’t just a strange mannerism but it conveyed so much more,” he told The LA Times.

Many interpretations have been placed on the meaning of the extra headroom in this tale of a young novitiate nun who comes to question her lifestyle. Most commonly it is seen as implying heaven above and therefore the nuns’ thoughts of the divine. To me it also conveys a sense of helplessness, of free will being overcome by larger forces above and around Ida.

Read this post on the ASC website for more on the cinematography of Ida.

If you want to delve deeper into the topic of headroom, I highly recommend this article by Art Adams: A Short History of Headroom, and How to Use It.

I’ll leave you with Pawel Pawlikowski’s thoughts on the ambiguity of his framing in Ida

Some audiences have said the sky was crushing them. When you do something that’s formally strong, it elicits all kinds of responses. When you make these decisions, they’re kind of intuitive. You don’t intellectualize what it means; it feels right.

Headroom

Composing a Shot-Reverse

Ah, the shot-reverse, that staple of film and television, that standard for dialogue scenes everywhere. Sooner or later, two characters are going to stand three feet apart, facing each other, and have a chat. (You know, like real people do all the time.) And the required coverage will be a wide or two-shot, followed by a pair of singles known as a shot-reverse.

The singles can be dirty (including the other character’s shoulder or back of head in the frame) or clean (not showing the other character). Except for tight close-ups, dirty singles – often called over-the-shoulder shots for obvious reasons – are most common, and it’s these that I’ll focus on in this post.

 

The Unwritten rules. Which I shall now write.

Conventional wisdom on shot-reverses says that the two shots should

  • be the same size,
  • use the same lens,
  • match the height of the respective eye-lines,
  • allow “looking space”, and
  • frame the two characters on opposite sides of the screen.

Here is a shot-reverse from Hugo (DP: Robert Richardson) which obeys all of these rules…

And here is a shot-reverse from Alien (DP: Derek Vanlint) which obeys none of them…

Ultimately, like all framing decisions, it’s subjective. Directors often have strong ideas about what they do and don’t like in shot-reverses. And no two DPs will agree exactly on the subject. And of course the actors will move around at least slightly during the scene, messing with any strict composition you’ve established.

 

Using the width of the frame

Traditional television, driven as it was by dialogue scenes usually covered in over-the-shoulder shots, was perfectly suited to the old 4:3 ratio. The subject and foreground characters neatly filled the frame.

But with today’s wider aspect ratios – particularly 2.39:1- we have a choice to make about how to use the extra horizontal space. If we want to place the characters on either side of the frame, we have to shift the camera out, away from the eyeline…

This has the disadvantage of showing some of the foreground character’s face, and starting to look a little like a two-shot. But it may be very effective symbolically if the characters have a strained or distant relationship in the story.

If you don’t like all that space between the characters, you can return the camera closer to the eyeline, keeping the subject on the “correct” side of frame, the side that gives them the most looking space

However, the foreground character cuts off the looking space, and the composition can end up looking unbalanced. It may feel like the subject is trapped, squashed into the side of frame by the foreground character. But again, this may be the effect you want to create.

You can frame the characters more centrally, or you can go to the other extreme, placing the foreground character enclosing the side of frame, cradling the rest of the composition…

This creates a nice sense of depth, making the screen resemble a window. The foreground character on the edge of frame continues the perspective of the physical frame itself (be it the plastic surround of a TV set, the curtains of a cinema or whatever) into the frame.

(I can’t understand why the cinema’s empty. This looks like an awesome movie.)

Here’s a similar composition from Die Hard (DP: Jan de Bont), where the perspective is continued even further into the image, to a statue in the deep background…

 

Oscar-winning shot-reverses

Looking through Evan Richards’ Cinematography Index at recent movies to bag the Best Cinematography Oscar, I saw a wide variety of styles in the shot-reverses. Here are just a few that stood out to me as interesting.

Here’s an example from The Revenant (DP: Emmanuel Lubezki) which uses the foreground character as a framing element on the right…

This next example from Inception (DP: Wally Pfister) has great perspective, helped by the line of the table, and the wineglass on the left which almost feels like a vanishing point for the eye-line…

This clean shot-reverse from Sicario (DP: Roger Deakins) is interesting because the camera height is not on the eye-line….

The men at the table are shot from just below their head height, giving them more power and permitting the inclusion of the great perspective lines of ceiling lights in the background. The characters are framed quite centrally, which is also true of this final example, from Memoirs of a Geisha (DP: Dion Beebe)…

In the first shot, the distant window on frame right anchors and balances the composition, while the lantern on frame left serves the same function in the second shot.

 

And now the conclusion

If there’s one single piece of advice to take from this somewhat disjointed post, it’s that it’s more important to frame a shot-reverse in a way that feels right aesthetically, for the characters, and for the story, than to follow any rules, because…

See also: Composing a Wide Shot and 2.39:1 Composition

Composing a Shot-Reverse

Composing a Wide Shot

I have wanted to write a blog post about composition for ages, but I’ve procrastinated. Framing is such an instinctive and subjective thing; could I ever articulate how to do it? I’m still not sure, but at last I’m taking a deep breath and giving it a go. To help me, I’m using frame grabs from Best Cinematography Oscar-winning films of the last ten years or so, taken from the brilliant and handy website Cinematographer’s Index. Check it out and donate a few bucks if you can.

 

the rule of thirds

The Rule of Thirds is well known to most filmmakers. It suggests that you imagine the frame divided vertically and horizontally into thirds, then place the subject on one of the intersections of these lines.

However, composing images using The Rule of Thirds is like riding a bike using stabilisers. It’s something that you use before you’ve developed your own eye for composition.

Here are just a few examples of cinematography which completely ignore the rule, yet won Oscars. Guillermo Navarro puts his subject bang in the centre, in this scene from Pan’s Labyrinth

While Dion Beebe goes for an extreme off-set in Memoirs of a Geisha

In this scene from Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda places the two least important elements in the frame – the lifeboat and the sun – roughly on the thirds, but puts Pi himself right in the centre, and the distant ship off to the right…

 

ENclosing one SIDE

So, if we’re not using The Rule of Thirds, where do we start? I like to start with the edges of the frame, rather than some arbitrary points within in. I look for something to give me a reason to put the edge of the frame in a particular place.

As I touched on in my previous post, about Turner, it’s aesthetically pleasing to create a frame within a frame, but unless you’re shooting through a window you can’t always enclose the image on all four sides. Often the ground/horizon gives you a free framing along the bottom edge. So if you can frame just one more side, you’ve got an L-shaped frame (though the ‘L’ may be backwards) and you’re doing pretty well.

This is probably the most common compositional technique you’ll see in wide shots: a tree, wall or other vertical element enclosing the frame on one side. Pan’s Labyrinth again…

Here’s one from The Revenant (DP: Emmanuel Lubezki)…

It’s great when these enclosing elements are in the foreground, because they also serve to add depth to the image. But they can be in the background too, like the righthand skyscraper in this frame from Slumdog Millionaire (DP: Anthony Dod Mantle)…

Or in this one from Pan’s Labyrinth, where the mill wheel defines the height of the image as well as framing it on the left…

Sometimes, with flatter compositions, you can find an element on the same plane as the subject with which to frame the shot on one side, like the streetlamp on the left of this shot from Life of Pi. Note that the edge of the pond also provides strong framing along the bottom of the image…

 

ENCLOSING TWO SIDES

Placing enclosing elements on both sides of the frame, as well as being even more aesthetically pleasing than enclosing a single side, can suggest a situation from which the characters cannot escape. Consider these frames from, respectively, Inception (DP: Wally Pfister) and Road to Perdition (DP: Conrad Hall)…

 

Other frames within frames

In this shot from Hugo (DP: Robert Richardson), the architecture frames the image along the top and righthand side, while leaving it open in the bottom left, the direction towards which the subject is moving…

This shot from Life of Pi contains an interesting choice. The obvious – and far more dominant place – to put the subject would have been leaning against the foreground pillar on the right. Instead, Miranda makes the audience search for him in the frame…

Here, in Road to Perdition, the foreground character, the desk, the phone and the doorway all cradle and enclose the subject…

 

Pinning a corner

Sometimes it is impossible to enclose the image on any of its sides. In these cases I will at least try to pin a corner – to find an element that I can place just within a corner of the frame to anchor the composition. This frame from Hugo uses the lamp in the top right for this purpose…

Mantle uses the foreground tyre here in Slumdog Millionaire…

Navarro uses a chair in the bottom left of this Pan’s Labyrinth shot. Notice how the subject is placed on the imaginary line connecting the chair to the circular window in the background, which balances it out…

In this scene from Road to Perdition, Hall pins the top lefthand corner with the light fixture, then balances it beautifully with the shadows in the bottom right…

Indeed, the corner-pinning technique seems most effective when the diagonally opposite corner is opposite in other ways too – dark vs. light, close vs. far, warm vs. cold, etc.

 

Vanishing points

Vanishing points are a concept familiar to artists and technical drafters. You extend the image’s straight lines in perspective to the point where they vanish into the distance. Placing the subject of your image on a vanishing point will lead the viewer’s eyes right to them. Check out these examples from, respectively, Memoirs of a Geisha and Road to Perdition…

This shot from Slumdog Millionaire is a little more subtle, but follow the lines of the table and chair and you’ll end up right at the children…

And just to prove that rules are meant to be broken, here’s a Slumdog shot where the subjects are nowhere the vanishing point…

 

LEADING LINES

It’s not just vanishing points that provide satisfying spots to place your subject. Leading lines of any kind can draw the eye. In this shot from Inception, the vanishing point (the tip of the plane’s nose) would be somewhere in the extreme top-left corner of frame. Di Caprio isn’t on that vanishing point, but the rows of seats still lead our eyes to him…

In this shot from Sicario, Roger Deakins places both subjects over the corners of the house, where the buildings’ lines lead us to…

In The Revenant, this frame places the subjects at the point of the V formed by the sloping mounds…

 

Symmetry

I’ve touched on the concept of balance throughout this post, and I’ll probably need to write a whole other post to really get into it, but for now, here are some beautiful examples of the simplest way of giving a composition balance: symmetry…

 

So those are a few basic ways of approaching the composition of a wide shot. More composition posts to come, but meanwhile, you might like to check out my existing post on 2.39:1 composition.

Composing a Wide Shot

Giving Yourself Somewhere to Go

On the recce for The Second Shepherd's Play. Photo: Douglas Morse
On the recce for The Second Shepherd’s Play. Photo: Douglas Morse

As a cinematographer, it can often be tempting to make your shots look as slick and beautiful as possible. But that’s not always right for the story. And sometimes it can leave you nowhere to go.

Currently I’m shooting The Second Shepherds’ Play, a medieval comedy adaptation, for director Douglas Morse. The story starts in the mud and drizzle of three shepherds’ daily drudge, and in a Python-esque twist ends up in the nativity. The titular trio develop from a base, selfish, almost animalistic state to something much more divine.

So, much as my instincts filming the opening scenes yesterday were to have a shallow depth of field and bounce boards everywhere to put a sparkle in the shepherds’ eyes, this wouldn’t have been right for this stage of the film. We had to have somewhere to go, so I shot at around f9 all day with unmodified natural, overcast light. As we get towards the end of the story – we’re shooting roughly in story order – I’ll start to use eyelight and more sculpted illumination and reduce the depth of field, as well as switching from handheld to sticks.

Grading episode one of Ren
Grading episode one of Ren

Similarly, grading episode one of Ren the other day, it was important to keep things bright and cheerful, so that later episodes could be colder and darker by comparison when things go wrong for our heroes. And playing the long game, I lit Ren herself with soft, shadowless light for most of the first season, so that as she develops from innocence to more of an action heroine in later seasons, her lighting can get harder and moodier.

Like all heads of department on a production, DPs are storytellers, and it all comes down to doing what’s right for the story, and what’s right for that moment in the story.

Giving Yourself Somewhere to Go

Top Tips from Day Two of the Big League Cine Summit 2015

blcs-blue-on-whiteLast week I published the best tips I culled from day one of the 2015 Big League Cine Summit. To complete the set, here are the top tips from day two, starting with that legendary teacher of cinematography, Shane Hurlbut, ASC. Since Shane is so good at sharing his knowledge on the Hurlblog, I’ve only listed a few tips from him; I strongly recommend you check out his site for many, many more gems.

Shane Hurlbut – “Delivering Storytelling Impact with Light, Lens and Camera”

  • On the visual grammar of Crazy/Beautiful: controlled camera moves represent Jay’s controlling mother.
  • Shane likes to use the work of stills photographers as inspiration.
  • He added extra 400W sodium vapour fixtures to the existing 100W sodium vapour streetlights for night exteriors in Crazy/Beautiful.
  • He used a “damaged key” in Crazy/Beautiful to represent Kirsten Dunst’s flustered state. It’s messy, doesn’t quite reach both eyes.

David Vollrath – “Motivated Lighting”

  • “I don’t want to light their faces and bodies specifically. I like to light the space.” – Harris Savides
  • Stand where your subject will be to see what reflective objects are affecting your lighting.
  • Tabletops can be great bounce-boards for toplight. Maybe put muslim or paper on the table to enhance it.
  • Look for things to motivate light: windows, practicals, overhead fixtures, sconces, etc.
  • Once you’ve lit the space, it will become clearer how to light the faces.
  • Work with the art department in preproduction to make sure you get the practicals you need.
  • Flag your other sources off your practical so that excess light isn’t falling on them and washing them out.
  • You can use the reflection of a softbox to create a nice shine on a dark surface or even on a face.
  • A roll of duvetyne armed off a C-stand makes a fair stand-in for a 4×4 floppy flag.
  • “Beadboard” is just another name for polyboard. (I genuinely didn’t know that!)
  • Other bounceboards include foamcore and showcard.
  • Use Source 4 Leikos to fire into your bounce, because they’re easily cut and focused. They’re cheap to rent too.
  • It’s easier to rig a bounce card overhead than a softbox or a kinoflo.
  • Plus Green and Minus Green gels – to match or correct fluorescents – are useful in subtle 1/8th flavours.
  • “Lighting is in the gripping.” Taking away light can be more effective than adding it.
  • A “cocktail” is a layering of multiple gels.
  • A simple black card over a shiny piece of furniture can cut bounce and bring back contrast.
  • Hazers add great atmosphere, but they raise the fill level. To see shafts of light, use a dark background.

Caleb Pike – “Everything You Need to Know About Lenses”

  • A good set of primes will last you decades.
  • Lens choice affects: 1. Field of view, 2. Depth of field, 3. Compression (amount of perspective).
  • Use compression to isolate a subject, or to crop out equipment.
  • Use wide lenses to open up a space, exaggerate expressions or get the most out of camera moves.
  • Longer lenses are more flattering for close-ups. Short lenses can distort the face unpleasantly.
  • Don’t always shoot with your aperture wide open. Choose an appropriate depth of field for your story.
  • Generally it’s best to keep your aperture the same throughout a scene.
  • Avoid non-constant aperture zoom lenses for video work.
  • Primes (fixed focal length lenses) are generally faster, cheaper, lighter and sharper than zooms.
  • Cine lenses are heavier than stills lenses, do not breathe (zoom slightly when focusing), and have fixed filter rings.
  • Cine lenses have hard stops on the focus rings, so you can set focus marks on the lens.
  • Cine lenses have longer throws on the focus rings, so that follow focusing can be more precise.
  • Wide cine lenses have less distortion than their stills counterparts.
  • Passive lens adapters are cheap and simple; smart adapters maintain the electronic connection for autofocus etc.
  • Lens boosters can solve cropping problems caused by using a lens with a sensor size it’s not designed for.
  • Throttle adapters are passive adapters with neutral density fader filters built in.
  • Caleb’s budget lens recommendations:
    1. Nikon 35-70mm f3.5 macro
    2. Olympus 50mm zuiko f1.4 and 1.8 versions – sharp, with long focus throw – around $30
    3. Canon 40mm f2.8 pancake prime
    4. Nikon 100mm F2.8 E series – around $99
    5. Canon 28-80mm F2.8-4.0 L series – well built, very sharp – around $500

Matt Workman – “Camera Moves That Matter”

  • A camera “hand off” is a move that starts focused on one thing and then transitions to focus on another.
  • A classic establisher might start on a mysterious insert then pull back – “hand off” – to reveal the scene.
  • Spielberg, Scorsese, Luhrmann, Singer and Bay all use camera hand-offs frequently.
  • Camera moves increase production value and can cover multiple story beats in one shot.
  • Doing the same thing in cuts reduces your audience’s understanding of the scene’s geography.
  • Crane-ups give you a privileged view, a sense of power.
  • Write down the beats of the scene, then storyboard or previz. All departments can benefit from the previz.
  • Beware of boring bits in the middle of camera moves. Is it better to do it in cuts so you can speed it up?
  • Use Autodesk Maya for previz. Build a library of accurate grip equipment models.
  • Check out Matt’s other site which uses previz tools to illustrate other DPs’ set-ups.
Top Tips from Day Two of the Big League Cine Summit 2015

Top Tips from Day One of the Big League Cine Summit 2015

blcs-blue-on-whiteThis week the third annual Big League Cine Summit is taking place: two days of online masterclasses with top commercial, TV and feature film cinematographers. If you missed this educational and inspirational free event, here are the best tips I culled from day one’s sessions:

Frankie DeMarco – “Composition and Camera Operating for the Big Screen”

  • The advantage for a DP of working with a separate camera op is that you have a second opinion.
  • Try to think like an editor. What specific shots do you need to tell the story? Can you do it in a “oner”?
  • Lots of angles/coverage can kill performances and make the audience overly aware of the camera.
  • If you need to shift position for comfort, do it during a part of the take that the editor is unlikely to use.
  • You can sometimes get away with crossing the line if your singles are dirty.
  • Use clean singles to show that characters are not connecting with each other.
  • Single point perspective, a.k.a. formal composition (framing the subject centrally) can be very powerful.
  • Lighting for silhouette can make a simple moment highly evocative.
  • The best composition reflects character relationships, perhaps using layers and depth.
  • Good composition should draw the eye to the right part of the screen and not distract the audience.
  • Good cinematography should tap into the emotion of the scene and the character whose eyes we’re seeing it through.
  • When watching the blocking, think about the emotions. Let the scene tell you how it should be shot.
  • Let the lens talk to you. Try watching the blocking through different lenses and see what feels right.
  • A great static frame that the actor can move around in trumps panning around with the actor.
  • Use a dolly-in for an emotional moment, but a zoom-in to show a character having a thought or idea.
  • Check out Stanley Kubrick and William Friedkin films to see excellent use of zooms.
  • Use a long lens to disconnect your subject from their surroundings.
  • Play the first take safe, and then you can try tagging hand-props or pulling focus to background characters on later takes.
  • “When in doubt, turn it out.” i.e. beware of over-lighting!
  • Don’t be afraid of changing f-stops from angle to angle to maintain a consistent softness of background when your background is different distances away from different subjects.
  • Don’t worry about continuity too much. “The set is made of rubber.”
  • Try unusual compositions. Be willing to fail.

Kevin Shahinian – “Story Telling Techniques: Adding Massive Production Value”

  • In high-end events shooting, try to get the organisers to pick rooms that will work for sun orientation.
  • Use a long lens to create a potentially unsettling sense of voyeurism.
  • To build tension and unsettle the audience, short-side your subject and show lots of empty background.
  • In an over-the-shoulder shot, add power to the foreground character by having them dominate the frame.
  • With non-actors, shoot candid footage; you may capture genuinely great moments. Use action verbs to direct them, rather than talking in terms of emotions.

Rasmus Heise – “Extraordinary Cinematography with Minimal Lighting”

  • Design lighting that works from all directions, to minimise set-up times.
  • Use more than one colour to add depth.
  • Dot practicals around where possible, to give you sources that will work for different angles.
  • Focus on one key light source in a scene. Everything else is just a bonus.
  • Fluorescent tubes and sodium vapour lamps can be great low budget, low wattage solutions.
  • Philips makes fluorescent tubes with high CRI.
  • Wet down your exterior sets to add contrast and nice reflections.
  • Silhouette shots are quick, cheap and look great.

Matthew Santo – “Commercial Lighting: How to Light Fashion vs. Action”

  • Photographing commercials is all about heightened reality, perfect sunsets, perfect skin, etc.
  • It requires a lot of passive lighting: bounce cards, negative fill, contrast control.
  • On beauty and fashion commercials:
    • Your background can set a darker mood even if the talent has to be lit flatly for beauty.
    • Know your talent’s face in advance – e.g. do they have soft or hard features? Deep-set eyes?
    • What side is the talent’s hair parted on? This could affect your decision on which side to key from.
    • Try to make sure the make-up room’s lighting matches the colour of your lighting on set, so the MUA doesn’t get any nasty surprises on set.
    • Use Briese lights for beauty. They have hard- and softlight qualities.
    • Chimeras may be better for talent with less defined features.
    • Reduce skin texture by pushing fill through large frames or bounce, e.g. 12×12 frames.
    • Hard backlight looks great but beware of fly-away hair.
    • Combine hard and soft sources for backlight that has punch but wraps and doesn’t create shadow issues.
    • There’s a range of Cosmetic lighting gels that add a little warmth and diffusion.
    • Use a low overall light level for talent comfort and less squinting!
  • On sport and action commercials:
    • It’s about movement and body definition. Backlight and sidelight are most important.
    • Edgelight defines the talent’s body shape. Toplight adds muscle definition.
    • Lens flares add dynamism but reduce contrast, so light high-key.
    • Use higher light levels for highspeed shooting and to maintain focus as people move.

Stefan V. Borbely – “Deconstructing High End Car Commercials”

  • Rather than lighting the car, light the environment and the car will reflect that environment.
  • For exteriors, wait for dramatic skies because the car will reflect these.
  • Silver cars are the easiest to light.
  • Use long fluorescent tubes or long reflectors to make seamless long highlights on the bodywork.
  • Use Cinema 4D to test your lighting set-ups for reflections.
  • For night exteriors, take stills on the recce and note your exposure settings.
  • Bagolights are great for creating streaks of light on cars.
  • Fisherlights are a good substitute for the sky.
  • If you can’t afford Fisherlights overhead, put lamps on the floor and shoot them up into big polyboards.
  • Schedule your exterior shots for sunrise and sunset, and shoot inside the car in the middle of the day.

There is still time to get free access to the summit at bigleaguecinesummit.com Stay tuned to neiloseman.com for top tips from day two.

 

Top Tips from Day One of the Big League Cine Summit 2015

Cinematography: My Process

Consulting director Sophie Black's storyboards on Night Owls. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou
Consulting director Sophie Black’s storyboards on Night Owls. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou

I thought it might be of interest to describe my typical working process as a director of photography on a shooting day. Different directors and ADs will run their sets different ways, so this is a generalisation.

I like to start the day by reading some of Stephen Murphy’s DOP Documents over breakfast. These elegantly-laid-out collections of screen grabs from top cinematographers are fantastic inspiration.

On some productions I’ve had long talks with the director, I’ve seen storyboards or shotlists and I’ve been on the location scouts or walked the sets already. On others I’m a last minute hire and I know nothing beyond what it says in the script. (And this should go without saying, but you need to read the script. Apparently some DPs don’t. WTF?)

Whenever I see the set for the first time, be that in preproduction or on the day, I start to think about light sources. If it’s outdoors, what is the sun orientation? If it’s indoors, where are the windows? If it’s night, what practical sources are there and do I need to add or remove some?

Ideally the next thing that happens is that the actors arrive, still in their street clothes, and the director blocks the scene with them. If I see anything that can be tweaked to orientate the talent better towards the light sources, or to provide more interesting framing, I’ll suggest it.

During the blocking I’ll wander around with Artemis (a virtual director’s viewfinder app on my iPad). If there’s a shotlist or storyboard, I’ll find the angles described and check they work. If not, I’ll find the angles I think will work well. I’ll screen-grab all of these and show them to the director when they’re done blocking. There may then be some give-and-take, perhaps adjusting the actors in situ through the viewfinder, until the director is happy.

Before the actors depart to get into costume and make-up, I’ll have my assistant put down marks for their key positions. Then the cast can leave and I can get down to the business of lighting the scene. Here’s broadly what I’m thinking about, in roughly the order I tend to think about it:

  1. Realistically, where would light be coming from?
  2. How should the scene be lit to create an appropriate mood?
  3. How should the cast be lit to look their best and enhance their characters?
  4. Aesthetically, what lighting will look the most pleasing?
  5. Practically, where can I put lights with the grip equipment I have, without any of it coming into shot?
Lensing Three Blind Mice
Lensing Three Blind Mice

Once I’ve taken a few minutes to figure that out, I’ll start issuing instructions to my gaffer. I might walk around planting lamps, or just stands, and let the gaffer finish the job by cabling them, or I may let him set some lamps up while I puzzle over whether I’ll need other lamps elsewhere. Meanwhile the camera is being set up with my chosen lens on, either by an assistant or me, if we’re short on crew. (Most directors leave lens choices to me.)

When most of the lamps are set, I’ll fire everything up and draft in whoever’s around to stand in for the actors so I can see if it’s working as planned. I don’t use a light meter, so everything is judged by eye on the monitor, perhaps with the aid of a histogram. Some tweaking usually ensues.

By this point hopefully the cast are back on set and we can start camera rehearsals. Although these are useful to the cast and director, they’re invaluable for me so that I can practice the camera move and see how the light works on the actual actors and costumes. Usually there’ll be a little more tweaking of lights before we shoot. With any luck this doesn’t hold up the director because they’re busy giving last minute direction to the cast.

After we shoot I’ll tell the director whether the take was any good from a camera and lighting standpoint. I generally don’t request retakes unless I’ve screwed something up pretty badly. Long experience has taught me that the editor will always choose the best take for performance, regardless of any minor camera wobbles or dodgy lighting, so I’m not going to waste time insisting on another take which won’t get used. The important thing is for the director to get the performance they want. Having said that, it’s my job to flag up any cinematography fluffs so that it’s the director’s decision whether to go again or not.

Once the first shot is in the can, lighting for the coverage should be fairly straightforward. I’ll have my assistant change the lens, then I’ll move the camera to the new position myself and see how the existing lighting works. Then I can tweak things accordingly.

And so it goes on until the scene is wrapped.

OK, enough from me for a minute. Want to see a legendary cinematographer’s process as he lights a scene? Check out this unique and fascinating video.

I’ll leave you with the latest Ren production diary, which asks (and fails to answer) the question: “What is a DoP anyway?”

Cinematography: My Process

2.39:1 Composition

In the days of 4:3 cameras, many filmmakers chose to mask off their viewfinders and shoot in 16:9 widescreen. Now that 16:9 is ubiquitous, those of us wanting something more cinematic turn to the glorious 2.39:1, a.k.a. Scope. Choose your aspect ratio carefully though, not just because it “looks cooler”. 2.39 works well if you have lots of landscapes, lots of extras or a wide set. It’s not so great if one of your main sets is a tall, narrow booth, as I found out the hard way on Stop/Eject.

I love composing for the 2.39 ratio. You have so much flexibility on where to put your subject in the frame. The rule of thirds is obsolete here. You can put someone almost anywhere in the 2.39 frame and have it look good. They can be short-sided (placed on the “wrong” side of frame) but still have looking space. They can be just off centre, or they can be squeezed right to the edge. And if it’s a two-shot or a dirty single, you can illustrate the closeness of the characters’ relationship by choosing the distance between them in the frame – anywhere from overlapping (a couple madly in love?) to facing each other across the full width of the widescreen frame (enemies with no common ground?).

Here are some of my favourite examples of 2.39 composition. First up, The Matrix, lensed by Bill Bope. Look at how he uses black space to create a stark minimalism. One of the most powerful things you can do with all that horizontal space is to not use half of it!

Matrix-black1

Matrix-door

Matrix-Morpheus

In this close-up (below), Morpheus starts off conventionally framed on the left, but leans forward at a key point, crossing the width of the frame to become short-sided, as pictured. It really makes it feel like he’s getting in your face.

Matrix-Morpheus-shortside

Symmetrical shots become more powerful in 2.39. These ones really help reinforce the rigid, computer-generated nature of the matrix.

Matrix-chairs-symmetry

Matrix-agents-symmetry

In Donnie Darko (DP: Steven Poster), formal composition (framing characters centrally) is used as a stylistic device in the dream sequences. Again, a powerful symmetry in this wide format.

Donnie1 Donnie2

I love the composition of this shot from Armaggedon (DP: John Schwartzman). He’s on the “wrong” side of frame and he’s barely off centre, but somehow it works beautifully. It almost looks like he’s surging forwards with the flag, rather than seeming dominated by it, like he would if he was on the right of frame.

Armageddon

Jan de Bont’s cinematography in Die Hard is a masterclass in 2.39 composition. Check out the depth in these raking shots.

DieHard-Bonnie

DieHard-mirror

Below, De Bont uses the doorway as a symmetrical frame for the composition, which gives Willis license to be anywhere within it.

DieHard-CU-shortside

Here’s an interesting lesson in shooting over-the-shoulders in 2.39. Put the foreground actor on the edge of frame and you’ll find it very hard to keep a sense of depth if you put the background actor over on the other side of frame. You need them nearer so the perspective can continue off into the other side of frame, perhaps with other characters (or a statue, in this case) in the deep background or just the set.

DieHard-overshoulder

Here’s a nice bit of short-siding, balanced out by the car.

DieHard-shortside-ext

And finally, I utterly adore this shot/reverse from Alien (DP: Derek Vanlint). If ever a director tells you that shot/reverses have to match, show them this scene. Every rule in the book is broken. He’s shot from a low angle, she’s shot from head height. He’s in a mid, she’s in an MCU. His single is dirty, hers is clean. He’s on the left of frame, and so’s she! But isn’t it gorgeous? Both characters are given power through composition, but in different ways. His power comes from the low angle of the camera. Hers comes from her being placed towards the closer end of the horizontal lines in the set. If she’d been placed on the tapering end, on the right of frame, she would have no power in this scene at all, compositionally. I can’t say whether it’s intentional, but the fact that this compositional power – equal but different – matches the power the characters have in the dialogue and performance, is just exquisite.

Alien-HurtAlien-Weaver

What are your favourite 2.39 movies, and how do they use the frame to help tell the story?

2.39:1 Composition