“Jurassic Park” Retrospective

With the temporary closure of Cineworlds around the UK, the future of theatrical exhibition once more hangs in the balance. But just a couple of months ago cinemas were reopening and people were positive that the industry would recover. One of the classic blockbusters that was re-released to plug the gaps in the release schedule ahead of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was a certain quite popular film about dinosaurs. I described my trip to see it recently, but let’s put that hideous experience behind us and concentrate on the film itself.

Thanks in no small part to the excellent “making of” book by Don Shay and Jody Duncan, Jurassic Park was a formative experience for the 13-year-old Neil Oseman, setting me irrevocably on the path to filmmaking as a career. So let me take you back in time and behind the scenes of an iconic piece of popcorn fodder.

 

Man creates dinosaurs

Even before author Michael Crichton delivered the manuscript of his new novel in May 1990, Steven Spielberg had expressed an interest in adapting it. A brief bidding war between studios saw Joe Dante (Gremlins), Tim Burton (Batman) and Richard Donner (Superman) in the frame to direct, but Spielberg and Universal Pictures were the victors.

Storyboards by David Lowery. Lots of the film’s storyboards are reproduced in “The Making of Jurassic Park” by Don Shay and Jody Duncan.

The screenplay went through several drafts, first by Crichton himself, then by Malio Scotch Marmo and finally by David Koepp, who would go on to script Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man and Panic Room. Pre-production began long before Koepp finished writing, with Spielberg generating storyboards based directly on scenes from the book so that his team could figure out how they were going to bring the dinosaurs to life.

Inspired by a life-size theme park animatronic of King Kong, Spielberg initially wanted all the dinsoaurs to be full-scale physical creatures throughout. This was quickly recognised as impractical, and instead Stan Winston Studio, creators of the Terminator endoskeleton, the Predator make-up and the fifteen-foot-tall Alien queen, focused on building full-scale hydraulically-actuated dinosaurs that would serve primarily for close-ups and mids.

Stan Winston’s crew with their hydraulic behemoth

Meanwhile, to accomplish the wider shots, Spielberg hired veteran stop-motion animator Phil Tippett, whose prior work included ED-209 in RoboCop, the tauntaun and AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back, and perhaps most relevantly, the titular creature from Dragonslayer. After producing some beautiful animatics – to give the crew a clearer previsualisation of the action than storyboards could provide – Tippett shot test footage of the “go-motion” process he intended to employ for the real scenes. Whilst this footage greatly improved on traditional stop-motion by incorporating motion blur, it failed to convince Spielberg.

At this point, Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic stepped in. Muren was the visual effects supervisor behind the most significant milestones in computer-generated imagery up to that point: the stained-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes (1986), the water tendril in The Abyss (1989) and the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). When Spielberg saw his test footage – initially just skeletons running in a black void – the fluidity of the movement immediately grabbed the director’s attention. Further tests, culminating in a fully-skinned tyrannosaur stalking a herd of gallimimuses, had Spielberg completely convinced. On seeing the tests himself, Tippett famously quipped: “I think I’m extinct.”

The first CGI test

Tippett continued to work on Jurassic Park, however, ultimately earning a credit as dinosaur supervisor. Manipulating a custom-built armature named the Dinosaur Input Device, Tippett and his team were able to have their hands-on techniques recorded by computer and used to drive the CG models.

Building on his experiences working with the E.T. puppet, Spielberg pushed for realistic animal behaviours, visible breathing, and bird-like movements reflecting the latest paleontological theories, all of which would lend credibility to the dinosaurs. Effects co-supervisor Mark Dippe stated: “We used to go outdoors and run around and pretend we were gallimisuses or T-Rexes hunting each other, and shoot [reference] film.”

 

Dinosaurs eat man

Stan Winston’s triceratops was the first dinosaur to go before the cameras, and the only one to be filmed on location.

Production began in August 1992 with three weeks on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Filming progressed smoothly until the final day on location, which had to be scrubbed due to Hurrican Iniki (although shots of the storm made it into the finished film). After a brief stint in the Mojave Desert, the crew settled into the stages at Universal Studios and Warner Brothers to record the bulk of the picture.

The most challenging sequence to film would also prove to be the movie’s most memorable: the T-Rex attack on the jeeps containing Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant, Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm, lawyer Gennaro and the children, Lex and Tim. It was the ultimate test for Stan Winston’s full-scale dinosaurs.

The T-Rex mounted on its motion simulator base on Stage 16 at Warner Brothers

The main T-Rex puppet weighed over six tonnes and was mounted on a flight simulator-style platform that had to be anchored into the bedrock under the soundstage. Although its actions were occasionally pre-programmed, the animal was mostly puppeteered live using something similar to the Dinosaur Input Device.

But the torrential rain in which the scene takes place was anathema to the finely tuned mechanics and electronics of the tyrannosaur. “As [the T-Rex] would get rained on,” Winston explained, “his skin would soak up water, his weight would change, and in the middle of the day he would start having the shakes and we would have to dry him down.”

Although hints of this shaking can be detected by an eagle-eyed viewer, the thrilling impact of the overall sequence was clear to Spielberg, who recognised that the T-Rex was the star of his picture. He hastily rewrote the ending to bring the mighty creature back, relying entirely on CGI for the new climax in which it battles raptors in the visitor centre’s rotunda.

The CGI T-Rex in the rewritten finale

 

Woman inherits the earth

After wrapping 12 days ahead of schedule, Jurassic Park hit US cinemas on June 11th, 1993. It became the highest-grossing film of all time, a title which it would hold until Titanic’s release four years later. 1994’s Oscar ceremony saw the prehistoric blockbuster awarded not only Best Visual Effects but also Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. Indeed, Gary Rydstrom’s contribution to the film – using everything from a dolphin/walrus combination for the raptors’ calls, to the sound of his own dog playing with a rope toy for the T-Rex – cannot be overstated.

Jurassic Park has spawned four sequels to date (with a fifth on the way), and its impact on visual effects was enormous. For many years afterwards, blockbusters were filled with CGI that was unable to equal, let along surpass, the quality of Jurassic Park’s. Watching it today, the CGI is still impressive if a little plasticky in texture, but I believe that the full-size animatronics which form the lion’s share of the dinosaurs’ screen time are what truly give the creatures their memorable verisimilitude. The film may be 27 years old, but it’s still every bit as entertaining as it was in 1993.

This article first appeared on RedShark News.

Director of photography Dean Cundey, ASC with the brachiosaur head puppet
“Jurassic Park” Retrospective

A Post-lockdown Trip to the Cinema

This article first appeared on RedShark News last month.

What’s wrong with this picture? Apparently nothing, if you work for the Light.

As I write this, I’ve just got back from my first trip to the cinema in six months. Although they have been allowed to reopen in England since July 4th, the higher operating costs in the pandemic kept many cinemas dark well into August. On Friday the 21st, my local branch of the Light here in Cambridge finally opened its doors, and I went along to experience post-Covid cinema.

Studios have been shifting their release dates throughout the lockdown, with some films giving up on theatrical exhibition altogether, so the Light, like its competitors, has filled its screens with classics for now. I selected Jurassic Park, which I haven’t seen on the big screen since its original release in 1993.

When I arrived, the lobby was dark and almost empty. Like most public spaces, it had sprouted new signage and a one-way system since March, and it took me a couple of attempts to find the right lane. Once inside the main corridor though, little had changed except the odd hand sanitiser dispenser on the wall.

I found my screen and took a seat. As with everything from trains to swimming pools, pre-booking is now strongly recommended, due to the diminished capacity caused by social distancing. When you pick your seat, the website makes you leave two empties between your party and the next. You can even pre-purchase your popcorn and bucket of cola.

I needn’t have booked, however. In a screen of about 100 seats, exactly ten were occupied. It will take the general public a while to cotton on that cinema-going is an option again, even before they decide whether they feel comfortable doing so.

As I sat masked and expectant, my hands sticky from sanitiser that refused to evaporate, I was treated to a rare site: a cinema employee inside the auditorium. He announced that they didn’t have any ads or trailers yet, so they would delay starting the film to give everyone a chance to arrive.

A few minutes later, the man reappeared and asked us all to decamp to the corridor. Apparently they had installed a new sound system, and they needed to test it, which could be very loud. Why they couldn’t have checked the system for eardrum bursting at some point in the last six months is beyond me.

The ten of us duly waited in the corridor. A snatch of the Imperial March from an adjacent screen betokened another classic being wheeled out. A woman with a spray bottle and a cloth, masked like all of her colleagues, worked her way down the corridor, cleaning the door handles. A group next to me (but, I hasten to add, appropriately distant) cracked jokes about the sex appeal of Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcom. Another group, evidently missing the trailers, watched one on a phone. (If that doesn’t sum up the existential crisis facing cinema, I don’t know what does.)

At last we were readmitted. The lights dimmed, the sounds of a jungle faded up on the brand new sound system, and the Universal logo appeared. But the trademark globe looked like a deflated football. The film was being projected in the wrong aspect ratio. And not just slightly. It was almost unwatchably stretched, like the flat 1.85:1 images were being shown through a 2:1 anamorphic lens.

By the time the first scene was dissolving away to Bob Peck’s cries of “Shoot her!” the problem hadn’t been corrected, so I stepped out to find a member of staff. The senior person on duty claimed that the problem lay with the file supplied by the distributor, not with the projection. “There’s nothing I can do,” he insisted, while I goggled over my mask in disbelief.

At this point, had I not had this article to write, I would have gone home and watched the film on Netflix, or even on DVD. (There’s that existential crisis again.) But I persevered, trying not to imagine Dean Cundey weeping tears of frustration into his beard.

Fortunately, Jurassic Park is such a great film that it could be appreciated even in the face of such technical incompetence. A larger audience would have been nice, to enjoy the scares and humour with, though since screaming and laughing project dangerous droplets further, perhaps that’s less than ideal these days.

Overall, I must say that I found the experience of going to the cinema less altered than many other aspects of life. I’ve got used to wearing a mask, so much so that I was halfway home before I remembered to take it off, and I normally avoid peak times so the emptiness didn’t feel too unusual.

But with the rise in streaming subscriptions during lockdown, and the understandable caution that many feel about going out, cinemas will need to work much harder to get bums back on flip-up seats. The kind of technical troubles that the Light suffered tonight will only strengthen the case for staying at home, mask-free and pyjama-clad, where you can control both the virus and the aspect ratio.

A week after writing this, I went to a Showcase to see Tenet. The member of staff who took our tickets unequivocally told us that the printed screen number was wrong, and that we should go to another one. We did so. The ads and trailers finally started, fifteen minutes late. We were just wondering why they were trailing such kid-friendly movies when another member of staff came in and told us that Tenet was showing in the original screen after all, and by the way, you’ve missed the first couple of minutes. 

Hopefully it is now clear why I wrote “10 Reasons Why Cinemas Don’t Deserve to Survive the Pandemic”.

A Post-lockdown Trip to the Cinema

10 Reasons Why Cinemas Don’t Deserve to Survive the Pandemic

I know that as a professional director of photography I should want cinemas to recover and flourish. After all, even if many of the productions I work on don’t get a theatrical release, my livelihood must still be in some indirect way tied to the methods of exhibition, of which cinema is a foundational pillar. But I think we’ve reached the point where the film industry could survive the death of fleapits, and I’m starting to think that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Disclaimer: I’m writing this from a place of anger. Last Friday, the day that the cinemas of Cambridge reopened, I went along to the Light for a screening of Jurassic Park. The experience – which I shall detail fully in a future post – reminded me why going to the cinema can often be frustrating or disappointing. Since lockdown we’ve added the risk of deadly infection to the downsides, and before long we’ll have to add huge price hikes, the inevitable consequence of all those empty seats between households. (Controversially, I think that current ticket prices are reasonable.)

Setting Covid-19 to one side for the moment, here are ten long-standing reasons why cinemas deserve to be put out of their misery.

 

1. No real film any more

My faith in cinema was seriously shaken in the early 2010s when 35mm projection was binned in favour of digital. Some may prefer the crisp quality of electronic images, but for me the magic was in the weave, the dirt, the cigarette burns. The more like real life it looks, the less appeal it holds.

 

2. Adverts

I’m not sure what’s worse, the adverts themselves, or the people who aim to arrive after the adverts and overshoot, spoiling the first few minutes of the movie by walking in front of the screen as they come in late.

 

3. No ushers

Yes, I’m old enough to remember ushers in cinemas, just as I’m old enough to remember when supermarket shelf-stackers waited until the shop was closed before infesting the aisles. (Perhaps the unwanted stackers could be seconded to the needy cinema auditoria?) It’s not that I need a waistcoated teenager with a torch to show me to my seat, but I do need them there to discourage the range of antisocial behaviours in the next three points.

 

4. People eating noisily

I understand that the economics make it unavoidable for cinemas to supplement their income by selling overpriced snacks. But do they have to sell such noisy ones? Is it beyond the wit of humanity to develop quieter packaging? Or for the gluttons to chomp and rustle a little less energetically, especially during the softer scenes?

 

5. People chatting

One of the Harry Potter films was ruined by a child behind me constantly asking his mum what was happening… and his mum answering in great detail every time. Serves me right for going to a kids’ film, perhaps, but you never know what kind of movie might be spoiled by unwanted additional dialogue. I recall a very unpopular individual who answered his phone during The Last Jedi. And I’m sure we’ve all experienced that most maddening of all cinema phenomena: the people who inexplicably attend purely to hold conversations with each other, often conversations that aren’t even related to the film.

(5a. People snoring – a signficant drawback of Vue’s recliner seats.)

 

6. People looking at their phones

“The light from your phone can be distracting too,” say the announcements, and they’re not wrong. Basically, the biggest problem with cinemas is people.

 

7. Arctic air conditioning

Why is cinema air con always turned up so high? No matter how hot it is outside, you always have to take a jacket to keep off the artifical chill in the auditorium.

 

8. Small screens

Home TV screens have been getting bigger for years, so why are cinema screens going the opposite way? Shouldn’t cinemas be trying to give their customers something they can’t experience at home? There’s nothing more disappointing than shelling out for a ticket and walking into the auditorium to see a screen the size of a postage stamp.

 

9. Bad projection

The purpose of going to the cinema is to see a movie projected at the highest possible technical quality by competent professionals, but the reality is often far from that. Stretched, cropped, faint or blurry images – I’ve witnessed the whole gamut of crimes against cinematography. The projectionists seem poorly trained, unfairly lumbered with multiple screens, and locked out of making crucial adjustments to the sound and picture. And because there are no ushers, it’s up to you to miss a couple of minutes of the movie by stepping outside to find someone to complain to.

 

10. Netflix is better

This is the killer. This is what will ultimately bring cinemas down. TV used to be film’s poorer cousin, but these days long-form streaming shows are better written, better photographed and infinitely more engaging than most of what traditional filmmakers seem able to create. Maybe it’s just that I’m middle-aged now, and movies are still being made exclusively for 16-25-year-olds, but it’s rare for a film to excite me the way a series can.

Having said all of that, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is out on Wednesday. Now that’s something I am looking forward to, if I can just find somewhere showing it on 70mm….

10 Reasons Why Cinemas Don’t Deserve to Survive the Pandemic

The Long Lenses of the 90s

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

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

Practical effects in action on “Twister”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Above the Clouds” (dir. Leon Chambers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Outbreak

DP: Michael Ballhaus, ASC

 

Twister

DP: Jack N. Green, ASC

 

Daylight

DP: David Eggby, ACS

 

Dante’s Peak

DP: Andrzej Bartkowiak, ASC

 

Backdraft

DP: Mikael Salomon, ASC

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

The Long Lenses of the 90s

What Does “Cinematic” Mean?

Earlier this year I undertook a personal photography project called Stasis. I deliberately set out to do something different to my cinematography work, shooting in portrait, taking the paintings of Dutch seventeenth century masters as my inspiration, and eschewing traditional lighting fixtures in favour of practical sources. I was therefore a little disappointed when I began showing the images to people and they described them as “cinematic”.

An image from “Stasis”

This experience made me wonder just what people mean by that word, “cinematic”. It’s a term I’ve heard – and used myself – many times during my career. We all seem to have some vague idea of what it means, but few of us are able to define it. 

Dictionaries are not much help either, with the Oxford English Dictionary defining it simply as “relating to the cinema” or “having qualities characteristic of films”. But what exactly are those qualities?

Shallow depth of field is certainly a quality that has been widely described as cinematic. Until the late noughties, shallow focus was the preserve of “proper” movies. The size of a 35mm frame (or of the digital cinema sensors which were then emerging) meant that backgrounds could be thrown way out of focus while the subject remained crisp and sharp. The formats which lower-budget productions had thereto been shot on – 2/3” CCDs and Super-16 film – could not achieve such an effect. 

Then the DSLR revolution happened, putting sensors as big as – or bigger than – those of Hollywood movies into the hands of anyone with a few hundred pounds to spare. Suddenly everyone could get that “cinematic” depth of field. 

My first time utilising the shallow depth of field of a DSLR, on a never-completed feature back in 2011.

Before long, of course, ultra-shallow depth of field became more indicative of a low-budget production trying desperately to look bigger than of something truly cinematic. Gradually young cinematographers started to realise that their idols chose depth of field for storytelling reasons, rather than simply using it because they could. Douglas Slocombe, OBE, BSC, ASC, cinematographer of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, was renowned for his deep depth of field, typically shooting at around T5.6, while Janusz Kaminski, ASC, when shooting Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, stopped down as far as T11.

There was also a time when progressive scan – the recording of discrete frames rather than alternately odd and even horizontal lines to make an interlaced image – was considered cinematic. Now it is standard in most types of production, although deviations from the norm of 24 or 25 frames per second, such as the high frame rate of The Hobbit, still make audiences think of reality TV or news, rejecting it as “uncinematic”.

Other distinctions in shooting style between TV/low-budget film and big-budget film have slipped away too. The grip equipment that enables “cinematic” camera movement – cranes, Steadicams and other stabilisers – is accessible now in some form to most productions. Meanwhile the multi-camera shooting which was once the preserve of TV, looked down upon by filmmakers, has spread into movie production.

A direct comparison may help us drill to the core of what is “cinematic”. Star Trek: Generations, the seventh instalment in the sci-fi film franchise, went into production in spring 1994, immediately after the final TV season of Star Trek: The Next Generation wrapped. The movie shot on the same sets, with the same cast and even the same acquisition format (35mm film) as the TV series. It was directed by David Carson, who had helmed several episodes of the TV series, and whose CV contained no features at that point.

Yet despite all these constants, Star Trek: Generations is more cinematic than the TV series which spawned it. The difference lies with the cinematographer, John A. Alonzo, ASC, one of the few major crew members who had not worked on the TV show, and whose experience was predominantly in features. I suspect he was hired specifically to ensure that Generations looked like a movie, not like TV.

The main thing that stands out to me when comparing the film and the series is the level of contrast in the images. The movie is clearly darker and moodier than the TV show. In fact I can remember my schoolfriend Chris remarking on this at the time – something along the lines of, “Now it’s a movie, they’re in space but they can only afford one 40W bulb to light the ship.” 

The bridge of the Enterprise D as seen on TV (top) and in the “Generations” movie (bottom).

It was a distinction borne of technical limitations. Cathode ray tube TVs could only handle a dynamic range of a few stops, requiring lighting with low contrast ratios, while a projected 35mm print could reproduce much more subtlety. 

Today, film and TV is shot on the same equipment, and both are viewed on a range of devices which are all good at dealing with contrast (at least compared with CRTs). The result is that, with contrast as with depth of field, camera movement and progressive scan, the distinction between the cinematic and the uncinematic has reduced. 

The cinematography of “Better Call Saul” owes much to film noir.

In fact, I’d argue that it’s flipped around. To my eye, many of today’s TV series – and admittedly I’m thinking of high-end ones like The Crown, Better Call Saul or The Man in the High Castle, not Eastenders – look more cinematic than modern movies. 

As my friend Chris had realised, the flat, high-key look of Star Trek: The Next Generation was actually far more realistic than that of its cinema counterpart. And now movies seem to have moved towards realism in the lighting, which is less showy and not so much moody for the sake of being moody, while TV has become more daring and stylised.

A typically moody and contrasty shot from “The Crown”

The Crown, for examples, blasts a 50KW Soft Sun through the window in almost every scene, bathing the monarchy in divine light to match its supposed divine right, while Better Call Saul paints huge swathes of rich, impenetrable black across the screen to represent the rotten soul of its antihero. 

Film lighting today seems to strive for naturalism in the most part. Top DPs like recent Oscar-winner Roger Deakins, CBE, ASC, BSC,  talk about relying heavily on practicals and using fewer movie fixtures, and fellow nominee Rachel Morrison, ASC, despite using a lot of movie fixtures, goes to great lengths to make the result look unlit. Could it be that film DPs feel they can be more subtle in the controlled darkness of a cinema, while TV DPs choose extremes to make their vision clear no matter what device it’s viewed on or how much ambient light contaminates it?

“Mudbound”, shot by Rachel Morrison, ASC

Whatever the reason, contrast does seem to be the key to a cinematic look. Even though that look may no longer be exclusive to movies released in cinemas, the perception of high contrast being linked to production value persists. The high contrast of the practically-lit scenes in my Stasis project is – as best I can tell – what makes people describe it as cinematic.

What does all of this mean for a filmmaker? Simply pumping up the contrast in the grade is not the answer. Contrast should be built into the lighting, and used to reveal and enhance form and depth. The importance of good production design, or at least good locations, should not be overlooked; shooting in a friend’s white-walled flat will kill your contrast and your cinematic look stone dead. 

A shot of mine from “Forever Alone”, a short film where I was struggling to get a cinematic look out of the white-walled location.

Above all, remember that story – and telling that story in the most visually appropriate way – is the essence of cinema. In the end, that is what makes a film truly cinematic.

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What Does “Cinematic” Mean?

Book Review: “Motion Studies” by Rebecca Solnit

A modern animation created from photographs from Muybridge’s “Animal Locomotion”, 1887

This is a book that caught my eye following my recent photography project, Stasis. In that project I made some limited explorations of the relationship between time, space and light, so Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge, to give it its full title, seemed like it would be on my current wavelength.

Like me a few weeks ago, you might be vaguely aware of Muybridge as the man who first photographed a trotting horse sharply enough to prove that all four of its legs left the ground simultaneously. You may have heard him called “The Father of Cinema”, because he was the first person to shoot a rapid sequence of images of a moving body, and the first person to reanimate those images on a screen.

Born in Kingston-on-Thames in 1830, Muybridge emigrated to San Francisco in the 1850s where, following a stint as a book seller and a near-fatal accident in a runaway carriage, he took up landscape photography. He shot spectacular views of Yosemite National Park and huge panoramas of his adopted city. In 1872 he was commissioned by the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford to photograph his racehorse Occident in motion. This developed into a vast project for Muybridge over the next decade or so, ultimately encompassing over 100,000 photos of humans and other animals in motion.

Muybridge’s set-up for his early motion studies, 1881. The cameras are in the shed on the left.

Much of his early work was accomplished on mammoth wet plates, 2ft wide, that had to be coated with emulsion just before exposure and developed quickly afterwards, necessitating a travelling darkroom tent. To achieve the quick exposures he needed to show the limbs of a   trotting horse without motion blur, he had to develop new chemistry and – with John Isaacs – a new electromagnetic shutter. The results were so different to anything that had been photographed before, that they were initially met with disbelief in some quarters, particularly amongst painters, who were eventually forced to recognise that they had been incorrectly portraying horse’s legs. Artists still use Muybridge’s motion studies today as references for dynamic anatomy.

“Boys Playing Leapfrog”, 1887

To “track” with the animals in motion, Muybridge used a battery of regularly-spaced cameras, each triggered by the feet of the subject pulling on a wire or thread as they passed. Sometimes he would surround a subject with cameras and trigger them all simultaneously, to get multiple angles on the same moment in time. Does that sound familiar? Yes, Muybridge invented Bullet Time over a century before The Matrix.

Muybridge was not the first person to project images in rapid succession to create the illusion of movement, but he was the first person to display photographed (rather than drawn) images in a such a way, to deconstruct motion and reassemble it elsewhere like a Star Trek transporter. In 1888 Muybridge met with Thomas Edison and discussed collaborating on a system to combine motion pictures with wax cylinder audio recordings, but nothing came of this idea which was decades ahead of its time. The same year, French inventor Louis Le Prince shot Roundhay Garden Scene, the oldest known film. A few years later, Edison patented his movie camera, and the Lumière brothers screened their world-changing Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. The age of cinema had begun.

From “Animal Locomotion”, 1887

Although Muybridge is the centre of Solnit’s book, there is a huge amount of context. The author’s thesis is that Muybridge represents a turning point, a divider between the world he was born into – a world in which people and information could only travel as fast as they or a horse could walk or run, a world where every town kept its own time, where communities were close-knit and relatively isolated – and the world which innovations like his helped to create – the world of speed, of illusions, of instantaneous global communication, where physical distance is no barrier. Solnit draws a direct line from Muybridge’s dissection of time and Stanford’s dissection of space to the global multimedia village we live in today. Because of all this context, the book feels a little slow to get going, but as the story continues and the threads draw together, the value of it becomes clear, elucidating the meaning and significance of Muybridge’s work.

“Muybridge and Athlete”, circa 1887

I can’t claim to have ever been especially interested in history, but I found the book a fascinating lesson on the American West of the late nineteenth century, as well as a thoughtful analysis of the impact photography and cinematography have had on human culture and society. As usual, I’m reviewing this book a little late (it was first published in 2003!), but I heartily recommend checking it out if you’re at all interested in experimental photography or the origins of cinema.

Book Review: “Motion Studies” by Rebecca Solnit