5 Ways to Use Astera Tubes

Astera Titan Tubes seem to be everywhere at the moment, every gaffer and DP’s favourite tool. Resembling fluorescent tubes, Asteras are wireless, flicker-free LED batons comprised of 16 pixels which can be individually coloured, flashed and programmed from an app to produce a range of effects.

Here are five ways in which I used Titan Tubes on my most recent feature, Hamlet. I’m not being sponsored by Astera to write this. I just know that loads of people out there are using them and I thought it would be interesting to share my own experiences.

 

1. Substitute fluorescents

We had a lot of scenes with pre-existing practical fluorescents in them. Sometimes we gelled these with ND or a colour to get the look we wanted, but other times it was easier to remove the fluorescent tube and cable-tie an Astera into the housing. As long as the camera didn’t get too close you were never going to see the ties, and the light could now be altered with the tap of an app.

On other occasions, when we moved in for close-ups, the real fluorescents weren’t in an ideal position, so we would supplement or replace them with an Astera on a stand and match the colour.

 

2. Hidden behind corners

Orientated vertically, Asteras are easy to hide behind pillars and doorways. One of the rooms we shot in had quite a dark doorway into a narrow corridor. There was just enough space to put in a vertical pole-cat with a tube on it which would light up characters standing in the doorway without it being seen by the camera.

 

3. Eye light

Ben Millar, Hamlet‘s gaffer, frequently lay an Astera on the floor to simulate a bit of floor bounce and put a sparkle in the talent’s eye. On other occasions when our key light was coming in at a very sidey angle, we would put an Astera in a more frontal position, to ping the eyes again and to wrap the side light very slightly.

 

4. rigged to the ceiling

We had a scene in a bathroom that was all white tiles. It looked very flat with the extant overhead light on. Our solution was to put up a couple of pole-cats, at the tops of the two walls that the camera would be facing most, and hang Asteras horizontally from them. Being tubes they have a low profile so it wasn’t hard to keep them out of the top of frame. We put honeycombs on them and the result was that we always had soft, wrappy backlight with minimal illumination of the bright white tiles.

 

5. Special effects

One of the most powerful things about Titan Tubes is that you can programme them with your own special effects. When we needed a Northern Lights effect, best boy Connor Adams researched the phenomenon and programmed a pattern of shifting greens into two tubes rigged above the set.

On War of the Worlds in 2019 we used the Asteras’ emergency lights preset to pick up some close-ups which were meant to have a police car just out of shot.

There are all kinds of other effects you could use the tubes for. There is a good example by DP Rowan Biddiscombe in this article I wrote for British Cinematographer.

5 Ways to Use Astera Tubes

Using Depth of Field Creatively

“The Handmaid’s Tale: Offred” (2017, DP: Colin Watkinson, ASC, BSC)

When DSLR video exploded onto the indie filmmaking scene a decade ago, film festivals were soon awash with shorts with ultra-blurry backgrounds. Now that we have some distance from that first novelty of large-sensor cinematography we can think more intelligently about how depth of field – be it shallow or deep – is best used to help tell our stories.

First, let’s recap the basics. Depth of field is the distance between the nearest and farthest points from camera that are in focus. The smaller the depth of field, the less the subject has to move before they go out of focus, and the blurrier any background and foreground objects appear. On the other hand, a very large depth of field may make everything from the foreground to infinity acceptably sharp.

Depth of field varying with aperture
Everyone’s favourite time machine at f/5 (left) and f/1.8 (right)

Depth of field is affected by four things: sensor (or film) size, focal length (i.e. lens length), focal distance, and aperture. In the days of tiny Mini-DV sensors, I was often asked by a director to zoom in (increase the focal length) to decrease the depth of field, but sometimes that was counter-productive because it meant moving the camera physically further away, thus increasing the focal distance, thus increasing the depth of field.

It was the large 35mm sensors of DSLRs, compared with the smaller 1/3” or 2/3” chips of traditional video cameras, that made them so popular with filmmakers. Suddenly the shallow depth of field seen in a Super-35 movie could be achieved on a micro-budget. It is worth noting for the purists, however, that a larger sensor technically makes for a deeper depth of field. The shallower depth of field associated with larger sensors is actually a product of the longer lenses required to obtain the same field of view.

Once a camera is selected and filming is underway, aperture is the main tool that DPs tend to use to control depth of field. A small aperture (large f- or T-number) gives a large depth of field; a large aperture (small f- or T-number) gives a narrow depth of field. What all those early DSLR filmmakers, high on bokeh, failed to notice is that aperture is, and always has been, a creative choice. Plenty of directors and DPs throughout the history of cinema have chosen deep focus when they felt it was the best way of telling their particular story.

“Citizen Kane” (1941, DP: Gregg Toland, ASC)

One of the most famous deep-focus films is 1941’s Citizen Kane, frequently voted the greatest movie ever made. First-time director Orson Welles came from a theatre background, and instructed DP Gregg Toland to keep everything in focus so that the audience could choose what to look at just as they could in a theatre. “What if they don’t look at what they’re supposed to look at?” Welles was apparently asked. “If that happens, I would be a very bad director,” was his reply.

Stanley Kubrick was also fond of crisp backgrounds. The infamous f/0.7 NASA lenses used for the candlelight scenes in Barry Lyndon were a rare and extreme exception borne of low-light necessity. A typical Kubrick shot has a formal, symmetrical composition with a single-point perspective and everything in focus right into the distance. Take the barracks in Full Metal Jacket, for example, where the background soldiers are just as sharp as the foreground ones. Like Welles, Kubrick’s reasons may have lain in a desire to emulate traditional art-forms, in this case paintings, where nothing is ever blurry.

“Full Metal Jacket” (1987, DP: Douglas Milsome, ASC, BSC)

The Indiana Jones trilogy was shot at a surprisingly slow stop by the late, great Douglas Slocombe. “I prefer to work in the aperture range of T14-T14.5 when I am shooting an anamorphic film like Raiders,” he said at the time. “The feeling of depth contributed to the look.” Janusz Kamiński continued that deep-focus look, shooting at T8-T11 when he inherited the franchise for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

At the other end of the aperture scale, the current Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale makes great creative use of a shallow depth of field, creating a private world for the oppressed protagonist which works in tandem with voiceovers to put the viewer inside her head, the only place where she is free.

A director called James Reynolds had a similar idea in mind when I shot his short film, Exile Incessant. He wanted to photograph closed-minded characters with shallow focus, and show the more tolerant characters in deep focus, symbolising their openness and connection with the world. (Unfortunately the tiny lighting budget made deep focus impossible, so we instead achieved the symbolism by varying the harshness of the lighting.)

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

One production where I did vary the depth of field was Ren: The Girl with the Mark, where I chose f/4 as my standard working stop, but reduced it to as little as f/1.4 when the lead character was bonding with the mysterious spirit inside her. It was the same principle again of separating the subject from the world around her.

Depth of field is a fantastic creative tool, and one which we are lucky to have so much control over with today’s cameras. But it will always be most effective when it’s used expressively, not just aesthetically.

Using Depth of Field Creatively

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” Retrospective

Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first instalment in the blockbusting Indiana Jones franchise, burst onto our screens a scarcely-believable 40 years ago. But of course, it’s not the years, it’s the mileage…

The origin story of this legendary character is itself the stuff of Hollywood legend. Fleeing LA to escape the dreaded box office results of Star Wars (spoiler: he needn’t have worried), George Lucas and his friend Steven Spielberg were building a sandcastle on a Hawaiian beach when Lucas first floated the idea.

Like Star Wars, the tale of adventuring archaeologist Indiana Smith was inspired by adventure serials of the 1950s. Although Spielberg liked the first name (which came from Lucas’s dog, a reference that the third film would twist back on itself), he wasn’t so keen on Smith, and so Indiana Jones was born.

Rather than auditions, actors under consideration were invited to join Spielberg in baking bread. Tom Selleck was famously the first choice for the lead, but his contract with the TV series Magnum, P.I. precluded his involvement, and Spielberg instead suggested to a reluctant Lucas that they cast his regular collaborator Harrison Ford.

DP Douglas Slocombe, OBE, BSC, BSC

Raiders was shot at a breakneck pace, with Spielberg determined to reverse his reputation for going over schedule and over budget. Beginning in summer 1980, the animated red line of the film crew travelled across a map of the world from La Rochelle, France to England’s Elstree Studios (where Lucas had shot Star Wars) to Tunisia (ditto) to Hawaii, where it had all begun.

The film, and indeed the whole of the original trilogy, was photographed in glorious Panavision anamorphic by the late, great Douglas Slocombe, OBE, BSC, ASC. “Dougie is one of the few cinematographers I’ve worked with who lights with hard and soft light,” Spielberg commented. “Just the contrast between those styles within the framework of also using warm light and cool light and mixing the two can be exquisite.”

Location challenges included the removal of 350 TV aerials in the Tunisian town of Kairouan, so that views from Sallah’s balcony would look period-accurate, this being before the days of digital tinkering.

Digital tinkering was applied to the DVD release many years later, however, to remove a tell-tale reflection in a glass screen protecting Harrison Ford from a real cobra. Besides this featured reptile – which proved the value of the screen by spitting venom all over it – the production team initially sourced 2,000 snakes for the scene in which Indy and friends locate the Ark of the Covenant. But Spielberg found that “they hardly covered the set, so I couldn’t get wide shots.” 7,000 more snakes were shipped in to complete the sequence.

While the classic truck chase was largely captured by second unit director Michael Moore working to pre-agreed storyboards, Spielberg liked to improvise in the first unit. The fight on the Flying Wing, during which Ford tore a ligament after the plane’s wheel rolled over his leg, was made up as the filmmakers went along. When Indy uses the plane to gun down a troop of bad guys, the director requested a last-minute change from graphic blood sprays to more of a dusty look. Mechanical effects supervisor Kit West resorted to putting cayenne pepper in the squibs, which had the entire crew in sneezing fits.

“I would hear complaints,” said Kathleen Kennedy, who worked her way up the producer ranks during the trilogy, beginning as “associate to Mr. Spielberg”. “‘Well, Steven’s not shooting the sketches.’ But once you get into a scene and it’s suddenly right there in front of you, I only think that it can be better if changes are made then.”

Spielberg’s most famous improvisation, when a four-day sword-fight was thrown out and replaced with Indy simply shooting the swordsman dead, was prompted by the uncomfortable Tunisian heat and the waves of sickness that were sapping morale. “We couldn’t understand why the crew was getting ill, because we were all drinking bottled Evian water,” recalled Ford’s stunt double Vic Armstrong. “Until one day somebody followed the guy that collected the empties and saw him filling these Evian bottles straight out of the water truck.”

Production wrapped in early October, and effects house ILM, sound designer Ben Burtt and composer John Williams worked their world-class magic on the film. For the opening of the Ark, ILM shot ghost puppets underwater, while the demise of the Nazi Toht was accomplished with a likeness of actor Ronald Lacey sculpted out of dental alginate, which melted gorily when heated.

Amongst the sounds Burtt recorded were a free-wheeling Honda station wagon (the giant boulder), hands squelching in a cheese casserole (slithering snakes) and the cistern cover of his own toilet (the lid of the Ark). Williams initially composed two potential themes, both of which Spielberg loved, so one became the main theme and the other the bridge.

Although still great fun, and delivering a verisimilitude which only practical effects and real stunts can, some aspects of Raiders are problematic to the modern eye. The Welsh John Rhys Davies playing the Egyptian Sallah, and a female lead who is continually shoved around by both villains and heroes alike, make the film a little less of a harmless romp today than it was intended at the time.

Raiders was a box office hit, spawning two excellent sequels (and a third of which we shall not speak) plus a spin-off TV series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and even a shot-for-shot amateur remake filmed by a group of Mississippi teenagers over many years. It also won five Oscars in technical categories, and firmly established Steven Spielberg as the biggest filmmaker in Hollywood.

A fifth Indiana Jones film recently entered production, helmed by Logan director James Mangold with Spielberg producing. It is scheduled for release in July 2022.

See also: “Learning from the Masters: Raiders of the Lost Ark

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” Retrospective

The Colour of Moonlight

What colour is moonlight? In cinema, the answer is often blue, but what is the reality? Where does the idea of blue moonlight come from? And how has the colour of cinematic moonlight evolved over the decades?

 

The science bit

According to universetoday.com the lunar surface “is mostly oxygen, silicon, magnesium, iron, calcium and aluminium”. These elements give the moon its colour: grey, as seen best in photographs from the Apollo missions and images taken from space.

When viewed from Earth, Rayleigh scattering by the atmosphere removes the bluer wavelengths of light. This is most noticeable when the moon is low in the sky, when the large amount of atmosphere that the light has to travel through turns the lunar disc quite red, just as with the sun, while at its zenith the moon merely looks yellow.

Yellow is literally the opposite (or complement) of blue, so where on (or off) Earth did this idea of blue cinematic moonlight come from?

One explanation is that, in low light, our vision comes from our rods, the most numerous type of receptor in the human retina (see my article “How Colour Works” for more on this). These cells are more sensitive to blue than any other colour. This doesn’t actually mean that things look blue in moonlight exactly, just that objects which reflect blue light are more visible than those that don’t.

In reality everything looks monochromatic under moonlight because there is only one type of rod, unlike the three types of cones (red, green and blue) which permit colour vision in brighter situations. I would personally describe moonlight as a fragile, silvery grey.

Blue moonlight on screen dates back to the early days of cinema, before colour cinematography was possible, but when enterprising producers were colour-tinting black-and-white films to get more bums on seats. The Complete Guide to Colour by Tom Fraser has this to say:

As an interesting example of the objectivity of colour, Western films were tinted blue to indicate nighttime, since our eyes detect mostly blue wavelengths in low light, but orange served the same function in films about the Far East, presumably in reference to the warm evening light there.

It’s entirely possible that that choice to tint night scenes blue has as much to do with our perception of blue as a cold colour as it does with the functioning of our rods. This perception in turn may come from the way our skin turns bluer when cold, due to reduced blood flow, and redder when hot. (We saw in my recent article on white balance that, when dealing with incandescence at least, bluer actually means hotter.)

Whatever the reason, by the time it became possible to shoot in colour, blue had lodged in the minds of filmmakers and moviegoers as a shorthand for night.

 

Examples

Early colour films often staged their night scenes during the day; DPs underexposed and fitted blue filters in their matte boxes to create the illusion. It is hard to say whether the blue filters were an honest effort to make the sunlight look like moonlight or simply a way of winking to the audience: “Remember those black-and-white films where blue tinting meant you were watching a night scene? Well, this is the same thing.”

This scene from “Ben Hur” (1959, DP: Robert Surtees, ASC) appears to be a matte painting combined with a heavily blue-tinted day-for-night shot.
A classic and convincing day-for-night scene from “Jaws” (1975, DP: Bill Butler, ASC)

Day-for-night fell out of fashion probably for a number of reasons: 1. audiences grew more savvy and demanded more realism; 2. lighting technology for large night exteriors improved; 3. day-for-night scenes looked extremely unconvincing when brightened up for TV broadcast. Nonetheless, it remains the only practical way to show an expansive seascape or landscape, such as the desert in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Blue moonlight on stage for “Gone with the Wind” (1939, DP: Ernest Haller)
Cold stage lighting matches the matte-painted mountains in “Black Narcissus” (1947, DP: Jack Cardiff, OBE)

One of the big technological changes for night shooting was the availability of HMI lighting, developed by Osram in the late 1960s. With these efficient, daylight-balanced fixtures large areas could be lit with less power, and it was easy to render the light blue without gels by photographing on tungsten film stock.

Cinematic moonlight reached a peak of blueness in the late 1980s and early ’90s, in keeping with the general fashion for saturated neon colours at that time. Filmmakers like Tony Scott, James Cameron and Jan de Bont went heavy on the candy-blue night scenes.

“Beverly Hills Cop II” (1987, DP: Jeffrey Kimball, ASC)
“Flatliners” (1990, DP: Jan de Bont, ASC)
“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991, DP: Adam Greenberg, ASC) uses a lot of strong, blue light, partly to symbolise the cold inhumanity of the robots, and partly because it’s a hallmark of director James Cameron.

By the start of the 21st century bright blue moonlight was starting to feel a bit cheesy, and DPs were experimenting with other looks.

“The Fast and the Furious” (2001, DP: Ericson Core) has generally warm-coloured night scenes to reflect LA’s mild weather after dark, but often there is a cooler area of moonlight in the deep background.
“War of the Worlds” (2005, DP: Janusz Kaminski, ASC)

Speaking of the above ferry scene in War of the Worlds, Janusz Kaminski, ASC said:

I didn’t use blue for that night lighting. I wanted the night to feel more neutral. The ferryboat was practically illuminated with warm light and I didn’t want to create a big contrast between that light and a blue night look.

The invention of the digital intermediate (DI) process, and later the all-digital cinematography workflow, greatly expanded the possibilities for moonlight. It can now be desaturated to produce something much closer to the silvery grey of reality. Conversely, it can be pushed towards cyan or even green in order to fit an orange-and-teal scheme of colour contrast.

“Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006, DP: Darius Wolski, ASC)

Darius Wolksi, ASC made this remark to American Cinematographer in 2007 about HMI moonlight on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies:

The colour temperature difference between the HMIs and the firelight is huge. If this were printed without a DI, the night would be candy blue and the faces would be red. [With a digital intermediate] I can take the blue out and turn it into more of a grey-green, and I can take the red out of the firelight and make it more yellow.

Compare Shane Hurlbut, ASC’s moonlight here in “Terminator Salvation” (2009) to the “Terminator 2” shot earlier in the article.
The BBC series “The Musketeers” (2014-2016, pilot DP: Stephan Pehrsson) employed very green moonlight, presumably to get the maximum colour contrast with orange candles and other fire sources.

My favourite recent approach to moonlight was in the Amazon sci-fi series Tales from the Loop. Jeff Cronenweth, ASC decided to shoot all the show’s night scenes at blue hour, a decision motivated by the long dusks (up to 75 minutes) in Winnipeg, where the production was based, and the legal limits on how late the child actors could work.

The results are beautiful. Blue moonlight may be a cinematic myth, but Tales from the Loop is one of the few places where you can see real, naturally blue light in a night scene.

“Tales from the Loop” (2020, DP: Jeff Cronenweth, ASC)

If you would like to learn how to light and shoot night scenes, why not take my online course, Cinematic Lighting? 2,300 students have enrolled to date, awarding it an average of 4.5 stars out of 5. Visit Udemy to sign up now.

The Colour of Moonlight

The Art and Science of White Balance

Mixed colour temperatures in “Annabel Lee”

Colour temperature starts with something mysterious called a “black body”, a theoretical object which absorbs all frequencies of electromagnetic radiation and emits it according to Planck’s Law. Put simply, Planck’s Law states that as the temperature of such a body increases, the light which it emits moves toward the blue end of the spectrum. (Remember from chemistry lessons how the tip of the blue flame was the hottest part of the Bunsen Burner?)

Colour temperature is measured in kelvins, a scale of temperature that begins at absolute zero (-273°C), the coldest temperature physically possible in the universe. To convert centigrade to kelvin, simply add 273.

Tungsten bulbs emit an orange light - dim them down and it gets even more orangey.The surface of the sun has a temperature of 5,778K (5,505°C), so it emits a relatively blue light. The filament of a tungsten studio lamp reaches roughly 3,200K (2,927°C), providing more of an orange light. Connect that fixture to a dimmer and bring it down to 50% intensity and you might get a colour temperature of 2,950K, even more orange.

Incandescent lamps and the sun’s surface follow Planck’s Law fairly closely, but not all light sources rely on thermal radiation, and so their colour output is not dependent on temperature alone. This leads us to the concept of “correlated colour temperature”.

Colour temperature chartThe correlated colour temperature of a source is the temperature which a black body would have to be at in order to emit the same colour of light as that source. For example, the earth’s atmosphere isn’t 7,100K hot, but the light from a clear sky is as blue as a Planckian body glowing at that temperature would be. Therefore a clear blue sky has a correlated colour temperature (CCT) of 7,100K.

LED and fluorescent lights can have their colour cast at least partly defined by CCT, though since CCT is one-dimensional, measuring only the amount of blue versus red, it may give us an incomplete picture. The amounts of green and magenta which LEDs and fluorescents emit varies too, and some parts of the spectrum might be missing altogether, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

The human eye-brain system ignores most differences of colour temperature in daily life, accepting all but the most extreme examples as white light. In professional cinematography, we choose a white balance either to render colours as our eyes perceive them or for creative effect.

6000K HMI lighting photographed at 3200K to give a moonlight feel to “Heretiks”

Most cameras today have a number of white balance presets, such as tungsten, sunny day and cloudy day, and the options to dial in a numerical colour temperature directly or to tell the camera that what it’s currently looking at (typically a white sheet of paper) is indeed white. These work by applying or reducing gain to the red or blue channels of the electronic image.

Interestingly, this means that all cameras have a “native” white balance, a white balance setting at which the least total gain is applied to the colour channels. Arri quotes 5,600K for the Alexa, and indeed the silicon in all digital sensors is inherently less sensitive to blue light than red, making large amounts of blue gain necessary under tungsten lighting. In an extreme scenario – shooting dark, saturated blues in tungsten mode, for example – this might result in objectionable picture noise, but the vast majority of the time it isn’t an issue.

Left: daylight white balance preset (5,600K). Right: tungsten white balance preset (3,200K)
Left: daylight white balance preset (5,600K). Right: tungsten white balance preset (3,200K)

The difficulty with white balance is mixed lighting. A typical example is a person standing in a room with a window on one side of them and a tungsten lamp on the other. Set your camera’s white balance to daylight (perhaps 5,600K) and the window side of their face looks correct, but the other side looks orange. Change the white balance to tungsten (3,200K) and you will correct that side of the subject’s face, but the daylight side will now look blue.

Throughout much of the history of colour cinematography, this sort of thing was considered to be an error. To correct it, you would add CTB (colour temperature blue) gel to the tungsten lamp or perhaps even place CTO (colour temperature orange) gel over the window. Nowadays, of course, we have bi-colour and RGB LED fixtures whose colour temperature can be instantly changed, but more importantly there has been a shift in taste. We’re no longer tied to making all light look white.

A practical light of the “wrong” colour temperatures in “Finding Hope”

To give just one example, Suzie Lavelle, award-winning DP of Normal People, almost always shoots at 4,300K, halfway between typical tungsten and daylight temperatures. She allows her practical lamps to look warm and cozy, while daylight sources come out as a contrasting blue.

It is important to understand colour temperature as a DP, so that you can plan your lighting set-ups and know what colours will be obtained from different sources. However, the choice of white balance is ultimately a creative one, perhaps made at the monitor, dialling through the kelvins to see what you like, or even changed completely in post-production.

The Art and Science of White Balance

The Cinematography of “Alder”

Back in February 2019 I spent a long day in Black Park, a forest behind Pinewood Studio, shooting a short film called Alder for director Vanda Ladeira. A little late perhaps, but here are my reflections on the cinematography and general experience of making this experimental fairytale.

The film is about a forager (Odne Stenseth) who does not realise he is being watched by the very spirit of the forest, the titular Alder (Libby Welsh). As he cuts a sprig of holly, or steps on a mushroom, he is unknowingly causing her pain. Meanwhile a group of ghosts – Alder’s former victims? – cavort in the woodland, and strips of film made with ground-up human bone reach out from the trees to ensnare the forager.

Vanda contacted me after seeing my work on Ren: The Girl with the Mark. She was keen for Alder’s lair to have the same feel as Karn’s house in that series. We had a number of meetings to discuss the tone, visuals and the logistics of the shoot, which initially was going to take place over two days but was eventually compressed to one.

In October 2018 we conducted a recce in a forest that we ultimately weren’t able to use. I remember at the time that I was considering shooting the project on celluloid, tying in with the plot point about Alder making film from her victims’ bones. I dropped the idea after taking light readings on that recce – when it was very overcast – and realising just how dark it could be under the tree canopy.

We ultimately shot on a Blackmagic Ursa Mini and Xeen primes, provided along with the lighting kit by gaffer Jeremy Dawson. The Blackmagic sensors seem to do very well with earthy tones, as I noticed on the village set of Ren, and the Ursa rendered the browns of the bracken, the soil and the forager’s costume nicely. Jeremy also provided us with a jib which enabled us to underscore the forager’s action with some definite moves: an introductory crane down; a dramatic pull up as he drives his knife into a tree; and a frantic boom down with him as he searches for his lost compass. In Alder’s lair we kept the camera drifting from side to side or up and down to bring energy to her more static scenes.

Lighting for the forager’s scenes was all natural, with just a little bounce or negative fill from time to time to keep some shape to the image. An Artem smoke gun, operated by Claire Finn, was used on almost every shot to give the forest some life and mystery, and also to keep the backgrounds from getting too busy; the grey wall of smoke serves to fade the background slightly, keeping the eye focused on the foreground action.

As there was no dialogue, I was free to change the frame rate expressively. Examples include: over-cranking close-ups of the forager’s feet and hands in contact with nature, emphasing the sensuality of his unwitting connection to Alder; over-cranking the dance of the ghosts to make their movements even more beautiful and supernatural; and under-cranking the forager slightly to enhance his panic when he finds himself lost and surrounded.

Alder’s lair was a set built by Denisa Dumitrescu in the forest. I took broadly the same approach to lighting it as I had for the reference scene from Ren, making some holes in the branch-covered roof and shining a blinder (a bank of four LED spotlights) through it to produce dappled shafts of sunlight. On the floor around Alder were a number of candles; we beefed up the light from these by skipping an 800W tungsten lamp off a bounce board on the floor.

The biggest challenge was the meeting between the two main characters, a scene scripted for daylight which we were forced to shoot after dark due to running behind schedule. It was the longest and most important scene in the film and suddenly the cinematography had to be completely improvised. We did not have anywhere near the lighting package that a woodland night exterior normally calls for – just 800W tungsten lamps, a few LED fixtures, and a generator only powerful enough to run one of each.

What I ended up doing was putting an 800 in the background, ostensibly as a setting sun, and bouncing a blinder off poly-board as fill. We shot the whole scene through in a single handheld shot, once with smoke and once without, then picked up a few close-ups.I tried to hide the lack of light in the background by allowing the 800 to flare the lens and render the smoke almost impenetrable at times. Vanda and her editor, Tom Chandler, leant into the strange, stylised look and bravely intercut the smoky and smokeless takes. The result is much more magical and expressive than what we would have shot if we had still had daylight.

You can watch the finished film here. It won me Best Cinematographer at the New York Cinematography Awards (August 2019) and Film Craft Award: Cinematography at Play Short International Film Awards (2019).

The Cinematography of “Alder”

How to Make a Living from Cinematography

Seven years ago, I transitioned to making a living purely as a director of photography on drama. I’ve since added writing and making an online course to my repertoire, but drama is still paying most of the bills. If you’re doing bits of what you love around a day job in an office, or freelance corporate videos, being able to leave those things behind you and pay the rent with stuff you enjoy doing can seem like the Holy Grail. So below I’m going to list the three things which I think, in combination, allowed me to make that transition.

 

1. Quantity of experience: putting in the hard graft

When I stopped doing corporates in 2014, I had been in the industry for a decade and a half. I had made two no-budget features off my own back, and photographed half a dozen other no-budget features and countless shorts, as well as the rent-paying work on participatory films, training videos and web video content. (Whether this kind of stuff really counts as being in “the industry” is debatable, but that’s a subject for another post.)

When I apply for a job I always start by introducing myself as a DP with x years of experience, because I think it speaks volumes about my passion and commitment, and proves that I must have talent and be pleasant to work with, if I’ve been able to keep doing it for so long.

The number of IMDb credits I had is also important. I had almost 50 at the time I made the jump, over half of those as a cinematographer.

How many years of experience and how many IMDb credits you need before you can make the jump could be more or fewer than I needed, depending on the other two factors on this list and the quality of the contacts you make. (I haven’t included contacts as a separate item on this list because it comes naturally out of the jobs you do. Artificially generating contacts, for example by attending networking events, does not lead to jobs or career progression, at least not in my experience.)

 

2. Quality of experience: getting that killer production on your reel

I first noticed a change occurring in my career when I added material from Ren: The Girl with the Mark to my showreel. There was a noticeable increase in how often I was getting short-listed and selected for jobs. And The First Musketeer, in conjunction with Ren, led directly to my first paid feature film DP gig.

What was it about these two projects which enabled them to do for my career what fifteen years’ worth of other no-budget projects couldn’t? Production value. Simple as that. They looked like “real” TV or film, and not in the way that your friends and family will look at anything you shot and go, “Wow, that looks like a real film!” They looked – even to people in the industry – like productions that had serious money behind them. And people are lazy when they’re looking at showreels. If they’re hiring for a job that has serious money behind it, they want to see material on your showreel that appears to have serious money behind it.

Most scripts that you will read for shorts or no-budget features will be written to make them achievable with little or no money. Often they will be set mainly in one house (the director’s, or a bland-looking Airbnb) in the present day, with no production design and only three or four characters. If the script is well written, and you’re an actor, then working on such a project could be great for your career. For most crew members, it’s a waste of time.

For DPs in particular, quality production design is incredibly important on your showreel. Most people who watch your reel won’t really be able to separate the cinematography from the overall look of the piece – the art, the costumes, the make-up, the locations – so getting showreel material that is visually stunning from all departments is the only way to kick your career up to the next level.

 

3. The Fear: making a living at it because you have to

Before I stopped doing corporates, I thought I was making every effort to get work as a drama DP. But I was wrong. As soon as I gave up the safety net of corporates, my whole attitude to drama work changed. Suddenly I had to do it, and I had to get paid reasonably well for it, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent. It made me drive a harder bargain when negotiating my fee, it made me turn down unpaid projects and as a consequence it changed the way producers and directors saw me, and the kinds of projects they would consider me for.

Do not underestimate the value of The Fear. It’s not a magic wand, and you do need to have the experience and the killer production(s) on your reel before you make the jump, but The Fear will give you wings and help you get to the other side.

How to Make a Living from Cinematography

6 Things to Beware of with Vintage Lenses

Ever since digital cinematography became the norm, DPs have sought to counter the format’s perfection with characterful vintage lenses. Having just completed a feature film shoot, Hamlet, on Cooke Panchros and a Cooke 10:1 Varotal, I’m over the moon with the beautiful, creamy, organic look they brought to the production. However, I can’t deny that they have some disadvantages over modern glass which you should take into consideration before choosing the vintage approach.

 

1. Softness

Vintage lenses simply aren’t as sharp as their modern counterparts, particularly at the edges of frame and particularly when the iris is wide open. On Hamlet I deliberately shot with the Panchros wide open to soften the image, rather than adding a diffusion filter like I’ve often done in the past, but that look is not for everyone, and it does make things a little harder for your focus puller. Be sure to test the sharpness and view the results on a large screen before committing.

 

2. BreathING

Breathe is the phenomenon whereby a lens appears to zoom slightly in or out when the focus is pulled. The Cooke Varotal is especially prone to this. As a result, my focus puller Aristide Russo had to be very gentle with his pulls otherwise the breathing was distracting.

 

3. Veiling

Many DPs love lens flares, and beautiful, natural flares were one of the reasons I picked the vintage Cooke glass. But look out for veiling flare – a milkiness and lift in the shadows affecting the whole frame. I noticed this a lot when shooting under the practical fluorescents in Hamlet‘s stage set, especially with handheld shots where the veiling would appear and disappear depending on the camera’s angle to the lights. I decided to embrace it and make it part of the film’s look, but if maintaining high contrast at all times is important to you, lenses without modern coatings may not be the right choice.

 

4. Vignetting

Check for dark patches in the corners of your image. The Varotal I used vignetted at certain parts of the zoom range and not at others, so the dark corners would appear and disappear during a zoom. Although not ideal, it isn’t noticeable most of the time. Besides, I figured that most colourists add vignettes to most shots anyway, so I was simply saving them a little time!

 

5. Mechanics

Older lenses are, quite naturally, less reliable. Even if they have been rehoused, like our Cooke “Century” Panchros had been in 2000, you may find that the iris and/or focus sticks sometimes. Our 25mm started to play up halfway through our shoot, forcing Aris to use the rosettes to support the matte box, otherwise the motor wasn’t powerful enough to turn the focus ring. This possibility was flagged for me during testing when we had a similar issue with the 50mm. Even if all your lenses seem to be fine during prep, know that a vintage lens could start misbehaving at any time, and your rental house may not have another on the shelf to replace it with.

 

6. Uniformity

Don’t expect a set of vintage primes to all have the same maximum aperture or the same external configuration. The iris ring might be buried in the matte box, the matte box might not fit on at all, or it may be impossible to engage both iris and focus motors at the same time.

 

All this sounds quite negative, but the flares, softness, breathing and vignettes can be absolutely beautiful. Be aware of the downsides of using vintage glass, absolutely, but if they suit your story then embrace the flaws and get ready to be blown away by your dailies.

In case you missed them the first time, I’ll leave you with some highlights from my Hamlet lens tests.

6 Things to Beware of with Vintage Lenses

Undisclosed Project: Culmination

Today filming begins on the Shakespearian feature I have been prepping since early February. All of last week was again spent in rehearsals, this time focusing on the second half of the script.

By the end of the week I had storyboarded almost the entire film, using Artemis Pro. The production designer was able to print these out and go through them looking for any backgrounds that he might not yet have dressed, or any obtrusive existing objects that should be removed. The 1st AD was also using them to help him plan, as he had not been present at rehearsals. This led to a minor panic when I erroneously included some characters in the background of a shot that those actors were not scheduled for!

Aside from producing these storyboards and getting a fantastic understanding of how all the scenes are going to be played and blocked, a big benefit of the rehearsal weeks was the opportunity to get to know the cast. Normally I have to wave a big camera in an actor’s face the first time I meet them. It’s much better to ease them and me into the process the way we’ve done on this production. A particular highlight was when the well-known lead actor performed some of the famous soliloquies – in the absence of a camera – right into my eyes.

It was a very busy week for all concerned. When the cast weren’t in rehearsals they were in costume fittings or make-up tests, or training for the sword-fight, or doing press interviews.

The gaffer started work on Wednesday, and was joined by the best boy and spark on Thursday. After loading in the equipment, their first task was to re-globe all the sconces and ceiling lights in the auditorium. Later they gelled all the emergency lights to make them dimmer and warmer in colour, ran distro to various convenient points, and cut poly-boards to size.

The camera kit also turned up on Thursday, a slightly surreal event for me after so long working in the building with just my laptop and iPhone. For a few scenes Sean wants to create a kaleidoscopic effect, so I had purchased some cheap kaleidoscope party glasses, a 6” teaching prism, and a set of crystals which can be hung off the matte box. Ironically the cheap glasses give the best effect! These will be hand-bashed in front of the lens, whereas the prism can be clamped to a noga arm for a more controlled effect.

I gave the focus puller a tour of the building so that he could start to think about monitor positions. That will definitely be a tricky aspect of the production with all the cramped backstage spaces.

I feel better-prepared now than I have ever felt going into a feature. It is such a contrast to, say, Heretiks, where I had just one week to get up to speed, and the gaffer had no prep time whatsoever. Nonetheless, there are some things you just can’t work out until the day, and that’s where the stress and excitement come from!

I’ll continue to write a blog during production, but I won’t be publishing it until the film is released. So there will be no new posts for the next few weeks, but normal service will resume in May! See you on the other side.

Undisclosed Project: Culmination

Undisclosed Project: Organisation

By the time you read this I will have entered the Covid bubble for the still-as-yet-unannounced Shakespearian film, the beginning of two weeks of full time prep before cameras finally roll.

The week just gone has been something of a calm before the storm. It started with two important Zoom meetings: one about practicals, the other about the schedule.

The first meeting involved going through all the locations with the production designer explaining what practical lamps he planned to put in each, and me sometimes asking for additional ones. Practicals are going to be a big part of our lighting, and this sort of collaboration with the art department can make a real difference between a smoothly-running shoot and a world of pain wherever you’re trying to hide film lights because you don’t have enough practical sources.

The second meeting, coming shortly after I saw the shooting schedule for the first time, was an in-depth discussion of it with the director, producer, line producer and 1st AD. Most of my concerns – other than some days which felt uncomfortably heavy, and even one or two that seemed wastefully light – were around times of day and equipment. For example, one daylight interior scene was scheduled for the end of day, when we might be losing the light. (The next day I went through it all again by myself and made sure that any night scenes scheduled for daytime could be reasonably done with blacked-out windows.)

We also talked a lot about how things could be rejigged to get as much value as possible out of the two days that we have the crane. It’s expensive, and no-one wants it sitting around while we shoot little dialogue scenes in tiny rooms. Nor do I want one or two scenes in the film to have lots of crane shots and the rest to have none; a sprinkling of them throughout the film would be preferable, though it would mean lots of costume and make-up changes.

Another draft of the script was issued , with pretty minor changes, though one extra room has been introduced, so that will need a proper recce next time I’m there. Reading through a new draft and updating my notes takes the best part of a day, and though it can sometimes feel like a chore, every reading helps me understand the story and characters better.

I did a little more shot-listing later in the week, but it will be much better and easier to do this at the rehearsals over the next fortnight, when I can see how the actors are approaching their characters and how they’re going to use the spaces. I can even take Artemis photos if it doesn’t interrupt their process too much. Roll on rehearsals!

Undisclosed Project: Organisation