The Sunny 16 Rule in Cinematography

If you’ve done much still photography, particularly on celluloid, you will probably have heard of the Sunny 16 Rule. It’s a useful shortcut for correctly exposing bright day exteriors without needing a light meter. Is it of any use in digital cinematography though? Yes, and I’ll explain how.

 

How the rule Works

Sunny 16 is very simple: if the sun is out, set your aperture to f/16 and your shutter speed denominator to the same as your ISO. For example, at ISO 100 set the shutter to 1/100th of a second. At ISO 400 set the shutter to 1/400th of a second – or 1/500th of a second, if that’s the closest option the camera permits – and so on.

You can use the rule to work out other combinations from there. Say your ISO is 100 but you want the sharper, less motion-blurred look of a 1/400th shutter. That’s two stops slower, so open the aperture from f/16 to f/8. (Check out my exposure series if this is all Dutch to you.)

The Sunny 16 Rule works because the sun outputs a constant amount of light and is a constant distance from the earth – at least constant enough to make no significant difference. The sun’s illuminance at the earth’s surface is about 10,000 foot-candles. The following formula relates illuminance (b) to f-stop (f), shutter speed (s) and ISO (i):

Using Sunny 16 in the case of ISO 100 and a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second, this formula gives us…

… 6,400 foot-candles. Less than 10,000fc, certainly, but remember this is only a rule of thumb – and one designed for film, which isn’t hurt at all by a little over-exposure. The rule probably accounts for the fact that you may want to see into the shadows a bit too. (See my article “How Big a Light Do I Need?” for explanations of illuminance and foot-candles and more on the above formula.)

Anyway, you can see from the equation why the shutter speed denominator and ISO cancel each other out if they’re the same.

 

Using the rule in cinematography

A few weeks ago when I was on the banks of the River Cam setting up for a scene in Harvey Greenfield is Running Late, my 1st AC Hamish Nichols asked which ND filter I wanted in the matte box. It was 5:30am; the sun had barely risen and certainly wasn’t high enough yet to reach me and my light meter over the trees and buildings on the horizon. But I knew that it would be hitting us by the time we turned over, and that the weather forecast was for a completely cloudless day, indeed the hottest day of the year at that time. So I was able to predict that we’d need the 2.1 ND.

How did I work this out? From the Sunny 16 Rule as follows:

  • I was shooting with a 1/50th of a second shutter interval (a 172.8° shutter angle at 24fps), so the Rule told me that f/16 (or T16) at ISO 50 would be the right exposure.
  • I was actually at ISO 800, which is four stops faster than ISO 50. (Doubling 50 four times gives you 800.)
  • I wanted to shoot at T5.6, which is three stops faster than T16.
  • That’s a total of seven stops too much light. To find the right optical density of ND filter you multiply that by 0.3, so 0.3 x 7 = 2.1. (More on this in my ND filters post.)

Everything on a film set sucks up time, so the more you know in advance, the more efficient you can be. Little tricks like this mean you don’t have to do a last-minute filter swing and waste five minutes that the director could have used for another take.

The Sunny 16 Rule in Cinematography

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 3 Part 2

Day 21

Photo by Jonnie Howard

A morning full of short running scenes, all shot as oners on the Steadicam by Luke Oliver. Pretty much every crew member had had a cameo by this point, and today it was my turn. My character: Nerdy Cyclist. Alright, technically it was just Cyclist. The nerdy bit was just me (a) beefing up my part and (b) playing to type.

For the afternoon we moved to The Lab, a cocktail bar, where we filmed one of the fantasy/imaginary scenes that cuts with the very first shot we did of Harvey back on Day 1. Mixologist Tom was dressed in an elaborate all-black costume so Stephen and I hit him with two tungsten lamps, one either side, at an angle somewhere between side-light and backlight. This cut him out from the background, showed up the layering in the costume, edge-lit the cocktail shaker and liquids being poured, and deliberately kept Tom’s face dark. Quadruple win!

 

Day 22

We returned to Othersyde to pick up the one scene we dropped there on our most packed day of principal photography, Day 7. I referred to the blog post to help get the vibe of the lighting the same. The main motivation was the real streetlamp at the front of the site, which we wrapped using an Aputure with a lantern attachment, rigged on a mini boom. Another Aputure lantern gave a cool moonlight wash on the venue’s terraced outdoor seating, and a blue-gelled 300W tungsten fresnel uplighter replicated what we did on the other side of the building last year. A 2K blasted light from the direction Harvey has come; this light represented the ongoing wedding, so we had a couple of people moving around in front of it for dynamic shadows.

I ended up turning off the first Aputure for the wide as it seemed to kill the mood, but we brought it back for the close-up to show more of Paul’s face. To represent the light of his phone as he turns it on, Stephen held a PavoTube just above the camera and twisted it quickly around to face Paul on cue. We adjusted the eyebrow on the camera to flag the tube’s light off the phone itself.

There were a few bitty pick-ups to do while we were outside with access to power, including a “BOV” – a POV of a bee. We did this with the probe lens on Jonnie’s Canon C200, which I had to float around and then jab into Paul’s neck. Sorry, Paul.

At 1am we moved into an adjacent industrial street – having decided that it was unreasonable to have Paul shouting dialogue in a residential area at that hour – for some Steadicam shots. I went to the Gemini’s low-light ISO 3200 and Stephen hand-bashed a lantern on a boom pole to fill Paul in between streetlamps, which became a fun dance when we had to do a 270° orbit!

 

Day 23

We convened at Cambridge’s Castle Hill. Nearby Indian restaurant Namaste Village kindly agreed to let us shoot a brief scene there at the last minute, even having one of the staff do a spot of acting. I posted a video breakdown on Instagram – here it is:

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Neil Oseman (@neiloseman)

Back outside we filmed a nice sequence of shots ending with a 360° pan following Harvey as he walks around the top of Castle Hill talking on the phone. As the other end of the phone call had been shot with Steve’s head sometimes out of frame, we went the other way and gave Harvey loads of headroom, capturing some nice clouds along the way.

Then it was time for another pick-up from Day 7, reshooting the tent scene for continuity reasons. Again we put a light on one side and black-draped the other to get some shape into the light inside. This time we used a wider lens, the 14mm, and with the help of a runner I handheld it over Paul rather than trying to squeeze the tripod in around him like last time. He got a nasty shock when I accidentally knocked the matte box off and it hit him in the face. Er, sorry again.

After wrapping a few of us went back across the road to Namaste Village, where the food was excellent.

 

Day 24

On our last day we caught up to the elusive pick-up that was always meant to be a pick-up: the scenes with Harvey’s mum. We took over Rachel’s grandmother’s house for several hours, most of the shots being in a corner of her living room. Unusually I was drawn to a corner that didn’t have a window in it, because it had the best furniture and dressing to establish the character in our standard 24mm tableau shot.

But this meant – with all the windows behind camera – that it was a challenge to make the lighting interesting. We faked a window just off camera left using a diffusion frame with muslin and a grid over it; Stephen bounced the 600D into it from across the room. I closed the room’s curtains as much as I could get away with before the lack of natural fill light started to make it look like night. (For later scenes we closed them all the way and put a 300D behind the muslin, as pictured above.)

To add more interest to the shot I played around with the positions of two table lamps and a floor lamp. Pausing to check my script breakdown notes from last year I saw that I had written “a single practical floor lamp” in the lighting column; too many lamps would kill the scene’s sad tone. This is a good example of a breakdown keeping me honest as a DP and preventing me from getting carried away doing stuff on set just because I can (though that definitely still happens sometimes). I ended up with just one lamp in the back of the main shot.

After some variations on that main shot for later scenes, and a brief scene in the kitchen, we packed up and headed out for exteriors. Most of these were happy flashbacks from the early days of Harvey and Alice’s relationship, and Jonnie wanted to fill them with filmic references. First up was a Jules et Jim homage with the pair racing across a bridge, then a “remake” of one of Jonnie’s own amateur films with Harvey and Alice spinning around holding hands. For POV reverse shots we put the tripod on the point which they span around, and I set the panning tension to zero so that they could pull the camera around themselves by holding the moose bars (handgrips).

Next was a Manhattan-esque shot with the couple on a bench looking up at Ely Cathedral. We clearly weren’t going to light the cathedral on our budget, so we set up around sunset and waited for the streetlamps to come on and the ambient light to drop to a nice dusky level. We rolled when the daylight was metering at T1.4 at ISO 800, though I exposed at T2. To cut Harvey and Alice out from the background a bit Stephen stood just out of frame with an LED lantern motivated by a nearby streetlamp.

He pulled the same trick at our next location, a passageway beside Prezzo, where we did actually have to light a small portion of the cathedral wall as well, using a battery-powered Aputure (200X I think). We couldn’t have done it for long on the batteries we had, but fortunately it was a brief scene.

Our final set-up was a Poor Man’s shot of Harvey running at night. We did this on the green beside the cathedral because it was a handy open space where we could get a completely dark background save for a few dots of distant lights. Stephen armed a FalconEyes over Paul and swung it back and forth to create the illusion of passing streetlamps. The shot needed a tiny touch of fill, so we taped a PavoTube to the top of the matte box, setting it to 1% intensity and taping over most of it to get it down to a low enough level. (I was at ISO 3200 and on a 14mm lens, so mere inches from Paul’s face.)

Then Rob said the magic words, “It’s a wrap.” Like most micro-budget projects there are still a few loose ends to be shot, but those will be done with Jonnie’s camera and no crew. For most of the cast and crew Harvey Greenfield has run his course and I’ll see them at some distant time for the premiere. Thank you Stephen Allwright (gaffer), Jeremy Dawson (spark), Hamish Nichols (1st AC), Fiyin Oladimeji (2nd AC) and Nana Nabi (2nd AC daily) for all your hard work, and to Jonnie for bringing me onto this fun and creative film. Huge thanks also to Global Distribution, Red and Sigma who supported us with equipment which brought the whole thing up a level. The rough cut is already fantastic and I can’t wait to see it finished.

Read all my Harvey Greenfield is Running Late posts:

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 3 Part 2

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 3 Part 1

Photo by Jonnie Howard

Day 17

Our first location was a medical training ward populated by creepy dummies; we had a brief flashback scene to do around a hospital bed. When we arrived there was nice warm sunlight coming in through the frosted glass behind the bed, so we made sure that stuck around by putting an orange-gelled Aputure 600D out there. Inside we wrapped this with a FalconEyes and Stephen added some soft fill because I wanted the scene to feel romantic. To get some green into the frame (a calming colour in the film’s visual language) we stuck a couple of Nanlite PavoTubes into the background as practicals.

While Hamish (our new 1st AC) and Fifi were building the camera I faffed about with the Prosup Tango slider, trying to figure out a way to have the track go over the bed so we could pull straight back from Paul. It proved impossible simply because the track also ended up in frame, and instead we simply set it up beside the bed. It took a bit of clever blocking by director Jonnie to ensure that the camera could point directly along the axis of the track, rather than at an angle, which would have broken the established visual grammar of the film. This is the sort of thing that takes a bit of time to get back into after months away from the project, but it’s important to get it right.

Next we moved into the foyer, which we were playing as a bank. There was plenty of natural light but we made sure to keep that in the background, neg-filling behind the camera, and adding a key (a Rayzr MC 200) at 90° to the talent (Alex Wilber), who was partly facing towards a computer monitor on that side of camera anyway. A heavily dimmed 2K served as backlight.

After a brief panic when we thought we were missing our favourite lens, the 14mm, we moved to Cambridge 105’s studio a couple of blocks away. A special guest star played a Tony Blackburn-esque DJ and threw in some brilliant improvs.

We fought a battle against the high, bright sun that kept trying to come in the south-facing window, despite us having diffed a lot of it, and blacked out the whole top section, and having blinds partly lowered, and the windows having some special solar coating on them anyway. Once again we fired in the 600D, which probably did very little compared with that sun, and wrapped it inside with a FalconEyes, and added the PavoTubes into the background for colour. The DJ’s computer monitors were set to 60Hz, but I’d learnt my lesson from last year and immediately set the shutter to 144° to sort that out.

 

Day 18

We were at Anglia Ruskin University for the day, mostly in one of their media studios. Here we had to shoot a number of things against a black backdrop, mainly to cut into the climax of the film. These included a 180° camera move using the university’s track and dolly. I thought briefly about doing some elaborate lighting rig in which lamps would have to be dimmed up and down to maintain backlight and eliminate front-light as the camera circled, but then I came to my senses and we just fired a Source Four straight down onto the makeshift table that the two actors were hunched over so that it would bounce back up to them. I was using the Soft FX 1 to match the look of the Happy Place scenes from Day 3, which helped to take the harshness out of the highlights where the Source Four was directly hitting the cast.

A little later Jonnie started flinging things in front of the camera. Had he finally cracked? No, he just wanted some lovely slo-mo shots of key props arcing through a black void. We went to 120fps, the Red Gemini’s maximum 4K frame rate, and the higher native ISO of 3200. We were able to make a stop of somewhere between T4 and T5.6 by bouncing two 2Ks into an 8×4′ poly just out of frame, and using three triple banks of the uni’s linear cyc lights in the grid as backlight.

After lunch we came to a couple of crucial shots that were dropped from the night shoot on Day 10, meaning we had to replicate the lighting from Vinery Park. We used the cycs again, a Source Four on a stand as a special flaring backlight simulating the park’s streetlamp, and a couple of 2Ks through a diffusion frame as the key. Although we were back to 24fps we still needed loads of light because one of the set-ups was on an f/14 probe lens sliding into Harvey’s mouth! “It feels really weird,” Paul remarked. Yep. And sorry for bashing you in the teeth with it.

As our time on the campus ticked down we moved across to another building to shoot a call centre scene. We went for our 24mm “tableau” frame that we’ve used to establish all the characters who ring Harvey in their own environments, followed by a couple of other set-ups. We kept the talent’s (Kate Madison) eye-line between the camera and the windows for a nice short key, beefing it up with a FalconEyes, and added a dimmed 2K backlight and some warm PavoTubes in the background (orange being the stress colour in the film’s visual language).

 

Day 19

The good folks at BBC Breakfast were up bright and early, set up at the Granta beside Sheep’s Green, shooting live news footage of what was widely forecast to be a record-breakingly hot day. We were up pretty early too, watching from the banks of the Cam at 5:30am as the BBC drone flew over, and hoping that it wouldn’t ruin a take (which it didn’t).

We were shooting Harvey Greenfield‘s only stunt, which I probably shouldn’t spoil by describing. We’d given Stephen the day off, and my trusty 5-in-1 reflector was our only lighting gear, but of course there was no shortage of sunlight. I used the white side for most set-ups, running along beside the Steadicam later in the day to keep Paul’s face filled in when he wasn’t facing the sun.

There was an interesting moment when we had the sun in the background of a low-angle shot. As I’ve experienced before, the Soft FX filter reflected a rectangle of light onto the subject. But even when we took it out, the IRND filter did the same thing. Do all filters do it, I wonder? Must test that one day.

We wrapped a little after 3pm, as the heat was reaching its maximum. Despite all the dire warnings (and drone-worthy news coverage) it hadn’t been too hot to work. We were all sensible with hydration, shade and sunblock, and I even swam in the Cam a couple of times during the day to cool off. You don’t get to do that very often on a shoot!

Straight after wrap I went for another swim in Jesus Green Lido, whence a Channel 5 news crew were broadcasting live weather reports with the pool in the background. The presenter was positioned in the shade and they’d set up a 600D on either side of him to fill him in. Believe it or not, that would inspire the next day’s lighting.

 

Day 20

First up was a one-shot flashback scene at the Arts Picturehouse. We used the 600D as the “projector”, positioning it just barely out of the top of frame, and a 4×4′ poly armed over the camera as the screen bounce. During the takes Jeremy wiggled his hand in front of the 600D to create dynamics in the flare.

The day’s main scene was a fake advert starring a nineties keep-fit icon. The aim was a cheesy infomercial vibe, with a 4:3 aspect ratio and over-the-top acting. We cross-front-lit the scene with the Aputures 300D and 200X (thank you, Channel 5), with only a bit of diff on them. I over-exposed by a stop and took out the Soft FX filter to make the image even less filmic. I framed with a lot of headroom and even did a deliberately late tilt-down at one point. When the actual aerobics start, we went even more naff by adding two PavoTubes into the background and the Rayzr MC behind camera, all flashing nasty disco colours. It was great fun.

By the time we moved onto the last scene – another 24mm phone call, in a GP’s waiting room – it was at least 39°C in Cambridge and the UK’s temperature record had been broken.

There’ll be more from this shoot in next week’s post. In the meantime, you can read all the Harvey posts here. Note that the link will display them in reverse chronological order, so scroll down for the older ones.

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 3 Part 1

Is Modern Cinematography too Dark?

“Why are things so dimly lit today? Can barely see anything.” Such was a comment on a frame of my cinematography that I posted on Instagram last year. It was a night scene but far from the darkest image I’ve ever posted.

“The First Musketeer” (2015, DP: Neil Oseman)

I remembered the comment recently when double Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kamiński said something similar in an interview with British Cinematographer. He lamented what he perceives as a loss of lighting skills that accompanied the transition from celluloid to digital filmmaking: “Now everyone shoots dark… Pictures are so murky you need to crank up the TV to see it… They just don’t know how to light.”

I think there’s a tremendous amount of talent in today’s world of digital cinematography, but the technology might have encouraged a trend towards darker images. With celluloid it was always better to err on the side of over-exposure, as highlights would fall off attractively but shadows could get lost in the grain. With digital it is more advisable to lean towards under-exposure, to avoid the harsh clipping of highlights.

We should also consider that modern digital cameras have more dynamic range than film, so there is less risk inherent in under-exposing a scene, especially as you can see on your histogram exactly what detail you’re retaining. But the same should be true of over-exposure too.

The demand from streaming platforms for HDR delivery also encourages DPs and colourists to play more with very dark (or very bright) images. Most viewers will still see the results in SDR, however, and some crucial information at the edges of the dynamic range could get lost in the transfer.

“Crimson Tide” (1995, DP: Dariusz Wolski, ASC)

The trend for darker images may have started even before the digital revolution though. “I think contemporary photography is going away from pretty pictures,” Dariusz Wolski told American Cinematographer in 1996, well over a decade before digital capture became the norm. “Something that is dark is really dark, and something that is bright is very bright. The idea is to stretch photography, to make it more extreme.”

Wolski may have been onto something there: a trend towards more naturalistic images. You have only to look at a film made in the first half of the 20th century to see that lighting has become much more realistic and less stylised since then. Darker doesn’t necessarily mean more realistic, but perhaps it has become a convenient trick to suggest realism, much like blue lighting is a convenient trick to suggest night that has very little basis in how things look in the real world.

The most noticeable increase in darker images has been in TV – traditionally bright and flat because of the inherently contrasty nature of the cathode ray tube and the many lights and reflections contaminating the screen in a typical living room. Flat-screens are less reflective, less contrasty and generally bigger – and a dimmer image is easier for the eye to interpret when it’s bigger.

Perhaps people are more likely to draw the curtains or turn off the lights if they’ve splashed out on a TV so large that it feels a bit like a cinema, but what about all the mobile devices we have today? I went through a phase of watching a lot of Netflix shows on an iPad Mini on trains, and I was forever trying to keep the daylight off the screen so that I could see what was going on. It was annoying, but it was my own fault for watching it in a form that the programme-makers couldn’t reasonably be expected to cater for.

A shot from “Games of Thrones: The Long Night” (2019, DP: Fabian Wagner, ASC, BSC) which has been brightened by disgruntled fans

“A lot of people… watch it on small iPads, which in no way can do justice to a show like that anyway,” said DP Fabian Wagner in defence of the infamously dark Battle of Winterfell in Game of Thrones. I’ve never seen it, and I’m all for a DP’s right to shoot an image the way they see fit, but it sounds like he might have gone too far in this case. After all, surely any technique that distracts the audience or takes them out of the story has defeated its purpose.

So, the odd extreme case like this aside, is modern cinematography too dark? I think there is an over-reliance on moodiness sometimes, a bit like how early DSLR filmmakers were too reliant on a tiny depth of field. DPs today have so much choice in all aspects of crafting an image; it is a shame to discount the option of a bright frame, which can be just as expressive as a dark one.

But if a DP wants to choose darkness, that is up to them. Risks like Fabian Wagner took are an important part of any art-form. Without them, cinematography would go stale. And I for one would certainly not want that, the odd negative Instagram comment notwithstanding.

Is Modern Cinematography too Dark?

What Makes a Good Shot?

It’s a very difficult question to answer, but let’s look at a few major things a cinematographer considers each time they set up their camera.

 

Tonal Range

“Above the Clouds” (2020, dir: Leon Chambers, DP: Neil Oseman)

TV sets and other moving-image devices, especially if they are non-HDR, cannot display as wide a dynamic range as most scenes have in real life. So it is often seen as desirable to make the most of what contrast a screen can reproduce by including at least one area of the blackest black and one of the whitest white, with a good distribution of all the tones in between.

Contrast makes an image richer and also easier for the viewer’s brain to interpret, but as with all of these rules, it is perfectly possible to break it with excellent results. For example, you may want to keep a scene in a prison entirely in the shadows, so that when the prisoner escapes into the daylight the viewer will feel the impact of the highlights. Tonal distribution has a big impact on mood, and thought should be given to what mood a DP wants to convey. 

 

Colour Schemes

“Alder” (2019, dir: Vanda Ladeira, DP: Neil Oseman)

Since Isaac Newton invented the colour wheel in 1704, artists have devised several colour schemes which can evoke different feelings, the most common in cinematography being complementary and analogous.

A complementary colour scheme uses two hues on opposite sides of the wheel for maximum colour contrast, punch and vibrancy. Think Ripley’s yellow power loader against the blue lighting of Aliens, or the infamous teal-and-orange grading of Michael Bay’s films.

An analogous colour scheme uses hues adjacent to each other on the wheel for a harmonious or oppressive effect. Think the greens of The Matrix, or the reds of Mars in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall.story

There’s more on colour schemes in this post.

 

Composition

“Perplexed Music” (2018, dir: Mark McGann, DP: Neil Oseman)

“The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant and immaterial,” said the great American photographer Ansel Adams. I might not go that far, but they can certainly be overrated.

The Rule of Thirds, for example, is intended to produce a balanced image, but what if you don’t want a balanced image? Placing a character in an unusual part of the frame, as is frequently done in Amazon’s Mr. Robot (above), can be powerfully unsettling and say much about the character’s status and mindset. Breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules may not be wise, but breaking them in a single shot to make the viewer sit up and take notice, or breaking them subtly but consistently throughout a film to subconsciously cue the audience into a theme or character trait, is a good use of cinematic technique.

As for camera moves, some believe that they should always be motivated. Some like them to be expressive. Some simply like to keep dollying the camera back and forth to add energy to a scene. As long as the movement helps to immerse rather than distract the viewer, it is serving its purpose.

 

Depth

“The Gong Fu Connection” (2016, dir. Ted Duran, DP: Neil Oseman)

As film and TV are usually monoscopic media, cinematographers often aim to compensate by enhancing other types of depth cues. Commonly this is through lighting – using backlight to cut a layer out from the background, using colour to separate layers, or alternating light and dark layers. Haze and camera movement can also be used to create a greater sense of depth, as can lens choice, be it a wide lens which exaggerates perspective, or a long lens that throws backgrounds out of focus.

The result is not just impact but clarity, ensuring the viewer is not distracted from the story trying to figure out what they’re seeing. Again though, you may sometimes want just the opposite, to disorientate the viewer or make them work to find the important element in the frame.

This post has some good examples of depth cues.

 

Production Value

“The Little Mermaid” (2018, dir: Blake Harris, DP: Neil Oseman)

A DP has the responsibility of capturing on film or digital media the work of every other department on the production (except sound!). If the costumers have spent weeks sewing beads onto a period dress, a cross-light to bring out the texture is the least the DP can do. If the make-up department are struggling to hide the joins in a prosthetic, softening or dimming the lighting will help. If a huge set has been built or an expensive location hired, showing it off in at least one wide shot is probably advisable.

 

Story and Character

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

As I’ve hinted throughout, the most important thing is that every aspect of the shot is working towards telling the story, revealing or enhancing character, and conveying the right overall mood. This might be by keeping everything quiet and conventional to let the performances shine through, or it might be through crazy framing, crunchy contrast and dramatic movements. The possibilities are endless.

What Makes a Good Shot?

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: June 2022 Pick-ups

Last summer I lensed Harvey Greenfield is Running Late, a hilarious comedy feature starring Paul Richards, based on his acclaimed one-man play, soon to have its 100th performance. We had a 14-day window in Paul’s schedule for the shoot, during which we captured two thirds of the film – less than we’d hoped, but still a remarkable achievement given the resources we had and the production value we achieved. This summer we shoot the rest.

 

Day 15

Ten months on, we returned to the house from days 11 and 12. It’s on the verge of being sold, and this was our last chance to mop up the outstanding material here.

We eased into it gradually with simple inserts, recreating the look and lighting in the kitchen using Fifi’s camera notes, clips from the assembly edit, and this blog (yes, it’s not just for you, dear reader). At times like this I wish I recorded even more information – intensity and colour temperature readings for every source would be extremely useful, but is that really practical?

After traumatising Paul with a reshoot of a scene in which he gets slapped (accidentally for real the first time around) we popped outside to get a shot of him on the street, filmed through a car windscreen. Last year we captured the first monologue of the film as a oner, but with hindsight director Jonnie Howard decided it needed breaking up; this windscreen shot is one of several that he has added to illustrate the things Harvey monologues about. Proving that there are no easy shots, it took me an embarrassingly long time to eliminate annoying reflections in the glass by covering shiny parts of the dashboard with matt black tape and putting a polarising filter in the matte box.

Next we moved to the back garden for one of the film’s most complicated shots. It starts off as a two-shot of Harvey and Alice (Liz Barker) in a nighttime interior setting then – via a low-tech, Michel Gondry-style transition – becomes a single of Harvey in a daytime exterior. Gaffer Stephen Allwright and spark Jeremy Dawson built a dark box out of flags and bolton, parts of which had to swing away to let in the natural light during the transition. A light had to be panned off and a reflector swung in too, while production designer Amanda Stekly and her helpers performed their own magic with the set. By the time we got it in the can we were losing the light, but the result was well worth it.

The dusk gave us just the look we needed for a quick scene in the bedroom, then we were into full nighttime scenes. I climbed into the wardrobe to get the right camera angle – we were without our beloved 14mm lens this time around, so the locations felt a little tighter!

Later we had to recreate the lighting of the aforementioned oner, so we could shoot coverage, again with extensive reference to the camera notes, rushes and R3D metadata, this blog, and on-set photos captured on my phone. Last year we dialled a custom cyan colour into the Astera tubes and I really wish I had noted the XY or HSL numbers so that we could have dialled those into the Rayzr MC 200 that was replacing them for the pick-ups. Instead we had to judge it by eye.

It was now about midnight and we still had an important sequence in the kitchen and living room to shoot; we ultimately captured it in two set-ups and an insert. This day’s filming had seen the most extreme examples of the colour scheme I planned last year: orangey-red colours to represent Harvey’s stress, and cooler, greenish shades for calmer moments. By the end of the night it was starting to look like The Neon Demon and I was wondering if I had gone too far. I guess I will find out when it’s all cut together.

 

Day 16

A pleasant cycle ride through Cambridge and out across a meadow brought me to the brand-new village of Eddington and the impressive Storey’s Field Centre where we would be filming the office of Harvey’s boss, Bryan (Alan Hay). First up was a fantastic shot of Harvey huffing and puffing up a spiral staircase in the centre’s main hall. The high-tech building had its lights and two layers of blinds controlled electronically, and Stephen was able to completely reshape the natural light in the huge wide shot and even put a glorious streak of light on the staircase just by pressing a few buttons. If only every location was equipped so.

A smaller, but still obscenely spacious, hall served as Bryan’s office. French windows faced east into a beautiful courtyard garden. High windows on the opposite side of the room featured motorised blinds again, which sadly would not stop halfway, forcing us to close them completely to control the light. An overhang above the French windows, combined with the high walls of the courtyard, meant that very little natural light now entered the room. For a key, Stephen constructed a book-light by pointing an Aputure 600D up into a tilted frame of Ultrabounce and then hanging some diffusion (half grid, I think) off the top edge. We added a tungsten fresnel on a boom to give some orange, stress-themed hair-light to characters in the middle of the room.

The first shot was effectively the POV of a dartboard, so we stuck three darts to the matte box with Blu Tack. Sharp points and oily substances – exactly the things you want right next to your lens! – but it looked great.

The next couple of shots featured co-writer Raymond Howard’s baby daughter. One was a contra-zoom, captured on the 18-35mm which I zoomed manually off the barrel while pushing in on the Tango ProSup slider. The other required me to brandish the handheld camera right in baby’s face for a very long time until she eventually cried.

Then it was onto the big scene. This featured Bryan referring to a PowerPoint presentation, which meant a lighting transition as the screen came down and the projector fired up. For Harvey’s angle, with his back to the projector, we boomed an Aputure 300D behind him to simulate the projection beam, and sat a pocket LED light on the matte box to represent the bounce off the screen; these faded up as the 600D book-light and tungsten hair-light dimmed down. For Bryan’s angle the real projection light wasn’t doing enough on his face, so we “extended” the practical lamp on his desk with a small tungsten fresnel. For the wide shot we could get away with re-angling the practical so that it cast a dramatic, Citizen Kane-esque shadow from Bryan up onto the screen.

All in all, the day’s work added a huge amount of scale and humour to the movie. It was lovely to see and work with everyone again for the weekend. Next month most of us will be back for eight more days of running late.

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: June 2022 Pick-ups

What is a Diopter in Cinematography?

If you’re a fan of early Steven Spielberg films, you’ve probably heard of split diopter shots (also spelt “dioptre” in the UK). Brian de Palma used them a lot too, and Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture is absolutely riddled with them.

A split diopter allows half the image to be focused at one distance and half at another. Shallow depth of field is sought after by many filmmakers today, but it wasn’t always so popular. Sometimes a director or DP wanted both characters in a deep two-shot simultaneously in focus, and slow film stock and/or lenses meant that it wasn’t possible to just stop down the iris.

So what is a split diopter (a.k.a. split-field diopter)? It’s a convex lens of a semi-circular shape that can be slotted into your matte box. Light passing through this lens is converged so that it focuses closer, while light passing through the empty half of course goes unaltered to the main lens.

Bog-standard diopters are available too, with no missing half, enabling the entire image to be focused closer than normal. (In stills photography they are sometimes called close-up lenses or macro filters.) These are especially useful with anamorphic and zoom lenses, which tend to have greater close-focus distances than spherical primes. There’s no stop loss, so you don’t have to compensate with more light.

I carried a set of diopters with me on Hamlet and we used them for a couple of shots with the vintage Cooke Cinetal 25-250mm zoom (CF: 5’6″) when I was shooting quite tight and quite close to the talent.

So that’s what the physical object is. But a diopter is also a unit of measurement. A typical set of physical diopters (full or split) contains ½, 1, 2 and 3 strengths. What do those numbers mean?

A diopter is defined as a reciprocal metre, or 1 over the focal length. It’s the same unit used to define prescriptions for glasses. The important thing in cinematography is what effect a diopter of a given strength has on your minimum and maximum focus distances. Apps like pCAM Pro will work these out for you, but let’s do the maths ourselves because it’s my blog and I said so.

The formula for minimum focal distance is

where

  • x is the normal minimum focus of the lens (in metres),
  • x’ is the new minimum focus,
  • and d is the strength of the diopter.

Let’s take my Cooke Cinetal as an example. The 5’6″ close focus in metres is 1.68, so with a number 1 diopter…

… or with a number 3 diopter…

Diopters can be stacked; simply add the strengths together and then drop that number into the formula, so in the above case we’d have a total of 4 diopters (diopters the units, not diopters the objects!) which would produce a close focus of 0.22m. Keep the strongest diopter closest to the camera when stacking.

You have to be careful that you don’t reduce your maximum focal distance too much and find you can’t hold focus on a character as they move away. Your new maximum focal distance y’ (when the main lens is set to infinity) is

So that would be 1m with a number 1 diopter! Pretty restrictive, huh? A number 3 diopter gives you a maximum focal distance of 0.33m, even worse! I remember having to cheat Ian McKellen (CLANG!!!) a little closer to camera when we did a diopter shot on Hamlet, so that we could pull focus to him from a foreground actor’s hands.

If you bear that caveat in mind, however, a set of diopters is a very useful thing to have with you.

What is a Diopter in Cinematography?

How a Film’s Budget Affects the Role of the DP

A Micro Cinema Camera for a micro budget, on “Above the Clouds”, fittingly kept in place by a wallet

I recently read a document – I think it was published by the BFI – that gave some definitions of the different scales of feature film productions: low-, micro- and no-budget. While admitting that there is no universal agreement on figures for these categories, the document suggested the following:

  • No budget: up to £50,000
  • Micro budget: up to £250,000
  • Low budget: up to £1,000,000

I have shot features in all three of these categories (and at least one above them, presumably ranking as a medium-budget film) so I thought it would be interesting to look at the differences between them as experienced by the director of photography. I’m going to focus mainly on the contrast between no- and low-budget, because micro-budget is often very similar to no-budget in every respect except that the cast and crew are paid.

 

Prep

The biggest difference is in pre-production. On a low budget the DP tends to get a period of paid prep time equal to the number of shooting days, so if there are five weeks of filming, you get five weeks of prep beforehand. On a no-budget film you are likely to get a single day of location recces and nothing else.

Some of the things you’d do during your low-budget prep period will have to get done in your spare time on no budget: lining up your crew, watching any reference films the director suggests, making an equipment list. You won’t be conducting any camera tests (but you probably won’t get much of a choice about the camera anyway – see below). The chances are that you will not be reading and breaking down the script as carefully. You may cobble a few images together as references, but you will not be creating an extensive mood board. You might read through a shot list which the director sends you, but you won’t be giving a great deal of advance thought to shot ideas of your own. Inevitably a no-budget project will be less of a collaboration between director and DP than a low-budget one.

Your relationship with the gaffer will also be different. On a low budget you can expect to have at least one good recce of every location with them, maybe two, and lengthy meetings where you can really hash out how each scene will be lit. On no-budget films they might never be able to attend a recce, and all you get is a Zoom call where you screen-share your location photos and talk in general terms about the look. Lighting has to be much more improvised on the day.

 

Crew

No-budget vs. medium-budget camera dept.

This brings us onto crew. Most no-budget producers plan for a single camera assistant and a one-person lighting team, and don’t really think about who is going to back up the footage. On a low budget you can expect to get a 1st AC, 2nd AC, camera trainee, data wrangler, grip, gaffer, best boy or girl, and spark, though you may have to push the line producer for one or two of these. There is usually some allowance for spark dailies too when bigger scenes are shot.

When we wrap for the day on a low-budget film, I have no problem walking straight off set because I know there is a full camera and lighting crew to take care of packing away the gear. I can spend what remains of my energy reviewing the dailies, meeting with the director and planning for upcoming scenes. On a micro-budget film I will help pack up because the small crew needs all the hands it can get, but then I probably won’t get to the other stuff. So I might not spot the things in the rushes that I could improve on, or be as well prepared for the next day as I could have been.

 

Equipment

Equipment, of course, is hugely budget-dependent. Many no-budget films are unable to hire anything at all, relying on gear owned by the director and/or DP, and other bits begged, borrowed or scrounged. Emphasis is often placed on having a decent camera, with everything else neglected – cheap lenses, no filters, few of the accessories that make the camera dept run smoothly, and very limited lighting.

Getting kit around is often very challenging for no-budget producers. Just hiring a van and finding someone to drive it are big deals when you have no money. Sending someone to a rental house in London to collect the gear – even if renting can be afforded – is a logistical headache which a low-budget production doesn’t think twice about. This is why gear owned by crew members is so attractive to no-budget producers, because they don’t have to worry about how it gets to set, or the insurance.

On a low-budget production you will draw up your camera list maybe a couple of weeks into prep, with the assistance of the 1st AC, and the gaffer will handle the lighting list. Usually the first drafts of these lists will prove too expensive when the line producer has got the quotes back from the rental house, and you’ll have to cut a few things, but you’ll get most of what you wanted.

How a Film’s Budget Affects the Role of the DP

“Citizen Kane” Retrospective

For five decades in a row, Citizen Kane was voted the greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound’s International Critic’s Choice poll. Although pipped to the top spot by Vertigo in the latest poll, there are still plenty of filmmakers, academics and fans who consider actor-director Orson Welles’ 1941 debut the very pinnacle of cinematic accomplishment.

The spoilt son of a hotelier and a concert pianist, Orson Welles found fame in 1938 when he directed and starred in a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds which was so convincing that thousands thought it was real and fled their homes. Not long afterwards, RKO, one of the five big studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age, offered a generous two-picture deal to the 24-year-old who had never made a film before and didn’t much want to.

12 months and two abandoned concepts later, Welles teamed with screenplay-fixer Herman J. Mankiewicz, whose past projects included The Wizard of Oz, to script the rise and fall of a powerful newspaper magnate based on William Randolph Hearst. The pair went through five drafts, making changes for creative, financial and legal reasons (hoping to avoid a lawsuit from Hearst).

The story’s fictionalised press baron, Charles Foster Kane, dies in the opening scene, but his mysterious last word – “Rosebud” – spurs a journalist to investigate his life. The journalist’s interviews with Kane’s friends and associates lead the viewer into extended flashbacks, an innovative structure for the time.

Welles himself took the title role, spending many hours in the make-up chair to portray Kane from youth to old age. Inventive, non-union make-up artist Maurice Seiderman developed new techniques to create convincing wrinkles that would not restrict the actor’s facial expressions. Sometimes Welles would be called as early as 2:30am, holding production meetings while Seiderman worked on him.

“I was just as made-up as a young man as an old man,” Welles said later, noting that he wore a prosthetic nose, face-lifting tape and a corset to satisfy both his own vanity and the demands of the studio for a handsome leading man.

The young auteur – who directed part of the film from a wheelchair after fracturing his ankle – was not easy to work with. Editor Robert Wise said: “He could one moment be guilty of a piece of behaviour that was so outrageous it would make you want to tell him to go to Hell and walk off the picture. Before you could do it he’d come up with some idea that was so brilliant that it would literally have your mouth gaping open, so you never walked. You stayed.”

Welles was keen for his film to look different from others, drawing on his experience of directing theatre. The leading DP of the time, Gregg Toland, jumped at the chance to break the rules. Influenced by German Expressionism, he was not afraid of silhouettes and bright shafts of light.

Welles cast many of his Mercury Players – a theatre repertory company he had set up himself – who he knew could handle long takes. He insisted on a large depth of field and often shot from low angles to mimic the experience of a theatre-goer, specifically someone in the front row looking up at the cast. This required many of the sets to have ceilings, unconventionally, and these were made of fabric in some cases so that the boom mic could record through them.

Special effects were used extensively to reduce set-building costs and avoid location shooting wherever possible. One example is a crane-up from a theatre’s stage to a pair of technicians watching from the flies above; the middle part of the shot is a matte painting, bridging the two live-action set pieces. In another scene, the camera travels through a neon sign on the roof of a building and down through the skylight; the rooftop is a miniature, the sign is rigged to split apart as the camera moves through it, and a flash of lightning eases the transition into the live-action set.

“We were under schedule and under budget,” Welles proudly stated in a 1982 interview. He cheated though, because he asked the studio for ten days of camera tests, citing his inexperience behind the lens, and used those ten days to start shooting the movie!

When Citizen Kane was premiered in May 1941, William Randolph Hearst was not fooled by the script tweaks and took the title character as an unflattering portrayal of himself. While he was unable to suppress the film’s release – though not for the want of trying – a smear campaign in his publications ensured it only enjoyed moderate success and that Welles would never have the filmmaking career that such a startling debut should have sparked. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Citizen Kane received the critical acclaim which it still holds today, 81 years on.

“Citizen Kane” Retrospective

My New Online Course: “Cinematography for Drama”

My new second online cinematography course, Cinematography for Drama, is now out on Udemy. The course explains the role of a DP on set, from collaborating with the director in blocking the cast and choosing the camera angles, to lighting the scene with depth and mood.

Across the four modules of the course, I set up and shoot scenes in common contemporary locations: domestic banter in a sunny kitchen, a monologue in a dark bedroom, an awkward first date in a restaurant, and a walk-and-talk in an outdoor bar. Watch me try out different blocking and camera angles to get the most depth and interest in the frame, create movement using a slider and a gimbal, and work out the coverage needed to complete the scene. Then learn the secrets of cinematic lighting as I set up LED, tungsten and practical lights to create a look. Witness the camera rehearsals through to the final take, then sit back and watch the final edited scene. Every step of the way, I explain what I’m doing and why, as well as the alternatives you could consider for your own films.

This is a follow-up to my best-selling Udemy course Cinematic Lighting, which has over 3,600 students and a star rating of 4.5 out of 5. Here is some student feedback:

  • “Excellent. Informative and enjoyable to watch.” – 5 stars – David C.
  • “Thank you to Neil and his team for a fantastic course that gives a real insight into the thought process of a cinematographer.” – 5 stars – Dan B.
  • “Some great tips in this. Really enjoyed watching the decisions being made as and when the scenario is actually being lit, some good workarounds and nice in depth descriptions to why he’s doing what he is. Genuinely feels like your taking in some advice on set! Well worth taking the time to do this!” – 5 stars – Ed L.

You can get the new course for a special low price by using the code IREADTHEBLOG before April 2nd.

My New Online Course: “Cinematography for Drama”