5 Things Bob Ross Can Teach Us About Cinematography

I’m certainly glad you could join me today. It’s a fantastic day here and I hope it is wherever you’re at. Are you ready to read a fantastic little blog post? Good, then let’s get started.

For twelve years, across 400 episodes, Bob Ross entertained all generations of Americans with his public access TV series, The Joy of Painting. Although he floated up to join the happy little clouds in 1995, in recent years YouTube and Twitch have brought his shows to a new audience, of which I am a humble member. Bob’s hypnotic, soft-spoken voice, his unfailingly positive attitude, and the magical effects of his wet-on-wet oil-painting technique make his series calming, comforting and captivating in equal measure.

Having watched every episode at least twice now, I’ve noticed several nuggets of Bob Ross wisdom that apply just as well to cinematography as they do to painting.

 

1. “The more plains you have in your painting, the more depth it has… and that’s what brings the happy buck.”

Bob always starts with the background of his scene and paints forward: first the sky with its happy little clouds; then often some almighty mountains; then the little footy hills; some trees way in the distance, barely more than scratches on the canvas; then perhaps a lake, its reflections springing forth impossibly from Bob’s brush; the near bank; and some detailed trees and bushes in the foreground, with a little path winding through them.

“Exile Incessant” (dir. James Reynolds)

Just as with landscape painting, depth is tremendously important in cinematography. Creating a three-dimensional world with a monoscopic camera is a big part of a DP’s job, which starts with composition – shooting towards a window, for example, rather than a wall – and continues with lighting. Depth increases production value, which makes for a happy producer and a happy buck for you when you get hired again.

 

2. “As things get further away from you in a landscape, they get lighter in value.”

Regular Joy of Painting viewers soon notice that the more distant layers of Bob’s paintings use a lot more Titanium White than the closer ones. Bob frequently explains that each layer should be darker and more detailed than the one behind it, “and that’s what creates the illusion of depth”.

“The Gong Fu Connection” (dir. Ted Duran)

Distant objects seem lighter and less contrasty because of a phenomenon called aerial perspectivebasically atmospheric scattering of light. As a DP, you can simulate this by lighting deeper areas of your frame brightly, and keeping closer areas dark. This might be achieved by setting up a flag to provide negative fill to an object in the foreground, or by placing a battery-powered LED fixture at the end of a dark street. The technique works for night scenes and small interiors, just as well as daytime landscapes, even though aerial perspective would never occur there in real life. The viewer’s brain will subconsciously recognise the depth cue and appreciate the three-dimensionality of the set much more.

 

3. “Don’t kill the little misty area; that’s your separator.”

After completing each layer, particularly hills and mountains, Bob takes a clean, dry brush and taps gently along the bottom of it. This has a blurring and fading effect, giving the impression that the base of the layer is dissolving into mist. When he paints the next layer, he takes care to leave a little of this misty area showing behind it.

“Heretiks” (dir. Paul Hyett)

We DPs can add atmos (smoke) to a scene to create separation. Because there will be more atmos between the lens and a distant object than between the lens and a close object, it really aids the eye in identifying different plains. That makes the image both clearer and more aesthetically pleasing. Layers can also be separated with backlight, or a differentiation of tones or colours.

 

4. “You need the dark in order to show the light.”

Hinting at the tragedy in his own life, Bob often underlines the importance of playing dark tones against light ones. “It’s like in life. Gotta have a little sadness once in a while so you know when the good times come,” he wisely remarks, as he taps away at the canvas with his fan-brush, painting in the dark rear leaves of a tree. Then he moves onto the lighter foreground leaves, “but don’t kill your dark areas,” he cautions.

“Closer Each Day” promo (dir. Oliver Park)

If there’s one thing that makes a cinematic image, it’s contrast. It can be very easy to over-light a scene, and it’s often a good idea to try turning a fixture or two off to see if the mood is improved. However bright or dark your scene is, where you don’t put light is just as important as where you do. Flagging a little natural light, blacking out a window, or removing the bubble from a practical can often add a nice bit of shape to the image.

 

5. “Maybe… maybe… maybe… Let’s DROP in an almighty tree.”

As the end of the episode approaches, and the painting seems complete, Bob has a habit of suddenly adding a big ol’ tree down one or both sides of the canvas. Since this covers up background layers that have been carefully constructed earlier in the show, Bob often gets letters complaining that he has spoilt a lovely painting. “Ruined!” is the knowing, light-hearted comment of the modern internet viewer.

“Synced” (dir. Devon Avery)

The function of these trees is to provide a foreground framing element which anchors the side of the image. I discussed this technique in my article on composing a wide shot. A solid, close object along the side or base of the frame makes the image much stronger. It gives a reason for the edge of the frame to be there rather than somewhere else. As DPs, we may not be able to just paint a tree in, but there’s often a fence, a pillar, a window frame, even a supporting artist that we can introduce to the foreground with a little tweaking of the camera position.

The ol’ clock on the wall tells me it’s time to go, so until next time: happy filming, and God bless, my friend.

If you’re keen to learn more about cinematography, don’t forget I have an in-depth course available on Udemy.

5 Things Bob Ross Can Teach Us About Cinematography

The Long Lenses of the 90s

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

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

Practical effects in action on “Twister”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Above the Clouds” (dir. Leon Chambers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Outbreak

DP: Michael Ballhaus, ASC

 

Twister

DP: Jack N. Green, ASC

 

Daylight

DP: David Eggby, ACS

 

Dante’s Peak

DP: Andrzej Bartkowiak, ASC

 

Backdraft

DP: Mikael Salomon, ASC

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

The Long Lenses of the 90s

Where to Place Your Horizon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to Place Your Horizon

Aspect Ratio and the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

Aspect Ratio and the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Is the Rule of Thirds Right for 2.39:1?

The Rule of Thirds is the most well-known guide for framing an image. Simply imagine the frame divided into equal horizontal and vertical thirds – or don’t even bother imagining, just turn on your camera’s built-in overlay – and place your subject on one of those lines to get a pleasantly composed picture every time. Some filmmakers believe in the Rule so much that they refuse to even consider any other type of composition.

The Rule of Thirds in action on “The Aviator” (2004, DP: Robert Richardson, ASC), winner of the 2005 Best Cinematography Oscar

As I’ve previously written, I find the Rule of Thirds grossly overrated. In particular, when composing for a widescreen aspect ratio like Scope (CinemaScope, i.e.. 2.39:1), the Rule often doesn’t work for me at all.

In this post I’m going to look at an alternative compositional technique, but first let’s step back and find out where the Rule of Thirds actually comes from and why it’s so popular.

 

Origins of the Rule of Thirds

The first known appearance of the term “Rule of Thirds” is in a 1797 treatise Remarks on Rural Scenery by the English painter John Thomas Smith. It seems he read too much into a simple statement by fellow artist Sir Joshua Reynolds to the effect that, if a picture has two clear areas of differing brightness, one should be bigger than the other. Hardly a robust and auspicious start for a rule that dominates the teaching and discussion of composition today.

I suspect that the Rule has gained strength over the last two centuries from the fact that it encourages novice painters, designers and photographers to overcome their natural tendency to frame everything centrally. Another factor in the Rule’s ubiquity is undoubtedly its similarity to a much older and more reasoned rule: the Golden Ratio.

 

The Golden Ratio and the Phi Grid

A mathematical concept that’s been around since the time of the ancient Greeks, the Golden Ratio is approximately 1.6:1. It’s a special ratio because if you add the two numbers together, 1.6+1, you get 2.6, and 2.6:1.6 turns out to be, when boiled down, the same ratio you started with, 1.6:1.

Wikipedia puts it this way:

Two quantities are in the Golden Ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities.

It’s difficult to get your head around, I know!

The Golden Ratio is found in nature, in the spiral leaves of some plants for example, and even in certain crystals at the atomic level. There is a long history of artists believing that using the Ratio produces a more aesthetically pleasing image.

The Golden Ratio is most simply applied to composition in the form of a Phi Grid, which resembles a Rule of Thirds grid, but in different proportions, namely 1.6:1:1.6 rather than 1:1:1.

Andrew Lesnie, ACS, ASC applies the Phi Grid – though not necessarily deliberately – to “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”

The Rule of Thirds and the Phi Grid both feel quite limiting in Scope because out of all that horizontal space you’ve only got two vertical lines to place your subject on. There is another technique though, one which provides more options.

 

The Squares within the rectangle

In his book The Mind of the Photographer, Michael Freeman writes about a composition guideline which dates back to the Middle Ages. You imagine two squares, the same height as the frame, and aligned with either side of the frame, then place your subject on the centre or inner edge of one of these squares.

Applied to a Scope frame it looks like this:

We can simplify it down to this:

When I first read about this technique, it really chimed with me. I’ve long believed that a “Rule of Fifths” would be a more effective guide for Scope composition than the Rule of Thirds, and the above diagram isn’t far away from fifths.

Below I’ve overlaid this grid on a few shots from Scope movies that won Best Cinematography Oscars: There Will Be Blood (DP: Robert Elswit, ASC), Slumdog Millionaire (Anthony Dod Mantle, DFF, ASC, BSC), Inception (Wally Pfister, ASC), The Revenant (Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC) and Blade Runner 2049 (Roger Deakins, CBE, ASC, BSC).

Let me provide a disclaimer first, though. You could draw any grid you wanted and find some shots from movies that matched it. The purpose of this article is not to convince you to ditch the Rule of Thirds and start following this “rule of squares within a rectangle” instead. (For a start, that name is never going to catch on.) This “rule” chimes with me because it’s similar to the way that I was already instinctively composing, but if it doesn’t work for you then don’t use it. Develop your own eye. It’s a creative medium, so compose creatively, not like a robot programmed with simple rules.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the great photographer Ansel Adams:

The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant and immaterial.

See also:

And if you want to read a thorough debunking of the Rule of Thirds, check out this article on Pro Video Coalition.

Is the Rule of Thirds Right for 2.39:1?

The 4:3 Aspect Ratio is Not Dead

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

 

History

William Kennedy Dickson

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

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

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

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

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

 

Contemporary Cinema

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

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

“Fish Tank” – DP: Robbie Ryan, BSC

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

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

“Meek’s Cutoff” – DP: Chris Blauvelt

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

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

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

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

 

“Exit Eve”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

The 4:3 Aspect Ratio is Not Dead

Adventures with a Pinhole

Last week I discussed making a pinhole for my Pentax 35mm SLR. Since then I’ve made a second pinhole and shot a roll of Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400 with them. Although I haven’t had the film processed yet, so the quality of the images is still a mystery, I’ve found shooting with a pinhole to be a really useful exercise.

My Pentax P30T fitted with a 0.125mm pinhole attachment

 

A Smaller Pinhole

Soon after my previous post, I went out into the back garden and took ten exposures of the pond and the neighbour’s cat with the 0.7mm pinhole. By that point I had decided that the hole was almost certainly too big. As I noted last week, Mr Pinhole gives an optimal diameter of 0.284mm for my camera. Besides that, the (incredibly dark) images in my viewfinder were very blurry, a sign that the hole needed to be smaller.

Scans of my two pinholes

So I peeled the piece of black wrap with the 0.7mm pinhole off my drilled body cap and replaced it with another hole measuring about 0.125mm. I had actually made this smaller hole first but rejected it because absolutely nothing was visible through the viewfinder, except for a bit of a blur in the centre. But now I came to accept that I would have to shoot blind if I wanted my images to be anything approaching sharp.

The 0.125mm(ish) pinhole magnified in Photoshop

I had made the 0.125mm hole by tapping the black wrap with only the very tip of the needle, rather than pushing it fully through. Prior to taping it into the body cap, I scanned it at high resolution and measured it using Photoshop. This revealed that it’s a very irregular shape, which probably means the images will still be pretty soft. Unfortunately I couldn’t see a way of getting it any more circular; sanding didn’t seem to help.

Again I found the f-stop of the pinhole by dividing the flange focal distance (45.65mm) by the hole diameter, the result being about f/365. My incident-light meter only goes up to f/90, so I needed to figure out how many stops away from f/365 that is. I’m used to working in the f/1.4-f/22 range, so I wasn’t familiar with how the stop series progresses above f/90. Turns out that you can just multiply by 1.4 to roughly find the next stop up, so after f/90 it’s 128, then 180, then 256, then 358, pretty close to my f/365 pinhole. So whatever reading my meter gave me for f/90, I knew that I would need to add 4 stops of exposure, i.e. multiply the shutter interval by 16. (Stops are a base 2 logarithmic scale. See my article on f-stops, T-stops and ND filters for more info.)

 

The Freedom of Pinhole Shooting

I’ve just spent a pleasant hour or so in the garden shooting the remaining 26 exposures on my roll with the new 0.125mm pinhole. Regardless of how the photos come out, I found it a fun and fascinating exercise.

Knowing that the images would be soft made me concentrate on colour and form far more than I normally would. Not being able to frame using the viewfinder forced me to visualise the composition mentally. And as someone who finds traditional SLRs very tricky to focus, it was incredibly freeing not to have to worry about that, not to have to squint through the viewfinder at all, but just plonk the camera down where it looked right and squeeze the shutter.

Of course, before squeezing the shutter I needed to take incident-light readings, because the TTL (through the lens) meter was doing nothing but flash “underexposed” at me. Being able to rely solely on an incident meter to judge exposure is a very useful skill for a DP, so this was great practice. I’ve been reading a lot about Ansel Adams and the Zone System lately, and although this requires a spot reflectance meter to be implemented properly, I tried to follow Adams’ philosophy, visualising how I wanted the subject’s tones to correspond to the eventual print tones. (Expect an article about the Zone System in the not-too-distant future!)

 

D.I.Y. pinhole Camera

On Tuesday night I went along to a meeting of Cambridge Darkroom, the local camera club. By coincidence, this month’s subject was pinhole cameras. Using online plans, Rich Etteridge had made up kits for us to construct our own complete pinhole cameras in groups. I teamed up with a philosophy student called Tim, and we glued a contraption together in the finest Blue Peter style. The actual pinholes were made in metal squares cut from Foster’s cans, which are apparently something Rich has in abundance.

DIY pinhole camera

I have to be honest though: I’m quite scared of trying to use it. Look at those dowels. Can I really see any outcome of attempting to load this camera other than a heap of fogged film on the floor? No. I think I’ll stick with my actual professionally-made camera body for now. If the pinhole photos I took with that come out alright, then maaaaaaybe I’ll consider lowering the tech level further and trying out my Blue Peter camera. Either way, big thanks to Rich for taking all that time to produce the kits and talk us through the construction.

Watch this space to find out how my pinhole images come out.

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Adventures with a Pinhole

#ShotOfTheWeek: 2017 Round-up

At the end of last summer I started a regular #ShotOfTheWeek on my Twitter feed. It’s very simple: each week I post a frame grab (or sometimes a GIF if I can find one) of a great shot from a film or series I’ve been watching. Sometimes these are new productions, just out, and sometimes they’re older pieces which I’m revisiting or viewing for the first time.

For those of you who aren’t among the Twitterati, here is a round-up of last year’s Shots of the Week. On the other hand, if you are a Twitterist, why not post your own inspirational frame grabs, using the hashtag #ShotOfTheWeek?

 

Powerful Close-ups

Cinema is arguably at its most potent  when showing us the tiny nuances of emotion that only a big close-up can provide.

“Anne with an E” DP: Bobby Shore

This example from the moving Netflix series Anne with an E makes the most of Anne’s freckled face and puts us right in her headspace… literally. Shots like this were captured with a 27mm Primo, as opposed to the vintage Panavision glass used for other coverage. For more on the cinematography of Anne with an E, check out the Varicam section in my report from Camerimage 2017.

“Black Narcissus” DP: Jack Cardiff

I love the shadows in this shot by legendary DP Jack Cardiff; they almost suggest a crucifix or prison bars. Either would be appropriate for this story of a nun sent to a remote Indian palace to establish a school and hospital. The low-angle eye-light adds to the unsettling feel.

“The Crown” DP: Stuart Howell

The key promotional art for The Crown is an edge-lit profile shot of the Queen, evoking the regal image on stamps and coins. Here DP Stuart Howell has paid homage to the artwork, channelling the same connotations of a figurehead carrying a country on her shoulders.

“American Gods” DP: Aaron Morton

What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good profile shot. The hellish colours here are perfect given what the erstwhile Lovejoy has just done. (I won’t give you any spoilers, but let’s just say it doesn’t involve cheeky antiques dealing.)

 

Symbolism

“The Handmaid’s Tale” DP: Colin Watkinson

This was the shot that inspired me to start #ShotOfTheWeek. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a Christian fundamentalist society, so evoking classical religious paintings with the angel-wing-like headboard and the muted, brown colour scheme was a clever move.

“The Ipcress File” DP: Otto Heller

This classic spy thriller has a lot of unusual compositions with domineering foreground objects. Here the cross and circle shapes of the light-shade suggest the crosshairs of a gun, while the bulb tastefully obscures the actual bullet wound.

“Mr Robot” DP: Tod Campbell

This one is almost too on-the-nose to be called symbolism. Only a drama as quirky as Mr Robot could get away with this kind of (literal) signposting, but I love how bold it is. The rigid geometric lines and excessive headroom used throughout the series are also in evidence here, reflecting how we’re seeing everything from Elliot’s mentally ill point of view.

 

Negative Space

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” DP: Robert Elswit

A forgettable film, but a shot with much to admire. The dark back of the bench creates negative space in the composition, reducing the already-wide Scope frame to a ratio of about 4:1, echoing the short, wide shape of the House of Commons. On the lighting front, negative fill has been employed to render both that bench and the cast very dark, almost silhouettes, imparting a lot of depth to an otherwise flat image.

“Stranger Things” DP: Tim Ives

Again, negative space here creates a geometrical frame within a frame. What I particularly liked was the placement of the bulb above the sheriff’s head, rather than on the right of frame, which would have produced a more balanced but much less interesting shot.

“Better Call Saul” DP: Arthur Albert

Every time Better Call Saul returned to this location I scanned the background of each angle, trying to figure out what on earth could be motivating the bold slash of light on the right of this image. It remains a mystery! The show is full of uncompromisingly dark images with crisp, pure blacks, but perhaps none so overtly noirish as this one.

 

Intersecting Lines

“Metropolis” DPs: Karl Freund, Günther Rittau & Walter Ruttmann

All credit to Otto Hunte, the production designer on this 1920s sci-fi classic, as every line in this set leads us to the figure of Maria, fittingly for a character who has captured the imaginations of the dystopian underclass. The cinematographers have helped by framing her centrally and making her the brightest part of the image.

“Jardin d’hiver” DP: Darius Khondji

Jardin d’hiver was sponsored by CW Sonderoptic to promote their new large-format Leica Thalia glass (see my Camerimage post for more info). I have to admit that most of the film’s imagery did nothing for me, but this shot of bold, contrasty lines softened by the milkiness of the foreground window has a graphical quality I find very appealing.

“Little Miss Sunshine” DP: Tim Suhrstedt

This is a shot of two halves: the upper half busy, confused and oppressive, the lower half reassuringly simple with its one-point perspective. It was only after filming wrapped on Above the Clouds that I realised just how much this shot and others like it in Little Miss Sunshine had influenced my cinematography of Leon Chambers’ comedy road movie. (Check out the second still on the Above the Clouds page and you’ll see what I mean!)

 

Iconic Reveals

“The 39 Steps” (1935) DP: Bernard Knowles

Richard Hannay and the audience both discover the cause of Annabella’s distress simultaneously, in a reveal that’s shocking and also funny! The chiaroscuro of the lighting beautifully highlights the bright knife against the deep shadows of the background.

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” DP: Adam Greenberg

These two gifs are both parts of the same shot, which cranes up from the shockingly unexpected crushing of the skull to reveal the endoskeleton puppet in mid-shot as a perfectly timed explosion goes off in the background. As well as being a remarkable technical achievement, the arts and sciences of cinematography, practical effects and animatronics all working in harmony, it’s a great piece of visual storytelling.

 

And finally…

“A Ghost Story” DP: Andrew Droz Palermo

A Ghost Story didn’t get a very wide release, and won’t be to everyone’s taste. A lyrical meditation on the nature of time, its slow pace becomes glacial during a grief-filled, ten-minute pie-eating scene containing only one cut. There is plenty of time to consider the composition, and I loved how casually the ghost is placed within the frame, with the top of his head even cut off. (I later discovered he was composited in, to reduce the chances of anything spoiling the ultra-long, ultra-emotional take.) The lines of the cupboards lead our eyes always back to Rooney Mara, the painterly splash of light on the wall (which I believe was natural) throwing her profile into relief. When she starts to cry, it takes a while to spot the tears, but somehow that makes it all the more powerful.

It’s interesting to note that no fewer than four aspect ratios are represented by all these Shots of the Week: from the traditional Academy ratio of 4:3, through the standard 16:9, to the Netflix-favoured 2:1 and of course 2.39:1 Cinemascope. It’s an exciting time to be working in cinematography, when we have so many choices open to us to create the most fitting images for any given story. Here’s to many more inspiring #ShotOfTheWeek images in 2018. Follow me on Twitter to see them first!

#ShotOfTheWeek: 2017 Round-up

Lighting I Like: “Broadchurch”

The penultimate episode of Lighting I Like goes back to 2013 and the very first episode of the critically-acclaimed ITV crime drama Broadchurch. The scene features the parents of a murdered schoolboy trying to deal with their grief as the sun glares intrusively through the window.

I previously wrote about Broadchurch in an article about headroom, and its third season got a mention in my post about the 2:1 aspect ratio.

The final episode of Lighting I Like will be released, as usual, at 8pm BST next Wednesday, and I’ll be looking at a scene from Star Trek: EnterpriseClick here to see the playlist of all Lighting I Like episodes.

Lighting I Like: “Broadchurch”

The Cinematography of “Perplexed Music”

In June I was recommended by a mutual friend to shoot a short drama called Perplexed Music, inspired by the Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet of the same name. It’s a passion project from writer-director Mark McGann, with his brother Paul McGann (Doctor Who, Alien 3, Withnail & I) in the lead role of a man grieving for his deceased partner.

Paul and Mark pose with one of the supporting artists between takes.

Mark was keen from the outset to shoot on an Alexa, and I was quick to agree. Arri Rental very kindly gave us an amazing deal on an Alexa Classic and a set of Ultra Primes. As on Above the Clouds, we used a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera as a B-cam, capturing two specific angles that were impossible on the Alexa with our limited grip budget.

Throughout July, Mark and I had a very satisfying creative dialogue about the cinematic techniques we would use to tell the story of Paul’s character, The Man, who never speaks. I had been watching a lot of Mr. Robot, and was keen to use unusual compositions as that show does. The visual grammar that we ultimately developed eschewed The Rule of Thirds, either squeezing The Man right into the side of frame – at times when things are too much for him – or placing him dead centre for moments of clarity and acceptance, and for flashbacks to when his partner was alive.

The Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera is mounted on a combo lighting stand to capture a high angle through a streetlamp.

While testing lenses at Arri Rental a few weeks prior to the shoot, I took the opportunity to shoot some frame-rate tests between 24 and 48fps. Since the film has so little dialogue, I figured there was nothing to stop us using a lot of slow motion if we wanted to. I didn’t want it to look like a music video though. I thought perhaps a very subtle over-cranking, creating languid blinks and slightly heavier movement, would add to the burden of The Man’s grief. Mark agreed as soon as he saw the tests, and we ended up shooting a number of set-ups at 28 and 30fps, plus 40fps for a pivotal sequence.

I also tested various ISO settings on the Alexa (click here for full details, stills and video from this test). Based on these, I decided to use ISO 1600 for the majority of the film, partly for the extra latitude in the highlights, and partly to add grittiness to The Man’s grief-stricken world, in the form of a little picture noise. When we started shooting the flashbacks, on the spur of the moment I decided to switch to ISO 400 for these. A few years back I shot the music video below on a Red Epic and, for reasons I forget, one set-up was done at a lower ISO than the rest. I remember the feeling this gave, when I saw the final edit, of everything suddenly being smooth and hyper-real. I thought that would be a great feeling to give to the flashbacks.

1st AC Rupert Peddle and 2nd AC Ben Davies set up a lakeside close-up under a diffusion frame which will soften the light on Paul.

Much of Perplexed Music was day exterior, but a couple of sequences required lighting. In the opening café scene, I fired HMIs through two windows, but kept their light away from The Man, keying him with a practical to put him in his own little world. Meanwhile, a happy couple he’s watching are bathed in sunlight (sometimes real, sometimes not) warmed up with a quarter CTO, and bouncing beautifully off their table to give them a healthy glow.

For night interiors at The Man’s home, I was keen to rely on practicals as much as possible. Firstly there wasn’t much space in the little cottage, secondly I didn’t want the hassle of having to shift them around to keep them out of frame when we changed angle, and thirdly it just looks more natural. So aside from a tungsten bounce in a corner of the living room we knew would never be seen, I stuck to practical table lamps and exterior lighting.

Setting up for a night exterior shot. Photo: Gary Horton

I had planned to use direct HMI sources for moonlight through the windows, but my gaffer Sam suggested going softer so that we wouldn’t have hard shadows inside which would need filling. I saw that he was right, so we used a kino through one window and a 2.5K HMI bounced into poly through another (pictured at left).

Perplexed Music was shot over five days in Frome in Somerset and Rame in Cornwall. The latter provided us with a spectacular cliff-top and the isolated St. Michael’s Chapel on the peak of the headland. Here we employed the services of The Fly Company, who captured two dramatic, sweeping shots on their DJI Inspire 2 drone. We were all extremely impressed by what they were able to achieve, especially as it was done in very windy conditions, in between rain showers.

We completed the final set-ups of the schedule as the winds began gusting up to 60mph, and poor Paul could barely stand upright! I was certainly glad we picked the Alexa to shoot on, because anything lighter would probably have shaken during takes, if not blown over!

Lining up a shot with director Mark McGann. Photo: Gary Horton

I had a fantastic time working with Mark and Paul, and the whole cast and crew. We were sad to part ways at the end of the week, and we all look forward to seeing the finished film soon. And at this point, dear reader, I ask for your help. Currently a Kickstarter campaign is underway for postproduction. It’s well over 50% funded at the time of writing, but every little helps in our quest to reach the finishing line. Rewards for backers include thank you video messages from Paul and Mark, and tickets to a private screening in December. Even if you can’t contribute, please consider sharing the page on social media. Thanks!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/perplexedmusic/perplexed-music-post-production

The Cinematography of “Perplexed Music”