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

Time Up for Tungsten?

Poppy Drayton, in “The Little Mermaid”, lit by a tungsten 1K bounced off poly

Last October, rental house VMI retired all of its tungsten lighting units as part of its mission to be a Net Zero company by 2030. I know this mainly because I am currently writing an article for British Cinematographer about sustainability in the film and TV industry, and VMI’s managing director Barry Bassett was one of the first people I interviewed.

Barry is very passionate about helping the environment and this is reflected in numerous initiatives he’s pioneered at VMI and elsewhere, but in this post I just want to discuss the tungsten issue.

I love tungsten lighting. There’s no better way to light a human face, in my opinion, than to bounce a tungsten light off a poly-board. (Poly-board is also terrible for the planet, I’ve just learnt, but that’s another story.) The continuous spectrum of light that tungsten gives out is matched only by daylight.

Dana Hajaj lit by another tungsten 1K bounced off poly

Tungsten has other advantages too: it’s cheap to hire, and it’s simple technology that’s reliable and easy to repair if it does go wrong.

But there’s no denying it’s horribly inefficient. “Tungsten lighting fixtures ought to be called lighting heaters, since 96% of the energy used is output as heat, leaving only 4% to produce light,” Barry observed in a British Cinematographer news piece. When you put it that way, it seems like a ridiculous waste of energy.

Without meaning to, I have drifted a little away from tungsten in recent years. When I shot Hamlet last year, I went into it telling gaffer Ben Millar that it should be a tungsten heavy show, but we ended up using a mix of real tungsten and tungsten-balanced LED. It’s so much easier to set up a LiteMat 2L on a battery than it is to run mains for a 2K, set up a bounce and flag off all the spill.

Shirley MacLaine lit by a tungsten book-light in “The Little Mermaid”

I admire what VMI have done, and I’ve no doubt that other companies will follow suit. The day is coming – maybe quite soon – when using tungsten is impossible, either because no rental companies stock it any more, or no-one’s making the bulbs, or producers ban it to make their productions sustainable.

Am I ready to give up tungsten completely? Honestly, no, not yet. But it is something I need to start thinking seriously about.

Time Up for Tungsten?

What’s in a DP’s Set Bag?

I used to own a whole bunch of equipment – camera, lenses, lights – but for reasons I’ve detailed elsewhere I got rid of all that back in 2017. These days I travel pretty light (no pun intended) to set, but there are a few items I wouldn’t like to be without.

Here’s what’s in my set bag, roughly in descending order of importance.

 

1. Phone

Alright, this isn’t technically in my set bag, but it is the most used thing on a typical day on set. I use Chemical Wedding‘s Artemis Pro app all the time to find frames and select lenses, the same company’s Helios Pro to look at sun paths, and occasionally other specialist apps like Arri Photometrics (to work out if a particular light is powerful enough at a particular distance) and Flicker Finder (to check if a light will flicker on camera). I’ve also got Lux Calc installed but so far I’ve never used it.

Other common uses of my phone are looking at call sheets and other production documents if hardcopies aren’t supplied, checking my Google Sheets breakdown to remind myself of my creative intentions for the scene, and taking photos of lighting set-ups in case I need to recreate them for pick-ups.

To enable Artemis Pro to simulate wider lenses with my iPhone 7’s relatively tight built-in lens I also carry a clip-on 0.67x wide angle adaptor.

 

2. Light Meter

I’ve written before about why light meters are still important. My Sekonic L-758D gets heavy use on set, mostly in incident mode but sometimes the spot reflectance mode too; see my post on judging exposure to learn about what these modes do.

I make sure to carry spare batteries for it too.

 

3. Gaffer’s Glass

On The Little Mermaid the crew took pity on me using a broken ND filter wrapped in ND gel as a gaffer’s glass and bought me a proper one. This is like a monocle with an ND 3.6 filter in it for looking into fresnels and other directional fixtures to see if the spot of light is aimed exactly where it should be. I mostly use mine to look at the clouds and see when the sun is going to go in and come out, but you shouldn’t use one to look at the naked sun because even with all the ND it can still damage your eyes.

 

4. Power bank

With the heavy use my phone gets on set the charge doesn’t always last the whole day, so a power bank is essential to keep it running, as of course is the mains charger just in case.

 

5. Travel mug/flask

Most productions are environmentally conscious enough now to dissuade people from using disposable coffee cups and water bottes (though there are still a million half-finished water bottles on set at the end of the day). I always bring my own travel mug and metal water bottle. Keeping the mug clean(ish), especially when switching between tea and coffee consumption, is a daily struggle.

 

6. Croc clips

I always keep a couple of croc clips on my belt when shooting. Although I rarely gel lights myself on larger productions, I find them useful for adjusting curtains to admit just the right amount of daylight, or attaching a rain cover or light-blocking cloth to the camera, or clipping my jacket to something as a last-minute lighting flag.

 

7. Multi-tool

On some productions I’ve worn a multi-tool on my belt every day and only used it once or twice (usually to open wrap beers), so now it stays in my bag unless it’s specifically needed. As a head of department I theoretically shouldn’t be doing any tasks that would require a multi-tool, but it’s annoying to need one and not have one.

 

8. Tape Measure

I think my mum gave me this tiny tape measure which I keep in my set bag because it’s so small and light there’s no reason not to. I’ve used it exactly once so far: to work out if an Alexa Classic with a Cooke 10:1 zoom on would fit into certain tight locations on Hamlet.

 

9. Gel swatches

I picked up a set of Rosco filter swatches at either the BSC Expo or the Media Production Show. I don’t think I’ve ever used it.

 

10. Compass

Occasionally Helios Pro isn’t playing ball and I need to work out roughly where the sun is going to be, so out comes the traditional compass.

 

One final thing. Until very recently I carried a pair of gardening gloves for handling hot lights, but again I shouldn’t really be doing this myself and incandescent lamps aren’t too common on sets any more anyway, so when my gloves became worn out enough to need replacing I decided not to bother.

What’s in a DP’s Set Bag?

“The Little Mermaid”: Prep Diary Part 2

This is the second part of my flashback to spring 2016 and the pre-production for The Little Mermaid. Part one is here.

 

Weeks 3 & 4

Nothing much seems to happen the third week of prep. After the Shirley shoot finishes on Monday, I take Tuesday off. I’m so exhausted I can barely move, which bodes ill for the 26-day slog of principal photography that’s coming up! Things are quiet in the office on Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday is Good Friday so it’s a holiday. The three-day weekend is enjoyable but also frustrating given how much prep there is still to do.

Next Monday I go scouting with Anthony, the new locations manager. He takes us to a quarry ten minutes down the road from the office, where we finally find the cliff we’ve been searching for since prep began. The location has a lot of potential for many scenes, so we’re very pleased. (Ultimately it went unused because of safety concerns.)

On Tuesday there’s a page turner, which is like a table read only without the cast. We spend five hours going through the script, asking questions and addressing issues that might come up. I try to clarify certain things in the script and make sure everyone knows how Chris, the director, wants to approach things. (He’s just a talking head on my iPad right now, due to visa delays.)

Gaffer Mike and key grip Jason have arrived in town for the page turner, and on Wednesday morning we get down to the business of writing a lighting list. It’s difficult for me to get my head around the crew structure here in the States. The gaffer is the head of the electrical department, so they only deal with lamps and distro. Flags, cutters, nets, black-out, bounce boards and so on are handled by the grip department, led of course by the key grip… who also handles the camera grip, like cranes and dollies.

Most of the rest of the week is spent visiting locations with Anthony, Mike and Jason, while the latter two finesse the list and get quotes. On Wednesday evening I convene the camera department to debrief from the Shirley shoot and discuss what can be done to improve the crew structure, equipment package and workflow.

By the weekend it stills feel like there is much to figure out, and there is only one week left before principal photography begins. Still, I won’t be sorry to say goodbye to office work and get back on set.

 

Week 5

It’s the last week of preproduction and we should be spending it doing tech scouts and production meetings. But unfortunately many HoDs have been hired late, and there are lots of locations left to find, so it’s a frustrating week for me, waiting for stuff to happen. I try to nail down the grip and electrical items which are only required on specific dates, but it looks like some of that will have to be done as we go along.

I spend more time location scouting with Anthony, during which I realise just how time-consuming it is to drive around, spot possible places, make friends with the owners and just get to the stage where any of the crew can check it out.

We visit a possible beach location, a nice little spot on the same island we did the Shirley Shoot on. Chris, still unable to enter the US, participates by video call. He wants me to roll up my trousers and test the water, because the principal cast will have to spend hours in it. It’s nice enough for a paddle, but I don’t think I’d want to spend a day up to my waist in it. (Actually, that’s exactly what I and several other cast and crew end up doing.)

As the week goes on I spend less and less time at the office, because there simply isn’t much left I can do. I occupy my evenings swimming in the pool and binge-watching season one of Outlander, which Starz have made free for a couple of weeks here in the US. The cinematography in the first couple of episodes is utterly stunning, in fact it’s the most beautiful cinematography I’ve ever seen. It’s very inspirational, and I have a couple of good ideas for lighting A Little Mermaid as I watch it. (Recently I had the exciting chance to ask David Higgs BSC about lighting the Outlander pilot, for an article in the January issue of British Cinematographer.)

Chris finally arrives on Saturday, two days before the shoot. In the evening there’s a “pre-game” party by the pool. It finally feels like we’re making a movie. The equipment has all arrived, and there are trucks and trailers parked outside the production office.

On Sunday we do the closest we’re going to get to a tech scout. It’s great to be able to walk around a location with the directors at last. (Writer Blake has joined Chris as a co-director.) I try to use Helios, a sun tracker app, to work out when the sun will hit the back of the house, but in the end I trust my own estimation better. I whip out my light meter to check the contrast ratio between sunlight and shade; it’s 8:1 (3 stops), well within the Alexa’s dynamic range, but setting up an ultrabounce to fill in the shadows, as the key grip suggests, will make the image much more pleasing to the eye.

I figure out the broad strokes of the lighting for the interiors and let the G&E (grip and electric) team know the plan. With Larry, the 1st AD, I discuss how we’re going to maximise our two cameras in order to make our day.

I can’t believe we’re about to start principal at last. Five weeks is by far the longest prep time I’ve ever had for a movie. It’s feels like I’ve been here forever! But I’m only halfway through my time in Savannah…

Here are links to my diary entries from the shoot:

The Little Mermaid is currently available on Netflix around the world.

“The Little Mermaid”: Prep Diary Part 2

“The Little Mermaid”: Prep Diary Part 1

I’ll soon be starting five weeks of prep for a feature, and it’s got me thinking about the five weeks I spent in the spring of 2016 prepping The Little Mermaid. I published a number of entries from my production diary when the film was released, but the entries from pre-production have gone unseen… until now…

 

JANuary 12th, 2016

It is four or five months since Chris, the director, first mentioned the project to me. In that time he has been developing the script with the writer and producers, and I’ve read a draft or two. Last week I was introduced to the producers by email, and today Chris and I get together to start chatting about the film.

It’s just broad strokes today, nothing structured, nothing firm. He talks me through the next round of script changes and we watch some bits of DVDs I’ve brought. I’m not thinking photographically yet, just tone and genre, so we watch parts of The Rocketeer and Big Fish. I start to get some basic ideas of what Chris does and doesn’t like.

Yesterday I went to the library to get my head around the geography of the state our story is set in, and bit of the history and culture. I found a book called Photographing America and it has some interesting plates from the Deep South in the 30s and 40s. They set the stage for me in terms of architecture, landscape and clothing, but their gritty black and white photography is not appropriate for this film.

Chris and I Skype Fabio, the line producer, and later have a brief conference call with producers Armando and Rob. At this stage it is just about introductions. Chris enthuses about me to them, and curates some stills from Ren: The Girl with the Mark to wow them with. Armando responds positively – it’s just the look he’s after for this. Well, this is the second feature job Ren’s got me. Cheers, Kate!

 

Week 1

Since that day in London with Chris, I’ve done bits and pieces of prep around finishing up post on Ren. The script went through a few more drafts, I joined in a few conference calls with members of the team, and started a shot list.

But on March 5th I fly into Savannah, Georgia and I’m straight into full-time prep, living and breathing A Little Mermaid.

On Sunday I wake early, my body still five hours ahead of US East Coast Time. After talking to Chris, who’s still in the UK due to visa delays, I take a ten-minute walk through the sunny streets of Savannah to meet David, the storyboard artist. We eat blueberry pancakes with maple syrup and he shows me his boards for the movie’s finale. Chris Skypes in and we discuss the priorities. We need about 15 more sequences boarded – at least key frames – ASAP so that production designer Jay can be sure to accommodate our needs in the sets he is already starting to build.

At noon I head over to an apartment complex where Jay and line producer Fabio are staying. This place has a pool so I’m getting myself moved here as soon as I can. We spend seven or eight hours, with Chris on Skype, going through the schedule line by line, making sure everything is doable and everything is in the most efficient order.

Poppy Drayton is playing our mermaid. Back at the apartment I watch a trailer for The Shannara Chronicles and screen-capture all her close-ups. I analyse the lighting in each one, labelling them accordingly in a folder. Her time on this production is limited so I probably won’t get to camera-test her; I need to figure out how to light her based on what other DPs have done.

Monday is my first day at the warehouse. It’s an old supermarket that’s been gutted. There are four or five small offices and then a huge open space, part of which is occupied by the bones of the “rocky pool” set.

The week soon settles into a blur of video calls with Chris, interviews with potential camera assistants and gaffers, and lots of discussions about sets and locations. It’s really exciting to be shown around the space by Jay as he describes all the sets he’s going to build. For some scenes there is a lot of back and forth about whether they should be studio or location. We are working with a child actress and Chris is very keen to get the best performances, so the level of control we could get in the studio is very appealing, but that must be balanced against our art department budget.

I’m assigned an office that’s just 6ft square but is very cool because it has a sort of camera obscura in the door so I can see a little projection of what’s outside. Of course the door doesn’t really close properly (particularly once I’ve run an extension cable in to compensate for the lack of functioning power sockets in the room) but never mind. By mid-week I have a monitor to hook my Mac Mini up to and I’m properly in business.

I task the PAs with printing out the script and taping it in a long line of pages along a wall along with the corresponding storyboards. Eventually we will add reference images and concept art, if I can ever get access to a functioning colour printer!

A little bit of location scouting takes place during the week. We check out a nice rustic field behind the studio where we’ll set up our circus, we visit a fort in the hope that it might work for a scene near the finale (it doesn’t) and I take a look around the beach house we’ll be shooting the film’s present-day book-ends in on March 20th and 21st. (Principal photography starts April 11th.)

Another issue to be decided is which camera to shoot on. Initially we discussed having lots of cameras, which meant going with Reds for budgetary reasons. The Panasonic Varicam is suggested, and I’m almost flown to Atlanta to test it, but in the end we decide to go with Alexas, thank God. (With hindsight, I really should have gone and tested that Varicam. I was irrationally against all non-Alexa cameras at this time.) We’ll have two bodies, one for me and one for a B camera operator who will sometimes splinter off into a 2nd unit. The glass will be Cooke S4s with a half Soft FX filter, the exact same recipe as Heretiks. I know this will give me the organic, period feel that A Little Mermaid needs, as well as the magical quality. We’ll also have a couple of Optimo zooms in the kit, a luxury we couldn’t afford on Heretiks.

By the end of the week I’ve pretty much locked down the camera kit, finished the shot list for the whole movie, and hired 1st and 2nd ACs and a 2nd Unit DP. We still don’t have a gaffer, which is worrying. The crew pool in Savannah is not huge and we’re struggling to find people with enough experience.

On Saturday, aside from a couple of hours in the studio, I chill out. I’ve now moved to the same apartment complex as the rest of the crew, and I’ve just had a very nice dip in the pool. I think I might just have the best job in the world.

 

Week 2

At the end of this week we have our two-day “pre-shoot” with Shirley MacLaine, to capture the contemporary bookends to what is otherwise a 1930s story. Peter Falk’s scenes in The Princess Bride are an inevitable reference for these.

Director Chris is still having visa issues, so writer Blake will be on helming duty for the pre-shoot. He gives me Maggie Smith’s storytelling scene in Hook as a reference. I haven’t seen the movie in ages, so I rent it and watch the whole thing, delighting in the beautiful cinematography. I love the candy blues and hot pinks of Wendy’s London home, and will aim to emulate them.

A lot of this week is taken up with locking down equipment and personnel for the pre-shoot. The biggest issue as the week opens is that I still don’t have a gaffer. With my options limited – and despite a brief panic during which flying my UK gaffer out here seems like a very real possibility – I pick someone on a trial basis. If they do a good job for the pre-shoot they’ll get hired for principal.

Because the gaffer is hired so late, putting together a lighting list is my responsibility. I hate doing this, because I always forget stuff and piss everyone off at the last minute by making additions or changes. Like forgetting to check whether the HMIs are pars or fresnels. (I always want fresnels because they produce better shafts of light.)

With equipment and crew in place, my attention turns towards principal for a little while. The VFX supervisor, Rich, has flown in from LA, and together we scout some locations. Unfortunately none of the locations are locked yet and the options we are given to look at are far from ideal. But we have a good session going through the shot list together, checking that there aren’t any VFX requirements that he missed in his breakdown.

We also discuss shooting format, which is generally going to be 2K ProRes 4444. He wants me to shoot green-screen shots in Arri Raw, but after he’s gone I realise that we don’t have the right Codex on our cameras for that. 3.2K ProRes will have to do. Another good tip Rich gave me is to expose the green-screen at key (i.e. the same light reading on the green-screen as on the talent’s face) or up to half a stop over.

I’m glad I invested in a light meter, which arrived at the studio this week. It also comes in handy during another scout of the pre-shoot location. We have some night shots on the beach, which will have to be shot at dusk because it’s too big an area to light artificially. During the scout I take light readings on the beach at dusk, and determine that we have until 7:50pm, 20 minutes after sunset, before it is too dark to shoot.

If you want to follow the chronology, my diary entries about the “pre-shoot” are here.

Tune in next week for my diary entries from the remaining three weeks of prep. The Little Mermaid is still on Netflix if you fancy checking it out.

“The Little Mermaid”: Prep Diary Part 1

Beautiful/Realistic/Cheap: The Lighting Triangle

We’re all familiar with the “good/fast/cheap” triangle. You can pick any two, but never all three. When it comes to lighting films, I would posit that there is a slightly different triangle of truth labelled “beautiful/realistic/cheap”. When you’re working to a tight budget, a DP often has to choose between beautiful or realistic lighting, where a better-funded cinematographer can have both.

I first started thinking about this in 2018 when I shot Annabel Lee. Specifically it was when we were shooting a scene from this short period drama – directed by Amy Coop – in a church. Our equipment package was on the larger side for a short, but still far from ideal for lighting up a building of that size. Our biggest instrument was a Nine-light Maxi Brute, which is a grid of 1KW par globes, then we had a couple of 2.5K HMIs and nothing else of any signifcant power.

Director Amy Coop during the church recce for “Annabel Lee”

The master shot for the scene was a side-on dolly move parallel to the central aisle, with three large stained-glass windows visible in the background. My choices were either to put a Maxi Brute or an HMI outside each window, to use only natural light, or to key the scene from somewhere inside the building. The first option was beautiful but not realistic, as I shall explain, the second option would have been realistic but not beautiful (and probably under-exposed) and the third would have been neither.

I went with the hard source outside of each window. I could not diffuse or bounce the light because that would have reduced the intensity to pretty much nothing. (Stained-glass windows don’t transmit a lot of light through them.) For the same reason, the lamps had to be pretty close to the glass.

The result is that, during this dolly shot, each of the three lamps is visible at one time or another. You can’t tell they’re lamps – the blown-out panes of glass disguise them – but the fact that there are three of them rather gives away that they are not the sun! (There is also the issue that contiguous scenes outside the church have overcast light, but that is a discontinuity I have noticed in many other films and series.)

I voiced my concerns to Amy at the time – trying to shirk responsibility, I suppose! Fortunately she found it beautiful enough to let the realism slide.

But I couldn’t help thinking that, with a larger budget and thus larger instruments, I could have had both beauty and realism. If I had had three 18K HMIs, for example, plus the pre-rig time to put them on condors or scaffolding towers, they could all have been high enough and far enough back from the windows that they wouldn’t have been seen. I would still have got the same angle of light and the nice shafts in the smoke, but they would have passed much more convincingly as a single sun source. Hell, if I’d had the budget for a 100KW SoftSun then I really could have done it with one source!

There have been many other examples of the beauty/realism problem throughout my career. One that springs to mind is Above the Clouds, where the 2.5K HMI which I was using as a backlight for a night exterior was in an unrealistic position. The ground behind the action sloped downwards, so the HMI on its wind-up stand threw shafts of light upwards. With the money for a cherry-picker, a far more moon-like high-angle could have been achieved. Without such funds, my only alternative was to sacrifice the beauty of a backlight altogether, which I was not willing to do.

The difference between that example and Annabel Lee is that Clouds director Leon Chambers was unable to accept the unrealistic lighting, and ended up cutting around it. So I think it’s quite important to get on the same page as your director when you’re lighting with limited means.

I remember asking Paul Hyett when we were prepping Heretiks, “How do you feel about shafts of ‘sunlight’ coming into a room from two different directions?” He replied that “two different directions is fine, but not three.” That was a very nice, clear drawing of the line between beauty (or at least stylisation) and realism, which helped me enormously during production.

The beauty/realism/cost triangle is one we all have to navigate. Although it might sometimes give us regrets about what could have been, as long we’re on the same page as our directors we should still get results we can all live with.

Beautiful/Realistic/Cheap: The Lighting Triangle

8 Things to Look For When Buying a Cinema Camera

A couple of weeks ago I shared my thoughts about whether a director of photography should own equipment. My conclusion was that it can be useful early in your career, when you’re shooting corporates or tiny films with no hire budget. So what is the best camera for indie cinematography?

I’m not going to answer that, but I will tell you what to look for when investing in a camera. Hopefully these tips will help you choose the one that’s right for you from the huge and ever-changing array of professional cameras on the market, from the humble DSLR to the ubiquitous Reds and everything in between.

 

1. Image quality

Shooting on a Sony FS7 for “Finding Hope”

The quality of the image is of course the most imporant attribute of any camera. Rather than any technical specifications, I’m talking about the aesthetic quality here: how does it feel? Does it have that elusive “cinematic” quality? Is it “filmic”? Does it remind you of certain kinds of movies?

A good place to start is to look up sample footage on YouTube, or better still Vimeo for less compression muddying the issue. If you can borrow the camera and try it out before you buy, even better. Take away some test footage and try grading it too.

 

2. Resolution

Resolution, the sheer number of pixels a camera can record, is part of image quality, but I include it as a separate point because I see it as more of a technical consideration than an aesthetic one. You should ask yourself what longevity you require from your films – will people still be watching them, say two or three years from now, and if so what sort of resolution might be the norm by then?

Also consider your delivery platform. If everything you shoot is going on YouTube, perhaps you don’t need more than 1080P (standard HD).

 

3. Dynamic Range

Dynamic range is a measure of how much contrast a camera can handle. Too small a dynamic range and you will frequently struggle with bright areas “clipping” – i.e. losing details – or dark areas getting lost in the image noise. Also, the wider the dynamic range, the more flexibility you will have in grading.

For a cinematic image, 12 stops of dynamic range is the absolute minimum, with 14 or more being ideal.

 

4. Maximum ISO

Some ISO tests I conducted on an Arri Alexa Classic in 2017

The ISO (International Standards Organisation) scale rates the light sensitivity of a camera. The most important thing is the native ISO, the one at which the camera is optimised to give the cleanest image with the most detail. On some cameras, setting an ISO other than the native one reduces the image quality considerably.

The higher the ISO, the less light will be required to expose an image correctly. 800 is typical these days, but many cameras go much higher than that. It is worth thinking about spending more money to get a camera with a higher native ISO, because you may save a lot of money on lighting.

 

5. Lens Mount

This is crucial because you may already have a collection of lenses, or you may intend to hire certain lenses, and you need to be sure that they will fit your new camera’s mount.

The Canon EF mount is extremely common and will open up a huge range of options for stills glass as well as some low-end cinema glass. The smaller MFT (micro four-thirds) mount also has a wide range of lenses.

Top-end cameras have PL mounts which take all the beautiful cinema lenses used on big movies, but only choose this route if you are willing to part with a lot of cash!

 

6. Form Factor

A Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera, not so micro once it’s rigged with rails, matte box, wireless follow focus, battery, monitor and video transmitter!

When I started in the industry, cameras were all ergonomically designed to sit on your shoulder, with a nice handgrip to the right of the lens and an EVF (electronic viewfinder) to provide a third point of stabilising contact. Nowadays cameras tend to be boxy, heavy and uncomfortable to hold without additional accessories (see below).

Again, try to gets your hands on the camera in a shop and see how it feels before you purchase. As well as handheld shooting, consider how easy it will be to rig onto dollies, sliders, gimbals, etc.

 

7. Required Accessories

Buying the camera body itself is unlikely to be the end of your expenditure. You will need lenses, batteries, a battery charger, cards, a card reader and almost certainly some kind of stabilising system, be it a simple shoulder rig or an electronic gimbal.

You may also want an EVF, a tripod, matte box, follow focus – the list can seem endless! Be careful to budget your essential accessories before buying the camera. Some cameras seem like bargains until you add up all the extras. Pay particular attention to the media, and to exactly what speed of media you need in order to shoot at the resolution and frame rate that you require, as this can get very expensive.

 

8. Codec

What file type and codec does the camera shoot? Does your editing system support that format? If not, how time-consuming will it be to convert everything?

What compression ratios does the camera support? How much hard drive space will you need to store an hour of footage at that ratio? What about ten hours, plus back-ups? Often there is a trade-off between a highly compressed format like H.264 which is light on disc space but may need converting before you can edit it, and a lightly compressed format like ProRes which burns through disc space but can be dropped straight into most editing software.

8 Things to Look For When Buying a Cinema Camera

The Cinematography of “First Man”

A miniature Saturn V rocket is prepared for filming

If you’re a DP, you’re probably familiar with the “Guess the Format” game. Whenever you see a movie, you find yourself trying to guess what format it was shot on. Film or digital? Camera? Glass? Resolution?

As I sat in the cinema last autumn watching First Man, I was definitely playing the game. First Man tells the true story of Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) extraterrestrial career, including his test flights in the hypersonic  X-15, his execution of the first ever docking in space aboard Gemini 8, the tragic deaths of his colleagues in the launchpad fire of Apollo 1, and of course the historic Apollo 11.

The game was given away fairly early on when I noticed frames with dust on, a sure sign of celluloid acquisition. (Though most movies have so much digital clean-up now that a lack of dust doesn’t necessarily mean that film wasn’t involved.) I automatically assumed 35mm, though as the film went on I occasionally wondered if I could possibly be watching Super-16? There was something of the analogue home movie about certain scenes, the way the searing highlights of the sun blasting into the space capsules rolled off and bloomed.

When I got home I tracked down this Studio Daily podcast and my suspicions were confirmed, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

 

Cinéma Vérité

Let’s start at the beginning. First Man was directed by Damien Chazelle and photographed by Linus Sandgren, FSF, the same team who made La La Land, for which both men won Oscars. What I remember most about the cinematography of that earlier film is the palette of bright but slightly sickly colours, and the choreographed Steadicam moves.

First Man couldn’t be more different, adopting a cinéma vérité approach that often looks like it could be real and previously-unseen Nasa footage. Sandgren used zoom lenses and a documentary approach to achieve this feeling:

When you do a documentary about a person and you’re there in their house with them and they’re sad or they’re talking, maybe you don’t walk in there and stand in the perfect camera position. You can’t really get the perfect angles. That in itself creates some sort of humbleness to the characters; you are a little respectful and leave them a little alone to watch them from a distance or a little bit from behind.

Similarly, scenes in the spacecraft relied heavily on POVs through the small windows of the capsule, which is all that the astronauts or a hypothetical documentary camera operator would have been able to see. This blinkered view, combined with evocative and terrifying sound design – all metallic creaks, clanks and deafening booms, like the world itself is ending – makes the spaceflight sequences incredibly visceral.

 

Multiple gauges

Scale comparison of film formats. Note that Imax is originated on 65mm stock and printed on 70mm to allow room for the soundtrack.

Documentaries in the sixties would have been shot on Super-16, which is part of the reason that Sandgren and Chazelle chose it as one of their acquisition formats. The full breakdown of formats is as follows:

  • Super-16 was employed for intense or emotional material, specifically early sequences relating to the death of Armstrong’s young daughter, and scenes inside the various spacecraft. As well as the creative considerations, the smaller size of Super-16 equipment was presumably advantageous from a practical point of view inside the cramped sets.
  • 35mm was used for most of the non-space scenes. Sandgren differentiated the scenes at Nasa from those at Armstrong’s home by push-processing the former and pull-processing the latter. What this means is that Nasa scenes were underexposed by one stop and overdeveloped, resulting in a detailed, contrasty, grainy look, while the home scenes were overexposed and underdeveloped to produce a cleaner, softer, milkier look. 35mm was also used for wide shots in scenes that were primarily Super-16, to ensure sufficient definition.
  • Imax (horizontally-fed 65mm) was reserved for scenes on the moon.

 

In-camera effects

In keeping with the vintage aesthetic of celluloid capture, the visual effects were captured in-camera wherever possible. I’ve written in the past about the rise of LED screens as a replacement for green-screen and a source of interactive lighting. I guessed that First Man was using this technology from ECUs which showed the crescent of Earth reflected in Ryan Gosling’s eyes. Such things can be added in post, of course, but First Man‘s VFX have the unmistakeable ring of in-camera authenticity.

Imposing a “no green-screen” rule, Chazelle and his team used a huge LED screen to display the views out of the spacecraft windows. A 180° arc of 60′ diameter and 35′ in height, this screen was bright enough to provide all the interactive lighting that Sandgren required. His only addition was a 5K tungsten par or 18K HMI on a crane arm to represent the direct light of the sun.

The old-school approach extended to building and filming miniatures, of the Saturn V rocket and its launch tower for example. For a sequence of Armstrong in an elevator ascending the tower, the LED screen behind Gosling displayed footage of this miniature.

For external views of the capsules in space, the filmmakers tried to limit themselves to realistic shots which a camera mounted on the bodywork might have been able to capture. This put me in mind of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which used the same technique to sell the verisimilitude of its space vehicles. In an age when any conceivable camera move can be executed, it can be very powerful to stick to simple angles which tap into decades of history – not just from cinema but from documentaries and motorsports coverage too.

 

Lunar Lighting

For scenes on earth, Landgren walked a line between naturalism and expression, influenced by legendary DPs like Gordon Willis, ASC. My favourite shot is a wide of Armstrong’s street at night, as he and his ill-fated friend Ed White (Jason Clarke) part company after a drinking session. The mundane suburban setting is bathed in blue moonbeams, as if the the moon’s fingers are reaching out to draw the characters in.

Scenes on the lunar surface were captured at night on an outdoor set the size of three football pitches. To achieve absolute authenticity, Sandgren needed a single light source (representing the sun) fixed at 15° above the horizon. Covering an area that size was going to require one hell of a single source, so he went to Luminys, makers of the Softsun.

Softsuns

Softsuns are lamps of frankly ridiculous power. The 50KW model was used, amongst other things, to blast majestic streams of light through the windows of Buckingham Palace on The Crown, but Sandgren turned to the 100KW model. Even that proved insufficient, so he challenged Luminys to build a 200KW model, which they did.

The result is a completely stark and realistic depiction of a place where the sun is the only illumination, with no atmosphere to diffuse or redistribute it, no sky to glow and fill in the shadows. This ties in neatly with a prevailing theme in the film, that of associating black with death, when Armstrong symbolically casts his deceased daughter’s bracelet into an obsidian crater.

First Man may prove unsatisfying for some, with Armstrong’s taciturn and emotionally closed-off nature making his motivations unclear, but cinematically it is a tour de force. Taking a human perspective on extraordinary accomplishments, deftly blending utterly convincing VFX and immersive cinéma vérité photography, First Man recalls the similarly analogue and similarly gripping Dunkirk as well as the documentary-like approach of 1983’s The Right Stuff. The film is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD, and I highly recommend you check it out.

The Cinematography of “First Man”