Undisclosed Project: Culmination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undisclosed Project: Culmination

Undisclosed Project: Observation

Well, it’s all very real now. For six weeks I’ve been documenting my non-continuous prep period on a feature film adaptation of a well-known Shakespeare play. It won’t be announced to the press until it is close to release, so I still can’t share the title or any other identifying details. I’ll go so far as to say that it’s being shot in a theatre (though not all on stage), and the director is from a theatre background

On Monday I checked into the hotel and began the first of two full-time prep weeks. Unusually, these two weeks are filled with rehearsals. I may, once or twice, have worked on a film that had perhaps a single day of rehearsals. Two weeks is unheard of, but of course it’s perfectly normal in theatre.

The strange thing for me is that just when a scene is taking shape – the point where I’d normally get involved, when the blocking is nearly final and it’s time to think about shots – we move on to the next one. The last bit of the rehearsals will be done, as normal, on the day of shooting.

As the actors explore the spaces, I do too. Some of them have changed quite dramatically, thanks to the efforts of the art department, since I last reccied them. It’s an unprecented opportunity for me to check many potential camera angles. Before we move on from a scene, I run around frantically with Artemis, trying to take enough shots to make a storyboard. A large part of today (it’s Saturday as I write this) has been taken up with selecting the best shots, scribbling annotations on them and outputting them as PDFs into a Google Drive folder where the director, 1st AD, 1st AC, production designer and others can see them.

During quieter moments, I’ve slipped off to discuss things with the production designer or the stage lighting designer, or just to sit in one of the spaces by myself and think through shots and lighting.

On Friday afternoon a tech recce took place, which I led because the director was still busy rehearsing. This was followed by a Zoom meeting to discuss issues arising.

Less fun but equally important things last week were completing a camera department risk assessment, and taking Covid tests, which leave you feeling like you jumped into a swimming pool without pinching your nose.

Undisclosed Project: Observation

“A Cliché for the End of the World”

Photo: Catherine Ashenden

In August 2019 Jonnie Howard, director of The Knowledge, approached me about shooting an unusual short film with him. A Cliché for the End of the World is only two minutes long, but Jonnie wanted to shoot it as two unbroken takes which would be presented side by side. Each take would follow one character, starting and ending with them next to each other, but separating in the middle.

My first thought was that the two takes would have to be shot concurrently, but to squeeze two cameras into the small location and keep each out of the other’s frame would have been impossible. Instead, we settled on shooting with a single camera. After capturing 18 takes of the first side, Jonnie reviewed the footage with his editor Kat and selected one to use. We then shot the other side, with Kat calling out cues that would keep the actors in sync with the selected “master” take. (It took 18 takes to get this side in the can as well, partly because of getting the cues right and partly because of the difficulties Steadicam op Luke Oliver had in manoeuvring up the narrow staircase.)

The film had to be lit in a way that worked for both sides, with the camera starting in the living room looking towards the kitchen, moving up the stairs, through the landing and into the bedroom.

The HMI skips off the floor (left); Jeremy creates the dynamic look of TV light (right)

Working as usual to the general principle of lighting from the back, I set up a 2.5K HMI outside the kitchen window to punch a shaft of sunlight into the room. I angled this steeply so that it would not reach the actors directly, but instead bounce off the floor and light them indirectly. (See my article on lighting through windows.)

Gaffer Jeremy Dawson blacked out the living room windows to keep the foreground dark. He used an LED panel set to 6,600K (versus our camera’s white balance of 5,600K) to simulate an off-screen TV, waving a piece of black wrap in front of it to create dynamics.

The HMI outside (left); the diffused Dedo in the loft (right)

Next we needed to bring up the light levels for the actor’s journey up the stairs, which were naturally darker. Jeremy and spark Gareth Neal opened the loft hatch on the landing and rigged an LED Dedo inside, aimed at the darkest part of the staircase. They diffused this with some kind of net curtain I think.

To brighten the landing we set up a diffused 2×4 Kino Flo in the spare room and partially closed the door to give the light some shape. Both this and the loft Dedo were a couple of stops under key so as not to look too artificial.

Luke Oliver balances Jonnie’s C200 on his Steadicam rig.

All that remained was the bedroom. The characters were to end up sitting on the bed facing the window. Originally the camera in both takes was to finish facing them, with the window behind it, but this would have meant shadowing the actors, not to mention that space between the bed and the window was very limited. After some discussion between me, Jonnie, Luke, the cast, and production designer Amanda Stekly, we ended up moving the bed so that the camera could shoot the actors from behind, looking towards the window. This of course made for much more interesting and dimensional lighting.

The window looked out onto the street, and with a narrow pavement and no permission from the council, rigging a light outside was out of the question. Furthermore, we knew that the sun was going to shine right into that window later in the day, seriously messing with our continuity. Unfortunately all we could do was ask Amanda to dress in a net curtain. This took the worst of the harshness out of any direct sun and hopefully disguised the natural changes in light throughout the day at least a little.

When the sun did blast in through the window at about 6pm, we added a layer of unbleached muslin behind the net curtain to soften it further. We doubled this as the angle of the sun got more straight-on, then removed it entirely when the sun vanished behind the rooftops opposite at 7pm. About 20 minutes later we rigged a daylight LED panel in the room, bouncing off the ceiling, as a fill to counteract the diminishing natural light. We wrapped just as it was becoming impossible to match to earlier takes.

We were shooting in RAW on a Canon C200, which should give some grading latitude to help match takes from different times of day. The split-screen nature of the film means that the match needs to be very close though!

As I write this, the film is still in postproduction, and I very much look forward to seeing how it comes out. I’ll leave you with the start and end frames from slate 2, take 17, with a very quick and dirty grade.

“A Cliché for the End of the World”

The Hardest Shot I’ve Ever Done

It is night. We Steadicam into a moonlit bedroom, drifting across a window – where a raven is visible on the outside ledge, tapping at the glass with its beak – and land on a sleeping couple. The woman, Annabel, wakes up and goes to the window, causing the bird to flee. Crossing over to her far shoulder, we rest on Annabel’s reflection for a moment, before racking focus to another woman outside, maybe 200ft away, running towards a cliff. All in one shot.

Such was the action required in a scene from Annabel Lee, the most ambitious short I’ve ever been involved with. Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, the film was the brainchild of actor Angel Parker, who plays the titular character. It was directed by Amy Coop, who had already to decided to shoot on an Alexa Mini with Cooke Anamorphics before I was even hired.

Working with animals has its own difficulties, but for me as director of photography the challenges of this particular shot were:

  1. Making the bedroom appear moonlit by the single window, without any lamps being visible at any point in the Steadicam move.
  2. Lighting the view outside.
  3. Ensuring the live raven read on camera even though the shot was quite wide.
  4. Making Annabel bright enough that her reflection would read, without washing out the rest of the scene.
  5. Blocking the camera in concert with Annabel’s move so that its reflection would not be seen.

I left that last one in the capable hands of Steadicam op Rupert Peddle, along with Angel and Amy. What they ended up doing was timing Angel’s move so that she would block the window from camera at the moment that the camera’s reflection would have appeared.

Meanwhile, I put my head together with gaffer Bertil Mulvad to tackle the other four challenges. We arrived at a set-up using only three lights:

  1. A LiteMat 1 above the window (indoors) which served to light Annabel and her reflection, as well as reaching to the bed.
  2. Another LED source outside the window to one side, lighting the raven.
  3. A nine-light Maxibrute on a cherry-picker, side-lighting the woman outside and the cliffs. This was gelled with CTB to match the daylight LEDs.

Unfortunately the outside LED panel backlit the window glass, which was old and kept fogging up, obscuring the raven. With hindsight that panel might have been better on the other side of the window (left rather than right, but still outside), even though it would have created some spill problems inside. (To be honest, this would have made the lighting direction more consistent with the Maxibrute “moonlight” as well. It’s so easy to see this stuff after the fact!)

Everything else worked very well, but editor Jim Page did have to cut in a close-up of the raven, without which you’d never have known it was there.

The Hardest Shot I’ve Ever Done

How to Make High-end TV During a Pandemic

Many productions are up and running again, and a recent ScreenSkills seminar revealed how two high-end series were amongst the first to tackle TV-making during a global pandemic.

Death in Paradise is a long-running crime drama about fish-out-of-water British detectives – the latest played by Ralf Little – heading murder investigations on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie. Production of the show’s tenth season, originally scheduled for April, commenced instead in late July.

The Pursuit of Love is a mini-series based on the novel by Nancy Mitford, set between the two world wars. Lily James and Emily Beecham star as women in quest of husbands, in an adaptation written and directed by Emily Mortimer. Filming again began in late July, in South West England.

What both productions have in common, and a key reason why they were able to start up ahead of so many others, is that their insurance was already in place before lockdown hit. The policies include producer’s indemnity, covering costs outside of the production’s control.

Co-executive producer Alex Jones of Red Planet Pictures explained that Death in Paradise had a few other things going for it too. Most obvious of these was the location, the French archipelago of Guadeloupe, which formed a natural bubble. All cast and crew were tested for Covid-19 before flying out, then again seven days after arrival and at the start of each filming block. Having been around for ten years made adapting the production easier than starting one from scratch, Jones believes.

Ian Hogan, line producer of The Pursuit of Love, did not have the advantage of an established machine. He said that a full-time health and safety adviser with a background in location management spent weeks working out Coronavirus protocols for the period drama. Crew members each received a copy of these, and were required to agree that they would not go out in their spare time except for exercise and essential shopping. Every day they must declare remotely that they have no symptoms of Covid-19 before they can receive a green pass which allows them through location security. They must then take a temperature test before accessing the set.

Both producers insist that age and underlying health problems are not a barrier to work. Cast and crew who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 are given a personalised risk assessment with mitigation steps to follow.

Death in Paradise chose to film using the “one metre plus” social distancing rule common to both France and England. A former assistant director was hired as a Covid supervisor, a role which sometimes involved helping to re-block scenes to avoid physical proximity.

But for The Pursuit of Love, as the title suggests, intimacy was crucial. The producers opted for a close-contact system, dividing personnel into cohorts. A mobile testing lab with a capacity of 70 a day is always on location, and everyone is checked at least once a week. The Director’s Cohort – consisting of Mortimer, the cast, and key on-set crew like the DP, boom op and focus puller – are tested twice a week.

A monitor signal is distributed wirelessly around the set to production iPads and personal devices, to prevent a crowded video village. The DIT sends this camera feed via a local wifi network using Qtake.

Both productions require face-coverings. At least one director of Death in Paradise switched from a mask to a visor so that their cast and crew could read their facial expressions, so important when giving notes.

Visors are also used for close-contact work like make-up and costume, the two departments perhaps most affected by the pandemic. Hogan hired extra make-up trucks so that the chairs could be sufficiently spaced, and both productions expanded their crews to obviate the need for dailies. Instead, extra MUAs and dressers might be engaged for eight weeks out of 12, but on an exclusive basis so that they don’t risk spreading the virus to or from other sets.

Wardrobe fitting for supporting artists is much more involved than usual, as the same costume cannot be tried on multiple people without cleaning in-between. Greater numbers of costumes must be hired, and measurements that are taken remotely are much more important.

All of this is expensive, of course. Jones estimates it has added 15 per cent to Death in Paradise‘s budget, covered fortunately by the insurance. The pace of filming has slowed, but not as much as might be expected, with just two extra filming days per block, and slightly less coverage recorded than before.

Both Jones and Hogan praised the responsibility and enthusiasm with which their crews returned to work. They are positive about the future of TV production. While there have been fears that Coronavirus would shrink crews, Jones’s has actually grown, with a larger off-set support staff. “Our industry is booming,” he concluded, “and it will continue to boom when this is all over.”

This article first appeared on RedShark News.

How to Make High-end TV During a Pandemic

Working with White Walls

White walls are the bane of a DP’s existence. They bounce light around everywhere, killing the mood, and they look cheap and boring in the background of your shot. Nonetheless, with so many contemporary buildings decorated this way, it’s a challenge we all have to face. Today I’m going to look back on two short films I’ve photographed, and explain the different approaches I took to get the white-walled locations looking nice.

Finding Hope is a moving drama about a couple grieving for the baby they have lost. It was shot largely at the home of the producer, Jean Maye, on a Sony FS7 with Sigma and Pentax stills glass.

Exit Eve is a non-linear narrative about the dehumanisation of an au pair by her wealthy employers. With a fairly respectable budget for a short, this production shot in a luxurious Battersea townhouse on an Arri Alexa Classic with Ultra Primes.

 

“Crown”-inspired colour contrast

Cheap 300W dimmers like these are great for practicals.

It was January 2017 when we made Finding Hope, and I’d recently been watching a lot of The Crown. I liked how that series punctuated its daylight interior frames with pools of orange light from practicals. We couldn’t afford much of a lighting package, and I thought that pairing existing pracs with dimmers and tungsten bulbs would be a cheap and easy way to break up the white walls and bring some warmth – perhaps a visual representation of the titular hope – into the heavy story.

I shot all the daylight interiors at 5600K to get that warmth out of the pracs. Meanwhile I shaped the natural light as far as possible with the existing curtains, and beefed it up with a 1.2K HMI where I could. I used no haze or lens diffusion on the film because I felt it needed the unforgiving edges.

For close-ups, I often cheated the pracs a little closer and tweaked the angle, but I chose not to supplement them with movie lamps. The FS7’s native ISO of 2500 helped a lot, especially in a nighttime scene where the grieving parents finally let each other in. Director Krysten Resnick had decided that there would be tea-lights on the kitchen counter, and I asked art director Justine Arbuthnot to increase the number as much as she dared. They became the key-light, and again I tweaked them around for the close-ups.

My favourite scene in Finding Hope is another nighttime one, in which Crystal Leaity sits at a piano while Kevin Leslie watches from the doorway. I continued the theme of warm practicals, bouncing a bare 100W globe off the wall as Crystal’s key, and shaping the existing hall light with some black wrap, but I alternated that with layers of contrasting blue light: the HMI’s “moonlight” coming in through the window, and the flicker of a TV in the deep background. This latter was a blue-gelled 800W tungsten lamp bounced off a wobbling reflector.

When I saw the finished film, I was very pleased that the colourist had leant into the warm/cool contrast throughout the piece, even teasing it out of the daylight exteriors.

 

Trapped in a stark white townhouse

I took a different approach to colour in Exit Eve. Director Charlie Parham already knew that he wanted strong red lighting in party scenes, and I felt that this would be most effective if I kept colour out of the lighting elsewhere. As the film approaches its climax, I did start to bring in the orange of outside streetlamps, and glimpses of the party’s red, but otherwise I kept the light stark and white.

Converted from a Victorian schoolhouse, the location had high ceilings, huge windows and multiple floors, so I knew that I would mostly have to live with whatever natural light did or didn’t shine in. We were shooting during the heatwave of 2018, with many long handheld takes following lead actor Thalissa Teixeria from room to room and floor to floor, so even the Alexa’s dynamic range struggled to cope with the variations in light level.

For a night scene in the top floor bedroom, I found that the existing practicals were perfectly placed to provide shape and backlight. I white-balanced to 3600K to keep most of the colour out of them, and rigged black solids behind the camera to prevent the white walls from filling in the shadows.

(Incidentally, the night portions of this sequence were shot as one continuous take, despite comprising two different scenes set months apart. The actors did a quick-change and the bed was redressed by the art department while it was out frame, but sadly this tour de force was chopped up in the final cut.)

I had most control over the lighting when it came to the denouement in the ground floor living area. Here I was inspired by the work of Bradford Young, ASC to backlight the closed blinds (with tungsten units gelled to represent streetlights) and allow the actors inside to go a bit dim and murky. For a key moment we put a red gel on one of the existing spotlights in the living room and let the cast step into it.

So there we have it, two different approaches to lighting in a while-walled location: creating colour contrast with dimmed practicals, or embracing the starkness and saving the colour for dramatic moments. How will you tackle your next magnolia-hued background?

For another example of how I’ve tackled white-walled locations, see my Forever Alone blog.

Working with White Walls

“Above the Clouds”: The Spoiler Blogs

During 2016-2017 I blogged about the production of Above the Clouds, a comedy road movie which I shot for director Leon Chambers. It premiered at Raindance in 2018, closely followed by Austin Film Festival, where it won the audience award for Best Narrative Feature, the first of four gongs it would collect.

In two decades of filmmaking, Above the Clouds is easily in the top five productions I’m most proud of. Since this January it has been available on AmazoniTunesGoogle Play and other platforms, and I highly recommend you give it a watch. DO NOT continue reading this blog unless you have, because what follows are two blog entries that I held back due to spoilers.

 

DAY 14

(from Week 3)

The script calls for Charlie to be seen sitting in the window seat of a plane as it rises quite literally above the clouds. This is another micro-set filmed in Leon’s living room, in fact half in the living room and half in the hall, to leave enough room for the lights beyond.

Although the view out of the window will be added in post, I need to simulate the lighting effect of bursting through the clouds. My plan involves a 1.2K HMI, and a 4×4 poly board held horizontally with a triple layer of 4×4 Opal sheets hanging from one edge.

We start with the HMI pointed straight into the window and the poly board held high up so that the Opal hangs in front of the lamp. As the plane supposedly rises through the cloud layer, Colin lowers the poly until it is below the level of the lamp, while Gary tilts the HMI down so its light skips off the poly (like sun skipping off the top of clouds) and bounces back up into the window. Gary then tilts the HMI back up to point straight into the window, to suggest further banking or climbing of the aircraft. This direct light is so hot that it bounces off the armrest of Charlie’s seat and gives a glow to her cheek which syncs perfectly with a smile she’s doing.

 

DAY 25

(from February 2017 pick-ups)

Today’s set is a dark room. A photographer’s dark room, that is. Not just a random dimly-lit room.

We begin with only the red safe-light in play. The wall-mounted practical has a 15W bulb, so it needs some serious help to illuminate the room. Micky rigs a 1K pup with Medium Red gel and fires it over the top of the set, above the practical. The effect is very convincing. Pure red light can make everything look out of focus on camera, which is why I chose the slightly magenta Medium Red gel, rather than the more realistic Primary Red. The colourist will be able to add some green/yellow to correct this.

During the scene, Naomi pulls a cord and the normal lights come on. These are two hanging practicals, fitted with dimmed 100W tungsten globes. In a very similar set-up to yesterday, we use a 2K with a chimera, poking over the set wall on the camera’s down-side, to enhance and soften the practicals’ light.

To read all the Above the Clouds blogs from the start, click here.

“Above the Clouds”: The Spoiler Blogs

Pick-ups for “Rory’s Way”

In August 2016 I was recommended to a production manager who was crewing up a small pick-ups shoot in London. The pick-ups were for Rory’s Way, or The Etruscan Smile as it was then known, a $12 million feature based on the best-selling novel of the latter name, starring Brian Cox and Thora Birch. Apparently test screenings had shown that the film’s ending wasn’t quite satisfying enough, and parts of it were to be remounted.

I was given a storyboard consisting of actual frame-grabs from the original version of the scene, alongside notes explaining how the action would be different. Not to give too much away, but the scene involves Brian’s character in bed, and a baby in a cot next to him. The changes simply involved Brian giving a different reaction to what the baby is doing. The bed was to be set up on stage against a blue screen, and composited into backgrounds extracted from the principal photography footage. The baby’s performance was not to be changed, so he was to be rotoscoped out of the original footage too.

I was sent the camera report, 2nd AC’s notebook and script notes from principal photography. The crew had known that the view out of the bedroom window would be added in post, and that separate takes of the baby and Brian would be digitally combined, so they recorded plenty of information for the VFX team. Between the three documents, I had the focal length, focal distance, aperture, white balance, shutter angle, filters, lens height and tilt of every set-up in the scene.

My next step was to email  the main unit DP, who was none other than Javier Aguirresarobe, ASC, AE – the man behind the lens on Thor: Ragnarok, Nicole Kidman vehicle The Others, two of the Twilight films, and Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Needless to say, I was honoured to be recreating the work of such an experienced cinematographer.

Unit still of Javier Aguirresarobe, ASC, AE on location in Scotland for “Rory’s Way”/”The Etruscan Smile”

Javier told me that he had shot with Arri/Zeiss Master Primes, and explained the feel and colour of lighting he had been going for. He had used an 81C (coral) filter to warm up the image a little, and a 1/8th Black Promist for diffusion.

After that, I sat down over coffee with Ben Millar, my gaffer. We analysed the footage from principal photography and reverse-engineered the lighting. I say “we”; it was mostly Ben. This is why a DP hires a good gaffer!

The pick-ups shoot was a single day. The afternoon before, the director and the camera department convened at the studio. The plan was to go through each of the set-ups using a stand-in in the bed. For each set-up, we first used the camera logs and script notes to put on the correct lens and filters, and set the sticks to the right height and tilt. Then, with a print-out of the original shot taped underneath the monitor, we nudged the camera around until we had the closest possible match in framing. This done, ACs Max Quinton and Bex Clives marked the tripod position on the floor with tape, writing the lens length, height, filters etc. on the tape itself to make things super-efficient the next day.

The pick-ups set was nothing more than a bed surrounded by blue screens. The bright gap between the screens represents the window from the original location.

On the morning of the shoot, the lighting department had two or three hours to set up before Brian was called. We used mostly Kinoflos, with a lot of flags to represent window frames through which light sources had been shining on the original set. The VFX supervisor Stephen Coren and I checked the histograms on the monitor to ensure the blue screen was lit evenly and to the level he required.

We were ready to roll in plenty of time, and things went more or less to plan, with the addition of an extra shot or two. The editorial team were in the next room, checking our shots against the original material, and they reported that all was well.

We finished up with a single wide night interior shot for an earlier scene in the movie. This was an interesting one, because we had to extrapolate the lighting for the whole room from a single close-up that had been shot in principal photography. Our wide shot, recorded entirely against blue, would be dropped into a wide shot from principal – a daylight wide shot, that would be digitally painted and retimed for night.

At the time of writing, Rory’s Way has just hit UK cinemas, but I have yet to see it. For all I know it might have been re-edited again, but hopefully my shots are still in there! Either way, it was a fascinating exercise to analyse and reproduce the work of a top cinematographer.

Pick-ups for “Rory’s Way”

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

“The Little Mermaid”: Sun, Sea and Cinematography

(Spoiler alert!) The denouement of The Little Mermaid takes place in the waves on a picturesque beach, where Cam (William Moseley) has carried Elizabeth (Poppy Drayton). In true fairytale style, our hero and heroine finally share their first kiss, parting to reveal the flaring orange sun behind them, just above the horizon. By the time we got to this sequence, we had already shot some water scenes, but those were in controlled, studio-like conditions. Working with natural light and real waves was going to be a whole different ball-game.

Here are some extracts from my diary, revealing how this magical moment was ultimately captured.

 

Day 22

Scenes at the beach today, with actors in the ocean. We’ve been worried about this sequence since the earliest stages of preproduction. Will the cast get too cold? Will it be too dangerous with waves and jellyfish and razor-sharp oyster beds? Will we get the magical dawn lighting the script requires? Building a partial beach set against green-screen was considered for a long time, but eventually shooting on a real beach, and this one particular beach, turned out to be our only option. (We’re back on Tybee Island, the same island we did the Shirley Shoot on so very long ago, and Baywatch seems to have all the other beaches tied up.)

The weather is good, with a cloudless sky. We’re cheating sunset for sunrise, and I know exactly where the sun will go down, thanks to the Helios and Sun Tracker apps.

We get ready to go into the water shortly after 6pm. The ACs put the camera in the splash bag and we bring it into the ocean. It starts to leak. Which is pretty much the last thing you want to happen. We pull it out before the camera gets damaged, but now we’re wondering how to shoot the scene. Someone suggests I just put the camera on my shoulder (I’m only going in up to my waist) and a couple of the crew spot me to make sure I don’t drop it. Sounds risky, doesn’t it? But it works. Meanwhile Captain Dan joins us in his waders to hand-bash a polyboard bounce, and the ‘B’ camera team are on a pontoon trying to get alternate angles.

Perhaps the most important thing I do today is ask Will to pick Poppy up the other way around. You see, when we’re about to turn over, Will picks up Poppy with her head to his right and her tail to his left. But I can see that if they play the scene with Poppy this way around, I will end up framing the two-shot with my back to the sun, losing that magical image of the low sun in the background, and probably casting camera shadows on them to boot. So I ask Will to pick Poppy up the other way around.

As the sun races towards the horizon, we get two magical takes. I’m constantly reframing to keep the setting sun in the background, and as the hero and heroine kiss, it flares out perfectly between them. Everyone is ecstatic.

 

Day 23

‘B’ cam 1st AC Geran Daniels on the pontoon with the Alexa XR Studio and the hefty Angenieux 19.5-94mm Optimo

It’s another beautiful day, and the first task is to go out on the pontoon and shoot Poppy’s double swimming about in the mermaid tail. I use the Angenieux zoom for only the second time (it normally lives on the ‘B’ camera), and for the first time on my shoulder. Damn, that thing’s heavy. But my shoulder has worse to come today.

As sunset approaches, we must shoot pick-ups for Saturday’s water scene with the principal cast. Today the tide is much lower at sunset, and getting out to a deep enough spot (up to around waist or chest level) means walking over very squelchy mud which you sometimes sink in up to your knees, and sharp oyster beds. So instead we get into the water via the pontoon. This boat has a limited capacity, so I’m dropped off on the first trip, before it returns to the dock twice more to get the rest of the cast and crew who are needed. It’s extremely pleasant to swim about in the ocean (more of an estuary really) while we wait.

In the water with 2nd AC Kane Pearson and some expensive electronics. The white patch on the splash bag is the $5 of tape!

Line producer Fabio has proudly repaired the leaky splash bag with a $2 bicycle inner tube patch. 2nd AC Kane, a big spender, added $5 of tape, and we successfully tested it before we set sail.

Because the splash-bag doesn’t fit our Alexa’s viewfinder, Kane has to hand-bash a 5.6” monitor in a ziplock bag (along with a Teradek receiver and battery) so that I can see what I’m shooting. This works pretty well though. The hardest thing is the mud; it’s impossible to find a firm spot, so during the takes I’m always sinking and trying to keep my balance and follow the action at the same time. Kane has to prop me up on a couple of occasions.

For all the material in the ocean I stick to a (Cooke S4i) 32mm lens; the zoom won’t fit in the splash housing, and lens changes take too long. (The cast can only be in the water for 30 minutes at a time, according to Screen Actors Guild rules.) Although we mostly shoot at water level, where the splash bag floats and is easy to control, one set-up requires me to put it on my shoulder. The weight is quite something, but with help I get the shot.

With the water scenes wrapped, and the tide now higher, we swim back to shore. We’ve been in the water at least three hours, and it was exhausting but a lot of fun too.

That concludes my blog series on The Little Mermaid. If you missed any of the earlier instalments, here are the links:

Don’t forget, if you’re in the UK, the film is currently available from all good high-street DVD retailers and on Amazon as a DVD or download.

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“The Little Mermaid”: Sun, Sea and Cinematography