Monday, March 31, 2014

The "best" camera?

There is no one single greatest camera for every situation. Learn that now, if you haven't already. It takes the director and cinematographer discussing in great detail how and even why they are shooting a film to decide which camera will best suit their needs. Need a run and gun, lightweight camera that's easy to carry handheld? The FS100 or a RED camera is not going to be your friend. (The FS100 is not very ergonomically sound and the RED camera requires a rig or sticks, even standing still because it is so large.) Need a full frame camera that can shoot 60fps in full 1080? Canon 7D may be the cheaper option, but it's not going to give you what you need. However, you may sometimes find the perfect camera for your situation and it becomes magic on the big screen.

Take for instance the recent Oscar winner, Dallas Buyers Club. Vallee was determined to shoot in completely natural lighting for this very short 25 day shoot. He also wanted the option to shoot in a full 360 degree set. Not inhibiting the actors from moving into certain areas of the set was very important. So, let's look at the needs. We need a camera that doesn't need a lot of light, is lightweight so that it can be moved by hand on a whim, and capable of delivering Hollywood quality images despite these limitations.

Dallas Buyers Club was eventually shot on the ARRI Alexa digital camera. First of all, the Alexa can shoot for 4K resolution. That's a huge plus for filmmaking in a time where formats and resolutions are getting higher and more competitive every second of every day, even in the consumer market. The next perk of this camera is the full frame CMOS sensor, which is capable of shooting in low light with minimal noise and makes the digital images look like they were shot on film. PERFECT, right? It's giving the filmmaker a high resolution with minimal exposure needs. So what's next? Well, the Alexa has a handle for easy whipping around, a viewfinder in a place that makes sense for handheld shooting, and can be attached to a variety of mounts sold by ARRI and camera accessory companies.

So far this camera is looking perfect for Dallas Buyers. It's got all the needed features and it provides easy workflow as well as synced sound with its XLR inputs. But what about your low budget indie film? Well, an ARRI Alexa starter kit is going to cost you $80,000. (Link below)

Classic ARRI Alexa Starter Kit

If your whole film budget is ten grand (or even less), there's no way in hell you're getting an Alexa for that film. So what do you do? Well, you've got to compromise. But compromise doesn't mean death. Beautiful, award winning films are shot on Canon DSLRs and HDVs all the time; the camera operator just has to know what they're doing. Here's an article on the Mark II, if you're interested in it.

Canon 5D Mark II Has Made Itself a Home in Hollywood

In case you didn't read it, the article let's the cat out of the bag that parts of Captain America were shot with the 5D and intercut with the rest of the film like a gem. Of course there are downsides to the 5D, which you pay for in the price reduction: no synced sound, some operators feel it is harder to focus, and it's sensor is made for still photography so even though it is a full frame sensor, it's still going to be inferior to the Alexa to those who can spot the difference. But it's better to get your film shot on a Canon DSLR than to never make it because you're holding out for an Alexa.

So the answer is, there is no "best" camera. Every camera is going to have its perks and its faults, and yes, that fault may be the price tag. Be smart when picking your camera and by all means do what's best for your film and budget.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Lighting Spotlight

I'd like to go through films that I think have excellent lighting systems, specifically Suspiria. If you've never experience the artistry that is this film, please treat yourself immediately. In Suspiria, a young ballerina moves to attend a prestigious ballet school that turns out to be much more than she bargained for. Every shot is filled with creative lighting, set decoration, and costume design. The only exception, which is what I want to point out first, is how the composition of the shot when she leaves the school briefly later in the film.

If this was the only shot you saw from the film, you might think that this was a run of the mill Hollywood, shot/reverse shot film. However, the conventional framing and lighting of this shot is a blinding contrast to the lighting for the rest of the film and serves to show that it is indeed the location and not our protagonist or the bias of the director that manipulates the eeriness of the school.

The shot above is from inside a cab outside of the school. This is obviously not standard lighting. Suzy, the sweet and naive main character, is lit in gold while her surroundings are deep blues and reds. She is also further in the center of the frame than the rule of thirds would put her, giving her less look room and making the composition feel disjointed. Also, her hair is wet from the rain, exposing her face in full where it was normally covered by full curls in the other earlier sequences.

This next shot is a reaction shot of Suzy being frightened by something in a part of the school where she is forbidden to go, but explores anyway. The red lighting is a persistent image system throughout the the film and here it blends into a dark corner, making her feel trapped when she crosses the frame and loses the red lighting. Also, reaction shots are typically closer to reveal the emotion of the character, but Argento does not give that to us here. He alienates us from this moment, ripping the character further and further away from help and understanding.

Her we see Suzy feeling the effects of the building's evil in the presence of other people. In this scene, she becomes faint during a lesson and the lighting becomes more dramatic as her breathing becomes more labored. Her fellow students are unaffected. This framing also traps her inside the beam of light, blocking out all the other students from her.

This shot is again, Suzy in red light and running away from it, in this instance toward the same gold light that she eventually achieves in the first example. The camera is positioned in a way that makes the hallway look very long and foreboding, almost giving off a sense of forced perspective.  Notice that this red light is much more intense that other examples and highly directional, falling on Suzy and washing out her face. 

Note some more of the following stills from the film as well:

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Strengths and limitations of DSLR

One of the strengths of shooting on DLSR is found in the budget. You can get a great quality body and lens for under five grand and make it look awesome. If what you're looking for is high quality, pretty shots, look no further than a Canon 5D. If you know how to use it, this camera can produce Hollywood quality visuals for the big screen.

Another strength of DLSR is the size and weight. You don't need a huge, clunky tripod with counter weights for your standard DLSR shoot. DLSRs have compatible tripod mounts and will fit even on small rigs for guerrilla, fast moving shooting styles. You can also more safely use tools like a monopod which gives the camera operator more control over movement without losing the stabilization of a locked off shot. You would NOT put an EX3 on a monopod... or at least I hope you wouldn't. DSLRs don't take up much space, giving you more room in your grip truck and taking less time and manpower to set up and tear down. It's not unthinkable for a single person to go out with a DSLR and a bit of equipment and shoot alone. If you're going to haul out the $300,000 beast camera that requires heavy lifting and extra gear, that prospect becomes less feasible for a run and gun, freelance cinematographer.

A major downside, however, to shooting DSLR is your sound. Your sound will not be synced and you're going to need an external audio source. This is going to take longer to set up because you're dealing with more pieces of equipment and it's going to take you some time in post to sync your sound and video. You're going to need a very trustworthy boom operator for this shoot because they're the only one looking at the levels during shooting. When you've got levels on a big LED display on the camera where five other people are watching, there is less room for error and peaking.

Another downside to the DSLR is the menu interface. On a more expensive, professional camera, the settings are easily accessible on the camera with their own separate buttons that are ergonomically efficient. The DSLR houses almost all of its menu options in a menu interface controlled by one selection tool. This makes it slower for adjusting all of your settings and your display is taken up by the menu screen so you can no longer see all your settings at once.

Crash course on DSLR, done!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Documentary Storytelling

I learned a few lessons from my recent Documentary Storytelling assignments.

This first one is that a doc that is as short as 90 seconds would greatly benefit from a little background music. Normally I'm not the biggest fan of throwing music at videos "just because" but when it comes to something so compact, music would have really helped the film feel more complete.

Secondly, hand signals are your friend. When filming with a DP, just grabbing the camera is a hard thing to avoid doing. Instead of getting frustrated, let the hand signals you use with your DP be your control. It helped to feel like Gerry (my camera operator for the shoot) was an extension of me instead of some other random person filming my shots. A production crew needs to be a cohesive unit, so letting go of some of that control is key. It's pretty difficult at first but once you hand over the reigns, it opens you up to pay attention to the other 400 things that are happening on a set, especially when you're filming documentary.

Third, don't be afraid to prompt people who are not actors. In narrative film it's easy to get away with manipulating ever small detail of the environment and the performance. Doing that in non fiction work can sometimes feel disingenuous. Don't be so hard on yourself. Stopping to say "Hey, that fan is making a weird noise, can I turn that off?" or "Does that lamp work? It's a little dark in that area of the frame." is not a crime. It's also not a crime to say, "Someone laughed in the other room during that, could you say that again?" or "That was worded a little strangely, could you be more concise with that statement?" People understand more about filming than a professional thinks sometimes and they won't be frightened or confused if you ask them to repeat something or silence their new puppy.

Filming real people is weird. Filming actors is weird. Filming in general IS WEIRD. Get comfortable with that awkwardness and then break through it. If you seem comfortable, your subjects will likely follow suit.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The 2014 Oscars

I'm amazed, astounded, and thoroughly pleased at how socially aware the Oscars were tonight. Same sex marriage, sexually transmitted diseases, modern day slavery, and feminism were all given a platform to be spoken about and to start a dialogue on change. The "biggest night in Hollywood" reminded me of why films are so important and that there is hope in the future of filmmaking. Films are about telling stories of the human condition and giving voices to the voiceless. It warms my heart to know that the Steve Mcqueens and NOT the Michael Bays are the future of film; to know that even with all of the ever growing technologies, film will not fall to the evils of the summer blockbuster. My personal thanks to the Academy and to all of the lovely winners tonight.