If you are a cinematographer on a plateau, an aspiring cinematographer or a student of cinematography you should take a look at my new online course.
Over a 40 year career I have seen and worked in film, video , HD and Digital. In many cases I helped in the development of the camera systems and filmstocks. All that gives me a pretty good insight into what you need as a Cinematographer to deliver innovative and creative work.
Setting up individual, great looking shots is easy but developing and maintaining lighting continuity and a strong visual style require a special understanding and set of skills.
The Adventures of Roman Pilgrim was one of, if not the, first Hi Def films for theatrical release shot in Australia.
The film, conceived, written, produced and directed by talented Aussie Filmmaker Anny Slater, shot on the Panavised SONY 950 camera in Tibooburra, far western NSW. It is a fantasy which, in brief, tells the story of a young boy searching the Aboriginal songlines for his “voice”.
“Roman” featured an original score by renowned Jazz Musician/Trumpet Player James Morrison with Christopher Horsey (“Bootmen”) as “Roman” starring and choreographer, The Topp Twins as “the Fates” , David Ngoombujarra (“Down & Under”) as “Albert”, Michael Veitch (“Fast Forward”) as the “Guardian of the Threshold, Taryn Laleen as “Spirit Guide”, John Morrison as “The Butcher” www.swingcity.com.au
As a side note, shooting at the intersection of Sth Australia, NSW, Qld and Northern Territory and working on a limited budget, we needed to shoot as much as possible available light with only reflectors, bounces and careful attention to sun position. All the dreamtime dance sequences were shot totally available daylight with each angle timed to the position of the sun.
After discussions with Anny we decided to shoot flat 2.35:1 aspect ratio on spherical lenses to make the most of the outback locations and the wide theatrical screen. The aspect ratio also worked well for the staging of many of the scenes which required vast wide shots as well as substantial separation between the actors.
Shooting 2.35:1 meant much attention would have to be paid to the horizon line, particularly as one of my pet peeves is horizon lines jumping up and down the screen in the edited scene. I wanted to overcome those jumps and, at the same time use the horizon as part of the storytelling.
I had shot a film many years earlier, In Broad Daylight starring Brian Dennehy and Marcia Gay Harden, about a guy who terrorized Skidmore Missouri, eventually to be gunned down by the townfolk (true story). My goal was to use the horizon to tell a subliminal part of the story.
In the early part of the film I wanted Brian to be towering over the landscape I shot from lower angles and in particular, on exteriors, kept the horizon running cutting Brian between chest and knees. As the film progressed I moved the horizon line higher until he was eventually trapped by the landscape.
In “Roman” my goal was the same. Use the horizon to help drive the story subliminally and that meant ensuring the horizon did not draw attention to itself by “jumping” up and down in the frame across edits.
I shot many tests on an SLR for “Roman” and decided to have a chat to my pal, one of America’s top artists, Eric Hopkins. Eric paints Maine landscapes and he tends to see his world from 10,000’. This obviously means he puts a lot of thought into placement of the horizon in his paintings. We had discussed horizons many times before but now the discussion could turn to implications for the moving image.
Who is Eric Hopkins? Watch the following short video I shot with Eric on his approach to horizons for another project several years back. He was in the process of taking his art 360 degrees by combining with glass.
I hopped an early morning ferry for the 60+ minute ride out to Eric’s studio on North Haven Island.
We talked at length about where the horizon should be, with my primary concern the “jumps”. I had an idea that the horizon could be played at angles through the frame which also meant the actors would be angled as well.
Eric grabbed some cardboard, cut out a 2.35:1 frame, drew a this line across a table and we started playing. We were both surprised to discover that the more off horizontal the horizon became, the more interesting the picture. However, that was great for static shots or one angle but how about intercutting?
I shot loads of stills, transferred them into Final Cut and edited shots into sequences and surprisingly, intercutting also worked better with large departures of the horizon from strictly horizontal. (Watch one of the tests below).
Next was to test the theory with people in the shot. I photographed family members in different compositions…WS, MS and CU and then cropped and dropped them into the frames with the horizon line. It worked, for intercut still frames so my theory was it should work when the actors and the camera were moving.
In fact it did, and it worked brilliantly (if I do say so myself). Strangely, when watching the film the angle of the horizon and the actors was not noticeable to audiences, unless they were told about it up front. If it was mentioned after a screening they could not recall.
Further, the actors, even though to camera at crazy angles, always appeared normal but with a tension and dynamic in each shot that would not have been apparent shot conventionally. Steadicam work was a challenge but Steadicam Operator Andrew “AJ” Johnson was all over the wacky angles and pulled off some stunning compound shots tracking the dancers and maintaining the horizon placement.
Sadly, you do not get the full impact of the technique on a small computer or tv screen. I really works best on a big screen. However, you will see in the following short assembly it does definitely add a different dynamic to the story.
We shot the film in Sydney, Australia in 2000…only a few months before the Olympic Games. Needless to say shooting on location for all the exteriors was a challenge, with all the advertising for the Games plastered on billboards, walls, shop windows, buses and taxi’s, requiring some creative angles and staging, particularly given there was little to no traffic control.
The film covers the life of the Three Stooges from their early days in Vaudeville in the 1920’s, through the creation of 22 years of shorts for Columbia Pictures to their “rebirth” on stage in Boston in 1959.
For budget reasons we shot on 16mm so rather than see that as a disadvantage I used the format as the basis of the visual style making use of the grain structure, higher contrast and color rendition. The increased depth of field would have posed a problem but I decided, as is pretty much normal for me, to shoot wide open for interiors and exteriors. This was only for the flashbacks and “current day” elements. The black and white shorts needed to be shot with very wide DOF.
Having to shoot 1959 as current day, the 20’s through ’59 as period flashbacks and also recreate, with absolute accuracy, several of their black and white shorts, was the real challenge.
I decided to shoot the bulk of the film in Super 16 with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This largely because the shorts, to be strictly accurate, had to be shot in a 1.33:1 ratio. Choosing the widescreen ratio for everything other than the shorts gave the shorts more “separation”.
The shorts also needed to be black and white.
I chose three filmstocks.
“current day” interiors and exteriors Eastman Kodak EXR 7248 100T
“flashbacks” interiors and exteriors Eastman Kodak EXR 7298 500T
“shorts” Eastman Kodak EXR 7245 50D
This choice gave me a variety of grain size and contrast so simply by changing the stocks I had higher contrast between all three elements. I added further to this by exposing all flashbacks at T2.8, all current day at T8 and all shorts at T16.
To develop the visual style for the show I decided on a shifting color palette through all the flashback and current day material using coral filters and slowly phasing them out as time progressed to shooting completely clean for the current day. Being on 16mm added grain, although shooting on the Kodak T grain stocks it was nowhere near as apparent as it would have been several years earlier. I used the grain as an element of the visual style.
The idea was current day would feel slightly colder, more neutral and have higher contrast whilst the flashbacks would start very warm and, by progressively decreasing the strength of the filtration, slowly bring the color to match the current day.
I used a combination of coral filters, black pro mists and the varicon for all the material other than the shorts and shot close to wide open on generally longer lenses where possible so depth of field was shallow. As we progressed through the years I slowly increased the lighting contrast, reduced the intensity of both the corals and pro mists and brought the look back to match “current day” 1959 with no filtration and higher contrast lighting.
The shorts required a great deal of research and some testing. We could not shoot black and white due to studio policy so had to go with color stock.
In the period the lighting on all the shorts was hard light, the sets were generally one wall sets (sometimes two) and most were shot on a single lens. Filmstocks were slow and lenses were not very fast so I figured choosing the 50ASA/ISO stock in combination with a T16 stop and hard light would bring me close to the original.
Director Jim Frawley had decided on the shorts we would shoot so working with Production Designer Larry Eastwood we decided to paint all sets in shades of grey, dress the actors in shades of grey through black and shoot on slow, 50D, daylight stock using HMI’s so there was no filtration and no need for tungsten daylight color balancing in the grade.
The other reason for the 50D is it behaved almost like a reversal so I had much higher contrast built in before putting up lights. This was further necessary as the original shorts were lit relatively flat and shot at a T8 stop.
Note: some of the shorts were presented in 4:3 and others in 1.85:1 The reasoning was to differentiate between screening room viewings and live action filming of the scenes.
Shooting the shorts and flashbacks on different stocks, at widely different apertures, led to another challenge as the Director wanted on camera transitions of the boys going from behind the scenes onto the B&W set and coming off set. This required very different lighting between the on set material and the behind the scenes material, as well as filtration.
To accommodate the transitions we carefully set up each transition so it was an individual shot on the 50D stock. I could light the behind the scenes area for a T2 and the shorts set to a 16 and we blocked the shot so I could execute a large iris pull which would be hidden in part of the set, the actors movement of by passing through a shadow. Of course in the grade each of those shots had to be graded to B&W. In the final edit only a few of the on camera transitions were included.
One of the biggest problems in the shoot was staging the scene with Curly and the clam chowder. It looks a very simple scene but the challenge was to shoot the scene on the equivalent of a 35mm lens (as it was in the original 35mm photography) whilst holding the top of the counter and framing over Curley’s head. The problem was to go wide enough to hold the shot we needed to go to an 18mm lens and pull further back…which made the shot very wide and we saw off set.
To come in close, as the camera was in the original, and shoot on the 35mm equivalent, we had to raise the counter to get the bowl in shot but the counter had to be so high it was ridiculous. After watching the original and trying multiple lenses and camera positions, one of the grips saw what was happening. Basically the camera would be set up in essentially one position and the set wall would be adjusted to accommodate the shot. Easy in most cases because the sets were only a single wall most of the time. So we popped on the 16mm lens, moved the set wall in until it matched the original shot and voila, problem solved.
We also made quite a lot of use of steadicam throughout on the “current” and flashback material….to help counterpoint the static nature of the shorts. Steadicam was used however, to drive the story, not as a gimmick, so the moving camera was always structured in to the storytelling rather than being an excuse to move the camera. Steadicam shots were used as single shots, not intercut with “coverage”.
This covers the basics of the development of the visual style for the film. If you have any questions you can contact me by email or through Facebook.
I used the Fill-Lite’s for the first time on the feature “Irrefutable Proof”, which shot in Syracuse NY, essentially lighting the entire movie with them. This Indie film was shot on a very tight budget with huge locations and required an innovative approach to the lighting to keep costs down and maintain a very strong visual style. Fill-Lite make an exceptional unit and this was my first chance to put them through their paces.
Having demo’d the units earlier in the year at a seminar I gave for Band Pro, I knew their potential but did not appreciate the usefulness and versatility of these small units until I had them on set.
“The Lady Pleaser” The quality of the light is astounding, dubbed by my crew “the lady pleaser”, great wrap and essentially the quality of a soft light thru 216 (without the 216). The fall off is relatively short which meant less cutting and shaping in tight locationsand being a square emitter they could easily be panned or tilted to control spill and intensity in different parts of the set.
I used them as singles, doubles and quads, to light masters and close-ups, green screen car scenes, men and women. For women, when punched thru diffusion, the light almost becomes a liquid. I also used them skirted as coup lights for large areas where they provided the perfect amount of base shooting on the Alexa at 800ISO, as fill on overcast day exteriors and in ultra low temps (-9 degrees and color temp and output did not change). In every situation these incredible units excelled. I will not be shooting again without them.
Their small compact size and amazing light quality make them ideal for shooting in very tight locations
Their small compact size and amazing light quality make them ideal for shooting in very tight locations as, at a little less than 1″ thick, they take up such a small amount of space. They are also supplied with brackets allowing them to be directly attached to set walls giving them an even smaller footprint. Compared to Kino Flo’s or Chimera’s, well there simply is no comparison, these little units outperform in every area.
No Heat-No Generator-Less Cost
Of course one of the big advantages of LED lighting in general is that they do not produce heat. Therefor almost all the electrical energy passing into the LED produces light so they are much more efficient. This allowed using the lower wattage lights off normal household circuits, so I was able to structure the lighting for the film around a lighting package that did not force us to carry a generator, other than a 6500W as a backup source or for remote locations. Any night exteriors were shot dusk for night.
Actors also loved the “no heat” aspect of the Fill-Lite’s .
“Say goodbye to moody Collateral-style movie shots: How LED street lights mean films set at night in LA and across the world will now be bathed in gray”
The story appeared in the Daily Mail and declares movies will never be the same again if global street lighting changes from Sodium Vapor to LED. It was obviously written by someone who was about, well lets just say not too old, or a movie critic, since I recall, not so long ago, lamenting the fact that the world had slowly become bathed in the ugly (and for a cinematographer difficult to control or balance) orange glow of sodium vapor lamps. Purportedly for the same reason everyone now wants to switch to LED…cost saving.
Whatever the reason all I can say is about time. The faster those awful orange sodium vapor lamps disappear the better, as far as I am concerned, and I am reasonably confident many DP’s will agree.
For the writer of the story I am confident there will be plenty of films shot under the new lights and, if an orange glow is required, I am equally confident we DP’s will have a good idea on how to achieve it.
Interview: Filming Halloween 5′s Laundry Chute Sequence With DP Rob Draper, ACS
By Christian Sellers
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers has long since divided fans of the series, with some feeling that the movie failed to live up to the comeback of The Return of Michael Myers and others appreciating the European feel that Swiss filmmaker Dominique Othenin-Girard brought to the picture. Arguably the movie’s stand-out moment is the sequence in which the young heroine (played by eleven-year old Danielle Harris) is trapped inside a laundry chute, as Michael repeatedly stabs his knife through the side. The scene would be the result of hard work and extensive preparation between Othenin-Girard and his director of photography, Robert Draper ACS, who would later shoot the cult horror flicks Tales from the Darkside: The Movie and Dr. Giggles.
Robert Draper talks Retro Slashers through the shooting of Halloween 5‘s laundry chute sequence.
QUESTION:How was the scene described in the script and what were your initial thoughts on how you would approach filming?
“I should start by saying that laundry chute sequence is one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever shot in my thirty years as a cinematographer. It was a challenge, both from a physical shooting point of view, from a lighting point of view and from a conceptual point of view. I remember reading the screenplay the first time and wondering, “How the hell are we going to shoot that?” It was a great challenge and resulted in a fantastic collaborative effort between myself, Dominique and Brent Swift, the production designer.
For Dominique and I, the single most important aspect of shooting this scene was to get the audience inside that chute with danielle. We figured if the audience could feel claustrophobic and dusty and the sense of panic then we would be 90% of the way home in achieving the intent of the scene. This of course required that we use wide lenses in close and in the chute that would not necessarily help with the claustrophobic feel… so we spent a lot of time working on how to get the audience into the chute to suffer along with Danielle.
The challenge with laundry chute was an obvious one, of course. We had an 18-inch square chute that went from the first floor into the basement of the building. Not only was it long chute with a very confined space but it was night with all the lights off in the house. So the compelling question was how do I light this and make it look believable when in reality it should be pitch black? So the twofold physical challenge was how do we actually lens the sequence and also, from the lighting viewpoint, how do I make it look believable? Of course one other factor… how do we get the camera into a laundry chute, or at least scale it to look believable? The genius behind that particular challenge was really the production designer, Brent Swift.
QUESTION: How organized was Dominique Othenin-Girard as a director and did he know exactly what he wanted and how it could be achieved with regards to this scene?
“Dominique was extremely well prepped for this entire film and he knew, shot-by-shot, how this film was going to go together right from the very start. This made shooting the entire film a real pleasure because Dominique had a very clear picture of what he wanted to see up on the screen and he had a very clear idea of what lenses he would like to use for each of the scenes.
On one hand, that made shooting a pleasure on the other hand it made shooting very difficult because Dominique wanted to use a lot of wide-angle lenses, very, very low, so quite often we would have the camera positioned in the corner of a room, on the floor, on an 18mm lens, which made lighting extremely difficult. In a dark film, you don’t want light coming from the direction of the camera as it destroys all the mood. Having the camera low and wide, seeing the whole room, made it impossible to light from behind the actors; essentially I had nowhere to hide the lights, so everything had to come from either outside (through windows, other rooms, etc.) or from behind the camera in such a way as to make it appear the light was coming from behind or to the side of the actors. It became quite a challenge to get the lighting to look believable and moody and atmospheric and get the drama cross. But it was one of those challenges that constantly pushes you to be inventive.
However, having said that, the look of the film was largely determined by the use of those wide-angle lenses and it was a fantastic choice and I think it gave Halloween 5 a slightly different look to all the other Halloweens, but it was certainly a challenge for me from a lighting perspective. But yeah, answering that question, Dominique was extremely well prepped on that film he he knew exactly how he was going to tell the story from start to finish, from day one.”
QUESTION: What is your usual method when reading a script and bringing it out from the page and onto the screen? Do you have a specific routine on how you break down each sequence?
“To be really honest I don’t really have a routine that I go through. I read the script and generally images will start to pop into my head and, after several readings, and a lot of notes and scribbles all over the script, I start to slowly put together an overall, broad brush version of how I see the film. I’ll read the script many many times. It is important for the DP (as well as the actors and director) to have the full story completely told well before shooting.
Given that no movie is shot in sequence, you need to have every scene clearly structured so when everything is assembled it makes sense from a lighting, movement and lensing perspective. I will have a lot of discussions with the director to get a clear picture of how he/she wants the story told and the same with the production designer. Armed with my thoughts and the director’s wishes, I will then start piecing the film together scene-by-scene, focusing on lighting continuity, lens choice, camera movement, color… all the elements.
I also like to have a chat to the editor before we start shooting to get an idea of how they see the film going together and quite often they will have some requests that will help them piece the film together better in the cutting room.
Overall, it’s a step-by-step process, but by the time shooting commences I can very clearly visualize the entire movie, scene-by-scene, in my mind… even to the extent of “pre-visualizing” it much the same way a downhill skier previsualizes the course before going onto the course.”
QUESTION: How detailed were the storyboards that you designed prior to filming and how long did these take to create?
“As I mentioned earlier, the real genius behind the physical staging of this scene was Brent Swift, the production designer. Dominique had a very clear idea of how he wanted to visualize the story and he and I talked through all the challenges we were facing. We had a storyboard artist draw a set of boards for the scene outlining all the shots and lens choices for each shot. Brent then took the storyboards, went off and designed all the set pieces needed to achieve the shots outlined in the boards. What he came up with was absolutely brilliant. I cannot remember how many panels were in the sequence but there were a lot. In the end there was somewhere in the range of thirty-five to forty different set pieces that made up the laundry chute sequence.
It took Brent quite a while to conceptualize everything and this was going on whilst we were already shooting. The day we shot the scene we arrived to set with all the individual set pieces laid out around the studio floor and each piece had a number. Then we had a large board with all the storyboard panels laid out in shooting order and each panel had a number corresponding to the matching set piece for that shot.
Basically, what we had was a very detailed shopping list of all the elements needed to tell the story. We essentially just moved across the panels and as each one was shot we put a big red cross through them all until we were done.
Of course, the editor had been involved on this one as well so we had editorial input to be sure all these elements would fit together seamlessly.”
QUESTION: There were several different versions of the chute that were built in order to complete this scene, including sections that were removable so the camera could film through and another where the camera was moved along on a skateboard. Can you talk us through each one and how they came together to make a whole sequence?
“Well there were too many set pieces to talk through all of them, but basically the way this worked was we had pieces of chute that were vertical with the sides cut out. We had pieces lying on their side, allowing us to “dolly” the camera inside the chute. We did that on a skateboard with a pole attached so we could roll it along in front of Danielle; use it to push in or as a moving POV. We had pieces with small windows cut in it so we could put Danielle inside a narrow chute and get her reactions. We had a single walled set piece which duplicated the wall with the chute door so that could be shot on the stage. There were places where we could remove panels, there was everything you can imagine, as I said the thirty-five to forty set pieces.
One of the shots that really sells the laundry chute sequence is the shot in the basement when Danielle falls down the chute and hits the bottom. I love that shot.
We did it in the house with a set piece and dropped a bag of sand down the chute, filming is at normal speed and over-cranked. The slo-mo shot gave the impact and, of course, we loaded in plenty of fuller’s earth to give a nice backlit dust effect, which all added to the impact. To me, this one shot really sold the fact that Danielle was in the chute and made it all the more powerful when Michael started hacking away at the chute.”
QUESTION: Did Danielle Harris perform during the entire scene or was there a stunt double for the more difficult moments?
“To be honest I cannot recall but I am pretty sure Danielle did everything in the laundry chute sequence, largely because it was all on set and very controlled. We did have a stunt double for Danielle on the movie but I don’t recall the double did any of the shots in the laundry chute sequence.I remember when we shot the scene in the laundry room in the basement, running Danielle ragged as we had to do quite a few takes to piece that together”
QUESTION: Don Shanks was using a real knife to cut through the side of the chute; was Danielle ever inside at the time or were these shots filmed separately?
“No, Danielle was never inside the chute when Don was actually doing the stabbing shots and, in fact, we did do shots where you can see Danielle’s legs inside the chute when Don was stabbing, but they were with prosthetic legs. We obviously couldn’t have a real actress in there with a real knife going through it.”
QUESTION: There was a gag that was cut from the final version where Michael stabs Jamie in the leg. For this, KNB built a fake leg that spurted blood, but this was cut prior to release. Do you recall filming this part and can you describe the effect?
“Yes it was a great shot; there were actually three shots in the film that were cut – one was a close up of the three-pronged gardening tool going into the guy’s head, the shot of the pitchfork coming out of the actors chest and the other was the knife going into Danielle’s leg.
It was just a little bit too gruesome and watching it through the camera, it really made your stomach turn seeing the knife go straight into the leg. Then, when the knife came out, KNB did a great blood gag but it was all a bit too gruesome. Obviously, this was all done with a prosthetic leg with blood squirting out, but it was a pretty gruesome shot and I guess the producers decided it was a little bit too much… although these days it would not be a problem. I think it was probably more to do with seeing a young girl actually stabbed that was the issue.”
QUESTION: Was the entire sequence shot in one night and how far into principal photography was this? Where did the filming of this scene take place?
“The entire laundry chute sequence was shot all in one night, a long night, and it was shot in a warehouse just out of Salt Lake City. All the set pieces were built well ahead of time and everything was lined up as I described earlier. We shot the scene towards the end of the schedule because it needed a lot of time to make sure we had all the set pieces we needed and we made several checks to be sure everything was going to cut together well.
Dominique, Brent, the 1st AD and I also had several meetings before shooting the sequence to go through it several times to make sure we had everything in place to give this the impact that it needed and to be sure we did not leave anything out. We did not shoot the scene in sequence; it was just one element at a time until we had all the “building blocks” we needed.
Ultimately, there was a lot of work went into this scene and it really paid off as one of the most compelling scenes of the entire film. I am quite proud of it and I think Dominique and Brent were extremely proud of it as well. It was quite an achievement to take so many set pieces and have them integrated into a believable coherent sequence. In the finished film, you would swear it was shot inside the chute. As I said, the intention was that we would place the audience inside the chute with Danielle and I think we really achieved that.”
QUESTION: Do you feel that the hard work paid off and how do you feel when you watch this sequence? Is this a moment in your career that you are proud of and how do you feel about the movie itself?
“Yes, I think the hard work definitely paid off as it was one of the climactic scenes of the film, so it was important for it to work and it worked really well. When I watch the sequence I really do feel I am inside the chute with Danielle and it has all the elements we set out to capture.
So yeah, I think it definitely paid off and when I watch it now I still think that it’s an extremely believable sequence. It does feel like the camera is inside the chute with Danielle, which is what we set out to achieve and it really helps sell the fact that Michael Myers is after her when she is trapped in the small confined space.
I’m proud of this sequence and I’m proud of the film and I especially like the fact that 5 is consistently voted by fans as one of the best of the series.
It was a tough shoot, was not a big budget and and everyone pulled together did a great job and Dominique did a brilliant job directing it with a very clear, concise concept of what he wanted and how we wanted to achieve it. To that end, we methodically went through and fabricated a film that still entertains audiences and, judging from audience response, it still goes down as one of the all-time favorites of the Halloween series.”