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.
I have had many questions regarding lighting for some of the dramatized battle re-enactment scenes in “The Crater”.
The lighting plan was simple, there were essentially no lights.
The concept called for very minimal lighting as Director, David Bradbury, wanted absolute realism and the nights of the battle, as described by the Vets who were there, “were pitch black, no moon, nothing, just black”. Helping keep to this plan was the fact this was being done on a vey tight budget so there was no financial room for condors with 12K’s, balloons, Musco, generators, etc. to light the huge battle field for the all night time battle scenes.
The lighting plan involved playing the battle in “layers”, lighting, at very low intensity, the background and then allowing flares, explosions and muzzle flash to light the middle ground and foreground with no additional supplemental foreground lighting.
Essentially everything played in silhouette unless “soldiers” were captured on camera during an explosion or muzzle flash.
Each sequence was staged by laying down smoke from explosive pots in the deep background. This was lit by the explosions themselves and by a single 5K backlighting the smoke at extremely low level. Next the explosions moved progressively towards camera laying more smoke and the middle ground and foreground was the charging troops and lots of muzzle flash. Essentially everything played in silhouette unless “soldiers” were captured on camera during an explosion or muzzle flash. The added benefit of this was no-one (particularly the camera operators) had any idea where anyone was except when there was light…..again, exactly as experienced by those who were there, and this, adding to the realism.
Ultimately the effect was to create as much disorientation and chaos as possible so nothing was evenly lit and only fleeting glimpses of the action were visible. Exactly as it was described by the Vets.
The day ext of the Aussie soldiers after the bombing was shot about 30 minutes after sunset with only ambient light. The scene in the command center using only 100W Tungsten bulbs dimmed to about 50% to get the warmth.
One lighting unit I was able to use was the searchlight mounted on the Centurion tank. These were used in an on/off fashion during the battle when the North Vietnamese soldiers were attacking. The actual light (part of the Centurion Tank) was a 1 million candlepower Xenon that was mounted just above the gun and provided some serious illumination on the battlefield. Of course during battle this light never remained on and was only used in occasional very brief bursts to locate the attacking soldiers causing momentary blindness and making them easy targets for the 50 caliber machine guns.
“The Crater” was screened in Australia on April 25th as part of the Anzac Day, Gallipoli Centenary Celebrations.
I have had a few emails today regarding my earlier Facebook post. I was questioned as to why the images did not look like they were shot on Alexa or Canon 5D (two of the camera’s I used for the shoot). My response is….what should images from the Alexa and Canon 5D look like? Is there a rule for using those camera’s or do they have a very special signature that says…this image was shot on a “this or that” camera. It seems most these days regard a good image as something with shallow depth of field and sharp as a tack. Continue reading →