Archive for category camerawork

Film lighting

What is ‘film lighting’, and do we need it? Will we ever be able to just turn on our camcorders and start shooting without making any effort or giving any thought to lighting the scene? Possibly, in a galaxy far, far away where they have special ‘lighting droids’ which assist the cinematographer by beeping, refusing donuts and running up and down ladders all day without complaint. At the moment though, as filmmakers, we need to think about the direction, colour and quality of light and how it helps us to tell our story.

Why do we need lighting?

Lighting our films creates depth, atmosphere and a type of ‘reality’ that engages the viewer’s brain and helps create the believability necessary to sustain the world we’re depicting. Flat, dull and lifeless scenes just give the viewer a reason to stop downloading press ‘eject’ on the dvd player.

How do use light?

Light is used to ‘model’ the subjects or actors we shoot. Next time you watch one of your favourite movies check out any scene with faces in it. Chances are you will see a shadow on one side of the nose and a patch of brightness under the left or right eye. This indicates a light source placed in front of the subject, a bit higher than their height and also off to the left or right side by about 45 degrees. This is an important position for a light in order to create good ‘modelling’ on an actor and will probably be their ‘key’ or main illumination in that particular shot. This modelling is then built up with side lights, back lights, top lights and so on all helping to separate the subject from the background and realise that all important feeling of ‘depth’.

Two dimensions or three?

Film and video lighting is about creating three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional medium. Without the contrast of light and shadow, shooting with a camera – even if it’s the best camera in the world – will produce images that are flat and uninteresting. It is up to the film-maker working with a DP (and everyone else) to create that interest and bring the film to life.

Do we need lamps?

If you don’t have access to lights or don’t know how to light properly, you can still work with what is available naturally. Some directors of photography only work with light found on location, practical lamps and so on; some use combinations of mirrors to direct sunlight into the correct positions without any electrical lamps at all. You might say you are only limited by time and your own inventiveness.

Use what’s available.

If you don’t have room in your budget for lighting equipment then sunlight and location ‘house’ lights will be your sources. You will have to position your subjects in the most favourable positions. For example, when shooting outside, a good rule of thumb is to keep the sun behind the camera and off to one or other side (similar to the 45 degree key light); this will create at least some basic modelling on your actor. It is always a good idea to avoid having the sun in front of the camera lens or behind the subject that you’re filming in order to minimise under-lit faces, flares etc although this is one way to achieve any silhouette effects.

Sunshine and rain

If you are outside on a cloudy day there isn’t a great deal you can do to make things look good if you’re lacking in lights; everything will be pretty flat and shadowless as the sky is one big source of diffused light. However, sunlight will create very bright and very dark shadow areas in the same shot and exterior shooting almost always involves the generous use of reflectors; these are specially made or improvised highly reflective surfaces that can be used to direct light into shadow areas making them less dark. This ‘fill’ in or ‘bounce’ light makes the contrast less noticeable and the ratio of light (the range of exposures) easier for the camera to deal with.

Lighting styles

Lighting for film also involves choices such as what ‘style’ to use to best express the story we are telling. Soft and hard lighting, high key and low key and high contrast/low contrast and others all help to generate different reactions within the viewer by communicating visually, the various aspects of the human experience.

Cameras don’t yet match our brains

We are blessed with an incredible image-making system built into our brains that helps us interpret the world we live in; it is very difficult for a recording medium to reproduce that to the level we’re used to. It’s getting closer all the time but we still need to build those three-dimensions to transport our audience out of the cinema, bedroom or beach hut and into our film’s reality. The most important part of filmmaking will always be the story and if that’s good enough you could shoot on pixel vision and still make it compelling for people to watch but the art of cinematography and the skill of the D.P. will enhance and complement your movie-making immeasurably and produce a more satisfying and memorable experience for everyone.

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Filmmaking: Finding a Director of Photography

Finding a Director of Photography (shortened to D.P. or D.O.P.) or Cinematographer can be complicated. Do you go for someone you know who may be able to do the job or do you look further afield? In the beginning when you are starting out, it’s probably easier to use the contacts you have but as your projects become more sophisticated, you may have to employ a seasoned professional.

DP’s generally fall into three categories:

  • those who light to make it look good.
  • those who light to make it look good and tell the story.
  • those who say they can but actually couldn’t light their own granny, (Luckily, few and far between but they do exist!)

All things being equal, you want the guy or gal in the middle. These are the people who will use their understanding of cinematography to express all the elements of your story and it’s characters. They may be more or less than wholly successful but their intention is the right one.

How then do you go about deciding who is the right person to work with? Here are some tips:

  1. Obviously, view the show reels of prospective D.P.’s/ this will give you an good idea of their work.
  2. Send a script before meeting. People are busy but D.P.’s, if interested, should be able and will want to read a script pretty quick
  3. Meet informally to discuss the film, choice of styles and creative issues.
  4. Be prepared to answer questions about characters, motivation etc .A good D.P. will have suggestions and won’t just be a ‘yes man’. This is a creative role and they will most likely be ‘thinkers’ and leaders. They will often challenge the way you think a about certain things.
  5. Be aware if someone just agrees with your every idea, this could denote a lack of ideas or confidence or leadership ability.
  6. Based on your answers a good D.P. may choose not to work with you! They have a reputation to protect/build and wont work with just anyone. (if you do have a poor script/personality you better have a lot of money!).
  7. References: Contact other producers and directors who have worked with the same person and get their view.
  8. Make sure you can get on personally. You will be working very closely together over a number of weeks of the shoot both before and after in pre-and post production so be certain you can work through any disagreements or differences of opinions amicably and maturely.

Finding a D.P. to work with is something all aspiring and established film makers have to deal with at some time. Ideally you will find someone you can work with again and again on different projects and thereby create a successful relationship of mutual respect and admiration.

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Acting tips: Hitting your marks for position, framing and focus.

As an actor and not a film maker, no-one really explains to you what all these technical details are that need to be arranged for each scene,take and shot. In a sense, actors shouldn’t be distracted by technical stuff; it shouldn’t be a distraction. However, when starting out, actors are often left in the dark about the film making process when just a little bit of knowledge would actually help you understand more clearly what is required. Becoming familiar with these film production techniques will help you interpret what the director and crew are after. Let’s look at some of these details now in this basic ‘acting lesson’ for camera.

The importance of hitting marks

‘Marks’ are used all the time on set for many things. White camera tape can mark the position of moving cameras, points of focus over distances and people’s positions in shot and in frame.

When it comes to marks for a character’s position, an actor should try to ‘hit’ the marks correctly through each successive take. The camera and lighting will both be focused on this particular area to make the subject look as good as possible, as sharp as possible or achieve whatever purpose the Director and D.P. have decided. With lighting, after a couple of takes (if you have that long) you will know when you are in the light and when you are not and this is an awareness and knowledge that, as an actor, you will pick up as you gain in experience and time spent on set.

Movement in frame

Often when you are in tight framing such as a close-up (CU) or extreme close-up (XCU), movement must be kept to a minimum. The director will most likely tell you when you are in this sort of framing and communicate the necessity of remaining ‘still’ once you walk or lean into frame. Any excessive movement of the head and shoulders will mean you move in and out of the frame or focus. If you imagine yourself projected onto the big screen in a tight shot, the slightest movement will be exaggerated to a large degree; quite a dizzying experience for the viewer.

Hitting marks for focus

When it comes to knowing when you are ‘in’ and ‘out’ of focus and how much of you is in frame; you will probably not know. Really, you will never need to concern yourself about it. Marks are crucial here for focus, unless there is sufficient depth of field (area of focus); the camera assistant will know this and be adjusting during the take. If an actor is as little as a few inches off mark, they can sometimes be out of focus and this is where consistency and accuracy for hitting those positions each time comes in.

A digital camera operator or camera assistant will often ask an actor to look straight into camera when they are standing on their positional marks. This enables the assistant to use actors’ eyes as an object of focus. With the camera lens ‘zoomed’ in, accurate lens focus is made using the whites of the eye. The lens is then returned to the correct size for the upcoming shot.

If a crew is working with ‘prime lenses’ (lenses that have one focal length) a ‘focus puller’ will measure the distance from the camera lens to the subject of the shot and correct the focus manually using the distance marks on the lens focus ring.

When the camera crew ask an actor to do something, like look into camera, it is important for that actor to have patience and remain still while the crew make the measurements they need. Not being distracted by other actors and the activity around you is desirable and the crew will love you for it.

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