In many films today, there is almost a cross process richness to the colors
in the picture and the whites get blown out. There is also a very grainy
texture and sharpness to the picture. Certain examples come to mind like
U-turn by Oliver Stone it seems to be the DP Robert Richardson's personal
style.  Other examples are Traffic and Mexico. My question is, is this
usually done in post production, digitally or in developing the film? Is
there a certain film you need to use or lighting technique to get this
effect? Can you fake this digitally without looking too cheesy.

I understand that in these examples it was done to portray the heat (desert,
Mexico, South America etc...) and for stylistic reasons, but are there other
reasons for which it is done? Such as, a good way to cover up low quality
film formats or cheaper production processes?
--Keith (Boston)

Of the examples you mention, Traffic was shot digitally, using a high-end
camera, and shot by the director with no DP involved.  He did this
deliberately to get the "rough" look that he was after.  Much of the colour
was graded afterwards.  Richardson loves to use many cameras, formats and
techniques to obtain some of the wild imagery In U-Turn and other Stone
movies.  Richardson is one of the most stimulating DP's working today as he
is never afraid to try anything.  I would definitely put his work in the
"pre-visualised" category.  Others may play about afterwards and alter the
images digitally, but as far as I know he has not done this.
Sometimes these "techniques" are used to cover up low quality work, but in
the end "fake" is fake and audiences always sense this.
There are many influences in achieving "the look", and whatever journalists
and writers may analyse about a movie afterwards, each movie's "tone" comes
about through a unique and temporary juxtaposition of circumstances, never
to be repeated.
This is why sequels rarely work.

In movies such as American Beauty and Under Suspicion where consumer
camcorders are used, are the images we see actualy video, and are they from
that camcorder, or are these film which have been treated to look live
video. If these bits were shot on video what format was used, mini-dv,
dvcam, digibeta?

Ed Macey - MacLeod

The answer to this is yes, maybe, probably and no, but not necessarily in
that order! Each cinematographer will have differing views as to how to
shoot that type of material.  One might want the actor to use the DV cam
then actually use the footage, whatever it's like (for "authenticity").
Another might want more control and shoot on Digibeta or film and then
"degrade" it afterwards.  It's a lot easier to degrade and image than
"enhance" an image.  My preference is to shoot it "for real": if the actor
is holding a miniDV then shoot with the actual camera.  Have him shoot it,
look at it and if it needs something different shoot it yourself when he's
gone out the room!

Is there, nowadays, a fundamental difference in lighting a European film
compared to a Hollywood film? When working on a Hollywood production with a
director like Lasse Hallstrom, do you have to adapt to another (American?)
style of working/lighting/using the camera?

Thanks and regards, DC

It's curious how often versions of this question come up.   Film making does
not have a nationality -  and quite why a film directed by Lasse Hallstrom
(who is Swedish), shot in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, edited in New York
with visual effects done in London,  qualifies as a "Hollywood" film I don't
know - is it because Miramax (part of Disney) produced it? If a fella from
Hollywood paid you to build a house in Newfoundland does than make it a
Hollywood house?  If you drove by it and it looked like a Hollywood house,
then the answer might be yes, but hopefully the house would blend in with
its surroundings and then you would assume it was local. "Hollywood" (a
place like Notting Hill is a place) is somewhere that a lot of cheques get
issued for making films - what the film makers do with the films, and the
style they shoot them in is another matter entirely.

There are differences in the way the crew operates in different countries
(like having Key Grips everywhere except the UK), but the crew adapts to the
DP and Director rather than the other way round. All scripts suggest a
style, and this style comes from the Drama, not from the nationality.

Dear Mr. Stapleton,

I am interested to know your views on using filtration in the camera to
create colour effects or if you would always avoid this and make alterations
in your lighting instead. Also what are your experiences of digital
intermediate grading (such as Roger Deakins used for "O Brother," ) and do
you feel that the new technology will inform the way you shoot. Regards, *
Simon Vickery

Colour filters on the lens effect the whole of the frame, so you have a
saturated filter to achieve something that you couldn't achieve afterwards
in grading/timing.  If you put a deep red filter on the lens you get a deep
red picture which you couldn't achieve in the lab, though you could on a
computer. If you look at Shrek, or one of the other movies using
animation/computer graphics you can see just how far photo-realism has
come the last few years.  At the moment they are being used for fantasy and
sci-fi subjects, but just around the corner someone will generate the first
street -look doco-hard-case-violence-confusion movie.   Already the media
is battling with all the traditional boundaries of look being broken, so
the future is clearly a free-for-all based on all the new toys.  Once the
toys aren't new anymore things will settle down into a new standard.  In
that sense the new technology informs the way I shoot ? though I shoot in
a very traditional way compared to what is going on today. That's because I
work on films that are telling a story rather than making a couple of hours
of razzle-dazzle.  The restraint shown by the animators in Shrek, and their
concentration on story-telling is what makes the film so successful.  By
going for a consistent  reality ? albeit a non-photographic one -  their
characters come to life in an extraordinary way.

 Dear Mr. Stapleton,

I was wondering, I've seen documentaries on the making of films, and the
lighting on the set looks completely different from what the film actually
looks like. Is it because of lens, film stock, or am I not getting the whole
picture, for example I'm only seeing the set for a few seconds.

Sincerely, Tallman Boyd

What you are seeing, Tallman, is essentially the difference between film and
video.  The reason the set looks terrible, overlit and devoid of atmosphere
is that there is a videographer at work, and not a cinematographer: and that
unfortunate individual may be able to create very good work when he or she
has the control of the light and is able to balance it correctly for video,
but when you point a news gathering type camera at a film set you are
going to get a news gathering look.  You have done us all a favour by
pointing this out, because it actually is a wonderful illustration of the
craft of the Cinematographer: the lighting is designed for the
lens/stock/lab process that has been carefully thought out by the
Cinematographer to achieve the look.   This means that when you point a
different device at the same set, the magic disappears and you just have a
recording rather than a crafted image. Viva Film!

I know the look of films can (especially, it seems, nowadays) vary a lot,
down to the discretion of the cinematographer, but it's clear that the look
of most Hollywood films has changed gradually and clearly over the decades.
What exactly is it that has changed in cinematography (and cameras and
stock) to create this evolution in look?


To answer the question backwards, the cameras and lenses have influenced the
change in "look" the least.  The cameras have got smaller and lighter (and
some "specials" like the Eyemo specially small for stunt work etc): this has
made the "trick" shot more possible, but you only have to look at Abel
Ganz's Napolean to realise that wild camera work has been around a very long
time. Modern lenses are an enormous "improvement" on old lenses: but it is
surprising how many cinematographers don't like clean/sharp lenses and will
either use old ones, or filter the new ones heavily. The most gains have
been made in providing a T2 stop that has almost as high a resolution as a
T5.6: and all this with little flare.  Sharpness is a double-edged sword -
some digital videographers have found the artificial sharpness created in
the digi world reveals the make-up in a way that is far from flattering.
Lighting units are pretty much what they always have been, except that they
are brighter, smaller, lighter.  Stocks are less grainy, sharper, faster. So
all in all, it is more a change in sensibility than a change in technology.
What is regarded as "slick" in cinematography today was looked at as a sin
even 30 years ago.  A classic cinematographer would regard many of today's
films as looking over-lit and "electric". Massive beams of light penetrating
smoke through every window would be a case in point: the world only had one
sun when I last looked. MTV and commercials have influenced modern movies
and cinematography styles: The conundrum for today's cinematographer is that
you want your work to be noticed, so make it loud - to be seen above the
din. But brash cinematography works well on MTV and commercials, but isn't
always the right answer for a feature... They'll always be change, and some
of it will be for the better.. But Fake is Fake and an audience will always
feel it even if they can't put a finger on why. One of the most bizarre
things about today's natural colour is that it is a far cry from the
natural colour of 20 years ago, which shows that we learn what is natural
in the world of photographic reproduction: and that perception is made in
the context of a changing society. When we subject colour reproduction to
the influences of a materialist view of life, the notion that colour
reproduction will continue to become better is fraught with problems: what
does better mean in relation to photographic reproduction: does it mean
brighter, sharper, more real (whatever that is). The only improvement
I can see that makes sense is for faster stocks (5000ASA and more) to have
similar resolution and colour fidelity as today's slower stocks. The
constant criticism levelled at Digi reproduction is that it is too sharp,
lacks life, doesn't have the film look.  As film-makers divide either
side of the Digi line over the next decade, it will be no doubt the greatest
change yet in what looks normal on our cinema screens.  Just as virtually
every still image you see in a magazine these days is a photoshop
manipulation, so more and more shots in any given film are computer
manipulated.  Whether this constitutes a weakening of the Art of Film is the
subject of the debate.

I recently completed a low-budget short film, on 16mm. I lit the
film very simply as I only had a few lights at my disposal. Still, I feel
that with what I did have, I could've come up with better results. Now, this
was my first film, and I did it to learn, but the main question I have going
into my next project is this: Is there any particular setup that you or
"most cinematographers" use that gets an initial "Hollywood Look" that you
then alter or add to as needed for the scene? For instance, I've always read
about three-point setups, with Key, Fill, and Back lights, but when I
studied some films recently, like JURASSIC PARK, I found something a little
different. It was pretty consistently lit throughout the film, inside and
outside: Three (or Four) main sources. First a fairly soft Key light,
usually at a pretty hard angle from one side. Two kickers from both left and
right and almost directly behind the subject for rimlighting on both sides,
and a hairlight for rimming the top of the head. In addition to these main
sources, there was little else except for the obvious background lighting
and soft fills here and there. (I like the way Dean Cundey used background
practicals to justify rim lighting.)

So, to repeat my question after all that gibberish: Is there any particular
setup that you or "most cinematographers" use that gets an initial
"Hollywood Look" that you then alter or add to as needed for the scene?

Thank you for your attention in this matter.

-Will Nicholson

Hello Will, I don't really know what the "Hollywood Look" is but my advice
would be to avoid it, assuming you manage to identify it.  I've never found
copying anything to be either stimulating or satisfying: best to work from
what is there, and if it isn't there, have a word with the designer!  There
is a "look" attached to, say, Romantic Comedies (soft, no shadows) and
Action films (blue, smoke etc) but it's very easy to find examples that
don't conform to the norm, and they'll usually be the better for it. As well
as studying the light used by cinematographers, look at the light provided
for you every day in the world around you. Many a time I have arrived on a
location in the morning and thought: it should look just like it does now
(ie the natural light). Learning how to do that takes a while and it never
seems to be complete: but the journeys the thing.

 How did Stanley Kubrick manage to give his films a distinctive
look? The shots seem to capture the certain dimensions of a room or even a
person's face. I heard he used to apply photographic lenses to the cameras
he shot with but I'm still puzzled as his films look unlike any others I
have ever seen.

Andrew, Sydney.

Thank you for a stimulating question. Kubrick had a background in
photo-journalism and his first movies were documentaries which he shot
himself: viz Day of the Fight (1951) Flying Padre (1951) Seafarers, The
(1952) Fear and Desire (1953) He also shot his first feature film - Killer's
Kiss (1955), which shows a strong sense of composition and tone which would
continue throughout his work, even when he employed other cinematographers.
His later films never used the same cinematographer twice, with the notable
exception of John Alcott. Here's the list: Lucien Ballard - The Killing
(1956) George Kraus - Paths of Glory (1957) Russell Metty - Spartacus (1960)
Ossie Morris (Lolita 1962) Gil Taylor - Strangelove (1964) Geoff Unsworth ?
2001, A Space Odessy (1968) John Alcott - Barry Lyndon(1975), Clockwork
Orange(1971). Doug Milsome - Full Metal Jacket (1987) Larry Smith ? Eyes
Wide Shut (1999)

I spoke to Jo Dunton, who provided equipment and gismo's for some of
Kubricks films, who said that Kubrick had a strong hand in both the
composition and lighting of his films.  He would always polaroid each
scene, and have the lab print a lighter and a darker one light print of
each set-up.  No-one would ever see anything he shot until he handed it in
at the end: not even the lab! Kubrick really understood cinematography, and
experimented a great deal for each film, often lighting scenes entirely with
practicals and virtually no movie lights.  He used wide-angle lenses a
lot, and was not afraid to shoot very close with wide angle lenses. With his
passing, we have lost one of the great eccentric genius's of film: a man who
knew exactly what he wanted and wasn't afraid to make the demands of people
that would enable him to get it.

I just wrote a screenplay for a short film I will direct myself. It's about
a woman (alcoholic) who leaves a bar (her psychological 'home') where only a
few men still are. It's late at night. Once she's on the streets, which are
deserted, she becomes insecure and she thinks that somebody's following her.

Focusing on her and her state of mind, she ultimately panics and starts
running. All the time the viewers must think that somebody is really
following her. There is no dialogue, only her breathing, footsteps and her
heartbeat. At the end of the film the viewers know that it's all
metaphorical for her state of mind.

My question: How can I get [the] most pace in the film and make it a
thriller, focusing on her and knowing that I must mislead the viewers till
the end? The bar must be warm, so warm colours (red, yellow) I think are
evident, but what to do on the streets (colors etc)?  And the final, in the
field, is a questionmark. I want the viewers to say 'ohhhhh'.


.. the final, in the field, is a questionmark. I'm not sure I understand
the above sentence, so I'll leave out any comments about the end.. remember
that a directors intentions have to be translated by those he or she is
working with, so clarity is a good start! The most obvious device is to have
the camera follow your subject down the street handheld, this will
immediately give the impression that there is someone following.  The
thriller aspect is very much a lighting choice - use hard light with
shadows, silhouette etc. if the streetlights are sodium use a suitable gel
on the lights so the light feels like it's coming from the streetlight.
You could devise an Orson Welles moment with a shadow apparantly belonging
to your leading actor but turns out to part company from her.  Using
alleyways etc for the camera to peek around walls to see your actor will
create tension.. If she's running you might want to use a wheelchair or a
car to hand hold the camera..  After all this you might want to devise an
ending that doesn't leave your audience suspended in mid-air!

Dear Oliver, I am a no-budget filmer and want to take shots in
the woods with fog and mist. We won't have power supply for an electrical
fog machine, though. What other options do you know of? Do you have any
advice for taking shots in the fog? Cheers, Andre

There are so called fog filters made by Tiffen and Harrison which can help
in your situation.  They come in different densities, and you can even get
them graduated so just the top of frame in fogged.  However these filters
don't really make a wood look foggy for the simple reason that real fog in
less dense in the foreground and more dense in the background - something
you can't do with a filter.  Also light interacts with mist/fog in the ways
that make it special. Don't forget that a simple 1K Honda garden generator
would power a fog machine and give you a much better result. If the noise is
a problem, dig a hole!

 How do you decide the shade, mood and texture (Basic visual theme
of a film) to shoot a film or scene? --yAzZ.

I'll try to answer the question in relation to a film, rather than a scene,
as to some extent the one follows from the other. The key decisions are made
in pre-production. The elements involved are: 1. The Script: read, absorb,
think, imagine then do it all again. 2. The Director. What
films/books/plays/art or anything does the Director think relate to the work
at hand.  Some Directors will volunteer this information - some you have to
squeeze out of them. 3. The Production Designer. Talk, go to lunch, hang
out.  Look at anything from location photos to Paintings/Films etc. Talk
about the script, the director anything that relates. 4. The Costume
Designer. Same as above and, most important, make sure they're talking to
each other and avoid the red dress on the red sofa. 5. Make-Up - this might
have special requirements - does the leading actress have skin trouble etc!
The above is the practical stuff that leads to film tests, which for me are
the most important part of pre-production.  This is where you try things out
and the feedback from the Director is crucial here.  This is a chance to put
something on the screen that is related to the film and discuss it.  It's a
good time to be extreme, take risks and screw up if necessary: subsequent
chats with the Director will start to guide the look. It's important not
to involve anyone except the creative people in this process. Once you've
shot the first few days, the rest of the film should fall into place,
because you've got a strong sense by then of what's appropriate to any given
scene within the film. These are just a few notes about what is a very long

 I've noticed many films, music videos and commercial these days
employ a very stylistic "look" to their films, often with very deep
contrast, saturated colors, etc. This look (most evident in the films
produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and most music videos) differs quite a bit
from traditional filmmaking. my question is, how is this done? do DPs expose
normally and change the colors during the telecine, or is it done during the
development process (like skip bleaching), or during production with gels,
filters, etc? how do you get the colors the way they are in a film like "The
Cell"? I'm a film student and they don't teach you that in film school.
Thanks a lot.

MJ Woo

This is another lengthy topic, but here are some facts: 1. Overexposure and
printing down increases colour saturation. 2. Some stocks are more
colourful than others. 3. Skip bleach increases contrast and de-saturates
colour. 4. Digital grading (not available normally in the feature film
process) allows adjustment of contrast and treatment of individual colours
in terms of saturation, hue and brightness. 5. Lighting a colour with it's
own colour ie a green gell on a light that is lighting green leaves, will
increase colour saturation and the reverse is also true. 6. Production
design is the single most important factor in the colour of a film.

I am a beginning filmmaker and am looking to shoot a low-budget short film (less then 1 hour, but not a short) on 16mm film. After it's shot, we're going to have the film transferred to DV for editing on a computer. The final output format is tape/DVD. My question is: what are some things I can do to make the final film look as close to a 35mm color-corrected big-budget feature as possible? -Joel

First of all, Shoot is Super 16mm both for the ratio which is 16:9 ish and for the extra quality from the increased use of the negative.  The remember that the depth of 16mm is greater than that of 35mm, so if you want the 35mm look then use wide apertures and longer lenses to create less depth of field.  The transfer is the crucial part of the process.  Make sure you are there supervising every shot as it comes off the negative.  Colour corrections can be made later, but the initial transfer defines the parameters within which you can make later changes so it is important to have that transfer match exactly what you intended when you shot it.  Don't forget that the post-production house where you do the work is investing time and effort in making relationships with aspiring producers and DP's, so if you beg for the extra half hour or whatever it takes to get it right, the good ones will give it to you.  Having said that, the answer to quality is always not in the format but in the lighting.  Lighting is the key to mood and atmosphere ? so that's where your concentration should go.  Big Budget is mostly Big for a few people like Film Stars ? the rest of us make do with whatever we can lay our hands on!

I noticed that in the action and fight scenes in films such as Gladiator, the Patriot,  Mission Impossible II, and Saving Private Ryan, the images looked very "edgy", "contrasty", and "fast"(especially when the actors where in constant motion). At first I thought that the scenes were shot on digital video, but I could tell that they had grain. Also on the beginning of the film Catch Me If You Can, in the scene when Tom Hanks was talking to the French policemen in the rain, the same look was there, but it wasn't an action scene. I would be very glad if you can explain how cinematographers create this sort of " hard', "edgy", "fast", look.

Thank you,

Chances are that all these examples were created in different ways. edgy images are a combination of choices that may or may not include the following techniques:
1. Hand-held camera work
2. Wide angle lenses and very long lenses
3. Bleach by-pass processing (increases the contrast and de-saturates the colour)
4. Shallow depth of focus (wide open apertures)
5. small shutter angle creating strobing
6. slow-motion combined (or not) with narrow shutter
7. CGI enhancement (a lot of this in Gladiator).
8. Rapid editing techniques

And so onů!

Currently I'm shooting a short film on minidv.  When I
started shooting we were indoors and I decided that I
liked the way that the outdoor setting looked indoors.
 Of course it gave it more of an orange/yellow glow
and things looked softer.  I just got done watching
Amelie shot on film of course and noticed that it also
has an orange/yellow glow.  How did they achieve that
on film?  Also I will soon be shooting outdoors and I
want to keep the orange/yellow look, what should I do
because I know the outdoor light will neutralize it.


Grading (or timing in the USA) is one way to create an overall tone to a scene.   This also can be achieved on a computer quite easily. But this will be overall and will not differentiate say a warm face from a cool background.  If you want to keep the orange glow for outdoors you could fool you minidv camera if it has manual colour balance.  If you did a manual balance on a blue card outside (ie turn the blue card white) then when you film in daylight the image would go very warm.  The amount of blue you balanced with would control the amount of warmth.  Alternatively you could add this afterwards, though the effect will be slightly different.  If you have automatic colour balance there in nothing you can do in the camera, as the camera will just neutralize any colour filters you try to put on the front.

Amelia, like all films, achieves it's look through a combination of Art Department, Costume Department and the Cinematographer all working towards creating it's brilliant colour and tone. (and a digigrade!).

I am a film student who has fallen in love with the deep, saturated colors in two specific films: George Washington and Jesus' Son. Despite my best efforts to get a detailed explanation of exactly how the DP's achieved this affect, I've been given a myriad of answers from film stock to timing in post. I'm holding out that since both of these films were on modest budgets it might be possible for me to replicate the look for an upcoming production.  Do I have a chance?


I haven't seen either of these films, but there are several ways to achieve this.  You haven't said whether you are projecting this film, but this makes a difference to how you might achieve what you want.  Let's assume you are projecting and are not digi grading.
Colour saturation in a print is a result of:

  • Choice of film stock
  • Exposure level
  • Print stock.
  • Other outside factors that will contribute:
  • Wardrobe
  • Art Department
  • Lighting

Film stock. In general (but not always) slower stocks are more colour saturated.  Over exposure (up to a point) will result in greater colour saturation.  Premier print stock (Kodak) is more colour saturated than normal stock. Reversal stocks such as Kodachrome and Ektachrome have a completely different lool to negative stocks.  These are used quite a bit in commercials and pop videos for that reason.  They have a lot less tolerance for under and over exposure so beware!

Outside factors.  It is obvious that a if someone wears a bright yellow shirt and stands against a red background that will have a very zippy colour. In a city in the street using real people you won't have much control over this, but you do have control overů
Lighting. In general the more front-lit the more colour saturated. For example, in Earth Girls Are Easy (very colour saturated), I shot LA always in front sunlight and used polar filters to deepen the colour of the sky.  In The Grifters (also shot in LA) I did the reverse ? only shot in back light, and when sky's were in shot I would use grad filters the wrong way up to lighten the sky and turn it white.  Colour rendition is de-saturated when it is very overexposed in the neg (like a hot sky), and make the most saturated when it is somewhere near mid-tone.
When lighting interiors, the same rules apply, with the added bonus that is you light a colour with it's own colour it will become much more saturated (but watch those faces!).

If you are digi grading then you have a whole other level of control available (see Amelie).  This has to be assessed with a careful series of tests with the specific post houses involved.

I'm a big fan of movies from the '80s. A large number of films from that decade had a specific, almost dreamlike quality to them. Night exteriors seemed cool and fluorescent, while day interiors seemed warm and smoky. I think Adam Greenberg was best at creating that atmosphere. To get a better sense of what I mean, take a look at the first couple minutes of both Wisdom and Near Dark. My question is, how was this look achieved? Are we talking film stock, lighting, color timing, or all of the above? I'm dying to know the dynamics behind such a process. Can it be done today, or am I just seeing things, and you've no idea what I'm babbling about? You have full permission to laugh at me. Thank you.??--John

It's always hard to know what 'dates' a style. I look at some of the films I shot in the '80s and I can see they have an '80s look. I think it is a combination of colour, art direction, costume and camera movement. The stocks and lighting have changed in subtle ways, but the use of the camera has changed enormously. Adam shot quite a number of action films, which would be characterized by the fact that nearly all of it was shot 'live' with very little 'optical' work (now called CGI because it is done on a computer). So there is an 'authentic' look there, which is because it's not animation. It's not over-the-top computer game style film making. The remake of The Italian Job which came out recently was a reminder of 'real' film making, and I thought benefited enormously from its lack of 'visible' CGI work. The most obvious change is that all sorts of very sophisticated gismos have come out in the last ten years to make cameras move about in a way that they never could before, so 'dynamic camera movement' is almost de rigueur in today's movies.

What do you think of the new Kodak Vision film stock, and have you used it on your current work? I've heard the 16mm version looks great also. ??--Rob

The Vision 2 stock is quite amazing as the 500ASA film has the grain of around a 200ASA film. It is quite low contrast (which I like). I used it a lot in a recent film called An Unfinished Life which Lasse Hallstrom directed (released later this year). Stocks get better all the time which is fun because it means that the digi camp is constantly trying to catch up a moving target!

How is the aspect ratio decided for a film? Most are 2.35, others are 1.85.??--Charles

It's a decision led by the director or the cinematographer, or both. Production designers and producers also have their opinions, so the actual decision might be made by any combination of these people. 2.35 used to be reserved for action films and 'epics' but this has changed slowly in the last twenty years. Now films like The Hairdresser's Husband are shot in 2.35 where the action take place almost entirely in a hair salon. Some multiplexes are made in such a way that the screen actually gets smaller for 'widescreen' by losing height and depth. This contributes to the fact that the ratio is now chosen solely for aesthetic reasons, and not by 'genre'. There are also practical considerations - if there are small children in the film who spend a lot of time with their parents walking about, then 2.35 may not be a wise choice. Guys on horses generally work well in 2.35 because you can spread them along the frame. Sergio Leone used 2.35 exclusively to make the kind of frames that became his trademark.

I drove by a beautiful lake the other day. The light outside was a gorgeous, light, melancholy blue. I wanted to photograph it, but I didn't have my camera. I went back a day later, and the light simply wasn't that beautiful, sad blue. It occurred to me, though, that I could take the picture on a certain film stock with a certain lens, and put it through certain manipulations in a lab, or digitally alter it, to make it look somewhat like the scene I saw the day before that I so loved. But this seemed fake, false to me. Does it not bother you putting film stocks through certain processes to get a certain 'look' that wasn't really there? Wouldn't you rather capture the space as it actually was, or wait for that melancholy blue rather than faking it? How do you reconcile getting the artistic effect you want with the fact that photographs are supposed to be 'realistic'? Art?

It's a problem I have as an aspiring photographic artist.--David

I think you have a "reality" crisis that is false. Edward Weston's diaries talk a lot about this subject, as did the whole F64 group in the 1930's. Cartier-Bresson had a lot to say about not manipulating pictures. I think it comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of photography as opposed to the nature of reality - using it in the sense of "what was there". As a cinematographer you have very little power: very few directors (although there are some) will wait to come back the next day because the light is wrong. So you have to continuously create the best you can from the available circumstances. Is this a manipulation to make a "look" that wasn't really there?

Sticking to cinematography (which I think has different moral and ethical considerations to photographs), I would maintain that all cinematography is a manipulation a-priori. So why fuss about this or that manipulation being acceptable or not? The reason why people like the work of say Roger Deakins, is because it has coherence to it, a certain way of presenting images that people sense is powerful. Some images are digitally manipulated, some of them are straight from storyboards, but what they add up to is a sequence of moving pictures that feel 'true'. It is this truth that I think is important. Only the cinematographer and the crew know what was there in the first place. Sunsets are a good challenge: they can look amazing and people will stand awestruck in front of them. Render them on film and suddenly it looks banal and ordinary. So what something feels like at the time, sensed through all our senses, has to be 'translated' to have power as an image, moving or otherwise.

In the film Saving Private Ryan, the footage had a distinctive grade which has similarly been used for HBO's "Band of Brothers". Is this mainly a question of grading the film or was it achieved thru "in camera" techniques or lighting? ??--Simon

Without commenting on your specific comparison, the "look" of a film is a combination of many many factors. Some of these will be stock and processing, some are from timing (grading) - was it Digi or not? - and some will be lighting, location and design. "In-Camera" techniques would include choice of lenses and filters and now the choice of whether it is a film or digital camera. Lighting techniques are fast becoming the only area where the word "modern" is relatively meaningless. The lighting units have become smaller and lighter and more intense, but the business of where the lights are placed has stayed true to the principles established a very long time ago. If you think the "look" of these two pieces of work are similar, it could come from any of the above factors.

I am making a music video and looking for a particular look of overexposure/high key /with saturated colours. Should I am be using 16mm Kodak or Fuji? ??--Michelle

Highest saturation would be achieved with reversal stock: but this carries with it a sacrifice in film speed and also exposure range ? get the exposure wrong and you will suffer! As you say, overexposure and "printing down" will also increase colour saturation. Your greatest tools now are in the Telecine suite where you will be able to isolate each colour and "saturate" that colour without affecting the others. For stock choice, stay away from Kodak's "Expression" range as these are designed for low contrast and de-saturated colours. The question of Fuji or Kodak is really a matter of taste: any generalizations are not really worth the sentence. Test if you can, and if you can't then follow your instincts as they already seem on the right path.

Why does it appear that most recent movies have lost their sense of artistic visual style? There seems to be no real texture to the images. Depth of field is little used resulting in flat, two dimensional images. What about light and color. Emphasis is on fast moving cameras,CGI and over-editing. Are time and expense the reasons? Where are the likes of Haskel Wexler, Gordon Willis, Nestor Almendros, Vittorio Storaro, Alex Thompson, Philippe Rousselot, Bill Butler, John Alcot and Gilbert Taylor? (I enjoyed your work on Restoration!) ??--Michael

Haskell Wexler: Just finished shooting Silver City with John Sayles
Gordon Willis: semi-retired?
Nestor Almendros: Died 1992
Vittorio Storaro: Shooting Exorcist: The Beginning
Alex Thompson: Looking for a job.
Philippe Rousselot: Shooting Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Bill Butler: Working in TV
John Alcott: Died 1986
Gilbert Taylor: Retired ? he is 90!

Glad you like one thing I shot. Guess you could have looked these guys up instead of me, but I did enjoy it. I disagree that "recent movies have lost their sense of visual style." Maybe you've been watching too many action movies, or perhaps not the right ones. Just a short list of current films that I consider have tremendous visual style (in no particular order):
Lord of the Rings
Kill Bill
Anything Eduardo Serra shoots.
Big Fish
Elephant Man and so on.

Time and expense are rarely the reasons for uninspiring movies. It's really really hard to make a movie that isn't forgotten in a short space of time. It relies on all the elements being there in the right moment: if it were common it wouldn't be special.


If you wanted a film with a '70's feel (ie the lower film quality featured in films such as Dog Day Afternoon), what is the cheapest way to do so? ??--Alex

Don't know how to answer this - cheap is not often good (though it is sometimes), so what is the question for? If you are asking if can you make a film look like Dog Day Afternoon without spending much money, the answer is no. Can you make it look like that using a DVCam? No. Can you make a film look like that using Digi images very carefully? yes -ish.

Remember that the nature of an image is the sum of all things. The art direction, the actors, make-up, costume, and only then lighting, lenses and cinematography. So the look isn?t any one thing. A "70?s feel" will mean many things to many people. If you want a look for a film, I say: start with the script, discuss with the director and designer and figure out the look from scratch.

Note: I went on to make "The Hoax" with a 70's look, shot in 2006. The technique I used was to use fast film stock (for the grain), Tiffen FX filters to soften the image, then - and this is the clever part! - I electronically sharpened the image in the DI process. This further enhanced the grain, whilst restoring the sharpness I lost with the filters. Neat!

First off let me say that your work on The Shipping News and The Cider House Rules was great. I am a big fan of the darker side of filmmaking, I enjoy the grittier, desaturated look with high contrast. If I am going to use a double fog will that limit me to what I can do to get the look I want???--Ken

Thanks for the compliment. I rarely use fx filters as I like a "clean" image. Having said that, fog filters used subtly can be quite effective in making highlights "bleed" and makes lenses look more like older uncoated lenses. If you are planning to use this filter throughout a film, try and test it in all the possible lighting situations you may encounter. You might use it on a lit person in a room at night and think: I like what this is doing to the fire and the light bulb in the practical. I like what she looks like with that slightly softer skin tone. But then you might take it outside and shoot with that same person with a bright sky in the BG and find that the skylight floods the image and makes it "milky". So then you end up with a box of fog filters of different grades that you use in different lighting conditions and with different lenses. (The longer the lens, the more it will emphasize the characteristics of a diffusion filter).


I was wondering if cinematographers ever use different film formats frequently within the same project, like using footage shot on Super 35 or in anamporphic for a film being distributed in a matted format. If so, what sort of difficulties does that type of operation entail? ??--Sam

I'm not sure what a "matted" format is, but it is possible to originate films in many different formats now as long as the result is via a DI (Digital Interneg), as the various formats can be "welded" into one in the computer. What is not possible is to change projection format during the film.. so you still have to decide on one "frame" (either 1:1.235 or 1:185) for the movie. Robert Richardson (winner of the Oscar this year for The Aviator) is fond of using different cameras and film formats for the different looks within his films: he seems to know what he is doing.. (2007 - Now that DI is almost normal for a feature, the mixing of formats and even Digital & Film is much more common.)

I noticed that in the action and fight scenes in films such as Gladiator, The Patriot, Mission Impossible II, and Saving Private Ryan, the images looked very "edgy", "contrasty", and "fast" (especially when the actors where in constant motion). At first I thought that the scenes were shot on digital video, but I could tell that they had grain. Also on the beginning of the film Catch Me If You Can, in the scene when Tom Hanks was talking to the French policemen in the rain, the same look was there, but it wasn't an action scene. I would be very glad if you can explain how cinematographers create this sort of " hard', "edgy", "fast", look. ??--Josh

Chances are that all these examples were created in different ways. "Edgy" images are a combination of choices that may or may not include the following techniques:
Hand-held camera work
Wide angle lenses and very long lenses
Bleach by-pass processing (increases the contrast and de-saturates the colour)
Shallow depth of focus (wide open apertures)
Small shutter angle creating "strobing"
Slow-motion combined (or not) with narrow shutter
CGI enhancement (a lot of this in Gladiator).
Rapid editing techniques

I once heard someone talking about putting pantyhose over the camera lens. What kind of effect does this have??--Ashley

The first effect is a string of rude jokes from the camera crew. The second is that it "softens" the image by a factor that depends on the size of the mesh. Silk Stockings used to come (maybe they still do but I haven't tried them for awhile) in mesh sizes: I seem to remember that Dior 10 was very popular -- a London Filter company bought out all the remaining stock when Dior discontinued them and then sold them to Cinematographers at a great profit! You can put them on the front or the back of the lens, which makes a difference in the result. It's a useful device for commercials: the range of Tiffen and other soft filters is now so great that it may be dropping out of fashion. Try it out for yourself on a video camera with a removable lens: it'll give you an idea of what does what.

I love Citizen Kane, especially because of the great cinematography. I think the use of "universal perspective" was wonderfully used throughout the movie. However, I have never seen any other movies that have used this technique. Why aren?t movies made with this technique? And are there any other movies that employ it???--Nate

I haven't come across the term "universal perspective" but I guess it must be in some book describing the movie. The more general term for the technique used in this movie is "deep focus". This means the use of large amounts of light to get focus in both the background and the foreground by using a small T-stop. In this particular film, the striking images were a result of the use of careful design in both the photography and the sets. Many other movies have used similar techniques, though never, perhaps, to such great effect. The B/W also contributes to the graphic nature of the images. There is also a device called a "split focus dioptre" which goes in front of the lens to render very close focus on both foreground and background. It needs some sort of "line" like a bedpost to loose the transition on, as essentially it gets the lens to focus close where the filter is, and then at it?s scale distance where the filter isn?t. A modern technique seen in many pop videos and commercials is the use of "tilt and shift" lenses which alter the plane of focus. In a sense this is the opposite effect, giving very shallow selective focus. "Deep focus" became very fashionable for a while after the release of Citizen Kane and many other directors/cameramen tried it in their B/W films: Citizen Kane still remains the supreme example.

I've noted in the past that several Verhoeven sci-fi films (Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers) have, to my untrained eye, a similar look & feel to them - a kind of matt, cartoony, but super-real look, if that makes sense. I've just looked on IMDB and found cinematographer Jost Vacano worked on all of them, and production designer William Sandell worked on the first two.

Q1) If you've seen these movies, could you explain in basic terms what the common factors are, that give the films the look they have? (I mentioned the production designer earlier, because it seems the set design may have something to do with it.)

Q2) This "look" seems rare - would you say that the director or cinematographer in these films has had the greater impact on "the look"? (After reading your columns, I'm starting to think I should be grabbing movies by cinematographers of movies I like, rather than directors!)

Q3) Incidentally, does it make you angry that IMDb lists directors and writers at the top and hide DPs under a separate link???-Nick

1. The common factors you have pointed out yourself. Jost Vacano worked with Verhoeven before they came to the USA so there was a long and solid relationship behind them when they made these films. The "cartoon" look would have been more production design than cinematography: the "super-real" look more about lighting than production design. There is a lot of interface between these two things - something rarely understood by critics and commentators, who naturally want to identify exactly who did what. Film is a communal art: only animators can make films on their own.

2. Without knowing the individuals involved this is impossible to judge. Some directors are more visually aware than others: if you look at Verhoeven's later work after these films does the look continue? If so then it is safe to say the choice was his and the DP and designer were led by his vision. Some cinematographers have a "look" (eg "Hot" highlights would be Robbie Richardson), but most "adapt" to the project at hand, so only after many movies would you start to see the character of the DP.

3.There's no reason to worry about such a trivial thing as a credit listing: that's something that producers and agents like to fight about. Writing is the architect, the director is the captain: they both deserve the credit. If you add the DP then there at least four others you have to add also.

I know why the color in today's movies looks so poor compared to films made in the 50's and 60's (I saw the documentary about what happened to the Technicolor process, though I still can't understand why no one can re-create it using current technology), but what about black and white? Why do black and white films made from the 30's through 60's look so much better than, say, a film like 'The General' or 'The Man Who Wasn't There'? These are really pitiful attempts to use black and white effectively. Is it the film stock (as it is with color) or is it just that today's photographers are incapable of recreating the type of images created for the great black and white films? ?-Erik

This is, I think, a somewhat harsh observation although with some truth to it. I am not very technical (you might get a more detailed reply by posting on Cinematography.net), but I can give you a kind of rundown. Like Richardson on The Aviator, I looked into 3 strip in the 1980's for a film called Absolute Beginners. As we couldn?t process in China (which is only place running that bath) we couldn't do it. Many cinematographers have tried to achieve this look since and it wasn't until the DI world came along that a technical route became achievable. The Aviator seems to have as many detractors as it does admirers: it certainly had an interesting enough look to win the Oscar, bit it also didn't look as good as it would have done if it was shot in 3 strip!

Ecology has had a bit impact on stock development over the last 20 years and a whole bunch of damaging chemicals have been removed both from the film and the processes involved. The amount of silver in the emulsion, to name just one factor, has decreased significantly. The amount of apparent grain has decreased significantly. Most B/W is now made by turning color into b/w and this just doesn?t have the look and feel of shooting and printing on b/w. You cannot release print a film on b/w stock (I think!) because it would be just too expensive to change the workflow of print production (when hundreds or thousands are involved).

I think the best of today's cinematographers are the equal of their departed colleagues, but the tools available are very different. Like all progress things get lost: one of my most memorable experiences was seeing Napoleon with a live orchestra in London. Director Abel Gance was worried that the images wouldn't have the proper impact by being confined to a small screen. Gance thought of expanding it by using three cameras next to each other. For the first time, cinema utilized a rectangular image (approx. 4.00:1 aspect ratio). It wouldn't be until later that the widescreen lens would be made and it wouldn't be until the American Cinemascope that this process goes mainstream. (from IMDB). I came out of that screening feeling what a tragedy it has been that Silent Cinema ended. I have the same feelings about the future departure of film as an origination medium. Viewing a movie is as complex as any other process in the brain: when you watch Casablanca it's not just the nature of the lighting and the cinematography but the whole damn thing - impossible to reproduce so don't try!

A rather specific question...Last night I rented a video copy of Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun. The shots seemed oddly disjointed and incoherent. Do you feel Fassbinder intended this as a visual metaphor for the post-war discombobulation or was he just working with a shitty cameraman? I know he was a genius and all, rah rah rah, but whats going on here? ?-Scott

If you care to look up the cinematographer of this film, I think you might agree that Michael Ballhaus is not a "shitty cameraman". I certainly have never found this film anything but fascinating, so I would imagine your strange reaction to its visual imagery must be born of some modern taste for MTV style cinematography. Alternatively it's quite possible that your video copy was horrible: something that hopefully will get better as the work gets transferred properly to DVD.

What kinds of filters are used while shooting black & white film and does costume color selection play an important part in the process before shooting? ?-Imran

First of all please understand that using colour filters for shooting black and white negative film does not work when you shoot Colour film and turn it to black and white later. In essence a filter will lighten its own colour. In other words if you use a blue filter on a blue sky it will turn white: if you use a red filter it will turn black, or very dark. A red filter makes for impressive contrast and tends to lighten skin tones and make both foliage and sky very dark. Obviously reds costumes will become light in tone and green or blue costumes will turn dark.
If you are after a special look on a face, then you can experiment with colour filters and different kinds of make up and lipstick colours. These techniques were used to great effect in the old days of silent film and film noir. Yellow, Orange and red are the most commonly used filters. Each one will have its own exposure compensation - some requiring as much as 3 stops.
The above means that choice of costume and background colours are of great importance as you need to separate by tone and light and not by colour. This is why there tends to be more use of backlight when shooting in B/W. Black and White is to me the most beautiful use of film and it saddens me that there is so little opportunity to use it.

In Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas there are a bunch of scenes, like in the hotel room, where there are wide shots with a lot of variation in the lighting. A spot here will be dark, and somewhere else will be light, and often different shades of color. How do you light a large area with this kind of look? Are the lights all hung above the frame???-Austin

Yes and No. If it is a set then of course the ceiling will not be there (unless it is in frame), so you have the opportunity to hang lights above the frame. Sometimes you can cheat by putting the lights in the shot and then removing them afterwards in CGI, but this costs a lot.
An important part of preparing for a shoot is to work with the designer is putting beams, wall returns and furniture for you to hide lights behind. There is the window too. Sometimes what appears to be a different color of light is in the art direction: and shade is created by a lack of light, but also by darker colors.
Fear and Loathing has a very stylized "look", so you can be a lot more non-naturalistic with the lighting in those types of films. You can generally see lighting that is hung above by looking at the shadows cast on the actors as they move about the room: also if smoke or "atmos" is used, top lighting is not really possible without the beams showing up in the atmos.

When we watch films (mainstream), TV shows (dramas or sitcoms), and normal home videos (with camcorders), we can clearly see the difference in their pictures. Just by looking at a brief clip, we could probably tell if it?s a film, TV show, or home video (due to the certain look/feel each has).
My question is what makes them look different from each other? Is it simply because films use much more expensive cameras to shoot? Or is it because they adjust the picture after shooting? Or are there other reasons???-Peter

First of all there is cost, which affects several elements that affect the look of a picture. If it is shot on film, then it will have the look and feel of film which has a grain structure (now barely visible) and a more shallow depth if it is 35mm (more expensive, bigger cameras) or 16mm (less expensive, smaller cameras). Ironically, US TV has a tradition of shooting on 35mm for the quality and hasn?t really caught on to the fact that Super 16mm which suits the new 16:9 format, has a quality that is perfectly good for TV. So "high end" sitcoms like Friends are shot on 35mm film to give them a classy look, as well as provide good archival storage for future generations to watch the episodes on the media-of-the-day (no doubt ipod-NanoTV). If is shot on video or what now likes to be called digital, it might be anything from 24p or Digi Beta which is high quality, to MiniDV which is low quality. These formats all look different but have a large depth of field in common. The "other reasons" are that more care tends to be taken with higher budgets because there is more time to make it look good. An hour of TV might be shot in 6 days: 6 days shooting on a large feature might produce 8 minutes of screen time! All that time goes into costume, art direction and careful shooting of the drama along with "options" which gives the editor more material to play with. "Cutting Ratio" describes the amount shot compared to the amount used: 7:1 used to be considered reasonable: nowadays it's probably more like 20 or 30:1. Manipulation of the image after shooting is now standard practice, but there are definite limitations and one of the most crucial is that the sharpness of the original image can't be improved much so the picture is still only as good as it was in the first place, albeit with many fancy tools to manipulate it.

I have often heard cinematographers use one f-stop throughout an entire film. How is this accomplished? I am dying to know.??-Rupert

The reason for this is to achieve a uniform look in terms of the sharpness of the lenses and the depth of field. It used to be the case that a lens at T4 (same as F-stop more or less), was much sharper than the same lens at T2. This is still the case, but much less so. so a Cinematographer might choose to shoot a film at T2.8 because he or she likes the "look" at that T-stop.
This is achieved by adjusting the exposure with the use of Neutral Density filters (ND's). These are one-stop decreases in light so you have a range ND3,ND6,ND9 etc. So if you are outside and the exposure should be T5.6, you would use an ND6 to get it back to T2.8 which is where you want to shoot.
Of course longer focal lengths have less depth, so you might decide on an F-Stop for each lens, so that the longer lenses have a lower T-stop to compensate for their inherent lack of depth. With a wide angle outside showing a view, the depth becomes irrelevant since everything is in focus, so you might choose a stop which has the best resolving power for that lens, which is likely to be in the T4-T8 range.


What is the most unique aspect of cinematography? What is the cinematographer trying to achieve through color? Is it just for conveying esthetics, or is color symbolic of something? ??-Christa

Yikes! Not sure how to deal with this without writing a book? What is the most unique aspect of cinematography? I guess it is capturing movement at 24fps and then re-creating that movement on a screen so that it appears to be "real". This was what impressed people when the Lumiere brothers showed a train coming towards an audience and everyone dived for cover. I had a 3 year old daughter who said to me "Are they real" when I was showing some rushes and she was sitting on my lap. So re-creating reality is perhaps the single most powerful aspect of cinematography: it certainly outdoes still photos and painting for reminding us of what a person or place looked like at a certain time. Whilst Lumiere went around shooting real places, Meliere invented the idea of the "fantastic" in the cinema, so these two strands have continued right through to today.

What is the cinematographer trying to achieve through color? The color is both the challenge and the problem of cinematography. To answer the question it might be useful to "subtract" what cinematography is when it is black and white. On a certain level it is less realistic since we see the world in colour. Since it is less realistic it is more symbolic and leaves more to the imagination - a bit like the leap between radio and cinema. A teamster who was driving me around recently told me he only watches black and white films because "colour films are boring". I questioned him quite closely on this as I found it rather fascinating since a Teamster is not the most likely person to see any kind of film, let alone be obsessed with black and white films. I was trying to figure out whether it was the films themselves that he liked (Bogart, Bacall etc) or whether it was because they were in black and white. I concluded it was a bit of both...nostalgia and abstraction in equal measures!

So the challenge of colour is to make it mean something. This is much easier in a period film because all of the elements are controlled, so the Cinematographer, Director, Production Designer etc can get together and decide on an esthetic for the film which does not just rely on Cinematography. There is a colour esthetic put forward by Vittorio Storaro which I find pedantic. However, he is worth reading as a lot of what he has to say about cinematography is very apposite:

"All great films are a resolution of a conflict between darkness and light," Storaro says. "There is no single right way to express yourself. There are infinite possibilities for the use of light with shadows and colors. The decisions you make about composition, movement and the countless combinations of these and other variables is what makes it an art."

There's a great deal to learn about colour by studying painting: but remember that painting and cinema are quite different in form so for me it just as interesting to study and listen to music in relation to Cinematography. Generally the problem with colour is that there is simply "too much" both in terms of saturation and range. Restricting both these elements is a good start to finding an esthetic for a particular movie.

just watched Blow Up and was struck by the vivid colors and sharp contrast of the film. The films made in the last couple of decades do not have the same "look and feel." If I wanted to reproduce this look, what would I need? Are there similar film stocks sold today? Would I also need to use vintage equipment?

This kind of question always makes me feel like an idiot because there is no real answer as to how to "reproduce the look" of a particular movie.
Movies are of their own time and the number of factors that go into "the look" are many. Here are some of them:

1. Lenses
2. Filters
3. Film Stock and format
4. Lab processes
5. Production Design/Locations
6. Costume Design
7. Actors/Actresses and the way they are made up.
8. Shooting Style
9. Editing

And last, but definitely not least, the manner in which you view the film (TV, VHS, DVD, Cinema etc etc.) So having answered the question by not answering it, I'll say a couple of obvious things about the particular factors you mentioned "vivid colours and sharp contrast".

Vivid colours definitely had a period during the Technicolor 3 strip process (check out the yellow/gold in the Wizard of Oz) but this period was over by the 1960's, when Technicolor sold all the equipment to China. An excellent history of this system is at http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/oldcolor/technicolor1.htm

In The Aviator, an attempt was made to simulate the look via DI processes: it won the Oscar last year so I guess a lot of people liked it! In the last 30 years the stocks from Kodak have altered quite a bit, mainly less grain, less contrast and sharper. At any given moment, not only will the above factors contribute to "the look", but also the particular choices made by the Cinematographer at the time with relation to lab processes and all the other factors. Print stocks have also changed a lot. There used to be many choices, then there were 3 (Kodak, Fuji, Agfa) then there were 2 (Kodak, Fuji) and now there are 3 again (Kodak x 2, Fuji). Every year there are subtle changes in both the shooting and printing stocks and sometimes I wish they would just go on holiday for 5 years or so while we get used to the new one!

As far as using vintage equipment is concerned, you could choose older lenses which have more flare (less contrast) and less sharpness. The camera won't make any difference so use a modern one: it's better, easier, lighter, quieter etc.

Hi. My all-time favorite photographer is David Hamilton. He has this sensual way to just take pictures with a now-legendary technique called soft-focus. He also directed a film called Bilitis which was just an excuse to expose beautiful, poetic and lyric imagery. I was just wondering how can you get this sensual effect? Do you cover the lens with a soft cloth or something? And seeing I'm just an amateur in photography, what's the soft-focus technique and can it be used on film?

Nets are the main way of achieving that kind of look. Dior silk stockings used to be a favorite before they stopped making them. The "dernier" of the weave is the important thing, plus what colour the nets are. Black will not affect the contrast much, brown will give a sepia look and white will create a more blown-out milky image. How the light works in relation to nets, and also whether the net is used in front or behind the lens, will also make a big difference to the result. Sources of light like windows and bulbs blow out quite a bit and this can be used to create the look you are talking about.

Uncoated lenses is another way to go - like old Cooke Lenses - so he might have used some of them for his Photography.

In the days of plate cameras there were "soft focus" lenses made which can still be obtained from Cooke Optics in a new version. They also do a soft-focus attachment for one of their prime lenses - the 65mm I think. Cokin make a huge range of soft filters for Stills and Lee, Tiffen and Harrison make a whole variety of diffusion and fog filters for movie cameras, which can be used in combination with nets. The amount of visible grain is another choice to be made in the making of these kind of soft dreamy (kitsch?!) images. Lighting plays an important part, as does costume and settings, so you have to get all the elements in place to achieve a "Hamilton" look. Good luck!
PS I really don't like Hamilton's photos..

I have noticed and read of various cinematographers choosing a tungsten balanced film (100T, 250T, 500T) and a corrective filter to shoot exteriors. Why would you choose to do this as opposed to simply selecting one of the many daylight balanced films? What is the visual difference? Grain, less grain? Saturation, desaturation?

It wasn't until relatively recently that daylight balanced films were available, so part of it is just that the full range of speeds for daylight balanced films have been a long time coming.

I couldn't possible talk about the host of films stocks now available it terms of grain and saturation without going into too much detail, more space than is available here. Yes, these are factors and each film stock will have differences depending on speed and balance and these differences change every year as Kodak and Fuji compete with each other to produce the latest and greatest.

I start each film with a full stock test of all the stocks available. Kodak and Fuju kindly supply a few rolls of each emulsion for these tests as they are aware of the importance of the testing and also that the choice of stock for the film will depend on the testing. Some cinematographers are "Kodak" and you?ll see the Peace of Mind picture in the trades. Some are "Fuji" - I'm not sure what you see of them! I shoot both stocks: sometimes in the same movie! I like to start form scratch for each film: the stock choice is so much related to where you are shooting the film and in what kind of light/locations that I can?t really consider stock outside of the context. On www.cinematography.net you?ll see cinematographers sending in their ideas about this or that stock in relation to grain/saturation etc. It's quite useful to read in some general way, but I think of filmstock like wine: What is the best wine? It depends on the meal.

Any cinematography suggestions for maximizing suspense?I have a story set is a period home/mansion where a young woman discovers clues to the dark past of the owner from his personal belongings draped about i.e. photographs, diaries, news clippings etc. Thanks in advance.

The principle might be: the less you see the more you feel. This is often used to create suspense. On a more practical level think about: camera movement, lighting, lenses and the combination of all three. Also think about film stocks and colour: or DV settings to maximize "the look" you are after. Look at a number of films that fulfill your own criteria of "suspense" and then look at them scene by scene with the sound off: this will help you focus on what the camera and lighting is doing. If you like The Matrix (for instance) then look at some scenes without the sound you won't get caught up in the movie which switches off your creative/critical facilities. Any film you like is worth looking at with the sound off: just particular sequences.

Clint Eastwood is a director who is not afraid of dark material. He was once rumored to say, "They know what I look like by now!" Underneath this remark is an important principle of cinematography: sometimes it is more dramatic to see less. This might be illustrated by the difference in say viewing the latest Star Wars as opposed to Batman Begins: the former is devoid of suspense and the latter is full of it. A lot of directors are shy of dark lighting because they are afraid the studio will complain they can't see their very expensive STAR? but this attitude is counter to all the rules of drama and all the good suspense films will make use of light and shadow to create a rich atmosphere.


I just got done watching the new Michael Mann film Miami Vice. I noticed it had the same gritty look of Collateral. Does he create this effect with his lighting and lenses or does he create it in the editing room (Final Cut Pro)?

You might also have noticed that Dion Beebe shot both films. When you say "his lighting" you are falling into the journalists lingo of assuming that the director does everything. As you are writing to a cinematographer you might have realized that I would take up such a remark!

Dion Beebe is a very gifted Cinematographer who has a large number of awards and rightly so. Michael Mann has a way of picking out great collaborators...

HD had a lot to do with the way these films looked, but as one of the writers pointed out: HD can be made to look very different depending on what you do with it. In this case Beebe and Mann obviously got together and figured out the look they wanted and here it is for all to see. Personally I am a fan of both these movies and like the way they used the HD in a daring and creative way. I looked at Collateral again and was very struck by the imaginative and brilliant shooting of the interiors in the taxi: it's very hard to keep coming up with appropriate ways of shooting long dramas in cars and they did these superbly well both in terms of lighting and placing of the camera.

While 3-Strip Technicolor is often the most talked about item in color film history, what I am wondering is about the Eastman stocks of the 50s and 60s. There seems to be an "Alphabet Soup" of color names (Metrocolor, Warnercolor, Anscocolor, Agfacolor, Pathecolor, Deluxe, etc.). What was the difference in these types? Did they use different stocks of film or a different photochemical process for these films or something entirely different? Were there any books written on them? Also, while many of the color stocks lacked the same bold, saturated look as 3-Strip Technicolor, some of the better ones came very close. Are there any labs or film stocks that can achieve this level of color today?

I'm not too good at film history but I'm really good with the Internet so here is some stuff cribbed from various places:

METROCOLOR: ''Metrocolor''' was the trade name used by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for films processed at their lab. It is unknown when or where the name was first used. Virtually all of these films, however, were actually shot on Eastman Kodak|Eastmancolor film.
WARNERCOLOR: Meant processed at Warners Lab - usually Eastman Kodak film.
ANSOCOLOR: A film made by GAFF which Kodak tried to suppress.
AGFACOLOR: Agfa made fine film stocks for many years which were widely used in EUROPE. It tended to be more pastel and lower contrast than Kodak and Fuji.
PATHECOLOR: Pathe owned and operated it's own lab in Bound Brook, New Jersey. Sometime in the late 1940's or early 1950's, Pathe's USA operations were bought by Kodak and ceased to exist in this country. (courtesy Mitchell Dvoskin).
DELUXE: Still a current chain of film labs processing Kodak and Fufi film stocks.

I don't know of books specifically on this topic (wouldn't be a big seller I suspect) but there is truly entertaining and wonderful web site which your question allowed me to find: check it out: http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/

As far as achieving the 3-strip look today it is possible to simulate it but it never has quite the yellow and green of the original in my opinion. There is just a difference between a colour that is a dye and one which is not: bit like hand dyed organic wool sweaters I guess; there's a vibrancy to the colour in them too.

Watching Sergio Leone's films, one can't help but notice the strong vivid colors and terrific picture quality. Is there a reason those movies looked like that? I mean, can one imitate that look of spaghetti westerns today or is it more a product of old film stocks that are not used any more?

The film stock is just one of a whole series of things that influences the way a film looks. With these films in particular, they didn't use Anamorphic lenses, which was the tradition of the day for 1:2.35 pictures (known as Widescreen amongst a host of other names). Instead, they used a version of Super 35 which didn't use the "Super" part - in other words only 2 perforations of the frame were used and then the film optically converted to Anamorphic projection. This is quite a technical subject and I don't have the space to go into it here: if you are seriously interested you need to study a technical book by someone like Paul Wheeler, or trawl through all the detail on this subject on a site like www.Cinematography.net.

Also see below: Super 35 versus Anamorphic.

This technique meant that only a small portion of the negative was used resulting in a very grainy image which was a deliberate part of the look: also the use of the kind of wide angle lenses only available in spherical photography at the time meant that the very close shots on wide lenses was quite startling at the time of release. As far as imitating the look: in theory this should be relatively easy with the whole DI process available. In fact it might be quite hard depending just how accurate you want to be. There have been lots of commercials using Leone as the influence and it seems quite easy for the small screen but when you see these ads in the cinema transferred via multiple generation of computer/film interface they look pretty bad and don't have anything of the hard grainy quality of the originals.

Just shows its good to learn from the past but live in the present.

How do you perfect a scene--what finishing touches do you add? And... Do you have a certain style of cinematography that you stick with or do you enjoy working with a variety?

Finishing touches in my case usually consist of turning off a light or two, and making small adjustments to the movement of the camera. I have a tendency to overlight the scene when I'm setting it up, so I'll take a last look at it just before we shoot, then turn some units off. There are some suggestions that you can make (as an Operator) that will help the actors to stand in the right light -- and also help the actors achieve the performance they are after (make sure you do it through the Director!).

When I was working with Stephen Frears, before the invention of the dreaded video monitor, he would always stand next to the camera and at the end of a take, we would look at each other and when we'd "got it," it meant that we were both happy with everything that had happened: Performance, Choreography, Camera Movement and Lighting. The days of the Operator being the Eyes of the Director came to an end with the Video Tap, and a great era was over.

As far style is concerned, I used to think I didn't have one, but re-invented myself with what was appropriate for each film. Who was I kidding?! I've read a number of DP's who quote versions of this idea, but now I realise that we all have a certain style and if you don't then it's unlikely that you've got much vision. Some DP's have a "loud" and operatic style of photography, some have a more classical approach. I belong in the latter school, which believes the photography is there to serve the picture, and not the other way round. Having said that, each film has its own unique challenges and I change many things to do with stock, processing and lighting.

To the extent that every Cinematographer is a unique individual being, we all have a style because we are, after all, subject to ourselves on a semi-permanent basis!

Do you think the comic book style cinematography followed in films like Sin City/300 are here to stay or is it just a pass-by?

No, it's an addition to film-making, borne from the world of computer games. It will grow and grow and the line between what is "real" i.e. cinematography of people and backgrounds that are actually there and what is computer generated will become harder and harder to differentiate. This does not bother me: I don't see it as a "threat" or anything that signals the end of filmmaking as we know it. It's just an additional kind of filmmaking which finds large (mostly young) audiences. In fact I think the future of "real films" (however shot) has never been healthier because of the growth of cheap and easy ways of projecting films onto screens in parks, people's home, clubs etc. Filmmaking at all budget levels is going well all over the world and (like the record industry) the days of the monopoly distributors exerting total control over what we watch is coming to an end. You-Tube is proving that: now is the time that anyone who wants to be a filmmaker has no excuses any more!

I was wondering how to achieve the soft, dreamy qualities and use of golden lighting/chiaroscuro found in the paintings of Rembrandt and other painters of his era with a HDV camera, or is such an effect only obtainable on Celluloid (which is not feasible for an aspirant film-maker like myself).
Is a wide aperture, hence a shallow focal length a way to achieve the soft, dreamy effect?
And is chiaroscuro dependent on naturalistic lighting?
Conversely, does it require a small aperture, or a fast shutter speed?

It is a lot easier to achieve with film because film is inherently "kind" to contrast whereas HDV tends to be the reverse. Having said that the use of careful lighting (the start of everything) and filtration can render electronic images quite magical - albeit not, in my opinion, as magical as film. Wide apertures and longer lenses are certainly one way of decreasing the depth of focus, although this is more of "photographic" rather than "painterly". Smaller video chips have a lot of depth which is why all kinds of tricks have been tried to decrease this to make them more "filmic". Personally I think it is best to use the given technology for what it is, rather than try and turn it into something that it isn't. Consumer video images can look extremely good on a smaller screen if suitable care is taken with art direction and lighting, perhaps some subtle filtration and good control of the specs in post. "small aperture" and "fast shutter speed" are two quite different things. The Shutter Speed does not affect the depth at a given aperture: it affects the amount of "motion blur" on each frame. You can see this quiet nicely with a stills camera: just put it on a tripod anywhere where people are walking about (or trees are blowing) and then expose the same frame at different shutter speeds. You will see different levels of "blur" in each frame. If you got really carried away you could turn the stills into a quicktime... etc etc.

When I think about what was different and artistically impressive in my college days, I have to ask, "What is different and imaginative to the viewer now, but not kitsch?"
Thank you. P.J. Pearson

Julia Taymor's Across the Universe and Todd Haynes's He's Not There come to mind. The former might be accused of being kitsch by some viewers but the Dylan film (apart from the Richard Gere sequence) is very tightly controlled and brilliantly shot by Ed Lachman. The opening of the CGI box has led to many extraordinary and imaginative shots in a range of films from Action to Art - the problem now is that more or less any idea can be rendered photo-realistic. This puts a lot of pressure on Writers, Directors and Cinematographers to put ideas in front of the VFX supervisor that are "different and imaginative" without falling into the kitsch trap.

In Across the Universe, just a bit more restraint could have taken out the more garish sequences that had a tendency to spoil an otherwise brilliant film. Of course there have also been huge changes in the political and social landscapes of the last 20 years (when were your college days?!). This in itself results in a quite different demand from the young movie-going audience. Of all the changes, I would say that the rise of the Computer Game has most affected the tastes and desires of the "customer"... Lara Croft and other films have combined the Game experience with the movie experience. For me this tendency is beyond Kitsch - it's just plain dreadful. But hidden amongst some of the grosser Hollywood output are real gems of modern cinema, and as the corporations slowly loose their vice like grip over distribution so we will begin to see better and better movies as the new voices emerge.

Hi ,
I'm a cinematographer from Turkey.
I wonder which film stocks and lab processing Mr.Stapleton used in the films "Cider House Rules," "Pay it forward" and "The Van". What did he do to achieve the amazing contrasty and pastel look of "My Beautiful Laundrette". He's an amazing cinematographer. I like especially what he did in the movies Ned Kelly and The Hoax. Many thanks.

Well that's the best start to my day I've had in some time!
Without getting all technical and loosing my readers on the first line, Cider House Rules was shot on a now sadly discontinued stock called Kodak 5248. This was the last of the line before the "Vision" series came in. Some say that the Vision series has taken some of the character out of Kodak stocks: the finer grain and longer tonal scale is now aimed at a DI finish so that the original neg is the base on which the imagery is built later. I won't go through the films you mention individually as they all involved different processes: Laundrette was 16mm and Ned Kelly a bleach by-pass print. I have always tried to treat each film as it's own unique event demanding it's own unique solution. Although I have accumulated more general knowledge about film-making as the years go by, I find that whereas I might have made the early films mostly on instinct, now I put a more thought into the overall "look" and try to be bolder now that I am confident of the technicalities. Whether I succeed only time will tell....

In an interview with Bernardo Bertolucci, he states that after having worked with Vittorio Storaro in sourcing inspiration from paintings, in the film Stealing Beauty he and his cinematographer sourced inspiration from music.
I know that it is a common tool for a cinematographer to look to paintings in order to inspire the way in which they "paint" light for film. But how does a cinematographer use music as their inspiration? How does a song translate into visions of light?

Good question but you spelled all the names wrong which I have corrected...

Although the term "painting with light" has become a cliche metaphor for Cinematography, I personally do not think it is a good one. Painting is Painting and Cinematography is not painting as far as I am concerned. It is constructing moving images to tell a story (in feature films): so as a source of inspiration music is equally appropriate as Painting, Writing, Sculpture or even Food!

The trouble, for me, with the Paintings-as-source idea, is that a Painting is static and Movies are the opposite of that. Composition and Lighting for the Cinematographer is a constantly changing landscape and whilst I can appreciate that Carravagio, Rembrandt etc showed us lighting used in a masterful way, I think if you "copy" these techniques it results in a "painterly" film that lacks reality. Beauty is one element of a film amongst many others and sometimes beauty can work against a narrative. The Hungarian film Opium - The Diary of a Mad Woman would be an example of a "beautifully shot" film of a dark and horrible subject: not a choice I would make.

Both I'm Not There and Across the Universe would be current films where I would say the look is completely inspired by the songs. There is no "literal" answer because that is the nature of inspiration - listening to the music leads to ideas that get discussed and (hopefully) great ideas are born!

Animation Techniques
Bleach By-Pass
Blue Screen/Back Projection
Books to Read
Budget Considerations
Car Photography
Cider House Rules
Clubs etc
Digital - Scanning
Director/DP Relationship
Dp's - where to get them
Exposure Techniques
Exterior Shooting
Film versus Digi
Filming Monitors
Frame Rates and Digi
Framing Techniques

Future Outlook
Jobs in the Industry
Learning Film Technique
Lighting Issues
Multiple Cameras
Panic Room
Picture Quality
Pre-Production Testing
Production Designers
Slow Motion
Special Shot Techniques
Student / Career
Super 35 versus Anamorphic
The Look
Timing/Grading Issues
Women's Issues