Q&A PRE-2004 UNTIL LISTED
What, in your opinion is the single best piece of cinematography
from any film? --Jennifer.
What a strange question..it's like saying what is the best bottle of
There is no answer: don't be obsessed with "best pieces"- just absorb the
I've been wondering for a long time how a focus-puller can actually
correctly adjust the focus while he/she is not looking through the
lens. And why isn't this job done by the person looking through the
Frederick van Dijk
It's a miracle isn't it! Actually a good focus puller is incredibly accurate at judging distance, based on years of practice and a lot of measuring with a tape. They look at a scale on the lens and just transfer the distance to the scale. The lenses have to made very accurately (that’s why they cost so much) as a few inches difference can make the difference between a sharp and soft shot. In TV, the person operating the camera does adjust the focus which I think is pretty amazing considering the viewfinders are electronic and not very “sharp. For TV it has to be much more out of focus to notice that it is soft which is why the operator can do the job ie there is more room for error. Another reason in film operating is that many operators prefer “wheels” so could not adjust the focus unless they had three hands!
I was wondering if you had any advice on shooting a music video? I know that is vague but any advice would be helpful.
Music videos are a great opportunity to experiment. So my best advice is to go crazy and be bold: when images don't have to tell a story they can have a lot of freedom. Assuming you are working with a Director, keep on nagging him/her until you get an idea of what the plan is. Naturally a lot of the people involved in that world don't like to plan too much, but your job is to make sure you have what you need on the great day. You can only find that out by insisting on discussion about style, colour, content etc. Playback is a whole art of it's own, so make sure the right people are around to know what is going on technically.
I think I read something where you said that most camera warehouses
will loan out cameras to students for free. I go to a fairly prominent
film school and I have never heard of this. In fact when I was in
a jam for a camera, my teacher suggested I rent one. Is what I thought
I heard correct - that students can get camera loans for free? If
so, how exactly do I go about it?
The first thing would be not to tell anyone in case everyone tries it! So we're in trouble here already! I may be way out of date here, as this is something I did way back when, and I guess the rental houses may have changed their policies now. BUT, remember the rental house it like all those banks trying to give you student loans “for free”. They are in the business of being nice to the generation that will provide business for them in the future. Because Samuelsons (now taken over by Panavision) was very nice to me when I was a student, I put 20 years of shooting into their company which must have added up to a fair chunk of change. So when you bang on the door of a rental company trying to scrounge some equipment, they may not "in principal" loan out gear to students for free. But if you convince them that "in your case" it might be a good idea, then go ahead and do it. All rental companies have gear that is slightly out of date, not rented much and if it's sitting on a shelf it's no big deal to them if you take it away for a week or two. No one at my film school arranged for me to borrow equipment - I just went ahead and sorted it out myself. Think outside the box, and you'll get outside the box.
I'm a poor boy freshman college student, trying to break
into screenwriting and film making. I have a script and
actors, and was planning on filming a movie I wrote
myself, with no budget to really speak of. My question is,
can I "get away" with using my parent's camcorder? I really
have no money and little way of getting other sorts of
cameras or mediums of film, and this may be my only way. But
I was wondering, outside of "Blair Witch"-type movies, is
this a feasible option?
Absolutely! Any camcorder will deliver pictures with sound.. if you are the director/writer you might want to get a techy friend to make the camera deliver it's optimum quality. If it is a “fully auto” model then there is a limited number of things you can do.. At the very least being able to plug in an external mike is important otherwise the sound quality will be very distant. Getting a reasonable picture is not that hard, but getting good sound will really help your audience to understand what is being said. Good luck and remember that it's all about the story, not about the equipment.
Sept 22nd 2003
I am currently a freshmen engineering student at Drexel University and I am doing a project on improving camera booms. I would like to know of some famous scenes that have used camera booms, and also when, and why camera booms would be used.
Jennifer K Tan
The term more commonly used in a Camera Crane. A boom usually
refers to the pole used by the boom swinger (sic).
As camera cranes have been in use since the the beginning of cinema - more or less - you might have a hard time trying to improve them. Chapman is the most famous US company for providing Dollies and Cranes so you might want to contact them to find out more about their history. I’m sure they would let you visit if you want to see a number of different designs. One thing they didn't design is the telescopic crane (called a Technocrane) which is unique in that it is capable of withdrawing and extending the arm making the cane shorter or longer.
There are countless famous scenes involving camera cranes, right from
Abel Ganz’s Napoleon through to Gladiator and the current endless action
movies. Orson Wells famously used a long crane shot at the beginning
of A Touch Of Evil and Robert Altman managed a very long opening crane
shot in The Player where the actors dialogue was about famous long opening
I was wondering about actors and how they would want to look good
in all their films. But, was their ever an actor/actress you worked with
who was incredibly difficult? And, they kept wanting the lighting to change,
etc.? I hope you answer my question.
I love your work,
Hi Blazey, yes some actors are incredibly difficult. If I named names I might make my career a bit shorter than I might like! Most female actors want to look great at all times but not all. Nicole Kidman is a true and brave actress - never flinching from when the role calls for her to look less than perfect (Birthday Girl and The Hours). Others are not so brave, preferring to look as good as possible in every scene. This can lead to conflict with the Cinematographer as we usually light for dramatic reasons, not for flattery. Romantic Comedies generally require cosmetic lighting for both the male and female stars, as the nature of the genre is such that everyone is supposed to look "better than life"!
On my pet subject, one of the reasons I dread the move to an all Digi future is that the actors will have the final image available on set. At the moment actors more or less leave the lighting to the Cinematographer, with one or two notable exceptions, but once the image is there for all to see, I suspect the politics of the image will take another lurch towards "democracy"- i.e. the rule of the powerful over the weak. Oops.
What are the boundaries between a cinematographer and a director of photography? My understanding has been that a cinematographer is mainly concerned with lighting and lenses, while a DP is mainly concerned with placement of cameras and arranging units, but I feel like I'm over simplifying the matter. ??--Jeffrey
These two terms are used completely interchangeably and don't mean anything specific in the sense you describe.
I have heard it said that the term 'Director of Photography' belongs specifically to those shooting feature films, whereas anyone shooting with a motion picture camera (film or video) could be termed a 'cinematographer'. As you know, I prefer to keep the word 'cinematographer' for those who shoot with film, whereas a DP could be using either film or digi.
The matter of placing lights, choosing lenses, etc. will always be decisions made between the DP and the director, and often an operator if one is involved.
I recently have become involved in the making of a documentary. I plan to shoot on DV. My question is in regards to crew. We're only going to be on one location (it's a classroom, shot over 16 weeks) and we want to make our presence as unnoticeable as possible. I figure three people tops, assuming we pre-light the room before the class begins. Two cameras and a sound recorder. Is this enough? How do I remain a "fly on the wall" in such a confined space? Ok, so that's a lot of questions. ??--Mike
That sounds fine. The smallest crew you can manage makes sense in that situation. You will find the first few days are hopeless as the kids find it all so novel. Then pretty soon they will start to ignore you. Best to get all the "look through the camera" stuff over in the first few days. Play around with them initially, but also make it clear where the boundaries are, and that you are there to do a job of work. Professional crews make it their business to be "nice" to children to the extent that they become comfortable. But also beware of making "special friends" and also compensating for your own "parenting" desires by being too engaged with them.
The "fly-on-the-wall" situation is achieved by a canny way of making the kids relaxed about you being there, but also by them finding you a bit boring after a while. Adults can become surprisingly competitive around children. Some seek to prove themselves to their colleagues by being popular with the kids.. try and avoid taking these kind of people. Don't "hang-back" with the shooting but just go for what you want. The kids will adapt really fast. Good luck!
I have been enjoying your column quite a bit. I am trying to find out what the expression "editing in camera" means. I would appreciate any information you can share.??--Erin
"Editing in Camera" as an expression probably started way back when what was in the camera went straight onto the projector i.e. before the process of splicing negative together and re-ordering scenes began. Today it means anything from pre-conceiving a scene so that you don't have to edit it very much, to doing complicated dissolves and re-winds so that the layered images are already on the neg without having to do anything afterwards. In today's cinema, the shooting "ratio" i.e. the amount of film shot versus the amount of film in the final movie, is very very high in commercial cinema. Film stock is not "precious" at the high budget end, because it is less than 7% of the budget in a major movie (most of the budget goes to a couple of stars!). So "editing in camera" is not a concept thought of much in a real sense in large movies, but would still very much apply in more modest movies, and especially in Super 8 and 16mm. In a sense, every time I look at a scene and figure out how I think it should be shot I am editing in camera: so it can mean just the process of visualizing how the shots will cut together later.
Assuming a fairly well-planned indie shoot on 35mm with an experienced crew (of say 3 and 3 plus a swing) what do you think is an achievable number of set-ups to plan for? I realize that using daylight vs. exteriors at night affects what we are talking about in terms of time for lighting so let's also assume that there is a fair amount of lighting. What would be a reasonable number of set-ups? I think I heard the UPM on one of the episodes of "Project Greenlight" say that Thomas Ackerman was shooting 30 set-ups a day which seems amazing.
Also, do you think it makes sense to try and shoot two cameras in an effort to boost the amount of coverage you are shooting or does it lead to too many compromises in the lighting? Lastly, is it reasonable for a director to expect that a set is lit in such a way that most of the tighter shots (other than the reverse) can be shot with minimal tweaks to the lighting on the master? I feel like I would rather spend some extra time on lighting the master if it means we can rock and roll once the actors are on set and ready to start shooting. Thanks for the advice. ??--Henry
"I shoot 40 setups a day" is not a measure of quality nor an achievement in itself, TV shoots average between 15 and 30 setups a day (I think). Movies are usually under 20, and some are under 10. I think screentime is a more interesting measure, as it takes into account how much of the movie you have shot, rather than how many shots. I guess The Shining wouldn't have rated very high on the daily set-up scale?.
Two cameras can be useful in some situations, but when every set-up is 2 or 3 cameras, it can compromise the lighting (and the sound), and actually takes longer when you are in a confined space tripping all over each other. Occasional second camera is a good way to shoot I think, but then I mostly shoot straight drama and not action. I like precision and controlled framing, so multiple cameras CAN (but not always) lead to "found" framing. This can be a style in itself (like the dynamics of a Tony Scott film), so there is no real answer to this question, without reference to the intended shooting style of the picture.
I would say that most close-ups in the same lighting direction should not take longer than 10 to 15 minutes to "tweak". Some you can shoot straight away. Some will take longer. Robert Altman likes to just zoom in from the master position and "just shoot it!". That's what makes the acting in his films "fizz", whilst the framing is loose and "human". So you adapt to the circumstance.
I think there was an incredible injustice at last year's Academy Awards. The best cinematography movie winner Master and Commander winning over Girl with a Pearl Earring and Seabiscuit ? Come on!!! (Not to mention City of God and John Seale's Cold Mountain). What do you think about that? What was your favorite cinematography in 2003 (even among the not-nominated films). Do you think Academy has been "reasonable" recently in its cinematography awards? ?-R Marcell
As I am an Academy voter I guess I am not supposed to comment negatively on the awards! However, the awards process is a curious one as departments vote for the nominees and then everyone votes for the winners. This sometimes means that the nominee list is OK but the winner tends to be the most "popular" film, which usually means the film that was most successful in the box office. This isn't because of some conspiracy; it's just human nature. On the whole I think the Awards list is OK. Of course there are many films I think were left out (mostly my own!), but then that's always going to be personal opinion. It's a bit like Best Restaurant or Best Bottle of Wine - there's no maths here, just opinions.
I'd go for City of God but not for Cold Mountain. I prefer Master and Commander over Girl with a Pearl Earring, but that's just because I don't like cinematography that looks like painting: but then I think Eduardo Serra is one of the best cinematographers currently working.
Clubs always attract negative publicity and the Academy is no different. We are really just a bunch of people who are good at what we do and once a year throw a party to celebrate the business we work in. The world has decided to take it all a bit too seriously and it's become a Really Big money spinner so the fun has gone out of it in some ways, and the months spent obsessing about the Awards is a real pain if you happen to be shooting a movie during Awards Season. The general opinion amongst cinematographers is that whilst being nominated might be good for your career, winning is not often as beneficial as it might seem.
I'm currently studying a BA honours degree in film, radio and television studies with fine art. I have a great passion for light and form, and have recently been questioning why cinematographers do not get more recognition for their artistic vision? Do you think it is possible for a cinematographer to be recognized as an auteur? And if so, then which cinematographer would you say fits this ambiguous title???-Danielle
The thing to remember about cinematography is that it is a collaboration. Without the script, the actors, the director, the designer, there is no cinematography. The term "auteur" means "author", so whilst you could say that the cinematographer is the author of the light and sometimes the framing, the term does not make much sense for the job as a whole.
I too am puzzled about the lack of recognition of the job. It sometimes rates a line from a critic usually involving the word "burnished" or "painterly" if they like it: I've only been mentioned once in a negative way which was for An Unfinished Life where one critic called the cinematography "static" which seemed strange in a film where the camera is constantly moving.
One thing for sure is that critics have no idea of the role of the cinematographer. I think most people relate it to something they understand like photography: so the job is "taking photos". It's a job that as many different demands as the films that you shoot. It also has many different personalities from the flamboyant to those who say very little. The craft service lady said to me yesterday "What is blocking?". Well in a way blocking is the very heart of the film where all the decisions get made about what images are made and in what way: there is only the director and cinematographer (and sometimes the operator) who are involved with this. So when a critic talks about "fluid direction", that may or may not be the work of the cinematographer. The worst is when they attribute the lighting to the director, which shows a complete ignorance of the way that most films are made.
There are very few cinematographers who leave an indelible mark on the medium. I would name Vittorio Storraro, Gordon Willis and Robert Richardson as three who have a definite influence on what can and can't be done. There are many others of course, but those three come first to mind.
Do you think you've ever ruined a movie based on your choice on the cinematography? Or another way of asking it is if you even think it's even possible to ruin a movie with bad choices on cinematography?
I sometimes have wondered whether I did the right thing with The Shipping News in terms of how bleak and cold the film looked. I was very happy with it at the time as it takes a lot of work to get that look from landscapes that have a tendency to look pretty and like postcards. A number of critics singled out the cinematography in a good way because they didn't like the film much so found themselves writing about the cinematography which is unusual in my career. Perhaps it was this that I didn't like: I prefer the cinematography to be so buried in the fabric of the movie that it is "beyond notice".
I'm not sure if you can ruin a great movie with bad cinematography. One that comes to mind is Pulp Fiction. The cinematography of that film is in a technical sense pretty appalling but in every other way is perfect for the film. I never could work out whether this was a happy accident or a work of genius. Bad lighting will, of course, afect the overall "atmosphere" of the film: bad framing and montage will affect the telling of the story, so perhaps the latter is more likely to ruin a film than the former. It's fairly meaningless to break it up in this way, but thought-provoking.
In order of how easily one of the elements can ruin a movie here is my list: directing, script, casting, editing, cinematography, music and then the rest.