Making Your Shots More Interesting

I often find myself on set trying to improve a shot, to make it more dynamic and interesting.  Here are a few general tricks and techniques I use a lot.

1.  Add some movement.  I love my Dana Dolly, and I sometimes even keep a slider mounted on to a Fisher Dolly just to be able to add a small amount of movement quickly on a moment’s notice.  This makes the shot feel like it’s going somewhere and also creates a 3-dimensional effect by revealing different parts of the background.

2.  Add a foreground element.  This works really well, especially when combined with camera movement.  I’ve seen some really boring wide shots become much more interesting when we added a bit of foreground (or a lot of foreground) such as furniture or set dressing.  Also, even Close Ups can be made more interesting by adding some out-of-focus foreground element, even if it’s the back of another actor’s head.  This is why I often find over-the-shoulder shots much more interesting than clean-singles.   Usually I like darker foreground objects, so we’re often setting flags to take the light off of them. 

3.  Add a highlight to the background.  This could be a window or a practical lamp, or anything to break up a flat background.

4.  Switch to a tighter lens.  I can’t tell you how many times my AC has turned on the focus magnification on the camera to check focus between takes, and the director and I looked at it and thought — this looks so much better!  Flipping to longer lenses are one thing I think to do when a shot just isn’t quite working for me. 

There are a bunch of other things you can do to make a boring shot more interesting, but these are my more common approaches.  Not every setup is a big sweeping crane shot, and we all have to shoot Wides, Cowboys, and Close-Ups, but they can always be improved upon.  

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To see more of my work or hire me for your next project, visit my website, http://www.GFuterfas.com

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Vimeo and Copyrights – a Conundrum for Demo Reels

I have a Vimeo Plus account, and I got a notice the other day that Vimeo removed a video I posted because it received a complaint from Viacom that they held the copyright and I was displaying it without permission.  Then I saw another Director friend on Facebook complaining about the same thing.

Vimeo notice

 

Only thing is, the video I posted was a short clip of something I’d shot and had posted it for my demo reel.  On my website, I link to Vimeo versions of my clips because it’s a convenient and fast way to provide streaming video to computers, mobile, iPads, etc.  Also, the costs of streaming large video files are put on Vimeo and not my website’s host server.

Vimeo was smart enough to not let me re-post the same video or upload it again, so I worked around it by re-compressing the video on my computer and calling it something else so Vimeo wouldn’t recognize it.  Then I set all my videos to ‘Private’ on Vimeo so it won’t happen again.  I’ve noticed a couple of Music Video directors complaining about this recently, that the parent companies of their videos are taking down their samples of work.

I can understand this from Viacom’s perspective, and I don’t want to harm their bottom line.  I always wait until after the videos are released before posting on my website.  However, I shot the video and need samples for my reel.  I couldn’t have gotten that job if I didn’t have a demo reel that the Director and Clients could see, so it becomes a Catch 22.  They expect me to have a Demo Reel with amazing work on it, but they don’t want me to have their work to show as a sample to others.

Anyway, not sure what the ultimate solution is, but I found a way around it for now.  If you’re having this same trouble, maybe this will help.  I welcome comments and other peoples’ suggestions and solutions.  I’m not trying to harm the companies that I work for, but I also need this material on my reel.

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Fluid Heads

I find one of the most over-looked pieces of camera equipment is the Fluid Head.  There are several brands and levels to choose from and if you’re not a camera operator, you might not think there’s much of a difference.   I mean, it’s just a device that holds the camera on the tripod (or dolly, slider, etc) and allows you to pan left or right, tilt up or down, right?

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For me, a good fluid head allows me to be very precise about my camera moves and can be adjusted to balance the camera no matter how much we modify it throughout the day, changing lenses and accessories. Since I often operate and DP at the same time, I find I can be very distracted and have little time to rehearse a camera move, so it’s very important that the head be predictable and adjustable.

My favorite fluid head is the O’Connor 2575.  They’ve made several updates to it over the years, so there’s the 2575-B, -C, and -D.  It’s a heavy fluid head and is rated for cameras from 25 to 75 pounds, hence the name ‘2575’.  O’Connor also makes a 2060 and a 1030, which are for lighter cameras, but the 2575 is the most flexible of those designs and I’ve even used it for smaller DSLR cameras very effectively.

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Sachtler makes decent heads but I’ve often found their counterbalance designs to be lacking.  There are also good heads from Miller, Cartoni and Vinten, but again, they lack the perfect balance I get with the O’Connor.

I’m going to walk you through the proper way to adjust an O’Connor head with a camera on it.  A good operator will set up his head so the camera will stop in any position without having to apply the tilt lock.  As you work with longer lenses that magnify the image (and any imprecise camera movement along with it), you need finer control of the camera.

Once you’ve got it on the tripod and the fully-built camera mounted on top, you need to balance the camera weight front to back.  Best to do this with the Tilt and Pan Tensions dialed way down (or off) and the Counterbalance dial turned down as well.  Never dial the Counterbalance to extremes (below 10 or above 90) as it can damage the internal threads.

Slide the camera back and forth on the sliding plates until it doesn’t fall forward or back.  Usually you have two sliding plates underneath the camera:  The O’Connor top plate and the Camera’s sliding base plate that holds the iris rods.

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Once you’ve got it balanced front to back, the head will be really loose and unwieldy.  Add just a little bit of Pan and Tilt Tension.  You can start to adjust the Counterbalance dial by turning it up until the camera just wants to pull back up when you tilt it forward.  Meaning, the point of the Counterbalance is to spring the head back to it’s neutral position, and you want just enough of it to overcome the momentum of the camera’s tendency to fall forward or back.  Once the camera starts to return to neutral after you’ve tilted it up or down, just bring down the counterbalance a little bit.

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Then set the Tilt and Pan tension dials where you like them.  For me, it’s usually between 1 and 2 on the dial — not a lot.

The camera should be able to be tilted up or down to any position and stay there with no hands on it and no lock on.  This is a perfectly balanced head, and it only takes 15-30 seconds to get it there.

If you want more information, here’s a good Operation Guide from O’Connor:

http://www.ocon.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/2575D-Operator-Guide.pdf

One last note, it’s always good form to store the head in the case with the Pan and Tilt locks turned off.  This way the head won’t develop bumps if it gets jostled when transported.

And that’s more than you could ever want to know about Fluid Heads, a very important tool for camera operators and DP’s.

Graham Futerfas is a Los Angeles-based DP, and his website is www.GFuterfas.com

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Artists, Politics, and Management

A lot of people think being a DP is all about art, composition and lighting, and sometimes forget about the Management aspect of the job.  For me, being a Manager is a task that can be the most complicated part of the job, requiring tact, decisiveness, planning, and patience.

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On any given shoot, I work for the Director, and I work for the Producer, and I work for their Client.  They all have somewhat divergent interests in me and the work that I produce.  On set, I usually feel my biggest responsibility is to the Director, but on a political level, I try to keep everyone happy.  I also have to coax the best out of my crew, because they really can make me shine or slow us to a crawl.

Like everyone, I have an opinion.  That’s part of being an Artist and a Craftsman, and it’s what makes my style different than other people. On a film set, I find artists at every level and in every position, from my gaffer to the set dresser down to the PA’s and Craft Service person.  Many of them are in the film industry because they have a passion for the craft, and many are working their way up the ladder.

The way we express our opinions is where the art of politics and management come in.  I think this is a critical aspect of what makes a great Cinematographer, and why some DP’s get reputations for being arrogant or difficult to work with.  We’re in a difficult position, between the Top Brass and the Gears that make everything turn on the set.  We have to constantly make concrete decisions, and we have to understand what our bosses want, what we want, what our crew wants, and how to navigate a bunch of different personalities and relationships.

I’m very self-conscious about how I carry myself on set, and I know it’s important that I be assertive and give counsel to a Director, but at the same time maintain an open mind and an easy demeanor.  I’m not hired to be a button pusher, and I have to find a way to express myself as an artist alongside the other artists that I work with.  I just read an interview with DP Barry Ackroyd, who said “It’s about telling someone else’s story, but with your voice.”  Filmmaking has a fascinating dynamic, where artists come together to collaborate on a single project, yet at the end of the day, it’s not a Democracy — it’s a Dictatorship where the Director has the ultimate say.

For DP’s and Director’s alike, I think as a Manager, it’s important to be able to make a decision.  Imagine if you had a boss that didn’t know what he wanted, and how confused and frustrated you’d be.  I like to have the debates and discussions in prep, so that when we’re on set we don’t waste a lot of time going back and forth.  The Director and I need to be united on what shots we need, where the camera goes, where the actors go, and what’s going to happen.  At the same time, I want to offer some freedom to allow for the ‘Happy Accident’ and the improvisational nature of being on set with a troupe of talented actors and crew.  This is why I like being closely involved in the shot-list making stage of prep.

I love working for Director’s who know what they want, can definitively say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to any option I offer them, and yet are open to my ideas and are willing to discuss the ‘Why’s’ of what we’re doing.  That’s how I better understand and execute their vision, by asking a lot of questions, and by working to create a method and pattern that makes our work distinct.

Graham Futerfas

http://www.GFuterfas.com

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Lighting 101 – The DP’s Playbook

football_playbook

Like any good football coach, most DP’s have a basic Playbook they use when it comes to lighting.  Of course, everyone’s got a different style and likes to mix it up, but there are things that we know work well and light positions that we can always fall back on.

If you’re interested in learning the fundamentals of how to light a scene, here’s a quick summary of concepts Cinematographers often think about.

Many DP’s like to light the set\background first and then start applying these rules on Key, Fill and Backlights.  For instance, if there are practical lamps or windows, we’ll light for those first before setting the lights for the actors.  We might then work with the director to block the actors into better lighting and composition positions.  Sometimes we want to take the light off the actors, ‘Un-Light’ them, or make the lighting feel less staged.  Feel free to break these rules, and know that it’s often the bolder choices that can set a DP apart.

There are all kinds of funny names for different types of lighting:  Half Light, Rembrandt, Beauty Light, Grease Light (aka Kicker Light), Neg Fill, etc.

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*This is the classic ‘Rembrandt’ lighting.  Notice the shadow from his nose.

Let’s start with the classic Three-Point Lighting most people are taught in school.  It includes a Key Light on one side, the Fill Light on the other side of the camera, and a backlight.

3-Point Lighting

I’m not usually a fan of this style of lighting, mainly due to the position of the fill light.  I prefer to use what I call ‘Same-Side Fill’, where the fill light works to wrap the key light around onto the actor’s face.  Here’s a diagram of what I’m talking about.  Go ahead and spend a few seconds studying it and the notes I wrote on it:

Same Side Fill_Simplified

This diagram is my most common Play in the book.  It works.  It’s pretty.  It’s a classic.  By adjusting the diffusions and scrims in these lights, you can go from high-key to very dramatic.  Often though, I find myself trying to work my way out of this box and make some scenes look less lit.  Also keep in mind that you might not want any fill light.   I’ll talk about other options in a bit.

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I generally have two basic ‘Rules’ that I can apply whenever I get stuck and don’t know where to start.  They are: Backlight and Diffusion.

Some people like to set the Key light first, but I sometimes like to see the Back light set up first and make decisions from there.  I usually like the backlight as opposite and 180 degrees of the camera as I can get it.  This often means we need to hang it or arm it in and keep the cable out of the shot.

I also like to add diffusion to the lights to keep them from feeling so direct and forced.  It makes the light more appealing, even just a light amount of it.  Diffusion and lighting direction can be an art as much as a science, and it takes some experience to know how these can affect your lighting.

Thinner diffusions like 251 and Opal can just take the edge off while still maintaining some direction to your light.  As you get into thicker diffusions like Light Grid, the source-iness of the light goes away and the ‘size’ of the light becomes larger.  I often use large frames of diffusion in front of the lights — 4×4’, 8×8’, and even 12×12’.

First, where do you set the key light?  In general, I like it when the actor is looking in the direction of the key and fill lights.  This means we mostly set the Key light on the side of the camera that the actor is looking for most of the scene.  For example, if I have two actors talking and I’m going to shoot coverage of the scene, the key light will go opposite the camera-side of the eyeline.  Here’s another diagram.

Placing_the_KeyLight

Putting the Key light on the actor’s Eyeline side tends to be ‘Slimming’, helping the actor to appear thinner.  Here’s an example from ‘Training Day’ of the Key and Fill light set in the actor’s eyeline:

TrainingDay_Light_in_eyeline

It’s possible to put the Key light on the other side, out of the eyeline, but you have to be careful with this or the light can feel very flat and make the face look broad.  If you’re going to go in the opposite direction, it can work well if the eyeline is close to camera (not wide) and if the Key light is used to create more of a half-light than a Rembrandt.  Not that he always did this, but I found very good examples of it in Conrad Hall’s work:

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In both cases, the actors are looking away from the Key light side, and the Key to Fill ratios are fairly contrasty.  The Key light is used more as a Half-light than a Rembrandt, so as to preserve a darker side to the face.

Here’s an example of a ‘Grease Light’ or ‘Kicker’ on the dark side of Brad Pitt’s face.  Notice how it doesn’t hit his nose (a personal pet-peeve of mine when it does):

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When lighting a 2-Shot, I sometimes employ what’s known as a ‘Back-Cross’.  This is two lights that each serve double duty — they backlight one actor while providing a Rembrandt on the other.  This also facilitates a quick turn around for lighting the coverage.

Back_Cross

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Another Play I really like is ‘The Robert Richardson’.  It’s often a bright, hot downlight (maybe a PAR Can) that bounces off a table or the ground and lights the faces.

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Bowfinger

Another way to soften your Key Light is to build a ‘Book Light’, where the light bounces off a material (like Beadboard) and then goes through a frame of diffusion.  This creates a very soft source that often doesn’t require much fill light, but it can occupy a lot of space and take a lot of stands and flags.  It also needs a pretty bright light for a key source.

Book Light

Sometimes you can use a diffusion frame in front of your light, and raise it up a bit so that some hard light leaks on the actor while diffusion still covers the face.  Here’s an example of John Toll’s in Almost Famous:

AlmostFamous

Another technique I’ve learned to love for certain applications is the Beauty Light. It can look awesome and glamorous on a well-made-up actress, but it also can look completely fake.  Often, I use it in music videos or cosmetics commercials.  Generally, the light is right above the camera, and high enough that it throws a ‘Butterfly’ nose shadow straight down, but it’s not too high that there are shadows in the eyes.

Beauty Light

Maybe in a future post I’ll examine the differences among light sources, like Tungsten vs. HMI vs. Fluorescent vs. LED.  They’re very different, in terms of quality of the light, color, spectrum, brightness, etc.  They all have uses though, and it’s often about finding the right tools for the job.  For my quick diagrams, I used tungsten lights (and maybe you don’t always need a 5K or 10K — I got lazy and didn’t change up the sources too much for these examples).  You could need HMI’s or Kinos, depending on your set and location.

These are just examples of common techniques.  There are lots of other plays in the book and ways to change these around to suit your scene.  Everyone will have different ways of doing things and different opinions, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.  These techniques can take a lot of practice, and I encourage you to be bold and break the rules.

Personally, a DP’s work can get pretty boring when they keep doing the same thing over and over again, so it’s important to learn what works and then think about other options. I often like to have a couple days after the location scout to think about how to light a set, because the first ideas can be pretty standard and ho-hum.  Given some time, I find that better ideas will come up if I can allow my mind to wander and marinate on the lighting plan.

I also find it to be helpful to study the work of other DP’s you admire, and pause the DVD’s or use screen-capture software to save stills so you can examine how they’re constructed.   I welcome your comments and additions.  Thanks for reading!

-Graham

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Elephant in the room

I recently had the pleasure of working with my second exotic animal this year, an Asian Elephant named Tai.  We were shooting a spot for an addiction clinic and the theme was ‘The Elephant in the Room’.  It was a two-day shoot in Los Angeles with one of my favorite clients, Jack and Gwen at 3rd House.

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Because most locations weren’t ‘elephant friendly’, we spent the first day shooting scenes and multi-layered background and foreground plates at a house and an office, and the second day with the elephant and actors on a greenscreen.  The Elephant was well-trained and contracted through a company called Have Trunk Will Travel.  Tai could do all sorts of tricks, like lie down, flap his ears, bow his head, raise his trunk, etc.  Her handlers were very film-saavy and helpful.

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We shot the spot on the Sony F5 and Zeiss Superspeeds, and only used a modest grip and lighting kit.  At the camera prep, we did a quick test of the RGB 4:4:4 SR codec but found that Jack’s editing software, Adobe Premier, wasn’t compatible, so we stuck with XAVC.  I did find that the camera is still a little buggy, and it crashed on us a few times:  once at the prep, so we re-loaded the Firmware, and once on set.   The Sony Viewfinder is very nice but I found another bug that makes it appear very dim until I adjust the contrast in the menu, then it pops right back (and no, this has nothing to do with the ‘screen saver’ function when you take your eye off the eyepiece).

For the greenscreen matches, we kept careful notes on lenses, distance, lens heights, etc., but found that the elephant was a little bigger than we planned, so we had to make adjustments to our lens calculations in order to allow for changing the size and perspective on the elephant.  Otherwise, some shots would just see the legs and a little bit of the trunk of the elephant instead of more of her body.

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It was a small shoot but a fun couple of days!

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Graham Futerfas

Director of Photography

tel   (323) 394-1132

email  GFCine@gmail.com

web   www.GFuterfas.com

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Temara Melek ‘Karma’s Not Pretty’ – Music Video Released

Hey gang, the music video I shot for Temara Melek and Director Shawnette Heard was just released on YouTube.

We shot this with an Arri Alexa and Lomo Anamorphic lenses.  Check out my previous blog post about that.  Lighting package was fairly small, some HMI’s, but mainly used one 4K HMI as a beauty source.

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Shooting Anamorphic

I’ve done a couple of Anamorphic shoots lately and we used three different kinds of lenses.  Here’s a quick rundown.

TemaraKarma_1The first project I shot was a music video for Temara Melek, ‘Karma’s Not Pretty’.  We used Lomo anamorphics and an Arri Alexa, and I’m not sure I’d go for this combination again.  We had the 35, 50, 75, and 100mm lenses.  Remember in anamorphic, your focal lengths are longer than when using spherical lenses for the same field of view.  For instance, the 35mm Lomo seemed almost exactly the same as a 24mm spherical lens when it comes to how wide the camera sees.

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Of course, we were framing for 2.4:1 aspect ratio.  The issue with using the regular Alexa and anamorphic is that you need to digitally un-squeeze the image in post, which reduces the resolution considerably (closer to 1280×720 than 1920×1080).  This creates a bit of softness, which is fine for the beauty look we were going for but not ideal for every project.  If I did anamorphic again with an Alexa, I’d probably insist on shooting with the 4×3 sensor version of the Alexa Studio.

Also, the Lomo lenses are large and a mix of different sizes and shapes, so they’re harder to accessorize with matte box and bellows and such.  I also wasn’t as fond of their flare characteristics, which I wanted more of.  The Lomos were marked in meters and not feet, so at the prep we took the time to re-mark them with tape.

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On a second project, a short fantasy film about demon exorcisms, we shot with Kowa and Cineovision lenses and a RED Epic camera.  I found this much better.  The higher resolution of the RED (shooting RAW) made for a sharper unsqueezed image, and the Kowa primes were lighter, smaller and better matched than the Lomos.  We used the 40, 50, 75, and 100mm Kowas and the 24mm Cineovision.

The director, Scott Speer, really wanted to have a wide lens on a lot of shots, so we added the Cineovision because 40mm just isn’t wide enough.  The 24mm Cineovision seemed similar to a 14 or 16mm spherical format lens.   The thing about the Cineovision is that it flares very differently than the Kowas, with every highlight creating a colorful blue streak all the way across the frame.  It’s a cool look but I don’t recommend this lens if you don’t want the anamorphic flares.  We were going for that look.

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The 24mm Cineovision Lens flares easily all the way across the frame.

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The 50 and 75mm Kowa with more subtle flares

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The Lomos are Russian lenses while the Kowas and Cineovision lenses are Japanese.  The Kowas had a very different flare than the Cineovision, with a whiter, warmer flare and less streaky.  Of course, Scott loved to flare the lens so we would shine lights at the camera a lot.

The anamorphics also have a lot of bendiness to the image, especially in the wide shots.  Again, it’s a cool look that we wanted but not necessarily normal like a spherical lens.

Because you use longer focal lengths to get the same field of view, the depth of field is shallower in anamorphic.  I had great Focus Pullers on both jobs, and they also had to be fairly quick at changing out the lenses, which takes a bit more effort than normal prime lenses.

Stopping down the lenses really helps sharpen the images, which can be soft and fall off at the edges if left wide open.  The lenses ranged from a T2.3 to a T2.8 at their widest apertures, but we usually shot around a T2.81/2 or a T4.  The 100mm lenses in both sets have close focuses around 6’, so you need a set of diopters to really use them.  We usually didn’t go past 75mm, even for close ups, because of this.  Interestingly, we made good use of a +1/2 diopter (usually I use the +1 most frequently, but the ½ seemed more appropriate a lot of times).

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I definitely enjoy working in the anamorphic format, but it’s not right for every job.  Because the digital cameras are so sharp and clean, many people want to create a more vintage look by pairing them with older lenses.  The Kowas were my favorite here, but the Cineovision offers a more kooky, extreme option if you want to mix it in.

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Aspect Ratios

I’ve always been fascinated by the history of Cinema, and I saw an interesting video today about Aspect Ratios and thought I’d share it.  If you want to understand where our aspect ratios come from, enjoy!

 

 

As a Cinematographer, one of the first technical discussions I have with the Director (and Producer) is about deciding on an aspect ratio.  Some projects require more than one delivery ratio, so it’s important to plan for these down the road.  Commercials, for instance, often frame for 16×9 and protect for 4×3, even though they haven’t made a 4×3 television set in many years now.

Some projects can be more interesting in Widescreen (2.35:1), while others are better suited for 1.85:1.  I remember the first time I read about a movie that made an important artistic decision based on Aspect Ratio.  It was the movie ‘Wind’ shot by John Toll.  At first he considered shooting in Widescreen, but then realized they were going to shoot sailboats, so it would frame much better in 1.85 because they’re so tall.

With online video, I’ve shot projects in both 16×9 and 2.35, and even used 2:1, which is an odd format that David Fincher seems to like and used on the Netflix series ‘House of Cards’.  These days, many projects I shoot are open to most any ratio, especially in music videos.  Commercials, Television and Features sometimes have contractual obligations to delivering in certain formats, or multiple formats.  With projects that have more than one deliverable, I always concentrate on making the ‘medium of highest impact’ look the best it can, and let other formats fall where they may.  I’m less concerned about how my movie will be framed in 4×3 in Taiwan when most people will still get to see it in 2.35:1.

I like to frame in 2.35:1 and enjoy the ability to really use the width of the frame to explore stronger compositions.   I even miss framing for 4×3, which I find a very interesting shape to work with.

I find that I sometimes need wider lenses when shooting in cropped-2.35 or more space to move the camera back.  The reason for this is that since we’re cropping the top and bottom of the 16×9 image, in order to get a Cowboy or a Full shot, we need to show more of the sides and pull back than if we were shooting in 1.85.

Aspect ratios seem like a simple decision but they can definitely impact the cinematography.  I have a collection of frame grabs from different movies, and one thing I enjoy looking at is the different compositions that DP’s use when they frame in the two main formats.  For instance, it’s interesting to see Roger Deakins shoot a movie in 1.85:1, and then do a movie in 2.35:1.  I personally find the 2.35:1 compositions more dramatic and powerful, though I’ve also seen very strong composition in 1.85.

 

 

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Winner of Best Cinematography for ‘Somebody Marry Me’

Just a quick note to say that the movie I shot in December, Somebody Marry Me, just won several awards at Hoboken International Film Fest, including Best Cinematography.  It also won the jury award for Best of Fest and Best Actor.  A few weeks ago it won the Audience Award at the Cinema at the Edge in Santa Monica.

Somebody Marry Me was all done in one continuous shot, and it was a real feat to pull off.  Here’s a link to a story that explains how we did it.

Somebody Marry Me_HollywoodFilmJournal

Of course, I’m very proud of the win but it’s important for me to mention the talented team who worked with me on this.  My Gaffer Brandon Alperin, Key Grip\Ninja Jason Webster, Producer Kimberly Stuckwisch, 1st AD Joe Suarez, and Production Designer Elvis Strange were all so important to making this happen and I know they feel a sense of pride that the movie’s winning these awards.  The cast was also very impressive, pulling off a 98 minute romantic comedy in several locations all in one go, especially lead actor Ray Abruzzo who was in every scene.  Finally, we never would have attempted it without the mandate from Director John Asher and Executive Producer Lamar Billups.

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