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.

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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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New Demo Reel and Tips for Cutting Your Own

It’s been a busy couple of months for me, but I finally got around to cutting a new demo reel.  Check it out!

 

 

Cutting your own reel?  Here are my thoughts, having just gone through the process

This reel is focused on narrative work as opposed to music video or commercial.  It starts out with a brief montage and then highlights a few projects.  The opening montage is important because it offers the viewer a number of different looks and shows versatility, plus it makes the reel feel more exciting and hopefully keeps the potential client watching.  The montage shots don’t have to all be epic landscapes, but can also be ECU’s or texture shots or anything that can lend some quick ‘eye candy’.

Trying to boil down my work into a handful of shots was a daunting task, and it took a full week to put this together after going through many revisions.  When I first started on it, I remember feeling disappointed with my work and thinking that it wasn’t good enough, but now I’m happy with it all again.  I can’t be the only DP that goes back and forth between hating my reel and being proud of it, so don’t feel alone if you have the same emotions.

It’s important to have one or two people give you honest feedback.  In this case it was my wife and my good friend Benj who gave me excellent notes and pushed me to keep improving it.  Occasionally, friends will show me their demo reel while they’re in the process of putting it together, and I believe it’s important to offer honest but constructive feedback.  Usually I suggest they cut out a shot here or there or re-organize the material a bit.  It’s hard to be objective about your own work .  You may know how tricky a shot was to execute or how you made it look like daytime when the sun was long-gone, but that may not come across to the viewer.  In this case, my first edits were boring and not varied enough.  I kept looking for little shots here and there that could add movement, emotion, and variety.

Another thing newer DP’s struggle with is not having a large volume of material to work with.  In that case, I suggest more frequent updates to your reel and don’t feel it has to be that long.  I’d rather see a solid 90 seconds verses a mixed and repetitive 3 minutes. Keep working at it, keep shooting, and your work will get better and better.  You’ve got your whole life to continue improving your reel.  I know my best work is still to come.

Also, I’m not particularly fond of editing but I think it’s important as a DP to understand the process.  I’ve learned a lot about shooting when I’ve had to edit the material as well. More importantly, I like to be in control of all my marketing materials, so I’ve had to learn to edit and also how to do my own website.  When I was starting out, this wasn’t totally possible because you needed expensive equipment and tape machines.  Now, it’s easy for me to keep my reel and website up-to-date without relying on someone else.

A final note:  Maintain a complete backup hard drive with all your work and edits.  I had a drive crash on me one time a few years ago, and while I was able to recover most everything, it was not easy.  Hard drives are relatively inexpensive these days and they will most certainly die at some point.

Enjoy the new reel, and if you’re working on your own reel, I hope this advice helps!  Please feel free to share your own advice and experiences in the comments below.

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Three ‘Rules’ of Good Cinematography

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There are tons of ‘Rules’ for filmmakers.  We like to boil the art form down to a few simple steps, and I’ll admit that it’s fun to make these lists.  There’s the ‘180-degree Rule’, the ‘Rule of Thirds’ for composition, and even Roger Corman had a list of rules for directors, like ‘Prioritize your shots’ and ‘Wear Comfortable Shoes’.

I’ve got a couple of my own sets of ‘Rules’.  When I shot my third Feature Film, a romantic comedy titled ‘The List’, I got some great advice from the Production Manager Terry Spazek.  I respected him very much as he had way more experience than I did, and the director and I were fairly young.  He gave me some great tips on how to craft good Cinematography on a low budget.

1.  Frame in Depth – shoot a person along a wall, not into a wall.  Shooting a person standing in front of a wall is usually flat and boring, but if you move the camera 90 degrees and shoot down the wall, you’ll see more depth.  This adds production value and offers more interesting lighting options.

2.  Backlight — Try and work a backlight in on the talent as much as you can.   Backlights create separation between the subject and the background, and can dramatically improve the look of the lighting.  They take more work on the part of the lighting crew and they’re not always appropriate, but I often tell people this is where I like to start lighting a scene.  Some people like to start with the key light or the background lighting, but I often like to first see the backlight and take it from there.  Of course, it could be a really large, strong backlight that I want to start with, perhaps through a window or other motivated source.

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Strong Backlight as the main light source 
 

3.  Keep the Camera Moving – Dolly, slider, handheld, crane, Steadicam.  Whatever it takes.  Static cameras tend to be flat and two-dimensional.

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All three of these tips require more effort on the DP’s part but they really enhance the look of the movie.  The most important thing in filmmaking is to tell the story, not just to make a pretty shot.   My directors and I break these rules all the time!

 

Stay Tuned for my ‘2 Rules of Lighting’ and my ‘3 Rules to Set a C-Stand’!  🙂

 

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Thoughts on Owning Gear as a DP

I’ve owned a lot of gear over the years, including a really awesome 35mm Moviecam Compact camera package.  People have often asked me for advice on buying cameras to further their career and I warn them that cameras can be money-losers.  At the same time, I got a lot of my early work as a DP because I owned that camera and it did bring in some money. Now it sits on a shelf collecting dust, which is a shame, but interestingly the peripherals I owned with it, like lenses, O’Connor head, tripods, filters, etc., are still working all the time and making a profit.

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Me and my old Moviecam Compact
 

It’s not a ton of money that these accessories bring in, but it’s a little bit, and a lot of the time it’s just more convenient to own that stuff than to have to rent it.  I know a bunch of people who’ve bought RED packages or DSLR kits or even Alexas (Alexae?).  Many of them don’t own lenses because there’s been a glut of PL-mount cameras and the prices to buy lenses are ridiculously high, so they often pair up with my gear and we both make a little extra money on the shoot.  Usually my clients like this arrangement because they can save a few hundred dollars going with us but on bigger jobs I usually prefer the safety and convenience of a camera house, not to mention the occasional need for specialty gear like Weaver heads, zoom lenses, remote focus and the like.  Also, as a DP I’m very picky about how these privately-owned cameras are accessorized so I’m often skeptical when producers want to get a camera from someone I don’t know.

Last week I bought a Dana Dolly, which is essentially a camera slider that runs on speed rail.  I’d put a lot of thought into it.  What kind of work do I do?  How many times would I need to rent it before it would make a profit?  How easy is it to rent somewhere else?  The things I especially like about it are its light weight, portability for travel, and the specialty nature of it.  I think my clients will love it and will happily rent it from me because it’s less expensive than some other sliders.

These are the important questions you should ask yourself before buying equipment, unless you don’t care if you lose money or not.  I lost money on my 35mm camera package but it helped start my career.  In that view I can say it was a good purchase but it’s taken 15 years to see that.

Digital cameras are a bigger conundrum though.  Sometimes I’ll have a producer call me up and ask why I don’t own a camera to rent them.  I’ll tell them that today you want me to have the F5, but 6 months ago you wanted the C300 and next year you’ll want the latest camera.  These digital cameras have about a 12 to 18 month window to make their money back and the producer only wants to rent from me because he wants to save some money, so I have a hard time making a profit on these cameras.

The new model that’s emerged is where Camera Owner\Operators invest in the cameras and pair with a rental house that books and maintains it for them.  If they want to use it and it’s available, they can, but the rest of the time they’re renting it to other productions.  The rental houses seem reluctant to invest in the cameras these days because there’s a good chance that they’ll lose money or barely break even before the camera goes out of date. They’d rather invest in longer-serving items like lenses, monitors, matte boxes, tripods, etc.  I think this model can be win-win for the owners and the camera houses, but I still don’t think the owners will make much money on the camera if at all.

In closing, I know some people who’ve made a profit on their cameras but usually it wasn’t because they were going out with it only as a DP, but more likely as an AC, DIT, and sometimes DP.  I’m much more careful about the gear that I want to invest in these days and I don’t really want to be tied to any one digital camera.  It’s very different now than in the days of film cameras.

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Locked in a room with a Tiger!

I just did a commercial shoot in Phoenix for some great clients, Gwen and Jack at Third House.  The interesting part about it was that we were shooting with a live Tiger, which was both frightening and amazing at the same time.  My DIT Brandon Dolson and I made a road trip out of it and brought along an Epic camera package with us.

The first shoot day, we strapped the camera on a hi-hat in the back of a pickup truck and shot motorcyclists driving down a road.  We used an Optimo 24-290mm zoom because we needed a whole bunch of shots and wanted to capture them all quickly at sunset, so the zoom was essential, especially because it’s difficult to keep the motorcycle in the exact same distance. Of course, it’s a beast of a lens and weighs a ton.

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The next day we shot in a motorcycle museum with the Tiger and her handlers.  She was an older Tiger and has probably worked on more films than I have, so I gave her as much respect as possible.  I was surprised how close we were allowed to be with her but the trainer only allowed essential people to be in the room with them, so it was just me and the director and sometimes Brandon.  We even had a remote follow focus so Brandon didn’t have to be right by the camera.

Here’s a quick video clip we shot with my Canon 7D behind the scenes:

Another useful piece of equipment on this shoot was the Dana Dolly, which is basically a Mitchell plate with skateboard wheels on it that can run on two pieces of speed rail.  It was very light and quick to move around and set up.  Because it was so fast, we could do several slider-style shots without having to take the Tiger out of the room.

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An Ode to Night Shoots

I just spent my Saturday night shooting a short film for director Tyson Fitzgerald and his producer (and my good friend!) Sam Wasserman.  The film is called ‘The Bash’ and it takes place on the streets of Downtown LA in front of a movie theater and in an alley.

As I drove to work, I thought about how rewarding I find night work and how exciting it can be to walk in to work in the late afternoon and know it’s going to be a long night, but there’s a great possibility that we’ll shoot something that looks awesome.  Also, I get to hang out with a lot of friends on a night that I’m sure many of us won’t forget anytime soon, because the night shoots often seem more memorable than the ones we shoot during the day.  Driving in to work, I knew that the feeling of excitement would eventually turn to one of exhaustion and irritability, but I wondered how many other people on the crew get a sense of anticipation when they walk onto a night-shoot set.   Maybe it’s just me and I’m a masochist.

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As a DP on a night shoot, I get to re-invent the environment with lighting.  There’s a real magic to that.  Buildings glow.  There’s light and shadow and we have a lot of control.  The set can come alive in a way that’s very different than during the day.

On this particular shoot, we used a RED Epic and I had a great crew.  David Landreth was my 1st AC and Brandon Dolson did the DIT work, and they’re both good friends and reliable partners on set.  My friend’s brother, Darrin Stuckwisch came out as a 2nd AC\Camera Intern, and even though he’s new to film production, I appreciated his hard work and how quickly he picked things up.

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The alley shoot was tricky because we’re surrounded by tall buildings and it’s hard to hide lights and cable.  In our case, my gaffer Brandon Alperin and key grip Jason Webster worked wonders.  They got onto one roof with a scissor lift and hung a 10k and a 5k over the side of the roof with truss.  The generator was parked behind camera and up the street, so in order to not see the banded cable running to the deeper lights they had to run it up and over the roof, dropping down in the deep part of the alley so camera couldn’t see it.  We had 5K’s up-lighting fire escapes and streaming back toward the lens to create a glint of light.  Art department helped me hide a bunch of these lights by parking a car in the alley and having a bunch of trash and boxes on hand.

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Alperin suggested I try Lee #147 Apricot gel on our tungsten units in order to match the Sodium Vapor street light color and it was a surprisingly good match.  In fact, we attached a 2K Baby Junior on top of a street light with two Sodium Vapor lights already on it, and the color was indistinguishable.  I find I’m often learning new stuff from my crew.

It was a long night with a few stunts and fighting, but we did something like 35 setups and got it all done just before the sun came back up on the streets of Los Angeles.  Definitely a memorable evening and reinforces my love of night shoots, even after doing them for so long.

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Multi-cam Fitness Videos for Daily Burn

One of my biggest clients over the last few years has been director Mason Bendewald and his production company MegaMace.  He specializes in making high quality fitness videos and recently we did a large shoot for Daily Burn (www.DailyBurn.com).  We had created almost 40 videos for them in 2011, and this year they wanted even more, including more challenging series and a well-rounded program with Kettlebells, Dance, Body Weight Training, Yoga, and Mobility.  I’m very proud of the work we did not only because I think it looks great, but the programs are fantastic, fun, and are going to really affect peoples’ lives by helping them get in shape and improve themselves.

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We started with a set built at Line 204’s stage in Hollywood.  As the art department delivered sketches of the set, I started creating a lighting plan.  I like to use Omnigraffle to create these plots because it’s fast and easy to use, and is a convenient way for me to communicate my plans to the gaffer and key grip.  It also helps me determine what equipment we need, how many lights to order, etc.  Here’s an example of the lighting plan:

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We used 4 Sony EX3 cameras that were recorded onto AJA KiPro’s so that we had high-quality ProRes HQ files for quick ingest to Post.  Two of the EX3’s used Fujinon ENG style lenses while two cameras had the standard lenses.  One camera went on a 12’ Jib operated by the very talented Chris Schutz and two cameras were handheld by Operators wearing EasyRig’s because of the long takes.

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All of the lights went back to a lighting console so that they could be quickly dimmed, controlled and adjusted.  With 6 different fitness programs, Mason asked for a unique ‘look’ for each that set them apart.  I decided to create a few different ‘times of day’ for some of these:  Sunset, Afternoon, Morning.  Also, the Dance workouts were lit in a more colorful ‘Club’ environment.

Overall, we delivered over 60 fitness videos in 15 days of production (and then did a bunch of interstitial website programming and promos).  I’m very proud of our team at MegaMace and I’m fortunate to get to work with such talented and generous people.

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First press about ‘Somebody Marry Me’, the movie we did all in one shot.

Here’s a link to an article about ‘Somebody Marry Me’, which is a feature film that I shot for director John Asher.  The whole movie is done in one continuous 98-minute shot.  It was quite a feat to pull this off!  Check out the Press from Hollywood Film Journal:

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