Presenting Work-in-Progress

When I first presented my project, it was very different from what we have achieved so far. The project had to be altered quiet a bit, due to circumstances as well as the growth it saw in the weeks ahead. It wasn’t only the project that grew, but I grew so much with it on a personal as well as professional level.

Initially we had decided to shoot four different stories to cover 15 minutes worth of videos and that changed to a more realistic three stories. This decision was made solely because of the difficulty of being able to structure all four in the amount of time that the music lasted – i.e., 15 minutes. We were able to achieve more defined storylines instead of a rushed view. The project now makes more sense.

Initially I had talked about using natural light to make my videos, but this wasn’t possible for all three stories and only one was shot in natural light as I have discussed in another blog before. This was due to the lack of resources to be able to extend our shooting days to only those that were beautiful and sunny as well as the lack of choice of locations as not all locations gave us optimum access to natural light.

I had also spoken about the blue to red arc that the storylines will see, and where this has been achieved for the most part, continuity for all three storylines has been an issue as they aren’t similarly paced and it was difficult to shoot in accordance to this arc as the shot list wasn’t planned keeping the arc in mind and making last minute changes had a huge impact on the outcome as well as led to a great deal of confusion. Also in a lot of instances, the script had to be rearranged in post-production.

The vision had at the start not been discussed thouroughly between the director and I and this led to a lot of changes during the shoot and the planning I had put in as well as the directors plans.

I grew majorly in confidence as I was able to achieve an outcome I am quiet happy with and this led to personal growth as well because where I had a shaky voice and a ‘I’m not sure’ persona while presenting the idea, I was confident and proud of the work I was able to showcase in the work in progress, which meant I presented much better.

Mainly, we were able to achieve most of what we promised and more and we worked with various limitations but pulled through with a project we can be proud to call ours.

Cinematographer vs Director

SERIOUSLY WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE CINEMATOGRAPHER AND THE DIRECTOR?

From my research online as well as from reading the book ‘From Reel to Deal’, I have tried to really differ between the roles of a cinematographer and director. Throughout the project, it felt like Aaron (director) and I kept stepping on each other’s toes and he kept saying that certain decisions were his but these decisions came under the look and framing of the scenes and I felt like that was my job. The problem was that I did not know how to explain it to him and for once, I wasn’t sure myself of what fell under his jury and what fell under mine.

So, after reading all that text, blogs and finding forums where people had similar problems, I have made the following distinctions that I plan to take onto my next project as guidelines of clarity between the two roles.

  1. The cinematographer is the head of the camera and lighting crew. The director is the visionary, who brings the script to screen. This means that the vision is always the directors and he in pre-production explains this to the cinematographer, who then plans accordingly and makes it possible.
  2. On set, the director focuses on the actors and whats happening on the set. He does not dabble into what the camera man is doing or how the set is lit. That is the cinematographer’s job. The cinematographer makes the shot composition according to his previously discussed vision of the film with the director.
  3. The cinematographer is the communication between the director and the rest of the camera and lighting crew. On set, the director does not involve himself with them and only communicates with the cinematographer.

In conclusion, a film set is a funny place where everyone knows each other’s jobs. One man may be able to do everything but a successful film is a collaboration, a team effort. If one man actually had to do everything, it would be a disaster, wouldn’t it? The secret to success here lies in specialization and trust. And that is the relationship between the director and cinematographer. The cinematographer has to trust in the director’s vision and the director has to trust the cinematographer’s work.

Cinematography – mood vs beauty

One of the most important questions one needs to ask themselves as a cinematographer is, am I creating beautiful images or am I setting a tone to enhance the narrative? For a music video, where beauty is well respected and expected, this is a tough question to answer. It really boils down to the message we want to send across. At some point, for this particular project, the beauty and mood setting had to join hands and work with a balance.

Our story arc was pretty well defined, as to the message we wanted to send and to start my process, I pulled out theme words to define it and inform my planning and styling. Healing, intimacy, emotions were some of the words that stood out at first. Digging deeper, I found more words – Inner self, depression, sadness, happiness, ecstasy, dependency and relationships. On the basis of these words I decided I would use the healing arc to go from pale to warm and the colours to go from blue to red. Inadvertently, I had made my decision to go with setting a mood and tone to enhance our story instead of looking for beauty shots.

This affected everything – the wardrobe, the props, the make-up, the lighting and the colour balance we used. But you see, the cinematographer is a powerful powerful person and I still had a few tricks up my sleeves. Lenses, depth of field, framing shots and contrasts were still a little unaffected. Now, I’ve always wanted to shoot a music video and get beautiful shots!

This was my chance. With few to none mid shots, I made the decision of going wide and close up for most shots. Show the whole picture with small protagonists to show the loneliness and depression they were suffering and close ups to go hand in hand with intimacy. We also used a lot of tracking shots to create empathy, a feeling of being part of that world and for the audience to create connections with our characters.

Now, these things were thought of, but some things hadn’t come through my head. Like what lenses will we be using? Do we want a large depth of field, do we want blurry backgrounds? These decisions were made on set and due to the lack of planning , they were made with having the beauty aspect in mind. That shot with all that blurriness is absolutely beautiful. OMG, that contrast is perfect. Let’s do it!

Looking back now, I like to tell myself that I was still thinking of things like isolating the protag or using hard lighting in a moment of misery and that’s why I took the shots I did. But, that isn’t true at all, even though it worked out in the end. These things though so well thought through are very subjective from filmmaker to filmmaker and sometimes, not everything is as planned out as one would think.

Being a beautiful music video, our films needed the beauty aspect, but that aspect found its place in the mix on the film sets and not before. For me, this helped find a great balance and I personally think as a cinematographer I need to think of the narrative, the emotions and the audience when I plan and then use that planning and manipulate it to be as beautiful as possible. Who said beauty is only skin deep? A well-planned thing can be more beautiful sometimes.

Cinematographer and Editor

On a film set everyone has their own roles. Each role is unique and important. Having said that, every role is useless if not done in collaboration with other crew members and cast. As a cinematographer, one would think that the main duty will be during the production stage at the shoot itself. But, this is far from the truth. A cinematographer’s work doesn’t end with the shoot or even begin there. A huge part of the work happens in pre-production so all the planning can be done and no time is wasted on set.

But who does the cinematographer collaborate with or sit and plan with. Basically everyone, at each level. The three main people who have to match their visions though are the Director, the cinematographer and the editor. But doesn’t the editor come in towards the end, in post?

The best way to make a successful film to plan from the start. As a cinematographer, you should explain your vision to the editor and he will be the judge who would tell you if it was possible or how the result will look. Because, at the end of the day, the cinematographer collects the footage and relays it to the editor who sews it together and makes a final product of it.

My mistake while shooting the Winter series was to not think of this particular interaction at all. I made all my decisions, spoke to all the other team members about it but never met our editor, Harrison till I actually came around to the shoot on day 1. This led to obvious problems when we actually started discussing things. He told me that I had to shoot with as much light as I could as he won’t be able to manipulate much otherwise in post. He also told me that the arc would be difficult as there was no continuity in my lighting. He’s a good editor and he would work with what I gave him and we worked together on set as well, which though changed a lot of things, stuck very closely with my vision. I can’t wait to see the final result that he is stitching together.

Lesson learnt this week: Collaborate with the post guys in pre-production!

A look into my research

So, to start with, to succeed at my role it was absolutely necessary to look at the work of the cinematographers who are ruling the industry today. I did a lot of watching and a lot of reading into how they portrayed the voice of the story through cinematography. For this blog, I have written down a bit of the research I did that was necessary to the project I am making. In the following paragraphs I look into some of my favourite works that I used to inform my style.

  1. Emmanuel Lubezki – Children of Men and The Tree of Life top my list as my favourite cinematic films. After watching The Tree of Life, I really wanted to try using natural light, because let’s be real – how beautiful was that. Especially when he did through sunlight coming in through the tree canopies. I was reading of the various rules he makes for himseelf to shoot within and found them very interesting and useful for when I was shooting as well. “In all the movies I’ve done, I always worked with a set of rules — they help me to find the tone and the style of the film,” he says. “Art is made of constraints. When you don’t have any, you go crazy, because everything is possible.”     •    Shoot in available natural light
    •    Do not underexpose the negative Keep true blacks
    •    Preserve the latitude in the image
    •    Seek maximum resolution and fine grain
    •    Seek depth with deep focus and stop: “Compose in depth”
    •    Shoot in backlight for continuity and depth
    •    Use negative fill to avoid “light sandwiches” (even sources on both sides)
    •    Shoot in crosslight only after dawn or before dusk; never front light
    •    Avoid lens flares
    •    Avoid white and primary colors in frame
    •    Shoot with short-focal-length, hard lenses
    •    No filters except Polarizer
    •    Shoot with steady handheld or Steadicam “in the eye of the hurricane”
    •    Z-axis moves instead of pans or tilts
    •    No zooming
    •    Do some static tripod shots “in midst of our haste”
    •    Accept the exception to the dogma (“Article E”)
  2. Roger Deakins – I love Roger Deakins’ Skyfall because of his play with the colours blue and red. Having done a lot of research into it though, I realized he was one for creating artificial light and uses a lot of very heavy duty equipment and builds very expensive sets which is a little hard for a film student to do. Just not enough budget. Having said that, he really is the master of setting the mood using different colour tones.
  3. Matthew Libatique – Black Swan is another favourite and very relevant here because of the mood and arc it sets. The play of light and shadow is beautiful and so powerful. The fact that the only colour in a space came from the protagonists bedroom, making it a warm space was beautiful. I took inspiration from this as well.

Natural Lighting vs Artificial Lighting

When I first started this project, I was taken by the romance of the idea of using natural lighting. “It’s realistic, beautiful and I love the sunlight”, I said. “It’s a bigger challenge and that’s what uni is about”, I exclaimed. “There’s no sunlight, I’m doomed”, I screamed. “The clouds just covered the sun!”, I pulled my hair out. “It’s going to be sunny in an hour again” I waited as everyone gave me THE LOOK.

It’s not as easy as one might think to use natural light. You’re dependent on nature and that’s the last thing you want to depend on. Not when you are on a budget, a time schedule and have a team around you, waiting for you to get it right. “He created two sets in opposite directions, so you could shoot on one for the first half of the day and the other through the second half”, well I wish I could do that! You need a budget to use the natural! How weird is that!!!! Equipment costs a bomb. I recently found out that just the battery for the LED light panel costs about $600 or so. But natural lighting is just a whole new ballgame. Figure that!

I find it hilarious that one uses artificial light to create a natural look. And how weird is it that natural light can look so awfully artificial because one doesn’t actually realize how a natural light lights things up, because in reality, when do you actually think of it. It can be so white, so bright, so yellow! But that could be just my way of looking at things. Over the course of the last three weeks, I have really understood what natural represents and I notice it all the time now.

When it comes down to it, I think there really is no right answer on which is better. It’s a preference as well as logistics of availability. It also boils down to how you use the light to your advantage to create the image.

The other positive of using natural light that appealed to me unconsciously, which is why I call it the romance of it is, we live in a world where natural as a word rules. The minute you say natural, it is appealing, brings curiosity, or at the very least a source of amusement to people today. We have lived amongst the artificial too long. There was a time when preservatives, artificial, what one could create without having access to was very appealing but the time is long gone. Have you all heard your grandmothers look at a fake plant and go dreamily on about how real it looks? I have. But now, we promote the natural, and we win awards on it, we love it, all of us do. But the question comes down to beauty, mood and the message we send out, what’s possible and the choice we make depends on reality.

Cinematography, budgets and locations

Theory and reality, how different they are! During the first presentation, I promised a lot because it was a dream, it was all theory and creativity. But as always I was struck with reality with the cost of creativity. No matter that you get all the equipment from uni, you won’t get everything you want – boiling down to as simple as having the right gels to put on the lights or the particular lense you wanted or the ND filter you love so much. Then there is locations, no budget equals not much choice with locations. And of course, when you don’t pay your crew and actors, you work on days everyone can make it on the set, which means there isn’t a choice, rain or hail, you’re shooting on a day chosen for you.

Who can afford costumes? Work with what you have. Oooh, no one has blue eye shadow – work with what you have. And just like that compromises are made with the vision, the creativity you had spent weeks dreaming of.

In my presentation I spoke of three things – Using natural lighting to create beautiful halo like effects and use the camera to set the right balances and look. I wanted to shoot half the video with a tungsten white balance and the rest, warmer. Then I spoke about the blue to red arc, to flow with the healing theme we had using gels, lighting, white balance and of course grades in editing. Keeping the same idea in mind, I mixed it with the third point I made, about production design, make up and wardrobe.

On a fine sunny day, in rolled Alex to my house, to take me to see the agreed upon locations that I would have to work with. There was my house for one video and the surrounding park, gym and street. Now these locations all had an abundance of natural light and I was pretty excited and confident about them. Then we went to his house and the park near there. The first park we decided was sloped and shadows might irritate us, so we went to another park which was perfect. Now the main problem came to be Alex’s house. No natural light what so ever. As beautiful as his house was, I knew we needed not one but tons of light to make it look like the way I had pictured it.

I asked him to borrow 2 LED panels and 1 dido kit. The dido kit was for safety, but we ended up using it a lot, so thank god for contingency planning. We were also lucky, because for some scenes the three didos and the 2 panels were just not enough, we also used the few lamps Alex has lying around and they were the best! So good rule to have here I learnt, always have more than you think you need and always think of the ways you can use items you have lying around. Lamps go a long way, but you could also bounce light of a mirror or a television screen!

This brings me to the next problem. The days we were shooting at Alex’s place, it stormed and stormed. Storm = Rain and Wind = No natural light = Fuck my life! We managed, we got beautiful shots, I am very happy with what we could do. When the first day started, I was absolutely drowning, but Alex’s friend – Harrison stood by me, teaching me more tricks than I could remember and together we pulled it off!

The wardrobes of all team members were mixed, enough blues and reds turned up and this wasn’t as hard as anticipated earlier. I had asked everyone to message me photos of theie wardrobes and hadn’t gotten any till the day before shoot when people were like OOPS, No reds love! But a beautiful team comes together and makes sure everyone’s vision is seen through and our team was the most wonderful!

My Lesson: Don’t be put down by budgets and locations and stuff, just power on and keep looking for ways around everything. Nothing in the world can really stop you from achieving your vision!