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.

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Camera Work on Presgrave Place

Working on the Documentary with Sabine was completely different from the music videos with Alex. On Presgrave Place, I worked as the DOP as well as the sound recordist. For this project, though it’s been a success in the end, I felt we weren’t very well prepared at all. As the producer, Sabine worked hard to get as many interviews with the artists that install there as possible, but due to this everything else took a back seat.

So, for this reflection, I have talked about the positives as well as the negatives that I got out of the process and the I reflect on how I would handle these in the future.

Positives:

  1. The quality of the footage has been very good, with no out of focus images, good eye for details and unlike the winter project, not in one frame has any detail been lost due to lack of light. This is a big positive for me because it was the first time I handled the camera alone and I have grown in confidence and learnt a great deal from the experience – both good and bad.
  2. As I mentioned before, we have a lot of relevant footage and great interviews, enough to keep working on this outside of the masters degree as webisodes in the future, depending on the success of the doco.
  3. Team work – Sabine and I have known from semester 1 that we form a great team and have a great deal of trust between us, making the working environment fun and easy as well as very inviting for our interviewees.
  4. We did everything using natural lighting, which is what I had proposed and really wanted to try with this project.

Negatives:

  1. The lighting kept changing. Where it was great to experiment working with natural light, the sun kept changing direction or hiding behind clouds, changing the look constantly. Where this is not a completely bad thing for a realistic documentary, I would prefer to have consistency, to make post production easier and hence, use more artificial lighting.
  2. We forgot to change frames. All the interviewees are sitting on the left side of the frame looking towards the right diagonally, with the same background and the same frame length and depth, making the lack of change and movement very dull for a viewer.
  3. Bad camera. We had a Canon 5D Mark 2 which is a very frustrating camera to be using especially while shooting interviews. The main reason for this is it stops recording automatically every 10 or so minutes, which would break the interviewees answers in the middle constantly. The other is that it still uses the old block like SD cards for which we require card readers, are difficult to copy to an apple device and take ages to transfer!
  4. Sound was really good but being out in an open space meant we caught a lot of birds and had to constantly ask our very patient artists to repeat themselves.

Overall, I do not think any of the problems were major issues that we had to deal with but a more thorough planning in the future might be the key to making a documentary with much better quality.

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.

The Shoot

So, this week we started our shoot. After weeks of planning and endless meetings, we were finally there. We would actually get to shoot. I was ready, I knew what I wanted and I knew, or at least I thought, this is going to be easy.

Day 1:

I walked from the tram stop to Alex’s on day one and it was pouring. I wasn’t worried because this was expected. Our project manager had already warned us, having done her homework. Having said that, I had done my homework too. On paper, I had put down exactly what I would do with the lighting, having seen the location before. I felt prepared. But, as I mentioned how how different theory is from reality! Sure I had drawn up my lighting structure but it didn’t always work and I had to improvise a lot. Thank god for Harrison, Alex’s friend who had done this a few times and knew what to do. Working together I learnt a world of things.

The biggest problem I had was getting the details with every frame. I would light it up like how I would want the final image to be, instead of trying to get as much light as possible for our editor to work in post. Harrison kept trying to remind me of that as he was to be editor and sometimes I found how difficult it was to be happy with the shot. This really made me look at the whole picture, thinking of post-production during the production stage. I learnt so much on my first day in, that thought I was more theoretically prepared on day 1, I was much more practically prepared on the other days of the shoot.

Another thing that I had a lot of doubt over was the pale to warm – blue to red arc. How would this transition really look ? What about continuity? Was I really going to pull this off? I felt like I had dug myself a whole and Harrison laughed about how difficult I was going to make his life. We did have a blast though, learning is so much fun when you forget theory and start experimenting and have a group of beautiful people to share it with. That, and of course the beautiful lunch and endless stream of coffee Alex provided us. The only problem, Aaron and I getting on each other’s last nerve because neither of us knew where one’s job ended and the other’s started. Stepping on each other’s toe, we were forced to come to the decision of having meetings and discussions within just ourselves before the next shoot.

All in all, a beautiful day, with beautiful shots and great team work.

Day 2:

Lo and behold, another rainy day and another day spent in the confines of Alex’s house. Now, today we were shooting the couple and man, was it fun. Quiet a few things changed for us as compared to day 1. The first and most obvious, the actors. On day 1, we worked with Mitch, a dedicated actor training to be a professional someday. While we had our moments of fun (especially in the bathtub), the shoot was much more serious than day 2. Day 2 was working with Kaitlyn and Ekatrina, who both while having done an amazing job and giving us everything we wanted, were really fun. Fun to a point where I had to remind them to get on with it as we were limited on time. That’s never a fun thing to point out. It was so difficult to ask them to stay still till we got the shot right.

The other thing that changed was that there was one location none of us had seen – we had needed an extra room. Early on in the planning stage we had decided that it would have to be at my house. But, due to the distance and time constraints, we decided to just use our production designer’s house which was just down the street. We got there and we just didn’t have the space we needed. There was no way we could light it to match, the room was way to small and it was crowded with things. The scene required a semi empty place which looked like someone had just moved in and we just didn’t have that. It was three shots, so we definitely didn’t want to change locations and I was on my own here because Aaron was getting another shot at the park. We had decided to split up due to the small weather window we had and the limited time as we were running pretty behind. I made a last minute decision and changed the entire scene, which was then shot in her backyard. Thank god for the fact that we didn’t have to worry about sound, because she lived right next very busy  train tracks.

Day 3:

The last day, the one I was most excited about. The lady was being shot at my house and the universe was finally listening to me! It was a bright sunny day.  We had originally thought that this would be our longest shoot yet, but because of the amazing natural light, we could do most of it without time consuming light set ups. We got beautiful shots and I was really pleased with it.

My favourite part of all the silhouette shots I created. I did this by putting two lights outside my house window, making them look like street lamps. This created a beautiful effect and I immediately fell in love with it.

The only thing that happened on that day that wasn’t to be expected was that Aaron and I were at log heads again. We hadn’t spoken about this shoot in much detail and I had a very particular vision for it, having written the script. I need her against this wall, I said but Aaron wanted to use another wall. We argued about various shots but somehow managed to find middle points every time.

The shoot days were the most fun I have had this semester. This, I feel was my introduction into working in the real world, with real sets, real set ups, and just plain old reality and I loved it! It was the experience of the course, the highlight for me.