Home of Professional Cinematography since 1996

Crisis Of Identity

Published : 27th August 2003


How does Hi Def change the job of the DP ?

Everybody is assuming the DP does a certain thing - lights, camera, action. But it's clear that there are certain levels of expertise out there.

There are inexperienced Camera people out there who really don't know how to do certain things and happily - really happily - they can have an have an engineer on set to help. And then there's film people who have never touched video in their lives, but they do know what looks good and have massive skill, but need a friendly boffin to help them through the spaghetti.

For my money, having lined up studios in my time (why? because I was interested in what engineers do because I was into VIDEO - oh, and by the way guys to my mind HD is super digibeta - not a film stock!!!!) if you know what you're doing then you don't need an engineer on the shoot – especially if it's a film style shoot, because the culture is different from what the engineer is used to. Being made in the image of Cerberus who guarded the gates of hell, the engineer often says - "I can't guard your shadows, or highlights or whatever... you better change what you're doing". The correct response at this point is: "no ****ing way".

In film we're supposed to be across certain kinds of knowledge – what happens if you heat developer as you develop ? and, what you don't know about, you talk to the lab guys who are a bit like engineers - "please don't ask us to heat the developer !!!!!" (that's when I ask for extra heat).

Film is soft, video is hard. Film is a long distance telephone call, video is a call from a box round the corner. Film is Bang and Olofsen, Video is Sony, Film is past, video is present, film is distance, video is right in your face, and because of all the above, and we don't want it in our face we take up a bunch of strategies to make it feel better - like adorning a video camera with some film bits - or, if we really need to - a video engineer. We are complicit with a worldwide marketing heist by the video companies to make video acceptable to people who are used to the phenomenal quality of film. But of course, video is video is video - and not film - (but I still love it for what it is).

Here's the commercial. Video engineers are great, colourists are great, etc etc etc... Doing what they do best that is and not shooting a movie on set!!!!! That's what we're supposed to do having taken advice.

So we're supposed to generate the look...which is why I still think that avoiding imposing a look on set (by being a little bit flat) is an abrogation of responsibility... (I can feel the punches coming)

On film, nobody knows what you're doing until the dailies..

On video there's a monitor on set and everyone's a DP. Serve it up flat and you have the possibility of flattening out the quiet excitement level of cast and crew. Serve it up sensational and committed and everyone gives their best - and if that takes five minutes more, then people will have to wait.

So here's an issue, the power of the DP to raise the stakes on set.

A lot of people are arguing that they prefer to defer all their colour correction decisions to post as it gives more options - but hey guys are we not trying to live a little dangerously to get something no one's ever got before - and does that not mean a risk ?

Frida Kahlo said - "Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly ?"

Or am I missing something.

Terry Flaxton
EU based DP



Terry,

You are right. Many will opt to do as they have always done. Color correct in Post.

Many will opt to do as they have always done. Get it exactly the way they want in the field.

Some will opt to do both. Some will do neither.

I will spare you the southern word picture, I think you get the point.

HD provided more choices none of which are right or wrong. With film there was no choice. Post color correction is a necessity unless you have the balls to shoot color reversal Film, process normal, then project it and make it look good, which is what video guys are doing.

As a DP I take as much control as I can get and work to understand it at every level. I have always said Test it all the way through. Many will likely do what I do. or as much as possible.

*Make the Camera look as good as possible in Prep (with in house engineer if available).

*Make the Camera look as good as possible on the set (with Lights Gaffer, Key Grip, Engineer, VC, DIT whatever, Filtration adjusting camera WB and menus (2 pages) as needed to maximize the full capabilities of every scene or dialling in a look once that you intend to stick with once you start then Go with it.)

*Make the Footage look as good as possible in Tape to Tape in Post.
(With your favourite colourist)

*Make the Film Negative Timing to Print Look as good as Possible.
(With your favourite color timer aka Colourist)

*Make the Footage look as good as possible in downconvert to NTSC, PAL,
Secam, 4x3, Letterbox DVD's

*Make the HD Big screen Convergence Brightness, & Contrast, is set properly
on your buddy's new TV set before you watch the show ;-)

Another of my favourite sayings are :

"Better to insure success than Hope for it"

"Every opportunity you pass up to insure the images look good is just one less opportunity your gonna get".

The DP is in control of all or as little as he/she wants to be in control of.

Hope this Helps
(it rarely happens but...,...ya know)

B. Sean Fairburn
Director of Photography
Castaic Ca



Terry Flaxton writes:

>but hey guys are we not trying to live a little dangerously to get >something no one's ever got before - and does that not mean a risk ?

A DP that takes chances / "risk" is a liability and has no place in conventional production. A good DP quite simply captures the moments that the director creates, with a high degree of craft and excellence.

Scott Billups - LA



Terry Flaxton wrote :

> Film is Bang and Olofsen, Video is Sony, I thought film is McIntosh


I think so. I understand, respect the approaches as posted here, but I think you're on to something.

There are times when to shoot "in the moment" is best. If I don't keep this short it'll be a very long reply, but thanks for the provocation !

-Sam Wells



Sam Wells wrote :

>but hey guys are we not trying to live a little dangerously to get >something no one's ever got

With emulsions, where there's magic and alchemy involved, of course. But with digital video, where it's all math, that math can be deferred if all the information is recorded at time of capture.

Math is less sexy (but perhaps more repeatable) than alchemy.

Jeff "likes very risky emulsions like 7250" Kreines



Scott Billups wrote :

>A DP that takes chances/ "risk" is a liability and has no place in >conventional production.

But who wants to work on or even watch "conventional productions." DP’s who do take risks tend to make images that one remembers long after safe, conventional cinematography is forgotten.

Think of Vilmos Zsigmond's flashing on "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" as an example. Perfect for the film, but the studio was horrified until Altman assured them that the "problem" was the small lab's work print, and that the negative was "fine." (It was, but not in the way the studio would have hoped.)

There's a difference between educated, calculated risk and stupid risk. Obviously you want someone who has a clue as to what they are doing and how to repeat or modify it.

Jeff "could make a Daniel Fapp analogy for David Mullen, but won't" Kreines



Jeff Kreines writes:

> But who wants to work on or even watch "conventional productions."

Me! Time Code and Full Frontal were not among my favourites.

> Think of Vilmos Zsigmond's flashing on "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" as an >example.


Do you think for a second that Vilmos was guessing or that he hadn't tested the crap out of it before he put Altman's reputation on the line?

> There's a difference between educated, calculated risk and stupid risk.


Yes there is, but they're still just guesses and as such have no place in conventional production.

> Jeff "could make a Daniel Fapp analogy for David Mullen, but won't" >Kreines

Both consummate professionals. I don't believe for a second that guessing has much to do with the images of either man.

Scott Billups - LA



I think we're only arguing over what constitutes a "risk".

I think for anyone to grow as a cinematographer, they have to work at the razor's edge of their abilities. Otherwise, all they would ever do is what they already know how to do, and obviously there is a point that one does something for the first time. So doing your first motion control shot (yet to happen with me) or first greenscreen shot or first skip-bleach negative processing, etc. is bound to be a little nerve-racking. Conrad Hall used to say that he started every production scared to death, so surely he wasn't absolutely confident that he knew what do to in every possible shooting situation, and partly that's because he didn't want to fall back on easy, well-worn solutions. But he also said that the more experience you have, the harder it is to take risks simply because you are more and more likely to know the results. So you search harder for new challenges.

Certainly when one works with more uncontrollable processes like cross-processed reversal, it's harder to absolutely predict the exact results, although one usually uses such a technique partly because it produces some visual "surprises." Not that you don't test to know your parameters, but in real-world shooting, it's hard to be in absolute control over what ends up in the frame -- and then later, which take the editor chooses.

I make mistakes when I shoot and the most frustrating types are when you know a better way or the "correct" way to execute the shot, but due to lack of time or sleep or resources, you make compromised choices, or simply bad ones, that you later regret. Sometimes it's simply something simple like "if only I had set another double-net flag to take down object..." but you've been working 16 hours and have done 50 set-ups and you've reached the point where everyone simply wants to get home or start wrapping out before you've done. And you're not exactly the sharpest pencil in the box anymore. And then you drive home, playing back the day in your head, going "I wished I had done that better..."

David Mullen
Cinematographer / L.A.



I must say - if I didn't take risks on EVERY shoot I do, I wouldn't keep getting work.

Roderick
Az. D.P.
www.cinema-vista.com



Scott Billups wrote:

>Me! Time Code and Full Frontal were not among my favourites.

Did anyone like either of them?

Sloppiness for the sake of sloppiness isn't the same thing as risk-taking! Neither is a conceit like 4-way-real-time-splits dragged out to 94 minutes... it's just a concept in search of a movie. (Of course, I walked out after a half hour, so can't be sure that the film didn't suddenly become watchable.)

Then again, I'd say that "The Celebration" was a similar experiment that worked very well.

> Jeff "could make a Daniel Fapp analogy for David Mullen, but won't" >Kreines

Both consummate professionals. I don't believe for a second that guessing has much to do with the images of either man. Um, maybe I was being a bit obscure, but to David, Mr. Fapp symbolizes everything that's safe and dull about a certain type of studio cinematography. It was a little joke intended for Mr. Mullen, as I made clear.

I think Conrad Hall took a lot of risks, and as a result, his work is more interesting than, say, David Walsh's, whose work could be characterized as somewhat safe and predictable. (I'm not trying to dump on certain DP’s here, just trying to differentiate a bit.)

Of course, there's also a difference between genuine riskiness and just using a grab bag of techniques for the appearance of being "experimental." Just like there's a big difference between real art and wannabee crap.

But that's a longer and messier discussion!

Jeff "not risk-averse" Kreines



David Mullen wrote:

I think we're only arguing over what constitutes a "risk".

Great post, David.

As usual.

Jeff Kreines



David Mullen writes :

>Conrad Hall ... said that the more experience you have, the harder it is >to take risks simply because you are more and more likely to know the >results.


Jeff Kreines writes:

>I think Conrad Hall took a lot of risks, and as a result, his work is more >interesting than, say, David Walsh's, whose work could be characterized >as somewhat safe and predictable.

I agree with both of you, but you'll have to admit that a guess from someone with the craft of the late Conrad Hall is a whole lot different that a guess from someone who didn't even sign their post.

Directing is scary enough without having to worry about your DP going off-road with risky methodology and making unqualified guesses. One of the things I like most about HD as opposed to film is that it takes enormous amounts of risk and guessing out of the manufacturing/production process.

Scott Billups - LA



Scott writes:

>One of the things I like most about HD as opposed to film is that it takes >enormous amounts of risk and guessing out of the >manufacturing/production process.

LA Times' PJ Huffstutter & Jonathan Healey wrote the same notion into an article of theirs last summer. Many DP's wrote them letters correcting this misconception.

While its true on a film shoot there's a certain unknown until you see the dailies (more so when you're really pushing the envelope), I think DP's see as the film sees. Or strive to anyways.

Likewise, we also learn to see how an f900 sees before we even let the prism block come up to heat on that scene. And a spot meter is a very accurate double check for placing a solid image on the neg. So I too think that most risk taken by a DP is more or less "calculated risk".

Sure, there are mistakes - we're human. Doesn't matter if its film or video.

Apropo Conrad Hall, and somewhat in agreement with Bill: for 3 days Hall had shot a Day-for-Night scene with the wrong filter. Lab claimed there was but the faintest image on the film. According to Hall, he was terrified. Bill Abbot at Fox Studios made a high con print and it was the best day-for-night stuff he'd ever shot - earned him his first academy award nom (in '65 ?).

Amongst all the calculated risk, lets not forget the "happy accident" as Conrad Hall called it.

Mark Doering-Powell
LA based DP



>Directing is scary enough without having to worry about your DP going >off - road with risky methodology and making unqualified guesses.

Of course the DP has a responsibility to deliver results at the quality level that the director and producers desire. On the other hand, some directors demand that their DP's take risks, push the envelope, etc. Allen Daviau said that Spielberg told him on "E.T." that "I won't be half as mad at you if you screw up by going too far as I will if you screw up by playing it too safe."

And we all build on the works of the past, good and bad, experimental and conventional. I don't recall the quote exactly, but was it Truffaut that said that Orson Welles failures were more interesting than most director's successes?

I just saw the documentary "A Decade Under the Influence" and one of the funnier comments was by Robert Altman, who after listing all the great foreign directors that influenced him, suddenly corrected himself and said "Actually, the directors who influenced me the most I don't know the names of. I just remember seeing their films and saying to myself 'That's exactly what I DON'T want to do!' "

David Mullen
Cinematographer / L.A.



>Directing is scary enough without having to worry about your DP going >off - road with risky methodology and making unqualified guesses.

Unqualified guesses? Like guessing a T-stop? I never make unqualified guesses. I'll take the occasional risk: not a chance, which implies luck, but risk, which implies calculation.

Directors should be taking risks too. Directing is scary, but directors who let that fear control them will quickly lose the ability to do exceptional work.

There are some in the field of psychology who assert that the only way we grow is to head directly toward those things that cause us anxiety. If something scares us, they say, we should head straight for it. I think it makes us all better cinematographers in the long run if we do something that scares us photographically once in a while. Otherwise how do we break out of the habit of creating the same old looks?

>One of the things I like most about HD as opposed to film is that it takes >enormous amounts of risk and guessing out of the >manufacturing/production process.

Then there's the part where you think the image is wonderful and moody but the director looks at the monitor, gets nervous and asks you to boost the fill level a bunch... and neither of you like it when you see it in post.

I'd rather take occasional risks than have everything turn out bright and
safe and boring. Risks are good.

Art Adams, DP
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"
http://www.artadams.net/



Everyone,

I was told by the Director of the Army of One commercials (ones that have not yet aired) "I want you to get me FIRED" by creating a distinct look that could not be messed with later in post.

My mission in shooting them was to not only create a very deliberate strong warm harsh look in camera but to create something that couldn't be easily dismantled in Post.

The director was in a fight with the Agency over control of the look each piece should have, and Like any good Marine I said "Roger That" and pressed the look into what the director was after.

They will air on the NBA playoffs and look just like I shot them in camera.

CWO2 Ortiz Intel Officer in Ft Huachucka AZ
Capt Lussier Special Forces Dentist 10th SF Group in Colorado
Sgt. Leeper Engineer Supervisor/Tri-athlete in Kona Hawaii

I guess I failed in my mission because the Director is still on the job but he got what he wanted in the way he wanted it.

B. Sean Fairburn
Director of Photography
Castaic CA



David Mullen

> "I won't be half as mad at you if you screw up by going too far as I will if >you screw up by playing it too safe."

I think that sums it up really well.

When you stop being scared or nervous it's time to move on, find something
that challenges.

It's only when you have that edge that you produce really great work. Of course, as has already been said, you need the basis of sound craft to work from.

Cheers

Geoff Boyle FBKS

Director of Photography
EU based
www.cinematography.net



>A DP that takes chances/ "risk" is a liability and has no place in >conventional production.

A news cameraman simply captures the moments. A DP takes chances.

A good DP uses all of the tools available to interpret. To interpret the script, and to interpret the director's vision. To share the director vision, and just as a good director takes chances, a good DP will take chances as well.

Not stupid chances, but creative ones. With a high degree of craft and
excellence.

Steve Schklair



>And just as a good director takes chances, a good DP will take chances >as well. Not stupid chances, but creative ones.

The real dilemma is how rarely you get an opportunity to work at the edge. You need a director and/or client that wants your work in this space. Too many times you are required to play it safe.

Most of my most interesting work has been for unpaid jobs where I am licensed to work as close to the edge as I wish and these are the projects that
win the awards !

Tom Gleeson D.O.P.
Sydney Australia
www.cinematography.net



Mark Doering-Powell writes:

>So I too think that most risk taken by a DP is more or less "calculated >risk".

What Mark writes is really true.

What's more, most experienced DP’s will "cover themselves", by making clear to the director what the risks entail. Nobody likes unpleasant surprises.

I am reminded of Peter Bogdonovitch's documentary on John Ford, where Ford talks about a DP who wrote on the slate that he was shooting the scene "Under Protest", because Ford was making him shoot in "bad weather". The DP went on to win the Academy Award for the film, primarily on the basis of that scene.

It also strikes me that "taking a risk" because Steven Spielberg wants you to, is taking a risk without much consequence. Spielberg is not going to fire the DP for doing what he wanted. And who's going to fire Spielberg?

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP



>Time Code and Full Frontal were not among my favourites. Did anyone >like either of them?

I quite enjoyed Timecode 2000, but then, I've also directed and TDed live television, so watching a 4-way split is not THAT difficult for me...and I found the end result satisfying from a story point of view, too. Didn't hurt that Figgis was there live-mixing the soundtrack, either.

Full Frontal was inexcusable, though. In my very humble opinion, of course.

Adam "am I even allowed to admit I TDed TV on the HDTV list?" Wilt
Camera Guy / Menlo Park CA USA



>unless you have the balls to shoot color reversal Film, process normal, >then project it and make it look good

I just did this, w/ E-6 reversal-gorgeous stuff, but yes, be very careful w/ exposure. Things change very fast even w/ half a stop (especially under...)

But what a look...

John Babl
DP
Miami



(Posted as "No Crisis Really"...)

I'm interested in Scott Billipus talking about the following :

Scott wrote :

>I agree with both of you, but you'll have to admit that a guess from >someone with the craft of the late Conrad Hall is a whole lot different that >a guess from someone who didn't even sign their post. "

Just a note I suppose - sorry to have forgotten to have signed the post "Crisis of Identity" - however my e-mail, like yours is always up on the messaging system and I received several off list notes from people expressing an interest in the issue - so they got the connection. Obviously, I refute the notion that I didn't sign the post because I have no skill...

Surely Scott you didn't mean to infer that (having not seen any of my work? Nah - that's an English tone joke and you may take me wrongly...(think Frasier and Niles here and I think we have the tenor of the conversation - by the way I don't mind being either). Of course I didn't not sign because I'm skill less... but you shouldn't have to say that on this list because this list should embrace everyone who comes on who's interested in HD - shouldn't it ? But really, I think you've stumbled upon the very point I was raising with the issue of risk (an issue so rightly analysed by David Mullen and wonderfully explored by practically everyone).

I was really talking about photographic signature here and seeing as Conrad is being talked about so much - yep, what a signature (and yep what I dope I was and how ironic it was for forgetting to write mine).

The issue for many years in any kind of video was the issue of signature. How can we materially change what video as an acquisition environment (which is what it now is) comes out looking like when all its antecedents were about the opposite of signature (or look)? What I mean here is that video was sport, video was news, video was games shows - video was NOW? And the Look is about the suspension of disbelief - can skies really be that colour ? - and look, desaturated skin tones - and - grain to underpin the edge in the story etc etc.

For years in video, grain or noise for instance was technical aberration. I remember needing 1 volt of signal some where in the picture to even get focus. I even talked to men in white coats !

I remember having the massive realisation that if white were achieved by pointing at white - what would happen if you pointed at white through blue, or CTO - and then, green, purple - anything I could find.....and then I really started taking risks - not with what I now knew I could do - but with the conventionality of my employers, and so like anyone on this list I had to stroke their backs, put a lollipop in their mouth’s and say...it's ok - the audience is way ahead of us... they want us to explore for them.

Of course it was so available on film because there was a set of relationships - very Newtonian - cause and effect - that have now become analogous for the digital relationships we discuss on this list - but it seems as if the connections in the digital realm are not Newtonian, but Relativistic. But what a magnificent chance, an uncharted landscape, a place for the artist in all of us to play. (I love the fact that Ossie Morris long long long time film man - liked video !!!!) And here's the pressure to go post - if we do affect the image in production, it's hard to "get it back in post". Like if we made a mistake or something. But I think the DP has to push for vision - work on the edge of their capacity.

Jeff "not risk-averse" Kreines: "Of course, there's also a difference between genuine riskiness and just using a grab bag of techniques for the appearance of being "experimental." Just like there's a big difference between real art and wannabee crap. But that's a longer and messier discussion!"

Oh well, here goes: You read the script. it says night exterior - where does your mind go ? Trick number 12, or trick number 37 - sorry I'll rephrase - this method or that method that have worked "well" before...

It seems to me the public is ahead of us - literally. They are seeing movies that are released and we are shooting as they are watching. If blue for moonlight has come up too much in any given release period, then the public has become saturated and therefore what we may be doing is becoming diluted. There's an argument that there are only so many things you can do - so mix them up like a magician to keep the public entertained.

But the true vision of a cinematographer must be the consistency, intuitive or systematically arrived at that informs their reading of the script, and then, given 20 hour days, little sleep, six day weeks etc etc how they put that into practice. (whatever gets you though the night).

And with Hi Def again - our model is film - but hi def is "SUPERDIGIBETA" - we have to create new strategies that could be termed "risk".

Sorry to rant Scott - you're absolutely right in one way.

And I'm still Terry Flaxton

EU based DP