Category Archives: Rant

Grumpy Old Cinematographers

I worry that Grumpy Old Men In Black, ie older cinematographers,  tend to discourage young crew when they think that they’re helping them.

“The business has got much tougher” is a typical comment that I don’t think is true. OK, there are more people out there competing for the work but there’s a lot more work out there!

I’d like to start by saying that this is a great way to earn a living, I’ve travelled all over the world and got to see all kinds of things and places that people just normally don’t get a chance to experience.
Yes some of it has been bad, very bad, but most of it has been amazing and in the bad cases I mostly knew what I was getting myself into and made that choice.

Do most cinematographers get paid as much as we were getting, in a relative sense, 30 years ago? absolutely not but we were very well paid then and people still make good money now.
I heard all kinds of tales about how we weren’t be treated as well as we used to be, maybe people just have rosy memories.

Is it a struggle and will it always be? yes, but you make a choice not to have a steady job and income and you live with the downsides as well as the upsides.
I was once told that I was freelance because I was unemployable. That’s probably true 🙂

What I’m trying to say is that you should just get on and do what you want to, don’t get discouraged by disillusioned old men. Do listen and try and learn from others experience.

Ultimately it’s your life and your choices, make them wisely if you can but most of all try and enjoy your work.

Don’t get hung up on not shooting your first movie yet or not shooting “glamorous” things, some of my best experiences were on corporate jobs. Some of the best fun and memories come from those jobs.

Don’t get hung up on kit, there’s a lot of great kit out there, maybe you can’t use the camera that was used to shoot the Oscar winning film but actually is it the right camera for you anyway?
There are some great cameras at “affordable” prices and anyway, what’s wrong with renting? that way you can have the perfect kit for every job.

Learn as much as you can, read, read more, watch YouTube videos, (of course you will have to learn to filter out the crap on there) it’s not enough to think you can look it up using Google, you need to know and understand stuff that you don’t think you’ll ever need because it’s that stuff that you pull out of the bag that makes you stand out.

Can’t afford Lights? one of the best most colour accurate softlights out there is the IKEA FLOALT that costs about $80. It outperforms some lights that cost 20 times as much.

Don’t talk about it, do it!

Science or Art?

I spent an interesting evening at Antwerp University last week, I’d gone to do a short presentation on HDR & WCG.

The main presenter was a scientist who was comparing raw with log and “baked in”, he went on to “Prove” that you can grade “baked in”just as well as you can raw, in fact it could be better he implied.

Well excuse me! that may be true in a theoretical world where we have infinite bit depth but in a real world situation that just isn’t true. 
The limitations of the formats we use will cause damage to the image unless we are very careful.
I tried to point out that raw was always better in a real world because the camera output required processing and the processing we could do in camera was limited compared to what we could do in post. The cameras inbuilt processing was limited both by size and heat generation.
Apparently not from a scientific point of view, he could prove I was wrong, here was the proof on the whiteboard.

Well excuse me but I make pictures not numbers on a whiteboard and I can clearly see the difference. We briefly touched on compression and “lossless” compression, I gave up, the argument would have taken the whole evening.

2 stories for background to my point of view…

I was shooting test footage for Kodak at their plant in Chalon France, I had my entire commercials crew with me and we were looking at 2 prototype films compared to 5294 and Agfa XTR250. The reason we were including the Agfa was that it was starting to eat into their sales and they wanted an emulsion to beat it. I was a heavy user of XTR 250 as were the 11 other DP’s shooting tests worldwide.

One of the prototypes was just awful but one of them was looking good. I used the XTR because it had much greater latitude than the ’93 which was popular at the time, a lot more latitude and it fitted my lighting style.
We set up a final scene to stress the stocks which involved a model moving through light and dark in a Chateau and tested highlight colour separation.
Looking at the results projected it was very quickly clear that ’93 just couldn’t cope but that the good prototype had better highlight and shadow detail than the Agfa and more accurate reproduction of the very saturated red dress the model was wearing, it also coped really well with the subtle highlight colours.
After I’d said all that the Kodak guys said “so you’ll switch to this when we introduce it” my reply shocked them, “no, it’s not as pretty”.
My job is not to make accurate pictures it’s to make pretty ones…

Next story, years ago I was at NAB and it was all getting to me so I escaped to the sports bar in the Hilton next door (it was on you right as soon as you left the convention center) as usual it was full of other escapees. Also as usual I got chatting to a guy at the bar, I didn’t know who he was because his badge wasn’t showing, he was just Ray.
We had a great conversation about compression and he obviously knew what he was talking about. We talked about lossless and visually lossless. The first being what it advertised and the second depending on the judgement of the mathematicians who wrote the algorithms used.
I took away the clear point that anything over 3 to 1 was not true lossless and therefore depended on someones opinion.
As we were leaving his badge appeared, yes, his name was Ray, Ray DOLBY! I kinda thought he knew what he was talking about 🙂

Now, is someone who is a mathematician/scientist as aware of what makes a good picture as I am? why would anyone make that assumption? they don’t assume I know as much about maths as they do, how would they react if I came along and told them their algorithms were wrong and altered a few lines of code?

Treat me with the same respect I treat them, I accept they know their business better than I do, maybe they should accept that I know more about how to make a good image than they do…

If you’ve got no ambition why bother?

I’ve been involved in another of those wonderful Twitter/Facebook threads about exposure and again I keep getting told that you don’t need a meter and using a waveform is far more accurate.

Well yeah, if you have absolutely no ambition and are happy shooting single camera on corporates and weddings with the odd bit of news thrown in but if you have any ambition at all you’ll need to learn how to use a meter!

You may never get the chance to go for “the big one” but I promise you, if you don’t know how to use a meter you will fail if you ever do get the chance.

How do you recce a big interior location where you will have to enhance the available light without a meter?

How do you work across multiple locations/sets and match everything if you don’t have a meter?

How do you prelight a set or location if you don’t have and understand a meter.

Once you move beyond the perfectly good work in single camera you will not be able to have a camera and a monitor with you at all times. It’s just too bloody expensive.

My personal record for pre-lighting, recceíng or shooting, is seven simultaneously in a day. How do you do that with a camera and a monitor? ONLY a meter will work.

To use a meter properly you have to learn how meters work, you have to learn how visualise how scenes will appear on a monitor or screen. You need to understand what brightness levels need to fall where.

I use both spot and incident meters, the incident to get an overall level reading and the spot to look at individual areas. You need to know where skintones will fall, what the key to fill ratio you like is. You need to be able to measure that ratio. 

As we move to HDR you need to use a meter even more. There will be a temptation to use all that extra range but that will only lead to pain, as is clear with some of the HDR series currently on Netflix.

You can let specular highlights go but you need to be aware of areas that may well hold detail in HDR but regardless of this they’ll be too bright and distract from the main scene. A meter will help you hugely with this.

On the other hand you can ignore this and go on with your single camera and monitor and in later life look back and wonder why you never moved on…

Information or Knowledge?

It’s becoming clear to me that there is a huge confusion between information and knowledge.

Whilst I love the net it is creating a major problem in that by making so much information available so easily a lot of people think that by looking up information on the net they can “know” something.

This is just not true, truly “knowing”something implies understanding and being able to balance one source of information against other source of information and use experience to come to a reasoned and comprehensive understanding of an issue.

It is often possible to get information on the net that “proves” a point of view when in fact on closer examination and filtered through experience it actually proves the opposite.

When I’m teaching workshops and also posting on the net I’m often asked for a reference for what I’m saying. The problem here is what I am saying is based upon 50 years of experience. I’m sure some of that experience is based upon things I have read or seen along the way but specific references? get real! Generally if anyone can be bothered to research deeply enough they can find an actual reference 🙂

The biggest differences between information and knowledge are speed, depth and breadth. I don’t need to look up what the foot candle or lux level of lighting is needed to get a T stop of 8 with EI speed 400 and a shutter of 180, I just know it. I also understand the implications and variables that come from that aperture and shutter angle and what possibilities there are. When I say that I generally expose camera X at an EI of 250 it’s not arbitrary or the result of looking it up on the net. It’s from years of experience and the knowledge of balancing what is best for shooting and what is best for post along with dozens of other variables.

There is no shortcut, it takes time to assimilate enough information and experience to truly have knowledge of it.

Not acknowledging this will lead to incorrect assumptions, embarrassment and pain.

Cinegear update

It’s 9 days and 5 presentations at 2 conferences later ? that’s not including the panel at CG.

A shattering 2 weeks in total for me.

What is there that sticks in my memory from CG?

Not a lot really.

Lots of lenses, I’ll be interested to see how many are around in a couple of years. Major question about whether lenses can be universal i.e. S35 and FF. Personally I doubt it. Oh you’ll get decent results doing this but I’m not interested in decent results, I aspire to something better.

Just as lenses become more affordable I suspect that for serious cinematographers the use of rental companies for lenses will grow not lessen. This is good news for rental companies as I also suspect that they’re taking a hammering on the camera rental front. Too many decent cameras at affordable prices. Is an extra stop or so worth $70K+? yes I know that there are other issues involved but it seems to me that the distinguishing factor is tending more and more to the glass.

In the dim and distant past I used to swap back and forth between Ultra Primes and S4’s and of course my personal S3’s. Now there are a lot more really good distinctive lenses available. I make the point of distinctive because a bland neutral me too lens is not what I want.

This is why I mentioned rental companies and lenses, I can totally change the look of any camera with the lenses I choose, the choice of camera is becoming less important as they all get so good.

The other main memory from CG is the amount of gimbal kit available, some good and some horrendous. It’s all moving forward at a tremendous rate but I keep seeing abortions of rigs that will have you in the arms of a chiro in a very short time.

Lighting, so many LED’s and still very variable colour. I can’t wait for the Academy to get a move on with SSI, a rating system designed for us, not clothing manufacturers (CRI) or TV stations (TLCI)  but for filmmakers.

Cameras are now all getting so good that the ergonomics and operability in general is becoming a huge factor. There are still to many people more obsessed with how a camera will fit in a drone or a gimbal rather than how it handles in the majority of conditions. It’s great to see cameras that are a decent size that work without the need to hang all kinds of shit off them.

Part of the July camera evaluations will be start-up time and how many add-ons you need to make it useable. I’ll also include weight in a basic shooting configuration including recording media and batteries for X hours of shooting. The X is still to be decided, probably 12…

It’s good to see new filters appearing, thanks Schneider and Tiffen.

Back to lighting, lots of DMX control which is great but maybe not enough rugged basic docco lights with accurate colour and not excessive weight.

The event is just not long enough, there are some great panels but if you want to see the kit you have to skip them and if you want to chat to people, and CG is the best place I know for this, you have to skip the panels and the kit!

It needs to be at least another day, I know that this is a pain for the equipment exhibitors but… Maybe a day of only panels on the Sunday??

Conferences and exhibitions

I’m about to go to LA for CineGear. This show has grown and grown and for me is now the most important cinematography event of the year for gear freaks.

Cameraimage is better for the pure worship of cinematography, CineGear is heaven for gear freaks but it has a problem, it’s effectively only 1.5 days long and this is no longer enough.

Years ago we all went to NAB and IBC and that was pretty much it, maybe Photokina for those of us from a stills background.

Then Expo started in LA and then Munich and it was growing and more interesting in a lot of ways than NAB but a small side event called CineGear started up and killed off Expo in LA and Expo in Munich morphed into something else.

The problem, apart from it being too short, with CineGear is its location. Paramount studios street sets, brilliant but not big enough. Not a problem when the adjacent stages are available but this year the stages are miles away, you can’t just pop from manufacturer to manufacturer.

I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say here, it is after all my rant area 🙂

I think that maybe CineGear is in danger from its success. It’s problem is that it needs to be all in the same area. Unlike NAB and IBC there aren’t areas that you want to avoid or at most pay a fleeting visit to, it’s all interesting. I know at NAB I want to go to the Central hall with a short visit to the lower South hall. At IBC it’s halls 10 & 11 with a short trip to 7. I can concentrate my energies.

CineGear just needs to be longer, it’s too easy to get into conversations with people and miss kit you wanted to see. We need more time there.

Snobbery in the camera department

Snobbery is an insidious thing, I grew up in a council housing estate in the north east of england. In the UK this forever branded me.

Unfortunately the same class snobbery exists in the camera department, it’s not as bad as it was but it’s still there.

When I moved from documentaries to commercials in the mid 80’s I had issues with the crews I worked with initially because I’d come in as the DP and my experience was “only” 16mm documentaries. I was given grief by the operator and the AC. Also the fact that I’d worked in TV was a killer!

I’d moved into an area of cinematography that was only just waking up to the lighting techniques that had been used in stills for years. I benefited hugely from my years as a stills assistant and my understanding of fashion and product lighting. The people I was competing with who had only worked in the cine camera department and had worked their way up the traditional route were ignoring all kinds of great stuff.

I’m finding a similar situation now, not to do with people but to do with equipment, “that’s not professional equipment ” well it is if you use it to make a living!

I’ve posted here in the past about autofocus or digitally assisted focus and I’m amazed at how strongly it is resisted by people who will just not look at it objectively. Instant reactions about taking work away from AC’s and so on. It’s nonsense, nobody suggested getting rid of AC’s, it’s a question of making their jobs easier and giving them new tools to be used creatively.
For people who work in documentaries there’s the chance to end the terror caused by the interviewee who seems to think he’s at a heavy metal concert judging by the amount he rocks back and forth.
For the dram AC’s it’s a chance to be nearer where you should be when the director decides to shoot rehearsals or doesn’t believe in them.
Or, give you a chance when in the words of an AC asked about whether a well know actor hit his marks “hit his marks! you’re lucky if he’s in the same fíng room! ”

So, don’t dismiss a person because of where they come from or their accent and FFS! don’t dismiss kit or techniques just because they weren’t invented here.

be open to change and grab it when it works, or look for a new job.

 

Crewing

I just made a comment on CML about DIT’s and once again I get a backlash from DIT’s.
Lets get this straight, I do not wish DIT’s harm its just that I think that for the majority of shoots their’s is a job that may have been required during the transition from film to digital but that in the majority of cases it’s no longer needed.
A message to me of “that”s not how we do it in Hollywood”is utter nonsense.
For one thing a huge amount of very low budget films are made in Hollywood and they cannot afford a DIT.
Second, the working practices of huge budget films bears little relationship to what is done in the real world. Anyway, most of those huge films are no longer made in Hollywood.
Which brings me on to my third point, Hollywood is to film-making as Detroit is to the car industry. Once the great centre of production but no more.

So lets get back to crewing…

I believe that the cinematographer is responsible for the overall image and together with their collaborators is the one who creates the look of the movie.

Those collaborators include the conventional camera and lighting crew, the colourist and the production designer.
The jobs that the traditional camera crew do may have changed, ie the AC may well be using all kinds of focus assist tools that he didn’t in the past. The 2AC may be responsible for unloading rather than loading, ie simple copying of data cards to multiple HDD using something like Shotput Pro.

On movies or TV series with a budget of less than $10M there is no time or budget for onset colouring.
The best approach is to frame, light and expose it properly in the first place.
If the project requires an overall “look” then this should be created with a colourist in pre-production. Not a whole bunch of looks, a maximum of 4.

The simplest way to keep control of the image and to know what you are actually shooting is to work withing the ACES workflow. This is a predictable, repeatable way to show your images. Any post house using ACES will get the same look if your material is loaded with standard IDT’s & ODT’s.

To make it simple to reproduce thsi look on set Nick Shaw of Antler post & I have created a series of LUT’s for most cameras that takes the log output of the camera and replicates the look of the ACES workflow on a standard 709 monitor on the floor.

What you see on the floor is what you will get in post, no DIT, no onset colourist. It’s possible to create these LUT’s in such a way that they contain the look that you may have created in prep.
Personally I prefer the vanilla versions and will then use, err, oh yes, lenses, lighting and exposure to get the look I want.

ACES LUT’s for use in a non ACES workflow

I use ACES because I don’t trust post…

OK, a provocative title for my first post of the year.
It was incomplete and should have said…I use ACES because I don’t trust post guys I don’t know. Just like I don’t trust gaffers, operators, grips, AC’s who I don’t know.

I’ve been experimenting a lot over the last few weeks/months with generating LUT’s that are meant to help the shoot, not to dominate post or impose a “look” onto the final film but to give a level of control and predictability to images onset.

The thing is that “technical LUT’s” do a great job in the hands of people I know and trust but more and more we are having to work with people and workflows that we don’t know and trust and when things go wrong it’s inevitably the fault of the person not in the room.

This is where ACES comes in to play, it gives us a fixed, international , independent reference. Just take the rushes and apply the Image Transform (IDT) and the Output Transform (ODT) and we can see what we shot without any outside help or interference. If with a standard IDT and ODT the image looks OK then the rushes are OK and anything wrong is further down the chain.

That’s it, well for the Cinematographer anyway, there are other advantages for producers but this is a cinematography rant!

Now the problem with this is that we don’t have an ACES onset workflow established, Oh there are all kinds of ways that with DIT’s and shedloads of money we can do anything but I want something very very simple.
What we need are very simple LUT’s to use onset (via LUT boxes or wireless links that will accept LUT’s or via monitors that accept LUT’s) that will show us on a standard 709 onset monitor what the image will look like after going through the ACES post pipeline.

Thanks to Prelight from Filmlight this is now easy to do. I’ve generated LUT’s for Alexa, Canon, Panasonic & Sony cameras that integrate the ACES pipeline and can be used during a shoot in a very simple way. I’ve also generated for Alexa and Canon LUT’s that incorporate the ACES pipeline with a reduction in contrast to 0.85 because that’s how I like to see my rushes!

I’ve generated these LUT’s from both captured footage and live camera input. In the latter case it’s possible to add a “look” to the output as well.
I’m testing these with the NSC at the moment and we’ll be going live with all of this on the 24th of January and after that I may well post some of these LUT’s to the CML website. That is after they have been tested and torn apart by a lot of Cinematographers and DIT’s!!

The Force is with Dolby Cinema!

Wow! just Wow!
I went to see Star Wars the Last Jedi yesterday at the Dolby Cinema in Hilversum and even if the film had been complete crap, it wasn’t, I’d have been blown away anyway.

This is what going to movies should be. A totally black theatre, no extraneous light of any kind, brilliant sound, totally brilliant images from a dual laser projection system.

If more movie theatres were like this attendances would be rocketing up. I normally go to the Imax in Den Haag to get the best possible viewing experience. The Den Haag Imax is a 20 minute tram trip right to the door of the theatre from home and the Vue Dolby Cinema in Hilversum is a tram and 3 trains away taking around an hour and three quarters. It’s worth the journey.

What’s the film like, actually it’s pretty good. You just have to ignore the obviously cute marketing characters and if you can do that then it’s by far the best Star Wars film since the original 3.

It captures the excitement and thrill of the original, how much of that was the overall experience is another matter 🙂

The force is with Dolby!

Even better being the Netherlands, instead of the audience having huge containers of sugary soda and popcorn the guys next to me had beers, bought in the main theatre concession area. I love it!