Director of Photography

When I first started out I was shooting for news and current affairs shows in what was the only aspect ratio for international TV which was 4:3 – yes, you’re correct, I am indeed old, although I prefer to think of it as experienced and can still climb stairs two at a time which is my scientifically proven benchmark to youth. Gradually with the jump from Beta to Digibeta came the arrival of 16:9 and boy was I excited. But why was that so exciting? What is it about an aspect ratio that can make you feel different? 4:3 has some great characteristics and recently I’ve watched some terrific new films in that format – ‘Cold War’ for one, if you’ve not seen it stop reading and find it, watch it and come back. It’s tremendous and the 4:3 aspect ratio (or Academy as it’s known) feels absolutely right. It, of course, has its history in cinema as the first format used by film makers but I had grown up on the 1.85:1 ratio which was tantalisingly close to the 1.78:1 that is 16:9. So all of a sudden I was shooting something that looked more like the cinema of the day. For me, it was like being allowed to speak another language – one that I could only listen to previously. And film language is a language – we use frame size, focus, colour, framing and of course aspect ratio to help us tell the visual side of the stories. Audiences know this vocabulary and instinctively use their learned reading of these tools to tap into what we are trying to express. I recently shot a series of films for British Airways (Directed beautifully by Theo Gelernter). These were a series of six films and told the story of 100 years of BA heritage. Between the six films we jumped between 3 different aspect ratios to help tell that story. The aspect ratio helped set each of the films emotionally and we added to that by using 3 sets of lenses of different ages and changing lighting styles.

For us, today, aspect ratio is another part of film language but historically it was decided for you by the shape of the negative. The more of the negative you use the more space there is for the picture information and hence the better the quality. The most negative was used with the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Don’t forget film stocks were no where near what they are now in terms of resolution and colour so every bit of negative counted.

 

The amount of the negative being used is a large consideration for picture quality

Anamorphic was then designed to Oscar winning approval giving the longer Cinemascope frame whilst still using the whole negative – albeit with the addition in both origination and projection of squeeze/de-squeeze glass. There were lots of variations of this which included a push to use 65mm negative and this resulted in aspect ratios of anything between 2.2:1 and 2.76:1. We saw a great use of Panavision’s Ultra 70 at 2.76:1 from Robert Richardson in Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight’.

Film stocks improved over time which lead to S35 which just extracted the centre from a standard 35mm negative. This made life easy with equipment being much smaller and, very importantly, cinemas world-wide not needing new projectors or lenses. And weirdly this is the key to the freedom we have today with aspect ratios – Digital projection and the huge gamut of distribution available to us now.

Historically distribution only meant theatre release and that was tied to the projection gates available, not just locally but throughout the whole world.  The first film that I shot as second unit DoP was shot on film and originally framed in 1.66:1. This was chosen by the first unit DoP as there were a lot of two-handers which suited the slightly taller frame. It had a theatrical release but nearly all theatres couldn’t project 1.66:1 so the distribution framing became the much commoner ratio of 1.85:1. With the emergence of digital projection we can now distribute in any framing we choose.  We even see aspect ratios changing mid-film – especially IMAX where many directors like to shoot set piece scenes in IMAX 65mm cutting back to 35mm for the less dynamic sections.

However distribution is much more than just cinemas nowadays. If it’s a commercial then people will potentially see it in the cinema and television of course, but more likely also on tablets, phones and computers. Within the world of phones we then also have platforms like Facebook which favour the 1:1 and 9:16 formats. Networks such as Netflix also are keen on 2:1 which is thinner than the standard 16:9 TV screen so you get some black bars top and bottom but not as much as the widescreen 2.35:1 format – a nod to the epic cinema format but better value for money as you have less black?!

Personally I am very happy to shoot to whichever aspect ratio works best for the content – the challenge comes when one film needs to meet all aspect ratios. This is not necessarily new – in my youth I saw many a pan and scanned 1.85:1 film on video in 4:3 but the severity of the extraction is greater now. I recently completed, with Joe Shaw directing, a set of films for Tesco Mobile which needed delivery in 16:9,9:16 and 1×1. These were performance led vignettes of family life so could not be shot 3 times with appropriate framing for each delivery. In addition, the location was great as it gave all the options for different spaces needed but there were elements in each room that were not on-brand and so needed to be framed out. We ended up shooting in 6K on a RED Dragon and extracting the 9:16 and 1×1 from the 16:9 frame.

Well that sounds easy, and from a practical level it is, but there are compromises that aren’t immediately obvious. Firstly we will have to use wider lenses or be further away from the subject to achieve the same vertical frame size in 16:9 when compared to shooting in 9:16. If you look at the examples below where the picture on the right was extracted from a 16:9 frame and the one on the left was originated in 9:16. They both used the same lens (35mm on an APSC sensor) and the same stop of T2 for night and T4 for daytime. The difference is the distance to subject which is closer in the 9:16 example. You can see there is a change in depth of field with the drop off of focus being greater in the image on the left which was shot specifically for 9:16. Just look at the detail in the zebra crossing or the awning to see what I mean.

With the current trend of shallow depth of field this is something to be considered when talking with the director. The other main consideration is that the area to light and dress is much bigger. This will add time/lamps/crew/props to the budget which can be vexing for the producer! It’s fine if it is agreed that the only format will be 9:16 as you can just ignore everything outside of that area but I have never been on a shoot where the client has not said that although they don’t think they will use it, they might so can we just make sure…It’s very easy to say but it has a considerable effect on schedule and equipment costs.

It’s a real luxury to have this freedom of aspect ratios and the range of distribution formats means that your films are more likely to be seen by a broader range of people which is great. It can be a double edged sword also though as you can lose control of one of the keys tools a DoP has, that of framing.

 

 

 

 

What’s the ‘just’ all about? This perception that the value a film can be ascertained by how much money has been spent on it is bewildering to me. You hear it all the time though, my friends tell me “I’m starting a film in a couple of weeks, just another low budget one though” or people sometimes ask me “What’s happening with that little film you were doing?” (when I said bewildering, I also meant sometimes bloody annoying). I’m not saying there are no differences in films of different budgets, or in the way that as a DoP you need to approach them, just that the smaller budget films can be fantastic, or crap, in just the same way that big budget films can be so let’s not be judge and jury before the shoot even starts.

I cut my teeth, as what was called then a lighting cameraman, in the world of documentary film-making. This, I think, gave me a heightened awareness of budget restrictions and the value of spending budget that still stays with me today. It was always starting from the point of “will the story be told better if we spend this bit of the budget” as opposed to will the shots be better, will they look more impressive? When I started shooting commercials I had to constantly remind myself that 1. Low budget has a completely different meaning to the low budget of the world of documentary and 2. More impressive shots hold greater value and if a commercial is told in a more impressive way it is likely that the story is being served by this even if the story is a small scale human story. So I get that we need different budgets, I just question whether one is always better than the other. I remember a time when I was shooting a promo with Lord David Attenborough for the BBC. It was to be used to promote international sales of one of the first Planet Earth series. We really stretched the budget out, getting deals, minimising crew and kit to put as much value as possible on screen. We were in a studio, it was dressed nicely, had 2 film cameras going on track and some on-set catering but in our opinion we had done this low budget. It was whilst we were eating the on-set catering that I heard David saying to a colleague how they could have made a whole episode for what this must have cost. It’s just a good example of perception of budget. I know what we made was good value for money and the sales that it brought in helped fund future documentaries but it must have seemed to him as excessive. In the same way the budgets I work with on the films I shoot (usually about £300K) must seem impossibly micro to a Hollywood team but huge to some of the indie film-makers in the UK.

Whilst I have shot on a range of budgets as second unit DoP I must state that all five features I’ve shot as first unit have been low budget. What are the cons of this? Well obviously we get paid less but for me this is not really an issue as I’m fortunate enough to earn well when I’m on commercials. The biggest issue is always time. Any testing is done in my own time and normally we shoot for between 18-21 shoot days which is never enough. It means that you have to shoot very precisely which is great when it all works but desperate when the plan stumbles. Any number of issues can occur which can include poor decision making by me, or the blocking drastically changes, the location doesn’t behave as we expected, the weather does a ‘U’ turn etc… It’s these moments where low budget really sucks as the only time you have is for plan A, once plan A is set and in motion that’s it regardless of whether you see a better option as the scene develops. Sometimes the temptation to change is so great that you do it but that always leads to compromise later (as the 1st AD never fails to remind me). There just is no time to pick up dropped scenes. People often ask if it’s the lack of equipment and skilled team members that makes the difference and I have to say I have not found that at all. My teams in the camera, lighting and grip departments have always been terrific as so many people love making films and some will come with me from the commercials whilst others will be stepping up. Equipment is greatly reduced but, with occasional exceptions, I find we can stay true to the story with what we have – I should point out that I’m fortunate enough to have a RED kit which has been fantastic and film-makers today are incredibly lucky to have so many affordable tools at their fingertips. Again the commercials satiates that urge to use all the latest kit which can be fun and appropriate for those shoots but mostly not necessary for the feature stories that I seem to tell.

There certainly was a time where I saw my perfect career development as heading towards the big budget films but as I get older I realise that for me this is no longer high on the agenda (just as well as I can’t see the next Bond, Marvel or Star Wars coming my way). I would certainly enjoy and indeed relish the chance to have bigger budgets to work with, and should the opportunity come along I will grab it with both greedy hands, however if the choice is big budget with less interesting script or small budget with intriguing script I will stay with my limited kit and time and make the script that grabs me the most.

I was going to put some scenes from the features I’ve shot but as I was going through I realised that you can pick scenes from pretty much any film that look good and prove how you can successfully shoot on a low budget. Individual scenes are fairly easy to ‘win’, it’s the consistency that is so much harder. Making a film that has a consistent look and a consistent quality is the real challenge of low budget. With that in mind I have put 2 full shorts that I wrote, directed and shot below and a no-budget pop promo which was directed by Chris Crow but shot by me.

The first on was a film I made in 2000. It was originally conceived to prove to producers that they could trust me with 35mm film as I was struggling to step up from 16mm but as these things tend to go, it grew into a narrative piece. Total budget was £1800 which was self-funded. It was shot on 35mm short ends over 2 days. Looking back I can see errors in the script and I obviously didn’t have a very good grasp of ethnicity but I’m not sure I would shoot it very much differently if we had a lot more cash.

I shot this second one on impulse for the Nikon Film festival challenge (it had to be under 140 seconds) and there is an earlier blog (going to the dark side) on this site if you need to know more. We used a 5Dmkiii and my rehoused Nikon lenses. Crew was limited to 3 – myself shooting and directing, James my son on sound and Nic Cornwall (an excellent director whose house we used so no pressure there) as art director. Total budget was under £200. I think this is a good example of how lucky we are to have so many affordable tools at our disposal. Of course as this was shot in HD on a 5D it is not going to hold up well on the big screen but its main market is for viewing on phones and computers so not sure it’s a huge issue. Again, looking at it now I’m not sure how much I would do differently with more money other than improve the quality of capture with more pixels, colour depth and bit rate!

This last one is just a great example of what a director like Chris Crow can do with no money. We shot it hand held on a 5D and 7D (Chris took charge of the 7D and me on the 5D) for a zero budget in a morning. We used a canon 16-35mm T2.8 prime, a lensbaby and lens whacked with some old Canon FD primes that I’ve got. I love it and think it suits the track absolutely perfectly. If anybody wants to check out the band they are ‘Folk Grinder’ and the track is ‘My Lover’

When people talk about ‘looks’ it generally goes down one of two routes, either period based in the sense of  ‘I want that 70’s look’ or lens based as in ‘give me that Cooke look’. The first of these is a complex request that involves all departments that come together to create a colour pallet, costume range, production design, make up, lighting style, framing etc. The combination of these add up to the sum of setting the action in ‘a period in time’. The second is of course much easier to achieve – you hire in a set of Cookes, and boom, your ‘Cooke look’ is achieved. The issue is that the ‘Cooke look’ is a subjective thing. Sure the lenses tend to have attributes that give common ground – for instance with Cooke – people would associate maybe warmth or a more forgiving sharpness but they are also a victim to association. In this case Cooke is often associated with comedies, feel good films, human stories etc so for those who don’t test the lenses the ‘Cooke look’ becomes partially about genre. I’m talking mainly here about a good proportion of producers, some directors and most audiences, not about DoP’s who spend days testing. The Cooke look ends up being a combination of the lens attributes and the colour pallet, costume range, production design, make up, lighting style, framing etc (sounding familiar?) that those genres are known for. So the point is that in my head the lens choice should be the final part of the discussion of ‘the look’, the icing on the cake to complete the ‘look’. It does have an effect and as a DoP it feels hugely important – some lenses flare more easily, some are faster so will give a very narrow depth of field, some are older and have more aberrations or character, some have higher contrast, some flatter… It plays a part but, and I know I’m opening myself up to being ritually ridiculed here, it is a smaller part compared to the combination of all the departments coming together to achieve the ‘look’.

I own a set of Celere lenses that are building a sense of what they look like but are not recognised as having a recognisable look outside of the group who use them. I use them because to me they look pleasing and suit the body of my work. I don’t shoot everything on them but probably about 75% of the films I shoot. If you want to know more about my choices on those lenses there is another blog entry on this page called ‘Never discuss, politics, religion or lenses’ but if you just want to see a variety of short-form projects all shot with these lenses then click on the film below. All shots on this film used the Celeres and mostly orginated on a RED Dragon. I have tried to pick a range of work – some greenscreen, some motion control, some location, some low budget, some high budget. I have left it at a higher bit rate than I would normally for the net for those who want to see the nuances so you might need an element of patience! Hope you enjoy.

Well with VR you can put your head wherever you want but how does this set of limitless possibilities reflect on the role of DoP? And with everything in shot, do you need a DoP at all? Surely our role as DoP is to take an extract from the construct in front of us that best suits the need of the story? I always love seeing the detritus of the set that is needed to create an environment – rain bars, lamp stands, fans, props people, boom mics…. And then looking at the manicured end frame which appears set in a life-like real world.

But VR is much more akin to documentary in the sense that we need to show the whole space, to let things appear to happen in an unrestricted way. We want people to be able to explore that space as they choose, no lines of action to cross, no lens choices to consider, no T stop to match, no geography to establish… so why use a DoP? I did find myself pondering this very question during prep on my last VR shoot and you’ll be pleased to hear that I found an answer, more of which later.

By linking VR to documentary and stripping out many of the choices that us DoPs need to make it is tempting to think that VR has no rules, this I have to tell you is a long way from the truth. There are lots of rules it’s just that they are constantly changing. VR is so new a form that it is developing phenomenally quickly and the rules of acceptable practice change at the same pace. I remember on my first VR shoot saying to the director, Chris Vincze, “You’ve done more VR than me so if it looks like I’m doing something stupid do tell me, I don’t really know what I’m doing!”, to my great relief he laughed and said “It’s VR, nobody knows what they are doing, we do it and hope that it works!” This was 18mths ago, at the time of writing, and things are different now, we know a lot more about what we are doing but the original rules of a) don’t move the camera as the audience will feel sick, b) you must use the whole 360 degrees and c) don’t allow the action to come closer to 1.5m to the camera rig are all seen as things you should break if the viewing experience is to be interesting.

The first time I really started thinking about what my role was in these films was when we were shooting a large scale VR experience for o2 music venues. The director was again the very talented Chris Vincze and the production company was Happy Finish. Chris knows a lot about VR, Happy Finish are one of the market leaders in VR with a highly experienced internal team, what could I add? I think it was unusual for Happy Finish to have an external DoP come in, a request by Chris, but by the end I do believe that we all benefited from the experience. What Chris and myself brought to the project was our experience of TV commercials, the quality of image and detail that is expected at this level. The internal VR Dop’s, Elliot and Jamie were really great at understanding the technology, how that would translate to the final VR world, how to solve stitch line problems but they did not have so much experience in creating environments with the tools that we use in drama and commercials. We broke many rules on that shoot including using haze, heavy smoke, intentional flaring and long twisty camera moves.

We lit the spaces to deliberately include light and shade, brand colours and atmosphere. It was painstaking and my excellent gaffer, Tim O Connell, spent his days meticulously hiding lights and making others practical. It worked very well and everybody was delighted with the results, in fact the material is being used by Nokia on their showreel (we used a Nokia OZO camera).

I’ve just finished another VR shoot, this time with MPC who are top of the game. I can’t talk about what this was or the end result as I had to sign one of those pesky NDA things but it cemented my understanding of what an experienced DoP can bring. Again Chris directed, you can probably sense a pattern by now, and this time it was a mixture of VR and green-screen. My favoured way of working now is to have a team who deal with all the camera aspect including set up, syncing, playback and media organisation (the DIT on these jobs needs to be very much on the ball). These are enormously complex setups and to have a team dedicated to this means that I am free to concentrate on the details of the image – in much the same way I would with a commercial or a drama. And this I think is one of the main areas of my responsibility – keeping the stress of making the technology work away from the director whilst having time to still discuss the shot development, lighting and cast placement.

On this shoot  we tested for a couple of days to find the best rigs and camera settings  as there was a range of environments that we needed to capture, finally settling on a 5 x ‘Z Cam’ rig for smaller spaces and a 5 x A7Sii rig for the larger spaces. After testing I said to Chris that I realised my job was to make sure we weren’t just getting the pictures we needed but that we were getting them in the highest quality possible. He replied, “yes, and to make it look nice” and that is the crux. If you are having to deal with the camera build and the monitoring system you just don’t have enough time to concentrate on finessing the detail in the shot. The crew we had on this shoot were excellent and extremely experienced in VR. They work as DoPs in VR constantly but the advantage of bringing in someone like me, who is from a different arena,  is that I can bring the experience of that arena with me, as well as being able to focus on all the things that can get lost due to restrictions of time on the day. I think it’s a win win for everyone – apart from maybe the accountant!

Well it seems a while since I posted on the completion of principle photography for ‘The Lighthouse’ so I thought I’d update you on it’s progress. It was officially released in July 2016 by ‘Soda’, the distributor and being a Welsh story it enjoyed a good theatrical run in Wales. It showed in cinemas across the whole of Wales for about 6 weeks which is terrific. Sadly, as is often the case for indie films, it was deemed that a UK or international theatrical release was not financially viable so it went straight to DVD after the Welsh release. This is sad as ‘The Lighthouse’ is really a cinema film, it has a visual and sound space that gets under your skin when experienced in the scale that a cinema offers. I can see it’s a hard sell but, and I know I’m biased, it seems a waste as ‘The Lighthouse’ is a pretty good story and a slow-burning cauldron that leaves you exhausted by the end. It’s a shame that distributors are so risk averse but that is the way it is now. If you fancy watching it you can find it on Amazon or BFI to hire or buy as well as on DVD from all the usual suspects. I’ve been told it’s available on SKY Movies also but haven’t checked. In the mean time here are a couple of extracts for you to watch. The first is a montage of the film that sort of follows the narrative and the second are a few full scenes. Hope you enjoy them.

Unless you have a lot of time and are prepared to come to blows. Any member of the camera team will willingly sell their grandmother if it helps prove a point about one lens being better than another. It’s like the football of cinematographers, we all side with a make or generation of lens and will defend it to the last – thinking about it I should get some shirts made up and start cashing in on the merchandising. I’ve always had a split loyalty – which in itself is heresy – between master primes and Cooke S4’s. I love the master primes for their technical genius and the uncompromisingly sharp wide stop, the S4’s for the character that they offer – the romantic feel to the colours and highlights. They’re not soft, just forgiving and pleasing.  However there is a new cowboy in town and I liked them so much I bought a set (with my business partner Zoran Veljkovic at Upsidedown Films). They are from a German manufacturer called Hannes Inno Tech and they have come up with a range of lenses called Celere HS.

Every time I get them out I’m asked a hundred questions about them so I thought I’d write up my findings and share them with whoever fancies a nerdy read. Firstly I want to be clear that I am not paid by or in league in any fashion at all with Hannes Inno Tech. Secondly I bought a set rather than hire them as (a) they are hard to get hold of and (b) they are affordable. Buying a set of master primes is not an option!

I’ll start by summarising what I like about them then look at the tests and finally the real world shooting experiences. For me they are a combination of the master prime and the S4’s. They are all T1.5 and sharp wide open (except our 25mm which I’m happier with at T2). They have a nice feel to the highlights with no halo or smearing around extreme bright spots and the drop off of focus feels good. We have a RED Dragon so the fact that they are full frame is important and there are nice little design features like they are all the same weight and size so swinging a lens on Steadicam requires no rebalance. I also like the company’s ambitions. They are developing additional elements to give us even more tools like uncoated interchangeable front elements and there is a clamping plate in the mount so you can stretch a net easily if required. They are just nice touches that help us adapt more easily to different looks. Are they as sharp as the master primes wide open? Probably not although I haven’t tested for this, are they as great as the Cooke S4’s with skin tones? I don’t know but what I do know is that they offer elements of both and I’ve found the combination of these characteristics to give really great pictures. As a disclaimer – all the framegrabs on this page are from prorez transcodes or compressed films not from rushes.

We, I think, had one of the first sets in the UK and spent some time testing before we took them out. We looked at each stop on each lens and tried to use a mix of textures and colours. We did sharpness test etc separately and the lenses passed with flying colours – except as I mentioned the 25mm which was not as sharp as the others – so these tests were purely about the ‘look’ of the lens. To complete the tests at the highest resolution we put the EF mounts on and used a 5Dii. The picture profile was set to the most neutral setting possible and focus set to the teeth on the skull. Here are a selection of the frames from the 36mm. These are high rez jpegs.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions but for me I like the way the focus drops off, it is not a harsh look but pleasing and gentle. The colours hold nicely in the soft areas and the highlights offer texture without losing contrast. I made these tests primarily with a feature I was about to shoot in mind. The feature was mainly exterior and based in a small village in Spain which is why I was so interested in highlight detail. For me the sweet spot of all the lenses was between 2.8 and 4 and I stuck to this stop range for most of the shoot. (see my previous blog ‘Experience doesn’t buy you perfection’ for more info on that shoot)

But for some of the night scenes where we needed to light a larger area with our slightly under resourced lighting package the speed of the lenses really helped

I must at this point I must also reveal  that we have had some build problems with the lenses. I believe that this is in part due to us having some of the very first off the production line. On the feature the 36mm seized up completely. This obviously made life very difficult! Again I must claim no allegiance to a company, this time Cintek. We bought our lenses from Cintek who are the UK distributer for the Celere HS. They reacted very quickly to the problem and despite us shooting in a tiny village in Spain they managed to get us a replacement on set within 48hrs. It is reassuring that when problems occur there is proper backup and Cintek couldn’t have performed better. The same happened to our 85mm a few months later, that was also dealt with very quickly and now all are in good shape. It is a worry that these problems have occurred but I believe that can be the lot for early adopters.

I can fart on for ever about the details and idiosyncrasies of lenses but actually it’s probably not that helpful. Lenses are such a personal thing for a cinematographer, they effect the look more directly than the camera body (which is why I need to start merchandising those T shirts). Ok, so there is an inherent difference between film and digital but I would argue that most serious digital formats that are taken to a decent grade end up being pretty much indistinguishable. You might make a decision based on whether you are mainly low light or in an environment you can’t control but not on how skin tones are rendered or contrast held, these are hewn in the optics. I can more easily distinguish between a film shot on an ARRI lens or a Cooke lens than an Alexa body or a RED body. So as lenses are such a personal choice I’ll talk briefly about why I choose to use the Celere lenses on a few projects and then let you see the results so that you can decide if they work for you.

Virgin Active – Iron Zuu – Camera body Sony FS7.

This was actually the first thing I shot on these lenses. It was a low-mid budget spot and so I would have been hard pressed to get a set of master primes in – come to think of it I don’t even know if an FS7 can take PL lenses? The choices would more likely have been ARRI CP2’s or Cooke minis or maybe Xeens. I’ve not used the minis or Xeens much so can’t really comment on them but the Celeres blow the CP2’s out of the water, I should mention that I hate the CP2’s – they are unwieldy, slow (you always have to light for the slowest lens) and uninteresting – in my humble opinion. It was also a great opportunity to get the Celeres out. I knew we were backlighting with some haze and I wanted a lens that would flare but could be controlled when needed. It’s tempting when you want flare to use some vintage lenses but you can run the risk of losing a lot of time controlling the flare when you don’t want it. I should know! We have a set of 1980’s rehoused Nikkor lenses that are beautiful but pick up flare very easily. If we didn’t have the Celeres I would probably have used the Nikkors on this job but the Celeres did a marvellous job.

Dudley Dog Films – Solo – Camera body RED Dragon.

Solo is a music based feel good coming of age feature film. It’s low budget and set in Spain. If I’m honest with you I originally used the Celeres for budget reasons and if someone had come up to me and offered a set of Cookes I would certainly have taken them. However they didn’t and it was the Celeres that came with us. It gave me 4 weeks to really get to know them and I have to say really enjoy them. I found that even in the intense sun of Spain the contrast levels were pleasing and the colours vibrant. The pictures felt natural and the bright kicks all around never caused us any problems. As I mentioned before the T1.5 helped us out when the proverbial hit the fan and so far everybody has been very complimentary about the pictures. I shot the film mostly in 4K but if I just wanted to get a slightly wider frame and time was short I’d just go to 5 or 6K which uses more of the sensor. This was only possible as the lenses are full frame and was a great benefit.  I can’t put any moving image here as the trailer is not cut yet but here are some framegrabs.

Schripps (Travel Channel) – Henry Cole bumpers – Camera body RED Dragon.

As I write this is the most recent thing I’ve shot on the Celeres. It is also standout in the sense that the budget was good and I could have chosen any lens package that I wanted. The bumpers were all based around the light-hearted gag of making the audience think we were on holiday and then revealing we are actually in Henry’s work shed. I would normally have used S4’s for this project but one of the stories required us to shoot in a water tank that was smaller than we really needed.

For this to work I needed to use as shallow a depth of field as possible and the Celeres open to T1.5 versus the T2.1 of the Cookes. Master primes are a little too clinical for this type of shoot, what I needed was something that bridged the two, warm and gentle but fast. The Celeres fit this. Again I’m not claiming that they are as amazing as S4’s for skin tones or as perfect as master primes in engineering but the combination of a bit of both is for me a real winner and I look forward to shooting a lot on them in the future. Here are the bumpers for you to check.

it just reduces the risk of monumental cock ups. It’s not a popular opinion but I believe it to be true. I’m always surprised when people talk about a problem they had on a shoot and then to impress on how bad it was they finish with “…and they are so experienced”. The disastrous event normally has its roots in one of two roads; 1. A moment of gross stupidity – which I have to say we all have or 2. The person is very experienced but just not in what they are doing. You might have, for instance, an experienced commercials DoP who is on their first food shoot (you know who you are – I’ll not name names), or first stereoscopic, or first beauty, or first high speed….the list goes on to eternity. I only say this as I have just completed my fifth feature film which is called Solo. Solo is also a first for me, it’s a light hearted music based feel good film set in the bright hot sunny country of Spain. My four previous films have been very dark, both in the subject matter and the pictures. So I am an experienced DoP but this was very much a new area for me and full of monumental cock up opportunities. In my favour I had the 4 day recce to start getting to grips with how the sun looked in the small village of Barx, where we were shooting. The recce started and finished with, as Jonathan the writer and producer called it, ‘an almost unheard of’ blanket of cloud – and he should know as he lives in Barx!

With that gone the only thing left was the old mantra of test, test and test again. Apart from looking at as many types of bounce board as possible and having my eye almost surgically attached to the sun’s position the other main factor I wanted to know inside out was how the lenses would respond to the contrast levels. I had just bought a set of Celere lenses by the German engineers Hans Inno Tech – I think I had the first full set in the UK – and had used them on a couple of commercials but nothing longer. I knew I really liked the look but still didn’t know all of their characteristics so tested for sharps (at all stops), colour rendition (especially when backlit) and contrast.

They responded very well and I was especially happy with how bright backgrounds held detail with very little ‘smudging’ on the edges of contrast areas. For Solo this was going to be important as many of the background walls were white or bright colours. The village of Barx was also to become one of the characters of the film, it has a life and energy that we wanted to embrace and flow out of the pictures and so pushing the backgrounds out of focus all the time wasn’t appropriate which meant holding the contrast was even more important. With this in mind and having confirmed with the tests I decided a stop of T4 was about right and that’s what we shot at least 90% of the film at. The shoot went very well – and it’s not often I say that. Without doubt I can consider myself ‘more experienced’ in the highs and lows of shooting predominantly exterior locations in a sunny spot but what if anything was the main lesson? It has to be ‘don’t fight the sun, you will never win’. Whatever you throw at it all you will do is make the result ‘less bad’, and I’m coming at this from the stand point of Solo being feel good – ie, the cast have to look beautiful. Silks were an enormous help to reduce harsh shadows but the light still wasn’t ideal with the light being both top-ey and uninteresting. What we had, which was the saving grace, was an enormously flexible production team headed by the lovely Sukey who really worked the scheduling around where the sun was. I’m eternally grateful for all the constant tweaks and moves that weren’t ideal for production but allowed us to keep control of the light.

Always one of the pleasures of gaining new experience and learning new systems that work for you is the relief you feel at the end that it didn’t all go ‘tits up’. Luckily the potential for monumental cock ups remained only a potential and never developed to a situation where you had to try and blame someone else. But why is that? What is it that stops that happening, well for my tuppence worth, it starts with all the testing so that at least you know some boundaries but more important than that is having an atmosphere on set where people aren’t afraid to ask questions. It goes without saying that the director on Solo, Nic Cornwall, is a terrific director who can bring the story and characters to life with style and feeling but what he also adds is that atmosphere on set where we are all comfortable to ask for what we need. Nic is a master at empowering cast and crew to do this and it not only creates a rather lovely environment to work in but also reduces the chance of poor decision making. I was fortunate that my camera team embraced this and worked so well as a unit. Ashley Bond, a phenomenal focus puller, came in for the first week to set up the team and get things running smoothly whilst also taking charge of the drone team and stepping into 2nd unit Dop when needed. He handed over to Aggie Balogh who not only continued with Ashley’s open but structured set up but built on it and the team delivered an outstanding result. I won’t mention you all but you know who you are and I hold you all in the highest esteem.

I’ll finish this with my take on the experience v’s cock ups conundrum. I expect all of my team to be, at worst, excellent at what they do. What separates the good from the exceptional is not their key skill (focus pulling for instance) but their ability to create an atmosphere of structure, calmness and most importantly openness. It is this ability that is the root to avoiding catastrophic errors and one that I always look for in the team that works with me.

If you want to keep up with Solo please check out and like the facebook page  https://www.facebook.com/solothemusical/

 

 

I only ask as a client recently asked me to shoot a short narrative film for Vision Express. Great, I thought, it’s always nice to shoot drama. They said, ‘it’s for projection, and it’s going to be projected big, oh and we need to shoot in a 7:1 aspect ratio’. These are easy words to say but when you actually start the prep it soon dawns that the practicalities of this combination are a challenge! So what are the main considerations? Firstly, as far as I’m aware, there is no film or sensor that comes in a 7:1 aspect ratio and therefore we are into a world of extraction – i.e. extracting a 7:1 ratio out of the centre of a taller frame. This automatically reduces the available resolution of any existing format as you are only using a proportion of the total number of pixels and to compound this was the statement that it was to be projected big. Back to that big word again, the natural question being how big is big? The answer was that the screen was to have a left – right stretch of 34 meters and a slight curve. It’s only when you see it that you realise how big 34 meters is and I’ve put a shot below to give you an idea. If you look closely you will see someone standing in front of the screen to give you scale.

 

I can tell you that this meets my definition of big! It used 5 projectors overlapping to keep the quality as high as possible. As for origination quality we eventually decided to shoot in spherical on my RED Dragon in 6K and the results were spectacular.

The aspect ratio also creates challenges as you lose many of the frame sizes that you normally associate with drama. For instance to see a figure from head to toe requires the camera to be about 20 meters away from the action unless you use super wide lenses. I was very much against going on the super wides as the narrative of the film required an emotional connection with the lead character and I felt the inherent distortion associated with these wide lenses would hinder that connection. We ended up using predominantly the range of 16-35mm focal lengths with the occasional straying onto 50mm or 10.5mm. Even with these lenses the bulk of our film features a greatly reduced variety of frame sizes to ‘normal’. If you think about it you probably don’t want to feature anybody closer than medium c/u where to chop the top of the head as when projected on this scale they will look monstrously big!  But as we were shooting entirely on real locations we often couldn’t get wider than a wide m/s as we just couldn’t physically get far enough back. I was genuinely very concerned about how the film would cut with this reduced selection of frame sizes and the director, Spencer Carpenter (https://uk.linkedin.com/in/spencer-carpenter-13a75615), and myself carefully planned out the shot sizes of each transition between scenes to make sure they wouldn’t jar. We took frames of every single shot during the recce to try to mitigate against repetition of shot size and I think all this planning really came into its own on the very tightly packed 3 shoot day schedule.

The start and end frame of every scene was carefully planned to help the cut in this aspect ratio
The start and end frame of every scene was carefully planned to help the cut in this aspect ratio

The final steep learning curve was how to use the extraordinarily wide scope of the format, there is just so much space either side of the action and you don’t just want to use the centre of the frame as this feels like a real lost opportunity – a lost opportunity in the sense that we would be failing to use the available storytelling frame to give the audience information but also a lost opportunity by not asking the audience to engage with the far left and right sides of the frame. Both myself and Spencer wanted the audience to be forced to look left and right and we felt that this physical response of the audience would further enhance their emotional engagement. This meant less camera movement and more blocking from the actors so the camera became more a static point of view. There were 2 tracking shots at particular points of emotional energy but far less tilting and panning than I would normally have done. We also tried to use reflections in frame when characters were at introspective points of their arc. This worked visually very well and helped make full use of the breadth of the frame.

This was a truly collaborative affair. The client Gary Blair From Vision Express, the agency creative Paul Basson from The Events Company and of course the producer/director Spencer Carpenter from Shapshifter all worked as one creative mass to solve all the unusual predicaments that were thrown at us to make this the fantastic success that the film ended up being. I am very grateful for being invited into this team and sharing both the stresses and jubilations that came with making the film.

Yes I know the title might lead you in the direction of a Gordon Willis Godfather extravaganza of peering into the darkness but surprisingly for me it’s not to do with light (first time for everything as light and shade is my party piece, don’t expect to get away quickly if you ever bring up the subject!). A little known fact, when Gordon Willis first shot the study scene in Godfather 1, which was the advent of lighting from above, the studio demanded he re-shot it. Nothing hugely unusual about this but you must remember that this is Gordon Willis we are talking about and if there was something he didn’t know about exposure, it wasn’t worth knowing. He dutifully did the re-shoot and actually admitted to thinking that maybe he had overcooked it the first time, the rushes came back and they were exactly the same. He said, and I paraphrase as I wasn’t there, I tried to do it differently but just couldn’t bring myself to, I seemed to make the same decisions. There’s conviction for you. Amazingly, despite being widely considered as one of the best dop’s of his generation he never received an Oscar for an individual film – probably the only thing I have in common with him!

Anyway, I digress. So back to joining the dark side. It is my conviction that wearing other peoples shoes can be uncomfortable, it is also a conviction that you often learn the most when you are out of your comfort zone. With this in mind I occasionally like to put myself in the life of the people around me. This time I wrote, directed, DoP’d and edited a short. When shooting I have a close relationship with the director and we discuss what we both need from a scene to make it work but to spend a day in their world, seeing the issues with their eyes, really helps to build a truer understanding of  what they need from me. Editing your own film could not be a blunter test of success. It’s not about whether you have the shots, I’ve been doing this long enough to know what shots I need versus what shots I want, it’s about the rhythms of performance. The shots cut, but does the energy? I’ve always known that if you have a take with a great performance nobody will give a shit if the camera move isn’t quite perfect, but sitting there in front of my AVID having to bin the take with the perfect camera move for a better performance or more compatible energy is a hard pill for me to swallow.

I think everyone who works in a world where many people contribute to make one product should step over into the dark side and spend a day in other departments. It helps you understand – both why things sometimes go wrong – but also what is possible, both of which are great lessons. I was very fortunate that a good friend and by coincidence excellent director, Nic Cornwall, also swapped sides and covered locations (by providing his kitchen to shoot in – mad fool) and more strenuously, taking care of the art department. I owe him many thanks and sadly, many beers! Many thanks also go to my excellent cast who put up with me, I think we all had a good day, well I did anyway.

Here’s the film, hope you like it.

 

It’s funny how everything goes in cycles. For the first 9 months of this year I had hardly any trails or promos, maybe one every couple of months. Then in September BBC WorldWide asked me to shoot one in Norway for their channel BBC BRIT and since then it’s not stopped! I’ve just completed shooting another 2, one for Discovery and another for UKTV but I think that’s it now till Christmas. So let’s look at 3 that were all very different, starting with the BBC BRIT trail that kicked it all off. This was a big campaign for the Nordic region consisting of the trails, posters, give-aways and social media voting. We were promoting the latest series by the Hoff had made a tongue in cheek reality expose of his day to day life. The campaign took the shape of mimicking a nature programme that highlighted the close extinction of species but with the tag line of ‘there might only be 1000 whales, but there’s only 1 Hoff’. A good percentage of the trail was to be library footage but then we needed to shoot a body double and plates in Norway and then a greenscreen shot of the Hoff in the UK to comp onto the plates. The stills for the campaign were being shot be Kurt Stallaert, who I have to say is a really phenomenal photgrapher, and he was also asked to direct the moving image. Working with Kurt was a genuine honour and  one I’d be happy to repeat any time. In Norway we shot for two days, telling two stories, one based on Whales, the other on Wolves. It’s difficult to go wrong when you are in a location as beautiful as Norway and we certainly made the most of it.

We shot on a RED Dragon with Ultraprimes, mainly at 50fps. On the water we tried to keep either close to the water or high up in the sky with a drone as this helped to keep the mystery as well as disguising our body double. Sometimes drones can be overused but this was not one of those times, the shots were great and the drone was the perfect tool.

Lighting on the greenscreen element was crucial to feeling that the Hoff was on location, not in studio. We were matching a variety of weathers and times of day so each set up was very individual but the basic premise stayed constant – large overhead ambient source which we created with a 20×20 silk with 10k’s bounced into it and then large lamps bounced into poly and softened further with frames. Again it was terrific to be working with Kurt who also has an in-depth knowledge of ‘lighting to match’, it became a real team effort.

Green screen at centrestage
BTS as we record the Hoff pieces to camera on greenscreen

And here is one of the final film ( Whales). I can take no credit for the Whales close ups and under water shots which are all very beautiful library footage.

The next promo was for the Travel Channel and very different. It was to promote a new series by Henry Cole and again was to be shot over 2 days. The slight difficulty was that the trail was meant to happen in a  30 minute period, it was exterior based and we were forecast one day of rain and one day of clear weather. Always a nightmare for a DoP! The series concentrates on Henry and his colleague Sam going to sheds and finding valuable biking gear. The trail was a comedy based piece where an impossibly large amount of stuff comes out of a tiny shed. This was directed by Pauline Russell who I have known for many years and is always a joy to work with so I knew I was in very safe hands. We decided to shoot hand held to give it a natural feel of exploring and observing. The RED Dragon came out again, this time furnished with our trusty Nikkor rehoused cine lenses. To combat the rain/no rain situation we brought our own rain and lit the scene with one large soft source for the exteriors and a little more for when we went into the shed.

Behind the scenes Henry Cole promo
Behind the scenes Henry Cole promo

I’m really fond of the light-hearted nature of this promo and think the rain is a great addition to the atmosphere of the whole piece.

The final promo I’ll talk about today was probably the biggest set-piece for came department. It has some set extention, some greenscreen, plenty of movement, slow motion and a stadium feel. We were trailing the South African franchise of Bake Off and the idea was to make connections between baking and the olypmics, so for example oven gloves become boxing gloves, scales weights become lifting weights etc. With this style in mind we wanted the visuals to feel like a stadium so the whole trail became very back lit and flares were our friend.

We shot on the RED/ultraprime combo which always works well for trails and at framerates up to 200fps. The spot was co-directed by Rosie Davenport from BBC World Wide and the food specialist Will Heap. Co- directors can sometimes mean a whole world of pain for DoP’s as you can get conflicting desires and end up fudging a mix but in this case it worked really well with Rosie and Will building on each others ideas.  The set extension I mentioned was for an opening shot of the baking tent. We erected a marquee in the studio at Malcolm Ryan but it was still not big enough to give the Olympic feel we wanted. In addition Rosie wanted a wall of fridges on one side of the marquee, this is no problem except that they could only get one fridge that matched the Bake off specifications! So we framed up, locked off good and proper and just moved the fridge slowly and gradually up the length of the marquee. This was slightly complicated by the lighting which needed to chase in sequence from the back of the marquee up to the front. To achieve this we rigged a long line of 1K par-cans from trussing and programmed in a chase sequence which we ran each time the fridge was moved. Carlos the fx supervisor did a great job of comping all this together and then extending the marquee further. I like the final trail, it has an epic feel but still keeps its sense of playfulness. Hope you like it also.