Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Work against the light.

Provocative headline, huh? You’re probably wondering how I’m going to get out of this one.

Well I’m not. Because I’m not talking about emotional content. I’m talking about spacial relationships.

But before I get into that, a disclaimer: this entire blog is a generalization. If you know what you’re doing, you know that there are as many exceptions to the rule as there are episodes of ‘Star Trek’ in which Spock showed emotion.

Okay, on with the blog.

I can sum up the most important rules of cinematography in three words: Backlight, backlight, backlight.

Backlight, in case you’re not familiar with the term, means that the light is coming from behind your subject toward the camera. I’m talking about the implied source of all the light in the environment. When you’re outside, it’s the sun. Or moon. When you’re inside, it’s a window. Or a lamp. There can be more than one source of light, but generally, thinking of light in terms of a single source makes your film prettier and your life easier.

Two things you need to know about light: It travels in a straight direction and it bounces off of stuff. The reason those things are important is because light hitting an object will cause it to cast a shadow. And since one of the fundamental conceits of film is its voyeuristic nature, it’s a lot better to see the shadow of an actor than the shadow of a camera.

As for bouncing off of stuff, that’s what gives you ambience. Ambient light fills the shadows so you can see actors’ faces even if the source of the light is behind them.

One of the neat things you get with backlight is separation. Foreground objects don’t blend into the background as much as they do with front light. One of the things you lose is saturation. I like saturation, but I like separation more.

And I really hate seeing my own shadow in the shot.

When you’re inside, the direction of the light won’t change but its quality can. That’s why you’ll see DPs putting black tents over perfectly good windows, then blasting light in from under them. When you’re outside, both the quality and the direction of the light changes because Mr. Sun moves across the sky.

You need to plot out your day so that the direction you’re shooting in is generally toward the sun. Where I live, that means you turn to the right over the course of the day. After a while it becomes second nature, which can be a problem. The first time I shot in the southern hemisphere, I forgot that the sun goes the other way in the sky there. I worked out the order of the day in front of the entire crew under the presumption that we would turn to the right. And nobody said a word.

It was only after I noticed the DP gnashing his teeth that I took him aside and asked what was wrong. We’d never worked together, and he didn’t know whether I was simply being an idiot or had my own particular style that he was going to have to live with.

Turns out, to his relief, I was just being an idiot. And once I realized it, I rescheduled the day so that it made more sense.

If I’d been an asshole--as lots of directors feel the need to be--I would have reamed him for questioning my approach and stuck by the order that I’d established. But the way I see it, I lost less authority by admitting I’d made a mistake than I would have if I’d stuck to an idiotic path, pretending that I knew what I was doing.

Work against the light. Work with the DP. That’s not too hard, is it?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

How to dress like a director. And why.

It's inevitable.

At some point, you're going to start dressing like a director. Black T-shirt, jeans, sneakers, baseball cap.

Most directors put on the uniform because they want to look like what they hope to be taken seriously as. And it's not until years later that they discover the purpose behind what they wear. If ever.

Here's why you wear what I wear that they wear.

Baseball cap: If you're shooting exteriors, a baseball cap keeps out the sun. Unfortunately, the bill of a baseball cap isn't exactly well-designed for looking through the viewfinder. The reality? We're losing our hair.

Jeans: Jeans are relatively cheap and durable and aren't ruined by stains. As glamorous as directing sounds, I've spent more time shooting in garbage dumps than in the catwalks of Milan. And no, you don't get to ride into the set in a sedan chair, ordering your minions to find a shot. If you're not on your hands and knees with a viewfinder, you're not directing.

Sneakers: There's a famous story that's been attributed to Steven Spielberg, although it may be apocryphal. An aspiring director asked him for advice and he answered, "Wear comfortable shoes." Sounds glib, but it's actually great advice. You're on your feet constantly. Good directors don't bark commands through a megaphone. They generally station themselves next to the DP in order to work with them on the shot, then move into the set to adjust the actors' performances. On a long lens, you're moving hundreds of yards between every take. (I shot a job on location in Namibia, and since the schedule was tight--and I like to keep the energy up--I found myself running 200 yards between the camera and the actors between each take. Over rocky ground. Try that in a pair of Gucci loafers.)

Black T-Shirt: This is the most telling bit of wardrobe, and there are a bunch of explanations put forward for it. 1) Black is a slimming color. There's probably a lot of truth to this, especially if you don't run around like I do on a set. The craft services table is usually brimming with all sorts of candy and cookies. 2) Black doesn't reflect. There's probably a lot of truth to this one, too, especially on car shoots and sets with lots of reflective surfaces. But while black makes you reflect less, it doesn't make you invisible. Even in a black shirt, your reflection is going to be seen. 3) Black goes with everything. Bingo, but probably not for the reasons you think. It's not about fashion, it's about packing. My work requires me to travel--I once had to fly to Zurich for a single meeting--and in order to travel I have to pack. I don't like checking luggage, so I try to condense my clothes as much as possible. A couple of black T-shirts and a couple pair of jeans and I can be presentable (albeit predictable) for a week.

Besides, I look like a director. Which helps when I'm meeting people I need to impress with my authority for the first time.