The Cinematographer

From the always interesting blog of British cinematographer Stephen Murphy, comes this gem of a YouTube-video. Amazing how much and at the same time how little has changed over the years.


What’s Up

Les innlegget

I haven’t been able to post anything in quite a while, as my life has been crazy busy these past months. Along with getting a blog up and running for The Norwegian Film School, I’ve shot a number of exciting projects. This is a little taste of what’s to come. (Keep in mind that most of these are works in progress.)


Kiki — a Production Diary

Les innlegget

I had a great time in Lofoten earlier this month — more precisely at a surfing spot near a village called Unstad, lighting a short film for my friend Torkel Riise Svenson. The film is about a surfer who is forced to move away from the beach by the local authorities because they want to make way for German tourists, but of course, he’s not going to make it that easy for them.


What Is HDSLR Good For?

Les innlegget

I won’t spend too much time writing about HDSLR on this site, but I am interested in finding out what they’re good for. Unlike others, I am a bit skeptical to the current generation, and after testing them on a few projects, I am still convinced that this is nowhere near what you would expect from a professional digital motion picture camera. However, it is a very affordable tool with a specific aesthetic (due to sensor size) that few other solutions in the same price range can offer. This is my take on the format and how to avoid the biggest issues associated with it.


Shooting 3D

Les innlegget

3D is coming, now also to Norway. I spent Saturday with graduating cinematographer Kristoffer Archetti, head teacher and cinematographer Kjell Vassdal and a slew of other experienced colleagues at Bislett Stadium, shooting Kristoffer’s final project at The Norwegian Film School with a couple of REDs and the STEREOTEC 3D-rig, recently brought to Norway by ULTIMAX 3D and director/cinematographer Morten Skallerud.


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Shoot

How do you approach the shot making process when working with a director on a film project?

When most young directors say they want it to have a very improvisational feel, generally it goes: ‘Fuck you./No, fuck you./No, fuck you./No, fuck you.’ And then someone pulls out a gun.
— Tim Roth

I’ve reflected quite a bit on this lately, and found that I don’t really have an answer. There are endless opportunities to decide what you do (and what you don’t) show the audience, and my task is to help the director narrow it down to the one choice that fits the project best. Of course there is no such thing as the one right choice, but there are plenty of awful choices available. And no two directors with similar preferences, neither in style nor in communicative preferences.

It is also difficult to articulate the subtleties in cinema, because there aren’t words or metaphors which describe many of the emotions you are attempting to evoke.
— Conrad Hall

An early experience, photographing a short film and then watching the final edit weeks later, is that none of the amazing setups I convinced my creative partner to shoot have made it into the actual film. Every book on cinematography I’ve ever read have stressed this, but I’ve still made the same mistake countless times. If the director doesn’t understand why we’re doing it, it’s a major waste of time and energy. Communicating about something as abstract as a mental vision of an image is a big challenge, but the times when I’ve been able to craft a wonderful shot in tight cooperation with the director, are the times when I’ve usually seen it on the big screen afterwards.

Behind the Scenes on short film "Experiment", shot by Patrik Säfström and directed by Robin Jensen.

As one of the editing teachers of my school so wonderfully puts it: “The language of film is really quite simple”. Every image needs to drive the story onwards, or it’s just a distraction that will disappear once the director is left alone with an editor. (And rightfully so).

I never want to feel like the way that I see it is the only way. Sometimes mistakes happen and that’s better than what you thought the scene could be. You allow room for the possibilities.
— Steve Buscemi

Another realization I’ve made is that however well planned and coordinated I am with my director, nothing ever plays out the way I thought it would on set. Something unexpected happens, a better solution becomes apparent, there hasn’t been a single project where the original plan was a perfect fit. I’ve narrowed it down to two scenarios, the one where we try to force the scene to unfold the way we planned, and the one where we pick up on what is happening and adapt to it. The first one has most of the time turned out to be an awkward solution in the film. Pre production is a wonderful creative time when I try to get inside the head of my director, and shape fragments of inspiration and ideas into a sense of mood and style, but production is where the actual film unfolds in front of the lens. And as my teachers in cinematography keep stressing, you have to be perceptive and adaptable. But in my opinion also bold enough to follow through on the original vision of the film, when required.

The fine balance between what we planned to do and what the situation is telling us to do is maybe where something interesting happens. In any case my director is my best friend, and if the film is shit, I’d feel better knowing that we kept an open mind throughout the process and made the crap together, as a team.

We mystify the art of moviemaking, but it’s not a mystical science. You take a good screenplay, put a group together and you hammer it out.
— Bill Paxton


An Ode To Film

I’ve spent a few blogposts writing about the exciting advances in digital acquisition, so I think it’s time to give some much deserved attention to the beauty of physical image capture on celluloid, also known as film. Even after all these years of bits and bytes, it’s still the absolute king of the hill when it comes to simplicity, quality and pure brilliance.

It’s difficult to not fall in love with a film camera once you’ve seen it in action. Essentially a piece of metal with a hole in, this fine piece of machinery will pull the film forward, stop and hold it absolutely still, before pulling it forward again multiple times per second, exposing it to the focused light coming through the lens. No advanced electronics and software, no rolling shutter issues, no bitrates or different formats, no complicated backup schemes, just light trapped in a physical object you can hold and look at. So simple!

The marvel of this machinery is only surpassed by the absolutely gorgeous images it can produce:

The reason why I’m dedicating a post to the film medium, is because I’m currently stranded on a remote island in Norway, pulling focus for one of the exam film productions for the final year students of The Norwegian Film School. We’re burning 16 and 35mm, and I would never want to work with anything else for this particular project. When snow and rain is hitting you at the same time at 20 meters per second, there’s nothing more reassuring than an Arri chugging along beside me. My biggest worry is keeping the lens clean.

A rough machine for rough conditions

But even when the weather is nice, I’d rather be loading my mags with film. It’s a shame that the economical reality of the Norwegian film business is pushing the vast majority of productions into the digital realm. It’s not just a matter of practicality or costs, it’s a major aesthetical decision.

An example; we’re standing on an exterior location with a 100-or-something meter long chain of 15 watt bulbs in an evening landscape just after sunset with a huge miniature in the foreground of a larger construction in the background, and light is falling fast! By the time we get the shot in the can, the light is not reading on the incident meter anymore. But watching dailies afterwards, the 35mm proves it’s worth the extra pennies, as an amazing scene unfolds, with clarity and contrast a RED could only dream of capturing. The entire crew was stoked, and this was only a lousy firstlight to DV PAL.

Ready to be loaded and exposed

I am very lucky to be part of a film school that still teaches this soon to be ancient technique to the next generation of Norwegian cinematographers, and will always go to great lengths to pursuade producers if I think it’s the appropriate medium for the project.

It feels like being late to a party and trying to pursuade the remaining few to stay up just a bit longer.

PS: The movie I’m referring to is titled Tuba Atlantic, directed by Hallvar Witzø and shot by Karl Erik Brøndo, both graduating from the Norwegian Film School this summer. It is their final project, a 25 minute short film, and will air on Norwegian television and at the Norwegian Short Film Festival this summer.


Mysterious Glitches in Shutter Island

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD.

Did he do that on purpose? I’m still wondering, and looking around on the internet hasn’t offered much of an answer. I’m talking about Shutter Island, and whether or not the use of greenscreen was purely artistic or more of a practical choice.

It’s not unusual for film and TV drama these days to use a lot of greenscreen, the technology has become very good, and the practical and economical benefits can be quite tempting. Just take a look at this montage on kottke.org: http://kottke.org/10/02/green-screened. But Shutter Island has an unusual amount of, dare I say, seemingly unnecessary greenscreen-shots for a big budget period drama from one of the biggest names in modern film.

The first and most obvious example is the opening scene on the boat. I can understand why Scorsese would shoot it in a studio for practical reasons (although I’ve seen this done a lot better!). Or the scene in the car after Leo has met with Solando. It’s easier to control, and the actors can concentrate on the dialogue. But why do it in a perfectly normal hallway in a location you’ve already shot lots of pictures in? If you start looking for it, you will find a lot of shots that will get you wondering. And sometimes it almost feels poorly executed on purpose. By the way, did you notice when Chuck hands the woman they are interviewing a glass of water, and they cut to a closeup of her lifting the glass, there’s not actually a glass in her hand? It’s empty! There are small glitches like this throughout.

The visual style of the film, with it’s unconventional angles and abrupt movements, combined with the sometimes disturbing use of sound and music, is all part of giving the impression that there’s something horribly wrong. Which there is, as Scorsese masterfully lies, then lies again, spinning a web so thick with doubt and suspicion that you don’t anticipate the final twist at all as it hits you in the face (unless you read the book of course).

So here’s the theory: What if the glitches and the sometimes poor, sometimes just weird greenscreen is part of Scorseses plan to deceive? I really have to see the film again soon to try and find a pattern to this, but it sort of fits. As I was thinking about it, I also started thinking how the regular audience members, most likely blind to these technical aspects, would react. And it might actually be a very subtle, but effective trick. On a conscious level you can’t really tell that there’s anything wrong with the picture (and you most likely don’t consciously question it), but your subconsciousness will have it’s doubts. And then it all starts adding up.

How did you feel when you watched the movie? Am I just rambling, or has Scorsese employed these technical and logical glitches on purpose? I’m anxious to hear if anyone else had a similar experience.


Approaching ISO 1600


Exciting things are happening in digital film cameras, as both RED and Arri are rolling out new sensors rated at ISO 800, with relatively noise free boosting to at least ISO 1600 (looking forward to see this in full resolution in a cinema). This is more than one and a half stop higher than the currently most light sensitive film stock, and looks to be a golden number in terms of what you can actually “see”.

Yes we’re talking unlit night scenes again. The first RED ONEs are having their sensors swapped at this moment, and the first Mysterium X sensor will reach Norway and Eirik Tyrihjel this month. Footage from the Mysterium X has already surfaced on the internet, and shows:

1) Leonardo DiCaprio lighting a cigarette and himself with only a matchstick (direct download)
2) some people walking around the city at night, filming the scenery and each other (direct download)
3) people in industrial settings, cars in the dark and longboarders (direct download)

Leonardo DiCaprio with a matchstick as the only lightsource. ISO 2000.

Seems like ISO 1600 with a wide open prime lens is what’s needed to look around a city at night, like countless HDSLR shooters have been showing us for the past year or so. What might be more interesting with such a high sensitivity is how you can control depth of field, especially when shooting miniatures or high-speed work (not to mention miniatures in high-speed). Also, it’s interesting to note that HDSLR started this race, and now the big players are following their lead, as digital acquisition builds a real competitive advantage over film.

Arri are still building their next generation cameras with the new ALEV III sensor, but they should also be released during 2010. Footage has yet to show up online, but needless to say, it should be a potent match to the Mysterium X. It will find it’s way into three different cameras with different features and pricing. They are not planning to upgrade the D21, but an Arri representative at Gothenburg International Film Festival last week claimed that it would still be top notch in their lineup for at least 2-3 years. Then again, productions that can afford the D21, can usually afford a few lighting units as well.

Is this a sign of things to come? Digital for sensitivity, film for quality? Or will digital catch up in latitude and color depth as well? At the very least, the DoP will have more freedom to focus on the creative process as limitations get fewer.


Exercise 4

We are wrapping up our first proper project together in Lillehammer, a 4 minute sequence from an imagined longer story entitled “The Settlement” (attempted translation anyway). Our team consisting of one student from each profession, shot a story about a woman confronting her husband’s lover, a female tattoo artist, with the fact that they have a common love interest.

The first semester at The Norwegian Film School is filled up with a lot of watching films, workshops and lectures, and small team building exercises, and it’s a wonderful feeling to finally be making movies again. Or rather, sequences, as the school keep reminding us we’re only making one movie in the time we’re here, which is the exam film.

Projects at the school are based on the principle that creativity is better stimulated with restrictions, and we’re not training to make short films, we’re training to become feature film cinematographers (and directors, producers, sound designers, production designers, editors, and script writers). The main restrictions on this exercise was: A minimum of two locations (one required to be a waiting room), a maximum of 12 setups, two predetermined actors, and a maximum of two rolls of S16mm film (approximately 20 minutes of recording time in 25 fps) framing for 1.85:1.

Esteemed Norwegian DoP Hallvard Bræin was mentor for the cinematographers on the project, and gave some very stimulating input during pre-production and on the set. Our generation of photographers being a very digital one, he made a point of making us light by eye and meter, and not use digital cameras as a mental crutch as most of us are used to. Judging fine nuances in contrast can be quite a challenge for the eye and the mind, especially when it comes to the darkest areas which can be quite critical on a negative. One of my personal goals with the exercise was to push the shadows quite a bit, to see how far I can go before losing details and adding too much grain. In the end I found a simplified version of Ansel Adams’ zone system to be very helpful, as I’ve used it a lot when shooting 35mm stills.

We shot Kodak Vision2 200T and scanned to ProRes 4444 at Stopp in Sweden. An important aspect of the school is what they call “the right to screw up”, which means none of what we do is screened anywhere, but I thought I’d post a few screengrabs as a “teaser”. (This might not look right on your monitor, depending on calibration).