You walk into a room. Where’s the light? Where’s “the shot”? Over there….by the window, next to that lamp, alongside that wall. We’ve all got an “eye”. We can practice to use these eyes. The more we use it, the better we get at seeing and observing things. These curious eyes can now see beauty all around, even in ordinary things or boring places. These are the eyes of Cinematographer.
Let’s take another scenario.
You’re on set. It’s early and you’re tired.
You ask, “What’s the shot? Scene 2, Shot 11 “Kitchen shot – Morning Scene”. The Director calls- “Here’s the story board.
Start with a wide angle at the kitchen bench. Grab the HMI, throw it through that window. Tweak it a bit”.
The morning Sun is out. Perfect lighting. DONE! Let’s go in for the close-up. 50mm looks perfect. But then let’s take one more shot.
Just a regular day in the life of a Cinematographer.
A Cinematographer’s life is all about creativity and technical knowledge But it’s also important to be able to work quickly and with a schedule.
Lets take another scenario.
The setup is ready. We have a Gimbal for this one. Perfectly balanced, wireless focus, wireless video, an experienced operator. The director suggests that we shoot the entire scene on the Gimbal. Gimbal shots are not stable especially if it’s one take shot. This irritate you, and although your practiced “eye” gets excited with the idea, you know there needs to be a better reason. You fight it somewhat but then agree. Maybe it can be an effective storytelling tool for this particular scene.
The scene in front is there is a house burning and a couple leaving hurriedly.
“Wait, I can still use the gimbal in this particular scene as a means to show the couple’s journey forward as they leave the burning house. They are now moving forward, together. The moving camera can show their changing, dangerous environment. But what if I go ahead with hand held? Will it work better?”
These are the thoughts of a Cinematographer when thrown a situation where he has to use his wisdom and knowledge.
You get a call, it’s on speaker. The Producer and the Director ask if you’re available to recce a few places. Of course, you’ve got an eye for detail. You’re on board with the script and understand he story. You have ideas in your head about how things could look and cannot wait to see the locations. You also know there is so much more to a location if we take into account the time of day, the color of the walls & furniture, the clothes and props the actors are interacting with, the ability to use practical light sources and the option of using your own lights, the power requirements of those lights and logistical requirements to rig them, the sounds of the space eg the hum of the fridge, the buzz of the flours, the crashing of the waves or the passing traffic. You’re excited about seeing these locations because you know that it’s not only YOUR eye that will be inspired by them, but the eyes of others too.
Cinematographer surely has an eye.
So, we see that looking deeper into the question, “What does it mean to be a Cinematographer” reveals that it’s also about being a leader, a problem solver, an excellent communicator, a collaborator, someone who has the ability to see beauty in the mundane. Someone who can motivate, delegate and collectively pull together a broken situation whilst staying true to a script and working with a team. It’s a big ask.
There are other, less hierarchical but still important skills including the more obvious, ability to SEE light. Seeing the light that is already there is an important part of developing your own style, along with framing and exposing it of course 😉 Taking that a step further is the ability to create and shape the light from scratch. There must already be tons of articles about the details. It would describe in great detail the arsenal of lighting fixtures we have available with us today, where and when to use them, how to modify them and why – and even then, it would only be MY opinion, which is not the answer. What is the correct way to light and what is tasteful? Do those two things even exist when it comes to true collaboration and self-expression? Where do we find inspiration and what is acceptable in that realm? How can you refine your craft if you don’t have access to expensive and high-end equipment? What are some practical tips when looking to improve your eye and ability to light? The list goes on. It’s almost an impossible ask to refine such a thing into a palatable, single post, which is why I started sharing my lighting breakdowns at the blog in May, 2013. Meanwhile, I still look at my lighting and shudder at times…not knowing what to do or how to improve.
There are other things as well that deserve lot of pondering and discussions like deliberate lens choices, camera angles, coverage decisions, exposure techniques, etc, etc. Experiment, learn and have an “eye”.