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The Physics of Moving Pictures

The Physics of Moving Pictures

Articles - Directing

Hubbs, Kovacs, Primes and Fisher at DV Expo West in December
of 2003.

So, does this camera almost do the cinematography for you?

Believe it or not, a journalist for the Los Angeles Times actually
asked Robert Rodriguez that question during an interview about
the making of Once Upon a Time in Mexico. The story was
published on Sept. 12, 2003. Rodriguez seemed to wholeheartedly
agree with the premise. The article quoted him saying that cinematography
with film cameras is “the art of guessing.” A marketing
executive for a digital camera manufacturer was also quoted. He
said, “There aren’t many people in this town (Los Angeles)
good at guessing.”

If you believe everything you read, the obvious
conclusion is that cinematographers have been guessing how to
expose film for the past 100 years, with uneven results. Now,
anyone can point a digital camera at the actors in practical
light—a la Dogme
95—check the monitor, push a button, and voilaart!

Following publication of the Times story, Rodriguez wrote
a letter to George Spiro Dibie, ASC, president of the International
Cinematographers Guild, which has some 6,000 members in the United
States (Rodriguez among them).

“I absolutely share your disappointment in the LA Times
article, but I certainly don’t share your dismay. This sort
of lazy reporting simply comes with the territory.”

Rodriguez explained that his answer to the
question posed by the reporter began with, “NO. YOU STILL HAVE TO LIGHT.” Those
words were omitted from the story, along with many other details.

Laszlo Kovacs, ASC

Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, Bob Primes, ASC and Gil
Hubbs, ASC didn’t
know what to anticipate when they agreed to participate in a seminar
at the recent Digital Video Expo West at the Los Angeles Convention
Center. Would there be a roomful of hopefuls who believe that DV
cameras almost do the cinematography?

Kovacs chairs the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Education
Committee, which provides scholarships and mentoring for young
moviemakers. His body of work includes such classic films as Easy
Rider, Paper Moon, Mask
and, more recently, Two Weeks Notice.
Primes and Hubbs began their careers as documentary moviemakers.
Primes has compiled an eclectic list of credits for TV and the
cinema, including Bird on a Wire, My Antonia and Harrison:
Cry of the City
. Hubbs has nearly 30 independent film and TV
movie credits, in addition to photographing such episodic series
as “Murphy Brown.”

Some 80 writers, producers, directors and editors, a few aspiring
cinematographers had questions for the DPs. Most of them were there
to explore the possibilities of the DV format as a low-cost alternative
for indie moviemaking. A young writer asked the first question:
How do cinematographers want scenes described in scripts?

“Write plots and dialogue and don’t try to do the
director or cinematographer’s jobs,” Primes advised. “I’m
open to ideas, but most writers aren’t visual artists. Sometimes
I see scripts that say something like ‘close-up on the hands
of a ticking clock’ or ‘it’s a dark, moonlit
night.’ But it’s up to the director and cinematographer
to interpret the story visually. A film is like a symphony: a composer
writes music that every conductor interprets in different ways.
That’s what makes it a collaborative art.”

Kovacs added, “I want great dialogue with interesting characters
and stories. I’m usually turned off by scripts that specify
stage direction, close-ups or over-the-shoulder shots. That’s
what we do with the director. It depends on the words and story,
and also how the actors respond to each other and the environment.”

Hubbs said, “Some times it’s useful if the writer
describes scenes. In Seabiscuit, for instance, the writer might
have described the energy leading up to the big race. It’s
6 a.m., there’s not a parking place available for eight blocks
and crowds are streaming into the stands. The director and cinematographer
might have used that description to plan coverage and lighting.
On the other hand, maybe the director would decide it served the
story by setting the scene earlier in the morning, when it was
still quiet and dark.”

Gil Hubbs, ASC

There were questions from producers about the Dogme films, and
whether they could also eliminate lighting budgets by shooting
in DV or other digital formats.

“You can shoot any film without lighting, and that may be
the right approach for some stories,” Kovacs replied. “But
we use light to tell stories. I remember a night scene with Cybill
Shepherd and Burt Reynolds sitting in a swimming pool [in At
Long Last Love
]. The water was black, so my gaffer suggested
putting a 10K in the deep end and a 5K in the shallow end, and
then we bounced a little soft fill on the characters to create
a romantic feeling. You can shoot the same scene without light
with any kind of camera, but it won’t feel the same.”

The producer rebutted that Kovacs could afford
to light because he works on big budget pictures. The cinematographer
gave him a good-natured history lesson. After Kovacs emigrated
to the United States from Hungary in 1956, he spent about a dozen
years shooting 16mm industrial and medical films, and eventually
ultra-low budget “biker
movies,” hoping for distribution on drive-in theater screens.

“The drive-in was our version of today’s VCR or DVD
player,” he said. “I never had more camera or lighting
equipment than we could carry in a station wagon, but less can
be more. We learned how to model and shape light to tell stories.
We taught ourselves tricks like using reflective surfaces to bounce
light and flags to create shadows and darkness. Sometimes what
the audience doesn’t see in the shadows is powerful.”

…It’s up to the director and cinematographer
to interpret the story visually.
A film is like a symphony: a composer writes music that every
conductor interprets in different ways. That’s what makes
it a collaborative art.”

Kovacs stressed that lighting, camera movement
and other techniques should generally be seamless and transparent
to audiences. Hubbs observed that this doesn’t mean lighting
or movement always have to be motivated by reality.

“Rent a DVD of Reds,” he suggested. “There’s
a beautifully lit scene in a drawing room with sunlight streaming
through the window. The characters walk out of the drawing room,
across a hall and into a room on the other side of the palace,
where hard sunlight streams through a window. Logically, if sunlight
is direct on one side of the building, it should be soft on the
other. It was a mistake. The director (Warren Beatty) and cinematographer
(Vittorio Storaro) must have decided that the dramatic effect of
the hard light streaming through the windows was so powerful that
no one would notice that the sun can’t be rising and setting
at the same time.”

A young director asked if the gap between film
and digital imaging technologies is closing. Primes responded
yes and no, explaining that neither technology is static. “Film has widened the
gap in bit depth, shades of colors, exposure latitude and sharpness,” he
said. “Those are all elements of our visual grammar. At the
same time, today’s mobile DV cameras record more highlight
details than the older cameras, and you’ve got monitors that
let you see exactly what you’re getting.”

Several people asked how to determine whether their projects should
be shot in DV, HD or one of the film formats. One of the writers
volunteered that he had sold a script to a studio, where the financial
people are pushing him to shoot in 24p HD format to trim costs.
He asked the three panelists how he should make that decision.

“It depends on your script,” Primes replied. “I
saw Peter Pan last night, and I promise you won’t
record the color subtleties that are important in that film with
any HD camera today. They don’t have the color bit depth.
Hire or consult with a knowledgeable cinematographer before you
make decisions about the choice of media or formats.”

Bob Primes, ASC

Kovacs added that mastery of the craft is what gives moviemakers
the freedom to experiment and create different looks. He asked
a rhetorical question: How do you compose issues/53/images and move the camera
in ways that augment the emotions of the story?

“I own a Panasonic AG-DVX100 camera,” Primes volunteered. “The
main advantage is that I can hold it in my hand and put it anyplace.
I’ve started shots two inches off the ground, and moved through
scenes like the camera is a character, so the audience experiences
what’s happening through their eyes. Mobility is a great
advantage. But you have to know what you want to see in the frame
and from what angle. Maybe you want shallow depth of field that
draws the audience to look at a character who is in sharp focus,
and then you bounce a little fill light to put a sparkle in his
eyes.”

Primes said audiences have learned to read
those visual clues. He continued, “The trick is to learn to use the advantages
that each media offers and avoid potential pitfalls. With DV, you
can do boom shots without a crane and relatively smooth handheld
work. The downside is that you’re not going to get the same
latitude or color fidelity as film, and it isn’t designed
for focus racks. The auto focus has a mind of its own, and it doesn’t
know what’s important in the frame. You have to hunt and
peck with manual focus, so avoid racking shots.”

Primes suggested scouting locations for complex shots with stand-ins,
and using Final Cut Pro for making storyboards that will enhance
communication with the director.

When asked if 35mm film lenses can be used
on DV cameras to improve control of depth of field, Hubbs replied, “That limits your
ability to handhold the camera. It’s the same with matte
boxes and follow focus. I wish they’d build DV cameras with
a tiny servo focus and zoom motor that could be wirelessly activated,
so you could have an assistant focus while you’re framing
and moving.”

The final word belonged to Kovacs.

“I persevered for 12 years, learning my craft as well as
how to speak English,” he said. “I didn’t know
that someday Easy Rider would change my life. There are no short
cuts, and technology definitely doesn’t do the cinematography
for you. You have to learn your craft.” MM

Bob Fisher estimates he’s written 2,000
articles about cinematographers in the past 30 years. He moderated
the seminar with Kovacs, Primes and Hubbs at DV Expo West.

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