Depth of Modulation and the Dawn of Electronic Cinematography

As a DP at the dawn of electronic cinematography, I was fortunate to work with a company in New Hampshire called VideoTroupe.  Now known as “The Troupe”, it was founded by a talented engineer, Fred Conners Sr..  Patient with this young upstart, he schooled him in the business of production, and helped him to discover value in work.  Most importantly though, he introduced him to a most impressive and poignant term:

Depth of Modulation

I was astounded, more so as I knew at that moment a term yet unknown to my peers.  In engineering parlance it refers to the maximum deviation from an unmodulated carrier (going negative, if you will…).  Alone, a term of no qualitative inclination, in video however, it denotes the maximum attainable contrast range of an image acquired by a camera system; full scale.  Bounded by saturation on the high end and the noise floor on the low, this term soon came to imply more than my initial understanding.

Depth of Modulation…a range of usefulness, fidelity, a well rounded repertoire.

More and more I find myself adopting the sound recordist mode of acquisition; capture in full dynamic range, clean, with maximum potential for post manipulation.  Use the complete set of bits available, do not waste, expose to the right (another time…).  Aghast!  How do you put your mark on it…what will name your style?  Can I not accomplish that with composition, movement and lighting?  In truth, what I preserve is simply the ability to cleanly flex contrast and color tone.

Depth of Modulation…a life balanced…the yin and yang of it all.

I can only hope to capture the vision presented to me.  In the end, the only valid style I impart is in the integrity of my execution of that endeavor; how I work with others, how I perceive the project and my place within it, how I behave; all this informed by the breadth of a life.

Sine Yin Yang

There is a Zen reference to protecting the senses.  Imagine a life (a film…) filled with a barrage on your senses.  Not too hard, eh?   No matter how bright and shiny, this is a life of shallow depth of modulation, no dynamics…as the senses adjust, eventually all becomes monotone.  Make room for the silence, the return to one, a zero crossing.

How will you improve your depth of modulation today?

Pi Is 3: Painless Cinematography and More

PiPieI once made a personal pact to each year learn an additional decimal place of Pi. I stalled out at the 7th decimal place. Why? why not; resolution at seven places far exceeds any granularity I might need. My electronics professor once stated that Pi, for all intents and purposes, is 3. What he really said is don’t beat yourself up, the tenets of good engineering avoid hinging success on critical specificity.

In essence good engineering involves relatively loose parameters that are compensated with equally loose yet effective safeguards, or regulators.  Devices that rely on high tolerance components are doomed to fail.  Systems, likewise, are risky that require overly restrictive performance variables.

Apply this theory to cinematography by using broader strokes with image acquisition tools: shoot flat, finish in color later; light beyond the edge of frame; extend the depth of field; slap on another piece of track just in case; hire proficiency.

7d Live View

Many motion picture cameras have viewfinders with a “warning track”, a bit of extra non-recorded, grayed-out image to show what’s lurking just outside the frame. Even my lowly 7D has a top and bottom warning track, handy for finessing boom mic placement. Push back the boundaries so you can play safely within the field.

You could try to get your look “in camera” and with many of the DSLR 8-bit rigs that may be the only approach but it takes time to fine tune your parameters to achieve this.  If time is indeed money, then how much less expensive is that DSLR from a professional cine camera?  With the slew of available 12 bit, 14 stop dynamic range cameras you have plenty of breathing room to light, compose and create without fear of hitting hard stops…and do it efficiently.

Alexa DetailProfessional tools expand parameters, not necessarily so you can pin your cinematography (your hopes…your dreams…) at the extremes, but so you can quickly and safely do an excellent job without fear of going over the cliff.  Ultimately, “industrial” grade tools are motivated by economics; sturdy, efficient and reliable tools with limits and efficiencies far beyond our needs.

Back to Pi, here’s a tip.  Got a coil of rope, video cable or extension cord but don’t know how long it is and really don’t feel like unwrapping the whole lot?  Multiply the diameter of the coil by the number of loops, times Pi…or 3.  You got a pretty good answer as to how long it all is.

Mind those units.

Legendary Cinematographer Of ‘Godfather’ Trilogy Dies At 82

Boston University, College of Communication, 2004.

Gordon Willis drops in on my cinematography class, my students unaware of his pending visit.

Prince of Darkness

We were in the second half of the semester, when each student chose a scene to recreate.  Just so happened it was the eve one lucky student was recreating a scene from The Godfather, the scene when Michael is driven to the Cafe for a hit.

Prince of Darkness-2

Gordon hung around the back of the studio, behind the camera.  He quietly interacted with students while the scene was set.  Some students had run to the store and bought DVDs of The Godfather, which Gordon happily autographed.  I mentioned to him that he didn’t have to hang around for the entire 3 hour class; he did.  “I’ve been in classrooms all day,” he responded, “it’s good to be back in the studio.”

Prince of Darkness-4

When the setup was finished, all eyes turned to Gordon to find out how he actually created the scene.  “Pretty much the same, only we used  Lowell clip lights instead”.

Prince of Darkness-3

This was the man we all studied, both his cinematographic and professional style influenced us.  He taught us to push the envelope, to fight for our ideas.

It was an honor to meet the man and have him grace our little studio…

RIP Gordon Willis.

What’s In Your Kit

More than too many times, upon talking with potential producers or directors in search of a cinematographer, the first conversation invariably focuses on what gear I have.

What gear have I…(cue the sound of the tone arm scratching across vinyl….)?

Well…I come with a full set of relevant experience and expertise.   Accessories include sensibility, maturity, empathy, whimsy and a notion of esthetics.  Mileage is a bit high, well over the 10,000 hour break-in period, and despite more than a few tire changes, I still offer a smooth ride and play well with others.

Other kit includes the tools to fathom a director’s imagination and translate the vision revealed into tangible visual media.  Leadership skills are also included with every purchase.

No Mattebox
What…no matte box? (Zacuto)

A quote of which I will never tire…

“Technology is changing all the time, but for me nothing has changed in the sense that you are still telling stories by the use of light, the use of a frame, the way you move a camera…So, to me, technology is important, but it’s only in the background, it’s a means to an end, it’s like the paintbrush.” – Roger Deakins, ASC

What’s in your kit?

The Big Asterisk

My friend Gino has a saying about falling, or feeling, short of the mark and having to preface the inadequacies; “that’s a pretty big asterisk”.  You work on a project, perhaps it becomes a calling card for future work.  It must stand alone, no explanations, no excuses. Put it all on the screen, get it right, leave nothing, have nothing, to qualify. Let your work do the talking.

The Big Asterisk says “could a…should a…would a…”.  Make no excuses for your work, let it rip.  If there is doubt, leave it out.  That’s my modus operandi now, whether it’s my demo reel or a client piece; the most fleeting concern about a shot or sequence, say no more, it’s gone.

The litmus test of the Big Asterisk can be liberating.  Simple to implement, easy to follow with minimal practice.  What the Big Asterisk also teaches us is that our doubts are often based on self imposed standards, but as we know, the beauty of standards is that there are so many to choose from, so go easy on yourself.

I will repeat a useful experience from my tender youth as a newly minted garage band member.  Upon relating my concern to the lead guitarist regarding a few missed notes of mine, he pointed out, quite poignantly, that the other band members were too concerned with their own performances to notice.

Live unabashedly, I say.