A Bias For Lighting-It All Adds Up

Kind of like a fill light but much more subtle, a bias light illuminates the subject just shy of perception, but when combined with a transient source such as a practical fire light, the image appears to be entirely illuminated by the practical fire light, with all its gradations and dynamics.

If you think in terms of characteristic curves of a film or sensor, a bias light brings the subject level up to the bottom of the linear portion of the curve, or just to the top of the toe.  Any additional light, such as from a practical fire source, catapults the exposure into the linear portion of the curve with its resultant steeper rise of response in relation to exposure.

I learned this trick from the late Frank Stanley, ASC.  He taught a workshop at the International Film Workshops in Maine (now the Maine Media Workshops+College).  Frank was demonstrating the ubiquitous night exterior cigarette lighting, lighting setup.   He demonstrated the bias light by positioning a small soft light just out of frame and in-line with the pending match light.  He adjusted the light level so that it’s effect was barely visible as it played upon the actor on his final mark.  However, when our actor emerged from a dark and foggy alley, strode to his mark and lit up a cigarette, his face was illuminated in a vibrant flare of match fire.

I had the opportunity to resurrect this technique on a recent shoot.  I needed to capture an actor performing with fire poi.  In order to get the fire balls to pop on camera and also illuminate her face, I parked my truck about fifty feet away and hit her with the high beams.  While barely noticeable in the image, the headlights augmented the existing fire light just enough to achieve full exposure and create the illusion that her face is lit solely by the poi balls.

Take a look at this snippet.

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?

The Personality Of A Lens

They are not sexy in the realm of other cinematography technology; no shiny buttons or bows, and  only two or three moving parts to manipulate.  But oh, how they make our images captivating.  I speak of glass; a precise collection of optical science, mechanical ingenuity and a dollop of “secret sauce” that constitutes the modern lens system.  Here, in a series of white papers from Canon, is an approachable explanation of lens system design that illustrates the herculean effort that goes into creating a great lens, and explains how each lens maker imparts their unique personality into a lens.

Canon EOS Cinema Lens

“The Personality of the Canon Cinema EOS Lens” series will give you a new found appreciation for lens design, and respect for the associated yet frequently maligned price tag (often erroneously juxtaposed with the cost of the attached camera).  A lens is a work of technological wizardry.  Particularly interesting is the paper on Contrast, and the hurdles of negating the 8% loss of light through each lens element, which should also instill a sense of gravity for using a properly adjusted matte box.




Tools Not Toys

I recently had the honor of leading a number of high school educators through a production workshop as part of the Association of Career and Technical Education of Arizona, Summer Conference 2014.  We train the trainer; teachers that train youth in high school programs that prepare students to enter the workforce with the academic and vocational skills needed to compete successfully in the job market.

Students Explore the Sony A7s 4K Camera

The highlight of the workshop is an all-day exercise called the Feature Film Challenge, where each student recreates one shot of a scene from a popular feature film.   The goal is an exploration in visual continuity in the art and craft of cinematography.  We provide the tools and guidance, and in the process the students learn not just the technicalities of lighting and camera, but the concepts and motivations to make creative choices that drive the story.

We bring a lot of equipment for students to examine and put to practical use.   With a full lighting and grip package and a number of cameras that range from Canon DSLRs to the Sony F55, students are exposed to the equipment of the craft.  As is so often during a workshop with an abundance of resources, we often hear the gear referred to as “toys”.

Let us nip that in the bud and diffuse that sentiment.  We work with tools, not toys.  Tools get the job done, toys entertain.  The term “toys” demeans the integrity of the vocation.  As professional craftspeople, we need to uphold the significance of our instruments, and we do this by leading the edge of innovation and application of such in the pursuit of engaging and relevant imagery, for this goes beyond accessibility to the tools and circles back to the root of this business, the business of storytelling.

In the end, it comes down to heart, wisdom and intellect, not readily available off-the-shelf nor acquired solely by the abundance of paint and brushes.

Cine Gear Expo 2014

New York Set

Inundation of camera floaters using gyros, bungee cords, spring arms, Segways and Porsches, though the telescopic jib arm still reigns supreme given the appropriate budget.  Boat loads of rigging for DSLR and small digital cine cameras, with my personal penchant for the aesthetic of Wooden Camera rigs and handheld products.

There is an odd rediscovery of ENG, oops, I mean shoulder mounted cameras afoot, as if filmmakers of yore who eschewed all things video have finally come around hoping the passage of time will diffuse the pretense.  ARRI Amira drew crowds.  ‘Tis a finely crafted machine focused on professional production and it’s rigorous requirements.  I scored a couple of Amira baseball hats, though more for my interest in the new L Series LED Fixtures, including the L7-C, with 2,800 – 10,000K range and full RGB+W color gamut.  Say so long to your party pack.

Swag was oddly restricted at this event.  Good stuff came only after a meaningful encounter with sales folks and a scan of your badge barcode.  This might explain the uptick in 800 calls I’ve recently been ignoring.  The best swag of the show was from the Rosco booth.  I must have impressed the marketing associate with my extended knowledge of Blackwrap verses Cinefoil, and the history of Rosco and GAM (recently purchased by Rosco).  This netted a full roll of Cinefoil AND a full roll of Rosco 2″ GaffTac Gaffer Tape, in black.  We’re talking a solid $45 street value…sweet!

Dead cat…swing it…LED Lighting.  My favorite a compact LED unit from Hexolux; beautiful white light, in a likewise beautiful red anodized aluminum body.  They also have a neat take on the book light in the form of two ginormous umbrellas mounted face to face; one reflective, one diffuse, all wrapped around their soon to be release quad fixture.

I was enamored with the vendors that trick out the Mercedes Sprinter vans, from compact G&E packages to roll-away broadcast production vans.  I love the Sprinter, it resonates with a nomadic spirit I have.  Cinemills kicks it with their CMC Sprinter Van Package.

The technology quickly overloads the senses.  Many new ideas, and much retooling of old ones.  What I really get from these events is a general refresh on what can be done; the possibilities of camera movement, the potential of lighting sources and the tools to streamline the digital workflow.  Breath it in, let it wash over you, it’s enough to know it’s out there when I need it.

Most enjoyable was wandering around the Paramount New York Streets set, cutting through a parking lot you soon realize is the drained massive Blue Sky Tank, and driving by a dozen Boston Police show cars stashed on the upper deck of the Lemon Grove parking garage.  You are quickly reminded why this business is indeed an industry.

Blue Sky Tank


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.