October 31, 2013

The Cinematographer's Process (Part 2): Defining Your Camera Strategy

Cinematography is the art of making informed visual decisions in the pursuit of telling a story. After breaking down your script for emotionality, subtext, and character arcs, you can begin making informed visual decisions in the process of building what I call the "cinematographic visual concept". This document (or series of documents) lays out, in specific terms, your plan for conveying the subtextual and emotional overtones of the story, using the cinematographic tools of lighting and camera. In today's post, we'll talk about how to take subtext and turn it into an informed strategy for using the camera to its full storytelling potential:

The Cinematographer's Process series is meant to be a study in not only the concepts of cinematography, but in the practical application of these concepts. In order to accomplish this, I'll be talking about these broad concepts within the context of a film that I am currently in the process of DP-ing. The film is called Paterand for those of you who missed the previous installment of the series, which talked about script breakdowns for cinematographers, here's a rundown of the film's plot and its subtext:

Pater Poster

Pater is the story of two extraterrestrial beings, the Progenitor, who is wise and stoic, yet rapidly aging, and Janus, who is toeing the line between childhood and adulthood. Together they are searching desperately for a planet with an advanced civilization that has not engineered its own demise. Planet after planet, and disappointment after disappointment, the pair are now locked onto a signal coming from a mysterious tan planet.

In a subtextual sense, Pater is first and foremost a cautionary tale for humans in that these "dead planets" that the pair discover are allegorical stand-ins for earth. However, the emotional core of Pater is the relationship between these two wayward individuals. It's a film about parent/child relationships, and the responsibilities that parents have to teach their children how to survive in their absence.

With all of that said, let's get to meat and potatoes of this post: creating a well-informed visual concept for your film!

What is a Visual Concept?

The idea of the visual concept is a simple one. It is essentially a definitive strategy for how you plan to visualize your characters' emotions alongside the subtext of the film. The term visual concept can mean entirely different things depending on the department, however. In the art department, it has to do with the physical creation of a unique world in which the characters can exist. For cinematographers and their crew, on the other hand, the visual concept has to do with using the two primary tools at our disposal, camera and lighting.

Some visual concepts are written out in vague, overarching terms that describe the tone and mood of the piece, rather than with the specifics of how to achieve those things visually. Personally, I try to be as specific as possible, at least as specific as one can be early on in the pre-visualization process, so that I can begin to effectively communicate visual ideas with the various people within my department like the gaffer, key grip, cam op, etc. The more specific information I can give them early on, the better everyone's understanding will be as to the cinematographic goals of the production, and how we intend to achieve those goals.

My process for building a visual concept starts with determining the key subtextual thread that you want to work from in the film. This gives you something concrete on which to make all of your visual decisions. In Pater, despite the fact that the film is meant to act as a cautionary tale so that humans don't destroy themselves, the emotional core of the film lies in the relationship between the young Janus and the rapidly aging Progenitor. Through focusing on the subtext of this humanistic father-child relationship, we hope to engage the audience in the emotionality of the film, rather than the message.

Now that we know which subtextual thread to focus on, let's get started with the creation of the first half of the visual concept, the camera strategy.

The Camera Strategy

The camera strategy is, without a doubt, one of the most expansive and important pieces of visual pre-production that you will do as a DP. The strategy can be broken down into numerous different subsections or categories, but there are a few that are absolutely essential. They are format, composition, and movement. However, you can certainly use additional categories (such as lenses, focus, filtration, etc) in order to tailor your camera strategy to your individual film.

Format: This refers to the capture medium which is best for the film. Will you shoot on film, or will you shoot digitally? What will the film or sensor size be (s16, s35, full frame, 70mm), and why? If shooting on film, what stock or stocks will you use? If you're shooting digitally, which picture profiles or LUT's will be applied? What resolution will you shoot at, and why?

For Pater we are choosing to shoot digitally with Sony's F5.  The primary reason for this is the absolutely absurd sensitivity of that camera, which sits at a whopping 2000 native ISO, and stays relatively clean even at 6400. Since we'll be shooting in some extremely dark environments (missile silos, abandoned granite quarries), that extra sensitivity will allow us to build a good portion of our lighting into our custom-designed space suits and augment with small, battery-powered units so as to avoid the need for a generator.

Another reason for the F5 is that the image from the camera is relatively clean and sterile straight out of the camera. This is perfect for the space ship set that we're building because the sterility of the image can be used to enhance and augment the physical sterility of the character's environment.

Lastly, despite the fact that the film will be mastered in 2K, it will be shot in 4K with Sony's R5 recorder. The additional resolution is important because not only is oversampled 2K cleaner and more detailed than native 2K (which will help with the sterile aesthetic described above,) but because there are certain shots throughout the film that will require tremendous amounts of compositing. With that additional resolution, we are giving our VFX artists a template on which they can be as precise as possible.

Composition: How will you compose your images, and how will those compositions convey the underlying subtext of you film? This all starts with choosing the aspect ratio of your film, something which I've talked about extensively in previous posts.

Once you've found your ratio, you need to decide how you'll frame your characters and why. Will you shoot from low angles, high angles, or from eye level? Will you frame in closeups or will you stay wide, and why? How will you utilize negative space in the frame? How will you utilize depth?

With Pater we chose to go with a classic widescreen 2.39 aspect ratio because of the additional negative space that the wide framing provides. Because Pater is a story about loneliness, in that our characters might be utterly alone in the universe, we can place our characters at the extreme edges of the frame and use the negative space to visually portray their isolation from each other.

In our exterior shots, when the pair explore the tan planet, a good deal of that sequence will be framed with extreme wides (with the characters minuscule in the frame) in order to emphasize that sense of loneliness in the universe and to foreshadow the fact that their journey to this planet won't end as they hoped.

Since we are focusing on the relationship aspect of the film, a good portion of our scenes will play out in moving or static master shots that will allow the character relationships to be conveyed through blocking. Well-composed wide frames with various levels of depth can be an extremely powerful tool for conveying the power dynamic in these types of relationships, but it is essential for the blocking to be well-established ahead of time.

Movement: What stabilization method do you intend to use for your film? Sticks. Steadicam, dolly, jib, handheld? How will one of (or a combination of) these methods help you tell your story and emphasize your characters' emotions in a visual way? What kinds of camera movements will you employ, and why? Will the camera stay locked down; or will you have subtle movements? Fluid movements or frenetic movements?

Pater is inherently a story about emotional restraint. The Progenitor, despite the emotional shit-storm that he is going through, is, for the most part, able suppress these emotions and act rationally. That is, until the sobering reality of the pair's situation, coupled with his failing health, causes a powerful and emotionally charged catharsis, the likes of which one would not have thought possible from such a stoic character.

In order to mirror this emotional journey, we intend to keep movement to a bare minimum (on sticks and a dolly) through the first part of the film, the part in which the Progenitor is stoically disengaged with the tremendous emotional implications of his illness. Through moving the camera very slowly (almost imperceptibly) during this segment of the film, we can visually convey the emotional undercurrent without explicitly stating it.

However, when the Progenitor goes into catharsis-mode, so does the camera. Through a subtle use of frenetic POV handheld work, we can both emphasize and mirror this man's emotional state, thus hopefully making the audience feel the same thing.

Lenses and Filters: What kind of lenses will you use for the film? What focal lengths are best suited for your characters. and why? How will the compression of space and depth of field help you to tell your story? How will you set your aperture, and why? Will you use any creative filtration (such as contrast or mist filters) in front of the lens? Why?

Because of the Progenitor's emotional restraint characterization discussed above, we are also going to mimic his shift from stoic and clinically dry to cathartic through our lens choice. The first part of the film will be lensed relatively wide, with the masters playing out at 18 or 21mm, the OTS coverage with a 35mm, and close-ups and inserts with a sparsely used 50mm. This wide-ish perspective will be maintained until our moments of catharsis, where we will shift to the longer lenses, such as the 85 and 135mm.

In terms of the type or brand of lenses that we're using, the plan right now is to shoot with Zeiss's CP.2's because of their crisp, high contrast look and relative affordability. Ideally, I would use Master Primes for a project like this, but believe me when I tell you that those things are goddamn expensive. Too expensive, in fact, so CP.2's it is.

Lastly, with the exception of ND's and the occasional polarization filter, we will not be using any creative filtration effects like color casts or Pro Mist or anything of the sort. The clean, high contrast look that we are going for can be easily accomplished through the camera choice and the lenses.

Summary

As you can see, creating a solid camera strategy is a vital step in the cinematography pre-production process. Through making these types of technical and creative decisions based on the script, the subtext, and most importantly, the emotionality of the characters, you are setting yourself up for success, and you are allowing the cinematography to be a powerful aspect in the telling of your story. With that said, the camera strategy is just one half of the cinematographer's visual concept. Next up: the lighting strategy!

If you found this article helpful, or just enjoyed it, please consider helping us make Pater. I can't stress how much we need your help. It’s a film with tremendous potential, and we can’t wait to share it with the world.  Head on over to our Kickstarter page and share it with your peeps. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all of the latest updates.

What do you guys think? How do you go about the visual pre-production of your film? Do you make a camera strategy? If so, how? Let us know in the comments!

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22 Comments

Great post! And good video.

October 31, 2013 at 11:55AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Norm Rasnar

Thanks Norm!

October 31, 2013 at 12:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Robert Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker's Process
4283

Thank you for this post. Love to see all this process put into words. Just made $25 contribution. Good luck funding and the making of the film!

October 31, 2013 at 12:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Sergior

Thanks so much! We really appreciate your support!

October 31, 2013 at 1:20PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Robert Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker's Process
4283

I was enjoying these posts till I realised you nicked my music...well Kevin Macleods! If I posted a minute long piece I directed could you possibly give me some feedback on the cinematography?

October 31, 2013 at 1:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Will Edwick

Hey Will, which music are you referring to? The main song in the video was licensed from a site called Marmoset, and the other one was given to me by the co-producer of the film who made the teaser trailer (not sure where he got it, though...) Let me know which one you're talking about and I will make sure that all due credit is given!

And I would be glad to take a look at your video and give some feedback! Just post the link here or email it to me at rhardy@nofilmschool.com, and we'll talk about it.

October 31, 2013 at 1:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Robert Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker's Process
4283

I think he means he wanted to use it?

October 31, 2013 at 6:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Kraig

Great post - the only other thing I'd consider is what kind of device(s) the majority of viewers will use to view the completed film. The very wide screen ratio might make for some awkward viewing on my smartphone - even on an iPad the characters at either ends of the screen could look very diminutive indeed. I understand the need for "negative space" - but I think this still could be accomplished using a more moderately sized frame ratio.

October 31, 2013 at 2:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Ed Wright

Please make it whatever damn aspect ratio you want it to be. This is an artsy sci-fi film, somewhat of a niche market to begin with, so to hell with people who would be displeased watching it on an iphone or ipad. I would hope this decision would be more of an artistic consideration than an attempt to pander to audiences who want the ability to watch these things when they're probably not in a place where they can pay all that much attention to what they're viewing in the first place. Sorry dude, I don't mean to come off so pretentiously, but that is one comment that really gets under my skin.

October 31, 2013 at 9:26PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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brent

+1

November 2, 2013 at 8:41AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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RobW

I like the idea of putting together an informative post like this one and tying it together with the project you are trying to fund. Especially when it shows you have thought through the vision of the film. Nicely done...and you got $25 from me as well...good luck!

October 31, 2013 at 2:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dustin K

Thanks for the post a very good insight

October 31, 2013 at 6:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Ally Mchume

Great post Robert you explained the subject clear and concise with minimal words needed to understand it. This is the kind of article I look for my continuing self education in cinematography.

October 31, 2013 at 9:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Gary

IMO, with only two characters (is that the case?) and confined spaces, you might try 1.66. Stagger depth with your primes and you'll always have this in- and out-of-focus feel of Bergman's within the same shot, especially if you rotate their face angles asymmetrically.

Question on the locations - how big are those caves and how much wattage would you require (I assume you'll be going for the Gordon Willis type "barely there" lighting) for your setup? A couple of 1x1 LCD's + a few fills and bounces?

November 1, 2013 at 12:19AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

I do not agree on “understanding the subtext and conveying emotion through cinematography”.

Subtext, Emotion and Characterization are the job of a Director. If cinematographer derives everything from script then his visualization and director’s visualization will differ, which will result into conflict with each other.

Cinematographer’s job is simply to understand script, the space, time/era of story and discuss the visual design of the film with the director. Choose the camera and accessories and light up the shots such that they convey the “mood” and the “feel” of the scene and not emotion. Operate the camera on set and in the post. color correct the visuals with director and colorist.

that’s it!!!

While understanding of the script and filmmaking process is important for every head of the department, same applies to the cinematographer.

November 2, 2013 at 3:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Every cinematographer ever disagrees with that assessment. When you strip away the ability to convey emotion and subtext through lighting and camera, the cinematography ceases to be art, and the cinematographer ceases to be an artist.

What you're describing is a technician, and nothing else. A well trained monkey could do the job that you describe. A cinematographer on the other hand, is both an artist and a technician, and they bring a hell of a lot to the table artistically, which is what makes filmmaking so great. It's a collaborative art. Directors may run the set, but if they think they're the only artists on the crew, then they're in for a nice surprise when nobody chooses to work with them again because they're so full of themselves.

So as much as I respect others' opinions, this one is just flat out wrong.

November 2, 2013 at 4:04PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Robert Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker's Process
4283

Any discussion as to the overall lighting scheme and color tones? Also, Robert Hardy is spot on with the above comment.

November 3, 2013 at 11:38AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Bryant Marcontel

That bow tie though... and "Pater" ? Bad title. the font is unreadable. Three bad decisions I can't get behind.

November 4, 2013 at 12:25PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Just Sayin...

Pater is Latin for father, which makes it a magnificent title for a film that is largely about father/child relationships.

November 4, 2013 at 5:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Robert Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker's Process
4283

Is there a part 3?

December 20, 2014 at 10:48AM

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What happened to the 3rd part in the series about lighting?

March 16, 2015 at 5:15AM

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Hey Robert, out of interest, what's the status of this film? Abandoned project? If so, how close did you guys get to making it? Facebook page doesn't seem to be working.

March 30, 2015 at 6:55PM

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Adrian Tan
Videographer
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