A cinematographer helps a director bring their ideas to life. As Danny Cohen (nominated for an Oscar, BAFTA and Emmy for cinematography) puts it;
"The cinematographer creates a consistent look for the film and makes images that help tell the story. It's what's in the frame, the lighting, getting the mood right - getting images that push the story along and keeps the audience inside, not outside, the film."
The cinematographer is in charge of the camera and lighting and plays a huge role throughout a production.
What type of cameras do you film on?
We film on Sony FS7 which is a camera that records in 4k. It uses 4:2:2 colour space and we record everything in a flat profile so it’s ready to be colour graded/colour corrected in post-production. One of the features I particularly love is its different slow motion modes. We mainly use the following modes;
XAVC-I mode 3840 x 2160: 1 to 60 frames (59.94p, 50p, 29.97p, 23.98p, 25p)
XAVC-I mode 1920 x 1080: 1 to 180 frames (59.94p, 29.97p, 23.98p)
XAVC-I mode 1920 x 1080: 1 to 150 frames (50p, 25p)
To put that into words, an example would be that we can record everything in full HD resolution at 180 frames per second using just the centre of the sensor. This slightly reduces the quality of the footage but we can use the other slow motion using the full sensor at 60 frames without any quality loss (in terms of 4k filming). This is great especially as you can do all that at the press of a single button allowing you to switch very easily.
Another reason that we use the Sony FS7 is that it’s very easy to plug in to the monitor through the HDMI. This means that the clients can see a basic output straight away, on set, with the LUT (Lookup Table ). A LUT modifies the colour space of an original image and shows an edited display image on the monitor. If we break that down, what it is, is that whatever the camera records is a flat image profile. But because of the LUT on the monitor it shows how the footage will look with basic colour grading so that the client can see how the final output would more or less look like. It’s incredibly helpful for both us and the client to see a basic final output on set so that any issues can be flagged. Which means we can do something about it on set rather than taking two days to fix it in post production. This avoids a lot of problems and aids co-operation with the client.
What do you do to prepare for a shoot?
First of all, we scout the locations. This is called a ‘recce’ [reconnaissance]; we need to see the location that the client provides in order to confirm whether or not it is suitable for filming. If it is not, we flag it and let the client know that what they have in mind is not possible to shoot in that location for optimum quality. If this is the case, we would find another, more suitable location or even in a studio, depending on the nature of the shoot. Second of all, you need to break down the script. This is so that we know precisely what we are shooting and are able to create a shot list along with a storyboard. Next we have to create an equipment list based on the shooting requirements, and book all the equipment. The most crucial thing to remember is always to bring more batteries and more cards than you think you need! We need to have all bases covered, in case we encounter technical difficulties, or if the shoot lasts longer than anticipated.
What is a typical day on set like as the cinematographer?
Upon arriving on location, we unpack and assemble the camera(s), grip (camera accessories), sound and lighting equipment. This may all sound mundane but it’s vital to ensure a smooth shoot. At any one time the DoP [Director of Photography], that’s me, has to oversee a group of people surrounding this one piece of equipment [referring to the camera]. Camera operators, camera assistants, camera grips and focus pullers are all crew members whose sole responsibility revolves around the camera. It’s an entire department. On smaller productions with tighter budgets, some of these responsibilities filter down to myself.
It’s always important to make sure that lenses are clean and accessible, that the settings on all the cameras are in order and that both the cards and batteries are good to go. We usually set up a neat and tidy ‘camera corner’, where we keep batteries on charge alongside all the unused equipment and stored items. On a particularly busy shoot, the camera assistant would have to use this space to switch out cards and batteries. The assistant uploads the footage onto multiple drives, before wiping the cards and changing the batteries.
What is the best and hardest part of your job?
The best part of my job is seeing a project through from start to finish. After preparing and working long and hard to collaborate with the talent, client and crew on a project, it is truly gratifying to witness the successful end product. Seeing the effect that all your hard work has on its intended audience makes it all worth it.
From the technical side of things, there is no difficulty. When I’m hired for a job it’s because I know what it is I am doing. That’s the point in practicing. Most of the time you don’t think about it, you just do it. Just like when you drive. You don’t think about the changing of gears all the time, you just do it - it’s a habit. When it comes to difficulties, in my experience, it always comes down to people, time and schedule. When things get rushed and the morale is low, the overall attitude can really affect the outcome of the project.
What element of cinematography do you think needs to be better understood?
Raw footage. It’s footage that is unprocessed and untouched. From the moment you press record until you stop, whatever has been captured is considered raw footage. It’s called raw footage because of the way the camera records it, the colour profiles, the settings that can be applied - in the presets or otherwise. Depending on the settings, the colour profile may be flatter, or it may have higher contrasts. But whatever is not shot with a flat colour profile is still considered raw. Raw footage is whatever the camera records, the raw, unedited material, and the presets that a camera uses is...a different story.
Who has influenced you in your cinematography?
To me one aspect of a film cannot make you feel well connected to a film, however I am not disregarding them either. There just has to be a balance. Which is why I don’t like focusing solely on one aspect of a film when bringing in influences. However someone who has stood out to me is Roger Deakins. He is known for his “EPIC shots”. If you watch Spielberg’s movies and there’s an epic shot you know that Deakins is behind it. But then every person after that just attempts to imitate his “pre-packaged” image. Which I feel isn’t good enough. I enjoy being able to experiment and have creative freedom with influences being drawn from a multitude of people and media platforms.
What is your favourite project that you have worked on whilst at Particle 6 Productions? And how have they helped you grow?
My favourite project has been one of our latest. It was a big project for Mrs Wordsmith. My favourite bit was the narrative piece as there were many mini scenes in various locations with different opportunities for exciting shots. We got to shoot with good actors [including the children], we were able to use really good equipment and we managed to produce a very nice looking video.
Right now, whatever happens on set, I am able to adapt to it on set. Whether the lighting changes due to the time of day or we need a new lens I know that I can overcome these obstacles easily without feeling uncomfortable. I’ve also grown more confident when it comes to voicing my needs for recording or whether I feel like it would be good to wait 5 minutes for a cloud to move for example. You learn these things with experience and by allowing yourself to be more versatile.