In what was essentially a combination of Scott Simmons’ #28daysofquicktips and my own AMA, I answered questions throughout the month of September last year on a daily basis. The PVC team wanted to rerun this series for our readers along with some new questions and answers, so stay tuned for a few entries at the end of the series which will take us past 28 days. Use the hashtag #28daysofinsights or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to help us build up some questions for a brand new series.
If you don’t have the light to pull off the look your director wants, is it better to say so or get it as close as you can?
I try to get as close as I can and see if anyone complains.
I shot a music video years ago where the director wanted the talent partially lit in a soft pool of light. We had limited resources, so at first I tried to achieve the effect with hard light. “No,” said the director, “I said SOFT LIGHT.”
Thinking quickly, I put a 4’ Kino Flo overhead, lengthwise starting just in front of the talent’s head and running toward the camera, just out of frame. I turned on one bulb and closed the doors as tightly as possible. The length of the bulb stretching in front of the talent created a soft look, while the width of the bulb and the closed doors of the lamp turned it into a narrow beam at 90 degrees to the camera. The light looked soft on the talent’s face, which was lit by length of the 4’ tube, and yet the light dropped off very quickly side-to-side because the width of the tube was very narrow, so it cast a sharp shadow in that direction and was very easy to cut.
I took advantage of the fact that Kino tubes are soft in one axis and hard in the other. I’m not sure where the idea came from other than a combination of ingenuity and desperation to try anything to get the look the director wanted.
Random tips from a professional camera operator
If the look I’m asked for is tough for the budget—for example, lighting three blocks of semi rural street at night with a $1000 lighting budget—I’ll try to push the director into scaling down their expectations a bit. But even as I type this, I’m thinking, “I’ll bet I could do this all with small lights if I wet down the road.”
This is part of being a cinematographer: when you start out it’s as if someone is throwing you into the deep end of the pool on every job and seeing if you can swim your way out of it. As you get better at the job your swimming improves or the pool gets shallower. You gain the experience to dig your way out of a lot of situations, but what’s more, you gain the confidence to know that you can dig yourself out of a lot of situations. That’s almost more important.
Here’s what a budding DP needs to know about building a career
It’s really hard to scare me on a set anymore. It took a while to get to this point. When someone asks the impossible I almost always find a way to do it. I desperately try not to tell the director “no.”
If you do find yourself in an impossible situation, tell the director you love their idea and then go tell the producer what you’ll need to make it happen. If it costs too much then the producer can tell the director “no.” Producers can get away with being bad guys; DPs can’t.