Art Adams is a man who needs no introduction to ProVideo Coalition readers. His channel on PVC, Stunning Good Looks, is a collection of invaluable information for cinematographers, but folks on every side of a production can find something of interest in them. As great as it is to read about The Art Adams Zone System for HD or discover why you need to Move the Camera, Not the Actor, there's nothing like learning from his experience directly. And if you're anywhere near Hollywood on May 28th, you're in luck.
On Wednesday, May 28th, Art will be teaching a lighting class entitled “How to Light Faces: Hard Light, Soft Light and Damage Control” at Mole Richardson in Hollywood. Art will be discussing classical portraiture lighting, key light placement, fill light placement and plenty more, plus he'll look at damage control and show you how you can learn from his mistakes.
We caught up with Art to talk about his career, the things he's seeing out in the field and what other surprises attendees of his lighting class will be able to experience.
ProVideo Coalition: As a freelance DP you've worked on films, TV shows, commercials, internet videos and everything in-between. What are some exciting recent projects of yours that you can tell us about?
Art Adams: These days I specialize in commercials and high-end corporate projects. I live outside of LA so there’s not a lot of feature or TV work around, and over time I’ve come to love working on short form projects. My roots are definitely in long-form storytelling, but there’s something special about throwing myself into a project that lasts a day or two, or a week, doing a really good job and then moving on to something completely different.
Features and TV are challenging, and I remember the satisfaction of finishing a day of work on an episodic show and thinking, “How did we do all that???”, but I’ve come to appreciate shooting marketing pieces where we have only a few shots to tell a story and make an impact. The challenge is to make those shots look the best we can, because—when you only have :15 or :30 seconds to make a point—every second counts.
Long-form storytelling in Hollywood taught me things that I use daily on short-form shoots: how to plan, how to manage a crew, how to drill quickly into material to find themes and ideas that will guide my lighting approach, and how to light fast and stay on schedule. Commercials and episodic television have a lot in common these days: both have to look great, and we have to get an amazing number of shots in a day. When I started out in the industry TV production was a slam job: it didn’t have to look good, it only had to look bright. That’s changed, and that change was driven largely by DPs who worked in commercials and transitioned to TV.
It used to be that commercials only scheduled four or five shots in a day, and the focus was on creating the most amazing images possible. Now we often have 15-30 shots to do in a day, and they still have to look amazing. Commercials may have driven episodic television to change its look back in the 90s, but commercials now have to shoot at the pace of an episodic TV show.
It’s much harder to do that on a commercial, by the way. On a TV series the same crew is working on the same sets for months at a time and they get into a rhythm, whereas a commercial crew comes together for a day, shoots like crazy, and disbands for the next job. There’s often no pre rigging of sets, or any sets at all; we don’t have any of the advantages of time and familiarity. That makes it challenging, which also makes it a lot of fun.
A while back I shot an April Fools promo project for Google that ended up on Youtube. I love shooting comedy, although we had a lot of ground to cover in one day. We used real employees as talent and the director took his time getting just the right performances out of them, which meant we had to scramble a bit between setups. That’s part of my job, though: I recognize that lighting is not the reason that a project exists, and that first and foremost I’m capturing performances and enhancing them. The performances took a while to get, but we got them.
Most recently I shot a corporate marketing project that consisted of about 40 people answering three questions in front of a colored backdrop. That sounds pretty simple, but we didn’t want the look to remain stagnant over the course of the video so I had my gaffer set up a portable dimming system with multiple key lights, so I could quickly perfect the lighting for each person’s face as they settled in front of the camera. We had about 15 minutes with each person (that collapsed to five at the end of the day!) so I had to work fast. Even though it was only one setup we took three hours to get it right, but we didn’t have to change anything other than sliders on a dimmer board for the rest of the day.
So much of your job seems to depend on successfully working with your director. When this happens, do you think it's because you're able to share a similar creative vision or because you're able to effectively communicate and work through any differences in a productive manner?
When there are creative differences the director always wins. Always. My job is to give the director what they want. If I really disagree on the approach then I need to recognize that before I accept the job. Once I’m on board then I’m committed.
A lot of DPs get work because they are known for a distinctive style. I definitely have a look, but I can work within a bunch of styles so I’m not necessarily known just as the “comedy” guy or the “drama” guy. Once I fall in with a director they tend to hire me for everything they do, because I always deliver a product that is better than what they expect—and I try to do so as pleasantly and low-key as possible.
Artistic vision is important, as is technical sophistication. Most of all, though, DPs are hired because they are reliable. I’ve known several DPs who are hired not because they are very good at lighting—they tend to light in broad bright strokes—but because they always deliver a consistent look, on time and on budget. They always deliver what they’ve delivered before.
Toward the end of my assisting career I worked with an episodic TV DP who was very fast and ran a very pleasant set but the cinematography itself was average at best. The producers were thrilled, though: they got a 48-minute episode in the can every five days. For them, consistency trumped artistry. The show didn’t look bad and didn’t look great, but given the impossible schedule it’s amazing it got done at all.
The directors I work with the most hire me because they know they will always give them material that looks better than they expected for the time and money allotted. A certain amount of that is shared artistic vision, but a lot of it is just finding a comfort level in working with a DP who will always deliver so they can focus on the things that are important to them, like performances.
Do you find yourself spending more time on creative or technical challenges when you're working on a project?
I spend a lot of time on technical issues before the shoot. During the shoot I try to focus on artistic issues as much as possible. That’s why I always distribute lighting plots to my crew in advance: I want everyone on the same page before we walk onto the set so we can deal primarily with changes and adjustments rather than starting from scratch. I also like getting advance feedback from my crew as to whether what I’m asking is doable or not. In the same way directors rely on my knowledge and experience, I rely on my crew to tell me when I’m asking them to do too much for the size of the crew we have, or to suggest a better way to execute my existing plan. I don’t care how we get the look I want as long as we get it, and my lighting crew works with a lot of DPs so they have a lot of tricks up their sleeves. I’d be foolish to ignore that fact.
The downside it that most crew are very focused on their particular specialty but don’t see the big picture. It’s my job to see the big picture, but there’s a tremendous amount of detail that goes into making that big picture. On a big project your crew learns your style and adapts over time, so the work gets easier and easier as they learn to anticipate what you like and don’t like. On a small project you’re working with a crew that works with several DPs over the course of a week and they don’t necessarily know or remember your style, so I find that it’s helpful to get the big technical strokes out of the way before we step foot on set so I can micromanage the artistic needs of the project on the day.
The DP really has to be the smartest person on the set: we’re the only one with the big visual picture in our heads, and we have to solve camera, lighting and grip issues constantly in order to make the director and producer happy and make our day. Some of those issues are insanely complex technically, some involve physics, some are purely artistic… but there’s a lot to stay on top of. No one else on the crew has that kind of combined artistic and technical workload. The electrical department, grip department, camera department, art department, makeup and wardrobe, props, etc. all have their specific roles and specialties, but I’m the one who has to make all that come together visually. And all those things interact: a change to one can result in a change to all the others.
It can quickly become too much for one person to deal with, so spending time figuring out the technical details before the shoot and spreading the workload around allows me more time to solve artistic problems on the day.
One of the questions from your excellent AMA was around whether someone “should break into the industry at the bottom or just start creating work”, and your advice was to work in the industry first. Do you see many young professionals going that route, or are they more anxious to do their own thing?
The film industry has been around for a century or more. The question to ask yourself is this: Do you want to start your career in 2014 or in 1914?
When I read cinematography forums in places like Reddit I see a lot of kids (I can call them that now!) who buy cameras and start shooting. If I’d been able to do the same thing at their age I probably would have as well, but I’m glad I didn’t. I had no idea what I didn’t know, and I learned how to light and manage crews by watching DPs with 20 years of experience solving problems with tricks that I’d never dreamed of. Sometimes I wish I’d been a camera assistant for a lot longer than I did (I only did it for about five years) so I could have learned more from others.
I’ve worked with a number of companies formed by people who came right out of film school, bought cameras and a copy of Adobe After Effects, and started soliciting clients. They get to a certain point but then get stuck because they keep trying to reinvent the wheel and don’t know how to capture live action efficiently or well. Some of these people take great pride in being young and scrappy, and many say that their career goal is to “work with their friends,” but generally these are signs of lack of professionalism. The film industry is one of the most efficient in the world… if you learn how others have done it before you and improve on that knowledge. If you’re starting from scratch and building your own production methodology you’re almost certainly doomed to fail.
I’ve described it this way before, so I’ll do so again: if you learn the standard way productions run then you become capable of becoming part of an amazing filmmaking machine where all the parts know what they are supposed to do at any given time, and no matter what the production is you can plug them in and they’ll know exactly what to do. The machine builds itself, often out of parts that haven’t worked together before, and a director can use this filmmaking machine to create just about anything they want.
Film students, and people who haven’t worked professionally in the industry with others who are more experienced, don’t learn how the machine works or how the parts fit together. They spend more time trying to get the machine to work than they do actually getting anything done. On the few occasions when I can convince these young companies to hire a real crew they’re amazed at how fast we work and how easy we make things—because they’ve never seen that side of the film industry before. We know what to do and when to do it, and because of that we spend more time doing things than figuring them out. You just don’t get that kind of experience unless you work with seasoned professionals, and that won’t happen unless you’re willing to spend some time at the bottom of the ladder.
There are positives and negatives to working your way up or starting at the top. Generally I think working your way up is the better way. You don’t have to spend a lot of time doing it—I didn’t—but you should spend some time learning the basics. Otherwise you’ll have to reinvent a hundred years of proven working methods just to be competitive in modern times.
The tools that allow people to create their own project are now for the most part readily available, and it's changed the mentality and approach for folks on every side of a production. What are some of the biggest changes in mentalities and approaches that you've noticed?
Many think that they know as much as I do about choosing cameras for projects just because they own one or they read about one. I have clients who regularly book the camera before they book me. Often I find that I have to try to talk them out of bad decisions that they don’t know they’ve made, but it’s hard to make people understand the technical reasons why their camera choice won’t work.
Cameras are not made equal, and you still get what you pay for. They have strengths and weaknesses. Canon C300s are great for handheld work, but awful at green screen or for jobs that require accurate colors without color grading. REDs give you reasonable color but only if you shoot under daylight-colored lighting. Sony F55s are really versatile cameras but you can’t white balance them in film-style mode, so you’ll need some way to pull the green out of fluorescent lighting when viewing the image on set. Alexas are a great all around camera but you’re still going to get some rolling shutter artifacts if you’re shooting moving cars.
There are lots of times when you can get away with shooting a 4:2:2 long-GOP codec and other times when the only viable choice is a 4:4:4 intra frame codec. Sometimes 8-bit color is okay, other times it’s going to be death in post.
Does this sound complicated? It is! That’s one of the reasons that DPs get paid (or should be paid) a lot of money: it’s our job to know all this stuff, or to find out, in order to make your project a stunning success. It’s unlikely that a producer or a director has any idea that these choices exist, or matter, but making the wrong ones can cost them a lot of money.
I try to steer people in the right direction, but if they choose to do otherwise I make sure I warn them once—and only once, because more than that and I’m branded as being “negative”—and then I shoot their project as best I can. I take responsibility for the decisions I make, but if they make a camera decision and they’re wrong then it’s all on them.
I get that people want to quantify intangibles and reduce perceived risk. Cinematographers are inherently a risky business decision because we’re people, and people are not always predictable. Choosing the camera gear—and often choosing what worked before on a highly successful project—without the cinematographer’s input may feel like a risk-reducing measure, but the reality is that it’s causing more problems than it alleviates.
There's obviously a lot to be said for learning how to do things the right way, and that leads us into the upcoming How to Light Faces: Hard Light, Soft Light and Damage Control class you're going to be teaching in Hollywood. What will be some of the big take-aways for attendees?
I want to teach that there are no formulas… by teaching a lot of formulas. Yes, that’s a little bit crazy, but let me explain.
For me, lighting is about becoming aware and learning from others what is desirable and undesirable, and then taking those lessons and developing my own rules for what I want to see on set. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to light faces, often because I’m thrown into fast paced and difficult situations where I have to make someone look good when time is running out, and I have a set of tricks that I draw on to help me. I demonstrate many of those tricks in class with the proviso that they should not be used automatically: they apply in some situations and not in others, and you have to learn which ones to pull out and when. Still, by creating awareness of various lighting problems and demonstrating tricks that solve them, I hope to open eyes and create awareness that help fellow cinematographers craft better images
A quick read of any of the common cinematography magazines show that cinematographers are great at describing how they do something but not why, or why they do something but not how. I try to bridge that gap and talk about both how AND why. I’ve been endlessly frustrated by potential teachers who give me one but not the other, and my goal is to teach a class where you get both for the price of admission.
Hearing you talk through “what to do when there’s almost nothing you can do” sounds like it's going to be invaluable. What does it mean for a project when someone has to learn something “the hard way”?
Lost time. That’s what it always boils down to when you can’t figure something out: there’s a certain amount of flailing that happens, and that costs time. And time is money.
There’s always a certain amount of flailing, though. I still do a fair amount when a director throws me a curve ball at the last minute and I have to figure out how to get this crazy impossible shot that I didn’t know about thirty seconds before, and I have ten minutes to get it. No one ever has all the answers. Even the most experienced cinematographers have days when they feel like abject failures. That’s just part of being a commercial artist.
I try to learn from others mistakes whenever possible. I almost never make mistakes myself anymore, but I do frequently learn things the hard way. Sometimes I’ll tell my crew to grab a light—any light!—and move it around a space until I see something I like. Other times I’ll note that the only place I can put a light is in one corner, so I put it there and shoot. Most importantly, I try to prioritize my shots and understand which ones are really important and which ones aren’t. The example I often use is this: if you spend a lot of time lighting a tough hallway shot where two characters stop and say two lines to each other then you’re sucking time from the love scene at the end of the day. What’s more important, two characters bumping into each other for ten seconds or a pivotal romantic encounter?
All of us in this industry are consummate problem solvers, but more importantly we have to learn which problems need solving. In the example above I’d shoot the hallway scene under ambient light and get the crew working on pre-rigging the love scene. Solve the problems that really matter, let the others go. The best way to create shots that are masterpieces is to carefully choose the ones that should be, and do a good enough job on the others that you have time to make those masterpieces.
I find that every day of every shoot I have one really easy shot and one horribly difficult ass-kicking shot. That just seems to be the way it is. The trick is to learn, over time, that you can get through those hard shots and survive. There’s no way to get out of learning the hard way, and I’ve found a lot of joy in embracing not only that I’ll have to do it, but that I can do it reliably and consistently.
There’s not much that scares me anymore because I’ve dug myself out of a lot of holes. There’s a certain confidence that comes from a lot of digging.
What sort of feedback do you typically get during and after these kinds of classes?
“When can you do one in my neighborhood?” That’s always a tough question as these things cost money to put on. If there’s enough demand I’d be willing to take this on the road. I want people to know how to light faces: that’s where a lot of acting takes place, and lighting them correctly is like setting the stage properly for a scene.
I’m also considering a book. All I need is time. : )
For the cinematographers who aren't able to make it out to Los Angeles, what are a few things they need to keep in mind when it comes to lighting?
It’s important to learn the rules before you break them. Learning rules, and recognizing their results in the real world, builds awareness. Once you are aware of what’s going on around you, you can stretch, bend and break the rules to create something else.
This comes back to my screed above about working your way up through the ranks so you can learn new things instead of reinventing old things. It’s important to learn what constitutes classic beauty before you set out to create any other kind of beauty. There’s a tremendous number of ways to create beautiful images, but you have to start somewhere and build off someone else’s style before you can find your own. Everything we do as artists is based on someone else’s artistry, in some cases dating back hundreds or thousands of years. The more aware you are of that artistic history the more sophisticated you’ll be as an artist yourself, and that’s when you can start crafting your own style.