How To’s

4 Tips to Create Depth in a Shot

When it comes to 2D images, like a standard photograph or a film you’re watching projected on your local multiplex’s screen, depth is an illusion. From cinematography to photography to painting to hand-drawn animations, artists must fool the human eye into thinking it’s viewing something in a three-dimensional plane when it’s actually flat.

Piecing together a captivating story becomes easier when you master different techniques proven to add depth (or the illusion of depth) to a shot. Here are four tips that will help give your cinematography the power to convince viewers that they are experiencing a world as real as their own.

Shallow Focus

Focus is perhaps the most powerful (and common) method of creating depth in both photography and film. Our human eyes have evolved to do this wonderfully—hold out your finger in front of your eyes, focus your vision on it, and notice how everything behind it becomes a blur.

This lens technique, called shallow focus, allows filmmakers to achieve depth by fooling our brains into naturally believing there’s space in between the plane in focus and the one that’s out.

Depth

Light and Shadow

If there’s one natural agent that influences our depth perception in the real world, it’s light. Point a light at something, whether near you or behind other objects, and your eyes will be drawn to focus there. By using high contrast lighting, filmmakers are able to inject both depth and dimension to their compositions.

Whereas soft lighting can make an image appear flatter, sharper lighting delivers harsh shadows that help add an illusion of depth. Usually, the higher the contrast you create between shadow and light, the stronger depth you’ll get in a shot.

Linear Perspective

If you want a quick (and fun) way of better understanding linear perspective, take out a blank sheet of paper and draw from the perspective of someone looking down a long hallway, bridge, or railroad tracks. You’ll notice that to match a realistic sense of depth you’ll have to draw converging lines that start wide near the bottom and become closer as they recede toward the vanishing point.

By using camera placement in combination with wide angle lenses, you can add depth by making the horizon seem farther away. Veteran cinematographers learn to get creative by utilizing different camera placements to achieve depth and energy via varying perspectives.

Depth

Occlusion

Though it may seem like a simple concept, occlusion is a powerful tool for creating depth, especially in CGI films and video games. Occlusion refers to the visual obstruction of a distant object with another object in the foreground. Similarly, for astronomers, occultation is all about studying what stars become visible and hidden depending on the course of the Moon’s orbit around Earth.

In filmmaking, this technique works alongside parallax to create depth. Usually, this effect comes naturally when filming people and objects positioned in front of other things. But if you ever find yourself with a tracking shot that feels like it’s lacking depth, considering having more objects in order to have a sharper occlusion effect. If there’s one filmmaker who learned how to make the tracking shot his own by using different techniques, including occlusion, it’s Steven Spielberg.

You can find more information about studying cinematography at New York Film Academy here.

5 Cinematography Books Filmmakers Should Check Out

While there are plenty of YouTube videos and other visual aids to supplement your cinematography school education, there’s a tried-and-true source that works even when the wi-fi is down—books.

What’s great about books is that you can study each page at your own pace, and often books on cinematography come with simple yet informative visual aids. Also, if they are still in print, there’s a good chance they’ve had the time to prove themselves a useful resource.

Here are some books on cinematography you can check out:

Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Image Making for Cinematographers and Directors
by Blain Brown

A lot of the core tenets of cinematography have stayed the same for the last 100 years or so, but with the advent of digital filmmaking that is no longer the case. Blain Brown’s definitive 2016 book covers a broad range of cinematography topics and includes much of the modern, digital equipment and techniques that come along with them. This book makes a great basic blueprint for you to familiarize yourself with the craft before honing your skills in a hands-on cinematography program. In general, you should always try to get the most updated print; currently, Brown’s book is in its third edition.

FilmCraft: Cinematography
by Tim Grierson and Mike Goodridge 

By working on set with state-of-the-art equipment, cinematography school is a great way for you to master a complicated craft. However, the value of some books is how they can hone in on very specific projects or people, and use these examples to explore the practical techniques you’ve learned. FilmCraft’s Cinematography book is a prime example of this—by looking closely at iconic films like Psycho, Chicago, and Hero, and through discussions with veterans of the art form like Vittorio Storaro and Christopher Doyle, this book lets you see cinematography in action.

On Suspiria and Beyond: A Conversation with Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli
by Luciano Tovoli

Even more specific is On Suspiria and Beyond, a book that focuses on one specific director of photography, Luciano Tovoli. By devoting an entire book to an interview with Tovoli, you can get firsthand knowledge from a veteran who has worked with such esteemed and talented directors as Dario Argento, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrej Tarkovskjj, Julie Taymor, and many others. Tovoli was passionate about the use of color and goes into vivid detail about specific sequences from his work on the mind-bending horror film Suspiria. This book looks at cinematography in a hyperfocused manner you won’t find elsewhere.

Painting with Light
by John Alton

Academy Award-winning director of photography John Alton (An American in Paris, The Big Combo) first published Painting with Light in 1949, but his writings on the art form still hold a lot of weight. Once you’ve mastered the tools and craft in cinematography school, Painting with Light will help you explore how to use image making to determine the visual mood of a film, incorporating lighting, camera techniques, location choices, and more. As a plus, the book is not afraid to use non-technical language, so even beginners can delve into Alton’s work, perhaps as a precursor to taking cinematography classes.

Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers
by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salivate

This book features fifteen conversations with modern cinematographers to give a firsthand look at how directors of photography work on set and approach their jobs. Authors Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato are both film critics, while the newest edition of Masters of Light features a preface by veteran cinematographer John Bailey. This is a must read for anyone looking to get inside the heads of contemporary cinematographers.

How to Style Your Cinematography like Steven Spielberg

From “Jaws” to “The Color Purple,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg has given us many of the most iconic moments in cinema. We have already extolled the genius of Spielberg in this previous NYFA article, but today we examine some of the specific cinematographic techniques he employs to achieve such spectacular results to help inspire your own cinematographic stylings.

Sideways tracking shot.

A sideways tracking shot follows the movement of the characters. Although it is a classic technique, Spielberg makes it his own. “Spielberg adds considerable visual texture to the shots by putting all manner of objects and extras between the camera and the two main subjects, to enhance the richness of the frame and the visual perception of movement,” writes this LA Video Filmmaker article.

Spielberg also uses the variant of having the actors approach the camera after tracking, ending in a close-up, as exampled by the scene in “Jaws” when the camera tracks Brody and his wife to the fateful boat.

Introducing a character.

As the below video essay details, Spielberg often uses either action or fraction (glimpses of body parts or features) to introduce his protagonists, and some of his most memorable introductions employ both. Think of one of the most iconic character introductions of all film time: to Indiana Jones in the first “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The long take.

A long take, aka a “oner,” is a continuous shot played out in real time. Unlike other directors, Spielberg’s long takes tend to be less stylized and more emotionally driven. As this No Film School article puts it, “Spielberg disguises these long takes in a number of ways, allowing audiences to become immersed in the dramatic energy of the scene without feeling the kinetic energy of the camera.” For some examples from everything from “Saving Private Ryan” to “Jurassic Park,” check out this video by Tony Zhou.

Over the shoulder.

Over the shoulder shots are common enough in cinema, but Spielberg uses dramatic and claustrophobic over the shoulder shots to create effects that push the boundaries of classic cinematographic framing. The dramatic shot uses a wide lens, making the character in the foreground look bigger than the other character, which conveys a feeling of dominance. The claustrophobic shot increases the amount of shoulder in the frame, pushing the main subject away from center. This article offers some “pretty pictures” to illustrate these techniques in “Amistad” and “Munich.”

Frame within a frame.

A cinematic frame within a frame utilizes physical objects–mirrors, windows, doors, power lines–to divide the frame and create striking composition. In “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, use a circular lamp fixture, and in “Minority Report,” they use a headset held by one of the characters in the foreground. The novelty of these framing devices suggests how you can use everyday objects for brilliant aesthetic effects.

What are your favorite examples of Spielberg cinematography? Let us know in the comments. Learn more about cinematography at the New York Film Academy.

Cinematography Jobs: How to Shoot Stylish Wedding Videos

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If you’re studying cinematography or currently between jobs, there are plenty of opportunities outside of the world of film to lend your talents and make some money along the way.

One of the most enjoyable – and lucrative – is shooting wedding videos.

But it’s also not without its pressures, especially given that you may be the sole party responsible for capturing exceptionally personal footage (and there’s only one opportunity to get it right.)

Luckily you’re a cinematographer, ergo you’re already far more qualified than the bride’s drunk Uncle Tom. So, let’s get started!

1. Communication > Videography

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Poor communication skills won’t only create a bad impression (and therefore stymieing future recommendations), but it’ll also leave you woefully under-prepared for the couple’s big day.

No two weddings are alike, and the same goes for the couple’s expectations. Will there be any outside-the-norm events they want you to capture? Has the groom got a special surprise he wants you to be there for? Any particular guests or parts of the venue that need extra attention?

Even just agreeing on the times you’ll be there and shooting need to be established long in advance so that everyone is on the same page.

This doesn’t just stop at the couple, either. It’s imperative to speak to the venue, too, and find out the rules, regulations, logistics and possible restrictions that you may face on the day. Same goes for the DJ or band, although for different reasons (more on this later.)

And when the day is done, you job isn’t. There’s an element of customer aftercare in wedding videography; naturally you’ll  want to carry out editing and post-production work, but also ensure they’re happy with the footage you deliver. If you’d set up expectations properly in the initial steps, this should be easy to achieve and you’ll be rewarded with a glowing testimonial.

2. Pack for Expedience

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By all means pack your car with as much videography equipment as you like, but bear in mind that when the action starts, it’s no understatement to say that you’ll be running around like a lunatic. Capturing a wedding video is a full-contact sport!

To help you get from one side of the venue to film the bride’s make-up session to the other side of the venue to film the groom’s side of the wedding party, try to limit yourself to no more than a single camera and two lenses (three, at a push.)

You can always return to the car during brief reprieves to swap out gear ahead of the evening’s festivities.

3. Two Halves of the Equation

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A wedding photographer need only worry about light; you’ve got the envious job of not only capturing video, but audio too.

Avoid the crying baby at the back of the venue, use multiple audio recording devices (especially if the one in your camera isn’t great) and consider putting a lavalier on the groom and/or wedding officiant – be sure to allow for extra setting-up time to arrange this!

The other consideration to make is the evening’s entertainment – needless to say, bands and DJs can be louder than your portable mics can handle without peaking. If possible, ask the act if you can plug directly into the PA system (not always doable, but great if you can.)

4. Hit the Same Beats as the Photographer…

… but keep out of their way! Definitely liaise with the photographer before the ceremony if you get the chance, but either way, don’t get under their feet when the fun begins.

Giving the photographer room to move comes with another benefit: the more you blend into the background, the more relaxed the couple will be. Being constantly aware that you’re being recorded is enough to make anyone paranoid!

Otherwise, your aim as a videographer is to capture the same key moments that the photographer will be aiming for, albeit in live-action format.

5. Keep Calm and Carry On

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The run-up to the ceremony itself can be the most tense and nerve-wracking moments of anyone’s life. Don’t let the atmosphere get to you personally; a videographer running around in a fluster only exacerbates things.

Stable video is also the main goal – given that tripods aren’t usually effective (aside from the main ceremony), it’s doubly imperative that you remain as calm as possible while in the eye of the storm. Stay focused, keep tabs on the key players, and identify the best shots. The happy couple are counting on you.

Have any great tips for creating the best wedding video? Let us know in the comments below!

10 Cinematography Tricks for Working With Only Natural Lighting

When asked why he preferred shooting with all-natural lighting, Stanley Kubrick simply replied, “Because that’s the way we see things.”

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It’s a trend that’s growing in filmmaking. The excellent “Dallas Buyers Club,” for instance, used only all-natural lighting during filming. This sounds like it might make things difficult, but it actually came with its own benefits. Director Jean-Marc Vallee stated that the actors didn’t have to worry about hitting their marks to keep within lighting zones, so it offered a lot more creative freedom for the cast. The sheer heat of artificial lighting rigs was also not missed!

Whether you’re shooting with natural light simply because you’re on a budget or for stylistic reasons, we’ve got some tried and tested tricks on how to get the best out of it.

When Shooting Indoors:

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    • If the room has windows, it’s generally a bad idea to shoot towards them. This will lead to overexposure and a nasty, bleached-out effect to the background (as well as anything in front of the windows being underexposed). Rather than wrestle between the two extremes, place place the camera adjacent to the window — to get more of a sidelight. This provides natural lighting from the window and avoids blow-out. This is extra important when interviewing for documentaries!
  • Load up on gel sheets. Specifically, ND gel. When applied to windows, it really cuts down on the amount of daylight and makes exposure a lot easier to manage (more on how ND filtering works here)
  • Aside from lighting itself, the most important thing in any cinematographer’s lighting kit are reflectors.  We cannot understate this: they’re definitely vital outdoors, and even more so when shooting inside using only natural light. It’s by far the easiest way to manipulate and maximize whatever lighting you do have to get rid of problematic shadows. Note: You may find it difficult to get a proper return if you are reflecting indirect light.
  • Shake it up. You can’t always manipulate the light exactly to your liking, so manipulate the subject instead. Extreme planning before a natural light shoot is important so as to not waste time on the day, but be mindful that it’s sometimes best to scrap what you had on paper if it’s not looking right in the camera. Reposition everything if you must, and be mindful of those shadows as you go.
  • Scrims are your best friend. Scrims will not change the quality of light from hard to soft, but it will knock down the intensity by diffusing light. Diffusion may be your best friend.

When Shooting Outside:

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    • Take advantage of blue hour and golden hour. Blue hour refers to the sliver of time after the sun disappears over the horizon but the sky is still lit, while golden hour is well known to filmmakers as the hour leading up to sunset (or an hour after sunrise). Blue hour is really handy for when you want to illustrate that it’s nighttime but don’t have any way of lighting a scene during actual darkness, and golden hour simply makes everything look gorgeous. There’s even a website that helps you plan for it in advance. That all said…
  • It’s not all about the golden hour. Keeping track of the sun is a very important factor in outdoor filmmaking, but you’ll also need to be conscious of what might get in between you and the sun at any moment — i.e.: clouds. While there’s not much you can do about the weather, you can note down any trees or buildings that might cast shadows at any given time (ideally when you do your first location scout).
  • Make sure everyone on the crew is prepared ahead of time. As with shooting indoors, you don’t want to be spending any more time than necessary setting up a shot or running through lines with the actors, especially when the sun is rapidly heading towards the horizon.
  • Make use of flags. Just as reflectors give you better control of how much light is going where, you’ll often find yourself in a situation where you’ve got too much light (particularly during summer day shoots). Flags — or cutters — are sections of thick black cloth stretched around a metal frame that allow you to block out sections of light and add some dramatic contrasting to the shot.
  • Pay attention to color and emotion. Getting the optimal amount of light is one thing, but getting the right “flavor” is another altogether. Be sure to check out our guide to color design, since a clinically perfect shot without any emotion whatsoever isn’t very compelling.

So there we have it: Hollywood-style cinematography without a Hollywood budget.

Got any of your own tricks on working with natural light? Any lessons you learned the hard way while out in the field? Hit us up in the comments below and share with the class!

Ways to Create Space When Filming in a Small Area

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If you’re having trouble making a confined area appear larger when filming in a small area, you’re not alone; professional filmmakers also find themselves returning to the drawing board when attempting to create space and illustrate depth and scale in a small area. And even with all the fancy CGI and other advanced technology at their disposal, filmmakers often choose to rely on techniques that have been around for almost as long as cinematography itself.

Below are some of the ways you can make your small space feel much grander and make the most out of a limited area — so that you’re not forced to cut any awesome ideas you had in mind. With enough practice, soon you’ll also have an eye for making even a tiny room appear bigger.

DEEP SPACE

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One of the oldest tricks in the book for creating the illusion of depth is called deep space, and can be used to trick the audience’s brain into imagining that the space is deeper than it actually is. Why do we use the word “trick?” Because any screen you are looking at, whether it’s a movie screen, a computer, or your handheld device, the image has height and width but there is no depth. The audiences’ eyes are always focused on the surface of the screen. Depth is an illusion created by photography. But in the look of “deep space,” we are doing everything possible to enhance this illusion.

Here are a number of things you can do to create deep space:

1. Use wide-angle lenses.

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Wide-angle lenses expand space, while telephoto lenses compress space. By using the wide-angle lens, we can create the illusion that the space is much deeper than it actually is. The wider the lens, the deeper the space.

2. Use high number F. stops.

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Using the higher number F. stops (f. 11, f. 22, f. 32) when exposing your image, will dramatically increase your depth of field.  Depth of field is a technical term used to describe how much of the image is in focus. We can have everything in the frame from three inches to infinity in focus or we can shrink depth of field so that someone’s eyes are in focus and the tip of their nose is out of focus. By using high f. stops, we can put the background into focus; the audience will be more likely to look at it. And when they do, their brains will be fooled into thinking that they are refocusing from the foreground to the background and back again, heightening the illusion of depth.

3. Stage your actors perpendicular to the flat picture plane.

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By staging one of your actors in the foreground and another in the background, the audience will be fooled into imagining that they are looking into the distance of the shot.

4. Move your actors perpendicular to the flat picture plane.

Watching the actors move toward or away from the camera will reinforce the illusion of depth in your shot.

5. Move the camera perpendicular to the flat picture plane.

Moving the camera into or out of the shot, even slightly, is like taking the audience by the hand and leading them through the space, giving the depth more credibility.

6. Light with shadow.

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Shadow is something our brains use to determine the depth of objects. Just imagine if I drew a circle on the page. It would appear flat. But as soon as I began to shade it, the circle would have the illusion of a third dimension. So use light to create shadow on your actors and your set, to reveal the contours and depth of your image.

7. Place bright objects in the foreground and keep the background dark.

Bright objects have the illusion of advancing, while dark objects have the illusion of receding. By placin actors in bright costumes, against dark backgrounds, we can enhance the illusion of depth.

8. Place warm colors in the foreground and cool colors in the background.

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Just like bright and dark objects, colors have a similar effect. Warm colors have the optical illusion of advancing, while cool colors have the illusion of receding. So by placing actors in warm colored costumes against cool colored backgrounds, we can, once again, enhance the illusion of depth.

A SIMPLE TRICK FOR DEALING WITH EXTREMELY SMALL SPACES

This all sounds good, doesn’t it? But what if you’re shooting in a really small space, say a bedroom in a typical student apartment. It’s probably the size of a closet! Perhaps the room is so small, you can’t even get the camera inside it. Some cameras are large. If you throw in the tripod, assuming you’re using one, you might find that you’ve taken up 2-3 feet just with the camera. In addition, some lenses have a minimum focusing distance. In other words, even after squeezing the camera into the room, you can’t get far enough away from your subject to focus on it.

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Well, here’s a handy guerilla shooting technique: shoot into a mirror. That’s right. Get a mirror and mount it on the wall and back your camera away. By doing this you can effectively double your distance from your actor. If the mirror is 3 feet from the actor and the camera is 3 feet from the mirror, you’re now 6 feet away from the actor. This means you can use a longer lens if you choose and solve that tricky problem of minimum focus distances. Of course, your image will be flipped left to right. But if that bothers you, you can always flip it back again in the editing room. Naturally, the better the mirror, the less likely you’ll have ripple distortion in the reflected image.  

What’s your favorite trick for capturing expansive footage in a small space? Let us know in the comments below!

How to Incorporate Your GoPro in Your Cinematography

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The GoPro was designed to solve a problem that Nick Woodman discovered while surfing in Australia in 2002; he wanted to capture the intensity of taking on big waves to share with others, but since he couldn’t afford the expensive equipment available at the time he had to settle for filming the surfers from the beach.

Enter the GoPro.

Although they didn’t immediately become widely used in Hollywood, GoPro cameras today are used in many professional productions, such as 2012’s “Leviathan” and 2014’s “Need For Speed.” Like these big-budget movies, you too can create amazing scenes with your GoPro. Of course it’s not enough to just strap it on and see what happens — you’ll need to plan ahead to enhance your cinematographic experience with this innovative tool.

Show Multiple Angles

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One of a cinematographer’s greatest responsibilities is giving viewers a sense of space. Another term used for this is coverage, which involves using several shots to let viewers know where they are. GoPro cameras make it easier to gain this footage since you can pretty much strap one on anywhere you desire.

GoPro cameras are especially useful for action scenes, such as an intense car chase. You know filming the cars from a distance isn’t going to cut it, so what you do is attach a GoPro camera to one of the vehicles. Seeing the action close up as the vehicle zooms past surrounding objects will provide an entirely new level of immersion for the audience.

To really give a sense of space, professionals recommend using more than one GoPro camera. This was done in “Need For Speed” to give them more angles to use with during editing. With more views and footage to work with, they were able to combine together the shots that were more effective at sucking you into the action while not leaving you disoriented.

Use The Protune Setting

Simply put, the Protune setting on a GoPro allows you to capture a higher level of color image quality. You can seamlessly integrate between your GoPro and cinema footage to deliver gorgeous scenes, even if your regular camera is much more powerful. Even though the GoPro footage isn’t enhanced dramatically, but it is enough to be used in professional films.

With the Protune setting you can adjust a number of things, including exposure, ISO, white balance, sharpness, and more. More importantly, its color correction features lets you capture highlights and shadows by setting the color to flat. A flatter look provides more flexibility when looking to improve the footage in post-production.

Take It Anywhere, Shoot Anything

 

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Getting the most out of a GoPro camera means using it in ways no other camera can be. Arguably the neatest perk is its small size, which means you can easily take it anywhere you go and strap it onto anything. GoPro has given filmmakers all over the world the freedom to deliver video from immersive perspectives that previously required overpriced equipment.

Think outside the box to give an otherwise forgettable scene a bit more memorable. Shooting a scene where a bulky guy is benching hundreds of pounds? Strap the GoPro onto the end of the bar to let the audience feel the heavy weight being pushed up and down. From vivid sports moments and calm nature scenes to an intimate documentary interview, the GoPro eliminates the limitations of a regular camera.

Legalities Of Drone Filming

Establishing shots have gotten a lot easier, grander in scope and, moreover, inexpensive thanks to the advent of drone filmmaking.

Long gone are the days that you’d have to hire a helicopter to get that perfect aerial shot, but the laws regarding drone filmmaking are yet to catch up. Given it’s a topic that comes up frequently amongst our filmmaking school students as they embrace drone technology, today we’re going to delve into the specifics.

Drone legalities

And the overview is quite a snappy one. In a nutshell:

– Do not fly above 400 feet
– Give way to all other aircraft
– No drones weighing more than 55lbs
– Do not fly within 5 miles of an airport (without first getting approval from air traffic control)
– No flying near people or stadiums

All well and good, and really, the above constitutes common sense (and as far as we know, there aren’t any filmmaking drones that weigh anywhere near 55lbs—the heaviest we could find is the $150,000+ Phantom 4K Flex drone clocking in at around 30lbs).

But one line that the FAA issued in recent times has caused quite a bit of head scratching and frustration:

“The aircraft should be flown strictly for hobby or recreational use and not for payment or commercial purposes.”

Huh?

Obviously, this is of concern to a filmmaker looking to produce a movie that they’ll ultimately sell or show for profit. So what gives with this little rule? Why does your financial situation have any kind of impact on drone flight safety?

Section 333

There’s a lot of literature issued by the FAA on this topic, but to boil it all down, the authority has deemed it necessary to draw a line in the sand when it comes to commercial drone piloting—i.e for-profit filmmakers—because that would come under “civil operating,” and unless the distinction is made there, it means that anyone and everyone could technically self-certify their own unmanned aircraft and commandeer the skies without limits.

Essentially, it’s to avoid unregulated chaos but this does add some extra red tape to us as filmmakers since a Section 333 exemption is required. Applying for one is a rather lengthy process and the average reviewal takes around 120 days—not hugely practical when you’re trying to get a production in the can.

The good news is that there is a lot of pressure being put on the FAA to relax its rules when it comes to filmmaking, and the recent news that it has just granted a blanket exemption to a handful of Hollywood companies suggests it’s considering this.

A Note on Locality & Privacy

As you can probably imagine, locality plays a big part in what is and isn’t permitted. You can fly a drone at 100ft in the middle of Death Valley to your heart’s content and not get into any trouble, but flying in around The Mall in Washington is prohibited and comes with some hefty fines for doing so.

Also, as a responsible filmmaker you’ll want to observe social etiquette and respect the privacy of the public i.e. no flying or filmmaking over or near private property (and even some public land prominently displays ‘no drone zone’ posters, which should be observed.)

Recent Developments

However, the landscape seems to be quickly changing, with two recent developments occurring this month. Firstly, the FAA issued a hefty $1.9 million fine against an aerial photography company that had been flying drones through crowded airspace in New York City and Chicago without permission. And just this week, the Obama administration announced plans for the FAA to start a drone registration program just as the holiday season begins, when drone sales are expected to rise significantly. While details of the plan are still being ironed out, it will effect hobbyists as well businesses.

In conclusion, as the regulation of drones continues to evolve, be sure to keep up to date on all drone-related news, always exercise your common sense, and look up local FAA guidelines and prohibitions where you are (and adhere to them!)

Learn more about the School of Cinematography at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

Cinematography Hacks & Toolbag Essentials No DP Should Be Without!

Cinematography is a highly complex field that relies just as much on sheer intuition as it does technical prowess, with many cinematographers spending years if not decades honing their eye for what constitutes as a great shot. As one of our graduates from cinematography school put it when asked about the best piece of work she’d done: “I don’t know. I haven’t filmed it yet.”

The quest for the best can also see a cinematographer having to invest in some pricey equipment along the way, though you’d be surprised at how much money can be saved with only a little makeshift ingenuity (resulting in everyone else on set gazing on in awe at your clever yet effective tricks).

With this in mind, scroll on to discover some of the toolbag essentials every cinematographer should carry with them…as well as a few insider secrets that many overlook!

Cinematography Hacks & Essential Tools

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Tape. We’ll get the tape thing out of the way first, which is by far the most obvious entry on this list but one which cannot be overstated: you’ll need tape. A lot of tape. Pack as many rolls as you think you’ll need, then throw an extra couple in your kit bag…then add another for good measure.

Wheelchair Dolly. Want a quick and cheap way of getting steady shots without the use of extensive tracking? You need to get yourself an inexpensive, secondhand wheelchair.

Obviously the shots aren’t going to be quite as steady as if it was on a track and you may require some stabilization, but there’s no denying that the resulting footage is pretty spectacular when compared against the cost (especially given that you can get lightweight, foldable wheelchairs for next to nothing on Craigslist sometimes). For reference, the above shot in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was achieved using a wheelchair dolly, assumedly without any stabilization whatsoever. Not bad, huh?

Ivar Side Unit. You’re probably wondering what the heck an ‘Ivar side unit’ is, and what has it got to do with cinematography? Not a lot, really – it’s a $13 side unit from Ikea:

Ikea dolly track

What’s relevant about it is that with a little bit of modification, it makes for a superb makeshift dolly track for those occasions where a wheelchair doesn’t cut it—thanks to Romain for this one! You can see how he’s done it here.

A Bag of Rice. As a good director of photography, you’ll have stands and clamps and tape to secure just about every piece of equipment going…except for that one thing you forgot about that you just can’t stand up straight on the day. But don’t fear—a pound of rice loosely filling a bag can serve as a resting cushion for your camera or pretty much anything else you need to stabilize.

Vaseline. Need a soft focus filter? Simply smear a light amount of vaseline over otherwise clear glass, and you’re good to go.

640px-Plastic_tubing

Flexible PVC Piping. It’s a little bulky, but given the amount of times this stuff will save your bacon, you won’t regret throwing some in the back of the car (you’ll want to pre-split some of them for ease of inserting things into them).

Velcro Straps. Gaffer tape is one thing, but many DPs overlook the power of a simple velcro strap – a multipack of brightly colored straps is a quick alternative to tape, and is far easier and less messy to undo after you’ve finished a shoot. Particularly good for cabling!

army knife

Swiss Army Knife. Don’t just pack a box cutter and assume that’ll do. Invest in a decent Swiss army knife and you’ll truly be ready for any eventuality.

Knowledge. This may sound glib, but more important than having the best gear on the planet is knowing how to use the stuff. After all, a $500 camera in the hands of someone who is intimately familiar with it can usually achieve far better results than someone with a full RED camera rig and a thousand filters but no idea how to use them…

… but hey, that’s what cinematography school is for!

Top 10 Cinematography Resources

There are few fields in filmmaking as nuanced as cinematography, and when it comes to getting the best out of your work as a director of photography, knowledge is definitely power.

Today, we’ll be sharing a few well-established ports of call that all cinematographers should check out in order to take their craft to the next level. No matter what level of experience you currently find yourself, the following list will put you in good company:

10 Great Resources for Cinematographers

cinematography resources

Advanced Filmmaking A superb resource with an abundance of video content, much of it aimed squarely at the cinematographer. The premium content comes with a rental fee, but there is a (rather excellent) free video over on the site which will leave you itching for more.

Cinebag No director of photography should be without a good cinematographer’s bag, and this is definitely the place to go in order to pick one up. If you can’t find what you’re looking for over on Cinebag, it probably doesn’t exist.

AbleCine Need quality gear for a production but don’t have access to any and can’t afford to buy it outright? AbelCine is a very reputable rental site with an extensive selection of high-end equipment available, including the mighty Phantom Flex line of high-speed cameras. They also offer attractive equipment financing options (like, 100% financing with no down payments) and other useful cinematography resources on the site too.

Ron Dexter – A cameraman and director with more experience than most of us will ever hope to amass, and he’s not shy with sharing his knowledge, either. His website has, at this point, grown into something of a bible on…well, everything, and you’ll be hard pressed to find an aspect of filmmaking or camerawork that isn’t covered here.

IEC The Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers is exactly what it sounds like; a comprehensive list of a sizeable number of professionals who have or still are working in the industry. It’s by no means a finished list and is indeed ongoing, but it’s already reached a fairly all-encompassing scale.

Cinematography.Net Its presentation might be a little clunky and the idea of a mailing list will sound positively quaint to younger cinematographers, but there has been a wealth of great discussion held on it so far. Even if you don’t want to sign up for the mailing list, over 3,000 pages of all the gold has been archived so far for your browsing pleasure.

Robert Bresson: Notes on Cinematography A short, concise, and highly recommended book from the legendary director Robert Bresson which is widely heralded by many as an essential read for anyone working in the field. Best of all, it’s freely available as a PDF via that link.

American Society of Cinematographers While membership with ASC is conducted by invitation from the organization only (based on their body of work), there is a wealth of free content on the site to benefit from and even more if you become a paid subscriber. The ASC is neither a union nor a guild—in their own words, it’s an ‘honorary association’—and as such should not to be confused with our following entry…

IATSE Dedicated to representing DPs and other camera professionals the world over, the International Cinematographers Guild is the main union for the field operating within the Inernational Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

NYFA Student Resources Okay, so you’re already here but if you surfed on in at random you may not be aware that we’ve got a mountain of other content, from industry trends, useful how-to’s and discussions to get your inspiration flowing. The content is split across fifteen different departments, so no matter whether you’re at cinematography school or studying the art of screenwriting, there’s something for everyone.

Got any other great resources for cinematographers or other film professionals to check out? Sharing is caring—drop a comment with your suggestion below for the rest of the group!

 

How To Implement An Alluring Color Design Scheme

Color is a seemingly magical tool, and a hugely important asset in the cinematographer’s toolbox for conveying a particular mood and eliciting the desired emotions in a movie’s audience.

Of course, it isn’t really magic—the science behind which colors work well together on film and the effects they create are taught at cinematography school 101, and the theory behind color design is well established at this point in the history of cinema.

That said, it’s always good to refresh that knowledge from time to time, especially since it’s an integral part of effective filmmaking. Today, we’ll be looking at:

Color Design in Film: 5 Important Things to Consider

color wheel cinematography

1. Know This Well

The color wheel above is an iconic representation of the red, yellow, blue—or subtractive—color model, and is an essential concept in pretty much any field of the visual arts and cinematography is no exception.

Learn this like the back of your hand, though there’s no harm in keeping a reference card in your field kit bag. Or pinned up in the edit room. Or superglued to the back of the assistant DP’s head. Everywhere, really.

But equally important is knowing what to do with it. Moving on to:

2. Color Temperature

Looking back to the color wheel, you’ll see that colors running clockwise 90 to 270 degrees—i.e. the right-hand side—are predominantly warmer than those on the left-hand side. The upshot of this is that scenes which feature warmer colors are more lively and energetic, while the ‘cooler’ colors give the impression of stillness, and calm and somberness when applied to film.

It’s a fairly basic principle, but the results of applying warm and cold colors effectively really do speak for themselves. Check out this scene from The Dark Knight, which features a heavy amount of graytones and cobalt blue and the effect it has on the overall mood:

Notice also in the above scene that the cold colors play very well against the fire and blood. Given that you won’t want to just use either warm and cold palettes all the time, let’s explore…

3. Creating Contrast With Opposing Colors

Any two colors that lie opposite each other on the color wheel can be used together to create a real vibrancy to a scene, particularly when it comes to pairing a warm and a cool color. A good demonstration of this can be found in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi—really, any Ang Lee movie viewed with a cinematographer’s eye will teach you volumes about effective color design:

You’ll likely have to carefully balance saturation and contrast in the editing suite when putting together two very vibrant and opposite colors, but the payoff can be more than worth the time it takes to get it right. That all said…

4. Know When to Dial It Back

Just because two or more colors work well together doesn’t mean you necessarily have to push them to the limit and oversaturate them. In fact, sometimes the best color design can be found in moderation.

If you think back on any of Tim Burton’s movies, you’ll notice they have the strange knack of giving the impression of both vivid color as well as a macabre, washed-out look… all at the same time.

It’s an exceptionally clever trick, mainly achieved by keeping most of the key characters and majority of the scenery on a grayscale but applying bright color design to secondary elements (almost the reverse of common convention.) Here’s a clip from the iconic Edward Scissorhands:

And finally…

5. Mix & Match

While all of the above can be considered conventional wisdom, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel free to experiment with color combinations. A lot of great cinematography has been born out of experimentation, so bend the rules and see what happens—using colder colors for a romantic scene to create a contrasting and jarring effect, for instance, or mixing two colors that don’t typically work in order to make the cinematography feel alien and unsettling.

Your experimentation won’t always work, but there’s certainly no harm in trying (and the more you discover what doesn’t work, the more you’ll intuitively get a handle on what does.)

How To Work Your Way Up To Director of Photography

Cinematographer at work on set

A lot of film students learn the hard way that more often or not you don’t just become a professional director—like most careers, you have to work your way up the ladder. What many might not realize is that it’s almost just as hard to reach the ladder’s second highest rung—the Director of Photography. There are a few different routes one can take (unless it’s a really cheap shoot and you can win the position just by owning your camera) but most of these paths have several difficult steps before they take you to the top cinematographic spot.

Like most paths to any position in filmmaking, the lowest spot on the totem pole is the production assistant. On-set PAs will work for any and all departments, including those overseen by the Director of Photography—the camera, lighting & electric, and the grip departments. Much of a PA’s time will be spent getting everyone else their coffee. It might not feel anything like what you had in mind when you decided you wanted to make movies, but a PA is as much a part of the team as anyone else, and while their work may go unnoticed, it does not go unappreciated. By working hard, being friendly and likeable, and networking with those around them, PAs can find work on subsequent shoots, and eventually a promotion.

The Camera Department

It goes without saying that many DPs come from the camera department. As with all the departments on set, the specific responsibilities of each position depend entirely on the size and nature of the shoot. Generally speaking, though, there are three primary positions in the camera department: the camera operator, the first assistant camera, and the second assistant camera.

The camera operator is the individual physically working behind the camera, their eye in the viewfinder. While some DPs prefer to work the camera themselves, it is usually to their advantage that someone trusted does it for them while they watch the shot from a monitor or with her or his own naked eye, getting a better sense of the shot. Since the camera operator is one of the few positions a DP may want for his or herself, it goes without saying that many have made a direct jump from here to cinematographer.

The first assistant camera, sometimes called the focus puller, is responsible for several tasks besides its namesake. 1st ACs keep the camera department’s equipment clean, which involves “checking the gate,” the tedious but all-important process of removing a lens and cleaning the inner workings of the camera of any hair or dust or broken pieces of film. Even on digital shoots, 1st ACs must make sure the CCD is operating at full capacity in order to produce the best possible shot. Focus pulling is a skill that can require years if not decades of practice. An out-of-focus shot is a blemish on the record of any camera department and therefore one of the most important jobs on set. An expert 1st AC is a gift for any film set, and carries a reputation that could easily earn them the DP spot on their next project.

The second assistant camera, occasionally called the clapper loader, is typically in charge of loading the film and keeping track of all camera reports and paperwork. Keeping with this, the 2nd AC also slates each take. They also make marks for actors and measure distance for the focus puller.

There is not as much hierarchy within a given department as one might think. For the most part, most positions are at an equal standing, all reporting either to the head of the department or the Director of Photography directly. (On a strictly professional set, nobody should ever communicate with the director, everyone must interact up the food chain through the appropriate channels.) Even a position such as first assistant technically has no authority over the second assistant—they just have different, equally important duties.

It take years to become skilled at any one position. Many people have made very successful careers out of exclusively being a 1st AC, camera operator, etc. For those with an ambition and calling for the DP spot, though, the camera department is a great place to climb the ladder.

The Lighting & Electric Department

A member of the electric and lighting crew

A strong DP will usually choose the look he wants after discussing it with the director in private. He will relay this to his crew, who, if they are dedicated and competent can then find that look without any further input from the DP. This may seem counterintuitive, but the DP is after all the Director of Photography, and his job is to direct the crew, not micromanage them. An efficient camera operator will know what lenses to use to achieve the DPs frame. And a good lighting department will know what type of lights and where to place them without having to ask the DP, who should be more focused on the bigger, creative picture.

That makes the head of the lighting department, the gaffer, a very important position for shooting a film. A gaffer and his crew may also be called electricians, but this is mostly nominal because of the voltage and amperage the team must work with in order to maintain the power-hungry film lights. While the job is very technical, the gaffer must have an artistic bent as well, a way with lighting that may take years to develop in order to achieve a certain look with the tools at hand. This makes the gaffer a close ally of the DP, and a logical preceding step to the position.

The lighting department is more hierarchical than the camera department, with assistant gaffers reporting directly to the department head. However, another important position is the best boy electric, the gaffer’s direct assistant, a foreman for the entire department. The best boy manages the crew itself and their workplace, paperwork, loading and unloading and maintaining equipment, and coordinates with the other departments. On location scouts and other second unit work, the best boy can even fill in for the gaffer. While it’s rare for best boys to make the immediate jump to DP, they are a hair’s breadth from the gaffer position and therefore one more step closer to being Director of Photography.

The Grip Department

Grips set up a dolly

The grip department is similarly structured to lighting & electric. It is headed by the Key Grip, who helps achieve the director and DP’s vision by utilizing the appropriate equipment needed. The grip department is in charge of all non-lighting and non-camera equipment, like flags and C-stands and bounce boards. This equipment not only shapes the light for a scene but also helps the camera achieve its intended frames. As a department head that directly works with the cinematographer, the Key Grip is another direction from which someone could make the jump to DP.

The larger a shoot, the more grips it will employ, grips who could work their way up to the best boy grip, a position very similar to its lighting & electric equivalent. The grip department also includes positions that work closely with the camera department, such as the dolly grip and crane operator. These positions, while lower on the totem pole than others, work closely with the camera and therefore come into contact with the DP more than other lower-level grips. It may be difficult to jump right to the top from these positions, but they are a step or two closer than other grips and another option to consider when plotting a course to the top.

Networking

No matter where you’re coming from or where you’re looking to advance, networking is very important. Once you head a department or work closely with the DP in another capacity, you must build and maintain that relationship. Someone who has made the journey before you has the best perspective for you to learn from. This presents a tricky balance as the DP is your ally but also your future competition in an industry with far less high-quality shoots than high-quality craftsmen and artists. You will compete directly with your former boss for jobs, and every DP who makes a recommendation knows this. It is only through a good working relationship and hard-earned respect that a DP will recommend you to producers and directors for one of their projects.

Or you could go to those directors and producers yourself, networking and building relationships with those you come into contact with through your current and previous positions. The 1st Assistant Director especially is a crew position that directly represents the interests of the producers funding the project and that also works closely with department heads and best boys. A strong relationship with your AD can help you make the case with those signing the paychecks that you should be their next DP.

No matter what path you choose and what relationships you cultivate, a good attitude, a strong work ethic, and an artistic ambition are all needed for you to work your way up to Director of Photography. Just remember, if you want to be a great cinematographer, you have to stay focused. Pun most definitely intended.

 

How To Be A Better Cinematographer: 5 Ways You Can Develop Killer “Cinematographer’s Eye”

Just as a comedian has the ability to see humor in every day scenarios, a cinematographer is able to see hidden beauty and storytelling elements in a scene. It’s an art form like any other and shares a number of skill sets common to conventional photography, and developing what’s known as the “cinematographer’s eye” is practically essential when it comes to taking your movie projects to the next level.

How to Develop Cinematographer's eye

And cinematography is a skill that can be learned and improved upon, no matter what your current level of experience. If you want to grow in leaps and bounds, here are five essential things you should study in order to advance your craft.

1. Study Silent Film

When you’ve only got visuals to work with, you’d better make sure your visuals are damned good.

That’s precisely why the silent film era is a great go-to source for examples of how filmmakers got the most out of their cinematography, rather than using it as an afterthought. A fine place to start would be with G.W. Pabst (who we’ve analyzed previously), but here are a few more that are worth delving into:

  • Charlie Chaplin (obviously)
  • D.W. Griffith
  • King Vidor
  • Erich Von Stroheim
  • Cecil DeMille
  • Fritz Lang
  • F.W. Murnau

In fact, try making a silent short yourself – it doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, but tying your right hand behind your back is a surefire way to develop a killer left hook.

2. Study Cinematography

Sounds obvious, right? If you want to get good at cinematography, you should study the craft of cinematography. Unfortunately, it’s something which many filmmakers—both professionals and hobbyists—either put on the back burner or worse, ignore entirely.

Cinematographer's eye

There’s nothing wrong with learning by doing or picking up experience out in the field, but couple this time spent at an intensive cinematography school, and you’ll be able to get deeper into the subject a lot quicker. Even if you’re not actively involved in cinematography duties while on set (or it’s not something you’re looking to break into), a cinematography program can help bring you up to speed on what the cinematographer actually does, helping you to work as a much more unified team.

3. Study Your Equipment

This goes for any role in the production team, but a cinematographer in particular needs to be a jack of all trades and pretty much a master of them all, too (particularly on smaller productions in which the director and cinematographer is usually one and the same).

In particular, a good cinematographer is one who knows every single camera and piece of lighting equipment on set, inside and out. Your job will be to translate the thoughts and instructions of the director—which might not necessarily be overly articulate—into real life results. Naturally, you’ll only be able to do that effectively if you know exactly how to manipulate your tools; coaching those enlisted to help you to do the same is also paramount, so be prepared to brush up on your coaching skills while on set.

Cinematography equipment

Essentially, all this boils down to skills in both communication and technology, so there’s no substitute for getting elbows-deep in theory and doing your reading. It may sound dull, but you’ll want to memorize every page of every instruction manual of every camera you’re likely to use, and then put this learning into practice with every lens you can get your hands on at every chance you get.

Same goes for lighting equipment and techniques, but at the same time, don’t try and stick too close to the book either. Sounds paradoxical, but every set and situation will be different—you can’t force a square peg into a round hole, so make sure you keep a spirit of innovation and problem-solving around you at all times. You’ll be surprised at the number of techniques you’ll pick up (and possibly even invent) through experimentation.

4. Study Photography… With No Humans in It

Photographing human subjects is easy (comparatively speaking), given that there’s a definite object to frame and that the object itself is malleable by the photographer.

Take the human out of the shot, however, and it’s not immediately clear what the subject is (or should be).

Photographer's Eye

That’s where the cinematographer’s eye comes in; identifying why the shot is important and needs to be taken in the first place, followed by how best to tease out all of the relevance and show it in the best light. As such, a lot of good instruction on framing and composition can be gleaned from such photography and instantly applied to filmmaking; some of the most expensive photos ever sold don’t depict living subjects, and there’s plenty of inspiration out there to draw from.

5. Study Graphic Novels

Think that comics books are a waste of time and can’t teach you how to frame a shot?

Graphic novel cinematography

Enough said.

 

How To Shoot A Feature Film On An iPhone

It’s no secret that filmmaking can be an expensive pursuit, especially when you’re looking to invest in a full set of shooting equipment. Although the entry-level prices for cameras, lenses, lighting and sound equipment are becoming more affordable, it can still add up to a sizeable sum.

This raises the question: how cheap can you go while maintaining a professional sheen to your film, and is it even possible to shoot an iPhone feature film?

iPhone feature film tips

The short answer is: yes!

The longer answer is: yes, but it’s a bit more complicated than just pointing and shooting.

Today, we’re going to unpack the longer answer and teach you How To Shoot A Feature Film On An iPhone.

Creating an iPhone Feature Film: What’s Achievable

Firstly, it’s important to note that there’s nothing wrong with using an iPhone while working on set (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). Whether it be for framing shots, getting quick takes or multiple angles, or simply for back-up purposes, one of the fundamentals taught at cinematography school is to always have a secondary camera on set. For many, a smartphone will suffice and may be the only thing within budget. Even if expensive secondary cameras are readily available, many seasoned professionals will attest to the usefulness of keeping one handy while on set.

Secondly, we know that an iPhone feature film is possible because it’s already been done a few times to great effect:

As can be seen from the above, there are quite a few benefits to shooting with such a compact camera and, in certain scenarios, can outweigh many of the disadvantages. If you’re looking to follow in their footsteps and craft your own iPhone feature film, there are some things to bear in mind:

1. iPhones are not the only camera phones.

Although we’re guilty of using the ubiquitous term iPhone here to describe any quality phone with a camera, obviously other smart phones are out there and many of them trump the iPhone’s specifications.

iPhone feature film

Courtesy Gizmag.com

As any cinematographer knows, it’s not just about the megapixels so you’ll want to do some research into the final details before making your choice, but it certainly doesn’t have to be an iPhone. Speaking of which…

2. Consider Your Storage Options

While the iPhone does feature 64Gb of storage on the pricier models – which is currently unsurpassed by any other smart phone – it doesn’t have the option to increase this with the use of SD cards, unlike Samsung’s Galaxy line.

Courtesy Gizmag.com

Courtesy Gizmag.com

Depending on the scope of your project, this could be a real kicker; there’s nothing worse than traveling 200 miles to shoot at a remote location, only to run out of space on the phone within an hour of shooting. Of course, this can be remedied by backing up the footage on the fly to a laptop (which is also useful for keeping the phone juiced up), but this may be a clunky solution for some.

3. Get a Lens Kit

If you’re shooting a full feature-length movie with a phone, getting a lens kit is practically essential for improving the overall look and feel of the footage. Aside from enhancing the quality, it’ll also give you options when you’re out shooting in the field in terms of fish-eye, wide and macro angles. There are even mounts which allow you to hook up your Canon EOS or Nikon SLR lenses right onto the iPhone, emulating a true DSLR experience while shooting.

iphone-telephoto-lens-a36c_600.0000001297643131

A lens kit won’t set you back too much, with many of the quality kits sitting in the $40-$100 range.

4. It’s All in the Render

Given that the footage you take on your iPhone isn’t going to come close to anything taken on a 4k studio camera, don’t compound the problem by compressing it in the editing sweet.

aeproblem

Render all of your editing in the highest bit rate available and in a loss-less format, and be wary of how post-processed effects may affect the quality.

5. Don’t Neglect the Sound

Although you can cut many corners when shooting an iPhone feature film and save a considerable amount on the final budget, one area which you should probably avoid scrimping on is the sound.

PeakStudioTracks

It isn’t too costly to make sure the soundtrack of your otherwise inexpensive iPhone feature film sounds great, but a poor soundtrack will really detract from the entire product.

Make the sound your number one priority (at least in terms of production), and the rest will follow.

Final Thoughts

Creating an iPhone feature film is already a possibility, and the practise is likely to rise in prevalence as camera phone specifications increase with newer models. It won’t work with every genre – think ‘found footage’ movies and gonzo documentaries rather than space operas – and you may have to use a little ingenuity to get the best results…

… but isn’t that what cinematography is all about?

GW Pabst Case Study: Creating Drama Without Dialogue Through Cinematography

The world of silent cinema is undergoing something of a revival thanks to major motion pictures such as The Artist, and justly so. Forgotten film and stars are now being unearthed and played to a new and ready-to-engage audience.

Silence is golden silent movies

Opening Pandora’s Box

One work that is a prime example of silent film creating drama without dialogue is the European masterpiece Pandora’s Box (1929), directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and starring Louise Brooks in her most iconic role as the doomed seductress Lulu.

Louise Brooks in Gerog Wilhelm Pabst's Pandora Box
The film is based loosely on two plays by Franz Wedekind: Erdegiest and Die Buchse Der Pandora. For the role of Lulu, Pabst had been searching high and low. He’d settled himself on signing the great German star of the time Marlene Dietrich; however he ultimately felt that her overtly sexual nature and sultry glances would transform the film from a darkly possessed story of doomed love and destructive relationships to one of maybe a more bawdy sensibility. He had Dietrich in his office about to sign when he got the call to say Louise Brooks would star for him. At a time when dialogue as such in films did not exist apart from on slide titles, he needed a subtle, nuanced performance. Brooks gave him just that.

How The Plot Carries Itself Without Words

The first thing you will notice from watching the clip is the intensity of it. For a film that is purely relying on an eclectic score as its ‘sound,’ it draws you in enormously.

Brooks only has to give a little tilt of her head or the flicker of an eyelid for the audience to know what she’s thinking. Watch, as she reclines on the chaise lounge in front of her lover Dr. Ludwig Schoen (played by Fritz Kortner). There is an innate sexuality to her performance; she uses her body as her language.

As the cinematography intercuts between the character of Lulu on the chaise longue with her lover and outside where the character of Schigolch, Lulu’s patron and father figure (Carl Goetz) is hiding while she has her tryst with Schoen. The disheveled and decrepit figure sits in a crumpled position in a complete contrast to the serenity of Lulu. His movements are short, sharp, physical and jerky; his facial expressions craggy and darkly comedic in their execution, his creepy characteristics coming through with a scrunch of his lips and in the screwing up of his eyes.

Pabst’s Techniques

Pabst was known as a psychological realist in terms of his direction techniques and cinematography. He used the camera in such a way it appeared it was an x-ray machine to get to the heart of what his characters were thinking and feeling.

One of the most pertinent scenes of the film that demonstrate this is the scene in which Schoen violently shakes Lulu backstage after a dance performance. Lulu throws herself down onto a makeshift bed and starts a vicious tantrum involving limb thrashing and leg beating. Pabst got the camera to literally caress Brook’s body while she was undergoing this athletic feat of anger right from her neck down to her legs. He captures the exact moment in which she stops for a second and sneaks a backward glance at Schoen to see if he is taking notice of what she’s doing. They end up entwined with Schoen trying to stop her and she bites his hand. The scene finishes with one final flourish, a look of wicked triumph on the face of Lulu—it’s literally no more than three seconds of silence, and one facial expression but it says so much—without one single word.

Drawing Genuine Emotion From The Acting Talent

Pabst had requested that Brooks hand over a favorite suit to him for the filming and she demanded to know why, but he wouldn’t say. With a little cajoling she did so and returned to play the final scenes to find it cut to shreds, torn, burned and ripped. She was distraught. It was her own best suit and one she loved and adored. Pabst made her put it on, and she was incandescent with rage—but he’d done it for a reason, as you can see in the final scenes of the film.

Lulu is by now living in Victorian London in a slum. He wanted to convey as much through Brook’s body language how dreadful her situation was, ergo to do that he ripped her favorite clothes, as he knew this would make her feel dreadful, inhibited, dirty, disheveled and that this would come across in her body language as she performed. It works a treat.

Contrast And Atmosphere

The fog bound, dark, dirty atmosphere is heightened and provides a stark contrast from the earlier scenes in the film; Lulu wears diaphanous dresses, floating lighter than air, her movements the same. By the end point in the film everything feels heavy, leaden and defeatist—the clothes, the characters and even the air.

Pandora’s Box not only cemented Pabst’s reputation as a director of melodrama par excellence but it also demonstrated the effect of using little or no dialogue to create tension, effect and raw emotion amongst his actors and also amongst his cinema going audience. For that we can never discount the medium of silent film in general and all it has to teach us about dramatic and cinematography techniques.