Industry Trends

2019 Academy Awards: Best Cinematography Nominees

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have announced the nominees for the 91st annual Academy Awards, to be given out during ABC’s televised ceremony on Sunday, February 24. The Oscars will cap off a months-long awards season featuring industry veterans, newcomers, and as always, endless debates about who deserves to go home with the golden statue.

New York Film Academy (NYFA) takes a closer look at this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Achievement in Cinematography:

Cold War, Lukasz Zal

Polish director of photography Lukasz Zal was previously nominated by the Academy for Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, which he co-shot with Ryszard Lenczewski. Both Ida and Cold War showcase Zal’s immense talent with black and white photography. He has shot mostly documentary shorts and a few short films, making the nominations for two of his only features that much more notable.

The Favourite, Robbie Ryan

This is the first Oscar nomination for Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan. He has shot previously for director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey) and Stephen Frears (Philomena). In total, Ryan has been director of photography for over 80 features, shorts, commercials, and music videos, including the films Wuthering Heights, The Last Days on Mars, and Slow West.


Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel

Caleb Deschanel is a veteran director of photography who has shot such Hollywood films as Being There, The Right Stuff, The Natural, National Treasure, The Passion of the Christ, and Jack Reacher. This is Deschanel’s sixth Oscar nomination for cinematography; among others, he was nominated for Fly Away Home and The Patriot. His next film will be Disney’s live action remake of The Lion King.

Roma, Alfonso Cuarón

In addition to writing and directing Best Picture nominee Roma, Alfonso Cuarón also shot the semi-autobiographical film, a rare distinction for Hollywood directors. Roma was filmed in black-and-white on an Arriflex Alexa 65 digital camera, giving it a stark, unique look that has been near-universally praised. Other cinematography credits for Cuarón include several short films in the 1980s, as well as the television series Hora Marcada. While typically Cuarón delegates the role to other talented directors of photography such as Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki, this is his first credit as a cinematographer in nearly three decades.

A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

Matthew Libatique is a Queens-born Filipino American cinematographer who has previously worked with directors such as Spike Lee, Jon Favreau, and Darren Aronofsky, and was previously nominated for an Oscar for shooting Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Libatique was director of photography for the first film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man, and is currently working on the latest DCEU and Harley Quinn film, Birds of Prey. His other cinematography credits include Requiem for a Dream, Gothika, Everything Is Illuminated, Inside Man, Straight Outta Compton, and Venom, among many others.

 

Check out the New York Film Academy Blog after this year’s ceremony for a full list of the 2019 Oscar winners and losers!

The Academy Awards: Our Favorite Cinematography Wins of Last 10 Years

Life of Pi

Life of Pi

While the acting and Best Picture awards typically dominate the buzz and conversation leading up to the Academy Awards, the cinematography category often has — quite literally — the showiest nominees. While typically the director has a say in how a film will look, as well as how specific shots will be laid out, their director of photography is usually the one tasked with creating this look.

Lighting, camera angles, camera movement, focus, and depth of field are just some of the choices a film’s cinematographer will make, with or without the director’s input. They will also have a say in the types of film stock and camera equipment used on set. All of these decisions culminate in a film’s final look, which is why it’s the director of photographer who will take home the Oscar when a film wins the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

While all of the nominees made the short list because of their unique, harrowing, complex, or gorgeous looks, here are just some of our favorite wins from the past decade:

Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda

Ang Lee adapted the novel Life of Pi and perfectly captured its otherworldly tale of a young man trapped in the middle of an ocean with a tiger. The movie is bright, colorful, and larger than life. In addition to taking place mostly on water, it incorporates magical islands and neon-infused skies, making it one of those films that should be illegal to watch on your phone. This deserves the 4K widescreen TV treatment at the least. No wonder it managed to beat out cinematography legend Roger Deakins’s outstanding work on the James Bond smash hit, Skyfall, as well as the other nominees in 2013.

Check out Life of Pi co-star and New York Film Academy alum Vibish Sivakumar here

Life of Pi

Life of Pi

La La Land – Linus Sandgren

Another colorful entry in this list is 2016’s La La Land, though the backdrop was less ocean fantasy and more theatrically artificial Los Angeles. But by combining traditional filmmaking techniques with modern sensibilities, Sandgren managed to put the audience in the world of writer/director Damien Chazelle’s making. La La Land earned multiple nominations and was a certified hit that left smiles on lots of faces.

La La Land

La La Land

Gravity – Emmanuel Lubezki

With nearly the entire action thriller taking place in space, you’d think there wouldn’t be much to shoot outside of star Sandra Bullock in an astronaut suit — but that’s partly why Lubezki’s work on Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is so impressive. By using outer space as negative space, Lubezki was able to capture a loneliness and isolation on levels rarely seen in cinema. Conversely, by using the bright blue Earth as a massive, larger-than-life backdrop in certain shots, the film never lost its sense of place, even as Bullock drifted aimlessly into a black nothingness.

Gravity

Gravity


Birdman – Emmanuel Lubezki 

Lubezki won a second consecutive Oscar for his work on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, a film comprised of several long, complicated takes edited together to look like a single, continuous shot. This technique was used to some extent in Lubezki’s previous film Gravity, as well as Children of Men, but it was here where he really mastered the technique, transforming it from a mere gimmick into a statement about acting, theatre, and filmmaking in itself.

Birdman

Birdman

The Revenant – Emmanuel Lubezki

Emmanuel Lubezki appears frequently on this list because he became the first person to ever win three Academy Awards for Best Cinematography in a row, a distinction that shows just how brilliant he is behind the camera. His third win came for The Revenant, again directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, and again filled with seemingly endless one-shots. Even more impressive was that The Revenant used only natural lighting and was shot nearly entirely outside in the wilderness on very cold days. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, The Revenant manages to be one of the most gorgeous looking films of the last decade.

The Revenant

The Revenant

Who will win this year’s award? Could it be Roger Deakins for his expansive work in Blade Runner 2049? Or Dan Laustsen’s grimy fairy tale noir look for The Shape of Water? Or maybe Rachel Morrison, the Black Panther cinematographer and first ever woman nominated in the category for her work on Mudbound? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Interested in studying cinematography and taking home an Oscar or three yourself in the future? Check out New York Film Academy’s cinematography programs here.

 

What’s the Value of a Cinematography Degree?

Many people may dismiss an arts degree as useless, but that’s because many take what artists do for granted and do not understand the skills and technical expertise necessary to work in the entertainment industry.  Take a cinematographer for instance. Without cinematographers, you would never get to go to the movies on Friday nights or watch some of your favorite TV shows. Cinematographers have a lot of marketable skills, but the truth is that the true value of a degree is what you make of it.

If you love films and are fascinated by the process of filmmaking, being a cinematographer could be for you! Here are all the things you can have with a quality cinematography degree that will be with you forever:

An Eye for Detail

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Whether you’re creating an animated film or recording a wedding, cinematographers need to be mindful of every small detail in order to make a film piece work. Perspective, angle and composition are just a few important parts of a film, but one without the other makes for a messy product.

Cinematographers learn quickly to refine their craft.

Great Communication and Interpersonal Skills

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On the set of a production, the cinematographer needs to manage the camera and lighting crew, working with key personnel —  like the chief lighting technician — as well as working with other creatives like the director and production designer. It is essential to be able to effectively communicate with other crew members so that everyone can work together to create the best piece possible.

Patience

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If you thought filming scenes alone was time-consuming, there is another test of a cinematographer’s career that depends on one essential skill: patience. A quality film product takes time to develop and edit, so you’ll have to learn how to not rush or leave a project at the last minute. That includes being patient with actors or other crew members as well.

Creativity

You are probably already creative if you’re interested in working in film, but the good news about pursuing a creative degree is that it helps you develop an even more creative mind. You’ll work closely with some of the best minds in cinematography and be challenged to develop your own unique “signature style” in not only film, but in everything you do.  

Fantastic Photography Skills

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You cannot make a film without having some knowledge of photography. Being a cinematographer means you are a talented photographer as well, which can come in handy while looking around for your next big gig or working on your own project. There’s always a demand for good photographers for weddings, graduations, and other milestone events.

Yes, a Livable Salary

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As with any arts degree, you might be tempted to wonder if you’ll make it big or be the “starving artist” stereotype. More importantly, will your degree lead to a livable wage? With hard work, it definitely can! Getting a gig right out of school may depend largely on your own efforts, and the community and network you build with your peers while you study. This is why NYFA focuses on collaborative projects that help you develop the skills you’ll need to function on a professional set and develop the reputation and competency you’ll need to seek jobs. Learning to be professional and make valuable connections every day is the key to landing your dream job. Until then, offer to book photography sessions or look for jobs in advertising while you build your portfolio. But make sure to make time for your own ideas as well!

Ready to begin your journey towards your cinematography degree? Check out NYFA’s cinematography MFA programs at NYFA Los Angeles.

The Best Cinematography The 59th Annual Grammys has to Offer

Beyoncé set the bar high with her HBO video extravaganza that dominated the MTV Music Awards last summer. But it’s not just “Lemonade” that’s got the cinematography geeks all a buzz. From Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” to Bowie’s heartbreaking “Lazarus,” many of this year’s Grammy-nominees enlisted top-notch directors and cinematographers to bring their music to filmic life. Here we pull back the curtain on the magicians behind the cameras, who made the year’s best songs look great.

Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”

Up for 11 Grammys, the tour-de-force album celebrates black women, the South, and music itself. The HBO spectacular testifies to Beyoncé’s ability to direct the look as well as the sound of her art with its four Emmy nominations. Beyoncé employed a talented roster of cinematographers to capture her star-studded cast. Malik Sayeed took home the MTV best cinematography award for his work on “Formation,” and other notable cinematographers include Dikayl Rimmasch (who also wears his hat as director on the project), and Meadowland director Reed Morano. As Film School Rejects concludes: “There’s a reason why Beyoncé’s special looks and moves like artful cinema: there’s a team of talented artists behind her.”

Radiohead’s “Daydreaming”

In a recent article, we examined the most filmic music videos by Radiohead, and looked forward to the next single off “Moon Shaped Pool,” up for alternative album of the year. Radiohead did not disappoint! Paul  Thomas Anderson directed and, as this article at Flavorwire suggests, likely acted as cinematographer for the much-analyzed “Daydreaming.” From domestic interiors to snowy cliff exteriors, Anderson pulls the camera through endless doors to create a symbol-laden look that invites film and music fans alike to watch and re-watch.

Adele’s “Hello”

“25” is up for eight Grammys, including album of the year. The single “Hello” is up for song of the year. The video for “Hello,” directed by Xavier Dolan and with cinematography by André Turpin, is an intimate portrayal of loss and regret. Actor Tristan Wilds was cast opposite Adele and, as revealed in this New York Times article, it seems  the singer and her talented team approached “Hello” as they would a short film. Despite the flip phones, the look packs an emotional punch, causing Adele to say, “It’s my best video and I’m so proud of it.”

Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?”

It’s not a big surprise that Bieber’s “Purpose” is up for album of the year, but finding him (or at least his video) a topic of discussion at No Film School is a bit of a surprise. Yet it’s not the heartthrob the indie film buffs are interested in, but rather the work of cinematographer Joshua Reis. “Breaking Down the Cinematography in Justin Bieber’s ‘What Do You Mean’ Music Video” praises Reis for his designed color theme, which ties together the traditionally lit exteriors with the innovatively lit interiors (shot in an actual hotel room): “Reis does some beautifully intriguing things with light and color in the music video — the harsh shadows and the neon greens and reds create what Matt [Workman] describes as a ‘modern film noir’ look.”

David Bowie’s “Lazarus”

The heartbreaking video of impending death and impossible resurrection was released three days before Bowie’s passing. With the help of cinematographer Crille Forsberg, director Johan Renck (of “Breaking Bad” fame) created a look that helped Bowie turn “hospice care into high art,” according to Pitchfork, who listed the video as #2 in its list of the Best Videos of 2016. Bowie is up for five posthumous Grammys for his final album “Blackstar.”

What are your picks for the most cinematic moments in music videos this year? Will you be watching the Grammys on Feb. 12? Let us know in the comments below!

Beyoncé Music Video Evolution: 5 Cinematography Lessons

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Beyoncé may have begun her career as just one member of a commercial RnB band, but Beyoncé has evolved over the past two decades to become the most powerful woman in entertainment and a master of all trades: singer, songwriter, dancer, producer, and business woman.

But Queen Bee has another talent that is frequently overlooked; Beyoncé has an amazing knack for great cinematography when it comes to her music videos.

September 4 marks Bey-Day, so it’s a fitting time to look back on the evolution of a pop icon with five of the most cinematically brilliant Beyoncé videos to date.

Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)”

The one that put an already unprecedented career right into the stratosphere. With over half a billion views on YouTube, “Single Ladies” will always be a timeless icon of Beyoncé at her best.

Female empowerment is a hallmark of both Beyoncé’s songwriting and music videos, but she’s also got a penchant for black and white cinematography.

Coupled with a clever use of lighting to effectively remove the set entirely, the stark imagery and clean lines accentuate the exceptional dance choreography by putting it front and center. And while there are a few cuts in the video edit, the “Single Ladies” video was shot in one take — making the finished product even more of a technical marvel.

The golden lesson for filmmakers here is that less is often more.

“Run the World (Girls)”

While we all love a bit of stripped-back Beyoncé, she can also take it to feature film-like extremes to great effect, and the video for “Run the World” is a classic example.

Implementing a strong visual theme reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” universe, everything here is cranked up to 11: alongside the usual dance-heavy routine, we’ve got an insane amount of extras, special effects, location and costume changes, props, fire, water cannons, and floodlights.

Oh, and a lion for good measure.

The color pallet is also eclectic, with bright block coloring of the girls’ outfits playing in contrast to the muted tones of the wider set and the monochrome outfits worn by the male extras.

The camera work in “Run the World” is worth singling out, too, since it’s effectively a master class in exploiting visually interesting angles. At one point (the 3:17 minute mark) it even shoots upside down.

The only thing stopping all this turning into a jumbled mess of visuals is a clinically perfect approach to the editing, with every shot exactly as long as it needs to be.

“7/11”

Aaaand we’re back to Beyoncé at her most basic. In fact, it’s the least technical music video she’s ever produced…

… because sometimes, the best approach is to just grab a camera and start filming.

From a musical standpoint it’s perhaps not Bey’s most well known track, but the video itself serves as a delightfully goofy reminder that, above anything else, filmmaking should be fun.

“Formation”

Beyoncé’s most political (and arguably controversial) video output to date, with more than a few overt references to Hurricane Katrina and racial tensions across the country.

The video was directed by Melina Matsoukas, a Grammy Award winner who has worked with Beyoncé on a number of occasions since 2007. Matsoukas stands firmly behind the idea of substance mattering far more than expensive equipment: “It’s not necessary for a quality video. A good video has the right visuals, a well conceptualized story and should be exciting and elicit reaction.”

With “Formation,” all those boxes are well and truly checked.

“Lemonade”

With the release of this year’s unanimously praised “Lemonade,” the queen of reinvention managed to push the envelope of innovation even further by putting out a 60-minute conceptual film to support the record.

Divided into 11 chapters incorporating poetry by Somali poet Warsan Shire, we couldn’t possibly explore the entirety of the visual extravaganza that is “Lemonade” in this short post. But suffice to say, this piece draws you in with impressive set pieces and a delicate yet purposeful handling of the divisive themes presented throughout. While “Lemonade” often delves into the poetically abstract, it never loses the viewer to outright obscurity and the pacing keeps things moving through both the light and dark of the album.

If this is the direction Beyoncé is heading for the next stage of her career, we’re all about it.

Here’s to 35 more years. Happy birthday, Queen Bee.

No Surprises: Radiohead’s 5 Most Filmic Music Videos

Karma Police screenshot of fire on road

A shade over twenty years ago, a little indie band from Oxfordshire, England released their debut single. That single was “Creep,” and it immediately put Radiohead on the map.

Having come out of the gate swinging, the band only grew in popularity and managed to stay ahead of the game thanks, in part, to a deep commitment to dramatically evolving their style along the way.

Thom Yorke and his merry band’s penchant for experimentation hasn’t solely been confined to music, either. Their accompanying music videos are also a strange mix—at times avant garde, at others outright bizarre, but more often than not they’ve served as food for thought for both musicians and filmmakers alike.

With this in mind—and with the new album A Moon Shaped Pool having just landed with the film referencing music video for “Burn the Witch”—let’s take a look back over Radiohead’s five most thought-provoking music videos with a cinematographic eye.

Lotus Flower (2011)

Directed By: Garth Jennings

Black and white, sparsely shot, slightly unhinged and not making a lick of sense. If that sounds like David Lynch to you, you’re not the only one.

Going on to gain a Grammy nomination, the video was directed by Garth Jennings who notably directed 2005’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which is pretty much the polar opposite in feel to the “Lotus Flower” short. Jennings has never revealed whether Yorke’s white shirt and bowler hat is a nod to Stanley Kubrick.

No Surprises (1997)

Directed by: Grant Lee

Lo-fi simplicity is something of a hallmark of a good Radiohead video, as proven with this visually arresting, one-shot video for one of OK Computer‘s finest songs (and one that the band spontaneously played in one take on getting set up for the album’s first recording session.)

While the song itself is inspired by nursery rhyme, the music video is very reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic style—simple ideas executed without distraction, preferring to put the subject at the forefront of the frame.

There’s also a touch of David Fincher about it, owing to the moody palette and lighting, but the take home here is that a captivating, suspenseful idea usually trumps any visual effects wizardry (and countless similar music videos have followed in the wake of “No Surprises”).

We won’t reveal how they minimized the risk of drowning poor ol’ Thom; for that, you’ll need to see the Radiohead documentary Meeting People is Easy.

Karma Police (1997)

Directed by: Jonathan Glazer

Following deftly on from “No Surprises” was the record’s second single “Karma Police”, which had an equally captivating video to match. Curiously, the idea was originally pitched to Marilyn Manson, who declined.

Directed by maestro Jonathan Glazer (who also directed “Street Spirit” and Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity,” among feature films such as Under the Skin), the video is a typically surreal depiction of an antagonistic situation, and if it looks like it was inspired by some kind of fever dream, that’s because it actually was. But in terms of presentation, the Coen Brothers is strong with this one but Glazer has also admitted borrowing liberally from Kubrick throughout his career.

Of the working process and of getting collaborators on board with bizarre ideas, Glazer says: “It starts with an idea that I’ll be able to articulate, and then it’s about almost putting that idea in a laboratory and inspecting it… and it’s a long process. We don’t start with a story, we start with a feeling, and [that feeling] is your North Star.”

Alas, despite being one of most people’s favorite Radiohead music videos, Glazer himself saw it as a failed experiment.

Just (1995)

Directed by: Jamie Thraves

Even Radiohead’s most conventional music videos have an air of mystery around them.

The overdriven melodrama here is almost certainly inspired by Douglas Sirk, whose influence can also be seen in Pulp Fiction (and directly alluded to by Tarantino, also, when Vincent Vega orders the “Douglas Sirk steak.”) Thraves was picked out specially by the band to direct the short after seeing his experimental University efforts; it was Thraves’ first assignment, and he’s gone on to work with the likes of Coldplay and Damien Rice since.

We can’t help but wonder if the sidewalk guy’s mysterious final line gave inspiration to Sofia Coppola—at the end of Lost in Translation, a similar scenario plays out and also drove viewers up the wall with intrigue.

Pretty clever marketing trick when you think of it.

Burn The Witch (2016)

Directed by: Chris Hopewell

At the time of writing, this one’s fresh on the ‘tubes, so it may be a little premature to call this an enduring Radiohead classic, but we suspect it will be and serves as a great point to close off.

Hugely different from everything that has come before for the band, The Wicker Man is clearly the main influence on this one. The story is as creepy as it always was, but made even more sinister here when presented in the style of a 1960s English kids TV show (a la Trumpton and Camberwick Green.)

In reference to the almost glaring contrast between the bright art style and the sinister undertones, animator Virpi Kettu revealed that this was at the behest of the band themselves who wanted to satirize the idea of idyllic rural communities as espoused by right-wing politicians.

It’ll be interesting to see which single follows from A Moon Shaped Pool, but in the mean time do let us know your thoughts—got a favorite Radiohead music video you wish had made the cut? Any neat film tricks you’ve been inspired to try out? We’ll see you down in the comments!

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

5 Great Camera Drones for Aerial Cinematography

Film-grade camera drones have never been more accessible, with the price points for even high definition aerial filming rigs quickly becoming attractive not only to professionals already in the industry but also to cinematography school students and even hobbyists.

With a dizzying array of options to choose from, today we’ll be taking a look at some of the best filmmaking drones on the market today from a variety of price points. And be sure to check out our post on getting started with aerial cinematography.

All prices are approximate at the time of writing—be sure to hit the HD settings on each YouTube player to see the demo footage at its best!

DJI Inspire 1

Price: $2,800
Weight: 2935g
Drone Specs: 18 minutes maximum flight time, 48mph top speed, 4500m altitude, 5m/s ascent speed
Camera Specs: 4k video at 24 FPS, 12.4 megapixels, 100-3200 ISO range for video

It’s easy to see why the DJI Inspire 1 has become the go-to, professional grade drone for 4K aerial filmmaking. As well as packing an impressive set of specs, the gimbal-mounted, super-high resolution camera allows for a fine degree of control over the shooting angle.

For those who are a little divided over the price, it’s worth noting that the Inspire 1’s design is modular so it can be easily upgraded further down the road without having to buy a whole new drone.

DJI Phantom 3 Advanced

Price: $999
Weight: 1280g
Drone Specs: 23 minutes of flight time, 35mph, 6000m altitude, 5 m/s ascent speed
Camera Specs: 2.7k at 30FPS, 12.4 megapixles, 100-3200 ISO range for video

The Phantom range of aerial drone cameras have become something of an industry standard, and the third iteration strikes a good balance between cost and quality. The Phantom 3 comes in two flavors—the “advanced”and the “professional” below, which ups the specs at a higher price point.

DJI Phantom 3 Professional

Price: $1259
Weight: 1280g
Drone Specs: As above
Camera Specs: 4k at 25FPS / 2160p at 30FPS / 1080p at 60FPS

For an extra $259, the Professional version of the Phantom 3 will give you greater resolution and framerates without sacrificing any of the maneuverability.

Parrot Bebop

Price: $500
Weight: 420g
Drone Specs: 22 minutes of flight time, 29mph, 6m/s ascent speed, 200m altitude
Camera Specs: 1080p recording with a 14 megapixel fisheye camera

Lightweight and extremely zippy, the Parrot Bebop is a smart choice for those who want HD stabilized video without having to spend a king’s ransom—there are cheaper drones out there (and even some lesser-priced models in the Parrot range)—but the Bebop gets the balance right and is one of the best drones you’ll find for $500 or under…if you can live with the slightly limited operating range.

Phantom Flex 4k Drone

Price: $110,000 and up
Weight: About 13 kilograms
Drone Specs: Unknown, but it can lift a cinema camera.
Camera Specs: 1,000 FPS at 4k and up to 3,000 FPS at 720p (in five second bursts). Stores 2TB of RAW data.

We’ve covered the more budget-end of the drone filmmaking spectrum, so now let’s look at what is currently the most expensive (and impressive). Clocking in at over 30lbs once the camera and lenses are installed, the Phantom Flex 4K is less of a drone and more of an aircraft. The price tag is eye-watering, but the footage speaks for itself:

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

Contemporary Trends in Cinema: 2015 Report

Over at our cinematography school, we regularly chat with filmmakers on the topic of contemporary trends in cinema—what’s hot right now, what is likely to trend in the future, and what’s already had its day.

There’s been some great discussion so far, and we figured it would be useful to summarize the observations here. Presenting:

Contemporary Trends in Cinema: 2015 Report

Contemporary cinema trends

Aerial Footage

We’re seeing a lot more aerial footage being incorporated into final cuts as of the last couple of years, particularly for establishing shots. Why? Simply because drone technology has become more accessible and affordable, with aerial devices capable of shooting at even 4k resolutions available for a shade over the $1,000 mark.

It can certainly add a lot more production value to an edit for relatively little cost, though it’ll be interesting to see if its usage frequency will plateau in years to come once it really becomes commonplace or increases as the technology continues to advance.

Subdued Lighting

Particularly over the past year, it seems to be a strong contemporary trend for cinematographers to pare down lighting rigs and keep things simple and soft, with as few lighting sources as possible (and often a heavy reliance on using solely natural and ‘golden hour’ lighting.) The use of backlighting is also in a period of waning at the moment.

When practiced to the extreme, this can give a very moody effect to the resulting filmeither intentionally or unintentionallybut this hugely depends on the color palette and saturation used in conjuction (more on this below.)

Otherwise, it’s a contemporary trend which was, in all probability, born out of a need to soften some of the harsh edges which ultra-high digital footage can suffer from; either way, it’s a welcome break from the ultra-complex lighting dynamics that were necessary with some film stock of the past.

Subdued Color

As well as subdued lighting, we’re also seeing an increased use of subdued color in film (particularly with regards to desaturation and muted color design.) Two excellent examples of this aesthetic used to great affect can be seen in this year’s Ex Machina, and last year’s brilliant Her:

This seems to be a pervasive trend not just in film, but also advertising too:

And once you’ve noticed it, you’ll spot it numerous times across the span of a single commercial break!

The Rise of Handheld Shots

Cameras are getting less unweildy, and jib/dolly setups are becoming more plentiful and functional. As a result, it’s not a huge surprise that handheld footage is currently trendingthis rise to ubiquity seems to have coincided with the release of the MoVI M10 rig back in 2013, offering increased stability while still allowing for the organic feel of shooting handheld:

Expect more handheld and steadycam footage going forward, with ever-more impressive results being achieved as new rigs and systems hit the market.

Shallow Depth of Field

While the swing between ultra-shallow and ultra-deep depth of field is something that alternates from era to era, we’re currently in the midst of a shallow depth of field glut (so much so, it’s gotten to pandemic levels as of late!)

The current boom has been, in part, ushered along by the market introduction of cameras with gigantic sensors (such as the Canon 5D MkII) making it very easy to achieve the look with or without telephoto lenses. When done right, it looks stunning and can add a good dose of realism to the shot… but we’re also seeing it overdone as of late, so be sure to use the technique sparingly.

Noticed any other contemporary trends in cinematography over the last few years, or any newly emerging trends that you think are set to dominate the next few? We want to hear your thoughts—head on down to the comments below and let your voice be heard!

 

Modern Black and White Films that Changed Cinematography

Casablanca. Metropolis. Nosferatu.

All defining moments in the rich tapestry that is cinema history, and all black and white… but why is it that monochrome filming has become an almost lost artform?

50 Shades of Black and White

Black and white movies

Indeed, if you look up any list of the most critically acclaimed black and white movies, you’ll be hard pressed to find many released after 1960. Over time, the aesthetic is one that has been pushed to the fringes and seen as something that is inherently ‘arthouse’ (usually with a slightly pretentious air.) It’s a phenomenon exclusive to cinema, too—in photography school, students are usually urged to master black and white shooting (and especially film development) before moving to color, but not so in filmmaking. With the latter, black and white is a tool seemingly reserved only for the masters.

But as of recently, the tide seems to be changing and we’re seeing an increasing number of releases that are not only inspirational for those of us wanting to re-embrace monochrome, but that also serve as great examples as to why more people should do so.

Let’s start off with the most acclaimed black and white feature of recent times, and the one that immediately springs to mind as an industry game changer: 2012’s The Artist.

On paper, The Artist was a hugely big risk. In a world where only the most brash and lowest-common-denominator comic action movies earn big bucks, would anyone be tempted to watch a movie that’s not only black and white but also silent?

Indeed, the marketing team had a hard sell. At the time of writing, the most recent YouTube comment on that trailer reads: “No way I’m watching it. A silent movie? Please.

And that’s even after it won awards and became high up the list of most recommended movies of 2011. But won awards it did, and it would be hard to imagine the movie presented in any other way. This gets to the crux of when it’s appropriate to shoot in black and white: when the subject matter calls for it.

Incidentally, it was the first monochrome film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture since Schindler’s List in 1993, which is another superb example of a story that wouldn’t have been enhanced had it been show in color.

Of course, there is a small amount of color within the film courtesy of the iconic girl in the red coat, the symbolism of which has given us a talking point for decades (As an aside, this small color feature technically means that The Artist was preceded by The Apartment in 1960 as the previous all-black and white winner of the Best Picture award.)

And this brings us on to our second takeaway point that cinematography school students should bear in mind: just because a movie is devoid of color doesn’t mean it has to be devoid of potent symbolism, and a cinematographer working in black and white should execute their ideas boldly and with confidence.

And as Spielberg showed us, we don’t have to dogmatically stick to one approach or the other. Although it’s technically more challenging to only highlight certain props or characters with vibrant color while all else is in grayscale, the resulting effect can be extremely compelling as we saw in the first Sin City movie:

As long as the filmmaker is armed with a good screenplay, a talented team and a dose of confidence, black and white filming—when appropriate—can add a very complex atmosphere to a production, and can also lend an air of reverence to the subject matter when done right. A case in point is last year’s compelling A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—of the choice to film the vampire flick solely in black and white, critic Drew Taylor writes: “[the movie gives] the impression that you’re witnessing something iconic and important unfold before you.”

A study in how to create an atmosphere if ever there was one:

In short, as long as you’ve got the preliminary substance, shooting in black and white can deliver the style. But more than anything, it’s knowing when to shoot in black and white—all of the both are great examples of this, but there are some occasions where it becomes superfluous…

… and on those productions, great color design takes precedent.

The Best Cinematography: The Life And Work Of Andrew Lesnie

Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie with his Oscar

Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie died of a heart attack on April 27, 2015. While relatively young at 59, his work in the film industry was monumental and will leave a lasting impact that will continue on for generations.

Lesnie was born in Sydney, Australia in 1956. While attending film school in Australia, he worked his first professional gig on the Richard Franklin film, Patrick, as an assistant camera operator. After graduating, Lesnie worked as a cameraman on a TV magazine show, allowing him to shoot constantly in a wide variety of locations and situations, helping him hone his skills as well as learn cinematography techniques and tricks.

Sheep from Babe: Pig in the City

From there, Lesnie found ample work in Australian films and television, building up a steady and solid resume. His big break came in 1995, with the release of Babe, the family-friendly film starring a talking pig. Scripted by Australian filmmaker George Miller, Babe was a smash hit and in turn brought Lesnie a heap of fame. He later went on to shoot its sequel, Babe: Pig in the City, as well as the Sandra Bullock romantic comedy Two If By Sea.

However it was his collaboration with New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson that immortalized Lesnie’s contribution to film and showed the world his own unique “cinematographer’s eye.” He was selected to shoot the game-changing Lord of the Rings trilogy. Pre-production for the films lasted several months, as Lesnie worked closely with Jackson to plan and construct the trilogy’s elaborate sets, as well as plan work out the films’ trickier shots. These included playing with perspective and other cinematography tricks to faithfully and realistically capture the significant size differences of the trilogy’s fantastical characters. To aid this process, Lesnie and Jackson used computer previsualization programs to accurately plan the necessary frames and angles.

Return of the King

Lesnie was also instrumental in crafting the trilogy’s trademark color scheme, a palette of earthy browns and greens that helped turn Middle Earth into one of the most grounded, lived-in cinematic worlds this side of the Star Wars galaxy. To achieve the look of the films, Lesnie shot on film, using tungsten-balanced stock and a variety of Arri cameras, including the Arriflex 435, Arriflex 535, and ArriCam Studio 35mm, all paired with Zeiss Ultra Prine Lenses.

Not only gigantic financial successes and a pop culture phenomenon on the level of Star Trek and Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings films were critically adored as well. The third entry, The Return of the King, won all eleven Academy Awards it was nominated for, tying the all-time record for wins. Lesnie picked up a Best Cinematography Oscar for his efforts on the trilogy.

His career did not end with the Oscar, though. The monumental success of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy brought Lesnie a wealth of fame and accolades. His projects that followed expanded in scope, including Peter Jackson’s afterlife drama The Lovely Bones and epic remake King Kong. Lesnie also served as director of photography for the blockbusters I Am Legend, The Last Airbender, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in addition to reuniting with George Miller as part of the live action unit for Happy Feet.

Ian McKellan and

When Peter Jackson signed on to direct The Hobbit, Lesnie came aboard as cinematographer. Like its Lord of the Rings predecessors, the film was expanded into another trilogy, yet—filmed a decade later—proved to be a totally different beast. The Hobbit trilogy was not only shot digitally, on the RED Epic camera, but also in 3D. On top of that, it was shot at a rate of 48 frames per second, as opposed to the usual 24, practically unheard of for major motion pictures. By shooting and screening at the faster frame rate, motion blur was greatly reduced—giving the film almost a video-like feel—which theoretically helps the brain process 3D easier and make it more enjoyable to watch. Shooting in a radically different format meant lighting and even framing differently, as stereoscopic cameras were used with dual lenses.

While The Hobbit trilogy wasn’t as unanimously revered as the original Lord of the Rings films, it was hard for anyone to deny the incredible visuals Lesnie produced. His final film was The Water Diviner, starring Russell Crowe, and the industry and movie buffs alike must mourn the loss of work he will no longer provide. However, the footage he did manage to shoot during his time will not be forgotten and his work will inspire generations of cinematographers and filmmakers for decades to come.

5 Truly Inspirational Female Cinematographers

The subject of gender inequality within the movie industry is something we’ve covered extensively in the past, most notably via our infographic which exposed the (rather shocking) statistics of how underrepresented women are in film.

As a cinematography school, we’re actively trying to redress that balance on a day-to-day basis by promoting the works of all film students, regardless of gender or any other factor. But it’s still an uphill struggle, and although continued efforts to raise public consciousness to the issue – both by ourselves and others – is creating positive change, it’s still change at a trickle rate.

In the mean time, let’s celebrate some of the truly inspirational female cinematographers which consistently produce great work out in the field. And really, they’re worthy of mention simply because they’re great cinematographers…

… that they’re also female is entirely incidental.

Kirsten Johnson

Kristen Johnson Cinematographer

Johnson is a cinematographer that, from a very young age, has lived and breathed the craft.

Born and bred in New York, the Brown University graduate cut her teeth with documentary work in Africa before heading to Paris for further tuition. Shortly following this, she directed a slew of short documentaries between Ghana and France and gained some serious recognition and awards for her skills as a cinematographer (including a Tribeca Film Festival Best Documentary award for Pray The Devil Back to Hell, a Sundance award for The Oath, and two Oscar nominations for Asylum and The Invisible War respectively.)

Her most recent work was on the brilliant (and alarming) documentary Citizenfour, which was heralded as one of the best documentaries of 2014 and went on to win an Academy Award for the category.

Nicola Daley

Kirsten Johnson cinematographer

Nicola Daley is another prolific traveler, and someone who has used her extensive cultural explorations in her frequently stunning cinematography work. Originally hailing from Melbourne, Daley considers her travels at a young age between France, America, Africa and ultimately back to Australia as “her film school before she went to film school.” She has also shot in places as hostile as Iraq, Afghanistan, and North Korea.

Over the past decade, Daley has racked up more Australian awards for her cinematography than we could practically list here and her output is as prolific as it is masterful.

Tami Reiker

Tami Reiker cinematogapher

Of all the truly inspirational female cinematographers listed here, Reiker has the sole distinction of being the first female to have ever won (and even been nominated for) an ASC award, which she did for her work on the series pilot of Carnivale.

Probably best known for her acclaimed work on last year’s Beyond the Lights, her IndieWire interview on the challenges of being a female cinematographer is well worth a read. Reiker is definitely a cinematographer to keep tabs on in the coming years.

Autumn Durald

Autumn Durald cinematographer

Having gotten her foot through the door as a camera assistant, former art history student Durald’s prowess for cinematography has been used not just in feature films (her work on Gia Coppola’s debut movie Palo Alto attracted a lot of praise), but also in music videos—most notably on London Grammar’s “Strong,” and two Haim tracks (“Falling” and “Desert Days”).

Last year, Durald was named as one of the essential “cinematographers to watch” by Variety, and we’d have to echo that sentiment.

Sandi Sissel

Sandi Sissell cinematographer

Few cinematographers have as much experience—and as many accolades—as Sandi Sissel.

Coming right out of the gate with Emmy-award winning work covering the Vietnam war, her cinematography career went on to see her work on numerous ABC shows (such as Saturday Night Live and 60 Minutes) over the next couple of decades. Her extensive documentary work in the years since have attracted further Oscar and Emmy winning awards.

Which other talented female cinematographers deserve inclusion on the list? Drop a comment below!

The Best Cinematography: A Look At Birdman

Michael Keaton in Birdman liquor store

By the end of this year’s Academy Awards, Birdman winning Best Picture wasn’t much of a surprise. Earlier in the ceremony, it had already picked up Oscars for Best Screenplay, Best Directing and Best Cinematography. The Cinematography award went to the film’s director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, giving him a record-tying two Oscars in a row in the cinematography category. Lubezki had won the year before for the stunningly shot Gravity.

Like Gravity, and other films Lubezki shot, including Tree of Life and Children of Men, Birdman is known for its long takes—single, seemingly unedited shots of several minutes or more in length. In fact, Lubezki and writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu worked very hard to make Birdman seem like it was shot entirely in a single, continuous take. This was achieved by combining several long takes and making their transitions as hidden and seamless as possible. For the most part, it was successful, and is considered a major factor in Birdman’s considerable award season praise.

While the film used camera tricks and illusion to make Birdman seem like a two-hour-plus single take, it still involved several long shots that are incredibly difficult to film in a practical setting. According to Lubezki, most shots are around ten minutes in length with the longest take around fifteen. Even a single one of these takes would be considered a daunting and possibly unnecessary task in a production.

How did the Birdman team (Birdteam?) pull this off? With lots of practice. A proxy set resembling the labyrinthine backstage hallways of the St. James Theatre—where Birdman is set—was built in Los Angeles before filming began. It was there that Iñárritu and Lubezki blocked out each shot, playing Birdman’s jazzy, drum-based score in the background to help set the tone. By plotting and practicing each long take, the filmmakers were able to figure out how and where they could hide their shot transitions, as well as get an idea of where to stage their actors and place their lights. They realized for the more difficult shots, visual effects would be needed to help with the transition.

Zach Galifinakis and Michael Keaton in Birdman

Shooting and combining these takes were assisted in the mobility of the Steadicam, which Lubezki employed throughout filming. The cinematographer has become well known for his intense handheld shots, and Birdman was no different. He personally operated the camera for many handheld shots and relied on veteran Steadicam operator Chris Haarhoff for Steadicam shots, working with him and directing him in real time to better capture the improvisational production of the film and respond to the actor’s movements and unpredictable natural lighting. A 2nd AC would also follow the operator for some shots to spot necessary camera moves.

The cameras used in Birdman included the Arri Alexa and, for the handheld and Steadicam shots, the Alexa plus. The Alexa M was used for some remote and extreme handheld work, using a custom-built backpack holding an external recorder, its batteries, and a wireless transmitter. The primary lenses used were Leica and Zeiss Master Primes. While many cinematographers would avoid using extremely wide lenses for close-ups, Lubezki, considered a master with wider lenses, did not hesitate to use the Zeiss Master Prime 12mm and similarly wide lenses even for tight close-ups in the claustrophobically shot film, creating many memorable and intimate images.

Michael Keaton shirtless in Birdman

Camera movement wasn’t Birdman’s only technical feat. Iñárritu did not shy away from using strong colors like red, blue and green to enhance the drama of the film. Blue and red were used in particular on stage in the play-within-the-movie. Scenes shot outside, with the theater exterior just yards away from Times Square and a memorable scene in the heart of Times Square itself, meant the filmmakers had to work around New York City’s omnipresent artificial lighting.

Lighting proved particularly tricky considering the long, varied takes—without the safety net of cutting, Lubezki had to hide his lights out of frame very carefully. In typical cinematic shots, not only do cinematographers take pains to hide the physical lighting equipment and cables out of frame, but also must maintain the angle of their source within a camera move—shadows or other lights could betray the artificial sources if a shot is not blocked and choreographed correctly. During Birdman’s long takes, with shots often showing 360 degree angles of the set, maintaining this lighting continuity was an epic struggle.

Not only did Lubezki find the right placement for his lighting equipment, he had his grip team constantly move them during the shot, with the lights dancing just out of frame and moving along with the actors, Lubezki, and the camera operator. They would move not only heavy, superhot lamps but also the gels and diffusions bouncing their light and shadows, all to maintain the illusion of a natural source within the shot. This needed to be done for every single take of nearly every single shot in Birdman.

Naomi Watts in Birdman

To minimize lighting equipment and allow for what Lubezki called “a ballet” of hustling and shifting crew members, Lubezki pushed the Alexa to a ISO of 1280 with the aperture open wide. By making the camera more sensitive to light in this way, Lubezki reduced the need for larger and more elaborate lighting setups, giving the camera, actors, and crew more freedom and room to move around within each tracking shot.

Lubezki and Iñárritu also employed the use of lens flares to add visual texture to Birdman. By having lens flares on the film’s copious wide-angled close-ups, Lubezki was able to soften the image, lowering the contrast and making the actors’ more intimate scenes prettier and more emotional.

Simply put, Birdman was more than just a string of gimmicky long takes. If the Oscar for Best Cinematography was given on a purely technical level, Birdman would be more than worthy of it. If the Oscar was awarded based on artistry and how beautifully shot a film is, then Birdman would be more than worthy of it. The Oscar, however, is given based on a combination of both these qualities. Birdman was more than worthy of it.

MIchael Keaton Emma Stone Birdman hospital scene

Interested in shooting movies one day? Check out our cinematography school classes today!

12 Plug-Ins For Adobe Premiere Pro You Can’t Live Without

As a budding filmmaker, digital editor and/or cinematographer, I’m sure you’ve crossed paths with a little application called Adobe Premiere Pro. And if you haven’t, well, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?! In recent years, it has really gained wide acceptance as one of the leading editing packages for videos and feature films. Its ability to manipulate and export pretty much any video with minimal time makes it every editor’s best friend. The addition of the Mercury playback engine and its ability to add almost any clip to the timeline without transcoding it was also a noteworthy up on its competitors. Given the right tools, one can transform a class project into a Sundance-worthy masterpiece – the possibilities are endless!

So where do you start and just how many features could you use to optimize your video to its full potential? The answer’s in plug-ins. Premiere Pro software gives you an abundance of editing tools, but the plug-ins really allow you to expand your options. So here are the top 12 most useful and popular ones to get acquainted with – best of all, they’re free!

1. Manifesto – This allows you to incorporate a title/text generator for words to stay static across the screen or roll/crawl across – perfect for rolling credits.

rolling credits

2. Star Titler – If ever you want to create a killer intro that emulates the iconic one in Star Wars, this plug-in is where it’s at.

Star Wars Intro

3. Data Pop Free – This makes creating infographics super simple and is perfect for showcasing particular data statistics in documentaries.

pie chart

4. Random Text Generator – This plug-in by Luca Visual FX allows for you to generate random text, numbers and symbols in a matter of seconds – just like in The Matrix.

Random Text Generator

5. Cinema FX Presets – this convenient plug-in is every editor-on-a-budget’s dream offering 56 presets you can use for various cinematic looks.

cinematic presets

6. Magic Bullet Quick Looks Free – Just in case the 56 Cinema FX Presets didn’t have exactly what you were looking for, this plug-in gives you another 20 to choose from. Each look within these presets are inspired by famous films like Saving Private Ryan and The Matrix.

Cinema FX Presets

7. PiPinator – Ever wondered how they incorporate a picture/footage within another picture/footage like they do in so many iconic phone conversation scenes in films? With plug-ins like FxFactory’s PiPinator of course.

picture collage

8. Andy’s Region Tool – Popular for censoring a person’s identity by blurring their face, this tool allows you to apply a specific effect only to a particular part of the image without effecting the rest.

identity censor

9. Organic Particle Effect – This may not be one of the essential plug-ins every editor needs, but it sure is a cool one for those wanting some extra touches in setting the tone of a scene. This tool adds some whimsical essence by incorporating tiny, organic fly-away particles across the screen.

organic particles effect

10. Night Vision Binoculars – yet another cool one that isn’t particularly a standard must-have, this effect is perfect for those action-thrillers and speaks for itself really.

night vision binoculars effect

11. M Free Effects Bundle – Probably the most comprehensive free audio effects bundle online. It offers 24 plug-ins including the MAnalyzer – an advanced spectral analyzer and sonogram, MEqualizer – an easy-to-use, powerful 6-band equalizer with 7 filters and the MNoiseGenerator – yep, you guess it, a noise generator.

audio effects

12. CoreMelt – This is an all-in-one bundle for those who just want a simple download that offers multiple useful plug-ins. It gives you a very generous 43 effects to choose from, including montage presets, filmic transitions, several light effects and even audio presets.

shape mask effect

So there you have it! – 12 of the most handy plug-ins to get you on your way to becoming the best video editor out. Not to mention the wealthiest with all the money you’ll save on paid plug-ins.

Ready to learn more about digital editing and filmmaking? Check out NYFA’s Film School programs for hands-on, intensive training.

Camera Trends of 2015: 4K Cameras Under $1k, SD cards and NFC

With 2015 in full swing, students at our cinematography school are already seeing new trends, equipment and shooting techniques emerging this year.

One of the biggest announcements for 2015 is Panasonic’s unveiling of their latest line of 4K cameras. This might not sound like big news given that 4K cameras have been on the scene for a while now, but there’s a distinction with this latest wave: unlike any decent 4K that has come before, these guys are priced for home users.

How cheap are we talking? Very.

4K Cameras Under $1000?

Whereas a quality 4K camera like the Sony PXW-Z100 or Panasonic’s own HC-X100E would have set you back a good $6000 to $10,000 (depending on optional extras), the HC-WX970 and VX870 start as low as $900.

Camera trends for 2015

At such a low price, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they must have cut more than a few corners to get the price down so low. The good news is that this isn’t the case; both cameras are able to record in 60fps in 2160p with glorious results, and at frame rates of up to 240fps in 1080p (although that’s only with interpolation, otherwise it’s a commendable 120fps).

Want to see how good they look? Check out this test footage of the Panasonic HC-WX970 (and make sure you set the YouTube quality setting to max for full effect). We’re not sure what camera is used for the ‘competitor’ footage, but the results from the Panasonic speak for themselves:

And here’s a hands-on tour of the features and specs of the HC-WX970:

Given that the WX970 is priced at $999, we’re sure you’ll agree that it packs a serious punch for the money. The HC-VX870 is similarly powerful and nearly equal on specs, but $100 less expensive (the main difference being it doesn’t have the second PIP lens on the side.)

Given that both camcorders are designed for the home consumer market, there are naturally some limitations and professional users will find some of the features are a little gimmicky, but on the whole Panasonic’s new line is the first step into the affordable 4k camera arena.

Other Camera Trends of 2015

It’d be fair to say that with Panasonic having released a couple of 4k cameras under $1000, Sony are pretty much guaranteed to follow suit and we can probably expect news of their forays into this new consumer market in the coming months.

4k cameras under $1000

But what of the professional-grade camera trends of 2015? It seems clear that we’re moving in very definite directions this year:

SD Cards Lead The Way: It seems we’re coming to the end of the era in which cinematographers have to cart around multiple external hardrives and a laptop as well as the camera equipment itself. Given that bigger SD cards are becoming available and for way less money, an increasing number of camera manufacturers are making sure that they add slots for SD cards… thankfully.

WiFi and NFC Support: Despite just about every device on the planet having some form of internet connection (or even just interconnectivity), professional-grade cameras have been surprisingly slow to catch up. But along with a greater focus on SD cards, one camera trend we’re very likely to see for 2015 is better support for WiFi and NFC, which will make transferring footage while you’re out in the field much less of a headache.

Easier Stills: In previous times, many cameras haven’t made it easy to extract a video frame as a decent quality still on the fly. The cameras discussed above make it a one-click job and export stills at an impressive 8MP, and we wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of 2015’s new cameras come with the same feature.

And finally, it would be remiss of us not to point out one of the most obvious camera trends of 2015 – smart phones continue to play a part in even professional cinematography. It’s a trend that has been around for a few years now, but as Moore’s Law dictates, the rate of technological increase with phone cameras is growing exponentially (to the point where it’s possible to shoot a full feature film on an iPhone.) Slow-mo video in particular is the order of the day, with the iPhone 6 shooting in 240fps to create true slow motion footage rather than simulated.

dead_island_prod_still_1

*Disclosure: Neither NYFA, the cinematography school or the writer of this post has any commercial ties with any of the companies listed above. 

The Best Cinematography: Exploring The Light And Dark In Pan’s Labyrinth

Eyeballs in hands in Pan's Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth is very much a Guillermo del Toro film. The 2006 historical fantasy is loaded with the Mexican filmmaker’s pet themes, and includes creatures and designs personally conjured up by del Toro and bearing his signature style. The look, in particular, of the film helped bring to life perhaps the purest version of del Toro’s vision.

The director of photography tasked with putting this vision on screen was Guillermo Navarro, who succeeded enough to win the Academy Award for Cinematography for his work. Navarro is a Mexican cinematographer whose credits include Desperado, From Dusk til Dawn, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Jackie Brown, Spawn, Stuart Little, Spy Kids, Zathura, Night at the Museum, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, and Pacific Rim. He is known for his use of vivid blues and yellows that dominate his images. Having worked with del Toro before on the Hellboy films and others, he was a perfect choice to shoot Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Crew & Camera

Pan’s Labyrinth was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, its production being 78% Spanish and 22% Mexican. Because Pedro Almodóvar was shooting Volver at the same time, much of del Toro’s Spanish crew was unavailable to work on the shoot. He and Navarro had to put together a film crew with mostly strangers and inexperienced workers, and had no idea what to expect. It ended up working wonders for the team. Since the crew wasn’t set in their habits, Navarro was able to use them any way he saw fit. This was a great benefit considering the American grip & electric system they used in Mexico was much different from the system European crews were accustomed to.

Shooting in Spain also afforded the crew a 5 ½ day work schedule and a slower working pace, which allowed Navarro the time to set up scenes and shots in a more deliberate fashion. Principal photography was wrapped in three months.

Navarro went to Spain with his own Moviecam Compact cameras that he owned and used for all of his shoots, as well as his personal Arri 435ES lenses. Two lines of Zeiss lenses were used, Ultra Primes and Variable Primes, depending on what the shot called for.

A lot of the film’s equipment was homemade from Spain. Navarro got a lot of use out of a small crane nicknamed the “puchi,” appropriated from the English “push in.” The crane allows a single operator to move the camera in a variety of ways with great freedom. Navarro grew very fond of the tool, even purchasing his own for his work in LA. He often operated it himself during the shoot, with his frequent and trusted collaborator Jaromir Sedina simultaneously wielding a Steadicam. When a scene required more camera height than the puchi could provide, Navarro opted to use a taller Technocrane. For some of the tight, heavily forested areas where it was hard to find room for lights, the crew used a sausage-shaped illuminated balloon that could float over the set and light it from above.

Sergi López as Vidal in Pan's Labyrinth

Light & Dark

Navarro used three film stocks—Vision 250D, Vision2 500T, and Vision2 200T, depending on what was being photographed. The crew shot a lot of day for night, especially in the forests where it was very difficult to artificially light. By underexposing these scenes three to four stops, Navarro not only created night, but gave it an eerie presence that fit the film’s fantasy elements. He purposefully kept lighting effects that could only be attained with sunlight, which jarred the image when it passed itself as night, creating an aura of experimentation one might usually find in cinematography school.

Because of the awkwardly-shaped spaces of the fantasy sets, Navarro had to be creative with his lighting, finding places to put his lamps that also didn’t disrupt the image. A lot of light was strictly attained by bouncing it into the set. For certain scenes, the crew also drilled tiny holes into the walls of the set and placed little lights into the spaces. In the tunnel of the giant frog scene, Ofelia’s face was lit with a fiber-optic light attached directly to the camera.

For much of the film, Navarro used more darkness than actual light, using his lamps and bounce boards to bring just enough of the image out of shadow. Del Toro and Navarro are of very similar minds when it comes to the use of darkness, and Pan’s Labyrinth was the perfect project for their style. They frequently took advantage of modern film stocks’ ability to be highly sensitive to light. While they used an abundance of shadow, they still needed to carefully add a lot of light to make sure the highlights they wanted to show came through. The crew learned that for many scenes, they couldn’t even go by the light meter, as they were so far down in the F-stop range that it was irrelevant to measure.

Making it even more difficult was that the crew was using a digital intermediate and high-definition dailies, where contrast isn’t as defined as it will look on film. The crew had to rely on del Toro and Navarro’s gut intuition, and place faith in the fact that they knew what they were doing and weren’t permanently obscuring the beautiful imagery of Pan’s Labyrinth in shadow. Fortunately for the audience, their gut intuition was right.

Encountering a creature in Pan's Labyrinth

The Best Cinematography: A Look At 2015’s Oscar Nominees

Oscar award

The Academy Awards nominations for 2015 are out and as usual there’s a mix of powerhouses, underdogs, surprises, and sure things. For the Best Cinematography  category, the list of nominees ranges from potential Best Picture winners to foreign films with few other nods in other categories. If you are looking to better understand the craft of cinematography, the work of these six cinematographers offer a fantastic supplement to in-class studies.

Here then is a look at the careers of the six cinematographers up for the Oscar.

1. Emmanuel Lubezki – Birdman

Michael Keaton in Birdman

Emmanuel Lubezki is no stranger to the Academy Awards, having earned six other nominations, including for Gravity, which earned him his first Oscar last year. Lubezki is of Russian heritage and was born and raised in Mexico, and has collaborated on several films with Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and Terence Malick. He was also nominated for his work on The Tree of Life, Children of Men, The New World, Sleepy Hollow and A Little Princess.

Other credits include the indie film Twenty Bucks, Reality Bites, The Birdcage, Meet Joe Black, and The Cat in the Hat. He has two upcoming films with AGI and Malick.

2. Robert Yeoman – The Grand Budapest Hotel

Pink boxes in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Robert Yeoman is an American cinematographer and a first-time Oscar nominee. He has shot every live-action film of Wes Anderson. He’s also DPed Drugstore Cowboy, The Wizard, Dogma, The Squid and the Whale, Yes Man, Get Him to the Greek, Whip It, and Bridesmaids.

His next film will be the upcoming Melissa McCarthy comedy Spy.

3. Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski – Ida

Scene from Ida

Polish cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski are thirty-three years apart in age and have never collaborated before their work on black-and-white foreign-film darling Ida, but they clearly bring out the best in each other as this is the first nomination for both of them.

Zal has worked mostly on documentary features and shorts, including Joanna, Arena, and Paparazzi. His upcoming film is The Here After. Lenczewski has DPed Intermission, Margaret, and My Summer of Love.

4. Dick Pope – Mr. Turner

Timothy Spalling in Mr. Turner

Dick Pope’s work on Mr. Turner earned him his second Oscar nomination—the British cinematographer was also nominated in 2006 for The Illusionist. A frequent collaborator of Mr. Turner director Mike Leigh, Pope’s credits as director of photography include Secrets & Lies, The Way of the Gun, Nicholas Nickelby, Vera Drake, Me and Orson Welles, Happy-Go-Lucky, and Bernie.

5. Roger Deakins – Unbroken

Scene from Unbroken

Is this Roger Deakins’ year? So far, he’s always been the bridesmaid, with a staggering 12 nominations for Best Cinematography and not a single win. The English DP is a frequent collaborator with the Coen Brothers and has been previously nominated for shooting Prisoners, Skyfall, True Grit, The Reader, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, The Man Who Wasn’t There, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Kundun, Fargo, and The Shawshank Redemption.

Other credits include Doubt, In Time, The House of Sand and Fog, The Village, A Beautiful Mind, Dead Man Walking and Sid and Nancy. His next film will be another Coen Brothers effort—Hail, Caesar!

In addition, a portion of the film was shot on the Village Roadshows Studios lot shared by the New York Film Academy Australia on behalf of Screen Queensland.

Who do you think will take home the gold? Let us know in the comments!

The Best Cinematography: The Look Of There Will Be Blood

An oil derrick on fire from There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic drama, There Will Be Blood, floored critics in 2007 and was nominated for Best Picture. Inspired by Upton Sinclair’s ninety-year old novel Oil!, the film was set in the dirty, scorched earth of turn-of-the-century California and told the story of Daniel Plainview, a larger-than-life caricature of capitalism and American industriousness.

While Blood lost Best Picture, it did win Oscars for two of its most prominent features: Daniel Day-Lewis’s unforgettable performance and the film’s stunning, sweeping cinematography. That award went to the film’s DP, Robert Elswit, an American journeyman who has shot dozens of films in his career. Elswit, who grew up and attended film school in California, cites John Cassavetes as a heavy influence, and first worked as director of photography on the Rob Reiner comedy The Sure Thing.

Since then, he has shot everything from dramas to thrillers to comedies to Bond films and other action blockbusters, for directors including Curtis Hanson, Tony Gilroy, David Mamet, Philip Noyce, Brad Bird, Stephen Gaghan and Ben Affleck. He famously shot George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck in color, converting the film to black & white in post to give the look a greater range of shading. Most recently, Elswit filmed Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, the well-reviewed Jake Gyllenahaal crime thriller.

Despite all these varied projects, Elswit is probably best known for his collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson, since PTA’s very first feature, Hard Eight, and continuing to his present film Inherent Vice. Elswit has shot all of Anderson’s films, with the sole exception of 2012’s The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson is widely considered one of the medium’s greatest living directors, and is famous for being improvisational and working on shots and scenes in the moment, waiting to see what the context of the day’s shooting will bring to the work. This style is especially difficult for camera crews in Hollywood whose jobs are quite technical, and who are used to preparation and precision. Elswit’s long-standing relationship with the director has been of great benefit to their collaboration, giving them decades of rapport and understanding and allowing them to work within each other’s orbits.

Daniel Day Lewis baptized by Paul Dano

Style & Influence

Elswit is a staunch and vocal supporter of shooting with film, avoiding digital as much as possible. He’s been quoted as saying that digital offers “no texture, no grain.” Fortunately for the DP, Paul Thomas Anderson is of the same opinion, and There Will Be Blood was shot entirely in film. Not only that, but only film dailies were used, with no DIs, or digital intermediates, unless shots were using the rare digital effect (mostly related to oil wells and removing anachronistic elements impossible to block out.) The possibilities of digital would give Anderson’s improvising nature a lot to work with—in his own opinion, too much to work with—and so he avoids it at all costs.

Hard Eight, their first collaboration, was shot in Super 35 but every film they’ve done together since has been anamorphic due to Anderson’s preference for its depth of field and look. Both Anderson and Elswit are noted fans of the films of the 1930s and 40s, many of which used anamorphic ratios. A specific point of reference for There Will Be Blood was John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, released in 1948. Anderson wanted to achieve Huston’s straightforward style, using simple frames and a small number of angles for each scene.

Lenses

Most of the film is shot with high-speed anamorphic lenses on a Panavision XL, all in 35mm. Anderson prefers the look of slower film stocks, which need much more light for exposure, and so most day scenes used Kodak 50D while night scenes used Kodak 200T. The Vision2 stocks were relied on for the relatively low contrast and usefulness in exterior shots, important to the on-location shoot.

The crew used Panavision lenses that were specially modified either for Blood or for previous films, like Solaris and Memoirs of a Geisha, including lenses whose optics were four decades old. Lenses were modified so that low-speeds could be used whenever possible, typically interiors that could be adequately lit. Others, including a modded 43mm lens, were used for their desaturated, low-contrast, low-resolution look. Anderson avoided zoom lenses at all cost, preferring to use the slower (and thus more expensive) setups needed for prime lenses, insisting that the looks framed by 40mm, 50mm, 75mm, and 100mm lenses were essential to the staging and design of the film.

The bowling alley scene in There Will Be Blood

Other modifications were made to the lenses to give the film its more vintage look. For some shots, the crew removed the anti-reflective chemical coatings from the glass, creating more organic-looking flares modern audiences are used to seeing. Alterations were made to the types of glass and even the roundness of the lenses. The crew has since remarked it was one of the most challenging shoots of their careers—some of the lenses were tested extensively before being used for a scene.

Concentrating on achieving the look they wanted through lenses, Anderson hoped to avoid using filters and other common cinematographic techniques. Elswit disagreed, insisting filters like the 85 are custom made and do not hurt the image—he had to lobby hard to use them in There Will Be Blood.

Location

Most of Blood takes place in the scorching sun of the American Southwest, in wide-open desert and plains in the brightest parts of the day. The preferred use of anamorphic lenses was ideal for capturing the expansive landscapes the setting provided. The production eventually settled on Marfa, Texas as the primary location for their shoot. Marfa retained some of the manmade structures that gave the period film its feel, like railroads and ranches, but it was its middle-of-nowhereness that really won over the production team. Elswit said of Marfa, “There aren’t many spots in America where you can stand on top of a hill and see absolutely nothing in all directions.”

The spot allowed production designer Jack Fisk to build and arrange the small town of There Will Be Blood in a way that allowed them all to be visually connected in a very physical way. The structures important to the story, like the oil well and the church, could both be dwarfed by their environment and feel like an essential part of the terrain.

Daniel Day Lewis and son walk in There Will Be Blood

Fire & Lights

One of Blood’s key moments involves a huge fire consuming the oil derrick in the middle of the night. The crew, using practical effects over digital, originally planned to shoot this important scene over two or three nights, extinguishing the fire and re-lighting it for the next evening’s setups. Unfortunately, they quickly realized that once the fire started, the dry, hot environment would not allow them to put it out. The entire derrick would have to burn all at once, and the crew would have to get all the shots it could in the space of a single night. This results in reduced setups and angles, and made it harder for the crew to match the varying colors of the night sky, as the shoot started in the magic hour of dusk and continued into the bluing and then black night.

Anderson also insisted on using actual flames for the reversal shots of the actors watching the fire, even though Elswit was confident he could recreate the look with practical lighting. Instead, the crew used real fire, protected by flame retardant suits the actors were obviously unable to wear themselves. The heat of the flames were strongly felt by the actors and allowed them to give performances more physical than they probably preferred.

For the several campfire scenes, the crew did use practical effects, including homemade flicker boxes designed by Elswit. Using dozens of smaller bulbs to soften the lights, and amber, yellow and red gels to attain the right colors, the crew was able to replicate the look efficiently. Recreating the impression of the period oil lamps and candles proved more difficult however, as the light level the practical props achieved were too low for the film stocks. Elswit was forced to artificially light these interior scenes in a way that kept the color temperature low enough to resemble candlelight but not too warm that the film dipped too far into the red spectrum.

Another tricky scene to light was early in the film when Plainview hangs from a harness in the shaft of a mine. Day-Lewis performed the stunt himself and needed to be lit at the bottom of the shaft. A truss rig was built to suspend the combination of 18/12K and 6K Arrimax Pars above the shaft, but had to be in angled in a way that kept Day-Lewis safely out of their path had they fallen.

Yet another problem Elswit came across was Plainview’s infamous wide-brimmed hat. The hat, though now iconic, cast most of Day-Lewis’s face in deep shadow. Elswit needed to light the protagonist’s face in a way that didn’t feel artificial. He relied mostly on practical and ambient light, and tried to hide as many lights as possible within the set itself.

Overcoming the difficulties of such a challenging set, under the guide of such a challenging director, was no small feat. However, the effort of Elswit, Anderson and the crew of There Will Be Blood is right there on the screen, and resulted in one of the greatest films of the twenty-first century.

Daniel Day Lews in There Will Be Blood

 

The Best Cinematography – The Many Looks Of Avatar

A navi in Avatar shoots a bow and arrow

Avatar wasn’t just a theatrical release in 2009, it was a full blown force of nature. The biggest box office hit of all time, Avatar also revolutionized motion capture and 3D in Hollywood and picked up several Oscar nods and wins, including a nomination for Best Picture. It also won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for its director of photographer, Mauro Fiore, an Italian-American who has also shot the films Training Day, The Island, Real Steel, and Runner Runner, to name a few.

While Avatar’s dominance was no surprise to anyone, its win for Cinematography was interesting considering its competition. Avatar is nearly seventy percent computer generated, in some respects practically an animated film, and Fiore had only been behind the camera for less than a third of the movie’s running time. Its competitors in the Cinematography category included a gritty indie film shot on 16mm, a stylistic Tarantino World War II film, a gloomy Harry Potter sequel and a black & white German drama. However, Avatar bears the marks of a Mauro Fiore-shot film, and despite its abundance of digital effects, is a superbly photographed movie worthy of its award.

The film’s digital and live action elements are inseparable, however, and it’s impossible to talk about the look of Avatar without understanding its technical foundation. Director James Cameron famously spent fifteen years developing the technology and the world of Avatar, waiting until it was physically possible to bring his vision of a distant alien world to life. Much of the film was shot with the Fusion Camera System, a digital 3D apparatus co-developed by Cameron and since used with several other films. The Fusion allowed Cameron, Furio and the crew to shoot in 3D with a revolutionary quieter, smaller setup. It used stereoscopic lenses—two separate lenses on the same horizontal plane—to mimic the vision of two human eyes. By capturing two images slightly adjacent to one another, it created the same three-dimensional depth people see with their eyes. By adjusting the intraocular distance between the two lenses, the filmmakers had control over how much depth was in a given shot.

A scene from Avatar

The Fusion was able to reduce the distance between lenses to an incredibly small amount while also incorporating ten other types of motion that gave the filmmakers an unprecedented amount of control to compose a three-dimensional image. It could do all this and still be stripped down to even perform handheld and Steadicam work, which was crucial to Cameron’s intense direction. The Fusion also allowed for several types of cameras to work with it. In Avatar, Fiore shot with three different HD Sony models. Cameron, a famously hands-on filmmaker, would often operate the camera himself while Fiore blocked the scene.

Fiore, obviously new to this system, took several weeks to get acquainted with the equipment before he felt confident enough to shoot with it. This included getting familiar with how the Fusion would handle light, something any DP needs as much control over as possible. During this testing period, Fiore found the Fusion created a ghosting effect that would blur images with especially bright and especially dark objects within the same frame. Fiore was able to block his set to account for this, keeping certain objects apart, lighting them appropriately, and even using smoke to temper the effects of the contrast and ghosting.

Another technical innovation Avatar introduced to Hollywood was its virtual cinematography. For shooting in the animated world of Pandora, Cameron and his team could use a handheld controller similar to the one used in video games. Using a monitor that would show the motion-capture actors in their pre-rendered animated states, the team had full control over the scale and motion of the virtual camera. By switching the scale, the camera could tower over the digital figures as if atop a 100 foot crane. The controller could also operate the camera as if it were on dolly tracks, or a Steadicam rig, or even handheld. In effect, it was total cinematic control over the digital image.

Sam Waterson in Avatar

Despite these major technical innovations, Avatar still had to rely on traditional filmmaking methods to be a fully realized movie. The live-action shooting, while a smaller proportion of the production, was key as the foundation for the motion-capture and digital creations of the film. To help see what they were shooting, Cameron and Fiore were able to watch their dailies in 3D and make adjustments as they progressed.

Shooting in 3D, even with the Fusion, limited the range of depth of field for the cinematography team. This was especially concerning given how complex the jungle world of Pandora looked on screen, and with everything in focus, the audience’s eye could easily be overwhelmed. Fiore directed the audience’s attention by creating depth-of-field through light and contrast, as well as blocking. A longer lens was used for many shots, especially when giving the perspective of Jake, Avatar’s protagonist. In order to ground the fantastical world and story of the epic, Cameron used his human protagonist and handheld camera work to give the film a more naturalistic foundation.

Light was perhaps the most important element to the cinematography team, and is also what helped Fiore get the Avatar gig in the first place. It was his characteristic use of light in the jungle-set war film Tears of the Sun that helped convince Cameron Fiore was the right man for the job. By using the strong beams of sunlight that permeated the towering trees of Pandora, Fiore created a lush, vibrant image that made the planet feel real. By painting with light, Fiore helped give Avatar its distinctive look.

Navi hold hands in Avatar

Light was also Fiore’s key to seamlessly merging Avatar’s digital effects with its live action. Had the filmmakers fail to blend the two into a coherent movie, Avatar might have been remembered as a optically-jarring flop as opposed to the visual masterpiece its now known as. Fiore realized early on in the production that he could use reflective paint and reflective material on certain objects that would react to UV light in a way that differentiated them in post-production, allowing the green screen around them to feel invisible.

Green screen was obviously a prominent part of Avatar’s shoot. Even the ceiling of many sets used green screen, which made it impossible for Fiore and his team to hide their lights. To work around this problem, Fiore cut stripes of green screen and hung them from the ceiling like curtains, in effect hiding the lights. Once the effects were superimposed on the green screen, the strips and ceiling all formed one single image.

Since many exterior scenes were also shot indoors with green screen, Fiore also had to block with light sources that weren’t physically there. In each shot he had to be aware of where the sun would be digitally added and theoretically light the scene. For one major sequence involving an army of soldiers, Cameron actually chose to shoot outside, night-for-day. At first, Fiore thought faking night for day was ludicrous but eventually saw Cameron’s reasoning. By lighting with their own equipment as opposed to the actual sun, they had total control over illumination and shadows. And if there was one thing Cameron cherished on his set, it was total control, even over the heavens.

A scene from Avatar

Since light was one of Fiore’s few physical tools, he used it creatively to establish movement as well. When there were scenes shot in the interiors of vehicles, typically these vehicles were stationary, limited by the green screen set. To create the illusion of fast and twisting movement, Fiore placed lights on quick-moving cranes and other equipment. By changing light and shadows on the actors and props inside the vehicles, Fiore could create apparent velocity and movement.

By using light and adapting to Cameron’s advanced hardware, Fiore and the Avatar team were able to create a grounded, physical look for a fantastical, digital movie. As a watershed film in Hollywood’s technological evolution, the cinematography of Avatar shows how the old and new can be combined to make something not quite either.

Christopher Nolan & Wally Pfister: The Best Cinematography Duo in Modern Cinema?

Make no mistake about it – Christopher Nolan is an exceptional writer who has the uncanny ability to bring innovative ideas to a plot while at the same time never straying from established storytelling conventions.

Christopher Nolan movies

This balance – and knowing precisely when to push boundaries and when to stay within them – have resulted in a near-flawless filmography over the past fifteen years. His only real box-office and critical bomb was this year’s Transcendence, on which he only acted as a producer rather than a screenwriter.

But it could be argued that Christopher Nolan’s finished movies would look a lot more paint-by-numbers if it wasn’t for how stunningly beautiful they’re always packaged.

And for that, Nolan has one man to thank.

Wally Pfister NYFA

Wally Pfister: DP Extraordinaire

Like many of the industry’s most gifted professionals, Pfister started out young. He’d already discovered a passion for cinematography at the age of just 11, having become enthralled watching a lighting crew work on scenes for a movie being shot in his neighborhood.

Shortly after high school, he began turning his passion into a paying career, working as a production assistant for a news channel in Maryland. But it was to be a stretch of fifteen years shooting PSAs, doing odd grip and electrician work, and working on PBS documentaries before he was to form a partnership that would change the face of Hollywood.

When Wally Met Chris

In 1998, Pfister was working long into the night on a movie with a tiny budget. Feeling restless and looking for a change in career pace, he began leafing through a script that was doing the rounds on set. The other crew members and DP couldn’t see any value or merit in the choppy, confusing narrative; Pfister, however, was blown away.

Memento Wally Pfister

That screenplay was to be Memento.

By chance, Christopher Nolan had heard of Wally’s prior work and was interested in meeting him – but it was a one shot-chance with a finite window of opportunity. Pfister walked off set, caught the first plane from Alabama to Los Angeles and made it back in the same day to continue working.

“I hadn’t slept in 36 hours. I was a mess. I was rambling. Obviously, I was impressed by how intelligent Chris was. I was a little intimidated meeting him,” Pfister told The Daily Beast. “So I left there going, “Oh, well, that would have been great.”

But as fate would have it, not only did Nolan hire Pfister for the job of Director of Photography, but the quirky independent movie went on to great critical and commercial success, arguably thanks to Wally’s stylistic handling of the source material.

What Wally Brought to Chris

Following Memento, Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister went on to even greater heights and many of the most defining moments in the duo’s shared filmography came from Wally.

Wally Pfister Dark Knight joker
The scene with Batman standing on the Sears Tower at dusk, overlooking the city? That was Pfister. The shot outside the Parisienne cafe in Inception where the city folds in on itself? Also Pfister.

But as well as bringing his own visual elements to the table, one of the biggest reasons behind the success of the Nolan/Pfister partnership is that they’re in lock-step with each other. Nolan dreams up a scene involving an anti-gravity hotel corridor, and Pfister works out how to achieve it; Pfister pitches a visual involving a command module docking with a rapidly spinning spaceship, and Nolan writes it into the script.

What Chris and Wally Share

The other ingredient for success is that they both share a similar ethos when it comes to filmmaking. While it is Nolan that is famed for hating digital effects, 3D shooting and an over-reliance on CGI, it was Wally who helped him nurture this passion and turn it from a restriction to a benefit.

This even goes right down to how the pair utilize lighting, with Pfister stating: “Before you can know how to place a light, you have to understand natural light. You don’t need technology to have a good eye and an appreciation of the beauty of natural light. Go buy a book on Carvaggio or any of the Dutch Masters. To me, that’s beautiful lighting and it’s all natural and from 500 years ago.”

Pfister-director

And the reason that Nolan and Pfister appears to pioneer the craft of filmmaking is because it is; the two came to iMax filming together for their work on the Dark Knight trilogy, and had to problem solve and figure it out together at a time when nobody else knew how.

What Wally Teaches Cinematography Students

In a hugely popular talk and Q&A session given at the New York Film Academy, Pfister had this closing advice to offer students at the cinematography school: “You have to take risks. That’s what will make your career last longer. You have to fight to get your vision on the screen (but not fight with your director).”

Never a truer word spoken.

The Best Cinematography: Hugo And Martin Scorcese’s 3D Wonderland

A scene from Martin Scorcese's Hugo

In 2011, the Academy Award for Best Cinematography went to Robert Richardson for his work on Hugo, a 3D children’s film that just so happened to be directed by Martin Scorsese. It had serious competition that year, beating out films directed by David Fincher, Terence Malick, and Steven Spielberg as well as that year’s Best Picture—The Artist. One look at that adaptation of a children’s book about the turn-of-the-century filmmaking and visual effects pioneer Georges Méliès, and its Oscar is no surprise.

While a 3D film loaded with visual VFX might seem like a bewildering choice for a gritty auteur like Scorsese, he’s actually a perfect fit for the film. Centered on the wonder of filmmaking and the magic Méliès brought to the medium in its earliest years, walking film school Martin Scorsese was a no-brainer to helm the movie. In many ways, he was Hugo himself, a little boy enchanted by the wizardry of filmmaking and optical effects.

Scorsese, one of the most prominent and powerful of analog film’s champions, embraced Hugo’s story of experimenting with the medium, choosing to shoot the film not only digitally but also in 3D, an obvious first for the director. The result is widely considered to be the best use of three dimensions and one of the most beautifully shot 3D films of all time. Unlike most of its contemporaries, it even amazes on the small screen, maximizing the potential of 3D DVD.

Soldiers with spears in Hugo

Scorsese wasn’t interested in 3D as a gimmick, remarking “I found 3D to be really interesting, because the actors were more upfront emotionally. Their slightest move, their slightest intention is picked up much more precisely.” Together, he, DP Richardson, and the visual effects team used convergence, the moving of the image through the dimensions to the point of appearing as if it’s breaking past the screen and coming toward the audience, to compose their shots. The film was built and storyboarded from the ground up, considering convergence and depth in every frame. Thinking ahead and factoring in the extra dimension even allowed filmmakers to move the images as opposed to moving the camera, giving the medium an entirely additional set of “camera moves” in addition to dollies and zooms.

Because Méliès essentially invented the concept of trick shots and using the camera to create images that aren’t being strictly photographed in reality, greater care went into the VFX of the film celebrating his life and work. Despite being at the forefront of computer imagery, digital filmmaking and 3D technology, the visual effects team took multiple approaches to Hugo and worked closely with Richardson and the cinematography department.

This included using optical and in-camera effects, much like Méliès did himself. For the recreation of the great train wreck, the film used meticulously-detailed miniatures. When Sacha Baron Cohen is dragged by a moving train, the platform he’s standing on actually moves in the shot and creates the illusion it’s the train pulling him along. Practical effects like this are sprinkled throughout the movie both as playful nods to Méliès as well as to create another texture to a digitally shot spectacle, which could easily look flat and empty if not shot with care.

Snowing in Paris in Hugo

Scorsese and Richardson also paid homage to the period and history of film in its choice of color correction. The overall look and color of Hugo takes its inspiration from the look of Autochrome, a color process the Lumière brothers pioneered when black-and-white was pretty much all there was. While also commenting on the early days of moviemaking for those who study film to geek out on, it also added to the mood and setting Scorsese was trying to set.

Richardson and Scorsese also relied on traditional camera techniques and framing to bring Hugo to life. A great deal of effort went into the complex mise-en-scene of the bustling train station the movie is predominantly set in. Framing and position is even more so important considering the depth afforded by 3D. Scorsese also uses the language of staging to call back to earlier sequences in the film, such as when Hugo is hanging from a giant clock hand, repeating the visual from one of Méliès’ works seen earlier in the story.

Using a massive budget and state-of-the-art visual VFX to recreate 1930s Paris, Scorsese, and Richardson made sure to show off their world with sweeping aerial shots. Aerial shots and bird’s eye views are also employed to orient the audience in the busy train station. Finally, understanding Hugo was intended first and foremost for kids, Scorsese uses low-angle shots looking up, the perspective of small children, especially with scenes of authoritative figures like Sacha Baron Cohen’s station agent.

For those who cite film as their passion as frequently as Martin Scorsese, Hugo is a must-watch. Using clever cinematography blended with amazing VFX and 3D, viewers are invited to enter a world both fantasy and historical, and take a peek at a medium both scientific and magical. Hugo is a children’s movie but it is for everybody—because anyone watching it will have the same child-like wonder Scorsese brings to even his darkest films.

Hugo hanging from the clock in Hugo