cinematography hacks

Ways to Create Space When Filming in a Small Area

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

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

DEEP SPACE

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

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

1. Use wide-angle lenses.

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

2. Use high number F. stops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Light with shadow.

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

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

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

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

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

A SIMPLE TRICK FOR DEALING WITH EXTREMELY SMALL SPACES

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

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

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

Cinematography Hacks & Toolbag Essentials No DP Should Be Without!

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

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

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

Cinematography Hacks & Essential Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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