Month: February, 2011

The Oscars, et al.

"The King's Speech"

I make a point of making sure I’ve seen all the Oscar nominees for Best Cinematography. That this year’s films were well-photographed goes without saying, but one film, The King’s Speech, stood in a category all its own. While the other DPs were shooting the best films possible according to accepted standards of motion picture photography, I felt as though cinematographer Danny Cohen was operating in a category all his own. A few photographic elements that impressed me:

  1. A willingness to embrace an understated style;
  2. Masterful use of top lighting;
  3. An incredibly nuanced sensitivity to exposure balance between subject and environment;
  4. No mindless obsession with fill light and back lights (as you often find in Hollywood);

That Danny Cohen didn’t win the Oscar makes me realize that perhaps I’ve been apprenticing on the wrong continent.

Onward and Upward

A 1920s "biomechanics" workshop by Soviet theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold. This image is the visual fulcrum for a short film project that I'll be shooting in the coming months. Photograph by Alexander Grinberg.

I’ve got a few short film shoots coming up that I’m very excited about. One is a 15-minute narrative piece, shot on 16mm black-and-white film, directed by Art Center student Peter Yu. Peter’s script, a story of betrayal and retribution involving a high-school teacher, her student, and his adulterous father, is heavily influenced by Woody Allen. Though I find Woody Allen intolerable to watch, I’ve realized over the past several weeks that it is mostly Woody Allen the actor and character that I dislike, not his writing or directing, which I must admit (grudgingly) can be quite strong.

The second project is a conceptual documentary piece by an Irish filmmaker who will be visiting the States for an unrelated exhibition of her work. Her project is rooted in the principles of Soviet 1920s-era constructivism, specifically the (then) avant-garde idea of liberation through collective structures, in this case symbolic performance exercises in a proscenium envirnoment. I’m intrigued by her past film work, which seems more comfortable in a gallery than at a festival, and admire her courage for experimentation. This project will also be shot on 16mm (color), a rare opportunity these days in the documentary genre.

Quiet light

Photograph by Max Green Ekelin

There is something so deeply enchanting about silent light. It is meditative yet outward-looking, small yet vast, lonely yet content. It is elusive, and is often so nuanced, so delicate, that one is afraid the camera itself might cause its immediate decay. One finds it often in Soviet cinema after 1960 and in photography from Scandinavia and Iceland. In American film we see it most prominently in the work of Terrance Malick, particularly in The Thin Red Line. It is witnessed most often during twilight, that most liminal state when the earth is balanced for a very few minutes between absorbing heat and its emanation.

Rare is the cinematographer who has mastered this style.

Shooting the sitcom: some things never change

“I Love Lucy,” as seen from the audience during production. Not at all unlike the view from the audience on any of today’s three-camera sitcoms.

I recently spent a week working in the lighting department on the sitcom Mike and Molly, which shoots on the Warner Brothers lot. Mike and Molly is shot the way traditional three-camera sitcoms have all been shot since time eternal: live audience, proscenium-style sets, and lighting that supports simultaneous camera coverage. Photographically, I don’t find this paradigm terribly engaging, but I did learn some interesting things on set this week:

  1. From a crew standpoint, the world of three-camera sitcoms is very insular: the guys that work these shows rarely work outside this genre (e.g., on features, commercials, dramatic episodic television, etc.). Because I typically work on everything but sitcoms, I recognized very few of the crew;
  2. The lighting style of these sitcoms hasn’t really changed in the past 60 years. I Love Lucy is lit in basically the same style as Friends or Mike and Molly: huge camera-side fill and an army of back lights covering every blocking angle. There are very few shadows;
  3. The mechanics of how this lighting style is achieved, however, changed a bit as these shows transitioned from film to digital: the light levels on set are generally lower (requiring less power), the electric department uses smaller lighting units but more of them, and everything is patched into the stage’s dimmer channels. There is less light overall, but much more control.

I was surprised to see how large a role the live audience plays in these shows. On shoot days, it really felt like the actors were performing for the live audience instead of the camera. I left with the impression that in some ways the three-camera sitcom really is where theater meets cinema, which may be how many in Hollywood understood the role of television when the sitcom first came into our homes. Interesting that this perspective lives on today.