Month: August, 2013

Art + Science

Collins

Space Shuttle commander Eileen Collins, as photographed by Annie Leibovitz in 1999. A product of NASA’s brilliant Art Program initiated in 1962 to document and capture the drama of its missions.

Few fields of human endeavor are more in need of effective visual communication than the sciences, and as the tempo of our discovery and innovation continues to accelerate this need will only become more pronounced. The good news is that motion picture content is remarkably adept at translating scientific concepts into narratives that broader audiences can appreciate, and film is one of the few media that can reproduce the excitement and sheer awe of scientific exploration. The space where art and science meet is an inspiring space.

I have been fortunate that my documentary training has involved so many projects about the sciences, from National Geographic shows about King Tut to NOVA specials about the cosmos. I remember a day early in my career, as a young apprentice for Reuben Aaronson, when we shot an interview at UCLA’s astronomy department with Dr. Andrea Ghez, one of the world’s leading experts on the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Over the past several years, and in recent conversations about some upcoming projects, I have begun to think more explicitly about how my career can bring me closer to the sciences. Beyond my personal interest, as a filmmaker and educator I also feel a kind of professional obligation to use my cinematic training to support scientific exploration. It baffles me that the general public does not view science in a sexier light, and the potential for ambassadorship through the motion picture arts is tremendous. Like most non-fiction content, the problem lies not in the subject matter, but in how it is presented to audiences. The mission is clear: how can we as filmmakers present science to a broad base of viewers in ways that do justice to the subject matter?

Thankfully, the past ten years have seen a dramatic rise in short-form film and video projects dedicated to the sciences, from brilliant TED talks and TED-Ed animations, to the video work coming out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to the very exciting aesthetic evolution taking place in traditional broadcast documentaries. Last year I attended an evening event at the Motion Picture Academy called Capturing the Final Frontier, where NASA staff were invited to present their recent animation work alongside some of Hollywood’s most accomplished visual effects artists. Hearing these scientists speak at the invitation of cinema’s most respected organization gave me much hope for what we can do to help shape how science and scientists are viewed in our society.

The final view from Anchorage Street: memories, and memories. Looking forward to what comes next.

Anatomy of a Shot: Classroom Day Interior

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I just wrapped a very rewarding day of principle photography on a film I’ve been shooting for director Derek Owen. The main shot of the day was a dolly move that tracks across the faces of students in a classroom, many of whom have eccentric costumes or personalities. Derek and I had many discussions about how we wanted this scene to look and both of us were interested in seeing some bright elements in the frame, especially since many of the other scenes in the film have a heavier feel.

It is challenging to find new and interesting ways to shoot a classroom scene: the spatial configuration of the room allows little flexibility, and there are only so many camera angles available to cover the action. Our location on this shoot—a very typical office space—introduced an additional layer of complexity. How do you make a drab office location into a visually engaging scene? My first strategy was to regain control of the location’s color palette, which was dominated by office colors and fluorescent lighting. We turned off almost all the fluorescents and replaced those remaining with daylight-balanced tubes. I also applied a cool hue in camera to all our shots, which might be pushed even further in the color grade.

My second strategy was to shoot facing the wall of windows. Having such bright elements in the background would allow us to add a strong backlight on all the actors, which in turn would allow me underexpose their faces a bit. The film’s gaffer, Ryan French, suggested adding Hampshire Frost diffusion to all the windows and this helped smooth out the overexposure effect.

Day interiors can be a big lighting challenge for low-budget projects. The difficulty lies in the how you handle the extreme exposure difference between the windows and the action inside the room, while at the same time achieving the look you want for the scene. The most common technique is to use large lighting units placed outside the windows to create an effect of either hard sun, soft ambiance, or something in between. This approach allows a great deal of control in creating the right mood for the scene and provides lots of flexibility for the actors vis-à-vis blocking and performance. But these particular lighting units are expensive, as is the generator needed to power them and the lighting technicians needed to operate them. Many low-budget projects get around this problem by planning shots that avoid windows in the frame, but this is extremely limiting from a photographic standpoint.

We wanted a strong backlight for the actors, but the architecture of the location didn’t allow us to place lights outside the windows. Instead Ryan rigged three small lights—400w Joker HMIs—as high as possible at the back of the classroom, knowing that we would need to match their intensity with that of the overexposed windows. We also added a bit of soft sidelight for the actors, and this provided a glint in their eyes that helps sell the slight underexposure of their faces.

To complement the strong backlight and the overexposed windows I proposed in pre-production that we add some light haze to the room, perhaps even have one of the characters smoke on camera. It turned out that haze was not permitted at this location, so I explored in-camera options that could achieve a similar effect of lowering the contrast and causing the highlights to bloom a bit. We rented several different strengths of Tiffen’s Double Fog series of camera filters, though ultimately we ended up using a streak filter that our camera operator had made himself.

I am pleased with how this shot turned out: we made our day with time to spare and the resulting images look almost exactly how I envisioned them. But what really made this shoot possible on a low budget wasn’t the equipment or the location, but the caliber of our small crew. I consider myself very fortunate to work with people who are more experienced and more talented than myself, and I hope this will always be the case. Big thanks to long-time colleagues Ryan French (gaffer), Gary Breckel (lighting technician), and camera operator Richard Krall. They and the rest of the team added so much to the shoot.

The view from Anchorage Street: green sea, cardboard boxes, nostalgia. I will miss this home.