Month: November, 2014

The Art of Layering

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A frame from Bruno Aveillan’s commission for Swarovski. A superb example of bold and complex layering in the image.

The visual complexity of successful motion picture work––particularly high-concept imagery––can be challenging to deconstruct, even for those of us who do it for a living. As the audience we know viscerally when a piece works, but it’s often difficult to understand what elements came together to create this effect, or even how the artists conceived such complexity to start with. We can feel that it works, but we don’t know why.

I find it useful when designing a project to think in terms of layers. I’m not talking about the spatial layering of the image (foreground, subject, background), though that is of course also important. I’m talking about the layers of visual technique that are used to deepen the viewer’s experience. The music video for Timbaland’s The Way I Are, shot by Swedish cinematographer Eric Maddison, provides a good example:

Music videos are fertile ground for visual layering because they are designed explicitly to project style. The base canvas in this video is fairly simple: night exterior shots of two artists performing, intercut with football players doing some fancy footwork in a tunnel. But it is the layers added to this canvas that make the video so engaging. For me the first layer is the addition of a high-contrast look, with strong cyan highlights in the background. The next layer is the selective focus (achieved in this case via swing and shift lenses). Additional layers include the frenetic camera movement, the flashing lights with lens flares, off-camera lights moving across the actors, double exposures (achieved in post-production), and the hi-speed work. Though individually none of these techniques is anything to write home about, their combined effect leads to spectacular results, and this is due entirely to careful planning on the part of the cinematographer.

Post-production and VFX have begun to play an increasingly important role in this process of layering. In Damascus, a seductive city portrait produced by Waref Abu Quba, is a non-fiction project with magnificent VFX layering over surprisingly simple cinematography:

As Waref shows us in his making-of video, he uses a wide array of VFX tools to deliver an intricately layered image: composite elements, film looks, camera movement, sky replacement, textures, and considerable manipulation of focus, to name just a few. Strong work.

Great cinematographers are great in part because of their ability to visualize complex layering––the potential depth of an image––during the project’s development. I can see farther now than I used to, but for me developing this kind of foresight is still very much a work in progress, and I expect it will stay that way throughout my career. Whenever I hit a wall when researching the look of an upcoming project––when I know there are more layers, but I just can’t see them yet––I often call upon visual artists I’m close with to help brainstorm. I consider myself very fortunate to have friends and colleagues far more talented than myself, and I hope this will always be the case.

The view from Kostava Street: rain and rain. Happy to be back in Tbilisi!

A case study: color grading


One-pass color grade via Photoshop. Shot on Arri Alexa in Log C mode.


The camera original. The red key light allowed us to easily transform the location’s background from white to cyan in post-production. Other changes include increased contrast, skin-tone adjustments, and the application of a subtle vignette.

There was a time early in my career when post-production work was less about color grading and more about basic color correction: making global color adjustments to rough in a general look (and fix photographic mistakes I made during the shoot). It was more broad strokes than anything else. These days the look I want is almost always more complex than what can be achieved in-camera, and both color theory and color grading have come to play central roles in my cinematography practice.

Recent advancements in color grading technology have dramatically raised the ceiling on what is possible for cinematographers to achieve. The speed of these changes is shocking: every time I grade a new project I’m surprised how much more control we have in the color suite. But taking advantage of this potential, especially now shooting digitally, requires that we shoot with increasing awareness of how our footage prepares us for the color grade. This strategy requires forethought; waiting until post to see what’s possible invites far too much risk in a professional motion picture environment.

The above scene from a recent commercial is an example of what it means to shoot for the color grade. To make this location more interesting, I wanted the subway’s native lights to be cyan instead of dull white in the background. But because we were shooting on a working subway car with limited resources, it was not feasible to alter their color during production. I chose instead to rely on the color grade to achieve this effect, but doing so required lighting the talent in a way that would isolate their color from the background (lest they also turn cyan). So I lit my subjects with a red key light (magenta + orange), knowing that when we dialed out the red during the grade, the talent would return to normal and the background would skew cyan (the opposite of red). Getting the skin tones right required a little bit of attention, but in general the strategy was a quick solution to make an otherwise uninspired background more pleasing.

There are some shoots—documentaries, for example—where there is no time to think about color at this level. These shoots ask the cinematographer to focus primarily on content, composition, and diplomacy. As camera and post-production technologies continue to evolve, however, color options will only increase in number, and this is great news for the non-fiction genre. When I look at how quickly our aesthetic sensibilities are evolving today, it’s very exciting to think about what comes next.