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“I used to call what we do when we light for movies ‘poetic realism.’ A scene should look real, but it should also have poetry. When we light something in a movie, we sometimes want it to look better than life. Sometimes we want to exaggerate a little bit to get the point across. We might make early-morning sunshine coming through a window extremely light, even sparkling. On its own, the eye probably wouldn’t see that light that way, but perhaps we want the audience to not just see the brightness, but also feel it. When you light to tell a story, you don’t want to simply duplicate what the eye would see in that situation, you also want to create a feeling. We all see a  lot of detail in shadows, but when cinematographers light a dark scene, we often let the shadows go completely black. Would all the detail the eye sees be more interesting than exaggerating the feeling of darkness?…It’s almost imperative that you overdo some things a little bit in order for the audiences to perceive what they’re seeing as real. And that’s okay, because audiences are used to seeing things that way in movies! Moonlight is a perfect example — it never looks in a movie the way it does in reality. Real moonlight is very subtle, but in movies it usually ends up looking somewhat blue. And the real moon doesn’t reflect the amount of light that artificial moonlight has in movies. Sometimes you have to use a sort of impressionistic technique to get the point across, and if you do that well, audiences are very willing to accept ‘movie reality.’”
Oscar-winning Vilmos Zsigmond Director of Photography (Close Encounters of the Third Kind)
ASC Interview with Jon Siberg

Let me add that one of the real cinematography cheats of the moonlight spilling into homes—especially when people are sleeping—is not the color or the illumination, it’s that the curtains are usually open in movies and television programs. I’ve walked and driven  through many neighborhoods in my life and I’d guess that 95% of the curtains/blinds are closed at night. And in real life the only reasons you’d leave your curtains open in your bedroom when you sleep is if you want to wake up at sunrise and/or to a beautiful view.

And since in my last post I said that Janusz Kaminski was born in Poland, I should mention Zsigmond was born in Szeged, Hungary.

Related Posts:
Cinematography Cheats #1
10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)
How to Get Started Working in Production (2.0) Where I found a quote about Zsigmond after he immigrated to the United States first found work in Los Angeles as a technician in a film lab and also as a home portrait photographer.
Start Small…But Start Somewhere

P.S. Countdown to 2000th special post on January 22, 2015—15 posts.

 

Scott W. Smith

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“I can make three bad movies and still make movies.”
Janusz Kaminski on the career longevity of a cinematographer verses a director

How does one go from being born in Ziebice, Dolnoslaski, Poland to being the Oscar-winning right hand cinematographer of director Steven Spielberg?

The short answer is talent and hustle.

At least that’s what I gathered from reading and watching various interviews with Janusz Kaminski who shot Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, War Horse, Lincoln, Munich as well as other Spielberg and many other non-Spielberg projects.

Kaminski also used his weakness to his advantage. Because he was an immigrant to the United States he felt like English as a second language might create some communication barriers if he chose to be a director or writer while in film school so he focused on shooting.

And shooting a lot. While a student at Columbia College Chicago (82-87) he says he shot between 30-40 student films. That’s a lot of films. Especially since that was back in the day where I imagine we’re talking narrative and documentary films actually shot on film not You Tube-ready videos that are shot and edited in a day.

Being foreign he said also made him strong on non verbal storytelling. Another advantage Kaminski had growing up in Poland during a communistic regime is the only American films he was allowed to see where ones that showed a disillusioned America—meaning a heavy dose of 70s films like Taxi Driver and The Panic in Needle Park.

(An America he says he didn’t find when he first came to the United States and still hasn’t seen. When he arrived in the USA the country was in the middle of a fitness craze.)

He made a demo reel from his student films and landed an independent feature film in Hollywood. He also spent a year at AFI one year and started working for Roger Corman’s company New Horizons shooting what he says were exploitation films and silly movies with men running around in rubber suits and crime suspense.

And here’s one more little gem I can pass on that Kaminski did to set himself a part from everyone else. He said he once interned on a film shot by John A. Alonzo that starred Tom Hanks.

I think that film was Nothing in Common (1986) which makes sense because I believe that was shot in Chicago during the time Kaminski was going to college. But he didn’t take the formal route to get the internship. He simple saw a film being shot, jumped a fence introduced himself to Alonzo. As Christopher Lockhart has said— when you see a shot take it.

You can bet he learned a thing or two about lighting and running a crew from the man who was the Oscar-nominated director of photography on Chinatown.

It was the TV movie Wildflower (1991) Kaminski shot that caught Spielberg’s eye and led to their longtime beginning with Class of ’61 followed by Schindler’s List (1993).  Schindler’s List by the way takes place in Poland during World War II. Circle of life stuff.

Both Spielberg and Kaminski won Oscars for their work on that movie.

P.S. These days–as was true when I was in film school— it’s easy to see people getting caught up in technical jargon when discussing filmmaking. I love Kaminski’s answer to a question just a couple years ago at a film festival.

Question:- When you’re looking at an image do you go with the philosophy of adding light to get the image or subtracting to take away to get the image?
Janusz Kaminski-“I have no idea…I don’t know how it happens.”

It’s all about capturing the magic. And you do that making film after film…and maybe jumping a fence or two.

Related Post:
Ida’ (My favorite film this year was shot in Poland.)
Cinematography Cheats #1 Kaminski’s work on Jerry Maguire

P.S. Countdown to 2000th special post on January 22, 2015—16 posts.

Scott W. Smith

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Cinematographers are a bunch a liars and cheaters. Screenwriters, too. In a good way, of course. It’s all part of the job.  Just doing their part in creating a world of make believe.

For instance, Jerry Maguire didn’t really exist. Sure there were composites of real people he was based on, but he was a fictional character out of the cranium of writer/director Cameron Crowe.

Look at the screenshot below of Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) and what do you see? Can you see how cinematographer Janusz Kaminski lied and cheated to help bring that character to life?

JerryMaguireLamps

“If there’s a lamp most of the time the light would come from that lamp. It doesn’t mean that I would actually use that lamp to illuminate that scene because it’s just not sufficient enough to give [enough] illumination, but I would motivate the light sources by [using] existing lighting sources on the set. And, of course, if the drama of the existing light was not sufficient for the story I will totally abandon the practice of being realistic and just be dramatic with the light. I would just go for  go with non-realistic light sources to make the movie more interesting in terms of the storytelling.”
Two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski
(Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List—and Jerry Maguire)
Interview 

So in that well-known Jerry Maguire mission statement scene Kaminski does various things to make the scene visually interesting. He turns all the lamp lights on (even turn one on its side on the ground) in one shot, but in another place he turns all the lights off and allows what supposed to be exterior light (streetlights?) to stream in with rain pouring off the windows creating patterns on the walls, and in another place he uses an open small refrigerator to help illumine the scene. All to make it visually interesting and to meet the writer/directors expectations of a character having an epiphany .

JerryMRainFrig

Here’s how the much of scene played out:

Related Post:
Jerry Maguire’s Mission Statement
10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)

P.S. Countdown to 2000th special post on January 22, 2015—17 posts.

Scott W. Smith

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“We hit it off on Schindler’s List and never stopped working together. I just think [Janusz] is the best cameraman I’ve ever worked with in my entire life.”
Director Steven Spielberg

“I want to make movies where I can express myself to visuals.”
Cinematographer Janusz Kamisnski (Saving Private Ryan)

“It looks kind of effortless when you’re seeing [movies] on the screen, but it’s a really complicated process. Especially in that opening scene [of Saving Private Ryan]. We had to lay down the mannequins, we had to lay down the explosives, we had the complicated scenes where people are catching on fire—the safety was essential because you don’t want anybody getting hurt. You can have all that technology—yet at the end you want to evoke emotions. It’s all about emotions, you know? ‘Cause you get really amazing films made by directors who have great technology and [yet] you just walk away and you are not moved emotionally.”
Two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski
Big Bear Lake International Film Festival Q&A

While Kamiski’s own long list of films shot is impressive (Schindler’s List, Lincoln, War Horse, Amistad, Le scaphandre et le papillon, Jerry Maguire, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—to name a few) he was asked last year by Christy Lenire “What are five of the most beautifully photographed films you’ve ever seen?” his short list follows:

_ “The Conformist” (1970): Bernardo Bertolucci’s dramatically stylized commentary on 1930s fascism, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant of this year’s best-picture nominee “Amour.” Kaminski’s reason for choosing it: “Use of color and light.”

_ “In Cold Blood” (1967): Based on Truman Capote’s pioneering true-crime book about a vicious family murder that took place in a small Midwestern town. Kaminski praised its “visual metaphors.”

_ “Citizen Kane” (1941): Well it’s … it’s “Citizen Kane.” Kaminski chose it for its “angles and drama within the composition, also within the frame.”

_ “The French Connection” (1971): The classic crime thriller starring Gene Hackman as a detective on the trail of a major drug smuggling ring, it won five Oscars including best picture. Kaminski appreciated the film “for the action and realistic representation of New York.”

_ “Empire of the Sun” (1987): A Spielberg movie that Kaminski didn’t shoot, actually. Allen Daviau, a previous collaborator of his in the mid-’80s, received an Oscar nomination for the visually lavish film, featuring a young Christian Bale. Kaminski enjoyed its “use of color and light.”

Related posts:
40 Days of Emotions “Emotion is your screenplay’s lifeblood.”—Karl Iglesias
Filmmaking Quote #27 (Frank Capra) “I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.”
Cinematography & Emotions
Cinematography & Emotions (Part 2)
Editing for Emotions
Pity, Fear, Catharsis (Tip #69)

P.S. Countdown to special 2000th post on January 22, 2015—18 posts.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“I’m very lucky that I had a movie that allows me to do something as enormous as staging what at that point was the largest sporting event in American history. And at the same time investigate small emotional moments like when Howard loses his son.”  
Seabiscuit writer/director Gary Ross

ScriptSea

Recently I re-watched Seabiscuit (2003) again and found a great interview on the DVD extras where the director/screenwriter Gary Ross explains how he broke down an auto accident scene which becomes a “pivoital point” in the movie.

The movie set-up is about moving forward into the future. Americans at this time have moved into the age of the automobile. A young boy (around age 12) decides to have an adventure and take his father’s car down river to go fishing. The following quotes are all from Gary Ross and the sections in italic are from his notes:

“What I like to do when I develop a shooting plan for the movie is sort of take the early parts of the prep to do it privately.  And at that point I’m sort of pretending that someone else wrote the script and I’m interpreting it. The shooting plan can encompass a lot of things—it can be the way I see the lighting. It can be performance notes. It can be blocking notes. It isn’t just as dry and clinical as a shot list. When I make these notes I’m still connected to the emotional intentions”

(Sc#67.) SERIES OF INSERTS. Fishing pole insert. Rafters. INSERT loading the tackle box. Showing his purpose now- pleasing his father. Getting ready. (All the material that will be scattered across the river bottom later…

“I understand that I’m using these inserts to set up something for later on.”

Last insert is the key in the ignition. His hand fights with the gear shift. It should probably be up shift to emphasize his shortness, craning over the dashboard. 

SeabiscuitCar

(Sc#74.) Whizzing by on the road. His car one way. The Logging truck the other. Yeah. That would work great. 

“(Laughing) I don’t know that it will work great, but I’m sort of talking to myself saying, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea. Keep going with that.'”

Let’s not show the collision. Let’s allow that to stay in the imagination. Let’s show perspective—into Howard’s perspective at that moment. Getting a phone call [about his son being killed in an accident]. The moment of the accident is not as important as the news of the accident.

SeabiscuitRunning copy

Howard racing toward the camera. The world has gone quiet now.

“I think it’s important to say what you’re going to do with sound before you shoot something. Because the sound and picture are so completely fused. Sometimes the loudest things are a distant or silent scream…Those things obviously turn into a shot list, which is more dry or clinical, but when you have both things they enhance one another. One is almost the emotional roadmap to be able to read the other.

I did find a online version of the clip here but was not able to embed it into this post. Great to watch to understand the whole context. Consider it a solid free five-minute film school lesson that shows the intentionality of an Academy Award-nominated movie and screenplay.

And yet one more reminder of the importance of emotions in filmmaking.

Related posts:
Seabiscuit Revisited in 2008
Writing ‘Seabiscuit’ On writer who also wrote Unbroken.
Shelter from the Storm (‘Unbroken’)
Big’ Emotions (Another Gary Ross written screenplay.)
The Creature from… (Ross’ father—Arthur A. Ross—was also a screenwriter.)
‘It Take Guts To Be a Screenwriter’ (Gary Ross quote.)
40 Days of Emotions
Writing ‘The Godfather’ (Part 3) Includes a video showing the shooting book Coppola put together to shoot The Godfather. 

Scott W. Smith

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“Think about different ways of telling your story without dialogue…Try to find visual ways to tell your story.”
Jim Mercurio

Dr. Grant: Are you sure the raptors are contained?
Dr. Sattler: Unless they figure out how to open doors.
Jurassic Park, written by Michael Crichton and David Koepp

“In Jurassic Park in the kitchen scene where the velociraptors are chasing the kids, there’s no way the kids should escape velociraptors, but they’ve got home field advantage. Everything about the kitchen is used against the velociraptors. There’s doors and they have claws. There’s stainless steel which has a mirror-like reflection but it’s also slippery. And the tile floor is slippery, too. And there’s a freezer that has a weird handle. So all these things together are how these kids are able to escape the velociraptors. And basically [the kids] have home field advantage, it’s using that location in a clever way.”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio  ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

P.S. There are even a few more layers to that classic Spielberg directed scene where the filmmakers used the location and props to add conflict and drama:
1) The first thing the kids do when they enter the kitchen is turn off the lights again using what’s at hand for survival, giving a horror like lighting to the scene. (But the DP used small windows placed on high on the kitchen set to allow light to spill into the kitchen so it’s not pitch dark.)
2)  It’s used against the kids where the ladle falls to the ground altering the velocirapors of their location.
3) The round window in the kitchen door adds drama and a touch of humor when the velociraptor  breathes on the window and then peeks through the window and his own condensation.
4) Once the velociraptors figure out how to use the handle on the door, it’s one of those heavy doors that closes automatically so there is a little push back the raptor as to figure out.
5) The raptors make a loud noise which reverberates through the kitchen full of reflective surfaces and the young boy covers his ears.
6) After the raptor fully enters the kitchen, what’s worse than being hunted by a raptor in a kitchen? Being hunted by two raptors in a kitchen!
7) At one spot it actually looks like another visual humor cue where we see just the raptors claws on the tile floor and it looks to me as if there is a little tap, tap, tap of the claw as if to say, “Now where are those little kids I’d like to eat?”
8) The tail of the raptors is used to push over many pots and pans that crash on top of the kids and then onto the hard floor.
9) The young girl uses the ladle to distract the raptors because they are close to the boy and he is frozen in terror.
10) A door jams in one of the places where the young girl tries to hide.
11) Kitchens tend to have ice, right? The filmmakers use that as well.
12) What the filmmakers didn’t use: A round door handle on the kitchen door which would have prevented the raptors from entering in the first place. Of course, they could have and raptors could have just pounded the door down making for a dramatic entrance. But there was a nice set-up/pay off by playing off the line, “Unless they figure out how to open doors.”

Related posts:
Visual Conflict
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46)
Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)
Everything I learned in Film School (Tip #1)

Scott W. Smith

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“I’ve had to convince the studio that I know this is not a $20,000 Alexa package, but I’ll challenge you to tell the difference once I’m done grading this footage.”
Daniel Myrick on shooting a film with a camera smaller than an iPhone

BlackMagic

Where’s the camera?

You want to know something really scary this Halloween? Writer/Director Daniel Myrick (Blair Witch Project) shot his latest film Under the Bed with a camera smaller than most video camera monitors. Smaller than even some of the lens used with it. There’s a reason it’s called a pocket camera. The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema is 5 inches long and weighs just 12.5 ounces. What’s also small is the price—$995. Trick or treat?

Sure you have to add a lens and an SD card before you can use it—and a few more professional accesories to use it in the manner that Team Myrick did to shoot Under the Bed—but a sub-thousand dollar camera to shoot a feature film that doesn’t look like—ah, cough, cough, The Blair Which Project—forgetaboutit.

The film won’t be released until next year, but I just read an interview with Myrick about the film over at No Film School.

“We used the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, much to the surprise of a lot of people. I had purchased one when they first came out and was really impressed with the latitude they offer, and their compactness. There was just a lot to like about the basic image sensor. It certainly has its foibles with accessorizing and things like that, but nothing that can’t be overcome. The image sensor itself was producing 12-bit RAW right on the SD cards and simultaneously spitting out 10-bit ProRes from the connector — on a little camera not much bigger than a cigarette pack, which was very exciting. I said this could be a good fit for the kind of movie I’m shooting, which is very low budget in a very contained space — I don’t have sets where I can fly walls away and back the camera off and that sort of thing.”
Daniel Myrick

P.S. I think the Blackmagic Pocket camera would be perfect for the “Little Fat Girl in Ohio” that Francis Ford Coppola predicted was on her way to becoming the new Mozart.

Related posts (on low-budget filmmaking):
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
“Don’t try and compete with Hollywood.”—Edward Burns
Making a $5,000 Feature
Filmmaking from a Coffin (Buried)
Edward Burns ‘Newlyweds’ (Part 2)—Think of yourself as an indie band.
Sputnik, Sundance & Kevin Smith
Paranormal Screenwriting Activity

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…(Part 6) Touches on why I think The Blair Witch Project was really the beginning of a new form of cinema (in part because one of the cameras they used was a consumer Hi8 camera).

Scott W. Smith

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