Formulaic Documentaries

I understand that programmes need to follow a formula, the sheer volume and speed of turnover dictate that.

However, when I shot 20/20 for ABC the formula had some sense and tried to tell a story.
The journalist would do an interview, the producer and I would be making notes as we shot about what we had to shoot to illustrate the interview. We would also think about what we needed to help the overall story.

Now, especially at the BBC you pick a presenter or “expert”, and that expert had better be female and easy on the eye, you then film them walking through streets, buildings, on trams and so on, all with a VO from the star.

You the shoot a few interviews that feature the star more than the interviewee, cut back to more VO walking.

Totally predictable, really boring, if I watch a docco on skin ageing then I’m interested in learning something about skin ageing and not a continuos sequence of shots of someone walking around…

More and more unskilled, bland, safe, boring TV

3D in the arctic

I’ve had an interesting week in Hemevan trying to shoot 3D in various Arctic conditions, varying between glorious sunshine, at minus 30 C, to snow storm.

We were testing a number of cameras, F3’s in a Hurricane rig with Alister Chapman it’s designer along to operate and generally advise, Sony TD300, Sony NXCam 3D-1 and a pair of GoPros in 3D mode.

The biggest problem was the tiny size of the controls on the cameras which made it incredibly difficult to operate them.

Not only are they too small to make contact with if you’re wearing gloves the concentric dial on the TD300 that controls zoom, focus and convergence freezes so that they all turn together! Brilliant.

I’m not going to go on and on about the design but the guys who design these really should get out of their nice safe offices and try using them as real users do. I think they’d end up hating themselves almost as much as we hate them.

Having said tha the results from the NXCam really surprised me and I’d love to find a way to record it externally to avoid the heavy compression that is used internally.

OMG! Film studies

I really don’t know where to start…

Somebody said to me recently “Oh! you come from Exeter, you must be involved in the film school there”

What film school?

Ah, I search the net and find the department of film studies at Exeter University, hmm, 10 doctors and a professor teaching film studies, none of them have ever worked in the film business.

Of course I already realised that we were drowning in people who talk about film whilst there was a shortage of anyone who actually knows WTF they’re doing in film.

Why are we spending so much money all over the UK on film theory and on the occasions we get a “practical” course it’s in Meeja studies and produces graduates who need help tying their own show laces!

Take a few quid away from these time wasters and give to one of the few places that actually teach film making in a practical way, I think that there are maybe five of them in the UK.

At a conference a while back I sat through a doctor of film telling us the history of film and I had to point out at the end of his presentation that a lot of what he told us about the history of digital cinema and HD was just plain wrong. He said he was right and the literature showed it, but I was there! a lot of what he was talking about I was actively involved in.

Reality doesn’t matter, it’s not in the literature.

Absolute bloody insanity.

Age of the average

We are on a terrible period of bland mediocrity

People playing safe so they don’t upset anyone

The incompetent are afraid to hire the competent for fear of being exposed, far better to hire someone mediocre

What has happened to my business? Have we turned into a camera department of scared little mice ?

Tall poppy syndrome rules

The bland leading the bland

Cinematography Insitute

I unfortunately missed the first meeting of the organisers of this but will participate as much as geography allows!

I think that it’s vital that cinematographers update themselves constantly to the changing technologies and imaging possibilities.

Its only by doing this that we will be able to remain the “authors of the image” as we are now.

This is not in any way to downplay the contribution of everyone we work with and without whom we would not be able to create our images but there has to be one guiding force in the creation of the image and as cinematographers we need to establish that in the changing world of image creation we have the vision to keep that position.

Pixel counts and reality

I wish that the Foveon sensor was available for moving images.

Unlike CFA Bayer pattern sensors it gives you a full RGB signal, if the sensor is 4K * 2K you get a full 4* 2K in all the layers RG&B unlike Bayer pattern sensors where you get 2K * 2K of G and 2K * 1K of R&B.

The marketing games that are played with Bayer pattern sensors are quite amazing.

Yeah yeah you can calculate the missing information from what is around it but that’s the bloody point! you calculate it, it’s not real!

Monitoring on set

When I shot film we had video assist on set and everyone, well nearly everyone, knew it wasn’t going to look like that.

There was a problem when we went from Mono video assist to colour, clients would then query the colour of their product. They had never worried about it when we had mono video assist, they trusted the cinematographer but now we had colour that trust was undermined.

With HD video cameras what you saw was very much what you got and people started to rely on the monitors, lot’s of people decided they had the right and the skills to “help” the cinematographer.

I may not have liked this too much but they were commenting about a “real” picture. Probably in less than ideal monitoring conditions on a less than ideal monitor but…

The we got digital cameras that recorded RAW images, images that needed processing to see what was actually there. The HD video output of these cameras is a guide, but a guide only.

Of course people continued to make decisions based on the output of the camera monitoring systems, something that was now pretty much video assist again.

They would attach waveforms to the output and make exposure and colour decisions based on that and what they saw on a monitor.

This of course ignored the simple fact that what they were monitoring had very little relationship to what they were recording, hey! we’re back to colour video assist with film!

Just try thinking for a second, if a RAW image needs rendering to be able to use it in post and if that render is in less than real time on a powerful computing system just WTF do you think the tiny amount of processing in a camera is going to give you the same result.

Please, engage your brains for just a second.

Close-up close-up close-up

I’ve just watched what would otherwise have been a great documentary about Roy Lichtenstein but unfortunately the only time we actually saw a full view of any of his images were the 4 or 5 in the end credits.

I don’t blame Anna Boyle, no relation, the Cinematographer, it’s the director who makes the decisions.

I know what a bloody dot looks like, I’d love to have seen how they were used to create a complete image.

Nearly every BBC documentary I see now is ruined by one of two things, either the obsessive use of the close-up with no establishing shots. Or the excessive use of footage of the presenter. I want to see the subject not some nonentity talking about it.

A recent series on Royal palaces could have been wonderful, the information that the programmes contained was fascinating but all we saw were shots of Fiona Bruce, her feet, her ears, her hair, her silhouette, wide shots, close-ups, walking shots, sitting shots, apparently she was in some kind of palaces, you’d never have guessed.

Bad Framing

Why is it that some TV shows seem to think that anything other than an ECU is wrong?

A recent food programme was made unwatchable by the continuous use of extreme close ups.

Whilst big close ups may have made sense in an age of 7″ CRT’s now with 32″ almost a small set and 50″ common some of the framing we see now is positively painful.

I really don’t want to see a presenter cropped at the eyebrows and chin, they’re far bigger than real life with this framing and as for the CU’s following food details…

Pull back! I want to see what they’re doing.

A lot of potentially very enjoyable programs are being ruined by extreme close ups of moving objects that the operators are incapable of following or holding in focus.

Maybe if they used trained operators instead of some trainee straight from college who has a great understanding of the theory of TV & film but F’all real knowledge of the mechanics…

Making images is what I do!

I think we, cinematographers, have lost track of what we do.

I got interested in making images, not the technology.

I got a Brownie 127 when I was 8 and fell in love with the process of making images and the effect that those images could have on people.

As I moved from stills to film to video back to film I never thought about the technical specs of the format I was using.

Oh I was aware of the dynamic range that it could cope with and how it reacted to different colours and could I push or pull it and so on but I never thought “Hmm, must consider the LPM response of this film and what’s the MTF of it”

I looked at the pictures and decided good or bad.

Far too many people in our business now sell their ability to use a tool and not their ability to make images that will move you.

They devalue what we do and also allow some manufacturers to confuse people about their kit, to get people to make judgements on numbers and not on pictures.

Lets get back to looking at and talking about images.

But most of all lets just get out there and make great images.