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A Top Name Cinematographer on an Ultra low budget


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#1 Tim Terner

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Posted 08 March 2008 - 04:41 AM

Would they make much of a difference ? without the benefit of expensive gear like cranes, jibs, dollies and tracking, filters and follow focus, and specialized and made for the purpose lighting ?
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#2 David Auner aac

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Posted 08 March 2008 - 04:50 AM

Yes. If you are really good, you can make do with very little.

Cheers, Dave
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#3 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 08 March 2008 - 10:33 AM

Agreed.
A top cinematographer would have enough experience, I would think, to make do with next to nothing. I mean, hell, so long as he has the sun then he'd have at least one night light source to play with!
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#4 John-Erling Holmenes Fredriksen

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Posted 08 March 2008 - 11:37 AM

I would also add that a lot of top cinematographers became just that by proving along the way they could do a lot with little.
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#5 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 08 March 2008 - 11:42 AM

Smaller slightly different example, but....

I had to shoot an interview with a principle actor for EPK. As usual, the location wasn't ideal and this one was less than stellar, but it was the only real choice we had.

I'm going to sound like I'm tooting my own horn here, and I am a bit, but only to help answer the question. I do something I've facetiously called "EPK noir." If the place is ugly, then simply don't show it. Using the relatively limited contrast ratio of video, it's not terribly difficult to have the background drop out so long as the key is bright and controlled. The result wasn't only something acceptable, everyone actually really liked it.

The following day, a crew from E! or ET or something showed up and the Publicist gave him the exact same place and stuff to use. The guy declared that it wouldn't work so they went down to the street to shoot the interview with uncontrolled sunlight, traffic noise, and an unrelated background.

It's not always about having two-forty footers worth of stuff and eight guys. It's knowing how to use what you have to get there. A very prominent DP once told me that in his younger years, he would intentionally "short" himself on the gear he used for some setups as an exercise to see how much he could accomplish with less. That lesson carried over to when he became the guy with the full crew and all the toys in the world. Even on that level, there are still budget and time limitations. While one sequence could use three condors, maybe if he could get away with using only two, that would free up some money in his budget to hire that extra help that he knows he'll need for some other night down the line.

Tools help, but they are just tools. Anybody can plug in enough lights to illuminate a set. It's knowing how to use what you have in the most effective way that makes someone truly great at whatever they do. Lord knows, I'm still learning and I'm sure that most professionals worth their salt would repeat the sentiment.
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#6 Phil Rhodes

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Posted 08 March 2008 - 11:55 AM

I completely agree with the foregoing. I would also much rather have a big name DP on a low budget shoot than a low budget DP on a big name shoot!

Conversely, what does annoy is when you have some huge shoot with all the money and toys you could possibly dream of, and everyone raves about how fantastic it is - well - yes, I mean, on some of these movies with a crew of thousands and tens of millions to spend, you would be pretty incompetent if you didn't come up with something rather special. For a hundred million dollars, excellence is more or less implied.

P
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#7 Michael McIntyre

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Posted 08 March 2008 - 12:42 PM

A good case study might be looking at a career-in-reverse. After the ultra low-budget "Pi", Matthew Libatique went on to: "Requiem for a Dream", "Gothika", "Phone Booth", "Number 23", "Inside Man", "The Fountain" and many others. Just to name a few.

Maybe slightly off-topic but Matt did some crazy stuff in "Pi" and he's gone on to great things.
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#8 Delorme Jean-Marie

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Posted 08 March 2008 - 03:02 PM

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" just that!
or "into the wild" recently
gautier and kaminski
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#9 Chris Keth

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Posted 09 March 2008 - 12:37 AM

When you think through all of the things you have seen done in movies, there are very few things that absolutely can't be accomplished without a particular piece of equipment.

Many, many (many) bits of gear makes tasks easier or faster. Very few make tasks possible. ;)
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#10 Phil Rhodes

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Posted 09 March 2008 - 06:12 AM

On the other hand, I don't think it'd be too difficult to construct circumstances where you'd take someone who's been doing high end TV for years and put them on a tiny low budget shoot, and they'd probably go "Aaargh, I cannot work like this!" and run away.

So, big TV series guys, don't get too full of yourselves...
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#11 Brad Grimmett

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Posted 09 March 2008 - 06:26 AM

I think you need to give the DP (big name or not) some competent people to work with him/her in the case of an ultra low budget project. Without a bit of good support within the crew, the DP will be trying to do literally everything, because those super green people with no experience won't know what he/she is talking about when he/she is delegating tasks.
The point is ONE person alone can't do everything. They need at least a few experienced people to help carry out what they're trying to do. So no, hiring a big name genius DP and a bunch of 1st year film students probably won't have the desired result.
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#12 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 09 March 2008 - 10:02 AM

I think you need to give the DP (big name or not) some competent people to work with him/her in the case of an ultra low budget project. Without a bit of good support within the crew, the DP will be trying to do literally everything, because those super green people with no experience won't know what he/she is talking about when he/she is delegating tasks.
The point is ONE person alone can't do everything. They need at least a few experienced people to help carry out what they're trying to do. So no, hiring a big name genius DP and a bunch of 1st year film students probably won't have the desired result.



True. I have witnessed "failure" as such. Meaning, "big" show DPs being asked to do small scale stuff and not really knowing how to accomplish it. Sometimes more is not better and they overthink it and over "resource" it by failing to scale back their typical working protocol to something more appropriate and manageable for small scale production. Lots of gear and people certainly can help when time and budget aren't that limited, but having too much tends to slow the machine down and smaller productions just don't have the time and money for that.

And that's really the overall point I guess I'm trying to make. It's not all about making pretty pictures. Part of the job is to do that, but choices must be made that are appropriate to the project which can mean scaling back on the toys and the people at times. Sometimes it IS better if the DP just jumps in there and adjusts that flag or sets a light instead of going through the chain of command (DP to Gaffer to Electric to Grip) just to get a light and shadow on something.

And your point above is something that many Producers often fail to recognize. There is a push to put the money "on the screen" by hiring less expensive crew. What most of us already know is that less experience tends to result in longer time to build each setup, usually a lower quality setup, and ultimately less setups per day. So the shots that do make it "on the screen" aren't as good as they should be and there are less of them to cut into the movie. So much for putting the money "on the screen." ;)
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#13 Tim Partridge

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Posted 09 March 2008 - 02:29 PM

Michael Winner on hiring a top name cinematographer (Geoffrey Unsworth) on an ultra low budget:

http://www.thecamera...ael-winner.html

Geoff Unsworth was a world-class cinematographer when he did ‘You Must Be Joking’. There were only three films shooting in the whole country in January 1964 and we had ‘Harry’, a B-picture cameraman chosen by Charlie Schneer, the
producer. Harry went into a little house in St John’s Wood, which I was going to use as a location, and said:
“This is no good. This is much too small.”
I said: “I’ve shot in rooms smaller than this many times.”
“No. It’s too small.”
He want back to Charlie Schneer and said: “Michael Winner is crazy. He doesn’t know what he is doing.”
Charlie Schneer, who was a good fellow, said to me: “Michael, Harry thinks you’re crazy.”
I said: “Fire him.”
Unsworth wasn’t working. He came to see me and I gave him the list of lights we had for the shoot. We didn’t want too many lights. They take forever to set up.
Unsworth said: “I normally choose my own lights.”
“Geoff, I’ve chosen the lights.”
He looked at the list and said: “I’ve never used lights like this.”
I said: “Harry Poddle is a nobody and he was going to make the film using these lights. And if he can make the film using these lights, you, who are a genius, can make the film using these lights.”
Geoff looked at list again and he said: “Yes, I can.”
That’s what I call a professional. He didn’t bring in extra lights, he used what we had. And he lit the film beautifully.
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#14 Jon Rosenbloom

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Posted 09 March 2008 - 03:35 PM

"Would they make much of a difference ? without the benefit of expensive gear like cranes, jibs, dollies and tracking, filters and follow focus, and specialized and made for the purpose lighting?"

From a grip's perspective, I've found it's usually a bad fit because they always ask for their big stuff regardless of budget, schedule or man-power. If a DP is used to his key light being a 12'x12' book light, a Mighty w/ a Chimera ain't gonna cut it.
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#15 Andrew Koch

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Posted 09 March 2008 - 06:33 PM

It is always better to chose people over equipment. If a Cinematographer with limited skill and experience and someone like Allen Daviau ASC were both going to shoot the same scene with a DVX100 and the same tiny lighting package, Daviau's version would be more effective. The top cinematographers understand the subtle nuances of story and how light behaves.

I do think however that some low budget productions put unreasonable expectations on cinematographers and this is where the equipment can significantly affect the quality of the work. There is this notion that if a Cinematographer is skilled enough and clever enough that now matter how low the budget is, they will somehow find a way to make it work without the director making any changes. For example, lets say you are shooting a large night exterior in the forest and you need to see deep into the forest. You are shooting on some crappy HDV camera. You have a put put 50Amp generator with a couple of 1K fresnels and maybe a tweenie. You have a dolly that the director's buddy built out of wood. Lets say the scene calls for large shafts of light coming through the trees. Lets say the scene also calls for a big soft source. Wardrobe has the actors wear black shirts and pants against a dark forest.

Anyway, you get the idea. It would be hard to find even the most amazing cinematographer who could make a situation like this work as well as having the right gear. If an experienced DP could get the same results that they get with their fancy equipment using the most minimal gear, then why wouldn't they? (obviously there are some DP's who can be a bit overindulgent, but sometimes certain equipment is necessary to get a certain shot).

Also, the other major issue with low budgets is the experience of the crew. If the crew is made up of people working for free, they are likely (but not always) newbies who have limited experience, probably straight out of film school, or still attending.

I don't want this post to sound like I am dissing on low budget films. Some of these films provide great alternatives to the Hollywood machine. But the ones that are effective use their budget appropriately. If you only have 5000 bucks, shoot in one location, limit your number of actors. Keep it simple so you can do it right instead of having 50 locations where all you can do is sneak a little camera onto locations with no permit, no lights and work the crew to death with 20 hour days.
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#16 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 09 March 2008 - 07:54 PM

I do think however that some low budget productions put unreasonable expectations on cinematographers and this is where the equipment can significantly affect the quality of the work. There is this notion that if a Cinematographer is skilled enough and clever enough that now matter how low the budget is, they will somehow find a way to make it work without the director making any changes. For example, lets say you are shooting a large night exterior in the forest and you need to see deep into the forest. You are shooting on some crappy HDV camera. You have a put put 50Amp generator with a couple of 1K fresnels and maybe a tweenie. You have a dolly that the director's buddy built out of wood. Lets say the scene calls for large shafts of light coming through the trees. Lets say the scene also calls for a big soft source. Wardrobe has the actors wear black shirts and pants against a dark forest.

Anyway, you get the idea. It would be hard to find even the most amazing cinematographer who could make a situation like this work as well as having the right gear.


No experienced Cameraman would ever allow himself to be put into an impossible situation like that in the first place. I know of at least a couple of situations where Cameramen have turned down a job because of the promise of unreasonable expectations. A paycheck isn't always worth the grief that would precede it.
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#17 chuck colburn

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Posted 09 March 2008 - 10:29 PM

Robbie Muller (sp.) shot Repo Man. And I know Alex Cox didn't have a very big budget for that one.
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#18 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 10 March 2008 - 03:26 AM

Would they make much of a difference ? without the benefit of expensive gear like cranes, jibs, dollies and tracking, filters and follow focus, and specialized and made for the purpose lighting ?

My first film job was on a ultra low budget feature shot by Barry Stone, CSC. The only reason I don't call it a no-budget film is because we were shooting 16mm B&W reversal (and we shot A LOT of it) but it was all shot in the director's tiny apartment and on the city streets and rooftops with no permits, mostly handheld. The crew was almost all volunteer, we only had a paid focus puller most days. No genny, so the lighting kit was Dedos, small fresnels, and a few open face lights. I learned a huge amount about what could be done with simple tools and still look amazing. Watching our camera original footage projected on a bedsheet a few weeks later was a revelation. I remember one time we were shooting in the apartment hallway - it was a scene where this homeless man bangs on the hero's front door and eventually gets tossed down the stairs. There were only a few bare practical bulbs lighting the hall. Barry said, let's shoot, we'll push the stock (we were shooting Double-X neg for this scene). I was kind of thrown by this and said to him, why not put a light by the base of the stairs since we could easily hide it and bring up the ambience. But he said, no, I want the texture of the pushed stock in this scene. So we pushed the whole scene, and he was right, it looked great. Much of the scene was shot with an Aspheron on a wide Superspeed to get a super-wide perspective and also to get the characteristic Superspeed "ring" flare around the practicals. We also did a fast reverse dolly shot with Barry sitting in a wheelchair, looked great.

So sure, who the DP is makes all the difference in the world, regardless of budget. The hi-caliber DPs also know when to put their foot down when the director or producer's expectations are unrealistic given the resources available. And sometimes they get bit when they don't put their foot down and everyone sees it in dailies which is a bummer.
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#19 Serge Teulon

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Posted 10 March 2008 - 06:53 AM

Would they make much of a difference ? without the benefit of expensive gear like cranes, jibs, dollies and tracking, filters and follow focus, and specialized and made for the purpose lighting ?


I think a top DP will always provide you with less sleepless nights.
Saying that, I believe in ability and not years of experience.
Have a look at this link. http://www.keithschofield.com/ This guy is a 23 year old director who has just finished shooting the last Supergrass single. Unfortunately most ppl would look at his age rather than his ability and think "he doesn't have enough experience...I mean he's only 23!!!".
He approached the vid with no fear and it came out wonderfully!

In reference to equipment.
I believe that you can cut corners and improvise on certain things. But also, you need that filter to give you the look you want, the car mount to give you a nice angle, that jib to give you a lovely smooth movement etc....

On many occasions when I AC'd I saw DP's not using 3/4 of their gear. But they looked the part.......the saying, 'selling your fish' applies here!

Cheers
S
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