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How budget affects the cinematographer


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#1 willgething

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Posted 26 December 2016 - 08:33 AM

Hi Guys,

 

I'm currently researching my dissertation on how the budget of a film affects the work of a cinematographer. For example - bigger budget films allow the cinematographer more time and money which can give more freedom, however there are always studio executives looking over their shoulder to make sure things are done the way they want them to be.

 

I was wondering if anyone has any thoughts or experiences on this subject or any points I can include within my research

 

Thanks

 

 


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#2 Macks Fiiod

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Posted 26 December 2016 - 09:24 AM

I would assume it's pretty self-explanatory? Less budget means shorter access, or no access, to certain gear rentals. Or less time to shoot so more rushed overall. Also less hired hands on the camera period.

 

Wanted it on a jib? Out of the budget.

Wanted to experiment with reverse perspective lenses? Out of the budget.

Wanted to smooth it with a nice steadicam? Out of the budget.

 

Of course the examples I'm using more so affect indie productions rather than shoots working with $10mil plus. I'm sure someone else here could tell you the budgeting shortcomings of bigger productions.


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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 26 December 2016 - 11:31 AM

TIME, TIME, TIME.

 

Every movie production gets a camera with a lens on it, and if you have that, you can create interesting images if that's what the script allows and what the director wants, despite the budget, but some things take more time to achieve than others, or a lack of time means less time pet set-up so you can get rushed.

 

I've done some movies where a contemplative Terrence Malick approach was desired where we gathered lots of images in natural light, but on a short schedule, all there was time for was to shoot the six or seven or more pages of scripted material every day.

 

Of course, budget affects other important things like production design and locations, equipment packages, etc. but a lack of time is the one thing that is hardest to find creative solutions to that don't merely become logistical or technical solutions.  In other words, your first priority is usually to make your day, get what was scheduled to be shot on time -- and you try to make your solutions to that problem also allow creative photography, but sometimes you just have to get the shot done.


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#4 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 26 December 2016 - 02:13 PM

You can have two of these three things; Fast, Cheap, Good.

You can have fast and good, but it's gonna be expensive.
You can have cheap and good, but it's gonna take a long time.
You can have fast and cheap, but it's gonna be horrible.

The budget dictates a schedule (usually based on how much money the top people make per day) and within that schedule is how many pages you need to shoot per day.

The crew that helps camera and lighting are small potato's compared to the cost of the cast, producers, director and cinematographer. Getting a bunch of helpers seems pretty easy right? It's mostly down to how fast you've gotta work in order to meet the schedule, right? However, speed is not the friend of inexperienced people, this is why the crew needs to be more then helping hands, but people who know what they're doing. Those people cost money and that in of itself is a catch 22. You can have a lot of hands, but if those hands don't know what to do, they're kinda in the way. So then you have to pay more for fewer "experienced" people and THAT in of itself is the big problem.

I don't think studio executives really get involved with the cinematography aspects, unless you're going over schedule. If you're on schedule or maybe a day or two over, that's not a problem if the results are good. If the cinematographer is bad, then you've got a different story. I was on a show this year with a cinematographer who was forced onto the production by the studio execs. He was not interested in doing the show at all, so none of us got along for the shoot. It was a horrible experience and the net result was something that was poorly shot. The director and producers tried to fire him, but the studio execs wouldn't have it because he was "their" guy. Mind you, this was a small-time feature, but still... it was very stressful.
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#5 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 26 December 2016 - 05:39 PM

Oh sure networks and studio execs get involved with general cinematography decisions, at least in the beginning when the look is being set.  There is a look-by-committee aspect when big budgets are involved that you have to deal with and fight against if it leads to blandness.  It's not just because the studio people are protecting their investment... for many of them, having some input into creative decisions is one of the few fun aspects of their corporate jobs, so it is hard to blame them.

 

It affects every department, from production design, costumes, editing, etc. A strong-willed director -- and hopefully a good, supportive, creative producer -- are the main ways you avoid that sort of interference.

 

Every show is different though because people are individuals, so the combination of people from top to bottom affect the way things are done.

 

I've never heard of a situation where the cinematographer wasn't the choice of either the director or the producer though.  I've heard of strong producers forcing directors to hire certain cinematographers, but it would be odd as a cinematographer to accept a job where neither the director or the producer on set wanted you to be there -- who would want to show up for work on a set where they weren't wanted? Why put yourself in that situation?


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#6 Phil Connolly

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Posted 26 December 2016 - 07:10 PM

Sounds like an difficult topic for a dissertation, although its an interesting area for discussion it going to be quite difficult to really come up with a solid conclusion. 

 

Great cinematography happens on big budgets and great cinematography happens on low budgets. So if your going down this route you need to find away to focus the discussion. Right now seems very very broad with too many elements that you can't measure - might be tricky to find literature to support an argument. Unless you go along the lines that certain movies at particular budget levels have a particular look. 

 

What are you trying to find out in the first instance? Is big budget cinematography better? Well you have to define what you mean by better? And the confusing mix is how much is down to equipment/time vs filmmaker talent. 

 

An A grade cinematographer is likely able to make anything look decent - with lots of kit or without. But are A grade cinematographers more likely to be working on what budget?

 

Its an interesting area of discussion but you going to need to find away to focus the question(s) your asking. When you look at these areas its all very subjective. On a dissertation if you've got 9000 words then you need to focus on specifics - so what film genre are you looking at? What time period? 

 

And remember comments about producer control and micro management are going to be very difficult to discuss in an academic context. How would you measure and compare that? Beyond general anecdotes how would you measure that? Lots of variables. Its even more tricky now because even low budget films have access to high quality digital equipment so technical quality is less dependant on budget. 

 

20 years ago low budget cinematography would be more visible since filmmakers would be using DV or super 16, short ends, low shooting ratios etc...  Now films like "Blue Ruin" transend their budgets due to availability of excellent quality low cost digital equipment 

 

I think if I were going to write a dissertation in this area I would consider the digital revolution and how its changed the look of low budget filmmaking. Might be more current and easier to measure.  


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#7 Michael LaVoie

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Posted 26 December 2016 - 07:16 PM

Bigger budget means bigger actors w less availability which means fewer and much longer days.  

 

I heard Ben Stiller has a rule about keeping to a 12 hour day.   No idea if that's true but it'd be great if more actors took a stand on that and insisted on enough actual days for each shoot.  Since their availability seems to be the biggest factor impacting the schedules.


Edited by Michael LaVoie, 26 December 2016 - 07:18 PM.

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#8 Phil Rhodes

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Posted 26 December 2016 - 07:33 PM

I'll second, third and fourth the time thing, if I'm allowed to.

 

At tiny budget levels, I don't think there's actually much stopping people producing really nice-looking stuff that you can put on YouTube and people won't immediately know it's cheap. What prevents this from happening, even when gear is cheap, are that decent locations and decent personnel are still very expensive and this means that there's often more to do than can be done well in the allotted time.

 

For instance, on a recent shoot, we nixed the intended haze simply because it was taking far too much fiddle-factor to keep it consistent and even. It was faster to reshoot the first two angles than to keep waiting for physical FX all day. The hazed shots look massively better, but we just didn't have time for it.

 

More money simply means a greater ability to say "hm, we really need a light up there/a different colour backdrop/that corner of the room dressed," to realise that's going to take half an hour while everyone except the department concerned has a coffee, and to say "fine."

 

P


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#9 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 26 December 2016 - 08:56 PM

Phil Connolly brings up a good point of defining what exactly is "good" cinematography -- how do you define "better"?  Or perhaps to get around that a bit, one might look at the budgets of the films that have been nominated for an Oscar or BAFTA for best cinematography and see if there are trends, like does the winner tend to be higher in budget, or do period movies tend to win over contemporary settings, etc.  I tend to think the second is true, actually, and it takes a certain budget level to pull off a period movie which is why there are fewer low-budget independent movies set in the past.  But at least just dealing with award winners gets around having to establish your own criteria and tastes and you don't have to decide whether the nominees and winners "deserved" what they got.

 

Depending on one's personal definition of "good" cinematography, one might find that actually that there are more mid-to-low budget movies on one's list of favorites.

 

Another factor is just how do you define a "big" budget because what's considered big in one country might be considered low in another.


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#10 Michael LaVoie

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Posted 26 December 2016 - 10:10 PM

A good budgetary comparison of Indie vs Hollywood is Let the Right One In vs. the remake Let Me In.    LTROI cost 4 million.  It doubled that in revenue.  LMI cost 25 million and barely made half that back.    LTROI is generally regarded by fans and critics as a much better film.   It's a good case study in cinematography too because LTROI definitely has a much more original style to it.   


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#11 willgething

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Posted 27 December 2016 - 07:28 AM

Thank you for all the responses, this is really helping my research and giving it a good direction

 

My plan at the moment is to focus on the work of one cinematographer and look at how their work has changed through different levels of budget. I will try and steer my research away from which is better than the other as this is subjective, I am more looking into what effects the cinematographer within each budget bracket 


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#12 Phil Connolly

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Posted 27 December 2016 - 08:44 AM

Thank you for all the responses, this is really helping my research and giving it a good direction

 

My plan at the moment is to focus on the work of one cinematographer and look at how their work has changed through different levels of budget. I will try and steer my research away from which is better than the other as this is subjective, I am more looking into what effects the cinematographer within each budget bracket 

 

I think focusing on an individual cinematographer is wise. But how are you going to separate the effects of different budgets from the other stuff - such as the director, production designer and the filmmakers own developing talent across their career?

 

Budget would be one element of the look, so is changing influences and taste, new technology etc... Once the budget gets above a certain amount it would influence the cinematography less. A $200 million dollar film will spend a big chunk of money on VFX, Stars and marketing. It may be that a $200M has a similar camera department budget of a £30 million dollar film. Even though the overall "budget" is much higher. The proportion of any given budget spent on the camera department will vary from film to film. 

 

An investigation into the changing responsibilities of dop at different budget level might be interesting - e.g how they respond to VFX demands, 3D, running a larger camera dept, multiple units. 

 

Have you done a lit review yet? I think it might be a tricky area to find much existing research in the topic beyond anecdotal  thoughts. Thats the most difficult thing about a dissertation - not just finding a good topic but finding an academically rigorous way researching it.


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#13 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 27 December 2016 - 03:15 PM

My plan at the moment is to focus on the work of one cinematographer and look at how their work has changed through different levels of budget. I will try and steer my research away from which is better than the other as this is subjective, I am more looking into what effects the cinematographer within each budget bracket


It sounds like a good idea, but if you don't know the context behind each show and setup, you won't fully understand.

Personally, I'd look at Janus Kaminski and the Spielberg films. Look at how he lights on sets vs practical locations. You can usually tell which one is which based on how long they're in a given location. 'Catch Me if you Can' is a great example of super fast filmmaking with literally hundreds of practical locations. You will notice a trend of more simple lighting in single locations, vs far more complex lighting on larger sets. It's neat to see a top cinematographer resort to very rudimentary techniques, due to time constraints. 'Bridge of Spies' is another one to look at because they shot fast and there is a lot of very BASIC lighting techniques.

I suggest finding the American Cinematographer articles to go along with the movies you watch. Sometimes BTS content on DVD's can help fill in holes as well.
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