Cinematographers have access to more sophisticated equipment—everything from the latest digital cameras to a wide variety of lenses and lighting—than ever before. And, yet, many still will use an outside-the-box tool to solve a particular filmmaking problem, and that solution can range from the very latest iPhone app to a simple rubber band.
Here, some inventive DPs share stories about their favorite outside-the-box tools and how they use them.
ANDREAS VON SCHEELE
(All Relative, The Pill)
The New York-based DP says that “the craziest use” of any gear he has ever tried was for an overhead shot of Connie Nielsen and Jonathan Sadowski in director J.C. Khoury’s recent low-budget comedy-drama All Relative. “Usually, you’d use a jib arm to get this sort of shot, but instead, we created this ‘out of the box’ bridge or scaffolding that went from one side of the set to the other, using C-stands,” he reports. “Then, we used a monopod draped over it, and I was able to twist it and get whatever angle I wanted, and it gave us a really great overhead shot.”
The DP says he developed the technique while shooting documentaries, and shot both All Relative and The Pill almost entirely on a monopod, “which doesn’t really work that well with cameras unless they’re very center-balanced.” Von Scheele shot the films with the Canon EOS C100, “which is very center-balanced, so you can get a very balanced shot. It’s a great way to work; if you jump into a car, you can just put the leg down and hold the camera, and it’s stabilized, but not locked down.” The DP also used another outside-the-box trick to get some wide panning shots on a golf course for the film.
“We had a very bad tripod, so I took some rubber bands and put them on the tripod handles and panned the tripod using the rubber bands, which gives you this very smooth pan,” he reports.
(Time Out of Mind, Rosewater, The Iceman, Rampart )
For the prolific DP, outside-the-box gear has included virtually every part of his own body. As he explains, “Upon first shooting with the ALEXA, I was awed by the sensitivity of the sensor. I first picked the camera while testing some night driving in downtown Los Angeles for Oren Moverman’s Rampart. Our lighting design for the film was to incorporate practical into existing lighting. We didn’t want the film to feel lit. To this end, location scouting was quite important. We needed to find locations with a sufficient amount of existing light, which we could enhance with our own lights, but our credo was: nothing bigger than a 40-watt bulb. That nighttime driving test assured us that our goals for our design could be met. I remember watching the brake lights from a stopped car in front of us become the key light on the driver’s face in our car, and this on a particularly dark street devoid of other lighting, an effulgence of red light washing the face of our driver. And then there were the headlights from the oncoming cars that bloomed and faded.
“In the end, my gaffer Mike Bauman and I decided to outfit the car with RGB LED ribbons ringing the windshield. Set up on a dimmer, we could bring any color light up and down on the driver’s face correlating with the various colored lights on the streets as we drove through them. It was a revelation. I had shot process trailer shots countless times from the mid-’80s until then on 200-400 ASA emulsions. It required a lot of light. Now I was shooting a freewheeling car driven by the actor, with me handholding the camera in the passenger seat with one hand and the dimming and color controls for the LED ribbons in my other, not to mention having to zoom. I had run out of hands. But I had more digits to work with on my body: my toes. My clever key grip Tana Dubbe rigged the micro-force control on the floor of the car. Barefoot, I controlled the zoom with my big toe. Never before had I enlisted so many body parts on one shot.”
DANNY RUHLMANN, ACS
(The Raven, Survivor, Little Fish)
At press time, the DP was on location in Mexico City, shooting an episode of the upcoming Netflix sci-fi series Sense8, produced and directed by the Wachowskis, and he cites “glass” as his outside-the-box/unusual gear. “I’m technically very competent, but at the same time, not obsessed with new equipment,” he notes. “I would rather wait for new and interesting gear to be tried and tested before I’m brave enough to go there. However, I’m fascinated with light and distortion. I love using the best lenses I can find, for example, Leica, Zeiss Prime lenses or [Angénieux] Optimo Zoom lenses, and then try and create and find distortions and imperfections within that image. I use a very low-tech approach. I carry with me as part of my kit a number of objects that I use on set, and if they’re not right for the shot, then I’ll find something. I use these objects as foreground and shoot through them. It could be anything: crystals, a wine glass, cooking utensils, water bottle—anything reflective or transparent can work. I combine this with hard or soft backlight to create flare. I try and shoot with the iris at wide open to minimize my depth of field. I sometimes also use Vaseline on a filter to smudge the image or use uncoated lenses. Sometimes, it’s a combination of a number of these techniques, and other times, it’s only one of these techniques or even none.”
For Ruhlmann, this approach has been inspired by shooting over 1,000 TV commercials over a 25-year period. “I feel that commercials are all about creating a series of individual images that grab the attention of the viewer,” he adds. “This isn’t always easy in a world of many distractions. Commercials are about allowing the image to grab one’s attention. We live in a world where we strive for perfection. What I try and do is break that down to create images that are beautiful, yet imperfect. And that beauty often comes from the unexpected and the uncontrolled aspects of cinematography.”
BRADFORD LIPSON AND DAVID STOCKTON, ASC
(Astronaut Wives Club, Wilfred, Gotham )
For the two DPs, a combination of lenses (Cooke 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, 75mm and 100mm T2.3 primes, Angénieux 48-580mm and 56-152mm zooms) and camera (ARRI ALEXA XT Plus 4:3) on their latest project constitutes an outside-the-box approach. When Stockton was enlisted to shoot Astronaut Wives Club, a 10-part series for ABC Television about the wives of the original seven astronauts of the Space program, the DP immediately started thinking about how he could make this period piece (spanning 1958 to 1969) visually different from contemporary shows currently airing. After Lipson signed on as alternating director of photography, the two DPs discussed ideas and agreed that they’d light contemporarily, letting art direction, costumes and hair give it the period feel.
“Then David had the idea of shooting the show anamorphic and doing a 16×9 extraction. I was immediately excited,” says Lipson. Meeting at Otto Nemenz, they shot initial tests for director Stephanie Savage, “who immediately saw how our approach would heighten the drama of the story,” says Stockton.
In New Orleans, where the project is located, extensive tests were shot. “We purposely flared the lens, used rear element nets and diffusion filters. We viewed the test at FotoKem, working with the colorist, and we knew this was the right choice. Once we got the recipe between filtration and lenses right, we saw the results we were after,” says Stockton.
Adds Lipson, “The anamorphic lenses give the series a compelling, softer look. Lens flares are so different to today’s HD lenses. Viewers won’t know why the show looks different; it will be more of a subconscious thing. The shallow depth of field, bokeh and falloff of these lenses all add to the drama about these brave ladies.”
DAVID MOXNESS, CSC
(Graceland, Forever, Revolution, Smallville, The Kennedys )
The busy DP, who has shot many TV series, says that his trusty Pentax digital spot meter is his “most out of the box/unusual piece of gear. I’ve had it for nearly 30 years, and Pentax discontinued them a long time ago. Shooting today, in this advanced world of cinematography and digital capture, I’d feel lost and lonely without my spot meter. Emotions aside, I still find it the most accurate way to set the exposure while shooting digitally in this modern world. The sensitivity of the digital sensors/chips, in my opinion, requires very accurate exposures. Armed with the spot meter and a small handheld 18% gray card, I can select correct exposures to small pinpoint areas.
“Often, with the fast pace of shooting and in tight space locations, I can’t always have a waveform monitor close by. Knowing I can set an extremely accurate exposure without one is important. When shooting episodic television, I find it even more vital to deliver an accurate reference of exposure to your intentions while shooting, especially when creating very dramatic and or dark, moody shots. So often, the final postproduction phase and color correction will happen off-site, at a great distance from where you’re shooting and without your presence. Delivering a precise exposure will ensure your intended imagery translates through to the final product. My old friend, the spot meter, allows me to do that.”
(Fruitvale Station, Little Accidents, The Conversation )
Some DPs use tried-and-true outside-the-box tools, and some DPs like Morrison actually create them when the need arises—and, in this case, she designed an app called Cinescope to fill just such a need. Last spring, the DP was in prep for Cake, a feature that she planned to shoot widescreen 2.39 using anamorphic lenses on an ALEXA Plus 4:3. “We had one major challenge—the main character, played by Jennifer Aniston, spends much of the film lying down in the passenger seat of a car,” she reports. “Now, as any DP knows, this isn’t a flattering angle, but the added concern was how to cut between this position and the driver and how to find variety for the many different scenes in the car. I took my iPhone and some stand-ins in order to test out the options. I was using Artemis, which is an absolutely incredible and indispensable app and serves an amazing purpose, but you sacrifice speed and resolution for some of the metadata and internal options, such as model of camera and lens focal lengths. In this case, I didn’t need any of that information. I just wanted to be able to shoot fast in the desired aspect ratio and to make images high enough quality that I could use them for storyboards.”
And so began the concept for Cinescope, an app that allows the user to shoot photos in any aspect ratio (choose between defaults or customize your own) and save the images straight to the user’s iPhone album without having to process them individually. As an added bonus, the user can choose to format the photo for Instagram by embedding the photo within a square. But, reasoned Morrison, what if it could shoot video, too?
“How amazing would it be when discussing the pros and cons of shooting 1.85 or 2.39 to show the director the different options by shooting video of each?” she asks. “And so I laid out a detailed plan and then hired a talented app designer named Lee Brenner to code the app for me. Cinescope has been finished for about three months now and is doing very well. But it was never about financial success. I made the app for myself and all of my DP and director friends because I really believed it would be a useful industry tool. And, sure enough, it’s proving to be. I get ‘thank yous’ in the form of Cinescope photos from my friends all the time and, as for me, I use the app nearly every day.”