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LED vs. Tungsten: Not Such a Hard Choice Afterall

24 05 2012

The anatomy of an LED.

I have had this argument with colleagues countless times and it looks like I will finally get a bit of retribution on the issue.  Though LED and Tungsten are not the only two types of lighting units employed in film and video production (HMIs and Fluorescents being the other two big contenders), there has been a huge push by manufacturers of late to bring LED technology to the forefront as a major player, possibly even as an alternative to the tungsten arsenal.

The proponents of LEDs, or light emitting diodes, will generally argue one or a combination of several points heavily: temperature, weight and ease of use.  There is no argument that LEDs are a much cooler alternative to a tungsten light.  In fact, there is hardly any heat at all from these instruments, even after extended use.  Also, because the units are just a panel of light emitting diodes arranged in vertical and horizontal grids, these instruments tend to be lighter, more ergonomic and easier to transport.  The last cornerstone of the pro LED faction is the ease of use, as many of these instruments have not only built-in abilities to dim the emitted light, but also color temperature controls as well.  In theory LEDs seem like a no brainer, don’t they?  If you took these arguments at face value, then sure it would be; however, if you delve a little deeper into the makeup of light, vision and how cameras read the color spectrum, then it’s not such an easy sale.

A classic Mole Richardson tungsten unit

I have always been a strong supporter of the other side of the coin.  Unless I have to, I rarely use anything outside of tungsten or HMI instruments, with LEDs being my last choice, even below fluorescents tube technology instruments like Kino-Flos.  Tungsten instruments have been industry standard since nearly the beginning of motion picture artificial lighting use over 80 years ago.  Tungsten lights work by heating a filament of tungsten in a halogen gas encased tube to temperatures hot enough to glow.  Being a continuous source, these instruments have an arc that creates a very consistent, clean looking stream of visible light both to the eye and through the lens of a camera.  Because these lights are heating the filament to extreme temperatures, they do get hot, and yes, the housing to contain the lamps has to be built in such a way that the lighting instrument isn’t dangerous to use, which more times than not can make these units big and bulky for the amount of output they produce.  All of these physical properties do have their disadvantages, but the one point that can’t be argued is that tungsten instruments produce a very pleasurable light for film and video production.

To illustrate the point, here is a video from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that explains some of the correlations between film emulsions and color, and the relative shortcomings of LED units in today’s productions.  Further results of their extensive studies on the subject are available on the Academy’s Web site at: http://www.oscars.org/science-technology/council/projects/ssl/index.html.

Though it didn’t take a multi-million dollar study by the Academy to convince me that I’d go with a 40-year-old Tweenie over a brand new LED, it does feel good to have some deeply scientific research on hand to help prove my point to detractors.  I will admit that LED technology is an interesting and potentially wonderful tool for filmmakers, but err on the side of caution that this technology is not quite where it needs to be yet to fully incorporate into production workflows on set, unless of course you are going for a specific look that these inferior discontinuous instruments produce.  In that case, I guess you are creating art.

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Gear Review: Zeiss Compact Prime .2 Cine Set

20 09 2011

Stock Photo from Zeiss who owns Copyright

Make: Zeiss

Model: CP.2 Set

My use: I ordered the 7 lens set while at UNC-Greensboro.  Primarily, this lens set was to be used for the Panasonic AF-100; however, the lenses were also perfectly compatible with the 7d, 5d and RED One.  In fact, I got the Canon mounts on the lenses, as adapter rings on the AF-100 or RED One would sustain the weight better than on a DSLR.

Average Price: $26,700 (for 7 lens set; they are sold in a 5 lens set or individually as well)

My thoughts: To date, these are my favorite lenses that I have used.  They are compact, precise and an excellent quality of glass.  At UNC-Greensboro, we had a set of RED Pro Primes with the RED One package which included a 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 300mm and 18-85mm zoom; these Zeiss CP.2 blew them all out of the water.  Not only are they smaller and easier to handle, but more precise in measurements and calibration.  The 7 lens set includes an 18mm, 21mm, 25mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm prime lenses and two sturdy, well-padded hard plastic carrying cases with rollers.  Though the price sounds high, in terms of good lens cost, it’s actually very reasonable.  If I had the cash on hand and one lens set to buy, it would likely be these wonderful cine lenses.  Though I love Cookes S4s and ARRI Master Primes, these little guys can stand their own and are a fraction of the cost.  If you’re shooting regularly and have the cash on hand, these would be a wonderful investment.

Technical Specs from the Manufacturer (for 35mm Prime as representational of other 6 prime lenses included): 

Mount Interchangeable PL
Focal Length 35mm
Aperture T2.1
Elements/Groups 9/7
Front Lens Diameter 114mm
Minimum Object Distance (M.O.D.) 12″ (0.3m)
Length 3.15″ (8cm)
Weight 2.2 lbs (1kg)

Bottom Line: If you are ready to make the jump to professional grade cine glass, but want to do so at a fraction of the cost in regards to some of the competitors, then I highly recommend the Zeiss CP.2s.  In a perfect world, going with the 7 lens set complete with carrying cases, is a great buy.  But, these are still expensive lenses for small companies and individuals and can be bought separately and built into a nice set over time.  Either way, you will not be disappointed in the sharpness and quality of the image these lenses produce.  Furthermore, you won’t be breaking your back to lug these primes around on set.





Five Cinematographers Who Shaped Me

16 09 2011

It’s getting later on a Thursday night and for some reason I’m feeling kind of sentimental, so I’ve decided to write a fairly personal post for you guys.  For of those you who don’t know, my passion and calling in the world of film production is cinematography.  I have lensed a variety of commercials, award-winning shorts, promotional videos, weddings (video and 8mm film, believe it or not), industrial films and live music acts.  In short, you name it, I’ve probably shot it at some point.  In the commercial world, there are times of true creative ingenuity, but for the most part, you are limited by what the client or employer desires.  For that reason, this post definitely relates more to my shaping as a cinematographer narratively.  Who are the five most influential cinematographers to me personally?  It’s going to be hard to narrow it down and I won’t be so daring as to try to put them in any order, but here are five true artists who helped change the way I looked at motion pictures.

1. Gianni di Venanzo (1920 – 1966)

Di Venanzo with camera; Francesco Rosi in foreground

Many cinematographers will tell you that one of the primary goals in perfecting the look of an image is finding the perfect balance between light and dark.  Perhaps no other cinematographer achieved this more exquisitely than di Venanzo.  The man who shot Antonionni’s La Notte and Fellini’s 8 1/2 had amazing control over the contrast of black and white negative.  The darkness of the blacks and blazing white highlights, coupled with his distinctive mood influenced lighting style, give all of his films a certified dream-like quality.  In looking through the nearly two dozen features he shot over the last 20 years of his life, you can see his personal stamp as an artist and technician indelibly printed.  Though the bulk of his work was with black and white negative, di Venanzo proved himself equally as awe-inspiring and versatile in his color work on Fellini’s epic Juliet of the Spirits.  Di Venanzo’s work has had such a hold on me that, when filming my directorial debut last fall (which was filmed black and white), his notable style was the only cinematographer’s body of work that I mentioned to our DP in helping define the mood and style of the film.  Di Venanzon died in a car accident in Rome while shooting a picture in 1966; it’s a wonder what other wonderful images he could have provided us with had his life not been cut so short.

2. Robert Surtees (1906 – 1985)

Robert L. Surtees

Whereas di Venanzo’s work brightly illuminated his personal flourish, Surtees was that of a chameleon.  Whether black and white, color, a bright musical or dark drama, Surtees could handle it all.  Many say that the best shot movies are the ones where the images don’t stand out; meaning, the visual beauty is not so much that it distracts from the story.  If this could be said of any cinematographer, I think Surtees is a fine example.  He was versatile and talented, giving each one of his narratives their own distinct feel.  A three-time Oscar winner and fourteen time nominee, Surtees’ work spanned over four decades and included Ben-Hur, The Last Pictures Show, Oklahoma!, King Soloman’s Mines, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Sting and The Graduate.  As testament to his versatility in an ever changing industry, when he shot The Graduate in 1967, critics and fans alike heralded it as new, innovative and cutting edge in its look and lighting design; Surtees was 60 years old when he shot this film.  A brilliant, brilliant cameraman, I will go out on a limb and say that if I could aspire to any style of another artist, I would like to be as good and versatile as Surtees behind the camera.

3. Jack Cardiff (1914 – 2009)

Jack Cardiff

Another artisan whose work stands out with his personal touch stamped on each and every frame.  I have elaborated fondly on the work of Cardiff on this blog in two other posts: Directors who Started as Cinematographers and in my review of the film Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff.  To save those loyal readers the pain of my continued adoration of this wonderful cinematographer, I will keep his segment brief.  Working his way up from clapper boy in the 1920s, Cardiff became one of the most skilled, if not the most skilled, Technicolor lighting cameraman in the business.  His work with the Archers demonstrates some of the most brilliantly colorful palettes of filmmaking in existence.  When I think of the correalation between a great painter like Vermeer or Caravaggio in the film business, I think of Cardiff.

4. Gordon Willis (1931 –   )  

Willis behind the camera

People call Willis the “Prince of Darkness” due to his insatiable desire to push the bottom end latitude to the hilt in exposing his image.  His repertoire during the 1970s is almost unmatched with films like both Godfather movies, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, Klute, The Paper Chase and Manhattan.  His style is evident in each and every one, a gritty, dark and moody negative that puts the viewer directly in the story, but still holding a visually stunning image.  His style remains very unobtrusive, yet retains a certain classic beauty that leaves viewers pondering the visual panache of the film long after viewing it.  Though you may not recognize him by name, his images have all been a strong part of our cinematic histories.

5. Sven Nykvist (1922 – 2006)  

Sven Nykvist

The second and longest collaborating Director of Photography with famed Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, Nykvist is best known for his muted colors and soft lighting approach.  His work with Bergman alone is enough to solidify him in the annals of the best cinematographers of all-time with films like Persona, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander and Scenes From a Marriage.  But then, he came to work for American and English directors and provided us with further visual gems in films like Chaplin, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Sacrifice and Celebrity.  The muted, autumn-esque color palette and diffused, yet controlled lighting style that Nykvist incorporated create some of the richest and satisfying, yet subtle images ever put to screen.  His work is not necessarily flashy and he was a large proponent of natural lighting, but this minimalist nature, under his control, produced images that are in my opinion works of art.

Of course, there are many more DPs that I love and admire including, but not limited to, Roger Deakins, Robert Richardson, Freddie Francis, Guiseppe Rotunno, Nestor Almendros, Charles Lang, Vittoro Storaro, Gregg Toland, Lazlo Kovacs, John Alonzo and on and on.  However, if I have to narrow my influences due to personal taste and whose work most comes to mind when I think of shaping my own images, then these are the gentleman that come first.





Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010) Review

17 08 2011

Copyright 2010 Modus Operandi Films

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Ever since hearing about this film several years ago, I have been extremely anxious to see it.  Upon noticing it’s appearance on Netflix’s Instant Queue, I immediately added it.  Maddie has been gone this week for orientation for a new job, and I knew that this film would not appeal to her at all.  In fact, she made it pretty clear she had no interest in seeing this one.  So, since I had the house to myself this week (along with a couple of cats and a dog), I was able to sit back, relax and enjoy this wonderful ode to one of cinema’s finest technical artists.

For those of you who don’t know, Jack Cardiff was a leading British cameraman who began as a child actor in the industry in the late 1910s.  In his teens, he began moving up the ladder in the camera department from camera assistant to camera operator and, ultimately, to a full fledged cinematographer.  His work with the Archers, Pressburger and Powell, is renowned and his contributions to the field of cinematography, specifically color cinematography, are legendary.  My first personal encounter with Cardiff’s work was in my early teens.  One of the VHS movies I had recently purchased contained a preview for a re-release of the 1948 film Black Narcissus.  I was shocked at the imagery I saw during the preview!  The colors were so real, so palpable and brilliant that it made any of the current films that were in theaters at the time look dull in comparison.   I knew I had to see this film, but it would be many years later before I got my Blu-ray copy of Black Narcissus in hand.  Needless to say, the HD presentation of that film is amazing.

Cardiff would win an Oscar for Black Narcissus and go on to receive two more nominations for King Vidor’s War and Peace and Joshua Logan’s Fanny.  A further nomination would be for directing the film Sons and Lovers, making Cardiff one of the few cinematographers to achieve great success in directing.  In 2001, Cardiff was the first and, to my knowledge, only cinematographer to date to receive an Honorary Oscar for his contribution to motion pictures.

This film is an ode to his life and to his work.  It celebrates and recounts his vast history in the film industry, and includes many candid interviews with Cardiff that were filmed before he passed in 2009 at the age of 94.  I thought this was a wonderful documentary and a great tip-of-the-hat to a brilliant cinematographer.  I could understand how some people might not find this film appealing or entertaining, just out of lack of interest in the subject matter.  However, if you are a lover of motion pictures or a working filmmaker, I feel this is a must see.  Cardiff’s ability to manipulate light still brings wonder and delight to any viewer of his work.  If I can be half the artist and cameraman this gentleman was, I will feel like I achieved my goals in the field of cinematography.





Recent Shoot Log: UNC-Greensboro “Viral” #1

16 06 2011

It’s been months since the idea of shooting some marketing content for the UNC-Greensboro Office of Online Learning started talks.  If you’ve never worked for a state agency before, then you don’t know what the term “lots of red tape” means.  It takes lots of patience, time, meetings, more meetings, discussions, vetos and did I mention meetings? for ideas and projects to fully get off the ground.  Luckily, however, our division’s new marketing head and team are persistent and do a great job at pushing these projects down the line to let them be the best they can be.

In a world where text-on-a-page Web sites, documents, etc. are taking over our lives in this digital age, we were commissioned to design a marketing campaign promoting our multimedia-infused alternative.  The end result are a series of videos that will show text literally bombarding everyday life.

The first video for this campaign was carefully thought out between Patrick Griffin, A. J. Lee, Brooke Corwin, myself, Bryan Higgins and Jon Fredette.  We decided that the first one would be more of a “draft” than anything.  It was still unclear whether the idea was exactly what the higher-ups were interested in, so we decided to go with one of our many ideas that was the least daunting.  The idea ended up being of a girl, in her cubicle at work, who is caught in a raining “text storm”.

Pre-production was pushed through fairly quickly and we locked a location in our offices; the location ended up being coder, Colin Dai’s, cube.  We had to sissify his cube a bit since it would be a female actress playing the lead role.  The principal role went to actress Elise Duquette (apologies if I spelled this wrong, Elise!) out of the Charlotte area.  With a little time and bringing a female’s touch for a little help, we had a well-dressed location.

The project was lit with a variety of instruments.  All overhead practicals were turned off because of being a low quality fluorescent.  A Jokerbug 800 with 1/2 CTO was bounced off the ceiling for a bit of overall ambience, a 500-watt Lowel Rifa light was used as a key over the front cube wall at an angle, backlight was a 650-watt ARRI with diffusion rigged on a C-Stand in the cube behind, a 250-watt Lowel Pro Light with 216 was placed on the desk to keep exposure on the face when the umbrella went over and two 500-watt Lowel Omni’s with Opal diffusion created the slashes on the cube sides during the pull-back.  To add a bit of spice to the scene, a practical china light was placed on the desk and allowed to highlight out a bit.

A RED One was used to shoot the project in 4k 2:1 24fps mode with a shutter of 1/48.  The original shot was an actual dolly shot that was beautiful, but due to compositing factors, a static was used with a digital zoom added for practicality.  To all you budding cinematographers out there, sometimes it’s not always your favorite shots that get used, but sometimes it’s for the better of the project.

Bryan Higgins, our effects heavy lifter here, spent many hours compositing each of the little “texts” falling.  Afterwards, Jon Fredette did the sound design and I did very minor color tweaks on the final image.  All-in-all, it came out to be a nice little draft; nice enough, in fact, that the division decided to use it as the first of the campaign and commissioned us for two more.  Our second in the series has already been shot and is in the editing phase, and the third (which will be shot on 16mm film) will be produced in the next week.  Updates and posts on those two will be forthcoming.  The video for our first campaign is below (don’t know why the thumbnail looks so funky, but it works out when you play it):





R.I.P. Gunnar Fischer (1910 – 2011)

12 06 2011

Gunnar Fischer (1910 - 2011)

Legendary Swedish cinematographer Gunnar Fischer passed away yesterday at the age of 100.  Fischer’s lighting and camera techniques brought to life some of Ingmar Bergman’s most iconic films from the director’s early period.  Though not as well known as future collaborator Sven Nykvist, Fischer’s style and visual eye has dazzled cinema-goers for nearly 60 years, though his general recognition remains mostly silent.

Born in Ljungby Vasternorrlands Lan, Sweden, on November 18, 1910, Fischer originally studied painting at Otte Sköld.  Following his education, he enlisted as a chef with the Swedish Navy, before turning to a career in cinema at Svensk Filmindustri. His first film credit was as assistant camera on Smålänningar in 1935, and his first feature as a director of photography came in 1942.  He worked with several international directors including Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer and British director Anthony Asquith.  However, his most endearing and remembered artistic partnership was with Bergman from 1948 to 1960.

The fruits of Bergman and Fischer’s collaborations include such films as Harbor City, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician and their final collaboration, The Devil’s Eye.  Like many fellow Swedish cinematographers of the era, Fischer was a master of practical lighting and operated his own camera on all his films.  Such classic images as Max von Sydow playing chess with Death or the wide dancing chain on the hill side from The Seventh Seal still move and touch viewers of all generations.

Bergman and Fischer went their separate ways after The Devil’s Eye in 1960.  Bergman went on to form another strong artistic partnership with cinematographer Sven Nykvist which lasted through almost the rest of the director’s professional career.  Fischer continued shooting feature films until 1979 when he retired.  In retirement, he continued to be close to his craft by serving as an instructor of cinematography at several prestigious Scandinavian universities.

An interesting article and interview regarding Fisher’s time working with Bergman from the Washington Post in 2008 can be found here:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/01/AR2008020100903.html





Ryan’s Daughter (1970) Review

7 05 2011

Copyright 1970 Faraway Productions

★ ★ ★ 1/2

This was the final of David Lean’s epics made after 1955 that I had yet to see.  The accompanying films in the bunch were Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zchivago and A Passage to India.  A huge Lean fan, I had always heard that this was his least impressive effort.  Actually, because of Pauline Kael’s scathing review of this film upon its release, Lean would wait 14 years to direct another motion picture.  The film itself, however, though very long, is not a bad movie by any means.  In relation to David Lean films it might not stand out, but in relation to other movies in general, it’s actually a pretty good movie.

The story takes place in a small town in Ireland in 1916, as British troops are just beginning to occupy the Irish countryside.  On a grand scale, the film tackles plot points of the rebel’s fight towards arming themselves under the lead of Tim O’Leary (Barry Foster).  Yet, the real crux of the story as the title suggests is focused on the bar keep’s, Thomas Ryan ‘s (Leo McKern), daughter (Sarah Miles).  A spoiled young girl, constantly referred to as “princess” by her father, falls in love with the kind, mild-mannered school teacher, Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum).  Though he is much older than she, they eventually marry and settle into the schoolhouse quarters on the edge of town.  At first a happy marriage, she soon starts to look for more in life.  When a crippled British officer (Christopher Jones) comes to the local British camp, she immediately falls for him.  Their torrid affair dominates the middle portion of the film.  So, essentially, you have a love affair set to the back drop of political turmoil in 1910s Ireland.  In the end, the affair proves a terrible mistake for everyone invovled.

As usual with a late Lean film, everything about this movie is epic.  The production design, the locations and the sweeping camera movements are amazingly well put together.  To top it all off is the beautiful, Academy award-winning cinematography by Freddie Young.  I could go on for paragraphs about Young’s work; every shot in this three hour film is just absolutely breathtaking.  I can only hope one day to possess the creative and technical brilliance that he exuded behind the camera.  But, I must say, that this type of film does lend itself quite well to cinematography with its locations and period setting.

The acting, on a whole is very well-handled.  Sarah Miles and Robert Mitchum both did incredible jobs in their leading roles.  Christopher Jones, who played the British officer, I had heard was very hard to deal with on set and they had to dub his lines over in post.  All in all, they must have done a good job cutting around his performance because I didn’t really notice it being that bad.  John Mills, who played the village idiot, as Tropic Thunder would suggest actually went pretty much full retard, and won Best Supporting Actor for it.  He plays the part with such childlike wonder though, that I can easily see how he pulled off such an award even though his character never spoke a word in the film.  Another fine turn was made by British actor Trevor Howard as the patriarchal preist who brought equality to the small town with an iron fist.

All in all, I don’t see why people give this film such bad reviews.  Yes, I agree that it could have probably been 30 minutes or so shorter than its three hour and fifteen minute running time.  Yet, for such a long running time, the movie carries interest and entertains surprisingly well.  To me, this was definitely as good as  A Passage to India.  Sure, it wasn’t Lawrence of Arabia or Bridge on the River Kwai, but you can’t strike brilliance too many times in a row in one lifetime.








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