Interview with Director of Photography and GCI Faculty Member David Stump, ASC
Creating images through digital formats is the way of the present and future. This course will look at how these digital tools and techniques can be used by a trained cinematography, examining the benefits and limitations of digital cinema cameras in comparison to film technologies. Students will walk away from the course with a strong foundations in how the digital image is captured, converted and compressed, resulting in an image we can actual see!
Instructors: David Stump, ASC; Jay Holben and Christopher Probst
At Global Cinematography Institute, our instructors are innovators in their respective fields. Few individuals are more qualified to discuss the artistic, technical and industry considerations of Digital Cinematography more than our "Digital Cinematography" and "Cinematography for VFX" instructor David Stump, ASC.
While continuing to be an innovator in the field, David has recently authored a book which is quickly becoming the definitive resource on all things Digital Cinematography. The new book, published by Focal Press, is titled: Digital Cinematography: Fundamentals, Tools, Techniques and Workflows and is available now as an e-book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and will be released in Paperback on May 29th in the ASC Store, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
We asked David some questions in preparation for the release of his book about his approach to writing about Digital Cinematography, teaching at Global Cinematography Institute, workflows, his new class "Cinematography for VFX" and where he believes the career is heading.
How did you formulate your approach in writing the book “Digital Cinematography”? How it different from other books?
David Stump, ASC: I started the book by creating a thorough outline of the subjects I was interested in covering, and then I began creating numerous Powerpoint presentations from which I could do lectures and classes. Then while I was using those Powerpoints I kept meticulous notes about the questions I got from students. I quickly discovered that the hardest part of writing (at least for me personally) was becoming aware what I had put on paper as opposed to what I had left behind in my head. Learning to do that was a surprising discovery for me! I started the book fully intending to cover digital technology as it relates to Cinematography, and I frequently resisted the temptation to stray into the other aspects of the craft.There are numerous great books on composition, on lighting, on storytelling, all the other aspect of Cinematography, but there was nothing satisfying on the questions that I personally had on digital technology in Cinema, so that was where I tried to stay disciplined and focused in my efforts. I even wrote a foreword to the book that explained the focus of the book, so that readers would not be surprised at the specialized focus of my subject matter. In my foreword I said;
“This book is not about film, composition, storytelling, screenwriting, lighting or lighting equipment, grip equipment, or how to become a Cinematographer. There are plenty of very good books on all of those subjects that are already in publication. Today, a Director of Photography must be three things; First; an artist, Second; a technician, and Third; a businessman. There are plenty of books written to teach and coach you in the artistry of cinematography, lighting, composition, framing, camera movement… but very few that give you the information you will need to master the techniques of digital cameras and even fewer to give you an appreciation of the ramifications of the decision you make to use one camera and its resulting workflow over another. Increasingly, Cinematographers are being judged by their employers: the Studios, the Producers, the Directors, the Editors, and the Post Producers, on the basis of all three of these criteria.”
When you are teaching “Digital Cinematography” at GCI what part of the book you would consider to be the most important for beginner cinematographers? For advanced cinematographers?
David Stump, ASC: There are numerous areas that I consider important when teaching, but I always begin by giving my students the distinction of the difference between photosites and pixels. “What Are Pixels? The word pixel is a contraction of pix ("pictures") and el (for "element"). A pixel is the smallest, addressable full color (RGB) element in a digital imaging device. The address of a pixel corresponds to its physical coordinates on a sensor or screen. Pixels are full color samples of an original image. More pixels provide a more accurate representation of the original image. The color and tonal intensity of a pixel is variable. In digital motion picture cinematography systems, a color is typically represented by three component intensities of red, green, and blue. Only Pixels Contain RGB (Red Green and Blue) Information. Photosites are NOT Pixels! This is one of the most important distinctions we can make when talking about digital cinema cameras! Photosites (or sensels as they are referred to in camera sensor design) can only carry information about one color. A photosite can only be red or green or blue. Photosites must be combined to make pixels. Pixels carry tricolor RGB information.
The other things that I work hard to impress upon students are Modulation Transfer Function (MTF), Color sampling, log encoding and I created large chapters on cameras and lenses that are available currently.
Your book is titled “Digital Cinematography: Fundamentals, Tools, Techniques and Workflows”. Workflow is a relatively new word in cinematographer vocabulary. How important is to know about workflow for the modern cinematographer?
David Stump, ASC: The traditional film workflow has been so long established and so well understood, that it was never necessary in the modern era to learn more than how to deliver film to the lab with a good exposure and wait (nervously) until the next day for the results. With digital technology, we have moved into the era of what has been termed “Snowflake Workflows”. That means that there are endless different numbers of ways to arrive at the finished look of a picture, no two alike, all of them unique and different. Unfortunately all of them have many potential failure points, and the potential for these failures to ruin the Cinematographer’s work dictates that we take control of the workflow so that our images survive the post production imaging chain preserving our artistic intent. This means we are forced to understand the workflows by which our images will eventually be brought to the screen. Among the questions I teach students that need to be answered by the Cinematographer, the Editor, the Post Production Supervisor and the Producer are:
What is the budget?
What is the ultimate product that will be delivered?
Is the project being made for big screen cinema?
Is it intended for television broadcast only?
Is the project being made for the internet, or streaming, or some other non broadcast media?
What camera(s) and file format(s) will be used for the shoot?
How big or small, heavy or light should the recorder be? Is the shoot happening in prohibitive locations, or is it on stage?
What recorder can the project afford to use?
How much storage media can the project afford?
How much compression (if any) can the images bear in consideration of the intended target screen size?
Is random access of file-based data important, or can the project use a tape based acquisition workflow?
What does the editorial department need as deliverables from the camera department?
What is the workflow from camera to editorial to post?
Will there be a Digital Intermediate?
The Cinematographer must know the answers to all these questions (and more) before deciding how to record the project.
We will soon start a new class at GCI – Fundamentals of VFX. Why it is so important today for all cinematographers to know basics of VFX, SFX, Virtual Lighting and Virtual Cinematography?
David Stump, ASC: I would personally estimate that 80% or more of films made today employ some number of Visual Effects shots, but more importantly, of the films made each year, the biggest grossing box office films employ hundreds if not thousands of VFX shots each! If a Cinematographer aspires to working in the blockbuster realm of film making, there is not the slightest chance he can get there without a very sound solid knowledge of shooting for Visual Effects. VFX tentpole film budgets frequently exceed $200 million dollars, and the box office from them frequently exceeds billions of dollars!
At GCI we believe in a strong foundation through the instruction of fundamental concepts of cinematography, which then leads to practical, hands-on application. How does your “Digital Cinematography” class, as well as the new “Fundamentals of VFX” class prepare students for future, hands-on experience?
David Stump, ASC: The Fundamentals of VFX Class should be a very good experience to help young Cinematographers prepare for the kind of disciplined approach that VFX requires… The VFX Cinematographer can’t walk into the set unprepared without disastrous consequences, and he certainly can’t bluff his way through doing multi element composite shots. The Digital Cinematography class gives a good foundation for young Cinematographers to gain some appreciation for what I call the “unknown unknowns”, those things about Digital Cinematography cameras that you didn’t know that you didn’t know.
How do you see the future of the profession?
David Stump, ASC: The craft of Cinematography will be a much more globally competitive occupation. Creatives now come from the most wildly far-flung parts of the globe. Cinematographers must prepare themselves for a very competitive global workplace where any advantage in knowledge or technique can make the difference in getting (or not getting) the job.
Aspiring Cinematographers - buck up and do your homework. Don’t try to bluff with buzzwords. 20 years ago there were only a few film schools, now there are thousands of them. I hope and believe that if they are reading and learning from my book at those films schools, they have an advantage over those who don’t!