Articles in Expanded Cinematography®:
"Bucking Trends?" by Jay Holben
How Technology is Helping..and Hurting Modern Cinematography
New technological advancements are exciting, yet they often lead to an over-saturation of instances of the new "toy" as many rush to play and adopt the new technique. This, often, leads to general audience annoyance and relegation to "cliche" status.
In the 1960s and 1970s as Angenieux, Canon and Panavision were all manufacturing zoom lenses for motion picture cameras, we saw a rise in the number of zoom shots in movies. Here a zoom, there a zoom, everywhere a zoom, zoom! It was a fresh, new, technology for motion pictures and everyone wanted to play with it. This led to audiences and filmmakers protesting a hatred for zooms, calling them "cheesy." It's not the fault of the tool, however, but over-use and, in my opinion, improper use that lead to these opinions. Cinematographer John Seale, ASC, ACS and director Robert Altman (just as two examples) were masters of the zoom lens, often hiding a zoom in a lateral camera move or a pan. In addition, using a zoom as a variable prime saves substantial time on a set - especially with the speed of modern zooms.
The point? New technology often leads to over usage, but every tool has its purpose. That brings us to some more of today's most commonly over-used tools - and some cautions about avoiding their overuse.
In the film world, most slow-motion requires a specialized camera body and a lot of film. It is used for very specific purposes, very specific story-telling concepts, because the resources are precious.
Today, in an era post Panasonic Varicam (the first digital camera to offer off-speed shooting of up to 60fps), iPhones can now shoot 240 frames per second in high definition. A large number of digital cameras can shoot 200+ frames per second and filmmakers have discovered the joys of slow mo! Even hyper-slowmo! It's beautiful stuff, dreamy, sexy - but it needs to be used for very specific narrative reasons, not just because it's cool. Slow motion, generally, depicts a moment of heightened intensity: extreme drama; extreme emotion. It adds great importance to a moment by hyper-extending time. Over-use of slow-mo can confuse an audience who are used to the classic visual language of cinema and it can reduce the impact of slow-motion, in general.
Once upon a time, moving a camera vertically was an extreme challenge and it required considerable equipment. Crane shots were achieved by placing the operator and assistant on a platform at the end of the end of a crane arm. This was, no matter how safely executed, a dangerous endeavor. Whenever you place human beings in a situation like this, you're endangering lives. When the remote head came into being, we were able to to elevate cameras without putting people in the air - but these were expensive and primarily used by top features and commercials. The reduction of the size of cameras and expense of remote heads democratized crane shots to the independent and low-budget filmmaker, but they were still, for the most part, out of the reach of micro-budget and no-budget filmmakers.
Getting beyond the extension of the crane arm, we had helicopters and planes that could take up cameras to get even higher points of view. Helicopters are notoriously dangerous and, unfortunately, there are many lethal helicopter accidents to darken the history of filmmaking. Just shy of a decade ago, entrepreneur filmmakers began to employ remote control helicopters with cameras and this trend has evolved. Today, we have a prevalence of drones and incredibly inexpensive drones flying around and photographing our world. I recently attended the Los Angeles Drone Expo and I was only partially surprised to find the majority of attendees were not filmmakers; they were hobbyists. I met a father who owned a drone and just liked to play with his kids. I met a sailing enthusiast who liked to fly a drone while sailing to photograph himself. In the past few months, especially through my time on Instagram (@jayholben), I've come across dozens and dozens of wedding and event videographers employing drones; real estate salesmen employing drones for property photography and more independent filmmakers zooming around drones than I care to count. Aerial shots are becoming a cliche.
A Little Gift of Flare
A lens flare can be a beautiful thing. To capture light, in its majestic beauty, dancing around the inner components of a lens is almost magical. What is, officially, a flaw in an optical system and a degradation of the image, when used properly - can evoke an immediate mood. We typically see spot flares (multiple "rings" of light highlight in the image that take on the shape of the iris as light 'pings' around a lens, typically from zoom lenses) and ghost flares (a mirror reflection of a light source that is re-photographed in a new position). A veiling flare (or veiling glare) is an indirect light flare with a non-distinct form that serves only to significantly reduce contrast in the image. They are, most often, the first to be flagged out by grips, but they, too, can be very beautiful.
A number of rental facilities are now offering "uncoated" classic lenses, Super Speeds, Ultra Speeds and others. Stripping the coating(s) off of lens elements allows for more light to reflect off of the elements and increases the flare potential. Especially with digital cameras, uncoated and vintage lenses offer more "character" to the image making what was once undesirable, desirable.
In addition, the digital age has brought about a rise in the popularity of the anamorphic flare. An anomaly produced by the cylindrical front anamorphosizer of an anamorphic lens, the anamorphic flare is unique in its horizontal "burst" of light (typically blue). The over-use of this flare has been attributed to director J.J. Abrams, as well as Michael Bay, but it has been popularized in music videos, commercials and feature films, alike.
This effect is even possible without an anamorphic lens with the use of monofilament behind the lens or specific streak filters by companies like Optifex.
Sleight of Hand (Held)
In the early days of cinema sound, moving a camera was a near-impossible feat. As sound technology and camera technology improved, the size of cameras reduced and mobility was returned to the camera. It wasn't until the early 1980s, however, with Garrett Brown's invention of the Steadicam, that really allowed the camera to move in a more fluid, and even "magical" way.
There have been myriad stabilizers in the market since the Steadicam, some direct body-harness competition, some as simple as a pole and counterweight connected to the base of the camera. As the physical size of professional cinema cameras has continued to be miniaturized, the opportunities for more advanced forms of hand-held stabilizers have arisen.
Some concepts of stabilizers are incredibly simplistic like the EasyRig, a variation of a bungee-cam system that puts a body harness on the operator with an over-the-head bracket from which a cable supports the weight of the camera allowing the operator to maintain a hand-held feeling, but without the fatigue of the weight of the camera. The EasyRig creates a fluid, but organic, look that is less dolly-like than the Steadicam, but significantly more fluid than standard hand-held.
The MōVI was one of the first gyro-stabilized hand-held stabilizers to hit the market - and it did so with a bang. Combining the fluid stabilization of a large body-mount isoelastic and gyro stabilization with the freedom of hand-held operation in a very compact size, the MōVI allowed new shots that had, previously, only been dreamed of in the smaller production world. DJI, the leader in the drone community, not to be outdone, introduced their own gyro-stabized hand-held device: Ronin. Ronin is heavier, but much more intuitive than MōVI with operation possible nearly out-of-the-box. MōVI requires a lot more software programming and the two have been compared to PC (MōVI) and Apple (Ronin). Surely we will see more in the marketplace. Neither tool is the end-all-be-all, but I have seen them on the end of Technocranes, on Steadicam arms, on car mounts, motorcycle mounts and pretty much anywhere else you can imagine. A whole new world in camera movement and stabilization.
This is not to say that these techniques and devices don't have their place - of course they do. Slow motion is an incredibly powerful storytelling tool, but it should be used carefully, with forethought, with narrative purpose. Drones need to be used carefully, responsibly (not just creative responsibility but safety responsibility. Flying a drone near a commercial aircraft is NOT ok). Flares are a great visual tool that can add mood and effect, but shouldn't be overused. Camera movement is a key component to visual storytelling, but each tool - crane, dolly, stabilizer, handheld, etc. has it's own place in the language of cinema and no one tool is the end-all-be-all of filmmaking. New toys are exciting and fun and they can inspire creativity and visual ingenuity, but use them with caution. Cool for the sake of cool wears off very quickly.
About the author:
Jay Holben is a Global Cinematography Institute faculty member who teaches Digital Cinematography, Optics and Independent Cinematography. He was a director of photography for over a decade and now works as a independent producer and director in Los Angeles. A former technical editor for both American Cinematographer Magazine and Digital Video Magazine, Holben is a continuing contributing editor for AC and a lighting columnist for TV Technology Magazine. He has been a contributor to many books including The American Cinematographer Manual 9th Edition, and David Stump, ASC's Digital Cinematography. His own book, A Shot in the Dark: A Creative DIY Guide to Digital Video Lighting on (Almost) No Budget is available on Amazon.com and at booksellers everywhere and his second book Behind the Lens: Dispatches from the Cinematographic Trenches will be on shelves in April 2015.