That film look
“An apprentice knows all his tools and an expert knows which ones to use, but a master can predict when their need will arise.”
One cannot survive a battle without attacking, defending and ducking in adequate proportions; the adequacy being determined by the flow of events. Some battles can only be won by ducking all the time except for the deciding moment. Filming is exactly one of those battles. You can prepare yourself for every possibly lighting scenario, equip yourself with the best of hardware, and yet find yourself woefully out of your comfort zones at the location on the day when all your training matters the most. To give you an example; you plan an outdoor shoot and equip yourselves with all the lighting that could be used for a heavily overcast day, and plenty of reflectors and diffusers for a bright sunny day. And it pours buckets all through the day. If you didn’t plan an alternate location, or at least an alternate use of the location, you are stuffed. If you are a professional working in the field with professional artists and crew, you cannot shoot the gig without rebooking the entire bunch along with the location, again. Imagine the catastrophe you’d find yourself in were you to be on an overseas shoot that had to be planned with permits acquired well before the d-day. Heavens forbid if the production was running on a tight budget!
So now that we know how important it is to get the planning right, it is safe to say; “when you want to shoot, just shoot according to a plan.” And the very first vector that determines the direction of your planning blue-print is the final look you want to cast your finished product into. Depending upon whether you are shooting a broadcast oriented material or screening oriented stuff, you may want to consider a few factors before deciding the frame rate for your project. Advertisements, documentaries, soap-operas that are meant for television need to be shot in a frame rate that will match the utility-frequency of the country or region the program is going to be broadcast in. For example, for US the optimal frame rate would be 30 fps, while for UK it would be 25 fps. This is because the electricity supplies in the two nations are delivered at 60 Hz and 50 Hz respectively. This means that the electric current completes 60 or 50 cycles per second; or the television screens go blank 60 or 50 times per second, and powers up the same number of time. So if your frame rate will not be a mathematical match of these magic numbers, your program will suffer the banes of flicker or banding (anybody remembers the old tuning knob in black and white televisions).
The choice of frame rate however is relatively easy if you are shooting a movie meant to be screened in cinemas, or if you are shooting a music video that you want to look like a movie for styling reasons (just like yours truly). We all want a cinema or movie look for our projects and the magic frame rate to get that look is 24 fps. But the question is why 24 fps and not something else? Let us tackle this question and some other important factors that determine the ultimate look that a project will get.
ð Frame rate:
Traditionally 24 fps was the frame rate used for shooting movies as it was the minimum number of frames needed to make the human mind perceive a continuous display of photographic frames as continuing motion. Less wouldn’t have worked and more would have blown a budget hole for the production houses, because back in the day when filming was done on photographic rolls that were then set by chemical processing, it was cheaper to have a girlfriend. However that dreamy appearance of 24 fps on 35 mm film roll became synonymous with cinema, and today we can’t help but associate that look with the quality of a production. Television looks and feels cheap!
Before we go any further it is important to understand why 24 fps generate that look, and then understand why shooting in any other frame rate and then using a 3:2 pull-down process (or other techniques, the addition of artificial blurring) cannot generate the same effect.
Using 24 fps means that the motion that you are recording is captured as 24 pictures taken in a second. Each picture contains the motion that took 1/24th of a second to complete. Each frame has thus captured a natural motion blur worth 1/24th of a second. When you will use any higher frame rate, say 30, 48 or 60 fps, they will capture correspondingly lesser amount of motion blur; their pictures will be crispier than the 24 fps records. This is the reason why television and handycam videos look much cleaner, realistic and bland. They don’t have that dreamy blurring. So if you want to have the film look for your project, you need to capture the film style blur.
True, modern editing softwares allow one to convert 30 or 60 fps footage into a 24fps result by using various pull-down mechanisms in post-production and then adding a bit of motion blur to the project, but this cannot imitate natural record. Take for example an actor walking towards the camera. As the assistant-cameraman will pull the focus to keep the actor in sharp focus, using position markers, actor’s body’s different parts will have a different amount of motion blur in every frame. While the leg moving forward will have more motion blur, the one rooted to ground behind will have progressively decreasing amount of blur, with practically nil amount for the toe planted on the ground. Softwares cannot imitate this graded effect. Moreover it’s the actor who’s walking, not the ground beneath, and the stationary objects around. I guess you get the idea!
So if you want the look of 24 fps, then that’s what you need to shoot your project in. However, as I mentioned, planning is the key. You need to break down each and every scene before you even set your foot on the location to do the shoot. You need to know exactly which scenes will be over or under cranked subsequently, so that you can adjust your frame rate accordingly right when you are shooting. Besides, there could be other reasons to have a different frame rate than 24 fps as well. My upcoming music video for the song “Show me the woman that you are” has been shot in 25 fps. This frame rate not only gives me the look extremely close to 24 fps, but it also means that my song could be played on television in majority of the world without any pull-down needed. But the biggest reason was; I wanted to have a liberty to slow the footage down by a frame, for that would give it an extra smooth and dreamy slow-motion effect, without altering its quality in any way.
An urban legend often propagated around is that the films have a different look than television because of the lighting used in them. Again, it depends upon the planning that you put in behind the project (and we are talking about each and every scene over here) before you actually shoot the project. If you are shooting a candy-pop video or a chic flick, no wonder much of your shoot will be with glamour lighting at 1:2 or 1:4 ratios at the most. But the moment the scene or story shifts into the dark zone, you may want to alter your lighting to 1:8 or even more contrasting ratios. Shooting a mean manly look in any project will demand a lighting that would highlight the contours of a face. And then there are different styles of lighting that can be used. Most dark music videos and movies employ a lighting style often classified as short lighting (as opposed to broad lighting where the broadest part of the subject is well lit while shadows are limited). Then there is Rembrandt style lighting often employed in super-hero or gothic styled movies.
But all these lighting techniques are used in television serials as well. There is no difference as such in the lighting techniques. But one difference in the way lighting is used in a television production than a movie set is the way background is projected on screen. Television products are generally shot on a handful of sets that are meant to be used again and again over a long period of time. During this time the sets may even become highly elaborate with details that make up the background. On the contrary movies are shot using sets designed for a single project and often are not highly detailed, unless it is an extravagant epic being shot. Thus backgrounds in movies are generally lit in a way to create deep shadows that mask missing details in the background, yet pull the effect the set is designed to fake. This works in conjunction with the other principle, that on a huge screen the audience’s point of interest should solely be the characters, or whatever the director wishes to focus their attention on. Hence lighting has no role to play in determining the look of your project beyond your artistic caliber. A bad lit project may still be able to pull a film look, although a bad lit project will look pathetic.
ð Lenses, sensors and close ups:
Let’s start this part of the topic with a simple statement: shoot close-ups using long lenses (70mm and above). Now before I explain this statement, let us first have a look at the difference between the two types of lenses; wide angle lenses and telephoto lenses. Imagine you are in a room and your friend is standing outside the window. What happens when you walk up to the window to talk to your friend? Your friend being closer to you appears larger, and you can see a whole lot more of the scene behind him, but only if you want to. Otherwise you can focus directly on your friend’s face. This is exactly what a wide angle lens (like 14mm) does; it gives a wild field of view around the subject with great depth of field details, but blows up the face of the subject in focus, making it appear larger. Now imagine stepping far away from the window and looking at your friend with a pair of binoculars. When you zoom in, your friend may look the same size as if you were standing next to the window, but there is only limited stuff you can see in the background, and more so if you only focus on your friend’s face. This is what telephoto lenses (like 70mm) do. They take you close to your subject, cut out most of the things in the background that are not directly in their narrow range of view, and keep their face as it is. And this lack of distortion of the face captures a flattering image of the talents that you are shooting. This is the reason why you should always try to shoot close ups with telephoto lenses. Most people will look good with them, and will hate their blown up faces captured by wide angle lenses.
But what if the space available to shoot a scene is limited, as was the case we found ourselves in when we were shooting the music video I mentioned above? Once again this is a problem that can be easily avoided by adequate planning. A director’s friend in such a scenario is a crop sensor camera. Now we all know how movies were originally shot on 35 mm photographic films. Modern day DSLRs come in two varieties. There are those with a digital sensor (to capture the image) which is equivalent to a 35 mm film (for example Canon Mark III). These are full-frame sensor cameras. Whatever lens you will use with these, the lens will behave as one would expect it to behave with a 35mm film camera. Then there are those who have a crop-sensor; a sensor that is smaller than the size of a 35mm film. These sensors cut out the edges of the frame if you were to shoot the same frame with a 35mm camera. Red One, a camera that gives the same depth of field as a 35mm film camera, is still a crop sensor camera. Depth of field is not the same as the stretch of the other two dimensions that you record. My saving grace was this camera. It is not only an industry standard unit for professionals that has revolutionized the way high budget movies are shot, but being a crop sensor camera, it behaves like crop sensor cameras. When you use an ultra-wide angle lens with a crop sensor camera, it only ends up being a wide angle lens. And if you use a simple wide angle lens, that will end up as a normal lens. This is because a crop sensor does not gather the same amount of two dimensions as a full frame sensor would have in the same situation. This helps when you are shooting in tight locations.
So the question is; what lenses give the film look? The answer is; any one of them. The lenses can determine how your subjects will look on the screen, they can determine how much background the audience will be able to see in a shot, but they cannot determine how much motion blur will be captured by the camera. The lenses will not determine whether your lighting was good or bad. You may find a telephoto lens to be a good option to shoot close-ups, or you may use a 35mm lens with a depth of field adaptor to shoot an elaborate scene involving a lot of characters where background needs to be out of focus. The trick once again is in planning your scenes well in advance.
ð Neutral density filters and aperture:
Why should you use filters (including for indoor scenes)? The use of filters is linked to the use of an extra wide aperture. Generally you should be using lenses capable of pulling f/1.4 or f/2 stops. This opens the lens aperture wide, giving you a wider field of view. It is akin to opening up the window of your room as wide as you possibly can, to look at wider scenery. Think of movie scenes where a character is standing or walking in the middle of the screen, and how wide around the character you can see. After all, you cannot fill such a massive cinema screen by putting a character in the middle of it. The other obvious use of wide aperture is that it decreases the depth of field. So you have a wider field of view, but a shallower depth of field. Thus the objects in a scene, other than your talent, that could be in focus are limited to a shallower range. This helps in keeping audience’s point of interest fixed on what you want them to focus on.
But opening up the aperture also increases the amount of light flooding the camera sensor. Now this is good in a way that you can shoot most of your scenes at an ISO setting of sub 800, thus reducing the noise levels, but it also creates the headache of dealing with the highlights. Luckily we have neutral density filters, just to take care of this problem. But the ND filters not only help in taming the highlights, they also serve another role. These filters further reduce the depth of field, thus driving the audience interest into your talents even further. And of course these filters keep the dust away from your lenses, thus saving you the trouble of wiping the lens surface clean again and again.
Now there are many other tricks that could be applied post production, to enhance the look of what you have shot. But no amount of software fiddling can replace the advantages of nailing the project with actual glassware and globes in the first instance. You can modify colours of the project to give them a specific look, like say washed out colours with a grayish tone in case of “50 Shades of Grey”, or the notorious greenish tinge of war movies, but these are only artistic after effects. If however you wanted to shoot a feature film but ended up shooting the entire movie at 60 fps, you are straightaway starting with the disadvantage of an over-realistic motion. The Hobbit trilogy at 48fps hasn’t fanned super-charged debates without a reason. So plan carefully.
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