Three examples, serving a director’s vision

With three very different films in festivals this year I want to write a little bit about the Cinematographer’s role in serving the director’s vision from script to screen.  

Before thinking about equipment or logistics I spend time with the director and try to get inside his or her head to understand his vision and where it comes from. I read the script and find something that motivates and inspires me. I read it again and again until I completely understand the conflicts between darkness and light, the fundamental truth and concepts that make up the story. Also, I make sure to completely understand how the director wants his audience to feel.

Based on this understanding I put together a tool kit that includes many essential items which all contribute to translating the director’s vision on to the screen. One of those items is the camera and that is the focus of this article.

Republic Of Rick

This feature directed by Mario Kyprianou is a Texas secession satire based on Rick Mclaren’s (Dave Abed), quixotic attempt for Texas independence in the late 1990s. Mario was inspired by the news coverage and interviews which chronicled the actual events. This footage was in standard definition and he loved the way it looked when blown up to High Definition on his HDTV. It made him feel like he was watching a real documentary from the 90’s and wanted his audience to feel the same way.

We started off with two choices. Use a modern camera and manipulate the footage to simulate this same look or use the same news gathering camera that was popular in the 90’s. After a lot of tests we decided on the 90’s news gathering camera–a Sony Betacam. It would save us loads of money in both production and post while giving Mario exactly what he wanted without any fuss. As a bonus, the camera system–together with period wardrobe, hairstyles and set pieces–evoked a certain way of working that made us all feel like we went back in time.

For a deeper look behind the scenes go here.  

Republic of Rick Frame Grab for film directors vision article

Teacher of the Year

Surrounded by the eccentric faculty of Truman High School, Mitch Carter, played by Matt Letscher (Her, Boardwalk Empire, The West Wing) wins the California Teacher of the Year award and immediately receives a tempting offer that may force him to leave his job–where squabbles with principal Ron Douche, played by Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele, MADtv, RENO 911!) escalate beyond control.

Teacher of the Year was shot in 720p HD to garner the authenticity of a slightly more modern documentary. And despite recognizable actors, helped evoke a feeling of a true documentary even though it’s a satire.

Jason wanted the movie to look like Waiting for Guffman and Waiting for Superman—two films whose shooting styles could be called “Waiting for a Grip Truck.” Guffman was filmed on Super 16mm, but that wasn’t an option because of our budget. Superman used a Sony PMW-EX3 and a dated 720p HD camera; a Panasonic AJ-HDC27 Varicam which was among the first HD cameras to rival film. The images from the Varicam were closest to what we wanted: not too nice, a little rough yet soft on the faces, and a homemade feeling. We went a step up and used the P2 card version of the camera, the HPX-500. This gave us the same quality images but with a more cost-effective and efficient workflow.

As an ENG shoulder-mounted camera, the 500 was a perfect fit for our cinema verite approach, with the action feeling unplanned and the characters often conscious of the camera and interacting with it as though it was another character. To create this illusion of documentary filmmaking, I operated the camera handheld for most of the movie–covering multiple scenes in one shot: starting wide, moving in, and panning from person to person to catch their lines. If the action in a scene felt more private, I would keep my distance and use the zoom rather than physically moving closer. It didn’t have to be perfect. Jason wanted it too look unrehearsed and, on a few occasions, he had to tell me to make more mistakes, miss more lines, pan to the wrong character, let someone stand up out of the shot and then catch up with him, and other illusions of spontaneity I had to fight against my instincts to achieve.

For a deeper look behind the scenes go here.

Keegan-Michael Key in Teacher of the Year

The Big Meet

A grungy screenwriter takes a meeting with a Hollywood executive and makes a “killer pitch…” But is he actually a killer?

A Red camera did make an appearance for The Big Meet. With budget and story in mind, we chose to shoot digitally in 4K raw with the Red One MX and a set of Red Pro Prime lenses.

We were going for a slick and modern Hollywood look with rich blacks and vibrant colors. Elder wanted a dark and dingy noir feel to the images. This excited me. I imagined a similar look when reading the script and I enjoy exploring the dark side of things. Light is interesting when it fights its way through the darkness–having a life of its own–triggering an emotional response in both the artists and their audience.

For a deeper look behind the scenes go here.

The Big Meet Frame Grab for film directors vision article

Three, low/no budget color grades

Color grading on a low budget film seems to elude a lot of filmmakers. When meeting with new directors I often find myself discussing the process and why it’s so important. Often times the discussion can go on for awhile and distract us from what the meeting should really be about–the director’s vision. So, in lieu of these distracting conversations I am writing this article to point people to.

Also known as color correction. it’s not just a tool for fixing mistakes. It is the crucial last step in fulfilling a director and Cinematographer’s vision. And reinforces the illusion that every shot in a scene was captured in real time, even though some of those shots might have been filmed hours, days, or months apart using different cameras, lenses, and film stock. Moreover, it allows the director and cinematographer to emphasize certain locations, scenes, and emotions, resulting in an emotionally enhanced experience for the audience. But as schedules shrink and budgets tighten, color correction becomes more challenging. A well sought after solution is to manage the look of the images on set with one of many workflows currently available. However, this isn’t always a practical approach for color correction on a low budget film.

Here is a breakdown of three different approaches on three of my low/no budget films.


When shooting this 35mm short film for director Ray Vernazza–we spoke at length regarding our approach to the post-production workflow. We wanted to color correct and finish on film but didn’t know if the funds would be available when it came time to conform the digitally edited movie. So, to be on the safe side, we decided to supervise the dailies transfer at Technicolor and rough in the look of the film–knowing that additional corrections would be simple enough for the editing software to handle. the approach paid off because we never got passed a digital release of the film. Moreover, I was always confident the film would look good when screened during earlier stages of the editing process.

Living With Moffet

For a digital sitcom pilot I shot recently for director Eric Somers there was no money available for color correction and the director was doing the picture edit himself. He had assumed we just wouldn’t do any color correction but when I offered to help him find a solution and donate some of my time, he became enthusiastic. I knew he was editing the film with FCP X, so I spent about an hour watching some tutorials and familiarizing myself with the color features before sitting down and attempting to use the software for the first time. I calibrated Erics monitor using a Spyder 3 pro device and after working with the first few scenes, became comfortable enough to move forward with confidence. The end result wasn’t ideal but I was able to achieve the basic look we had in mind and fix any shot-to-shot matching issues resulting in a quality finish.

Little Black Box

For another digital project directed by Jon Hampton there was a small amount of money available for the color correction. I had just seen a series of great shorts at the LA Film Festival and noticed they were all colored by Color Space Finishing. We contacted Peter at Color Space and he told us about his career working as a studio colorist on shows like NYPD Blue. Then he told us how he started a boutique color correction business so that he could cater to passion projects and up and coming filmmakers. And while his rate may have stayed the same, he didn’t have to charge clients any facility fees–he was running his business out of a room in his apartment.

So we told him about our project and its short running time, then discussed the look we wanted. He agreed to work on the film within our budget and by the time I came in to look at the progress, I was 99% satisfied. We did one tweak and it was ready for final output. This led me to hire Peter for my 2nd feature, Teacher of the Year directed by Jason Strouse on a micro/no budget. Peter finished the Color Correction last week, just in time for the Sundance Film Festival submission deadline. The Producer, Director and myself are very happy with Peter’s work.

Regardless of your system of choice, its best to collaborate with a professional colorist whom has access to good color balanced monitors. Recently I have found this route to be at least approachable for color correction on a low budget film project. Its also a great way for up-and-coming directors to become familiar with the process and discover the ways color correction can enhance a film’s visual impact, raise production value and compete with and/or surpass bigger budget projects.