Being detail oriented is a great thing. Obsessing over the wrong detail costs a production in both time, money and storytelling.
Years ago I shot a scene where a character walks down a hallway into a sunlit room. There was a brief lighting transition where the actor stepped out of the fluorescent-lit hallway and into the sunny room, and for that split second they went went a bit dark.
During playback the director asked that this moment be frozen on the set monitors: “You have to fix this! It’s way too dark! I can barely see the actor! It’s like they aren’t even there!”
Every once in a while I run into a director who thinks this way, and it’s really tough to convince them that they are worrying about things that just don’t matter–or, rather, they do matter but only if you leave them alone.
For example, when I watched the shot I saw a very interesting lighting effect where the temporary introduction of shadow communicated a sense that the actor was walking through a three dimensional space. Light in the real world is very rarely perfectly even, and part of our sense of depth is informed by the fact that people get brighter as they approach a window and darker as they move away. Moving through dark and light areas creates a sense of space crucial to depth perception in a two dimensional medium. To me it was perfectly natural that there should be a shadow in that particular spot: it helped tell the story that the character was moving through space from one environment to another.
All the director could see was a still frame that was really, really dark. Never mind that the actor was in shadow for all of a half second, or twelve frames; the way they saw it the actor literally disappeared for those twelve frames, and that wasn’t acceptable at all.
In the visual effects world they call this phenomena “pixelpeeping.” It refers, for example, to the amount of time spent perfecting the edge of a matte in a single frame while ignoring the fact that this frame occurs in the midst of a huge crash sequence complete with fireball. No one will ever notice a slightly rough matte edge in a single frame in the midst of a ton of VFX carnage, and yet hours are wasted trying to make such things “perfect.”
Sometimes “perfect” isn’t the way to tell stories.
In this case I tried to point out to this director that the shadow wasn’t black; that the actor was still visible; that the audience won’t forget who that character is for the half second they stepped into shadow; but it was to no avail. In the end I had to add a light and make that one small area of the set brighter. Not only did the scene look less interesting and more “lit” but we wasted time that could have been spent getting more takes or moving on to the next setup.
Some people just don’t seem to understand that we deal in moving images. They’ll stop playback on a single frame and insist that single frame be made to stand completely on its own, when that frame will NEVER stand completely on its own. Just as a scene works as part of an overall story, and a shot works as part of an overall scene, a single frame only works in the context of a shot.
I run into this kind of thinking most often when shooting night scenes or scenes that take place in dark environments. It’s impossible to communicate the idea that the environment is dark without something in the frame actually being dark. Making the background dark makes the actors stand out nicely but too much of this is boring. It’s also nice to throw some light on the background and let the actors walk in front of it in silhouette. Not only is this a great way to sell a 3D space captured in a 2D medium but it’s more interesting if the bright and dark areas of the frame alternate. Our brains love variety, and that includes variety in lighting and tonality.
It’s fascinating to see the obscure things that some people will obsess over. I once worked with a director who sent a PA to move a chair that cast a shadow in a doorway in a manner that he didn’t like. This took several minutes as the doorway was 80’ behind the talent, down a long hallway. Pointing out that we were shooting with an 85mm lens at T2.8 and focus on a person 10’ away made no difference: as soft as the background was, the director saw that shadow and couldn’t get it out of his head.
On another project the director didn’t like the deep, dark shadow on one side of an actor’s face during a single short shot. We spent a fair bit of time trying to balance the shadow in the grade to bring up some shadow detail. I thought the black shadow looked great in the context of the scene but when we froze the shot on the grading monitor it bothered the director that he couldn’t see the actor’s ear. (In the end we left the shadow black. I convinced the director to come back to this shot later in the grade, and when we watched it in motion with fresh eyes he realized the lack of ear detail didn’t matter after all.)
Ultimately it’s our job to make sure that our directors are happy. It can be frustrating, though, to be the only one on the set, or in the room, who is responding emotionally to an image the way the audience will instead of obsessing over details that have nothing to do with telling a story. Emotive actors are only part of the story: emotive images, sound and editing play key roles as well. It’s not enough to simply capture a performance; every department head on a film set has their own part of the story to tell. A good director makes sure they all understand what the story is and gets out of the way so they can tell it.
Still… we work for the director, and it’s up to us to adjust our style to match their expectations.
Audiences experience our moving images as a wholly-formed emotionally-linked series of experiences, not as a series of still images experienced through the lens of short term memory loss. Over-analysis kills the emotional heart of filmmaking, and at one time or another in our careers we’re all guilty of it because it’s what we do: we analyze the work of others to try to figure out why it’s successful. That’s not how an audience watches our work, however, and it’s very, very important to learn to view our own work from their perspective.
About the Author
Director of photography Art Adams knew he wanted to look through cameras for a living at the age of 12. After spending his teenage years shooting short films on 8mm film he ventured to Los Angeles where he earned a degree in film production and then worked on feature films, TV series, commercials and music videos as a camera assistant, operator, and DP.
Art now lives in his native San Francisco Bay Area where he shoots commercials, visual effects, virals, web banners, mobile, interactive and special venue projects. He is a regular consultant to, and trainer for, DSC Labs, and has periodically consulted for Sony, Arri, Element Labs, PRG, Aastro and Cineo Lighting. His writing has appeared in HD Video Pro, American Cinematographer, Australian Cinematographer, Camera Operator Magazine and ProVideo Coalition. He is a current member of SMPTE and the International Cinematographers Guild, and a past active member of the SOC.