Youtube Saturday: Getting later

Yep, it's THAT time of the week again!

Once again, we bring a late edition of the weekend specials, and for that I can only apologise. So there you are.

But anyway, I am inspired to post some videos of a more technical nature.

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Details in storyboards

the storyboard for Idle Hands - the attention to detail is actually very good

Storyboards can be very useful. They’re not always needed, but when they are, it’s useful. But I hear you ask “What are they for?”. They’re basically for mapping out what will be filmed. It’s easier to do this if you have a location already down and drawn out.

Overall, there’s a clear difference between a floor plan and a storyboard. The floor plan lays out the technical details – where actors should stand, where the lighting rigs must be set up, where the camera needs to be/to go, etc… It goes hand in hand with the storyboard – showing what’s possible, what you need to do to get the creative elements of your shots, etc…

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Light your way

My current lighting kit

Lighting is a very important aspect for many filmmakers, whether it’s naturalistic, dramatic or ambient, you need to know about how to use the equipment effectively in order to do your film justice.

I’ll start with a few easy concepts. In general we have two sorts of light – hard and soft.

Hard Light

Hard light is light that casts very defined shadows and therefore has a high contrast. It’s very useful for creating scary shadows on walls, showing up imperfections in skin and actually flattening an image – if used face-on. The way you use hard light is actually pretty simple. First there’s the natural light option – direct sunlight creates good definitions in shadows. The second is artificial. How do you get artificial hard light? Easy, remove any softboxes, and diffusers, etc. In other words, have the bulb bare.

Hard light used to cast Spock half in shadow. Added note, using another light to help define the shape of the dark side of his face

Soft Light

Soft light is when there either aren’t any shadows or not very defined ones. It’s useful for lighting entire areas (rather than parts of the picture), smoothing out imperfections in skin and generally having everything visible. The natural version of soft light is on overcast days, since the light is scattered by the clouds. But how to do it artificially? Using soft-boxes, diffusers.

Most of Star Trek TNG is shot in fairly soft light. Even the shadowed side of Picards face is very visible

Next onto colour. In general, you want a camera with a decent white-balancing operation. Most cameras come with standard pre-specified white balance settings, although the more professional and high end ones can set a white balance to anything (within reason). But what is white balancing?

Well, your eyes automatically white balance for us. But cameras don’t have that, so they need to know when a colour is meant to be plain white. White balancing needs to be done in every scene – taking special care in high colour settings. For example, when shooting in a green area – woods perhaps, the general image will be green. In order to get a true white though (which is needed if you have any other colour involved – including skin), you’ll need to reset what white is meant to be. How do we do this? Simple. On a high end camera, hold a plain white piece of card/paper/board (it can be anything that is pure white) up in front of the camera and hold the white balance button in. On consumer level devices, do the same, only toggle through the settings until the object turns plain white (or closest setting to it).

The same bell under different types of lighting

Of course, sometimes you want a specific colour tint to your film (although remember to be certain you want to have this, or post-production colouring is not going to be easy), you can use an off-white board instead of a plain white one. Although remember the colour wheel – you’ll need the opposite colour in order to achieve the desired effect.

Lighting can make a lot of difference. You’d be surprised just how much a scene can look improved by playing with lighting – rather than simply relying on natural light.

Oh, and one last bit of advice for this post – if you can do it, try and create a catch light. A catch light is shone into actor’s eyes, not a bright light, but something that will give a little shine making them seem alive. (e.g see Spock above)

Tips for directing – Part 2

Christopher Nolan directing Christian Bale and Michael Caine on Batman Begins. Mutual repect is necessary for this to function properly

Following on from the previous blog post (and making up for a lack of one yesterday), we have more directing tips.

6. Trust your crew. Your crew are (presumably) competent in what they’re doing. If they advise another way of doing things that would be safer or more dramatic, listen to them. If they say “this won’t work”, listen to them. While (and on point 1, I’ve stated) it’s ultimately your call, you would be foolish not to listen to someone who is dedicated to a single aspect of the film. They’re going to look at it from the job they’re doing, while you will be looking at it as a director. Mutual respect is better than fear for teamwork.

7. Trust your instincts. While I was still a wee student, I was making short music videos. Often I just pasted together footage I thought would be relevant and go together from video games. I did find that what I was actually doing was bringing out my creativity subconsciously. It’s a general rule, but go with your instincts. If your instincts tell you, the actor didn’t sell the performance enough, or there’s just something wrong in the shot, listen to it. It’s usually right.

Matrix Reloaded - The burly brawl scene. Something was off about a lot of it that revealed the amount of CG used in that scene, but it's difficult to put a finger on. It just felt "off"...

8. Know everything. Both onset and in terms of skills, know everything. Know about cinematography, know about lighting, know about sound, know about focus pulling, etc… The only way you’ll be able to talk with people on a technical level is to know what both you and they are talking about. Too light an image? Know about F-stops. Part of the image is too dark, know about backlighting. On set, you are king, and the king must know everything going on in his kingdom.

9. Know the genre. If you’re doing an action film, and you’ve not seen that many action films, you’re not going to know what the audience will like. By knowing the genre, you create intertextuality, you create interest in an audience. Why do you think George A Romero does a lot of horror films, or John Woo does a lot of action films? They know their genre well. They know what an audience wants out of their films. They know that blood is an integral aspect of horror films and they know how to use special effects and techniques that will get an audience pumped. They know that movement and style go hand in hand, that the more visually arresting images are ones with a lot of contrast. Know the genre and the audience will come to you.

10. Life’s a bitch, and so is the director. A directors job is to assemble, to manipulate and to forge. Sometimes you have to stop being the nice guy on set, stop the goofing around, take an actor aside, make them get into character. A character is meant to be upset? The director will have to get that to happen. Do whatever you need to do – tease, manipulate, scare, belittle, whatever. Your job is to get that out of your actors, and to know how to do it. Your job is not make friends. If you want to make up for whatever you had to do to the actor to get the best performance out of them, show them the rushes. Let them know that they did an amazing job. Let them know it was worth it.

KHAN!!!!!!!! What you don't know is that moments ago, the director told William Shatner that the green lady had space chlamydia

So, that’s 10 tips for directing. Partly borne out of practice, partly theoretical, but all of them are very relevant to getting the best product overall.

What’s up, doc?!

Me testing out the lighting equipment for tomorrow. I didn't want to get up to Exeter and find that there's a fault.

So what have I been doing the past few days I hear you wonder. Well, I’ve got myself into a few new things.

Tomorrow, I’m taking my lighting kit and helping out a friend with his shoot of a music video up in Exeter. I’ve also just finished designing business cards for mademoiselle King. Also, I’ve been designing props and the story for my new film, Replicable.

Meanwhile, I’m half way through watching the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation as well as being part way through re-editing Boytoy Beta. Basically, I’m in the middle of quite a few tasks at the moment. Then there’s Portal 2 and the new Mortal Kombat game on the way soon! Not to mention the business cards and merchandise I want to design too.

Then of course, there’s the blog. Sometimes, there just doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. But it’s better to have too much to do than not enough, in my experience. Although mood plays a factor too (the sunday blues don’t sit well with me), either enabling you to just plow through your work or stump you before you start.

Part of the beauty of having so many different types of things you do though, is practicing a wide range of skills, as often they can become interchangable with what you want to do. For example, creating the wedding DVD has given me more of an insight into colour correction, which I can then use in AVID. Same with layering.

Colour Correction using GIMP

Even playing videogames are often beneficial in some circumstances. Portal especially, it literally gets you to think outside of the box when problem-solving, forcing you to adapt to foreign solutions. Although sounding ridiculous, I do believe Tetris has helped me be more efficient when stacking misshaped items on shelves.

I think the general point of this post is to illustrate one simple point: experience of any kind, is always beneficial.

While experience in certain things can help you in direct ways, skills can be learnt in all manners. I have even learnt a lot about dealing with people from working in retail. I’m far more likely to be able to “sell” an idea now than I did before. Dealing with databases and lists in work also gives me experience organising and dealing with things like logsheets.

I wanna be the guy part 2

Me, with filming equipment, setting up a tripod

Last time, I started to discuss the complexities and difficulties of the pre-production process. Now, moving on to the production side.


There’s so much to production in terms of effort, it can be too much for smaller groups to handle. Starting with the sound, to get it just right is often deceptively hard. To get the right levels on a meter, you often want a field mixer/recorder. Setting the tone is important, getting it just around the beginning of the red. Otherwise, you’ll end up getting either distorted sound or sound which is so quiet that to get it to a discernable level, you need to up the gain and then put up with more of the noise behind. Likewise, there’s many different types of microphones to choose from, for many situations, that you need to know exactly what you’re shooting and how.

Then there’s the issue of lighting. Bad lighting can ruin a scene, even if everything else is perfect. Light is generally measured in Lux, and with the help of a light meter, can turn the “art” of lighting into a science. This is brilliant for (for example) chroma keying. You’ve heard of it – blue screen/green screen. Knowing how the background is lit is essential to getting a convincing chromakey. All sorts of wacky equipment can be used, not just lights. The other major factor in lighting is this – Don’t trust your eyes! – It’s not how the camera sees the scene. Our eyes automatically adjust to light levels and even colours, which is why you need control over lighting. Bouncing light is important for this, which can be done with the reflector. One of these can bounce light to create definition in partially lit faces for example. Just remember to watch out how you open it, or it will smack you in the face. You have been warned! Oh, and then there’s the issue of the classic lighting system – three point lighting, two either side of the subject and one behind. It’s something that highlights your film (no pun intended), if you have something other than the “natural lighting”.

Surprisingly cheap, and surprisingly springy! Be careful!

The role of the director is very important for the content of the film itself. As a director, it’s your job to push and manipulate the cast into performing their best, and it’s a wonder how any director can stay friends with an actor, considering how much the director may have to push them. I suppose it helps if you cast somebody that isn’t too sensitive. Bad acting stands out a mile away, and to be fair, it’s something that I have been guilty of before, both as a director (saying “Yeah, it’ll do”) as well as the actor (overacting). I’ve not found the best tricks to either acting or directing yet, but it’s something I’m determined to learn (among other things).

The cameraman isn’t always the only one in control of the camera. Focus pullers as well as some of the more creative camera movements, such as dolly work and crane shots often require multiple people helping out. This collaboration in a single role means that practice is often necessary, not just in general, but even on individual shots. The speed of the camera movement needs to match the focus of the camera, to make it as seamless as possible. Even the cameraman has to make sure the camera doesn’t shake too much (if they’re a steadicam operator for example), as well as making sure that it’s recording in the right format, and such.

The clapperboard person (if there’s a dedicated one) has the easiest job of all. Say the scene, take and such (if even that) then clap the board. You got off lightly!