Cinematic COW

On a slow college cave day I’ll upload one of my cinematic sheep experiences. But right now I want to talk about the cinematic COW, that is, what the creative Community of the World says about what makes for a cinematic experience.

This is important, because Millennials combine a passion for movies with an allergy to hype. What that means in practical terms is that their perceptions of reality are actually molded by the most adept hype-creation machine in human history, Hollywood. Today’s young people, whom colleges are trying to court, want to be romanced by no one except the real McCoy, their own true love Wesley with eyes like the sea after a storm. But most of what they know of Wesley has been shaped, not on the farm or by the sea, but by watching Wesley at the theatre. So Wesley isn’t Wesley unless he’s lit well, shot well, edited well, and delivers a smashing Oscar-caliber performance.

Here’s a list of cinematic ingredients that (along with great storytelling and a compelling plot) create that cinematic experience … something that involves today’s young audience “in a different world”. These techniques are mentioned by Creative COW but elaborated by ORK:

  • Simple, natural, organic transitions (cuts like a blink, fades to black as though closing your eyes)
  • Dolly moves to move us closer, because we walk closer or lean in, our eyes don’t zoom
  • Pans to reveal breadth of scene, much the way our necks turn
  • Tilt ups to reveal scale dramatically, as in real life our heads tilt up
  • Shallow depth of field, because our eyes do not focus on an entire scene at once, and because the physics of 35mm photography create shallow depth of field and use it to move our attention around a screen
  • Long telephoto or medium telephoto shots, because cinema uses them to compress depth in a scene. Video/TV has always used wide angles primarily, and this is the convention of news-gathering, not storytelling. Also, mediumtele shots make people look more attractive, and tight closeups rivet attention on the eyes and facial expressions of a character
  • Light for the real world … 3D, with patches of light and dark, not flat “soap opera” video lighting
  • I also find that most of the time it’s best to break the famous rule about “keeping the sun behind the camera”. It’s best to keep the sun behind or beside the character, so that they are rim-lit and as three-dimensional as possible.
  • Stabilize the camera, using either a counterweighted rig (steadicam) or a tripod or jib arm. Avoid hand-held work enless the scene is kinetic and emotionally calls for it. Movie example of when hand-held is great: “I am Sam”. But most of the time, COW says, “Everyone has seen the MTV jerky-cam moves. They’re so 1995.”
  • Simplify moves, and let the action prescribe the movements. Don’t call attention to the camera by the choice of framing or moves.
  • Use frame rates to soften action, rather than make it too crispy

The “cinematic values” can be taken too far, of course. Idealize it, over-produce it, edit out the warts, and suddenly the high production values become a monument to the self-absorption of the institution, rather than a window into its life and values.

Tomorrow I’ll reflect on why the personality of producers tends to get in the way of clear, useful communication on the part of colleges.

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True to the light

Phedon Papamichael, the cinematographer for 3:10 to Yuma, is quoted in American Cinematographer as saying, “There’s only one moon, and I tried to stay true to that.” Love those genuflections to reality.

But his point is important. He describes the elaborate rig he uses, not to create an artificial, idealized “look”, but to portray something that looks authentic. In the case of moonlight, it had to be harsh, a single source, with the same levels everywhere in the scene. And when the actors are wearing wide-brimmed hats, the faces would be completely lost in black shadows if the DP didn’t use a bounce card to get a little bit of light up into the eyes.

As the DP on college admissions productions, I often grapple with the same issues. There was a time decades ago when I used multiple sources, dramatic lighting, even color gels to add stereotypical “high tech” or mood light to some scenes. But over the years as cameras have improved and, thankfully, the popular tolerance for hype has decreased, I have increasingly sought to do what feels right to me: natural situations with natural lighting.

For starters, I turn off the “edge” circuitry that gives video that “video look”. Then, I’ll turn off the fluorescents if I can, but sometimes the most natural way to see classroom activity is even in that style of light. I’ll add a tiny tungsten to a dorm room, but mostly shoot it using the light that’s already there. I’ll shoot a day interview by window light, only adding my own 5600K sources to make it look to the eye like the window is doing all the work. Or I’ll shoot an outdoor night gathering by firelight or street lighting and only add what I need to get the lighting up to what feels natural. There’s only one moon. There’s only one “real”… and the best way to make a message credible is to illustrate real, heartfelt words with truly realistic images.

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