A Cinematographer's Guide to Achieving Great Work
We recently finished off the score for a film called The Negative, created by Ziryab Ben Brahem & Máté Boegi. Director of Photography and winner of the 2015 Kodak Cinematography Award, Ben has always had excellent cinematic instincts. Wanting to share his experience and knowledge with others, we asked him if he had any advice to offer us. He came up with 7 core rules that have helped him achieve great cinematic work that, we think, any creative can apply to their own craft.
1. TAKE CALCULATED RISKS
Why do so many people play it safe?
Maybe it's because they have budgetary limits, or because they want to impress a superior, or because they think a technique that's worked in the past will work again. Some people may even think they're doing the right thing by playing things safe - relying on tried and true strategies. After all, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Right?
Interesting work doesn’t come from playing it safe, it comes from making bold decisions and taking chances. Sure, playing it safe gets the job done, but it doesn't make great art. Many people - even top-of-the-line creatives - think recreating work with the same techniques they used last time will produce the same great results (see: ultra-formulaic Hollywood films). But time and time again, I see that the result is disappointing, feeble, derivative work.
Short films are most often synonymous with small budgets, this was true on the The Negative. This is the kind of thing that forces us to think creatively and put ourselves out there - to take calculated risks.
We took a skeleton crew out in the middle of nowhere; with not enough money and a camera format that hadn’t been used for years (and certainly not in the capacity of a low-budget short film). We decided to shoot everything in one angle with little coverage. We knew what angles we wanted, and just went for it. Additionally, having no lights, we only relied on natural light, which could have changed on us at any moment. But we knew what we wanted, we took the risk and we improvised when things didn’t go our way. It was a kind of risk that ultimately paid off in the end - it was exactly the way we saw it when we wrote the script. That would have been impossible if we hadn't went out on a limb - taking extra steps to experiment.
2. TELL COMPELLING STORIES
Telling stories should always be your #1 goal. Sure, we’ve all heard it before. It’s all about the story, right? Think about it. Have you ever watched a movie that had terrible story and acting, but looked stunning? What about the other way around? Which one did you like the most? Chances are that you liked the movie with the better story. (Editor's Note: Unless we're talking about The Room, a cinematic masterpiece - a stroke of genius). Story always prevails. While beautiful images can be powerful, they are ultimately not as powerful as a well told story.
As cinematographers, we should be focused on creating compositions and lighting that tell a great story. I believe good storytelling partially comes from being interested in the story and getting behind the subject matter. We should be asking ourselves “What story are we telling?” and “what makes the story interesting to us?.” I am even guilty of it myself; wanting to do shots that don’t tell the story. Directors like Máté Boegi, the ones that challenge me and say “no Ben, we have to tell the story,” are far and few between - stick close to them and offer your absolute best if you find them. Additionally, storytelling is often not about moving the camera in every angle, but can be as simple as a medium shot that precisely captures an actor’s performance.
Every frame has to matter. The goal is to tell a story with a single image.
3. LOCATION SCOUT THOROUGHLY
Know the location and the challenges of the location. Thoroughly scouting the location will tell you what equipment you need, the kind of lights to pack, and what problems you might run into. The key is being able to see those problems and prepare for them.
After deciding on a location, I often revisit the site to think about where the camera is going to be at certain times of the day, and where I'll be putting my lights. Filming on a low budget is always a war against the schedule, so you have to be prepared. If you can, ask the AD to accommodate certain types of lighting throughout the day. If the light is particularly beautiful or appropriate during the early morning or afternoon, try to shoot at those times. We shot several scenes for The Negative during the so-called “magic hour” - which is, ironically, usually a 15 minute window - so we had two tripods set up at different angles and tried to move quickly from one to another as fast as we could.
4. BE ADVENTUROUS
Don’t always settle for an apartment with four white walls. It might be easier in the short run, but how interesting can it really be? Sure, you can dress it and light it, but at the end of the day, you’re showing the audience four white walls. You’re not giving them anything more than what they see every day. It's true, sometimes a story requires the audience to see everyday realities. But when the story allows for it, take the audience on a journey.
We wanted The Negative to be like a 70’s adventure film - like where you go out and really shoot an environment - the elements. So, we packed our stuff and drove from San Diego, CA (Máté flew out from New York, NY) to a desert in Utah where we stayed for five days. In hindsight, the journey our character took throughout the film's story was similar to our own experience, and it truly made for a more exciting film.
5. MAKE SURE THE GEAR WORKS
There is nothing worse than being stuck out on set - time running out and everyone increasingly restless - with gear that doesn’t work. Even the smallest things like wrong sized rods or fluid heads that don't quite work can cause you and the entire crew a huge amount of stress. When you're doing prep with your 1st AC, you should be testing all the gear as a complete package.
We had some minor issues on The Negative, but ultimately we brought all the gear we needed and it saved us from many disasters. Redundancy - bringing more than you need - can spare you from so many headaches.
6. WORK IN THE VERY DARK AND IN THE VERY BRIGHT
Interesting images are often found at the very edge of the “negative.” That point where the image is almost too dark or almost too bright - the moment where you move from a very dark scene into a very bright scene. I think it would benefit every cinematographer to be thinking, “what happens to this image if I go five stops under or eight stops over?" It’s where the magic happens.
Using extremes to enhance the story is, in itself, telling the story. When you're able to make that kind of statement with your work, you're telling a story that's worth telling.
On The Negative, we were shooting inside a very dark cave with an enormous range between the dark inside and the bright outside. Conventional wisdom tells you to expose for the shadows, so you see everything. Instead I let the shadows go ink black, and kept all the details in the highlights. In the end, it made for much more interesting images than if I shot it the conventional way.
7. TEST, TEST, TEST
We can theorize all we want, but we won't really know what an image will look like till we see it. Always test as much as you can; test the dynamic range of your camera or the film stock. A part of the process that I personally enjoy is collaborating with the costume designer and test-shooting costumes of different colors. Knowing what I'll be playing with makes a world of difference.
If you're shooting on film, do a one-light print at several densities. If you're shooting digital, color grade your test with different contrast levels and create a LUT. Not only is it a great learning experience, but you’ll develop more confidence when it comes to shooting. Remember, cinematography is just as much about planning and pre-production as it is about what happens on the day you shoot.
Ben Brahem Ziryab won the 2015 Kodak Student Cinematography Scholarship for his work on our previous collaboration - sci-fi drama short, WAKE.