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Film Epistemology

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I’d like to take a brief look at film epistemology. In order for that to work, I’m going to be positing that for our purposes, each film is its own self-contained universe with its own rules and knowledge both known and unknown.

(As a disclaimer, I’m no Scott Eric Kaufmann; I’m not going to be using visual illustrations, and precious few (if any) citations. There are also bound to be spoilers of every variety, so if a film is mentioned, avert your gaze if you don’t want to learn important truths about its ending.)

Film as philosophy and self contained world

As I’ve just mentioned, a singular film can be seen as its own self-contained universe – a universe populated with rules and knowledge which are specific to that universe. Sometimes that world looks much like our own and shares many similar traits, sometimes it shares many visual similarities but a different history, and sometimes it bears little resemblance to the world and universe we know and try to understand.

The important similarity is that there’s a philosophical system underlying each of these film universes, built on the philosophies and mores of the auteurs of each film (writer, director, et al). Some popular films and film franchises have generated series of philosophical works – Star Wars, in particular, comes to mind – as well as compendiums of knowledge and in-universe canon of all varieties. Within the confines of these films, the epistemology has been grown in such a way as to allow a more immersive universe (according to the optimist), and/or wring more money from dedicated fans (according to the pessimist).

One of the things that has tended to irritate my own film sensibilities have been when films violate their own rules. Film is a suspension of disbelief, but there are certain rules explicitly or implicitly set out during the course of the film, which define the epistemology in which I have to be immersed while watching. A film shouldn’t violate its own rules, otherwise I end up setting aside my suspension of disbelief and become very aware that I’m watching a film.

To elaborate, I quote TV Tropes’ excellent page on this:

Any creative endeavor, certainly any written creative endeavor, is only successful to the extent that the audience offers this willing suspension as they read, listen, or watch. It’s part of an unspoken contract: The writer provides the reader/viewer/player with a good story, and in return, they accept the reality of the story as presented, and accept that characters in the fictional universe act on their own accord. An author’s work, in other words, does not have to be realistic, only believable and internally consistent (see Magic A Is Magic A). When the author pushes an audience beyond what they’re willing to accept, the work fails in the eyes of that particular audience. As far as science fiction is concerned, viewers are usually willing to go along with creative explanations which is why people don’t criticize your wormhole travel system or how a shrinking potion doesn’t violate the laws of matter conservation, but even in the more fantastical genres, suspension of disbelief can be broken when a work breaks its own established laws or asks the audience to put up with too many things that come off as contrived. A common way of putting this is “You can ask an audience to believe the impossible, but not the improbable.” For example, people will accept that the Grand Mage can teleport across the world, or that the spaceship has technology that makes it completely invisible without rendering its own sensors blind, but they won’t accept that the ferocious carnivore just happened to have a heart attack and die right before it attacked the main character, or that the hacker guessed his enemy’s password on the first try just by typing random letters, at least without some prior detail justifying it or one of the Rules listed below coming into play. What is in Real Life impossible just has to be made the norm in the setting and kept consistent.

Epistemological overlap and suspension of disbelief

As much as there is a suspension of disbelief inherent in any viewing of film (it is, after all, a series of quickly presented still frames in an artificial viewing environment), we require a certain epistemological overlap with our own universe / reality.

There is a certain range of deviation from reality which is acceptable in the majority of film. I believe this is because film has to balance a sense of relatability, which is produced by overlapping epistemology with reality, with its own deviations and rules. If a film is too close to reality without matching it exactly, we end up encountering something similar to the “uncanny valley”, where we become disenfranchised from the reality with which we are presented because it becomes very clear to us that it isn’t real, and suspension of disbelief falls apart.

I believe that resources like CinemaSins are a combination of relevance and irrelevance. In regards to that resource in particular, it shows irrelevance when it posits that film should obey all of the rules of the real world in most of its critiques, but shows relevance when it acknowledges a film’s epistemological separateness and shows how that film breaks its own rules.

Narrator as deity / narrator as liar

Many films employ an explicit narrator, whether by title scroll (Star Wars: A New Hope), voice-over (Princess Irulan and Paul Atreides’ voiceovers in David Lynch’s Dune), by a narrator telling an inner story (Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects), by physically narrating a written inner story (The Grandfather in The Princess Bride), or even a character’s internal soliloquy (the narrator in Fight Club). This is generally done to augment what could otherwise be clumsy and/or ineffectual exposition through other means in the film – or even to give a certain amount of backstory in order to produce enough in-universe knowledge to allow viewers to be sufficiently immersed in the universe which they are presented.

The narrator has a particular type of power and hold over the viewer ; they are the lens with which the fabricated universe of the film is viewed. Even though we are presented with visual and auditory information through picture and sound, the narrator is the voice of god (or at least some sort of prophetic voice, if we’re going with the religious metaphor) as far as this universe is concerned. But what if this omnipresent narrator isn’t telling the truth about this universe?

Two extremely visible cases of this occur in David Fincher’s “Fight Club” and Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects”.

In “Fight Club”, we’re led down a paraprosdokian storyline by a nameless author, who not only tells us a story in his droning monotone, but also shows us his misadventures with a character we know as Tyler Durden. Only at the end of the second act do we learn that our author has been lying to us, much as he has been lying to himself. What we have seen as a fully realistic and discernibly physical part of this universe is a figment of the narrator’s imagination. We’re forced to change our view of this film universe as part of an unsettling experience which helps define a major part of the attraction to that film.

In “The Usual Suspects”, we confront a similar situation – except that the narrator (Verbal Kint) is very much aware that he’s misleading both us and Agent Kujan. Our realization comes right after the perceived climax of the film, as Verbal allows Agent Kujan to apparently convince both himself and the audience that the elusive Keyser Soze is really Dean Keaton. Mere moments later, Kujan comes to the realization at which we are meant to arrive ; he has been lied to. This is shocking to the audience because we implicitly trust the narrator to guide us to the truths of the film universe which he inhabits, yet he betrays us, breaking our knowledge of his universe. Even more troubling is that we’re not sure how much of the last few hours has been real (according to the film universe), and how much was made up by the narrator. A false world, inhabited by a virtual deity who hides the nature of that false world with yet another representation.

Yet another power that on-screen narration (in particular) has is that it can provide the film equivalent to the literary “aside” or footnote. Groucho Marx was known for pioneering this form of soliloquy, which came to be known colloquially as “breaking the fourth wall”. It allows the author to speak through his/her characters directly to the audience without the need for voiceover – but it shows the universe stop around the narrator. What they’re saying is so important that their universe literally stops so that you, the captive audience, can bear witness to it. In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, the narrator’s diatribe (aimed directly at the viewing audience, in spite of the people around him) appears to be breaking the fourth wall – but the subject of his anger is revealed to be able to actually hear what he is saying, in contravention of Groucho Marx’s tradition of film asides. Allen then proceeds to almost literally pull a rabbit out of a hat by magically pulling Marshall McLuhan seemingly out of thin air to make his point for him, then resumes his narrative aside. To Allen, the narrative aside is just another platform on which to base a joke, but it speaks to the unspoken acknowledgement that the narrator is aware at some level that he is part of a film universe; he just bends the rules a little.

Epistemic closure vs incomplete epistemology

Another supposition I’d like to put forward is that epistemic closure in a film universe essentially eliminates a very specific source of tension. “Settling films” (films which leave the viewer with a feeling of completion) tend not to leave unanswered questions, and if it does leave unanswered questions, they’re generally fairly benign or immaterial to substantial portions of the central plot.

On the other hand, we can look at some of the films of Christopher Nolan as examples of intentionally incomplete epistemology. A number of his films employ missing information or information which can be interpreted in a number of different ways to provide differing conclusions or philosophies to his films.

“Inception”, for example, famously ends with a shot of a spinning top which either will or will not fall down to indicate whether the principal character is trapped within a never-ending dream. Depending on whether you believe that he is awake or asleep, it changes the interpretation of the ending. (Nolan had actually said that fixating on the top essentially missed the point of the ending, as Cobb is happy, which is the important part of the conclusion.)

“The Prestige” offers a number of events which can be interpreted in more than one way. The last shot shows a room full of water tanks full of dead clones – or does it? We see that because we want to see it; we want to believe in the magic of Tesla’s invention, no matter how horrifying the potential consequences. The narrator, being Angier for the expositional sequence about Tesla’s machine, may or may not be telling the truth – he is, after all, a magician who would hide his secrets from everyone including the invisible audience. If there is only one body, it could easily have been Angier’s double. We could puzzle over this at length, which gives us a sense of unsettling non-completion.

Perhaps in a “search for more money” (as a certain purveyor of The Schwartz had been known to say), prequels and origin stories for most major film universes have been veritably exploding into existence. (For the sake of some form of brevity, I’m leaving out film reboots and re-imaginings.) The question which should be asked about these expansions and attempts to bring about some form of epistemic closure should not be “is it good?” but rather “is it necessary or right?”

Sometimes prequel films end up completely destroying a venerable mythology (Star Wars Episodes 1-3), and sometimes prequel works add backstory which is more or less completely unnecessary for the comprehension of a character (the “Gotham” and “Hannibal” television series, for example). I posit that incomplete epistemology inherent in film universes provides a tension which underscores certain themes, and this tension and uncertainty dissolves as soon as every important mystery is taken away by subsequent works. You have to know when to explain and when not to explain.

Layered realities in film

A popular motif in film has been the story within a story – from Sherlock Jr’s cameraman dreaming in the booth to Inception’s dreams within dreams, and many more in between. My supposition is that the popularity of this motif, which stems from sentiments like:

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players - “As You Like It”, William Shakespeare

There are many transpositions of external epistemological ideas in non-“story within a story” contexts as well. Examples of this are films like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which uses knowledge about the internal workings of Hollywood to inform and shape the story.

A combination of those methods for transposing epistemology into film are also possible; Inception not only has dreams within dreams, but also has characters who mirror the jobs of the people who make film. David Mamet’s State and Main tells a story-within-a-story (the film which is being made), but also pulls from the reality of filmmaking and Hollywood politics.

One of my favorite auteurs in the realm of mixing epistemologies and conflating fantasy with reality is Terry Gilliam. As an example, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has a series of overlapping and interweaving stories within stories. The Baron’s life and adventures (which may be pure fantasy, and almost surely represent fantasy and imagination in the context of the larger story) are presented as a matter-of-fact stage play which is being used as a diversion from a larger, terrible reality. As the film progresses, we begin to descend into layers of transitions between what we believe is the “real world” of the film and stories-within-stories. The transitions between them are usually not the typical dream sequence transitions; one of the most genius transitions in the film occurs when the Baron begins narrating his own life, and the stage actor playing the Sultan is pushed out onto the stage, to discover that it is no longer the stage, but rather the Sultan’s palace. Gilliam doesn’t really want there to be a solid delineation between reality and imagination, and it shows. By the end of the film, we’re aware that (at least, within the confines of the film’s epistemology) some of the stories must have been somewhat real, but we don’t know which ones or how much of them. Gilliam denies us epistemological closure, and it does not detract from the film – quite the opposite – it defines the nature of the film.

Documentary and narrative fallacies and truths

Documentary filmmaking is another odd case ; it presents itself as a sort of objective narrative truth, whereas in reality documentarians rely on their own subjective narrative truths and fallacies to underscore themes which they believe to be present in reality. The power of documentary film comes from its ability to expose an external epistemology in the guise of objective observation. The majority of documentary films also possess the omnipresent narrator, using him/her as the lens with which to see the universe of the film – but that universe is our universe.

Rather than creating an artificial world and filling it with narrative and knowledge, documentarians use the real world as the substrate to build their own artificial world, but sell it back to us as being the “real world”. It’s much easier to consume documentary film works when we are aware that they are someone’s subjective view of reality, with all of the epistemological baggage that carries.

The Big Lie

The Big Lie is that it’s all fake; documentaries and flights of fantasy alike.

We enter into an unspoken and unwritten agreement with the filmmakers to suspend our ability to differentiate the 24 still frames flying past our eyes as individual discrete images, and instead peek into another world with its own laws, knowledge, and history. We all know, somewhere inside us, that it’s all a Big Lie, but we agree to leave our sense of reality, suspend our disbelief, and share in a small piece of something unlike what we’re used to seeing.

The problems with ignoring the separate epistemology of a film is that it can limit our ability to enjoy that film by removing lingering doubts or questions, or possibly coming a little too close or far away from what we understand to be reasonable deviations from our own local experiences.

Whom Do You Root For?

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A friend’s son asked me which Superbowl team I would be rooting for during the big game – and I didn’t have a satisfactory answer for him. Team sports have always held a “red tribe/blue tribe” quality to me, even from a fairly early age. A great deal of that has to do with how we become associated with team sports, among other concepts.

There is a certain genetic component in how certain concepts, particularly belief systems, are transmitted – but studies tend to indicate that our beliefs are, at least, initially drawn from the belief systems of our parents (see: 1960s Bobo Doll experiment). This means that our initial viewpoints tend to stem from our parents, although it should be noted that some belief systems (when pushed too strongly by parents), result in children rebelling against those same beliefs.

Regardless of all of that, team sports is a bit too – arbitrary – in its fandom. A great deal of knowing which team you’re going to be rooting for is tied up in where you live in proximity to that team. The upshot of this is that if you had been born a hundred miles away from where you were born, there’s a very distinct chance that your favorite sports team would be different. It’s vaguely the same lottery present with religion – if you were born to a family of a different faith than your parents, there’s an overwhelming chance that you would follow that faith instead of whichever faith (or non-theist belief system) you have now. The same can be said for political ideology ; whether primarily by genetics or primarily by learned behavior, we tend to “inherit” these things from our parents (or other primary role models).

Tribes are artificial constructs meant to extend natural family bonds beyond those with close genetic similitude, and the notion is generally thought to predate the modern notion of the Nation-State. The internal workings of tribalism at a sociological level are constantly being challenged by anthropologists and sociologists, but we do have a number of fairly solid theories describing their operation, at the moment.

Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it - George Bernard Shaw, 1893

Patriotism is framed as being a larger, more structured version of team fandom – at least, in my supposition. If our fealty is simply based on luck of birth, how much stock should we put into it?

I’m going to round this out with a very simple observation: if it makes you happy (and isn’t hurting other people), there’s probably no reason why you shouldn’t be doing it. If sports fandom is your thing, by all means, don’t let my pseudo-analysis hinder you from enjoying the trials and tribulations of your favorite team. If not, I hope that this will, at least to some degree, help explain why others are so fascinated by their favorite tribe / team / nation.

Experts vs Relativism

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In the larger search for guidance, justification, or confirmation, we tend to weigh different opinions – especially expert opinions – based on how they relate to our trust “weighting” of them, by association. That being said, there are two, drastically different, models of weighted opinions: experts, or everybody (which can be understood through the concept of “universal relativism”).

What constitutes an expert – education vs experience?

Experts, with expert opinions, are the preferred mechanism of conferred knowledge in academia. Departing from the trappings of academia for a moment, it can also be asserted that extensive experience also can produce an expert. I personally prefer the latter to the former. Anecdotally, my father (who is a physician, but not a GP), used to tell me that his functional medical knowledge came primarily from his internship and residency, rather than having been conferred during medical school.

I have referred to the self-taught school of learning as the “Good Will Hunting school of education”, referencing the Will Hunting character’s iconic line about education:

You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got (sic) for $1.50 in late charges at the library.

The role of seasoned educators in higher education should not be undervalued, nor should all skill-sets or educational concepts be learned exclusively or primarily through experience rather than through a traditional learning environment.

A distinction could be said to be made between hard and soft sciences (and which was pointed out by my good friend and colleague Chris), in that soft sciences are generally predicated on observations and theories which are not primarily verifiable (for the most part). Hard sciences have the benefit of verifiable and reproducible results, which allow them to be absorbed without a particular mentor. Soft sciences rely heavily on particular ideologies which, although they can be absorbed strictly through self-guided research, lend themselves to educational institution ideologues and their inherent personal biases.

Why “almost universal relativism”?

Relativism, being the point of view that there is no absolute truth or validity, is generally framed around the idea of “moral relativism” – having to do with ethics. I use the phrase “universal relativism”, possibly incorrectly, to describe a more intellectual form of relativism; the idea that we all have equally valid opinions, with equal truth and validity behind them.

I personally abhor this point of view, because it’s pretty easily dismissed unless a purely metaphysical vantage point is taken. Put in a more easily digestible way: Universal relativism only works if the world is only seen as a construct of our individual imaginations and views. If something cannot be perceived, does that mean that it does not exist? Possibly, according to that particular mode of thinking.

As far as disproving the idea that all theories and vantage points have equal validity behind them, take the example of the makeup of The Moon. If someone had the view that it was made of green cheese, it would not, in any way, affect the actual makeup of the moon, nor would it possess the same absolute validity which could be assessed through observation and analysis of the physical evidence showing the actual makeup. That’s a simple, albeit silly, example of a viewpoint which is not as equally true or valid as another.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

What sort of a write-up would this be if I didn’t at least mention the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

We’re bad at self-assessment. It’s a cognitive bias that has the backing of some scientific studies to show that, to varying degrees, we tend to either under or over estimate our skill levels, as well as the skill levels of those around us. This would, predictably, create issues in identifying and trusting the opinions of those who would theoretically be more skilled than we are.

Why we can’t have it both ways (a paradox)

Universal relativism and a system of experts are mutually impossible. They simply cannot co-exist within a person’s framework for judging expertise. This can be logically broken down like this:

1) Relativism believes that everyone’s opinions and observations have equal weight. 2) A system of experts believes that certain people have acquired a superior skill set or knowledge base than those around them. 3) Opinions and observations hold the same essential position as learned skills and knowledge, using the patterns established by relativism. (The Dunning-Kruger Effect would indicate that those with a certain belief in their own knowledge and skill will tend to over-estimate them against other people.) 4) A hierarchy of expertise cannot, therefore, exist in a system where everyone’s opinions and truths are considered equally valid.

Confirmation bias, or why we want to have it both ways

Another, potentially more insidious, bias is confirmation bias. It’s an innate tendency we all share to favor information which confirms our own opinions, truths, et cetera – and it’s one of the reasons why relativism (or, at least, some subsets of it) are exceptionally popular. It means that we’re always right, all the time. Even if someone else is actually right, we’re still right, because our own opinions and truths would hold the same value as theirs.

But wait – we also like appealing to experts. There’s a logical fallacy called appeal to authority, which involves using a position of expertise or authority to disprove or dismiss someone else’s opinions and truths. For this authority to exist, we have to sanction, in some small way, a system of experts. We will however tend to ignore them when they disagree with our conclusions.

Or, to pervert an old idiomatic proverb, we want to have our cake and eat it too.


There has to be some take-away from all of this ; how else are we to learn if we’re so distinctly predisposed to be terrible at accepting new points of view, or even judging the validity of those hierarchies of experts out there?

I tend towards the idea of a repeatable, independently verifiable methodology – although, that tends to fall apart outside of the hard sciences.

I suppose that, if you’re driven to universal relativism, stay there. Don’t accept hierarchies of experts, and continue to assume that everyone’s opinions are equally valid. If you believe in hierarchies of experts, make sure you take a step back and attempt to objectively examine the schools of thinking of which you are an acolyte.

There isn’t an absolute truth for everything, and we’re not very good at being objective – but with a little bit of work, we can try to see a little more of the other sides of problems, and perhaps bring ourselves a little needed perspective.


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This is my workup on effective exposure practices for cinematography. It’s an attempt to provide a fairly effective set of practices for ensuring the best consistent image.


To keep a consistent feel between shots (and overall), there are a few factors which should generally stay the same between shots:

  • ISO Sensitivity. This generally should remain at the “native ISO” level of your camera’s sensor, which is the level at which the sensor exhibits the maximum amount of dynamic range (levels of difference in luma between lightest and darkest areas representable). I’ve been pretty good about shooting most of my footage at 400 ASA, which matches light levels used with the most common traditional film, but this may vary, depending on the camera body you’re using.
  • Shutter Speed. It’s an amateur mistake to unwittingly vary the shutter speed / exposure time between shots, because the way we perceive motion in film is very particular. The majority of film work tends to use a 180 degree “shutter angle”, which corresponds to 1 / 2 x fps – which means that with a frame rate of 24 fps, your exposure time / shutter speed would be 1/48th of a second to correspond to a 180 degree shutter angle. (There are obviously exceptions to this basic rule, but it tends to be consistent within a scene.)
  • Aperture. This may not have to remain constant between shots, but you don’t want your aperture settings to be dictated by the amount of light available to you, alone. It’s better to be able to compose a shot artistically, then deal with the amount of light coming into your lens separately. Not to mention that far too many “independent film” cinematographers have gotten a reputation for jacking the aperture all the way open and leaving it there.

Zones, and the Zone System

This is an interesting working understanding of light, and how to properly expose, put together by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer. I’m not going to go into the specifics of the Zone System, but it is important to understand the basic concepts to properly understand the rest of this article.

Light metering

I can’t recommend a traditional light meter enough. It’s completely worth the cost, and will save hours of wasted work and blown shots – and generally will tend to be superior, in terms of accuracy, to cellphone apps.

(My light meter is an old manual light meter, which my father gave to me – just showing that it’s not the bells and whistles, but rather the basics which are important to have.)

ND filters (vari and otherwise)

So, if you can’t adjust the ISO sensitivity or shutter speed, and shouldn’t be adjusting via the aperture, how do we control our exposure levels?

Enter the neutral density filter; sunglasses for your lens. Depending on your rig (and funding levels), you could either use a “vari ND filter” (which is essentially two circular polarizing filters, mounted in a single assembly), or a series of single ND filter sheets of varying ratings (which can be combined to form particular exposure reduction values). Most indie cinematographers tend not to have 4x4 filter slots, so it may be easier, with the notable exception of lens changes, to go with vari ND filters.

I highly recommend the Tiffen 77VND filter for vari ND work, assuming a 77mm filter thread – which is common amongst a fair amount of cine lenses. (If you’re working with Cooke primes or similar glass, you’re probably not going to be be worried about any of my recommendations, but you’d also probably have to spring for vari ND filters with a larger filter thread size.)

One caveat about ND filters – they have the potential for introducing slight color casts into the picture, which makes grey cards or other white/color balancing equipment even more necessary.

The trick with ND filters is using them to adjust for your Zone V reading, which means understanding how to reliably adjust them to cut down a certain number of stops of light. This is an entire set of tutorials, and another topic, which is best covered elsewhere.

Lighting for standard exposure

Medium-to-light skinned people generally are supposed to be exposed for Zone VI (+1 EV), with darker skinned people exposed for Zone V (0 EV). Zone V is pretty easy to expose for, since it essentially means setting exposure for the metering value, but Zone VI needs to be exposed at +1 EV, which means that it should be twice as bright (or a full stop brighter) than the metering value. Exposing this way may leave certain things blown out or underexposed, based on your lighting setup, but it will produce “ideal” skin lighting for a standard well-balanced exposure.

Exposing to the left, right …

ETTR maximizes dynamic range by exposing for highlights, and ETTL maximizes dynamic range by exposing for shadows. The former prevents blown highlights, and the latter prevents details from being lost in the shadows. If you decide to use one of these techniques, it should depend on which portions of your image you’re willing to lose details in.

ETTR is very popular, partly due to its ability to hide one of the primary deficiencies inherent in most DSLR and inexpensive digital sensors – the way that highlights immediately clip, rather than gradually rolling off (as they do with film and more expensive sensors).

There are some mitigating techniques which can be used to avoid over-exposure (blowing highlights). Some of the more common ones are:

  • Gobos - A simple “go between”, which can be used to block light. This can be made of any opaque material, and only needs to be clamped or secured between the light source and the target object or person.
  • Scrims - A screen used to soften light. This can disperse a hard light source in to a softer one, and is secured much like a gobo. As it does not decrease the amount of light appreciably, but instead spreads it out, this may not be effective for heavy over-exposure.
  • ND Film - Windows can be covered with neutral density film, effectively reducing their light-transmitting capacity. This technique has been used with great effectiveness in a number of bigger budget productions, but can be a little pricey.
  • Fill light - Matched light temperature fill light or bounced fill light can be used to raise the overall exposure level, which will bring higher zones back to a more manageable level. The disadvantage with this technique is that digital sensors tend to like a certain amount of light level variance, or they may produce a seemingly “flat” image.


These techniques are designed to try to produce the widest dynamic range possible for your camera, as well as the widest possible latitude in post-processing for retaining details and image quality. There are a number of circumstances where the “standard” way of doing things could be eschewed in favor of a particular dynamic or idiom. An example would be intentionally losing the background in black to hide a lack of depth or intentionally blowing highlights around an actor to produce an ethereal quality.


Much like other parts of cinematography, there’s no one right way to do things. You don’t have to maintain ISO, aperture, and shutter angle / exposure time – but it can help, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.

Good luck!

The Fine Line Between Confidence and Hubris

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I’ve been trying to make sense of two necessarily contrary positions in regard to skill, art, and aesthetics. This is something of which I’ve been trying to make sense for quite some time.

Aesthetics, Technique, and Intent

The fundamental balance of aesthetics in any art-form is, in my supposition, the balance between the personal sense and the general public sense. This is somewhat necessitated by a very strange mechanism – that of our inherent inability to accurately self-assess our own skills and works. I would secondarily posit that art is effectively a combination of technique (skill) and intent. (Some have additionally added context to that, but I’m going to put that aside as an adjunct of intent for now.)

Technique is teachable. Technique is learnable (depending on the amount of time put in, internal aptitudes, etc). Technique is something which, to one degree or another, is somewhat quantifiable. A great deal of education in the arts is devoted to attempting to teach classical techniques, if only for the sake of eventually learning which ones can be accepted and which ones can be disregarded.

Intent, on the other hand, is a really hairy beast. It is not able to be deterministically divined from a work in a vacuum. Even more frustrating is that it can be broken into perceived intent (how we internalize what we’ve seen, heard, and experienced), and original intent (how the artist actually originally intended the art to be consumed). But wait – the original intent can further be broken into original intent and revisionist intent, where the artist retro-fits an original intent onto a piece for one reason or another – even though it was not originally present in the design and execution phases. (My personal belief is that this is done primary for reasons dealing with popularity, but I don’t have any data to back this up.)

If art is a combination of these two things, how can art be “judged” by others if the original artist’s intent cannot be accurately determined? Should it be consumed and rated based on the perceived intent, which is completely subjective based on the person consuming it?

Coming back to Confidence and Hubris

The next logical question in the context of this reading would be “what does this have to do with the difference between confidence and hubris?”

Confidence is somewhat necessary in the artistic process, as it helps shape the intent of the work. If we have no belief or confidence in what we are doing, it is very difficult to move forward with doing it.

Technique, however, requires a certain amount of humble nature to learn and master. If we believe that we have nothing else to learn, we stop learning. As the source material from Dunning-Kruger concludes:

the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others

So, hubris is a base requirement for successful intent, as we need to believe that what we are doing has some sort of artistic merit, both to ourselves and for the external validation provided by others. We would need to be able to weather the concerns of others to forge our own artistic path.

But technique requires a humility which contradicts that hubris, for if we do not know our place in the grand spectrum of abilities, how can we ever hope to know when we can improve, or how to improve?

Societal Homogenization

To a degree, all artists who come in contact with other art or other artists will experience a level of homogenization of their work. The Millenial generation, replete with Instagram pictures, Doge-level memes, and an inflated sense of self (unencumbered by a history of perceived failures) seem to experience this effect at a greater magnitude than seen before. I’m not sure if this is due to the replicating effect of social networking, an increased population size (similar to the compounding effect of scientific discoveries with larger populations), or some other ancillary effect with which I’m unfamiliar.

I mention societal homogenization of art-forms because it leads me to the next question…

Is it me, or is it the world?

The question that I ask is “Is it me, or is it the world?”

If my aesthetic is different than the vast popular aesthetic, am I wrong, or does society at large just have bad taste? I can’t answer that question. If aesthetics are the domain of popular opinion, I’m wrong, and confidence needs to be cut back in favor of humility and a level of homogenization. If original intent is the important part of the equation, I should be forging ahead, allowing confidence (and eventually hubris) to shape the end-products of artistic labor.

What do you do?

I’ve struggled with this – and due to the paradoxical nature of the problem, the only solution I can offer is to make the decision about how to proceed with your art based on your intent. If you’re trying to make a living from your art, primarily, go for the homogenization – you will see better returns from a more commercially viable product. If you’re trying to make “better art”, go your own way – either you will create something which will transcend you or you won’t, but at least you will have made art which is yours.

Good luck!

The Danger of the Shortcut Mentality

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In “Skill in the Age of Instagram”, I had opined about the lost value of skill sets, and how the modern approach to skills is to “approximate” them with shortcuts like Instagram, Autotune, and Photoshop.

Even though these tools offer the quickest and shortest “path” to the immediate goal, being your current project, they retard your potential growth by limiting your skills and knowledge about what you’re doing. If the pseudo-magic time-saving software is taken away (or encounters a limitation), how will you continue to be able to function without it?

In cinematography

Cinematography is rife with this kind of intellectual laziness, as all creative fields have a tendency to be. A few of the places I’ve seen this have been:

  • Cameras. If you haven’t met a single cinematographer who has lamented that s/he is being held back by his/her rig, you haven’t gotten out very much. I call crap on that argument, mainly because of fine work like Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color”. Learn to use what you’ve got, rather than pining for something better / different.

  • Color correction and grading. Virtually every amateur forum on color correction and grading is full of people asking where they can get a “one size fits all” LUT which will make their footage look “like Hollywood”. If there was such a thing, the entire industry of color grading specialists would just be wasting their time and skills. There’s even an “Instagram” of sorts for color grading – Magic Bullet Looks.

  • Focus. I’m still surprised at the number of people who complain that cameras do not do the focusing work for them. (It’s easier to remind them that, much like other electronics, more expensive things have fewer bells and whistles – and autofocus is a terrible, terrible idea.)

  • Lighting. As soon as low light cameras capable of cine work, like the A7s, came out, people came crawling out of the woodwork, happy that they no longer would have to worry about learning to light a scene. Putting aside the relative noisiness of the sensors, low light / no light still does not look like actual lit footage.

Falling into these thought pattern “traps” may seem easier at first, but following this “shortcut mentality” doesn’t may off in the long game.


I’m not sure. I have previously said that I believed intellectual laziness or possibly a culture obsessed with instant gratification could be blamed for attempting to take the easy way out. Upon further observation, I cannot isolate a single cause behind the widespread acceptance of these tools and shortcuts, but I’ll iterate through possible causes.

  • Illusory superiority. We aren’t very good at figuring out how good or bad we are at something (the concept of illusory superiority contends that we usually overestimate our skill level, and the Dunning-Kruger effect also stipulates that we will eventually under-estimate our skill level, once we’ve gotten past a certain point). It’s one of the reasons why 90% of drivers believe that they’re in the top 10% of the skill curve – and also could help explain why using some of the aforementioned tools has become so prevalent. If we believe we’re in the top percentiles of a skill set, we’ll also believe that whatever we do (as part of our “process”) is, and must be, inherently correct. This can be seen by the inability of many Instagram filter users to understand why their tool is an “easy way out”.

  • Instant gratification. Our culture, especially the now-pervasive “millenial generation”, which has come into cultural power with a shorter-than-ever attention span and a lack of any understanding of their own skill levels, thanks to a society hell-bent on issuing participation awards to everyone.

  • Intellectual laziness. Increasingly, people seem to be less interested in how something works, and simply interested that it works.

  • “Keeping up with the Joneses”. There is a look and feel “arms race”, which closely parallels the loudness war, in that photographers and cinematographers are pressed to try to replicate the look and feel of their Instagrammified and Photoshopped brethren.

  • The social disease. No, not “the herp”; the disease of social networking. A seemingly endless desire for likes, “+1”s, shares, and every other type of social networking accolades, has been a driving force in recent years; “self-status seeking” is one of the primary goals of those who engage in social networking. In efforts to garner the esteem of “friends” and “contacts” on these social networks, users are adopting the lowest common denominator, in many cases, to attempt to appeal to the greatest number of followers.

What’s the solution?

This is where I’m at a bit of a loss. I’d like to believe that, given time, those who possess the requisite skills of the trade will advance, simply by virtue of having learned to ply their skills more effectively, and those who use “skill approximation” software will drop off, or will continue to produce mediocre or cookie-cutter output.

That being said, it didn’t happen that way with pitch-correction software. Musical artists no longer have to be able to sing in tune (although, you could point at musicians like Bob Dylan to say “they never had to be able to”, but I digress) to be able to rise to the top of the pop music charts, and photographers don’t have to be able to take a clean picture to be able to produce a cover image for a magazine. The exact opposite, in fact, is expected from professional photographers – knowledge of manipulation tools is expected, and some photographers are becoming well known through their Instagram-filtered images.

(As an aside, even though I do have an Instagram account, I do tag my photos with #nofilter and #noprocessing to indicate that I do not manipulate them, apart from the forced square ratio imposed by Instagram.)

I can only recommend the long road – and I’m going to end this post with a quote that, while it may seem to be a bit cliché, is perfectly apropos:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference. - “The Road Not Taken”, Robert Frost

It is even more appropriate that the oft-misconstrued sentiment of Frost’s poem was to lament that he had chosen the more difficult route, not to celebrate that he had taken it.

So please, take the long road of learning and discovery, rather than looking for shortcuts ; you’ll be a better, more skilled person for having done so. Good luck!

The Importance of Failure

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Failing is a terrible thing, we are taught. As a result of inherent cognitive biases and our own illusory superiority (look up the Dunning-Kruger effect, if you’re curious about this), we believe that we are right the majority of times, that we are more skilled than those around us, and that we have nothing of import to learn from not succeeding.

I’m going to uncharacteristically detour into a quick anecdote. I was attending a film festival a little while ago, and had ended up talking to one of the festival’s organizers. She had asked me about how I got into film, and talked a little bit about some of her own projects. After a while, I mentioned how I learned more from my failures than I did from my successes. She stopped the line of conversion, and said that she didn’t, because she “always” succeeded.

There’s a lesson to be learned from her. If you never fail (or never allow yourself to be put in a situation when you fail, or never accept that you have failed), you aren’t going to be able to examine your process to figure out how you can improve. If we’re at the height of our skill set at the present moment, I view that assessment as a dismal failure; we should always expect that, given time and effort, we should continue to improve as time goes on.

I don’t necessarily hate everything I’ve done in past projects, but can instead view my previous work as evolutionary improvement. Every project I do should be the best work I’ve done so far, and if it isn’t, I should be taking steps to make sure that the next one is.

Understanding Failure and Criticism

We do not accept criticism well – especially not as artists. Most of our work is, to some degree, very personal. We then view attacks on our work as attacks on some part of ourselves, and become much more defensive than we should be.

Cognitive bias is a serious issue with us accepting criticism, or any differing points of view from our own. Without getting into too much detail about the mechanics of cognitive bias, it is important to emphasize the importance of recognizing that we all possess it, to one degree or another.

High expectations tends to result in a feeling of having failed at a much deeper level than the project at hand. A very insightful person had written (about film festival contests, in particular) that you had to be committed to making the best thing you could, not winning. It may not sound like a lot of inherent difference, but stripping your expectations for a project can allow you to be much more free in your ability to execute that project.

People who criticize or critique can help you. Every failure which is left without analysis is a missed opportunity. You cannot learn from your missteps and mistakes without looking at them with a critical eye. A third party with less vested interest in you and your project can give you the perspective you need to improve.

Post Mortem Analyses

I come from a pretty heavy information technology background, and one of the favorite “failure analysis” tools we tend to use after something breaks is something called a post mortem, which is short for “post mortem documentation”. It involves a rigorous process of analyzing key elements which were responsible for both successful and unsuccessful aspects of a project or event.

For example, I performed both a post mortem on our 2014 48 Hour Boston Festival project, which documented some of the things I learned about working with a new camera body, as well as working under tight time constraints, and a post mortem on our 2014 48 Hour Providence Horror Festival project, which took home a number of awards, including “Best Film”. Even the analysis of our successful project found issues which needed to be addressed before our next project.

Your Worst Critic

… is you (or at least, it should be). You need to be the harshest critic you have.

The rationale I give for this is that you cannot rely on those intrinsically involved in either your professional or personal life, who all have some sort of stake in how well you do something, to be critical enough of what you do. If you can’t expect complete, harsh honesty from those around you – then you are going to have to try to be as harsh as possible with what you’re putting out.

(Yes, I’m aware that the younger generation has been indoctrinated, to a certain point, with the notion that everything they do is the best, most awesome, most EPIC thing that any human being has ever done – but if you want to succeed artistically, you’ve got to overcome that.)

Avoid Negativity

Failure doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Any experience from which we learn a valuable lesson or draw potential improvement from should not be a negative experience. Much like the rest of life, this isn’t the end product of what you’re capable of. It isn’t the last, greatest thing you do – unless, of course, you become disheartened and stop producing things.

Stay positive, learn from your successes and your failures – and good luck!

Winning a 48 Hour Film Project

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My team, Shoot the Moon Films, won the 2014 Providence Horror Film Project’s “Best Picture” award, as well as scoring a “Best Actor” award for Nicholas Magrey, a “Best Writing” award for Natasha Darius and Nicholas Magrey, and a “Best Sound Design” award for Aaron Theodore Berton for our short film “The Carving” (IMDb).

I’m used to doing post-mortem analyses on failures, so this is a fairly unusual task ; why did “The Carving” win against other films – especially against some very strong contenders?

It’s all about the story.

As usual, we didn’t base our story off of any pre-existing concepts, scripts, etc. Although it is expressly forbidden in the rules of the 48 hour film projects, it is common knowledge that many teams engage in this practice, presumably because of the difficulty of producing a good screenplay in the alloted time.

I’m always proud of our writers, and this was no exception. When you’re writing a story which has to come out as a four to seven minute short, you can’t write an over-complicated concept, or take a half hour concept and cut it down to a few minutes of film. We had used a fairly complicated concept for our last 48 hour effort, Desire, and it did not fare very well.

It helps to have writers who know basic tenets of writing, and there are a ton of online courses, books, and general help to improve scripts. Without the screenwriters, we would not have won.

Sound is important, too.

We spend an inordinate amount of post production time on ADR-ing, Foley-ing, and otherwise enjoying the hard work of our sound engineer, which resulted in the best sounding audio track of any of the films in the festival. (Don’t take my word for it – it won an award specifically for that.)

Your boom operator has to be paying attention, and your audio setup has to be… something. Don’t rely on a single source of audio, either. We had an issue with a cable which resulted in having to use on-camera audio for a closeup shot. This wouldn’t have been possible without a backup.

(It’s worth noting that in editing, I ended up doing as much audio replacement as I could before handing off to our sound engineer, to cut down on the amount of time which he’d have to burn finding the nicest audio for a certain take.)

Take (footage of) only what you need to survive.

Overly fancy cinematography, while fun to execute (and great for winning Cinematography awards), is nothing if it doesn’t help propel your story forward. If you’re trying desperately to find a way to put a quadcopter shot into your film, you may have lost already.

I’m a huge fan of indulgent, long, complicated shots – but they have to fit your idiom. If you’re making a four to seven minute long short, you probably shouldn’t do things just for the sake of doing them. A quick example was that I had originally planned a jib/crane shot for a particular piece of exposition, but ended up going with a snorricam rigged shot instead. The snorricam doesn’t add as much “value” to the end product, but it told the story better.

On the other hand, think about your video quality a bit.

If you’re shooting on a handicam, why? Entry level DSLRs are cheap and easy to come by, and with the right set of eyes behind the camera, they can produce great footage.

If you’re not color correcting or grading your footage, why? The walls behind your characters shouldn’t be changing between shots unless you intend for them to be doing so. White balancing doesn’t cost any money.

If you’re not lighting your footage, why? A guy with a decent eye and a few clamp lights can add immeasurable depth and character to your shots. I know that “low light cinematography” is making the rounds as the new fad, but you’re not going to get the same type of picture. It doesn’t cost much (or anything if you already have the equipment at home), so what’s the harm?

If you can’t do something, find someone who can.

Unless you’re a one person shop, consider finding other people to handle tasks – especially if they’re better at something than you are. Get someone with a good eye to handle the cinematography, someone who can write well to pen your piece, and people who are good with audio to handle your post production.

Don’t try to win, try to put out the best film you can.

This is advice I had received right before the 48 started, and it’s some of the best I’ve had. Because we specifically tried to make the best film we could make in 48 hours (within the constraints outlined by the 48), we have a film for our own promotion and uses after the festival ended.

Good luck to you in all of your cinematographic adventures!

Another 48 Hours

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Almost six months after the Boston 48 Hour Film Festival, my team (Shoot the Moon Films) is entering the 2014 Providence 48 Hour Horror Festival. Along with seventeen other teams, we’re going to try to make a 4-7 minute horror film in 48 hours.

This is pretty far out of my wheelhouse, as I haven’t made a practice of making horror films, but my team and I are excited, and I’m going to keep track of both our successes and our missteps here.

Day One: Preproduction, Kickoff, and Writing

The one crazy moment I ended up having before everything got started was the realization that I didn’t have enough space on the primary editing workstation drive – and I ended up ameliorating that by purchasing another drive down the road. Crisis averted, no hair lost.

I don’t like the roads around Providence, which proved to be a pain both heading out to the kickoff event (horrific traffic and rubbernecking) as well as on the way back (incorrect signage sending me to take a nasty U-turn in Providence). As our producer couldn’t make the trip to the kickoff event, I ended up taking his place.

After a two or three story jaunt up a staircase in a pretty non-descript mill building in Pawtucket, I joined a group of mostly younger filmmakers, eager to pick a category and get moving. As this was a “horror” themed festival, we had a list of genres – and the writers had asked that I not request one of the contingency genres, as they were more difficult to pull off.

The guy standing behind me, after telling me how much he hated “Found Footage” as a genre (which, by the way, I also loathe), ended up pulling that genre. We ended up getting “Satanic/Demonic Possession”, and I messaged the information back to the writers, so that they could get started on the planning and writing process before I got back.

Both of the writers were coming from previous engagements, including one who was starring in a theater production of “Frankenstein”, the other who had costumed and was doing hair and prep work – but they still managed to crank out the final version of a script before midnight. Everyone, cast and crew, got sent copies.

From midnight until about 2:00 - 2:30 a.m., I wrote out a tentative shot list and printed a huge piles of copies of the script. I got to sleep a little before 3:00 a.m.

Day Two: Production / Shooting

At around 6:00 a.m., my wife and I got up, packed all of the equipment into the car, and met the rest of the cast and crew at our shooting location at 7:00 a.m. We ended up having to scramble around to get all of the set dressing components for the set, and got production underway around 10:30 - 11:00 a.m. Shooting with the BMPC4K camera made shooting, in most instances, much faster since we could shoot in 4K and simply “punch in” for close up shots without losing resolution. It was a neat trick which had been suggested to me about two years ago by the director of “Chez Upshaw”, which a project of mine had screened with at BIFF.

I got a chance to trot out a snorricam rig which hadn’t been used in almost two years. It couldn’t handle the weight of the production camera, so we were using a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera with a modified Computar 12.5mm f/1.3 lens stopped down to about f/4 to replace the GoPro Hero 2 we used to use. The footage is nicely inter-cuttable with the Production Camera footage, so I wouldn’t have to pull any rabbits out of hats in color grading.

We had a hard deadline for wrapping up principal photography of 5:30 p.m., since a number of actors and crew members had to make it back to the theater for another performance of “Frankenstein” – including two of our actors, our production designer and our makeup artist. We barely finished our last take of our last outside shot as it started to rain heavily outside. No equipment damaged, no shot missed.

We had to return props, and since my wife had taken the car, our producer loaded up half of the equipment and my friend Chris helped me with the rest of it, as well as helping me return some of our borrowed props. Another cup of coffee later, and we were transferring about 280+ GB of footage off of the two cameras and the boom rig.

One of the actors and the producer took turns sitting with me while I made the bulk of the edits. We finished the rough cut at a little past 11:50 p.m. The cast and crew members present watched the rough cut to confirm that there weren’t any glaring issues with the cut, then my wife and I went through all of the audio to catalogue shot numbers and takes for easy sound replacement referencing. I rendered out a reference copy for the musician doing the scoring, uploaded it, and went to sleep before I passed out on my keyboard.

Day Three: Post-production and Making the Deadline

After a brief hour and a half or so of sleep, I ended up having to get up to help my geriatric dog, who has periodic breathing issues. I got another hour or so of sleep before my wife tossed me out of bed, and I stumbled down the street to grab a cup of delicious Peruvian coffee to wake up. I’m pretty sure my eyes weren’t open until half way back to the house.

From 6:30 a.m. until 10:30 a.m., I did the bulk of the sound replacement and matching work as well as the coloring in Resolve. I dumped out an export for Audition to take with me for ADR, and headed off to get the few lines that we needed done.

Five actors met me over at our original shoot location, primarily so that my dogs wouldn’t scuttle any of the takes. We wrapped sound collection around 1:30 p.m., and headed back to recomposite everything. I sent out the audio to our audio engineer in Massachussetts, who recomposited everything together and cleaned up some of our slightly dirtier boom audio, as well as leveling out the speech. Final render time out of Premiere came right after that.

A last minute call to the hotline for the festival confirmed that we could present HD 24 fps footage, rather than being limited to 30 fps footage (as the website had indicated). A quick burn of a DVD and dropping footage on a flash drive which felt far too large for the content we were putting on it, and we were off to the races – so to speak.

We hauled the 45+ minute drive through Providence to the drop off point, and were the first team in our group (the “B” group) to hand in our materials 40 minutes before the 7:30 p.m. drop-off deadline. Yahtzee!

Lessons Learned

  • Have an on-site audio engineer to take care of ADR duties. It’s a serious pain to have to color and handle re-recording.

  • Get the cleanest boom audio possible. Make sure your boom operator is getting pristine audio, as close as possible to the source, and monitoring the levels.

  • Make sure your audio is being catalogued on set. It was a serious time waster to do this late at night, and put off coloring work until the next day.

  • Make sure someone is arranging rides. If someone needs to shuttle crew around, make sure it’s not one of your department heads.

  • Screen your graded footage a few times before finalizing. I’m really guilty of this one, as I noticed a few places where I needed to brighten the midtones a bit, or match the color of the grass in some exterior shots a bit better.

  • Make sure to let everyone know how important they are. In a 48 hour film festival, there are no “unimportant” people. Everyone is doing their job, and without them, things wouldn’t come together properly. Our 1st AD (who is, by trade, a stage manager) had never worked on a film set before – but you’d never know it, since she brought her “A” game with her.

Special Thanks

I’d like to thank:

  • Natasha Darius – My wife, co-writer, and general driving force behind everything I do. We wouldn’t have done the 48 if it wasn’t for her talented writing and creative spark, her tenacity in keeping everyone moving in the right direction, and her infectious optimism. She was costuming and doing actor prep for “Frankenstein” during this weekend, which made everything else she was able to do (including prop shopping, organization, writing, et cetera) that much more impressive.

  • Nick Magrey – Although he overbooks everything and wears far too many hats, nothing would get done without him. Co-writing, acting, production designing, wardrobe supervising… the list goes on and on. Not to mention that he did this during the closing weekend of his leading role in “Frankenstein” at the Bradley Playhouse.

  • Curtis Reid – I give him a lot of crap about everything, but he’s the other half of the organizational aspect of all of this, as well as running Shoot the Moon Films. I like to tell people “you need to get a Curtis” when they ask how I manage to get stuff done. I shouldn’t downplay his acting, either – I just usually focus on all of his producing duties.

  • Jon Demers – He kept me awake, gopher’d the crap out of everything, drove me everywhere, and found time to act. Give that man a gold star.

  • Hannah Viens – 1st AD extraordinaire. She made sure that we were getting everything done, and that’s no small task.

  • Chelle Wright – Even though she’s been doing MUA duties with us for a while, this was her acting debut. Thank you for not only putting in a great performance, but also for making everyone look so good!

  • The Entire Verrill ClanElizabeth was acting and doing sound work, Patricia was taking still photos, and they were nice enough to lend their lovely home and property to us to trash judiciously for filming.

  • Maureen Vlaco – You have one of the longest commutes to set, but you were cheery, helpful, and even drove back for audio re-recording right before a funeral. You brought that character to life – thank you!

  • Keith Murphy – I’ve never worked with a stunt/fight guy before, but he was fantastic, in addition to lending a double-popped-collar performance.

  • Paul Magrey – Booming, as well as helping with all sorts of other stuff on set. Awesome job!

  • Brandi Demers – You’re my right hand on set, and threw in a performance to boot, not to mention the time you put in prepping props!

  • Our post-production crewAaron and Garett, especially. You guys added so much production value with the precious little time we gave you to work, and your work completely speaks for itself.


The Carving is premiering on October 29th in Providence at 9:00 p.m..

Ways to Keep Your Work From Appearing Cheap

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Okay; so you’ve got a DSLR, a RED, a Blackmagic Cinema Camera, a GoPro – what’s next? The internet is littered with all sorts of tutorials aimed at trying to reproduce the “Hollywood look”, but where to begin?

Over my time as a cinematographer, I’ve learned quite a bit about putting together things that don’t look terrible. Unfortunately, I’ve learned most of these through the painful process of trial and error. If there’s an item listed in this article, I most likely ended up screwing up in that particular way at one time or another.

A slight disclaimer: I’m a bit of a purist. I tend not to deal with post-production effects except when absolutely necessary. I also hate camera shake, especially intentionally induced camera shake.

With that out of the way…

1) Audiophilia: don’t skimp on sound.

If your sound is terrible, your work is going to be perceived as terrible. It doesn’t matter how artistic your shots are, how talented your actors, or how legendary your vision. Audiences (and critics) can forgive almost anything, but they cannot forgive terrible sound.

Sound makes up half of your deliverable work, so logically you should be spending half your time working on it, but most of the indie productions I’ve seen tend to ignore it as much as possible. Don’t skimp on a sound engineer; if you manage to find a really good one, do not let them go.

Don’t let just anyone operate your boom mic. Make sure they are actually interested in doing it. They should preferably be listening to every take and making sure that you have good, usable audio.

If you really need to, get an ADR and Foley engineer. Or learn how to do it yourself – just make sure that you give sound a reasonable amount of attention.

2) Spastic squirrel syndrome: don’t cut movies like you’ve never seen a movie.

Editing is the “directorial discretion of last resort”. You can make all sorts of changes in editing, including changing the entire mood of your film.

Don’t cut it like you’ve never seen a movie before. I need to reiterate that. Don’t cut it like you’ve never seen a movie before.

Consider continuity. If one of your characters has a bag of chips in his hand one moment and doesn’t the next, it’s possible that your discontinuous method of cutting is making a statement about the transient nature of existence or the fragile mental state of your protagonist – but it’s far more likely that the person in charge of continuity fell asleep at the switch.

Don’t cut movies like music videos. A new trend has emerged where music video directors are being promoted to full length feature direction. Unfortunately, their attention-deficit style of cutting has become the norm for every type of film, even non-action ones. If you can’t keep your audience’s attention unless you cut every 1.5 seconds, you might need to work on your script or actors.

Respect the 180 degree and 15 degree rules. If you don’t know what they are, read a few articles on the basic rules of editing.

Respect the pacing … or at least consider the pacing. I’ve changed pacing in editing, but the resulting pace has to be considered before you finalize an edit.

Too many cooks spoil the soup. Or in this case, the film. Have one, maybe two people at most editing your film. Everyone is going to have a different idea of where it should go or how it should be cut together – do NOT allow a crowd of people to make editing decisions. Especially if they aren’t editors. (Actors can be the worst, as they tend to be concerned with how they look on film, rather than the overall aesthetic.)

3) Read the script. Make sure you really want to make this script.

Not every script should be made into a film. Some scripts barely have enough content or action to cover a 10 minute short, let alone a 120 minute feature film. Some scripts are just horribly written.

Think of the standard distribution curve; going by that, most scripts are mediocre, some are terrible, some are good. You’re going to need to reject the majority of material with which you are presented if you’re only going to make the best scripts into films.

Find an uninterested party (not your close friends, family, or actors who would be potentially involved in the production of it) and describe the plot. If it doesn’t interest them, there’s a very good chance that you may not have a wider audience appeal than your group of friends and family.

I should point out, at this part of this article, that not everyone makes films for mass audience appeal. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. Find someone who specializes in the niche you’re targeting, and ask them for their opinion. It could save you quite a few weeks/months/years on a real turkey of a project.

4) Good actors are not easy to come by. Make sure you find them.

Actors’ skill levels also follow the standard distribution curve. Be picky about working with them, if at all possible.

Actors have the very unique ability to completely ruin a scene if even one of them is out of character or “off their game”. Even non-speaking background roles can break the illusion that is your film, so try to be selective in choosing actors. Unless you need a character with a flat affect, don’t use an actor who can’t produce anything other than that affect.

Make sure your actors get a chance to run their lines together and “block” scenes before the day when their scenes are shot. Most actors tend to produce better group dynamics when they’ve had a chance to prepare their material (which is one of the reasons why the \ater actors prepare so far in advance and practice together).

Speaking of theater actors – they’re a great source for acting talent. Most communities have community theaters, and they are usually stocked with a wide variety of talented characters actors. There are some differences between film and theater work, but their “acting chops” are worth the extra work that needs to be put in.

5) Do not rely on inserts for the bulk of your movie.

There’s nothing wrong with insert shots; they tend to add a bit of spice and variety, as well as giving your editor something to cut away to if there’s some continuity issue between takes.

Do not rely on them for a majority of your film. They tend not to tell much of a story, and overuse not only gives a feeling of claustrophobia, but is one of the telltale signs of low-budget indie films.

Like many other suggestions I’ve made here, this isn’t an ironclad rule. There are many art films which make extensive use of insert shots to tell a story in a particular way.

6) There is a setting on your lenses other than “wide open”.

Ever since “bokeh” made its first appearance in the photographer/cinematographer lexicon, there has been a proliferation of extensively thin DOF shots. These can be used to great artistic effect, and can produce beautiful images – but, much like other tools in a cinematographer’s toolbox, it shouldn’t be the only tool you use. All of your characters should generally be in focus when they’re having a conversation in most circumstances. Constantly focus-pulling between two characters because you have a tissue-thin DOF tends to give off the impression that you have no lighting budget, or that you don’t know how to use your lenses.

On top of all of that, most lower-cost lenses tend to not be as sharp as higher grade lenses when they’re used wide-open. If you’re a fan of cheap Rokinon / Samyang glass, it performs quite well – but not necessarily across the entire frame wide open. Stopped down to f/4, it compares favorably with high-end Zeiss and Canon glass, so if you can stop it down a bit further, you’ll get a better quality image.

7) Time: There’s never enough of it. Corollary: The enemy of the good is the perfect.

There seems to be an inverse relationship between location availability and the time consuming nature of the shots in a scene. I have tended to find that when I spend more time setting up a shot, I will get better results than when I “run and gun” the shots in a scene. (Like every other concept, this has exceptions.)

Try to make sure you’ve metered and scouted your location properly before placing actors in front of the camera. You’ll avoid a lot of time-wasting adjustment and blown takes, which will translated into better looking shots and a better end product.

As far as “the enemy of the good is the perfect”: it is rarely going to be perfect. Deciding how much time to spend on that one insert may be the thing which keeps you from rushing through the rest of your limited time at a location. This is as much about time management as anything.

8) Prepare.

I’ve joked that my pre-production time on a film is longer than the actual filming time. For the most part, this is actually the case.

Walking onto a set with no idea of what you’re going to do or how you’re going to do it will lead to amateur errors, rushing, and a poor end product. Preparation, be it storyboarding, notes, location scouting, or anything else, is going to save you from some of the easy pitfalls which produce a cheap end product.

9) Listen.

You’re one person in (presumably) a fair sized crew of people. If you’re directing something, you’re the decision maker. You’re the one who has to decide how something is to be done and who is going to do it, or at least delegate that to someone else.

If you’re a cinematographer/DP, you’re responsible for the visual aspect of the film. You have to make the decisions as to how the cameras are set, or at least delegate that authority.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t listen to other people. Some of my favorite shots have come from suggestions I’ve gotten from other people. The ability to look past your own hubris and take suggestions under consideration from other people can open up your ability to shoot or direct better – and that shines through in the final product.

10) Do not assume you can “fix it in post”.

“Fix it in post” has been a joke amongst my crew, since I’m not a big fan of the filmmaking ethos centered around correcting everything in editing and post production.

(I’m shooting with a rig which requires a fair amount of post production to bring the footage to its final form, and to be clear, I don’t dislike or hate post production. I dislike the idea of relying on it for things which you could have done on set.)

Blood effects are a great example. Any monkey with a licensed (or unlicensed) copy of After Effects can make a blood spatter effect, but it’ll look like a low budget horror movie. If you’re going to do blood, do it with practical effects. Squibs aren’t difficult to design, even on virtually no budget. People have made them with such inventive materials as condoms and fishing line. Just because we’ve entered an age of digital cinematography doesn’t mean we have to throw out practical effects.

11) “One more for safety.”

My cast and crew have been so used to me saying this phrase that they gave me an etched mug with it on the side. No matter how well you think you’ve gotten a scene on film, there’s always a chance that you’re missing something. There is no worse feeling in editing than when you realize that you’re missing something in one of your takes and have no fall back.

Take the extra few minutes and get another take of that “perfect take”. You’d be surprised at how often you can avoid embarrassing cuts and amateur looking transitions.

12) Context: understand when you’re doing something just for the sake of doing it.

“Quadracopter” is a latin word which means “I need to wow my financial backers”. Well, not really, but it could be, judging from the way they’re used.

Just because you have a certain rig or piece of equipment does not mean that you should necessarily use it for everything you do. If you’re adding a shot specifically to impress people instead of telling a story, your film is going to suffer.

Sometimes you need a crane shot. Sometimes you need an overhead shot. Sometimes you need a snorricam shot. There are plenty of things you can do, but your job as a filmmaker is to be able to determine when you should.

Film is about emotional connection and content. If you have a hollow work with a lot of style, you’ll impress a certain crowd, but it’ll be devoid of any sort of deeper meaning. Stick with your artistic integrity for as long as you can – you can always make money, but once you’ve sold out your integrity, you don’t get it back.

13) Equipment hubris: never assume your equipment will save you or make you better.

The most important piece of equipment you have as a cinematographer is your eyes; everything else is much, much less important. I’ve seen films shot on RED EPIC bodies which look like a high-schooler shot them, and films shot on DSLRs which rival anything out of Hollywood.

Never assume that a new equipment purchase will make you a better cinematographer. The only thing that will do that is time.

“Equipment hubris”, as I call it, leads to bad and amateur shots. If you just received a new rig, make sure to log some hours using it before you bring it on set. Screwing up a basic setting on a camera is a very easy way to destroy an entire day’s worth of filming … or more.

14) The low-light disease, or why I learned to light and stopped hating my work.

With the rise of the Sony A7 series, with ISO sensitivities of 100k+, and other low-light and no-light cameras, we’ve also seen the rise of the no-lighting production.

Hollywood lights the hell out of their films. Despite certain films trying to portray a low-budget look, you can bet that they have a tractor-trailer full of lights and lighting modifiers making each shot look good.

Stop assuming that you need speed boosters, faster lenses, and tricks to shoot with less light. In all but a few cases, you need to add more light, not make your camera accept more light – and that’ll take away the “cheap” quality which comes from not using enough light. ETTR is the way to go – as long as you don’t blow your highlights, you can always decrease the amount of light in coloring/post-production, if you’ve taken that into account ahead of time.

15) Coloring / color grading.

Coloring / color grading used to be referred to as “color correction”, but now that so much more is done with it, “coloring” or “color grading” works as well as anything else.

Hollywood films go through a round of color grading with people who spend their professional lives doing it. You can’t just “apply a LUT” or “apply a curve” to something and have it magically look like a million dollars, any more than an Instagram filter can make a picture look better instead of just making it look like it was taken with a terrible camera from the 1970s.

Color grading / coloring is a time-consuming, iterative process. It’s awful to do, but it’s a necessary evil. It allows you to correct lighting problems (assuming that your base footage has enough latitude to withstand the corrections, of course), change color temperature, punch certain colors, and even correct moving objects or flaws in the camera. It also allows a final look and feel to be given to your project, which can help take away that indie low-budget feel to your film.

Color grading / coloring won’t save a terrible film, but it can take a good film and give it a look and feel which will keep it from being dismissed as looking amateur.

16) Framing: stop cutting off peoples’ heads.

One of the things that immediately jumps out at me about low-budget film projects, and cheap cinematography in general, is framing. If you’re not paying attention to the framing of your subject material, the edge of the frame becomes a knife which slices at your subjects and surroundings.

If you’re going to use a special aspect ratio / crop bars, make sure that you’re framing according to those bars. I had a project on which I had DP’d where the decision to adjust aspect ratio was made after principal photography had concluded. This left a bunch of shots where the actors looked decapitated. These are all things to consider before you choose your focal length, camera position, et cetera.

17) Don’t ask for money unless you really, really need it.

This is more of a personal pet-peeve. Pay your crew if that’s your arrangement. If you’re paying one actor, you pay them all. If you’re doing a senior thesis project, or a festival piece, or something else which isn’t slated for distribution, please do NOT go on kickstarter, gofundme, or any of the other funding/begging sites to ask for 10-50k$ of money. If you end up with a chunk of bad publicity and unhappy financial backers, it’s going to reflect poorly on your film.

(I’m aware that this isn’t a “look and feel” thing, but permit me my slight digression from the topic at hand; I feel that it is important enough to mention.)