11 Lessons from a Cinematography Boot Camp

In early November 2018, I attended a class in cinematography presented by Jeremy Wilker at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents another step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 takeaways from that two-day workshop.

1. Every shot must serve a purpose.

This reminder is important as more and more novelty cameras with affordable prices appear. Drone cameras and 360-degree cameras open possibilities for some breathtaking and unique shots, but must those shots be in the final piece?

Oddly enough, this point runs counter to what I am thinking in developing that multi-media production course. In that course, I would want students to engage the technologies while creating their nonfiction works. That engagement would require experimentation and critical thinking about the relationship between representation and technology without overvaluing the latter.

2. Zoom with your feet.

This takeaway has been repeated throughout multiple training sessions and bears repeating again. Physically moving the camera makes for clearer, better images. Internal zoom functions should be a last resort, not a first one.

3. Know your equipment.

As in, really know your equipment. Know its limitations, possibilities, hacks, comparisons to other brands and models. Read the manuals; read the reviews. The more you can adjust the camera (and lighting) on the production side, the less you have to adjust on the post-production side. Making those adjustments, both large and small, require knowing your camera inside and out.

4. Sensor size matters.

“Sensor” refers to the chip within the camera that gathers light. Smaller sensors tend to render everything in an image in focus, while larger sensors allow playing with the depth of field and creating bokeh, or a kind of artistic blurring. Smart phones employ smaller sensors, but changes in computational processing now allow creating depth of field in post-production.

4. Cameras are more complex than you think.

This point hit home most for me. Over the decades cameras have become more and more consumer friendly, and many cameras require little instruction to figure out how to make them take adequate pictures. Spending time with the instruction manual might help you become more familiar with the camera’s controls, but the complexities I mention here are beyond that. One example is 8 bit versus 10 bit cameras. Dynamic range varies from camera to camera, with 8-9 stops appearing on many DSLRs and 13-14 stops bringing a wider range and less blowout. Crop images versus full frame images I knew about, as full frame has been creeping down to prosumer and consumer levels for years.

5. Proper lighting eases camera limitations.

In this session lighting and camera appeared to work in tandem. In low light, the camera ISO / gain might be turned up to capture the image better, but in doing so the image becomes noisier. Cheaper zoom lenses often have lower f stops, which cut the light the further they extend. Proper lighting can help in both of these situations.

6. The variety of lighting options is mind-boggling.

Lighting kits and setups contain almost as much, if not more, gear than a camera and its accessories. Stands are a start, but lighting options include everything from an LED panel with bi-color (blue and yellow) built in to a single targeted light mounted on a tripod. Light boxes offer another option. The Kino Flo system offers a wide range of possibilities for lighting indoor interviews. On top of all that, reflectors and scrims change the light quality as needed, not to mention changing the table lamps if on location.

7. Gaffer’s tape is your friend.

Gaffer’s tape is the Swiss army knife of filmmaking.

8. Three-point lighting is not just for film studies.

Three-point lighting refers to a fairly standard system of lighting used in film. Film studies teaches this system as a way to explain the relationships between lighting and cinematography and between lighting and story / genre, such as high-key lighting (bright) and comedy and low-key lighting (shadowy) and film noir.

It consists of a key light, which is the brightest light and the one the camera should be exposed for. The backlight creates a frame or halo around the interview participant, and the fill light knocks out or softens the shadows created by the key and back lights. The fill can be helpful for softening features on self-conscious people’s faces as well.

9. Believe it or not, there’s a formula.

The formula is called the “inverse square law.” Basically, if a light is moved back two feet, it loses four times its power. If a light is moved back four feet, then it loses 16 times its power. The camera settings need to be moved 2 f stops for each square removed.

10. Starting a kit doesn’t require the kitchen sink.

A basic setup can include a camera, a prime lens (50mm), a zoom lens, a tripod, and enough spare batteries to last a day of shooting.

11. That said, choosing a camera kit might prove challenging.

This last one is more my own thinking. There are so many suggestions for cameras to consider: Canon C100 or C100 Mark 2, Sony F5100 or F700, Canon DSLRs, Blackmagic cameras, and even just sticking with a smartphone.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed here, and it offered some good starts in thinking about equipment for my own projects.

The Title ‘Happy People: A Year in the Taiga’ Says It All

The title of Happy People: A Year in the Taiga describes well what the documentary is about. For one year, it follows trappers from the village of Bakhtia, located in the Siberian taiga.

In the voiceover, co-director Werner Herzog explains why the trappers are happy with their lives and with hunting in balmy minus 33-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures:

“Out on their own, trappers become what they essentially are: happy people. Accompanied only by their dogs, they live off the land. They are completely self-reliant. They are truly free.”

The trappers’ strong connection to the land for their lives and their livelihoods becomes a recurring theme throughout the documentary. They demonstrate this knowledge in many ways, through making their own skis, canoes, and mosquito repellent. They fish and hunt. They build traps using tree branches.

Herzog remarks on how few “modern” technologies the trappers use — the shotgun, the snowmobile, the motorboat. An amusing sequence shows one trapper using his shotgun to catch fish, but the overwhelming emphasis lies on the people’s reliance on other means.

This approach reminds me of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, wherein Flaherty documented Nanook’s customs in an attempt to capture the Inuit tribe’s traditions. The famous scene when Nanook captures the seal through the ice is a dangerous and enthralling one, but it omits a key detail about Nanook’s life: He usually hunted with a gun. Both of these films exhibit a nostalgia for another time, but from the maker’s point of view, not necessarily the subject’s point of view.

What I appreciate most about Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is the cinematography. Though the makers had the added bonus of beautiful scenery, the cinematography is still stunning. Establishing shots of the Yenisei River during different seasons. Unique framings of subjects through tree branches and other natural frames. Rack focuses. Slow zooms. Extreme close-ups.

And the interviews with the trappers didn’t ruin the beauty of this cinematography. Let’s face it: While the talking head framed in a medium close-up shot is standard, it is also visually boring. Coupling those shots with beautiful B-roll can make for an uneven viewing experience. I understand their purposes, but after a while they get tiring to see over and over. And the documentaries that overrely on them run together after a while.

The makers of Happy People do use a few interview sequences throughout, but even better they record the trappers doing something and talking about it at the same time. The trappers don’t narrate the process of what they are doing, but they do offer insight into why they do what they do. This approach makes the trappers and, by extension, the film more interesting.