Cinematography Notes

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These notes were written out of boredom in between scene setups on the set. The first post in my Facebook page was three years ago. It started out as thoughts on cinematography and later on became random observations of people making movies and the system’s imperfection all from the point of view of a cinematographer.


# 1 : There is no secret in the art of cinematography.

# 2 : Everybody on the set looks at the cinematographer as the technical authority. So, study and know your stuff. Or at least act like you know what you’re doing.

# 3 : First thing to do on the set : Check the camera and the toilet if both are working.

# 4 : If the shot is out of focus, it is 99% the cinematographer’s fault and 1% goes either to the focus puller or the uncalibrated lens or the actors who didn’t hit their mark.

# 5 : It’s ‘picture vehicle’ not ‘feature vehicle’.

# 6 : Be a cinematography student forever.

# 7 : Learn the word ‘compromise’ early on because sometimes it is necessary. Then, know the difference between a compromise and a sell out.

# 8 : If you’re going to do a high-risk shot, please insist for an insurance. Whether the production will give you the insurance or not, is another matter.

# 9 : It’s ‘gaffer’ not ‘gapper’. It’s ‘tungsten’ not ‘tangten’. It’s ‘hot set’ not ‘hot sit’. Thank you very much.

#10 : Accept the reality that not everyone on the set understands that what you’re doing is a personal expression, according to the aesthetic principles of what is beautiful or what we commonly call as art.

#11 : Do not underestimate the importance of an apple box.

#12 : There is a limit as to how fast we can setup the lights. Pushing that limit means compromising certain safety issues concerning the crew, actors and everyone on the set.

#13 : You know you’re in an exciting job when you’re about to shoot a love scene and the AD says, “everybody out of the set except the cinematographer”.

#14 : Cinematographers are in a position to create changes in the system and make it a better working environment.

#15 : Press the record button before ‘Action!’ and don’t sleep during the take.

#16 : Digital cinematography should free us creatively without losing substance.

#17 : Good cinematography is not always connected to the brand of camera you are using.

#18 : My basic cinematographer’s survival kit : light meter, contrast viewer, compass (to determine sunrise/sunset position), 3 day AccuWeather forecast, laptop, dslr, extra clothes (at least for one night), sunblock, toothbrush, cap/hat, wipes, sunglasses, hand sanitizer, mosquito repellant, windbreaker, water canteen and the most important, 2 rolls of toilet paper.

#19 : Master the technical aspect so you can light not just with your eyes but also with your heart.

#20 : What we do between “Action!” and “Cut!” : Take a deep breath, compose the shot, frame the actors with the right headroom, make sure we don’t over shoot, check and re-check if the shot is in focus, watch out for the nasty boom mic, using the other eye, check if the actor hit his mark, listen to the actor’s dialogue as a cue for camera movement, cue the dolly operator, wait for the cut, and all the while thinking of the next shot. It’s a 30 second cinematic challenge with a lot of adrenaline rush.

#21 If movie-making is a battleground then every filmmaker should read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

#22 : Shooting a horror movie is always difficult. You’re trying to scare the audience and you need a lot of time to set that up in terms of camera movement and lighting design. Death scenes in horror films are the hardest but also the funniest to shoot.

#23 : Although the technical side of filmmaking is a cinematographer’s responsibility and primarily his concern, it still is a must for a director to know the basics of cinematography. This is, after all, a technical medium.

#24 : It is an industry that hardly follows work ethics, guidelines or any form of standardization and is driven by profit. You basically struggle on your own, try to create your own voice and do something artful along the way. Love the craft and the people who share the same passion in making good films. Create allies to change the system because change will not come from the top, it will come from below.

#25 : There is only one plane of focus (PoF) which is parallel to the camera sensor and lies within the depth of field. There is no ‘slightly’ focused shot. It’s either you’re focused or you didn’t hit the mark.

#26 : Growing up watching cartoons, old movies and reading Marvel comic books brought me to the conclusion that these three formats started my love affair with imagery. It’s always a wonderful feeling to go into the process of creating an image, and at the same time, be reminded of my childhood.

#27 : A focus puller, given the amount of responsibility he has over the image, is one of the most underrated and underpaid staff on the set. The best acting, direction or cinematography can’t save an out of focus shot.

#28 : I’m here to tell a story through my lighting. When I put my actors in the dark, that’s intentional. This is not a hair commercial.

#29 : It’s ‘follow spot’ not ‘palo spot’, ‘pre lighting’ not ‘free lighting’, ‘scaffolding’ not ‘scap holding’.

#30 : Next time a producer tells me to cut down on my light requirements, I’m going to quote Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro – “Cinematography is motion, we need a journey and to arrive at another point. We don’t create a beautiful frame, but a beautiful film. That’s why I say ‘writing with light.”

#31 : There’s no romcom lighting formula. The same way that there’s no horror lighting formula.

#32 : Color grading is the final step in the long and arduous creative process a cinematographer undertakes in making a film. It is at this point where the cinematographer, like a painter, puts his signature on the finished artwork.

#33 : The general audience generally has a vague idea what a cinematographer does.

#34 : There are days when those elementary and high school subjects you hated so much become useful while lighting a set and operating a camera because the work demands us to understand mathematics, physics, design and sociology.

#35 : In every fim, a cinematographer will encounter limitations. He just has to work around it. I always welcome limitations. I think that’s when you start to be really creative.

#36 : I will shoot a thesis film with heart over a big budget yet pretentious film.

3 thoughts on “Cinematography Notes

  1. Re-reading your notes today somehow gave me more drive and fire to really pursue cinematography. Thank you!

    Ps. Being a film student , number 36 really tore through my heart thanks


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