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.

15 Days of Sun, Rock and Uncertainty

I remember, when I used to shoot on film, I always had that feeling of uncertainty whether I was getting the right exposure or not. I think that is the magic of film, you do not have an idea how the image is going to look like until you have processed the negative and have viewed the rushes in that small cold dark projection room.

That is exactly how I felt while shooting SIGNAL ROCK. There’s uncertainty, that familiar feeling of walking on unfamiliar ground. Signal Rock, just like Badil (2013), is a passion project of director Chito Rono, but more ambitious than the first one. We were, however, working on a modest budget and after reading the script, I already knew the film was going to be logistically and technically more challenging given its requirements and location.

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The story is set in Biri Island, a 5th class municipality in Northern Samar facing the Pacific Ocean in the east and San Bernardino Strait to the west, accessible by boat from the mainland. By plane, you can take the Manila-Calbayog flight, then take another 2-hour land travel to the town of Lavezares where the jump off point for the one-hour boat ride to Biri is stationed. If you travel by bus, you take the back- breaking 14-hour ride from Cubao to Matnog, Sorsogon and then cross the sea via ferry boat that carries your bus, to Allen, Samar for two hours. From Allen to Lavezares is another 30 minutes by land. Going to Biri is definitely not easy, more so shooting a movie.

Early on, it was very clear that the location would dictate my technical need. I had done two films there before and there’s no way I was going to bring a 25-lb camera at Biri rock formation what with 10 sequences to finish in a day and wake up again the next morning at 5. We had set a 15-day straight shoot so I needed to work fast with minimal lighting setup especially for night scenes. I chose to shoot with a Sony a7sii with Carl Zeiss prime lenses for mobility and for budget reason, combining it with an Osmo camera for the long moving takes.

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Signal Rock’s cinematography was functional. I was always adjusting to what was available in front of me and how nature would present itself that day. We adjusted our shoots based on the schedule of water sea level since we needed to walk for two kilometers on knee deep water to get to the rock formation. My gaffer and I were continuously tracking the sun to get the right sunlight direction for the scenes. It was instinctive filmmaking. It felt like being back in film school where I used to shoot short films with just one light. My lighting package was three 60s ARRI Skypanel which I used for the background during night and also as a strong soft key light for day interiors. I also had four battery-operated LiteMat LEDs to enhance close-up shots. The rest were augmented by around 10 pieces of ordinary 100 watts bulb lights mounted on white Japanese lanterns from Divisoria and then rigged on long 15-ft bamboo poles. These poles were then placed strategically depending on the shot which created an overall soft ambience light during night scenes. I had two 5 KVA portable generators moving around the set. I was also pushing the camera’s ISO to its limit.

Intentionally putting characters in shadows, avoiding fill lights and sometimes letting background go really dark, I used darkness to feel isolation and remoteness. Biri is underlit at night just like any remote municipality in the country. I wanted to recreate that feeling of talking to a person lighted by a low wattage bulb. There’s faint illumination but quite enough.

In situations like these, you basically trust your instinct and experience and hope that something good will come out of it. Looking back, shooting in Biri the first time turned out to be my own dry run for making Signal Rock, only this time on a larger scale.

Signal Rock is the Philippines’ entry for the Oscar’s best foreign language film next year.

Oscars 2019: Here Are the 87 Movies Competing for Best Foreign Language Film

Between Grit and Gloss

title 2.001Recto. Avenida. Quiapo. Obsession in the midst of urban chaos and decay. A story from four male perspectives where the characters’ hidden desires move in parallel with their reality.

I have read Dwein Baltazar’s Gusto Kita With All My Hypothalamus many times starting from its journey from QCinema in 2016 to Cinefilipino in 2018. From the very start, Dwein and I did not want to make a glossy film. We also didn’t want another Mamay Umeng, Dwein’s first film in 2012. We shared the same observation that with all the new cameras and lenses coming out, films have a tendency to look the same. We wanted a realistic feel bordering on a documentary.

Initially, we wanted to shoot in 16mm film but budget and technical constraints dictated that we couldn’t. I almost forgot that film died years ago. I toyed with the idea of shooting with an iPhone. But I wanted a shallow depth of field so an iPhone was out of the question. All of these technical explorations were motivated by Hypothalamus’ milieu and its main characters.

When I started to do technical prep for the film, we agreed that there should be some degree of degration during and after shoot.

Degration means :

– Use really old lenses with almost no lens coating to get flares on the image.

– Work at low light condition to put grain on the image.

– Use of the location’s natural light as a main light then augment it with small artificial lights and put the characters in the shadow.

– Add more noise/grain in color grading

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Mao Fadul’s set design successfully pushed the degration on screen. Marilen Magsaysay’s color palette put the final touch to create Hypo’s realism.

The location is my turf. For years I have roamed these streets documenting its people, buildings, old theaters- day and night. I have met the characters of Hypothalamus years before while I was documenting its areas. Vendors, pimps, hookers, bar girls, the homeless, waitresses on night shift, snatchers, policemen.

I knew the grit of Hypothalamus.

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*Hypothalamus is having its international premier at the Busan International Film Festival this October.  http://www.biff.kr/eng/html/program/prog_view.asp?idx=36911&c_idx=319&sp_idx=&QueryStep=2

Conversation #1 Dekada ’70, 2002

As we celebrate 100 years of Philippine cinema, a film I shot 16 years ago will be screened at the Busan International Film Festival this coming October 4-13. Together with nine other classic films, Dekada ’70 is part of a special program focusing on Philippine cinema. Dekada’70 was shot for more than 55 days in a span of almost two years. It was a test of patience and endurance not only physically, but also in maintaining that creative drive.
The interview was done just before the release of the film in 2002 and was published online on Star Cinema’s website.
It’s interesting to note that after 16 years I still speak of the same aspirations as a cinematographer-  independent spirit, creative freedom and control of the image.

Interview with a Cinematographer
Neil Daza: The Eye of an Eclectic Beholder
by Gina S. Carino

Neil Daza is a free spirit constantly flitting from one field to another. Constantly?
There are constants beneath the restlessness. The organ: his retina. The tool: his camera. Neil Daza was born with an eye for the visual, and with it he trained himself in the tricks and culture of the lens.Think Cartier-Bresson and the Magnum greats of Time-Life. The professional beginnings of this UST Fine Arts graduate are in photojournalism, and to photojournalism he regularly returned. Two years ago he held one-man shows exhibiting photographs of people in the monstrous metropolis of Manila. Think art and truth, like Walker Evans sensually portraying Cuban conflicts,or, more recently, Sebastiao Salgado’s powerful takes on beast-like oppression in Brazilian mines. Salgado also showed our SmokyMountain to the world.

Question: Social realities are the theme, too, of your much applauded hop from the still document to the moving document. Your over-an-hour long Disyembre, about female migrant workers in Japan, was very well received. Documentary photography —now there’s another medium you always fall back on.
Answer: Vis-à-vis full-length feature films, I find peace in documentary filmmaking.
What I love most about documentaries is dealing with real people and real stories. It’s instinctive filmmaking. That is, you rely so much on your instincts, and in the process learn so much about life, real life. Also, it’s nice when people appreciate your work as a cinematographer or director of photography (DOP) of a movie, but it’s different when the vision of a work actually comes from you as the director. When I do a documentary, I work alone, I’m my own director, I try to finance my own projects, I don’t have to talk to some oppressive producers. Well of course I do also have to get institutions interested in my photo documentary proposals. Or I get commissioned.
Q: And sometimes they want exclusivity on the copyrights, right? You worried as much in an SOS message you once posted on the Internet. In the same message, you declared that documentaries are where your heart truly belongs.
A: I think it’s also the medium with the greatest capacity to change people,
in part because of the discussion it creates when heightening, freezing reality
in a single frame.
Q: But more people are seeing movies. Here, you started out very much part of the alternative film scene. Now you are a multi-nominated and multi-awarded cinematographer in the mainstream. There’s Laro sa Baga, La Vida Rosa, Yamashita:The Tiger’s Treasure… So besides flitting between media, you straddle streams—main and marginal— and are comfortable with it.
A: I like doing all these things and can’t picture myself giving up one for another. I like doing movies because it requires you to become a pictorialist. You try to put harmony in a frame, forever going for that perfect shot. I started in independent cinema, with its low budgets and having to pay for your own food…
Q: And of course its ‘intellectual muscle’—as against the blockbusters with the popcorn-munching.
A: Yes. But, why not, I can like the ‘bigness’ of big-studio commercial productions too. I’ve done five films for the major studios. Even box-office hits. Take Spirit Warriors I. There’s so much money involved it becomes a high-pressure job that puts you on edge. I can get a kick out of such big-business stress. It’s only for a few months at a time anyway. In the end it doesn’t really matter whether you’re working inside or outside the industry, as long as you maintain your principles and your independent spirit and are ready to stand for the film that you want to make.
Q: The bottom line: not to sell out completely, or essentially. But this brings us back to something you were saying before. With movies, the director has the chair. You are there to help materialize his vision. How much freedom is left?
A: I am fortunate to have been able to work for directors with a high visual culture who share my vision and have responded to my technical needs and supported my artistic explorations. I have shot my last five films with Chito Rono. Each film was of a different genre and demanding a different look. Given the general state of our movie industry, I can’t complain. I’m pretty much satisfied with the works I’ve done and the directors I’ve worked with. But since
there’s a hundred more ways to tell a story, I believe there’s still lots of room for experimentation. Okay, if there’s one thing I’d like to do in mainstream cinematography, it’s perhaps to give DOPs more control over the definitive version of a film, the image that people eventually see on the screen or TV set. DOPs also deserve a say in a movie’s video release, considering that future generations will watch our works on DVDs more than on theater screens.
Q: There are more and more young cinematographers entering the mainstream. How do you think this will affect the quality and substance of Philippine cinematography.
A: The visual landscape of Philippine movies will change much in the next five years. The new generation of cinematographers will stretch the limits of image-making because they come from a variety of disciplines: documentaries, music videos,TV commercials. DOPs are no longer technicians. It’s not enough to know how to operate a camera and get a correct exposure, you must also know about music and painting. Then, directors themselves, both new
and established, are starting to look for new approaches to their films.
Joey Reyes has a new DOP, Regimen Romana. Mel Chionglo is working with
Gus Cruz, a DOP  from advertising. Lav Diaz is doing a digital film with the new
cinematographer Bahaghari. And producers, too, are opening up to new
cinematographers.
Q: In La Vida Rosa, as you explained in an interview when it came out, you captured the film noir quality of the underworld through a gritty, bleached, and erratically handheld camera that frequently went for the brazen close-up. I believe this is like the dizzying Dogma technique used in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark to express Bjork’s imminent blindness, or the dogfights in Alejandro García Iñárritu’s Amores Perros. In the French Nouvelle Vague of the 1950s, there was Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle.” For bleaching I think of the horrifying final basement scene in The Silence of the Lambs. Not to mention Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. Will we be seeing any of this nervous and discolored manipulation in Dekada 70?
A: This is my fifth collaboration with Chito Rono, who has always made me part of the creative process. My approach in cinematography is always to try something new, to experiment in form and technique. I try to look at a new film project from a different perspective and work on its concept as if it were my first film. I would also say I’m a cinematographer without a style because I ‘thrash’ a lot, throwing in all the things I have done in previous films. Anyway, the visual inspiration in this case was social realism. Dekada was written as part of the social realist art movement that emerged in the 1970s with political repression at its height. Since you couldn’t read truth in the newspapers, you got it through the visual arts, theater, and literature. My challenge here was to make the
scenes as realistic as possible.
Q: How have your own political involvement and convictions shaped the way you shot the film?
A: My father was a political prisoner for eight years. I practically grew up with Sunday visits to Fort Bonifacio. My siblings were activists and there were nights when we had to pick up one of them in a police station because he or she had been caught participating in a demonstration. Martial Law was omnipresent in my childhood. That’s my personal 1970s experience.

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Q: So how exactly does that tie in with the visual treatment in Dekada 70?
A: The idea from the very start was that the lighting should not catch the viewers’ attention. We have such powerful historical and dramatic material here that it doesn’t need fancy photography or fancy camera motion. Just let the drama unfold, let the audience feel the photography rather than consciously see it. Except for some dramatic scenes, I decided on a flat high-key lighting reminiscent or evocative of the 1970s movies, giving the film an overall warm tone. For the rally scenes, I went for the documentary look. I felt that the dramatic content of the movie should dictate the visual approach of the film. You can’t use the skip bleach process in every movie without risking it being read like a novelty. In this case it would have been distracting. There was a need—yes, even a personal need—to come across as ‘real’ as possible. The characters themselves were so real with their pains and weaknesses, but with a layered political standpoint.
Q: What’s it like working with a veteran cast?
A: It was an honor to work with Vilma Santos and Christopher de Leon. These two actors formed part of my film education as I watched their movies in the 1970s and 1980s. Through Bernal, Brocka, and Mike de Leon, their images and characters shaped my view of Philippine cinema. And you know you’re working with artists from the way they approach their craft, delivering way beyond TV soap opera acting. One long scene with Vilma Santos took us just one take as she hit all my focus marks with all the right emotions. I had goosebumps by
the time Chito yelled “Cut!” It was like I’d been watching the movie through my camera’s viewfinder.

Gina Cariño, the interviewer, lives and works mainly in the plain in Spain.

BIFF http://www.biff.kr/eng/html/program/prog_view.asp?idx=36592&c_idx=311&sp_idx=467&QueryStep=2