The Cinematographer's Process: Defining Your Camera Strategy

The Cinematographer's Process: Defining Your Camera Strategy

Cinematography is the art of making informed visual decisions in the pursuit of telling a story. 

After breaking down your script for emotionality, subtext, and character arcs, you can begin making informed visual decisions in the process of building what I call the "cinematographic visual concept". This document (or series of documents) lays out, in specific terms, your plan for conveying the subtextual and emotional overtones of the story, using the cinematographic tools of lighting and camera. In today's post, we'll talk about how to take subtext and turn it into an informed strategy for using the camera to its full storytelling potential:

The Cinematographer's Process series is meant to be a study in not only the concepts of cinematography, but in the practical application of these concepts. In order to accomplish this, I'll be talking about these broad concepts within the context of a film that I was hired to DP in 2013. The film is called Paterand for those of you who missed the previous installment of the series, which talked about script breakdowns for cinematographers, here's a rundown of the film's plot and its subtext:

Pater is the story of two extraterrestrial beings, the Progenitor, who is wise and stoic, yet rapidly aging, and Janus, who is toeing the line between childhood and adulthood. Together they are searching desperately for a planet with an advanced civilization that has not engineered its own demise. Planet after planet, and disappointment after disappointment, the pair are now locked onto a signal coming from a mysterious tan planet.

In a subtextual sense, Pater is first and foremost a cautionary tale for humans in that these "dead planets" the pair discover are allegorical stand-ins for earth. However, the emotional core of Pater is the relationship between these two wayward individuals. It's a film about parent/child relationships, and the responsibilities that parents have to teach their children how to survive and thrive in their absence.

Unfortunately, the production of Pater fell through due to budgetary constraints. However, the vast pre-production work that went into this film can serve as an educational example for up-and-coming filmmakers. With all of that said, let's get to meat and potatoes of this post: creating a well-informed visual concept for your film!

What is a Visual Concept?

The idea of the visual concept is a simple one. It is essentially a definitive strategy for how you plan to visualize your characters' emotions alongside the subtext of the film. The term visual concept can mean entirely different things depending on the department, however. In the art department, it has to do with the physical creation of a unique world in which the characters can exist. For cinematographers and their crew, on the other hand, the visual concept has to do with using the two primary tools at our disposal, camera and lighting.

Some visual concepts are written out in vague, overarching terms that describe the tone and mood of the piece, rather than with the specifics of how to achieve those things visually. Personally, I try to be as specific as possible, at least as specific as one can be early on in the pre-visualization process, so that I can begin to effectively communicate visual ideas with the various people within my department like the gaffer, key grip, cam op, etc. The more specific information I can give them early on, the better everyone's understanding will be as to the cinematographic goals of the production, and how we intend to achieve those goals.

My process for building a visual concept starts with determining the key subtextual thread that you want to work from in the film. This gives you something concrete on which to make all of your visual decisions. In Pater, despite the fact that the film is meant to act as a cautionary tale so that humans don't destroy themselves, the emotional core of the film lies in the relationship between the young Janus and the rapidly aging Progenitor. Through focusing on the subtext of this humanistic father-child relationship, we hope to engage the audience in the emotionality of the film, rather than the message.

Now that we know which subtextual thread to focus on, let's get started with the creation of the first half of the visual concept, the camera strategy.

The Camera Strategy

The camera strategy is, without a doubt, one of the most expansive and important pieces of visual pre-production that you will do as a DP. The strategy can be broken down into numerous different subsections or categories, but there are a few that are absolutely essential. They are format, composition, and movement. However, you can certainly use additional categories (such as lenses, focus, filtration, etc) in order to tailor your camera strategy to your individual film.

Format: 

This refers to the capture medium which is best for the film. Will you shoot on film, or will you shoot digitally? What will the film or sensor size be (s16, s35, full frame, 70mm), and why? If shooting on film, what stock or stocks will you use? If you're shooting digitally, which picture profiles or LUT's will be applied? What resolution will you shoot at, and why?

For Pater we are choosing to shoot digitally with Sony's F5.  The primary reason for this is the absolutely absurd sensitivity of that camera, which sits at a whopping 2000 native ISO, and stays relatively clean even at 6400. Since we'll be shooting in some extremely dark environments (missile silos, abandoned granite quarries), that extra sensitivity will allow us to build a good portion of our lighting into our custom-designed space suits and augment with small, battery-powered units so as to avoid the need for a generator.

Another reason for the F5 is that the image from the camera is relatively clean and sterile straight out of the camera. This is perfect for the space ship set that we're building because the sterility of the image can be used to enhance and augment the physical sterility of the character's environment.

Lastly, despite the fact that the film will be mastered in 2K, it will be shot in 4K with Sony's R5 recorder. The additional resolution is important because not only is oversampled 2K cleaner and more detailed than native 2K (which will help with the sterile aesthetic described above,) but because there are certain shots throughout the film that will require tremendous amounts of compositing. With that additional resolution, we are giving our VFX artists a template on which they can be as precise as possible.

Composition: 

How will you compose your images, and how will those compositions convey the underlying subtext of you film? This all starts with choosing the aspect ratio of your film, something which I've talked about extensively in previous posts.

Once you've found your ratio, you need to decide how you'll frame your characters and why. Will you shoot from low angles, high angles, or from eye level? Will you frame in closeups or will you stay wide, and why? How will you utilize negative space in the frame? How will you utilize depth?

With Pater we chose to go with a classic widescreen 2.39 aspect ratio because of the additional negative space that the wide framing provides. Because Pater is a story about loneliness, in that our characters might be utterly alone in the universe, we can place our characters at the extreme edges of the frame and use the negative space to visually portray their isolation from both each other and the wider universe at large.

In our exterior shots, when the pair explore the tan planet, a good deal of that sequence will be framed with extreme wides (with the characters minuscule in the frame) in order to emphasize that sense of loneliness in the universe and to foreshadow the fact that their journey to this planet might not end as they hoped.

Since we are focusing on the relationship aspect of the film, a good portion of our scenes will play out in moving or static master shots that will allow the character relationships to be conveyed through blocking. Well-composed wide frames with various levels of depth can be an extremely powerful tool for conveying the power dynamic in these types of relationships, but it is essential for the blocking to be well-established ahead of time.

Movement: 

What stabilization method do you intend to use for your film? Sticks. Steadicam, dolly, jib, handheld? How will one of (or a combination of) these methods help you tell your story and emphasize your characters' emotions in a visual way? What kinds of camera movements will you employ, and why? Will the camera stay locked down; or will you have subtle movements? Fluid movements or frenetic movements?

Pater is inherently a story about emotional restraint. The Progenitor, despite the emotional shit-storm that he is going through, is, for the most part, able suppress these emotions and act rationally. That is, until the sobering reality of the pair's situation, coupled with his failing health, causes a powerful and emotionally charged catharsis, the likes of which one would not have thought possible from such a stoic character.

In order to mirror this emotional journey, we intend to keep movement to a bare minimum (on sticks and a dolly) through the first part of the film, the part in which the Progenitor is stoically disengaged with the tremendous emotional implications of his illness. Through moving the camera very slowly (almost imperceptibly) during this segment of the film, we can visually convey the emotional undercurrent without explicitly stating it.

However, when the Progenitor goes into catharsis-mode, so does the camera. Through a subtle use of frenetic POV handheld work, we can both emphasize and mirror this man's emotional state, thus hopefully making the audience feel the same thing.

Lenses and Filters: 

What kind of lenses will you use for the film? What focal lengths are best suited for your characters. and why? How will the compression of space and depth of field help you to tell your story? How will you set your aperture, and why? Will you use any creative filtration (such as contrast or mist filters) in front of the lens? Why?

Because of the Progenitor's emotional restraint characterization discussed above, we are also going to mimic his shift from stoic and clinically dry to cathartic through our lens choice. The first part of the film will be lensed relatively wide, with the masters playing out at 18 or 21mm, the OTS coverage with a 35mm, and close-ups and inserts with a sparsely used 50mm. This wide-ish perspective will be maintained until our moments of catharsis, where we will shift to the longer lenses, such as the 85 and 135mm.

In terms of the type or brand of lenses that we're using, the plan right now is to shoot with Zeiss's CP.2's because of their crisp, high contrast look and relative affordability. Ideally, I would use Master Primes for a project like this, but believe me when I tell you that those things are goddamn expensive. Too expensive, in fact, so CP.2's it is.

Lastly, with the exception of ND's and the occasional polarization filter, we will not be using any creative filtration effects like color casts or Pro Mist or anything of the sort. The clean, high contrast look that we are going for can be easily accomplished through the camera choice and the lenses.

Summary

As you can see, creating a solid camera strategy is a vital step in the cinematography pre-production process. Through making these types of technical and creative decisions based on the script, the subtext, and most importantly, the emotionality of the characters, you are setting yourself up for success, and you are allowing the cinematography to be a powerful aspect in the telling of your story. With that said, the camera strategy is just one half of the cinematographer's visual concept. Next up: the lighting strategy!

This post originally appeared on No Film School.


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