The Modern Cinematographer – On-Set Essentials
- July 18, 2019
- Shane Hurlbut, ASC
When you look back at the great cinematographers from Freddie Young to James Wong Howe, Jack Cardiff to Sven Nykvist, the modern cinematographer owes a great deal to the marks that they made, the flags that they put in the ground, the footholds that they put in place so that we, today, could stand on the shoulders of those giants. Something that is a well kept secret and I am asked about all of the time is what the modern cinematographer has with them on set. In this article, I’ll delve into what I have on me and on my cart to help me to do the job the best I can.
THE MODERN CINEMATOGRAPHER – ON THE MAN
1. SEKONIC L-858D-U DIGITALMASTER LIGHT METER
LIGHTING IS EVERYTHING! You’re a cinematographer – your whole job from morning to night, from first cup of coffee to last cup of camomile, from dawn to dusk, is LIGHT. Every day, when I see a photograph that I like or an Instagram post or anything, I take a mental snapshot and store it in my mind. These are my “mood boards” for lighting scenes, these are what I use as motivation. Here’s where the light meter is absolutely essential.
Imagine you want to light a scene in a hallway and you recall a cool picture online where someone half way around the world had taken a picture of someone dancing in a corridor somewhere. You take time building the lighting to recreate that mental picture and then, once you have looked at the monitor to see what you have painted, once you like the way it looks, then it’s time to get your Sekonic Light Meter out and read those levels. If you want to match and to get your head around light ratios as a cinematographer then this is the piece of kit that will get you there. The Sekonic L-758C is the ultimate meter because it is two meters in one. You are able to read the incident light levels with the ball and the spot meter function gives you the ability to read points of light, the wall and buildings in the deep background to make sure there is enough fill level, grey cards, etc.
You never know which shots you may have to recreate when you go back to do pickups and at that point you are going to have to duplicate the lighting for that scene. Sure, you’ll look at your monitor and see the scene again to try to match it, but if you have all of your lighting and color levels then it’s a SLAM DUNK!
WORD OF WARNING: Make sure that your light meter is accurate before you embark on any job. Get a spot meter out and check it over. For more info on how to use the Light Meter, check out this key article from our Cinematography Starter Kit.
This separates the men from the boys! When I started off we had tungsten, HMI and daylight and now we have tons more – florescents, LEDs of every size, color and style! So there are tons of color temperatures and things that impact on them on set. As a DP you want two things: Natural and Consistent! Nothing else will do.
Here’s how I know I was born to be a cinematographer. I’ve talked about taking that snapshot in your mind with light, and I also do the same with color temps and how they mix. I love to look at different lights in different settings with different color temperatures and moods whether it’s street lights, fluorescents in a store, neon, moonlight, etc. Here’s something to do: Point your Color Meter at the setting sun and find out the color of it, recreating that color will be something that tells you if you were born to be a cinematographer.
This is where your color meter comes into its own (for the basics I would recommend our Cinematography Starter Kit to get you confident with the kit so you can truly get on set and create!). Get a reading for every color in the room or if you are outside the day fill, the ambient light and the sunlight. Once you have collected all of these readings you effectively have the playbook of color temps to have it match seamlessly. With the color and light meter I can feel totally confident in what I am producing and of recreating it should I need to. Here’s a good example, on the set of “Into The Blue”, my director, John Stockwell wanted to shoot two characters played by Paul Walker and Scott Caan on a cliff edge as the sun goes down. As we were shooting it you could see, the sun had effectively set and I had to find a way to extend it. I used my Minolta color temperature meter (from the time before I got the Sekonic) to match the color exactly, which came in at 2400 degrees Kelvin. I found that Rosco half soft frost looked great for that semi diffused look that you get from the sun at sunset. When all was said and done, we had expanded this particular sunset for about an hour and 30 minutes. All because of my beautiful little color meter.
Word of Warning: Put your iphone on airplane mode – you might not be on a plane, but if your phone rings or buzzes during a take, you’d better learn to fly!
Artemis App is the modern cinematographer’s secret weapon. It is a director viewfinder software app for your iphone (and probably Samsung if you’re a hipster) used by Directors and DPs all over the world from Oscar winners to student filmmakers that allows you to reproduce any camera and lens combination and has a whole bunch of other functions such as VR and AR tools. There’s a whole buffet line of other great apps for your iphone that we covered a little while ago and given that this is an article titled The Modern Cinematographer it would be crazy to overlook the phone as a key tool in your arsenal. There’s even a new version out called Artemis Prime which sounds like the younger brother of a Transformer. Take a look:
THE MODERN CINEMATOGRAPHER – ON THE CART
In this blog, I wanted to take you behind the scenes (literally) and give away the secrets to what I consider to be one of my most key pieces of equipment. Here’s 6 VITAL pieces of kit that make up my CART.
1. Flanders Scientific DM250s
First of all the Flanders DM250s are absolutely VITAL for any modern Cinematographer! These are not too cheap, with the DM 250s costing about $25,000 but believe me, you get what you pay for and it’s worth selling an organ for.
(NOTE FROM THE TEAM: Shane’s medical advice is not as good as his cinematography advice)
Flanders Scientific have the best color accurate monitoring in the business and they are fast becoming the popular with on set DITs with the DM250 being top of the line! Here’s why: There are many things that I have learned moving into this digital age. One of them is to believe in your eye. I did this when I shot motion picture film; why not with digital? Well, your eye has now become the monitor.
These cameras are coming out so fast. The testing of their latitudes and weighing their pros and cons is a daunting task. I have started to rely on some waveforms as well as false color recently and I have to say, the waveform does nothing for me. The false color is everything — finding a monitor that I can trust and count on to deliver what I see on the 24” will be conveyed to the 60’ movie screen. The DM 250 is an OLED display that is crisp, clean and delivers beautiful blacks.
To pinpoint where my levels are falling, I use the false color on the Flanders. What I particularly like is that each color on the IRE scale is adjustable so you can pinpoint your middle grey, highlights and shadows. You can also load up to 16 of your own personal LUTs into the monitor if you would like to do so.
I love this! With this Video Switcher, Blackmagic lets you connect up to 8 SD, HD or Ultra HD 4K video cameras, disk recorders and computers. As with pretty much all the Blackmagic products that I have been fortunate to come into contact with, the set up is simple and you can easily mix HDMI, super fast 6G-SDI, SD and HD resolution inputs. I now have a switcher that does it all on location, on set, straight into a Macbook or computer, in 4K, immediately!
For live color grading on location, the Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve Mini Panel is absolutely essential. I can have it hooked up to my two Flanders monitors on my cart with my DIT quickly and efficiently adjusting contrast, color balance, dial in color temp and tint, playing with curves and power windows. Ultimately, when I go to look at my monitors, my DIT has been working on the color grading to bring mine and my Director’s vision to life.
Clear Com is the next MUST have on set, every cinematographer has some variant of this. The whole pressing buttons for ear pieces and radioing through information having had a discussion with the Director is gone. I can be talking to McG or Gabrieli or whoever and my gaffer and camera team can hear what we are thinking for the next shot and be preparing lenses, lights etc. before I’ve even finished the conversation. It’s ideal and it saves a lot of vital time! So for this I have 4 different channels; on A I have my camera team, my G&E team are on B, on C I can put the AD department and then on D I have the audio feed from the actors – I can send that through to my focus pullers etc all with one system, we don’t need walkies and headphones.
Let me paint the picture for you – I’m in Atlanta, on set right now and it’s really hot, it’s like a scene from Mad Max, I’m parched and what I really want – no, not want, NEED – is a bottle of ice cold water. Cue the dramatic music:
Cut the dramatic music. Problem solved! My cart has a blizzard fan and a portable fridge!
Did my cart just become an oasis in the midst of the searing heat? YES! What’s that, you don’t like crafty and have painstakingly brought a beautiful Reuben sandwich from a nearby deli, but you’re worried about it warming up whilst shooting on set? Fear not, young padawan, I have a spare shelf for your sub in the on-board fridge! Another common issue, “Mustard will lose it’s distinct flavor if not refrigerated!” – a somewhat shocking quote from a food magazine recently. Well, look no further, people! Get to Shane’s cart, get it in the on-cart fridge and hey presto – Top mustard, all the time, every time!
(NOTE FROM THE TEAM: Shane is not a mustard connoisseur)
We start this second part with a close up of the Blackmagic Smart Videohub 20×20. What I love about this router is the little built in LCD screen so you can see all your connections and select it with a spinning knob on the panel. You can effectively route your video simply by looking at the video and can connect and route any combination of SD, HD and Ultra HD video, all on the same router, all at the same time.
Speaking of routers, I also have my Netgear 5G wifi router to take care of all of the wireless needs on set – don’t give the code out to everyone though or you’ll have every Tom, Dick and Harry checking their snapchats, their instagrams and playing games on their tinders the second you call break!
(NOTE FROM THE TEAM: Shane does not understand Tinder)
Well, I talked about what’s ON the cart, now for the cart itself! Quite simply, I needed a cart for all of this essential equipment, I needed it to look bad ass and I needed it to be able to go on all terrains – from mountains and forests to downtown LA for Rim of The World for example and I have to say, having been fortunate enough to have had the prototypes for their larger carts made specially for me, these have delivered time and again and will be with me on every shoot that I do!
Now, let’s see it in action on our Rim Of The World tests. You’re going to see we have our Blackmagic Mini Panel and DaVinci Live Grading on our Macbook linked up to our Flanders monitors. This is so we can match our cameras using split screens whilst we are on set as well as color grading the image coming through so the Director can see pretty much EXACTLY what he’s going to get whilst we are on set. It’s a huge advantage and a giant leap forward for our industry.
Finally, here’s some BTS of the latest cart set up from my new movie “Holidate” that I’m working on right now! So, whilst you are reading this, I’m very likely standing at this cart, mid-shoot, staring at the monitors, whilst my DIT grades the shots and I enjoy a bottle of perfectly chilled water (and a cool Reuben).